Category Archives: Life in the wide world

Walls have ears, ceilings have microphones

I was astonished to read this week that Google has plans to encourage us to install microphones in the the ceiling. Potentially on all the time I guess, Google will be waiting to answer your every pondering and verbal musing without you having to go to all the trouble of finding a device and turning it on to search for that elusive bit of information.

Apparently: “Like a great personal assistant it will interrupt you and say ‘You’ve got to leave now’ “, to catch that train or somesuch.  Like your mother when you’re late for school.

And what a dampening effect on dinner parties.  No more head scratching as to ‘Who was that actress in ….?’ or ”What was that film with …?’ ‘Was that bit in Godfather I or II…?’ An end to pontificating about house prices or the economy, bandying figures around wildly to make a point – ‘if I could just intervene at this point ..’ intones a disembodied voice from above, ‘.. GDP growth in the last year of the previous government was actually …’ (Though presumably you can still speculate about Tory pre-election speeches without fear of contradiction now that the party geeks have wiped the history on the Conservative website).

Surely half the fun is in not knowing the answer, in debating your way through one topic to another. Back in the box Mr. Google, we don’t need to let the facts get in the way of a good conversation.

Events, dear boy, events

rose july 2013

Rose is a rose is a rose

Of course the word ‘historic’ is very much overused, but some weeks do seem to be more significant than others – Monday saw the birth of our future King, for example.

And then there are other things which make one think there’s been a fault in the space-time continuum in the last few weeks:

  • a British man won the Men’s SIngles Final at Wimbledon
  • a British man won the Tour de France – that is, the second British man for the second year in a row
  • England are beating the Australians in a Test series to retain the Ashes
  • we have had four consecutive weeks of proper hot sunny weather, as in the season generally known as summer

The list goes on and it’s all very un-British, actually to be successful at things and to enjoy an actual differentiation between one season and the next. Even my own small efforts are paying off – this week I have run a full 5k, three times, really running the whole way.

There’s definitely something wrong, and clearly we’ve fallen through some cosmic hole into a parallel universe.

The end of Thunder Road

pitch wristband 15 6 13It was a privilege to be at the Springsteen concert at Wembley on 15 June 2013. To share in the vastness of the venue, the phenomenal range of songs and the skill of the band. To witness the perfection of a complete and uninterrupted performance of the whole ‘Darkness on the edge of town‘ album. That’s the one where it all began for me in 1978 with melodies and lyrics which have been my constant companions ever since.

But I won’t be back again for the live circuit, it’s too frustrating trying to see when you’re standing the thronging crowd however good-natured the atmosphere, and Springsteen and his music aren’t made to be coolly observed from a distant seat – be close and be part of it or not there at all. Trying to revisit life’s experiences can only end in disappointment and there comes a time when memories must be laid to rest and left in peace.

Knowing this in my heart, I wept through the final encore – after more than three hours on stage with the E Street Band, the man alone with his guitar and harmonica and a sublime acoustic rendition of ‘Thunder Road’, surely a farewell performance just for me.

Somerset meets North Africa and they get married

Sweet memories from the Mediterranean

Sweet memories from the Mediterrranean

We’ve been in Freshford near Bath to a wedding which belied the notion that all such celebrations are rather the same. The bride was Algerian, and a long-time friend of our Moroccan daughter-in-law. The groom comes from a large family – at least two generations of five siblings – based in Bath.

The official legal bit was dispensed with at the Guildhall in Bath and then the party de-camped to the Freshford Memorial Hall for the real celebration. In the late afternoon sun there were drinks and hors d’oeuvres before we went outdoors to witness the couple’s handfasting ceremony – a touching pre-medieval marriage process in which the bride and groom’s hands are briefly bound together as a symbol of their lifelong connection and mutual support.

The bride’s mother told me how Algerian weddings last for a week and that for at least a couple of those days are attended by two or three hundred guests. We were constrained to just a few hours, but there were echoes of a larger party as the bride appeared in three beautiful costumes, changing from her sparkling fitted ivory wedding gown and train into lush embroidered silky flowing dresses in shimmering green and orange – traditional colours for weddings at home.

The wedding feast was cous cous with vegetable tagine, and accompaniments of flatbreads and cheese-filled filo rolls, a red pepper dipping sauce and fierce harissa paste that won’t be quickly forgotten by those who were brave enough to try it.

