Monday, 30 March 2020

1 + 1 = BANANA

I read a teasing piece about poor Diane Abbott this week. I find now as Labour party regimes change that I miss her good heartedness and her arithmetical loopiness. She once missed out some noughts in describing how much a proposed recruitment of police officers would cost annually allowing her interviewer to splutter:

“So you’re going to pay them just £300 a year each?!”

The piece I refer to said:

“Diane Abbott says she has symptoms of Covid eleventy eight.”


We are living in arithmetically lunatic times. Imperial College who’ve been in the forefront of mathematical modelling for Coronavirus, overruling the government experts and winning the  battle for data salience have come out with a variety of numbers.

Their estimates that really hit the headlines with a bang were 500,000 would die unless the strategy changed; then  20,000 would die if it did change and now that  2,000 might die adding that was because the strategy they’d urged was working.

Let’s put this into perspective. Annual deaths in the UK are some 550,000 of which some 17,000 on average are from ‘normal’ flu.


If the current catastrophe is less devastating than ‘normal’ flu by that margin why am I incarcerated, forced by fear to drink my wine supply as rapidly as I can. What a ghastly epitaph this would be: “He left most of the wine he had untouched. His last words ‘bring me a very large bottle of claret’ were unheeded as he was judged delirious.”

Delirious?  I was furious.


But arithmetical insanity reaches new depths when it comes to money. Our new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak (a winner if ever saw one) pulled off an astonishing coup in delivering a budget, an update a few days later and then a further two updates with numbers as I recall of borrowings from £12 billion to £200 billion to £500 billion to “Infinity billion”.

He was trumped by the American President a few days later with a two trillion dollar bail-out for America and a demand that the country got back to work by Easter.


Biden is still ahead in the polls but the results are volatile and Trump keeps on slipping closer or, more likely old Jo will slip behind. If he wins he’ll be 78 – I’m younger than that and regarded as “at risk” and if the truth be known probably gaga – “fetch me my claret nurse”.

Not to be outdone China will doubtless come up with a quadrillion bail-out next.

A quadrillion looks like this; 1,000,000,000,000,000

Yes guys it’s roll-over Saturday.

In the UK, for laudable reasons,  we are taking on unbelievable debt. But do we realise what follow?
Well someone soon  has to pay for all this, and that someone is you and me. On my shaky calculations (I’m in the Diane Abbott league arithmetically) we’ll need to find just over £23,000 per working person in the UK to pay that off.

Arithmetic? We are heading for capital ‘A’ austerity again. Capisci?

Monday, 23 March 2020

WHAT'S NEXT?

I constantly hear people saying “when things get back to normal…” but normal is history now, there is going to be a new-normal not an old one.

Coronavirus is forcing us to re-appraise our relationships, our behaviour and our attitudes. And as we do this there’s one thing that deeply worries me. Most people are not going to die prematurely, especially if they’re young and healthy. The sun is shining and we’re on holiday…an enforced one for sure but think about it as a holiday.


My concern is the mix of terror, depression and hopelessness not least when experts say this could last months or even years.

Let’s see what could follow in the aftermath in our brave, new world.

Working from home. Tell me the commuters from Britain are going to accept back-to-normal commuting. Big office blocks will be redundant. Crowded city centres are going to  be less appealing. As London – the world’s number one city – is destroyed as we knew it – are all those shops going to re-open fast or ever? Levelling up the UK economy will be done in a way that few people had expected. Everyone who can will work at home.

The economy. A new economic economy. Fewer flights. Smaller airports  (doesn’t a third Heathrow runway sound ridiculous today?) Anyone for a cruise? Don’t be silly. A sabbatical year travelling. Nope. A year working in a hospital instead. An economy of less and better. Am economy designed to crush poverty by awarding everyone a basic living wage. Will people stop working if given this – of course not. They’ll work because they want to. Work won’t just be for money.

