Read the two book extracts carefully and answer the questions that follow each extract. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

When I was at school, my great ambition was to travel and perhaps to become an explorer. I read avidly1 any books about the more remote parts of Africa, Asia, and South America. In my mind, I visualised myself probing the mysteries of the source of the River Amazon and struggling to keep alive in unexplored forests.

The reality of my life as a teenager was very different. When I left school, I obtained a job in a big company which supplied coal and oil to ships throughout the world. The company maintained a global network of fuel depots and combined this with a thriving import-export business. I hoped that sooner or later I would get a chance to leave the humdrum of life of London and venture overseas. I knew next to nothing about business life and was puzzled and then astonished by what I learnt. As time passed, my early astonishment gave way to disapproval and cynicism. I began to feel that it wasn’t the life for me.

One of my first duties was to take a cheque for £500 to a bank, cash it, and bring the money back safely. (At the time, £500 was more than a year’s salary for a teacher or a middle-level manager.) The money was put in the letter every month for about six months, I plucked up the courage to ask the office manager what happened to the money. He grunted and pulled a file out of a drawer.

‘Read this,’ he said. ‘It will answer most of your questions. Regard the file as part of your education but there’s nothing you or I can do about it. You may not like what you discover but it’s just part of life. Sit down and learn lesson 16 about business.’

I opened the file and read a long letter from an irate shipowner complaining bitterly about the (alleged)7 poor quality of the coal taken on at one of our depots. The letter enclosed a very hostile report from the chief engineer of a large freighter. According to the engineer, the coal was substandard8 and had clogged the ship’s furnaces, forcing the captain to reduce speed. As a result, the ship had arrived two days late at its next port of call. The delay meant lost cargo, which had been picked up by a competing vessel. ‘The shipowner was therefore making an expensive claim for demurrage—delay leading to inability to pick up cargo on time. Our company had been obliged to pay £450 or lose the annual contract to supply fuel to the numerous ships owned by the shipping line. There were similar letters in the file, all claiming that damage or delay had been caused by interior quality coal supplied by our company.

‘But we don’t supply poor quality coal, do we?’ I asked the office manager.

‘Of course we don’t,’ he said impatiently. ‘But many captains and engineers expect to pick up a cash bribe when they stop to refuel. It’s five or ten pounds each time. If we don’t pay the money, the captain slows  the ship and makes a complaint. This doesn’t happen at all ports or with all shipping lines but it’s endemic in some parts of the world.’

‘But it’s blackmail, extortion.’ I said somewhat indignantly. The office manager ignored my comment.

My opinion of business practices slumped. It was not helped by an incident which happened several months later. We had three depots the River Thames. and I had to visit one of them fairly regularly to deliver contracts. On one occasion, I happened to go to our Greenwich depot at about 8.30 a.m. The depot employed about 300 men who built barges, lighters, and tugs. When I arrived. I was puzzled when I saw that almost all of the men were scouring the extensive yard for scrap metal and large pieces of wood, which they then carried to the end of the jetty and dropped into the river. This seemed neither tidy nor economical. In fact, it was positively hazardous to vessels using the jetty since the water was not particularly deep there and the piles of scrap material constituted a danger to any vessel approaching the jetty.

I knew the assistant manager of the depot fairly well, so I asked him what was happening. It seemed inconceivable that this was an annual clean-up of the yard. In any case, I knew that the Harbour Authority had strict regulations about dumping rubbish in the river.

‘No, we’re not dumping rubbish,’ he explained. ‘During the night, a large barge belonging to another company broke its moorings3 and floated downstream4. As it did so, it hit our jetty a glancing blow and caused a little damage. We’ll have to replace a couple of piers and tidy up a bit.’

He paused to shout to the foreman. ‘Get the men to haul that chain down to the river.’ he shouted. ‘They can use the tractor.’

‘Where was I?’ he said to me.

‘A barge damaged the jetty during the night.’ I reminded him.

‘Ah, yes, that’s right. Well, our marine surveyor will be here later this morning. He’s given us instructions5 already and allowed us a couple of hours to get everything ready.’

‘Ready for what?’ I enquired.

‘He’ll meet a marine surveyor from the insurance company at about 11.30 a.m. The pair of them will inspect the jetty and assess the extent of the damage. It will be high tide then so they won’t be able to examine the scrap carefully. The river is too muddy for anybody to see much in it. The more wreckage there is, the better.6

‘Oh, now I see what the men are doing,’ I said, although I wasn’t completely certain.’

‘Our surveyor will claim live or six thousand pounds. The insurance company’s surveyor will offer two or three thousand. The two men will negotiate over a good lunch. I’ve never seen a thin marine surveyor. By 2 p.m., they’ll probably settle for four thousand. We’ll start the repairs immediately. This evening, we’ll haul all the scrap out at low tide. The men will be glad of the overtime. The repairs should be finished by tomorrow or Thursday. They’ll probably cost three or four hundred. The rest is profit.’

He saw that I looked surprise.

‘It’s the normal things,’ he explained. ‘If there’s a fire or flood somewhere, the surveyors get to work. Some people call them loss adjusters. It’s quicker and cheaper to settle a claim amicably than be awkward  and risk the expense of legal action.’

‘Isn’t it illegal?’ I asked.

‘Not as far as I know,’ the assistant manager said cheerfully ‘That’s why we pay insurance premiums.’

I began wonder whether I was really suited for a business career. Perhaps, after all, I ought to be a civil servant or a teacher. There was something about business ethics that began to make me feel uneasy.

(adapted from Stephen Wilson’s ‘Learning about Business’)


1 What does ‘avidly’ mean in this context?

2 Why did the company need a global network of fuel depots?

3 In the second paragraph, what did the writer disapprove of?

4 In the third paragraph, what was the cash needed for?

5 What might happen if no cash was sent to a depot?

6 Explain what ‘lesson 1’ was.

7 What does ‘(alleged)’ tell us about the quality of the coal?

8 What is the meaning of ‘sub’ in the word ‘substandard’?

1 Why does the writer mention the incident of Greenwich in the first paragraph?

2 What probably puzzled the writer most when he visited the depot at Greenwich?

3 Explain the meaning of ‘broke its moorings’ in this context.

4 What does ‘downstream’ tell us about the direction in which the barge moved?

5 What were the ‘instructions’ that the marine surveyor gave?

6 ‘The more wreckage there is, the better.’ For whom was it better? How was it better?

7 Explain two ways in which the tide influenced the action of the men at the Greenwich depot when the writer visited it.

8 In a paragraph of about 160 words, summarise the incident at the Greenwich depot.

Sample Answers

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