Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Business’

I had been hoping for some follow-up from the ‘meeeja’ after The Independent wrote a very positive review of my little book ‘Crushed, My NHS Summer’.

The following simple email appeared in my inbox.

‘Dear Jan,
I wonder if you might consider doing an interview on ‘Saturday Live’, Radio 4’s weekly magazine programme broadcast on Saturday mornings,
kind regards,…’

I didn’t want to gush too much about how much I admired The Reverend Richard Coles for his gentle wit, Sian Williams for being, well, for being, both brilliant and gorgeous, there! I’ve said it… and Corrie Corfield for having one of the most sensuous voices on the planet, as well as being an accomplished Ipad daubette. J.P. Devlin’s voice carries the memories of my Irish influenced childhood. I first became hooked on Saturday Live in the days of Fi Glover, her unique quirkiness made me smile so much. Put simply, it is a truly great programme.

I was even more thrilled that my presence was actually required, live, in the studio. I have done a few radio interviews over the years, mainly BBC Radio Leicester with Ben Jackson, Tony Wadsworth, Jonathon Lampon, and Damien St John. I have done a fair bit of telly with my friend Clarissa Dickson Wright, Great British Food Revival on BBC2, and more recently Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on BBC4. In 2001 I filmed a Foot & Mouth special with Tony Francis and before that had huge fun working with Aaron Patterson of Hambleton Hall on both series of Wild About Food. But, Radio 4 has a special place in my heart as it saved my business back in 1998 with its ‘On Your Farm’ broadcast with Oliver Walston. Six months or so after having started Northfield Farm Shop, following my redundancy from banking, and before the existence of the re-born Borough and Broadway Markets in London, the business was just not reaching enough customers. That Radio 4 broadcast, early one Sunday morning, had customers beating a path to our door within a couple of hours. Many of those customers are still with us today all these years later.

On the Saturday morning, December 2012, I walked the short distance from a nearby hotel to the bright new BBC Broadcasting House, and was redirected to the original building next door. Rookie error at the time. Already waiting in the reception area was Emma Kennedy, unknown to me then, but, I soon discovered, a superwoman for modern times. Emma writes, acts, amuses, entertains, tweets and is addicted to BBC 4’s ‘The Killing’. In fact, so addicted, that she has taken on the self-appointed role of official stalker to the series’ star character, Sarah Lund and written ‘The Killing Handbook’. As if that were not enough, she dropped into Masterchef in 2012, and won. Emma and I were quickly shown upstairs to meet Chris Wilson, the executive producer and shown into the studio where I was introduced to the two presenters. They, Richard and Sian, are really just as I had anticipated and have described above. The four of us sat in a slightly gloomy, but very atmospheric room, gathered around an octagonal desk kitted out with screens, microphones and headphones. My back was turned to a large plate glass window behind which the production team sat and weaved its magic. This was the BBC at its sparse best, think the retro newsroom feel of ‘The Hour’ , late and lamented, on BBC2, without the fishnet stockings, cigarettes or Single Malt. Some of the lights appeared to be held together with sticky tape and post it notes, definitely no over-spend here. The room exuded what the programme achieves namely, relaxed, refreshingly old-fashioned professionalism.

Listening again to the broadcast, I realise that I failed miserably at answering Sian William’s questions. I seem to be a master at answering part of the question and then rambling away in my own direction. I hope she forgave me.

It really was huge fun to have become even a tiny part of the history of this great show.

You can listen to it here about 18 minutes in: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p027s

You can buy the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908684194/ref=rdr_ext_tmb

Available in Paperback or Ebook form

Enhanced by Zemanta
Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Allow me first to set out my credentials for addressing this issue. Between 1983 and 1997 I worked at or around Director level in the Investment Banking Divisions of six different banks based in The City of London.

I have watched the latest banking crisis unfold over the last few years from my little farm on the Rutland-Leicestershire border where I have spent my time since 1997 building a small diversified farming business, and a farm shop with outlets at London’s Borough and Broadway markets.

On every single occasion on which a financial institution has made a negative announcement, I have felt it in my bones that there was far worse to come. I have listened to, watched and read the opinions of a wide range of pundits, some self-styled, some appointed; some, like Robert Peston, knowledgeable, many, if not most, woefully out of their depth.

The so-called ‘Banking Crisis’ has raised one simple question more than any other. That question is:

WHAT CAUSED THE BANKING CRISIS?

