An exhausting week that whizzed by. On Monday morning I took my wife for a cataract operation. A cataract was the almost inevitable side-effect of the operation she had to repair a detached retina back in March. We arrived very early at the hospital to go through the various registration and preparation procedures. There was quite a bit of hanging around, but once she was called in it took no time at all. We didn’t hang around the post-op waiting area for very long before she was quickly discharged, multiple bottles of eyedrops in hand. The operation is incredible; it has restored her sight in the affected eye to the point that she no longer needs a prescription lens on that side of her glasses. (Of course, for some reason it costs £55 at the opticians to get the old lens replaced with a basic plastic one.) I don’t really understand the sorcery of putting a plastic lens into an eye and it being exactly right.
The care that my wife received was superb. I know we fund the NHS through our taxes, but it still feels amazing to walk in and out within a few hours with the only cost that day being a £9 parking charge.
This was a week in which I:
- Finalised the details for a statement of work with an external vendor and created a small set of summary slides for internal review.
- Reviewed a first set of architectural fit-out drawings for offices that we are considering as a new home in one of our locations.
- Kicked off a series of internal meetings with our heads of Product Management and Engineering, alternating our focus between the two areas with the intent that we coalesce round one agreed way forward.
- Started to look at Planview’s new Roadmaps product. As AgilePlace users, it’s an attractive prospect as it would mean that the digital representation of our work would all be kept in the same space.
- Attended a kick-off session for a ‘digital immersion’ that I am attending next week. We had a keynote speaker and a very free-flowing discussion about all things cryptocurrency and blockchain-related. I’m still of the view that the technology is interesting but is still in search of a use-case.
- Received a preliminary update on some recent cybersecurity testing.
- Had a check-in meeting on the current state of our unstructured document management programme.
- Met with colleagues to discuss the challenges we are having as participants in developing changes for a large group-wide platform.
- Spent some time with a colleague who wanted some guidance on how to approach rolling out a solution for a client across multiple countries.
- Attended a workshop on a proposed updated approach to managing non-financial risk.
- Met with our Group Head of Enterprise Architecture for a catch-up while he was in London for the week. It’s always great to see him.
- Did some online pre-work for a training course which was then cancelled at the last minute.
- Enjoyed a colleague’s presentation at our weekly Learning Hour meeting on the topic of meditation.
- Met a colleague’s son for a chat as he spent the week in our office for his work experience.
- Removed my school governor accounts from all of my devices now that I am no longer part of the board.
- Attended a Sixth Form induction meeting with our eldest son. From what I can remember, these next two years will go by in a flash for him.
- Fielded a couple of requests to join Album Club after my article appeared in the Berkhamsted Town Council newsletter. In retrospect, the article should ideally have been clearly marked as a ‘what local people get up to’ story so that it couldn’t be mistaken for an appeal for new members. By mutual consent, I’ve put the people that contacted me in touch with each other and suggested they set up their own club.
- Enjoyed hearing Love’s Forever Changes at Album Club. It had been on my list to listen to for years but I’d never got round to it.
- Went to see Flyying Colours at The Lexington in London. Four of us had intended to go, but one had COVID-19 an another was under the weather, leaving just Mat and I. The band were excellent; I’d never heard them before but they were instantly likeable. At times they felt like a fantastic cross between Ride and Lush.
- Can’t quite work out why I’m finding cycling on the indoor trainer so difficult at the moment. I suspect that TrainerRoad has miscalculated my abilities, but I also don’t seem to be able to ‘push through’ one of the harder segments.
- Enjoyed my weekly Saturday morning club cycle ride. Autumn is definitely in the air; I was questioning my choice of fingerless gloves for the first few minutes of the ride. It won’t be long until the winter gear gets donned again. In a break from our usual routine we went for a coffee and cake at the Dower House on Berkhamsted High Street. I’m not sure I was completely aware that the place had been turned into a cafe. It’s a splendid one.
- Sampled gelato from a bicycle that has appeared in the High Street on a Saturday. (Yes, I know — cake and ice cream on the same day.)
- Finished the first season of Barry. It did not disappoint.
Next week: Digital immersion.
