Thursday, 30 April 2009

Nostalgia, again

As I posted the other day, I'm getting feelings of nostalgia for the 20th century. In particular, its politics. Or more precisely, the left*.

I've never counted myself among their number, with the possible exception of a period in my youth when, owing to a love affair with France and 1789, I was a proponent of what the Marxists would call a bourgeois revolution. This, despite making me quite properly 'left' (though far from a montagnard), wasn't really productive of any agitation beyond some arguments in the pub. However, an interest in ways of explaining the world combined with what you might call my cultural context (Welsh, etc.) gave me a lively interest in socialism in its many varieties.

I guess what I really miss about present day political debate is the structure provided by the socialist systematising of the world and everything in it. This, with its class-based taxonomy, provided real substance and definition to debates. And because socialism was a religion of the book (from Morris to Marx) it was underpinned by proper, literate learning.

Now, the main opposition to the status quo is provided by environmentalism. As it stands in ill-defined opposition to most everything to do with the modern world, its debates tend towards the loose and baggy, fueled by calls to replace the modern industrial economy with something nicer and just, well, less modern. Also, as its theoretical foundation is provided by science rather than the literary arts (unlike socialism, whatever Marx and Lenin claimed), its influence on culture is not as benign. One can't imagine environmentalism leading to the founding of a host of self-organised, working-class science labs in the way socialism created the miners' libraries.

Environmentalism's innate lack of rigour in its political philosophy is compounded by the contemporary lack of respect for facts and disbelief in the objective that is the main legacy of postmodernism. An indication that po-mo pervades the mental geography of the culture is that no-one talks about it any more. It now channels mainstream habits of thought.

Nick Cohen has elegised the left at book length. He personally represents the best of what remains: a forthrightly intelligent, cultured and (perhaps, rarer) analytically reasoned interest in justice.

But where can you go nowadays for proper, class-based, old-fashioned leftist analysis? Aside from a bit of park-kick-about dialectics with the odd friend brought up in the Party (one of whom now helps to run the global financial system) there's not a lot to latch on to. However, I have discovered a blog, which, despite having a Private Eye-derived title presumably indicating humourous self-awareness (Dave's Part), does seem to talk in all seriousness about the working class as an historical agent in the class-struggle. Though posts entitled 'Iceland: What Is To Be Done?' confirm that we're at the farcical end of Marx's dictum concerning historical recurrence.

I do find reading this blog enjoyable. I guess it's rather like watching the antics of those people who dress up to re-enact the Civil War, but just from a more recent period of history.

*That is, the nice left. Not the murder-us-in-our-beds, send-you-to-the-gulag one.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Courage

Courage? I guess the Gurkhas just didn't make the cut.

Inspiration

Sometimes the zeitgeist works in mysterious ways, sometimes not.
I wonder what could have been the inspiration for Turner Prize shortlisted artist Enrico David? A one-eyed joker sporting an uneasy smile. And seemingly keen to give us all a savage beating with a large baseball bat...

Bulbous Marauder by Enrico David



Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Discarded in translation II

Below I referred to the anger the subject people would have felt at times about the erring impositions of the colonial power. Of course they'd also feel: shame, resentment, superiority, amusement, fear, resignation:

'The silly buggers just don't know what they're doing!'

'Ay, but they can do it. And the buggers do do it anyway, see bach.

But there 'ou are i'n'it?'

(This last phrase being my favourite expression of Welsh fatalism, always accompanied by a shrug).

In a slim volume of poetry called 'What is a Welshman?' R.S. Thomas ruminates to great effect on these emotions. I would quote one poem in particular but I don't have my copy. So you've got off lightly there.

If I had the poetic skill and imagination I would write a collection of poems entitled: 'What is a Chav?'. The time feels ripe for such an exploration.

