Blog Archive

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ryanair Gum on Bum, Spanish Cuisine, The end of Democracy as we know it, City Hall, home of The London Assembly, Just an average day in the office, The Euro Lunatic Fringe.

For a recent business trip to Madrid, we elected to fly with Ryanair rather than British Airways, our airline of choice (BA not Ryanair), for the simple reason that with the three of us travelling, the BA tickets would have cost at least £500 more which we did not feel was a justifiable extra cost to the business.  I vowed not to fly Ryanair some ten years ago after a series of terrible customer service experiences.  As you can imagine, my expectations were at rock bottom but I did have a glimmer of hope given Michael O’Leary’s recent instruction to staff to improve their customer service:  “We should try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off”.  Well, we set-off mid day from Tring and an hour later I drove my car into the arrivals lane outside the front door at the airport and handed the keys to the valet parking agent.  We had paid an extra £10 (£3.33 each) to go fast track.  We were pretty much the only ones there outside the airport, a very quiet, stress free kind of arrival.  As we stepped into Stansted airport, that stunning award winning building by Foster & Partners.  I realised that we had left the calm outside and that the inside had been converted into a low-cost queue-fest designed for the maximum convenience of the airline (I say airline in the singular as the only planes we saw parked and taking off or landing were all Ryanair) and the maximum inconvenience for the passengers, particularly those unfamiliar with the rules (you get fined if you don’t print off your boarding cards at least two hours prior to the flight for example). So rather than stop at Burger King landside, we decided to head straight through Fast Track security (the £3.33 avoided another long queue) and into Airside where surely the environment would be more conducive to pre-flight relaxation away from the check-in queues.  BIG MISTAKE.  I think Fast Track must have somehow routed us through to Hades.  The place was stuffed with far more people than could possible fit into 25 737s, there was nowhere to sit, it was tiny, and large areas appeared to be shut for renovation (it needed it so not complaining if this was the case) or just to cut costs.  A far cry from the architect designed waiting areas and duty free shops I recall in the early days of this airport.  There was no Burger King (my fault) so we managed to find a table at Wetherspoons as the only other place was even fuller.  Ordering food was hard as I had forgotten my latex gloves so was unable to touch the menu.  And you had to go and order at the bar.  The boarding process and the flight out were uneventful (which is a positive thing).  We had paid £5 extra to have allocated seating so we were able to sit together and complete the work required for our meetings in Madrid.  The staff were unengaging which is a massive improvement on how rude and direct they used to be.  Perhaps they get a fine or a kicking if someone has a legitimate complaint now.  The in-flight experience, after 2 hours at Stansted felt almost pleasant.  As we landed in Madrid, having successfully resisted the urge to buy an in-flight scratchcard special offer 5 for 4,  the bugle sounded to advise us it was another punctual on-time flight.  The return flight was similar except for the fact that the old Terminal One at Madrid Barajas which Ryanair uses felt like 5 star luxury compared with what Stansted has become.  The return flight was also without incident apart from the fact that the bugle did not sound as we were late.  We had been forced to place our rucksacks under the seats in front as the overhead lockers were all full (Ryanair charge a lot of money for hold baggage so customers try to avoid it but sometimes get caught out with the hand baggage size and weight rules).  As we pulled our baggage out from under the seat in front thinking the flight wasn’t that bad after all, we noticed that one of the rucksacks was covered in chewing gum as was my colleague’s jeans.  You could argue not Ryanair’s fault but their disgusting passengers.  Whatever you say, it is very unlikely we would have suffered this fate with BA.  As we pulled out of Stansted to drive back to Tring, the award winning airport design sparkled behind us as the sun set, looking as grand as it always did from the outside.  It will take more than Ryanair to destroy that.

