Estelle Morris, the Arts Minister, seeks to prevent the export of a national treasure - a fabulous Francis Bacon painting - by giving us a few months to find £9m. Before fund-raising gets under way, let me place another pressing proposition in front of you. The Tate already owns some fine Bacons - but Britain is in imminent danger of losing an important part of its cultural life, and urgent steps need to be taken to save it. I refer, of course, to the possible takeover of the ailing 380 Marks & Spencer stores by the billionaire and former barrow-boy Philip Green.
Instead of fund-raising to save a work of art, no matter how magical, I put it to you that our high streets would change for the worse if Mr Green were allowed to succeed and control the UK's favourite shop. The sooner a "hands off Marks" campaign is started, the better.
Marks & Spencer is going through a dull patch, I have to admit. Like an irritating elderly relative, the brand is behaving in an increasingly peculiar way. Mr Green, who is one of Britain's half-dozen richest people but lives in Monaco, has chosen his moment well, as M&S is vulnerable at present and rudderless, with the departure of the chairman, Luc Vandervelde. The big new idea, Lifestore, under the direction of Vittorio Radice, poached from Selfridges, has not taken off as well as expected (apparently insiders now refer to it as "Deathstore") and, having sacked the head of clothing, the new replacement doesn't arrive from Asda until the autumn. Only a few days ago, the chief executive, Roger Holmes, admitted that the M&S recovery plan had "faltered" and sales of everything from food to frocks were disappointing.
Mr Green's group, Arcadia, controls BhS, Topshop and Top Man, Burtons, Miss Selfridge and Dorothy Perkins, and he is renowned for his ability to turn around the businesses he buys. He has rewarded himself well - accumulating a personal fortune of £1.9bn and receiving over £350m in dividends since he took over BhS. He paid himself and his family a £200m bonus last November - all right for some! He's got all the trappings of obscene wealth - a huge yacht, luxury homes in London and Monaco, and last Christmas his wife gave him a Gulfstream jet as a present.
Mr Green is not only an ostentatious consumer, his language is fruitier than mine, and he hit the headlines the other year for making racist remarks about the Irish, for which he later apologised. He is so vulgar he makes Michael Winner look like something dreamt up by the Design Council. In 2002 he celebrated his 50th birthday in Cyprus with a party for 200 friends that cost £5m, at which Rod Stewart, Tom Jones, Demis Roussos and Earth Wind and Fire performed. Guests all had to wear gold trimmed togas and Michael Aspel re-enacted This is Your Life.
Now, my complaint is not about Mr Green and his life-style - good luck to him and all the recipients of his hospitality. Mr Green is a larger-than-life character in love with his own PR - frequently floating rumours that he "might" be interested in buying Harrods, he "might" be interested in bidding for Safeway - he just doesn't know when to stop. Now, with Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch acting as his advisers for the potential M&S bid, he's taking the biggest gamble of his life. But if he were allowed to succeed, Green would be the biggest single retailer in Britain, and we, the public, would be the losers. His group would control more than 20 per cent of the income from the clothing business in the UK. We'd lose choice, we'd lose a distinctive brand and, most important, we'd lose a piece of Britain that is recognised the world over.
With all the will in the world, I hardly think tourists from Abu Dhabi to Athens are flocking to Oxford Street to spend 30 minutes in BhS. Its wares are worthy but totally forgettable. Beige is the predominant colour. Topshop is terrific, if you're in the market for a skirt the size of a pelmet or a cheap party frock. Dorothy Perkins is fine but totally characterless.
Let's be clear, Marks & Spencer, no matter how feeble the current management, is the jewel in our retailing crown. I don't want it run by someone who wears togas, gambles and thinks Rod Stewart is the bee's knees. I want Marks to regain its sanity, carry on being ruthlessly upmarket, abandon any attempt to cater to the youth market and redefine its brand as one of quality. Mr Green is not interested in quality; quantity and profit are his goals. He is the worst kind of saviour for our sad, sick relative.
Art in flames
Patrick Heron was a wonderful, irritating and quirky friend, and an extraordinary artist. During his lifetime, he often struggled to get the recognition he deserved, and there were decades when his large abstract canvases were regarded as highly unfashionable. Since his death a few years ago, his prices have risen - and so has his reputation. I spent many happy holidays in his house high above the coast outside St Ives. Now 50 of his most beautiful works have been destroyed in a warehouse fire. The media have devoted pages to Tracey and her tent and Damien Hirst's spin paintings. Patrick Heron's work is irreplaceable. No compensation can give his daughters back their father's unique vision of the Cornish landscape. The moral in this sad tale is: don't keep anything in storage. Who knows what is being kept in the unit next to yours? I have decided to sell everything I can't fit in at home.
Now Adam Crozier, the Royal Mail's chief executive, awards himself a bonus of £300,000 on top of his basic salary of £500,000 in spite of not realising even one of his 15 service targets. Yes, the Royal Mail may have made £200m profit, but at the expense of us, the customers, largely helped by adding 1p to the price of a first-class stamp. How Mr Crozier can pocket this money I simply do not know. There are rumours that the management is considering selling the postal business to the employees, and anything would be preferable to a continuation of the current sorry saga, in which post is delivered at variable times and takes days to reach its destination, no matter what stamps you stick on it.
The profits so proudly declared by Mr Crozier and his band of incompetents will be severely trimmed when he has to pay the fines that are due to be imposed by the regulator Postcomm - up to £80m for failing to provide a decent service. I'm sick of Crozier whimpering about "teething problems". Most postmen and women do a fine job. But people skills are what it is going to take to revitalise this demoralised workforce, and taking a massive bonus for achieving not a single target, is not going to endear the boss to his staff one iota. Hand back the money, Adam. You're no longer running the Football Association.Reuse content