Monday, 2 December 2019

WHY CAN'T WE GET ON BETTER?

Despite the calls to unite the country and bring people together I don’t see it happening nor do I think it should. Maybe we should recognise that we are designed to argue and disagree.

Most of the enthralling works of fiction involve conflict. The best music in operas is in those with the most depressing plots. Life is not like Love Actually. Life is awkward. 40% of all marriages end in divorce and the worst emerges when people are thrust together. Happy Christmas everyone.


Take families. I was talking to someone from a large, ostensibly very close family recently and asked if they spent much time together. “Not if we can help it” he said grimly. When I was small my big brother got on pretty badly with me and once memorably confided “I don’t like Richard at all.” Unfortunately for him I idolised him and the more I worshipped him the more he was enraged. As we got older we started to get on very well. Maybe we mellowed. Maybe getting on better just takes time (like wine). 


The current election reveals how deep the fissures in our society have become (or is it that divisions that have long been there are being more strongly exposed?) The history of Civil Wars in America , Spain , Sri Lanka, Somali, Eritrea/Ethiopia and back in the 17th century in Britain suggests reconciliation is often rather superficial.

If we recognise that Civil War and uncivil arguments are part of the human condition where conflict is about matters of principle (whatever they may be) not about money and not usually about really important issues, we might get somewhere.

The Brexit argument has been around for a very long time. Since the 11th century England has had grave reservations about the French and their opportunistic takeover of this country. Centuries of equally grave reservations about the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Papacy, the French (again) and the Germans involving constant disputes, sorties and wars fill our past. Britain didn’t suddenly take against Europe in 2016. The awkward British were merely acting true to form.


Some would call this the British character. A more accurate description might be that our history has shaped in us a disputatious tendency and a covert desire for a good punch-up given the slightest opportunity. The only way we can get on a bit better now is do something we are terrible at. Listening to each other.

The ability of our leaders to be grown up, diplomatic and civilised would be a good start. Fat chance, unfortunately. given the current cast of politicians. In Travels with Charley: In search of America (1962) John Steinbeck went on a road trip with his poodle Charley, discovering the racism in the southern states was as raw as it had always been. He urges us to understand each other: “Try to understand men. If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.”


It’s time to try and understand our differences not pretend they’ve gone away or can be easily resolved because, sorry, they haven’t and they can’t.

Monday, 25 November 2019

ABOUT STICKABILITY


There’s general agreement amongst the great and the good that the most important element in a successful life is resilience. JK Rowling spun this idea neatly by saying her success was built on a solid foundation of being at rock bottom. Nelson Mandela put it like this:-
“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”


This attitude helps shape my scepticism about public schools and efforts to give children a ‘great start’ in life. Let the little ones struggle a bit to discover their own inner-strength. I was talking recently to a mother who was lamenting the problems of her six year old son’s keeping focus in exams. At six I was reading Enid Blyton, drawing things (rather badly) and going on nature walks. Now, to misquote AA Milne, it’s like this:
“But now I am six,
I'm as clever as clever”…
And he’ll  be doing exams forever and ever


For real resilience we need to look at Venice.

As many of you know I am besotted with the place by its looking (mostly) today as it did over 500 years ago. The alleys through which Tintoretto scurried are the same through which I now stroll. Until Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route to India in the late 16th century Venice held the keys to European trade to and from the East. Thereafter the hangover from a lost monopoly rankled and the resilience and historically austere control of the common purse loosened. The rest is history and the encounter with Napoleon.

Today Venice is once more under the threat of disaster.


The floods of the last weeks resemble those of 1966 reaching tidal-highs 184 cm above an average high tide for November (the “acqua alta”.) Venice, however, has always been resilient. Restaurants remain open, waiters wear wellington boots, service is full of smiles and shrugged shoulders. At times like this Venice reminds me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who having had both his arms cut off in combat says “it’s just a flesh wound”.

As well as being indefatigable Venice has always been skilled at marketing itself . ‘Venice in Peril’ launched in 1966 has raised billions. Today money is flooding in as rapidly as the water did. Because like the recently restored-to-glory José Mourinho (now Manager of Tottenham Hotspur FC @ £13 million a year) Venice is unique. Venice indeed is the special one.


