Thursday, June 25, 2009

Invincible?

My bedside clock radio clicked on at 6am this morning with the news that Michael Jackson - the King of Pop - had passed away - apparently from a heart attack - but what a shock. I only saw Jackson perform once - at Wembley Stadium several years ago - and he gave an awesome and utterly mesmerising performance as he rattled through his iconic back catalogue of hits - a memorable concert and now never to be repeated. The planned O2 concert series was due to be his swansong but now the world will mourn a music legend - albeit a slightly flawed music legend. His last album was titled "Invincible" - sadly he was not.

At least this will push politics (and politicians) from the front pages for a while! In that vein I had an opportunity last week to attend at Business Leaders surgery in Witney with David Cameron - our constituency MP and leader of the Conservative Party. Always interesting to connect with "the local MP" and David Cameron is particularly impressive with his infectious energy, enthusiasm and knowledge both across his patch and (obviously) into the wider sphere of politics. It was good to have the chance to probe him on tourism related matters as it is a powerful driver of revenue for this county and for this country and it was good to be able to remind him that we continue to knock on the funding door as we strive to restore and conserve this unique world heritage site here at Blenheim Palace. There is no doubt that the air of invincibility surrounding MP's has been massively dented by all that we have read over recent weeks and it is going to take time - and strong resolve - from all of those within politics to win back confidence across the country and this is unlikely to be achieved until a general election is called so that everyone can have a chance to vote in those people who they want to trust and represent them for the next term of government - and vote out those that they don't!

Last week ended with the Oxfordshire Business Awards dinner at the Oxford Thames Four Pillars Hotel and 11 of us attended from Blenheim Palace as we were shortlisted for an award in the Property and Construction Category. The evening was hosted by Adrienne Lawyer - a very feisty TV presenter - and we were all delighted that we won our award category for the unique quality surrounding the restroration and delevopment of the Blenheim Palace Sawmills Site near Combe. A good night was had by all (and an especially merry night was had by some!) and it was excellent to come home with another prestigious Oxfordshire Business Award for the wall. This one means more than most as we dedicate it to our late colleague Tony White who passed away in March - the Sawmills was Tony's last project which he had virtually completed before he left us - I am sure Tony was with us last Friday and I am sure he would have smiled as the award was won. We will give the award to Mary, his wife, as a lasting tribute to Tony's achievements here at Blenheim Palace.

Life through this week has been dominated by preparing for our Summer Trustees meeting in July - accounts are being audited, reports written and a pile of papers finalised for distribution ahead of the meeting. Always a stressful time (especially for Dominic with all the accounts preparation) and a meeting that we are always pleased to get behind us - but the positive trading performance that continues into June means that we can be on the front foot with a very positive story when we meet with them next month. Always sobering to remember though that none of us are invincible - but we have a great team here and everyone works amazingly hard to succeed and to deliver/exceed the high standards that we set for ourselves in every area of the business.

The other interesting aspect of the week has been watching Lord Blandford on the "Famous Rich and Homeless" programme on BBC One - not really his finest hour but very much his personal decision to take part in the programme. The plight of the homeless was certainly painfully showcased across the two hours - and it is frightening to hear some of the stories as to how people slip so easily into that sad and tragic world - none of us should lose sight of this part of our society and we should all remember that none of us are invincible.

On that sobering note - have a good weekend!


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Friday, June 19, 2009

Gambling

As I sit here on a glorious Friday morning - with a clear blue sky and a good forecast for the Father's Day weekend - all seems well and we should be in good shape for the vital summer months to come.

But are there dark clouds around the corner as various facets out there gamble with their destiny?

The news that oil refinery workers across the country are on wildcat strikes this morning is far from encouraging and past experience tells us that this could very quickly escalate into something much more serious - and damaging for us all. Add the postal workers disputes and the ongoing tube issues in London and my fears for a summer of crippling strikes are I hope overstated. The various sides are gambling their cards - lets hope we don't all suffer as a result and that common sense prevails.

Then there are the growing statistics surrounding swine flu - to date the media are handling it very responsibly - taking the sad first UK death and the upgrading to a pandemic in their stride - but how long will their nerve hold and for how long will life carry on unaffected if the numbers continue to grow - especially into the more dangerous winter months?

