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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Goodbye 2016, Hello 2017

My three wishes for 2017:

1. For moderates to win the key elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands

2. For Donald Trump to be a President for all Americans and not just for those who voted for him (particularly important given that Hillary Clinton got about 2.8 million votes more than he did)

3. That the people of the West start to understand that 'Islamic' terrorists do not represent Islam and that the vast majority of Muslims are just as outraged as everyone else and that the Quran preaches peace and love not war

My review of 2016

I find it hard to see much to celebrate politically in 2016. One year ago today, I laid down my three wishes for the year; at least two of them have not come true: we are leaving the EU, the Syria conflict continues and we still see images of appalling atrocities, (although a glimmer of hope is emerging as 2016 draws to a close) and my wish for the UK business climate to continue to prosper is on shaky ground with widespread forecasts for reductions in growth in 2017 and price increases everywhere due to the Brexit induced fall in sterling. 

The Smiths Building, Great Portland St
The Wedding Cake Made in New Zealand

But from a personal perspective it was a great year: my eldest son got married to his lovely new wife and we had very memorable celebrations in England and in France with family and friends. We made new friends, got to know some new places and ate and drank a lot. The wedding cake was made by my new daughter-in-law’s aunt who lives in New Zealand. She is a professional wedding cake maker and she prepared the stunning cake decorations by hand over there and brought them with her right around the world. The result was an amazing cake as you can see from the picture. 

At a business level, the most noteworthy event was the sale of Grass Roots where I had worked for 30 years to an American organisation called Blackhawk. The new owners have started a drastic cost cutting exercise with dozens of people being made redundant in just their first two months of ownership. Next year will reveal the impact on the business relationship with Digital Fibre.

The Office Move

The Wonderpass

At Digital Fibre (now known as DigiFi) we moved our offices from Tring to the West End of London, just a short walk from where I was born in Mortimer Street. Our offices are in Great Portland Street, an area of London that is rapidly developing into a Prime Central London area. Our office is in The Smiths Building which was built just before the First World War to house the Smiths Factory where carburettors and speedometers were manufactured. Co-incidentally I later discovered that my mother worked at Smiths, but in another of their offices and later in the century. Back then there were over 30 car dealers in Great Portland Street. In the following decades as the motor industry moved further out of town, fashion production took its place. Armies of tailors made and altered clothes for the department stores and fashion shops of Oxford Street and beyond. My great grandfather was one of those tailors and lived in a very modest abode in Great Tichfield Street close to my office. My father remembers visiting him in the early 1960’s. Today there are only a couple of tailors left, with restaurants, cafés, smart offices and fancy flats moving in so rapidly that there is something new to see every week. I love my walk from Marylebone Station through Marylebone High Street and down Devonshire Street to Great Portland Street, crossing Harley Street and Wimpole Street on the way and often seeing a glimpse of the private medical elite in the hospitals, clinics, surgeries and upscale homes littered across these streets, with their international patients emerging from the smart buildings and jumping into waiting limos and mingling with the locals in their Teslas, Zoes, electric BMWs, Maseratis, Lamborghinis and Minis, whilst office workers like me scuttle past holding their take-away lattes and the manual immigrant workers do odd bits of maintenance and re-paint the iron railings of the Howard de Walden and the Portland Estate properties and security guards stand outside the grand embassies in Portland Place whilst their Ambassadors step out into the waiting shiny black cars. It's a great example of all walks of life living together in harmony and supporting each other. My only regret is the few individuals who sleep rough in the streets. I will talk more about this in a later blog. One part of my walk that always reminds me I am in a huge polluted city crying out for cleansing is where I have to cross the Marylebone Road at Baker Street. I use the amazing Wonderpass with its little exhibitions that takes me underneath the road but I still have to breathe in its massive offering of NO2, CO2 and goodness knows what else that are regularly at 3.5 times the maximum EU level. I am sure diesel pollution will be a big theme in 2017.


Afternoon Tea at Charingworth Manor
Charingworth Manor

A fast growing industry is the packaging and selling of ‘experiences’ which is particularly attractive to Millennials who are more interested than their elders in enjoying an experience than possessing goods. I approve of this sentiment and so instead of more tangibles, my sons gave me some experiences that made my days. Firstly was a traditional afternoon tea in the Cotswolds in a beautiful Manor House near Chipping Campden. The triple level tray with its edible delights was only surpassed by the beauty of the old manor house, Charingworth Manor, its golden Cotswold stone and its spectacular views over the surrounding countryside.

Thames Jet Experience

Next was something completely different; a thrilling and somewhat scary high speed ride on a jet speedboat down the Thames from Westminster to Canary Wharf. With only a dozen people on board, the boat travelled fast down to Tower Bridge. Beyond the bridge, the jet engine was switched on, the James Bond music kicked in and anyone not clinging to the handlebars around them would have ended up in the river! A beautiful balance between fun and scary, the operators got it just right.

Julien Clerc in Oxford

On my French side, I had encounters with President Nicolas Sarkozy which I have discussed in an earlier blog, and an intimate gathering with Julien Clerc, my wife's favourite French singer songwriter. Think of a French trendy Cliff Richard but with more beautiful haunting melodies. And then there was a drinks evening with the Norwegian Ambassador at her London residence (yes I know that's not French). Norway rents the spectacular building in Kensington from the Queen. The private apartments are upstairs and downstairs consists of splendid function rooms. King Haakon VII convened the cabinet meetings of the Norwegian Government in Exile here during the Second World War. The Ambassador, H.E. Ms Mona Juul, talked about the strength of the UK - Norway relationship, how Brexit is already bringing us closer and of course of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree and the new tree at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office which she said Boris Johnson was delighted by. The UK is Norway's number 1 trading partner and at DigiFi are hoping to increase that volume of trade next year.

