Monday, 31 December 2012

Surprise and Delight in 2013

One evening in 2013, you may hear a knock at your door. You may open your door and I will be standing there with a box of chocolates, a rose in my teeth and a fireman's helmet on. You may be surprised and delighted.

Or possibly not.

But the principle is sound. Because my New Year's Resolutions, or rather my New Year's Theme is "Surprise and Delight".

I have been thinking about New Year's Resolutions and the usual approach is not working for me. Often people "give up" something they like. I know someone who is giving up chocolate. Someone else is giving up drinking. Giving up smoking. Or you pledge to lose something. Lose weight. Lose friends that you don't want to hang around. Lose habits.

But I don't find these negative statements very motivational. It's like Usain Bolt's coach issuing that well know rallying cry "Go out there, Usain, and don't run the slowest."

No. After the pain of 2012, I need a positive statement to help me find my way in 2013.

I don't need a stick to beat myself with either. I don't need a threat hanging over me, making me feel guilty. So, I am not going for a specific statement that I will achieve X by date Y that makes me feel worried if I haven't achieved X by Y. If threats and punishment are motivators for you, this should be more to your taste.

I've gone for a theme instead. My theme for 2013 is "Surprise and Delight". 2013 will be a year of surprising and delighting people. My New Year's Resolution is this...

In 2013, I will SURPRISE and DELIGHT [insert name(s) here] by doing [enter act here]

The great thing about this resolution is that I can play with it all year in all sorts of ways. I can insert my name, your name, a stranger's name or a hundred names. I can do big acts or small acts. I can surprise and delight someone by just turning up and saying hello, unexpectedly. Or perhaps by staying away! I can surprise and delight myself by treating myself to something I've always wanted (if I can give myself permission to treat myself, that is.).

Suddenly I'm feel excited about going in to 2013. Surprise and Delight. I've got an idea for every month in 2013, starting with an exciting outing for a group of people I love, in January. It's going to be a lot of fun...and listen out for that knock on the door :)

Thursday, 6 December 2012

What tribe am I?

My daughter asked me an interesting question the other day and I was surprised when I realised that I didn't know the precise answer, so I was forced to respond with vague waffle. She asked what African tribe I belong to. Actually she asked a much broader set of questions about tribes, clans and the relationship dynamics associated with these for a social anthropological essay she is writing, but I still didn't know the answer to the fundamental question.

So I consulted the oracle. In other words, I phoned my dad.

Mr Ilube (Snr) does not do vague waffle. I now know the answer to my question. In fact I know the answer to more than I bargained for. I was given a short, sharp lesson on history, culture and traditions.

In Nigeria, there are about 200 tribes. The big ones that you may have heard of are Yoruba, Ibo and Hausa/Fulani. But there are many, many others. One of these is the Bini or Edo tribe and that is the one that we hail from. However, it is not as simple as that.

Years ago, the Binis established a huge kingdom in West Africa. I mean really big. It stretches back nearly a thousand years into ancient history and at its height the Oba (King) could marshall an army of 180,000 men. It was noted for its art and today you can still see the beautiful 16th century Benin Bronzes, although you may have to go to the British Museum to see them as they seem to have found there way there somehow, along with the Elgin Marbles and one or two other items from around the world!

Anyway, the Benin Kingdom had its capital  in the appropriately named Benin City and that's where the Oba and his family lived. From time to time princes would get fed up of hanging around court and head off to establish themselves in nearby lands. One such prince, Ozolua had been exiled to the north of Benin to an area known as Afenmai. He and his followers established several clans there in various parts of the Afenmai area. One of the areas within Afenmai is OWAN and within the Owan area a clan called EMAI was established. The main town in Owan is AFUZE. We hail from Emai clan based in Afuze.

So, it turns out that my tribe is BINI (or EDO), and I am from the EMAI clan, from the town of AFUZE in the OWAN area of AFENMAI land (Emai is pronounced EM-EYE just in case you find yourself in a competition situation where someone says "for £10,000 pronounce the word EMAI").

So, there you go. You've been told.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Colin, Nigel, Sam, Pete and Norman

I attend a lot of meetings. Meetings about meetings. Meetings preparing for the meeting about meetings. I attend business meetings, charity metings, government meetings, school meetings, public meetings, hush hush meetings (which I'd like to tell you about but...). All sorts of meetings.

In these meetings, I see the same Meeting Types over and over again. Here are five of my favourites (names changed to protect the innocent - but you know who you are :). You probably know a few more.

Cynical Colin: cynical Colin hangs back at the start of meetings. He doesn't make eye contact. Chair slightly pushed back, he makes the occasional note on his pad but otherwise projects indifference. In fact he project silence powerfully into the meeting. He doesn't say anything but you know he's there, waiting to pounce. You know he's listening, cynically, sighing inside at the banality of it all, the triviality that he has to put up with around here. Then at some point he makes his move. Leans forwards, seizes the space and delivers a deliberately contrary diatribe before sinking back into his reverie.

