Monday, 26 July 2021

ANOTHER TOY STORY

Let me take you back in time. It’s 1979. The Walkman was the hot, new product. Apple launched their first personal computer: it was agreed it would never catch on. Radio-Control toys were all the rage and there was a large, ghastly rubberised spider which lurched towards you and could only be stopped by shooting it between the eyes which caused it to shriek, flash red eyes and retreat.

The name of this unfortunate toy was “Stop Boris!” (I’m afraid I was the author.)

In a week of Cummings and the more balanced and lethal critique from Sir Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Welcome Trust I wondered whether that “Stop-Boris” time was near. Yet in the polls last week the Tory lead over Labour has slightly increased since the 2019 election. Boris is an electoral magician, totally Marmite, loved and loathed but 10% points more lovers than loathers.

And yet. And yet.

As time passes a few realities are setting in. We can’t carry on believing this is a war that we can win. We can’t just send the virus packing. There are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. We have a long way to go to omega before we run out of new mutants. Just suppose that this process of mutation carries on; just suppose that vaccines have to be developed and redeveloped; just suppose we are in this for say five more years or, worse, forever. Rhetoric won’t win and won’t help. Nor do those words “freedom” or “back to normal” make any sense.

We need to manage our lives, assess and take risks not avoid them. We need to live with viruses and work around them. At the moment we seem to think vaccination is king yet Britain the king of the vaccinations is still top of the infection league. We are Covid Island.

So what we know is that we know nothing. The data is contradictory, the models are fragile, the government uneasily veers from hurrah to boo-hoo. The Test and Trace App creating a  ping-demic seems a sledge hammer solution. As one pinged myself I wondered who and where I was at risk (I’d become a hermit – I seldom leave home) but I gather Bluetooth can work through walls so was it someone next door?


 Time to relax. Time to realise we can cope with disease, but it takes time and practical precautions.

What seems clear is we can’t blunder on ignoring the consequences of any of our behaviours. Climate change. Trolling on social media. Computer hacking. New viruses. A lot of tricky issues. If this pandemic does nothing else it’s forcing us to rethink everything.

The Future Laboratory have produced a paper called “Inter Covid Road Map” which considers this. I love their expression about the need for “retailainment” – retail theatre - and the need for brands to focus on sustainability and provenance. Technological developments of online meetings will soon make Zoom look like video in a world of streaming. A new concept, “neighbourhood nomads”, namely becoming real experts in your own locale will emerge.


McKinsey reckon we saw 5 years of digital development in the first 8 months of the pandemic – much more to come. Country is more exciting than cities (not sure about that). We are entering a post-growth era. Chaos in our new norm.

Back to Boris. He loves chaos and is self-confessedly chaotic. But is he right for now and next? I wonder if we shouldn’t be thinking about a National Government. 2021 -24 feels too important and tricky for one party and one maverick to cope with. 


Monday, 12 July 2021

WE SHOULD TALK MORE (AND OTHER PANDEMIC LESSONS)

We are about to take a break. It’s not a full-blown, duty free, “do I have enough books and suntan lotion?” holiday. But I still have that new-chapter-in-my-life feeling.

My stark realisation is the past months have disappeared in a mess of self-absorption. Nothing remarkable achieved, failed or celebrated. So the effect of a new place and a new challenge is refreshing and will make me take stock again.

I was talking to a friend who has been working at home, 15 hour days, since the first lockdown (“at least I see more of my wife”). His review of his team seen through the prism of Zoom, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams is there are two sorts of people. Those who thrive in a world of change and those who wither. Those who are constantly “reaching out” and those who retreat in silence. By the way I normally hate that Americanism - “reaching out” – but it occurs to me the victim in Stevie Smith’s poem should have been reaching out. Those who don’t will drown in depression.

“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.” 

So lesson one – keep in touch, talk and listen. You don’t need to be face-to-face. You do need to be mind-to-mind. 

Next make the most of what you have. Being in isolation didn’t stop you reading unread books, drinking better wine, cooking a new dish. In the past year a depressingly large number of my friends have died. I wish I’d reached out to them more. I have spent too long in the presence of death to slither into a puddle of woe. 

Lesson two – seize the joys of life. Love it. It could be you next.

Celebrate the good things. It’s too easy to get depressed. I was taken out by good friends to celebrate a birthday last week. I was taken to the Hélène Darroze restaurant in London. She’s got three restaurants, London, Paris and Moscow; she’s also got three Michelin Stars. One is unlikely to forget the event. No, not the food which was very nice but a bit fussy but the people, their bonhomie, generosity of spirit and energy. That’s what sticks in the memory like a flashing light.

Lesson three – celebrate with a big spirit (no, fool, not an Armagnac).

Your life is a script which you can edit as you reflect any which way you like. My 98 year old mother in law reminisces in a brilliantly optimistic way. Her life is essentially “98 Years of Joy and Success”. Bad memories fall on her cutting room floor. Recently I had a spell of insomnia and a film of my life flashed before me (in black and white - what else?) The film might have been called “Cock-Ups, Blunders and Regrets”.  I’ve burned it. There are too many good things and fantastic people in my life to think about missed goals.

