Monday, 3 June 2019

AM I A STATISTICAL FREAK?

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

OH MY AMERICA...

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

NOBODY LIKES US

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.

Monday, 13 May 2019

THE RICH LIST ARE PISSED OFF



The front page of the Sunday Times this weekend predicted a ‘catastrophic’ emigration of the rich taking trillions away with them if “Corbygeddon” happened (the paper also published their 2019 “Rich List”).  There are reasons why I’m sceptical about the benefits of Jeremy as Prime Minister but I don’t necessarily see slightly increasing taxation on the rich as a major disbenefit.  They really have a bit of a cheek. They already find ample ways of avoiding tax so they can go away and live in the Cayman  Islands, Guernsey, Monaco or wherever. We shan’t miss them nor, surely, will their departure trumpet the end of the “enterprise economy” as some darkly warn.


Do I envy these rich? Not one whit. Not when two of the richest people I know are both living with clinical depression and are desperately unhappy, beyond doctors’ ability to revive their spirits. Even more horrific is the story of the Rausing family, founders of Tetra Pak, some of whom came to Britain to avoid the high levels of taxation in Sweden (see what happens “Rich-List?).  Eva died  through a drug overdose and her husband Hans Kristian Rausing's drug addiction was such that he lived with his dead wife for two months in their Eaton Square house before telling anyone. The Rausings for many years topped the Rich List.

I looked at this Rich List today and saw we hadn’t made it – again. But we’d made something else. A reasonable level of comfort, contentment,  living close to those we love, with a huge entourage of brilliantly talented, kind and charming friends. On the “Happiness Index” we’d be ahead of most rich paranoiacs.

As Daniel Kahneman observed in his seminal book on thinking, “Thinking Fast and Slow”,  human beings are more traumatised by loss aversion than almost anything else. So if you’re rich you spend most of your life terrified someone will take it away. You’ve stopped going to church because people keep talking about getting through the eyes of needles. So you’re leaving for Belize clutching your cash (by the way I love the way that Belize rhymes with sleaze).


Rich seems to mean lonely – stories of Phil Green’s decline and misery from mega-billions to mere hundreds of millions and the opprobrium that’s gone with this decline make me wonder why he doesn’t give it all away and be seen as a nice guy for a change.

Talking of nice guys we saw a French group from Lyon, at the Brighton Festival called the ‘Ensemble Correspondances’ singing music from the court of Louis XII.  It was utterly, mind-soothingly perfect. Not a movement, note or nuance out of place. We talked to them afterwards.  An entourage of 15 musicians and singers, young, cool and beautiful. I spoke in extravagant, erratic French. They smiled and replied in perfect, nuanced, cultured English.


It occurred to me. Can we get more of them over here and more of the filthy rich over … wherever?

Monday, 6 May 2019

BAD BLOOD OR BLOODY SILLY?

I’ve been reading “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies of a Silicon Valley Start-Up” about a company that promised to become enormous. Founded in 2003 it raised $900 million from funders,and at its peak in 2013 was valued at $10 billion yet in 2018 was worth nothing. Such things have happened before – the South Sea Bubble 1711, the Florida Property Boom 1926, Enron 2007 – but this scandal had a particular frisson.


Its founder, a 19 year old college dropout called Elizabeth Holmes, modelled herself on Steve Jobs. She set out to create a method of testing blood by taking very small amounts extracted by a painless prick in the thumb. The test machines were intended to be compact like a large laptop. Her dream was eventually to transform diagnostic medicine by having these machines in homes. She had a dream.


She was clearly a charismatic sales person as the funders included Rupert Murdoch putting in $150 million; her board included Henry Kissinger and Fortune Magazine said: “With three former cabinet secretaries, two former senators, and retired military brass, it’s a board like no other.” 

The problem was the blood testing never worked properly and the machinery to do the tests was only ever in laboratory prototype form. Somehow Elizabeth managed to persuade a lot of smart people including Larry Ellison the founder and Chairman of Oracle that she was a genius and, like Jobs was going to change the world. She managed to get distribution of Theranos “blood-testing machines” into Walgreen and Safeway.


