(Number One) The Larch

It was late 1969 when the BBC aired the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode “How to Recognise Different Types of Trees from Quite a Long Way Away”. This is perhaps best remembered for “No1 the Larch” and “No 3 The Larch”.

This was a full six or seven years before I decided that I wanted to make a career in forestry. I don’t recall “No 1 The Larch” having any influence in my thinking, which I put down more to a BBC TV natural history programme “The World About Us”.

“No 1. The Larch” has been a frequent running theme in forestry banter through the years.  Those of a certain age nod knowingly.

Whilst I’m not sure I have a favourite tree, the larch is one of those that is certainly up there. So whilst I am always on the lookout for outstanding trees and majestic forest stands, for the last 12 months (October 2022-2023) I have been on a bit of a mission whilst on my travels in the Lake District (UK) and the Valais (CH) to seek out larch; identifying some from quite a long way away.

Here are a few photos in homage to the larch. I have many more.

Mature, reasonably open grown larch forest
Larch forest, Valais
Larch, abandoned bridge over abandoned canal
Alongside the (remains of the) Lancaster to Kendal canal

There are plenty of pioneer larch in the Lake District clinging to hillsides, and establishing themselves in stony poor soil.

Pioneer larch on rocky limestone scar
Pioneer Larch on Scout Scar near Kendal
Mature larch, alone in a valley surrounded by fells, scree
Lone larch beneath Great Gable, Wasdale
Mature larch on Cunswick Scar. Poor limestone soils
Mature larch on Cunswick Scar, near Kendal

The oldest larch in Europe are to be found in the Valais in Switzerland. A few are located in a larch and spruce forest above Vernamiège and said to be over 920 years old. A larger group, between 850 and 1000 years old, are located above Nendaz, where a ski lift bisects them. Being open grown, they have a high form factor and gnarly appearance. You can still recognise them from quite a long way away.

+/-900 year old larch tree in a forest of larch and spruce in the Valais
One of the oldest larch trees in Europe. In a forest above Vernamiège, Valais
Detail on a traditionally built wood building, several hundred years old
The wood weathers well. Evolène
Open grown larch at Balavaux. Large wound at the base with a person stood inside gives scale
One of the Balavaux Larches. My friend Mark stood in the opening of the trunk for scale
Gnarly base to a larch gives a large diameter at the base
A gnarly larch at Balavaux
View looking up the trunk to the crown. Strong branches. Thick bark
Balavaux larch. Looking up into the crown.

The Planet will be Fine: A Booklist

1187 BC, Coffeeland, the Divide, The Value of Everything, The Nutmeg's Curse, The Dawn of Everything

1187 BC, Coffeeland, the Divide, The Value of Everything, The Nutmeg's Curse, The Dawn of Everything

Our incremental approach to sustainability is at odds with the scale of the challenge we face as society. My recent reading list has given some insights into how we got to where we are. And it provides a foundation for where we need to go next.

These books take in new insights, research and discoveries to question the existing historical narratives of development: from the start of agriculture, the enlightenment, ‘the age of discovery’ and globalisation.

The Dawn of Everything, The Nutmeg’s Curse and Coffeeland cover narratives of: how societies develop; our relationship to nature (from nature, with nature, in nature & as nature); and globalisation. 1187 BC pierces together the events that led to the collapse of various civilisations within decades of each other. The Value of Everything and The Divide, also offer historical insights around economics and the development of capitalism. Coffeeland in particular is a fascinating historical account of capitalism, and economic & social development. It is told through coffee and individuals in the trade in El Salvador.

Taken together these books offer insights and overlapping perspectives on how we have got to where we are: a place where a global minority come to dominate a global majority. They show the ebb and flow of history, and why nothing is fixed.

Reading these books provides some implicit insights into what comes next. Or perhaps what is needed next, if society is to develop in a manner that is both more equitable and in harmony with the planet.

The planet will be fine. Its society we need to save.

A Coronavirus Diary


We head into a second lockdown in a few days. Somehow it feels less scary and more comforting than the first. I reach this conclusion after re-reading a diary I decided to write during the first lockdown. It was not intended for publication, but its actually worth publishing, at least as a memory of how much the world has changed, and how we have. I fear we haven’t seen the half of this.

Coronavirus Diary

It’s one of the learnings from people in China. These are surreal times, and who knows what will be our memories. So here is a diary. I don’t pretend it will be comprehensive – just a few daily reflections.

March 11th: 

Day -1. The seriousness was brought home to me when my boss suggested I was high risk because I travel to work by train. He refused to get into the lift with a few of us and insisted we stay at least 1m apart. Work had stopped all business travel a month before, and there had been increasingly strict measures at work – cleaners permanently circulating, cleaning door handles etc, the canteen taking away all self service facilities and things you can touch including condiments on the tables. Meeting rooms had the number of chairs halved so that we should sit 1metre apart. We had already put in place business continuity plans and people told that they could work from home if they preferred. The trains were already noticeably quieter, yet still running to Italy, even as Italy itself was in lock down. In retrospect the signs about public transport were already there. But somehow today felt different. The seriousness hit home.

Day 0. Our monthly management team. I decided to drive to work. We met in a larger meeting room with chairs spaced 1.5m apart. Physical distancing was the order of the day. That evening I drove to Geneva airport to collect Catherine who was arriving back from a week in the UK. I was glad she was home, and I decided that I would lower her risk by not having her travel by train. It was very clear that Switzerland had a problem, and that the Government were acting slowly (having previously been ahead of the curve by banning all large gatherings).

