The intellectual’s dilemma

My friend Sam is an intellectual. His words, not mine.

It’s a blessing in so far as he was able to get a good degree, have a successful career and generally get by in a world which seems to reward that sort of thing.

But he tells me that being an intellectual, far from defining a higher purpose, is in fact a curse.

Most people can happily chat about things that don’t matter and make observations that have been made many times before.

Weather looks promising for this week, no? It’s fine to say that Manchester City are odds on to win the league this season, since Arsenal have slipped up. It’s OK to note that last year’s weather was harsh, which has decimated plants that would normally have thrived. Donald Trump is a bit evil, right? Boris Johnson is dishonest. Jose Mourinho…narcissistic?

It’s perfectly all right to state the obvious.

But not for Sam. He feels like a fraud if his comments aren’t brilliantly original or insightful. He’s continually fighting an internal critic, accusing him of banality.

What should he do?

Try harder and keep up the good work or learn to live with the mediocrity of the everyday?

Tough call.

There is another interpretation.

Sam is a pretentious twat.

Learning to er… think

Have you ever tried to draw? Of course you have.

Learning to draw is fiendishly difficult. I have tried a couple of courses over the past few years and it has been a sobering experience. Clearly, it’s a skill that comes more naturally to some people than others.

The course I have recently finished felt a bit like going back to primary school. In a bright studio in the suburbs, hosted by an unfeasibly cheerful lady teacher, we were encouraged to be uninhibited, to explore different mediums and generally to express ourselves. I was seven years old again. Sadly my inner art critic was not. He kept reminding me that my drawings weren’t recognisably similar to the things they were supposed to represent.

I had gone into this with a clear philosophy and simple goals. I visited the Young Picasso exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery a few years ago. Picasso’s early work is simple, clean, accurate, realistic. Only after he had mastered the core skills did he experiment with symbolism and create the more abstract forms of art we know him for. I would do the same (well not actually the same, I’m not completely deluded, but you get the idea). I would learn to draw first. Having got on top of the basics, I would be qualified to get a bit more expressive later.

However, I did learn one fundamental lesson. We interpret everything we see without thinking. This is why drawing is difficult. Our eyes perceive the world through many layers of interpretation. The images projected onto our retinas are turned into 3-D representations using all our experience of the world, the nature of space, objects, colours, perspective, light and dark and so on. Right now as I write I see a coffee shop full of people, with a shop window, a road and occasional cars behind that, another row of shops behind that, with clouds further back and some blue sky beyond those. If I had to draw this scene I would need to reduce all of that complexity to patches of colour, in different hues of light and dark. It’s difficult because our brains automatically convert the patches of colour into real things, concepts, relationships. We add all this flavour through our basic experiences of the world and our other senses.

Come to think of it, all our thinking is similarly filtered. This may be what gestalt theory is all about.

Take politics. When I read a newspaper, I’m aware of my tendency to seek out articles and opinions that agree with me – it helps justify my own pre-conceived ideas. We all do this. It’s a short-cut, because we’re mentally lazy (efficient if you prefer).

Maybe that’s also why political arguments are so difficult. Because we jump to interpretation automatically, without really seeing the shapes and colours in front of us. Understanding the opposite perspective means starting again from scratch. Harder work.

Maybe we would benefit from disassembling our beliefs in the same way as if we were learning to draw. We’d have to create a new picture each time, rather than passing every new image through the familiar filters. Maybe that would make us more open minded, less dogmatic.

Crunchy nut corn flakes: why you shouldn’t blame the food giants for trying to kill you

The trouble is they taste too good:

This campaign for Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes is one of the greats, from the golden age of British advertising. My agency, J. Walter Thompson, was rightly proud of it. It was much loved and hugely successful.

It also tells us everything about the working of the food business. And why that’s likely to be the thing that kills you.

Here’s how the food industry works:

Evolution over millions of years gave humans a brilliant system for regulating their eating. When their bodies needed energy, it made them feel hungry so they would eat. When they had eaten enough, it made them feel full, so they would stop. It’s brilliant. Physiologists talk about the stomach as ‘the second brain’ because this hunger – satiety mechanism is a self-regulating intelligence which ties in to all the body’s other functions – emotional and physical – to maintain its healthy working.

Over time, food scientists discovered that certain fatty, sugary, salty foods would undermine this physiology by making us crave food even when we’re not hungry and want more, even when we are full.

