Manchester, so much to answer for….

I spent most of the festive season in and around Manchester, once a focal point of the industrial revolution (and the home to dark satanic mills), now a city that is as much about technology and culture (and the location for MediaCityUK). Plus, it’s a city that takes its hedonism very seriously, a place where a table is simply something to dance on…

Manchester Town Hall – photo by Mark Andrew – image sourced from Wikimedia under Creative Commons

I have had a direct connection with Manchester going back nearly 40 years. Prior to that, Manchester for me was probably defined by its famous football club (and that other one), Coronation Street (the world’s longest-running television soap opera), and the Manchester Guardian newspaper (now one of the few remaining sources of objective news coverage).

Then, in the late 1970s, Manchester started producing some of the most innovative music in the wake of punk. Manchester was the home to cutting-edge bands, labels, producers, designers, writers and fanzines – many of which outshone the best of what even London had to offer at that time. Record labels such as Factory, New Hormones, Object and Rabid helped launch the careers of Joy Division, Durutti Column, A Certain Ratio, Buzzcocks, John Cooper Clarke, Martin Hannett, Peter Saville, Ludus, Malcolm Garrett, The Passage, James and even Jilted John; while bands like The Fall, Magazine, The Frantic Elevators and The Distractions (plus fanzine City Fun) all added to the colourful mix. Then came New Order and The Smiths, followed by the Hacienda, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses and the rest of the Madchester era (as brilliantly told in the film “24 Hour Party People”).

So Manchester’s cultural output from that period has definitely shaped and informed a lot of my musical (and reading) choices. Just before Christmas, it was announced that musician and lyricist Pete Shelley had died. Along with Howard Devoto, he formed Buzzcocks, who inspired many other bands and independent labels with their debut 1977 release, the Spiral Scratch EP (also one of the first UK punk records). Their appreciation of visual artists like Marcel Duchamp and Odilon Redon, and writers like Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, Dostoyevsky and Gogol meant that (along with many of their contemporaries) they made music that was not just about 3 minute pop songs. Plus, these literary influences prompted me to seek out those Penguin Modern Classics – much more interesting than my high-school set texts….

Every time I visit Manchester, I’m also reminded of the wry sense of humour, and the general tendency towards gritty resignation (along the lines of, “If you can’t laugh about it, you may as well give up now”).

One example – while checking my luggage in at the airport, I had the following exchange with the staff member behind the counter:

ME: “How are you today?” (it being a very early morning during the festive season, and goodwill to all people etc.)

THEM: “I’m full of it”

ME: “Full of the joys of Christmas?”

THEM: “No, the flu”

Another example (see opening reference to tables) – a quotation from Mark Twain, appearing in a public art gallery, had been modified to read:

“Explore, Dream, Disco…”

And as if by way of reinforcement, for Christmas I was given two books, essential reading for anyone wanting to further their appreciation of Mancunian (and Salfordian) pop culture – “The Luckiest Guy Alive” by John Cooper Clarke, and “Messing Up the Paintwork – The Wit and Wisdom of Mark E. Smith”.

The late Mark E. Smith, founder of The Fall (and no relation to the band The Smiths…) led  a group famous for its longevity, its voluminous discography, and its revolving door of musicians. In reference to the latter, he once said:

“If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s the Fall.”

Next week: Startup Victoria – supporting successful founders

 

 

 

 

Culture Washing

Banks, Parliament, Cricket Australia, Political Parties, religious bodies, the ABC – the list of national institutions that have come under fire for failed governance and even worse behaviour continues to grow. Commentators are blaming a lack of “culture” within these organisations.

Some Boards end up washing their dirty laundry in public….. Image Source: Max Pixel

Already we are seeing a “culture” movement, which will inevitably lead to “culture washing”, akin to “green washing”, and other examples of lip service being paid to stakeholder issues.

Just this past week, the interim report of the Banking Royal Commission prompted the Federal Treasurer to say that banks need a “culture of enforcement and a culture of compliance”. I can already imagine the “culture checklists” and the “culture assessment” surveys and feedback forms….

There are consulting firms building “culture risk” assessment tools. There may even be some empirical evidence to suggest that companies with better employee engagement and “culture” can generate better share price performance. Even the AICD is getting in on the act with its upcoming directors’ update on how boards can gain “insights on culture”, and how to set the “tone from the top”.

(Actually, all any director needs to do to monitor the “culture” of their organisations is to track social media and sites such as Glassdoor, Whirlpool, Product Review, etc..)

But corporate and organisational “culture” is organic, and cannot be built by design. It is a combination of strong leadership and core values that everyone in the organisation is willing to commit to and adhere to. It also means ensuring that everyone knows what is expected of them, and the consequences of failing to meet those standards are clear.

As for employee engagement surveys, one of my colleagues likes to say, “The only question to ask is: ‘Would you recommend this organisation as a place to work, and if not, why not?’” Another colleague regularly says to his own teams, “If this is no longer a fun place to work, then let me know”.

Next week: Why don’t we feel well off?

 

Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

All that jazz!

I’d be the first to admit I’m a music snob. Not that I think my tastes are better than anyone else, just that they are very particular. I like to think I have an informed opinion about the listening choices I make.

When I went to university, I was asked if I had any preferences about whom I shared student accommodation with. “No heavy metal freaks or jazz buffs”. I’ve still not changed my opinion of heavy metal, but my attitude towards jazz, like my appreciation for red wine, has only improved with age.

Not all, jazz, mind. Two words that strike dread in me are “gypsy jazz” – along with trad, dixieland and rag time, I find it most of it too fiddly, over-ornate, bordering on cheesiness. Similarly, for me, listening to “smooth” artists like Kenny G is akin to wading through treacle. There are certain instruments that I find very difficult to stomach in a jazz context – trombone, soprano saxophone, violin and acoustic guitar. And the big band sound is something I can only endure very selectively. Much of what is labelled fusion also leaves me cold, although I do make an exception for Soft Machine.

I suppose my point of entry is post bop, along with modal and free jazz. And while cool jazz can take itself far too seriously, at least it generally doesn’t fall into the trap of virtuosity for its own sake. (I’m always reminded of the criticism of Mozart attributed to Emperor Joseph II – “too many notes!” – when it comes to the noodly end of the jazz spectrum.)

Like many people, one of my first real engagements with jazz was Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”. As a self-contained statement on “modern” jazz, it still astonishes with each listen. Despite its ubiquity, I never tire of hearing it. (In point of fact, the first Davis album I sought out was “In A Silent Way”, after it was used as a reference point in a review of A Certain Ratio’s debut album. Strange but true.) I’ve since come to appreciate the full canon of Davis’s work, although I have never warmed to his final records, recorded for the Warner Brothers label. His albums are often grouped into specific periods, rather like Picasso’s art, which only adds to his status and legacy.

At various times, my personal journey (and at specific stages in their careers) has encompassed Thelonious Monk, Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Pharoah Sanders, Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, Mulatu Astatke, Sun Ra, Chet Baker, Antonio Carlos Jobim, McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Cecil Taylor, Marion Brown and Albert Ayler.

In terms of newer and contemporary artists, the only one who has managed to sustain my interest is Brad Mehldau, in particular his live solo performances – where he seems to have picked up from where Keith Jarrett left off in the 1990s.

And as I get older, I find that the only music radio station I can listen to is ABC Jazz….

Next week: Wholesale Investor’s Crypto Convention