Monday, 10 May 2021

AT LAST... A GOOD READ

Since Lockdown One I’ve been struggling to read properly.  

Properly  meaning reading a book from beginning to end. I’ve flipped through magazines and papers, I’ve dipped into books usually stopping out of frustration. Nothing seemed to grip me or suspend my thinking about the mechanics of reading. I was like the child in the car asking “are we nearly there yet?” 

A very clever and good friend confessed to suffering from the same affliction saying he read a book at the same pace now as he used to read Latin prose (mind you he got the top classics scholarship to the top college in Oxford over  half a century ago so he probably read Latin quite fast.) Now he flipped through the first few pages of a book and said he knew pretty well what the author was going to say and he couldn’t be bothered with fiction.

I got paranoid and went to the optician for a test expecting to be told I was going blind. Instead he prescribed reading glasses. I’ve taken a while to get used to them as when I have them on I can see the printed page clearly but the rest of the room is a blur and a glass of wine even before I’ve started drinking it seems out of focus. 

Harper Lee cured me when I read what she’d said:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

The clincher was to realise three books by three of my favourite writers were out at the beginning of May. Robert Harris, Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. 

I’ve finished two in three days and the third will be read and done with by tomorrow.

I can read. I can read again.

“The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell is a study of the psychology of war. When in the late 1930’s a Dutchman invented the bomb-aimer so sophisticated it could (theoretically) enable you to drop a bomb from six miles up into a barrel of pickles, a group of young men, self-styled the Bomber Mafia, realise this could mean being able to end war which involved large armies killing each other and focusing instead on taking out key factories. The story (a true one of course) is the debate between this vision led by an intellectual  young General Hayward Haskell and the more pragmatic ‘obliterate-them’ view of an even younger get-it-done General Curtis LeMay.

In the event Haskell gets fired in the war against the Japanese and is replaced by the dour LeMay who leads napalm raids on 67 Japanese cities. The war was over before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions had been burnt to death before that final hammer blow.

Unbelievably May gets a medal from the Japanese for helping stop the war quickly and letting the US in rather than a prolonged break-up of Japan by the Soviets and Chinese.

Gladwell says:

“Curtis won the battle. But Haskell won the war.”

It’s a great story but I’m not sure I agree with that after recent events in Syria.

“V2” is by Robert Harris. They’re both war books. Obviously I feel aggressive. The book describes the story of Werner Von Braun’s V2 rockets and the attempt of the British to anticipate through trigonometry how to take out their launch sites.

It’s near the end of the war, Hitler’s last gamble. And as it ends with both sides thinking they’d inflicted vast damage on the other but ends with the line “we were both misled”.

Gripping, informative, readable and …. read.

And yet to come…

Monday, 3 May 2021

FEEL BETTER (JUST LIKE THAT)

Three things really irritated me last week.

First, the sudden, unwanted e-mails lauding various brands of Bitcoin which apart from being a contributor to global warming is, as far as I can see,  the South Sea Bubble of the 21st century. Then, HSBC which is not my bank, constantly texting me to say there’s a problem on my account. When I complained to them they told me “just ignore it”. Finally both my wife and I have both been called to say “this is the HMRC; you have been named in a tax fraud; unless you return this call you will be instantly arrested.” We just ignore that too. The plan to stay off social media for a few days that celebs have advocated to protest about online racial abuse seems entirely sensible. But I have a better plan.

Change your phone as I’ve done. Everyone who has a Motorola thinks it’s wonderful. I’m an exception. I haven’t come to terms with it at all. It doesn’t seem to like me either. So it sulks in my pocket whilst I sulk outside. Now the consequence is I’m using it less and less and avoiding the stress of emails and texts I don’t want or need.

But four things pleased me last week. 

1. The continuation of Spring albeit with a nasty sneaky chill but there’s the joy of seeing brave, confident plants plumping up and thriving and this makes every morning joyful. As do the birds. I saw a goldfinch and that was magic as are the magnolia and the sound of woodpeckers.

