Posts Categorized: Misc

QUESTION THE QUESTION

Look at the top row of letters on your keyboard.
Reading from the left they are Q W E R T Y.
Have you ever wondered why they aren’t A B C D E F…etc?
Well, it’s all because of the way typewriters were invented around 1870.
The keys were connected to long pieces of metal that each had a letter on the end.
When you hit a particular key it raised that letter.
The letter banged onto an inky ribbon and onto the paper.
And that letter got printed.
Now originally typewriter keys were arranged alphabetically.
The problem was that some typists were really fast.
This meant the metal arms were flying up too quickly and getting jammed.
Fast typists were constantly having to unjam their keys.
So the people who made typewriters looked for a solution.
They couldn’t find a mechanical way to speed the typewriters up.
So they did the opposite.
They found a way to slow the typists down.
They put the most commonly used letters in the hardest to get places.
They actually designed the keyboard to be as inefficient as possible.
Which is why your keyboard starts QWERTY and not ABCDEF.
And it worked.
Typists were slowed down.
And typewriters stopped jamming.
But.
As the technology improved typewriters became electric.
In fact, with the IBM ‘Golfball’, there were no individual arms with keys on.
There was nothing to jam.
But the keyboard always stayed QWERTY.
Even though we don’t even have typewriters anymore.
We have laptops.
No keys, no ink, no moving parts at all.
So now we don’t need to slow anyone down.
Now everyone can type at top speed without fear of anything jamming.
But the keyboard is still QWERTY.
Why is that?
Why don’t we have the most efficient keyboard layout on our modern laptops?
Why do we still have a purposely inefficient layout, designed over a hundred years ago to slow typing down?
I think it’s because we can’t be bothered.
No one’s ever questioned it, so one ever questions it.
In fact no one even notices it.
Everyone just goes along with it.
How much of that do you think there is in our lives?
Things that we don’t question.
We accept them because that’s the way they’ve always been.
So it must be right.
Meanwhile we all, me included, carry on typing on our metaphorical QWERTY keyboard.
Take what we’re given.
At best we might grumble.
But that’s about it.
Our life is like sitting in a restaurant being shown the menu and choosing from the range of options available.
We never question the options.
We never decide what we want without looking at the menu.
We let our choices be dictated to us.
Whether by other people.
Or by circumstances.
Or complacency.
It could be a lot of things.
But one thing it isn’t.

Creative.

Read more on QUESTION THE QUESTION…

Editor’s blog: The difficulties of mega-philanthropy

I’m all for wealthy individuals giving their money away. But the issue isn’t straightforward.

John D. Rockefeller said: ‘It is a poor man who dies rich’. Well, by this measure Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are going to die poor. Or rich. Or whatever. The news that Gates has organised a get-together of a few dozen of his billionaire friends and persuaded them to hand over half their wealth to worthy charitable causes has created a minor sensation.

Buffett himself has promised to give away 99% of his wealth. ‘We called 70 to 80 people in the Forbes list,’ said Buffett. ‘It was a very soft sell but 40 signed up’. Those who have failed to sign up will find the old boy from Omaha on their tails as he continues to pursue them to do the right thing with their lucre. ‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future, so we’ll keep working,’ commented Warren over his cheeseburger and cherry Coke.

The whole extraordinary phenomenon of celeb-philanthropy has really taken off in the US. The super-rich compete against each other to give the most – it’s philanthropic willy-waving of the highest order. The latest offers are expected to inject at least $60 billion (£40 billion) into charities, and you can bet there will be more to come as they fight for a generosity mention in Vanity Fair.

I don’t for one minute want to dissuade wealthy individuals, from the UK or the US, from giving away money and these people should be applauded for their generosity. But the issue isn’t entirely straightforward.

Firstly, proportion is all. A billion-dollar giveaway gets loads of headlines, and it will go a lot further than ten in the effort to discover a cure for malaria. But it’s the thought and the sacrifice that count. One should be no less impressed by the generosity of normal (and even quite poor) folk who give away chunks of their cash that they could quite easily spend on food or the necessaries for themselves. What, in god’s name, is Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, supposed to do with the half of his $13.5 billion fortune that he hasn’t donated to charity anyway? Such sums are superfluous to any requirement he’ll ever have. How many yachts, football teams, Faberge eggs or Frank Lampard signed gold Iphones can a guy have in a lifetime?