For a few minutes later on, the DJ and his music were paused and replaced by north African rhythms, the gorgeous olive-skinned women ululating as they processed in with their friend and sister, and melting henna was pressed on to the bride’s palms by her mother and mother-in-law. For a moment we were transported away to another time and place.

Three Cypriot sisters, once the bride’s student flatmates, now wives and mothers themselves came with their families and added the flavour of a different corner of the Mediterranean. So the meal was completed by exquisite pastries from Algeria and Cyprus and sweet peppermint tea.

As darkness fell we gathered up the sleeping grand-baby and the three year old now wide-eyed with excitement and exhaustion and made our way slowly back up the hill to our rented cottage. The air was heavy with the scent of wild garlic, its starry white flowers glowing in the light of the nearly full moon.

The cat’s dilemma

Here’s a case study in managing change.

Suppose you are working on a long-term and complicated project with a big team of more than 25 people. You all have a broad understanding about the direction of travel, but within the team there are several, not necessarily compatible, perspectives on the overall aim and how to get there. Your colleagues have a range of skills and experience, and some pretty entrenched views too.  Your predecessors signed up to your involvement some time ago.

The project, as projects do, has a number of fairly intractable issues, and serious inefficiencies have crept in over the years as the team got bigger and bigger. Every now and then you all have to sit down and re-think how you go about your activities. But it’s come to the point where people in your home organisation are saying it’s all too disadvantageous and it’s time to cut your losses and leave. You have to keep these influential people sweet, but you also acknowledge that there are others in your organisation who hold the opposite view just as strongly.

How to respond?

a) give up and go home – thereby losing all the benefits of being in the team in order to gain unspecified advantages through dissociating yourself from the project;

b) stay, make your own entrenched view known and make it clear that you are never going to change this position – it’s not you, it’s them – and hope that (i) the naysayers back home don’t give you too much grief, and (ii) the ensuing stalemate is not entirely detrimental to everyone’s interests;

c) stay, find out more about what your colleagues really think; look for the common ground that’s in everyone’s interest; build alliances and seek out an approach that meets some of everyone’s needs but expects everyone to give something up too; and

d) … get stuck in to streamlining that overblown bureaucracy.

Answers on a post card please, direct to 10 Downing Street, London SW1.

For the next five years the UK public faces the enticing prospect of protracted membership negotiations with our 26 partners in the European Union – or not, I suppose, if they decide not to bother negotiating with us. The Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the results of the negotiations, in other words we’ll get to vote on whether we want to be part of the EU on the agreed new terms. In the meantime we will be subjected to an awful lot of pontificating from all sides in the debate. And even then the question will not be ‘settled’ because whatever the outcome, a large proportion of the population will be unhappy about it.

Quite apart from the eccentricity of this approach to negotiating – the Eurosceptics will say ‘give us more powers back or we’ll vote against’, and the pro-Europeans will say ‘be more committed or we’ll vote against’ so the government can’t guarantee that it will deliver a vote in favour of the new terms, which means they are not in a position to agree terms anyway – how on earth are we the general public supposed to know enough about it to make an informed decision? Statistics, polls and the finer points of EU treaties and legislation will be quoted at us like passages from the Bible, all out of context and less than enlightening. People will just vote on the basis of their instinctive reaction, or faith, as it were.

Already it’s known as an ‘In/Out’ referendum, a phrase which cannot fail to conjure up the image of 27 eurocrats in a solemn circle dancing to the 1940’s song …

In, out, in out,
You shake it all about,
You do the hokey cokey and you turn around,
That’s what it’s all about.’

Or else we’ll be like our cat, who makes a big fuss to be let out if he’s indoors, and after five minutes outside is banging on the back door and meowing to come back into the kitchen. Wherever he ends up, clearly he always thinks he’d be better off on the other side.

There are matters of state to be decided - it's exhausting

There are matters of state to be decided – it’s exhausting

The end of anonimity

It’s the corollary of ‘you wouldn’t think it could happen in a town like ours’: from now until forever that place we’ve never heard of before is a name the whole world recognises.  Dunblane, Hungerford, Colombine, Aurora, Utoya, …… Newtown.

From here on there will be too many words about Newtown, Connecticut. Too many sound bites, too many repetitions of the interviews with kindergarten kids describing sights and sounds that are too old for them.  There will be politicking, there will be lessons to learn, and probably not act upon. The media circus will roll on, eventually, and international shock and bewilderment will shrink to leave just the families’ interminable emptiness where a child should be – in Newtown, Connecticut.

