Thursday, 29 November 2012


Less than a week to go before I give up my current London-based job. 

An end to commuting will be a huge relief. On the other hand, there are a few aspects of travelling into the capital that I shall miss.

At the end of the journey, for instance, I walk past the front of Selfridges with its flamboyant and (as I’ve remarked before) sometimes startling window displays. So it was quite fun this morning to see the window-displayers making a display of themselves while a colleague waited with a camera outside to record the.

It was a wonderful case of exhibitors exhibiting themselves, what I’d like to call self-exposure, though not perhaps in the sense usually meant.

I liked the staff’s air of joy, of celebration. Why, they even had bottles though, by the look of them, sadly empty. Nine o’clock may be a little early for a drink but I’m of the school of Dorothy Parker: ‘three be the things I shall never attain, envy, contentment and sufficient champagne.’

Display staff self-displaying

The sight that struck me most this morning, however, came at the beginning of the journey. 

Anyone who expects rigorous respect for the truth at all times had better be ready for disappointment. The most you can generally hope for is to have the more egregious lies exposed from time to time. Say, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s contributions to the feminist cause or Tony Blair and Dubya’s irrefutable intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

So it’s lovely to see a lie – well, OK, an untruth – displayed with its own refutation right underneath it. Not for the first time, the platform display at Luton station provided a wonderfully revelatory sight today.

The deceiver exposes the deception
The 8:15 running on time, it told us. And just below, even more prominently, it declared the time to be just short of 8:18. Tell me thats not another glorious example of self-exposure.

Wouldn’t it be great if politicians came equipped with similar displays?

‘When I say protecting essential services I actually mean all services except the ones I’m cutting and on which you depend.’

‘When I say I’m willing to seek a compromise with the President, I mean a compromise that he makes to me.’

‘When I say I want to guarantee peace and prosperity, I mean I want to wage war in poor countries.’

Wouldn’t that be useful? Perhaps the people who run Luton station could help them choose the right devices.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Disappointment and the Church of England

When Danielle first moved to this country from France, with a view to eventually becoming my wife, she went through a crash course in English culture.

A key event came during the journey back from a conference in Colchester, out in deepest Essex, one of the counties out to the East of London. We’d travelled down by train but were offered a lift back by another delegate, who happened to be Jewish and from Golders Green in North London.

As soon as he told me where he was from I felt on familiar territory. The Jewish side of my family lived not far from Golders Green, and I’d come to associate the Jewish Community of that part of the world with a series of attitudes with which I identified strongly. My view was probably sentimental and may have been out of date even then, but I saw the Jews of that area as usually left of Centre, 
more likely to vote Labour than anything else, certainly liberal in outlook, respectful of intellectual achievement and as likely to include among their ‘Jewish’ books works by Freud or Kafka as any commentaries on the Torah.

So I thought ‘this could be a fun trip back to London.’ And I wasn’t disappointed.

He quickly established that Danielle had started out in life as a Protestant, of the relatively gentle tendency represented by Zwingli, the main reforming influence on Basel in Switzerland, the closest city to the French village where she grew up. But then she’d converted to Catholicism, for no better – but equally no worse – reason than a desire not to be isolated from her friends at school, all of whom were Catholic. I’ve never been opposed to the idea of assimilation, and the desire to be a full member of the community in which you live strikes me as nothing that has to be excused.

Later on, she had let her Catholicism lapse but maintained as lively an interest in religious matters as any of us. That was immediate grist to our kind driver’s mill.

‘Well, if you’re not in a hurry, let’s take the back roads and I’ll stop in a few villages and show you some extraordinary churches.’

He did just that. He obviously knew Essex well and he took us to three or four village churches each of which was a jewel of its kind. While we were admiring their beauty, he explained to Danielle – and, to be honest, to me: he was much better informed than I was – all the intricacies of the low, middle and high Church within Anglicanism, the impact of Methodism, the nature of an established Church and the role of the monarch as its head.

It was fascinating, but particularly delightful because it was a Jew doing the explaining. And that’s when I understood something absolutely fundamental about the Church of England: if you’re an Englishman, it’s your Church. It doesn’t matter that you follow another religion or none at all, the Church of England is yours. Just like the Royal Navy is your navy, even if you’re a dedicated pacifist, and the Queen is your monarch even though you’re longing for the introduction of a republic.

Like it or not, the C of E is part of our common heritage.

And that’s why when it decided last week not to ordain women bishops so many more people felt it as a body blow than one might have expected. Fewer than three people in a hundred attend a Church of England service even once a month, but far more of us were deeply disappointed when that decision was taken.

It immediately made me think of that happier time all those years ago. I remember the weather as good that day, though one always does when one’s indulging in nostalgia. And I delight in the irony that a casual acquaintance from the North London Jewish community made me feel much better about Anglicanism back then, than rather too large a minority of Anglicans made me feel about the Church last week.

