Wednesday, 27 March 2013


Look, I have a confession to make. I love the RSA (Royal Society of Arts). 

I love the building, the people there, the library and the events. But hardly any of the events are about culture or the arts – we’ve got Sir Peter Bazalgette shortly – but for something with Arts in its title that’s a bit sparse. And the library is more McKinsey meets Harvard Business School than “hand me the prussian blue and the burnt sienna, sweetheart”.

The RSA's mission expressed in the founding charter was to:
 "embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufacturers and extend our commerce".
But in its website, the RSA describes itself as
"an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges".

Whichever way you look at it art has been demoted whilst we’ve been looking at the front of the building and feeling happy in the warm embrace of the name.

What Matthew Taylor has done brilliantly is indeed to make the RSA an enlightenment and  mind-opening organisation. What the RSA says today carries the weight of considered opinion but it’s missing a trick.
A trick I heard on Saturday Live on the Radio 4 when following a piece on GF Watts Richard Cole and Alain de Botton reflected that “art can really change the world”.

Who would deny the explosion of pop culture in the early 1960s changed the way we felt and saw things or that the beauty and power of Titian and Tintoretto helped build the character of 16th century Venice or that Dickens helped explain and change Victorian Society?  William Morris, Ruskin and we might have add the Bloomsbury Group and latterly Conran were people who believed art was part of and helped define a good life. Graffiti and rap, alien to many, helps shape today’s world. When we hear the Mozart Requiem it isn’t just a succession of tunes, it lets us see the “world in technicolour” as Eric Whitacre put it.

Art, quite simply, changes the way we feel, think and see things.

The current epidemic of book clubs and choirs is about something more profound than self-improvement. And as Gareth Malone discovered, and has harnessed, society is inspired by the art that lies unexplored within people.

The GF Watts Gallery in Compton near Guildford, the topic on Saturday Live, is a tribute to the Victorian artist whose painting “Hope” has inspired Barack Obama – it’s his favourite painting.

Through the period when Watts lived, Britain was characterised by urbanisation, mechanisation, poverty, a rapidly growing economy, Imperialism and an explosive arts scene – the Pre Raphaelites, the Romantics and the great Victorian Novelists.

And the RSA thrived.

Now as part of its mission to enlighten we’d like to see a little more focus by the RSA on the economic, social and global impact that the arts in the UK can have. If nothing else the influence this organisation might bring to bear on successive governments, who are deaf to the importance of the arts, might improve the current funding famine.

As Sir John Tusa (CEO of the Barbican Centre) mildly observed:
I have no doubt whatever that we behave in a much better way because of the time we spend with the arts.

He might have added that the RSA isn’t spending enough time with them.

Written for and first published on 'Business of Culture'

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


Scientists would have it that the concept of perpetual motion is not possible, yet today we live in a 24/7/365 world where everything has to be of increasingly high speed and impact to be seen to work. A lot’s been written about the need to teach children the benefits of boredom but when you think about this is a bit like trying to teach sharks to stop swimming and have a bit of a bask. And I’m more worried about the rest of us anyway.

Five day test cricket is being usurped by 20:20 that non-stop, knock-about, snog-about slog.

Me, I’d be experimenting with 20:20 football too, given half a chance. A whole game all over in just 40 minutes.


We have 5x15 the concept that’s gone one up, or rather 3 minutes faster than TED, 5 lectures of 15 minutes each. Gladstone and his very long speeches would be ever so slowly turning in his grave.

Fast food is not fast enough, we are now talking about instant nibbles. A new generation of “snackers” is emerging to whom the thought of a long lunch is an anathema like having to sit through a concert of boring chamber music.

Imagine the trauma that the 20mph speed limit about to be imposed in Brighton will cause this hyperfast world….the equivalent of hearing “that’ll be 20 minutes for your burger – is that all right?”

Speed is the key competitive advantage we tell our eager young business people; you must learn to work 24/7/365 in a global economy; productivity is the new God – put your foot down (except, of course, for you lot in Brighton).  We hear about 30 story hotels being built in 15 days in China. We hear of 500 page books being written in 20 days in Indonesia (no I made that up but doesn’t it freeze your brain just you to think of it?)

The Slow Movement in Italy which was started to celebrate proper cooking and in response the potential arrival of McDonalds in Rome, has lost out to the instant gratification world of marketers seeking to own what they call the “now-moment.”

We already have speed dating, speed interviewing and speed reading. Next in line will be speed gardening, speed painting, speed drinking (the 10 minute binge causes a shorter hangover), speed fishing and speed sleeping.

When Wordsworth (definitely not a speed poet) talked about “recollections in tranquillity” he may have been on to something.

And that ladies and gentlemen was my speed blog.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013


Multiculturalism (whatever that may be, as my mother once said snootily when confronted by an alien concept) is not popular. 

