Monday, 25 May 2020

MOMENTS OF MAGIC AND IRRITATION

This is supposed to be a reflective time when we at last have the opportunity (“space” is the word we’d use today) to examine our values and redefine the meaning of life.

I’m finding it’s more basic than that. For me it’s been the meaning of meals,  of wine (do we have enough?) and of woodlice whose invasion of our flowerbeds have kept me sleepless at night.

There’s a certain aimlessness and self-indulgence to this ‘short’ intermission. They say most of us are gaining weight. Mine however has remained pretty static – slightly tubby – and my appetite for everything is good. Especially magic.


Magic trick number one. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, the last and most vast in her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I’ve just started reading it and it’s stupefying. Because she writes in the present tense it’s like being there right now next to ‘him’ when ‘he’ speaks or thinks. Thomas Wyatt the poet, courtier and rake appears in it and I recall his poem

‘I find no peace’
‘I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.’ 

Thomas Cromwell is hugely rich, powerful and adept yet he’s skating on very thin ice in this mercurial Tudor world.  Mantel is magic.

Secondly my sense of time has changed since I stopped wearing a watch and keeping a diary. I remember when and where (where? Here) my online meetings are. Life is free of the tyranny of a clock. And seasons have started to mean something real. Three weeks ago they cut the first Sussex asparagus and we had our first season Sussex broad beans on Saturday. They taste of fresh …broad beans…imagine….magic.


To counterbalance the magic I have become increasingly aware of how much and why I loathe social media. It’s mostly puerile and either pity-me whining or listen-to-me ranting. Local communities exercise their petty dislikes and gripes in off-the-cuff comments. Witness the falls from grace of people like Jonathan Agnew, Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan and others like the US President managing to sound like idiots because knee jerk responses are never likely to do them credit. So that’s my first and deepening irritation.


My second is to watch government prove as inept at communication as anyone could imagine.  A recent Financial Times article – still the best most considered journalism – reflected on a government varying from complacency to panic with nothing in between.

I sympathise. This is unknown territory for global leaders. Sweden, Germany and South Korea all have different approaches and we are learning from them but this has not been anyone’s finest hour. We’d better learn because I’m afraid this won’t be the last pandemic

Final piece of magic (and irritation) Venice – devoid of tourists, residents seeing its beauty but facing a  $2billion income hole in their economy. They’ve been trying to manage tourism for decades. Now Covid19 has done it for them.

Be careful what you wish for if you want to avoid economic disaster.


Monday, 18 May 2020

GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS

We have never experienced anything like this. We have slowed down and become more thoughtful but I am detecting underlying schisms in our world  that are emerging with opposing sides are hardening in their thinking.

But first the good news. It’s nature. Spring is always wonderful but this year’s has been spectacular. We’ve spent time this week trying to fill our courtyard “cottagey” garden with as many plants as we can lay our hands on – spurge, Witney primrose, lupin, geum, mesembryanthemum, salvia, teasel, mallow, phlox and lots more. There are  extraordinary petunias like ‘black satin’ and of course a profusion of pansies and geraniums. Meanwhile our jasmine and rose arch has burst into exotic splendour. I wander out at 7:30 am every day muttering encouragement and dispensing water like a Friar dispensing alms … “bless you my son.”


Best of all it has been the week just past that the first white stork chicks since the 15th century in England, have hatched at Knepp, the source of that great “Wilding” story. In the same week Carol Midgely of the Times and Monty Don of Gardeners’ World both tearfully lost their beloved dogs. But nature joyfully moves on.


Nature is winning and the dramatic fall in carbon emissions already this year suggest the climate changers have an unstoppable momentum for their cause. We hear the indignant demands of the UK airline industry which is a large employer for a return to normal. Will many people want to check in 4 hours before take-off for a short flight? Is the whole idea of travel made cheap and painless history? Perhaps an adventurous trek across France to Italy might be more fun. Can we afford to let the industry revive? Should relics like Boeing survive?


People have become kinder, cheerier and more considerate. Alternatively people have become ruder, cruder and crueller. Yes, both of those at the same time. Worse behaviour and stories of heroic neighbourliness. Human beings are complex and not always in a good way. There’s a current story about a Premier League footballer who with friends flew to Paris for a sex party – those were the days I thought but as a flouting of lockdown in two countries it’s breathtaking. I bet he scored though.


