Out of the blue into Big Blue – The Last Post (for now!)

The gorgeous view from the deck in our new home in Old Greenwich CT

The gorgeous view from the deck in our new home in Old Greenwich CT

Some five and a half years ago – in March 2011 – I wrote the first of my monthly Postmark blogs to describe the ideas, activities and events which figured in my life following my retirement from Accenture.  Now in September 2016 – some 65 editions later I am drawing a close on this chapter of my life and, as I start a new full time executive job at IBM, it is time for me to retire Postmark – at least for now!

Enjoying some last rest and relaxation in Brienno, Lake Como

Enjoying some last rest and relaxation in Brienno, Lake Como

I have been delighted by the many loyal readers who have stuck with my ramblings over the course of this journey.  I hope that you will appreciate that my new role will mean that I will be more focused on communicating with the team that I am working with, (as I was with Noteworthy at Accenture), and will have less time to dedicate to blogging (especially at the length of an average Postmark!).

Packing to leave Winterfold

Packing to leave Winterfold

The past five years have been an amazing period in my life.  I have been able to spend much more time with my family.  I have seen both Alex and Matt complete their schooling and head off to university.  I have had the privilege of sitting beside countless rugby, hockey and cricket pitches mouthing useless advice to the boys.  Sandy and I have been able to take extended vacations in parts of the world that we always wanted to visit, including Southern India, Argentina, Cuba, South Africa and Namibia as well as enjoy our holiday homes to the full in Devon and Lake Como.

Lake Como viewed from a mountain walk above San Siro

Lake Como viewed from a mountain walk above San Siro



Meeting women suffering from the famine in North Kenya in 2012

Meeting women suffering from the famine in North Kenya in 2012

A clear highlight of my time “out” has undoubtedly been the unique opportunity to be a founding Commissioner of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact and the chance that this afforded me to meet so many extraordinary people carving out their livelihoods in adversity across the globe.  My time in countries such as Somalia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Zambia and Pakistan will stay in my mind for ever, and these experiences have changed my outlook on life.  

Talking with victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just one month after the tragedy

Talking with victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines just one month after the tragedy

It is hard not to be moved by meeting a mother in a hut in northern Bangladesh who has that morning lost her child to malnutrition, or a victim of HIV/AIDS desperate for antiretroviral drugs in a poorly-equipped clinic in Zimbabwe, or a typhoon victim such as those I spoke to in the twisted ruins of their homes in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or witnessing the hopeless grinding poverty of the Palestinian Refugee Camps in Beirut and Jordan, where water drips lethally from the electricity cables laced across the alleyways.  I have emerged with a profound sense of my own good fortune but also a deeper understanding of how hard it is to solve big global issues.

With young Palestinian refugees in Beirut at a vocational training centre

With young Palestinian refugees in Beirut at a vocational training centre

I have been humbled by the dedicated people that I have met along the way who are trying to make a difference, against the odds in these difficult situations, whether they are local people or personnel from aid agencies or NGOs.  Most of all I have emerged with a huge respect for the resilience of human beings afflicted by natural and man-made disasters, to find happiness in their daily lives and purpose in their strivings to create a better life for their families.  This is the other side of the migrant “crisis” that I have sadly had to comment on so much in the past couple of years.  As we look to build walls, introduce points systems, or push the people into camps outside our borders or cities, we need to recognise that the motivations of these individuals are at heart the same as drive us to succeed in our jobs, get good schools for our children or seek the best healthcare.

Fireworks over Antibes in the South of France - just weeks after the tragedy in nearby Nice

Fireworks over Antibes in the South of France – just weeks after the tragedy in nearby Nice

Sadly over the past five years it is probably fair to say that the planet has become a less safe place.  This is despite the fact that much of the developed world (especially the US and Northern Europe) is probably feeling more economically stable and prosperous than in 2011, when the global financial crisis was still holding many more countries in its grasp.   The south of the Continent, though, remains troubled and the BRICS have split into two groups, with China and India largely continuing to benefit from their scale and populations to drive growth (albeit at a lower level), while Brazil, Russia and South Africa have all gone dramatically backwards.

Matt and Sandy exploring Old Greenwich

Matt and Sandy exploring Old Greenwich

This month was dominated by the wonderful Olympic Games.  It was notable that when Rio won the right to stage the competition it was riding a wave of resource-led growth, but by the time the Games began it was really struggling to meet the needs of its burgeoning population.  This gap in fortunes, like that between the haves and have-nots in many countries will be a source of major tension in the years to come.  The rise of ISIS and islamic fundamentalism over the last half decade has been a particular phenomenon which I have commented on.  Tragically the wider Middle East region has become an ever more intractable challenge with much of it ravaged by war, destruction and displaced populations.  These issues have put pressures on our democracies and global institutions – and to date sadly they have come up wanting.

Flying over New York in the late summer sun

Flying over New York in the late summer sun

 

A colourful street in historic Verona

A colourful street in historic Verona

It has been a benefit of this period that I have had the opportunity to learn more about these global challenges.  I have also been able to expand my horizons by serving on a broad range of business boards.  The Heidrick and Struggles board has been a constant over the past five years and taught me how a board can be effective with a well-aligned management team.  I have had similar positive experiences at Fidessa, CSC, Alexander Mann Solutions and Atento, while learning a lot about the worlds of talent, technology and outsourcing.  I am sorry that my time with the latter three organisations has been all too brief. 

Our new home on the waterfront at Old Greenwich

Our new home on the waterfront at Old Greenwich

Many have asked me why I have given up what seemed like a well-balanced portfolio of roles, and a relatively relaxed lifestyle, to return the quarterly pressures of a senior corporate role.  The truth is that while this opportunity was not sought, it has come at the right moment in our lives.  The job combines the right mix of extended challenge, new learning, and potential for leadership impact at a world class organisation.  Companies across the world are facing unprecedented levels of disruption arising from macro economic pressures, regulatory reform and new technologies, and digital transformation, leveraging the best of analytics and AI will be the big story of the coming decade.  I am looking forward to engaging directly in this dynamic environment in a company with huge breadth and depth of relevant business and technology capability. 

Sunset over Greenwich Bay - Waiting for Tropical Storm

Sunset over Greenwich Bay – Hoping that Tropical Storm Hermine passes us by!

Another facet of the adventure is the opportunity for Sandy and me to experience living and working full time in another country.  We have already moved to the US and have rented a lovely home on the water in Old Greenwich Connecticut.  We are spending the last moments of freedom and summer kayaking in Greenwich Bay, watching the ospreys diving for fish and enjoying glorious sunsets from our deck…all this between organising the essentials for life!  It must be said that the time spent in the Social Security Office in Stamford or the DMV Office in Norwalk trying to get a Connecticut ID has been somewhat less rewarding!

Matt and Sandy enjoying the fabulous Hi-line in New York

Matt and Sandy enjoying the fabulous High Line walkway in New York

We have left our various homes across the pond in good hands – with the possible exception of Winterfold – where, after a brief holiday trip to the US, Matt is currently in charge!  We will be crossing back and forth, me for work, and both of us to support the boys through university life and to help our aged fathers as required.  The whole family is excited about this new chapter and has reacted brilliantly to the upheaval that it has entailed to date.  Sandy has even started to write her own blog on life in the East Coast! – http://thetimesofsandy.wordpress.com – Sign up to stay on top of our adventures!

Watching England play Pakistan at the Oval with Sandy (voluntarily!)

Watching England play Pakistan at the Oval with Sandy (voluntarily!)

Dad enjoying the sunshine at Winterfold

Dad enjoying the sunshine at Winterfold

Much of this month has been spent preparing for the move, while maintaining due confidentiality over my role and our destination – an interesting experience!  My father came to spend a few days at Winterfold and we have been able to have some farewell parties with select friends.  I managed to enjoy a winning final game of Dads footie and have been playing more losing golf with Matt, as he prepares (loosely!) for Bristol University.  Alex has been working hard as pretty much the only person left in his office with BNP Paribas in Paris.

Meeting with Gianfranco in St Paul de Vence

Toasting with Gianfranco in the South of France

I squeezed in a visit to my old friend Gianfranco Casati in his beautiful home in St Paul De Vence in the South of France.  Aside from Gianfranco and his lovely wife Maurizia, who were enjoying a well-earned rest from their regular home in Singapore, I was delighted to meet up with another former colleague Luca Mentuccia and his wife for a joyful evening of fireworks and dinner on the coast.

The rooftops of Sermione on Lake Garda

The rooftops of Sirmione on Lake Garda

We started the month on Lake Como and travelled through Northern Italy to Lake Garda and Verona.  The medieval town of Sirmione on peninsular of Garda combines a lively tourist vibe with some gorgeous architecture, while the multiple eras of civilisation which have passed through Verona since the Romans have all left their marks in this beautiful city. As ever the combination of super food, outstanding scenery and interesting history made the trip a delight and it was with some wistfulness that Sandy and I closed up the house for the summer – and probably for nearly a year until we are likely to be back.

Opera stage sets loom outside the Roman amphitheatre in Verona

Opera stage sets loom outside the Roman amphitheatre in Verona

 So one chapter of life ends and another begins….!  These are interesting and exciting times and I am looking forward to plunging into the next adventure. “Postmark” will rise again and in the meantime I wish all my readers a good and prosperous future and thank you for all your support.

Ave atque vale (Hail and Farewell) !

Mark
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Family and Friends – Anchors amid the Atrocities

A crowd of Mark and Sandys prepare to celebrate their Silver Wedding Anniversary!

A crowd of Mark and Sandys prepare to celebrate their Silver Wedding Anniversary in the kitchen at Winterfold!

July has been a month of deep contrasts;  On the personal front Sandy and I have celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary in style, enjoyed multiple holidays with friends and family and helped them to mark many happy milestones too.  Meanwhile, this has been one of the most depressing months for a long time in terms of the relentless flow of atrocities which have taken place across the globe.  Hardly a day seems to have passed without another attack on innocent civilians in the name of some cause, often by sad, mentally disturbed loners who have sought some kind of recognition in a final statement of public defiance and hatred.  Such was the apparent frequency of incidents, I found myself looking up the Wikipedia site which lists the terrorist incidents on each day in every given month – yes it really does exist and it makes for sorry reading for July 2016!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents,_2016

Alex watching the Euro Football from the fanzone by the Eiffel Tower

Alex watching the Euro Football from the fanzone by the Eiffel Tower

 We remember of course the terrible Bastille Day lorry attack in Nice, the mall killings in Munich and other incidents across Germany, as well as the shootings which have scarred many cities in the US.  What a perusal of this list reminds us of though, are the many hundreds killed by continuing bomb attacks on civilian targets across Baghdad and the countless executions undertaken by ISIS extremists across the cities of Syria, Iraq and Libya, as they come under pressure to retreat from former strongholds such as Aleppo, Mosul and Benghazi.

 

Storm clouds over Lake Como

Storm clouds over Lake Como

The list also includes the multiple massacres performed by the Daesh sister organisations of Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.  I saw the terrible impacts of both of these organisations in my days as a Commissioner travelling around the continent.   In last month’s blog I referenced the critical role that Turkey was playing as a buttress between the chaos of the Middle East and Europe and this month has seen the failed military coup in the country followed by a harsh crackdown by President Erdogan.  The hard line islamic philosophy of the regime is just another volatile component in the already dangerous cocktail of religious and ethnic divisions in the region.

 
The anti-Trident demonstration outside the House of Parliament in London

The anti-Trident demonstration outside the House of Parliament in London

Politicians and institutions have struggled to keep pace with these events.  In the UK we appointed a new Prime Minister to help fill the post-Brexit vacuum, but it is clear that Britain is in no state to play its full role upon the global stage for some time.  The confused debate about the Trident nuclear weapon system renewal exposed the shifting priorities and relevance of interstate deterrence vs. terrorist containment by such tools.  European politics is reeling from the impact of the leave vote and trying to act as if nothing has really changed, while disruptive forces in France, Germany and Italy are threatening the status quo.  The forgotten crisis of the migrants dying in their hundreds every day in the Mediterranean is showing no sign of being solved and there is little evidence of a new European unity emerging from the post referendum environment.

The new War Memorial unveiled at Cranleigh School on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme - it recognises some 340 members of the school who have fallen in conflicts since WWI - as many as died in one bomb blast in Baghdad this month.

The new War Memorial unveiled at Cranleigh School on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme – it recognises some 382 members of the school who have fallen in conflicts since its foundation 150 years ago – I note it is as many as died in a couple of bomb blasts in Baghdad this month.

Yours truly being initiated to the joys of fly fishing in Devon by David Newman

Yours truly being initiated to the joys of fly fishing in Devon by David Newman

Across the Atlantic we have enjoyed watching the spectacle that is the Republican and Democratic conventions.  The drug doping scandal surrounding the Rio Olympics has displayed Russia in a predictably poor light and, after last year’s FIFA scandals, another global governance structure, this time the IOC, has shown that it not fit-for-purpose!  So sadly we seem to have the perfect storm of unprecedented challenges at home and abroad and a complete absence of effective global leadership – definitely time to take a break!

Sunshine in Cowley Street, Westminster - where our neighbours at No. 13 housed the campaign headquarters for Angela Leadsome's brief campaign to become Prime Minister

Sunshine in Cowley Street, Westminster – where our neighbours at No. 13 housed the campaign headquarters for Angela Leadsome’s brief campaign to become Prime Minister

There are efforts to make a difference still, albeit at the margins.  I have been back in the world of global development in the past few weeks.  At the end of June I made my (hopefully) final appearance before the IDC Parliamentary Select Committee to discuss the role of consultants in the delivery of value for money in global aid.  I have also been supporting the teams at CIFF as they have worked through new programmes in the nutrition and child health arenas and helped to shape the organisations’s approach to evaluation and assessment of impact.  I enjoyed a lively lunch with my former colleagues Nigel Thornton and Marcus Cox from the Independent Commission, where we spoke about the new context for UK development in a world dominated by security concerns and migration mitigation strategies.

Sunshine over Down End at the start of our holiday break

Sunshine over Down End at the start of our holiday break

There has been a weird sense of detachment as we have watched these momentous events unfurl from the relative comfort and relaxation of our various homes over the past few weeks.  This is that slightly bizarre, but fun time of year where we find ourselves in all four of our houses in the course of a few days – which is a real test for our clothing logistics if nothing else!

A family snapshot at our 25th Wedding Anniversary Party

A family snapshot with our brothers and Dads at our 25th Wedding Anniversary Party

The party in full swing in the sunshine

The party in full swing in the sunshine

The month began with the formal marking of our Silver Wedding Anniversary with a party for some 80 of our friends at Winterfold Cottage in the Surrey Hills.  The weather had threatened to spoil the day but in fact the afternoon lunch party took place on one of the best summer days of the year.  It was a real joy to welcome so many of our friends from the different stages of our life back together to help us celebrate with lovely food, fine wine and some great live music from Stephen Ridley on piano.

