A magical history tour. Not pictured: Karren Brady calling her agent. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice
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"Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn grew apart": The Apprentice blog series 10, episode 5

“The task is a foreign country,” as LP Hartley wrote in the opening line of his first Apprentice review, “they do things differently there.”

WARNING: This blog is for people watching The Apprentice. Contains spoilers!

Read the episode 4 blog here.

It’s 5.30am and the 12 remaining Apprentice hopefuls are hastily pulling on their customary polyester finery in preparation to stand, blinking, at a service station off the M25.

Here, Lord Sugar appears, flanked by Nick and Karren both sporting dark sunglasses, suited and scowling, in an image of what I imagine the Men in Black would look like if they'd broken down on the motorway and the only prospect of nourishment was a breakfast burger at Little Chef.

This bleak strip of concrete at Junction 23 is a good metaphor for a candidate’s journey on this programme: soulless, unmemorable, unnecessarily long, and nowhere near Canary Wharf.

“You must all be wondering why I brought you here,” says Sugar, even though all wise viewers will know by now not to question the irrelevance of the locations he chooses, and why it’s always, without fail, punishingly urgent to set off before six in the morning.

“I’ve laid on some coaches,” comes the comforting explanation, as a few reluctant-looking coaches crawl up behind the candidates. Apparently, these sad harbingers of budget winter breaks to northern France and sicky school trips are “money-making machines”, but really that’s Sugar’s wafer-thin excuse to make the teams do yet another task with the highest potential for humiliation requiring the lowest level of business acumen: organising a coach tour.

Felipe gives an authentic insight into Oxford life. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Imagine being that tourist. Imagine turning up in London, mastering your route through the awesome spectral tangle of lines that make up its subterranean network, to eventually find your way to Victoria Coach Station. Imagine surfacing from the Tube at Victoria, feeling the spark of spontaneity and uncertainty that having a pulsating, enlightening, strange city at your fingertips fires through your nerves.

You’re just about to set off to explore, clumsily but joyfully taking pictures with your iPad – the equivalent, by the way, of using an industrial-sized solar panel to wedge under the leg of a wonky table – when you are offered a coach tour. By a man, called James, wearing a shiny waistcoat, who proceeds to scream Wheels on the Bus at you passive-aggressively as you are inescapably driven to Kent, before panic-selling you outsized Fruit of the Loom t-shirts bearing blurred iron-on pictures of castles, cutting your tour short, and then asking for a “cheeky tip” for his troubles. Imagine that.

Well, clearly this was Sugar’s vision for yesterday’s episode – as what on earth does devising a tacky history trip teach us about cut-throat entrepreneurship? – and it worked.

"Can I have 80 per cent off?" "No." Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Team Summit is led by Sanjay. Remember him? He’s the guy who thinks he’s better looking than nine out of 10 people he walks past in the street. Which streets he regularly walks down he doesn’t specify.

Daniel, a sort of oversensitive and underenthused David Brent character, appoints himself project manager for Team Tenacity. Australian Mark isn’t very happy about this, as he believes he has a more appropriate CV for the task at hand: learning facts about British history off Wikipedia and saying them at dozing tourists on an overpriced bus ride.

Each team proceeds to show off its knowledge of British history.

Team Tenacity looks to Oxford, enthusing about some sort of “very English-based castle” to which they can transport lucky punters. And Summit go to visit Kent, for something “based around history”; their talk of Henry VIII is an exciting opportunity for the show’s usual thrusting strings to be substituted for a soundtrack of pseudo-Tudor arpeggios chirruped by a cheap swanee whistle.

James attempts to achieve 80 per cent off ticket prices to Hever Castle (where a number of Henry VIII’s wives resided at different times) and, after a lengthy and awkward period of haggling, swaggers away with… the same discount the Castle offers to all group visitors. Jemma looks disapproving, but that may just be her face while she thinks hard about how to avoid doing anything for the fifth episode in a row.

Meanwhile, the stony-faced Daniel is addressing an unexplained room full of potential tour-goers (I think they were “laid on”. That’s the only explanation), attempting to sell them a trip to Blenheim Palace, “where the Winston Churchill was born”. And we’ll throw in some extra definite articles for free.

