Saturday, 29 March 2014

More front than Blackpool in Cambridge

It is several decades since I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. What a fabulous collection of art – with a stunning exhibition of the work of John Craxton.

But how on earth did they manage to commission and build that mid-19th century façade and entrance lobby. Perhaps in order to compete with the Ashmolean at Oxford?

It’s completely out of proportion to the rest of this lovely town, gigantic and loaded down with second-rate “classical” architecture and sculpture. It seems to dwarf what lies behind it – just look closely at the photo above. 

Time for a discreet earthquake?


Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership

The very experienced Herbert Hoffmann, a former client at Coca-Cola, writes to say: “Based on 30 years of experience, I would seriously doubt that you can educate people in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership!”

When we were putting together the new Masters programme at City University London, which was to have nine different modules taught by seven different schools within the institution, the mix struck me as potentially of great value to students.

Included were modules on creative problem-solving, technologies for innovation, creative design, turning ideas into action, creative writing, the psychology of creativity and innovation, the creative industries, and intellectual property law. Altogether an exciting cocktail. And one for which there clearly was a market.

It only gradually dawned on me that the academic staff tasked with the delivery of these modules, academic experts in their particular disciplines, had little knowledge or understanding of the big picture. And what’s more, they seemed not to think that this was a problem. It was like having individual specialists in flour, yeast, eggs, sugar, salt, flavourings etc, but no one with real expertise in baking.  

Did it work in practice for the students? Probably, up to a point. What is clear is that a team of ingredient specialists who were also qualified as bakers would have been better. Maybe a lot better.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Creativity in academia

As founding Director of the Centre for Creativity in Professional Practice at City University London, I proposed to my boss that we start a programme to offer to academic staff across the institution an opportunity to think both about their own creative skills and how they might develop them systematically.

In the months that I had been there, it had struck me forcibly that the most important contribution to the growth and development of the university the new Centre could make would be internal.   

My boss, a senior professor, was absolutely appalled by my proposal. Pressed for a reason why, he declared: “It’s what we do.”

So we taught creativity skills only to a few paid-up students on our newly-launched Masters in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership and left the academics well alone.


Thursday, 20 March 2014


After far too long, I was so much looking forward to seeing the Rambert Dance Company, but I’ve been under the weather with a nasty cough this past week, and decided that Debussy and the Rolling Stones and others didn’t need to be shared in duet with my chest infection.

So we had dinner together in Oxford – Sophie, who used to work with Rambert, and Dora, who loves her dance (this being her introduction at eleven, nearly twelve, to the professional contemporary variety) and me – and I left them at the theatre and caught the train back to a quiet, dark home in King’s Sutton.

Rooster. That was the headline name of Rambert’s show. It’s a series of eight classic Stones songs, opening with the great blues from 1964, “Little Red Rooster”, all wailing slide guitar and harmonica, choreographed in 1991 by Rambert’s artistic director at that time, Christopher Bruce, and a popular favourite for the company ever since.

Sad to miss it in the flesh, I played it on YouTube when I got home. Such an elegant transformation of the song. Here it is:

Then I played the Stones version of the same song with the sublime guitar-playing of an unannounced Eric Clapton. Simply amazing music-making:

Sorry you’re missing them in Australia and New Zealand.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Musical multi-tasking

I very much appreciate musicians (and managers) who as it were have more than one string to their bow. One of my favourites from the past is the singer, pianist, conductor, composer and teacher, Sir George Henschel. (It’s how managers are grown in Japan.)

He was born in 1850 at Breslau, then in Germany (now Wrocław in Poland), and in his youth he was a close friend of Brahms. Over a long career, he toured as a concert baritone, accompanied his wife, the American soprano Lillian Bailey at the piano, became chief conductor of the newly-formed Boston Symphony Orchestra and later of the fledgling Scottish Orchestra, wrote much vocal music and, later in his performing life, dispensing with a separate pianist, accompanied himself in concerts and on recordings.

Here he is, singing and playing 'Der Leiermann' (the 'Hurdy-Gurdy Man') from Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle in 1928 at the tender age of 78: 

I love the story told by his daughter, contralto Helen Henschel, of the time when, conducting the Scottish Orchestra in a symphony (she doesn’t say which), the first clarinettist was taken ill: “My father sang the whole of his part, while conducting the symphony, and nobody knew anything about it.”

Above: Henschel by Alma-Tadema, 1879

Friday, 14 March 2014

Implementing 100 ideas a day

I was deputy chairman of a flash, fast-growing international ad agency. Problem was: the chairman had 100 ideas a day and regarded each and every one of them as urgent and important.

So at about five minute intervals, he would walk into my office, tell me excitedly about the latest and ask me to get it implemented… pronto. For whatever reason, he must have thought that this was the deputy chairman’s job. What’s more, I gathered that this was habitual behaviour.   

