The Bowden Trophy

Laughing girl

Laughing girl (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Life is serious and taking it too seriously robs you of happiness, fun and productivity. A solemn outlook increases stress, squanders creativity and innovation, and stifles progress.  

Making a fool of yourself is often considered a brave or stupid thing to do. To expect the company to do it in unison every year sounds like madness and yet that is what happened every year at BP while I was there. The event, known as the Bowden Trophy took place in the restaurant of BP House. Teams of 10 people competed in a variety of challenges to find the true champions in the company.

Some took it very seriously. Most approached it with trepidation and a sense of humour. From memory, there were about a dozen or so events and a bar was on hand to offer liquid courage to those who needed it.

All of the events involved simple team tasks. There was an element of suggestiveness to most of them. The early rounds were uneventful, but as the evening wore on and the teams became less and less sober, co-ordination started to disappear making the tasks very difficult indeed.

Transferring a polo mint from mouth to mouth using matchsticks and balloons from knees to knees became almost impossible. Transferring a key on a piece of string inside everyone’s clothes becomes slightly easier because when the drink flows, inhibitions disappear. Winning was more about stamina than any level of skill. Most teams retired early to the bar.

People from all over the company took part. Senior management through to the most junior staff. Every department was represented, even the most reserved such as legal and personnel (as they were known before they became human resources).

For one evening of the year, everyone forgot about the hierarchy. We left all the stresses and strains of keeping the wheels of industry turning back in the office and just had fun together. New friendships were made. New contacts were found. Compromising photos were taken.

I have no idea whether the event continues to this day. I suspect it died out as a casualty of political correctness. But it was fun while it lasted. During the whole time it ran, no-one was seriously hurt (physically or psychologically). Discipline in the office didn’t break down. Oil was still drilled, refined and sold all over the world and the company still made money.

What has Hemel Hempstead ever done for us?

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

Paris has the Eiffel Tower. We have Kodak House.

In order to get into Mensa, you need to undergo an intelligence test. If you want to get into Hemel Hempstead you have to negotiate a fiendish traffic management system called the magic roundabout. Somehow, just under 90,000 souls have passed the test and reside in the town.

It is a town of few accolades. Henry VIII granted the town a royal charter, presumably because he conducted his romantic liaisons in the town. It’s not the only time a reigning monarch has found the time to visit. Queen Elizabeth the Second came to Hemel Hempstead to open the appropriately named Queen’s Square shortly after her coronation. Louis Mountbatten went to school here.  Somehow, I think our days of royal interest have long gone.

Now Hemel Hempstead can add another accolade thanks to a recent survey. People voted the town the ugliest in the UK. Beating off stiff opposition from Luton and Slough amongst others, Hemel Hempstead came first with the grand total of 785 votes. Leaving aside the fact that only 3,000 people voted in the survey which is probably less than the number of left handed people with red hair who speak Norwegian, does Hemel Hempstead deserve the title?

Geneva has the lake and the jet d'eau - we have the water gardens

Geneva has the lake and the jet d’eau – we have the water gardens

It does suffer from “New Town Syndrome”.  Among many others, Hemel Hempstead grew very rapidly in the post war years to cope with a population displaced by the blitz. After a flurry of investment and concrete in the early days, it received precious little investment afterwards. This means there are a number of tired 1950s concrete structures which probably looked modern in their day but they are far from easy on the modern eye.

There are some very nice places in the town. We are blessed with a wide range of wide open green spaces in the form of Boxmoor and Gadebridge park. The Grand Union links Hemel Hempstead to Berkhamsted and Kings Langley. Hemel Hempstead has enviable transport links. A train line gets you into London in half an hour or so and the M1 and M25 are near at hand.

But ultimately, it’s an unremarkable town. The crime figures are low. So low in fact, that the Police are looking to close the Police Station in the town. How you can have a town of 90,000 people with no Police Station is beyond me. Mind you, there are plenty of babies around, but that didn’t stop them closing the maternity ward.

The vast majority of housing in the town is ex local authority and much of the housing stock is showing its age. But the thing that probably swung the award for us was the high street. A desolate wasteland of closed down shops, pawnbrokers reborn as chain stores, charity shops and mobile phone shops.

But to us, it’s home and ugly or not, we like it.

Move along now. Nothing to see here.

Censorship

Censorship (Photo credit: IsaacMao)

I love the freedom of the Internet. The idea that any kind of knowledge, any kind of product or service is just a click away still astounds me.

Children born today will find it very difficult to believe that it was ever any different. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys this freedom. There are those poor souls who have no access to the internet because of lack of means or infrastructure. Then there are those who only have access to a limited subset. They can see what their government wants them to see.

For some reason, I find that really sinister. I abhor the idea of someone in power deciding what I can or cannot see.

