Thursday, July 30, 2009

(No.42) Joe Orton's "Loot"

On August 9, 1967 Joe Orton at age 34 was murdered by his lover Kenneth Halliwell in their Islington (London) apartment. Orton, an English playwright of the 'kitchen sink' school, certainly did not belong in any sense to the 'swinging' London of the 1960s whose images of Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Rolling Stones et al so enchanted North Americans of a certain age -- and still do. "I'm from the gutter," declared Orton, "and don't you forget it because I won't."  

In his brief career Joe Orton wrote 9 plays and 3 novels (although several of his works were published posthumously). He is largely forgotten by or unknown to North American theatre audiences these days. A couple of his plays were presented on Broadway but did not succeed although they had in London. Forty years on:  all the more credit to Albert Schultz's Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto for mounting Orton's 1965 play "Loot".

Pat and I attended and greatly enjoyed the Soulpepper production. "Loot" is a dark comedy, a farce really but certainly not of the "No Sex Please, We're British" kind. Indeed anyone who has a sense of what the London stage predominantly still was in the 1960s can easily imagine the sort of reaction  Joe Orton generated with his attacks on various sacred cows -- in the case of "Loot" the police, religion and the dead.

The play involves a London family in the 1960s: a father, a son who is a bank robber and the corpse of the just deceased wife and mother; also -- a sexually active and predatory nurse, a mortician (also in on the robbery) and a detective who is dishonest and somewhat looney. The corpse and the bank loot are moved about frequently in advancing the plot. 

The performances by the cast of "Loot" are uniformly strong, the accents well done, the delivery crisp and suitably fast for the pace necessary for this black farce. Two of the cast must be singled out: Michael Hanrahan as the policeman "Truscott" and Oliver Dennis as the widower "McLeavey". [Hanrahan was a founding member of the Soulpepper Company in 1998 along with artistic director Albert Schultz and 10 other actors.]

We just recently attended performances of plays by Oscar Wilde at Stratford and Noel Coward at the Shaw Festival (see the reviews in (No.35). Soulpepper's presentation of "Loot" is, in both its performances and our enjoyment, superior to both those presentations.

The tragic end to Orton's life was marked by a line he might have written and would almost certainly have enjoyed. At the scattering of his ashes and those of his lover and murderer (who had killed himself after clubbing Joe to death with nine hammer blows to the head) Orton's sister took a handful from both urns and said " a little bit of Joe and a little bit of Kenneth. I think perhaps a little bit more of our Joe and then some more of Kenneth". At which Orton's literary agent, Peggy Ramsay, snapped "Come on, dearie, it's only a gesture, not a recipe".

"Loot" ends its run at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto on Aug 7. 
Box office contact information: 416-866-8666 //

Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair

Saturday, July 25, 2009

(No.41) Linguistic flatulence

There are those -- a diminishing number to be sure in our post-literate Twitter/YouTube society -- who consider the language equivalent of passing gas to be a considerable irritation.  This linguistic flatulence is an inflation unwelcomed by those who scorn the smell of sloppy usage. I belong to this group.

I refer not only to the obvious, not just to the latest commonly heard verbal tick. Perhaps the current leading example of this involves the rise of "like" from 'valley girl' dialogue in Hollywood movies to the inevitable third or fourth word in every sentence uttered or grunted by too many of those produced by our public education system. However regrettable and pervasive a verbal tick may be (such as the friendly and common retail response "no problem") one can still hope it will fall away over time, rather like the tail from the human ape.

I am thinking in particular of the extent to which many people, influenced by advertising and other toads in the garden of English usage, choose to inflate through verbal flatulence what is already precise. Among my particular dislikes are these improper combinations:
  • free gift
  • return back
  • very unique
  • exact same
  • added bonus
  • real people
  • quite obvious                                                                                                                                                                          
Or such solecisms as these about which too few seem to care these days (or in too many cases even know enough to care):

  • attaching "pre" to create a ridiculous word as in "pre-owned" to replace "used" (as if it were possible to own something before it is first owned ).
  • the frequent but almost universally incorrect use (especially by television reporters) of "beg the question" as if it means to raise or pose a question rather than to take for granted the matter in dispute, to assume by implication what one is trying to prove. 
  • the continued and widespread misuse of "incredible" so that it has now largely lost its purpose: to describe something or someone that cannot be believed. It has now become the word routinely spoken to describe something only mildly positive or barely interesting, as in "You paid only 50 cents for that striped condom -- that's incredible".
  • the injection of non-existent syllables into spoken words so that "paraplegic" becomes 'para-puh-legic' .                                
A highly prescriptive approach to English usage is unrealistic and bound to fail to stem the tide as surely as King Canute on the shore. Change in the use of the English language is inevitable and continuous. I recognize that language evolves ( it matters not whether one likes the changes) when enough people choose often enough over a long enough time to use certain words in certain ways to mean certain things differing from what was once regarded as proper usage. 

