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Ashdown was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals

The news that Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has passed away has already drawn generous and eloquent tributes from across the political spectrum. Righty so, as he was a man who lived several lives, often in the service of his country and always with a deep sense of duty.

He was an inspiration to a generation of Liberals who in the late 1980s felt sidelined and demoralised after the heady early days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance descended into acrimony and electoral failure. To many of us the new party born out of that Alliance seemed an alien place, especially as it tried to expunge the word Liberal from its campaigning name.

He picked the party up after the shambles of the merger and enthused everyone. He was always approachable and reached an audience well beyond the party faithful. Most importantly, he put Liberalism back at the heart of the party and it is from then that its revival can be traced. Perhaps there are parallels for today.

I was lucky enough to meet him on many occasions and many of my memories illustrate his ability to inspire loyalty and also reach people beyond the party and engage them on many levels. He was accessible, human and genuinely interested in people, a far cry from many of today’s political leaders. He was also often simply good fun to be around.

He made you want to go out and fight for the party, its policies and for Liberalism. At the 1990 party conference he spoke at a reception for Liberal Democrat councillors. 1990 was a grim year. We were hovering around 5% in the opinion polls for most of it. Many of us had defended our council seats that May – mine was in Leyton in Waltham Forest. At that reception Ashdown told us that those of us who had fought and won against that background had literally saved the party. It made us feel proud and inspired to strive even harder.

My favourite memory of him, however, shows his human side. A couple of years later at the end of another party conference he wandered into the room where the exhibition stands were being dismantled just as Mariette and I emerged from the creche with our three children. Our eldest daughter was 7 or 8 and went straight up to him with a CND frisbee and asked him to play with her. The children who were regulars in the conference creche knew him well as he always took time to visit it.

He took one look at the bright yellow frisbee with its large CND logo and said that would make a good picture in the papers after the many debates about nuclear weapons. It didn’t stop him. He proceeded to play frisbee with her and several of the other children in the hall. And her school teacher refused to believe her!

He will be missed, especially at a time when his country – which he was proud to serve in many capacities – is so bereft of true political leadership.

Singing Handel’s Messiah in a Cathedral setting with orchestra is a dream for many people

Have you ever wanted to sing Handel’s Messiah in a Cathedral with a professional orchestra and soloists? Well, now is your chance with a special performance I am organising at Brentwood Cathedral on 15 December.

This performance will celebrate Andrew Wright’s 40 years service as a Cathedral musician. Andrew has been Director of Music at Brentwood Cathedral since 1982 and before that was Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral.

Anyone who has sung Messiah under Andrew Wright’s baton before will testify to what a special experience it is.

The line-up of soloists is superb and the professional orchestra consists of many of the players who performed St Nicolas and other works at the Cathedral last month – everyone who was there will tell just how good they are.

The choir will be made up of singers from the local area, people who have known and worked with Andrew and members of the Brentwood Cathedral Choir. Anyone can join the choir. We will rehearse at 2pm on the day with the performance of the complete Messiah at 7pm. It is a wonderful opportunity for people to be part of a choir full of people who know the work and who are always willing to help those who might be less familiar with it.

I know from having put on several Come-and-Sing Messiahs in Brentwood Cathedral over the years that, for many people, singing Messiah with a top-class orchestra and soloists in a Cathedral is a dream – it is something people have on their bucket list. Well, this is an opportunity to make those dreams come true so do not hesitate – sign up today.

The booking form can be downloaded from the Cathedral or Brentwood Choirs Festival websites:

Brentwood Cathedral website
Brentwood Choirs Festival website

Of course, if you just want to come and listen to what I know will be a tremendous performance you will be most welcome. Audience tickets are just £12 (£5 concessions) and can be booked through the Cathedral Music Department – 01277 288265 or music@dioceseofbrentwood.org 

Anniversary Messiah booking form2

Presentation skills book now out

I have been training people in the art of public speaking for many years, with a particular focus on helping people who need to be good on their feet in order to develop their careers. I have a wealth of resources, advice and personal experience.  Now I have drawn all of that together in a new book just published by Business Expert Press.

From Behind the Desk to the Front of the Stage discusses all aspects of public speaking with particular emphasis on the skills people need to be successful in their business careers. It covers a wide range of different presentation challenges, including making an impact in the boardroom, conference speaking, using multi-media, and bringing complex subjects to life. There are many practical hints, tips, and exercises to help people improve their presentation style, as well as detailed advice on how to create and structure content to make maximum impact.

