Sunday, 8 March 2015

The Self-Help Industry


This blog is adapted from an article I wrote recently for a close friend, who asked me to examine the self-help industry and recommend whether to write a self-help book.

Introduction

"The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one".
Christopher Buckley (1998). God Is My Broker, A Monk-Tycoon Reveals the 7 1/2 Laws of Spiritual and Financial Growth.

Let’s start off with a question. What will affect you more, the first movement of Mozart’s Requiem or a newly published self-help book about how to improve your wealth and health in 7 revolutionary steps?

It’s Mozart, for all sorts of reasons. However, the main reason is that Mozart was composing the Requiem on his deathbed.  The last few months of his life demonstrated an extraordinary flurry of his creative genius as he tried to pour out all the incredible melodies inside his head. He knew he was dying when he composed it (according to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play, Amadeus, it was mysteriously commissioned and Mozart came to believe he was the writing the requiem mass for his funeral) and yet it was still his finest hour. Music such as Lacrimosa is unparalleled in its sheer beauty and can easily bring you to tears.

On the other hand the self-help book is a well marketed gimmick, promising a clever, radical, fix-all solution. If you were deciding whether to purchase this book on a Kindle, the first review would undoubtedly read something like this:

***** Brilliant read! Really made me think and has helped me so much from word go. My life has moved in a powerful, positive direction as a result of reading this. I am no stranger to the self- help industry and have read so many books that promise the earth. However, finally, at last, a book that genuinely delivers! I can’t recommend it highly enough. Mrs S, Stratford

I made up that cliché ridden review but I have read numerous reviews just like it. You get the idea. The review will either be a plant, false, taken out of context, edited or actually genuine but misguided. At any rate, if Mrs S does exist, the book certainly won’t solve her problems and she’ll soon be back to spend more of her hard earned bucks chasing Nirvana.

The criticisms of the self-help industry are well known and I’ll explore them further below. However, my conclusion after reading numerous self-help publications and titles are that, although many of them are simplistic, formulated, repetitive and sometimes downright disingenuous, they can, nevertheless be of value to the general populace and – if you can tap in to and/or deliver this value – you will a) make the world a slightly better place b) make yourself a good deal of money and ironically c) obtain a considerable amount of respect and admiration in the process.

Let’s look into the subject a bit deeper.

The Self-Help Industry: A Quick Overview

This is the Wikipedia definition of Self-Help (citations deleted):

Self-help, or self-improvement, is a self-guided improvement —economically, intellectually, or emotionally—often with a substantial psychological basis. Many different self-help groupings exist and each has its own focus, techniques, associated beliefs, proponents and in some cases, leaders. Self-help culture, particularly Twelve-Step culture, has provided some of our most robust new language: recovery, dysfunctional families, and co-dependency.

Self-help often utilizes publicly available information or support groups, on the Internet as well as in person, where people in similar situations join together. From early examples in self-driven legal practice and home-spun advice, the connotations of the word have spread and often apply particularly to education, business, psychology and psychotherapy, commonly distributed through the popular genre of self-help books. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, potential benefits of self-help groups that professionals may not be able to provide include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging.

This is all quite interesting and correct but if you scroll down the Wikipedia article on Self-help, you find these statistics (citations deleted):

At the start of the 21st century, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, was said to constitute a 2.48-billion dollars-a-year industry in the United States alone. By 2006, research firm Marketdata estimated the "self-improvement" market in the U.S. as worth more than $9 billion — including infomercials, mail-order catalogues holistic institutes, books, audio cassettes, motivation-speaker seminars, and the personal coaching market, weight-loss and stress-management programs. Marketdata projected that the total market size would grow to over $11 billion by 2008. In 2012 Laura Vanderkam wrote of a turnover of 12 billion dollars.In 2013 Kathryn Schulz examined "an $11 billion industry".

OK, thanks, Wikipedia. Now, let’s think about this. Firstly, how big do you think the porn (or adult market) business is in America? Interestingly, the most recent and accurate statistics, according to Forbes is that it’s less than $4bn and shrinking.

Self-help is a huge and expanding industry but why exactly is this? I think there are some answers that are very obvious – and others, less so.