I don't take Communion anyway,
but I can't why anyone who does should be shocked by this picture.
Or want to block the obvious next step.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ikea style the Toyota way

It’s so passĂ© to build up stocks of goods long before you need them. These days, ‘Just In Time’ – the Toyota way – is very much the holy Grail of production techniques. So I was delighted to live by Toyota principles this weekend.

At Christmas, we’re being joined by a relatively large number of friends and relatives. Actually, they
’re all relatives if we count out-laws as well as in-laws, and I very much do: the company will include one of my charming daughters-out-law and her parents.

The only problem is that there isn
’t enough space around the table kindly passed to me by my mother. A beautiful piece of teak from the days before we knew not to use tropical hardwood for furniture. But it really only seats six and we’re likely to be seven or eight.

So we needed a new table. It was therefore opportune that old friends from Edinburgh came to see us this weekend, and were joined by other friends, and sons, and partners.

That focused the mind. The call of Ikea came loud and clear, and we answered it yesterday. This morning we had set to work to put the table together. Not too early, given that we’d had a few drinks yesterday evening: we started at 11:30 and the meal was due to be served at 1:00.

Just in time production became not so much desirable as absolutely essential.

And we knew it could easily turn into just too late.

Those watching us were openly sceptical.

‘It’ll never be done in time.’

‘Should I ring the others and tell them to come later?’

The amazing thing about assembling Ikea furniture is that, like tying a bow tie, the magic only happens at the end. Have you ever tried tying a bow tie? You pass one end round the other, you make a bow, you loop round it and suddenly you’re faced with a final tuck-and-tighten and it’s perfectly obvious that no knot is going to form. Then you do it and – lo and behold – the miracle occurs and a beautifully formed bow knot appears.

So it was with the Ikea table. At 12:50, what we had was a nondescript wooden framework with various protruding bits which didn’t seem designed to fit with anything else. Most suspicious of all, we had four dowelling rods left with nowhere to put them. Had they supplied too many? Had we fitted too few? Would the whole thing fail to form or, worse still, fall apart as soon as the meal was placed on it?

The ambient scepticism level was palpably growing.

But we persevered. My friend Hakim voiced the unfortunate question, ‘why don’t you hold, this time, while I screw?’, but fortunately the Ikea context was obvious to anyone who glanced up, shocked, to see what we were talking about.

A few more washers and bolts, and we were ready to turn the thing over from where it was lying, top down, on the floor. As it came upright it was revealed to be – slightly astonishingly even though it was what we’d been aiming at – a table. We pulled the two ends apart and inserted a leaf and, hey presto, the trick was done: we could sit nine to eat the fabulous Tajine Danielle had prepared (in both a meat and vegetarian version, to accommodate all tastes), followed by the excellent cheesecake brought by Brenda, one of our guests.

And Brenda knocked on the door just as we secured the table leaf in place. OK, so it was 1:03, but since our aim was to complete as she arrived, I regard that as Just In Time and not an instant too late.

The table that provided much pleasure this afternoon.
And it was ready just in time.

So we enjoyed a great meal in congenial company. And provided a striking vindication of the Toyota way.

As for Christmas – we’re ready with positively weeks to spare.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Lively English

The young woman was pleasant and polite. At the counter in Costa’s, she stood back to let me through, laughing off my apology.

‘No, no,’ she said, ‘please. I haven’t made up my mind yet. You go right ahead.’

She was dark-skinned like many of my compatriots, and spoke perfect southern-British English with a slight hint of the lilt that betrays a West Indian background. A long way in the background.

I found a table and slumped at it, exhausted. Despite decades of doing them, I still fall apart after a presentation, brought down by the aftermath of the adrenalin rush. In this instance, it hadn’t helped that I’d only discovered the day before that I was expected to talk for an hour, not twenty minutes; the extra work on my material had left me little over five hours for sleep. I stared at my coffee oblivious to my surroundings and concentrated on getting my breath back.

Until I heard voices from the table next to mine, and realised that the woman from the counter had joined a friend there. They were chatting – and I could have been in Kingston, Jamaica. The West Indian accent is magical, and I was getting it strong and rich from those two women.

And that got me thinking. English is becoming rather too homogenised for my liking. There are no real dialects, except perhaps in West Africa. The lack of variation is underlined by the way people insist on referring to the differences one comes across in Yorkshire or Louisiana as being dialectal, whereas in reality they’re just regional accents.

It’s true of course that American do have their quaint little ways. Calling a lift an elevator, for instance. While you may need to lift something to lower it, how on earth do you get downstairs in something designed to elevate you?

However, those little quirks to one side, there’s little to choose between British and American usage. If I ever have trouble understanding Americans, it’s not 
usually a linguistic problem but sheer amazement that anyone can make that kind of statement in any language – you know, references to legitimate rape or to 47% of the population living on benefits.

The same thing happens in England, when I hear the language of rights in the mouths of politicians who have done so much to limit them. It
’s worse in their case, since they speak standard English. I hasten to add that ‘standard English’ is, naturally, the language spoken by us standard Englishmen, in case anyone in the colonies is still labouring under any confusion on the subject.

