Monday, 18 October 2021

WHAT A LOAD OF RUBBISH


Brighton shock: Rubbish piles up in the streets and rats feast on scraps of  food in echo of dark days of the 1970s as resort's binmen go on strike -  NewsBreak

All over Brighton the bins are full and the streets are overflowing with rotting rubbish. It’s been like this for two weeks. The latest news about the strike is it could last until mid-November given talks between the GMB union and council have broken down. The GMB called action over changes of duties, drivers being removed from long-standing rounds and pay. Pessimists are predicting a six month stand-off.

 

The irony is the Council is led by the Green Party. A similar strike happened before -  nationwide in 1978-79 leading to Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power over the bones of the Labour administration in the “winter of discontent”.

 

Who was 'Iron Lady' Margaret Thatcher? | Live Science

 

I’ve been surprised just how relaxed everyone seems to be about this hygiene catastrophe, exhibiting mild grumbles rather than outrage. A group of valiant lads proposed commandeering a lorry and clearing their area but were told by the council it would be illegal to intervene and dispose of this illegal rubbish in the tip.

 

What a load of rubbish. 

 

We might start burning it – not very green but we wouldn’t have a plague of rats. My frustration is that no one is seeking a solution to this urgent problem. Politicians, Waste Management Experts, Journalists, Union Officials are talking about it but not creating a solution…unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin’s musical solution.

Pied piper of hamelin Royalty Free Vector Image

 

Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, who has had something of a rubbish week himself given the findings of the Health and Social Care Committee’s report on the handling of the Covid pandemic, said he believed we needed more engineers and engineering systems. 

 

Engineering, unlike Patrick, had a great week. The front page of the Times carried a story about the need to rename engineers. Professor Elena Rodriguez-Flacon thinks engineers should be called 'ingeniators' – ingenious innovators. 

 

Well, I think that’s rubbish. We need to celebrate engineers not rebrand them. I like the dictionary definition of the verb “to engineer” – “to skilfully arrange for (something) to occur”. Engineers are not just TV repairmen or radiator installers. Think Brunel, think Stephenson, think Archimedes, think Tesla (the engineer not the car!), think Leonardo. All engineers.

 

Drawings of Water Lifting Devices, c.1481 - Leonardo da Vinci - WikiArt.org

 

Given the current global fragility of critical systems a few smart engineers would seem to be exactly what we need. Engineers not MBAs, engineers not politicians. If politicians had engineered the Channel Tunnel it would have ended up in Antwerp and then flooded.

 

Three stories that have cheered me up in the midst of the garbage mountain outside our house.  

 

  1. I had an x-ray recently at the Hove Polyclinic. Spotlessly clean. Plenty of parking. Charming people – It’s a no-appointment place;  I was in and out in 15 minutes. The radiology manager was Sid. Remember the Gas Privatisation advertising in 1986. The NHS can be amazing  when there are “Sids” to make it happen. 
  2. A friend of mine is running an incubator seeking new ways to convert waste (yes, rubbish) into useful and valuable material by employing the inventive skills of Chemical Engineers. It’s flying.
  3. Restaurants are open. Wild Flor in Brighton is back, delivering a splendid experience. They ‘engineer’ a perfect conjunction of relaxation, taste and pleasure.

 

What I’ve realised this past week is that good intentions, optimism and unbridled hope are not enough. We can eliminate grumpiness but never the need to question and work out how to engineer solutions and systems that work, are robust and adaptable. 

 

What’s happening in our rubbish strike is an absence on all sides of common sense, compassion, compromise and community. Brighton’s not a nice place to live in right now.

Monday, 11 October 2021

IT'LL BE THE DEATH OF ME

Last week I went to a funeral…another funeral. My life seems to have comprised a succession of funerals. They are nearly always stimulating, thoughtful and important. A pause at a moment in time; a chance to remember; a positive moment when we recall the best of a person.

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 Life is a film which, when it ends, is edited with all the dull moments hitting the cutting room floor. Most of us hope to end up like Hugh Grant in “Love Actually”. As a  hero, kind, a high-achiever, funny but clever…exceptionally talented. A star.

Hugh Grant's career regret: 'I should've made interesting decisions'

It was the absence of proper funerals during lockdown that was especially sad for many. Death became a furtive transaction with a crematorium rather than a celebration of a life well-lived.

