Inside, though, the picturesqueness became plain quaint. In the back room, women were picking away at wooden trays of tea leaves, while a little machine was busy making teabags. Out front, two massive belt-driven machines were churning away in one room. In another, a couple of women were pouring leaves into a huge device that was sorting them into different sizes. There was a Jackson's "clip action" tea equaliser, too, though it wasn't equalising any tea when I was there.
To anyone like me who likes their machines old and British, this was manufacturing heaven. No one could tell me how old the machines were, but they had had certainly lived through one world war and quite possibly two. They were all labelled "Marshall Sons & Co, Ltd, Gainsborough, England".
I have not been able to contact Marshall (does it still exist?), but I gather it is the same company that made the monstrous Field Marshall tractors (the ones that had to be started by firing a cartridge at the flywheel).
British-built machines are surely going to be chugging away in far-flung places long after every factory in Britain has switched to flashy Japanese devices. Someone out there must have seen even older British machines than the Marshalls still earning their keep: tell me about them.
A COLLEAGUE dining at the Great House at Sonning, on the Thames, found a card labelled "Greenstar Hotels plc - Shareholders' Concessions" on his table. "Shareholders owning a minimum of 1,000 ordinary shares become members of London's exclusive Park Lane Director's Club," it said, explain- ing that they would then be given discounts when noshing at Greenstar establishments. "Shares traded under Rule 4.2 on the London Stock Exchange may be purchased via JP Jenkins of London . . ." the card said.
I rang Mr Jenkins and said I was surprised by this bit of advertising. "We weren't too impressed either," he said. "We're just market makers - we can't deal in shares. That piece of card has caused chaos here, I can tell you." It seems that Greenstar's marketing enthusiasm outpaced its knowledge of the City - it had a share issue in April and thought, logically enough, that satisfied customers might want to buy a bit of it. Mr Jenkins says that please, if you want to bump up your bill by pounds 1,000, go to a stockbroker, not him.
Buffett on the record
I WAS interested to see that Warren Buffett, the rich American and Sage of Omaha, is joining his cousin Jimmy Buffett on a gramophone record. According to Forbes, he will be playing the ukulele and "singing a bit". My colleagues were unable to think of a British equivalent, although I could not get the image of Sir John Harvey-Jones bouncing on a trampoline out of my mind.
If, however, a tycoon did set up his own popular music ensemble, what would it be called? Buffett and the Billionaires is the easy one. I suppose we must have Harvey-Jones and the Troubleshooters - but what about the likes of Cedric Brown, Richard Branson and Sir Richard Greenbury? Think up groups for them, or for anyone else we may have heard of, and you could win yourself a bottle of Bunhill's fizziest.
I BET Peter Benjamin Lewis has sung a few songs in his time. I note that Fortune gives much space to this 61-year-old chairman of Progressive Corp, a car insurer based in Cleveland. I don't blame it: the company may be boring, but the man isn't. Reassuring an investor about his health, he said: "I'm single, so I get laid all the time." He has written a book that makes Alan Clark seem like a model of discretion. In it, he wrote that when he was having lunch with an employee, he "felt overwhelmed by the desire to have an extramarital experience" - which he duly had. He will not, however, confirm rumours that he is, as one acquaintance put it, "a functioning pothead". Is it despite or because of all this that Lewis has managed to pull his company up from being the 48th to the sixth biggest car insurer in the USA?
ALL this talk about fat cats and executive share options has led me to think about the capitalist system - to wit, does it work? A chum who works in the City doing clever things with bonds was given an enormous bonus by his last employer. Far from "incentivising" him, it simply allowed him to contemplate an early escape from the rat race.
"My boss should never have given me a nice big bonus," he says. "It destroys the work ethic, unless balanced by an economically rational unlimited greed." He attributes his lack of economic rationality to being "brainwashed at the age of seven by early Bob Dylan songs". But I don't see it: surely, if you have been given enough money to stop working, you stop work. That's about as rational you can get . . . isn't it?
I HAVE received the following letter from one of my lodgers: "I am a cat who, I have been told, is volumetrically challenged. Due to circumferences beyond my control, I weigh about twice as much as my mum. I am thus a 'fat cat' and I object strongly to being associated with the likes of Mr Cedric Brown. I cannot see what he and I have in common: I have never run a gas company and he, as far as I know, has never got stuck in a cat flap. Can you please tell whence this unpleasant and possibly actionable association came? Yours sincerely, Amundsen Cat (Miss). PS - I have a friend who is a rat and wants to know why he is expected to race all the time.
PPS - I enclose a photograph of myself for your album."