Monday, 29 January 2018


I saw the Steven Spielberg film ”The Post” last week. Washington Post publisher, Katherine Graham’s decision, against the advice of her lawyers, to publish an exposé of the Pentagon Papers and potentially be damned is the core story.  The Post acquires the Pentagon Papers  - 4000 pages of damning evidence - and the clock is ticking as they rush to press. The New York Times already had an injunction against them for publishing a similar story and Richard Nixon rated by all as a vindictive opponent was on the warpath.


The background to the decision she makes was complex. The Post is about to do an IPO to strengthen the paper’s balance sheet and the potential criminal charges the Nixon administration could bring against them could wreck this.

Worse still the 20 odd years of cover up of the impossibility of the US winning in Vietnam incriminates successive Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and now Nixon. Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee were particularly close to Jack Kennedy and Katherine is still a good friend of Robert McNamara who’d been Defence Secretary under Kennedy and Johnson. When personal friendships intervene objectivity is hard.

 But the nub of the dilemma is even more poignant. Katherine has just inherited ownership from her husband who’s committed suicide and she’s a woman. And women don’t count in this man’s world of money and power.

At the centre of the film then are two contemporary themes that really matter. The first is about the freedom of the press and the check on presidential powers. This is dealt with in the decision of the Supreme Court who ruled 6-3 in favour of the press. Here’s what they said:

'In the First Amendment the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfil its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.'

The second is about the role of women in business. And about that decision. The tension in the film is because all the odds are on Katherine Graham saying “don’t publish”; there’s more to lose than gain at first sight. She’s surrounded by cocksure men who for the most part virtually  ignore her. Arthur Parsons played by Bradley Whitford  (Josh Lyman from West Wing in nasty glasses and a very un-Josh-like sneer) is the central opponent to publication. He nearly says “Stupid, stupid Woman” but doesn’t quite.

Katherine goes against her advisors because she’s more in love with truth than money and deep down is a newspaper person . This government cover up story is too important to submerge. As someone says in the film, 70% of the 58,000 fatal US casualties in Vietnam were to “save US face from the humiliation of defeat”.

In a week of the President’s Club scandal and the continuing exposés in Hollywood it took a woman to make the difficult decision. In this man’s world a man (Ben Bradlee apart) would probably  have caved in.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018


On his doctor’s advice, Robert Louis Stevenson spent two winters in Davos. He finished Treasure Island there, but didn’t like the place:

“Shut in a kind of damned Hotel,
Discountenanced by God and man;
The food? – Sir, you would do as well
To fill your belly full of bran.
The company? Alas the day
That I should toil with such a crew,
With devil anything to say,
Nor anyone to say it to.”

‘So,’ according to E.S. Turner, ‘RLS took to tobogganing, alone and at night, which he found strangely exalting.’

(Thanks to the London Review of Books for this)

Monday, 22 January 2018


I’m getting increasingly fed up with the negativity and obstructiveness that politics creates. The latest of course being the shut-down of government in the USA. On a more local level it has irritated or, on a bad day, infuriated me.

Brighton Pier now owned by innovating entrepreneur Luke Johnson

Take Brighton. We’ve lived here for 14 years. When we arrived I was thrilled with its potential. HSBC in a 2008 study of urban potential, nominated it as a city of the future thanks to its entrepreneurial spirit, high-tech culture and Universities. I could see Brighton as the leader in a silicon-coastline breakthrough. But then the glue of cynicism, small ‘c’ conservatism and torpor set in. Brighton seemed content to be stuck in, to me, an incomprehensible swamp of mediocrity. People spoke of the glorious past…Hannington’s the department store, Brighton Rock and the West Pier. The West Pier was for us a symbol of criminality, decay and  rusting nostalgia. Like an unburied corpse it rotted just off the sea front.

A depressing book called “Shitsville UK” characterises Brighton as activist, vegan and loony:

“Brightonians consume Hummus by the bucketful as a sacred devotion to remind them of Eden before animals died. They eat it with their beards.”

Soho House New York coming to Brighton

Something however has changed. Brighton is beginning to buzz. My vision was a decade ahead of its time.