What astonished me in the cafĂ© was to realise that the two young women at the next table had no trouble expressing themselves in standard English, and then switching to something far more Jamaican when talking to each other. And it wasn’t the first time I’d come across the phenomenon: I know at least one other West Indian who speaks very differently with someone from the same part of the world than with a monolingual standard-English speaker.

It’s just like a Frenchman speaking English in London, but switching back to French with a compatriot. Or more to the point, a Dane: I was astonished by the quality of English in Copenhagen.The more I heard it the more I realised that the Danes don’t speak English as a foreign language, they speak it as a second language. Their mastery of it is quite as good as good as many a native speaker’s.

Copenhagen, great English-speaking city
‘Can we get a meal?’ I asked, in English, of a waitress who’d addressed me in Danish.

‘I’ll check if you like,’ she replied in my language, ‘but this is a restaurant.’

I’m not used to having my stupid remarks put down with swift banter by anyone with only a foreigner's grasp of the language. Which is what made me realise I wasn’t dealing with a foreigner. Sure, technically she was, in that she held the citizenship of another country, but she belonged to the same speech community as mine. The Danish accent is a regional accent not a foreign one. The difference is only that Danes speak another language too, and use it among themselves.

Just like the two West Indians in Costa’s. They’ve mastered two linguistic codes and know which one goes in which context. OK, unlike Danish, the code they use to each other is close enough to mine for me to understand them with ease. That wouldn
’t have been the case had they been speaking Danish. 

But still what they have is a dual code. And in poor sad dialect-impoverished English I found that fascinating. At last – evidence of that variety that Italian or Portuguese, German or Spanish take for granted. That can only enrich the language.

So my visit to a plain old West London Costa’s turned out to be rather more interesting an interlude than I’d expected.

Which in turn was a good tonic to help me recover from the presentation.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Hopeful halfway point

Since a friend told me that British politics is double-Dutch to people sensible enough to belong to other countries, I should start by explaining the context to this post.

Rousseau once said that Englishmen – by which I suspect he meant the British – are free for one day every five years. There’s some truth in that: every five years, we exercise our right to elect a superlative government, and then spend the next five years seething impotently as we watch the desperate doings of a government superlative only in its incompetence.

This is a contrast to the US system which elects a president from one party and a congress from another, ensuring that nothing gets done at all. I’m not convinced that this is any the less exasperating, but it’s certainly different.

In between votes, 
and were half way through our current parliament with elections due in May 2015, the only time we can administer well-deserved correction to our politicians is at by-elections. These can be triggered by various developments such as a Member of Parliament going off to higher things, or at least more highly-paid ones, or simply dying in office. 

The latter is naturally an event always greeted with widespread and heartfelt grieving, because we always mourn dead politicians. It’s as though the grave converts them from infuriating delinquents whose corruption is only matched by their depravity, into towering figures of statesmanlike virtue. ‘Never shall we see their like again’ we’re regularly told, which always seems odd to me, since I generally find them more or less indistinguishable from the guys who step into their shoes.

Last week we had three by-elections. Two of them were caused by Labour Members of Parliament standing down to go and run for election as Police and Crime Commissioners, positions at the head of local police forces for which no-one wanted elections (they’ve achieved new records for abstention in national polls: well under one person in five bothered to vote at all).

My biggest concern with these new positions is whether they’re about police or about crime. If the latter, then the offence has to be a fraud against electors, designed to convince them that this apparent extension of democracy, compensates for the fact that spending cuts have reduced the number of police actually out there stopping crime.

Both by-elections in the safe Labour seats returned new Labour MPs with comfortable majorities, though on low turnouts.

The third by-election was caused by the resignation of the Conservative Louise Mensch from the bellwether seat of Corby. Really, Corby is like Ohio for US presidential races: no government gets elected without Corby, and none ever 
has since the seat was created.

Mensch resigned after just two years in parliament, a position most people would find an extraordinary honour to hold. She, however, recently married the manager of Metallica, based in New York and then decided that she had to go and join him and therefore resign the mandate she’d asked for from her electors.

The Conservative Party likes to sing the praises of qualities like perseverance, loyalty and self-sacrifice, but generally demands them of those, like the poor, it’s sacrificing on the altar of wealth preservation. With its own, it tends to be rather more indulgent. So it's not that surprising that it said little in criticism of Mensch; the voters of Corby, on the other hand, showed their disapproval by giving the Labour candidate a large majority to replace her as MP. The bellwether constituency has just been lost by the government.

What’s even more interesting is that the proportions of the vote won by the major parties in all three seats were very much in line with the opinion polls, which show Labour 10 points clear.

Cameron looking concerned. As well he should be.

So – even if British politics remain as much double-Dutch as they were before I started this outline, there’s just one simple message from last week: half-way through the present parliament, the odds have to be against the present government getting a second one.

That isn't a prospect that leaves me particularly upset.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A sock in the eye to OCD

What a great gift my latest sports socks are. They come marked ‘L’ and ‘R’. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s not altogether clear to me how left and right-hand (as it were) socks differ from each other – it’s not as though these ones have toes after all – but I just love it that anyone can go to extent of making the distinction.