A run of live gigs in my diary started this week with Marika Hackman playing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. The last time I saw her was back in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its initial acceleration phase. The two friends who came with me to this week’s gig are the same two that accompanied me back then. It was strange to recall the underlying feeling of stress and foreboding from back then, wondering at the time whether we should even be there. It was so good to see her live again; apart from a Covers album that was released during the pandemic she has been very quiet. Her new songs sounded fantastic and her old ones gave me goosebumps, despite the whole room sweltering in sauna-level heat. Her new album will be an insta-buy.
This was a week in which I:
- Saw everyone else in the family head back to school for the start of a new year.
- Met with a vendor for another review of a draft contract that we are trying to get in place.
- Had a couple of excellent conversations about team retrospectives, specifically on whether metaphors are useful or a distraction. I came at the question from a cynical position but the feedback was overwhelmingly that metaphors help. You have to pick the right one for the audience and also think about neurodiversity.
- Met with colleagues in China as part of our programme to change the way that we manage unstructured data.
- Was given an education about data mesh architecture and how it differs from traditional approaches.
- Met with the project team planning our technology-focused town hall event in November.
- Reviewed a whole host of material that I have gathered about the future of the office, capturing the relevant content into a mind map. iThoughts is so good in that it is intuitive and frictionless, but I do wish that it could be used for real-time collaboration.
- Met with colleagues and our People and Culture team on our ‘sustainable careers’ framework. Most of us being in the same physical space for the meeting felt like old times.
- Had some excellent conversations with colleagues about how to build specific relationships within our team.
- Met with the vendor that we are working with to deliver ‘clear writing’ training to our team later this year.
- Heard about a couple of new projects that will soon be added to an already long list.
- Met with our real estate vendor who are helping us with an office move in one of our locations over the next year.
- Took part in our monthly non-financial risk review meeting.
- Gave my presentation on large language models and generative AI to our office in China. It was interesting to think about how to reframe some of the messages given that access to ChatGPT and similar tools is restricted for people living there. It was interesting to read up on China’s new laws on generative AI, whose guidance seems eminently sensible to me.
- Had some conversations following my blog post on how generative AI gets riskier as it improves. People pointed out that humans make mistakes too, so they may mess up when they create summaries or minutes of meetings. This is, of course, correct. But the instincts of a human as to what is or isn’t important, or what should be ‘left on the cutting room floor’ will be far better than a large language model that is summarising a meeting transcript. I use the screenshot below from this YouTube video to make a point — these tools don’t ‘understand’ what’s relevant and what isn’t.
- Started coming to the conclusion that despite the issues, it is less risky to use a large language model to process and ‘translate’ your own data than it is to get it to generate something new for you. This seems counterintuitive, but the real risks lie in it making things up, which is exactly what it is designed to do.
- Joined an internal webinar about a ‘hackathon’ that we run annually with Stellenbosch University, learning about how a winning team approached a data science problem.
- Had a lovely random coffee with a colleague in New York and talked about their upcoming trip to Africa.
- Turned another random coffee into a random lunch as my coffee partner and I were in the same office.
- Stumbled across a PETA demonstration against Jet2’s sale of tickets to marine parks, outside their annual general meeting on Cheapside.
- Continued to suffer from what I now think was a horsefly bite. At the start of the week, I thought about strapping my wrists to my desk to stop me from scratching it. It’s largely faded now, but gets worryingly visible whenever I exercise.
- Loved the Saturday morning cycle club ride. A lot of the usual riders were away on a cycling weekend so there were some new faces that joined the group this week. The route, already long, was extended by some HS2-related roadworks that we couldn’t navigate our way through. It was super fast and super fun. I tried getting on the trainer on Sunday morning but struggled mentally and physically to get anything decent done; my legs were tired and it was so hot.
- Went to a friend’s 50th birthday party. The birthday boy is a fellow Album Club member, so we decided a few weeks ago to buy him a vinyl box set as a treat. I was so relieved when it finally turned up the day before the party; someone had misinterpreted my post code which meant that the parcel had been on quite a journey around the country. The party was brilliant, with the weather being warm enough that people could be outside in the garden all night.
- Enjoyed a lovely random Sunday afternoon barbecue at with lots of parents of our younger son’s friends. It was great to get to know them a little bit.
- Started watching the TV series Barry after reading a review from earlier in the year. It’s exactly what we were looking for.
Next week: A gig, an Album Club and an eye operation.