In a modern, capitalist market economy, these businesses are driven by an imperative to sell more food at a premium, in order to generate ever greater revenue and so to return shareholder value. So making us eat more is very much their business.

The result is an obesity epidemic which now extends even to second and third world economies. Globally, obesity now contributes to more preventable deaths annually than anything except smoking. That’s 2.8 million deaths (source: world health organisation).

In Britain, more than 30,000 deaths each year are attributed directly or indirectly to obesity.

But there’s no point blaming the food giants for this.

Businesses are driven by the need to return shareholder value. That means profit and growth. You can do that by (1) selling more stuff at higher prices (check), (2) by buying up your competitors – the concentration of businesses in this sector is incredible; pretty much everything is now owned by ten huge global organisations or (3) by extending into new territories (check).

If I’m a boss at one of these food giants, what options do I have?

If I don’t sell foods that trick my consumers’ physiology into wanting more – i.e. foods where, to replay Kellogg’s ad campaign, the trouble is they taste too good – then my competitor will create something more yummy, steal my sales and profits, my sales will suffer and I will rapidly be out of a job.

If the guy who replaces me continues to lose out to competitors’ too-good-to-resist food offers, then my company’s share price will suffer. Consequently we will be bought by a competitor, who is better at playing the trouble-is-they-taste-too-good game.

There really is no way out for the poor lambs.

But it’s not all bad news.

How to make things better? What all this tells us is that we can’t rely on consumers making better choices – you can’t fight the biology. We already know broadly what we ought to eat and what we ought to avoid. It just makes bugger all difference to most of us, when our bodies are telling us to eat that cake. And we clearly can’t expect food manufacturers to take it on themselves. Shareholder value may be a terrible way to incentivise corporate behaviour, but sadly it’s the one we’re stuck with.

In June of this year, having been commissioned by DEFRA, Henry Dimbleby, founder of Leon and the Sustainable Restaurant Federation masterminded the new UK Food Strategy. It very sensibly focuses on interventions that don’t rely on anyone making ‘the right choices’. It’s all about supply side solutions, penalties, interventions and regulation. Very dry. Lots of stuff about how food is produced. Ethical standards in agriculture. Sustainability. All those tedious bits that get in the way of filling people tummies with gunk.

So refreshing to hear about a solution that isn’t essentially either the whole nation going on a crash diet or every food business deciding to forego making a profit.

Those who complain about Nanny State will hate it, but it’s the only way forward.

22nd June 2016: the day the UK last had a functioning government

I know the UK Conservative Party has an ideological belief in minimal government, but that’s not the same as simply going AWOL.

Up to June 2016, the UK had already spent most of the months leading up to the Brexit referendum on increasingly bitter and dirty campaigning. Not much governing got done in this period.

With the poll result, Article 50 was triggered and a date was set for Brexit in 2019. Negotiations began and pretty much completely consumed public debate and government activity for the next 3 years. The original leaving date of March 2019 was moved back to June and then to October because agreement could not be reached. Brexit was finally formally enacted the following January, but as events have showed, it was only a cosmetic agreement and the actual terms are still, as I write in October 2022 being disputed.

In the meantime, whole new government departments were created (The Department for Brexit Opportunities) thousands of civil servants were recruited or redeployed and the workings of Westminster on anything other than Brexit became paralysed.

In January 2020, just as we were emerging blinking into the post-Brexit daylight, COVID 19 arrived. For the next two years, the Pandemic quite reasonably consumed all our news, all our leaders’ attention and much of our attention and focus.

In 2022, thankfully, COVID appears to have run its course, at least as a threat to life on a massive scale. Here was the opportunity for our leaders to get back to addressing some of our pressing crises. Instead we had a series of scandals involving Ministers and others, which took up most of our politicians’ time and attention, over the Spring and Summer, and led to a Conservative leadership election. This created another two month period of limbo, in which there was effectively no government.

Finally, just as Liz Truss was sworn in as the new PM, the Queen died and the entire nation stopped for a fortnight to watch old footage of the Royals.

So there you have it. A full six years living in the UK with no government at all.

The Tories have long believed that we should have minimal government, which only intervenes when it is absolutely unavoidable. The markets will take care of everything else. That, they say, is the beauty of Capitalism – it pretty much looks after itself.

