Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Say no to the nay-sayers

According to Thomas Paine, ‘That government is best which governs least’. Paine was no fool. He knew a thing or two.

Sabina Buzzanti’s pretty smart too. She’s an Italian comedian who recently told the Guardian, ‘in a democracy, there’s no right not to be offended.’ She said that because the authorities in Berlusconiland had tried to prosecute her for a tasteless joke she had made about the pope.

That’s feels like a bit too much government.

I get fed up with being over-governed. I get fed up with being told what I can do and I get particularly fed up being told what I can’t do.

That doesn’t mean the sensible things. Why should I drive at speed past a school? Why should I blow smoke in my neighbour’s face? Why should I watch a pirated copy of a film? Well, actually, I might be inclined to reply ‘why not?’ to the last one, but you get the general point.

It’s the senseless, meaningless restrictions that grate on me.

Take Maggie. People used to call her the ‘iron lady’. I used to think of her as the ‘iron lady with the wooden head’. She decided that I shouldn’t read Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher. It was freely available in every country except Britain. I went to inordinate lengths to find a copy of it. My friend Alasdhair got me one in the States and posted it to me. It was one of the most turgid books I’ve ever read and I can’t remember a word of it. Honestly. It was worse than Proust. Worse than The Bostonians. Why, it was worse than Dan Brown. It took me for ever to finish but I struggled on, partly because Alasdhair had taken so much trouble, partly just to spite Maggie. I like to think that I really got under her skin.

And it didn't stop with Maggie. Now we have an Italian comedian ‘guilty’ of mocking the Pope. Hey, this Pope used to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in a previous incarnation used to be called the Holy Office of the Inquisition. He was the inquisitor in chief. And he gets offended by some off-colour remarks?

Of course, the remarks really were off colour. It’s just like the Danish cartoons of the prophet. Why did they publish them at all? What useful point did they make? Who on earth needed them? Being gratuitously offensive is just bad manners and it isn’t funny. To say Bush is stupid is just rude. To say that he’s a shining illustration of just how far a C grade student from Yale can get, is funny because it dresses up the same insult as an apparent compliment and has the advantage of being incontrovertibly true.

It’s also directed against a powerful target. The cartoons were directed against a minority already the butt of worse than humour. It’s like kicking a man who’s down: not attractive, not funny.

On the other hand, I deeply resent anyone preventing me seeing the cartoons. I mean, apart from myself. I was perfectly happy not to read them, I just didn’t want anyone telling me I couldn’t and I get sick of the people who try to. You don’t like the cartoons? Take another paper. You don’t like Buzzanti’s mockery of the Pope? Don’t go to the left wing rallies she addresses. You don’t like Spycatcher? I respect your literary taste. Write a blistering review of the book.

But let the rest of us make up our own minds.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Idling away the time to Paris

Flying is pretty boring, so it was good to be shaken out of my dullness by the sight I saw on the Edinburgh terminal bus as I waited for a Paris plane the other day.

At the back was a man in his thirties wearing – get this – a tweed suit with plus four trousers. You know, the kind Tintin wore, ending just below the knee. It was a good quality suit, a solid green herringbone wool with a subtle yellow stripe. Underneath he had a shirt and tie: clearly a man for whom ‘casual’ wasn’t to be taken too literally. From the knees down he was wearing woollen socks in a pleasing chocolate brown – and here’s the bit that was odd – no shoes.

The only other thing he had was a slightly battered wicker basket. The kind you might buy for your picnic from Harrods, if you were to stoop so low, or maybe from Fortnum and Mason. Although judging by his upper class brogue – he was talking on the phone, to a friend called ‘Sandy’, and saying ‘I’m safely on the bus. It’s all gone smoothly so far’ – I imagine he’d shop at the Edinburgh equivalent of Fortnum and Mason, assuming, that is, that Edinburgh has a shop that good.

It probably does, on balance. I expect.

Can you imagine the picture? Plus fours? Who wears them these days? And a friend called ‘Sandy’? It’s a name for a character in a John Buchan book. If you don’t know John Buchan, don’t bother, unless you like your swash buckled with a fair dose of snobbery and a seasoning of anti-Semitism. Just think ripping yarns about wonderful white men who’ve been keeping the Empire safe from the dastardly Boche and like to do a spot of hunting and fishing in the Highlands, unless they’re keeping the Kaffirs in their place with their Afrikaner friends in the Transvaal.

He was obviously called Algy. I mean, I don’t know that for sure, but it’s the only name that really fits the character, isn’t it? Algy and Sandy. Shouldering the white man’s burden. I suppose ‘Collum’ would probably do but I prefer Algy.

But why was he travelling to Paris without any shoes?

A narrative began to emerge in my mind.

He and Sandy had been fishing for salmon somewhere on the Tay or the Earn or some other less pronounceable Scottish river. Not just fishing: poaching. On the lands of the Marquis of Gleninverloch, the ancestral enemies of their clan. Algy had his great yew rod in his hands, the very rod with which his grandfather had landed a hundred pound fish a century earlier. It was said of that rod, an heirloom in his family, that no fish hooked by a line it held, had ever been lost.

Today, however, he had nearly met his match. The great beast he had hooked showed no sign of giving up the fight. Struggling to hold his footing in his waders, with the water streaming round his knees, he fought the beast. Sandy was holding him by main force to stop him being swept off his feet.

In the end they outwitted the salmon, driving him into shallows where they caught him, gaffed him and dragged him ashore.

