Let Them In

There are a dozen of arguments to be made about immigration, but the immediate moral issue is clear. Whilst we squabble about the future of these ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’, arbitrarily labelling them ‘economic’ or ‘legitimate’ to suit one argument or another, they suffocate and drown.

Let them in.

migrants

Some argue that an ageing Europe needs immigrants to avoid economic decline. Others argue that if this is true in the mid- and long-term, there are still sufficient unemployed young people and women to take up the short-term slack.

Some argue that the ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity that follows from large-scale immigration is harmful. England for the English, Hungary for Hungarians. But the greatest civilisations of the world have thrived on diversity, and the world is smaller now – the parochial values of nationalism, ethnic, cultural, and religious homogeneity belong to the past.

Today, our values are supranational or global. Democracy, justice, human rights, equality of opportunity, tolerance. They transcend the particular customs and whims of a single group, and have nothing to do with creed.

Some argue that these people’s problems are not our problems. But in many cases it is the rich world’s meddling (usually driven by an insatiable thirst for oil) that have created the conditions they flee. What good came of our hundred years of meddling in Iraq, in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Syria?

Some argue that immigrants are a terrorist threat. But surely, well-funded terrorists can find a more convenient way of infiltrating Europe than through the fields of southern Europe and under the razor wire, or across the choppy seas of the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels.

There are many more arguments for or against. And whilst we argue, these desperate people drown and suffocate, prey to the people-smuggling scum who profit from their misery.

What I miss is kindness. Angela Merkel’s words stand out from the harsh, pragmatic words of her counterparts. And yet Germany has accepted twelve times as many immigrants in 2015 than Britain.

Quoting from the Guardian:

“There can be no tolerance of those who question the dignity of other people,” she said, standing in front of placards accusing her of being the people’s traitor. “There is no tolerance of those who are not ready to help, where, for legal and humanitarian reasons, help is due.”

And then there is our hypocrisy.

How often do our guide books extol the generous hospitality of the Arab world? And yet how hard we find it to reciprocate.

How often have we ourselves fled our own nations, and been received generously by others? Think of Hungary in 1956.

Whatever the causes, the immediate situation requires just one response. Let them in.

A Private Prejudice

Apart from those tedious days that come between Christmas and New Year the most unproductive time in the normal course of life is the time you spend in a departure lounge waiting to board a flight. Do you have time to take out your PC and work? Dare you bury yourself in a bestseller and miss the boarding announcements?

On Tuesday morning I was waiting at Gate B1 at Sofia Airport, and I had two pleasures to choose between – software testing, or idle browsing on the internet (the Graham Swift short stories I had on my Kindle somehow hadn’t excited me – he’s not as good as he used to be). I chose the internet.

And time went by, including the scheduled boarding time, and the scheduled departure time. After thirty minutes or so I’d read everything of obvious interest, and as the delay lengthened (no announcements, no apology, no explanation) I had to click on items such as ‘Best ten jokes at the Edinburgh Fringe.’

This is not the kind of item that I would usually read. I’m not fond of jokes. Humour yes, of course, but jokes, no. I can’t tell one-liners and I don’t often find them funny. I prefer the slow-burn humour of a four-hour Wagner opera. No risk of embarrassing LOL or ROFL at Gate B1. But desperate delays call for desperate measures.

So, these are the Edinburgh Fringe’s top ten jokes (Edinburgh Fringe Jokes), starting with the winner, and my scores and sour remarks:

 “I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It’s Hans free”

Puerile. Also panders to traditional anti-German sentiment – 2/10

“Kim Kardashian is saddled with a huge arse … but enough about Kanye West”

Amusingly vicious, I suppose, but a tired formula – 5/10

“Surely every car is a people carrier?”