Not that this is the main reason I like them so much. Oh, no. What I appreciate about them is that they confirm that I’m making progress in my lifelong struggle against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

My particular variant of OCD is probably common in Britain and takes the form of excessive respect for the written instruction. For years, I’d wrap the cord around a hairdryer, until I bought one that had a label on it saying ‘do not wrap cord around dryer’, at which point I learned to make a careful little coil to one side before packing it away.

I used to find positively uncomfortable to wear a seatbelt in a car until the day it became obligatory. Since then, I’ve belted myself in on every trip, to the point that I now feel positively under-dressed if I’m not wearing one. Why, I’ve even caught myself looking around on buses or boats for a seat belt. Once, even, in a theatre seat.

Now, I never got quite as bad as the young man I came across the other day whose mother gave him a set of day-of-the-week pants (underpants, for colonial readers). He, it seems, is incapable of wearing Tuesday pants on Monday. Do you think he might regard them as not fair of face enough?

So I was delighted to discover recently that I was completely ignoring the ‘L’ and ‘R’ markings on my socks. I was perfect capable of reversing them completely. And, surprisingly, going to to play and hour and half’s badminton without suffering unbearable agony in either foot.

Could I at last be overcoming my OCD?

Well, today I had the confirmation of it.

When I got home from badminton, I realised that I was wearing two ‘L’ socks. 

A bigger blow for emancipation than might be imagined

Now that’s real emancipation, isn’t it? Freed from the tyranny of the printed word. Or the stitched letter at least. Which has to be a start, doesn’t it?

Friday, 16 November 2012

The words that exalt the private sector

It is a truth not so much universally acknowledged as monotonously repeated, that they order things better in the private sector.

It was a case forcefully put in the recent US elections, where many Romney supporters argued that a tried and tested private sector executive was just what was needed for the most powerful public sector post on earth. 

Not forcefully enough, as it happens, but that wasnt for want of trying.

Mitt teaching a less which, fortunately, not too many learned
Nothing supports a claim to competence better than evidence of clarity of thought, and nothing proves clarity of thought so much as precision in expression. It is therefore with the sense of fulfilling a public duty that I put before you today some linguistic gems that I’ve been collecting from senior private sector executives in recent months.

Marvel at this small selection of words and sayings:

Antidotal: ‘I only have antidotal evidence for this.’ Some day I hope to hear this said in connection with behaviour described as poisonous.

Harbour: ‘I don’t want to harbour the point.’ Presumably because to do so might lead to our being wrecked at the labour’s mouth.

Plassate: this is a useful word describing the process of calming someone, perhaps a client complaining about poor service. ‘We should do what we can to plassate him.’ Though not, of course, if we have to push the shop out too far.

Amiable: used of someone who has no objection to a course of action. ‘I told him our suggestions and he seemed perfectly amiable to them.’

Catharsis: occurs when an obstacle leads to a momentary halt in progress. ‘They were moving ahead quite quickly, but they seem to have hit a bit of a catharsis.’

It turns out that certain fears tend to justify themselves if you spend too much time worrying about them: they become, in effect, ‘self-proclaiming’.

Sometimes a message can be hopelessly distorted if it passes along a chain of too many people. If trainers train trainers who train users, what they present at the end of the line may bear little relationship to the starting point. This phenomenon, I’ve been assured, is known as ‘Chinese Walls’.

That appeals to me, because it’s a phrase often used by such organisations as the big Consultancies, to explain how they can work with competing companies without a conflict of interest. We might say, in the spirit of this post, hunting with the hare while running with the haddock. Call me a cynic, but I’ve always suspected that things can
t be kept that separate and there are Chinese whispers through the Chinese walls.

And finally, of course, we have the old chestnut: ‘I don’t like the message Peter put out because it inferred that we were doing something wrong.’ Just like this post might be taken to imply that certain managers couldn’t tell a bark from a bite.

Not all of senior businessmen mangle language like this, of course. Many are as limpid in speech as they’re far-sighted in vision. I wouldn’t want to tar them all with the same pencil: that would be like tossing out the baby with the ball court.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Happy birthday BBC. Though it probably won't be.

Happy Anniversary to the BBC! Its first broadcast was 90 years ago today.
Ninety years today.
As lively as ever but short of self-confidence just at the moment

They marked the anniversary with a historic event today: all radio stations broadcast exactly the same three-minute compilation of random BBC sounds at 5:33. Apparently, they’ve never previously all done exactly the same thing at the same time. Shame it was so utterly uninspiring.

Maybe that’s just part of the problem at the BBC at the moment. The strange little exercise at 5:33 came after an hour-long introspective investigation of what’s gone wrong at the corporation, and at the way politicians look likely to make the most of the present scandals to extend their influence over it. 
The two best points made in that discussion were, firstly, that the scandal is about two BBC Newsnight programmes which were, admittedly, dire. But that’s out of 26,000 hours of news broadcast each year. No commercial organisation would fixate that much on the two failures, however major. They’d just work to fix them without donning hairshirts.

