Wednesday, November 30, 2011

all together now…

Despite my retired state (see my previous blog post!), I’ve just been on a demonstration in support of public sector workers over the government’s proposed changes to their pensions. Some 10,000 people (my rough guess – but it did seem enormous and was probably more than half a mile in length! ) marched through the streets of Bristol.
I HAD thought that the decision to strike on the day following George Osborne’s Autumn Statement was completely wrong – that it would greatly curtail scrutiny of his plans. I have now changed my opinion. His statement seemed only to underline his (and the government’s) ideological commitment to cutting the public sector. At a stroke (where have I heard that before?), he demonstrated the government’s ability to do as it pleased as far as its public servants were concerned.
Osborne’s “growth strategy” is actually dividing society (as well as not working!); polarisation is gathering speed - at an alarming rate. How can he can he justify a 0.1% increase for the poorest 10% of earners against a 49% increase last year FTSE 100 chief executives?
Yes, these are very difficult times, but it’s precisely at such times that political leadership becomes crucial. The government’s policies are seen as divisive (and often presented in an almost confrontational manner) – setting private and public sector workers against each other. Sadly, things haven’t been helped by the rather lame performance attitude of the Labour Party opposition over recent months. People ARE ready to make collective sacrifices but, as things stand, the government’s actions make an absolute mockery of the Chancellor’s “we’re all in this together” statement (from October 2009).
If only we were…
1. In his 2010 Budget, he “declared war on the public sector” and announced a two-year pay freeze (note: Local Authority workers’ pay had already been frozen for a year prior to that – meaning no pay increase for three years)(Teachers’ pay would be frozen from September 2011 as part of a previous 3-year pay deal).
2. Yesterday, in his Autumn Budget Statement, he announced that public sector workers’ pay (once the current pay freeze ended in 2013) would be capped at 1% increase for each of the following two years.
3. Inflation May 2010: 3.34%; inflation October 2011: 5.03%.
4. The OBR’s (Office for Budget Responsibility) earlier prediction that a squeeze on the public sector would mean 400,000 job losses over five years has now been nearly doubled, to 710,000 - as a result of extra spending cuts pencilled in for 2015-16 and 2016-17.

Photo: the back end of the march on Park Street – getting ready for the “off”.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

november books

I know this is boring, but it’s been quite useful to keep a record of the stuff I’ve read. These are my latest books:
Middles Classes (Simon Gunn+Rachel Bell): An absolutely fascinating book that I bought on impulse at “The Last Bookshop”, Bristol (partly because it was only £2 new!). Written by two of the team who’d made the BBC documentary series “Aristocracy” (which I didn’t see), this book traces the roots of middle-class values in Victorian England through to the great education reforms and changes in the workplace of the 20th century.
Sunset Park (Paul Auster): I’ve become a great admirer of Auster’s books over the past couple of years. This book is set in 2008 in the USA - against the financial crisis that had recently hit the country. The story is divided between a number of characters but with the central player, in his late 20s, reflecting on why, despite his middle-class background, he has ended up in a New York squat. The book is typically Auster in “feel” – minimal dialogue, measured, third-person, past-tense narration – and with a typical lack of “closure”. One of those impressive books that you keep reflecting on long after you’ve finished reading.
And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Blake Morrison): It’s taken me a long time to get around to reading this. A poignant reflection of the author’s larger-than-life GP father (infuriating memories of him jumping traffic queues; “I may not be right, but I’m never wrong” motto etc) as he approached death. Although my own father wasn’t a “larger-than-life” character (or a GP!), Morrison’s reflections on the his father’s final days instantly brought back memories of my Dad’s death (lots of similarities: I think Morrison’s father died the same year as mine – 1992; Morrison and I are similar ages – he’s a year younger; we were both at our fathers’ bedsides when they died). A beautifully observed, honest book and one that has helped to trigger many memories of my own.
Words and Wonderings (Joy Mead): This is a book of conversations between the author and a range of people from different backgrounds, including poets, bakers, environmentalists, artists and musicians. The conversations essentially explore the true meaning of community (beyond the jargon of the “Big Society”!). Some interesting insights and observations. However, I did find the style/format of the book somewhat predictable and a little awkward (and, apart from one or two instances, not convincingly “conversational”). I enjoyed the diversity of the participants and found it useful as a daily source of reflection. This is another of the books our Ithaca group will be “studying” in due course.
The American Future (Simon Schama): This is a book of the television series (again a £2 purchase!) and is typically “Schama” in style – full of rich prose, stylistic “charm” and HIM (I find his ego rather irritating!) - it probably works better as a television programme than a book (although I’ve actually only seen a couple of the programmes). The book, which was written in Barack Obama’s presidential election year, understandably “looks backward in order to see forward” but, to my mind, hardly seems to look forward at all, so I found the title misleading/inaccurate. I felt he was at his most convincing when he provided first-hand encounters with people he’d met and somewhat strangely, given his eminence, found many of his historical accounts rather tedious/overcomplicated in nature (eg. compared with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”. Nevertheless, a fascinating book.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

