Monday, 14 June 2021

A BLACK AND WHITE WORLD? NO THANKS

When 10 year old tweets by debutant English cricketer Ollie Robinson were revealed it was disappointing. But when Tom Harrison head of the ECB said “it had zero tolerance of racism and sexism” it was awkward. Zero tolerance like the frequently used “I agree with that 100%” boxes the speaker into a corner of intolerance and certainty. 

A young man, through retweeting feeble jokes about sex and Muslims when he was 18, may become history. But pity poor Tom Harrison who’s left himself open to criticism for being intemperate. In disregarding the mental health of poor Ollie (mental health of young cricketers is, after all, top of the list of concerns by the establishment).

Avoid that word “zero.” 

Are we aiming for a kind of unrealistic Utopia with “net zero carbon emissions” by 2030? Anyone who isn’t strongly aware of the perils of global warming is deluded but a quick reduction to net zero is probably unachievable and may have unexpected consequences.

And have you noticed medical attitudes and views on drinking alcohol. 

What was once a “use your common sense” view by doctors became a not-to-be-exceeded figure of 28 units per week apparently plucked from the air. More recently this has dropped to 14 units per week with the caveat that zero units per week is the real safe limit. 

Ironically researchers from University College London (UCL) and Birkbeck, University of London, found that over one in four doctors binge-drink and 5% meet the criteria for alcohol dependence. 

So with zero and 100% representing the poles of much thinking it’s unsurprising we have so much rancour and extremism in today’s world. When someone said to me recently “all Tories are the same – on the take and mendacious” I mildly reeled off a list of Tories who were not like that whilst conceding others were culpable. What happened then was we gradually agreed there were some terrible people in all the parties but that many occupied the middle ground of selflessly trying to do their best for society. Yes, we agreed about 50% with each other. 

We are apparently about to be subject to a trade war with the EU. Megaphone diplomacy at work. In the past such nonsense would have been dealt with quietly behind the scenes. Whilst the results, looking at history, were often disappointing, now negotiations are conducted through the media in public gaze. 

Boris karate chops Macron at the G7 conference
Boris karate chops Macron

One of the most popular views amongst many is that we should have complete transparency in politics and at work. Isn’t this rather like preaching the benefits of complete nudity? Both can be rather embarrassing.  Seeking transparency is like insisting on seeing work in progress. Any artist will say this is not the way they work because too much transparency inhibits creativity.

We all have too much information to process, too many views and probably far too many blogs. What we need to become are better listeners and more considered thinkers. Before we act we should think and avoid making silly boxing-ourself-in-a-corner comments. 

At University we learnt to balance arguments and take an-on-the-one -hand and on-the-other-hand approach. For instance, before dismissing Donald Trump as an obnoxious buffoon we’d benefit by considering how it is and why it is that nearly 50% of Americans think he’s wonderful.

The lateral thinker Edward de Bono died recently. He above all thought the world was neither black nor white but a pleasant kind of pastel yellow – the colour of opportunities.

He also satirised certainty in his book “I Am Right You Are Wrong”.

I agree 100%.



Monday, 7 June 2021

ZIG WHEN THE OTHERS ZAG

Zig when the others zag was an expression often used in advertising by admen trying to persuade clients to separate themselves from squabbling competitors, all with similar products fighting for consumers’ attention.

As we edge out of lockdown and think about marketing again this approach seems relevant especially for banks.

Banks deservedly get a bad press. They mostly seem to dislike their customers and would much prefer to operate in the headier space of investment banking and stuff like collateral instruments and derivatives. To be fair NatWest, with whom I bank, seem to have their telephone banking act much more together now, maybe because their staff are working at home and not in call centres.

As others close their branches why not open a bunch of micro banks in those high street sites emptied by the impact of Covid? Become the friendly face of banking providing financial advice to the elderly, less well off and to the mystified young. Work with government in helping them talk to those difficult to reach with helpful advice. Be great at customer service. You’d be alone whilst others chase the big-dollar business. 

