Tiger by the tail

Painted by Australian artist, Saren Dobkins

Catch a Tiger by the Tail

Often, the most difficult step in starting a business is the second step: perhaps growing it  from keeping a few chickens to expanding into a poultry farm, to becoming a country-wide supplier.

Ten years ago, Cherie Blair, barrister and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair quietly started a charity ,the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women,which has now helped over 140,000 women  from over 100 developing countries take the next steps to grow their businesses.

“We aim to see that each woman has the capability, the confidence and the capital necessary to bring out the best in her, create a stronger business and give her a stronger voice in her society,” Cherie Blair told me. “We work with local  non-profit organisations  as  partners, as well as organisations in the private sector.”

How did it start? Cherie looked thoughtful. “I kept thinking… somebody ought to do something about this. And after a bit I thought,  well, why don’t I try to? Since then, the To Do lists just got longer and longer!”

I asked Tony Blair what  home life had been like at the  start of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women. “Bit by bit,  it took over the  house…the hall… the kitchen…cardboard boxes of papers everywhere – but of course it was worth it. And Cherie had always supported me.”



Other social entrepreneurs have started like that,  and also found they were holding a tiger by the  tail. I know the feeling:  my latest voluntary project  – which included starting The Maths Anxiety Trust – started fourteen years ago, in 2004, when I wanted to buy a maths textbook for a teenage goddaughter, who was getting bad maths results. After  a trip to Waterstones,  as a professional journalist and author,  I found it astonishing that the maths books were so inadequate,  to put it politely. I went to another bookstore but could find nothing efficient that would interest a young teenager. I started to wonder why.

 I  talked to maths teachers and researched maths teaching methods. 

I remembered my first journalist’s job, as Do-it-yourself designer for “Girl”   magazine.  I remembered what it was like,  as a writer, to help start a new, 

teen-age magazine.  Then,  almost without noticing it,  by deconstructing textbooks and analysing what was wrong with them, I found myself writing an online maths course on iPad, for girls who didn’t like maths.

 I commissioned an anthropologist, Samantha, to help  interview twelve-year-olds: she threw  a party for them,  together with some disguised questions about their attitude to  maths. Then I found a maths tutor;  it was Elizabeth’s job to teach me, and my job to challenge her at every sentence:  we argued happily for four years – and then we tested the text for two years on schoolgirls,  university students,  young women,  old women.

The cost ?

 I started two years of design work: the project  took  eight years in all.  It cost me £800,000, not including the cost of my time. The resulting set of four books,  MONEY STUFF,  follows the GCSE  maths course – and is free.

My elder son and my two grandsons are heavily dyslexic, so I was determined that ‘MONEY STUFF’ could be read by dyslexics.  To do this,  I employed only dyslexic IT technicians. People who are not dyslexic don’t notice anything unusual about the text layout.

Eventually,  I became an advisor to the Department for Education on how to persuade girls who had passed  their GCSEs to continue to study maths. 

 I’m still focused on the unnecessary problem of Maths Anxiety, which affects thousands of children and adults in the U.K.  

Like other bloggers, I write to let people know what I’m like and what I do. 

But lately, I’ve been unable to update my blog because my maths work has been like preparing for ten weddings at once  – and I’m also writing  a book, MATHS ANXIETY: the Handbook for Parents and Teachers.”

This doesn’t leave much time for any other writing or updating my blog.

What Will They Inherit?

Our children - how will the budget  deficit affect them?

No, it’s not Boujis, it’s Woodland Hills High School Prom no. 1, 2012. Photographer: Mark Neville.

A colossal debt is what our grandchildren stand to inherit. Let’s be clear about this, because politicians are not always clear, perhaps because they don’t understand it, although that’s unlikely.

  • The National Debt is the total amount of money that Britain has borrowed and not yet repaid.
  • The Budget Deficit is our yearly overspend, when there isn’t enough tax income to pay for Britain’s expenditure.We borrow the necessary amount of money, and it is added to the National Debt, which has been increased yearly, both by the Labour and Conservative/Liberal governments.
  • There’s a Budget Deficit because every year, there’s not enough money to pay handouts to all the people that want them – and they include all of us, from pram-pushers to pensioners. Because we all want our piece of the pie, the Chancellor borrows money to pay for it all.
  • Interest must be paid promptly on the National Debt, because otherwise nobody would continue to lend money to Britain.
  • The total National Debt is now over £1,430 Billion pounds: that is, over a million pounds, multiplied by a thousand, with that amount multiplied again by another thousand … I hope that’s absolutely clear.

