Monday, 21 September 2020

IT'S GOODBYE TO THE WISDOM OF CROWDS

James Surowiecki  journalist and staff writer on the New Yorker wrote his seminal book in 2004. It was called “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations”. 

In it he argued (Michael Gove would have loved this) that experts are overrated and that taking the average of the guesses of a crowd of diverse people as to the weight of an ox, it will nearly always be better than that of so-called ox experts. He explored the way that crowds co-ordinate. Watch people walking at pace in a crowded street as they nimbly avoid colliding and the way crowds co-operate. Look how football crowds turn a good match into an electric event with their orchestrated noise. Crowds seem a natural phenomenon of civilisation. Look at the vibrant , busy bustle of pre-coronavirus London. Crowds are affirmations of what is popular and human. 

We are witnessing the end of crowds. The rule of six and the guidelines which deter people from mingling describes a world in which, increasingly, we shall avoid each other. The cries of “getting back to normal” which have always seemed to me as foolishly hopeful seem even less credible as the busy, crowded society of 2019 recedes into distant memory.

We are not going to enjoy busy restaurants as we did, nor will theatres reopen with big audiences or football crowds sing those gloriously silly chants.

“His names a department store
You know that he’s going to score”

of Bury striker Lenny John Lewis sung to the tune La Donna e mobile.

If the joy of strolling, mingling, meeting and celebrating are not going to be part of our lives for a while, what’s the cost going to be?

The pleasure of our civilisation is that it is well-ordered, that timetables work, that it’s generally predictable, that economies grow, democracies work and we have lots of friends (most of us). But the greatest joy is in being spontaneous. In surprises. In unexpected meetings. Of animated conversations over lunch. Of visiting new places.

We shall, of course, adjust; we’re good at that. But the ‘World Happiness Report’ (published every year by the United Nations) is going to take a kicking in 2020/21 (this is updated annually so we see how happy all the countries are - we came a creditable 15th in 2019).

What else will take a kicking? Data Protection that’s what. The basis of Track and Trace is inimical to privacy. Meanwhile the news is that Uber seem likely to retain their licence for London because they share all their data with the Metropolitan Police who regard this data as essential in crime detection.

So, what’s there to be cheerful about? Three things.

Ex Cabinet Minister Hugh Swire ‘s wife Sasha has written ’Diary of an MP’s Wife’ which vividly and indiscreetly describes the behind-the-scenes excesses of the Cameron inner circle in the 2010 Coalition Government. From what I’ve read so far it’s entertaining and revealing. It reassured me that Prime Ministers and leaders of Advertising Agencies (as they were in my day) had more in common than I’d thought. I loved the line “David drinks like a camel” and the reference to the constant downing of “lethal negronis” in number 10.

Secondly, this wonderful Indian Summer. I love this time of year. New school. Going to university. Fall is when we start to think of the future and … “of mists and mellow fruitfulness...”

Finally, having heard it for the NHS now can we hear it for Britain’s supermarkets? If only Tesco ran the Testing Programme. The ability of all of the supermarket chains to change the way they operate, transforming their delivery service and seamlessly fixing their supply chain has been remarkable.

But no more crowds for now. Just peace and reflecting.

Monday, 14 September 2020

SUNSHINE, LOLLIPOPS AND RAINBOWS...

This 1965 Lesley Gore song kept on coming into my head this week on my relentless crusade to cheerfulness. But even I have to admit the next line was rather cheesy

“Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together.”

Provided, that is, there aren’t more than six of us. I thought this rule of six was sensible by the way – six is the perfect number for a supper. But…big but… we have a daughter and son in law with three children. I plan on sitting in the car outside their house waiting for my wife (or Number Six as she is now known). 

We had a glorious week. I’m reading again, at last – John Le CarrĂ©’s latest ‘Agent Running in the Field’ and ‘Hamnet’ the prize winning novel about Shakespeare’s son who dies when he was 11 by Maggie O’Farrell. 

I’ve walked – not much but the armchair is beginning to regard me now as something of a stranger. We’ve flirted with the idea of a lightning visit to Venice but the risks, as Covid spikes suddenly all over Europe, just seem too great and too unfair. Anyway what’s Venice like right now? 

Clear water in the  canals, emptyish squares. Venice as it was 50 years ago. But public feelings are running high. We read about a young German tourist who tried to board a vaporetto at San Zaccaria near San Marco…without a mask. Here are the rules in Venice and all Italy: “In Italy, masks are mandatory on all public transport, as well as in enclosed spaces. They must also be worn in outdoor spaces between the hours of 6pm and 6am.”

He was seized by outraged passengers and thrown off. Three times he tried to board and was beaten up each time until, bewildered, he fled. 

