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Singing along on the bus beyond hope

Happy Days Are Here Again was the song the lady Baptist school teachers sang with gusto on the   holiday tour bus from hell. Outside it was dark and raining, the road precarious and bumpy, the wild, overgrown scrub on either side menacing.  The driver was drunk. Empty beer and spirit bottles rolled with abandon across the aisle of the bus.

Thus opened the film of the Tennessee Wlliams play Night of the Iguana.  In one of his most memorable roles, Richard Burton played the part of Shannon, a disgraced priest now  tour guide with a past, working for a bottom-of-the-barrel tour company called Blake Tours. He is taking the singalong women on a bus pulled from some abandoned scrapheap to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico – and to the Costa Verde Hotel.

Little did the women know – but the film reveals to the audience – that the hotel is  not exactly the Waldorf-Astoria  of  Mexico.  But what do the women know? On they sing, with accompanying hand gestures, “Happy Days Are Here/Are here Again/The skies above are clear again/So let's sing a song of cheer again…”

Many times in the past four years as a business journalist I have felt like the guide for Blake Tours. The economy is in about as reassuring state as the Costa Verde Hotel. The road is in an appalling state. One look at the bus driver and you wouldn’t count on getting anywhere in one piece. And the destination motel from hell is barely fit for a cockroach.

Yet here I am on the Scot-Buzz website, leading small businesses and start-up entrepreneurs in what many would regard as a rousing chorus of Happy Days.

Why? What has driven me to do this?

The opening scene of Night of the Iguana sticks in the mind, not because it is an accurate pointer to the subsequent themes in the film - Tennessee Williams did not do farce – but because it spoke to a bizarre truth of the human condition. It is not just that we travel hopefully. We try to make the best of our condition, not despite the fact it is pretty miserable but because of it.

Actually, I suspect the Baptist ladies of Texas well knew what they had signed up for, because that is what cheap, low cost holidays in Mexico were like and that is the best their modest financial condition could afford.  Life is about making the best of the condition in which we find ourselves.

Reading the runes of the economy, Blake Tours pretty well sums up the state we are in.  A GDP recovery suggests a rising sun on the horizon – but a watery sun and one and far, far distant. And many start-up entrepreneurs would realistically compare the state of their businesses to the Blake Tours bus.

How ironic I find it, on being shown round the offices of some public sector Quango set up to promote enterprise, that the pristine premises, graced by the latest in interior design, furnishings and electronics, are kitted out to the standards of some FTSE100 company – as this is assumed in the government sector to be the common state of a private business.  The chief executive of the Quango eases back on the executive five-position leather chair with headrest, glances at the 42 inch flat screen plasma screen across the room, puts his West Wing desktop phone on hold as he waves his personal assistant with the hand-tooled leather letter holder to one side and opines,   “Y’know, we’ve got a fairly good grip on the problems of small business here”.

No he doesn’t. The reality for 98 per cent of businesses is rundown offices, chaos across the desks, second hand laptops, electronic equipment on the blink, overflowing files, coffee rings on the plastic Formica, the wobbly table resting on a phone directory and an electric kettle plugged into a socket that’s a screaming fire risk.

The vast majority of us are on that Blake Tours bus. We accept it as a natural condition of start-up and indeed for most of the early years of a small business and even then are grateful that we are still able to hang on in at all.  It doesn’t stop us from pursuing our dream, or indeed from singing along when we can.

As for the external conditions and the destination, we have had four recessions/slowdowns since the late 1970s, with long recuperation periods during which household incomes were under pressure, consumer demand was depressed and bank lending to the SME sector well below what most would consider adequate.  Many entrepreneurs are long inured to politicians’ promises of sunny uplands and bright new dawns ahead (astonishing how such rhetoric still has a huge pull among American voters who are no less sceptical than the rest of us). We know the posh hotel promised on the horizon is an illusion that the road is unlikely to get any less spooky or bumpy any time soon - but still we stay on the bus.

And we do so, not for one reason but a variety of reasons. It may be that we know the business cycle will turn - as it historically has always turned; or that the project or service we’re developing has a long lead time; or that we need these early years to build market presence and credibility. And while the landscape is littered with skeletons of failures, there are also thousands of examples of small businesses that have gone on to great things, far exceeding the expectations of the founders. And these inspire us and give us  the will  to push on up.

On Blake Tours we sing along in hope. But we often also sing along because we have no illusions about our situation, and cannot see an early prospect of improvement.  

Sometimes we just don’t know anything better to do. Happy Days Are here Again found a contemporary echo in the more recent Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. ‘Ironic’ barely does its wicked humour justice.

That we didn’t believe a word of it was what really cheered us up.