I had just returned from my usual walk past the Cape Town Stadium, along the promenade and back through Green Point Park, when I received a ‘whatsapp’ message from John, one of my sons. He said that he was at a work event, where one of the guest speakers was Lewis Moody. He wanted to know if I had that photo of him with Lewis Moody at a Milk Marketing Board event, sponsoring the England Rugby team, when they had a World Cup training camp at Pennyhill Park in Camberley. John was one of the invited mini rugby players from their school, Lyndhurst.
Lewis Moody was born in 1978 in Ascot and played mini-rugby until the age of 11, at Eagle House in Bracknell, near Camberley. He joined Leicester Tigers and played his first league game at the age of 18, in 1996.
He was selected for England from 2001-2011, where he scored 9 tries, plus one for the British & Lions in their New Zealand tour of 2005. He was a member of the English team that won the World Cup in 2003. He remained with Leicester until 2010, when he moved to Bath. He retired in 2012.
John must have shown the old photo to Lewis for they staged an updated version, with Lewis looking at John and John leaning on his shoulder, sipping champagne.
A careful observer might notice that, twenty years later, both now wear wedding rings!
‘On Saturday, I was a surgeon in South Africa, very little known. On Monday, I was world renowned.’ (Christiaan Barnard)
It is now more than two months since I was discharged from the Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital in Cape town. I entered the hospital in an ambulance and left six days later in an Uber. I entered with a bloody head from a mugging, and left with my head, a knee, an ankle and my groin bandaged, and two pre-cautionary stents in an artery. I also left with a prescription for seven pharmaceuticals, four more that I had when I entered. During my stay, I had been patched up, injected for tetanus, x-rayed, scanned, MRI-ed, blood and urine tested, and for four days, I was hooked up to monitors in the cardiac intensive care unit (ICU). All in all, a most interesting experience, but one I could happily have done without.
But there were some positive outcomes resulting from my six-day stay.
Firstly, I did not have to get up to go to the bathroom, especially in the middle of the night; my nurse would bring me a bottle, tilt the bed, and return when I had finished.
Then there was the morning bed bath, followed by the changing of the sheets, with me still in the bed. And of course, there was the food – breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a choice of five courses to each. I must say that when I started to eat after a couple of days, I found the food to be excellent, unlike any institutional food I had ever experienced. My only complaint was the lack of a wine choice!
And to cap it all, there was no load-shedding. While the rest of the country was struggling with two or three blackouts every day, the hospital had constant power. If it had not been for the lack of wine, I would have been tempted to try and stay on for a few more days!
But my most outstanding impression was the quality of the nursing staff. In the ICU, there was a nurse for every two patients. They worked 12-hour shifts and were in constant attendance. There were patients like me, under observation, but there were many others who were obviously very seriously ill. I suspect that the nurses’ jobs were not easy, especially when there was an emergency with a patient.
I don’t have any recall of the doctor in emergency. I guess that I had concussion for at least the first day. After that I was visited every day by Dr Mothilal and Dr Levetan. They always left me feeling that I was in good hands. And it was Dr Levetan who later entered the theatre, singing the Irish Rugby national anthem, before he explored my artery via my groin, and eventually inserted the pre-cautionery stents.
The original Christiaan Barnard Memorial hospital was in the Cape Town city centre until 5 December 2016, when it moved to a brand-new location on the foreshore, adjacent to the Cape Town International Conference Centre. The new hospital has 245 beds and eleven theatres.
Christiaan Barnard (1922-2001) was the South African surgeon who performed the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant operation. It was in late 1967 and at that time, I was living in Toronto. I remember the occasion very well, for news of the operation was sensational and daily reports were included in news broadcasts, world-wide.
The operation, led by Christiaan Barnard and his team of some 30 medical staff, took place in the Groote Schuur hospital, in Cape town. They transplanted the heart of Denise Darvall, an accident victim, into the chest of Louis Washkanshy, who had a terminal heart disease. He survived 18 days, before succumbing to pneumonia. Barnard’s second transplant patient, Philip Blaiberg, survived for 18 months in early 1968, and was able to return home. The possibility of heart transplants became a reality.
