Monday, 3 June 2019

AM I A STATISTICAL FREAK?

As I age and ache, that saying comes to mind that being an old (ish) man, even on a good day, feels not much different from being a young (ish) man except that young man is feeling rather unwell.  But it’s the mind I want to focus on. We are supposed to become more conservative,  more prone to live in the past and more averse to loss as the years pass.


Almost 50% of Conservative Party voters in the UK are over 65 and only 16% of those under 35 say they’ll vote conservative. By rights I should be joining my cohort but….but…. as the years pass I’m getting more left wing.  The Wedgewood Benn in me has, suddenly, like something from ‘The Alien’ leapt snarling from my body. Only it isn’t snarling, it’s full of good humour, just a little anti-capitalist. I  sat in church on Sunday listening to the hymn “Glorious Things of thee are Spoken” with that couplet about the overly rich and smug:

“Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, 
 All his boasted pomp and show”.

The Christians have always known how to smack the rich, them and their “boasted pomp and blasted yachts”. But it isn’t just their “boasted pomp”; more importantly it’s their extreme right-wing Toryness that alienates me.


Alistair Campbell has, meanwhile,  lost his home in Labour who, in turn,  seem to have lost their political minds according to Matthew Goodwin’s article “The Strange Death of Labour” in the Sunday Times.  We slightly further right of Alistair and wondering where our political home might be are facing, like Tennyson’s Light Brigade (misquoted):

“Idiots to the right of us
Idiots to the left of us
Idiots in front to us” 

 I am spending my days frustrated by homelessness, poverty, official attitudes to migrants and the problems suffered in Northern Africa, the tragic decline in manners (stop shuffling Donald Trump. We respect your office but you are very naughty),  the dislocation of a significant number of young children – posing knife threats but worse than that in the long term. We have become a richer, smarter, more excluding and less kind society and that makes me sad.


We‘ve stopped caring enough about the big issues. This “Withdrawal Agreement” has not been a big issue at all - just a fatally misunderstood “preliminary” agreement. We shall have to learn new skills like listening and doing coalition well. The old votes and tribal loyalties are dead. John Scott – the mediator - said this about our world:

“In this increasingly complex, kick-arse, hurtling, over-provided world most people want a simpler life.”

Hurray for simplicity.


And that is just what Clement Attlee described:

“(No) differences arose between Conservatives, Labour and Liberals ….in the War Cabinet … not in the big things. ... 

When one came to work out solutions … one had to …disregard private interests.  But there was no opposition from Conservative Ministers. 
They accepted the practical solution whatever it was.”

That’s all we ask.

Monday, 27 May 2019

OH MY AMERICA...

John Donne in his Elegy XIX, “On his Mistress Going to Bed”, written in 1633, compares the excitement of the New-found-land of America with seducing his naked mistress: “licence these roving hands”  he says.


On Friday we went to the Chineke! Orchestra playing a programme of American music as part of the Brighton Festival. (Chineke! is a not-for-profit foundation providing opportunities in classical music for Black and Minority Ethnic musicians.)

It was wonderful. We’d never heard a more impassioned or dramatic version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or a funnier Copland’s ‘I bought me a Cat’. In addition to these composers we had Montgomery, Weill and Ibert.  We realised, as we listened there was this unmistakable American sound full of optimism, grandeur and wit. It was like listening to the best Hollywood film scores distilled into an expensive, sweet perfume.


For sure, we have our own local difficulties right now and the recent EU elections may well show an unwelcome rise of right wing parties but something even graver is happening across the Atlantic.


America gave me more frissons of excitement than anywhere else I’d been. To land at Kennedy and see the New York skyline sent shivers down my back.  To watch Aaron Sorkin’s ‘West Wing’ and somehow (how naive!) believe it was a true to life insight to American politics; to see Jeff Daniels’ (Sorkin again): 'America is not the greatest country in the world anymore', The Newsroom - 2012 – and to know no other writer in any other country would dare to write such a critical piece or for it to be delivered with such brio; to remember the iconic westerns that shaped my sense of right and wrong and, as with Elmer Bernstein’s music for ‘The Magnificent Seven’, to find myself humming it as I walked into a difficult meeting. This was my America.


And these were reasons why I had believed that America really was the greatest country in the world, thrilling, brave, fair and always innovative. The dreadful Monroe Doctrine had long gone.

