Saturday, 28 June 2014


As I walked to the station, earlier this month, I passed an overgrown garden that has a beautiful, blossoming bindweed, entwined around an old trunk near the fence. I shared a picture of the white trumpet-like blooms, to brighten some friends’ days.
Since then I have suffered an earworm of the Flanders and Swann song, “Misalliance”:

It describes the story of the love between two different entities – the Honeysuckle, which spirals clockwise, and the Bindweed that grows anti-clockwise - and the doomed nature of their relationship. It can be interpreted as a simple love story or an ode towards the need for tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.  

Some Honeysuckle from my garden
The vegetal lovers’ problems are not due to the plants themselves, but more as an outcome of parental disapproval and the perceptions and the reactions of others.  I like the clever words – like the spiralling tendrils of the plants, the witty twists and double meanings take root in my mind and leave me pondering. You might be interested to know that the proclivity of the twist of either plant to be clockwise or anti-clockwise cannot be forced through the influence of heat, light, wind or humidity. The direction of the spiral is set and is caused by a protein. Much like a human cannot choose to grow up as left or right-handed, although he/she can, through practice using the less favoured or natural feeling limb, develop better ambidextrous skills. There is little doubt that most of us favour one hand over the other, as this simple test demonstrates:

I was chatting with my eldest son on Friday, before we went to see “Bring Up the Bodies – the excellent sequel to “Wolf Hall” that we had enjoyed earlier in the month. Anne Boleyn, a key character in the play, seemingly twisted Henry VIII around her little finger, bewitching the King into leaving the Catholic Church and founding the Church of England, thereby enabling him to marry her, in the hope of producing a son.  Anne was not popular and rumours abounded, claiming that she had a third nipple (probably a mole on her neck) and an extra finger (which was perhaps an extra fingernail), which her critics turned into something more unnatural), – we speculated as to whether this was on her left or right hand. (It was in fact her right.)

Anne Boleyn, copy of a portrait painted c1534
This contemplation led us into a discussion about left and right-handed people and whether there are jobs that favour one type over the other. (The human race is predominantly right-handed as were our ancestors – judging by the scratches on their 500,000+ years old teeth: these prehistoric marks were created while our ancient predecessors prepared animal skins, holding the hides in their mouths to free up both hands to scrape and hold the sharpened stone tools and leather.) Circa one in ten of us is left-handed. I mooted to my son that, in the days of swords and the need to defend castles, the spiral of the staircases was designed to favour those attempting to defend an entrance from above, as a result a left-handed swordsman, who could attack a defended stairway more easily than most, might be able to command a premium as a mercenary. Similarly, left-handed tennis players (such as Rafael Nadal), baseball players (e.g. Babe Ruth) and boxers (like the 1930’s featherweight champion Freddie Miller) are at a slight advantage when pitted against to the majority of others in their sports. (As an aside, left-handed boxers are often considered more elegant to watch than their right-handed rivals and are referred to as “Southpaws”, an only sporadically used phrase outside the sport; certainly it is a more attractive moniker than the usual nicknames used for left-handers). Part of the sports stars’ success is probably due to these people having more experience of right-handed opponents than most of their competitors have had of taking on a left-hander.

Freddie Miller
Over the past millennia, left-handed people often have been considered inferior or frightening, resulting in individuals being described as “sinister” – from the Latin for “left” but often used to imply that something is unfavourable or evil. Another unpleasant phrase used for left-handers is “cack-handed”. Most people think “cack-handed” simply means awkward or clumsy.  The phrase originates from the custom of people using their right hand for eating and the left for cleaning the body after defecating. The word “cack” is Old English for excrement and is derived from the Latin “cacare” meaning to defecate.

My mother and both of her brother’s were born left-handed. They are of a generation where being sinisterly dextrous was considered a disadvantage and shameful. To avoid the boys from being viewed as abnormal, their teachers used to tie their “odd” hands behind their backs to prevent them from using them for writing (being a girl, this was not deemed necessary for my mother), this treatment had a profound and damaging effect upon her brothers – particularly the eldest who was sensitive and artistic as well as intellectual. Despite being restricted when young, both of my uncles matured into exceptional men: one designed the engines for the Royal Navy carrier, Ark Royal, and the other was a pioneering doctor, who established health services in Uganda, Gambia and the Seychelles.  All three siblings, when children, had their knuckles brutally rapped when they “misused” their cutlery. My mother is an amazing and creative woman – I still treasure the illustrations she drew for me as a child and her nature diaries, written and drawn when she was a teenager, are stunning.  People say that there is a link between being left-handed and artistic…

