Monday, 23 May 2016

WINE, WORDS AND WISDOM

I went to St Catherine’s College Cambridge on Saturday to a Memorial Symposium in honour of friend who’d been a Professor of History. I wasn’t sure if “Sir Christopher Bayly and the Horizons of History” would be a bundle of laughs “Don’t hold your breath” warned a friend who knew about such things.
And yet I was blown away. These academics, all eighteen of them, started and finished on time….none of those laggardly, bad manners you so often see from lawyers, politicians and businessmen at such events. They engaged, entertained and inspired us.


I hadn’t realised just how eminent Chris had been. He had helped rewrite the way history is studied and how people think about the world as a whole with a rare ability to zoom in and out from long shot to close up, thrilling people with the new clarity this produced. He certainly thrilled Professor J├╝rgen Osterhammel who said of one of Chris’ many books: “it would have been a very good book even if all the facts had been wrong.

Most of all Chris was obsessed by the music of words and the way that good writing could change people’s minds. Facts alone don’t do it. The narrative itself has to engage and thrill. He weighed words like a miser.

He wrote with precision and with sparing tautness.

He had exciting stories to tell, focusing as he did on India and then developing from that the way in which global events interlinked and resonated against each other.  Like a good CEO he was able to handle and dissect the detail and see the bigger picture too but unlike what his commercial counterparts so seldom do, was then able tell this story in a significant way.

He was evidently a great teacher. He could listen and prod so his pupils’ vision was expanded and changed.
Professor Richard Drayton put it nicely: “he’d listen hard and then tell us what he thought we were trying to say”

And he was not just an academic. His love of wine was legendary and charming. But it served a purpose. He used wine to lubricate and expand the minds, ideas and laughter of those around him. He shared ideas and developed ideas over a glass or two of claret. If we all did more of that we’d be better off and better humoured.


Wine and genius are seldom distant from one another. Handel it is said at one of his many dinner parties would from time to time rush out to ostensibly record a new musical idea but in fact to take a surreptitious swig of a fine Burgundy he’d stashed away.

Bayly and Handel. They’d have got on pretty well.

One of his younger PHD students, Rachel Leow described his special kind of astonishing cleverness when she said:


He’d cover whole areas of history in just one sentence

I realised then how much I’ll miss him. A clever man and a very nice one too.

Monday, 16 May 2016

THE WORLD OF THE NEW COULD BE EVEN MORE THRILLING

I’m not against big businesses. They’re full of people who are smart, civilized and charming. I like Google and Apple (who couldn’t?) I used to love the spirit Nike had in the period of their pre-21st-century glory. I love the confidence with which companies such as John Lewis, Heinz (now 3G) and BMW go about what they do.

I enjoy seeing challengers like Aldi disrupting the market and behaving small when they are actually the 90th biggest company in the world - quite a lot bigger than Tesco with twice as many stores in 18 countries. I ‘m thrilled by the narrative of British Airways and the problematic relaunch of Coca-Cola. But there’s something about big companies that’s beginning to worry me quite a lot. It’s that being big can make you a bully and turn you prematurely deaf.

Being big makes you think ‘There’s my way and then, of course, there’s my way.’ Most of all, being big makes you an enemy of marketing. The big decisions you make will be about cost and margins, about downsizing, consolidating and acquisitions. They should be about people and what they want and need. They should be about marketing but they won’t be. And when you get too big to focus on marketing, you’re going to die. Big, old companies often get trapped in their own legacy with an out-of-date business model and old fashioned products. They get uncomfortably stuck with a redundant overhead too expensive to write off yet dragging the minds of the company downwards and backwards. New businesses are about the future. They are about risk and about change. They are now and next. They are where innovation thrives. They are about learning. They are busy doing important things. Like visualising how the world might be in the future. Thinking radically and being inspired.. New businesses are lucky. They generally don’t have shareholders. They don’t have a lot of out-of-date plant and property they don’t need. They don’t have a huge workforce or a lot of bureaucracy. But what else don’t they have? They don’t have enough money to have much wriggle room. So they need to be very smart or lucky to survive. 
In a recent conversation between Professor Clay Christensen and Marc Andreessen (Silicon Valley entrepreneur) at Startup Grind Global 2016, Clay Christensen said there was capital everywhere looking for a home. Unfortunately return on investment was virtually zero overall and there was an astonishing $6 trillion in negative yielding bonds. So why isn’t more of this money being invested in start-ups? The success rate of start-ups is improving and starting from zero is recognised as a great place to set off from. The world of the new and disruptive is amazing. Consider. The biggest media company in the world is now Facebook, the biggest Hotelier is Airbnb, the biggest producers of films are India and Nigeria (Hollywood comes third.)
Excited? Well I think we should be.
       

