Monday, 19 August 2019


Recently I was passed in the street by someone uttering some rather depressing words.

“It’s so hard. I have to spend my time keeping tabs on my people making sure they do things properly.”

It must be fun working for him. But he, the joyless administrator,  is one reason the Start-Up revolution is gaining so much momentum.

The other is we live in a world of increasing uncertainty where economists and leading opinion makers  say with equally great conviction “we’re on the edge of a cliff” or “things will settle down quite quickly in reality”.

Few of us comprehend the macro-economy but we understand our own small world quite well. We know that big companies are not to be entirely trusted when it comes to “downsizing”. We are tired of being a number not a face. Better to strike out on our own in a rowing boat than stick with Titanic Limited.

Today I’m focusing on the middle aged entrepreneur.

George Clooney is 58. He recently sold his Tequila brand Cosamigos for $1billion. 

In a paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research middle aged start-ups are shown to grow faster and survive longer. The FT says over-50s now account for 43% of those who start their own business.

So what’s going on?

What I call the Start -Up Revolution is being fuelled from three sources – Millennials, who don’t want to work for the people like that lugubrious joker on whom I eavesdropped, women – many post maternity-leave to whom the thought of returning to office politics is too awful and the disenchanted, redundant over 50s loaded with experience, skill and enough surplus cash to fund a start-up.

David Rowan has written a book “Non-Bullshit Innovation” in which he explores the mindsets of global tech start-ups and their disruptive, white-sheet-of-paper thinking. He rightly criticises the British government’s constant postponement of decisions about strategic priorities.

It’s ironic we have so many assets to play with. Here are just a few:
- English is the world’s lingua franca
- We are huge in gaming technology
- We are big in film production
- Our creative industries are booming

- We are still dominant in financial services
- Climate change is giving us the agro-friendly climate of France in the 1980s
- We have become accomplished at customer service (about time)
- Our recent record in innovation from luxury goods to food to technology is impressive.

We don’t blow our own trumpets but as the middle aged increasingly flex their innovative muscles a fanfare is becoming more noticeable. Take gin where a generation of middle aged entrepreneurs have introduced the most exotic, interesting variety of new gins imaginable. Sales of gin have doubled in the past five years.

We hear a lot about Silicon Valley. It’s time we started to think regardless of Brexit of ourselves as “Innovation Island”. Driven by the ambitions, skill and independence of spirit of the experienced, as well as the young and hungry, we are in good shape.

Government won’t help us (they seldom do)  but they can at least get out of the way.

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

Monday, 12 August 2019


A friend said recently “I wonder how history will judge 2019”. The answer, of course, is in much the same way history judged 1919, 1819 or 1719. A year in which reason was cast aside and – as usual - folly prevailed. A hundred years ago there was a devastating flu pandemic, a disastrous Paris Peace Conference, and spontaneous outbreaks of violence in the Midlands and elsewhere. In 1819 there was the Peterloo Massacre (so you think Brexit is divisive?) whilst in 1719 France invaded Spain and Russia devastated the Swedish coast.

Human beings are, and always were, aggressive and irrational. As Teresa May once said “nothing has changed, nothing has changed”.  Perhaps it’s because of disruption that we  often hear a cry of despair that there’s so little common sense around nowadays. “Common sense” was most famously used by Thomas Paine in the 18th century when arguing for the Independence of America meaning that it was “self-evident” that this should happen.

Before that “common sense” described the 6th sense unifying the five other human senses. So its origins define it as a really big deal. Nowadays its use seems to mean what is obvious to anyone of average intelligence and as such, in a democracy, is irrefutable. This would mean Brexit is common sense. But this surely won’t do, will it?

Similarly that most dangerous remark “it stands to reason” is usually made when reason and facts have been discarded. When opinion has taken over from analysis and thought. It’s a phrase like “let’s be fair” which is most commonly used meaning just the opposite.

I spent much of my life in advertising and obviously appreciate and applaud the power of slogans. Thus “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet” ; “Persil washes whiter”; “British Airways. The World’s Favourite Airline”.  But maybe the most potent in my life has been “Take back control” because it changed the political and cultural landscape for good (or, as many think, for bad).

In America Donald Trump and in the UK Dominic Cummings  have proved the rousing slogan works. ”Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” are both action-focused unlike more passive slogans like “Labour isn’t Working”. They assume we’ve had something taken away we owned and must restore.

