Pfizer- Allergan Merger Sets a Trend

30 Nov

Amid all the controversy surrounding Irish company Allergan’s proposed takeover of the much bigger Pfizer in a move designed to slash the combined company’s tax bill, a trend is becoming apparent. To find out more, I caught up with Paddy O’Shaughnessy, whose company “O’Shaughnessy’s Used Cars and Small Engine Repair” has just announced its agreement to take over General Motors of Detroit. We met at the proposed new HQ of “O’Shaughnessy International” in the Fiddler’s Elbow pub in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon.

Critics of the deal have leveled the accusation that it is an outrageous scheme to stick it to the US taxpayer, but, over a lunchtime pint of Guinness, O’Shaughnessy vigorously disputed this claim. “Combining the two businesses makes a lot of commercial sense. They’re complimentary, you see. If you turn up at the head office of General Motors in Detroit today looking for a used Ford Transit van, you’re basically out of luck. Same thing with a broken lawn mower. Nobody there can repair it. They’re turning away business. Under the new arrangement, they could bring that lawnmower to us and Seamus will have it fixed within five working days or your money back, provided it’s nothing difficult.”

When I suggested that this was a pretty flimsy pretext for a dodgy deal, O’Shaughnessy became irate and pointed to a man sitting at the end of the bar. “If it’s dodgy deals you’re after, why don’t you go and talk to Michael over there?”

Michael was just about to leave, but he agreed to be interviewed as we walked to his shop in the company of the young lady who had been sitting next to him in the pub. I asked him if he knew what was behind the O’Shaughnessy – General Motors merger. “Sure, it’s obvious. He’s had a thing for Siobhan here for ages. Thinks his multi-billion dollar deal is going to impress her with what a big man he is.”
“And will it?” I asked.
“Fat chance,” he scoffed, opening a door beneath a sign reading “Michael Gallagher Greengrocer, Head Office of Coca Cola, Inc.”

A Comparative Study of the Effectiveness of Different Doughnut Types in Maximizing the Impact of Business Presentations

14 Sep

Readers of The Management Secrets of T. John Dick will be aware of the many benefits of having done so. Foremost among these, of course, is membership in a very exclusive club. Lesser authors might be frustrated by such a relatively small readership, but I judge success by quality, not quantity, and by that criterion my work has been a triumph. Frankly, I wouldn’t want just anybody reading my books, and in this I have been spectacularly successful. I hope you feel special. You certainly should.

But there are other benefits too. The insights and tips contained in The Management Secrets of T. John Dick have been invaluable to readers in managing their business and personal lives. They range from the benefits of applying the latest management principles to your marriage (you’re welcome ladies) to the appropriate way to respond to customers’ promises to set their dogs on you if you ever come near them again. But perhaps the single most important piece of expert advice in a book that is practically bursting its binding with pieces of expert advice is this: if you want to be taken seriously, always be sure to serve doughnuts at your meetings. Well, not you personally of course – have someone set them out on a table before the meeting. This will emphasize your position in the office hierarchy. After all, not everyone has the authority to provide doughnuts at their meetings.

You will understand then why I was intrigued to read this article from the BBC, concerning idiosyncracies of the British workplace. Most of the article deals with the importance of serving tea. Disappointingly there was no mention of doughnuts and I began to wonder how (or if) British business manages to function at all.  Then, amongst all the woolly feelgood nonsense concerning office camaraderie, I cam across this gem:

“A study by biscuit baker, Thomas J Fudges, of 2,000 British workers, revealed one in four would be more likely to close a deal in a meeting because of the biscuits provided, with shortbread, chocolate bourbons and flapjacks all likely to win a favourable reaction.”