There are a number of highlights that I look forward to when I visit Madrid.  I have some great friends and colleagues, who it is always a pleasure to see, the sun is usually shining and it is both an interesting and beautiful city.  I regret never having the time to really get to know it better.  However, one thing that we certainly have been able to sample properly is the excellent Spanish Cuisine.  On our recent trip, we were fortunate enough to dine out in the evening sitting outside in the beautiful Plaza Major, very close to the Puerto del Sol which is the considered the centre of Spain.  The Plaza Mayor was built during Philip III's reign (1598-1621) and is rectangular in shape, surrounded by three-story residential buildings with 237 balconies facing the Plaza. It has a total of nine entranceways. One side of the Plaza now appears to be permanently inhabited by the homeless.   The Puerta del Sol (Spanish for "Gate of the Sun") is one of the best known and busiest places in Madrid. This is the centre (Km 0) of the radial network of Spanish roads. The square also contains the famous clock whose bells mark the traditional eating of the Twelve Grapes and the beginning of a New Year. The New Year's celebration has been broadcast live on national television from Puerta del Sol since 1962, the year I was born.  I must say that the meal we had was excellent, provided you are not a vegetarian.  In typical Spanish style we started with a selection of tapas style specialities including squid, potato croquettes and Spanish omelette.  The way they are prepared and freshness of the ingredients makes them taste amazing.  For main course, my colleague had Cochinillo, which is a baby suckling pig.  Sometimes served with the head still on, on this occasion it just had the tail on otherwise you would not be able to recognise the animal.  It tasted more like ultra tender chicken than pork, a true delicacy from Madrid.  I shared a dish with another colleague; we had what looked like a fillet of beef, brought raw to the table, already sliced.  We then cooked this on a piping hot volcanic rock that was placed between us.  Best meat in a very long time!  These mains were served with potatoes that were cooked in olive oil and served with very mild green peppers, an excellent combination.  To drink we had a bottle of Ribero Del Duero which is a wonderful Spanish wine, less well know than Riocha outside Spain, but at least as good.  So where was the Jamon I hear you ask?  Well we had that for breakfast the following morning.  I have never eaten ham as good as in Spain.  With ham that good, I can understand the obsession and the huge range of varieties.

Plaza Mayor Madrid
Still sometimes served like this!

I read a fascinating article recently that made me wonder if we really are reaching the end of Democracy as we have known it for the last 50 years in the West.  With the rise of Asia and other parts of the world, is the West going to have to adapt, transform, to be able to compete.  The answer is definitely Yes, but just how far we will need to go is uncertain.  The problem is quite neatly summed up in the following three statistics that refer to the EU as a whole (and are apparently regularly quoted by Angela Merkel):  Proportion of world’s population 7%, GDP 25%, Welfare expenditure 50%.  This highlights the fact that the third figure is probably unsustainable and all the more so if we are competing with other countries that have costs that are so much lower.  The authors John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge argue, in their book The Fourth Revolution, that Western Democracy is on its last legs, crushed under the weight of a bloated state.  They say that to stay at the top of the global heap we must look East where the Asian model with minimal welfare and restricted rights is producing the world’s most successful societies.  This is controversial stuff but I certainly think they have a point in that if we in the West don’t react, we will just be sleepwalking into oblivion.  Just look at France and Italy; if their politicians don’t take some hard decisions, it won’t be long until they are a long long way from sharing the top table with other world leaders as they have done for the last 100 years+.  And those who will suffer are the ordinary people, who will continue to get poorer as Asia continues to rise.  The authors use the example of Singapore which has been ruled by the same People’s Action Party (and the same leader / family) since independence from Britain 50 years ago.  Although the people can vote, the opposition is weak and nobody really thinks they will get elected.  You don’t openly criticise the government so the freedom the Singaporeans enjoy is a different one to the West.  They mostly accept this as the average Singaporean is now richer than his British counterpart.  The government incentivises excellence and hard work particularly in public services and this works; schools and hospitals perform better that those of their former colonial masters.  Despite this the public sector is proportionately half the size of that in the USA.  And the welfare state is largely tied to what you have put into it.  There is a safely net however for the very poor and the very sick but there is a clear emphasis on looking after yourself and your family rather than relying on the state.  Lee Kuan Yew, the 90 year old father of Singapore argues that Democracy is a big part of the West’s problem “When you have popular democracy, to win votes you have to give more.  And to beat your opponent in the next election, you have to promise to give away more.  So it is a never ending process of auctions – and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation.”  I have long-time argued that a four or five year term, typical in the West, is ineffective as it takes a while for the new government to settle in and the last two years is electioneering; they only have a small window in the early and mid term to do what actually needs to be done. (Which most frequently they don’t).  I have been to Singapore a couple of times and was very impressed on both occasions by the cleanliness, the efficiency and the apparent wealth creation and business environment.  There were a few things that made me feel uneasy but perhaps a small price to pay for a debt free future and positive opportunities for almost everyone.  However you look at it, an impressive performance for a place that was mainly swampland just a few decades back!   Could the surge in support for the far right in the recent European elections be the start of the fourth revolution?