In the midst of this people have been losing their faith in all the institutions, Police, Judiciary, Doctors, Schools and Clergy. Yet whilst Sunday attendance in churches has declined by 15% since 2007,  attendance in Cathedrals has grown by nearly 20%. So it’s odd Rochester and Norwich  Cathedrals have put  in their aisles, respectively,  a crazy golf course  and a helter-skelter.

As tribalism grows so too does faith. Rationality has taken a kicking but faith in areas from sport to fitness gurus to community groups has grown. Maybe the church should tap into that rather than indulge in low grade gimmickry.

People need to believe in something – in the midst of the current confusion something solid, reliable and unchanging.

Monday, 5 August 2019


I’ve had a lot of depressing e-mails from friends living abroad telling me how miserable I should be and how much more miserable I’m going to be; that a no-deal Brexit will be an economic catastrophe; that we’re all shitting ourselves, or should be.

And those who aren’t are deluding themselves, fiddling as Rome burns.
Although I was an ardent ‘remainer’, as a democrat, I recognise we lost the argument.
- I believe in international co-operation.
- I love Europe and feel very happy there.
- But I prize human spirit, enterprise and resilience above political ideology.

In the end I believe we’ll make the best of the script which, nonetheless, had it been in my power I shouldn’t have written. We need to retain our sense of humour and especially our sense of irony. The “we’re all doomed” school of thinking has no useful role to play.

We need to work on creating a new different and, possibly in the long run, better world. Here are a few things that may be different:

The Union may not survive. A pity. A blow to our vanity but if Scotland wants to leave so be it.
The farming industry may thrive, focusing on the home market. In Sussex we already have a fruit and veg entrepreneur selling delicious fresh vegetables from his range of antique horseboxes, all grown in Sussex farms. The exchange rate will make a lot of European food unaffordable.

We’ll miss trips to Europe, for the time being, particularly, in our case, Italy. But we’ll get to see more of England, Scotland and Wales, instead.

Last week we went to Rathfinny a wine estate outside Alfriston, ½ hour east of Brighton. They have 350,000 vines and are planning to have over 800,000. It’s the biggest solus-owned vineyard in Europe and, certainly, the most modern in equipment and technology. Their restaurant, overlooking their vineyards in Cradle Valley, was sensational in both value and Michelin-quality. With phenomena like this things look up.

Our sport may cheer us up too. Some brilliant footballers, golfers, cricketers, netball, rugby and hockey players. And perhaps great Bayreuth singers like Catherine Foster, the English mezzo soprano who can’t get a role in Britain, might be more welcome now.

Big institutions like banks, global corporates and supermarkets may struggle – their lives are likely to become much more complicated. My heart bleeds for them.

How bad will it be? It seems quite a lot of people are hoping it will be terrible and get even worse, much worse on the basis that this will demonstrate, in a kind of ideological masochism, the folly of leaving the EU.

Brexit may be regrettable, it may even be tricky but I refuse to believe it’s the end of our world. Enterprising entrepreneurs will do well. They always do.  We’ve got to believe not grieve, be happy and stop listening to politicians and macro-economists showing us the potential downsides. Let’s enjoy the sunshine and keep out of the rain.

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

Monday, 29 July 2019


Normally (like Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’) I’d want to bury Boris Johnston not to praise him but his recent anthems of optimism reach that part of my soul that other politicians seldom reach. 

Saatchi and Saatchi built their advertising empire around the hope-tingling maxim “anything is possible.” The American management writer Jim Collins coined the term “big hairy audacious goals”.

That’s what Boris is talking about.

This kind of talk is sacrilege to big, global corporations with complicated cross-border supply chains to whom “just in time” is a life-defining credo. I  know executives who think their “just-in-timeness” in catching a plane is imperfect unless occasionally they actually miss one.  Otherwise they’re wasting valuable time waiting around. 

To behemoth businesses, big, hairy and audacious is an anathema and should be replaced by incremental, prudent and focused. Jack Welch, the star CEO of GE in its glory days, insisted on setting stretch targets for his executives but in GE “hitting the targeted number” was what always mattered when it came to the crunch. Big corporations prefer low hanging fruit to aiming for the stars.

