Chelsea Post Office, situated on the corner of Sloane Square, is a regular meeting place for us pensioners as we draw our weekly pension, in cash. Sometimes the queue sneaks down the King’s Road, but the long wait gives us the opportunity to catch up on local gossip and concerns. The ‘persons’ behind the grille are helpful and courteous, and we all know each other well. The government wants us to transfer our custom to Barclays, but if we had a problem it would involve an endless frustrating wait until ‘customer services’ respond from Bangalore or some equally puzzling conurbation.
There is always some incident in the queue to keep us entertained. Last week a delightful pensioner colleague bypassed the queue to weigh an envelope. A young man, seemingly of Asian extraction, shouted out, ‘Get back in the queue. You bloody English, you think you own this country.’ The old man replied, ‘I do.’ The outcome of this fracas is best not reported in a family journal.
Having drawn our pension we drift down the King’s Road to the Chelsea Kitchen. Here a fully cooked English breakfast is available for £4. For lunch or dinner, with our pockets stuffed with cash from the Chelsea Post Office, we catch the 19 or 22 bus, armed with Mr Livingstone’s bus pass, to eat frugally at the Beefsteak or Pratt’s.
Until recently I rather favoured the big new aircraft carriers which are to be a symbol of Great Britain’s new defence strategy. The strategy is called Expeditionary Warfare. Evidently the Joint Strike Fighter, the carriers’ principal weapon system, is too heavy to lift from the carriers’ deck, so I expect the project will suffer several years’ delay and come in hugely over budget. This is par for the course; but then I read an enthusiastic speech by the First Sea Lord about this new defence strategy and I suddenly realised that where there is complete unanimity within the defence establishment about anything, it is bound to be wrong.
One day we will no longer have an evangelist as Prime Minister and the passion for neo-imperialist do-goodery — joining with the Americans to bring democracy to Johnny Foreigner, pre-empting threats by taking war to the enemy as a subsidiary of the Pentagon — all of this will fall out of fashion. Someone will say that high-cost, high-technology warfare as a small reinforcement to the massive resources of the US is beyond our means; we should spend more on the police, the security services, the poor old British infantry and our reserve forces, not neglecting air defence and counter-mining to protect the passage of Trident. Instead, huge financial resources are to be sunk over a ten-year period into making us into a rather underequipped global policeman (P.C. Plod Inc.). If we go down this road I fear an accelerating financial and political nightmare. The problem is that ministers are not in charge; the defence establishment has taken over.
Brock is back. A year ago I discovered the earth from a newly dug badger sett blocking my farm lane. I did not wish to obstruct our lovely ramblers, so being a law-abiding citizen I applied for permission to shift the badger elsewhere. After filling in endless forms and receiving visits by advisers from Defra, I eventually received a set of pictorial instructions from the Wildlife Advisory Unit in Bristol (150 miles away). It showed me how to build a self-closing door on one hole while blocking up the others. I thought to myself that badgers are not stupid; they are not like humans who slam the front door and leave the keys inside the house. Anyhow, six months later the badger had still showed no respect for the civil servants, and had not moved. My farm manager and I calculated that all the forms, train fares from Bristol, first-class stamps and salaries of the visiting ‘wildlife officers’ could not have come to less than £5,000. In desperation we called a local gamekeeper. He said, ‘Soak a couple of potatoes in diesel fuel and shove them down the hole; the badger will have buggered off by the morning.’ He was right. But after his sabbatical, Brock is back. Am I to have recourse to the Badger Protection Act for the second time? In the meantime I am expecting a Protection of Foxes, Rabbits, Crows, Magpies, Rooks and Rats Act to curry votes from the urban animal-lover.
After a lapse of two years or more, I recently visited the City for lunch. I got off the Underground at Cannon Street, walked past the Bank and up to Moorgate to my destination. As I went on my way, a feeling of depression enveloped me. The claustrophobia of the streets, the crowding buildings, and the collective stress on the tense and pale faces that hurried past me led me to ask myself, how could I have spent 15 years of my life working in this dreadful environment? After lunch my proud host took me to his trading room — ‘the biggest in the City’, he said. There a hundred young men and women were huddled over their screens, and it occurred to me that it must have been like this for those on the lower deck of an 18th-century slaver. Next day I was playing golf with an English friend who had recently retired from a US investment bank. I asked him how on earth we could have spent our youth like this. He replied that actually in our early City days it was much more civilised: we were working for our firm and for our clients; today people are working only for their bonus.
The City is, of course, making a huge financial contribution to our national prosperity. But, in more human terms, is the place a success? Since the advent of Wall Street-style capitalism it is not just the young men and women who are longing to escape elsewhere with a hefty bonus in their pockets; more and more chief executives of major public companies are asking, is it all worthwhile? These CEOs are harassed by analysts, financial commentators, institutional investors, regulators and investigative journalists. The best of them are escaping in droves from their public companies to private equity firms. It is damaging to the long-term health of British industry. If they had wanted this kind of life, harassed by the City, they would have become Cabinet ministers.
I fear that my reputation will take a serious knock when my new book is published. It is called Mr Wonderful Takes a Cruise: the adventures of an old age pensioner. Although there are a number of outrageous passages — I am told that my son had to go for therapy after reading it — there is only one incident in my life that deeply shames me. Such is my competitive nature that I bowled out my own son at a Fathers’ cricket match. His school, Summerfields, said that no father had ever done such a dreadful thing before.
Mr Wonderful Takes a Cruise (£9.99) is published by Ebury Press on 17 June.