Monday, 22 February 2021

STOP RE-WRITING HISTORY

During the lockdown a lot’s been written about sleep. Until recently I’ve done rather a lot of it without thinking about it. But now I’m sleeping less well with uneasy dreams full of historic regret. It’s all rather bizarre. I re-live innings I played in cricket and lament that rash shot I made 50 years ago or a presentation I made which I spoilt by making a casual remark which like an ink blot interrupted the clean flow or an argument that I shouldn’t have had. I wake up feeling guilty and tired.

Talking of historic regret I see university applications for History are in marked decline. I  understand why. There’s an increasing trend shifting from analysis and balance to blame. 

The first line of L.P. Hartley’s novel “The Go Between” (and later a film) was

“The past was a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

In my childhood there were no computers, calculators, hardly any TVs or household appliances. Children were regularly beaten at school and at home. Capital punishment was accepted as a norm for murder. We had amateurs and professionals in sport. Woman were second class. It was awful in retrospect but then it was just how things were. Doubtless in 50 years people will look back at 2021 and say it was terrible that so few women held top jobs and how lacking in diversity we were or will some freakish change of thinking lead us to be living in Gilead and The Handmaid’s Tale?

A Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham University, Kehinde Andrews, made himself rather unpopular with some people by describing Winston Churchill as a 'white supremacist' in a debate at Churchill College, Cambridge and saying modern Britain is 'based on racism'.  He also thinks the British Empire was 'far worse than the Nazis'.

Rather than frothing at mouth and dismissing what he’d said as nonsense, I thought he made some interesting points albeit in a slightly unfocused, hysterical way. The trouble with demagogues is I’ve never been able to take them seriously except in one respect. They set a poor example to the young in excluding the possibility of rational debate.

I found that moment in 2016 when the American Quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, first took the knee moving and extraordinary. Since then it’s become a little tiresome because it’s now become ritualistic not symbolic. 

If you don’t do it you’re accused of being “a silently complicit racist” which is rather silly. But not as silly as seeing people like Keir Starmer doing it.

The history of humankind is a mess. Should we demand reparation from Denmark, Norway and Sweden for damage the Vikings did to Britain in the 8th century? The Lindisfarne Raid of 793 was particularly nasty. Alcuin the scholar who worked with Charlemagne described how the ground was “spattered with the blood of the priests of God”. Or the French for the appalling way they treated us after the Battle of Hasting. Or the impudent Dutch for seizing the throne in 1689.

Some very nasty things happened in the past. We can’t change that. What we can do is study them and ensure we are cured of the instincts and practices that led to Lindisfarne (mind you, it might be interesting to take the Norwegians, Swedes and Danes to the European Court just to see the expressions on their faces.)

The history of the world is exciting. It’s crammed with progress;  full of good and bad things. If all we focus on are the bad things we are looking at and learning only half the story.

Monday, 15 February 2021

DO I REALLY CARE ANY MORE?

Well, actually I do but not so much recently. So long as we had the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, terrible infection and mortality figures from Covid and a rampant tweeting Donald Trump we had plenty to worry about and get angry about.

Suddenly Brexit is done, vaccinations are happening and, good heavens, at an alarmingly impressive rate of knots, and in a well organised way, and the Donald is silent and has gone. 

The sun is out and much of the world has snow. It’s chilly as winters should be. The critical issues that have been keeping us awake are resolved or resolving. There ‘s light at the end of all the clich├ęs.

But things are getting worse. Because the little things like breakdowns in IT, a collapse in the Royal Mail meaning a friend called to say his Christmas card from us had only just arrived, a missed item in a supermarket delivery, oversleeping or an irritating paper cut have suddenly become issues.

With lockdown our world has shrunk. Events outside until now kept us aware of where we stood…maybe angry, enraged or alarmed but as part of a greater whole. Now we’ve become more inconsequential and vulnerable. I don’t get angry now; I just get irritated and (word of the week) peevish. Little things prey on my mind.

