Thursday, 26 April 2007

Beer talking again

Official: beer is the answer: New ideas from microbreweries are leading the way for sustainable business
Chris O'Brien, The Guardian,
Thursday April 26, 2007

Throughout history, beer has been at the vanguard of revolutions. Brewing enabled the agricultural revolution. It was integral to the scientific and technological innovations that drove the industrial revolution. Today, beer could be at the centre of another revolution: sustainability.

Industrialised globalisation in many ways reaches its logical extreme in the shape of the brewery: corporate-led globalisation consolidates power and wealth into ever fewer hands, all the while burning fossil fuels and stamping out diversity. In recent years, big breweries around the world have managed to continue their unfettered growth through mega-mergers, the only path of growth left. Belgium's Interbrew merged with Brazil's AmBev to control almost a sixth of the world's beer market. Likewise, Molson merged with Coors, and South African Breweries merged with Miller, creating behemoth beer corporations. Anheuser-Busch (makers of Bud) produces one in every 10 commercial beers globally and controls half of the American market.

However, brewers around the world, particularly in America, are once again fomenting a revolution, this one led by a band called the anti-globalisation crowd, but more accurately termed the sustainability movement. Sustainability embraces the values of community and equality and maximises the benefits of science and technology, while respecting the sanctity of nature.

Corporations are the foremost operators in the unsustainable global economy. By contrast, the new wave of small local breweries and brewer pubs are innovating closed-loop systems that move away from wasteful, polluting, oil-dependent business practices.

The craft beer movement is putting into practice a sustainability model called "bioregionalism". Brewers are using small-scale technologies, developing local markets, reducing packaging and shipping, making use of locally available materials, and reducing overall waste through eco-industrial design.

In under 20 years, the number of breweries in America has risen from 44 to 2,000, nearly all of which are small-scale. They are producing beers of every known style and creating radical new ones using every conceivable flavouring. A similar localisation of brewing is happening in Britain. It is hard to get more micro than the new Colonsay Brewery, which last week began deliveries of beer across the tiny Hebridean isle (population 100). Homebrewing is also experiencing explosive growth as people take brewing back into the kitchen.

Microbrewing, by definition small-scale and locally oriented, is inherently more sustainable. But many of these brewers are also intentionally innovating new environmental practices and working to build strong local communities. New Belgium Brewing in Colorado is one of many breweries to run entirely on wind power. The Keystone Brewery in Dorset uses almost entirely locally sourced ingredients and is developing solar heating. Pubs such as the Duke of Cambridge in north London exclusively serve organic beers by Pitfield Brewing.

Could beer save the world? In the age of globalisation, we are capable of the wholesale destruction of life on Earth, not to mention to the elimination of unique beer cultures around the world, especially in industrialising countries. We are in grave need of some life-affirming energy to counterbalance this penchant for mass annihilation. With global climate change dominating the headlines, military debacles pitting the west against the Middle East, and the wealth gap increasing, we face questions about the very survival of our species. And beer can provide some of the answers.

· Chris O'Brien is the author of Fermenting Revolution: How to Drink Beer and Save the World

Monday, 23 April 2007

A bit more Shakespeare...

"He has not so much brain as earwax." Thersites (on Agamemnon), Troilus and Cressida, Act V, Scene i.

April 23rd: Shakespeare's Birthday's also Saint George's Day, so why this is not an English Public Holiday is beyond me.

Another good article about Bill S I saw recently was in The Independent (aka The Daily Mail For Liberals). It was by Robert Fisk, the bete noire of many Neo-Cons, Liberal Interventionists and other Chickenhawk Armchair Generals. Myself, I don't mind Fisk that much (he does do overegg the "I was there" shtick sometimes), and the article below is good...

Shakespeare could have been writing about Iraq or Afghanistan, his scenes of battle were so prescient. Robert Fisk dissects the Bard's attitude to conflict - and describes how relevant he has found it to be today
The Independent, 30 March 2007

Poor old Bardolph. The common soldier, the Poor Bloody Infantry, the GI Joe of Agincourt, survives Henry IV, only to end up on the end of a rope after he's avoided filling up the breach at Harfleur with his corpse. Henry V is his undoing - in every sense of the word - when he robs a French church. He must be executed, hanged, "pour encourager les autres". "Bardolph," laments his friend Pistol to Fluellen, "a soldier firm and sound of heart, /...hanged must a' be /A damned death!

"Let gallows gape for dog, let man go free, / And let not hemp his wind-pipe suffocate: / But Exeter hath given the doom of death... / Therefore go speak, the duke will hear thy voice; / And let not Bardolph's vital thread be cut... / Speak, captain, for his life..."

How many such military executions have been recorded in the past 30 years of Middle East history? For theft, for murder, for desertion, for treachery, for a momentary lapse of discipline. Captain Fluellen pleads the profoundly ugly Bardolph's cause - not with great enthusiasm, it has to be said - to Henry himself.

"I / think the duke hath lost never a man, but one that / is like to be executed for robbing a church, one / Bardolph, if your majesty know the man: his face is / all bubukles and whelks, and knobs, and flames o' / fire, and his lips blow at his nose..."

But the priggish Henry, a friend of Bardolph in his princely, drinking days (shades of another, later Prince Harry), will have none of it:

"We would have all such offenders so cut off: and we / give express charge that in our marches through the / country there be nothing compelled from the / villages; nothing taken but paid for; none of the / French upbraided or abused in disdainful language..."

In France, Eisenhower shot post-D-Day rapists in the US army. The SS hanged their deserters even as Berlin fell. I have my notes of a meeting with Fathi Daoud Mouffak, one of Saddam Hussein's military cameramen during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, a sensitive man, a mere Pistol in the great retreat around Basra where a reservist was accused of desertion by an officer of the Iraqi "Popular Army". He was a very young man, Mouffak was to recall:

"And the reporter from Jumhuriya newspaper tried to save him. He said to the commander: 'This is an Iraqi citizen. He should not die.' But the commander said: 'This is none of your business - stay out of this.' And so it was the young man's fate to be shot by a firing squad... before he was executed, he said he was the father of four children. And he begged to live. 'Who will look after my wife and my children?' he asked. 'I am a Muslim. Please think of Allah - for Saddam, for God, please help me... I am not a conscript, I am a reservist. I did not run away from the battle - my battalion was destroyed.' But the commander shot him personally - in the head and in the chest."

My own father, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the 12th Battalion, the King's Liverpool Regiment, a soldier of the 1914-18 war, was ordered to command a firing party, to execute a 19-year old Australian soldier, Gunner Frank Wills of the Royal Field Artillery, who had murdered a military policeman in Paris. Bill refused to carry out this instruction, only to be put on a court martial charge for refusing to obey an order. Someone else dispatched Bill Fisk's Bardolph. "I ask the Court to take into consideration my youth and to give me a chance of leading an upright and straightforward life in the future," Wills wrote in his miserable plea for mercy. British officers turned it down, arguing that an example should be made of Wills to prevent further indiscipline. The war had long been over when he was shot at dawn at Le Havre. Bill served in the Third Battle of the Somme in 1918 and I never pass the moment when Shakespeare's French king asks if Henry's army "hath passed the river Somme" without drawing in my breath. Did some faint moment of Renaissance prescience touch the dramatist in 1599?

