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20 March 2014

When I hear of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lavish expenditure on the winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the more recent illegal occupation of the Crimean peninsula I am reminded of historical precedents

Such moves hark back seventy or so years to recall Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936. It was here that he proudly showcased the new, all powerful Germany with gleaming concrete stadia and massed Nazi flags proclaiming the wonders of the Third Reich. Then two years later, in March 1938, Germany’s occupation of Sudetenland left the remaining part of Czechoslovakia weak, powerless and easy prey for the eventual complete take-over by Hitler’s armies. The Furher grandly stated he was the Czechs savior as he was releasing three and half million Germans from oppression and gave them, quotes: ‘an unalienable right to self-determination’.

And now are we hearing this same empty rhetoric being pedaled once again. Yes, the same old self-justifications spewing out of Russia’s propaganda machine.  And they expect us all to believe it, be taken in? For the Czechs, Hitler’s legacy was war, deprivation, starvation and mass killings of the Jews, gypsies and other untermenschen – the Nazi classification for ‘sub-humans’. And what will Russia’s legacy be in the Crimea? Despite their claims of legitimacy through fixing the referendum these bully-boy tactics swim against the tide of many peoples’ wishes. Judging by Russia’s track record you can expect a more authoritarian regime with the suppression of opposition voices, spying on its people, locking up dissenters without trial and at worst ‘disappearing’ serious offenders.

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself as so-called ‘national influence’ is exerted by powerful neigbours. The Russian bear has come out of his cave once again to frighten those countries on its borders, remember Georgia in 2008? The old parts of the Soviet Union will be feeling a chill of apprehension once they see the brazen manner in which Russia is exercising its power once again.

In the process Russia’s belligerence is upsetting the western democracies but what will they do? The USA has no stomach or the money for another war, the European Union will waffle and we’ll watch on the sidelines with righteous indignation and do nothing. It looks like Munich all over again. In 1938 we called it appeasement now we’d call it apathy.

‘Sanctions , Sanctions,’ everyone cries but there is now so much Russian money in the UK and other western capitals, can the money-men really cope with life without the Oligarchs’ tsunami of lucre? This free-flowing stream of cash has fuelled property markets, the sales of upmarket automobiles and growth in high-end luxury goods – and none more so than in London. And if the West does turn the screw and starts to freeze Russian assets, what then? Putin could turn the off the gas he supplies to the west. Crikey! West Germany relies on two thirds of its gas from the Ukraine pipeline and the EU as a whole  relies on a third of oil, gas and coal from the Russia – what would that do to energy prices and our industrial output if that was curtailed? However, to balance that argument Russia generates 52% of its income from EU energy sales and its economy couldn’t do without that either. Although it seems ridiculous to a layman how the West has become so self-reliant on a Russian dictator for energy needs?

As is often the case with the exercise of Power the problem revolves around greed and corruption. During the last twenty years we have seen Russia emerge from the chaos of Yeltsin and modernise its commercial activities, stabilize its stock market and flood western goods into its shops. It’s moved from collective communism into a hybrid-capitalism with corruption at its heart. As Milo Minderbinder used to say in Joseph Heller’s great WW2 satire, Catch 22, when justifying buying stores from both his enemies and allies to feed the American troops in war-torn Italy, ‘But you all get a share’. In Russia’s case you’ll get a share if you are a part of Putin’s inner circle of favour, which is why he is known as the ‘Little Czar’.  He snuffs out opposition when it emerges, crushes any outspoken press or TV channels, the leaders of all the big cities are Putin’s men as are the heads of the major corporations – companies like Gazprom are under Putin’s control. The original ‘owner’ was put in jail for eight years on trumped-up charges of corruption. In reality he had gathered too big a political following and power base.

In Russia it is dangerous to be become a threat to Putin. And you are not even safe in London; witness the journalist and author, Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in his west end hotel with a lethal dose of polonium in his tea. Then the President manipulated his terms of office so that he could serve another two eight year terms. He is becoming impregnable with too many men around him that need his patronage to maintain their seriously rich lifestyles – it is positively medieval, the robber barons are on the rampage.

So what is that drives oppressive regimes – a bid to control, wealth and the ruthless need to stay in power at all costs? Dictators never retire; they get ousted, just like in Ukraine. But there remains something more sinister around these all powerful regimes. Take North Korea with its obsessive secrecy. Those who have been lucky enough to escape its brutal grip speak of cruelty beyond measure, starvation and a standard of life that is incomprehensible to most other civilized nations, third world or otherwise. Why would you suppress your citizens so harshly and not accept food aid or technological help to feed your people. Why not give them the freedom to read and hear what they like, understand the world beyond their own borders, travel or engage in the social activities that we would regard as our given right? Their political prison camps are harsh in the extreme; an execution was alleged for some poor individual who had the temerity to sing a South Korean song. It is very expensive to manipulate a population of many millions of people. In North Korea, like Stalin and Hitler, Kim Jong Ill, is worshiped like a God, the cult of personality is espoused. So much so that it is reported that a 14 year old girl was recently drowned in a flood trying to rescue a portrait if their beloved leader. Perhaps if the North Korean hierarchy understood precedent they would realise that such adoration of false gods will be their eventual undoing. Meanwhile they spend most of their income on arms, in the same way that the Soviet Union did until Gorbachev realized they were broke.

