Philip Whiteley's Blog

March 16, 2018

Nostalgia and hope on the North Foreland

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:08 am

I have a deep affection for the north Kent coast. As an expat Yorkshire lad who went to secondary school in Kent, I missed the moors and the North Yorkshire fishing villages. The compensation was the long Kent coastline. My favourite part ran from the haunting Roman twin towers of Reculver to the narrow sandy beach at Joss Bay on the North Foreland. The oystercatchers and the plovers near Minnis Bay, with their piping calls and darting flight; the swimming at high tide and the rock pools at low, meant that I could find my precious slivers of wilderness, on the fringes of the crowded south east of England, with its farmland, motorways and housing estates.

So I return to Margate’s Book Festival for the third year in a row, with nostalgia in my private memories, as well as excitement at the prospect of meeting new readers. On Saturday 5th May, I host Louis de Bernières’ talk at 2pm. Louis was kind enough to give a generous quote for my second novel Marching on Together. I hope that I will not be so awe-struck as to be speechless in the presence of a living literary legend (so many of my other favourite authors are no longer with us), and I want to emphasize, on the day and before, that there is more to his work than Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, majestic a novel as it is.

Then, in the evening, I host my own little gig of readings and songs, from my novels and short stories. I’ve always liked to feature ‘people like the folk I know’ in my books, rather than fantasy or historical figures. Those who had an OK start in life, but still struggle all the same; people who fear mediocrity more than death, who take moral choices seriously, who pause to wonder at what is and what might be. I like someone to discover the magical in the everyday; like Yvonne in Marching on Together who examines the complex beauty of a single dandelion flower and then quietly puts her weed-killer away.

And I am drawn to people who form a band, like Johnny, Terry and Craig in the book, and in its short story prequel Gringos Can’t Dance. They do covers as well as their own material, and they have good taste. So the soundtrack to my modest canon features songs by REM, the Kaiser Chiefs and the Beatles. On the night, they’ll be performed by real musicians, not me, I hasten to add. I’ll also have professional actress Lucy Freeman to help me with readings. This is all at the 6pm slot. It’s a fundraiser for my crowdfunded third novel The Rooms We Never Enter, and it promises to be a huge amount of fun.

December 20, 2017

Old year, new announcements

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 9:31 am

It’s the Christmas season already, and there is much to report. Earlier this month, I revisited my old home town of Marske-by-the-sea, North Yorkshire, to begin research for a major work, which will be part memoir, part reflection on ideas I’ve had and books that have influenced my thinking. The working title is Touching the Books I’ve Read. I loved the visit; it’s probably the place I’ve felt most at home, and I wished I had returned earlier, and more often. The beach walk from Marske to Saltburn is magical (though I nearly got trapped by the tide – comedy moment….)

I’ve had a sales update from Urbane, and sales of Marching on Together and Close of Play have been ticking over nicely in recent weeks, which is reassuring to hear: there hasn’t been any publicity recently, so there must be a fair bit of word-of-mouth recommendation.

In the New Year, I’m due to announce that I’ll be hosting a major literary event in the spring: can’t give any more details yet!

And the biggest news is signing a contract with the publisher Unbound for my new romantic comedy The Rooms We Never Enter, on a crowdfunding basis. Within just a couple of days, I had six backers, which is a heartening start.  For more information, go to this link: 

Happy Christmas, everyone!

September 21, 2017

Engagement is a business issue

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:15 pm

Ryanair’s crisis of multiple flight cancellations is a failure of employee engagement, but cultural biases prevent the media or many business commentators from presenting it in this way. This was the topical message at a talk I gave this morning at the second Engage for Success Milton Keynes seminar.

‘The airline’s brand has been damaged, the share price has been hit, the business model could even be threatened, because senior managers were not treating the engagement of employees as a matter of business risk.’ Ryanair has been losing pilots to competitors, and the offer of a one-off cash bonus received a cool reception. Such an approach is typical of a mechanistic approach to management, geared excessively by a bottom-line calculation of cost, with people referred to as resources.

‘The idea that the economic impact of relationships in the workplace is negligible is probably the most stupid popular idea I’ve ever come across … People are not “resources”. A company doesn’t consist of resources, it consists of people. Resources are what we use.’

At the seminar, attended by around 40 senior professionals in internal communications and personnel-related disciplines, discussion ranged widely, covering matters such as the importance, and the difficulty, of measuring the economic impact of training and other people-related investments. Katy Downes of Network Rail reported on how her business has made progress in linking key indicators of employee engagement to business indicators.