within striking distance

I’ve been mulling posting something on this subject for the last few days. In principle, I’m supportive of public sector workers’ strike action (especially secondary school teachers!) on 30 November and, despite my retired status, intend to join the College Green demonstration in Bristol on the day.
My thoughts on the subject are somewhat muddled, but here goes (I’ve tried to give a balanced view)…
1. Personally, I can’t really afford to retire but, after making sacrifices and working VERY hard all my life, I am determined to explore and enjoy new things whilst I’m still fit and healthy enough to do so (my parents died when they were 70 and 71).
2. I was an architect in my “former life” and, for nearly 30 years, ran my own practice. Being self-employed and largely responsible for the financial well-being of my staff, this was extremely tough at times. Not only was the idea of me making pension contributions laughably impractical, but I was also frequently having to subsidise the practice in order to avoid having to make staff redundant during difficult times. There were good times too and I endeavoured to try to make up the short-fall, but it remained very difficult. As a result, my pension contributions have been inconsistent and my annuity choices frequently unwise (sometimes disastrously so!). Like many individuals, my annuities have been badly affected by the global financial crisis of recent years.
3. So, against this background, I’m perhaps understandably envious of the guaranteed pension provisions available to public sector workers – providing they are prepared to put in the necessary years of service (and pay extra contributions, work longer etc)… incidentally, it’ll be virtually impossible for teachers still to be teaching at the age of 68 - they will be burnt out LONG before then (and if you don’t believe me, YOU try dealing with some very poorly behaved, confrontational teenagers for six lessons a day)!
4. I know of many low-paid or self-employed people for whom the prospect of private pension provision is impossible. They too will be envious of public sector pensions. Many people in the private sector have no proper pension provision; surely, the government should be acting on this, rather than attacking public sector pensions (85% of public sector employees are in a pension scheme, compared with 40% in the private sector)?
5. On the other hand, many people working in the private sector have very generous pension packages, share options etc. The average director of a FTSE 100 company now has a pension pot worth £3.9million.
6. Large pension deficits in companies’ final-salary pension plans have driven most to close their schemes, removing the benefit from those working in the private sector. I think most public sector workers accept that pension arrangements do have to be adjusted to take account of longer life-expectancies.
7. The government keeps going on about the strikes being wrong because “negotiations are ongoing” (in reality, progress in negotiations has been painfully slow – and it’s in the government’s interests not to “rush” things!). In PR terms, the government actually wants the maximum disruption to the public - it suits its narrative of private sector versus public sector.
8. On average (apparently, according to Channel4 News FatCheckBlog in June this year), private sector employees are now “worse off” in their retirement – and on average their salaries are no longer any higher. Faced with those figures, David Cameron knows that most voters who don’t work for the state will back him on pension reform.
9. The fact is that public sector workers accept, from the time they first start their jobs, the terms and conditions of their employment. They appreciate that they won’t be richly rewarded financially. However, the long-standing pension arrangements are one of the few positive things related to their jobs (apart from job satisfaction for some?). Unlike in the private sector, many public sector workers (eg. most teachers, nurses, those working in the emergency services etc) do not have the same kind of flexibility to swap their careers for equivalents in the corporate world.
10. To my mind, the proposed 3% increase in contributions from public sector workers that the government is seeking to force through, is nothing to do with long-term affordability or sustainability – they’re simply being used to contribute to the short-term deficit-reduction targets over the next three or four years.
In my view, the situation has many similarities with the “occupy” protests of recent weeks – ordinary people have become sick and tired of being asked to pay (literally) for the actions of others - whilst, at the same time, they see the very rich continue virtually untouched.
The banks have not paid for the crisis they have caused. Instead the government is making ordinary people pay through its austerity programme… and, of course, public sector workers (and their pensions) are an easy target! I really think that the government is quite happy for the strike to proceed – in its eyes, it’ll be able to blame EVERY piece of “bad economy news” on the strikers.
I very much hope, even at this very late hour, that an acceptable compromise is reached and that the strike will be avoided… but I’m not holding my breath.

Photo: sign of the times? shop sign in disrepair on Park Street, Bristol.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

turning the clock back

I met my good friend and former architectural client, Tony, for lunch in Reading yesterday. The last time we’d met was at my retirement party in February 2005. We’d known each other since the early 1980s. Although we hadn’t done an amazing amount of work together, we’d made a point of meeting up for lunch on a fairly regular basis. Amongst other things, these proved to be ideal opportunities for brainstorming, exchanging ideas, expressing our frustrations and generally encouraging (and laughing at) each other.
We both may look a little older, our hair may have become a little greyer, but yesterday’s lunchtime “reunion” was just lovely… in absolutely no time at all, it was as though we’d never been away. In the past six-and-a-half years, Tony had got married and he+Sue divide their time between their houses in the south of France and Berkhampsted and on their dutch barge… plus skiing, cycling, reading, walking etc etc (it’s a tough life!). He still dabbles in development and investment opportunities but, as ever, was focused on enjoying life and being happy (a sentiment/objective I think we both share).
It was just brilliant to meet up.

