Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Austerity buried? And the NHS too?

Britain has a new budget.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, for whom the word ‘beleaguered’ might have been specifically invented, has announced the government’s plans for spending and tax over the next year. And though it does little enough, what it does do is more noteworthy than one might have expected.

Hammond with the traditional red box for the budget
He has admitted at last that the prospects for economic growth are a lot worse than the government had previously claimed. What’s more, debt is at twice the level the Tories inherited when they first came to office in 2010, and which at the time they described as intolerably high. 

Indeed, their primary goal was to reduce the debt level massively. To achieve it, they launched a painful programme of austerity, to get government spending in balance within one parliament (five years), later extended to two parliaments, and now to some time in the next decade. Meanwhile, debt climbed inexorably.

This track record ought to be enough to prove to any but the most ideologically blinkered that austerity isn’t working. But the dogmatism of the Tories has prevented them ever accepting as much previously. So it’s interesting to discover that in this budget they have at last made the admission, if only tacitly: the Chancellor has announced plans for actual spending, most notably on housing, as a way of addressing the parlous state of the economy.

Sadly, however, he is doing a lot too little, particularly after the damage of the last seven years. For example, faced with a warning from the Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Health Service in England, that healthcare needs another £4bn a year as a minimum, he has come up with £2.8bn over the next two and a half years. That’s going to mean that the service must still make choices that will be tough to the point of grief: certain treatments will simply not be available or will be denied so long as to lead to suffering or even death among patients.

What makes this even more depressing is that Hammond has also earmarked a further £3bn for Brexit preparations. In other words, we have to stump up more money that is being denied to healthcare, to cover the costs of a step – leaving the European Union – which will itself cause us even worse and longer-lasting economic damage. Not just shooting ourselves in the foot, but paying for the privilege.

There’s a special irony in the fact that we’re having to come up with this money for Brexit at a time that the NHS needs it so badly. A major element of the Leave campaign was the notorious claim that Brexit would free up £350m a week for the NHS. £18bn a year which would certainly sort the underfunding of the service.

Curious that in reality Brexit is costing us money, while the NHS crisis deepens.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Allotted task

Into every life, a little dung must fall.

At least, if you’re the husband of a committed allotteer. That may not be a word, but it’s the title I use for the keeper of an allotment. In turn, that’s a plot of land, generally rented out by a town council, usually to make a vegetable plot.

A vegetable plot, by the way, isn’t a bunch of cabbages in a conspiracy.

I have a high respect for manual work on the land. I admire it intensely, but preferably from afar. I have gone to great lengths to ensure that I would never find myself dependent on working with my hands, least of all in backbreaking agriculture.

The trouble is I benefit from the excellent broccoli, carrots, onions, broad beans, artichokes even, to say nothing of the soft fruit – the strawberries and raspberries – Danielle’s allotment produces. Even I have to admit that it’s hardly unfair to expect me to make some minor contribution to the endeavour. Especially if it’s just once a year, as is the case of the task of shoving a few hundred kilos of horse dung in wheelbarrow loads from one end of the allotment to the plots Danielle manages.

Or is it twice? I can’t remember. You know how oblivion draws a merciful veil over traumatic shock? I’m afraid dung-doling is that kind of experience for me – I agree that it’s reasonable to expect me to move the bags, I may even do the work willingly, but I can’t pretend I find it anything other tha a soul-shaking, morale-shivering and character-undermining challenge to me.

In my defence, the work started badly. While driving to the allotment, I found my way blocked by a colossal lorry coming the other way. I was forced to reverse several hundred metres just to let him by. At which point I saw that the flat bed at the back was loaded with huge bags marked “CompostDirect.com”.

Colossal bags.
The lorry that delivered my torment
My heart sank. That had to be the lorry that had delivered to our site. So I knew what I was in for.

Our colossal bag had been dumped at the bottom of the allotment area. From there, the individual 50kg bags had to be manhandled into the wheelbarrow and then man-shoved, two at a time, up to the plots. 


