Nelson Mandela puts Zippo the clown's nose out of joint

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The Independent Online
Martin Burton was narked with Nelson Mandela last week. "I've had three excellent press stories and I've lost them all to him," he said. On Friday, for example, it was the 790th anniversary of Mongolian unification - but did the British press care? Did they heck.

Mr Burton is a businessman with a difference. The most obvious one is that he wears a red nose to work. As one of the most traditional clowns in the country, he has to.

And why was he worried about Mongolia? Because Zippo's, the circus he owns, has a troupe of 18 Mongolian acrobats this season and the Mongolian ambassador was heading down to Wandsworth Common to watch the show. Not surprising that Mr Burton thought he could get a few column inches out of that.

Zippo is an unusual fellow. He went to public school in Abingdon, trained to be a teacher, then started doing a clown's act in Covent Garden when it was still a fruit market.

He kept on meaning to go into teaching, but never quite made it. Not that the training was a waste of time. "It is perfect - you have to stand in front of 30 unruly kids who would quite happily kill you."

Fortunately (because Bunhill is supposed to be vaguely about business) Mr Burton is a full-blooded businessman. The reason Zippo's is surviving while most circuses are struggling is, he says, "because we give customer care right through from beginning to end".

He is a great believer in training, and has his own school that travels around with the circus. He also has a sophisticated mobile data system, is an expert on personnel management (especially of contortionists and Mongolians), and his logistics are amazing - the performers get the the tent down and up in hardly any time at all. All this and, I'm told, he's a jolly good clown into the bargain.

A colleague has been ringing MPs this week. Specifically, three MPs who found themselves starring in the newspapers because they had gallantly been on a fact-finding mission to Malta GC.

Had they, he wondered, found out any facts about one of the more intriguing business stories of the week - viz, why the stock market flotation of Monsoon, which sells ladies' clothing, had been scuppered. Apparently, most of the Monsoon shares belong to a mysterious company called Sycamore, which refused to co-operate with the stockbroker BZW when it wanted to ask it a few questions. And Sycamore is based in Malta.

Gerald Kaufman, former Labour shadow foreign secretary, had little to say about the island's financial affairs. Sycamore, never heard of it.

Simon Coombs (Con, Swindon) was more forthcoming, but said the press knew every move he had made on Malta: not one included a meeting with Sycamore.

Finally to Lady Olga Maitland, who must be able to help out because she is a former diarist and must at least have popped down to Companies House in Valletta. I'm sure she went there (all this tittle-tattle about sunbathing is quite distressing), so if she would like to tell me the results of her research, I will be delighted to tell the world about her diligence.

Taking a gander

Newspaper corrections can be fun: just read this one! A couple of weeks ago we put a deliberate error in our cover story about pub-owning millionaires. We said that the first Firkin pub was the Phoenix and Firkin at Denmark Hill in south-east London. Wrong! It was of course the Goose and Firkin in Borough Road, near the Elephant & Castle. And - this is where we switch from apology to sensational news scoop - there are strong rumours that Allied Domecq, which now owns the Firkin chain, is thinking of closing it down because they judge it to be too small.

I rang David Bruce, founder of the Firkin pubs, to see if he had heard anything. He hadn't, but said he would be horrified if the story was true. The Goose should, he said, be preserved as a shrine to the whole "brew pub" concept. "If they closed it, it would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg," he said, before realising he had made rather a good joke.

It can indeed be argued that the Goose was the founder of a movement that is now hiccuping happily across America. A thousand brew pubs have been opened there and - another scoop - Mr Bruce has shares in three of them, including the biggest in the world, Wynkoop in Denver.

I was delighted to find that he has now decided that a trend for which he must take much responsibility - changing the names of pubs to the Eunuch and Carburettor, Carrot and Dildo, and so on - has gone too far.

"It's so boring and passive," he says. "The big companies do it because it's almost de rigueur." What does he think pubs should be called then? "The King's Head, things like that."

Which leads me on to an interesting thought - if Allied does sell the Goose and Firkin, perhaps he might like to go ahead and buy it and then give it back its original name.