A fair society not a big society

19 12 2010

David Cameron needed a soundbite to lift an election campaign that had become bogged down under the weight of economic forecasts, inflation rate speculation, spending projections and discussions about whether Britain was in a recession or a depression, and he came up with The Big Society.

I admit to being horrified at the sight of a Tory leader stealing the language of progressive politicians. It didn’t occur to me for even the briefest moment that he might really be committed to improving our towns and villages by supporting community cohesion, and my skepticism has proved well-founded.

For my part I am committed to a collaborative rather than competitive model of business. When I say that I am committed to it I mean that I think that it offers a valid, values led model for business, that I am prepared to tell other people that I believe in this model and, crucially, I am prepared to act on my beliefs.

For several months prior to Cameron’s pronouncement I had been working to convert part of my business, the3rdi magazine, into a co-operative. The magazine had, from the start, been a collaborative project between founders and contributors. My vision was to become even more inclusive by opening up ownership and control of the business to everyone.

Since the election we have seen lots of action from the ConDem Coalition in cutting jobs, public services, welfare and massive cuts in education spending but precious little action in support of his call for the Big Society.

But why not opt for a fair society? I’m old enough to remember the huge wave of enthusiasm for change that greeted Tony Blair when he first took office. After the naked aggression and consumerism of the Thatcher years and the sleaziness and lack of direction that characterised John Majors time in office, the majority of people did feel, as his campaign theme at the time had it, that ‘things could only get better’. In his time in office he squandered all of that goodwill; the poor got poorer and the markets remained unrestrained.

My belief is that we have to build a society based on something other than naked consumerism. Life isn’t all, and isn’t always, about the bottom line. I believe that we have to place more value on collaboration and co-operation. It shouldn’t all be about accumulating money and material wealth. We have to start to recognise the value of time and compassion and community.

Years ago doctors were held in almost god like reverence. Remedies of all kinds would be ‘just what the doctor ordered’. Now patients expect more dialogue with their doctors. GPs are no longer the founts of all health knowledge as information becomes more widely available. Even my own father, at 73 years old most definately a child of the generation who did as they were told when confronted with so-called ‘professional people’, takes newspaper clippings of the most recent advances in surgery to his consultant and expects a full explanation as to why this or that procedure cannot be used to cure his own condition.

Access to information has helped to democratise healthcare and patients can take more responsibility for their own general health and wellbeing.

We must use this model of inclusion to roll out democratic principles and ideas.

It is not good enough for David Cameron to disguise the privatisation of our public services as part of his big society. Selling off, for example, refuse collection was just the kind of thing that Margaret Thatcher espoused. It leads to the exploitation of those groups of workers who are moved on to these new ‘arms-length’ companies which are often managed by larger private sector companies. Terms and conditions of service almost invariably deteriorate under this model. True worker co-operatives, properly constituted and properly managed do offer a way forward, with the individuals having a fair say in the way their business is run. It isn’t all about economies of scale or getting a quick fix on the bottom line of a council budget. It is about doing the right thing; about becoming a fairer society.

We have seen in recent weeks protesters occupying branches of Top Shop and Vodafone and others, in order to highlight the tax avoidance of some of our larger corporations and businessmen. While it is perfectly legal for Sir Philip Green to put the ownership of his Arcadia empire into his wife’s name in Monaco to avoid UK taxes, awarding her £1.2bn, tax free in the process, it is not fair. Arcadia earns it’s profits in the UK and should pay a fair amount in taxes to the UK Government, particularly as the cuts introduced as we are all required to pay for the recklessness of the banks start to take effect.

Electoral reform is one small step along the way. A system of proportional representation is the only way in which every vote cast has equal value. Currently if I was a Tory voter in Glasgow mine would be a wasted vote. Similarly a labour vote in leafy Congleton would be a waste. While the disenfranchisement of our young people has as much to do with the remoteness of politics and politicians the reality that an individual vote has more value than others under certain circumstances is fundamentally undemocratic and discourages participation at elections.

I am an entrepreneur. I start and grow businesses. I’ve done this for over 20 years. I am evidence that capitalism can be a creative force allowing entrepreneurial spirit to flourish but it can also foster the rush to profit at all cost that led the banks to take the world economy to the edge of the cliff. Their place at the centre of the lobster quadrille made it impossible for governments to allow them to fall. There has to be more, and better, regulation of markets or we and our governments will always be required to behave in the way that the markets dictate.

