Howard Davies: Farewell New York and my century of Morgan Stanley audit meetings

The West End's superiority to Broadway, WW1 shells in the Gare du Nord and why Waterloo still rankles for the French.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 28 May 2015

In England's disastrous Barbados Test defeat there was a silver lining in the form of Alastair Cook's first century for 36 innings. Although he has tried our patience over the past two years I have remained loyal. When you have spent a couple of days at Sydney Cricket Ground watching a man drive 40,000 Australians to distraction a special bond grows up between you. In my eyes he can do no wrong.

My own century, achieved only days before, has been less prominently featured in the public prints so far. Sadly I am not talking cricket now. In 38 seasons for Barnes Common Cricket Club I have never troubled the scorer to use a third digit and, although I start my 39th with hope renewed, the stats are against me. No, I refer to an altogether more striking achievement: I have passed a century of meetings of the Morgan Stanley audit committee.

Some would regard that as 11 years of cruel and unusual punishment. I don't take that view. There is something calming and reassuring about the US audit cycle: the letters of representation, the 10Ks and the eight Qs, the Sarbanes-Oxley testing and the SEC comment letters. They are all old friends now, well, not perhaps friends, but rather like Christmas cards from people you don't know especially well, but whom you are glad to learn are still alive. Had the RBS chair not turned up, obliging me to stand down, I was gearing up to go for what Graham Gooch taught us to call a 'daddy hundred'. America's corporate governance codes do not impose rigid term limits, so at 11 years I was just getting into my stride.

A side effect of stepping down from Morgan Stanley's board is that I will be making fewer trips to New York. I shall miss Central Park, the Grand Central oyster bar, the pillows in the St Regis Hotel and the Chinese woman downtown who pummels my back into shape after the flight for $15. By contrast I shall not miss the immigration queue at JFK terminal 7, the Starbucks blueberry muffins - not a patch on the London version - or Broadway theatre.

The Broadway/West End contest is now a walkover for London. Most Broadway theatre shows today are revivals of musicals, or 'vehicles' for ageing TV stars; for the past few years many of the biggest hits among serious plays have been London transfers. As I write, the RSC's Wolf Hall (Parts One and Two) is a hot ticket. The National's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is also packing them in. It received six Tony nominations at the end of April, including for best play and best actor. Even among the musicals, the most nominated show is a dance version of An American in Paris, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon of the Royal Ballet, though London can't quite claim it as its own. The production transferred to New York from the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, which imaginatively produced it. The show is terrific, though I would have made some changes to the Saturday night audience, in particular, kicking out the chocoholics behind us.

Though the Franco-American romance in the show proceeds according to plan, the Americans and French have had a chequered relationship in the past few years - remember French fries being renamed as Freedom fries after the Iraq war? But this year they agreed on one thing - that our election was boring and incomprehensible. In both New York and Paris I was asked to explain the rise of the Greens and UKIP and the coalition options. But a sentence or two in to my learned explanation of Nigel Farage and Essex Man and the Cabinet manual on forming minority governments, I was uncomfortably aware that I had lost my audience. Eyes glazed over and attention wandered. By far the best course of action was to give up and shamelessly milk the Princess Charlotte phenomenon.

Apart from the startling lack of interest in the affairs of the Mother of Parliaments, Paris is never a bad place to be in the spring, whether for an American or a humble Brit. But my last visit was a little longer than planned. I was just about to interact with the UK Border Force when the process came to a sudden stop and the Gare du Nord was evacuated. The evacuation was confused and took quite a while, as no one had thought of supplying the staff with a loudspeaker.

A suspicious item had been identified in the security screening. Or two suspicious items, it transpired, in the form of two replica First World War shells, picked up by an acquisitive tourist on a convivial battlefield tour.

When the circumstances were explained there was something of a sense of humour failure among the Anglos on the forecourt at least (it is hard to tell when French commuters have lost their traditional joie de vivre). We didn't quite assemble a lynch mob, but a few of my fellow travellers suggested that the genius collector might be invited to stand on the platform with his shell-cases while a few train loads of delayed passengers passed by and congratulated him warmly on his witty gift selection.

First World War commemorations continue apace in France. But there is, oddly, much less interest in the Waterloo bicentennial. The only story so far has been about the French government's objections to a Waterloo monument appearing on a new Belgian two-euro coin. It was a 'negative symbol' for 'some Europeans', the French argued. Bonapartism lives on in the hexagon. The Belgians backed down: quelle surprise.

Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at @howardjdavies.

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