Ich bin ein Berliner

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

As friends will know already, Berlin is rapidly becoming my home from home. Part of the reason is the extraordinary friends I have made there, particularly in hy! founders Hans Raffauf and Aydo Schosswald.

I’m thrilled that Hans & Aydo have this week given me an excuse to spend even more time in the city I love by asking me to come on board as Editorial Director of their terrific invitation-only event series.

I’ll be helping to put the programme together for an event I already know and love. Axel Springer-backed hy! is by far and away the most credible and inspiring gathering of entrepreneurs and creatives in Europe. I look forward to contributing to its ongoing success.

I’m moving to Berlin full-time, with immediate effect. I’ll still be writing regularly for the usual complement of European & US newspapers, magazines and websites – but a bit less often.

 

Doubling down

Monday, 1 April 2013

A few passages in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat that struck a chord with me.

One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

***

‘You said something a little while ago about taking stock of oneself,’ I said. ‘Perhaps that’s just what I’ve been doing, over a period of time, and it came to a head that evening in Le Mans. The self I knew had failed. The only way to escape responsibility for failure was to become someone else. Let another personality take charge.’

***

‘The other Jean de Gué,’ she said, ‘the one who’s been hidden for so long beneath the surface gaiety and charm, I’ve often wondered if he existed. If he’s going to emerge, he’d better do so now. Time’s getting on.’

 

Relatable

Thursday, 21 March 2013

I’m reading a lot at the moment. I’ll post extracts from time to time that I’ve found helpful or enlightening. In the meantime, though, here’s something that simply made me giggle, from David Brooks’s The Social Animal. (I have always said that white middle class males are the real persecuted minority.)

Popular, good-looking and athletic children are the subjects of relentless abuse. While still young and impressionable, they are force-fed a diet of ugly duckling fables to which they cannot possibly relate. They are compelled to endure endless Disney movies that tell them that true beauty lies inside. In high school, the most interesting teachers favor the brainy students who are rendered ambitious by social resentments and who have time on Saturday nights to sit at home and develop adult-pleasing interests in Miles Davis or Lou Reed. After graduation the popular and good-looking have few role models save for local weathermen and game-show hosts, while the nerds can emulate any number of modern moguls, from Bill Gates to Sergey Brin. For as it is written, the last shall be first and the geek shall inherit the Earth.

On a related and slightly more serious note, Bobo culture, together with the outrageous behaviour of technology companies, are the reason, I think, that the “geek” is becoming the most hated subculture on the planet – among ordinary people, that is.

Don’t be fooled by the tech press: geeks and tech entrepreneurs aren’t, and won’t ever be, cool. They have many virtues, but coolness isn’t one of them.

 

How it feels to fail

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

I wondered whether it would feel like grief. Whether I could Kübler-Ross it, sketch out the stages, predict when the process would come to an end. But it’s quite a different feeling to the enormity of helplessness and loss I felt when my grandmother died last year. There are feelings a bit like grief that surface from time to time. But this is the first time in my life I have failed at something I wanted so desperately to make a success. And I have failed spectacularly.

Things hadn’t been going right for a while, and people had noticed. My shoulders were slumped, my head was drooping. Something in me knew this was coming. I was already sensing that I might not really be cut out for a permanently combative life: The Kernel’s journalism was always more robust than its editor. I worried it was doing something ugly to me on the inside.

The Nutshell, our gossipy newsletter, in particular, brought out the bits of my personality I have grown to like the least.

Perhaps that’s why, though I think it’s something others feel too when it all goes tits-up, I am flooded with relief. Relief tempered by immense regret, yes, but relief at freedom from bondage. It’s odd, actually, sitting at home with nothing to do. I’d forgotten what the place looked like. Nowhere to go. Nothing to be late for or prepare notes for or worry about or write emails about. Jesus: I’m unemployed!

The sight of a diary wiped clean is temporarily liberating. I get a flicker of titillation from the fact that after eighteen months of twelve-hour days and months of travelling when I’d be in my own bed at home perhaps ten days in three months, the rest spent in hotels and on friends’ couches, that I could, right now, if I wanted to, fire up Netflix and just watch TV all day and eat ice cream. I imagine a lot of recent failures get quite fat.

The longer you hide, of course, the greater your apprehension at going outside again. That tricky first public appearance. You know people are talking, and you probably have some idea what they’re saying, but what you can’t bear is the uncertainty about what they will say to you. Will it be awkward? Pitying? Will they laugh? Should you laugh, too? Is this a funeral?

