Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swimming outside the cage

When my father retired after some 30-plus years of service to the BBC, he, like many of his generation, provided continuity to the convention of remaining with the same employer "as man and boy". 

I doubt anyone would, could or should claim such servitude today. Sure, companies big and small throughout the world can and do boast admirably of lifelong employees, but it's clearly no longer the rule.

US statistics show that the average employee will work for between eight and ten employers throughout their working life. Redundancy, restructuring, ambition, migration and social mobility all play a part in the ever-lengthening resumes many or most have by the time they reach the mid-point of their careers. Quite which category I will now fall into is open to debate, but - at risk of shocking some people - I am this week bringing to a close a near-16-year association with my employer.

It sounds hackneyed to say you don't know where the years have gone, but it really doesn't seem all that long ago I left behind life as a freelance scribe to accept the corporate shilling, and hawk TV sets to unsuspecting audio-video magazines. My motives then were quite straight forward: I wanted to buy a house, and no bank would lend to an unsalaried oaf, no matter how lucrative his work was at the time.

There was no careerism about it. "Why not?", I believe was my somewhat sleepy reply to the job offer I received over the phone after a particularly gruelling nightshift. With that agreement I placed a foot on the first rung of a new career ladder, starting my own digestion through a corporate system that has placed me in various professional positions in a number of locations in an ever-ebbing landscape of internal political, commercial and structural transformation.

At the end of this week I'll be leaving the company (Philips) and, by the end of the month, the adopted country (the Netherlands), moving to Paris for a new role in a totally different line of business. The political, commercial and structural landscape will be the same, however. The job - largely - will be similar. I will have to quickly navigate my way through a labrynth of new org charts to identify who-is-who, while calibrating the political radar to track who might not be a big fan of who. It will be a little like learning to walk all over again: actually it will be like a juggler learning to juggle again after a medical procedure that went wrong and wiped clean his mind. It will all be just a little strange.

First of all, there will be the learning curve of new cultural behaviours. My first birthday in a Dutch office led to something of a social faux pas when I failed to bring in a birthday cake for my colleagues - "You mean you don't buy me cake?". In France, I suspect, the worst of these will be, apparently, having to double-kiss everyone in the office each morning before you've even taken off your coat. Not being the most gregarious individual in the world before either my first coffee or 11am, depending on which comes first, I suspect this may be the first test of the office cordialement. Then there will be the adjustment to no longer being a part of the furniture, but part-idiot savant, part-Victorian curiosity - poked, prodded and stared at by suspicious and unsure eyes.

Someone asked me the other day how I felt after completing my final press event for my employer of the last decade and a half: "Oddly relaxed", is how I replied. So far I haven't blubbed, and firmly expect that to remain the case. Actually, it feels more like a state of grace. Mission accomplished, whatever that mission might be.

I've packed a lot into the last 15 years and 50 weeks, professionally and personally. But in truth, the fact that it has flown by is a good thing. I don't have time to reflect and, as cold as it might seem, I don't want to wallow. It's time to open the shark cage and go swimming.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


I was just 13 years old when, 30 years ago today, Mark Chapman fatally shot John Lennon outside his New York apartment building. At the time, I knew of The Beatles, of course: I was familiar with their hits, though not yet the more interesting diversions of The White Album, Revolver and Abbey Road. I'd seen Help!, A Hard Day's Night and the animated Yellow Submarine. And I knew some of Lennon's solo material, like Imagine, Whatever Gets You Through The Night and (Just Like) Starting Over, which had been a radio hit in the months leading up to the release of Double Fantasy, just two weeks before his death.

Lennon's murder on Monday, December 8, 1980 clearly shocked the world, but it has taken me a lot longer to fully appreciate the cultural impact Lennon had had on that world. The Beatles weren't just another '60s pop band: they'd turned music on its head every bit as radically as Elvis Presley's arrival in 1955. Between 1963 and 1970 they led the charge of evolving the Top 40 from sacharine puppy love songs to bluesy wigouts, transforming themselves at the same time from mop-topped, besuited boys next door, to bearded, long-haired rock musicians. Incredible to think that just seven years separate Please Please Me and  Let It Be, albums which sound as if they'd been made by two different groups.

