Saturday, 24 January 2015

An imperfect man perhaps, but a perfect hero

Fifty years ago this weekend Winston Churchill died.

I had only been in London for a very few weeks – the first time outside South Africa. If you can imagine, coming from mid summer in Johannesburg, sunny hot days – to a London which was grey and cold. This was before they cleaned up most of the buildings and everything was so dark and so grey and the days so short.

Churchill was old and frail and yet we felt stunned. He was lying in state in Westminster Hall and we went after work. I think we queued for about three or four hours.  It was slightly surreal – cold, damp and the WRVS had trucks serving tea to the people waiting.  I felt as if I had been time-warped back to a war I had never experienced.

I have never felt the need to share in public grief or joy except for this. It was extraordinary and I will never forget it.

My parents were also pleased that we went. In WWII there was no conscription in South Africa – and it was touch and go whether the government of the day would support the Allies or the Axis powers. It was an anxious time, they knew something of what was happening to the Jews in Europe. My father felt morally compelled to act to support Britain's actions in the war – not all did. He volunteered and served as a surgeon on a British hospital ship – the AMRA. 

He felt, and I still do, that if it weren’t for Churchill we would not be here today. Certainly there would be no Jews in Europe – at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, Reinhard Heydrich said that "Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west”.

I am sure that this is simplistic but I do feel that Churchill was the only man in the right place at the right time and I will always be grateful. 

Friday, 23 January 2015

Those were the days – well some of them

A friend posted a link on facebook which contrasts the more laissez faire attitude of parents in the 60s and 70s to now.  In some cases I think the changes are a shame – playgrounds that are so safe that they hinder children’s development and in others, no seat belts, smoking everywhere and products to make you suntan faster – thank goodness. 

This set me to reminisce a bit:  growing up in Johannesburg we were desperate to get a tan and sat in the sun as much as possible.  As if that weren’t bad enough, far from using sunscreen we used a variety of things to make us tan – ie burn – quicker.  Two of the ones I remember were salad oil (you stank like a chip-shop) and Brylcreem (smelt equally revolting).  My saving grace was living in the UK most of my life and not getting much more sun – at least I haven’t developed skin cancer as some of those friends who stayed in sunny climates have.

From the age of about 13 or 14 we went out on our bikes for hours on end.  We lived on the edge of suburbia so not much traffic and there were always at least two or three of us.  Our parents couldn’t contact us (no cell phones dear grandchildren) and as long as we were back before dark no one bothered. Not that they were uncaring – that’s just the way it was.  When I started dating and went out with boys in cars – they waited up for me!!

We would drive the 1,000 miles to Cape Town for the summer holidays, mostly driving straight through – about 23 hours.  Our parents would build up the gap between the back of the front seat and the back seat with various bits of luggage and use towels and rugs to make a “bed” for my sister and me. 

The tradition also included stopping for picnic breakfast with omelette sandwiches (in freshly baked challah).  In later years we stopped half way at De Aar and stayed the night in an hotel.  (De Aar is the equivalent of Atlanta for flights – wherever you go you have to change in Atlanta – well De Aar, despite being a small town was (and possibly still is) the same.)

The other vivid memory is the canvas water bag, two of which would hang outside the car.  Dear grandchildren – bottled mineral water didn’t exist and thermos flasks held hot drinks. You filled the canvas water bag with water and the very slow evaporation kept the water cold.  If we were very lucky a garage would sell soft drinks – you could choose between Pepsi, Coke, and fizzy red or fizzy green – goodness knows what the flavours were.

The holiday was an adventure - one year the roof rack flew off the back of the car and we all had to get out, unpack the luggage, put it back on again and repack the luggage – my parents then held it on, each with one arm out of the window (father no doubt driving one handed) until we came to a garage – probably a hundred miles or so.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The boxer, the football pools magnate and my dad!

In around 1952 my father came to London for an operation on his jaw.  It wasn’t a very major operation but as he was a surgeon himself there was some nervousness amongst his colleagues in Johannesburg who would rather it was someone else’s problem.  So to London they came.

Close friends of theirs, Alf and Jessie Cope, were amazing, helping every step of the way.  Surgery was successful and – the story goes – Alf visited my dad in hospital and asked what he would like to do when he was discharged.  Dad said that he would really like to see a boxing match and so it was. The women went to the ballet (of course!) and Dad (on the right) and Alf (centre) went to the Café Royal.  Another guest was Freddie Mills (on the left).

