Bunhill: The carpetbaggers from outer space
Sunday 27 July 1997
This I did quite well, I think, though like most things I learnt at school, I soon forgot it and to this day I still struggle with the intricacies of fuse boxes and pay-phones. Being 11, I also lacked the cynicism to question whether the average invading Martian bent on world domination might not have had more important things on its mind than working out how to order a takeaway from a public phone, especially as the flying saucer would have been equipped with an inter-galactic communications enabler. Perhaps an essay on how to zap earthlings might have been more in order.
Luckily, things have become relevant since then. For example, the manufacturer of Pot Noodles provided a blueprint for schoolchildren in the art of lucid composition with the instructions for its filling and nutritious snack: "1) Put the kettle on. 2) Peel back foil lid. 3) Add boiling water. 4) Wait four minutes and your delicious Pot Noodles are ready to eat."
Now, as the world becomes more baffling, you wonder if there might be room for some new subjects on the primary school curriculum that test children's clarity of expression. Take "carpetbagging" - a bizarre term that owes its origins to the 18th-century practice of giving politicians safe seats in areas with which they had no connections. In the week when the Nationwide building society saw off the bounty-hunters, what could be more of interest to the visitor from outer space? Here's how Bunhill Junior, 4A, might answer the essay question, "Carpetbagging - Daft or What? Discuss".
"First of all, your dad gives you pounds 1,000 and you open accounts at 10 different building societies, with pounds 100 in each. Then you wait for the societies to give you some free shares. Actually, these are known as windfalls, like the apples that fall from trees, but they come in the form of carpets.
"After a while, they write to you, saying they want to become a bank, and if you say 'yes', they will give you a carpet worth pounds 2,000. You think about this hard, then you say 'yes', and they send you a carpet covered with apples. You either get to keep this and wait for it to grow, or you can swap it for chocolates, soccer star stickers and Spice Girls records.
"Next, a man called the Chancellor of the Exchequer says it's very bad we've got all this money, and another serious-looking man called the Governor of the Bank of England takes it away from us. Finally, everyone dies."
Talking of opportunism, one of the last times "carpetbagging" was used before being purloined by the building society movement was just after the general election of 1992 when Nicholas Scott, the sitting MP in the safest of Tory seats, Kensington & Chelsea, offered to step aside for Chris Patten who had lost his Bath constituency.
Mr Patten declined the offer on the grounds that it would look too much like carpetbagging and was rewarded for his sense of honour with a tortuous assignment in Hong Kong presiding over the last years of a colony which was testament to a time when Britain went carpetbagging round the world. Thanks to the timing of the handover to China, Mr Patten also missed out on a chance to contest the Tory leadership contest.
Meanwhile, the good citizens of Kensington & Chelsea deselected Mr Scott and installed in his place Alan Clark, famous not so much for his strict moral code as his charisma, romantic exploits and for being "economical with the actualite". So, bearing in mind this salutary tale, good luck to the Nationwide and its savers and borrowers: you're going to need it.
Sex Pistols revisited
Here at Bunhill Towers, we have a wonderful electronic "press cuttings" library which allows you to view all mentions of a particular subject in a range of newspapers over a number of years. Simply key in your chosen topic - puff pastry, say (368 stories since 1 January 1992) - and the system will tell you how many articles have been found that include these words, and give you the option of reading the text. It is through such extensive trawling of the database that I have discovered two short words are conspicuous by their absence. Clearly they are now taboo in British society because ever since Gordon Brown presented his Budget, no one has dared voice the sentiment that should leap straight from their tongue. How else to explain the barrage of criticism from City analysts, media pundits and the Conservative shadow cabinet that Mr Brown had not done enough to "damp down" consumer spending - but then the deafening silence on what measures he should have taken?
So at the risk of unleashing the biggest outcry since the infamous Bill Grundy interview with the Sex Pistols in 1976, I am about to utter the two words that until now have been banned in polite society and on which no debate is allowed. It won't please many people, and it will seem almost seditious in its radicalism, but after the initial shock I expect the effect to be purgative. Try it at home, if you like, though not in front of the children. Anyway, here goes: Income Tax. There, I feel better already.
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