Secondly, very rich people rarely give away vast sums without influence or control over where it goes. They don’t just sprinkle it out of the window of the Gulfstream willy-nilly. This has a good side: the rich tend to be good with cash and making it work for its living, and many charities are poor at spending money. Nobody would argue with Bill Gates’ crusade to eliminate malaria. That is a good thing. How can it be anything but a good thing? But choosing malaria rather than, for example, helping kids with learning disabilities in Kansas is a political act. These are the tough choices to do with resource allocation – and they are especially tough at the moment – that governments make. And governments are elected by us. Bill and Warren aren’t.

But these are quibbles. Much of the money given will do good things and those who benefit from it will be grateful. Would that we were better at it in the UK, where giving to support charity or the arts is poor compared to the US. It’s actually been quite a bad ‘sleb’ giving couple of days. We’ve watched the wretched appearance of mega-rich Naomi Campbell at the war crimes trial in the Hague: she claims she gave Taylor’s diamonds to a flunky who was then to give them to charity, and what happened to the dirty stones thereafter is anyone’s guess. It makes you wonder what sort of a world people like Naomi live in. You would have thought that her advisors – legal and PR – might have recommended a touch of respect for a UN War crimes trial, even a smidgen of humility. Let’s hope she finds them fast and hands them over to Warren so he can hand (99% of) them back to the poor of Liberia.

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WE COULDN’T GET ARRESTED

Imagine if we were trying to smuggle something past customs.
What’s the first thing we’d do?
We’d try to look as inconspicuous as possible, right?
We wouldn’t want to stand out.
We wouldn’t want anyone noticing us.
So we’d find out what everyone else was wearing.
Then we’d buy something similar.
Similar jacket, trousers, shoes.
Maybe give ourself a similar haircut.
Also similar luggage.
Check what everyone else is likely to be carrying.
Make sure ours fits in with that.
Not too expensive, not too cheap.
Not to shoddy, not too flashy.
If we’re lucky we can get through without being noticed.
We can blend in with the crowd and get away without being spotted.
Because if we’re smuggling something, the one thing we don’t want to do is be noticed.
Because, if we’re noticed, we might attract attention.
And if we attract attention, we might be stopped.
And, if we’re stopped we might be investigated.
And, if we’re investigated, they might find out what’s going on.
And then we’ll get arrested.
So, if we’re smuggling something, standing out isn’t what we want.
But hang on.
If we’re doing an advertisement that’s exactly what we do want.
We do want to be different so we stand out.
We want to stand out so we’ll be noticed.
We want to be noticed so people will be interested.
We want them to be interested so they’ll want to know what we’re about.
What’s going on.
We want to get arrested.
We want exactly the opposite of what we’d want if you were smuggling.
So why do we do advertising as if we were smuggling?
Why do we try NOT to stand out?
Why do we try to copy what everyone else is doing?
Why do we try to find out what the rules are for our sector, so we can obey them?
Why do we find out who are the most fashionable directors that everyone else is using, and use them?
Why do we make sure to find out what the awards juries voted for last year, and do that?
Why do we try to find out who are the voice-overs everyone likes, and use them?
Why do we ask panels of people to tell us what they expect the ads to look like?
Why do we try to fit consumers’ preconceptions?
Just the way all our competitors are doing.

Are we trying to get through unnoticed?
Do we want to get past without them spotting us?
To escape their attention?
Is it a result if no one sees us?
If so, why are we advertising at all?
Why don’t we just save all that money?
That way nobody will notice us and we won’t have to take any chances at all.
We can escape with no one ever having even seen us.
We can run our ads without ever having to worry or feel uncomfortable.

We can be absolutely certain we won’t get arrested.