In Korea if you deviate, you go off to prison to be re-educated. If you learn your lessons you’ll be released, if you don’t its curtains. Should North Korea one day break its grip on their peoples I wonder how long it would take the entire population to un-learn what they have had drummed into them since the end of the Korean War in 1953?

Precedent would suggest for some never. Take the Japanese soldiers who spent fifty years hold up in the hills of a remote island off the Japanese coast and did not surrender their weapons until the mid-1990s. They were still fighting for the honour of their Emperor and unaware that the war had ended. A sworn allegiance never to be broken, in their case, this was loyalty without precedent.








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The arduous art of novel writing

25 June 2013

Well it’s finished. In fact it was finished many months ago, in fact years ago, yet the temptation to continuously fiddle with the MS is obsessive. It might be called Compulsive-Altering-the-Script-Disorder (CASD).

As it is my first attempt at a full length book  I have sought advice and read endless articles on the web and even joined Bloomsbury Writers and Artists, the publishers of the definitive” Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook” and an organisation that does its best to encourage new writers with courses and seminars and endless books. I went to one of their events in London at some expense; a ‘Meet the Literary Agent’ day in a smart London square, appropriately located in Bloomsbury.

As I asked the taxi driver to take me to Bloomsbury I already felt like ‘a published author’ and adjusted my bow-tie and day-dreamed of endless drinks parties with the Good and the Great, interviews with Mark Lawson on the BBC’s ‘Front Row’, Guardian reviews, touring the country for book signings, Hay-on Wye here we come… and of course selling the film rights to Hollywood.

It was a quiet Saturday morning in London and the taxi had no problem pulling up outside the black front door of the elegant brass-plated offices. As I stepped onto the pavement dismissing the cab with a casual wave of the hand I was half-expecting to bump into Virginia Wolf. Alas, reality awaited.

Although I was five minutes early for the official coffee cum grip ‘n grin session and before the real workshops of the day got underway, I was surprised to see that the ground floor offices were already packed with chattering authors-in-waiting, Bloomsbury minders and those elusive creatures, literary agents. You can normally spot them; they are mostly female, unpublished authors themselves, who whilst friendly, give you a wary look that says, ‘Don’t tell me your bloody life-story of how you were sitting in a café in Bath and came up with an ABSOLUTELY brilliant idea for children’s book.’

I climbed the shallow wide steps and pressed the door bell, then the intercom and eventually I started hammering on the door with a large brass knocker. The front doors to the elegant Georgian house were resolutely locked. Nobody appeared. Despite more buzzing, shouting and waving through the window at the swollen, ground floor gathering inside, still I failed to gain anyone’s attention. Was I being politely ignored as if I was some well-dressed drunk returning from an all-night party? Meanwhile, ‘those in the know’ were busy networking like fury and not prepared to let anyone else crowd in on the small number of target literary agents present. Hearing the rising crescendo of voices inside and seeing the packed room of scribblers scoffing free coffee and biscuits was tormenting me as I boiled with frustration on the pavement. It was like a metaphor for my book, I could see the prize but it was just out of my deserved grasp; my Norman No-Mates feelings were compounded by my native Yorkshire economy in not getting my-moneys-worth. It was only fortuitous that one of the delegates, clearly exhausted by their sales pitch to some literary glitterati, decided to step outside for a fag and I managed to shove past the needy smoker and bolt through the open door to secure my place.

In Bloomsbury’s favour it was great to meet other would-be writers and share our collective angst on getting published for the first time; however, it was somewhat discouraging when one lady literary agent, representing a major agency, informed the twenty or so eager JK Rowling wannabies that she received over 12,000 submissions every year and accepted, at best, only one or two new writers. Another agent suggested my novel was wrongly titled and was ‘difficult to place’ because it was both murder/mystery and a black comedy. Whilst learning some interesting tips about the importance of a concise introductory letter (more important than the synopsis) when submitting your MS, I returned to Yorkshire looking moodily out from the train window at the rolling countryside in dispirited mood.

About six years previously, when I had written the first draft of my book, I was introduced to an ex-director of Penguin Books who had set up a small literary agency. She loved the MS but failed to get it placed. She eventually went back into educational publishing and my contact dried up. Looking back the novel was still a shambles: it was littered with typos and the chronology was all over the place. However, her acceptance of the script’s basic merits was a great boost and spurred me on to really get it finished. Fortunately, another friend, a celebrated poet, playwright and children’s book author, introduced me to Dennis Hamley, an author of sixty or so young people’s adventure stories. He gave me many invaluable lessons on the structure of the book and corrected my questionable grammar. More importantly, he told me to cut the MS length down by a third and remove my tendency to go off on tangents which, whilst amusing, did not enhance the storyline.

Before my more recent Bloomsbury visit I had submitted the MS to eight literary agencies. All were rejected, some within a couple of weeks, some after three months or more – quite par for the course. No explanations but I was forewarned about this. ‘Doesn’t match our requirements or lists’ was about the most feedback I received. I decided to take the bull by the metaphorical horns and submit the MS to five good friends, all avid readers, I asked them for HONEST CRITICAL feedback. Somewhat to my astonishment they enjoyed what they had read and thought the characters were well drawn if a little eccentric. Taking on board the various helpful comments from my ‘real readers’ and armed with the knowledge of my Bloomsbury adventure I decided to publish the book on Amazon as a Kindle download or an e-book. My theory being that if ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which started as an e-book, could sell millions of copies despite typing and punctuation errors, then why couldn’t mine sell a few hundred copies? Time will tell but as every good marketing man knows, sex sells, and my offering whilst having a few risqué moments is tame by comparison.