Day 1. Friday 13th March.  I announced to colleagues that I would be working at home on Friday and Monday and then reassessing, but probably in the office at least once to reconnect with everyone. Pretty much everyone else had also decided to work from home. It felt a bit like a normal day working from home. Except that I normally work from home in order to work on something. Today I had a lot of phone calls. I ended up looking out of the window a lot and noticed a pair of magpies and a pair of buzzards, plus lots of crows building nests in the trees visible from my new office. I idly wondered if I would be holed up long enough to see the chicks fly the nest before the lockdown was lifted. The Swiss Govt finally started to get its act into gear, closing schools, and banning all gatherings over 50 people. The UK Govt was nowhere. That evening Catherine and I went shopping to stock up. We had already done a panic buying trip 10 days before, but this was time to really max out. It all felt a little like shopping on Christmas Eve – some items in short supply (good olive oil!), and the soap was all gone, as were raclette potatoes (this is CH!). There was plenty of chocolate and cheese though (this is CH!).

Day 2. I had a haircut. And I realized the close proximity that some jobs demand. It felt a little odd. As I write this I wonder when will be the next time I am able to get a haircut – time for a new hairstyle… I bought the weekend newspaper (the lady in the kiosk had rubber gloves on to receive money) and I went to Cafe Ex Machina for a coffee. They had taken out some tables and chairs to comply with the new Govt regulations from the day before (no more than 50 people in one place). No cash payments – only contactless cards. Catherine went down with a cold.

Day 3. Is Catherine’s cold actually Covid-19? Despite a temperature on the borderline of a fever, there were no other symptoms and it looked more like a bad cold typical of the ones she has had before. We lie low.

Day 4. I get up early to drive to our accountants, to hand in the paperwork so that they can prepare our 2019 tax declaration. I figure that it’s my only chance. Indeed, today the Govt announces the closure of businesses and home working. I also use the chance to get some fresh food – bread and milk. Social distancing in full force by people in the supermarket. 2m distance enforced in the pharmacy.

A colleague announces that he is working on Kuala Lumpur time, and his wife on Panama time so that they can share looking after their daughter. On phone calls you can hear kids and pets in the background. All meetings have gone on line, but for those balancing work and looking after kids it’s clear that two hour phone calls are a no-no. We need to rethink. Bandwidth is also an issue – its good to have cameras activated and to see everyone, but the line breaks down often. I get messages telling me to only use VPN for certain tasks. We are all learning.

Catherine decides to trust the Scottish Govt for advice on whether she has Coronavirus. Apparently she has a mild version. I doubt it, though having a mild version could be a good idea.

Day 5. A quick walk to the lake early in the morning to see the sun come up, the fishermen go out for the day, and to get some exercise. There are police at the lake checking people coming off the boat from France – the first time I have seen this in 20 years. All shops except food shops and pharmacies are closed. The police station is closed. I got within 2m of two people – the lady in the boulangerie where we bought pastries for breakfast, and a workman who I had to swerve around when I misjudged our relative velocities when passing through a narrow space. Need to do better…

There is a weird ritual on phone calls as people talk about the surreal situation and tell everyone to stay safe. It’s bringing people together even as we are isolated. The birds continue with their nest building.

Day 6. Wednesday March 18th.

Up early to do some exercises at home. Non stop phone calls. Catherine saw a doctor about her cold (confirmed). Nothing much else happened. I did not venture out, though it was a beautiful spring day. I did manage an hour sat in the sun on the balcony.

People are getting excited about how this will change the nature of work for the better. I’m not so sure. I can see this getting seriously boring soon. I did wonder about going to the office tomorrow – apparently it’s quiet; and I guess quite safe. I had discussions with a few people about what corporate responsibility means in these times – mainly about playing a part in society to serve those most in need – front line medical staff and those out of work as they are on contracts in precarious industries. We need to be repurposing factories and staff to deliver what society needs rather than producing what we think it wants. And just getting on with it rather than shouting about it. 

Day 7. “Can you hear me?”. I wish I had a Swiss franc for every time I have heard that in the last few days as we all learn the etiquette of large conference calls. Today I got to talk with kids of colleagues as they juggle work and child care. Non-stop phonecalls from home with the kids at home are tough. Bringing them to the video camera seems to address their attention needs! If this is to go on a long time we need to improve computer cameras, and we need (me included) to think about what’s in the background and improve the lighting. The biggest oddity is that speaking to screens means that people are looking down which is rather interpersonal, though it is better than no video at all.

I understand that media outlets commission content well ahead of actually using it, but we do have some oddly inappropriate content at the moment – promotion of countries and cities and restaurants at a time when no-one can visit them, nor even able to think about when they can book holidays and restaurants. And then there are the adverts for how fun cruise ships are…

Lots of people appeared on their balconies at 9pm to applaud health workers and frontline staff. 

Day 8. The start of the second week. Decided to do a shop. Got to Signy Centre just after 9.00 to find a large queue snaking around the ground floor, and people being allowed in slowly, and having to take a ticket – limiting the number of people inside at any one time. Whilst I had come just for a few things I decided that things were serious so I bought all sorts of things I didn’t know that I needed, without going crazy. There was plenty of fresh and perishable foods, less so of packaged food. The whole experience was all rather a shock and unsettling.

Thereafter it was back to work. The magpies were back checking out some of the old nests in the tree nearest the flat. They started rebuilding two – I wondered if they were really going to invest in “his and her” nests. We went for a walk that evening down by the lake, just to get out.

