Monday, 16 October 2017


Dreams are funny things, sometimes so funny that I wake in the middle of the night laughing. I rarely have nightmares. My dreams instead fall somewhere between Lewis Carrol and Tom Stoppard

Last night I was asked to help a Roman Catholic Cardinal make a speech about a project that had gone wrong because the people in charge had ignored their brief and struck out on their own. This prelate was surrounded by advisors who were unable to help. I scribbled this down on a piece of paper as a starter: “It was disobedience that did it. Well disobedience is and was at the start of everything wasn’t it?”

The Cardinal smiled and nodded.

It’s the word “disobedience” that reminds me of the blind John Milton waking every morning and dictating the next stanzas of his epic poem “Paradise Lost” which contained over 10,000 lines of verse. He claimed the poem came to him in his dreams. Its first lines are:

“Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit 
  of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
  brought death into the world and all our woe”....

Some poem – some dream – some magic.

Sometime in the mists of last week I read an article about why presenting matters more than maths. Certainly in business no one is a catastrophic washout any more. Virtually everyone can get by. But getting by is being able to drive just going forwards and turning left. To survive in a competitive world you have to do three point turns, emergency stops and react to changing circumstances.

Our current and now ageing presentation tools like autocue and PowerPoint are like crutches to stop us falling over. But we can do better than that. We have to be a bit of a magician.  Maya Angelou said:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Presenting an argument is like acting – getting people to suspend their disbelief – creating memorable thoughts in their heads not firing bullet points at them.

Theresa May should have surfed her misfortune – easy to say - by binning her speech and saying after a dramatic pause – “get me a bloody glass of whisky and then we’ll carry on”. Don’t carry on driving with a flat tyre which is what she did. She didn’t make the most of this little disaster; she got sympathy but not admiration. But what she inadvertently achieved was Maya Angelou’s last and most difficult learning - making people feel.

I’m reading Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Lyndon Johnson and the Senate in which he describes some of the historic speeches in defence of retaining the Union in America and, initially, averting Civil War. Great Speakers like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, people unafraid walking and talking and of making a passionate presentation; orators who persuaded, cajoled and seduced people into changing their minds.

Maths and mere facts pale next to such magic.

Monday, 9 October 2017


I’m not sure I’ve ever bought into the argument about our relationship with America being “special”. They’ve always taken an “America First” attitude towards us and others. America the world’s economic powerhouse has never just been a “nice guy”... they are tough like Jack Welch.

But more than anywhere else they’ve defined global civilisation and set the standard in democracy, in thinking and in film. Films like ‘High Noon’, ‘Twelve Just Men’, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Patton’, ‘Working Girl’, ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘The Big Country’ and ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and many others - all had qualities that inspired us. They were imbued with will to win but within the rules, to do so with wit and style and to promote, most of all, a civilised point of view.

The West Wing series left many asking why Martin Sheen couldn’t be a credible presidential candidate. We sat engrossed watching good guys trying to do their best despite the human frailties we all have. Whatever else, the America I grew to love had a burning sense of justice and what was right and wrong. There was an American way.

With the Kennedys a real sense of idealism emerged that taught the world what was possible, especially with the wonderfully idealistic thoughts of Robert – what a great President he might have been. Here’s just one quote: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not”

This has an elegance missing in Twitter.

More than anything else it’s been this American linguistic grandeur I miss most. Gone the prose of Harper Lee so fine that the meaning flies effortlessly from the page, gone the unerring straight-to-the-point razor sharpness of Norman Mailer and the lyrical sensuality of Tom Wolfe. But it’s John Steinbeck I’m reading now. What a giant he is. What a genius of writing.

But then there’s Twitter and our snide new world of the back street. “Sad” as Donald Trump says.

It’s not sad, it’s tragic. You can impeach your President. You can support him, oppose him, applaud him or decry him. He’s your president America but how dare you let him destroy centuries of civilised thinking and writing.

I’m astonished by the silence of the silent majority. As human catastrophes of indescribable anguish follow one from another, from a tirade of hurricanes to a grotesque massacre in Las Vegas, the words with which they are greeted by the most powerful man in the world are crude, brutal or banal. It was not always so.

