Sunday, 30 August 2009


Last night I was awakened at 2AM. Sleep was impossible for about two hours afterwards. Was it my racing brain, too much rare meat or coffee? No. It was the owl party that had started. I'm not talking about one owl. I'm talking about the whole owl neighbourhood.
One of the beauties of living at Laytham is the presence of owls. The barn owls are practically a logo of the place, so often are they seen. People think that barn owls are nocturnal. But not entirely. I often see them well before dusk, and occasionally some time after dawn. As the season gets colder, they hunt earlier. They are silent, relentless and ruthless hunters. Their pattern is to quarter fields and run down the lines of dikes, lanes and hedges. When they find prey they will hover a bit above it, then swoop down, and it's theirs. They normally eat away from the site of the kill. So sometimes you can see them flying with their prey in their talons. More than once I have been cycling or in the car with a barn owl flying along the line of the lane, keeping pace, totally unbothered by my presence. There are few more majestic sights than a barn owl in frosty or misty weather. Owls are nearly blind. They don't see well in the conventional sense at all. What they do extraordinarily well is hear. An owl, I'm told, can hear a shrew move in the grass a kilometer away, zero in on it, swoop and kill.
The largely undisturbed habitat around Laytham is home to at least three species of owl. The barn owl is one. The Little Owl is another. These, sadly, you mostly come across dead. They have an unfortunate habit of resting, or maybe even roosting, in the middle of the tarmac of a road. Then they get run over.
Last night's party was the tawny owls. One calls too-whit. Another calls too-woo. Or more accurately hoo-ha-ha-hooo. This call is often mistaken for the barn owl. But in fact, the barn owl rarely calls. When it does, it's a harsh screech. last night I guess about ten or maybe more birds were communicating. I could guess crude locations for each, based on the cry.Their calls are often described as ghostly or mournful. But I find them amorous, romantic, wistful and lovely. I've never heard as many calling as last night. What were they saying? Only when I rot will I stand a chance of speaking owl, alas.
But I wonder if they had been troubled by the great silver bird that had landed in their territory earlier in the day. Perhaps they were awake enough to see it. Matt and I did. It was circling the village in the early afternoon, uncertainly, evidently conning to find a suitable place to land and circling lower and lower. Then it made a very low circuit, at only a couple of hundred feet before skimming the ash trees on Tanner Lane and disappearing. Fearing for the safety of the glider pilot, Matt and I raced out to check everything was ok. The glider had come down in the huge field behind my meadow, landing on the stubble. The two pilots had got out and were completely unphased. Stubble fields are apparently the landing strip of choice as you can see what you are landing on. Grass is not so good as you can't predict how long it is. One of the pilots recounted to us an occasion where he had landed in a field of grass that was higher than the canopy of the glider. A weird and scary experience, he said.
"How will you get the glider out now?" I asked.
"Simple," said the pilot. "We'll call up the glider tug. The plane will come in and land, then give us a tow and we'll take off again."
A ripple of excitement ran through the village at the arrival of these unexpected guests. So maybe that was also the cause of all the owl commotion.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009


The acceptance of women's boxing as an Olympic sport and the recent controversey around Caster Semenya highlight an anachronism in today's gender equal world.

Sport still applies gender apartheid. From a feminist perspective it is difficult to understand why single sporting events should not be open to both genders. Who's frightened? Women, or men?


The other day I received a CV. It is one of the better ones I've ever seen. Here (honestly) is what it said:

"Born – 1571 to Russian peasants earning a living by turning small pieces of fruit into very small pieces of fruit

Emigrated to England in 1892, having stowed myself away on a (late) Easyjet flight from Malaga

2007 – Entered the Guinness Book of Records as ‘Man with the most ridiculous haircut’.

2009 – Turned into a carrot.

2065 – Dies, probably at the hands of vengeful mormons, for making their children drink B52s when they came to our BBQ on that hot Sunday afternoon. "

Monday, 24 August 2009


Leadership and aesthetics will meld.

It's obvious.

As emotional and symbolic benefits become paramount in markets, so aesthetic literacy becomes a leadership demand.

There's a gap here. Because business education in the last century was scared half to death to tackle this.

So a generation of aesthetic pygmies has grown up (or rather not grown up) to run organizations in less than beautiful ways.

To their customers they look and behave ugly.

And so, blighted by their own aesthetic failures, shall they die.

Those who live by the functional sword shall die by it.


Shall a man be judged for the width of his opinions, or the width of his doubts?