Naughty Nigel: naughty Nigel sat in the back of the class at school, sniggered with his mates and flicked paper at girls. 30 years later he's still doing much the same thing. On the surface he participates in the meting, making a few positive, non-controversial, vacuous comments but most of the time he tries to enrol other people in his "back of class" antics. He writes notes on his papers and surreptitiously shows them to the person sitting next to him ("old so and so off on one, eh?"). He makes eye contact across the room, arches his eyebrow and smirks knowingly at you as someone else is speaking. Everyone knows he's doing it but he is a master of the art. He restrains himself just enough to avoid The Boss saying "oh for goodness sake, will you grow up, Nigel, otherwise I'll send you to the Head".

Strident Sam: strident Sam must be heard. Sam is prepped and ready for a fight. Sam has data. Hard facts. Not namby pamby nonsense like the rest of you. Sam doesn't have time for this nonsense. It's all nonsense. Sam goes in angry. Starts angry, continues angry, finishes angry. Collars you on the way out, complaining about the meeting. Bloody waste of time if you ask Sam. Sam is the only person who "cuts through the crap". The only one who really knows what's going on around here. Everyone else is an idiot. Sam knows best and doesn't care who knows it.

Political Pete: Pete is a smooth operator. He navigates his way through meetings with consumate skill and panache. You can't lay a glove on Pete. He makes confident, calm, measured points that sound plausible until you think about them later and realise that they meant nothing at all. On the one hand this, on the other hand that. He is careful not to draw any conclusions before The Boss has indicated which way he is leaning, then Political Pete comes down gently but firmly, on balance, on the side of The Boss.

Name-drop Norman: I love name-drop Norman. He's late for the meeting because he's just been finishing a call with The Minister. He needs to leave early because he has to rush to a meeting with The Director. He would love to come out for a drink this evening but "unfortunately" he has to go to dinner with the Ambassador. He partially agrees with your view, but as The Guru he met at a conference said only last week, you're talking rubbish.

And which type am I? All five of course and probably a few more I haven't thought of yet!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tears of a clown

Bruce Willis or Smokey Robinson? Yippie Ki Yay or Tears of a Clown?

Bruce Willis is a real man. Real men don't cry. So they say.

So, where does that leave me? I think I used to be a real man, but I've grown out of it now. It's just a phase I was going through. These days if something is really funny I laugh until my ribs ache. If something is really sad I cry. What's the last film you cried at? This was mine and I don't care who knows it.

I don't know why some people are afraid of tears. They do anything to keep jolly. Stiff upper lip. "Got to keep smiling, eh?"

Why exactly? Why have you got to keep smiling? Is sadness a lesser emotion that needs to be defeated at all costs and replaced with fake laughter? That is a dangerous path to go down.

A chap I knew lived his life like that. A real man. Calm, measured, smile playing on his lips in any situation. Perfect businessman. I admired him greatly and wondered how he managed to glid across the surface of life whilst the rest of us were tossed and turned by the churning seas.

A couple of years ago, I asked a friend "Where's old XXXX these days?"

"Ah, you haven't heard? Apparently he got up one day, left his house, when down to the train tracks and stood in front of an express train. No one expected it."

True and very sad story.

I won't do that. If I am happy you will hear me laugh. If I am sad you will feel my tears. If I am angry you will warm yourself on the flickering flames. Right now, I am wrestling with sadness. I cry every day, deep behind the eyes, but I am finding moments of laughter too and peaceful moments of calm, early in the morning when the world sleeps. I think its natural.

Keep your real men. I will give you the tears of a clown.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Male vs Female Boards = VHS vs Betamax

Women's Minister Maria Miller is doing Britain a great disservice by arguing against Board quotas for women.

Other women have been piling in saying things like "blah blah....getting there on merit...blah blah". Men are laughing up their sleeves at the way powerful women who should know better are fighting AGAINST quotas. What on earth are you doing, for goodness sake.

I have been thinking about why this is and I have concluded that women have not spent nearly enough time studying the science of complexity. But, not to worry. Let me help out.

It is important to understand that taken all together the hundreds of Boards of UK plc are basically one huge complex system. So to understand the dynamics you need to look at it as one interconnected system rather than a thousand discrete Boards (it would be really interesting to build a simulation model of a thousand boards and see how it evolves over time and when you try to make changes).

Now complex systems exhibit some interesting and sometimes counter-intuitive behaviour. One important behaviour is "lock-in". This is where a complex system settles into a state where the same behaviour repeats  over and over again. It is "locked-in" to that state and is very difficult to dislodge. Market dynamics, all that "best person for the job" stuff will not shift such a system once its locked-in. You try to shift it out of this locked-in state by making an intervention here and there but the powerful underlying dynamics of the complex system as a whole drag it back to the locked-in state.

The bad news is that this locked-in state often doesn't give the best solution. A well known example is VHS vs Betamax in the video market. The market became locked-in to VHS even though betamax was said to be a technically better solution. Upping the anti on selling betamax would never change the system once locked-in. It took a massive  intervention in the form of the the arrival of DVDs to break that lock-in.

