Back in the year 2000 my work colleagues were discussing the decline in standards of English grammar; so many of today’s youngsters (and adults) have a limited grasp of how to express ideas in English. I asked whether anyone could suggest popular writers whose works would give a good example to follow.
Various names were brought up; I proposed Christopher Lee. ‘What, the actor? Does he write books, then?’ they asked.
I bristled indignantly: ‘Christopher Lee is a genius, a towering figure on the European cultural landscape!’ They all looked vaguely surprised at this, then one of my workmates suggested Nevil Shute. I confessed that I’d never read any of his work. ‘Quite good stuff’ said he,‘ simple, clear and straightforward. You might enjoy it.’
So I went to the big library in B’ham and found a copy of ‘Ruined City’. This tale describes a shipbuilding town recovering from industrial decline, helped by a dynamic business manager. Simple and straightforward, yes; but after reading it I was left with something like a faint, persistent hangover, a vague unsettled feeling.
And it was just at this time that the Rover Car Company finally collapsed. What had once been British Leyland, then enjoyed brief engagements with Honda and ownership by BMW, was now given away to a consortium of business leaders who promised to revitalise the car-building trade in the West Midlands. It was poignant to be reading ‘Ruined City’ at the same time as this real-life drama was unfolding just fifteen miles away.
But now it seems the drama has finally come to an end, as the news was announced two days ago that workers laid off during the closure will receive just three pounds redundancy pay. Russian oligarchs are noted for lavish spending, but at least they have something to show – yachts, houses, jewellery – for their financial incontinence. The UK taxpayer, however, has managed to pour millions of pounds into an industrial venture so that each worker can afford to buy a single pint of beer.
The story of Rover (Leyland) will come to be viewed as the hallmark case study for industrial policy; it embodied every possible fault in manufacturing design, erratic accounting, labour management and public relations. With their three pounds payout, each worker could afford to buy two large loaves of bread, or six pints of milk, or two litres of petrol, or even 0.02 square millimetres of Munch’s ‘The Scream’, which was sold at auction last week for $120 million (about 74 million pounds). It is indeed a mad world we occupy where money has no relation to effort or value. Perhaps we need a modern-day Shute to write the story of Longbridge; an epic, expensive tragedy that poisoned the reputation of Birmingham and UK manufacturing in general.