Monday, 27 January 2020


First an apology to Greta Thunberg. I once said she’s rather annoying. I should be less impulsive. I’ve listened to her a few times on the radio recently and recognise she’s calm and sensible. She’s determined, even implacable, and the way she conducts herself is admirable, not annoying. Sorry Greta.

She and others are right in saying ignoring an existential crisis because (as Al Gore, described it in 2006) it’s an “inconvenient truth”,  is just madness. Imagine hearing this on a plane:
“This is your captain here . The engineers say this plane in unsafe to fly. I say that your convenience comes first. We’re ready for take- off.”

As we watch the news – a plague of locusts in Africa, a dust storm the size of Britain in Australia following those catastrophic fires, a huge Turkish earthquake, an epidemic (rapidly becoming a pandemic) in China and spreading globally – it’s all  beginning to feel apocalyptic.

Whilst I don’t buy the view that we are all doomed – not yet at any rate – inventions that have brought us a greater comfort bring their own dangers. We are in charge (just) and we can influence the future.
Take the wonder of plastic. Imagine the world of medicine without it. Imagine a world without toys. Imagine a world without mobile phones (wouldn’t that be interesting by the way?) We invented plastic in 1907 and now it’s strangling us.

In the 1967 film ‘The Graduate’ Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is advised to secure a career in plastics following his graduation. Not any more I think.

So it was with interest I read the Coca-Cola story this week. They have decided not to abandon single-use plastic bottles… because? Because people still want them because they are light and resealable. The company makes 200,000 bottles a minute – that’s 3,000,000 tonnes a year. Ms Perez was talking on that subject at Davos. The Mail Online describes her as follows:

“Ms Perez is apparently the Coca-Cola corporation's 'Head of Sustainability'. Can there be a more comical job description? What's next? Hannibal Lecter as the face of Veganuary?”

Here’s what Ms Perez says. “Business won’t be in business if we don’t accommodate consumers.”
Or Beatrice – that’s her name – humanity will cease to exist unless we take this plastics issue more seriously than you are.

Apparently the weight of plastics in our oceans will weigh more than the fish by 2050 if we carry on like this. But so long as Coke’s customers buy plastic they’ll just carry on providing it willy-nilly. Unlike Tesco. Dave Lewis, its CEO, is taking a lead The banning the use of plastic for multibuys (regardless that customers find them convenient) and has declared war on plastic in their own label products. He reckons to remove 1 billion pieces of single-use plastics by the end of the year. Tesco seems to have a more enlightened view of what good business is than Coca-Cola does.

The operating theatre is open; plastic surgery has begun. And about time.

Monday, 20 January 2020


The funniest  film they never made would have been about hypochondria. I speak with great authority. Had there been a degree course in the topic when I went to University, many years ago, I should have certainly got a first, and for my piteous groaning, a straight alpha. Compared with many my health would be judged as pretty good but deep inside I know I am on the brink of some obscure ailment. And of course I also regard this as being quite funny too. I may be a hypochondriac but first of all I’m a comedian.

Since early this year I’ve had a wheezy cough and cold which has been disabling . As I’ve piteously groaned in bed taking to heart the medical advice that to recover I must rest and checking my temperature with a thermometer that is clearly under-reading,  I reflect on health.

A new coronavirus has hit Wuhan in China (some 800 km. west of Shanghai). It’s linked to Mers or Sars and there have been an estimated 1700 incidents and a few deaths.  I’m pretty certain this is a mild strain of what I’ve just had. I applaud my own courage and return to reading my latest copy of Undertakers Weekly.

Generally world health is improving dramatically. Recently I read that the average human temperature, which today is 37C, was probably 1.5C higher in 1800. As the planet warms, humans cool. This is probably because our immune systems are less frenetically warding off a host of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, measles and so on. Additionally our ancestors had inflammation in their bodies producing proteins called cytokines that ramped up the body's metabolic rate, thus generating heat.

Our temperature controlled lives, mostly at around 20c indoors, means we have less need to heat up which is yet another factor.