It’s not a very pretty story. Elizabeth and her CEO and lover (as it transpired) Sunny Balwani, ruled the company with a mediaeval level of terror. The place was full of ex-government heavyweight security guards. Key staff were fired on a regular basis for any minor offence like asking awkward questions and ex-employees were terrorised by the rottweiler law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. This was not a place to work however good the remuneration. It’s a story of self-delusion and a single woman’s ambition to achieve the seemingly impossible whatever it took and whoever was destroyed en route.
Or is it? Carreyrou’s book is a prosecution case and a comprehensive indictment but there’s something missing for me. I’m not convinced that Elizabeth was a fraudster. I think she had an idea, pursued it rigorously and by dint of her personality enrolled an unlikely bunch of eminent advisors who fell for her charisma and saw what they wanted to see – the next Steve Jobs and this time a woman. And their admiration drove her on to believe in the infallibility of her idea and herself.


She’s obviously a genius at creative communication and a salesperson who deserves better than being burnt at the stake of moral outrage. She had an idea that everyone wanted and she got everything right:  packaging, advertising and media coverage.

Only one thing was missing. A reliable product that actually worked.

And that was just bloody silly.

Monday, 29 April 2019

DRINKING: NOT AS BAD AS FIRST THOUGHT

Who needs champagne when there was the astonishingly wonderful weather of Easter weekend? As the sun beamed down on the beaches of Brighton it was as though all the miseries of Brexit  - the hokey-cokey story– “in-out-in-out-shake-it-all-about” – had been erased . And anyway during the week it dawned on me that this Brexit stress was not actually what it was all about.


A study, from the National Institute on Ageing and the National Institutes of Health, suggests even small daily stress factors can lead to health problems later in life. What about “big daily stresses”? Because I have rarely seen such disaffection as now.

According to work done recently at the University of Bristol there’s an alarmingly high incidence of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease amongst young adults in the UK. The startling insight of this study is that the liver diseases normally associated with hitting the bottle may instead be brought about by stress in the young. I was so concerned by this that I had to have a glass of wine.


We live uncertainly in a stressful world. And it’s not just Brexit. It’s not just terrorist attacks. It’s about something rather more in our own control. The complexity and crowdedness of our lives today. Technology is remarkable in  its cleverness.  But the creativity of people creating apps that solve problems we didn’t know we actually had, creates stress.  And stress leads to liver disease.

I don’t want to sound like a dinosaur although I’m afraid I am one. I was born into a pre digital world and I cannot honestly say that WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or even Amazon have necessarily transformed my life for the better. When I’m travelling my Kindle allows me to carry a library but actually reading a real book printed on crisp new paper in a nice font that smells of “new book” is still an unbeatable experience. As is writing a real letter on Basildon Bond using my poor ignored Mont Blanc full of Quink.


Our world is crammed with “solutions”. We have eating solutions, logistic solutions, accommodation solutions, clothing solutions, health solutions or, ultimately, solution solutions. We don’t need solutions (which presuppose problems) we need simplifications and less choice.

Libby Purves following that long, languorous Easter weekend, speculated on the large number of people who’d be saying they wanted to get away from it all. I can hear them:
“let’s sell up, take a camper van, go through France stopping wherever takes our fancy, eat chunks of fresh bread lying next to a bubbling stream,  quaffing local wine from the bottle and watching white fluffy clouds scud across the deep blue sky.”

I know people who did just that. They came back,  said it had been fun at first….but not after a while. Too many bloody fluffy clouds. You can’t turn back the clock. Dinosaurs die but until they do let’s stop submitting meekly to technology that’s not a solution just stress inducing.

Cheers.

Monday, 22 April 2019

TOO BIG TO BLAME?

When something goes very wrong the biggest companies seem to hang on, not so much by their fingertips as by one finger whilst cocking a snoot with the other hand. It’s amazing that the Costa cruise brand, VW and Boeing all seem to be in such rude health after their respective calamities.


