Brown Study

Brown study

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

1 February 2014

9:00 AM

What an inspired choice for Governor-General! General Cosgrove will acquit himself well and be a distinguished occupant of that high office that is so pivotal to our Constitution and the smooth functioning of our nation.

Last week I did the right thing and took my eight-year old step-grandson, Flynn, on a trip to the city to mark the end of the school holidays. I think I acquitted myself reasonably well, although I got off to a rocky start. We all make the mistake of talking to children in painfully simple language as if they were, well, children. When I saw a shop specialising in baguettes, I gave what I thought was a workmanlike definition of that particular comestible only to have the youngster reply: ‘Yes, I had a baguette last week, but frankly I prefer a brioche.’ So there.

We then went to Myers or, as they insist on calling it now, Myer, to see if by some oversight there were any Lego pieces we had not bought on our previous expeditions. It was a very educational experience and I learnt why the big retailers are losing trade to customers who buy goods online, free of GST. Clutching our Lego and various weapons of mass destruction from the Star Wars armoury, Flynn and I stood at the counter with 20 others waving our humble money in the hope that someone might take it from us. But, alas, Myer these days, now that it has its smarty-pants name and image, will not even take your money if you throw it at them. Some of the customers, rather than be put through that ignominy, threw their light sabres and Lego star fighters on the counter and marched off in high dudgeon. As the security honcho said to me when I complained about the nonexistent service: ‘That’s the trouble; they won’t employ people to serve the customers.’ It seems an especially dangerous retail theory to antagonise the customer this way, especially if he is a worldly-wise eight-year-old who knows the difference between a baguette and a brioche. At least I learnt why the big stores are so against the GST exemption: they are lazy, have fallen behind the times, lost the old entrepreneurial spirit and think they can succeed by trading on the trust built up over decades but which they are now dissipating.

At Hearns Hobbies, in the cavernous shadow of Flinders Street railway station, where they have the quaint old practice of letting you buy things and pay for them, we found that the store itself is up for sale, but having trouble finding a buyer. No one will buy it because it was a store for an era when people actually did things and made things. I was not exactly James Watt as a youth, sitting at the feet of his mother and wondering how I could turn that bouncing kettle lid into a steam engine, but I made my own planes from balsa wood and tissue paper, had a stamp collection, developed and printed my own photographs and made a crystal set, not a portable drug laboratory but a wireless receiver that could reach as far as, well, Geelong. But today’s potential market for a hobbies shop has shrunk to oblivion as the customers expect everything to be working instantly so that it can be thrown away after a few days’ instant gratification. The closest they would come to a crystal set is when they cross the street with plugs in their ears, gawking at their ludicrously named smart phones while they try to get themselves run over.

There is something gloriously French about Ms Valerie Trierweiler’s separation from her beau, President François Hollande as he dumps her and stoops to conquer his next nymphet. On the one hand, the former First Lady was busy despatching elegant tweets as she skipped from the luxury of the Elysée to yet another presidential palace at Versailles and then on to the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai (I thought they were a republic, not a Franz Lehár opera). On the other hand, there she is, getting ready to fly to India for, you guessed it, yet another compulsory campaign to abolish poverty, this one undertaken by Action against Hunger, which has a real, live Rothschild on its Board. Perhaps its motto could be: ‘By 2020, no Rothschild will live in poverty.’

Poor poverty; it must have been abolished to within an inch of its life and yet the campaigns keep coming. We have one of them in Chapel Street among the exclusive boutiques and it claims it has already abolished poverty, so I do not know what Ms Trierweiler thinks she is going to abolish; there is only so much poverty to go around among campaign-scarce celebrities. The latest research shows that these campaigns certainly keep their management out of poverty, but scarcely anyone else, by the time the expenses are deducted from the tax-free income.

But what always galvanises my attention is how the rich and the powerful align themselves with causes which seem to owe more to relieving the guilt of the participants and picking up awards than anything tangible for the downtrodden masses. I hate poverty and the incompetent, repressive, corrupt regimes that keep it in place. But it will only be eradicated when we generate real trade and business and forget about the schmaltzy, cringe-making campaigns of celebrities, French or otherwise. As George Bush noted: ‘The trouble with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur.’

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