We have a premier division football team (keep your fingers crossed), the best cricket coach in the world – Jason Gillespie - in charge of the county cricket team based in Hove, a great medical school, a hospital being renovated, the i360 which has become a magnet for some classy retail development, Brighton Seafront Regeneration working with Soho House to  create a series of 21st century attractions near the pier and in the just-out 2018 Good Food Guide there are 21 entries for Brighton up from 16 in 2017…we are on a gastronomic roll.

Just 1 of 21, MasterChef Professionals winner, Steven Edwards opens in Hove to rave reviews

But the best parts of the story are the ambitious plans to create a cultural centre around the Dome and Brighton Pavilion. Restoration and development work on the old Corn Exchange and the Pavilion Theatre, to be renamed the Studio Theatre, are well under way and this together with the other facilities will make Brighton an international arts centre that will attract the best and be a beacon of innovation and excellence.

The Brighton Corn Exchange – the theatre of the future – in construction

So there we have the evidence of what will make Brighton the second capital of the south – a real city of the future. A friend called me from Long Island saying how he missed cricket, liberal thinking and conversation. Should he, he mused , retire to Brighton? Of course he should.

We have the vision, momentum, energy,  pride (that quality historically derided as being an inauthentic emotion) and we have the hope that all this will accelerate. I’m asked if we aren’t “gentrifying” the place. I just don’t understand that word. We’re doing up our home and leaving a great legacy for the future. That should be something to be proud of shouldn’t it?

Anthony Seldon’s vision 2002 is not so far away from realisation within a few years from now

Monday, 15 January 2018


That’s perfect. But is it true of many/any larger companies? Is she in fact living in an idealistic dream world?

As a writer of many business books I’m sometimes asked if I’ll ever write a “proper book” i.e. a work of fiction. To which I’m always tempted to say that I already have - all those books on marketing, presenting and decision making…but that is to use irony to the disservice of all those kind people who bought and read my books. The temptation to do it is there because the world of stories is somehow seen by many as more important than the world of data, trade and customers.

Increasingly even the best companies like John Lewis are struggling to retain their lustre. When I talk to people who work there (which is as often as I can) I’m increasingly getting a “yes but” response. The biggest issue is “it isn’t like it was and management don’t listen like they did.” But, overall, it’s still a good company with, yes, some respect and trust.

But I have this sense of values being, like patriotism, the last refuge of the scoundrel or the lazy executive - they are more rewarding to talk about than prove useful. In GE, in its Jack Welch pomp, the first question anyone asked of a colleague was “are you hitting your number?” In Michael Lewis’ wonderful book “Moneyball” the story of the remarkable success of the Oaklands Athletics Baseball team in 2002 was about statistics and proven performance not style, potential or values.

Great values set alongside poor results is widely regarded as unacceptable whilst great results set alongside rotten values used to be regarded as OK. Until recently - until Weinstein, Travis Kalanick and others were stopped in their tracks. The King of Hollywood and the Emperor of Start-Ups dethroned on moral not financial grounds. The world and the importance of values have changed. So is my cynicism justified?

I was intrigued to discover what people thought who are in the front line so I emailed about 50 people and asked them if they thought “respect and trust are the foundations for any company.”

Well cynicism loses because the overwhelming response was “yes” and to my greater surprise nearly all thought this was true where they worked now. One of them said this “Respect and trust are the foundation of all relationships and companies are a collection of relationships”. 

But this isn’t simple – as someone noted several factors are fundamental not just two. But here’s an atypical response that made me giggle:

“Most companies have a very mixed set of foundations ….  these could just as easily be 'fear and suspicion'…. I have seen some pretty non-respect-and-trust places work quite well for a long time if they provide sufficient personal benefits for those who are critical stakeholders”. 

So overall my own guess that cynicism would win was wrong. I've seldom been been so glad to lose a bet.

Monday, 8 January 2018


To Covent Garden to see Verdi’s ‘Rigoletto’ - classic opera or contemporary exposé? When the shagfest of a first act started I realised ‘Rigoletto’ is a story of now, not of 1850 when Verdi wrote it.

It’s story of rape, female subjugation and lads’ banter.

Imagine the Duke of Mantua (aka Harvey Weinstein) in his court (“This production contains some nudity and scenes of a sexual nature” warns the programme, yep, writhing bodies and lots of pelvic thrusting). This is Hollywood, baby.

