Saturday, 30 June 2012

Monetising Your Network

A news item I heard on the radio caught my attention because it sounded so unlikely: a business school in the UK has just appointed a Professor of Networking. It sounded like a cushy number for someone who knows how to conjure up orders via Linkedin or acquire 146,000 Facebook friends in the space of half an hour. Not so, claimed the school: electronic social media are just another manifestation of an activity that has been around since humans first began to grunt at each other but businesses have lately lost sight of the fact that networks should be mutually beneficial - and the Professor is going to set them back on course.

To those who are unfamiliar with the ways of business, ‘networking’ might appear to be a black art practised by initiates while they play rounds of golf - not for sport, but in order to cultivate secretively advantageous connections, stitch up monopolistic agreements and line their pockets at the expense of others. All these things certainly do happen but the process isn’t intrinsically evil just because some are more selfishly inclined than others. Amongst salespeople there is an adage: “people buy from people”, which is another way of saying you are more likely to win a sale if potential customers know and like you, so get to know them, do your best to be likeable - and don’t abuse the relationship: network responsibly. Unfortunately for society, businesses are prone to rampant greed and the Professor clearly has some work to do.

Of course the principles of networking don’t apply exclusively to business: it is a fundamental human activity comprising the building of supportive relationships in the form of friendships made and maintained over the years, relatives nurtured and indulged, small favours granted and inconveniences graciously endured. This essentially benign process creates informal, mutually beneficial social structures. As in business, however, danger is always present in the form of exploitation by those who are ruthless in pursuit of their own ends. History, as Hilary Mantel demonstrates in her novel Wolf Hall, illustrates the point.

Set in Tudor England, her story of power-brokering depends on connections made and cemented by the elaborate manipulation of money, might and marriage; and the most important of these was marriage. The Tudors may not have played golf but they certainly understood the importance of networks to their hold on power and sought to entrench them legally with contracts devised for the purpose and known as marriages. So important was the contract of marriage that it was purported to be sanctioned only by the highest authority (God) and interpreted and controlled by His representative on Earth (the Pope) whose only interest (he claimed) was that all souls should go to Heaven. The rather useful “till death us do part” clause was included in the contract to ensure lasting and legally incontestable possession of goods and chattels by the survivor. By these means were whole nations effectively owned by certain families for as long as they could get away with it.

The practice was not confined to the most powerful families, indeed the ‘strategic alliance’ aspect of marriage remains well-understood and valued within certain circles of society to this day, but a more popular, romantic delineation has evolved and the “till death us do part” clause is now likely to refer to fidelity rather than property. But this romantic gloss lately applied to marriage has obscured its original purpose: in the recent case of the woman who was imprisoned for embezzling a quarter of a million pounds from her employer to pay for her dream wedding we may conclude that her folly was not to have heeded the lesson of history which illustrates a principal tenet of networking: if you want money, marry into it.