Finally politics, American politics.

 I’ve always loved its eloquence and power to change the world.  America brought us “West Wing” the most influential TV series of the last century. Netflix gives you “the Crown” hugely entertaining but more upmarket Downton Abbey than really consequential.  I love this from PJ O’Rourke.


“The Democrats are operating on the premise that nobody can lose to Donald Trump. 
And by God are they going to find that nobody”.

That’s resilient, funny and self-deprecating. I salute you America.

Monday, 18 November 2019

NARRATIVE MATTERS

The meeting rooms of the business world are full of executives talking about their “story” and the “narrative flow” from one set of results to another. Often their version of events sounds like a child accused of telling “stories”. Stories are the PR versions of the truth; spins on selected facts. As an ex-advertising man myself I recognise this world.

So too did Charles Dickens who said:
“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait”


But that’s the problem, as Prince Andrew may find out; and I’m still not sure why he did that interview on TV on Saturday night. The trouble is he’s just stoked up the furnace. We are now waiting for more. The story that won’t go away has been dragged from the back of the cupboard.


And what was Boris thinking of? He is the story right now and he needs to control the plot. Instead he hung himself out to dry by appearing with the BBC Breakfast Time presenter Naga Munchetty who wanted to know if he’s ‘relatable’. Pundits say, as word, it’s a “modern peculiarity”. She was never going to go easy on him or even be sensible but he got tetchy instead of aloof, amused or even asking her: “are you all right? You seem a bit tense. Don’t worry. Let’s talk about things that really matter to voters.”


Venice. The Venice we love. It’s just been flooded really badly. The ‘aqua alta’ occurs every year but last week it was ‘aqua-molto-molto-alta’. It’s not a new story; bad floods have happened six times in the last century. What I love is the esprit de corps of the Venetians, they way they buckle down and the way they publicise their bravery and indomitable attitude. They tell their story so well and so vividly that the money floods in after the water. Every time.

When I read the, admittedly rather variable, reviews of a restaurant in Tooley Street in London called Story I wasn’t sure if it was quite me. It sounded fanciful and pretentious (apart from a rave review in the Guardian).


That story and the real story in my experience weren’t the same. This small, relaxed and beautiful place, strangely fashioned from a large public lavatory (there’s a metaphor here about the world in which we live) was everything you want. Tables far enough apart for no neighbour intrusion, attentive and charming service, enough waiting for the story of the meal to unravel smoothly.

After the canapés which they called snacks – all unusual and brilliant – there was a snail ravioli (yes, I had my doubts but they were dispelled to the extent of my saying – “with pasta like that I could eat a plateful”). A plate of wonderful Agnolotti followed as if they read my mind. The meal was a sensational sensation and a great story too.


It made me laugh, it nearly made me cry (with pleasure), it made me wait (not too long) and made me want to return. It was very relatable.

Monday, 11 November 2019

ANY CHANGE?

On the anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down 30 years ago, let’s reflect on how radically our world has changed. In 1989 we still smoked wherever we wanted certainly in restaurants – just imagine. The Dow Jones averaged 2,510 whilst on Friday night, November 8th 2019 it closed at 27,681 – a mighty change.


But it’s not this big-money story that matters so much as the small one. A spokesman of HSBC recently said the cashless society was imminent, that ATM machines were history. I snorted and crossly asked my radio, now used to being shouted at in the morning, especially when Martha Kearney is interviewing someone, “what about people who are old and poor?”

What about people like me?


But over the past month something bizarre has happened. I find I’ve stopped giving money to homeless. Earlier in the year I was handing out around £10 a week in cash to familiar faces to whom a friendly “hallo” with lots of eye contact was probably worth more than the couple of £1 coins I gave them. But since the end of September I’ve had no coins in my pocket. Everything had been paid for in a contactless transaction with my card. 

Just imagine. Change like a shadowy, crepe-soled thug has sidled up and mugged me. I am a cashless Hall. Trouser pockets previously heavy with coins are now sleek and neat.

And change has happened to “vaping” and “fracking”.  We’ve learnt vaping can seriously damage you with  ‘flavourants’ like diacetyl being lethal. And now after a succession of micro-seismic ‘events’ from energy firm Cuadrilla’s fracking trials there was a recent quake close to Blackpool of 2.9, shaking houses. For the election season even the Conservatives are saying it’s over for fracking (although they privately think it’s a fracking shame.)


