Thursday, 1 September 2016

Tesco – Care in the Community

It would appear that we all love to hate the supermarkets.  On the one hand we all shop there and expect goods to be cheaper and on the other we lambaste them at every opportunity.

Tesco has had its fair share of criticism for many reasons.  I shop at Tesco because it is the closest and have done for 40 years.  I don’t feel a particular loyalty but it is convenient, the prices and quality are good enough and the demeanour of the staff has improved substantially in recent years. 

My title “Care in the Community” relates to the name given to the Government programme launched several decades ago which aimed to deinstitutionalise people with mental health issues deemed not to be a risk to themselves or the community, out of institutions and back into the community. In general it is hugely preferable but resources do not always meet demand.

The links between this and Tesco are two incidents I have seen in the last couple of weeks.  Now that I don’t work full-time I no longer have to shop in quantity, or at night nor brave the crowds at weekends. So shopping (albeit not my favourite past-time) is a more leisurely affair.

The first was a couple of weeks ago – the cashier was scanning my shopping when a middle-aged woman clutching a cuddly toy came up to her – greeted her very effusively, insisted on kissing her and kissing the toy and the cashier kissing the toy as well. After a moment or two the cashier said to the woman – “now go and do your shopping and come back when you are ready, I need to finish this lady’s shopping” and off she went. The cashier thanked me for my patience, I asked if she was a friend and she said – “no, she comes in here a few times a week and always looks for the cashiers she knows and we always have to kiss her toy”.  

The second was last week: again my shopping was being scanned when I became aware of a woman at the next door till whose shopping was being scanned and who was shouting “I have bought too much, I don’t have enough money for a taxi, I shouldn’t have bought so much, I don’t have a car” and on and on.” The cashier said very quietly – “don’t worry, just tell me what you want to take out and we will do that.” The woman behind me must have said something to our cashier who replied, “She comes in several times a week and always fills her trolley but she only buys a few things, but we understand”.

I was moved and impressed.  So the next time the cashier is not quite quick enough or doesn’t smile enough or makes a mistake – just think of what they may have been doing that day.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Good-bye to Glyndebourne...

Don’t panic - Glyndebourne Opera isn’t going anywhere, hopefully from strength to strength, but we have probably just paid our last visit.

I remember very clearly the first time we went in the late 1960s.  Friends invited us – I was recently off the boat from South Africa and not really geared up for an English summer.  It wasn’t that it was cold – it just poured with rain. We ate our picnic in the car in the car park and I ruined a pair of shoes in the mud. Those who were more experienced had wellies!

We visited from time to time until the 1980s when we started to go more regularly.  My boss was a member and when his family had decided which operas they wished to attend, he offered to book for colleagues. We loved it so much that I put my name on the waiting list for membership, wondering if I would live long enough. You can read the history of Glyndebourne here.

The small opera house, seating 300 was enlarged over the years and finally in the late 1980s it was decide to redevelop it.  At that point they wrote to everyone on the membership list to see if they wanted to remain for which they had to pay a £50 fee. This clearly reduced the size of the list dramatically as many had moved, died, or changed their minds and my membership came through in time for the opening of the new opera house in 1994.

After our initial visit we had varied weather and eating experiences but were never reduced to eating in the car. There are now many spaces under cover in case the weather fails and also several restaurant and café options. Eventually preparing a suitably sophisticated picnic seemed too much effort and we moved to one of the restaurants.

Glyndebourne on a sunny day has a dream-like quality – glorious gardens with people floating around in evening dress, drinking champagne – not quite Downton Abbey but some elegant private party.  In the early days we would cool our wine in the stream, everything was left outside for the picnic in the long interval  - the sheep in the fields are beyond fences and no one would touch your things.  People would get there early to bag the best spaces and you would see everything from sandwiches eaten on groundsheets to tables and chairs and umbrellas being wheeled out with the hampers from Fortnum and Mason. 
In the early days most of the visitors were regular attenders. You saw them with their teenage children, and then with the first boyfriend or girlfriend – everyone shiny-eyed and excited. It was always part of the social season but you did feel that they were there primarily for the music. The dress is black tie for the men – a sprinkling of white tuxedos – and long dresses for the women. I do remember seeing quite a few men in rather ancient dinner suits – you know how black goes slightly green when too old – probably tailor-made for their fathers many decades before. Long black or dark taffeta skirts and white or cream blouses for the women were de rigeur, Glyndebourne was fashionable but fashion wasn’t important.