And the other key point? There’s been a 25% cut in management costs at the BBC this year. Where before a powerful Deputy Director General looked after editorial problems, and a Communications director made sure the Director General didn’t make himself look stupid in the media, today the posts are vacant or off the board.

Result? No-one made sure Newsnight’s editorial blunder was avoided. And the Director General gave a series of interviews in which he made a complete fool of himself and had to resign.

This is just the latest in a series of mishaps in which understaffed or overstressed public sector institutions, following massive cuts in the name of austerity, have cocked up monumentally.

The Department of Transport made a pig’s ear of trying to let the contract to run rail services in the North West to someone other than Virgin Rail, the present incumbents. The result? They had to call Virgin back in to bail them out. And the Environment people failed to react to Ash Die-back disease on time so we’re likely to lose the bulk of our Ash Trees over the next few years.

Sad developments both. But the BBC is a treasured institution, second only to the NHS as far as I’m concerned. If the present tribulations leave it more than ever exposed to predation by politicians, then a particularly wretched step has just been taken.

I’d love to be able to wish the BBC a happy ninetieth. But I have a terrible feeling it may not be quite the joyous moment we might all have wished for them.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Tale of two Tory women

Whatever its faults, and they are legion, the British Conservative Party does have the knack of producing female politicians who are strikingly colourful. The most notable such figure in the Tory Party, as we like to call it, though not always out of affection, was of course Margaret Thatcher who may have lacked other qualities – one thinks of moderation, compassion and tolerance – was certainly not short of colour.

Right now, we are being well entertained by two others who, though they don’t have Maggie’s stature, nonetheless are as curious specimens as one could possibly wish for. 

One of these is Nadine Dorries, with whom I find it difficult to agree on much. And I really mean ‘difficult’: sometimes I’m probably in more sympathy with her than might be apparent, because she sometimes presents her views in ways that are curious to the point of being incomprehensible.

She describes herself as a committed supporter of a woman’s right to choose, but has put herself at the head of the movement to reduce abortion time limits, a measure mostly supported by those who see it as the first step towards prohibition. She describes herself as supportive of gay marriage, but not as long there is any possibility that churchmen might be forced to perform such ceremonies. It’s never really easy to tell just where she might be on any question at any time.

She’s in the news at the moment because she’s decided to absent herself from Westminster and her constituents for a month, to take part in a weird TV programme called ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’. It takes place in Australia and, as I understand it, contestants are required to feed on ostrich balls and take baths in pools of live worms or some such thing until they get voted out of there.

A lot of people seem terribly upset about her doing this. Neglecting her duties and all that. And they may be right, but I can’t help feeling that they’re saying rather more about their own sense of humour failure than anything else. And they may also be betraying some other and more sinister motives.

Because if there is one statement of hers with which I agree wholeheartedly it’s her comment earlier this year on the nature of the two men who lead her Party and the present government, David Cameron and George Osborne. ‘Two arrogant posh boys,’ she called them, ‘who don't know the price of milk – who show no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others.’

Nadine Dorries: not posh at all, but intriguing
There are plenty of people around the country who feel the same, though not many who’d say as much inside the Conservative Party let alone the Parliamentary Conservative Party, working in principle under the posh boys’ leadership. No wonder they’ve kicked her out the parliamentary bit, for now. Australia was, I suspect, just a perfect pretext.

Dorries isn’t, however, the only interesting woman Tory just now. Another is Louise Mensch. She made a tidy fortune publishing novels which, those who’ve read them assure me, are only a step from well-deserved oblivion. She decided that it would be nice to become an MP, perhaps the next stage in a pre-ordained glistening career, and in 2010 won the difficult seat of Corby in the East Midlands.

Louise Mensch: much posher. But a little deadlier too?
The following year she married Peter Mensch who manages the band Metallica and is, therefore, based in New York. Now there’s lots to be said for Corby but it probably doesn’t have quite the glamour of Manhattan. Besides, the two places are 3500 miles apart, and that’s a bit of an obstacle when you’re trying to build a marriage. Political service in Corby or a marriage in New York? No contest for Mensch.

So she stood down forcing the Conservative Party to fight a by-election this very Thursday. They're pretty well bound to lose, delivering a welcome scalp to the Labour Party. At a time when it is leading a deeply embattled government, that’s hardly what the Tory Party needs. Can’t help feeling Mensch’s behaviour is little short of betrayal.

And yet there’s been nothing like the same chorus of disapproval about her as there has been about Dorries. Odd really. Except when you think that Dorries comes from a working class family in Liverpool. Mensch wouldn’t dream of saying anything nasty about the posh boys; why, she’s a posh girl herself.

Which rather suggests that for Cameron and cronies it doesn’t matter how bad what you do is, as long as you’re 
one of us. Deeds don’t matter half so much as words. Or, putting it differently, who cares how badly someone behaves, if they do it with the right words pronounced in the right accent.