Monday, 9 May 2016

ALL'S FAIR IN LOVE AND WAR

I’ve been thinking about ethics which is rather like saying “I’ve been thinking about algebra” - because “ethics” sounds so dry and academic. It’s what the ancient Greeks spent their Sunday afternoons talking about. Here’s what got me thinking: old Aristotle supping, as it were over his pint, and muttering:
We do not act rightly because we have virtue and excellence but rather we have those because we acted rightly.

Attitude doesn’t determine our behaviour…it’s our instinctive behaviour that shapes our attitudes.

So how are we doing?

Not very well - be depressed if you look at the past weeks where events have been created from pragmatism, cynicism and a mix of lawyers saying “don’t say that” , PR people adopting the well-worn approach “we need a new strategy - we’ll have to lie” and strategists saying “we must win…regardless”.
In politics the same unpredictable/inevitable occurs. Trump wins in Indiana and all-but the Republican nomination. This reminds me of the Democrat Donald Tuck who allegedly once said “the people have spoken …the bastards.

Behaviour is uniformly devoid of ethics and disregards consequences….Zac Goldsmith’s abortive campaign in the London Mayorial contest was designed only to win at any cost. Trump says whatever gets a headline. Meanwhile some of the comments made on both sides in the current wretched EU Referendum Campaign remind me of Shakespeare’s Henry VI and the War of the Roses and are shamelessly bellicose.

Now, York, or never steel thy fearful thoughts
And change misdoubt to resolution

The Hollow Crown, on BBC 2, is brilliant study of amorality apart from the appearance of well- known faces in new parts. Downton Abbey meets Lark Rise meets Last Tango in Halifax meets Mr Selfridge.
And with those familiar faces comes an expectation of how they’ll behave…Richard of York is Adrian Dunbar the actor most recently seen as Superintendent Ted Hastings head of police crime investigation unit C12 in Line of Duty.

There he’s a paragon of ethics. And now transformed to an iambically pentameter wielding politician.
The expression “all’s fair in love and war” finds its earliest manifestation in Shelton’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in 1620:

love and war are all one…it is lawful to use sleights and stratagems to attain the wished end

Only it isn’t. It just isn’t - as Aleppo shows us to our collective shame. It isn’t - as Hillsborough showed us. It isn’t - as Sebb Blatter and his crew have discovered.

A good friend of mine - a very senior Civil Servant - is aghast by the continuing evidence of the institution he’s been brought up to trust, the Police. There’s little sign over time of their “acting rightly”.


The good news is an emerging younger generation of ethical minds.

Q. Isn’t Suarez a great striker?
A (from 7 year old Grandson): No. He’s terrible. He bites.

We do not act rightly because we have virtue and excellence but rather we have those because we acted rightly.

Monday, 2 May 2016

LET'S START ALL OVER AGAIN

The morning sun is shining on the Royal Geographical Society, London Business School MBA students are smiling as they meet the torrent of delegates to the 2016 TED x event they’re hosting here. The event is called “CntrlAltDel”. There are sixteen speakers TED style - 18 minutes each. It’s day of reflection, a day of “Alt”. A day of “Ant” too…. Anticipation…


There were some interesting insights and thoughts. Here are my top six:

  • Don’t be frightened of AI …the quicker it grows the smarter we’ll get because that’s what human beings do; they improve as the bar is raised. Watch out for chess standards going up.
  • We tend to be in conflict denial (in case we make things worse and have a row). The energy from conflict is a bonus. So embrace conflict - work with it.
  • Two models. Aviation and Medicine. In aviation every mistake is admitted to, analysed and learnt from. Result: continually improving safety record. In Medicine there’s cover up, denial and blame on luck not human error.
  • We talk about leadership. How about “followership”? How about creative, reactive followership as in Tango dancing? How can I (follower) respond to their (leader) moves to build on and enhance their directions?
  • Innovation? Forget blue-sky thinking. How about, instead, a programme to stop doing those stupid things which have settled into the default behaviour of an organisation?
  • How about a new way of creating imagery in sexual education. Instead of, as in Baseball…”pitcher, catcher, getting to first, second, third base, home-run, striking out”, how about instead of that scenario a Pizza metaphor? Sharing, having the usual (or being more adventurous) or simply asking what someone wants?