Ageing. For years we’ve applauded the increasing length of people’s lives. Deaths from coronavirus are relatively small and are unlikely to exceed 20,000 in the UK which is horrible but still only 3.6% of the normal annual mortality rate. I loved the view of an old person I met who said smoking and drinking  heavily was the way forward for the aged.

Shopping. There’s been too much buying of “stuff”. We all know that. Hearing about a man being violently mugged in Haywards Heath for the kitchen rolls he was carrying is comic (unless you were the bruised and bleeding victim). Supermarkets and especially those out-of-town hypermarkets seem like dinosaurs. Markets and corner shops, your time is now if you can rise to the challenge.


Going out. Cineworld, that cinema-multiscreen complex has of course closed but was closing for business anyway in normal times. Small comfortable cinemas yes, big ones no. Big is going to become an old-world word. Big companies; big targets; big shops; big salaries; big offices; big houses. John Lewis closed all their stores last week. How many will ever reopen? Going out is more likely to be into the country or to the seaside not to towns.

Education. Will we see any more GCSEs or SATS being held? Will we (maybe) start to educate children rather than constantly test them? Will using Skype or Zoom become the most important teaching aid? We can now think more about how we can revive arts teaching and discover how to, as that genius educational expert Sir Ken Robinson begged for, liberate rather the crush creativity in the young.


Health. It’s been a really tough time for germs. 60,000,000 people in the UK are washing their hands constantly. The nation’s health (coronavirus apart) has never looked more promising. Ditto air quality. (Go back to school, Greta, when it opens. Your work is done)

Home. Everyone I know is tidying up and throwing away all those things  they’ve squirrelled away for ages. They’re also redecorating and investing in new things they’d meant to replace ages ago. Good news for anything to do with cooking, relaxing sleeping. We can anticipate a run on beds soon. We’re all going to get to know our homes rather well and feel how important they are and not just a staging post. People won’t want to sell and the value of houses will plummet.

Holidays. No. Not for a while. Except at home.

Entertainment. Netflix, Amazon and the best of BBC,  ITV, Channel 4 and others. Take-home food will be increasingly appealing. Get merry at home. Pity the poor taxi drivers though.

Our town/village/street. Local community will trump everything. We now have Sussex Peasant, the Sussex farm produce on sale around Sussex from renovated horseboxes. 


Milk and More allows the home delivery of milk to revive. Local pubs will be the ones that open that look nice and  have great local beer (there are 70 odd local breweries in Sussex – who needs the Anheuser-Busch InBev, SABMiller, Heineken International, and Carlsberg Group? Blimey – doesn’t that name tell you everything that’s wrong with this stupid global fiasco of a world we’ve created?)


Think small. Think local. Buy from those closest – but they must be good enough – there are no excuses any more for local and bad.

The pieces are here but we are not yet recovering from this chaos.

We should surely now that there has never been a better and more important time for “Start Ups” – read the Sunday Times Business Section for their view. Enterprise, resourcefulness and resilience are part of the recipe. Do not try to restore the Global Economy as it was. It’s over.

We can do better.

Above all restore our good spirits . We can’t build a Camelot on gloom.

Monday, 16 March 2020

STOP BEING SO DEPRESSED

There’s a sense of giving up amongst many I know and it won’t do.

The other morning our doorbell rang at 7.15. It was a neighbour holding half of my wing-mirror and saying apologetically “I’m afraid someone’s vandalised your car.”  I shrugged and said “oh well, high spirits and too much to drink I suppose” but as the day wore on the outraged reactions from people seeing what had happened interested me …”bastards! Utter bastards!” “What’s wrong with people?” “Such a lovely car – how could they?”


Whilst entering a critical phase of the pandemic, these people’s focus had temporarily shifted to decrying unsociable behaviour. Our values and how we behave matter more than trying to interpret the indecipherable.

