Cycling to Success
As I was growing up, one of the quirky delights of the weekend was listening to Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America.’ I’m sure at the time I barely understood what he was opining on but somehow the combination of the mellifluous voice and the reassuring normality and clarity of abnormal events succinctly explained, helped keep things in perspective. His ability to take a passing event and spin it to some sense of, if not profundity at least significance, was an enjoyable early lesson in symbolism. His programme seemed to set the tone for the day, perhaps the week, and the way he captured the zeitgeist of US politics and life was remarkable. There was a complex simplicity about how and what he observed and a modesty of tone and approach that today is sometimes seen as ‘old fashioned’ or irrelevant. He remembered that the programme was not about him but about what was around him; not about his ambition but about the ambition of others-often political figures; that gentle firmness, astute insight and politeness are pretty good starting points for any investigation or exploration, political, business or cultural.
He understood that asking good questions -sometimes disarmingly simple ones-and above all really listening to the answers stood you in good stead as a political observer and commentator. Not for him the glitzy sound bite or flashy public persona; in fact I think he probably actively sought the shadows. Like Attenborough he recognised the need for truth and honesty in a world grown increasingly cynical about the hypocrisy and greed of its leaders and businesses.
He was also obviously a voracious reader and a relentless researcher, two qualities often ‘outsourced’ in some businesses to lesser folk, as if these aspects of achieving insight were trivial sideline issues that need not disturb a busy CEO. As a result of his impeccable approach and sincerity he would over time gain access and influence that would be the envy of any world leader. One set of research led him to discover that all the states of the union celebrated Washington’s birthday except for Idaho. “Except Idaho!” he exclaims, before pondering why a place larger than Portugal did not honourthe February 22nddate. “Something I feel must be done, ” he says before going on to write a letter to the governor-one Robert E Smylie-asking why this anomaly existed. Five days later he “received by special delivery…from 3000 miles away a splendid letter bearing the embossed seal of the state of Idaho.” The reply comes that his item is “now before the Legislature” and lo and behold it becomes law! So this is why in 1956 Idaho finally joined the other states in a holiday. Now that is a result.
So I wondered what MrCooke, looking down from his trusty manual typewriter, would make of the current situation. [Incidentally I loved his pertinent observation in response to being pestered by the equivalent of the IT/Comms department to ‘upgrade’ to the newest, latest technology: “one day I was forced to say testily, ‘But they don’t write better prose! Dickens did pretty well with a quill pen’.” Surely something worth remembering when the next swathe of tech’ is suggested!] He would not be in his favouriteand adopted city New York but in the hot and rather sweaty confines of the tropics; southern Malaysia to be more precise, just where the floating bulk of Singapore lies tethered to the mainland by two slender causeways.