The Birth of the Welsh National Opera Company: Idloes Owen remembered by Mollie Hair

Mollie Hair in Carmen for the Welsh National Opera Company

To help celebrate my mum’s 90th birthday I am publishing here her memory of the founding father of the Welsh national Opera Company, Idloes Owen. As she was in her early twenties at the time, she believes that she is the last surviving founder member of WNO. Here is her memory of the man who inspired her and gave her a life-long love of opera.

At the age of four, Mollie Hair told her mother she was off to dance in Fairyland and promised to come back and visit from time-to-time. At the age of 15 she left her home in Penarth, South Wales and trained at Sadlers Wells and the Cone School of Dancing (now Arts Educational Schools) in London. In 1941 she transferred her talents to help the war effort by joining the army as a physical training instructor.

By 1943, Mollie was stationed close to home in Newport and awaiting demobilisation when she decided that, at the age of 22, she was too old to go back to dancing and decided to train as a singer. Looking around South Wales, one singing coach stood out from all others, so she sought out and engaged Idloes Owen, attending the early lessons in her army uniform. The great baritone, Geraint Evans, was another of his students.

It was at exactly this time that Owen had begun to realise his vision of creating a grand opera company for Wales, bringing in singers and supporters from all over the Principality and from all walks of life. With the emphasis on musical ability, it became clear in early rehearsals that ease of movement did not come naturally to the miners, policemen and shopkeepers who made up the chorus, so he persuaded Mollie to work as a coach to bring visual grace to their performances. She chuckles as she recalls, “Bless them, they had wonderful voices – like angels – but they moved like lumps of wood: if they sang they forgot to move and if they moved they forgot to sing!”

By the time the first production of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci reached the stage in 1946 the chorus had movement and posture and Mollie had moved into the chorus and onto the poster, billed as Prima Ballerina. She continued to develop as a singer until Owen cast her in the principle soprano role of Nedda (a dancer) for the 1954 production of I Pagliacci. Tragically, Idloes Owen died that year at the age of 59 and it was never staged.

“Idloes was loved by everyone and mourned so much by us all when he died. He was quiet, understated, and absolutely brilliant,” says Mollie “He never lost his temper and his brain never stopped working on how to get a successful production to the stage. He was completely dedicated to music: it was everything to him.

“As my singing coach he was patient and gentle and made a singer out of me. He was a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Now living in retirement in Somerset, Mollie attends WNO performances with her husband, Peter, whenever she can in either Cardiff or Bristol. Being one of the younger members of the company at its foundation, she suspects that she could be the last survivor from the Idloes Owen era, but would love to hear from anyone else who remembers that time.


Paul Owen: Isle of Man TT Hero

Being a massive fan of motorcycle road racing and Twitterer, I set up a search column under the hashtag #iomtt for the duration of the Isle of Man TT 2010 so I could pick up news and comments as they came through. I live in Hong Kong where there is no TV coverage, so this and an RSS feed from the official website have been my main sources of information. This morning I read on the RSS feed that Paul Dobbs, a 39 year old New Zealander with a wife and two children, had been killed during the second Monster Energy Supersport Race. With a heavy heart I tweeted a message of sympathy to the rider’s family, clicked a link from a related tweet and found a forum with a new thread headed “Paul Owen” that started with this two-line post:

“[Paul Owen] Was stopped at the scene of Dobsy’s accident today, took a flag and told the marshal waving it to go and attend to the rider and he would wave the flag.  A true hero and sportsman who should be applauded for his actions in a very difficult situation … Hold your head up with pride Mr Owen, you are a legend.”

There followed 25 posts running in the same vein. Anyone that has been close to motorsport will know how deeply the loss of a racer is felt. I went to the Isle of Man TT just once in 2003, landing at almost the same moment that the great David Jeffries died in a practice crash which cast a huge pall over the island and motorcycle racing as a whole.

Note: If you have never been to the Isle of Man TT you have missed the world’s greatest sporting event. My first taste was an early morning practice, which i watched from the crossroads at the top of Bray Hill. The sight of riders fighting to keep the front wheel on the ground as they flashed past at 180mph just a few metres away made every hair on my body stand on end. Ever since then I have been trying to figure out whether I am most in awe of their skill or their bravery.