Here’s what, according to writer Tom McTague, Boris Johnson once said:

“All romantics need the mortar of cynicism to hold themselves up.”

“Cheerful scepticism” would be a better phrase because just being an optimist is irritatingly mindless and a bit blundering . We must just never stop asking questions.

Lesson four – Never stop thinking and questioning. 

And never forget to refresh yourself. You are not a machine. 

I’ve recently been feeling weary, stale and unprofitable (thanks Shakespeare). A break, a period of relaxation and eating out is what I need.

Lesson Five - Be kind to yourself. Take your body and mind away on holiday more often.


Monday, 5 July 2021

DEJA BLOODY VU - WHAT'S NEW?

“So this is Summer
And what have you done
Another year of Covid
And a new one just begun” …

My apologies to the late John Lennon and Yoko Ono for bowdlerising their Christmas song protesting against the Vietnam war; yet another story of governments getting it wrong and where heavy handed might was neither right nor successful.

This coronavirus is nothing like the horrors of carpet bombing and the lunacy of war. We just need to adapt and get used to a new infected world. This pandemic in various forms will be with us forever. Napalm is not the answer. We are prone to get ill occasionally from flu, colds and much more serious ailments like pneumonia, malaria and norovirus. The more we get out and about the better the immunity we’ll build.

Staying at home isn’t the best prescription. 

For a few more weeks we‘ll still have limited restrictions. Get out (masked), lunch (distanced), travel (only if necessary), shop (are you sure?). Anyway shopping now looks like an increasingly rather muted affair. No Debenhams, Top Shop, Miss Selfridge and so on.  A blighted high street. 

Another high street gap appears as Gap are going exclusively online, John Lewis and M&S are closing many high street outlets. Online is king for these big retailers. 

But, wait a minute; not just the big ones. The corner shop has suddenly been reborn as a series of local delivery operators are being created. These deliver in minutes. And they’re  full time legitimate employees (none of your Deliveroo gig economy). In Brighton ‘Beeliver’ has started – wine, cigarettes, last minute grocery necessities or supper party ingredients – all delivered within the hour.

 A brand called Dija (Dija Vu?) is being heavily backed by investors to be a ‘unicorn’ billion-pound brand. The Guardian, as so often and rather ironically a trailblazer in detecting capitalist trends, recently wrote an article describing this as “democratising the right to laziness.” But it might be better seen as “revolutionising convenience”.  Tesco Express and Sainsbury Local are likely to be the biggest losers. Too slow. Too inconvenient. These new, disruptive convenience-delivery operators also make working from home even easier.

This is yet another example of enterprise unleashed by disaster. Covid has as many winners as losers. And those losers are often architects of their own demise losing their way in terms of stock, style, pricing, customer service. Their failure has been accelerated not created by Covid. 

Despite the dreary weather during June the football has cheered some as has Wimbledon. Yet as we watch a half-full Wembley – it looked pretty packed to me – perhaps the spectators were just fatter – I wonder how this reconciles with government guidelines. I think government wonders too. Still, come what may, with gritted teeth and with fingers crossed the shackles are being removed in a fortnight and then we’ll mix, mingle and have fun again. The government seems finally to have realised lockdowns don’t work – look at Scotland.

Chances are some will party to stay up with the others but many will find their instincts are to stay at home and watch Netflix. Meanwhile BBC and ITV are looking like the Woolworths of broadcasting whilst the streaming services dazzle and shine.

One thing we’re learning is that if you aren’t good enough you are going to struggle to survive in this new cruel world.

Talking of ‘cruel worlds’, watch “Princess Weiyoung” on Netflix and you’ll agree Eastenders and the rest are lost causes. 

Chinese TV like Chinese food is delicious. As soon as you’ve finished watching one series you’ll want another.


Monday, 28 June 2021

REGAINING OUR SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE

One consequence of this extended lockdown is to make us lose our perspective. We’re like someone in the Truman Show (the 1998 film about a TV reality show) or, worse, we’re in Ambridge and part of the Archers – “an everyday story of country folk” as it was cosily described.

Being stuck in the same place with nothing to disrupt one’s sense of time, space or thought makes us very short-sighted. Giles Coren, restaurant critic and columnist, for once got it right when he described his strange feeling of being out-of-sorts with a return to freedom. 

We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, undergoing Stockholm Syndrome – becoming  enamoured of our captors and place of captivity. Hence the high percentage of voters who want the lockdown to continue and why Frau Obergruppenführer Sturgeon has her subdued subjects daily enthralled in Scotland.

Our world has shrunk. Shrunk through Brexit. Shrunk through a lack of travel, of novelty and through the media we consume. The lack of perspective extends to a tendency to embrace conspiracy theories.

A friend told me, Britain was becoming like the Third Reich in 1933 -progressively eliminating all opposition and creating nationalist symbols – like a new Royal Yacht and a new school song. 

