Monday, 26 October 2020

WE'RE NO LONGER GOLDEN

Last week I spotted a piece in the Washington Post, a worldwide poll which indicated a growing disenchantment with democracy as an effective form of government. The negative response was more pronounced amongst millennials than any other age cohort.  There was also a rising  preference for strong leadership instead of elections. It was slight in the UK, pronounced in Germany and strong in Spain, South Africa and Russia.

This is surprising given a conversation I’d been having a few days earlier about how in my youth in the 1960s  there’d been a global rebellion against the establishment. From the music revolution in the UK to the Paris riots to Woodstock to the Washington anti- Vietnam War protests in Washington to the more extreme Baader-Meinhof terrorists in Germany. Millennials were seemingly all into free love, flower power and revolution.

The words of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” linger in my mind recalling that  world which was finding its voice and swinging leftwards:

“We are stardust
We are golden
And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden” 

We believed we were golden as the old order crumbled. 


(All shades of red above and getting redder as authoritarianism strengthens.)

Like it or not we’ve recently been swinging towards totalitarianism

Trump is not an aberration. He’s a sign of the times and of things to come. There are reactions of course like BLM and environmental activists like Greta Thunberg but they are ultimately being drowned out. People are frightened and when that happens they veer right. They’re frightened that things seem out of control. 

The second conversation was with someone who’s lived and worked in China for 20 years. He described a country where Covid is now over (no more face masks) and where the economy is booming.  The rules to contain the pandemic were and are still rigorous. Anyone – Chinese or foreign -  entering the country or returning to the country is quarantined for two weeks, isolated in a hotel room near the airport…quite a nice hotel but, nonetheless, a prison. In China no one breaks out of their bio-secure bubble; everyone obeys the guidelines and the law. One shudders to imagine how the Chinese authorities would have treated those rugby players, the  Barbarians’ twelve, who evaded their security guards to have dinner together at an Italian Restaurant on Thursday night breaking the Covid code of conduct to which they’d agreed. 

It’s behaviour like that that inspires so many people to say they want a more strict enforcement of rules and a more widespread lockdown.

China is a country without compromise when it comes to law enforcement and although the liberal in me shrinks it’s seemed to work. Interestingly within China there seems to be a widespread acknowledgement that they’d “been eating the US lunch for years” and that the election of Donald Trump was of a US President that China deserved.

But look at China today and you see the second biggest global economy emerging relatively unscathed from the pandemic that’s wrecked the rest of the global economy.

(Jan. 2019 – Aug. 2020)

China unlike most other nations has a long term strategy to achieve stability and growth. They seem intent on avoiding unnecessary trouble. When I asked about Hong Kong my friend looked puzzled – “well that’s all over now. China is in charge. Stability is the winner once again.”

How curious to regard China as a role model. We don’t want to know about what happens to those who step out of line. So much has happened that we want to ignore like Tiananmen Square massacre in the past, like the repression of the Uighurs now. But  the fact that China has 61 self-made women billionaires  (2/3 of all those in the world) and that they have a new generation of aspiring, linguistically adept and smart young people is rather impressive.

Many are wondering if “benevolent” dictatorship works. “Benevolent”? Just let me think about that.


 


Monday, 19 October 2020

HOW ARE YOU - REALLY?

I’ve often been asked this as though my cheerfulness masks some fatal illness or means I’m in denial. It’s clearly absurd to be anything other than doleful, depressed and despairing in a world ruled by a tiny virus that’s killed over 1 million people so far . How can I be fine? How can I be content? 

The world apart from that, I hear, is in a dreadful state. The list is long: climate change, Trump, Boris, Brexit, Trump, Syria, unemployment, Trump.  There is no hope.

But this makes no difference. I still refuse to be morose.

My good humour was reinforced by reading Humankind – A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman. He has form as an optimist having also written Utopia for Realists - And How We Can Get There. He examines the world from the two opposing perspectives of the  pessimist Hobbes and optimist Rousseau. 

I loved his observation that we’ve become addicted to a very dangerous drug that’s ruining our morale and our health. That drug is news. There’s too much of it. And Trump is right…too much is fake. Bregman says human beings are attuned to two biases. The first is the ‘negativity bias’ whereby we are conditioned to fear the worst. Back in the early days of humanity that fear helped us survive. Better to run like hell than say “nice pussy” when a Sabre Toothed Tiger appears. 

