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.



   


Monday, 10 February 2020

WHAT'S APPENING? (WELCOME TO 2020)

The Iowa Caucus has caused great mirth as has the abortive attempt to impeach Donald Trump. Even Brexit seems quite grown up in comparison.


Iowa has always been first to declare in the electoral campaign for Democratic Presidential candidates and thereby sets the agenda for the rest of the campaign. There are 1,680 precincts where they vote for their preferred candidate. Now Iowa is quite large by UK standards, about twice the area of Scotland and just over half their population. But that makes Iowa less than 1% of America or in terms of importance in UK terms,  a city like Sheffield. Not so important then.


What seemed to happen was this.

A young person was appointed to run the caucus to get Iowa into the 21st century ( “It isn’t 1886 anymore” he allegedly said). He set up the Iowa App whereby the chairman of each of those 1680 precincts sent in their votes. It was apparently not simple. But nor were the Chairmen but many were over 75.

The App crashed. 

Many Chairmen ignored it anyway and phoned in results. Some by e-mail. But this broke all the rules and couldn’t be accommodated.

The numbers of voters and votes unsurprisingly didn’t quite add up.

What I liked about the story was technology meeting truculent old age and being trounced. Ironic that Saunders and Biden are approaching their 9th decade.

In the week where Donald Trump was cleared of the impeachment charges and saw his ratings rise and his opponents were clearly incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery let alone run the country, we seem to heading for a second term of Twitter and fake news. As the song goes:-

"who could ask for anything more?”


It could be worse of course – you could be cruising on your holiday of a lifetime with P&O on the Diamond Princess around Japan. P&O have a comforting strapline “travel with certainty.” Erm, well not necessarily. The ship is currently stranded, quarantined at Yokohama with all 3700 passengers and crew confined to their cabins for a fortnight. So far there are 60 cases of coronavirus on board and the constant sounds of painful coughing.


But in the midst of black-swan doom and technological cock-ups I had a strange experience. On my way home from Brighton Station I heard a gentle Canadian voice say “Make my evening. Buy a Big Issue”.

Was I hypnotised? Because I did and then for 10 minutes was transfixed by a clean, smart-casual, bearded young man who launched into a cogent, interesting diagnosis of global politics and the collision of political scale against individualism. He spoke rhythmically without a pause taking me from the Ukraine to China to the USA - like a rapper but more persuasive. For a crazy moment I wondered if I’d met Jesus.

With surprises like that in our lives we can look forward with pleasure – so long as we stay on dry land. And focus on “big issues”.

Monday, 3 February 2020

STANDING OUT

I’m a traditionalist. I love books, the smell of them and being surrounded by a lot of them. My wife noticed as we walk along a street in Brighton I’ll say “lovely house” and she’ll look and always through the window there’ll be a wall full of books. I love libraries and their protocol of whispered conversation and the rustle of a turning page. Libraries feel like places discoveries are made or a new insight revealed. They are full of unspoken ‘eurekas.’ That silence of reading is wonderfully deafening.


Over 180,000 books are published each year in the UK, more books published per capita and available than in any other country in the world.

And it gets worse. Nearly everyone I meet nowadays says they have a book in them. Should we be unlucky enough for it to get out and be published we should hold that wannabe author down and push it back in as fast as possible.

The problem is being noticed let alone read. The huge Waterstones in Piccadilly is daunting for any author and should help cure their urges to write. So a series of authors have put swear words in their titles to stand out:
Here are just a few:

Humans – a Brief History of how we F*cked it all up
Poems for a World gone to Sh*t
Get Sh*t Done
Everything is F*cked
The Subtle Art of not giving a F*ck
No-one gives a Sh*t about your product
How to be f*cking awesome


I’m depressed in the same way the late David Abbott, that most urbane of advertising professionals, was with the emergence and laddish launch of FCUK – ‘nudge , nudge wink, wink’ they seemed to be saying – ‘I swore in the High Street’.

I much prefer Jane Austen’s Emma to its possible rewritten version for the 2020s ‘F*cking Supercilious B*itch’. But stop. Am I being eccentric and just antiquated in my views?
I think the occasional imprecation has a brilliant, electrifying and redefining effect. If - in the midst of the recent Royal furores - the Queen were to have been overheard to snap “F*ck it!” it would have been understandable and, because so shocking, have perfectly and concisely reflected her pent-up frustration.


