Sacred spaces and a conversation with my father about opera

The word "sacred" tends to invoke ideas of gods, religion or spirituality. However, there is another meaning, which has grown through common usage, which simply means "too important or precious to be diluted or interfered with".

When was the last time you listened to music while doing nothing else?

In our modern western society this is a concept that we often forced to sidestep. We tend to multitask more than we realise. As a result, certain experiences become secondary, and as a consequence, their value is gradually worn away.

Music is the perfect example of this. I tend to treat music as a secondary experience. I don't listen to music. I tend to listen to music while...

While I am commuting; while I am cooking; while I am reading or writing; while I am tidying the house.

What I almost never do is put aside everything else and just listen to some music. This is hardly surprising. Most of us are so used to the fact that we are time poor, that the idea that you might just be doing one thing at any given time is almost ridiculous.

Therefore, carving out a sacred space requires dealing with physical, temporal and even conceptual issues. You need an isolated space, the time to listen and a clean mental slate where no-one is interrupting to you, least of all yourself. This is easier said than done.

The Doka Listening Bar in Amsterdam

Being constantly distracted is probably the defining trait of Westerners in the 21st century. However, with any cultural trend, there is always the inevitable backlash. Listening bars, an idea which originated in Japan after World War 2, have become increasingly popular throughout Europe in recent years. These bars don't just focus on creating an undiluted space, they also insist on using the best sound systems to take full advantage of it.

He may not realise it, but my father is also part of this trend. For several years, up until the pandemic threw a spanner in the works, he would gather a small group of like-minded friends to talk about opera and listen to various arias, especially from the from the Bel Canto tradition. These sessions are free of charge, apart from a small donation to cover the cost of hiring the venue. The format is always a selection of arias chosen by my father. In his own words, he doesn't want to challenge the audience with a full opera.

I sat down with him to discuss this – over zoom of course – and he told me that Bel Canto was originally the title for the operatic evenings.

"I used the phrase Bel Canto because what it means is beautiful singing, and its called a Bel Canto concert. That's how it started off but I don't need to title it any more because the patrons know what its about."

He told me how his interest in Opera was cultivated while listening to the radio at a young age.

"Years ago on the radio there was man from Clonmel, Tipperary on the radio called Tommy O'Brien who hosted a weekly programme on RTE. His great love was Opera and he had a house full floor to ceiling with records , particularly of operatic singers and complete operas. He travelled every week up to Dublin with a suitcase full of his own records which he brought to the studio. He was an absolute expert, and a genius, and he was unique."

My father then gave an impersonation of the man and his idiosyncratic style...

"I first heard John McCormack in the Royal Opera House Covent Garden playing the Tenor Role in Gianni Schicchi."

"Tommy O'Brien went on for years, and as a matter of fact he had a good tenor voice himself. He played nothing but operatic arias and short excerpts."

The Royal Opera House, Convent Garden

"My plan was never to play the hackneyed arias liked Nessun Dorma, The Flower Aria, or Your Tiny Hand is Frozen. I looked for the ones that were lesser known and then I discovered the Bel Canto composers: Gioachino Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini, and Gaetano Donazetti."

"Bellini was born about 1805 and he died at the age of 35 having composed a dozen of the most beautiful operas you ever heard."

In the last few years my father's constant search for such music has been made easier by the British company Opera Rara, who specialise in lost or hard to find operatic works. They re-record the principle arias of various operas, using some of the world's best contemporary artists.

I asked my father if he thought of himself as part of a movement?

"I have been told that I was carrying on a tradition although I never thought that myself. All of the regulars are my friends. Some old, some new. We book the musical evening and they simply all turn up and they are all familiar with the routine."

"Each piece has four headings, the aria, the singer, the opera and the composer. I then have a little script and I find myself including someone new I will research the background and tell the audience about them, and give a few details about the performance and any anecdotes which go with either the singers or the performance. I tend not to tell them about the operas themselves beyond the basic story outlines."

If the audience want to discuss things in more detail, he has a couple of experts to call upon who sit at the head of the table. Friends of his, who are both avid fans of opera and hugely knowledgeable on the subject. They will often chip in with an anecdote or a bit of background information.

"I will play Callas singing an aria from Rigoletto and they might add that she was only 25 and that was her first time performing the piece."

One of the common themes of listening bars around the world is that patrons should remain absolutely silent while experiencing to the music. I asked my father if he had a policy on silence for his participants? He just laughed.

"You will never hear a word. They will make an excuse if they so much as cough. Even when listening to music in absolute silence the sense of community and friendship is the most important thing."

The responses are usually polite rather than expressive, and actual applause is rare and therefore striking.

"On one occasion a performance of Mozart's 8 minute long Ruhe Sanft by the American performer Beverly Sils, earned huge round of applause."