The second is the ‘availability bias’. If something is readily remembered because of its horror, violence or sheer drama we are led to feel it’s more commonplace than it is. Take air disasters. Remembering, as we shall, the relatively recent Boeing 737 Max crashes we may be circumspect in our judgement of flight safety, yet flying has never statistically been safer.

Thus our tendency, like Victor Meldrew, to say “typical” when something bad happens. Yet it probably isn’t typical at all.

But amidst all this  Bregman believes that deep down nearly all human beings are decent and kind people. That when something bad happens like the Blitz or Covid they stick together and are good and helpful neighbours. Only a few have their eye on the main chance. Only a few are selfish and predatory.

The most significant failure in the handling of the Covid situation is the reluctance of Government to believe that most people will self-police and help encourage others to be sensible. The incidence of the virus in Folkestone is the lowest in the country currently and this residents believe is because they look out for and look after their neighbours. “Mask” they cry if someone isn’t wearing one.

But ironically it’s the neighbourliness that in some places has been positively discouraged. The ‘U’ in ‘EU’ has been conspicuously absent. Each country ploughs its own furrow and has its own data, strategy and attitude. Bizarre that the two ‘European’ countries in closest accord on Covid have been England and France. Macron and Johnson apparently (Brexit aside) get on tremendously well especially on their tactics to mitigate the pandemic. 

We need to talk more and foster togetherness. That’s what real human beings do and always have done. Recently I was asked to join a “working party”. I blanched at the prospect. Yes I was cheerful but I was becoming a hermit and that’s no good. We shall not easily change guidelines or laws right now but our future will depend on creating a much greater collegiate spirit. There is no place today for a long term strategy and plan; things are too uncertain. There is just the need to share (good humouredly) the will to keep this rocky old show on the road. Together.

And yes. I really am all right.

Monday, 12 October 2020

THE ART OF DELIGHTING OURSELVES IS NOT LOST

Quite a few people I know say if only we could be like Scotland where strict Nicola is playing a blinder and seems to know exactly where she’s going. But does she really?

Bossy Nicola’s figures are getting worse and she’s now about to close the pubs. I got delight from Quentin Lett’s observation that Nicola was the sort of person who’d sweep your pint glass from your hand when there were two good sized gulps left, saying:

“You have quite enough of that.”

We need delights. We need that purple ‘Roses’ Hazel-in-Caramel-cased-in-milk-chocolate’ joy. We need “aha” moments.

I watched Ruth Davidson debating in the Scottish Parliament with Sturgeon. Ruth is shortly going to House of Lords (what a waste). She was one of the Tories who had “bottom” (if she’ll forgive the expression). Which means depth, roots and grounding. She’s also fun and eloquent. In short, she delights me.

Donald is not delightful just frightful Nor is Joe Biden (leader of the Free World? Surely not) or Mike Pence whose expression seems to suggest something bad is going to happen soon . But I saw the promise of a ray of sunshine last week in Kamala Harris in her debate with Pence. He rebuked her saying that she was entitled to have her own opinions but not her own facts. Kamala chuckled and said “nice line”. She could be a special one I thought.

Eating out…remember that? Closing restaurants at 10pm is for restaurateurs a bit like telling an ‘A’ Level student the 3 hour exam has been reduced to 2 hours but they must still answer the same number of questions. These restaurateurs are despairing and trying new survival strategies. Most of them will fail. Yet the delight of a beautiful meal in a buzzy restaurant is profound and does as much for your morale as for your appetite. 

Thus it was at Wild Flor in Hove , by some distance the best food around here, eminent chef Chris Trundle, ex-Manfred’s Copenhagen, delivering eye-opening dishes. It was our wedding anniversary. It was a celebration. It was wonderful. We used to eat out and gaze at each other a lot. This was just our second time eating-out this year. Who was that very pretty woman opposite me?

Films you’ve forgotten but which delight…Cary Grant in North by North West with memorable action scenes, notably the drunken drive down a mountain road and the crop spraying plane trying to kill Grant in the flat, empty middle of nowhere in mid America. 

