Magazine article The Spectator

Three's Company

Magazine article The Spectator

Three's Company

Article excerpt

New Hampshire

THE first Jeep I ever bought caught fire on the Fourth of July a few years back. At the time, my loved one and I were in the midst of a heated argument when she suddenly noticed that it was becoming unusually heated. `Don't be ridiculous,' I said. `The engine sometimes smokes a little, that's all.' But at that point the flames began licking into the cab and the radio started to melt. She fled in terror and called our volunteer firemen, who were taking part in the Fourth of July parade in a neighbouring town. We have our own parade, I hasten to add, but our neighbours like to lay on a flashier event closer to the old Soviet May Day bashes, so our fire department, like the Romanians and Bulgars, had gone to offer fraternal greetings. When my sweetheart's call came through, they turned on their sirens and roared away, scattering high school cheerleaders, third-graders dressed as Uncle Sam and a float from the local turkey farm. The crowd, thinking this to be some sort of simulated emergency demonstration, cheered.

Our fire chief was at the back of the parade, taking part in a sponsored bicycle ride, when his trucks came roaring past, sirens blazing. He tried to pedal after them as fast as he could but, after a few hundred yards, gave up, tossed his bicycle in the hedge and hijacked his fellow fire chiefs truck. Alas, it was too late to save the Jeep. The following day, I gave the burntout shell a nudge and watched it roll a few hundred feet down the hill to lodge in some scrub, where it rests to this day. Sir Roy Strong may prefer Italianate gardens and formal topiary, but in New Hampshire you judge a yard by how many rusting hulks of old trucks are lying around. I'd hoped my Jeep would be the first of many.

But not any more. Since last week, when Daimler Benz merged with Chrysler, Jeep has been German. And somehow a German Jeep is a concept I find hard to grapple with: the enormous shadow of Helmut Kohl has fallen across my pristine smalltown all-American Fourth of July anecdote. Perhaps a century ago the Germans felt the same when they heard the Yanks were making hamburgers. `Mein Gott! Who ever heard of an American burger?' And, even though Daimler will give Jeep access to a greater global market and frankly (not just from an overheating point of view) can only improve the vehicle, it won't be the same: when Germans eat at McDonald's, I don't suppose they're thinking, `Say what you like, but in global strategy terms merging the hamburger with the burgeoning milk-shake market made a perfect corporate fit, as well as enabling them to diversify into hot fruit pies.'

Still, as mergers go, it isn't as bewildering as Volkswagen swallowing Rolls-Royce to become Volks-Royce or Rollswagen or whatever the new company will be known as. Nothing is certain but death and taxes and mergers. Four years ago, my local phone company was called New England Telephone - reasonable enough, given that it's a telephone company and this is New England: as they used to sing on their jingles, `We're the one for you, New England/New England Telephone!' But then is became Nynex, which sounds like some sort of nuclear waste but, in fact, stands for New-York-New-England and something beginning with X - X marks the spot, Xdirectory, X-rated gay phone sex services. In the most exquisite summation of the benefits of merger in the history of advertising, their slogan for the new company was: `Same service. New hat.' The guy who came to repair my phone was still my neighbour Jim. Not only did he offer the same service, but he also had the same hat. Last year, Nynex finally got around to issuing him a Nynex hat to replace his New England Telephone hat. A week later, they were swallowed by Bell Atlantic: same service, yet another hat.

Aside from the millinery, there were other changes. Mega-merged companies are sensitive to the accusation that they're remote and inhuman, so they introduce elaborate `customer relations' rituals which only make them sound as if they've just checked in from the Planet Zongo. …

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