Tuesday 27 November 2007

The abominable showman

Has there ever been a time when the North East so completely dominated the national news agenda? Yesterday morning’s bulletin led with the latest chapter in the Northern Rock saga (of which more anon), followed by the strange tale of the Newcastle property developer who channelled his generous donations to the Labour party through two employees to protect his privacy. (That worked a treat, didn’t it?)

Then there were some ongoing rumblings about the disappearance of the personal records of half the population, courtesy of HMRC in Washington. If only a Northumberland-based right-wing extremist could have been added to the slate at last night’s Oxford Union debate (or, as we will no doubt be calling it by now, “riot”), our region would have had a full house. I did send the organisers word that I was available, but they turned me down. Apparently David Irving and Nick Griffin have their reputations to consider.

Of course, it would be rather better for our image if all these North East stories did not revolve around alleged incompetence and inattention to rules. I’ve begun to fear that the Geordie story may be about to displace the traditional Irish joke in the canon of national humour. There are some disturbing parallels, not least in the way that likeable Tyneside voices have become so popular in the broadcast media, as those at home with the Dog displace an older generation who had enjoyed a touch of the Blarney.

We can’t laugh at the Irish any more, not out of deference to political correctness, but because they have actually achieved a per capita national income higher than ours. Their economic miracle owed nothing to the power of prayer, and their traditional, Church-dominated, agricultural society is in what looks like terminal decline. How ironic, then, that the great white hope of the North East should turn out to be a Virgin, and that the business should be headed by a man whose personal grooming makes him look uncannily like a religious icon.

I cannot disagree with the claim on the group website that Virgin is “one of the world's most recognised and respected brands”. I just find it surprising, as I’ve always considered it a thoroughly tasteless name, whether it alludes to the Blessed Virgin or just someone lacking sexual experience. I thought the idea of the British happily boarding a plane or train with “Virgin” blazoned on the side was as likely as any of us walking into a confectioner’s and requesting a “Snickers” with a straight face. Which just goes to show what a hopelessly out of touch old fogey I am.

The only one of Sir Richard Branson’s many branded operations of which I have direct experience is Virgin Trains. It is also the only one of the privatised train operators to make me yearn for good old nationalised British Rail. I did a little jig when they weren’t awarded the East Coast franchise.

I didn’t think their cola was up to much, either. As for the rest of the massive business empire (comprising airlines, holidays, balloon flights, space travel, online gaming, publishing, wedding dresses, entertainment retailing, health and fitness, wines, cable TV, mobile telephones, radio and Saving The Planet, to name but a few), it is a closed book to me and I fear that it is sadly destined to remain so.

The pained expression worn by the Virgin King after his recent abseiling exploit suggests that the world’s number one self-publicist may try something less physically demanding when he arrives as the saviour of Northern Rock. Walking across the lake in Leazes Park may seem an irresistible temptation, but it would be so much better if the rescue could be accomplished without any cringe-making stunts. The employees of Northern Rock deserve no less, while the region as a whole urgently needs to start rebuilding its reputation for serious and quiet competence.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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