So, in the UK we have a complex system called UK Board plc and it is locked-in to a sub-optimal VHS solution where  it has evolved to be overwhelmingly male dominated, thereby systematically ignoring the talent in 50% of the population. We are in a war for talent and we are battling against emerging economies that use every asset they can lay hands on and work like crazy to win and what do we do? Deliberately and knowingly restrict our ability to draw upon the talent of 50% of the population. Yeh, real smart, eh!

In the case of UK Board plc the only way to shift it (in our lifetimes) is by forcing massive change in the complex system and breaking out of the lock-in. That means imposing quotas. If you think that all this "cream rises to the surface/right person for the job" stuff is going to effect that change you are kidding yourself.

One of the most annoying things I hear people saying against quotas is that women only want to be on the board if they get there on their own merit. What does that mean exactly? Let me tell you a secret. Most men on Board's didn't get there on merit, they know it perfectly well and it doesn't trouble them one little bit. Sure, they are probably  competent and have served their time in corporate life without completely screwing up. But let's be realistic. They got on to the Board because they know the Chairman, or a friend of the Chairman, or a headhunter who the Chairman trusts, or some chaps at the golf club that the Chairman belongs to. Or they share a Board with some other good chaps who put in a word. So, you are going to take lessons on "merit" from the men that brought us the banking crisis, the longest recession since the great depression, mis-selling scandal after mis-selling scandal and press complaints? "Pur-leee-zeeee" (said in an American drawl)

Merit, Schmerit (I love the way you can dismiss almost anything by repeating a word with "Sch..." on the front. Except Schweppes). There is no way competent, committed women are going to do a worse job. So, your job is to break the lock-in and get into those positions en masse. Not for your sakes. For Britain's sake. And for your daughters. And their daughters.

Face facts. UK Board plc is locked-in to a sub-optimal male dominated VHS solution. Without a powerful intervention it will stay like that for the next 50 years and we will continue to waste the executive talent of half our population.

It's time to gen up on the science of complexity and really understand how the system works.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Sad Eyes (Part 2)

In Sad Eyes (Part 1) I talked about the fascinating process of having a portrait of oneself done in oils.

But Hynek Martinec, the brilliant young portrait artist who produced the majectic "Five Masters, Three Wardens and the Clerk" had one more request of us sitters. As explained in the book published by, that accompanies the painting "During the process, each sitter was asked to provide 140 characters, Twitter style, to adorn their painting."

(By the way, if you want to discover the best of the best of the next generation of artists, take a look at website. They find, display and sell the finest artworks by students and recent grads from the UK's most prestigeous art establishments).

We were not given any firm instructions on what our 140 characters should say. The only guidance was that in a 100 years time, when future generations are looking at your portrait and notice the 140 characters on the side of the painting, what do you want it to say about you? City portraits hang on Livery Hall walls literally for hundreds of years. I know of a Hall that has a portrait of Dick Whittington, who I used to assume was a fictional, pantomime character but it turns out he was a very real person and his portrait is there staring down at you hundreds of years later!.

So, this was a very real challenge. In several hundred years time, people might actually look at my portrait and wonder "who the hell is that guy?" How do I define myself in 140 characters. Well, it took me several weeks and lots of crossing-out but eventually here's what I wrote:

Tom Ilube DTech (Hon) MBA FRSA - Founding Chairman Hammersmith Academy - Technologist, Educator - Mr Bojangles "Talked of Life. Laughed"

How did I get to this? Let's break it down.

Tom Ilube - Actually my name is Thomas Ilube but I am know as Tom by practically everyone. My father has been known to call me Thomas. My grandmum called me Tommy. To everyone else I am Tom. So Tom it is.

DTech (Hon) - a few years ago I was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Technology. My big sister snorted, saying "is that one of those silly degrees you don't have to do any work for?" (I think she was teasing!). I decided to use it here as a shorthand way of saying "I've worked in technology for years and years".

MBA - having put in a shorthand for my technology career I then decided to use my MBA as shorthand for my business career.

FRSA - this stands for Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. I really like the RSA and use the RSA House quite often when I am in London and need to meet someone or stop for a coffee. I have spoken there, hosted events there and had many important and enlightening meetings in the cafe down in the basement.I think as one of life's outsiders, being invited (elected?) to Fellowship felt like being accepted into a large and interesting gathering of friends.

Founding Chairman Hammersmith Academy - in 2005 I proposed the idea of creating a new secondary school and six years later we opened the doors of Hammersmith Academy. I led the project from the back of a napkin in a north London coffee shop to one of the most amazing schools in London. It was very tough at times but I am very proud of having done this.

Technologist, Educator - my career has been in technology, from my days as an Assembler programme at British Airways to the companies I have created. I am a Technologist. But I am also an educator. For the past decade I have been a Governors of four schools, created one from scratch and founded an African education charity. Education will play an increasing role as life goes on. I am an Educator.

Mr Bojangles "Talked of Life. Laughed" - surely you know me well enough by now to know that I am Mr Bojangles. I talk of life. And laugh. With sad eyes.

