Monday, 27 May 2019


John Donne in his Elegy XIX, “On his Mistress Going to Bed”, written in 1633, compares the excitement of the New-found-land of America with seducing his naked mistress: “licence these roving hands”  he says.

On Friday we went to the Chineke! Orchestra playing a programme of American music as part of the Brighton Festival. (Chineke! is a not-for-profit foundation providing opportunities in classical music for Black and Minority Ethnic musicians.)

It was wonderful. We’d never heard a more impassioned or dramatic version of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ or a funnier Copland’s ‘I bought me a Cat’. In addition to these composers we had Montgomery, Weill and Ibert.  We realised, as we listened there was this unmistakable American sound full of optimism, grandeur and wit. It was like listening to the best Hollywood film scores distilled into an expensive, sweet perfume.

For sure, we have our own local difficulties right now and the recent EU elections may well show an unwelcome rise of right wing parties but something even graver is happening across the Atlantic.

America gave me more frissons of excitement than anywhere else I’d been. To land at Kennedy and see the New York skyline sent shivers down my back.  To watch Aaron Sorkin’s ‘West Wing’ and somehow (how naive!) believe it was a true to life insight to American politics; to see Jeff Daniels’ (Sorkin again): 'America is not the greatest country in the world anymore', The Newsroom - 2012 – and to know no other writer in any other country would dare to write such a critical piece or for it to be delivered with such brio; to remember the iconic westerns that shaped my sense of right and wrong and, as with Elmer Bernstein’s music for ‘The Magnificent Seven’, to find myself humming it as I walked into a difficult meeting. This was my America.

And these were reasons why I had believed that America really was the greatest country in the world, thrilling, brave, fair and always innovative. The dreadful Monroe Doctrine had long gone.

But America has gone sour. I can no longer recognise it as the place that  brought us Gershwin’s music, Elvis, MoTown, Tom Wolfe,  Mohammed Ali, Michael Johnson and Sorkin or James Stewart. America has been stolen and I want it back.  Because it belongs to the whole world, not just Americans, it belongs to all our memories of progress and adventure. I feel a sense of sacrilege that the vast canvas boldly painted in bright and exotic colour has been painted over.

Perhaps it’s characteristic of our times that electorates sit passively as the past is written out and its culture is traduced and replaced by  shrill and discordant voices. Politicians everywhere are now becoming the sort of people with whom you would not wish to converse, let alone break bread.

In 1976 on my  first visit to America I felt like Donne:

“How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Not anymore, I’m afraid. Not anymore.

Monday, 20 May 2019


When our entry “Bigger than us” came last in The European Song Contest on Saturday with just 16 points I was not surprised. We’ve been placed in the bottom five out of twenty six entries, an astonishing nine times, since 2005.  Either we are terrible musicians or we pick the wrong songs or we are just extremely unpopular.

In November 2018 Music Week trumpeted – that’s what you do in the music business – that the UK was a global leader in music: growing to an annual £4.5 billion turnover; exports up 7% to £2.6 billion. Receipts to the UK treasury just under £1 billion. So it’s not that.

When it comes to popular votes by which we choose our entry to this competition we have, let’s just say, a slightly uneven track record. As I watched poor Michael Rice giving what was described by the UK press as a “very solid performance” – could there be a worse accolade? – I knew we were doomed. Extremely solid performance. Extremely flaky song.

The answer then is an extraordinary feat of mediocrity, almost as though we didn’t really care. I fear we have become the global Millwall FC whose fans’ match song as you may know goes like this:  “nobody likes us, we don’t care".  And they don’t and we don’t.

We have become the stroppy kid who decided to walk out and now they’re all sniggering at us and making us very cross.

In the midst of all this confusion and self-pity I find an increasing sense of personal resolution because I have a funny feeling this is all going to work out OK in the end. The EU is a bit of a mess, which we knew. Mess is a constant in life. It all depends on how you deal with it.  If you consider Orban (Hungary) , Kurz (Austria), Salvini (Italy) and the presence of Le Pen (France), the AFD (Germany) the Union part of European seems open to question.

Yet we know young people, pretty well across Europe, mostly believe in collaboration, sharing, liberal values and quite soon, as they flex their muscles, they won’t put up with the playground behaviour of the right wing here or in Europe. They know, and let’s face it, this is all they’ve ever known, peace and success is achieved through compromise, listening and a determination to look after each other.

I find myself thinking that Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate change activist is altogether more wholesome and well principled in her ambitions for humanity in general than, say Nigel Farage, although I think he believes what he says. It’s just that,  as with Michael Rice, I don’t like the tune he’s singing. Old fashioned. Separatist. Hostile. Cruel.

We have to grow out of this belligerent Millwall tendency. In a democracy we must, of course, let this play out. But we need a better story for it to end well and we need to tell it better. It seems as though some think this is the Game of Thrones. It isn’t and we need to grow up and start being kinder to each other. It’ll just take a bit of time, calm and common sense.