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Leveson foreshadowed

Curiously enough, a colleague and I spent over ten years up to early 2012 regulating the UK media. We headed up an organisation called the Office for the Regulation of the Media, otherwise known as OFTROM.

There were two policy directorates which dealt respectively with press and broadcast media standards, a media complaints directorate, and corporate services. My role as Director of Media Complaints was to oversee teams of caseworkers who investigated complaints about press intrusion submitted by individuals. Once the evidence about each complaint had been assembled to confirm its validity, the file went to the Media Complaints Board which made a ruling as to compensation. The Board met twice a month and consisted of media representatives and OFTROM members. If the media organisation didn’t comply with an OFTROM ruling, the individual had to resort to taking them to court, but that was a less certain and more costly route for both parties.

In practice, OFTROM wasn’t really very good. We were over-staffed, badly structured, stuck in three locations across London and not making best use of new technology. We were also much reviled by the media industry, of course, so every problem was magnified in the eyes of the public.

The Leveson inquiry came upon us as a serious case of life imitating art and we wondered if, just in order to save everyone a good deal of time and money, we should submit our consulting skills role play scenario (created at the now defunct National School of Government) as evidence.

As Media Complaints Director, I enjoyed grappling with the balance between public interest and press intrusion, and it was interesting to contemplate how the dividing line between the two had changed over time. It was obvious that what was an acceptable press story in 2012 would not have been tolerated in the 1950s. Whether that shift is a good thing – progress – is a matter of debate. Although it would be hard to argue for a return to the time when Edward VIII’s liaison with Mrs Simpson was kept out of the British press until his abdication, the current obsession with celebrity trivia is equally distasteful. The public interest is not the same thing as what the public is interested in.

What also became clear during the OFTROM years was that it was impossible for the regulator to keep up with the impact of the internet.  When OFTROM was invented, the news arrived on paper or via radio and television. By the time of its demise, the distinction between one medium or another was irrelevant.

This is a point well-made by Hugo Rifkind in his recent article in the Times. Of course Hugo’s article sits behind a paywall and you won’t be able to read it unless you subscribe to The Times, one way or another.  But if there is going to be any real and valid journalism in the future it will have to be paid for somehow.

The rest of us are just typing.

office machines,Photographs,typewriters

An unholy muddle

Writing about agenda item GS 1708D feels risky, because anyone raising the issue in the last week has been on the receiving end of a right old mix of derision and opprobrium.

It’s curious that although to an extent we are learning in the 21st Century to treat minorities with respect, the trend doesn’t always seem to extend to those who profess a religious faith.  On the whole it’s open season to dismiss organised religion as irrelevant or to blame it as the source of the world’s worst atrocities, now and through the last twenty centuries.  The fact is that religion is a fallible and flawed human construct which will inevitably get a lot wrong, but which is mainly populated by ordinary people trying to understand whether there’s a God, and if so, what that means both in general and for how they live their lives day-to-day.

So anyway, clearly the majority of the Church of England agree it’s time to take seriously the notion of a different sort of bishop.  Last week’s measure was rejected because the arrangements for those who can’t accept the new bishops on theological grounds were deemed insufficient, not (entirely) because those voting against wanted to throw out the whole idea.  However, as our Bishop has pointed out in his ‘Ad clerum et laicum’ letter, after years of debating the options any new alternative can only look rather similar to the one voted down last week.  In the end it may turn out to be one of those cases where if everyone’s equally unhappy, that may be the right answer.

Jesus made a point of spending time with society’s outcasts, and treated men and women as equals.  The earthly organisation which grew from his teachings subsequently gave itself unhelpful limitations in line with a human interpretation of what God had in mind.  Presumably the present muddle is not what she meant at all.

Another country

The opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic games was spectacular, an amazingly well-kept secret, flawless (as far as I could tell) in its execution, creative, quirky, funny, moving, inclusive, probably sometimes bemusing to overseas viewers.  I was absorbed by every minute of it and I heartily agreed with Danny Boyle’s choice of things to love and admire about this country.

But I realised I couldn’t concur with those who said it made them ‘proud to be British’.  It’s just not a sensation I recognise because although I have lived here since I was 18 months old, I was born in Montreal to a Canadian mother and a British father who had lived in Montreal for nearly 20 years.  And after all this time, despite having been educated, worked, married, and brought up a family here, I don’t feel as though I ‘come’ from this country, and I still see myself as an outsider.

It turns out that when the chips are down and a competitor is wearing that red and white flag with its bold and beautiful maple leaf, it’s Canada that I want to win.