Sunday, 27 February 2011

It wasn't always safe outside the closet

You have to be satisfied with small achievements if you have only middling strength and the truly great is beyond your grasp.

So in this country we take great satisfaction whenever we can prevent some small piece of our national heritage being sold abroad.

We believe its cultural heritage is essential to a nation and must be preserved for it, which is why we take such pleasure in visiting the British Museum and admiring the Rosetta stone from Northern Egypt or the gallery decorated with what we still like to think of as the ‘Elgin Marbles’, from the Parthenon in Athens.

Just last week, a desperate campaign to raise funds saved Alan Turing’s wartime papers for the country. They will go to the museum at Bletchley Park which housed Britain’s Second World War code-breaking centre, where reading the German Enigma code provided inaluable, high-quality intelligence to the Allies. As the ‘Curveball’ story recently revealed, these days we like to go to war on the basis of a single obscure opportunist’s fabrications, so it’s comforting to remember that intelligence was once something that we collected intelligently.

Turing was a central figure at Bletchley Park, where he applied the theoretical principles of his ‘Turing Engine’ to automate the massively time-consuming task of breaking codes. Today, those principles drive computers everywhere.

Persecuted in his lifetime, still not sufficiently regarded today
It’s fitting that Turing’s homeland is making this small tribute to his towering genius. It goes a little way towards atoning for having chemically castrated him in 1952, for the then crime of a love affair with another man. The persecution didn’t stop with the castration and two years later he was driven to suicide at the age of 41.

In 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology for Turing’s treatment. Better than nothing I suppose. And now we have his papers.

This reminds me that I recently heard David Hockney talking, as part of the BBC series A History of the World in a Hundred Objects, about his 1966 engraving In the Dull Village.

The picture of two young men in bed was part of series of twelve that Hockney produced not just as art for art’s sake but as propaganda against the continued criminalisation of homosexuality. When Hockney made the engraving the legislation that killed Turing was still on the statute book, though by the time the picture went on the display in 1967, the law had at last been repealed.

Progress, though, is never even.

‘In those days, homosexuality was illegal but you could smoke anywhere,' pointed out Hockney who is a heavy smoker. 'Today it’s the other way round. Story of my life.’

Illegal propaganda in 1966
Still, I suppose at least a smoking ban wouldn’t have driven Turing to a sad and premature death.

Completely unrelated postscript. There’s a Starbuck’s downstairs from my office. I find the chain's use of English entertaining. For instance, the first sentence of this post, rendered into Starbuckian, would read ‘You have to be satisfied with tall achievements if you have only grande strength and the truly venti is beyond your grasp.’

Amusing perhaps but hardly limpid.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Is it time for me to come out of the closet?

Let me say at once that I have little or no interest in football.

It’s so unimaginative. Players rush up and down the pitch without anything that resembles a strategy or sustained effort to build a position. Rugby is so much more interesting a game. Teams occupy ground, move forward through phase after phase of play, and then suddenly break free or find themselves losing the ball and facing a counter-attack. The score, too, tends to build. A lead, a big lead, a reduced lead, sometimes a reversal of the lead. In football, you can go ninety minutes and it’s still 1-0. The big yawn, basically.

My aversion also owes a great deal to my dislike of the players, with their space-programme salaries and appalling behaviour both on and off the pitch. When it comes to moral values, they seem lower in the scale of things than even politicians and journalists, and not a lot above bankers.

If my views of football are qualified at all, it’s by the fact that I’m fond of Alsace in Eastern France. My wife comes from the deep south of the province and we lived for the best part of ten years in or near Strasbourg, in the north. Great place.

One of the today’s outstanding football managers is Arsène Wenger. He was brought up in a village not far from Strasbourg, where he lived over his parents’ bar. Football got into his blood from the telly constantly on in the corner and the conversation of the regulars. His long career in football eventually took him to the London team Arsenal, where he's still manager today.

Arsène Wenger: a legend in London with his roots in Alsace
Back in the early 70s, I spent some time in South Yorkshire, at a time when English football was dominated by Leeds, based only a few miles from where I was living. Their great and despised rivals were Arsenal, perceived as dull, uninspiring and ruthless. Leeds were at least as ruthless, but in so far as football can provide inspiration at all, they were far from uninspiring. Some of the contempt for Arsenal rubbed off on me: it was the team that everyone but its fans loved to hate.

Then I saw, and read, Fever Pitch, the Nick Hornby tale of a fanatical Arsenal supporter. I couldn’t help feeling a sneaking sympathy for the protagonist (that’s what good writing can do). Then Arsène took over the club and I began to feel a shamefaced wish to see them do well.