Joe Orton, genius playwright, wrote “Funeral Games” for the BBC in 1968. I recall a line in it “We set off for the funeral in high spirits” which I always loved. Those high spirits were dampened when the car bearing the coffin ran out on control down the hill spilling all inside. Orton could always see the funny side of things with immortal lines like these:

Truscott: Why aren't you both at the funeral? I thought you were mourners. 

Fay: We decided not to go. We were afraid we might break down. 

Truscott: That's a selfish attitude to take. The dead can't bury themselves; you know. “

Joe Orton Gallery

or this about privilege:


Hal: That's typical of your upbringing …. Every luxury was lavished on you - atheism, breast-feeding, circumcision. I had to make my own way.


Like Death itself Orton’s writing constantly takes you by surprise, but I think he’d have liked this story last week:


Increases in the size and weight of Dutch people are forcing the country’s funeral industry to introduce bigger coffins, more pallbearers, wider crematoria ovens and longer cremation times. A study by the NRC Handelsblad newspaper has found that the Dutch funeral is changing as people in the Netherlands get fatter.

Almost half of Dutch people are overweight – DutchReview

 

Poor cat. Blame their Gouda 

 

Moving north but remaining morbid, the Swedes believe in something called döstädning” which means “death cleaning.” It originated in the urge to remove the misery of clearing up after someone dies, all those old letters, birthday cards, books, photographs. An artist, Margareta Magnusson, who had to clear up after her parents and her husband has written a book, no doubt, with a sense of frustration The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family From a Lifetime of Clutter”.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your  Family from a Lifetime of Clutter: Amazon.co.uk: Magnusson, Margareta:  9781501173240: Books

I’ve been thinking about this and am planning to do the following:

  • Reduce the huge number of books – I’m obsessed by the need to have a “library” but what I need are paper books that inform and need referring to – history books, biographies, books on philosophy, art, politics and poetry. I reckon about 200 is enough. Nearly all the works of fiction can go on my Kindle which I’m going to upgrade.
  • Photographs – reduce to the emotional few. How many pictures of the Zattere can anyone want?
  • Clothes – I’m Dutch-like tubby following the lockdown so a lot of my clothes don’t fit me (sorry, I don’t fit my clothes). So they’re going to the Salvation Army.
  • Stuff one keeps because it’s perfectly OK – like clocks, scissors, old spectacles, cufflinks, shoes, biros, pencils – but are redundant. “sorry shoes, I’m  downsizing so I’m afraid we’ll have to let you go.” 

It sounds so easy on paper. I think it might be quite hard to do: In fact, it could be the death of me.

Monday, 4 October 2021

TO HELL IN A HANDCART?

Is that where Britain’s going? You’d  think so based on schadenfreude articles in Germany on our “post-Brexit-plight” to e-mails from friends in France entitled “Doom and Gloom” to articles in our own press about the collapse of the economy.

Scotland's papers: Petrol rationing as PM urges 'don't panic' - BBC News

There are issues, to be sure, but to predict as the Times did  that “This could ruin Christmas”  is foolish. Taking a calmer view we can understand why these local difficulties have happened and how we can cope with them.

The shortage of HGV drivers. Better pay and conditions will solve this.

Eddie Stobart to keep on truckin' as investors back rescue | Business News  | Sky News

Blame Eddie Stobart. Rescued from collapse by private equity in 2014 the name that once dominated our motorways is seldom seen now. Instead we see the word “logistics” meaning “the organization and implementation of a complex operation.” When Eddie was king of the road life just seemed more straightforward than that.

Being a lorry diver used to be tough - long hours and poor pay. Now there are allegedly salaries of over £50,000 a year being offered plus a signing-on bonus of thousands more. But if you want a cushier life operating nearer to home Amazon are offering van drivers up to £17 an hour (that’s around £40k a year.) The good news is some school leavers are seriously considering training to become HGV drivers.

The fuel shortage will be a blip - such things always are. In 2000 we had a fuel crisis. At the time Archie Norman was Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I met him at a cocktail party – those were the days – and was surprised to hear him saying “I fear this country may be becoming ungovernable”. When I suggested this was nonsense he stormed off. But then as in 2005 and 2007 a fuel crisis is an easy thing to start. Just hint a shortage of something important to people and expect a surge in demand.

Lavatory paper, gin, fuel, eggs, bread, chocolate. Those’ll do for starters.

