Sunday, 30 August 2015

Seventy one murdered

The bastards said we'd soon be free
     while fire fell from the sky
I cower and imagine how
     I'll watch my children die
With rescue gone the time has come
     to take the risk and fly:
A man explains the fare

Beneath the furtive night it seems
     the price may be too high
The journey's blurring hours stretch
     this agonised goodbye
Until a bolting door explains
     the driver's frozen lie:
There is insufficient air

On Thursday you were late again
     you had no reason why
You moaned about a colleague and
     the weather made you sigh
You drifted through the motes until
     the splinter beamed your eye:
The grace that has you here,
                           not there

Saturday, 11 July 2015

I wandered lonely in Bromley by Bow

They don’t look like they used to
do they? he said
gesturing at the sky
and gazing at cloud

I wondered how far
his mind was cast

I drew one once
I said
when I was stuck in a traffic jam;
it didn’t look
like a cloud

Just like trees
we agreed

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

On leadership

As the vanquished political parties seek new leaders; and the 'winner' (which is to say, in the current climate, the party that did not lose) presents evidence on a daily basis of having no notion of a 'vision' or a 'theory' or an 'organising principle' of any kind (merely, ahem, a 'long term economic plan', the contents of which are secret); I find myself wondering:-

What would persuade me I had just seen
a leader worthy of the times?

And, rather more quickly than I had anticipated, I found an answer in the cross-hairs of two insights:

"All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership." [my emphasis]
John Kenneth Galbraith, 'The Age of Uncertainty', Andre Deutsch (1977)

"We have, in my view, reached a position which is potentially of great historical significance. We are witnessing a decline in confidence, and sometimes a growing mistrust, not only in political processes and politicians, but in social institutions such as the media and journalism, the police and religious organisations. Inequality is rising on many crucial dimensions. We have, for many, a confusion or anxiety around moral or social values, and community or individual identity. In my own subject of economics, we have less confidence in our ability to understand processes of growth, employment and change. We must seek growth that is sustainable in relation to our natural environment. And these difficulties are not confined to our own country; they are reflected in many societies, rich and poor, around the world. These difficulties affect us all, from young people looking for work, to older people worried about the future of their healthcare."
Lord Stern of Brentford, 'Prospering Wisely', British Academy (2014) 
[my emphasis]

I was fortunate enough about a year ago to hear Lord Stern talking about his work on 'Prospering Wisely'.  His summation centred on 'anxiety', that most corrosive state of being, gnawing away as we wonder where the money will come from, who will care for us when we are old, whether we will ever be able to have our own home, if the fighting will ever stop...  And it stretches, he suggested, to a planetary level: how do we acknowledge and access and then address our anxiety about the planet - the only one we have, the one that we seem hellbent on poisoning?

Anxiety.  The spirit of the age.

A leader - the one who can confront that anxiety, who can name it for us, who can stare at it with unflinching gaze.  Who can help us to work out what to do.

I can barely imagine such a person emerging from the current panorama of politicians.  There are, to be sure, some wonderful, even inspirational individuals among them; and though I subscribe to the proposition that politicians are coming from an ever narrower subset of the population (and may even be members of a 'chumocracy'), I am in general admiring of politicians: most of those I've actually met really are trying to make the world a better place.

And I have a suspicion that, should a leader of the kind I am describing ever appear before the great British public, he or she would be forgiven a great deal in return for understanding our anxiety.  Perhaps they wouldn't be quite as televisual, or as erudite, or as processed or as sound-bitten as those we've become used to: perhaps their 'back story' would contain themes and sub-plots currently considered untenable; but they would speak and move and operate with an authenticity that would simply overwhelm such minutiae.

It's a fantasy, of course.  A vain plea.  A Utopian cry in the wilderness from one who is far from having even to consider whether to take the extraordinary risk of putting one's head above the parapet...

Or maybe I'm just getting old.

Or anxious.

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Extreme Importance of Clive James

I've never met Clive James
but I'm aware that he's very sick

I read his book
Cultural Amnesia
a few years ago
and it sits comfortably and permanently
in the satchel I shall be taking to
my desert island

It is an extraordinary achievement, 
simultaneously literary 
beautiful and

He asks:
what is your duty, as a citizen of this world?