Most people don’t like it at all. Not David Cameron, who said it had failed, nor Aidan Burley Tory MP who famously dismissed Danny Boyle’s opening to the Olympics as “leftie multicultural crap”.

In London right now we live in a multicultural miracle in which less than half the population are what is described as “white British”. Yet London is pretty well universally described as the most exciting city in the world having a dazzling array of artistic and cultural triumphs.

So what did it do right?

Let’s start with a positive attitude to diversity. Here’s what American G. Pascal Zacchary (and author of The Global Me: New Cosmopolitans and the Competitive Edge - Picking Globalism's Winners and Losers) said:
Diversity spawns creativity, nourishes the human spirit, spurs economic growth and empowers nations.”

Under two successful London Mayors London has embraced a successful immigration policy for the rich and the poor, the ambitious and the brilliant….at all levels. Restaurant service used to be the worst in the world - now it’s amongst the best. The diversity that Zacchary talks about spans continents, colour and culture. 

When Ballet Black was formed by Casso Pancha MBE she wanted to prove a point she’d argued in her dissertation at University that black dancers (given the chance so long denied them) could dance ballet.

Now twelve years later no one disagrees with her. At the Linbury Theatre in the Royal Opera House a week ago she had a very successful show featuring work from rising choreographers - EGAL, Dopamine (you make my levels go silly), The One Played Twice and Christopher Marney’s War Letters . 

These featured five Afro-Caribbean, one Japanese and two mixed race dancers. The designers and choreographers were mixed race and from France, Venezuela, Britain and Japan. 

It was a triumph of multiculturalism and a spirit which proclaimed and proved that anything is possible.

As Malcolm Gladwell shows in his seminal book “Outliers” it was the work their Beatles did night after night for three years in Hamburg that provided them with their artistic foundation - multicultural beginnings for a cultural phenomenon.

And then there’s the spirit of adventure. In Brighton where there’s a fashion exhibition at the Museum and Art Galley - Biba and Beyond: Barbara Hulanicki – taking us back to the 1960s and to London at the V&A from the end of this month where David Bowie’s archive is revealed, each of these showing how different cultures reflected on and defined our fashion and pop heritage.

Finally to Marseille, city of culture 2013, which has more Muslims than anywhere else in Europe. But where there are also 80,000 Jews, 80,000 Catholic Armenians and Greek Catholics and where there is less racial tension than elsewhere in France.

It’s a port and has thrived on welcoming people from different societies. It’s also been a centre for refugees, from Italy, Spain and Germany. There’s  been a tradition of diversity going back from a century or more. Plus the fact that there are beaches – natural escape valves for tension.

For Marseille write, in smaller script, Brighton where there are more languages spoken (there are over 145 language schools) and more cultures than anywhere else in Britain apart from London.

So what is multiculturalism?

It’s the way the civilised world started when people started to travel, meet and learn from each other. As Matt Ridley the science guru described creativity “it’s when ideas have sex”. It’s when different cultures have sex – as simple as that. And it leads to great art.

It would be hard to think of Shakespeare, for instance, as a one nation Briton. 

What a piece of work is man. How noble in reason. How infinite in faculty"

Written for and first published on 'Business of Culture'

Monday, 18 March 2013


I may be right and I may be wrong but I’m perfectly willing to swear that the world has gone mad.
First we had that Brighton Elm – still standing and likely to remain so given the strength of views surrounding it. Their strategy will be anti-people as I gathered from a note pinned to the tree which proclaimed, as though this had been the product of much deep thought, “People can walk. Trees can’t”. (Presumably they’d never read the Lord of the Rings and heard of “ents”.) But those who are anti-elms (‘ulmaphobic’ is the correct term) the solution is for them to find a health and safety angle.

In Islington, for instance, a local resident complained about a pear tree which he said attracted wasps to whose stings he was allergic. It was promptly chopped down.

This is one of those dangerous pear trees. Any second now it’ll attack.

But it’s the sound of birdsong that drowned out sanity this week. In Chattenden in Medway there’s an old army base (Lodge Hill) for which great things had expensively been planned. 5000 houses, schools, shops, hospitals, green spaces. A great, imaginative, economy boosting scheme on a derelict site now covered in tumbleweed.

And nightingales.

They discovered it’s a habitat for the little darlings. So Natural England have designated it a site of Special Scientific Interest, and the economic rug has been temporarily pulled on any further work except for that by lawyers.

Imagine if Inner London developments had been like Lodge Hill. We’d be back in the Dark Ages still.

What’s that? You think we still are?

Well it’s attitudes like that that dominated my week. People asking what’s the point….we won’t have a free press much longer, the rich are getting richer, the new Pope wants the Falklands back, we have a school shortage crisis and there are no jobs…. so what’s the bleeding point?

Nearly everyone I know is a bit weary.

Except those busy making babies like it’s going out of fashion. The baby boom is back to 1950s levels – in 2010 the birth rate was 723k up from 600k a decade earlier.