It’s Pizza and Tango that have most stayed in my mind. In creative thinking (not just sex) it’s Pizza that wins as it is interrogative. It’s not about command and control. You can do it anywhere and you don’t need to dress up.



“Shall we?
What would you like?
Shall we share?
How about a Take-Away?”

The Tango model is even more intriguing. It’s also described as “partner dancing”. (And incidentally a therapeutic version was created a decade ago called Tangolates - derived from the core position strengthening concepts of Pilates.) The three stage process that speaker Sue Cox described as “embrace> connect> collaborate” sounds like a useful way to start working together and a better model than “the leader tells and the rest obey” model.

Was the day worthwhile? Of course. Entertaining, refreshing and thought-provoking.

By the way I wonder if TED as a format isn’t a bit TIRED…speeches, many too long for our shortening attention spans…all a bit too self-important?

In today’s world everyone is a competent speaker. Presenting is uniformly good. Note free, relaxed and articulate. This brings its own challenges. You have to be really exceptional to stand out.
But as an experience my conclusion is this. Prolonged listening and thinking is good for our weary brains.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

WE ALL NEED A BIT OF DRAMA


Recently the UK has been in thrall to the Archer’s story of Helen being emotionally manipulated by her ghastly husband Rob. This story of bullying has raised around £100,000 for the Helen Titchener Rescue Fund on JustGiving. When it was Helen rather than Rob who snapped into physical violence in the recent climax a lot of people got very angry accusing the show’s producers of ”irresponsibility” and of treating the situation as just a soap opera. The story had become so real it had crossed the line of reality.

We live in a post-comfort zone world where we need drama. Young people relish the squirming effect of a stressful situation and of sharing their discomfort with others. Stories are the diet of our times. Some companies, seizing on this, actually appoint Chief Storytellers who emulating  Anglo Saxon bards create concepts like the “corporate camp fire” urging executives to “gather round and attend the tale of the Persil (or whatever) launch.” We are all players in a highly charged narrative. You don’t go to work, you go to theatre.


Stories are changing with the relatively new quotient of  increasing unpredictability … long running dramas like Game of Thrones and House of Cards where anything can happen and even (no especially) the good and virtuous, although there aren’t many of those, get brutally and unexpectedly done away with. The punchline “and they all lived happily ever after” is for the birds.

Today “the hero was unjustly accused, gruesomely killed and the villain went off with his wife whom he first turned mad before throwing her to his crazed poodles and going off to receive his knighthood from King Harry unexpectedly sitting on the throne after that terrible train crash in 2018 did away with the other heirs.”

This is the Elizabethan world of John Webster not the cosy world of Jane Austen. It’s a world of power, violence and politics. The lurid world of Westminster has reached Ambridge and beyond. Conspiracy theory abounds. The line gets crossed again when in the BBC2 Drama Line of Duty a photograph of police and politician in a child abuse investigation is shown with Jimmy Savile in the background.


Dramatic and unpredictable narrative has become addictive.  Andrew Stanton the writer of Pixar’s “Toy Story” describes drama as “anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” The punchline to a story could nowadays be anything but we live in constant hope of horrid surprise.

If Lord of the Rings were rewritten Sam would meet a grisly end, Frodo would secrete the ring and give a chilling grin to the camera in the last scene.

Stat Trek hit the point with their immortal “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” That’s the journey but now it needs more …. “and unjustly suffers an unexpected fate.”

“But the new Persil shrunk all the clothes so the people thought they’d got fat and committed suicide and their zombie-ghosts came for the Persil Board.”

Ha, ha …….



Monday, 18 April 2016

MAROONED BY THE MARATHON

On Sunday it was the Brighton Marathon. This meant we were cut off from the outside world as the

Marathon looped round where we live. Some of us watched as the Half Marathon went by first - a depressing parade of people who were medically unfit to walk let alone run. It was torture watching. “Ah! Bless ‘em” said the person next to me.


But like bad art it shouldn’t have been happening. Then, thankfully, came the real thing. The marathon proper led by a dozen lithe, loping Kenyans whose grace like Ronaldo I could have watched all day.