I tried apathy. But I do care. I don’t want to be alone. John Donne said:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” 

 But Brexit has seen to that, Scottish Independence may go further and lockdown, social distancing, masks and isolation have extinguished togetherness further. Goodbye untrammelled travel across Europe, goodbye hugs, smiles and kisses. It’s grumpy time for many.

Lunch is a thing of the past, I’ve forgotten how. I was thinking about Odin’s my favourite restaurant (long since ruined and then closed by barbarian owners) where conversation spilt like wine across the table. Real Masters of the Universe food and wine. Real original thinking. Or was it more ordinary…a fantasy I’m remembering?

Talking of fantasy I see some pundit economists are predicting a third quarter 2021 through 2022 boom in the global economy. Well, I wish. But an awful lot of retraining will have to happen as unemployment figures soar in hospitality, finance, retail, automotive and travel. That lot accounts for 8 ½ million jobs in the UK alone.

The Marylebone High Street I recall in 1960’s was full of gaps, lots of charity shops in prime sites, drear and uninviting. Until now this envy of the retail world was pretty ghastly back then. So, for sure, recovery and boom may well occur but not for some time, I fear, for most of us. The acid test will be whether the start-up revolution about which I’ve enthused really takes off but if it does (and  I wish fervently it does) it will take a while to bed down.

I am neither a pessimist nor an apathetic. I still feel part of this game of life and that I can make perhaps a small difference. And I do have a solution. Given the issue that will drive the economy is not money alone but human energy, enterprise and resolution. So, when we can, I’d ship as many young people as possible to the Democratic United States of America, to New York and say “get a taste of this for upbeat, chutzpah and energy and bring that back here”.  Show how much the Americans care. It’s infectious but in a good way.





Monday, 8 February 2021

LEARNING TO BE HUMAN AGAIN

One of the big problems with the lockdown and a year of caution has been to restrain our human impulses. Rather than smiling and saying “Good Morning – isn’t it a glorious day” we now tend to walk past, face averted, or cross to the other side of the road.  We’ve lost the art of geniality and affection.

What started as a mildly flirtatious elbow nudge to replace handshakes has now gone, to be replaced by nothing. In fact, meeting people just feels rather awkward now.

We live in a world of masks and many think it’ll remain like this and so I thought too until the Saturday before last. My wife and I had our Covid vaccinations. Rather sportingly it was held in the Grandstand at Brighton Race-Course. The tally-ho atmosphere was still in the air helped by the cheeriness of the squads of volunteers keeping things moving, directing us from the car park, cheering us up. It was a venue of extraordinary purpose, goodwill and efficiency. The whole event had been rigorously planned and rehearsed. Everyone was so focused, charming and happy. On that Saturday the jokey reference to “Jab’s Army” became a jolly reality.

We are often swift to knock ourselves and government but this, together with the nimble footedness of our vaccination acquisition, shows how brilliant the British can be when we try. We have a strong acting and performance culture and this was compelling theatre. We were smiling again and we’d thought smiling was history.

Later in the week we went through a strangely unusual process of purchasing something complex entirely online. It reminded me of “Sleepless in Seattle” as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan ping messages to each other … Ping “You’ve got mail”

It was brilliant. We thought about the answers to each question as did Rojane on a few occasions (“Please bear with me, Richard”) she checked something or maybe asked her supervisor.  Because of the thoroughness of the purchase journey, we felt safer and reassured that we were not making any “I wish I hadn’t done that” mistakes. Jack Welch, the legendary Chairman/CEO of GE when it was a great company, once said he wished he could eliminate human contact and thus human error. I always thought he was wrong. We need human beings and even human error which allows us to say “Sorry”

Our Waitrose delivery came on Friday. The driver, a beaming, apologetic young lady, explained that they’d had an IT breakdown and that our order might be short of a few items and that she was very sorry if this was the case. I said I was sure they’d tried their best. She beamed more and said all her customers were being so nice and understanding. In fact, the order was complete bar one item, the root vegetable and kale soup mix. My beaming driver left (I wanted her to say “beam me up Scottie”

I reported the shortage to Waitrose Customer Service plus the inclusion of one item we hadn’t wanted – Duchy Maple Syrup – a lovely syrup but an unopenable bottle except by using a monkey wrench.