I have aligned myself, and my business, behind the aim of changing the way the world does business. To do this we have to address issues of fairness; gender equality across business and public life in particular, global sustainability and unite behind the values of a fair society and not be taken in by the Emperors new clothes of Cameron’s Big Society.

They are not all heroes

16 12 2010

I don’t wear a poppy.

I used to, but have become increasingly disturbed by the way in which the poppy, originally selected as a ‘soft’ symbol, to suggest the futility of death in conflict , has ben appropriated by organisations and politicians to further their jingoistic ambitions.

My great-grandfather fought in the first world war. Family history has it that Willie served at Ypres, Paschendale and the Somme. I haven’t checked the records to confirm this but have no reason to suspect that it is anything but true. I understand that he came home from the second battle suffering from the effects of gas only to receive three white feathers in the post. This prompted his return to the front line when he could have stayed at home in Liverpool.
On his return, the story goes, he cheated death by standing to take cigarettes from the pocket of his great coat which was hanging from a trench post just as a German shell exploded and filled the trench with earth. He was buried up to his neck and his comrades were buried alive.

Was he a hero? It was probably pride or stubbornness that made him return to the front, neither heroic characteristics.

He was certainly extraordinarily lucky – and so, therefore, am I. My grandfather had not yet been born when Willie stood up to get the cigarettes and if he hadn’t done so, I would not be here today.

My grandfather did not get the chance to be a hero. He was in a reserved occupation during the second world war and his repeated attempts to enlist saw him threatened with prison. He was a foundryman and made parts for tanks and bombs and guns during the day and as a fireman he helped extinguish the fires that engulfed Liverpool as it was bombed each night.

A hero? Possibly. My hero certainly, and I’m grateful that he wasn’t able to enlist as the male Merrifields had already cheated death in war once.

In the hall of the local public school, Morrisons Academy, where I practice yoga there is an eerie juxtaposition of celebrity and tragedy. On the right hand wall is a list of boys who were head of the school while on the left is a list of those former pupils killed in the two world wars. Every name on this latter list represents a tragedy but there is something even more poignant in seeing names which appear on both walls.

Were they heroes? I don’t know the exact circumstances in which they died or the details of their military careers to that point but what I do know, thanks to the photographs of these young men that hang in the gallery above the hall, and knowing a little of their stories, is that they were killed in a war not of their making, often thousands of miles from their homes. And they were not men – they were boys, like my great grandfather, only not so lucky.

So what of modern conflict? What of the Army’s tactic of recruiting from our inner cities, scooping up boys with limited education, limited prospects and limited expectations and shipping them out, sometimes ill prepared and often ill equipped it would seem, to fight for reasons that are, at best, difficult to understand and at worse are indefensible.
Where is the heroism in the MOD who deliberately target these vulnerable young men?

Where is the heroism within the defense department, with budgets overspent and out of control as service competes with service without, so we are led to believe, being able to provide front line troops with the equipment they need to be adequately protected in conflict zones?

Where is the heroism within our armed forces when homophobia, racism and a culture of bullying is, according to soldiers themselves, is allowed to persist?

Just as there is a difference between being drunk and being a drunk, there is a difference between a single act of courage and being a hero.

Soldiers are not all heroes and to laud every soldier as a hero devalues the true nature of heroism.

I’ve never been hungry and I suspect that you haven’t either.

9 12 2010

I have never been hungry and I suspect that you haven’t either.

In common with the majority of women in the western world I have been on diets and felt hungry, but this lifestyle choice can hardly be compared to the hunger that huge swathes of the world’s population experience every day.

By hardly ever feeling hungry I am disconnected from my body.

I eat because it is a designated meal time, or because I’m bored, or because there is something in the fridge that I find impossible to resist. I never eat solely to sustain my being. My prompt to eat is always social and never biological.

There is a huge problem here in Scotland, and increasingly throughout the developed world, with obesity. Millions struggle with their weight and resort to ever more extreme measures to lose weight. Most women when asked about their life goals, will put losing weight towards the top of the list but find it impossible to do so.

It should be the easiest thing in the world. No-one forces us to eat. Our own weight is one of the very few things that we can control in a century where our fates are often in the hands of others; our employers and governments to name two. But we are surrounded by so much that it is difficult to deny ourselves these pleasures. We have become accustomed with our food intake, as with many things in our lives, to taking what we want rather than what we need.

We accrue money so that we can buy bigger homes, with rooms we never use and bedrooms no-one sleeps in. We buy bigger cars when most of us drive alone. We buy second homes which we live in for only a few weeks each year. We gather possessions around us when the world’s population has so little.