We went on our own, with friends, with our children and their partners and subsequently spouses. It was never a cheap option but in recent years the prices have soared to the point that it is now generally more expensive than the Royal Opera House.  As a private opera house without subsidy, every commercial opportunity has to be explored. The audience has changed: corporate entertainment is more common and not everyone is entranced by opera although you hope this might spur an interest. The dress code has been relaxed (apparently to make it more “accessible” – accessible to whom one wonders at those prices) and although most men still wear black tie, the women are more relaxed and more colourful but everyone still makes an effort.

Number One Husband waiting for his "Ha Ha Tea"
It is still a lovely evening with excellent opera and the production we saw of the “Marriage of Figaro” was up to standard as was the dinner in the restaurant. With typical Glyndebourne efficiency, you book and pay in advance and your numbered table is waiting for you at the long interval.  There is an excellent buffet with a carvery or salmon and desserts including a memorable summer pudding! 

The best value is the “Ha Ha tea” – four finger sandwiches, two huge scones with clotted cream and jam and four little pastries as well as tea or coffee – all for £15.00 – half of London prices. (Ha Ha is nothing to do with funny – see here  for a definition.)

We will miss it but the cost has gone way beyond the comfortable and the over two hour drive there and back is now less attractive. On Sunday night the traffic was particularly heavy on our way there and two hours became three.  

If you love opera and want to experience something that is everything you imagine to be quintessentially English – Glyndbourne is it

Monday, 25 July 2016

Motherhood and apple pie

I have never made an apple pie – in fact until I retired from full-time work I had only ever made two kinds of cake – baking wasn’t my strong suit – but that’s another story.

I wrote a while ago about the leadership election for the Conservative Party. Andrea Leadsom spoke about the fact that she had children and therefore had more of a stake in the future than someone who didn’t. The unfortunate part of this was that the person who will be our Prime Minister had only spoken a couple of days before about the sadness of not being able to have children.  Ouch. I am very sure that Leadsom was not making this point quite as pointedly as the media made out – but once you stick your head above the parapet the press are very unforgiving.

It is not unusual for politicians to parade their families to show how “human” they are.  Whether it is walking hand in hand with their spouse or parading the children – Hilary Clinton speaks often about being a mother and grandmother and Donald Trump’s children are his advisers and always on the platform with him.  Who cares....

It did set me thinking about what impact being a parent has on your suitability for a post. Having a child is a life changing event – as is losing a parent (especially when you are young) losing a partner, a life-threatening illness or serious but not life threatening illness, losing your job – the list is endless and they all change you, but they don’t provide you with the skills and experience to better perform a role.

Andy Murray seemed to think that becoming a father had helped him win Wimbledon. I am sure being in a happy and stable relationship has helped too. But his only professional concern has to be himself – that is what tennis is all about and his emotional state can have an impact on his performance.

Being a mother certainly accustoms you to managing on very little or disrupted sleep – as does being a nurse or doctor, an ambulance driver or shift worker; a lawyer or banker working through the night to close a deal...

Very few cabinet members have experience in the sector where they hold portfolios (the Canadian Defence minister is a much decorated soldier which perhaps is the exception!). To all the politicians – I don’t want to know about your personal life unless it seriously impacts your professional life, I really just want to know that you are competent and can do the job, manage your colleagues and challenge your advisers (and ensure that they challenge you.)

For the voter – it is a leap of faith – but then it always is.

Monday, 11 July 2016

A Leader – of whom?

If I had a pound for every time leader or leadership has been mentioned in the last couple of weeks I would be rich.

I used to be Chief Executive of a medical research charity with over 50 staff and several hundred volunteers around the country. Imagine a situation where, for some reason (or more than one) over half my senior management team had stepped down because they didn’t have confidence in my running of the organisation. Additionally the majority of the staff doubted my leadership and suggested that I leave – but – all the volunteers thought I was wonderful. This is a ridiculous and untenable situation – there would be no way I could stay in post.

I know that many of my readers live abroad so will set out the background.