They have, of course, done fine for ages. In the last few years, though, they’ve tended to come in the top three or four of competitions, but never quite top. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.

Last week they pulled off a bit of a coup. Having trailed for eighty minutes of a Champions League match to one of the most overpriced teams in Europe, the current title holders Barcelona, Arsenal hit back in the last ten minutes to win 2-1.

I couldn’t help myself. ‘Good for you,’ I thought, ‘and I hope you can hold onto that slender lead for the second leg away in Barcelona.’

The next evening, as I reached the platform for my train home, I saw a man in a jacket with an Arsenal badge on it.

‘Good badge to be wearing,’ I told him, ‘after last night.’

The Gunners: badge of shame or badge of honour?
He smiled at me and began to talk about the fortunes of his team. It was a brief conversation, as my train arrived a couple of minutes later, but it was cordial and warm. It amazed me. A complete stranger had lightened up the dull business of travelling home, had brought me a spark of human contact, had revealed himself as a person in a crowd. And all thanks to the Gunners.

‘Know thyself’ it said over the entrance to the oracle at Delphi. I’m beginning to have to face up to an ugly truth about myself, or a truth that maybe isn’t that ugly but about which I still feel a prick of shame.

Am I perhaps turning into a bit of an Arsenal fan?

I think of that seventeen year old I once was, in the mining village in Yorkshire, swept along by the tide of enthusiasm for Leeds, when no-one could be lower in human existence than an Arsenal supporter. Lower than bankers even, if that's believable.

Oh Lord. Am I going to have to come out as one of them?

Still, perhaps it’s worth it for a stranger’s smile and two minutes of his time, on a grim and unappealing railway platform in the rush hour.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Buttering up the imperialists

Here, glimpsed at Oxford Circus station on the London Underground, is a contribution to what is becoming a veritable series on outstanding advertising.

A breakfast for an all-British hero?
The poster’s dominated by a picture of a classic British breakfast. Golden yolk is beginning to flow from a soft-boiled egg while in the foreground are those strips of toast that we call ‘soldiers’ and which are certainly best when buttered. Below the picture, a small photo of a pack of Lurpak acts as signature.

And the strapline? ‘Empires were never built on Muesli bars’.

Brilliant. Doesn’t it just underline the point I was making the other day about nostalgia for the past glories of this country?

It also says so much about how we should be bringing up our children. After all, breakfast is a key meal. It’s the time to set the tone for the entire day, when we can frame principles for our families as part of the effort we owe to society to guide and mould the development of the next generation.

Lurpak is clear about what we want from that generation. Or at least from the boys. Presumably the girls should just concentrate on learning to serve up this kind of breakfast to their menfolk, with the accent firmly on ‘men’.

We want the lads to recreate that breed of Brits who weren’t afraid to go out into the world with its uncouth and inferior races and exact the proper level of respect from them, using whatever degree of force is necessary. Actually, it doesn’t really have to be necessary. Force, necessary or not, has a way of instilling the right degree of awe: you know what they say, spare the rod and spoil the child.

Good of Lurpak, which is Danish, to bathe me in such a warm glow of sentiment over British imperialism.

But stop right there! Let’s focus on a detail of the picture. What’s that on the tub of butter?

You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.
And you keep a sharper eye on the calories, too

Does it really say ‘lighter’?

Now we may have mixed, or even completely unmixed, feelings about that special strain of British hero who set out each day with pith helmet on head and firearm in hand, reinforced by a good breakfast, to wreak Pax Britannica on good old Johnny native. But I have to say that my image of the warrior hero of those legendary times is difficult to reconcile with the thought that while he was doing his bit for God and Empire, he was also counting calories.

I think I might pop out for a muesli bar.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Tea, time and transport

Have you ever listened to the BBC Radio 4 series A history of the world in a hundred objects? If not, I strongly recommend you go to the website, download the podcasts and start listening at soon as you can.

The broadcasts are just 13 or 14 minutes long, an ideal length for a quick trip to the shops or the last dog walk of the day, while three or four will fill in a gym session nicely (OK, three for me). In each of 100 episodes, Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, picks an object from its collections and uses it to illuminate an aspect of the development of humanity and its culture that never fails to be fascinating.

More great radio from the BBC
I was particularly struck by two programmes I listened to recently.