We talked (and ate and drank, as you do!) for three hours non-stop and have vowed to continue our “session” with a couple of other old work colleagues (Steve and Charles) in due course.
Photo: I didn’t take any photographs of our reunion(!) and no longer have any drawings/pictures of projects we’d done together… but I just found these architectural images in an “arch work” folder on my computer (which will have to suffice in terms of suggesting my former life!).

Monday, November 21, 2011

family likenesses

I spent ages last week hunting through old biscuit tins and shoe boxes full of old family photographs. I was searching for one particular photograph – of my grandparents’ wedding (Fred and Rose Broadway). Well, frustratingly, I didn’t find it and stopped searching. As it happens, earlier today I applied for my Senior RailCard and needed to look up my passport details… and, in the envelope containing my passport, birth certificate etc (you’re way ahead of me, aren’t you!), I found the aforementioned wedding photograph!
If you’ve been reading my blog recently, you will recall me “remembering my father”. I WAS going to use the photograph to demonstrate how physically alike my father and grandfather were… but, having recently come across one of my old school photographs, it seems that I also look a little like my grandfather too!
Scary or what!
Photo: left: Fred (circled) on his wedding day 3 August 1912, aged 25; right: me (circled) in May 1963, aged 14.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

secret millionaire

I COULD have been a millionaire, you know.
The above photograph is clear proof (note: I’m on such good terms with my bank that I’m sure they would have accepted the cheque despite the “Stephano” name!). I was given it “in gratitude” by our lovely friend Liza at the end of the wonderful holiday spent with our mayBe friends at Upper Saltings, St Ives in 2002. Depending what you choose to believe, cheques are valid for either 6 months or 6 years… either way, I realise I’ve now blown my chances!
I’ve recently been clearing out “my” basement cupboard. Not before time. Although it was pretty organised in its early days, some six years or so ago, it’s gradually become one of those “stuff-it-in-and-close-the-doors-quickly” cupboards. Whilst I knew I still had the cheque (plus some of other lovely souvenirs from that holiday) “somewhere” in the house, I came across it by accident when I was going through my old biscuit tins/shoe boxes of old photographs.
A lovely reminder of a very special holiday (and worth its weight in gold!).

Friday, November 18, 2011

finding familiar faces...

I was searching through biscuit tins, old shoe boxes and on book shelves the other day in an effort to track down a particular ancient family photograph. It was an image, taken in a small back garden, of my grandparents’ wedding day (Fred and Rose Broadway)… I wasn’t there myself! It was evocative for a number of reasons but, in particular, because of distinct similarities between my father, Ron, and his own father, Fred. Needless to say, I didn’t find it – it’ll no doubt re-appear when I stop searching for it!
However, what I DID find was drawing I’d done of Moira in Easter 1972 (some 9 months before we were married), together with one of my all-time favourite postcard pictures – “Hat Trick with Freesia” by David Remfrey – which has always reminded me of Moira.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

