Fury – you ain’t no role model bruv

I love the Leytonstone hashtag, though it’s pretty rubbish that onlookers would rather capture the idiot on their phones rather than collectively jump the man.

The other weekend idiot was Tyson Fury and I have adapted the hashtag for him. On one thing the boxer is right; he didn’t choose to become a role model. But it’s a by-product of our celebrity culture that he’s become one. There is no Role Model Selection Committee as there is for public appointments. It just got foisted on him.

A boxing champion is what many youngsters aspire to and in the past many, like Henry Cooper and Frank Bruno, conducted themselves as gentlemen. Fury’s rants over homosexuality in particular have rightly provoked widespread outrage.

There’s a body called the British Board of Boxing Control that is going to meet on Wednesday to discuss his poisonous message. Wednesday? Do they not realise the damage he is doing to their sport on a daily basis? They appear to be too sleepy a bunch to act in realtime like the rest of us.

Sadly this is also true of the BBC. To have not taken him off the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist suggests they don’t think his comments were harmful.  Now, they could receive 75,000 strong petitions calling for all sorts of bigotry and I don’t think this is a simple numbers issue. He wouldn’t be allowed to get away with saying about homosexuality if he was targeting black people, so why has our public service broadcaster not provided here the service the public deserves?


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How do poor kids become obese?

I remember in the 1980s miners strike when whole towns in the north were being decimated, the unpleasant right wing journalist Auberon Waugh went to visit one of those stricken communities and asked some men: “If you’re so poor, how comes you’re so fat?”

My right wing friends I was at university with at the time found that very amusing. I thought it rather cruel.

The same issue has come back to me recently. I am advising one of the London mayoral candidates  (guess which one?) on a new food vision for London and in my various meetings and reading research there are clearly two major problems facing London’s youngsters in food poverty and obesity.  Nearly a quarter of a million children are now eligible for free school meals in the capital alone, their parents saying they haven’t got enough money to feed them regularly.

Yet obesity rates are soaring in that same age and social category.

So how do you square these parallel trends? A walk down any inner city high street gives you the answer. The proliferation of kebab and fried chicken shops offer meals so implausibly cheap parents who can’t afford to or can’t be bothered to cook a meal for their families will find it easier and perhaps cheaper to send their kids off to those places after school (what do the parents feed themselves, I wonder).

Something like a third of London children go to school without breakfast and so their learning is adversely affected, thereby creating in future ever widening inequalities. There are many impressive projects funded by groups like the Mayor’s Fund for London. I used to be a trustee there and went once to visit a school in Islington where two thirds of the children had no breakfast and we funded a programme to provide food for them instead.

Benefits cuts and low paid jobs are of course crucial factors but according to a GLA member’s report it will cost £58 million to provide free school meals to all primary school children in London.  That’s on top of current provision for children from low income families.  However you look at it, that’s a lot of money.  That’s just term-time costs I imagine – what happens in the holidays?

But if we don’t undertake initiatives like this, the public purse will probably be paying out larger sums down the line, especially in our hospitals and wider health care provision. And we need to make those free school meals healthy and nutritious otherwise we end up making things momentarily better but longer term worse.

I remember being pounced upon by the other visitors to that Islington school when suggesting that by us paying for these kids’ breakfasts we were effectively abrogating the responsibility of their parents to feed their children, surely a fundamental duty.  I said I would prefer to meet the parents and discuss how to make their ends meet better so as to allow them to do that than feel pity for their kids.

I don’t envy Sadiq if/when he becomes Mayor on how to find a solution to this. But find a solution we must.

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Tackling fryer with fryer

Next month in Tottenham, a revolutionary new way of tackling our younger generation’s obsession with fried chicken is being launched. It’s so compelling that you have to wonder, as with so many great discoveries, why no-one has done this before.

And what, you ask, is this great alternative to the fried chicken shop? Why, it’s a fried chicken shop, only Chicken Town will be unlike its high street competitors by being an ethically driven social enterprise, using properly reared chicken and healthier oils which won’t clog up your arteries and then in time clog up our hospital corridors. It’s a project driven to tackle the ever more obvious need to think outside usual boxes to stem the tide of obesity and related diseases young people are inflicting on themselves.