So, starting today, I am embarking on a project to take a closer look at what I need, starting with food. I am going to discover what it is like to feel hunger.

In order to eat just what I need I must learn to respond to signals from within my body rather than responding to external stimuli. Put simply, I need to learn to eat just when I’m hungry and to stop eating when that feeling goes away again. I need to become familiar with the feeling of hunger, so that I can recognise what it is, and what it isn’t.

So for the next couple of weeks I’m only going to eat small portions of very simple food, like plain rice, a maximum of twice a day. The reason for eating just simple foods is that by limiting the range of tastes and textures in my diet I will become used to eating for sustenance rather than for pleasure. This is a discipline that I will need if I am to continue this project beyond the next few weeks.

And I’ll continue this blog to tell you how I get on!

DAY ONE – Monday

I headed to Edinburgh without breakfast, not totally unheard of but I do usually take a piece of toast to eat in the car if I’ve missed my porridge. I met Jackie for lunch and, since Urban Angel had no vegetarian soup on the menu today, I had a small portion of beetroot risotto. I didn’t arrive home til after 7pm and I expected to feel uncomfortable preparing an evening meal for Anne that I wasn’t going to eat myself. But it was OK and I didn’t feel at all hungry all day.

DAY TWO-Tuesday

I still wasn’t hungry when I got up, which surprised me, so off to Glasgow without breakfast or car snack. In explaining this project to Lindsey I realised that it was also about discipline and thinking time. I have blogged about my reasons for being a vegetarian elsewhere but there are similarities in that the doing without gave me time to think the issue through more clearly. I wandered into Sainsburys to see if I could find a carton of ready prepared boiled rice but the nearest thing they had was vegetarian sushi. To eat sushi would have been eating for pleasure so I decided to search out a Greggs and buy a plain white roll. Glasgow is full of Greggs but today I couldn’t find one! The search for a Greggs to buy a single white roll added a surreal, hunter-gatherer element to the experience, which I rather enjoyed! I expected to get tired and hungry while playing badminton but I actually played a lot better and my reactions were quicker than they had been of late so I hope this is a real and lasting benefit! When I got home, I had a small bowl of cold, plain rice that had been left over from Annes meal yesterday. I still don’t feel hungry but I am getting a bit bored with green tea already!

DAY THREE-Wednesday

I’m not hungry. I’m amazed but I really am not hungry so there is little more to say other than “how much fat must I have laid down before Monday so that I am still not hungry on Wednesday?” Maybe I should consider hibernating as I seem to have the metabolism for it! For the record I’ve had two small bowls of plain rice, one with a few roasted root vegetables. There would have been more vegetables but I forgot that they were in the oven and burnt the lot. I salvaged a few and eating them certainly fitted with the plan of not eating for pleasure!

DAY FOUR-Thursday

Well, a cup of rice and a handful of mushrooms today. I do feel something today. It’s not a feeling that I would have described as hunger. The feelings I have experienced before, the kind you get when on a diet or comimg to the end of a really long walk when you’d forgotten to take a packed lunch, have been sharp pangs, You know the kind of thing. I’m sure that you have felt hungry. What I am feeling is as if my stomach is being gently squeezed. It’s as if it is clay and being gently pressed into a slightly smaller shape. It isn’t sore. I am constantly aware of the feeling and it is a constant reminder to my brain from my body that something different is happening. I haven’t felt like eating more but I have had to make a big change in my eating habits. I’m a grazer by nature and will tend to pick at food. If I open the cupboard to get a tea bag I might also grab a handful of peanuts! I’ve had to be on my guard today against that reflex. Apart from that I’m fine…but I would love a big glass of red wine!


I skipped breakfast in order to have a planning meeting for the3rdi magazine in Java Lava cafe in Crieff. Paul brews the best coffee in Scotland and he can’t believe that I’m drinking green tea instead of his perfect coffee! I got back up the road and my tummy was rumbling so bowl of rice time. I sprinkled on a couple of sultanas and was blown away by the taste – so beautifully sweet. Maybe the lasting legacy of this project will be an improvement in my taste and enjoyment of simple foods.

By tea time, and my second bowl of rice of the day and I’m still not hungry. Most days, as you will have read, I have had a single small cup of rice, cooked and eaten as two meals. Five days in and I’m not hungry. To be honest the project is at risk of being a complete damp squib. I am becoming less, not more compassionate. Next time I see journalists explaining that people have had to survive on a cup of rice a day I’m likely to think that they have never had it so good!