Sun shines on party time at Winterfold

Sun shines on party time at Winterfold

Matt and Alex being appropriately grateful to their Mum and sarcastic about their Dad!

Matt and Alex being appropriately grateful to their Mum and sarcastic about their Dad!

It was fabulous for both Sandy and I to have our Dads in attendance as well as other relatives from our small, but perfectly formed family – including Sandy’s brother Keith on one of his rare visits from Australia.  The boys made lovely speech – which made a touch too much reference to my (few) idiosyncrasies – and we livened-up the party with a series of life-size cardboard cutouts of Sandy and I at our wedding.  These are still staged around the house, looming from the various windows and scaring any visitor witless!

The happy couple - 25 years on!

The happy couple – 25 years on!

 

...with our cardboard alter egos - older but taller at least!

…with our cardboard alter egos – older but taller at least!

Celebrating Aunty Margaret's 80th Birthday

Celebrating Aunty Margaret’s 80th Birthday

We travelled down to Sandy’s home town of Eastleigh in Hampshire to join many other members of her family at the 80th Birthday celebrations for her Aunt Margaret – affectionately known as “Mad Aunty Margaret!”  Again it was real pleasure to see the multiple generations come together to mark a family milestone with shared stories and histories at its heart.  

Friends Margaret and Mike shared their 30th Anniversary with us in Como

Friends Margaret and Mike sharing their 30th Anniversary with us in Como

While in Lake Como we were joined by our own friends Margaret and Mike as they were in the midst of their thirty day tour of Europe to mark 30 Years of marriage.  They were with us for the actual Pearl Wedding Anniversary day and looking back at the photographs I had taken from that day in 1986 provided both a sense of the passing of time, but also a recognition that, at heart, none of us has really changed inside!  

Friends joining us in Croyde

Friends joining us in Croyde

In fact a real joy this month has been keeping up with many friends who we have known for decades – David and Jack Newman and Tim and Sally Blackford from Peaslake came down to Croyde, where David and Tim even introduced me to the joys of fly-fishing. and we were joined by Sandy’s tennis pal Pauline.  Former Peaslake villagers Mark and Jackie drove from their holiday home in Morzine to partake in Lake life in Italy as well. 

Watching Andy Murray winning the Wimbledon semi-finals courtesy of our friends Martin and Sophie

Watching Andy Murray winning the Wimbledon semi-finals 

The boys with sundry mates after a fine lakeside lunch in Como

The “lads” after a fine lakeside lunch in Como

Our Anniversary party and our stay in Lake Como brought both Alex and Matt together for a few days in what has been a year of parallel lives.  Matt came out to the lake with his friend Jamie and Alex flew in from France for the weekend with his flat-mates Max and Lorenzo.  Their return trip was enlivened by an unscheduled sleep on the floor of Linate airport as storms grounded the flight home to Paris.  

Alex and friends Max and Lorenzo sleeping on the floor of Linate airport

Alex and friends Max and Lorenzo sleeping on the floor of Linate airport

Otherwise Alex has been settling into the world of property valuation for BNP Paribas – and catching a fair bit of Euro football action, including with his uncle Keith – while Matt has been finding excuses not to get a job by visiting his mates, playing cricket and golf and having pool parties at Winterfold.  We are also beginning to think that his mind will only turn to his impending history course at Bristol University in the car on the drive west in September!  

Matt being fitted for his custom gold clubs - hope that his help him more than mine help me!

Matt being fitted for his custom gold clubs – hope that his help him more than mine help me!

Matt has however returned to his alma mater Cranleigh School for some of the cricket matches.  At the start of the month I had the pleasure of attending my first Speech Day at the school as a Governor.  It was inspiring (albeit a bit weird) to sit on the stage at the school as the achievements of the year were described by the Head Master and the prizes were handed out to the latest generation of high-perfoming students!

More nice walks ruined!

More nice walks ruined!

My other activities at the school have been limited to a tentative return to the world of Dad’s footie as my ankle has continued its recovery.   I have played a couple of games of golf with Matt (another side to his life of leisure!) and it is fair to say that my new set of clubs has not made the slightest difference to my effectiveness at this frustrating game!

Mark and Jackie Connolly join us by the Lake from their chalet in Morzine

Mark and Jackie Connolly join us by the Lake from their chalet in Morzine

 

The Albury Music Festival - a fun way to meet up with our local community - and see some of them perform!

The Albury Music Festival – a fun way to meet up with our local community – and see some of them perform!

Mike and the Mechanics rocking the black tie Wintershall Festival in the Surrey Hills

Mike and the Mechanics rocking the black tie Wintershall Festival in the Surrey Hills

On the entertainment side we have continued our summer of music festivals with a beautiful evening at the small Wintershall Rock Concert and the even lower-key Albury Music Festival (where several of our aged friends actually perform in the bands!).  My book of the month has been “1606 – William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear” by my friend and fellow RSC Board member James Shapiro.  This is a hugely readable exposition of the context of the times – in the early years of James I reign, the influences on the ideas of the period, and the genius of Shakespeare himself.  For any of us who wish to feel at all inadequate it is notable that in this one year he wrote not just King Lear, but also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra!  Not a bad burst of creativity!

James Shapiro's fine book about one of Shakespeare's finest years.

James Shapiro’s fine book about one of Shakespeare’s best years.

A statue surveys the scene at the spectacular Villa Balbianelli on Lake Como

A statue surveys the scene at the spectacular Villa Balbianelli on Lake Como

My own source of creative juice this month has come from writing in the idyllic setting of Lake Como, as the summer enters its final period.  I am hoping that the August edition of the Wikipedia Atrocity List will be shorter and contain less human tragedy, and that the leaders of the planet are taking this time out in readiness to unite (perhaps in the spirit of the upcoming Rio Olympics) to start the process of bringing more peace and security to everyones lives. 

Another fine sunset from Down End

Another fine sunset from Down End

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Who Are You…Ooh…Ooh? – Living in a Land of Confusion

A figure I found outside the Houses of Parliament before the Brexit vote - sadly not heeded!

A figure I found outside the Houses of Parliament before the Brexit vote – sadly not heeded!

I am writing this edition of Postmark after what has been one of the most historically significant and tumultuous months that I can remember.  At its heart has been the surprise outcome of the UK referendum, and the decision to begin the process to leave the European Union.  I have been a committed supporter of the whole European project for a long time, and I was firmly in favour of a “Remain” vote.  As the final result came through on that Friday morning, I genuinely felt a sickness in the pit of my stomach.  This outcome impacts hugely on our identity as a country, and my identity as a citizen of a nation which has decided to “go it alone” in a world of ever greater global challenges.

The pool in the Old Monastery Lapta, Northern Cyprus

The pool in the Old Monastery Lapta, Northern Cyprus

Roger Daltry of The Who in full flow at Isle of Wight Festival

Roger Daltrey of The Who in full flow at Isle of Wight Festival

The references in the title to this piece take me back to happier times, just a couple of weeks ago, when Sandy and I made our now regular trip to the Isle of Wight Festival.  The Who were headliners on Saturday night and they belted out their hits from over forty years ago with an energy which belied their age.  Other highlights of the festival included The Stereophonics, Queen (featuring Adam Lambert), Faithless, Richard Ashcroft, Iggy Pop and Mike and the Mechanics.  The latter outfit is led by former Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford and his new band played a couple of Genesis songs – including “Land of Confusion” – a very appropriate commentary on where the UK finds itself at the start of July 2016!

Dramatic scenery in Northern Cyprus

Dramatic scenery in Northern Cyprus

Aside from the Isle of Wight, Sandy and I enjoyed a week in an old monastery in Northern Cyprus.  Despite fears to the contrary, we were pleased to find that devotional duties were limited to having to listen to a prayer group strumming their guitars below our room – there was no compulsory fasting or penitence!  We were able to travel around the Turkish side of the island for the first time, see the ancient sites and enjoy some great food.

A strange sign of EU funding in the Turkish half of Cyprus

A strange sign of EU funding in the Turkish half of Cyprus

Of course Cyprus is half in and half out of the EU and lies on the fault line between the East and the West which became such a big issue in the Brexit campaign.  We were surprised to find EU-funded beach pathway projects in Northern Cyprus – clearly part of programme to begin to generate tourism and bind the island closer to the larger Europe.  We recently have seen both the West and Russia seek to rebuild international relations with Turkey, as a vital bulwark between the continent and the chaos of the Middle East.  Sadly the bad guys see this too and this month has ended with the terrible bomb attacks on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, designed to further damage the tourism industry in the country and destabilise its population.

Brian May of Queen rocking at the Isle of Wight on the final evening

Brian May of Queen rocking at the Isle of Wight on the final evening

At one level these recent attacks by ISIS are evidence of the pressure that they are now under.  This month saw the fall of Falujah to the Iraqi government and the push back of Daesh out of strongholds in Syria and Libya.  There does appear to be a window of opportunity for the international community to unite to deliver a significant body-blow to the group.  The question is is whether there is the leadership in place to engage.  Aside from the post-vote political vacuum in the UK, the US is mired in its own Presidential election and other European leaders, notably the French and Germans have one eye on upcoming plebiscites.

Alex and Matt back in Cranleigh for the first time together since February enjoying celebratory Indian!

Alex and Matt back in Cranleigh for the first time together since February enjoying celebratory Indian!

This is just the kind of global or regional issue which I felt the UK needed to be inside the EU tent to help shape and deal with.  There is an irony that it was probably the migrant crisis prompted by these evil forces and the concerns over Turkish immigrants swamping the UK that turned the vote towards the Leave Campaign.  In the end, the economic arguments from both sides cancelled each other out (and both stretched credulity with their claims).  It is particularly sad to see the immediate economic fallout from the decision already causing some voters to revisit their decisions to vote “Leave” – which seem to have been based on rather crude nationalistic aspirations to “take back the country” and fears of uncontrolled immigration.  It is not clear yet that there will be much of a gain in either of these areas outside the EU, and none of the leaders of the campaign are staying around anyway to see through the execution of the decision.

The sad tributes outside Parliament to Jo Cox the MP killed at the height of the EU referendum frenzy

The sad tributes outside Parliament to Jo Cox the MP killed at the height of the EU referendum frenzy

There are real splits in the country exposed by the outcome – between Scotland and England, between old and young and between London and the North.  Both main political parties have been plunged into turmoil and are struggling to find anything approaching a unifying leadership.  Meanwhile the Europeans are caught between disappointment, sadness and anger.  The only certainty to emerge has been the lack of certainty and this is likely to dog the region for several years to come, at a time when it can least afford further shocks.

The graphic designed by my 92-year old father which he sent to all his friends urging them to vote "Remain"

The graphic designed by my 92-year old father which he sent to all his friends urging them to vote “Remain”

A Surrey poppy field that made me think of the battlefields of France in WW1

A Surrey poppy field that made me think of the battlefields of France in WW1

It is particularly poignant to think that we are choosing to leave Europe just as we mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.  One thing that the EU has done is stop the continent from going to war and I was struck by the passion shown by my 92 year-old father for “Remain” – as a participant in the D-Day Landings.  Let’s hope that the whole project does not now unravel.  I spent the week after the referendum engaged with my various Boards on the implications of the Brexit vote.  The truth of course is that everyone is unclear about the future and the only strategies that make sense are to build in more flexibility and agility, de-risk near term investments and take a cautious view on bigger bets.

Peter Ackroyd's book Civil War with some telling resonances

Peter Ackroyd’s book Civil War with some telling resonances

My book of the month ironically was “Civil War” by Peter Ackroyd – Part III of his brilliant History of England.  I must admit that while I had been steeped in Tudor history, I was much more sketchy concerning the Stuarts who followed them and the Civil War itself.   There are amazing parallels with the situation we find ourselves in now.  The conflict might have been between the Royalists and the Roundheads, with undertones of religious disagreements, but the various causes split the Scots from the English, the North from the South, and London and Parliament from the country as a whole.  The war cost 100,000 lives – which was a greater proportion of the population than died in the First World War – and the country’s economy was sent into shock for half a century.  The outcome of course was broadly the Parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy which we now enjoy – they did not invent referenda!

Celebrating our Silver Anniversary at The Pig in the New Forest

Celebrating our Silver Anniversary at The Pig in the New Forest

This picture was taken on 29th June 1991 - Time for a Silver celebration!

This picture was taken on 29th June 1991 – Time for a Silver celebration!

For all this talk of divorce from Europe, Sandy and I were delighted to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary on the 29th June.  We travelled down to The New Forest and had a fabulous meal and overnight stay at The Pig in Brockenhurst. It was a lovely way to mark a major milestone in our lives and we have a big party to look forward to in July to celebrate the occasion with our friends and family.  This mini break in Hampshire came after a fun trip for both of us to New York State, where we took in the delights of Greenwich Connecticut.  We spent the weekend immediately after the vote commiserating with our friends Margaret and Mike in their lovely holiday home in the Derbyshire Peak District.  We nearly managed to take our minds off the ensuing carnage with some rugged walks in the stunning countryside – which were also a good test of recovery status for both Sandy and my ongoing ankle injuries!

The glorious scenery of The Peak District

The glorious scenery of The Peak District

Walking with Margaret and Mike at Mensal Head, Derbyshire

Walking with Margaret and Mike at Mensal Head, Derbyshire

Remains of a Roman ship in the castle at Kyrenia in North Cyprus

Remains of a Roman ship in the castle at Kyrenia in North Cyprus

Our major time out this month though was the week in Northern Cyprus.  This relatively less developed part of the island boasts some amazing crusader castles, pretty harbours and rugged mountainous coastline.  This area has been a place of civilisation and trade since the Phoenicians, through the Roman period and into the medieval times where it formed a stopping-off point on the route to Jerusalem.  Sadly the place has been held back by the war in the 1970’s which led to the division of the island.  Relations have been thawing of late but it is still a challenge to move between nations which do not formally recognise each other.

The crusader castle of Kantara in Cyprus

The crusader castle of Kantara in Cyprus

Roman mosaic from Cyprus

Roman mosaic from Soli in Cyprus

The pretty harbour of Kyrenia - where we ate most nights

The pretty harbour of Kyrenia – where we ate most nights

Head Teacher Sara Dangerfield addressing the parents at Winterfold party

Head Teacher Sara Dangerfield addressing the parents at Winterfold party

We held the annual summer party for Peaslake Free School at Winterfold and it was lovely to welcome staff, parents and governors to an informal evening in our garden.  The Head was able to describe the progress which the school has made over the year, brought to life by some delightful pictures, and I retold the recent history of the school and outlined our exciting plans for its development.  It was great to hear just a few days later that our planning permission to extend and improve the school facilities had been approved by the local council.

