on a return to flying

Later this week I will be flying for the first time since October 2019. I’m not counting my simulator time flying a B737-800, or, more accurately, failing to land said airliner, other than my one and only attempt at Kai Tak from a chequerboard approach (enthusiasts will understand).

Anyway, I’m off on a big silver bird again for the first time in ages and, for reasons that I do not comprehend, am more than a bit anxious. Why? I’ve flown more than 300 times, including crossing the Atlantic on almost 100 occasions and flying into places like Columbia and Libya, so a short run up the M4 to LHR, as we call it in the trade (or, correctly, EGLL) to board my ‘plane should not bother me unduly.

But, somehow, it does. I’m not afraid of flying, nor crashing actually, so to be feeling any sort of anxiety is strange. We are all set to go, apart from some form that we have to fill out on-line no earlier than 72 hours before we fly, we have tickets and seats booked and parking at the airport is sorted. All we have to do is drive up, park and walk across the road to check-in. Piece of cake.

Since the Berkshire Belle and I got together nearly thirty four years ago, whenever we have flown together, I have always had a bit of a twitch until the wheels leave the ground. Nothing much, but, for me, that is the moment that signals that I am on my way. My lady is precious cargo, and I like to take care of her, so getting her safely into the air and on our way means a lot to me.

I love flying as a passenger, and I have also flown a number of single engined aircraft. I fell in love with aircraft as a small boy and, for a time as I came up to leaving school, was hoping to train as a commercial pilot. I had a potential sponsor, but not parental approval, and so that dream died. I was in my mid-thirties before I got to fly (if you don’t count the time I got knocked off my motorbike and flew 30 feet over a hedge into a cabbage field). That first flight, on business from Heathrow to Aberdeen, was to open the floodgates, and, at one point I was flying so often to Scotland and Northern Ireland that I was on first name terms with some of the cabin crews.

Then we discovered America, and no, we weren’t the first, but we loved it from the start, switching seamlessly from Francophiles to Yankophiles. Thus began our transatlantic voyages, sometimes going three times a year, but normally at least twice a year. I was still flitting around the UK on business flights, then took up lessons flying various single engined aircraft. Later still, I began flying long haul on business after going freelance and took in Europe, the Americas, North and South, Africa and Asia.

At six foot three I have had a few bad flights sat down the back in steerage, but generally I have loved flying and airports, especially since I started to turn left on entering the aircraft. All of this makes it more baffling as to why I have the yips about this trip.

I think that the last three years have had such an impact on our lives. Something that, for me, was little more than like catching a ‘bus, is now a bit alien. Things are changing and there is some uncertainty as to what will happen when we get to the airport here, and then again over the other side. At our destination there will, apparently, be another change whilst we are there so that the protocols at the airport on the way back will be different to our arrival.

Despite the twitch I am looking forward to flying again, although it is a shame that the glamour has gone out of flying. We do our best, but, even down the front, we find ourselves amongst a bunch of scruffy oiks who we would not want to invite into our home. We do make an effort to look presentable, and I certainly feel more comfortable that way: We like a bit of style, and, perhaps, we would have been happier flying in the 50s, but then it would have taken twice as long. Anyway, you can’t go back and we will have to put up with what we get in 2023.

So, onwards and upwards. Hopefully I will relax as we start the take-off roll.


on post nominals

At one time in my career I was entitled to use a run of three post nominals, but, most of the time, I didn’t use them. I would have two sets of business cards, one with, one without, and normally only used the latter. The former only came out for people that I knew would be looking for them. They were one of many things related to status that I coveted until I had earned them, at which point I didn’t really want them anymore.

I have noticed that someone who was recently awarded an MBE has added that post nominal to their social media name, and my instant reaction was, how naff. No doubt they are very proud of the award. They are, like me, from humble origins and perhaps the award means so much more to them, their friends and family So be it.

