I was home from Germany but nine days, and on February 19 flew to London, arriving in Monday morning rush hour. Hopped on the Underground at Heathrow (cueing the Beatles into my ears, as I always do), changed trains twice, and was soon at the Kew Gardens station. I was bound not for botany, but the home of Carolyn and Omar Merlo, the latter my long host at Imperial Business School, and, more, a good friend. The Merlos moved into a larger house a year earlier, and invited me to stay on a short trip back then; this six-night invitation was hugely generous. I arrived in time to walk the kids, Sophie, 8, and Frederik, 6, to the Queen’s Church of England School a few blocks north and west. Leading the parade was their new golden retriever puppy Mr. Waffles, 12 weeks old. He was a magnet of attention. I met a few moms that I met before (school was still in session at the end of June 2016). Walked back, changed into jeans, and zipped out on Omar’s mountain bike, north into Richmond and the vast Richmond Park. It’s like being in the country.
Past noon I suited up and headed out. First stop was lunch at Masala Zone in Earl’s Court, a frequently-visited venue in London; it’s a chain, but the food is good and you can have a sort of sampler plate (called a thali). Zipped east on the Tube and at 2:45 met friend Jan Meurer, retired from years at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. He was curious about my classroom gigs, so I had invited him to team teach a class in the air transport program at Cranfield University, 50 miles northwest of London. It was my third visit but his first, and first in any classroom anywhere. My role over a cup of coffee at Euston Station was to calm his butterflies!
A school driver met us at Milton Keynes station and provided useful running commentary on MK, a “new town” of about 300,000 (I had been there several times, but his knowledge was great). At Cranfield, we met Prof. Pere Suau-Sanchez, a friendly Catalan. Pere provided his personal assessment of Brexit, with Jan lobbing in a few thoughts – it’s been interesting to get the non-British perspective, which is generally “why did they do that?” Jan and I agreed that the class would be a non-lecture, each of us speaking for 5 minutes, then the remaining 100 for student questions and comments. It worked superbly, his European perspective providing a nice counterpoint to my U.S. view. Students mobbed us afterwards. Taxi back to MK, fast train to London, hug at the station, and onto the Overground train home to Kew, plumb wore out.
Up Tuesday morning for a long visit with Carolyn’s mum Maureen, visiting from Melbourne, Australia (I met her in 2016). Walked with the kids and Mr. Waffles to school, ate a bowl of cereal, did a bit of work in my room, and headed out. I had not ever been on the campus of University College London (two days hence I would lecture at UCL, but on a different campus), so I spent a couple of hours wandering around. At one point I found myself in the Physics building, a place with lots of history, not least good Professor Higgs, who discovered the subatomic particle named for him. The corridor hummed, not with brainpower (although that seemed likely), but with lots of equipment inside locked laboratories. I spotted something called the Optical Tweezer Lab. Say what? Curious, I looked it up on Wikipedia: a tightly focused laser beam capable of holding microscopic particles stable in three dimensions. Little tweezers! In a main building I spotted the names of Joseph Lister and Jeremy Bentham, just two of many famous scholars at UCL. Way cool.
Because my new iPhone has lots of memory I have downloaded more apps useful for travel, including one for the London bikeshare system; and because T-Mobile provides free data in 140 countries I could hire a red bike from my phone, and did so at UCL, riding two miles south to my lunch date with David Holmes at The Wolseley, where we had eaten several times before. A repast with David, who had a long career with the U.K. Department of Transport and British Airways (where I met him in 1994), has been an annual tradition for nearly a decade, much anticipated, for he is another of my many windows on Britain. We caught up on family, Brexit, U.S. politics, and more. As always with David, I learned lots of stuff, for example, that King George III, who Americans revile and who was not much better regarded in Britain, is currently being “rehabilitated.” Maybe not so bad, the thinking goes, for his willingness to learn English (previous monarchs from the House of Hanover spoke German), support for the emerging sciences, and other positives (I wasn’t convinced, but listened attentively). David also has a fine ability to recall curious phrases from his past: he told me about a senior civil servant who, on the eve of discussions with a U.S. delegation, described Americans as “deeply alien”! All in all a fine lunch and stimulating banter.