It is not just Paul Owen’s action in yesterday’s tragedy that embodies the spirit of road racing. Everything about the man exudes what the sport is all about. He’s a talented, highly respected rider with a superb record who does everything in his power to raise money to keep his show on the road. He’s media savvy too: his website has videos, he has a frequently updated blog site and a Facebook fan page, all of which he uses to engage enthusiasts and raise money.

Paul deserves recognition for his bravery and there is a precedent, which is why I am writing this post. The incident took me back to the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort 1973, when I was a Formula One fan and junior grass track racer. A prodigiously talented young driver, Roger Williamson, crashed when a tyre deflated and his car caught fire. David Purley, driving a similar car, had been just ahead and saw Williamson crash in his mirrors. He stopped, ran back and tried again and again to pull the stricken driver from his car, suffering burns and ruptured blood vessels in his arms before he was eventually forced to give up. The whole ghastly scene was caught on TV and shown repeatedly, of course.  Purley was a family acquaintance and once told my father – a few years later – that he still had frequent nightmares and was especially haunted by Williamson’s pleas for help.

David Purley’s heroism was recognised with the George Medal, highest civilian award for bravery. Of course this is not such a spectacular incident, but Paul Owen’s selfless action could well have saved the lives of following riders, so recognition by the sporting body, the Isle of Man, or even a CBE would be no less than he deserves. And it also happens that Owen has the wit and ability to be great ambassador for road racing too, so the sport could ultimately even benefit from this tragedy.

I recommend that you take a few minutes to click the links and be entertained and informed by Owen’s website content, blog and Facebook fan page. They also give you the opportunity to make your own comments that would back the case for a formal recognition of this true TT hero.

Isle of Man TT Forum:
Paul Owen Website:
Paul Owen Blog:
Facebook Fan Page:!/group.php?gid=54605344587

Old Men in Lan Kwai Fong: Social Pariahs or Economic Kingpins?

I’m going a bit off-piste here, but this post is inspired by 22 year-old student and blogger Jen Loong, whose recent observations from a night in Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s central bar area amused me and got me thinking.

Jen’s entry reads in part like a travel guide, but what clearly left the deepest impression on her was the middle-aged men who hang around there, often with disturbingly young women. My office is right on the edge of Lan Kwai Fong and I have two daughters the same age as Jen, so I can see what she can see. What made me think was the sense of shuddering disdain she projects about these guys, whom she seems to regard as social pariahs.

Here’s another perspective.

I don’t really like Lan Kwai Fong because it’s too much of a theme park and the beer’s too expensive. However, its proximity to my office means that I frequently meet friends and business contacts there and my usual haunt, C Bar, has absolutely brilliant staff. Occasionally I have too much to drink, my sense of reality becomes distorted, I start bar hopping and end up in Insomnia. By the time I get home I am left with nothing in my wallet but a bunch of credit card slips. It’s a fair cop: I am old and I do love to party!

You will see a few freelance hookers and ladyboys on the prowl, but they leave you alone unless they sense you are a potential client. Gold diggers are more difficult to shake off. As Jen says, they can be shockingly young, so I came up with what I thought was a witty put-down: “What’s up, are you missing your parents?” It worked the first few times I tried it, but it can backfire as the pretty predators rise to the challenge and even play on how young they are. Of course, to unattached old guys and ‘MBAs” (Married But Availables) this is wonderful: after all, if you give most red-blooded males the choice, they will go for the head-turning showroom perfection of the latest model over the characterful but potentially troublesome classic!  And in the natural, boozed-up course of reinforcing their alpha-male status, they will take their trophies into dimly lit clubs, where drink prices rival the highest in London or New York and order champagne and cocktails.

Meanwhile on the sloping streets outside, the young people form a throng, drinking beer, spirits and mixers they have bought at one of the nearby 7/11s and moving to the music being pumped out from open-fronted bars. If they really want to impress, they’ll venture into one of the clubs, buy the cheapest drink possible and stay until the bar staff rumble them and ask them to leave.

So who’s paying for the party, people?! The revolting 40+ Economic Kingpins, of course, which is why the bouncers, staff and management greet us so warmly and tend to our every whim. If we were to shuffle home early each night to drink Ovaltine and listen to Classic FM podcasts, the bars and clubs of Lan Kwai Fong would be turned into offices within a year and the young people of Hong Kong would be forced to go to Macau for a good night out.

