A glorious, magical evening

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

"This thing is a bloody death trap." Curly is examining one of the light fittings in the caravan. We are on holiday, for the first time since baby Moe was born. It’s a free holiday, obviously; we have persuaded the parents of a friend to lend us their caravan in Essex. They warned me it was a little bit run-down but I assured them that I didn’t mind. I don’t mind anything that allows me to escape the four walls of the slightly-too-small flat for a whole weekend. The most exciting expedition I have had for months is to Ikea Edmonton; at this point, the Thames Estuary seems about as remote and exotic as the Galapagos Islands.

So I wasn’t bothered that caravan No 18 was the only one on the otherwise pristine campsite to be crumbling, peeling and propped up on bricks, or that the door swung on one hinge when we opened it, or that the steps had rusted and fallen apart. In fact, I was charmed by its retro interior, with the little lace curtains and 1950s-avocado green sofas.

I am slightly less cool, however, with the large scorch marks on the ceiling. The caravan is fitted with ancient gas-powered bulbs, which you have to light with a match. Each one has created its own blackened ring on the plywood roof. Every time I look at them, I hear a sinister voiceover from one of those TV reconstructions: “little did the young family know that, as they slept, the caravan was filling with deadly carbon monoxide . . .”

Bugger it, we’ll just have to use a torch. I throw open the door and, remembering just in time that there are no steps, jump out into the field outside. Everything is bathed in glorious evening light. The grassy slope runs gently down towards undulating salt marshes and a scrubby little beach. Gulls are swooping over the water and wood smoke drifts from one of the little huts lined up along the shore. In the distance, the looming cranes of Harwich harbour are strung with winking lights.

Larry, in a frenzy of excitement, is already halfway down the track to the beach. “Hurry up, Mummy. We need to go to where the pirates are to find the treasure.”

The little stretch of sand is deserted. After trying – and sadly failing – to find the pirates’ treasure, we collect some driftwood and light a fire. Curly produces a packet of marshmallows and helps Larry choose a suitable toasting stick. The sun is pink and low over the horizon.

“The sun has got its jim-jams on because it’s about to go to bed,” I explain.

“They’re even nicer than my jim-jams,” Larry says approvingly. He dangles his marshmallow over the flame, where it promptly catches fire. We rescue it just in time; melted sugar fluff oozing through sticky black caramel.

“Mmmmmm,” he says as he chows it down. “I like holidays.”

So if we do all die of carbon monoxide poisoning in the night, I reflect later as we snuggle up in the creaky double bed, at least we’ll have ended it all with a magical evening.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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Love him or loathe him, Britain needs more Alan Sugar

Big business is driving down wages, failing to invest, and funnelling rewards to the richest.  Entrepreneurs - and the state - need to fill the gap. 

The business baron who loves a bust-up has just been hired by Her Majesty’s Government to tour the country inspiring the next generation of apprentices. And he’s got his work cut out for him.  

Britain is loads more enterprising than it used to be - but the truth is, we’re miles behind our rivals. The good news is that Britain boasts nearly two million more firms than at the turn of the century. Over 40 per cent of Europe’s “unicorns” (new firms worth over $1 billion) are UK based. And by the next election, there will be more self-employed people than public service workers. 

But, here’s the bad news. Globally, we’re only 48th out of 60 in the global enterprise league table - and of the top 300 companies created in the last thirty years, only a handful are British. The only two British websites in the global 100 were actually founded in America - google.co.uk and amazon.co.uk. Worst of all, according to new House of Commons library figures which I commissioned this week, over a million people have left entrepreneurial activity in the last three years. 

Yet in my new history of British capitalism, Dragons, published today, I show how we’re a nation built by some of the greatest entrepreneurs on the planet. They were the buccaneers like Robert Rich, who built the trading companies and colonies of north America. The traders like Thomas Diamond Pitt who built old multi-nationals like the East India Company. They were industrial revolutionaries like Matthew Boulton who perfected the steam engines, and capitalists like Nathan Rothschild who built the bond market. Down the ages, there were of course great rogues and fraudsters, slavers, opium dealers and imperialists, like George Hudson, William Jardine and Cecil Rhodes. And through the centuries, women were in particular, were frozen out of the power structures of the market. 

But, throughout our past, great visionaries like George Cadbury, William Lever and John Spedan Lewis not only created new wealth but invented new ways to share it, from Port Sunlight to Bournville, to the board rooms of the John Lewis Partnership. 

Theirs is the entrepreneurial spirit we are going to need to rebuild Britain. Why? Because we can no longer leave the task to big business. Big business is driving down wages, failing to invest, and funnelling rewards to the richest. Today, UK firms are sitting on an extraordinary £522 billion in cash. And that’s after they lavished out £100 billion in share buy-backs in 2014. According to Larry Fink, the head of Black Rock which is the world’s biggest investment manager, the gargantuans of the global economy are simply failing to invest in the new jobs and industries of the future. 

So we’re depending on our entrepreneurs to turn new ideas into new industries and new industries into new jobs - whether it is in big data, cyber-security, driverless cars, the internet of things, or genetic medicine. It’s not just good for progress. It’s good for jobs. In fact, if our young people today were as entrepreneurial as their counterparts in Germany or America, its estimated they would create an extra 100,000 jobs. 

The big lesson from 600 years of the history of capitalism is simple: entrepreneurs make history - by inventing the future. So we need the government to start doing an awful lot more for the enterprise economy; spreading enterprise education, investing more in science, shifting government contracts to small high growth firms, and sorting out the banking system. But if we want a better future for Britain, we need an awful lot more entrepreneurs to do well. And so we need AlanSugar to succeed.  

Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain is published by Head of Zeus today

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.