Friday, 28 June 2013

We'll never win the argument like this

 I once saw a cartoon of a guy standing in front of a white board writing out a long very complex equation…he’s pauses around the middle puts in some dots and says “ah! At this point there’s a kind of leap of faith.” And here’s another….

I see that a leap of faith, or worse an assumption that everyone else should know what comes next, in the continuingly abortive argument in defence of the arts.

I heard a leading member of the arts – I knew he was from the arts by the way because he was lean and spare like a triathlete (I’ll explain that shortly) -  who said he’d fight tooth and nail to avoid having to prove the arts was an economic generator. That’s a bit like a Bishop saying he’d fight tooth and nail to avoid having to prove Christ rose from the dead it being so obvious to him that it was beneath him to revert to anything as tawdry as proving it – proof?  Pah! Beneath him.

So the economic case for the arts has not been heard (albeit it may have been made.) In Birmingham recently a Councillor said “Yes. I know you’re right but I need more evidence to sell it to others.”  Whilst in the Nesta paper of April 2013 “A manifesto for the creative economy”, it was said:- ”the economic argument for public funding of the arts and culture have had little traction with the UK’s cultural leaders… and there’s been a corresponding unwillingness of economists to engage with the arts and culture.…..they do not necessarily provide justification for why public funding is needed to support it.”

Already, as I read this I’m fighting tooth and nail not to go to sleep.

William Tayleur at the Business of Culture 10th birthday celebration at the Africa Centre on May 16th 2013 quoted Churchill who defended spending on the arts as being dedicated to creating the sort of society in which we wish to live.

Music, art, sculpture, drama, opera, TV, advertising, novels, talks on culture are all the stuff of two things that make us human (or better humans)

The capacity to learn and surprise ourselves
The ability to suspend our disbelief and dream

And here’s one for Maria Miller and the Czar of Health, the one time Culture guru, Jeremy Hunt, the arts also make you fit – hence my comment about the uber-fit grumpy Arts Chief I referred to earlier.
To be an art critic you need to be very fit indeed. Look at their shoes and you’ll see if they’re serious – I bet Brian Sewell and Rachel Campbell-Johnson wear heavy duty walking shoes and drink gallons of water. Because walking a gallery tires your feet, your brain, your soul and uses up loads of calories.

More seriously the argument for civilisation shouldn’t be too hard to make or take should it?
I’ve decided to redesign my own life by cutting down on what I spend on food and diverse charities and increasing what I spend on the arts.

As with most things in life this isn’t much to do with government which is generally hopeless at determining priorities in the lives of ordinary, hard-working people (hard-working? George Osborne is using these words the whole time – have you noticed?).  Well me? I’m going to work less hard and enjoy, explore and discuss more art. And singlehandedly I’m starting a movement to change the way we look and think about the arts.

And I’m fighting tooth and nail for it.

Written for and first published on

Monday, 24 June 2013


But of course it is complicated because people, who are the mystery ingredient, manage to screw it up. That’s why Jack Welch at General Electric was so keen on trying to computerise the customer interface….complete madness as nearly everyone I know would rather deal with a real idiot than a perfect computer.

Recently Russell Brand was doing a gig and reportedly, as the saying goes went “off on one”,  as he does. No one knew where his lament about modern life was going, least of all one suspects Russell, but he concluded that in the midst of modern life his cat still didn’t realise the internet existed.

Which is a shaft of brilliance.

In the techno-muddled-see-you-on-the-cloud life of today our clever pets are immune to the fibre optic stress the human race is struggling with.  And then I was struck down with a nasty dose of humility as I watched Welsh sheep farmer Kate Humble (and “humble” was an appropriate name) visiting the Wakhi people of North East Afghanistan. Hard lives, tough farming, life expectancy 35, 20% of babies die before the age of one, diet mostly rough bread and milk or a cheesy ball unappetisingly called “krut”.

Asked whether he saw this hard lifestyle would continue, the reply from a local farmer was splendidly candid and articulate:

“What else can we do? We are illiterate and we need to earn money to survive. This is hard but it works”.

And it did, with a brilliant welfare system of looking after each other and with work being described as “having something to do”.

Who are we to judge pets or humans when they make their own way with such resilience and independence of spirit? And what struck me strongly was, no, not a yearning for krut but a desire for simplification. All the news is about complexity, vested interests and what the Wakhi farmer called “bad stuff”.

Ron Ashkenas of the management consultants Schaffer preaches the need to simplify and does so with passion. But it isn’t easy because the more sophisticated people get the more Byzantinely complex are their solutions. I sometimes think HT and IT combined are the architects for long cuts in life and spiders’ web thinking leading to great debate and greater inaction.   It takes crisis and simple objectives, like survival, to force issues like simplicity and I heard it on a charity appeal on Radio 4. The idea was send a cow to the poor of Africa. The idea of a cow =a trade-able asset generating regular milk and therefore cash flow is simple.