Currently the book cover is being designed and It should be available within the next few weeks. Please have a browse as sample chapters and a brief preview will be available free of charge; the book will be modestly priced. So please look out for:’ HIDDEN LIVES’ by Douglas Adamson. It has only taken eight years to complete so your reviews and comments (good, bad and plain rude) will be very welcome!

Every advertising copy writer has a half completed book in his or her top right-hand office drawer. ‘Hidden Lives’ is mine. I hope the sequel (already five chapters in) takes less time to complete. In the interim please tell your friends.


Now you see them, now you don’t

21 May 2013

A good friend of mine was the Chief Executive of an FT 100 company, eventually he went the way of all CEOs and was un-ceremoniously axed after a profit warning too-far. While basking in his massive pay-off and an annual pension which is still higher than I ever earned as a successful company owner, he explained to me with some pride that he had been in post nearly five years, far longer than most FT 100 CEOs survive.

 I was reminded as I read in the marketing press this week of two high-profile marketing directors who were now as the media euphemistically like to state, ‘were going to pursue other interests’ after a little over a year in the job and one case, less than 12 months. The average life expectancy of a marketing director in a major company is estimated to be around 18 months. Goodness knows what this must cost the brands they have been hired to nurture and the organisations who hired these individuals? The massive fees (35%+ of 1st year’s salary) of the head-hunting firm who tempted them away from some other lucrative position, the time spent interviewing them and the accompanying disruption and severance packages that result from getting it wrong. What can you realistically achieve after such a short period of time in post? The hapless individual will have at best worked out the company’s movers and shakers, where the water coolers are located and start to understand where his/her best efforts should be directed let alone had time to take much action. How long does it take to develop, research and bring a new fmcg product or service to market and see the results – under a year is going some?

 In contrast Steven Sharp, the ‘long serving’ Executive Director of Marketing at M&S announced his retirement this week. He joined the firm in 2004. Well at least in nine years he had the chance to make his mark with the much admired ‘Your M&S’ line that identified the place M&S has in the hearts of many UK consumers. The extravagant and stylish TV commercials that dared to bring back ‘60s icon Twiggy to show that being old doesn’t mean you can’t be fashionable and have fun! Sharp’s appointment while Sir Stuart Rose was at the helm of M&S, demonstrates that sound and careful recruitment of talent can reap incalculable dividends.

 Getting it wrong and the damage can be equally incalculable.     



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The Forgotten Art of Sales

15 March 2013

It might be an exaggeration to say that the art of selling has been forgotten but I believe that the basic element of eye-balling customers is being given less attention. Relying more and more on technology to communicate means we miss out important parts of the sales process.   

 An e-mail is not a sales pitch nor is it customer relationship management. Relationship building requires dialogue. Electronic communications can never pick up the nuances of a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting. The tone of voice in a telephone call can tell you a lot, face-to-face meetings reveal even more – body language, the way in which you are received – there are hundreds of coded messages being given out by just being there! Meetings are the DNA of building proper relationships. You learn so much about the culture of a customer’s business when sitting in their offices, more than you’ll ever get from a computer screen – however good the website. I recognise that many businesses today are built solely on remote methods of communications (Amazon, Ocado etc) but also how many have their expensively nurtured reputations damaged by relying on as little human contact as possible (banks, utilities etc)?

 I am not decrying email and social media channels which we use in our day-to-day business lives but we should never forget that you cannot compete with human interaction. We know that selling is no longer transactional but relational. And there is nothing more relational than when buyers meet sellers face-to-face.

 Starting young

 Today, many young people leave school or university lacking the missing ingredients of personal awareness and good social skills – despite having a good ‘on paper’ education. These are essential elements in any business environment and there are plenty of mature adults that can be found wanting too. ‘Selling’ touches every aspect of a business. It is internal as well as external. A grumpy person in your accounts department can cause as much damage to customer relations as a poor salesperson. Every individual in an organisation should undergo some basic sales/customer relationship training. The Olympic volunteers demonstrated what a positive effect ‘getting it right’ can have. Their cheery helpfulness went a long towards enhancing the image of theLondongames and made a major contribution to creating a success story forGreat Britain.

 So I urge people in all walks of commerce and industry to stop hiding behind emails, pick up the phone, and better still, go and see the customer. It may cost more but you’ll reap the benefits in the long term.

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All-Year Winter

29 May 2012

A postscript ends this Blog as the body of the text was penned on or before May 18th and just prior to the astonishing run of brilliant weather!

They say that SAD syndrome, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, affects people that live in extreme northern climes and is often associated with the melancholy of the Nordic races.

As I write this on 18 May 2012 many Great Britons must qualify for this winter depressive illness, only formally described and named in America in 1984 and now recognized by doctors as a real illness. Our spring has passed us by and yet there is still no sign of warm weather and darkened skies plague our days. In moments of deepest gloom one can imagine how a nuclear winter might be ……except it would last forever.