Let’s look at the obvious reason, first. Life is tough, really tough, sometimes. It has formidable obstacles. Even when you think you’re coasting along and doing OK, life has the habit of suddenly hitting you with something adverse from left field. This can result in loss, frustration, anxiety, depression and confusion. At the greater extremes, it can result in self-destruction, hospitalisation and suicide.  People frequently need help of all types and the self-help industry promises a quick and available fix.

Other people just feel generally bewildered and unsatisfied. They ask why we are here, on this planet, at this time, with this body, these people? We never asked to be here. Yet we are and we have to make do. Biologically, we are programmed to survive and only the most incredible amount of pain (physical and/or mental) can override the animal instinct to stay alive. Are we created as part of a Divine plan or simply the result of a collision of an infinite number of sub-atomic particles? Do you just live, and then die? Is that it? Who are we? Where are we going? Why is there so much suffering? And why can’t Arsenal win more trophies?

This is absolutely not an article about the meaning of life. However, I would say people who are more prone to depression, think about the nature of reality and the Big Questions more frequently. Again, the self-help industry promises some or all of the answers.

Even if life is going quite well, or even very well, many people want to know how to capitalise on success, rectify shortcomings and generally improve their health, finances, relationships, careers and so forth. Yet again, the self-help industry promises to steer you in the correct directions.

After thinking about these things for many years, my view is that people fundamentally seek three things: companionship, guidance and protection.  If a self-help book, course or strategy can successfully address these needs, it will help people and make plenty of money for its author.

The self-industry is strongest in America. This is because there is an overwhelming desire for self-improvement which is stamped into the culture. In fact, it’s even written into their Declaration:

We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; ...

The key phrase here is “the pursuit of happiness”. Simply defined, this also includes the ability to better oneself and underpins the American belief that anyone can make something great out of their life. There will always be an overwhelming hunger in America for tools that help you on the road to success and many Americans look to the self-help industry for these tools.

The Problem with the Self-Help Industry

This is a true story. Ten years ago, I was earning a good basic salary (with no commission) at a medium sized firm in Middlesex. I was the number 11 partner out of 16, billing well, liked my colleagues and the door to door commute to work was only 10 minutes. However, I wasn't particularly happy. I felt I should be earning more money and I didn't like the head of my department.

Nevertheless, I was wary about moving. Every time I had left a firm, it had been very bruising and I was usually forced to instruct lawyers to deal with the aftermath. I was then approached, out the blue, by my wife’s cousin, on behalf of a firm in North London. I wasn't hugely interested in them but I went for an interview, anyway. Consequently, I was offered a partnership, a huge salary increase and a 10% commission on all matters I introduced. I was also promised a fast track to senior partnership with its promise of untold riches.

The offer seemed to be too good to true and I felt uncomfortable about it. I went to see the partners three more times, examined their accounts, discussed their client base, negotiated a minimum notice period of 3 months and then accepted the position. I started with them a few weeks later.

Before starting, I repeatedly read and memorised the “International Bestseller”, The Rules of Work by Richard Templar http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Rules-Work-Richard-Templar/dp/1447929543 . I was determined to make the move a success and this book promised “the 100 tenets of a happy, successful and fulfilling life at work.”  When I read it, it seemed to be brimming with common sense gems and I used every opportunity, at my new firm, to implement its recommendations.

Five weeks later I was summoned to the board room and fired. The Senior Partner said that because they had invested so much money in me and the financial penalty (for them) for letting me go was so severe, they had considered every possible reason for keeping me on. However, I was so incompetent that they had no alternative but to dismiss me immediately. 

I was utterly shocked and went into a severe depression, lasting weeks. My self-esteem was shattered and it took me 2 months to find another job and almost 5 years to get back to partnership status and the same earning power again.

At this point, I realised something that was reinforced numerous times over the next 10 years. Self-help books are not completely useless but they are of strictly limited value. In fact, there were numerous reasons why I failed at the North London firm but one thing was clear - a self-help book was never going to make that much of a difference.

Let’s examine why.