But no sooner had they begun to celebrate than they became aware, oh perfidious fortune, that coming down the bank towards them in their velveteens (what are velveteens? I’ve never known but in those old books gamekeepers always seem to wear them) were none others than Gleninverloch’s men, come to put an end to their poaching.

Men of courage though they were, Sandy and Algy had no choice. Pausing only to discard their waders, and to grab the wicker basket in which were concealed the remains of their salmon paste sandwiches, made to a recipe passed down from generation to generation from time immemorial and ever kept secret from the men of Gleninverloch. Never would Algy be the one to reveal to them this ancient and close-guarded secret.

By dint of hitching, taking buses and catching trains, they shook off the pursuit. Finally, Algy arrived breathless and shoeless but his heart alive with the excitement of the chase, at Ingliston and Edinburgh airport. He knew nowhere in the kingdom could give him refuge from his ruthless foes. He decided to make for his uncle’s chateau on the Loire, attracted not just by the prospect of protection that it gave him but also by the opportunity it would provide to renew his acquaintance with his lovely cousin Liselotte there. It was a matter of minutes to purchase a ticket and make for the gate.

No wonder he was telling Sandy that everything had gone smoothly and he was ‘safely on the bus’. I marvelled at the calm with which he spoke, the self-confident smile on his lips.

What a curious, twisted path had brought him onto the same bus as I! Like Wilde in Reading Gaol, I knew what hunted thought quickened his pace and why// he stared upon the garish day with such a wistful eye. As the bus sat by the gate, the engine idling peacefully, I shared his trepidation and his excitement. Would we get away? Would even at this late stage his enemies catch up with him? As we moved towards the aircraft, I shared his growing relief. As the plane rose into the air and set course for the liberty that was Paris, I felt an elation which I knew was a pale echo of his joy.

At Paris airport, he was at the urinal next to mine. On his feet he had expensive, leather walking boots. Just the kind for a bit of a hike in Highlands. And they looked new. New enough to give you blisters if you hadn’t previously broken them in. Just the kind of blisters that make you want to take your boots off at the slightest opportunity.

Better to have dreamed and lost than never to dream at all, but what a shock shattered illusions are.

Still, my disappointment wasn’t total. As well as the boots on his feet, he’d also put a cream-coloured flat cap on his head. A real toff’s cap. The type that screams out to every observer ‘I know I look like a wally, but I’m a wally who can afford to spend more on clothes than you.’

It made up for a lot. He may not have been a swashbuckling hero from a Buchan yarn, a Richard Hannay or a John McNab. But at least he was Bertie Wooster. The upper class drone with more dress sense than common sense. Maybe not a figure of adventure, but at least a figure of fun.

And a nice interruption to the monotony of air travel.

Time flies when you’re having fun

I hadn't noticed till today that on 3 January of this year I completed a quarter century in business. It may have taken a while to remember, but hey, at least I got the year right. It reminds me of when I went to Dublin in 1988 with my family. It was the time of the city’s millennium celebration and we went to several events associated with the celebrations. Everywhere there was talk of things that had happened in the tenth century, but at no point did I see anything about the year 988 specifically. So eventually I asked:

‘If it’s the millennium this year, what was it that happened in 988 that’s so special?’

‘Nothing,’ I was told. ‘We just didn’t think of celebrating the first thousand years of the city until Cork celebrated its eighth centennial. That was such a success we thought we’d better have our own party. We promise not to be late for the next one.’

So late or not it’s time to celebrate my silver anniversary in business. Or perhaps not exactly celebrate. I had, after all, spent most of the previous 25 years determined that whatever else I became, I would not go into business. Probably the best way of marking the moment, in keeping with the public spirit that has led to my publishing much invaluable advice on a wide range of subjects in these posts, is to share the distilled wisdom of my twenty-five years in business. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. It can all be summarised in five useful principles and three telling jokes, as well as one expression which is pretty useless but I include it here because I like it.

If your back’s against the wall, you can’t see the writing on it. That’s probably not true. Most companies in trouble know it very well, but who cares: it’s a great line. It’s like the old one about ‘last year we stood on the edge of a precipice, but since then we’ve taken a great step forward.’

Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission. Your partner, or the police, may find this one a little difficult to go along with. Apply it judiciously. I find it an invaluable justification for doing those things that you know are right (or which you believe are right, which to you is exactly the same thing) and which you don’t actually have the authority to do. If you don’t get fired, they’ll finally give you the authority to do it, just because they get tired of telling you not to. Remember to be ready to say ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to have done that. Again.’

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s a real bore to have to make up for a bad first meeting (as I know from personal experience: just because I’m familiar with the principle doesn’t mean I always live by it). A related notion is that nothing matters more than preparation – and that’s true all the way down the line, for the tenth meeting as much as for the first.

A little learning is a bloody useful thing. What was Alexander Pope thinking of when he described it as dangerous? With only half an hour to present, a real expert can only give you a taste of how much he or she knows. So basically you only need half an hour’s knowledge to sound like an expert. You just have to hope you don’t get asked to keep talking for forty minutes.

A similar principle underlies the following story:

An American businessman was on holiday in the woods with his Japanese friend and colleague. While out walking, they were surprised by a bear who started to lumber after them. As they ran back past their tents, the American was amazed to see the Japanese stopping to put on his running shoes.

‘You’ll never outrun the bear, you know,’ he pointed out.

