Sunday 23 April 2006

Memories of the Taj

The galleried floors at the Taj

Click the heading for more photos of the Taj

This was originally an article written for Lloyd's List in 2006

My first visit to India - and to the Taj - was in 1972, when I accompanied Bill Birch Reynardson (later Miller's senior partner) on a visit. The UK Club had already established an interest in India in the '60s when Frank Ledwith made several visits in which he set up Rustom Mehta and his assistant Suresh Mankad from New India Assurance as the Club's correspondents.

Bill Birch Reynardson in 2013

I had been with Thomas Miller for about five years and my travelling - often with Bill Birch Reynardson - had until then been confined mostly to former Yugoslavia which, although beautiful, had communist-drab hotels and certainly nothing as richly magnificent as the Taj. Its stunning position overlooking the Arabian Sea towards what would later become Bombay High and its powerful Victorian architecture next to the Gateway of India, made an instant impression.

I had always been drawn to India partly because, like many Englishmen, I have family connections going back several generations through both the Lawfords and my mother's family, the Pughs. General Edward Lawford, an engineer, had commanded the garrison in Madras and Mysore in the 1850s and his younger brother, Lt-Col Henry (1812-1880) also served in Madras. Likewise Lt-Col Edward Melville Lawford (1826-1891) was Colonel of the 4th Madras Cavalry, while his younger brother, Henry Baring Lawford was Chief Judge of the High Court of Kishnagur. Further back, Edward Lawford, another lawyer, became wealthy as Solicitor to the East India Company and Clerk to the Drapers Livery Company, and had his home, Eden Park, described appreciatively by Pevsner in 'The Buildings of England'

My grandmother, Nina Arundel, whose father Sir Arundel Tagg Arundel was on Curzon's staff, married my grandfather Col Archie Pugh, who was then a solicitor in Calcutta, in 1894, while my great-grandfather Lewis Pugh Evans Pugh was Attorney-General for Bengal. My mother was born in Darjeeling, the nearest hill station (though even today several hours journey away), and I remember her talking of the view of the Himalayas as seen from her bedroom window. A Pugh great uncle (Lewis Pugh) had led the raid by the Calcutta Light Horse on Goa in the Second World War (which disabled German warships providing intelligence about the movement of allied shipping and was later made into a film ‘The Sea Wolves’ in which his part was played by Gregory Peck). 

It was thus with ribbons of family history behind me that we set up in rooms off the open galleries of the ‘old’ Taj, the new Taj tower not having yet been built. Bill Birch Reynardson took a suite with a fine dining room in which we entertained shipowners, government officials (such as the Director General of Shipping), lawyers and others at a long table flanked by white coated waiters. The ‘ordinary’ rooms were not lavish, but they had one marvellous attribute in that the windows could be thrown wide to let in the warm Arabian sea breezes bearing the scent of jasmine and spices. The sounds of hawkers, snake charmers and the daily thong of people who gathered on the seafront under one’s windows in the mornings and particularly in the evenings made the strongest sensory impression, and one that maintained my love for the Taj above all other hotels.

Sadly this magical experience can no longer be repeated, as they have finally replaced the old (and admittedly rickety) windows. The ‘new’ windows can only now be opened by calling on a member of staff - who has to be called back to close them again - and have no restraining bar so they can no longer be left wide open.

Needless to say I bought a Kashmiri carpet on that trip, and laid it out in my room. Bill Birch Reynardson was sure that I had been robbed but I was delighted with it, and it remains a prized family possession more than forty years later.

I returned to India in 1978 and spent three weeks travelling around the country visiting Calcutta, Delhi and Madras, and learning details of Indian maritime law and customs – and indeed Customs (with a large C) were one of the Clubs' major problems in those days as shortages and pilferage were rife in the docks and Customs enthusiastically raised Show Cause Notices for the infringements, sometimes years after the event. Indeed so egregious was the Customs Authority's behaviour that eventually the leading Indian lawyer, S Venkiteswaran (known to all as Venky) took a case to the Supreme Court and got the ancient customs penalties struck down on the grounds of natural justice.