Singapore today

I was in London recently for a series of meetings and I had time between two of them to visit City Hall, home of the London Assembly, very close to my meeting venue.  City Hall is home of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and the 600 permanent staff who work in the Greater London Authority (GLA).  The Mayor of London is responsible for Transport (TFL), Policing and Crime overseeing the Metropolitan Police, The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the Olympic Legacy organisation.  City Hall is part of the More London development and is located in an amazing position next to Tower Bridge, opposite the Tower of London and with a view over the City.  You can see the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, Natwest Tower, Cheesegrater, HMS Belfast and much more all the way down to London Bridge and beyond.  The GLA is leasing City Hall for 25 years.  It was designed by Foster & Partners (but it doesn’t look anything like an Airport – apart form the security - or a Gherkin for that matter) and is a pretty striking design, looking a bit like a leaning glass tower on the south bank of the Thames.  More London Place runs behind it with a series of striking modern office buildings, a stream in the middle of the pedestrian street and a view of the Shard if you look up!  It is a green building using less than half the energy expected in modern high standards.  They welcome visitors and believe it or not, once you have been in through the airport style security, you can wander around much of the building.  You can use their cafe and they have free wifi! To visit the assembly hall, there is a long spiral glass walkway that winds around the outside part of the building until you reach the assembly chamber at the top.  The chamber has a view over central London (amazing!) and you get some breathtaking views as you walk up - both of London and the building’s architecture.  I was pretty much the only person there so do go and have a look at this great building whether it is just for the views or whether you want to understand what the Mayor does and where he operates.  Oh and as I walked out to go to my meeting, I bumped into Boris who was just outside preparing to be filmed with Tower Bridge as his backdrop!
City Hall from the outside

City Hall from the inside looking in
Boris Johnson outside City Hall

The variety in my new job is exciting and stimulating.  There is no such thing as Just an average day in the office. For example, I arrived at the office fairly early one Tuesday morning last month following a bank holiday Monday.  My plan for the day was to complete the VAT return (deadline a couple of days later) and then go to a client meeting fairly locally followed by an afternoon meeting further away in Swindon.  Arriving in the office, I was greeted by our caretaker, Peter, who announced with some panic that our toilet was blocked and that there was no toilet paper left (I don’t believe the two events were related). Rather than read our rental agreement to determine who was responsible for supplying toilet paper, I agreed with Peter that I would get some more supplies whilst he fetched the plunger and unblocked the toilet.  At the time it felt like I got off pretty lightly.  I soon discovered at M&S next door to our office (open 8 till 8 very conveniently) that there is a large variety of toilet paper ranging from two-ply to three ply, economy, luxury, scented and unscented.  Given my tasks for the day I didn’t pay too much attention and grabbed some M&S economy rolls to re-stock the toilets.  A few days later I saw Peter looking a little disconcerted as he explained that the downstairs toilet (not our office) had been blocked due to a bird.  No one can quite fathom that one out as the toilet is on the ground floor of a 3 story building!  Anyway, you will be pleased to hear that despite lavatorial issues, we managed to submit our first VAT return on time and I made both of my meetings that day on time.  On top of that, we are now invoicing our clients and paying suppliers from a cloud based system that keeps our accounts, surprisingly easy to use, we have just briefed a marketing agency on a new business development initiative, we have baked cakes and bought a helium can to inflate our opening party balloons – all on top of our regular daily activity of providing and developing some really cool software to our clients!  I am very used to client meetings, but I am now learning a lot of other things – not all strictly business related as you can see – all of which add to the variety and ensure that no two days are alike! 
Sutton Court Tring
Entrance to Sutton Court
Office Warming Chocolate Truffle Cake!