‘I don’t need to outrun the bear,’ replied the Japanese, ‘I just need to outrun you.’

You don’t need to be the best, just better than your immediate competitor, or just better than you’re expected to be.

You probably know the next one but it’s still worth repeating because the underlying truth highlights one of the most common business problems.

A man walking through the woods suddenly heard someone swearing profusely. He walked through to a clearing where he saw another man sitting on a tree trunk which he was trying to saw, while turning the air around him blue with his curses.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked the first man.

‘It’s this damn saw,’ replied the second, ‘it’s blunt.’

‘So why don’t you sharpen it?’

‘I don’t have time.’

It never ceases to amaze me how often my colleagues waste hours and make exhausting efforts doing work the wrong way, where just taking a little time out at the beginning would allow them to do it much more effectively and much more quickly. To be honest, I’m amazed how often I do that myself, but I tend to draw attention to that a bit less.

The next one highlights a point that’s as common as the blunt saw problem.

A tourist stopped a passer-by in a village in Ireland and asked whether he was going the right way for Dublin.

‘Oh,’ he was told, ‘if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.’

How often do people say 'We have to do this but can't with the team we have/the resources we have/the company we have'. That’s just a way of saying that we need to get to Dublin but we can’t do it from where we are.

And here’s my useless expression, drawn from the time when the guru-followers were all saying we should never talk about problems – there were only opportunities. A speaker at a conference I attended mentioned the concept of the ‘insurmountable opportunity’ which I thought was a great antidote to happy-clappy thinking.

I suppose the final principle is never to underestimate the importance of salesman. They may sometimes be arrogant, even deeply obnoxious, though some – particularly any who happen to read this – can be thoroughly charming. They’re also absolutely essential. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, without an effective sales force you’re heading for the scrapheap. But a lot of good companies have gone to the wall because they’ve preferred to have outstanding engineers, building great products, than to put up with the necessary – the essential – evil of salesmen.

And that’s about it. That’s all it takes to achieve success in business. As they used to say at Lehman Brothers.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The things we say

Do you want evidence that the human mind works in tortuous ways? Do you need evidence of it? Either way, look no further than the structures of that most human of activities, language.

Take the sentence ‘it was cold’. It’s something I’ve had plenty of call to say since our move back to England, along with ‘it is cold’, ‘ it will probably be cold tomorrow’ and the variants with ‘wet’.

In English, I just say ‘it was’ (simple past) and ‘cold’ (simple adjective).

In Japanese, however, you have to say ‘it is’ (present) ‘cold-in-the-past’.

Who on Earth dreamed that up? Or who dreams that up-in-the-past?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Funny how things work out: Leeson and poetic justice

I'm delighted with the way things have worked out for Nick Leeson (so far).

He’s chief executive of Galway United Football Club.

What do you mean you’ve never heard of them? They were runners up in the Irish League in 1985-1986.

But in 1995, Leeson’s name was known around the world. He had displayed a certain carelessness with money that had cost his employer, Baring’s Bank, £827 million and then its existence. Baring’s, the biggest investment bank in Britain, had lasted nearly two and half centuries. It took Leeson little more than two and a half years to finish it off.

He did spend some time inside, and not just anywhere: he was in Changi gaol in Singapore, once made notorious for the mistreatment of Commonwealth prisoners of war interned there by the Japanese.

It’s easy to imagine the dreariness and thanklessness of his existence. Even so, it must be preferable to his time in prison.

According to tradition, Attila the Hun died of what would have to be called the mother of all nose bleeds: a massive internal haemorrhage. The man who had drowned nations in blood ultimately drowned in his own. Many delighted in the scourge of God being struck down by God, or perhaps by the gods, depending on theological preference.

Attila was a bloodthirsty warrior and Leeson was a derivatives trader. Attila wiped people out, Leeson wiped out their probably ill-gotten gains. Attila’s weapon was the sword, violent, simple, chillingly comprehensible. Leeson’s was a series of financial instruments, where even the word ‘instrument’ is pretty obscure (I like to think of him as a financial sousaphone player) and certainly they caused no-one’s death (or at least not directly).

Attila drowned in blood. Leeson vegetates in Galway. There are times when there seems to be measure and justice in the universe after all.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Learning to dive with Bill

Sport does you the world of good. However, you have to treat it with the proper respect and minimise the risks: after all you want it to improve your health, not undermine it by causing you injury.

Scuba diving in particular is a high-risk sport. Properly organised schools ensure that you learn about them in a controlled environment and train you in the skills required to avoid the inherent dangers.

For instance, it is extremely dangerous to remove your mask while submerged. It may lead to your lungs filling with water and most experts agree that this can be career-limiting. Similarly, if you surface too quickly from depth without taking the proper precautions, you may bang your head against the bottom of the dive boat. As well as being painful, this may, if the damage to the hull is substantial, involve you in significant expenses for which you have not allowed.

So it makes sense to get properly trained first.

Most dive schools start their training in a swimming pool. This has got to be a good idea since it provides a completely controlled environment. Unfortunately, I have to admit to my shame that it doesn’t really do it for me. ‘Controlled’ is the only good thing I can find to say about that environment.

One of the two main things I loathe about swimming pools is the noise. Do architects have to take special acoustic qualifications to be allowed to design swimming pools? Have you noticed how they invariably design them in such a way that they just ring with noise, an echoing, reverberating, dinning noise which moves beyond simple sound to become pure discomfort?

