Tuesday 27 March 2012

Driven to screaming point by endless repetition

Which PR genius invented the theory that the way to get a message across is through endless repetition? Because I would personally like to bang their head against a brick wall until they veered off message and begged me to stop.

If I hear geeky Ed with the speech impediment, or menacing Ed with the sinister smile, say just once more that the Coalition is “out of touch”, I swear I shall scream. Probably because I have just injured myself putting my foot through a TV screen.

Doing the thing with the hands: out of touch. Geddit?

I first found myself on the receiving end of the repetition technique more than a decade ago, when trying to defend a client against a hostile takeover bid. The bidder had engaged the largest and most successful financial PR consultancy in London, whose one detectable contribution was to employ the word “woeful” in every single pronouncement it made about my client.

This rapidly became like Chinese water torture, and certainly inspired me to redouble my efforts on the other side. More importantly, it did not work. My client retained its independence.

Woeful? Far from it.

I love words, and enjoy as much variety in them as possible. One of the many delights of English is that is the richest language on the planet. I do not advocate using an obscure word where a plain one will do; I find it painful to read writers like Anthony Burgess who force me to reach for a dictionary almost every time I turn a page.

But it is a joy to be able to deploy the right word in the correct context to convey one’s meaning as accurately as possible. Endlessly repeating the same stock phrases is the antithesis of good communication and lively debate.

I still shudder at the memory of a colleague who made it his mission one year to see just how many corporate results announcements he could begin with the words “This has been a watershed year for your company.”

I much preferred the approach of the chairman who took a yearly bet with a City analyst to work one challenging word into his statement in the annual report. The conventional tribute to employees was once enlivened by a description of them as “Stakhanovite”, after the hero of Soviet labour who achieved legendary levels of productivity as a miner under Stalin’s second five-year plan.

The original Stakhanovite

On another occasion the strength of the business was attributed to its being “autochthonous”: indigenous, native, well rooted in its local soil.

Both useful words that have been part of my regular vocabulary ever since.

My appeal to the corporate and political worlds alike is to credit their audiences with a bit of intelligence, and try to stimulate us with a bit of originality and a modicum of wit.

Vince Cable has proved himself good at this, having most of the characteristics of a thunderstorm: dark, miserable and threatening most of the time, but enlivened by sudden flashes of brilliant light.

Vince Cable: his true vocation

Such as his legendary comparison of Gordon Brown to Mr Bean, or last week’s crack that “being lectured by Ed Balls on the economy is like being lectured on seamanship by the captain of the Costa Concordia.” Which is spot-on accurate, and wins bonus marks from me for being in thoroughly questionable taste.

Balls: what he and Brown did to Britain. Only in deeper water.

Come on, boys and girls of Westminster. Do you seriously think that if you keep endlessly repeating the same numbingly tedious phrases a light bulb is going to ping on above our words and we’re going to put down our suddenly massively more expensive cans of cider or lager and say, “Oh yeah, the Coalition is out of touch, aren’t they? Same old Tories. I must vote for that Ed.”

Surely we can achieve a higher level of debate than this? Because encouraging people to take an interest in politics definitely requires more than saying exactly the same thing over and over again until we all reach screaming point.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Surely there must be some room at the top for a mere lad of 57?

Nick Clegg excited some predictable mockery when he recently referred to rich people living “literally in a different galaxy” when it came to paying tax.

Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council. No, honestly.

Sadly it is not so. They are very much on this planet, and many undoubtedly share the late Leona Helmsley’s view that “only the little people pay taxes”. And have, as Mr Clegg correctly pointed out, armies of lawyers and accountants dedicated to making this a reality.

Leona: sentenced to 16 years for tax evasion, served 18 months

But those at the top are different in other ways, too: notably in what they contribute in time as well as money. And time, I can say with confidence, is ultimately far more precious.

For example, the other day Tesco led the private sector in raising its normal pension age to 67. Yet its last boss Sir Terry Leahy conveniently retired, shortly before the business began to be described as “troubled”, at the ripe old age of 55.