Coronavirus toilet roll panic buying is only the start of omni-channel  retail's biggest supply chain test

The gas price boom. The large number of virtual gas suppliers selling on price was always going to be unsustainable as Russian and Norwegian supplies eased. Any market where price becomes the primary driver is a minefield for small, inexperienced players. Again a blip that will stabilise.

Food shortages. Some of this is to do with a poor summer in the UK leading to poor harvests but not just in the UK. The durum wheat harvest in Italy was a bad one too. But the shelves remain quite full, just a few gaps, not empty.

There are other disturbing  issues like the virtual nationalisation of a major section of the rail network, massive “logistical” fissures appearing in the NHS and the very culture of the Police Force being under scrutiny following the ghastly murder of Sarah Everard by a policeman. We always focus on hellish thoughts when that’s what the media tells us.

Let me lift your spirits a little.

Less driving will do us no harm.

The low-wage culture is rightly changing; maybe the minimum wage should be £15 an hour rather than £10.

After nearly two years of Covid, depression is understandable. Amazingly most of us are OK and beginning to be sociable again. 

Low price, low margin, low quality are on their way out. 

As a high wage, high quality, highly skilled economy we’ll be happier.

It’s always been easy to grumble. Our society will be fine. How fine is up to us.

To hell in a handcart? Nonsense. Just relax.

And Christmas won’t be ruined without pigs in blankets. Ho! Ho!  Ho!

UK faces Christmas without pigs in blankets amid labor shortage – POLITICO




  


Monday, 27 September 2021

A STORY OF EXCESSES, RAGES AND A BAD APPOINTMENT

This weekend following the British Museum exhibition “Beckett: Murder and the Making of a Saint”, we are going to a conference which is about Thomas in Canterbury.

Clas Merdin: Tales from the Enchanted Island: The Thomas Becket Exhibition

It’s the 12th century. England has been ravaged by 14 years of civil war between Stephen and Matilda. The country is in chaos. In 1153 Henry 1’s grandson, at 21, becomes King.

Henry II of England Biography - Facts, Childhood, Family Life &  Achievements of English King

What’s he like? He has hyper-energy, eats standing up, is always on the move, he’s petulant and impetuous. But in his short reign this man-of-action restores order. The barons submit to him; castles built without permission are torn down. The mercenaries who’d been hired in the Civil War have a few days to leave England or be executed. They decamp in a hurry. He sets up trial by jury and assizes (old French for “sittings”) where judges hear cases. Prisons are built and villages and towns are repurposed with proper market days. The country becomes less mediaeval, more civilised and calm; much of this owing to Henry’s decisiveness. 

Yet he only speaks French and Latin and lives 2/3 of his life in Anjou. A key to his success is Thomas Becket, who is recommended to him by his Archbishop, Theobald. They get on tremendously well, so well that Henry makes him Lord High Chancellor. Thomas is smart, charming, a fixer and a man who makes things happen. He’s the King’s right hand but also his best friend.

He’s a show-off, dandy and poseur. He keeps monkeys and wolves. He has a vast array of silk garments. When he goes to France to negotiate the marriage of the King’s daughter he does so in fabulous luxury with a huge entourage. He behaves as if he were King. He loves bling.

Late medieval bling-bling - Medievalists.net

Then something awful happens. When Archbishop Theobald dies Henry has a brainwave. Why not make Becket Archbishop as well as Chancellor?  Henry has been irked for some time by something called “benefit of clergy” which simply means whatever a member of the clergy does they’re immune to civil law. So, if they commit murder, say, a Bishop’s Court might defrock them or exact a penance. That’s all. But there’s a bigger game to play. The church represents a sixth of the population and is very wealthy. Henry wants to clip its wings. Thomas is the man to do that job. He’s proved this before.

 Huge mistake.

Becket’s transformation from super-rich courtier to Man-of-God takes two days. One day Thomas next day the Reverent Thomas, next day Archbishop Thomas, answerable to the Pope as well as the King. 

But he won’t do what an increasingly bemused and enraged Henry wants. He becomes as saintly now as he’d been epicurean before. For 8 years he’s an absentee Archbishop in France. From brilliant Chancellor and best friend  to intransigent churchman and obstructive foe (as Henry sees it). Thomas cannot be judged a success in his new role. He has constant rows with Henry causing great distress to the people who’d seen this previous effective partnership  collapse and create national disharmony..