Day 9. I got up earlyish and did some exercise for 50 minutes. The news is getting a bit depressing, and we have been told to only go out for food or to the chemist. I decided to walk into town for a newspaper, though it somehow felt wrong and it felt like danger was lurking everywhere. I decided that I would not buy fresh bread as I did not really wish to be in a queue near people. Instead I sat at the chateau and looked at the lake. Spoke with Suzy – it’s tough for her through this period juggling work, looking after Carlos, trying to navigate and plan their future. She is very resilient.

Day 10. Sunday March 22nd. Getting into a routine of early morning exercise and just two meals a day. Did a bit of work but could not concentrate so caught up on some reading. Did an inventory of our flat to prepare for our move back to England, though I wonder when this will happen. It’s planned for the end of July but who knows. This could easily go on until then and beyond. We look on in horror at the scenes in the UK. The Govt dithers, and the population is irresponsible. I call Mum to see how she is and guide her a little on what to do.

Day 11. I started the day by reorientating my desk to face directly out of the window. Catherine says it’s now like a Bond villain set up, but I have a much better view of the magpies who have now settled on one nest and doubled its size over the last three days. The buzzards continue to mate, once or twice a day (that I see at least…)

Catherine decided to go into town for some food. Migros seems to be much better organised than Coop to space people out. Only trolleys allowed which provides a certain spacing by itself. 

I saw and heard more of my colleagues kids. Line quality is deteriorating so we are told to reduce use of video, and phone. VPN is disconnected as a default. 

Day 12. Work colleagues with kids are starting to suffer. Juggling work and suddenly finding that they are now teachers. Homework is online but they don’t have enough home computers for all their children… Bandwidth is struggling and Skype is proving to be unstable. A live 20+ person conference call I was on had to decamp midway through to Microsoft Teams. A real team effort to make this happen with only 2 or 3 minutes lost.

After three days not leaving the flat it was time to venture out. We walked to the farm to buy milk, yoghurt and some tulips. Followed by the local bio shop for butter and mushrooms.

Day 13. Routine is setting in. Lockdown everywhere, and today Switzerland closed its borders. Two of this year’s big meetings – the IUCN Congress and the CBD COP have been cancelled (not announced officially yet) and this has called into question quite a lot of work of the year on biodiversity.  The Climate COP must be under threat. Time to reorientate work priorities for the next three months. The stock market is going crazy. After two weeks of dramatic falls, the last two days have seen some individual increases that I have not seen before in 25+ years of investing. It’s always nice watching increases, though who knows where this will end. I did not sell on the way down, or the up, but I am waiting for things to settle down before investing some spare cash if valuations look cheap. What is interesting is to watch which companies care, and which ones produce goods and services that society needs in the future. This crisis is helping to bring some clarity of which companies will have a future and are worth investing in.

Day 14. Thursday 26th

What I am finding uncomfortable are the opinion pieces and initiatives working too hard to link this health and human crisis to climate and nature. The timing is all wrong. It’s hard, but quite frankly Governments have other things to worry about. There will be a time for resurrecting initiatives on climate and biodiversity, but it isn’t now. If this goes on for as long as we think it will, the context of societal expectations, and the role of companies and governments, will facilitate a different direction anyway. 

Day 15.

Into our 3rd week now.

Prince Charles, Boris and seemingly half the British establishment have “mild symptoms”. Dominic Cummings meanwhile has just developed straight forward “symptoms”. It seems it’s a trendy and politically correct thing to have mild symptoms, so I decided that I would have “mild symptoms” when I speak to people.

Day 16. Saturday

I went to buy my weekend newspaper, as if nothing had happened. I stole a few minutes at the chateau, overlooking the lake, then popped into Migros for a few supplies. 

We had two fun video calls, with the book club and the Batley Boys, minus Andrew and Chris. Andrew has real symptoms. My mild symptoms seem to resonate with people, though I got called out by a few – “Symptoms of what?”

Day 17. It does not really feel like the weekend anymore. Days are just merging into one and I might not want to go out at the end of it… it does feel weird going out to the shops and avoiding people. Today I did not go out.

I received terrible news in the evening: José Lopez died, after battling a brain tumour. A fantastic leader. I could just imagine him commenting on Covid19: he would probably start by saying “It’s one of those…” before producing an insight of blinding clarity that contradicts the simple and conventional wisdom that we are all tied up in. His pronouncement would set us free and point us in the right direction.

Day 18. Today I did not go out either. I have a serious neck ache. Not sure if these are mild symptoms or just symptoms. I need to call Dominic. It’s clear that it’s too much time staring down at a screen and bad posture. Not much I can do about this, but I rig up my computer on a stand and it’s a bit better, and use some Tiger Balm which also seems to help. 

On social media there is an amazing outpouring of commentary on the death of José.

Day 19. Tuesday. We went out to Signy Centre. Following reports that men are more susceptible to Covid19 than women, Catherine decided to do the food shop (only one person per family allowed in). I meanwhile went to the post office and bank. It was a slightly scarring experience for Catherine, but nowhere near the situation 2 weeks previously. Anyhow we got stocked up with plenty of goodies.

The magpies have managed to build a significant sized nest. Clearly big enough for a whole family, whilst also giving opportunity for social distancing (probably 10cm is enough in their case).

There seems to be only one buzzard active – I can’t quite see the nest as it’s blocked by another tree. I did spy two red kites though.

