Out and About in the Fourth Estate With Steven Gilfillan


Of all the achievements the grey-haired, and now bespectacled Joseph Nettexe may, and often does boast – all of it set out in a voluminous résumé – a first hard hour at the woolsack is not about to be one of them. Mr Nettexe plc is voluble in stating this himself, as often as public etiquette demands, and to as large a horde as he and his charming wife can muster.

I received my personalised if impersonal invitation to his private screening of Bizarre-ha on a bright sunny morning, at a moment when the newly applied décor of my little kitchenette was a dazzle of optimistic egg-yolk. The thing arrived in a luxuriating vellum, its crested frank a mock-up in meticulous gold leaf, which from the precepts of my humble pay scale must have cost the Nettexe stationery dept ingots to mail en masse. I broke its seal in a sense of sceptical wonder usual in my trade. ‘Dear Journalist,’ it read, ‘you are cordially invited etc.’

For those who don’t know, the anonymous Joe Nettexe – in his youth a Young Conservative – stepped out on a dull career path as High Street accountant. Grey and suburban it might have been, yet Joe (as people called him then) never lacked foresight. Small as his operation was, its place was in the Tory van, and that, to a certain kind of Englishman, has always meant the acceptable face of capitalism. An individual’s personal success spreads its succour in little waves throughout his immediate circle, so that a nation’s many Nettexes (a lot of Joes, not so many Josephines), are the essential fabric of economic life. Don’t ask me what business school he subscribed to.

The Nettexe expansion coincided with the Thatcherite emasculation of the trade unions, so that by the early ’90s his poky little High Street enterprise had shed its tweeds and donned its city pinstripe, with the move into shares, real estate, and a lively trade in God knows what overstuffed portfolio. By the late ’90s the Nettexe empire was lumberingly vast, and its figurehead (formerly Joe, but Joseph now) found himself consulted in TV studios as to what it took to regenerate a national psyche. That weeping ghoul, for so long laid low by the ancient curse of despair, formed no part of his makeup, though I’m afraid not much philosophy came in the observations he made – something like all must move with the times (and with News International). He was bold enough to align himself with Blairism, the rationale being that even to persons of conscience, that was also the acceptable face of capitalism – a smiling, evangelising face at that.

What had all this to do with my invitation to a private screening of Bizarre-ha? That was the question I asked myself on driving up to the gated hectares where the Nettexes, their staff and retainers were – a semi-castellated fortress done Disney-style, forbidding and foreboding. Before permitting me to pass, a flunkey in olive-green livery examined my invitation and checked its serial number against a computerised list of duplicates. He smiled politely and tapped the peak of his cap – ‘Ah yes’ – a motion synchronised with the whirr of an electric motor and the vast gates to Castle Nettexe opening inwards.

I drove what seemed the mile or so up the drive, and was met by another flunkey, who parked my low-economy Skoda with the more prestigious motors friends and associates in the Nettexe circle liked to show off. I was ushered in through the vestibule – a cavernous void – and formally announced in the marble ante-chamber where the other guests, huge in number, had been assembled, in the half-hour or so before we were shown into the theatre. Everywhere the fruit bowls were plump with oranges, and the decanters were brimful of single malt. The first bit of conversation I overheard was this, from the Italian contingent: ‘Costa molto la Ferrari?’ I imagine the answer: ‘Un pochino.’

And this was really the point of it, my being here, to circulate and overhear snippets of conversation. I began to deduce this when the sliver most often repeated was that, despite his lifelong interest in the arts, Nettexe had no ambitions to join his friends in the Other Place (the House of Lords) and spout on about the value of his Rembrandts, cultural or otherwise. For all his generous donations into Conservative coffers, and friendship with successive party leaders, it remains categorically so that no such honour is sought, and nor is it expected.

Finally I talked briefly to Nettexe himself, who was grey, bespectacled, portly, and who let it slip that the House of Lords was not the most effective platform from which to mastermind defeat of the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, to punish the EU, and to ward off Labour, whether Marxist-led or not. Then what was, I asked him?

‘I will tell you…. Ah, but look,’ he said, and tapped his wrist. ‘Time for the film.’

PS Bizarre-ha is directed by Robert A. Nettexe, grandson to the Nettexe empire, and is a forty-minute documentary and brief history of American and English chat shows. It’s a film-school student-graduate showing, the centrepiece of this private function before entry into the festival circuit.

Peter Cowlam has won the Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction twice, most recently in 2018 for his novel New King Palmers, which is at the intersection of old, crumbling empires and new, digital agglomerates. His last published book, A Forgotten Poet, is available at Amazon Kindle. He is published in a wide range of print and online journals. Steven Gilfillan is his fictional spokesperson experienced in journalism and other forms of literary art.

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