Just a few days ago a friend said I’d changed his mood by describing a school that had inspired me….”it was a distillation of the spirit of learning” I said. I’ve had a similar experience with our medical practice with its team of bright, healthy-looking doctors and nurses. Our world has not changed for the worse – it’s changed dramatically for the better but you need to look hard enough and celebrate the good things.

A remarkable shift in society’s attitude is towards wealth. Bill Clinton talking about what mattered in the US Presidential election of 1992 said “the economy stupid”. And it was. And he won.


Now, however, across our society wealth matters less to people than happiness. In the “work: life balance” story, life is winning. In my recent book the people I interviewed who’d started up their own businesses had not done it just to get rich. It was to create a better business, one with values, a sustainable future and something that they enjoyed.

Any change? We are changing more radically than many have imagined. When asked what matters in an election now, many people will say trust, purpose and a better world. That’s not so stupid is it?


“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom. And definitely not a scam.




Monday, 4 November 2019

WHY RISK-TAKING NEEDS TO BE SENSIBLE

Many people grumble that we’re living in a snowflake world where excitement is being removed from our lives by a Health and Safety obsession. It’s as though safety is an effete thing and as for health – well, bring me my Capstan Full Strength and a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. Smokers cough? Nah! That’s a manly growl.


In fact we live in a more civilised world now where, in general, we are more attentive to other people’s feelings and vulnerability. We are not snowflakes; we are more sensible . Apart from cyclists some of whom operate by weaving between traffic, riding on pavements and ignoring red lights. But we need to protect them from their own audacity.


With 18,000 cyclists injured on our roads last year I calculate, as a driver, that if they hit me I might get a dent but if I hit them they bleed. So I always, sensibly, give way to them and constantly look in my wing mirrors.

Recently the Oxford Union forbad clapping and loud applause to avoid risking upsetting people who are stressed by loud noises. Instead they allow jazz-hands which is waving your hands around like a Gospel singer. Stupid? Well, so the world seemed to think, as did I, until I thought about it a bit more .  The world is getting noisier and organisations like Quiet Mark who’ve done a lot to make it smarter to be quieter know you don’t have to whoop, whistle and shout to say “I love it”. But it should have been quiet-hands not jazz-hands and then we’d have approved.


The risk business was close to home when our local community firework event traditionally a truly splendid and lavish affair was to have taken place on Saturday November  2nd. The Met Office ‘Yellow Warning’ of strong winds was downplayed by some who sought better forecasts from other sources, hoped the storm would pass over and that, hell, maybe we should just go for it anyway.


The fact that our insurance would be void if we’d carried on regardless met with a discontented grumble about how in the good-old-days people were more hardy and adventurous. After all they didn’t have insurance in the Second World War, did they? I fantasied about a conversation that wasn’t actually had:

“Do you remember that year we had a hurricane? We carried on then.”
“Was that the year Harry got hit by a rocket...”
“Yeah. And lost an eye.“
“Yeah that was the year. Right eye wasn’t it?”   

Health and safety experts are really awful at communicating their messages. Most of what they do is based on calculating how likely an accident would be to happen and how serious it would be if it did occur. In other words they do good, sound risk assessments.

That sounds like common sense. But when it’s announced in a petulant and  didactic tone of voice we turn off, get rebellious and a bit stroppy. Make it sound sensible and we listen.

Monday, 28 October 2019

THIS BROKEN AND UNHAPPY WORLD

Was I dreaming or did I hear these words in a recent sermon at church? Depressingly the church tends to focus on bad news rather than on the exciting and triumphant.

The media has had an increasingly doom-ridden attitude towards our educational system. People tell me we are short-changing our children and that we are to blame.

Baloney.


This week we went to see a new school. It’s new,  in a building which opened for business this September.  No. Change that to “opened for the joy of learning”. We were blown away by the stimulating atmosphere.


I thought back to my school which I actually enjoyed. Dame Alice Owens. Founded in 1613 , in the Angel, Islington. Now relocated to Hertfordshire country side as a “partially selective” comprehensive it’s the second most successful comprehensive in GCSEs in the UK. My memory is of a slightly Victorian place where anger and scholarship were in control. It was not a place of much laughter.