According to our friend, Wikipedia (citations deleted):

Scholars have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect. In 2005 Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement—he uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement—not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful. Salerno says that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back 'whether the program worked for them or not'. Others similarly point out that with self-help books "supply increases the demand... The more people read them, the more they think they need them... more like an addiction than an alliance."

Self-help writers have been described as working "in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized.... although a veneer of scientism permeates their work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing."

The most recent psychological studies state that 60% of the way you are is down to hard wiring, 30% of you can be changed (for better or for worse) and 10% is down to life’s circumstances. Now, actually, 30% is still quite a considerable percentage but the reality is, for most people, change is very difficult. Lifelong habits and ways of thinking are hard to alter and it’s naïve to suggest (as many self-help books do) that you can suddenly change your ways of behaviour and keep to those changes. It’s not that simple. To effectively do this you need to a) repeat and internalise lessons for a lengthy period and b) work very hard and persistently. There are no short-cuts.

The Paradox of the Self-Help Industry

The American journalist, Kathryn Shultz states it quite eloquently: "the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence".

In other words, if self-help actually worked, you wouldn’t need the self-help industry. The fact that it doesn't work allows it to generate more and more books saying (let’s face it) pretty much the same thing. For example, diet regimes. If one of them actually worked (and not just for a short term fix), you wouldn’t need any more diet regimes and that would be the end of a multi-billion dollar industry (except for the person who had devised the one diet regime that had actually worked!) In fact, virtually every new regime is described as a “breakthrough”.

The truth, of course, is that there is no Holy Grail because life is too complex and multi-faceted. It always has been and always will be. You cannot take loss away from life. There will be always be death, bereavement, heartbreak and disappointment – just as there always will be times of beauty, elevation, passion, joy, achievement and wonder. You cannot “solve” life with a book or a series of books. However, to wholly dismiss the self-help industry as a waste of time is a mistake, instead you have to first acknowledge its serious limitations and then move forward.

The Value of Self-Help

After losing my job, I obviously took a break from self-help and then returned to it a couple of years later. However, this was less from the perspective of trying to help myself and more from the perspective of trying to understand the industry and the growing and insatiable desire for its products.

My view is now somewhat more refined. I believe everything you do is a learning process and you keep learning and developing until you die. Self-help books can be part of that learning process provided – as I say – you accept its limitations.

A self-help book is not tailored for an individual but for the general populace. You, the individual, have to decide whether what it says is a) true b) accurate c) relevant d) useful and e) practical. For example, many of the self-help books bang out the same old hackneyed message about goal setting and changing your “mindset” but in practise their message is not specific enough and too difficult to implement (certainly, in the long term) to assist you in your particular circumstances.

However, one line in a dreary and repetitive self-help book may actually strike a real chord and push you in another direction that could actually change your life. Similarly, a book that introduces a new concept, or challenges you to revisit an old concept in a different way, may alleviate considerable unhappiness and frustration.

If a book, or a CD, or a course changes your life in a positive direction, even if it’s only in a small way, then it has value. Furthermore, I would say that if you can successfully do this en masse and/or to a larger extent then you are doing a good thing and deserve to make money. You are effectively imparting your wisdom for the benefit of others.

How to go forward

OK, so the self-help industry is of limited value but can still be useful. So what?

Well, actually, then there’s huge potential to write a book in that sector because in some respects the industry is quite unique and it’s not particularly difficult to locate a niche, assist people and make money in the process.

There are different types of self-help books (with frequent overlaps) but very basically, they fall into two categories. This list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive:

1. Narrow sector/micro managing.  This deals with a particular issue and is extremely common. Examples include: how to deal with anxiety, depression, relationships, bereavement, addiction (psychological) how to blog, manage, win, sell, present, market, recruit, write a CV, deal with difficult people, increase client base, change career, start a business, compose a business plan, play the stock market, invest in property (business) write a novel, play, script, self-help book, children’s book, how to paint, draw, sculpt, act (creative) how to diet, lose weight, gain weight, gain muscle, attract women (physical) how to be the life and soul of the party, increase charisma, influence people, gain power (social) how to be a better footballer, golfer, swimmer (sports)

2. Wide sector/macro managing.  This holistic approach encompasses your whole lifestyle. How to be a better person, live a more fulfilled life, be more spiritual, find your true path (in 5 steps, 7 steps, 10 steps, 12 steps)

These books are either by self-confessed “experts” in their fields or people you've never heard of claiming that they mastered the particular aspect/s of their lives that they are writing and pontificating about.