There’s a sense of open space. You’re not yet ready to see it as opportunity; instead, it feels oppressive, shaming. Why am I not in the office? Guilt and shame are unproductive and friends will tell you not to indulge them. They will be kind and say you shouldn’t be feeling them: that you deserve the opposite. You were brave, you tried something bold, you put it all on the line, ignore the haters. You’ll get a lot of that and although it comes from a place of love it is all terrible advice.

You need to ride those feelings out; to see them through. It’s what’s left of you after the reckoning that you take with you to your next endeavour. Newsflash: you are right to feel guilty and ashamed. I, particularly, have just cause to feel both. In a series of emails to one former employee I wrote things of which I am not proud. She did not deserve them, and I will have to live with them. And there are others who have suffered financially through my incompetence. But more on that another time.

More than anything else, it’s the disorientation and fury with yourself at how easy it is to temporarily forget something so enormous that dogs you in the post-venture void. For months after Nana Petra died I would pick up the phone and start searching for her number. I knew she’d want to know that Mariah Carey was going to be a judge on on American Idol. Sometimes you get as far as being angry that no one is picking up.

You jump out of bed and shower, forgetting for a moment there’s no one to be clean for. You go to write, forgetting for a moment there’s nowhere to publish it any more. You start planning an event that will never happen. A thousand little deaths a day. So it’s easier to stare listlessly at the wall for a few hours instead.

The emails aren’t coming any more. People aren’t calling. Invitations are drying up. The silence takes hold of you.

When your brain starts to wind down after months or even years of feverish activity, there are moments of ecstatic calm that feel almost religious. You are free. But there are also dark moments that creep up on you. You feel useless, pathetic, a joke. You find yourself wondering idly whether any of the kitchen knives would do the trick. How much paracetamol you have in the house. That sort of thing. You start to lose your grip on common sense.

Anchor yourself to those you love. Chances are they’ll have offered already, but, if they haven’t, impose. That’s what friends are there for. Doubtless they won’t know what to say or do, but they can tell you when you’re being a fucking idiot.

Remember that you are good enough, and that acting out of sincerity, aspiration, compassion and love are the best anyone can expect of you. Identify the failings in your business, when you can bear to do the autopsy. (It may be some months.) Chances are it went wrong when ego and pride took over. When the grieving is over and the wrongs righted, you will rise again, strength redoubled, faith restored.

So take the time to heal. I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll do for the next few months, or how I’ll pay my bills, but I’m OK with that. There is no shame in downtime. You need it to retreat, regroup and recharge. But don’t slide off the map for ever, or completely: keep doing some work on the side, of some kind, so returning to the real world isn’t a total shock.

Some of us are born broken. We need to impose our will on others; to fix flaws, to refashion the world around us. These efforts usually fail, but, when they succeed, great art is made and great companies are built. I have no idea what I will do with the rest of my life, though I do know I never want to work for anyone else for any prolonged period of time and that I’m not happy unless I’m creating something.

One of my dreams is, at least for now, dead. But I wouldn’t trade the volatility and excitement of this life for the tedium of job security, my own office and and a good pension plan. I’d rather die. In fact, I couldn’t: it’s part of me, this irrepressible urge to build and aspire. It will always get me into trouble but it’s what keeps me away from the cutlery drawer, and it’s what will grow inside me until it bursts out as my next project. We do what we do, ill-equipped as we are, because we have no choice.

Next time, though, I’ll hire a real CEO.

 

The show must not go on

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

“My whole concern is to first get rid of all the polemical, negative stuff in me; I want to sing assiduously the whole scale of my hostile feelings, up and down, really outrageously, so that ‘the vault resounds’. Later – five years later – I shall chuck all the polemics and think of a good work. But now my heart is downright congested with aversion and oppression; so I must expectorate, decently or indecently, but once and for all.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, letter dated 19 March 1874

This quotation, in Brian Magee’s book Wagner and Philosophy, spoke to me tonight after an email from a friend who is both perceptive and wise. It’s a journey I think I too have been on, but one that has now come to an end.

In business, I’m guilty of incompetence and over-optimism. Not great crimes, all things considered. But in my attitude, personal life and so often in my writing, I owe it to myself to be a better man than I have been.

For too long I have hurt others because I too was hurting; lived for public pride in that way people with brittle self-esteem so often do. I know a lot of bitter and lonely old men who chose ego over love. I don’t want to become one of them.

It’s time to find out what comes next.