The Costa Concordia foundered with 32 deaths, the Costa brand being now emblazoned on 17 skyscraper ships. The share price of owner, Carnival, dipped by 20% after the accident but was followed by a swift and sustained recovery. VW under assault following their emissions scandal is being sued in the US together with CEO Martin Winterkorn and four other executives but “shock-horror” has been largely followed by “yawn-so-what”. Their share price down to €132 after the scandal broke is now at €164. Boeing’s calamities, two planes crashing with allegedly similar causes and 347 fatalities is remarkable in a world where, first of all, air disasters are increasingly unusual and, secondly, because no other commercial aircraft has been implicated in so many fatalities in so short a period since 1966. Their share price is only down 15% despite a monthly cost in grounding the 737 MAX of around $1billion. “Could they go bust?” I asked a friend to a derisory snort of “of course not; follow the share price”.
There are too many rich, dispassionate interests in all these companies to be overly fussed by a few deaths. The 72 poor, lost souls in the Grenfell tragedy were faced with more anger, outrage and animation to allocate blame. The same will happen in the death-free Notre Dame fire. Blame is a cheap commodity except when mega companies are involved. Do we really believe Facebook would have survived as unscathed as it is it had been a small company?
Ruth Rochelle, mentor and consultant, said about scale-ups in business that at the moment of raising funds to go to the next stage “idealism takes a kicking.” I think that she’s right and I think it’s a pity. It’s idealism that’s inspiring the Climate Change demonstrations (and about time) but they are spending more time dreaming than making a big difference. When they stuck themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence I wondered if they’d gone mad but when he refused to engage them in conversation I realised he’d completely lost the common touch that got him where he is today. This beautiful summer Bank Holiday – it’s far too good for Spring – has restored our faith in ourselves. We are just not a big company country, we only have 4 in the top 100 global companies and two of those are petroleum companies (one 50% Dutch) one’s a bank and one’s another 50% Dutch business. We simply do small better. We are more like Waitrose than Asda; more like Bill’s than Burger King.
As the sun gives those climate change protesters “this-isn’t right-in-April” suntanned faces, applaud the fact that so many care about something other than money.

Monday, 15 April 2019

THE ART OF THE MODERN LEADER

The art of the modern  leader

In a recent poll by the Hansard Society and Ipsos Mori, most people polled said they wanted a “strong” leader (whatever that means) and 54% approved of a leader who’d break the rules.




I’m deeply suspicious of this.

Currently the most successful leaders in sport and business are a more consensual breed. They recognise we no longer live in a world where blind obedience is demanded.  I once witnessed something in an American business to whom we were consulting. The Chairman had a bee in his bonnet about introducing colour variants to their flagship brand to make to more appealing to children. We begged his top team to tell him this was insane, wrong and doomed to failure. They wouldn’t … and it was.

Obedience is over-prized. “Because I said so” was always the worst reason to give a child for doing something they disagreed with. And our world is slowly changing in recognition of  this. “So what about loyalty to the company?” I’m asked. Loyalty goes both ways and all the loyalty in recent years has been to investors and top management rather than to the downsized workforce. 


I was once asked to do a presentation on Generation Z to a household name in office
equipment. All the available research and that I did myself showed they were mostly fair minded, determined to do a good job,  unimpressed with material  possessions, sceptical about things like simple  “career paths” or “property ladders” and most of all disinclined to take instruction at face value. They interviewed rather than were interviewed and took instruction reluctantly. The senior executives listened to this with stony faced incredulity whilst at the back of the room the interns were applauding.


Today leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are praised  by those who might in the past have applauded Stalin, Hitler or Mussolini – men who made things happen – people who saw things in black and white and in capital letters. In business such leaders would be characterised by comments like “at least you knew where you were with Tom” which is rather like saying you know where you are with Ebola.

In the 2020s, as they approach, we need a new breed of leader and top team that coaxes the best out of their people rather than tries to beat it out of them.  Above all they need to be leaders who are selfless, better listeners and great coaches. Leaders who say “we” not “I”. Here’s what gurus at Harvard say:

People will be more effective leaders when their behaviours indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us … rather than their own personal interests.“  (Kim Peters and Alex Haslam Harvard Business Review August 2018)

Old fashioned attitudes to leadership exist because we’re reluctant to discard our worship of historical role models. But the world is changing so leaders had better change too or be changed.