Christiaan Barnard retired in 1983, when rheumatoid arthritis ended his surgical career. He died in 2001 in Cyprus, following an asthma attack. His memory lives on in the hospital that carries his name.
Granger Bay Boulevard runs from the ocean alongside the Waterfront complex to Main Road in Green Point. Where it crosses Beach Road, on one side are the buildings of Somerset Hospital and on the other side a five/six storey derelict building, that looks like it has been possessed by the dispossessed. The grounds are usually littered with rubbish, and I can imagine that a typical affluent international tourist on the way to Water Front could be feel rather intimidated by the neighbourhood.
The road continues past the Fort Wynyard military complex to the rear of the Cape Town Stadium. Across the road is another block of land that has been taken over by the homeless, with shacks made of wood, tin, plastic and cardboard, and the area strewn with rubbish.
But jointly or severally we have walked this road at least once a week for the part 5-6 years and never encountered a single problem, until Friday 16 September, when I was alone and felt a sickening thud on back of my head. I knew nothing further until I found myself on a concrete bench beside the Stadium. I could see nobody around and I still had my backpack, but I didn’t want to check if I had been robbed. I decided to walk to a wall at McDonalds, but I have no recollection of getting there. But I do remember finding nothing missing from my backpack. It was then I realized that I was bleeding heavily from my head. I needed to get home to get cleaned up.
I guess that I had concussion, because I wanted to order an Uber, but I could not remember where I lived. Somehow, I managed to walk home and our security immediately saw that I was in a mess and called for an ambulance. I got in the elevator, but again I couldn’t remember where my apartment was. Security took me to my door and a few minutes later an ambulance arrived. I was taken to the Christian Barnard hospital.
For the next two or three days, all was a bit of a blur. I was convinced that I had been mugged, but as I had not been robbed and there were no witnesses, the doctors assumed that I had tripped, had a blackout, or had another stroke. A chunk of my hair was shaved off, so that the laceration on my head could be stapled. Similarly, my left knee and right ankle were bandaged. As I had a previous history of having had a stroke, had previously had a blackout, and I was on my own – Lotta was in Sweden visiting her parents, the doctor did not feel that I could be released under the circumstances, and I was placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), under observation.
I was subjected to a battery of tests, to the end of identifying the cause of my collapse. The only suspect was a narrowing of the artery to leads to my right leg, and while there, the surgeon inserted two stents, as a precautionary measure.
In the meantime, Lotta had been made aware and had returned as soon as she could get a flight. The next day she walked the area to see if she could find any witnesses to my assault. She found some construction workers who had seen two thugs hit me on the head from behind with something heavy. They had shouted and chased them away and left me on a bench near the stadium. Knowing myself, I probably thanked them and assured them that I would be fine.
When Lotta reported this to me and to the doctors, I felt a great sense of relief. It had really bothered me that in future, I could be walking along on one of my pilgrimages and suddenly have a blackout. The fact that the doctors had found nothing obviously amiss, I found encouraging. After six days, I was discharged, with a prescription for three more drugs to add to the four I have already been taking!
It has now been over three weeks since I came home, and I am almost back to normal, albeit the progress having been very slow, especially in the first ten days. My hair is starting to grow back, so I am less looking like a monk as each day passes. The sun is getting warmer, the birds are singing, and summer is on the horizon. All is looking good again.
Now here is a typical pub quiz question for you, albeit not an easy one.
What is the connection between the small town of Crickhowell in South Wales and the Pen Y-Gwryd hotel in North-West Wales?
If you do not know the answer, then read on…
On the fourth of July 1790, George Everest was born at his family estate of Gwernvale Manor, just outside Crickhowell. He was educated at a military school and joined the East India Company at the age of 16. He eventually joined the Great Trigometric Survey as an assistant, the survey covering about 2,400 kilometres, from southernmost India to Nepal.
Everest was appointed superintendent of the survey in 1823 and in 1830 was promoted to Surveyor General of India. The survey was completed in 1841 and Everest resigned and returned to England in 1843. He had previously been a Fellow of the Royal Society and he was knighted in 1861.