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YOU CAN’T NOT HAVE A BRAND

I love to go into Muji and look around.
It feels like the design shop at a museum.
I’ve seen their stores in London, Tokyo, New York, and Paris.
The cool people go to Muji.
They like to shop there.
They like other people to know they buy stuff at Muji.
Because Muji is a very cool brand.
But is it?
Do you know what the name Muji means?
In Japanese, it’s short for ‘Mujirushi’.
Which actually means ‘no brand’.
There are no branded goods in Muji.
That was why it was founded.
That’s what makes it different.
Muji is for people who are not impressed by brands.
Muji is anti-brand.
And, that’s the brand it’s become.
See, brand is just another word for image.
And you can’t not have an image.
Even if your image is no-image, that’s your image.
We all learned in school that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’.
As soon as there’s a space with absolutely nothing in it, something rushes in to fill it up.
That’s how it is with our minds.
That’s all a brand is.
It’s whatever rushes in to fill the space.
We can’t be aware of something and have no image of it.
So awareness is image.
And image is brand.
So we can’t not have a brand.
That’s how it is with Muji.
Muji became a non-brand brand is for people who see themselves as too intelligent to be impressed by brands.
For instance, one of the first things Muji sold was U shaped spaghetti.
It was the same quality as the best straight spaghetti, but much cheaper.
This is because the U shaped pieces are usually cut off straight spaghetti and thrown away.
Muji repackaged them in simple cellophane wrappers with hand written labels.
The quality was identical at a fraction of the cost.
So they weren’t ‘cheap’ products, they were quality products for smart people.
And that became their image.
Discerning, confident, minimalist.
Anti-bling.
The diametric opposite of the WAG culture.
In fact minimalist pretty much describes every aspect of Muji.
Basic, no frills, understated.
This became a style of its own, cool and confident.
Very Bauhaus.
Form follows function.
Less is more.
The Japanese version of this is called ‘Kanketsu’.
Which means calm.
And that’s exactly the sort of feeling Muji has.
They started with just 40 products, now they have over 7,000.
They have nearly 300 stores in Japan alone, with nearly 4,000 employees.
You can find the Muji non-brand either selling or associated with: clothing, stationery, music, food, watches, flowers, furniture, phones, yoga, campsites, cars, and house construction.
All when conventional marketing wisdom says you can’t launch anything without a brand.
And you certainly can’t be successful without a brand.
When most marketing conversations are about the brand.
When most research is about the brand.
When most advertising is about the brand.
Muji not only started with ‘no brand’.
It also started with ‘no marketing’.
And continued with ‘no advertising’.
Because Muji observed a basic truth.
When everyone else is all doing the same thing, don’t follow them.

Do the opposite.

Read more on YOU CAN’T NOT HAVE A BRAND…

Editor’s blog: The not-so-green green grass of home

Despite my Welsh roots, I can’t see much for the Principality to be optimistic about at the moment.

The more observant among you will have noticed that my surname is not very English. It’s very Welsh. When they found themselves on their uppers in Pembroke Dock during the 1860s, my ancestors got on the Son of Glendower’s equivalent of a coffin ship and didn’t get off until it reached Chile. However, something went wrong out there – maybe they didn’t take to the Merlots of the Maipo valley – and the Gwyther parents appear to have perished, leaving the kids to return to the UK and settle with a maiden aunt in the East End of London.

So I take a distant interest in what goes on West of Bristol and Chester. And it’s not often that news from the Principality fills one with hope or joy. Economically, Wales is not in good shape. It’s hugely reliant on the public sector, and its private sector businesses are too small in number and in size (Wales’ largest quoted company is Admiral insurance with 3,000 staff). The Welsh don’t make as much noise as the Scots or the Northern Irish when complaining about the relationship with Westminster, and as a result, fewer taxpayer pounds have been flung at them. They blew what soft money they got from the EU and HMG trying to attract large manufacturers into Wales with grant aid; these perfidious people then promptly dropped the Welsh in favour of cheaper workforces in Asia or Eastern Europe.

The think-tank Oxford Economics estimated that in 2006-07 – before the crash – tax revenues of £19.3bn were raised in Wales, compared to Government expenditure of £28.2bn – a fiscal gap of £9.1bn. Public expenditure per head in Wales is higher than most of the English regions (although lower than in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Up to date GDP per capita figures make pretty grim reading, as well. The UK is led by Greater London on £35,000, while at the bottom of the scale come perennial underachievers Scotland on £20,000 and Northern Ireland on £16,000. But the wooden spoon goes to Wales, with £15,200. Oxford Economics predicts that Wales will take longer than any other UK region to get back to employment levels pre-crash: it will be later than 2025.

