Scientific custard and the dominant rational model of management

December 7, 2012

CustardA festive tale of custard, scientific management, and a British obsession since the days of Charles Dickens

Management as taught is very much a subject grounded in rationality. It attracts those approving of practice informed by scientific methodology. As the festive season approaches, I am reminded of a story.

The science of management

Someone I knew as a schoolboy returned from his first science class bringing good news to his family. In future, he announced, there would be a modern scientific approach to making the family custard, which he would supervise.

The experiment abandoned

After several less-than-successful attempts at home, he quietly abandoned his efforts. His mother reverted to making custard in her unscientific way which somehow turned out all right. Undaunted, the schoolboy continued his studies and become a research scientist, still believing in the universal virtues of the scientific method.

A brief history of custard

For those unaware of the British obsession with custard go Google which will provide you with much useful information. Here’s the Guardian’s take:

[Custard is] a lumpen, pustular, gungy memory of a smelly school canteen. In Britain, childhood and custard go hand in lollipop-lady hand. I know of no better food to calm a choleric toddler or mollify a stroppy seven-year-old than a knocked-up bowl of Bird’s. It comforts like mum and a blanket. [In Oliver Twist ]Mr Bumble’s orphans cry to have it with cold jelly, and who could blame them?

The word ‘custard’ comes from ‘croustade’, a sweet and eggy ‘crusted’ tart from the Middle Ages. Around the 16th century the filling became a dish in its own right, and has changed little since save for the Great Custard Split of 1837, when Clarence Bird developed a cornflour-based custard powder for his allergy-prone wife. A face splatted in custard pie has been a trope of farce almost since the birth of cinema.

Cultural analysis welcomed.

The Woolworth’s choir: Tragedy as art remembered

December 4, 2012

Woolworth's fireThe 2012 Turner Prize was won by Elizabeth Price for a 20 minute video which transforms tragedy to art and back again. It even defies the conventions of Artspeak

Elizabeth Price, the winner of the Turner Prize [December 3rd, 2012] was considered an outsider. As is often the case, her creative work of art is now ‘obviously’ great . It has been discovered in a kind of Emperor’s new clothes moment of cultural insight.

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 refers to a fire that resulted in ten fatalities in a Woolworth’s Store in central Manchester. [The site is by coincidence close to that of the IRA bomb explosion which wrecked Manchester’s sity centre many years later]. The work was part of a solo exhibition by Price at the Baltic in Gateshead.

The artist’s style was described by the Telegraph:

The Woolworth’s Choir of 1979 [is] a 20-minute film that begins with drawings of Gothic architecture and ends with footage of a Manchester department store fire in which 10 people died. The judges praised “the seductive and immersive qualities of Price’s video installations, which reflected the ambition that has characterised her work in recent years”.


The subject matter was of personal interest. It helped me recall the fire and the dreadful lack of fire-proofing of the furnishings. So I started reading reviews of this year’s Turner prize before the result was announced.

Price was seen as an outsider, and the nature of her work mostly damned with faint praise. But the more favoured works attracted a lot of what might unkindly be called Artspeak, the peculiar dialect through which critics attempt to capture the essential message within works of art. The other short-listed works were each given the Artspeak treatment, not intentionally intended to belittle the works, but risking accusations of pseudery.

Beyond Artspeak

The Woolworth’s Choir was described in terms which were almost absent of Artspeak. That set me thinking. For some reason, great art defies attempts to reduce it. Maybe it deals with life first and art second. In comparison, novelty and the shock of the new are at best of transient worth.


The image is from archival materials of the Manchester fire in 1979, and is not part of the Turner prize-winning entry.

Wimbledon’s warring football tribes: Peace one day?

December 3, 2012

It was more than a local Derby match when Wimbledon Dons met Wimbledon AC in the FA Cup. Fans carried placards, some refused to attend, and the boards of the clubs rejected the customary gestures of mutual respect and hospitality

I was reminded [December 2nd 2012] of the efforts of the Charity Peace One Day in arranging a football game in an attempt to end a feud that had been running for over sixty years.

Football wars

The Wimbledon football wars broke out relatively recently. Before that, Wimbledon had a reputation of a feisty, even madcap, team with characters such as Vinnie Jones who has gone on to translate his hard man reputation into film stardom. Wimbledon was the team other teams loved to hate, proponents of the long ball and the short left hand jab. Street fighters, who held their own, against clubs of lofty heritage and far deeper financial pockets.

When the club ran into severe financial difficulties fans faced a fresh start after bankruptcy proceedings. A rescue plan was somehow cobbled together involving a move from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes, an ambitious town fifty miles to the North West.

Preserving the heritage

The fans vowed to preserve the heritage of the club [“two smoking barrels and a packet of crisps?”]. In a move anticipating the one by disgruntled Manchester United fans years later, they formed a ‘spirit of Wimbledon’ team to fight its way back to the top of football’s pyramid. One of the injustices felt by the loyal fans was that Milton Keynes had got itself a football club and flaunted the old name of Wimbledon. And there the story would have ended but for the determination of both teams to make a success of their situations.

As a report in The Mail put it after the match, which the MK Dons won with an injury time goal:

As the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon battled it out on the field in their FA Cup grudge match, both sets of fans did likewise in the stands.
The two sides met for the first time at stadium:mk, nine years after Wimbledon moved 54 miles to Milton Keynes and 10 years after AFC Wimbledon were formed.

Despite threatening to boycott the match, AFC Wimbledon fans packed into the stadium although the promised radiation suits looked to be absent. The visiting fans want MK Dons to drop the second part of their name but their supporters made it clear they have no intention of ceding to that request.

After the game, spokespersons for both clubs made dignified statements expressing hopes that the match will begin a process of healing.

Sibling rivalry?

This, like the feud at Manchester, has the special characteristics of sibling rivalry. It has echoes of ancient mythologised conflicts from Homeric and Biblical times.

Does it matter?

It does not take a great deal to kick off acts of individual violence in football matches. When that happens, the ‘cause’ lies in the fans, regardless of their deep sense of injustice and disrespect. Violence may break out if and when the two ‘Wimbledons’ meet again. I am inclined to think that the ‘feud’ will be retained in the way in which cultures provide a social identity for their members. For all the huffing and puffing, the emotions revealed are mostly ritualised, and not without a social rationale.