I have just read an anecdote which comes close to the answer. Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer of Sunday 1st July 2012 relates a tale told by Ed Balls, City Minister in the Brown Government. Balls was being shown around the trading floor of a financial institution by its Chairman. Balls pointed to a group of traders and asked his host what they did. The Chairman confessed that he did not know. Apparently at the time Balls thought little of the answer. It should, of course have alerted him to the fact that something was terribly wrong.

I moved from bank to bank during my fourteen years in the City for a variety of reasons. Such job-hopping was partly the ‘hired gun’ nature of my job. Moving was learning. Moving was a way of moving quickly up the pay scale. I was poor at playing the political game necessary to stay put and advance my career.

My first banking employer was Nomura International. Nomura was then the largest and fastest moving of the Japanese Investment Banks. I was very young, but fell quickly into a position of huge responsibility which involved underwriting substantial financial risks for my employer. Our Chairmen, however, during my time there, were regular visitors to the trading floor. I can still feel the force of their respective hands on my shoulders on the many times when they would come down and stand behind me as I sat at my desk managing positions of hundreds of millions of various currencies in the International Bond Markets. These Chairmen, in sharp contrast to the one remembered by Ed Balls, knew and understood what was going on. They may not have been experts in each and every of the products we were involved in, but they understood the principles involved and, most importantly, they understood the risks undertaken. They would appear without warning and quietly walk around the trading floor stopping at each department. If they had entered on the other side of the floor the earliest sign of their approach would be of a sea of people jumping to their feet and bowing. In the early days we normally had a Japanese head of department who worked along -side or nominally in seniority to a non-Japanese (Gaijin) head of department. The Chairman would normally talk first to the Japanese person and then to the Gaijin. In the case of the International Bond Syndication desk, that was me. Of the six banks I worked for, a major cause of my departure was my inability to stand by and play the political game when members of senior management put their organisation at unnecessary risk because they did not understand the business of which they were in charge.

I remember Nomura International’s Chairman speaking to a group of graduates early in their careers. The most important message of his presentation was for us to understand that despite our different jobs and titles we were essentially all doing the same job. That job was to represent the institution that employed us. We were all, in effect, salespeople.

At the heart of what I learned at the beginning of my time in Banking was an understanding of risk. The meaning of risk was taught like a religion, it underlined, underpinned and pervaded everything I did.

As I rose through the ranks, I took on more and more responsibility and with responsibility came more and more risk.  In time I became one of the key people who priced the risk which the bank took in certain areas. As I learned more, so the market took on what were viewed as greater and greater levels of sophistication in terms of the structuring of deals. I was never the greatest fan of the derivatives market as its products became more and more esoteric and complicated. In part this was because I found the structures proposed more and more difficult to understand. In many cases I simply could not see how the structure could possibly do what was claimed of it. Now we know that in many cases, the structures did not do, could not do, what had been intended. Ultimately I formulated a very simple rule based on an assessment of my own capabilities. I reckoned that I was in the middle of the stream of intellectual ability and so, where the decision was mine, If a deal was proposed that I could not understand, it did not get done unless it could be explained fully and properly to me.

That simple rule, call it the ‘rule of clarity’ began to be ignored by senior bankers in the late 1990s, and as Ed Balls’ tale demonstrates, a massive lack of contact between the top of these financial institutions and the shop floor, coupled with lack of understanding made for very, very bad decision making.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Read Full Post »

I listened to the last of Mary Anne Sieghart’s excellent trio of One to One interviews recently on BBC Radio 4. This short, intense programme displayed Sieghart’s mastery of the art. A great interviewer guides the interviewee with a firm but gentle hand. Coaxing not bullying, so that ultimately the subject of the session moves up to a different plane, bypasses the interviewer,  and seems to open up directly to the listener. The questioner shrinks and the subject grows. Watch or listen to any great interviewer and you will see what I mean. It is the classic example of less is more. Parkinson, Desert Island Discs, and the great black and white TV interviews of the 50’s and 60’s. Dimblebys, Frost, Burgess to name but a few. Sieghart’s subject was Charles Hanson, a lifelong criminal whose darkest moment was when he killed his third wife with a knife following her affair with his own son who subsequently committed suicide. I highly recommend you listen to it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/b01jqjl1

What makes the Hanson interview so remarkable is the way in which he recounts his journey from ignorant brute to repentant sinner. These words I use are so trite, but so apposite. This journey could be interpreted as a triumph for the prison system. Hanson seems to have been redeemed through his fifteen years of incarceration. Improved by kindness, matured by structure and enlightened by education. It is brilliant, extraordinary, a totally neat solution and rounded story.