Not everything inevitably goes in one direction as Justin King, one time CEO of Sainsbury’s discovered when he said in 2012: "the high street is dead, out of town hypermarkets will take over". Think again about those soulless warehouses, Justin.  

The High Street is in a parlous state now for obvious reasons but in a world where we’re trying to reduce the use of the car and where local councils need the income from high street shopping to increase isn’t it time to be more creative? I’m irritated by the view that market forces matter most and by people saying “let the market decide.” The reality is the market (aka consumers/the general public) have little voice before landlords offload prime sites to betting shops, discounters and charity shops.

We need more bookshops like Daunts, more small upmarket cinemas like the Electric Cinema in Portobello – clean, with comfy chairs and no fast food and popcorn – I’ll never go to a filthy old Odeon again. 

We need more exciting pre-loved clothing outlets done well, more wine bars, more stationers, more examples of retail brilliance like Richer Sounds or delicatessens like relaunched Dean and Deluca and Wholefoods. We need more of those wonderful hardware stores which stock everything and specialist shops that sell board games, hats, gloves, shirts and bagels. We need more colour and fun. 

Which brings me to the king of online. Amazon. They’ve reshaped our expectations for speed which is great but maybe now it’s time to zig again. When you’re as good as they are any blemish shows up. Recently a few errors have happened with us. A food supplement normally available overnight isn’t available for two weeks. (We got next day delivery from another supplier.) Deliveries are occasionally abandoned on the doorstep. Amazon is beginning to smell big and lethargic rather like Woolworth did as it reached the crest of its growth.

A delivery service to match Amazon should be easily arranged on a local basis in places like Brighton, Chester, Tunbridge Wells and Marylebone in London where the spirit of enterprise thrives. But overall  has there ever been a better opportunity for all the high streets to come out of the restrictive lives we’ve led with a blaze of colour, a fanfare of excitement and the ability to display and, also, to deliver to your home?

What we most of all need is pizzazz. In the lockdown so many already have cracked logistics brilliantly.

Monday, 31 May 2021

THAT WAS A WEEK THAT WAS

It’s been an odd week. At last it’s a bit like summer. The temperature about normal for this time of the year feels like a heatwave. 18C. Get out the shorts. No perhaps not. Not the shorts.

Sunshine…. in many ways its made me think of the 1960s and, of course, the Beatles: 

“Here comes the sun do, do, do
Here comes the sun
And I say it's all right.
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here”

“It’s all right”.  Not if you’re Boris for whom it’s been a beastly week. 

Like that Harold MacMillan (another Eton and Balliol classicist) endured in the 1960s’ with the “Profumo Scandal”. This involved a sexual triste between voluptuous Christine Keeler and John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, with John lying when the story came out and standing up in the House of Commons and saying “I didn’t” but he had done it so off he went in disgrace. Imagine by the way having a Secretary of State for War  - the sort of thing Donald Trump would have liked. “Cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war.” 

It was around this time that the phrase “13 years of Tory misrule” became commonly used mostly and to good effect by Harold Wilson. So far it’s only  been “10 ½ years of Tory misrule”. Well you can see the parallels.

I’ve found the Dominic Cummings show a bit tiresome.  He may be very clever but he’s not very bright. He’s got little credibility and he’s failing to land a telling blow. Most of the country quite like bounder Boris in the same way they’d like a dog (a Labrador Retriever not a ghastly Dilyn dog) that steals the sausages and grins. It’s not being very British going public about his boss  like this and Dominic does look a bit of a pratt. You can loathe Boris (nearly everyone I know does) but he wins elections (including the referendum it’s three so far). 

Then I realised it wasn’t the 1960s that had really been on my mind at all. It was the 16th century.

I’m reading – yes I’m still reading –this time the third in the Hilary Mantel trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, “The Mirror and the Light”. She writes deftly and intelligently about what goes through men’s minds in politics. In Ann Boleyn, we have a precursor to Carrie Simmons.