The survey identified the highest point on Earth as being 8849 meters, and after much resurveying and recalculation, it was named Peak XV, pending an official naming. Normally a local name would have been allocated, but the borders of Tibet and Nepal were closed at that time, and there was much disagreement about what the name should be, due to multiple local names. Eventually Everest’s successor, Andrew Waugh, proposed that the peak be named Mount Everest after his predecessor, and it was made official in 1865.
It is ironic that Everest never saw the mountain, nor did he want it to be named after him, but the name persisted. He died the next year.
Despite several attempts, the first being in 1921, Mount Everest was not conquered until 29 May 1953, when Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) and Tenzing Norgay (1914-1986) made the first successful ascent. It was Tenzing Norgay’s sixth attempt.
The team that made the first successful attempt on Everest, was led by Colonel John Hunt (1910-1988), and was sponsored by The Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club. In all the team would eventually include eleven chosen climbers, only four of whom were selected to make the final ascent, plus about 350 porters and support staff.
For their preparations for the attempt, the climbing team was based in the Pen-Y-Gwyrd hotel, in Snowdonia, and it was on the nearby mountains they trained and tested out their equipment. The Pen-Y-Gwyrd Hotel is about 7 km west of Capel Curig, at the junction of the A4086 and the A448. It was built in 1810 as a farmhouse, later becoming a coaching inn and hotel.
Now you may wonder why a team about to attempt to climb Mount Everest for the first time should have based their training and the testing of their equipment in an area of what appear to be cuddly little hills. Indeed, as the photo of my two eldest sons can attest, scaling the highest point in Snowdonia, Mount Snowdon, on a beautiful summer day, would hardly present much of a challenge to future conquerors of Everest.
But the weather in Snowdonia can quickly change and become extreme, especially during the winter months, as I well know from my own experience, when I went hiking there with a Welsh friend during a late December break. Before starting out, I asked the parking attendant about the weather prospects for that day and he replied ‘Rain, rain, and more rain!’ But we were well equipped, so no worries.
On the way back from Snowdon, we decided to take the more challenging route along the ridge, via Crib Goch. Despite the rain, the weather did not seem threatening, but after thirty minutes, the wind suddenly dramatically strengthened, the rain turned to snow, the temperature dropped, and visibility was reduced to near zero. And each time we scaled what we thought to be Crib Goch, another ascent loomed ahead.
Finally, we started to descend and kept going rapidly down, until I realized that we were no longer on the correct path, visibility being obscured by the snow. I checked my map, compass and altimeter and we were obviously way off course. We retraced our steps back up to the ridge, assumed the correct path, and by the time we returned to the car, it was quite dark.
My sons are adult now and scattered around the globe. They have inherited my love of the mountains and between them they have hiked in the French and Swiss Alpes, in the Rockies, Andes, Kilimanjaro, in New Zealand, in Wales and possibly a few others that I have not yet been told about.
The conquerors of Everest have passed on, but I feel sure that they would have agreed with my advice to my sons – ‘Be aware of the weather and don’t be too stubborn to turn back; the mountains, like Everest, will always be there for another day’.
A seanchaí (pronounced SHAN-e-khee) was a traditional Irish storyteller, travelling the length and breadth of rural Ireland, entertaining the locals with their tales of history and legends. Before the Irish language reforms of 1948, their title was spelled seanchaithe and anglicised to seanachie. The stories were not written down, but passed orally from generation to generation from earliest times. Of course, with vastly improved literacy and the ready availability of books, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet, the function of a seanchaí became redundant. Today, one will only come across a seanchaí in an occasional stage performance.
Frank Delaney (1942-2017) wrote an informative and entertaining book called ‘Ireland’, published in 2008, in which he weaved the tale of a young man’s search for an itinerant story-teller (a seanchaí) from his childhood, together with snapshots of Irish history from the Ice Age to 1916.
I read the book not long after its publication, and I found myself inspired to take a fresh approach to my own efforts at documenting my family history and some of my own experiences. I had spent a lot of time on research and writing, but I was not comfortable with the result to date. It was frankly boring.
