Monday, 11 December 2017

SO WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

That tyrant Sam Goldwyn, the film tycoon, who flourished in a Hollywood age prior to its sexual harassment scandals said this: “It’s difficult to make predictions especially about the future.” Yet we must try because we live in a world of storytelling where ‘narrative-drive’ is all and business leaders regard themselves as born-again Aaron Sorkins.


Recently a friend asked with the urgency of a character in the TV series, ‘Victoria’ when parliament was in the midst of the Corn Law crisis: “Richard. Do you think the government will fall next week?”

I paused and thought … I don’t know and I don’t care because the malevolent hand that’s writing our script has lost its touch. There are too many cliff-hanger dramas, there’s too much noise, just too much …

In a week when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Defence Secretary tussled, almost coming to blows (more East Enders than West Enders) and in a world where Trump’s finger inches further towards the nuclear button you tell me what’s next?


Predicting the future is difficult? Even for computers it would seem. In Australia the hitherto faultless Umpire Decision Review System in Test Cricket has been seriously questioned by many cricket commentators. Here the question is where a cricket ball would have gone in the next 3 or 4 feet of travel. Even that isn’t that easy.

I see with gloom that the market is awash with new alcohol free products, gin, whisky, beer and cider - Seedlip, Teetotal, St Peters, Kopparbeg and so on. And that’s just for starters. (Happy Christmas everyone.) Cars are beginning to look like Victorian horses - on the verge of redundancy.


So the future is a carless society, free of alcohol and one where smoke of any kind - tobacco, coal or bonfire will be illegal. New political parties will form….and evaporate. Labour will purify itself of what they call “Blairite Zombies” - that is centrists - and become the darling of a reducing but passionate minority. The Tories will implode (again). Europe will disintegrate and we’ll be glad we left. Then it will reintegrate and we’ll be sad we left. The political landscape will just become more of a mess.  That pendulum will swing to and fro increasingly erratically and the fickle finger of fate will stop and point where least expected.

Back to a real storyteller - Aaron Sorkin. In his series “The Newsroom” Jeff Daniels plays a news anchor who can't take the bullshit anymore about America being the greatest country in the world during a panel discussion and tells it like it is - a weakening, contradicting and failing country that’s lost its moral compass.


What’ll happen next is unknowable. So we must go with the flow, be kind, true to our beliefs and values. We shall be in a pickle if all we worry about is money, status and how others see us.
2018 will not be easy. That, at least, seems a safe prediction.

Monday, 4 December 2017

I USED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL LIAR

For many years I was in a world of strategic hyperbole called advertising. It was a colleague of mine who coined this concept of professional lying. At the time it seemed a bit naughty but not too harmful.


After all no one actually believed Heineken had unique powers in reaching the parts other beers couldn’t reach. We all pushed the letter of the law on behalf of our clients, creating what today could be called fake news. We created false alarms like an imminent salt shortage, very effective in immediately boosting salt sales, and one I was involved in with Energen, the low carbohydrate crispbread, sales of which were hampered because it didn’t taste that nice.

Here was the logic:
Too much starch makes you fat
Most crispbread has 70% starch
Energen only has 30% starch
If you want to lose weight reduce your starch intake
Ask a successful slimmer about Energen


The sales result was astounding.  Ryvita (I don’t blame them) were livid and our Joseph Rank was berated by the Associated British Foods’ Garfield Weston. When the Chairmen of competing companies scrapped that meant we knew we were winning “bigly” (as Donald Trump would say). We created false fears - thus an advertising campaign suggested chicken legs could easily puncture cooking foils not as strong as Bacofoil; that Hepworth’s was fashion that didn’t fall apart. Fashion tick; durable tick; other brands???

But that was then…when we were all in communication-jousts with each other. In advertising we were the human entertaining equivalent of corporate lawyers - we the professional strikers, they the professional referees.

When does satire or hyperbole become lying? When does a strongly presented emotional argument become fake news? At what shade of grey does black become a kind of white?


Pondering on this and other things I was driving last week with my wife over Ditchling Beacon near Brighton. We drove past a series of earth mounds several feet high. To understand what follows you should know my wife regards me as a terrible tease but who can’t stand being teased myself.