Britain is spending more on National Debt interest than on Defence and almost the same as on Education. And we are not repaying that borrowed money.

In 2014, the Treasury sent a letter to every one of Britain’s 24 million taxpayers; it contains a gaily-coloured pie chart, so we can see how our tax is spent. I cannot see that any money is being paid to reduce the National Debt.

Tax pie chart

HMRC tax summary

What can be done about it? Ask your would-be candidates before next year’s General Election.

Why not reduce the National Debt by 3% a year? Then, after 33 years it will have been repaid, so our grandchildren will not inherit this terrible burden. Less than 3% a year will not repay that debt fast enough.

Where can the spending cuts be made? Perhaps on Overseas Aid and Defence – who’s going to invade us? And perhaps Business and Industry might stand on their own feet, unsupported by my tax and your tax?

If we steadily paid off the National Debt in that way, it would reduce the relevant amount of interest payable, and so, gradually, that big slice of the pie would also get smaller and smaller.

But politicians publicly ignore this debt. They know that, to get our votes, they had better pay us our piece of the pie.

But not paying off our National Debt is as morally dishonest as not paying our personal debt. It is even more immoral when we know – conveniently pushed to the back of our mind – that we are leaving this huge burden to our children and – if we don’t do something about it – also to our chubby-cheeked grandchildren.

Clearly, this is morally wrong. So perhaps that 3% repayment should be included in next year’s budget plans and the gaily-coloured pie chart.

Main photo: Pulitzer Prize nominee photographer Mark Neville, famous for his socially focused projects.


How Julia Broke Big

Julia Hobsbawm

Julia Hobsbawm

My friend Julia failed academically at school and didn’t go to university. So how did she become a professor?

“Networking is social navigation – it’s as much about what to look for as who to know,” says Julia Hobsbawm, who wrote and presented the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Networking Nation’.

Think of networking music producer and talent-spotter Simon Cowell, who built up his business through classic networking. Think of Mumsnet.com, which started small with a good idea and now gets more than 60 million page-views a month – which is more than the entire population of Ireland or Greece, as every politician knows. So start small, think big.

“Building up your own network is like building your fitness,” says Julia. “You don’t diet and lose weight overnight, or run a marathon in a week. You slowly change your behaviour as you find out what works and what doesn’t. You need patience and stamina to keep going.”

By 2012 Julia had been made Honorary Visiting Professor in Networking at Cass Business School in London. In 2014 the Foreign & Commonwealth Office invited her to join its Diplomatic Excellence Panel.

“It’s not enough to join Facebook or Twitter then leave it at that,” Julia warns, “Face-to-face matters hugely, even in a Facebook age. You get a direct connection when you meet someone, look into someone’s eyes and hear their voice. People who meet others are happier than those who simply stay online.”

So leave the keyboard sometimes. Get out there and party.

Follow Julia Hobsbawm on Twitter: @juliahobsbawm
Find out more at juliahobsbawm.com

Breaking Big

Author Tara Mohr

Author Tara Mohr

It’s an irritating fashion. Internationally famous businesswomen are writing advice books, firstly to publicise themselves as not being a one-trick pony, secondly so that ordinary women can … just get off their arses and DO IT TOO. I’ve been yawning through these books for months when … suddenly … here comes the glass-ceiling smasher.

I had only read halfway through Playing Big when I realised it was one of the most important books in my life. If I see a good point in a book, I underline it in red. The first part of Playing Big looked as if I’d haemorrhaged over it.

I read the second half slowly, one chapter a week, so that I could absorb and practise what this life coach teaches so well. (Don’t think Tara Mohr looks too young to know the Secret of Life.) Some of her book had taken me years to discover, some of the practical stuff I thought I’d invented myself. Much of Playing Big, I quickly realised I needed to know. The New Age bit I took on trust … and it worked: I now have an Inner Mentor.

So, have you ever felt not-good-enough? Of course you have. Ever suffered from fear, self-doubt or lack of confidence? Join the club…

Secretly, every woman aspires to something. If you want to do anything other than housework and homework, this is your guide. If you want to achieve anything, or simply be less stressed, this book will help you do it. In it you will find your voice, your ability, your self-confidence and perhaps even your mission in life. Buy it. Pass it on.

Playing Big by Tara Mohr , is published by Hutchinson, hardback price £16.99.

Who do you trust?

