Frontier town: Quito, Ecuador, seen shortly after a small earthquake, August 2014. Photo: Getty
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Alone in the border town, I got a bit too nifty with the Spanish phrasebook

Suzanne Moore’s weekly column, Telling Tales. 

Border towns are often dodgy places. Anyone sensible would not arrive at one in the middle of night with nowhere to stay. But I was never anyone sensible.

What had possessed me to “do” South America in 1981 is hard to say. I had read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Blokes I knew were going out to Nicaragua to aid the Sandinistas in their revolutionary struggle.

Somehow I thought this was mere fashion and that Central America was not the real deal.

I bought a one-way flight from Miami to Quito, Ecuador, on my Barclaycard and then persuaded a Dutch guy and his Israeli sidekick to get a driveaway car from New York where I was living.

It is hard to say how unprepared I was for an entire continent. For a start, I had assumed Latin America was hot so I had nothing more than what could only be called a summer wardrobe. Somehow the Andes had not figured in my scheme of things.

Ruth was tall and skinny and hyper and gave me tips. I met her in the first week in Quito. When men hissed and clicked at her she would hiss back, “Fuck off and die.”

At first I thought this excessive. By the end of my trip I would have happily macheted many of them myself.

The sexual harassment was so extreme that stuff like going to the loo meant two men blocking your way and groping you. Maybe it’s better now? In 1981 a woman travelling alone was asking for it.

But I was a quick learner. I learned where to sit and where to avoid. I learned sometimes it was just easier not to go out at night at all. I learned the art of bribery. And the code of giving presents to officials which meant that borders could be crossed, papers would always be in order.

But this town, a collection of run-down brothels and bars, was a very bad place. My main aim was not to be murdered.

There were no hostels and no transport out. Old men with bottles of hooch sent me down alleyways looking for a room, hawking up phlegm as they laughed at my predicament. Staying in a flophouse was better surely than staying out all night with these characters.

“How much? ” I asked a toothless man in what would be called “Reception” only in a godforsaken shack.

The price was extortionate.

I began bargaining: “El noventa? Eso es ridículo!

I got the price right down.

Cincuenta soles.”

He leered at me. My Spanish was coming on in leaps and bounds even though this was a shithole.

He took me up to the room. There were dirty clothes everywhere and a poster of Clint Eastwood on the wall. He locked the door and came towards me. “Gringita . . .”

This was his room.

The price that I had so successfully haggled down? That was my price. 

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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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.