Friday, March 30, 2007



A couple of stressful weeks. These have included a visit by a communications agency to meet and chat with Mrs Assad about taking on some of the wider communications needed by the Trust. As I had briefed them, and to a large extent recommended them, I was keen that they actually got to the nub of the issues - how the vision and aims of the Trust relate to the more formal social and political context in Syria. Will the Trust be allowed to succeed, or is it really justa bit of window-dressing? We got part way there, but I felt they were holding back and Mrs Assad was wanting more.

Then a brief 36-hour trip to Qatar to attend a conference on literacy, where Mrs Assad was giving a keynote speech for which I had drafted the original. In the event six people went with her as well as a team from protocol and her press office, and we all travelled in the presidential jet. That may sound grand, but the experience was anything but. Luggage had to be handed to protocol 12 hours ahead of flight time, everyone had to be ready at the airport an hour ahead of the flight. It would have been better in many ways to take a scheduled flight. Protocol as usual were interested only in arrangements for Mrs Assad, and any inconvenience to the rest of us was of no consequence at all. Better that six people sit kicking their heels for an hour than risk her being delayed for a minute.

When we arrived at Qatar, the experience was repeated. Our luggage took hours to arrive at the hotel; one of us had only twenty minutes to get changed an ready for a formal dinner that evening. Again, when we left, luggage had to be passed over hours before we left, and and and. Reached home to find a cigar had been taken from one of my bags. If another request to do this again comes my way, I shall politely make my own arrangements.

Then almost immediately off to London to attend a couple of workshops with architects and Cultural Innovations. Flew BA against all my past resolutions as I had to leave on a day when Syrian Air did not fly to London. Productive meetings, with some worryingly high costs emerging for the landscaped park element of the project, and still not much progress made in respect of the web. Time at home, which was nice, except that it was necessary to deal with plumbers as one of the radiators had ceased to work after they had installed a new boiler - so a day watsed waiting for someone to visit, which they did in the early evening and then decided that what was needed was not a new valve but the draining of the entire system, which meant yet another appointment.

Back to Damascus to prepare for a presentation on Massar to Sheikha Mozah, Princess of Qatar. This again was a Protocol affair and the preceding 24 hours were a series of bizarre, inappropriate and unreasonable requests, which we wasted much time and emotional energy batting away. The trouble is Protocol want everything to be perfect, and for us, the best way to see Massar is to see it warts and all. The main issue this time was the teenage debate, which was on the top floor of the cultural centre. The Princess, we were told, would emphatically not go up stairs, and it would be an insult for me to even suggest it. Don't ask. In the event I left it open to Mrs Assad, she suggested the teenage activity, and they both went up stairs without a moment's trouble. The Princess, I was told later, very much enjoyed the activities, so that was a positive.

Then a presentation on progress by Cultural Innovations to Mrs Assad. Again, twitchy for me, as this time a 2010 completion date was put on the table, slipping from late 2009. Then a scratchy 6-hour Trust Management Team meeting, where a lot of stuff had to be aired, as there is growing discontent between the projects (basically all my team) and shared services. My reservations about how this will all work in practice are starting to appear in the day-to-day. And of course I now get a lot of it bounced up to me, either as a shoulder to cry on or as a possible way to cut through the crap.

I have also been told that I cannot depend on the commitment of government funding given to me by the Deputy Prime Minister. Hey ho, more work to do there then.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007


No comment (well, just a little one)

From Royal Mail's order tracking service:

"Recorded Signed For™ items are only tracked after the item has been delivered."

Which coincidentally is exactly the time when I no longer need to track them.

Sunday, March 18, 2007


Mother's Day story

Phoned my dear mother today to wish her love, and we were reminiscing about the days when my father was a teacher at Fettes College. There was a much-loved groundskeeper at the school, who died after many years of service. A few days later, two of the Fettes masters in charge of a hockey match noticed with horror that the cricket square appeared to have been vandalised in the night. Blotches of white powder were all over it. They looked, they discussed, eventually they licked a finger and had a quick taste, to try and discover what this powder was. They were still perplexed (stumped, perhaps). It was, of course the ashes of the groundskeeper, which his sons had scattered on the cricket pitch the previous evening, feeling their father would want to rest on the turf he had cared for so well.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Arts and Labour

Back in the UK after another series of lengthy delays at Heathrow - no parking bays, so we sit on the tarmac for half an hour and then end up far from the terminal waiting for a bus to transport us. So even grumpier than usual. In which spirit I read recently a piece applauding Labour's track record in supporting the arts, and suggesting this was an under-considered part of Tony's "legacy". It cited free admission as a major plus point.

In fact, a glance at what Labour has achieved will reveal that it has done to the arts what it does best everywhere: achieve a brief flash of political glory based on an ill-considered and unsustainable premise, and then fail to back up the position it has put everyone into with real support. Some points. The National Lottery was introduced by the Conservatives with a very tightly focussed brief: its contributions would go to millennium projects, the arts, museums, galleries and heritage, and sport. The Tories hated paying for the arts, but they knew very well that cutting their budget led to nothing but high-profile slanging from the arts world. So the lottery was the answer. The Tories also knew the difference between micro- and macro-management. They set a strong structure of accountability for museums and galleries - no bad thing - but they avoided meddling in the day-to-day.

By contrast, what has Labour done? Introduce free admission, which remains to this day one of the most conspicuous subsidies for the better-off. Percentages of low-income families going to museums remain almost unchanged from what they were before Labour came to power. At the same time, costs across the national museums have shot up due to increased wear and tear. Cleaning, maintenance, replacement, security, basic supplies like loo-rolls, all of these rise with more attendances. Yet instead of putting more funding behind this, the grants of museums and galleries are effectively being cut. Purchase grants have dwindled to almost nothing. The National Lottery now has had to fund "good causes" (ie charities and anything Labour decides it should fund but does not want to raise taxes for), and now a large slice of the ineptly-costed Olympics. The size of the pot available to the arts has shrunk while the costs have gone up.