DAY SIX-Saturday

Hmmm, what’s that phrase about pigeons coming home to roost?! Today was really difficult. Through the week I live a fairly solitary existence if I’m working from home. Weekends are full of food, wine and friends. This morning, despite the heavy overnight snowfall, I drove to the Corbenic Advent Fair. Thomas, the community’s baker had the full range of his delicious breads and biscuits on sale. He is a continental master baker so you can imagine the wonderful smells. Escaping to the coffee house and there were more cakes, this time baked by the community’s staff. Since these young people come from across Europe there was a huge range of delicious baking on sale. I took myself out of temptations reach by walking the dog around the snow covered grounds. That part of Perthshire is magnificent, particularly in the snow when there is an amazing feeling of isolation and peace.

I usually watch Strictly Come Dancing with red wine in hand, or perhaps a gin and tonic – or both! A cup of green tea didn’t come close.

Today has been really hard and I suspect Sunday will be just as difficult. Serves me right for being smug!

DAY SEVEN – Sunday

Yes, Sunday was hard! Snowed in and just wanted mulled wine and comfort food. This is the point though, I guess. To eat just out of habit, because I always eat when nthere is nothing else to do, is the habit I’m trying to break. Two bowls of rice with a handful of veg between the and lots of green tea. You bored yet?

DAY EIGHT – Monday

Snowed in again so the appointments I had in Edinburgh turned into conference calls. I found myself thinking about what fantastic meal I was going to cook myself when this project ends on Saturday. When I first explained this madness to Lindsey last week she related the story of having to fast for a day each year when she was at school. She explained that the day was bracketed between two huge feasts. The total amount of food consumed in the days around the feast was probably more than would have been consumed in an ordinary 3 day period, thus negating any benefit in terms of releasing some of the worlds food resources. The day without food did give that valuable thinking time and the day is still remembered 20 years on. So even if I binge on Saturday night the project wont have failed completely but since one of my aims was to find a way of eating just what I needed rather than what I wantedit wont have been a complete success either.

DAYS NINE to ELEVEN – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

The snow fell and fell and fell and then fell some more and to be honest the days merged into 1! I’ve been snowed in in Crieff and so I haven’t had to face the challenges of lunch with a colleague in Glasgow, champagne and food at a reception in Edinburgh or a meeting at the Scottish Parliament as these dates, along with everything else in my diary has had to be rescheduled.

With temptation reduced to a minimum, and getting even less of a problem as J emptied the fridge and the snow prevented a restocking shopping trip, it has been easy to stick to my two bowls of rice a day. I can, however, confirm that a cup of rice a day, with a sprinkling of vegetables is enough to stave off hunger!


I refrained for writing up this blog as soon as I’d completed the project in order to have time to reflect.

Living on a single cup of rice a day was actually really easy.

It may have been more difficult had the snow not fallen so heavily, preventing me from the temptations that would have come with appointments with friends and colleagues.

Not being a foodie helped me too. If I’m working from home, particularly if I am in the house on my own all day and into the evening, I struggle to decide what to eat and, as a consequence, eat rubbish. I’ve been known to eat such delocasies as mushy peas on toast and mashed potato with HP sauce, neither of which qualifies as a proper meal! For me, knowing what I was going to eat at lunchtime and for supper was a huge bonus. So much so that I have found myself longing for that simplicity and removal of the decision making process.

I had expected to feel short of energy but in fact I found the opposite to be true. I had far more energy each evening than usual. A bowl of rice and green tea turned out to be far better in this regard than my usual large meal and glass of red wine.

Knowing what I was going to eat also stopped me thinking about food. Had I been on a traditional diet, reducing food intake in order to lose weight, I’m sure that a large part of my mental process would have been taken up with thoughts about food, cravings and thinking about foods that had been forbidden. Any time I had been on this kind of diet I had become mildly obsessed by food. This time was different. I think the simpicity of the diet, the monotony if you will, dampened my cravings.

As I said when I started out on this project the intentions had nothing to do with weight loss. But did I lose weight? I don’t think so. I never weigh myself so I have no starting point from which to measure any losses, or gains. My impression from the fit of my clothes is that I’m just the same.

I did have time to reflect on the feeling of hunger, which was one of my aims. The feeliong wasn’t as strong as I had expected it to be but I do now know what it is and I have to say I much prefer the feeling that I could eat a little more to the feeling of having eaten enough to feel full.

Just so that you know, my break-fast meal was a glass of red wine, which tasted devine, goats cheese tart and a few parsnip chips. Since then I have maintained the routine of two meals a day. I find that I prefer a cup of green tea each morning to my previous favourite, porridge and/or toast. The portions have been much smaller than I’d eaten previously and I have achieved, so far, my aim to eat just enough.