Always offers an edifying spectacle, the Tory Party.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

A Churchill anniversary: Moses and Marketing

Three score and ten years ago today... actually, no, before I mention the anniversary I’m going to explain the particular aspect of it I intend to celebrate.

It’s a curious but not inappropriate fact that little is said in celebration of marketing. That's appropriate because this field, to which I’ve devoted most of my professional career, has at its goal the promotion of other things. It should not itself be the object promoted. In the same way, journalists prefer to write stories than be the subject of them (check with Rebekak Brooks if you don’t believe me).

The result is that, for instance, I only know one joke about marketing. As this is a blog selflessly dedicated to the edification of my readers, I shall of course record it here.

It’s not widely known that when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, he sent his PR man ahead of him. They met on the shores of the Red Sea. Moses looked around and exclaimed.

‘So – where are the boats?’

‘Boats? You never said anything about boats,’ replied the PR man. Let me say in passing that I picture him, properly sun-creamed up, in an open-necked shirt, and clutching a clipboard which, as well as his check list, also holds a number of leaflets headlined ‘Nice here in Egypt. But have you tried Israel for a really memorable summer holiday?’ As any good marketing man will confirm, you never know when you might need to hand out some leaflets.

Moses, concern and increasing irritation etched on his face, rounded on him.

‘So, how am I going to get everyone across? What do you expect me to do? Part the Red Sea?’

‘Do that Moses,’ replies the PR man, ‘and I guarantee you four pages in the Old Testament.’

Moses: not enough has been said of his contribution to Marketing

A profession with only one joke deserves a bit of a tribute, and what could be better than to combine it with a Churchill anniversary?

Now I don’t necessarily go along with all the adulation of Churchill. An outstanding, extraordinary war-time leader, for sure, but not above some pretty appalling blunders. Even during the War.

For instance, Britain suffered a pretty torrid time at the hands of Rommel and his Afrika Korps from the moment they came to blows in Libya. Let down by general after general, the Middle East Commander-in-Chief, Claude Auchinleck, eventually took direct command himself and led the British 8th Army to victory at the first battle of El Alamein.

Preparing to deliver the final, knockout blow at what was to be little more than a mopping up operation in the second phase of the battle, Auchinleck found himself relieved of command by Churhchill. The result was that credit for an important victory won by one of the most competent British commanders was in the end claimed by one of the weakest ever, Bernard Montgomery.

However, I’m not concerned here with Churchill’s highly regrettable meddling with matters of high command, which he was unqualified and unsuited to direct, but with his outstanding reaction to that victory. Outstanding, that is, in marketing terms.

Churchill was speaking at the Lord Mayor’s luncheon, at Mansion House in London, on 10 November 1942, which happens to be three score and ten years ago today.

The Prime Minister said:

‘...this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’

Now that’s breathtaking. Because it’s perfect spin.

It’s spin because it’s designed to use a piece of news to generate a mood, and specifically a mood of optimism. To encourage the nation. To prepare it and its allies to continue a fight that still had a long way to go.

It’s perfect because it is spin that involves not the slightest trace of a lie, either explicitly or implicitly. It makes no attempt to overstate the scale of the achievement. Churchill did not try to delude his audience into believing that the battle was any kind of an end – it was obviously no such thing.

But he goes further: it isn’t even the beginning of the end. Alamein was an important battle only in a marginal theatre of the war. The great battles were taking place in Russia. That’s where the decisive victories would be won, most notably in Stalingrad nearly three months after Churchill spoke.

So he describes the victory as merely the end of the beginning. And that’s fair. For the first time in the war, the German military machine had been defeated on land. Psychologically, that was a key moment. Up to then German armies had seemed invincible, but now they had been beaten. If it could happen once, it could happen again. So it was a watershed.

The curtain had been run down on the first Act. Now Churchill was calling on the Allies to get ready for the next which would be still more gruelling, but started with much greater hope of victory.

At a time when spin is pretty universally decried, and pretty generally regarded as little more than lying, it’s gratifying to be able to celebrate a moment when it was used so well and used so honestly.

Does the hearts of us marketing people good to think of it.

Churchill: better at Marketing than on the military?

Friday, 9 November 2012

A great week and not just for the Obamas

It’s been a funny old week. And not because of its curious, and exciting, political events which I’ve covered already, but even at a purely personal level.

We don’t tend to go out much on weekday evenings. Danielle works ostensibly part-time though – she has a hospital job – at an intensity worthy of most more than full-time positions. I commute daily to London, a tedious sapping of energy, which I shall be delighted to stop next month when I move to a new company with the good sense to have most of its staff working from home unless they’re needed at meetings.

The result is that we tend to go out only on Wednesday evenings, to a local bridge club. Otherwise we tend to collapse on a sofa, a cat on a lap, a dog curled up next to us and let a film or one of the better series that abound on TV these days, wash over us.

So it was unusual for us to add two further outings this week.