Discarded in translation

The mysterious wonder that is Elberry posted this piece of speculative reasoning about naming. As I related in the comments, this reminded me of how Welsh names developed as they have:

'In the middle ages there were very few male first names and people very rarely possessed surnames. This was fine as individuals were told apart by being named ’son of’ (in Welsh ‘ap’ or ‘ab’), working back through the generations to distinguish individuals as required.

However, when the English state started writing down the names of its Welsh subjects in the early modern period only the father’s name appeared as a surname, it being too long-winded to differentiate individuals by citing more than the immediately preceding generation (Price being derived from ‘ap rhys’ for example).

Of course, this new reliance on surnames derived from the patronym led to an immediate problem of differentiation. The lack of first names necessarily meant there was a lack of surnames.

This problem was addressed through the subsequent proliferation in Welsh of first names: I read somewhere that there were more in Welsh than in most other languages. But this hasn’t been sufficient. Occupations are brought into play: Jones the Steam, Evans the Garage.

Nevertheless, the problem to a degree remains: try Googling your typical Welshman and you’ll come up with a horde of others with the same name. As for the women, I’m not sure how they fit into this history.'


(I believe this to be true but I'm unable to cite any authority to confirm it. I can't even remember how I got to know it).

So colonial caprice, or more probably bureaucratic insensitivity, turned Wales from somewhere with very few first names to one with very many. An unintended consequence.

Some other instances of where the insensitivity, ignorance or carelessness of a colonial power resulted in nomenclatural SNAFUs:

River Avon:  Avon is from 'afon', Welsh for river. So it's River River. I can imagine a swarthy, crafty-eyed, little Silurian being asked 'What's that?' by some Saes and answering in his native tongue, 'It's a river, you silly bugger'. 'What?'. 'River!'. 'Very well, my good man. Now fuck off. Sergeant, mark it on the map: River "Avon"'.

Kangaroo: similar situation, really, as I understand it means 'Sorry, haven't a clue' in an Aboriginal dialect.

Frunze: the capital of Kyrghizstan was re-named after a Bolshevik revolutionary who happened to have been born there. This was in 1926 shortly after said-revolutionary had almost certainly been murdered on the orders of Comrade Stalin. Of relevance here as there is no letter 'f' in the Kyrghiz language.

I suppose the subject peoples could get very angry about this sort of thing.

Should we worry about these little memorials to the usually unknown and always rather confused bureaucrat? They are certainly testament to the fact that adventurers in all fields often don't know what the fuck they're doing.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Unpacking childish things

This and this got me thinking how one of the many wonderful things about having children is that they provide an excuse to bring out those childish things you'd put away many years before - books, toys, games. Through these you're given the opportunity, if you choose to take it, to re-live your childhood in some small way.

My eldest about a year ago became old enough to enjoy proper stories. However, it proved surprisingly difficult to find a contemporary story book that was substantial enough to provide a decent bedtime read (say, 10 to 15 minutes) but not so long that it spilt over into the following evening. Then I remembered the library of Ladybird story books that I'd loved as a child. Mum, rather miraculously (but on reflection, predictably), still had them.

It's been deeply satisfying to revisit these neat little stiff-backed books with their traditional fairy tales. I guess it gives you some insight into memory to say that the illustrations have provoked the strongest resonances. The pastel-coloured boots made from the supplest velvety suede fashioned overnight by elves, their pale cold little legs clothed in rags (Elves and the Shoemaker). Beast lying in his garden under a rosebush, the dew no doubt beginning to chill him as he died from a broken heart (Beauty and the Beast). The evil dwarf prostrated, toes skywards, having been felled and killed by a single blow from a vengeful bear-prince (Snow White and Rose Red). An ogre so furious that rage made his nostrils flare and hair curl (Jack and the Beanstalk).

It was a going-back to when the spell was cast, making you ever-after susceptible to the enchantment of stories. Not just imagining this moment but in a small way partaking of it again.

