Saturday 13 November 2021

Peter Gibbon, RIP

I just learned that a very old friend of mine, Peter Gibbon, passed away a couple of years ago. We were very close back in the 80s, but we lost touch when I moved to the US in 2001 and I'd only seen him once since then.

After he retired, about twenty years ago, he spent most of his time working for a record company. It was on their website that I learned of his death. There is a long obituary, a series of very touching articles written by people who worked with him there. I knew him a long time before that. It seems worth setting down some memories of a very special person.

I've written elsewhere of my involvement in the OSI standards for open networking, starting in 1980. That was where I met Peter, and for over ten years after we would find ourselves together in numerous fairly exotic locations, sharing excellent food and drink, tedious meetings, and many long and enjoyable conversations. He worked for IBM, where he was an expert on their networking products (SNA). I was never quite sure what his "day job" was, when he wasn't attending standards meetings. I think he was a sort of ultimate level technical support for IBM's important customers, which is to say every Fortune 100 company in the world. Since DEC (my employer at that time) and IBM were major competitors, we didn't talk much about our jobs within the companies.

The OSI standards were made at ISO, the International Standards Organization. Technical input came via the national standards bodies - BSI in the UK, ANSI in the US, AFNOR in France and so on. So to participate in the meetings, I had to attend meetings at BSI in London and present my company's input there. This was where I first met Peter. The meetings were typically in the morning, at BSI's offices right in the centre of London, in Mayfair. It was a very old-fashioned place, where tea-ladies would bring round urns of stewed tea at 10.30, accompanied by digestive biscuits. After the meeting we would adjourn to the Marlborough Head a very short walk away, and drown any remaining disagreements in good English ale. Though the BSI meetings were universally good-tempered, even when the disagreements were deeply fundamental, as with the network layer architecture controversy.

Peter was first and foremost a gentleman. He was always impeccably dressed in a suit and tie, as IBM demanded in those days. His voice, with its subdued but unmissable Oxford accent, invariably commanded respect without being domineering. When he raised his hand and said "Mr Chairman..." you knew that what followed would be worth listening to. Yet his origins were in the north of England, in Burnley. If you listened carefully you could just pick up traces of that accent as well.

He was always someone you wanted to have in a meeting. Even if you disagreed, he would find a way to compromise and make progress. I don't remember anyone ever getting frustrated with him, at least not openly. He was also a brilliant note-taker. In those days, before laptop computers even existed, everything in a meeting was written by hand. Peter's handwriting was as impeccable as his costume. I can still see it in my mind now, though I doubt I could find an example, instantly legible and, more important, always exactly to the point.

The one phrase that most comes to mind is, "Mr Chairman, perhaps I could draft some notes for discussion tomorrow?". No meeting chair could refuse that offer, especially not from Peter. Next morning everyone would receive copies of his impeccable handwriting, capturing precisely what he wanted the meeting to have said, just close enough to what was actually said that it was impossible to debate. It was sheer genius.

One of our first trips together was also one of the most extraordinary. In 1983 China hosted an ISO meeting. Now, meetings in China are commonplace, but this was probably the first time they had hosted an international meeting on a technology subject, ever. It was in Tianjin, about 100km east of Beijing, in those days a filthy coal-mining town. Everything was covered in millimeters of greasy coal dust. My clothes never recovered from the trip. The trains that carried the coal away from the mines were all pulled by giant Soviet-designed steam engines belching black smoke.

Among the many things Peter and I had in common was a love of trains. Steam trains had long since disappeared from British or American railways, so a chance to see them in action as routine daily transport was not to be missed. We made several visits to the main railway station, once we figured out how to get there. On one of these we very nearly got arrested for taking pictures.

Our meeting was in a giant conference complex outside the city centre. It had been badly damaged by the Tangshan earthquake in 1976, and only one huge building remained usable. It contained our hotel rooms, the dining facilities, and the meeting rooms. We weren't really expected ever to leave the premises, though there was nothing to stop us. We shared a love of buses, too. Peter quickly worked out that the number 1 trolleybus route passed outside the complex and ran straight into the centre of town. These ran about once per minute, meaning that there was always one at any stop, and often two or more. We were fascinated by them, and forever after would refer to something that was amazingly frequent as "like the Tianjin number 1 trolleybus".

Peter liked things to be very organized. In Tianjin he got quite distressed when one of the bus routes was diverted around some construction work. Neither of us could read Chinese, so figuring out where we were was an exercise in decoding scribbles. "Number four with a hat on" was a character which occurred often - much later I learned it meant "west".

After the meeting, we had the opportunity to go on a tour of China. Peter and I visited Hangzhou, Shanghai, Suzhou and Guangzhou, before finally returning to Hong Kong. We had transport adventures together in each place. In Suzhou we went out for a long walk and miraculously managed to catch the last bus, or so it seemed, back to our hotel, a rattling, ancient thing that jangled along at about 15 miles per hour in exchange for our fare of about one US cent each. Very typically, Peter managed to find a bus timetable for each city we visited, and then seemed to learn it off by heart.