It was a good friend, Lain Burgos-Lovece, who suggested that I try writing my history as a blog. It seemed to be a good idea at the time, and after a couple of stumbling attempts, ‘The Irish Rover’ was launched. And to date, I have written 173 articles and there have been viewers in 98 countries!
But like a seanchaí, when I have written my last blog and gone on my last journey, I hope that one of my four sons will pick up the baton and enlighten the next generation.
According to the legend, in December 9 1531 an indigenous Mexican peasant known as Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an Aztec Catholic convert, was crossing the Hill of Tepeyac in a present-day northern suburb of Mexico City, when he came upon a young woman, who claimed to be Mary, the Virgin Mother. She requested that a church in her honour be erected at that site.
Juan Diego reported his vision to the Archbishop in Mexico City, but he was not believed.
The next day, in a second vision, Mary told him to insist on her request. He returned to the archbishop, who suggested that he should return to the hill and request a truly miraculous proof of her identity.
Mary’s response was to instruct him to gather some flowers from the summit of the hill, which was normally barren in mid-winter. There he found some roses growing, a flower not native to Mexico. He gathered some and carried them to the archbishop in his cloak. When he opened his cloak and showed the roses, they found an image of Mary imprinted on the cloth, an image that is venerated to this day in the Basilica de Guadalupe.
Initially, the location of the appearances was marked with a pile of stones and a wooden cross. Eventually a small shrine was built to house the image. In about 1660, the Capilla del Cerrito was constructed, and with the greatly increased number of devout visitors, the first Basilica was added in about 1695. Due to the eventual sinking of the foundations, a new Basilica was completed in 1975.
It was when I lived in Australia in the early 1970’s that a very devout Australian lady told me about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. I became most curious about the legend. I had already been to Lourdes and had in mind to one day go to Fatima, in Portugal, a still unfulfilled ambition. All three locations involved a vision of Mary.
Today, the religious complex at Guadalupe is by far the most revered Catholic site in the Americas, and one of the most visited religious centres in the world. Reputedly, some twenty million people visit the site every year.
My opportunity to visit the site came when I was travelling overland from Panama to the United States in April 1976. Like Lourdes, it seemed to have been taken over by tawdry commercialism, but the churches and chapels were impressive, and the obvious devotion of the visitors was sobering. I left with mixed emotions when I returned to the city.
On the one hand, there was no surviving documentary mention of the apparition until 1648. Indeed, the bishop approached by Juan Diego was not consecrated until some three years after the event, and he made no mention of it in his writings. But of course, it is quite possible that such documentation has been lost or destroyed.
On the other hand, there is so much unexplained about the image. The cloak (tilma) apparently shows no obvious sign of deterioration after almost 600 years. It survived intact from a bomb placed at its foot by an anti-Catholic extremist in 1921, a blast that destroyed much of the interior of the church. According to experts, there is no evidence of brush strokes or protective varnish, and when enlarged, several images can be seen in the eyes of Mary. In the opinion of many who have examined the image, it is inexplicable in human terms.
It is true that the Hill of Tepeyac was formerly the site of a Nahual temple to honour Tonantzin (‘Our Mother’), a Nahual goddess. Could the Catholic Church have chosen the site to convert superstitious Aztec peasants to the new religion, using an invented tale of mysterious appearances and a faked cloak?
What to think? Was it truly a miracle or just a clever hoax of the Catholic Church?
Almost certainly, we may never know, but I feel sure that the academic debate will continue ad finitum.
When I was based in Switzerland, in 1996-98, in the spring, summer and early autumn, I spent many weekends hiking in the mountains. For me, la randonée became a passion, and Chamonix with Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountain chains seemed like Nirvana. One summer weekend I drove to Chamonix to go hiking, but the holiday traffic was so horrific and the crowds so dense, that I turned back. It was not until 2008 that we finally went there again, staying in a hotel by the river Arve. We loved our week there so much that we returned every summer from 2009 until 2015, until our move to Cape Town.