No – it’s to start-ups and new businesses that are only just beginning to grow hair that big hairy and audacious applies. We live in a world where regeneration is becoming  the key theme and imperative and where new is the zeitgeist; where we, the promoters of start-up businesses, are the apostles of the next, new versions of Silicon Valley.
If the huge, old and established businesses cannot be easily re-engineered or saved (and chances are, given the way the world looks right now, they can’t) then we have to create new and hairy, audacious start-up businesses that take us all into a new world. And they don’t have to be only tech businesses. They be can “new, improved” businesses in any sector. The acid test is that they appeal to people and excite them to take notice and satisfy unfulfilled, new or unthought-of needs. 

The essence of whether they’ll succeed or not depends on specific things like their having a great idea, the planning that goes into it, their access to finance, their ability to promote, market and sell their product or service, their ability to operate a virtually error free operation – in short to run a brilliant, professionally run business. But  it also depends on three other more touchy-feely things. Ambition, optimism and resilience.

Unless, as a start-up entrepreneur, you wake up each day saying “I can do/solve/survive/win this”, then you probably shouldn’t be in business at all. If you don’t joy in running your own business then remain an employee/wage slave…you may hate it but at least you can afford to go on holiday and buy nice wine.

Ultimately  it’s vigorous, irredeemable hope that makes being human worthwhile and exciting. I may not agree with politicians like Boris but I shall always applaud optimism and the encouragement of enterprise. I shall vote for big, hairy and ambitious goals. 

Monday, 22 July 2019


I heard this on the Sunday Service on Radio 4:

“In this troubled world…” 

Trouble underpins almost everything we hear now. Brexit, racism, anti-semitism, climate change, inequality. We relish “troubled” in the way we relish a seriously hot curry.

Well, I need irony and laughter not troubled. I don’t find Trump, Boris or Jezza funny. I need quirky stuff like the protesters outside the Brighton and Hove Greyhound Stadium – “Stop killing Greyhounds”,  “Racing is cruel” . To my surprise they were big, sturdy and rather menacing. I might have expected  thin, earnest spinsters and tearful poodle owners but these were heavies “hit him Tony while I give Charlie over there a smacking”.

I discovered subsequently that over 5,000 racing greyhounds are killed every year because they perform poorly. I wondered if we should do the same to executives in business…”we’ve had reports that the board of Carillion were killed yesterday for performance failures and now for the sport, Gary Richardson…

We have more protests currently than I can recall. As a teenager goofing off school – “Climate-change march sir” – is perfectly acceptable now - “OK Perkins, well cut along then”. But there are so many that their noise has become self-cancelling.

What we had instead last week was an orgy of excitement – Wimbledon…how could Federer lose? But he did after in a little under 5 hours. Can you imagine a five hour film?  The British Grand Prix…collisions, confusion and Hamilton strolls in first…strolls? Final lap was a Silverstone lap record.

How does sedate cricket compete? By becoming football. At full time, after 600 balls had been bowled both sides had scored the same number of runs. So they had a “Super Over” to decide who wins – each team represented by two players batting. Both score 15 so England win. Why… I thought  they tied?  No. They win, obviously, because they scored more boundaries. Men are weeping with joy, families dance in delight. Back stop, long stop, full stop. Rule Britannia. But it appears subsequently under rule 19.8 because the batsman had not crossed at a critical point the umpires awarded England one run too many. So New Zealand win then.

Well no. Because the celebrations had already started for an English victory and no one wanted to irritate Ben Stokes.

It was chaos. It was awful. And everyone loved it.

It was also (as it turns out) a lie. Which brings me I’m afraid to Boris and that kipper. He concocted a stupid story about an Isle of Man fishmonger (IOM is not in the EU or UK) being forced by EU regulations (wrong - UK regulations not EU) to post these kippers to the UK with pillows of ice. What cost. What bureaucracy. What bollocks.

The trouble is I can still remember this lie and kippers have stuck in my sceptical brain.
Prince Charles laughed when I described this over lunch. “Lying”  he said “is the strategy de jour…have some more sprouts”.

Fake news.  Lie. Bet you remember though.

Monday, 15 July 2019


The British are masters of the stiff upper lip… proud of our manners. Here’s what it says on ‘Study Links', a website addressing foreign students in the UK:- “Knowing a little bit about British etiquette will help you ensure that your behaviour is polite and appropriate whilst you are studying in the UK.”