Grant playing Roger Thornhill an Advertising Executive in a pre-digital age walks from hotel to cab dictating letters to his secretary whose feet are hurting her. 

They approach a cab which he hijacks from a man about to get in it saying he has to have the cab to rush the ill lady to hospital. His secretary rebukes him for lying as they settle back in the cab and he says:

“In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration.”  

 Yes. What fun advertising was. Once upon a time.

Outside my office the Robinia is still in full, glorious, golden leaf. No wonder they call it the “Sunshine Tree”. Who could be grumpy when that’s cheering me on as I work?

We’ll have more pleasure over the next months if we always try and look – as Monty Python put it – “on the bright side of life”. 

That’s sometimes hard to do but use a bit of expedient exaggeration, tell yourself all is fine  and treat yourself to some delights.

Monday, 5 October 2020

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT

There’s an obsessive fatalism that currently fills the airwaves and pages of the newspapers. We are doomed, as Private Frazer used to say grimly in “Dad’s Army”. But we are clearly not doomed; we are just being forced to change. And change isn’t comfortable. We, who lived through the early days of the Thatcher administration bear the scars. It is then when she and her team dismantled uncompetitive British Industry and let markets decide the fate of lame dogs, many of them not so lame. We know what radical change feels like.  A sharp, unpleasant and unwelcome shock.

Thatcher embarked on her “let markets and individuals decide” revolution with relish. Some sectors like Banking and Advertising did well. They were emboldened by her mantra of emancipation from state control. So, we (I was in advertising then) swept into America taking over businesses and being rather cocky. As Colin Welland proclaimed, when in 1982 the British film, Chariots of Fire won seven Oscars, “The British are coming.”  

Well, like all such revolutionary initiatives it worked well for a while especially for the young, callous and enterprising in service-businesses but not so well if you were a miner or stevedore or manufacturer. Short, sharp shocks work but not forever. 

I remember most of my life back then as being like surfing dangerously but with great exhilaration. It was creative and rule breaking…these were the most un-woke of times. Long lunches, great music, from Bartok to Blur. And yes, that was what it was like through the end of the 20th century and through to the end of the coalition – a bit of a blur. But a blur of excitement and happiness.

But times have changed. Especially recently. We have become increasingly grumpy and dislocated as a nation. Left and right, in and out, young and old, PC and not PC, each group unwilling to hear the other and debate, converse or think.  The idea of ‘cancelling’ someone who says something that distresses you seems alien to my view of free speech.

But we’ve had another sharp shock with Covid but not so short, sadly, I expect. 

Still my grumpiness began to ebb away last week. Was it just me or did motorists behave better? Did I see more smiles? Was there resolution rather than resentment emerging? Perhaps it was because the script writer has been hard at work…unbelievable things have been happening…Trump catching Covid.  Priti Patel thinking (is thinking the right word?) of sending immigrants to Ascension Island 4,400 miles from the UK. To see how batty she can be watch this:



Yes, Michael Spicer and Spitting Image show how satire still works like nothing else. 

But most of all it was these words that gripped me, sadly, because Derek Mahon, the Irish poet, died of cancer this week. He was described as a “Belfast Keats with a Popean sting” He wrote this poem which has become famous as the pandemic has gripped the world. Fatalistic? Grumpy? Doomed? Try a dose of this:

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

Thank you, Derek. I really think it is going to be all right too. In a riot of sunlight. Thank you.



Monday, 28 September 2020

DOWN, DOWN, DEEPER AND DOWN

Isn’t the word “down” depressing? You feel down…you are downcast or run down or you have a meltdown. Yet it’s le mot du jour. The government got the lowdown from the scientists and have decided to crack down on the virus by declaring a lockdown which is leading to an economic breakdown. Despite Tory backbenchers pleading that they climb down the government’s resolute and with that majority can’t realistically be brought down. But we are heading for a showdown and  someone will probably have to stand down. It’s all been a terrible let down.

That’s it: I’m done with down.

Most of my working life (I don’t work now, I just have fun thinking, writing and mentoring) was spent on communicating and on creating nuanced pieces of persuasion. Most brands of any worth have been skilfully created and communicated but the government’s communication in contrast recently has been somewhat cack-handed. Nicola Sturgeon, not one of life’s great orators, is as Maggie Smith to Frankie Howard when compared to the Prime Minister. Bad as the Scottish Covid figures are (worse than England’s and getting even worse) she communicates control and certainty and we trust her. It’s a class act.