On another occasion in the early '80s I dealt with a case involving Japanese owners who had suffered at the hands of an Indian bill of lading forger. The owner (now the president of the company) and I spent a two weeks meeting in the Taj trying to recover monies lost as the result of cargoes being delivered to criminal interests.

Needless to say I continued to stay at the Taj, learning to escape the heat and crowds in its great halls. In the gardens one watched the crows swoop down to grab sandwiches off guests’ plates. The food at the Taj was mostly indifferent, although the toasted chicken tikka sandwiches were excellent, but they made their own crisps and the most delicious home made ginger ale, so strong that it had to be drunk with brandy or it would take the back of your throat off! Sadly neither of these delicacies are available any more. Visiting regularly in the 1980s in furtherance of ITIC's business in India - the agents there being understandably concerned about the long tail customs penalties - I got to know some of the Taj staff, two of whom have remained friends to this day, and I am godfather to one of their children

The pool at the Taj

One of my Miller colleagues, Robin Travis, took over the P&I role in India when I became involved with ITIC, and I joined him on occasion entertaining the Indian maritime community at cocktail parties next to the pool at the Taj; splendid events on warm evenings under dark blue velvet skies. In those days - and until quite recently - Bombay was a "dry" city, alcohol being allowed only if you could show that you were a registered alcoholic, so one had to bring in spirits. But this never seemed to result in any shortage at parties.

Later, in the early 90’s, serious rioting broke out in the city, with mobs overturning buses and burning cars. As it wasn’t safe to travel to the airport, I was stuck at the Taj for three days until the brave correspondent, Capt Sundareshan, drove me safely past the throngs and I was able to get on a plane

Another vagary of the hotel, although probably not entirely of its own making, used to be its fantastically poor telephone system. As laptops began to be carried in the '90s and we attempted to gather our e-mail from our servers back in London, hours would sometimes pass on lines so poor that one sometimes had to leave the system connected all night in order to get important documents. In fact it was far cheaper, even after acrimonious correspondence with the hotel management to get the hotel telephone bills reduced by 70 or 80%, to go back to fax.

The service at the Taj declined during the '90s until, prompted by the rise of the Oberoi on the other side of Nariman Point, the hotel pulled itself together and it is again smart and well run. The service has improved back to the level of the 1970s with of course the addition of modern communications and equipment in the rooms. Unfortunately, though, the food is still not the best and is far better at the Oberoi. On a recent visit, too, a companion who I was entertaining in one of the lounges was scratched on the ankle by a rat, which produced a low-key furore amongst the staff.

As is obvious, the Taj is built back to front, supposedly as a snub to the British. The hotel should stretch its two long wings magnificently towards the sea, but in fact it embraces the city behind. Consequently there are far fewer rooms facing the ocean than there should be - and I now find it almost impossible to get a sea view room. However, with the windows now sealed there is much less pleasure in watching the sun rise over Bombay High.

Shirt and suit makers still ply their trade in the shops on the ground floor. The shirts are fine, and all my business shirts come from there. Doubtless I pay more for them than I would do if I hunted down bargains in the city, but the convenience of walking in on the way back from a day's work and ordering three more "as per last" to be delivered to one's room in a day or two, makes them irresistible. Suits are however another thing. I once had a safari suit made, being told by the correspondent that this was what well dressed Englishmen should wear to conduct business in Bombay. The suit was duly produced but I hadn't reckoned with the fact that styles were many years behind Europe, and it sported huge bell bottoms. Needless to say it was never worn and I continued to stick boringly to a City suit. Attempts at a silk suit also failed. The cloth itself seemed fine, but what I failed to understand was that the quality of the ‘innards’ (the canvas and padding that are essential to a comfortable suit) were of an inferior quality compared to those used on good suits in London. Again an unworn suit and a lesson (rather more expensively) learned.