The cleverness of the idea is in engaging adult customers in the evening to come into a restaurant for what most adults I know love to do which is to eat good fried chicken (look at smart restaurants like Lockhart which sells a portion to adoring customers at £12.50) in a restaurant environment with nice drinks. The cleverness is that the profits this part of the business is set to generate then get used to subsidise £2 boxes for schoolkids during the day, alluring them away from their dodgy competitors.

Once again initiatives like this or Jamie Oliver’s sugary drinks tax show that businesses are way ahead of governments in tackling systemically growing health problems.

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The tales of two inmates

The more time I spend in prisons, the less I feel I have yet to understand what goes on in an inmate’s mind.

Yesterday I spent three hours in a Young Offenders Institute with eight prisoners doing something I wouldn’t have imagined participating in and which you might think a frivolous activity but which was deeply impactful. In groups of two, in a project developed by great organisation called Create, they were making stories for their children.

They then were bringing them to life in art, creating pictorial collages which would then be part of a printed book containing a CD on which they would record their story and present it to their children.

I spent time with each of them watching their tattooed, muscle-ripped arms make dainty cardboard cut-outs of mermaids, work out how to make glitter to make their picture sparkle and read their stories in animated voices.

Fascinatingly, whilst all the stories had very different characters (dinosaurs and lions, I found out, were commonly adopted) they had a very similar message – a big character was separated from their loved ones and in their various tales all eventually returned home with the promise that they would then stay together forever.

A lot of the work I do with prisoners and ex-offenders is around training them for a world of work and indeed each one of the men I met had commercial or career ambitions for when they were released. They need jobs to engage them away from a return to crime. That’s usually us telling them what they need.

What Create brought out of the groups like the one I was with yesterday was miles away from the commercial cases against re-offending. Perhaps articulating their feelings of being separated from their children will help bolster the work of projects like Bounce Back and Switchback who successfully manage to buck the pattern of returning to crime in the absence of any alternative.

If you want to see the meaning of the phrase a picture tells a thousand words, come with me next I visit them.

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Celebrating migration

In a week when a British Bangladeshi girl in hijab is on our front pages probably for the first time in a story un-connected to Isis and instead because she is the favourite to win the Great British Bake Off, in a month when we have seen the horrors of those fleeing Syria and other awful places to up roots and seek a better life for themselves here, the idea that Britain has a permanent Museum of Migration has more appeal than ever.

I met with the creators of the idea recently – Barbara Roche, a former immigration minister and Robert Winder, the author of Bloody Foreigners which is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand what being British really means in all its multi-layered complexities. Ever since the end of the ice age we have been invaded, populated, swamped by peoples from somewhere else. And of course in turn we have gone on to invade, populate, swamp other countries often in equal measure.

Yet we still find it difficult to accept migration as a positive force except when it comes to finding Jamaicans post-war to come and run the NHS, Asians to make curry our national dish, eastern Europeans to fuel our even growing demand for construction workers. Attacks on synagogues and mosques are higher now than they have been for decades so clearly we have yet to learn to celebrate how Britain got to be Great.

Thankfully Barbara and Robert’s plans to rectify this are gaining wide support and hopefully over the next year or so a permanent building will be created in London which chronicles the many highs and sometime lows of how the various bits of Lego weld together. Like with Lego, bits come off and others are added on. It looks like an odd construction but if we understand how the first piece came to be and what happened when the second, third, fifteenth, hundredth all came to add on we will understand the whole more fully than we currently do.

At Roast we have employees from 30 different nationalities serving up a traditional British dining experience. Case made.


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Refugees – what businesses can do

The picture that shook the world has galvanised many people into action rather than shouting at their TV sets. The government has albeit reluctantly allowed more in, local councillors are under pressure from their voters for each council to take in 50. Churches, mosques and synagogues are all stepping forward too.

But so far from what I can see as yet businesses aren’t playing their part.