Persuading people to do “the right thing” is not easy. It requires subtlety, more “please” than “don’t.” Helen Rumbelow, the Times journalist, had this pleasing insight from a teacher at Michaela School in North London which is rated the strictest school in Britain. She said going into a rowdy room and shouting at the ringleader “shut up and sit down!” works less well than “pop yourself down over there now.” The word “pop” has a nice sense of friendly spontaneity “we’re just popping over to see our grandchildren”; “pop the kettle on;” ”something interesting has just popped up.”

These are not easy times for politicians but who taught them that staying on message meant behaving like a parrot who knows very few words and constantly repeats them: “hands, face, space”?  I can’t imagine Ken Clarke, Chris Patten or John Smith behaving so foolishly or irritatingly.

These are not easy times for the BBC either reflecting on their uncertain future. They are constantly being given knowing, sarcastic winks by cabinet ministers rather like a judge back in hanging times fondling the black cap with grim anticipatory relish. But they are sadly authors of their own misfortunes. 

(Quentin Tarantino has had enough of a typical interview)

Like the Today Programme’s aggressive interrupters, Nick, Justin and Martha. Increasingly I find theirs is no way to start a positive day. They’re often just being rude. In contrast the new Times Radio has some cheerful, relaxed, funny positive people like Stig Abell and Aasmah Mir who are happy to let politicians talk without interruption. It’s much less stressful.

However when Richard Madely abruptly terminated an interview with Gavin Williamson it was decisive and appropriate rather than gratingly intrusive. Williamson ignored Madeley’s twice repeated question as to whether Williamson regretted saying “Why don’t the Russians shut up and go away?” as if it hadn’t been asked. So he was turned off. 

Am I down in the dumps? Not at all. We have a “winter of discontent” to come but like Shakespeare’s play we can anticipate thereafter “a glorious summer”. And to help us through the next months here are some insults Shakespeare created. We might need them:

 - Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog! ...

- Away, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's-tongue, bull's-pizzle, you stock-  fish! ...

- Thou art a boil, a plague sore. ...

- Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon

Ouch!



Monday, 21 September 2020

IT'S GOODBYE TO THE WISDOM OF CROWDS

James Surowiecki  journalist and staff writer on the New Yorker wrote his seminal book in 2004. It was called “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”. 

In it he argued (Michael Gove would have loved this) that experts are overrated and that taking the average of the guesses of a crowd of diverse people as to the weight of an ox, it will nearly always be better than that of so-called ox experts. He explored the way that crowds co-ordinate. Watch people walking at pace in a crowded street as they nimbly avoid colliding and the way crowds co-operate. Look how football crowds turn a good match into an electric event with their orchestrated noise. Crowds seem a natural phenomenon of civilisation. Look at the vibrant , busy bustle of pre-coronavirus London. Crowds are affirmations of what is popular and human. 

We are witnessing the end of crowds. The rule of six and the guidelines which deter people from mingling describes a world in which, increasingly, we shall avoid each other. The cries of “getting back to normal” which have always seemed to me as foolishly hopeful seem even less credible as the busy, crowded society of 2019 recedes into distant memory.

We are not going to enjoy busy restaurants as we did, nor will theatres reopen with big audiences or football crowds sing those gloriously silly chants.

“His names a department store
You know that he’s going to score”

of Bury striker Lenny John Lewis sung to the tune La Donna e mobile.

If the joy of strolling, mingling, meeting and celebrating are not going to be part of our lives for a while, what’s the cost going to be?

The pleasure of our civilisation is that it is well-ordered, that timetables work, that it’s generally predictable, that economies grow, democracies work and we have lots of friends (most of us). But the greatest joy is in being spontaneous. In surprises. In unexpected meetings. Of animated conversations over lunch. Of visiting new places.

We shall, of course, adjust; we’re good at that. But the ‘World Happiness Report’ (published every year by the United Nations) is going to take a kicking in 2020/21 (this is updated annually so we see how happy all the countries are - we came a creditable 15th in 2019).

