A Smile And A Shoeshine

In a remarkable career progression, one-time fabric rep Laurie Taylor became a sociology Professor.  As such, he created a ½hr documentary on BBC Radio 4 about the perceptions of travelling salesmen (the iPlayer link will likely disappear in a week, so to hear again, you may need to try searching the BBC site under ‘a smile and a shoeshine’ or ‘laurie taylor’).  He clearly has affection for his subject, seemingly bemoaning the low esteem (euphemistically labelled “ambivalence”) the rep suffers in the UK & Europe.  Especially when compared to the reverence in which reps are held in America.  He finds a Harvard Prof who puts this down in part to the travelling peddlers’ role in creating the country, and how people relied on them for new wares to forge their new lives and even hear the latest news.

‘Bob’ is an English academic book rep. He fell into a life on the road by accident, drawn by the allure of an expense account and company car.  You get the impression from him that he believes the bad press comes from too many people immorally selling one-off products where you see the buyer only at that time, whereas true reps have to be honest and live on what they’ve sold previously.  There’s a delicious phase where the presenter goes on a live call with Bob, and somehow they manage to sell.  Our Laurie is pitching a book he knows nothing about, despite his lofty standing, which is wonderfully exposed when the prospect asks for more info on the author.  After much giggling and apparent ‘BS’, Laurie is given an order.  Perhaps we should go into every call with a BBC documentary crew!

There’s several interesting comments.  Along with entertaining cultural references to movies Tin Men and Glengarry Glenn Ross (checkout snippets on youtube!) and writings by Orwell (Coming Up For Air) and Chaucer’s Pardoner that ‘sells miracles’.

I found my favourite pair to be the assertion that reps think of themselves as Wild West frontiersmen, hence the reference to “territories” that we “manage”, and the recollection of actor Warren Mitchell, who played Arthur Miller’s rep Willy in “Death Of A Salesman”.

Mitchell was required to walk on stage carrying a couple of suitcases full of his wares.  To understand better, he asked Miller what was in them.  “Dreams, Warren.  Dreams” came the reply, and all was explained.

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