Certainly, there is evidence that a noticeably high proportion of architects, designers, thinkers, actors and artists (from Fine Art, Fashion and Music) have been/are left-handed, including: Leonardo Da Vinci; Paul Klee; Michelangelo Buonaroti; Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Peter Paul Rubens; David Cameron, Barak Obama (indeed 4 of the past 5 American Presidents were left handed), Sir Kenneth Branagh; Charlie Chaplin; Angelina Jolie; Lewis Carroll; Germaine Greer; Jean-Paul Gaultier; David Bowie; Annie Lennox; Sir Paul McCartney; Jimi Hendrix; Rik Mayal; Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. The theory that left-handers are smarter and more creative than most of the population, due to left vs. right brain usage, has been disproved, but part of the explanation for a preponderance of creativity may be due to an enhanced connectivity of the left-handed brain – the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz have determined that the corpus callosum (the collection of fibres that connects the brain’s hemispheres) is to a small, but significant, degree larger in left-handed as opposed to right-handed people. Another explanation that has been mooted is that left-handers have to constantly improvise and deploy creative thinking simply to operate within a predominantly right-handed world

Famous left-handed people
I know from my mother how irritating and, at times, hard it can be living in a predominantly right-handed world – she is a keen gardener – most secateurs, like scissors, are for right-handed use; card payment machines have the card swipe on the right-hand side; telephone boxes are designed for right-hand listening – the cable is too short and the area where you can write messages is inconvenient for left-handers; pens on chains in banks are often fixed to the right of the writing area with the chain itself an insufficient length; trousers with a sole back pocket are usually awkward, as the pocket is invariably on the wrong side; ticket barriers on the underground are for right-handed insertion; and cheque book stubs and ring binders can be fiddly when you want to make a quick record. I appreciate that for commercial reasons it makes sense to cater for the majority, but this approach causes inconvenience to and demonstrates a lack of consideration for a large number of people.

Right-handed scissors
Discrimination usually picks on a small sub-group that are different or weaker than the crowd.  When I started working in a dealing room I was one of a very small number of girls – a few of the men would tell me how I should dress – even suggesting shorter skirts when particular clients were coming to meet the team.  I was pretty smart at school – it is easy, when the school insists on calling out the names of top performers at the end of every term and making them stand up in front of their peers, to be viewed as a swot and to be picked on and teased by other pupils.  When I worked in Cairo it was not uncommon for a stranger to suddenly put his arm around me as I walked down the street, simply because I was a Western dressed, fair-skinned and blonde-haired woman. More recently I have sat in meetings and been the only British person, surrounded by others of a different nationality, and they have lapsed into their mother tongue, despite the fact that the official diction of the organisation was English (it’s a good thing I’m fairly proficient at languages and hence could still understand what they were saying). People often discriminate without even realising that they are doing so, all it takes is a lack of consideration and some ill-thought-through comments. In the Flanders & Swann song, the passing bee says:
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,
consider your offshoots,
if offshoots there be…they’ll never receive any blessing from me.
Poor little sucker how will it learn?
Right, left, what a disgrace…
or it may go straight up
and fall flat on its face”.
The “fall” of an individual is most typically caused by other people’s reactions and interactions, based on what they perceive to be “inferior stock”, and not due to the individual themselves.  Like the horrific force of an American twister destroying a house or town, the impact and repercussions of discrimination can rip a person to shreds.  

A twister - also known as a tornado
In psychology there is a term - Twisted Thinking – that is often used in relation to people who have been suffering from long periods of depression. It refers to the tendency that a person with depression has of looking at everything from a negative stance – such as assuming that people are reacting in an unsympathetic and adverse manner towards them, when there is no evidence to support this; dwelling on downsides and ignoring the positives; not acknowledging accomplishments; automatically assuming that things will turn out badly and resorting to emotional reasoning (“I feel like a fool, so I must be one” or “It always goes wrong, so it will fail again this time”). Other people, usually close friends, family and colleagues, instead of engaging with the person to help them realise that they are using Twisted Thinking, tend to make flippant, dismissive and sarcastic remarks such as “It’s good to see you’re your usual cheery self!” or “Nice one Eeyore, great to see you so positive.” We should all take a lesson from Beatrix Potter’s book, “The Tailor of Gloucester” – now is the time for...
                                          “No more twist”.
"No More Twist" illustration by Beatrix Potter
in The Tailor of Gloucester
In reality the statement in the book refers to a lack of cherry coloured silk thread, needed to finish a garment – but the phrase can act as a reminder to watch your words and thoughts. 

