The name's Barack - and I don't need fizz to intoxicate you

20th February 2009 at 00:00

This is a tale of two cities. Unlike Dickens' original, it is located in just one - London. But it is two cities, two cultures.

The first we might call the city of private enterprise and corporate abundance; despite today's hard times, it is still with us. The second is the city of the state sector, where most of us in FE reside.

The disparity between them became clear to me from two invitations I received recently. As they arrived at about the same time, it was hard not to be struck by the contrast. The first - a corporate "jolly" - was actually for someone else, but he couldn't make it, so I stepped in. To ungenerous onlookers, the word "freeloader" might come to mind.

The event was built around the launch of the Bond film Quantum of Solace, which was not so much a movie release as a marketing extravaganza. Our hosts were a large organisation promoting Britain and all things British. Ironically, while the film hops about the world to various glossy locations, the shots of Blighty show it as a bleak, wintry land of dark clouds and heavy, unremitting rain.

I was met at the door of the plush West End venue by some enthusiastic young women who took my coat and ushered me to phase one of our jolly: champagne. This seemed limitless - indeed, the maker was one of the sponsors - so everyone felt obliged to prevent it from going flat. It was only 3pm, but - what the heck - it was the holidays.

After an hour of this, I was ready for phase two: the film. Satisfyingly sozzled, I found my way through into the viewing room to await the show. But first came the pay-off: a message - or messages - from our sponsors.

A suit took to the stage. Bond-Britain-product was his message. Another suit, another product - Britain and Bond were in there too. Fortunately, this didn't last too long. The film itself was classified a 12A. You could see why, but even 12-year-olds have critical faculties - which is exactly what you don't need for Quantum of Solace.

Cut to city number two, invitation two. This was more East End than West, and the college building in which it took place sat plum in the middle of a council estate. The "launch" in this case was Black History Month, celebrated in schools and colleges across the country every year.

No one took anyone's coat and there was no champagne - alcohol having last been sighted at college celebrations at least 10 years ago. But there was an abundance of sparkling water, and the canteen had thoughtfully sent over some platters of its best corned beef and lettuce sandwiches.

OK, so there wasn't a blockbusting film to preview, but there was a performance: some students carried out an energetic dance routine, designed to remind us in the audience how old and unathletic we now were. After that, we all stood reverently in front of life-size pictures of Rosa Parks, agreeing that yes, Mary Seacole was every bit as good a nurse as Florence Nightingale.

But what gave this year's event its extra piquancy was that, with Barack Obama poised to become the next US President, black history really was in the making. His picture was in pride of place alongside Rosa's, and the excitement in the room at his imminent elevation was palpable.

As I left, sober yet intoxicated, it occurred to me what fun it would be if only the two events could have been reversed. A couple of bottles of fizz would certainly have added the final flourish to the Obama victory. And I just loved the idea of all those corporate bods trudging into the estate for their corned beef and lettuce. It would certainly have cut down on the freeloaders.

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