Two quiet days at work. It’s good to have time to think. I realize that I have missed that in the last years, and I look forward to being able to do more in the future.

Great news today as Carlos completed his 6 weeks of radio therapy – he sent a nice video of him ringing a ships bell in the hospital to mark the end of the treatment. Onwards and upwards.

Day 20. April 1st

It is amazing how if you strip out news about Covid19, there is little other news. Journalists reassigned to the Covid19 story, little other politics and business news (no M&A etc), and everyone holding back reports that would not get the traction they need. There are a few, and worthy content, but it’s getting lost. 

Actually it’s getting a bit boring that there is no other news. And too many well meaning sustainability folk are jumping on the Covid19 theme – “Let’s flatten this curve too” is starting to annoy. Then there are those just keeping on with their message as if nothing has happened which also jars.

Day 21. Time moves on. Am writing this a few days later and I haven’t a clue what happened. More work calls no doubt. Oh yes, empanadas for dinner. Very welcome.

Day 22. The end of the week, except it does not feel like it. Three different phone calls start or end with the observation that traditionally we would be commenting upon the weekend ahead. Now no-one feels like making the distinction between the days of the week. The weather is fantastic, but there is no chance to take advantage of it. We should have been in Venice this weekend – Catherine finally managed to persuade me to go. Except we didn’t. We rigged up a small canal, with a gondola and gondolier. Drank Prosecco, listened to Pavarotti, ate antipasti, ravioli and pizza.

Day 23. A big day. I went out – the first time in 4 days. A quick trip to the post office in the morning was so refreshing that I sneaked out in the afternoon to the supermarket for ingredients to make wild garlic pesto. Just need to gather the wild garlic. We had two zoom calls and did quizzes – with the book group and with the Batley Boys. Was great to catch up with all.

Day 24. Sunday April 5th. Sunny skies and hot weather again… Did stuff around the flat. It looks like the rolling average of deaths in Italy and Spain has peaked. In Switzerland the rate of increase is slowing. There is some hope. Though work has banned work travel until mid-May, and meetings/conferences etc until the end of June. They obviously know something. Officially we are on Govt lockdown for a few more weeks, though Nyon library has informed Catherine that they don’t need their books back until 8th May, so clearly they know something as well.

Day 25. I snuck out just after sundown to take the rubbish to the bins near the railway station. One thing about going out only infrequently is that you notice things. The larch tree is noticeably green. The moon was almost full (full moon is tomorrow) but was low in the sky so was impressive, and two bats were flying around. Earlier we had eaten dinner on the balcony – the first time this year, which we agreed was quite late.

Work was a bit brutal today. Non stop calls. And I had to send a message of support to a colleague after a particularly brutal call and behavior which was unnecessary.

Day 26. Much better. I found some time to solve an issue that I had been thinking about for some time. Even better, Catherine and I went out after work to pick some wild garlic. I made some wild garlic pesto. It’s a sign that spring is here. 

Day 27. I was on a phone call today where David Nabarro, a WHO Covid19 Special Envoy gave an update. It was stark:

This is not a flu, that will go away

We won’t eradicate it

The disease is invisible (asymptomatic cases) and creates a lot of little outbreaks

We should not plan on there being a vaccine

So countries, companies and people need to plan

Life will not return to as it was before

We need to learn to live with it, and stop new clusters developing

The battle will not be won when lockdowns are released: rather, that is when societies are most vulnerable

Whilst countries need to plan, so do communities. We need to stop clusters developing, stop person to person transfer. We will need to embrace surveillance mechanisms.

A first attempt at risotto went really rather well – I made a risotto of bacon and wild garlic. Then had a zoom call with Suzy and Carlos to get their advice on my website content and design.

Day 28. Thursday. I upped the morning exercise today. Really quite uneventful. If a 5 hour phone conference call is not an event. Watched Netflix.

Day 29. Friday 10th April.

Week 5 starts. They say week 3 is the worst. Who knows? Actually week 4 just flew past. It’s Easter Friday, but the days all seem the same, except there is no work today. Spent a bit of time cleaning the flat, went for some fresh bread then sat in the sun, in shorts reading magazines that had built up into quite a pile. Some times it can almost be a chore catching up on reading, but I enjoyed the back copies of New Scientist and Prospect – something new to think about.

Day 30. Saturday. A bit of a shock. I went into town and there were so many people around (probably 5% the normal number), that I went straight back home, feeling that it was too risky to go out. This is going to be weird as the restrictions are lifted. Opened the Zoom Arms and had a natter with the Batley Boys. Watched Unorthodox on Netflix.

Day 31. Sunday. Went out again. Not a soul about. I bought some bread. Had a natter with the Tenterfield crowd. All the families were out in their gardens and grounds of the apartments, so there was plenty of noise all day. The morning exercises are going well – I am now doing double the reps that I was at the start of this thing. Though a half decent walk or climbing the stairs of 6 flights tires me out so I need to start varying things. In fact it’s really weird how tiring this lockdown thing is. How can you get tired doing nothing? Suzy told us she did her 10000 steps only on her balcony – heroic.

Day 32. Monday. Caught up with lots of people over Zoom. It’s good to be able to see friends as we chat. We completed the paperwork for our move to the UK, and I consolidated all the comments for my new website and sent them to Sarah for her to prepare a second draft.