But America has gone sour. I can no longer recognise it as the place that  brought us Gershwin’s music, Elvis, MoTown, Tom Wolfe,  Mohammed Ali, Michael Johnson and Sorkin or James Stewart. America has been stolen and I want it back.  Because it belongs to the whole world, not just Americans, it belongs to all our memories of progress and adventure. I feel a sense of sacrilege that the vast canvas boldly painted in bright and exotic colour has been painted over.

Perhaps it’s characteristic of our times that electorates sit passively as the past is written out and its culture is traduced and replaced by  shrill and discordant voices. Politicians everywhere are now becoming the sort of people with whom you would not wish to converse, let alone break bread.

In 1976 on my  first visit to America I felt like Donne:

“How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Not anymore, I’m afraid. Not anymore.






Monday, 20 May 2019

NOBODY LIKES US

When our entry “Bigger than us” came last in The European Song Contest on Saturday with just 16 points I was not surprised. We’ve been placed in the bottom five out of twenty six entries, an astonishing nine times, since 2005.  Either we are terrible musicians or we pick the wrong songs or we are just extremely unpopular.


In November 2018 Music Week trumpeted – that’s what you do in the music business – that the UK was a global leader in music: growing to an annual £4.5 billion turnover; exports up 7% to £2.6 billion. Receipts to the UK treasury just under £1 billion. So it’s not that.

When it comes to popular votes by which we choose our entry to this competition we have, let’s just say, a slightly uneven track record. As I watched poor Michael Rice giving what was described by the UK press as a “very solid performance” – could there be a worse accolade? – I knew we were doomed. Extremely solid performance. Extremely flaky song.

The answer then is an extraordinary feat of mediocrity, almost as though we didn’t really care. I fear we have become the global Millwall FC whose fans’ match song as you may know goes like this:  “nobody likes us, we don’t care".  And they don’t and we don’t.


We have become the stroppy kid who decided to walk out and now they’re all sniggering at us and making us very cross.

In the midst of all this confusion and self-pity I find an increasing sense of personal resolution because I have a funny feeling this is all going to work out OK in the end. The EU is a bit of a mess, which we knew. Mess is a constant in life. It all depends on how you deal with it.  If you consider Orban (Hungary) , Kurz (Austria), Salvini (Italy) and the presence of Le Pen (France), the AFD (Germany) the Union part of European seems open to question.


Yet we know young people, pretty well across Europe, mostly believe in collaboration, sharing, liberal values and quite soon, as they flex their muscles, they won’t put up with the playground behaviour of the right wing here or in Europe. They know, and let’s face it, this is all they’ve ever known, peace and success is achieved through compromise, listening and a determination to look after each other.


I find myself thinking that Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate change activist is altogether more wholesome and well principled in her ambitions for humanity in general than, say Nigel Farage, although I think he believes what he says. It’s just that,  as with Michael Rice, I don’t like the tune he’s singing. Old fashioned. Separatist. Hostile. Cruel.

We have to grow out of this belligerent Millwall tendency. In a democracy we must, of course, let this play out. But we need a better story for it to end well and we need to tell it better. It seems as though some think this is the Game of Thrones. It isn’t and we need to grow up and start being kinder to each other. It’ll just take a bit of time, calm and common sense.

Monday, 13 May 2019

THE RICH LIST ARE PISSED OFF



The front page of the Sunday Times this weekend predicted a ‘catastrophic’ emigration of the rich taking trillions away with them if “Corbygeddon” happened (the paper also published their 2019 “Rich List”).  There are reasons why I’m sceptical about the benefits of Jeremy as Prime Minister but I don’t necessarily see slightly increasing taxation on the rich as a major disbenefit.  They really have a bit of a cheek. They already find ample ways of avoiding tax so they can go away and live in the Cayman  Islands, Guernsey, Monaco or wherever. We shan’t miss them nor, surely, will their departure trumpet the end of the “enterprise economy” as some darkly warn.


Do I envy these rich? Not one whit. Not when two of the richest people I know are both living with clinical depression and are desperately unhappy, beyond doctors’ ability to revive their spirits. Even more horrific is the story of the Rausing family, founders of Tetra Pak, some of whom came to Britain to avoid the high levels of taxation in Sweden (see what happens “Rich-List?).  Eva died  through a drug overdose and her husband Hans Kristian Rausing's drug addiction was such that he lived with his dead wife for two months in their Eaton Square house before telling anyone. The Rausings for many years topped the Rich List.