The other thing is of course the smell of chlorine. Who on earth wants to spend time in those conditions? It’s a vile stench. How on earth can that be conducive to health?

But I could overcome my dislike of swimming pools if it weren’t for the actual content of the training. Often they start you off, in full kit, lying on the floor, next to the pool, not in the water at all. Well, I know safety and health are important, that life is nothing without them and all that, but frankly dignity too is not without its value. What dignity is there in flailing about on the particularly unpleasant surface they always seem to lay alongside swimming pools, with a tank on your back and a wet suit on your body? Honestly. The expression ‘a fish out of water’ to indicate inappropriateness and unsuitability wasn’t invented by chance, you know.

Then they get you in the pool itself and you swim up and down in there. Great. When did you last see any old wrecks in a swimming pool? Actually, I have to admit I was invited once to the house of a friend of mine – an acquaintance, really – with more money than taste and watching him reclining in his inflatable water armchair would certainly fit the description ‘an old wreck in a swimming pool’. But I have to say I wouldn’t go diving to see such a sight.

All this swimming pool stuff seems a bit over the top.

Fortunately, it isn’t absolutely necessary. You can learn to dive the Bill way.

Bill was an American in his 70s living in Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. He had a superbly athletic body, tanned to perfection, with a shock of white hair. He could have stepped straight out of a Hemingway novel: you could imagine him battling for twenty-four hours with a marlin.

He used to drive bunches of tourists out to the reefs in a battered old motor boat. Once we were at the diving spot, he brought out two crates of Coke bottles which he deftly uncapped, tipping part of the contents of each bottle overboard. Then he brought out a plastic jerry can of industrial-strength rum with which he topped up the bottles again. He offered these basic Cuba Libres to us all. Of course, safety comes first so there was a strict limit on how much we could drink before we went diving – I think it was a maximum of two each although I suspect that we would probably have lost count after two anyway.

He then gave us the safety briefing and basic instruction. He told us to keep breathing, though not too fast. If we ran out of air in the tanks, we should head for the surface. The surface was upwards, in the same direction as the sunlight.

Then we went over the side and had a glorious initiation to the joys of diving. No swimming pool racket, no smell of chlorine. Just a reef, flamboyant water plants and fish you could feed with pieces of urchin. The sense of freedom that movement in three dimensions gives, like flying over an enchanted landscape, was indescribable. A moment in paradise, in other words.

Who could want for more? And though his teaching methods were unconventional, casualty numbers were low. Our losses were minimal.

That’s what I call sport that generates real well-being.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Enjoying a taste of sophistication

More and more people are becoming knowledgeable about wine. And many of them are getting caught up in the trend to take it all terribly seriously. They attend wine tastings and as a result they buy wines that are much more expensive but which they enjoy almost as much.

Precisely because wine tasting is becoming so much more common, I felt I would be doing a public service to note down the few tips and guidelines that I’ve picked up down the years on this subject. Following them can make the whole experience far less daunting than it might seem, particularly when attending a tasting with people who have an already firmly established track record for sophistication in the field.

The important thing is to prepare a list of adjectives. In particular, you should remember the names of various fruit, such as strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant etc. as well as some of the sweets that kids enjoy so much, notably liquorice.

In the first stage of the tasting you have to stick your nose in your glass and mumble incoherently. Then you swirl the wine about a bit, something I’m told helps it oxygenate. Personally, I just think it’s fun to watch a real expert do this, especially with red wine, because it makes lots of pretty patterns as it trickles back down the sides of the glass. Then you stick your nose back in a second time and spend a while ostensibly inhuming the bouquet – don’t forget, wine doesn’t have a scent, far less a smell.

Now you have to place your first adjectives. Try something like: ‘Ah! Light and delicate, wouldn’t you say?’

It doesn’t matter if they reply ‘I’d be more inclined to say rich and full-bodied.’ All you do is take another noseful and then say, with a nod and a smile, ‘ah, yes, I see what you mean.’ You’ll get credit for having offered an opinion in the first place and even more for having agreed with them: the agreement shows real intelligence and understanding.

Next comes the actual tasting. Take a small amount in your mouth and swirl it around, as noisily as possible. You have to form your lips into a pout and try to look as though your mind was on higher things, with your gaze fixed on the middle distance. Now you can use your fruit and sweet adjectives.

‘Ah, I think I detect a hint of raspberry, with a touch of liquorice in the background.’

You can demonstrate even greater sensitivity to the finer points of the subject by speculating about origins. ‘I wonder if we're not talking about a south-facing aspect here and perhaps a shaley subsoil?’ South-facing's a pretty safe guess and no-one cares if the ground was nowhere near any shale, or even that you have only the vaguest idea what shale actually is, to say nothing of the likely effect on the taste of the wine. It's enough to seem to know that sun and soil have some kind of effect on wine to establish your reputation as someone with natural gifts.

Once again, you may find yourself contradicted by the experts, but as with the bouquet all you have to do is agree with them.

When it comes to identifying fruit flavours in wine, it doesn’t actually matter what fruit you select. After all, in my view what wine mostly tastes of is wine. In so far as I can ever taste any fruit in it, it tends to be grape, but that’s far too banal to mention.

It would be fun, though I have to admit I’ve never yet dared do it, to push the boat out a bit and try some unusual fruits. ‘Uhm, a touch of cassava, wouldn’t you say, with perhaps a little pineapple, and I rather suspect an after taste of toffee fudge.’ It would be interesting to see whether anyone agreed.