So Dickens, Keats, Shelley and the rest were “hot” and unwell most of their short lives. Dickens, that inveterate night walker, often covering 20-30 miles in a walk describes illness in a way with which we can identify. The description of Joe the Fat Boy in Pickwick papers has led to medical analysis up to 160 years later into narcolepsy. Being slightly unwell may not be a deterrent to creativity and success.  Byron at 36 found therapeutic bleeding weakened  him when he was ill, persisted and so died. But he got quite a lot done in his short life.

I’m feeling rather better already but I keep on recalling Mr Woodhouse the father of Emma, Jane Austen’s heroine, whom she described as a valetudinarian – the only time I’ve ever seen that word. It means a person who’s unduly anxious about their health.

C’est moi.

We’re  all getting healthier but also getting more anxious. About our weight, about our alcohol consumption, about our state of mind and  about newish causes of death – sepsis now exceeds cancer as a cause of death.  All I can advise is, if in doubt, rest. And stop worrying…….Goodnight. 

Monday, 13 January 2020


My life is enriched with delight by innovation and curious developments. Every visit to a supermarket or department store has my despairing wife saying “no!” as I pick up new pickles, digital radios, fitness watches and, a “NEW” Peruvian Ready Meal…she’s rather like Mrs Thatcher:-
 “No! No! No!”

Let me be clear. I think our world today is in so many ways better than it was in the so-called “good old days”.  Overall we are wealthier, healthier, cleverer and less protective of knowledge. Whilst we used to believe that knowledge was power,  we now think data is the new oil. The more data the richer we’ll be.

I watch my grandsons smart, lovely, affectionate people becoming transfixed by their phones and games. I find myself justifying the educational benefits of Fortnite and FIFA 20. But I know there’s something not quite right here. As I myself find the urge to check my own phone on the train when I see someone else check theirs, I realise the helpless need of the addict as I stare at my screen. How has it come to this?

It’s when senior executives from Diageo (as if they would) start saying “for goodness sake don’t drink alcohol” that you know there’s big problem. Which is why so many of the senior executives in Silicon Valley are denying their children the joys (sic) of their technology.

Enter Tristan Harris, ex-disillusioned, senior Google executive aged 35.

We are experiencing what he calls, a ‘systemic catastrophe’. He talks of the perils of the giant techno-companies realising our attention is worth money; that gaining it is their goal. He calls this “Attention Capitalism” – and claims it’s “making us nastier, stupider and less likely to find common ground”

What’s happening? He says our brains are being rewired and this is pulling us apart as a society. The nastier we are in our tweets, the more violent words we include, the more we’ll get re-tweeted….so bloody well bang you snot-gobbling-tossers! (Watch that one go viral.)

He claims that fake news spreads six times faster than accurate news. Actually satire discovered this ages ago but now our phones seem to be destroying our sense of humour. What was fake and regarded as such, is now taken (too often) literally. That’s why I love ‘Onion’ – the American satirical site.

Tristan tells us to keep our phones away from our bedrooms, remove social media from them, talk rather than text, type apps thus un-branding icons, go greyscale – it’s less seductive – turn off all notifications apart from those from people and regain control of our calendar by looking at our phone only occasionally.  His services are in high demand by corporate America.

This story is about – and I’m sorry to borrow this Brexit theme – taking back control. The emergence of “attention capitalism” makes this hard. But we can do it if we stand up to the silicon bullies.

I’m not a Luddite but let’s question how we use technology.



Monday, 6 January 2020


Edward Lucas in the Times last week described how his present of a digital radio for his ageing mother was useless because it was complex and simply too difficult for arthritic fingers. He urged designers to be more empathetic. I think it was George Orwell who said being a fit 75 felt like being 25 with a bad dose of flu….but with a curiously clear head. It’s just moving that hurts.

Here’s what I used to do when it was young:

And here’s what that would feel like now:

To have a sense of what old feels like try these and you’ll get the idea: put on dried old gardening gauntlets and try to pick things up. Try wearing dark glasses covered in grease and you’ll get the idea of how your vision is disturbed. Put cotton wool in your ears whilst playing an episode of the Archers just  below audible level but loud enough to be distracting. Wear a vest two sizes too small so it pinches with a tennis ball sellotaped between your shoulder blades. Wear extra baggy trousers which are a size too big with a belt so tight it’s hard to breathe. Wear a pair of shoes with pebbles in them – one shoe should be a size bigger than you normally wear and the other a size smaller. Tie your shoelaces together with a two foot shoelace.  Hit your left kneecap sharply with a small hammer three times every half hour. Wear a travel pillow round your neck so you can’t turn your head.