Monday, 8 April 2019

ABOUT FAIRNESS AND CHEATING

I’ve been intrigued by the story in America about rich parents paying large sums of money to get their children into the top Universities. The scale of the scam is extraordinary. William Singer’s business, “The Edge College & Career Network”, has pleaded guilty to masterminding the scheme helping children of wealthy people get into universities through bribing college athletic coaches, having other people take admission tests for the applicants and hiring people to correct students' incorrect answers on those tests.


He faces up to 20 years in gaol. His “clients” have invested over $25 million with him to get their children into these universities. Strategies have included applying for sports scholarships like swimming, though they couldn’t swim. There are 50 rich and famous parents in the investigation (see above) the FBI are pursuing. The case is the largest of its kind to be prosecuted by the US Justice Department. 


How far would you go to get an unfair advantage for your children? Where does white become grey and when is it clearly black? Does spending £33,000 a year on sending your child to boarding school count as bending the rules? Obviously we’ve decided not although this is about the same as the gross average annual earning of those in full time work.

More interestingly government pays up to £6,000 a year per pupil in state schools which compares with £17,000 it costs for day pupils in private education.  Is this fair when the only reason such disparity exists is because of parental wealth? It’s a thorny issue and in a free democracy social engineering is something we rightly try to avoid. But and it’s a big but  …. Shouldn’t we be trying to make top quality education available to all; shouldn’t we be turning flickering flames of talent into great flames? That was what grammar schools were supposed to be all about.

The reason I care so much about inequality at the scale we see it, is that it’s such bad business for the country and I care about that. As does Janice Turner, Times journalist, who said this on Saturday:
I don’t care about Brexit. I fear for our country”.


For “Brexit” read Trump, Macron or Erdogan in America, France and Turkey. 

The fears we have relate to the reasons these people have been elected.  When deep rooted issues exist the equivalent of Japanese Knotweed flourishes. This ghastly plant is listed by the World Conservation Union as one of the world's worst invasive species.


Actually, provided we get rid of the knotweed, I don’t fear for our countries because I think we are pretty resourceful and resilient people. We need to watch it though. Any suspicion of complacency should be over after the past three years and we all need to remember that how we vote carries more of a punch than we thought.

By the way there are more of us than them…

So cheer up and look out for the knotweed.

Monday, 1 April 2019

I SHOULDN'T MIND BEING A LAUGHING STOCK

Outside the sun’s shining, the birds are singing, cats are rolling sensuously in the dusty earth and the Jays are contemptuously flying over them with their ‘look-at-me- you-losers’ plumage.


It’s the most gorgeous of Saturdays and I’m in a can-kicking grump.  Others are too. People I’ve always heard speak in mild and careful tones have become “effers and blinders”. Quentin Letts got it right when he suggested that Dominic Grieve begging for “compromise” was like Don Juan advocating celibacy.

My friends in Europe don’t call me like they did. In common with the rest of Britain I’m regarded as dotty and not to be taken seriously or trusted.

Unsurprisingly (and I think this is the norm) I’ve rather given up on politicians, their motives and their command of any picture bigger than their soon to be dwindling constituency vote in the election that’s looming. Expect some shocks when that happens.


How about this doomsday scenario?  Another hung parliament but with a scrambling of the old orders through wipe-outs for both Tory and Labour, the latter from disgruntled leavers migrating to UKIP, the former because the ERG has made conservatives seem unelectable to many life-long Tories.


Greens, Independents and the occasional Liberal will take up the slack.  If the founder of the Raving Monster Looney Party, the late Screaming Lord Sutch were alive he’d have fun. Since for many protest is the only alternative to not voting at all we can expect more Martin Bells to emerge (he was the Independent who usurped Tory Neil Hamilton in Tatton in 1997.)