Singer Lulu at Good Housekeeping Gala

Singer Lulu at Good Housekeeping Gala

I asked around, “Who do you distrust?” Answers were hurled at me, “Politicians, bankers, estate agents, hairdressers, the police.” The usual suspects.

I asked, “Who do you trust?” There was a thoughtful silence. Eventually, people said, “The Queen”… “John Lewis”… “Bus drivers”… “Doctors”… “Nurses.”

Top of my own trustable list is The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. It’s as reliable and as British as tea time, Tower Bridge and double-decker red buses. So no wonder celebrities from stage, screen and the House of Lords swarmed to the champagne gala opening of the new Good Housekeeping Institute: Emilia Fox, Kirstie Allsopp, Jane Asher, Kathy Lette, Arlene Phillips, Baroness Margaret Jay, Baroness Floella Benjamin.

Fellow guest, Caroline Shott, Head of the Learning Skills Foundation, is used to spending her time with professors who study the brain, and teachers who want to know how that affects their pupils. Afterwards, Caroline gasped, “That was like being shot into the middle of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. Everyone so beautiful and exquisitely dressed, so many blondes in black.”

However, what impressed us most was seeing the test rooms: rows and rows of gleaming dishwashers, ovens and washing machines, attended by white-coated, glamorous testers – just as you imagine.

Find out more about the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

Soldier Boy

Warsaw Boy book coverCan you imagine a schoolboy dreaming at night that he’s in the middle of a battlefield? Of course you can. Now, can you imagine a schoolboy waking up in a real battlefield, with a real enemy really trying to kill him?

This was the nightmare of my Polish brother-in-law, Andrew, an eleven-year-old schoolboy in short pants when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and so started World War II. As the Nazis conquered much of Europe – slaughtering Jews and abducting able-bodied men to work on German farms – underground resistance groups in occupied countries waited to support an invasion by the Allies.

When he was fourteen, Andrew ran away from home to join the poorly-equipped Polish underground army. Fighting the well-equipped Germans were poorly-equipped locals, often old men and boys like Andrew. Within a short time Andrew had supplied himself with a rifle, ammunition, boots and a uniform, by snatching them from dead bodies.

Andrew was taught how to strip and reassemble a sub-machine gun, how to make and throw homemade grenades. By the time he was fifteen, Andrew had lobbed a homemade grenade from the high window of an apartment block onto German troops below and had used his sub-machine gun on enemy soldiers.

It is strange to think that my gentle, charming brother-in-law was – as a child – a killer as well as a victim; and that he stoically accepted the fact he might be killed before bedtime.

In June 1944 the Allies invaded France and, shortly afterwards, the Warsaw Uprising took place. As the city was blown up noisily by bombs and shells, Andrew writes, “Sometimes I helped remove civilian bodies from bombed buildings. This was essential work. We had to find the bodies before the rats did.”

For two months, Andrew – still only fifteen – fought in the streets and in the disgusting Warsaw sewers, as the city was torn apart, until he was wounded in the leg and so taken prisoner by the Germans.

Andrew’s story of defiance, bravery and survival has an understandable strain of melancholy and sorrow. But look on the bright side. Firstly, Andrew managed to escape, and eventually reached the USA where he became an influential journalist. Secondly, Andrew’s new book Warsaw Boy – much of it scribbled during the war – is a real-life Boy’s Adventure Story for all the supportive men I love who will always be fifteen on the inside. Eat your heart out, Indiana Jones.

Warsaw Boy by Andrew Borowiec costs £16.99 and is published by Penguin.

Order Warsaw Boy from Penguin or Amazon.

First Time Publisher

Burgess, Anthony, 25.2.1917 - 25.11.1993, English author / writer, portrait, Lugano, 1989, British, 1980s, 80s,Anthony Burgess

Writer Muriel Spark once told an interviewer that before she started to write, she had a life. She travelled, she entertained, she went to the theatre and she met interesting people. Now, she said, I just write in a room, so there’s nothing to talk about

When my first novel became a hit, writer Anthony Burgess told me not to allow myself to get distracted. “Don’t go to parties, get away from people,” he advised. “Get your head down and write”.

Anthony’s second bit of advice was, “Don’t be tempted to become a publisher, it takes up too much time and money.”

Last year I became a publisher, to self-publish my interactive ebook Money Stuff. The drawback to being a publisher is that you need to be several people, all at the same time: the business person, the financial director – money disappears at an astonishing rate – the editor the line editor, the proof reader, the art director (I liked that), the marketing department, the publicity department and the secretarial staff.