Some treatments for SAD syndrome include: sunlight, bright lights as well as antidepressant medication, ionized air treatment and even hormone melatonin supplements. But we all know that the real answer is simple: Let there be SUNSHINE!

The awful weather we have been experiencing during the first four months of this year, with the exception of one unseasonal warm week in March, affects not just us humans but the animal kingdom too. The swallows that normally arrive at my house at the head of Nidderdale in mid April did not come in force until 8th of May, three weeks late. It was not until May 12 that I saw the first swifts and our regular pair of house martins that nest in an upper floor window eave have only just started to investigate their usual home – nearly a month late!

The weather it seems has got stuck. It is said that there has been a high pressure system over the Azores that is blocking better weather going north while everything to the south remains hot and sunny. For certain we know that severe storms over northern Africa and an enormous low pressure system over Spain have held up bird migration this year. Chiffchaffs, blackcaps and assorted warblers were all very late into the UK. My garden seems to be erupting in slow- motion, herbaceous plants remain inert or are creeping up out of the soil, the Ash trees look as if they will never come into leaf. 

So how shall we react to these strange climatic times? A little over a month ago there were sixteen counties with either hose-pipe bans or some level of drought restrictions and yet after two weeks of torrential rain seven of these areas have been removed from this list as aquifers and reservoirs have filled up.

Weather forecasters, since Michael Fish’s great hurricane blunder of the late 80’s, have become risk averse. The Met.Office tells us of weather alerts for the most minor conditions. Severe Weather Warnings pop up at the slightest provocation. We rarely believe them or take much notice any more; we have become sanitised to the Government’s political correctness/health and safety agendas. Ultimately this leads to disillusionment and now we don’t know when to take them seriously or not!

Climate change may mean that we’ll all have to get used to different weather patterns. But nobody really knows. Until a few years ago we had wet warm winters without much snow; then we had two winters in 2009 &10 when with loads of snow and arctic temperatures, the coldest for twenty or so years. So what are we to believe?

There is no doubt that the arctic ice cap is melting and inevitably this must lead to changes in our climate. Some say if the Humboldt Current that brings warm water from the South Atlantic gets interrupted by melting sea ice from the north we could be in for another ice age. Others predict hotter summers and wetter winters. Over the millennia weather has always changed but ours might happen over a few short years rather than through a gradual and more manageable time-scale. The last ice age was halted 7000 years ago (we should be in one now according to normal patterns) but then man learnt how to farm by growing crops, breeding animals and grazing cows and other beasts. These actions of the early farmers, unbeknown to them, started to create more carbon monoxide which in turn halted the onset of the next ice age. Another good reason to be thankful for the farming community.

Whatever we do we have to adapt to fit our circumstances. I am a Northern European, whilst I like the sun, I never feel really comfortable in very hot weather that you find in southern Europe, let alone the Middle or Far East where temperatures and humidity are more extreme. It doesn’t suit my body type; I get sunburned and feel exhausted, never on top form. Take me to Scandinavia and I feel as if I have come home! I remember being on business in the US and had to visit Phoenix in the Arizona desert in July. It has an unbelievable dry, desert heat. You never sweat because the perspiration you produce immediately turns to salt which in turn leaves tell-tale white stains on your clothing. Air-conditioning helps you survive. Everywhere you go in the US you find heavily air-conditioned buildings. These places are ice-cold. I remember once visiting a large advertising company on Madison Avenue and the higher you went up the building the colder the air conditioning became, by the time I reached the President’s sumptuous suite on the top floor it was positively arctic! However, once you step outside these man-made environments you are greeted with a wall of intense heat – very dry in desert states and like a wet blanket in the more humid climes of the Deep South.

How the early US settlers survived whilst heading out west to find new lands I will never know. It must have been unbearable. My Scottish great grandfather went to Salt Lake City in about 1860. After the rail line finished he travelled in a canvas covered chuck wagon with his wife and six young children (one died on the trail and had to be buried without a coffin). Eventually they returned to their native Glasgow, I don’t think the Mormon habit of having numerous wives went down well with my great grandmother!  However, it amazes me that they didn’t all expire on the trail from temperatures that were as alien to them as the land they were travelling across. Fair-skinned Scots folk are not renowned for finding a blazing sun to their liking!

29th  May Postscript

In contrast to my earlier ramblings since 22nd May we have been experiencing, beautiful warm weather with temperatures in the mid to upper twenties centigrade. I have concluded that the Gods must have heard our collective wailing and gnashing of teeth and given Britain some prolonged sunshine to cheer us all up. There is a palpable relief pervading the country despite gloomy financial coming from home and Europe. People are smiling and looking more cheerful once again. As the barometer has risen so has the garden has sprung into life, the bees are buzzing, bird song is louder and the house martins have built a nest in a week and are now in residence. It won’t be long before we are complaining it’s too hot or hear the usual doom-laden mutterings of ‘it won’t last’.

We should always be grateful for what we have got (or had) and this last week of constant sun certainly has topped up my own reservoirs of vitamin C and along with it my goodwill bank. I hope it will see me through the summer!


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Names (or Living with Consequences)

6 February 2012


I have a passion for the countryside and yes, surprise, surprise, the Yorkshire Dales in particular. I am fortunate enough to live in upper Nidderdale in a small farming hamlet. In winter it can be hazardous as the roads are often the last to be gritted now there are no diary farmers selling milk to the cooperatives. In the old days if milk deliveries were at stake the roads to the farm were given priority.

