The Martini Diaries – Episode 6

In which a two day committee meeting makes a big decision, I visit The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and touch Moon rock, attend the Henley Royal Regatta, catch up with a ex-staff Member for luncheon, travel to Sheffield and find the worst hotel in England, discover my dog has excellent bladder control, and try to explain cricket to a Canadian.

Wednesday 3rd July 2019

There are times when you have to make very big decisions. Today was one of those. We are challenged in that 80% of the revenue for my organization is derived from just one source (diversification of income is a preoccupation of mine!), and the committee responsible have been reviewing that single source for some time, trying to develop a sustainability plan for the next 7 years. Committee members travelled into London today from a variety of locations (one from as far away as Australia) for the annual committee face-to-face meeting. After a day of deliberations we made the big decision- which is now part relief, and part moderately terrifying in that have we made the right one? I can say no more of the detail at the moment for legal reasons, but a sense of deep joy for everyone involved.

The committee and I headed out for dinner that evening (after having been locked away in our meeting all day) at a charming little French Bistro on Shepherds Bush Road in London – Le Petit Citron. Their food is delicious, and most importantly the portion sizes are sensibly French. It is possible to enjoy three courses and be served less food in total than one main course in America! It was a hot evening so I tried their Cassis and Lavender G&T – deliciously refreshing.

I enjoyed a Little Custard Pot of Asparagus, Peas and Tarragon, followed by Hake, and Creme Brûlée. Our wine from Pinot Blanc, Domaine Mittnacht Freres and Chateau Roudier St Emillion were a perfect match. Is there a better joy in life than delicious French cuisine and wine, and good company?

I spent the night at my Club, because of the late evening and early start needed for the next day’s meetings. I slept very well!

Thursday 4th July 2019

After a further day locked away with the Committee to complete more broader strategic work I returned to my Club to change into my dinner jacket for a night at The Royal Society. My Executive Assistant Anne joined me at the Club for a quick G&T before we travelled the few minutes by taxi to the Society.

Situated in Carlton House Terrace, London The Royal Society is the World’s oldest learned society, dating back to 1660 when Sir Christopher Wren delivered a lecture at Gresham College – the Society was then officially formed as The Royal Society in 1663 when it received Royal approval.

Each year the Society holds a science exhibition in its building in which exhibits from a wide range of UK scientific bodies are displayed for the general public – at no cost for the visitor. On this Thursday evening I had received an invitation to a soirée for a private viewing of the exhibition. The Fellows and President greeted us at the top of the marble staircase, and then a glass of champagne was thrust into my hand. Frankly, there were too many things to see in the 3 hours! I became very distracted by the Moon research, and had a wonderful moment wearing a pair of 3D googles to be able to ‘walk on the Moon’. You also have to remember I am wearing my dinner jacket to walk on the Moon – surreal. Space travel was a huge and ever present part of my youth in the 1960s, so you can imagine my boyish excitement of ‘being on the Moon’. We explored brain scanners, AI driving (terrifying – there is a long way to go before I would ever leave my house if driverless cars are ever allowed on the streets!), earthquake monitoring, I could go on. Fabulous – for a non-scientist such as me who is always looking for a more layman’s explanation this was like a child visiting Hamley’s Toy Store!

AI driving

A piece of Moon rock

The buffet dinner was superb – we each were allowed one bottle of wine each! I didn’t finish mine. The cheese board finished off a wonderful experience. I wandered back along Piccadilly to my Club, but still very exhilarated by the extraordinary scientific talent and innovation in this small Island of ours I retired the bar in the Club over looking Green Park and enjoyed a restorative Hine cognac.

I headed to bed at 11 pm deeply content and feeling somewhat as an over stimulated small child!

Friday 5th July 2019

After a classically superb breakfast of bacon, sausage and scrambled eggs at my Club, and satisfactorily fired up from several cups of coffee, I jumped in a taxi to Paddington Station for a train ride to Henley on Thames for the Henley Royal Regatta. I had not been on this train journey before, and developed low expectations when the ticket machine at Paddington announced there were no First Class facilities on the train. To add to the stress, the departure platform was not announced until just 8 minutes from the departure time – and it was the furthest platform from the centre of the station. There followed a comical dashing of extremely well dressed people from all over the station to the platform – Henley Regatta has a theme for dressing (dresses for ladies, striped or blue blazers for men with boaters or Panama Hats). I fortunately found a seat on the first carriage, and within minutes it was standing room only – despite the next train leaving in 15 minutes.

We bumbled along at a gentile pace through the beautiful English countryside to the West of London for an hour to a small village called Twyford. Here we left the train, very slowly crossed the footbridge to the other side and were directed out of the station into the car park and up and down a series of barrier corridors, rather like a Disney Theme Park Ride queue, and then back onto the small platform to wait for the train to Henley (a 20 minute ride). Very soon the platform filled, the staff kept trying to push people further and further out from the shade (it was now very warm in the Sun) but with little success – so they put a barrier across the platform and refused to allow anyone else on! The fact our train to Henley was now late arriving, and the train behind us from Paddington had also arrived and spilled out its full train of passengers into the mix, it was beginning to resemble a rather English civilized version of the Black Hole of Calcutta!