There are so many examples of the first type, that I’ll only give two – one old and one new.

1. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Dr Stephen Covey

2. The Chimp Paradox – Dr Steve Peters

An example of the second type is The Rules series by Richard Templar which are hugely popular (see above, where I mentioned The Rules of Work). Nobody knows who Richard Templar is. He’s a pseudonym who claims to be extremely wealthy and who made his money and developed his rules purely by observing people very carefully over many years.

Self-help books vary. Some are very well written and researched – especially some of the Business Guides. Others just bang out the same old nonsense and promise you the earth. However, there is no doubt that there remains a huge demand for guidance.

My feeling is that if you wish to aim for the business sector you need to differentiate your product somehow from all the other Business Guides out there, many of which are very good. An individual mentoring scheme is probably the best way forward as it can be much more specific than the numerous general guides available.

In terms of individual self-help books, I think there is a niche.

Self-helps books are always serious, self-reverential publications with “a dash of humour” in some of the better ones. Yet it has always been my belief that if you want to positively connect with someone, the best way forward is through humour. Now let’s be clear here, as King Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. Every idea has been done before but I am yet to see a really good self-help guide with the correct blend of humour, satire and wisdom.

I believe that it is possible to write a very funny self-help book that is still profoundly serious. My ideal book would make someone laugh – and then think. 

Kabbalistic literature in Judaism teaches that to deal with anxiety conditions, you have to separate someone from their ego so they can get a true grasp of the magnitude of the problem. One way of doing this is by pricking someone’s vanity through the use of humour. I believe using humour to cure (or take a different perspective on) problems can be very effective.

Conclusion

I believe anyone intelligent has enough wisdom to write a good self-help book provided they can be honest.  

Self-help books basically follow the same structure. They establish the problem, set out goals and suggest a way forward. If you adopt this structure with originality, wisdom and humour, you can't really go too far wrong.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Griffin v Powell

In 1987, I made the headlines of the BBC1 9 o'clock news. The occassion was a speaking visit to the Bristol University Student Union by the famed right winger, Enoch Powell which ended in a near riot as students united from all parts of the country to demonstrate against him.

I wasn't a demonstrator. In fact, the only reason I had gone to the Student Union that day was to play table football. When I got to the Union, at around 1pm, the main entrances had been blocked off so, frustrated and confused, I tried to get into the Union through a little known side door. However, the police intervened and escorted me back to the front of the Union.

By this time, the main entrances were becoming increasingly packed with venomous students who were literally baying for Powell's blood. Soon there were so many students, I was swept into the Union and pushed to the edge of the main staircase. For a few more minutes nothing much more happened as the Union became increasingly more noisy and crowded.

Then, suddenly, the whole atmosphere became very much noiser. I've heard 110,000 fans screaming at the Nou Camp stadium, in Barcelona, but that was nothing compared to the decibel level I now encountered. True, a large number of students were screeching and whistling at the top of their vocal range. However, there was something else that's more difficult to describe. Every single student seemed to project the most intense hatred possible and it appeared to massively magnify the sound. In short, it was terrifying.

Then, in the middle of it all, twenty, maybe thirty police officers forced a path open and Enoch Powell appeared in the centre of the pandemonium. Even though he was in his mid seventies, Powell walked fairly quickly and mounted the staircase. I'll never forget his face, it was a picture of absolute, steely determination. For me, it was very hard to reconcile. How on earth could this man be so convinced that he was correct when, without the strong police presence, the masses would have literally torn him to shreds and probably eaten him too, for good measure?

Later that evening, I watched the BBC coverage with my friends. The BBC commentator advised the audience that minutes before Mr Powell turned up, there had been a concerted effort by students to break into the side entrance of the Union to sabotage the talk. The footage then panned to a close up of my bemused face as I was led away by the police.

In fact, this wasn't my first encounter with Enoch Powell, it wasn't even my second. I had already seen him speak twice at my school, University College School, in 1982 and 1984. For the first visit, there was a huge amount of excitement about the forthcoming speaker and I did my homework.