The Duke has just seduced/ravished (one of many such conquests) the daughter of a Count who’s rightly pissed off by this. The court jester, a crippled, misanthropic hunchback, Rigoletto, (think of Olivier’s Richard III without the poetry) derides this count who places a curse on him to Rigoletto’s great discomfiture.

Cut to his home to which he hurries to the beautiful, innocent Gilda his daughter. En route he meets the sinister Sparafucile, imagine a Check-a-Trade assassin openly plying his skills. Rigoletto says “not right now, son.” He lectures his sweeter than sweet Gilda on staying indoors, apart from her Sunday trips to church, to avoid men. He checks with Giovanna her nurse that she safely confined. (What sort of life is this? The girl is a prisoner.) But nursey being corrupt lets in a young man whom Gilda’s seen at church where she was hit by a thunderbolt when their eyes had met. But it’s really the Duke in disguise stalking a likely conquest…what a scallywag! When he gets in the house there are lots of surreptitious embraces and arias until they are interrupted.

Cut to the court. Someone has seen Gilda in Rigoletto’s house and assumes it is his mistress “let’s kidnap her” they chortle - bit of amusing female abduction - what fun! When Rigioletto interrupts them in flagrante they pretend it’s someone else’s wife they’re taking. “Put on this mask” they laugh so he can’t see what’s going on. And when he realises the truth it’s too late.

Back to court where the gang of rapists and criminals are congratulating themselves “nice one Cyril!” The Duke hurries off to the room where Gilda is (not just for a chat we can surmise). A miserable Rigoletto arrives and is ridiculed as his daughter is deflowered inside with Mantuan thoroughness. The curse is working!

Rigoletto plans revenge. He’ll get Sparafucile to kill the Duke. But it goes horribly wrong because Gilda, still in love with the ghastly Harvey Weinstein of Mantua, overhearing the plot to kill the Duke decides she’ll intercede so it is she, in the dark, not the Duke, who is stabbed. RIP. She dies. Rigoletto is destroyed with grief.

Thrillingly sung and performed, we men in the audience should have slunk out shamefaced. (If that’s pleasure son you can keep it.) Verdi does Sodom and Gomorrah brilliantly and timelessly. My ears joyed at the music, my brain fizzed with thoughts of male madness.

Monday, 1 January 2018


I quoted Sam Goldwyn recently who said it was difficult to predict…especially the future. So only a brave man (or a fool) would try but here goes anyway.
Coping with change
Everything around us is in flux yet just pause for a moment. Wasn’t this Christmas quite like last Christmas? Wasn’t it mostly more of the same? For sure 9 year olds got laptops when they used to get a Space Hopper but 3 year old girls are still playing with Sylvanian Families which was launched in Japan in 1985 - 32 years ago.
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In the midst of chaos we are sometimes prone to exaggerate the speed and scale of change. Look at all the trends below and then aim off a bit - change does not always mean revolution. Things take longer to register than we sometimes think. Management thinking about first-mover advantage is usually exaggerated. Watch and wait is good advice. Change is normal but the momentum that leads to radical change takes time.  

Where and how we shop
2017 is already being described as the most chaotically difficult time on the High Street for a decade with early and significant price cuts. Debenhams, House of Frazer, Curry’s and Argos are cutting deep to avoid drowning.
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Online will continue to grow but I do not believe the admittedly overcrowded high street is finished yet. Look at the performance of those who continue to give a magical shopping experience. As time passes expect to see traffic-free shopping streets full of street theatre and pop-up shops. So long as shopping is exciting people will go out to do it and enjoy it; as Harry Selfridge said:  “Excite the mind, and the hand will reach for the pocket.” Yet Amazon continues (rightly) to terrify all retailers by their remorseless progress and stunning logistics. Many old fashioned retailers are history but online is not the only future. Above all remember the rise and fall of e-books.