The world of Formula 1 is gambling with its destiny on the eve of the showcase (and last) British GP at Silverstone - there is so much money slushing around the world of F1 racing that you sort of hope that they are not shooting themselves in the foot (or should that be wheel?) by virtue of their resistance to a budget cap - albeit quite a healthy budget cap! Hopefully they will not gamble themselves into oblivion as I am enjoying FI back on the BBC!

And what on earth is going on with MP expenses - just when we thought it was safe to open our papers again to read real news we are faced with vast blocks of blacked out text, etc. We now all know what "redacting" means (but I had to loook it up!) and the whole issue again has exploded - how can we take this seriously when honesty and openess is needed and promised - and we get vast swathes of blacked out text - what is going on? If I was a gambler, this could be the final straw for an impatient electorate!

And on the subject of gambling, my wife and I had a great day at Royal Ascot on Tuesday and we actually backed 4 winners! But given that the extent of our ambition is to bet £5 each way and given that we tend to play fairly safe - we come away with only a small pot of winnings which was quickly lost on tea, racecards, drinks, babysitter, etc! It is frustrating as we backed an Aussie horse in the second race which romped home as favourite - on the basis that it had not come that distance just for the ride - but I singularly missed applying the same logic in the last race as a horse from America romped home at 33-1 - what an idiot as that would have been an excellent end to the day and would have left me well up overall - but hey - thats gambling!

And so into the weekend - good luck to the British Lions, good luck to Jenson Button and Brawn in his home GP, and good luck to all fathers - enjoy Sunday - it's the one day in the calendar when we really can sit back and be waited on by friends and family with a clear conscience!

And on the subject of gambling - Wimbledon have given up gambling on the weather and have invested heavily in their sliding roof for Centre Court - don't you just know that we will now have a glorious two weeks with no rain!!


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Friday, June 12, 2009

Frustrated?

No this is not an opening for a chatroom or for those who need special help - merely an expression to recognise that not everything goes our way and that things take time.

Frustrated that the weather was so awful last weekend for the Mazda Blenheim Triathlon - but amazed at how the Park survived; amazed at how quickly the organisers (IMG) cleared away from site - they were completely gone by Monday night; and hugely impressed by the herculean efforts of all of the 5,000 athletes in the conditions they faced - especially the in-house talent - well done Dom and Roger in particular!

Frustrated that we are the only UK world heritage site that cannot apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding support - because we are privately owned. I attended the latest All-Party Parliamentary World Heritage Sites Committee meeting at Westminster on Tuesday afternoon and listened to a presentation from the Chief Executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund where she talked passionately about the support they have given to world heritage sites since they were formed - impressive figures given that £284m of lottery funding has gone to world heritage sites since 1994 - but not one penny to Blenheim Palace! Frustrated does not begin to decribe it - downright annoyed and angry would get closer. Having been inscribed as a world heritage site as one of the first batch in the UK back in 1987 (there are now 24 UK world heriage sites) it seems totally unjust that we are singled out in this way because of our ownership - world heritage status should command some special support and recognition irrespective of ownership - we will keep talking and lobbying to anyone who will listen - if only to ease our frustration!

Frustrated that change takes time - especially where that change involves a multitude of public and private sector partners. We are on the cusp of an exciting step forward regarding the future managaement of the tourism function across Oxford and Oxfordshire - but inevitably there are a lot of partners that we need to take with us on this in order to capture the prize of a county-wide partnership or organisation to drive this forward. We will get there and I am confident that the end result will be hugely positive for everyone with an interest in tourism across the county - but it is frustrating that we can't move faster!

Frustrated probably does not adequately explain how Frank Lee Morris and Clarence and John Anglin were feeling on this morning in 1962 - probably more like nervous anticipation. On this day 47 years ago they finalised their famous escape from Alcatraz using dummy heads (made of soap, toilet paper and real hair) in their beds, sharpened spoons to cut through the walls in their cells, and a homemade raft to complete their escape. They were never re-captured but we will never know what actually happened to them - it is felt most likely that they were drowned or eaten by sharks - or maybe not?

Frustrated that are best efforts to establish a strong annual music event at Blenheim Palace are continually being thwarted - Wakestock in 2008 succeeded in part but the organisers did not feel able to return this year; "Festival for Heroes" tried and ultimately failed amidst a very cluttered festivals calendar. Hopefully they will return in 2010 and we can then establish a powerful event with them and help good causes at the same time - we will do our best to turn this into reality next summer.