Simpkin's grateful escapees
illustration by Beatrix Potter from The Tailor of Gloucester
Mind you, there are some pleasant twists to “The Tailor of Gloucester” tale. It is rare amongst Beatrix Potter’s books, in that it does not commence with “Once upon a time…” but is set in “the time of swords and periwigs” – a good period for some left-handers.  The book’s illustrations depict actual garments and places, as opposed to being imaginary images.  In addition, the story is based on a real-life incident (although the real tailor’s assistants were people and not mice who had been liberated from under teacups). So not all twists are unpleasant, indeed most of us enjoy a good twist (and not just a twist in a tale). So I am ending with some appropriate music to raise a smile – with thanks to Chubby Checker – here is “The Twist”.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Full Circle

I have had an amazing week, seeing and participating in events that have really made me think.  Outside work, I’ve enjoyed an excellent cream tea and listened to two world leaders discussing Africa at Ashridge; I have seen the Royal Shakespeare Company’s (RSC’s) production of Wolf Hall; attended the Deutsche Women in European Business Event:  Impact: Be the inspiration; and watched the final night of HEART by Zendeh, before going out to dinner with a wonderful couple - the creative set designer and her artisan cheese-maker husband - and their friends. Certain significant themes have entwined and enlightened in each of the above events, including: 
  • Inspiration;
  • leadership;
  • the importance of detail;
  • conviction;
  • obsession;
  • betrayal;
  • control;
  • getting things done in difficult circumstances;
  • love;
  • repercussions;
  • nationhood; and
  • diversity.
Last Monday I was honoured to be amongst the people invited to listen to former South African President, F.W. de Klerk, and Dr. Nkosana Moyo, erstwhile VP and COO of the African Development Bank and founder and Executive Chairman of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS). Encouraged by Kai Peters, Chief Executive of Ashridge, both men discussed their thoughts and memories of the past and future of Africa – most specifically South Africa and Zimbabwe. Both men were candid about their perceptions and beliefs surrounding the end of Apartheid – Dr Moyo challenged ex-President de Klerk for belatedly fighting to bring an end to the former regime, only once it was clear that the “White community realised that what they had was not sustainable”, and that it was “smart to pre-empt the inevitable”.

Paul Coen, Kai Peters, Dr Nikosana Moyo and F. W. de Klerk at Ashridge
For a while it seemed as though there were going to be fisticuffs, but both men came to an area of common ground based on the importance of values and the significant opportunities for Africa going forwards. President de Klerk stressed that his insistence on a constitution and a constitutional court have been instrumental in ensuring on-going stability in South Africa and that he acted as a true leader, even though much of what he was proposing at the time was unpopular (indeed, in 1992, he lost enough bi-elections that he was under pressure to call an election, but instead called a referendum, in order to validate support for his vision of “totally abandoning separateness and embracing togetherness”, and to maintain the momentum of change). Mr de Klerk acknowledged that the timing of world events proved fortuitous for him when he was trying to introduce change – specifically, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the elections for independence in Namibia and troops coming out of Angola – they all helped make change in South Africa easier to effect.

F. W. de Klerk ready to talk with Dr Moyo at Ashridge
Both men advocated against political leaders espousing policies simply to ensure popularity – as de Klerk stated - it is a leader’s role to convince people to follow his/her lead, instead of advocating a route and formulating statutes based on the simple tenet that they will appeal to the electorate – “don’t just feed back what the poles say. That’s not leadership.”  Both stated in different ways that they believed that the Western World does not have the leadership it deserves and that if the leaders of a nation allow “everyone to have a voice it is un-leadable”. However, that is not to say that an inclusive approach is undesirable, simply that there has to be direction and at times tough decisions have to be made.

