On Saturday, March 6th, I drove to DFW and rolled my suitcase onto American flight 50 for the first trip to Europe in the New Year. I was excited to be going. Given the uncertainty of my work situation, I did not organize much teaching in the first months of 2010, but in January when it was evident that I had some time, I scrambled and set up a trip to three of my favorite U.K. schools, with a bonus visit to see old friends in the West Midlands.
About 30 minutes after takeoff I was enjoying a London Pride beer when I realized I had forgotten, for the second time in less than six months, my laptop power supply (though, slap my forehead, I did have the UK wall-socket adapter). Clearly, I was out of practice when it came to travel! Happily, 1) my new little netbook has a six-hour battery, and 2) the trip was only six days – I’d have to meter my usage, an hour a day.
I had a good sleep on the flight, and landed to clear blue skies on Sunday morning. Hopped the train into Paddington Station, then set out on foot, south to Hyde Park, then east along its northern edge. Just across Park Lane I stopped to admire a new memorial, dedicated to Animals in War. It was touching. I paused to take some pictures of the bronze pack horses and a devoted Labrador retriever, then headed east into Mayfair to the U.S. Embassy.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the bronze statue of General Eisenhower in front of the building, I was dismayed by the recent addition of even more barriers.
As I have written after seeing other new U.S. legations, I question the message we are sending when we ask foreign governments to put up barricades: do they symbolize a strong and open society that fears not? Sadly, they make us look like cowards.
I took the Tube several stops east to St. Paul’s Cathedral. When I surfaced from the train, I heard what I often describe as the sound of Europe: pealing church bells. In this case, coming from Wren’s marvelous huge church, it was a big sound, and it made my smile. I took a seat directly beneath the huge dome, and soon began “Mattins,” a service largely sung by the choir, a mix of men and young boys, with organ. It was celestial. As I have written before, it is a marvel to hear voice and organ notes bound upward and bounce around in the high ceiling – on their way to God.
Even better was the homily on sin and ethics by the Rev. Canon Giles Fraser, Chancellor of St. Paul’s. His recitation of the seven virtues, prudence, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope, and love, were a nice reminder that nothing about faith directives – whether from Christianity or any other – are difficult to understand. Departing through the south door, Rev. Fraser greeted each person, nicely shrinking the vast institution to the scale of a parish church.
I hopped back on the Tube to Liverpool Street Station, then north on the train nearly to Stansted Airport, alighting at Bishop’s Stortford and meeting my long friend David Holmes for a lunch that has become an annual March event. We were jabbering away in no time, stopping the chatter only to listen to the GPS guidance from the female I dubbed “Helga,” voice of his Blaupunkt navigation device. After Helga attempted to incorrectly steer us onto the motorway, we switched her off and I exercised my developed cartographic skill to vector us to The Cricketers, a splendid country pub six miles north, in the village of Clavering. Foodies may know that the owners’ son is the UK celeb-chef Jamie Oliver. Stardom doesn’t interest me, but solid English Sunday lunch does, and it was a beauty.
David had turned 75 the day before, and I wished him a belated Happy Birthday. We two Transport Geeks (David spent most of his career at the Ministry of Transport, and then last decade of his working life with British Airways) caught up on various matters, moving and stationary, before returning to the railway. It was a lot of fun.
I rode 25 minutes north to Cambridge, for my eighth visit. I was excited. I always describe it as my favorite place to teach, less because of the stature of the school than my quarters, at Sidney Sussex College. I feel quite at home there. I again timed my arrival to attend Evensong in the chapel.
After chapel we repaired to the Master’s Lodge for sherry. I met the new master, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an archaeologist and really pleasant fellow. We then processed into the dining hall, to High Table.
My tablemates were Maria and Paul Flynn, she a medical historian from Cyprus, and he a physician and expert on cholesterol metabolism (with a smile, Paul offered a running commentary on the content of the splendid dinner offerings, which did tend a bit toward saturated fat, but so yummy!).
After dinner, as is custom, we enjoyed Port and cheese in the Knox-Shaw Room. I spend a delightful 90 minutes with Finton, a young electrical engineer from County Mayo, Ireland. We covered a lot of conversational ground, many stories. Here’s just one: he had six siblings, all of whom finished university, thanks to parents, schoolteachers by day who bought a pub and ran it for seven years to put the kids through college.