“What do you mean no growth?”

So we now gave a shortage of school places, 250k nationally – nearly 90k short in London. Ageing population? Pah! Shortage of decent jobs? Double pah!!

Get into teaching boys and girls. Start at £27k in London, get £61k as an “excellent teacher” and over £120k as a head. Besides which there are sign-on perks like tax free bursaries of up to £20k.

Trust me there really is magic abroad in the air – provided you know where to look.

Sunday, 10 March 2013


At the end of our crescent in Brighton war has broken out.  Meanwhile ten minutes away by the sea the suicide bombers of politics (aka the Liberal Democrats) are holding their conference and discussing  knee-stroking and the only solution being a divine one.

Back to the real war-zone.

“Nightmare on Elm Street” says a placard on a condemned elm tree.

The elm in question is 130 years old and its prospective demise has provoked a bit of a furore. It’s going as part of a plan designed to turn a seven exit roundabout into less of a death trap – it’s recorded over 40 accidents in the past three years. 

The plan created by a Green Council – the only Green Council in Britain – has been subject to consultation, votes by residents, computer modelling  and several angry meetings. These angry meetings have been angry because a small but vocal niche of people hate the Greens and any plans they might have – as one said under his breath “a Green Plan is a bloody oxymoron anyway.”

At the last such meeting loud and intemperate imprecations filled the air not least about this elm tree.
As part of this take-to-the-streets-protest objectors are saying this poor tree has suddenly come into the equation….not so …been discussed…but never mind.

As the executioner sharpened his axe the guerrillas struck. The elm, now festooned with paper “RIP little tree” “I’m a lean green oxygen making machine” and dozens more was precariously occupied up in its branches by two men (one, irritatingly, a protest-pro. shipped in from the Bexhill road-extension protest – a kind of mercenary Swampy figure.) On the ground dozens of mothers and bearded men, who looked as though they’d escaped from the conference down the road, stood wearily dripping with water.

A local magazine wryly noted this elm destruction was an insane piece of PR for the Greens.
But whilst true more true is the sheer difficulty of democratic government or concepts by collective cabinet responsibility applying anymore. However hard you try to manage stakeholders the opponents of a plan will literally or metaphorically take to the streets or the trees even when they’ve lost the vote.

In my taxi last night as we approached the elm my driver waved angrily up at the tree squatters and said “In my county we shoot such people down”.

In my country we allow such things and just get very vexed with each other. It takes an elm in the wrong place at the wrong time to prove we are actually quite nice if not quite sane.

Monday, 4 March 2013


From Eastleigh to Beppe Grillo in Italy to the Vatican shenanigans the script has twisted with turns and oddities. Life is increasingly a comedy.

A friend of mine described joining a group of singers to go and perform in at old people’s homes. They bounded in singing the Sondheim lyrics:
“Something familiar,
Something peculiar,
Something for everyone:
A comedy tonight!”

An old man in a wheel chair shouted “why don’t you just shut up and go home – I hate this!

Bet he was a UKIP Member, talking of which have you looked at their manifesto?
Now I’m going to be unfairly selective but in essence it’s 75 parts anti-immigration and anti-Europe – the “they-come-over-here-and-take-our-jobs” party – and 25 parts ant:i

  • Global warming warnings, 
  • Employers National Insurance Contributions, 
  • the ban on smoking and hunting.

And it’s pro-defence, wanting a 40% increase.

But Nigel Farage is hugely entertaining (for as long as he lasts because UKIP has had, in the past 20 years, no fewer than eight leaders.)

We British love whingeing and saying “and another thing”.

We were really pissed off that the Olympics was a success. We hate bankers but hate the EU limiting their bonuses even more. We blame the Romanians, Turks, French and any Johnny foreigners for horse meat contamination and anything else we dislike.

The influx of foreign wealth is driving UKIP and their followers insane. One Hyde Park – the Candy brothers London development (with apartments selling on average at around £20 million (although you can top £150 million if you really go for it) has been snapped up by a cocktail party of Ukranian, Nigerian, Russian, Taiwanese and Malaysian plutocrats.

But I love influxes of wealth. It feels like the Renaissance. Anyway would you want to live here?

The ranters are currently having a field day with the NHS, our schools, young people…..bah humbug – to hell in a handcart…

Our divine scriptwriter is on a roll. Private Eye can’t keep up. But there’s one issue that I predict will gain momentum (and enrage UKIP) the increasing campaign against alcohol. The banning of smoking slipped in and was, despite forebodings, immediately embraced – it’s time was right. And doesn’t smoking look old fashioned now?

Next stop booze. We’ll be like California. “Two glasses of wine? Are you some crazy, out-of-control alcoholic?”  You read it here first.

I’d be in favour just to tease Jeremy Clarkson.

And a 20mph speed limit – that’s already here in Brighton as of the end of March.

Life really is a comedy and I love it.