Monday, 20 August 2018

LAUGH? I NEARLY DIED


I have always believed in the power of humour, whether satire or farce.  The sharpest of knives is comedy in debunking, clarifying and fumigating.  Which leads me to Ireland and to the “troubles” which always sounded more like a tummy bug than the carnage which saw 3,500 people slaughtered in the latter part of the 20th century. At the time I was running a salesforce. One of my salesman in Northern Ireland said conversationally to me:


“I was Just about to make a call on the House of Frazer when there was a great whoomph sound and the windows blew out, glass and blood everywhere”

“My God” I said, “that’s terrible. What did you do?”

“I strolled down the road and went to call on Woolworth instead.”

My sense of the troubles from this was that people got on with it however terrible things were. More recently  I visited Belfast which felt like going to Berlin, modern architecture, trendy bars and restaurants. The reality a decade before had been tragic – or farcical - depending on how you see things.


Last week we saw “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” by Martin McDonagh.  It first appeared in the West End in 2001 and Broadway in 2006. Back then it must have touched some raw nerves – the Good Friday agreement had only been signed in 1998. Martin has a rip roaring reputation for black comedy and drama. His most recent triumph is writing and directing the award winning film “T.”


The Lieutenant of Inishmore is set in 1993 as IRA violence was revving up. In a nutshell the play is a non-stop farce culminating with a stage covered by four corpses, three of whom are partially dismembered and two dead cats. It includes some gruesome onstage torture – the pulling out of toenails and planning the next outrage “which is your favourite nipple? I’ll be kind - tell me and I’ll only cut the other one off.”

Its roller-coaster hilarity springs from the behaviour of Mad Padraig whose behaviour is too violent for the IRA and subsequently too much for its offshoot the INLA. He makes even Iago look civilised. Knowing there’s nothing he wouldn’t do, his dewy eyed sentimentality about Wee Willy his pet cat creates the contrast and unpredictability between brutality and tenderness that makes for such uneasy laughter. In a situation where three men being blinded by an airgun-carrying teenage girl brought the house down, you have to admit that’s a cool theatrical trick being flaunted. And you also have to admit the overreaction, beastliness and clumsy inanity of everyone in the cast indelibly suggests the absurdity of conflict and violence especially when the cause of it all is a misunderstanding. Desdemona’s
hanky is Padraig’s black cat. And cats are funny in the way hankies aren’t.


It’s reframes our understanding of those troubles and like all great plays has us always on tenterhooks. It’s a masterpiece. It’s also very, very funny.



Monday, 13 August 2018

JE NE REGRETTE RIEN

As I look back on my life I realise how lucky I’ve been. I’ve a lot of nice, clever and kind friends. My wife keeps a sharp eye on my best interests and is a constant joy. I even get to write a bit which I like especially having discovered that as you get older you may lose some mental agility and memory but one faculty improves and that’s the linguistic one of putting words together.

Recently, when in the course of researching a new book, I’ve been interviewing a lot of young entrepreneurs. They are all so hopeful, energetic and smart. At their age I was; a director of an advertising agency modelling myself on John Thaw’s role as Jack Regan in “The Sweeney” swigging whisky and saying “shut it! You’re nicked.”  It was great fun but I was just an employee.


Now I suddenly have this restless urge to start a new company – not for heaven’s sake an advertising agency which seem hell-hole, data driven places – no, a disruptive, ideas-driven business selling something better, cheaper and faster and tearing apart sleepy, traditional market sectors trapped in traditional supply chains. Think of Harry, Purple Bricks, Casper the mattress people and dozens of others. What they call “Digitally Native Vertical Brands” - brands which start on line and are maniacally focused on consumer values.


I keep on coming across new brands like Ugly Drinks, the Sussex Peasant, Sandow’s cold brew coffee and the Grown up Chocolate company, all bustling pioneers of joie de vivre and a fascination with shifting mindsets. Their owners are typically people around 30 who are not being anchored down by mortgages but are driven by an appetite for life’s possibilities.


Two such – rather older now -  Charles Rolls and Tim Warillow – founded Fevertree 13 years ago  promising the “end of dismal mixers” and have so far trousered over £300 million from share sales. They understandably look pretty happy to have re-imagined a market dominated drearily by ‘Schh…you know who’ for so long.