In fact the story is anything but complete, because Hanson will suffer for ever, his dead ex-wife and son doomed to their sad fates. Like so many ways in which we live our lives in the wrong order, the listener realises that had Hanson been granted the benefits of structure and education which were afforded him in prison, earlier in his life, he might not have sinned, and most dramatically, almost certainly would not have murdered.

The interview encapsulated the lunacy of a world which shies away from the cost of giving people what they need most, when they need it. An education feeds the ability to tell right from wrong. An education gives perspective. An education does not guarantee any of these things, but it gives its recipient a chance of a balanced life.

I met a murderer once. In one of my previous lives I worked for a firm of solicitors based in South London who specialised in criminal defence law. In those days the system demanded that there should always be a representative of the solicitor’s office present in all meetings between the accused and his barrister. Legal aid payments were generous for these meetings, but did not specify any level of qualification on the part of the representative who might be an aged toothless pensioner who fell asleep in meetings and in court. Equally that person might be a young, keen law student such as me.

The case involved an alleged racist murder. A young man of non-native English origin went into a fish and chip shop one evening. Shortly after ordering, a group of white youths followed him in and started taunting and verbally abusing him. The white boys started to push and shove the young man while continuing the spoken insults. At one stage the victim made a break for the shop door. He very nearly made it out of the door. At the door stood a lad who moved to block the doorway, and pushed the victim back into the shop. The victim slipped on the floor and the gang kicked and beat him to death.

My client was the door-blocking youth.

The barrister collected me early on a Saturday morning and we drove down to the prison. Just like in the films we went through security checks, loudly banging steel gates and crashing locks.

I have never forgotten the face of our client. Look up a photograph of young Tony Curtis. That was his face. Not literally, of course, but he possessed that same movie star quality, beauty almost. What remains with me still though, more than thirty years on, are his eyes, his dark dead eyes. The more we talked, the more clear it became that he had no education, no real understanding of what he had done. He was totally lost, in every sense of the word. He was an animal in the basest sense.

The One to One interview makes me wonder what the prison system might have achieved for him.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Read Full Post »

Producer profiles

I wrote this article as pasrt of a series of producer profiles for Great Food Magazine. Photos are by its editor, Matt Wright

The story of Rutland’s famous miller

Published May 28, 2012

By Jan McCourt

Fifty years ago, a boy climbed onto the back of a pony in rural Leicestershire and rode out into the countryside. The little boy lived in the city of Leicester. Ponies are conducive to childrens’ dreams. This dreamer’s dream was quite unusual. On his regular route lay the Fenney Windmill at Shepshed. The mill towered above the little boy as his pony ambled by. From the first time he saw it from his pony, much as it would have been viewed more than a century earlier by any traveller on horse-back, Nigel Moon decided he would become a miller.

Childhood dreams come and go. Nigel’s dream was shared by his parents. As it became clear that young Nigel was very serious indeed, so his father, a fresh water biologist for whom the countryside was a passion, and his mother, started driving around the country with him, looking for mills in need of rescue.

Having tried to buy Whissendine mill in the early 1970s, the family bought derelict Soham mill, Cambridgeshire, in 1974, which they restored. Nigel’s mother ran a shop in a caravan selling flour and frozen ready-mixed dough. Their aim, was to encourage people to bake their own bread using real flour.

Nigel restored the mill at Soham and rebuilt its sails, his first attempt at doing so. Paradoxically, Nigel, having adopted the most traditional of crafts, embraced the future. He decided to use a steel arm in the new sails as a stronger option instead of the traditional wood. When the sails were finally ready to turn in the wind, he let them gather speed. The great new sails came slowly to a halt as the wind died down. Nigel’s mother stood back to admire her son’s great achievement just as the weld on the new steel join cracked. The whole sail sheared off and, falling, impaled itself in the ground a few feet from where his mother was standing.

History does not record how Nigel’s mother reacted, but she is still to be found, now in her nineties, hard at work supporting her son in his lifelong endeavour. Nigel learnt his lesson from his flirtation with modernity. He went back to wood.