I’ve skipped schizophrenia in favour of multi-personality disorder. As Anthony warned, since I became a publisher I’ve had no time to write.

My Long Hot Summer


Road trip

“What happens on a book tour?” is a question an author often hears

A book tour is very hard work – especially if your are going round the world with only two suitcases and need to look your best – all the time. You get up around 5am for breakfast TV appearances, then rush on to radio, lunch in some grand restaurant with a top journalist who may well be critical, then on to the afternoon TV shows and the early evening ones. In there are no late shows, then around 7pm, you start the next leg of your journey.

Before a tour, you prepare your tour wardrobe, get your hair done and have a meeting in your publisher’s conference room where everyone agrees the six most obvious questions that you will be asked. These questions are NEVER asked, but the same three questions a day come at you all day and the smart thing to do is to give different answers each time, if only to keep yourself awake.

However, you do meet fascinating people, such as interviewer, Oprah Winfrey.

In 2012 I had a breathless summer, organized by Jaz, my publicist at Canongate, which republished LACE, a novel about sex from a girl’s point of view, that I wrote 30 years ago. Jaz was considerate of my great age (80) and thoughtfully provided cars everywhere. As well as being interviewed by the media, I did three, one-hour stand-ups, in question-and-answer form with the audience and to my surprise I enjoyed them immensely.

The first of the on-stage standups was hosted by Lauren Laverne, someone I admired as a radio host and TV anchor. Lauren is as funny as she is beautiful and thoughtful. She very kindly lent me her makeup lady, so I wore false eyelashes for the first time since the ‘Sixties’. Then we also wore false hair, white makeup, pale pink lipstick, flat boots and shoes instead of heels, waistless dresses by Mary Quant or Biba and tights – newly invented – which meant we could fling away a horrible elastic garment called a girdle, which held your stockings up and your stomach in; you bulged over the top and bottom of this updated chastity belt, so your thighs looked the size of Wales.

Lauren Laverne introduced me by email to Caitlin Moran, who wrote non-fiction, book of the year: “How to Be A Woman.”

At my next stand-up, I met the very funny Clare Balding who kept a big live audience roaring with laughter for over an hour at the Shoreditch House Literary Salon, hosted by the witty and urbane Damian Barr.

The third stand-up was Girls Night Out at The Wimbledon Bookfest, with an old friend, Penny Vincenzi, who also talked about her enjoyable blockbuster.

“Old Sins” was re-published by Arrow. Penny spent quite a bit of her year to date doing research in Paris and the South of France, then she went to New York for more research. Well, someone has to do it.

Penny never knows what’s going to happen when she’s writing a book. In my novels I need to know EVERYTHING, even what everybody’s wearing. I spend happy hours constructing time/action charts that look like a railway timetable, so that I know everything that’s going to happen, and when. How very different from my own life.

How to be an Author

About 100,00 British authors are published every year, and they all long for their publishers to pay for a publicity tour.

Many moons ago I wrote a book about how to minimize housework. When SUPERWOMAN was published, my publishers were a tiny Dickensian outfit in a Bloomsbury attic, and they hadn’t had a bestseller since before the first World War, when it was poet Rupert Brooke: they had little money to spare for publicity.

On the Sunday after publication, the publisher woke me at 7am and said in a disbelieving voice, “You’re number one. You’ve beaten Wisden!”

“Who’s he?”

“Wisden’s Cricket Annual. Now you must go on a publicity tour.”

I agreed to provide my new Citroen estate car, so long as the publisher insured it and paid for a driver.

I spent most of my payment-upon-publication on clothes for this tour – items that might be worn by a country bookshop customer – tweedy skirts and jackets. I was advised to buy something flashy for Glasgow, so I got an uncomfortable, scarlet velvet, mermaid-clingy dress with a low neck-line.

The Tour

Cut to tweedy me, signing books for an appreciative small crowd at the back of a bookshop, when there’s a commotion at the front. My entire small crowd speeds off like lemmings. Blonde film star, Diana Dors has appeared to publicise her autobiography; she is wearing – at tea time – a white, satin topless gown and her shoulders are shrouded in white fox fur. I realised that booklovers do not want to meet an author dressed like a bookworm, but one dressed like a Christmas tree.

My next publicity stop was for TV in Glasgow and, as we sped northward, I realised that my driver was the worst driver on the planet. The red velvet dress was a success on TV but afterwards we found that my suitcase had been stolen from the unlocked – so uninsured — boot of my now-battered car. Goodbye all new clothes.

