Monday, 30 October 2017


We seem to have lost the art of and the will to compromise. And along with that, the ability to be patient and wait until the right solution comes to us. Sometimes the right place for a problem is the pending tray. Yes, inaction is sometimes the best strategy. Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of America was not notable for his snappy one liners but he said this:

“If you see ten troubles coming along the road towards you can be sure nine will run into the ditch before they reach you”

But in this whack-a-mole modern world we are all on our feet whacking furiously away at all ten troublesome moles regardless of the peripheral damage and waste of energy. We are all constantly guilty of premature retaliation....because we can. No sooner has the e-mail pinged in than we are issuing an affronted and affronting riposte. And the faster the better.

My brother was once punished at school for hitting another boy. On being asked why he’d done it he said: “I had a funny feeling he might be going to hit me.” His was an early example of anti-social media syndrome. Yet we can’t just blame social media for all of us becoming so impetuous. Twitter has not made Donald Trump, Donald Trump has made Twitter what it always was, an offensive weapon where the unthinkable and un-thought-through can be fired off like bullets from a machine gun.

As Ken Dodd might have said “Twitter ye not”.

Much more concerning is the apparent impossibility of opposing parties’ ability to compromise anymore. We have all become children, hitting first and thinking afterwards. Without empathy, without the desire to reach a rapprochement and without an instinct that peace is better than war there is little hope for democracy. My biggest concern is for its uncertain future. Unless a sense of give-and-take returns we’ll have a continuing round of ill-tempered stand-offs. What happened to good humour? Dick Tuck was a mischievous Democrat who said ruefully after standing unsuccessfully for Congress:
“The people have spoken...the bastards.”

You lose some. It isn’t like dying. The bastards have a point of view too.

So what is a compromise? Here’s OED definition. “an agreement or settlement of a dispute by both parties making concessions.”

Nope. I can’t see the ‘brexiteers’ and ‘remainers’ getting to that point let alone anyone reaching a settlement with the EU. Forget democracy. This is all about bigots in deadlock. We are all to blame. We have created a soft entitlement society where young people desire for  ”safe spaces” insulates them from contrary opinion. Consider - would the Cambridge Union allow Trump to debate?

Yet whilst these sanitisers of opinion have been busy the simplistic and one-track thinkers have sown the seeds for future dictatorships. Without the good humour and tolerance to listen to the other side’s point of view we are doomed to standoffs, headlocks and unreconciled squabbles.

Life’s not about winning. It’s about getting on with each other.

Monday, 23 October 2017


I’ve nearly finished just one of the four volumes of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. At 1000 pages it’s a marathon experience and because everything is described in such painstaking detail you feel as though you are really there on stage. Most notably you become increasingly conscious of the need to understand the numbers because in a democracy you rely on the votes not just the oratory.

It’s a world of smoke filled rooms, whisky, men and horse-trading. It feels horribly old fashioned with the Southern States intransigent in their position towards and deep rooted hatred of the black population. It’s hard to warm to the key players who with a few exceptions are unprincipled and unscrupulous. This hasn’t the warmth of a West Wing but it’s completely gripping.

LBJ is himself a conundrum. He’s a mixture of passion and pragmatism with pragmatism, the need to get the votes, always coming first. As politicians go he was regarded by Richard Nixon as alongside the two Roosevelts as the most accomplished politician of the 20th century - that’s tricky Dicky’s analysis.

Gripping it may be but these 1000 pages have tarnished my idealism. One by one the Liberals were driven to tears of frustration by the Senate voting against laws on lynching on the grounds it was illogical to legislate against a specific form of murder and by their refusing to allow a vote on civil rights. But I’ve also a grudging regard for the seriousness of the players. Their politics was all about the “art of the possible” with a scrupulous avoidance of the uncertain.

And when Johnson became President after the assassination of John Kennedy he introduced ground breaking Civil Rights legislation albeit against a backcloth in the previous years of implacable racial hatred.

So what’s changed?

Not as much as we’d like to think. We have the makings of Civil War in Spain, right wing resurgence in Austria, Germany and Italy and widespread corporate corruption. If this is modern civilisation you can keep it.

In America we have a President who remarkably makes George Bush (of blessed memory) look like an urbane liberal intellectual. Race riots are on the cards and “giving the knee” on the playing of the National Anthem is vividly descriptive of a torn nation.

What would LBJ have made of all this? He’d have wondered what on earth had happened to the Democrats, what had happened to democracy and how America could regain the respect of the rest of the world. He’d also I imagine be fancying his own chances of being the Democratic candidate in 2020 and of winning.