Where I encountered post nominals most often was in the public sector, and I would wait until those that I was meeting had offered their business cards. If these were PN encrusted, then I would drop my similarly endorsed cards in response. To show that we were in the same club, and that I was in a couple of extra ones too. It was a silly game, but making people feel comfortable with me was an important part of what I was doing.

For the rest I did not give a hoot. If someone asked if I was a member I would tell them, but otherwise I kept quiet about it. I have a lot of sympathy for the Groucho Marx approach and do not want to be a member of the sort of club that would have me as a member.

As it happens I have resigned from all three professional bodies and, I think, have managed to expunge any reference to any of them in my social media presence. I bear them no ill will, I just have no desire to be a part of what they do anymore. I have moved on.

holiday humour – two more of those days

Talking about my abortive trip to Belfast last week reminded me of another couple of airport incidents, both on overseas trips, where, looking back now, I can see the funny side, even if it was a bit fraught at the time.

The first was on my first overseas assignment after I went freelance. The job was originally scheduled for Venezuela, but the general situation there led the client to change the venue to Bogota, Columbia. A team of people from their various South American locations would be flown in for me to work with, I was given a choice of two, client approved, hotels to stay in and left to make my own flight arrangements.

I confirmed with the client, an American Oil company, the hotel that I had booked into and gave them my flight details. I was coming in via Miami and would be landing about 8.30 in the evening. The client was concerned about the kidnap risk, and so I had been told that I would have an armed escort for the short trip between the hotel and office, and there would be a driver waiting for me as I came out of arrivals at Bogota.

The sun set shortly after we took off from Miami and it was very dark at Bogota. I got through the formalities with no problems, collected my case and headed out into the arrivals hall to find no sign of the client’s logo amongst the waiting drivers. I waited in the general vicinity, but everyone slowly drifted away as the last of the passengers emerged.

I found a seat and got the instructions out of my bag, found the contact number and rang it, only to be confronted with a message in Spanish, which I don’t speak, from the ‘phone service provider. There was no sign of anyone in the arrivals hall by this time and so I decided that I would look outside to see if there was a taxi rank: I could show the hotel details and ask “For favor” and felt sure that an airport taxi driver would accept US dollars for the fare.

On leaving the building I was approached by a man in a suit who asked if I was Mr Bowen. I said that I was at which point he produced from under his jacket, not a gun, but a laminated copy of the logo that I had been looking for. He was my driver. When I mentioned this to one of the US team later he explained that it probably was not safe to have displayed the logo inside the terminal…

A few months later (obviously I had got home safely), I found myself boarding another aircraft, this time for the shorter trip from Heathrow to Tripoli, another place where the security risk assessment was a crucial, pre-trip, document.

This time my arrival would be in the early afternoon, and, yes, I was a little nervous. My contract forbad me to leave my hotel, other that to go to work in the transport provided, and that I was not allowed to leave the business premises other than to be escorted back to my hotel, along with the rest of the team. For security purposes, that hotel was changed at the last moment too.

Although I was travelling alone I was part of a team, and the others were flying in one day earlier and by a different route. I had been told that there would be someone on the arrivals line who would hold up a card with my surname on, no logos or other identifiers, just Bowen. I walked out of the door and looked at each of the cards being held up, but none with my name on. Bugger, I thought.

The arrivals area was small and busy, but I found a pillar to lean against where I could wedge my case between my legs. Fighting off a stream of offers of drivers (and possibly their sisters, I’m not sure) I got out my ‘phone and the emergency contact number. Having dialled it, and just as it was being answered, a young British guy who I had seen on my flight came over and asked if I was Mr Bowen. I owned up and it turned out the he too was working for the same client, albeit on a different project. Our driver had been holding up a piece of paper with my name on, but in pencil, and I had not seen it. Safely gathered up I was taken into the city.

