Monday, 25 May 2020


This is supposed to be a reflective time when we at last have the opportunity (“space” is the word we’d use today) to examine our values and redefine the meaning of life.

I’m finding it’s more basic than that. For me it’s been the meaning of meals,  of wine (do we have enough?) and of woodlice whose invasion of our flowerbeds have kept me sleepless at night.

There’s a certain aimlessness and self-indulgence to this ‘short’ intermission. They say most of us are gaining weight. Mine however has remained pretty static – slightly tubby – and my appetite for everything is good. Especially magic.

Magic trick number one. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel, the last and most vast in her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I’ve just started reading it and it’s stupefying. Because she writes in the present tense it’s like being there right now next to ‘him’ when ‘he’ speaks or thinks. Thomas Wyatt the poet, courtier and rake appears in it and I recall his poem

‘I find no peace’
‘I fear and hope. I burn and freeze like ice.’ 

Thomas Cromwell is hugely rich, powerful and adept yet he’s skating on very thin ice in this mercurial Tudor world.  Mantel is magic.

Secondly my sense of time has changed since I stopped wearing a watch and keeping a diary. I remember when and where (where? Here) my online meetings are. Life is free of the tyranny of a clock. And seasons have started to mean something real. Three weeks ago they cut the first Sussex asparagus and we had our first season Sussex broad beans on Saturday. They taste of fresh …broad beans…imagine….magic.

To counterbalance the magic I have become increasingly aware of how much and why I loathe social media. It’s mostly puerile and either pity-me whining or listen-to-me ranting. Local communities exercise their petty dislikes and gripes in off-the-cuff comments. Witness the falls from grace of people like Jonathan Agnew, Gary Lineker, Piers Morgan and others like the US President managing to sound like idiots because knee jerk responses are never likely to do them credit. So that’s my first and deepening irritation.

My second is to watch government prove as inept at communication as anyone could imagine.  A recent Financial Times article – still the best most considered journalism – reflected on a government varying from complacency to panic with nothing in between.

I sympathise. This is unknown territory for global leaders. Sweden, Germany and South Korea all have different approaches and we are learning from them but this has not been anyone’s finest hour. We’d better learn because I’m afraid this won’t be the last pandemic

Final piece of magic (and irritation) Venice – devoid of tourists, residents seeing its beauty but facing a  $2billion income hole in their economy. They’ve been trying to manage tourism for decades. Now Covid19 has done it for them.

Be careful what you wish for if you want to avoid economic disaster.

Monday, 18 May 2020


We have never experienced anything like this. We have slowed down and become more thoughtful but I am detecting underlying schisms in our world  that are emerging with opposing sides are hardening in their thinking.

But first the good news. It’s nature. Spring is always wonderful but this year’s has been spectacular. We’ve spent time this week trying to fill our courtyard “cottagey” garden with as many plants as we can lay our hands on – spurge, Witney primrose, lupin, geum, mesembryanthemum, salvia, teasel, mallow, phlox and lots more. There are  extraordinary petunias like ‘black satin’ and of course a profusion of pansies and geraniums. Meanwhile our jasmine and rose arch has burst into exotic splendour. I wander out at 7:30 am every day muttering encouragement and dispensing water like a Friar dispensing alms … “bless you my son.”

Best of all it has been the week just past that the first white stork chicks since the 15th century in England, have hatched at Knepp, the source of that great “Wilding” story. In the same week Carol Midgely of the Times and Monty Don of Gardeners’ World both tearfully lost their beloved dogs. But nature joyfully moves on.

Nature is winning and the dramatic fall in carbon emissions already this year suggest the climate changers have an unstoppable momentum for their cause. We hear the indignant demands of the UK airline industry which is a large employer for a return to normal. Will many people want to check in 4 hours before take-off for a short flight? Is the whole idea of travel made cheap and painless history? Perhaps an adventurous trek across France to Italy might be more fun. Can we afford to let the industry revive? Should relics like Boeing survive?

People have become kinder, cheerier and more considerate. Alternatively people have become ruder, cruder and crueller. Yes, both of those at the same time. Worse behaviour and stories of heroic neighbourliness. Human beings are complex and not always in a good way. There’s a current story about a Premier League footballer who with friends flew to Paris for a sex party – those were the days I thought but as a flouting of lockdown in two countries it’s breathtaking. I bet he scored though.

The divide between old and young is widening and each is becoming more of a self-parody. The “peace” party versus the “party” party. The landline and letter party versus the social media party. (And can I declare my increasing dismay about the inflammatory power of most social media?  Great jokes go viral - good news; people snarl and froth and create group rage - bad news.)

We talk about ‘getting back’ when we should be talking about ‘moving forward’ – to a better, sustainable world. It’ll  be both good and bad – inevitably. But let’s hope nature comes first. A world where we try to earn money not just to consume more but to create a society that works for everyone – fairer, cleaner and happier.

