Monday, 18 June 2018

WHY MORE IS LESS

I recently noted with grim satisfaction that more new generations had lower IQs than mine had. Scientists at the Raglar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway analysed the IQs of 730,000 men in national service during 1970 and 2009 and found a drop equivalent of seven points per generation. And now exactly the same trend has been seen in the UK. This is the first time the previously steady increase in IQs had been reversed.


I came from an educational age where, for instance, collectives were de rigeur. An exultation of skylarks, an unkindness of ravens and (I loved this one) a tantrum of decorators. We were taught to remember things. General knowledge and breadth of learning mattered. In the current tyranny of an exams culture -  Sats, GCSE, A levels – pupils focus on a narrow syllabus that most of us don’t understand. Despite a degree in English Language and Literature I understand Scholastic Aptitude Tests for maths better than for literacy which labels parts of speech in alien terminology.


But, anyway, I distrust the whole idea of IQs which the Frenchman Alfred Binet invented not to test  for super intelligence but the exact opposite, to assess the needs of the educationally challenged.

I agree instead with Sir Kenneth Robison who suggested schools today were killing creativity. If you haven’t already seen it watch his epic TED talk. With more opportunities to learn and understand we seem to have dumbed down and narrowed. What should have borne bumper fruit seems instead to have achieved the reverse.

There are more opportunities for everything…but the measurements have simplified and brutalised. Passing exams and earning loads of dosh. Life is not more fun. It’s just busier. So can we change this busier, less intelligent, gloomier world?

We must and can by listening more, living in the present and enjoying life for what it is. Bloody marvellous. However when you wonder if I’m indeed going mad with optimism on the basis of Einstein’s definition of insanity well think again.


Because yet again we are going to Venice to potter, see new things, eat pasta, drink Campari, prosecco and read a book a day. And yes I do expect a different result. I do expect new stimulation. I do expect to learn because this kaleidoscopic city is not as some have called it a watery theme park. It’s an energetic place with a vibrant history of success. It keeps on being on its knees as when Napoleon swept in to ravage, plunder and humiliate in 1797; in 1967 when the Venice in Peril fund started because Venice was thought to be sinking fast and in 2016 when the oppression of the burgeoning flood of tourists and skyscraper cruise ships at last became seen as the threat that it is.


Venice is a living place that still thrills. And the world is not getting more stupid.  We’ve just  forgotten what matters that’s all. Just stare at the Grand Canal and all will be well. Trust me.






Monday, 11 June 2018

"HEY YOU GET OFF OF MY CLOUD"


This Rolling Stones song of 1965 came to me as I ended a difficult week. First of all my computer system crashed as I spent hours trying to get my IP configuration to register…no me neither. It was worse than irritating as my IT guy surfing in Cornwall said on the phone  to the background sound of waves breaking “yeah you’ve got a big router problem…sorry”. Meanwhile my hero of a son-in-law solved the problem…so here’s a blog in praise of him. And then a shopping disaster when I reached the checkout in Waitrose with a huge trolley to discover I’d left my wallet at home.

I felt victimised by a sullen and unremitting fate. “Suffer sucker” it hissed.


But it could be worse – I could have been at the G8 or at Boris’ recent speech. But the behaviour of the gruesome twosome, Donald and Boris, would have been avoidable simply by good manners and a bit of charm.


How can it be that two men wielding theoretically such power can be so churlish, boorish and clumsy? Boris went to Balliol, an Oxford College proud of its alumni. They even thought Howard Marks, the late drug baron, had his good points but of Boris they speak little and then sorrowfully.

The Brits and Americans seem widely ashamed of their two corpulent spokesmen. What Harvey Weinstein was to Hollywood they are to the corridors of power. And my main problem with both and it’s a bigger problem than profoundly disagreeing with their politics, is the terrible example they set our young people. Role models (except in the sense of their resembling bacon rolls) is what they are not.


But the week ended better with sunshine and laughter.

We had two grandchildren staying and their attitude and behaviour could teach their elders a lesson. All our young people, two great nieces and three grandchildren have brilliant manners, are affectionate and will turn out well. Why can they do what politicians can’t? Possibly because the politicians had such strange childhoods – imagine being a small Donald or an infant Boris.


The problem is we take the porcine pair too seriously. Boris has a consistent track record of being a reckless philanderer and unreliable friend. He’s overtly out for himself. Donald – well what can we say – philanderer, dodgy investor, TV star of sorts, a man with a ridiculous superiority complex. How glad I am not to be American right now.

In his book Utopia for realists Rutger Bregman a Dutch Historian traces the luck most of us have in this improving world. Compare ours with the lives of even the wealthy in Tudor England. 16th century America would have been even more primitive. We have the benefits of technology , an increasing understanding of nature and a sophisticated debate about values and priorities. In my better moments I hug myself in joy at all this.

Just so long as Boris and Donald get off of my cloud.


Monday, 4 June 2018

HOW ABOUT BEING FRUGAL?