One was about an English tea set that became the pretext for talking about the trade routes that brought in tea from China and later the Indian subcontinent. In London, it was met by ships from the Caribbean bringing in sugar, in many cases produced using slave labour. These two alien products finally met up on our tea tables with domestically produced milk to make a quintessentially British drink.

Then MacGregor made a point about the impact of the railways that was a real eye-opener for me. For a long time, the only way milk could be made available to city dwellers was to have cows nearby, but from the mid-nineteenth century we’ve had milk trains travelling in to our great cities at the crack of dawn of every day, allowing the cows to move back to the country, which must have been a great relief to them.

Even more fascinating was another change brought about by the railways, mentioned in a programme about chronometers and accurate measurement of time. From 1855, the railways’ need for timetables made it impossible to continue with the immemorial custom of each place working to its own local time, based on the position of the sun. Even in a small country like ours that could lead to significant time variations, which didn’t matter when transport was slow, but mattered a lot when it became rapid.

Extraordinary to think that it took the railways to align our time zones. Before that happened, places like Surrey, where the nice people still live and set the standards for the rest of us in the name of God, Queen and the Conservative Party, were some two minutes behind London.

That was then. The discovery amazed me because these days they seem at least half a century behind most of the country.

Wonderful what you can learn from the BBC.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Which army is the lesser evil?

Anxious times in Egypt. With the army in control, will the country really move towards freedom and democracy, or are we going to see a decline into chaos followed by more autocracy?

Perhaps one ought to be thankful that it's the Egyptian army that’s on the streets. In Iraq, it's the American army. With democracy no more secure in Baghdad than in Cairo, at last in Egypt you can count the civilian deaths in tens rather than in tens of thousands.

Egyptian tanks in the streets of Cairo: cause for concern...

...but probably preferable to the US equivalent in Iraq


So it's confirmed that the justification for the Iraq war was based on one man's lies about weapons of mass destruction, taken as gospel by various Western governments and their so-called ‘intelligence’ services (demonstrating the old principle that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron, like ‘airline food’). Amazingly, they gave this ‘agent’ the cover name ‘Curveball’ which rather suggests they realised he was misleading them – I don’t know a lot about baseball, but I think a curveball is specifically designed to fool the batter by its tricksy trajectory.

Anyway, it certainly vindicates all those who were saying back in 2003 that Hans Blix was probably right and there weren’t any WMD in Iraq. It also helps answer another major question: were our leaders knaves or fools?

The answer seems to be that Bush was a fool and Blair a knave.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

It isn't always the show that matters

So what happened at the theatrical event of the decade?

By popular demand, I return to a subject that I've allowed to drift off the radar in the last couple of weeks, that of the ‘adult pantomime’ Danielle and I attended, Alison Wonderbra.

Note that as an established blogger – in terms of sheer volume at least (I reached the 300 mark last month) – I now feel entitled to indulge in some journalistic licence. ‘Popular demand’ in this instance means that one of my sons once said to me ‘oh, by the way, that pantomime – was it any good?’ More of a request than a demand, perhaps, but at least he is quite popular.

It was an evening that made up in dynamism for what it lacked in subtlety, which meant it was spectacularly dynamic, as there was a lot of making up to be done.

The liveliness didn't just start with the show but was clear even before the curtain went up: there was music playing when we arrived and women dancing to it between the rows of seats. In fact, that rather set the tone of the evening. If you're not familiar with the cultural heights scaled in Britain over the last twenty years or so, you may not have seen the hordes of hen party revellers that regularly invade our town centres or our airports (from which they set off to inflict themselves on places like Prague who wonder in bemusement what hit them, as they clear up the mess next day). They’re noisy, boisterous and drunken, but unlike the male equivalent, stag parties, they generally remain quite good-humoured and more amusing than frightening.

The atmosphere at the pantomime was like that. You can take drinks into the auditorium and the audience seized the opportunity to do so. It was also predominantly female, I guess two-thirds women in large groups, calling to each other from row to row, and obviously out to enjoy themselves as much as they possibly could. Just like hen parties, except that the age range was wider.

The show itself was humorous, if that’s the word for something which depends principally on references to parts of the anatomy and the various uses to which they can be put, the joke being little more than the fact that these things are not generally mentioned on a public stage. There was quite a lot of heckling from  the audience, rather like what happens at a stand-up comedy show, and it's perhaps a measure of the subtlety of the evening that one particularly forceful actress quipped wittily in response to some abuse, ‘if I’d wanted to hear from an arsehole, I’d have farted.’

Yes, I think that pretty well sums up the literary qualities of entertainment.

