This week, while Sir Philip Green cruised around the Greek islands in Lionheart, his £100million super yacht, staff at his former company British Home Stores were valiantly keeping the last shops afloat.
The contrast couldn’t have been more brutal.
As the billionaire’s opulent boat docked in Ithaca, Greece, shoppers at BHS in Harrow, North West London, were picking over the bones of a once proud store.
Remaining stock was all piled together on one floor and looked depressingly forlorn. Women pushed trolleys full of soft furnishings and men rummaged through the bargain light fittings.
Lonely jars of food sat on near-empty shelves, giving the shop the air of a post-apocalyptic jumble sale.
The real Lionhearts were not out in the Ionian sea but there in Harrow.
There should have been no morale left on that godforsaken shop floor, but staff remained friendly and professional to the end.
“We’re not going to be beaten,” a mother of two called Jackie told me. “I’ve worked for BHS for 23 years. We’ll keep on smiling until the end. The morale in here is brilliant.”
That is until Sunday, when it closes its automatic doors for good.
Harrow is one of the last BHS stores standing – one of just 22 of the original 128 shops, left open this week to sell the last of the stock.
Everything is for sale, even the shelves, filing cabinets and mannequins. Jackie says around 50 staff were left.
“The weekend after we close, we’re doing a staff day trip to Bournemouth and we’ll all have a meal.”
If that seems a fitting end to a business that once prided itself on being a family store, it’s no thanks to the former owners, who stand accused of wringing the pips out of the company and then tossing it and its workforce aside.
As well as the loss of 11,000 jobs, workers also face a £571million pensions deficit.
Like the vast majority of BHS staff losing their livelihoods, Jackie, 47, has no job to go to.
“For 88 years BHS has been on our high streets,” she says. “But the owners didn’t care about the company enough to save it.”
Jackie didn’t want to give me her surname. Staff told me they have been warned not to speak to the press and could forfeit severance pay.
I ask her what she thinks of Philip Green and the serial-bankrupt former racing driver Dominic Chappell, who Green sold the company to in March last year for £1.
“Bleep, bleep, bleep,” she says, before heading back into the stockroom.
Earlier, I had spoken to Lin Macmillan, 61, one of 22,000 BHS pensioners who now also faces an uncertain future.
Lin hasn’t worked for BHS since 1990, but she put more than 10 years into the company as assistant manager of the Lincoln and Aberdeen stores. Last week, the Edinburgh store – her local – was closed, and she was in tears thinking of the job losses and the humbling of a great British brand.
When BHS went into administration in April, its pension scheme had a £571m hole in it – more than the value of the company. Following a grilling by MPs on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, Green promised to “sort this”.
Then he went off on an extended holiday on the yacht he bought while BHS was suffering financial problems.
Lin, who now works for the Church of Scotland, says: “I feel absolutely disgusted and angry that while staff suffer, Philip Green is swanning around the Greek islands on a yacht the size of a football pitch. In contrast, a great number of his former staff will be lucky to have any kind of holiday at all this year.”
If Green fails to sort the pensions, Lin and others will be covered by the Pension Protection Fund, an industry-funded lifeboat scheme.
“This will mean the pensions of those of us who no longer work for the company don’t keep pace with inflation,” Lin says. “And people working for BHS when it closed will only get 90%.”
She is so incensed that she has set up a petition, “Sell the yachts and pay the pensions” on the Care2 petitions website.
“The Green family have more than one yacht, and you can only be on one yacht at once,” she says.
Even the BHS bargain-hunters at the Harrow store had nothing but contempt for Green and Chappell.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” says Carl Berry, 51, who works at a homeless shelter. “BHS was an institution.” Pointing at his shirt, he adds: “Everything I’m wearing was bought from there.”
Lorna Brading, 80, says: “First Woolworths, now BHS. It’s wrong. It makes me very sad.”
Hundreds of miles away in Ithaca, where Homer based the Odyssey, Green is on board his floating palace. It is still in the billionaire’s power to give BHS’s treacherous journey a happy ending.