Mathilda the Musical - The Stage

Then there was Matilda The Musical based on Matilda by Roald Dahl. The musical at The Cambridge Theatre at Seven Dials in Covent Garden is masterpiece for all the family that has been running for 5 years now. Written by Tim Minchen (music & lyrics) and Dennis Kelly (playright) and produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company, it is very faithful to the book but turns it into a magical musical experience with a superb theatrical adaptation. I was impressed by everything; the speed and efficiency in which the theatre design allows you to take to your seat and then leave the building in about 2 minutes to the décor in the foyer, bar and staircase; the stunning stage sets and transformations; the incredible acting from a talented bunch of children and adults; and of course above all, Roald Dahl’s magical story. Something completely different again, and in the year that Roald Dahl would have celebrated his 100th birthday. Which leads nicely to my final piece.

The Norwegian Ambassador's Residence in London

Lastly I would like to remember some of the great people we lost in 2016. Research shows that twice as many great people died in 2016 than in an average year, another signal that it wasn’t a good year. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Shimon Peres, Alan Rickman, Andrew Sachs, Gene Wilder, Mohammed Ali, Carla Lane, Prince, Victoria Wood, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Terry Wogan, AA Gill, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and the list goes on. 

But the person who I will miss the most died just two weeks ago on Sunday December the 19th. He was Rabbi Lionel Blue, the only person on this distinguished list I had actually met and a man who cheered up so many people’s Monday mornings over a 25 year period on Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4. He told an interviewer in 2004 that he liked to give people a reason to get up and face the day by offering enough spiritual stiffening not to dive back under the duvet. It was a style that made him, according to a poll in 2001, more esteemed in Britain as a spiritual leader than either The Pope or The Archbishop of Canterbury. That’s impressive.

Lionel Blue

A man of very humble East End background, his parents were Russian immigrants who struggled to find work. In 1935 the young Lionel prayed to God to remove Adolf Hitler and Oswald Mosley; when his prayers weren’t answered he turned to Marxism and must have been a rebellious teenager. Imagine being a gay, marxist, atheist, teenage Jew in 1930 and 1940s East End London! He was the first from his school in Hendon to go to Oxford where he read History and tried to deny his homosexuality by dating a young lady he was very fond of. When that didn’t work out and with other things conspiring to make him feel low, he was caught out in a heavy downpour one day at the end of his tether when he sought cover in a doorway in St Giles. The door opened and he was invited in to a Quaker meeting that Thursday where a group of farmers were having their spiritual meeting. A Thursday he explained because the farmers didn’t have anyone to look after their animals on a Sunday. This event and this kindness led him to turn back to religion and a few years later he qualified as a Rabbi at Leo Beck in London.

He was at the very liberal end of the religious spectrum, not popular with many of his religious contemporaries, but hugely popular with the British public. He did believe in God, whom he called Fred and who was his best friend. However he declared that he thought religion was not a good thing. I think he meant that across the world maybe more harm than good was done in the name of religion. He lived with his partner in a modest house in Finchley and considered himself extremely lucky in life despite his epilepsy and his poor health. For his 80th birthday he said he didn’t want any gifts but that charity donations should be made instead and that in any case God had already given him his present: Parkinson’s. On Monday mornings on Radio 4, and when I met him in Oxford, he would tell gentle stories and jokes. Not laugh aloud hysterical jokes, but Lionel Blue jokes which made you think and made you smile and sometimes also made you sad and made you cry, but helped you get through the day and helped you understand our world just a little bit better. Two days after his death, he read his own Obituary on Radio 4 which you can listen to anytime on iPlayer.

“Nazi to Jew: ‘You Jews are the cause of all the trouble,’ Jew to Nazi: ‘Yes, Jews and bicycle riders,’ Nazi: ‘Why bicycle riders?’ Jew: ‘Why Jews?’”

“Praying privately in churches, I began to discover that Heaven was my true home and that it was here and now, woven into this life.”

“For some years I deserted religion in favour of Marxism. The republic of goodness seemed more attainable than the Kingdom of God.”

“The secular world is more spiritual than it thinks, just as the ecclesiastical world is more materialist than it cares to acknowledge.”

“I found that when I did something for the sake of heaven, heaven happened. These things changed my life. I owe them to my encounter with Christianity.”

“On my way to work good-hearted young girls sometimes offer me their seats, which I accept and bless them in return, a transaction satisfying to all concerned.”

A Rothschild goes into Petticoat Lane market and stops at a stall. "How much are these cucumbers?" he asks. "Half a crown," says the stallholder. "Half a crown!" says Rothschild. "Are cucumbers so scarce in this market?" "No," says the stallholder, "but Rothschilds are."

Mr Cohen goes into a restaurant crying his eyes out and saying, "It's the anniversary of my mother's death. Get me a plate of fishballs just like she used to make." The waiter goes away. "And give me a kind word like she used to give me." The waiter comes back with the plate of fishballs. Mr Cohen starts eating them, and says to the waiter, "What about my kind word?" The waiter bends low and whispers in Mr Cohen's ear: "If I were you, in this place I wouldn't touch the fish."

Mrs Solomon rings up the Jewish newspaper and says: "I want to put in an obituary notice. Put in 'Abie Solomon dead.'" The man says: "Look Mrs Solomon, it's a little bit bare. You can have six words for the price of three." She says: "Can I?" He says: "Yes." "OK," she says. "Put in 'Abie Solomon dead … Volkswagen for sale.'"

Rabbi Lionel Blue OBE 1930 – 2016, God’s best PR man in the UK

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