I am still to be convinced that Shakespeare saw war in service in the army of Elizabeth. "Say'st thou me so?" Pistol asks of a cringing French prisoner who does not speak English. "Come hither, boy, ask me this slave in French / What is his name." I heard an almost identical quotation in Baghdad, shorn of its 16th-century English, when a US Marine confronted an Iraqi soldier-demonstrator in 2003. "Shut the fuck up," he screamed at the Iraqi. Then he turned to his translator. "What the fuck's he saying?" At the siege of Harfleur, the soldier Boy wishes he was far from battle - "Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give / all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety" - and Henry's walk through his camp in disguise on the eve of Agincourt evokes some truly modern reflections on battle. The soldier Bates suggests to him that if the king had come on his own to Agincourt, he would be safely ransomed "and a many poor men's lives saved".

The equally distressed soldier Williams argues that if the English cause is doubtful: "...the king himself hath / a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and / arms, and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join / together at the latter day, and cry all 'We died at / such a place'; some swearing, some crying for a / surgeon; some upon their wives, left poor behind / them; some upon the debts they owe; some upon their / children rawly left..."

This bloody accounting would be familiar to any combat soldier, but Shakespeare could have heard these stories from the English who had been fighting on the Continent in the 16th century. I've seen those chopped-off legs and arms and heads on the battlefields of the Middle East, in southern Iraq in 1991 when the eviscerated corpses of Iraqi soldiers and refugee women and children were lying across the desert, their limbs afterwards torn apart by ravenous dogs. And I've talked to Serb soldiers who fought Bosnian Muslims in the battle for the Bihac pocket, men who were so short of water that they drank their own urine.

Similarly, Shakespeare's censorious Caesar Augustus contemplates Antony's pre-Cleopatran courage: "...When thou once / Wast beaten from Modena, / thy heel / Did famine follow, whom thou fought'st against / ...with patience more / Than savages could suffer: thou didst drink / The stale of horses and the gilded puddle / Which beasts would cough at..."

Yet Wilfred Owen's poetry on the "pity of war" - his description, say, of the gassed soldier coughing his life away, the blood gargling "from the froth-corrupted lungs" - has much greater immediacy.

True, death was ever present in the life of any Tudor man or woman; the Plague that sometimes closed down the Globe Theatre, the hecatomb of child mortality, the overflowing, pestilent graveyards, united all mankind in the proximity of death. Understand death and you understand war, which is primarily about the extinction of human life rather than victory or defeat. And despite constant repetition, Hamlet's soliloquy over poor Yorick's skull remains a deeply disturbing contemplation of death:

"My gorge rises at / it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know / not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your / gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment / that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one / now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chapfall'n?"

And here is Omar Khayyam's contemplation of a king's skull at Tus - near the modern-day Iranian city of Mashad - written more than 400 years before * * Shakespeare's Hamlet stood in the churchyard at Elsinore:

"I saw a bird alighted on the city walls of Tus / Grasping in its claws Kaika'us's head: / It was saying to that head, 'Shame! Shame! / Where now the sound of the bells and the boom of the drum?'"

The swiftness with which disease struck the living in previous centuries was truly murderous. And I have my own testimony at how quickly violent death can approach. Assaulted by a crowd of Afghans in a Pakistani border village in 2001 - their families had just been slaughtered in an American B-52 air raid on Kandahar - an ever-growing crowd of young men were banging stones on to my head, smashing my glasses into my face, cutting my skin open until I could smell my own blood. And, just for a moment, I caught sight of myself in the laminated side of a parked bus. I was crimson with blood, my face was bright red with the stuff and it was slopping down my shirt and on to my bag and my trousers and shoes; I was all gore from head to foot. And I distinctly remember, at that very moment - I suppose it was a subconscious attempt to give meaning to my own self-disgust - the fearful ravings of the insane Lady Macbeth as she contemplates the stabbing of King Duncan: "...who would have thought the old man / to have had so much blood in him?"

Shakespeare would certainly have witnessed pain and suffering in daily London life. Executions were in public, not filmed secretly on mobile telephones. But who cannot contemplate Saddam's hanging - the old monster showing nobility as his Shi'ite executioners tell him he is going "to hell" - without remembering "that most disloyal traitor", the condemned Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, of whom Malcolm was to remark that "nothing in his life / Became him like the leaving it." Indeed, Saddam's last response to his tormentors - "to the hell that is Iraq?" - was truly Shakespearean.

How eerily does Saddam's shade haunt our modern reading of Shakespeare. "Hang those that talk of fear!" must have echoed through many a Saddamite palace, where "mouth-honour" had long ago become the custom, where - as the casualties grew through the long years of his eight-year conflict with Iran - a Ba'athist leader might be excused the Macbethian thought that he was "in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er". The Iraqi dictator tried to draw loose inspiration from the Epic of Gilgamesh in his own feeble literary endeavours, an infantile novel which - if David Damrosch is right - was the work of an Iraqi writer subsequently murdered by Saddam. Perhaps Auden best captures the nature of the beast:

"Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, / And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; / He knew human folly like the back of his hand, / And was greatly interested in armies and fleets..."

In an age when we are supposed to believe in the "War on Terror", we may quarry our way through Shakespeare's folios in search of Osama bin Laden and George W Bush with all the enthusiasm of the mass murderer who prowls through Christian and Islamic scriptures in search of excuses for ethnic cleansing. Indeed, smiting the Hittites, Canaanites and Jebusites is not much different from smiting the Bosnians or the Rwandans or the Arabs or, indeed, the modern-day Israelis. And it's not difficult to find a parallel with Bush's disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq - and his apparent desire to erase these defeats with yet a new military adventure in Iran - in Henry IV's deathbed advice to his son, the future Henry V:

"...Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days."

The wasteland and anarchy of Iraq in the aftermath of our illegal 2003 invasion is reflected in so many of Shakespeare's plays that one can move effortlessly between the tragedies and the histories to read of present-day civil war Baghdad. Here's the father, for example, on discovering that he has killed his own child in Henry VI, Part III:

"O, pity, God, this miserable age! / What stratagems, how fell, how butcherly, / Erroneous, mutinous and unnatural, / This deadly quarrel daily doth beget!"

Our treachery towards the Shi'ites and Kurds of Iraq in 1991 - when we encouraged them to rise up against Saddam and then allowed the butcher of Baghdad to destroy them - was set against the genuine cries for freedom that those doomed people uttered in the days before their betrayal. "...waving our red weapons o'er our heads," as Brutus cried seconds after Julius Caesar's murder, "Let's all cry, 'Peace, freedom, and liberty'."

My own experience of war has changed my feelings towards many of Shakespeare's characters. The good guys in Shakespeare's plays have become ever less attractive, ever more portentous, ever more sinister as the years go by. Henry V seems more than ever a butcher. "Now, herald, are the dead number'd?" he asks.

"This note doth tell me of ten thousand French / That in the field lie slain: of princes, in this number, / And nobles bearing banners, there lie dead / One hundred twenty six: added to these / Of knights, esquires, and gallant gentlemen, / Eight thousand and four hundred..."

Henry is doing "body counts". When the herald presents another list - this time of the English dead, Henry reads off the names of Edward, Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Kikely, Davy Gam, Esquire: "None else of name: and, of all other men, / but five and twenty... O God, thy arm was here... / Was ever known so great and little loss, / On one part and on th'other?"

This is pure Gulf War Part One, when General Norman Schwarzkopf was gloating at the disparate casualty figures - while claiming, of course, that he was "not in the business of body counts" - while General Peter de la Billière was telling Britons to celebrate victory by ringing their church bells.

Shakespeare can still be used to remind ourselves of an earlier, "safer" (if nonexistent) world, a reassurance of our own ultimate survival. It was not by chance that Olivier's Henry V was filmed during the Second World War. The Bastard's final promise in King John is simple enough:

"Come the three corners of the world in arms, / And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue, / If England to itself do rest but true."

