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Archive for December, 2009

The Home Counties (where Henley nestles) were brought to a snowy standstill yesterday afternoon and evening, with amazing scenes of gridlock and abandonment of cars along leafy lanes. I got away early enough to get back to Oxford, but other colleagues were not so fortunate. And this morning driving in via Marlow looked like a middle-class disaster movie as many people had not retrieved their BMWs, Mercedes and (ironically) 4 x 4s.

Many people sought refuge back here at Greenlands and Alan Brand, our Director of Hotel and Estates circulated the following memo this morning. Congratulations to those staff who stayed around or came in to help everyone out.

“Greenlands played it’s part yesterday in what must be some of the worst snow conditions on record for this area. All available bedrooms were full (some having to double up! ) with a mix of staff who were unable to get home (some tried and gave up choosing to return to work!) and some local business clients, Many staff who left early were caught in horrendous travel conditions and reports of 5+ hour journeys to Henley and surrounding areas were common however I am sure more accounts will emerge today.

 I would like to thank ALL the Henley team who joined me at Greenlands last night for rallying round and pulling resources for what turned out to be an enjoyable evening for most! Some special mentions go to Lee and the catering team for providing a hot meal (Thai Curry and Scampi and Chips yum yum!), Delphi for looking after our diners, Gary for providing refreshments, Tim for laying on the Disco! and Kalyan for managing the night shift which included some delicate negotiations ref room sharing ! Many other colleagues assisted throughout the evening to ensure all our guests were comfortable. 

A special mention goes to Beth Hunter who, after sending the Front of House team home in the afternoon, manned the phone and reception until late to ensure all staff and clients were settled and to David Amara (Security Officer) who abandoned his car and walked (yes walked) from Caversham to Greenlands to cover his shift finally arriving at 11.30pm………….. given that we outsource Security, that’s dedication in the extreme, well done David.

 A great example of the Henley Experience.  Thanks to all.

 Alan”

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There’s been a falling domino effect with a succession of reminiscences and reportages about the 20th anniversary of the extraordinary second half of the year in 1989 which saw the very public end of most of eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Those events marked the end of a period of history in Europe, a division drawn in (geo)graphically following the speed of invading forces into area occupied by the Axis powers at the end of the Second World War. 

I was lucky, I suppose, to be living in Hungary in that year and seeing some of that momentum from “inside”, and it is almost nostalgic now seeing the footage and the hearing the voices of twenty years ago. Memories cannot be relied on not to filter, but I can recall the annual influx of tourists from East Germany to holiday by Lake Balaton in Hungary, many in order to meet up with friends or relatives from West Germany, and then the unprecedented build up of those people, many simply camping out in August and September to see what would happen – whether the rumours of a change of heart by the Hungarian government regarding access to Austria via the border crossings would materialise.

It did, of course, and the cavalcade of Trabants and Wartburgs in Hegyeshalom to Nickelsdorf was the moment at which the tightly-laced Iron Curtain unthreaded itself. The Hungarians already had much more liberal and frequent travel opportunities West, but for most other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries, this was forbidden.  For some, such as those suffering the lunacy of the final years of the Ceausescu regime in Romania (where the State had created a pathology of paranoia and schizophrenia at various levels of society) even travel to other communist countries was out of the question.

The Hungarian Communists simply voted themselves gleefully out of existence (well, actually, they re-branded themselves) and set in motion constitutional reform which would see the the digging up and veneration of the leaders of the 1956 uprising, the first democratic elections in eastern Europe, in the spring of 1990, and the packing up and taking back to Russia by the Soviet Army of all traces of occupation (including, literally, the kitchen sinks from the barracks). At last, Hungary could aim properly at being just like Austria!  In those months, its neighbours all did the end of communism in their own ways, and for some it almost did them in. December is the month of remembering the organised chaos of the Romanian revolution, and of the revelations about just how mad that regime was. Then the Romanians were free to aim properly at being just like Italy.

For all that it was an exciting period of history, my personal December 1989 revolution began on the 18th in a maternity clinic in Budapest’s soon-to-be-fashionable 9th district, with the birth of my first daughter, Amy.

