October 7, 2011 10:08 pm

The Diary: Lionel Barber

The editor of the FT takes a month off alcohol, goes hard-core cycling in Mallorca, and spends time with capitalist ‘omnivores’

Four weeks off alcohol and the finishing line is in sight. Naturally, my resolve has wavered at times: the vintage Rothschild claret presented at a private dinner in honour of Chinese vice-premier Wang Qishan was especially tempting. But overall my self-imposed exercise in abstemiousness has proved tolerable. No mean feat for an Englishman who graduated almost exactly 30 years ago from the school of hard-drinking journalists in Scotland.

There is, as ever, a story behind the story. Every January and September my wife and I spend a month off the hard stuff. It’s a mental as well as a physical discipline. This time round, the added incentive to stay dry is a long-planned weekend of hard-core cycling with friends in the hills of Mallorca, where the daily rides range from 90km to 120km, a little longer than the run from London to Brighton.

Most of my companions in Mallorca are young muscle men in Lycra who think nothing of flying downhill at 70kph. Being a competitive type, I have undertaken a rigorous fitness regime to prepare for the trip. Two days on a racing bike at high altitude in Aspen, Colorado, where I happened to be speaking at a conference. Twenty-five circuits of Dulwich Park, dodging pushchairs and uppity dogs. Push-ups, sit-ups and 4km bursts on the running machine: not much has been left to chance.

In my experience, the only way to manage these Spartan training sessions is to become slightly obsessive. The thrill of the early morning trip to the weighing machine to check pounds lost; the evening anti-climax when one discovers all those pounds have mysteriously returned after a day behind the desktop computer. The overwhelming sensation of walking around in an alcohol-free zone is one of virtuousness bordering on smugness.

. . .

After two days in the saddle, the lure of a cold beer proves too much. I could blame my thirsty friends but that would be unfair. The cyclists are an interesting bunch: traders from the City of London, a grand old industrialist from the north of England, a chief executive financier and a young PR lady who may just be the fittest member of the group. There’s a Dane, a Frenchman and a Chinese foreign exchange dealer, originally from Fujian. Together, they are the best possible advertisement for cool, cosmopolitan London.

Listening to their life stories and the inevitable biker banter, it strikes me that Ed Miliband’s distinction between “predators” and “producers” is utterly bogus. All capitalists have a predatory streak: their business is to make money within the law. That hardly makes them cowboys in black hats. And how to define producers? Do they belong to a superior category of capitalists made up by the likes of Rolls-Royce, the British manufacturer of choice at this year’s party conferences? When I turn to my capitalist host for enlightenment, he replies with a voracious grin: “We are neither carnivores, nor herbivores. We are omnivores.”

. . .

The omnivore par excellence must be Robert Swannell, the former Schroders/Citigroup investment banker who recently became chairman of Marks and Spencer. He came round to the Financial Times the other day to deliver a fascinating talk on the art of chairmanship, part of a programme for non-executive directors that we are staging with Odgers Berndtson, the City headhunters. Suave, softly spoken and immaculately attired, Swannell epitomises the gentleman banker. But he’s been in the thick of some of the roughest corporate battles in the past 30 years, helping to defend M&S against Sir Philip Green of Topshop fame and advising Roman Abramovich on his successful bid for Chelsea football club.

As regards the art of chairmanship, the last word(s) should go to Virginia Bottomley, the former Conservative cabinet minister, now at Odgers. She defines the necessary qualities as “charm with menace”.

. . .

To Manchester, for the Conservative party conference. I am chairing a fringe discussion with the worthy title of “Jobs and Growth – Is Overseas Trade the Answer?” co-sponsored with the City of London Corporation. The meeting, in the cavernous Manchester City Hall, is far better attended than last week’s session in Liverpool’s Albert Dock at the Labour party conference. Perhaps the line-up of speakers is more attractive: this time we have Xavier Rolet, French chief executive of the London Stock Exchange, and Henry Bellingham, a junior minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who seems to know a lot about Africa.

There is no doubt that the British could do more to improve trade with the rest of the world. Bellingham adopts the fashionable line that the FCO has too long been focused on flying the flag rather than selling UK Inc. In his words, he arrived there and found too many double firsts from Oxbridge who had no idea what Britain’s bilateral trade is with, say, Angola.

How to correct this bias? Well, the Foreign Office has now set up a “prosperity directorate”, an innovation with Orwellian overtones but one that Bellingham assures the audience will make the FCO fit for purpose. Call me old-fashioned but I remain of the view that the professional diplomat – far from being a luxury – is needed now more than ever. Who else is going to read the runes in the Middle East after the Arab awakening?

The history of the past decade – with the US-led invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq – is littered with the mistakes of those who knew little of these countries’ cultures and still less of the consequences of a blind faith in military force.

But this is to digress. Our session, in fact, ends on a dramatic note. In the fleeting hope of obtaining a non-scripted answer, I ask the panel whether they expect Greece to default on its debts and within what timescale. Bellingham delivers a distinctly undiplomatic answer in the affirmative and, when pushed, adds “within six months”. Stuart Fraser, of the City of London Corporation, agrees that a default is likely to occur in six months if not sooner. Rolet ups the ante and predicts that, one way or another, the Greek crisis will be resolved with a default or another bail-out within four to six weeks. Watch this space.

. . .

The best way to escape a scary world is still to dive into a good book. Most of my summer was spent reading the long list for the FT-Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year. I am chairman of the judging panel and the winner will be chosen at a gala dinner in London on November 3. (You can see the shortlist at www.ft.com/bookaward.)

Now it’s time for lighter fare. Anyone interested in the contorted relationship between the US and Pakistan will be gripped by Bloodmoney, a spy thriller by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Closer to home, I would recommend The Fear Index, the new novel by Robert Harris that delves into the world of modern finance. The writing is as elegant as ever and the plot almost as thrilling as a downhill spin in Mallorca.

Lionel Barber is editor of the Financial Times

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