And what of the  “mother of parliaments?” Nicholas Hytner in Saturday’s Times excoriates the “frivolity, vanity and self-indulgence” of amateur mischief-makers like Boris and Gove in unleashing the forces of hell in Britain.

In the 1950s we had racism and intolerance everywhere but also an overwhelming caution about mischief-making and the unleashing of uncontrollable change.

We could learn from that.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


There was a little article hidden away in the Sunday Times by Irwin Stelzer, an American economist, lamenting our negotiating performance with Brussels.

He noted our constant lapsing into that terrible fault of negotiating with ourselves. The EU says “that proposal is not good enough” so we come back with a second revised offer. Kindergarten mistake. We should be asking them what they propose. And whilst we wait and wonder the market hates us, blames us for uncertainty and shorts the £. Get the markets to blame them.

Just read “Adults in the Room” by the ex-Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, to see how these bastards operate. They play every gambit imaginable – Good Cop, Bad Cop; constantly saying we/Greece/anyone “hasn’t done their homework”; briefing against us even before we get into and whilst we are in a Press Conference; basically lying.

Well, we just have to lie better.

Here are a series of things we should do:

  • Say we’re going to remove all security/military co-operation unless they start playing ball.
  • Accuse them of being underprepared and lazy.
  • Deride their so called “homework” – they could do and must do better
  • Spend indecent sums on planting media leaks in the least pro Brussels countries in the EU.
  • Swamp social media with rumours and counter rumours
  • Have a stand up row with Barniers to create unrest and unease.
  • Rock their boat. 
There are enough economic reprisals we could take if we had to which would make them very worried. There are things the member states want – France want to sell food and wine, Germany cars and so on.

It’s time to divide. Maybe refuse to talk to Michel Barnier and go instead on a charm offensive to Spain, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Poland etc.

And you Michel, and you!

It’s time to get tough, devious and unpredictable.

Diplomacy isn’t about being nice. Smile and deceive. Divide and conquer. Most of all get angry.
 Remember Peter Finch in the film ‘Network’ when he said: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”.

Yes. That’s more like it.

As an ardent remainer but one who believes we can’t remain, I believe we need to get a bit nastier to leave well.


Monday, 16 October 2017


Dreams are funny things, sometimes so funny that I wake in the middle of the night laughing. I rarely have nightmares. My dreams instead fall somewhere between Lewis Carrol and Tom Stoppard

Last night I was asked to help a Roman Catholic Cardinal make a speech about a project that had gone wrong because the people in charge had ignored their brief and struck out on their own. This prelate was surrounded by advisors who were unable to help. I scribbled this down on a piece of paper as a starter: “It was disobedience that did it. Well disobedience is and was at the start of everything wasn’t it?”

The Cardinal smiled and nodded.

It’s the word “disobedience” that reminds me of the blind John Milton waking every morning and dictating the next stanzas of his epic poem “Paradise Lost” which contained over 10,000 lines of verse. He claimed the poem came to him in his dreams. Its first lines are:

“Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit 
  of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
  brought death into the world and all our woe”....

Some poem – some dream – some magic.

Sometime in the mists of last week I read an article about why presenting matters more than maths. Certainly in business no one is a catastrophic washout any more. Virtually everyone can get by. But getting by is being able to drive just going forwards and turning left. To survive in a competitive world you have to do three point turns, emergency stops and react to changing circumstances.

Our current and now ageing presentation tools like autocue and PowerPoint are like crutches to stop us falling over. But we can do better than that. We have to be a bit of a magician.  Maya Angelou said:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”

Presenting an argument is like acting – getting people to suspend their disbelief – creating memorable thoughts in their heads not firing bullet points at them.

Theresa May should have surfed her misfortune – easy to say - by binning her speech and saying after a dramatic pause – “get me a bloody glass of whisky and then we’ll carry on”. Don’t carry on driving with a flat tyre which is what she did. She didn’t make the most of this little disaster; she got sympathy but not admiration. But what she inadvertently achieved was Maya Angelou’s last and most difficult learning - making people feel.

I’m reading Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Lyndon Johnson and the Senate in which he describes some of the historic speeches in defence of retaining the Union in America and, initially, averting Civil War. Great Speakers like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, people unafraid walking and talking and of making a passionate presentation; orators who persuaded, cajoled and seduced people into changing their minds.

Maths and mere facts pale next to such magic.

Monday, 9 October 2017


I’m not sure I’ve ever bought into the argument about our relationship with America being “special”. They’ve always taken an “America First” attitude towards us and others. America the world’s economic powerhouse has never just been a “nice guy”... they are tough like Jack Welch.

