Saturday, 29 September 2012

A sort of apology

“I apologise to posterity for living in a country where the capacity and tastes of schoolboys and sporting costermongers are the measure of metropolitan culture.”

George Bernard Shaw (as music critic) in 1922.

Here we are ninety years on. Aside from the sexist reference (by today’s standards), he could have written it yesterday.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Imaginative escape

I’m currently re-visiting the poet and music critic, WJ Turner. I’ve collected his books over many years. Although his writings on music were highly esteemed (by the great pianist Artur Schnabel among others) and his poetry too (by Yeats, Aldous Huxley, Sassoon etc), he has more or less sunk without trace currently.

This is an early Turner poem that I learned by heart at school. It’s about recognising the need to escape imaginatively from childhood (in his case in Melbourne)…


WHEN I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Took me by the hand.

My father died, my brother too,
They passed like fleeting dreams,
I stood where Popocatapetl
In the sunlight gleams.

I dimly heard the master's voice
And boys far-off at play,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had stolen me away.

I walked in a great golden dream
To and fro from school--
Shining Popocatapetl
The dusty streets did rule.

I walked home with a gold dark boy,
And never a word I'd say,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
Had taken my speech away:

I gazed entranced upon his face
Fairer than any flower--
O shining Popocatapetl
It was thy magic hour:

The houses, people, traffic seemed
Thin fading dreams by day,
Chimborazo, Cotopaxi
They had stolen my soul away!

His father, a leading musician in the city, and his brother both did die (within a few months of each other in 1899/1900). The school he refers to is Scotch College in Melbourne.

You can listen to his voice reading the poem here (but you might prefer to look away from the ghastly “animation”):

Does anyone still know it? Did many of us have this kind of moment?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The relativity of time

I don’t know that Einstein was aware that time is also relative to culture.

In Germany, a 9:00am meeting will start at 8:55. In England at 9:10. In France at 9:15 and in Italy at 9:20. In Brazil it will be 9:45 or 9:50. Uniquely, in my experience, the meeting starts at 9 o’clock sharp in the Netherlands.

All of these are in reality on-time meetings. So getting upset when “my time” isn’t happening often means that you’re working with foreigners.

Running a workshop in Sao Paolo, the German client came to me on day two to apologise for the tardiness of her Brazilian colleagues. “I’m sure they will be here on time,” I responded. And they were.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Creativity on the rugby pitch

As a child I used to go with my father regularly to see Coventry play rugby. “Cov”. They were the best. It was the late 50s and early 60s. And, among all the other internationals in the team, on the wing they had the sublime Peter Jackson. He played brilliantly for England and for the Lions on tour. There was a magical creativity about him that bewitched opponents. The crowd would rise in expectation and bay every time he touched the ball.

On one occasion he received the ball behind his own goal line and headed off with his inimitable shimmy straight into the opponent’s pack of forwards, who appeared to open up like the Red Sea in his path, and headed off into the other half of the pitch. At this point he was confronted by their full-back, who proceeded to launch himself into a classical ankle-height swallow dive to lay low this intruder. Problem was – he dived in entirely the wrong direction and Jackson slid past him, untouched, to score under the posts. In recent years

I’ve started to go again to rugby matches, and have grown to love the way Northampton Saints play the game. A few seasons back they had the great All Black, Carlos Spencer, with them in the latter stages of his career. Half a century on from Peter Jackson, he had the same kind of magic.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Centenary of a great musician and teacher

Walking up Marylebone High Street, I stopped to look in the window of Oxfam to see which pre-loved books were on display in the window. And there was a fine, only slightly foxed, early hardback copy of Woodwind Instruments and their History by Anthony Baines. So I bought it.

Tony Baines was one of those (very few) teachers at school who lit my fuse. I don’t think, when he was endeavouring to impart to me better ways to play the trumpet, that I had any idea of the scale of his musical scholarship or the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries. Basically he was a bassoonist but, as I was informed by an awed colleague, he could play (and teach) every wind instrument from every era.

And he had boundless enthusiasm and ability to communicate. I was so lucky.

After Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, in 1933 he became a scholar at the Royal College of Music in London. While he was still a student, he came to the notice of Sir Thomas Beecham, who invited him to join his fledgling London Philharmonic Orchestra as a bassoonist.

He had a very active Second World War, was wounded and captured in the desert (escaping twice). In one of the prisoner-of-war camps he arranged (and conducted) from memory Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. After the war, he worked with a ballet company, before turning to teaching (at Uppingham then at Dean Close) and writing.

His great collection of wind instruments form an important part of the Bate Collection at Oxford University and he was the first curator of that archive from 1970.