I headed across town Monday morning to the Judge Business School, to a table in the second-floor common room. I gave a lecture at mid-day, and at lunch began the first of many career planning one-on-ones with MBA students, with Micheline Ntiru from Uganda. She had a lot of experience with nonprofits, corporate social responsibility, and Third World development issues (not to mention facility in eight languages), and wanted to know how to package it up to find a job in marketing. I talked to two or three others that afternoon, and delivered another lecture at five – turnout was large, and I felt honored, because it was the last day of class before exams and papers, and students could have easily opted to get ready.
Walked back to college, changed into khakis and a sweater, and ambled back out. By tradition, every visit to Cambridge requires a stop at The Eagle on Bene’t Street. By seven I was at a corner table (ideal for observing all manner of tipplers), enjoying a pint, and reading The New York Times on my iPhone. The letters to the editor that day carried an apt quotation: the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind.” Indeed. Thirst quenched, I walked a block to DoJo, an inexpensive Asian-fusion café for two shrimp satays and a spicy plate of red curry. Asian cooks usually tone down the spice for the English, but this place amped it properly. Unlike many recent trips, I slept hard the second night (and the first).
I opted for the full English heart-attack breakfast Tuesday morning, and as I finished I met Veronica and David Campbell, fellow college visitors, both musicians – voice and clarinet respectively. We had a marvelous chat – one of the great joys of being at Sidney Sussex is that though our backgrounds and fields are all very different, we find joy in describing what we do and in seeking commonality. We had an especially nice exchange about career choice, they relating their son’s considerable success as a musician (he’s currently borrowing a Stradivarius, which should give you some idea of his skill).
Walking to the B-school, I was again reminded of the variety and stimulus of university when I spotted a poster for a lecture at the school, entitled “The Price of Extinction: What Losing Biodiversity Costs.”Too bad I would not be in town for that.
I took my place in the common room, and met several more students that day. In between, I had lunch with one of the school’s newest faculty, lecturer Jochen Menges, a young German I met at the University of St. Gallen a year earlier. I was delighted that he landed a great job, and was really happy to be at Cambridge. At the end of the day, I delivered a third lecture, then my host Omar and I repaired to our favorite Loch Fyne seafood restaurant for a lively a finny dinner with five students: two Yanks, one from Hong Kong, Micheline from Uganda, and Martin, who grew up a few miles from old friends of mine in Gloucestershire.
Was up early Wednesday morning, reading a bit, then a quick bite and ride to the Cambridge railway station. Bought a pricey (equivalent of 80 bucks) ticket for a 140-mile ride west, and hopped on the 9:00 departure to Birmingham. Sometimes my journal makes more sense if I just list what I see; so here are seven things I saw from the window on the train ride:
Ely Cathedral, huge and gray
An elderly man in green Wellies walking his Labrador along a canal
Waterbirds diving for food in a flooded field
Brickworks at Kings Dyke, east of Peterborough
Sign warning railway cable thieves that trackside security has been stepped up
A new lamb running toward its mother (new life always makes me smile)
At Leicester, on a sign for Nelson Mandela park: “freedom is irreversible”
My listmaking ended when I started chatting with the stranger who boarded at Leicester, a young fellow about to graduate from Aston University in Birmingham, happy because he had just bought a house (his how-to book on gardening was my conversation opener), and had landed a job with AgustaWestland, the Italian helicopter maker. It was a good T-t-S session.
We got off at New Street Station, Birmingham. I had a couple hours between trains, and needed to change stations. I ambled out of the depot, heading north. I had not been in this pleasant mid-size city for almost 20 years, and had no recollection, so I followed the signs.I needed to work my e-mail, and popped into a Starbucks. Happily, my rewards card offer of free Wi-Fi also applied in the UK, and in no time I was on line (but not before a kind young barista who I asked about internet connectivity came over and asked if I was connected – I thanked him and shook his hand, great service). To save power, I worked quickly, and was done in time to amble a block to the Old Joint Stock, an 1864 heritage building that was originally a library, then a bank, and now a pub owned by Fuller, Smith & Turner, my favorite UK brewers. I suspended my normal no-drinking-‘til-five rule for a half-pint of Honeydew, a tasty (and I’m sure healthful) organic lager. The pub was a veritable palace of entertainment: bar skittles (a miniature bowling game) and another game were available for a small deposit, there was a theatre on the second floor, and there was a vast range of beer. I wished I had more time! From another corner perch, I surveyed the mid-day scene; no one seemed to have my rule against noontime tippling. My attention turned to the large elderly fellow at the bar, with his pint of Porter and a bowl of nuts – I was about to start chatting, but my watch said I had 20 minutes until my connecting train would depart. I reluctantly wheeled down Colmore Row, bought a sandwich and crisps at Sainsbury’s, and headed to platform 1 at Snow Hill Station.