I thought at the time I read it
that it was a valedictory text;
and, though he may have had that intent,
he continues years later
to fulfil his duties

When my father was dying
and just a few days before he died
I had the privilege of a conversation with him
in which we confronted the awful horror
of imminent non-being.
Perhaps more than anything else
he wanted to know:
Have I done well?
Have I lived a good life?

I've never met Clive James
but I want to tell him
and hope he knows:
Yes.  In full measure.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Election Sonnet 2015

One vote, one rhyme

Mere weeks now before we'll at last have been polled,
invited from all of the options extolled
to choose with our crosses the people who’ll hold
[the] positions of power (they won’t ‘break the mould’).

They’ll whistle to scare us to stay in the fold
with views of the world that have long since grown cold:
[where] we’ll only be safe if the streets are patrolled
and [the] wealthy or poor (take your pick) are controlled

with [the] money that comes from the young, or the old,
and [the] proceeds from assets refinanced or sold
to anyone bearing a bucket of gold
(the handcuffs intended to shackle the bold).

Imagine if, somehow, by voting we told
the whole bloody lot – you’re no longer involved.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Just Say (I don't) Know

(A slightly longer post than either usual or intended, but hopefully worth the few additional minutes)

It’s always a little uncomfortable when the chair announces ‘And now it’s time for some questions from the audience’.  If you are thinking of asking a question, the discomfort embraces doubt (“Is my question sufficiently insightful that both the panel and the audience will be impressed? Or am I about to make an ass of myself?"), anxiety (“Have I put my hand up with the right mix of enthusiastic interest and disinterested aplomb? Or have I just made an ass of myself?”) and tension (“Should I aim to ask the first question? The last question? How can I ensure I don’t make an ass of myself?”).

Not asking a question is even worse.  Will the question come instead from one of those green ink weirdoes, whose painful contribution puts the panel in the position of having to utter some content-free nonsense so as to avoid pointing out the inanity of the question whilst still saying something so as not to appear rude?  Or from one of those pontificators, keen not so much on the idea of a question but instead on the opinion  that they've been gestating for months, intended to indicate that it is they, rather than the panellists, who should have been given the opportunity to address us today?

Or will it be a question that makes you wish bitterly you had asked your question, because they are so obviously an ingénue, and you would definitely have come across as the insightful inquisitor the evening so desperately needed, and now you feel like an ass for staying quiet; or will it be a question that makes you feel like a clumsy ignoramus, and whilst you are briefly relieved that you did not in fact reveal yourself as an ass, the more enduring sensation is the painful ache associated with the discovery that yes, in fact, you are an ass.

Fortunately, the wonderful Sir Richard Lambert cut through all such considerations a couple of weeks before Christmas when, at the Aldersgate Group’s launch of An Economy that Works, he suggested that prospects for the report achieving serious political traction in the coming months were highly limited because we were, let’s face it, in for a spirit-sapping, beyond-satirical election period of “total nuttiness”.

We laughed, of course.  But it’s not funny.  We should be choking: the mismatch between the challenges we face and the politics we have with which to meet them is simply breath-taking.

Curiously – or, perhaps not – a remark from one of the panellists just a few moments earlier may give us some clue as to what we are to make and do about this.  (For, surely, someone somewhere has to do something.)  Nigel Stansfield, Vice President and Chief Innovation Officer for Interface Inc (the sustainable carpet people, founded by Ray Andersen, author of the important 'Mid Course Correction') had been explaining, with an engaging and impressive mix of wit and passion (“We don’t call them ‘human resources’, we call them ‘people’”) that businesses are facing a crisis of trust: and this crisis is acting as a powerful block on progress towards greater sustainability.  Customers [I call them people], he explained, have so little confidence in business that they are unwilling to engage in the kind of long term relationships that are essential if the shift from products to services, or from linear to circular production, or from owning to leasing, is actually to take place.

Whether or not you believe that these steps represent ‘progress towards sustainability’, his proposition for how to tackle the problem was – to me at least – astonishing.

We have to start telling the truth” he said.  Businesses have to be open about what they’re doing, where they’re headed, why they do things the way they do, and so forth; and, slowly, people will start to trust them.

And this certainly feels right, and is consistent with what I've heard before from that most persuasive and expert voice on the matter of trust, Professor Richard Sennett.  Actually, he is a little more precise, pointing out (if memory serves) that you cannot directly increase how much people trust you; rather, you must attend to your trustworthiness, and then it’s up to them.  ‘Telling the truth’ is a very helpful component of trustworthiness – but mysterious phenomena like ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ and ‘consistency’ are also in the mix.