“What on earth caused those?” I mused
“Moles” she said
“Moles….they’re far too big for that that - they’d have to be enormous moles”
“No not enormous just quite big - about the size of polar bears”
“Crumbs! Why have I never heard about these “Polar Moles?”
“It hasn’t been widely publicised but it’s these moles that cause sink holes. Whenever you hear about a sink hole the chances are it’s a polar mole that’s caused it”
“These creatures sound dangerous. Are they carnivorous?”
“No but they sometimes drag someone underground because they want their company. Sadly in their affection they smother them.”

I had to stop because by now we were giggling too much to keep this going. The art of creating fake news is the art of storytelling. When we stop telling and enjoying stories and also asking questions we are in big trouble.


Monday, 27 November 2017

CHREXIT - THE END OF CHRISTMAS (AT LAST)

Someone asked me recently if Brexit was a “brand”. Too right I said. Wouldn’t you buy “Brexit Brain Drain Unblocker”or “Brexit Bleach” - formidable, strong killers of all liberal germs (germs have feelings too as that horrible commercial for Domestos suggests)? “Exit” itself became a verb when HR decided the idea of ‘exiting’ staff rather than firing them seemed less messy because ‘exiting’ is like keyhole-dismissal as opposed to open-heart dismissal.


But while we’re at it let’s ‘exit’ Christmas…. let’s stop the festival that creates more bankrupts than anything else.  Here are the arguments for stopping the event. It celebrates the birth of Christ - yet only 50% of the UK claims to be Christian, a quarter of those don’t believe in the resurrection and only 800,000 go to church on the average Sunday. Christmas now starts in October and runs through to the New Year punctuated by Halloween, Thanksgiving and Black Friday. It’s a long, it’s expensive and to many people it’s a meaningless event - it’s like celebrating your birthday on the wrong day (like Lewis Carroll’s brilliant idea of ‘un-birthdays’.)

Christmas is a frenzy of iffy commercials, inebriation, office parties, family-fret-togethers and tawdry lighting. I recently watched one of the many Christmas films (I wasn’t feeling very well at the time) called “Santa Who?” Imagine eating a large box of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in one sitting…there’s only so much feel-good anyone can take.  More people get stressed, ill or suicidal over the long bleak Christmas holiday to be greeted in January by the tax man and as like as not another reorganisation at work. Let’s “cancel Christmas” as Alan Rickman immortally spat in ‘Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’.


But, actually, let’s not do that. Let’s instead kill the Grinch in us.

Let’s embrace the corny. The smell of tangerines, Armagnac, mince pies, fir trees; the taste of turkey (whoever said it’s tasteless is eating the wrong kind of bird), stuffing, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, chocolate ginger, brandy cream; the hygge feel of that log fire; the sound of some of the best music ever composed - just listen to the Sussex Carol, Noel Nouvelet, Bethlehem Down and the sight of Christmas decorations, a general anticipation of happiness and 7.5 million or more going to church around Christmas. Very few things bring us together like this.


Read the American Nathaniel Hawthorne, the real inventor of Christmas as we know it. His book “The Old Christmas” romanticises the idea of “peer and peasant in harmony”, of log fires, food, fun and games. The wintry bleakness, he argues, induces us to look within to find our true, kind social selves.
In a world of fake news, fake politicians and fake emotions we’re being conditioned to stop believing in anything.

And that’s a pity.

It’s time to believe again, in goodness, in kindness and in the story of generosity of spirit - the story of Santa Claus. Because Christmas is the best party ever concocted.


Monday, 20 November 2017

TIME TO GET ANGRY

Angry? That doesn’t begin to describe how most of us are feeling. We are not close to doing a deal with the EU - will probably fail to do so -  and we’re strategically at odds with each other as to what we even want Britain to be like. To help us we have a vile cocktail of brexiteers, remainers, alt-righters, Marxists, Liberals, pundits, EU bureaucrats, Merkel, Macron, the rest of the 27 - several of whom are imploding politically.


It’s like being on US Airways 1549 - no engines, too low, New York City below, and a crash landing in the Hudson our best option. But no one is flying the plane let alone our having a Sully on the flight deck.

We have to start by asking what we are, where we are, what we’re striving for, how we can achieve it, how long that will take and what legacy we want to leave. Let’s ignore (as a given) that this is a mess, a debacle and a cock-up. Like it or not the referendum gave us this hand of cards (like Northern Ireland being out of the World Cup through a mistaken penalty - everyone agrees it was an error - but they are out of the World Cup and we are out of the EU.)