2. A Spring dish that was a triumph. Risotto Primavera. We use orzo pasta which has something of a risotto appearance cooked in white wine and chicken stock with peas, asparagus, baby leaks and chopped broccoli heads. With a glass or two of ice cold Picpoul. Wonderful.

3. The discovery that I can actually meditate and let my mind empty of energy-sapping thoughts. I’ve spent too many years speculating about things that might happen. Now I calmly and pleasantly look at the grass, trees and horizon and lose myself like a fluffy cloud gently moving across a blue sky. 

4. Finally, we’ve been told our future lies in cyber-technology and AI. I’m rather sceptical about this. Because the art of the specialist, practical engineer is far from dead.  We have a veranda with three metal poles allegedly supporting the canopy and they were rusting at the bottom. Various people inspected them, sucked their teeth, muttered “oh dear – job for a specialist” and left. This had gone on and on with me increasingly anticipating a veranda collapse. 

Enter Dale. He arrives two days after I’d called, takes a look, suggests a pragmatic solution, sends a quote for half what I’d feared it might be and then arrives with a young man who cuts off the rusty pieces at the bottom of the poles, welds on galvanised pipe with base- plates to replace where the rusty pipe was. He then screws the base plate into the concrete veranda floor. Whoosh. All done and swept clean in less than two hours. The company has staff and a boss with refreshing can-do attitudes. If they’re an important part of our future rather than just apps and nice-to-have cyber-labour-savers, we’ll be fine.

And it’s not just climate change that’s a problem. Human beings are overheating too. We huff-puff, get querulous, quarrelsome and peevish. No need. Just watch a specialist at work or a blackbird building a nest. They really know what they’re doing and that’s so comforting.

Monday, 26 April 2021

BANANA SKINS

 I love banana skins

I’m not alone. It’s the minor disasters like throwing your car into Reverse rather than Drive and accelerating not as a prince of the road into a gap in the traffic but reversing noisily into the parked car behind. Doh!

A while back on a freezing winter day the banana skin became black ice on to which I confidently strode and my feet flew from under me pitching me on to my head. Fortunately, my hair hadn’t been cut for ages and it felt like falling on to a soft well-stuffed cushion. 

It’s the banana skin phenomenon that made The Play That Goes Wrong such a hit. But when it goes wrong for the high, mighty and humourless it’s best of all. Quentin Letts in the Times described a virtual International Earth Day conference of the Global Heads of State.  It was a techno-catastrophe from start to finish.

Kamala Harris, US Vice President, had voice feedback so every word was broadcast twice making her sound like the tannoy announcements at Paddington Station. Several speakers were on intermittent mute. The Chinese President was interrupted by a loud electronic pipping sound. The Japanese President spoke so fast the translator couldn’t keep up and had to be replaced. Best of all the President of France was introduced and on screen the President of Indonesia appeared, was swiftly removed and replaced by Vladimir Putin. He scowled (as he does) – silence – background technician mutterings (poor technician when Vlad gets hold of him). The rest was chaos – coughing fits from Brazil and scripts being flung about. It was, Letts says, the presentation from hell. Strangely it sounds great to me and a perfect depiction of the diplomatic status of our world right now.

Banana skins continued with a mass of bits of media advice on how to be greener. We’re told a glass of milk is much less green than a glass of wine. Great news but elsewhere I hear wine is “liquid fat” and we must reduce our alcohol intake to under 14 units a week. Who makes this stuff up? At 14 units the story is “Watch out! You are drinking at levels that could put your health at risk and you would benefit from cutting down.”  

There’s a depressing sanctimoniousness about a lot of medical advice unless you go privately, of course, in which case the classically suited medic says “I’d keep it under a bottle a day old boy unless it’s a fine claret if I were you”. No banana skins in Harley Street. 


Banana skins follow our Prime Minister around. We all recall him being stuck on a zip wire during the 2012 London Olympics – “this could only happen to Boris” was the good-natured response. And his zip wire performance continues now. At that mad conference he said “eco-politics should not be seen as bunny hugging” (what does that mean for heaven’s sake you pillock?). The banana skin was suffered by the sign-language interpreter who baffled had to resort to a Bugs Bunny ear-flapping gesture.

