It’s always worth browsing in a second hand bookshop. So often I buy something I didn’t know existed. This is a collection of interviews by John Mortimer, published in 1986, that originally appeared in The Sunday Times.
His portrait on the cover is, perhaps deliberately, reminiscent of Topolski’s sketches for Face to Face and this book is just as fascinating as Freeman’s TV series. There are twenty-nine interviews of which so far I have only read one – with Frank Cooper.
Now we must meander down Memory Lane. It is 1981 and the International Petroleum Exchange has just opened, trading gas oil futures. There are twenty member firms looking for clients of which Czarnikow was one. My chairman, Michael Chataway, had an idea. He was a friend from Oxford of Frank Cooper, Permanent Under Secretary at the Ministry of Defence. Why shouldn’t the MoD hedge its exposure to oil prices? The Chataway/Cooper axis got us in the door and it turned out that there was a surprisingly good fit. In those days the army went on manoeuvres in Germany. Their tanks guzzled diesel, essentially the same as gas oil, that they bought in NW Europe where the IPE gas oil was priced. A commercial firm would have been attracted to the idea of the budgetary control that hedging offers but it was a step too far for the Civil Service.
Meanwhile I was talking to American firm, Brown and Root, that were laying underwater oil pipelines around the world. They had to tender for these contracts years ahead and were horribly exposed to escalating oil prices. They started hedging but, to begin with, it was a lousy fit. Although they used marine diesel which is much the same as gas oil, the price in the South China Sea did not move in line with prices in NW Europe. Their project manager was disappointed but did not throw in the towel. Subsequent hedging programmes were more successful than he imagined possible. Another early adopter of hedging was Qantas. The general manager of the airline told me that the hedging programme was making them more money than they had ever made flying aircraft.
But back to Sir Frank Cooper. He was a wise man and his interview with John Mortimer has relevance today.
“If you could wave a wand and deprive Russia of all nuclear weapons, do you think the world would become a safer place?”
”No – much more dangerous.”
“Could you explain that?”
“Yes, of course.” Sir Frank smiled patiently. “It’s very important that Europe has a strong NATO Alliance and a strong Warsaw Pact. That’s what leads to stability. We need to understand that, if we’re to avoid a catastrophe, Russia has to feel secure … both sides have to feel safe, and East and West have to go on talking.”
This is still true in the context of Russia and now North Korea. His comments about Northern Ireland are relevant to Catalonia today.
”The British and the Loyalists in Northern Ireland have never understood each other. They feel intensely British, and yet they’re totally different from us. They believe they’re independent, and yet they want to be part of Britain. It comes of having had a provincial legislature. Dangerous things, those.”