In any case, following this advice should give you hours of harmless fun. And as long as you’re prepared to dent the credit card and buy a few crates from time to time, you’ll quickly establish yourself a reputation as a budding connoisseur. And you should have the pleasure of drinking some good wines.

But if you’re after the flavour of liquorice, my advice is to stick to Allsorts.

A cheaper alternative to a fine vintage?

Automatic but not intuitive

I drive a manual transmission car but that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy automatics. In particular, I look back with nostalgia on the first automatic I ever had.

In those days, I was working for a company that had been spun off from British Leyland, or Rover, or whatever that constantly reinvented organisation called itself at the time. Because my company retained its connection with the car maker, it had the most generous company car scheme I’ve ever come across: not only were employees entitled to cars but so were their spouses (funny word that, 'spouses': I always think that that the plural should be ‘spice’. ‘Putting spice into their lives’ might be an amusing way of referring to marriage).

But back to the subject. The company announced at one point that they were keen to get a number of new cars out on to the second hand market. I was one of the many employees who was therefore offered a car well above my pay grade for a few months, so that it could then be sold second hand once it had a few miles on it (they were less pleased with the few knocks I managed to put on it at the same time, but, hey, I was much younger then).

My knowledge of car brands or marks or whatever they’re called is pretty limited. I’m like the proverbial woman who when asked what sort of car she wanted next, replied ‘a yellow one.’ This one was a Rover, of course – there was no choice on that – and it was big, black, and powerful. It also had automatic transmission.

I was delighted with it. It performed beautifully. And I loved the way I could kick down on the accelerator and get a burst of power as it dropped a gear. Wonderful.

Falling in love with the car was a much quicker process than getting familiar with it (and what a powerful metaphor that could be). The very next day I set off on a relatively long journey down to Cardiff. I had the misfortune to arrive on one of the 280 or so days a year that it rains in Wales. I parked the car and dashed for the hotel.

The following morning, it was still raining pretty heavily and I ran for the car, my briefcase on my head, since as usual I had forgotten to bring an umbrella. I turned the ignition key – and nothing happened. My wonderful, brand new car wouldn’t start.

After trying several more times with no better success, I decided there was nothing for it but to brave the elements. I opened the bonnet and stepped out into the rain.

Under the bonnet there was clearly an engine. There were also various holes through which one could no doubt introduce appropriate fluids, each in due quantity and season. There was one connected to the radiator. Another one seemed to be to do with windscreen washer fluid, a third for oil. I gave the engine my most knowing look, but to no avail: nowhere could I see a button marked ‘if engine fails to ignite, press here.’ Eventually I was forced to admit defeat and called the breakdown service.

Fortunately, and unusually, a mechanic arrived within twenty minutes. He also took a look at the engine. I observed him closely and I’m convinced that my knowing look was just as good as his.

Eventually he fiddled with something, a tube or a connector or something.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘that didn’t seem to be particularly well seated. Do you want to try her again?’

I climbed back into the driver’s seat and suddenly realised that, in my hurry the previous night, I had left the car in ‘Drive’. Those who know more than I did then about automatic transmissions won’t need to be told that cars don’t start if left in ‘Drive’.

Fortunately, I'm reasonably good at improvising my way out of trouble. It was a matter of a split second to slip the car into ‘Park’. I then tried the ignition again. The engine fired immediately and settled down into deep-throated rumble that I had come to love.

‘Oh, well done,’ I called out, ‘everything’s working again.’ Note the absence of anything in that statement that could be called a lie.

His face lit up, his chest swelled with the honest craftsman’s pride at a job well done.

‘Great,’ he said, ‘I’m glad I could help.’

So the story ended on a happy note. He was able to drive off to his next appointment with the pleasure that comes from a job well done, and I went to mine with the pleasure that comes from avoiding detection.

Today I drive a car I like a lot. It’s a blue-grey one and Japanese. It has a manual gearbox.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Parenting: the essential survival guide

Life goes through stages, doesn’t it? Obviously, one thinks of childhood, teenage, young adulthood, etc. but that’s not what I mean. For a while, I seemed to be surrounded by weddings. On one occasion, the wedding turned out to be mine. Then there were births. Later on there were funerals as parents started to die: it all felt ultimately gloomy, as though we were entering the long dark sermon of the soul. But now it’s weddings again. Not that it’s our friends getting married this time (at least, not generally); mostly it’s our friends’ kids.

Obviously the next stage is births once more. And since I’m going round that one for the second time, I’ve clearly reached the point where I can start handing out the well-meant advice instead of just ignoring it myself. But since it’s hard to imagine anything more boring than advice, I’ve decided to distil my accumulated wisdom into just a few key points.

These are important. It’s a frequently repeated piece of received wisdom that parenting is the most important job we ever do, and we get no training for it. Just because something’s a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This one certainly is, especially if by ‘important’ you understand ‘massively time-consuming, exasperating, exhausting and occasionally rewarding.’

So here’s my parenting survival guide, containing the truths I’d never have guessed at before I started out but which are vital to know once you’re on your way.

Key skill: driving

If you don’t have a licence, get one fast, and once you’ve got it, keep it clean: you can’t afford even a temporary ban. I didn’t realise that the most important aspect of parenting is providing a free taxi service, but if you have pre-school kids, start getting used to the idea right now. Once your kids get to be about five, forget about Saturdays. They’re just part of the working week. If one of your kids decides that riding is a good thing, you can be absolutely certain that another will choose judo. The riding class will start at 10:00 and the judo class at 10:15, two miles apart, with six sets of traffic lights in between. Enjoy.