Inevitably you think about them as well as wonder at them. The morality of these stories is interesting. Morals are present but it never feels as if they provide the raison d'etre. Mostly the endings are merely happy rather than being morally justified by the actions of the protagonist. Things turn out (very) well if you own a cat with an extravagant talent for bullshitting (Puss-in-Boots). Or one that is good at catching mice and happens to do it for an Eastern potentate (Dick Whittington and his Cat). Or if you happen to be a lazy sod who nevertheless has a talent for burglary (Jack and the Beanstalk).

This to me seems more realistic than some contemporary stories which have a real world setting but are weighed down by ponderous moral baggage as substantial as cardboard.

The other striking thing is the refreshingly brutal, often murderous, acts of retribution. Dwarves, trolls, witches are all fatally beaten, drowned, thrown to their deaths without a second thought. And certainly without observing due process and the presumption of innocence. Children relish this.

I'm conscious here of more than likely echoing some of the observations to be found in Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment, a book I enjoyed tremendously when I read it over twenty years ago. I remember someone telling me subsequently that it was 'wrong'. I can't remember why; or who it was; but I do remember they had some academic claim to be right. I wonder where the current orthodoxy lies?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Happy odyssey

When feeling down-in-the-mouth about the state of the world I often go back to Happy Odyssey, the autobiography of Adrian Carton de Wiart. It tends to put lead in one's pencil.

Here's an extract from the chapter 'Fighting the Mad Mullah' where he's storming a blockhouse occupied by some Dervishes at the head of a troop of Somali 'fuzzy-wuzzies':

'I was in my shirtsleeves and the first shot fired at me passed through my rolled-up sleeve and did no damage, but as the muzzle of the Dervish's rifle could not have been more than a yard away from me the blast blew me backwards and I wondered what to do next. Some of our men were being hit and the wounds were bad, as the bullets were heavy and soft, but luckily the Dervish, for economy's sake, used a small charge of powder.

By this time I was seething with excitement. I got a glancing blow in my eye, but I was too wound up to stop - I had to go on trying to get in.

The next hit was in my elbow, and I plucked a large but not too damaging splinter from it. But the following shot split my ear, and as the doctor was standing conveniently near he stitched it up there and then, looking meanwhile at my eye which was feeling pretty painful. It seemed to be beyond immediate repair.

While I was being sown up Lieutenant Simmons made an attempt on the threshold, but he had the back of his head blown off by one of these soft bullets and was killed instantly.

Patched up, and still wound up, I tried again to storm this blockhouse, but a ricochet from a bullet went through the same damaged eye. We were so near the Dervishes that I could touch their rifles with my stick which was only a couple of feet long.

Our Somalis were having heavy casualties, and Tom Cubitt decided to let the Indian contingent have their try. But they fared no better and, as the light was beginning to fail, we withdrew to camp not far away to take stock of the situation and lick our wounds. Rather magnanimously, we offered the Dervishes their lives if they would surrender, but our generous gesture brought forth a still brighter volley of rudery as to our parentage.

It had all been most exhilarating fun and the pace too hot for anyone to have any other sensation but thrill, primitive and devouring. But by the time I got back to camp I was in bad shape, my eye very painful, and I was practically blind.'

Good boy, Shep

I've been listening to all these crappy justifications of torture over recent days and been feeling a low level mixture of sadness and anger. I've always liked the US, see.

 Andrew Sullivan spotted someone on Fox called Shep Smith summing things up for me here.

'Shep Smith': if you wanted to make up a name that said 'trust me' you couldn't do much better than that.

It'll get worse

T this morning: "I'd always wanted to live in the 20s and this morning I realised that I had".

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Why nothing's important

I like this idea (even if it's an old one, less is more): that nothing is the best thing to say as it can be the most important thing. If what's either side of an ellipse is suggestive enough then the absence, the interstitial space, becomes the most important fact in the piece of writing, or film or whatever.

Just like the linesman refereeing offside is forced to make his arbitration on the basis of peripheral vision and a sort of imaginative joining up of the dots, so the reader or viewer ascertains the most important truth in the subject matter from not being told something straightforwardly but from being invited to imagine it. But it's the act of imagining that invests it with importance: revelation through intuition is just more powerful.

