Car Hire – a step back in time

If you are looking for a field of commerce which has steadfastly rejected the march of the digital age, car hire is in a league of its own. Arrive at any airport in the world with an existing credit card booking for a specific grade of car and with an agreed pick-up and return date/time, you could be forgiven for thinking that this should be a speedy affair, but the truth is sadly different.

Aware that car hire firms are universally inept, I deserted Mrs Gray at the baggage carousel and tried to beat the rush to the Avis desk. My strategy was partially successful in as much as I was second in line to be served. But 10 minutes later, two very charming girls were still dealing with one uncomplicated customer ahead of me and a queue of 30 other frustrated individuals had now formed behind me. Passports were scanned, credit cards debited, excess insurance protection proffered and then the endless signing and initialing on bits of paper in a variety of different languages that nobody will ever read.  Then we progressed to car seats, portable GPS and how much fuel they wanted in the tank on return before moving on to a the dubious line-drawing of the car on which all the existing scratches, dents and scuffs were marked; All of this before he had even seen that car!

Anyone bold might want to venture into this overcrowded space with a venture that I would suggest be named “Keys Please.” All of the time-wasting faff that takes place at the airport could surely be scanned and sorted at the point of booking allowing for fewer staff and greater efficiency. Standing in a line waiting to pick up your car, you have to remind yourself that you are on holiday and you are not going to get wound up whilst all you really want to say is “it is 2016, for heaven’s sake sort yourselves out!”


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From a Clarksons rooftop

One of the goals I set myself in my fiftieth year was to do something exertional for charity and, after some research, I have found a worthy activity I can do from a seated position!

I have joined a team that will be cycling 120km to raise money for two charities –  The London Sports Trust and Juvenile Diabetes. When I say cycling, it will actually not involve moving from the roof terrace of the Clarksons building here in London since our instrument of torture will be a Watt Bike. Teams from many of our offices worldwide will all compete simultaneously linked by video screen; so my initial expectations of a care-free pedal may well have to go out of the window as the competitive spirit kicks in.

I have been particularly struck by the work of the London Sports Trust. The help they provide young people from underprivileged backgrounds in London to find their path through sport is humbling and increasingly essential. Beyond sport, they deliver a “skills for life” programme to disadvantaged 16-19 years olds covering topics from communication and cooking to DIY.

We are also supporting Juvenile Diabetes JDRF which is one of the selected charities of the Lord Mayor of London, Jeffrey Evans – a Clarkson colleague of mine for many years. JDRF is the world’s leading charitable funder of type 1 diabetes research’ funding research to cure, treat and prevent type 1 diabetes.

I know that you receive many requests for sponsorship but I would be very grateful of your support and know that your money will go to very worthy causes.

The link below will take you to our JustGiving page.

Many thanks


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Interested, not obsessed

In the third part of Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell explains the meaning of the phrase “Be Prepared” as “….having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.”

If I am honest, I didn’t know the name of the French foreign minister or the name, let alone the gender, of the South Korean president before this week; and whilst my role does not require that I do know this information, you might reasonably argue that a British shadow foreign secretary probably should. It is further fair to say that, whilst she cannot be expected to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the entire world’s politicians, Emily Thornberry was insufficiently prepared when recently interviewed on Sky News. Her response to the interview was to brand the line of questioning as sexist which has resulted in a fair amount of ridicule and abuse.

You may not have seen the small article in the Evening Standard earlier this week which compared her interview performance rather unfavourably with that of the playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard; when interviewing for a job on a newspaper as a youngster, he was asked, “I gather you are interested in politics. Who’s the Home Secretary?” ”Look,” Stoppard is said to have replied. “I said I was interested, not obsessed.”



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Fit for the police?

It has become something of a standing joke in the Gray household that whenever my children return home, whether from abroad or just from University or a festival, they wind me up about having a tattoo. I invariably turn puce – a shade that Farrow and Ball might describe as Cardiac Purple and the truth that it is just a hoax is eventually revealed to gales of laughter and much criticism of why I am “so out-of-touch.”