And as they applauded “simple solutions to tough problems.”

Solutions that, say, cats would understand.

And as it’s put on my website “I like cats because they know where they are going”.

Which is more than you can say for most of the rest of us.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013


My site minder said somewhat peevishly “you could do with more passion in your blogs. You’re at your best when they’re angry”.


Well I’ll tell you about what makes angry. It’s the persistent moaning about how terrible everything is with no acknowledgement that the world consistently gets better. For sure, because we are human, there are odd exceptions and hiccoughs but overall the world is a better place.

“Oh yes. What about today’s youth? Drunk, drugged and up the duff and on benefit as like as not….”
Well the facts are somewhat different. Alcohol consumption is down in the UK, especially amongst 16-24 year olds. Drug use is down and, as one pundit wryly observed, “drugs aren’t cool anymore.” As far as teenage pregnancies goes they’ve also gone down to the lowest level since the 1960s.

Yet every morning on the Today programme I hear the Welsh and Scottish lilts of Humphrys and Naughtie pronouncing imminent Armageddon ….. the collapse of the NHS, the decline of education….of transport.

There’s never been so much airtime devoted to “news” and so little devoted to wondering what’s expressed in the immortal lines from Mel Brooks film  “The Producers”

“How could this happen? I was so careful. I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?”

Where did we go right?

Take transport. Best service you can imagine from Brighton to London – 11 trains between half past six and half past seven in the morning, they take an hour yet all I hear are grumbles. We have a fantastic underground, bus service and so it goes on.

Live departures and arrivals board for London Victoria

Time From/To P
Littlehampton & Ore 17
On time
Brighton (East Sussex)
Starts here
On time
Ashford International
via Maidstone East
Starts here
On time
Epsom Downs
via Norbury
Starts here
From Orpington
On time
Bognor Regis
via Horsham & Portsmouth Harbour via Horsham
Starts here

The Boris Johnson brand of gung-ho “we can do it…just watch” is seductive because it’s rooted in a series of truths.  As the Olympics and Shard have shown we have the best civil engineers in the world.
London is the no. 1 capital city.  We are the top country in the world for the arts….no don’t interrupt…..
If the NHS were a private enterprise most of the problems would be discreetly solved as opposed to the constant attempt to fix the plane in flight with the media watching… basically it’s a brilliant product.

Angry….I’m mad for all the wrong reasons. I’m beginning to feel that Britain has become,  like that silly joke about France, “a brilliant country apart from the people”.

We are skilled at innovation and change.
We have an innate sense of fairness.
And we want to win….don’t we?

But that silence in response to the question may be the problem.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Another one of the arts is biting the dust

James Rhodes is 37.

He ‘s a classical pianist of some considerable repute. He was educated at Harrow. And suddenly he got angry after visiting a state school in Hertfordshire where all that the funds available allowed for the brilliant teacher and his passionate, wannabee-musical pupils were dustbins, margarine tins, chocolate boxes used as instruments,  a cello that looked as though it had been used as firewood and a couple of mangled , unplayable trumpets.

James got angry in the Spectator, regarded as the Tory magazine. I hope a few Cabinet Ministers therefore noticed it.  If not read on …..
“How many Adeles, Ashkenazys, Rattles or Elton Johns are we missing out on simply because they haven’t the opportunity to explore music making? Perhaps more importantly, regardless of future commercial success, how many young creative minds are the government stifling out of laziness, vote-chasing and misplaced priorities? Another one of the arts is biting the dust. In the age of entitlement and instant fame that is so encouraged and idealised by “The X Factor” and its ilk, at a time where the record companies won’t give you a second glance unless you’ve 20,000 Twitter followers, a million YouTube hits and an album already written and produced, someone felt it a worthy idea to treat music education as an extravagance rather than a basic right. If that doesn’t change, the impact cannot fail to be far-reaching and long-lasting.”

Of course you don’t need the facilities they have at Harrow to become a great pianist, painter or writer. But to get a start in life you need some encouragement. At least you need to be treated reasonably seriously.

Recently I saw the Strindberg play “Playing with Fire” at the Drayton Arms in Kensington, translated and directed by Anna Ostergren, with an audience capacity of 40.  It was a production on a shoestring which was utterly compelling. I wept for joy at the talent. I wept in sorrow that it would give the government more ammunition to say “look – you don’t need money to create brilliance”.

What James Rhodes does next will be telling. He says governments are lazy, vote-catching and have misplaced priorities. Well yes James. That sounds like most of us. It probably applies to you…confess it. You want applause (your equivalent of votes) and if you don’t get it I bet you’ll be harder working and that you’ll realign your priorities.

