First published in the Sunday Times on 19th June 2016.
So, after everything, what really endures? Time sweeps all before it, remorseless and unforgiving. In our working lives, we struggle to achieve career progress. But in the long run, does it amount to much?
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” Thomas Gray wrote in his marvellous elegy. So it is for inventors and entrepreneurs. Each owner of a business is merely a temporary custodian of the asset. Either it is sold, or the proprietor retires and someone else takes charge, or it shuts down. After a while, generally, little remains.
Yet some try hard for a small fragment of immortality. The late magazine publisher Felix Dennis planted 30,000 acres of trees in his Heart of England Forest in south Warwickshire. He left almost his entire estate, reputed to be worth more than £200m, to the charity he established to look after 10m native broadleaf trees.
He was certainly obsessed with making money — easily his most successful book was called How to Get Rich. But in the end he subscribed to the philosophy that, for the non-religious, there are only three routes to legacy after death: children, writing books and planting trees. And having eschewed a conventional marriage and family for the acquisition of wealth and hedonism, at least he achieved the latter two.
I have had a love affair with books all my life. Even in the 21st century, I think they last far better than almost anything. Last year physical book sales rose and ebooks declined, showing that the printed version has not been killed by the digital revolution.
Meanwhile, business reputations fade as swiftly as the setting sun. The legendary Tom Perkins, one of the true pioneers of venture capital, died this month. He was credited as being a founding father of Silicon Valley, and wrote a terrific memoir called Valley Boy. Yet his obituaries focused on a foolish comment he made in 2014 about the suffering of the 1%, his yachts, his divorce and his celebrity remarriage. There was no direct mention of the thousands of jobs he helped create or the technology advances he funded.
Perhaps it would be constructive if ambitious people saw their obituaries before they died. One who did — and it changed his life — was Alfred Nobel, the inventor of nitroglycerine and founder of a chemical empire. He read his own obituary after his brother died, because a Parisian newspaper confused the two Nobel brothers. In the misguided obituary it wrote, “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (the merchant of death is dead) and: “Dr Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding more ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Alfred decided he would ensure his legacy was more than that of a merchant of death. So he signed a will leaving most of his estate to setting up the Nobel Prize — for “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind”.
Corporate longevity is rare because of mismanagement, obsolescence, stale cultures and the competitive nature of capitalism. Upstarts lay waste to the giants of today, just as nothing remained save a “colossal wreck” of the works of Ozymandias, king of kings, in Shelley’s poem. Such renewal is positive — innovation tends to occur disproportionately in newer firms, as does job creation.
One enterprise that has withstood the vicissitudes of the generations is the pub. In most British high streets, the shop brands come and go, but the undertakings that remain hundreds of years later are the taverns. The decent ones still provide refreshment and conviviality.
For example, St Albans in Hertfordshire boasts Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which reputedly opened its doors in the year 793.
The traditional hostelry may be in decline, but there are still about 50,000 pubs doing business across the UK.
Indeed, many of the world’s oldest family businesses sell alcohol. They include Codorniu, the Spanish cava producer, founded in 1551; Berry Bros &Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine merchant, born in 1698; and Shepherd Neame, the oldest brewer, founded in the same year.
Despite the health risks, it seems intoxication never goes out of fashion.
It is tempting to sympathise with the automotive pioneer Ferdinand Porsche, when he stated: “If you can create something time cannot erode — something which ignores the eccentricities of particular eras or moments, something truly timeless — this is a significant victory.”
Walking through Birmingham city centre last week, I noticed that the ugly, redundant 1960s buildings are being demolished — but that the glorious Victorian architecture remains.
Proof that sometimes quality lasts.