Like most people across our planet, I was again saddened by the senseless killing and maiming of so many people in what is a beautiful city. Like many, I have visited and enjoyed Barcelona. Like many I have wandered aimlessly around the streets without thinking I was in danger. I tweeted this picture yesterday; I am also aware of how futile a gesture it was but I had to express my support for a fine European city.
So do we need to change our behaviour in the light of terrorists attacking ‘soft’ targets?
In the military we were always on the look out for people acting suspiciously, especially during the IRA’s reign of terror in Northern Ireland, Germany and mainland UK. It was called Sharkwatch and tended to be used when socialising.
Is it time to introduce something similar into our lives? Should we now routinely expect a member of tourist groups in the UK or abroad – whether family or friends – to be alert to things out of the ordinary? Can we expect people without any relevant training to even think about their safety when out and about in a place they should be able to relax in? Are we subconsciously doing it already? Probably not, but it’s worth conserving all the same.
It’s a hangover from my military career, but I am constantly profiling people when I am in unfamiliar environments. It pays to be prepared. I guess we call it people watching. It’s what so many of us like to do. Instead we need to do it within the context of the current terror threat. There will be more attacks. We have to accept that we could be caught up in something, but the statistics don’t lie; the chances of being involved in a terrorist incident are very low.
So caution is the watchword. Balanced with our right to relax and enjoy ourselves. Coupled with a faith in authorities that they have done everything they can to minimise the opportunities for terrorists to strike. There’s a lot to think about this summer.
Its been a while since I last wrote anything on this blog. I have been head down settling into a new and demanding role, which has included some of the more interesting things in life: travelling abroad, taking photographs; meeting people; and generally living a busy and extraordinary life! These things don’t last forever though and enjoying them while you can is the key… so what have I been up to since my memorable visit to Budapest in November 2015, followed by my appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live programme?
In November I went to the Middle East with work. Whilst there I renewed a number of old acquaintances and made some new ones. I visited Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It was a packed programme with some challenging meetings and some great reunions with my Qatari friends in particular. I also met up with our old Au Pair who has settled in the UAE working as cabin crew with Etihad. It was great to meet everyone. On my last day in the region I was a VIP guest of Williams F1 on the Friday at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
I can hardly find the words to describe how much of a privilege it was to be wondering around the paddock, using the Williams villa as my base, doing some serious VVIP people watching, drinking coffee (and more…) finding myself sitting next to and meeting Claire Williams, Sir Jackie Stewart, Damon Hill, Felipe Massa, Toto Wolf and Martin Brundle from Sky. There were too many others to mention.
It was an extraordinary day and one of those experiences that even at the time I knew was unlikely to be repeated. I was treated exceptionally well by the Williams team and I watched (and listened to) the two drivers tearing around the circuit, coming in for practice starts and getting technical tweaks done to their cars. It was very special, standing next to Felipe’s Father (whom I also met – I speak Portuguese) at the back of the garage. I was then invited to meet the Williams drivers and to have a formal photograph. The picture below has now been framed at home! Getting such an insight to F1 life was remarkable. Strolling along the paddock, watching Bernie Ecclestone chatting to the teams and seeing Nico Rosberg walk through the paparazzi heading for his own Mercedes villa. Little did they all know how things would change in the months after that race.
Then last month I was back in the UAE again. And back at Yas Marina. This time inside the 5 star Viceroy Hotel which straddles the track. I arrived, joined my boss in the lobby and ordered a coffee. Then who should turn up but the entire global peloton who were staying in the hotel in advance of the Tour of Abu Dhabi. And Mark Cavendish wandered over, shook our hands, then agreed to pose for a picture. Who will I meet next time I am there?!
So after a period of hibernation I am back and will start to share my thoughts with you once more. What can you do to help? Please share this link if you find what I am writing to be of interest. I will be commenting on many things. I will be giving my views on local, national and international matters. And I want to hear from any readers who find what I am saying to be interesting.
With Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in Abu Dhabi before the Yas Marina Grand Prix in November 2016.