So, who are you, in 140 characters?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sad Eyes (Part I)

Having your portrait painted is a fascinating and thought provoking experience.

Two years ago, I was asked to sit for a portrait as part of a painting to be hung in a City Livery Hall. For some reason I felt unsure about this but the person who requested it is very persuasive so resistance was futile. I sat where I was told to sit.

And I am really glad that I did.

The process that Hynek Martinec the incredible artist followed was very interesting. It took two years from start to finish. It started with a photograpy session that lasted about an hour. I started off wearing my suit and tie and loking very formal. He took a few snaps. Then he asked if I would mind loosening my tie a little and undoing my top button. So I did. "Good, good" he said as he snapped away. I felt like a model and began to "work it" a bit.

Then he said he wanted to try something. His assistants smiled and nodded enthusiastically. He flipped my loosened tie over one shoulder. "That's great" they all said and I felt a warm glow as I saw myself on a future edition of "The CIty's Next Top Model". Would I mind taking my jacket off? That's fine. Snap, snap. Lovely. Perfect. Can we undo just one more button? Sure! Snap, snap, snap. Smile. Smile. Let me just take your glasses and balance them at a jaunty angle across your nose. Go right ahead my good man. I'm a Top Model don't you know. This is the sort of  thing a Top Model does. I think.

I can see how a Top Model like me could easily have ended up in his underwear, drapped across the meeting room table. I was putty in the hands of the man with the camera. But fortunately he had got the photographs he needed so he left me to gather up my clothes (okay, put my jacket back on).

We shook hands and that was that. I did wonder why he didn't just take one of the photos, blow it up, frame it and that's job done. Surely a portrait is a portrait whether it is an oil painting or a photo.

18 months later when I saw a near-finished work in progress I started to understand the difference.

One evening, we were invited to a little workshop tucked away down a long anonymous corridor in a high, grey building in the heart of Brixton. I walked in to the room, glanced at the wall and did a double take. There I was on the wall looking right back at me, through sad eyes.

The experience of looking at an oil painting of myself, painted by a brilliant artist such as Hynek Martinec is so different from anything else I have experienced. I have seen photos of myself, holiday snaps, professional photos. I once gave a speech at London's Imax centre and behind me on a screen was what looked like a 30 foot picture of my own head looking down at me. I've watched myself being interviewed on TV (cringing behind the sofa). I've laughed, through gritted teeth, at cartoon caricatures of my long neck and big ears.

But it appears that when an artist of this calibre paints you in oil, he looks into your soul. Or perhaps he invites you to look into your own soul. It's not like looking in a mirror. It's a different experience. The Tom in the painting is looking at me, trying to tell me something. Trying to warn me about something. The Tom on the wall knows me. He sees me from the inside out.

As I stood in the little workshop, communicating with Tom-on-the-wall, I felt profoundly sad. And also in awe of the artist who had created this amazing work. How can someone have so much skill? Not just the technical skill to reproduce an image so precisely but the ability to invite you, the sitter, to have a deep conversation with yourself.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Where is Silicon Roundabout?

Silicon Roundabout is a funny place. It's not like Silicon Valley. The Valley is a sun-soaked strip of Stanford start ups, Sand Hill legends, web world beaters and brash billionaires. The Roundabout is, well, a roundabout. Or so it seems at first glance...

We moved Noddle to Silicon Roundabout about six months ago. We are in a grey office block towering over Old Street Station and when we first moved here I remember asking somewhere where Silicon Roundabout actually was. He looked at me slightly blankly, turned slowly and pointed at Old Street Roundabout. I felt slightly cheated.

But over the months, I think I am gradually beginning to understand it. It's not just that there are lots of tech companies. There is actually a bubbling tech enclave here. If you ever want to find me, pop in to Eat, above Old Street Station and you are likely to see me having a meeting over a coffee. Along with loads of other folk. At any given time there will be five or ten meetings going on around you - people talking earnestly to each other about the next world beating idea, how to stop their servers from crashing or what evil things their investors are doing to them this week. Go next door to Pod and its the same. Wander up the road to Whitecross street food market and you will see a procession of geek-types emerging blinking into the daylight, buying exotic food and avoiding eye contact. Google opening here. Amazon there. Huddle next door. Latitude in the same office. Peer Index downstairs. VisualDNA friends up the road. Professor Shadbolt's world leading Open Data Institute is about to open its doors in very cool Shorditch offices. And on, and on. After work, the bars are full. Restaurants are lively. It's all going on around you in an excited, urgent way.

Silicon Roundabout looks a bit grey. But it's very creative. There are some awesome brains at work. And it's very British. Not Big and Shiny. Quirky, strangely confident, self-depreciating with attitude and brilliant in parts. You need to "get it" in the same way that you needed to "get" our Olympic opening ceremony. Not everyone will. But that's okay. Not everyone needs to.

I'm gradually "getting it" and I'm quite liking it. In fact I'm not sure we should call it "Silicon" Roundabout at all. That feels like we are accepting that we are a mere copy of the real thing, Silicon Valley. No, this is our thing. We are British and this is how we do it.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

From Physicists to Porn Stars

What's it all about, Alfie?