Living in the UK, we are lucky to have a press that is the envy of the world. Up until recently, I believed that they operated with no interference. They print what they want, even if it holds the state to account for their behaviour. I can’t imagine the press reports about MP’s expenses would be allowed in China or Burma for example. This was the press at their best.

Not so long ago, the press blotted their copy books by illegally hacking phones to source interesting news copy. This was not their finest hour. In response, the government is introducing a new watchdog backed by legislation to control the worst excesses of the press.

I don’t like it.

David Cameron recently unveiled an agreement with all the main internet service providers in the UK to introduce a “porn filter”. Unless subscribers opt out of the scheme, their internet access will be filtered to exclude adult content. According to the Open Rights Group, as well as sexual content, this will include violence, extremist related content,  eating disorder web sites, suicide related web sites, alcohol and smoking related content and esoteric material (whatever that may be). Who’s going to decide what’s OK and what isn’t?

I really don’t like it.

Anyone who wants to view any kind of adult material will have to opt in. This means that they will be on a list of people who have actively chosen to view such content. I really hope we are not sleepwalking into a world where such a choice has negative consequences for the individual concerned.

The thing I find really sinister is that the infrastructure to block content will exist. Will successive governments resist the temptation to filter anything inconvenient? Can we even believe that we have free access today?

Camber Sands

English: Camber Sands

English: Camber Sands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I think I’ve found it!” she cried exultantly. When my wife looks for kind of trip or holiday, it becomes an all consuming quest. She sits with the laptop for hours searching for exactly the right deal.

The object of this particular quest was a long weekend break in order to get away from it all after sustaining a nasty injury at work.

“Great! Where are we going?”

Camber Sands.”

My heart sank. I’d been to Camber Sands a few times. The first was on a family holiday. Just before the halfway point in the holiday, myself and my brother nagged mum and dad so much, they allowed us to go home early on the train.

Subsequent visits were for a games convention. The South coast of England in January is not a very hospitable place, particularly if your accommodation is made of a material flimsier than cardboard. One year, I slept in my car. At least it had a heater that worked.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the upcoming trip. Julie’s disabled mother came with us so we put in a special request to be on the ground floor close to the main centre. When we arrived, our chalet allocation was on the other side of the park and on the first floor.

We complained and were given a different chalet, still on the other side of the park, but at least it was on the ground floor. We opened the door, to be hit by a waft of stench and a sea of filth. Back we went and swapped again. The third chalet had an ant infestation.

We agreed that I should go back to the centre this time. Julie had a murderous look in her eye, so if she went, our new accommodation would probably be at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Part of me thought the comfort level might improve.

After explaining the problem, the lady behind the counter told me with a smile on her face that I was in the wrong place. I needed to report the problem to the estates hut on the other side of the camp. Off I trudged and joined the long queue outside the aforementioned hut.

As we got closer to the front of the queue, I leaned over to see what was happening. There was a man behind the desk with an enormous ledger. There was a big list of chalet numbers and against every single one appeared the word “ants”. I looked behind me. About 50 people were in the queue

Eventually, someone turned up with a canister of ant powder. We had to laugh. There was probably one grain of ant powder for every ant in the chalet!

We still had a good time, but I am never, ever going there again!

 

Ever been scared out of your wits? Yes and no…

English: Pizza slicer or cutter

English: Pizza slicer or cutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have you ever known sheer terror? That heart-stopping feeling where you know there is a high likelihood of shuffling off this mortal coil? I know of one time when I felt that fear and another when I should have, but didn’t. In general, I am a stranger to fear. Sure, I get nervous before I give a big presentation or just before I do something which is important to me, but that’s not true fear. That’s its close cousin, known in this country as the collywobble or the heebie-jeebies.

In hindsight, the time when I should have felt fear was on an aeroplane. Myself and a colleague were on the way back from a regular trip to India. We left it too late to book a direct flight, so the plane was on final approach into Dubai. Everything seemed normal. The seatbelt signs were on and we descended nicely towards the airport. The flight was only half full and everyone had plenty of room.

All of a sudden, the plane violently climbed and veered left.

From the galley, we could hear the sound of something crashing to the floor. An overhead locker burst open and a bag flew out. I looked at the aircrew strapped into the jump seat in front of us. One of them looked very nervous indeed. The other was in frantic conversation on the phone to someone (maybe the cockpit). She put the phone down, signalled to her colleague and they both made their way to the galley.

The plane shook violently now and descended again. A man released himself from his seat, clutched his chest and screamed for help in a language I didn’t understand. The stewardess told him to get back to his seat. He promptly collapsed in the aisle and they dragged him into the galley. I should have been scared out of my wits, but wasn’t. I felt cool as a cucumber and turned to my colleague and made a joke about whether this was it. Were we about to meet our respective makers.

