Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Temples can be dangerous places

This blog is in danger of becoming a travel review - although I'm in no danger of emulating Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson in the writing stakes anytime soon.

After our recent trip to the Normandy Beaches (see below) Jean and I have just returned from a rather more substantial trip, to Cambodia. We went with my cousin Marie Oldham and her husband Andrew (themselves both UK media bigwigs of course). Marie and Andrew are both celebrating their 50th this year, and wanted to do something special to round off the anniversary. They suggested backpacking & cycling in Cambodia, and we jumped at the chance to join them.

We flew into Phnom Penh via Bangkok, and spent a night in the Cambodian capital feeling a bit jet-lagged, so not able to fully absorb its style.

We were up the following morning to continue our journey to Siem Reap, where our cycling was to take place. The amazing thing about the trip, of around 200 miles, is that by road it takes 12-13 hours. So no-one goes by road, and everyone travels by boat, up the river and then through the giant lake Tonle Sap which sits in the centre of the country. 5 hours on a boat did nothing for the jet lag! 

We arrived at Siem Reap mid-afternoon on day 2, and were welcomed at the hotel by BoBo and his team from Ankgor Wat cycling tours. You might just be able to tell in the picture below that BoBo's most noticeable feature was a set of teeth that would put Ken Dodd to shame. He also had a natty line of TdF cycling tops, including a polka dot "king of the mountains" jersey he wore on day 2, when the ride was as flat as a pancake!

Anyway, on that first day we did a sunset tour ride, finishing up a hill as the sun went down, looking out through an ancient temple - and very nice it was too. On the way up the hill we did question BoBo as to how we would cope returning to the hotel after dark with no lights on our bikes. "Don't worry", he replied, "I have a front light, and my assistant," who was also riding with us, "will have a back light and will stick at the rear of the peloton." No health and safety police were on hand to question this apparent breach!

Day 2 riding started at 4am! not a problem for those of us struggling with jet lag, but still bloody early to be getting on a bike. Again pitch black, as we headed off for Angkor Wat, about 10km away from Siem Reap. The reason for the early start was so we could get to Angkor Wat temple itself for sunrise. Which we did, and quite spectacular it looked.

Angkor Wat is one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world - and deservedly so. The whole area is studded with giant temples built almost 1,000 years ago, with the main temple itself truly magnificent and awe-inspiring. it's a must-see.

The plan was to go see as many temples as we could during the day, with a next stop at the temple of Bayon before breakfast, in order to beat the Chinese tourists, who Bobo assured us didn't normally turn up until after 9. Well he was wrong - they were thronging around this temple by 8.30 when we got there. I headed up to the top for a quick look around the area, and then descended to find disaster had struck. Jean, wandering inside one of the darker recesses of the lower parts of the temple, had fallen and twisted her left ankle very badly. She had also damaged her right knee in the process. Cycling was over for the day for the Rileys, and we were forced to abandon the tour in order to get treatment for Jean at the Siem Reap International hospital. Thank goodness for travel insurance. We racked up a $1,000 bill in less than two hours with the number of X-Rays taken and drugs prescribed!

I got back on the bike for day three - which was more temples, even older than those at Angkor Wat, but we finished early and went back to pick up Jean, and spent the afternoon in a tuk tuk (ubiquitous motor-bikes with a passenger carriage attached at the back) revisiting the temples we both missed the previous day.

The whole area is a world heritage site, and is extremely well preserved. the reason it is so spectacular is that this was the Capital of the Khmer empire 1,000 years ago, when the empire stretched across modern-day Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and into Vietnam.

Riding over, and templed out, we flew to the coast for some R&R. Jean's continuing ankle injury meant the R&R was somewhat limited, but we did manage to chill out in Kep, which is part of a burgeoning holiday coast with a number of nice hotels (although the infrastructure there is some way behind Siem Reap and the capital itself). The highlight for us was spending a morning with vibol, the sous chef at The Strand, Kep's top restaurant, where he gave us a Khmer cookery lesson - and we shall be attempting it again at home as soon as we've sourced all the ingredients!

Back to Phnom Penh by taxi for a final day of sightseeing. We stopped at Choeung Ek, the genocidal centre, more commonly known in the west as one of the "killing fields" of the Pol Pot khmer rouge regime of the mid 1970s.  As just one example, the picture of the "killing tree" below, and the caption next to the tree, simply takes your breath away.

