Safe from Need?

Stock Market 1929

It’s been an interesting few months to be a student at business school.  Our lecturers have been describing the recent series of bank collapses, credit tightening and government-funded bailouts as “unprecedented”.  Certainly none of them have seen anything like it in their lifetime.

Next year, half of the textbooks will  have to be rewritten. A lot of the companies used in their case studies have, quite literally, disappeared.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether business schools are to blame for the current crisis. At Kellogg, Wharton and INSEAD, future business leaders are taught powerful strategic and financial tools that may drive progress and prosperity for large numbers of people. But there is little instruction in the ethical or spiritual roots needed to wield these knowledge and skill with prudence and humanity.

The school I’m attending isn’t quite as high-powered as Harvard or HEC. But it still receives 1200 applications a year for 90 places on its MBA programe.  People are willing to pay large amounts of money for the skills and reputation an MBA can bring – whether their goal is personal enrichment, professional fulfilment or a desire to help society function better. I think for most of my classmates, our motivations are a  genuine mixture of all these factors.

Stock Market

Sao Paulo Stock Market. Image by rednuht

There is a danger however that business schools, (by their very nature of being “schools”), can turn management into a hard science – providing templates, techniques and tactics that forget that business is a very human enterprise. The apparently  immutable rules of Capitalism seem not to recognise that at the centre of the whole abstract system is the weakest link – Us. Humble humans with limited intellects driven by Greed and Fear, and perhaps occasionally by Compassion.

NPR’s Speaking of Faith is running a series of programmes called Repossessing Virtue, examining spiritual and ethical questions raised by the current economic downturn.  In this week’s show, an interview with Quaker educator and  writer Parker Palmer, the interviewer Krista Tippett puts her finger on what is so easily forgotten in the rush for self-enrichment.

“One thing I’ve come to appreciate about spiritual traditions having a role in human life… is that they take mortality and finitude and frailty seriously and assume that …. those things are part of life. Our culture and our economy colluded … in recent years in this illusion that things could just get better and better – that you could be safe from need.”

– Krista Tippett

I finished with business school late next year. I hope that I and my classmates will remember that while business, industry and commerce can (and must) be a powerful force for good in the world, we must be careful not forget our own humility and frailty.

The Wild West (Midlands)

I’ve been living in Birmingham for just over three months, so any sweeping generalisations I make about Birmingham and its region can be ignored or ridiculed. But sweeping generalisations are fun (if dangerous), and they assist in cultivating a superficial veneer of knowledge…

City Centre

The first rule of Birmingham: nobody lives in Birmingham. There’s a mistake that all newcomers to Birmingham make at least twice: ask a local “So, how long have you lived in Birmingham?” The answer tends to be: “I’ve never lived in Birmingham. I work in Birmingham. I’ve lived in Dudley/Sutton Coldfield/Halesowen all my life.”

This reaction seem particularly virulent among people from Solihull, who appear most unwilling to acknowledge that England’s second largest city lies just 9 miles north of them.  Solihull gives the impression it would much rather return to the bosom of mother Warwickshire.

Most English people who aren’t from Birmingham know very little about the city, except for three things:

  • New Street Station is the 2nd worst place to change trains in the country (the worst place being Crewe, a subject for another post).
  • They don’t like the Birmingham accent (which is a purely English irrational prejudice – foreigners love the Brummie accent)
  • They don’t personally know anyone from the city (which makes sense, because nobody lives in Birmingham). Although they’ve probably seen Ozzy Osbourne or Jasper Carrott on TV.


Birmingham (and the wider West Midlands) form a far more interesting conurbation than its external image gives it credit for.  Fierce local pride seems to define the various towns in the region – Dudley and Wolverhampton are right next to each other, but you’d do best never to confuse the two. And of course there are the usual football rivalries, with Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Wolves, West Brom and Coventry City all fighting it out in the top two divisions.