That said, let’s just reflect for a moment on the fact that a senior executive of a major corporation in front of a live audience of 200 or so admitted that businesses have been lying.  Systematically. Always.

Quite a thing to say, methinks.

It’s easy to respond to this by saying something like ‘Well, of course, we all know that already, the only interesting thing here is that someone said it in public’.  And something similar could be said of politicians: we already thought they were a bunch of disreputable dissemblers, interested in nothing but their own careers and the acquisition of power for power’s sake, so events like the expenses scandal or 'cash for access' did no more than confirm our beliefs.

But in both cases I think this is to dismiss the possibility that something really has changed, that the present really is different from the past – that there really is a crisis - and thereby to run the risk of failing to act in order to prevent a really very ugly future indeed. And even if that’s not quite right, or even plain wrong, what harm could there be if we were to tackle the culture of distrust head-on through a regime of ‘radical open-ness’?

To answer that question, I found myself back in 2062:

“Walled/open – a great deal of London’s economic life currently happens behind walls.  Corporate decision making is opaque: wealthy citizens immunise themselves from their ‘neighbours’ by living in gated communities; political processes are dominated by lobbyists and careerists conversing in inaccessible settings.  A London of 2062 in which these barriers persist would probably function as a city, but it could not possibly be described as sustainable.  A sustainable London would be one in which inclusion and participation was ordinary, in which openness and transparency were normal.  In this more open London, social injustices, environmental harms and wealth inequalities would be more apparent to all, increasing both the demand for change, and the political will to act.  Improved outcomes would emerge organically from the change in the underlying logic of social interaction and would not need to be ‘engineered’ through interventions from ‘the top’”

Which is by way of saying that the prevailing orthodoxy of ‘behind closed doors’ serves the interests of those who are currently wealthy and/or powerful; and it is they that would experience harm as a result of radical open-ness.  We should therefore expect them to resist any proposed or imminent increase in obligatory open-ness ex ante; and to develop swerve and avoidance tactics ex post. And oh! Look! It’s already happening:

  • ICT companies, whose products and services have done so much in recent years to facilitate the exposure of the previously hidden workings of corporations, and who seemed so keen to promote ‘open-ness’, turn out to be in the forefront of opaque financial management and tax avoidance.
  • Media organisations – whose willingness to use the utterances of politicians in a highly selective manner is such a key feature of the unwillingness of politicians to speak openly – purport to be platforms for open public debate, yet act instead to foster a culture of shrill extremism that serves  to deter engagement and thereby preserve their own privileged position of control.
  • Government agencies and employees so terrified of the actual consequences of the wonderful Freedom of Information Act (consequences that might include, for example, the embarrassment that might come from publishing government-commissioned research that finds fault in government policy) that an entire culture of cloudy edit, foggy launches and unwritten guidance has come into being.

One of the most severe outcomes from the last of these is that, in an era when there is at least a nominal commitment to the use of evidence when developing public policy, the material upon which decision-makers (should) rely – the independent research reports and so forth – has been comprehensively and serially emasculated by the time it reaches them.  How can they possibly know just how angry the people in the focus group were if it simply doesn’t say that in the report?  How can they really know how little of the pilot scheme actually worked if the entire document is focused on the ‘positive outcomes’?  The resistance to radical open-ness is not neutral: it is actively harmful.  The grip, rather than opening, becomes tighter.

So let’s just imagine – since it’s (still, just about) a new year, and an election in the UK is, apparently, imminent - the following scenarios:

Interviewer: So, as the MP for South Somewhereville, can you tell us how many of your constituents will be experiencing lower wages next year as a result of higher immigration from eastern Europe?

MP: I’m afraid not.  The interaction between labour supply, labour demand and wages is very complex, so we’ve commissioned specific academic research to explore this issue.  Until they produce their results, anything I say would be simply a guess, and I’m sure my constituents would prefer me not simply to guess or to trot out the defensive language provided earlier by my Special Advisor.


Interviewer: So, as shadow minister for transport, how do you respond to the accusation from government that you have no policy on this issue?

MP: The accusation is completely accurate.  This is a complex and delicate matter, and we believe that the right thing to do is think through all its dimensions very carefully.  When we have taken proper time to work out what we think is best, we’ll let everyone know.


