Hot tubs selling like hot cakes. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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Flatcap handbags, folding wellies, and Derek: The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 8

The teams are let loose in Somerset to explore the "rural market".

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read the episode 7 blog here.

It’s taken eight whole smog-addled weeks for the candidates to be hoisted out of the urban sprawl and onto virgin countryside terrain, but we got there eventually. Granted, they’ve meandered to Kent and had a little canal trip through Oxford in recent weeks, but we haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing our sad suited automatons looking incongruous in the real English wilderness. A glaring oversight, considering the importance of the “rural market”, which is what this week is all about.

“You’ll be selling – products,” Lord Sugar informs the candidates, by way of explaining what exactly the “rural market” is. Weighing then heartily slaughtering pigs and selling bloated marrows sporting comedy rosettes is what comes to mind, and it turns out this isn’t actually that far from the truth, as the teams are sent to get their burnished winklepickers grubby at an agricultural show.

The Royal Bath and West Show is quite different from the eaves of steel spires the bored camera so often grazes as we are wafted over the City and Canary Wharf seven times per episode. Instead of the Shard slicing London’s charcoal skies, Somerset has a small sheep pushing its head through a gap in a clammy marquee. Rather than swarms of commuters clicking across Millennium Bridge, here we have some ruddy Morris dancers, skipping around a meaty herd of tug-of-warriors, all wiry fur and cricket-ball knees. When they arrive, the candidates look like they’ve each swallowed a gallon of Octi-Kleen.

Faces of fury. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

But before they're let loose at the fair to be watched scornfully by parading heifers, the teams have to choose the products they will sell to the people of Somerset. Felipe – reciting, “logistics, tactics, organisation” – takes Tenacity’s reins, and James – “I fancy it; I’ll put my balls on the line” – is in the saddle for Summit.

Then a few from each team go to a showroom of pointless rural accoutrements and pretend to understand the value of the products. “It’s so quirky, I absolutely love it, it’s so different,” gushes Felipe about a tweed “flatcap handbag”, which sounds like the tabloid label for some sort of class-defying tax George Osborne would accidentally introduce. Felipe and Mark buy a batch without negotiating. In the sales world, we call this “shopping”.

On the other team, Solomon and Sanjay decide upon bicycle trailer attachments for carrying children, and pet finders for, well, finding pets. Ignoring his teammates’ advice, James overrules them and goes for foldable wellies (useful when packing a suitcase for a swamp holiday) and hanging garden chairs (useful for the 1970s) instead. “To me, that’s really bad,” is Solomon’s enraged battlecry.

They also have to choose some “big ticket items” (ie. “expensive stuff”) to go with the tat from the showroom. This is one of the tensest moments of the whole series, as each team battles to win the right to sell hot tubs to those raunchy country folk who have a spare £4000 to fork out at a moment's notice for a steamy outdoor group experience.

But first, Daniel barrels through trying to convince a bemused barbeque seller that “we’re infected by it; we feel the passion” and after being warned by Katie that he was “a bit intense”, tones it down for the hot tub man. “We’ll be making sure people leave with a smile,” he grimaces.

James then has a try for the hot tubs, shaking hands with the retailer, Anthony, assuring him that he likes the product: “Derek, Derek I do”, he cries, like a doomed bride.

Needless to say, Anthony doesn’t like being called Derek, so he jilts James and goes for Team Tenacity instead.

Cross country candidates. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

There follows a scene of such abhorrent childish obstinacy from James that you almost drop your already-wavering wry disdain for the Apprentice for pure, all-out hatred of the bloody thing.

James wants to lie to the rest of his team and tell them he decided against selling hot tubs in favour of lawnmowers (I know, a mad decision at a rural fair where none of the punters star in MTV). “My advice would be to tell the truth,” says Roisin in measured, if incredulous, tones. “It’s what I want,” James sneers, mowing her down with his lawn of lies.

But if James appears a little tetchy this week, he is nothing in comparison to Daniel. Felipe innocently blinks that he and Daniel will attempt to shift the handbags. Predictably, the latter is furious – he wore his best shiny aubergine shirt for the uniquely sleazy opportunity to sell hot tubs, which would now be Katie and Mark’s responsibility. “It’s whoever got into his brain first,” he seethes, his neck pulsating with bile, when Felipe's beleagured brain makes the controversial decision.

Once the selling begins, we see Sanjay, in vain, telling kindly country biddies they look “fabulous” in foldable wellies, Roisin softly-softly selling lawnmowers while James scowls on, Solomon stroking “about 10 dogs”, and Mark’s breathtaking whoop-swallowing pokerface when a customer casually suggests he’ll buy seven hot tubs.

Customers going cold on the hot tub. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

The boardroom, or “bearpit of sexism” as I think we can safely label it this series, sees Lord Sugar mocking the men of Team Tenacity for taking instruction from Katie. “You called up mum and asked her what to do?” he taunts. “Mummy calmed you down a little bit?” Let’s hope the business plan Katie submits to Sugar is for opening a crèche, otherwise he might be really confused.

There is also yet another male genitalia innuendo, which I really can’t be bothered to report here, because it was a real flop (eh? EH BOYS?), followed by Felipe asserting “I am not going to change from being a nice man”, Nick Hewer unaccountably calling Sanjay “nameless” in chilling tones, and James still insisting, as he has done for weeks, “I’m hungry for this.” For God’s sake, someone take the man to Bridge Café and buy him a sandwich.

And of course, that is where he ends up, as Team Summit loses to Mark’s mass-trade of hot tubs. “I called the guy Derek twice instead of Anthony,” is James’ mea culpa, as the boardroom’s straight-faced artifice dissolves completely into giggles. He is, inevitably, fired. Still, at least he can get something to eat now.

James is really starving. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Candidates to watch

Sanjay

“You’ve worked in banking all your life. You only sold three pairs of foldable wellies,” may be his epitaph.

Daniel

His clenched jaw won’t survive much longer without actually locking.

Roisin

Calm, professional, and super-smoothly Irish, is she too similar to the last series’ winner Dr Leah to last the process?

 

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here to follow it. Read my blog on the previous episode here. The show will air weekly on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. Check back for the next instalments every Thursday morning.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era