From the meetings that I have recorded, the ‘AI notes’ seem to lose a certain essence of some parts of the discussion, and the suggested follow-up tasks often don’t make sense. Aside from the often hilarious Teams chat response suggestions that have been in the product for a while now1, Teams Premium is my first encounter with the new large language model-based AI products from Microsoft. What concerns me is not how poor the product is today, but how close to perfect it is going to get over time.
I think the most worrisome aspect of AI systems in the short term is that we will give them too much autonomy without being fully aware of their limitations and vulnerabilities.
(Melanie Mitchell, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans)
I see the output of these AI large language models on a spectrum. At one end, the tools may spit out complete and utter garbage, perhaps not even words. Their uselessness would be obvious to everyone who uses them. At the other end, the AI could output a perfect response (or summary of a meeting, in the case of Teams Premium) every single time. The problem lies in the middle, and gets worse the closer the system is to being consistently perfect:
Right now, I think that the quality of the Teams Premium ‘AI notes’ feature sits somewhere in the green area. It’s good and useful a lot of the time. For example, I can scan the notes and check whether a topic was mentioned. If that topic isn’t in the notes, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t discussed; I’d have to watch the video back to check that the AI didn’t miss it. If the meeting was very important and needed to be formally minuted, I would still rely on the video.
As the product improves over time, we’ll move out of the green zone and into the yellow. At this point, I may consciously or subconsciously decide to stop routinely verifying the AI-generated output. It’s good enough, most of the time. Again, if a meeting is really important, I may watch the video.
The real danger comes in the red zone. Here, the AI output is superb most of the time, so much so that I never check it. I rely on the summary even for my important meeting minutes. But it’s not quite at the ‘completely perfect’ end of the spectrum. Occasionally it will trip up. Something will get missed — maybe one meeting in a hundred — and perhaps that something is critical to the conversation we’ve had. Perhaps it will attribute a comment to the wrong person, or miss the nuance of a discussion which was important to get exactly right. We may only find out that the AI produced flawed output for this meeting when an incident arises down the line.
This isn’t a concern about AI getting ‘too good’ and becoming ‘sentient’ in a general sense.2 It’s more that we have decided to stop thinking, that we have handed control of some part of our workflow over to the AI and no longer verify its output. For me personally, one bad output every 100 recorded meetings might be tolerable. But if we scale this across a large organisation where hundreds or thousands of meetings take place every day, we’re going to have problems.
Baldur Bjarnason explores this in his book The Intelligence Illusion:
I mentioned two of [the flaws] before, automation and anchoring biases. We, as human beings, have a strong tendency to trust machines over our own judgement. This kills people, as it’s been a major problem in aviation. Anchoring bias comes from our tendency to let the initial perceptions, thoughts, and ideas set the context for everything that follows. AI adds a third issue: anthropomorphism. Even the smartest people you know will fall for this effect as large language models are incredibly convincing. These biases combined lead people to feel even more confident in the AI’s work and believe that it’s done a better job than it has.
We’re using the AI tools for cognitive assistance. This means that we are specifically using them to think less. In every other industry this dynamic inevitably triggers our automation bias and compromises our judgement of the work done by the tools. We use the assistant to think less, so we do.
These models are incredibly fluent and—as we saw at the start of this book—are consistently presented by their vendors as near-AGI. This triggers our instinct towards anthropomorphism, making us feel like we have a fully human-level intelligence assisting us, creating an intelligence illusion that again hinders are ability to properly assess the work it’s doing for us.
AI-generated meeting summaries in Teams Premium is a useful starting point for thinking about this technology. There’s no user input beyond hitting the ‘record’ button during a meeting, and everyone with a Teams Premium licence gets access to exactly the same summary. The possibility for getting something wrong is limited to how good or bad the summary of the meeting is. So far, so harmless. But Microsoft 365 Copilot will be arriving soon, vastly expanding the problem space with its interactive, prompt driven approach. Where on the ‘useless to perfect’ spectrum will it land? What if just being ‘very good’ isn’t good enough?
Four days at work this week, but it felt like five. My mission on Sunday night/Monday morning was to get to Reading in order to pick up my eldest son and three of his friends from the festival. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a car journey where Waze has rerouted me so many times. The closer I got to Reading, the more cars joined me in a convoy to the town centre. Things ground to a half a couple of roads away from the pickup point. The wonders of modern technology were put to good use where my son could see exactly where I was stuck in traffic; it was much easier for him to walk to me than it was for me to get to him. They all had a great time. We chuckled as we dropped them off one by one at their respective houses and watched each of them shuffle, slightly broken from the raving, to their doors.