Interviewer: So there you go minister – Ms Smith has suggested that the policy of focusing on the under 25s is not only depriving older people of their share of resources, but is failing to address the underlying cause of the problem! What do you have to say to that?

Minister: Well I have to say that Ms Smith makes a very good point and I’d like to take it away and reflect further on our proposals.

Or (my favourite):

Interviewer: So, minister, does the European Commission’s statement this morning mean that house price inflation will be higher next year, increasing the risk of an early rate rise?

MP: I don’t know.

How often, in any domain of public life, have you heard someone say: I don’t know?

If you were to hear such a response, would you think:

What an ignorant fool! How unprofessional! What an ass! I shall never trust this fool again!


How refreshing to hear someone acknowledge that they don’t know something, rather than jabbering on about something different or simply trotting out whatever party HQ had told them to say this morning. What class! I shall pay this person a little more serious attention when next I hear them speak.

It’s as much our fault as theirs.  We seem to demand of our ‘leaders’, those people we put on pedestals or platforms, that they have special insight, special powers. We want them to tell us.  We want them to know. Please, Mr Big Man, you decide: I’ll whinge about it, but I’ll go along with it.  But I definitely don’t want to take any responsibility…

Once, perhaps, that might have been ok.  But not anymore.  The world is too interconnected, too fast, too complex. Mere governments cannot control things.  Neither can the corporations. The problems are wicked, which means the solutions are distributed; which means – which means you, and me, and everyone else has to take some responsibility.  A sustainable future – by which I mean a sane and viable future - is one in which we don’t just share ‘things’; we have to share responsibility, too.

And as anyone who has ever tried sharing responsibility knows, it’s not easy; it depends, probably more than anything else, on trust.  And trust, in turn, depends, probably more than anything else, on honesty and open-ness.

So here it is: a programme of radical open-ness has the potential to rejuvenate our sorely damaged political and economic management systems; such a programme, if implemented, would inherently begin to nurture a more genuinely sustainable society; and such a programme could start with little more than a smattering of politicians taking the risk to utter, as one trustworthy grown up to another – I just don’t know; what do you think?

I don’t know.  What do you think?

Redefine entrepreneurialism and sustainability may flourish...

The online Oxford dictionaries site says that an entrepreneur is

  • a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit

Wikipedia says that entrepreneurship is:

  • the process of starting a business or other organization

The Cambridge online dictionaries site defines entrepreneurialism as:

  • the skills that you need to start your own business

The 'Small Business Pro' site says that the skills you need to run your own business are:

leadership skills
strategic planning skills
marketing skills
sales and customer relations skills
communication skills
people management skills
finance and accounting skills

Neither the Small Business Pro site, nor any other, is prepared to say how much of these skills you might require: and that makes sense, of course.  Each of these 'skills' is not only qualitative, but arranged on a spectrum: people are more or less good at each of them; and there is no template for what combination of skills, at what 'level', comprises effective entrepreneurialism.

But wait.  Just how 'business'-specific are these skills?  Imagine specifying the skills required to - say - run a home or household successfully.  Or to raise a child, or children, successfully.  Or to look after a large garden.

And if you find yourself looking through the list of skills you need 'to run your own business' and thinking "Well, I can't see how that skill is relevant to looking after a large garden", then recall or imagine a business entrepreneur of your acquaintance and ask: is there at least one of these areas where the person I am thinking of is singularly crap?

So I wish to re-cast the notion of entrepreneurialism as:

  • the process of deploying finite resources in pursuit of a goal where there is a genuine risk of failure

Which is by way of suggesting that entrepreneurialism is a skill-set universally present in the population, and which, as a result of its compound nature, is distributed in an untidy spectrum from 'low' to 'high'.

And why this might be of any use whatsoever?  Two reasons:

  • it would signal a broader notion of 'reward' or 'return' or 'success' than merely profit
  • it would include and legitimise a much wider set of people within the group upon whose resourcefulness and creativity our collective prosperity depends

If, as I suspect, the concept of 'entrepreneurialism' is a key node in the complex, open system that is our economy (or, to put it another way, it is a particularly important commitment device in the interlocking set of rules determining the operation of capitalism) then a change of this kind has the potential to have far-reaching effects - effects that, I further suspect, would be very much consistent with the notion of sustainability.

So if you've ever thought haughtily about housework, or gardening or parenting - think again.