Our train to Henley duly arrived some 20 minutes late and we piled on in a very dignified squeeze – no seat for me by the time I eased on, but only a short journey. Everyone remained in good humour. Why is it being well dressed makes everyone behave so civilised. If this was my commuter train there would be much bad behaviour at this stage!

Arrival at Henley, and my google map showed the Club I was staying with for the day (Phyllis Court) to be on the opposite side of the river from most of the main event. That meant a 20 minute walk (with my luggage in the heat, as I had been staying the Club for 3 days I had a valise and my briefcase) or a 5 minute taxi. My first taxi driver did not know where Phyllis Court was, he Google’d it and announced it was 35 minutes away by car (clearly he was not the man to drive with as I may have ended up back in London!) – I sensibly walked away from him to the next taxi and he somewhat apologetically explained the taxi ride would be £20 – for just 5 minutes! I had no choice – it was now 11.35 am and my lunch reservation was for 12 pm. On the way to the Club I saw the reason for the £20 fee – the traffic coming the opposite way into Henley (i.e. the way the taxi would have to return (there is only one bridge across the river in Henley) was solid. My driver would be sitting in that for nearly an hour. I didn’t begrudge him his £20!

My wife and friends, who had travelled by car from home in Suffolk, arrived at 12 pm and our day by the river began.

What a wonderfully English archaic scene awaits you. Lovely floral dresses and hats adorned the ladies, men in a variety of striped blazers (mine was from Samuel Windsor), blue blazers and suits, Straw Boaters, Panama Hats everywhere. I should mention my wonderful Canadian wife was bewildered that the organisers felt the need to have not only a dress code for ladies, but posters of it on display in more than one occasion! We lightly mocked and tolerated her Colonial sensibilities for the rest of the day!

Striped blazers everywhere – here I am with my wife Sue and great friend Terry Baxter, CEO of Inspire Suffolk

Tables, chairs, deck chairs, marquee, umbrellas everywhere and on the river a variety of small boats pottering around. On the far side of the river a packed set of grandstands and a roped off one mile stretch of river for the racing. I was glad we were on our side away from the masses. The boat racing was almost continuous – there was a new race every five minutes. Crews from all over the world competing in singles, pairs, larger crews. It was fabulous.

My fabulous yellow Samuel Windsor blazer

After a delicious cold luncheon of asparagus, followed by cold roast beef, and white chocolate and passion fruit torte (and a much needed G&T, followed by an excellent Sauvignon Blanc) we settled outside under the shade of a tree at a table for 4 and watched the races, fortified by a bottle of champagne. At 5 pm we moved to the terrace of the Club for a pot of tea, and then at 6 pm, began the drive drive home.

Such a peaceful day, and what is it that when people dress smartly and with care, and are surrounded by like minded people, manners and behavior seem to improve dramatically. Although there was evidence of plenty of drinking there was no bad behavior (and very little beer consumed as well – perhaps a link?). Oh England, how we love you on days like this!

Wednesday 10th July 2019

Always a joy when an ex-member of staff asks for time to catch up. I lunched with Hannah today at my Club – Hannah joined my organization in August 2015 , one of my early hires, and it was her first job after her Masters Degree. She is now happily in her next role, one with more responsibilities and a very good fit for her. She left us earlier this year. We reminisced of travels together to Marrakech Morocco, Buenos Aires Argentina, and various UK locations and lunched on Hake, Scallops and Sauvignon Blanc. I have this philosophy that as an employer, mainly of young people, there should be a culture of openness in the workplace where careers are concerned. One of my roles as leader is to help develop, coach and mentor these young people ready for their next role. I invest in training, professional and personal development. I encourage them to share with me their career plans, when they are thinking of looking for a new job. Not only does this help me forward plan, it also allows me to help them with their CVs and interview preparation. Everyone who leaves us goes on to bigger and better jobs – that in turn makes us an ‘employer of choice’, because people see my staff being well cared for, and leaving for better careers. It is a policy that pays rich dividends for everyone.

I left lunch delighted to see her progressing and happy, and headed to St Pancras for a train journey to Sheffield.

I was very lucky tonight. I went to board my train to Sheffield at 5 pm when it was called with 15 minutes to departure. I had a reserved seat in First Class, my usual option when I have a lot of work to catch up on. I boarded the train and found someone was sitting in my seat, and First Class seemed unusually full and busy. The tannoy then announced the train had changed configuration due to an excess of passengers needing to travel. All seat reservations had been cancelled and First Class was not First Class and would be open to anyone! People were stampeding down the platform now to grab any seat they could – I momentarily thought I was back in Kenya watching herds of Wildebeest stampeding across the plains (only these were humans, and many of them clearly do not take regular exercise!). Luckily the seat opposite my reserved seat was empty, so I quickly took possession!

In no time at all I found out the ‘at seat service’ had also been disbanded, just as well as there were people sitting on the floor in the aisle of First Class. This was hardly dignified, but made it also impossible to contemplate trying to walk (or rather hill climb over mounds of floor prostrate passengers) 4 carriages to reach the buffet car to find some water. Two hours of rapid dehydration followed.