Forget Lord Kerr, author of Article 50, who’s popped up 18 months after the referendum saying “it’s not irrevocable” making the remain-ideologues believe Kerr, prayer and procrastination may save us. They won’t; so move on.


How do we as an independent entity make our lives happy, lucrative and fun? Let’s focus on the long list of what we are great at: from innovation (world number 1 in patents) to the arts to finance to technology to tourism to lots more. Currently business is waiting for the politicians. It needs to be more pro-active. I am not advocating addlebrained Boris euphoria - “jolly good country Britain yeeha!” We need a dose of rational self-belief and a plan to make the most of where we excel.

In a world as messy and conflicted as this, working within the straitjackets of existing party “alliances”, behaving as though everything’s normal, is ridiculous. We need a new party, like they have in France, where the rules are re-written. The talent that will solve our problem does not sit on either front bench right now but sits everywhere. Imagine Ruth Davidson, Hillary Benn, David Miliband, Yvette Cooper, Jesse Norman, Tom Tugendhat and a few others working together and you get the idea of what good government might look like. Not like this…


Have I turned into a brexiteer? No but almost anything’s better than being a wait-and-see-er. We can’t go on like this; we can’t allow ourselves to drift into disaster; our political parties are past their sell-by date and our respect and confidence. Our grandchildren born and unborn deserve better.

Don’t just be angry; do something. E-mail your MP constantly. Write to no.10; be a nuisance.

Monday, 13 November 2017

PRUDERY, RUDERY AND GETTING THINGS RIGHT

I was somewhat surprised to be given a copy of the best writings of Henry Miller by a neighbour. Why me? Miller was the literary infant terrible of the 1950s and ‘60s. His description of sex makes “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” sound like Enid Blyton (‘Five Off for a Jolly Bonk’.) They are very rude indeed but rather sad too. His ability to have relationships as opposed to frequent and impulsive shags seems limited. Yet when he writes about Greece (especially Mycenae) or flying or food or having his car serviced (prosaic but riveting) this man is literary giant. When he gets obsessed with parts of the body his sense of humanity and humour goes. 

                   
June (his second wife) and Henry Miller

And that’s because there’s not much joy in his sex. Sophocles said it first and was then quoted by Plato, Socrates and others ending with Russell Brand…“The male libido is like being chained to a maniac”… yeah, that’s Horrid Henry. Not just horrid but a bit boring too.

It was peculiar reading this high-class porn whilst MPs were being denounced for playing ‘handsy’ or
worse. I hope none of them gets caught with a copy. That would not be funny.

Unlike Caitlin Moran who’s very funny but also rather rude. Her recent book is called “Moranifesto” which “sets the world to rights”. The substance isn’t rude at all but the fucking language often is. She uses the “f” word not so much for effect as for emphatic punctuation and to show she’s one of us.


Caitlin is a genius. I use the word circumspectly. She understands manners and why they matter so much (there aren’t many good manners in politics) and despite her rebelliousness she belongs in kinder, more literary times than these. Unsurprisingly her style in influenced by writers like Dorothy
Parker and H.L. Mencken. She’s an almost Dickensian figure in her exuberance and in being larger-than-life when she says things like: “Why do people keep on talking about the sweet fragrance of women? We smell. Me? I smell of soup … onion soup.”


Things that need sorting out she says are as diverse as include cystitis, bacon (ugh?) and social media. How about this for a bullseye of observation?  “The internet is like a drunken toddler.” 

She thinks many things are wrong but that there are some things blindingly right. Like having joy in life, being kind to ourselves and to others and in not taking ourselves too seriously. How lucky we are, she says, to have friends, family, to be going out together, drinking wine (lots of it) and laughing. Never get angry. Being angry shows you’re scared. Try being polite instead.

I wish she’d met Henry. She’d have soon been put that gloomy old libertine in his place. And she’d have made him laugh too. And they might have focused on improving joy, good humour and manners in the world, Henry in his tsunami style, Caitlin by wit and insight. What a team.


                             


Monday, 6 November 2017

A STILL SMALL VOICE OF CALM

These words from a well-known hymn describe how my enforced foot-up convalescence has changed the way I look at things. Because I can’t rush around I have to slow down and reflect. I once heard Melvyn Bragg talking about Isaac Newton’s remarkable ability to think, to sit and concentrate. For his part Melvyn said he spent his thinking-time making tea, polishing his desk, making a phone call...anything to avoid stopping and silently focusing.