It was almost as if I knew that this wasn’t the time.

The time I came face to face with fear and looked him right in the eye, was on another trip. Maybe I should stop flying. Myself and a colleague were in an airport waiting for the flight home. We ordered a pizza whilst we waited for the plane. At some point whilst eating this pizza, a tiny piece of crust broke off and lodged itself in my airway. I couldn’t breathe. At first I thought it was temporary, but after a minute or so of not being able to catch a breath, I started to think I might die.

My colleague stood up and looked around the place. He had purpose in his eyes, like he knew exactly what to do. Just at the moment he leapt into action, my airway cleared. I could breathe once more. We both relaxed as I slowly caught my breath. Once I felt almost normal, I asked my colleague in a croak what he planned to do in that instant before I stopped choking.

He told me he was looking around for a sharp knife with which to slit my throat open so I could breathe. It was then I felt true terror.

On a scale of 1 to 10…

Risk

Risk (Photo credit: avyfain)

If you ever want investment advice – especially if you reside in the UK, an advisor will ask you to fill in a survey all about risk. I understand why these surveys exist, after all, the advisor needs to make sure you understand the concept of risk versus reward and pitch investment advice to you that is appropriate to how you feel.

By necessity, the survey is relatively simple consisting of statements like “Compared to the average person, I would say I take more risks” and you then tick a box to show how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement.

But who’s the average person and what do you consider a risk? I wouldn’t try anything like skydiving and I’m not too keen on the idea of deep-sea diving, but I do recognise that any kind of reward comes with risk. There’s even a risk of doing nothing because depending on your situation, the lack of action could leave you considerably worse off. If you’re standing in a burning building, you probably take a different view on the risk of jumping out the window.

I find such forms very difficult to fill in because my answers to the questions can vary wildly depending on which aspect of my life you are talking about. I have a very different attitude to the risk I take when I buy a £2 lottery ticket compared with one of those £50 tickets at the airport to win a car. It depends on so many factors; the amount of outlay, the potential reward and the likelihood of winning (or as is more often the case – losing).

When it comes to investment, it’s even more complicated. My attitude to risk changes with timescale, so I have a different attitude about the investment that’s supposed to pay off my mortgage compared to my retirement fund. The age at which you can retire in this country is galloping over the horizon so I’m fairly relaxed about taking some risk because a lot can happen between now and then.

It also depends on where in the world you are talking about. We have people in the western world doing essentially the same job as their counterparts a few thousand miles to the East, but we earn orders of magnitude more money. There is a considerable rebalancing that’s going to play out over the coming years which will affect the likelihood of growth in each area. Asser class makes a difference too. We have a saying “safe as houses.” I imagine many people across Europe and America take a very different view about the relative risks of investing in housing since the sub prime market imploded five or six years ago.

And it interest rates start going up or America decides that what the world really needs is another war – it will all change again. Maybe I’ll fill out 10 different forms.

Responsibility

English: A girl caresses a snail after having ...

English: A girl caresses a snail after having worked in the garden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what the opposite of green fingered is – grey fingered? Whatever it is, that’s what I am. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the flora on our planet, after all, if it wasn’t around, we would soon run out of oxygen. It’s just that I don’t want the responsibility of looking after it.

It’s no great surprise that both our front garden and back garden are tiled over. No mowing the lawn for us. Although, there are still weeds that find their way through the cracks in the stones as if to mock us.

We have a neighbour, however, who adores her garden. Her front garden is set out in a Japanese style with a path that winds its way through to the front door. In her back garden, she likes to grow vegetables. She told me a gardening story today which tickled me and I just had to share it.

There is a 4-year-old boy who lives in the neighbourhood. He often appears when our neighbour is knee-deep in gardening, keen to help. Today was no exception. Our neighbour tended her garden and the boy kept watch. After a short delay, he spotted a snail crawling across her path and asked if he could take it. Our neighbour considered the request carefully. After all, in the past she saw him stamping on snails and throwing them into his pond.

“I’ll make you a deal. You can have the snail as long as you promise not to hurt it. No stamping on it and no drowning the poor thing.”

The boy’s face contorted as he weighed up the deal in front of him. On the one hand was the prize, a nice juicy, fat snail. On the other were the heady responsibilities it came with. After a short delay, he made up his mind and nodded vociferously. Our neighbour, duty bound by the agreement handed over the snail.

After a short delay, to her considerable dismay, she saw the boy cast the snail into his pond.

“I thought you promised not to drown the snail?” her challenge.

“What does drown mean?” his response.

The leadership lesson of the day is when you make any kind of agreement, make sure you understand what you are getting into. It’s also worthwhile making sure the other party understands their obligations too. Could save a lot of upset down the track.