The above has helped to ease my fustration - what is the saying "A problem shared is a problem halved" - and I now look forward with anticipation to a strong weekend where visitors can enjoy "Britain's Greatest Palace" and a great day out - and the forecast is reasonably good as well!


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Friday, June 5, 2009

Memories

Life is full of memories - recent and past; good and bad - but we can never change what has gone before and we must never forget from where we have come.

69 years ago over 558,000 Allied soldiers were recovering from completing the trauma of being evacuated back from Dunkirk in an operation (code named Dynamo) that Winston Churchill called a "miracle of deliverance".

4 years later in 1944, over 130,000 British, Canadian and American soldiers were on the eve of the D-Day landings onto the Normandy beaches. Operation Neptune was launched in the early hours of 6 June 1944 and this paved the way for the end of the Second World War. From the defiance expressed in 1940 came optimism with Churchill declaring that the Normandy invasion was proceeding in "a thoroughly satisfactory manner".

Winston Churchill was born here at Blenheim Palace in November 1874 and many powerful memories exist with regard to his very special connection with this place.

Memories surrounding the use of the Palace through the Second World War are equally vibrant and these were brought vividly to life this week with a number of photographs received from Graham Ellis who was evacuated here to Blenheim Palace with nearly 400 Malvern College schoolboys from October 1939 to Summer 1940. The pictures are amazing from 70 years ago - some even in perfect colour - the temporary huts in the Great Court; the black out screened entrance to the Palace; the cars and lorries from the time including the Duke's Lagonda; the railway set in The Orangery; the Merryweather steam fire pump; the Junior Training Corp parading in front of the Palace and a wonderful picture of the 10th Duke on the front steps of the Palace saying farewell to the school in Summer 1940 and thanking them "for not wrecking the place!"

Graham Ellis recalls various stories from this time - "Perhaps I should mention the huts. Living in a hut is a special experience be it at school or in the services. People rant on about 1947/48 winter being cold but it was not a patch on 1939/40. The huts we lived in and worked in (sleeping and eating only in the Palace) were lit and heated by gas. In the winter with the heat full on we worked in overcoats, mittens and balaclavas to keep warm. The huts had a lining of ice on the inside - on a good day at about 4.30pm or so drips of condensation would begin to fall down on your papers. I got chickenpox and was consigned with many others to the San in the Home Farm. This was pre the bath hut and I was told to have a bath before I went in the bath allegedly used by Churchill, I felt very privileged!. Its funny how odd memories come back - like seeing a huge collection of kippers on the steps up to the Great Hall cooking in the hot sun, they were there for hours and by the time we got them they were well and truly off!"

Thank you Graham for these wonderful memories and for evoking and maintaining the very special relationship that still exists today between Blenheim Palace and Malvern College - we will never forget that special year in our history.

With Malvern College departed, MI5 moved in to occupy the Palace for the rest of the war although much less is known from that "secret" time - other than the amusing anecdote that the buses/taxis used to pull up at the Palace gates and the drivers used to shout "Anyone for MI5!" - so much for the secret Secret Service!

Moving to the present day, memories of Dominic (our talented bean counter aka Finance Director) competing in last years Triathlon are still painful as he struggled manfully through the swim phase for the first time. Hopefully months of training plus the experience gained last year will set him up well for tomorrows challenge - good luck Dom we will all be cheering you on and good luck as well to all of the other staff who are competing - Nick, Anita, Roger, Hannah and any I have forgotten. The weather forecast is poor but it should be a great weekend of sport for the 5,000+ athletes who are due to compete!

The dawn brings the daily challenges - whether Operation Neptune 65 years ago or merely the 2009 Triathlon - but everything creates it's memories and every day is precious and memorable.

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Anonymous Jacquetta Rodgers said...

A very interesting account. My husband and I were at a nostalgia day to see the archive material for St. Faith's School, Cambridge. The borders at the school during the war were evacuated to Ashburton in Devon, whrereas the day boys stayed in Cambridge.

June 7, 2009 at 1:52 PM  
Anonymous John Hoy said...

Thanks Jacquetta

Wartime must have been an interesting time for school children across the country. By a bizarre concidence, I went to St Faith's School in Cambridge (Chaucer House from 1970 to 1974) before then going on to The Ley's - I did not know about their experiences in the war.

What a small world!

Many thanks for posting a comment - good to get feedback.

BW

John

June 7, 2009 at 11:30 PM  

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