So it was an experience where the pleasure came not so much from watching the stage as from watching the audience.

There has been a lot of talk in this country in recent years about the fate of the white working class, the feeling being that it tends to be ignored by a society more concerned with its wealthiest sections or with minorities that attract more attention from the media.

Well, the audience was exclusively white, astonishing in heavily multi-ethnic Luton. And the working class was heavily represented. So it was fascinating that the show, in so far as it made many points at all, was explicitly liberationist on gender issues: the Alison of the title is a young woman being brutalised by a macho boyfriend; at the end she decides to throw him over and go off with White Rabbit (yes, yes, there are allusions to the Lewis Carroll story) who is performed by another woman. This assertion of the legitimacy of gay love was greeted with shouts of approval and applause by the audience, something that would have been unthinkable even two or three decades ago.

It was only a couple of weeks later that the English Defence League, self-proclaimed champions of the white working class, marched through Luton in a calculated but unsuccessful attempt to provoke the ethnic minority community. The atmosphere of tolerance and good humour at the pantomime felt like a great antidote to the toxic emanations of the march. If the alternative is the EDL, I’d choose Alison Wonderbra any day of the week.

In fact, the atmosphere of warmth and friendliness of the evening reminded me of great evenings I spent years ago, when I was living in a Yorkshire mining village, and the height of the week was a Ceilidh evening at the local working men's club. The Castle Club in Conisbrough had that same easy, gentle and generous cordiality.

The Labour Party, to which I belong, was originally built by the white working class. Today, that class is itself a minority. Labour needs to find a way to bring it back in and integrate it with the other minorities that, at its best, it defends and from which it draws its support. Because if  Labour doesn’t speak for it the racists will.

The EDL: give me Alison Wonderbra any day
Easy to write that, but it's basically a call to action, isn't it? To myself. Not one I've done anything about so far, like actually attending a Labour Party meeting. Still I've had the thought, and a good thought's a good starting point, don't you agree?

At any rate, a good though's a lot more than I was expecting to get from Alison Wonderbra.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

National decline? Could be a lot better than the alternative

It’s a curious fact that’s not well known outside Sweden that one of its Kings spent time as a prisoner of the Turks.

Is this just something you might find useful in a pub quiz? Bear with me: it’s more relevant to our lives than you might imagine.

I was born into a nation in decline, in so far as power on the world scene defines what a nation is really about. As a child I admired stamps with the Queen’s head on them, marked ‘Gold Coast’, but overprinted ‘Ghana’. That’s how recent the loss of Britain’s dominance in Africa was. Our atlases at school, a little out of date as all good school atlases always are, still showed great tracts of the world in pink to identify them as British possessions.

As a student I heard the radical politician Tony Benn qualify England as the last colony of the British Empire. Unusually for Benn, he was spot on in that judgement: we lived in England as though we were the core of an Empire though the imperial dream was all but over. Dreams can often be nightmares, and in those days we had one more to go through, a colonial war as vicious and cruel as those we fought, in my lifetime, in Malaya, Kenya, Aden or Cyprus: the low-intensity but heartbreakingly drawn out conflict in Northern Ireland.

England stopped being the last imperial possession only in 1997 with the formation of its first post-colonial government, made up predominantly of people with no direct connection with the Second World War, the final great combat into which Britain led its Empire. It was no coincidence that it was this government that brought peace to Northern Ireland, a legacy for which Tony Blair would have been admired for generations and of which he could have been justly proud, had he not rather spoiled it by launching into a new military adventure in the Middle East.

As it waned over the decades, there was a constant refrain that Britain ‘punched above its weight’, an admission that its weight was no longer what it had been. The wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-nineteenth century was by the late twentieth an also-ran economically – well behind not just the United States but also Japan and Germany, the defeated powers of the Second World War, and even at different times behind France and Italy (the latter talked with great pride of ‘Il Sorpasso’, the overtaking – it was short lived but dramatic while it lasted).

The subject of decline is once again in the news. In part this reflects the success of the film The King’s Speech. The film is brilliantly written, directed and performed; it gives a powerful insight into life-distorting disability and the value of friendship in overcoming it. To enjoy it you have, however, to forget about certain uncomfortable historic facts over which the film draws a veil, such as George VI’s appalling attitude towards the Jews of Germany.