That's a question that comes to the fore from time to time. Perhaps when you are about to hit a milestone age and realise that the road rising to meet you is shorter than the trail you've left behind. Perhaps when you are coming to terms with the loss of someone you love and life tastes like dust.

Whatever the reason, I think it's no bad thing to ask that question and that's what I have decided to do.

So, here I am, armed with a question. It's a very good question. But who shall I ask? I think over the coming year, I will wander around, find interesting people and ask them my question. From physicists to porn stars. From rabbis to rude boys. I'll ask them all what its all about and see what they say.

Hopefully we'll talk. Talk of Life. Laugh.

Perhaps I'll learn something new about how to look at life. And if I do, I'll be sure to share it with you.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

In favour of a Big Brother Society

After a lot of careful thought and having spent the last few weeks in China, I have finally decided to come out in favour of a Big Brother society.

My Big Brother, Jim Stanfield, died on Sunday 22nd July 2012 following a short battle with cancer. I am heartbroken.

You might not have known that I had a Big Brother, but I did. Jim (actually "Jay" to me) was a brilliant man and lovely brother. He was my role model and teacher, often without even knowing it. Charming and confident, he was equally at home dancing in the fountain at Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve (when you could do that!) or dancing with Lords and Ladies at Oxford, where he was Chair of The Association of Senior Members of St Anne's College, Oxford.

Jim glided effortlessly across culture and society. His technology career took him across the world, from Atlanta to Beijing. He loved sports of all sorts, particularly rugby and golf and was a ferocious flanker in his day.

We grew up in Sunbury in the Sixties and had a wonderful time, playing football on the green at the end of our road, despite the "lady with the toy telephone" who used to shout at us and threaten to phone the police if we didn't clear off. Jim was the Captain of our team, of course. Being Captain is the job of a Big Brother. My job, being three years younger, was a run around excitedly and, when it was time for a throw in, stand still so that he could bounce the ball off my head. He was a great player, hence his little know nickname "Twinkle Toes". He taught me to play football, ride a bike and stand up to other little boys. Ahhh, there is nothing so reassuring when you are a six year old being bullied being able to say, through tears "I'm going to get my Big Brother on to you" and see the look of doubt and fear sweep across your tormentors faces.

We lived in Uganda, East Africa, ran around in our big Kampala Garden, swam around in the round hotel pool and went to Kitante Primary School. You have no fear being a new boy at a new school in a new country when your Big Brother joins the same school three years above you and immediately becomes friends with the big, cool kids. Ahhh, all you do is walk around smiling, pointing and saying "that's my Big Brother over there" and see the look of envy in your new, young friends faces. Jim loved visiting Africa and that's why he created and was a Trustee of the African Gifted Foundation with me. Mind you, his attempts at the famous Ugandan "wiggle bottom" dance was a sight to behold. Ahhh, well, even a Big Brother can't be brilliant at everything!

In the seventies, Jim taught me how to play rugby and how to love science. There is only one real reason why I decided to study science at University - because Jim studied science at University and I wanted to be like my Big Brother. Of course, I couldn't expect to go to as good a university as my Big Brother and rightly so. He went up to Oxford, breaking the unusual barrier of being amongst the first intake of men at the previously all-female college, St Anne's. I just hope the hundreds of glamorous, intelligent young women there didn't take undue advantage of my impressionable, sociable, hansom, blond haired, blue eyed Big Brother. He loved his time there (what a surprise) and once or twice I had the opportunity to go and sleep on the floor in his college rooms and bask in reflected glory. I was sooooooo proud.

As teenagers, we played rugby. Not together. He was three years bigger and harder and would have broken me in half. Although it did help to toughen me up by having him constantly wrestling me to the ground at home whilst mum shouted at us to stop it and get out of the way, saved only by our younger brother, Roland, jumping on his head from behind. I was never big enough to fill his boots, but I tried. Literally. He handed his rugby boots down to me when I needed a pair. Yes, my Big Brother's boots were too big for me to fill, but I found I could wear them if I stuffed newspaper in the ends. Okay, I looked a bit like a clown with my huge boots but I was so proud to wear my Big Brother's boots and try to tackle like he did. He loved looking for the biggest, hardest player in the opposition, throw caution to the wind and slam in to them like a rocket.

As adults we have grown up together, been blessed with wonderful families, lived minutes from each other, sometimes worked together, build businesses, raised money, hired and fired together and I have never stopped learning from him. Big things and little things. How to keep enjoying life .He certainly won't want me or anyone else mooching around in black. He'd tell us to shut up and get dancing. He would have a message for us. He will expect a proper celebration.

A couple of years ago, after years of going to posh dinners wearing clip on bow-ties I decided I had to grow up a learn how to tie a proper bow tie. But how do you learn to tie a bow tie? Well, I pity those of you without a Big Brother because for me it was easy. I rang him up and he sat me down and taught me how to tie it. Next time I went to Mansion House wearing a proper bow tie, properly tied I felt all "proper". I txt'd him proudly to tell him. "Very good. Well done" he replied, like Big Brothers do, whether you are four or forty four.

