Tuesday, 30 May 2017


Let’s start with the “Mar...” word. Marmite and marmalade both evoke mixed reactions. For years sales of marmalade have been in decline despite some daft strategists in advertising who floated the idea of renaming the product “orange jam”.

Now there’s a worldwide competition attracting 3000 entries from 30 countries at Penrith in Cumbria. Marmalade is on the map again with especial interest coming from Japan. Along with British jams, tea and biscuits marmalade has been described as being at the heart of Britain’s desperate post Brexit trade negotiations.

The word in the corridors of marmalade-power is the trend is towards eating it with savoury food. Try it mixed 60:40 with English mustard. It’s a unique taste sensation.

The hairdressing industry meanwhile is growing and is seen as one of the key sectors for entrepreneurs. This £6.5 billion market sees salons increasing at 10% + year-on-year and employing 35,000+ people (about the same as in energy or agriculture).

Hairdressers are amongst the most trusted people in society according to recent surveys and throughout the UK new salons with bizarre names keep on emerging. Here are some of the most adventurous

  • Barber Streisand
  • Curl up and Dye
  • The God Barber
  • The Second Combing
  • Barber Black Sheep
  • Ben Hair
  • Shylocks
  • Streaks Ahead
  • Hair-vens Above
  • Hair Port

As we drive around Britain it’s the lamentable taste of barbers that dominates our impression of the high street. How great to see names like Robert Dyas and Rymans … names that suggest seriousness. (I think I shall open one called “Whoops… Sorry!”)

And so to the stricken expression of a friend recently, one that Sisyphus might have had as the rock he was pushing careered down the hill yet again. It had been provoked by my saying his working life - he’d just retired - was actually only half over or put another way he had to do the same all over again.

This was inspired by Hokusai the Japanese artist whose woodcut “The Wave” is so famous. Here’s his take on age:-

“At seventy-three years I partly understood the structure of animals, birds, insects and fishes, and the life of grasses and plants. And so, at eighty-six I shall progress further; at ninety I shall even further penetrate their meaning…”

At the time you retire recognise the best is still to come if you work at it. That’s great advice.

The election continues to frustrate me.  “Strong and stable” is a joke. The rhetoric is impoverished and mean.   But salute Andy Burnham the new Manchester Mayor, transformed from being yet another Westminster politician into an impressive political voice. He gave me hope again following the Manchester outrage.

We need more like him - kind, thoughtful and putting the outrage into perspective:
“…the man who committed this atrocity no more represents the Muslim community than the individual who murdered my friend Jo Cox represents the white, Christian community.”

Monday, 22 May 2017


I’ve even gone so far as to espouse rebellion, something Thomas Jefferson perhaps unsurprisingly recommended. There’s simply too much dumb acquiescence going on right now in business and in politics. I keep on hearing this dire word “alignment”. Alignment behind Prime Minister May’s manifesto by her Cabinet is horrifically servile. Thank God for Ruth Davidson the only Tory with an awkward brain. This manifesto was crafted by Nick Timothy (as my mother said never trust a man with a beard.)

Awkward is about asking “why?” Children can be awkward in their genuine attempts to unravel adult totalitarianism:


“Just because I said so. Now be quiet”

Hey, that sounds like a Cabinet Meeting.

But most awkward of all is democracy. Those who praise the strong stable leadership of Erdogan or Putin are discounting the fact neither accepts any attempt of truth being spoken to power. Working in a democracy is tough as it involves give and take and constant compromise. In a democracy you have to listen and you have to be patient.

So imagine the dismay that poor perplexed Donald Trump must be feeling as his attempts to impose his will on an American Constitution are thwarted so publicly. He actually thought being president was like being CEO. As a wise commentator recently put it:

“Somehow he seems to lack the skills that the job requires”

Those skills include patience, diplomacy, guile and charm.

Awkward is also about being persistent and trying to ensure that the downside and potential for problems is understood and anticipated. Here’s how Sir Kit McMahon, one time Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, put it:

“No time is as usefully spent as that spent guarding against disasters that do not in the event occur”.