Sheer delight. And repeated eight times.
It’s an activity like banging your head against a brick wall, which only feels good when you stop. Shoving a wheelbarrow uphill provides no sense of satisfaction, I find, just a relief that it’s over, qualified by the consciousness that it has to be done all over again with the next two bags.

Danielle is quite clear, too. It’s not enough merely to do the job. I have to like the work too. Or at least look as though I’m happy doing it. Or if even that it’s too much to ask, it must be possible for me to smile while wheeling the barrow.
Genuine rictus of joy
at the sheer pleasure of dung-carrying
So I did. At least at the rictus level, much to Danielle’s amusement. Smile and the whole world smiles with you, the song assures us. Well, maybe the rest of the world. Not the bit inside me, though.

Until, at least, the work was done. The 750 kilos moved. At which point, I could plant my feet on the ghastly bags, with a small sense of achievement at having resisted their effort to break my spirit and wreck my knees. I’d come out on top.


At last! True joy. The dung job's done!
For once, the smile was real.

It was then I noticed that the bags were marked “Bord na Móna”, which is Irish for “Peat Board”. Suddenly it all fell into place. It was the Irish that had been giving me grief, and nothing could be more appropriate.

At the end of the last rugby season, the Irish team inflicted the first defeat on England that it had experienced in 21 matches. By doing so, they denied England back-to-back grand slams. For those not aware of the workings of the noble Six Nations Championship, a grand slam is when one team beats all the other five. England was denied, on the line, by Ireland. And not for the first time.

So it’s merely in keeping with the laws of the universe that an Englishman finds himself having to take a load of horseshit from the Irish…

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Strand cigarettes: an object lesson for Labour?

“For the many, not the few”: it’s the slogan that Labour took into the UK general election in June 2017.

Nearly did it for Labour
Labour didn’t win that election but did a great deal better than I, or most commentators, expected. It came a far stronger second than we expected and the Conservatives hung on to office but lost their parliamentary majority. That’s about as successful as a losing campaign can be.

The slogan was key to it.

It’s an appealing slogan. Inequality is the great issue of our time, and we are infested around the world, and in particular in Britain, by governments that speak for a tiny minority already wealthy beyond belief but constantly enriching themselves, while the rest at best stand still and, among the poorest, sink further into poverty.

Reversing that trend is a matter of morality, but also of economic effectiveness. Gross inequality – as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century shows – doesn’t just give an elite a disproportionate share of the existing cake, but makes the cake itself smaller for everyone.

The slogan neatly sums up the need, the urgent need, to fix the drift of the last four decades, from a divide between rich and poor, to a rift, to today’s chasm. Politically it’s right on target.

But I’m a marketing man. And I know that even the best of promotional campaigns can go wrong. Take, for example, the insurance campaign which took as slogan “we won’t make a drama out of a crisis”.

It’s a brilliant line, isn’t it? Easy to remember. Summing up what we need from an insurer when things go wrong. But who on earth was the company? I had to look it up before writing this, and discovered that it wasn’t who I thought it was.

Well, that’s not the problem with “For the many, not the few”. You really have to be entirely uninterested in politics in Britain not to know that’s Labour’s message. The example just shows badly an apparently good campaign can misfire.

The classic advertising flop
A much more closer example is what has become the poster boy of advertising flops: the 1959 movie advertising Strand cigarettes. It was made by Carol Reed, the director of The Third Man, no minor figure in the cinematic art.

It showed a man alone on a wet and deserted London street. He wanders along the pavement, looking disconsolate, until he stops by a streetlight, pulls out a packet of Strand and lights one. His expression turns to satisfaction, and in comes the voiceover “you’re never alone with a Strand.” 

Another excellent slogan.

But sales collapsed. Strand cigarettes were taken off the market. And yet the advert was popular, the background music did well in the charts, the actor became a star. And, let’s face it, “you’re never alone with a Strand” sound like a great line.

So why did it fail? The answer, analysts agreed, was that the advert was promoting loneliness. And who wants to be lonely?

That’s my problem with “for the many, not the few”.

Who wants to be one of the many? Most people like to think of themselves as unique. As individuals, at least. One of the many? Feels a bit like being relegated to a mere unit in the mass.