This is a truly amazing place. Up to 3 million Cambodians were killed out of a total population of 8 million in an act of genocidal madness which lasted almost half a decade. The memorial centre does as good a job as is humanly possible of explaining how this tragedy occurred and what life was like under the Pol Pot regime. There are few places in the world that will leave you speechless. This is one of them.

Phnom Penh itself is a wonderful, vibrant, crazy city. Everyone rides a motorbike or scooter, and the roads are orchestrated chaos. A tuk tuk tour on a our final day showed us round the city, including the royal Palace, and some exquisite buddhist temples.

There must be many hundreds of cities like Phnom Penh all over Asia, and it's easy to see from the vibrancy of the culture there why many people think the next century belongs to that continent.

I know Thailand is on many people's bucket list - but I'd urge you to think about Cambodia as well as (or even instead of) Thailand - it really is a remarkable country, and given the trauma it went through only 40 years ago, its ability to thrive and prosper today ought to give us hope for other parts of the world too.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

I was moved

Apologies for not having blogged for a good 9 months or so. I've been writing a book (hopefully to be published in 2016) and having a bit of a mid-life shake up (new role at Orion, taking up new non-exec roles elsewhere, kids leaving home and becoming empty-nesters; attempting to sell the house and downsize etc) which meant that blog thoughts kept being put to on side.

However, I had one of those weekends last week that I thought was worth sharing.

A bunch of old friends invited Jean and me to join them on a trip to the Normandy beaches. We are all of the age where, although we were too young to be involved in World War 2, our parents were, so seeing a bit of our history felt like a good thing to do.

A quick bit of background if you are unfamiliar with what was known as "Operation Overlord" - the Normandy beaches were where the Allies (UK, US etc) landed on French soil on June 6th 1944 to begin the land invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, in order to end World War 2. The landings were the largest military operation ever devised, and whilst successful, resulted in many, many thousands of allied casualties. The average age of those troops who died (many of whom are buried in the area) was around 21/22. The invasion and its immediate aftermath has been the subject of numerous films and TV series, given how dramatic it became, and how important its success was.

We travelled by Ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. A 6 hour crossing but very comfortable. There isn't really another easy way of getting to the Normandy beaches, but the crossing really wasn't a problem as long as you have something to entertain you on the trip (and I'd recommend booking some decent seats for the journey).

We stayed in Bayeux, about 40 minutes away from the ferry terminal in Caen, and it is a really pretty small French town with lovely restaurants. There are lots of other places you can stay of course, including some pretty reasonable stays in very nice big French Country Houses (you wouldn't really call them Chateaux in that part of the country I think).

On the Thursday afternoon when we arrived the first thing we did was visit the tapestry. Actually it's really good - a well thought out 20 minute guided viewing with audio accompaniment, followed by a 12 minute film. And of course it's the last time the French really got one over on us militarily on home soil so they are rightly proud of it, even if it was almost 1,000 years ago!

On Friday we hired a truly excellent tour guide, Sean Claxton, whose website you can find here, to take us round the major sites. I'd say a tour guide is a must - and not very expensive if you are going as a group. Sean really was knowledgable and certainly added to our enjoyment of the trip. 

We started with a look at some of the Major German fortifications on the Atlantic Sea Wall, and then moved on to Omaha Beach, which is now memorialised in the film "Saving Private Ryan". There aren't many places you can go on earth where you can be lost for words, but this is one of them.

We saw the hill-top spot where the Germans defended the beach, before descending to the beach itself to walk onto the sand. The description of the sea being crimson with the blood of the Allied troops who died there is something that will live on in my mind. From there we headed off to Pointe Du Hoc, where the US Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy German defences. They are so steep I'm not sure how anyone could have scaled the cliffs, even without someone shooting at them! 

There are vivid memorials everywhere you go in Normandy. This one struck a chord with me.

On Friday and again on Saturday we visited many of the cemeteries - American, Canadian, British and even the German cemetery. All were sombre, but extremely well done, and were fitting resting places for our fallen troops, who laid down their lives so we could be free. The US cemetery has the most striking sculpture, entitled "The spirit of American youth, rising from the waves".

On Saturday we visited three of the other beaches (Gold, Juno and Sword) as well as visiting one of the tour highlights - taking the Pegasus Bridge, which was one of the key engagements on D-Day, and was so vividly re-created in the film "The Longest Day".