The issue of the Welsh language is a vexed one. Its supporters protest it’s good for the Welsh economy – it certainly created jobs for public sector pen-pushers when the going was good. But now times are tougher, worrying about getting everything translated into an ‘Insular Celtic’ language only spoken by 22% of the population looks like fiddling while Carnarvon Castle burns. It was a fair bet that George Osborne was going to set about slashing wasteful things Welsh faster than you could say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllantysiliogogogoch. So the axe has already fallen on a chunk of Welsh language TV station S4C. S4C is a Daily Mail news editor’s wet dream. It receives in excess of £100m a year from HM Government and is currently trying hard to explain how it officially recorded zero viewers on 196 out of its 890 programmes during one month earlier this year. (Indeed, just 139 of the station’s entire output for the period were watched by more than 10,000 viewers.)

The estimable Julia Hobsbawn of Editorial Intelligence invited me to the first of her ‘Names Not Numbers’ get-togethers in Port Merion. When we all arrived, we were addressed by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh parliament Dafydd Elis-Thomas. Despite the fact that not one member of his audience understood the language (and his fluency in English), Mr Thomas addressed us in Welsh. We were all supplied with expensive Sennheiser headphone and a simultaneous translation – all no doubt paid for by the taxpayer.

You could argue this was not only silly but slightly discourteous. Nelson Mandela didn’t open the World Cup with an oration in Xhosa. But apparently if it got out Lord Elis-Thomas had uttered a word in public in the language of the imperialists he’d have been lynched on his arrival back in the Caerdydd (Cardiff). Yaki da, (iechyd da) your Lordship.

All this, and Tom Jones didn’t even get to Number One this weekend. What hope is there for the Welsh when that happens?

Read more on Editor’s blog: The not-so-green green grass of home…

Guardian readers

I was recently talking to someone who was asked to work on a skin-whitening product for India.
The people at his agency were horrified.
They thought it was an example of racism and white supremacy.
And, for Guardian readers living in the UK, that makes sense.
But hang on a minute.
Does that apply to people living in India?
Maybe they want lighter faces.
But that doesn’t mean they want to be Caucasian.
It doesn’t mean they want to copy us.
It probably just means they want to be what they are, but with lighter skin.
Why shouldn’t they?
Why can’t they be allowed to do what they want?
I want to get a suntan.
It doesn’t mean I want to be a Negro.
It means I want to be what I am, but with a darker skin.
In Jane Austin’s day, well-off English people wanted fairer skins.
It was called the English Rose complexion.
It was a sign of being well off and not having to work outside.
People who worked outside were rougher and course and indelicate.
So young ladies didn’t want to look like that.
Nowadays we don’t think whiter-than-white skin is attractive.
We think it looks pale and sickly.
In Vanity Fair there’s an ad with Tilda Swinton looking like an albino.
White skin, white hair, white eyelashes.
To me it looks like a corpse.
But someone must think it’s attractive because it’s advertising diamonds, and pearls, and gold jewellery.
So what looks good to me doesn’t look good to everyone.
It’s the same in the Far East.
My mother-in-law is Singaporean.
Racially she’s Chinese.
In the sun she always carries an umbrella.
When we go on holiday, and I’m lying in the sun trying to get a tan, she’s under the umbrella trying not to.
My father-in-law is also Chinese.
He owned a large plumbing contractor’s.
He was always proud of having dark skin on his face, forearms, and legs.
Because it showed he was always outside in the sun, on the job with the workers.
My father-in-law enjoyed being dark, my mother-in-law didn’t.
None of this is racial.
People want to be what they are, with alterations.
What’s wrong with that?
People dye their hair, so the grey doesn’t show.
Is that age-ist?
People wear contact lenses because they don’t want to wear glasses.
Is that sight-ist?
People diet because they don’t want to be overweight.
Is that fat-ist?
It used to be a sign of prosperity to be fat.
Nowdays it’s the opposite.
One of our senior account handlers, Sonia Sheeta, is half Anglo-Indian, half Egyptian.
Some of her relatives were visiting from abroad.
They said to her “What a strange country this is: the poor people are fat and the rich people are thin.”
It’s just the opposite way round where they come from.
So just notice how intolerant Guardian readers are of other cultures’ differences.
How they expect everyone to have the same values as them.
Currently they are outraged because, in India, Facebook even has an application to allow people to lighten their skin for their profile picture.
Is this really any different from applying makeup before you have your passport picture taken?