Chamonix is close to the French borders with Italy and Switzerland. The region is extremely mountainous and is known as Haute-Savoie, a department of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The only practical access is by road and there is ample mini-bus transportation at a reasonable price from the nearest airport, that of Geneva. The journey takes about 75 minutes.
Chamonix is in a narrow V-shaped valley, cut by the rapidly flowing river Arve. To the west is the dominant summit of Le Brévent and on the east the massif of Mont Blanc. From the south, access is from Sallanches: from the north, from Martigny in Switzerland: and from the south-east, via the tunnel from Courmayeur and the Aosta Valley in Italy.
We returned in 2010, renting an apartment overlooking Place Balmat, in the heart of the town. Two of my sons, John, and Philip, met up with us at Geneva airport, and a few days later, the other two, Andrew and Bob, joined us in Chamonix, having cycled more than 900 km from England. Bob must have enjoyed the experience, for he and Philip cycled almost 1,800 km from England to Venice a few years later. And to top it all, this year Philip cycled about 5,000 km in 44 days from New York to San Diego, where he currently lives.
Oh, to be young again!
In 2011, I tried once more rent the apartment in Place Balmat, but due to it having been recently renovated, it was no longer available for short-term occupancy. After a lot of searching, I succeeded in renting the top floor of a chalet off Rue Helbronner, 400 m from the town centre. With three bedrooms and sleeping capacity for another two, albeit rather cramped, it turned out to be perfect for us, and for the next few years the chalet became our summer home. In 2015 we stayed there for four months.
When we returned in 2015, we were greeted with a construction site, complete with pile drivers, excavators, trucks, and constant noise from 08:00 to 17:00 and sometimes even later, five days a week. It turned out that our landlords knew that construction was planned, but ‘somehow had not been informed’ as to when it would start. But hey, we are understanding people and shit happens, so we received a free daily demonstration of how a modern house is constructed!
Normally, on the first day after our arrival, we would hike up to Le Chalet de la Floria, to get our ‘mountain legs’ and to feast our eyes on the beauty of the valley. The ascent is only about 300 m, but the going is steep, and on a warm day, the cold beers that await us are most welcome. And for the return, we would continue along the mountain side, then steeply down rocky paths to the river and back to the town. It was always a perfect introduction to another Chamonix holiday.
Most days we hiked up the valley, either following the main river Arve or its tributary, the Arveyron. The two rivers converged just before Chamonix. We explored every path we could find, and on our way back to Chamonix, we would always stop for a well-deserved beer. Life felt so good.
Sometimes we would take the local train further up the valley to Vallorcine, the last village before the Swiss border. It is a beautiful walk back, ascending for a while and then steeply down to Argentiere, followed by a gradual descent beside the river Arve to Camonix. The scenery is out of this world.
For the vertically ambitious hiker, there are countless paths on both sides of the valley. From La Flégère and the path to Lac Blanc, one can get an incredible view of La Mer de Glace, the second longest glacier in Europe, the longest being that of the Aletsch in the Bernese Alps of south-central Switzerland.
On the other side of the valley, one can get much closer to Mer de Glace, by taking the cog-wheel train to Montenvers at 1913 m from Chamonix at 1035 m. As I refuse to join the tourist mobs, we walk up.
On the way back down by a steep path, we stop at a beautiful little cabin and garden, offering refreshments.
For the physically endowed, there is the climb to Le Brévent at 2525 m. For the less ambitious, there is the cable car.
And once on Le Brévent, one has an uninterrupted view of Mont Blanc on the other side of the valley.
Of course, if one wants to have a closer view of Mont Blanc, there is the cable car from Chamonix to Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m. And for those with ample funds, one can continue the trip on cable cars all the way over the massif and down into Italy.
When we have been in Chamonix, the coordination of providing ample food, wine, beer etc. for six or more hungry hikers, after a day in the mountains, have always been quite beyond me. Thankfully, Lotta took responsibility for purchasing and cooking. And she also insisted that everybody took turns to provide dinner. To my surprise, all the boys reacted positively, although the first time it happened, John was a bit concerned that the only dish he could make consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, beans, and toast, more a breakfast than dinner, but we unanimously insisted that it also qualified as dinner, and it was a success.