Henry’s increasing frustration and rage is interpreted by four loyal but not too bright knights as a wish that Thomas be silenced. So, they come over from France and butcher him in Canterbury Cathedral.

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It’s the most infamous murder ever. For the last 19 years of his life Henry bitterly regrets it, lamenting the loss of a friend, his own rashness and poor judgement, the tarnishing forever of his previously brilliant reign and becoming just a footnote in history.

We instead have the most famous Saint. 

Canterbury, England St. Thomas Becket Pilgrimage with 206 Tours

Lesson for today: Be very careful about senior appointments. Especially if it’s a friend.


 


Monday, 20 September 2021

WHAT ARE WE ACTUALLY SEEING AND FEELING?

When I first went into marketing I was fascinated by Ernest Dichter, the American psychologist, described as the “father of motivational research”. His analyses of why people did what they did and his books like “The Strategy of Desire” seemed more interesting than the quantitative beasts like Gallup and Nielsen, research firms that just counted stuff and produced voluminous documents.

He described his process as:

"I observe hidden clues; I listen with the third ear; I interpret. I see where others are too blind because they are too close to the trees. I find the solution….. I have acted as a discoverer, as a general on the battlefield of free enterprise."

A general on the battlefield, “yes” I said to myself, “that’s what I want to be.”

Now we live in more numerate times when the data is supposedly what drives our decision making. Over the past two years the media has contained a lot of data. Covid’s been defined by numbers…. (I hope you hear a “but” coming.) 

We in Brighton get a lot of Covid data - weekly rates of infection, hospital admissions, deaths and so on BUT I’m not sure what this means. Not really. My own experience is revealing. In the last year’s first wave of Covid I only knew few people who caught it. Currently I know at least 16 people who’ve caught it or are suffering from it. They are not hospital cases but are very unwell.

And at this point Government data contradicts my feeling that something is very much amiss. In just the same way, however loudly the Bank of England explains the absence of inflation, my own wallet says otherwise. And my own wallet is beginning to seem more reliable than the unflappable Governor of the Bank, Andrew Bailey. 

Here’s what the Office of National statistics said of the August inflation numbers:

“The increase ….is the largest increase ever recorded in the CPIH National Statistic 12-month inflation rate series, which began in January 2006; however, this is likely to be a temporary change.”


“Is likely to be?” We shall see. September is already looking like +3% with +4% on the cards.

In these transparent times great masses of data serve the same purpose as lying. They can contradict and confuse. Politicians and commentators have become skilled at choosing whatever data best serves to support their argument.

As things stand I sense (how I like that word: it’s a Dichter word) I sense like an animal smells something about to happen that the Covid spread is about to intensify through schools and universities and to us. Our mask-free, back-to-normal-society is in for a rude shock in its health and – if I’m right about inflation – its wealth. 

Meanwhile in the past week in politics the pantomime continues. “Behind you Gavin!” Commentators have described this reshuffle as a “strategic political distraction.” But the way ministers are moved around to positions they know nothing about has always baffled me. Imagine my alarm if, as I’d forged (or tried to forge) my way to being a Marketing General in the business battlefield, I’d been told: “Congratulations you’re the Finance Director now.”  

I loved this from James Poniewozik, the New York Times journalist:

“Politics has always been a mud fight – better that citizens jump in the trough than lose interest.”

No chance of that. Most people love mud fights and I sense this is going to a long winter of mud fights. Me? I'm putting on my uniform, polishing my medals and I’m off to the battlefield to join in.

Monday, 13 September 2021

COMMON SENSE AND THE UNEXPECTED

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “common sense” is blessedly to the point:

“the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions.”

Recently I read something that Tony Blair said. He’s 68 and a somewhat discredited blast-from-the-past. His think-tank (The Institute for Global Change) claims that consistent,  widespread, but relatively small changes in human behaviour – flying rather less, driving a little less, eating less red meat - would achieve surprisingly major improvements in carbon emissions. The excessive radicalism of Extinction Rebellion will, he believes, achieve less,  fostered, as it is, by a desire to demolish capitalism rather than just expressing concern for the planet.

The idea that violent revolution is less effective than radical change seems utterly sensible doesn’t it? Apart from anything else, brutal change is, for most of us, hard to stomach. We can see that being played out in the various approaches to managing Covid. Well, would you like to be an Australian right now?