I got back from that one safely too, but the planned return has never come as the political situation there deteriorated. A shame, as I would have been very happy to have gone back. I’ve not been back to Columbia either, and would have snapped up a return there without hesitation. Both countries left me with a deep affection for their people and I feel privileged to have worked in both, even if I did not get to see too much of either. I have seen the Andes and the Sahara though, met some very nice people and eaten local cuisine. I’m a lucky man.

holiday humour – one of those days

A true story, this one, with just names changed to avoid embarrassment. It comes from my freelance days when I, like so many others, worked in various loose collectives of the self-employed. So, let me take you back to May 2017 when I had one of those days that fall into the “You couldn’t make it up” category.

It had started a month earlier when, I’ll call him Bob, one of the people who used me from time to time, rang and asked if I knew a chap, who I will call Paul, over in Belfast. I told him that I did and Bob said that he would email something over to me and suggested a Skype chat the next day.

The brief that he sent me was for a training programme that would be delivered, if we got the job, by Dave (another made up name), one of the other mercenaries in our collective. I gave it some thought, wrote some suggestions that I emailed back to Bob for his consideration. Bob and I, along with Dave, had a Skype video chat the next day. Bob pitched our proposal to Paul and I left it at that.

Three weeks later Bob rang to say that we were on a short list of two for the work and that Paul wanted to meet us. Dave was not available, but, as Paul and I had worked together before, he was keen for me to be part of the discussion. Bob was happy to pay for my air fare and expenses to go with him to Northern Ireland, and proposed a fee of £500 if we won the work. I love Belfast and have been going there regularly since the mid-1980s and so I said yes. There was no pay, but it would be a free day trip.

On the day selected I started out down the M4 towards Heathrow on a sunny Spring morning with the aim of meeting up with Bob at a McDonalds on the Great Western Road near Heathrow. I was just past Slough when a call came in on the hands-free: Bob was held up in traffic on the M25 orbital motorway and would be late. I should go straight to Terminal 5.

At T5 I checked in and made my way to the food court to grab and sandwich and a coffee whilst waiting for Bob. Then came the second call to say that he was stuck in traffic near Watford and would not make the flight. He was about to call Paul and would ring me back. At that point the Belfast City flight had not been allocated a gate number so I sat back and watched the ‘planes as the pottered about outside on the apron.

Bob had still not called back when the gate number came up on the board, but he called as I walked through the terminal. He had spoken to Paul and the latter would meet me off the flight. We could have a chat in the Costa Coffee bar in the terminal and Bob would be available to come in on a conference call if we needed him. That meant that I would not get to see the city, but business is business and so I boarded the British Airways A320.

About an hour later we pulled up at the gate at George Best Belfast City airport. I made my way through the arrivals area, but there was no sign of Paul, so I found Costa, ordered a latte and settled down. After ten minutes I was still alone and so rang Bob, who was now on his way back to Essex. He said that he would pull off at the next junction, park up and ring Paul.

By this stage I was into my second latte and had succumbed to a lemon tart as I sat and people watched. My ‘phone rang with an unfamiliar number: It was Paul. After a few pleasantries and a reminisce about the old days; “Bob says I’m to give you a call” he said. I explained that I was sitting in the airport waiting for him as I thought that we were meeting about the training project. “But you’re not coming, are you.” he replied.

Having established that I had, indeed, come, he said that it was now too late for him to get out to see me as he had another meeting scheduled later that afternoon, but that Bob had sent him the notes that I had prepared and that they satisfied the questions that he would have asked. I finished my second coffee, wandered around the airport shops and checked in for the flight back, this time on an A319. Back at Heathrow I found my car and drove home.

It had been one of the most bizzare days in my working life.

Postscript: We won the contract and I got paid my £500, but before the programme of training could start, Paul moved on and his successor cancelled the work. Bob was good enough not to ask me to return my fee.

on women bosses

One of the photos of me in my younger days as a manager sees me in the company of my then boss, Diane Santos. This was back in 1982, so 41 years ago now, and a friend, seeing it amongst my work photo album brought the question, “How did you get on with working for a woman back then?”, the assumption being that it was unusual.

