Oliver Shah has achieved the near impossible. His new book Damaged Goods: The Inside Story of Sir Philip Green, the collapse of BHS and the death of the High Street (PRH £18.99) has made me feel a smidgen of sympathy for Philip Green, otherwise known as Sir Shifty, the man who sold the High Street institution BHS for £1, putting its loyal employees out of work and leaving its pensioners in distress. How did he manage this, when previously Sir Philip had only stirred emotions of horror, disgust and (as a fellow Jew) embarrassment?
Well, first, there’s the framing of the story, which casts Shah, 34, the Sunday Times’ City Editor as heroic reporter (“My pulse quickened and I strained to jot down every word”) bravely setting himself against an evil billionaire, whose every move must be attributed to greed or self-interest.Fair enough, when examining the plight of the BHS workers (from whom we hear little) but when applied so widely, it becomes a little tedious, and one finds oneself wondering if Shah’s judgment has been permanently coloured by the unfortunate encounter he recalls when Green threatened to throw him out of a window.
Then there’s Green’s childhood in Croydon (later on, a point of connection with Kate Moss) and East Finchley, which sounds utterly grim though affluent. His parents Alma (“hard and unemotional”) and Simon (“depressive and lugubrious”) argued until Simon’s untimely death when Philip was 12.
Both came from families that had suffered financial trauma and Alma determined to change that fate, transforming Croydon forever by opening its first coin-operated launderette followed by its first self-service petrol station. Alma gets a terrible press in this book, accused of starving her children of affection and “drilling into them the importance of making money above all else”.
She also apparently set Philip and his sister Elizabeth against each other in a lifelong feud. This is summed up in a scene where a middle-aged Elizabeth, understandably thrilled at being featured in the JC, frames the article and presents it to her mother, asking her to hang it alongside the many cuttings about Philip on her walls. “Yes, when you actually achieve something,” snapped Alma, who died aged 96, leaving £2.3 million to her billionaire son and just £100,000 to her daughter.
Green’s wife Tina is as bad as his mother in Shah’s view. He quotes a “friend” saying: “No one has ever worshipped at the temple of Mammon so assiduously. It was about conspicuous consumption, about spending money and making sure everyone knew you were spending it in excessive and vulgar ways.”
Shah is good on Philip Green’s business career, detailing his successes and failures with a cast of characters including the very dubious loan shark Tony Schneider, whom Green looked up to as “Uncle Tony”, trying to copy his “menacing charm, rasping Cockney accent and withering one-liners". In return, the loan shark viewed the middle-class pretender with "amusement and contempt,” and eventually punched him at Langan’s Brasserie.
Some of the most eyebrow-raising moments come when Green tangles with politics. We’re used to stories of Tony Blair’s love of dubious billionaires, but what on earth was David Cameron on when he appointed Green to look into public spending efficiency?
Even Cameron must have known about the parties, for birthdays and Green’s son’s barmitzvah —the 300 guests, the entertainment by Andrea Bocelli and Beyoncé, not to mention the boy himself singing in “uninterrupted Hebrew for 15 minutes” in a pop-up synagogue. “You must be very proud,” Green is told. “Why, what’s he ever done,” the tycoon retorted. “I paid for all this.”
I wondered what happened when young Philip turned 13. Twelve, after all, is a terrible age for a Jewish boy to lose his father. Did he ever have a barmitzvah of his own? If not, it might explain a lot.
His downfall, when it came, was bruising and well-deserved, and ruined his reputation if not his fortune. Nowadays, he’s lost much of his bounce, if not his fighting spirit. “I’m not upbeat, I’m not downbeat,” Green is quoted as saying. “I’m just bored.”
Keren David is Associate Editor (Features) for the JC. Her latest book is 'Stranger' (Atom)