But more than anywhere else they’ve defined global civilisation and set the standard in democracy, in thinking and in film. Films like ‘High Noon’, ‘Twelve Just Men’, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Patton’, ‘Working Girl’, ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘The Big Country’ and ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ and many others - all had qualities that inspired us. They were imbued with will to win but within the rules, to do so with wit and style and to promote, most of all, a civilised point of view.

The West Wing series left many asking why Martin Sheen couldn’t be a credible presidential candidate. We sat engrossed watching good guys trying to do their best despite the human frailties we all have. Whatever else, the America I grew to love had a burning sense of justice and what was right and wrong. There was an American way.

With the Kennedys a real sense of idealism emerged that taught the world what was possible, especially with the wonderfully idealistic thoughts of Robert – what a great President he might have been. Here’s just one quote: “Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not”

This has an elegance missing in Twitter.

More than anything else it’s been this American linguistic grandeur I miss most. Gone the prose of Harper Lee so fine that the meaning flies effortlessly from the page, gone the unerring straight-to-the-point razor sharpness of Norman Mailer and the lyrical sensuality of Tom Wolfe. But it’s John Steinbeck I’m reading now. What a giant he is. What a genius of writing.

But then there’s Twitter and our snide new world of the back street. “Sad” as Donald Trump says.

It’s not sad, it’s tragic. You can impeach your President. You can support him, oppose him, applaud him or decry him. He’s your president America but how dare you let him destroy centuries of civilised thinking and writing.

I’m astonished by the silence of the silent majority. As human catastrophes of indescribable anguish follow one from another, from a tirade of hurricanes to a grotesque massacre in Las Vegas, the words with which they are greeted by the most powerful man in the world are crude, brutal or banal. It was not always so.

Words matter. Words inspire. They change minds, they excite, they engage and they help people have dreams, impossible dreams.

America used to create pictures with words so unutterably vivid as to make one believe these dreams, like flying to the moon or walking in New York to the rhythm of the future.

Come back America. Restore that sense of reason, passion, optimism but, most of all, civilisation.

Monday, 2 October 2017


“Just a little prick” she said. No I’m not reporting a typical comment at a Party Conference

I was having blood taken before an operation on my foot and this was nurse with her hypodermic. She then gave me a cotton bud and asked for a “groin-swab” - that’s the private sector for you. My procedure’s a relatively trivial affair, (“procedure”s much less invasive than operation isn’t it?) for which, nonetheless, the surgeon would, if Afro-Caribbean, doing the same thing with a street knife, get a term inside. I am in short being set up for a legal assault. Privately.

The NHS is a great product but lacking in enough hygienic premises, charm and the money to keep going smoothly. Most out-patients departments are frankly grubby, grumpy and overloaded. In contrast private hospitals are carpeted, magazine-crammed and helpful. Patient service is high on the agenda. And they smile a lot.

It’ll be over in a day and then the recovery time, because it’s a load-bearing foot, is at least six weeks. My osteopath (I’m well served with medical people) said I’d be like a caged tiger by the end and asked if my wife was all right. “Nurse Hall is fine” I spat.

We shall see. Future blogs will either be self-pitying, morbid or non-existent. But I plan to read a lot. And write too, although with my leg having to be held above the level of my heart…yes I know, you try it…my writing output may be restricted. I shall regard it all as a holiday from life. A world of good meals on trays, glasses of wine, the random snooze, not well enough to do disagreeable things and having a pathetic small voice. And I’ll need a bell…and a role model.

And that of course is Mr Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma.’ Poor Henry Woodhouse was a “valetudinarian” - the only time I’ve ever seen the word. It means a person suffering from ill health (and being unduly anxious about it. I’m reminded of Spike Milligan’s immortal epitaph “I told you I was ill”.)

But it’s more serious than just a foot. It’s my mouth too.  I underwent an extraction - nearly an hour of yanking - and 1½ hours of intense root canal work. It was during the latter that bored to death I managed to go to sleep. Auto-anaesthesia is I gather uncommon. My dentist wanted to do what he could thereby maximising his fees in case I snuffed it in my foot operation. How can dentists be so jovial? Well as one in the past said to me “staring into mouths all day might be bad but imagine being a gynecologist.” 

I am well. But the health of this country is not so good. During my convalescence I shall think a lot.

There needs to be some serious surgery.

Bring back someone like Michael Foot! Apart from the pun (sorry) he was so much cleverer than Jeremy or Theresa.