The big banana skin moment of the week was the fiasco of that calamitous launch of a Football Super League. J.P. Morgan who had been backstage orchestrators had a Ratner-like omelette on their face. And the owners of the clubs found to their mystification that they didn’t really own the clubs at all…they merely funded them. We should expect them to start selling players soon to fund their own dividends. 

I fear the “beautiful game” is about to turn very ugly. Not so much a banana skin story as a tragedy.

 


Monday, 19 April 2021

A DAY OF ADVENTURE

This sounds like an Enid Blyton novel, and why not because our island lives have been a bit dull and we need to do something more exciting. Cripes, Timmy the dog’s just done a wee on my foot – in the 1950s that was a canine capital offence.

Our adventure’s a trip to London. My heartbeat quickens. I awaken during the night several times wondering if the train will be on time. We leave early just in case. The lift in the station (working at last) avoids the 54 step climb up the stairs (yes I’ve counted) so we arrive on the concourse in full breath. It’s empty but shops are open (M&S, WHS, Superdrug). A train comes in from London full of half-term families eager to freeze on Brighton Beach, eat Pizzas and scoff ice cream – what’s not to like Enid Blyton … Brighton?

We’d forgotten how hard and un-upholstered the seats on the Gatwick Express trains to London were. Who was the arse (or arse-phobic) designer who decided prison-hard was good for us? “Let the train take the strain” used to be the strapline...”and cause you pain” is a necessary addition.

It’s still exciting. Victoria. Gateway to exotica. We depart to have a pee…. the loos here are new and impressive….before making off, my wife to the Tube and me to the bus. I breathe deeply. The Capital. This has been many months, "dear thing – how are you?" “I’m lonely” London mutters “where have you been?”  I feel guilty and disloyal as I travel up Park Lane, Marble Arch, along Oxford Street. A few intrepid shoppers carrying Primark bags. Nearly everyone masked. But there are stirrings of life.

I arrive at my destination. My hairdresser off Baker Street. I look like a round-the-world-traveller, shaggy and in need of shearing. 45 minutes later I’m a new sheep.

My world is transformed when I reach Marylebone High Street and turn into Marylebone Lane which is closed to traffic. All the restaurants are out in the street. Le Relais de Venise; Caldesi; 108 and others. Tables are full. The air is warm with humanity, the whiff of good food and laughter. This is not a return to normal. This is a revelation, a transformation from London to Parisian Spring. This is real adventure. 

My wife and I meet and then walk through John Lewis as we always do on our way to the tube. The ground floor smells wonderful and is full of staff who are jolly and obviously glad to be back in their office.

The rest of the day is unmemorable. The tube half-full. People polite – we are both offered seats (I suppose we look old) and notice a very tall young woman with strange Balenciaga bootees. London. Fashion.  A new world.

Arriving back in Brighton it feels very much a seaside town – a rather disreputable nephew to grown up, sophisticated London where we had our little adventure. We’re shattered. We’d forgotten how exhausting travel can be.

The biggest issue we are going to face is discovering is if we’ve got the stamina to survive. The life most of us once led was high-octane-rushing-around, meeting, sharing ideas, face-to-face, breathing deeply. What we’ve lost is our sense of smell. Zoom is an odourless and dull place. No one laughs or smells on Zoom.

Spring will test our mettle. When restaurants really open, when we start to face each other and start conversing. I think we’ll be fine but we have to think about  handshakes and hugs because we’ve got to start loving and enjoying each other again.


Monday, 12 April 2021

WE KNOW NOTHING

We know nothing. If the past fifteen months have taught us nothing else it’s this. But rather than feeling downcast I feel excited. We’ve learnt to fast track medical research in a way that has all the scientists I know aghast with admiration and bafflement. We’ve reinvented stuff. We’ve learnt to live without any of the normal social conventions that were believed to hold communities together. We’ve discovered ways of working without unnecessary meetings. And we’ve done all this despite the rule book our experience and the pundits had drawn up being torn up and shredded.

Yes folks,  this is Terra Incognita and I like it.

It gets better.