It’s difficult for outsiders to tell, but there are several distinct accents across the region, too: Black Country people (whose dialect preserves otherwise extinct features of Middle English) don’t sound like Brummies, who  definitely don’t sound like people from Walsall.   (Second rule of Birmingham: Walsall English is just about the most impenetrable form of English you’ll ever encounter).

It’s said that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, and the canal paths form a good network of cycle routes to explore the city.  If you like old industrial architecture, it’s well worth a couple of days pedalling (take a good map). Cycle far enough and apparently you’ll reach Warwick or Stratford-upon-Avon.

If you get bored with canals, Birmingham has a vibrant creative/new media community, and they all Twitter. There’s at least a few good pubs (the Fighting Cocks in Moseley seems like a friendly place from my one visit so far) and some good music to be had (try the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath).

Third rule of Birmingham? Don’t rubbish the place until you’ve spent some time here.


Kora, Live at Barfly Birmingham


Kora are an AMAZING live act. Their gig last night last night at Barfly in Birmingham was like taking a journey home to NZ for a couple of hours, and the Kora brothers (yes, 80% of them are from the same family) were good company on that trip.

Having raved too much in the postgrad common room about New Zealand music, I had persuaded a classmate from Chile to come along to get “a taste of kiwi”.

When I last saw Kora play in New Zealand (at least 3 years ago), they were a solid reggae band from Whakatane with a few good songs. They’ve matured since then into a world-class live act. Their show is watertight, full of energy and good-natured.

Kora’s music has now pushed far beyond their easy-skanking origins. Apart from Brad behind the drums, the other 3 brothers and Dan Mcgruer swap instruments with alarming regularity (guitars/bass/Nord/sequencers/mixers), as well as sharing vocal duties.

Electronic bleeps and bloops in the mix hint at dark drum’n’bass moments (shades of another kiwi act, Shapeshifter, but with more soul). And at times the guitars march heroically towards metal.

The crowd at Barfly was small but enthusiastic – and happily it wasn’t all New Zealanders. I’d agree with Andrew (he saw them last year in Brum) who suggested that they’d work much better in a more intimate venue than Barfly like the Hare and Hounds. although the band did a fine job with the space and the crowd they were given.

A strange thing about being a New Zealander… you feel more like a kiwi when you no longer live in your home country. There’s something about roots/reggae/dub that (at least for me) speaks deeply of our landscape and people, a sense made all the more poignant 12,000 miles from home. Hearing Kora was like tapping back into those island origins.

We had a great night. Afterwards, my classmate from Chile summed it up in one word: “indescribable“.

Next time Kora is playing in your town, GO AND HEAR THEM. They are truly awesome.

November is NZ Music Month in Brum

A battalion of New Zealand musicians are invading Birmingham over the next few weeks. None of this was apparently planned, but it’ll effectively double the kiwi population of the city for a few nights anyway… here’s the (entirely coincidental) line-up:

The Black Seeds are on the road promoting their new album Solid Ground, and they’re playing the Hare & Hounds in Kings Heath tomorrow night (1st November). Unfortunately I’m out of town for the weekend…

Pianist and producer Mark de Clive-Lowe has been London-based for a while now but he’s soon to be setting up in LA. One of his last UK engagements is as musical director for 8sixteen32, a show put on at the Birmingham Rep by the Decypher Collective, a bunch of local grime MCs who come together to perform ‘grime theatre’… it sounds pretty unique.

A week later, Whakatane‘s most famous sons Kora are play Barfly in Digbeth on the 13th of November. Apparently they were awesome when they played Brum last year, so this is the gig I’m hoping to get along to.

And if all that weren’t enough, Fat Freddys Drop arrive in town the following night to play the Academy. I saw them in London back in April in front of a 95% kiwi crowd, they were awesome as usual. It was almost like being at the Grey Lynn Festival, except it was indoors, at night, and you could only get Carlsberg at the bar.

(The video above is a Fat Freddy’s performance in France on Canal+, at the start it’s funny to hear the crowd clapping on the 1 and 3 rather than the 2 and 4.)