Now my culinary efforts are modest. My idea of a 4-course meal tends to be three large glasses of wine and a baked potato with cheese. I can make an egg sandwich, and beans on toast, if I remember to buy bread. So, it was no surprise when I said that I would take everyone out to a restaurant of my choice.
And that restaurant turned out to be Le Monchu, where they specialised in mountain dishes from Haute-Savoie. My favourite was tartiflette, made with potatoes, reblochon cheese, chopped bacon, onions, and white wine. We returned many times to that restaurant.
My sons are now all grown up and living in Germany, Spain, England, and the U.S, with us now in South Africa. And with Covid, long-haul travel has become rather tedious, if not impossible at times. But I feel sure that if we were to once more schedule a stay in Chamonix, we would need accommodation for at least six.
‘All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ – (Ecclesiastes 3)
Martha Anne Blackwood was born in 1874, in the small settlement of Hotspur, at a crossing of the Crawford River, about 60 km north of Portland, Victoria, in Australia. Martha was the eleventh of twelve children of James Blackwood and Hannah Mickleborough.
Her parents were born and raised in Hethel, a small rural parish to the south-west of Norfolk, in England. They married in 1832. James Blackwood was my first cousin 3x removed, and would have been a companion of the children of my great great grandfather, Robert Blackwood (1809-1867).
Indeed, it was not only James and Hannah who migrated to Australia in about 1857. They were preceded by his sister, Susanna, and her husband, Robert Lane, who settled in Longford, Tasmania. And they were followed by their brother, Isaac, who settled in Digby, about 20 km north of Hotspur.
And between the three siblings, they eventually had at least twenty-four children in total. It can be no surprise that there are lot of Australians who can trace their ancestry to Hethel, in Norfolk!
In 1899, Martha Anne gave birth to a son, Clement. The father’s name was not recorded on the birth record. In the photo, taken in about 1912, Clement has his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder. To me, that gesture suggests that he respected the old man.
Clement eventually moved from Hotspur, and by 1932 he was living at 51 Bancroft Street in Portland, being employed as a labourer. At the same address was listed Annie Elizabeth Victoria Blackwood, Clement’s cousin and eleven years his senior. She died in 1971 and in the probate records, she was listed as a spinster. Clement died in 1977.
Nothing further is known about Martha Blackwood, until the following report that appeared in the Portland Guardian on Thursday 23 August 1951.
ELDERLY WOMAN FOUND BURNT
An aged woman who dwelt alone in an old bush cottage near Hotspur was found dead last week, apparently having been burned to death during the night or early morning. She was Mrs Martha Anne Blackwood, aged 78. The dead woman was found during the morning by a lad named Edge, who delivered bread once weekly to the cottage, lying on the kitchen floor with all her clothing burned off. The body was brought to the Portland mortuary, where a post mortem examination was held, and an inquest opened by Mr. W. H.Matthews, J.P., of Heywood. After evidence of identification, the inquest was adjourned to a date to be fixed. The post mortem examination revealed that Mrs Blackwood had suffered extensive first and second degree burns and some asphyxiation. The cottage in the heart of the bush in which Mrs Blackwood lived, was built of large wooden slabs and it is probably the fact of its stout construction that it did not ignite. It is thought that Mrs Blackwood, who was in the habit of sitting dozing in front of a fire set in the large open-type colonial oven rather than going to bed, and who habitually wore a heavy shawl, fell forward into the fire. A kerosene lamp was still burning when the body was discovered. Mrs. Blackwood, who is survived by a son, Mr. Clem Blackwood, of Portland, had lived alone for some years. She had persistently rejected suggestions that she should leave her home and go elsewhere where she would be cared for.
It was a tragic ending to the life of an independent old woman.
I do not know where Martha was buried or whether her grave was ever marked. I would like to think that her remains were taken to the Hotspur graveyard to join those of many of her siblings. Unfortunately, the Hotspur graveyard today looks forlorn and neglected, with few marked graves.
But there is at least one Blackwood grave there and perhaps there are others.