So I’ve been puzzled by what we’ll call ‘Ambassador-Gate’ because we seem to have become happy to be rude, although the Foreign Office has always seemed to have encouraged a Private Eye style of communiques from its ambassadors. One in past years, described the Swiss as “neither the wittiest or the prettiest of people”. There has been this tradition of satirical wit which may have pleased writers and recipient but belongs to a previous era.  When we actually had an Empire.

In 2019 we all know (don’t we?) that nothing we write down is safe from hackers. In 2019 we need to be circumspect. Poor Sir Kim Darrock was neither of those and all that talk of supporting him seemed rather absurd when it appeared, because of his tabloid comments about the current Presidency that got leaked, he couldn’t,  when denied access to the White House, do his job … that’s why he was there in the first place.  He was, anyway, just a few months away from retirement. Poor rude (even if crudely truthful) Kim.

The behaviour of the - blessedly to be short-lived - British MEPs turning their backs in Brussels as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is played – the EU anthem – was lamentable. This also happened when the NSDAP (Nazi party) 1926 turned its back on the Speaker of the Reichstag - so well followed Nigel Farage.

But even this performance was dwarfed by Ann Widdecombe’s abusive tirade. When did she decide being rude was a strategy?

Our diplomats and our political representatives are currently doing our country a disservice. So what about our probable next Prime Minister? His Andrew Neil interview this week was revelatory. Bluster, bombast and braggadocio. Some pundits thought he made some sort of fist of it but I was dismayed to think he could soon be our leader.  Optimism, which is his credo, is fine but not to the exclusion of thought and reason. I remember playing cricket with an irredeemable optimist who, as the rain lashed down, bellowed  “stop!  I shall not be defeated by this shower.” Boris is extraordinary. He’s not, for sure, a role model, albeit he could be called a shower.

Nor is Jeremy Corbyn better as we watch the agonising suicide that is the antisemitic Labour party. Shameful and shameless.

This is a British summer, Ascot, Wimbledon, Lords, Silverstone, strawberries and champagne. It’s a season of charm, courtesy,sunburnt mirth and friendship.  It is (usually) when we are at our best.  Keats described it so well – “with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth.

We are not being true to ourselves and it’s such a shame.

Monday, 8 July 2019


I once worked with someone in advertising whose philosophy was that nothing ever changed much and, if it did, the pendulum would pretty quickly move back. A lot of clients found this conservatism reassuring. Meanwhile I preached apocalyptic visions, disruption and dystopia which some clients viewed somewhat warily.

My visions have mostly turned out to be in line with what’s actually happened but, of course, being right is only half the story. So when my son-in-law said he’d been at a conference where a famous economist with a name ending in “-inski “ had given a riveting presentation about the Armageddon we’d be facing by 2030, I was intrigued. I glanced at it – it was long and full of numbers and graphs. Principally it focused on our collapsing under debt and a remorselessly adverse demography of more older people. Like all economist his models were based on extrapolating trends.

It was clever stuff for sure and well-argued but something clicked in my mind. It was my disruption button.  I have this distaste for the belief that bigger is better or that you can persuade people to do things through financial incentives or that the numbers tell much of the story.

First of all the demography myth. We live in a world where the best medical minds are stymied. All antibiotics have lost their mojo. Ebola is sweeping the Congo and Uganda and a mystery illness in East Anglia is striking down old people. I suspect it’ll be the old who get whacked by all this hardest. I talked to a medical journalist about this who said grimly “don’t go anywhere near a hospital; that’s where these new bugs thrive.” 

So let’s reduce those population extrapolations. Chances are there’ll be some natural pruning.
Next politics. Not really politics so much as culture. The Green Movement, a bit like Me-Too or the anti-tobacco lobby, has acquired an unstoppable momentum, most obviously amongst the young but now older people are changing their minds too. This is not a one-off.  Everything that happens in Europe – currently the second biggest economy in the world -  will be determined by green thinking over the next decade.

Finally where does the future lie? Asia and Africa currently account for ¾ of the world’s population and they, not the USA or Europe, will drive the global agenda. We in the West are like the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Persians over 2,500 years ago. We’re running out of runway. We’ve had our day. Neither yearning for past glories or hoping radical change won’t continue, will be much use. Disruption? You bet, a big disruption but not necessarily a disaster.

Our next decade should be the most interesting for a very long time.

Meanwhile listening to our current politicians is increasingly irrelevant as they seem determined to build debt and revert to Victoriana.