Recently I was sent an article from the New York Times which suggested Britain had been virtually destroyed by eight years of austerity. Examples were drawn from some blighted parts of the North West highlighting some specific examples of human misery that Dickens in his pomp could not have bettered. It concluded:

Britain is looking less like the rest of Europe and more like the United States, with a shrinking welfare state and spreading poverty


You can look at virtually anything through either end of a telescope and you can guess through which end the gloomy chap who wrote this was looking. I see things differently. The cities of Britain are flourishing - not just London, which few would question is the greatest city in the world. The others like Manchester, described by the cantankerous Jeremy Clarkson as the Berlin of Britain, Birmingham , Newcastle, Leeds, Glasgow, Belfast – all of them are  shining examples of renovation and new hope.


Am I a cockeyed optimist? Well maybe but the dystopian vision of the New York Times is wildly removed from my perception. Except in one respect. ‘Austerity’ has a bitter price to pay. The word that is. The attitude it conveys. Since 2008 that word has preyed heavily on the needy, hopeless and vulnerable. It gets the blame for everything wrong in our lives.

Yet the reality of 2008 and the years after is we were living beyond our means. The correction that was needed at every level was to adjust that. ‘Austerity’ however is  a humourless, Victorian workhouse term to describe a necessary process. ‘Austerity’ doesn’t  laugh or listen. ‘Austerity’ is the implacable bank manager. ‘Austerity’ is cruel.

There’s a better word and a better strategy.’ Austerity’ derives from the Greek word meaning “severity”. Frugality derives from the Latin ‘frux’ or fruit  which seems a whole lot better to me.


Frugality is about simplifying, moderating and decluttering. To that end the data protection nonsense (death to entrepreneurial businesses by the way if not for me, the consumer) means I’m being unsubscribed from all that bother left, right and centre. Frugality in action means less of everything, books, papers, appointments, clothes … STUFF!


Being frugal is about being good humouredly ruthless. Like Richard Madeley interviewing hapless Gavin William Secretary of State for Defence.

After avoiding  answering a question several times about whether he now regretted saying “Shut up and go away“ to the Russian State after the Salisbury drama, Gavin was taken aback to be told “All right you won’t answer -  so interview terminated”.

Frugal may be the way forward for all of us. Frugality has a more obvious impact on the rich than the poor whose lives are pretty frugal already. But frugal connotes a more natural and fruitful process.

First we had Google taking over our lives but now we have Frugal as the new and much more controllable zeitgeist. I may sound like a Brexiteer but being frugal means getting back control.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

MAKING M&S RICHER - OR NOT

After my last piece on M&S I noticed Julian Richer, the CEO and  100% shareholder of market leading Richer Sounds was acting as a consultant and mentor to Steve Rowe the M&S CEO.

Julian is a corporate rock star and runs a brilliant company. However I cannot think of two businesses less alike than Richer Sounds and M&S.

And Julian is a man.

Another man to join the man-heavy senior team.

Surely the advice it most needs is from a just retired opinionated and energetic woman?

And Julian is not a woman.



Monday, 28 May 2018

MONET, MONEY AND MARKS

I know…from art to retailing requires a leap of faith.

I’ve just been to the Monet exhibition at the National Gallery. The 70 paintings there would sell for over $1 billion yet he found it hard even selling his work until his mid-40s when sales took off with vivid Mediterranean coastline paintings which Americans loved.


Claude’s story matches that of most artists that we now rate as great with only a few becoming truly rich from their endeavours whilst young enough to enjoy it. Most relied on finding a sugar daddy or patron but the market itself was harsh. Yet they carried on tirelessly and in the case of Monet painting the same scene at different times of the day when the lighting was different.  In painting Rouen Cathedral he sat in a ladies changing room of a department store opposite the cathedral, ladies curtained off of course, and painted dawn to dusk.

Artists in general are not especially commercial, entrepreneurial or productive…they just carry on doing what they do regardless always trying to get better. For them quality beats cash any time. Money merely seems to be inconvenient (mostly by its absence.) And a century after they die their work (like ‘NymphĂ©as en fleur’) can sell for $85 million.


But it isn’t money you think about when you think of Monet, it’s the light, the colours the sheer joie de vivre.

And that’s what’s missing from M&S - retail bellwether, housewives’ favourite, the Monet of underwear. Unlike Monet its value is declining.  Unlike Monet it is no longer notable for its light, colour or joie de vivre. It’s about to depart the FTSE 100, close a dozen or more stores and ‘unify brand and culture’ (I really wish that I knew what that meant). The iron hand of Archie Norman, the man who saved Asda 27 years ago is Chairman. He is a McKinsey trained heavy who seemed short on small talk when I met him.


For years M&S has been a bit like the Brexiteers chasing new business in young markets unknown to them but “representing huge, yes huge and incalculable opportunities”, rather  than focusing on their core old market of loyalists– around 20 million of them. Instead it keeps on going hopefully after the deaf, dumb and blind kids like millennials who would rather be seen dead than in M&S. Because M&S is like grandad doing the twist.

M&S matters because when it does things well, like much of its food, like cashmere, socks, underwear or cords it does them rather well. When it flirts with the unknown it’s sorrowfully irrelevant. I shall watch its strategy of downsizing and trying to find an authentic voice intriguing but without much hope. M&S has stopped learning it seems.