The book has a business focus and is aimed at people who need to be good on their feet in order to progress in their careers. It also covers other challenging events such as awards ceremonies, formal, and informal social occasions. Its USPs are that it takes people on their journey from behind their desk to the front of the stage in a sympathetic and insightful way, helping them to build on their strengths and gain confidence as they go along.

I have made hundreds of speeches in a very wide variety of formats and venues in front of all manner of audiences and all of that experience is reflected in the book and in the training courses and coaching modules I offer.

Training courses

All participants in future trainings courses will receive a complimentary copy of the book.

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The book is available from the American publishers and also on Amazon as a paperback or Kindle edition.

 

Brexiters should come clean: they never had a plan

Writing about Brexit has become tough. The whirlwind of panic gripping both sides of the negotiations means what you write might be right today, wrong tomorrow and right again the day after. Many write with a specious certainty about the negotiations, frequently with little real evidence to hand.

I have hesitated to add to the mountain of highly speculative comment, although I have written a few pieces on how it might affect the financial services sector which have been full of ifs, buts and maybes. Few are close enough to the heart of the negotiations to be able to write with much authority on the current state of the talks, the likelihood of a deal or no deal Brexit, a second referendum or the future survival prospects of Theresa May’s government.

So, why this blog?

I was struck this morning, when listening to the latest instalment of despair and delusion from the Brexit frontline, by a sudden recollection of the image of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson the morning after the referendum in June 2016.

You may recall they waited many hours that morning before eventually appearing together to face the media. When they did, their grim, almost gloomy demeanour was sharply at odds with the triumphalism surrounding Nigel Farage down the road. It was, it seemed, a case of beware of what you wish for. The cynical calculation of Johnson in particular that supporting the Leave campaign would enhance his chances of becoming Conservative leader was meant to end in heroic failure. He did not expect to win.

This goes right to the heart of the dishonesty of the Brexiters. They never had a plan.

What the picture betrays is that both of them had not put any serious thought to what winning the referendum would mean. They had no plan for Brexit on that June morning and they have no plan for Brexit now. What they have offered since is a series of fragmented, incoherent and intellectually threadbare responses to whatever crises the negotiations have thrown up.

That is what makes so many people who voted to remain angry. Having urged the UK down a path that required real vision, creative thought and incredible diplomacy to deliver the UK’s withdrawal from a series of complex international treaties and obligations, they had nothing to offer. Their only moment of honesty was the one their faces betrayed at that post-referendum press conference.

Matthew Townsend remembered in St Bride’s

Matthew Townsend, with whom I worked for many years, sadly passed away earlier this year just a few days before his 49th birthday. He is now remembered with a simple plaque, bearing the Benn family crest, in St Bride’s, Fleet Street. Matt and I actually worked together just a short walk from there for several years.

I was privileged at his funeral back in March to be asked by his parents, Tim and Tina Benn, to say a few words about Matt’s work as a publisher and our collaboration. Several people who couldn’t be there have asked me for a copy of what I said so, with Tim and Tina’s permission, I publish it here.

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It was a huge privilege to work alongside Matt.

Our careers met twice. First, as he took his initial steps into the world of publishing at United Trade Press when he started selling classified advertising on one of the magazines I edited. Then, more importantly, when we worked together at Timothy Benn Publishing and Incisive Media on Post Magazine and its associated brands.

My years of working with Matt were among the most rewarding and memorable times of my career, as I know they were for so many other people lucky enough to work with him. He brought tremendous flair and fun to the Post team, inspiring us all to take that wonderful brand to new heights.

Life working with Matt was never dull.

Our annual trips to the printers in Cornwall were adventures in themselves. The first time we went together I booked us onto the plane to Newquay. Matt was not impressed as we boarded a plane with propellers. He was a nervous flyer. Every year thereafter we drove, an interesting experience the morning after enjoying the generous – legendary – hospitality of St Ives’ sales director.

Matt-Townsend-Matt was a great team leader – and it is our achievements as a publishing team that many of us will always cherish from our time working with him.

As anyone who has worked in business publishing knows, understanding the market you are serving is vital. This was totally instinctive for Matt. He liked the insurance market and it liked him.

This led to a string of triumphs, several of them making stunning commercial successes of ideas that others, not least myself, had failed to bring to fruition.

He launched a magazine called Professional Broking by putting the perfect business model around an editorial concept I had singularly failed to translate into a commercial success.

But it is our collaboration to create and launch the British Insurance Awards almost a quarter of a century ago that will forever be one of the highlights of my career. In so many ways it perfectly illustrates why Matt was a brilliant publisher. But also why his achievements did not always get the credit he deserved.

