In an ideal world everyone would have food, water and housing and the state would provide health care and education systems that ensured your life expectancy was as good as your lifestyle and genes allowed. Oh! And there would be no conflict between people, and peoples, and everyone would live in harmony with one another. Yeah! Right! Sadly the ideal is submerged by the rising tide of individual and state egos and we stumble on in a very imperfect world.
For those of you who don’t plan, letting life dictate what you do, take heart from Professor Lord May of Oxford, who died recently aged 83. “I began as an undergraduate engineer,” he said, “became a professor of physics, was transmogrified to an ecologist then got interested in infectious diseases as an epidemiologist. None of this was planned; it just happened.”
In the UK there has been much criticism of the Public Health England’s lack of contingency planning for the current pandemic. In that ideal world there would be warehouses up and down the country stacked to the rafters with all sorts of gear that multiple government departments might need in case of an emergency; every year it would be checked, the ‘use by’ dates ensuring a turnover and further purchase to top up stocks. If you live in the UK you may recall a really cold snap many winters ago – snow blanketed the country and it ground to a halt? People moaned that we didn’t have enough snowploughs to cope, adding flattering comments about Canada or Switzerland. But they would be the first people to criticise HMG if they found that the cost of buying, storing and maintaining snowploughs in the once-in-a-decade likelihood of their use could fund three secondary schools. In an ideal world …….
The Civil Service has Contingency Plans for a whole myriad of scenarios, some more likely to happen than others. We now know there is one for a pandemic but that it wasn’t properly funded as other Government priorities demanded current attention. There will definitely be some for the funeral arrangements needed when the monarch dies. One that didn’t work well was for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and ascended the throne on January 22, 1901 upon Victoria’s death.
Born in 1841 he had had to wait a long time to succeed to the throne, being 61 at the time of the coronation (Note 1); he had married Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863 who bore him three sons and three daughters. The coronation was originally scheduled for 26th June 1902, but a few days before it was due to take place Edward had to undergo an emergency appendectomy, so it was postponed for six weeks until 9th August 1902. Imagine the chaos of all the international guests assembled in London having to stay somewhere for longer than planned! Bet there wasn’t any contingency planning for that! No ‘What If …..?’!
These scribbles are another example of how things in life evolve without any planning. Those of you who have been reading since the beginning look away now; briefly, on my second trip to Brazil in 2013 I got bored queuing for postage stamps in a Rio de Janeiro post office so sent my news electronically. Those addressees multiplied and when I returned home the ‘comments and thoughts’ email became a regular once-a-fortnight post on WordPress. This is now my 181st!
Some decades ago there was a potato shortage in Belgium caused by blight, and apparently Britain imported lots of Belgium potatoes to satisfy our demand for ‘fish ‘n’ chip’. For the sake of clarity as it doesn’t really matter, the price of potatoes in the UK went up from £50 per ton to £100 per ton. Charles Handy, a management guru whose books I devoured as much as Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate bars, met a chum, let’s call him Andrew, in a pub and in the course of conversation the potato shortage came up. He and Andrew simply moaned about the lack of chips!
Years later they saw each other again and Charles recalled the potato story. His friend said: “Well, you know what? I had a contact in India and was able to source 100,000 tons of potatoes at £55 per ton. Arranged transport and …….”. By this time Charles is not listening as his brain is whirring: £45 per ton cheaper, 100 thousand tons, that’s £4.5 million profit minus transportation and distribution costs. Now, why is it some people are always able to find the upside of a crisis and exploit it? Why didn’t I think of it? He tuned back in as Andrew was saying “…… but there were problems in getting an export licence and the whole opportunity was lost. Another pint?”
I spent a year enduring the Army Staff College course at Camberley in Surrey. I came away with some good memories and some not-so-good, but it was drummed into us that “proper planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance”! I had already learned that it’s actually training and rehearsals that prevent fuck-ups.
No matter how you look at it, every crisis provides an opportunity for someone. At the north end of our street, Albany Villas, there is/was a traditional barbers shop: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” – whether you agree with the sentiment or not, you will probably agree it’s a lovely name for a place that cuts men’s hair? The owners had been wanting to sell the business for months but resisted the local Iranian cartel who planned to turn it into another restaurant (we already have a number within 100m!). Then came the lockdown and the doors closed, the scissors and electric razors silenced. Incidentally I had not been a customer of theirs, preferring the attentions of Monika and Sebastian at Aguavida a few blocks away.
It remained that way until three weeks ago, when an enterprising Turk and his teenage son filled it with fresh vegetables and fruit, put up awnings outside to protect the produce from the unseasonally warm sun, and opened for business. Just a family wanting to make the most of these funny times; no planning, just thinking outside of the box ……… just happening.
Richard 21st May 2020
Note 1 There are parallels today as the current heir to the throne is 70!