Now drink two large glasses of Australian Shiraz (it’ll make you cheerful but slightly drunk and forgetful). Make sure you have and retain a very full bladder.

OK I’m trowelling it on a bit but we are, all of us, a little intolerant of those older and less well than us, forever resisting the urge to say “pull yourself together.”

There are upsides of course. Finding oneself able to take a generous-minded long term view. Being listened to when you talk about the past although one young man said when I spoke of the 1950s said “no it wasn’t like that. I should know because I studied it for A level”. But best of all you have an obsession about being punctual, being prepared, seeing the bright-side and being more thoughtful. An aching body aches less when you think more.

The fastest growing cohorts in the UK and USA are 65+ but it’s odd that most marketing and product innovation effort goes to the 20-40 year olds (13.3million in the UK) and hardly any to the 65+ of us (12.2million).

Aged 27                                      Aged 84

Here’s what Sophia Loren said:
“There is a fountain of youth.
 It is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”


Wednesday, 1 January 2020


A recent TV programme about Fleetwood Mac was a story of extraordinary, timeless brilliance. A high point for me was John McVie, the bass guitarist who, like so many of his generation, had been addicted to booze and other substances. When asked what he made of the song ‘Don't stop thinking about tomorrow’, allegedly a sermon written for him when at his lowest ebb, he said:

‘I never looked at the words … my only concern ever was to maintain the rhythm.’

This song was the theme music at the Clinton Inauguration Ball in 1993. 

“Don't stop thinking about tomorrow
Don't stop, it'll soon be here 
It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”

Good advice to all of us as we move into 2020. The past two decades have been full of ill humour and rancour, short termism and being in thrall to high tech stocks.

A few things on my mind right now are all about tomorrow:-

What sort of world do we want?
What sort of work do we want to do?
In what sort of ways do we what to communicate to each other?
What will success look like?

Who are ‘we’?

The most striking thing about the yesterday that’s gone has been our failure to listen to each other. In this ‘woke’ world if we don’t like what another says we go ‘la, la, la’, cover our ears and refuse to hear unpalatable views. By 2030 those who are currently millennials will represent around 40% of the UK population and two thirds of the electorate and will be defining our world. They will be the key we.

Millennials are, in the main, the kindest and fairest generation we’ve seen. They haven’t  been imbued in red-blooded capitalism as we were. They don’t regard property ladders, car ownership and materialism as very much to do with them. They travel more, have less interest in ‘stuff’ and more interest in espousing worthwhile causes and in fixing iniquities. But don’t be fooled. Millennials want to create great, thriving businesses too.

Unless we listen to them (and they to us) we shall get in a mess. Me? I’m in listening mode, hopeful that things will be better than before and that the voices of sceptics and doomsayers will be quelled.

What sort of world do we want?

The emerging generation wants to build a circular economy, eliminate waste and stop global warming. Any manufacturer or a marketer should realise the entry-ticket to avoid being cold shouldered by your consumers is to have positive values about sustainability.

So environment is the number one issue.

The ability of young people from all parts of the world to talk to each other, develop common themes on this and hear what the other is saying – Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, Germans, French,  Americans, Africans – is fundamental and the glory for us is the primary language of communication will be English.

At the same time there’s an increasingly strong sense of home and a need to get home whenever you can. To our local communities which are buzzy, have self-sufficiency and their own character. Expect to see a continued revival in local pubs (it’s already happening.) But these pubs need to become proper communal hubs not just boozers. Centres that are repurposed to bring people together – we all know places this.

If we’ve learnt nothing else from the Brexit Struggle it should have been the passionate sense of Englishness many feel (and Scottishness – increasingly that - Irishness and Welshness). This is in our DNA – awkward, home-loving and resourceful. This is not a nationalist ultra-right feeling but a warm ‘my town/my home/my team’ feeling.

The compass points north now. Watch the increasing importance and effectiveness of City Mayors (Manchester and Birmingham stand out) and the trend to devolving power to the regions.