So instead of us going to Venice, Venice came to us. I decided we should have Fegato alla Veneziano – Venetian style calves liver strips in onions. If you don’t like liver you just won’t understand. Cin Cin. Yum Yum.

We also went to the glorious Leonardslee at Lower Beeding and drank in the tranquillity and glory of their trees especially those glorious Redwoods. So tall they put everything into perspective. It was like giving your soul a languorous, hot, soapy bath I suggested. My wife eyed me suspiciously at this with a “have you been drinking again?” look. So I modified it to “Pleasant here isn’t it?” Suspicion allayed.

My joys of the week were, first of all, the threatened prospect of the Shetland Islands declaring UDI and leaving Scotland. With a population of just 22,000, GDP over £1 billion, per capita income over £38k, rated the 3rd most desirable tourist destination by National Geographic Magazine, having a huge fishing industry and oil reserves shoving it up alongside Norway this is such a great story. Not for Nicola though.

My second was to learn very belatedly that John Lennon had a lengthy affair with Alma Cogan singer of songs like ‘You must never do a Tango with an Eskimo.’ Imagine! 

My week like all weeks had its lows as well as highs. The first was the reaction to the US election with so many people lamenting even the possibility of Trump winning again.  Why I asked if you all cared so much did you end up with a potential loser like Joe Boden, nice man as he may be? I felt vindicated as, in the polls the Latino vote in Florida seemed to be slipping to Trump. But I also felt sad and irritated. With the lead they had months ago this is the Democrats election to lose. And it’s getting closer.

Secondly it was the horror show of Philip Green in shorts on his monster yacht. Men in shorts seldom please the eye. Philip least of all. 



Monday, 7 September 2020

GET RID OF LOCKDOWN LETHARGY

Yes, I’m back - a bit like Coronavirus. You thought I’d gone away and that my blogs were a thing of the past but here I am, exhaustingly cheerful and optimistic. Guardian readers must hate my jollity, marooned as they seem to be on an island of grim disapproval.

First of all was my break good?

It was horrible. It compounded all that was worst about the lessons of lockdown. A collapse in my IQ to that of a grunting teenager. Dissatisfaction. Nothing to do and virtually nowhere to go. I was aimless and grumpy and according to my wife less than my usual convivial company. So I cut the break short. Started working a bit. Checked my emails. Had a couple of lunches. Met some people. Laughed. Listened. Became more human.

We have become trapped through a mixture of uncertainty, fear and mixed messages in a purgatory of anti-social caution. We, who are older or who have underlying-health concerns or are hypochondriacs, have flipped over into an extremely socially-distanced coma.

Well that’s history for me. I “who am” (to misquote Shakespeare’s Richard III), “shaped for sportive tricks” wish to

“caper nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.”

My wife looked and me and said “don’t be silly you’re far old for that sort of thing …. have you put the rubbish out?”

But we agreed that we needed to meet more friends, eat out more and generally become active physically and intellectually. 

Although I’m very dispirited by the economic prospects, with the rest of the world and us facing massive unemployment, with whole sectors declining, rusting and fading away, there’ll be pockets of innovation and opportunity: DIY. Home-Improvement. Gardening. Home offices and technology. Refurbished old office space. Medicine. Wine. Casual clothes.

Self-education programmes. Fitness programmes. New restaurants designed from scratch. New conference-technology (I predict the demise of the hateful Zoom). Re-invention after re-invention starting with retailers like M&S and John Lewis who’ll have to reinvent …or die.

Most of all we’ll see new businesses start up and whilst some will make it, many won’t. The atmosphere will be febrile with innovation and endeavour; resourcefulness will get us through - as it always has.

Out of catastrophe surprisingly good things will happen if we stop staying in and hoping we can get back to where we were. Groundhog-day thinking is useless in today’s world.

Making the best out of a mess was illustrated last week when one of my best friends had her work computer hacked (it happens) and hundreds and hundreds of bogus emails went to clients, past, present and potential.

So far… so awful but as she reached for her proverbial revolver to end it all the phone started to ring and lots of these clients and potential clients phoned to say “you’ve been hacked but how are you? We must talk”.

An ostensibly humiliating disaster became a hugely effective new business tool.

The lesson is an old one. A complaint is an opportunity. A problem when solved is a cause to celebrate. Forget algorithms. We are human and for the last five months we have discarded our humanity and responded to computer-speak commands - “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save Lives”.

Here’s my version – “Meet more people. Enjoy their company. Make life better”. Yes, give each other space, wear a mask, wash your hands and follow those guidelines … we’ve got all that … but stop being paranoid and anti-social.



It’s nice to be back. Drink anyone? How about a Chinese, Indian or Mexican?