Brigadier Enoch Powell MBE (1912-1998) was born in Stechford, Birmingham. Before turning to politics, he was an academic, linguist, soldier and poet. He became a Conservative MP between 1950 and 1974 and an Ulster Unionist MP between 1974 and 1987. He was controversial throughout much of his career and his tenure in senior office was brief. He had strong, distinctive views on monetary policy, national identity, immigration and United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community which later became the European Union. He was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet for his controversial and widely remembered 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech in opposition to mass Commonwealth immigration to Britain.

Although I immediately found Powell's views on immigration to be very offensive, I was fascinated by how incredibly clever he was. Whilst at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in one Greek prose examination lasting three hours, he was asked to translate a passage into Greek. Powell walked out after one and a half hours, having produced translations in the styles of Plato and Thucydides. For his efforts, he was awarded a double starred first in Latin and Greek and then become a Professor of Greek at Sydney University, aged only 25.

Watching Enoch Powell speak for the first time was an extraordinary experience. I was only 15 and it became seared in my memory. Powell was famed for his oratorical brilliance and I was hypnotised by him. He spoke without notes, never pausing once and seemed to possess endless knowledge and intelligence. I have subsequently seen many famous politicians and statesmen speak and - apart from Margaret Thatcher - there really was no one in his league.

Interestingly, when he gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, it caused very little reaction among his audience. It was only after the speech was publicised and scrutinised, that it caused such intense outrage. I'm sure the reason was that Powell mesmerised his audience in the same way that he held me as a teenager.

Powell spoke again a couple of years later at my school in a debate with the then headmaster, Giles Slaughter. I thought Mr Slaughter was very brave to take on Enoch Powell and indeed he did credibly well but Powell was once again as brilliant as he was two years ago.

The angry scenes I encountered outside the Bristol University Union in 1987 were repeated a couple of weeks ago outside the BBC Television studio in White City at the notorious Question Time featuring Nick Griffin. Indeed, during the Question Time itself, Jack Straw referred several times to Enoch Powell and the "Rivers of Blood" speech.

To my mind, there are one or two interesting comparisons between Griffin and Powell. Nick Griffin holds shameful and disgusting views but he is also a clever man. He went to Downing College, Cambridge University but - unlike Powell - only succeeded in obtaining a Lower Second in Law. Whilst a student, his affiliation with the National Front was revealed during a Cambridge Union debate and his photograph was published in a student newspaper. Undeterred he later founded the Young National Front Student Organisation.

Both Powell and Griffin were strongly rumoured to have had homosexual encounters. According to John Evans, Chaplain of Trinity and Extra Preacher to the Queen, instructions were left with him to reveal after Powell's death that at least one of the romantic affairs of his life had been homosexual. However, Powell's biographer, Simon Heffner, disputed this and argued that this did not mean Powell was homosexual but rather that he had not yet met any girls.

Meanwhile, Griffin, at the age of 16, was reported to have stayed at the home of National Front organiser, Ian Webster. Webster was openly gay and in a four page leaflet written in 1999 claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with Griffin, then the BNP's publicity director. Griffin has denied any such relationship.

However, there are many more contrasts than comparisons. Powell could have obtained real power had he not so spectacularly blown his chances in 1968 and then left the Conservative Party in 1974. Indeed, he might well have won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, instead of Mrs Thatcher. As mentioned, he was an exceptionally clever man and it is a shame that his peculiar views led his career down a darker path.

Meanwhile, as Question Time demonstrated, Griffin is a fairly poor public speaker, a bore and a bigot of the worst sort. His views are significantly more extreme than Powell's ever were, despite his farcical attempts to make the BNP more respectable. For example, Powell was never a Holocaust denier. Indeed, at the age of 70, he learnt Hebrew, his 12th and final language.

Griffin will never remotely attain Powell's achievements. Powell was a prolific writer and an accomplished poet. He had many talents beyond politics and even appeared in the BBC's 2002 100 Greatest Britons of all Time (voted for by the public).

