Saturday 30 May 2020

Traveller's tales - on business in 1980's Milan

Milan Cathedral - by Jiuguang Wang - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Here’s a tale from nearly 40 years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties. As well as being younger, I was also quite a bit slimmer, but apart from that I was more or less as I am now. One thing that was different though, was I was nowhere near as worldly wise as I am today.  The tale is about my first foreign business trip, and whilst it was only to northern Italy, it still turned out to be quite an adventure.

The company I worked for at the time, specialised in water treatment equipment. It was based in Tonbridge and there were two different sides to the business; both involving water treatment.  Effectively these two sides were different divisions because whilst the firm had been formed by the merger of two different companies, the powers that be never really got around to properly integrating the two businesses.

One half of the company was very much engineering based and manufactured chlorination equipment for both water treatment works and swimming pools. The other more industrial, but less glamorous division produced ceramic water filters. These were primarily sold in emerging markets, because they provided a cheap but effective way of removing bacteria from drinking water.
It was rather like the early days at British Airways which, after being formed by a merger of BEA (British European Airways) and BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), still had employees identifying with whichever of the two constituent companies they had originated from.
I was employed as Company Chemist and worked primarily on a lucrative seawater desalination kit which we produced on behalf of the MOD, but on occasion my knowledge and expertise, were sometimes called on by one or both of the two main divisions.

This was how I ended up being asked to accompany the filter division’s Head of Sales on a trip to Italy, to conduct some field tests on a recently installed water filter unit. The latter had been fitted at a railway crossing keeper’s hut in a remote location.  The Italian State Railways were keen to install such units at other isolated parts of the network, in order to ensure a safe supply of potable water for their employees, but they wanted some form of reassurance that the filters were effective in the field, and that is where I stepped in.

I was quite excited, but also a little nervous, as the trip to Milan involved my first ever commercial flight. I’d been up in a couple of light aircraft, prior to this, but the world of airports and jet airliners was a new one to me. 

I left the company to make all the arrangements, there were secretaries who organised those sort of things back in the mid-80’s, so apart from packing my suitcase and making sure my passport was up to date, all I had to do was turn up and present myself at Heathrow Airport, on the allotted day.

I’ve a strong feeling it was a Sunday, and I’d arranged to meet my colleague in the departure lounge at Heathrow. We’d be leaving from one of the older terminals, 2 or possibly 3, so after a journey to the far end of the Piccadilly Line, I arrived at the airport in plenty of time.

Source: McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Before going further, a word or two about my travelling companion.  He was at least twice my age, and a real “old school” salesman. Because of this age difference, he’s almost certainly no longer with us, but even so I won’t use his real name. I instead we’ll call him Ed. He was a real genuine nice guy, and a proper gentleman as well. 

I’m also sure that because of the age difference he adopted a fatherly attitude to me. Because of the age difference he might not have been someone I would normally have spent much time with, but he certainly had a good collection of traveller’s tales to tell of his experiences as a salesman in many different parts of the world. 

These attributes aside, when I spotted him that afternoon at the airport, I nearly died of embarrassment. Ed was dressed in a safari suit (remember them?), but thankfully minus the shorts. Even so I found it hard to believe, especially as we were going to northern Italy, rather than darkest Africa!  What's even more disconcerting, is the fact that Milan is one of the world's top centres of the fashion industry.

By Ken Iwelumo -
What I did next, was rather childish, but as I said I was only in my mid-twenties. I’d spotted Ed from an upper floor balcony, where I’d been enjoying a cup of coffee. He was standing there on the lower floor looking around and obviously trying to spot me. I decided to remain out of sight and let him sweat a bit. I left things almost until the last moment, when I could see my travelling companion looking anxiously at this watch. 

Eventually I decided I’d better show my face, so I descended the stairs and nonchalantly approached my colleague.  I made up a story about a delay on the Underground, before we marched off to check in our bags and board the plane.  There was little in the way of security back then, but I do remember the seat allocation process.  My colleague was a smoker, and a heavy one at that, and back in the day they amazingly allowed nicotine addicts to smoke on aircraft. 

