70. Reporting soap shortages, before they get serious.


A poster reminding people, in several ways, that they are too old.


The techno-thriller genre gave readers a thirst for irrelevant information. It wasn’t enough to say someone travelled on a Boeing 707. You had to hear about who made the engines, how the landing gear was inspected by a man with a set of tuning forks and how the pilot’s socks were monogrammed in alpaca by a silent order of nuns in Seattle.

The behind-the-scenes stuff became obligatory for thriller writers – quite a feat before the days of google. Presumably, Forsyth and Clancy spent huge amounts of time visiting airports, submarines and arms factories, asking people, ‘what does that yellow handle do?’

The most obvious spin-off has been the increased number of adjectives we find in grocery products. It’s not enough to say Oven Chips. You need to give them a bit of character development:  Maris Piper, thrice-fried, goose-fat oven chips, at the very least. And even then, you’ve said very little about the goose. People want detail nowadays.

Another consequence of the increased audience for background information is the ‘Troublehooter’ style of TV series, started by John Harvey Jones and continued by the likes of Gerry Robinson and Digby Jones.

A man in a striped shirt and hard hat wanders round a huge factory, shaking his head slightly, asking every now and then: what’s that thing for? As a TV show, it’s a tired formula. But, as a metaphor for personal growth, it’s got potential. The striped shirt man is a therapist of sorts. He’s an independent expert, but he’s neutral and polite. He’s robust and challenging, but he’s kind and might even hug you, though you’re still getting fired. Like a certain type of clinical psychologist, he’ll make you a flow chart, showing you which arrow is missing, such as the one between Theakston’s Old Peculiar and poverty.

It could be helpful to get someone to troubleshoot your life. But what about businesses – can an outsider really understand them? Does expertise in the field really matter?

Troubleshooter appeals to people who like to look behind the scenes and are disappointed that Arthur Hailey died before he could write ‘NCP Car Park’. Ironically, the Troubleshooter himself is not the slightest bit concerned about forged composites or digital motors. He’s looking at the system as a whole. He’s drawing Venn diagrams and talking about Synchronicity, just as though it wasn’t the worst Police album.

Gerry Robinson wants the NHS to have more centralised reporting systems, like the food industry:

‘Imagine a McDonald’s in Leicester, say, where things are going wrong. Perhaps the wrong number of chicken nuggets are being handed out, or the washrooms aren’t supplied with soap. These problems would show up immediately via a weekly reporting system which compared its performance against every other McDonald’s in the country, and you’d have a senior manager down in days to sort out the problems’.

Gerry’s background is in catering, so he’s comfortable with that model.

But, senior managers never visit NHS units, partly for fear of infectious disease, but largely because it would never occur to them to do so. Boards and Hospitals are different planets, with different atmospheres and gravitational fields.

Whereas the coffee available to senior managers comes out of a capsule machine, the coffee provided to wards comes out of industrial size tins labelled Maxwell House. It’s Maxwell House, Jim, but not as we know it.

Whereas NHS management premises are carefully protected behind air-locked entry systems and fierce receptionists, anyone can walk, unchallenged, into most hospital departments, including intensive care units and even operating theatres. This fact is portrayed in countless thrillers, where assassins get a second chance to finish someone off by stealing a white coat and strolling in.

As further evidence that NHS Boards and Hospitals are separate worlds, consider the fact that boards comprise upwards of 12 members, only one of whom is a practicing clinician. Does Gerry not think this is a bit odd? Does he not realise that Boards and Clinicians, like matter and antimatter, must never come into contact with each other and if they do, the universe will be annihilated?

I am not a management guru. But even I can spot the key differences between Macdonald’s and the NHS, such as Product Range. Which leads me to ask: who troubleshoots the troubleshooters?  It suits managers to propagate the notion that it doesn’t matter much what the company does or makes, that you can move between Catering, Television, NHS and it’s all the same. But often, the detail is what matters most. John Harvey Jones forecast the demise of Morgan for instance – he just couldn’t understand how cars could be made of wood. It’s not a mistake Tom Clancy would have made. He’d have known all about the aerospace properties of ash.

Whereas thriller writers regard craftsmanship in awe, managers regard it in contempt. In a techno-thriller, the emperor’s new clothes would be made of kevlar. And the boss would know what the yellow handle did.

To be fair to John Harvey Jones he did tell the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire that his strategic plan was ‘a load of bloody cobblers’. This comment pretty much ended their foray into footwear repairs.



69. Nailing down pastry, using big data.


Suggested toolkit for shortcrust work

There’s only one proper way to resign. Drive your Lotus 7 at high speed into Central London, thump your fist on the boss’s desk a few times and storm out, before the end of the opening credits. The downside is getting kidnapped and imprisoned on a mysterious island, being known only by a number, interrogated weekly, escaping only when the series is finally pulled by the TV company.

My own recent resignation failed to follow ‘The Prisoner’ guidelines and in fact was quite accidental. HR had forgotten somehow to renew my contract, it was a sunny day, the long holidays loomed ahead and I just had that end of term feeling that gets imprinted during all those years of school and university. So, regarding renewing the contract, I found myself thinking, ‘nah’.

So, today, instead of treating people, I’m making pastry. But that doesn’t mean my skills are totally wasted. I’m coming into pastry from a very scientific point of view. In particular I’ve recognised there are a large number of ‘confounders’ or variables that aren’t easily recognised and controlled.

Our old next door neighbour, Mrs Perks, made the best pastry I ever tasted. I could never get her to reveal her secret recipe. I just knew she’d take that secret gooseberry pie formula to the grave. She said there was no particular magic ingredient, but was she telling the truth? Was that white powder dusting really only icing sugar? Sadly, I never got Mrs Perks to talk.

It’s one thing to follow a recipe, but, for brevity, recipe books don’t give a lot of detail about the precise environmental conditions. For instance, what music should be playing in the background? Should the room be colder? Should ultra violet light be restricted? What does ‘light kneading’ mean, in terms of Newtons per square metre? How much iodine is in the salt? Mrs Perks had a solid fuel Aga, whereas I am using nuclear electricity made in France – does that matter?.

All this suggests a Big Data approach, where every conceivable variable is measured and recorded as we go along. Finally we need a valid and reliable rating scale; let’s call it the Perks Scale. The scientists are here now, and the measuring devices are set up. I’m going with James Martin Rich Shortcrust as a starting point. Martin’s recipe is not referenced or annotated, except to say use hands, not machinery. 21 degrees, moderate humidity, silicone rolling pin and pastry board are in the freezer, background music is also chilled, Cleanbandit I think.

Just wondering, if I add some betnovate cream, will it be less flaky?


How it turned out