Henry, overweight, sickly, self-obsessed, much married, also wanting to be “king of the world” has others around him to do his dirty work. He was as the French described him “Le vert gallant” - a bit of a louche spark – a lady’s man. But in Lord Thomas Cromwell who could “break a man’s jaw with one blow” we have a thug with the charm and wit to be always be on the right side of an argument. Dominic is about as important as a Christophe – a servant of Cromwell’s. He is an intellectual terrorist who would have been described in my youth (as many were) as “something of a disappointment” who didn’t like sport and was a nasty sneak. Dom, as he’s known, is about only one thing …revenge. Here’s how Shakespeare put that in Titus Andronicus:

“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head”.

My week ended with a wonderful performance of Tchaikovsky’s  Serenade for Strings in C major by the Strings of the Royal Philharmonic.


After that revenge and political shenanigans seem a bit silly.

Monday, 24 May 2021

THE PRICE OF THE PANDEMIC

Plenty of economists are concerned about the possibilities of inflation. Generation Y and Z won’t remember what it was like when we had 27% inflation back in 1978. I also remember 1992’s Black Wednesday when interest rates went from 10% to 15% on a single day as we crashed out of the ERM. That meant someone with a mortgage of a ‘can-we-afford-it-hmmm-only-by-skin-of-our-teeth £300,000’ was overnight facing annual increases in payments of around £15,000 or more. 

Inflation favours those brave in pricing their goods or have goods or services that are price insensitive like fuel, pharmaceuticals (or ironically taxes.) Inflation favours the wealthier elderly with savings growing in value as interest compounds. It also favours certain entrepreneurs who in crises like the pandemic or war always thrive. No surprise then that a record number of billionaires have been created in the past twelve months.

Another price to be paid for in the past year of restrictions and lockdowns is that our senses have become dulled. Like our sense of touch. No hugging or kissing – I hadn’t realised how sad that was going to be. And now we’ve forgotten how to or are too embarrassed to do it. 

Our sense of hearing. It’s Brighton Festival and we’ve been to a couple of performances – Paul Lewis, the fantastic classical pianist and the Chineke Ensemble, all brilliant,  instinctive musicians.  But wearing an ever-dampening, fogging-up mask dulls your appreciation of music.

A solution: drink two large brandies before the show and enjoy inhaling your own breath. It doesn’t help the music but it helps keep you jolly.

Being jolly? Our sense of fun has withered. Yes. I confess. I used to be flippant and even occasionally amusing. The price of the past year has been to make me feel dull and cautious. And as I look around I see people desperately trying to revive lost lives thinking “let’s party.”  How? The party I’m afraid is over for most of us now. But maybe that’s OK – after all who really needs a party?

Who needs to work? The whole furlough business, Zoom and working from home has created a new, odd attitude to work. People have been paid to do nothing or work from home performing only to a TV screen. The price we’ll pay for that isn’t clear but corralling people back into offices as many companies want will be resisted strongly by a lot of people.

Yet there is a brighter side. In the Sunday Times Alyson Rudd describes the 2020-21 football season as “weird but strangely wonderful”. That captures the story of the whole Covid event. Somehow people have managed to be astonishingly tolerant, patient and obedient whilst in Holland and Italy there have been examples of civil unrest and violence.

The upside of the pandemic is that it has thoroughly shaken things up and forced us to appraise what we really want from our lives. We’re seldom forced like this to reflect on priorities. How important is a holiday in the sun? Do we get real fulfilment from our work ? Are we stuck in a loveless relationship? How many friends do we have? Are we still  learning?

The price of this shake-up’s good news. Because most of us will end up happier in our work, relationships and lives. If a job or marriage can survive and thrive in  2020 and 2021 it must be OK. 

Weird? No. Strangely wonderful and strong.

Footnote: read Solzhenitsyn’s  “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. If you think the lockdown’s bad see how to stay cheerful in much worse. 

Monday, 17 May 2021

IF HALF OF US HAVE DEGREES WILL WE BE A BETTER COUNTRY?

At the 1997 Labour Party Conference Tony Blair announced his ambition to have over 50% of young people going to university.

Tony Blair! You once looked like this

In 2019 his ambition was fulfilled but the current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has reversed this as a laudable aim saying there was an inbuilt  snobbishness about higher as opposed to further education.