We arrived in Sheffield only 10 minutes late, but the hoards of passengers made actually getting out of the station time consuming. My hotel, the Rutland Hotel, was only 10 minutes away by taxi, and I arrived at 7.30 pm.

I had been looking forward to this stay – I grow tired of staying in bland, soulless, chain hotels – and the Rutland’s website promised: “You will be instantly inspired by its charm, where traditional Victorian character and contemporary design seamlessly marry together.”

My room was disgusting – there is no other way to describe it. It was the furthest point from reception, along corridors and up and down short flights of dingy stairs. I had become completely disorientated. I squeezed through my door to find the room was effectively just a double bed, with about 12 inches of space around it. The window would not open, there was no air conditioning, and a tiny bathroom. I was, though, running out of time – I was supposed to meet my staff member Emily in Reception at 7.50 pm to go for dinner – I quickly changed into some fresh clothes, and then saw it. The back of the door to my room. In the corner was a dusty old set of cobwebs, no one had cleaned here for some time. I looked more closely at the carpet, and noticed the line of thick dust and dirt along the edges where it meets the skirting board. I then noticed the skirting board had come away from the wall and was full of dust and dirt.

I suddenly felt dirty, and knew that if I explored this ‘charm’ any further I would uncover other horrors. I left my suitcase and briefcase in the room, locked the door and found my back, by GPS, to the reception. Here, in her defense, I must say the receptionist was very polite. I showed her photographs of the cobwebs and dirt and said I needed another room, and that I was happy to pay for an upgrade. She offered me an ‘executive room’ at no extra charge and agreed to send someone to move my bags whilst I went for dinner.

Emily and I enjoyed a delightful dinner at Thyme Cafe, a simple but well cooked menu, and where I ordered a galleon of water to avoid fainting now with dehydration!

I returned at 10 pm to my new room – hardly ‘executive’, now more of a down beat Premier Inn – but still a big improvement on my prison cell from 2 hours ago. But, still no air conditioning (I now understand that is part of the ‘charm’ experience), and a window that barely opened 3 inches. The room thermostat read 27c. It was going to be an ugly night.

The next morning I had the unique experience of using a loo with my shoulders touching the wall on one side and the shower wall on the other – I nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to access the loo roll up and behind my left ear! Then, the shower – no hot water. I tried various permutations on the dial, but no luck. I showered in cold water. I then tried to shave, again no hot, not even warm, water from the tap. I boiled some water in the kettle and shaved from the coffee mug!

On entering the dining room, or rather the bar and a series of odd shaped rooms around it, I wandered around looking for a member of staff. I found a tired looking, decimated, ‘continental’ buffet (the fresh fruit bowl of strawberries only had 3 in it, and I counted 7 blueberries in the next bowl), but no staff. Eventually I sat myself at a table and waited. A disinterested waitress appeared and offered me tea or coffee (no options, of Americano, latte, cappuccino – “the machine is broken”, which may have meant “we have run out of the powered versions”?). But, my bacon, eggs and sausage cooked to order saved the day! They were delicious.

I hastily left the dining room and checked out. The same receptionist as last night was back. I mentioned the lack of hot water and received the metallic (and obviously working at the Rutland Hotel now well rehearsed) “sorry about that”, and was told there was a maintenance problem. I left, vowing never to return!

The rest of the day went to plan, our conference was superb, England beat Australia in the Cricket World Cup semi-final, and I returned to London on the 1703 hrs from Sheffield to St Pancras. East Midlands Rail redeemed themselves with no passengers lying prostrate on the floor, an ‘at seat service’ of an excellent toasted ham and cheese sandwich, and a not unpleasant half bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. We arrived back in London at 7.30 pm, and was home at last by 10 pm.

Sunday July 14th 2019

I must finish this week with cricket and tennis. Although this afternoon and evening have been a challenge trying to watch the Cricket World Cup, Wimbledon Men’s Final and the British Grand Prix all at the same time, it was worth while – what a day of sport, and why we love sport so much. Roger Federer remains to me the greatest of all athletes and is the true definition of my feeling and belief that ‘age is just a number’.

I must pay tribute to New Zealand, for such a sporting approach to what have been a devastating loss and so close to winning; to Molly my little dog who demonstrated bladder control way beyond the call of duty (she had to wait a very long time for her afternoon walk!), and finally to my beautiful Canadian wife Sue for her tolerance. She had been singing in the choir for Evensong and arrived home just after England had won the World Cup. I burst out with an explanation of being 16 runs behind, last over, the ball being thrown from the outer field and uniquely hitting Stokes’ bat whilst diving and scoring another 4 runs, followed by a tie when 2 were needed off one ball and we did it, and then the Super Over, and a run out on the last ball and we won the World Cup – there were some tears in my eyes. She looked at me slightly glazed and said, “Yes, lovely, I have no idea what you are talking about, I don’t understand cricket, but it did sound very exciting”. Canadians – you have to just love them!

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