We had lots of people out of the office at work this week, but it still felt very busy. Holiday season hasn’t quite come to an end yet.
This was a week in which I:
- Completed vendor on-boarding for a technology company we are hoping to work with. We now just have the statement of work to agree.
- Did some research into the state of Generative AI and Large Language Models in China ahead of a presentation I will be giving to our office there on Monday morning.
- Met with a colleague in the Non-Financial Risk team to discuss our team’s approach to Large Language Models and Generative AI.
- Took part in the steering committee for an important cybersecurity initiative that we are involved with.
- Met with colleagues for our quarterly architecture governance meeting. Had a long discussion about the need for a bill of materials and bill of behaviours for any software product we use, and how far we are from this being a reality in the software industry.
- Spent time with my team to review all of the ‘task’ cards on our Kanban board. As well as discarding a bunch of items, we decided that our research-focused cards would be better focused as topics for future Learning Hour sessions.
- Stocked the Kanban board with a number of strategic tasks that are aligned to our team’s roadmap.
- Set up a webhook-based interface between AgilePlace and Microsoft teams to alert us when new cards are created on our Kanban board.
- Joined the monthly Architecture Community of Practice meeting.
- Took part in our monthly Lean Coffee session.
- Recorded a video pitch for how I think we can improve our regular weekly office lunch and sent it off to our head of Marketing and Communications. I’d been thinking about it for a while and decided that a long email wasn’t going to cut it.
- Ran our weekly team meeting. We have an amazing bunch of people that are not afraid to speak up and share personal things with the rest of the team.
- Met with a vendor who provide ‘team building’ activities in both London and Johannesburg. (What’s a better phrase than ‘team building’? It has such negative connotations based on what people have experienced in the past.)
- Pondered when it is best not to reply to a group email and take the high ground, and when a reply is needed to make sure that everyone is aligned.
- Met with Mark Wilson for a random coffee. WB-40 podcast host Matt Ballantine set up the coffees as an off-shoot of his 100 Coffees project, specifically for members of the podcast community. I consider Mark to be my ‘Internet twin’ given how many times we find ourselves talking about things we have in common. It was lovely to chew the fat with him.
- Hit the milestone of 5,000 ‘random coffee’ pairings for our team at work since we started the initiative in May 2020. We still have new people joining on a regular basis, typically people that have just started with us and want to get to know more of their colleagues. At some point I need to off-load the work to a system as it is still a manual process right now.
- Had a short discussion with a technology consultancy vendor on what I look for in a technology partner. A friend of mine works for the company and was keen to get input from a broad swathe of people across IT.
- Heard from a friend that he is selling his dream home that he has poured a lot of his life into over the past few years. He already knows that when his fixed rate mortgage deal ends he won’t be able to afford it, so is taking preemptive action. Given how the UK interest base rate has risen from 0.1% to 5.25% in less than two years, I wonder how many other households are in the same situation?
- Met with UK Power Networks to discuss the project to remove our house from our neighbour’s electricity connection. Hopefully they’ll be able to connect us directly to the street without digging up the full length of our driveway.
- Had a lovely brunch with my wife at Jester, a new cafe in Berkhamsted. The coffee is large and the honey and fruit granola is plentiful.
- Kicked off the new season of Learned League with four wins in a row, taking me to the top of the table, dropping to fifth when I lost the last match of the week. This is comical, given that I finished both of the past two seasons in the bottom third. I haven’t suddenly got that much smarter in a few weeks.
- Struggled to find a new TV series to watch with my wife. We’ve tried a few things but have lost interest quickly. Even the latest series of Only Murders In The Building seems a bit tedious. We’ve started watching Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland which seems to be an incredible piece of filmmaking; we weren’t looking for a documentary but it has us hooked.
- Finally watched Judy (2019). It’s not the greatest biopic that I’ve ever seen, but Renée Zellweger’s performance was superb and the ending broke me. I don’t think anyone would claim that Judy Garland has the best voice of all time, but there is something about the emotion in her performances that makes them so compelling to me. Years ago I was commuting to work, listening to Tony Bennett on Desert Island Discs, when he picked Judy Garland singing Last Night When We Were Young. I’d never heard it before; it literally stopped me dead in my tracks. It is absolutely beautiful.