But the true believers - the Osamas and Bushes - probably lie outside the history plays. The mad King Lear - betrayed by two of his daughters just as bin Laden felt he was betrayed by the Saudi royal family when they rejected his offer to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation without American military assistance - shouts that he will:

" such things, / What they are yet, I know not, but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!"

Lear, of course, was written in the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a "terrorist" conspiracy with potential September 11 consequences. Similarly, the saintly Prospero in The Tempest contains both the self-righteousness and ruthlessness of bin Laden and the covert racism of Bush. When he sends Ariel to wreck the usurping King Alonso's ship on his island, the airy spirit returns with an account of his success which - despite his subsequent saving of lives - is of near-Twin Towers dimensions:

"Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, / I flam'd amazement, sometime I'ld divide / And burn in many places... / Not a soul / But felt a fever of the mad, and play'd / Some tricks of desperation; all but mariners / Plung'd in the foaming brine, and quit the vessel; / Then all afire with me the King's son Ferdinand / With hair up-staring (then like reeds, not hair) / Was the first man that leap'd; cried Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here."

In almost the same year, John Donne was using equally terrifying imagery, of a "fired ship" from which "by no way / But drowning, could be rescued from the flame, / Some men leap'd forth..."

Prospero's cruelty towards Caliban becomes more frightening each time I read of it, not least because The Tempest is one of four Shakespeare plays in which Muslims appear and because Caliban is himself an Arab, born of an Algerian mother.

"This damned Witch Sycorax / For mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible / To enter human hearing, from Argier / Thou know'st was banish'd..." Prospero tells us. "This blue-ey'd hag, was hither brought with child... / A freckl'd whelp, hag-born... not honour'd with / A human shape."

Caliban is the "terrorist" on the island, first innocently nurtured by Prospero and then condemned to slavery after trying to rape Prospero's daughter, the colonial slave who turns against the fruits of civilisation that were offered him.

"You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you / For learning me your language."

Yet Caliban must "obey" Prospero because "his art is of such power". Prospero may not have F-18s or bunker-busters, but Caliban is able to play out a familiar Western narrative; he teams up with the bad guys, offering his help to Trinculo - "I'll show you the best springs; I'll pluck thee berries; / I'll fish for thee..." - making the essential linkage between evil and terror that Bush vainly tried to claim between al-Qa'ida and Saddam. Caliban is an animal, unworthy of pity, not honoured with a "human shape". Compare this with a recent article in the newspaper USA Today, in which a former American military officer, Ralph Peters - arguing that Washington should withdraw from Iraq because its people are no longer worthy of our Western sacrifice - refers to "the comprehensive inability of the Arab world to progress in any sphere of organised human endeavour". Prospero, of course, prevails and Caliban survives to grovel to his colonial master:

"How fine my master is! I am afraid / He will chastise me / ...I'll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace..." The war of terror has been won!

Shakespeare lived at a time when the largely Muslim Ottoman empire - then at its zenith of power - remained an existential if not a real threat for Europeans. The history plays are replete with these fears, albeit that they are also a product of propaganda on behalf of Elizabeth and, later, James. In Henry IV: Part I, the king is to set out on the Crusades:

"As far as to the sepulchre of Christ... / Forthwith a power of English shall we levy, / Whose arms were moulded in their mothers' womb / To chase these pagans in those holy fields / Over whose acres walked those blessed feet."

Rhetoric is no one's prerogative - compare King Henry V's pre-Agincourt speech with Saddam's prelude to the "Mother of All Battles" where Prospero-like purity is espoused for the Arab "side". This is Saddam: "Standing at one side of this confrontation are peoples and sincere leaders and rulers, and on the other are those who stole the rights of God and the tyrants who were renounced by God after they renounced all that was right, honourable, decent and solemn and strayed from the path of God until... they became obsessed by the devil from head to toe."

Similar sentiments are espoused by Tamberlaine in Marlowe's play. Tamberlaine is the archetypal Muslim conqueror, the "scourge of God" who found it passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.

But Othello remains the most obvious, tragic narrative of our Middle Eastern fears. He is a Muslim in the service of Venice - close neighbour to the Ottoman empire - and is sent to Cyprus to battle the Turkish fleet. He is a mercenary whose self-hatred contaminates the play and eventually leads to his own death. Racially abused by both Iago and Roderigo, he lives in a world where there are men whose heads supposedly hang beneath their shoulders, where he is black - most Arabs are not black, although Olivier faithfully followed this notion - and where, just before killing himself, he refers to his terrible stabbing of Desdemona as the work of a "base Indian" who:

"...threw a pearl away / Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes, / ...Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees / ...Set you down this; / And say besides, that in Aleppo once, / Where a malignant and a turbaned Turk / Beat a Venetian and traduced the state, / I took by the throat the circumcised dog / And smote him, thus."

That, I fear, is the dagger that we now feel in all our hearts.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Beer talking

Me having a beer and causing chaos all round...

One of my favourite articles ever about beer, which like a drunk trying to open his zip in the Gents, has taken me a while to get around to. One or two comments by me and a couple of bits are highlighted.

Who's ever been beaten up by a member of the Campaign for Real Ale?
Andrew Martin, New Statesman,14 March 2005

I have probably committed more indiscretions as a result of drinking wine than beer. It's a pretty close-run thing, obviously, but I remember in particular a drinks party just before Christmas, when I set out the argument that all conceptual art is vacuous rubbish in front of a woman who turned out to be not only keen on conceptual art, but also a friend of Tracey Emin. "The equivalent would be me talking about jazz," the woman marvelled, when I'd finished my monologue, "in that I know absolutely nothing about jazz."

Anyway, that was wine. Wine is the main loosener among the middle classes, and I suspect that, just as a high proportion of accidents are alcohol-related, so are many interesting news stories and otherwise innocuous bits of wayward behaviour. If somebody in the public eye says something unexpected, check the time. Did it happen during lunchtime or after, say, 5.30pm? If so, case closed.

Yet in spite of this, there is an assumption that wine is more civilised than our own national drink: beer. The situation annoys Roger Protz, editor of last year's CAMRA Good Beer Guide, whose book The Complete Guide to World Beer (Carlton, £19.99) is just out. "The assumption is that, if you're going out for a beer, you're going out for a punch-up," he says. "Any story about the dangers of alcohol shows pub scenes and people drinking beer. In fact, I recently complained to ITN about when it illustrated one of these items with pictures of hand pumps on a bar."

You can see how that would have irritated him. Hand pumps imply cask-conditioned real ale, and the people who drink that are exceptionally mild-mannered. This, according to Protz, is "because the hop is a close cousin of the cannabis plant". India Pale Ale, for example, is a very hoppy beer originally manufactured to be sent out to the British in India, where it met many complaints that it was too soporific. Lager, says Protz, is often a different matter. It is frequently stronger than ale - extra amounts of malt sugar having been added - and there may be chemicals and stabilisers involved that can affect behaviour. One famous brand of lager is known as "the wife-beater" (ie Stella Artois- which the Belgians see as the lowest of the low when it comes to beer).

Who, by contrast, has ever been beaten up by a member of the Campaign for Real Ale? It would be about as likely as being murdered by a geography teacher. Yet still, it would be a socially confident person who went along to a middle-class dinner party with bottles of beer instead of wine. Protz has done it. "Beer is just as good an accompaniment to - or ingredient of - food as wine," he says, and his book includes recipes such as one for "beer, bubble and squeak", which could be summarised as: 1) Make bubble and squeak. 2) Pour beer on top. But it does work. I know because I've tried it.