In this school there’s a lot of laughter and smiling. I remembered my schooldays (“if I see a boy smiling I shall stamp on him.”)  Classroom after classroom here were crammed with infographics and stimuli. It even made me want to go back to  school and learn again. This place just made learning seem fun.

In a history classroom there was a slogan on the wall allegedly from Marilyn Monroe

“Well behaved women rarely make history”.

So here was a sense of humour and even a sense of mischief. Yet the discipline in the place is surprisingly tough. The sense of right and wrong and detention is very clear.

The acid test was that I wanted to be here learning especially things I had in my youth avoided,  like geography , physics and music.

I was struck by these infographics I kept on seeing and the stress on timelines, context and facts. Me, I love facts which are the GPS of learning, helping you get to the right place to appreciate the good things like Mozart’s genius.


As a recent author of a book on start-ups I was also surprised and pleased to find  brilliant wall charts on “What is an Entrepreneur?” in one of the corridors, So not just academic but with one foot firmly in the real world.

In the end there was a relaxed atmosphere pervasive with the thrill of learning that none of the naysayers about the teaching profession would normally  have conceded possible.

I imagine there are many schools in the UK like this, designed to create delight and astonishment in the power of bringing out the best in young people. Our world is not broken and unhappy – there are many places doing inspiring work and it’s our job as apostles of optimism to find them and celebrate them.

Anyone coming here is lucky. Excited teachers, good food, excellent facilities but most importantly we think their pupils’ potential will be realised in such an environment.  And that’s what matters.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell published on October 3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom.


Monday, 21 October 2019

THE DEATH OF THE SALESMAN

“When you're lying awake with a dismal headache
And repose is taboo'd by anxiety……
For your brain is on fire, the bed-clothes conspire
Of usual slumber to plunder you:
First your counter-pane goes, and uncovers your toes,
And your sheet slips demurely from under you.”


This was me– the song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ filled my head plus a ‘new’ line
“and self-loathing corrodes your judgement”

This is unusual for me. My nights are normally full of enjoyable slumber and dreams in which I perform impossible missions with sang froid and daring.... but not on Saturday morning at 3am when I woke cursing, writhing and perspiring.


I was suffering as so many are with a nasty dose of acute brexitis and this was made much worse by an attack of gulliblonia as I suspected I’d been duped the previous day by a fast-talking, persistent salesman on the phone and I’d failed to say “no” or been dismissive to him. When I got out of bed my worst fears were confirmed. My broadband contract with BT was being cancelled and replaced with a cheaper deal with EE (their sister company with whom they’d merged) and I had, suspiciously, only one day‘s cooling-off period.

There are two rules I follow.
i) Never buy anything at the door or on the phone or from any cold call salesman.
ii) And always take your time. “Sign now or the offer goes” is the sales ploy of a desperado.

On this occasion with the lame excuse of not feeling very well I’d failed on both rules. Hence that self-loathing.


So I phoned BT. Mo is in India at one of those call centres and is a star. Brilliant English and a sense of humour. She told me not to worry. BT and EE were the same company and I’d been sold a perfectly reasonable deal. What, she wondered, was my problem? I explained the high pressured sales-spiel and the short cooling-off period irked me and that I knew something was wrong. She giggled when I talked about the sales patter and conceded those “sales guys” were really motivated to hit targets.


“So this deal is OK with a better router and half the price and it includes the BT TV deal as well?” It appeared not. That was the flaw. I told her my wife would be very unhappy if our TV went down whilst I was in the office chortling at cheap super-high-speed broadband. She giggled again and said she was totally with my wife.

So I cancelled the deal.

At the back of my mind I recalled a radio phone-in where a guy changed his mobile-phone provider to save money in response to a cold-call and it went horribly wrong. No reception and a lost/cancelled phone-number which he explained was on all his literature and his fleet of vans.


So if it sounds like a salesman on the phone terminate the call. Always.

“Start-ups Pivots and Pop Ups” by Richard Hall and Rachel Bell is published on October3rd by Kogan Page. The antidote to doubt and gloom. And definitely not a scam.