I bet Guardian readers do that.

Read more on Guardian readers…

Editor’s blog: Driven round the bend

TFL has taken its incompetencies to new lows. If they don’t sort it out by 2012, there are going to be more than just red faces.

I’ve had a frothy rage about transport in London in this blog before. But it’s high time I was given a second chance to vent some more spleen. Just got to get some of this off my chest. Those of you living portfolio lives in the Yorkshire Dales or Western Pembrokeshire turn away or start to smirk now.

The Gwythers went off for a couple of days in Devon last weekend. After 48 hours of Dartmoor delight it was with a heavy heart that I started the engine at 4pm on Sunday to begin the long trek home. But it wasn’t caravans on the M5 or accidents near Swindon that brought us to grief. No – we made incredible progress until Heathrow, when we were felled by: the M4 bus lane. I thought this nasty white elephant, the bastard son of Prescott, was going to be abolished. But no. It still sits there in all its idiocy. Apparently it has no cameras to police it and the Met have lost interest so your chances of being fined for joining the smattering of taxis are pretty minimal.

After an hour’s fuming, no sooner had we accelerated to about 9 mph on the Hammersmith flyover than we ground to a halt again, as to my utter disbelief the A4 at the Cromwell Road into London was shut – and will remain closed for the whole of August – to fix the gas mains. Every poor fool on the main road from the West into London is now forced into one lane and down through Earls Court.

It has been a shocking couple of years for the roads in London. The capital currently has more trenches being dug than during the Battle of the Somme. One dreads to think what the cost to business and UK plc will be, never mind the collective stress levels of the nation. Thames Water are replacing the Victorian mains everywhere at a pathetic pace with little or no regard for anyone except their shareholders. (Why can’t some really clever engineer invent a method to replace underground pipes that doesn’t involve digging down from the surface and then re-filling the hole?)

What has to happen with utilities companies is they need to bear the true cost of the travel disruption they cause. It must be made to hurt them. This is the only way to end a shambolic system that enables them to get away with shutting roads for months on end – and the Albert Bridge for a year and a half.

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Editor’s blog: The lessons of Tony Hayward

What the Deepwater saga has taught us about BP, Big Oil, and the ‘special relationship’.

There’s a tart irony that, as part of his punishment for Deepwater sins, Tony Hayward is being sent to Siberia. He’ll become a director at TNK-BP, the group’s troubled Russian joint venture, when he leaves the oil company in the autumn. The incoming CEO Bob Dudley will be able to give his ex-boss a few tips on dealing with the KGB and the lawless nature of doing business Russian-style – though after his savaging at the hands of the Americans, it may well feel like a walk in the park.

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PRINCIPLES ENDURE, FORMULAS DON’T

There was a very smart client in New York, in the early 60s, called Bob Townsend.
He took over at a struggling little car rental company called Avis.
4,000 years before, Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism) said: “The wise man knows he doesn’t know. The fool doesn’t know he doesn’t know.”
Well Bob Townsend was a wise man.
He knew he didn’t know about advertising.
But he knew he needed a great agency to help turn Avis round.
So he contacted a dozen or so of the top agencies on Madison Avenue.
He asked them a simple question: “Who are the two best advertising agencies in New York?”
All twelve agencies gave him the same answer.
“The two best agencies are ourselves, and Doyle Dane Bernbach.”
So, since everyone agreed that DDB was one of the best agencies in town, Bob Townsend gave them the account.
What happened next is probably the best advertising campaign ever.
And it revolutionised Avis’s fortunes.
Like most of DDB’s work it was revolutionary, iconoclastic, ground-breaking.
My generation grew up on Bill Bernbach.
He was the man who invented good advertising.
Before Bernbach, and DDB, advertising was just about billing.
The winner was the one who had the biggest agency making the most money.
So what if the ads were crass and patronising?
Who cared as long as you were getting rich?
Bernbach changed all that.
He made it about creativity.
The winner was the one who did the best work.
Work you were proud of.
Work that treated people with intelligence.
Work that everyone in the agency was thrilled to be a part of.
We hoovered up every word Bill Bernbach said.
But I’m aware lots of youngsters today just think he’s an old dinosaur.
Part of the dim and distant past.
The other day I saw a photocopy of some hand written notes from Bill Bernbach.
See if it looks like a dinosaur wrote it.