Life is not a race where medals are awarded for speed. Too much of my life has been spent running faster elbowing my way to the front. Being more considered and thoughtful enables us to aim and concentrate our energy more accurately.


I’ve also learnt how to read again. It’s amazing how reading so much on a screen has turned me into a sloppy speed-reader. I’m going to move on to poetry next where every word counts. Reading is about so much more than imparting information. I’d forgotten that, I really had. And you need to read in two hour chunks not just 15 minutes before you go to sleep.

I’ve stopped multitasking and I’m getting more done. Not everything has equal urgency. Sometimes putting a task on one side means when you ultimately come to it you somehow do it better and faster than you would have otherwise done because your subconscious has, on the quiet, been figuring out how to do it best.


My hearing has improved. Seriously, because all that chatter that was going on in my too busy head has stopped. I can hear birdsong; I can hear the grass grow (as the Move back in the day sang) well no not that, but I’m noticing the fall of autumn more vividly than ever before. I’m noticing everything.
The rhythm of my life has changed too. Meals are more important punctuation points, reflective and delicious pauses. And something strange;  I’m sleeping better but around 3am I awaken and my mind becomes a pleasurable word processor creating or revising blogs, emails, books I’m about to write. It’s as though my mind is cheerfully working whilst my body snoozes.


Is this leading to a prescription to undergo surgery to rediscover a better way of living?  Well obviously not. I’ve discovered, because this is not in any normal sense of the word a convalescence, as I am fit - it’s only my foot that’s not. My immobility has forced a complete retreat from my normal day-to-day world. This has profoundly changed the way I feel, think and behave.

So in future I’m going to go away regularly on a mind cleansing and stress removing few days …no phone, no wi-fi, no talking, just good food and nature. There’s this place in Italy I read about where the sound of silence is overwhelming. I need to go there.


Monday, 30 October 2017

SOME YOU WIN, SOME YOU LOSE

We seem to have lost the art of and the will to compromise. And along with that, the ability to be patient and wait until the right solution comes to us. Sometimes the right place for a problem is the pending tray. Yes, inaction is sometimes the best strategy. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of America was not notable for his snappy one liners but he said this:

“If you see ten troubles coming along the road towards you can be sure nine will run into the ditch before they reach you”


But in this whack-a-mole modern world we are all on our feet whacking furiously away at all ten troublesome moles regardless of the peripheral damage and waste of energy. We are all constantly guilty of premature retaliation....because we can. No sooner has the e-mail pinged in than we are issuing an affronted and affronting riposte. And the faster the better.


My brother was once punished at school for hitting another boy. On being asked why he’d done it he said: “I had a funny feeling he might be going to hit me.” His was an early example of anti-social media syndrome. Yet we can’t just blame social media for all of us becoming so impetuous. Twitter has not made Donald Trump, Donald Trump has made Twitter what it always was, an offensive weapon where the unthinkable and un-thought-through can be fired off like bullets from a machine gun.


As Ken Dodd might have said “Twitter ye not”.

Much more concerning is the apparent impossibility of opposing parties’ ability to compromise anymore. We have all become children, hitting first and thinking afterwards. Without empathy, without the desire to reach a rapprochement and without an instinct that peace is better than war there is little hope for democracy. My biggest concern is for its uncertain future. Unless a sense of give-and-take returns we’ll have a continuing round of ill-tempered stand-offs. What happened to good humour? Dick Tuck was a mischievous Democrat who said ruefully after standing unsuccessfully for Congress:
“The people have spoken...the bastards.”

You lose some. It isn’t like dying. The bastards have a point of view too.

So what is a compromise? Here’s OED definition. “an agreement or settlement of a dispute by both parties making concessions.”


Nope. I can’t see the ‘brexiteers’ and ‘remainers’ getting to that point let alone anyone reaching a settlement with the EU. Forget democracy. This is all about bigots in deadlock. We are all to blame. We have created a soft entitlement society where young people desire for  ”safe spaces” insulates them from contrary opinion. Consider - would the Cambridge Union allow Trump to debate?

Yet whilst these sanitisers of opinion have been busy the simplistic and one-track thinkers have sown the seeds for future dictatorships. Without the good humour and tolerance to listen to the other side’s point of view we are doomed to standoffs, headlocks and unreconciled squabbles.

Life’s not about winning. It’s about getting on with each other.