But if we become greener, cleaner, less obsessed with money and more focused on building a kinder, better society we’ll be on the right track.

Monday, 1 July 2019


Returned, revived and restless.

That’s how everyone should feel after a holiday.  However all is not well. Indeed,  the end is nigh, according to the Guardian. This was their headline last Monday: 'Hell is coming - week-long heatwave begins across Europe'. Temperatures could hit 40C. Exams have been cancelled, sales of water have rocketed, people will fry. Funny, I thought this was summer. What we used to gleefully call “a scorcher”.

Whilst we were in Venice I was thinking about intolerance and recalled a conversation about the teenage craze-game, Fortnite, with some old friends of mine. They grumpily said they thought it was disgusting, encouraging killing and dulling intelligence (like the Cowboys and Indians of our distant youth I thought). Last week I asked our 12 year old grandson to give me a tutorial. Apart from him learning to use three fingers and his thumb in both hands, all digits independently, to track his weapon status, his store of building materials, wood, brick and metal and critically his power of defence-shields and his health status for which he seeks out bottles of health liquid, he has headphones to identify the proximity of opponents. That’s only the tip of this extraordinary iceberg. There are killer storms to avoid as they’ll empty health reserves. And there are over 90 people he’s playing against from all over the world (there are 250 million registered).

But the point is this. It’s not a game of killing – it’s a game of self-protection and survival. And it as strategic as chess with incredible graphics and animation. What should excite us is the super race of nimble-thinking and lightning-fingered, Fortnite is helping create. He came 2nd by the way (out of 96 players).

And of course it’s an example of the brilliance of technology. But don’t be beguiled by technology – it’s a tool not an ideology or strategic. As Dave Trott, the remarkable ad man said: “Technology is the Achilles heel of the lazy." Technology is there to use not to lead. Too many people talk about the vehicle not the destination and yes that’s lazy.

I was watching Supervet the other night as Kate was out and I was having my supper in front of the TV. It has everything that anyone could want. It’s an animal soap opera about indescribable medical issues, bloody close up operations, unconditional love and usually happy endings. It’s a brilliant show. All they need to do now is make a musical of it.

So, finally, age. Why the hell are Jo Biden and Bernie Saunders contending for the Democratic candidature in America? They’re both 77. In fact of the 20 candidates 6 are over retirement age. I believe in wisdom but death must be on their minds as it’s been on mine. I’ve suddenly and inexplicably been bombarded with un-asked-for life insurance quotations. The providers are betting on me living 10 more years at least. If I snuff it any sooner they lose.

Good luck with the scorcher Jo. Just keep out of the sun.

Monday, 24 June 2019


Just nine days pottering around in the jewel of the Adriatic was very restful. A word to all of you out there who are saying you’re knackered.

You are. You need a break.

I was knackered and now I’m feeling great not least because I’ve dragged the Venetian weather back here.

Observations on Venice:
  • Still manages to be beautiful and, yes, serene. The sun creating twinkles on the canals fills my heart with joy.
  • The airport has got international class – you get through in a jiffy; it’s clean, cool and elegant. The Marco Polo Lounge has to the very nicest I’ve been in.
  • Campari Spritz, a vile-tasting concoction when drunk in the UK, tastes absolutely fabulous there and as part of that away-from-homeness feeling one has relaxing in the sun.
  • We must has been about the only Brits there… what’s going on? Venice used to teem with Waitrose shoppers, now no more. Lots of Americans, Germans, French, Indians and Italians. And (also) where have all the Chinese gone?
  • Aha! They’ve gone to the Tedeschi, which was in the 13th century and beyond, the HQ of German Traders in Venice. Now it describes itself as “The Lifestyle Department Store”.  We visited it briefly having observed (as it were) the absence of wasps in Venice this year and finding ourselves in a huge wasps’ nest. Chinese families all paying in cash and spending thousands of dollars on Prada, Cartier, Chanel, Burberry. It’s an amazing tribute to the power of luxury branding and the sudden growth in personal wealth of the world’s second largest economy. 
  • Sadly the place is full of beggars, mostly illegal immigrants brazenly demanding money in an intimidating way. It was made illegal in 2008 but no one now enforces it.
  • Just before we arrived the cruise liner, the MSC Opera, crashed out of control into the Zattere just west of San Basilio. On just our first day there were three of these nautical  monsters lumbering up the Guidecca canal. Imagine a 40 storey skyscraper being built next to Admiralty Arch in London. Yes it’s that inappropriate. 
  • Finally a sour grape from an ex adman. On a deconsecrated church on the Riva Degli Schiavoni just beyond the Danieli Hotel facing out into the lagoon  is the vastest, nastiest poster ever. It’s for Balenciaga which says, well it just says Balenciaga in letters 20 feet high. This was last year’s – this year’s is even worse. I hated the brand in 2018.

