Sunday, 9 October 2011

Businessmen bore me - which makes a Thatcherite feel very guilty

Businessmen generally bore my tits off. I'm almost invariably happier in the company of the sort of people I enjoy complaining about - i.e. lecturers, civil servants, print journalists, broadcasters, clerics and lawyers. 

By the same token, I’m sure I'd bore the tits off most business folk.

I’m not rich, so I don’t have a flash car, my idea of fun is a non-adventure, non-activity holiday in Cornwall, I have little knowledge of top-end property prices in Dubai, and fancy restaurants give me the creeps (yes, I know – I should really be a socialist).

I’ve enjoyed several books about business (well, business disasters, to be accurate). But I have never been able to complete the autobiography of a business leader. 

I’m not talking about support staff (amongst whom I number several close friends - all of whom I met before they became businessmen), but the actual movers and shakers who create businesses from scratch, or who get drafted in to take over the Engulf & Devours of the world, or who run venture capital outfits. I met a few of these types when I spent a year as an output editor on a newly launched BBC daily business programme, and then when I set up as a consultant. I felt no antipathy towards them – but I also found it hard to muster any interest in them as human beings, and I was usually relieved I didn’t have to spend any more time in their company. It came as a shock some years later to realise that I felt more at home in the company of MPs. Yes, politicians!

Partly, it’s a culture thing. When you’re whizzing around the world being dynamic and thrusting, I suspect you don’t get much time to read books or enjoy poetry or movies or art. I remember being pleasantly surprised to discover that the businessman sitting next to me at a dinner organised by a mutual friend was “into” art. Wherever he was in the world, he made a point of buying art, he told me. And where, I asked, did he keep all this art? “Oh, it’s in storage. All the available space in my various homes is already taken up.” Did he ever go and enjoy his stored treasures? “No,” he sighed. “It’s a time issue”. So he wasn’t interested in art at all - only in possessing valuable objects.

Another problem I find is that top business people don’t tend to share the political concerns of ordinary folk. They view governments as other businesses with whom they’re either in competition or partnership, rather than as a bunch of bastards who spend their time figuring out fresh ways of interfering in our little worlds. 

When I left the BBC, I had a vague hankering to do all the things businessmen do - rent office space, create a brand, understand spread-sheets, cut deals, work twenty hours a day, wear snazzy suits, buy a large property in the country, spend my spare time fiddling with my burgeoning investment portfolio or checking out the latest supercar - and, of course, earn a whacking great fortune. Within a few months I realised I had absolutely no desire for any of these things (apart from the house in the country). Besides, I’m not remotely dynamic enough: I am underpowered thrust-wise.

To be honest, that realisation was a weight off my shoulders. I never missDragon's Den, but, for some odd reason, the thought of living their lives horrifies me - all that clambering in and out of helicopters and living in ranch-style houses that look like Barratt Homes on steroids and having to hang around in unspeakable, soulless dumps like Monte Carlo, constantly repeating the mantra "This is the life!", as if trying to convince themselves it’s all been worth it. One of the current crop seems to spend most of his waking hours being driven around in the back of a limousine with the curtains drawn. And they all seem to spend an awful lot of time visiting bleak industrial estates where desperate people spend every waking minute slaving away in order to produce the sort of rubbish we laugh at in Innovations catalogues.

I've always felt guity about my inability to empathise with the very people whose taxes keep the rest of us in the heavily subsidised style to which we've become accustomed (until “Sir” Fred Goodwin changed all the rules, and rest of us found ourselves paying to keep wealthy businessmen like him in the style to which they’d become accustomed). I know that without these entrepreneurs Britain would be like 1960s East Germany. And I know how horribly snobbish and Polly Toynbeeish this all sounds. Believe me, I've tried my best to quell these knee-jerk public sector, Guardian-reader tendencies - but I've failed miserably.

I'm genuinely grateful that there are people in the world with sufficient pizzazz, zip, pep, greed, determination and ego to create businesses that provide thousands of people with a living and replenish the UK's tax coffers so that the government doesn’t have to confiscate even more of my paltry earnings.  And I don't begrudge them their pleasures (which provide further employment and tax revenues), and I certainly don't begrudge them their wealth - go ahead, my son, fill yer boots!

But, I repeat, I have no interest in them!

Maybe it was attending a left-wing university (they all are these days)  and then working for the BBC for nearly two decades that caused this uncomfortable disconnect between my political views - which seem to demand an interest in these people - and my personal indifference.

Who knows?

There is, however, one exception to all this – Steve Jobs, who I’ll deal with in a future post.

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