Dean Clough

March 14, 2024

Portico Darwin: London Calling, Chapter 7


8 Minute Read

Happy Friday, and this is the seventh installment of London Calling.

Preface and Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

This is Hardcore
Despite living it, I remain somewhat amazed at what we did in just 3 weeks in March of 1998.  

We worked, too.  But we'll get back to that soon.  

I flew home after we awarded the WAN contract to Equant, but then came right back in March, this time for 3 full weeks.  Two of them would be in the company of the program's newly anointed global Windows NT deployment guy, George Valiant Walker.

Curious George Goes to London (and Amsterdam)
He was ready.  When I was back in SF, I hammered George repeatedly about how much of this entire thing rested on his shoulders, and what the payoff, literally and figuratively, would be if he nailed it.

George - who I don't think had traveled much on business previously, arrived in London about a week after me.  Boy, did he.  First, he had scored two fine suits from the (now long-gone) San Francisco clothier, Kenneth Charles.  He looked awesome upon his debut at Sea Containers House in mid-March of 1998.

But he was more than just a well-tailored suit (and pretty face).  I had asked him to go overboard documenting how to build a Windows NT server to the new GESeaco specification (which he had defined), and then how to integrate it into our global NT scheme.  He crushed it.

As above, George is not a hard guy to hang with, professionally, or personally.  So once he started working with the Seaco chaps, the die was cast:  George would join Andy Gill at the center of things, he on the Windows NT side, Andy on the WAN side.  And both, along with Luigi Ferrari and Willy Aluminium, would also travel the world visiting each GESeaco office when the time came.  

Randy and I would try to herd all of the cats.  Which included ourselves, at times.

I welcomed George to London in two ways.  

Early in his stay, I told him to shower after work and put a suit back on.  I was taking him on a "Welcome to London and the Program" dinner.
At the most expensive fucking place I could find.  

I think it was called Blue Ocean, or something like that.  I recall not believing we were allowed to do things like this.  There were a lot of swish people about and, like Palais du Jardin with my wife just a couple of weeks prior, we blew it out.

And the second way I welcomed George?  I informed him we'd be going to Amsterdam at the weekend, for a little R & R.  Or H & H, Hash and Heineken, as it turned out.  I also told him it was non-negotiable.

A Short Break at the Weekend
I loved that George, before this trip, had never been in Europe before.  Fortunately, I had visited Amsterdam first in 1988, and then again with Julie on our 5th anniversary holiday there in 1996, so I knew right where to take him for a weekend piss-up and a break from London.
We caught some weird but inexpensive Kenya Airlines flight, a 747 that stopped at AMS on its way from London to Nairobi.  We booked rooms at what was then The Intercontinental Hotel Amsterdam.  It was a classic business hotel, and it turned out to be ideal for us aspiring international players.

We dumped our bags and went straight to the hotel bar.  I was already, but I could see George getting more and more psyched to be in Amsterdam.  Yet he had zero idea what he was getting into.

Well, suffice to say George and I took in everything that Amsterdam is famous for:  Incredible hospitality, world-class art, great food, and even better bars.  The coffee shops, of course.  And I'll argue with anybody about how pretty it is, straight or high. 

George loved it all.  
Highlight?  That's easy.  We ended up in a bar in some random neighborhood near our hotel, loving the vibe of the place and the amazing small Heineken drafts they serve everywhere in Amsterdam.  We had several each, and then stepped outside for a wee bit o' hashish.

When we walked back in, a host said, "You made it back just in time, we're doing a lock-in!"
Yep, just like at Randy Smee's pub, the owners locked the front door, and we got to party inside.  With the locals, who treated us like regulars.  You know:  It's that Dutch hospitality thing.

It wasn't all intoxicants.  I took George to The Van Gogh Museum (admittedly in the proper state).  And on our trip to Amsterdam in 1996, Julie and I had discovered the other-worldly Sauna Deco, an urban spa on the Herengracht.  George was going to have to see that, too.
It seems a few years earlier, some clever folks had procured the interior of a Parisian department store, shuttered in the 1930s, and used it to build the interior of a luxury retreat in Amsterdam.  It is a stunning facility, and Julie and I go on every visit there.
We steamed and soaked and then had massages and then George passed out for an hour on a plush couch tucked away behind a palm tree.  With the stained glass from the department store glowing behind him.  
I just tried to take it all in.