The last six years have been a real-world test of this doctrine and I’m afraid I’m not convinced it has proved their point. Rather the opposite.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government

Monty Python famously demonstrated that Arthurian legend does not provide a sustainable model for electing a leader.

But the UK’s current system may actually be worse.

A few minutes ago, Liz Truss was announced as the winner of the race to become the UK’s new Prime Minister. She was elected by members of the Conservative Party. This process has been criticised as unrepresentative, undemocratic and unreliable. It is tempting to characterise these 160.000 odd people as the classic aged, wealthy, white, out of touch golf club types from Tory central casting. I suspect the true nature of things may be even grimmer. I should know. I’m one of them.

There’s little data on the profile of Tory members, even from the party themselves, and the electoral commission raised some serious doubts around the security of the party’s election mechanics. Just to spice it up a bit, Tortoise Media managed to register family pets, underage relatives and foreign nationals as members of the party. Should these people (and animals), they asked, be responsible for choosing the UK’s leader?

For me, this whole debacle has shown another wrinkle in our creaking political system too.

A little while ago, during the respective scandals enveloping the two main parties, ‘Partygate’ and ‘Beergate’, it looked as though both Labour and/or Conservatives might be electing a new leader very soon.  The natural thing to do therefore was, it seems to me, to join both parties ASAP to be eligible to vote in the likely forthcoming leadership polls.  I’m really not sure why more people haven’t done this.  It costs about twenty five quid and we’re forever hearing about how hopelessly unrepresentative it is.  It’s hardly an original idea.  Isn’t that what led to Jeremy Corbyn’s win and the near-death of the Labour Party which ensued?

So I went online, and joining the Tories was the definition of simplicity.  It took about ten minutes from start to finish, they took my money and within a day or so I was receiving invitations to events, updates on campaigns and explanations of policy.  Quite impressive, I thought, a little grudgingly.

My Labour Party application was more problematic.  I tried to join online but the site wouldn’t accept my card payment, so I sent an email explaining my situation.  About a fortnight later, I received a response telling me I could join online (as I had tried to do) or on the phone or by post.  I picked up the phone and spoke to someone at Labour HQ who explained that they couldn’t currently sign me up on the phone, but they would send me the forms by email to sign up by post.  Nothing arrived.  I left it another fortnight and called again.  same response.  I waited.  After another few weeks I called again but the whole team was in training and there isn’t even anyone to answer the phone (they claim to be available between 11 AM and 3 PM though this hasn’t been my experience.  I tried again a week later and got the same response – no-one here to answer the phone as we’re all in training. And on it goes. Eventually i received a postal form which i sent off about a month ago. No news since then.

Fast forward a few months and I got to vote for the next PM through the Tory Party.  But my Labour membership application is still not confirmed.  Labour HQ gives every impression of being staffed by a volunteer in his garage with an answering machine and no access to a computer.

And sadly, my friends, that is one more reason why we won’t be seeing a Labour government again in my lifetime.  Because if they can’t get this right, then what hope is there for them?  Or indeed for any of us?

The adult world is such a disappointment

I’m a great admirer of the British political campaign group Led by Donkeys. For a start, they use wit very effectively to expose the hypocrisy of the current British government.  That must be a good thing. Second, they have the best name of any campaign group ever.  It comes from the expression Lions led by donkeys – describing the belief that British soldiers in the First world war (the heroic lions) were sent to their deaths in the thousands by Generals (the donkeys) who were incompetent and indifferent to the slaughter that resulted from their decision.  The analogy with our current political leaders seems excellent.  I have never had such a strong sense that the people in power in Britain are disconnected to and uninterested in ordinary people.

When I was at University, there were a number of notorious drinking and dining societies, largely populated by the privileged few.  Prominent among them was the Bullingdon Club, whose members would famously go out for an evening to the best restaurants in Oxford, get riotously drunk and trash the place, leaving a large pile of cash to pay for the damage.  Depending on how you feel about these things, it’s good harmless fun or the unacceptable face of the class system – or even something in between.  One thing really never occurred to me – that, thirty years later these would be the people running the country. 

Perhaps Lions led by jackasses would be more apt.

But it’s not just the government that has disappointed me.  The sentiment expressed in Led by Donkeys could describe a great deal of my experience of growing up.

When I was growing up, I learned in school how institutions worked, how economics worked and broadly how society was organized.  It was presented as a world that was ordered, sensible.  It was run by competent and knowledgeable people who were trained and experienced and who had the greater good foremost among their goals.  They learned from experience and things improved over time, as our knowledge and understanding progressed.