Would I do it again? I hope that I don’t have to. The point is that I do seem to have retrained my mind and body to eat for fuel more than out of boredom, which was my previous starting point. I hope that I retain these lessons but if I find myself drifting back towards all day grazing I will return to my rice diet.

Women in Innovation and Technology

8 12 2010

While I was growing up I wanted to be a scientist, swimming with dolphions with Jaques Cousteau or tramping through jungles with David Attenborough. My heroes were the great men of science and I read and re-read a dusty old tome of my dad’s that described the life and works of these giants, like Faraday, Boyle and Mendeleev.  I even skethched a mural of portraits taken from the etched plates in the book which I titled, somewhat pretentiously but accurately “Our Fathers”.

But where were the women?

Those of you who are my age will no doubt remember those black and white storyboards that were part of Blue Peter, narrated by Valerie Singleton and telling, in a way that made even the most exciting story uninteresting, the stories of great deeds and discoveries.

The only women I remember were Madame Curie, endlessly stirring vats of pitchblend, Florence Nightingale and that bloody lamp, the heroic Grace Darling and the pathetic and doomed Ann Frank.

So I was heartened to hear an edition of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg which looked at the role of women in science in the Age of Enlightenment which goes some way to answering the question, “Where were the Women?”

While it is true that the Age was not hugely enlightened about the education of women;

“The education of women should always be relative to that of men.  To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable…  Even if she possessed real abilities, it would only debase her to display them”, J.J. Rousseau, 1762;

and that women were  excluded from scientific societies, universities and learned professions, the fact that science became a more acceptable way in which a gentleman could earn his living and that some areas of research were conducted in the domestic environment allowed a few women to make their mark.

Since most research was conducted in the home women became involved firstly as assistants to fathers, brothers and husbands, and with intellectual discussions also taking place in stately homes and salons women gained exposure to scientific discourse in their role as hostess.

Take Veuve Cliquot. François Clicquot died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of a company. Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance the firm established their wines in royal courts throughout Europe.

When Lady Mary Montagu was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox and had her son inoculated.  On her return home she had her daughter inoculated and went on to promote the practice throughout the UK. Her actions follow the perfect template for scientific practice in the enlightenment;  Observe – Test – Scale Up – Publicize.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze is most commonly known as Madame Lavoisier, wife of Antoine Lavoisier the famous French chemist but her contribution extended far beyond being simply his laboratory assistant.  She was an acommplished translater of scientific papers and not only translated the work of Newton but also tested his theories and converted the complex mathematical equations into simpler formulae and understandable prose. While her contribution to his work was not acknowledged in Lavoisiers papers contemporary accounts do attest to her contribution and she continued to run the salon long after his death in the French Revolution.

The burgeoning field of astronomy afforded the perfect oportunity for women to contribute to scientific enquiry. Telescopes were largely housed in the homes of wealthy gentleman and often women were involved in making the masses of observations and measurements required or confirming the recordings of the men. Indeed it could be suggested that Elizabeth Hevelius, then only sixteen years old married the fifty two year old astronomer Johannes Hevelius maily as it allowed her to pursue her own interest in astronomy! Following his death, she completed and published Prodromus astronomiae, their jointly compiled catalogue of 1,564 stars and their positions, an achievemnt that earned her the title “mother of the moon charts.”

Caroline Herschel was another astronomer, sister to Sir William Herschel. Caroline had wanted to be an opera singer but was forced to support her brother as his workload increased and they worked together throughout his career.  Her most significant individual contribution to astronomy was  as the first woman to identify a comet. In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. Again Caroline’s work extended beyond the death of her brother,  as she continued to verify and confirm William’s findings and producing a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996!

So women were there providing assistance, yes, but performing acts of innovation and discovery in their own right too! It is not just that “behind every great man there is a great woman”.

While the marginalisation of these women and their accomplishments might be understandable in the society of 18th Century Europe it couldn’t still be the case now, could it?

Consider this then; we’ve all heard about Watson and Crick, heroes of mine as I had ambitions to be a genetisist at one stage in my university career but what of the long-overlooked contribution of the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure? I was at university before I became aware of her work as it is largely overlooked in school text books.

So we all need to work to laud female innovators and technologists. There are plenty about!

There are more women millionaires under the age of 44 than there are men. If you’re reading this, how about putting some of that monen into supporting young innovators?