I can’t apologise for all my drunken exploits – it would take years

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

Arecherché little launch for a book, itself of no great import, but it is the party season, which is good news for the thirsty freelance hack on a tight budget. It is also within walking distance of the Hovel and this becomes an ever more important consideration as I get older. Anyway, I am wondering how much longer I can take of this – it’s in a jewellery shop and I find that book launches held in either jewellery or, say, perfume shops do not attract people whom one could readily identify as bookish – when I notice a face from the distant past: the Empress of Charn.

She’s not really the Empress of Charn. The E of C was, you may recall, Jadis, the rather overbearing witch figure in C S Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew. She could snap the iron bar off a lamp post as easily as if it were a stick of celery and in spite of – or probably because of – her imperious nature and scorn for the conventions, hugely impressed the weak and foolish Uncle Andrew. “A dem fine woman”, he would call her in fond remembrance.

Her latter-day avatar was not by any means the evil empress of a doomed empire, who would later become the White Witch and keep Narnia frozen in pre-Christmas winter for centuries. But she did have a way of persuading those around her to do unwise things and my friend S— christened her the Empress after one particular exploit, whose details it is best not to repeat here. She was simply very hard to say “no” to and she also found it hard to say “no” herself. Her appetite for drink and the uglier corners of the pharmacopoeia could land her in the most alarming situations.

This was all a long time ago: decades, in fact. I occasionally wondered what had happened to her and learned a while back that she had cleaned her act up and was now properly and totally sober.

I used, even longer ago, to be scornful of friends who went on the wagon, even if only for brief periods; at that age, I had not yet experienced the devastation that a selfdestructive drink habit can cause. For the destruction is not confined to the self: it is centred on it but has a wide radius. Now, when someone gives up the sauce, I congratulate them and wish them luck, if they are still in circulation. (For some reason, friends who have stopped drinking tend not to see as muchof me as they used to.)

Anyway, it is pleasant to see the Empress again but the first thing she does, after announcing that she is sober these days, is apologise for her past behaviour. At this, I find myself somewhat puzzled. For while she may have been a trial to those in her immediate circle, she was actually rather good company if you were able to peel yourself away relatively easily. Even the blast of a bomb must, once you have reached a certain distance, provide nothing more than a lick of heat and a sense of danger escaped.

This is the thing to do, I learn, in the world of AA: to apologise to anyone who might have got mixed up, one way or another, in your past scrapes. What does one do, though, when at the receiving end of such an apology? There was that line from an early P G Wodehouse story I quoted a few weeks back: the right sort of person doesn’t need an apology and the wrong sort takes a mean advantage of it. I stammer something about none being necessary but there is no getting out of this: I am to be apologised to, for that is part of the process of recovery. To brush this aside would not help.

I also start thinking about what would happen if I went down that road and had to start apologising to everyone who was part of my alcoholic past. It would certainly take up an enormous proportion of my time and involve saying sorry to pretty much everyone I’d met since I was about 15 years old. I gather from sober friends that giving up alcohol not only increases the mental bandwidth but gives you a great deal more time to Do Things and if I was going to go clean, I’d like to spend the extra free time learning how to play the piano properly – not saying sorry to half the population of London.

Still, I wonder whether even without that obligation I would have the fortitude to stop drinking. The wife once tried to stage an intervention for me six years ago but I got wind of it beforehand and sent a withering email to all the parties concerned explaining why I considered this a waste of their time.

For one thing, it was the party season and how you get through that without a snifter is beyond me.

Apologising would just take too long. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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.