Comment on (a) marriage

Charles Saatchi’s ‘small domestic’ that went viral has prompted me to put fingers to keyboard to comment on his marriage in particular and marriage in general.

He had a row in public with his wife. Is it any of our business? Only to establish that she is safe, that’s all. We all have a social duty to watch out for one another, otherwise Baby P will go on happening. But we are not entitled to further intrusion … unless they choose to parade the details of their relationship.

I do not know the couple, although I did meet the Saatchi brothers when they started their first ad agency. But I really don’t care to know that he found his wife’s prawn dansak “the most disgusting thing he’d ever eaten”, and that he told her she was an old bag on TV.

I am astonished that this ‘very private couple’ authorised Damian Whitworth to do a double page spread on that row and their relationship in general. It was a report that reflected little credit on the Saatchi couple.

So let me turn to marriage in general. My own take on it is that marriage is a bonding, far more than a contractual relationship. It makes no sense to me when two people marry then continue their individual lives. Surely it’s right that they should merge their lives and modify their behaviour to take account of their spouse?

I’ve seen people hardly miss a beat as they acquired a spouse. For them marriage was simply a change of status, but not of being. They maintain separate bank accounts and speak of their separate personal possessions, and go about their business lives as though still unattached. Such an arrangement merely emphasises their separateness, and possibly even the difference between their earnings.

It almost amounts to “let’s shake hands on the deal and see how long it lasts.” Hardly surprising, then, that nearly half the marriages in this country end in divorce. The root cause must lie in the approach to one another. I cannot see any virtue in a man claiming that he put his hand around his wife’s throat during an argument, but “there was no grip”. The act itself was disrespectful of the most important person in the man’s life.

Respect is one of the essentials of a meaningful relationship. It informs our behaviour, it guides the way we respond to disagreements and problems, it stops us from treating the other person badly. People who disrespect their partners have no class.

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Is the weed controlling your life?

I gave up smoking one Friday afternoon when I was a couple of months shy of my 30th birthday. Not a single puff since.

Having started smoking at the age of 12, I was a 15-20 a day man. In the early years I used to rely on my mother not noticing the loss of a few of her cork-tipped Craven As. I graduated to Capstan and Gold Flake, then Churchman’s and on to Players and Senior Service, finally settling on Peter Stuyvesant.

What got me to analyse the habit was noticing that the day’s first cigarette was getting earlier and earlier, until I was lighting up as soon as I got in my car to drive to work. At the same time I realised that I smoked very little at weekends, perhaps only 3 over both days.

Clearly my smoking was related to workday stress. But it was also a habit linked to, for example, having a cup of tea or coffee. Because I dislike being ruled by addiction, I decided to resume control of my actions. Here’s how I did it.

To begin with, I never said No to the smoking impulse. Every time I reached for a cigarette I simply asked myself if I needed it at that moment, or if I could wait. That little delay re-established my control, and fairly soon I was smoking noticeably less.

Then one Friday afternoon, with about 4 or 5 cigarettes left in the pack, I decided to stop. As I was already smoking little at weekends, the next two days were easy.

But that’s when my Director at work went on holiday. In his absence, a number of things went wrong and because he was away, the Managing Director took to calling me on the phone and shouting his head off. He was an infamous bully with a fiery temper and given to throwing things at people.

Refusing to be cowed, I shouted back. Then reached for a cigarette. That’s when I started to say No. I said to myself, “I’m not going to let that SOB make me smoke.” And after a week of those exchanges I knew that nothing would make me smoke again.

It was a lucky decision, because years later I had an (almost) emergency double heart bypass. One of my major arteries was 95% blocked, another was 70% clogged. Smoking is known to damage the interior walls of arteries, and could have exacerbated the problem. And a recent study has shown that, following a heart bypass, non-smokers live longer than smokers.

Most importantly smoking, like any addiction, takes away the control of your life.

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Just to be different

Weekend shoppers thronged the High Street, many with children in tow. One young girl stopped to stare with wide eyes at a copper statue of a man with a hat. Her mouth dropped open when the statue bent over to smile at her. Behind him was a copper-coloured boom box playing happy music gently. On the ground in front of him was a copper coloured cap for donations from the passing public.