One day, before it’s too late, I hope that a descendant of the Blackwood family will visit the Hotspur area to record and photograph for posterity the little that remains of their roots.
It was in mid-1983, when I returned to Miami from a periodic visit to my transition team in Panama, that my boss, Conrad Planas, presented me with my next assignment. He explained that the Bank of America (BofA) Country Manager for Peru, Roberto Anguizola, had requested managerial support in developing his vision of a system that could give the bank country-wide if not regional leadership in retail banking systems.
Within a few days, I was flying south.
And for most of the next week, whenever Roberto could make himself available, we brain-stormed his proposed system for Peru. His idea was to have a telecoms link between the clients and the bank’s computer systems. The clients would be able to access their accounts, up-load their payroll, their staff would receive a competitive rate of interest, and with a card, pay for their groceries and withdraw cash at branches of the main supermarket chain in Lima.
No big deal, I can hear you think, but you must remember that the IBM PC had only just been developed in Boca Raton and was not yet universally available, and there was no Internet as we know it today. Access to computer systems and their data was via a dumb terminal at the end of a cable and few people had a credit or debit card linked to their bank accounts. And as far as we knew at that time, nowhere could clients withdraw cash, pay for their purchases, and have their bank account updated in real time from a retail environment. Life as we knew it then was very different.
For the client, their staff, the supermarket chain and Bank of America, this system could be a win-win-win-win.
In that era, personal security in Peru was poor, and the terrorist organization, Sendero Luminoso, was in control of large parts of the country and threatening the physical infrastructure of Lima.
For clients, direct access to their accounts and the ability to upload their payroll directly to the accounts of their staff was both a productivity and a security gain.
For the clients’ staff, the ability to withdraw cash in a secure environment, at the same time as they pay for their shopping, was an attraction, thus avoiding to having to queue in a bank or to use a potentially vulnerable ATM.
For the supermarket chain there was the resulting incremental business and a reduction in the amount of cash they had to carry, potentially reducing their insurance costs.
And for BofA, there was the possibility of a profitable long-term relationship with the client and their staff.
Long before the end of my visit, I was convinced of the commercial potential of such a suite of systems, and Roberto was keen that I undertake the management role. Before I left to return to Miami, he sent a request that I be transferred to Lima. The administrative wheels turned rapidly, and in a short time, I was back.
When I arrived, I found that Roberto had provided everything that I had requested, and more. I had a large development room with all the equipment we could ever need. I inherited a small team of developers – José Luiz and Vicky Basurto, Miguel Ruiz-Conejo and Luz Maria Fernandez, together with Rueben Uchina, responsible for the computer systems.
For several months we worked intensively on the development. I felt that I had the support of all the involved departments of the bank, and we met whenever we reached a decision point.
From time to time, I got involved in presenting our system direction to existing and prospective clients. I remember on one such occasion presenting to a major Japanese company, with the aid of Luz Maria, who knew some Japanese. Fun times!
Before the development was completed, Roberto was promoted and transferred to Panama to manage a very much larger business. His role was taken by Bill Schoeningh. Despite Bill having had no prior involvement in the project, he gave me his full support, without reservation.
While the software development was being completed and tested, Luz Maria led the design and production of the debit cards, the marketing materials, and the booths that would be installed in the supermarkets.
Sadly, for me, once the software was accepted, my further involvement in the project was no longer required, and I had to return to Miami. It remained to the local Peruvian team to deliver the implementation of Versatel.
Once back in Miami, I learned that I was to be transferred to Buenos Aires to be involved in the integration of the systems of a recently acquired Argentine bank.
Argentine work permits were applied for, but after several weeks, there was no material progress. Unfortunately, my US bosses did not seem to understand that an employee with a UK passport was not exactly welcome in Argentina, following the very recent Malvinas (Falklands) war.
While this application process was stalled, I received an offer from the Managing Director (MD) of a UK company, P-E International, for which I had worked for several years as a contractor with Shell Oil in London, Lagos, and Caracas. I had previously told him that I would never consider joining his company if I didn’t have a realistic crack at his job.
‘Now is the time’, was his response!