And, now,  the bad news.

 I now hate Balenciaga even more.

 Just thinking and looking at the Grand Canal I’m forced to take the long view and think of history. Virtually all the buildings are over five centuries old.  Somehow Britain, Brexit and Boris seem a little trivial when I’m here.  

I want to quote from that brilliant speech Aaron  Sorkin wrote for the first episode of the Newsroom orated by Jeff Daniels. I’m thinking of Britain as I read it:

“America isn’t the greatest country any more… It sure used to be… We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason.  We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbours, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest.  We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists AND the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed… by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”

Venice was great once. America was great once. We called ourselves Great Britain. But we aren’t great anymore….we sure used to be. We have a problem to solve.

Monday, 3 June 2019


As I age and ache, that saying comes to mind that being an old (ish) man, even on a good day, feels not much different from being a young (ish) man except that young man is feeling rather unwell.  But it’s the mind I want to focus on. We are supposed to become more conservative,  more prone to live in the past and more averse to loss as the years pass.

Almost 50% of Conservative Party voters in the UK are over 65 and only 16% of those under 35 say they’ll vote conservative. By rights I should be joining my cohort but….but…. as the years pass I’m getting more left wing.  The Wedgewood Benn in me has, suddenly, like something from ‘The Alien’ leapt snarling from my body. Only it isn’t snarling, it’s full of good humour, just a little anti-capitalist. I  sat in church on Sunday listening to the hymn “Glorious Things of thee are Spoken” with that couplet about the overly rich and smug:

“Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, 
 All his boasted pomp and show”.

The Christians have always known how to smack the rich, them and their “boasted pomp and blasted yachts”. But it isn’t just their “boasted pomp”; more importantly it’s their extreme right-wing Toryness that alienates me.

Alistair Campbell has, meanwhile,  lost his home in Labour who, in turn,  seem to have lost their political minds according to Matthew Goodwin’s article “The Strange Death of Labour” in the Sunday Times.  We slightly further right of Alistair and wondering where our political home might be are facing, like Tennyson’s Light Brigade (misquoted):

“Idiots to the right of us
Idiots to the left of us
Idiots in front to us” 

 I am spending my days frustrated by homelessness, poverty, official attitudes to migrants and the problems suffered in Northern Africa, the tragic decline in manners (stop shuffling Donald Trump. We respect your office but you are very naughty),  the dislocation of a significant number of young children – posing knife threats but worse than that in the long term. We have become a richer, smarter, more excluding and less kind society and that makes me sad.

We‘ve stopped caring enough about the big issues. This “Withdrawal Agreement” has not been a big issue at all - just a fatally misunderstood “preliminary” agreement. We shall have to learn new skills like listening and doing coalition well. The old votes and tribal loyalties are dead. John Scott – the mediator - said this about our world:

“In this increasingly complex, kick-arse, hurtling, over-provided world most people want a simpler life.”

Hurray for simplicity.

And that is just what Clement Attlee described:

“(No) differences arose between Conservatives, Labour and Liberals ….in the War Cabinet … not in the big things. ... 

When one came to work out solutions … one had to …disregard private interests.  But there was no opposition from Conservative Ministers. 
They accepted the practical solution whatever it was.”

That’s all we ask.

Monday, 27 May 2019


John Donne in his Elegy XIX, “On his Mistress Going to Bed”, written in 1633, compares the excitement of the New-found-land of America with seducing his naked mistress: “licence these roving hands”  he says.

On Friday we went to the Chineke! Orchestra playing a programme of American music as part of the Brighton Festival. (Chineke! is a not-for-profit foundation providing opportunities in classical music for Black and Minority Ethnic musicians.)