Last week (can't remember where) I read that in Pride and Prejudice it is nowhere stated that Mr Darcy is dark. But every reader knows he is; in fact it's the most important thing about him really. It makes him an archetype.

Another example: in the Tony Richardson film of Look Back in Anger, in the course of one of his rants Jimmy, as played by Richard Burton, turns to the fireplace, away from the viewer, puts his hands on the mantel-piece and just rolls his shoulders. You don't hear anything and you don't see very much at all but it's enough for you to realise that Jimmy is still a scared little boy and it's this pity that makes you want to forgive him his behaviour. Without this forgiveness he's just a bully and the play doesn't work (as it often doesn't).

John Gray in Straw Dogs wrote quite a lot about this unconscious apprehension of things. We do it an awful lot apparently.

UPDATE: Writing this has made me realise why The Kindness of Women by JG Ballard is one of my favourite books. It's perhaps an unlikely word to use of Ballard but it's his emotional reticence that makes the book so lucidly beautiful and affecting.

I've also realised that filling in the gaps isn't an act of imagination: that would be too instrumental. It's more that what we conclude just occurs to us, as an intuition.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

A light goes out in Shepperton

A light has gone out in Shepperton: JG Ballard died today. I was just thinking of him a couple of days ago.

I do think he's more likely to be remembered for his recent memoir and part-fictionalised autobiographical works, Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, than for his novels.

His experience in the Japanese prison camp provided the thesis for pretty much all of them: people when removed from the trammels of civilisation soon go off the rails, especially when technology provides new means for them to do so. Mind you, as this was done so well, who cares?

Another fine mess

A statue of the immortally great Stan and Ollie was unveiled today in Ulveston, Stan's home town. Ken Dodd did the business and as he remarked on the news just now, it does actually bear a striking resemblance to the pair. I think it even manages to capture their blithely conspiratorial comic spirit.

I suppose something must have gone terribly wrong in the commissioning process.

Looking for yourself

Interesting piece by Amit Chauduri in the Guardian yesterday about Indian literature (the Russians de nos jours I suppose - see yesterday's post) where he addresses how curiosity enlightens the traveller:

"Personally, I think I could find out more about myself by asking Ian Jack (to take a random example[...]) what he thinks about Hugh MacDiarmid or Muriel Spark, or the Scottish education system in the 60s, or his experiences as a newspaper editor in Thatcher's England, than by interrogating him on India; this is because we're both - as a Bengali and a Scotsman - historical beings invested and implicated in the 20th and unfolding 21st centuries, and will address each other most profoundly, despite our differences, only by addressing our own deepest memories about ourselves. I think the Scotsman understands this, which is why he doesn't constantly ask me what I think about Scotland; but I wonder if the Indian does. To constantly look for yourself even when you encounter the foreign is never to travel; while we know that it's in observing and overhearing others as we journey that we often discover unexpected dimensions of ourselves."

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Double nostalgia

Leaving the Rodchenko and Popova exhibition at Tate Modern today I felt a double nostalgia.

First, it struck me how quickly now the inter-war period seems to be slipping into history. When I first started becoming aware of events like the Russian Revolution and its aftermath they were still very much in living memory. My Taid would sometime refer to kulaks which, just like the mass unemployed and Chicago gangsters, populated the era that provided the reference points for his world-view. The Russian Revolution, its language and obsessions, are becoming as remote to us as the Wars of Religion (but then I guess we've been doing some re-treads of the latter in recent years).

The fall of the Berlin Wall seems an even greater disjunction than it did at the time. It marks the end of the belief that there could be any sustainable difference between capitalism and modernity. Now the disaffected are attracted to ideologies which stand in opposition to the very substance of the modern world: technology, industry, cosmopolitanism, change. The only thing left to oppose is everything.