The brewers Greene King have started producing a beer in receptacles resembling wine bottles, and marketed as "a beer to dine for" (which I had once with a meal- terrible!). I can imagine the enlightened and progressive tone of the gatherings at which this is served. Anyone turning up who had dropped into a pub on the way would not be afraid to say so, whereas one never likes to admit that when going to a wine-oriented dinner party. It's like saying: "Sorry I'm late. I've just been having sex with a prostitute." There'd be no snobbish references to people's beer guts. Instead, the talk would be of "wine-guts"; any loutish men mentioned would be castigated not as "beer monsters", but "wine monsters".

A whole alternative middle-class world opens up, one freed of the deference and insecurity brought on by even a bottle of Jacob's Creek; one in which people attend cheese-and-beer parties, go on beer-tasting holidays, join beer clubs, speak happily
of "days of beer and roses". It would be a better place, I think.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Having problems with pics at the moment.

They're not uploading properly. You just get a red cross. Hope this doesn't spoil your enjoyment of this blog...

V.V. quick update: moment I upload this they appear. Eh?! Whoever said the word of IT was rational?

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

It's the Boy Bill!

In the age of "dumbing down", you can still find serious stuff in the papers if you are prepared to look. This was in Saturday's Guardian. Needless to say, I intend to see some Bard on the Beach in Vancouver this summer.

A man for all ages: According to many critics of his time, Shakespeare was vulgar, provincial and overrated. So how did he become the supreme deity of poetry, drama and high culture itself, asks Jonathan Bate, editor of the first Complete Works from the Folio for 300 years
The Guardian, Saturday April 14, 2007

In the spring of 1616, Francis Beaumont and William Shakespeare died within a few weeks of each other. Beaumont became the first dramatist to be honoured with burial in the national shrine of Westminster Abbey, beside the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser. Shakespeare was laid to rest in the provincial obscurity of his native Stratford-upon-Avon.

We now think of Shakespeare as a unique genius - the embodiment, indeed, of the very idea of artistic genius - but these two very different burial places are a reminder that in his own time, though widely admired, he was but one of a constellation of theatrical stars. How is it, then, that in the 18th and 19th centuries Shakespeare's fame outstripped that of all his peers? Why was he the sole dramatist of the age who would eventually have a genuinely worldwide impact? There are two answers: availability and adaptability.

In the same year that Beaumont and Shakespeare died, Ben Jonson became the first English dramatist to publish a collected edition of his own plays written for the public stage. Seven years later, Shakespeare's fellow actors John Hemings and Henry Condell followed with their magnificent Folio-sized collection of Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies, Published according to the True Original Copies. Whereas Jonson's works got only a single reprint after his death, Shakespeare's Folio was reprinted three times before the end of the century. And through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, there was a major new edition of his Complete Works once every 20 years or so.

Shakespeare thus quickly became more available than his contemporaries - though the text in which he has been transmitted since the early 18th century has not been that of the Folio authorised by his own players. Shakespearean editors have adopted a "pick and mix" approach, printing some plays in the text of the Folio and others in the variant texts of the little quarto-sized volumes published in Shakespeare's lifetime. Astonishingly, the new RSC Complete Works, published next week, is the first since 1709 to be based primarily on the Folio, to offer an edition of the iconic book in its own right.

In his dedicatory poem to the Folio, Jonson described Shakespeare as a "star" whose "influence" would "chide or cheer" the future course of British drama. Once the Folio was available to, in the words of its editors, "the great Variety of Readers", the plays began to influence not just the theatre, but poetry more generally. The works of Milton, notably his masque Comus, were steeped in Shakespearean language. The young Milton's first published poem was a sonnet prefixed to the second edition of the Folio, in which Shakespeare was said to have built himself "a live-long Monument" in the form of his plays. Shakespeare was Milton's key precedent for the writing of Paradise Lost (1667) in blank verse rather than rhyme. Even later 17th-century poets who were committed to rhyme, such as John Dryden, acknowledged the power of his dramatic blank verse; as a homage to "the Divine Shakespeare", Dryden abandoned rhyme in All for Love (1678), his reworking of the Cleopatra story.

The London theatres were closed during the years of civil war and republican government in the middle of the 17th century, and the years after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 were characterised by a conflicting attitude towards Shakespeare. On the positive side, he was invoked for his inspirational native genius, used to support claims for English naturalness as opposed to French artifice and for the moderns against the ancients. In his sweeping Essay of Dramatic Poesy (1668), Dryden described Shakespeare as "the man who of all Modern, and perhaps Ancient Poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul". He brushed off charges of Shakespeare's lack of learning with the memorable judgment that "he needed not the spectacles of Books to read Nature".

The learned Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, praised Shakespeare for his extraordinary ability to enter into his vast array of characters, to "express the divers and different humours, or natures, or several passions in mankind". Yet, at the same time, the courtly elite had spent their years of exile in France and come under the influence of a highly refined neoclassical theory of artistic decorum, according to which tragedy should be kept apart from comedy and high style from low, with dramatic "unity" demanding obedience to strict laws. For this reason, Dryden and his contemporaries took considerable liberties in polishing and "improving" Shakespeare's plays for performance. According to the law of poetic justice, wholly innocent characters should not be allowed to die: Nahum Tate therefore rewrote King Lear (1681) with a happy ending in which Cordelia marries Edgar. Tate also omitted the character of the Fool, on the grounds that such a figure was beneath the dignity of high tragedy.

The more formal classicism of Jonson and the courtly romances of Beaumont and Fletcher answered more readily to the Frenchified standards of the Restoration theatre. Actors, though, were demonstrating that the most rewarding roles in the repertoire were the Shakespearean ones. Thomas Betterton (1635-1710), the greatest player of the age, had enormous success as Hamlet, Sir Toby Belch, Henry VIII, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, Lear, Falstaff, Angelo in Measure for Measure and Othello (some of these in versions close to the original texts, others in heavily adapted reworkings). Playhouse scripts of individual plays found their way into print, while the Folio went through its third and fourth printings. By the end of the century, Shakespeare was well entrenched in English cultural life, but he was not yet the unique genius.

Betterton's veneration for the memory of Shakespeare was such that late in his life he travelled to Warwickshire in order to find out what he could about the dramatist's origins. He passed a store of anecdotes to the poet, playwright and eventual poet laureate Nicholas Rowe, who wrote "Some Account of the Life of Mr William Shakespeare", a biographical sketch published in 1709 in the first of the six volumes of his Works of Shakespeare, the collection that is usually regarded as the first modern edition of the plays. Rowe's biography offered a mixture of truth and myth, calculated to represent Shakespeare as a man of the people. It tells of how young Will was withdrawn from school when his father fell on hard times, how he then got into bad company and stole deer from the park of local grandee Sir Thomas Lucy. The resultant prosecution forced him to leave for London, where he became an actor and then a dramatist. Rowe's account is a symptom of how every age reinvents Shakespeare in its own image. The road from the provinces to London was a familiar one in the 18th century - Samuel Johnson and David Garrick walked it in real life, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones in fiction. Shakespeare served as exemplar of the writer who achieved success, and an unprecedented degree of financial reward, from his pen alone. The Earl of Southampton may have helped him on his way in his early years, but he was essentially a self-made man rather than a beneficiary of court and aristocratic patronage. For writers such as Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, struggling in the transition from the age of patronage to that of Grub Street professionalism, Shakespeare offered not only a body of poetic invention and a gallery of living characters, but also an inspirational career trajectory.