 And then there is the rain. Being at the foot of the Pennines we do get more than our fair share. When persistent heavy rain comes the river Nidd overflows and floods the road about 2 miles from our village. So you see we pay a price for being surrounded by outstanding natural beauty.

 As you would expect, most of us are equipped with 4 wheel drive vehicles, well nearly all of us. When my wife and I first came to live in the upper dale my wife had a Golf car of which she was mighty fond.

 The landlord of our local pub, an authority on all community matters, people, history and hazards had told us that we were more likely to get stuck in the village because of flooding rather than snow. Heavy inundations on this particular stretch of the river have the reputation for rising and falling with alarming speed.

 One dark evening, soon after we had moved in and returning from her place of work my wife was confronted with the road in spate. There was a stretch of about 300 yards in length to negotiate. She stopped the car to watch some 4x4s go through. Then after a few reassuring words from some helpful passers-by: “Its not too deep, you’ll get through, we just seen some cars pass,” she gingerly headed into the deluge only to come to a spluttering halt midway into the flooded section. As my wife opened the car door water came rushing into the footwell, swamping the pedals and creating a flotilla of residue parking tickets and sweet wrappings that characterize her car floor. She was wearing long leather boots but these too were nearly swamped as she waded to dry land. They were of the fashion type, purchased on a holiday in Italy, horribly expensive and not designed for river wading.

Fortunately, a local farmer who knew my wife by sight came to the rescue with his tractor. He towed the car out of the water and got it onto a dry spot where it was left over night before being towed off to the garage next day to see whether any serious damage had been done to the engine – water getting sucked up the exhaust pipe can ruin an engine in no time at all. My wife came home in the farmer’s Land Rover, wet, feeling a bit silly and if truth be told, somewhat frightened too.

The car, other than suffering from a smelly wet carpet for months, was none the worse for its ducking and my wife’s boots were revived with ample leather cream. It had been a close shave.

 The famer who didn’t know my wife’s Christian name dubbed her ‘Amphibious,’ and now when they ever meet that’s what he calls her. The name stuck. Forever, Amphibious!

 Before we had moved into our very old village house we had some joinery work done by a friend from Harrogate. Rather than commuting every day he stayed in the house in a make shift bed and ate at the local pub across the road. To keep warm in the in the evenings I showed how to light one of the many of the property’s wood burning stoves; this one was located in a small snug that adjoined the kitchen.

 Early one evening my wife and I were visiting to check on progress of the work. The joiner had been busy installing some book shelves. Like all joiners there always seems to be surplus wood from any job – off-cuts, shavings and saw-dust. In fact piles of the stuff. He had just lit the wood burner using ample quantities of this dry and highly flammable material.

 When I came into the room the fire was roaring up the chimney and the stove doors were shut tight to give maximum draft. I immediately went over to the stove to try and open the cast iron metal doors but the handles were red hot. After grasping some dust sheets and wrapping them around my hands I managed to grip the handles and with a violent and speedy pull got the doors open. There was an immediate blast of heat into the room but the chimney was still roaring even louder – a sure sign that it had caught fire. I rushed outside to look at the stack.

 The property is a grange, a monastic farmhouse originally attached to Fountains Abbey. The parish is called Fountains Earth; the evidence of the lay brothers handiwork in shaping the landscape with medieval field patterns and dry stone walls is still visible today. I have a conveyance for the property that dates back to1540 when Henry VIII was selling off the granges to local farmers after the dissolution of the monasteries. So the building is very old with lots of beams and exposed timbers abound.

 The roof as you would expect is Yorkshire stone with stone chimney stacks. When I got outside one of the stacks was spitting flames through the pointing; suddenly there was an almighty crack as the chimney pot exploded and half of it rolled down the roof with a great clattering, bringing soot and flaming debris with it. I had to dive out of the way to avoid being struck from this violent eruption as the pot landed on the pristine lawn leaving a searing scorch mark. I ran back into the house shouting: “The chimney’s on fire! The chimney’s on fire!”

 The joiner went into the kitchen to fill a bucket of water to douse down the fire and I rushed to the telephone and dialed 999 for the fire service. As the water was poured onto the fire there was an enormous ‘whoosh’ and steam and smoke filled the room with a foul, choking fog.Luckily, the village has a volunteer local fire service and after about 5 minutes I was astonished to hear a siren wailing and a little red Land Rover tender screeched to a halt outside the house. Four burly men piled out, mostly nearby farmers all geared-up with helmets, torches and other paraphernalia hanging from belts about their persons.

Soon various other capable-looking firemen arrived either on foot or in their own vehicles. They were busily pulling on their firemen’s uniforms as they entered the house. The place was suddenly filled with firemen; there was barely room to move.  But by now the fire was out but to double check they poured water down the chimney from the roof. Wet charred debris filled the stove. The fire chief then carefully studied the resulting blackened goo like a witch doctor checking the entrails of a dead animal looking for portents. Meanwhile other firemen were up on the roof and peering into the chimney with torches. Some were in the attic where they found burning hot pieces of soot and debris that had fallen outside the chimney lining and onto the wooden attic floor. Fortunately nothing had caught alight. Another close shave!