Before Matt arrived at Post, I had put together a ragbag of stand-alone awards but could not get the commercial traction to take them to another level.

Matt had the vision to see the potential of pulling those awards together and creating a bold, new integrated awards scheme for an industry that was struggling for recognition, not least because it did not promote its own successes.

We argued long and hard over what to call them. I was all for playing safe and calling them the Post Magazine Awards. Matt’s vision was bigger and bolder – he believed we could create a new brand – the British Insurance Awards. He was right and thank goodness he won that argument.

Above all it was his dynamism and professional salesmanship that ensured we got the BIA off the ground. It is hard to imagine the scepticism we faced back then.

People just could not understand what we were trying to create, not least when it came to the awards ceremony.

We even had to have a physical model of the Great Room at Grosvenor House made – digital graphics were in their infancy then – showing where the state trumpeters would be, how the military band would be used and the quality of set we intended to build. We took that around to potential sponsors and developed a polished routine for unveiling our precious model. We were a decent double-act.

Some sponsors also could not understand why their substantial financial commitment did not buy them a place on the judging panel. Matt was unwavering in our shared belief of the need for a totally independent and impartial judging process.

Mind you that resolve was tested in the very first year. Those independent judges decided not to award one of the categories Matt had worked so hard to get sponsored. He was not impressed – and I was immediately dispatched their head office on the south coast to explain what had happened. Fortunately, I managed to concoct a solution that kept everyone happy.

That rigorous independence has been one of the cornerstones of the enduring success of the BIA – the UK’s largest B2B awards scheme – and is part of Matt’s considerable legacy. Because of it the insurance industry today wears the badge of BIA winner with enormous pride.

It also laid a solid foundation for the events and awards that revitalised Post and are an essential element of its continued commercial success.

Matt did not seek the limelight.

Indeed, he shied away from it.

It is one of the reasons why his achievements were not always adequately recognised.

In many ways, I was his frontman. Whether it was standing up at the BIA in Grosvenor House and later the Royal Albert Hall or hosting a series of global roundtables in the reinsurance market when he turned his attention to reviving another of our brands, Matt never stepped out into the spotlight.

It just wasn’t his skillset and he knew it. He was kind enough to trust me to do all that for him.

Matt, it is a privilege to be your front man one last time.

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The_spire_St_BridesThe plaque is easy to find if you visit St Bride’s. It is about halfway down the aisle immediately on your left as you enter the church.

There is also an obituary to Matt on the Countryman website.

Reaching out across 50 years: School reunion stirs memories and evokes the past

September 1968 and 93 fresh-faced, apprehensive 11 year old boys stepped through the doors of an institution that was to shape their lives. Fifty years on many of those same boys, now all in their early 60s, will once again to step through those doors together.

The “50 Years On” group is a key feature of Old Bancroftians’ Day every year and this Sunday it is the turn of that class of ’68 to re-connect, reminisce and remember. Some year groups make little effort to trace lost colleagues while others treat it as a welcome challenge. The class of ’68 from Bancroft’s School in Woodford Green, Essex, is firmly in the latter camp. As a result, around 40 of that year group will meet again this weekend.

1968 was a different era. It was the year student protests gripped universities here and on the continent. The Vietnam War was dragging on into its second decade and a war-weary America was getting restless. Northern Ireland was teetering on the brink of civil unrest. South Africa was about to plunge itself into a quarter of century of sporting isolation by banning the English cricket team containing Basil D’Oliviera.

Old Bancrotians' Day

The quad – still pristine half a century on

Bancroft’s in 1968 was on the cusp of huge change though those 11 year old boys being ushered from the imposing gates, around the pristine quad to the wood-panelled Great Hall to be allocated to their classes had little inkling as to how much change they would see in their seven years at the school.

The cane still loomed large on the list of possible punishments. The cloisters were open to the elements. The changing rooms were separated from the gym and the swimming pool, requiring crazy dashes through the snow and ice in winter wearing only swimming trunks and shoes, clutching a towel that could never adequately protect one from the elements.

Many of the staff had been teaching at the school all their lives, some having been boys at the school. Goodbye Mr Chips could have been written about the Bancroft’s that embraced the class of ’68 .

It changed. Indeed, change was a constant feature of our school days.

A new headmaster, Ian Richardson, had arrived a year or so ahead of us and with him came many new ideas.