If we had to identify a single decade in which the "cult of Shakespeare" took root, in which his celebrity and influence grew to outstrip that of his contemporaries once and for all, it would probably be the 1730s. There was a proliferation of cheap mass-market editions, while in the theatre the plays came to constitute about a quarter of the entire repertoire of the London stage, twice what they had been hitherto. The promotion of Shakespeare was driven by a number of forces, ranging from state censorship of new plays to a taste for the shapely legs of actresses in the cross-dressed "breeches parts" of the comedies. The plays were becoming synonymous with decency and Englishness, even as the institution of the theatre was still poised between respectability and disrepute.

David Garrick (1717-79), the actor who may justly be claimed as the father of what later came to be called "Bardolatry", arrived in London at a propitious moment. Shakespeare was growing into big business and the time was ripe for a new star to cash in on his name. As in many a good theatre story, Garrick's first break came when he stepped in as an understudy and outshone the actor who normally took the part. This was followed by a more formal debut, again of a kind that established a pattern for later generations: the revolutionary new reading of a major Shakespearean part. For Garrick, it was Richard III (for Edmund Kean in the next century, it was Shylock). After this, there was no looking back. Garrick did all the things we have come to expect of a major star: he took on the full gamut of Shakespeare, he had an affair with his leading lady (the gorgeous and talented Peg Woffington) and he managed his own acting company, supervising the scripts and directing plays while also starring in them. It was because of Garrick's extraordinary energy in all these departments that he not only gave unprecedented respectability to the profession of actor, but also effectively invented the modern theatre. The "actor-manager" tradition that he inaugurated stretched down to Laurence Olivier and beyond.

It was in the art of self-promotion that Garrick was unique. His public image was secured by William Hogarth's vibrant painting of him in the role of Richard III, confronted with his nightmares on the eve of the battle of Bosworth Field. The most frequently engraved and widely disseminated theatrical portrait of the 18th century, this iconic image simultaneously established Garrick as the quintessential tragedian and inaugurated the whole tradition of large-scale Shakespearean painting. Previously, the elevated genre of "history painting" had concentrated on biblical and classical subjects. With Hogarth's image - created in the studio, though influenced by Garrick's stage performance - Shakespearean drama joined this august company.

The climax of Garrick's career in Bardolatry was the jubilee that he organised to commemorate the bicentenary of Shakespeare's birth. The event took place in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769, on the occasion of the opening of a new town hall, a mere five years later than the anniversary it was supposed to mark. It lasted for three days, during which scores of fashionable Londoners descended on the hitherto obscure provincial town where Shakespeare had been born. The literary tourist industry began here: local entrepreneurs did good business in the sale of Shakespearean relics, such as souvenirs supposedly cut from the wood of the great Bard's mulberry tree. Not since the marketing in medieval times of fragments of the True Cross had a single tree yielded so much wood. The jubilee programme included a grand procession of Shakespearean characters, a masked ball, a horse race and a firework display. In true English fashion, the outdoor events were washed out by torrential rain. At the climax of the festivities, Garrick performed his own poem, "An Ode upon dedicating a building and erecting a statue to Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon", set to music by the leading composer Thomas Arne. In the manner of a staged theatrical "happening", Garrick had arranged for a member of the audience (a fellow actor), dressed as a French fop, to complain - as French connoisseurs of literary taste had complained for generations - that Shakespeare was vulgar, provincial and overrated. This gave Garrick the opportunity to voice his grand defence of Shakespeare. Though the whole business was much mocked in newspaper reports, caricatures and stage farces, it generated enormous publicity for both Garrick and Shakespeare across Britain and the continent of Europe. The jubilee did more than turn Stratford-upon-Avon into a tourist attraction: it inaugurated the very idea of a summer arts festival.

In an age when orthodox religion was facing severe challenges, the cult of Shakespeare was becoming a secular faith. Thanks to the enthusiasm of poets, critics and translators such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt and John Keats in England, Goethe and the Schlegel brothers in Germany, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas in France, during the 19th-century era of Romanticism, the grammar-school boy from the edge of the forest of Arden became the supreme deity not just of poetry and drama, but of high culture itself.

From the initial reception of Venus and Adonis, his first published work, through the dedicatory material prefaced to the First Folio, Shakespeare was renowned by his contemporaries above all for his wit, his mastery of language. He lived in an age when English was undergoing a huge expansion, sucking in new words from all over Europe and beyond.

It is universally acknowledged that Shakespeare's gift of poetic invention surpassed that of any writer before or since. Sometimes, though, the art of Bardolatry has led to excessive claims: Shakespeare is sometimes said to have coined more new English words than anyone else, with the possible exception of James Joyce. This is not true. The illusion of his inventiveness in this regard was created by the tendency of the Oxford English Dictionary to cite examples from him as the first usage of a word, because of his ready availability when the dictionary was created at the end of the Victorian era. Now that there are large, digitised databases of 16th-century books, it is easy to find earlier occurrences for many supposed Shakespearean coinages. Despite this, the list of neologisms remains impressive. To give a random selection of words, Shakespeare is responsible for such verbs as puke, torture, misquote, gossip, swagger, blanket (Poor Tom's "blanket my loins" in Lear) and champion (Macbeth's "champion me to the utterance"). He seems to have invented the nouns critic, mountaineer, pageantry and eyeball, the adjectives fashionable, unreal, blood-stained, deafening, majestic and domineering, the adverbs instinctively and obsequiously in the sense of "behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead". Many of his coinages are not new words, but old words in new contexts (such as the application of "manager" to the entertainment business, with A Midsummer Night's Dream's "manager of mirth") or new compounds or old words wrested to new grammatical usage.

Shakespeare's enduring appeal cannot, however, be said to rest solely on his linguistic virtuosity, nor on the proposition - favoured by some of today's politically minded critics - that he achieved world domination simply because of the power of the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. At one level, he is "not of an age, but for all time". He works with archetypal characters, core plots and perennial conflicts, as he dramatises the competing demands of the living and the dead, the old and the young, men and women, self and society, integrity and role-play, insiders and outsiders. He grasps the structural conflicts shared by all societies: religious against secular vision, country against city, birth against education, strong leadership against the people's voice, the code of honour against the energies of erotic desire. But he also addressed the conflicts of his own historical moment: the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism and feudalism to modernity, the formation of national identity, trade and immigration, the encounter with new worlds overseas, the shadow of foreign powers.

He was restricted by the customs of his age, notably when it came to the subordination of women, but at the same time he was prophetic of future ages. Despite the inferior position of most women in his society and the fact that the convention of his theatre meant that female parts were played by young men, he gives a remarkable degree of freedom and mental agility to his women. In the Victorian era, the husband and wife Bardophiles Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke suggested that "Shakespeare is the writer of all others whom the women of England should most take to their hearts; for we believe it to be mainly through his intellectual influence that their claims in the scale of society were acknowledged in England, when throughout what is denominated the civilised world, their position was not greatly elevated above that of the drudges in modern low life."

Since the 1700s, the cult of Shakespeare has been closely bound up with the idealisation of Queen Elizabeth I. Consequently, his plays have often been set beside the poetry of John Donne, the gentleman-like virtues of Philip Sidney, the global circumnavigation of Francis Drake, the colonial enterprise of Walter Raleigh and the defeat of the Spanish Armada: these, it has been said, were the fruits of England's golden age. The reality is that Queen Elizabeth inherited, and Shakespeare grew up in, a divided and vulnerable nation. The Spanish threat and the Irish problem would not go away. The queen's tactic of not marrying was a highly effective way of keeping open a range of possible alliances, but by the 1590s it had created severe anxiety about the succession to the throne. In the period when Shakespeare was writing his plays, the queen and her ministers had come to rely more and more on coercion, threat and surveillance in order to maintain authority.