Life is awkward. We are not masters or mistresses of our destiny. We are constantly surprisingly and irritatingly mugged by little setbacks. It was like this over 50 years ago:

Interviewer: “What is most likely to blow a government off-course Sir?”
PM Harold Macmillan: “Events, dear boy, events”

My own bit of awkwardness relates to books.

I spent my long and idle life building a quite decent library of a few thousand books. When we moved house and downsized somewhat, the few thousand books wouldn’t fit in. I tried hiding them in cupboards and keeping some (no idea which ones now) in expensive storage.

Belatedly (this is where patience comes in) I’ve decided to adopt a process of zero based book collecting. If I shan’t ever read it or refer to it, if it isn’t central to my core interests and passions, if it isn’t a “friend” whose absence will be noticed and depressing and if it is too big and weighty (no one needs the complete works of anyone…the complete includes stuff that a good editor would have discarded) they are sold, given away or destroyed.

Last awkward thought: time is too short to be tyrannised by people, music, art or books.

Monday, 15 May 2017


TED has transformed the world of presenting. Presenters now learn their presentations - no scripts, barely any notes. They line up with their stories and they practise, boy, do they practise.

The 2017 London Business School TEDx event was on Friday; the standard was higher than ever. But there’s a problem. In a world of virtually universal competence and consistency little stands out unless it’s exceptional.  Here were some highlights from the day’s insights and entertainment during which some ideas worth spreading were spread.

We had  presentations on the importance of dance, on radical developments in reading for the blind - “seeking the holy braille,” on how bilingualism is like having two eyes whilst we monolinguists are one-eyed unfortunates, on finding whose live saving heart tissue was donated to you and the emotions this stirred, on narcissism, on colonising Mars and much, much more.

Here are a few “aha!” observations:

Sangeeta Bhatia who talked about nano-sized cameras - in effect tiny particles that can roam your body seeking cancer cells and which are flushed out in your urine.

She said:
“OK where are we going with this?”

I love that - where we are going is early cancer detection and longer lives…is that a dream? Not much longer…anyway

“We all need dreams to help us keep pushing forwards”


Lucy Kellaway who has given up her cushy job writing for the Financial Times and writing so well that she is probably the foremost management writer of our times constantly pricking the pomposity of the corporate world. On being asked how she would make Maths (which she’ll be teaching) more fun she retorted:
“Fun? Why should Maths be fun? I want to make it clearer.”

Rafe Offer who set up Sofar Sounds abandoned a career in global marketing with companies like Diageo. Sofar organises intimate, secret and small musical gigs for people who want to listen and savour quietly. It’s gone global and is operating in 300 cities worldwide. You only get to hear what’s happening, and where, the day before they happen. Inevitably (this is the London Business School hosting this TEDx event after all)

Rafe was asked:

“How do you scale this?” to which he replied
“We scale it by staying small.”

Interesting and right. The root of Sofar’s success is its intimacy and lack of big scale concert-venue paraphernalia. These are not events; they are “happenings.” Too many brands betray their original magic in the quest to grow. I don’t see Rafe making that mistake.

Renier Zeldenrust is in the construction business in complex environments. Like Mars. Why go to Mars and beyond? The silica rich earth on Mars and the precious metals like titanium and nickel in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter that’s why. There’s a gold rush into space about to happen.

We need to have more radical, important and inspiring conversations like these more often. We just need to think and debate more deeply.

Monday, 8 May 2017


When you read most pundits the future is not the one we signed up for. It’s currently predicted as likely to be somewhere between ‘Brave New World’ and ‘The Circle’. As Caitlin Moran observed (and what a brilliant writer she consistently is) the only people creating the future currently are Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook (and I suspect Microsoft is still in the game as is Tesla). They are the forces behind driverless cars, robotics and space travel. We have blindly given them all licence to shape our lives and control our destinies.