One of my fondest memories of the Taj was of an occasion when I was not there at all. My nephew's then girlfriend Sam Asprey took a backpacking trip around India with two other friends and before she left I gave her a sealed envelope, only to be opened when she reached Bombay - which would be after several months dusty travel. When she got there she opened the envelope and found an invitation for two nights at the Taj for her and her friends. I can still hear the squeals of delight from the phone call they made to me that night.

Herry Lawford
24th February 2006

Saturday 15 April 2006

Retirement Party in Beijing

Herry with Qian Yongshan, a former chairman of Cosco and ex-Minister of Communications and Li Kejun, chairman of China Classification Society and of Thomas Millers' joint-venture company China Marine Services.

I was honoured to have a number of retirement parties in cities around the world - London (Trinity House and the office), Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore Sydney, Bombay - and Beijing. Beijing was different in that it included entertainment in the shape of songs by Ge Xiao Lu - a friend who, with Daphne Li, had performed at the UK Club's Directors' Meeting in Shanghai in 2002.
Ge Xiao Lu and Daphne Li

Tuesday 11 April 2006

Herry's Trinity House Retirement Speech

Retirement is a strange thing. You find yourself voluntarily walking away from friends you've worked with for many years - in my case nearly 40 - and a business and an industry that you love.  It's an industry that's full of interesting and intelligent people – a few of whom are here tonight – and lives on a daily diet of fascinating news and events. Like the proverbial butterfly in the Amazon, much of what happens around the world has its effect in time here in EC3.  People come and go of course, and a number of my friends have already retired, but surprisingly few people ever leave the industry that we're in, and for some reason, most of us, despite a peripatetic lifestyle and more entertaining than may be good for us, remain pretty healthy.  That being said, I'm mindful of the example of Dawson Miller who retired as senior partner of Millers in December 1970 and died in January 1971!

It's a truism, but our business is built on friendships and hard work.  I've long admired the story of the fox in Le Petit Prince. He meets the little prince and advises him how to make friends. There is more truth in that short passage than in almost all so-called philosophical writings. And without the ingredient of friendship, business would be just business and for most people would be ultimately unsatisfying.  The great advantage of our world is that our friendships can extend to every continent and we can travel to cement them far more regularly than most people are ever able to do.

It was Sir Joshua Reynolds who said, ‘If you have great talents, industry will improve them: if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency.’  I am certainly in the ‘moderate ability’ category, but I have been blessed with enough energy to remain industrious, even if that industriousness is sometimes somewhat misplaced As my long-suffering colleagues know, I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time taking photographs – even tonight!.  But persistence and hard work are part of the same coin. You will remember an erudite American president – yes, they have had them – said that nothing in the world can take the place of persistence: ‘Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.  Education will not; the world is full of educated failures.’ Well, here in this room we have education, talent and occasionally genius, but I believe that the things that have brought us all here are hard work and persistence.

We have quite a crop of retirements this year, both in Millers and in the industry.  Millers are seeing the retirement of Stephen James and Francis Frost shortly after me - which is explicable by the fact that we all started in Millers on the same day, in October 1967 - or at least they did; for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained I turned up a day late.  Needless to say, they've bagged the window-side desks ever since. And we have just said goodbye to Tony Payne, with whom I worked happily alongside for ten years in ITIC - and later this year will see Hugh Wodehouse hanging up his debating socks.

Outside we are seeing the retirement of Chris Horrocks, Mans Jacobssen and Lloyd Watkins all of whom have had 100% more influence on our industry than I have, but show, on the ‘exception that proves the rule’ principle, what a vintage year this for decanting people. Incidentally one of my few claims to fame is that I was Lloyd’s immediate predecessor as Secretary of the International Group; a title that cut some ice in on my visits to places like Saudi Arabia with Francis Frost in the early 80s but as with most of our institutions, was many times easier to perform then than it has been in recent years.