A great part of the film’s success in this country is down to nostalgia. To many people the film evokes a time of glory when things were better than they are today. They forget that for the few pukka sahibs on their elephants, or district commissioners determining the fate of thousands of African villagers from their folding tables under the baobab trees, or the white-suited gents in Raffles bar being treated with the deference due to Englishmen from mere natives, there were millions at home struggling with unemployment, thousands on the Jarrow hunger marches, millions more forced to give up their lives in two world wars to settle other and much wealthier men’s quarrels.

The price of national grandeur.

Which takes back to the Swedish King.

Charles XII reigned over Sweden when it was one of the Great Powers of Europe. To defend and extend his possessions, Charles waged wars in Poland, Germany and Russia. Against the Russian Tsar he fought his way all the way down to Poltava in modern day Ukraine, a hell of a sight closer to the Black Sea than to the Baltic, in a classic campaign of overseas imperial ambition.

It was massively overblown ambition. He was crushingly defeated and had to flee into exile in the Ottoman Empire, in modern-day Moldova. He was treated with respect and the Ottoman court subsidised his lavish lifestyle until his constant political intriguing and the conflict between his readiness to incur debts with local traders and his reluctance to pay them, led to serious trouble and soon he found himself in Constantinople under house arrest.

Get a map out. Locate Stockholm. Locate Istanbul. And wonder.

He got around, that Charles
Eventually he made it back to Sweden, crossing the continent on horseback in fifteen days, which was going some. He limited his further campaigns to giving the Norwegians a bad time, unsuccessfully on both attempts, the second of which cost him his life.

Now came the moment of key Swedish genius. The politicians met and took a decision that this whole imperial adventure had been a terrible waste of time, lives and treasure. The game simply wasn’t worth the candle. Sweden consciously chose to give it up for ever.

So they went through a process of decolonising themselves, just as we’re having to in Britain. And need to in France. Maybe even in Spain and Germany. And – dare I say it – will relatively soon be forced to in the United States too.

No doubt the Swedes had their moments of nostalgia as we did, with books, poems and paintings harking back to a mythical golden age where we have films. And why not? A little nostalgia isn’t a bad thing, as long as you don’t indulge in it too much or confuse it with anything that really matters.

Nostalgia for glory: the battle of Poltava imagined 17 years later
Above all Sweden concentrated on the slow process that would eventually make it what it is today, a society in which those who most need it are properly looked after, where religions coexist, where schools are equipped for teaching and hospitals for delivering care.

Funnily enough, we in Britain have moved that way too since the imperial pretensions eased, but we’ve got a long way to go yet. In the most brutal economic terms, Sweden has GDP per head of nearly $48,000, Britain some $36,000.

The lesson? Remember the glory of Charles XII. Make and enjoy films about him. But if you’re sensible, when you get out of the cinema, emulate his successors and not him. They understood that the important thing is to get a life.

Things are so much more fun when you do.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Shearing your sheep: the M25 and the best advice money can buy

Sat in crawling traffic on the infamous M25 orbital motorway around London the other day, I was fascinated to hear a news item about the latest controversy it has provoked.

Earth has not anything to show more fair: the delights of the M25
Parliamentary scrutiny has revealed that work to widen the M25 has achieved nothing, so the billion pounds it cost was entirely wasted. This has excited, let us say, some disquiet in certain quarters.

There has been a trend in most of Europe recently to cope with congestion at peak times by allowing cars to drive along the hard shoulder (the strip where cars can stop if they break down). This apparently was an idea that never occurred to the people responsible for the M25 widening, or indeed their advisers, though it has been successfully applied on the M42 motorway near Birmingham at far lower cost.

Some commentators have publicly wondered whether the £80 million paid for consultancy support to the M25 project was money well spent.

This puts me in mind of an old story, which you may already know, but which is worth including just because it’s so apposite.

A sharply suited young man brings his 4x4 to a screeching halt on a lonely country road, next to a shepherd standing by his flock.

‘If I tell you how many sheep you have, will you give me one?’ says the young man.

‘All right,’ says the shepherd.

The young man hauls out a laptop computer and a satellite phone, boots up, links up, connects up, opens spreadsheets and geographical information systems, calculates, thinks and announces:

‘You have 278 sheep.’

‘Well done,’ says the shepherd, ‘help yourself.’

The young man loads an animal into the back of his car.

‘If I tell you what your job is, will you give me my animal back?’ asks the shepherd.

‘OK,’ says the young man.

‘You’re a consultant,’ says the shepherd.

‘How did you work that out?’ exclaims the consultant.

‘You turned up without being invited, you charged me for information I already knew, and you understand my work so little that you’ve taken my dog instead of a sheep.’