In the next decade the centralisation of the past two decades will, I believe, be reversed and local communities will thrive. We’ll see the disappearance of big and unwieldy out-of-town shopping and an erosion of retail chains. Online shopping will plateau and local high streets will be fashioned to appeal as destinations to wander through like the North Laine and South Lanes in Brighton, the Shambles in Chester and the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells.

Independent specialist shops will become the thing. This trend will change our lives because big is not always beautiful and the economies of scale are often questionable.

What sort of work do we want to do?

In a recent survey 70% of millennials said they wanted to start their own business;  women are doing the same as their family grows up and if you’re 50 and voluntary redundancy is available you may do the same. There is a ‘Start-Up Revolution’ starting in the UK.

The British are not easy employees. The styles of management and leadership taught by business schools already look out of date and are likely to be counterproductive. It’s not just that the millennials and others want independence so much as their having an aversion to being told what to do. They will keep the reiterated ‘why?’  of young children. ‘Because I said so’ or ‘because it’s company policy’ won’t work in the future with such free spirits. As employees they have that British awkwardness and rebelliousness. Recently I was told about a Global CEO visiting R&D teams in the UK and USA. He said :

“We have a problem and we have to find a solution to this problem in six months”

The UK team said:  “Hmm! Unrealistic. Bad brief. Can’t be done”
The USA Team said: “Great brief. Super challenge. We’re on it.”

Six months later the UK reluctantly presented three viable and extraordinary solutions. The US Team had nothing but warm words “great work in progress.” We deliver, albeit  often with rather ill grace.

Two recently coined acronyms in the Times last Saturday SSDD and ADOH = "Same Stuff Different Day” and “Another Day of Hell" which describe how many feel about work. Yet it needn’t be like that.

There are increasing opportunities to create new businesses which have superb, responsive customer service. Not everything should be high tech.  Bigger opportunities for many are in creating new drinks, foods, clothes, recycling and lifestyle regimens – from dieting to exercising to self-improvement to services for busy confused people. Whatever else, people want to be a bit creative not just anonymous elements in a repetitive process.

Money will no longer be a prime motivator. Research shows more people want to leave a legacy and make a difference rather than simply be rich. If being rich is to be like Philip Green and Alan Sugar, forget it. Neither are appealing role models for 2020.

What sort of ways do we want to communicate with each other?

Has social media been the biggest tool for advancement in the 21st century?

It’s made the cost of entry into a new business low. It’s brought people together. It’s (theoretically) made us more efficient. It’s helped create friendship groups and been a tool for raising money for good causes.

It’s also a huge waste of time.

Increasingly young people come off Facebook, Instagram and Twitter because social media’s taking more from their lives than giving to their lives. 

I suspect we might see a revival in good writing paper. Could the letter have a renaissance? Not “snail mail”, as it was described by geeks, so much as “great mail”.  A crossover product which reintroduces handwriting is the Moleskine Smart Paper Tablet and Pen Set which allows you to share doodles and notes by e-mail but without the character-reducing format of ordinary type; just in your own characterful hand.

I believe social media has peaked. Face-to-Face is more rewarding than Facebook. The issue that tech has is explosive growth followed by a downside of fast decline where user migration becomes pandemic.  Witness My Space. Witness Fortnite.

What will success look like and when?

Success is going to look different that’s for sure.

For ages the Treasury has been lamenting our appalling productivity in the UK. Yet does it really matter? Are we measuring the right things? Are targets and KPIs in the NHS or other public services appropriate?

Increasingly the World Happiness Index is seen as more important. If we are valued and enjoy what we do we’ll be more productive. Britain comes 15th out of 156 countries in their 2019 league table. Finland comes top.

15th isn’t bad; it’s ahead of Germany, France, Japan and the USA. Britain is good at putting itself down.  But it has plenty to be proud of like the best Universities, our record in the creative industries, in the financial sector, a non-stop inventive success story, having the world’s number one city, producing the world’s leading film and theatre actors, writers and technicians. And lots more.

We have success now. We have the talent to do more.

What real success in the future will be is in feeling more united (more Team GB),  in lifting living standards (for everyone), in being a magnet for global talent and in creating a race of creators and optimists.

2020. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow….there’s plenty to look forward to.

“It’ll be better than before
Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone”