Boase Cohen & Collins Senior Partner Colin Cohen has returned to Hong Kong after a memorable holiday in the UK and Russia. But, between catching up with friends and sight-seeing, the news was dominated by terrorism, tragedy and political upheaval. Here, he recounts an eventful trip.
WELCOME TO LONDON
What better way to begin a holiday than with a football match? My wife Peggy and I arrive in London from Hong Kong mid-afternoon on Saturday 3 June and check in to the Landmark Hotel, our base for the next eight days. While Peggy chooses to rest, I head to the home of barrister Tim Owen QC for the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus.
On the way, my taxi driver pours scorn on Prime Minister Theresa May. The General Election is just five days away and, while the Conservatives have seen their lead reduced in the polls, they are widely expected to gain an increased majority. In my experience, most London cabbies are Tory voters, but this increasingly animated driver thinks Mrs May is running a terrible campaign and words like “arrogant” and “aloof” – plus other more colourful descriptions – pepper the journey.
Being an avid Arsenal fan, Tim has only a fleeting acquaintance with the Champions League but has kindly invited me over to watch the final on TV with his two sons. He is a gracious host, barely mentioning his team’s FA Cup final victory over Chelsea the previous weekend and keeping up a steady supply of excellent wine. It turns out to be a fabulous game, Cristiano Ronaldo – inevitably – stars and Real are convincing winners.
But in the early hours of the next morning I’m woken from a deep slumber at the Landmark by Peggy, informing me of the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market. The grim news continues to filter in and further sleep is difficult after that.
BEATING AROUND THE BUSH
The attacks cast a pall over Sunday but thankfully the day is enlivened by a get-together with some Australian friends and then catching up with my “butler” John Garratt, who has retained his job despite Laundrygate at Euro 2016 when he left my unwashed clothing at a hotel in Lyon. The evening sends us to Shepherd’s Bush for dinner with another barrister friend, Edward Fitzgerald QC – “Lord Fitz of the Bush” – and his wife Rebecca. More wine is consumed and His Lordship is in fine form.
Family matters next. We take the train north to visit my brother Ian – a chicken farmer living outside York – and his wife Jan. It’s a rural, peaceful place, a world away from the humidity and hectic pace of Hong Kong and we relish our brief time there. Back to London to see my parents and catch up with an uncle before lunch with Mike Kingston, another Euro 2016 veteran, albeit one who has never lost any of my laundry.
By now I haven’t dined with an eminent barrister for at least a couple of days so we put this right by going to dinner with Clare Montgomery QC and her husband Victor at Restaurant Story, the Michelin-starred eatery in Tooley Street. Talk turns to politics and tomorrow’s election. I admit to rather liking Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has grown more statesmanlike and authoritative by the day. He’s clearly resonating with many voters.
Live election coverage dominates Thursday but I’m already looking forward to what should be a special dinner – a reunion with old student colleagues from London’s City University, where we took our law degrees 40 years ago. It turns out to be a wonderful evening, full of warm memories and nostalgia. As I return to my hotel the election news is rolling in and it’s not looking good for Mrs May.
Friday, we wake up to a hung Parliament, the Tories are bickering among themselves and the knives are out for the Prime Minister. Comrade Jeremy has eaten into her majority by doing two things she didn’t, namely going out on the campaign trail and putting forward some coherent policies. All this, though, is put to one side when we meet up with the boy Garratt and his mother Chris for a splendid dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant.
The next day is our final one in London before departing for Moscow and it is highly enjoyable, a huge family reunion at my parents’ home. It’s a wonderful gathering of different generations and the perfect send-off before our Russian adventure, which will see us visit Moscow and enjoy a week-long cruise along the Volga River to St Petersburg.
The first thing I notice about Moscow is how prosperous it is. Busy, thriving, lots of new cars on the roads, shops full of expensive products. It’s a dramatic change from my previous visit here, for the 2008 Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United. We are staying on our boat, which is moored in the north of the city, and are driven into town for shopping and an evening show of Russian music. I’m also treating this as a scouting trip ahead of next year’s World Cup. Where to stay, how to get to matches – it will require military-type planning.
On Tuesday 13 June I visit the offices of law firm Sameta Tax & Legal Consulting, our colleagues in global legal referral organisation Ally Law, to give a presentation. It’s well received and we enjoy an excellent lunch afterwards. The Sameta team tell me Russia is on the up and business is good. So much for Western sanctions.
Wednesday is spent looking around Red Square and the Kremlin. It’s fascinating, but we are hearing more dreadful news from the UK, this time about an inferno which has ripped through a large block of flats, Grenfell Tower, in London. We return to our boat, where we have wi-fi, and begin to learn more, about the rising death toll, the acts of heroism at the scene, and accusations of cost-cutting and residents’ warnings being ignored.
TALES OF THE RIVERBANK
Our cruise begins. We are three couples, Peggy and I having been joined by our good friends Martin and Maureen Sabine from Hong Kong and my father’s first cousin, Vicki Harris, and husband Alex, who live in Switzerland. We settle into a routine: enchanting shore stops every day to tour quaint villages and picturesque islands – with Peggy doing her best to buy up the entire Russian souvenir market – and relaxing evenings aboard. One of these features a vodka-tasting event which proves extremely popular.
Grenfell Tower dominates our conversations as the fallout continues and recriminations escalate. Mrs May, by this time trying to shore up her Government with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, is handling the whole terrible affair with remarkable incompetence. It is hard to see how she can remain Tory leader for much longer.
Tuesday 20 June and we arrive in St Petersburg. At this time of year it is the City of White Nights, with the sun barely descending enough for the sky to become dark. We make the most of the daylight hours, touring around and sight-seeing. The highlight is a visit to the vast State Hermitage Museum, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.
I’m also presented with an awkward choice. Russia is currently hosting the Confederations Cup football tournament and I’m tempted to find a nice bar to watch the evening’s matches on TV, but I take the diplomatic option and accompany Peggy to the ballet at the Hermitage Theatre. This is a leap of faith for both of us, since I once slept through a performance by Rudolph Nureyev in Hong Kong, an infamous episode which is still occasionally brought up in the Cohen household. Fortunately, this time, Swan Lake proves rather entertaining. There are lots of swans, and some nice music, and more swans, and I manage to stay awake.
By now the weather has turned cold and wet and we are glad Thursday’s tour is indoors, taking us to the fabulous Fabergé Museum and its vast collection of paintings and ornaments. Peggy loves it. The evening presents another dilemma with a Confederations Cup match between Cameroon and Australia that is actually taking place in St Petersburg. I’m inclined to go but, knowing I have five-plus weeks of football in Russia next summer, decide it might be sensible to remain on the boat for a farewell dinner.
We land back in London for one night and, on our journey into the city, drive close by the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower. After everything we’ve seen and read, it is chilling to see it first-hand, a sobering reminder of the tragedy that has been inflicted on countless innocent people while we were away.
Back out to Heathrow the following morning and, as I’m attempting to order a coffee in the Cathay Pacific Lounge, someone asks me to keep the noise down. I turn around and am face-to-face with old acquaintance and Formula One TV personality Matthew Marsh, who is tucking into a huge breakfast. We give each other grief. Amazingly, I then bump into another old friend, former Hong Kong Football Club Chairman Fook Aun Chew, who persuades me that champagne is the only way to fly. I’m inclined to agree. Back to Hong Kong – and work.