In the news this week has been the question of whether the police should relax their recruiting restriction on “visible tattoos” and whether the public would have any less trust in a policeman or woman with the name of their girlfriend, boyfriend, dog or some mystical Asian character etched into their neck in technicolour. Evidently the fact that nearly a third of young people have tattoos is sufficient for the Police Federation to argue that potential “talent” is being lost.

Now I will not pretend to be an arbiter of what may or may not constitute “talent” but I do think that the Metropolitan Police commissioner may be correct in stating that “visible tattoos damage the professional image of the Metropolitan Police.” When we recruit, we like to see people who define their individuality by the force of their personality. Ultimately, this attribute will probably last just as long as a tattoo but not fade and wither as they get older.


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Un temps pour penser

You have to dig a little to find the truth about European Pressurised Reactors (ERPs) and most of you will naturally ask the question, “Why would you want to?” But this is the technology that they are planning to use on the Hinkley Point nuclear plant when and if it ever obtains approval.

Finland has now cancelled their option for a second one of these after their first project was delayed by nine (yes NINE) years and the costs escalated from 3.2billion Euros to 8.5 billion. In the US, seven ERPs were planned but all applications have now been abandoned or suspended. In Canada, all three intended sites have been scrapped. In Italy, all four planned projects have been rejected. The UAE selected a South Korean reactor technology over the ERP and the French are so far underwater with their Flamanville ERP project that even Jacques Cousteau couldn’t save them. No surprise then that the pressure by French and Chinese investors for the British to give this the go-ahead is mounting.

The UK project is a classic mess. The initial support that the UK government gave was when the wholesale price for electricity was 2.5 times the price that it is today. When I refer to support, I don’t mean the £18 billion it is going to cost to build, I mean the estimated £30 billion over the next 35 years that the taxpayer will pay in subsidies. The spot price of electricity is £33 per MWh, Hinkley investors will enter a deal where their guaranteed price of electricity is £97.5 MWh. This is an important test for Teresa May and, irrespective of the Brexit vote, she needs to make a decision that is right for Britain. Bon Chance!



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How do you work out who is winning?

Clearly I am not alone in having found the Olympics to be compelling viewing over the last couple of weeks. From Canoeing to Taekwondo, I have watched it all and marveled at the skill, precision, intensity and commitment of our GB athletes. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the velodrome where our cyclists have become a dominant force.

One event on Tuesday night was the culmination of the women’s omnium; a truly baffling  encounter in which some twenty cyclists all set off on a 25km (100 lap) race. Within this race, there is a sprint every 10 laps which earns points for the top five finishers and additional points if you manage to lap other racers. Part of the confusion for the spectator, especially once some riders have lapped others, is working out who is in the lead and whether, in the grand scheme of the omnium scoring, it matters.

The current shipping market has many parallels. It is a long race and there are occasional sprints in which a surge of energy is required to maximise the earning potential only to end abruptly and be replaced by a more sustainable pace. Spectators may find it fairly baffling and the clarity of who is winning and who is losing is often absent. But what it lacks in lycra and lithe, fit bodies, it makes up for in grit and determination – let just hope we don’t have to wait 4 years for it to come into focus again!


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Last Friday saw the much-awaited opening of the Olympic Games and a prolonged period of televised sport for us all to enjoy and support. Some of these sports are already regularly watched by us over the course of a year; Tennis, Rugby, Rowing, Football and cycling are all staples of the average sports spectator. Others we dip into only once every four years when the Olympics come around. Synchronised diving and gymnastics are among these and we are plunged into a rare world of precision, balance, strength and skill which we all struggle to understand and need an expert to explain the scoring.

The world of British government bonds enjoys a similarly low profile most of the time but has been in the spotlight this week as the Bank of England’s attempt to buy back bonds hit the buffers. Monetary policy is equally a balancing game and the recent lowering of interest rates has had a predictable effect on the willingness of investors to buy back long-dated gilts. This same interest rate drop has, in some instances, not been passed on to borrowers though more quickly processed for investors. The gilt buy-back failure is of more concern to the pension industry which uses the rates to estimate how much additional funding they will need to meet benefit payments.