In her address, Stevie Leake of Kerry Foods, described the company’s comprehensive approach to engagement, from strategic communications to deliberately ‘fun’ elements such as competitions and ‘thank-you’ cards. Engagement has risen, in line with improved performance, she reported.

Also at the seminar, Engage for Success representative Silke Brittain, managing director ClearVoice, and Adrian Spurrell of the Red Thread, led a participative session in which delegates engaged in group discussions to devise ways to protect or even enhance staff engagement and performance during Brexit, with a task of envisaging announcements that could be made in January 2020.

September 19, 2017

It’s the culture, of course

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 4:32 pm

The gender pay gap is caused in large part by unconscious biases, and requires cultural change rather than technical fixes, Rita Trehan, adviser on diversity and workplace culture to leading companies, told a London briefing today.

While this is a fairly obvious conclusion, from a behavioural perspective, the lessons that follow are not easy to implement, because ‘culture’ is so multi-dimensional and complex.

UK companies with more than 250 staff will be required to report on pay differentials from next year, she pointed out. ‘But I’m not sure that numbers are the most important part, because you can cut numbers in different ways. The big question is: What’s the real issue that we have to address? It could be not enough women in certain career paths.’

Employers ought to realize that fairness and diversity affect the employer brand, as well as motivation and performance. The recent controversy at the BBC starkly illustrated this, she said. ‘For a company like the BBC, which does a lot from a diversity perspective, as a core attribute, the branding is an issue for them. It put them under the spotlight from a gender perspective and [more generally] a diversity perspective. The top ten minority individuals earn about the same as Chris Evans.’

While companies often pride themselves on paying for performance, detailed statistical analysis often reveals that pay reflects a less meritocratic pattern, such as tenure, which tends to favour men. Mercer HR’s Workforce Science Institute, for example, has revealed such tendencies over the past 20 years, and now helps many large employers with their diversity strategies.

The trend is moving away from seeing equality as a compliance matter dominated by legislation and quotas, and more towards a performance culture. Some groups of male CEOs are starting to promote the agenda, including the highly influential Michael Bloomberg, said Rita.

September 18, 2017

Exposing the ignorance of our politicians

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 8:49 am

My blog today is a review of Bob Garratt’s latest book Stop The Rot.

This book is a masterpiece. It ought to be – as they say – required reading for all senior leaders in business and politics. Bob forensically examines the short-termism, lack of accountability, corruption, greed, weak governance and incompetence that brought about the economic and social problems we are experiencing.

Reprising some themes from his earlier work, he points out that the directors are ultimately responsible for the success of the organization, balanced by duties of care and to avoid the temptations of corruption. These are customs frequently honoured in the breach, with many of the lapses a result of sheer ignorance. There is only one Board, in the UK system, only one class of director, they have defined duties, and unlimited personal liability. They also, he points out devastatingly, typically have no training. A depressingly common response to poor induction and lapses by Boards is to create yet more supervisory structures and regulations on top, resulting in a bureaucratic mess. And we wonder why we have banking and other corporate collapses, misallocations of capital and recurring economic crises.

Much of the focus is on Britain, but there are critiques of the executive-led corporate model of the US, strengths and weaknesses of continental Europe, and some interesting reforms in South Africa.

A fascinating contribution is his astonishing expose of how woolly the notion of ‘ownership’ of organizations is, in both the public and private sector. An anomaly of British law is that shareholders of listed companies are not directly owners of the firm. In the public sphere, he has never received a satisfactory answer to the question: ‘Who owns an NHS Trust?’

Quite correctly, he urges ownership matters to be clarified, and shareholder voting rights to be limited to genuine owners, not short-termist speculators using shares as ‘gambling chips’.

This is a quite brilliant book, but with disturbing implications. The colossal gulf between the sober, intelligent critique offered in these pages, combined with wise and practical policy proposals for better governance, responsible ownership and long-term economic management on the one hand; compared with the belligerent ignorance of our political leaders on the other, is alarming. As I say, it should be required reading; it will be a struggle to make it so but, well, you have to try.

  • Stop the Rot: Reframing Governance for Directors and Politicians, by Bob Garratt, is published by Greenleaf Publishing, available from Amazon and other stores.