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The Internet may be infamous as platform for gibberish, ungrammatical monologues and semi-meaningless self indulgence amongst the young (I may be being only a little harsh), but it does also allow the middle-aged to indulge in intrigue and a kind of archaeology which occasionally makes connections with the past.
A few of my earlier posts have featured my own family in one way or another, from battling and revolutionary grandparent (which, coincidentally, revealed a cross-connection with the antecedent of one of the Personal Tutors at Henley), to passing mention of my father’s epic crossing of the Atlantic in 1950 in a small boat, the Ituna. So here’s another one…
I have a relative, by marriage, named Robin Dalton. Robin is a fascinating story in her own right, and is now in her 80s. An Australian by birth, she has published two volumes of memoirs, been a writer and producer of Hollywood film and West End stage and seems to maintain, even now, boundless energy that is divided among many ventures in the arts. However, a meeting with her last year threw up a gem from the past.
Robin mentioned that my father, Desmond, a month or so before his premature death in 1973, had given her a manuscript – the opening chapters and synopsis of a novel – with the request that, being so much better connected in the publishing world, could she pass it on to a likely publisher for consideration. If you want something done, always ask a busy person, and Robin duly did as she had been asked. Nothing came of this, the story could not be developed because the author died, and there is no way of knowing whether it would have gone any further.  Sadly, too, there was no sign of the manuscript itself and, with so many years passed, by the time I heard of this tale Robin could not recall where it might be, even in the unlikely event that it had been returned from the publisher, Ernest Hecht, that it was sent to.
Mr Hecht is still alive and his Souvenir Press in London is still in business, but not active in publishing since he is now a second-hand and rare bookseller in Great Russell Street opposite the British Museum. I managed to get an answer from him but, regretfully, he also had no record of having received a manuscript from Desmond Dalton.
I do know his story was provisionally titled “the Brandenburg Contingency”, but not much else. That is an intriguing title – spy story? music murder mystery? Who knows?  I do rather think, though, that it would reveal something of the character of my Dad, so it would be great to dig it up one day.

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There’s been an aspect of Bateson’s thinking that has been puzzling me. More exactly, and not for the first time, some time after reading a passage (or series of passages) by Bateson a small light-bulb switched on and revealed a door in my thinking to walk through. The fact that the fact of the door also reveals the hitherto unobserved fact that one is standing in a dead-end street .

In much of his writing, and in particular in Mind and Nature, he describes evolution and learning as the “two great stochastic processes”. Stochastic means “random”, but that also needs some explanation. Is evolution random? If stripped clean of the human notion of purpose or design, biological evolution might well be seen as being random. But in what sense is “learning” random?

Our default definition of learning, often cited in management education, seems to return always to the idea of an accumulation of acquisition of knowledge, with the individual (the learner) as a repository, a water-butt filling up. That’s probably an over-simplification, of course, because education now lives with nearly thirty years of developments in complexity theory and most people acknowledge that thinks are inter-linked. However, despite that experience how much do we really question underlying assumptions, and won’t we always prefer a nice, mechanistic explanation which looks like it could reasonably be classed among a set of “contributions to knowledge” (and another drip in the bucket)? As managers and as academics, we spend our time trying to filter out “noise” in order to define and refine our learning, but end up managing or researching in ever decreasing circles and cycles.

Nevertheless, I didn’t understand exactly how learning was stochastic, random, because I had been framing learning only in terms of myself.  I learn something when I meet a new or novel situation, and learning is simply a process of trial and error. The stimuli met by me, as a learner, I might then be tempted to imbue with the quality of randomness. But this results in an epistemological error since randomness is not a property of the stimulus, but rather of the relationship between myself and the stimulus.

What this means, therefore, is that “learning” is not a property within me.  It’s not just that learning cannot occur without a context, it is that learning forms the context, and the context is always of a higher logical level than the elements or parts that go to make it up.

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Clive James does a weekly talk on Radio Four at the moment, in a series called “A point of view”. He can usually be counted on not just for eloquence and wit, but also for hitting certain targets square in the eye with a well chosen (or chewed, if one thinks in terms of sound-bites) point.

This week he spoke about democracy and the link to university funding and the link to research, and in particular the rules in the UK that are about to change on that matter, making it incumbent on the researcher to show the “impact” of their research in the “real world” in order to qualify for a certain portion of the funding available. James quite rightly points out the pointlessness of this as a position. You can listen to his broadcast for the coming few days on iPlayer, or you can read the transcript here.

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