Monday, 18 January 2021

THE TRUTH MUST WIN

When I was small if you were caught “telling stories” you were for it. 

Yet today the story, not the truth, is what matters. That’s why the Times (once known as “The Thunderer”) is now more aptly “The Chuckler” full of stories rather than news and truth.

Last Saturday a succession of stories and articles convinced me either I (or they) had lost it. 

Does this warrant most of page 3?  ‘The original All Creatures Great and Small has becomes a hit in the USA.’ 

Maybe after Trump it’s this that resonates and maybe should have been the real insight:  “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” 

- The QAnon conspiracy group, one of whose luminaries claimed his real mother was a 9 feet tall, green alien, has over 650 ,000 followers on You Tube. I’m told it’s taking hold in USA and UK.  My poor head. Tell me why this is so important because it is. Lies squashing truth.

- Liz Hurley has taken up Kung Fu and is good enough now to solicit live opponents. Liz don’t be so silly. And the Times – give this stuff to Hello Magazine.

- Breaking News: King Herod in between slaughtering babies proved his obsession with small things by also being a Bonsai enthusiast. Is this a joke? It’s for WhatsApp not the Times.

- Simon Bowes-Lyon, the great, great nephew of the late Queen Mother got drunk and for 20 minutes groped and tried to kiss a guest after a dinner party when everyone including his victim had toddled off to bed. He faces up to 5 years in prison. He’s obviously a bad sort as he also has 23 penalty points through speeding convictions. This story creaks with unasked questions.

- A Norwegian Philosopher has claimed human beings suffer a blood alcohol level that’s the equivalent of two glasses of wine too low. At last something sensible. True or not? It’s a joke, I think, but with a grain of truth. In vino veritas.

This potpourri of stories represent something that’s been concerning me for a while  and which lie behind the extraordinary stories of Trump and to a lesser extent Brexit. We have become seduced by lies, distortions and drama. When you  hear someone talking about “the narrative” (which increasingly we do, by politicians and their advisors) be very, very scared.  By definition “narratives” are stories told in an engaging and interesting way, They create what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a suspension of disbelief. In other words a story – a work of fiction (maybe even a lie) becomes accepted as being a new truth. ‘That election was rigged’ is a better story than ‘it was a proper election’. If what the world wants and gets are just better stories we are in trouble because then we are living in what can be described as a post-truth era.

Post-truth is the petri-dish in which conspiracy theories and stories that excite and convince people flourish. The calm reiteration and reiteration of truth must become our mission. Calm and repetitive can deconstruct the big, lazy lie, as my friends in America tell me hopefully.

We might start with getting our  journalists to be circumspect and to get their boots on faster. Just because the story with the punchline wins more applause than unvarnished truth is no excuse to play to the audience.

We’ve has enough of that phrase “fake news” and even worse “alternative truth.”

It’s time to unravel those lies.

Monday, 11 January 2021

SAY NO TO WOE

I must be living a sheltered life because  I recently heard a word new to me. “Doom-scrolling”. It’s defined as  "an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of dystopian news" (!).  I realised I was becoming a “doom-scroller” watching the American Dream crumble as the Capitol was invaded by bearded hippies.


I then saw Covid infection rates soar in the UK, the economy totter, Brexit lorry jams and food shortages (no Stilton reaching Northern Ireland), our Government wobble, Covid naysayers like Katie Hopkins saying she’d walked through empty hospital wards so – obviously - the whole Covid thing is a sham (they’re all crammed in the Covid wards and ICU, you buffoon) and please don’t have an accident and need an ambulance…there are none.  Then we had a murder of a local celebrity in Hove…yet Hove never has murders. 

So yes, the world has gone mad, bad and sad. Scroll; scroll; scroll.


I started 2021 bounding from bed and bellowing “hurray for today.” Just ten days later I was turning over in bed in the morning after realising the beast from the east had paid a nocturnal visit and that all I wanted to do was snooze. But then I remember that horrid refrain “snoozers are losers” so I stumble out of bed and settle for another day of house- arrest. But just writing this has helped me realise how foolish I’m being. I have my health, well actually my hypochondria, which is a source of considerable comedy. 