Midwives: A Reflection on the Freedom of Birthing Positions

A friend of mine in the UK recently contacted me through Facebook to support her mother-in-law’s campaign to win a grant in Barclays Bank’s One Small Step Competition to turn a fantastic idea into a business. It is a head-slappingly simple invention that enables midwives to work with mothers in any birthing position and it’s called the Howes Birth Mirror

The idea got the second most comments out of thousands of entries, the most supporters in the south of England and the most comments out of the entire manufacturing and engineering category, but has not gone through to the late stages of the competition. A lack of vision on behalf of the judges, I suspect, because the Howes Birth Mirror has already sold 1,000 units all over the world just through word of mouth! It’s a funny thing for a mere marketing guy to be writing about, I know, but I have witnessed first hand on five occasions the fantastic job that midwives do and consequently have a huge amount of respect and affection for them. Oh, and I also know a great business idea when I see one!

I have no financial interest in the project whatsoever, but it deserves this little effort as a “thank you” for the fantastic children that midwives have delivered for me and the infinite happiness that my “five stars” have brought into my life as a result. So here are a few things you can do to to help this wonderful idea to take off:

1.  Watch the video clip from BBC News. Virginia Howes is a real character, so it’s an entertaining two minutes! The video Virginia made for the Barclays competition will pop up next to it on YouTube and I recommend you watch that too. Rate the videos, comments and add to your favourites. 

2.  Leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post – just a 🙂 will do!

3.  Send a link to this blog post to everyone you know – for example through Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging or email. If you know an influential blogger on childbirth, then even better!

4.  If you are on Facebook add Virginia Howes as a friend.

5.  If you are on Twitter, retweet one of my tweets or tweet yourself sending the video link and using the hashtags #Midwives and #HowesMirror at the end of your tweet. Keep #HowesMirror as a permanent search so you can watch support grow and get further updates.

6.  Bookmark this post somewhere if you’re into that and/or “Digg” it to raise awareness further.

As a minimum, you can just watch the video and leave a comment.

Bottom line is this. If enough people show support it will be easy to raise the $50,000 required to turn the Howes Birth Mirror into the business success it deserves to be. So click now and you’ll be doing something fantastic – as Virginia herself says in the video – for mothers, for midwives and for society!

If you haven’t done so already, watch the video now!

Bangkok Protests: Compounding Mistakes Lead to More Bloodshed

I found this post through a link on Twitter. Its succinct, reflects exactly my personal take on Thailand’s crisis and it will take you about 30 seconds to read.

A shout for Bangkok based journalist, Richard Barrow, who has done a great job of pulling together and making sense of the chaotic information flows from traditional media and street level observers. I found out more about the Bangkok protests by following him on Twitter than from anywhere else. He owns leading Thai information and blog portal, Paknam Web and I recommend adding it to your favourites if you have any kind of interest in Thailand.

Business and Tourism Hit Hard in Thailand

This is what everybody who opens the Hong Kong Airport official website sees on the homepage.

A Black Outbound Travel Alert is classed as “Severe Threat” … “Avoid All Travel” and has an inevitable negative effect on the destination in question – Thailand. It is also widely known that some 30 other countries have issued similar travel warnings. In fact, Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sport said this week that average daily arrivals at Bangkok’s Suvarnabumi Airport have dropped from 30,000 to 20,000 since the current “red shirt” protests began on March 14th.

It also should be said that anybody familiar with Thailand will know that the threat to foreign visitors is close to zero unless you go looking for trouble among the red shirt protesters or, more generally, unless you are involved in some kind of criminal activity. However, business contacts in Bangkok are now telling me that the city is effectively paralysed by the barricading of the main business and shopping areas of Silom Road and Rajprasong respectively. These same people, some of the most forward thinking, optimistic entrepreneurs I have worked with anywhere, now carry an air of despair and embarrassment that reflects the seriousness and, dare I say it, hopelessness of Thailand’s political stand-off. The financial effects of the disruption are difficult to estimate, but one direct cost will be the proposed Bt4 billion (US$115m) compensation to be paid to businesses that have had to close and employees who are unable to get to work through the barricades. 