- Got bitten or stung by some kind of insect on the Saturday morning club ride. I was descending a hill at the time so have no idea exactly what it was, other than that it was painful. At first I thought a stone had pinged up to my leg, but then the pain kept coming. To say it is itchy today would be a massive understatement.
Next week: More AI, the welcome live return of Marika Hackman and an online Album Club.
In short, the broader the use case and more general the AI deployment, the riskier the outcomes are likely to be. Using a large language model to summarise or convert content is a good use case. Offering an AI-powered general purpose chatbot to your customers is likely to cause a plethora of problems, particularly where you are not able to vet the data that the model has been trained on. Businesses need to make sure that they aren’t getting themselves into sticky situations by moving too quickly or deploying technology that can break in unexpected ways. Governments and regulation moves slowly, but at some point it will catch up and there may be a lot of companies exposed to lawsuits and fines when it does.
This book is required reading for everyone involved in looking at Generative AI for their business or in their work.
Back to work. My main thought when I landed at my desk on Monday morning was how lucky I am that being in front of my keyboard is my happy place. Well, at least one of my happy places, anyway. It was good to be back.
It was one of those weeks where I felt that I put my seatbelt on and rode the rollercoaster all the way to Friday afternoon. The week was filled with catching up with Teams messages, emails and meeting recordings, with lots of new meetings to go to as well. But I did enjoy it.
This was a week in which I:
- Started playing with a trial of Teams Premium. It’s a strange bundle of enhancements. The feature I am most interested in is the AI-generated summaries and suggested actions for recorded meetings. Having used it for a week, it has got me thinking deeply about the potential disillusionment ahead for these kinds of tools. The marketing hype has been so loud that there is no way that it can meet the expectations that have been created.
- Completed updates for our quarterly report to the company board.
- Chased up documentation for on-boarding an external vendor as well as the next draft of the contract.
- Attended the steering committee for a real estate programme.
- Joined a conversation about tweaks to the design of one of our office spaces.
- Met with the project team for the move of one of our offices planned for next year.
- Continued team-by-team conversations for our unstructured data management initiative.
- Attended a half-day hybrid workshop between colleagues across our company and a well-known IT consulting vendor to discuss artificial intelligence. Separately, it seems that not a week goes by without some kind of AI-focused webinar being in the diary; they rarely have anything significantly new or interesting to say.
- Reviewed our team’s approach to Microsoft software updates across our endpoint estate and agreed next steps.
- Had a number of conversations about a set of technical issues that the team have been dealing with for the past few weeks. Suggested that we go right back to where we started to see if there are different approaches to getting us to where we want to be as opposed to trying to fix a number of components of the current solution.
- Caught up on the plans for an event that our team are hosting at the end of November.
- Enjoyed our weekly Learning Hour, where our development team took us through the architecture of a system that they have built.
- Had a great conversation with my team on the implicit assumptions that we make and when they can be harmful.
- Took part in a number of conversations about mental health and how someone can be going through something that is completely invisible to everyone around them.
- Had a meeting with a young man who joined us in the office for a day’s work experience. There’s nothing like talking to someone who is 17 to make you realise how long ago it was that you were in his shoes.
- Recommenced a review of my team’s Kanban board, looking at all of the tasks/features. The cleanup is going to take a few sessions but it is so worthwhile; we’ve ditched a number of tasks, have made sure we all understand the cards that are left and have decided that the ‘do some research on this new thing and decide’ cards should really be Learning Hour talks. More to come next week.
- Heard that Verizon are sunsetting the BlueJeans platform after having acquired it three years ago. BlueJeans was my first regular everyday videoconferencing tool back in 2017 but its desktop application seemed to be stuck in the past. The technology was great for bridging between modern platforms such as Teams with legacy IP-based videoconference rooms; if a company has a need for this I’m not sure what tools will do it as easily.
- Thought about how children are inadvertently brought into the workplace through people now working at home, which means that we need to watch our language in meetings.
- Met with a colleague to talk through some ‘team building’ ideas. (What’s a better phrase for ‘team building’ that doesn’t have all of the negative baggage?)
- Went to a colleague’s leaving celebration at a pub near the office, another sign of post-pandemic normality. Had a great long conversation with a colleague who humoured me as I geeked out with questions about how her day is structured and how she goes about her work. I have, and have always had, so many meetings every week and it was interesting to hear how she has very few.
- Watched Hijack on Apple TV+ as recommended by a friend. It was cheesy in places but enjoyable enough to keep me coming back for the next episode. I wonder if I’m doing something wrong with the Apple TV+ interface in that we always have to remember ourselves what the last episode was of something we are watching; there seems to be no way of just jumping back in where you left off.
- Was pleased that my eldest boy got the results he needed in his GCSEs to take on the A-Levels that he wants to do. Only one week of the school holidays to go.
- Took one for the team by picking up my son and three of his pals from Reading Festival on Sunday night/Monday morning. We didn’t make it back until 2am; it was amusing to see each of them get out of the car and shuffle towards their respective front doors, slightly broken from a couple of days of raving. They all seemed to have had a brilliant time.
- Tried to complete the deletion of all of the tweets and likes on my Twitter account, using Tweeteraser. I’ve got rid of most of the 30,000 tweets but 409 ‘ghost’ tweets remain, none of which I can see from the web interface. Deleting likes doesn’t seem to work using the tool, but I can’t see myself removing nearly 5,000 of them manually. I’ve sent an email to the support team, but given that it’s surprising that the tool works at all following the restrictions that Twitter has imposed on its API, I don’t hold out much hope.
- Had a belated anniversary dinner out with my wife at Tabure in Berkhamsted, which didn’t disappoint. The food is fantastic.
- Met up with lots of friends for a late lunch/early dinner. They were incredible hosts and it was so lovely to get together with so many friends all in one place.
- Booked some business travel for the first time in a while.
Next week: Only four days at work, with hopefully a bit more time outside of meetings to get things done.
Our destination was the small Balkan country of Montenegro, part of the former Yugoslavia. With a population of only 602,000 people, it’s a relatively tiny place. The country isn’t (yet) part of the European Union but they use the Euro, a consequence of hyperinflation of their former official currency.
We travelled with our close friends, the same ones that we holidayed with last year. The journey started with a 5am taxi from home to Gatwick Airport, which despite being ‘just around the M25’, always feels like it gets further away every time I go there. We’d booked a local taxi to take the eight of the 12 of us that live in Berkhamsted as it seemed like a bargain. I felt like an idiot when it turned out that I had misheard the cost on the phone.
Each family had booked a package trip with British Airways, flying into Dubrovnik in Croatia and then being driven across the border into Montenegro. We had read that the border crossing could take up to six hours at the busiest times; thankfully we hardly had to wait at all before we got to the other side. We were staying at the all-inclusive Iberostar Herceg Novi, named after the local municipality as well as the town facing us across the bay.
The hotel itself was good. It bills itself as ‘four star’, but star ratings are often dubious and I thought this was being a little generous. One of the reasons we booked was the relatively low cost compared to neighbouring destinations; it was definitely good value for money.
The location is incredible; photos of the beautiful, mountainous landscape around where we stayed will never do it justice. We got very used to wandering up and down the stairs between the facilities and our hotel rooms. The hotel had everything you would expect, with a decent swimming pool, a ‘beach’ area with sun loungers and private area for sea swimming, a buffet restaurant, a small number of bars — including a beautifully-situated rooftop bar that was ideal for looking over the bay at night — and a coffee house. But the drinks were quite lacklustre, with odd-tasting cola, and wine dispensed through red, white and rose taps. Towards the end of the holiday we started going to the little shop located outside of the hotel to buy decent beer, with and without alcohol.
One of our first challenges was trying to get the shower to work. We could get the water flowing out of the tap into the bath, but couldn’t see how to divert it to the shower head. After both my wife and I puzzled over it for twenty minutes or so, our friend popped into see if he could work it out. But the mystery remained. The only option left was to call the front desk to see if they could get someone to come and fix it. Ten minutes later, a maintenance guy showed up. He walked into the room, saw the tap and said “Ah yes! Everyone calls about this. It’s the only one in the hotel like it.” And then he showed us how to use it. It seems that our holiday brains were not equipped for the lateral thinking that was required:
Across the week, our children didn’t spend any time in the pool, instead opting for the swimming area in the bay. We hired a paddle board for €50 a day which the kids loved playing with, ferrying each other to and from the diving platform at the far edge of the safe zone.
Everyone thought that the food at the hotel was good, although by the end of the week it felt a bit repetitive. Unlike other all-inclusive hotels that we have stayed at, there were no on-site restaurants to book alternatives to the buffet. My options were a little limited as I don’t eat meat and try to avoid fish, so most evenings I found myself having a good salad course followed by a ‘kids course’ of pizza and a few chips. The restaurant itself was quite functional and had the feeling of a brightly lit cafe.