Yes, true, and who knows why they call them ‘people carriers’ but it’s a dull observation – 2/10

“What’s the difference between a ‘hippo’ and a ‘Zippo’? One is really heavy, the other is a little lighter”

A moderately amusing play on words, and has a good rhythm – 4/10

“If I could take just one thing to a desert island I probably wouldn’t go”

Subversive of all those ‘Desert Island Discs’ shows – 6/10

“Jesus fed 5,000 people with two fishes and a loaf of bread. That’s not a miracle. That’s tapas”

This is my favourite. I like it because I can never see the point of tapas (see more prejudice on this topic below) – 9/10

“Red sky at night. Shepherd’s delight. Blue sky at night. Day”

Subverts a tedious cliché, I suppose, and offers a mad contradiction – 7/10

“The first time I met my wife, I knew she was a keeper. She was wearing massive gloves”

Something to do with football? 1/10

“Clowns divorce. Custardy battle”

Puerile 2/10

“They’re always telling me to live my dreams. But I don’t want to be naked in an exam I haven’t revised for…”

Turns a cliche on its head, and takes a moment or two to sink in. Clever, especially since this one was supposedly submitted by a child – 8/10

But my favourite is the joke about tapas, those hot or cold, ALWAYS TINY, saucers of almost nothing, swimming in oil.

tapas

Tapas, according to Wikipedia, fill those two holes in the Spanish day between breakfast and lunch (taken mid-afternoon), and then between lunch and dinner (taken between ten and midnight). [Isn’t that when the rest of us work?!] So the Spanish eat five meals a day. Apart from the effect on the waistline, there’s the effect on the wallet. They’re usually priced at 3.95 or another number that’s difficult to multiply, and before you know it you’ve spent a small fortune, and you’re still hungry. If it’s the evening, you’ve spent your dinner budget at an inelegant zinc counter in a noisy bar in the back streets of a charming Spanish town, and you’ve still not had your dinner.

And this is how you look afterwards:

stains

A Maggie Moment

It’s said that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sometimes straightened the ties of her ministerial colleagues before Cabinet meetings. I nearly had a Maggie moment myself on Bulgaria Air’s flight from Sofia to Prague on Tuesday. I’m no scolding matron (I hope), and I’ve never been an uncritical fan of the Iron Lady, but on the issue of the loosely worn tie, I couldn’t agree with her more.

Here’s Bulgaria Air’s chief cabinet attendant at his trolley:

LooseTie

You would agree, I think, that this create a discouraging image of the Balkans – a sloppy, slipshod attitude that, sadly, pervades much of business and politics in Bulgaria, though the country is wonderful in a million other ways.

His colleague was no paragon of service excellence, either. She wore a petulant, disdainful look as she demonstrated the safety equipment, as well as silver nail polish on extravagantly long fingernails.

I didn’t see the pilot, but I am confident that if he was wearing a tie he was wearing it crisply. Standards in the cockpit are important.

Not only mens sana in corpore sano but also mens sana indigent luculentam vestimentis (thanks to Google’s Latin Translator).

The British Airways look:

british airways

No wonder Bulgaria Air is cheaper.

Crash Bang Whallop!

It’s always been my plan to return to London at some stage and to make it my base. It’s not only that I want to be close to the Royal Opera House – it’s also that I’d like to live somewhere where English is the predominant language, where there are English bookshops, and where I know what I’m looking at in butcher’s shops.

If I’m asked when this might happen, I always say five years, and I’ve been saying this for twenty years at least. In fact, I’ve no good reason to return to live in the UK. I love Prague and I live happily there, even if I’ve been too lazy to learn the language. I can be in London in about five hours, door to door, and I still get to the Opera House from time to time. I also love my work, which must be based in Prague, and now that M&S foodstuffs are sold in Wenceslas Square, I even know what I’m cooking and eating. So I have no plan to retire. Last, but not entirely least, the tax regime of the Czech Republic is more generous than Britain’s. Five years still sounds about right.

But I’ve been saving up for a London flat in the belief that one day I’ll buy one and live in it. As I save, prices rise. The inner boroughs of the city are still beyond my means (I want two bedrooms, a garden, lots of wall space for the paintings I’ve bought in Prague, and room (a room?) for the grand piano).

crash

So, most of my savings are on the stock market, chasing the rising value of property. And yesterday was a bad day, so I’m probably now looking at NE99 not NW1.

But of course, it’s up and down all the time, and you can’t afford to worry about it. What amuses me, though, is the predicament of the stockbroker. I don’t doubt that they know a lot about investments, and I do believe that it’s more than witchcraft when they grill you about your financial plans and appetite for risk and then craft a particular portfolio to suit your needs. But about what might happen a day, a week, a month, a quarter or a year from now, it seems to me they have no special knowledge. They promise a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but you can’t ask them where that end can be found.

