Every time Sir Alan Sugar fires a contestant on The Apprentice, the nation quivers in admiration; likewise whenever Sir Richard Branson launches another airborne publicity stunt. Serial entrepreneurs are accorded guru status, yet whenever Britain’s most prolific kick-starter of enterprise sticks his head above the parapet he is showered with abuse and told to get on with his real job, which is — as the comedian Marcus Brigstocke tastefully put it — ‘waiting for his mother to die’. The Prince of Wales, through the charity he set up when he left the navy in 1976, has helped more than 60,000 young people to start their own businesses. But he gets remarkably little credit for an achievement which in scale and imaginative reach surpasses all the start-up wheezes of successive governments over the same period. The Prince’s Trust’s 30th birthday last month attracted far less attention than the Prince’s scrap with the Mail on Sunday over the publication of his private diaries.
Detractors suggest that HRH’s urge to put his naval severance pay into a fund to help troubled youngsters was driven by the same solipsistic view of himself as a misunderstood outsider that is evident in the diaries. But whatever the psychology, the results are remarkable. Most of those supported by the trust had no savings, no track record, no access to bank loans; some had criminal records and histories of addiction. More than half managed to stay in business into their third year of trading, which is considerably better than the national average for start-ups; several went on to create multi-million-pound businesses — of which one, Gameplay.com, a supplier of computer games started in 1994 with £2,500 from the trust, has floated on the stock market. A more modest example is Ahmed Mohammed, whom I spoke to this week. A Kurdish barber from Jalawlah in northern Iraq, he was imprisoned by Saddam’s regime; arriving here in 2002 he suffered every indignity today’s Britain offers refugees. But the trust gave him £4,800 to open a gents’ hairdressers in Hull, and his thriving business has just won a NatWest Enterprise Award. Many thousands of others who once looked like no-hopers have been given a new chance by the trust. If the Prince had done nothing else for the past 30 years but preside over its work, he would be entitled to a louder voice on social issues and entrepreneurship than any New Labour chequebook crony or big-ego business knight. Instead of being repeatedly told to shut up, he should be given his own reality television series.
Sex and stupidity
Lunching with a beautiful girl at Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street, I let slip that The Spectator would be grabbing headlines this week with a special issue on the theme of sex and society. As the business columnist, I explained, my assignment was to analyse how consumer trends reflect current sexual attitudes, and to highlight sectors that investors should keep an eye on accordingly. ‘Oh-ho,’ she said (rather huskily I thought), ‘We’d better pop into Coco de Mer after lunch. It’s just next door.’ I looked blank. ‘Come on, you must have heard of Coco de Mer — the hot new thing in lingerie and erotic accessories? It’s run by Anita Roddick’s daughter Sam, and it’s incredibly chic and sophisticated. I buy lots of her feathery ticklers for my girlfriends’ hen parties.’
I started to perspire, but luckily my research gave me plenty to talk about. You’ve hit the nail on the head, I said. Women are more and more self-confident and self-sufficient, sexually and economically. They spend oodles of money on treats that make them feel good about themselves — and they seem to enjoy, ahem, sharing these experiences with other women. She looked a bit cross about that last bit, but agreed that the designer lingerie market is growing at a phenomenal rate, from Marks & Spencer upwards, and that vibrators shaped like pebbles and seashells are the new iPods. She said I should check out Myla, ‘the world’s first luxury sex brand for women’, with its flagship store off Bond Street and outlets from Marbella to Moscow; or talk to Julia Gash, the award-winning Sheffield entrepreneur whose knickers-and-toys brand is about to be franchised nationally and who says her philosophy is all about ‘empowering women’.
Quite so, I responded. But where does that leave us men? The ‘male grooming’ market has flourished in recent years, and I once overheard two middle-aged men on a train discussing which moisturisers they preferred. Male cosmetic surgery is also, apparently, enjoying a mini-boom. But does this reflect growing self-confidence, or the opposite — a desperate feeling of stress-induced premature ageing and sexual uselessness? What’s a bloke to do when the internet sends him 20 unsolicited reminders a day about erectile dysfunction and the girls are all giggling over feathery ticklers?
Well, one thing blokes do these days — I referred to my notes — is spend £80 million a year on magazines based on a formula of ‘sex, sport and stupidity’. Loaded pioneered the genre in the mid-1990s, but the soaraway success of two rival weekly titles launched in January 2004, Zoo from the Emap stable and Nuts from IPC, has contributed to sales growth in the ‘men’s lifestyle’ segment of the magazine trade of 150 per cent in two years. And what a lifestyle they offer: Maxim’s ‘35 grubbiest places to get laid’ in Nottingham and Nuneaton; Zoo’s ‘five-minute facial’ for dealing with blackheads; FHM’s guide to getting as pissed as possible in 60 seconds flat; plus acres of untouchable flesh and ads for ‘hot’n’horny’ chat-lines — giving you the chance to talk dirty, for £1.50 a minute, to what a publisher of one of the titles tells me is usually a middle-aged housewife in a shed.
So that’s the picture, I concluded. If I was a Branson or a Sugar, I would back business ideas that play to modern woman’s self-image as a pampered sexual princess, and modern man’s oafish sexual inadequacy. My lunch date reached for the restaurant bill and paid it with a flourish of her executive gold card while I fumbled for my wallet. ‘Come on,’ she said urgently, ‘Coco de Mer.’ I followed her into the dark-red cave next door, where we browsed suspender belts, spanking paddles and aphrodisiac massage oils. I mopped my brow as we re-emerged into the daylight. Huskier still, she grasped my arm: ‘And of course it’s terribly handy for the Covent Garden Hotel opposite….’ But me, I’m a bloke: I made an excuse and left, in search of some wrinkle cream and a copy of Nuts.