One evening we took the taxi boat from the hotel to the town of Herceg Novi to eat in a local restaurant, the amusingly-named Konoba Feral1. It was great to have a change of scenery. The food was really good, but it all came out too quickly — the mains appeared before we’d made much progress with our starters, which left us feeling a bit rushed.
The hotel’s evening entertainment was unwaveringly awful. Towards the end of the trip we lost hope that it would improve and stopped wandering down the steps to the beach bar to see what was on. At the swimming pool bar there were a variety of singers with guitars across the week. The best of them played towards the start of the week, but the lasting memory of the evening was a random guest getting up on stage to sing The Cranberries’ Zombie, which is my musical kryptonite even in its original form. It was traumatic.
On our first full day we took the taxi boat over to Herceg Novi. Billed as ‘the Town of 100,001 Steps’, it lived up to its reputation. A wander through the old town area mainly involved ascending and descending lots and lots of stairs. It’s a very cool place, with lots of little alleyways and shops to see as you explore.
Halfway up we came across the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in a beautiful little square. There was a constant trickle of people going in and out of the tiny church, stepping backwards and crossing themselves as they left.
At the top of all of the stairs is the Kanli Kula Fortress, which translates from Turkish to ‘bloody tower’. It’s an interesting place which is now used as an amphitheater, with spectacular views.
Herceg Novi also introduced us to Montenegrin street food. An incredibly reasonably-priced bakery sold us some spinach, potato and onion-filled burek which tasted so good. (They looked just like these ones.) Others in our group found a street-facing serving hatch off the side of a restaurant that sold bread pockets of various meat fillings with self-serve sauces. It was also our first encounter with Moritz Eis, manufacturers of wonderful, delicious ice cream. We kept finding their shops in different places that we visited throughout our stay. Wandering around Herceg Novi was one of my highlights of the trip.
We hadn’t planned to hire cars when we were there. Getting around mainly consisted of speaking to Bobana, the representative of Petar Boats at our hotel, about trips that we could do. We booked ourselves in for a half-day private boat for a trip to the ‘Blue Cave’, which made economic sense for 12 of us, as well as trip to Kotor — which we were told was a must-see — on a large shared boat.
The cave didn’t let us down. Our skipper navigated us through the narrow entrance before hooking the boat to the cave wall. Inside it was beautiful — the water really did glow iridescent blue. We were told that it was safe to dive in the water as long as we stayed close to the boat, as lots of other boats would be coming and going. I didn’t need asking twice. Swimming in the cave was so much fun.
On our way back from the cave we entered a tunnel that was used by the Yugoslav navy to hide submarines during the Cold War. It was interesting to see, but the fumes from our boat were overpowering in the enclosed space and I’m glad we didn’t stay long.
Our second boat trip felt like a bit of a let-down compared to the fun we had on the first one. It was a very long, very hot day, and we were on a strict time schedule. After breakfast, we grabbed the taxi boat across to Herceg Novi in order to board the larger tour boat that would be our home for the day. We were told to find some seats and make sure that we kept to the same ones throughout the trip — not as comfortable as being able to move around with a breeze blowing at you. The places we stopped at were extraordinarily beautiful — the Church of Our Lady of The Rocks, Perast with its incredible number of churches for a population of just 269, and the pretty Donji Stoliv with its luxury hotel — but we were too hot, too thirsty and too worried about missing the time to get back onto the boat to explore very far.
Kotor was what we had really come to see. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, founded in the 5th century BC and surrounded by fortifications originally built in the Middle Ages. The old town is one of narrow alleys which I thought would be like wandering around Herceg Novi. We had just under two hours to look around, but spend the first half of the allocated time trying to find somewhere that would serve us some quick street food; we didn’t want to use our whole time there sitting down for a meal. We resorted to a pizza joined staffed with gruff, grumpy people after exhausting all other options.
By the time we were done we had to start to make our way back to the boat again. The town was much, much busier than any other place we went to and I know we just scratched the surface. The gigantic staircase up into the mountains and distant mountainside chairlift gave us some of idea of what we were missing. I’d love to go back.