Lennon may - or may not - have been the chief architect of this transformation, but as arguably the most charismatic of the band, he certainly gave the band their edge. Look back at vintage footage of The Fabs on The Ed Sullivan Show or with Morecombe and Wise, and Lennon stands out as the gum-chewing rock'n'roller. He may have swapped his Quarrymen leather biker's jacket for a mohair suit, but he was still the teenage rebel.

For all the acknowledgement of McCartney's apparent "normality" and his ability to craft a perfect melody, for all the justified appreciation of George Harrison's musicianship and quiet creativity, and for all of Ringo Starr's often underappreciated rhythm and percussive colour - John Lennon was the Beatle with something to say. He was the gobby one, unafraid of courting controversy with a cheeky quip and a wry aside here, and a reference to being bigger than Jesus there.

Lennon represented what I've always felt are the most important qualities of a rock star: artistic talent, a questioning view on the world, and an edge. At the time of his murder, Lennon appeared to be mellowing. He'd learned to accept his fame and Beatle legacy and was moving comfortably into middle age as a devoted father. After five years' in semi-retirement, Double Fantasy was his comback album. While it didn't compare with any of his better known work as a solo artist or band member, it restored him, at the age of 40, to the top table of the rock firmament.

What caused Mark Chapman to murder Lennon at, perhaps, the musician's most settled and contented time of life may never been known. Like Lennon, Chapman had endured a challenging upbringing. Diagnosed with autism as a child, he developed suicidal tendenancies in young adulthood, along with fantasies about replicating Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days, as well as an unhealthy obsession with J.D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye (on the morning of the murder, Chapman bought a copy of the novel, inscribed "This is my statement" inside, and signed it "Holden Caulfield"). Amid this gathering storm, a switch flipped and Mark Chapman decided that John Lennon, that most vocal advocate of peace and love, must be killed.

Chillingly, Chapman was photographed just a few hours before the murder asking Lennon to sign a copy of Double Fantasy, believed to be the only Lennon or Beatles album the killer ever posessed. Chapman had approached Lennon and Yoko Ono as they left their apartment in The Dakota building on New York's Central Park West. They'd just taken part in the iconic Annie Leibovitz photoshoot for Rolling Stone, in which a nude Lennon curled up against a clothed Ono.

After spending most of the day working on new songs at The Record Plant studio, Lennon and Ono returned to The Dakota, shortly before 11pm. As Lennon followed Ono into the building's lobby, he caught sight of Chapman, just before the killer fired the fatal rounds of hollow-point ammunition from a .38 Special revolver he'd purchased for the occasion. Lennon was pronounced dead less than 30 minutes later.

Rock stars are meant to expire through their own volition: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Moon, Bonham - you know the list. "Death by misadventure" is their prescribed demise, the result of some drug or alcohol-induced craziness, or sexual experimentation gone horribly wrong. Some, as Keith Richards famously (and defiantly) said, are never meant to exceed the age of 30.

Lennon did, and was well on his way to elder statesman status. In the 30 years since his death, it has been the subject of conjecture, conspiracy and outright cobblers. Daft theories abound that Chapman was a CIA assassin, and that despite his apparent diminished responsibility, was fully in charge of his faculties and took out Lennon for being a subversive influence on American society. Lennon was a charter member of the Awkward Squad, for sure, but even now it's hard to understand what made him a target for murder, irrational or rational.

Whatever or whoever Chapman was, he has taken a place in the infamous history of nobodies who became somebodies through some devilish act, alongside Lee Harvey Oswald, John Hinckley Jr (whose attempt on Ronald Reagan's life came just three months after Lennon's death) and Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian who plunged the world into four years of carnage in 1914. Thankfully, however, Chapman must be considered a footnote in John Lennon's 40-year life.

Lennon would have turned 70 in October. He might still have been making music; he might have turned to art, produced challenging documentaries about human rights, or become a riotously opinionated author or newspaper columnist.

In the 30 years since his death, the world has experienced profound change and events: the fall of communism; Thatcherism; two generations of Bush in the White House; the end of apartheid; two wars in and with Iraq; the continuing bloodshed and bloody-mindedness in the Middle East; 9/11; Obama; the rise of China as an economic power; the Internet. Imagine where John Lennon would have stood amid this all.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Blattered beyond belief

So now we know who will host the World Cup Finals in 2018. It won't be England. It won't be Spain and Portugal. It won't be the Netherlands and Belgium. It will be Russia.