This is pretty powerful stuff. It leads me to believe that a comparable study should be carried out on this side of the Atlantic. Several executives of equivalent experience and presentation skills could lead meetings identical in every respect with the exception of the types of doughnuts provided to the attendees. Would an executive with powdered cinnamon doughnuts command more respect than his plain doughnutted rival? Would an executive who served a wide variety of doughnuts be viewed as someone able to see the big picture or simply as  indecisive? Would a presenter who served glazed raspberry filled doughnuts find his audience’s attention distracted by the concentration required to eat said doughnuts without dribbling on their ties? Would he find his own concentration impaired by the sight of raspberry jelly on his listeners’ chins? Perhaps most importantly of all, which variety of doughnuts takes the longest to eat and is consequently most effective in preventing listeners from asking awkward questions?

I’m not sure if the editors of the Harvard Business Review have read The Management Secrets of T. John Dick or follow my blog. Frankly, I’m not sure if they would meet the stringent qualifications I mentioned above. But if they happen to be part of my exclusive readership, then I think the least they could do would be to offer to publish the results of this research, if I ever get around to conducting it. Maybe if I offered them a nice cup of tea and a chocolate bourbon?

Book Review – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

19 Apr

Lawrence Durrell is famous for two reasons. Firstly he is the author of what many regard as one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century (the subject of this review). Secondly, he is familiar to the many millions who read his brother’s hilarious reminiscences of a boyhood spent on the island of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals, in which he is affectionately portrayed as rather precious and pretentious, at least in the eyes of the young Gerald. If you approach The Alexandria Quartet in the hope of discerning which is the real Lawrence Durrell, you may just end up more confused than ever. I haven’t decided whether The Alexandria Quartet is a brilliant work of art or just a thousand pages of pretentious twaddle. Perhaps it is both. It is a series of books about everything and nothing, but mostly nothing.

To be fair to Durrell, if you don’t dare to pretend to greatness, how will you ever give yourself the chance of achieving it. And to continue with this being fair to Durrell thing, there are parts of these books where the writing is stunning. Unusual and brilliantly imaginative combinations of words describe things, people, events and feelings vividly and with great precision. This a bit hit or miss – at other times he seems just to be expending a great deal of ink (or pixels if you’re reading on Kindle like me) describing something which, arriving exhausted at the end of a paragraph, you realize is nothing at all. Still, It’s a tour de force, but there is no denying that many readers, myself included will need to force themselves to finish it.

The problem is that throughout the books he is basically repeating the same deep thoughts ad nauseam. Having found an intriguing way to express a thought or feeling, he proceeds to do the same, with slight variations throughout the whole bloody quartet, often in the form of over-ripe erudite dialogue that cries out for parody. In the absence of any significant plot, you are left with a bunch of characters to whom you can’t relate wandering around over-analyzing stuff and being deep. That’s really all there is.

The concept of the quartet is interesting. The same series of events are seen from four different perspectives, each adding information and often contradicting the narrative of the preceding ones. At least, that’s how it starts out. In Justine, the narrator, a preposterous aesthete who we later learn is called Darley, moons about the place contemplating his navel and that of his mistress Justine while behaving in a very ungentlemanly manner towards his girlfriend Melissa. That’s about it. Despite the quality of the writing, Justine is probably the most boring of all the books.

In Balthazar, Darley, now on a Greek island, receives a copy of his manuscript from an acquaintance in Alexandria. The manuscript is heavily annotated in ways that show Darley’s imperfect understanding of the events in the first book and especially of Justine’s motivations in having an affair with him. Balthazar is a bit more interesting than Justine because we are intrigued by these contradictions.

Mountolive is the most interesting of the books because the title character evokes rather more sympathy than Darley. The character of the brilliant writer Pursewarden begins to play a prominent role. The other characters constantly remark on how amusing he is. He is not. All kinds of things, people and events remind them of something clever he said in one of his books. God knows why!

In the fourth book, Clea, Darley is back, contemplating his navel. As he describes its contents in excruciating detail, we are not surprised, but nonetheless a little disappointed to find that they are still mostly fluff.