How we get around
Every time I see a car park I reflect I’m looking at the past. I know very few people who now drive in London. With buses, the underground and over-ground so frequent and comfortable why would you drive? There are plans to make the western side of Oxford Street pedestrian only in 2018. And by 2020 the whole street west and east will be car-free.
Oxford Street Pedestrianised
Cheap-to-hire bikes will grow in availability whilst cars will diminish as will speed limits. Driverless cars are a brilliant idea that depends for success on being tested in a fully driverless-car town. Until then they are on the drawing board. They are as much the immediate future as Sinclair’s C5 was. But the demise of the internal combustion engine is much closer than we thought. Do not buy a new car unless it’s a Tesla or a hybrid. Or buy second hand saving depreciation and the carbon that goes into a new one.
What we experience most keenly
Live shows are what turn us on whether it’s football, a top comedian, singer, band or a theatrical show. And they’re getting better. From ‘Hamilton’ to ‘Scrooge’ the excitement is growing. And there’s evidence of remarkable price resilience. Better to pay £150 for something amazing than £50 for something that’s merely good. And good heavens! The idea of saving up for a great experience is actually catching on.

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Our grandchildren and parents went to ‘Lapland, Windsor’ and gave us rapturous feedback. Expensive but the magic was magical and memorable. Put your money into life-changing experiencing

Where and what we eat
As you may know I live in the food start-up capital of Britain (and maybe Europe.) Name a type of food or provenance of food and you’ll find it in Brighton. Our appetites are changing faster than one could have imagined. We want less sugar, less salt and our nirvana is brilliantly-tasting-healthy-food. Traditionalists are lamenting the three course simplicity of the past as we turn to tasting menus, small plates with small matching-wine glass accompaniments.
That’s what the wealthier do. Meanwhile Aldi and Lidl - now seen as value-food-markets not down- and-dirty-discounters - through a combination of great quality and price are eating the rest of the food retail market.

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The food market as a whole is undergoing transformation. If brands don’t innovate they die. No one is safe. Nespresso until recently ruled supreme but when their pod patent ran out players like Taylors of Harrogate with better tasting coffee took over. Reviving the dying can happen. Kellogg’s, for one, is a brand transformed. “New Improved” is the mantra of survival in fmcg.  Change is good. Embrace it.

Where we keep our money
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As the UK’s financial sector has grown and become the most successful in the world, dwarfing Continental Europe’s, we can be sure the EU membership will be united in opposition to it. Only when it’s been drastically weakened in Brexit negotiations will we realise what we’ve lost. Meanwhile at home 11.5 million of those who are over 65 or small retailers, more used to using their local bank will find them, like the Dodo, a thing of the past as the banks close local branches. Meanwhile most of us will watch the switchback performance of Bitcoin with utter bewilderment. The banks as we knew them are in the past as is cash. Life is simpler for us this way they say.
Technology and those new brains
As technological marvels emerge with increasingly magical innovative ideas something has changed. Time travel - “yeah, yeah….invisibility cloaks - been there, seen that…” Techno-boredom is our current state. Especially when so much of it does, admittedly cleverly, what old solutions did cheaper and nearly as well…noise reducing headphones versus ear muffs…the former win on sex appeal rather than practicality.
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Technology will suffer from being too clever for its own good. As for AI - watch this space…don’t assume it’s going to replace human resourcefulness yet. Companies will start to look very hard at their inflating technology budgets. The rest of us will start resisting new NOT improved tech.

Medical breakthroughs will dominate the news
But technology is transforming medical science. The speed of development in potential breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Leukaemia and more, have filled and will continue to fill the news. The use of augmented reality in the treatment of eyes and ears are transforming prospects for many and the development of a drug called Erenumab could change the lives of migraine sufferers.
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Virtually all medical conditions are benefitting (and sooner than we could imagine) from the momentum that technological advances have brought.

Where we live and how we’ll do it
Youth is showing us how. Rent, don’t buy; keep it simple with minimalist furnishing. Small open plan empty living spaces; small dark, quiet bedrooms; nice, generous bathrooms; fewer possessions; fewer clothes but good brands; your top 50 books not more (all paperback); good technology (proven not high tech); great mattresses; a big table to sit around, graze and talk. The big suburban mansions are for the hedge fund dinosaurs. Life is for living, friends, sharing and comfort.
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And it’s a base not a permanent place. The world is where you live and learn, not your home.