Ooh my foot, ooh my head, ooh my leg etc. I eat well. I drink well. I have many friends and my wife, nurse, chef, psychiatrist, motivator and chum is keeping an eye on me. As Matthew Parris wrote on Saturday:
“Covid, Brexit and Trump have created a national mood of anxiety but don’t despair – the future looks a lot brighter.”

He advises that we write lists of things to do … because as you get them done the ‘black dog’ that’s terrorising you is tamed. So no more snoozing. Just lots of listing.

And of course he’s right. Despite the government being allegedly in despair at the civil disobedience the electorate is showing, I’ve been impressed by how little traffic there is and how empty the streets are as we go for exercise (another thing ticked off the list.)


In fact I think people are being amazingly compliant and tolerant. When two young women drove five miles to a beauty spot in Derbyshire for a walk clutching a coffee and were fined £200 each by a intimidating squad of coppers for not following the spirit of the lockdown and claiming coffee constituted a picnic, I stopped being like the legendary Victor Meldrew and spluttering “I just don’t believe it” but instead started laughing, certain that the fine would be revoked. It was. 

Living in this Monty Pythonesque world in which “not following the spirit of the lockdown” are deemed criminal offences is silly and it’s comedy and satire and burlesque are what will get us all back to calm and sanity. 


And that’s why I’m creating an even newer word. One we need to use and celebrate every day for the remainder of this lockdown. Laughter-grafting. Everyday we all need to find at least six things that make us howl with laughter. If in doubt look for the funny side. With politicians and activists like we have it shouldn’t be that hard. 

Which is not to ignore the misery and loss many are feeling right now. But even when events  hurt we need to recall Ken Dodd’s words  “laughter is the greatest music in the world”… and, of course, the vaccine our greatest hope.










Monday, 4 January 2021

LOOK TO THE FUTURE NOW, IT'S ONLY JUST BEGUN

When Slade first sang this iconic Christmas song in 1980 it was against the background of the worst recession for over 30 years, inflation of 18% and mass unemployment. Slade’s lead singer, Noddy Holder, said it was their attempt to cheer up people and get them to visualise a better future. It’s how we need to begin 2021 when all many see is Casper David Friedrich’s extraordinary painting ‘The Sea of Ice’ (1824) depicting a shipwreck in the Arctic where the ship has been overwhelmed by a compressed mountain of ice.

Where are we? 

Intriguingly we moved up to 5th in Global Economic League of 2020 (source: IMF data from 2019) mainly because India’s economy did so badly. The top ten are shown below and in bold on the right the ranking of each of the top 10 in the 2020 Global Happiness League (source: United Nations/Gallup).

Economic rank

Country

GDP (US$ trillion)

Happiness rank

1

United States

20.49

18

2

China

13.4

94

3

Japan

4.79

62

4

Germany

4.00

17

5

United Kingdom

2.83

13

6

France

2.78

23

7

India

2.72

144

8

Italy

2.07

30

9

Brazil

1.87

32

10

Canada

1.71

11


Despite our problems we seem to be doing well. People like being British more than say the Germans like being German or the French are content with being French. So much for those lamenting how wrecked we are. But let’s not get complacent – there’s a lot of work to do.

What do we want to become?

Increasingly it became clear that the Brexit argument was not about negotiating a trade deal but about who we want to be. Like it not Brexit is done.


‘Sovereignty’ (which, allegedly, whenever he heard it used - which was often - reduced the European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, Michel Barnier, to uncomprehending rage) was the core issue for the Brexiteers. They believed we needed to feel free, to be on our own, to control our ‘identity’. 

Which is what? 

That’s the problem. No one seems to have nailed this down. Over Christmas I read an engaging book by Cees Nooteboom called ‘Venice. The Lion, the City and the Water.’ In it he quotes academic and author, C.P. Snow, from over 50 years ago, comparing the history of Venice and Britain:

“The Venetians  knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many gave their minds to working out how to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we’re fond of ours. They never found the will to break it.” 

Which is why “getting back to normal” has always seemed to me such an anathema. We’ve has a far bigger shock to our economy in 2020 than any for around 300 years. GDP fell by 11% (only Argentina did worse). The Government has categorised swathes of what many thought made life worth living as “inessential”: bookshops, theatres, concerts, restaurants, hotels, travel, museums, sport and hugging.