remembering my father

I’ve just been reading Blake Morrison’s book “And When Did You Last See Your Father?”. It’s a poignant reflection of his larger-than-life GP father (infuriating memories of him jumping traffic queues; “I may not be right, but I’m never wrong” motto etc) as he approached death. Although my own father wasn’t a “larger-than-life” character (or a GP!), Morrison’s reflections on his father’s final days instantly brought back memories of my Dad’s death (lots of similarities: I think Morrison’s father died the same year as mine – 1992; they both died from cancer that had been diagnosed too late; Morrison and I are similar ages – he’s a year younger; we were both at our fathers’ bedsides when they died).
My father died within six months of diagnosis. I remember my mother telling me “it was serious”, but my father never really accepted this. He refused to talk about it. He seemed to be in complete denial. I recall numerous times when I tried to get him to talk about his life, his family, his childhood - but all to no avail. During his final months (when he was still fit enough to do so), I wanted to drive him to places he loved and for which we had particular memories – like the regular family picnic spot by the river at Aston Cantlow, near Henley-in-Arden, or the Flagpole (or “Tadpole” as younger family members called it!) on Cannock Chase or Llanrhaeadr, near Oswestry, or Bispham, near Blackpool, where we spent so many family holidays. But he just wasn’t interested. Looking back, I think I was trying to prepare myself for grieving him and now feel somewhat guilty that I had pressed him on such matters.
Amazingly, it’s coming up to 20 years since his death and, in many ways (like Blake Morrison), I wish I had written stuff down at the time – so many things have become very hazy, half-remembered recollections.
My Dad, Ron, was a printer for most his working life (compositor and reader). He was a proud and practical man, very organised, quite shy, conscientious and very reliable. He was born and brought up Handsworth, Birmingham (his father worked in the jewelry trade – starting out as a “jeweler errand boy”) and continued to live there for the rest of his life. He was quite an intelligent man who, I think, was very conscious of his working class background. As I grew older, I felt he was almost embarrassed by what he felt was a lack of education (although, of course, he would never have admitted this) - he used to challenge himself to learn new words/meanings on a daily basis via the “Reader’s Digest”. He was very fond of words (but hardly ever read any books, from what I remember?). Whenever he wrote a letter, they frequently “read” overly-formal/flowery and regularly contained words which weren’t quite used correctly – he regularly wrote letters of complaint to the Council or of appreciation to Hollywood stars.
He was a strict disciplinarian. He kept a riding whip hanging over one of the door architraves and used to use it quite frequently – never on me as it happens (was I really such a “good boy”?), but certainly on my brother Alan! He was pretty obstinate at times (surely not something I’ve inherited from him?) and his favourite family saying was: “If I say ‘black’s white’, black’s white”!
I still find it amazing that he used to come home to lunch every day – despite the fact that he worked in Birmingham (Dams+Lock). He had an hour for lunch and, with military precision, this was taken up by a 20-minute bus ride and walk home; 20 minutes to eat lunch; 20-minute walk and bus ride back to work (it’s a very good job the buses were so reliable!)… bearing in mind that it took him 5-10 minutes to walk to the bus stop from home.
He was embarrassingly colour-prejudiced (perhaps this was a result of what he saw as all the changes, for the worse, that had taken place in Handsworth during his lifetime?) and, as I grew older, my only coping-mechanism was to avoid the subject at all costs.
He was a great tinkerer – he could just sit and read a book. I well remember him “digging over” a flower bed at our house in Oxford just a/ few days after Moira had carefully sewn seeds! He and Mary came down to house-sit when we were away on holiday one year; unfortunately (when we lived in Thame), our cat died while we were away and he took it upon himself to get the vet to “get rid of it” – much to the dismay of our girls when we returned – they didn’t even have a body to bury and were completely distraught. I remember us returning home after a few days away and finding that he’d been down to the house and left me a list of things that I “needed to do” on the house!
He was a quite a deep- thinker and quite a creative person in some ways – he always claimed that he invented cellophane wrappings for food, for example (but, obviously, only in theory!)(he’d have a lot to answer for in these eco-conscious days).
Despite his relative shyness, he was quite gregarious in family situations (organising the games at Christmas, for example). Having said that, although he very much loved his family, he seemed to have an awkwardness when it came to dealing with his grandchildren (and his daughters-in-law!).
I think my most treasured memories are our occasional chats in the pub when they came down to Oxford/Thame on a Sunday. That was the time when I think we were closest. These were probably the only occasions that he “let his guard down” a little. He wasn’t a man to tell his sons that he loved them (well, certainly not in so many words!) and was frequently critical of both Alan and me – but, over our pints of beer, I came to appreciate that he was very proud of us both. This sounds awful but, whenever Mary accompanied us to the pub, it was never the same – he would clam up (and so would I!).
Apologies for rabbiting on, but I sense that if I don’t write down some of my recollections now, I may end up forgetting altogether!
He died from lung cancer when he was just 70. He was a thoroughly good man and he’d be incredibly proud of his sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great-grandchildren if he were alive today.
Photo: My mother and father (late 1991? and 1947, Ilfracombe).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

golfing and green fingers

In an ideal world, I’ve sometimes thought it would be rather nice to have “green fingers”. Clearly, in the real world, I don’t. That was until yesterday. As you might be able to see from the photograph (yes, it’s my ancient-looking hand), I now really do have green fingers!
I went back to my former golf club (Studley Wood near Oxford) yesterday to participate in the annual Bob Head Classic Golf Tournament – to celebrate Bob’s birthday. Last year, at about this time, the golf greens were apparently suffering from some fungal disease. So this year, as a precaution, they decided to spray all the greens with a green dye (which apparently contains fertilizer and some magic potion)(really?). It makes the course look as if it’s trying to impress passing helicopters, for some reason. It also means that your golf balls end up being covered in the stuff… and, of course, so do your hands (well, at least your non-golf glove hand).
It’s now getting on for 24 hours since I played and I must have washed my hands more than 20 times since I finished the round… and, as the photograph hopefully illustrates, my hand is STILL green! I have to say, I’m not very impressed.
Actually, it was a really good day. There were more than 20 of us playing and it was great meeting up with some old friends again (school terms have meant that I’ve missed the past six “tournaments”).
PS: Hardly playing these days means that my golf is somewhat unpredictable in terms of quality. This was well illustrated by my exploits at the first hole (par 4) yesterday: without having hit any practice balls, I played two superb shots to put myself some 10feet from the hole and ended up four-putting!