I thought of all this when I caught sight of a poster advertising Accenture, one of the most iconic and eye-wateringly expensive of the consultancy outfits out there. 

Like sheep to the slaughter: the right guidance may take us straight over the cliff
 Isn't it brilliant that they chose to show a sheep? And what a great question, ‘How do you get more out of the same resources?’

‘Hiring consultants to conduct studies can be an excellent means of turning problems into gold,’ said the leading US businessman Norman Augustine. ‘Your problems into their gold.’

Perhaps Accenture could spend a few moments pondering that insight and the experience of the M25 widening. Then they could try answering their own question. 

In case they don't stumble on the truth themselves, can anyone suggest ways organisations might spend a little less resource and perhaps deliver more impressive results?

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Luton's version of the Cairo spirit

The eyes of the world these days are on Tahrir Square in Cairo. But when it comes to protest, that’s not the only place where people have been taking to the streets recently. We’ve had our own moments of excitement in Luton too.

From mid-morning last Saturday, there was no way to drive into the centre of town. Shops, sports centres, public places generally had shut, on police advice. And the police themselves were swarming like bees. From fourteen forces around the country they came, in their coaches and their lorries, and they gathered in our little town, imposing in their determination and their displays of hardware. I particularly liked the horses. There were whole truckloads of them and they poured through the streets in impressive numbers.

Eat your hearts out, Mounties.
The cavalry patrols the Luton streets
What was the cause of all this frenetic activity, rumoured to have cost £800,000?

The English Defence League was marching through our streets. Now the name suggests something innocuous, doesn’t it? Perhaps an organisation dedicated to protecting the language of Shakespeare, or the tradition of long summer evenings watching cricket while drinking warm beer.

Not so: this is an organisation as concerned with rights as those mass movements in Cairo. Except that in the case of the EDL, they want to take rights away rather than demand they be granted. They don’t like immigrants, you see, by which they principally mean that they don’t like people whose skin colour is darker than is usual among Anglo-Saxons (a previous wave of immigrants, accepted far more readily in this country, because they arrived with swords and axes). 

It gets particularly bad if people who have the gall to have the wrong skin colour also insist on adhering to Islam. This is a definite no-no to the EDL, who would rather they felt under no special obligation even to remain in the country.

Since Luton has rather more such people than many other places – a small minority, of course, but a bigger one than in most English cities, with nearly one in five residents being descended from South Asian immigrants – the EDL felt that it would be good to get their message out here, where they could cause maximum offence without having to walk very far. 

Unite Against Fascism organised a counter demonstration.

And the police were there, closing roads and shutting shops, to avoid any serious damage being done.

In the end 1500 EDL people showed up and 900 counter-demonstrators. By 4:00 it was all over. We’d spent the day in London, so apart from having to catch our train from a different station, we barely noticed the event.

But, hey, at a time when we’re talking about those great protest movements bursting out all over the Middle East, let’s not forget that we had our own little incident too. Nice if it had been about increasing freedom for all instead of reducing it for a minority, but you can’t have everything.

At least the police did their job properly, if expensively. Perhaps we ought just to be thankful for such small mercies.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Good beginnings

A week is much too short a time to judge a change of job.

Still, I’ve sometimes known in hours – minutes, even – that a new post wasn’t right for me. So it’s great to have ended the first week in my new company at least as enthusiastic as I started it.

I’ve believed for years that the only point of a business is to provide the best possible service to its clients. What’s possible may not always be as good as one might like, but to strive to be anything less than the best feels to me like setting one's ambition unbearably low.

That’s not always a position that’s popular with shareholders. In two companies I’ve been told by Chief Executives ‘we don’t always have to be the best though, do we?’ One of those companies went on to achieve great success despite its mediocrity, the other achieved only mediocrity. I suspect that if the Chief Executives read these words and realised they applied to them, each would be convinced that their company was the one I regarded as successful.

In fact, in my view both have failed. Both are known in the market place to deliver poor value for money. If the successful one has prospered it is only because it has been able, by clever positioning, to persuade customers that it’s the safe choice. There was a time when it was said that ‘no-one ever got fired for buying IBM’; the successful mediocrity managed to create itself a position of similar dominance, in its own much smaller market.

So the shareholders did well. But it saddens me to think how much more they could have achieved had they been prepared to go the extra mile and deliver quality.

That’s why the most impressive moment of the first week in my new company was a sales presentation at which we were accompanied by representatives of an existing client. They faced the audience and told them ‘you have to buy this system’ and set out to prove their point by describing what they’d done with it themselves and what they’d achieved as a result.