The second aspect of my nostalgia was triggered by the strips of silver birch that huddle around the old power station. Threading our way through these groves, one could almost imagine we were in the sylvan squares of old Moscow. It's been years since I visited Russia and I felt a brief desire to visit again. But I decided it was more a feeling of nostalgia for a Russia of the mind than the corrupt, brutal real one.

Rodchenko and Popova were leaders of the last artistic movement - Constructivism - to have Russians in its vanguard. As with Russian art in any form, whilst it is clearly part of our tradition (that is, the West's), it is so at one remove. It's as if the language has fundamentally the same words but 

[just been interrupted by Leigh Halfpenny's try for Cardiff against Gloucester - talk about art]

they are expressed through different grammatical structures. This is one of the valuable things about Russian art as a genus: the ever-present tension between the familiar and the strange to be found in all art is made more potent by the reflection of this tension in its cultural context.

And how we've missed it! Since Pasternak and Solzhenistsyn no Russian artist has entered the mainstream of Western culture. This may because we've been lazy and provincial and not sought out the new Russian artists and writers. However, I suspect it's more because the well has run dry. Or more properly the spring that fed the well has been decisively stopped up by the Soviet experience.

The exhibition itself was excellent as it gave you a feeling for the Constructivist movement over time and across different media, from painting and sculpture to graphic design and film. Some interesting insights: Lenin (stocky and handsome) spoke with his whole body, sticking his arse out to reinforce a point; Rodchenko and Mayakovsky had an advertising agency during the NEP;  the final room is a reconstruction of a sparsely modern and elegant workers' club (but where, nevertheless, I could almost smell that distinctive Russian mix of cabbage, pickled garlic and vodka).

Friday, 17 April 2009

Miracles of life

At the moment, our three year old is doing lots of what is known as imaginative play, something I believe all kids do. It consists in him telling himself a story of his own invention, adopting one of its characters and acting it out with gusto. All the while totally absorbed, disbelief suspended, just as you are when you're watching a great film or play.

It struck me what a wonderful and peculiar thing this is. Extemporising playwright, avid actor and rapt spectator all in one.

Where does it all go wrong?

If the tide goes out...

It's unclear what the financial crisis will do to London's wealth in the medium to long term - and what this will do to various parts of the capital - but from where I'm currently sitting it's clear that what can go up the Monopoly board can also go down.

London's prosperity has always ebbed and flowed across the city gentrifying and impoverishing districts as it goes. We live in the Hoxton end of Islington, near the canal in a terraced house. Its history tells you how contingent and fleeting prosperity can be.

It was built in the 1840s for the 'better sort' of City worker, senior clerks and such like, the Mr Pooters of that world. But just twenty to thirty years later the establishment of the railway and trolley bus services linking North London to the City and the consequent exodus of the clerks to leafy Holloway (imagine it) led to a steep decline. (Fittingly Holloway is Mr Pooter's home at the time Diary of a Nobody was published in 1888-9.)

By the time of the 1901 census 21 people lived in our small three bedroom house. This poverty persisted into the post-war era and a large area adjacent to us was condemned as irremediably unsanitary, demolished and replaced with the Packington Estate in the 1970s. 

Just ten years ago a couple of houses in our now tidy little terrace were inhabited by squatters. Well, it's mostly lawyers now, which even quite recently would have surprised some. I remember Alan Watkins in the 1990s describing Islington as being like Brazil: the place of tomorrow - and it always will be. (One day back then I spotted both Alan Watkins and Mad Franky Fraser in the local M&S - that's Islington for you).

By the way, in the early 90s - when I first moved permanently to London - I was told by an estate agent that it was no good looking for somewhere to live in Clerkenwell as it wasn't a residential area. I ended up in the Barbican, which some would describe similarly.

I also remember during the last recession how people had laughed at yuppies (remember them?) who had bought in Clapham and been beached there. After all, who could imagine Clapham ever becoming posh?

Wonder what's in store for us in the teen years of the 21st century? Is Hackney really the new Islington? Or is Islington destined to regress to old Islington?