I have seen similar street theatre in Dublin, silver-sprayed men and women posed in tableaux, rigid for lengthy periods, then changing positions for another statuesque pose. For the expectation of donations.

I can just imagine the dialogue that must have taken place at home.

“We need to raise some money. Fast. What can we do?”

“I know, I’ll spray myself with copper paint and stand in the High Street on Saturday.”

“Do what?”

“I’ll be a copper statue.”

“But what will you DO? I mean, why would anyone want to give you money just for standing around pretending to be a lump of copper?”

“Because I’ll be different. I’ll be an attraction. In fact, I’ll stand on an orange box, so everyone will be able to see me from a distance.”

“But won’t you be bored, just standing on a box all day?”

“I’ll take my boom box and play gentle music.”

“But won’t that give the game away? Won’t people know you are not a proper statue?”

“I’ll spray the boom box too. And the orange box as well. In copper paint.”

“So you’ll ruin a suit, a hat, your specs, your shoes and your boom box, just to be different, just to get noticed?”

“Black is beautiful, but copper is cute. And besides, what is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? Besides, no one else is doing it.”

“Did you ever wonder why?”

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Debasing the currency of compassion

I was on a train to London in the middle of the afternoon when an attractive but slightly scruffy honey blonde came through from the next carriage. She placed a packet of facial tissues on the seat in front of me, together with a small printed note that read, “Please help. I have two children. Buying these tissues will help. God bless you.”

She walked the length of the carriage in silence, placing tissues and notes by every occupied seat, then turned and retrieved them on the way back. I gave her some money and she smiled, saying “God bless you” in an East European accent.

Alighting at Elephant and Castle, I noticed her ahead and followed. At the foot of the stairs she stopped to speak to a young brunette in their common language. I noticed they were both carrying similar bulging shoulder bags in which they had the packets of tissues.

The brunette went up to the platform I had just vacated, while the blonde carried on to the cafe in the shopping centre, presumably to tap the customers there. She left me with an unanswered question: was she genuine? It looked like a well thought out plan, smoothly executed. Admirable if both ladies were genuine. But no one likes being conned.

Inevitably I thought of the many money-raising activities attributed to the East European immigrants, from the aggressive windscreen washers (remember those?) to the baby-wielding beggars and the Rumanian prostitutes on Park Lane. I recalled also the young man who regularly addresses passengers on the Orpington train about his homelessness and refuses all help except hard cash.

Those activities have debased the currency of compassion. They do a disservice to those genuinely in need of help, creating a reflex of refusal and a hardening of hearts. Sad, that.

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Everywhere you look these days there are special offers and incentives to buy more, through BOGOF and 3 for 2 offers. On the face of it, customers are getting good discount offers. But not always.

Two factors are working to shift the balance of power away from the one with the money (aka the customer) towards the one who needs the money (aka the trader).

Both factors are contained within the same retailing practice – pre-packaging. It actually reduces or removes customer choice.

For example, I wanted to buy a packet of cream crackers the other day. The only cream crackers available in the supermarket that day were in twin packets. I had to buy TWO packets, like it or not. It is the same story with a wide range of products. Retailers are seeking to increase the average order value.

Some offer genuine reductions if you buy multiple units, such as 4 six-packs of dog food for £10, but still allow you to buy single units.

Where I take issue with some supermarkets is when a pre-pack includes rubbish. Take large oranges. They are pretty expensive, and come pre-packed 4 in a net.

In my experience, a significantly high percentage of these nets will contain one orange that is past its best, and may even be uneatable. I then end up getting 3 for the price of 4, which is the very opposite of a discount offer.

It has happened so often that I believe the suppliers set aside the ‘bad’ or ‘old’ oranges and arrange for the packers to include one in every net. It gets rid of produce that would otherwise be wasted, and relies on some customers not complaining.

It’s the same principle as production line manufacture, such as cars. By setting a standard that is short of perfect, the manufacturer speeds up output and accepts that a calculated percentage of cars will be returned for repairs under warranty.

But when applied to fresh produce, it is cynical and similar to the sharp practice that got some street traders a bad name. And it removes from customers the right to pick and choose the fruit they want to buy.

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Online alienation

This morning I tried to buy some sheet music online. I’ve done it before, and expected it to be straightforward. It wasn’t. This was an outfit I had not used before, and will never use again.

