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Free as a bird

Once posted all over the globe, John Neild now sees the world at a more relaxed pace: through travel, feathered friends... and stamps, finds Peter Taylor-Whiffen

I’ve led an unimportant life,” says John Neild, modestly, “but it’s been very interesting. I’ve known some important people with dull lives, and I know which I’d prefer.” Most people would argue his life has been both important and interesting. He was budget controller for the building of London’s Westway, and helped oversee the finances for the pipeline laid across the Fens to bring North Sea gas to London. Postings to Saudi Arabia, Spain and Venezuela also made for a varied career. “I’ve been fortunate to be involved in some great projects,” says Neild, who articled at Price Waterhouse in the City in the mid-1960s before finally becoming financial controller at construction giant John Laing.

“The Westway was a remarkable project – a dual carriageway, over the railway lines into Paddington Station – there’s still no road in London quite like it.” Overseeing Laing’s budgets for the 42-inch gas pipeline from the Wash didn’t just change London forever – it also boosted his own career. “London was black with coal but North Sea gas cleaned up the air, made it a brighter place. We’d budgeted to dig the trench and lay the pipe in a wet summer, but it turned out to be consistently dry. As a result the contract made a large profit and anyone involved with it got a large green tick next to their name.”

Neild stayed with Laing for 25 years, including stints in Riyadh and Jeddah. “The money I earned set me up for the future,” says Neild. A lively career also included negotiations with the Shah of Iran’s government; working with Kuwaiti investors, and roles in Madrid and Caracas. After leaving Laing he ran his own business to supervise property investments in Spain and Portugal for Middle Eastern clients. It was in Spain that Neild and his wife Val discovered what became an enduring passion for birds.

“We loved the vibrant colours – there were hoopoes, rollers, bee-eaters – and when we went to Venezuela the birds were even more exotic and we were hooked. Whenever we go anywhere now we take the binoculars.” Travel and discovery also inform Neild’s other great interest – philately. “My father took me to one of his clients, who let me rifle through a box of stamps and keep a couple. He was a bit alarmed when I picked the most valuable ones.” His collection now mainly features Victorian stamps from Hong Kong and its treaty ports – a link to his parents, both born in Shanghai. “Stamps aren’t just fascinating to look at,” he says. “They always tell such a story.”

Neild, now 77, still does some accountancy – he recently stepped down as independent examiner for the Highgate Choral Society, of which Val is a member. The couple also enjoy a weekly game of tennis, seeing their three sons and five grandchildren and lovingly tending the walled garden at their home in north London. “I love the garden,” says Neild. “It gives me a lot of pleasure – and of course, we love to welcome the birds.”

Originally published in Economia on 17 July 2019.