It was wonderful. We’d never heard a more impassioned or dramatic version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or a funnier Copland’s ‘I bought me a Cat’. In addition to these composers we had Montgomery, Weill and Ibert.  We realised, as we listened there was this unmistakable American sound full of optimism, grandeur and wit. It was like listening to the best Hollywood film scores distilled into an expensive, sweet perfume.

For sure, we have our own local difficulties right now and the recent EU elections may well show an unwelcome rise of right wing parties but something even graver is happening across the Atlantic.

America gave me more frissons of excitement than anywhere else I’d been. To land at Kennedy and see the New York skyline sent shivers down my back.  To watch Aaron Sorkin’s ‘West Wing’ and somehow (how naive!) believe it was a true to life insight to American politics; to see Jeff Daniels’ (Sorkin again): 'America is not the greatest country in the world anymore', The Newsroom - 2012 – and to know no other writer in any other country would dare to write such a critical piece or for it to be delivered with such brio; to remember the iconic westerns that shaped my sense of right and wrong and, as with Elmer Bernstein’s music for ‘The Magnificent Seven’, to find myself humming it as I walked into a difficult meeting. This was my America.

And these were reasons why I had believed that America really was the greatest country in the world, thrilling, brave, fair and always innovative. The dreadful Monroe Doctrine had long gone.

But America has gone sour. I can no longer recognise it as the place that  brought us Gershwin’s music, Elvis, MoTown, Tom Wolfe,  Mohammed Ali, Michael Johnson and Sorkin or James Stewart. America has been stolen and I want it back.  Because it belongs to the whole world, not just Americans, it belongs to all our memories of progress and adventure. I feel a sense of sacrilege that the vast canvas boldly painted in bright and exotic colour has been painted over.

Perhaps it’s characteristic of our times that electorates sit passively as the past is written out and its culture is traduced and replaced by  shrill and discordant voices. Politicians everywhere are now becoming the sort of people with whom you would not wish to converse, let alone break bread.

In 1976 on my  first visit to America I felt like Donne:

“How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Not anymore, I’m afraid. Not anymore.

Monday, 20 May 2019


When our entry “Bigger than us” came last in The European Song Contest on Saturday with just 16 points I was not surprised. We’ve been placed in the bottom five out of twenty six entries, an astonishing nine times, since 2005.  Either we are terrible musicians or we pick the wrong songs or we are just extremely unpopular.

In November 2018 Music Week trumpeted – that’s what you do in the music business – that the UK was a global leader in music: growing to an annual £4.5 billion turnover; exports up 7% to £2.6 billion. Receipts to the UK treasury just under £1 billion. So it’s not that.

When it comes to popular votes by which we choose our entry to this competition we have, let’s just say, a slightly uneven track record. As I watched poor Michael Rice giving what was described by the UK press as a “very solid performance” – could there be a worse accolade? – I knew we were doomed. Extremely solid performance. Extremely flaky song.

The answer then is an extraordinary feat of mediocrity, almost as though we didn’t really care. I fear we have become the global Millwall FC whose fans’ match song as you may know goes like this:  “nobody likes us, we don’t care".  And they don’t and we don’t.

We have become the stroppy kid who decided to walk out and now they’re all sniggering at us and making us very cross.

In the midst of all this confusion and self-pity I find an increasing sense of personal resolution because I have a funny feeling this is all going to work out OK in the end. The EU is a bit of a mess, which we knew. Mess is a constant in life. It all depends on how you deal with it.  If you consider Orban (Hungary) , Kurz (Austria), Salvini (Italy) and the presence of Le Pen (France), the AFD (Germany) the Union part of European seems open to question.

Yet we know young people, pretty well across Europe, mostly believe in collaboration, sharing, liberal values and quite soon, as they flex their muscles, they won’t put up with the playground behaviour of the right wing here or in Europe. They know, and let’s face it, this is all they’ve ever known, peace and success is achieved through compromise, listening and a determination to look after each other.

I find myself thinking that Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate change activist is altogether more wholesome and well principled in her ambitions for humanity in general than, say Nigel Farage, although I think he believes what he says. It’s just that,  as with Michael Rice, I don’t like the tune he’s singing. Old fashioned. Separatist. Hostile. Cruel.

We have to grow out of this belligerent Millwall tendency. In a democracy we must, of course, let this play out. But we need a better story for it to end well and we need to tell it better. It seems as though some think this is the Game of Thrones. It isn’t and we need to grow up and start being kinder to each other. It’ll just take a bit of time, calm and common sense.