Money is not the key motive to wanting independence. The constant desire is “I want to make a difference”. Human beings want to look back on a legacy perhaps rather more exciting than a Jack Regan impersonation.

Talking to start-up counterparts in the USA their ambitions are larger, the stakes are higher and the focus is clearer but so too is the sense of reality. “It’s a good idea, we’ve done great work on the product and the brand so it really should work. But it might not. There are factors beyond our control. So if it doesn’t work we’ll do something else.” Like Henry Heinz who went bust and struggled along at first. Persistence and good humour pay off ultimately.

We live in times unlike those that have gone before where entrepreneurialism and innovation are inspiring more and are accessible to more and more people. Back in the day it was harder, slower and seemed more dangerous.


Monday, 6 August 2018

WHAT A STRANGE WORD 'GOOD' IS

Ask a young person how they are and chances are they’ll say ‘good’ which means ‘fine’ or ‘OK’. It doesn’t mean terrific. Generally good means something more rounded than ‘winning’ or the overused ‘brilliant’.  Years ago I was talking to the CEO of Unipart, John Egan, about the success of his company and the generally poor state of British Industry. ’Why was this?’ I asked. John’s reply was instructive.


“Too few people know what good is” he said and that has got me thinking ever since. To be good at anything the performance has to be seen in the context of other good things; you have to be measured against global competitors. That’s why the Olympics and World Cup are so important. It’s no longer sufficient to be good enough just for Bolton or Brighton.


At this point I’d like to introduce you to Simon Anholt who’s worked, he says, with numerous Heads of State and Heads of Government, helping their countries to engage more productively and imaginatively with the international community. It’s what he says about good that I like. Using a huge database he researches globally what becomes a kind of ethical-performance league table called “The Good Country Index.” His thesis is the more you’re respected the better you’ll do. The more you give the more you get. Good may be measured by the extent to which people say “the world would be a worse place without X”…. or “X makes our world a better place” or “X is a role model to the rest of us.”

In 2014 Ireland came first on the back of economic revival when mere survival had seemed unlikely and en route, unlike Iceland who unilaterally wrote off their debt, paid theirs off.

Last year the top countries were:

  • Netherlands
  • Switzerland
  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Sweden
  • Ireland
  • UK


USA came 25th and is daily getting worse I imagine given its current attitude to collaboration and selflessness.  Here’s Simon’s analysis of what’s wrong with the world.

“Things seem to be getting worse all the time: climate change, terrorism, pandemics, migration, economic chaos… the list goes on. All these problems have grown too big and too complex for any individual nation to solve. But instead of collaborating, nations spend all their energy and resources competing against each other. This has to change if we want to make the world work. This is why the Good Country Index exists.”

It’s curious that everything he sensibly prescribes like union, sharing and looking outwards for inspiration are what all good companies are doing nowadays and what nearly all nation states eschew.


America in particular is a strange case right now. What was once the leader of the world and role model to anyone with ambition is now behaving like a rogue state. American films featuring Gregory Peck and John Wayne – both good guys – have changed to Tarantino horrors instead. Pity. We need a good America.


Monday, 30 July 2018

A CYCLE OF DESPAIR

It was the Tour de France that really got me thinking especially when at the end of Wednesday’s stage Chris Froome was manhandled by an over-zealous gendarme under the impression poor Chris was an interloping fan of the sport not a contestant as he cycled back to the Sky team van.


Cycling can be dangerous, I thought, shivering as I recalled a personal incident of a few weeks back. I was crossing the road in Brighton as the green man shone signifying it was safe to cross. Not so. As I passed in front of the stationary cars I heard a wild cry and the sound of gravel being ripped from the road. I stopped (fortunately) as a Lycra clad cyclist sped through the lights frantically applying his brakes and crying “sorry, sorry, sorry!”

So do I have a thing about  cyclists? Yes. I think they are a mix of the sane, courageous, adventurous, stupid and thoughtless.  A friend of mine two of whose acquaintances had been left broken and bleeding on the pavement reflected “they’ll get me next.”


The killer words are on the pavement. Here in Brighton skateboarders and cyclists use the pavement as their own. And with rent-a-bike schemes like that sponsored down here by Santander and others people who’ve never cycled much before recklessly swerve along the cycle lanes and in gained confidence the pavements.