Saturday, 23 June 2012


Seven CDs had arrived in the post that morning and if I had been a teenager I would certainly have put all life on hold while I listened to them back-to-back. But I am a responsible adult (how did that happen?) with important things to do: my newly arrived foreign tenant must be shown around his flat - the CDs must wait.
I admire and respect foreigners who turn up in the UK having taken the trouble to learn English in advance.  My own lifelong habit of arriving in someone else’s country clueless is more than simply rude: it has a whiff of colonialism about it. And so I try to remain patient, attentive and helpful when communicating with those thoughtful, diligent foreign visitors to my country - although this can lead to unwanted linguistic complications.
While showing my tenant his accommodation I introduced him, by way of a hint, to the cupboard where the cleaning implements are kept. His reaction was unenthusiastic but as we engaged with its contents a conversation evolved around how the verbs ‘to brush’ and ‘to sweep’ differ in meaning. Flattered by his interest in the niceties of our language (or maybe it was a diversionary tactic on his part) I pushed colloquialism a little too far by attempting to explain that being ‘brushed off’ is quite a different experience from being ‘swept off one’s feet’. Our mutual comprehension soon reached its limits.
I wish he had been with me on the train the next day when, for a while, I sat next to a young man who clearly had been swept off his feet – judging from the excited phone conversation he unselfconsciously shared with me and others nearby which revealed his sumptuous wedding plans in considerable detail. The reception was to be at a country hotel in Cheshire but his guest list, it seems, was problematic in so far as there were numerous jealousies and rivalries to be taken into account. I understand this is a common predicament but I was surprised to hear the groom agonising over it. The mist began to clear, however, as we heard him describe the outfits he had chosen for the bridesmaids - Justin, Alex, David and Wayne.
After his disembarkation I was further entertained by a pair of young girls, whom I took to be first-year college students, whose non-stop conversation was remarkable for its considerable breadth and minimal depth.
          “I was gonna do, like, pasta. Do you have to cook that?” said one.
“I dunno. I think so” said the other.
Towards the end of the journey, as the tide of topics began to wane, they decided to play a game of cards called Snap -
“Not Whist. That’s, like, rubbish”
- soon after which they were approached by a middle-aged man from an adjoining carriage. I took him to be their teacher.
          “What do you know?” he asked them
          “Not much” said one, not looking up
          “Good” he replied
          “Snap” said the other
          “That’s, like, so unfair!”
          “Why? You should of bin, like, quicker?”
He stood, foolishly, hoping for a signal of engagement before trying again:
          “Has anyone got any toffees?” he enquired
          “Are we near London yet?” asked the one
          “I’ve got some biscuits” said the other
          “What kind?” he enquired, brightening
          “Chocolate chip. Do you want one?”
          “Great. Thanks”
They continued to play and talk together while he stood and watched, crumbs falling to his feet. After an uncomfortably long two minutes he flicked the front of his shirt clean and coughed.
          “Right, well, see you later, Thanks for the biscuit”
Thus was he dismissed: or “brushed off”, as we say in English.
I finally found time at home to savour the musical treasures recently acquired. Top of the pile was a compilation of Colombian songs. I have no idea what they are singing about but, sometimes, ignorance can be bliss.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Carry on Camping

During a recent campervan expedition we found ourselves at an attractive but busy campsite where we shared field space with those who shelter under nylon, which caused me to question why they do so - and no, it’s not just because they don’t have campervans. (I want to make it clear that campervans, despite the misleading name, should in no way be compared with tents - the essential difference being that they are weather-tight). Although, during our stay, the weather was constantly dry and fine, there is no denying the fact that, in Britain at least, camping can turn out to be little more than a complicated way of getting wet.

Motivation for camping, therefore, is a puzzle – although perhaps not when children are involved, for they experience campsites as adventure playgrounds where rules are relaxed and they can enjoy a degree of anarchy. As a six-year old I told my mother one afternoon that I felt homesick. “What do you mean?” she asked “How can you be homesick when you are at home?” “Oh”, I replied “I mean I’m sick of being at home”. Camping would have been just the thing for me then but my parents showed no interest in it. Perhaps they had done a cost/benefit analysis and decided against it. Observing one of the families on site I wouldn’t disagree: the mother was constantly engaged in rounding up, regulating, feeding, washing and clothing three small, wayward children while the father filled or emptied buckets, fanned charcoal, assembled pieces of camping equipment and tinkered with his Land Rover. It would all have been so much easier at home.

Elsewhere there were slicker operations: for example the consolidated group of German families. Their corral of vehicles and tents surrounded a mass of tables and chairs set out under a large awning where they gathered together with their numerous offspring for communal meals. The scope and utility of their equipment and the precision with which it was deployed surely contributed to the air of text-book cheeriness that pervaded their encampment. But, if this represented a relaxation of the rules for the children, their regular regime at home must be akin to that of a military academy.

The motivation of the two fat ladies without children on the other side of the field remained a mystery. Each of them had a retro-styled tent big enough to accommodate a troop of girl-guides. The contents glimpsed through the flaps included complete fold-up kitchens, suites of collapsible furniture, multi-coloured rugs and scatter-cushions. Planted all around the outside was a collection of faux-gypsy gear: an iron cooking pot suspended on a tripod, blankets, folding stools, an array of coloured lanterns and weird symbols suspended from sticks and strings,The money they had spent on their camping equipment would have bought them a five-star holiday in any millionaire resort yet they seemed content to share a field with hundreds of assorted strangers.