Although Nigel’s early attempts to buy Whissendine Windmill had been rebuffed, he maintained contact with the building by helping  in the restoration of its windows over several years.

The family’s quest remained beset by the curse of the drive to convert mills into houses as an alternative form of a rural-housing dream. This in itself was a threat to the remaining mills’ chances of ever regaining their original purpose.

Nigel still had his heart set on taking on the Whissendine mill and negotiated with its owner at the time for three years.

Between 1981 and 1986 Nigel was commissioned to rebuild Wymondham Mill. He managed to buy Whissendine Windmill in 1995. Too few of us ever really realise our dreams. Nigel was determined to be what he has since become: the proprietor of one of England’s few remaining fully operational nineteenth century windmills. For Nigel though, he had to be a very particular miller. Not for him the glistening steel of modern, sterile, equipment, or the link in the chain of creation of mass-produced bread.

Nigel’s views are clear. To preserve our mills, we must stop viewing them solely as objects to be preserved. They must earn their keep.

Outside Whissendine Windmill lies one of the many scale models of a mill that Nigel made as a boy. If you were to conjure up an image of a typical miller, your vision would be of Nigel. The miller, covered from head to toe in a light dusting of organic flour, his blue eyes dancing and shining brightly above a smile, surrounded by his thick beard.

More on Whissendine Windmill…
The 60-foot tower mill was built in 1810 and restored by Nigel in 1996, having stood idle for 74 years. The mill produces a variety of flours. Address: Melton Road, Whissendine, Rutland LE15 7EU, 01664 474172

Enhanced by Zemanta

Read Full Post »

I was upstairs when my phone rang, my elder son’s name, Leo, showing on its screen. A short pause.

“We’ve got two for the price of one here” his slightly breathless voice called across the crackling line.

“What are you on about?” I asked, laughing.

Leo was driving home from Agriculture College and stopped to check on our in-calf cows in one of our fields. One of our rare breed White Parks had just calved, a bonny heifer calf already up on shaky legs and tottering towards Mum’s teats to suckle the all-important colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk, thick, golden in colour and full of the antibodies without which the new-born would be left exposed to many otherwise harmless illnesses. As he walked quietly up to the old cow Leo saw a movement in the long grass a few feet away. Puzzled he altered his course towards the movement to find a second calf. At first Leo looked around thinking that another cow had calved, but he quickly realised that this was the last White Park due.

“We have a set of White Park twins”, Leo answered, “a boy and a girl” both seem to be doing really well, as is Mum”.

I don’t know the statistics, but twins are very rare in cattle. Our rare breed British Lop pigs frequently have litters of ten to fifteen piglets. Our ewes commonly have twins, and even triplets every now and then. I have been breeding cattle for over twenty years. Twenty Years!  I barely feel old enough for that to be possible. This is only our third set of twins in all that time. Even then the last twin was a calf we found wandering around the barn early one morning, disowned by its Mum, so we never actually managed to find out who produced her. She was hand reared largely by Dom, my youngest. For many years we used a more than life size photo of him bottle feeding her in our marketing. Dom hated this photo as it apparently did nothing for his considerable street cred.

A couple of days later, I went to check on the cattle outside. Rain drove down from the hill above the farm and raced across the land under glowering skies as the evening light faded early. I drove my old Land Rover up the lane to view the cattle. They were all there, oblivious to the elements, except that one of the twins was nowhere to be seen. Calves are funny sometimes. They like to sleep a lot, and often will search out the tallest grass, or a thick clump of nettles or thistles, as if by instinct, like Brer Rabbit, they understand these to be the safest places to snooze. So, almost certainly, the missing calf was nearby, but any stockman worth his salt would want to know for sure, as did I. No matter how well you know your cows, it really is not a great idea to walk among them newly calved. We’d had so much rain recently that while my trusty Land Rover was unlikely to get stuck, it would certainly make a mess of the long lush grass. The light was failing fast so I drove quickly back to the farm and took our quad out of its secure hiding place and gunned it up the lane. I didn’t have time to dress for the weather, and the sharp needles of the rain pierced through my clothes to my skin within seconds. Once in the field I rode across and up to where the cattle were huddled, not far from an old hedge, backs turned into the howling wind and biting, cold rain. The cattle called to me in unison and trotted over to where I had come to a halt, no doubt hoping that I might have some food for them. The mother of the twins held back, watching over the same calf that I had seen earlier which lay curled up asleep nearby. She called to me again, but this time she also clearly looked all around as if searching for her other calf, which no doubt she was. I could barely see as my spectacles lacked windscreen wipers, but the cattle settled down once it was clear that I bore neither food nor harm. I moved the quad as close as I dared to the White Park cow. Its calf woke up, raised its head and looked at me for all the world as if it saw wet farmers on quad looking down upon it with great regularity.