Prudent buying, which in a just-in-time world is having constantly replenished minimal stocks, has changed to what the media call “panic buying” or providing enough to withstand a two week lockdown. Meanwhile at Kimberley Clark the brand manager of Andrex Toilet Tissue is daily going to church to kneel and say: “thank you God for making me a famous success story”.


There is, as ever, a backlash against whatever government does. Gordon Brown said, with that grave authority that defined his short premiership, “the government is behind the curve.”


Given this is where he himself was most of his political life I suppose he feels highly qualified to make this assertion.  Yet ghastly as things are we are much less affected than anywhere else in Europe and are behaving as though we’re worse off. I’m confused by that.


Start-Ups, Pivots and Pop-Ups has been shortlisted for an award at the “Business Books Award Event” but I’m not going.  I said to Helen Kogan, the  MD of our publisher: “People should be at home reading our book not carousing at a black tie event off Trafalgar Square.”

It’s foolish to predict and dangerous to be categoric. We are in unknown territory. Better perhaps to think small. Think neighbourhood. Think checking on older, single people. A month ago I was a catastrophist frustrated by the laissez-faire attitude to what I detected was a major global event, today I think we need to restore balance, cheer up and become communally minded, kinder human beings.

Many years of experience, which mean I’m categorised as “most at risk”, allow me to suggest stop regarding every piece of breaking news as another obituary. We are going to get through this and if we use this period of uncertainty to reflect, we can do so in good shape.

We could do worse than to think constructively about our lives, our priorities and the way we spend our money and time. Just about the only thing that frightens me is the thought that listening to the news might negate all those good intentions.


On Sunday I heard a doctor on Radio 4 say “you need your 5-a-day not just of vegetables but also of fun because laughter is a great medicine. People in good spirits recover faster”

Right on Doc.


Monday, 9 March 2020

CRASH OF THE GIANTS

Am I being melodramatic in suggesting that 2020 will go down as one of the moments in recent history when everything changed?


Coronavirus, apart from the obvious epidemiological stuff, has caused a financial collapse but more importantly a collapse in confidence in the interconnectedness of the globalised economy.
In the 1960s I was persuaded by a friend to go to a meeting proselytising the concept of world government. I thought then that they were completely barmy. And they were.

The relentless quest to centralise, merge businesses and delegate strategic decisions to procurement departments who buy only on price is coming to an abrupt halt. A major whisky distiller was allegedly eager to move production out of Scotland to lower cost Hungary. Insanity. Our clothes are mostly made in impoverished parts of Asia. I am sitting in Bangladeshi underpants right now.

It gets worse. Around 50% of our food is imported and most of the best stuff we produce especially meat and fish is exported. We are in thrall to a few supermarket groups - the top seven of whom account for 90% of UK sales. Big is beautiful or is it? Pundits are pretty well unanimous in dismissing our farming and fishing industries as of inconsequential economic importance.

But that isn’t true.

Big hospitals are better, bigger schools are better, bigger accountancy firms are better (the big four have all the FTSE 100 tied up between them), bigger advertising groups create better ads, fewer bigger banks give better service and so on and so on.

But that isn’t true.


Process and purchasing power dominate and people come way behind in the consideration. Irrational as Brexit seemed to those of us well educated in the MBA ways of thinking, it was the way the majority’s  instinct led them. They were not so much anti Europe as against big, bureaucratic EU wanting to have more as part of their empire. Too big, too unwieldy and past its sell-buy-date they told Westminster and voted leave. A few years later in a city called Wuhan something happened that suggested perhaps they had a point.

I wonder if those smaller dedicated businesses like Harveys the brewer, the Cambridge Satchel Company, Cook – the food retailer, Alfred Brown weaver and tailor, Handlesbanken, the local relationship banks, Naked Wines and Charlie Bigham, the ready prepared meal business may not hold a key to a smaller, more controlled economy.


Because the current Covid 19 crisis is not the last nail in the interconnected coffin.