Sepp Blatter has, like the Vatican chimney, issued forth the puff of white smoke that has identified which country will enjoy the lucrative host nation status, seven years and eight months from now.

The inevitable media inquest is already blaming the media itself. The BBC's decision to screen a Panorama investigation into alleged FIFA corruption, just four days before the vote, is bearing the brunt of this backlash. Even Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin has helpfully chimed in that the British media was to blame (a kind of reverse of the famous headline IT'S THE SUN WOT WON IT). But I disagree.

Panorama's somewhat underwhelming exposé and the original Sunday Times scoop may well have coloured opinions within FIFA about England as a nation, but I don't think it made a blind bit of difference to the vote. FIFA had wanted to see a World Cup staged in Eastern Europe, as much as it chose Qatar - a nation smaller than the Falkland Islands - over the United States to host the competition in 2022.

If FIFA had simply come out and said that they wanted Russia to stage it, they could have saved us all the bother - and all the nudge-nudge, wink-winking about what's been going on behind closed and not-so closed doors in the run-up to the Zurich vote. 

Rightly or wrongly, the Sunday Times and the BBC have shone the spotlight on an institution which is, at best, out of touch with modern corporate transparency, and at worst, rotten to its core. Alleged bribery nothwithstanding, the World Cup voting process has been carried out with all the objectivity and probity of the Eurovision Song Contest, determined by hotel corridor politicking and schmoozing amid clouds of cigar smoke and the fumes of a glass of Remy Martin.

To learn, as we have done now, that England failed at the first round of voting makes a mockery of some of the early optimism and even positive indications coming from some of the voting members. England, we're told, had the best presentation, the best bid, and the personal involvement of Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron (whom, we were told at every opportunity, had shuttled between Zurich and Westminster for PMQs and back again. Bravo, Dave! You're clearly one of the people).

England's 2018 bid ticked - on paper at least - all the right boxes. It would have rewarded the world with the authentic football experience in the very country where it all began. Football would have come home: there's a reason the English Premier League is the most televised football league around the world; there's a reason the FA Cup is one of the most popular annual events around the world. It would have all been good. Even the Dutch and the Spanish - who were also bidding for 2018 - were saying that England should win it.

Sadly, England's fate was sealed long before Wills straightened his comb-over and made any awful jokes about his own "big event". We English pride our sense of fair play. We take pride in queuing and pour scorn on any Johnny Foreigner who disrespects our love of manners, decency and refined order. We dislike cheating and dishonesty. The World Cup is not just a sporting extravaganza, but an enormous enterprise for FIFA and host nation alike. And yet it's location is determined by a process akin to a chief constable "seeing what he can do" about the parking ticket of a fellow mason. 

And what of the winning bid? We should, I suppose, congratulate Russia. No, really. We know that it will be a shambles; the fan experience will be dreadful, the racist culture in Russian football will not be solved, the public transport will be a disaster, the hotels will be inadequate, the stadia will be badly built with Mafia money, the visa process will be inflexible, and the overall infrastructure a mess. But FIFA has got what it wanted - a World Cup in the east.

So why go through a bid process in the first place? Why not accept the bag of roubles and have done with the circus that rolled into Zurich this week? The probity of the FIFA voting process should be called into question. It obviously has nothing to do with integrity, national reputation or even the ability to present a viable proposition, but personal favours, personal interests and...well, who knows what else? It's clear the whole thing is as bent and crooked as a DVD sold at a street market. 

FIFA is not an administrative organisation, but a political gentlemen's club where networking and influence is currency. It is run with stunning arrogance by a leadership that considers proven acts of bribery worthy only of the equivalent of wrapped knuckles. Perhaps, on reflection, England shouldn't want to be awarded a World Cup as a result of the back-handers and two-faced deceit that went on.

This is the second World Cup disaster England has suffered this year; but whereas the England team's ejection from South Africa in June was rightfully blamed on poor performance, few could fault the impressive show put on by the England 2018 bid team to try and swing votes their way.  

The sad part is that England won't get an opportunity to bid again until the process begins for the 2030 World Cup. 66 years since the Jules Rimet trophy was last presented on English soil to the world champion of football. And that's an awful lot of hurt.