Here’s the reply I got:

“I'm glad to hear you had such a pleasant delivery driver today, I'll make sure to pass that on to the branch. I haven't heard the term "monkey wrench" in quite some time so I have to thank you for reminding of that!”

Human beings like this who are smart, funny, happy and who look at you, smile or write charmingly are the answer.  I’ve had a good week. Thanks everyone.

Monday, 1 February 2021

EXCITE PEOPLE, DON'T JUST MAKE THEM DO EXAMS

I’ve been worrying about education, that we’ve become obsessed with grades rather than in helping inspire people, putting it simply, to find joy in life and their talent.

‘To educate’ comes from the Latin and means to draw out. Great education is about inspiring, nurturing the special talent people have, not ramming in facts.

Here’s what Mr Gradgrind said in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’:

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals like this.” 

Dickens was satirising a Victorian school of thought here. He, too, worried about education. He writes about the gloriously named Dotheboys Hall in ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. We’ve come a long way since then but there’s still an obsession about the loss of “learning time” amongst  5 year olds. In Finland they save “learning time” until children are 7 not 5 years old. 

Argo Gosh is a successful entrepreneur in Brighton whose achievements are immense. He told me his greatest period of learning ever was when he had a whole term off school so, from May to September he, his siblings and friends spent their time building an absolutely enormous tree house and being outside in the fresh air learning about life, teamwork and carpentry.

My greatest period of learning was at University not in libraries nor at lectures but talking about all sorts of things to clever, open minded and entertaining friends who made me think. What I acquired was an appetite for life, an appetite that I’ve never lost.

Recently I said that being proved wrong is exciting; discovering my preconceptions or prejudices are simply misplaced; that’s called discovery.

The essence of education is discovery. It’s about opening a book and finding a new world. It’s about going to a theatre (well it used to be) and losing yourself in a story like ‘Hamlet’ you’ve seen and heard countless times before.

What teachers can’t teach - but they can inspire it in you (if you are lucky enough to find a good one) is to be an enthusiastic and energetic champion of an idea, painting, piece of music or piece of science. Brian Cox makes science hum with excitement in a way an average physics teacher won’t do.

They say ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’; well, I’m a rather old dog and I’m daily learning new stuff often from the infectious optimism of young people.

John Sculley, ex Apple said over 30 years ago “In today’s world we need impresarios and wizards.” In today’s Covid world, John, even more so.

We need to design a new future and we can’t do that by applying old tricks. We should be reconsidering our whole education system and rather than ramming maths into reluctant heads find what latent sparks of talent exist there and encourage them to burst into flames.

Einstein was, apparently, not especially talented at school. A more plausible explanation is that his teachers failed to spot that latent genius.

We are on the verge of a potentially exciting period of innovation and an energy boost – this typically happens after a catastrophe.

We need to ignite passion, discovery, excitement and stop being didactic.

On Saturday I heard a young, successful MD of a successful business (Paul Barratt) talk with passion about what he learnt from business books. Not facts. Not formulae. Not tool kits. No. Ideas. Visions. Dreams. Magic.

That’s just what we need. In schools. At Universities. In business. Everywhere. ‘A’ levels are not the answer to a better, happier world. 

But excitement is.

Monday, 25 January 2021

TECHNOLOGY IS A DANGEROUS FRIEND

Conversations about technology go back a long way. Progress has always been symbolised by technological advances. Yet what it’s constantly done is to promise a better life. Promises. Promises. 

The most difficult conversations in recent times have circled around communication which is curious given our glorious command of language for hundreds of years. People I knew learned swathes of Shakespeare . Richard Burton was said to have all 39 plays off word perfect. I guess that was his job. Now I’ve been told forget about memory because that’s best left to machines.

I’m puzzled.

The idea was surely that technology would make life easier and give us more time for leisure and thinking. Instead it’s become divisive, separating those who can and those who can’t or those who will and those who won’t.