The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party, took a gamble on a referendum and lost.  He immediately resigned – however foolhardy his behaviour may or may not have been in calling the referendum, that was the correct thing to do.

This triggered a leadership contest, which followed strict rules – a vote amongst MPs, bottom one drops out, another vote and so on until there are only two left.  Those two were Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom. Today, Leadsom has withdrawn leaving Theresa May as the Leader and therefore Prime Minister. Leadsom only had the support of a quarter of Conservative Members of Parliament and felt that even if the members of the Party around the country had supported her she would not have sufficient support within the House of Commons.  I won’t go into the debacle of her press interview over the weekend and the poor handling of it, etc.

The reality check was that she was self aware enough to know that she wasn’t going to make it – let’s see in a few years’ time. So that’s the Conservative Party done.  Theresa May goes off to the Palace to see the Queen on Wednesday and moves into Number 10 Downing Street. Done by the book, following the rules and efficient (and no doubt some covert behind the scenes action). Leadsom also put the party before her own ambition – the leadership contest would have dragged on for nine weeks, very destabilising for the country.

The Labour Party is something else (in more ways than one). Their Leader was elected by the party membership with an overwhelming majority last year. He has failed to lead his party, to mount a successful Opposition to the Government and despite 172 MPs voting to support a vote of no confidence with only 40 against, repeats his mantra that he has a mandate from the members of the Party who are apparently signing up by the tens of thousands.  

Over half his Shadow Cabinet resigned and he has had to bring in inexperienced MPs, some to hold two briefs in order to act as the Opposition. Many people have asked him to step aside, he has refused and even though there is now a formal challenge, he no doubt will receive a mandate again from the party members who seem, as does he, keener on ideological campaigning than winning an election.  If you feel so strongly about bringing about change – you need to be in government – how is that so difficult to understand?

I find it depressing beyond belief – even if I were a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, every Government needs challenge and this is not going to happen in any efficient way.

This brings me back to the beginning of this blog – it can’t work in a charity, even less in a business – unless you have the confidence of your colleagues you cannot go on.  They don’t have to like you but do have to think you are up to the job.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Supermarkets killed the high street – immigrants revived it

I must start with a caveat – I can only speak about London and then probably only those parts with an immigrant community – the high street is doing well.

When we moved here in the 1960s the complaint was that supermarkets were killing the corner shops. I wasn’t very surprised – they were pretty dingy and not open for very long. Mind you, the supermarkets weren’t much better.  I remember that Sainsbury’s in Swiss Cottage opened at lunch-time on Monday, early closing day was, I think Thursday, and then closed at lunch-time on Saturday – and they were only open till about five or six o’clock. There was a milk dispensing machine outside the tube station if you needed milk at the weekend, unless you could get to a kosher shop on Sunday.

I used to shop at Coopers Fine Fare - long since gone – they were open until 7 pm which meant that I could shop on the way home from work.  We had the tiniest fridge and a freezer that held two ice-trays – barely enough for a brick of ice-cream (remember those?).

The corner shops did close and then Asians came from Kenya and Uganda and they started opening again – and they were open long hours.  They sold mainly cigarettes, sweets and packaged foods – not too much in the way of fresh food. Many of them moved on – their children who had helped in the shops, were now doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, accountants – and the shops had paid for all that.

In North London there are still the kosher shops – butchers, fishmongers and bakeries.  But now our high street has even more small shops – despite the dreadful supermarket “local” shops. Added to the Asian there are now Middle Eastern and Polish.  If I want fresh herbs I can get a big bunch of coriander for the same price as a few wisps from the supermarket; a box of cherries is half the price of a kilo from the supermarket and every exotic spice and ingredient is there.  The lamb (halal of course) is amazing and the chicken comes in small winglets ready for a tagine. And of course the Polish shop has lovely chocolate covered plums.

A memory springs to mind: there is a very small parade of shops near where we live. When our children were small there used to be a little sweet shop which absorbed a fair amount of their pocket money. It was run by a Chinese woman and had been there long before we arrived in the late seventies. One day I went into the shop to hear her tell a customer that she was closing down. She said “this shop has raised my family and educated my children and now that they have finished university I can stop”.

These immigrants – they come here and make successes of their lives!!!