Monday, November 14, 2011

the awakening

Catherine, Gareth, Alan and I went to see Nick Murphy’s “The Awakening” at the Watershed yesterday afternoon (Moira was sorting out her vast collection of knitting needles – true!). I’m not really a horror-/ghost story-lover but I did “enjoy” this film. It’s set in England shortly after the end of the Great War and Rebecca Hall (acknowledged ghost-buster or, rather, ghost-debunker) is summoned to a remote boys’ school to investigate some creepy incidents. Beautifully filmed and containing some suitably scary moments (I may not be prepared to play with our granddaughters’ dolls house in future!). Not sure that I was at all convinced about the ending, but… I did fall for Rebecca Hall!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

the dreaded eleven-plus and other stuff…

I’ve just finished reading a book about the “Middle Classes” (I know this seems a strange book choice, but I picked it up in a bookshop and became intrigued after reading a few pages). I think we’ve largely left the differentiations between the classes behind, thank goodness, but I did find one of the book’s conclusions worrying: “All the relevant indicators suggest that British society became more unequal and less open in the later 20th century. For example, the poorest 10% of Britons were 13% worse off in 1997 than in 1979; by the 1990s the gap between highest and lowest paid was the widest since records began; and there is clear evidence of declining social mobility among the poorest third of society”.
The book also highlighted the dreaded Eleven-Plus examination – introduced by Tory Minister Rab Butler through the 1944 Education Act. The system was based on the idea of different types of education for different children (ie. differentiation by academic ability rather than by class) - yet hopes that the “secondary modern” would, by virtue of its more practical education, gain a prestige equal to that of the grammar school were never to be fulfilled.
The awful thing was that this creamed off a small minority into the grammar schools while the vast majority were labelled as “failures” (many for the rest of their lives) – just on the strength of one, single, flawed examination.
It made me reflect on my own childhood in the 1950s/60s. My family was very much a loving and supportive one, but definitely “working class”. I did have a very good Grammar school education (although my parents were only informed that I’d passed the eleven-plus the day AFTER everybody else due to the letter having been delivered to the wrong address!), but my brother – who I feel was just as “bright” as me – failed the exam. This wasn’t at all surprising however. As a child, he suffered terribly with chronic asthma and he ended up spending time at an “open air school” in the years before sitting the exam (which clearly had a detrimental effect on his education)… I just LOVE the rather bizarre idea that Birmingham should be considered a suitable location for an “open air school”!
The awful thing is that, while my brother went through secondary school education and left school at 15, I ended up being fast-forwarded to take my O-Level exams a year in advance (despite my father insisting on seeing the headmaster to plead that I shouldn’t be allowed to do so… the headmaster fortunately persuaded him otherwise!). Happily, by the time brother was 20, at his own insistence, he began to study at night-school in order to obtain some qualifications and, amazingly despite all the odds, ended up going to university and obtaining a Surveying degree (but he did so only by continuing to work full time/study in his spare time – it took him something like 10 years). He really is an amazing bloke.
Not many people, in similar circumstances, would have had his guts, determination and sheer endurance (or opportunity?) to battle through such an educational background.
For a variety of reasons (including my brother’s experiences), we took the decision that our own children should be educated under the comprehensive system – deciding to remain in Oxfordshire, rather than Buckinghamshire (where my architectural practice had its offices).
We don’t regret it.

PS: The “Middle Classes” book was fascinating in all sorts of ways. This was just one of the ridiculous things I discovered: “Until the Test and Corporation Acts of 1828, holders of public office had to receive Anglican communion and to reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, thus preventing non-Anglicans of any kind from becoming members of parliament. Even then, the same barrier still prevented anyone who was not a member of the established church from taking a degree at Oxford or Cambridge until 1856 or teaching there before Gladstone abolished the University Religious Tests in 1871”. Genius!
Photo: extract from Handsworth Grammar School photograph dated May 1963 (I’m third row from the top, third from the right)(yes, this was just pre-Beatles and I’d just started experimenting with Brycreem!).

Friday, November 11, 2011

what new financial crisis?