 

A new low

Friday, 4 January 2013

On 3 Jan 2013, at 17:25, Charles Arthur wrote:

You claimed on Twitter that some funding [for The Kernel] came from a legacy in your grandmother’s will. I understand that she died in March 2012. Are you saying that the probate was completed and a payment made by September? My experience of probate suggests that six months is an impossibly brief period for processing.


Sometimes I wonder about these people.

 

Nana Petra (1933-2012)

Saturday, 3 March 2012

For as long as I can remember, at least as far back as 1990, my grandmother had been telling me she was dying. I think she secretly got a kick out of it. Like the rest of the family, she was an attention-seeker, and it must have been hard for her, after a colourful life as a model and artist’s muse in Chelsea in the 50s, to grow old in a small house in Kent, with occasional visits from friends who reminded her of her old life.

Perhaps that’s why she liked the internet so much. She spent practically all day online in her last few years. We got her an iPad so she could read the papers in bed and she used to spend hours and hours on the Daily Mail website, emailing me gossip about X Factor contestants and “those awful people on The Only Way Is Essex” and telling me who she was writing an angry letter to that week. Towards the end, it was invariably David Cameron, for not being tough enough on benefit scroungers. I had to resist the temptation to point out how much her capacious kitchen cupboards full of opiates, blood-thinners and painkillers were costing the taxpayer.

Everyone says this about their own relatives, but Nana Petra was truly a one-off. Her friends spoke of her with the sort of affection and hushed reverence reserved for larger than life personalities. Chief among the topics of conversation when she was mentioned at garden parties was her modest house in east Kent, which was decked out with lavish tapestries, lace, marble, Parian ware figurines and lush fabrics. Except for the occasional colour refresh (“This isn’t burgundy, this is bordeaux, and I asked for burgundy”), the interior did not change in thirty years. Things were exactly – in some cases, to the millimetre – where she wanted them, and she saw no reason to fix what was not broken.

Nana had spooky levels of intuition about people, which made her a fearsome adversary. Her annual feuds with my mother were spectacular – as, on occasion, was her language when my mother’s name came up. Needless to say, it was she who emerged victorious from the skirmishes, dusting off her velvet cuffs and muttering “uppity cow” under her breath. (This was to become a favourite expression of mine.) As a child, I remember Nana sweeping magisterially through the house in layers of silk and brocade, archly passing judgment on the issues of the day.

But she was a deeply tender woman, too, who loved unquestioningly and unconditionally, and enjoyed expressing her affection through matriarchy. I can’t imagine what trouble I must have put her through in my late teens, when I lived with her after finding it impossible to co-exist with either of my then-separated parents. She was there, looking on with mild astonishment but never disapproval, when I dressed up as Cleopatra and rolled myself up in her carpet, drunkenly sobbing and yelling “Where’s my Rex Harrison?” (I was 19.)

We had one of those relationships in which an old-fashioned look was all it took to shut me up if I was putting my foot in it, or banging on too long. Sometimes it didn’t even get to that: her little finger would twitch slightly when she was irritated. That meant it was time to change the subject. For those three years when she put me up in her top bedroom – “as long as you don’t bring home anyone I wouldn’t approve of, Milo” – we cuddled, we laughed and we had a good bitch about some of the neighbours, whom she considered dull – a cardinal sin in her view.

As I grew older, and started working, I saw less of her. But, if anything, we got closer. When I got my first job in London and spent all my money in the first two weeks of the month partying (not for the first time), she was there to bail me out, albeit with a few choice words about personal responsibility. “This is the last time, Milo,” was to become a constant refrain in her weekly Sunday emails to me.

In 2010, she began obsessively checking my online activity to see what I was up to, who I was with, whether I was spending too much money “living it up” and whether I was being nice to people. She hated it when I picked on someone, whatever the reason, and if I got into a catfight I could rely on a sternly-worded email arriving within the hour. If she had been any less extraordinary a woman, I’d have found it oppressive. But it was wonderful. In twenty-eight years, my grandmother never let me down, and her watchful and loving eye was never far away.

Last October, I set her up with her own Twitter account. I thought it might be a fun way for her to feel involved in my life. People thought it was me behind the account, particularly when she almost admitted to an affair with Jimmy Savile (later calling him an “ugly bastard” and demanding that I apologise), but no. It was all her. She loved it, especially meeting the friends she’d heard so much about and being able to natter with them about clothes and her favourite television shows.