First I was sent to a page that was packed with 24 alternatives that I didn’t want, plus various other distractions that got in the way of my intended purchase. Then, when I found the way to the Checkout, I entered my email address, but was asked to provide my home address and all other contact details. All for the sake of a transaction that was less than 3 quid.

Where was the focus of that website? It certainly wasn’t on the customer.

Why subject a casual customer to such an interrogation? It created an irritation, and I simply exited the site. But it didn’t stop there. I received an email telling me I had not completed the purchase, so I returned to the site, looking for a way to cancel the transaction.

I found myself back on the page requiring me to provide full contact details.

In the olden days, a chap could wander into a shop (remember those?), hand over some cash and walk out with the purchase, without having to provide any information about himself, or waste time trying to disentangle himself from them.

Bring back the shop.

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Exit Programme

There’s an expression I use to describe the solution to a problem that I suspect is fairly widespread. I call it the Exit Programme. It covers matters as diverse as hordes of incoming mail, bills to be paid, licences to be renewed, and even the dishwasher at home.

The pace at which we live these days means we often do not give the necessary time to deal with matters as they arise, and have to face the consequences. This is sometimes confused with procrastination, but I believe they are two quite distinct malfunctions. With a common solution.

This morning my wife asked me what had happened to the two documents she had placed on the dining table some days ago. They were Warranty Cards for the Canon Camera and accessories that I bought her in Singapore. At first glance they seem to require no action, but careful inspection reveals that they need to be registered online.

Action required! So why had we not acted before? Because it was not clear, at first glance, what had to be done with them, so they were set aside for action later. Once you do that with a document, you are likely to treat it the same way every time you come across it – “Action Later”.

Procrastination is simply avoiding action, whereas Action Later is a positive decision to deal with it later. Deferred action, if you like.

I do that with credit card statements and bills to be paid. Fully intending to pay, but wanting to check them first, I might place them in an overflowing In-Tray, and forget about them until I get a reminder. That’s dangerous because these days late payments could affect your credit rating.

There are other dangers too. My wife couldn’t find her car insurance certificate, and thought she had been driving without insurance for six weeks. Her luck was in, on that occasion, because the policy had been automatically renewed when the insurance company did not hear from her. She had set aside the renewal notice for “action later”, pending alternative quotes.

What we need is an Exit Programme.

When a licence arrives, it should be filed where it can be found when needed.  A bill should be paid immediately or placed where it can be actioned on the one day a week that you set aside for admin. And so on. There has to be a regular and routine procedure for dealing with demands on your attention, a procedure that you follow automatically.  It will avoid bottlenecks.

Think about your dishwasher at home. If the machine is not emptied as soon as the washing is done, the kitchen will soon be overrun with dirty dishes, and you’ll have a larger job to do, probably when you are in a hurry to go out. The Exit Programme ensures that dirty dishes have somewhere to go.

Think about the time you spend looking for something that needs to be found before you can take some action or other, the number of times you have said, “I’m sure it’s here somewhere” as you rummage through piles of paper for the umpteenth time.

An Exit Programme determines the path taken by every demand on your attention, from start to satisfactory conclusion. It allows you to defer action without penalty.  It saves time, it saves energy, it reduces frustration.  Every home should have one.

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Be bold when the signs are good

Rummaging in a kitchen cabinet, I dislodged a jar of peanut butter, which fell towards the floor. Without looking, I caught it deftly in my left hand and placed it back on the shelf.

It reminded me of an incident many years ago, when my friend Maurice was being interviewed for a sales job. He was facing a panel of three, one of whom asked if he would like a cigarette. When Maurice accepted, the man threw him his packet of cigarettes and a box of matches, which did not arrive together.

Maurice easily caught them both and said he knew instinctively, at that moment, that the job was his. As it proved to be. That clever catch was enough to confirm him as a winner.

There are days when everything seems to fit together, when you feel in rhythm with the world around you. Days when you can drop something breakable and catch it before it hits the floor. Days when you can catch whatever is thrown at you, and be in control. Days when you are The Special One.

We all have those days. But perhaps we don’t always recognise them or make the most of the opportunities they present.

Shakespeare wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” It’s easy to perceive that at the macro level – the right moment for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to Budget for growth, for the Prime Minister to call a General Election, for London to bid for the Olympics..