The Missus errs towards asceticism. My leaning would, of course, be toward hedonism. Left to her own devices the cupboard would be bare. Left to mine it would be groaning. And there'd be another cupboard for the grog tray.
You may tell, therefore, dear reader, how galling it is to report that I've returned from a short stay in Italy, having gone the entire time without eating a decent meal. In Italy! Mama Mia!
The reason is that her indoors cleverly persuaded me that going to stay in a hardcore yoga retreat centre would in fact be a decent family holiday for me, her and the youngest sprat. Why did I believe her? I'm more than old enough, and more than cynical enough to have doubted. But perhaps my softer heart prevailed.
Never again.
The food was unutterably shit. Worse, it was paraded as healthy, macrobiotic, organic, vegan and the rest and served to grateful female skeletons who'd just done an outrageous two hour workout. I don't mind vegetarian. I don't mind wholemeal. But I do mind food preparation that is utterly devoid of love. And I fail to see how this could be in any way considered to enhance one's spiritual application in the world.
In fact the whole accommodation left something to be desired. By which you may infer, dear reader, that it was just the right side of Dachau.
The sprat, under nourished and under stimulated, whined incessantly. Upon return home,by contrast, and with a decent sausage and egg breakfast inside her, she chirped and sang through the rest of the day, in her normal happy way.
There was a nice pool, though. That I will say.
Well, I only have myself to blame.
But there are two features of this experience which bear further comment. The first is a caveat emptor to those sold on holiday experiences of the green / eco / wholemeal variety. This is the second time I have been stung. The first was in India. We stayed at an "eco hotel". What this meant was that it was a hotel, just like any other. Except it had all the correct green rhetoric. And charged more than top rupee for it. Now, in Italy, the same thing. There are great margins to be made from starving your guests, and giving them spartan conditions that flatter their quests for inner meaning by confusing them with rejection of outer luxuries. Better still, these punters will view complaining as bad karma. So you can get away with near murder.
The second is a musing about motivation. My natural inclination is the carrot. Or, more probably, the whole carrot cake. But the sad truth is that for some people, with whatever deep self worth issues they have derived from over critical parents, the stick really is more effective. It's the same terrifying confusion by which the abused becomes abuser. And there are plenty of people who realize that this is a perfectly legitimate tool by which you can lever an individual away from their cash. Or get them to work harder for you. Or go to war for you. Or..... you name it.
I thought yoga was about freeing the spirit. But I've returned wondering.

Saturday, 15 August 2009


Next month there will be an R in the month again. Which makes it the right time to think about planting more trees.

Here's what we've planted at Laytham so far:

Oak approx. 40
Chestnut 1
Cherry 16
Apple 6
Mulberry 2
Copper Beech 1
Silver Birch 3
Willow 2
Gage 1
Plum 2
Walnut 1
Hawthorn 1

All, with the possible exception of the walnut, are thriving. I think the walnut has too much competition. I may have to move it.

There are three especially fine trees absolutely shooting up too. But I didn't plant them. They just appeared. Two are grey poplars, offspring of the huge tree that skirts the old moat. They shimmer most beautifully in the wind and make a lovely calming noise. Trees are therapeutic that way. They say that if you have a headache, go and sit under a willow for an hour. Your headache will go. I quite believe it. And it would not surprise me if the poplars are equally healing. The third tree is a sycamore. But I think that won't survive. Where it is, it is jostled and pushed about by the poplar brothers. And, despite their calm exterior, they are hard men, not to argue with. I found this out when I tried to remove another of their brethren, first with a machete, then with a lopping saw, and eventually with a big bush saw. Made me sweat, the bastard.

Come next month, I'll have a shopping list. Topping it will be one or more horse chestnuts, which, like the copper beech, should grow on the east side of the house to be magnificent and huge trees, long after I become tree myself. And a couple of willows, to soak up the paddock's deepest furrow in its ancient ridge and furrow structure. I'm tempted by a pine or two. But there again, I'm not sure. They seem somehow a bit middle class, and I'm terribly snobby about that. Someone suggested a Eucalyptus. Never.

I have kids. I may one day write a work of genius. I doubt that. Apart from these things, what greater legacy can there be than planting trees?

Friday, 14 August 2009


If Teflon is non stick, how come it sticks to the pan in the first place?

Thursday, 13 August 2009


When organizations refer to upping creativity, they're normally jsut talking about getting better idea generation. I've been asked by a couple of clients to give them some simple rules to maximse their forthcoming idea generation sessions. Here they are:

  • Get 6 to 12 participants
  • Have a facilitator
  • Call for ideas with a simple question: "I'm looking for ideas now, how might we..." Don't overcomplicate the stimulus or people won't understand it. Don't allow lengthy questioning of the brief. that will have the same effect.
  • Allow, and brief participants to allow all ideas. Yup, all of 'em. You should aim for literally hundreds in a session.
  • Rule people away from behaviours other than giving ideas. Asking questions, giving opinions, giving information. These things are great but not when you want ideas.
  • Write down each idea verbatim. Verbatim.
  • Watch for the cresting wave, the moment when the group fails to produce any more ideas. It's not the first moment of silence. That may just be people thinking.
  • At the moment of the cresting wave, you could introduce a piece of new stimulus. The classic archetypes for this are Brian Eno's Oblique strategies. But you can invent your own.
  • Encourage throughout a spirit of play rather than work. Encourage silliness, outrageousness, mucking about. Watch kids, who are nearly all geniuses when it comes to producing ideas. they do all of the above.
  • Delay any evaluation till the end. Do any evaluation only at the end and simply and quickly. The simplest, and often the best is simply to give people each three or four votes, and let them choose the winners.


It really is pretty simple. And the simpler, the better.


To get ideas, sprawl.
To get (lengthy) opinion, sit.
To fight, get round a table.
To agree, be alongside.
To choose, move.
To decide, huddle.
To bare souls, walk.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009


The man came this afternoon to deliver my new mower. This grand toy costs the equivalent of a small car and is one mean machine - the Arnold Schwarzenegger of grass cutting. It was raining lightly and he advised me not to use it today. Obvious really. But I did. Works a treat even in the wet.

And there, just under the sycamore and elder were the treasure that I find once a year. Puffball mushrooms. I hopped about I was so excited, leaped off my new mower, ran for the kitchen, grabbed a knife and had them up as soon as you could say "calvatia gigantia". Then, back in the kitchen I sliced my chosen treasure to check that it's nice and white all the way through. You shouldn't eat them if they have gills formed on the inside. Fry some good butter in a pan. Bung in the puffball slices. Season well with salt and black pepper. Chuck in a couple of rashers of bacon. Top off with a couple of fried eggs. The Holy Roman Emperor couldn't have eaten better.

And the mower didn't pack up.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


No self. No problem.