Thursday, 16 April 2009

The new answer to an old question

I guess it might be because it's just too obvious, given the stories sit cheek-by-jowl in most newspapers, but there's a striking parallel between the two leading stories of the last week that I haven't seen discussed.

Both the gradual revelation of police brutality at the G20 summit and the sudden explosion of the McBride affair confirm the new answer to one of the oldest questions in politics, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (or 'who keeps an eye on our guardians?'). And the answer is: anyone with the wish to do so. If you can operate a camera phone at a demonstration or write a blog you can do the job.

Admittedly, Guido Fawkes got hold of the incriminating emails by some yet-to-be-identified means, which one assumes wouldn't be available to anyone. But then who's to say at this stage?

The fact is that it wasn't the usual channels, whether journalists, pressure groups, politicians, or lawyers who gave these stories legs but people who can claim the status of ordinary citizen. I think this is both exciting and comforting.

Ironic little echoes

Perhaps it will be seen as one of history's ironies that the dirty little scandal that finally undid the Brown government was of a piece with their being on the wrong side of history in the more rarefied arena of policy?

After all doesn't the McBride affair represent a failure of the centralised command-and-control model to work as low politics in the 21st century blogospere? Such a model is also surely doomed to prove outmoded as a way to arrange the contemporary state. And if Brown can be ascribed any theory of statecraft (or, less hi-falutin', modus operandi) then command-and control is a fundamental part of it.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Chickens coming home to roost?

Last Saturday the Guardian published a number of features on Mrs Thatcher to mark the 30th anniversary of her accession to power. As one would expect the general tenor of the articles was resoundingly negative with the credit crunch explained as the Thatcherite chickens coming home to roost. (Germaine Greer's article here was representative).

The anniversary sent me back to former Guardian columnist Hugo Young's 'One of Us', which while by no means sympathetic to the subject, takes some beating for research and readability. I came across the following, which makes interesting reading in the light of the Guardian's argument. On page 46 there's a statement from the lady regarding the taxation of speculators, which is unambiguously hostile to them (if pretty dated: 1961):

"It is the speculators in shares we want to get at, the person who is in the business of buying and selling shares, not to hold them for their income-producing properties but to live on the profit he makes from these transactions".

The obvious argument to make is that she was being blown by the prevailing wind and would change her attitude by the 1980s. However, Young goes on to remark:

"It was a feature of budgets during the 1980s that they did the banks and money-changers very few favours."

(Indeed, Howe's 1981 budget included a windfall tax on the clearing banks.)

And this from one of her most trenchant critics.

Moreover, it's all too easily forgotten (especially by the Guardian's current commentators) that the 'big bang' reforms were intensely disliked by many of the more established City players. After all they were  designed to break up what was a cosy financial cartel that had been staffed via an old boys network (and as such not too dissimilar from some of her other reforms, such as of the trade unions).

C.f. also Nigel Lawson's disdain for the City's 'teenage scribblers'.

I suspect New Labour should never have been trusted to deal robustly with the City elites. Just as the convert can sometimes exhibit naivety that you won't find in those brought up in the faith, New Labour were too insecure and downright dazzled to say 'no' to the financial oligarchy when they should have.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Job advert imminent

I think we can expect a job advert to appear soon in the usual channels:

"The Prime Minister's Office is looking for a fat, evil-looking twat to fill the role of shit thrower. The candidate will be expected to work up a pathological hatred of designated enemies and be able to pass themselves off as normal by demonstrating an interest in football."

How else can we explain the amazing consistency shown here, here, here, here and here?

Perfect April


With apologies to G&W Grossmith.

A&J's AR rap

Most comedy songs just aren't that funny. However, Adam and Joe's Antiques Roadshow rap is. It's a very affectionate send-up by the lovable duo.

Personally I find AR a source of huge comfort in our ever-changing world. There will always be an England whilst AR continues.