There are a number of excellent museums dotted about the countryside too. I'd recommend the one in Bayeux, The Pegasus museum, and the 360 degree cinema high on the ridge overlooking Arromanche. I did like the heading over the door of the Bayeux museum

We arrived back late on Sunday exhausted, but truly glad we made the trip. The French in Normandy are rightly proud of their country, and grateful they were chosen as the site for the allied invasion, and to this day reflect that with a warmth of welcome which was great to experience. 

Truly something to put on your bucket list. 

I'll leave you with an image from the British/Commonwealth museum in Bayeux.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

It's been a long week

I haven't blogged for 6 months - which is of course shameful when many colleagues are doing it on an almost daily basis. But I have an excuse! I have been secretly working on a bid for the 2nd national DAB multiplex for the last year or so - and almost every time I thought about expressing an opinion on something I wondered if the words might come back to haunt me, especially as so much going on in the industry has a "digital" element to it. So I've kept my head down - unusual for me I know.

I don't want to particularly eulogise our bid (although I'm pretty proud of the work the team have put into it, and you can read all about it here). What is in is in, and OFCOM will make their judgement - and like most external commentators I think the other group have also put in what appears a very respectable offer - so may the best man win, etc etc. And I'm sure Dee and I will continue to enjoy our occasional drunken dinners once the dust has settled, no matter who comes out on top.

I did want, however, to give you a flavour of just how exhausting a process it is to apply for these things. Many people in the radio industry at a senior level will have done deals from time to time to buy or sell businesses, and they will confirm that trying to deal with lawyers pulling the various agreements together can be extremely stressful. In fact when I bought Orion I genuinely lost a stone in weight in the last month because of the stress. Well, dealing with other potential consortium partners, pulling a shareholders’ agreement together, is exactly the same. No matter how nice your partners are (and Babcock, Folder and Sabras are all extremely nice) the sheer act of getting everyone to agree on the structure of a company is a truly challenging process, involving late nights, lots of reading endless drafts of long legal documents, and stressful calls and meetings negotiating over complex deal points.

But, of course, that's just the half of it. As many readers will also know, writing an application for an OFCOM licence is also a hugely difficult process, involving many, many fine judgements on approach,  structure and tone. I've been bidding for licences since 1994, when we got Heart 106.2 over the line at the same time as launching 100.7 Heart FM. I reckon I've headed up 15 bids altogether for major regional FM or DAB multiplex licences over the years, and I can assure you it's not got any easier.

So trying to bid for a licence as big and important as this, whilst at the same time pulling a consortium together to back it...well, what on earth was I thinking of when I first suggested it to LDC and the Orion Board back in Spring last year!

But, but, but.....I've loved it. There’s probably no better feeling for me than successfully completing a mammoth, complex project. I've especially liked doing it "under cover". I think most folk at Orion were really shocked when we announced it on Thursday (Mind you, I don't think Dee, Scott and the folks in their bid were surprised! We are an incredibly leaky industry at times).

It's great to get out of your comfort zone, and pulling this together, dealing with new people, certainly did that for me. I'm especially pleased we hooked up with Babcock International, who are a huge company, and who do things in the way huge companies normally do - with detail, thoroughness and discipline - attitudes sometimes missing from the fast-moving free and easy world we work in in radio!

It's also led me to the decision to move out of my comfort zone in a more permanent way, by stepping up to the role of Chairman of Orion Media Ltd, our main trading company. I'm no longer the owner of the corner office and the car parking spot nearest the lift - those perks go to Adrian Serle, the new CEO, who will do a great job I know. I'm still going to be heavily involved in Orion (I am still the largest individual shareholder after LDC) but will have more time to do other things that interest me.

I really hope one of them is leading Listen2Digital for many years, as it is an exciting venture to have embarked upon.

I'd always had 2015 down as the year I would "change gear", and I'm looking forward to doing some other new things as well. However, having a comparatively empty diary is both exhilarating and frightening. I'm clearly a deal junkie, and in another life could have easily ended up in the Square Mile or Wall Street, so I'm going to continue to look at the Private Equity world for new things to do. 

I'm also under a little bit of literary pressure. Two of my closest friends in Radio, John Myers and David Lloyd, are both now published writers. I think Team's book has now been remaindered (OK - no it hasn't, here's the link!) but David's book is out shortly, and you can pre-order it here .

Not sure I can match them on stories - sadly too many of my best tales have got legal non-disclosure agreements still in place! I'll guess I'll have to find another topic and get cracking later in the year no doubt.