Enterprise becomes a dirty word

15th November 2002 at 00:00
There's a grand new book out by a chap called Bill Cullen, an Irish motor industry tycoon. It is called It's a long way from penny apples, because that is what his mother said to him when he was going into a multi-million pound deal. Cullen saw the film of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and promptly decided to tell his own version of a 1940's Irish childhood. Like McCourt, he was one of the huddled urban poor; he lost siblings to the ills of poverty and slept 12 to a room. Like McCourt he received charity from the St Vincent de Paul Society and cuffs from the Christian Brothers. Like McCourt he had a strong mother who held the family together through unimaginable privations.

But Cullen has a different take on it all. The community was strong. The holy brothers were not so bad. The charity relief was very welcome, thank ye kindly. They weren't poor, he says: it was just they had no money. But there's always something to be done about that, so he sold penny apples with his Ma, and fish out of an old pram with his Granny Molly Darcy. She charged twopence a fish, threepence to people in fur coats, and told him he was an heir of Cuchullain in the land of saints and scholars, and never to forget it.

He set up his own business making paper flowers to sell outside the maternity hospital. He discovered a supply problem at the rosary factory, and boiled up cow horns to string beads at the kitchen table. He bought cheap plastic dolls and customised them, putting the hair in bunches and calling them "Judy Garland dolls" and doubling the price. He queued in the rain for cinema tickets and re-sold them to the rich at a profit. It was all hard work, and there were humiliations when he came to look for real jobs (he had to borrow an address, since nobody would employ a lad from where Bill lived). But he survived and thrived, and is giving his royalties to a youth charity since he is too well off to need them himself.

There are two lessons here. The first is that unlike McCourt's, the Cullen father was teetotal. The darkness of Angela's Ashes is, to a great extent, not the darkness of mere poverty but of that overarching betrayal by the roaring drunken father. So moral number one: nothing is more important than good and faithful parents.

But the other moral is about business. Cullen blossomed in life and trade because his family taught him to be a trader from the age of four. The fish, the flowers, the dolls, the cinema tickets and rosaries taught him that if you are resourceful , find your market and exploit it with a smile, you'll have money for the next meal and capital for the next trade. He was, in the modern jargon, empowered. He was not a victim. Even at the bottom of the social heap there was heat and activity and the possibility of worming your way upward in the world.

If you teach in a deprived area , you know children like Bill Cullen was. Because the Government is keen on entrepreneurial culture, you will be encouraged to teach them business "skills" ranging from IT to "communication". You may set up a Young Enterprise company and get them to call each other personnel directors and marketing managers. Fine. But they won't feel the excitement in their bones, because it isn't real. They may raise money for charity, but not for themselves. And just about every single thing that Bill Cullen did in the 1940s would be illegal now. Fish out of a pram? Call the environmental health! Selling uninspected toys and passing them off with star names? It's a toss-up whether trading standards or the copyright lawyers hit you first. Ticket touting? Illegal. Boiled cow horns for the rosary trade, and child labour in school hours - impossible, disgraceful, unacceptable , "inappropriate".

Thus we have decided , as a society, that we are too refined to let children of the poor better themselves by their own efforts. They must remain powerless, not contribute to the family's pride and survival except by strictly limited activities like paper rounds, faintly tacky ones like catalogue modelling, or desperate ones like being a runner for the local crack dealer. A real business, or even a real scam like Tom Sawyer getting the others to pay to paint a fence for him, is beyond the reach of most children. We don't like the idea of them earning real money. It offends us.

Nobody wants a return to unrelieved poverty and child labour. Nobody wants children taken out of school to help put bread on the family table. But all the same, it is worth observing that we have, in 50 years, built an entirely new kind of society. And at the very bottom of the social pyramid, this may accidentally have made life, and hope, and self-confidence, a great deal more difficult. Interesting, huh?

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