August 31, 2017

Really, I shouldn’t … oh, all right then

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 3:59 pm

As authors, we’re not wired to promote ourselves. Typically, we’re observers, not leaders or salesmen. At school, we didn’t lead the gang, we didn’t even join it. We watched what it did. As published authors, we tend to shy away from self-promotion; or, we get caught between two extremes – pushing our books openly for a while, then retreating and hiding again.

But without some promotion, we don’t get noticed, and without notice, we struggle to get sales. I’ve learned to square the circle by changing my view of marketing and self-promotion. Instead of donning a sales hat and yelling ‘Buy my book’ (OK, I occasionally do a bit of that, if I’m honest ….), I’ve sought to make marketing part of the story telling. If I have an idea for a story, I think about whom it might appeal to, and why. Instead of being a me-me-me pushy approach to sales, it becomes a more modest one; a case of saying to a reader panel: ‘Do you like this idea for a story? No? Yes? Which parts? OK, thanks.’

Gaining insights from a reader panel on draft works, and thinking about the potential readership while I’m still writing, helps me improve the book, as well as identify constituencies who might like it. I’m still at the early stages of learning about this process, but I’ve gained a few insights in the past year, with the launch of my second book Marching on Together, for which I secured some valuable media coverage.

I was given the tremendous opportunity to discuss the theme at the recent Margate Book Festival in Kent, earlier this month, alongside PR guru Gemma Pettman, who presented some valuable practical tips on use of social media and engaging the press. We discuss the theme in this podcast.

‘If you’re buying something, whether it’s a widget or a book, that human side of things is really important,’ says Gemma on the podcast. ‘People buy from people.’

  • Marching on Together, which I discussed at the Margate Bookie, has been featured in the Yorkshire Evening Post and BBC Radio Leeds. It’s my second novel, and is available via this link (go on, buy it, you know you want to ….).

August 8, 2017

Margate, here I come!

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 2:43 pm

In just ten days’ time, I’m setting off for Margate, for the book festival. Two days later, I’ll be presenting a workshop on book marketing with PR genius Gemma Pettman. The region may be approximately 264 miles from Leeds, the home town of the six lead characters in Marching on Together, and just over the water from Bruges, where most of the scenes in the book take place, but the region has an unlikely place in my heart. As a homesick expat Yorkshire lad in Kent in the 1970s, the best place to visit was Minnis Bay, near Margate, for a weekend or a longer holiday. Thanet has stunning beaches, amazing wildlife and characterful towns with history, wine bars and pubs. So, if you’re not booked for the weekend of 18-20 August, come join us ….

More on the link above, or at the home page here:

July 14, 2017

Whose story are we qualified to tell?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 1:45 pm

Anthony Horowitz, creator of the Alex Rider series of books, reported recently that he had been ‘warned off’ creating a black character. The criticism stems from the concept of cultural appropriation, which challenges the legitimacy of penning characters from a very different perspective of the author. The concept is North American, and the context is typically protest at a white affluent author portraying black, Hispanic or native American characters in a way that is inauthentic or stereotypical.

Obviously, taken to extremes, avoiding all ‘cultural appropriation’ would be impractical, and would end all works of imagination. It would also present problems for ghostwriters, and would mean that every ghost would have to have identical skin colour, religion, upbringing, etc as their client; otherwise, how on earth can they represent their worldview and tell their story?

Horowitz responded that if he were only to write from a point of view he had lived through himself, he couldn’t write a female character either, and everyone would have to be a 62-year-old white Jewish man from north London.

The issue is of keen interest to me, because as a ghost I have many clients who are non-British, and as a novelist I have generally created a fairly diverse cast. The idea of everyone in my novels being a middle-aged white heterosexual male sports fan would bore me, never mind the reader.

There is a ‘but’, however. As writers, we should take care to try to understand a different world view, and question and challenge our own prejudices, and create convincing characters that are neither negatively stereotypical nor saccharine. As a white Brit, I haven’t experienced oppression, but I have winced at the occasional US show or movie, such as Titanic, where all the British characters are cold and heartless, and all the Americans and Irish are plucky, artistic and warm-hearted. That experience has been lived a thousand times more, and a thousand times more deeply, by many people who are black, Asian, Hispanic or native American.