Griffin - for his part - will, hopefully, one day be consigned to the dustbin of anonymity. The sooner, the better, frankly.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

LDJ

My dad, Laurance David Jacobs, died on the 25 May 2009, aged 72. The problem with death is that words are inadequate tools to describe the devastation of bereavement and that little phrase, in itself, is a hackneyed old cliche.

Despite saying that, a possible way of conveying the experience is by means of historical anology. At the moment, I'm reading Richard Rhodes' 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning account of the making of the atomic bomb. As everyone knows, the atomic bomb resulted in the tremendous destruction at Hirsohima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Here is the account in Wikipedia of the Japanese realisation of the bombing of Hiroshima:

Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at headquarters; they knew that no large enemy raid had occurred and that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at headquarters that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor.
The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly one hundred miles (160 km) from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning. Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left.


I remember my dad telling me, when I was a child, that at the end of the World War 2, the Americans dropped a bomb on a Japanese city that was so powerful it immediately killed 60,000 people. I recall struggling with the magnitude of this fact, I just couldn't believe that humans could be so clever and so immensely destructive at the same time.

How did that Japanese staff officer feel when he first realised that a major city had been wiped out in an instant? It was completely without precedent, entirely different from anything experienced before. But that it what the loss of a parent is to you, something that is so outside the bounds of your life experience, that you struggle for days and months to just try and make sense of what has happened. Most often, you can't.

I'm not yet ready to eulogise properly about my father in writing, either in this blog or anywhere else. However, I would like to just share another initial realisation - my first awareness that my dad had a brain that was superior to just about anyone else I've ever met.

I always knew that my dad was incredibly clever. The house was full of unintelligible books and even as a little kid I was dead proud that my dad had come from a very humble background to win scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard and then become - of all things - a nuclear physicist. But it only really struck home the day I decided to test my dad's vocabulary.

Around 1978, when I was 11 years old, my dad bought a slim book called Test Your Wordpower. The book comprised of a prologue followed by 50 tests. In each test, there were 60 words divided into 6 levels of 10 words. Level 1 contained really easy words like dog, cat, house etc. Then the levels increased in difficulty until you got Level 6 which was made up the words which were punted around in a gameshow like Call My Bluff.

The prologue helpfully told you there was a huge correllation between your vocabulary and your IQ. Basically, the smarter you were, the more words you knew. The majority of the adult population ended up in Level 3. If you found yourself in Level 4, you probably had a very decent job. If you landed in Level 5, you were probably a top professional or heading in that direction. Level 6 meant you were very flipping sharp.

I kept taking the tests and usually scraped into Level 3. (Rather irritatingly, I took the test a few months ago and still scraped into Level 3 which shows how little I've learnt in the last 30 years!) My mum comfortably made Level 4 and then, one day, I decided to see what my dad would score. Incredibly, it turned out, that my dad could define every single word in the book.

I was always trying to catch my dad out by hauling in the family's immense English dictionary and checking his definitions but I never tripped him up, ever. He could always define the word thrown at him and it just staggered me. The prologue didn't tell you what kind of person could score full marks on every test but I had a pretty good idea!

Of course my dad was infinitely more than a walking dictionary, he was an absolutely unique and brilliant individual. However, as I said, this blog is not a eulogy just a few random thoughts and memories.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Evasive Deal

At the moment, there's a tiresome email doing the rounds inviting you to a barbecue party. You've probably all seen it before. The email attaches a powerpoint presentation. When you click onto it, it supplies details of the party - a vision of paradise complete with a tropical island, beautiful companions and the finest luxuries. At the end of the presentation, you are asked whether you would like to accept the invite. There are two icons, "yes" and "no". Of course, you immediately try to click onto the "yes" icon but - surprise, surprise - it runs away from the cursor! The more your cursor pursues the icon, the faster the icon flees your cursor.

So basically you shake your head. It's just a dumb email, after all - right?

As a god forsaken commercial property solicitor, I am regularly sent details of off market properties which I then forward onto clients and contacts. These deals always promise huge finders fees and massive incentives. For example, last week I was sent information relating to a confidential £140 million development site in Central London promising a 2% finders fee (£2.8 million) if the deal could be successfully placed and completed. According to the details, it wasn't going to be too difficult as the developers were in administration and would take an enormous discount if necessary. The redevelopment value was estimated to be in excess of a billion pounds.