Day 33. Tuesday 14th April. It felt strangely good to get back to work, and I had the luxury of only three 30 minute phone calls so I was able to crack through a series of tasks. I’ve said this before but there is too much hyperventilation regarding Covid19 and sustainability agendas. I’m not sure Covid19 teaches us anything that we did not already know about food systems, climate change, or biodiversity. But some feel the need to use Covid to build new justifications, insights, and rationale for their/our work. There are other priorities right now, and people need us to solve not sell. Also, in some cases promoting a disruptive course on top of the current disruption needs more careful thought – in some cases Covid is likely to help, in others not.

Day 34. This is really getting mind numbingly similar. Though I do wonder what a diary of my life would have been like before the lockdown. Hmm. There were signs of hope a few days ago as it looked like the peak had been reached in various countries around us, yet the daily deaths seems to be flat and not going down. 

Day 35. Five weeks of staying at home, working, hardly going out. Not much new.

Day 36. I think I finally got over my morbid desire to keep looking at the latest Coronavirus statistics. Am also completely bored with the articles about looking at Covid19 from every angle. We called Patti and Bob in Portland.

Day 37. Saturday 18th April. Went out and did some shopping, including to Jims’. We also went to see Trish, standing outside her apartment to shout a conversation with her. We had a fun Batley Boys at the Zoom and “I think you are on Mute” Arms. It is Christine’s birthday so we all had birthday cake and party hats. Catherine had made a cut out of Christine in a Horrocks dress to put on top of the cake, which went down well. We did a quiz night. We had a few spots of rain, the first in at least four weeks. It was nice to lean over the balcony and feel and smell the rain.

Day 38. We had a walk to Prangins – 11000+ steps which was the longest walk since this thing started. I needed an afternoon snooze! We spoke to Carlos and Suzy, and I called Mum.

Day 39. A dressmaker in Nyon is making masks, which we saw on our walk yesterday. Catherine ordered some masks for us. We figure that if we are to wear masks then let’s have something that looks and feels nice rather than paper/plastic medical varieties. Who knows if masks work or provide actual protection.

Day 40. 40 days and nights. And the data in the graphs shows a plateauing of cases, but not a significant decline. There felt like there was hope a week or so ago but this is going to be slow. Expectations of lockdown are getting pushed back.

Day 41. We went for a walk out to the farm and down past the lake. There is a definite feeling that people are going out more. There are noticeably more cars on the road and people in the parks. I wonder how this will play out if cases and deaths jump back up when restrictions are lifted – a second or third lockdown will be tough to enforce.

Day 42. Six weeks. Work is thinking how to start getting people back to the office. This is made much more complicated by the decision taken three years ago to convert our office to hot desking. We are 150 people in our team, but with office space for just 100. They will start bringing back just 30 people at a time. A first team of 30 people will come to the office Monday & Tuesday, followed by a deep clean on Wednesday. Then a second team of 30 will go on Thursday & Friday followed by a deep clean at the weekend. People will need to work from specific desks, and the configuration will be changed to keep spacing and people not working “face to face”. Smaller meeting rooms and phone booths will be closed. There is still construction going on in the building as they complete the renovation – and there is now a discussion going on, on how to lay out the final part of the building “post-Covid”. Personally speaking hot desking has been a disaster – it was brought in three years ago and it was a turning point for me. I lost a lot of motivation to be at the office, and at work. I feel quite happy now to be working at home in my own familiar space.

Day 43. Friday 24th April.  Just another day. Although I was told that work did not want me to come to the office if I was to travel by public transport. From what I can see most trains only have two or three passengers on the whole train…

Day 44. I went to the decheterie – a bit of a wait to get in as they only allowed three cars in at a time. I then went to do a food shop, and used one of the masks we had made. Wearing glasses is a little problematic, as they easily steam up, so I had to consciously slow down my breathing to control the misting. We had two zoom calls with the Book Group and the Batley Boys and both asked if the mask was made out of my old underpants.

Day 45. First decent rain in all the lockdown time. Even if it was only for five minutes. People went out onto their balconies to watch, experience and smell the freshness.

Day 46. Monday 27th April.

The lockdown started to be lifted. Garden centres opened today. We debated when we should go. Would there be a long queue at 9am? Should we wait until midweek, to avoid the queues, and if we did would there be any plants left? In the end we decided to go at lunchtime, when we expected everyone would be following the Swiss tradition of sitting down to eat at 12.00. So it turned out – there was hardly anyone there. So we now have a few flowers and plants for the balcony.

Day 47. Catherine had her hair cut. She came back with a short, nice cut; but disappointed that the whole social experience (chat, cup of tea, read of gossipy magazines) is off the agenda now in the interest of social distancing. I always just go to get a haircut – I had no idea that it was a social outing as well. Maybe that’s why I pay less.

Day 48. The leaves are fully out in the trees and I can no longer watch the magpies coming and going from their nest. Only one buzzard is flying around. The crows continue their manic life, occasionally one decides to take on the magpies or a buzzard. The magpies are too quick for the crows, but the buzzard is too slow and cumbersome. The tree that the crows have taken over has lost all its leaves at the top two metres where the crows perch after their frequent forays. Esthetically its a mess, contrasting the magnificent crowns of the other trees around about.

Day 49. Seven weeks. Seven weeks (said with the emphasis on the seven).

Day 50. Friday 1st May. Today was one of those days. No motivation to do what I needed to do, but I found that the long awaited interim report of the Dasgupta Review was published, so I spent 90 minutes reading it. It takes me several more days to publicize it on social media… I spoke briefly with Richard who was enjoying his first day “free” after having finished working for Frontier Ag.