Now on to the Euro elections....

Well with the results of the European elections now in, about a quarter of the 500 million people in the European Union have given a clear message to their politicians: they are no longer happy with the parties that have ruled for decades and they want change.  They have expressed this by a massive lurch to the right, to the extreme right in some cases.  This has sent shockwaves through the ruling classes and nobody is really sure that it means.  Is it the fourth revolution starting?  Is it a protest vote that will largely die away in ‘proper’ national elections that follow?  I look forward to reflecting on this challenging issue some more in my next blog. In the meantime here is a results’ summary of the Euro Lunatic Fringe, although the fringe is now a big one, in desperate need of a haircut.  Apologies if some of it reads like a script for the next Monty Python film, but this is all fact:
France: Front National 25% of the Vote 24 MEPs elected
Founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen who considers the Holocaust a ‘small detail’ of the war said only last month that ‘Monseigneur Ebola’ could sort out Europe’s Immigration problem in three months.  The party is now led by his daughter Marine Le Pen.
Germany: National Democratic Party 1% of the vote 1 MEP elected
Marches with banners proclaiming the Nazi ideology of ‘National Socialism’.  They insist Europe is a continent for white people.
Greece: Golden Dawn 9.4% of the vote 3 MEPs elected
Main spokesman has a swastika tattoo and several party members are in prison for criminal activity.  They plan to close food banks to non Greeks and in 2012 their election slogan was ‘So we can rid this land of filth’.
Finland: Finns 12% of the vote 2 MEPs elected
Their MP has been fined for comments about Muslims and another of their MPs refused to attend a ball to avoid seeing same sex couples.
Denmark: Danish People’s Party 27% of the vote 4 MEPs
Pia Kjaersgaard, Party Founder, says ‘Immigration is not welcome or natural’. ‘If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmo into a Scandinavian Beirut with clan wars, honour killings and gang rape, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Oresund bridge’.
Netherlands: Party for Freedom 13% of the vote, 4 MEPs
This is Geert Wilders party. ‘I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam’. He campaigns for the repatriation of Muslims.
Hungary: Jokkik 15% of the vote 3 MEPs
Jobbik are neo-Nazis.  They would make Jews sign a special register.  They say that Jews in Parliament and Government pose a national security risk to Hungary.
Austria: Austrian Freedom Party 20% of the vote 4 MEPs
Leader Heinz-Christian Strache says he is not a racist because he eats kebabs.  They are fiercely against Muslim immigration and would send back Turks who complain about things such as a cross in their children’s classroom.
Italy: Northern League 6.5% of the vote 5 MEPs
 One of its ex MEPs said ‘Africa hasn’t produced great geniuses as anyone can see from a Mickey Mouse encyclopaedia’
UK: UKIP 27.5% of the vote 24 MEPs
UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage, says he is going to take the UK government by storm in next year’s General Election the same way he has just done at the European Elections.  Fiercely anti-EU, the party dreams of a better yesterday when smoking was acceptable, there were fewer immigrants and life was just so great for everyone.  The only good news is that the extreme right British National Party has been all but obliterated.  I wonder where all their voters have gone?

My quote for the month seems particularly apt given my piece on democracy above and the results in the Euro elections:

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Winston Churchill

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