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Breaking the rules

When I took part in a presentation and a question and answer session with Royal Mail a few days ago, some interesting statistics emerged. The number of letters has dropped dramatically. But packet numbers are way up.

For my part, I am both sending fewer letters and sending more letters. How so? I have always had the discipline of sending in each week my claim to recover the money I have spent travelling on Parliamentary business. For two reasons that's stopped. I have made no such claim since travelling home from Parliament on 18th March. But also Parliament has, at long last, moved to allow email submission of claims. So fewer letters.

On the other side of the scales, I have started to write letters again. Mostly but not exclusively to god-daughter Darcey. And she, in turn, has just sent me a note. That reminds me that I am overdue to scribe something for her. That's an increase in letters.

In our online meeting last week, reference was made to her having to produce an acrostic poem for her school work. Now I made reference to an idea that has been stuck in mind for years. That "acrostics" was the original name for what became a crossword. There was a polite silence at the other end of the line. And the conversation moved on.

That silence was correct. Crosswords do not seem to have been called anything other than - crosswords. So that's another personal shibboleth demolished. Sometimes no answer is an answer. And Darcey and her parents' silence was the clear statement that Stevenson had got it wrong.

Enquiry at the time revealed that she was using the term to describe a poem where the initial, or last, letter of each line of the poem spells out a word or phrase. Now that is something I have done. While not knowing that this is what it is called. I may say that I never felt that any of my efforts demonstrated any literary genius on my part. But I had felt that they were useful mental exercise.

I always carry a wee notepad and a pen. And it's quite a common personal diversion when waiting in a pub for a pal, to whip it out and start to sketch out some poetry. What I now know to be an acrostic poem is a favourite because it's about patterns. That suits the mathematical mind.

A quick question to Mr Google seems to reveal that using "acrostic poems" as a key for my search led me to an unexpected place. A vast array of tools and language resources for youngsters.

The BBC's "bitesise" web site came up tops on the answers provided. As home learning has moved centre-stage, online educational resources like this have become important. Now that I have become engaged in the subject, I can see that writing poetry, particularly with such a structure could be a valuable teaching aid for English language learning.

I certainly don't remember our writing any poems at school when I were a lad and certainly not of this kind. And yet the idea must have stuck in my mind at some point. Only to re-emerge in later life as a mental diversion. But without a descriptive name being attached to it.

If ever I needed a reason to justify my spending so much of my time avoiding any school's curriculum, and immersing myself in random "stuff", this is one.

So it's one-nil to Darcey and her parents in the battle to further address my ignorances.

The first of my meetings yesterday was a Scottish Enterprise webinar. It was a briefing on how business is being supported during this present crisis. The fire-hose of information directed at me was considerable. It's fair to say that it did not all stick. A succession of numbers-heavy slides moved across my screen. The speaking role was passed from one SE professional to another. I eagerly await the arrival of the slides used so that I can see how much, or little of it, has "stuck".

But with our looking forward to a carefully timetabled return to business, but definitely not "as usual", it was both timely and useful.

My final meeting of the day was with my political colleagues. I decided to sit at the garden table for the occasion. Ali from The Scottish Human Rights Commission had conducted her earlier meeting with me from her back yard. The idea struck me as a good one.

Our house has very thick stone walls and is "L"-shaped. So I have had to install a network of WiFi repeaters to ensure that I can be online anywhere I choose to be. It works so well that I can be 100 metres away from the house and still connected to our signal. Maybe I should innovate and make my speech to Parliament this afternoon from the back garden?

Because to do so might illustrate that breaking down the existing norms, is not necessarily a bad thing. Our recovery to a new, and different, post-pandemic world will require new thinking, new actions, and a general willingness to cast scepticism aside.

I have written previously about our old boss at Bank of Scotland, Peter Burt. To his senior management, he only issued one instruction - "break the rules". He did not explain his reason for the instruction.

I recall on one occasion being in his office in the Bank's HQ at The Mound. A new member of his private office who was taking notes asked him for an explanation of something. There was an immediate stillness in the room followed after a pause by Peter saying, "If you don't understand, I shall get someone who does." I never saw that person again.

He illustrated his "break rules" by example, not by explanation.

HQ had decided that they would support the "Big Issue", the magazine sold by homeless people. As they engaged with the organisation it emerged that there was quite a big problem for their sellers.

They were running a micro-business, buying in the magazines, selling them on for a profit and generating a modest income for them. But they needed to have a bank account. To be a "Big Issue" seller, you had to be homeless. But the "know your customer" regulations required the Bank to have an address for anyone with an account. Impasse.

Peter decided that Bank accounts would nonetheless be opened. I have a recollection, might be an "urban myth", that we gave them addresses such as "the second seat in from the Waverley Bridge entrance to Princess Street Gardens." But in any event, it illustrated that the rules just didn't work all the time.

Peter had a letter drafted and sent to the Bank of England, drawing their attention to the actions the Bank was taking. Six months or so elapsed without a reply. A second letter was dispatched. Silence continued. Sometimes silence is consent. And it was deemed that that applied here.

The point that all who knew about this was clear. And probably everybody from a newly recruited teller in the front office, via the canteen assistants and cleaners, to the most senior manager knew of it.

When the rules, created yesterday, cannot be applied in the changed circumstances of today, ignore the rules. Unless, and this vital ethos soaked through every pore of the Bank's actions in those earlier days, ignoring the rules created a personal benefit for the rule-breaker.

Today we need a few of Peter's rule breakers if we are to break out of an economic impasse that presses down on our future as the flames of the pandemic dampen down.

But ethical rule-breakers who are open about their actions.

And who will see that the rules are then changed.


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