Notes from the World Council of Credit Unions' World CU Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, as well as some other points from across the pond:
Americans have always been fans of the oratorical skills of the British, and former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown didn't disappoint when he appeared as the opening keynote speaker at the WOCCU meeting.
Whether you are a fan of Mr. Brown or not-and for many in the U.K. his popularity sinks further with each increase in the price of gold, as while Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown sold half of Britain's gold reserves for $275 an ounce-he delivered the kind of smooth sermon one might expect from a man whose job used to require responding to sharp barbs during the prime minister's questions in the House of Commons.
Brown spoke for nearly an hour without notes, and had obviously done his homework. He knew of retiring CEO Pete Crear's career, called out new CEO Brian Branch by name, repeatedly made reference to global credit union statistics, and spoke with some passion about credit unions themselves- observing at one point that the world's financial co-ops "free people of the pain of poverty and joblessness. Helping people to save is a manifesto for your future."
Like any politician, too-Brown remains an MP representing a district in Scotland-the former PM had a plenty of witty anecdotes to keep his audience entertained. Among them:
• "At No. 11 Downing St. [official residence of the Second Lord of the Treasury], you see two portraits. One is a portrait of [former PM William] Gladstone, the other of [former PM Benjamin] Disraeli, his rival. It's said when you went in and met Mr. Gladstone you would go away thinking he was the wisest person in the world. But if you went to see Mr. Disraeli, such was his charm, you went away thinking YOU were the wisest person in the world."
• "There are only two kinds of finance minister; those who failed and those who got out just in time."
• "A former prime minister was given three envelopes by his predecessor, with advice that he should open each at a time of crisis. When the first crisis occurred, the prime minister opened the first envelope, and inside was a message, 'Blame your predecessor.' When the second crisis came along, he opened the second envelope and found the message, 'Blame the statistics.' When the third crisis arrived, he opened the envelope and found the message, 'Start filling out the envelopes.'"
• Brown told his audience that the traditional New Year's Eve song, Auld Lang Syne, is in fact an old Scottish song, and that the song is misunderstood. "Many people believe it is a song of parting. Other people, in my view rightly, see Auld Lang Syne not as old acquaintances being forgotten, but as friendships that will never be forgotten, of ties that will never be broken, that will last for a lifetime. That song to me is a symbol of this conference today."
Brown, incidentally, showed his greatest political skills in answering by not answering questions from the audience. In response to a question from Mike Beall of the Missouri CU Association, for instance, about the effect of government deficits and what the U.S. needs to do, Brown deftly avoided any real response by essentially saying deficits must be dealt with, but not in a way that would cause economic damage. Yes, well, thank you for that.
Tackiness, oh tackiness, wherefore art thou tackiness? Just a few steps away from the home that was William Shakespeare's birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, is a Subway sandwich franchise. Further down the street there is a barber shop, that missed its chance to hang a sign reading "Bard-er Shop."
No one who has ever traveled to London comes away without something to say about its taxi drivers. Americans who are veterans of U.S. taxicabs anywhere in the country and who finally settle themselves into one of the city's classic cabs for the first time usually also steel themselves for the anticipated snarl from a driver who speaks little English and has only slightly more knowledge of the roads than a first-time visitor.
And yet one taxi driver got out of his cab and joined me on the sidewalk to ensure I understood the walking directions. Another person told of a driver who started to drive away, then stopped and backed up to return a Blackberry that had been left behind. It wasn't just a courtesy: The driver explained that if lost goods aren't returned or at least turned in at the end of the night, taxi drivers can lose their licenses. Forever.
Immediately adjacent to the Aquarium in bucolic and historic St. Andrews is a restaurant with a large sign that reads "Seafood." Which makes one wonder how often this conversation occurs, "Hey, Nemo, you're not really entertainin' the payin' folk like you should; what do you say we go next door?"
You already know fuel prices are far higher in Europe. Here's an illustration of just how much: Filling a tank of a rental car, I counted to "Two Mississippi" for every one pound that was clicked over by the pump. That's right-every two seconds cost another buck and a half.
Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at email@example.com.