Day 51. Another trip to the decheterie – I had to wait an hour to get in. Then went to the supermarket. I got the distinct impression that people are getting more blasé. Fewer people wearing masks, and little attempt to stay 2m apart.

Day 52. We drove out to Celigny and walked to the two cemeteries. Popped into the old one to see the graves of Richard Burton, Alistair Maclean and the Schmidheinys. Spoke with the Tenterfield neighbours, Mum, and Suzy & Carlos in PR. I finally found the film of the Spectre Expedition on t’internet. I’d missed seeing it twice at the Kendal Mountain Festival so it was good to finally see it. Amazing trip, kite skiing across Antarctica, climbing the Spectre and kite skiing back.

Day 53. I decided to sell a chunk of shares. I can see no logic of share prices at the moment. It looks like expectations are going to be of a return to normality pretty quickly. Can’t be. So for the first time in my years of investing I am sitting on a largish chunk of cash, and will wait patiently for the right time to jump back in. I am ready to wait until after the summer and the second quarter results are known. I know amateurs like me should not try and time the market, but I feel a lot more comfortable. Out went the shares that were hard to see what future they had in the new situation. Those that stayed are ones where there is a societal “need”. I had started to shift the portfolio in this direction some time ago and so Covid19 has just accelerated the shift. Partially that is also why I feel a lot more comfortable. 

Day 54. Tuesday 5th May. The regie came around to assess the flat and decide what needs doing to freshen it up for the next renters – paint and a refresh of the parquet. Not much else.

Day 55. There were some great aerial displays that I witnessed today. There seems to be a fairly constant niggling battle between one of the buzzards and a crow. Today it stepped up a level with 5 crows flying in close formation after one of the buzzards (all 5 no more than what seemed like flying within a 2 metre envelope). They flew at high speed below my window like a Red Arrows display. Suddenly out of nowhere came the second buzzard in high speed chase. The first time I had seen both of them in the sky together for weeks. 

The swifts are also back, and I enjoyed watching them play tag – five together all following each other. Four close together, one at the back struggling to keep up. They surely do this for fun.

Day 56. I got slightly stir crazy today and the moment I finished work, I had to go out for a walk. I only managed 15 minutes as the rain came down, but it was enough. There are new plans to have us returning to work, but I must say that I am now very comfortable where I am. Not sure Catherine is though…. it’s been a good easing into working for myself as I gradually ease out of managing teams and processes, and rather contributing to thought processes and technical content.

Day 57. I bought a MagicPass for the next season’s skiing in the Valais. This was my first non-food purchase for what seemed like ages, and an exercise in building hope and having something to look forward to.

Day 58. Saturday 9th May. The spell is broken. I went out and had a haircut – first since Day 2. We then took a 30 minute drive out to the Chateau de Vullierens to wander around the gardens – irises and striking sculptures. We followed this up with a further 1 hour drive to Les Pléiades to view the wild narsisses. We had a nice walk to view the hillsides covered in daffodils and orchids. Then to cap it all we went out to dinner at Sue and Max’s. The whole day felt quite like old times and “normal”.

Day 59. So we are going to have to go into quarantine when we go back to the UK. A rather shambolic announcement from Boris (which Matt Lucas sent up excellently) confused the hell out of everyone. Meanwhile there has been a dramatic reduction of both cases and deaths in Switzerland. Having been slow to act, it’s now impressive to see the results.

Day 60. It was the big opening up in Switzerland today. Catherine went into town, to Café Ex Machina, and Payot to buy a book. She came home triumphant. We had another trip to the decheterie and called in to the garage to see if they can sell our car when we leave. They can.

Day 61. Blimey. It’s a record. The tax authorities have processed our 2019 tax declaration. It’s normally November when I receive the final calculation. Covid is certainly changing a few working ways for the better. I walked down to the lake in the early evening to see how the town looked after the opening up. The hotels are still closed. About half the restaurants seem to be open – some with just a few people in. Two bars/cafes in particular were packed and social distancing was nowhere to be seen. All a bit odd, or is that a symptom of changing norms and ideas of what it means to “be alert”.

Day 62. We have everything in place to go back to work. Which I am actually not looking forward to. The whole point of going to the office in my work at least is the social interaction. There are a few people who I would definitely like to have a face to face discussion with because however convenient Skype and Teams are, they are only good for transactional stuff – it’s difficult to judge the true state of people and their reactions to things, especially when seeking ideas and brainstorming. As I continue with my long handover there are people I suspect need some help. I just can’t judge that over the phone or by camera. The provisions in place to return to work seem guaranteed to get us into the office but that’s all. Let’s see.

Day 63. Thursday 14th May.

End of week 9. Today’s highlight was that we went out to a restaurant. Falaque serves Bangladeshi food. We normally use their home delivery service. It’s a small place, with just a few tables. There were quite a few people in and we spoke with the owner. Restaurants have been authorized to take over the pavements and outside spaces so whilst she has had to reduce the number of tables inside she can expand outside. There could be a good feel walking the streets soon if all restaurants do the same.

Day 64. Catherine was feeling the need for a change of scenery and her own space so took the train and bus upto Nax. She had the train carriage to herself and only one other person on the bus. I managed to get two major pieces of work out of the door so that felt good.