Even given fair weather a satisfactory camping experience requires adequate equipment but there are those who, seduced by the tsunami of cheap but attractively designed ‘must-have’ accessories, over-equip themselves in an effort to ensure their experience lacks none of the comforts of home and includes none of the discomforts of the outdoors.

The very few who cling to Spartan ways do so out of necessity. They comprise hikers and climbers whose priority is the pursuit of their chosen activity and for whom overnight camping is a necessity. But even these worthy folk are not immune to the lure of hi-tec equipment. Look inside their rucksacks and you will find the latest and most expensive designs in lightweight, high-performance tents, sleeping bags, cooking devices and utensils.

Oh, and did I mention the on-site facilities? By 09.00 each morning there was a queue outside the restaurant where competent chefs laboured to produce the whole range of breakfast dishes, from croissants to fry-ups, and charming Polish girls served Indian tea and Italian coffe while, on the field outside, hundreds of nifty little collapsible stoves lay idle and unattended.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

From West End to West Coast

The exceptionally warm weather that hung over the British Isles recently was the inevitable subject of conversations everywhere - although many of them started from the mistaken assumption that everyone loves hot, sunny weather. Even weather presenters had to restrain their enthusiastic comments and try to maintain some pretence of professional objectivity.

I was pondering this as I sweltered in a non air-conditioned taxi creeping its way around Trafalgar Square, its meter calculating the pounds per inch/second travelled. I was on my way to the opening of an exhibition of Peter Fraser’s work at a commercial art gallery in the West End. I like to experience art but, better still, I like going to openings. They are occasions when friends, acquaintances and strangers can mingle in an environment where convenient, ready-made conversation pieces hang on walls. The artist, whose soul may be thus displayed, might wish for more reverence and consideration of their work but opening nights are a celebration rather than a quantification of achievement and therefore deserve a party. I have no sympathy: artists should ensure they have the chutzpah to see them safely through personal attendance at the exposition of their work.

At the Tate Modern the next day I saw exhibitions of work by Yayoi Kusama and Alighiero Boetti  who, so far as I was aware, were not present but resting elsewhere on their laurels. These are big, retrospective shows covering entire careers so the documented chronology explains the context to what otherwise might be perceived as random collections of unrelated works. With abstract art this can be helpful in illuminating (but not necessarily validating) the themes the artist is developing. But enough of arty angst: it was time to leave the hot, crowded city and rendezvous with Nature for a more visceral challenge.

Just two days later my partner and I were labouring, fully loaded with rucksacks bulging, up the slopes of Ben Nevis where residual patches of snow lay on the ground despite the persistently hot weather. The leaflet we had picked up at the visitor centre warned of the treachery of the mountain and advised meticulous preparation, protective clothing, Kendal mint cake and a back-up plan for disaster. But that summery day was open season for all-comers, including clutches of impulsive car-park strollers, which may explain the extreme diversity of punters - and the trail of discarded cigarette ends all the way to the top. Ben Nevis is cloud-covered nine days out of ten so this was our lucky day to scale it and be rewarded with a view. A multitude of others had also spotted the opportunity and were tackling it in a variety of styles: there was a solo German woman who commandeered strangers to take her photo; teenage triplet girls in jaunty baseball caps who ate fruit-loaf and sweeties at the summit; middle-aged hikers overdressed and perspiring in expensive kit and a wiry old chap who came bounding down the rocky path wearing only shoes and eccentrically skimpy shorts.

A short stay at the summit was cool enough to merit an extra layer of clothing but it seemed a lot of effort for momentary relief from the heat. Besides it was rather busy and there was a sense that our achievement had been somewhat diminished by the presence of hundreds of others.

The day of the Royal Jubilee celebrations was approaching and heavy rain was forecast in London but on the West coast of Scotland the sun continued its traverse through the clear sky. We boarded the ferry to the remote Knoydart peninsula where we had planned a couple of days of trekking and wild camping in anticipation of a more solitary, less crowded personal challenge.