Chris Greenwood in the Mail Online wrote in 2017:
The number of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians has soared by almost 50 per cent in seven years. One crash on pavements or roads now takes place every day as the number of cyclists increases. The total number of accidents rose to 408 in 2015, according to official figures, a significant jump from the 274 in 2009.

Recently a rash couple visiting Brighton and imbibing its spirit of adventure decided to share a bike (big mistake) and were mown down by a police car they’d carved up as they attempted an illegal u- turn (huge mistake). Fortunately neither suffered from serious injury.

My own view when driving is to give cyclists free rein, to stop and let them pass and to brake and look twice always before turning left. I am metal. They are flesh. But I wish they’d obey the rules of the road. Red Lights. Zebra Crossings. Obeying speed limits.

In Holland there are bikes everywhere pottering along at less than twice walking pace. It’s brilliant, safe and a lesson to the apprentice boy-racers who terrorise us here.  Interestingly here it’s proper cyclists who are most angry about the hooligans who bring them into disrepute. In Holland they reserve speed for the track.


In Venice there are no cars or bicycles which is wonderful. In central London more and more streets are pedestrianised. The problem in the transition from the car is  threefold:- manners, road sense and speed.

Sadly whilst manners and road sense are in short supply on the south coast the sun is shining and life has slowed down.


Monday, 23 July 2018

CRISIS. DISASTER. DOOMED

It’s Wednesday and there’s no electricity. The pubs are shut. There’s no TV. Half the country is in revolt.  They’re talking about martial law.

What was it like? In the early months of the Miners’ Strike of 1972 it was actually rather wonderful. We sat around, drank and talked by candlelight. In the background we listened to the Stones and were glad to be alive in a civilised world.  The media were in paroxysms about the impending Armageddon but all else was relatively calm. The art of conversation reached new heights. We demonstrated nothing could blunt our appetite for living, loving and laughing.


So over 40 years ago I realised the three-day-week-crisis was not such a big deal after all. We even survived the inflation rates of 27% a few years later when there were typically two or three price increases a year and wage rises to match. Out there the world had surely gone mad but we all survived cushioned by friendship and our self-belief.

In 2002 when the Firefighters went on strike and the Green Goddesses manned by the armed forces were called into action it seemed like the world was falling apart (again).

It was then at a cocktail party at Lambeth Palace I ended any chance of ever working with or speaking again to the then Conservative MP Archie Norman who declared “I fear Britain’s now ungovernable” at which I burst out laughing and said “don’t be ridiculous”.


The point is that life moves on and as Churchill recognised so vividly you have to be patient and keep going. Alistair Campbell when Communications Director in Tony Blair’s office said wisely when yet another crisis blew up…”it will pass”. And of course it always did. What history cannot teach us is just how terrifying and raw these crises seem at the time. How do human beings recover from the loss of a partner or anyone close; from  injury or bankruptcy; from the loss of their job? Well they do (generally) and they do because human beings are very resilient. But they are also extremely dramatic and avidly seek out headlines or, in the case of our favourite Commander-in-Chief, create their own.

I have been a rather blasĂ© spectator to decades of life-changing crises, almost always “the most important/dangerous/ruinous/catastrophic in the history of our nation/mankind”. We all thrive on it. In Italy they used to have a paper called La Domenica del Corriere  the raison d’ĂȘtre of which was disasters – train crashes, horrible murders, death by foul and unnatural means. It was very popular.


But very few of these crises have actually been life changing. A government falls, a President is replaced, a financial meltdown is averted, a union becomes disunited yet the sun rises and we try to do something extraordinary again. Whatever happens we’ll  be OK. And as Leonard Cohen said:

“When things get really bad, just raise your glass and stamp your feet and do a little jig. That's about all you can do.”


Monday, 16 July 2018

I'M WALKING ON SUNSHINE

The recent report on the national mood by Deloitte shows we are more confident and happy than we’ve been since 2011.


Rather surprising this given the gloomy news commentaries. The improvement is put down to the Royal Wedding, the World Cup where we did less badly than expected (and with some style) and, of course, the weather - 58 days without rain in the south east.


Meanwhile one rather sparsely reported event has stood out for me. Peace has broken out between Ethiopia and Eritrea after 20 years of war and on-off border conflict. This was a real cause for celebration.