The idea of viewing the same events from different angles is interesting enough to have been imitated, notably by Iain Pears in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In The Alexandria Quartet, however, it’s as if someone painted a room four times and invited you to watch each coat dry. Top quality paint is used throughout and the end-result is quite a pretty color, though not as deep as it said on the can and a bit blotchy in places.

What you will not find painted on the wall is the much vaunted vivid depiction of Alexandria. Critics generally agree that Durrell does a bang up job of bringing the city to life. Strangely, while admiring his descriptions, I never got a feel for the place.

It’s not all boring. In Clea, Darley and Pursewarden’s sister Liza have to decide between their responsibility to posterity and Pursewarden himself in making up their minds whether to destroy his letters to her, which it appears constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the history of literature, but which would reveal a scandal that would destroy his reputation. That’s some pretty powerful stuff. And suddenly in the last book there is an action scene when Darley has to act quickly to save a drowning Clea. This is all the more powerful for being unexpected, popping up in the midst of a particularly eye-rollingly tedious series of ruminations about their feelings for each other. The character of the old sea dog Scobie and his improbable posthumous beatification would, in the hands of a writer with a lighter touch, be an amusing episode. All in all, however, it’s not enough to persuade you that the hours you spent reading the quartet could not have been better spent.

This is a confusing, paradoxical book. The emperor, one has to conclude, has no clothes. But aren’t they beautiful!

Some of them.

Note: I mentioned that Durrell is a tempting target for parody. Here’s an example.

Russian Fiction – And I don’t mean Tolstoy

11 Apr

In 1976 I found myself in East Berlin. I had crossed over for the day from the West to explore the historic center of the city and to feel that frisson of weird menace you sensed when walking about in a communist country. At the crossing point I made the compulsory exchange of 6.50 Deutschmarks for the same amount in bouncy plastic Ostmarks, which I would not be allowed to bring back out. No problem, I thought – how difficult can it be to spend 6.50 marks?

berlin 1976

A young Augustus Gump in 1976 Berlin. Under communism all images of future literary giants were blurred

The answer was, as it turned out, surprisingly difficult. There was nothing to buy in East Berlin. After walking along Unter den Linden, where thirty years after the end of the war there were still a few holes in the ground where buildings had once stood (probably just as well, as they would otherwise no doubt have been filled in by monstrous communist architecture), I eventually found a restaurant. I sat down at the opposite side of the large dining room from the two other diners and, after about fifteen minutes, was presented with the biggest menu I had ever seen. There were literally hundreds of items. So much for all that capitalist propaganda about the drab austerity of the east! I eventually settled on a dish and, when the waiter returned about half an hour later, I attempted to order it. He shook his head. They didn’t have that. I chose something else. Again the shake of the head. How about this? No. Well what do you have? He pointed at a single item, a meatbally thing, if I recall correctly and departed, I presumed to fetch it. Forty-five minutes later, with no meatball in sight, I left, suffering from a rumbling tummy and a surfeit of metaphors for the communist system.

Back on the street, I realized that I had hours to go before I had to leave and no idea how to fill them, when my eyes were drawn to the jarring sight, some way down the avenue, of a goose-stepping soldier. Drawing nearer, I realized that he was Russian and that the building before which he was slapping his jackboots on the pavement – irony was in short supply in East Berlin, not just meatballs – was a museum celebrating the “Great Patriotic War.”

Inside I found an exhibition of photographs, maps and objects depicting the Red Army’s single-handed triumph over the Nazis. To an unbrainwashed observer, the most striking thing was that in all the many rooms, on all the many maps and in all the many detailed descriptions of the course of the war, there was not a single mention of the western front or Russia’s allies. Not a mention of D-Day, North Africa, the Italian campaign or even the thousands of British sailors who lost their lives on the ships of the arctic convoys carrying the supplies that saved the Soviet Union. It was as if none of this ever happened, a big blank space in history like the big blank space in the shape of West Berlin that appeared on East German maps.