But it applies equally on the micro level—days when you are in tune with the energy around you, when you are on form, when others respond well to you. Those are the days to go for it, to take a chance, to change jobs or start a new business, knowing that you cannot fail.

On those days when the signs are good, be bold.

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How to make a crisis out of nothing

A man I know (let’s call him Freddy) has organised fund-raising events for his social club on an ad hoc basis for the past couple of years, raising several thousands of pounds for the club.

Recently, a senior member of the club (let’s call him Bill) informed the Management Committee that he had approached someone new to organise the next such event. He did so without consulting anyone, least of all Freddy, who protested to the Management Committee, when he found out.

Within days, a simple piece of crass bad manners was mismanaged into a crisis that could result in a major row, with the loss of at least one valuable member of the club. It is a typical example of how focusing on process can produce the wrong outcome. It highlighted the difference between bureaucrats and managers.

It should have been very simple. The Club Chairman (Paul) could have simply told the offending member (Bill), in private, that he had been out of line, asked him to apologise to Freddy, and returned to normal business. The reasoning should have been something like this: who ran this event before? Did he do a good job? If so, shouldn’t you ask him first?

With the right approach, Freddy might even have agreed to give someone new the chance to organise the next event.

Instead, the Club Chairman, Paul, started having private conversations with several unnamed persons to establish whether there was any formal appointment of Fund Raiser (there wasn’t). This had the effect of pitting Freddy against those unnamed persons. It also manoeuvred Freddy into the position of supplicant, making it seem like he was pleading to run the next event, when actually the club should have been thanking him for doing a good job previously.

Freddy dug his heels in. He received a qualified apology from the Management Committee for their role in not considering Freddy when Bill made his original proposal. But he received no apology from Bill, and now he wanted one. Otherwise he might resign from the club.

With the best of intentions, Paul was following a bureaucratic procedure, assembling evidence by talking to a wider circle of people. In doing so, he involved more people than necessary, he increased the likelihood of conflict, and magnified the original issue into a major conflict. What was missing from his mindset was common sense.

Sensible managers avoid formal enquiries when a quiet word in private can get the desired outcome more effectively.

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Add up your steps to fitness

Keen to get fit, but too busy for the gym? I found a simple way to make daily activities your fitness regime.

I used to be a runner – marathons, road races, cross country. Then I had a double heart bypass, my knees gave up, and I got too busy. Familiar story? But I noticed that walking only a couple of miles (which I used to take in my stride) was making me tired, so I looked for a fitness regime that would be easy to build into my daily activities.

I read somewhere that 2,000 steps equals one mile, and that 10 steps on the stairs equals 38 on the ground. Call it 40, and that makes 500 stair steps to the mile. Let’s break it down into easy units that encourage you to walk a bit more.

The daily target is 4-5 miles. That’s 8,000 to 10,000 steps on the level, and it’s easier than you might think. Every time you go up a 10 step staircase, count it as 40 steps. Most of us climb 10 step staircases without giving it a thought. But now you can include it in your exercise regime, which could look like this:

  • 6 trips up the stairs counts as (roughly) 240 steps.
  • Park your car 1/5 of a mile from your destination – that gives you 400 steps each way (800 steps)
  • Waiting on the platform for your train, walk 20 steps, then back. Do that 4 times (160 steps)
  • In the supermarket there might be 10 aisles. Walk the length of each twice. If each aisle is 25 steps long, that gives you 500 steps.
  • If your car is parked 100 steps from the check out, that adds 200 steps

Adding in the incidental steps between things, that makes about one mile. At lunch time, it’s a good idea to walk for 20 minutes. That’s another mile. And when you get home from work, go for a 40 minute walk.

The total so far is 4 miles. Find your own way of measuring the walking you do during the day, without being too precise about it. Think in terms of (say) 20 step units. So a 10-step stair climb is 2 units, a supermarket aisle might be one unit, and so on. 100 units to the mile.

So if you are looking for a handy name for these units, you could call them KPs, to stand for Kinetic Pennies (as well as my name!) because, like pennies, they are 1/100. Add up your KPs and you’ll start getting competitive about how many you have notched up each day. Before you know it, you’ll be much fitter!

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