When John Spedan Lewis inherited the Oxford Street store, owned by his father, he took an unusual step for a scion of privilege and wealth. He effectively gave the store away, making all the employees Partners and giving them all shares in the business's profits (he had been shocked to discover that his family took more profit from the original store than all 300 employees put together). He had larger ambitions too, to enhance the happiness of his workers, which give his management theory a certain transcendental quality still visible in his disciples.
There was, for obvious reasons, something slightly wistful about this portrait of caring capitalism. In a time of fat cats more interested in their stock-options than the stock of human happiness, the Founder shows that it is also possible to forgo a share of the cream in order to enhance the lives of others. At a time when inadequate managements engage in a war of attrition with their employees, determined to press productivity out of them as you squeeze oil out of an olive, this was a demonstration that benevolence can deliver results too.
Naturally, as in any church, there were schismatics and reformers, Partners who pointed out that some partners are more equal than others, heretics who suggested that being allowed a vote on whether you can wear short- sleeved shirts hardly constitutes the New Jerusalem. And the firm's paternal obsession with detail can occasionally seem overprotective; Mr Holmes of Undersales Intelligence (John Lewis's MI5) wearily pointed out the five- point instructions for hand-washing which had been posted in the staff lavatories. Partners were reminded that they should dry particularly well between their fingers.
But none of these little gripes could suppress the widespread affection these people obviously felt for their place of work and its ethos. How else could you explain the uncomplaining maintenance of some decidedly eccentric traditions, the most lunatic of which was the appropriately named Dog Log, a book in which details of canine defecation are religiously recorded, including notes on texture, dispersal and name of the unfortunate Partner who had to clear it up.
A less warming vision of the British character was delivered by A Slice of Life (BBC2), which chronicled the invasion of the national palate by troops of Sylheti restaurateurs. At first the advance was stealthy: one veteran recalled infiltrating Indian dishes into a menu of stolidly English fare, until one day the transformation had been completed - from English grub to exotic eastern butterfly. In return for delivering us from the evil of meat and two veg, restaurant owners were rewarded with boorishness and contempt.
Similar qualities were displayed in the sourest edition of The Real Holiday Show (C4) for some time, in which various travellers exercised the inalienable right of all true English born to go abroad and whinge about it. Two couples bickered their way through Bangkok, leaving a trail of insults and complaints behind them. "Not my cup of tea, really," said one sulky woman, surrounded by the gilded splendours of a Buddhist temple. In the second half, a jolly family party went off to Minorca, where they demonstrated the British holidaymaker's sullen conviction that bad "wevver" is a cunning Dago plot to deprive them of happiness. By the end I wanted to emigrate to John Lewis and set up home in the Soft Furnishings Department.Reuse content