I trust you’re keeping up with the various downs and downs on the current financial crisis? After Greece, it’s now Italy’s turn to come under the intense spotlight (and who’s next? Spain? Portugal? France?... perhaps then the UK?). There’s even talk of a two-tier eurozone. On Tuesday, Mr Berlusconi said that he planned to resign after failing to win an absolute majority in the lower house of parliament in a vote on the budget. On Wednesday, Italy's cost of borrowing touched a new record (if Italy now tried to borrow money, payable in 10 years, it would have to pay an interest rate of more than 7%). Robert Preston, BBC Economics Correspondent, commented: “When the implicit interest rate rises to that kind of level, investors know that a country with big debts can't afford to repay what it owes”. An Italian financier sadly acknowledged on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News that: “The markets go after the weakest”. Jon Snow, from Channel4 News, gloomily warned: “Make no mistake this is one of the biggest news stories of our generation, one of the most alarming and all-enveloping fogs of uncertainty since the build up of the second world war”.
I’ve just finished reading a book entitled “Middle Classes”. In it is a section about “The City” and the Stock Exchange in days gone by. These are some fascinating extracts:
George Verey (in the 1940s): “It was a gentler world; it was less grabbing. In my day no one picked up a million; five thousand a year was considered good money. The income mostly went on living – the upkeep of the family, holidays, school fees. There were virtually no “perks”. If you knew someone to be greedy, you saw as little as possible of them”.
…. and this (the book was published in 2002):
“The City remained curiously wedded to custom and tradition even by middle-class standards, so that when changes occurred they appeared especially striking. As with other sectors of the British economy, change began to be felt in the City in the early 1970s with the onset of recession. In 1972-3 the stock market crashed as a result of banks over-lending with insufficient liquidity to compensate. As deputy chairman of the Stock Exchange, James Dundas Hamilton recalled, ‘We used to go to visit the governor of the Bank of England every Wednesday and listen to the appalling news of one bank after another closing its doors. The Stock Exchange had a very tough time in that period’. Still more profound in the long term were the effects of the deregulation of the international money markets following the collapse in 1971 of the Bretton Woods agreement, which had underpinned and controlled the international monetary system since the Second World War. Exchange rates had previously been fixed internationally in relation to the US dollar, but from the early 1970s the system broke down and there was nothing to stop large flows of money going from one country to another. Boosted by petrodollars from the profits of the world’s oil-producing countries and by the exchange controls by national governments, new money flooded onto the financial markets over the next decade, largely independent of either world trade or government intervention. These developments had major and lasting effects…. But while these trends augmented the importance of the City of London within both the national and the international economy, they also rapidly destroyed the old-fashioned work practices and culture”.
So, we’ve seen it all before (well, almost)… except that the markets now seem to control everything in these times of GLOBAL economics, while governments appear powerless and are just left tinkering on the sidelines (or am I being terribly unfair?).
Photo: is the sun setting on the eurozone?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

the day of the nasturtiums….

Triffid-like, the nasturtiums in our small back garden have taken over everything and have been threatening to swamp the whole of Southville. They’d re-seeded themselves from last year.
Well, yesterday was the day that they met their match (well, until they pop up uninvited next year); I spent an hour or so hunting them down (not difficult, they’re everywhere), stuffing them into sacks, taking them down to the local re-cycling place and waving them goodbye. In an ideal world, despite its small size, we’d like to grow some food in our garden. A couple of years ago, thanks to our GrowZone friends, we made an initial effort to get things rolling… not particularly successfully (some strawberries, chard, lettuce, tiny potatoes, small green tomatoes and the odd squash), but at least it was a start. THIS year has been pretty disastrous: we decided to grow fruit and planted (last year) gooseberry and blackcurrant bushes, rhubarb and an espaliered(?) apple tree; plus tomatoes, potatoes, chard, chives, beans and garlic. All we seem to have produced from this is the odd tiny green tomato, more small potatoes (even for perhaps three meals?) plus some chard, chives and some small garlic specimens (and nasturtiums, of course!). If ONLY we’d decided to concentrate on cultivating slugs and snails, we’d have been quids in, but unfortunately we didn’t.
This coming year, we’re going to try again. After our previous disasters, we’re setting our sights pretty low. But I promise to be make daily slug+snail dawn patrols and I will endeavour to water stuff regularly as necessary.
Other suggestions gratefully received!
Photo: the view from our kitchen window (before!).
PS: yes, I know you can eat nasturtium flowers, but….