I spent the last two weeks on holiday in China. I desperately wanted to get back in time to see my Big Brother again but it was not to be. He passed away while I was on the plane. But it was okay. I had my Big Brother for fifty wonderful years and I have his guidance, lessons and example for as long as I live. So I will always have my Big Brother. But what will they do in China? With all its power and might, with all its money and millions, their policies have created a generation of only children, not one of whom has a Big Brother. Who do they turn to when life gets a bit tough? Who do they call and say "I'm a bit scared, what shall I do?" Who cuffs them round the top of the head, punches their arm, pushes them forward and says "Get on with it, fool. Of course you can do it"?

Give me a society with Big Brothers, any day. If you offer me Billions or a Big Brother, I'll take a Big Brother every time. In fact, I'll take my Big Brother, please. His full name is John James Stanfield and I'd like him back please. Really.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Four Decade, Four Films, Four Scenes


I enjoy the BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs and sometimes wonder what songs I would select for my desert island. I'm still working on my eight discs so while I figure those out, I have come up with another game to play.

To play this game you choose four scenes from four films over four decades. Explain what it is about each scene that grips you and perhaps says something about you as well as the scenes that you have chosen. These aren't supposed to be the "best ever" scenes or anything like that. They are simply the scenes that you have chosen. That in some sense define you.

Here are mine. What are yours?

1980's - Bladerunner  (1982)

I love sci-fi films and this is the one I love the most. It's not all big, shiny space rockets and doors that go "swish". It's a dark, gritty future full of personalities, pleasure, pain and intertwining stories.

The final monologue by replicant Roy Batty moves me every time I watch it. The moment for me is right after he utters the memorable line "like tears in rain". It's easy to miss so watch carefully. At that moment his eyes flicker towards Deckard and a brief, sad smile plays across his face. I love this scene because sometimes I think my entire life is captured in that brief, sad smile and all those moments, all the things I have done, the sights I have seen are "like tears in rain".

1990's - True Romance (1993)

I am a romantic at heart. True Romance is a soppy love story. Well, sort of. It has a beautiful theme tune and a happy ending. What more could you want? Okay, a few tough things happen along the way but we get to be "happy ever after" in the end. I like "happy ever after".

The scene I love is the confrontation between two of my favourite actors, Christopher Walken (Don Vincenzo) and Dennis Hopper (Clifford Worley) with the glowering, brooding, silent presence of James Gandolfini in the background. In some ways similar to my first scene, there is something about the verbal jousting between these two giants that absorbs me.

Vincenzo scares me. I have met people like him. He scares Worley (Hopper) too, to begin with. Vincenzo is in complete control. He controls himself and he controls everyone around him. He will get what he wants from this situation. But there is a point in the dialogue when Worley accepts his fate. We see it. He nods (to himself I think), his voice changes and he asks for a cigarette. The music starts up, gently in the background as he flicks open his lighter. Then he takes away all control from Vincenzo. He has no power but you can see Vincenzo's grip and awesome control weakening. His fate is inevitable but he provokes Don Vincenzo into doing something that he has been careful not to do "since 1994". The two men, understanding what has happened, laugh together and Vincenzo kisses Worley. Look at Worley's face a second after that kiss. Worley wins.

2000's - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Another genre that I love is Chinese films and in particular the grand, sweeping films exemplified by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This film took things to a new level and I remember being awestruck when I first watched this film over a decade ago.

My scene from this film is the love scene between Master Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien. In the midst of all the madness, violence and fighting these two old warriors admit their feelings for each other for the first time. The whole scene is peaceful and as Li Mu Bai says, it gives a sense of infinite peace. Infinite peace. That's all I ask for. Nothing more. John 14:27

2010's - Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I love spy films. I enjoy the type of spy film where hardly anything happens and hardly anyone speaks for two hours. Perhaps after 83 minutes a mysterious person half raises an eyebrow. Then everyone goes home. Bliss.

The daddy of all spy films is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I have watched the original BBC version many times over and I approached the  modern remake with much trepidation.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that it is a masterpiece in its own right that can sit happy alongside its predecessor. Its not right to say that one version is better than the other. They are members of the same family. Different generations. Father and son. Rightly proud of each other.

My scene from the modern film is the ending. It is one, long scene set to a beautiful French song, La Mer. It is the Seventies. So Seventies. That's my decade and one day I will go back there. At a Christmas party (yes, even spies have parties) you glimpse all the main characters and you understand so much about each of them in a fraction of a second. Esterhase in his flowery shirt and waistcoat preening like a peacock with a couple of ladies. Connie looking after "her boys". Control in sad, or is is splendid, isolation. Roy Bland, always suspicious and the beautiful Bill Haydon gliding shark-like in search of prey.