In Shanghai we just happened to be there on the Chinese national holiday. Our hotel was about 3 km from the waterfront - the "bund" - and the broad streets to get there were packed tight with people celebrating. There were buses, but they could barely move. We walked there, had a beer in the Peace Hotel, and then made our way back through the throngs.

Conversations with Peter were fascinating and effortless. If he knew anything at all about a subject he knew everything, or at least a lot more than anyone else. He didn't make a big deal about it, he didn't rub your face in it, it's just the way he was. We talked about transport in all its aspects, we talked about our work together on the OSI standards, and we talked about just about anything else.

He had an amazing capacity for detail. This comes through in the Ace Records obituary, but it wasn't just music and records. He knew everything about every single one of the ex-LMS locomotives from his childhood. "Oh, 43219," he'd say. "That had the experimental Throgmorton injectors from 1949 to 1954. So did 43336, but that never entered service with them." He wasn't showing off, he never did that. He just knew all this stuff.

Whenever we got a chance, we would go to transport museums together. We took the long, long suburban train ride out to Ome in the distant suburbs of Tokyo to the Japanese National Railway Museum (now moved to Omiya). We went to the railway museum in Sydney, where Peter turned out to know everything about every locomotive in service.

Our meetings were often hosted in Washington, DC. Peter had an encyclopedic knowledge of the restaurants and bars there. He would take us to somewhere exotic - I remember an Ethiopian place where, unusually, at the end of the meal you ate the tablecloth. Then it would be off to a bar somewhere, often followed the next morning by a spectacular hangover. He knew one place whose speciality was the B52, an evil layered cocktail that nobody would even try unless they were already pretty drunk. On one occasion we managed four of them each. How we got back safely, I have no idea.

He had an intimate knowledge of Washington's geography, which is more than you can say for the taxi drivers there. Taxi rides with Peter were an adventure. He would sit fuming at the bad route the driver had chosen. "If he'd just taken D Street and turned left on 14th, we'd have been there ten minutes ago." 

Peter's facial expressions were extraordinarily expressive, once you knew him well. On this occasion his face said "this guy is an idiot". I have few photos of him, but there are a couple here.

On the one where he is alone, his face says, "This is complete rubbish, and you just keep digging a deeper hole, but I can't even be bothered to argue with you." Or in vernacular, "yeah, whatever" - though Peter would never have said that. It was taken in a public area of our hotel in Tokyo, the Shiba Park, where we would sit and drink beer from the vending machine until the small hours. (We called it "Lois's Bar", but that's another story). I think Peter has already had two or three in this picture, to judge from the angle of his tie.

On the other photo, he is with a group politely applauding some formal speech. His face very clearly says "How much longer is this going to drag on?"

Dinners were generally group affairs with the UK delegation, half a dozen people at a time. Getting that many people to agree on a restaurant is near impossible. The discussion would go back and forth over a couple of beers. "I had Chinese last night." "I don't fancy Japanese." And so on and so on. Finally Peter would declare, "We're going to so-and-so" and off we would go. Wherever we went - Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul, Berlin, anywhere - he had food guides, actual paper books. This was long before TripAdvisor or indeed the internet. By the third night he would get frustrated. 

"I am not choosing the restaurant tonight," he would declare. "You can decide yourselves for once." He would sit on the sidelines with his "how much longer will this go on?" face as the group trashed every suggestion anyone made. I didn't even bother participating, because I knew how it would end. After fifteen minutes Peter would pull a disgusted face and say, "OK, I can't stand this any more, we're going to such-and-such." And off we would go.

In 1986 we had a meeting in Berlin, while it and Germany were still divided. We decided one evening to go train-spotting in the East, figuring there must be a lot of trains there. We crossed the border at Friedrichstrasse, an adventure in itself. We stood in a long line, then our passports were meticulously checked. Peter had grown a beard (the only time I saw him with one), which wasn't on his photo. That slowed things down a lot. They didn't really want westerners there, but they brought valuable foreign currency. We made the ritual exchange of DM50 or so, then continued our journey.

We re-boarded the S-Bahn to the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station). Absolutely nothing was happening. There was one train scheduled to leave in a couple of hours, and that was it. Peter had - of course - chosen a restaurant, supposedly one of East Berlin's finest, on Alexanderplatz. We shared a table with another couple, a mother and her son in his late 20s, but didn't talk to them. Then at the end of the meal the son introduced himself in excellent English. They were Czech, as was the restaurant. Peter started to get nervous. He'd once hinted at some peripheral involvement with the security services, and could clearly see "Stasi entrapment" writ large. Then our new friend started to criticize the way the Russians ran East Germany - "What right does some Ivan in Moscow have to tell the Germans how to live their lives?"

I swear that if Peter could have hidden under the table, he would have. We left as soon as we could and scuttled rapidly back to Friedrichstrasse and freedom. Peter could breathe freely again.