We parted at 2:45 and I hired a bike for a two-mile ride east to my 18th visit to the London School of Economics. Traffic was absolutely nuts, which required both defensive cycling and some bold (though wholly legal) moves. At 3:30, met a new LSE host Rocco Macchiavello, then delivered a two-hour presentation on airline revenue management. Peeled off after six, onto the Tube and home to Kew. Dinner was at Tap on the Line in Kew, the only licensed pub on a London Underground platform; tucked into a pint and a yummy pork pie with mashed potatoes and buttered kale (also trendy in Britain!). The Merlos head to bed early, and I joined that routine.
Up early Wednesday morning and out the door before the kids, with Omar to Imperial for a full day of three lectures, a total of six hours to stand and deliver. A long day, needless to say, and I was happy at 6:15 PM to zip down Prince’s Gate to South Kensington, Tube to Victoria Station and a suburban train south to Clapham Junction. A few minutes before seven I was at an agreeable small Italian restaurant and hugging a longtime American Airlines colleague, Denise Lynn, and her husband Danny. Denise, a native of England, had been working a six-month temporary assignment as head of HR for Virgin Atlantic Airways (her boss, CEO Craig Kreeger, is a long mutual friend). We had a fine dinner, and got caught up after about four years. Lots to talk about. Home by ten and fast asleep.
Back to school-walk routine Thursday morning, then home to work. Suited up and out the door at 11, south to the suburban rail station at North Sheen, east to Vauxhall on the south bank, and a mile south to lunch at a longtime fave Indian restaurant, Hot Stuff. I had not been there for almost two years, but owner Raj Dawood remembered me, and we had a nice yak. He had suffered a lot of misfortune in the interim, losing his grandmother, his mom (who founded Hot Stuff in 1985), and two kids. And he was limping with gout. It’s hard to deliver sympathy to a person you don’t know well, but I did my best, offering prayers for comfort and reminding myself of my good fortune. Tucked into a spicy chicken dish and lots of naan.
Said goodbye to Raj, and as I walked away I almost tripped over Owen’s dog Biscuit. Who’s Owen? Another stranger, of course. We chatted a bit in front of Hot Stuff, and he asked me where I was headed. I told him the Tube station at Oval, a mile east, and he offered to lead me there. We had a great yak. Owen was in his mid-70s, had lived in Lambeth for more than 50 years, and thus had seen a lot of change. Two datapoints: his father bought a row house in the 1960s for £18,000; the houses lining the streets on our path were now selling for £1.2 to 1.5 million. Owen was a lifelong builder; his father emigrated from Jamaica. A nice stroll.
Hopped the Tube east and north to Canary Wharf, the high-rise office complex east of central London that looks a lot like a U.S. downtown. Up 38 floors to the new “campus” of the University College London School of Management to deliver a one-hour lecture in Omar’s core-marketing class from 3:00 to 4:00. Worked for a couple of hours, admired the stunning views of the city, took a quick nap sitting up, and repeated the lecture at 6:30. We zipped out at 7:45 and home to Kew, in time to read Sophie three chapters in a book (on my visit the previous summer I apparently made an impression as an expressive reader!).
Up Friday morning, now firmly in the family routine, off to school with Sophie, Freddie, and Mr. Waffles. On the way to school, Sophie asked if I would read more chapters that night, and I replied that we would finish the book. She smiled. Hopped onto the Tube, east to Gloucester Road. It was the first sunny day since Monday, and a good time to bike a few miles, even in coat and tie, so I hopped on a red shared bike and set off through Kensington Gardens and Green Park. Stopped briefly to say thanks at the memorial to the RAF Bomber Command, admiring Churchill’s words from September 1940: “The fighters are our salvation, but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”
I rode on up the slope to Notting Hill, arriving at a pleasant fish restaurant 20 minutes early. I sat at the bar and thumbed through a book on English watercolors, filled with splendid work. It was one of those moments when to celebrate our long cultural heritage and hope we are able to persist as a species, if only so talented artists can create more works of beauty.