In politics we constantly see ambitious Ministers trying to achieve the impossible. Sadly their problem is the 5 year span for governments whereby ministers try to create attention-getting legacies rather than solid ones. They live in their own bubble of “creative destruction”. Fine when thought through as Schumpeter does. He was the Austrian economist who became a Harvard Professor. His attitude towards the evolution of transport is clearly practical. 

In contrast, not a lot of common sense, practicality and sensible planning seems to have gone into the recent MOD £3.5 billion fiasco of vastly overbudget and ineffective Ajax tanks. These put soldiers in them at risk of tinnitus and swollen joints if driven at speeds above 20mph and they’re unable to reverse over objects higher than 20cm.

Yet it’s easy to revile politicians. Too much time is spent doing that, but they tend to be their own worst enemies and be neither calm nor particularly sensible. They seek the glamour of fame but less often seem simply to focus on getting the job done sensibly and in a practical way.

In another life many of us would like fame…apparently a worrying large number of young people asked what they’d like to when they grow up reply “famous”. But fame is hard won and more easily lost without constant application. When it really excites us is when it’s unexpected.

Emma Raducanu’s extraordinary performance in winning the US Tennis Open last Saturday is, based on experience, form and world ranking, nonsensical. Pundits were reduced to spluttering disbelief as she coasted through ten matches without conceding a single set. It’s the stuff of journalistic cliché to be sure but more importantly it shows how sport can transform lives and attitudes when they confound expectation. Defying the logic and common sense of the form book when you are a smart, smiling, 18 year old is thrilling.  

Does Emma pass the commonsense test? Does she demonstrate “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions”? Obviously yes. Her victory was a brilliant display of ruthlessly efficient shot making. She kept her calm and her rhythm. It was the emergence, pretty well without trace, that was so mind-blowing. It reminded me of Tiger Woods who won his first golf major, the Masters, in 1997 in record-breaking fashion and became the tournament's youngest winner when he was 21. 

 Common sense isn’t boring. Think about what it really means and it’s what we all look for but the added spice is the drama of winning against the odds. And that isn’t just fame. It’s stardom.

Monday, 6 September 2021

DO WE REALLY KNOW BETTER?

As technology hurtles us along a path of unending knowledge advancement something odd is going on. We seem to know less and less and we’re making more mistakes. Big ones. Whoppers.

I’m so enthralled by this I’m taking a week off to let my mind empty of assumptions. I shall be eating, drinking, listening to fine music and walking a lot.

Back in the black old days when we knew we knew nothing walking was the thing.

We shall see. In the meantime, the sound of a rushing river fills the air.

I’ll write a proper blog next week.

Monday, 30 August 2021

HARD WORK NEVER KILLED A MAN

Advertising legend David Ogilvy said: “Men die of boredom, psychological conflict, and disease. They do not die of hard work.”

For much of my career I was an apostle of Ogilvy, a believer in the 24/7/365 school of martinets. I even designed a 24 hour training programme to see how people performed under that sort of pressure. Bill Gates says he never took a single day off in his ‘20s. (So that’s how he got so rich.) 

But I’ve changed my mind.

I’ve watched in mystification as people at work waste time. Most meetings last far too long and have no objective. I liked the story of the executive who held up a board at the start of each meeting which asked: “what is the point of this meeting?” Many meetings ended right there and then.

The pandemic and all those lockdowns have changed a lot. First we have learnt how to meet online – sometimes to good effect although the technical qualities of Zoom in particular leave much to be desired. Secondly we have, most of us, learnt how to work effectively from home.  Although is working from home all its cracked up to be? Divorce rates during the lockdowns rocked everywhere especially amongst newly-weds.  Domestic violence and narcissistic abuse also increased.

But it was Alice Thompson’s article in last week’s Times that interested me most. The re-examination of work patterns has led to strong support for the idea of a “Four Day Week” – you’d have been stoned to death for mentioning that in the 1970s. But in the 1970s we all had secretaries, there were no computers and the office was a low productivity club. Recent research shows that in a four day week more work actually gets done than in five days. Spain are examining it (although a four day week in Spain sounds suspiciously like an increase in working time), Iceland has trialled it (successfully), and in New Zealand Unilever are experimenting with it. 

But this is only the beginning. Why are we so hide-bound by old fashioned regimens? Increasingly with good wi-fi the idea of an extended “workation” is gaining support whereby executives decamp to the country through the summer to work and to relax beside a lake, the sea or up a mountain. In such a situation work becomes more like a hobby.