It wasn’t. Diane was one of a long line of women that I had worked for, and she was not the last. Yes, there had been jobs that I had done where management was very much male dominated, but Diane was the third woman boss that I had had from the last four. Despite what people might want you to believe, there were plenty of women in management, or at least there were in my working life. For me a boss was a boss. They were either good or bad, and I learned from them all, but it has never made any difference to me what sex they were.

Back then I didn’t give it a thought. I suppose that I was used to women in authority; most of my schoolteachers were women, and I grew up around powerful women so perhaps I had just got used to taking orders from them. Whatever, I have never had a problem working for women, and still don’t. I do have a problem about working for ignorant or incompetent people but they can come in either sex.

I am an elitist, I believe in a meritocracy, so any move towards quotas I regard as discriminatory. I find such practices abhorrent, and do not believe that they advance the cause that they propose to promote. I have worked with, and for. enough talented women to know that they don’t need preferential treatment (I am married to one too).

Just to make it clear, I am a man. I was born male and have not, so far, had any doubts about my sex or heterosexuality. I may not that macho, although I have had my moments, and still do, but working for a woman has never left me feeling threatened, or in any way diminished my masculinity. I do not understand why there should be an issue.

The sad thing, for me, is that the friend who started this musing off is a lady who is a couple of generations younger than me. What she has been told, or taught, about the world that I lived in before she was born bears little resemblance to my experience of it. I have never had a problem with working for a woman in all of the fifty plus years that I have been at work. And yes, there have been women in charge throughout my working life, so don’t try am tell me that they weren’t.

on benchmarking

I have written before on my variation to the Mark Twain proposal that there are Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics, mine going on to suggest procurement savings as the next step in that progression. But I am in danger of digressing here, so will drop back to statistics.

This musing on benchmarking is prompted by a Q&A session at the end of a presentation to a business forum the other week. The speaker was asked about the process that they had gone through before awarding the contract that they had presented on, and they spoke at some length about having benchmarked similar organisations before making their choice. That would have been acceptable, but for two things. Firstly, their presentation had majored on their organisation having unique needs, and secondly the benchmarking had been on cost.

Taking the second point first, there is little point in making cost comparisons unless you have a good understanding of what you are comparing. For example, comparing cleaning costs per square metre might be acceptable, but only if the same cleaning specification is being used. If the needs of the organisation were so unique, finding common ground was surely difficult? The speaker was somewhat vague in their answer to that question.

Benchmarking comes from the crafts: marking your bench so that you could replicate a cut, but in modern business parlance it is just another statistic and therefore can be extremely dubious as a result. I love numbers almost as much as I love words, and, just as words can be used to deflect, deceive and convince, so can numbers. You don’t lie as such, just use a version of the truth that supports the case that you are trying to make.

Benchmarking done well is very effective, but, like many things, it isn’t always easy. For a start it often requires commercially sensitive information to be shared, so if you want to benchmark against like organisations in your sector you are asking competitors to tell you their secrets. Professional bodies and trade organisations often try to put these things together with varying degrees of success, perhaps the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS) is the best example.

Statistics, including benchmarking, are something that, in my experience, need to be handled with care as part of the decision making process. If you have an understanding of where the numbers you are being presented with have come from and can use your own judgement as to what weight to give them, then you will have a better chance of getting to the right decision.

Beware of the numbers: That’ snot a bad maxim for any manager.

on regrets

I am more in the Edith Piaf camp here, rather than that of Paul Anka’s words as made famous my Frank Sinatra, amongst others. I really don’t have regrets.

Taken in isolation there are things that I have done that I would have preferred to have done differently. I know, for example, that I have hurt people and am not proud of that. Overall though, the steps that I took back in the first half of my life so far brought me into the life of the Berkshire Belle, and I have been with her ever since. So no regrets.

I think that there are two factors in the way that I approach life. The first is the way that I was brought up by my parents, my teachers and the other adults from my early days. They taught me that decisions had consequences, and that I had to live with the results of my own decisions. “You’ve made your bed, so you have to lie in it” was a saying I heard many times, and it is true.