It gives a peculiar insight into the middle-of-the-road genius of the English: drenched in civility, conducted with humour but with a very beady eye on what things are worth.

By the way, despite my love of tweed and AR I want you to know that I am not an old lady.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The joy of tweed

I bumped into a neighbour this morning who was wearing a tweed jacket. It's not an exaggeration to say that my heart leaped with joy at the sight of it. It was three-button with a boxy cut and in a palate of smoky and charcoal greys and black.

Tweed really is a fabulous material. The colours give me the most aesthetic pleasure, particularly the often unusual, even daring combinations to be found in your Harris. All natural too. Mind you, texture is also something to relish - ever felt the nap on a piece of Breanish? Sumptuous.

I think people under-rate its practicality and flexibility: a well-cut tweed jacket is perfect for today's business meetings where you want to look smart but retain an element of informality. (By the way, I would make sure to choose a blue- or grey-dominant colour for town.) But it's just as right with jeans down the pub or park.

Moreover, they just refuse to wear out. I've been buying them for twenty years now and I haven't had to throw one out because of old age. In fact the only one that had to be shown the door was a Hugo Boss number in a light-weight maritime blue and green Scottish weave but with unfortunately directional shoulder pads. I have a prized navy, sky blue and tan single-button jacket made for me by Richard Anderson nearly ten years ago, which I can honestly say looks as good (probably better) now than it did when new.

Despite tweed becoming more popular amongst designers in recent years I think we still don't see enough of it. When was the last time you saw a tweed bomber jacket for instance?

As well as all the qualities enumerated above its sourcing makes it the ideal material for our eco-conscious times. It has an authentic, interesting and local provenance as well as environmentally friendly, craft-based and sustainable manufacture. Finally, in buying the Celtic stuff you're often supporting marginalised traditional communities. If it were Italian, French or Spanish I really think we'd rave about it.

What's not to like?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Fast forward

Via Clive Davis's various and ever-interesting blog I came across this article. The point I found particularly intriguing is this question: 

"Given how much faster financial capital and entrepreneurial information move today than they did in the 1930s, or even in Japan in the 1990s, can we not assume that the pace, not only of decline, but recovery, too, will be much faster than any historical precedent?"

This is particularly pertinent as signs of the much-maligned green shoots may be appearing: the pace of decline in output seems to be slackening and the housing market seems to be showing signs of life.

Of course these could just be pauses in an ongoing decline. But if they are the first signs of recovery then it's all happening a lot sooner than it should be given the output curves of previous recessions. It may be that the media's incessant assault of terrible news has resulted in an unusually rapid and absolute capitulation. Might we therefore now be psychologically ready for recovery?

Certainly one gets the feeling that journalists and editors are getting bored of the 'down' story having covered every conceivable angle. But it's an intriguing thought that households and businesses may be getting sick of it too. After all it's not easy to keep yourself at a high pitch of anxiety for long.

Captured by the financial oligarchy...

Great article in the Atlantic Monthly by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist of the IMF here.

He's arguing that the US government has been captured by the Wall Street elite. It's this that is postponing the necessary cleaning of the financial stables (i.e. bank nationalisation, corralling of toxic debts, reprivatisation of the remainders as 'good' banks). The big swingers just don't want to take the hit.

This makes the US just like any number of emerging markets in crisis, where the interests of the financial and political elites have become corruptly entwined. Finally, Johnson argues that this postponing of the painful day of reckoning could precipitate depression as credit markets will not function again until banks balance sheets are rationalised.

This argument is essentially that of Liam Halligan of the Sunday Telegraph. I know he has experience at the Fund (and World Bank I believe). It seems that people familiar with the work of the Fund see the banking crises in the UK and US through the prism of many, many others, largely in emerging markets. I guess their solution is IMF standard operating procedure.

I asked the professional economist friend of mine who forwarded me the article whether the UK had experienced a similar form of political capture by the financial oligarchy. He responded: 'Yes, certainly. About one hundred years ago. Oh, and the UK's numbers look far, far worse'.

