DJ Taylor: Carve-up by stealth

Insolvency practitioners now basking in fashionable fame should remember that in the wind-up business, discretion is the better part of value
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One of the first by-products of a recession is a decisive shift in the nature of the big beasts prowling the financial jungle's corpse-strewn floor.

A year ago, when the first inklings of a downturn had yet to wrinkle the Chancellor's phlegmatic brow, it was hedge fund managers and private equity titans who were being held up for the public's edification. Guy Hands, whose Terra Firma group was busy cutting back the florists' bills at EMI, seemed to be profiled on every business page. (I remember Mr Hands from Oxford days. He dealt in fine art then.) Then, all of a sudden, business editors were the new fiscal glitterati, endlessly consulted over the latest leaked email from HBOS and RBS, and the BBC's Robert Peston seemed to possess marginally more influence in the cobbling together of official policy than the Governor of the Bank of England.

Now, with all the business editors' prophecies steadily working themselves out, the insolvency specialist has moved into pole position. The spectre of Mr Nick Hood, a partner in the hitherto little-known firm of Begbies Traynor, looms over every horizon, invited on to the BBC to predict that as many as 15 retail chains are about to go bust, quoted in The Economist to the effect that he hasn't seen such "velocity and volatility" in corporate fortunes these past 40 years.

All this reminded me of one of the most legendary insolvency practitioners of all time, the late Sir Kenneth Cork, pictured below, who I used to see arriving magisterially for work at the offices of Coopers & Lybrand back in the mid-1980s. "Sir Ken", as he was known to the receptionists, was a man of great charm and affability, had a professional reputation somewhere between that of a vulture and the foreman of an abattoir.

This, as his prestige waxed and his profits grew, was eventually his undoing. The slightest hint in the Financial Times that an ailing firm had called in Cork Gully, Sir Ken's team of corporate dismemberers, would have creditors queuing up in the street outside and investors throwing themselves out of windows. If I were Mr Hood, consequently, I would be keeping a much lower profile in the business supplements. The most successful company wind-up merchants operate by stealth.


According to the annual computation by the parenting club Bounty, the most popular baby names in 2008 were Jack and Olivia. There were also strong performances by Harry, Grace, Alfie and Emily. All this suggests that a certain conservatism is returning to the eternal problem of what to call one's child. This ought to be warmly welcomed.

Nothing, after all, dates a child like a momentarily fashionable name. My own childhood featured several innocuous middle-aged women whose star-struck parents, back in the bright pre-war Hollywood dawn, had given them names like Gloria and Greta. Come primary school days in the late 1960s the naff Age of Aquarius names (Sharon, Dawn, Cheryl and Tracy) had begun to colonise a formerly sedate landscape populated by Marks, Pauls and Sallys.

At college in the early 1980s, a shout of "Debbie" or "Clare" from the refectory window would have half the female population assembling on the lawn. On the other hand, coming up with something that displays an inherent stylishness, while being unlikely to embarrass the child in later life has its difficulties.

Sixteen years ago I lobbied quite hard for our eldest son to be christened Redwald (7th century king of East Anglia, for non-specialists), only to suffer an appalled wifely veto. Suggestions for son No 2 (Archie, Hilary, Carol) went the same way. Still, given the extraordinary names of some of the people one has run into over the years, I think I was showing commendable restraint. One of my teenage contemporaries was called Charles Chaplin and my youngest son's school list boasted a real, live Harry Potter. What were their parents thinking of?


Possibly the least surprising event of the last week of 2008 was the volley of criticism flung at the five Church of England bishops who had the presumption to challenge the moral grounding of the Government's economic policies. Interestingly, these complaints came from both left and right: from Labour MPs sensitive to charges of moral defalcation and free market proselytisers anxious to insist that it was the bishops' parishioners who ought to be ticked off for their obsession with filthy lucre.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, pictured right, meanwhile, has taken up a strategic position on the leftward flank of this debate by suggesting, in his New Year message, that we are all overly materialistic and value each other for the wrong reasons. The resulting spat is an example of a rather ominous 21st-century phenomenon: someone altogether beyond the political arena having the guts to say something that the average politician would move heaven and earth to deny.

Several Tory MPs in the past month have been soundly shushed for suggesting that a recession is ultimately a "good thing", or that economic cycles ought to be allowed to work themselves out, so great is their leaders' fear of compromising the first rule of modern electoral success, which is that all the country really wants is material advancement.

A government and an opposition that wanted to be honest with its supporters would have to start by admitting that the only long-term solution to chronic indebtedness is paying off what you owe, and that the eventual cost of the environmental legislation needed to save the planet will be reduced living standards all round. As no politician would ever dare say this, the job gets left to clergymen.


This paper's story last weekend "Role models? Too flaming right, mate" preceded the report by Bupa, the healthcare firm, lamenting the prevalence of characters in television soap operas with lifestyles primed to encourage ill-health. Not enough is being done to draw the public's attention to the injuriousness of this behaviour, it deposed, while Dot Cotton from EastEnders came in for particular flak. Surely, as an inveterate chain-smoker, she ought to be shown in the early stages of emphysema or at the very least wheezing miserably over her cigarette stubs?

Curiously enough, the effect of this well-meaning intervention was to make me sympathise profoundly with the EastEnders scriptwriters. Few things in art are more dreary – and less artistically convincing – than a character whose destiny has been mapped out by committee and whose every utterance is written up with an eye on some "issue" whose importance the public may not have grasped. The point applies to high art as much as low, and the characters in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman who can scarcely blow their noses without accompanying remarks on conditions in the Victorian handkerchief manufacturing industry are just as irritating as the butterball tinies frogmarched on to children's TV to ram home messages about infant obesity. Even the Dot Cottons of this world are entitled to a life of their own.


One of the most depressing things about this year's New Year Honours list was the absence – unless I missed them – of journalists writing solemn articles explaining that they had been offered awards but had seen fit to decline them. In normal circumstances no newspaper on New Year's Day is complete without one of this gallant band of refuseniks, so perhaps it was merely that all the usual suspects have had their say. Humour aside, the question of gongs for writers is more complicated than it looks. Naturally, no fine independent literary spirit wants to be seen as a creature of the Establishment, truckling to authority "just for a riband to stick in his coat". On the other hand, in the current cultural climate literature needs all the public recognition it can get. Stendhal once remarked that writers needed every order or decoration available simply to keep them going.

Then again, some writers' excuses for declining honours are impossibly esoteric. Anthony Powell maintained that he refused a knighthood on the grounds that he had been brought up to think being a knight "a rather awful thing to be". He also feared that unsophisticated people might start calling his wife "Lady Powell", rather than the "Lady Violet Powell" to which, as an earl's daughter, she was already entitled.

Going back to all those journalists' apologiae about their unwanted CBEs, while it certainly takes a great deal of moral courage to decline a garland from one's sovereign, it takes rather more to decline the honour and then keep quiet about it.