(By the way here are the lyrics of that song:

“We are Britain and we have one dream.
To unite all people in one great team.
Strong Britain. Great Nation. Strong Britain. Great Nation.” 

Dear heavens. This must be a joke foisted on us by the Daily Express.)


But the biggest joke happened on Friday with that picture of the Handcock snog in the Sun. How did the Sun get the picture, how much money changed hands and what sort of security exists in government following the Cummings exposures and now this? Do I care about the intemperate, hypocritical Matt’s behaviour? Since he broke his own rules on social distancing, yes. Henry Kissinger said “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac” Hancock proves that point I guess.  He’s in company with Lloyd George, John Profumo, John Major, David Mellor, John Prescott and many others. Resign? Yes, he should have resigned immediately instead of prevaricating. He was a distraction. But is no more. Let’s move on and regain a sense of perspective.

I read this misquote from Mark Twain in Patrick Kidd’s piece in the Times (most of Mark Twain’s sayings are made up apparently) that politicians were like nappies. They should be changed frequently and for the same reason.

Our perspective on one big issue has been changed by Covid. Many people have got closer to nature, to birdsong and to the green of our country. The climate change agenda has moved on hugely over the past year or so.

But the big issues we now face are what our strategy should be post-Brexit. Surely not to act as playground bully or try to be master of the universe – because we’re not. We’re moderately important economically but it’s time we became the voice of reason and perspective not playing gunboat diplomacy in the Black Sea.

Restoring proper conversation, listening and thinking and being considered and courteous sits more happily than sabre rattling. Good relations with China, especially China and the EU, America and Russia are what we should be concentrating on. 

I’ve heard lots of nonsense over the past weeks from politicians who should know better. We have a bigger role to play than the Sun, Express or social media – what a pernicious force for mischief that is. Let’s be civilised, sensible, kind and try to gain a real sense of perspective.



Monday, 21 June 2021

GOAL!!!

I feel out of touch. We’re in the middle of the Euros and I don’t feel engaged. Worse…whenever I hear the word I think of “Uros” or Urology, the branch of medicine that focuses on surgical and medical diseases of the male and female urinary-tract.

What’s wrong with me? What’s not to like about this tribal, passionate game that evokes such spirit, creativity and wealth with 50 world players estimated to be worth more than £50 million? Why don’t I warm to their chants:

Two of these to the tune of “Lord of the Dance” 

“Park , Park wherever you may be, you eat dogs in your home country. It could be worse, you could be scouse and eat rats in your council house”

(About Ji-Sung Park, the Korean player at Manchester United)

The fans followed this up with 

“He shoots, he scores, he’ll eat all your Labradors”

The second, some time ago, was Chelsea fans singing about John Terry after his affair with his fellow player Wayne Bridges’ girlfriend:

“Chelsea, wherever you may be, keep your wife from John Terry”

And because I live in Brighton – whose team (my team, I suppose) managed to remain in the Premier League this year:

“You’re practically French, You’re practically French, you’re so far southern you’re practically French” (Hull fans at Brighton)

And from Arsenal fans trading on the reputation Brighton has for having a large proportion of gays in its city: 

“We can see you, we can see you, we can see you holding hands”.

But there’s one I like. It’s been sung by various teams when they’re being trounced (like when Tottenham were 4-0 down to Liverpool)

“Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend. Let’s pretend we scored a goal” 

This is followed by rapturous applause. I like this because these fans appreciate the irony of their devastating defeat and are saying self-deprecatingly “it doesn’t matter….it’s only a game.”

The biggest news for me about the Euros/Uros (whatever) is the stand-off between the government and some 2,500 UEFA officials who are coming to the Semi-Finals and Finals at Wembley, who unless the latter are given a quarantine waiver are threatening to move these games to Hungary.

We’re not very popular anywhere right now are we? 

The USA gave us a detention (a seldom given “demarché") before the G7 – it’s a formal bollocking in diplomatic circles indicating displeasure about our behaviour – namely our failure to sort out the Irish protocol.

The French hate us, our sausages, our fishermen and just about everything else about us. 

The Germans don’t trust Boris. So what? Who does?

Even those nice people in Chesham and Amersham don’t like our government, booting out a prospective Tory MP in a by-election who was nearly 10 feet tall and installing a Liberal instead in this rock-hard-safe Tory seat.

We have in footballing terms become the Millwall of politics:

“Nobody likes us we don’t care”

Actually I do care. I care about our values and how others see us. I feel patriotic but most of all that we need to be seen by all our colleagues across the world as reliable, trustworthy and civilised.

Politics and diplomacy are not like football not yet even after Donald Trump who set a certain adversarial tone that jarred. But we’ve acquired a “Chopper Harris” attitude to life - Ron Harris played for Chelsea and had what was euphemistically described as “a tough approach to tackling”

We need to get smarter not tougher but I can’t see that happening soon. And as far as the Euros go, frankly my dears I don’t give a damn.

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.