Monday, 30 August 2021


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


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


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


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


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……