The other factor is that, from early on in my working life, I got trained in a variety of management skills. This reinforced the understanding that things were going to happen regardless of anything that I did, and so ou had to decide, not just what to do, but when, and, sometimes, whether, to do it. As a manager you needed to assess the consequences of every option: You needed judgement.

You get better at this stuff as you gain experience and, of course, you learn from your mistakes. One, very common, mistake is to overlook learning from your successes too, bit, if you are any good, you’ll work that one out.

As a manager almost everything that you do will please some and upset others. You lay on overtime, so some will see that as great because of the extra pay, but others will be unhappy because they miss out on something by being at work. If you place a contract the successful company will be glad of the order, but others will have lost out and, if you are big enough, that might be the final straw that means one of them will have to lay off people. There are always winners and losers: This is real life.

As an individual I have been shaped by my experience and my professional life flows over into my private one. I am very good at compartmentalising for one thing, but I also apply the logic of trying to understand what the consequences will be for anything I decide to do. I am well aware that there can be casualties.

I learned very early on that I had married the wrong woman (my first marriage), and I struggled with the decision of what to do about it, working from leaving her and our two children through suicide (I had a very good compensation package). There was no easy answer, but in the end I left, and, there under my nose, was the woman of my dreams. We are together still.

I have done a lot in my seventy years so far. Some of it has been stupid, especially in the early years, but I have done some good stuff too and have experienced far more than I could have dreamt of as a boy. I am content with my life, I understand and accept who I am, and I live with the woman that I love and who loves me.

I can’t go back and change anything and so, for me, regrets are a pointless emotion. I’ve done what I’ve done, and none of it was with malice. I take responsibility for what I have done. Regrets? No, I regret nothing.

life log #13

Still here and breathing, so things are not too bad. We seem to be past the worst of the cold weather now and the garden is looking better. The snowdrops have come and gone, but have been augmented by another 75 purchased in the green and planted to extend the current swathes (well, small clumps).

The daffodils, and their assorted cousins, are up and, largely, out although this year, again, a lot have come up blind. It seems odd that these clumps of diffs that spring up each year in odd spots along the roadside do so well, but mine less so. One of life’s little mysteries.

On my virtual walk down Route 66 I am coming up towards 600 miles and am almost out of Missouri. Before I leave the state I will pass through the town of Joplin which has a Bonnie and Clyde connection that it seems proud of. Next up is a very short stretch through the bottom right corner of Kansas before I get into Oklahoma where I have a long East to West stretch across the state. By the time I get to the other side I will be nearly half way to the end of the route.

The Hastings Hottie and I are both avid readers and get through two or more books a week. I usually have at least two on the go at once; one an e-book to read on my ‘phone and the other probably a non-fiction book that I read in my armchair. I also have a growing collection of audiobooks and listen to one of those every day in the car on the way to and from work. Reading, for us both, has been a joy since childhood. I’m not sure if you can call it a hobby, but it is an interest that we share, even if our tastes in books differs quite a lot.

Books is actually one of the things that developed our relationship from colleagues to friends back in the Summer of 1989. We had many days out on business and found that we both loved books to the point that we loaned each other books. For a book lover there is no greater mark of trust than to lend someone your beloved books. Back then a hardback was still an expensive purchase, something that you treasured. We became good friends through books and it paved the way for us to become lovers.

Music is less important to us as a couple. Our tastes differ a lot, possibly because of our age difference, although I love most of the music of her youth as much as I do of my own era. In my darkest days music was my refuge, it was one of the things that saved me and, to a degree, I think that it became a private thing. We don’t have the radio on at home and do not possess a stereo system these days. If we have the car radio on it will be to listen to a talking book rather than music.

I like to put the headphones on, shut my eyes and get lost in my music. My classic iPod is still working and, although I have not been able to update the playlists for years, there is still enough set up on there to keep me amused, even on a long-haul flight. Some of it triggers memories, but mostly I just like to listen, to enjoy the interplay of instruments and voices. Music is still my haven.