Then I went to University, travelled a bit, had a career and so on.  The world I experienced was very little like this.  Some of it was a bit like I had imagined – there were clever people in high positions in big businesses.  I had always imagined you had to be smart and also at least reasonably well intentioned to succeed.  But an alarming number of the businesses I worked with were led by charlatans and bullshitters.  And they seemed no less successful than the good guys.  Maybe I was impossibly naive to imagine any different.

I worked in Government for a time and was staggered at what a dirty, backstabbing business it was.  I’m sure people go into politics with good intentions, but what I saw was just cynical and grasping.  We talked a good game about ‘evidence-based government’, but this was the opposite of what actually happened.  It would more accurately be described as getting-back-into-power-at-any-cost-and-shafting-the-other-bugger-based-government.

How else could we have had something as patently wrong as Brexit?

So, over the years, my faith in the people influencing our lives diminished.

And this week it reached a new low. Or should that be a new high?

This is the crowning glory of stupidity in high places.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) is a former client of mine.  We worked together on renewable energy policy when it was called the DTI (Department for Trade and Industry).  It was a sensible, grown-up thing.  There were adults who worked there. They wore suits and everything.

At least I thought they were adults.

BEIS has recently announced its plan to bring back the use of imperial measurements. For those of you who live in the post 1980s world, I should explain, that means pounds and ounces, stones etc.

I checked. Nope, it’s not April 1st.

Business Minister, Paul Scully said “While we think of fruit and veg by the pound, the legacy of EU rules means we legally have to sell them by the kilo”.  “Our consultation today will help shops to serve customers in the way their customers want.”

I’d love to know who these customers are. To have been taught about pounds and ounces in school, you’d certainly need to be over the UK state retirement age.

During the 2019 election campaign Boris Johnson (ex-Bullingdon Club) pledged to bring back imperial units, claiming this was restoring an “ancient liberty”

I am still awaiting the imminent announcements on reinstating longbow practise on the village greens of England and removing votes for women and those who do not own property.

Back on Planet Earth, Tory peer and boss of supermarket chain Asda, Lord Rose, talking to Times Radio, said “returning to imperial weights and measures was “complete and utter nonsense”. “I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. I mean we have got serious problems in the world and we’re saying ‘let’s go backwards'”. “Does anybody in the country under the age of 40 even know how many ounces there are in a pound?”

I do think he’s being unreasonably generous.

Lions led by twats?

Dear Online Seller……

When I order a product online, I need to know a few things. Can you guess what they are?

I need to know the order has been placed successfully and payment accepted. Check.

I need to know when to expect delivery. Check.

Nearer the time, it would be nice to have a time slot. Nice.

I’d like to know it has been delivered – in case it went to the wrong place and I’m still waiting. Or where it has been left. OK.

Do I need to know that the order is being processed? (What does that even mean?)

Do I need to know your team is “working on it”?

Do I need to know you have sent it to the courier?

Do I need to know the courier has received it?

Do I need to know any or all of these things simultaneously in triplicate, by phone, text and email?

I think you know the answer.

Thank you.

Save Buckbeak, er Geronimo

It’s 2021. The UN IPCC has just published its most apocalyptic warning yet that climate change is bringing human civilisation to a grizzly end.

The world is in the grip of the worst pandemic any of us has ever experienced.

The big story of the day is about the perils of testing for a dangerous and highly infectious disease, which could threaten a whole population if allowed to get out of hand.

It’s about following through on the difficult and sometimes painful ramifications of the testing regime.

It’s the story of Geronimo, the alpaca, grazing peacefully in a field in Gloucestershire.

Old McDonald had a farm And on that farm she had an … alpaca.

In case you hadn’t heard, Geronimo tested positive for bovine tuberculosis four years ago and was sentenced to be exterminated. It hasn’t happened yet, partly because the legal appeals have taken this long, and partly because there is a popular movement to save him. Celebrities, like national treasure Joanna Lumley and BBC nature presenter Chris Packham, have lent their voices to the clamour. A hundred thousand supporters have signed a petition. The Daily Mail and other papers are backing Geronimo, and his owner, Helen McDonald in her fight to save him. Protesters have even created a ‘human shield’ around his field.

It’s pretty tough on veterinary nurse, Ms McDonald, because she is forbidden from trading livestock, or receiving income from them.