Should Labour speak for an anonymous mass? I want a government that speaks for me. I suspect most voters feel the same. How about, vote Labour because we matter? Because we have rights? Because we deserve better?

Remember that another way of saying “the many” is “hoi polloi”.

The principle’s great. And its a fine slogan. But then so was “you’re never alone with a Strand”.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Entertainment and purgatory

She could have been such an interesting travelling companion.

When I first saw her, sitting by the window across and empty seat between us, on a flight back to England from Munich, she was frenetically taking selfies of herself. She lowered the window blind, she turned one way then another, she seemed far from satisfied but she was in a hurry to text the photo away before the flight attendants told us to switch phones to airplane mode.

She’d spotted that I was interested.

“It’s a film role,” she told me in a distinctly East European accent, “I need to get a selfie to my agent.”

Was I sitting a seat away from a star? I didn’t recognise her.

“It’s the Ridley Scott film about Getty. Because of Kevin Spacey. They’re filming scenes with a new actor.” “Yes,” I said, “Christopher Plummer.”

From revered icon to unperson. In next to no time
A curious business. Kevin Spacey had gone in the space of a few weeks from much-admired, much-loved international star to non-person following a series of sexual harassment complaints. So much of a non-person that the Scott film is having to be reshot with him out of it.

An insider’s view could have been intriguing.

Of course, she wasn’t a star, but an extra as she quickly explained to me. She showed me pictures of herself in police uniform or as a paramedic, or just as a member of a crowd in costumes of various periods between the nineteenth century and today (including some from previous Ridley Scott films).

She does stunts too, and that sounds even tougher than thought.

“You have to have six skills. Like riding, and not just ordinary riding, but jumping bareback which is hard without stirrups, or riding two horses and going from one to another; I do rock climbing too, and water stunts, but it’s all getting tough as I get older.”

She showed me a pay slip and that was certainly an eye-opener: in three days she’d earned little more than I do in a day. Not everyone in film is a millionaire, it seems.

“This will not make me rich,” she earnestly assured me.

Now if only the conversation had kept going down that road, I’d have felt my original evaluation was right. Unfortunately, that wasn’t things were going to turn out. She had other subjects she wanted to talk to me about.

First was the two days she’d just spent in Munich, at a spa. The saunas were wonderful, apparently, but I’ve been to German spas before so I wasn’t really learning very much. Apparently you can to the spa from the hotel where she stayed by cutting across a field, something she told me three times, though it left me less than wholly fascinated: I’d never been to the hotel, the field or the spa and don’t currently plan to visit them any time soon.

She then chose to give me the compelling news that she plans to fast for forty days. Momentarily I wondered whether she had a Jesus Christ compulsion, but it turns out she only does these fasts to flush her system of toxins. Sometimes she doesn’t manage the Christ-like forty days but stops after twenty.

I’ll spare you the details of what she eats over this period, where she buys the vegetables and the lemons for her lemon juice, how much they cost, and how hard it is to find the time to cook the damn stuff (especially when her husband is eating food that she finds far more appetising). I spare you those details, but she didn’t spare me.

From there it was but an easy step to the enthralling subject of her health.

When I was studying French, one of the pronunciation exercises told us that an Englishman asked “how do you do?” replies “how do you do?” A Frenchman, on the other hand, asked “how do you do?” starts to talk about his health.

Well, the stereotype isn’t wholly false. As a service to any non-native English speakers readers of this post, let me make it absolutely clear that there’s only one English answer to the question “how are you?” and that is “fine”. Even if the person asking is a visitor to your hospital bedside, and you’ve just been told by your doctor that there is no further treatment for your condition, so from now on you’re getting palliative care only for the last few weeks of your life, the answer is still “fine”.

Sadly, despite her twenty years in the country, my travelling companion had clearly not managed that step in cultural assimilation. She delivered her health woes to me in full and graphic detail. By the end, I was leaning so far out into the aisle that I couldn’t hear over the engine sound.