But what sort of “work” are we talking about? Most of this speculation relates to senior executives; not much point in an HGV driver sitting beside a lake thinking.  

We are talking about are the people who are currently suffering burnout (43% of all sick-days are currently due to stress and burnout). At Goldman Sachs working weeks of 105 hours are allegedly not uncommon. In corporate law firms an 80 hour week is a let-off.

The topic of work: life balance is contentious. A female tech executive once said she’d cracked this dilemma “it should be work; work; work”. On the other hand researchers from Cambridge University recently found the real aim for many was to work only one day a week.

Our issue is we have to make work more interesting, more rewarding and seeming to have more purpose. Old fashioned HQs more like cathedrals than offices belong to the past. Bosses who demand more for less the whole time need removing. 

If we can’t make work enjoyable we’re failing. And if we’ve learnt nothing from Covid other  than the need to be more civilised and more in touch with ourselves that’s OK. But a four day week would be a good next step.

Monday, 23 August 2021

NOTHING MUCH TO LAUGH ABOUT

I was unsurprised to hear a joke that must have been around for ages during the Olympics.

A man walking through the Olympic village sees a tall guy carrying a long aluminium tube. He sidles up to him and says:

“Are you a pole-vaulter?”

“Nein” says the man “I’m a German … but how did you know my name was Walter?”

As the late comedian Frank Carson said “It’s the way you tell them”. 

He also asked “What’s the difference between a Rottweiler peeing on your leg and a cocker spaniel peeing on your leg? Answer … you let the Rottweiler finish.” 

I went to a celebration of the life of Richard Attenborough a while back which was full of actors like Maggie Smith, Charles Dance and Judy Dench. A drunk Frank Carson interrupted the praise of “dearest Dickie” with a stream of filthy jokes. The funniest thing was the expressions on the luvvie actors’ faces. But it was hard to laugh.

And it’s been hard to laugh this week. The Kabul catastrophe has been chilling;  a reminder of a new world and the disappearing hegemony of the USA and the NATO Alliance.

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians and leaders have been characteristically shifty, squirming, prevaricating and shameful.  I recalled the refrain “say it ain’t so Joe” relating to the baseball legend Joe Jackson who cheated in the 1919 World Cup. Another Joe – the US President - seeming not to care about the marooned thousands deserves the same reproach. And then … the Donald was back. Just when it couldn’t get worse he gloated:

"What Joe Biden has done with Afghanistan is legendary. It will go down as one of the greatest defeats in American history!"

No, Donald, that was Hillary Clinton’s in 2016.

There is absolutely nothing we can do about what’s happening across the world. But  I note all the embassies seem to be closing down in Kabul apart from Russia’s, Iran’s and China’s which are working hard, ablaze with lights. 

What is horrifying to most of us is the inhumanity and mediaeval attitudes of the Talban (or rather the Taliban as was - maybe Taliban 21 will be better.) Being horrified but helpless is not a good situation. So what can we can we do?

Nothing apart from cleaning up our own act. Power and might are no longer ours. Maybe we have to accept more refugees many of whom are going to be very bright and make themselves and us much richer. Maybe we should become a better example of good citizenship and kindness. Maybe we should strengthen our security and foreign policy ties with the EU. They need us as much as we need them.

But most of all we need to start laughing more. If we lose our legendary sense of humour we’re sunk. And we must beware of the extreme woke attitudes that we’re seeing here which contain traces of Taliban puritanism. 

The great comedies of our time – Monty Python, Blackadder, Fleabag and anything Robin Williams did …we need more of those. We need satire and as Charlie Chaplin said:

“Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in a long-shot”

No comedy about Afghanistan, not now, but certainly about politicians and crackpot ideas. 

As I look around me at nice, broadminded people I wonder how we are in a situation where this happened:

“Popular Afghanistan comedian Nazar Mohammad, was murdered in Kandahar province last week. He was kidnapped and his throat was slit.”

I’m speechless. Laughter was his trade. RIP Nazar.

Monday, 16 August 2021

IT'S THE SILLY SEASON AGAIN (AND WORSE)

They used to call August the silly season. 

Well, like Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels, it’s back. After months of competitive Covid with us out-vaccinating the EU (especially France) only to discover their infection levels are still below ours because of their more stringent controls - we’re now all talking about other things.