I looked at this Rich List today and saw we hadn’t made it – again. But we’d made something else. A reasonable level of comfort, contentment,  living close to those we love, with a huge entourage of brilliantly talented, kind and charming friends. On the “Happiness Index” we’d be ahead of most rich paranoiacs.

As Daniel Kahneman observed in his seminal book on thinking, “Thinking Fast and Slow”,  human beings are more traumatised by loss aversion than almost anything else. So if you’re rich you spend most of your life terrified someone will take it away. You’ve stopped going to church because people keep talking about getting through the eyes of needles. So you’re leaving for Belize clutching your cash (by the way I love the way that Belize rhymes with sleaze).


Rich seems to mean lonely – stories of Phil Green’s decline and misery from mega-billions to mere hundreds of millions and the opprobrium that’s gone with this decline make me wonder why he doesn’t give it all away and be seen as a nice guy for a change.

Talking of nice guys we saw a French group from Lyon, at the Brighton Festival called the ‘Ensemble Correspondances’ singing music from the court of Louis XII.  It was utterly, mind-soothingly perfect. Not a movement, note or nuance out of place. We talked to them afterwards.  An entourage of 15 musicians and singers, young, cool and beautiful. I spoke in extravagant, erratic French. They smiled and replied in perfect, nuanced, cultured English.


It occurred to me. Can we get more of them over here and more of the filthy rich over … wherever?

Monday, 6 May 2019

BAD BLOOD OR BLOODY SILLY?

I’ve been reading “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies of a Silicon Valley Start-Up” about a company that promised to become enormous. Founded in 2003 it raised $900 million from funders,and at its peak in 2013 was valued at $10 billion yet in 2018 was worth nothing. Such things have happened before – the South Sea Bubble 1711, the Florida Property Boom 1926, Enron 2007 – but this scandal had a particular frisson.


Its founder, a 19 year old college dropout called Elizabeth Holmes, modelled herself on Steve Jobs. She set out to create a method of testing blood by taking very small amounts extracted by a painless prick in the thumb. The test machines were intended to be compact like a large laptop. Her dream was eventually to transform diagnostic medicine by having these machines in homes. She had a dream.


She was clearly a charismatic sales person as the funders included Rupert Murdoch putting in $150 million; her board included Henry Kissinger and Fortune Magazine said: “With three former cabinet secretaries, two former senators, and retired military brass, it’s a board like no other.” 

The problem was the blood testing never worked properly and the machinery to do the tests was only ever in laboratory prototype form. Somehow Elizabeth managed to persuade a lot of smart people including Larry Ellison the founder and Chairman of Oracle that she was a genius and, like Jobs was going to change the world. She managed to get distribution of Theranos “blood-testing machines” into Walgreen and Safeway.


It’s not a very pretty story. Elizabeth and her CEO and lover (as it transpired) Sunny Balwani, ruled the company with a mediaeval level of terror. The place was full of ex-government heavyweight security guards. Key staff were fired on a regular basis for any minor offence like asking awkward questions and ex-employees were terrorised by the rottweiler law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. This was not a place to work however good the remuneration. It’s a story of self-delusion and a single woman’s ambition to achieve the seemingly impossible whatever it took and whoever was destroyed en route.
Or is it? Carreyrou’s book is a prosecution case and a comprehensive indictment but there’s something missing for me. I’m not convinced that Elizabeth was a fraudster. I think she had an idea, pursued it rigorously and by dint of her personality enrolled an unlikely bunch of eminent advisors who fell for her charisma and saw what they wanted to see – the next Steve Jobs and this time a woman. And their admiration drove her on to believe in the infallibility of her idea and herself.


She’s obviously a genius at creative communication and a salesperson who deserves better than being burnt at the stake of moral outrage. She had an idea that everyone wanted and she got everything right:  packaging, advertising and media coverage.

Only one thing was missing. A reliable product that actually worked.

And that was just bloody silly.

Monday, 29 April 2019

DRINKING: NOT AS BAD AS FIRST THOUGHT

Who needs champagne when there was the astonishingly wonderful weather of Easter weekend? As the sun beamed down on the beaches of Brighton it was as though all the miseries of Brexit  - the hokey-cokey story– “in-out-in-out-shake-it-all-about” – had been erased . And anyway during the week it dawned on me that this Brexit stress was not actually what it was all about.