 Firemen normally have a heat seeking camera that can identify if the fire has spread into the timber joists. On old houses these are attached to the chimney breasts. Their own camera was broken and they had to send to Harrogate station for another one. This took an hour and numerous cups of tea.

 Finally we were given the all-clear and the firemen, the joiner with my wife and I retired to the pub for a well-earned drink. The landlord had witnessed this drama out of the pub window. As I approached the bar with the throng of thirsty firemen bringing up the rear, the landlord greeted me with a cheery smile:

“And how’s the village Pyromaniac this evening?”

 And that name has stuck too!


February 2012

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25 November 2011

Friends, aren’t they important?

They help support our lives and enrich them in so many ways.

I have been blessed to have a small coterie of true friends that I have known over many decades. The lovely thing about real friendship is that these individuals know the real me before I took on any of the trappings and vanities that attach to oneself over the years – the unwanted limpets of life! They knew you were when you were penniless and striving……. and even if you still are, then so what!

These friendships with a handful of individuals, many of whom I see only once or twice a year, represent an irrevocable bond from the past; they bind us close so that when we do meet we just pick up where we left off. I am certain that many of you will identify with this characteristic of old friendships. We just get a bit older and whilst either success or adversity may have burnished or buffeted us, the relationship remains solid and constant.

True friendship transcends the petty jealousies, disappointments and annoyances that often permeate our day-to-day lives. Friendships are tolerant, generous, giving and hopeful. Sometimes, they can be tested but real friendships should always win the day rising above the banality of argument and differences of opinion. Shared values and experiences counter balance disagreement. Friendships have incalculable value, are precious and should be cherished at all costs.

My wife and I were recently holidaying with a very old friend and his wife; we generally venture to some sunny clime at least once a year. My friend had recently sold a pub chain that he had created a few years ago. This was the second time that he had successfully built up an ale and brewing business and sold out, collecting some handsome rewards for his years of risk and toil. I know that he had been thinking about writing a memoir, not so much a ‘how to’ book more a recollection of experiences. He has plenty to tell as he had pioneered the concept of micro-brewing and as a consequence become a legendary figure in the brewery and pub sphere, travelling the world to give talks and be feted for his achievements. His story would make good reading.

I was encouraging the idea of this opus as my friend is not only a successful entrepreneur but also an amusing and anarchic raconteur. His love of life and infectious bonhomie affects all that he meets and his book, when written, will not only be an instructive piece on how to succeed in business but also be packed with true-life stories of hilarious incidents that have punctuated his forty or so years of life in the booze trade. I must share with you one of his stories that occurred very early on in his career.

He opened his first pub in central London in the late 1970’s. In it he installed a micro-brewery in the cellar to supply the pub’s needs. Now, the pub manager kept a large grey parrot in a cage which added an amusing attraction to the pub ambiance by greeting customers with the cry: ‘pint please’, ‘pint please’. At closing time the landlord took the parrot downstairs to the cellar office and let it have a fly around for a half an hour while he counted up the night’s takings and prepared the paying-in book for banking the following day.

One morning my friend arrived at the pub to check the takings prior to depositing the cash at the bank. On entering the office and brewing area he noticed bird droppings all over the floor, desk and filing cabinets. The manager had forgotten to return the bird to its cage. The takings, which as usual were placed on the desk, were in complete disarray. The piles of coins were strewn across the desk and at first glance there appeared to be no notes at all. On closer examination all that could be seen were little strips of metal that were curled up and lying scattered about the office accompanied by occasional tattered pieces of bank notes. The parrot had eaten its way through approximately £2000 worth of ten shilling, one pound, five and ten pound notes!    

My friend painstakingly collected each fragment and marched off to the bank dreading the worst. The bank manager was uncharacteristically sympathetic (well it was the 1970s!) and with the help of a clerk they identified each strip and its value – they are evidently thicker and longer depending on the note’s denomination. This was a welcome relief as the pub was in its infancy and the loss of £2000 worth of takings could have sunk the fledgling business. The good friendship that had been established with the manger, who had leant the businesses much of its start up capital, proved its worth. I wonder how the same manager would react today where personal relationships and integrity have been thrown out the window in favour of automated credit scoring? I had this same argument with a bank manager just the other day and was told in no uncertain terms that it was ‘more efficient and accurate’ rather then the ‘old way’ of eye- balling the customer, looking at his past track record and taking a hunch whether he would stick to his promises. I am certain that many good business ideas have been strangled at birth because the risk element was calculated out of the equation by a computer. As the ‘Little Britain’ TV comedy sketch goes, ‘Computer says No’.

So where do friendships lead us? Not only do we enjoy the constancy of enduring friendship but often they offer support in unexpected ways. My first two children had godparents picked because of family loyalties – I have many brothers and sisters on both sides of the marriage divide. When our third child, a daughter was born, my wife and I decided to choose two rather anarchic and superficially not typical godparents – neither from the immediate family but never-the-less, longstanding friends. These two have proved to be much more attentive and really helpful as life-time advisers; they have been non-partisan voices on careers, matters of the heart and provided objective comment sometimes on issues that were difficult to discuss with Mum and Dad. In short they have been what godparents should be: guardians, wise spiritual advisers and above all fun, always approachable and at times helpfully generous when University money was running low! This does not mean that our other children’s family godparents have been useless because they haven’t, but the relationships our youngest daughter enjoys have been forged out of friendship rather than family obligation.

