A hot new brand, a better train service and a kinder role model for harsh times
Here in Old Queen Street, we have (in our editor’s eloquent phrase) said pants to recession by launching a fistful of ‘brand extensions’ this year: our Australian edition, our online Book Club, and the soaraway monthly Spectator Business. Even in the teeth of recession, there are other potent brands out there waiting to be exploited, and the next one I’ve got my eye on is the Bullingdon Club. This Oxford University bad-boys elite, boasting David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson among its former members, has emerged this year as the new nexus of money and power. It already has a brand livery — the club’s sky-blue and ivory tie, with a hint of claret stain — as distinctive as Tiffany blue or Ferrari red. Effortlessly it attracts the kind of publicity that would shift Jermyn Street shoploads of retro-styled wipe-clean evening wear, shooting accessories, ice buckets, cigar-cutters, and little jewelled boxes for snuff and other stimulative powders.
All the new venture needs is a high-profile board of directors drawn from the Bullingdon alumni — but I must say, given the club’s reputation for flamboyant self-exposure, that they were all being rather coy when I put out a call for volunteers through Oxford friends in the City. So I’ll just name my ‘Bullah’ dream-team anyway.
From the 1970s intake I’d have, as chairman, Roddie Fleming, the man who sold his family bank to Chase Manhattan for a boom-time £4.5 billion back in 2000 and started an exclusive finance boutique, Fleming Family & Partners, in a former bishop’s palace in Mayfair. More controversially, my pick for chief executive would be Johnny Cameron, who recently stepped down as ‘chairman of global markets’ at Royal Bank of Scotland and is presumably looking for new career directions. From the early 1980s, I’d invite mail-order fashion guru Johnnie Boden to join us as marketing director. From the Osborne era, we’d have Jason Gissing, co-founder of the online supermarket Ocado, as operations director; and of course Nat Rothschild as a non-exec with access to Russian dosh to back our breakneck, Bollinger-fuelled brand expansion.
Do I hear the recession-busting ring of distant cash registers — or is it just the English county families baying for broken glass?
My annual railway rant
I haven’t had a good rant about the railways for a while, so an update on the horrors of the East Coast main line is overdue. National Express took over from GNER a year ago, and it is remarkable to observe the change in tone between two services operating the same trains and timetable, at similar levels of punctuality. GNER, run by Virginia Bottomley’s somewhat messianic brother Christopher Garnett, emphasised customer service and communication, encouraging on-train staff to help passengers and take responsibility for problems. But GNER’s parent ran out of cash and the franchise was handed to National Express, better known as a bus operator, which was chaired until his sudden resignation this month by David Ross, the Carphone Warehouse tycoon, and is run by Richard Bowker. The latter used to be chairman of Labour’s short-lived Strategic Rail Authority, where his high-handed style was much resented by rail franchisees at the time. Bowker’s unsmiling, unhelpful staff treat every passenger as a potential troublemaker. In their defence, it must be said that more and more passengers are in fact liable to make trouble these days. We’re angry about fare rises that repeatedly outstrip inflation with no improvement in service (National Express’s ‘unregulated’ fares will rise 7.4 per cent in January) and we’re confused by complex ticket restrictions, despite tedious lectures on the subject through the trains’ public-address system before departure. The result is that dozens of people on every train find themselves travelling on incorrect tickets and are obliged to pay enormous upgrades: hence the progress through the train of the ill-titled ‘customer services manager’ is punctuated by ugly confrontation.
All this is in contrast to the pleasure of travelling on Grand Central, the ‘open access’ Sunderland-to-King’s-Cross operator which also joined the fray this time last year. Substantially cheaper, friendlier, less crowded and more comfortable (its spacious Mark 3 coaches date from the mid-1970s), this is now the service of choice for discerning travellers from York and points north. Given the uncertainties which beset the launch of Grand Central and the age of its rolling stock, every journey still feels like a bit of an adventure, every arrival anywhere close to time- table an achievement. It’s as near as you’ll get to the old-fashioned romance of rail travel, and more to the point these days, it’s value for money.
My Christmas message
My vicar, David Wilbourne, who writes on page 53, asked his flock to come up with favourite biblical texts for the Christmas issue of the parish magazine. Most people went for familiar snippets from the Nativity story. But with both the self-destructive behaviour of the financial community and Charles Moore’s crusade against BBC smut in mind, I opted for James 1 21: ‘Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness and receive with meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your souls.’ Alleluiah to that, I say — but we can also still learn from the parables of popular culture. How should we respond to financial storms? Follow the phlegmatic example of Nessa, the amusement-arcade cashier in the award-winning comedy Gavin and Stacey, who we saw last week, rather improbably, on the phone to her broker. ‘Shall I sell now?’ she asked, ‘Or wait for Tokyo to open?’ Sensibly, she decided to wait: in volatile markets, never trade in haste. How should we behave generally in these harsh times? My new role model is Roy Cropper, Coronation Street’s well-meaning but far from streetwise café proprietor. When a drug dealer was peculiarly nasty to him in the café but left a mobile phone behind, Roy set off to return the phone — and found himself arrested as the dealer’s suspected supplier. Why had he bothered to try to help someone so vile? asked Ken Barlow in the Rover’s Return when it was all over. In a wicked world, said Roy, ‘we should never forget the power of random acts of kindness.’ That’s my final message this Christmas.