"The other reaction is when people want to discuss what they have just heard. There is one aria by Maria Callas (A strange woman with a most unusual voice) there was one aria which she sings and she hits the top E but she also goes down to almost a baritone at one point. She was the only one who could do this. She was a woman who had three different personalities and she would display them at all at different times."

We ended the call with a brief lesson on the nature of operatic arias. How they are highly formal musical pieces not really given to interpretation and how they don't actually have names, being referred to by either the first words of the aria, or gaining a nickname over time.

As with so many things, lockdown has brought these sessions to an end. However, he fully intends to bring them back once the restrictions are relaxed. One day I hope to take part.

Football, water carriers and why you should never, ever employ a Rock Star

September 1996 saw Manchester United come up against Juventus in the group stages of the Champions League, the kind of fixture that even neutral fans would mark in their calendar. Even better, it saw United's superstar Eric Cantona going up against his countryman Didier Deschamps. The battles on the pitch went the way of the Italians with Juventus winning home and away, but in the war of words between their French players, there was only ever going to be one winner.

Cantona disdainfully flicked away his rival by damning him with the faintest of praise. "He gets by because he gives 100%, but he will never be more than a water carrier". Dechamps had no choice but to agree. “A water carrier? Yes, that’s exactly what I am. Great teams are not just created by the architect but also by bricklayers and hod carriers.”

Cantona, of course, would end up being so much more than your average footballer. He was a renaissance man equally fond of philosophy, art, and kicking mouthy Crystal Palace supporters. Deschamps went on being a water carrier - tackling and passing his way to a bucketload of titles, and eventually leading his country to win the World and European Cups. It should come as no surprise that of the two, he was by far the more successful footballer.

Talent with the wrong attitude can be a real problem for management

Cantona was a rock star whose talent and ego, combined with the indulgence of others, produced something part angel and part demon. He was probably the first real rock star that the Premiership and satellite TV ever produced. Like a lot of rock stars, he fundamentally misunderstood the importance of his role. This is not to say that he wasn't a genius. Earlier that year he and Peter Schmeichel had combined their talents to achieve five one nil victories in two months, which ultimately led to United overhauling Newcastle on the way to winning the Premiership.

Being what he was, he inevitably misunderstood both the difficulty and the importance of being a so-called water carrier.

Deschamps is hardly unique in being dismissed in this fashion. Claude Makélélé was a pivotal part of Real Madrid's success in the three years he spent at the Bernabéu. But when he requested that he be paid a similar amount to Real's galacticos - Zidane, Figo, Raúl, and Ronaldo - the management derided both his importance and his abilities and shipped him off to Chelsea. Whereupon he became a pivotal part of the West London club's rise to the top of the European game. For their part Real spent millions trying to replace him. It didn't go well.

Rock star developers

In the software industry everyone seems to be looking for rock stars. You see it in far too many job advertisements. It often gets lost in the array of idiotic adjectives that seem to attach themselves to tech job descriptions: gurus, ninjas, evangelists, etc...

The rock star is the worst of them. They myth goes that the rock star is talented to a supernatural degree. He or she will produce more and better code than a dozen mere mortals. Ordinary developers create complex solutions to simple problems; great developers create simple solutions to complex problems. Rock star coders supposedly go beyond that and just make your problems disappear. It's a myth, and a problematic one.

Obviously we are not talking about real rock stars. They don't sell records or play stadiums. They don't trash hotel rooms, or drive their gold-plated Rolls Royces into Les Paul shaped swimming pools. But they have the attitude, the ego, and the monstrous self-entitlement, and that is the problem.

Rock stars don't make your team better. On the contrary, they will inevitably make your team worse. This is because they don't understand the value of water carriers.

The problem with clichés

The real problem with clichés is that they are true, so true that they become dull and trivial, and it's a cliché that it takes a team to win. Rock stars often don't get that. In their world the rest of team are either there to make them look good, or else they are just along for the ride. I should know. I used to be one.

I entered the graphic design industry in 1987, a time when Apple Macintoshes were wreaking havoc on the industry while transforming it into something entirely new. Those like myself, who excelled with both software and hardware found themselves in huge demand. We became as much prized for our IT skills as for our design chops.

This brave new world brought prestige clients, management roles, and consultancy work. But for me, it also nurtured an ego that eventually spun out of control.

When I started out I was determined to be the best I could be. After a few years I ended up being more concerned with making sure everyone knew how good I was. Your ego is a trap. It makes you blind to your mistakes, a pain to your colleagues, and a nightmare to manage.

The worst thing was that my unprofessional behaviour was often encouraged by many of those around me, because there is a horrible tendency for people in all industries to indulge talent.