However, no matter how liberal the prevailing approach to what is acceptable there are some usages which are for me just too irritating or silly to pass unremarked. Hence this column.

Alastair Rickard



Saturday, July 18, 2009

(No.40) Greed,the mindless 'free market' & mutuality

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Since the appearance of my previous column (No.39) on "Sun & Manulife: dull perhaps but not dumb", several former colleagues wondered why I favoured Sun Life in my comments. To quote one: "I often describe Sun Life as "huge" but it is only half the company Mutual Life was." [Sun Life took over a demutualized Mutual Life of Canada, by then renamed Clarica Life.] The question was interesting. After all I had been a public critic of Sun Life for a great deal longer than the period I worked for it. 

My response in part was that "my comments about Sun's current share value were prompted by what I regard as ridiculous comparisons with Manulife by the 'talking heads' of financial services as well as blindness for too long about Manulife and the management that ultimately made its financial status a public issue. They were not prompted because I consider Sun Life to be the model. As you say, Sun is not the old Mutual Life but then neither was Clarica Life which is why, even though I was an officer of Mutual Life, I refused to endorse or support Mutual's demutualization. " 

I have written previously that for me, as a participant in the Canadian life insurance business, 'the day the music died' was Dec 8,1997 when the intended demutualization of the the Mutual Life of Canada was announced. It foreshadowed not only the unnecessary and (for its par policyholders, among others) undesirable end of Canada's first and finest mutual life insurance company but also guaranteed the demutualized company's eventual disappearance. 

Mutual's board and senior management were uninterested in having Ottawa include Mutual Life under the feds' takeover protection, calibrated so that (among the big Canadian mutual companies) it protected only Sun Life and Manulife. So, as it turned out, once Mutual Life had demutualized the inevitable end of its 130 years of existence could be and was made real on Dec 17, 2001 when the acquisition of Clarica Life by Sun Life was announced.

During most of my years in the Canadian life insurance business, i.e., the years prior to the rush by the big life companies to demutualize and the subsequent financial aggrandizement of their senior managements, stock company rules and objectives had not yet made management by quarterly shareholder dividend the priority it has now so widely become. A desire to manage a large Canadian life insurance company in the long term interests of a company's par policyholder-owners had not yet disappeared -- as a potential reference point for senior management --  from the operations of many of the larger life companies in Canada and the U.S.

Looking to the future in those years could still be a hopeful process rather than a reflection of an ongoing search for repetitive novelty with which to impress the 'groupies' of company quarterly results among financial journalists, rating agencies and others. Most possess only a nodding acquaintance at most with the reality of the various sectors of the North American life insurance business as well as with the nature of the mutually beneficial long term relationships companies could have with both policyholders-owners and those by whom they were sold insurance.

It was once fairly common to have mutual insurance companies (i.e., companies owned by their policyholders rather than by shareholders) denigrated in the financial services world by the mindless 'free market' ideologues who considered anything other than a stock company to be inferior or defective. The meltdown in the financial services world was a crash brought about by the corporate class, too many of whose members espoused financial codswallop and whose greed masqueraded as financial sophistication and support for 'market efficiency'. I am not hopeful that the recent catastrophe will prompt within big financial institutions much more than the further manifestation of the sort of superficial and self-serving thinking which helped  produce it.

I do not amend my comments in No.39 about Sun Life's under-appreciated share value and financial probity. While I continue to disagree with aspects of Sun's operations I think its senior management led by CEO Donald Stewart will continue to operate the company in a way that augurs well for its ability  to meet its future obligations to clients, agents, staff and pensioners.

You may think: that is a modest sort of praise. It actually carries genuine substance.  Indeed it is considerably more than I am prepared to say (all the more so given the 'post-meltdown' revelations) about any number of other financial services companies in the U.S. and in Canada. 

God save us all from the malign consequences if the 'best and brightest' on Wall St. and Bay St. are able once again to hold so much sway in our financial system. 