Although in general  it goes against my nature to agree with Gavin, on this occasion I think he may have a point.

A model of the Lewes Road development – wall to wall student accommodation


In Brighton there are two universities with just over 38,000 students representing nearly 15% of the population.  New student housing blocks are beginning to dominate the city. Over 4000 apartments in such blocks have been built already with many more planned. But rentals of £1000 a month seems quite pricey for such tiny spaces.

A local resident – a Disgusted-of-Brighton is quoted in the Brighton Argus:

“The area has too many students already who, at such a number, do not add to the community and increase the amount of anti-social behaviour such as drinking and creating late-night noise (already a problem).”

Eureka!

He too has a point.

But something has changed owing to Covid. A sixth form college which has a brilliant record especially in obtaining Oxbridge entrants currently has several young people saying they won’t bother with University possibly ever but at least until after a gap year or two. 

Learning by road as opposed to by rote

It’s time to reflect seriously on what education is for. What’s the point of doing a three year course in Psychology and Politics and then working in a Call Centre? Is the 72 weeks at university and the £27,000 tuition fees plus living expenses (say a further £50,000) worth it? If your answer is “I learnt loads about myself and life; I met inspiring people who’ll be lifelong friends; I learnt how to do research; I learnt how to meet deadlines; I also learnt how to busk my way concealing what I didn’t know” then university will have been good for you and for society as a whole. Even better still if you learnt enough to know you can become an advancer of knowledge. 

But I worry that the academic ambition of universities is diluted because too many of that magic 50% shouldn’t have gone there in the first place.

Whilst for some, university opens doors in their minds and builds their resilience and confidence, for others it should enable them to learn how to be useful.  As teachers, nurses, care workers, architects, and engineers. Whatever.

But universities have become big businesses focused on scale. It’s never been easier to get into a university – good for their income - which leads to many providing a less than fulfilling experience.

University should be either the most thrilling and inspiring experience imaginable. The process of intellectual osmosis whereby the smartest kid in their school finds they are suddenly only average but then discovers talents they didn’t know they had is only found in good universities where the community of minds creates this joyful chemistry.

Or it should be useful.

"I hope we get jobs"

I believe in the virtues of academic education but not for everyone. The problem we’ve created is to presume “higher” is all that matters when “wider” for many is what they want and need.

Universities can do both.  Create geniuses and people with brilliant craft skills. They must do both to justify their existence and growth.

Monday, 10 May 2021

AT LAST... A GOOD READ

Since Lockdown One I’ve been struggling to read properly.  

Properly  meaning reading a book from beginning to end. I’ve flipped through magazines and papers, I’ve dipped into books usually stopping out of frustration. Nothing seemed to grip me or suspend my thinking about the mechanics of reading. I was like the child in the car asking “are we nearly there yet?” 

A very clever and good friend confessed to suffering from the same affliction saying he read a book at the same pace now as he used to read Latin prose (mind you he got the top classics scholarship to the top college in Oxford over  half a century ago so he probably read Latin quite fast.) Now he flipped through the first few pages of a book and said he knew pretty well what the author was going to say and he couldn’t be bothered with fiction.

I got paranoid and went to the optician for a test expecting to be told I was going blind. Instead he prescribed reading glasses. I’ve taken a while to get used to them as when I have them on I can see the printed page clearly but the rest of the room is a blur and a glass of wine even before I’ve started drinking it seems out of focus. 

Harper Lee cured me when I read what she’d said:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

The clincher was to realise three books by three of my favourite writers were out at the beginning of May. Robert Harris, Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. 

I’ve finished two in three days and the third will be read and done with by tomorrow.

I can read. I can read again.

“The Bomber Mafia” by Malcolm Gladwell is a study of the psychology of war. When in the late 1930’s a Dutchman invented the bomb-aimer so sophisticated it could (theoretically) enable you to drop a bomb from six miles up into a barrel of pickles, a group of young men, self-styled the Bomber Mafia, realise this could mean being able to end war which involved large armies killing each other and focusing instead on taking out key factories. The story (a true one of course) is the debate between this vision led by an intellectual  young General Hayward Haskell and the more pragmatic ‘obliterate-them’ view of an even younger get-it-done General Curtis LeMay.