A complicating factor is the multi-faceted nature of culture. For example, if you look at me, see my surname and hear my accent, you may assume I’m a bog-standard WASP. But I was raised Roman Catholic, and have Irish ancestry. So while a protestor against ‘cultural appropriation’ may challenge my qualification to pen a female Hispanic character, when I wrote the short story Gringos Can’t Dance, in which the Chilean character Rosa meets the white Yorkshire lad Johnny, I was able to draw on my own experience when she described the day of her first Holy Communion (an important and elaborate ceremony in Catholicism), and I had to use imagination and experience to shape Johnny’s reactions.

One of the biggest risks as a ghostwriter is to slide into telling your story, rather than your client’s. I confess I have occasionally put an opinion into the text that was more mine than the client’s, subconsciously, obviously. I have always sought a relationship of trust and continual dialogue, and such lapses have not (I don’t believe) reached the printed page. A good ghostwriter doesn’t merely report the basic facts of the client’s story, he or she engages in deep conversation, to draw the stories out. Sometimes, you can spot things that the client has missed about himself or herself. It’s almost like therapy.

One of my first conscious thoughts was at about the age of three, when I realized I could only ever be myself. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by how other people see the world. I’ve lived in different parts of the world, learned a foreign language, had friends from many different backgrounds, penned books on cross-cultural teams. Sadly, my ignorance on other people’s perspectives will always outweigh my knowledge, but until you try, you cannot even understand your own culture. Only through empathy can people come together, can a writer a pen a novel and a ghost tell someone’s story.


June 16, 2017

Austerity doesn’t work – well, who knew?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 10:09 am

Nearly a decade ago, the Thatcherite, neo-liberal financing system came crashing down. It failed even on its own terms. It promised efficient allocation of capital, accurate pricing, encouragement of economic growth and creation of wealth. Instead, it resulted in credit booms and irresponsible speculation, compounded by political corruption.

It was a giddy time, the winter of 2008-09. The scale of corruption by Wall Street became apparent when the US government let Lehman Brothers crash (it didn’t have such close political connections as others), while bailing out its cronies, dumping the entire cost on to the taxpayer. If you committed such a white collar crime on a small scale, you would go to prison; when you do the same on a colossal scale, having captured the political system with lobbying, you get to retire with your riches.

In the UK, the Government also socialized the losses, through its bail-outs and bank nationalizations. The result was a soaring deficit and sharply increased Government debt. It hadn’t helped that Gordon Brown had ignored warnings about rising debt and credit bubbles, especially by Vince Cable, and instead stoked a boom to help Labour win the election in 2005. Here is the Cable and Brown Q&A, from 2003:

Vince Cable: “The growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level. What action will the Chancellor take on the problem of consumer debt?”

Gordon Brown: “The hon. Gentleman has been writing articles in the newspapers … that spread alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy. … What the Bank of England said yesterday about the prospects for growth …suggests that we have been right about the prospects for growth in the British economy, and the hon. Gentleman has been wrong.” [Hansard 13 November 2003]

In the three General Elections since austerity began, Labour have lost all, by comfortable margins. The core reason for Labour’s failure was a refusal to acknowledge the real reasons for the austerity and claim that there are easy solutions. Labour, and The Guardian, decided to blame austerity on ‘Tory cuts’, making it easy ever since for Conservatives to portray themselves as the sensible grown-ups, a task made easier still by the fact that there was some truth to the narrative that the boom and bust was partly Gordon Brown’s fault (see above). Oliver Letwin had made similar criticisms to Vince Cable in the same debate.

At the Labour conference in 2010, Harriet Harman and Neil Kinnock were positively chortling with glee at the opportunity that the austerity programme and the Liberal Democrats’ decision to join the coalition gave them to hoover up left-leaning Lib Dem voters. Ironically, this was opportunistic, short-termist behaviour – just like the speculators and bankers – seeking a quick profit for the Labour Party, rather than committing to rebalance the economy and generate sustainable growth.

Since then, Labour and The Guardian have blamed ‘Tory cuts’ for austerity, and used a crude Keynesian argument, implying that there’s some short cut out of the crisis through a succession of spending commitments. ‘Austerity,’ they gravely intone, ‘doesn’t work’.

Well, of course, austerity ‘doesn’t work’. Here is a list of other things that don’t work: Broken glass. Car crashes. Plastic waste in the oceans. This tautology, repeated by left-wing commentators for nearly a decade now, rests on a misunderstanding of what austerity is, and a refusal to analyse what caused it. This has culminated in Jeremy Corbyn’s naïve economic policies that could well worsen austerity, if borrowing rises too much and the credit rating is slashed. It’s not inevitable, but Labour’s leadership appear unaware of the risk.