Shakespeare's political beliefs are as elusive as his religion, his sexuality and just about everything else about him that matters. Precisely because he was not an apologist for any single position, it has been possible for the plays to be reinterpreted in the light of each successive age. This is where that other crucial factor, adaptability, comes into play. In the four centuries since his death, he has been made the apologist for all sorts of diametrically opposed ideologies, many of them anachronistic - we should not forget that he was writing before the time when toleration and liberal democracy became totemic values.

The political appropriation of him is true to his own practice: he, too, was a great trader in anachronism. He took the political structures of ancient Rome and mapped them on to his own time and state with fascinating effect: The Rape of Lucrece is set at the moment of transition from monarchy to republic; Coriolanus during the republican era; Julius Caesar at the pivotal moment when a crown is offered and refused but the republic collapses anyway; Antony and Cleopatra ends with the beginning of empire; and Titus Andronicus fictionalises the Roman empire in decay, approaching the time when the great city will be sacked by "barbarian" hordes from the north; King Lear and Cymbeline find echoes of the modern in the matter of ancient Britain. The history plays speak at once to the generations before Shakespeare and to his live audience. Several other plays use contemporary Italy as a mirror. Humanist learning and mercantile travel meant that the eyes of the Elizabethans were open to forms of government other than the hereditary monarchy they experienced at home. They had great admiration for Venice, regarding that island city-state as a model of anti-papal modernity and trading prowess. Venice had no monarch, but a sophisticated oligarchic system, which was observed by English travellers and absorbed by readers such as Shakespeare by way of Lewis Lewkenor's translation of Contarini's The Commonwealth and Republic of Venice (an important source for Othello).

Not so long ago, it was commonplace for historians to assert that republican thought had no following in England until well into the 17th century - that the intellectual conditions which made the Cromwellian republic possible emerged only a few years before the extraordinary moment when the English chopped off their king's head. Recent scholarship has shown that this was not the case: republican discourse, if not overt republican polemic, was widespread in Shakespeare's time. So, for instance, the anti-imperial Roman historian Tacitus was read and discussed and admired as the most dispassionate of historians, whose work combined moral insight into the behaviour of political actors with an assessment of their value as governors.

The association of Shakespeare with Tacitism is especially interesting because it aligns him with the Earl of Essex. Shakespeare's patron, Southampton, was a follower of Essex, so it must have been a political gesture on Shakespeare's part to dedicate to him The Rape of Lucrece, a highly Tacitean account of the tyranny of Tarquin and the establishment of the Roman republic. Shakespeare's most explicit contemporary political allusion is a flattering allusion in one of the Henry V choruses to Essex's military expedition against the Irish. The commissioning of the performance of Richard II on the eve of the Essex rebellion suggests that the Tacitean faction still considered Shakespeare to be in effect their house dramatist in the last years of the old queen's reign. But with his usual cunning, Shakespeare somehow managed to throw off the association: Essex was executed for treason and Southampton was sent to the Tower, but the players got away with a reprimand. They claimed that they had only put on the show because they had been well paid to do so.

Shakespeare sometimes wrote in direct flattery of Queen Elizabeth, as in the epilogue to a court performance on Shrove Tuesday, 1599. And the Virgin Queen is almost certainly the immortal phoenix of the mysteriously beautiful poem that has become known as "The Phoenix and Turtle", written the same year as the Essex rebellion. But when the old queen finally died in 1603, Henry Chettle expressed surprise that Shakespeare's "honied muse" dropped "no sable tear" in her memory. Though there seems not to have been a published elegy, Shakespeare did perhaps reflect on the end of the era and the uncertain times to come in Sonnet 107, with its reference to the "eclipse" of the "mortal moon" (in classical mythology, the moon was associated with Diana the virgin huntress - and Elizabeth in turn was associated with her).

The new king, James I, immediately took Shakespeare's company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, under his direct patronage. Henceforth they would be the King's Men, and for the rest of Shakespeare's career they were favoured with far more court performances than any of their rivals. In August that year, they had to close the theatre and spend 18 days literally "waiting" in attendance at Somerset House during the visit of a special envoy from the king of Spain, while a peace treaty was being thrashed out. This moment of suspension was an important turning point in Shakespeare's work. Elizabethan Shakespeare was a war poet: the Armada and the campaigns against the Spanish in the Netherlands had overshadowed his whole career. Jacobean Shakespeare was a peace poet: of course, he still wrote battle scenes, which were always good box office, but a play such as Coriolanus is equally interested in the question of what happens to a man of action in a time of peace; a Scottish king working in harmony with the English court brings peace at the climax of Macbeth; Cymbeline ends with a peace treaty; and Antony and Cleopatra concludes with Octavius becoming Augustus and promising to fulfil his prediction that "The time of universal peace is near". James liked to see himself as a modern Augustus, at once the bringer of peace across Europe and the founder of a new empire ("Britain", in contrast to Elizabeth's "England"). Shakespeare's Jacobean plays resonate with the new king's preoccupations: in Macbeth, the Gunpowder plot, witchcraft, the lineage of Banquo, the practice of "touching" subjects to cure them of scrofula, known as the king's evil; in Lear, the need to unite Britain and the dire consequences of its division; in Cymbeline, Britain as a new Rome and the talismanic Welsh port of Milford Haven, where Henry Richmond landed at the dawn of the Tudor dynasty; in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, royal children and dynastic liaisons.

Shakespeare endures because, with each new turn of history, a new dimension of his work opens up before us. His insights into the dynamics of royalty and power are such that, whoever is king or president or prime minister, one or more of the plays will always strike a resonance with the times. When George III went mad, King Lear was kept off the stage - it was just too close to the truth. During the cold war, Lear again became Shakespeare's most popular play, its combination of starkness and absurdity answering to the mood of the age, inspiring both the Russian Grigori Kozintsev (1969) and the English Peter Brook (1971) to make darkly brilliant film versions.

Early in 1934, when the French socialist government was close to collapse, a new translation of Coriolanus was staged at the Comédie Française in Paris. The production was perceived as an attack on democratic institutions. Rioting pro- and anti-government factions clashed in the auditorium. Shakespeare's translator, a Swiss, was branded a foreign fascist. The prime minister fired the theatre director and replaced him with the head of the security police, whose artistic credentials were somewhat questionable. What are we to conclude from this real-life drama? That Coriolanus's contempt for the rabble makes Shakespeare himself a proto-fascist? How could it then have been that, the following year, the Maly Theatre company in Stalin's Moscow staged a production of the same play which sought to demonstrate that Coriolanus was an "enemy of the people" and that Shakespeare was therefore a true socialist? Shakespeare was neither an absolutist nor a democrat, but the fact that both productions were possible is one of the major reasons why he continues to live through his work four centuries after his death.

"Shakespeare's plays," wrote Johnson in the preface to his edition of 1765, "are not in the rigorous and critical sense either tragedies or comedies, but compositions of a distinct kind; exhibiting the real state of sublunary nature, which partakes of good and evil, joy and sorrow, mingled with endless variety of proportion and innumerable modes of combination; and expressing the course of the world, in which the loss of one is the gain of another; in which, at the same time, the reveller is hasting to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend; in which the malignity of one is sometimes defeated by the frolic of another; and many mischiefs and many benefits are done and hindered without design." Johnson's preface to Shakespeare was written in a spirit of English empiricism that did not worry itself about neoclassical rules. "There is always an appeal open from critics to nature," he says: Shakespeare's plays are great for the very reason that they mingle joy with sorrow and high with low. They may not conform to the model of the ancients, but they are true to life. The fall of the mighty is only ever part of the picture. Even Shakespeare's severest tragedies have their comedians: the Porter in Macbeth; Lear's Fool. Even his happiest comedies have their malcontents: Jaques in As You Like It; Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. We might go so far as to say that all Shakespeare's plays are tragicomedies and that is one of the principal reasons why his drama is, as Johnson also recognised, "the mirror of life".