“Merely to let your imagination run riot, to dream unrelated dreams, to indulge in graphic acrobatics, is NOT being creative.
The creative person has harnessed their imagination.
They have disciplined it so that every thought, every idea, every line they draw, every light and shadow in every photograph they take, makes more vivid, more believable, more persuasive the original theme or product advantage they have decided they must convey.”

“It is ironic that the very thing that is most suspect in business, that intangible thing called creativity, turns out to be the most practical tool available to it.
For it is only creativity that can compete with all the shocking news events and violence in the world for the attention of the consumer.”

“Principles endure, formulas don’t.
You must get attention to your ad.
This is a principle that will always be true.
HOW you get attention is a subtle ever-changing thing.
What is attractive one day may be dull the next.”

“Logic and over-analysis can immobilise and sterilise an idea.
It’s like love: the more you analyse it the faster it disappears.”

Personally I think we can still learn a lot from Bernbach.
As he says, “Principles endure, formulas don’t”
Today that could read, “Technology changes, people don’t.”
We still have to out think the competition.
That’s why, whatever field you’re in, you can learn from the greats who went before.
Isaac Newton described it as “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The way an artist can learn from studying Caravaggio.
Or a musician can learn from studying Mozart.
A writer can learn from studying Shakespeare.
A director can learn from studying Orson Welles.
A footballer can learn from studying Cruyff.
A boxer can learn from studying Ali.
A military man can learn from studying Rommel.
The philosopher George Santayana said,
“Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Maybe that’s what’s happened.
No one wants to learn from the past, which is why we’re repeating it.

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Editor’s blog: We’re balancing on a knife-edge

We could be heading for the dreaded double-dip. Didn’t someone warn us this would happen?

It’s not seemly to be melodramatic or alarmist but it feels like we’re on a bit of a knife edge at the moment. With the dog days of August soon to be upon us, on the one side of the blade is a slow but rather anaemic recovery but on the other is a slide back down into a second hollow of recession. With such miserable, non-stop talk of cuts and austerity in the air, it’s hard to accentuate the positive at the moment. Today’s second quarter GDP figures look encouraging on the face of it, but there’s a nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me it’s only be a blip rather the start of a long-term upward trend.

Old Bernie Bernanke Bernanke doesn’t help much when he tells a congressional committee that the US economy was ‘unusually uncertain’ at the moment. It is: the numbers from the US in recent weeks have been disappointing. The bounce over the other side of the pond may still be that of the dead feline.

There seems to be far too much grim news about. The Telegraph which has been the lead doom-sayer of this whole economic slowdown (with its Jeremiah-in-chief Ambrose Evans-Pritchard yelling like some mad monk week-in, week-out) has got a pretty gloomy piece recently about the commercial property sector by Jeremy Warner.

And Warner knows his onions. He cites a recent De Montfort University study which claims there are £300 billion worth of banking loans outstanding to the UK commercial property market of which around £50 billion are in breach of covenant. There has during this property cycle been a peak to trough fall of no less than 44% and some of those loans are now going to be called in and the blood will flow. Yikes, as they used to say in Scooby Doo.

I know commercial property isn’t the same kettle of fish as domestic bricks and mortar but weren’t we supposed to need a proper correction in property prices to get us back into sensible health again? As MT noted with alarm here, we couldn’t go on as we were spending on property.

Anyway, talking of property… we’re off to our new office in the burbs over the weekend. After 15 years in Hammersmith enough is enough, and we’re packing the crates for Teddington to join our chums on such fun magazines as Stuff, 442 and Gramophone. Even Dr Johnson would have tired eventually of London W6: the Hammersmith roundabout and flyover never get any more charming; the meaty waft from West Cornwall Pasties in the precinct no more alluring; and the Habitat and Books Etc have closed down. The lure of the giant Westfield means worse is to come. MT’s bright new future lies in going further West to find that crock at the end of the rainbow. God knows, we may be able to dominate the whole Thames Valley.

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