After this summer I feel hungry for life.

Monday, 17 August 2020

THE PAUSE

Richard is taking August off and will continue his blogs in September. Have fun in the meantime.

Monday, 3 August 2020

ARE WE THERE YET?

No, this is our pause.

First of all the good news.

We are taking August off. Time to recharge. Learn to read copiously and properly. Walk a lot. Travel (close to home.) Sleep properly. And, sorry, a month free of blogs. ‘Thank God’ I hear you mutter.
But before we go a few reflections.

No, my dears, we are not I’m afraid there yet. Not even close. “The most precious things in speech are pauses”.  said Ralph Richardson. This is our pause.


The news from here, all over the world and specifically continental Europe is depressing. Covid 19 became Covid 20 and is looking as though it’ll become Covid 21. Ernst and Young, the management consultants and accountants and who employ 270,000 people (what on earth do they all do? How many will still be in employment when this is all over?) are predicting that it’ll be 2024 before the economy recovers to 2019 levels. And I think that finger-in-the-air guess is probably optimistic. So what?

Our lives for too long have been governed by expressions like “factory gate prices”, “underlying levels of unemployment”, “Gross Domestic Product”, “Consumer Price Index,” “Oligopoly” and so on. The redoubtable Nassim Taleb hates economists because he says they are always wrong and always sound as if they’re always right.


The truth is that until this virus is conquered and we have set up defences against the next ones, ‘normal’ and ‘growth’ are going to be for the history books. It’s not as though ‘normal’ was that great. We were heading to hell in a BMW as our activities were overheating everything, not least the planet. Today even climate-change sceptics seem to be grudgingly observant of how the lack of gratuitous pollution seems to have been beneficial.

I have been reading a splendid new book about my favourite place called “Venice Odyssey” by Neal E. Robbins. Helped by a series of interviews with local luminaries he examines what it is that makes Venice unique and what’s destroying it. His findings give us plenty of things to consider and lessons to learn ourselves.


Like the need to move more slowly. Venice is a walking city. Walking is the future. Like the need to root out and eliminate financial corruption which in 2014 led to six prosecutions there and dozens of plea bargains with a combined jail sentence of just under 100 years. Like the need to apply common sense by eliminating the 10 storey cruise-ships (Covid will surely have seen the back of these anyway, their being, as we know, monster petri-dishes for the virus). Like cleaning up the environment and respecting eco-balance. Like investing in new technologies and learning (Venice has over 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students). Like trying to sustain and develop culture and the arts…a struggle in the face of mass-tick-box tourism.

Robbins knows his stuff but more than that he really feels the hidden pulse of Venice. His book looks full in the face of the potential disaster facing the city but concludes the dying embers of magic there are too special and loved to extinguish.

So it is with us. 

Rather than fight the situation we shall be better off and more likely to create the new world we could and should make if we relax into understanding our own possibilities. It’s unlikely that air travel as we knew it will ever recover to previous levels or that package holidays will be as cheap or plentiful or that poor restaurants will survive – so far 16,000 have closed due to Covid. The demise of money has been accelerated. Home delivery has become a norm. The High Street is being completely reshaped. Old, unhygienic, poor and cramped anything will like rotting teeth be removed.


So that’s a new world. Much more hygienic, airy and congenial. More gardens. More style. Less speed (HS2? 5G? Are we really serious about those?) Remember the slow-movement in Italy – their counter to fast food. More audience-friendly, social distanced theatres like Chichester, like the Prince of Wales in London. An investment in new film and TV drama. A surge towards the arts – long overdue. Education refocusing on stuff other than just maths – history, geography, art, drama – mind-broadening stuff.


I was reading EM Forster’s ‘Two Cheers for Democracy’ and his wonderful essay on Julius Caesar which he’d seen performed, in part, in a primary school, not done very well (of course not but done with gusto) which ended with the very un-Shakespearian couplet. 
“So that is it. Our play is done.  
We hope that you’ve had lots of fun.”  

Sorry this has been so long. Until September. I hope that you have lots of fun.                                                                                                                                                              

Monday, 27 July 2020

DRIVING TASTE

Drivers of taste… 

What is it that creates a craze? When I was in the toy trade I watched the overwhelming impact of licensed merchandise with agents selling the rights for Bond and Marvel and so on. Ordinary toys went to the back of the toy cupboard. 

In the late-1950s Connie Francis was no.1 pop singer with “Stupid Cupid” but by the mid-60s, a turmoil of change, the demise of Tory government and a sense of  rebirth, regionally- accented groups strutted the stage; the advent of pirate radio stations promoted rebellious music further. 