Leahy: before the wheels fell off

The excuse, I keep being told, is that the job of Chief Executive, Prime Minister or even Headmaster is so impossibly demanding nowadays that no one can stick at it for more than a decade. This would at least make my age of 57 the ideal time to apply for a senior position if the same rules applied at the top as everywhere else.

But, strangely enough, they don’t. Although we are all living longer, and retirement dates for most of us keep receding, those in the most senior roles just go on getting younger. Aspiration is confined to a 20-year window between leaving university full of promise (for which read inexperienced and unemployable) to being considered pathetically over the hill.

We see the results all around us. Most of the present Cabinet, with the right honourable exception of Kenneth Clarke, look like children to me.

Clarke: I may not care much for his politics, but I applaud his dress sense
Yet Palmerston was appointed Prime Minister for the first time at 71, Gladstone for the last time at 82. Churchill was 65 when he succeeded Chamberlain in 1940, and 80 when he finally left Downing Street in 1955. We may debate the merits of all these men, and question whether they were on top form towards the end of their careers, but surely few would deny that the political class of 2012 look like pygmies beside them.

What a British Prime Minister should look like

Similarly, the list of possible successors to Rowan Williams has several men marked down by the bookies as “too old” because they are over 60.

There was a time when one could at least rely on bishops and judges bringing the wisdom of age to their vocations, with the added bonus of some easy laughs when they found themselves baffled by the more outlandish aspects of modern life.

Today it seems that only the British monarchy and the Papacy have room for someone seriously old to play the lead – even though it is so obviously good for the individual filling the role.

In the days when cardinals really were walled up in the Sistine Chapel until they elected a new Pope, there was a strong temptation to vote for the oldest and feeblest of their number to give themselves a break. Time and again this granted a spectacular new lease of life to some poor old chap who had been at death’s door until the Pope’s triple crown landed on his head.

Pope Leo XIII: crowned at 68, died at 93

I am under no Blair-like illusions that my best years are ahead of me, but I do feel that it is time for those of us born in the mid-1950s to launch a crusade to make 57 something fuller of promise than simply a number on the side of Heinz tins.

In short, I am still eager to get to the top of something: indeed anything. All suggestions will be most gratefully received. I promise to apply myself conscientiously for at least the next ten years, and not to spend a penny of my very reasonable salary on employing sharp tax accountants.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Books do furnish a room

You can tell a lot about a person from the books they read, or at any rate own. I have long found craftily scanning the shelves of new acquaintances a reliable way of assessing whether we might be on compatible wavelengths.

But even before the arrival of the Kindle (and remember, other tablet devices are available), books had begun to be banished from the sitting rooms of the fashion conscious. An estate agent helpfully suggested that it would increase my chances of selling my house if my four thousand plus volumes were less prominently displayed. I countered that they might well turn out to be the only things holding up the roof. Shortly afterwards I took my house off the market.

Then last week, for the first time in 24 years, I decided that the very lived-in look of my study was no longer tolerable, and braced myself to clear it out so that it could receive the attentions of a decorator. As a result I am now completely shattered, while the resulting boxes of displaced books are filling most of the rest of the house.

Not actually my study, but something to which I aspire

My whole life unfolded before me as I cleared the shelves. I even found Look & Learn, Dandy and Beano annuals from my childhood. My initial thought was that my two youngsters might appreciate these in a year or two. Then I remembered the habitual violence of 1960s cartoon parents and schoolteachers, and the casual racism of Corporal Clott in Africa, and realised that I could be accused of poisoning their minds to such an extent that they might have to be taken into care.

Corporal Clott: he used a lot of mysterious words like 'Sambo' and 'picaninny'

There were many well-worn classics I clearly remembered reading in my teens and twenties, along with crisp, almost new volumes I longed to have the time to read now. Only in many cases I glanced at the inside back cover, where around 20 years ago I started making a brief note every time I finished a book, and discovered that I had already read it, and promptly forgotten every detail.

Clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have instituted a star rating system so that I would know whether a book was worth reading again. If only I had realised at the time that my brain was completely saturated with information, and incapable of absorbing more.

Not actually a joke to me now

The lessons for the young are to get your reading in early, when you may actually recall it, and to go for quality so that you do not reach your dotage with a memory stocked only with rubbish.

