Illustration by Jackson Rees.
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In which I suspend belief in Branson while contemplating the Virgin snack box

In this week's Real Meals, Will Self resists the parliamentarian-endorsed temptations of a mainline skeuomorph.

Sometimes I ask myself in all sincerity – is Richard Branson real? Please note, the question is not “Is Richard Branson for real?” (the sort of locution he himself might have used back in the days when he edited Student), but rather: “Does he exist in any meaningful sense at all?”

I continue to ask myself this question even though I have actually met Branson and shaken him by the hand. Seeing wasn’t believing – nor, it appears, was touching; Branson will have to work much harder than Jesus Christ, for instance, if he wants me to lend him any credence, let alone have faith in his heavenly transport. True, he does have important similarities to the Christ: both are depicted as bearded and long-haired; both are fair-skinned; both have a message for all of mankind. But in Branson’s favour: although I have only hearsay to go on when it comes to Christ’s catering, I have feasted on Virginal loaves and fishes many times.

All of this flashed through my mind the other day when a steward plonked a complementary Virgin snack box down on the Virgin table in front of me, and then strode on along the carriage of the 12.35 Virgin Trains service from Manchester Piccadilly to London Euston. “Wow,” I said to Barry Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, who’d come looking for the steward and found me instead, “that’s a hell of a snack box.”

And indeed it was: a foursquare little thing, its flimsy cardboard manifold cleverly printed with trompe l’oeil wickerwork, leather luggage labels and handle so that it resembled a miniature picnic hamper. I knew that as far as Barry was concerned fakery was the order of the day, because when he’d clapped eyes on me he said: “You’re an actor, aren’t you?” I had to spend some time disabusing him – after which we both had to spend a lot more time chatting, because Barry was taught by my dad at the London School of Economics, back in the days when there went out from Caesar Augustus a decree that all the world should be taxed.

To me the pseudo picnic box was yet more evidence of Branson’s unreality, and yet Barry believed the Virgin Richard’s corporeality was evidenced by a simple fact: “You realise he’s won the East Coast Line franchise, don’t you?” I did indeed know that, but I was still worshipping the iconic snack box, and although I tried to explain its significance, eventually Barry grew bored and wandered back to his own seat. I remained staring at the snack box – it wasn’t the most bizarre foodie-industrial skeuomorph I’d seen that week, but it was up there. As regular consumers of this column will know, a skeuomorph is a once-functional design element repurposed to be purely decorative. In the case of the snack box this was its printed wickerwork’s evocation of lazy afternoons on the river at Henley, with Montmorency performing tricks, and with the hamper’s lightweight yet sturdy construction keeping sandwiches and bottled light ale gently aerated.

Illustration by Jackson Rees.

However, my youngest son had spotted a weirder bit of trompe l’oeil earlier in the week: a Chicago Town Stuffed Crust Four Cheese Melt pizza box that had, printed along its edge, the fake edge of a cardboard box (two-ply cardboard, with a wavy cardboard line in between). We both examined this packaging mutation, marvelling at a world in which a product designer would choose to camouflage a cardboard box as a cardboard box. Mind you, the Chicago Town pizza itself was only masquerading as a pizza – yet this didn’t help much when it came to accepting the reality of the Virgin snack box and, by extension, the existence of Richard Branson. Abandoned by Barry Sheerman, whose ministerial experience might have shed some light on the problem, I fell balefully to examining the snack box. It inspired me to an act of epoché or “bracketing”, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Husserl: I suspended all judgements about the existence or otherwise of the external world, and therefore my own capacity (or Richard Branson’s) to act within it.

Thankfully this scepticism worked, and the reality or otherwise of box and Branson ceased to trouble me. Then I tried rebooting by examining the phenomena that were given to me immediately in consciousness – and the trouble instantly recurred, because the phenomena I perceived were: first, an idea of an egregious bearded entrepreneur; and second, a snack box printed so as to resemble a miniature picnic hamper. It was a devilish conundrum, one such as might have been devised by Descartes’s malignant deceiver. As to breaking the spell by, say, opening the snack box and eating its contents, such an action was anathema to me. What if it contained a Branson homunculus, one that tried to sell me Virgin Money?

I resolved instead to take the snack box home with me and keep it for ever, for ever sealed. It is sitting on my desk as I type this, and although it has the innocent appearance of a mass-market catering pack, I know that it is really a veritable Pandora’s box, from which all the world’s ills might erupt, should I be foolish enough to fancy a light bite.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.