Even if they both decide they like swimming, don’t think that’ll make life easier. Rachel will already be in intermediates while Colin’s still in beginners. Unfortunately, this year because a lot of the eight-year olds want to do ballet at 10:00, the intermediates will start at 8:30. Beginners are still at 9:30. You can forget taking a thermos and a book with you at 8:30 to allow you to get over the shock of the barbaric early start: you don’t seriously think that Colin’s going to let you sit there quietly reading your book and drinking your coffee while he waits for his class? Oh, no, it’s shuttle time for you. And don’t forget that you’ve only got quarter of an hour between showers and the start of ballet, and then Colin will be emerging from the pool, and then you’ve got to head back for Rachel with Colin complaining that he’d rather go straight home. Enjoy.

You’re home at lunchtime. No problem, you think. Time for your well-earned rest.

Dream on.

How do kids manage to have so many birthdays? Though they sound like fifty, there are usually only twelve or so kids at a birthday party. So how come there seems to be one practically every week? Your only relief is that you only have to put up with one per kid per year at your place. You’re providing a taxi service for all the others but at least the horde is invading someone else’s house.

And don’t think you’re likely to be free just because there isn’t a birthday. Some time soon the proficiency in swimming or horse riding is going to turn into attendance at competitions. Just be glad if they do go for a mainstream sport like swimming, because then the events may not be that far away. But the more kids you have the higher the chance that one at least of them will go for some crazy minority sport like ice hockey, which requires a second mortgage for the kit, and means that any matches are at least three hours away by car.

Of course, in Canada that isn’t a minority sport, but everywhere in Canada is at least three hours by car anyway.

Be careful what you wish for

Never read books on parenting. They set deadlines. So if a book says ‘your child will start to crawl at six months’ and your child isn’t crawling at 181 days, you’ll start to get anxious. At 190 days you’ll be panicking. This is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. You should be enjoying the little extra time you’re getting before you have to start moving anything you value up to at least three feet off the ground so that the little darling can’t get at it, push it off the coffee table and leave you with just five of the cups in that irreplaceable set you inherited from your grandmother.

It’s even worse with talking. We all spend an increasingly anxious time wondering whether he’s ever going to start talking, forgetting that we’re going to have twenty years of wondering whether he’ll ever stop. Enjoy what you’ve got while you’ve got it.

I have to confess to a shameful remote-control-for-kids fantasy. Obviously it would be completely indefensible ever to wish that you could press a button on a remote to power your kid down. You wouldn’t even want to put them on standby – after all, we’re already doing irreparable damage to the environment with all the devices we leave on standby most of the time. But a pause button. Is that really too much to ask? Just ninety seconds. So that a mother can finish asking her husband not to forget to hand in the registration forms for the swimming gala in on his way home, or a father can hear what his wife needs him to get from the supermarket. That really doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In any case, when it comes to language, you’re going to have to attune your ear. Words don’t have the same meaning in the minds of children. ‘Now’ doesn’t mean what you think. It means ‘in a little while’, ‘when I’ve finished doing this’ or more likely ‘only when you’ve asked me again twice and your voice has started to go up in pitch.’ ‘No’ means ‘please ask me again repeatedly until you get what you want.’ ‘Daddy’ is the person you take your request to when Mummy has said ‘No’ in the adult understanding of the term. ‘Clean’ means a plate of food with nothing remotely green on it.

You really want your child to talk? Remember that the moment they learn to talk is the moment they learn to talk back.

Learn to laugh

And now for the most important secret of them all. There’s no way of disciplining kids.

Now I’m not as dumb as that may make me sound. Of course I know there are the authoritarian, not to say sadist, parents out there. They beat their kids, they break them, they twist them, they get their way. But most of us can’t do that. And even if we could we wouldn’t want to: we know that the result of that kind of behaviour is a deformed personality capable only of driving taxis, heading a major corporation or becoming vice president of the United States. So you want to discipline your kids without actually beating the will to live out of them.

Well, there’s no chance.

First of all, because discipline is pretty hard to believe in. I mean, your one year old is wailing on a plane. You can feel the other passengers thinking ‘why don’t they get some control of that damn kid? Why don’t they stop that awful brat making that vile noise?’ What they really ought to be thinking is ‘we’re 10,000 metres up in a sealed metal tube that’s heavier than air. If it weren’t for my carefully crafted inhibitions I’d be screaming too.’

‘Time for bed’. Time for what? How would you feel if you were told to go to bed when you wanted to watch another episode of Weeds or The Wire? Would you want to be reduced to pleading ‘just one more episode. Please. Just one.’

So your little angel bit the little girl next to her. OK, OK, so violence is the last resort of the ignorant. But have you taken a look at the girl next to her? Sanctimonious. Supercilious. Sycophantic. You know people like that. In your heart of hearts wouldn’t you like to take a bite out of them?

Secondly, because it’s pretty hard to believe in yourself as a disciplinarian. ‘Life isn’t fair.’ Did I really say that? ‘How can you say you don’t like it? You haven’t tasted it.’ When they used to say that to me, all I wanted to reply was: ‘why on earth would I want to taste something I don’t like?’ I knew I’d hit bottom when I heard myself saying ‘don’t you have a computer game you could go and play?’