Stockbrokers are in a difficult position because they can’t control the day to day. So they do a defensive dance with careful words when you ask them anything particular about their expectations for your investments. What they’re saying, in reality, is what you read in the small print at the bottom of any advertisement for financial products – the value of your investments may fall as well as rise, etc. They are anxious to please, anxious that you should stay the course, above all anxious that you should not blame them for not knowing the immediate future. And I do not.

A week ago I read a very pessimistic article by a Telegraph journalist predicting imminent disaster, so I sent it to my stockbroker for her comments. Now, I’ve been happy with my stockbroker. She writes to me in plausible language. But we all know that whilst in the long term stock markets are a good investment, in the short term or medium term their level is unpredictable.

What’s amusing is how careful they must be in what they say.

I think we have to be very careful with how we are led by the media and while I’m not dismissing the issues out there, it’s also important to look at the reasons for staying the course, being true to your objectives, regularly rebalancing to ensure no one asset class gets out of sync etc. Otherwise we can react to short term trends rather than sticking with our long term, strategic plan.

Which is to say, long term I will be fine. But how long is the long term? I want that flat in London – NW1.

And then things started to go very wrong and staying the course suddenly didn’t look like the best strategy after all.

To which, my stockbroker’s response, putting a very brave face on things, is BUY MORE! Her company issued another careful note:

Share prices have suffered a sharp correction in the last few weeks, albeit after many stock markets reached all-time highs in the spring. Valuations are around the average for the last twenty years, so the current weakness offers a good entry point.

BUY MORE!

Anyway, the value of my portfolio doesn’t make the slightest difference to how I live, so it doesn’t really matter to me now. As for the future, a flat in the outer suburbs of Sheffield might yet have some appeal.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

I’m reluctant to admit that a cliché might contain a grain of wisdom, or, shall we say, a grain of useful wisdom. After all, a cliché repeats the obvious, the common or garden truth that we’ve heard too many times, or the banal. It is rarely useful or true in any practically instructive sense.

But I was reminded over the weekend that the oft-heard cliché, that ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’, is still a useful tip to remember, and one to beat others over the head with.

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good is, strictly speaking, an aphorism and it’s generally attributed to Voltaire, who quotes an Italian proverb:

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

(In his writings, a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good)

Cliché, aphorism, proverb, perhaps it’s all three of these.

perfect

I was in Bulgaria over the weekend, visiting the village of Shiroka Laka with my friend Elena Panayotova. This is the village where, a few weeks ago, I attended and took part in the annual Children’s Theatre School which LLP Group sponsors. The theatre school is designed to boost the confidence and self-knowledge of underprivileged children from orphanages, foster homes and ghettos in the region. It has changed many lives, conspicuously for the better.

This work is directed by Elena Panayotova, who, besides being a dear and close friend, is a well-established Bugarian theatre director who has worked in Amsterdam, Sofia, Plovdiv, Ruse and Kisumu. She spends half her time in the adult theatre world, and half her time, alongside a team of other artists, with vulnerable children. We met by chance in a restaurant 14 years ago and that’s how the whole story of Artists for Children began. Over the last 13 years she and her team have developed techniques that help children in difficult circumstances to become youths and adults with better chances in life, rather than hopeless cases.

So successful has all of this been, and so much fun for her, her team, and sponsors such as me, that collectively we want to develop the idea further, to run more frequent courses and to raise money for the cause. We have also been offered a substantial building in the village which could become our centre of operations.

Elena and I understand each other very well after 13 years of collaboration of a kind, the kind where we, LLP Group, and others, give money and other kinds of support, and Elena and her team decide what to do with it, and spend it. I watch and enjoy, and she does. We haven’t ever had to manage anything together.

But now, with the prospect of our collaboration deepening, with talk of fund raising, financial analysis, marketing, employment of staff, reconstruction and administration of a building, there are things we need to do together.

And what’s interesting for both of us is to see how our different backgrounds, mine business, hers the arts, can be mutually reinforcing but also incompatible. I’m quite sure our friendship will survive, even deepen, but we have some very different approaches.

To my mind, we need to get things done quickly, especially in the area of marketing our ideas and begging for help. So, website, logo, descriptive text, need to be pulled together rapidly. My approach is to do it quickly, and get it out there, even if it isn’t perfect, because I see that we have limited time and energy and we must use those rare commodities to get as much done as possible. The Pareto Principle (in some sense a restatement of the ‘enemy of the good’ principle), that it takes 20% of the time to complete 80% of the work applies to what we’re doing, and no doubt to art too. 40% of the time probably gets you 90%, and that’s enough for me. Better to get something working in three weeks that is good enough, than to wait three months for something that’s nearly (but not quite) perfect.