Joining the children of Peaslake Free School for a workshop by the artist behind the forest "pod"

Joining the children of Peaslake Free School for a workshop by the artist behind the forest “pod”

I also spent time in the school this month as they enjoyed a project focused around the installation of a special artistic seat/pod which has been commissioned to be placed  on my land in the Winterfold Forest!  The children had a very muddy walk in the torrential rain – where they sadly did not see the view – (but they still wrote some great poetry) – and I joined the artist for a workshop in the classroom during which he took the children through various fun design exercises.

Matt returns to Heathrow after 4 months away in South America

Matt returns to Heathrow after 4 months away in South America

Speaking of fun exercises – we welcomed Matt back from his four month travels around Latin America – he seems to have emerged in one piece, leaving the continent largely unscarred.  On his return to Heathrow, his rather scraggy beard completed the seasoned traveller look, and he has clearly had a lot of fun taking in the sights and experiences of this beautiful, but economically troubled part of the world with a good group of friends.  Alex and his girlfriend Katie had a fabulous week’s holiday in Sicily.  This was Alex’s 21st Birthday present and they seem to have really enjoyed the sights of Syracuse, Agrigento, Taormina and Etna which they visited in relative luxury compared to their normal travel experience!

Alex and Katie find a big friend in Agrigento, Sicily

Alex and Katie find a big friend in Agrigento, Sicily

The typical local French restaurant where we marked Alex's move to Paris

The typical local French restaurant where we marked Alex’s move to Paris

Just days after Alex got back from this trip, Sandy and I travelled out to Paris to help him move into his apartment in the city.  He has started six months of work experience in the property investment department of BNP Paribas and seems to have already settled into a nice routine amid the cafes, bars and boulangeries which surround his flat – as well as doing some work!  It has not of course gone unnoticed that Alex has been in two EU countries (other than the UK) just in the past few weeks as part of normal life!

Relaxing with Jonathan and Hayley outside our IoW yurt

Relaxing with Jonathan and Hayley outside our IoW yurt

The highlight of our month was the four days that Sandy and I spent with my university friend Jonathan and his girlfriend Hayley at the Isle of Wight Festival.  This marked the fourth year that we have headed over the Solent to sit in a field and watch the great array of bands which are mustered for what is, after Glastonbury, probably the next biggest rock festival of the year in the UK.  This year Sandy and I rented a large yurt and “glamped” with slightly nicer toilets and showers while Jonathan availed himself of the luxury accommodation that is my VW campervan!  The line-up was great both on the main stage and in the Big Top and the weather was surprisingly good.  Aside from the headline groups, I particularly enjoyed two acts at different ends of their careers.  The young singer-songwriter Gabrielle Aplin showcased her new album and Status Quo proved that age was no barrier to knocking out some real crowd-pleasers!

The fabulous Gabrielle Aplin in the Big Top

The fabulous Gabrielle Aplin in the Big Top

A fine cooked brekkie in the camper van park at IoW

A fine cooked brekkie in the camper van park at IoW

So a momentous month has finally come to an end and the sense of drift and unease about the situation is palpable in the UK and across the continent, as well as in all my conversations with my colleagues across the Pond.  We can no doubt look forward to more dramatic developments in July.    It might though, as one journalist put it last week, be nice to have a bit less news!

Sunset over the Mediterranean on the North Cyprus coast

Sunset over the Mediterranean on the North Cyprus coast – lets hope it is not a metaphor for the EU itself!

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Men vs. Boys – Now It Gets Serious

The Footie Dads enjoying their weekend away in Croyde!

The Footie Dads enjoying their weekend away in Croyde!

The summer is well and truly here and this has been a month where the fun quotient has been high…only to be matched by the seriousness of the work side of my life.  May began amid the beauty of Lake Como and continued with a Footie Dad’s weekend in our house in North Devon.   That was followed by an annual off-site for New Mountain Capital in a baking West Palm Beach – which mainly consisted of golf and poker.  I enjoyed a joyous few days in the boho surrounds of Delray Beach where I met up with my friend and former Team Foster stalwart Angie Burke and her partner Dave (and his Dad!) and was given a guided tour of this quirky and fun community on the Florida coast.  To maintain the jollity index Sandy and I also squeezed in a few days in a chateau in the wine region of Bordeaux.

Meeting up with Angie and Dave in Delray Beach - photo by Dave's Dad!

Meeting up with Angie and Dave in Delray Beach – photo by Dave’s Dad!

The Breakers Hotel West Palm Beach - an understated little place

The Breakers Hotel West Palm Beach – an understated little place

Amid all this frivolity, I have been closely associated with one of the largest proposed mergers in global technology (CSC and HP Services) and had the pleasure of facilitating the Board Strategy off-site for Heidrick and Struggles.  I also participated in an Investment Committee meeting for the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation where we considered major nutrition programmes in Africa and India.

Sandy and friends in lovely Dubrovnik

Sandy and friends in lovely Dubrovnik

The majority of the efforts of the rest of the Foster family have been firmly rooted in fun this month too – with Sandy joining her girlfriends for some time in the fascinating city of Dubrovnik, while Matt enjoyed the last few weeks of his South American adventure.  He has been in Columbia where highlights have included playing paintball in the grounds of Pablo Escobar’s mansion in Medellin (!), and gaining his PADI diving certification in a beachside resort near Cartagena.

Matt in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia enjoying the last few days of his four month gap year trip to South America

Matt in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia enjoying the last few days of his four month gap year trip to South America

Alex has had a more serious few weeks working his way up to and through the end of second year exams at Bath University – though he too has managed to lighten the mood with a several days with eleven of his mates in our house in Croyde.  The highlight of the period for the family though had to be celebrating my father’s 92nd birthday – a real joy!

Dad celebrates receiving a lively 92nd Birthday shirt!

Dad celebrates receiving a lively 92nd Birthday shirt!

Alex and a few of his mates take on Croyde - and clear up the mess left by Dad and his mates!

Alex and a few of his mates take on Croyde – and clear up the mess left by Dad and his mates!

The global headlines of the month have been dominated by the continuing crisis in the Middle East and the attendant migrant challenges in Europe, while the joys of “democracy” at work have played out in the US and the UK.  The steamroller that is the Trump campaign for President has rumbled on and I have been struck by the growing disconnect between the largely republican-leaning business folk, who dominate my connections over the pond, and the clearly vast numbers of ordinary Americans who are engaged by his “charisma” and populist views.  The level of actual policy debate has been exceptionally poor with childish accusations feeding the 24-hour news machines of CNN and Fox –  alongside stories about which Republican heavyweights will be persuaded to stand on the ticket to provide it with national and global credibility.

CNN lapping up the drama of this real and dangerous race

CNN lapping up the drama of this real and dangerous race

A fact-free zone on the EU debate in the UK

A fact-free zone on the EU debate in the UK

The same absence of gravitas and rationale dialogue has characterised the “Brexit” discussions in the UK.  Politicians on both sides of the question have resorted to tit-for-tat scare-mongering and simplistic statements of fantasy to galvanise the population to vote one way or the other in the upcoming referendum.  It is particularly sad to hear educated leaders such as Boris Johnson likening the EU bureaucracy to Hitler at a time when the continent is struggling to deal with the very serious consequences of the worst migrant crisis for decades.  The need for unemotional and “adult” engagement on complex challenges has never been greater and we are being harangued about how the EU is forcing us to define how many bananas you can have in a bunch!  As a lapsed classical student like Boris, I am only too aware of how dangerous true democracy can be.  The Athenians may have invented it, but within fifty years they had been destroyed by the influence of the demagogues who arose and persuaded them to engage in the wrong wars on the back of some smart speeches!

Croyde with the tide in - the North Devon coast is a long way from the Continent - but many other beaches are beginning to see arrivals of migrants

Croyde with the tide in – the North Devon coast is a long way from the Continent – but many other beaches are beginning to see arrivals of migrants

The warmer weather has renewed the latest wave of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Northern Africa and our screens have been filled with pictures of capsizing boats packed with desperate people and an ever-increasing death toll.  We are even beginning to understand how many folk are trying to cross the North Sea from mainland Europe to the UK – with the first few traffickers being caught on the Norfolk, Devon and Kent coasts.  All the attempts by Eastern European states to close their borders have merely redirected the issue.  Sadly the view that I have long held – that this is the beginning of a new normal – and not a blip caused by the conflicts in Syria and Libya – is being reinforced every day.

My book of the month - Blood Year by David Macullen

My book of the month – Blood Year by David Kilcullen

 My book of the month has been “Blood Year” by David Kilcullen.  Although Australian, he was an insider throughout the Iraq War and the subsequent foreign policy interventions in the region by the US and the West.  He paints a depressing picture of the fundamental errors made over the period after 9/11, which resulted in the rise of ISIS.  This grim reading is reinforced by the sobering news that this month there has been a renewed attempt to wrest Fallujah back from ISIS – a decade after over 1,000 US troops died trying to capture it from Al Qaeda.  We really do not have answers to these age-old conflicts and should stop pretending that we do.

The impressive Monument des Girondins in Bordeaux

The impressive Monument des Girondins in Bordeaux

CSC's new office block in Tysons Corner, Virginia

CSC’s new office block in Tysons Corner, Virginia

The world of business has been trying to calibrate the impact of these big issues, as well as the reality of a slowing Chinese economy and worsening regional relationships in Asia Pacific – which were highlighted at this month’s G7 meeting.  Business leaders are caught between shifting global confidence and the accelerating onset of new technology as they navigate a path for their organisations.  Responding to this uncertainty with a combination of greater scale and greater nimbleness has lain at the heart of my Board activities this month.  I have had the opportunity to work with the CSC Board and management team as they have undertaken due diligence on, and subsequently announced a proposed merger with the services arm of HP.  This will create a new $26bn technology firm that will be better able to invest in the new areas of cloud, digital and security and new age industry services while transitioning away from legacy infrastructure outsourcing.  The CSC stock rose by 40% on the surprise announcement as the market absorbed the potential value of the synergies.  This has certainly not been a dull Board – I only joined in August 2015 and since then we have split the company, undertaken two sizeable acquisitions and now proposed  a major merger!

Summer comes to Bryant Park New York

Summer comes to Bryant Park New York

The Board of Heidrick and Struggles met for a multi-day offsite in New York to develop their own vision of the future of a diversified human capital services company.  As Chair of the Strategy subcommittee I had the pleasure of helping to facilitate a fascinating and rewarding few days of external insights from customers and innovators, as well as exposing the core ideas from the management team.  In both the CSC and Heidrick interactions there has been a lot of light heartedness – but at heart a seriousness of intent and underlying pride in the quality of the outcomes which will impact the lives and futures of thousands of people around the world.

The scramble team from New Mountain Capital that had to put up with me

The scramble team from New Mountain Capital that had to put up with me

The New Mountain Capital team share this ambition for their portfolio companies and I had the pleasure of meeting many of the leaders of this group, as well as the partners and principals at their annual event in West Palm Beach Florida.  Here the emphasis was on relaxed interactions and much of the activity centred around golf and poker.  These  are two things that I do not really do – so my preparation for the off-site involved buying my first proper set of golf clubs and having a number of lessons, and reading “Poker for Dummies” on the plane on the way over!   I just about survived the team scramble with my dignity intact and stayed at the tables long enough not to be a complete embarrassment.   Mainly though, I met some outstanding people from the firm and their companies who share a razor sharp perspective on markets and value creation.

The Footie Dads show their Top Gear credentials outside Down End House

The Footie Dads show their Top Gear credentials outside Down End House

Cosmo and Ted engage in a sedate trundle over 200 miles from Cranleigh to Devon - Not!

Cosmo and Ted engage in a sedate trundle over 200 miles from Cranleigh to Devon – Not!

The Footie Dad’s weekend in Croyde was an even less serious affair.  I had rashly offered our holiday home as a venue for a much-discussed “away fixture” for the group of fathers who play indoor football at Cranleigh School every Saturday.  The resulting event was long on madness and good-natured banter and short of maturity and good sense.  The weekend started with the regular game at the school.  Sadly I had been crocked in a dramatic fouling incident a couple of weeks before and was reduced to watching from the sidelines.  Then, dressed in the custom-made hoodies that we had printed for the occasion everyone piled into a spectacular selection of sport cars for the 200 mile drive to Devon.  We paused for a much needed “brunch break” in a diner on the A303 before the lads continued to race, with ever-diminishing sense and increasing speed down to the house.

Throwing darts for rooms - some folk had clearly been secretly practicing!

Throwing darts for rooms – some folk had clearly been secretly practicing!

Footie gets serious as the tide comes in

Footie gets serious as the tide comes in

The group of fifteen, which is for the most part aged over fifty, then had to throw darts to select the room they would be allocated in Down End House.  The weather, which all week had threatened to be terrible, was in fact fantastic and we were all soon down on the beach engaging in a mix of beach bowls, body-boarding and of course beach football.  The latter game descended into a sort of sand-wrestling bout before we all headed back to prepare for dinner.  One of our number used to provide all the meat for the retailer Marks and Spencer and he came up trumps with some superb steaks which were duly barbecued.

Things were still pretty civilised at this point..!

Things were still pretty civilised at this point..!

Prodigious amounts of wine were consumed before the evening evolved into a set of performances around the table on the patio overlooking the ocean.  The entertainment ranged from opera singing, smurf impressions and rugby songs to an impersonation of the disgraced DJ Jimmy Savile (!?!) – all done “in the best possible taste”!  We are lucky that there are no neighbours within hearing distance!  We sat out on the balmy evening until late and I was impressed by the energy (and bodily control!) shown the next day by the cooking crew who rustled-up an outstanding breakfast.

The Footie survivors on Baggy Point - scaring the sheep again!

The Footie survivors on Baggy Point – scaring the sheep again!

We ended the weekend with a brisk walk around Baggy Point and a pint in the pub before everyone headed for home – though some did delay their departure for a while when they discovered the local beach volley ball team practicing near the car park!   As someone who has travelled for much of my working life it has been great fun to be part of this group of local friends over the past five years.  All of the group are serious players in the worlds of property, finance and business and we all look forward to our time relaxing together each week.
Our guesthouse at Chateau Biac, Bordeaux

Our guesthouse at Chateau Biac, Bordeaux

Sandy and I had a marginally more sedate long weekend in the guest house of Chateau Biac near Bordeaux and were able to take in the splendour of this recently-beautified city, as well as the surrounding wine region.  Our visit to St Emilion was a highlight, as was being shown around the newly-upgraded vineyard at the Chateau by a super- enthusiastic member of the team.  We were able to sit out on the terrace overlooking a spectacular bend in  the Garonne river, as well as take in a couple of Michelin-star restaurants.