Old Pop was demolished as smart middle-men marketed new groups and  UK music became entrepreneurial and global, defining the booming spirit of the times. We still talk about this golden era. 

Live performance needs stages. Thus as wealth grew and tastes refined opera thrived as Garsington, the Grange, Glyndebourne plus a myriad of outdoor venues emerged. And then theatre in pubs, in gardens, in hotels. Actors and singers were busy. We thought that trend could never end. How wrong. How ironic.

Cars had their day too with E-types and Minis exciting people  with unique style. For a while cars became stars. Remember the “Italian Job.” How cars looked said a lot about their owners.  But as some petrol-head gloomily said “now all cars are being designed by a computer and look alike.”

In the turmoil-ridden 1970s (strikes, 3 day weeks, 27% inflation) the staid US advertising agencies that dominated the post-war years were usurped by bands of brothers (like the Saatchis) and a cluster of bright young creative minds fleeing to London from the unemployed provinces. Smooth public-school ad men were usurped by school failures who suddenly came to life and wrote funny ads. that people loved. 

What’s in common here is the collective exuberance that inventors, salesmen and rebels, discovered , developed and produced and sold a lot of, all trying to outdo each other.  

And why? In virtually every case three things coincided –  social upheaval,  shifts in technology and groups of middle-men who were great salesman. Dealers, agents, fixers. Almost nothing happens without these “wily” agents. People like Ray Croc who took the McDonald brothers’ product and concept and created a worldwide phenomenon. Would the Beatles have been as big without their manager Brian Epstein? Would Saatchi have been successful without Tim Bell – wheeler-dealer supreme? All of them could smell money in creating new excitement and selling unusual ways of looking at things.

And, it seems, it was ever thus.

I’ve been reading  “The Taste Makers” which describes the scale and the genesis of the craze for Louis X1V furniture in the late 18th and early 19th century. The French Revolution  followed by the tumultuous rise and fall of Napoleon created turmoil, uncertainty and change. Times like those when dealers and entrepreneurs saw opportunities to define taste to their advantage resemble times like ours when normality has been overturned. 

Uncharted territory. Turmoil. Technological innovation. Young talent. Desire for change. A rebel spirit. Salesmanship.

Game on.

   


Monday, 20 July 2020

LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL?

Sam Goldwyn said “it’s hard to predict especially when it comes to the future.” Forecasters are currently either catastrophists or Panglossian. On Friday one-time Father of the House, ex-MP and possibly the best Prime Minister we never had, Ken Clarke, said on the BBC Today programme we should probably expect the worst in terms of unemployment and company failures, that the exceptional economic downturn will destroy many small and medium sized businesses that aren’t quite good enough or needed enough and many nice-to-have, but not essential, jobs will disappear. 


On Wednesday I went up to London, the first time in sixteen weeks. The train from Brighton was almost empty, Victoria Station was quiet as was Central London. It was like a Sunday. John Lewis in Oxford Street was closed. The few people hurried past wearing masks. Return to normal? Definitely not. It’s difficult to see when and how the momentum will return. Difficult certainly for the taxi driver almost in tears who said to me that there was no business and that things were hopeless. Boris’ upbeat words and braggadocio will not be enough to shift that taxi-driver’s despair.


It’s all exacerbated by the lack of human contact. A big feature of my life has always been lunch. I was better at lunch than most. I almost lived in Odin’s, now gone (and what a tragedy that was.) Before anyone had heard of the term Odin’s tables were “socially distanced” from each other. I learnt more over lunch than I did at University. Lunch was when people went off script and told the truth, lunch was when trust was earned or lost. In its smaller and less satisfying way it was the coffee machine or water cooler where office politics happened. People are social beings not distanced.


Zoom, GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and the rest can’t replace spontaneous face-to-face conversation. Whilst it’s probably true that working from home can be more productive, teams will become harder to co-ordinate and motivate and leaders will have to find a new way of behaving. 

“What sort of leaders shall we need or get post Covid?” 


That’s what I was asked last week. 

Two things. Firstly when is post-Covid? Next year? Just when will the masks come off and the conversation turn from health? Secondly the models of leadership globally are not promising. In business Bezos, Zuckerberg, Musk and others like them are setting the pace. In politics, Xi, Putin, Trump, Erdogan are leading voices right now. The trend is towards egotistical authoritarianism.

In 1920 when Baseball star, Joe Jackson, admitted he cheated in the 1919 World Series, reporter Charley Owens wrote “Say it ain’t so Joe”. That’s how any lover of people would respond to the trend towards dictatorships.

Leaders we should hope would be less greedy, more modestly paid, better listeners, better teachers, more visionary, much more inspirational and much smarter.

If that happens we’ve a chance of getting out of the tunnel. But if not…..