In the event Haskell gets fired in the war against the Japanese and is replaced by the dour LeMay who leads napalm raids on 67 Japanese cities. The war was over before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Millions had been burnt to death before that final hammer blow.

Unbelievably May gets a medal from the Japanese for helping stop the war quickly and letting the US in rather than a prolonged break-up of Japan by the Soviets and Chinese.

Gladwell says:

“Curtis won the battle. But Haskell won the war.”

It’s a great story but I’m not sure I agree with that after recent events in Syria.

“V2” is by Robert Harris. They’re both war books. Obviously I feel aggressive. The book describes the story of Werner Von Braun’s V2 rockets and the attempt of the British to anticipate through trigonometry how to take out their launch sites.

It’s near the end of the war, Hitler’s last gamble. And as it ends with both sides thinking they’d inflicted vast damage on the other but ends with the line “we were both misled”.

Gripping, informative, readable and …. read.

And yet to come…

Monday, 3 May 2021

FEEL BETTER (JUST LIKE THAT)

Three things really irritated me last week.

First, the sudden, unwanted e-mails lauding various brands of Bitcoin which apart from being a contributor to global warming is, as far as I can see,  the South Sea Bubble of the 21st century. Then, HSBC which is not my bank, constantly texting me to say there’s a problem on my account. When I complained to them they told me “just ignore it”. Finally both my wife and I have both been called to say “this is the HMRC; you have been named in a tax fraud; unless you return this call you will be instantly arrested.” We just ignore that too. The plan to stay off social media for a few days that celebs have advocated to protest about online racial abuse seems entirely sensible. But I have a better plan.

Change your phone as I’ve done. Everyone who has a Motorola thinks it’s wonderful. I’m an exception. I haven’t come to terms with it at all. It doesn’t seem to like me either. So it sulks in my pocket whilst I sulk outside. Now the consequence is I’m using it less and less and avoiding the stress of emails and texts I don’t want or need.

But four things pleased me last week. 

1. The continuation of Spring albeit with a nasty sneaky chill but there’s the joy of seeing brave, confident plants plumping up and thriving and this makes every morning joyful. As do the birds. I saw a goldfinch and that was magic as are the magnolia and the sound of woodpeckers.

2. A Spring dish that was a triumph. Risotto Primavera. We use orzo pasta which has something of a risotto appearance cooked in white wine and chicken stock with peas, asparagus, baby leaks and chopped broccoli heads. With a glass or two of ice cold Picpoul. Wonderful.

3. The discovery that I can actually meditate and let my mind empty of energy-sapping thoughts. I’ve spent too many years speculating about things that might happen. Now I calmly and pleasantly look at the grass, trees and horizon and lose myself like a fluffy cloud gently moving across a blue sky. 

4. Finally, we’ve been told our future lies in cyber-technology and AI. I’m rather sceptical about this. Because the art of the specialist, practical engineer is far from dead.  We have a veranda with three metal poles allegedly supporting the canopy and they were rusting at the bottom. Various people inspected them, sucked their teeth, muttered “oh dear – job for a specialist” and left. This had gone on and on with me increasingly anticipating a veranda collapse. 

Enter Dale. He arrives two days after I’d called, takes a look, suggests a pragmatic solution, sends a quote for half what I’d feared it might be and then arrives with a young man who cuts off the rusty pieces at the bottom of the poles, welds on galvanised pipe with base- plates to replace where the rusty pipe was. He then screws the base plate into the concrete veranda floor. Whoosh. All done and swept clean in less than two hours. The company has staff and a boss with refreshing can-do attitudes. If they’re an important part of our future rather than just apps and nice-to-have cyber-labour-savers, we’ll be fine.

And it’s not just climate change that’s a problem. Human beings are overheating too. We huff-puff, get querulous, quarrelsome and peevish. No need. Just watch a specialist at work or a blackbird building a nest. They really know what they’re doing and that’s so comforting.