On the positive side, the Tourism and Sports Ministry is taking positive steps to mitigate the damage to one of the Kingdom’s most important sources of foreign earnings, seeking a Bt1.6 billion (US$46m) grant to stimulate both local and international tourism by launching joint promotions with airlines and giving tax incentives for Thai companies to hold conferences at domestic resort destinations. On the assumption that these measures will take effect in time for the fourth quarter peak season, the Ministry is forecasting a 10% drop in tourist numbers from 14.1m in 2009 to 12.7m this year. In the circumstances, that seems like a success.

I shall be ignoring the travel warnings and heading for Bangkok this evening to spend two days there before heading for the “red shirt” heartlands of the north east, so will post more as I go.

Raise Your Glasses: March 22nd is World Water Day 2010

One of the UN’s Millenium Goals is to bring the number of people without access to clean drinking water down from 1.2 billion to 600,000 by 2015. The number has come down by a quarter so far, but water purification is proving an uphill struggle as sea levels rise to contaminate ground water and the populations of developing nations keep growing.

A number to make you gasp: 25% of China’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. Imagine the impact on that country’s already rampant economic growth if more than 250m people were in good health and able to work at full capacity!

Hands-up, I am a very recent convert to the cause, having become involved with raising capital for a project to produce mobile water purification units that are built within a standard 40-foot container that can be transported virtually anywhere, put next to almost any water source and will pump out enough clean drinking water for 25,000 people a day. I am now committed to the whole water purification movement, because, unlike climate change, it has a universal consensus in its favour and can actually be solved. 

I may be passionate, but I’m no expert, so I strongly recommend you follow the link and read a well-written article by Jonathan Greenblatt, a “social entrepreneur” who really knows what he’s talking about.

Take a moment on World Water Day to raise your own awareness of the world’s water purification issues and consider the practical steps you can take to make a difference.

Hosted CRM: 3 Steps to Industry Superstar Status

Hosted CRM, also known as on demand CRM is in the vanguard of technologies that fall under the headings software as a service (saas) or cloud computing. Extensive research on the prospects for the sector puts annual growth estimates in high double digit percentages and anecdotal evidence from the independent software vendors (ISVs) that I speak with supports this. Unsurprisingly, the fastest growth is expected among SMEs in Asia.

By outsourcing CRM, companies are transfering the mundane, time-consuming IT functions to experts that can achieve economies of scale, therefore freeing up internal IT staff to play more strategic roles. It also changes the expenditure model from buying (capital expenditure) to renting (paying on-demand).

The Asia CRM Software Industry Forum website contains some excellent research, analysis and comment, including a piece on the evolution of hosted CRM over the last decade which puts the vibrant growth of the sector in good perspective. Three distinct stages of development are charted in the full article, which you can see here

Too Late for Haiti: the Life-Saver in a 40-Foot Container

A life saving opportunity was recently brought to my attention when I became involved with raising capital to commercialise a revolutionary mobile water purification unit that has been developed by team of scientists in Scandinavia. The Only Water unit is built within a standard 40-foot container that can be transported virtually anywhere, placed next to any water source and will provide drinking water for 25,000 people a day. This calculation is based on a UN study that the average human being requires 15 litres (four gallons) of clean water a day for drinking and basic hygiene. 

In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, the benefits of the Only Water unit for natural disaster relief sprang immediately to mind. This was further put into context this morning when I clicked a link on a  Twitter post to an article on one of the Haiti relief sites. The agency is doing a fantastic job and plans to install 2,300 water purification units over the next 30 days and provide training for the operators. It went on to say how the largest three units they have already installed are providing 45,000 gallons of drinking water a day. Now I don’t know how big these units are or how long they took to install, but I do know that a single Only Water unit will produce 86,000 gallons a day. It also requires very little maintenance or specialist operator training, thanks to its patented self-cleaning technology.

It’s a fantastic life-saving product, so I guess if I really want to do something good for planet I need to get that money raised and Only Water launched fast …

Happy 21st Birthday to Annabel Kate Russell, a Very Special Lady

Don’t know why it’s taken me all day to think of posting something here to mark Annabel’s 21st birthday, but I’ve got around to it now!

All my children are special in different ways. Annabel is intelligent, funny, beautiful, impulsive, strong-willed, does “hyper” like nobody else on the planet and is world class at anything she puts her mind to. I wish I had some baby photos to hand, but I know she likes this one, which has been her Facebook profile for quite a while.

I love her to bits and it is a privilege to be her father!

Belzer, if you read this, thank you for all the wonderful moments you have given me both intentionally and just by being who you are!