The lovely village of St. Emilion - with its equally lovely wines

The lovely village of St. Emilion – with its equally lovely wines

Villa Eleutheria in early May sunshine on Lake Como

Villa Eleutheria in early May sunshine on Lake Como

Restaurants also featured in our return to Lake Como as we opened up the house for the year and tested the boat – it did not pass!  Our theatre-going this month had a Shakespearean focus – with Sandy seeing Kenneth Branagh’s much-aclaimed Romeo and Juliet, while we both enjoyed the RSC production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Barbican.  This was part of a special touring show which has incorporated amateur groups from around the country playing the Mechanicals, alongside the professional cast, as part of the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

Boating past George Clooney's house - and still he did not invite us in for a nespresso!

Boating past George Clooney’s house – and still he did not invite us in for a Nespresso!

This has been another month where the blessed nature of our lives stands in stark contrast to so much that is happening in the world.  It is a time to be truly thankful and hope that, as the year goes on, some of the clouds which lie over so much of planet will be dispersed like the ones pictured below scudding over the heath at Winterfold.

Clouds over Winterfold Heath

Clouds over Winterfold Heath

 

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Flights of Fancy, Right Royal Celebrations & Coming Down to Earth with a Bump

Alex enjoying his skydive in the clouds above Devon

Alex enjoying his skydive in the clouds above Devon

This month has been one of tremendous variety and stimulation – mostly good with the only the odd downer!  The Foster family has been pushing the limits of experience.  Alex partook in his first (and only?) skydive over the fields of Devon and navigated his way on a charity hitchhike from Bath to Edinburgh.  Matt celebrated his 19th birthday in La Paz, Bolivia, in the midst of his four-month gap year travels around South America.  He trekked to Machu Picchu and is now working his way up the surfing beaches of the Peruvian coast.  After last month’s drama of temporarily losing one of his friends in Santiago the only major catastrophe to afflict him has been the theft of his precious Samsung S6 phone.

Matt at Machu Picchu

Matt at Machu Picchu

Alex displaying a degree of relief on landing!

Alex displaying a degree of relief on landing!

Alex’s jump had been a 21st birthday present from his mates – one which had not necessarily filled his parents with the same joy!  He successfully leapt out (was pushed out!) of the plane at 15,000 feet strapped (thankfully) to an expert and after a period of free fall, his parachute was opened and he glided relatively smoothly to earth.  He described the descent as “pretty awesome” – despite the fact that there had been some kind of minor (but unprecedented!) failure of one of the parachutes.  As anxious parents we were just glad to get the confirmatory text message of his landing.  The sense of his derring-do was only marginally undermined by the fact that earlier that day the same instructor had taken a 100 year old man on the same jump (something that featured in the main BBC evening news!).

Would you pick up these two hitchhikers ?

Would you pick up these two hitchhikers ?

His charity hitchhike involved dressing up as a rasher of bacon with his friend Molly (dressed as an egg!) and trying to get from Bath to Edinburgh without spending any money.  21 teams from Bath took part and Alex and Molly achieved a very creditable 6th by arriving within thirteen hours.   They perfected their skills at lurking in various motorway service stations and looking needy and met some interesting folk en route!

Alex takes on some much needed sustenance - the original bacon cheeseburger!

Alex takes on some much needed sustenance – the original bacon cheeseburger!

Croyde Bay in full swell

Croyde Bay in full swell

Sandy and I started April with a week at our house in North Devon where the winds and waves of the Atlantic lashed the beach below in some spectacular high tides.  We took a trip to Ilfracombe which is now graced by Damien Hurst’s enormous statue of Verity.  We enjoyed a varied month of cultural experiences, including three separate plays in London. We also had the privilege of attending the live performance at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford of a special show for the BBC to mark the 400th Anniversary of the Bard’s passing.  This included a surprise performance by the Prince of Wales reciting the “To be or not to be” lines from Hamlet.  As I was a former member of the RSC Board, Sandy and I had the pleasure of being presented to HRH and Camilla before the show.  The Prince was taking a break from marking another big milestone this month – i.e his mother’s 90th birthday and London has been awash with pageantry to celebrate this first of the many birthdays that the Queen has in a given year!

Verity on Ilfracombe Harbour

Verity on Ilfracombe Harbour

The band of the Household Cavalry marching down the Mall on the Queen's 90th Birthday

The band of the Household Cavalry marching down the Mall on the Queen’s 90th Birthday

Muse in full (noisy!) flow at the O2

Muse in full (noisy!) flow at the O2

Rather less cultural, but equally fun was attending a concert by Muse at the O2 with my brother and his family.  My ears have just about returned to normal after an extravaganza of light, video and heavy rock which definitely lived up to expectations.  Other fun included an evening with my walking buddies – nicknamed the Barolo Boys – at a wine lecture and and tasting at the Wine Society which was focused on Sicilian Wines.  This fascinating review of a little-known region was essential and enjoyable research for our next planned walking holiday in September.

Good to see the plane to Luxembourg was "solid"!

Good to see the plane to Luxembourg proclaimed that it was “solid”!

My various Boards have kept me on the road this month with the Atento session in Luxembourg and the Alexander Mann Solutions Board in the offices of owner New Mountain Capital in New York.  The Atento meeting included a review of the company’s latest strategy refresh.  There is a clear sense that this provider of call centre and CRM services in Latin America will expand its solutions to build further digital capabilities around the current voice provision in the region.   Much of the company’s business is in Brazil and, despite the challenges which the Brazilian economy is facing, there is huge demand for innovation in the way which customers and clients seek to interact.  The AMS discussions were centred in the momentum which they are seeing in their recruitment and wider talent services around the world and their success at both retaining current clients and adding major new logos to their portfolio.

View over Central Park from the Boardroom of New Mountain Capital

View over Central Park from the Boardroom of New Mountain Capital

Wishing Matt Happy 19th Birthday from Winterfold to Bolivia!

Wishing Matt Happy 19th Birthday from Winterfold to Bolivia!

While in New York I also did some further work in my capacity as Chair of the Strategy subcommittee of the Heidrick & Struggles Board. This was in preparation for next month’s offsite where we plan to explore the further differentiation of the executive search model and the focus of adjacent leadership consulting offerings.  By chance this month I found myself acting as part of the review committee for one of my companies overseeing the selection of a search consultant and a) it was good to be on the other side of the pitch table! and b) it was fascinating to see how six different players in the same space sought to stand out from the crowd.  The interplay of relationship strength, innovative tools, geographic and sector footprint and capacity to listen were telling factors in the choices made.

Another great sunset from our house in North Devon

Another great sunset from our house in North Devon

On the not-for-profit side I attended the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) Board in London and spent some time with the Evidence, Monitoring and Evaluation team at the organisation.  The capacity to measure the impact of various investments that have been made in the development sphere is a critical, but difficult area – as I learnt from my four years as an aid Commissioner.  CIFF are looking to get the right balance between ongoing measurement of programme progress, independent monitoring of trajectory and long term evaluation and learning.  I am looking forward to working more closely with both the centre and the partners in the field to step up the impact which the Board is seeking in areas such as nutrition, health, anti-slavery and climate change.
A giant bug gets into the House of Commons to make point about malaria eradication!

A giant bug gets into the House of Commons to make point about malaria eradication!

One area where there has been undoubted global aid progress is the eradication of malaria.  This was the theme of a great session held in the House of Commons to mark World Malaria Day.   Many countries in the world have succeeded in eliminating this threat and others are on the way to doing so over the coming decades.  The meeting reinforced the importance of maintaining funding in this cause and the growing role of technology in helping to diagnose, treat, prevent and monitor progress against the disease.

University College in the spring sunshine

University College in the spring sunshine

I also attended my first meeting of the Strategy committee of Cranleigh School.  It is enlightening to see how a successful independent Prep and Senior School works to maintain its position in a market place of changing parental demands and dynamic competitors.  This was also a topic of discussion at a meeting of the University College Development Board in Oxford.  The College is coming towards the end of a very successful multi-year campaign to raise some £55m for its endowment and thoughts are turning to the next stage.  Over dinner in the glorious surroundings of the Senior Common Room we explored with the Master the levers of outreach, admissions policy, tutorial excellence and facilities which can be pulled to ensure that the college improves its academic position in Oxford.  There was some debate as to why it was that the university as a whole struggles to modernise the subjects it teaches and their relative mix, given the rise in demand for technical and vocational skills alongside the more traditional subjects.  I was pleased to defend the continuing value of the 150 places in Classics that Oxford still offers, though I also shared concerns that there were less than 20 for Computer Science!

The refurbished Goodhart Buildings at Univ - my old room (1979-80) was to the right on the floor below the roof level

The refurbished Goodhart Buildings at Univ – my old room (1979-80) was to the right on the floor below the roof level

How the Goodhart Building looked in distant 1979

How the Goodhart Building looked in distant 1979

April 2016 - 1 (1)Luckily my book of the month had been the excellent “Dynasty” by Tom Holland – which tracks the lives of the early Caesars in all their lurid detail – and so I felt that I was up to date with my facts!  The meeting included a chance to look around the newly refurbished and developed student rooms in the block that I had lived in for two years from 1979 to 1980.  The new rooms are amazingly well-appointed with ensuite bathrooms and large shared kitchen areas nearby.  Any pangs of jealousy I might have had for the young students we met were quickly dispelled when I saw them heading off for exams in their gowns the next day.  I stayed in the College overnight and it was a bit weird to get up and go for breakfast in the Queen’s Lane Coffee House – a haunt from my student days.  I was pleased that I did not to have to to leap up for 6.00am rowing practice on the river though!

View from my room in Masters Lodgings into the quod at Univ

View from my room in Master’s Lodgings into the quod at Univ

In the wider world this has been a really mixed up month of contrasts too.  There has been progress in defeating Daesh in a number of cities in Syria and it seems that efforts to squeeze their finances and intelligence is dramatically slowing their ability to recruit new fighters.  At the same time the Syrian civil war is escalating once more and the growth of IS in Libya is continuing unchecked.  The flow of refugees via the Greek islands and Turkey has been stemmed by the new “deal” on returning migrants (despite continued humanitarian concerns), but the path from North Africa to the Italian islands has just opened up for the summer with many terrible drownings.

The waves crash against the rocks at Croyde - a reminder of the perils of the sea

The waves crash against the rocks at Croyde – a reminder of the perils of the sea

Another depressing Super Tuesday in the US!

Another depressing Super Tuesday in the US!

There was a relatively thoughtful and effective “farewell” visit to Europe by Barack Obama which showed the US engaging in world affairs with a degree of “big picture” thinking.  Sadly this was more than overwhelmed by the brazen outbursts of an ever more confident and triumphant Donald Trump back in America in the race to become the next President.  Some of the wider economic arguments for Britain remaining in Europe managed to seize the initiative from the Brexiters for a period, and the pound recovered some strength, but the unresolved migrant crisis, the fears over potential expansion of visa-free travel to Turkey and the wrapping of various exit politicians in the Union Jack has resulted in a 50/50 set of recent polls about the outcome of the referendum in June.  All of this uncertainty has cast a pall over the global economy and left many commentators fearing for a renewed downturn.  Caution continues to be the watchword.

Storms gather over Westminster in ever more acrimonious Brexit debates

Storms gather over Westminster in ever more acrimonious Brexit debates

One of our many great theatre experiences this month

One of our many great theatre experiences this month

Sandy escaped from the doom and gloom by seeing Funny Girl which has opened to acclaim in London starring Sheridan Smith.  We both enjoyed performances of The End of Longing (written by and starring Matthew Perry of Friends fame) and People, Places and Things.  Both these plays interestingly dealt with the themes of addiction and redemption.  The latter is a successful transfer from The National Theatre starring the amazing Denise Gough as a recovering addict.  It was very effective to see the layers of her personality – and its impact on those around her, being peeled back one by one as she fought to get clean.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford ready for the anniversary broadcast

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford ready for the anniversary broadcast

The drama of this performance was more than matched at the very special evening we enjoyed in Stratford.  The show was a homage to the influence of Shakespeare on theatre, ballet, musicals and more and starred a wonderful group of performers including Dame Judi Dench, Helen Mirren, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Tennant and many more.  The whole extravaganza was directed by Greg Doran, the Artistic Director of the RSC and was broadcast live on BBC 2.  The show ended with a moving collection of final words from various plays as we all held up tiny electric candles around the theatre in memory of the playwright.  After the exultant finale the cast assembled on stage to watch a screening of the spectacular fireworks that were set off outside the theatre.  Sandy and I walked along the specially illuminated path to the Trinity Church where Shakespeare had been buried 400 years before.  There was a solemn vigil underway in the church and we joined the group which filed past the Bard’s flower-covered grave as choristers sang in the pews.  Stories have emerged this month that his skull is apparently missing from the grave – it has probably been used for a few “Yorichs” over the years!  By chance I was at the front of the grave as midnight struck and it was a very moving and special moment to mark the life of a truly great man.

Shakespeare's grave in Trinity Church at midnight on the 400th anniversary of his death

Shakespeare’s grave in Trinity Church at midnight on the 400th anniversary of his death

The Dad's Footie crowd relax post match and discuss the various injuries - including mine!

The Dads’ Footie crowd relax post match and discuss the various injuries – including mine!

My progress to the church was not straightforward as I had to hobble along after suffering a nasty ankle injury in Dads’ footie that morning.  My desperate efforts to regain the ball had coincided with two of the larger members of the “Black” team converging on it.  As I went over there was a terrible tearing and scraping of tendons and ligaments only matched by my scream of pain.  Thankfully nothing appears to be broken, but I am “hors de combat” for a while and doing a passable impression of Long John Silver on my travels.  So just as Sandy has had her cast removed from her ankle after surgery, I have taken over limping duties for the family.  Who knows – perhaps by the end of May we might actually both be fully mobile human beings again and better able to enjoy the spring sunshine around Winterfold.

Spring daffodils at Winterfold Cottage

Spring daffodils at Winterfold Cottage

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Running Sore and a Limp Response to the Gathering Storms

Sandy enjoying our final day in the sunshine of Cape Town

Sandy enjoying our final day in the sunshine of Cape Town – before her ankle surgery!

This month began in the sunshine of South Africa, went downhill as Storm Katie lashed the UK and has closed with a bright pair of spring weekends.  For the Foster family it has been a period of both movement and stillness.  Alex ran the Bath half Marathon for the second year in a row and just about survived to tell the tale, while Matt continued his travels in Chile.  I was back and forth to the US for various meetings while Sandy was becalmed by her post-operative recovery from ankle ligament surgery.  She has had a chronic problem with this for many years and has regularly had her ankle collapse while walking along.  This has hopefully been tackled by some pretty amazing ligament shortening and reattachment as well as tendon repair on her right ankle.  The surgery appeared to go well but now the long six weeks of being in plaster has to be endured.  Sandy has been gaining speed on crutches and working on a pretty effective limp for most of the month – and I constructed a Heath Robinson-like solution to help her get stuff up and down the stairs!   Relative immobility meant that we stayed at Winterfold for Easter, where we were joined by our aged Dads to complete a house full of slow, but steady, progress!

