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Charles Judson Harwood Jr (1942-2013)

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I first heard of Charles Harwood two and a half years ago when I was researching the downing of Iran Air flight 655. Unknown to me, he was already dead at that point. He had a blog on ntlworld.com.

NTL Inc was a cable television company. Barclay Knapp had set up CableTel in 1993 following the deregulation of the UK cable market. It acquired some local networks and then in 1996 acquired National Transcommunications Limited a transmission network which had been owned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (the bizarre history of how the regulator came to own the hardware for a network is outlined here). Two years later CableTel changed its name to NTL. It spent heavily and went into Chapter 11 after the Great Telecoms Crash in 2002. I thought I had written about that crash (which dwarfed the better-known dot-com crash around the same time), but cannot locate the article! Here is a summary from the Economist of 18 Jul 2002:

The telecoms bust is some ten times bigger than the better-known dotcom crash: the rise and fall of telecoms may indeed qualify as the largest bubble in history. Telecoms firms have run up total debts of around $1 trillion. And as if this were not enough, the industry has also disgraced itself by using fraudulent accounting tricks in an attempt to conceal the scale of the disaster. WorldCom, which “misclassified” $3.8 billion in network-maintenance costs as capital spending so as to hide huge losses, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy. If it goes under, it will be the biggest failure in business history, putting even Enron’s demise in the shade.

[3 days later WorldCom, controlled by Bernard Ebbers, filed for Chapter 11. AFter much legal manoeuvring it ended up controlled by federal judge Jed Rakoff and in Feb 2005 was acquired by Verizon for $8 billion. Ebbers started a 25-year sentence for securities fraud (aged 65) in Sep 2006.]

NTL had debts of a mere $18 billion. In Chapter 11 it converted over $11 billion into shares and split itself into NTL Inc (covering UK and Ireland) and NTL Europe Inc. NTL Inc emerged from Chapter 11 and by mid 2005 had debt of £1.5 billion and 3.2 million customers. In March 2006 it organized a reverse takeover by Telewest (a UK listed cable company). More or less simultaneously talks were going on with Virgin Mobile and a further merger was agreed in June 2006. The company was rebranded as Virgin Media plc in 2007.

Harwood’s blog seems to have survived until early 2014, because the link in my article was to homepage.ntlworld.com But more recently Virgin Media must have reorganised that blog site and killed the links. The blog still survives on Wayback, although I cannot immediately locate his piece on Iran Air 655.

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I had not heard of last-memories.com until today, when google directed me to the pages on Harwood as I was researching a (tenuously related) story on Libya. A quick check on Alexa shows that it is a relatively small site with audience almost entirely confined to the US. It also seems to have been going downhill over the last year. But I confess that I found the account of Harwood’s life affecting:

He lived two distinctly different lives. He came from a conservative two parent Baptist Southern family raised with Country Clubs and top schools. He dutifully became an attorney like his father, married an English debutante, had two bright and shiny blond children, and settled into high society Tennessee.

But then the rebel started to emerge. He insisted on riding his motorcycle to the law firm to work. He got easily sidetracked by other things, like electrical engineering, photography, and music. And other girls. He got divorced and remarried, had two more children, lived in Saudi Arabia and then moved to London to start his own International Tax newsletter.

Eventually he shunned not only his first family, but also a second, as well as his father and sister and his many friends and admirers in Tennesse by disappearing into a different life in London with his two parrots, rarely to be heard from. He gave up his successful law practice to research politics and news like a conspiracy theory movie plot, until he was all but destitute.

But his friends and neighbors in London tell a story of a man they called “CJ”, much beloved and admired; just a very different one than the one his family knew: one who kept chickens and pigeons and lived in a big parrot cage with mounds of newspaper.

His daughter Rebecca wrote:

I remember . . .
When I was 12, a bunch of boxes showed up on the doorstep. It was a “computer”, only nobody knew what that word was, and there was nobody to help set it up. My mother told me to figure it out or get rid of it, so I figured it out. It was an Apple IIe, with the large floppy disks that you used to load the program, then swap the diskette out for a data disk. I only had a game, Wizardry, and a word processor. Eventually I got a second disk drive, and then lo and behold, a HARD DRIVE. Can you imagine, storing the programs in like a big jukebox? I think Dad was training me to type set his newsletter. I never did that, but I had such a huge jumpstart on everyone else, I became a computer tech. Thanks Dad.

I remember . . .
Dad’s magazine Taxes International generated lots of FANTASTIC stamps from all over the world. I still have an enormous collection of stamps.

I remember . . .
We would visit Dad every year until we were 14. About that time, he moved out of the house with Christy, and moved into his office with lots of parrots. There was parrot poop everywhere. I can’t believe he lived there. The last time I saw him I was 18, visiting during a year living in Germany. He called a few days before my marriage because he was in Tennesse visiting his father who had died. I didn’t get to go to the funeral or see him because of the wedding.

The Apple IIe was released in 1983 and sold for 11 years. But assuming Harwood was one of the first to buy it, Rebecca was born in 1971, so is now 45.

I understand her comments about parrots. One of the stranger people I have met lived in a vast, under-repaired house near the border between N Wales and Cheshire. It contained: a vast amount of antique furniture, which arguably belonged to a previous boyfriend, whom I also know (quite independently, because he married another friend); a vast collection of antique clothes, acquired over decades at charity shops; and a large collection of parrots, some stuffed, some alive. I can still remember sitting in the large kitchen eating breakfast as parrots periodically swooped overhead, and I wondered if, like pigeons, they were also liable to dive-bomb.

The house had been acquired for her by a later boyfriend, who believed that it would be a terrific property investment, because she was expert at refurbishing properties cheaply. Such are the follies of those who fail to realize that property is a get-poor-quick scheme unless you take it seriously. Timing is far more important than the cost of refurbishment.

But I guess the reason I found the whole Harwood saga so affecting is because it seems perilously close to my own life.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Tom Welsh | 18 September 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    Take heart! Many people, like Harwood if not in quite such an extreme way, follow their own hearts and minds against the flow. It is quite astonishing that the common “Western” culture of today places such immense emphasis on consensus and cash. If you bow down to those twin idols, you can prosper even if you are a fool. But if you turn away from them to follow the dictates of reason and the curiosity about the nature of things that all intelligent people are bound to feel, you risk ending up poor, more or less alone, and – worst of all – “without honour” in your own land.

    I have just been reading the autobiography of Bertrand Russell, which tells a rather similar story. Russell’s fate was diluted by the circumstance of his being heir to an earldom and a good deal of money. Nevertheless, in spite of being widely acknowledged as one of the world’s cleverest and most articulate men, he was condemned, ridiculed and considered by many to be “beyond the pale”. It’s only today that we can see that he was right about very nearly everything.

    Another interesting book is Elias Canetti’s “Crowds and Power”. I had read the first 50 or so pages before I realised that it gives a complete explanation of almost all the difficulties I have had fitting in to society. According to Canetti, almost everyone subconsciously longs to be part of a crowd and give up their burdensome individuality. That makes life very hard for those of us who feel exactly the opposite.

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