The first we felt was unmissable. The Luton Music on Mondays club has twenty or thirty concerts a year, and this Monday they’d invited back ‘Symphonia Academica’, the ensemble backed by our local University of Bedfordshire. It’s a fascinating group: talented musicians who reproduce the effect of a full symphony orchestra, but with only one instrument per section: one cello not a bank of them, one flute, one horn, and so on. That’s as much as the stage in the Library Theatre can accommodate and it produces a musical experience I’ve talked about before: grandiose in the scope of the pieces it plays, intimate for the size of the place.

Symphonia Academica: power with intimacy
It was particularly gratifying that in multi-cultural Luton, we actually saw one black face in the audience, which as a rule is drearily monochrome white. It was also a relief that we weren’t, for once, the youngest there, which is a slightly disconcerting experience given that we’re on the threshold of our sixties.

The second event was yesterday: an evening of a stand-up comedy with Jenny Eclair. Now it’s often said that male comedians in this country do little more than rely for laughs on having turned the air blue by their obsession with bodily functions, lavatorial or sexual. Having seen Jenny Eclair, I can firmly declare that at least one female comedian is right up there with the most outspoken of the men.

Of course, I’m above all that kind of coarseness. Which is why I spent the evening doubled up with laughter. My one problem with stand-up comedy is that although I enjoy it enormously while it’s happening, I can never remember any of it afterwards. I can’t quote any of it to you (and, to be honest, I’m not sure I could anyway, not in a reasonably sober blog like mine). On the other hand, I won’t forget any time soon the sight of Jenny striding around the stage with her hand firmly clamped to her crotch, urging the women in the audience (about 80% of all the spectators, I’d say), to try the same thing in various possible delicate situations they might get into in public, and promising them that it would have powerful impact. Which I can well believe.

Jenny Eclair: great entertainment if you don't mind the air being blue

The show was in Harpenden, a terribly nice (pronounced naice) market town only a few miles from dear old grotty, proletarian Luton. Jenny Eclair kept calling the audience ‘Harpenden’ but I suspect that if she’d asked where we were from, as a previous comedian we saw there did, she would have discovered as he did that most of us were from Luton. I find it a delicious irony that this is the case, underlining the fact that Harpenden is in fact just the prettier suburb of Luton up the road. Its inhabitants wouldn’t like to hear anyone say that but, hey, I’m not here to protect their sensibilities.

Anyway, it was a great evening. As was the concert on Monday. Even the bridge on Wednesday was fun though we played abysmally. All in all, as satisfying a week, at our level, as Michelle and Barack’s at theirs.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Lenin, Obama, Cameron

Curious confluence of celebrations today.

It’s the seventh of November and so, naturally, the anniversary of the October revolution that brought the Communist Party under Lenin to power in what was then Russia and soon became the Soviet Union.

October revolution parade. A bit too military for my taste
There is, of course, a perfectly prosaic explanation for why the revolution apparently took place in the wrong month, but it’s far too tedious to go into the details of differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Much more amusing just to say that the October Revolution took place in November. And, since that’s one of the few amusing aspects of that event, we should cling on to any lighter side it may have. 

Besides, it probably symbolises rather well the way so little in the Soviet Union matched its claims or the hopes many had of it. Hopes, I might add, that many of us maintained long after any rational basis for them had gone, crushed under disappointment and brutality.

This particular seventh of November has a historical significance all of its own, though. Today, after all, the US electorate re-elected as president a so-called black man (half black, half white, so why should he be particularly black? But please don’t answer that question: it was entirely rhetorical). Getting Obama elected once was extraordinary, but giving him a second term, and against a white man of huge wealth, is almost its equal.

Four more years!
Now of course it’s up to him. Obama needs to let himself be Obama. He seems to have the compassion and the commitment to justice to do the job the US so desperately needs. Now he has to find the boldness to make those qualities stick, despite a hostile House of Representatives.

What an example that would set, even back here in Britain. It would do no harm to our would-be reformers to see what can be achieved with brains and courage.

Particularly since their time may not be that far away: because today’s also a watershed moment in Britain. We’re half-way through this parliament, half-way through the legal term of the Cameron government. 

I suppose this sets up another of those glass half-empty type tests: do you belong to the ‘parliament already half gone’ or the ‘parliament only half way through’ school of thought?

For my part, the milestone has a similar emotional effect as the 21st of December. That’s the point in the year when light has been cut back as far as it will go. From then on, the days start to get longer again, and I can genuinely feel that we’re on the way to spring.

Well, it’s the same on 7 November this year, knowing the election is scheduled for 7 May 2015. From now on, there are fewer days left to this government than we’ve endured already.

Don't worry, Dave: we can show you the way out
Now that and Obama’s re-election really gives me something to celebrate this October Revolution day.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Blowing up parliament, occupying the White House

407 years ago today, Guy Fawkes was arrested as he prepared to blow up the British Parliament during its official opening by the King.