When the gymnast on a 4 inch wide beam attempts a twisting leap and lands imbalanced the options available are limited; they can wobble or they can attempt a rotation of the arms in a wind milling fashion to try and stay on beam 4ft above the ground. Once these options have been exhausted, they fall. The Bank of England is in “wobble” territory and the coming weeks may well see them escalate to a more obvious” wind milling”. Sterling/US$ has broken below 129.50 which, whilst concerning, still remains the most effective long-term solution to our current precarious state.

Balancing on beam

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Beach fit

Cast your eyes over most trading floors at this time of year and there are a predictable number of empty desks; the holiday season is at its peak. This is the point at which even a starvation diet will be unable to alter your body sufficiently to squeeze into those swimming shorts or that rather ambitious budgie-smuggler purchase. Despite the nagging from your wife, all those optimistic resolutions to go to the gym, cut out the carbs and show some restraint on the wine have fallen by the wayside.

But as much or as little as some will have prepared physically for their time in the sun, managing to detach and turn-off from work is often an equal struggle. The proliferation of Wi-Fi in holiday resorts coupled with the sort of mobile coverage that puts the UK to shame means that every time you look at your phone, there will be messages waiting for you, missed calls flashing and texts demanding your attention. So not only will you be standing on the beach with your gut spilling over your shorts to the embarrassment of your family, but then your phone will be beeping every other minute further convincing them that they should pretend not to know you. How do you train yourself to switch off?

The “flight mode challenge” is a radical way to break the umbilical connection with your phone and involves turning to flight mode for 24 hours continuously at least once per week. The logic, my American friends tell me, is that our continued responses to messages only encourage more messages and a vicious circle or communication. One Alternative, if like me you find this all a bit excessive, would be a fortnight in Scotland; there is little chance the weather will be good enough for shorts and the mobile reception and Wi-Fi start to become prehistoric once you pass Glasgow!


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The English summer – was that it?

I suppose it was always going to happen. I return from a very wet holiday in Scotland and then the weather changes to scorching temperatures to coincide with my return to work. Rails swell, trains are hopelessly delayed and over-crowded, air conditioning units wheeze as they struggle to cope with the overload and everyone becomes grouchy because they can’t sleep. And then it ends almost as quickly as it began – just in time for the weekend.

The dry shipping market has enjoyed a rather similar journey so far this year. We have waited a while for anything approaching a decent market and, after a brief ray of sunshine in May that saw cape rates break through $7000, we dipped into a cloudy spell before reaching another peak last week a snick above $6500.

The pessimists will claim those four baking days days this week as, “the beginning and the end of English summer” and they may be similarly dismissive of the freight market; but I have, perhaps over-optimistically, wheeled out the barbecue in the hope that there is more to come and I am predicting we have not seen the high of the year on cape rates either.


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The truth, the whole truth

We have spent a week touring the west coast of Scotland. Stunning scenery comes at a price and up here it is often the weather. There has so far been just one day when the interlocking clouds have carelessly suffered a moment of disorganisation and allowed a brief moment of sun to burst through. Friends did warn us so we only have ourselves to blame.

The publication this week of the long awaited Chilcot Inquiry sheds a similar and brief ray of light on events leading up to the invasion of Iraq that have spent 13 years in darkness. Watching Tony Blair wriggle will not give much comfort to the relatives of servicemen and women who lost their lives in this war and it remains uncertain whether the legal action that may follow will prove successful.

What is clear, in this all too brief moment of openness, is that Blair never had any intention of listening to the experts. Years of international diplomacy in the Middle East meant that the UK had extraordinary clarity of the likely consequences of regime change in Iraq. That we have seen the Arabic Spring, the chaos in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan any Syria (let alone west Africa) is attributable in part to Tony Blair’s decision and for that he should be made to feel more than just uncomfortable.



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