There were other blank spaces, of course – Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, the carving up of Poland, the massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals, the invasion of Finland, the deliberate delay in capturing Warsaw to allow the Nazis to suppress the uprising there, the subjugation and oppression of eastern Europe after the war, the mass deportations of whole nations of supposed collaborators.

Fast forward to 2015, and how little has changed, as is shown by this snippet from the BBC. A gallery in Yekaterinburg has mysteriously closed for repairs, just as an exhibition of the work of British and American war photographers was about to open. The official fiction of the Soviet Union’s isolated stand against tyranny continues, as does the more damaging fiction of the country’s unblemished heroism during those dark years. Unlike the Germans, the Russians, as victors in the conflict, have never been made to confront the horrific deeds they committed. This seems to leave them with the belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they are the good guys in any situation. If you can swallow the fiction of the Great Patriotic War, now being celebrated so enthusiastically in Russia, how difficult can it be to swallow the fiction of the oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine and unleash your heroic military might on your neighbours?

I finally spent some of that 6.50 Marks on a currywurst and a beer, both of which later emerged little changed by the digestive process. I accidentally smuggled the remaining money back to the west where I lost it when it fell out of my pocket as I was buying a proper currywurst and bounced two feet in the air and into some bushes.

Poet at Work

23 Mar

When business is slow, I know what to do
Get up from my desk and go to the loo
And when I am half way through doing my thing
It’s a hundred to one the darned phone will ring

Can’t you hang on before bending my ear?
On-time delivery’s happening here
Yes, customer service with me’s number one
Even when number two’s being done

Having noticed that there is not enough poetry written about work these days, I have determined to remedy that. Please feel free to add verses.

A Written Warning to Hall and Oates

6 Mar

It’s a written warning to anodyne seventies and eighties pop duo Hall and Oates for their legal action against Brooklyn based breakfast food producer Early Bird Foods & Co, claiming that their granola blend “Haulin’ Oats” infringes their brand name.
Come on chaps, don’t get all steamed up and melt your hair gel. What could be more suitable as a tribute to you and your music than granola? Just call the folks over at Early Bird and ask them to make sure that their product is not only nut-free, but bland, stale and hard to stomach.

Suis moi jusq’au bout de la nuit

14 Feb

If I ever write the most beautiful and moving song of my generation, and the smart money is betting that it’s only a matter of time, I will deliver it to the rapt audience with great simplicity. My hands will be in my pockets and I won’t move at all. When you have something as good as my song is going to be, histrionic gestures, or indeed any gestures, serve only to get in the way of the emotional impact.

If someone in the vast arena accidentally drops a pin during my song, hundreds of faces will turn to him, fingers raised to their lips. Nobody will want to miss a word, a note or a heartbeat.

In the light of the foregoing, it should be no surprise that on Saint Valentine’s Day I find myself strangely drawn to this old video of Serge Gainsbourg and Franco-Danish songbird Anna Karina singing Gainsbourg’s “Ne Dis Rien.”

Couldn’t be simpler, or cornier, or sexier. Of course, it helps that I can identify with Gainsbourg, We are both ugly chaps with big noses who seem to have somehow scored with a beautiful girl from a foreign land with long dark hair and a way of smiling with her eyes. That’s all you need. No fancy camera work, just two people dancing, apparently in a bar, barely moving. You’re a lucky man, Serge, and so am I.

Ce jour de Saint Valentin, me suivrais tu  jusqu’au bout de la nuit comme à Bruxelles en 1992?

It’s Official – All Country Music is the Same

3 Feb

Well, an awful lot of it is anyway, as brilliantly illustrated by today’s recipient of a platinum performance bonus, Sir Mashalot. But before we get to him and his remarkable video, let’s take a trip in a battered pick-up truck down memory lane.