Monet kept on learning. He has colour and energy. His pictures are timeless. M&S is not. Tom Peters said “you can’t shrink your way to greatness”. On that Monet and I (but not M&S) agree.

Monday, 21 May 2018

WHEN GIANTS FALL TO THEIR KNEES

These are not good times to be huge sprawling corporations. Nicholas Bloom an economist from Stanford University has consistently judged Brexit as the biggest shock to the economic system in recent history. It is, he believes, especially serious for big companies whose global networks make the prevailing uncertainty astonishingly time consuming and immobilising. Skyscrapers withstand tornados less stoutly than bungalows.


It’s sprawl more than scale that is the biggest issue with  a legion of corporate car crashes in 2018 (Maplin, Toys R Us, Carillion) with more to come -– all the mediocre restaurant chains, middle of the road fashion chains, department stores and the cheap and rather miserable like Carpet Right – all are heading towards the scaffold.


Incidentally I thought the Commons Select Committee who described Philip Green, Carillion’s Chairman as “delusional” had barefaced cheek. Politicians are the most delusional breed there is – look at Chris Grayling and his train fiascos.

And things will get worse.

I am reminded of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” – read it,  it’s wonderful. In it he writes:
“Things fall apart: the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

Isn’t that simple word “mere” devastating. Understatement can kill and here it does. We are ourselves undergoing “mere anarchy” right now. The big , the sprawling, the delusional giants who fail to invest enough in capital equipment and people, who are just making do to make the numbers. Yes, all those big retailers soon to become even bigger when another dinosaur is born called (as if) Asdainbury’s.

The era of the dinosaur is past. That vicious word the nearly-rich in business schools use as an acid test of a business -  “scalability” - belongs to the dustbin of history. As I look at the list of those businesses in imminent peril I feel sorry for the poor souls working there and waiting for their execution. Businesses that are  too big, too greedy, too indifferent to quality and their customers.


And things will get better.

2018 is predicted to be a record for UK start-ups at well over 600,000 and at the global level Canada Sweden and China are now showing as top start-up centres. So it’s not all about the USA and Silicon Valley anymore.

 As the giants stumble a new breed of entrepreneurial talent and start-ups trying to do something new, different and brilliant are emerging. The creative constipation that great size induces will cease. The new generation, not of snowflakes but instead of snowballs, are going to roll over the stumbling giants.

Much as I hate the reckless waste of Brexit I see the damage it causes opening up opportunities for the smaller, local, start-ups setting off with modest ambitions. Brexiteers only asked to “have the bloody doors blown off” but the impact is much greater than that.


Yeats went on …”The ceremony of innocence is drowned”…and so it is. The gullibility of the giants’ boom years is history too because remember: Davids beat Goliaths.





Monday, 14 May 2018

HOW ABOUT SOME MAGIC?

I recently noticed a book called “Factfulness” by the late Hans Rosling, that great Swedish presenter of statistics. From beyond the grave he continues to preach the message that things are better than you think.


Yet the name of book struck me and not in an altogether agreeable way. It had a touch of the ghastly Gradgrind about it, compounded by the publisher’s by-line – “10 reasons we’re wrong about the world”. Like influenza the tendency to reduce everything to ten ways or reasons is catching – to lose weight, to be a better leader, to avoid stress and so on.


By reducing everything to facts and “must-do’s” we’re missing the magic of life. Magic doesn’t always lie in the most obvious places. Dorling Kindersley’s books help you “do” a city but on hearing this they’ll create series called “The Top Ten Secrets of Venice– places to go your friends will miss”. It’ll be a boon to tourist-one-upmanship.

So what is magic? It’s when creation plays a trick on you, arm wrestling your imagination into delighted  and surprised submission. It happens every Spring. It happens watching a brook bubbling as you stand on a bridge, it happens when you read a gripping book and forget where or who you are. Magic transports you. Magic simply delights.  And it requires two sides for it to happen. So moving on to “Quantum Theory”:  if a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it does it make a sound? Or is sound something magical that exists in our heads?

The problem with concepts like “factfulness” are that they thrive in a world of totalitarian left-brain thinking. No one who advocates the been-there-done-that style of living would believe it to be productive sitting and looking at that tree for an hour or more letting one’s mind drift and one’s ears hear the sound of breeze and leaves and of birdsong. Productive is a derogatory word because does our world actually have to be increasingly productive?


Isabella Tree has written a book called “Wilding”.  It makes one question what progress really means. It’s about Knepp Castle and its 3,500 acre estate just south of Horsham in West Sussex. It has been in family ownership  for 500 years and as a farm  had become increasingly loss-making. She and her husband in despair were driven to cut costs to the bone and see how nature farmed instead. Over the past decade it’s been left on its own apart from the introduction of some classic, old, wild breeds of cattle, pigs, deer, horses and so on. Nature keeps on hitting the back of the net.  Whilst  in the modern vast tracks of arable land birds and bees are in plummeting decline, at Knepp they are breeding,  thriving and diversifying.


Magic is happening in front of their eyes. It could happen in front of ours too if we looked patiently at the wonder of nature rather than just creating action plans.