What eventually cured me of this nonsense was starting my own company. Management and fellow workers might indulge your ego, but your clients will not. They simply walk away when confronted with unprofessional behaviour.

The other side of this coin is that when you start your own company you end up having to do all of the mundane things that you simply took for granted before. Ordering supplies, chasing invoices, book-keeping, etc..

In other words, you start carrying water.

So managers will always have this dilemma. There is no replacement for talent. There are no substitutes for skills, intelligence and experience. But talent can bring baggage, and every manager eventually has to weigh up someone's ability against their more negative attributes.

Rock star employees are assets and liabilities at the same time. However, the downsides are enormous if they are not managed properly, while their attitude makes them singularly difficult to manage.

They will upset your other staff. They will not recognise or admit to their own mistakes. Worst of all, they can undermine you in ways you never dreamed possible.

So why hire them at all?

The answer to that is simple. Don't.

Talent and ego do not go hand in hand. The Dunning-Kruger effect is ample proof of that. Yes, there are amazing developers out there with egos to match. But the reverse is also true. There are plenty of people who are brilliant at their job but don't feel the need to shove it in everyone else's face.

Which brings us back to Eric Cantona. A player who ultimately failed at the highest level because he never understood that for a team to win, the artist needs the water carrier just as much as the water carrier needs him.

Setting up a community sports league from nothing

Jon Kaufman is a legend in UK sport. Unfortunately it's in the wrong sport. Jon is the most successful Table Tennis club manager in England. His club London Progress were British Senior Premiership champions for 10 years in a row.

The idea was simple: tournaments for people who don't play tournaments.

Since moving on from club management a decade ago, Jon has concentrated on blogging and working in various West London schools as a coach. However, both his organisational skills and ambitions remained. In the Autumn of 2018, he came to me with an idea.

He wanted to create a London Table Tennis ranking scheme. A series of tournaments that would cram as many people as possible into a hall to experience the adrenaline rush of actual competition.

However, unlike other tournaments, these would be open to all.

Potential participants could be very young kids who were learning the game but were nowhere near basic tournament level. It might be adults who used to play as kids but gave it up years ago. It might be parents of regular tournament players who were used to coming as spectators, but who might want to scratch that competitive itch.

The philosophy boiled down to this: there should be absolutely no barriers to entry. Players could be of any standard. Their equipment could be as basic as possible. Above all, they did not have to be registered with Table Tennis England, which is a requirement for almost every other tournament. Finally, the events should be affordable. The whole point was to broaden participation as far as possible.

The problem was that nothing like this existed. If we were going to do this it would have to be done from the ground up. Happily, Jon had a number of soft assets at his disposal. His real legacy at London Progress wasn't its overflowing trophy cabinet. It was the network of players, coaches and managers who had all grown up in the club. Especially those players who had moved on to forge their own identities and carve out their own success stories. In particular he was able to draw on the help of Bhavin Savjani at the London Academy in Edgware, and Jason Sugrue at the Greenhouse Centre in Marylebone.

These London Progress alumni had access to players, resources, and most importantly venues. Spaces which they were generously prepared to put at our disposal for little or no cost. They also provided access to a ready made pool of players at various levels of ability.

The first tournament was put together in a rush. This was deliberate. Where new projects are concerned, Jon's philosophy is to generate as much momentum as you can, as soon as you can, and then just run with it.

It worked, sort of.

We ended up with 200 hundred players in a hall playing on 30 tables in six different talent bands. Each band acted as its own mini-tournament. Players were divided into groups and group winners went on to the knockout stage. The bands were divided on ability alone, not age nor gender. I have watched as an 11 year old girl beat a man in his mid-50s. I saw a top 30 UK senior player playing next to a couple of callow youths. I saw a woman of retirement age playing defence against an attacking player more than 50 years her junior.

It was a big success, but it was exhausting to plan, advertise and execute. So exhausting that it had seemed to me that it had absolutely no future.

This was a tournament being run on 20th century lines. People were phoning through their entries, or they would turn up at practice sessions with half a dozen scribbled sheets. Nothing was online, data was non-existent. Communications were haphazard, to say the least.

Advertising the tournaments involved travelling to clubs and public tables and trying to sell the idea to people one at a time. It was labour intensive and inefficient and frankly a pain in the neck. There was no way either of us was going to last long doing it this way.

What we needed was a number of tools to reduce the labour and repetition involved. Thankfully those tools are out there. Moreover, those tools are cheap and/or free and don't actually require that much knowledge to turn them to your advantage.

Getting online

First of all we needed a website. This was easy enough. I'm a web developer but there was no way that I was spending time on this project. So using WordPress and a nice free theme solved that problem. The website was up and running in the space of a couple of days.