The divide between old and young is widening and each is becoming more of a self-parody. The “peace” party versus the “party” party. The landline and letter party versus the social media party. (And can I declare my increasing dismay about the inflammatory power of most social media?  Great jokes go viral - good news; people snarl and froth and create group rage - bad news.)

We talk about ‘getting back’ when we should be talking about ‘moving forward’ – to a better, sustainable world. It’ll  be both good and bad – inevitably. But let’s hope nature comes first. A world where we try to earn money not just to consume more but to create a society that works for everyone – fairer, cleaner and happier.


Monday, 11 May 2020

HOW MIGHTY IS AMAZON?

I’ve always had this back-of-the-mind worry about Amazon. It’s a huge success, of course, and what would we all do without it? All those late night purchases of books which we forgot to buy at Waterstones but now, refreshed by red wine, we joyfully order another selection to join the piles of the unread when they arrive the next day.


So what’s not to like? Their attitude to people for one. Amazon is an HR nightmare. It’s also breaks all the rules we learnt when small. That profit was king. At 4% or less, profit on sales Amazon sweeps all before it; with Third World man management and price-cutting to destroy smaller, more circumspect competitors. And tax? Last year they paid £220 million on UK sales of just under £11 billion. Go figure.


Yet it provides an essential service to the lazy or forgetful. But I’ve started to detect a few cracks. During lockdown it’s taking longer to deliver and it’s not always so cheap now.

Its secret of success was that its competitors were so dire. Bookshops were expensive, slow and often rude. You sometimes felt they were there for the staff and that customers somehow got in their way.
Suddenly we have entered a new world of home-delivery by bookshops, restaurants, butchers,  greengrocers and wine merchants.

One of the great comic writers – our own version of P.J. O’Rourke – is Rod Liddle. Here’s what he wrote last week about one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – no, not birdsong….
“The growl of a diesel engine, the crunch of wheels on gravel and the squeal of brakes”
This signifying the arrival of a Majestic wine delivery.


I have the same feeling – less growling, crunching and squealing – with a Sussex Peasant delivery of asparagus and other locally-grown delights.

But here’s my story of how the game seemed stuck in the past but then was shown to be totally changed. On March 29th I sent an order worth just over £100 to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in response to their heavy catalogue drops. Silence. When we at last put on some pressure we got a slightly aggrieved … “it’s all very difficult and we’re very busy.” More silence. Followed by a cheque returned and a slip of paper saying “we are unable to fulfil you order at this time…we’re sorry for any inconvince (sic) this has caused”

More than “inconvince” matey. Our garden was naked, drab and forlorn.


I wondered if Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens could help albeit from their small nursery. They could. Hurrah! I sent off an order. Next day they made the 20 mile journey and because they’d been unable to fulfil all the order they’d made intelligent substitutions and bunged in a free bag of compost to say “sorry”. The business is South African owned with people who understand customer service. 


So, I believe in buying from small, local businesses from people we know and who care. Amazon beware.

Monday, 4 May 2020

QUESTION TIME 2021

We are not all the same. So some of us will revert to our “normal” selves, some will go on retreat but for many, changes will happen. Don’t underestimate the scale of this event.

Will we want to live urban lives?

Not so much now I’d imagine. Recently I listened to the 1960s song Downtown written when all I wanted to do was live in London or New York. It’s lyrics rang true then. “Listen to the music of the traffic in the city”. Recently hustle, bustle and crowds have been found out for many.


Will we want to shop with big operators?
Big is the issue. I saw You’ve Got Mail a few days ago. It’s a love story but also a big v. small battle where the chain, Fox Books, beats The Shop Round the Corner. Not so in the future. Small, local shops are the current sales-growth victors. Provided they’re good value, providing service and home deliveries that at least match Amazon they’ll change the landscape. In Brighton the Council is earmarking money to protect small independent shops, pubs and restaurants that are the tourist draw.

Will we want to fly?

Of course but if it costs what it should (and will) when prices inflate … maybe not. £1500 to New York economy?


Will we want to go to work in an office?


Commuting was on its knees… puffing its last anyway. As companies realise that working (mostly – not entirely) from home is more productive the old vision of the trophy Mayfair office will disappear. Home-working and co-working spaces will be appealing alternatives. 

What sort of work will we want to do?

