opinion – stop worshipping the chancers

New Year, 2013

One of the pleasures of Christmas telly was a catch-up on The Hotel – the Grosvenor of Torquay, whose struggles for survival have made reality tv for connoisseurs for some time now.
Another series is in the pipeline – taking us up to the hotel being taken over by a chain whose boss thinks he can capitalise on the publicity. Wish him luck .
Meanwhile, in the latest episode shown on Channel 4, it was still under the command of Mark Jenkins, its owner and manager … now minus the classic Bentley he awarded himself, last series, for his 24/7 dedication to dispensing bad ideas, injustice and chaos. He was minus his flat, too, and reduced to living off sandwiches in an attic room of the hotel. His wife went long ago.
I watch him, sometimes through my fingers, partly because I know Torquay a bit. I go back quite regularly to Paignton, its even shabbier neighbour, and marvel every time at the English Riviera’s collection of businesses which remain oblivious to a changing world.
You can see the same in a hundred tourist towns. The traders who, according to all market theory, should be alert to every subtle change in the flow of pounds and pennies, are walled up in the castles they built when they started out, and still offering the same old tat – junk food, junk clothes, junk souvenirs.
They sell some of it, obviously, and would argue that there is the proof of their canniness. But you cannot help suspecting they survive only because a family on holiday leaks a certain amount of cash willy-nilly.
These businesses are not inefficient because the entrepreneurs are small-time or out of date. It is because entrepreneurs generally are surprisingly often deluded incompetents. They include the odd genius, but also a lot of blundering chancers who would struggle to do any job worth paying for but are somehow convinced of their natural superiority. They might get lucky, but I suspect the chances are 50-50 at best and a lot of them actually make the odds worse. Under this theory, Sir Richard Branson is just a lucky lucky so-and-so. Make any sense to you?
An old friend of mine used to say that whenever somebody was described as an entrepreneur, he thought of the man in the crumpled white suit – he owned just the one – who jilted his sister, after taking all her money.
We can all see what he means, now that the Great Bubble is over and we are starting to see the true value of two decades of smoke and mirrors.
We should have known something was badly wrong when our youngsters empathised with those cocky little blighters on The Apprentice, who think their gauche understanding of the arts of blag and spin are all they need to deserve a six-figure salary for running the world from their iPhones.
And the queue to get on The Apprentice was begat by the illusion-peddlers who were last seen in charge of your pension fund – now somewhere down the road and walking fast, with some of your fivers spilling out of their back pockets.

I was struck, a couple of months ago, by an essay by Christian Wolmar, the doyen of railways buffs, pointing out that the rail services we get now, allegedly from private enterprises, actually get more subsidy than British Rail ever did. Which incidentally helps explain Richard Branson’s luck, of course.

But still we let the politicians tell us it is entrepreneurs we need to lead our economic recovery – and we shrug in acceptance as they spend our money on grants and cheap loans for bright ideas from bright young things.
What we really could do with is some work done. The drains need clearing, the verges are full of rubbish and all that nice paving laid in our town centres during the Bubble is covered in chewing gum spots. There is also a lot of coal to be dug, but let’s keep the argument simple. Cleaning up our environment would be a good investment for the future and I would be happy to support any entrepreneurs who think they can make a penny out of fixing it – but I suspect we will struggle to find any interested in anything so closely related to old-fashioned hard work.
We do not need more consultants, PRs, franchisers, video makers, speculators, branding advisers and Bransons. What we need is clerks of works, foremen and labourers with shovels.
How to pay for them is a problem, of course. But it is an illusion to think that if we seed the country with start-up money, we will get them for free. Seeding the country with people who know what work is would be more like it.
endsit (published, Yorkshire Post, Jan. 2013)

 

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