Suspecting that Argentina would turn out to be a dead-end opportunity, I moved to the UK. I have had no regrets.
Believe it or not, I have never found out what ever happened to Versatel. Not long after I left Bank of America, I remember reading that Peru had stopped paying its international debts, and that some, if not all, of the American banks were closing their operations and withdrawing from the country. For lack of any better information, I assumed that Versatel had not survived.
Which would have been a great shame, for the system could have been a market leader.
My father’s WWII duty ended in Northern Germany, at Lübeck, northeast of Hamburg. He was demobbed in late January 1946, after more than six years of active service, having been involved in the invasion, wounded in the fighting in France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany. He made his way back to England, where he received £95 and a suit from the UK government, visited his parents in Norfolk, and reunited with my mother in Glenmanus, a small rural village just outside Portrush on the north coast of Ireland.
Nine months later, almost to the day, I was born.
My father had a commitment from his former employer, Sainsbury, to enable him to resume his pre-war managerial career, but he turned it down. Despite having no agricultural background – his father was a classical musician and his mother a teacher, he had decided to start a poultry breeding farm. His interest in poultry dated from when he was rested from the fighting and spent two weeks at a poultry farm in The Netherlands. With most of his limited capital, he bought a pedigree cockerel and twelve hens and started his fledgling breeding farm on a small plot of land allocated to him by his father-in-law.
In the meantime, while his stock of birds slowly expanded, he subsidized his income by playing piano with his dance band, initially at Barry’s dance hall in Portrush, and later at the Northern Counties Hotel, in that era one of the premier hotels in Ireland.
By 1951, the poultry flock grew too large for the small plot of land in Glenmanus. My mother’s uncle Bill Douglas, a retired farmer, granted my father a 99-year lease on some fields that he owned beside Carnalridge Primary School, on the road to Coleraine. A new house was built and in 1952 we transferred to our new home. It was the start of Greenacres Poultry Farm. Expansion was rapid and within a relatively short time, the fields were fully utilized. All income was reinvested, and my parents never had a holiday; they worked every day of every year. There is never a break from livestock on a small holding.
My father’s reputation soon spread and in 1958 Silcock, the leading animal feed company, sponsored a ‘Poultry Demonstration’, to which were invited farmers over all the north of Ireland. A large tent was erected, with tables and chairs, and for two days the invitees arrived and were hosted with presentations, demonstrations, tours of the farm and Irish hospitality.
It was judged to have been a great success and my father’s business prospered.
The farm was never exclusively for poultry breeding. A herd of pigs was introduced together with a small flock of 30 sheep, to keep the grass under control. In addition a flock of turkeys was added and once a year pheasant chicks were hatched for a local landowner.
But disaster struck in Northern Ireland in about 1964 with a severe outbreak of fowl pest, a devastating chicken disease. Ireland was very dependent on its agriculture and despite strict quarantine practices, somehow the disease had entered the country. The government mandated that there could be no movement of any livestock between farms. My father had little capital and in a short time he was out of cash. Despite his years of being a solid client, his bank was of no help. It was yet another example of banks being your fair-weather friend!
Everything on the farm that could be sold was sold and with the pittance that he accumulated, he bought a small grocery business that was then available in Portrush, across the road from the train station. It belonged to a Mr Gibson, who was retiring.
The business was never a great success. Portrush was in long-term tourism decline. There were fewer and fewer visitors and a new supermarket in Coleraine negatively impacted local small grocers. My father persisted for several years but finally surrendered to the inevitable and finished his working years as the store manager at Kelly’s, a nearby complex of hotel, bars, restaurant and nightclub.
After my mother died in 1985, my father returned to his first love – music. He bought a then-state-of-the-art organ and re-established his reputation as a talented musician. And until the week he died in November 1995, he provided background music in several local hotels and restaurants.
My father was talented at everything in which he was involved. He was a brave and courageous soldier, wounded but refusing to succumb. He was an innovative farmer, who challenged the boundaries of poultry breeding. He survived through his prior training in the grocery business. And his talent as a musician never failed him.
He has proven to have been a difficult act for me and for my sons to follow.