Words matter. Words inspire. They change minds, they excite, they engage and they help people have dreams, impossible dreams.

America used to create pictures with words so unutterably vivid as to make one believe these dreams, like flying to the moon or walking in New York to the rhythm of the future.

Come back America. Restore that sense of reason, passion, optimism but, most of all, civilisation.

Monday, 2 October 2017


“Just a little prick” she said. No I’m not reporting a typical comment at a Party Conference

I was having blood taken before an operation on my foot and this was nurse with her hypodermic. She then gave me a cotton bud and asked for a “groin-swab” - that’s the private sector for you. My procedure’s a relatively trivial affair, (“procedure”s much less invasive than operation isn’t it?) for which, nonetheless, the surgeon would, if Afro-Caribbean, doing the same thing with a street knife, get a term inside. I am in short being set up for a legal assault. Privately.

The NHS is a great product but lacking in enough hygienic premises, charm and the money to keep going smoothly. Most out-patients departments are frankly grubby, grumpy and overloaded. In contrast private hospitals are carpeted, magazine-crammed and helpful. Patient service is high on the agenda. And they smile a lot.

It’ll be over in a day and then the recovery time, because it’s a load-bearing foot, is at least six weeks. My osteopath (I’m well served with medical people) said I’d be like a caged tiger by the end and asked if my wife was all right. “Nurse Hall is fine” I spat.

We shall see. Future blogs will either be self-pitying, morbid or non-existent. But I plan to read a lot. And write too, although with my leg having to be held above the level of my heart…yes I know, you try it…my writing output may be restricted. I shall regard it all as a holiday from life. A world of good meals on trays, glasses of wine, the random snooze, not well enough to do disagreeable things and having a pathetic small voice. And I’ll need a bell…and a role model.

And that of course is Mr Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma.’ Poor Henry Woodhouse was a “valetudinarian” - the only time I’ve ever seen the word. It means a person suffering from ill health (and being unduly anxious about it. I’m reminded of Spike Milligan’s immortal epitaph “I told you I was ill”.)

But it’s more serious than just a foot. It’s my mouth too.  I underwent an extraction - nearly an hour of yanking - and 1½ hours of intense root canal work. It was during the latter that bored to death I managed to go to sleep. Auto-anaesthesia is I gather uncommon. My dentist wanted to do what he could thereby maximising his fees in case I snuffed it in my foot operation. How can dentists be so jovial? Well as one in the past said to me “staring into mouths all day might be bad but imagine being a gynecologist.” 

I am well. But the health of this country is not so good. During my convalescence I shall think a lot.

There needs to be some serious surgery.

Bring back someone like Michael Foot! Apart from the pun (sorry) he was so much cleverer than Jeremy or Theresa.

Monday, 25 September 2017


Uber’s loss of its London licence is important because it signals new courage on the part of authorities in the UK to say “enough” to innovative businesses like Uber, Airbnb and the rest. Uber’s servile approach to London Mayor Sadiq Khan is a sign this company realises, at last, that it’s not above the law. My guess is they’ll kiss, make up and Uber will get a licence renewal. The outrage of Guy Hands, government Minister for London and of ½ million Londoners who’ve signed a petition supporting its return suggests that Uber is more than a cab company. It’s a flag bearer for the new world of innovation.

But Uber is a dodgy concept with a disgraced ex CEO, virtually no assets, no investment in its drivers, a global valuation which shrunk last week to under $50 billion and which paid just £400k in UK tax last year on a turnover in excess of £115million. It has a shocking history of ignoring regulations and is banned in countries like Denmark and Italy and in parts of Australia, Canada and America.

But what I hadn’t realised was that in a recent piece of research on transport-providers its reputation had recently dropped to just above Southern Rail. Uber has become the Jimmy Savile of transport; untouchable because it appeals to so many people yet recognised by an equally large number as being on the wrong sign of ethics. I can hear the cry “one million customers in London can’t be wrong” which has a whiff of “Jim’ll Fix It is too popular to criticise”.

I can also sense the schadenfreude slant to the story. Many of us like to see the self-important and successful brought down. Looking at a different market the recent demise of Bell Pottinger was profoundly appealing to many in the PR industry. Is Uber another Bell Pottinger? Is Uber a Coriolanus of a brand? Is Uber a sign of the frailty of the techno-innovators? Are we in for a round of “I-told-you-so’s”?