Now that’s something I’ve never seen before and it’s exactly what I think business should be about: clients so pleased with the product that they will go out and urge others to buy it. I’ve had clients before who’ll receive a visit from new prospects, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them go to them to try to win them over.

So it was a good week.

I ended it in Torbay, in Devon, a place closely linked to where I spent my adolescence. Turning up there early for my meeting, I went for a walk along the promenade. In February, in England, you don’t expect sun beating down from a blue sky. But being in a place with pleasant associations for me, after a week which had given me some encouraging surprises, I didn’t feel the fine rain, just the freshness; I wasn't bothered by the wind, just enjoyed the sea air; and I didn’t feel oppressed by the dark skies, just revelled in the concert of slate grey sea under light grey clouds, with the white crests of the waves whipped by the wind.

Torbay in the winter
It felt like a good start.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Speaking out for the unjustly mocked

Time to speak out in defence of women. And of the world’s favourite profession, the law.

A staple of anti-feminist sentiment in Britain is the accusation that women are unable to understand the offside law in football. This is unfair on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.

In rugby, the rule is stark in its simplicity: get in front of the ball, and you’re offside. But in football, it’s a hopeless mess. It’s to do with there being no defender other than the goalkeeper between you and the opponents’ goal at the time when you receive the ball (or do I mean when it was kicked?). It’s not clear to me what happens if the goalkeeper is behind you but there’s another defender between you and the goal: are you offside or not? It also seems that you can be ‘played onside’, whatever that means. I could probably get clear on the subject in about two minutes with Google, but I’m not interested enough to devote a couple of minutes of my life to the question. That, I suspect, is the case of most women – most people – who understand the offside rule no better than I do.

Of course, there are women to whom the rule really matters. Recently, soon-to-be ex-Sky TV football commentators Richard Keys and Andy Gray came out with some offensive remarks about a woman assistant referee, Sian Massey, already a professional and tipped to become the first woman to be a full Premiership referee. She kept her flag firmly down when many thought a Liverpool player was offside in a recent match; the move culminated in a goal against their opponents, Wolves. I quote:

Keys: ‘Somebody better get down there and explain offside to her.’

Gray: ‘Can you believe that? A female linesman. Women don’t know the offside rule.’

Those in the know say the replay shows indisputably that Massey was right, and Keys and Gray are out of a job today.
Sian Massey with flag raised, showing she understands the offside rule
Such unfair criticism of a woman deserves nothing but contempt. But spare a thought for another group, constantly the target of scorn from anyone outside it. I speak of course of lawyers. What other profession is subject to so many cruel jokes? It’s reached the point where today people ask what the problem is with lawyer jokes, the answer being that lawyers don't think they're funny, and no one else thinks they're jokes.

So it was fascinating that the passenger I was sharing a table with in my train this morning was both a woman and a lawyer. It was a 7:00 a.m. train, so like me she’d got up at the crack of dawn. I took a few minutes to read the paper and get my breath back before starting work, but she was buried in a pile of documents from the off – and when I say ‘pile’ I mean ‘pile’ – it was the height of two respectable dictionaries or three parsimonious ones (the kind that don’t contain words like ‘parsimonious’). Steadily she worked through all the papers, picking out the bits that really mattered, rejecting some, sorting the others into an order presumably designed to lend the greatest possible support to her case.

I couldn’t help glance at the documents at one point. She was careful to shield them from view, but I did see the words ‘grievous bodily harm’. So I suspect she was on her way to the defence of someone charged with a common law offence, suggesting she’s being paid out of legal aid, which means (in lawyers’ terms at least) she’s working for a pretty miserable fee.

And as we drew into station, out came the compact and the mirror, the eye-shadow and the lipstick. Because this was a woman as well as a lawyer, and I rather suspect if you’re going to help a client who is probably not terribly articulate or literate, you need to impress unsympathetic policemen and hostile judges that you’re ‘sharp’ and business like.

This morning I had a shave. Before I go into my meeting, I’ll put a tie on. But she had to engage in a major cosmetic exercise to be ready for her job.

So this post is my tribute to her. It's a source of real comfort to me to know that if you get into trouble, you can at least still count on the help of someone bright, alert and hard working, who doesn’t mind rising at dawn – or, even more admirable, does it although she minds it – and travelling some hours to come to your aid, preparing for the task ahead all the way, for little reward. And at the last moment she even has the attention to spare for that last detail that might prove a lot more important than it really should.