So many times businesses these days are ahead of the social curve – whether it’s on sustainability, on employing ex-offenders or on implementing volunteering programmes. Yet we seem to have slipped up in not keeping up with the national mood and ethic this time.

We have hired refugees before. Like with ex-offenders they have proved loyal and hard-working team members, desperate for economic engagement to get away from their former lives. Businesses that have volunteering programmes could divert some their excellent activities to assist refugees find their way around our communities, how to make the most of housing they are being offered, how to make their way around the areas they now find themselves.

That’s a good start but we could so much more. We can hold fundraising events and activities, we can help them apply for jobs and we can as employers offer them jobs.

It sounds slightly mercenary but in London and other cities there are huge employment shortages – chefs, builders, cleaners. There will no doubt be higher qualified people among those we are now taking in, but we all start somewhere, right? Why not combine their anguish with our commercial needs and see if we can get them working for us where appropriate?

I’m surprised business organisations are not calling for such initiatives. A bit more joined-up thinking could yield big results.

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In defence of Michelle Mone

I hadn’t heard of her much until recently, both with news of her appointment to the Lords and now heading up a government programme to promote entrepreneurship amongst our most disadvantaged communities.

Early snidey comments about her image and her lingerie business (Lady Bra-Bra, as one paper dubbed her) were predictably cheap and based around the fact that she is blonde and attractive and therefore of course must be intellectually challenged.

These must be seen by her as predictable knee-jerk reactions to how she looks being more important than what she does. I imagine her Glaswegian upbringing makes her from sterner stuff than to be upset by such pigeon-holing. She’s probably used to it.

What staggers me more is how little journalists understand what it’s like to run a business. A BBC business reporter has chosen to dig around on her commercial activities and shock, horror it’s not always been easy – she’s had boardroom battles, then bedroom battles having to buy out her husband. Her company outsourced production to cheaper countries, as if it were a crime to give business to people with much greater economic problems than ours. And would you believe it, some times her profits fell – how on earth did she get so promoted in government? Well, you just have to look at her to see why – nudge, nudge wink, wink.

Undoubtedly if she produced widgets and looked like Ann Widdicombe there would be a lot less interest in her. But if the level of our business journalism amounts to little more than high-brow sexism coupled with low level understanding of the world of commerce,  Michelle Mone’s crucial message that entrepreneurship is a great driver out of poverty is in danger of being lost by its messengers.

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The Company aside, what about the Kids?

I’ve met Camila Batmanghelidjh and can see why, as is reported today in one of the papers, that the prime minister was enthralled by her. This must be more a revelation about him than her – firstly for someone who likes to be seen as a toughie and secondly as an indication perhaps to potential suitors seeking to befriend him because even if you do, you still get dumped.

Last year she came to a private breakfast meeting I hosted at The Cinnamon Club for south London gang leaders so I could encourage them to use their entrepreneurial skills and bring them to the safe side of the road. Also in attendance was a member of the House of Lords who told us about the time he went to visit her in Walworth and a huge seemingly deranged man came hurtling towards him brandishing a knife.

Camila quickly told him to stand behind her, which she did. She looked at the man and held out her arms. He hugged her and broke down in tears.

It’s amazing how little has been reported about the relentless work she has undertaken against many odds with some of our capital’s most troubled young people. Instead we all now know she has friends in high places (how else would she have got this project so far?) and her uses of funds may not have ticked the right boxes for charity bureaucrats and civil servants. Err – you cannot always deal with such vulnerable and hard to reach groups by getting people to fill in assessment forms and conventionally audit all the time.

There has been no suggestion that she personally undertook financial malpractice. The worst she is accused of is not being transparent enough with her board or engaged them fully enough as to why she conducted her brilliant work the way she did. In this she is no different from many heads of charities and social enterprises.

One of the reports this morning says government officials are now frantically scurrying around trying to find other charities to support now that The Kids Company is to be no longer. If this government really wants us to believe they are seeking to protect the most vulnerable in our communities and they had sufficient evidence that this charity could not stand up to sufficient scrutiny to warrant public funding, they should have given her a strict deadline to bring her house in order to continue to be backed.