At 12:30, met young friend and mentee Scott Sage (frequently in these pages) and Sir Geoffrey Owen, my original host at the LSE. I had wanted to get those two together for awhile, and was glad I got to be there. Sir Geoffrey knows a ton about the U.K. economy and in 2015 published a book on the high-tech sector, a focus of Scott’s investment expertise. We talked along those lines, as well as politics here and in the U.S., and a sobering few minutes on how people displaced by technological advance will find new work. A totally stimulating conversation, one we could have continued, but Scott had an appointment and I had a third class at UCL, so we parted.
Zipped across London by Tube and delivered another quick talk; the two classes the previous day were mostly comprised of East Asian students, but this class was virtually 100% Chinese. A little way into the talk, I noticed in the second row a plump fellow texting. I called it out, and he looked mad; by his attitude he appeared to be one of the highly privileged. Toward the end of the talk, he was back texting again. After questions and applause, as students departed, I confronted him for his rudeness. I generally let those things slide, but simply could not. I pointed out that I was there as a volunteer. His apology was insincere. Grrrrrrr.
Omar had some additional work, so I peeled off. The Jubilee (Tube) Line was closed, so I took a rather circuitous route home (Omar opted for Uber). Omar made a wonderful pasta dinner for the family, and we had a splendid time before and during the meal. It is so nice to stay with a family. After dinner, as promised, I read Sophie the remainder of her book, and kissed her goodnight. She would be at Olivia’s house for a pajama party the next night, so I told her I’d see her again later in the year. Everyone was headed to sleep, and I joined the procession, because Saturday would start early.
Early, as in 5:40. Out the door, onto the Tube toward Paddington Station. Along the way, some delays, and had I not been able to use my iPhone to access the Internet, I would have missed the 7:21 train to Oxford (thanks T-Mobile, again!). Happily, I made it with five minutes to spare. Arrived Oxford about 8:15, well before the 9:30 start to “Oxford Inspires,” a conference on entrepreneurship at the Saïd Business School where I was due to speak. So I headed for a short ramble about town, my first visit since 1977. Made it to Christ Church College, which is where David Holmes studied. Grabbed a coffee and a sweet pastry and ambled back to the B-school.
People began to arrive, and I struck up a nice conversation with Giles, a young high-tech fellow from the West Midlands (one little piece: his father worked for the British Railways prior to and during privatization, and as a kid Giles had the rail equivalent of the free airline travel that our kids enjoyed). We covered a lot of ground in a short while, and soon were joined by V.R. Raghavan, a retired lieutenant-general in the Indian Army. His daughter Nina was attending the conference and he “tagged along.” Great conversation, including some wonderful glimpses of modern management in a major armed force. Soon Dagmar, an Oxford Ph.D. in computer science joined. Whew, a great start. I attended a morning session on social-impact investing, listening to presentations from a woman whose company finds work for women after they leave prison; a wheelchair user who started an Airbnb-like service for mobility-compromised travelers; and a Somali who built an economical way for migrant workers to remit funds home.
Yakked with several youngsters during lunch, and from 2:00 to 4:00 was part of a session on marketing and products, though my talk focused on managing in turbulent times. Unhappily, during the panel discussion the moderator kept asking his questions rather than welcoming audience queries, but it still worked. Last session was a keynote from Matt Clifford, of Entrepreneur First, a company that supports engineers and computer scientists to build tech companies from scratch. Matt graduated from Cambridge in medieval history (proving my point that specialized knowledge can be overrated), and delivered a brilliant talk called “The Disruption of Ambition.” He told about “technologies of ambition,” from literacy to military education, to management education. Matt said “Power used to lie in the hands of people writing cheques; now it’s in the hands of writing code.” Whew. The day ended with refreshments, and lots of youngsters sought me ought for varied advice, mostly on studies and career. Hopped the train home with a “laptop” dinner of sandwiches and salad. The Merlo house was already quiet at 8:45.
Up at seven Sunday morning, cup of coffee, hugs to Carolyn and Omar, and out the door toward Heathrow. Standing on the above-ground Tube platform at Kew I gave thanks for friends like them. It was pure joy to stay with a family for six days, to get in their rhythms and learn from them. Flew to Kennedy, then on to Washington, and was home by 5:15.