Alastair Rickard



Sunday, July 12, 2009

(No.39) Sun Life & Manulife: dull perhaps but not dumb

It has not been particularly difficult, as the revelations arising from the financial services meltdown have illustrated, for a financial institution to create an aura of great success -- including one whose performance invites but does not receive careful and informed external attention. When it came to life insurance companies the so-called experts to be found among the ranks of securities firms, rating agencies and financial journalism (the 'paparazzi' of the financial services world as I think of them) too often asked questions that amounted to little more than filigree work on nothing.

I came to wish to hear more than an occasional questioner on the quarterly conference calls held by the senior managements of big companies like Manulife and Sun Life go beyond the predictable or peripheral. For years I marvelled at the adulatory coverage of Manulife and its CEO Dominic D'Alessandro, treatment sometimes closer to cheerleading than analysis. 

Then post-market meltdown, when Manulife hit a wall of sorts with its multi-billions of dollars of unhedged risk (future liability) from the guaranteed 'variable' policies it had received rave notices for selling by the truckload, one saw no cogent explanation of how this situation had come along so far with little or no real public caution or even remark. While it involves a different country, context and scale the parallel is striking with the absence of public comment pre-Wall Street meltdown on the danger of the so-called "financial products business" (credit default swaps) undertaken by AIG -- an insurance enterprise now indebted to the US taxpayer for $180 billion of bailout support. 

In terms of Sun Life the commentary over time by most of the same group treated this large and conservatively managed company, one that had not ceased hedging the type of risks Manulife had (beginning in 2004), was briefer and less interested. Partly, it must be said, this was because its CEO then and now, Donald Stewart, did not attract the same sort of comment and reaction as did Mr. D'Alessandro whose quotes seemed to be forever golden with a certain type of audience. Flamboyance in these matters seems to have been a trump card to play when dealing with the financial services 'paparazzi'. 

Mr. Stewart, the head of Sun Life's world-wide operations, is a gentleman of considerable intelligence, insurance industry experience and modesty. He is not at ease with the media nor is he one to toss off colourful quotes. He could not compete with his Manulife counterpart in any game of self-aggrandizing publicity -- nor do I think it would ever occur to him to try. He is a man about whom there is much to respect but not one who will ever shine as a diamond set in the balance wheel of any corporate publicity machine. 

Sun Life has tended to be treated as the archetype of a 'dull as dishwater' life insurance company. The talking heads of the 'paparazzi' now seem to have turned their focus to speculating about why and to what extent Donald Guloien, Manulife's new CEO, seems to be so intent on improving very substantially Manulife's financial strength. 

Now there's a real puzzler alright. It is as if they do not really understand the nature and potential magnitude of the unhedged risk posed by the liability Manulife has on its books on account of the billions upon billions of dollars in variable business the future value of which it guaranteed for purchasing policyholders -- and the financial implications of what it faces if the stock market goes pear-shaped again. Add to that uncertainty the investigation launched in June by the Ontario Securities Commission into Manulife's previous level of disclosure on the risks posed by the writing of this sort of policy. 

What the talking heads might spare a moment or three to contemplate today is why the market-place, influenced if not guided by their often uninspired analysis of both these large Canadian life insurance companies, seems currently unwilling to widen more significantly the existing gap in share value (although already in Sun's favour)  between these two competitors. That is -- to recognize the advantages that Sun's operations, assets and overall financial solidity, guided by the careful and experienced hand of Mr. Stewart, offer to investors and why a very solid, conservatively managed company like Sun Life deserves more attention and credit based at least partly on the demonstrated foresight of its management. 

In the interests of disclosure: I do know something about Sun Life and the life insurance industry. Until the end of 2008 I was a Sun Life employee, my former employer (Mutual Life/Clarica) having been taken over by Sun. I was critical of aspects of Sun Life's operation while I was an officer of the company and have offered comment critical of Sun since I left the company (see, for example, columns Nos.9 & 26 posted in 

In the editor's columns of The Canadian Journal of Life Insurance, starting in 1978, I offered opinions critical of the life insurance industry and of both Sun and Manu. For example, early in CJLI's existence I criticized Sun Life for both its wrong-headed decision to move its head office from Montreal to Toronto and the decision-making and ratification process it used to bring this about. 

As for Manu I gave one of its CEOs an award I had created and occasionally handed out in recognition of an absence of excellence relating to the Canadian life insurance business. I had named the award after Canada's least distinguished prime minister (1894-96) Sir Mackenzie Bowell, an Orangeman from Belleville, Ontario.