Monday, 13 May 2019


The front page of the Sunday Times this weekend predicted a ‘catastrophic’ emigration of the rich taking trillions away with them if “Corbygeddon” happened (the paper also published their 2019 “Rich List”).  There are reasons why I’m sceptical about the benefits of Jeremy as Prime Minister but I don’t necessarily see slightly increasing taxation on the rich as a major disbenefit.  They really have a bit of a cheek. They already find ample ways of avoiding tax so they can go away and live in the Cayman  Islands, Guernsey, Monaco or wherever. We shan’t miss them nor, surely, will their departure trumpet the end of the “enterprise economy” as some darkly warn.

Do I envy these rich? Not one whit. Not when two of the richest people I know are both living with clinical depression and are desperately unhappy, beyond doctors’ ability to revive their spirits. Even more horrific is the story of the Rausing family, founders of Tetra Pak, some of whom came to Britain to avoid the high levels of taxation in Sweden (see what happens “Rich-List?).  Eva died  through a drug overdose and her husband Hans Kristian Rausing's drug addiction was such that he lived with his dead wife for two months in their Eaton Square house before telling anyone. The Rausings for many years topped the Rich List.

I looked at this Rich List today and saw we hadn’t made it – again. But we’d made something else. A reasonable level of comfort, contentment,  living close to those we love, with a huge entourage of brilliantly talented, kind and charming friends. On the “Happiness Index” we’d be ahead of most rich paranoiacs.

As Daniel Kahneman observed in his seminal book on thinking, “Thinking Fast and Slow”,  human beings are more traumatised by loss aversion than almost anything else. So if you’re rich you spend most of your life terrified someone will take it away. You’ve stopped going to church because people keep talking about getting through the eyes of needles. So you’re leaving for Belize clutching your cash (by the way I love the way that Belize rhymes with sleaze).

Rich seems to mean lonely – stories of Phil Green’s decline and misery from mega-billions to mere hundreds of millions and the opprobrium that’s gone with this decline make me wonder why he doesn’t give it all away and be seen as a nice guy for a change.

Talking of nice guys we saw a French group from Lyon, at the Brighton Festival called the ‘Ensemble Correspondances’ singing music from the court of Louis XII.  It was utterly, mind-soothingly perfect. Not a movement, note or nuance out of place. We talked to them afterwards.  An entourage of 15 musicians and singers, young, cool and beautiful. I spoke in extravagant, erratic French. They smiled and replied in perfect, nuanced, cultured English.

It occurred to me. Can we get more of them over here and more of the filthy rich over … wherever?

Monday, 6 May 2019


I’ve been reading “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies of a Silicon Valley Start-Up” about a company that promised to become enormous. Founded in 2003 it raised $900 million from funders,and at its peak in 2013 was valued at $10 billion yet in 2018 was worth nothing. Such things have happened before – the South Sea Bubble 1711, the Florida Property Boom 1926, Enron 2007 – but this scandal had a particular frisson.

Its founder, a 19 year old college dropout called Elizabeth Holmes, modelled herself on Steve Jobs. She set out to create a method of testing blood by taking very small amounts extracted by a painless prick in the thumb. The test machines were intended to be compact like a large laptop. Her dream was eventually to transform diagnostic medicine by having these machines in homes. She had a dream.

She was clearly a charismatic sales person as the funders included Rupert Murdoch putting in $150 million; her board included Henry Kissinger and Fortune Magazine said: “With three former cabinet secretaries, two former senators, and retired military brass, it’s a board like no other.” 

The problem was the blood testing never worked properly and the machinery to do the tests was only ever in laboratory prototype form. Somehow Elizabeth managed to persuade a lot of smart people including Larry Ellison the founder and Chairman of Oracle that she was a genius and, like Jobs was going to change the world. She managed to get distribution of Theranos “blood-testing machines” into Walgreen and Safeway.

It’s not a very pretty story. Elizabeth and her CEO and lover (as it transpired) Sunny Balwani, ruled the company with a mediaeval level of terror. The place was full of ex-government heavyweight security guards. Key staff were fired on a regular basis for any minor offence like asking awkward questions and ex-employees were terrorised by the rottweiler law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. This was not a place to work however good the remuneration. It’s a story of self-delusion and a single woman’s ambition to achieve the seemingly impossible whatever it took and whoever was destroyed en route.
Or is it? Carreyrou’s book is a prosecution case and a comprehensive indictment but there’s something missing for me. I’m not convinced that Elizabeth was a fraudster. I think she had an idea, pursued it rigorously and by dint of her personality enrolled an unlikely bunch of eminent advisors who fell for her charisma and saw what they wanted to see – the next Steve Jobs and this time a woman. And their admiration drove her on to believe in the infallibility of her idea and herself.

She’s obviously a genius at creative communication and a salesperson who deserves better than being burnt at the stake of moral outrage. She had an idea that everyone wanted and she got everything right:  packaging, advertising and media coverage.

Only one thing was missing. A reliable product that actually worked.

And that was just bloody silly.