Making a catastrophe out of a blip in sales figures will only add to the challenges we face

Last week I returned from Kenya, which I visited as the guest of a friend. Unable to find an honourable excuse to cancel, I flew out with knees knocking, cursing my vivid imagination. If death were to be inevitable, my preference would be an alcohol and sleeping pills cocktail. An exit via machete wouldn’t make it into my top 10.

As it turned out, even though Nairobi and the wonderful Rift Valley featured on my itinerary, I failed abjectly to see any raving mad Kenyans or even mildly irritated ones.

In fact, even the lions and hippopotami were positively friendly, while the crocodiles had lottery winners’ smiles. Although at Heathrow, on announcement of the late cancellation of Virgin’s flight 671 to Nairobi, there were one or two Brits screaming for blood and doing a remarkable impression of a tribal war dance.

The evidence was incontrovertible: the recent portrayal of Kenya in the British media has not been mild exaggeration or even misleading high-speed spin, but a total misrepresentation.

This is producing the inevitable outcome: mass cancellations of holidays, knock-on redundancies for thousands of lovely people and the piling of even greater misery onto so many struggling on the rice line.

We know that we shouldn’t believe all that we read. Well, a lifetime’s evidence and my Kenyan experience led me to the cynical conclusion that we shouldn’t believe anything we read.

The weekly sales figures provided by John Lewis showing a 3 per cent like-for-like downturn were spun as meaning “the end is nigh”. I don’t know about you, but I recall a veritable string of double-digit increases from that very same company over the past few months. Are they all cancelled out by one slight downturn? I think not.

If we don’t watch out, exaggeration of the financial difficulties of UK plc as a whole – and the challenges we face in retail – will progress to a self-fulfilling, negative end.

Let’s not accelerate that process. Yes, I wrote a few weeks ago that it was time to tighten our belts, but I didn’t suggest that we lurch out onto a top-floor window ledge and get ready to jump. Let’s take the half-full view and do our best to talk the job up.

You don’t have to look too hard for good news. Just while I was away, the public stock of harmless pleasure was magnificently enhanced by Mohamed Fayed finally getting his day in court, former Courts Furnishers frontman Bruce Forsyth celebrating his 80th birthday and Richard Branson failing to steal Northern Rock. The political fall-out from its nationalisation will have brought ear-to-ear smiles to every Conservative and Liberal Democrat in the land, as well as Tony Blair.

Even last week’s earthquake, with its epicentre in Market Rasen, remarkably had not a single fatality.

Foreign travel is so often a great reminder of just how lucky we are to be living and shop-keeping in dear old Britain. Bear that in mind – and do consider helping our beleaguered friends in Kenya by rescheduling that sunshine holiday.

By Lord Kirkham, Chairman, DFS