Meanwhile Geronimo posted on his Facebook account (yes I know)…. ‘Stressed and upset to find ourselves in this awful situation but so very grateful for all the support from everywhere!’ 

Whether this is a hideous injustice or an example of the authorities being rightly cautious, to prevent the spread of a dangerous disease, it’s a great, if rather sad, story.

In Geronimo’s defence I feel bound to say that his owner has repeatedly argued he should have the more definitive test, to establish beyond doubt whether he is sick. He has been healthy, by all accounts, for several years now, suggesting the original test may have been a false positive. In recent years, nine other alpacas have been destroyed in this way and all of them were subsequently shown in post mortem to have been healthy, despite originally testing positive.

On the other hand, it’s tempting to be suspicious, when popular campaigns like this get up a head of steam. Joanna Lumley has a track record of getting stuff done in good causes. But I heard the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson, speaking in Geronimo’s defence on the radio the other day, which immediately made me conclude (perhaps unkindly) someone is making some money out of this. And if the Daily Mail supports something, it’s always a good rule of thumb to oppose it.

For context, when the British meat and dairy industry was wrecked a few years ago by BSE, we had to cull large numbers of cows. We accepted that as a necessary means of limiting the spread of a dangerous disease – surely a subject we have become all too familiar with recently. There was resistance form farmers whose livelihoods were under threat, but I don’t recall the same support from animal lovers we’re seeing now.

There’s one crucial difference, of course.

Cows are nowhere near as cure as alpacas.

The parallel with Buckbeak the HippoGriff, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is remarkable. The magical creature is unfairly condemned after being provoked into attacking Draco Malfoy. Harry, Ron and Hermione save him, by setting him free, just a few minutes before the intended execution.

What Old McDonald’s Farm needs is a trio of under-age wizards to save the day.

Lucius Malfoy, who got Buckbeak condemned, was naive when it came to reputation management. I’d be astonished if DEFRA Minister George Justice doesn’t see the PR value in this story, and grant some kind of reprieve for Buckbeak Geronimo.

Come on George, you know you want to. As you said yourself, recently “We are a nation of animal lovers.

It’s just too good an opportunity to miss.


George did indeed delay the final decision. For a bit.

Then Buckbeak, sorry Geronimo, was exterminated.

The post mortem did not find that he had bovine TB.


Feeling a little below par

Golf is not allowed at the moment due to the Covid lockdown restrictions.

Which is crazy, because surely golf is the most socially-distanced, Covid-restriction-friendly outdoor pursuit there could be.

I won’t lie to you, it’s making me a bit ratty.

Indeed, you could say I’ve been feeling a bit below par.

How witty, you may say. Please don’t.

Because this expression is always used incorrectly. As every golfer knows – no, scrub that. As everyone knows, below par is good. Above par is bad. So if I’m feeling below par, I’m doing well. If I’m feeling above par, I’m doing badly. Not so difficult really.

I don’t understand why the common usage of this expression has evolved to be so, well, er, wrong. Or, if you’ll indulge me, over par.

And that makes me almost as ratty as not being able to play golf.

“Due to COVID, you are held in a queue”

Is it just me or is this a bit off?

In the early days of the COVID pandemic, it seemed pretty natural that businesses were struggling to maintain their call centres and that customer service might be affected. It became a tedious daily reality to have to listen to recorded messages telling us that “due to COVID social distancing restrictions, we’re working with smaller teams, and you may have to wait longer than usual” etc and so on. I have spent a great many hours this last years, listening to hold music. Even online chat is often unavailable.

Fast forward to February 2021, the pandemic is now in its second year and some customer-facing businesses are still unable to offer a reasonable telephone service. I call NS&I, the increasingly unresponsive, UK Government-backed, savings brand as my supporting evidence, but there are many others.

Seems a bit unreasonable to be using COVID as an excuse for poor customer service after a whole year. That should be enough time to make alternative arrangements. Shouldn’t it?

We know banks want us to go online, cause its cheaper than manning call centres, but it appears they’re using COVID as an excuse to do this by stealth.

Ironically, the best phone-based customer service I have experienced recently has involved two of the much (rightly) maligned rail franchise-holders – Southern Rail and South Western Railways. How very refreshing to talk to a human, and for them to have some kind of ability to address the issue being raised.

Decent service from the railways? Is nothing sacred?