The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, is published on April 19 by Macmillan (£30)

Workers' control of the means of production?

One of the most influential books on my political outlook when I was first getting politically aware was Geoff Hodgson's The Democratic Economy, published by Pelican Books in 1984. In it he advocated an economy predominantly consisting of worker-owned enterprises: market collectivism, to use a phrase of Jaroslav Vanek. In a Market Collectivist economy, argues Hodgson(p.177), "The workers are self-managed: they do not work under the direct or indirect control of a capitalist...the workers (collectively) own the product of their labour, which they bring to the market for sale."

I vaguely remember the Kinnock-Hattersley leadership of the Labour Party in the mid-1980s giving some verbal support for Hodgson's ideas, but it was soon forgotten. On most of the British Left, to support any sort of workers' control of the means of production in an economy with a market mechanism is seen as a "sell-out" to capitalism. However, as Larry Gambone (see links at bottom of the blog) has argued, many on the Left have got themselves into a logical hole by arguing simultaneously that (i) the free market is the root cause of human misery in a capitalist society while (ii) the free market doesn't exist after all.

Holding a basically free-market anti-capitalist position, I see anything which gives workers more control over their workplace and enterprise as A Good Thing. Consequently, I was interested when I saw the article below.

Cooperatives pay big dividends: It's commonly held that employee-owned firms are uncompetitive. But, finds Sue Norris, staff who have a stake in a business can give it a drive and adaptability a plc cannot match
The Guardian,Friday March 30, 2007

When John Lewis announced its employees had received a whopping 18% of their salary as a bonus this year, equivalent to nine weeks' pay, it sent ripples through the business world. The company, with its unusual business structure, had enjoyed such a good year that it could afford to pay out £155 million in bonuses alone.
Follow-up media coverage asked how much of John Lewis Partnership's (JLP) success was down to the buy-in of the workforce, who have an even stronger vested interest in going the extra mile than staff in more conventional relationships with their employers.

Could it be that, contrary to the popular perception that an employee-owned organisation is slow and cumbersome, sharing ownership is the best way to motivate a workforce?

Indeed, could JLP - where partners (staff) have a say in how the business is run through democratic internal structures, including five out of 13 board members elected by staff - offer a model for other businesses to follow?

"The past 10 years provide a good case study of the long-termism of many co-owned businesses," says Tracey Killin, JLP's director of personnel, noting that, in the mid 1990s, the firm's performance was less startling, partly because of significant restructuring and investment. This included the purchase of, an internet retail platform, which took time to bed down.

Eventually, JLP was able to develop this into, a significant driver of John Lewis's success today. "If we were a plc, we would have been under severe scrutiny during that period," Killin notes. "Instead, we were able to invest for the long term."

Putting even more weight behind the idea that engaged staff are harder workers, the company has now launched a new scheme, BonusSave, which allows JLP employees to invest all or part of their bonuses, and save income tax and national insurance on this investment, provided that it is left in the plan for five years. (Partners also receive a cash dividend for each full year that money is invested in the scheme.)

In an environment where talented staff are difficult to find and even harder to hang on to, innovative staff loyalty programmes like these are on the increase. They also provide good food for thought for new-business founders who are looking for different strategies that can help them punch above their weight when recruiting their first teams.

Small but perfectly formed

London-based paper merchant Paperback is a workers' cooperative that has been in business for almost 25 years, promoting and selling recycled printing and office paper.

"We are a small company, but our legal structure is very different from others in our industry," says director and business development manager Jan Kuiper. Despite its age, the business remains small, with six people and an annual turnover of just £1.5 million, but its profitability is unusually healthy for a business in its market sector, which isn't known for generous margins. For the last three or four years it has turned in a £50-60,000 a year.

"That's very satisfactory in a difficult industry, which has seen a lot of paper merchants disappear," Kuiper says. "We're still here, and we're making a decent profit, which lets us pay bonuses, and it's because we're a cooperative."

How so? Paperback has been able to retain its focus on green products, for example - something it may have been under pressure to diversify away from if outside investors were pushing for aggressive business growth. Limited companies could do the same, but shareholders might look for a better return, delivered more quickly.

Kuiper, one of Paperback's founders, was involved in the environmental movement in the 70s, and started the current business from a market stall, with a co-founder who had experience of housing cooperatives. "The GLC [Greater London Council] had a special fund to generate new businesses, so we got a very 'friendly' loan to buy our initial stock," Kuiper recalls.

With some additional loan stock funding in the late 1980s, Paperback began to expand, moving into a purpose-built warehouse, taking on more people, and rolling out operations in Birmingham and Sheffield. "By the early 90s, we were one of the largest coops in the UK," Kuiper says.


But that was when interest in recycled paper was at its peak. When the ink ran dry and a key UK papermill, responsible for 50% of Paperback's stock, closed, the business endured a painful period of readjustment.

Had the company been answerable to external shareholders, it may have had to fold, or succumb to a takeover, but, thanks to its cooperative status, it was able to weather the storm and is now buoyant in much calmer waters.

But isn't this all slightly hippyish and unambitious? "That's a false impression of cooperatives," Kuiper protests. "Our commercial adaptability has clear advantages. If cash flow fluctuates we can agree to take a temporary wage cut, which you couldn't do easily in a conventional company. Equally, if there is a change in consumer preferences, we are free to look at what's available and profit swiftly."

More crucially, while many traditional companies are now spending huge sums on expensive consultants to develop their strategies and techniques for employee motivation, Paperback can take this for granted. "It's inherent in the business because we all benefit directly when we're doing well, and suffer equally when we're not. It says something that the average length of service with the business is 12-14 years. You see the same thing at John Lewis - staff motivation is very high, staff are very engaged and, as a customer, you can feel it. The key there is a lot more bottom-up communication."

Founders of new start-ups inspired to think differently about the way they structure and drive their business don't have to go to the extreme of sharing out the business in its entirety, of course. Cleverly structured yet more modest company share schemes can have a powerful effect on employee motivation and loyalty, according to those organisations that run them.

Wiltshire-based public-sector IT company Quicksilva, which has been in business since 1999 and now has 40 staff, has experimented with share options over the years, and has now refined its scheme sufficiently that it has seen a marked impact on its staff. Retaining limited company status, the business has the freedom to use share options as a means of rewarding staff for hard work. Each March, when it reviews staff salaries, it issues new shares. This started informally, but is now an Inland Revenue registered scheme, enabling beneficiaries to qualify for tax relief.

Company founder Gayna Hart learnt, however, that once the novelty of the scheme had worn off, staff became less enthusiastic. "Because there were no plans to sell the business, they began to wonder if the shares would ever be worth anything tangible to them, so I introduced a mock dividend - a pot of money we pay each April based on the number of shares each person has," Hart explains. "This in turn relates to length of service and performance. For someone that's recently joined the company that might mean a pay-out of £200, but for someone more senior it could be £1,000 - that's on top of any bonus." Quicksilva's aim is to keep staff turnover below 10%; for the last two years the average has been 8%.

But there are cases when pushing the boat out a bit further, and giving new recruits even more responsibility and reward, is called for. This was the view taken by Patrick Leyden and business partner Phil Kirby when they came out of retirement in 2000 to set up Leyden Kirby Associates, a partnership specialising in environmental engineering.