No heart attack problem!

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tun...

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tunnel has been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were all exhausted. The man next door to me held my arm as he sat down. Then he lay down. In some fairly uncomfortable looking undergrowth. His breathing was slow, laboured.

All of a sudden, I heard screaming from behind me. I moved back out of the way as two women from our party rushed over and ripped the man’s shirt open. They started cardiac massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. They seemed to know what they were doing.

We were in Vietnam visiting the Cu-Chi tunnels. A couple of years before we were born, a battle raged here between the United States and the Viet Cong guerilla army. The Viet Cong lived and fought from the tunnels. They covered a massive area. I don’t remember how many Viet Cong the tour guide told us, but I remember thinking that something like the population of my home town lived down there in the darkness.

The Americans tried many different ways of destroying the tunnels. They tried dropping bombs. They assaulted the tunnels on foot. They tried gas and boiling water. They even trained some small guys (called tunnel rats) to infiltrate the tunnels armed with little more than a pistol, a knife, some string and a torch. I can’t imagine the horrors they experienced. Despite all the efforts of the good old US of A, the tunnels persisted and were a major factor of the outcome of the conflict.

The Viet Cong were tiny and their tunnels commensurately so. They were far too small for us tourists. A small section of tunnel specially widened was available for us to crawl through. I was keen to experience what it was like down there. Julie was less convinced, especially when the tour guide said over and over in his Vietnamese accent “No-one with heart attack problem down tunnel”.

“You’re not going down there are you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Oh my God – that means I have to go with you!”

I don’t have a “heart attack problem” but I do take tablets for blood pressure. I looked at some of the people getting ready to descend into the tunnel. If they can do it – I can do it. We climbed down a ladder into a small chamber before climbing down further into the tunnel. For some reason, I assumed the tunnel would be cool. It wasn’t. It was claustrophobic and hot. It was also dark. We had to crawl along in single file. I quickly realised that with a man in front of me and Julie behind, there was no quick way out. It was also very hard work.

The man in the bushes was not doing well. One of the women attending to him kept screaming for a doctor. The other kept screaming for oxygen. The tour guide apologetically said “This is third world country – no oxygen”. A Vietnamese man with a stethoscope appeared briefly but I suspect I knew more about medicine than he did.

Unfortunately, that was the last holiday for that man – he didn’t make it. I’m sure if he was at a tourist attraction somewhere in the Western world, he might have fared better.

Europe – are we united or divided and do we care?

European Union

European Union (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The history of Europe over the centuries looks like a battlefield both literally and figuratively. Every so often, the powerful countries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany would fall out over something or other and go to war. World War 2 was the last such conflict and it has now been nearly 70 years since that war came to an end.

We have enjoyed nigh on 7 decades of relative peace, thanks in no small part to the European Union. The UK wasn’t interested to start with and applied to join a few years after the start only to be vetoed by the French. We persisted and joined the community in 1973.

Our relationship with Europe has been tumultuous ever since and there is a growing groundswell of opinion among the general public that we would be better off outside the European Union. Indeed, the UK Independence Party, started some 20 years ago with an exit from the community as their central policy. For many years, they gained little or no traction but recently, their share of the vote grew dramatically. So much so that the Conservative party promised a referendum on membership of the European Union should they win the next general election.

Because we live in a democracy, we are bound to follow the wishes of the majority. If they want us out, then out we must go. Sky News recently carried out the first in-depth survey to show what people’s voting intentions would be, why they would vote that way and what would make them change their mind (if anything). The results show a country broadly split down the middle with 51% in favour of leaving and 49% wanting to stay. The number one issue cited in the survey is immigration.

I hope that when it comes to the referendum proper, people vote with a clear understanding of what’s at stake either way. This mustn’t be a protest vote. It mustn’t be an emotional knee-jerk reaction or based on reminiscing about the fact that we once stood alone and we can do it again – us against the world. The issue is far too important. By all means, vote for what you want – but make sure you have a reasonable understanding about what you will gain and what you will lose.

As for me, I remain broadly in favour of the UK staying in the European Union. I understand there are drawbacks but I think we gain more than we lose. I think if we leave, much of the foreign companies we’ve attracted to invest over the years may well reconsider. I believe trade will gradually become more difficult and we will lose a lot of influence. According to the Independent newspaper, we gain from immigrants into the UK and if we stopped them coming, it would cost us £18Bn over the next 5 years. I like the way that people can move freely around Europe.

David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative party has pledged to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU so the club might have different rules when we get to the ballot box. If he can swing our membership such that it becomes more economic and less political then it should give a boost to the stay vote. It worries me that a large percentage of the respondents to the Sky News poll would not change their voting intentions no matter what.

What about you – shall we stay or shall we go? Why? Do you care?