I got an invite, forwarded by my MBA course director, to attend a meeting yesterday of the Forum on Private Business. A chance to rub shoulders with entrepreurs and some parliamentarians followed by a “parliamentary reception.” A few seats were reserved for students apparently.
On the bus ride to Parliament Square (the event was held here, to facilitate attendance by MPs) London was looking its glorious picture postcard best. The sun was shining and I had to resist the temptation to say to some American tourists taking photos
See, it doesn’t rain all the time.
(American TV shorthand: red telephone box + rain = London).
I missed the last stop before the bus crossed the river but the view on the way back as I crossed the Waterloo Bridge was worth the minor delay. I really should set aside time more time to explore London. I paused on the bridge and took a couple of photos myself (here they are).
I knew that the people seeing London from the top of the London Eye would be having a truly memorable experience. The view is spectacular. I have seen it, but not on such a crisp, clear day.
As I passed a coffee shop with some people sitting outside in the sunshine the cappucino aroma hit me as if I had lost and just then rediscovered my sense of smell. My collarbone tingled, and I was forcibly struck by the realization that I could, literally, walk here any day of the week and have a cappucino in the sun and watch the world go by. Why had I not done it?
When I move to London after nearly 8 years in the countryside in the Philippines I was initially, and in ways I still am, dismayed by the scale of the popular obsessions with consumption and celebrity, with dumbed down news. Of course, there plenty to like besides first world infrastructure and services, such as the remarkable diversity of the population, the air conditioned climate, an increasingly green social conscience, and… little things like discovering blue plaques on houses whose former occupants who have left a mark on the world. About 15 new ones are added annually by English Heritage.
Mr.Beaufort of the Beaufort Scale, is the latest notable former neighbour I’ve discovered. I’d like to see a timeline showing when they all lived here — just so that I can people an imaginary dinner party, an idea that has appealed to me since I read Van Loon’s Lives as a boy. What historical figures of the future are living here now, unremarked?!
The small business owners turned out to be the grumpy little business owners. “Embittered” and “whingers” — in their own words, not mine. They were largely preoccupied with the problems of “red tape” and recently increased capital gains taxes. The impression of a tired record was overwhelming, however justified many of their concerns. Or even: alarming. They were unanimous that, notwithstanding ever improving results in state examinations, young people coming out of school now are not just unemployable, they are unsocialized, devoid of manners and any notion of service. First prize in the red tape department: the school that had to complete a written risk assessment of the likelihood of a seagull attack before taking some children to a beach. Really! Seagulls are also not as well brought up as they used to be (trust me).
I suspect the government sees this group as a tiresome lobby that is probably politically Conservative. The only political heavyweight to make a presentation was Charles Clarke. He spoke well and was clearly, especially in his answers to questions, a very intelligent and shrewd politician. However, I was a little dismayed to find that the sponsor of the event, Barclay’s Bank, had paid him to attend. Yes, I am naive. Could there be a clearer sign of the lack of influence of the small business lobby, even though it accounts for 51% of the economy? Actually yes. Most small businesses are not members of the forum and most who are do not respond to surveys on issues that concern them. One speaker presented, in all seriousness, the results of a national survey to which there were 160 responses (there are c.25,000 small businesses in the UK). And how much time was devoted to consideration of that sorry result? None. Which is probably about how much sleep the government loses over this group’s views. Given that few politicians have ever run a business this is hardly surprising.
All in all, I was astonished by the disconnects between government and business and between employment and education in what is purportedly one of the most vibrant economies in Europe. However, it was far from a waste of time. I enjoyed two presentations in particular.
One was by Janet Shelley, a woman who accidentally started a company of women builders. She set out to learn plastering and ended up an entrepreneur. It turned out that a lot of women would rather employ female builders, quelle surprise. I was amused to learn, chatting with her afterwards, of the embarrassment and annoyance of a male employee when whistled at by women. And of the reported anxiety of some wives about their husbands working with such a company!
The best talk was the last, a witty and discursive bit of story telling from serial entrepreneur Alex Pratt, founder of, among other things, SeriousReaders.com. He has worked for many years as an advisor to the Department of Trade and Industry and in that capacity once got to meet Gordon MacKenzie, the famously wacky creative director of Hallmark cards (and author). MacKenzie arranged to meet him at an unusual venue: the giraffe enclosure of the nearby zoo.
What do you see?
MacKenzie asked. It turned out that there was no enclosure. Giraffes will not cross a 1 foot moat. This was revealed in an entertaining way, along with an invitation to reflect on one’s own moats. Terrific! For Pratt spending money was something he found difficult as he grew up in relative poverty but he came to recognise that this was a bad idea in a business context. The rest of his talk was excellent but the moat story made my day.
I am off now to sit in the sun and enjoy a giraffe-sized cappucino, and if I suffer any pangs of guilt about value for money or 3rd world poverty I’ll just tell myself I’m crossing one of my moats.