That pattern of normal that’s crystalised in Britain needs breaking because as things stand we shan’t be Good Britain (let alone Great Britain after the Covid crisis ) unless we make some hard choices about where to focus next.

More good news

We have a certain inbuilt resourcefulness and resilience that we saw in action in the 1980s.  That’s when creative industries thrived most and our entrepreneurial boom began. We need more of the same. Much more. 

We need to become Silicone Island (we’ve already made a promising start in boom sectors like gaming) and the big techno-giants are investing in huge look-at-me HQs in London employing talented young people whose ambitions for independence will outstrip their employers soon enough. 

In film, music, fashion, theatre, literature, events, environmental technology and restaurants we have the talent and capacity to continue leading the world.  Treat these half as seriously as we treat fishing and the rebirth of  tourism and the hospitality sector will follow. By looking to the future and reinventing rather than restoring what we once had we will have a great opportunity to create important global businesses.

Pricking the Covid Bubble and learning some lessons

Lessons we must learn as the vacillating vaccination programme trundles through 2021 are:-

i) How to manage risk well. We’ve flip-flopped from reckless to paranoid in 2020.  We cannot and should not completely avoid risk. We just need to manage it and mitigate it. Risk management is a key theme for the next decade.                                   

ii) There are going to more Covids – this one was just a dress rehearsal. We need to invest in planning protective measures for round two and three now.

We need to think the unthinkable. We need to re-think education and examinations, hospitality, cities and towns. As Shopping Centres become increasingly defunct with old shopping venues like Westfield emptying of tenants the opportunity for creating world-class entertainment centres and tourist magnets exists. Time to blow away the dust of uncreative, profit-focused and old-formula thinking of developers and landlords.

Economists are always wrong

That’s one thing to be sure of. The fallibility of economists. So far I’ve heard two rock-solid predictions from them. First that we are on the brink of a boom the like of such we’ve never seen before, thanks to all that cash poured into the ailing economy to keep us afloat. Secondly, we’re doomed. Double dip recession, raging unemployment and company failures on an epic scale.

Long experience suggests it’ll be neither but a mixture of both - the first half of 2021 a storm to make 1980 look like a breeze but with boom sectors emerging in the second half with possible strong resurgence in some sectors. But the scale of sustainable growth will not depend on economics alone. It will depend on people.

So how do we feel? How will we react?

We learnt some strangely alien habits in 2020: working from home, missing those ‘off the record’ lunch conversations, Zoom, no informal meetings, social distancing, not being able to affirm our feelings by hugging, shaking hands or just brushing someone’s upper arm. We’ve become less human.

People are for the most part rule-abiding, well behaved and resilient. Overall we’ve done brilliantly in 2020 even if some of us feel a bit robotic sometimes. There’s a problem though. The excess of information, astoundingly clumsy communication from Government and the conflicting views of experts have made us, most of us, cynics about our leaders and about Professors, Doctors and other “important people”. Cynicism and a profound distrust of government is the biggest negative legacy of Covid.

I think the quest for transparency and full disclosure has damaged us all. Life is too busy and our individual tasks too demanding and important for us to spend our energy on subjects we don’t and never will understand. Social media has become a disruptive and corrosive influence in this respect so it’s interesting that a lot of young people I know have abandoned it completely as a time-waster.

Ultimately how we feel is mostly up to us but we can feel better just by looking at the future and determining that we, not a grey shroud of characters we call “they”, will shape our future.

A cautiously optimistic expectation

I believe in humankind, in our ability to help each other, to do creative things, to invent new ways of improving the world in which we live. We’ve just undergone what we can describe as global chaotic incompetence or, from a more optimistic perspective, a phase of “creative destruction.” No longer are we in an era of business as usual. The game has changed and all the pieces – education, housing, government departments, shopping, working, taxation, the environment and yes even the NHS – are in different places, in different shape and all need to change and be changed.

But this will take time. Consistently we’ve been promised quick fixes. It’s time to think longer term and forget tomorrow’s headline. Time to start under-promising and over-delivering. Time for calm and patience. Time for ambition, sure, but not for being reckless.

This could be the most exhilarating time any of us have seen for 40 years or longer.

Welcome to a truly Brave New World.