He was on his own there, as I had no desire to sit next to a heavy smoker or even in a section of the aircraft that was full of the fug of cigarette smoke.  My companion seemed disappointed, but tough. We boarded, the aircraft and found our respective seats. The plane taxied to the end of the runway ready for take-off, and a short while later we were airborne.

Some sort of a meal was served on the plane along with a drink. We were flying BA, so I was rather annoyed to be offered a can of Heineken. Surely British Airways should be offering something more local? British Rail at the time, served  Ruddles County in their buffet cars , so why couldn’t the national carrier do something similar? 

The flight was smooth and uneventful until we crossed the Alps, and it was then that we ran into a thunderstorm.  Things got a bit bumpy after that as the aircraft was buffeted by the storm. It was getting dark as we began our descent, and periodic flashes of lightning were lighting up the cabin, when the captain’s voice came over the tannoy. He announced that due to the adverse weather conditions, we would be diverting to Milan Linate, rather than the much larger Malpensa, which is the main airport Milan.

Despite this drama, we landed without incident, but than came the fun bit of finding our way into the centre of Milan and locating our hotel. Because of the diversion to our flight, the airport authorities had laid on coaches to transport the diverted flights into the city but being Italy, this was not without its share of chaos and confusion.

I allowed my seasoned traveling companion to sort out which coach we needed to board, and from memory we were dropped off at Milan’s main bus station, where we were able to take a taxi to our hotel.There’s not much to say about the latter. It was pleasant enough and served a decent continental breakfast, but there was one drawback which was Ed and I had to share a room!

This was because a large trade fair was taking place in Milan at the time of our visit, one of several that occur throughout the year, and consequently, hotel rooms were at a premium. It wasn’t quite as easy to check this sort of thing in  pre-internet days, but our locally based sales agent, who would be looking after us for the duration of our stay, should have known. But perhaps not, given the laid-back, easy going nature of this sharply dressed, smooth talking Italian gentleman.

We’ll be meeting him in the next installment, so I’ll end the narrative here for the time being, and then continue next time.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Probably NOT the best beer deal in the world!

I am rather surprised that so few bloggers and beer writers picked up on last week’s story, concerning joint venture between Danish brewer Carlsberg and British brewer Marston’s. Under the deal, the Danish firm will own 60% of the new Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company with Marston’s holding 40%. The Burton-based brewer will also receive a cash payment of up to £273m.

This cash injection, whilst welcome, won’t go far towards easing Marston’s massive £1.39 billion debt; a burden they were planning to clear by selling off some of their less profitable pubs. Then, along came Corona-virus.

The merger casts doubt on the future of the other breweries and brands owned by Marston’s, in particular the Wychwood Brewery—home of Hobgoblin beers, plus well-regarded regional brands like Jennings and Ringwood. Veteran beer writer Roger Protz described the deal as “alarming,” adding he was worried about the fate of the Jennings Brewery in Cumberland, as well as the future of Draught Bass, which Marston’s contract brew, in Burton, on behalf of AB InBev. 

When approached, a spokesperson for Marston’s declined to be quoted, but denied there are any plans to close breweries. This is despite the two companies pointing to £24 million worth of savings said to come from streamlining brewery operations, logistics efficiencies and other reductions in overhead costs.

Marston’s’ pub business is not part of the deal, but written into the agreement is the guarantee of a supply arrangement for Carlsberg brands. This has prompted concern among many small brewers, that they will be squeezed out of the market.

The new business will offer a mix of Carlsberg’s mass-market lagers and Marston’s cask ale brands such as Hobgoblin and Pedigree, and will also be able to feed Carlsberg beers into Marston’s estate of around 1,400 UK pubs.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA, warned the deal could make it harder for independent beer firms to get their beers into pubs. Their chief executive James Calder, said “This merger is the latest in a series of consolidating measures within the UK beer market, and has the potential to impact negatively on small independent brewers by further reducing the access to market they receive.”

Marston’s is the third national cask brewer to have been snapped up by a multinational corporation in barely a year—each time at a discount due to turmoil in the British economy. In January 2019, Asahi bought Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million, while Hong Kong property firm CKA paid £2.7 billion for Greene King’s brewing arm and pub estate last August.