Day 65. My turn to go to Nax. But before then I went into town for my normal Saturday routine – I bought the FT and went to Café Ex Machina. Things are definitely getting back to some normality. Nyon was relatively busy – there was a Saturday market in place, with a certain amount of social distancing, but it felt OK to be walking around, unlike Day 30 (when there was only a fraction of the number of people in town as there were today). I took lots of stuff upto Nax for permanent storage. We went out for a pizza at the “Central”. All in all quite a normal sort of life, at least here in Switzerland. We had a Zoom call with the Batley Boys where the situation in the UK seems very confusing. Switzerland shows that there is some hope for the future in the UK, though it does seem to be taking a long time for the numbers to come down there.

Day 66. It’s nice to be able to sit on the balcony and look at the view. I was last up here on March 7th, using my new skis and looking forward to a few more days skiing during March and April. The skiing resorts were closed down on 13th March by the Government. That seems an age ago. Catherine and I are having plenty of discussions around our strategy to leave Switzerland. It’s not at all clear how we can get back home. We were planning to drive, and I would then come back with the car and sell it and fly home. That now seems out of the question. Swiss are flying from Zurich to Manchester which seems our best bet. The Easyjet website is hopeless. You would think companies in trouble would be bending over backwards to inform customers…

Day 67. First day back at work. Having been in the Valais I drove into work. A lady was stationed in the garage to take everyone’s temperature and give out masks. I had my own that everyone commented on. It’s good to once again reject single use plastics… No-one wore masks at their desks, but everyone did to walk around the office. I had an assigned desk and assigned small meeting room for my own use. A typical 18 person meeting room was set out for just 5 people. And the route to the photocopier was one way. The restaurant was on restricted menu, and it was virtually impossible to go for lunch with someone – 1 person per table for 6. So almost everyone was eating on their own. I had a few calls with colleagues who were still at home (and preferring it there now that the kids are back at school). Another conference call included a colleague in the office, but she was not able to join me in my meeting room. I did have a few short chats to a few colleagues to catch up, but they were whilst wearing masks. I decided that I would work at home tomorrow. As I remarked on Day 62, it is important to have some face to face time on some subjects where collaboration and brainstorming is needed. So whilst the office is clearly still needed, the current setup is not as it does not permit that face to face interaction. It also contrasts with the situation outside in restaurants and shops. Whilst caution and the sanitary measures that were put in place in the office in March gave a feeling of safety, the current measures feel restrictive and overly cautious. It’s easy to see why. But on the day when Switzerland reported that there were no deaths, and only 10 new cases it all felt like an exercise in justifying the need for expensive real estate. Plenty of colleagues have decided that they actually like working at home.

Day 68. Back to working from home for me. Back into the routine of no alarm clock, morning exercise and at the desk by 9.00. Feels very civilized after the normal panic of getting up and out of the door to get a specific train which has been the norm for two decades. It was productive as well.

Day 69. I went into work again, but only as it was conveniently on the way to the Valais. With a long weekend coming up we planned to go to Nax and so it felt like a good plan to go in and be seen again. Presenteeism. It really wasn’t necessary. I’m not sure anyone noticed. All meetings that I have are still on line.

Day 70. Thursday 21st May.

10 weeks in. We are in Nax, and I’m sat on the balcony watching the swifts flying around playing tag. Earlier we went for a walk along the bisse. We met Josef and Tania and agreed to meet for a barbecue on Saturday. The plan is to go into Sion tomorrow for the market. It is all starting to feel less restricted. Time to stand back from the daily diary. Since I started this a few things have turned out for the better. Working from home has felt like a gentle easing into my next phase of ‘early independence’. I have also got into an exercise routine, started having only 2 meals a day, and lost half a stone in weight. I’m not sure Catherine appreciates me at home all the time. She has managed a huge amount of decluttering of stuff in preparation for our move to the UK. Things are coming together for the big move. Time to move on. In several ways.

The Way to Work

I’ve found that the way I get to work can really set me up for the day. 

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to work this out, but for most of my life, the rush to get to where I am working has always been about a single minded objective (getting there), and usually by the fastest route. 

Two years ago we moved office and my routine of six years was upended. I quickly adopted a new route, a direct line along a main road. And then after a few months I was organizing a meeting which involved guiding 10 colleagues from other companies to the office. I researched a different route through the old town and along the lake. It took 5 minutes longer, but was a real joy. It also wowed my colleagues who could not stop taking pictures and comparing it to their misery of a commute to work by metro, overcrowded train or roads clogged with cars.

From then on I took this scenic route to work (see the photos below) and found myself arriving at work refreshed and looking forward to the day ahead, whatever the challenges.

The benefits of experimentation

An interesting piece of research  on daily commutes in London discovered that  “a significant fraction of commuters on the London underground failed to find their optimal route until they were forced to experiment”. The researchers concluded that “Encouraging ourselves to implement occasional routine-breaks could be beneficial as well”.

On my way to work this week I met a colleague who I had not seen taking my route before. She told me that she tries to take different routes to work – she likes the mix, the unexpected, the new. It keeps her fresh and stimulated. I could not agree more.

A few months ago we moved office again, back to the building I had been walking to, along the same road for six years. Experimenting again, I have now found new routes along a river and the lake, with a chance to watch the fishermen, the swans, and admire the views across the lake. I arrive at the office in a refreshed frame of mind.

I also realize how privileged I am to be able to travel to work where I do.

Walking to the train station through the park

A quick glance up from the computer to take in the view from the train

The walk through the old town…

Time to admire the hanging baskets…

And maybe a quick coffee?

Along the lakeside. The Alps in the distance.