Take a recent video of the smart-home where  everything in a house operates to voice commands. The owner asks for jazz to be played, smoothies to be made, heating to be turned up or down and the front door opened and closed. In the 17th century slaves did that sort of thing;  now we use virtual slaves which is rather ironic. The owner goes to the dentist. He has various injections and returns home with his paralysed mouth and muffled voice. His smart-home proves impenetrable as his anaesthetised voice commanding “open the door” is not recognisable.  To his fury he is not the master any longer. 

Social media was allegedly a concept for improving our ability to “share.”  Yet an ex-President’s primary way of running America was through Twitter. I know smart young people who have abandoned social media as trivial, time-wasting and potentially a source of acrimony. I see little evidence that social media is social or sociable. Quite the reverse as Twitter belatedly realised.

Is it easier to write using technology? I’m using a PC now. It’s kinder on arthritic hands and enables me to edit more vigorously and effectively. Does it let me write better? Probably not. Quicker? No. But it provides me with a strange illusion. That what was in my head has magically become the work of a third person. An author who writes in perfect Calibri or Garamond ready for publication.

Technology exists like Outwrite or Grammarly which claim to “help you eliminate errors and find the perfect words to express yourself.” 

Scholarcy and Summly are tools for summarising articles or books. Is this such a good idea?

Here are some famous summaries – at least they’re quite funny.

“War and Peace” – everyone is sad. It snows.

“Moby Dick” - Man v. Whale. Whale wins.

“The Odyssey”- the hero takes forever to get home. Then he kills everyone.

So am I antediluvian and a technophobe? I hope not. I just think we’ve become deluded by devices for the sake of cleverness or money…

At $7.2 trillion Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Samsung dwarf the GDP of the world’s third biggest economy -  Japan (just $5 trillion). So they’re selling stuff that people want to buy. 

That’s why my mobile phone provider keeps ringing me about “an upgrade” – the new Samsung S21 5G. When I say I actually want a downgrade – a tool that  does what I need, they laugh.

It’s time to think, not get machines to do it for us – which they can’t. 

The inventiveness of man is stupefying but I wonder if people like Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ ambitions to become space travellers isn’t indicative of them realising terrestrial technology isn’t enough: that the Tesla’s already maybe just a bit out of date.

Monday, 18 January 2021

THE TRUTH MUST WIN

When I was small if you were caught “telling stories” you were for it. 

Yet today the story, not the truth, is what matters. That’s why the Times (once known as “The Thunderer”) is now more aptly “The Chuckler” full of stories rather than news and truth.

Last Saturday a succession of stories and articles convinced me either I (or they) had lost it. 

Does this warrant most of page 3?  ‘The original All Creatures Great and Small has becomes a hit in the USA.’ 

Maybe after Trump it’s this that resonates and maybe should have been the real insight:  “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” 

- The QAnon conspiracy group, one of whose luminaries claimed his real mother was a 9 feet tall, green alien, has over 650 ,000 followers on You Tube. I’m told it’s taking hold in USA and UK.  My poor head. Tell me why this is so important because it is. Lies squashing truth.

- Liz Hurley has taken up Kung Fu and is good enough now to solicit live opponents. Liz don’t be so silly. And the Times – give this stuff to Hello Magazine.

- Breaking News: King Herod in between slaughtering babies proved his obsession with small things by also being a Bonsai enthusiast. Is this a joke? It’s for WhatsApp not the Times.

- Simon Bowes-Lyon, the great, great nephew of the late Queen Mother got drunk and for 20 minutes groped and tried to kiss a guest after a dinner party when everyone including his victim had toddled off to bed. He faces up to 5 years in prison. He’s obviously a bad sort as he also has 23 penalty points through speeding convictions. This story creaks with unasked questions.

- A Norwegian Philosopher has claimed human beings suffer a blood alcohol level that’s the equivalent of two glasses of wine too low. At last something sensible. True or not? It’s a joke, I think, but with a grain of truth. In vino veritas.