These are among the life insurance industry bona fides in which -- together with occasional threats of legal action against me because of my publicly expressed views -- I still take some pride and satisfaction all these years later. 

I do not now hesitate to suggest that it is time for today's self-described experts on the Canadian life insurance business to recognize that what the new Manulife CEO is trying to do (a matter apparently of great speculative interest to them) is to move Manulife to the sort of solid public position from which its longtime rival Sun Life never departed.

It is time that the hangers-on of the financial services business, the expert 'insiders' began to assimilate enough about the core realities of the life insurance business to recognize consistently the difference between flash and facts. Had this been the case pre-meltdown in the US perhaps we might, before the scandal reached its horrendous climax, have had more than a corporal's guard among the 'paparazzi' pointing out publicly to investors and government alike which members of the emperor's financial services court were without clothes.

Alastair Rickard

email: Alastair.Rickard@sympatico,ca      

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

(No.38) Mindless celebrity worship

In a previous post (No.36) to I shared a few critical comments about the immediate media reaction to  the death of Michael Jackson, comments which were published by The Globe and Mail in my letter to the editor (June 29).

I write this column on the evening of a day (July 7) on which I tried to focus on consequential news instead of the 'tributes' which have been part of the countless 'celebrations of the life' of Michael Jackson dominating the media. The biggest act of this multi-day obsession has been the 'memorial' staged in the Staples Arena in Los Angeles and broadcast by at least 16 television channels in the US. The events of the last few days have combined to make the public excess on display in the days following the death of Princess Diana look almost rational.

My screed is not about the waste of news space, resources, energy and time on something so ephemeral as the drug-induced death of an American pop star. Rather it is about the unworthiness of the object of all this attention, the elevation of an alleged child molester to the supposed 'iconic' status invoked by so many commentators on Jackson's life. 

In the US it seems that someone who points to this contradiction as did U.S. congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island NY who posted his blunt assessment of Jackson on YouTube, had better duck. I watched one of CNN's 'talking heads' defend Jackson and respond to King's critical comments by accusing him of having been a supporter of the IRA.  Non sequitur anyone? Then he and another pro-Jackson panelist, while  still seeking to elevate him to some sort of secular sainthood, admitted they would not have left their children in the same room with him!  I kid you not.

For those appearing on American and Canadian television who could be diverted from their Jacksonian hagiography long enough to actually contemplate what they are doing, their defence is essentially this: 'we are celebrating Michael's important legacy as a cultural figure'. They can do this apparently without any ethical hesitation -- praise the man but ignore the fact that his life was offensive on several levels. Fine but one wonders if some or all of these same people would be as prepared to accept the making of the same distinction between the literary stature of, say, Ezra Pound or Louis-Ferdinand Celine and their unsavoury politics. 

The most incisive analysis I have heard or read about Jackson since his death on June 24 came from Bob Herbert, a liberal columnist for the New York Times and (lest I be accused of merely quoting another white man) I note that he is a black American. Such relatively rare critical comments in the days following Jackson's death have been swamped by the flood of mindless celebrity worship and have been all but ignored by the US media in this latest, nauseating manifestation of our celebrity culture.

"Jackson was the perfect star for the era, the embodiment of fantasy gone wild," wrote Herbert (NYT, July 4, 2009). Jackson was "talented but psychologically disabled to the point where he was a danger to himself and others. Reality is unforgiving. There is no escape. Behind the Jackson facade was the horror of child abuse. Court records and reams of well-documented media accounts contain a stream of serious allegations of child sex abuse and other inappropriate behavior with very young boys. Jackson ... was excused as an eccentric. Small children were delivered into his company, to spend the night in his bed, often by their parents.

"One case of alleged pedophilia against Jackson, the details of which would make your hair stand on end, was settled for $25 million. He beat another case in court. The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson's death -- not just an appreciation of his music, but a giddy celebration of his life -- is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality. We don't want to look under the rock that was Jackson's real life."

To which I say "amen". 

Alastair Rickard



Sunday, July 5, 2009

(No.37) Google progressivism

The view that everything is changing for the better has been (at least until the onset of the world recession and financial system meltdown) an effective form of marketing propaganda within the financial services industry and from big business generally to the consuming public. It's also been a message much beloved by countless executives as a way of demonstrating their forward thinking and positive, constructive attitudes. This sort of thing has been called 'Google progressivism'.