He died in 1997, but this year is the centenary of his birth.

Friday, 14 September 2012

A new Festival of Britain?

In my somewhat contrarian way, as Britain has been rejoicing over the success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, I’ve been thinking about how much more relevant the expenditure of all those billions might have been on a new “Festival of Britain”.

I remember so well the last one. It was in 1951 and was created in order to build the sense of recovery, economic and spiritual, in the aftermath of war.

Although it was centred on the south bank of the Thames (the Royal Festival Hall being its greatest surviving legacy), it reached out across the whole of Britain, embracing science, technology, design, innovation, architecture, the arts. It utilised the best people of that time and engaged the whole nation.

How much more relevant that would be now, in the hour of our economic distress (so similar in many ways to the post-war situation) - to give a clear sense of hope and the way forward, something which, for all its feel-good factors, the Olympic experience is not going to provide.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Measurement and Control – the Sequel

Following my recent piece about measurement and control, André Snoxall took me to task.

“I’m afraid you have really got this one wrong,” he told me. “If as a manager you are monitoring compliance with a process then it will generally get followed more reliably than if you are not monitoring compliance.”

Of course, he’s quite right.

But it’s not measurement that I have a problem with. Measurement is essential. It’s CONTROL.

And own André’s example is not fundamentally about control. It’s about INFLUENCE.

That’s what you need as a manager (or indeed as a leader).

But, control. It’s a mirage. And one that if you seek it, you end up stifling the business.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Re-assessing the first Romantic poet

Born in 1762 in the village where I live on the borders of Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire was a poet. He was one of the earliest, perhaps the first, of the English Romantics. I wrote about him briefly in April.

His name, now substantially forgotten, was William Lisle Bowles.

In his own lifetime, as his biographer Robert Moody puts it, “… had any educated person been asked whether he or she had heard of William Lisle Bowles the answer would surely have been a resounding ‘But, of course!’.”

He was a major influence on the young Coleridge, Wordsworth and others. He did battle with Byron.

To celebrate his 250th birthday and to re-assess his work we shall be holding a reading (with music) in the parish church of King’s Sutton, where his father was vicar.

SUNDAY 30 SEPTEMBER at 3:00pm.

Do come and join us!

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Immigrants as the drivers of economic growth

In the 1980s, when I lived in Sydney, Aussies prided themselves on having created a truly harmonious multicultural society. It always seemed to me to be overstated, so I commissioned a study rather provocatively entitled “Racism in Australia”.

At that time the latest influx of immigrants was from Vietnam. Many of them were highly qualified in a multitude of areas, but they arrived having lost the war with the Communists and with little or no English. They took any job they could get, many of them as taxi drivers or taking in laundry. Within a very short space of time they were setting up businesses of all kinds. And their children were doing spectacularly well at school and university.

A striking insight came during one focus group, when an Aussie mum said: “I walk past the university library late evening. And the lights are still on in the library. And I know who’s in there working…”

Working too hard, apparently. It was those Vietnamese, of course. Resentment seems to follow every new immigrant wave.

It occurred to me as a result of that study that in reality Australia’s long-term success economically had been continuously driven by successive waves of immigrants – from England, Ireland and Scotland, Italy, Greece and Lebanon, Serbia and Croatia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore, Japan and so on.

In a fairly recent mixed society, such as Australia (or indeed the USA), with hindsight, this is rather obvious. But my sense is that it also applies in less evident ways to the “older” nations… such as Britain.

Above: "Shearing the Rams" by Tom Roberts, 1888-90, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The genius of the adult Mendelssohn

To the Albert Hall on Friday for the all-Mendelssohn PROM concert given by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Mendelssohn has suffered through most of my lifetime for the mistaken belief that he was a genius as a child and teenager, but somehow lost it all as an adult. How wrong this is.

Certainly he was the most brilliant composer from a young age, even out-performing Mozart in childhood. But, as this concert showed so clearly, he retained his talent well into adulthood.

On Friday we were given two overtures – “Ruy Blas” and the more rarely performed “The Fair Melusine” – the Violin Concerto which the great fiddler Joachim described as “the heart’s jewel”, and his fifth symphony, the “Reformation". All of them were written in adulthood with an evolved, grown-up aesthetic, but no signs of decline.

So how did this reputation grow up? Probably it was the result of dreary, overblown performances. None of that was on view on Friday from the scintillating Leipzigers.

And how good to see a young Sydneysider, Tahlia Petrosian, among the violas. Is she the first Australian to play in that great orchestra since the teenage Alfred Hill in late 1880s?