The value of the pound has remained low since June 2016, when the U.K. foolishly voted itself out of the European Union, making these types of  transactions even more attractive to foreign investors. So much for taking back control! The fall in Marston’s share value, following the ongoing fallout from COVID-19, made this merger even more attractive from Carlsberg’s point of view, although they have since surged by 36%.  

Until this deal, Marston’s was the last remaining brewing group of any size, left in UK hands. Now, that honour has apparently passed to those Aberdeen-based upstarts,  Brewdog!

Saturday 23 May 2020

On your bike!

As we look forward to a long weekend (for those of us still working), which will be followed by the 11th week of lock-down – assuming I’ve done my sums right, I just wanted to add a few observations, gleaned mainly from my drives to and from work.

The first is a particularly unpleasant and disturbing one which raised its head very early on during the restrictions. I was appalled one morning by what can only be described as “fly-tipping,” admittedly not on the scale that makes the local headlines, but enough to really annoy me, and spoil my drive into work.

It was if someone had driven along and ejected their household rubbish, for that is what it was, out of the vehicle. Pizza boxes and plastic bags containing domestic detritus, littered the normally pleasant country road, for a couple of hundred yards, causing me to really question the mentality and intelligence of the individual(s) concerned.

Fortunately, this appears to be a “one-off” incident, and thankfully most of the litter has gradually disappeared – the hard-pressed local council may also have removed some of it. Even so, such behaviour does little to restore one’s trust in human nature.

This brings me on to the next set of observations which relate to an increase in people using a reasonably busy country road as part of their regular exercise routine. Now I am all in favour of the population at large taking more exercise; and for the government to encourage them to do so is one of the real positives to come out of this situation. 

But country roads have blind bends aplenty, as well as places where they narrow  and if, as a motorist, you suddenly encounter someone huffing and puffing along the wrong side of the road, or worse a family with young children on bikes, wobbling along a road which, in normal times, they wouldn’t dream of using they and, by extension, you could be in all sorts of trouble.

I am writing this as someone who doesn’t drive particularly fast and who has been tailgated in the past by the odd lunatic, frantic to get ahead in order to arrive at his (it’s always an alpha-male), destination that few minutes earlier. 

To be fair, during the first few weeks of the lock-down, the roads probably were sufficiently quiet to permit both safe walking, running and cycling, whilst still observing a degree of caution and common-sense. This still does not apply to allowing young kids to wobble all over the road on their bikes; wearing a safety helmet is not much protection from being hit by a car, even when it’s travelling at normal speed.

As the weeks have drawn on though, traffic has steadily increased; particularly the number of vehicles belonging to builders and other contractors. We are not quite back to levels seen in mid-March although, if the trend continues, we are probably not far off them. 

Most walkers seem to have disappeared. After all, given the preponderance of footpaths and attractive countryside locally, why would you choose to walk along a potentially dangerous road anyway. Also, with dry weather throughout April and most of May, conditions underfoot are ideal for a cross-country ramble.

The suicidal runners (the ones who ignore the rule about facing on-coming traffic), have also largely disappeared, which just leaves the over-weight cyclists, riding in small groups, huffing and puffing as the line of cars builds steadily behind them.

It’s true that as a nation, we have failed pitifully to provide proper and safe off-road facilities for cyclists. A visit to the Netherlands, four years ago which did include an opportunity for off-road cycling, proved to me just how inadequately our provision for two-wheeled transport is. 

It is rather ironic then that bike sales should have soared during the current crisis, and the government are now belatedly, looking at increasing facilities for off-road cycling, but in the meantime, whether you’re a cyclist a car-driver or both, please take care out there. 

So, will the current exercise fad continue once things slowly return to normal?  I would like to think that it will, and as long as people are sensible about it, and take their exercise well away from moving traffic, then that can only be a good thing. 

We were fortunate in the UK that outdoor exercise has been permitted by our government, unlike Italy and Spain, for example, where people were incarcerated in their homes for weeks on end, and only allowed out for essential shopping. With luck we will end up with a fitter and healthier population, meaning some good will have arisen from the unfortunate situation we find ourselves in.