But as well as the English reluctance to talk about health, I suffer from the English inability to find a polite way of telling someone to put a sock in it. I’d slept badly the night before and was desperate just to read a little or even sleep, and here was this woman talking to me endlessly about her health (at least, I believe she was, though I could no longer tell). And instead of telling her to stop it, for God’s sake, I was just saying “yes”, “no” or “indeed” at random, without it apparently having any effect on stemming her flow of words.

I was reduced to just longing for the wheels to touch down. That gave me the opportunity to interrupt her and suggest that she check her texts for an answer from her agent. But that only opened another floodgate: I get all her troubles with technology, how phones never worked for her as she expected, “more than six buttons and I’m lost”.

Eventually, though, she got her texts. Sadly, she hadn’t had the call.

Sadly, I say and, strangely, sadly I mean. I might have seen her failure to secure the job as karma for turning a short flight into a taste of purgatory. Instead, I felt sorry for her.

On the other hand, I didn’t hang around to hear just how upset she was. By then, I really felt I’d given enough. I’ve seldom left a plane so fast.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Roman roots. And Jewish

One of the best aspects of my job, not exactly new any more though I’m still a week or so from my first anniversary, is that it takes me to Rome from time to time.

Why should that matter so much? Well, I was born in Rome. I left when I was thirteen, too young to have really learned the city, and until I started this job I’d only been back once or twice. Even so, it’s a place that holds a large place in my being, as I realise whenever I return. At times, the city feels eerily familiar – I know what’s around the next corner, I feel I belong, I feel I’ve come home.

The voices, too, I know. The same slangy loping Italian, flowing from cadence to cadence to leap up and start again. It’s the Italian I know best.

Not that I know Italian that well. I’m working on it, and I can keep up a conversation. But I’ve an accent that says “British” from feet away, and every now and then I can’t find the word I want, though I know it well and often remember it soon afterwards, kicking myself for having been forced to use some long phrase instead of the elegant term that would have said it so much better.

Even so, it was fun to be in a restaurant the other night with four colleagues. It was a typically Roman place, the one who chose it told me. I was just pleased he’d picked somewhere other than the restaurant he’d taken me to four or five times in the past, until I said to him, “is there only one place to eat in Rome, then?”

Now he’s from Milan, as is one of the others in that company. Both women were from Turin, though one of them actually lives in Rome. But you don’t get to be Roman by merely living there. So it gave me great joy to be able to announce, in my best English-accented Italian, “I hope you realise that I’m the only true Roman at this table.”

Jewish-style artichokes: a culinary delight of Rome
The food was excellent too. I particularly enjoyed the dish that involved artichokes flattened and fried. They’re called “carciofi all giudia”, artichokes in the Jewish style – not to be confused with Jerusalem artichokes which are a different vegetable altogether – a truly Roman specialty. And delicious.

It tickled me to be a Roman with Jewish roots enjoying a Roman delicacy of Jewish artichoke. In Rome.

Of such small pleasures a satisfied life is made.

The thing about Rome is that it’s the quintessentially Italian city. Or at any rate the strip of Italy that runs from, say, Bologna down to Rome is truly Italy. North of Italy you get cities like Turin which is practically French, or Milan which is essentially just southern Austria: you know, they believe in efficiency and value for money and all those boring northern European notions. In Rome, there’s a feeling that it doesn’t much matter if things take longer than planned (or better still, happen without a plan) or if you’re ripped off as you go, as long as you’re enjoying yourself. Strikes me as a sensible approach.

Romans say that Africa starts just below Rome, so that’s not really Italy any more either. Of course, Northerners say that Africa starts just above Rome, but what would a bunch of Southern Austrians know about that? Not that I care: I like Africa, or at least the bits I’ve seen.

To me, Rome’s not just the Italian capital, it’s the worthy capital. It sums up Italy, it speaks for the country. And I enjoy being there. Hence my often-repeated statement that it’s a good place to be born, so I’m sure it would be a good place to die – for years I thought I’d retire there.