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

touching turner's treasures

I’ve been fascinated by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) ever since attending an exhibition of his work at the Tate Gallery, London in early 1975. My memory is somewhat vague about precisely how it came about but, shortly after that time, I was given the chance to look at some Turner watercolours (normally kept hidden away) at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Simply wonderful.
Well, following this experience, I vowed that I’d repeat this experience one day. Now that I live a life of leisure(?), I decided that that time had come and so I e-mailed the Western Art Print Room one evening last week and asked if there was a chance of me seeing some of Turner’s watercolours – including three of his Venetian studies. By 10am the following morning, I’d received a really helpful reply (together with a very useful web-link which allowed me to select some additional pieces from their archive) and, as a result, made arrangements to meet one of the print room assistants yesterday morning.
So, Moira and I spent nearly an hour poring over about 50 of Turner’s watercolours – wonderful actually being allowed to handle these works of art (presented with large boxes of mounted watercolours, small desk easel and, of course, white cotton gloves!).
A huge privilege and a truly magical, memorable experience.
PS: The Print Room at the Ashmolean is open to “members of the public, students and visiting scholars alike for the study and enjoyment of drawings and prints from the collection” (quote from the print room brochure)… and it’s free.
PPS: Thankfully, when I went to the Tate exhibition in 1975, I’d decided to buy the accompanying exhibition catalogue and have been looking through it again over recent days. It made me query how many drawings, sketches or paintings I had undertaken in my life (so far!). 500? Perhaps 1,000? I suspect it’s far closer to 500 - even including those undertaken during my architectural career. This pales into utter insignificance when compared to Turner. He left over 19,000 sketches and watercolours in the “Turner Bequest”, hundreds of finished watercolours and well over 500 oil paintings. How on earth did he find the time (he virtually produced a sketch EVERY day of his adult life – and this doesn’t allow for his “finished” paintings!)?
My catalogue gives a pointer: “A true professional, he never stopped observing, recording. Over 250 sketchbooks at the British Museum bear witness to this. Not for him the busy private life: his social life was confined to professional functions at the Royal Academy and basic, safety-valve affairs with his housekeepers”. Brilliant quote!
PPS: The Ashmolean also has drawings and prints by Michelangelo and Raphael (amongst others) – so I’ll be making a return visit in the not-too-distant future!!
Photo: this is one of the watercolours I actually handled yesterday: “Venice: The Accademia, 1840” (this was Turner’s fourth, and last, visit to Venice).

Monday, November 07, 2011

the ides of march

Well, it wasn’t like this on West Wing!
Moira, Gareth+Alan+I went to see this George Clooney-directed political thriller at the Watershed yesterday. It focuses on the last frantic days of a closely-contested presidential primary - just two Democrats left in the fight for the presidency and the brilliant up-and-coming press secretary (convincingly played by Ryan Gosling) of one of the candidates (played by Clooney himself) suddenly finds himself involved in a complicated political scandal which threatens to sink his “camp”…..
Loyalty? Trust? Betrayal?
All I’ll say is that it’s an impressive and worryingly convincing film (apart from a couple of issues perhaps?) and definitely worth seeing.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

G20, bill gates, bill nighy, rowan williams and the robin hood tax

French President Nicolas Sarkozy commissioned Bill Gates to produce a Report for this week’s G20 Summit. In the event, Gates has given a boost to supporters of a Robin Hood Tax by telling the summit that such a levy on financial transactions was "clearly technically feasible". He maintains that it was "critical" that a portion of the money raised from any Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) should be used to help the developing world, rather than simply to shore up ailing First World economies. An FTT - which this week won the backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury was one of a range of measures which Mr Gates said could bring the number of the world's poor states down to "zero".
As things stand, Britain and the USA governments are reluctant to sign up to a levy.
Bill Nighy, an ambassador for Oxfam and a strong supporter of the Robin Hood Tax, has also been in Cannes this week (and he was very impressive on BBC Breakfast earlier this week too - I’ve just watched
this recording).
Thursday’s Guardian newspaper included some interesting
comments from Nighy:
"I find increasingly any resistance to the idea harder and harder to swallow. It is mysterious. Resistance is becoming less and less easy. The reasons given are suspicious. There is not only support from serious moral people like Archbishop of Canterbury, and the pope, but there are 1,000 economists in support. Both the IMF and EU have done feasibility studies that are very supportive.
"It is very popular because no one is going to have to pay any more tax directly. The value of the derivatives market is now somewhere between $605 and $620tn [£377 and £387tn] – the world economy is only $60tn – and the $620tn is currently untaxed. The 50 pence tax on every £1,000 is all that is being asked for."

When questioned about the world-wide “Occupy” protesters (against accusations that they were “rebels without a cause”), Nighy responded: "The Robin Hood tax expresses in real terms what they are about. The protests around the world are directly linked to the Robin Hood tax matters and I find it very moving. The dignity restraint and powers of these protests is very impressive."
I’ve just added Bill Nighy to my “Dream Team”/“World Eleven” (these two old blogs of mine refer!).
PS: I’ll post an updated version of my latest “Dream Team”/“World Eleven” in due course!