What’s the point of it all? You make yourself a mockery to your kids, you make yourself a mockery to yourself. Do I really care if they eat with their elbows on the table? Am I that bothered whether they say please and thank you? Do I even care whether they eat their greens? I have a son who at eight was a vegetarian who didn’t eat vegetables. At twelve all he wanted was McDonald’s and kebabs. Today he’s a vegetarian again and a great cook of vegetarian dishes. Did I have a hand in any of that? None whatsoever. He did it all himself.

The only sensible approach to child discipline is laughter. When they had their tantrums and screamed at me about the unfairness of it all, I’d laugh. It was effective too: pretty soon they weren’t screaming about whatever trivial cause had set them off, they were screaming at me for laughing at them. Did it do any good? Probably not. But it was a lot more fun than getting pompous over things that I didn’t really care about. And it made me feel a lot less ridiculous.

So that’s my survival kit for budding parents. A sense of moderation, a sense of patience, a sense of humour. Just three simple lessons that can make the whole experience much more supportable.

And just remember, you’re pretty certain to get the last laugh. I’ve just entered the next-generation-has-kids stage. And I can assure you that the day you catch your kids telling their kids ‘who said life was fair?’ you'll know what it means to enjoy irony. Then life is sweet.

Friday, 12 September 2008

What Maggie did for us

As Maggie Thatcher fades into a sad slow decline, with Alzheimer's accelerating and having lost in her husband Denis the most loyal support she ever had and now more than ever needs, there's a tendency for people to feel sorrow for her (as I do) or renewed admiration for her toughness, her determination, her courage (as I most decidedly do not).

In the light of all that, I thought it was worth looking again at three key moments of her career as Prime Minister.

No such thing as society

In an interview on 23 September 1987, Thatcher replied to a question about ‘people constantly requesting government intervention’ that:

‘They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.’

For 3000 years we've been building increasingly complex societies, with their ideologies, their shared cultures, their state organs, their institutions of belief, of education, of mutual support (or lack of it). Today the problem isn't even that the nation has taken over from the local community, it's that through globalisation a world-wide society dictates how wealthy we are, how well, how free, how safe.

But in the last decades of the twentieth century Thatcher believed it all came down to individuals and their families.

The terrorist Mandela

There's an urban myth that Thatcher once said ‘The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation . . . Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’.

What she actually said, at a press conference on 17 October 1987 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Vancouver, was ‘the ANC says that they will target British companies. This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life and if more people fought it, and we were all more successful, we should not have it and I hope that everyone in this hall will think it is right to go on fighting terrorism. They will if they believe in democracy.’ A little later she added ‘I will have nothing to do with any organisation that practices violence. I have never seen anyone from ANC or the PLO or the IRA and would not do so. Nor will we have any truck with any of the organisations; we never negotiate with hostage taking or anything like that.’

See the verbatim account of the conference by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation at:

The Foundation explains how the supposed ‘quotation’ came into circulation. At the same Vancouver conference, a Canadian journalist apparently suggested that the ANC might overthrow the South African regime. Margaret Thatcher’s press spokesman, Bernard Ingham, responded that ‘It is cloud cuckooland for anyone to believe that could be done.’ His comment was quoted by the Washington Post on 17 October 1987. According to the Thatcher Foundation, Hugo Young in the Guardian of 26 April 1994, claimed that Thatcher had said in Vancouver ‘Anyone who thinks that the ANC is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land’ and this was the source of the belief that Thatcher had made the statement.


Ingham was a member of the closest circle of Thatcher's advisers. What comes out of what she said as well as his comments is that the Thatcher circle regarded Mandela’s ANC as terrorists in 1987.

Mandela was released from jail on 11 February 1990. He became the first freely-elected president of South Africa on 10 May 1994. That's less than seven years from Thatcher’s and Ingham’s comments.

Thatcher mentioned the PLO and the IRA as well as the ANC, as organisations with which she would have no contact.

The only good chance there has been in decades of an end to turmoil in Israel and Palestine was as a result of the negotiations between Yitzhak Rabin as Israeli prime minister and Yasser Arafat of the PLO. The hopes were eventually dashed as a result of the limitations of Arafat (no Mandela he) and, of course, the murder of Rabin at the hands of a fundamentalist, but what hope there was came from dialogue.

On Good Friday 1998, the main campaigns of terrorism in Northern Ireland came to an end. That extraordinary achievement was brought about by direct negotiations between the British and Irish governments on the one hand and people who were undoubtedly or avowedly senior figures in the IRA, such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, on the other. One of the more shameful though comical expressions of Thatcher’s loss of control over herself in her latter years was the ban on hearing Adams in the media: it was intended to implement her policy of denying terrorists the oxygen of publicity. We still heard his words, just not spoken by him: an actor would read them aloud from a transcript. It was pointless and petty. It’s amazing how many people who lived through the period and would like to think well of her have forgotten that she bourght in this laughable measure.

South Africa, the Middle East, Northern Ireland. Progress towards resolving these intractable problems only came from overcoming the likes of Thatcher. Her attitudes had nothing positive to contribute.

A last assault on gays

At least I hope it will prove to have been the last.

On 24 May 1988, the Thatcher government secured the enactment of amendments to legislation concerning local government that among other things introduced a new Section 28. Among its provisions were that a local authority ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality' or 'promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’.