Meeting Mark Cavendish in The Viceroy Hotel, Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi in February 2017
Thanks for reading this short blog and for visiting my site.
I know many readers are very interested in my connection with Sándor Görög who lives in Budapest. In fact I can say with clarity that my experience of visiting Sándor this Autumn was a highlight for me and it marked the end of a remarkable journey. I hope Sándor feels the same way. We both agreed that we would meet up again this time with my family in tow, so that he can get to meet my wife, my teenage son and my daughter. We will go there one day.
After returning to the Uk after my whistle stop visit to Hungary, I then ended up on UK national radio as a studio guest on a very popular Saturday morning programme on Radio 4 called ‘Saturday Live’. It was a special moment and I relished the opportunity to talk about my journey, which started in Auschwitz and ended in early November meeting Sándor in Budapest. I am so proud of my connection to Sándor and I feel privileged to have become his friend. He is a special man.
So I will sign off by wishing you a Happy Christmas and prosperous New Year. I am looking forward to 2016 more than I have ever anticipated the coming of a new year before. Much has happened in the last 12 months, which has included losing a job, finding another, starting to write my book on my experiences in Kosovo in 2008, and of course meeting Sándor. I never seem to have a dull and uneventful life!
Its not often that we are able to escape from the rat race. This week I flew out to stay in a family house in a small, near deserted seaside village in northern Portugal called Moledo.
I have only ever been here in the summer and the difference is stark. The streets are empty with dried leaves swirling around the windy streets, devoid of cars and holiday makers. Instead there are stray cats darting between hiding places with a few locals, either retired or working locally, going about their daily routines. No queues, no noisy kids, only the regular train service shaking the house to its foundations every time it passes the rear of the property!
Will I be an author one day?
I am here to write my long awaited book on my experiences from Kosovo. I am, as they say, fully immersed in something that happened 7 years ago. In fact, 3 days into this trip and on advice from a successful author who I met the night before flying out here, I’m now concentrating on writing enough for a submission to an agent. There’s a lot to write; I have underestimated the time I will need to complete this project.
I have to say that getting away for ten days has done me the world of good already. I’m still looking for a permanent role and have arranged several meetings on my return, but for now it’s ‘me time’!
Update: I first wrote this blog in the summer, long before the Paris attacks. I didn’t publish it at the time because it really did sound too extreme. But on reflection, I think that the events of the last 7 days have more than justified publishing the post now. In my earlier post I suggested that the Government’s proposals to conduct mass surveillance across social media – along with other means of communication – should be supported. I argued that when a country is facing an existential threat, as we are now from violent Islamic extremism, Government policy must reflect the reality facing the country as it did in the Cold War and at other periods when the country’s freedoms were under threat.
I wasn’t arguing for gun turrets on village halls, but I was arguing for the ability to prevent massacres on our own soil at the heart of our society (thereby having to use village halls as temporary morgues). Is this too sensationalist? Time will tell, especially if the likes of David Davis and his civil libertarian cohort manage to prevent the much needed legislation from being passed into law.
But I think we should be doing more. Thankfully the vast majority of Muslim families in this country are vehemently opposed to violence and travelling to Syria would be unthinkable. I welcome that, as most normal people would. So what should we do when the very few do up sticks and travel abroad to join the Islamic State?
Well, anyone who travels to live in the ‘Islamic State’ – essentially condoning a murderous and barbaric sect – or who fights for ISIS should forfeit their right to be British. Their passports should be deleted from the mainframe computer and all records removed. They should cease to exist in this country.
So what about their property and their assets?
There is a simple answer. Their houses should be requisitioned by the Government and sold. The proceeds from the sale, together with their other possessions, should then be paid into a fund to support the families of those people who have died at the hands of ISIS, whether in this country or abroad. Those who wish to do us harm, or support a regime that is intent on doing us harm, should be given no quarter in the UK.
As many of the visitors to this site will know, I was fortunate to have been one of the guests on the very popular Saturday Live programme this weekend.