The flower of the Kingdom would have been wiped out, if by ‘flower’ we understand a bunch of characters who owed their position to (a) descent from characters who had proved themselves quite good at killing other people and not being killed themselves, (b) had made sure they’d curried favour with a fairly unpleasant king, or (c) had made a lot of money from something holy like helping convert heathens by forcibly transporting them to lives of slavery in the New World.

Fortunately, Fawkes was stopped and London was saved from a major act of terrorism. He was also tortured and eventually burned, giving rise to the gentle tradition by which in Britain we all, and especially families with young children, foregather every 5 November to watch a bonfire blaze with a ‘guy’ – a human effigy of Fawkes – on top, all enriched by a glorious firework display.

‘Remember, remember, the fifth of november,’ we like to say, ‘gunpowder, treason and plot.’

Well, today the wheel has turned. The face of Guy Fawkes, or a face purporting to represent him, has become the symbol of the ‘Occupy’ movement, today’s challengers of the wastrels who inherited the privileges of James I’s courtiers and with it the power to dictate and undermine all our destinies.
Guy relives

Besides, this year the fifth of November falls on the eve of the US elections. An election in which one of the more egregious representatives of privilege and power unconstrained by morality (a man who likes to be able to fire the people who serve him) is trying to seize the White House from an incumbent who, for all his failings, has at least attempted to do something to lighten the burden that privilege lays on the most vulnerable.

A more interesting Guy Fawkes night than many, then.

‘Remember, remember,’ I’m inclined to say to my American cousins, ‘the sixth of November: a good day to help stop the rot.’

Postscript: The 5th is also the member of one of my charming daughters-out-law. Happy birthday Nicola, and still more success in the coming year with your great purses, cushion covers and other pieces of great embroidery at Cover Stories.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Government and churches: best kept out of bedrooms

Interesting times. The world’s most important election is only a few days away, and the general view is that if the world could vote for US presidents, Obama would be home in a landslide. Sadly, however, selecting the holder of the most powerful office on the globe is left to Americans alone, so the rest of us just have to wait and hope.

Ah, if only the rest of the world had a say.
What makes it particularly tense is that the battle is far sharper than it has generally been in the past. As the Economist wrote last week, the nature of Conservatism has changed:

This newspaper yearns for the more tolerant conservatism of Ronald Reagan, where 'small government' meant keeping the state out of people's bedrooms as well as out of their businesses.

It’s always pleasant to find some common ground with a voice of the right, even though in this case it’s only half-way common. Keeping government out of business doesn’t strike me as a recipe that works particularly well: when that same Reagan began to roll back the Glass-Steagall act, he got the government out of the banks and let the gambling side of the business, investment banking, play with the money of ordinary customers, in retail banking, and we all know how well that turned out.

But getting the government out of bedrooms is certainly something that would get my support. It’s bad enough that down the ages the Churches – and when I say ‘Churches’ I’m including mosques and synagogues too – 
apparently obsessed with sex, have never been able to stop talking about what goes on in bedrooms, but now a certain conception of conservative politics would have supposedly lay governments getting in on the act too.

What on earth business is it of theirs? It’s not as though anyone is talking about making gay marriage obligatory. There is no sense in which men are going to be paired up with other men and forced to marry them. The aim is simply to allow those who wish to have that option, to exercise it.

The same is true of abortion. No-one likes abortion, or at least I’ve never met anyone who does. Painting the pro-choice side of the argument as in favour of abortion is a travesty. It’s not hypocrisy that makes it present itself as supporting the right to choose: that’s precisely what it asks for. Leave any woman facing the decision free to make her choice. No-one’s going to promote abortion, least of all a woman about to go through one.

The Economist’s conclusion was that, with regret, it had to endorse Obama. For that conservative paper, Romney represents that too intolerant a strand, and that means they have to back the Democrat.

This comes on top of endorsements by Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York and a nominal Republican, and Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey, and considered a possible future Republican candidate for President himself.

Is that the beginning of a fight-back by a different kind of conservatism, a conservatism that actually believes in conserving, rather than in radical ultra-right wing change? We’d all be a lot better off if it were.

One thing’s for sure, though. As the Economist, Bloomberg and Christie have discovered, if that fightback is to succeed it has to start with the defeat of Romney next Tuesday. As a recent Twitter comment claimed, Republicans wouldn’t enjoy living in the kind of United States Republican candidates want to build.

And there’d be little to celebrate around the rest of the world either.

Postscript. Churches have be no means got out of the business of dictating what happens in bedrooms, just because lay politicians have started to do so too.

On the contrary, we still get solemn pronouncements on other people’s sexual behaviour by exponents of Christian love such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, and leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland. He described gay marriage as ‘grotesque subversion’.

Cardinal O'Brien:
long on gay marriage, short on humour

Now he and his Church are terribly upset that Gay Rights group Stonewall have chosen him for their coveted ‘Bigot of the Year’ award. 

Ah, well, the Churches were never really known for their sense of humour, or their openness to other points of view. After all, the congregation has no right of reply to sermons, does it? I’ve often wanted to hold up my hand and say ‘yes, but...’.

Must come as a shock that these days people give them as good as the Churchmen hand out.