Secondly, and most important was a mailing list. We began to sign up people to the website's mailing service. This service was created using Mailchimp. They provide a free service up to 2,000 recipients. Our business model depended on getting around 1,000 people participating in total, so we would never need to pay for their services.

So far, our outgoings were about £10 a month for web hosting services.

Finally we needed an online booking system. This was done using PayPal. Integrating PayPal into an online ordering form can be tricky, but it works really well. The costs involved are transactional. For every ticket we sell, PayPal takes a cut. So nothing was required up front.

By the time the third tournament started, the majority of entries were coming from the website. When this was combined with the players provided by the venues themselves, we never fell short of 200 entries for each tournament. More importantly, we didn't have to work that hard to get them. Each tournament involved sending out one email to advertise it, and another later one to remind people of the date as it approached.

On one occasion Jon rang me to tell me to take the online form down because we had sold out a week early.

So the tournaments continued to grow throughout 2019 and into 2020. By February of this year, we had over 850 players on the rankings list and we were well on our way to hitting our target of 1,000 participants.

And then the virus hit us.

Covid 19, of course, put an end to the tournaments. Packing people into a hall like sardines was no longer an option.

However, we had proved that this could be done. we proved that there was an appetite for rough and ready community tournaments. Once the virus is gone and the world returns to some semblance of normality, we might just prove it all over again.

Adult Education and digital poverty in the time of Covid

Education is one of the best routes into and back into the workplace. Training, and retraining has become vital to anyone wishing to get their first job, move back into work, or simply improve their career prospects. However, because education is increasingly being delivered online, digital poverty will increasingly lead to actual poverty and vice versa.

How can communities break the cycle of digital and real poverty...

Breaking out of the loop

Vicious circles are a type of feedback loop. One negative state or process leads to a second which in turn feeds back to the first. In cases like substance abuse the spiral is clear. Abusing drugs or alcohol has multiple negative consequences, such as guilt, physical deterioration or mental and psychological impairment. These states in turn leave the addict prone to further substance abuse, and so the cycle continues unabated.

Breaking a vicious circle is simple. You just have to remove one of the negative states and the loop will collapse. The problem is that simple and easy are not the same thing.

So how does this relate to digital exclusion?

If you are actively looking for employment, digital exclusion is increasingly becoming synonymous with actual exclusion from the workforce. The kind of training which umemployed adults will need in order to re-enter the workforce is increasingly being provided online. Therefore, digital poverty prevents opportunities, which in turn leads to further digital exclusion.

If the loop is allowed to continue the problem will eventually become insurmountable.

I recently took an online test with the national numeracy advocacy charity. They are doing excellent work in a vital field. However, in order to broaden their reach, all of their tutorials and resources are online. When I asked a representative of the charity about how this effected the digitally excluded, they admitted that this was a problem that they had not yet found a solution to.

This divide between those who are online and those who are not, is only going to get worse. The only realistic solution to this problem is to reduce digital exclusion to it lowest possible level.

But how?

The World's End And Lots Road Big Local (WELR) is a charitable organisation operating in Chelsea as part of a nationwide scheme. A program whereby hundreds of places in the UK are allocated £1 million in order to improve their local area from the grassroots up. Every Big Local area gets to define their own priorities, and for WELR, Jobs and Enterprise was near the top of the list. The charity has helped many local residents to enter the workforce or to set up their own business.

In that time, skills training has proved to be one of their most effective tools. Courses have been taken in security, construction site management, cosmetic and beauty qualifications, etc...

These courses have been effective in getting people back into work and off assistance. For any local area, a reduction in unemployment is hugely beneficial. Increased employment means a reduction in anti-social behaviour, more opportunities for local businesses, and above all a positive change in culture.

Our latest course, which as been taking place during lockdown, has been a combination of online and classroom learning.

The problem is the online part of the course. The exclusion has three aspects. Firstly there is a lack of access to decent broadband. Secondly is access to up-to-date technology. However, the third and most insidious problem is a lack of basic skills.

For someone like myself, who entered the workforce only a couple of years before PCs started to enter the office, the accumulation of computer and IT skills was simply a matter of turning up for work. I acquired those skills as I went along. I was never presented with a steep learning curve.

That's not the case for those who are currently digitally excluded. From their perspective it's like boarding a fast moving train.

So what do we do?

As is always the case, we do what we can. If you have reusable technology, donate it. If you have skills, teach them. If you have spare broadband, make it available.

But most of all, do it kindly. Learning curves can be terrifying, and the feeling that everyone else is on board with something and you are getting left behind can be crippling. But the potential rewards are phenomenal. Families brought closer together, skills and confidence gained. Jobs applied for and gotten. Lives can be enriched and changed for the better.