The year is 1990, or it might have been 1991, and the place is the Sandy Ridge Bar & Grill in Hickory, North Carolina. I used to hang out there quite often in those days, although I always seemed to miss the nights folks got shot. There was a jukebox in the corner and the song that me and my friends listened to most is You Never Even Called Me by My Name by David Allen Coe. Towards the end of the song, Mr. Coe takes a break from singing to tell a little story of how the writer of the song, Steve Goodman, told him that he reckoned that he had written the perfect country and western song. Coe wrote back to him that no, it wasn’t the perfect country and western song because it didn’t say anything at all about momma, or trains or trucks or prison or getting drunk. Goodman replied with the last verse to the song, which you can find at minute 3:05 in the video.

In case you can’t be bothered to listen that far, here’s the verse:

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pick-up truck
She got run over by a damned old train

A while later I learned that David Allen Coe was coming to play in Hickory. This was pretty big news, because nobody ever came to play in Hickory. So I snapped up a ticket and turned up at Yesterday’s night club for the evening’s entertainment. It started late and turned out to be more of a brawl than a concert. Coe appeared to be drunk or stoned and had a hard time making it to the end of a song. This being my first time at an event of this type, I thought perhaps this was how country and western concerts were supposed to be. The rest of the audience seemed to share my patience for the most part, perhaps hoping that he might sober up before the end of the evening. However, at last one guy had had enough – or maybe he had an appointment or had just got a call that his wife was about to give birth. Whatever the reason, he rose to leave, leading the incensed balladeer to leap from the stage, displaying surprising agility for one so obese, intoxicated and heavily medallioned, and proceed to administer his own unique brand of response to customer feedback. Or at least he would have, were it not for the intervention of the security guards. This brought the evening’s proceedings to a close.

It is worth noting here that Coe’s other hit was a little number entitled If That Ain’t Country, I’ll Kiss Your Ass, so perhaps the offending spectator had conveyed, whether through body language or maybe an ironically arched eyebrow, that in his opinion, Mr. Coe was not country and the latter was merely attempting to deliver on his promise. If so, I would have to strongly disagree. I have seldom witnessed anything before or since as country as Mr. Coe.

Yesterday’s and the Sandy Ridge Bar are long gone, the latter forced to close by one too many shootings, but the fond memories remain.

But back to Sir Mashalot. Remember him, he’s the one getting the performance bonus for his proof that, unlike in the good old days of David Allen Coe and the Sandy Ridge Bar and Grill, all country songs these days are so formulaicly interchangeable as to actually be the same song, right down to the guitar solos. I’m going to let this amazing Youtube video do the talking.

If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass.


Talking through his hat – if he had one

22 Jan

Every year two events take place, which on the surface bear a passing resemblance to each other.

State of the UnionIn a country that prides itself on it’s no nonsense, get-it-done ethos and professes little time for ritual trappings, pomp and ceremony, a man stands up to deliver a speech outlining his lofty ideals and proposals for the coming legislative year. His soaring rhetoric is broadcast live and analyzed for days or even weeks by various pundits and talking heads. None of the proposals contained in the speech will ever happen.

A few months later, in a country with a whole tourist industry built on the desire of people from the first country to see men in bright red coats and silly furry hats remain totally motionless for hours, an old lady in a silly shiny hat, from whom the first country fought a war to free itself, sits virtually motionless for an hour in a very big chair and reads out a legislative program as if it were a shopping list. Nobody pays it much attention. Virtually all of it will happen in the coming year.

For people in the first country, if they ever become frustrated by how pointless the splendid occasion they are witnessing really is, the answer is simple. To render it less ridiculous, and take a step towards a functioning democracy, make the guy wear a silly hat. After all, the last time their democracy worked, they were all wearing wigs.

Apologies for not providing a photograph of the Queen’s speech to Parliament. I couldn’t find one that was royalty-free.

The Broadway Hotel Approach to Bad Reviews

21 Nov

It’s a well deserved performance bonus to the management of the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool for their outside the box thinking on dealing with bad reviews on Trip Advisor.

