Notebook: Exclusive focus group flies in

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The Independent Online
IT IS difficult to refuse the rich. Last week a rich man, whom I had never met, phoned to invite me to take part in a "brain-storming session" about the future of one of his products. Where and when was this session to to take place? On Tuesday, at his country seat in Dorset. We would brain-storm during the day, have dinner, sleep in one of his several bedrooms and then return to London on the Wednesday.

I said I would need to think about this generous offer (subtext: waste of time) and rang back the next day to say no. But the rich man then threw in a helicopter. I could helicopter down in the morning and helicopter back in the afternoon. A helicopter! I was not sophisticated enough to refuse, and so, with three other unsophisticates, I found myself on Tuesday morning landing on the edge of a croquet lawn next to a house built in the reign of Charles I. It was a beautiful house of mellow West Country stone, acquired with the profits of an obscure manufacturing concern in the Midlands, though the rich man had since diversified.

We took our seats at a round table equipped with a spread of freshly sharpened pencils and sheets of blank paper. We were asked to identify the product's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats - the process familiar to marketeers as SWOT. Another of the firm's directors scrawled our answers on pieces of paper pinned to an easel in front of us. We were asked to be honest and we did our best. The product (a magazine) was open- minded and intelligent on the one hand and bland and unprovocative on the other. It needed shorter articles; it needed longer articles; it appealed to the intellectually aspiring; it did not appeal enough to women or the young (which is the main quest of this modern alchemy).

Before lunch, we walked the grounds and saw the swimming-pool and lake and then sat down to pumpkin risotto followed by stewed pears and lemon polenta cake (the River Cafe recipe, I think). Cheese was served with grapes snipped that day from the rich man's vines.

There was what looked like a Renaissance painting in the dining-room and I overheard the rich man asking another man, perhaps not quite so rich, if he also collected pictures. At four o'clock we were trooping across the lawn again to the helicopter. The pilot asked if we'd had a "good meeting", as though something important might have been resolved (Hitler getting to keep Czechoslovakia, maybe)and I laughed, thinking he was being ironic.

But then it struck me that his question was just routine politeness, that he flew people to and from meetings all the time and overheard his passengers saying how well the meetings had gone, how productive they had been.

I didn't feel envy for the rich man, who was pleasant and unbombastic and far beyond any mean ambitions of my own, and now waved back to him as he stood on the steps of his Carolingian house and the helicopter rose above the green folds of the Dorset countryside.

Then, later in the week, I read in The Independent of how Philip Gould, the Blairite strategist with a new book to plug, intends to keep Labour in power for most of the next century - no less - by the method Trotsky knew as "permanent revolution", in which the "modernisation" of the party never stops.

What will the tools of this revolution be? I suspect brain-storming, SWOT sessions, helicopters to weekends in country estates; continuous talk of the need to change the product, in other words, on the far side of the consumer barricades. For an enfeebled political class, shorn of clout or ideology, it will be an excellent way to live and to endure. As for the rest of us - qu'ils mangent de la brioche polenta.


THE RIVER Cafe must now be the most famous restaurant in the world, partly because of its cookbook and partly because it has come to symbolise the detestable chumminess of Blair's "new Britain". Mrs Ruth Rogers sets the standard in food; Mr Richard Rogers designs the Millennium Dome; Mr Peter Mandelson takes an interest in both. In some ways, the charge is unfair. Tory Britain was certainly just as chummy and probably much more so, only the connections were less visible. Who knew who met whom behind the doors of the Carlton or Boodles or Pratt's?

You could argue that public restaurants are more democratic than private clubs, and not just because they allow in women. We discovered this week, for example, that General Pinochet ate once at the River Cafe; we may never know how many stiff gins he had beforehand at (say) the United Services Club. Still, it's hard to resist the hope that the disclosure of the general's visit has caused the restaurant embarrassment. A couple of weeks ago the Food and Drink programme on BBC2 tried an interesting experiment. They got an "ordinary viewer" with a genuine interest in food to try to book a table at three of London's fashionable restaurants, including the River Cafe.

She was respectable-looking women with an rp-voice and she got nowhere. Then Tara Palmer-Tompkinson tried and got a table no problem. Tara Palmer- Tompkinson is a minor celebrity with no obvious talents, a member of what Paul Valery called "the delirious professions", whose public worth is determined by their own private estimate of it. The favouritism shown to her isn't a scandal: the River Cafe isn't yet a public institution and, anyway, who cares? On the other hand, the restaurant's policy of who it lets in and who it keeps out is, let's say, an unfortunate one for the leading feeding-place of the politics of inclusion.


WATCHING The Truman Show, which is a very enjoyable film, I kept remembering something Tom Paulin had said on The Late Review. He hadn't liked the film much; it had good ideas which were never developed. "Think what Kafka would have done with it," he said. It reminded me of one of those lines from Stephen Potter's lessons in One-Upmanship, deployable as the winner in almost any argument. Coronation Street? Alan Bennett? The Beano? Think what Kafka would have done with them.