In Mrs Brown’s Boys, recent winner of the British Comedy Awards (not a popular win amongst the literati that one) the word ‘fecking’ is in such constant use it seems like a form of punctuation and has no shock-value at all. Whilst in 1963 when Kenneth Tynan said ‘f*ck’ on National TV it was akin to Brexit, coronavirus and an earthquake all at once in terms of nuclear impact.


Originally I’d wanted to call our recent book ‘Start Ups, Pop-Ups and Cock-Ups’  which was deemed too risqué by the publisher. Craven? Mistaken? Maybe but a least they were taking a view about manners.  The writers who announce themselves with F*ck and Sh*t are taking an unpleasant short-cut.

Being noticed is one thing. Being any good is something else.

Monday, 27 January 2020

THE NEED FOR PLASTIC SURGERY

First an apology to Greta Thunberg. I once said she’s rather annoying. I should be less impulsive. I’ve listened to her a few times on the radio recently and recognise she’s calm and sensible. She’s determined, even implacable, and the way she conducts herself is admirable, not annoying. Sorry Greta.


She and others are right in saying ignoring an existential crisis because (as Al Gore, described it in 2006) it’s an “inconvenient truth”,  is just madness. Imagine hearing this on a plane:
“This is your captain here . The engineers say this plane in unsafe to fly. I say that your convenience comes first. We’re ready for take- off.”

As we watch the news – a plague of locusts in Africa, a dust storm the size of Britain in Australia following those catastrophic fires, a huge Turkish earthquake, an epidemic (rapidly becoming a pandemic) in China and spreading globally – it’s all  beginning to feel apocalyptic.


Whilst I don’t buy the view that we are all doomed – not yet at any rate – inventions that have brought us a greater comfort bring their own dangers. We are in charge (just) and we can influence the future.
Take the wonder of plastic. Imagine the world of medicine without it. Imagine a world without toys. Imagine a world without mobile phones (wouldn’t that be interesting by the way?) We invented plastic in 1907 and now it’s strangling us.

In the 1967 film ‘The Graduate’ Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is advised to secure a career in plastics following his graduation. Not any more I think.


So it was with interest I read the Coca-Cola story this week. They have decided not to abandon single-use plastic bottles… because? Because people still want them because they are light and resealable. The company makes 200,000 bottles a minute – that’s 3,000,000 tonnes a year. Ms Perez was talking on that subject at Davos. The Mail Online describes her as follows:


“Ms Perez is apparently the Coca-Cola corporation's 'Head of Sustainability'. Can there be a more comical job description? What's next? Hannibal Lecter as the face of Veganuary?”

Here’s what Ms Perez says. “Business won’t be in business if we don’t accommodate consumers.”
Or Beatrice – that’s her name – humanity will cease to exist unless we take this plastics issue more seriously than you are.

Apparently the weight of plastics in our oceans will weigh more than the fish by 2050 if we carry on like this. But so long as Coke’s customers buy plastic they’ll just carry on providing it willy-nilly. Unlike Tesco. Dave Lewis, its CEO, is taking a lead The banning the use of plastic for multibuys (regardless that customers find them convenient) and has declared war on plastic in their own label products. He reckons to remove 1 billion pieces of single-use plastics by the end of the year. Tesco seems to have a more enlightened view of what good business is than Coca-Cola does.


The operating theatre is open; plastic surgery has begun. And about time.

Monday, 20 January 2020

CARRY ON WORRYING

The funniest  film they never made would have been about hypochondria. I speak with great authority. Had there been a degree course in the topic when I went to University, many years ago, I should have certainly got a first, and for my piteous groaning, a straight alpha. Compared with many my health would be judged as pretty good but deep inside I know I am on the brink of some obscure ailment. And of course I also regard this as being quite funny too. I may be a hypochondriac but first of all I’m a comedian.

Since early this year I’ve had a wheezy cough and cold which has been disabling . As I’ve piteously groaned in bed taking to heart the medical advice that to recover I must rest and checking my temperature with a thermometer that is clearly under-reading,  I reflect on health.