Read Oliver Letwin’s Apocalypse How? which came out on Thursday. In a cross between documentary and dystopian fiction he argues the internet is the infrastructure on which every major system and utility depends. He describes what would happen if something took it out.

We need to think smaller not bigger.

We need to simplify and stop the technocrats taking control.


Small may indeed be beautiful, you’d be excused for thinking. if you’re on one of those marooned mega-cruise liners right now.

Monday, 2 March 2020

AAARRRGH!!

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of our most quoted writers, said: “Fear defeats more people than any other thing in the world.”

There’s something disagreeable about seeing people panic. Something futile. Something demeaning. But fear can also be also something enormously powerful. Fear fills Shakespeare’s tragedies, fear of the unknown, fear of betrayal, fear of failure.


We are currently on the verge of an era of fear. The past few months in particular, has been full of fear and fearful with bush fires, floods and other disasters. Real gut-wrenching fear. The Covid 19 story is different. FOMO (the acronym meaning ‘fear of missing out’) currently fills our pampered lives; fear of missing out on holidays, business travel, the Olympics, parties, shopping and so on.


When I told a mother with several children that Professor Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, had said if the virus intensified schools might have to shut for two months, she went white and groaned “having the children at home for that long that would kill me quicker than any virus”. She displayed genuine fear as she might at the prospect of an invasion by an implacable and ruthless alien force with insistent cries of “mummy!!!”

But fear of your savings and earnings being reduced, enforced time with your close family and of your life undergoing upheaval is not quite a fight or flight situation.


Fear was in the news more prosaically when a plan was announced to level up the red squirrel population at the expense of the larger, more aggressive grey squirrels originally introduced from America. How? By introducing pine martens to their environment who’d kill either species at random but whose prospects against red squirrels were less good than against grey. Why? Because grey squirrels are fearless and stepping out cockily to greet the pine martens would be promptly slaughtered. Red squirrels are terrified of nasty, bitey pine martens and flee uttering the squirrel equivalent of “mummy!”

As with red squirrels, fear is a perfectly healthy emotion – part of our defence system. It’s how we cross roads safely and avoid the perils of life.


But more mysterious is our wanting to feel fear through horror films or attractions like The London Dungeon where the success of the experience can be judged by the quantity and volume of screams. It is indeed horrible especially the experience, too real for laughter, of the ‘long drop’ when being hanged, the proximity to Sweeney Todd and the macabre descriptions of the Black Death. You are herded through nastiness where actors perform their roles with melodramatic relish. Fear can only usually be dispelled by laughter which is why those screams are usually punctuated by giggling.

But the threat of Covid 19 isn’t funny. It’s unknown. Welcome to globalisation which means there’s nowhere to hide. We’ll end up poorer and may have been briefly housebound but think of the reading, tidying and DIY opportunities. And think of the time we’ll have to reflect on the sort of interconnected world we’re creating.


Monday, 24 February 2020

YOU CAN ONLY TRY YOUR BEST

I remember this half-hearted encouragement given to someone not doing very well at school; that word “only” had a feeling of resignation anticipating failure. It should have been more positive. We should all aim to do our best. And it’s in that spirit that James O Brien on LBC, reflecting on the current immigration policy, said he found the term “unskilled worker” obnoxious.


He’s right. There is no task, however menial, that doesn’t require skill. We have a Czech cleaner who does a brilliant job in our house filling the place with positivity as she cleans with ferocity and finesse. If architects were as skilled in their jobs as she is in hers we’d have more beautiful buildings.


My Goddaughter has just gone to Tokyo to take up a big, skilled job in a top law firm. Her flat is in Roppongi, an area full of designer boutiques, restaurants and bars. But when she moved into her flat it was empty, devoid of refrigerators, washing machines, furniture. She had to buy everything and said the pride the delivery men had in delivering and installing the fridge carefully and “skilfully” was amazing. The Japanese are fussy about doing every job perfectly. Porters at that stations are doing their best to be the best porters.