What else will take a kicking? Data Protection that’s what. The basis of Track and Trace is inimical to privacy. Meanwhile the news is that Uber seem likely to retain their licence for London because they share all their data with the Metropolitan Police who regard this data as essential in crime detection.

So, what’s there to be cheerful about? Three things.

Ex Cabinet Minister Hugh Swire ‘s wife Sasha has written ’Diary of an MP’s Wife’ which vividly and indiscreetly describes the behind-the-scenes excesses of the Cameron inner circle in the 2010 Coalition Government. From what I’ve read so far it’s entertaining and revealing. It reassured me that Prime Ministers and leaders of Advertising Agencies (as they were in my day) had more in common than I’d thought. I loved the line “David drinks like a camel” and the reference to the constant downing of “lethal negronis” in number 10.

Secondly, this wonderful Indian Summer. I love this time of year. New school. Going to university. Fall is when we start to think of the future and … “of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

Finally, having heard it for the NHS now can we hear it for Britain’s supermarkets? If only Tesco ran the Testing Programme. The ability of all of the supermarket chains to change the way they operate, transforming their delivery service and seamlessly fixing their supply chain has been remarkable.

But no more crowds for now. Just peace and reflecting.

Monday, 14 September 2020

SUNSHINE, LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS...

This 1965 Lesley Gore song kept on coming into my head this week on my relentless crusade to cheerfulness. But even I have to admit the next line was rather cheesy

“Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together.”

Provided, that is, there aren’t more than six of us. I thought this rule of six was sensible by the way – six is the perfect number for a supper. But…big but… we have a daughter and son in law with three children. I plan on sitting in the car outside their house waiting for my wife (or Number Six as she is now known). 

We had a glorious week. I’m reading again, at last – John Le CarrĂ©’s latest ‘Agent Running in the Field’ and ‘Hamnet’ the prize winning novel about Shakespeare’s son who dies when he was 11 by Maggie O’Farrell. 

I’ve walked – not much but the armchair is beginning to regard me now as something of a stranger. We’ve flirted with the idea of a lightning visit to Venice but the risks, as Covid spikes suddenly all over Europe, just seem too great and too unfair. Anyway what’s Venice like right now? 

Clear water in the  canals, emptyish squares. Venice as it was 50 years ago. But public feelings are running high. We read about a young German tourist who tried to board a vaporetto at San Zaccaria near San Marco…without a mask. Here are the rules in Venice and all Italy: “In Italy, masks are mandatory on all public transport, as well as in enclosed spaces. They must also be worn in outdoor spaces between the hours of 6pm and 6am.”

He was seized by outraged passengers and thrown off. Three times he tried to board and was beaten up each time until, bewildered, he fled. 

So instead of us going to Venice, Venice came to us. I decided we should have Fegato alla Veneziano – Venetian style calves liver strips in onions. If you don’t like liver you just won’t understand. Cin Cin. Yum Yum.

We also went to the glorious Leonardslee at Lower Beeding and drank in the tranquillity and glory of their trees especially those glorious Redwoods. So tall they put everything into perspective. It was like giving your soul a languorous, hot, soapy bath I suggested. My wife eyed me suspiciously at this with a “have you been drinking again?” look. So I modified it to “Pleasant here isn’t it?” Suspicion allayed.

My joys of the week were, first of all, the threatened prospect of the Shetland Islands declaring UDI and leaving Scotland. With a population of just 22,000, GDP over £1 billion, per capita income over £38k, rated the 3rd most desirable tourist destination by National Geographic Magazine, having a huge fishing industry and oil reserves shoving it up alongside Norway this is such a great story. Not for Nicola though.

My second was to learn very belatedly that John Lennon had a lengthy affair with Alma Cogan singer of songs like ‘You must never do a Tango with an Eskimo.’ Imagine! 

My week like all weeks had its lows as well as highs. The first was the reaction to the US election with so many people lamenting even the possibility of Trump winning again.  Why I asked if you all cared so much did you end up with a potential loser like Joe Boden, nice man as he may be? I felt vindicated as, in the polls the Latino vote in Florida seemed to be slipping to Trump. But I also felt sad and irritated. With the lead they had months ago this is the Democrats election to lose. And it’s getting closer.

Secondly it was the horror show of Philip Green in shorts on his monster yacht. Men in shorts seldom please the eye. Philip least of all.