It was great to meet Richard Coles and Asmaa Mir, both of whom were really welcoming and interested in everyone’s stories. Even the production team afterwards congratulated us on the quality of the show, mainly because we all interacted so easily which made for a very relaxed environment.
So what could be better than meeting some interesting new people and talking to hundreds and thousands of people about Olivia Newton John, a hedgehog called Harrold (that I thought I had squashed) and of course my friend Sándor in Budapest? Whether that type of experience ever happens to me again I really don’t know, but it was so much fun (and kind of addictive too..).
So thanks for coming to this site and reading the stories about Sándor and my other musings. Ros Hubbard, who was also on the show, did her best to encourage me to do something with the story. So I am now thinking what that may be.
I have deliberately waited a few days before concluding this short series of posts about my meeting with Sandor. I think in part to allow the event to really sink in, rather than allowing it to be something that needed to be reported instantly. The current trend to photograph or video everything in real time, watching life through a small screen, or blogging ‘live’ prevents people from thinking about events in a more reflective way.
Seeing Sandor walk into the hotel lobby was like watching an old friend arrive for a coffee meeting. Shaking hands with him was a great relief and we soon fell into an easy conversation, discussing what I wanted to do for the day. I soon learned that Sandor does a lot of walking and he was concerned that I would not be able to keep up with him throughout the day; he is 82. I tried to reassure him that I was pretty fit and liked walking but I don’t think I convinced him at all!
We walked all day, with little let up save a break for coffee and lunch. I must confess that I was quite tired by the end of the day although Sandor appeared to be ready for more. In so many ways he is an extraordinary man. When we broke for a coffee in a traditional cafe in a central square, we talked about some sensitive memories from his childhood. He talked about how his Aunt returned to the Monastery in 1945 to find him and eventually to tell him of his family’s fate (later confirmed by other letters). He talked about how he stayed in the Monastery, principally because he wanted to be a priest but he realised over the next few years that this was not in fact his destiny. When he explained his decision to the Priest in 1948, he was asked to leave.
He described how he and his Aunt struggled in post war Hungary, living together with other families in the same room, sharing communal facilities after he left the monastery. How Sandor went to university where he studied for a degree, a masters and finally a PhD. I learned how Sandor joined the resistance just as the uprising against the communist regime reached its peak; how he was ‘arrested’ by the university and charged with membership of a proscribed group. Newly married and with a new born baby, how he was ejected from the one place that he felt most at home – the university environment. He realised that his academic career was at an end so he stepped into the pharmaceutical industry and forged a distinguished career (he is still working). He admitted that the period around 1956-58 was the hardest in his life; I bet.
The irony is that he returned to academia later in life where his contribution to science through his love of chemistry led to international recognition and presidential awards.
Sandor’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Hungarian history gave me a unique insight into Budapest and the beautiful monuments throughout the city. Sandor said to his wife later that we had covered about 80% of the main tourist sites (I can believe that!). The day also gave me a renewed respect for a man who has been through so much in his life. From such a difficult childhood after the age of ten, he had faced many challenges in his adult life that lesser men who have failed to overcome. He was a true intellectual and I knew I was in the company of a very special son of Hungary.
Finally, with the sun setting in a clear sky, we climbed up to Buda Castle to look across the Danube at the old city of Pest and the impressive Parliament building. We also managed to enter the beautiful Matthias Church just as it was closing and even though it was a short visit, it was a perfect way to end our day. By 5pm we were in a taxi heading to his home (I suspect he chose a cab to save me having to walk). At his apartment I met his wife and daughter; we had dinner together and talked a lot more. I could not have been happier.
He also translated the page in his autobiography where he described my initial email back in 2007 that I sent to him asking if he was the boy in the book. To have been included in his autobiography was a great privilege. After travelling to Auschwitz and reading a book about its horrors and reading about Sandor, as a young boy hidden in a Monastery to save his life, I feel like my initial curiosity has been repaid in a way I could never have imagined; becoming friends with Sandor means a great deal to me.
I am now content and also inspired to make as much of my life as I can.