Those cloisters which invited the winter wind to whip through their arches were closed in, although that spoilt the fun of wading through the mountain of autumn leaves that always accumulated outside one classroom, causing the history teacher to explode with rage as they blew around the room when we carelessly left the door open.

A new science block was built. A new gym and swimming pool was built with the novelty of having changing rooms in the same building. This has since been superseded by an even newer sports building. It is disorientating for that class of ‘68 to walk into what they still think of as the new gym only to find it is now the drama centre.

David_Worsfold_Bancroft's_1975

I thought the boaters were great fun in 1975 – and still do

The uniform was gradually updated but not quite fast enough to prevent us from being the last sixth form to wear boaters. Some of us loved them and many will be dusted down at the weekend if they can be found.

In 1968, a quarter of those boys were stepping into an institution that wasn’t just to be their school but also their home. Boarding at the school had been part of Bancroft’s from its foundation but by the time we left no more boarders were joining. It was a change that had a fundamental impact on the culture of the school. The debate about whether it was a change for the better or worse is one that will always occupy Old Bancroftians of our generation and earlier when they meet.

A bigger change was to come before we left the school, however.

In 1973, as the class of ‘68 entered the sixth form, it was joined by two girls. Six more followed the next year. Now it is a fully co-educational school. For us girls were a novelty, now they are the norm at Bancroft’s.

Change swept through our era and it has followed us as we have trodden the twisting path of life’s journey since leaving.

1968 Bancrfot's Form List

That 1968 form list. At Bancroft’s the first year has always been the third form

Yet, seeing the names on the form lists from 1968 has reminded many of that class of ’68 that those boys were part of an institution that remains part of them. They have been inspired to reach out to each other, re-connecting after a lifetime, determined that as many as possible will greet each other in person at this weekend’s events. Many of those who can’t make it have been busy promising each other they will meet soon.

We will have changed, some more than others. Many have led lives that have taken unpredictable turns, some bringing joy, some despair. Some have followed what seemed to be pre-ordained paths.

Lives have been lived. Some have already run their course.

As the names on the class lists from 50 years ago were ticked off during our months of research to find everyone, there were moments of sadness as the list of those who haven’t made it to the glorious uplands of their seventh decade grew longer. There were those we all knew. One died while we at school, another just weeks after leaving. Others we are only just learning will be with us only in spirit.

Yet, for all the change of the last 50 years that has swirled around us and moulded us there will be moments this weekend when it will be as if nothing has changed.  Fleetingly, change will be an illusion.

Standing in the quad looking up at the tower and the great wooden doors below will remind us all of the timelessness of the journey that thousands of boys – and girls – have experienced over the 130 years that tower has stood guard over the school in Woodford.

In the chapel we will rise to sing the familiar hymns and psalms as the summer sun streams through the stained glass, casting rich colours across the faces, once young, now old. It will be a moment when change will seem elusive, almost forgotten.

Floreat Bancroftia

Why was Jeremy Thorpe so adored?

We can’t seem to get away from Jeremy Thorpe at the moment. It sometime feels as if we are in a bizarre 40 year time warp with his name dominating the headlines once more.

Some of us may have our own vivid recollections of the events portrayed in A Very English Scandal and the subsequent trial but for many others it is a little piece of political and social history they knew nothing of until the last few weeks.

Several people I have spoken to expressed surprise at the jubilation when he was found not guilty and the adulation in the final balcony scene in A Very English Scandal (also shown from real life at the end of Tom Mangold’s 1979 documentary).

It is hard to explain to people just how adored Thorpe was but I thought this picture of my late mother (nearest the camera) might help.

I took it for her at a Liberal Party conference (or Assembly as we called them) in the mid-70s. She was with a colleague (Sue Skinner) from her constituency (Wanstead & Woodford). As you can see Jeremy was accompanied by Marion.

Thorpe had only met my mother once before. She was just another constituency activist from a part of the world I don’t think he ever visited – Wanstead & Woodford – but within seconds he had recalled her name and where she came from. He was genuinely engaged in a conversation with them, making them feel very special. He had that effect on so many people, maybe not always for the best, but it goes some way to explaining the reaction to the trial.

Many of those people, including my mother, thought it wouldn’t be long before he made a political comeback. His judgement – or Ursula’s in the drama – was that he was finished as a public figure. That balcony scene with Thorpe displaying all his old élan and panache was a sad last hurrah.

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Politically I was a huge fan of Thorpe for reasons I recounted an the Appreciation I wrote after his death. Nothing I have seen in the wonderful BBC drama or Tom Mangold’s documentary has made me change those views.