While for the old, at least being marooned on a desert island by BBC Radio 4 with just one book no longer represents a hardship, because it will be as fresh and enjoyable on its fiftieth reading as it was first time around.

I more or less stopped buying books a few years ago because I had completely run out of space, and realised that I would have to live to be 250 to get through the ones I already owned. And that was before I grasped that most of what I have read since the age of 40 had left only a vapour trail in my memory, rather than an indelible mark.

Now the question is whether I should bother to put the many hundreds of books back on their shelves, or consign them to a skip and devote more display space to my collection of Coronation mugs. It is a tough call. But on the whole I think I will put the books back on the off chance that they are indeed increasing the stability of the house, which stands on a very windy hilltop.

And at least I can console myself with the thought that, if I stick to a once in 24 year decorating cycle, I will surely not be around to face the nightmare task of clearing them out again.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Have you read the news? Time to start screaming

Given that we are all clinging to a smallish rock that is hurtling through space at around 67,000 miles per hour, it constantly amazes me that we do not spend all our time screaming like passengers on the scariest ride at an amusement park.

Now there's something you don't see every day

Heaven knows, there is plenty in the news to scream about. Petrol prices reaching an all-time high, for a start. Plus our Prime Minister repeatedly endorsing the giant supermarkets’ bogus claims to be in the business of “job creation”.

When in reality we all know that they have thrown countless thousands out of work in the small retail businesses they have destroyed and the suppliers they have squeezed to death; and that they will not be entirely happy until they have trained us to stack the shelves ourselves, as well as learning to operate their wretched self-scanning checkouts.

Then there is President van Rompuy of Europe being reappointed without anything so tiresome as an election, Vladimir Putin winning a landslide in a charade of one, and the Yanks reaching “Super Tuesday” in their endlessly bizarre contest between a small assortment of multi-millionaire loons. None of whom a sane nation would trust to take charge of a school crossing patrol, never mind a nuclear arsenal.

Though all these look quite rational developments compared with the Iranian elections contested only by supporters of alternative fundamentalists Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rather like a British general election in which the only parties standing were the BNP and the English Defence League.

Probably not exchanging highlights from the Frank Carson Memorial Joke Book

Not to worry, though. If the Iranians ever do get their hands on an atomic bomb President Obama or one of the aforementioned Republicans will undoubtedly take swift military action, in the way that has worked so splendidly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Closer to home, we have the suggested privatisation of the British police: what a simply great idea. It has worked so well in the NHS, with never a case of MRSA and virtually every ward boasting a Michelin star since they contracted out the cleaning and catering. And the staff all so well rewarded and jolly, too. No wonder the Government wants to extend the idea wherever it can.

Of course, many of the functions of the police and judiciary were put into private hands years ago. Specifically those of a Mr Rupert Murdoch, whose minions have allegedly taken it upon themselves to boost the meagre pay of numerous serving officers, pass far harsher judgements than the courts on anyone who offended against their “values”, and even to provide an active retirement for some of the more intelligent members of the mounted branch.

Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “covert surveillance”. Fox coverts, that is. Sorry, but it is the only joke I have yet to see cracked among the reams of “Horsegate” stuff about hacking jackets, neigh-sayers and foal disclosure.

There have been many spoofs of Bond villains over the years, but it is increasingly hard to picture anyone better suited to preside over a missile-packing, hollowed-out volcano than Mr Murdoch. True to form, last week he even dropped his Mini-Me son James into the traditional tank full of hungry sharks.

But let us not despair. We may still look forward to 76-year-old Engelbert Humperdinck restoring our national pride in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, generously sponsored by the manufacturers of Stannah stairlifts and Zimmer frames.

Engelbert: heartthrob

Though technically it ought to be renamed the Centralasianvision Song Contest since it is taking place in Uzbekistan. Where? It is amazing to think that, within living memory, Neville Chamberlain was talking about German designs on Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

I hear that Engelbert will be singing an updated twilight home version of his classic 1960s hit, “Please release me – where am I?”

Yes, you’re right. The time to start screaming is definitely right now.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.