Maybe instead we should take a long hard look at our transport infrastructure with Uber being forced to revise its way of working. And what happens to those 40,000 Uber drivers? It seems an awful lot of drivers (mathematically there’s one driver per 25 customers). And they aren’t Uber drivers as such. There’s no contract, no employment rights. No they are just freelancers who happen to drive under the Uber umbrella. If everyone worked the Uber way we’d be in a big mess.

But Uber is very cheap. It doesn’t seem to worry those petitioners asking for their Uber back that it may be very cheap for a very good reason.

In the end of course there’ll be a pragmatic solution.

Like that suggested by a story I read about a man acquitted in court of a bank robbery charge. As he left the dock he asked the Judge:

“Does that mean I can keep the money?”

Monday, 18 September 2017


Enjoy the past with care.

On a late night comedy programme on Radio 4 - that sounds oxymoronic - someone said:

I admire your pluck despite your apparent incompetence” to which the ‘incompetent’ replied

I’m not incompetent I just split some water on my trousers when I was washing my hands

Old fashioned comedy. They don’t tell them like that anymore. The past was such fun wasn’t it?

David Baddiel, writer and TV presenter, told the story of sharing a flat with Frank Skinner whose favourite meal was pie sandwich and whose room was so untidy the cleaner refused to go into it let alone attempt to clean it. Fun in the past? It was full of clothes waiting to go to the launderette, unwashed crockery and indescribable brands of food.

Angel Delight, Smash, Sunny Delight….delightful.

Yet there’s apparently been a gastro-retro-revival recently. Is this because of Brexit and a visceral yearning for a fantasy past when Britain was really great ….wasn’t it? Or is it a feeling of where we are right now, poised for doom, and simply wanting to hang on - what a football manager once wonderfully described as being on the “crest of a slump.”

According to the Times last week dishes on the up in this retro-boom are Prawn Cocktail, Spam Fritters, Coronation Chicken, Black Forest Gateau and Trifle.

Drinks à la mode include Negroni, Lambrusco, Babycham, BlueNun and Black Tower.

I imagine the glitterati having hilarious dinner parties in fits of laughter over tripe, Mateus Rosé and haggis …

“Haggis. What’s haggis made of Nigel?”

“Scrotum, Deirdre, as I recall.”

This is a blip surely, just a moment of eccentric masochism. Are we really going to return to the world of Richmond Sausages, of wine boxes and zabaglione? Well as regards wine boxes apparently so. It’s the good stuff now in those boxes (seriously reviewed by wine critics), they don’t clink in the recycling and the remark “jusht anuvver glass hic” doesn’t involve noisily and clumsily opening a second bottle to reproving looks.

This is 2017 but a lot of us are still behaving like teenagers.

What we keep on learning is that fashion recycles itself. Steam trains are fun, dodgems in an age of virtual reality still cut it and miniskirts disappear and then return. Sunday lunch with all that “trimmings” malarkey seems like a kind of gastronomic Capstan Full Strength, hopelessly out of date in a clean-food world, yet it retains its allure. Not for the food itself but for the ceremony and the conviviality of the event.

It’s the bottle of claret and uproarious conversation which is so wonderful. That bloated feeling which roast potatoes and rare beef leaves (with me at any rate) is a price well worth paying for the joy of companionship.

In a techno-world of computer games like FIFA 17, Vanquish and Firestorm how refreshing that Snap, Monopoly and lunch still have a place in people’s lives.

So drink that Negroni, nibble that pork crackling and relax.

Monday, 11 September 2017


Aren’t we currently like sheep sleepwalking uncomplainingly into an apocalyptic abattoir? It wasn’t just Brexit, Syria and North Korea that made me ask this. It was a two part BBC2 documentary programme called “The Secrets of Silicon Valley.”

In it Alan Kay, a onetime famous American Computer Scientist, was quoted:

“To predict the future we shall have to invent it”

But who are “we”? Not me for sure. On the basis of these documentaries by Jamie Bartlett the “we” are a pretty nasty bunch of people. I’m not sure that I want to have lunch with any of them,  nor have them meet my nearest and dearest. The world they want in the name of their presumed, unstoppable progress is dystopian. Yet when they’re challenged they just get angry. The angriest of those interviewed was Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, described by Fast Company as “the world’s most powerful start-up incubator”.