Easter gathering of the Fosters at Winterfold with Alex and the Dads

Easter gathering of the Fosters at Winterfold with Alex and the Dads

A quite remarkable headline in the surreal US election - if Trump is terrible it will only be for four years!

A quite remarkable headline in the surreal US election – if Trump is terrible it will only be for four years!

Our relatively benign travails were in stark contrast to further terrible events in the world this month.  For the second time in just over a year both a European capital and a Pakistani city were rocked by acts of terror in the same period.  In January 2015 it was Charlie Hebdo in Paris following on from the massacre of the school children of Peshawar a month before.  This time it was Brussels airport and the attack on the Easter funfair in Lahore, where many children were again the victims.  It is becoming ever clearer that the groups of radical islamic militants around the globe are not just a few crazed individuals, but they and their supporters are probably to be counted in millions.  The world at large has thus far failed to match the scale of the issue with the robustness of its response.  This is not to condone in any way the blanket hate message against muslims that has been at the centre of Donald Trump’s rhetoric – quite the opposite – but it is to reinforce the growing and real battle between aspects of these ideologies which will, as Tony Blair has said, probably define this century.

School children in Pakistan - victims of terror in their homeland

School children in Pakistan – victims of terror in their homeland

I was in Pakistan shortly after the Peshawar school massacre and I have visited Lahore, which has for centuries been the city of learning in the country, a couple of times.  The majority of the population, both islamic and christian, clearly want to lead normal peaceful lives, but the underlying lack of stability in the region, with its historic tensions and complex relationship to Afghanistan, creates feeding grounds for radical groups of many kinds which will always seek soft targets to cause the maximum fear.  These same forces are at work across the Middle east and North and West Africa and growing in confidence and presence in mainland Europe.   We seek comfort by trying to define the issue as a problem in a particularly desolate suburb of Brussels or a rogue imam in the North of England, but the belief system which underpins these terrible acts is more pervasive and is sadly poorly understood by most of those seeking to combat it.

Sunshine struggles through the forest mists at Winterfold

Sunshine struggles through the forest mists at Winterfold

Old and new side by side in the City

Old and new side by side in the City

The terrible events in Brussels were immediately pushed to the front of the Brexit debate, with both sides using the security issues raised as ammunition for their points of view.  The migrant crisis has been similarly pressed into action with the “Remain” side seeing the power of a united Europe negotiating an imaginative repatriation deal with Turkey, and the “Exit” group describing a weakened union being held hostage by a country with a potentially dangerous desire to join the free movement of peoples across the continent.  The truth is that, regardless of the Brexit debate, the European response to the situation has been reactive, short term and weak – and with real humanitarian questions left unanswered.  The recognition of the long term structural drivers behind mass migration has been entirely absent as sticking-plaster solutions are sought around the margins of what is the other great issue of our epoch – the gap in opportunity and wealth between the North and the South.

Improving solutions for severe malnutrition is one of the goals of CIFF

Improving solutions for severe malnutrition is one of the goals of CIFF

Imaginative approaches to solving some of these latter challenges lay at the heart of several briefing sessions I enjoyed this month with the various sector teams at the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).  They are working to use their funds to catalyse major policy, solution and behaviour change in areas such as climate change, nutrition, early years education, adolescent health and slavery – all of which end up driving a wedge between the “haves” and the “have nots” of the world.  The trick is how to direct what are significant, but finite, investments to create sustainable models of lasting impact and to balance the dependence on public and private players on the journey.  I am looking forward to working further with the founder Sir Chris Hohn and the new CEO, Kate Hampton as they look to make a real difference.

Juggling in Bryant Park, New York

Juggling in Bryant Park, New York

My other activities this month were centred on the latest CSC Board meeting in Washington, and a series of strategy preparation sessions with the management and Board of Heidrick & Struggles in New York.   In both cases, the potential for technology to enable new business models has been at the heart of the discussion.  At Alexander Mann Solutions (another of my Boards) I was exposed to some of the innovative ways that they too are seeking to leverage digital capabilities to transform their productivity and enhance client service.  The intersection between business and all things “digital” is yet another “mega” trend of the century and I have been pleased to see that my former colleagues at Accenture are also continuing to ride this wave in their latest very positive results.

One of the latest ads for Accenture Consulting in Washington airport - still growing!

One of the latest adverts for Accenture Consulting in Washington airport – still growing!

Alex looking fresh and ready for the Bath Half Marathon

Alex looking fresh and ready for the Bath Half Marathon

Alex certainly won the prize for most effort in the family this month with his completion of the Bath Half Marathon in an impressive 1 hour 48 minutes.  The race took place on a glorious spring day which brought the golden crescents and Georgian buildings of the city to life.  Sandy (fresh from the surgeon’s table!) and I were on hand to provide moral support.  Alex clearly pushed himself to the limits however and had to be ministered to by the St John’s Ambulance brigade as he was suffering from dehydration at the end.  He was so unwell he could not even manage a post-run lunch with his friends!

Alex being led off to the St John's Ambulance tent after the race!

Alex being led off to the St John’s Ambulance tent after the race!

Matt and friends "sand boarding" in the Atacama Desert

Matt and friends “sand boarding” in the Atacama Desert

Matt has spent the month working his way from the vineyards of Argentina, through Santiago and Valparaiso in Chile to the Atacama Desert and on into Bolivia on his gap year travels.  Apart from having to report one of the group as a missing person to the Santiago police (he was found twelve hours later!), the journey appears to have been enjoyable and relatively crisis-free to date.  The only major shock for his concerned parents was caused by the radical shaven haircut he went for, which made him look like just the kind of person that the Belgian police are looking for!

Matt - after his surprising hair cut in Argentina

Matt – after his surprising hair cut in Argentina

....where did this cute little kid go!

….where did this cute little kid go!

The fabulous Adele concert at the O2

The fabulous Adele concert at the O2

Despite Sandy being confined to crutches, we have been able to enjoy the usual wide range of cultural experiences.  The highlight was probably the concert by Adele at the O2, where this talented artist showed off both her amazing voice but also her capacity to be very funny and natural.  We saw another great female star, Ellie Goulding, perform in the same location just a few days later and, while she could not quite compete with Adele, the show was fun and had me at least up and dancing!

The first read-through of Sir Christopher Bland's play on the Easter Rising at the RSC rehearsal rooms

The first read-through of Sir Christopher Bland’s play on the Easter Rising at the RSC rehearsal rooms

The green tee-shirt brigade thronging the streets of New York on St Patrick's Day

The green tee-shirt brigade thronging the streets of New York on St Patrick’s Day

Our theatrical excursions this month included the dark comedy “Bad Jews” and a unique first read-through of the first play by my friend Sir Christopher Bland.  Chris is the former Chair of the RSC and he has produced a play on the Easter Rising in Ireland (the centenary of which was celebrated this month).  It was very interesting to see how a group of actors begins to get into a new piece of work and the play itself taught me a lot about an area of history that I knew little of.  Irish “culture” had also been much on display in my trip to New York which coincided with St Patrick’s Day.  This appears to be an excuse for students from the city to put on bright green tee-shirts, adorned with ribald messages and get very publicly drunk!  I tried to point out to my taxi driver, as we pushed our way through the swaying mobs, that even in Dublin there would be less celebration than was apparent in New York, Chicago and Boston!

The triumphant curtain-call for the Cranleigh School production of Les Miserables

The triumphant curtain-call for the Cranleigh School production of Les Miserables

Sandy and I were also treated to spectacular performance of the musical “Les Miserables” by the students of Cranleigh School.  Everything about this show, from the singing, through the acting to the music and sets, was close to professional standards.  This musical was originally an RSC production and last week I spent time at the latest Commercial Board meeting of the company evaluating the success of the current tours of Matilda in the US and Australia and looking ahead to further opportunities in the UK.  Who knows when Cranleigh might be performing this!

The draft designs for the extension of Peaslake Free School used in the consultation

The draft designs for the extension of Peaslake Free School used in the consultation

This has been big month for education policy in the UK, with the announcement in the Budget speech of the plan to dismantle the local authority-based education system and replace it with full academisation for all state secondary and primary schools.  We discussed the implications of this move at the latest Governor meeting of Peaslake Free School.  Fortunately the school is continuing to go from strength to strength with record admissions requests from potential parents, and, as an existing Free School, we are somewhat ahead of the policy change.  We have embarked upon some exciting development plans to expand the current school building and create more dedicated space for the Nursery and school children.  I presided over an open consultation meeting in the village and was delighted to see that most of the neighbours seem to be happy with our plans.  Meanwhile in my other school Governor role at Cranleigh, we discussed some very significant building and facility upgrades on an altogether different scale, and it will be exciting to see how these develop too!

Book of the month "Zulu" by Saul David

Book of the month “Zulu” by Saul David

My book of the month was “Zulu” by Saul David.  I had started this compelling and critical history while Sandy and I were in Kwa-Zulu Natal and many of the locations in the book were close to where we had travelled in February.  The overwhelming theme of the book is the relative incompetence of the British army’s efforts to subdue the Zulu nation in the late 1870’s, culminating in the defeat at Isandlwana and the heroic stand at Rorke’s Drift.  The narrative is particularly fascinating in its attempt to convey the machinations of the politicians, the various generals and an interfering Queen Victoria!  The book also covered the eventual defeat of King Cetshwayo and the imposition of the divisive colonial model which led to the poverty-stricken hamlets which characterise the region to this day.  It represents a salutary lesson in the West’s sense of “right” to intervene in other cultures for the “greater good”.  As the politicians of today grapple with how to deal with Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, to name but a few, we could usefully bear this mind!

A painting by the great Zimbabwean painter Makiwa Mutoba - one of purchases in South Africa

A painting by the great Zimbabwean painter Makiwa Mutoba – one of purchases in South Africa

A tree felled by Storm Katie on Winterfold Heath

A tree felled by Storm Katie on Winterfold Heath

March is known for being mix between “a Lion” and “a Lamb” and certainly things got a bit wild in the middle of the month at Storm Katie hit the UK.  The winds were pretty strong and lots of trees and power-lines were brought down.  We suffered a power cut for several hours in the forest and quite a few trees on Winterfold Heath we blown over by the gusts of up to 60mph.  Fortunately our recent clearing of some areas of the forest reduced the damage and our newly planted christmas tree plantation withstood the storm!  We are now looking forward to more lamb-like weather to come as Spring hits its stride.

The Foster christmas tree plantation on Winterfold Heath - need to wait a bit now!

The Foster christmas tree plantation on Winterfold Heath – need to wait a bit now!

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60th Postmark – Temporary “Brexit”s & New Strategies for Turbulent Times

The glorious landscape of the Franschhoek valley

The glorious landscape of the Franschhoek valley

This month marks five years since my retirement from Accenture and therefore the 60th edition of Postmark!  It is hard to believe how fast the time has flown and the breadth and depth of the experiences that I have been able to share over this period.  I am grateful to those of you who have persevered with me on this journey, and looking forward to engaging with all my readers (bizarre and eclectic bunch that you are!) around the adventures and ideas to come.

Becoming part of the view in Cape Town

Becoming part of the view in Cape Town

Seeing Matt off on his four month "Brexit" to South America

Seeing Matt off on his four month “Brexit” to South America

Sandy and I have marked this milestone by making our own temporary exit from Britain.  We have not done this for political or economic reasons but for the rather more obvious desire to find some sunshine in the midst of the European winter.  Freed as we are now from the parental obligations to our offspring (nearly!), we have been able to take an extended trip to South Africa and enjoy most of the month in a holiday rental in the midst of the winelands of the Western Cape.  The climate has lived up to expectations as have the experiences we have been able to enjoy in Franschhoek, Cape Town, the Western coast and latterly on safari in the Eastern Cape.  The other family “Brexit” was the departure of our son Matt on a four month trip around South America as part of his gap year.

Watching an unorthodox performance of La Boheme in the bar of G-Live Guidlford

Watching an unorthodox performance of La Boheme in the bar of G-Live Guildford

While we have been away, the saga of the UK’s relationship with the EU has reached new peaks of frenzy as David Cameron has been concluding his negotiations with Brussels on Britain’s redefined place in the union and the plans for a referendum on UK membership in June have been confirmed.  The so-called “Brexit” outcome of the UK leaving the EU has lurched in and out of looking more probable as politicians, business, the media have set out to convince the person-in-the-street about the benefits and challenges of continued membership.

New moon over a EU-frenzied Westminster

New moon over a EU-frenzied Westminster

As very interested spectators observing the action from several thousand (lovely warm) miles away it has been extremely clear how much timing and context plays into events and how the consequences of different trends converge.  These factors play out both at a local and a global level.  It is of course not yet clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it is already evident that the wider economic case for staying in the EU has been subsumed behind the more current issues of migration control and even the political manoeuvring around the succession to David Cameron at the head of the Conservative Party.

Big beasts lock teeth in the real jungle of Isimangaliso, Natal

Big beasts lock teeth in the real jungle of Isimangaliso, Natal

If the debate on membership was taking place at a time when Europe was not suffering from 1 million migrants from Syria and beyond, or when migration to the UK from within the EU had not reached new peaks, then a broader view on the trade-off between the value of being part of a bigger market vs. the bureaucracy that comes with it could take place.  If there was not a charismatic (if slightly off-the-wall) alternative leader to the Prime Minister needing to find a platform for a future succession then this vital discussion would not risk coming down to a political popularity contest.  As it is, the “new deal” which Cameron has been negotiating already seems to be a relative non-event compared to the bigger forces at play.

Sunset over Paternoster, Western Cape

Sunset over Paternoster, Western Cape

It is also possible to see how wider global networks of issues are conflating.  The Syrian migrant crisis is being exacerbated by the military activity taking place in this beleaguered country, which in turn has been given a substantial jolt from the intervention of the Russians.  Their ambiguous support for the fight against Daesh has been motivated in part by Putin’s desire to distract attention from the Ukrainian situation and the dire state of the Russian economy caused by the drop in the price of oil.   Some have even seen a deeper conspiracy to weaken European unity by exacerbating the migrant pressures.  Oil is a factor in the deadly web of relationships which surround Syria with Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia all motivated to stir up the situation on the ground.  And all of this is without bringing Turkey into the mix, with their stubborn focus on attacking the Kurds on their shared border with Syria as part of a their own statement of independence from the West.