Past the port. Usually I was able to watch the fisherman unload their morning catch, and pass on a fish to the resident heron

A quick glance back at the other end of the lake, from where I have come, before crossing the road to the office

Football, Identity and Suffering

Official YIFA merchandise!

They say it’s the beautiful game. Certainly that’s why I chose my football team. I wanted to watch attractive attacking football. It didn’t matter that for more than 15 years of me first supporting them they did not win anything. Then it all changed and they took the league by storm and not only did the attractive football flourish, but so did success – all the way to the Champions League.

Continue reading “Football, Identity and Suffering”

My Perfect Weekend

In the style of the FT column of the same title

My perfect weekend begins on a Friday afternoon when I collect my wife Catherine from Vevey railway station and we head off into the Valais and the village of Nax. Whatever the season, it’s our aim to get there before the sun goes down. As the fire is lit I head off to Le Central to get takeaway pizzas. I always have the Mont Noble, the homage to our local mountain, which has smoked cheese as a topping. It’s washed down with a beer from the local artisanal brewery, also named Mont Noble. Josef, the co-owner has brewed a nice range of beers including an IPA, though the Dahu lager is the best accompaniment for pizza. Continue reading “My Perfect Weekend”

2017 Booklist

Here are some of the books that I finished this year (and some still to come):

The summer’s theme was about The Establishment. I started with “The Establishment, and how they get away with it” by Owen Jones, which paints a rather depressing picture of modern day Britain. It would be all too easy to write this off as a political tome peddling a particular view except that it is far too well researched, argued and believable.

I followed it up with “Adults in the Room” by Yanis Varoufakis, who pulls no punches in describing the events that led to the European establishment systematically steamrollering democracy and decency in Greece. Following on from his previous book, reviewed here, it really does make you question the European project.

Reading these two books really does shine a light on modern day society and the so-called political elite.

For a bit of lite reading, Bit Rot by Douglas Coupland is hard to beat. A collection of short stories and essays, this book feels more like how we consume stuff online, but on the printed page. It has some very good observational pieces on life in the internet era. The book has also been the basis of an art installation which must have stretched the experience somewhat.

Thought provoking in another way was Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari. This provided a quick précis of themes from his earlier book Sapiens, but really got going in the second half predicting what the future holds. His descriptions of artificial intelligence and algorithms was enough for me to come off Facebook, and to minimize my use of Google. I had some time ago stopped using Amazon because of its business practices, but it’s use of data and algorithms is also justification enough to stop using it. As the old saying goes, there is no such thing as a free lunch. When it comes to who owns our data this has become an important question of our time.

One book that I should have given up on was “Blockchain Revolution” by Don & Alex Tapscott. Bought in an attempt to understand what the fuss is about I have to say I am still none the wiser. The authors are convinced that blockchain technology can do everything, but you have to trust them on that as their explanations are not convincing.

There are far more insights from Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall. This explains global politics based upon ten geographies. I have previously commented upon Small Data by Martin Lindstrom. I also read “Brunel: the man who built the world” by Steven Brindle. Despite the hyperbolic title it is a great read about a great engineer. He lived in a different era, but nevertheless the scale of his achievements is extraordinary.

And on the reading list next are:

Capitalism without Capital – the rise of the intangible economy, by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake.
The Square and the Tower – Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson.

That’s just as soon as I have finished Penguins Stopped Play: Eleven Village Cricketers Take on the World, by Harry Thompson.

2016 Book Selection

If you are trying to figure out how the world got to where we are, and where the world is going, here are four books that I have read over the last few months that may help.

Understanding Europe, the European Union, and the Euro

And The Weak Suffer What They Must, by Yanis Varoufakis. This describes the history of the global financial system over the last 80 years, and provides a fascinating context to the current status of the Euro and the European Union. It should have been required reading in preparation for the Brexit vote and I guarantee it would have influenced the voting. At least the outcome would have been informed…

Understanding Islam

Destiny Disrupted. A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, by Tamsin Ansary. This describes the world from an Islamic perspective, providing an insight into how the Islamic world got to where it is today. Bits of the book are a bit too academically historical (in the year x, a killed b, was succeeded by c etc) for me, and I would have really liked to learn more about how the Islamic rule in southern Spain connected with Christian Europe, but I recognize that Spain was just one boundary of the Islamic world at that time (bits just one that I have seen…). The book does provide an insight that we should see Islam as not just a religion, but a social movement and a civilization. the western neo-liberal world view is not the only one out there.

Understanding rapid societal change and globalisation

Age of Discovery, by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. A fascinating book that compares the renaissance 500 years ago with today and provides some recommendations on how to navigate the future. The renaissance was the start of exploration, artistic and religious expression, trading and finance, the printing press and therefore mass knowledge and technological progress. The parallels with the changes in the last decade are uncanny, and for those of us at the back of the class it’s good to be reminded how the world has changed in the last 10-15 years. The western neo-liberal world view is not the only one out there.

Understanding where capitalism goes next

Postcapitalism. A Guide to Our Future, by Paul Mason. Paul Mason is an economist, journalist and (now) radical left activist (connected with Syriza, Podemos and Momentum). Some of the writing betrays this, but don’t let this put you off – the book demolishes much of the accepted economic theory, and has some very convincing arguments about how to build a better society in the face of the rise of factories run by robots and levels of debt that are out of hand. Mason highlights how technology and collaborative consumption/work can potentially free us up for a very different society in the future. The book is a little lite on how to get there, but it’s provides some great insights on where we are starting from.