Companies they’ve favoured with support and investment include Dropbox, Airbnb and Reddit. But as I listened to Sam talking to Jamie Harding, British tech writer and journalist, my skin froze. Even to question the consequences of the tech revolution led to being called a “progress denier” and opponent of what ordinary people want. Apparently we all want to be extracted from our work and paid a basic wage for doing nothing because, if you leave it to Sam, there’ll be no work, as we know it, for anyone to do.

Have I been tough on poor Sam? Line him up with the others on my list of “wrong ‘uns”. The late Steve Jobs (founder of Apple), Travis Kalanick (founder of Uber), Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), Steve Bezos (founder of Amazon), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (founders of Google) and a Policy Head of Airbnb Chris Lehane (below) who gloried by the title “the Master of Disaster” when he worked for Bill Clinton.

These are self-styled “masters of the universe”, above the law (in their own minds and increasingly in ours). They claim to be different from the big, bad, old oil, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies and the banks. They claim they are intent on making this world better and fairer. But the Guardian, although impressed by the TV documentary, asks this question:

“Are these “idealists” good guys who are challenging the old order or are they really tax-minimising corporations that threaten our future?”

How about the latter?

Google are facing a €2.4 billion EU fine for abusing their dominance as search engine owners giving illegal advantage to their own comparison-shopping service. All the US tech giants and others like Starbucks are alleged to owe a potential further €70 billion in extra-tax in the EU. In their own backyard, Santa Clara County, there’s a $60 billion rates tax-dispute with the tech giants.

Well I’m not sure that I want this modern Mafia inventing our future and shaping our world. We can do better than that.

In the end just being clever with algorithms isn’t enough.

Monday, 4 September 2017


Last week there was an alleged sonar- health-attack on US Diplomats in Havana which left them deaf.  Its media exposure was in keeping with what’s become an increasing trend. Health scares are full of the ingredients of any good story - apparent “factual” statistics, human interest and gory drama.

Matt Dawson, ex-England Rugby captain, caught Lyme disease from a tick bite in a London Park. The effects were so severe he had to have heart surgery. Doctors initially missed out on diagnosing a disease which is more widespread than many think. So if you go down to the woods today where deer have been and get close to the ferns you may be attacked by a tick. If you develop a rash that looks like a target or if you feel tired, fevered and with a headache check it out. You could develop joint aches, swellings or, like Matt, worse.

Health attacks are easy to empathise with. Just writing this has made me feel a little unwell. But they also leave me confused.

Recent stories which endorse or contradict previously accepted wisdom include dismissal of the need to eat your five-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables … recent medical research says three is plenty.

Have you been to the dentist recently? Are your gums bleeding? If so you are 70% more likely to get dementia. (That was a Times front page scare recently.) Do you take statins?  Good news less likelihood of a stroke; bad news you may get crippling joint pains. According to Dame Sally Davies our Chief Medical Officer we should drink tea and cut out wine because of its clear link to cancer. Fact: if you are teetotal you have a one in ten chance of getting cancer but if you drink a bottle of wine a day that increases to one in seven. Cheers.

White bread and sugar are now the killers worse even than ISIS. Coffee is great. Fat is good. Pile on the butter and live a happier life. Not sleeping well? Maybe it’s because you’re stressed and worried about your health. The news I have will make your sleeplessness worse.

If you can’t sleep it may mean you’re about to have a stroke, heart attack or some dreadful disease.
Or not … I suspect that people who suffer such medical problems may well have had sleeping problems but that there’ll be many who can’t sleep and are fine. All fish swim but not everything that swims is a fish.

But there’s one medical issue that one in fifteen of us suffer from and are going to get these symptoms lashing them in the next months - Seasonal Affective Disorder. Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, withdrawal from society, appetite problems and a lack of energy. It’s now being taken seriously and you can get help.

Like bright lighting, blazing fires, hot soup and robust stews, being cosy.  Enjoy winter. Don’t let it make your life a misery. Don’t be sad.