Friday, 30 March 2007

Driving the English countryside

I went to a conference up in Oxfordshire yesterday. It was at this hotel in the middle of nowhere, literally in the middle of these vast green fields out in the country. The setting was quite pleasant but unfortunately it meant I had to rent a car and drive there, which was a little scary! You know, because they drive on the wrong side of the road here.

It was actually relatively easy to do it in the city and on the highway. After all, you just follow the car in front of you. But once I got off the country and started driving down all the country roads, it got considerably more challenging. I actually started driving down the wrong side of the road twice, and the second time was kind of a close call! I was driving on the right on this country road for a good two minutes when I saw a car about 40 feet ahead of me coming head on. Oh, riiiiight. Had I been taking a sharp turn, I’d be writing blog entries from the grave right about now.

The conference was good, I actually quite enjoy them now that I don’t feel like a fraud anymore. Before, when I was covering private equity and had to go to conferences in the US, I felt like a big fake because I didn’t know what I was talking about. When chatting people up at events I had two options, nod and smile and pretend to know what they were saying, or admit I didn’t know basic things and have to ask dumb questions, and having them wonder why they should read our publication if the journalists don’t even know what they’re talking about. I usually chose the former.

But now that my beat has changed to innovation and intellectual property, that’s all changed. I’ve done so much research, writing and reporting on this subject that I can now carry on meaningful conversations with these people, inform them of things they didn’t know, give critical insight and analysis. It’s a much nicer feeling than standing there terrified that they’re going to ask me my thoughts on something and I’d have to make a Homer Simpson-style screech and run away.

The car rental people tricked me into putting more gas in the car than I needed, so I decided rather than giving them free gas I would leave the conference a little early and go joyriding in the countryside. It was nice, drove through a couple little English towns in the countryside. They sure don’t look anything like American towns. One of them looked like a little walled fortress.
I drove up to Blenheim Palace, about eight miles north of Oxford. It was quite impressive. It was built around 1705 for John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough, a direct ancestor of Winston Churchill. The Churchills still own the palace, and Winston was actually born and raised there. It’s interesting because it’s one of the only buildings left in the English Baroque style, which was short-lived and extremely rare. It’s sort of a little mini-Versailles, with sprawling gardens, waterfalls, a lake, and this enormous column exactly opposite the palace on a hill. There’s even a little kiddie-park-style train that takes you to the Italian gardens, which I didn’t get to see because I was pressed for time. Actually I didn’t even have time to go inside, I had to return the car in London by 6pm (barely made it). But I did step into the foyer, which was stunning, before being told to “stop looking!” by the guard because I hadn’t purchased a ticket. Ouch! Those Churchills don’t mess around.

There was a whole exhibit in one of the wings devoted to Winston, indeed his bulldog-like face seemed to be draped everywhere. Bush’s Crawford Ranch doesn’t have anything on this.

I guess that’s all I have to say on that. Listening to the radio on the drive was so fun, god I love the radio here. Seriously, I’m a European trapped in an American’s body.

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