Some background:  Alf was the founder of Cope’s Football Pools. The Football Pools were a major British institution and, until the National Lottery, were the most general gambling pastime. You received your coupon every week, filled in what you thought would be the draws in the football matches on Saturday and hoped. If there were lots of draws the payout was very small but if there were only 8 and you got all of them it could be quite significant.  At a time when I was earning £15 a week we won £1,000 between four of us. 

Freddie Mills had been the World Lightweight Boxing Champion and was very much the post-war golden boy of British boxing. He never made it as a heavyweight and after retirement did some acting, TV presenting, owned a nightclub and apparently associated with some very dodgy characters. He committed suicide or perhaps was murdered in 1965.

Back to the night: I can’t verify any of this as my dad died in 1968 but the story went that after the event he found out that, when Alf couldn’t find a boxing match taking place that week he arranged a programme including putting up the purse. It was apparently reported in the newspapers the following day.  I would love to be able to verify this – but even so, what a great story.

Friday, 28 November 2014

To wear or not to wear – your personal brand

Seems like “brand” is the topic of the week.  I spoke last night as part of a panel at a “Women in Business” seminar at law firm, Taylor Wessing.  The topic was personal brand.  I kicked off with the following:

“Shirley Bassey sang – “The minute you walked in the joint I could see you were a man of distinction”.  For women it isn’t so easy. A male Australian news anchor wore the same suit for every programme for a year. There were no comments.  His female colleague regularly receives comments on what she wears. (see here, especially for her brilliant response).  Margaret Thatcher changed her dress style drastically and lowered her vocal register and Angela Merkel wears black trousers and what looks like the same tailored jacket in different colours every day. We have almost stopped looking at what she is wearing because it is unremarkable.

Some orchestras have blind auditions where the player is behind a screen so that the judgment is made solely on performance – that is unlikely to happen anywhere else. When you walk into a room or up on the podium – people make snap judgments in the first 30 seconds – not intentionally, not accurately, it isn’t fair ...   but that’s the way it is. 

So if we are talking about your personal brand – how you look counts and it is much more complicated than in the 70s when John Molloy published a book called Dress For Success for Women when the boundaries between business and casual dress were clearer. When I left the City I opened my wardrobe and there were the suits – black, charcoal, navy.  On the other hand when I was Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Campaign, wherever possible I wore pink, the more dark suits there were in the room, the more visible I was.”

The rest of the presentation and much of the discussion covered a wide range of issues around personal brand but what was glaringly obvious when you walked into that room is that 90% of the women (including me!) were wearing black and this provoked quite a discussion.

One of our hosts spoke about Barack Obama who wears the same style of suit every day because he has enough decisions to make and doesn’t want to have to think about what he wears. He is not alone – Mark Zuckerberg and Albert Einstein the same. Gary Player has always worn all black and that was quite shocking amongst the lurid colours on the golf course. The great British dress designer, Jean Muir, wore black in winter and navy in summer and Grace Coddington (Vogue) only wears all black. 

There are two motivations here – the first is not to have to think about what you are going to wear and the second is to make a statement.  Obama and Merkel don’t want to think about what they are going to wear and are taking your attention beyond what they are wearing. Player and Coddington are perhaps making a statement.

If you want your audience to move beyond what you are wearing I am afraid that it needs to be unremarkable in the specific environment – unless you want to make a statement and build this into your personal brand – Suzy Menkes’ rather strange hairstyle is an example – but then she is in the fashion business.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Will a rose by any other name damage your brand?

I am intrigued by an article in the Saturday Independent: 

Now we all know that mayonnaise is a sauce or dressing made with eggs and olive oil, a whisk and a strong right arm. For some reason our cousins in the USA call it mayo.  Unilever make Hellman’s Mayonnaise and a feisty start-up business, Hampton Creek, has produced a dressing called Just Mayo which does not contain eggs.

Unilever is suing Hampton Creek, saying that this egg-free product (which brings joy to those who can’t or won’t eat eggs) has caused “irreparable harm” to their brand. It shouldn’t be called mayo as it doesn’t contain eggs.

Pur-lease.....  I am reminded of someone who always said she was “deeply offended” for some trivial comment. With all due respect (a phrase which indicates no such thing) Unilever – mayonnaise is a generic term and by default so is mayo.

If I said “ketchup” to you – you would automatically think “tomato” but recipes have used mushrooms, oysters, walnuts and other foods and are still ketchup. I am all for Cheddar coming from Cheddar, Champagne coming from Champagne and Parma Ham coming from Parma but unless Unilever can convince me that mayo originates from County Mayo and that’s where they produce their stuff I think they should get over it.