It’s clear they have known about the issues there for some time yet I hear very little about the government officials who cocked this up so majorly that only this morning are they thinking about the kids themselves – and even then from what I can see only with an eye on public damage limitation.

Camila is sadly being hanged out to dry whereas the real culprits of this mess will never I imagine be named or shamed.


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Conducting the lead

A conductor who was trained under Leonard Bernstein and who performs with the St Petersburg Philharmonic has a very interesting and probably very lucrative sideline – he uses his experience to advise on leadership to Fortune 500 companies. He shows how different conductors use different styles to engage their teams from some who frantically wave their arms to control each section to the more laid back one who allow musicians to express themselves more.

A few years ago I took the opposite approach. I noticed a food runner at Roast who clearly saw his role as taking plates from the pass to the table as his sole mission. For him, there was just a starting line and a finishing line which he had to get to as quickly as possible. Inevitably he would occasionally barge into his colleagues and I thought it could only be a matter of time before he barged into a customer.

There are fancy management tools around like neuro-linguistic programming which among other things can make us aware of the physical environment that surrounds our given purpose but rather than try and introduce that, we engaged a theatre director. Each service, I thought, was like a show – everyone had their part to play but it needed choreographing. Dancers need to spark off each other rather than make a series of solo performances and the duty manager needs to be the conductor of that show.

Itay Talgam’s book The Ignorant Maestro takes that process further in a manner that most forward-thinking companies now understand. It’s not just your team who are your stakeholders – the audience has to be engaged too. If they don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing and just know what you’re doing, they’re not fully engaged.

Over the last few months I’ve been taking Talgam’s idea and raising it. I have been inviting some of our most regular customers to visit farms and producers whose wares they have expressed an interest to me in, so the supplier becomes a stakeholder. Recently I cranked up my activities with prisoners and their rehabilitation prospects through employment in the hospitality sector by hosting a mini Roast pop-up in a young offenders institute where we taught inmates to cook and serve a Roast menu to an audience made up of some of our customers and some of our suppliers. Our suppliers then become stakeholders, as do the charities and social enterprises we engage with as a responsible business.

And so the responsible business becomes the more complete business.

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Class snobbery in food health

For some time now I have been thinking, writing and talking about and the way in which fast food operators live in a largely unregulated world using saturated fats in fried chicken and the huge cholesterol and calories in burger joints. And rightly so – I told a friend who runs an east London hospital that across the road from him these businesses are creating the next generation of his patients by firstly clogging their arteries and then clogging his diabetes and cardio units.

Yet yesterday when I had a delicious cheeseburger at Roast I felt no much disdain. In the west end there is a very good American restaurant which serves fried chicken at £18 a dish and everyone loves it. The Soho House group have Chicken Shop and Dirty Burger in their growing empire. I wonder how many of their (or indeed our) well-heeled customers ask about saturated fats or calories. Hardly any is the answer.

The enlightened middle classes prefer to probe others rather than themselves, much in the same way I suppose that the medical profession has one of the largest proportions of heavy drinkers and big time smokers in their midst.

In trendy parts of London’s food markets the hot dog is undergoing a renaissance. In Soho, a new restaurant gaining a lot of fun coverage is serving only chips. Walk through Borough Market and you’ll see educated and well off visitors drooling over and devouring doughnuts. Yet we will condemn Greggs for serving things like these because of our concerns over diabetes.

Clearly there is a level of something mounting to hypocrisy in my and others’ indignation.

But out of all this there are some sensible and sustainable advances being made. In Tottenham, a project is under way to make a fried chicken place using ethically sourced poultry and healthier oils and more grill options where adults pay middle class market prices at night to subsidise the ability for school kids to buy a box at the same price as their regular usual haunts in day time.

Like many social enterprises, this adopts an “us and them” approach, where we, those who can afford to, pay up for goods or services our perceived “they” who cannot at the same price.

It’s a step forward for food democracy that we’re increasingly eating similar things now but I still can’t help feeling we – me included – are arrogantly dining our way in socially polar directions where things are OK for us to eat but not so much for others.

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