Around the same time, she began to explore the internet properly, looking up the websites of her favourite galleries and museums all over Europe. She adored this easy access to libraries and exhibitions, which fed her love of beautiful things and reminded her of her travels in earlier, healthier years, when she was a social butterfly on a grand scale.

That was the great theme of her life: an insatiable curiosity about other people. She was fascinated, among other things, by what drove murderers to kill, reading hundreds of books on the subject with grim titles like What Makes A Serial Killer Tick and Touched By the Devil: Inside the Mind of the Australian Psychopath. Equally, she loved holding forth on what possessed people to participate in reality television (one of her secret pleasures). That’s why she loved being surrounded by friends: it was a constant stream of new material for her.

She effortlessly drew people to her because everyone wanted to hear her stories, listen to her opinions and, perhaps, be rewarded with a compliment for their manners or their dress sense. She’d say things like, “Nice to see his wife has fixed that awful hair,” and somehow manage not only to further ingratiate herself with the woman concerned but to become an object of admiration for the husband. Though she never married (“I didn’t date below a Major, and finding people in the upper ranks wasn’t easy”), she was deeply and profoundly loved by a long line of friends who lived and died by her observations and aperçus.

Above all else, Nana enjoyed keeping an eye on things. Not just because she enjoyed a good snoop – though she certainly did – but because she was a woman for whom duty and care were the pre-eminent virtues. Without her, I would not have developed much of a sense of right and wrong. “You can be a catty little queen at times,” she’d say. “But your heart’s in the right place.” If she was right, it was thanks to her own instinctive sense of morality and her uncanny ability to suss people out.

She was by far the first person to twig that I was gay. My mother was awful about it, my father was surprisingly understanding, but Nana showed just the right amount of acceptance and concern. “It’s not a happy life,” she would say. “But if you stay safe and away from drugs, you’ll be alright.” Dad and I always laughed at that. “Just look at your bloody cupboards,” he’d say. “You’re the biggest junkie I know!” She’d allow herself a smirk at this, now and again, in between puffs of the Nebuliser.

They put her on morphine towards the end. She’d have liked that, I think. She always said it gave her lovely dreams.

 

An update

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

I’m delighted to announce two new roles I have this week agreed to take on in addition to my editorship of The Kernel.

Firstly, I am now The Catholic Herald’s Chief Feature Writer, focusing my efforts on a monthly interview slot for the paper. I’m looking forward to developing my interview technique and landing some big names, as well as writing more regularly for the paper.

I’ve helped the Herald out in the past with some digital work and written for it on-and-off for some years. It’s a wonderful paper with some brilliant people on its staff. I’m thrilled to have the chance to work with them more often.

Secondly, Adam Baker, founder of citizen journalism news service Blottr, for whom I have been a columnist for a while, has extended an invitation to join the company as an advisor. I’ll be helping the editorial team develop their content strategy over the next few years. I will also continue to write my Thursday column for the site.

Don’t worry, I won’t be losing my focus on The Kernel. But I’m really happy to have some fun projects running alongside it.

 

Towards a virtual cartography of real-world relationships

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Sometimes it helps to make a list of your friends and close contacts and rank them. I’ve been doing this for years. It really helps you prioritise. If you do it in a spreadsheet, you can colour-code them by friendship circle, which makes it easy to sort your friends for party invitations. I don’t know about you, but my personal friends and professional contacts are extremely similar lists. I guess that’s the case for most people these days. I actually use a database to manage this list now, so I can perform more complex sorting operations. You may like to consider that if you have lots of friends in overlapping circles. I can also categorise them by age, gender, sexuality, geography and income, which is also helpful for planning tables at dinner parties.

But recently I have been thinking about a more complex system that will enable me to define clusters of friends and their relative closeness to each other. A 3D rendering of my friend network would help enormously: I could pick particular geographies on the network for individual events. I imagine flicking between friend cluster view (in which I do not feature), which would appear like a spider web, and a flat spine-based layout with connections determined by, say, my ten closest friends. This isn’t another social network: more like a guest list tool on steroids. You’d have to enter a lot of data initially, but think how amazing the result would be. For example: when I fell out with someone, I could demote them or pull them from the network entirely and watch the whole map adjust in real time. Likewise, after a holiday that brought me closer to a particular person, I could up their ranking and the spine-based view would change.

This all sounds a bit high school, I know: but isn’t that how we all still operate really? And what a brilliant way of never forgetting important people, which those of us who plan lots of dinners and parties do all the time. Note that this web is created manually, by me, so I have control, unlike Facebook and the associated attempts which try to infer relationships and always get it hopelessly wrong. It’s more than worth my while to keep something like this up to date, and I’m willing to bet plenty of people would do it for the sheer hell of it. So why does this not exist? If it does, who’s building it? Do you want to help me put this together? If so, get in touch. The first network we build can be mine and I’ll happily publish it here as a social experiment.