My daughter is now grown-up and well into her career. She has gained two great friends that she can call on at any time in her life when she needs counsel, a free lunch or a just good laugh and a chat. This is a real friendship at its best and I hope that she will learn the importance of building and maintaining similar relationships in her own lifetime. In a transitory world where family life is under threat, communities are fragmented and a something for nothing culture is pervasive; the values of meaningful, long term friendships are sacrosanct. The example that she has been set I hope will stand her in good stead for when she too becomes a godparent one day.

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3 October 2011

As we wander through our allotted time on this good earth how often do we stop to ponder how we got to where we are today?

Business gurus advise us to write down our goals but for many of us we have a Mr. Micawber attitude and plod on following the Dickensian principle of ‘something will turn up’. Being of a positive nature, this simple principle has been my general philosophy to which I have adhered over the years.

However, having said that, I am beginning to wonder if 21st century life still affords us the luxury of this laissez faire method of plotting one’s life trajectory? I once was amazed by a client and good friend of mine, then probably fifteen years my junior, who talked of his ‘life plan’,  a phrase that was both new and seemed on first hearing to demonstrate supreme organisation.  At the time this individual was married with two young children and on the upward slopes of a very promising career in FTSE 100 company, clearly destined to become a captain of industry in his given field. He moved abroad with his family, had another child and eventually came back to the UK to work in the company’s London head office.

Then one day he fell down in the street for no apparent reason and woke up in hospital having no recollection of what had happened. Eminent doctors undertook tests and could find no explanation and eventually put it down to a  ‘very hot summer’s day’. He was 39 years old. Months later he started having bad headaches and after further exhaustive tests and scans they discovered a brain tumour. Surgery failed to stem the malignancy and within eighteen months, his wife and mother of three children under ten years of age, was a widow. Since then the idea of a ‘life plan’ has lost its appeal to me. Carpe Diem is my maxim: ‘Seize the Day’. My father gave me good advice as a youngster: ‘never look back and enjoy every day’.

For many young people and for plenty of us oldies too, life has become more difficult to manage. For the young there is the uncertainty of employment, enormous education debts, the inability to raise enough money to buy a home and increasing pressure in the work place to deliver, or else! On the flip side there has been no conscripted wars, food and drink is relatively cheap, air travel to destinations that a generation ago was the preserve of the very wealthy, is in the reach of most that are in work. There is now immense freedom to do and say as one pleases (where political correctness allows!). But is this generation more content than the post war ‘babyboomers’ who grew up in the 60s? I suspect not.

So what of those babyboomers who are retired or approaching retirement? Those lucky enough to have either generous state or final salary pensions are the gilded ones who can spend their years of rest (subject to good health) holidaying, eating out, appearing in Saga commercials, indulging their grandchildren and probably giving their own offspring a leg-up on to the property ladder by helping them find the deposit to buy their first home.  However there is another dimension to this sweetness and light: boomerang children who gravitate homeward to where the money is because of divorces/separations,  requirement for low or zero cost nanny facilities (Granny); perhaps either redundancy or being just plain hard up has driven them back to the family home.

But even the well-off  retired are diminishing; public sector pensions are getting cut back and nearly all  final salary private sector schemes have been closed to new entries as companies find they can no longer afford to fund these  generous programmes, the stock market is highly unpredictable and deposit interest rates are at an all time low point. For the next generation it would seem likely that there will be fewer merry widows as men live longer and widow’s pension’s get even smaller.

So now the prospect of work until you drop is fast becoming a reality, the alternative – an impecunious old age. The average private pension pot in the UK is worth £100,000. Invested, you will be lucky to receive an income of £5000 per annum  return. Add that to your state pension and your annual income will be well below the average minimum wage . So much for the golden years of idleness and excess!

I know this sounds terribly depressing but there is an upside of sorts, not quite a silver lining. As life expectancy increases so it is now becoming more acceptable to work longer – into your 7os if you want and clearly the Government will force you into this in time as state pension retirement age rises. If you have the good fortune to keep fit, enjoy human contact and to have an endlessly curious outlook on life the future can be intriguing and full of interest. The actual idea of NOT working appals me, in fact I find it a bit frightening, but I know not everyone will share this rosy viewpoint.

I admit, as a marketing and business consultant, I no longer have the stresses of managing staff; my responsibilities are to my clients and my own professional reputation. I have one brother who is a lawyer who is still in employ at age 71 and another who is 75 that runs a successful recruitment consultancy and last year undertook 60 business flights to Europe and the US. They both could afford to retire in style but wish to stay working so maybe it is just a bonkers streak in my family?

Having to engage one’s brain by keeping up to date on technology and business matters plus the stimulation of meeting people all helps to slow down the ageing process and maintain a level of self-worth. For most working people their work defines them as individuals and without it they begin to atrophy which is why so many soon fade away once work ends? Without a plan (that plan again!), an absorbing hobby, voluntary work or some other meaningful past-time, retirement robs many of the will to live.