Big and small are both beautiful - it’s the guys in the middle I worry about
In the business world the big will (for now) remain big, avaricious and bigger. 3G, Apple, Google, Amazon, Tesla, Microsoft will all grow until they trip and then their fall will be vast - think Yahoo, Enron, Woolworths, Medici Bank (1494), South Sea Company (1720), Lehman Brothers and worse.
In the meantime the small entrepreneurial geniuses will create, invent, disrupt and be bought by the big sharks or when disruptors become more creative. Interesting things will happen like (for instance) Airbnb applying their marketing to supporting new, bright sexy restaurants in all the cities in which they operate.
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Whatever else don’t be flabby and middle sized. Middle of the road is where the road kill is. Small is still the most beautiful because this is where wealth, creativity and independence exist. But you need to be resilient, brave and hardworking to survive and thrive.

A desire for self-improvement
I keep on coming across young and not so young executives learning new skills and languages. Increasingly it’s specialist-skill that matters. An arts degree says nothing much - good to do - mind expanding for sure but an alpha plumber, brilliant tango teacher, extraordinarily successful exam coach, spectacular Pilates teacher, inspiring guitar teacher or the osteopath whom everyone recommends is worth a lot more in the long run. We no longer live in a world of intelligent careerist/generalists. There are no longer long-term careers as we knew them. Today we are constantly seeking new ways to learn new skills so we can improve our chances in life.
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But if we can’t carry on learning and keeping ahead of change we’ll struggle. So learn something new in 2018.

The world of work
So a job for life, a career and life skills are all outmoded. Work is increasingly based on projects, short term contracts, interim assignments and the need for flexibility. For the more mobile young who are happy to up-sticks and fly to Mexico and then Singapore for specific jobs this is fine. We are creating teams of people like the skilled professionals on film crews who coalesce as a team on making a film and are unemployed again when it wraps.  In today’s world you’d better be good and be known for just how good you are…average is not going to be good enough.
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Today we are all mercenaries. And that’s fine. Just look for the opportunities around the world.

The media and the visible persuaders
There used to be just two heavyweights - BBC and ITV. Now we have Amazon, Netflix, Sky, BT and shortly Facebook and Google. People are watching more TV not less because the stuff on TV is so riveting. But old favourites like Crocodile Dundee (a 1980 film) still work - it topped the 2017 Christmas ratings with a 21 million viewership. Advertising - to one who once worked in it - seems as rich as ever in experiment and humour but without those jokes and one liners of the past. We are watching a battle of the Titans for talent and creativity, especially in writing. Now the great scripts are going to the small not the big screen; tough days in Hollywood; tough luck for them not seeing it coming.
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And as Rhett Butler said in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (on TV over Christmas): “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”…just so long as the content keeps on improving.

Big, bad government
Democracy has become a tainted concept when the liberal elite discover it’s producing such bizarre and unexpected results. Like Trump, Brexit, the Five-Star-Movement in Italy, Sebastian Kurtz in Austria and so on and so on. We, in the UK, may soon have a Marxist leaning government. Bad news for those who’ve seen what Marxism has achieved in Venezuela or, closer to home, in Dieppe. Government virtually everywhere (to use those chilling words used often at school) has been “disappointing”. But the point of democracy is that we all have a voice. And our voice can change things. Philip Collins in the Times said: “At the end of an uninspiring year, British politics is broken”. But by using our voice we can repair it.
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Sometimes we seem too prone to use our voice to try something new just for a change. But as all is not well we need to create a new centre of reasonableness….and good manners.
It’s our world to improve and probably won’t but (more hopefully) will…
We are so lucky. We are able to do unheard-of things - medical, in travel and mind-changingly experiential stuff; we have a wealth of food, drink and entertainment. We are (relatively) wealthy and getting wealthier over time. The two most restricting purchases in the past - houses and cars - are things we don’t really need to possess. We have the freedom of the world to explore and enjoy (today a return flight to New York from Gatwick on Norwegian cost only £314).  Everyone has talent. Focus on yours and go for it, improve, learn and change to stay ahead. Be optimistic and whatever you do use your vote. Democracy is empty if you don’t. And here are some words of encouragement from Emma Duncan Editor of 1843 magazine: “Amid the gloom over Brexit disputes and sex scandals we forget how tolerant, safe and prosperous our country is.”
The sun is rising on a New Year. Enjoy it.

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