My fear is that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has been missed. The left should have challenged dominant neoliberal narratives and the corruption it encouraged, and should make the case for a financial system that serves society, rather than the other way around. Instead, they just offer a long menu of spending commitments in an unreformed system.

Still, with young people being brought into political debates, there is the opportunity to develop a more enlightened manifesto next time around. I’m always the optimist. But the left rapidly has to quit its addiction to quick fixes, analyse what’s really happened and develop much better policies.


May 5, 2017

Is being a novelist a profession?

Filed under: Uncategorized — felipewh @ 11:45 am

A motivation in my turning to fiction after a quarter of a century as a journalist and non-fiction author was noting the comment by the great US author Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’

At about the same time, I read her classic novel Beloved. It was a difficult read for me; indeed I imagine for anyone unfamiliar with the southern US dialect, though I have read widely about colonialism, segregation and slavery, which helped me understand the context. The accent was not the only challenge; the narrative switches in time, by many years, with the briefest clue as to when a change had been made. Beloved was a dense and difficult read. It was also poetic, haunting and beautiful. I was glad to have completed it, even though I would have needed a few days’ guidance by an academic to have appreciated all dimensions.

I have followed Toni Morrison’s advice, though not imitated her style (not that I could). The two novels I have had published are accessible, with a recognizable arc and, I’m told, genuinely funny in places.

That does not make me an inverted intellectual snob, however. I strongly defend the role of literature, like that of Morrison, or TS Eliot or James Joyce before, that explores new narrative forms, introduces complex subjects in oblique ways, and that may require interpretation. The world would be a duller place if all literature were accessible and to a format, and we would cease to be learning and growing.

I have long argued, however, that the distinction between literary and popular fiction is valid only at the extremes, when you are comparing Joyce to Jeffrey Archer. In between, there’s a huge grey area. There are many ‘literary’ tomes that are contrived and superficial, and many ‘popular’ authors whose characters touch unexpected depths, in poignant reflection or philosophical musing.

The snobbery towards comedy is particularly bizarre, and would not be recognized by earlier generations. No comedy will ever win the Oscars or the Booker these days, but consider the following historical classics that contain laugh-out loud humour: Don Quixote, Great Expectations, La Peste. Today, everyone has to be unrelentingly grim, especially if one aspires to a short-listing.

This is accompanied by the rise and rise of the creative writing course, including Masters and even a PhD. There is an increasing tendency to view novel-writing as a career like medicine or accountancy, for which one studies a body of knowledge and learns the craft. Literary agents now recruit graduates of such courses, like corporate personnel departments hiring from the business schools.

This makes me uneasy, and not only out of self-interest, given that I am almost entirely self-taught as a novelist. I don’t think literature is directly comparable to a formal profession; it is more akin to being an entrepreneur – many of whom dropped out of school or university. Now, there is much craft to be learned in novel-writing, and much to be gained from formal study, but few creative writing graduates are as poetic or gifted as Toni Morrison, and downplaying the value of the lived experience may be having a stultifying effect.

In recent years, I have read many historical novels, written by authors probably cleverer and certainly more learned than me, but who have spent too long on creative writing courses. The books lacked passion, did not seem to be informed by the lived experience, and the meticulous research was too obviously on display – in one example, some details of the export industry of the 1890s was smuggled unconvincingly into direct speech.

This type of reading experience led me to conclude that the book I wished to read wasn’t being written, so I’d better bloody well do it myself. This would be a book that is contemporary, realistic, with convincing characters, feeling out of place because the narratives they told themselves weren’t working any more, giving rise to major life decisions, well judged or otherwise.

And I wanted my books to be funny. To me, humour and depth are close twins. Another guiding principle is to draw upon extreme emotions that I and people close to me have felt. It’s hard to convey the depths of ecstasy and despair on the basis of library research. Without emotion, how can you engage the reader? Another important theme for me is the importance of, and the inescapability of, personal beliefs.

I am immensely proud to have received a rather better critical reaction than I dared hope for, including a cover quote for my second novel, Marching on Together, from Louis de Bernieres. I continue to receive rejections from agents and literary festivals, but I can now honestly say that the literary credentials of at least one individual who rated my work far outweigh those of the folk who do not. Perhaps I can be generous to myself and conclude that my books are merely unfashionable, rather than lacking in literary merit. And, no, I won’t be signing up to any creative writing classes. I would rather listen to my readers.

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