The Vikings are coming ... and I'm off

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The Independent Online
If you have heard of I Helford, you probably work for a smallish business and buy your stationery and executive high back chairs from him - he's the white-haired gent on the front of your Viking Direct catalogue.

I mention this because I have recently become one of Mr Helford's customers. Viking Direct is astonishing: it started in this country in 1990 and now turns over pounds 250m. Customers are bombarded with catalogues offering all sorts of things you didn't know you needed - a fire-resistant safe (pounds 154.98); golf score- card wallets (pounds 2.49 for 50); a personalised fax pad (pounds 5.99 for five) - as well as ordinary office stuff.

I get two or three catalogues a week detailing all sorts of special sales. These have displaced The Tatler and the Book of Revelations as my favourite ablution-time reading. That may say more about me than it does about Viking but it does mean I could not resist ringing the company to chat to Mr Helford.

A friend, also a Viking fan, had claimed I Helford didn't exist. He certainly seems slightly unreal: avuncular smile, hand out in the manner of a gentle preacher. "Yes, yes," I was told when I got through to Viking in Leeds. "He certainly does exist. He's called Irvin and he lives in California." Mr Helford led a management buy-out of Viking in the US in 1988, pushed its turnover from $15m (pounds 9.4m) to $1bn and has zoomed along ever since.

This, then, is why Viking's marketing strategy involves sending so many catalogues: because that is the American way. Why do things you order arrive the next day? Because that is also the American way. Why is the service so good? Because that is the American way. Wouldn't it be nice if it was the British way too?

YOU MAY have read an erudite piece in our sister newspaper the Independent on the importance of the number 103. My colleague William Hartston is unimpressed by those who claim that 42, 23 or 11 are the key to life and everything. He uses impeccable logic to prove that 103 is the number around which the universe revolves.

The uncanny thing about this is that Mr Hartston comes to this conclusion without, he claims, being aware of the great "103 Beetroot Cleaner" scandal of the 1960s. Readers of this column will be familiar, probably too familiar, with advertisements from the past. Many will remember this jingle: "1001 cleans a big, big carpet/For less than half a crown!".

But few probably know this was a copy of an earlier campaign, launched by the Amalgamated Beetroot Cleaning Company, using the ditty: "103 cleans a big, big beetroot/ For less than one and three!". Admittedly the tune was different (the ABCC used Mahler's First), but it is still remarkable that no legal action was taken.

The reason seems to be the special, and then little understood, importance of the number 103. When the firm realised its faux pas it immediately put itself into liquidation - to the chagrin of beetroot cleaners everywhere. Sinister, or what?

The living dead

THIS IS the last column this particular Bunhill will scrawl. Like Doctor Who in reverse, the outward appearance will remain, but the inner soul will subtly shift.

Which leads me to a question several people have asked over the years: why Bunhill?

The reason is that before moving to Bunhill Towers, this newspaper inhabited an inelegant block on the northern edge of the City of London. Despite the efforts of developers and the Luftwaffe, elements of great historic importance remained. Wesley Chapel for one, famous for its associations with one of the great figures of non-conformist England: Margaret Thatcher was married there.

Across the road, sandwiched between our former building and the castellations of the Honourable Artillery Company, is Bunhill Fields. Bunhill probably came from Bone Hill, a name acquired before it became a cemetery in 1549. The Great Plague helped business, though its real reputation was as the last resting place of non-conformists. It was not consecrated, so burials did not have to use the Book of Common Prayer. Inhabitants of "the cemetery of Puritan England" include John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, William Blake and George Fox, founder of the Quakers.

So this column got its name because our office overlooked Bunhill Fields. Had we decided to use the same logic at Canary Wharf, I might have been called West India Dock, Disused Gas Site that might be the Millennium Site, Motorised Whale that is going to Sail Round the World Some Time, or possibly Bomb-shattered Bits of South Quay. Which is why we decided to stick to Bunhill. Bye!