Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Apprentice's Sorcerer

Alan Sugar must be the celebrity version of Marmite. You either love him or hate him. Yes, he’s opinionated and yes, if you were his PR man you would probably be constantly walking on eggshells.

But the more I learn about the former Amstrad tycoon the more I empathise. I’m reading his autobiography What You See Is What You Get (at £10 for a 610 page hardback in Tesco, a bargain). It’s not especially well written and your maiden aunt might blanch at the liberal use of words like "w*nker and t*sspot" to describe some of the people who have crossed him over time, especially Daily Mail journalists.

But he tells a terrific tale of rising from poverty in London’s East End and it’s heartwarming how he is able to prick the pomposity of legions of alleged “professionals” who all thought they knew better at various stages of his life, even latterly when he dealt with top TV executives. Underneath that brash “You’re Fired” TV persona there seems to lurk a decent family man with values that, if everyone followed suit, would improve our society.

He grew up not far from me in Hackney (although he’s just a few years older)and in very similar conditions. He writes movingly of the shock of encountering racism (he’s Jewish, of course) for the first time at secondary school. But like me Lord Sugar has many fond memories of his childhood, despite practices that would probably nowadays warrant a visit from social services. I nearly lost the use of my right hand, for example, after falling on glass while "exploring" a bombed-out building.

My parents were Gentiles but my mother worked for a Jewish tailor whose clothes were sold in some of the West End’s top shops. Her claim to fame was that she made trousers for Frankie Vaughan, Morecambe and Wise and a trio of crooners called The King Brothers, the Take That of their day. I also had a Jewish friend Henry Zaltsman, with whom I played football. I recall we were going off to watch Spurs play one Saturday and my mother had made bacon sandwiches for us. Henry looked quizzically at the snack and asked whether he was allowed to eat bacon. My mother reassured him by saying: “I’m sure God won’t mind just one.” Good Cockney commonsense. Sugar himself says his parents broke most of the Jewish dietary rules.

I’m certain that for every Alan Sugar there are thousands of would-be entrepreneurs who never made it past the market stall. But what people should take from the book is not a formula by which to make a fortune but the realisation that trying to better yourself is far more rewarding in all kinds of ways than not bothering.

Like a lot of rich men Sugar (and he insists this is true) was never motivated by money. Even now he seems to take more pride in remembering how to assemble a bike from bits of old metal than how to build a corporation. He got a buzz out of setting himself a challenge and seeing how far he could go. That attribute should be on every young person’s CV.

Like Sugar, I was lucky, managing to get to Oxford University, where I told people my father was a man of letters. Well, he was a postman. By the way, I still have the immaculate black barathea dinner suit that my mother’s boss gave me (as a cast off) nearly 40 years ago. If only he was around to let the waist out a little.


Jon Slattery said...

Have you checked him out on Twitter @Lord_Sugar and his continual baiting of Piers Morgan?

George Dearsley said...

He is quite positive about Morgan in the book but deep down I believe he feels Piers is a nob.

Jonathan Bowker said...

That is an opinion I share with him