Civil War? Nothing so crude just a loud and inharmonious bellow of “a plague on both your houses”.  And this is sad because all the MPs I know and have known, with just a few exceptions, were hard working, honourable and doing the job for worthy motives. We knew that they didn’t think or behave like us of course, being constantly in fear of the whips, their constituency, a faux pas on Question Time or losing it all in an election.

But the game, such as it was, is over. We’ve had enough and we shan’t take it anymore. So expect some shocks. I can just about take becoming a medium sized economic entity and a third ranking political entity…just about …but a laughing stock?


But why not? Our proudest assets include cartoons, Private Eye, TWTWTW, The News Quiz, Paul Merton, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais and so on. Laughter is what we do; irony is our language. My memories of business at its best is rueful laughter in the face of disaster and the constant ability to make jokes when the chips are down. 

Banter has got very bad press recently but only because everything has become too serious. It’s time we stopped kicking cans down the road and started laughing again and making jokes about  the folly of politics.


Laughing stock? I think winning that accolade’s  the equivalent of a political Oscar.

Monday, 25 March 2019

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

Everyone I know is wandering around saying they’re  miserable, weary and off-colour. So it was surprising to discover we’d shot up the league table in a recent global “Happiness Index.”  It isn’t as though this was after we’d beaten the Czech Republic 5-0 with a team of young stars which  cheered me up.


But then I read the Sunday Times and the political analyses and I got miserable again. I called a friend who’d been a senior civil servant and he patiently explained “You must understand that politicians are not like us. They don’t think or behave like us.”

Well if these blogs I write are going to have any value at all (and you must realise I intend them to have the same effect on you as a large, exceedingly cold dry martini) then I had to find some cheerful ingredients. This means this’ll be a very short piece or something strange will have occurred like me drinking dry martini. Slurp! … we are lucky to be alive in “sush” times. 


First I read that many Germans think they are watching real democracy at play in the UK right now. Profound out-in-the-open debate. Unashamed arguing about who, what and why we are as a country. Sacred cows are lying slaughtered beside our potholed roads. Why can’t everyone have a voice rather than being muffled by the EU? Well that’s an amusing take.

Then there’s the Danny Devito of Westminster,  John Bercow. Throughout the world he’s becoming a rock star. In Germany (again) he’s been given Wagnerian status (that’s saying something.) They claim he doesn’t say or even shout “ORDER!” He sings it. After this is over Little John will be the highest paid one-man show ever on the global stage.

Jacinda Ardern PM in New Zealand with whom everyone has fallen in love not least because unlike nearly all politicians she is like us and she thinks and behaves like we wish they all would. She’s done more to change global gun laws than anyone else has done by reading the timing right and just saying “banned”. She really has put New Zealand on a new thought-leading map.


And of course it’s Spring.  A week ago there was an article about Spring by Caitlin Moran that made me roar with laughter – that moment of levity didn’t last too long (obviously). She said it’s the best of all seasons not least because it’s fresh, exciting and comic. Things grow where they shouldn’t and at an enormous rate. I thought about Keats and his eulogy of Autumn. How dare he not write one about Spring instead of leaving it to Wordsworth.

Here is Wordsworth lounging about as poets do “in pensive mood” recalling those daffodils

“And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”


But it’s their boisterousness I love. Like a rowdy football crowd shouting “Yellow. Yellow. Yellow.”


 There you are then. Another injection to the Happiness Index- it’s zooming on up. Hurrah!

Monday, 18 March 2019

VOTE FOR SOROLLA

I wondered if I was unwell. I’ve been feeling tired, listless, irritable and prone to outbursts of inexplicable rage.


Things came to a head last week when I was writing my book – that alone might be the cause – when the front door bell rang. I work at the top of the house in a tower so it takes 50 steps to get to the front door. Despite my bellowing “I’m coming” a pamphlet was being pushed through the letterbox. “No” I shouted so it was rapidly withdrawn tearing as it was pulled out.

I flung open the door to find a short woman with a young man. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, not obvious salespeople, not neighbours.

“I’m not sure what you want but I’m very busy right now”

She smiled “I just wanted to ask if we could count on you voting Green in the forthcoming Council Elections.”