All our emotions are played out in that one, long, perfect scene. Desire. Unrequited love. Rejection. Betrayal. Revenge. Justice. Deep, deep sadness. Regrets. Memories. Doubt. Tender forgiveness. Respect. Acknowledgement. Triumph. New beginnings.

Whenever I watch this scene, and I do so regularly, I play out scenes in my head from my life that correspond to each of these emotions. It's a roller-coaster. It leaves me exhilarated and slightly queasy but eager to jump back on for another ride. What a scene!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

From Jungle to Palace

Last week I mentioned to my father that I had been invited to lunch with the Queen at Westminster Palace on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee (along with a few other people, I should add!).

Mr Ilube Senior is a serious and thoughtful fellow and is very precise with his words. He would be very unlikely, for example, to casually say "Good morning to you" if in fact it was raining and windy. He would probably say "Rainy and windy morning to you" because that would be a far more precise description of the actual state of affairs.

So, I was quite interested to hear what he would have to say about this Royal invitation. He paused, considered the news and then said in a sombre voice as if addressing the hushed ranks of the UN General Assembly "my father grew up in a village (in West Africa) and never stepped inside the four walls of a classroom in his life. My son is dining with Royalty. From jungle to Palace in two generations. Wonderful".

It is rather wonderful actually. There are many strands of the story that come together to make up my journey but this is definitely one of them. And I feel that I am only halfway through my journey, so who knows where I will end up? Perhaps I have peaked and it's all downhill from here. If so, I am quite content with where I have got to. Perhaps there is more to come. I certainly have a few exciting plans and big ambitions up my sleeve and I feel as if I am just getting in to my stride now.

When I am talking to the young African students from across the continent who come to our African Gifted Foundation Academies I say to them that whatever their background, whatever their parents circumstances, if they use the incredible brainpower and drive that they have been blessed with they could be dining with royalty and presidents in years to come. I don't have anything like the natural intellectual ability of these kids and I have managed to struggle this far. Just imagine what they will achieve!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

18 interviews and 20 press-ups with Mr Motivator

Last week I spent four very entertaining hours in a small radio studio with 1990's legendary fitness guru Mr Motivator. The occasion was the kick off of the next stage of Noddle's roll-out and we had just released a new story and had 18 interviews to do.

If you have never done radio interviews, it works like this. Your PR company sends out the press release to loads of radio stations around the UK. They are told that there will be a "radio day" and all the stations that want to do interviews are given a short timeslot during that day. You then book a radio studio for the time needed. In our case, because there was such wide interest in what we were doing we booked a half day and each station was given a ten minute slot, starting at about 8.30am.

Most of the interviews are "pre-recs" or pre-recordings that will be aired later that day or even later in the week. A handful will be live on air if the timeslot happens to suit the radio station's schedule. A couple of ours were live and it is odd to think of yourself talking live to about a million listeners, hoping you don't sound too ridiculous!

So, "Mot", wearing a colourful tracksuit and "Tom" (that's me) wearing a boring beige jacket turned up at the small radio studio off Totenham Court Road to prepare for the session. Someone told me they had assumed that guests were actually in the radio station when they were being interviewed, but sadly I had to disillusion her. Sometimes you will get called in to the station itself, but in a lot of cases the guests are sitting in another studio miles away and when you have back to back interviews its impossible to rush from station to station.

Then it starts.The technician twiddles dials and knobs and contacts the next radio station on the list. Mr Motivator and I would be chatting away (he's a very intellctual chap actually, as well as having buns of steel) and suddenly music and presenters voices appear in your headset and you are on air.

Mr Motivator is a seasoned professional at this game. Presenters were excited to be talking to him and he bantered away as if he had known them all his life. I struggled to get a word in edgeways. But I like to think we made a good duo, with me as "the boring one" - like Ant and Dec, Morcombe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello (take your pick depending on your age).

The off-air segments were very funny. Several presenters asked him if he would record something special for them and he was happy to oblige. Could he say something motivational to be played at a hen night? Something to keep a presenter motivated in the last few miles of the London Marathon? I just hope these clips never get broadcast (at least not without an "Over 18s Only" warning!).

After a couple of hours of non-stop, back to back interviews we were told that we had a short break in our schedule. Thank goodness, I thought as I reached for a croissant, when Mr Motivator says "Great. Tom, let's do some press-ups". What?! I laugh nervously assuming he's joking when to my surprise he drops and starts press-upping away. Seconds later dressed in my smart casual, boring beige jacket I find myself on the floor of the radio studio doing a press-up too (yes, in my case it was just the one press-up, I'm afraid).

Mr Motivator may be 60 now but he is as fit and motivational as ever!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Help: I don't understand women

I've been thinking a lot about women recently and I have come to the conclusion that I need help.

I am trying to understand the different strategies and responses women use at work to deal with either overt or subtle sexism. I think I have a pretty good intuitive understanding of how to handle overt or subtle racism as I have wrestled with this on and off myself during my career (as I outlined here).

But I don't intuitively understand how women tackle these issues and I am finding it is actually quite difficult to get women to talk about how they handle the sort of mild sexism that sometimes is taken as the norm in the workplace. I am more interested in the tricky business of mild sexism rather than the outright sexism that just has to be confronted come what may.