The partnership is underpinned by a crop of independently run profit centres. Its aim is to give thrusting young environmental graduates and scientists a stake in their own success.

"We realised major opportunities were on offer, especially in contaminated land management, but that to exploit these we needed a team of young and more recently qualified people with an up-to-the-minute understanding of the legislation and best practice," says Leyden. To attract such people and keep them interested, the firm set up a series of profit centres, each headed by a director with an equity share in their own success.

The firm now employs 30 staff and expects to turn over £2 million this year. "We believe transparency is the key to good business," Leyden says. "We're seeing a 40-50% rise in revenues and related profits each year and most of those profit centres have grown into subsidiary companies to accommodate more young and talented individuals."

Another potential trendsetter is James Wilson, a manufacturer of illuminated panels and keyboards for the aviation sector which, after some years in business crisis, followed by a year of deliberation, recently reorganised the business on a radical scale, even though this meant many staff left in the process.

The decision to change the business structure followed the terrorist attacks in New York, and a reduction in military spending. The company was struggling with a large back order book, quality and delivery issues, declining profits and repeat orders and a poorly motivated workforce.

The new idea was to create individual business cells, each able to carry out all of its own functions. Each business would be able to deal with production, purchasing, HR, stock control and so on - and be accountable for its own profit and loss. The company was divided into nine smaller businesses that could trade externally and internally. The model, based on Toyota practices, was designed to combat staff disengagement, break down existing hierarchy and dissolve dependency on those with specialised skills.

"We broke down the whole organisation and put it back together again upside-down, based on the premise of self leadership and self management," says Andrew Holm, a director at the company. "Everything was focused on the customer, with responsibility and reward passed to those on the factory floor."

Functions were disbanded at the end of 2003, new practices implemented and the nine separate businesses quickly established. "People did leave who were simply unwilling to take part in the changes, but what we were left with was a team who were worth investing in, and who have blossomed into highly motivated and inspired individuals with a desire to take control and make a difference," Wilson says.

The gamble has paid off, too - turnover is growing, profits are increasing and innovation is emerging in every corner of the organisation, he claims. "Our measure for delivery performance is 'on time and in full', which has climbed from 17% to an average of 90%, with several cells maintaining the 100% target," he notes. "We're only able to achieve this because everyone is working to resolve problems... each and every person taking ownership for their business cell and their future success. The possibilities for the company are endless."

Now on Myspace!

You can find me now at

The final conquest of cyberspace has begun!!

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Armchair generals alert- get out there and fight!

Found this at Spirit of 1976. It sums up my sentiments towards the cheerleaders of various warmongers perfectly. However, (basic Orwellology here) Orwell didn't fight in Spain with the Communist-dominated International Brigades, but with the POUM (Partido Obrero Unita Marxista).

Orwell, where art thou?

Since the Iraq War I've had a certain morbid fascination with the various blogs by British left-wingers - you know, the likes of Harry's Place and Lenin's Tomb. Harry's Place has become a magnet for left-wingers who supported the war, while Lenin's Tomb spouts the usual far-left "victory to the anti-imperialist resistance" line. Basically you could sum them up as 101st Fighting Keyboardists vs e-Jihad.

The thing that's been bugging me lately is that both sides claim to "support" one of the armed camps: Harry's Place supports the coalition, Lenin's Tomb the Iraqi insurgency and the Taliban. But...what kind of support are they actually providing? It's hardly the sort of thing George Orwell limited himself to, is it? He went off and fought with the International Brigades in Spain. He didn't just sit in front of a laptop typing on the Internet.

When did the left become such a bunch of pansies?

We need to get these people signed up and fighting for their respective sides. Come on, you lot at Harry's Place. I want you signed up with an infantry regiment and heading out to Camp Bastion. Never mind blogging, you can "support" Our Boys by manning a machine gun post. Maybe bayonet charge a Taliban position or two. It won't be pleasant. You'll be dodging bullets, crapping in a hole in the ground, and you just can't get a decent mocha for love nor money in Kabul, but it'll be for The Revolution.

As for you lot at Lenin's Tomb, get yourselves on a flight to Damascus, sneak across the Iraqi border, and kidnap and behead a foreign journalist. If you really miss your blogging of ridicously long-winded essays, you could always make a video of the beheading and put it on the internet (warning: this might be a breach of YouTube's terms and conditions.) Put down those unsold copies of the Socialist Worker (nobody wants to buy it anyway) and pick up a machete. If you really want to prove your "socialist" credentials you could fly to Tel Aviv instead and detonate yourself in a crowded Israeli restaurant.

Because otherwise, you'd just be a bunch of ridiculous bullshitters on both sides, fighting a vicarious war via the internet that bears no relation to the real violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I'm sure you're not that, are you?

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

I have joined Myspace...

...thought I'd get down with The Kids. Still at a very early stage in my next steps towards conquering cyberspace. More details to follow.

Several days of work on nights beckon, so it will be quiet here. I haven't died, that's all I'll say!

Monday, 9 April 2007

When I hear the word revolver I reach for my culture

My short story didn't win the prize at work. I've got over the misery and pain which resulted. There is talk of another competition in the not so distant future, so we shall see.

A couple of posts back I wittered on about films. I went to see Hot Fuzz, which was pretty good. I particularly like the end, but I won't spoil it for you!

I also went to see Letters From Iwo Jima, the second of Clint Eastwood's two films on the battle for Iwo Jima in 1945. I haven't seen Flag Of Our Fathers (more fool me!), so I can't say which of the two is best. However, I thought this a really good war movie. From the moment the sky fills with US planes (and the historical record) you know that there can only be one winner. Despite that (and knowing that World War Two was the last truly Good War)I still found myself rooting for the Japanese troops. You realise these poor sods are the Empire's cannon fodder for its last stand, not the murderous fascist scumbags who swept across Asia in the 1930s and 1940s (I somehow can't see this being released in China or South Korea).

Talking of war movies, I also went to see 300. I've seen worse, if that's not damning with faint praise! The films it reminded me most of is The Lord Of The Rings triology, due to the special effects, its mythological features and the fact that David Wenham, who played Faramir in The Rings, plays a central role in 300, not least as the film's narrator.

While on the subject of culture (and I know I need to write a big post on what has been read at West Hampstead Book Group over the past six months or so) I went to Tate Britain a couple of weeks back for the big William Hogarth exhibition there, which still has a couple of weeks to run. I was very impressed with it. It took a couple of hours to go around as one can easily forget how much art Hogarth produced. (A few examples below.)If you can, I thoroughly recommend that you go!

PS Before I give up culture for the moment, I must plug Mari Carmen, who commented a bit on my short story and feared my blog had died. All I can do is apologise to this blog's Madrid Fan Club for causing undue worry!

Hoping you had a good Easter...

It's Easter Monday evening as I type. I had a few days out of London in sunny Chester with friends which I enjoyed a lot. We've had quite good weather over the holiday season (and I have caught the sun), which always helps.

I know that the Chester Tourist Board will probably not pay me, but I will plug the following places:

Telfords, which is a nightclub/restaurant/bar down by the River Dee. Good booze and music (young peoples' happening stuff AND the sort of stuff I can sing along to). Bit of a dancefloor as well, although you may end up a bit deaf next day;

Chez Jules which is a very good French restaurant and not hideously expensive; &

The Albion, which is an old-style Victorian pub. When tourists from abroad say they want to see a typical English pub, this is the sort of place to take them. The Albion is a self-proclaimed "Family Hostile" pub, so it's "adults only" really.