Monday, 11 May 2020


I’ve always had this back-of-the-mind worry about Amazon. It’s a huge success, of course, and what would we all do without it? All those late night purchases of books which we forgot to buy at Waterstones but now, refreshed by red wine, we joyfully order another selection to join the piles of the unread when they arrive the next day.

So what’s not to like? Their attitude to people for one. Amazon is an HR nightmare. It’s also breaks all the rules we learnt when small. That profit was king. At 4% or less, profit on sales Amazon sweeps all before it; with Third World man management and price-cutting to destroy smaller, more circumspect competitors. And tax? Last year they paid £220 million on UK sales of just under £11 billion. Go figure.

Yet it provides an essential service to the lazy or forgetful. But I’ve started to detect a few cracks. During lockdown it’s taking longer to deliver and it’s not always so cheap now.

Its secret of success was that its competitors were so dire. Bookshops were expensive, slow and often rude. You sometimes felt they were there for the staff and that customers somehow got in their way.
Suddenly we have entered a new world of home-delivery by bookshops, restaurants, butchers,  greengrocers and wine merchants.

One of the great comic writers – our own version of P.J. O’Rourke – is Rod Liddle. Here’s what he wrote last week about one of the most beautiful sounds in the world – no, not birdsong….
“The growl of a diesel engine, the crunch of wheels on gravel and the squeal of brakes”
This signifying the arrival of a Majestic wine delivery.

I have the same feeling – less growling, crunching and squealing – with a Sussex Peasant delivery of asparagus and other locally-grown delights.

But here’s my story of how the game seemed stuck in the past but then was shown to be totally changed. On March 29th I sent an order worth just over £100 to the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley in response to their heavy catalogue drops. Silence. When we at last put on some pressure we got a slightly aggrieved … “it’s all very difficult and we’re very busy.” More silence. Followed by a cheque returned and a slip of paper saying “we are unable to fulfil you order at this time…we’re sorry for any inconvince (sic) this has caused”

More than “inconvince” matey. Our garden was naked, drab and forlorn.

I wondered if Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens could help albeit from their small nursery. They could. Hurrah! I sent off an order. Next day they made the 20 mile journey and because they’d been unable to fulfil all the order they’d made intelligent substitutions and bunged in a free bag of compost to say “sorry”. The business is South African owned with people who understand customer service. 

So, I believe in buying from small, local businesses from people we know and who care. Amazon beware.

Monday, 4 May 2020


We are not all the same. So some of us will revert to our “normal” selves, some will go on retreat but for many, changes will happen. Don’t underestimate the scale of this event.

Will we want to live urban lives?

Not so much now I’d imagine. Recently I listened to the 1960s song Downtown written when all I wanted to do was live in London or New York. It’s lyrics rang true then. “Listen to the music of the traffic in the city”. Recently hustle, bustle and crowds have been found out for many.

Will we want to shop with big operators?
Big is the issue. I saw You’ve Got Mail a few days ago. It’s a love story but also a big v. small battle where the chain, Fox Books, beats The Shop Round the Corner. Not so in the future. Small, local shops are the current sales-growth victors. Provided they’re good value, providing service and home deliveries that at least match Amazon they’ll change the landscape. In Brighton the Council is earmarking money to protect small independent shops, pubs and restaurants that are the tourist draw.

Will we want to fly?

Of course but if it costs what it should (and will) when prices inflate … maybe not. £1500 to New York economy?

Will we want to go to work in an office?

Commuting was on its knees… puffing its last anyway. As companies realise that working (mostly – not entirely) from home is more productive the old vision of the trophy Mayfair office will disappear. Home-working and co-working spaces will be appealing alternatives. 

What sort of work will we want to do?

There’s a side effect to the furlough concept. Many people can get by on massively reduced incomes in a  lockdown world. The antiquated “wage slave” attitude might be more apt. Most want to do work that makes a difference, that improves lives. We want to be applauded too.

Will we want to go to church?

Shutting declining operations when the biggest users are the last ones likely to be allowed back (the elderly) was hugely damaging. Reminds me of the story of three vicars discussing how to get rid of pigeons  in their churches.   They consider shooting them, poisoning them but one has a fool-proof idea. “I capture them baptise them, confirm them, let them go and then I never see them again.”
Some smart thinking could repurpose and restore the essential role these communal and spiritual hubs have. Synagogues and Mosques are more on the ball already.

Will exams matter?

No.  Creative thinking is our future. Our education system doesn’t focus on this.

Does marketing matter?

Not as we know it. Advertising, PR and celebrity sponsorship just died.

Does growth matter?

Not in the way we thought it did. What matters is being clear about our values. Wanting to win is normal human behaviour. Just not at any cost.

Am I right?

Possibly not. But think about it…..

We have choices.