UK: REGIONAL FOCUS - THE ROBIN HOODS OF MERRY HILL - RICHARDSON BROTHERS.

UK: REGIONAL FOCUS - THE ROBIN HOODS OF MERRY HILL - RICHARDSON BROTHERS. - Mr Richardson is, once more, not available. 'Not available this afternoon, or not available for ever?' The receptionist thinks this one over: then, in honeyed tones, 'Not availab

Mr Richardson is, once more, not available. 'Not available this afternoon, or not available for ever?' The receptionist thinks this one over: then, in honeyed tones, 'Not available this afternoon in particular.' Mr Richardson's receptionist is a loss to the Diplomatic Service, but journalists are shy, doe-eyed creatures who know where they aren't wanted even so.

This is odd. There are, it seems, two Mr Richardsons: the Mr Richardson who may have pulled off the biggest publicity stunt since Piltdown Man; and the Mr Richardson who refuses to tell journalists whether or not he has pulled off such a stunt. Then let us not forget two other, antithetical Richardsons: Mr Richardson, local hero, restorer of the Black Country's battered amour propre; and Mr Richardson, rough diamond, political opportunist and destroyer of systems. The list of bifurcate Richardsons does not end here, either. There are, inarguably, two further Mr Richardsons, to wit: Mr Don Richardson and his brother, Mr Roy Richardson (or vice versa). One is never quite sure just to which Mr Richardson it is that one is not being allowed to talk. Even if one were to talk to either or both Mr Richardsons, one would not, apparently, be sure: for Don Richardson and Roy Richardson are monozygotic twins, identical. One egg, an infinity of indistinguishable, contradictory Richardsons. Life is seldom simple.

It may, however, be profitable. In 1930, Roy and Don Richardson were born in a two-up, two-down rented (nine shillings a week) house next to the steelworks in Dudley, West Midlands. Sixty-one years and, by some estimates, £250 million later, Round Oak is named, improbably, Merry Hill. Until Christmas Eve last year, Merry Hill was owned by the Richardsons: all 1.8 million sq. ft of shopping mall and retail warehousing, home to a 10-screen UCI Multiplex cinema, 250 shops including such bluebloods as Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, Littlewoods and Boots, not to mention a five-station monorail system imported from Switzerland at the cost of £22 million. No-one will say how much Mountleigh Group plc paid for Merry Hill, but the Richardsons no longer live in the still extant four-roomed house, now Dudley's answer to the Bethlehem stable.

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