If one seeks a good example of Google progressivism many are at hand but none I consider more on point than one provided by those life insurance companies and the members of their senior managements who abandoned career agency distribution systems using an excuse which boiled down to 'we have to change for the better with the times'. More often than not this manifestation of Google progressivism was camouflage for executive incompetence and lack of commitment to a system which they found more difficult to operate successfully  than some form of brokerage.

This sort of executive posturing has become increasingly common as companies both appoint and promote to senior management people who are unburdened by real knowledge and experience involving insurance distribution generally and the agency system in particular. These are the sort of executives who search for buzz words to use to describe -- as if indicative of something they had just thought up -- what is not new. An excellent current example is 'holistic selling', a phrase actually indicating an approach which amounts to little more than what is commonly referred to as cross-selling and needs-based selling. 

When I was still with Sun Life of Canada I remarked that if I heard once more an invocation of holistic selling (when what was actually being discussed was simply a well established aspect of agency distribution) I would succumb to an irresistible impulse to buy a pair of Birkenstocks and start singing Kumbaya. I had no patience then for demonstrations of Google progressivism dressed up as marketing creativity. I still don't.

Sophisticated leadership in business requires senior executives who understand that no matter how vocationally fashionable it may be to act as if 'change' is a synonym for 'progress', it isn't. They know that decay is also change. A demonstration of this level of understanding has not loomed large in the financial services meltdown in the US and elsewhere nor for that matter has it been universally evident in the Canadian life insurance business; see for example the serious reverses at Manulife. 

Alastair Rickard


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

(No.36) Michael Jackson & the media circus

The death of pop performer Michael Jackson was greeted by the media with such an outpouring of syrupy attention that I was moved to write a letter to the editor of Canada's self-styled national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, which itself had provided examples of celebrity journalism. 

My letter to the editor appeared in the Globe on June 29. I have reproduced the letter below with the few significant bits removed by the Globe prior to its publication indicated in italics.

Dear Sir:

The death of Michael Jackson has occasioned a deluge of so-called news coverage involving this has-been performer. One expects this sort of thing in the tabloids while still hoping for some sense of proportion in mainstream media. Sadly the hallmark of the coverage since Jackson's death lies in the absence of perspective, in the demonstration of how far celebrity 'journalism' has replaced quality news reporting.

I am disappointed but not surprised that Canada's national newspaper has succumbed to the temptation to elevate the unimportant to prominence: q.v., from June 27 the gag-inducing front page story "A tortured star's last days" and (later on) "Heal the world: A planet in mourning".

However this can be said in the Globe's favour: unlike the risible and repetitive cable television coverage of the trivial on CNN and CBC Newsworld (e.g., endless helicopter shots of the LA hospital to which Jackson's body was taken) the paper redeems itself in the same Saturday issue. It offsets the puerility of Jackson stories with the refreshing and welcome perspective about him and the post-Princess Diana response to his death in the columns of Christie Blatchford and Rex Murphy.


Alastair Rickard


For reasons of permitted letter length I did not include in my letter to the editor examples of what I had cited favourably from the columns of Blatchford and Murphy but I do so below from the June 27 Globe and Mail:

Christie Blatchford -- 

"Ever since [the death of Princess Diana] every quasi-famous person to die -- including those who achieved fame only in death, such as random victims of gunplay -- have been sent on their way with a ghastly array of stuffed animals, handmade drawings and the tears of strangers. Only the size of the memorial changes and there is nothing makeshift about any of it.

" The public mourning [for Jackson] promises to be protracted and ridiculous, with people who had never met him or even seen him in concert all but bursting into flames with grief. Oddly, for a change the usual grotesque circus will actually suit the deceased. ... The man was a train wreck."

Rex Murphy --

"The American media went the full Niagara with the news of Michael Jackson's passing. ... There is something Pavlovian about the modern mass media when they deal with any of the various extreme moments of a hyper-celebrity's life. The bell rings and report - at length - they must. The great and mixed technology of modern communications goes into full gear feeding continuously on the barest fact. The news or entertainment shows haven't anything new to offer on the instant.

"Obviously, in most cases, they simply cannot. Often only one 'fact' is all that is known.  ... the video must run, the inane chatter of the anchors must fill the empty air with more empty air.

"The reportage, so called, is simply an immense static flowing out of the celebrity event. Its purpose is not to supply information but to indicate, by its sheer volume and continuousness, the rank of the celebrity concerned."


Alastair Rickard