Suddenly one of those rages surged and I exploded into a rant.

“Politicians! You ought to be thoroughly ashamed -  all of you. Delivering promises which you replace with expedient ideas, prevaricating, destroying people’s hopes and lives. My wife and I shall probably never vote again. There’s no point. You are guilty of terrible things”

She seemed unruffled by this and calmly explained this was a local not a General Election.

“But you politicians are all the same” I snarled (it was meant to be a snarl but didn’t really sound menacing).  I changed tack and turned to the young man “you’ve said nothing – Why should I vote for this person?”

He fixed me with a level gaze “Actually I think you should, she’s very good, works really hard and cares about important stuff….”

She interrupted “He has to say that;  you see he’s my son and I’m cooking his dinner tonight.”

I was nearly won over and the rage had subsided.

A combination of the extraordinary behaviour at Westminster, my having temporarily given up alcohol and this book which as such things always are is a little exasperating may be the cause of my wrath and howling rages - they ought to call me Wolf Hall – but we can fix one right now.

In Saturday’s Times Patrick Kidd quotes from Richard Harris’ book “The Wicked Wit of Ireland “

“I formed a group called Alcoholics Unanimous. If you don’t feel like a drink, you ring another member and he comes over to persuade you.”


The second is fixed too. The book is finished bar corrections, editing and a bit of rewriting.

And the third will be cured by political abstinence and thinking about better things. The Sorolla exhibition is at the National Gallery. He’s Spanish, late 19th century and is called “The Master of Light”.

Most of his painting was done in the open air and is truly joyful, When I look at “Sewing the Sail” I cannot give a fig for Brexit or Westminster.

All I can see is dappled sunlight, the sea and laughing, contented people.

Monday, 11 March 2019

REBELLIOUS TRENDS

I got a call the other day. It was a wrong number, a Mr Sculley from Nuneaton who was sorry to bother me. He said he was old (actually only a bit older than me) recently bereaved and prone to misdial. He blessed me for being kind and said “can I ask one thing?”


“Please tell those politicians to sort things out. It sounds like they might listen to you.”

Not even me I’m afraid. I suspect there are Sculley’s all over the UK desperate for people to stop this nonsense. We have made our bed – that was the referendum – we got a result a lot of us hate but we have to get on with the best departure we can fashion. That’s what’s on the table and now we need to progress. The option of the crash-out at the end of this month is no longer in our hands if the EU petulantly refuses an extension to Article 50 and this has to be possible.

Whichever way this goes our automotive industry and other businesses will be wrecked, although new technology would have made this probable eventually anyway. Sadly many of the people cheering on BBC Question Time for a no deal exit will soon be out of work partly because of it. Their relish for self-destruction is mystifying.


We are in a period of global readjustment and tough times for everyone (except, as ever, the very rich).  I’m not sure when in our history 2019 most resembles. Perhaps the early 16th century when Henry VIII broke free from Rome. (In the way he’s generally depicted he resembles a recklessly autocratic Donald Trump.) But in that late medieval troubled era England managed to punch above its actually rather meagre weight. The key similarity was the rebelliousness of our behaviour and a deep seated belief that normal rules did not apply.


And it’s still here and like the kraken it’s re-awoken. We see schisms appearing in politics  and in social attitudes to institutions. We used for instance to believe that the unanimous decision of a jury in a trial was final. It would be unusual for the media, as the Times did on Saturday, to continue to describe the pilot, Andy Hill, in the Shoreham Air Show tragedy whom a jury found not guilty of manslaughter, in terms which implied he was actually guilty.


Disruption is becoming rebellion and this feels dangerous. Our societal tectonic plates are  shifting around. I doubt if any of us would put money on May and Corbyn (described by Jess Phillips as being as old fashioned and irrelevant as Tom and Margo from the old TV series the “Good Life”)  still being in office by the summer.  Dangerous times but they also feel challenging and perhaps offer us the possibility of a new start rather like a relegated football team and that’s how we feel right now. 
 We are becoming increasingly rebellious but rather carelessly are about to score an own goal. Oops!