Whilst they are creating a future of sorts for us we are living in the present and practising mindfulness, being in the now not in the next. Recent oddities in terms of forecasting have made many people apathetic about the future. Brexit, Trump, North Korea - we’re doomed and we don’t know why or when - let’s meditate…

So there are increasingly those soaked in nostalgia, yearning for a safer past when summers were summers and climate change hadn’t been invented (but remember the Great Smog of 1952) and those in the zone, in the ‘now’ controlling (or who think they are controlling)  the present. The future party has no members apart from those in Silicon Valley.

But the future isn’t so hard.

For a start fast as disruptive change seems there’s always a reversion to the mean - what my old History Master used to call “the swing of the pendulum”. In other words despite the pundits predicting the death of books in the face of the threat of e-books, book sales in 2016 went up (specifically non-fiction and children’s books) and e-book sales went down; Justin King when he was CEO of Sainsbury's was categorically predicting the growth of out of town shopping and the demise of the High Street. Well actually wrong Justin. Everyone’s snapping up small shops now - convenience, as well as online, is the buzzword. And as for the demise of TV? Don’t be daft.  Amazon, Netflix and HBO are transforming the viewing figures.

Donald Trump and other so called business leaders often talk about doing things quickly, changing things fast; complex evolutions are expected in days not months. The future will unfold more slowly with, if we are smart and overall I think the human race is very smart indeed, the continued medical breakthroughs making us healthier, communications technology making us reach and converse with more and more people and things like driverless cars liberating the elderly and allowing them life enriching mobility and artificial intelligence making it possible for us to enhance our own learning capacity. Magnus Carlsen, Norwegian world chess champion plays against computers to improve his game. Of course.

What I do not believe is everything will be delivered by drone or that our lives will be so connected that everything we do will be controlled from our watches.

Run the bath at my favourite temperature now.

No run it yourself, lazy git

Because the future will not be stupid.

Monday, 1 May 2017


We have gone. We are not accessible. We are being selfish.

The idea of the “staycation” became briefly fashionable but it wasn’t until we did one we realised how refreshing it could be. Forget “chillaxing” which is what David Cameron did posing with a fat tummy for the paparazzi in Ibiza. Forget walking in wet Wales and coming up with whizzy ideas like calling a General Election - yaki da Theresa.

The idea is simple - you create a programme of things you want to do - a series of restaurants you want to visit - the rest is conversation, looking and listening. Oh and reading, lots of reading. The rules are no work, no e-mail, no news, no phone and absolutely no surreptitious visits to the office.

We shall visit Stockbridge to see friends and then Winchester for evensong - a magically uplifting experience; Rye because it’s so fabulous, quirky and unspoilt ; the bluebells at Arlington; Eastbourne for the nicest seafront in the world; Salisbury for the infinity font, the Cathedral close which is one of the most pleasant places in Britain outside Oxbridge and that spire - the tallest church spire in Britain (no wonder Constable was so smitten by it); we’ll go to Guildford  for lunch with friends taking in the RHS Wisley Garden; to Gun Wharf Key at Portsmouth for some retail therapy; to Parham House, one of the gems in the South East, a superb Elizabethan house reeking of history  (it has a long gallery 160 feet long where the Parham troop of yeomanry were drilled in the late 18th century - when it was raining).

We’ll stroll around the wonderful gardens and finally have a day in Chichester and a wander round the Cathedral and listen to some sublime music.

That’s the idea. A reasonably busy, flaneur sort of week absorbing, going to places we’ve been before but discovering things we’d missed. Reasonably busy but not a route march. We’re happy to go on exciting detours and miss out some of this if we discover something we like. This is meant to be a slow movement week where whatever we see will stew deliciously in our minds (hopefully).

We spend too much of our lives in “transmit” mode - well I do anyway. I get up earlier than my wife so by 7am I may have already read the Times and the key issues on the Today programme ready to loudly present the news together with my commentary on the important issues in what my poor wife, cowering helplessly under the bedclothes, describes as “that hectoring voice of yours - as if you were addressing fifty and not just me”.

We shall see if the “staycation” does the trick, whether we shall both be more affable, receptive and happy people as a result of it. The prospect of escaping the refrain of Conservative candidates saying “strong and stable leadership” and the whole electioneering process will be reward enough for me.