Bianca on the other team doesn’t do much better, trying to push a “historic learning element” on to another prospective coach party, before merrily admitting, “it’s our last chance”. Cut-price tickets are sold all round.

There follows some inevitable footage of men in fussily accessorised suits and women in non-battlement-appropriate footwear stamping all over 400 years of British history by tearing through castle grounds screaming things like “discount” and “margin” – poignantly echoing the last words Anne Boleyn uttered before her ultimate deadline.

Sanjay still looking hotter than 9/10 people, even in a degrading Tudor beret. Photo: BBC/The Apprentice

Somehow, a few actual humans are persuaded to climb aboard the teams’ buses of horror, and off drive Tenacity and Summit Tours. They have to wear degrading shiny waistcoats as tour-guides, although many opt for historic dress. Sanjay wears one of those charming baggy Tudor berets, for example, clearly still thinking he’s a total hottie – particularly if nine out of 10 people he walks past at Hever Castle happen to be ghosts of Anne of Cleves.

“We don’t want to look desperate,” Bianca advises her teammates, as Felipe nods gravely, wearing a garishly striped boating blazer with matching trousers and a straw boater.

Karren Brady gazes resignedly at the coach window’s “In emergency break glass” sticker as James and Sanjay yell One Man Went to Mow and Wheels on the Bus at their history-keen passengers for the entire journey. “I'm just recovering from the coach journey from hell,” Brady tells us afterwards, before asking “where are we?” to the team, in one of those thrilling moments when she breaks the Apprentice fourth wall.

Upon arrival, the actual tour is no better. James, wearing a plastic Burger King crown, comments on the “lovely shapes and sizes” of topiary lining Hever Castle’s grounds. Jemma takes over once they get inside, gazing at her notes, pointing out a non-existent “photo of Henry VIII” without looking up, and explaining that the infamous king “wanted to move on and caused a bit of controversy with Anne”, by way of describing Boleyn’s brutal end to a curious tourist.

In contrast, Lauren of Team Tenacity gives an accomplished notes-free performance that Ed Miliband would envy, as she takes her tour around Blenheim. But aside from this, the rest of her team’s effort seems to consist entirely of inadequate sandwiches and Felipe explaining to people sleeping on a barge through Oxford the intricacies of the university’s archaic bachelor-to-masters process.

"If Anne Boleyn's neck was as thick as you are, she'd probably still be alive." BBC/The Apprentice

Tenacity – the team that doesn’t offer a tour informing customers that the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn is that “they grew apart” – wins, of course. But team members pat Mark on the shoulder rather than praising their project manager, Daniel, who proceeds to bite his lip angrily during their reward as he is hoisted in a harness up the Orbit. “How is this a fucking treat?” he seethes. “I can actually feel the sick coming,” adds Katie.

Meanwhile, the boardroom offers an incredible lesson in the English language:

“Where is your brains?” asks Lord Sugar (ie. “can you help me use a plural please?”).

“It’s unfair Sanjay is trying to leverage blame on myself,” laments Bianca (ie. “it wasn’t me”).

“I believe that I swotted up also,” counters Jemma (ie. “...but not in English”).

“Where is the failure of this task lay – with whom?” asks Sugar, as a final lesson in how to approach blaming others for their lack of clarity, brevity and intellect.

But when everyone stops talking like Yoda, it’s Jemma who gets the chop. Unsurprising really, as “I’m always the girl who nearly wins,” is the key transferable skill stated on her CV. It takes up the space where a history GCSE would be.

 

Candidates to watch:
 

Mark

“The Australian charm came in quite handy.”

And indeed, it did seem to work, as his teammates clearly warmed to him during this task. And warmth is a rare thing on this cold sweat globule of a programme.
 

Lauren

“I’m a glamorous solicitor.”

Very good at giving a fluent history tour. Will this help her in the business world, or will Lord Sugar decide it’s just the kind of useless bourgeois skill they don’t waste their time teaching you at the University of Life?
 

Felipe

"I am a fat daddy."

Did he convert his BA into a Masters or not? Maybe they’ll let him stay for the interview rounds just to keep viewers on the edge of their sofas as they wait to find out.
 

I'll be blogging The Apprentice each week. Click here to follow it. Read my blog on the previous episode here. The show will air weekly on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on BBC One. Check back for the next instalments every Thursday morning.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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