As it happens, that looks unlikely now. Partly it’s the sheer cost of the city. But more importantly it’s because two of my sons, both born in England, seem well-established in Spain. The third son, who was born in Switzerland, now lives in the UK, but we’re not keen on staying there: the climate’s too sad – physically wet and grey for far too much of the time, politically wet and grey since the Brexit vote.

Valencia attracts us. Down by the sea. A glorious climate. Good food. Easygoing people. I’m looking forward to it.

To be honest, I’ve been attracted by Spain ever since I watched The Princess Bride. Do you remember the recurring line? Its spoken with a strong mock-Spanish accent:

My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.

It may not be an entirely accurate view of the Spanish soul, but it has something about it that attracts me. Enough, at least, to make me want to explore how plausible it is.

Should be as much fun as Rome.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Trouble in Paradise

The latest revelations about how the richest protect their wealth and minimise their tax burden tell us little but confirm a great deal. The information in the Paradise Papers show us a truly glittering pageant of celebrities using offshore tax havens, including fine upstanding members of the community, such as Queen Elizabeth II herself, Trump’s Commerce Secretary with shady friends in Russia, Wilbur Ross and, regrettably, the mostly admirable Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.

Why, it seems that even Bono, fine humanitarian and protector of the poor in the Third World, may have been benefitting from tax regulations that protect the rich of the Old World. Ironically, I read (in a piece from the Sunday Express, not the most reliable of sources, but this story has the ring of truth), that Bono’s own foundation was set to denounce the tax haven system until it realised that he was a beneficiary.

Still, it isn’t these fine luminaries that interest me here, but just two specific individuals, for what they reveal of how our system works more generally.
(Lord) Michael Ashcroft
Worthy citizen, tax avoider and major contributor to the Tory Party
The first of these is Michael Ashcroft, Lord Ashcroft, former Deputy Chairman of the British Conservative Party and one of its main individual contributors. For many years, he held “non-domiciled” status in the UK, meaning he could live in the country without paying its taxes. When he was raised to the House of Lords, he pledged to give up that status and become a full UK resident, but failed to do so for ten years, when a change in the law would have forced him to give up his peerage otherwise.

It now turns out that he’s a major tax haven investor. That saves a power of tax. Who needs non-dom status when you have tax havens you can take advantage of – and without even giving up your peerage? You might feel, and I’d tend to agree, that the law needs changing again, so that a member of the House of Lords can’t benefit from tax havens any more than from being non-domiciled in the UK.But let s see why that s not likely to happen.

The use of a tax haven saves someone like Ashcroft a great deal of tax. That sets up a fine cycle of mutual benefit. With so much more money to play with, it’s easy for him to make contributions to his favoured political cause, in this case the Conservative Party. For the 2017 election campaign, he stumped up £500,000, which by British standards is a massive contribution to a political party.

Now, isn’t that neat? Serious money for a political party. The party that happens to be in government. In government at least in part thanks to that money.

Now, how much priority would you expect that government to set on changing the law to deal with the abuse of tax havens?

The second person is something of a favourite of mine.

Glencore is one of the world’s major commodities companies. The Paradise Papers reveal that Glencore “loaned” £45m to a shady Israeli businessman, on the basis that it would be repaid if they failed to win a lucrative deal in the blood-soaked, deeply corrupt so-called Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nothing illegal seems to have happened, but that only highlights the weakness of the law. It may have been legal, but there was nothing edifying about this transaction.

So how about this favourite character of mine? He wasn’t with Glencore at the time, but he is now. He’s the company’s non-executive chairman.

His name is Anthony (Tony) Hayward. Not a name to conjure with, you may feel, and I’d agree though I have mentioned him before. If you’ve heard of him at all, it’s likely to have been in the context of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, when an oil exploration platform caught fire and the ensuing oil spill polluted vast swaths of the Gulf.
Deepwater Horizon: fitting monument to reign of Tony Hayward
The oil rig belonged to BP. And the Chief Executive of the time? Why, Tony Hayward.

He came to fame with a series of brilliant gaffes. The one I like the best was his apology for the damage and, indeed, loss of life caused:

We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.