The Tories made clear that claiming a grant from the National Lottery for a major project should be conditional upon the institution being able to absorb the running costs of that project into its existing government grant. Not a great or particularly realistic deal, but a legal requirement - no more grant to fund Lottery projects. The arrival of New Labour into power, with its promise of free admission, saw the Tate Gallery effectively put a gun to the government's head and say: if you won't give us additional grant we will have to charge for admission to Tate Modern. And Chris Smith, the Minister of Culture, of course immediately rolled over and gave them more grant to avoid such an appalling prospect.

At the same time Labour has meddled, endlessly. Access and inclusiveness targets may sound worthy, but they ignore the basic rule of human nature: that for every one person who enjoys a visit to a museum, someone else will hate it and prefer to watch the football or go hang-gliding or take in a film. Yet management man-years have been spent developing access strategies, carrying out research and focus groups, preparing reports. focussing on presentation rather than substance. The result is the reverse of a culture of excellence or a sense of confidence amongst museum and gallery managers. Instead we now have policy driven by populism, unchallenging exhibitions, potboilers (yet another Impressionist exhibition, anyone?), celebrities and a desperate seach for excluded minorities to cater for. These are the ways your institution wins ministerial favour. The wholesome distrust most Tories had for the arts at least led them to steer well clear and leave the world of museums and galleries largely to manage itself against some clear targets.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007



I attended an Implementation workshop at the Doha literacy conference - a separate Strategy session was held in parallel. There was little actual implementation agreed, or indeed discussed. Instead, everyone paraded their views, to be written up by a raconteuse and fed back to the conference in plenary. I made four points: The craziness of having Stragey and Implementation separate, as though they could somehow be unlinked. A wider definition of literacy in this global information age was needed. "Robust data" was on the same spectrum as paralysis by analysis. The importance of pre-school programmes in this area.

I'll say it many times, but notable at this conference was the extent to which Syria is quietly getting on and doing stuff while others are attending conferences. We actually have a good story to tell.



Mobile phones

Just back from a conference on literacy in Doha. Every session was polluted by people's mobile phones ringing, people chatting on their mobile phones, or just chatting. As I get older and more curmudgeonly, I find this less and less acceptable, and more and more discourteous. I'm sure that the trip was a jolly for many attendees, but why did they have to get in the way of those who actually did want to participate?

Nice hotel, Four Seasons, let down by some of the slowest elevators I have ever experienced. I must have spent about half an hour just waiting for the lift to arrive.

Monday, March 12, 2007


Well, it made me laugh

Monday, March 05, 2007



Dina in Copenhagen at the Henning Larsen architectural discussions
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The workshop in Copenhagen


Sunday, March 04, 2007


Travels and travails with BA

Just back from Copenhagen, where Dina and I have been in workshops with the architects. The trip did not start well. I had had two hours' sleep the previous night before getting up at 0430 to get to the airport. We then sat in a very smelly British Airways plane to London via Beirut. The smell was an overpowering mix of BO and perfume, much of both coming from a lady directly behind us. The cabin crew spent much of their time (and our snoozing opportunity) chatting loudly in the rear galley. The plane also had on it one of the fattest men I have seen. At Heathrow, of course, we were parked miles away from the terminal, waited ages for buses to arrive to unload the plane, then waited ages for the fat passenger to get off, then another age for the bus to reach the terminal as it had to cross spaces on which planes were taxiing. At T4 we then stood for more ages in a security check queue during transit, while time to our next flight ticked away, and a graceless (rude) young airport staffer (no doubt with Customer Service somewhere in his job title) told people that if they had more than one bag they would not be allowed through security. Quite what transit passengers (whose checked luggage was elsewhere by now, and who could easily have picked up a second bag of duty-free at the start of their trip) were to do with this information was not clear. Astonishingly, it was impossible to find a simple pair of gent's trousers in T4 - only jeans, chinos, or evening dress! Somewhere during this security check I also managed to lose my boarding pass, but we did manage to get on the plane to Copenhagen...

..where we found that our luggage had not arrived with us. It had been misdirected by BA to the wrong terminal (1) at Heathrow, and turned up in Copenhagen the following night. Dina and I had to do some quick shopping for basics for day one, and we will be sending BA the bill. All in all it was a trip that revealed jut how far BA has sunk as a service provider. Given that it effectively monopolises T4 at Heathrow, there is just no excuse for its passengers to be put through the sort of Dr Zhivago experience that is now evidently the routine there. BA should work with BAA (the frankly appalling airport operator) to get proper levels of staffing on security desks to speed things through. They should have their own service staff on hand to make passengers feel loved and wanted, and answer distressed questions. As it is, the experience makes one say "never again!" So I have decreed that from now on the project will no longer fly BA, and will not reimburse any suppliers that do so either. There are plenty of alternatives. At a rough calculation, based only on the number of flights taken in the last two years, I reckon that means BA will lose about 90 flights at an minimum of £600 a time over the next three years. Wherever possible I will be avoiding Heathrow too. I like to support UK plc, but this third-world experience, badly-organised, rude, slow, dirty, with large parts of its mechanicals not working, and staff chatting loudly to each other rather than actually serving the public, is just bad for the spirit. Heathrow no longer deserves to succeed. It is the pits, and a new terminal will not solve the deep-seated malaise of inefficiency and slackness that pervades it.

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