The trouble with today’s world where anyone can join in is the content and performance is so often dreadful. All the media is full of exhausted prose. But over the last week or so there were three exceptions. Caitlin Moran whom I love deeply and who makes me laugh more than any writer since Alan Coren, had a rant about the referendum.


She was eloquent saying that apart from a few conservatives who’ve been obsessed about Europe (like a mum going on and on about a guy down the road whose porch extension she doesn’t like) most of the people in the UK really don’t get fussed about Europe…it just doesn’t interfere with their lives. Until now…
Russia and the Islamic State must be high fiving that the energy of the most prosperous, but currently shaky, union in the world is being diverted by the UK having a drama-queen hissy fit over a quarter of a pint of f***-all

And, she adds, “right at the start of the picnic season.”

Next up David Miliband.


Remember him waving a banana around and losing in the Labour leadership election to his dreadful little brother. Dave went off in a huff to New York to become CEO of the charity the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He is now a great success. Fortune Magazine has called him one of the World's Greatest Leaders in 2016.

And here’s what he says:

 "No nation in human peacetime history, never mind Britain, has voluntarily given up as much political power as we are being invited to throw away on 23 June. For what?  A cold, hard lesson in the demon of hubris, born of delusion that the world owes us a break….a tragic miscalculation which weakens ourselves, our friends and the international order on which we depend."

Bet you wish he was back. We need people like him whose command of language is so impressive and impassioned.


Which has had me wishing that our Prime Minister was like Justin Trudeau, Canadian PM. Insanely, Bobby-Kennedy-good-looking and charismatic he’s doubled the Canadian culture budget “because it matters.”  As impressively he astonished the audience at an event at the University of Waterloo, Ontario by his grasp of quantum computing. Witty, charming and graceful like those Kenyan runners who impressed me so much.

We need more smart and eloquent people like these around us and fewer intellectual fatties.

Monday, 11 April 2016

THE GRASS WAS GREENER YESTERDAY

Nick Robinson of the BBC Today programme discovered something that national treasure and hero Winston Churchill said:-
We cannot aim at anything less than the union of Europe as a whole, and we look forward with confidence to when that Union will be achieved


Looking back is seldom as rewarding as this. This week, for instance, I was at a stately home near Daventry called Fawsley Hall at an old friend’s birthday lunch. It was a cheerful and charming event. I sat opposite two young guys who’d been 6 and 9 when I’d first met them. They were reflecting on what they supposed was a better life before their own when our world was pure and simple and kids played in the street.


Yeah. When skylarks arose exultantly the whole time and butterflies danced on the corn as high as an elephant’s eye. I roundly disabused them saying life today was much better, that standards were higher and people were smarter and nicer.

They seemed rather surprised by my enthusiasm.

As I sat there I wondered how many people of my age and beyond feel. Because, you see, I don’t really identify with a lot of them, their thoughts and behaviour.

Between 55 and 75 men drink 12% more than other adult men.
Sexually transmitted diseases have doubled amongst 50 -90 year old in the past decade
The  average man in the South can expect to live to 82 ½
He’ll have spent 17 ½ years (longer if a senior civil servant) lounging about on cruises, getting drunk, having hip replacements and creative sex.
Voting SDP so long as his wife doesn’t find out


You’re right; many of our older citizens are a bit of disgrace.

Virtuously teetotal currently (because I’m writing a book) I‘ve been thinking about the world of marketing I used to occupy.

We are experiencing something of a revolution right now. By the way, beware when a marketing man talks about seismic shifts or revolutions - we all tend to exaggerate. But in this instance I think “revolution” is right … the old institutions are struggling to survive as new disruptive forces rewrite the rules - enterprises like Airbnb (biggest provider of bed nights in the world now - Intercontinental should be worried I guess). Uber and Deliveroo are setting the benchmark for change just as Amazon, Apple and Google have already done.

But it’s people who’re changing fastest….most of them. They work harder than ever before. They show more entrepreneurial spirit. They shop around promiscuously and concepts like brand loyalty are looking threadbare. They watch some of the greatest film ever produced from hundreds of different channels. They read more, sing more, talk more and have more friends with whom they’re in constant touch. They are much more serious about life, about values and about their community.

This is not the materialistic society that I grew up in.

This is the future and I applaud it.