I spent the next hour searching the field from the quad, going over and over the same ground again and again. Part of the field is very steep and leads down to a brook which normally babbles innocently along. The innocent babble had turned into a furious torrent which, in a few places, had broken its banks. There are ancient hawthorns, bent and twisted, shrouding hobbit-like refuges dug out over the years by sheep and cattle sheltering from the elements. Old trees and bushes grow in thickets, probably dating back centuries to when the whole of this area was covered in forest, and only populated by truly wild animals.

I was really cold, by now soaked to my skin, tired and having been quite jolly about the adventure initially, now very down it the mouth and increasingly certain that disaster had struck in some shape or form. It was almost dark and visibility sorely lacking. I have heard tales over the years of people snatching young animals from fields and barns. There is an increasing amount of poaching and butchery happening in fields. Reports of farmers finding mutilated lambs and ewes in their fields abound. With these tales in mind, I took one more slow turn around the field, searching the fence line. Down a steep slope in wet corner, furthest away from where the herd was still standing in the relentless rain, I thought I saw a flash of white. I stopped and looked again, but it was gone. I turned the quad carefully around to look again, and there, barely visible through the long grass, and only visible from that one specific point and at that one specific angle was something white. Hopeful that it was the missing calf, half certain that it was probably not, I inched the quad bike slowly forward. Whatever it was, lay on the far side of the fence, just at the top of where the river bank dropped steeply down to the swollen torrential water flow. I stopped alongside the fence, stood up on the bike and leaned over towards the white thing. Sure enough, it was the missing calf. It lay very very still. It noise, ears and feet tipped in black, the rest of its body brilliant luxurious white with flecks of black randomly splashed over its body. I dismounted from the quad and clambered over the fence. Still the calf stayed curled up tightly in a ball, either dead or asleep. I bent down and gently caressed its head and moved my hand down the length of its body. To my relief, the velvety coat was warm to my touch. First one eye, sheltered by long 1950’s movie star lashes, opened, so slowly and then the other. Seemingly oblivious to the Lear-like weather conditions and the loud thrumming of the bike a couple of feet away, the missing person looked me straight in the eye calmly and slowly blinked a couple of times.

I rubbed its body more vigorously to get the blood flowing and helped it to its feet. I lifted it up and lowered it gently over the fence into the field. The calf shook himself like a dog in the rain and then took off like a race horse, along the line of the fence, found a hole in the wire and tried to return to the safety of the long grass. I grabbed his back legs as he tried to disappear through the wire fence again. He was too skittish for me to be able to herd back to the family group, so I carried him over to the quad and held him in my arms while I sat astride the big machine. The calf, actually not so little when he’s slung across your lap, struggled at first and then settled down. I pointed the quad at the hill, lent forward over the great hairy lump on my lap, one hand on his back and used the other to open up the throttle and head up the steep hill. Once at the top, I could see the rest of the cattle still stoically resisting the rain at the far end of the field. I felt like a cowboy in an old western film, bringing back the lost calf to camp and to the adoring eyes of some tightly clothed Hollywood bombshell. In my case, no bombshell, and the only eyes on me were distinctly bovine. The calf, surprisingly strong, tried to leap to the ground a couple of times during our journey, but otherwise behaved very calmly. I pulled up as closely to his Mum as I dared and called to her, making my best impersonation of a calling calf. As she began to come towards me, I let the calf slide gently off my lap onto the ground. With no look back, its tail high in the air, the little thing raced over to Mum, immediately searching for the milk bar. I stayed watching for a couple of minutes, savouring the moment. I drove happily back to the farm and a hot shower.

If you enjoy reading about Northfield Farm you might like my E-Book available on Amazon at  www.amazon.co.uk/Crushed-My-NHS-Summer-ebook/dp/B007X4L2LM/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1335351051&sr=8-1

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Read Full Post »