This potpourri of stories represent something that’s been concerning me for a while  and which lie behind the extraordinary stories of Trump and to a lesser extent Brexit. We have become seduced by lies, distortions and drama. When you  hear someone talking about “the narrative” (which increasingly we do, by politicians and their advisors) be very, very scared.  By definition “narratives” are stories told in an engaging and interesting way, They create what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a suspension of disbelief. In other words a story – a work of fiction (maybe even a lie) becomes accepted as being a new truth. ‘That election was rigged’ is a better story than ‘it was a proper election’. If what the world wants and gets are just better stories we are in trouble because then we are living in what can be described as a post-truth era.

Post-truth is the petri-dish in which conspiracy theories and stories that excite and convince people flourish. The calm reiteration and reiteration of truth must become our mission. Calm and repetitive can deconstruct the big, lazy lie, as my friends in America tell me hopefully.

We might start with getting our  journalists to be circumspect and to get their boots on faster. Just because the story with the punchline wins more applause than unvarnished truth is no excuse to play to the audience.

We’ve has enough of that phrase “fake news” and even worse “alternative truth.”

It’s time to unravel those lies.

Monday, 11 January 2021

SAY NO TO WOE

I must be living a sheltered life because  I recently heard a word new to me. “Doom-scrolling”. It’s defined as  "an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news" (!).  I realised I was becoming a “doom-scroller” watching the American Dream crumble as the Capitol was invaded by bearded hippies.


I then saw Covid infection rates soar in the UK, the economy totter, Brexit lorry jams and food shortages (no Stilton reaching Northern Ireland), our Government wobble, Covid naysayers like Katie Hopkins saying she’d walked through empty hospital wards so – obviously - the whole Covid thing is a sham (they’re all crammed in the Covid wards and ICU, you buffoon) and please don’t have an accident and need an ambulance…there are none.  Then we had a murder of a local celebrity in Hove…yet Hove never has murders. 

So yes, the world has gone mad, bad and sad. Scroll; scroll; scroll.


I started 2021 bounding from bed and bellowing “hurray for today.” Just ten days later I was turning over in bed in the morning after realising the beast from the east had paid a nocturnal visit and that all I wanted to do was snooze. But then I remember that horrid refrain “snoozers are losers” so I stumble out of bed and settle for another day of house- arrest. But just writing this has helped me realise how foolish I’m being. I have my health, well actually my hypochondria, which is a source of considerable comedy. 


Ooh my foot, ooh my head, ooh my leg etc. I eat well. I drink well. I have many friends and my wife, nurse, chef, psychiatrist, motivator and chum is keeping an eye on me. As Matthew Parris wrote on Saturday:
“Covid, Brexit and Trump have created a national mood of anxiety but don’t despair – the future looks a lot brighter.”

He advises that we write lists of things to do … because as you get them done the ‘black dog’ that’s terrorising you is tamed. So no more snoozing. Just lots of listing.

And of course he’s right. Despite the government being allegedly in despair at the civil disobedience the electorate is showing, I’ve been impressed by how little traffic there is and how empty the streets are as we go for exercise (another thing ticked off the list.)


In fact I think people are being amazingly compliant and tolerant. When two young women drove five miles to a beauty spot in Derbyshire for a walk clutching a coffee and were fined £200 each by a intimidating squad of coppers for not following the spirit of the lockdown and claiming coffee constituted a picnic, I stopped being like the legendary Victor Meldrew and spluttering “I just don’t believe it” but instead started laughing, certain that the fine would be revoked. It was. 

Living in this Monty Pythonesque world in which “not following the spirit of the lockdown” are deemed criminal offences is silly and it’s comedy and satire and burlesque are what will get us all back to calm and sanity. 


And that’s why I’m creating an even newer word. One we need to use and celebrate every day for the remainder of this lockdown. Laughter-grafting. Everyday we all need to find at least six things that make us howl with laughter. If in doubt look for the funny side. With politicians and activists like we have it shouldn’t be that hard. 

Which is not to ignore the misery and loss many are feeling right now. But even when events  hurt we need to recall Ken Dodd’s words  “laughter is the greatest music in the world”… and, of course, the vaccine our greatest hope.