However, as I've found out, there are several problems with these deals and most of these problems reflect the current state of the economy.

1. The deal either doesn't exist or exists in a completely differently form to what is being touted. Frequently, this is because proprietors or their agents leak information into the public domain solely to ascertain what the true market value of their properties are. They usually have no intention of selling the properties and will always insist the properties were put on the market without their authority. However, the reality is quite different.

The best example of this is Northern Rock who at the end of last year knowingly released details of over 1,200 repossessed properties in order to obtain their current market price. The resulting scandal made the headlines of the Mail on Sunday and Northern Rock were extremely quick to maintain that the properties were not for sale and they had no idea the information had been released. The truth was by the time they issued their denial they had received all the information they required about the value and demand for their remortgage portfolio!

2. If the deal does exist, there will be a myriad of ignorant intermediaries and agents to overcome before you can actually get to the proprietor or the genuine controller of the deal. This is because the original information will have been been relayed to numerous agents and solicitors who will ultimately demand their finder's cut should the transaction ever complete. The process inevitably creates hideous chinese whispers so a £1m residential property development in Coventry may become a £12m commercial development in Central London by the time you receive it. If that isn't bad enough, the whole property market is currently swamped by paranoia, distrust, fear and greed. Unless you are dealing directly with original parties, the prevailing commercial atmosphere will drag you down. Supposedly off market and confidential properties have sometimes done the rounds for many months and will be flung around the market like a syphilitic whore.

3. If you can obtain an offer from an interested party, it will nearly always be rejected as being too low. Sellers are still woefully naive, or willfully ignorant, as to the current condition of the market which resembles a hedgehog that has been crushed by a line of several hundred tanks. In contrast, cash rich purchasers (there are no other types for the time being) are rare and highly valued. Unlike oppressed sellers, these purchasers are acutely aware of current market conditions and will have been wooed endlessly. When they make their precious cash offers, they will demand their pound of flesh and sellers will find their ruthless offers exceptionally difficult to stomach.

4. If, miraculously, a deal is agreed, it will inevitably collapse as sellers will become convinced that they have been cheated and purchasers will keep chipping the purchase price as the market continues to sink like a stone.

This is Brown's Britain in 2009 and it shows no signs of improving. It is just as well that our Prime Minister has only one functioning eye. With two eyes, he would behold the true state of the economy and the hideousness of his claim to have abolished boom and bust in 2007.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Peaches beats recession woes

On Saturday evening, I caught sight of the front page of the International Herald Tribune and it struck me again how quickly the world economy is deteriorating. Last month, over 600,000 people lost their jobs in the United States. This equals the carnage suffered by American workers at the height of the Depression in the 1930's. I skimmed through the article which finished with the now obligatory reminder that there was no end in sight to the current problems and they were expected to get much worse.

In fact , it seems that any report that contains a bad set of statistics invariably compounds the unwelcome news with some sort of arbitrary forecast that in a few months or years, the terrible figures are expected to double or treble or whatever negative equation takes your fancy.

I then went out to Golders Green in North London for a meal with my wife. But wherever you go you can't escape the unmistakable signs of the current recession. I quickly noticed that within a few yards of our restaurant, bailiffs had forced the closure of three other restaurants and a bar. Then while we were eating our meal, I couldn't help overhearing a number of people bemoaning the loss of their jobs or businesses. The evidence of deprivation and anxiety appears universal.

Finally, we got home and I checked the BBC News website. The headlines under the Main News (as well as the Entertainment) section was that Bob Geldof's teenage daughter, Peaches, had split up with her husband after six months of marriage. Ranking below this news in importance, were the terrible bush fires in Australia.

I scratched my head and asked the obvious question. Why did the BBC think this bit of worthless gossip was so important? Either they genuinely believed that their world audience gave a rat's buttocks about Geldof's child, or, alternatively, they thought this mindless bit of drivel would somehow distract people from the severity of the global recession.

I have no idea but clearly the BBC moves in mysterious ways.


Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Train Journey and Class of RY

Between 1978 and 1985, I went to University College, a public school located in the heart of Hampstead.

In September 1981, at the age of 14, I began the class of RY. Confusingly, this stood for Remove Yates. This did not denote a pressure group or political campaign of any type, rather the Remove year (public school jargon for Year/Grade 10) of Mr Yates, our form teacher.

There were about 25 boys in the class and in the previous year we had been called EY, which stood for Entry Yates. (Years 11 and 12 were respectively called Upper Remove and Transitus!) One of our first collective discoveries, as RY, was that our charismatic English teacher, Mr Ronnie Landau, had been replaced by a Mrs Mary Read (soon to be nicknamed Hairy Mary).

Mrs Read’s first English essay assignment for the class was to describe a train journey and she gave us a couple of days to complete this task. The results were very interesting and gave an accurate snapshot of the type of class I was in.

The first category of pupils had no imagination at all. They observed the world scientifically and empirically. These pupils literally described their train journey to school. So, for example, their essays would be along the lines of, “... at around 8am I get to Golders Green Station. The train travels for about a minute before entering a tunnel and then after another couple of minutes, we get to Hampstead station...”

The second category of pupils had some imagination but not very much. Their essays described journeys in France, travelling through the countryside or along the coast.

Then, in the next category, you had the pupils, like me, with the strange imagination who had already read too many books. I described being an 8 year old child being rounded up and forced into an extremely crowded cattle truck, alongside my family, with only a tiny crack to peer out of. I detailed how, during the tortously long journey, people died of thirst around me and how screaming guards with machine guns and snarling Alsatian dogs greeted our arrival as we were all bundled off to the gas chambers.

(Incidentally, I got a B for this essay, with the comment: “good, vivid description and use of imagination. Well done!”)

Finally, there was the Jonny Zucker category. This category surprising only contained one pupil, my old friend, Jonny Zucker and was in a league of its own. Zucker wrote about a young man who got onto a train at his usual local stop. As the train journeyed, the man gradually aged and he watched all the main events of history unfold outside the windows. He saw the great world wars, the assassination of Kennedy and so forth. Then the train moved into the future as the man continued to age. He observed the nuclear holocaust and Armageddon caused by the final world war and then the train reached its destination, the burning fires of hell.

Zucker rightfully obtained a straight A for this and Mrs Read admitted she was dazzled by his ability. These days, he is a successful children’s author.

Class RY also produced Adam Lent, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, Dr James Hyman and Sam Bourne/Jonathan Freedland all published, well respected writers and thinkers.

A Great Idea

What do you do if you are running a newspaper and there is a comparatively quiet day, a tiny lull from the ever plummeting sterling and ever deepening recession? Well, here’s a great idea. Why not create some further bad news? Everyone likes bad news, right? And the country can always do with some more.

But how can you manufacture a bad story, run it on your front page and give everyone a headache in the process? Easy, take some high sounding fool in a suit and ask him to predict that things will actually get much worse. Predictions aren’t lies, exactly; they are a good honest stab at the truth. It doesn’t matter that the so called experts have a terrible track record and couldn’t predict a sandstorm in the desert. If it comes true, the expert can be treated as a quasi-divine sage, if it proves hopelessly amiss, well, most likely everyone will have forgotten the original prediction anyway.

I love it! But who do we use? Well, which area has consistently got their predictions wrong and proved utterly inept at managing risk? Hmm, what with politicians, bankers, economists, and financial regulators, there’s quite a large selection. Yes, it’s a tough one. But let’s go with a very senior banker, preferably one with a tie, waistcoat and glasses so everyone takes him more seriously.

He can spout the usual rubbish about house prices falling between 15% and 30% in the next couple of years. I mean with that margin of error he’s bound to be somewhere within the ball park. Then let’s all get very upset about his prediction and talk about it all the time and forget that, in fact, it’s only a silly forecast from someone who has no more (in fact, probably less) idea than you and me.

Ah, this is fantastic! But who can we use? Who, indeed? Wait, what about that bloke, John Varley, the Chief Executive of Barclays? Ok, Barclays invests much less in property than the other high street banks and so he doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about. But never mind that. Do you think he’ll do it? Somebody, make the call...