On another trip to Berlin in 1991, after the wall came down, we took the S-Bahn out to the former East Berlin airport at Schoenefeld. It made quite a contrast with our previous trip. The train ran straight through, no lengthy customs formalities. We sat drinking coffee in the terminal, watching the ancient Russian airliners that still operated there.

Since his long-suffering companion Mickey is no longer with us either, I think it's safe to mention one of the biggest things that happened in Peter's life. When I met him he and Mickey, still married, lived a very tidy suburban life somewhere in Hertfordshire. Not long after, in about 1983 or 84, on some trip somewhere, he met a woman who changed his life. She was a doctor, a specialist in something very exotic. She was obviously an amazing woman, though I never met her. If she and Peter were to be believed, she did odd jobs for various national security services as well as her day job in one of the major London hospitals.

Peter was head over heels. He followed her all around the world as she travelled to conferences and such. He and Mickey split up - I rather think she told him to go and work it out of his system, and come back when he was done. That was when he bought the little house in Staines where he lived for the rest of his life.

I think the relationship was always very one-sided, probably the one time Peter's somewhat obsessive personality let him down badly. It fizzled out within a year or so but it was a lot longer than that before Peter could put it behind him. And when he finally did, Mickey was there for him. She had already moved somewhere close. For a long time they lived separately, though I understand they remarried much later on.

He was in Singapore with his new love and took her to one of his favourite places, the Victoria Garden outdoor food market. He had taken me there too, a fabulous place full of tiny market stalls selling every kind of food you can imagine. Unfortunately on this occasion he ate something he shouldn't have. He returned with three distinct tropical diseases, each of them extremely nasty. He spent a week in the Hospital for Tropical Medicine in London - a place best avoided because you're just as likely to catch something even worse while you're there. Mickey was there for him - one of the few occasions I met her, when we both visited him there.

Peter was an amazingly good friend. At one meeting, in Guernsey, I had a very difficult time running the meeting, thanks to an especially disagreeable delegate. Afterwards I was fuming. Peter shepherded me to dinner at one of Guernsey's best restaurants and kept me company while I worked off my frustration. I remember that at the end the waiter, very solicitous, asked if we would like some port. "Can I get a pint?" I asked, still needing calming down. The waiter and Peter both laughed. I didn't get a pint of port, but the next morning was difficult.

He was always helpful to everyone. He was very aware of the problems of non-native speakers in meetings like this. Brits and Americans unintentionally use all kinds of jargon and slang that leaves others in open-mouthed incomprehension. Peter would take the time to explain in simpler language or to rewrite convoluted paragraphs.

In 1988 my own life turned upside down, when I met the woman who changed my life. For three years I lived on my own, not far from Peter - my partner was in France, and it took us that long to figure out how we could live together. I saw Peter a lot more often. After BSI meetings we would often spend the afternoon chatting, then go down to Staines to spend the evening. One damp February day comes to mind. We had a drink or two at Peter's local, across the street, then it was time for dinner. We walked up and down the high street, but every single restaurant was full. Only when we got back to Peter's house did we realize it was the 14th, Valentine's Day. Dinner was something pre-cooked from Peter's freezer, warmed up in the microwave.

My partner and I had also met attending the same ISO meetings, so she and Peter already knew each other. We married two years later, carefully timing it so we could spend a short honeymoon in Bangkok on our way to an ISO meeting in Sydney. Peter was undoubtedly the organizer of the amazing reception we got there from our friends and colleagues. We were both chairs of our respective groups, and one of the presents - surely chosen by Peter - was a pair of matching gavels which we still have.

My last OSI meeting was in San Diego in 1992. Peter was there, of course. By then I had finally moved to France, and had no professional involvement with Peter any more. I saw him from time to time on trips back to England, but it wasn't the same as being together for two weeks at a time. After I moved to the US in 2001 I saw him very little - just one more time.

In 2013 we celebrated my 60th birthday in England, with family and with all the old friends we could muster. Peter came along, with Mickey. By then his arthritis had become a big problem. He could walk, just, with a stick and some help. It was wonderful to see him again.

Despite all the time we spent together, I never knew anything about his early life. I'm not even sure what he studied at Oxford. I know nothing about his parents, though I recall that his mother was still alive back then. He just wasn't interested in talking about himself.

This has turned out to be rather long, but it is still only a tiny fraction of all the memories of our wonderful times together. Peter, we all miss you, wherever you are. I hope there are lots of records and lots of trains, and a staggering amount of detail to learn about all of them, wherever it is.


ady croasdell said...

Thanks John, that showed us the other side of his life that we never knew. He was fanatical and meticulous about his record collecting and LP/CD compilations he worked on. Ady Croasdell; Ace Records

Trevor Churchill said...

I knew him from way back in his Oxford days. We shared a mutual interest in American records, which is why he came to work for Ace Records in later years.