Pembroke: A rosy outlook

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A STRONG stomach will be a bonus if you plan to delve into Laura Ashley's latest report and accounts, whose cover sports a photograph of a bluebell wood slumbering in dappled sunshine. Sprinkled amid the financial facts and figures are apercus from the company's late foundress and assorted customers.

'Our bodies are soft and we need to live with soft things - not only physically but for the peace of mind that comes from living in a gentle environment,' Mrs Ashley is said to have crooned. 'I like the leggings best of all but sometimes my friends and I go into Laura Ashley just to smell the perfume,' breathes Carmen Mohammed, art student, Oxford.

Lest we all trip off into fairyland there is a hard-headed note. Dr Jim Maxmin, chief executive, enjoyed a 9.5 per cent pay rise that took his salary to pounds 309,725, although he ascribes this to the favourable dollar. Still, a rise it was, and it came after a year in which losses of pounds 9.1m were turned into profits of pounds 1.8m not because of improved operating performance but because of the absence of pounds 11.8m of exceptional write-downs, restructuring costs etc. Shareholders, given their fondness for whimsy, were again paid a nominal dividend of 0.1p.

TERRY MAHER, the chairman of Dillons books and Ryman stationers group Pentos, has commiserating words in the annual report about the 74 per cent drop in profits. 'Dear shareholder, 1992 was a very disappointing year for Pentos,' he writes. Not so for Mr Maher though. He saw his salary increase by 11 per cent last year to pounds 205,447.

POSITIVELY the last item on pay. Next did pretty well, with earnings trebling to 9.93p and so did Lord Wolfson, executive chairman and member of the Great Universal Stores family, who was deemed to merit a salary of pounds 167,000, up from pounds 100,000. And let's face it, he really needs it.

AS TRAFFIC in the City seized up in total deadlock yesterday, one pinstriped gent anxious to catch his weekend (sic) train from Waterloo jumped aboard an ancient bus, baking in the sunshine as it crawled past Bank. 'I normally get cabs but there aren't any about,' he said, surveying his novel surroundings with the pleasure of a child at a funfair. 'Oof, isn't it hot in here? I say, Driver, could you possibly turn on the air conditioning?'

AT THE Holborn HQ of De Beers, the rich South African diamond group, more than 500 classy examples of contemporary art line the walls of corridors and offices in an impressive display of taste. Yet the elegant panelled dining room sports a yawn-inducing 19th century oil by one P Nasmyth (1787- 1831). Asked how the unadventurous landscape found its way in, an artistically minded board member shakes his head in dismay.

'It used to belong to one of the directors. When he left we had it cleaned in the hope it would look better.' Unfortunately the absence of grime merely revealed the painting's artistic limitations. 'It ended up looking even more tedious than it did before,' he wailed.