Syria - A Recent History by John McHugo

Syria – A Recent History by John McHugo

My book of the month was “Syria – A Recent History” by John McHugo.  This is a very readable account of the past century of turmoil in this richly historic part of the world.  What emerges is the relentless fashion in which first the colonial ambitions of Britain and France, then the Cold war proxies of the region, and finally the tribal, religious and family tensions in the country itself have conspired to rob the people of a stable and peaceful life.  The nation is connected to so many regional issues that it is hard to see a way forward which does not perpetuate this trend.  The faltering Geneva peace talks and recent cease fire do not look like changing this historic picture in any meaningful way.

Central Park, New York viewed from the New Mountain Capital offices

Central Park, New York viewed from the New Mountain Capital offices

Across the Atlantic the race for the White House has been hi-jacked by the fear and uncertainty of the US’s position in this fast-changing world.  As Donald Trump, with his strong anti immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, marches on, the mandate for a lame duck President to intervene meaningfully in global debates and peace-making is diminished.  It is no wonder that with all this going on, and the BRIC economies spluttering, the global outlook has worsened meaningfully over the past few weeks.  And now we come full circle to the UK Brexit decision – which ought to be about whether or not the UK is better placed to withstand the global economic shocks to come as a strong player inside the European Union or not.  The bigger picture of the value of scale to survive issues and the need to be an influential actor in the world between the US and the East was a driver for Britain joining in the 1970’s and should be the key determinant now as well.  This factor should also be influencing European leaders to avoid fragmentation in their response to the migrant crisis.

Playing a last (terrible) game of golf with Matt before his departure

Playing a last (terrible) game of golf with Matt before his departure

For all this uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), this has been a big month for engaging in new strategic processes.  I participated in the latest Heidrick Board meeting in New York, where I have taken on the chairmanship of a new Strategy committee of the Board, and engaged in strategy-related conference calls with the McKinsey team at Atento, another of my Boards, as well as with the new Board of the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), where I have been appointed as a special advisor.  I was also asked to join the heads of Consulting at my old stamping ground of Accenture as they looked to chart a renewed strategic focus on this part of the business.  It was slightly surreal after nearly five years to find myself back in the London office and interacting with so many old friends.

One of the many braai's we enjoyed in South Africa

One of the many braai’s we enjoyed in South Africa

All of these strategy processes are valuable and important activities, but rendered challenging by the context outlined above.  The volatility and shifting priorities of the day-to-day can make it hard to step back and act on bigger picture, more long-term trends.  The impact of digitisation, automation and technology and the potential for disruption of all these organisations is real, but trying to balance accessing new models and approaches with dealing with the tactical moves to protect the current activities, is a challenge which they are all looking to meet in pragmatic and thoughtful ways.

Matt and his friend Jack (with the halo!) have a epiphany under the Christ statue in Rio

Matt and his friend Jack (with the halo!) have a epiphany under the Christ statue in Rio

Our younger son Matt has been experiencing the volatile global economy at first hand on the initial leg of this four-month gap year trip around Latin America.  He and his friends have survived the rigours of the carnival in Rio, the beef-fuelled night-life of Buenos Aires (though apparently without any tango action!), and is currently in Uruguay after some spectacular days at the Iguazu Falls.  Interactions and updates have been about as sketchy and sporadic as anticipated but all seems to be going well.

Alex taking his studies very seriously in a Bath nightclub!

Alex taking his studies very seriously in a Bath nightclub!

Meanwhile Alex has been buried in a corporate finance module at Bath University, while practising for the half marathon in the city next month.  We were all pleased that the exams he took at the start of the year turned out well and he was relieved to be able to celebrate accordingly!  Meanwhile, other entertainment I have enjoyed includes a unique production of La Boheme by the group Operaupclose at Guildford and a fascinating evening hosted by the solicitors Hogan Lovell, where my old friend Mark Moody-Stewart was a star turn on a panel discussing the relationship between Human Rights and business.

Our lovely rental home in the centre of Franschhoek

Our lovely rental home in the centre of Franschhoek

South Africa has become a bit of a feature of our winter escapes over the past decade and, now that we do not have the excuse of our boys’ cricket tours to the country, we just like going to this amazing place to enjoy the lifestyle, the environment and the people.  This year we decided to take a three week rental in the town of Franschhoek in the heart of the Winelands.  This small town, with its incredible selection of fine art shops, vineyards and world class restaurants has been a favourite stop for us for a long time.

Sandy has another really tough decision to make as to her favourite wine in the Maison winery

Sandy has another really tough decision to make as to her favourite wine in the Maison winery

Cloud blankets the mountains behind one of the many vineyards

Cloud blankets the mountains behind one of the many vineyards

The amazing spectacle of the Newlands Cricket ground under Table Mountain, Cape Town

The amazing spectacle of the Newlands Cricket ground under Table Mountain, Cape Town

England losing the final ODI at Cape Town after being 2-0 up in the series

England losing the fifth and final ODI at Cape Town after being 2-0 up in the series

This year we used it as a base for trips into nearby Cape Town (to celebrate Valentines Day by watching the final One Day International (ODI) cricket match between England and South Africa – what a romantic I am!), a visit to the wild west coast of the Cape and few days on safari across the country in Kwa Zulu Natal.  We joined the local gym in a vain attempt to counter the calories which we were consuming from all the fabulous wine and food, and even had a couple of golf lessons to try to hone our desperately basic skills.  The western coastline up around the white-painted town of Paternoster and the nearby wildlife parks with their expansive wetlands and flamingos proved well worth a visit.

Wild waves on the west coast of the Cape

Wild waves on the west coast of the Cape

Flamingos in the West Coast wildlife park

Flamingos in the West Coast wildlife park

A white rhino in the Umfolozi Park, with helpful birds cleaning its back

A white rhino in the Umfolozi Park, with helpful birds cleaning its back

We also enjoyed the three days we spent in the Hluhluwe Umfolozi national park near the town of St Lucia on the opposite coast north of Durban.  This area is famous for its hippos and rhinos – and we saw a lot of both of these amazing creatures.  Sadly the whole region is suffering from both a terrible drought and the predations of poachers.  The rangers in the “wetlands” of Isimangaliso and the usually green hills of Umfolozi spoke of fighting a losing battle to keep the animals alive, despite the introduction of new watch towers and drone technology.

An interesting warning sign in the Umfolozi Park

An interesting warning sign in the Umfolozi Park

Young antelope on the watch out for leopards

Young antelope on the watch out for leopards

A lone bull elephant in the park

A lone bull elephant in the park

A monkey scavenging by the roadside

A monkey scavenging by the roadside

Warthog finding a bit of greenery

Warthog finding a bit of greenery

A croc awaiting its passing dinner in the Isimangaliso wetlands

A croc awaiting its passing dinner in the Isimangaliso wetlands

A literal zebra crossing

A literal zebra crossing

An old traditional building in downtown Malmesbury

An old traditional building in downtown Malmesbury

The last time I had been in Natal several years ago, I had visited a poverty-stricken municipality which Accenture Development Partnerships were trying to support, and it was evident that the economic challenges remain very real in this part of the country, with very poor and disadvantaged communities all around.  The wider nation is suffering too from mismanagement of its many assets and the persistent stories of corruption which dominate the local news.  So, while we were able to take advantage of a very low Rand, the significant impact of the worsening economy on the lives of the majority of the population, who do not inhabit beautiful enclaves such as Franschhoek and Paternoster, remains a challenge.

Wheat fields in the Cape

Dry wheat fields in the drought-effected Cape

So now we have returned to the tail end of the UK winter and look forward to seeing some new and positive progress in wider world affairs to match the hoped for better weather of the coming UK Spring!

Memories of sunshine in the winelands to keep us going to the Spring

Memories of sunshine in the winelands to keep us going to the Spring

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The View from the Mountain Top & The Ultimate Live Box-set Binge

 

Glorious sunshine over the French Alps

Glorious sunshine over the French Alps

Well 2016 has started in dramatic fashion!  The combination of plunging oil prices, stumbles in the Chinese economy and the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East have spooked world markets and wiped billions off the market caps of countless companies.  The annual talk-fest at Davos, which was a part of my life for a decade, took place against this volatile backdrop.  The theme of this year’s meeting was the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” which was designed to highlight the impact on all our lives of the fast-changing pace of automation, digitalisation and technology innovation.  There seemed to be some interesting discussion about the social and economic impact of these long term shifts, but the dialogue and coverage was largely overshadowed and dominated by experts of every nature expounding on the the near term global prospects and attempting to forecast (or guess) whether or not the world is entering another major downturn.

Spectacular view from Hotel Allodis in Meribel

Spectacular view from Hotel Allodis in Meribel

Team Foster on the slopes at Meribel

Team Foster on the slopes at Meribel

I attended Davos in 2008 and was struck in hindsight how pretty much no-one predicted then the global meltdown that was to come.  I think that this is a salutary lesson for all those who express a point of view on this point in the cycle.  Apart from the complexity of the factors in play, there is also a risk of “self-fulfilling prophecy” as leaders feed on each other’s opinions and slow down the growth engines through their mutual fear and risk aversion.  The truth is that the watchword for all businesses and economies at this time is “agility” and this is likely to be the case for the foreseeable future.

Alex and Matt on the beautiful "Jerusalem" run down to St Martin

Alex and Matt on the beautiful “Jerusalem” run down to St Martin

While the great and the good were considering this, I was on top of another mountain not so far away across the Alps, skiing with Alex and Matt in Meribel.  We had booked late to make sure that, in a season where snowfall has been unpredictable, we were able to be certain of great conditions – and we were not disappointed!  We enjoyed several days of glorious sunshine, excellent snow and relative solitude as we basked in the first opportunity that we have had not to be tied to school holidays.  This trip was squeezed in between the end of Alex’s exams at Bath University and Matt’s departure on the big four month trip of his gap year to South America and we actually managed to get a couple of days of skiing together – even if Matt did manage to go down with food poisoning at one point – lets hope he has got that out of his system before he takes on the guinea pig and iguana which will be on the menu over the months ahead!

A lot of "weather" over Croyde, Devon

A lot of “weather” over Croyde, Devon

My various business roles have sprung back into life after the holidays as well and I have been enjoying spending more time with the leadership team at Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS) in particular.  The company is one of the leading providers of advanced workforce solutions and recruitment process outsourcing in the world.  I was joined by my fellow Board members Jill Smart (former Accenture CHRO) and Sir David Walker (former Master of the Royal Household) for our regular Board meeting in London where CEO Rosaleen Blair and members of the management shared the key strategies for the year ahead.  In the volatile and uncertain times outlined above, the kind of de-risking of recruitment cost structures that an organisation like AMS can provide is important.  The group engages in recruitment of permanent and contract staff across a wide range of sectors from financial services to retail and engineering and have a differentiated specialisation in graduate and apprentice hiring.  There is potential in these markets in the year ahead.

Winter colours on Exmoor

Winter colours on Exmoor

I had the chance to visit the AMS service centre in Bracknell, England, which is part of a network of such centres around the world.  The team was full of enthusiasm and I was able to gain a better understanding of the business models for recruitment process outsourcing (both sourcing and offer management), as well as contingent workforce hiring of contractors in key sectors.  Back to the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” theme, it is clear that automation, robotics and new digital sourcing services lie at the heart of major change in this sector too.  I am looking forward to watching AMS as they progress on this journey.

Rainbow over Croyde Bay from Down End House

Rainbow over Croyde Bay from Down End House

The Childrens Investment Fund Foundation also held its latest Board meeting this month and I joined as an observor and special advisor.  This foundation focuses on making substantial investments in global development, especially in the health, nutrition, education and climate arenas.  We had some lively discussion about what success and impact looks like in the sector and I was able to draw upon my recent experience with the Independent Commission.  One of the biggest health challenges facing young people in developing countries is malaria.  This month saw the announcement by the British Government that they were committing to spending £500m a year on the eradication of malaria, working alongside one of CIFF’s regular partners – the Gates Foundation.  It was ironic that this important announcement came as the world began to wake up to the threat of another mosquito-borne disease – the Zika Virus which is a potential problem for pregnant woman across the Americas and beyond.

Down End House from a chilly beach riverside

Down End House from a chilly beach riverside

This is the kind of underlying health issue which I believe needs to remain as a priority in global development efforts, before we get too buried in some of the more complex and hard to tackle challenges of broader economic growth and poverty alleviation.  This weekend, I enjoyed a conversation on this theme over dinner with my friend Peter Piot who heads up the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and also spoke about the issue with Mark Goldring, the CEO of OXFAM, at a meal I attended to mark the retirement of my friend Gib Bulloch from Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP).  It was Gib and his team who first engaged me in the ideas of global development and encouraged me to make my first visits to Kenya, Tanzania and Haiti to see the challenges at first hand.  The unique model of ADP, which combines six months of reduced pay for its participants, and the waiving of profit by Accenture, has helped to improve the capacity and life-saving impact of countless global NGOs.

Adrian receives his signed Man Utd shirt from Brian Robson and Quinton Fortune

Adrian receives his signed Man Utd shirt from Brian Robson and Quinton Fortune

Another memorable retirement party this month was that of my old friend Adrian Lajtha, the Chief Leadership Officer and former Group Chief Executive Financial Services.  His remarkable 36 years with the company were marked by a very special event in London attended by several of the faces and characters who have made, and continue to make the company so successful.  There were many funny and touching speeches, but the undoubted highlight of the evening was the presentation to Adrian of a signed Manchester United shirt by legendary players Brian Robson and Quinton Fortune.  As a lifelong fan, Adrian’s face was a picture of surprise and joy.  I was also able to take advantage of the event to organise catch-up dinners on the evenings before with fellow-attendees Roxanne Taylor and Karl-Heinz Floether.

The Atlantic waves rolling in on the North Devon coast

The Atlantic waves rolling in on the North Devon coast

Other leisure activities this month included some blowy days on the North Devon coast in our home in Croyde.  This is a special time of year as the storms crash in from the Atlantic and the rollers pile against the rocks below the house while the wind whistles across every point on the headland.  In what has been one of the wettest months on record, we squelched our way across Exmoor on some breathtaking walks.

The poster for the Hangmen play at the Theatre, London

The poster for the Hangmen play at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London

One of our New Year resolutions has been to enjoy more theatre, and we have had a spectacular month of diverse dramatic experiences.  It began with a provocative performance of Harold Pinters’ somewhat surreal “The Homecoming” at the Trafalgar Studios and was followed up by the dark comedy “Hangmen”, set against the backdrop of the ending of the death penalty in Britain (it was actually pretty funny!).  By far the highlight of the month though, was a weekend spent at the Barbican watching the cycle of four Shakespeare plays brought together by the RSC in their “King & Country” series.