 

Skimlinks closes $4.5m funding round led by Bertelsmann

Monday, 14 November 2011

I don’t normally bother with funding stories, but since the chief exec of Skimlinks is my best friend I don’t think she’d forgive me if I didn’t point out some happy news. VentureBeat reports that Alicia Navarro’s affilate marketing company, which has offices in London, San Francisco and New York, has closed a $4.5m funding round, let by Bertelsmann Digital Media Investments.

This comes hot off the heels of Skimlinks’s acquisition of Atma Links in October. I couldn’t be prouder of my Leithy and her awesome co-founder Joe.

 

Back to Black(Berry)

Saturday, 12 November 2011

As with so many significant relationships in my life, my love affair with the white iPhone 4 has come to a juddering halt just as it was getting started.

I don’t understand how anyone can use an iPhone as their primary mobile phone. You can’t type on it, the apps are a hideous time sink, the call quality is dreadful (I like to phone people), the battery life is non-existent and iOS 5′s messaging service is a very poor imitation of BlackBerry Messenger. This bitch is going data-only.

Despite RIM’s recent and embarrassingly mismanaged service outages, at least I get a usable signal with a Bold. And BlackBerry remains the only credible choice for those of us who have to type thousands of words a day away from a computer: the keyboard is unparalleled. So there you go. Friends can re-add me to BlackBerry Messenger with the usual email address.

 

Happy birthday to a dear friend

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


Not everyone – including some who arguably deserve it even more (I’m more grateful than I can say to a handful of people who have supported me through the ups and downs of the last twelve months) – gets this sort of treatment. But since I found out, before the event, which is atypical, that it’s my adored buddy’s birthday today, and given how kind, generous and, dare I say it, indispensable, Constantin Bjerke has been to me over the last year – man, it seems absurd that I’ve known Constantin for such a short time – I felt moved to once again break my rule about public congratulations to say bravo, and thank you, to a dear and cherished friend. Happy birthday, dude.

 

I know I’m going to regret this…

Friday, 21 October 2011


… but I’ve signed my grandmother up to Twitter. She’s @NanaPetra.

I’ve filled out her bio (I am @Nero‘s grandmother. I’m here to keep an eye on him. Former model, now a house-bound invalid) and uploaded the picture but the tweets are all hers.

 

Why I’ll probably never be a parent

Monday, 11 July 2011

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbBtNVFjeDA

I know no one rash – or arrogant – enough to claim they know the answer to the nature vs. nurture question, nor the proportional effect each has on a child’s sexual development. But the thought that I might influence my child towards a lifestyle choice guaranteed to bring them pain and unhappiness – however remote that chance may be – is horrifying to me. That’s why, quite simply, I wouldn’t bring a child up in a gay household and, if by some chance I were to end up having a child with a woman, I would seek to insulate that child from inappropriate situations and influences until they were old enough to understand the principles, ramifications and, yes, the mechanics surrounding such an enormous decision.

I’d describe myself as 90-95% gay. I would never have chosen to be this way. No one would choose it. You’d have to be mad. Yet there’s a view, promulgated by the mostly socially liberal media, that almost any lifestyle choice is alright these days. It chimes with, and to some degree emerges from, that vacuous milieu of bien pensant chat show psychology that says everything’s OK, as long as you’re OK with it. “Live your best life,” says Oprah Winfrey. “It’s OK, if it’s OK for you.”

But everything isn’t OK.

 

Ja mogu objasniti da…

Monday, 30 May 2011

Kotor, Montenegro.

He holds my damp, ragged passport. “Big problem,” he says, with a thick, Slavonic-sounding drawl that under other circumstances would have been somewhat thrilling.

His deputy turns to me. “Boss says big problem.”

Yeah, thanks for that. I glance nervously at Nick and Isobel, who are sat, wide-eyed and anxious, in the car I’ve just been ordered out of. They’re starting to panic.

We’re at the border between Montenegro and Croatia, one of the few places in Europe where anyone gives a crap about paperwork, because neither country is a member state of the Union yet, on the way back from a truly magical wedding.

But apparently you’re not allowed to travel, whether fortified with hymeneal joy or not, on a passport so sodden that the pages have fused into a sort of ropey mulch.