It seems to me that there is a "one of the lads" approach. This is quite a popular model, I think. Give as good as you get. Laugh it off. Even initiate it to show how relaxed you are about a bit of banter.

Then there is the "I'm not a feminist" model. In this one, you don't really get involved in the sexist banter but nor do you challenge it. You don't allow yourself to hear it. You are there to do a job as a professional and you get on with it. You will be judged on your competence (you believe) and whether you are male or female is irrelevant (you believe). You are not interested in that feminist nonsense.

There is the "challenger" approach. You just won't accept it. Zero tolerance. Someone makes a mildly sexist comment and you turn to them, very professionally, and say "sorry, I don't feel that's appropriate is it?" Okay, you get a reputation for being uptight and people talk in terms of "walking on eggshells" around you (because they are incapable of being relaxed or amusing unless they are at liberty to make mildly sexist remarks, I assume) but at least you don't have to put up with silly boys with their silly comments every time a female secretary walks in to the room.

For example, here's a scenario. You are a manager and you go in to a meeting room with a group of managers. You are the only woman (as usual). Catering bring the tea in. Everyone sits down, shuffling papers. Some jovial wag calls over to you "hey Margaret, are you going to pour the tea?" Everyone laughs a bit and carries on shuffling papers ready to start the meeting.

If you are "one of the lads" you probably call back "oh, yeh right and why don't you come and paint the wall/fix this broken light/do some other "man" thing?" Everyone laughs again and relaxes. Good old Margaret. She's a good laugh. She can take a joke. Get on with the meeting.

If you are "not a feminist" then you smile faintly to signal that you are not too bothered and send over a very slight look as if to say, "Come on, let's get on with the meeting. There is a lot to cover. Shall we start?". It's no big deal, no tension. He doesn't feel told off but the conversation moves on.

If you are a "challenger" you say quite confidently "Come on, that's not really appropriate is it?". The room goes just a little bit cold. Laughter dies quickly. A few of the men think "good on you" but don't say it so you feel quite lonely at that point. The meeting starts and everything gets back to normal. Mildly sexist guy certainly doesn't make that comment again, but he and a few others also think "that Margaret can't take a joke. Bloody feminists. Political correctness gone mad".

So lots of different strategies. I'm sure there are others. There seems to be a bias towards the "one of the lads" strategy as far as I can tell, which I find interesting as a black person. For the most part black people at work we have moved on from the once popular "one of the lads" model and mildly racist comments are dying out (or at least I don't think they are thrown around casually in the presence of black colleagues without someone remarking on them). But women seem to accept the "one of the lads" approach and I don't really know why. I assume that if a group of women in an organisation decided that the so called constant drip drip of not-very-funny-mildly-sexist banter had to stop, it would take about a week for it to be wiped out completely. So why don't they do it?

Anyway, I am confused. I feel I need to learn. Women - educate me please! Men - probably best to listen and learn!

Friday, 20 January 2012

What are the odds of that?

At the recently concluded African Gifted Foundation Academy that took place in Kampala, Uganda a brilliant maths teacher from South Africa, Thomas Hagspihl, delivered a talk entitled "Beauty and Elegance in Mathematics".

I have to say it was probably one of the best maths lectures I have ever attended. It made me feel that perhaps I could have been a mathematician after all even though I was pretty average at maths (despite having the nickname "ADDIKO" at school for having scored 104% in an Additional Maths exam once. But that's another story).

What he seemed to be able to do was take quite challenging mathematical concepts and present them in a way that made you feel you grasped what was going on and that left you wanting to know more.

For example, for the first time I got a proper sense of the futility of playing the lottery. Apparently the chance of winning the (UK) lottery jackpot is 14 million to 1.  I hear those words but they didn't mean much to me. I couldn't get my mind around them.

In just a few minutes, Thomas put it in to language that I really understood. He made me realise just how big a million actually is.

Take a matchstick (he said). Let's say that it has a width of a millimeter. So, if we stood a million matchsticks next to each other in a long line, how far would they stretch?

Well as each match is a millimeter wide, a thousand matchsticks equals one meter (because there are a thousand millimeters in one meter. Got it? So far so good).

And a million equals a thousand thousand, right? (1,000 x 1,000 = 1,000,000). So a line of a million matchsticks standing next to each other would stretch out a thousand meters. Or to put it another way, a football pitch is (say) 100 meters, so a thousand meters equals ten football pitches in length.

Right, a million tiny matchsticks standing up, side by side would stretch for ten football pitches. Gosh a "million" really is huge!

But to win the lottery jackpot, the odds are 14 million to 1. So here is what you have to do to win the lottery jackpot. Line up 14 times 10 football pitches worth of matches i.e. 140 football pitches worth of matchsticks. Then put on a blindfold, walk up and down the 140 football pitches of matches and pick ONE. If the ONE that you have picked is the same ONE that the lottery comes up with then hey presto, you have WON THE JACKPOT!!!!

I love it.