As I move on from the City, I recall the retiree's prayer:  ‘God grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway; the good fortune to run into the ones I do - and the eyesight to tell the difference’.  I’m not going to use that as an excuse to tell you about the people I never liked anyway, because I can honestly say that I can't think of a single person in my business life who falls into that category.  In any event, you risk offending those who might be expected to give you a decent lunch from time to time, to catch up on the gossip of which you were once the object.

Instead, I am very much hoping that I will continue to run into the ones I do - which is all of you and many more besides.  Quite a number of you here have not just been friends, but have also enhanced my career by what I might call ‘flattering my performance’.  That will go for most of the correspondents, lawyers, surveyors and other experts here whose experience and erudition has often got both me and the person that I was supposed to be advising out of a tight hole.

Amongst those who have flattered my career are of course a number of my colleagues, several of them who have already passed into that amazing post-Miller state in which they look 10 years younger than they did before they retired.  I can't avoid mentioning two or three key people, although many more than that qualify.  First Bill Birch Reynardson, whose unwise invitation while shooting with my father to send young Herry up to Millers instead of to the bar was the luckiest break in my life, as well as his wonderful tutelage, both in matters of business and also in how to travel in style in places like Yugoslavia and India – not to mention Bahgdad, I have never forgotten.  The late Frank Ledwith, of course, who taught all of us who joined Miller's in the '60s, indoctrinating us in his year-long programme entitled ‘The Complete Mutual Insurance Man’ - I wish we still used it today. And Terence Coghlin, who I sat with when I first came up to Miller's from university. My attempts to learn from him what he knew of P&I and Defence and about marvellous places like Japan, left his brain practically untouched.  David Martin-Clark too, was an immense help to me in many ways, particularly in the early days of the running of ITIC.  He was also my predecessor in Asia and left that ground well-tilled.

Finally, I must mention my former secretary of over 20 years, Jo Johns, who I am glad to say has made it up here tonight from playing Widow Twankey in the panto at Cowes - although I am still well served by my current secretary, Pam Costello, who has organised this evening so excellently.  There is no denying that an exceptional secretary plays a key part in one's career.  Just to give you a flavour of Jo’s work ethic, (while keeping very quiet about her still more remarkable life and loves), she used to reach the office at 6 am every morning, and didn't leave until late in the evening.  The early mornings, she knew, were when I must reply to faxes from Japan, because the Japanese would expect to have an answer to the questions they sent the same day, before they themselves went home.  Nowadays, I suppose it's more efficient to bash out an e-mail oneself, but something is lost in the harmonious flow of work from the time when your secretary knew exactly what work you were doing.

Of course, ‘panta rei’ - everything changes - and we all need to move on.  I am becoming a grandfather in October and will be glad to have more time to give to the family, though whether my long-suffering wife Ayako will enjoy having a ‘wet leaf’ around after posting me missing for about half of every year remains to be seen.  However, being a grandfather reminds me of the lovely story of the little boy who goes up to his grandfather and says, "Grandad, can you make a noise like a frog?"  "Why do you ask?" says his grandfather.  The little boy replies, "Because mummy and daddy say that when you croak, we can get a new car."

And those of you who know me particularly well will know that I can’t make a speech without telling one of my favourite ‘bishop’ jokes. This one involves two bishops having a drink at the Atheneum. One of them was bemoaning the decline in modern morality and he said ‘But I never slept with my wife before I married her, did you?’ At which the other one looked up from his port and replied, ‘I really can’t remember old boy. What was her maiden name?’

And then there's my favourite story, and one that I'll leave you with.  It's a line from Johnny Carson who said, ‘I know a man who was determined to live a long life.  He gave up smoking, drinking, rich food and sex.  He was healthy right up until the time he killed himself!’  I'm determined to live a long life, and remain as happy as I have been amongst you all.  Thank you very much.

Herry Lawford
Trinity House, 13th April 2006