During our stay I was pleased to get a few runs in. Getting to the taxi boat jetty at the other side of the bay and back was about 11km, so running was a great way of offsetting the endless portions of food available throughout the day.
The weather was superb all week. On our last day, one of my friends said that a storm was due to roll in, which felt impossible given the clear blue sky. And then we saw it come over the mountains behind Herceg Novi.
Once the lightning started to strike, it seemed as though the whole population of the hotel retreated from the beach and the pool back to their rooms. I spent my time on our balcony, trying to capture some slo-mo footage of the spectacular lightning strikes.
Our journey home was eventful. We passed the time in the airport buying overpriced food and watching the England vs Australia World Cup match on our mobile phones. Our BA EuroFlyer service, provided by Avion Express (no, me neither), upgraded our family to the front of the plane. Despite the improved leg room, this may have been a poisoned chalice. The food was dreadful, with three sandwich ‘fingers’, a scone, an incredibly bizarre blue cake and some very stewed, bitter tea. I was the only one of the four of us to eat the sandwiches; that night and throughout the next day I was ill at home with what I can only assume was food poisoning.
We made great time towards Gatwick. As we descended, our captain came onto the intercom to tell us the airport had suddenly shut for emergency repairs. We circled a few times before the decision was made to divert to Stansted in order to refuel. The cabin crew were visibly distraught at the news. Once we landed, people started asking questions about whether they could get out and the head of the cabin crew said something along the lines of “due to European law, the only way you can leave is in an ambulance.” True to his word, the only people let off the aircraft was a mother and her son, the latter of which had been having a panic attack.
At this point, everyone on the plane seemed to need (a) a glass of water and (b) to use the toilet. The captain then announced that the earliest landing slot at Gatwick would be around five hours later, so we had to scramble to get in contact with our waiting taxi drivers to work out what the best plan would be. The head of the cabin crew told off one of his colleagues for being at the front of the plane when she should be at the back; she had wandered to the front as she “couldn’t stand the sound of the toilet constantly flushing.” Fortunately, the refuelling didn’t take long — the captain announced that Gatwick had given us the go-ahead to leave and we would soon be on our way again. In what seemed to be the aviation equivalent of “if you’re only driving round the corner you don’t need your seat belt”, the cabin crew didn’t walk through the plane to check everyone was ready to go and instead spent the entire take-off procedure showing each other funny videos on their phones. Stansted to Gatwick is a short journey on an A320, so it wasn’t long before we were on the ground again.
Holidaying for a week always feels quite rushed. If we had spent more time in Montenegro I would have liked to have travelled around to see more of the country, as the little we saw was unbelievably beautiful. But an all-inclusive hotel takes a lot of the stress out of a trip when travelling with children, especially when you are in a large group. I’m so grateful that we got to spend time there with our friends.
Aside from our trip, in the past two weeks I also:
- Was shocked to learn of the passing of yet another person that I went to school with. I know it is inevitable, but we still seem so young for so many of us to not be here anymore.
- Watched England progress through the World Cup before ultimately losing to Spain in the final. Spain were definitely the better team on the day.
- Enjoyed Album Club #150. I can’t believe we’re halfway to our next century already.
- Cleared the gutters in our back garden in an attempt to stop a small waterfall from appearing above the patio doors when we get anything more than a small rain shower. It then rained, and the problem seems to be worse. Further investigation required.
- Finally got someone to come back and look at our leaking toilet for the second time, two and a half months after the first visit. Apparently a part is definitely on order now.
- Had a visit from a Virgin Media installer to upgrade our home hub to the latest model. We’re now on a plan where we can get 1Gbps downloads. I haven’t noticed the difference with anything except upload speeds, which now exceed 100Mbps.
- Watched Right to Fight (2023), an incredible documentary about the early days of female boxing in the USA. The early pioneers of the sport were amazing in so many ways, pushing for recognition but being met with sexism and hate.
- Had a rare trip to the cinema with my wife — without the children — to watch Oppenheimer (2023). I am so glad that we opted for the IMAX screen, for the sound as much as the picture. The film is SO LOUD and shakes you in the chest, but it never felt inappropriate. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, with wonderful actors and performances throughout.
Next week: Back to work!
- ‘Feral’ in this context means a ship’s lantern, not wild animals. ↩
I loved the idea that our consciousness as a species may have evolved from the need to be able to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes. If I can think about how you will feel if I do something, it may influence whether I do the thing or not. Absolutely fascinating.