After six months, I could take it no longer. So I went and had a drink with a brilliant young couple, Brad Stackhouse and Cannon Garber, who were doing some consulting with the agency at the time. What could I do about the situation? I was dying.

They listened carefully and proposed two strategies and a fallback.

Strategy 1: “You need to hire for the chairman an eager PA with an MBA fresh out of Harvard Business School. And move that person into the office next to the chairman (which you are currently occupying).”

Strategy 2: “Move your office to the furthest point in the building – on the furthest floor. Shut your door. And make sure that the chairman knows he has to arrange meetings with you in advance.”

These I implemented gratefully. Did they work? Up to a point. The problem was: I became isolated myself.

So what about the fallback strategy? “Oh, if nothing works, you’ll have to find another job,” said Brad. So I did.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Too late to apologise

The great conductor Toscanini was rehearsing his NBC Orchestra in New York. True to his reputation, he harangued various members of the orchestra about the inadequacy of their playing.

Eventually the tuba player could stand it no longer. Up and out.

At the door he turned and shouted: “Nerts.”

“It’s too late to apologise now,” shot back Toscanini.

Ideas about leadership have rather changed since that time.


Saturday, 8 March 2014

For night-owls shriek in the Base Court…

I went to Hampton Court Palace in the half-term holidays with daughters Kate and Dora, and granddaughter Isobel. And the first quadrangle we entered in the Tudor part of the palace was the “Base Court”.

Base Court? The outer court of a great house or castle says Wikipedia. But where do I remember it from? Of course, from an angry and frightened Richard II, about to be deposed by Bolingbroke in Shakespeare’s play… 

Earl of Northumberland:
My lord, in the base court he doth attend
To speak with you; may it please you to come down.

King Richard II:
Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon,
Wanting the manage of unruly jades.
In the base court? Base court, where kings grow base,
To come at traitors' calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court! down, king!

For night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.

What an amazing and terrifying passage that is.


Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Finding Shakespeare's brother

Arriving early for the Duchess of Malfi matinée at the Globe, I wandered slowly through Borough Market, bought fish and chips from a stall and consumed them, well rugged up, in the churchyard of Southwark Cathedral.

Still with time to spare, I decided to go in search of the flagstone commemorating Shakespeare’s actor brother, Edmund. And there he is, on the floor of the chancel, next door to two other stones, for the playwrights John Fletcher and Philip Massinger – they wrote a dozen plays together in the early part of the seventeenth century (Fletcher two of the lesser known ones with Shakespeare). I was told by an attentive steward that WS had paid for his brother’s stone.

What a pity he didn’t pre-purchase one for himself at the same time. We’ll just have to make do with his gravestone at Stratford – the one that contains the dire warning that “Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones”.  

The last time that I was in that cathedral was in 1993 – for the memorial service for Sam Wanamaker, along with shoals of other Wanamaker-helpers from his 25 year campaign to rebuild the Globe. Sam is commemorated in the south aisle, appropriately right next to the nineteenth century Shakespeare memorial.

Do you suppose all those Bankside playwrights and actors ate fish and chips in the churchyard?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A few people to dinner

For a long time I’ve been curious about a dinner party in Paris on 18 May 1922. Now all has been revealed in Stephen Klaidman’s new book*, a biography of the hosts that evening, Sydney and Violet Schiff.

The Schiffs were committed patrons of (and friends with) artists, writers and musicians, and Sydney himself wrote autobiographical novels under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson.

It was a late dinner in an upstairs room at the Hotel Majestic, following the first night of Stravinsky’s new burlesque-ballet at the Opéra, Le Renard, which was given by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, the same group who had shocked Paris with The Rite of Spring. Diaghilev and several of his dancers came to the dinner, as did the designer of the new production, one Pablo Picasso.

But not content with having the leading composer, artist and impresario of the day (and maybe of the century) at their dinner, the Schiffs had also invited two writers, arguably the greatest literary innovators of the twentieth century: Marcel Proust and James Joyce.

Proust arrived around midnight and proceeded to make conversation with Stravinsky, saying how much he loved the late quartets of Beethoven and comparing Stravinsky with Beethoven. Sensing that this was Proust trying to show off his connoisseurship in music, Stravinsky took offence: “I detest Beethoven,” he announced.

Joyce arrived around 2:30am, shabby and drunk. Proust had not read any of Joyce’s work Ulysses was causing a great stir at the time, but not with Proust. And Joyce had read just a few pages of Proust’s magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time, and disclosed to a friend some time later that “I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic.” They found little to say to each other, these two titans of literature.

At the end of the “evening” they shared a taxi together with the Schiffs. Joyce lit a cigarette, but was silent. Proust talked incessantly – but not to Joyce.

And so finished the starriest dinner party of all time.

*Stephen Klaidman, Sydney and Violet: Their Life with TS Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis, Nan A Talese / Doubleday