David Tennant as Richard II

David Tennant as Richard II

Jasper Britton as Henry IV

Jasper Britton as Henry IV

The series included David Tennant’s remarkable Richard II, Sir Antony Sher and Jasper Britton in Henry IV Parts I and II and the excellent Alex Hassell (who played Hal in these two plays) in the culminating triumph of Henry V.  These productions, all of which we had seen individually before, were given even greater meaning by being seen as a set.  When we emerged from the theatre after more than 12 hours of entertainment over the weekend, we were impressed by the currency of themes which had been explored, such as the nature and responsibility of power, the futile treachery of politics and the journey from youth to old age – (and no we did not feel we aged in the Barbican seats!).
Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff

Sir Antony Sher as Falstaff

Alex Hassell as Henry V

Alex Hassell as Henry V

"Dictator" - third i the Robert Harris Cicero trilogy after "Imperium" and "Lustrum"

“Dictator” – third in the Robert Harris Cicero trilogy after “Imperium” and “Lustrum”

It was exactly these bigger themes that lay at the centre of my Book of the Month – “Dictator” by Robert Harris.  This is the third book in a gripping trilogy he has written charting the life and times of the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero.  He manages to weave an accurate view of the history and personalities of these momentous times at the end of the Republic into a page-turning narrative – a really great way to enjoy learning history.

I was taken back to the uncertainties faced by the businessmen and politicians at Davos as I read about Cicero’s ultimately futile efforts to guess which way the winds were blowing in the Rome of Pompey, Caesar and Mark Anthony – Sometimes even agility is not enough!
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Festive Fun & Sun in a Climate of Fear?

 

Foster family in festive spirit on the beach in Antigua

Foster family in festive spirit on the beach in Antigua

December was an interesting mix of business, holiday and family celebration.  The family spent ten days in Antigua, lapping up some winter sun in our favourite hotel at Curtain Bluff.  I joined them for part of the time before heading off to Washington and New York for the CSC and Heidrick Board meetings.  We reconvened in the UK to enjoy a family Christmas at Winterfold and had some fun seeing in the New Year in London.

"Polar Bear" demonstration passing Westminster during the Paris Climate Conference

“Polar Bear” demonstration passing Westminster during the Paris Climate Conference

All of this took place against the backdrop of momentous decisions at the Paris Climate Conference which saw the nations of the world – both developed and developing – sign up for the first time to a shared set of goals to stem global warming and the use of fossil fuels over the decades to come.  Time will tell if this kind of long term thinking will translate into more immediate policy actions by the governments concerned and whether the commitment of the funding required is sustainable.  The Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), which I am beginning to work with, has played an important part in supporting the advocacy activities which underpinned the decisions taken in Paris, and the organisation has been discussing how to maintain momentum after the conference back-slapping is over!  In the spirit of every cloud (literally) having a silver lining, the spate of terrible flooding which has afflicted the North of England and Scotland during December has kept the political and media focus on the damaging impacts of climate change, and started to shift the debate from how to deal with unusually severe weather events to policies for a new normal of changed climate patterns.

The Cranleigh "Footie" dads enjoying the traditional post-match Costa Coffee - I scored a hat-trick playing with fellow-dad Graeme Le Saux this month!

The Cranleigh “Footie” dads enjoying the traditional post-match Costa Coffee – I scored a hat-trick playing with fellow-dad Graeme Le Saux this month!

A discarded banner from the Stop the War march during the Parliamentary debate on bombing Syria

A discarded banner from the Stop the War march during the Parliamentary debate on bombing Syria

Another “climate” which was evident over the month was the climate of fear which has pervaded many Western countries and cities in the wake of the atrocities in Paris and other events in Turkey, Kabul, Baghdad and the US.  As I write this, the New Year festivities in Brussels and Paris have been cancelled or curtailed, due to fear of an imminent terrorist attack, and the streets around my house in Westminster have witnessed a heavier-than-usual police presence for the London celebrations.  I was particularly struck during my time in the US, which coincided with the latest Republican Presidential debate, to see how all the candidates (not just Donald Trump) sought to exploit the fear factor engendered by the recent San Bernardino shootings.  They each tried to show how tough they were by expressing more and more radical (and unrealistic) strategies for bombing ISIS out of existence and clamping down on insurgency.

Demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament

Demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament

 

Mr Trump of course had set the tone with his infamous comments on his plans to ban all muslims from entering the US.  It was interesting to see how the fact that the shooting appeared to involve potential radicalised islamists led to a completely different response compared with the right wing’s attitude to the countless other gun crimes and mass-shootings perpetrated in the US by white middle class Americans.  There is a dangerous narrative developing, and in the UK, while there has been a careful attempt to differentiate between the radicalised few and the mass of Islam, some of the same rhetoric of fear was in evidence in the Parliamentary debate leading to the decision to deploy UK planes in bombing Syria.  Everywhere politicians feel the need to be seen to “doing something” and there is a real risk that a) the “something” turns out to be ineffective and b) the collateral impact on the bigger picture of the relationship of muslims with the world is bad in the long term.

The Maisky Diaries describe the fluctuations in personal and national relationships surrounding WWII

The Maisky Diaries describe the fluctuations in personal and national relationships surrounding WWII

Prejudice, mis-communication and mistrust in international affairs are a terrible mix with unpredictable consequences.  This month I have been reading a fascinating book that Alex bought me for my birthday – The Maisky Diaries edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.  This is a translation of the diaries of Ivan Maisky who was the Soviet Ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943 – a really crucial period in the run up to, and first years of WWII.  They are a tremendous insight into the personal relationships between members of the British elite, the ambassador and the Russian leadership, as well as the shifting perceptions of communist Russia and Stalin over a momentous period.  The book paints a picture concerning the paranoia of the landed gentry, who packed the pre-war British cabinet, regarding a potential socialist revolution, and how this led them follow the policy of appeasement and to delay signing a treaty with Stalin against Germany, until it was too late.

The catalogue from my first live auction experience buying historic books at Christies

The catalogue from my first live auction experience buying historic books at Christies

Even when the Russian soldiers became heroes of the British public for their repulse of the Nazi attack on Moscow and defence of Stalingrad, leaders on all sides were more focused on calculating about the postwar power mix than seeking true global alignment of purpose.  In a world of letters, telegrams and infrequent face to face meetings between the key players the opportunity for misunderstanding and misreading of intentions comes across very clearly.  I was struck by how, even now with the relative frequency of summitry and the accessibility of modern media, we still have little idea about the true intentions of Putin and limited scope for real mutual engagement in say Syria or the Ukraine.  Our levels of insight and interaction with the wider islamic world, let alone ISIS, are even more fragmented and removed.

Sunrise viewed from our room in Antigua

Sunrise viewed from our room in Antigua

Far away from these weighty matters, Sandy and I were joined by Matt and Alex in Antigua for some pre-Christmas sun.   This was our ninth visit to Curtain Bluff Hotel in the south of the island over the past decade or so.  This American-owned hotel has a unique relationship with the local Old Road community, many of whom have worked in the hotel for 30-plus years.  One of the charms of the place is the fact that each time we return we have the opportunity to get reacquainted with members of staff we have known since 2004 serving drinks or providing water sports on the beach, training in the gym or the tennis courts or serving in the restaurant.

Alex and Matt join Harry and Max Adorian for some Caribbean basketball action

Alex and Matt join Harry and Max Adorian for some Caribbean basketball action

Matt at one with his paddle board in Curtain Bluff

Matt at one with his paddle board in Curtain Bluff

Alex and Matt fresh from meeting the legend that is Sir Viv Richards on the golf course

Alex and Matt fresh from meeting the legend that is Sir Viv Richards on the golf course

This year there was extra excitement as we were joined by our friends the Adorian family from Cranleigh for their son Max’s 21st Birthday celebrations.  While there, we also enjoyed a couple of brushes with celebrity.  Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was enjoying some downtime at the same resort and when Alex, Matt and I played a game of golf on the island’s best course we were delighted and surprised to discover that we were letting national hero Sir Viv Richards play through our hapless thrashings – and we had the privilege of being introduced to him afterwards in the bar!

Yours truly taking a drop shot after finding the only (tiny) pool of water on the course - note the fine technique!

Yours truly taking a drop shot after finding the only (tiny) pool of water on the course – note the fine technique!

The plane climbs above central Washington as I leave the CSC Board

The plane climbs above central Washington as I leave the CSC Board

I left Sandy and the boys enjoying the beach to travel to Washington for the annual strategy session with the newly-formed CSC Board.  The company completed its separation from its North American Government business in November and it was exciting to meet many members of the global leadership team of the remaining global commercial business and hear about their plans for growth.  We discussed the key industry segments that the organisation seeks to focus on, including the health and insurance sectors.  In the latter sphere the company is engaged in an active and public bid to take over the UK-headquartered business of Xchanging, which was founded by my former Accenture colleague David Andrews.  It is proving fun to be part of a new Board team as the company seeks to chart a fresh course in the world of technology, services and software.

The christmas tree in Bryant Park New York outside the Heidrick offices

The Christmas tree in Bryant Park New York outside the Heidrick offices

I travelled on to New York for the Heidrick and Struggles Board session where we considered the very real progress made by the company over the past year and its exciting plans to exploit the leadership consulting space.  While in town, I squeezed in a telephonic board session for Atento and a meeting with the New Mountain Capital owners of Alexander Mann Solutions – my fourth Board.  So all in all a busy end to the year with positive momentum on many fronts.

My dad as a 91 year old Father Christmas!

My dad as a 91 year old Father Christmas!

The family was reunited for Christmas in Surrey where we were joined by my dad and Sandy’s father for the traditional celebrations – with a few unusual twists!  Every year, the boys and I go out to cut down our Christmas tree from our forest at Winterfold.  This year the choice had been reduced by some of the commercial felling I have been doing and the final tree we chose was larger, heavier and less “Christmas tree-shaped” than usual.  Once we had struggled to haul it back over the heathland, lopped off its top to get into the house, and whittled down the trunk to fit in the base, I had to do some pretty drastic pruning (literally) to render it vaguely the right pointy configuration to put a star on.  Nonetheless, once the presents were piled around its base it almost looked the part!

The Foster christmas tree after extensive chopping, pruning and whittling!

The Foster Christmas tree after extensive chopping, pruning and whittling!

The family in traditional Christmas day toast!

The family in traditional Christmas day toast!

 

"When shall we three meet again?" - Looking the part for RSC celebration at the top of the RST Tower

“When shall we three meet again?” – Looking the part for RSC celebration at the top of the RST Tower

After the big day Alex flew off to join his girlfriend Katie and her family for some skiing/walking in France, while the rest of us headed off to Stratford Upon Avon.  There, I was treated to little thank you ceremony by the RSC Development team on top of the tower by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.  We donned cloaks from the props department and enjoyed Bernard Levin’s poem on all things Shakespearean before dinner and a performance of the company’s new play Queen Anne.  This proved to be a fabulous history lesson in a little-known monarch of the UK, who reigned from 1702-1714.  It focused on the true story of the queen’s shifting relationship with Sarah Marlborough, wife of the Duke of Marlborough – who was the pre-eminent European general of the time.  It also brought to life the emergence of the “Tories” and the “Whigs” as the first true political parties in the country, as well as the first use of the media, through pamphleteers such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe to influence public opinion.  Speaking of ancient writings, I attended my first live serious antiquities auction at Christies this month.  I managed to restrain myself when the bidding for a first edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was underway, but still came away with some beautiful 17th and 18th century illustrated books of birds, fish and architecture.  Other less cerebral entertainment was had this month at the Madonna concert at the O2.

Madonna in provocative mode at the O2

Madonna in provocative mode at the O2

London's New year fireworks being observed by countless smart phones from Lambeth Bridge

London’s New year fireworks being observed by countless smart phones from Lambeth Bridge

We saw in the New Year in Westminster with our friends Jonathan and Esther and Esther’s children.  Despite the security precautions, we were able to enjoy a relaxed late evening on Lambeth Bridge, culminating in watching the spectacular midnight firework display around the nearby London Eye.  It was really important that, even though we are in a state of hightened vigilence against terrorist attack, hundreds of thousands of revellers were able to come into central London to mark the start of 2016.  Let’s hope that the year to come builds on this positive momentum and that wiser and more peaceful and thoughtful minds prevail everywhere!

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The Sands of Time – Prehistoric Namibian Dunes and Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Sunrise on a giant dune in the Namib desert

Sunrise on a giant dune in the Namib desert

This month has been marked by a truly unique travel experience for Sandy and myself in the deserts of Namibia.  It has also seen the dreadful events in Paris which led to 130 people being killed by terrorist attacks in the Bataclan concert hall and other sites across the city.  We happened to be in an idyllic lodge in central Namibia when the news of the unfolding horror of the attacks began to emerge.  It is one of the characteristics of modern life that no matter how remote the location there is access to global news.  As I reflected on the terrible and pointless savagery of the events in Paris I was struck how remarkable it is that the perpetrators were able to reconcile their terrible actions with being in such close proximity to, and knowledge of, the often young victims whose lives they were in the process of taking.  Human history is of course littered with events, periods and even epochs of tremendous cruelty where the value of human life is subsumed to some group’s view of greater good and “the bigger picture” of power.  The colonial period which afflicted Africa for so many centuries was characterised by the European powers believing that the benefits to their societies arising from access to resources or relative geopolitical advantage justified the oppression and destruction of the native populations.  The story of Namibia, which was one that I had, to my shame, not know much about before this trip is one of the most sad and extreme examples of this theme.

A carving of a Kalahari bushman

A carving of a Kalahari bushman

Ancient dunes stretching to the horizon

Ancient dunes stretching to the horizon

Namibia is a fiercely beautiful country on the south western coast of the continent between South Africa and Angola.  It is characterised by dense coastal fogs which cling to the Atlantic coast and a broad strip of immense prehistoric dunes which stretch in spectacular linear formations from the arid and aptly named Skeleton Coast to the marginally more fertile regions within.   It was this apparent and real inhospitality which rendered the region one of the last to be subject to colonial exploitation, with Dutch, Portuguese and English explorers and settlers preferring to sail on past in search of more attractive locations and access points to Africa.  By a historic chance therefore, when in the latter part of the 19th Century the rising German state sought belatedly to join the race for Africa, Namibia was an open space on the map.  The Germans only formally recognised their “protection” of the country in 1884 and they were stripped of the colony in the Treaty of Versailles just 34 years later.  In that short intervening period they had managed to exterminate some 80% of the indigenous population, especially the members of the Herero and Nama tribes who inhabited the north and south of the country respectively.