The amount of mature students taking further education courses through the Open University and other institutions has shot up in the last few decades as oldies seek new knowledge and skill sets. Many embark upon this educational journey, not to further their careers, but for the sheer joy of learning. Such opportunities were perhaps not open to them when they were young but now they have the chance to catch up on the privileges that their own children have enjoyed.  So in summary I counsel all those who are thinking that life ends at 60 (or later), to banish this out of date notion. Keep the brain box engaged in gear, continue to do useful things and don’t forget that employers can no longer fire you just because you have reached  your official ‘retirement age’. 

Remember, having some grey hairs means that you have a lifetime of business and real life experience to draw upon. This wisdom can deliver massive dividends for clients and potential employers. And that is a very valuable commodity that should never be underestimated.

It’s called life!


Self Interest

28 July 2011

For the last few weeks the airwaves and newspapers have been full of the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World and the ensuing ramifications for the Murdoch family’s dynastic News Corps. As each day passes some new revelation emerges. It is clear that this story is far from over.

The phone hacking debacle has given the Murdoch empire’s media rivals a field day for reporting all the alleged misdemeanours in forensic detail, extracting every last ounce of of self righteous indignation from their wall to wall reporting. This prurient hypocrisy really does stink of self-interest in all its unpleasant guises.

The press, particularly the red top tabloids, have enjoyed a lifetime of  dodgy dealings, door-stepping the innocent, bereaved and the depraved. Always quick to mock, judge and accuse. Like moral crusaders these self righteous zealots trumpet their journalistic scoops and allegedly speak out on their readers’ behalf as the ‘voice of the nation’. If this is our nation we should have pity on ourselves as we must be a country of fornicating clergy, benefit fraudsters and B-list celebs that spend our lives going to parties with other B-list celebrities, footballers’ wives and not forgetting footballers, presumably with other people’s wives! 

Phone hacking should come as no surprise when the likes of Kelvin Mackenzie, the iconic past editor of the Sun newspaper, was once overheard to claim: “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story”. And when asked about his role as editor of this top selling newspaper, he replied: “It’s my job to sort the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff!” Yet the red tops as well as the more serious broadsheets, have been reporting the the phone hacking saga with gleeful abandon, their tone adopting the predictable ‘shock horror’ parody of surprise and earnest moral outrage.

Newspapers and all media outlets rely on their secret ‘sources’ for a good story. The word is that the Daily Telegraph paid an informant working in Parliament (not an MP I hasten to add) for the details of MPs witless expense scams. This won the Telegraph the title of ‘Newspaper of the Year’ for its investigative reporting that dominated so much of the news agenda in 2010. It also resulted in four MPs and two members of the Lords being sent to jail for their creative accounting shenanigans. Whilst the information obtained was accurate and did expose large scale fiddling in high places, the way in which the data was originally obtained could be seen as equally unseemly.

Closer to my home,  Harrogate residents have been treated to wide-spread local media coverage of ridiculous plans to re-organise the town’s traffic routes. The most outlandish of these was a plan by a property developer who proposed re-routing all of  Harrogate’s traffic through the town’s most tranquil and treasured Georgian and Victorian quarters. The plan boasts that the existing thoroughfare, Parliament Street, become pedestrian only and the town centre cenotaph area is turned into a paved piazza. This would entail digging up an existing green sward, much favoured by young people on sunny days, and to create in all intents and purposes what looks like a super-sized skate-board area. 

On closer scrutiny, these plans reveal that the same developer that is proposing this bold and radical scheme to transform Harrogate’s  town centre just happens to own a number of retail properties on the same street that is to become pedestrian friendly. Should these plans be approved (God forbid!), they will add considerable value to the rental potential and capital values of his properties. Such shameful self-interest is driving a plan that only benefits the developer’s financial aspirations ahead of any thought of the detrimental impact to the Town’s infrastructure and to the utter dismay of the inhabitants.

In just the same way in which the media are feasting on the problems of their rivals so we can all be guilty of suffering from that ‘schadenfreude’ moment (deriving pleasure for other’s misfortunes), when we see the arrogant and powerful being brought down to size. This is a common trait that does nothing either to advance the human condition or make us better citizens. So why is it so loved by media commentators? In truth it is just self-serving, lazy journalism masquerading as ‘important’ news.

Yes, the media can play a vital role in seeing that justice is seen to be done and wrong-doers are brought to book.  But the process should avoid gloating, sanctimoniousness and above all the accusers should serve the interests of the public and not indulge in a grand show of chest-beating self aggrandisement.

The media is a strange beast. It has taken the magnitude of the Norwegian bomb blasts and the slaying of innocent youngsters to at last expunge phone hacking from the media spotlight. Rupert and James Murdoch must be thanking their lucky stars that this appalling news story has for the moment diverted speculation about their multi billion pound global business. But even before the Norwegian horror story broke the EU Summit on the Greek bale out plans and the looming famine in East Africa were relegated to third rate news coverage. At journalism school you are taught to concentrate on the ‘human angle’ and so it is perhaps not surprising that the fortunes of the Euro and other fiscal machinations don’t get the media over-excited.

Yet if no EU deal had been forthcoming it could have had a fundamental effect on not just the financial stability of many European countries but combustive political implications of the most serious kind. On this occasion it would seem that the collective interests of all the EU members avoided a financial nightmare. Imagine a situation in Europe where each country was looking out for only its own interests? If the doors closed on trade and a siege mentality developed who knows what regimes could emerge from such a melt down?

Self interest wouldn’t be the half of it!

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