The garden is getting attention again. I think that this year I will not plan very much at all and just do what I feel when I get the chance. We do need to make a few garden centre visits, but I have no real idea about what I will buy other than some tomatoes and stuff for the hanging baskets. I will just see what is there and, if I like it, and think that I have somewhere to put it, I’ll buy it.

Gardens are always a work in progress. You might get one to the point that you are satisfied, but stuff grows and needs maintaining, so you are never finished with a garden. I’ll keep on fiddling with it and, at least most of the time, enjoying it.

All for now. Stay safe wherever you are.

on confidence in the system

I grew up in a country where freedom of speech was enshrined as a right, where a democracy existed and where there was an expectation that justice could be obtained. I don’t seem to live there anymore.

No longer am I allowed to speak my mind, I have to speak within the parameters that have been set by, what seems to me, to be a minority. 1984 got here a bit late, but get here it did. Democracy has its faults, but rule as set by the majority is not a bad idea. Where did it go? Minority interests now prevail.

As for justice, it has become a joke. There was a time when I would have been more that happy to have been tried by a jury of my peers, but not now. Values have changed too much and I am very glad that my years in this society are limited.

The trigger for this posting is the recent report into the Metropolitan Police. There are things that seem clearly wrong within that force, but that is not what shakes my confidence in the system. My confidence is in the way the report has been presented.

I long ago began to get concerned when I read statements of “Institutionalised Racism/Sexism/Homophobia” (delete as applicable, or substitute your own alternative). It stemmed from a pilot questionnaire to be issued to employees of the organisation that I worked for. In describing myself I had answered three of the questions as; White, Male, Heterosexual.

What else can I say, I am a white man and have not had any doubts about my sexuality, so my answers are the truth. But the response, OK part in jest, from the person designing the questionnaire was that I had marked myself down as a racist, sexist homophobe. I wonder how much of that type of thinking has permeated into the Met report? That grain of doubt undermines the whole thing for me. I can’t trust its overall conclusions because I have no confidence in the system that has produced it.

As I have often remarked here when talking about leadership, trust is fundamental. I understand that there are those who feel unable to trust the Met, and there is a significant problem for them and for the force. We, as a country, need to find a way to rebuild trust in our Police. Whether this report is going to help bring about that change or not remains to be seen, but I fear that it will not.

Until we rid ourselves of the Woke brigade as any form of influence on public life I will not be able to trust the system.

on luck

Good luck, bad luck, no luck, take your pick. Luck plays a big part in life whether we like it or not. I feel that, over the years, I have benefitted more from good luck than anything, but why should that be?

There are those who say things like “The harder I practice, the luckier I get”, but that’s not really luck, it’s about judgement. Some of my ex-military pals use the 6Ps: Perfect Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance, and it can, but there is another military saying that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. I became a great fan of practice and learning from experience through my time in management and business, but I would not credit luck, good or bad, with the majority of my successes or failures.

Luck is a random element. You can, sometimes, predict outcomes, such as weather, traffic issues, mistakes, sickness or injury, but you don’t know for sure whether any or all of them will come into play. You can hedge your bets with some contingency planning, but if you try to allow for every possible scenario you will never get started.

Whilst you are at the mercy of things going wrong, or right, you should always try to have a plan for minimising the impact. I mention right here, because sometimes something will drop into your lap and you need to be able to capitalise on it. Sometimes you have to say yes, and then work out how the hell you are going to do it. Good or bad fortune, experience, practice and training can play their part in getting you out of the hole.

I have had some remarkable luck over my time. I have had the Grim Reaper’s fingers around my throat more than once, but I’m still here. The Berkshire Belle and I came together at a time in our lives when we were right for each other. I have been able to do all sorts of things that I would never have dreamt possible as a boy, or as a younger man.

Sure, there has been some misfortune, but when I look back even the bad luck seemed to put me into a place where I got lucky next time around. If anyone bothers with an epitaph, perhaps “Here lies a jammy bastard” would be appropriate.