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. 

Thursday 30 October 2014

Another fascinating exhibition at the British Museum

If Neil McGregor, Director of the British Museum, ever leaves these shores I will cry and cry.  We visited this weekend and it is buzzing, humming and still full of wonder.  (I won’t delve into the ethics or not of the Elgin Marbles going back to Athens – would the six million people who see them here each year travel there to see them.  Enough of that!)

Our main purpose was to see Germany - Memories of a Nation, a six hundred year history in objects. McGregor has form: several years ago he worked with the BBC on a project telling A History of the World in 100 objects. There were a hundred 15-minute episodes, broadcast on Radio 4 based on objects from the British Museum’s collection. It was entrancing, fascinating and if you can get the podcast, worth listening to or buying the book.

The current German exhibition has been subjected to the same treatment and is his narrative is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 – I am halfway through and it is fascinating. I learned a bit of German history at school – in South Africa the unification of Germany seemed a long way away and not terribly relevant.

I knew that Martin Luther had translated the bible into German – and there is a copy hand annotated by him – but hadn’t realized that he all but created the universal written German language – pulling together numerous regional dialects and making arbitrary decisions about which words to use, wanting the text to be as relevant as possible to ordinary people. This sits a few paces away from a Gutenberg bible – the first mass produced printed book.

Each object tells a story – about the Hanseatic League to a copy of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels;  a copy of Das Kapital; a porcelain rhinocerous modeled on Dürer s etching which is there as well; an Iron Cross and a stunning Bauhaus cradle.

Wonderful art from Dürer to the Bauhaus, from Meissen to Kathe Kollwitz and not so wonderful examples of the dark days of the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust, including the gate from Buchenwald concentration camp. That simple gate with the words Jedem das Seine innocuously translated as “to each his own” but in this case vilely as “everyone gets what he deserves” and written on the gate so it could only be read from the inside.  

The exhibition starts with news footage of the fall of the Berlin Wall and outside there is – what else – a Volkswagen Beetle!  We collect magnets from art exhibitions to act as a daily visual reminder – this time it was the Dürer rhinocerous......

Finally – we are members of the British Museum so we didn’t pay to see this exhibition – you will have to pay a very small sum of between £8 - £10 – the rest of the museum is free.  The subject of my next blog!

Saturday 25 October 2014

My opinion is free but YOU get paid for finding it out

There were a couple of TV series a few years back called Grumpy Old Women and Grumpy Old Men.  You didn’t need to be that old to be quoted, just famous.  I have always tended to grumpiness but held myself in check – now I don’t care so much, but would draw the line at being offensive to someone.  I suppose leaving my shopping at the self-checkout at Tesco (see previous blog) is part of that – I would have felt obliged to finish paying before.

I receive a monthly email from YouGov – to quote “YouGov has been acclaimed as the country's most accurate opinion pollster.”  This email is very flatteringly entitled YouGov Opinion Formers survey. Well that is flattering – I am an opinion former! I have been receiving these for years and have filled them in most months. Now that I have more time to do this and think about it, it suddenly occurred to me – they are paid, and well paid, to do this. I am giving my services for free. Why?

I have just seen some market research commissioned by a public agency which was done entirely online – that means that they canvassed the opinion of 2,000 people who had access, ability, interest and time to deal with an online survey – and public policy will be driven by this – not taking into account the millions who are not online, have not the ability, the time or the desire to take part.

I don’t deny the value of market research although the questions asked and the way they are framed are often carelessly done. But in this case YouGov’s customers (who are commercial as well as political) will manage without this opinion former – it didn’t help that the email was addressed to “Dear Alec...”

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Blogging has been a little light recently

There are a number of reasons for this - I always have plenty to say but I don't like to write blogs when I am away and have been doing a fair amount of travelling recently. 

Secondly and more importantly, I haven't been able to decide what to write about. This sounds a bit pathetic but the news over the past few months has been relentlessly awful - from the Middle East to the Ukraine (except who hears about what is going on there now) from Ebola to politics in Africa.  It has either been too awful and/or too complex to write about and conversely everything else has been too trivial so I have been seated at my computer, stymied.

Just today the news is awash with the sentencing of Pistorius in South Africa. A beautiful young woman was killed by a well-known and complicated man - she is one of many people who have been killed in South Africa (most of whom are not beautiful, young and blonde) and while this is a horrific personal tragedy for her family - did this warrant wall to wall coverage?  Is this the modern electronic version of the rabble gathering to watch a hanging?

There are a number of reasons for this - I always have plenty to say but I don't like to write blogs when I am away and have been doing a fair amount of travelling recently. 

There is a war in the Ukraine - I haven't seen anything on the news channels recently but it rages on.  And then there is Ebola.  I heard someone from the Centre for Disease Control in the USA interviewed on the BBC World Service a couple of weeks ago - his opinion then was that screening in the USA was probably a waste of time and resources but the government was responding to "Don't just stand there, do something".  Of course, until white Western people took ill there wasn't much interest.  There still seems to be little interest from the countries of the world - some, including the UK and USA, have sent significant resources but last I heard $100 million had been pledged out of $1 billion asked for by the UN.

I mentioned Africa – in Zimbabwe the wife of President Mugabe, Grace, was recently awarded a PhD - not an honorary one but the sort you study for seven plus years for. She apparently acquired this after only four months and without publishing a thesis or being independently reviewed. Wow!  She is now heading the women's group of the ZANU(PF) party -  read The extraordinary political rise of Dr Grace Mugabe – is she going the way of Eva Peron and is this the next President?

If you are still reading this now you will have a flavour of just a few of the awfulnesses of the past few months - at the moment I can't bring myself to write about the upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe and how that makes me feel.  

Monday 1 September 2014

A tale of two shops.....

A day spent trying to get my papers together for my tax return, which meant doing masses of filing, was never going to be fun.  I thought I would cook something different for supper as a reward which meant a trip to the shops.

This isn’t with the zeitgeist but I do most of my shopping at the nearest supermarket which happens to be Tesco.  I have the loyalty card and regularly get money off vouchers which, most of the time, I forget about until too late. I also get air miles which means I would have to spend about half a million pounds to go anywhere (OK a bit of an exaggeration but not much).

I don’t use the self-checkout.  If they offered me a discount to check out my own shopping then I suppose I would. I quite like a bit of human interaction and worry that one day the humans may all be replaced by machines.

However, today I only needed a few items (which were quite exotic and difficult to locate) but I did.  I then thought I would use the self-checkout.  Firstly the terminals that were free had a message “take your receipt” – there was no receipt dangling free.  Someone came and cleared one for me to use.  Sorted out the bagging area etc and scanned the first two items.  Third one was a bit challenging but I managed.  The fourth one (a bag of semolina) came up with a message to say that “this product has been withdrawn, ask for assistance”.  The assistant came over, read the message and then tried four times to rescan it – surprisingly getting the same message each time.  All she had to do was offer to replace it with a different brand.  I lost the will to continue at that point and left her and my shopping in the bagging area.

I then walked a couple of blocks to a Middle Eastern shop where the lovely chap managed to understand me, translated all the labels, found everything I needed – all surprisingly cheap.  When I told the cashier I had forgotten the coriander she said not to worry she would charge me and I should just pick up a bunch on the way out. (Note: they even sold the chicken already cut up and skinned for my tagine. It was delicious!)

One slightly curious thing I did see – a bag of Knorr stock cubes with the label “Nigeria’s favourite stock cube”.