According to the BBC, the small print in their booking form contains the following innovative wording:
“Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not.
“For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review.”

A glance at the hotel’s page at Trip Advisor affords a glimpse of how the hotel is viewed by travelers. ““Fawlty Towers it’s not – at least that looked clean” is one of the less derogatory comments. The words “filthy,” “disgusting” and “hotel inspector” pop out from the page.

Two of these travelers were Tony and Jan Jenkinson, whose forthright description of the hotel began by calling it a “filthy, dirty rotten stinking hovel run by muppets” and concluded with the observation, “If you are offered this place to stay for a fortnight for 10p, you are being robbed!!” Tony and Jan were rewarded for their diligence in warning fellow travelers with an unexpected charge of £100 on their credit card bill, on top of the £36 that their one night stay cost (I think most stays are one night).

Oh, Tony and Jan – why didn’t you read the small print?

Outside the box thinking

When asked about this unusual policy, a tongue-in-cheek John Greenbank, North Trading Standards Area Manager, said it was a “novel” way to prevent bad reviews. But I think Mr. Greenbank has got it all wrong. At £100 per bad review, why on earth would the Broadway Hotel’s owners wish to prevent them? Under this ingenious business plan, the more bad reviews they get, the more their profits soar. This is exactly the kind of outside the box thinking that British business so often lacks. As I write this there are 146 “Terrible” reviews on Trip Advisor. That’s £14,600. That’s not to mention the 24 “Poor” reviews for which, I think we can agree, management would be entirely justified in charging at least eighty quid each.

What’s good for the Broadway, however, is not so good for others. It is a feature of Trip Advisor that, when you select a particular hotel, a new window opens with the title “Similar hotels.” My heart goes out to the Kings Hotel, the By the Beach Hotel and the intriguingly named Sinatra’s Hotel, all of which popped up in this window of shame. Given their generally positive reviews, they do not deserve such ignominy.

My New Review Policy

All of this gives me an idea. Taking a leaf out of the Broadway Hotel’s check-in register, I intend to implement a similar policy to squash unwelcome and unflattering reviews of my books. The following policy will be displayed prominently on this website and printed in the books.

“Despite the fact that my wife quite liked my book and my mother said she supposed it was alright, if you liked that kind of thing, you and other tasteless bozos like you may not like it. For every bad review left on any website the reviewer will be charged a maximum of £100 or $156 per review.”

It is a source of great regret that I can’t think of a way to apply the policy retrospectively to people like “Emily” who started her Amazon review of The Rise and Fall of T. John Dick with disarming frankness by stating, “I hated this book,” and proceeded to give it one star, despite adding that the author was “a strong writer” and it was in fact the main character that she didn’t like. Those are pretty words, Ms. Henlein, but you still gave it one star. That will be $156 please. No, just a minute – you also posted the review to Goodreads and Library Thing. That will be $468 altogether. A check will be fine, thanks. Contact me for my mailing address.

A year or so ago, I told readers about Haziq, the fourteen year old boy in Malaysia who awarded one star to The Management Secrets of T. John Dick at Goodreads. The experience of reading my book appears to have soured him on the whole reading thing, so that one year on, this is still the only book he has ever read. Time to stump up, Haziq, and yes we accept Malaysian ringgits.

Of course, it won’t be as easy to implement this policy as it was for the Broadway. Except for those who purchase from this website, I don’t actually have access to credit card data. However, I am working on an email to Amazon right now. I’m sure they will be interested in this new revenue stream, from which they will demand a hefty cut.

And you can rest assured that, in order to make the most of this exciting new income opportunity, I will be careful to ensure that any books I write in the future will be even worse than those I have produced to date. Are you ready, Emily?


A note to anyone completely lacking a sense of humor. First, what a nice surprise to see you here! Second, I am not serious, I will not really charge you for a bad review. I feel it is important to make this clear to you as you belong to the group of readers most likely to leave such a review.

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