There’s a side effect to the furlough concept. Many people can get by on massively reduced incomes in a  lockdown world. The antiquated “wage slave” attitude might be more apt. Most want to do work that makes a difference, that improves lives. We want to be applauded too.

Will we want to go to church?

Shutting declining operations when the biggest users are the last ones likely to be allowed back (the elderly) was hugely damaging. Reminds me of the story of three vicars discussing how to get rid of pigeons  in their churches.   They consider shooting them, poisoning them but one has a fool-proof idea. “I capture them baptise them, confirm them, let them go and then I never see them again.”
Some smart thinking could repurpose and restore the essential role these communal and spiritual hubs have. Synagogues and Mosques are more on the ball already.

Will exams matter?


No.  Creative thinking is our future. Our education system doesn’t focus on this.

Does marketing matter?

Not as we know it. Advertising, PR and celebrity sponsorship just died.

Does growth matter?

Not in the way we thought it did. What matters is being clear about our values. Wanting to win is normal human behaviour. Just not at any cost.


Am I right?

Possibly not. But think about it…..

We have choices.

Monday, 27 April 2020

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

There aren’t many reasons if you read the Guardian, the paper to read if you want to know what’s wrong with the world and why it’s a disgrace, and in which we read last week that we must steel ourselves against the likelihood that a vaccine will be discovered or the other gloom merchant who suggested this was all a rehearsal for “the big one” as in the Spanish Flu epidemic when the second spike in 1918 was much worse and much more deadly than the first one.


We are all doomed and if we don’t behave as though we are, we should be very ashamed. Pubs, clubs, churches are all closed and the sound of laughter is quelled. And we say we are following the science – as Matthew Parrish noted putting “the” in front institutionalizes it and gives it a phoney importance. The Law. The Church. The News. “The” makes anything it’s attached to more formidable hence “the wife” is more fearsome than “my wife”. Well the science is very different in three countries all with comparable death rates. In Sweden the science says ‘no lockdown’ and saunters off to the pub for a
beer.


In Belgium the science says ‘let’s stop the lockdown very soon’ and gets dressed up for a night out...roll out the barrel. In the UK the Scots and Welsh declare scientific independence because they want to show they can (their science) and England says the science says stay put and no giggling or having fun. But why can’t we be cheerful?

We ‘re having a record Spring ... forget Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers’ this is very bliss.

The birdsong is a harmony few of us have listened to before.  Consumption of alcohol has boomed by over 30% and according to the Sunday Times casual sex has peaked and Fifty Shades of Play has become a new norm amongst the young. Working from home has many unthought of benefits “Sorry Tom I’ll have to call you back I’m a bit tied up at the moment”.


Food is high on our agendas helped by the enterprising Mr Oliver, “rip it up, bung it in use a carrot or a tomato just use what you’ve got in the Fridge”. Just try his sausage, apple, onion and shaved parsnip melange – it’s scrumptious. Jamie makes the word caramelized sound so erotic.

As regards work I cannot believe command-and-control organisations with huge open-plan offices can survive.


Perhaps the most cheering thing has been to hear the O2 has been taken over and dressed up as a hospital in which 1800 people are being trained to be ready for work in the new Nightingale Hospital.

Inspiring I’m told.

Perhaps we truly are reaching towards a better world, one less travelled in which people are more respected. And of course if you’ve just lost someone or something dear to you I’m deeply sorry.
One thing’s for sure. Time doesn’t travel backwards so we cannot go back. Just forwards – positively.

Monday, 20 April 2020

TALKING 'BOUT MY GENERATION....

I noticed something about four weeks ago. People whom I met would stop 10 feet away cock their head on one side and murmur “how are you dear?” And as I bellowed that I was tremendously well they’d shake their head pityingly and walk away saying “do take care”.


If you are over 70, you’re  going to die and probably quite soon. Grey hair is a giveaway like a facial rash of livid red spots once was. That’s why I’m thinking about buying a Harley Davidson. To make a point.


This iconic and successful brand in the early days thought its sales success was owing to hairy biker and ravers like Pete Townshend (the Who – now 74). But research showed the most important purchasers were middle-aged accountants who wanted to drive noisily through towns, crouched over the handlebars, frightening people.

The Government is thinking of easing the lockdown in cohorts ending with the 70+ and those who are very vulnerable until well, possibly Autumn 2021, when a vaccine may be available.
I’ve always deplored antisemitism (or racism of any kind). But I’m now a victim of ageism and I don’t like it. (“Don’t you dear? Sit down – you’ll feel better.”)