Across on platform 2, I got my T-t-S, with a guard from the Chiltern Railways. Indeed, I almost missed my train yakking with him about his family’s upcoming trip to California, two weeks in an RV. I thought maybe that’s why UK rail fares are so high, but it was a nice moment. I ate my sandwich rolling south 25 miles, to Worcester, and at 2:40 met my longtime friend John Crabtree, last described in these pages in third quarter 2007.
The remainder of the day was pure travel serendip: I usually e-mail John a couple of months before each trip to England, and in January he replied that March 10 was a perfect date for a visit to the Midlands, for that evening was the gala 20th anniversary performance of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, and would I like to attend? Could the answer be no?
On the five miles to his home in the village of Crowle, John outlined the evening activities. He is a huge civic leader, and sits on the board of the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre, the venue for the ballet gala. Prince Charles would be there, and he and wife Diana would need to help look after him, so I would be in the company of The Rev. David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham. It all sounded great. We yakked for a couple of hours in their kitchen. Diana returned with the kids, James (10), Robert (9), and Jessica (5).
At 5:30, we motored into town, a fast ride with almost no traffic. We checked in, and headed to a reception room where I met the bishop. John was right. We clicked instantly. Early on, I asked about his career (John had given me a rough outline in the car). On finishing business school, he joined BP, sure of a corporate career, “then at age 30, God called me.” He studied divinity at Oxford and was ordained. Before Birmingham, he was vicar of a large church in nearby Coventry, and was Bishop of Birkenhead.
The Coventry reference triggered a nice memory. I told him that the cover of our 12th grade English literature anthology featured a photo of the new Coventry cathedral, built on the site of the old church mostly destroyed by Germans in 1940. A smaller photo showed a cross made of nails from the old church. The images remained with me, and eight years after seeing the book I visited Coventry, and saw the church and the cross of nails. Rev. Urquhart smiled, turned toward me, and said, the cross on my chest was also made from those old nails. I closed the loop when I told him that I was still well connected to my 1968-69 English teacher, Mr. Jensen, described in these pages. David and I jabbered across a range of other topics; he was an especially good teacher of Anglican history, and more broadly the sweep of Protestantism (I confessed early on that I was Lutheran, and we agreed that Martin had cred!).
Before the show, during the intermission, and afterward we met a number of people. The bishop graciously introduced me to every person who said hello. I chatted with a bunch of prominent Brummies (as people from that city are nicknamed). Although I did not meet Prince Charles, I did meet his cousin, Lady Sarah Chatto, daughter of the late Princess Margaret. All were friendly and welcoming.
As great as the people were, the performance was extraordinary. It began with us rising for the Prince’s entrance, and the singing of “God Save the Queen” (to my great delight, as proponent of national pride, almost everyone sang). The program featured 20 dances chosen from shows the ballet presented during its 20 years – classic Pas de Deux, modern stuff, group numbers. In between performances were video clips tracing the company’s history since the London troupe called Sadler’s Wells moved to Birmingham in 1990.
David said goodbye, passed me back to Diana and John, and we motored home, yakking about the sensational evening. It was a short night. Up at 5:45, bowl of cereal, John drove me back to the station, and I caught the 7:35 fast train to London. It was so grand to see them. John is the very best example of a civic doer; the sort of chap who never says no to genuine need. He’s a really fine person.
I arrived Paddington right on time, hopped the Tube to Baker Street, and walked a few blocks to the London Business School. Had a bit more breakfast and a cup of coffee, and delivered a “Lunch and Learn” talk to about 50 members of the Marketing Club. A bright group for sure (the Financial Times recently ranked the school’s MBA program #1 worldwide). Lots of good questions. At one I met my friend Prof. Rajesh Chandy for lunch, a good yak, then peeled off to my hotel in Kensington.
From 5:00 to 6:30 I listened to a presentation of an American Airlines case by students in Professor Geoffrey Owen’s strategy class at the London School of Economics. We debriefed the presentation with a colleague and a beer, then Geoffrey and I headed across town to dinner with his wife Miriam, a nice repast at Café Anglais, a comfortable restaurant in Bayswater, their neighborhood. Head hit pillow at 11, up at 6, out to Heathrow and a flight home. A wonderful six days.