An acacia "forest" in Namibrand Park

An acacia “forest” in Namibrand Park

The Kaiser's Holocaust reminds us of a forgotten history

The Kaiser’s Holocaust reminds us of a forgotten history

While in Namibia I read a particularly fascinating book called “The Kaiser’s Holocaust” which told the story of the occupation and its dreadful, and somewhat forgotten path.  As recounted by the authors Casper Erichsen and David Olusoga, it also turns out that many of philosophies which were to underpin the later Third Reich, from genetic racism, Aryan supremacy to the imperative of seeking “lebensraum” were initially developed and trialled in the colony.  Between 1904 and 1909 vast numbers of local people were forced into labour and “concentration” camps, modelled on the first such establishments developed by the British over the border in South Africa just a few years earlier in the Boer War.  Aside from the eerie resonances of the systematic eradication of the local peoples and the later Jewish and Eastern European holocaust, the book also traces how many of those involved in the atrocities went on to be the leaders of the Nazi party.  It is especially chilling to read that Herman Goering’s father was the first Governor of Namibia.  After WWI, the hapless country was passed by the global powers in to the hands of South Africa, where it continued to be exploited by wealthy landowners and those keen to exploit its diamond wealth.  It became a proving ground for the worst excesses of apartheit and found itself a bargaining chip in the regional conflicts of the 1960’s between South Africa, Angola and the Cold War powers.  As a result, it was one of the last countries to gain independence, only achieving this as recently as 1990…and it took until 2004 for the German state to apologise for this forgotten tragedy.

The statue of Curt von Francois - one of the most aggressive of the first German colonial military leaders still stands in Windhoek

The statue of Curt von Francois – one of the most aggressive of the first German colonial military leaders still stands in Windhoek

Landscape en route from Windhoek to Sossusvlei

Landscape en route from Windhoek to Sossusvlei

Discovering this unknown history was a bi-product of a fascinating trip to an amazing part of the world which is now characterised by an emergent sense of independent pride and sustained democracy.  It has a tourist industry which remains in the early stages of development and yet enjoys the relative sophistication of proximity to South Africa.  The main attractions of the country are its spectacular landscapes and dramatic arid panoramas, as well as a particular blend of wildlife safari built around the flora and fauna which is able to thrive in such conditions.  We had a brief ten-day visit to the country arranged at short notice to fill a gap in my dairy where I had pencilled “Go Somewhere Interesting”!  We landed at Windhoek airport on a BA flight via Johannesburg and were immediately whisked south west to the dune region of Sossusvlei in a tiny plane which, to Sandy’s evident concern, bounced up and down in the thermals we encountered en route.  Beneath us the scenery was remarkable both for its variety and its vibrant colours.  Shades of ochre, yellow, burnt umber and red flowed across the dried up river beds, broad rocky valleys and towering volcanic piles.  Over a near two hour flight we saw almost no signs of human habitation other than the dry lines of dirt tracks criss-crossing the deserts and plains below.

The volcanic mountains rising from the edge of the Namib desert

The volcanic mountains rising from the edge of the Namib desert

Sundowner time!

Sundowner time!

It was therefore all the more surprising to find ourselves in the relative luxury of the Kulala Desert Lodge a few miles from a desolate desert airstrip, and just a couple of hours later to be sampling the first of what became a nightly ritual of “sundowner” gin and tonics in a succession of dramatic locations.  The lodge lies at the entrance to the Sossusvlei National park which is home to the amazing ancient dunes for which the country is famous.  These towering structures were formed millennia ago by sands originally washed down from the Kalahari and then piled back up by the relentless lashing of the Atlantic Ocean.  We set out for an early morning drive to see the sunrise catch the perfectly etched curves and slopes of the dune fields.  Before it could get too hot, we joined other tourists to climb the famous Dune 45 which rises above the plain with a great arched back to provide spectacular views back over rippling sandscape.

The view from the summit of Dune 45

The view from the summit of Dune 45

Travellers climbing Dune 45

Travellers climbing Dune 45

It was then on to the surreal ancient tree “cemetery” of the Death Vlei.  The blackened fingers of the infeasibly old trees are picked out against the tan and red of a “lake” of sand and surrounding dunes.  Many of the trees are older than the millennium and have been dead for 300 years and yet you can still touch their crusty barks!  The following day we travelled out to the Sesriem canyon which is the product of the very occasional rainfall in the region, when huge torrents of water crash through the landscape scouring ever deeper crevices in the pebble stones, sand and volcanic rock.  In fact it has not rained in this part of Namibia (nor indeed much of the country) for the past three years and these extended draughts are part of the normal rhythm of the seasons (albeit probably recently exacerbated by climate change).

The ancient forest of Deadvlei

The ancient forest of Deadvlei

Spectacular view from Wolwedans Camp

Spectacular view from Wolwedans Camp

For all its remote beauty it is relatively easy to get about in the country and we were driven for few hours south to the Namibrand National Park which clings to the side of the desert and dune region.  Our camp at Wolwedans Dune Camp was made up of ten luxury raised tents perched on the lip of an ancient dune and looking out over a quite remarkable landscape of shimmering silver grasses, russet sands and craggy mountains.  Herds of oryx, the national animal of Namibia, were clustered around the waterhole below the camp and we were treated to the first of several outstanding meals around the communal table.

The ostrich grass in Namibrand National Park

The ostrich grass in Namibrand National Park

The safaris from this camp were as much about the views as the wildlife.  Nonetheless we learnt a lot about the desert-adapted zebras, sand squirrels and herds of water buck and antelope which range across the vast panoramic landscapes.  Here the ancient acacia “forest” is still alive and the gnarled trunks sit under green canopies which provide shade and food the oryx.  A unique part of this stay was the evening walk conducted by two Kalahari bushmen who delighted in explaining the difference between male and female oryx droppings, the footprints of various bugs and lizards skittering across the sand and the techniques used by their tribes to eke out a living in such an inhospitable terrain.

Our bushmen guides click their way to another tale about dung or bugs!

Our bushmen guides click their way to another tale about dung or bugs!

All of this was conducted in a combination of English and the local “click” language with some extravagant histrionics which the RSC would have been proud of!  Namibia, due to its limited population and industry is one of the parts of the world which experiences the least light pollution and we were treated to very special personal night sky exposition by an amateur astronomer from Belgium who happened to share our visit to the camp.  The ability to see the Magellan nebula with the naked eye and hone in on double stars and black holes while sitting out on the edge of the desert was very special, as was the chance to catch Venus, Mars and Saturn all in a line in the early morning sky, just before the sunrise streamed through the entrance of our tent.

Desert zebras in Namibrand

Desert zebras in Namibrand

Cloud patterns over the dunes on the way to Damaraland

Cloud patterns over the dunes on the way to Damaraland

We moved on from this unique and little-visited location to catch a scenic flight from Sossusvlei northwards up to Damaraland, taking in the Skeleton Coast.  We took off over the almost unreal carpet of undulating crimson sand stretching to the horizon and could look down upon the small groups of climbers picked out through their shadows on the spines of the dunes below.  It was very easy to see how the serried ranks of dunes stretched over some 150km had been created over the millennia from the westerly winds.  As we neared the coast, our South African pilot delighted in swooping low (about 500ft!) over the rusting hulks of shipwrecks and the huge colonies of seals and sealions which cluster on the beaches, and tilting the plane just enough to make the stall alarms go off!

A wreck on the Skeleton Coast

A wreck on the Skeleton Coast

The bizarre mineral colours of the landscape near Damaraland

The bizarre mineral colours of the landscape near Damaraland

As with our previous flight, every ten minutes the nature of the country below changed completely.  We moved from the dunes and crystalline breakers to witness the perenniel fog which sits over the towns of Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.  Next we were peering across canyons to the Brandberg Mountain, the highest in the country, and then onto weird yellow rivers in a soup of chemical stone and sand colours.  Ribs of volcanic rock marched across the landscape scored by winding riverbeds that looked like they had not seen water for a very long time.  Soon, much to Sandy’s relief, we were bumping to a stop on the tiny airstrip at Damaraland.

Serenaded by the staff team at Damaraland Desert Camp

Serenaded by the staff team at Damaraland Desert Camp

The welcome from the staff at our next camp was very special as we were serenaded by the whole team – a pattern which was repeated at virtually every meal and at our departure!  A highlight of the first day in the somewhat bleak environment of Damaraland was an evening nature walk which took in the various exotic trees and bushes which have evolved to survive in such a desolate environment, including the deadly species of enormous euphorbia whose latex can kill at a single squirt!.  Dinner took place around a raging campfire in the special native encampment alongside the camp ringed with stakes and accompanied by more singing.  Breakfast was served at sunrise on a table perched on a hilltop with views down over a spreading plain before setting off on a very special safari ride.

Our guide points to the deadly euphorbia - from a distance!

Our guide points to the deadly euphorbia – from a distance!

One of the desert-adapted elephants in Damaraland

One of the desert-adapted elephants in Damaraland

The object of the trip was to find the rare desert-adapted elephants which live in the area.  We found the herd on the edge of the plain dismantling the scrub-like acacia trees and using their unique forelegs, adapted to walk in the sand.  We spent well over an hour watching and following the awesome progress of the herd, which included several youngsters as they finished their lunch and moved on, in a stately procession, to a waterhole in a local tribal village.

The desperately poverty-stricken village on the edge of the Damaraland park

The desperately poverty-stricken village on the edge of the Damaraland park

We visited this village again later in the afternoon to meet some of its (few) inhabitants.  The poverty and desperation of the community was a great as many of the worst examples I have seen over the last five years in my role overseeing UK aid in Africa.  This group had been forceably moved by the South African government from their homes in the fertile northern part of that country as recently as the 1970s as part of the aggressive apartheit policy.  All the potential agricutural land in the then colony of Namibia had been parcelled out to South African landowners, leaving only this kind of arid marginal existence left.  Some forty years later the last remnants of this group were still scratching out a living from a few goats, scraggy cattle and a relationship with the safari camp.

The elephants troop in a line to the waterhole

The elephants troop in a line to the waterhole

Stone carvings at Twyfelfontein

Stone carvings at Twyfelfontein

The last part of our adventure saw us taking to the road in a bold self-drive trip in robust Ford 4×4 from Damaraland to the Erindi Nature Reserve, in the Central Highlands north of Windhoek.  Over the course of the near seven hour journey on dusty gravel roads we must have seen barely ten other vehicles.  We passed through dramatic rock piles and vast farm estates, with only a few small townships to mark our progress.  We paused en route to take in the prehistoric rock carvings at Twyfelfontein where ancient bushmen had created pictures of their prey and provided guides to the tracks of different species and the location of waterholes.

An elephant meets a crocodile outside our lodge window in Erindi

An elephant meets a crocodile outside our lodge window in Erindi

The Erindi Nature Reserve is a private reserve, once again owned by a South African, which covers some 70,000 hectares containing some 15,000 animals collected from across the country.  It did feel a bit of cheat when we looked out from our luxury lodge over a landscape filled with giraffes nibbling acacia trees, hippos wallowing in the mud and elephants at play.  This feeling was sharpened when a truck pulled up on the waterhole bank opposite the bar and dumped a dead wildebeest to entertain a pack of wild dogs, which proceeded to tear it to pieces as we ate our own (excellent) dinner!

Sharing our evening meal with that being enjoyed by a pack of wild dogs!

Sharing our evening meal with that being enjoyed by a pack of wild dogs!

A baby giraffe suckling in the Erindi Reserve

A baby giraffe suckling in the Erindi Reserve

A lioness fresh from the kill

A lioness fresh from the kill

Nonetheless, our safari trips from the camp were fun and we saw a huge range of animals including antelopes of all sizes and species, crocodiles, bat-eared foxes, countless giraffes and ostriches and even a single elusive rhino.  The highlight was definitely a male lion and two females fresh from a wildebeest kill – and this time it was for real, as proved by the scars on the lioness which had brought down the hapless klll.  The guides were very knowledgeable and the opportunities for pictures were amazing.  We had chosen to go to Namibia because we thought it would be “somewhere interesting” and it more than lived up to our expectations.

Antelope at the waterhole

Antelope at the waterhole

The male lion fresh from enjoying the meal caught by his wife!

The male lion fresh from enjoying the meal caught by his wife!

Standing by one of the giant termite hills in Erindi

Standing by one of the giant termite hills in Erindi

Deer in the headlights of the safari truck!

Deer in the headlights of the safari truck!

Traditional Namibian tribal art

Traditional Namibian tribal art

We took some 3,000 photographs between us over ten days – fortunately now edited down!  This is a country which deserves a break and which seems to be emerging from its dreadful century in relatively good shape.  The people are proud and happy that they have, to date, been able to chart a relatively stable democratic path.  The iniquities left over from the colonial phase are still evident however and it will be important to see how much of growing tourist potential ends up in the hands of the Namibians as opposed to the foreign landowners.

Giraffe in the sunset at Erindi

Giraffe in the sunset at Erindi

Autumn in Luxembourg - a gentile city in the heart of Europe

Autumn in Luxembourg – a gentile city in the heart of Europe

While in Erindi we heard the news of the Paris atrocities and the realities of a febrile international environment hit home.  Over the course of a month the context of that other desert conflict, surrounding Syria and ISIL, has been turned on its head by the downing of the Russian airliner and the attacks in France.  The pressure to “do something” is mounting and there are signs of a slightly more integrated international response with the passing of the Security Council resolution.  The truth remains though that the means to defeating Islamic State on the ground are less clear and the important factor of a non-western led ground force with a coherent end game seems a long way off.  Meanwhile sadly the kind of horrors which were handed out to the native Namibians a century ago are being experienced across Syria and have found themselves to the streets of a major European capital.

Dramatic scenes at the Clarkson, Hammond and May show at the O2

Dramatic scenes at the Clarkson, Hammond and May show at the O2

Even before the Bataclan attack I was struck in a visit to Luxembourg for the Atento Board meeting by the huge presence of police and troops around the European Parliament – this is clearly going to be a new normal.  That said, Alex attended the England vs France football game at Wembley just days after the attack and spoke movingly of the spine-tingling sense of unity and resilience as the crowd of some 90,000 sang the Marseilles!  Aside from the Atento Board, I attended my first meeting of the Cranleigh School Governing Body, where my long time colleague Adrian Lajtha was voted in as the Chairman-elect, and a fascinating briefing session with the nutrition team at the Childrens Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF).  My activities this month also included an invitation to the Justinians Dinner for senior lawyers in the City with my friend Margaret Chamberlain – where the highlight is the ceremonial passing round and eating of a giant cheese souffle!

Wintry tides rush in during a trip to Croyde

Wintry tides rush in during a trip to Croyde

Other less cerebral entertainment this month included two trips to the O2 – one to take in the Las Vegas band Imagine Dragons and another to watch Clarkson, Hammond and May in their post-Top Gear live show!  Matt has completed his final month with Accenture in Milan and travelled out to Verona and Como, as well as being invited to watch AC Milan play at the San Siro.  Meanwhile Alex has been juggling his studies in Bath with the various celebrations for his girlfriend Katie’s 21st birthday.  So a month of real highs and lows ends with a hope for calm heads to prevail as we head into the season of peace and goodwill to all men!

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