One of my earliest lessons in life was given me by the veteran left-wing journalist, Claud Cockburn (father of The Independent's intrepid Patrick).
"You go into this man's office," he said of a well known publisher. "Knee-high carpets. Eight telephones on the desk. You assume at once – the man is bankrupt!" At the time I would have assumed nothing of the kind. But it was flattering to be told that I shared Claud's knowledge of the world. Since then I have learnt how right he was always to be suspicious of ostentatious displays of wealth.
The bankers of old know better. I can remember as a small boy being taken to Barings Bank in Bishopsgate where my uncle was the managing director. It was a drab and gloomy place where old-fashioned clerks still sat on high stools. Some years later they moved out into a glass-fronted skyscraper and not long after that the bank went bust.
Advertising is nowadays another giveaway. Investors should have been warned when Bradford & Bingley changed its commercials from those two little bowler-hatted men to a sexy-looking model also in a bowler. It ought to have alerted them to the fact that the bank might well be in difficulties. And not only with banks. This week, amid the encircling economic gloom, there came a further blow when Marks & Spencer announced a large fall in its profits.
I couldn't help noticing that the the store was still busy advertising itself with the help of saucy young models dressed only in the skimpiest M&S underwear. But might M&S consider what connection there may be between this line of advertising and its profit margins?
Clever to make Cameron so serious
It was a little mystifying. When David Cameron first electrified the Tory conference two years ago as a contender for the leadership, he spoke without notes or autocue. It was such an unusual thing for one of today's politicians to do that all the pundits applauded in amazement, and not long afterwards Cameron was voted into the top job.
This year Cameron made a Blair-like speech full of waffle and signifying nothing, which has been hailed almost universally as some kind of oratorical masterpiece.
But the strange thing to me was that Cameron seemed to make no attempt to disguise the fact that he was speaking from notes – frequently glancing down and at times looking a little uncertain and even nervous.
You might easily have thought that Cameron had lost that wonderful flair that won him his job in the first place. But nowadays where politics is concerned, extreme forms of cynicism are called for.
My guess would be that behind the scenes the Tory spin doctors and PR men had advised Cameron that it would not look good if at a time of national crisis, he delivered a highly polished performance without notes, leading the audience to believe that he had devoted hours to memorising his speech when all those urgent economic issues called for his undivided attention.
Better to look more serious. more cautious and even perhaps a bit boring. If that was their cunning strategy, all one can say, judging by the response of the hacks, is that it worked like a dream.
'Valkyrie' offers a lesson in how charisma operates
You could say that the Church of Scientology and the Nazi party are alike in that both movements have won the unquestioning allegiance of millions of people thanks to the wizardry of a charismatic leader – in the one case the failed watercolourist Adolf Hitler with his crazy schemes for world domination, in the other the fraudulent conman L Ron Hubbard whose influence was so powerful that even now, more than 20 years after his death, his so-called church still attracts thousands and thousands of young adherents all over the world.
Perhaps it is because the Germans are now more sensitive to the terrible dangers of totalitarian movements that they take a much more critical approach to Scientologists than we do in this country, where even some senior policemen have given their seal of approval to the cult. There has therefore been considerable criticism of the new film 'Valkyrie', based on the story of the failed bomb plot against Hitler in 1944. In the film, the leader of the conspiracy, Von Stauffenberg, is played by Hollywood actor Tom Cruise, pictured, the best-known celebrity campaigner for the Scientology movement. Opposition to the casting of Cruise has come most notably from Von Stauffenberg's son.
But curiously 'A German Hero', a half-hour Radio 4 programme about the film broadcast last Monday, failed to make a single mention of the Scientology issue, let alone the attack from Von Stauffenberg's family.