It also occurs to me that people are clearer about what really matters and are becoming immune to complex and legalistic arguments. I watched a typically ill-tempered Question Time on BBC1 last week partly to watch Barry Gardiner, Shadow Secretary of State for Internal Trade because I’d read he had the voice of the late serial murder, Dr Harold Shipman.  Barry has the charisma of a GP for sure and one who’s about to smile and give you very bad news.

As the panellists beat each other up in shrill discord I was struck by Claire Perry, Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.


She said two things that stood out:-

Unravelling a relationship that had taken 44 years to put together was tricky and would take time

Of course they were working on a plan B “no deal” worst case scenario

Fellow panellist Gina Miller, the remain activist, was aghast with her honesty. I meanwhile enjoyed her teasing Piers Morgan and her sheer bubbly enthusiasm. She was smart and a lot of fun. She has been characterised as “colourful” (that’s as dangerous as being described as  “courageous” - code for “reckless”.) Hence a political commentator describing her thus:

Claire could be brilliant, but there’s a danger she could self-destruct at any point,

She made me laugh and listen. I predict Claire will go far but break a few glasses and hearts on the way. I learnt more about Brexit from her than anyone else so far. Her attitude mattered most. It’ll sort of be OK whichever way things roll provided we keep our sense of humour.


Enter Mr Grumpy - Donald Trump. Yes he’s ghastly, rude but playacting and increasingly he asks the question no one else dares to ask. He’s beginning to make me laugh. He’ll make a great TV personality (again) when he ceases to be President which I’m afraid he increasingly enjoys. He knows he can actually say anything he wants and deny it despite it being on tape (“fake tape”).

I think we’re becoming immune to him and Brexit. Like Boris they’re infuriatingly tiresome. Claire at least shows life can be funny too.

This has been some summer as we discover walking on sunshine beats shouting and makes various conflicts seem irrelevant. Life goes on: humanity is recovering  - and don’t it feel good?



Monday, 9 July 2018

IN PRAISE OF ABSURDITY

As we flew back from a sultry Venice last week I thought about one of the books I’d read whilst there. Mike Foley’s “The Age of Absurdity.” It was an appropriate book to read in the world’s most absurdly beautiful city built on a marsh in a lagoon where the roadways are water, there are no cars and bicycles (absurdly wonderful) and the diversity of nations is similar to what it was in 1500 spending their absurd money shopping for absurd luxury goods.


Mike is a Northern Irish novelist, poet and philosopher. He is also a misanthrope and an angry man. This is a 272 page rant about the world we live in which occasionally goes off the rails like when he says the south of England only comprises concrete and motorways nowadays. Not so. On our return we flew over East Sussex - green (well actually greenish-brown) field after greenish-brown field with the occasional stately home or cottage, village and church – South East England in 2018 is a greenish-brownish and very pleasant land.

Mike rants especially angrily about shopping – “the thrill of desire not of purchase” and the “new infantilism” of want, want, want. New books unread, new clothes unworn. It is he says “a hedonic treadmill”. But what’s new? In 1500 Venice the markets were full of the unattainably beautiful, delicious and luxurious.

And it still is

.
He hates this PC world of PC – “professional cheeriness” whereas I enjoy people being nice to me in shops, planes and restaurants.

Those entitled millennials get a kicking too. They are constantly distracted by anticipation and a belief than anything is possible. Success is an imperative, a given - hence all those Ist class degrees and A*s. There’s a need to be liked by everyone and a belief that the world is easy. Oh and everything is someone else’ fault. Wrong, Wrong. Wrong. Wrong says Mike. Failure is normal; half the people won’t like you; the world is a harsh, aggressive place and you are to blame for where you find yourself. Being late is just that … not Temporal Disorder Syndrome. And not anyone can be a millionaire.

No especially not you two.



Indifferent is the new cool, he laments. But the new cool is “enthusiasm” related to “professional cheeriness”.

The book revels in the absurdity of love, of work, of politics and has one or two great quotes:
 “Be what you are – something always comes up” (Earl Hines, jazz pianist)
“The first feeling of happiness is power” (Nietzsche)

He’s best on age as he reflects that Shakespeare, Yeats, Tolstoy, Hokusai and others flourished in their later years with insights and crisp expression. He finds numerous sources to define his core philosophy of life, one that I profoundly agree with. Effort matters; you only get anywhere by trying; and it’s the journey that matters not the destination.

He describes reading as a “contact sport” which makes books like this so agreeable, energetic and thought provoking.