A new coronavirus has hit Wuhan in China (some 800 km. west of Shanghai). It’s linked to Mers or Sars and there have been an estimated 1700 incidents and a few deaths.  I’m pretty certain this is a mild strain of what I’ve just had. I applaud my own courage and return to reading my latest copy of Undertakers Weekly.



Generally world health is improving dramatically. Recently I read that the average human temperature, which today is 37C, was probably 1.5C higher in 1800. As the planet warms, humans cool. This is probably because our immune systems are less frenetically warding off a host of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, measles and so on. Additionally our ancestors had inflammation in their bodies producing proteins called cytokines that ramped up the body's metabolic rate, thus generating heat.


Our temperature controlled lives, mostly at around 20c indoors, means we have less need to heat up which is yet another factor.

So Dickens, Keats, Shelley and the rest were “hot” and unwell most of their short lives. Dickens, that inveterate night walker, often covering 20-30 miles in a walk describes illness in a way with which we can identify. The description of Joe the Fat Boy in Pickwick papers has led to medical analysis up to 160 years later into narcolepsy. Being slightly unwell may not be a deterrent to creativity and success.  Byron at 36 found therapeutic bleeding weakened  him when he was ill, persisted and so died. But he got quite a lot done in his short life.


I’m feeling rather better already but I keep on recalling Mr Woodhouse the father of Emma, Jane Austen’s heroine, whom she described as a valetudinarian – the only time I’ve ever seen that word. It means a person who’s unduly anxious about their health.

C’est moi.

We’re  all getting healthier but also getting more anxious. About our weight, about our alcohol consumption, about our state of mind and  about newish causes of death – sepsis now exceeds cancer as a cause of death.  All I can advise is, if in doubt, rest. And stop worrying…….Goodnight. 


Monday, 13 January 2020

I AM NOT A LUDDITE

My life is enriched with delight by innovation and curious developments. Every visit to a supermarket or department store has my despairing wife saying “no!” as I pick up new pickles, digital radios, fitness watches and, a “NEW” Peruvian Ready Meal…she’s rather like Mrs Thatcher:-
 “No! No! No!”


Let me be clear. I think our world today is in so many ways better than it was in the so-called “good old days”.  Overall we are wealthier, healthier, cleverer and less protective of knowledge. Whilst we used to believe that knowledge was power,  we now think data is the new oil. The more data the richer we’ll be.

I watch my grandsons smart, lovely, affectionate people becoming transfixed by their phones and games. I find myself justifying the educational benefits of Fortnite and FIFA 20. But I know there’s something not quite right here. As I myself find the urge to check my own phone on the train when I see someone else check theirs, I realise the helpless need of the addict as I stare at my screen. How has it come to this?

It’s when senior executives from Diageo (as if they would) start saying “for goodness sake don’t drink alcohol” that you know there’s big problem. Which is why so many of the senior executives in Silicon Valley are denying their children the joys (sic) of their technology.


Enter Tristan Harris, ex-disillusioned, senior Google executive aged 35.

We are experiencing what he calls, a ‘systemic catastrophe’. He talks of the perils of the giant techno-companies realising our attention is worth money; that gaining it is their goal. He calls this “Attention Capitalism” – and claims it’s “making us nastier, stupider and less likely to find common ground”


What’s happening? He says our brains are being rewired and this is pulling us apart as a society. The nastier we are in our tweets, the more violent words we include, the more we’ll get re-tweeted….so bloody well bang you snot-gobbling-tossers! (Watch that one go viral.)

He claims that fake news spreads six times faster than accurate news. Actually satire discovered this ages ago but now our phones seem to be destroying our sense of humour. What was fake and regarded as such, is now taken (too often) literally. That’s why I love ‘Onion’ – the American satirical site.



Tristan tells us to keep our phones away from our bedrooms, remove social media from them, talk rather than text, type apps thus un-branding icons, go greyscale – it’s less seductive – turn off all notifications apart from those from people and regain control of our calendar by looking at our phone only occasionally.  His services are in high demand by corporate America.

This story is about – and I’m sorry to borrow this Brexit theme – taking back control. The emergence of “attention capitalism” makes this hard. But we can do it if we stand up to the silicon bullies.

I’m not a Luddite but let’s question how we use technology.

EXIT.