Howard Jacobson: Protect us from those self-made Johnnies who could buy us with their loose change

The minute I meet a businessman who has made money, I turn into a 1970s Marxist
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The Independent Online

There is a programme on BBC2 which I watch out of the side of my face while I am doing other things - the way you observe bad behaviour in someone else's children, disapproving and yet gripped - whose premise is that we would all like to make a lot of money, but only a few of us know how. Making money in business, that is, not making money by being a celebrity or writing columns for national newspapers.

As the child of small business people who never made a penny, but never thought it dishonourable to try, I have a soft spot for business. I have sold leather goods on a market stall in Cambridge, and helped a friend in Wales to manufacture crimplene dresses for little girls to wear in religious processions - a foolproof enterprise had the Welsh not been non-conformists who don't believe in religious processions - and managed a craft centre where none of the craftspeople wanted to demonstrate their craft, and assisted in the running of a tea gardens in Cornwall, my assistance consisting of ferrying hot pasties each morning from Liskeard where they were baked to Boscastle where they were consumed, stopping on Bodmin Moor when the sun shone to admire the scenery, pat the wild ponies, and consume a few myself.

A few pasties, that is, not ponies. Much as I like to think of mine as a life of letters, it has been no less a life of trade. So that when all my friends became Marxists in the 1970s it fell to me to make the case for capital.

Funny thing, though - no matter how fervently I argue for business, I only really approve of businesses that fail. The minute I meet a businessman who has made money, the milk of kindness in me curdles, my heart contracts, and I turn into a 1970s Marxist. Hence the problem I have with this programme on BBC2, in which a bunch of self-pleased millionaires decide whether or not to invest in the projects of a bunch of would-be millionaires, most of whom, it's true, are verdant shmucks who couldn't sell a pasty to a Cornishman, but who are, nonetheless, entitled to be treated with civility.

Yes, they're tongue-tied - but then they are meant to be tongue-tied, their no-brain business plan (except that they usually no more have a plan than they have a business) subjected to the heartless inquisition of capitalists who might own half the world's resources between them, but between them don't possess a pinch of politesse.

Why can't they just say no. No, thank you. We would like to oblige you and invest, but we cannot. We wish you every success with your scheme to manufacture kitchen appliances with broadband access built in, so that you can surf the net while you are juicing carrots, but it's not for us, sorry. "Sorry", not "I'm out, you moron!"

I know, I know. Good television. We must have good television. And what makes good television is people being objectionable. But the millionaires could always refuse to play along. Since they are already millionaires it is a question what they are doing on television, anyway. They don't exactly need the fee.

Why, while we are on the subject, did Alan Sugar waste precious business time on The Apprentice, a money-or-your-life game show in which aspirants to his title of Least Charming Business Personality of the Millennium were encouraged to talk about themselves in clichés - "I am the kind of person who won't take no for an answer" - only to be put into situations where they had to take no for an answer?

We don't believe that it was only through a telly programme that Alan Sugar could find himself a new assistant. So why did he bother? Fame, was it? Not famous enough? Or did he feel it was of benefit to an already greedy society to demonstrate the efficacy of ruthlessness?

The millionaires I've been watching through the side of my face are similarly wedded to the fancy that there is something winning about brusqueness when it's built on cash. Come the revolution, of course, the money-braggarts will be the first to go. But there ain't gonna be no revolution - that's the confidence that explains their complacency. This is the system we unquestioningly live by; love us or lump it. Except - and here's the reason I keep half-watching - except that they are not in fact anything like as complacent as they would wish us to believe.

No, there ain't gonna be no revolution; but the world does still contain people who weigh and judge things differently, for whom the amassing of wealth, whether they approve ethically of it or not, is a matter of supreme indifference. And just as a clove of garlic will emasculate a vampire, so does indifference upset the entire edifice of material achievement on which the amour-propre of any millionaire gross enough to advertise his millions on television is perched.

There was an interesting example of this the other week, when a man who had invented a way of economising on water when you flush the lavatory irked all the millionaires, reducing one of them to near apoplexy. Sure, he was self-engrossed - inventors are supposed to be - though nothing like as self-engrossed as those questioning him. But that wasn't his offence. His offence was to admit he cared more about saving the planet than he cared about making his fortune. You could smell the garlic.

Remember those self-made Johnnies you would encounter when you were small, who used to tell you they could buy you with their loose change, and who, if you really got up their noses, would say they valued their shit more than they valued you? It's possible I remember them so well because I was a stuck-up little bastard who went everywhere with a copy of Women in Love under my arm and an expression of disdain on my face, and so found them wherever I went. It was the otherwise-engagedness that did it. The assumption of interior superiority - just me and D H Lawrence, and you can keep your self-made millions.

Such, anyway, was the effect the lavatory cistern man had on our millionaires. How dare he look down on them! They could buy him with their loose change. Did he not know that it was they who made things possible, gave people work, and in the end, when they had eviscerated the planet (they didn't quite say that), would save it. Who did he think he was?

Good to know about the filthy rich, that their skin is as thin as beaten gold and money cannot buy them any thicker.

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