Anger however remains especially the rage of the anti-vaxxers who’ve convinced themselves that Covid is a conspiracy by global governments. In Brighton they attacked a vaccination centre forcing it to close. But here’s a nice story (for a change) from Russia. A 70 year old hermit whose 20 year life of isolation was induced by his dislike of society,  has come down from his cave to be vaccinated saying it seemed the sensible thing to do.

But anger has its place. Anyone who isn’t angry about the allied forces intemperate evacuation of Afghanistan and the potential harm this is bringing especially to its women is insensitive. It’s cruel that we’ve abandoned so much good work and hope.

We hear many more  children than usual have done well in their recent exams and that this grade inflation at A level and GCSE has enraged many. That’s ridiculous. Unlike Afghanistan this isn’t about life and death. So well done guys. And there’s more good news (unless, of course as a parent,  you’ve shelled out getting on for £ ½ million on your child’s private education to give them an edge in life). This is that the percentage of State Educated children getting into Oxbridge has gone up. So for you young Etonians with your A*s this must seem a silly season! This is diversity Britain and you can’t buy success easily anymore.

And talking of Etonians and buying success what a continuing dismal (and actually tragic) story is that of deluded David Cameron. He’s reputedly worth £40 million and has earned around £10 million from his Greensill Capital directorship, £800,000 for his book and £120,000 for each speech he makes. It seems his energy is focused on making money and now it’s coming home to plague him. In the silly season his pecuniary exploits (book or business), at neither of which he’s particularly excelled, will I suspect increasingly be in the spotlight. He’s always seemed to be effortlessly able until now. As Warren Buffett said:

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.” 

My mood lightened recently when driving through Ditchling a Sussex village, the traffic in which suddenly becomes single-lane. In a moment of PG Wodehouse inventiveness, I exploited what I’ve called “the pre-emptive gratitude”. Quite simply on seeing a gap whizz into and through it smiling and thanking the previously oncoming traffic effusively. They will respond to your beaming thanks in kind. Silly but it works – maybe only in August . We’ll see.

Meanwhile the “say no to H20” brigade in America are at it. Here’s a comment in the magazine the Atlantic:

“12,167 hours of washing our bodies. That’s how much life you use, if you spend 20 minutes per day washing and moisturizing your skin and hair (and you live to be 100, as we all surely will).That adds up to nearly two entire years of washing.”

Apparently a lot of Americans agree and are avoiding washing.

‘I don’t smell!’ Meet the people who have stopped washing

Silly season? It’s the first time for ages when the media is crammed with strange stories. Is this normality? No just seasonal silliness I suspect.

Monday, 9 August 2021

STAYING ALIVE

What I’ve missed most over the past eighteen months has been live performance. Quite how much I realised the Sunday before last at Glyndebourne. The first test was whether my one-time sylph like form now enlarged by lunching and lounging about at home would fit into my dinner jacket and trousers. “Only just” was the answer as my trousers were tourniquet tight. We were to see Luisa Miller a Verdi opera little known and seldom performed created a few years before Rigoletto and La Traviata. It was the first night. The soprano was an Armenian who was making her Glyndebourne debut. She was described as Armenia’s best singer.

Our breath was held, our mood skittish – this was a new experience…going out, eating, drinking, watching and listening. Throughout the auditorium  there were corpulent afficionados conversing in voices like Brian Sewell. 

Conversation quietened to a hum, the conductor arrived in the orchestra pit flamboyantly; he waved his baton and the curtain went up. It was like being transported back to the mid-1960s, to a Rita Tushingham film called “The Knack …and how to get it” which had a house painted inside entirely in white. It’s stark and strange. I confess I was not blown away – I heard whispered comments “it’s all about triangles”…”virginity”… “they ran out of money”

After dinner, which incidentally was brilliant and colourful, in the second act something extraordinary happened that can only happen in live performance. It was like falling in love or being hit by a bolt of lightning. The star-crossed lovers and the turmoil around them became the only thing on my mind. It was much more than a suspension of disbelief. It was a heightened sense of being, like flying in a balloon or the feel of Mediterranean sun on your face as you get off the plane on holiday. I was transported.

The singing was magnificent, the feelings tragic, hopeless and gut wrenching. Mane Galoyan, the debutante, extraordinary, moving and joyous. Joyous? How odd to see a tragedy, a car crash of a relationship and feel happy. That again is what live performance can do. 