I particularly deplored an article by Philip Collins in the Times who advanced the argument roughly thus: we boomers had, through house price-inflation achieved extreme wealth  through doing nothing and should jolly well move out, give back the money and go into a care home.

Sorry Philip …I struggle for the right word . Not sure but I think it’s bollocks.

We are the same age as the US President, his likely opponent in the forthcoming Presidential election and the Pope. Warren Buffett for goodness sake  is 89 and he’s not exactly a slouch.


We must look at history to see what our lazy generation achieved.  In 1959 our Prime minister Harold MacMillan said “you’ve never had it so good”. But let’s face it the bar was very low.

We were pretty well bankrupt.
Top of the Hit Parade was a piano piece by Russ Conway called “Side Saddle”.
Our banking sector was fragmented and parochial.
Advertising was controlled by the Americans.
The money spent on house improvement, self-improvement, fashion and fitness was negligible.

But things changed. We spent wealth we earned on improving things. Here’s a glimpse of the growth post 1959 we achieved.

Output adjusted for inflation and measured in 2013 prices

World leaders in advertising,  creative writing, comedy and in  theatre,  (briefly) in fashion, world leaders in grocery retailing, European leaders in banking, global top capital city, top football league our Premier Division, four of the world’s top universities and in civilisation.

Don’t say we were lazy. The last half century has been the sweatiest and most creative in our history.
Today we are back, maybe nearer to 1959 than we’d like to believe. The new generation has to do what we did all over again.

Hopefully with our help - unless we’ve been put in care homes of course.

This could be an adventure. And we know how to do it…..because we’ve done it.

Monday, 13 April 2020

SPRING IS SPRUNG, THE GRASS IS RIZ....

The current lockdown is creating problems. Government, and through them the police, have powers not seen since the Second World War. Sometimes this goes awry as when a police constable, surely not destined for early promotion, was recorded in York rebuking people for sitting in their own front garden and when park benches have been taped up.


My own recent experience in our private, communal garden has thrown up two, differing views. Most stridently, the need to rigorously enforce government guidance, limit the time people can spend outside and restrict the extent of children playing.

Less stridently but just as insistently the need to apply common sense, respect for one another and to enjoy the weather and the beauty of Spring. Freedom first. Control second.

Everyone I know has applied social distancing, social isolation and caution. What’s impressed me most  is the speed with which a large number of retailers have adapted their businesses to home delivery services.
Points of view from Mark Ritson, a former professor of marketing and a writer for Marketing  Week, are usually insightful and useful. He consistently and punishingly puts social media in its place. He praises well-thought-through brand strategy. His weakness is he swears so much. Saying fuck a lot isn’t very professorial.


He’s written recently to say nothing will f**** ** change after coronavirus ends. We shall revert  – as ever –  “back to normal.” This is not an academic reflection it’s a self- opinionated thinker swotting a fly. Mark is the Nigel Farage of business thinking. Sometimes right, often wrong, always abrasive. But things will change – not for everyone, obviously -  but enough to create a seismic trend to society. Here are a few possibilities:
- The economy – the worst recession since 1930. Some say a “scale disaster.”
- Our attitude to the environment. A big bonus.
- Our shopping habits.
- Commuting behaviour and attitudes to working from home.


- A boom in start-up businesses (partly because of unemployment increases.)
- More businesses thinking the unthinkable and pivoting.
- Less marketing or as it’s now described “colouring in” (sorry again Mark).

I was recently asked if I thought the surprising surge in the FTSE might be caused by markets anticipating a postponement or cancellation of Brexit.


I said that I thought Brexit was irrelevant but, more importantly, so increasingly  was the EU. Rich and relatively Covid-free Germany is proving intransigent to the pleas from Italy, Spain and – increasingly – France to help their neighbours. As a one-time ‘remainer’ and Europhile I’m sad to see this. Unless the rich can help their struggling partners and act like part of  a  ‘Union’ the EU seems rather pointless.

Do I sound grumpy?

Tom Stoppard noted that social distancing legitimised the way he always wanted to live. Part of me agrees with that. But it’s been such a gorgeous Spring I’ve forgotten how awful it must be living in a city.


And isn’t Spring amazing?

It’s dem birdies.