A Lunch in The City of London
One thing that became apparent early on is that I was going to have to develop a larger tolerance for drinking.  Not just at night and on weekends, but basically every work day at lunch.  Having one or two (or several) imperial pints at lunch was still very much de rigueur in London in 1998.

There were several times I was glad to be a morning person, such that I did my heavy lifting before the nearly inevitable stroll at lunch to one of the great pubs close by Sea Containers House.  Because after lunch, and no matter how many proper English teas I would fetch, I was still a tad sleepy for the duration.

But, alas, that was nothing.  
As I've said, these Seaco guys took to George immediately, and while he was in town, our colleagues decided to blow his mind (and mine) at one of the oldest restaurants in London.  I think it was me, George, Malcolm Graveling, Jim Lawrence, and Peter Carolan.  I do not recall its name, but it was in the City of London, and boy, was it fucking old.  

And it was indeed a mind-blower for underexposed Americans like George and myself.  Textbook does not begin to do it justice, up to and including the old-world service and absolutely classic English cuisine.  Spotted Dick, anyone?  

And the patrons!  I hadn't seen this many pinstripes outside of Yankee Stadium.
Yet, none of this was unusual.  We had similar meals regularly during the program's duration, albeit more often at dinner.  You can ask Lara Mohair about Red Lion in Mayfair, to cite one example.  

No, this one is indelible because of what happened at the end of what was now a 2+ hour lunch.  Peter Carolan, never one to run away from a party, took it to the next level.  Peter and the guys introduced us to a British tradition I had not seen before or since.  

It's pretty simple.  You order a bottle of Port, preferably a vintage year as we did on this day.  When it arrives and is uncorked and poured, everyone raises their glass, a person makes a toast, and the bottle is passed to the next person.  Who also makes a toast.

And it is passed and passed and passed and you toast and toast and toast until the entire bottle is gone. 

Whittam Says I Am Moving to London
In a surprise to no one who knows me, once I had my sights set on living - not just commuting - to London, I was relentless.  Sure, I wanted the glamour, but the fact is, this program had to be run from London.  And since I was going to be kinda sorta running it, I needed to be there, full-time.

As always, it was Whittam that needed to be sold.  And here is the key groveling, from me.  This is pulled from the relocation memo I sent to Boss Whittam, and also to Pleather and Peet Krakow, my business partners, on 20 March 1998.

As we’ve discussed (you’re probably tired of me saying it!), I believe that a London-based project manager solely focused on delivering GE SeaCo’s new WAN and its LANs is imperative to achieve the desired outcome.  I further believe that I am ideally suited for this role, and am therefore pleased to submit the attached estimate for my relocation to London for the length of the project’s course.

A few days later, but of course, with no warning or communication on the subject of any kind, Whittam came down the several floors to Randy and Marc's (and my) office.  He didn't visit the plebian floors often, so I was somewhat taken aback as he walked in.

And in absolutely quintessential Whittam fashion, he strolled to my desk and tossed my relocation memo down, right in front of me.  It had been approved, initialed, and dated by the Boss himself.   

I looked at him, waiting.  I knew by now to let him take the lead.

He sniffed and at the same time, in the most stilted British accent you can imagine, said simply, "Approved."  

But I do think there was a trace of humanity beneath the impeccable Saville Row tailoring when he granted me my dream:  I noticed just a hint of a smile on his face as he turned and left the office.  He didn't say goodbye, but then again, he never did.

No matter, because with that, I was moving to London, for 5 or so months, from April through September. 

I ran to a private office, and not caring about the time difference, called Julie, woke her up, and lost my mind.  A dream was coming true for both of us: We were going to spend the summer of 1998 in London.
But first I had to check out of my hotel.

