The "honest" man from accounts was selling class A drugs in the smoking room

"Look, I don't want to interfere with anyone's drinking, especially Mike Hedgett's, but I'd just like to say a few words about why we're gathered here in the basement of Vesuvio's. As you all know, Jeff is leaving us next Friday and you don't need me to remind you that the department will be a poorer place without him. I know I'll not only miss his professionalism but also all those Monday morning chats about his beloved West Bromwich Albion which were such a fine example of the triumph of hope over experience. So may I ask you all to raise your glasses and wish Jeff the very best in the new post he will shortly be taking up in Wales."

I won't pretend my farewell speech to Jeff Gratton last week was exemplary. Anyone who could hear what I had to say over the clatter of waiters clearing away the tiramisu plates would recognise that it was somewhat cursory. But such listeners would also be busy making allowances. They'd know that, as on so many other similar occasions, I was only doing the honours because after days of strenuous effort, no one else could be found to do the job. And they'd also acknowledge that I could hardly go into graphic detail about the contribution Jeff had made when he'd only been with us for nine weeks, and that too much concentration on his "new post in Wales" would only emphasise that it was even more precarious in nature than the one he was currently vacating.

Although I haven't kept a careful record, I'd estimate that the new short-termism in employment practice has meant that I participate in approximately 25 leaving parties every year and that at a quarter of these I'm either the leading speaker or play some such ancillary role as leading the cheers or ceremonially handing over a present with sufficiently elaborate wrapping to suggest that it cost rather more than the modest £12 that had been arm-wrestled from unwilling subscribers over the previous fortnight.

Part of the reason for my leading role on such occasions is that I'm regarded as a safe pair of hands. There was, of course, the unfortunate evening two years ago when I made an emotional speech about how everyone would miss Jane Marriott and her misplaced enthusiasm for Arsenal and then promptly handed over her leaving present to an eager-looking person in the front row of the crowd who turned out to be a sixth-former on work experience called Helen Chatterton. And those with a particularly long memory might also want to drag up the time I repeatedly described a departing Chelsea supporter from accounts as "honest in all his dealings", only to learn later that he had been supplementing his modest salary by selling class A drugs in the basement smoking room.

But nowadays such mistakes are rare. I can be relied upon to remember the names and personal obsessions of my leave-takers and deliver a short speech of farewell which conveys just enough regret at the departure of yet another short-lived colleague to dampen the exuberant sense among most of my listeners that this latest sacking renders their own positions secure for at least another month.

It's an increasingly demanding job. Only yesterday morning I was introduced to a brand new recruit in Broadcasting House who'd been hired on a three-week contract which he'd been assured at interview was highly likely to be renewed. Professionals like myself never take such reassurances for granted. "Welcome to the department," I said. "Good to have you with us. And, by the way, what's your favourite football team?"

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again