But in the UK the idea that you should do every job brilliantly, however far beneath your self-perceived merits it may be, is unusual . Rachel Bell, a successful entrepreneur and my co-author, had as her byword “be the best at whatever you do…nothing’s beneath you”.  But so long as our leaders are dismissive about  “low paid, unskilled” work, there’s little incentive for pride. I recall a TV programme in which British workers were matched against foreign workers. They did badly, criticising their Polish counterparts for “working too fast” and in other instances walking off the job because “too much was expected”.

Years ago I talked to the CEO of Unipart, John Neil, about the state of British Industry in the 1970s. He said “no-one knew what good was”. Most people know now, helped by watching  immigrant labour keen to work and work quickly. Eastern Europeans do so with such pride and focus that employers attracted by their work rate and quality are eager to hire them. 


We’ve got better, with  big, thriving sectors like the automotive industry and,  particularly, hospitality which is significantly dependent on professional, ambitious foreign labour skilled in customer service Apparently though, not skilled in the eyes of the Home Office. 

These are not easy times. The high street is suffering. But recently I walked on impulse into Fortnum & Mason. The place was heaving. There were exotic displays of tea and biscuits. In 2019 they had their 7th year of double digit growth. And as their confidence has grown they’ve got better still.

They are still trying their best to be best and it shows.

All we need is government to do their best now.

Monday, 17 February 2020

THOSE SILVER LININGS

John Milton wrote this in Comus (1634):
“Was I deceived or did a sable cloud 
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

No John you were not deceived.


Your verse led to a homily that every cloud had a silver lining. Our world, today, is awash it would seem with apocalyptic events. How easy it is to be a journalist when there’s drama about. Murder, mayhem, Armageddon. Bring it on if you’re a writer. The Jo Nesbo in every author begs release and permission to melodramatise and this is currently being offered free of charge to them...courtesy of Silver Linings Inc.

All over the world biochemists are having the time of their lives looking for the Coronavirus antidote. (Apparently the experts in this disease aren’t happy with the new name COVID19 so storm clouds there for the time being).  Being a biochemical researcher in 2020 is to be a rock star – so eat your heart out Massive Wagons (no, me neither but check them out. They’re massive.)



Or you’re a folk star like a Dylan or Leonard Cohen if you’re one of the leading authority voices on climate change. Science is the place to be if you want fame.


As headline seekers like Phil Green hit hard times as the new film released this week called  ‘Greed’  starring Steve Coogan shows;  satire and derision is heaped on them. It’s those  ladies and gentlemen in white coats who’ve become the real celebrities. Be it locusts ravaging East Africa, fires and dust storms destroying Australia or the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica that’s melting at such an incredible pace it’s scientists not poets or protest marches that will help mitigate these catastrophes. The kings and queens in Silver Linings Inc. are like Ghostbusters ready to solve the problem and save us.


The best silver lining story of my week came in an interview on Radio 4 with a brilliantly fluent English-speaking businessman in the virtually deserted Wuhan (see above), where the coronavirus epidemic kicked off. He’s been pretty much housebound since mid-January. The interviewer expressed sympathy and said how ghastly this incarceration must have been. “Not at all”, the Wuhan man said. “It’s been fabulous. Glorious family-time. We watch films. Play games. I teach my young children. We’re having a really lovely break.

I also hear there’s been a massive increase in condom sales in Hubei Province of which Wuhan is capital. I  just love how human beings always make the best out of problems.

The silver lining I’d been anticipating as the result of the big getting bigger and less resilient with their supply chains - vulnerable to tariff changes, global epidemics and sophisticated hacking of corporate computer systems - is the rise of simple start-ups equipped to cope in a challenging word because they carry no baggage, just talent and creativity.


That sable cloud, dark, stormy and destructive has been building up but simple human ingenuity  and goodwill will win. Silver linings are what we deserve.