I'm Sorry, Sir, Your Card's Been Declined
Yes, I do love the gloriously staid and very British Royal Horseguards Hotel.  

Paying for it?  Not so much.  As it turns out, it's rather expensive to stay for 21 nights (with plenty of room service) in a luxury hotel in a prime location in London.  

"Checking out," said I as I gave the front desk clerk my room key.  

"Here is your bill, Mr. Darwin - a pleasure having you with us again."

I vaguely remember it being something like £4,500, or $7,500 at the time.  

I handed her my WestConnect credit card.  It was declined.  I handed her a personal credit card.  It was declined.  I was kind of panicking, not to mention just a bit embarrassed.  After all, aren't I the guy with the Range Rover waiting outside to whisk us to LHR? 

In that panic, embarrassment, and rush, I did not want to call the card issuer and get them to approve the charge.  

Luckily, George came to the rescue.

He took out his GE corporate card, and said in a way only a native Californian can, "Hey man, just go ahead and put both rooms on my card and we'll sort it out later."  

Suffice it to say, the GE card had enough of a credit limit.

George and Portico Fly Home, as Virgins
After I had calmed down from the check-out scare, we settled into the back of the Range Rover for the ride to LHR.    I do remember the smell of the fine hides used to upholster the seats in these things helped to soothe my frazzled, wannabe nerves.  

By now, I had tried to prep George for the experience, because I recall that for some reason, George flew an airline other than Virgin Atlantic inbound to London.  But going home, we'd be flying together, in my beloved Upper Class.

The Range Rover ride and treatment outside of Heathrow was extraordinary as usual, but as I mentioned in an earlier chapter, little prepares the uninitiated for their first visit to the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at LHR.  I had thought it through, and knowing we'd get arm/hand massages onboard the plane, I skipped that option and we headed directly to the bar.  Shocker.
At the bar, we each ordered a Bloody Mary, and they were sublime.  Even more so as I lead Harry first on a tour of the ginormous facility, and then into one of my favorite places, the audiophile listening room.  Here, Richard Branson had hit up Linn Audio for their best, and here it all was, for any guest's use.  

I think they had actual Eames chairs for seating in front of the handcrafted speakers.
Probably, because photos of the Clubhouse today reveal them, or at least nice copies, in use everywhere.
I queued up Pearl Jam's newly released cranker, Yield, and it was on. We enjoyed our drink and saw how loud we could stand it.  

Very fucking loud, in fact.
While it would have been fun to hang out at the Clubhouse for several hours, alas, it was time to board.  

Not that being onboard the 747's Virgin Atlantic flew on the route at the time was a hardship.

In fact, George and I had scored what were likely for the time the two best seats on a commercial airliner:  The two individual front seats at the nose of the 747, in Virgin's Upper Class cabin.  Unique for this plane, neither of us had anyone to either side, and wow was there a lot of room up there.  

A lot of room to carouse, as it turned out.
I said to George something like, "Look, this a daytime flight that takes about 10 hours, and you probably won't nap.  So I suggest, before you book a time for your hand massage, we order some drinks, sync up our screens, and watch some 'Seinfeld' episodes together."  George, as agreeable as always, was completely into it, so we fired up some favorites.

By about the 3rd episode, and an equal number of Scotches, we were starting to laugh a bit loudly for the front of the airplane.   So yes, I managed to get scolded for being loud in the first class cabin on a transatlantic flight.

They still gave us our hand massages, and I certainly enjoyed the Armagnac they served after the cheese course.
We landed in SFO.  George had crushed it.

And I was moving to London. 

Up Next:  Peet Krakow Is Not Happy


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Any careful reader of this blog over time might remember this record:  I play it on KLUF essentially any time London is mentioned.  That is because, during our visits in February and March of 1998 and leading up to its release on 31 March, a poster of this album's cover, or something like it, could be seen everywhere in London.   

I bought a copy just to find out who the hell this band was and what on earth it could be.

Killer modern rock is what it could be. Here is Pulp and an album that I will forever associate with this period, the aptly named This is Hardcore.

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