What is needed is a non-stop consistent, good humoured attack on politicians of all persuasions so they begin to worry that they’ll lose attention or votes unless they address our concerns.  If we don’t give all our children the “basic right” to a decent opportunity to play, paint or perform then we are not just being wicked we are also being stupid.

And we all know being perceived as stupid means lost votes.

Written for and first published on

Monday, 10 June 2013


Our vocabulary sometimes lacks the word with right nuance. I was sent a lot of words by Peter Lederer from other languages which fill the gap. I’ve included the most poignant of these and some from other sources, the most telling from “The Meaning of Liff” written by the comic geniuses Douglas Adams and John Lloyd. It all rather reminds me of Brueghel’s Tower of Babel.

Enjoy. I think they’re “lagom”.

1. Tartle (Scots)
That panicky hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember.

2. Mamihlapinatapai (Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego)
That special look shared between two people, when both are wishing that the other would do something that they both want, but neither want to do.

3. Backpfeifengesicht (German)
A face badly in need of a fist.

4. Pelinti (Buli, Ghana)
You bite into a piece of piping hot pizza, then open your mouth tilt your head around while making an “aaaarrrahh” noise. It means “to move hot food around in your mouth.”

5. Greng-jai (Thai)
That feeling you get when you don't want someone to do something for you because it would be a pain for them.

6. Gigil (Filipino)
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.

7. Lagom (Swedish)
This slippery word means something like, “not too much, and not too little, but juuuuust right.”

8. Bakku-shan (Japanese)
The experience of seeing a woman who appears pretty from behind but not from the front.

9. Pana Po’o (Hawaiian)
 It means to scratch your head in order to help you remember something you’ve forgotten.

10. Cafune (Brazilian Portuguese)
The word for “tenderly running your fingers through your lover’s hair.”

11. Kaelling (Danish)
A mother who stands in a supermarket or wherever cursing at her children.

12. Boketto (Japanese)
The act of gazing vacantly into the distance without thinking.

13.  Bilita Mpash (Bantu)
An amazing dream. Not just a "good" dream; the opposite of a nightmare.

14. Luftmensch (Yiddish)
Impractical dreamer with no business sense.

15. Dungeness (The Meaning of Liff)
The feeling the handles of an overloaded supermarket bag are getting longer and longer.

16. Amersham (ibid)
A sneeze that tickles but never comes

17. Nottage (Ibid)
The name for things you have a burning need for just after you’ve thrown them away.

18. Shemomedjamo (Georgian)
When your meal is just so delicious, you can’t stop eating it? This word means, “I accidentally ate the whole thing." Monty Pythonesque!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


In the late 1970s a poster appeared with the headline “Labour Isn’t Working”. This idea of the Labour administration failing and especially failing in the area of employment resonated so powerfully that Margaret Thatcher won the election.

The other day I was sitting in the train from Brighton thinking of the rose tinted past, a kind of UKIP moment. But it wasn’t as special as some like to pretend.  And life today puts me in so much better a mood than life in the past. Except for the unemployed… especially if they’re gifted…. and stuck….and playing to the rules of the past.

In the seats just ahead of me I heard this conversation. Two young guys just into their twenties speaking that “whatever, you know, excellent, awesome “  language as unfamiliar as French to older generations, meaning I got some but not all of it.

They were talking about getting employment…”I like the sound of that …. they’ve  got no deadlines and you get lots of time off… it’s a three month fixed contract… I can do it blindfolded.” Of course they were from Brighton and as they say down here well Brighton is different.

Whilst they seemed happy enough they’re living in a world where employee rights have diminished, work for many is a necessary means of getting by for now not about creating a future, where you only have fixed term contracts not jobs and terms of employment are unknown.

Maybe that doesn’t matter.

Because change shakes people up;  because the entitlement society (a mostly bad thing) is dying; because energy and application are in fashion and because I smell the whiff of an emergent, enterprise culture.

But the trouble with change is that some people get hurt. And we aren’t educating young people in the scale of this real change…probably because we don’t get it ourselves. But overall is it working? For parts of the service economy, yes.

Aldi, for instance, is now the Oxbridge of employers paying graduates £40,000 a year, plus a new Audi A4– nearly twice the £25,500 offered by lawyers, banks and Marks & Spencer. But you are expected to work all hours, do everything (“clean those lavatories”, “learn all the prices”, “do everything.”)

I used to joke that to get a job in the Pizza Express at Brighton you needed an Upper Second.  I don’t think that’s a joke any longer. So why am I so optimistic? Because in the middle of the mess I can smell the whiff of enterprise and adventure. The young people I heard were more savvy than they seemed.
They were behaving like consumers not employees. And in the end consumers drive up quality.