As it happens no prosecutions were ever brought under this provision. However, its mere presence led to many local authority employees and in particular teachers being careful what they said or taught, or the texts they proposed to students, in case they might be seen to be encouraging homosexuality. It contributed to dividing society (but then there is no such thing as society) and breeding a general sense of oppression of freedom. The section was repealed in 2001 in Scotland and in 2003 in the rest of the UK: it took a Labour government to get rid of it, though it took even that government more than long enough...

Michael Howard, then leader of the Conservative Party, told the gay magazine Attitude during the 2005 general election, that Section 28 ‘was brought in to deal with what was seen to be a specific problem at the time. The problem was the kind of literature that was being used in some schools and distributed to very young children that was seen to promote homosexuality. .... I thought, rightly or wrongly, that there was a problem in those days. That problem simply doesn’t exist now. Nobody’s fussed about those issues any more. It’s not a problem, so the law shouldn’t be hanging around on the statute book.’

It's great that on Mandela and on Section 28 the Tories' second thoughts were better than their first. But why did we have to put up with their first thoughts at all?

Hairdressing: just say no

Moving back to England from abroad hasn’t been as smooth a process as I might have thought. One of the more surprising problems has been that it hasn’t proved straightforward to get my hair satisfactorily cut.

For years now, in common I imagine with most people, I’ve been using hairdressers. A light airy environment, a smell of perfumed hair products, piped music, a price tag suitable for an establishment with ambiance rather than mere atmosphere. They must be high emblems of our culture, probably ahead of cathedrals and concert halls: there are certainly a great many more of them and they reflect something fundamental in our ethos, aseptic, artificial and over-priced. It’s hard to imagine anything far further separated from the simple barbers of my childhood, with queues of men, the choice of only two cuts, long or short, the condoms on the counter, the humble appearance and prices.

It was something of a priority to find a new hairdresser once we’d moved to our provincial market town (obviously market towns are in the provinces, but ‘provincial’ just fits Stafford so well that I can hardly think of the town without using the adjective). It didn't take long to find just the kind of institution we were used to. Big glass frontage, pretty young cutters, inane conversation delivered as though both of us were interested in pursuing it. It took forty minutes at the end of which I was charged what I’d expected in return for a haircut which included what I can only think of as a ‘peak’, as in the kind of thing you get on the front of a peaked cap. My fringe stuck out rigid and horizontal from my forehead. Had there been any sun in Stafford since we arrived here, it would have protected me from glare; as it happens, it would probably have kept the rain out of my eyes had I not in a fit of self-loathing personally cut it off with a pair of nail scissors.

Not such a smart move. They do learn something in those hairdressers’ schools. It isn’t enough just to attack your hair with scissors to make it look any neater, and what I emerged with came close to making me miss my peak.

So over the last three weeks I’ve been waiting for my hair to grow enough to warrant another cut which might clear up the mess of the last one.

I enquired of a female colleague where I might go. It was a little disappointing to be told that the best place was the same one that caused the damage in the first place.

‘But,’ she went on, ‘my sons use a barber’s near the cinema. It’s men only so I don’t use it, but they’re prepared to travel quite some distance to get there. You could always try that.’

A barber? It felt like a throwback to a long distant, long vanished past. But why not? Of course he might not have the stylistic skills of a proper hairdresser but, hey, what did I have to lose?

I was up early on Saturday morning but decided there was no point in going into town before 9:30: no self-respecting shop opens before then. That was the first under-estimate I had to correct. This barber works from 6:00 till 2:00 on a Saturday. I thought I’d woken early, but he’d already been working an hour and a half.

I was concerned that I didn’t have an appointment. We had tried to phone the day before but hadn’t got a reply. Another mind-shift I had to go through: this isn’t the kind of place that has appointments – you turn up and wait your turn. Five guys all sat around the place, steaming slightly as the rain dripped off their clothes, and each one knowing who was in front of him. So when it came to my turn, the client after me actually waved me forward to the seat (yes, there’s only one seat, and only one person doing the cutting). There’s no barging: queue discipline is self-imposed and rigidly ahered to.

‘How do you want it cut?’ I was asked. ‘Reasonably short,’ I replied, delighting in the sheer nostalgia of it. The barber made small talk while he cut – it’s curious that in a room full of people, only the man in the chair and the man behind him actually talk. In any case, it was stylised, completely ritualistic talk in which neither makes any pretence of wanting to converse or being interested in the subject matter. Both parties know it’s just part of the rite, like the response in a church. You talk in the barber’s chair because that’s how it’s done. I remember nothing that we talked about, except that we must have touched on the weather, the mandatory subject in that context, and the only topic either of us cared about as we contemplated the waterfall outside.

At the end of the operation, which took just ten minutes, all trace of the peak and of my attempt to correct it had been removed. The cut probably scored five out of ten on the Vidal Sassoon scale, but who cares? It’s unpretentious, simple, neat. And the whole process, including waiting for my turn, took about as long as the cut alone took in the hairdressers’.

And the price? Under a third. I overtipped massively, simply embarrassed to take change from the pitifully small note I handed over (naturally, he wasn’t equipped for credit card payment). He accepted the note and the tip with quiet dignity – a nod of the head, not even a ‘thank you, sir’. No deference is due in that environment: this is man to man in a primeval relationship.

And the conclusion? It’s time to take a stand. The hairdressers have encroached too far. We need to draw a line and defend the barbers on our side of it.

After all, you might hear opera being mutedly played in the background of a hairdresser’s salon. But who would ever write an opera about a hairdresser? There are hairdressers now even in Seville. We need to act now to protect a hallowed tradition.