Red velvet for breakfast

My media schedule was crammed as full as a baby’s first Christmas stocking – TV studios, radio stations, local newspaper office and functions such as the Yorkshire Literary Luncheon. There was no time to stop ‘n shop, so I wore the red velvet for twelve days from breakfast TV to bedtime, and I grew to hate it.

One wet and windy night on the way to Norwich, the chauffeur smashed my new car, the last in a six-car pile-up. My driver had forgotten to insure the car. My first publicity tour cost more than the revenue from sales that it was supposed to promote.

Ted Heath

Towards the end of this tour, I was joined by former Prime Minister Edward Heath, who had just knocked me into 2nd place on the best-seller list with his first book on sailing. At every bookshop, blue-rinsed matrons and decent chaps in cricket blazers queued round the block to purchase Ted’s book. He had to organize a production line: one clean-cut chap would take the money, a second one would thrust the opened book in front of Ted, who barely had the time to scribble his signature before a third young man snatched it away, to make room for the next one.

Meanwhile at the next table, to avoid humiliation, I signed books for my little groups as slowly as possible, with personal dedications and long messages (“Tell me more about your aunt.”)

Together, Ted and I also attended glittery events, such as the Yorkshire Literary Luncheon. After my first speech, Ted looked a bit worried and coached me. We remained friends until he died, 30 years later. This man, who could seem huffy, had the rare gift of friendship, and at his big parties, as he approached, faces softened into smiles and eyes shone with love. Whenever I asked his advice, Ted’s reply was always good advice, whether it was about finance or the correct action to take when waiters don’t take any notice of you.

To Pack or Not to Pack It?

Once, waiting at the airport carousel, I saw a flurry of pretty underwear coming down the chute. Poor woman, I thought, then recognized the nightgown. My cheap suitcase had burst open.

A novelist has to tour a lot, so as soon as I made some money, I ordered two of those expensive silvery suitcases, upon which baggage handlers can tap-dance without denting them – I had read that George Clooney traveled with fourteen of them. Later I discovered that they each weighed the complete baggage allowance when empty and the inside was perfectly planned – for a man: it was like an exasperating computer programme, you couldn’t deviate from it for your personal requirements: the shirts went in the shirt place, the pants went in the pant place and the underwear place allowed only a couple of y-fronts.

Shortly afterwards, when a New York cab driver admired them, I said, “You can have them if you buy me two tough, canvas suitcases.” He did, and years later, I’m still using them.

Traveling light

I despair when I look at packing lists of friends who whizz halfway around the world with only hand luggage, a cashmere shawl and Chanel sunglasses.

Packing plan 1

Joanna LumleyActress and National Treasure, Joanna Lumley’s miniscule packing plan was for a trip that was half camping in tents, half formal (an embassy visit). Her colour plan was black, white, khaki and one bright colour – pink (although it could have been purple or lime green). She took three pairs of comfortable trousers, two warm sweaters, t-shirts in plain colours, a lightweight, hooded rain-proof jacket, three bras, three pants, three cotton neckscarves and pyjamas. She added a warm jacket, in case the weather was colder than she expected.

Her formal outfit was all-black: heels, skirt, cover-up top, plus an interesting evening clutch, a string of pearls and as an alternative a handsome necklace.

Packing plan 2

Once I flew sitting next to the owner of a travel agency, who said she only ever traveled with on-board hand luggage because of the airport luggage holdups and losses. She showed me her bag. Inside was a change of beige underwear, two silk blouses, two no-crush silk jersey dresses, one crimson sweater, two pairs of navy pants plus two bikinis. She had flip flops, navy ballet shoes, one pair of really classy high heels, and a light, rain-proof egg-yellow jacket that rolled up into itself. She slept in a T-shirt. She traveled in a heavy wool jacket, skirt, plus sturdy walking shoes, and carried her heavy overcoat.

Packing plan 3

My packing prize goes to the late Jacqueline Onassis who once went to Cambodia on a short, jungle trip to see ruined temples, and this is what she took with her: her lover, two pairs white pants, two black shirts, two coloured shirts, black espadrilles, a gold jacket and gold sandals for evenings, two scarves, spare sunglasses and a change of underwear.

My handbag checklist:
1. It needs to be light.
2. It needs to take A4 size papers.
3. It needs a top zip on at least one section.
4. It needs to stand upright, not flop over, so that from my desk, I can throw stuff into it.
5. It needs to expand from slim elegance to wide practicality but…
6. … Not so large and lumpy that it looks as if you’re going to Outer Mongolia after lunch.