Wednesday, February 28, 2007
A busy week
Then a visit from someone advocating pranic healing. This is a spiritual process, involving a series of squats while holding the earlobes and facing north, to channel energy to the brain. Lots of pseudo-science to back it up, all written by people with the letters MPH after their names, which seems to stand for Master of Pranic Healing, so as Christine Keeler said: they would say that, wouldn't they? Still, I'm trying the exercises, as my poor old brain needs all the help it can get.
Next lunch with the manager of the Four Seasons hotel to keep him updated on our development of the Old International Fairground site, which is just opposite his hotel. Spent time talking about maintaining levels of customer service, which I think they are very good at, sourcing high quality local suppliers, staff training, car park provision and project management. All good stuff, and he is very supportive. He suggested his investor might be interested in commercial opportunities on the site, and perhaps supporting the project financially. Will be good if so.
New ambassador seems like a good change from the old, if only because he is a more engaging character, with what seems to be quite a wicked sense of humour. I spent an hour with him and a few embassy staff before a dinner he was hosting, and then afterwards downed a few of Scotland's finest before heading off to bed. Interesting to get the official UK perspective on Syria.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Ways of Seeing and Kitaj
The only problem, hence the consternation, was that visitors were turning up to see this great statue, couldn't find it, and noone at the information desk knew anything about it. In fact the work was not, as it appeared from the poster, a huge prominent statue but a small blackened wax model, perhaps 15 cm high, and it was displayed in a badly-lit case with dozens of other wax models, all looking a bit like an Anthony Gormley assemblage. Kitaj had not chosen one of the museum's featured pieces but had plucked one from all-but obscurity and made it a star. He had danced with the wallflower. Somehow the V&A had now to give it the treatment. There was a hurried discussion, and the wax Slave was quickly given a case of its own, still badly lit, but at least easier to find and look at. In its new case it then took on the attributes of a signature object, one worthy of special attention. Later, it was one of the works included in an exhibition of pieces from the V&A's collection that toured North America. Like Leonardo's cartoon it took on new significance, not this time because of a price tag but because someone with an eye plucked it from the heap, and opened other eyes as well. The piece, by the way, is great. You can see the sculptor's thumbprints on it. Had I ever noticed it before Kitaj? No.
Pic courtesy of V&A
Monday, February 19, 2007
Honesty, trust and the grapevine
Don't get me wrong; I'm delighted she consults (as if it matters whether I approve or not!) and it's good to know what is the word on the street, or at least the word that reaches her. But given that one instinct here is to try to look good by making others look bad, defensive criticism is rather a common currency, and some of the more negative stuff that comes back to me about Massar is really not worthy of her consideration. It's also the case that rather than sort out issues (which always crop up) between the managers concerned, people here always send things up the pipe until they come to a point of shared responsibility. They discharge their own responsibility to sort the prolem our by reporting it to their manager. For almost all non-governmental projects, that means Ministers and Governors getting issues fed up to them and they of course raise them with the First Lady's office, and she then with me. So, however trivial, they are immediately given substance, and take on the appearance of exceptional problems rather than the normal bumps that any project encounters and has to work through.
I am fighting against the desire to Do Unto Others in this respect. There is one trusted advisor to Mrs A with whom we are having quite a lot of dealings at the moment. She is universally regarded as someone only out for herself, who starts up projects that make her look good but doesn't stick with them, doesn't keep her word, and she is making mischief for us. Yet the First Lady trusts her implicitly and won't hear a word against her. So I smile and keep quiet.
Thursday, February 15, 2007
I remember the private view of the Hockney show vividly, but mainly for the wrong reasons. One of his guests was a famous British author, also from Yorkshire, who had had his moment of enfance terrible in the sixties. During the course of the evening he got steadily more and more drunk, very benignly and quite loudly, and wandered from guest to guest introducing himself and saying "I'm a writer, y'know". The curator organising the exhibition, Alistair Smith, at length felt that it would be best if the writer (y'know) was put into a cab, and they linked arms and prepared to descend the stairs to the main entrance. There was something of a crowd watching them go, and the writer very carefully put one foot on the top step, and then equally carefully put the other foot on the next. By step four, however, it was apparent that the pace of descent was steadily increasing, and by step eight, the writer and Alistair were hurtling, arms still linked, legs working faster and faster, down the stairs. With an appalled fascination we all watched as, still gathering pace, still embracing, they reached the bottom and slid into a collapsed heap on the marble floor. These things were not normally seen at National Gallery private views, more's the pity.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Any auditors out there?
Today, the news is of $9 billion - $9 billion! - in cash lost by the US in Iraq. Lugged it over in $100 bills on pallets wrapped in clingfilm and then - erm - lost track of it. Now THAT'S a number auditors should be worried by, but man reponsible Paul Bremer seems to have got a very reasonable excuse. We handed it over to the local authorities and then didn't check, because there was a lot going on at the time. Now if that works for him, I'm damned if I know why I should have to provide a boarding pass stub to prove I've taken a flight. Oh yes, because the auditors require it. Come on people, help me out here.
Trust, Foundation, how will it turn out?
The gist of the chat was my unease about what sort of organisation this Foundation looks set to become. My belief is that it needs to be directed towards its public outcomes - getting the work done with individuals and communities - not towards becoming an institution, however respectable. I believe it should be as small as possible, challengingly exciting to work for, passing responsibility to young people in the team and supporting them like mad while they grow in the role. I think it should aim to be fast, flexible, creative, risk-ready, inspiring. In other words, not the usual corporate model. I've raised these things before in early discussions with the consultants who advised on the shape and formation of the Foundation, but their rather more conventional viewpoint held sway.
Syria needs a new model for organisations desperately. It really hasn't even got good companies yet, let alone ground-breaking ones. There's still a strong hierarchical culture in business, an absence of good delegation, low teamwork at every level, resistance to accepting reponsibility. We have a unique opportunity, it seems to me, to change that , and establish (sorry) a new paradigm. But so far, I don't see that happening. In the projects themselves, the language is of doing things in new ways, empowerment, decentralisation, fun, ideas. Over the top looms the possibility of an old-fashioned, by-the-numbers body, which won't be a joy to work for, and where the accountants rule.
I think we've done some good work on setting out values for this organisation, but they won't be enough to shape the Foundation's behaviour or attitude on their own. The culture depends on our dreams for a different way to get things done, a different view of people and by people. I unearthed a paper I had downloaded some years back in which it says something like: people should be motivated by what they can contribute, not what they take home. Positively, my sense is that Mrs Assad wants the same. Let's hope.
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Refugees in Syria
Friday, February 02, 2007
In exchange, I have lent the Deputy PM my set of Blackadder DVDs. I think I may also send him Yes Minister.
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