Last week in Chicago, physicists said they may have discovered a fifth new force of nature to help explain the universe. I’d thought we knew a lot already. It seems I was wrong and that what we know only explains 5% of the Universe.  A very clever scientist said to me “what we know and our theories are not really fit for purpose”. “Like economics?” I asked “no everything is better than our knowledge of economics” he replied.


The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) said the result "provides strong evidence for the existence of an undiscovered sub-atomic particle or new force".  

That’s great. If these physicists crack the fifth force like they cracked the Covid genome we’ll be flying to Mars by Christmas. But what I like better is that the mystery of life and the possibilities of religious belief or life changing love may be nearer the truth rather than theorems I never understood.

I’m a poet rather than a physicist. I think Keats knew more about forces of nature than John Tyndall a contemporary of his who was eloquent in his views on diamagnetism (yes, me neither). The Victorian romantics were all focused on forces of nature; today more prosaic thoughts seem to occupy our poets. That’s what happens when we think we know a lot. Back in the 8th century the author of Beowulf knew little and frightened people a lot. His epic poem is full of darkness and horror. A bit like Covid really.

We think we’re all learning more and more but there a magical return swing of the pendulum whenever we think we’ve cracked a problem. Diseases that occupied me until recently but are now mostly solved  were measles, scarlet fever, polio, diphtheria: and overseas – yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, sars, swine fever. It’s as if we’ve done GCSE diseases and are now moving on to ‘A’ level. 

We know nothing. But is that so bad? It means we have lots to discover. The idea of space travel takes on a new, less self-indulgent meaning than we’ve heard from our trillionaire friends Musk and Bezos. The importance of learning new things and reducing the nothingness we know has never been greater.

Last week on BBC Radio 4 I heard someone describing the joy of finding a truly dark and light-free place from which to look at the sky at night from which they’d seen a bright star. They asked how far away it was to be told 1.5 thousand light years. “When would the light I’m watching here now have started?” they asked. “Oh I guess” came the answer “when the Romans were in Britain.”

The speed of the vaccine development has changed the possibilities for everything. Science has suddenly got sexy. Enthusiastic scientists like Brian Cox have sharpened our hunger for discovery. Perhaps we’ll soon know more than ever we imagined. 

Perhaps the 2020s will become a new “Age of Enlightenment.”

Eureka!

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

WHY WAS THE THIRD MAN SO FETED?

 Recently I watched The Third Man. I ‘d been looking forward to this great oldie (just like me I chuckled.) An hour and a half later I was disappointed and grumpy. It’s a rather slow and dreary film. Trevor Howard, one of its stars, in that clipped tone of his were he alive today, would have pronounced it “absolutely ghastly.” Yet in 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Third Man the greatest British film of all time.

Is my memory so bad? Have standards changed? Is it as great as I remembered but in the meantime have I completely lost it? Alternatively, is my critical mind now clearer and less forgiving? There’s one great line when Harry Lime (Orson Wells) justifying not being the nice guy and instead profiteering on the black-market killing hundreds with diluted penicillin:

“In Switzerland, they had brotherly love and they had 500 years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

A brilliant and memorable joke but the rest is mostly slow.



 

It seems slow because we understand things much quicker now. We are smarter. We are more demanding. But equally we get fixed in our views more firmly and are also more gullible.

Most of my working life was spent in marketing and advertising exploiting such gullibility. In truth a lot of marketing was nonsense. Marketeers behaved like Bishops protecting their fiefdoms and advertising men were quasi-Jesuits preserving myths like the weight of advertising was directly proportionate to sales. Spend more. Sell more.

Not true. The king had no clothes. Marketeers were often shysters like Kevin Roberts the one-time CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi who wrote a book called “Lovemarks” in which he claimed brands were running out of juice and could only be revived by his magic potion. This included the injection of intimacy, commitment, empathy and passion. Pass me the sick bag Doris; this is toxic tosh.

I suspect the banks might have read his book. Marketeers in banking played with intimacy whilst the money men were closing branches and playing with derivatives.

I was once invited to a discussion group of marketeers where I was mugged by a woman who said surely everyone now knew marketing budgets should be invested in good causes and a social media guru who laughingly said soup sales were correlated to illness and that since sick people consumed more soup he was advising Heinz to track flu epidemics and invest accordingly.