Johnson says that the dollar's reserve currency status may mean the reckoning may never happen in the US. But the corollary of this is that it is likely to happen in the UK.  Given the Government seems to be laying the groundwork for a visit to the IMF (Timm's comments at the G20, couple of comments by Mandelson), this penny seems to have dropped in cabinet.

So the chances are the UK will have to borrow a shovel and brush from the Fund and take out the banks - and bankers. Could be a very significant moment in the development of the UK's economy and society.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Pay MPs more, a lot more

One can readily empathise with the desire to lash out at MPs and their expense account indulgences right now. After all, these people were incumbent when our economy went so seriously wrong. And what more fitting sin to condemn them for than greed, even better when it is satisfied through institutionalised fiddles? Isn't this what they've all been up to, the bankers, the directors, the money managers?

Whilst the responsibility for the credit crunch car crash must in part be borne by our legislators (but even more so by our governors) there is a danger that punishing them by making them poorer makes it more likely that something like this will happen again.

Wealth dazzled our leaders. Both Brown and Blair demonstrated a deference to wealth, were almost star-struck by millionaire financiers. It was surely this that made them so easy going on the regulation of the exotic environments of these rare creatures and so unwilling to pluck their plumage.

So rather than impoverishing politicians as a class wouldn't it be better to ensure they can all comfortably afford a prosperous upper-middle class lifestyle? Just to take one accoutrement of the wealthy and one that seemed sorely missed by Tony and Cherie: the holiday home. We should pay our legislators enough for them to afford a place in the sun, one that would allow them to (almost) look a wealthy banker in the eye. (In addition, perhaps some generous patron could grant our political leaders grace-and-favour holiday chateaux to complement the various mansions and manors they currently enjoy in this country?)

We need a political class that can feel little envy for millionaires, one which regards wealth as a run-of-the-mill sort of thing. Only then will we have one that has the confidence to put the financial marketeers in their place.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Useful TLAs

T and I often use a couple of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms, of course) which we find very useful. So useful that she suggested I share them with the world via my blog (all three of you).

The first one is BFD for Big Fucking Deal. Can be used straight ("look, you idiot, of course it's a BFD!") or ironically ("yeah, right. BFD.").

The second is DDH for Drink and Drugs Hell. This is fantastically useful particularly with reference to actors ("Ray Liotta? He hasn't been in anything for ages - perhaps he had a DDH?"*)

*I'm sure he didn't, MLFs.

Sarkozy, as in tea-cosy

I've a strong streak of pedantry and I always get a bit irritated when the diminutive French President's name is pronounced to rhyme with tea-cosy. I've decided to work off my irritation with a limerick:

There was a Frenchman called Sarkozy
who decided he'd wear a tea-cosy
he'd holes for arms, no doubt
but none to push his head out
so concluded he'd been rather dozy.

The other world leader whose name is mis-pronounced is Mr Putin, pronounced Pootin not Pyutin (admittedly people seem to have now got with the programme on this one). But here we go anyway:

The Russian leader Vladimir Putin
isn't a patch on Mr Rasputin:
he's got no magical powers
or fearsome glowers
and probably wouldn't take as much shootin'.

Browned up

Just watched Gordon and Barack at their joint press conference. Brown was so heavily made-up he could have been of dual heritage himself. I guess that under the pancake he looks shite: flying all over the world and giving lots of speeches in air-conditioned halls isn't great for your complexion.

He also looked unnaturally relaxed. He was almost slumped across the lectern and spoke as if he was permanently in a state of spontaneous mild amusement. However, the quaver in his voice betrayed his nerves.

I was wondering who he reminded me of and then I realised it was me. In my teen years when I hung out with people who were self-evidently cool (e.g. from London or with experience of interesting drugs) one would adopt this sort of posture. I guess if you're provincial and a bit straight you do your best to look unfazed and chilled when you're hanging with the cool kids. You just have little idea what sort of impression you should be making in order to fit in.