I’m sure he wanted all that unpleasantness over. As I’m sure that the millions whose lives or livelihoods were affected by the oil spill, to different degrees but seldom positively, couldn’t have given a flying curse for how much he wanted his life back.

Now just as the tax haven issue proves how little consideration of integrity or any kind of principle drives our governments, the Tony Hayward story reveals how little high business office owes to competence or even basic humanity. The colossal remuneration these people receive is often justified as being a reflection of the responsibility they accept. But far from being driven into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth, Hayward simply stepped from BP into a series of lucrative and comfortable directorships, including at Glencore.

He wasn’t with Glencore at the time of the Congo deal. But still, it’s interesting that it was a company with as savoury a reputation as Glencore that offered him its non-executive chairmanship. And that a man with his track record accepted it.

Might that be just a coincidence? Speaking for myself, I doubt it.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Homecoming

The younger members of the household – the ones who, naturally, run it – seem to be pleased with the transformation of the place. And pleased, above all, to be back in it. It didn’t take them long to pick up their old habits where they’d left off.

Misty, the feline element, never physically left. As we didn’t want to take him to a flat without a cat flap he stayed behind. That made him the household member who suffered the most: he was stuck at a house full during the day of strange, noisy people engaged in various aspects of building work, which always starts with a fearful destruction, leaving it full of dust, mess and strange smells at all times.

So it was good to see him, once the work was done, quickly learning the use of the new pet flap and making himself at home and at ease even before we’d moved back. That meant coping with a place without so much as a carpet let alone a couch, but he seemed to have no difficulty with any of that. 
Satisfaction
I also have to say that, while he would never admit it, he seems delighted by the return of the rest of the family.

It started with the dogs. Within minutes, Misty was dealing with the constant and not always welcome affection of Toffee. Since that affection is often tinged with slightly aggressive jealousy, I can understand that he found it advisable to take refuge behind a ladder and, when Toffee persisted, to use one of his fine sets of claws to express his sense that it was time for her to stop.


Misty's patience running out
There was, for a time, a little tension between those two. Once Toffee had also mastered the pet flap, she quickly realised she could position herself to keep Misty out of the house. I mean, she may just have been looking at him, but that pitiful “hey, let me in” look on his face suggested that Misty, like me, thought otherwise.

Important note added since the initial posting: Im indebted to Deb, an ally Misty would be delighted to have if he knew about her, points out that Misty isn’t looking pitiful at all. “Looks to me,” she argues, “like hes rolling his eyes and thinking yeah, there are good things about them all being back but this I could do without...” Examining the picture more closely, I have to say she may well be right.


Toffee watching Misty –or keeping him out?
With his domestic staff, Misty’s got straight back into usual routine. At breakfast time on the second day, I thoughtlessly left the table to get myself another coffee, and hadn’t even reached the kitchen before he’d jumped up and taken my place. He likes our dining chairs, but prefers them warmed up for him before he sits on one. He also knows that while Danielle will just tip him off, I haven’t the heart to do that. Or more to the point, I have too vivid a memory of scratches and bites with which my temerity has been rewarded in the past.

Curiously, Danielle never receives that treatment.

Anyway, I was pleased to see how comfortable Misty was in what I’d fondly come to think of as my seat. Although it made the end of breakfast rather less comfortable for me.


Kindly warmed for him, what I thought was my seat suits Misty perfectly
The dogs readapted quickly. The couch, their favourite place when not out on walks, had stayed with us during our exile, and it returned with us. That made the whole experience easier for them: they’d enjoyed living in a home-from-home for a while and now could relax completely in their home-at-home.

There have, however, been changes. There’s an extra floor now, and another set of stairs they have to climb when they want to jump on the bed with us for the night. The bed itself is higher, as well, so the leap is bigger. That sometimes bothers Toffee, so she occasionally prefers just to whimper till one of us lifts her up – even though she knows as well as we do that she can get up herself, since she’s done it many times.

Luci, at any rate, seems perfectly happy with it. Completely at ease.
Luci satisfied with the new accomodation
All in all, I’d have to say it was a successful homecoming.