So, to my mind, the perfect really is the enemy of the good. Elena and I spent some hours over the weekend discussing a proposed website for Artists for Children in detail. Too much detail. If we strive for a perfect website, using professional photographs, agonising over text, using a specialist designer, we’ll be late for everything else we’ve got to get done. We won’t have time for these other, perhaps even more important, things. As I keep saying, ‘We can always improve the website later.’

From an artists point of view the idea of known imperfection is something too ghastly to contemplate, but from the business point of view it is pragmatic. I see the same principle at work in software development, and I’m always saying no when programmers ask if they can make something ‘even better’ (though, perhaps, you must say ‘yes’ if you are Apple or are working in the consumer world).

Artists and business people often work together, and it’s usually an explosive mix. But somehow I know that we will manage our differences, and perhaps be even the better for them. Fingers crossed.

Just Another Form of Sitting

People often suggest I should be exhausted by travel. I travel a lot, I suppose, but mostly over short distances in Europe, and I always carry my own bag (as, I note, the Pope does nowadays). There are many people my age, older, and younger, who travel much more than I do. David Cameron, for example, and he looks well enough on it, and Angela.

I’ve taken 44 flights so far this year, flown around 90,000 km (just more than twice around the world) visited about twenty countries and still have the appetite for more. I’m off to Sofia today, and thence by bus to Plovdiv. But don’t think for a moment that I travel in great luxury or style. Only 10 of these flights were not economy – most of them were on low-cost airlines, on planes where the seats don’t recline and conditions are cramped. Wizzair, easyJet, and the like (though I avoid Ryanair if I can  because I can’t bear their pizzazz).

No, I don’t have patience with the view that travel is tiring. Of course, jet lag is unpleasant, and getting up early, or arriving somewhere late at night, but that’s not the point. That’s not the travelling part. To my mind, travelling is just another way of sitting. Sitting on trains, sitting in taxis, sitting on buses, sitting in other people’s cars, sitting on a plane, in a departure lounge, in a hotel room. It’s all just sitting. Sitting, and generally working. Sitting is not tiring at all. After all, what else do we do at home, or in the office? Sitting, doing emails, that’s actually the whole of life, with a little lying down thrown in at night.

sitting

Standing, of course, is tiring, a lot more tiring than walking (think of how exhausting it is to stand in front of paintings and glass cabinets in museums), and I will never buy a standing ticket for an aeroplane if they ever become an option. Ryanair once mooted the idea of ‘standing seats’ and came up with a design, but surely for no other reason than publicity. Perhaps they were inspired by those discreet ledges that medieval monks perched on to relieve their legs after hours and hours of standing and praying.

Ryanair’s proposed ‘standing seats’…

standing seats

Salisbury Cathedral economy class

monks standing

No, I don’t find travel tiring. I still find it stimulating.

What’s important, is to follow some basic rules:

  • Don’t fly early in the morning. Get up at the usual time.
  • Don’t arrive late at night. Arrive in time for dinner.
  • Don’t drink alcohol at all whilst on the road, or in the air, but eat everything they put in front of you.
  • Don’t be anxious about departure times. Arrive at the airport an hour before a flight is due to leave. It’s always plenty of time, whatever they tell you. After all, there’s always another flight, or an airport hotel, and in all my years of travel I’ve only ever missed one flight. (Note that if your flight is about to close, there’s always an official who will shout out your destination and call you to the front of the queue.)
  • Treat the queues at security and passport control with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Treat delays with a Buddhist nonchalance.
  • Always have some work to do. I do my best work at 10,000 metres, blissfully uninterrupted.
  • Don’t talk to the person sitting next to you until the plane starts to descend.
  • Don’t join queues until you have to. I’ve never understood why passengers queue just in front of the gate as soon as the flight starts boarding. You have an allocated seat, so what’s the point? They won’t go without you. Just sit and watch and wait, with a Buddhist nonchalance, if possible.
  • Sit near the luggage carousel and wait for your luggage to appear before rushing forward to pick it up.
  • Take your own tea bags.
  • Don’t be anxious about turbulence. The wings never fall off.