Final touches before launching into her client's defence

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Hymn to the IT man

We all know that the first thing an electrician does when he looks at your installation is suck his teeth, shake his head and ask ‘who set this lot up for you, then?’

It’s a completely useless question. You probably have no idea how to answer it and if you did, it wouldn’t advance the discussion anyway. But they all do it – I’ve even heard it from a French electrician, although in his case he asked what sort of a pastry chef (patissier) had worked on the house before.

It’s infuriating, isn’t it? But electricians are mild irritants in the stream of life compared to IT specialists. I’ll spend hours working on a hopelessly corrupt or failing system before I admit to any IT person that I’ve got a problem. The humiliation and frustration are just too horrible to contemplate.

Imagine you use a piece of software that’s crucial to your work. The day you have a 2:00 p.m. deadline, you’ll come in nice and early to get things finished. Inevitably, that will be when the software refuses to boot up. If you’re like me you’ll struggle for a couple of hours before finally giving in and ringing IT.

Now I’m absolutely convinced that the young people who sign up for computer science courses are, in the main, relatively normal, more or less balanced. They are capable, for instance, of operating phones. In particular, they know how to answer them, and I’m sure they don’t lose that skill after graduation, at least as far as their personal phones are concerned.

So why is it if you phone an IT department you always get through to voicemail?

The voicemail announcement ends ‘leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.’ So you do that and go back to tinkering with your system. After an hour you ring again but still get the voicemail. After another half hour you decide to go down to tge IT department yourself.

The character you’re after is at his desk peering at a computer screen covered, apparently, with binary code. On his desk is a photo of himself and his young family taken a few years earlier, showing him with a neat haircut and a casual but smart shirt. Today he has a greasy pigtail half way down his back and is wearing a black tee shirt over a growing paunch. The shirt bears the slogan ‘make my day – ask me for technical support’. He’s chewing gum in a way that suggests Wrigley's has somehow caused him unforgivable offence.

You stand humbly by his desk until he deigns to acknowledge your presence. You explain your problem.

‘You’re not asking for support today are you?’ he asks.

Well, yes, that is what you were after since your deadline is for this afternoon.

Have you noticed how these guys are always hopelessly busy? They can spend anything up to an hour explaining to you why they can’t spare ten minutes for your trivial problem.

Eventually, however, he agrees to give you exactly that – ten minutes. ‘Not a minute more though,’ he makes clear, he’s got far too much to do. ‘Still, that’s all it’ll take,’ he assures you in a sudden outbreak of sympathy for a fellow human being, to demonstrate that he hasn't entirely forgotten how it's done. He accompanies you back to your desk.

This is where your problems really start. No IT person can possibly see someone else’s system and focus on the single problem causing concern. He comes over all electrician, teeth-sucking and all.

‘Jesus, you’re running Google desktop.’

‘Yes, I use it a lot.’

‘We’ve been taking it off everyone’s machines. It uses much too much disk space.’

‘But I’ve got 150 gig free out of 180.’

‘Even so, even so. Terribly resource hungry application.’

You start to tell him he can uninstall it if he wants when he interrupts you to point out something sill some dire.

‘Oh no, you’re on Service Pack 2. No wonder your system’s playing up. All machines are supposed to be on Service Pack 3 now. How did yours slip through the net?’

You have no idea, but that’s no help.

Fortunately, he’s fully up to dealing with the difficulty. ‘Not to worry.I don’t even have to go back to my desk. I can download the service pack over the network and install it at once.’

He starts the process. One of those wonderful little progress bars of Microsoft’s appears. ‘Remaining time 2 hours 38 minutes’ it tells you, but you have barely time to register the horror before it has fallen to 9 minutes 37 seconds. Ten seconds later it’s disconcertingly down to 5 minutes and 15 seconds. A full 14 minutes after that it's still showing 2 minutes and 15 seconds. Another nine minutes on, it’s finally finished, having taken nearly 25 minutes, nothing like the first time announced, but nothing like any of the other times either.

I keep wanting to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt, but I’m afraid their progress bars give the game away. No company responsible for as diabolical a gadget as that can be regarded as truly honest. Not in any sense of the word ‘honest’ that I understand.

Anyway, it’s done now. The IT man smiles at you encouragingly. All that remains is to reboot the machine and, after having taken an hour and a quarter to get started on a job he’d reckoned he’d sort in ten minutes, he’ll finally be able to take a look at it.

Then the screen turns blue.

And you hear the words that finally ram the iron into your soul. ‘You have got a full back up of your system, haven’t you?’

And this is what they call a support service.