If you want real mayonnaise – it doesn’t come out of a jar.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

I am the lucky generation

Born after WWII I am the first generation of my family neither to have fled persecution nor to have said goodbye to a father, brother, son or male relative or friend going to war, not knowing whether I would ever see them again.

My paternal grandfather, with his wife and child, fled pogroms in Lithuania in the 1890s to go to South Africa.  As a new immigrant he joined the Boers in the war against the British, losing the use of one arm but going on to have a successful business and raise six children. 

My maternal grandfather fought in WWI as a bombardier in the Royal Flying Corps and I have a photograph of him standing next to his plane. He and my grandmother with my mother, then a baby, decided to move to South Africa for better opportunities (economic migrants!) and ex-servicemen were encouraged to do so. He had trained as a cabinet-maker at Maples and set up a successful furniture business.

My father and mother married in the week that France fell.  In fact my father’s call up papers arrived during the ceremony.  My grandfather took charge, did not tell them and contacted the War Office to grant a few days compassionate leave – “he has just married my daughter!” There was no conscription in South Africa, but my father had volunteered and served as a surgeon on a British hospital ship.

For many years I used to watch the ceremony at the Cenotaph on television and while I understood why apartheid South Africa was not part of this I felt angry that the sacrifice made by its citizens (black and white) none of whom had to fight, was not recognised. (It was never a given that South Africa would support the Allies.)

I have been to see the amazing display of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London twice and observed my own two minutes silence at home this morning. There is no end to war and hatred: people are dying now in the Ukraine, in Africa and in the Middle East. I have faced discrimination but never persecution, and my husband and son have never had to either face conscription or a decision to volunteer. The upsurge of anti-Semitism in the world, even in the UK, makes me fearful that future generations of my family may not be as lucky as I have been.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Gesture politics is dangerous – who cares what a feminist looks like?

That may be a bit harsh as the intentions were good but the problem with these gestures is that they can backfire.  The Fawcett Society is an organisation that campaigns for women's rights and its roots date back to 1886 when Millicent Garrett Fawcett dedicated her life to a peaceful campaign for women’s suffrage. It remit covers matters such as equal pay and representation for all groups. So what could be safer than a t-shirt saying “This is what a feminist looks like” and worn by loads of high profile people. Much press coverage and money raised for the charity.

After many years in the charity sector working with commercial companies in cause-related-marketing (where a product or service is sold with a donation going to the charity for each item sold) it is an area fraught with danger. At its most extreme – for example no one would think of raising money for a lung charity with a tobacco promotion but it can be subtler and more complicated. What about that healthy sounding cereal that turns out to be 30% sugar and obesity is a risk factor for the disease you are raising money for – etc etc.

You need to do a risk assessment with every product alliance, and with any celebrity link-up. Imagine a children’s charity finding out mid-promotion that their celebrity has been arrested for child abuse or a drug rehab charity that their celebrity sponsor falls spectacularly off the wagon in front of the camera. The permutations are endless and keep many a corporate fundraiser and celebrity manager awake at night. (You know who you are…….)

So what could be safer than a t-shirt saying “This is what a feminist looks like” worn by famous people and linked to Elle magazine and a trendy shop.  Raise awareness and money.  Pity they couldn’t persuade the Prime Minister to wear one, Milliband and Clegg did – and so did Harriet Harman at Prime Minister’s question time.

As the time I thought that the PM was correct as did 64% of women polled – I think this is gesture politics and I don’t believe does anything to advance the cause of women. Elle magazine of all places! Read about fashion and make-up (I do) but feminism is not about 145 handbags and accessories or a push up eyeliner with ultra thin (possibly even airbrushed?) models making any average women feel inadequate. This stunt won't ensure more women MPs let alone Cabinet Ministers and Cameron would have been castigated about serious stuff like that if he had taken part. Milliband and Clegg don't have such a great record either!

It has now spectacularly backfired as, according to the Mail on Sunday, the factory where the t-shirts are being produced in Mauritius pays their migrant female staff below the minimum wage and about a quarter of the average monthly wage and they sleep 16 to a room. Oops!

I am sympathetic to the Fawcett Society as they were assured that the garments would be made in the UK and when they spotted they weren’t were assured that the factory was ethical etc.  No doubt trebles all round at the Cabinet Office – at least Cameron wasn’t part of that disaster.

In a way that distracts from my primary objection – this is gesture politics and I don’t think will have persuaded anyone who isn’t interested in equality. Of course feminism comes in all shapes and sizes (literally!) and I have been a feminist since the sixties - I am not sure that we have done such a great job.