Another point raised is that it is probable that going forward South Africa will be run by coalitions (as the ANC “must split” due to the conflicting viewpoints within the party – an uncomfortable mix of communists and socialists as well as those who support the commercial market). Both men commented on the difference between modernisation and westernisation – the uptake of mobile usage and the impact that connectivity is having, in areas where infrastructure has traditionally been poor, is being felt. Both expressed concern that in post colonial and Apartheid countries, local people still need to learn how to run substantial businesses – just because you like flying does not mean that you are fit to direct an airline. People need to have the appropriate training and knowledge to do their jobs.  Emulating the ways of the past is unlikely to lead to success in the future, but experience is growing. In the modern world there needs to be “confident black management and leadership” – some hard lessons have been learned, such as not “paying in the wrong currency”

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was the debate over the type of leadership that is culturally appropriate in a specific country or region. It was mooted that the US and British forms of democracy need to be modified to be effective in Africa; there should be some accommodation of local culture and traditions.  Dr Moyo used the typically consultative approach of the Sub-Saharan region to illustrate why he believes that this is so – in the southernmost countries of Africa, it is traditional for the leader of a tribe to deliberate and discuss options with tribal elders, prior to making a decision on behalf of the community (Nelson Mandela writes about this in his book Long Walk to Freedom). Having grown up in Asia and worked in the Middle East, I concur that there are different approaches towards leadership and local/national governance that are hard-wired into a society. For political empowerment to be effective and leadership to be successful, they need to operate within the norms of the area in which they are established. When the populace of a nation become disillusioned with the politics and politicians of a region then the electorate become disengaged. The poor/falling electoral turnouts in the UK and Europe since 1979, indicate apathy and disconnection. People do not value the power of their vote, as they see it, or the function of the to-be elected representatives for whom they could vote, as irrelevant.

In the week of the 25th anniversary of Tianamen Square, I find it sad that people feel their voice is worthless. All great change has required support (and appropriate adoption) to cement it into society. At the Deutsche “Women in European Business” Event, 2000 attendees at the Barbican in London roared their approval for other women’s achievements. Joanna Lumley’s explanations, as to how she engaged people with the Gurkhas’ cause and is now campaigning for a Garden Bridge across the Thames in London to be designed by Thomas Heatherwick, were inspirational, as were the comments by the panel, in particular Ann Cairms of MasterCard who has successfully moved from the Energy sector to run an increasingly more ethically minded Financial Services business.

Proposed design for the Garden Bridge by Thomas Heatherwick

The power of women was also exemplified in the excellent RSC production of Wolf Hall – it is the story of Thomas Cromwell, set in the time when Henry VIII wished to divorce his first wife of nearly 20 years, because he was captivated by Anne Boleyn and desperate to produce a male heir. Cromwell – the son of a humble blacksmith and a one-time mercenary, lawyer, astute politician and devoted family man - exemplifies support for a leader as well as demonstrating an awe-inspiring ability to pursue and achieve his own agenda. Wolf Hall, the play is full of intrigue, betrayal, obsession and momentous repercussions – a superb production. Henry VIII was a wilful and erratic monarch – decisions often made with apparent spontaneity, depending on who had influence over him at any time, but the consequences of his leadership are huge and still have an impact on our modern world - the Anglican church, the monarchy and resultant colonial legacy, that was to commence in earnest during the reign of his daughter. I am off to see the second play “Bring Up The Bodies” in what is in effect a double bill – I shall say no more about either here as I am sure more comments will follow.

Courtly dancing at Wolf Hall

And finally…my trip to HEART, brought my week full circle – the play is set in the early 1950’s, at the time of the Mordad coup (so called Operation Boot, a plot to overthrow the Iranian Prime Minister orchestrated by the UK and USA) Despite having just privatised coal and rail in the UK, the British and Americans did not support the Iranian government’s plans to nationalise their oil industry and took drastic measures to try to protect their interests. I was particularly captivated in this story, as my paternal grandfather was a “wildcatter” in the region early last century, discovering oil for what ultimately became the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (the very entity that the Iranian government wished to nationalise in 1952). My father was born in Persia/Iran and for me, the play taught me about my roots, I loved the Farsi singing and poetry as well as broader political and philosophical matters. In addition to being a complex reflection on nationhood and control, the play was a triangular love story founded on concepts of devotion, obsession and duty. The difference in attitude between Western and Middle Eastern society was a powerful theme and not dissimilar to the cultural issues raised by Dr Moyo and former President de Klerk at the start of my week. Like the inside of a pomegranate, there is complexity, individuality and distinct sections to be found within each country, business or relationship, even when concealed behind what seems to be a simple and unified exterior.

I found it interesting that each event I attended seemed to raise and discuss similar themes. From intimate political discussions, through well-attended conferences to superb dramatic productions, the sessions demonstrated the power and influence of leadership and following. Like lovers, true leaders have conviction and can inspire others to take actions that they would be unlikely to do in isolation. We need to be mindful of cause and effect and be aware of the impact we ourselves can and do have on those around us - we must "be the inspiration".