Marketing and advertising require rigour, common sense and a sense of humour. Looking back I remember laughing a lot. There’s not much laughter now.   

But this is not meant to be a lecture on marketing so much as a warning on the dangers of mythology. Just as Orson Wells once wove a magical web around his films so marketers (of which he was of course a master) created myths about their work.

Sadly most advertising is dull, intrusive, tone deaf and seldom funny. Similarly with films. Those the critics love are seldom those the punters go for. Like the Third Man, La-La Land was a wow with the critics. It was also pretty ghastly. 

It’s clear that in our frenetic world common sense, lightness of touch and creativity are in short supply. Mark Ritson (Marketing Week) consistently lacks ‘lightness of touch’ but I love how he debunks pretentiousness. 

Read his “The Greatest Marketing Bullshit Of All Time.” It’s a brilliant demolition of marketing mythology. In his rant he uses the term “brandwank”

“Brandwank”! I wish I’d created that. It’s utterly priceless.

Monday, 29 March 2021

WHAT ARE THE ODDS?

Have you noticed that bookies have invaded virtually everywhere we live. There are hundreds of them. Baylor University Professor Earl Grinols estimates that addicted gamblers cost the U.S. alone between $32.4 billion and $53.8 billion a year. Gambling is going to be a much greater problem in the future … I bet you.

But risk, although fundamental to gambling, is a much larger issue the understanding of which will shape all our lives. Government policy hinges on risk analysis. Personally, we daily make decisions based on our judgement of the likelihood of them turning out well.

The person we marry, the job we take, the house we buy, the holiday we take and more. Covid has sharpened all our views on risk. We have two extremes: the people who are so cautious they double mask, avoid all human contact, leave 30 feet between themselves and another in the street, wash their hands every 20 minutes and put their letters into the oven and cook them until they are charred and germ free. 

Whilst Rishi Sunak is now imploring us to go out and have fun and save the economy just like we saved the NHS,  the ultra-cautious are quaking in anticipation of the fourth wave with a mutant virus that will kill us. 

And in the blue corner (the dark blue Tory corner) we have the handshaking, hugging, rugby-scrumming, beer-swigging proponents of largesse , bonhomie and a casual attitude to life – “for tomorrow we die”. Rebels against caution and safety first:  skydivers, mountaineers, black run skiers. They believe in the right of everyone to make their own choices in life regardless of the probable consequences to themselves or others.

It seems to me both get it wrong, Mr Reckless and Ms Lifeless. The reality is we have to manage risk. We cannot eliminate it and if we tried we wouldn’t drive, fly, go on trains, cycle, go to restaurants, cinemas or meet people (or ‘germ-carriers’ as some see them.)

Robert Benchley, the American writer, satirised the cautious lifeless:

“Sometimes I’m so worried that I stay in bed. There I worry about falling out and breaking something.”  

The 21st century is not a place for tidy minds. It’s messy and it’s full of hazards. The better things get, the more risks emerge. Disease travels. Sophisticated communication systems fail. We are living on the edge of apocalyptic events (recently a storm cloud in the Western Pacific reached a temperature of -100C;  a record, but one that will soon be broken) and we need to plan for what we’ll do if, no when, these destructive events happen.

One thing we have to be more realistic about is death. I recently said I would die in the relatively near future…realistic not morbid. This provoked an emotional “don’t say that”. But I must. In 1950 the annual death rate was 1% of population. By 2019 it  had fallen to around O.7%. In 2020 thanks  to Covid there were 70,000 more deaths than forecast. Yet in reality whilst tragic that’s not cataclysmic. Despite the headlines we are living longer and better.

So let’s cheer up. 2020 has been a year of massive epidemiological advance and of understanding how to manage extreme risks. We have learnt about the fragility of the experts’ opinions and the penalties of caution. Everything that went wrong has been due to caution and indecision. The next decades will be full of “Black Swan” events. We just need to be prepared for them, learn from mistakes and enjoy life. 

!f we don’t enjoy it, what is life for?