A study, from the National Institute on Ageing and the National Institutes of Health, suggests even small daily stress factors can lead to health problems later in life. What about “big daily stresses”? Because I have rarely seen such disaffection as now.

According to work done recently at the University of Bristol there’s an alarmingly high incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease amongst young adults in the UK. The startling insight of this study is that the liver diseases normally associated with hitting the bottle may instead be brought about by stress in the young. I was so concerned by this that I had to have a glass of wine.


We live uncertainly in a stressful world. And it’s not just Brexit. It’s not just terrorist attacks. It’s about something rather more in our own control. The complexity and crowdedness of our lives today. Technology is remarkable in  its cleverness.  But the creativity of people creating apps that solve problems we didn’t know we actually had, creates stress.  And stress leads to liver disease.

I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur although I’m afraid I am one. I was born into a pre digital world and I cannot honestly say that WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even Amazon have necessarily transformed my life for the better. When I’m travelling my Kindle allows me to carry a library but actually reading a real book printed on crisp new paper in a nice font that smells of “new book” is still an unbeatable experience. As is writing a real letter on Basildon Bond using my poor ignored Mont Blanc full of Quink.


Our world is crammed with “solutions”. We have eating solutions, logistic solutions, accommodation solutions, clothing solutions, health solutions or, ultimately, solution solutions. We don’t need solutions (which presuppose problems) we need simplifications and less choice.

Libby Purves following that long, languorous Easter weekend, speculated on the large number of people who’d be saying they wanted to get away from it all. I can hear them:
“let’s sell up, take a camper van, go through France stopping wherever takes our fancy, eat chunks of fresh bread lying next to a bubbling stream,  quaffing local wine from the bottle and watching white fluffy clouds scud across the deep blue sky.”

I know people who did just that. They came back,  said it had been fun at first….but not after a while. Too many bloody fluffy clouds. You can’t turn back the clock. Dinosaurs die but until they do let’s stop submitting meekly to technology that’s not a solution just stress inducing.

Cheers.

Monday, 22 April 2019

TOO BIG TO BLAME?

When something goes very wrong the biggest companies seem to hang on, not so much by their fingertips as by one finger whilst cocking a snoot with the other hand. It’s amazing that the Costa cruise brand, VW and Boeing all seem to be in such rude health after their respective calamities.


The Costa Concordia foundered with 32 deaths, the Costa brand being now emblazoned on 17 skyscraper ships. The share price of owner, Carnival, dipped by 20% after the accident but was followed by a swift and sustained recovery. VW under assault following their emissions scandal is being sued in the US together with CEO Martin Winterkorn and four other executives but “shock-horror” has been largely followed by “yawn-so-what”. Their share price down to €132 after the scandal broke is now at €164. Boeing’s calamities, two planes crashing with allegedly similar causes and 347 fatalities is remarkable in a world where, first of all, air disasters are increasingly unusual and, secondly, because no other commercial aircraft has been implicated in so many fatalities in so short a period since 1966. Their share price is only down 15% despite a monthly cost in grounding the 737 MAX of around $1billion. “Could they go bust?” I asked a friend to a derisory snort of “of course not; follow the share price”.
There are too many rich, dispassionate interests in all these companies to be overly fussed by a few deaths. The 72 poor, lost souls in the Grenfell tragedy were faced with more anger, outrage and animation to allocate blame. The same will happen in the death-free Notre Dame fire. Blame is a cheap commodity except when mega companies are involved. Do we really believe Facebook would have survived as unscathed as it is it had been a small company?
Ruth Rochelle, mentor and consultant, said about scale-ups in business that at the moment of raising funds to go to the next stage “idealism takes a kicking.” I think that she’s right and I think it’s a pity. It’s idealism that’s inspiring the Climate Change demonstrations (and about time) but they are spending more time dreaming than making a big difference. When they stuck themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence I wondered if they’d gone mad but when he refused to engage them in conversation I realised he’d completely lost the common touch that got him where he is today. This beautiful summer Bank Holiday – it’s far too good for Spring – has restored our faith in ourselves. We are just not a big company country, we only have 4 in the top 100 global companies and two of those are petroleum companies (one 50% Dutch) one’s a bank and one’s another 50% Dutch business. We simply do small better. We are more like Waitrose than Asda; more like Bill’s than Burger King.
As the sun gives those climate change protesters “this-isn’t right-in-April” suntanned faces, applaud the fact that so many care about something other than money.