The many reviews unanimously lauding the opera, the performance of everyone and describing Mane as a “revelation” were the best I’ve seen for anything ever.

I was lucky. It was like winning the lottery. Unknown opera. Unknown lead singer. Tightly trousered I basked in the glow of a triumph and felt I somehow owned a bit of it.

What I love about live performances is the frisson that the risk of doing it brings. My wife when asked to sing that solo first verse of “Once in Royal David’s City” said solemnly “If I muck it up I’ll ruin everyone’s Christmas”. She didn’t. Christmas survived. But the point was a poignant one.

As I ease back into being sociable again I realise how tiresomely functional life became in the lockdown. There was no smell to anything, no surprises, no spontaneity, no discovery, like Mane the Armenian soprano’s, that one could fly.

Last week I met an old friend and we started to talk about companies or business or political leaders we admired and trusted.

We struggled for a few minutes and then we began to discover we were, in fact, impressed by a lot of companies, mostly quite small, many run by women.

It’s only when you can see body language as opposed to being on a Zoom call that magic can happen. Human beings are meant to mingle and share. They are meant to perform. 

Live performance can transform you. Without it life is dead dull.

Monday, 2 August 2021

WHEN A BREAK MENDS YOUR SPIRIT

I hadn’t realised how shredded I was until my second day’s break in Canterbury. Canterbury? Hardly the Cote d’Azur or Paxos. But it did the trick. Most surprising of all wasn’t just the Cathedral – the choirs there are astounding, the architecture stunning and, as we discovered just after returning home, the stained glass is the oldest in Britain and maybe in the world dating back to the 12th century. Years older than previously thought.

No it was the Great Stour which together with its many tributaries flows through the city. This is a city of water, locks, sluices and punts not just “the” Roman Road – Watling Street -  or the stage  on which the extraordinarily gruesome and historically significant and symbolic murder of Thomas Becket took place. Canterbury feels old, Elizabethan architecture, pedestrianised and very quiet – like Oxford’s Turl street but on a smaller scale. 

I bought T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral in the Cathedral bookshop. Reading it I discovered how stunningly theatrical it is. Read the self- justifications of the four knights – the murderers -  who walking to front of the stage in blokey language explain they were alternatively, tipsy; that there was no benefit to them for doing it; that Becket could have escaped but effectively, because he stood up to them, was (or so a jury would surely conclude) committing suicide whilst of unsound mind. Black humour.

The final thing about this small,  43,000 population city (city status because of the Cathedral) is it’s crammed with glorious gardens. Real gardens created and tended by real gardeners not Council workers. Gardens that merge into water meadows. At Abbott’s Mill in the city they’re creating a city woodland with the Stour rushing through it only being interrupted by an electricity generating wooden water wheel. 

Canterbury opened my eyes, my mind and mended my grumpiness. The word I’m looking for about it is civilised. 

Shortly after we got home Storm Evert struck. 

“Blow winds crack your cheeks” said King Lear – and so they did last Friday in Brighton. But then again I love weather – WEATHER (it needs capitals) when people say “it just doesn’t know what to do”. Because WEATHER combines exciting cloud formations, gales, sunshine, torrential rain. I remember Greece where it was identically beautiful every day. No excitement. No unpredictability.

And that of course is what we’ve been missing over the past year or so because  Covid’s been so oppressively a one-paced presence.  Life has been a bit dull with one day following the next. Until Canterbury. And until the Olympics of which I’m not generally a fan. 

But that was before Beth Schriever and BMX. Beth couldn’t get financial support from Team GB who meanwhile, like a mad gambler were ploughing nearly £25 million into rowing. Instead she managed to crowd-fund £50k getting her through the trials to Tokyo where she won a gold medal. She’s 22 and amazing. I watched her race with joy. Her spirit wonderfully was not broken. She got a break on her own terms. Golden girl.

Routine is the killer for most people. If all our lives comprise the “the same as” we get bored then depressed then diminished. We stop learning. That’s why I love Canterbury – I learnt some new stuff. That’s why Beth is so interesting. I didn’t know BMX was an Olympic sport. And I’d never heard of her.

Everyone needs to multiply the number of new things they do. To many the pandemic has been characterised by watching repeats on TV. We can do better. We need to find our Canterbury because……