Friday, November 04, 2011

october-november books

Latest books:
Theft: A Love Story (Peter Carey): The story is told by two Australian brothers in alternating chapters – Michael, an artist whose career appears to have peaked and Hugh, his “damaged” brother (for whom Michael acts as guardian/caretaker). It starts with Michael fresh out of jail for robbing his ex-wife of his own paintings and proceeds – with the help of a mysterious woman - into an art world tainted with concerns about validation and authenticity…. and potential fortunes. It’s a very funny (and somewhat grumpy and crude!) book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
The Harold Nicholson Diaries 1907-1963(edited by Nigel Nicholson): I REALLY enjoyed this book. It draws on diary entries and letters (essentially between Nicholson and his poet/author/gardener wife, Vita Sackville-West)(they had a very happy, but very unconventional marriage). He rightly has a reputation for being one of the great political diarists. He was a diplomat, Conservative MP - he flirted with Labour after WW2 - an extensive author and also worked in the Foreign Office (he attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919). I found the political background to both World Wars historically illuminating. He never achieved high office, but his diaries are simply littered with accounts of his meetings with “the great and the good” of the time. Despite his privileged background (he describes himself as “upper class”) and his smugness and snobbery (at times), I found Nicholson’s book to be a beautifully written, insightful and completely fascinating portrayal of British politics in the first half of the 2oth century.
Thinking Out Loud (John L Bell): This is a book of his “Thought for the Day” recordings for Radio4’s Today Programme (which we’re discussing at our weekly Ithaca sessions). The only trouble with a batch of these bound up in a single volume is that they become somewhat predictable in style. However, I’m a big fan of John Bell and did find his observations both thought-provoking and challenging.
The Betrayal (Helen Dunmore): This is our Book Group’s latest study book. It tells the story of a Russian family in the early 1950s – a time when the country was dominated by Stalin, the secret police and when everyone mistrusted almost everyone. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful novel – I read it very quickly, almost as if it was “thriller”. It reminded me of the time I read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and had felt somewhat guilty of life’s simplest pleasures (family, friendship, warmth, food, sleep, comfort, home, fresh air, freedom and the like). It’s a very impressive book and brilliantly captures a sense of hopelessness and fear and yet, at the same time, acknowledges the massive strength of the human spirit.
Much Obliged, Jeeves (PG Wodeshouse): It’s been an awful long time since I last read any PG Wodehouse, but I did enjoy this. There’s something rather reassuring about Jeeves+Wooster books – the humour; ridiculous snobbery; language; bizarre characters and the excruciating predictability. Effortless, light reading.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

occupy bristol camp

I dropped in to the “Occupy Bristol” camp yesterday morning on College Green and chatted to a group of protesters. They seemed in very good spirits and determined to continue the occupation for as long as possible. They appeared to be very organized – they’d just finished one of their daily “open meetings” and scribbles on their white board certainly seemed to have identified a number of key issues/responsibilities and assigned particular individuals as coordinators. I’ve been impressed by the way they’re trying to communicate with the public at large – via signs and messages placed around the site (explaining what they’re doing and that their protest is entirely peaceful and non-confrontational) and also the “drop-in” gazebo(?) where one or two members of the camp can answer any queries from members of the public. I also noticed that they’d put together a schedule of “campsite rules”, which they displayed around the site so that members of the public (and prospective protesters?) were aware. The ten or so rules seemed entirely sensible and appropriate to me (and I think that the today’s open meeting also took a decision to ban alcohol from the site).
I had a long chat to “Greg”. He told me that the camp members had been encouraged at St Paul’s by the changed attitude of the church authorities (and the City of London Corporation) to back away from the enforced eviction actions (and with the ongoing dialogue). He said that, here in Bristol, the relationships with City Council and cathedral authorities was good and that he understood that they were under no immediate threat of eviction. I told him that the Archbishop of Canterbury had written an article in today’s Financial Times indicating his support for the Robin Hood Tax – Greg hadn’t been aware of this prior to our conversation. I asked him how people were able to afford to devote their time to the demonstration and he told me that some people had given up their holidays, some were spending all their “non-work” time at the camp and some simply didn’t have jobs to go to. He said that the most encouraging aspect of the occupation had been the real sense of community that the protesters had experienced. For example: local businesses and individuals had been donating money+food and members of the public had also been turning up and cooking meals for them. He accepted that the protesters didn’t have any “specific” demands – it was simply their intention to raise awareness and basically to say “enough is enough”!
Photo: part of the Occupy Bristol campsite (note: I decided it was best to avoid taking any group pictures!).
PS: This ended up feeling as if I SHOULD have ended it with the words: “Steve Broadway, News At Ten, Bristol”. Apologies!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

june tabor and the oysterband

Moira and I went to see a remarkable concert last night at St George’s, Bristol. The Oysterband and June Tabor were back on stage touring for the first time for some 17 years. I love June Tabor’s voice and had the booked tickets purely on this basis. I’m sorry to have to admit that I knew very little about the Oysterband and went along very much thinking they’d be her “backing band”. How wrong I was! The Oysterband’s John Jones has a wonderful voice too and the combination of Tabor, him and the highly-gifted band was simply beautiful. They interacted with such ease that it seemed as if they’d be touring together on a weekly basis for ever! June Tabor has an amazing, brooding voice (and she’s even older than me!). Among the highlights for me were covers of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and PJ Harvey’s “That Was My Veil”… with a wonderful version of the Oysterband’s “Put Out The Lights” to finish (click here to get a sense of the finale – but ours was better!).
My retirement commitment to attend more concerts is a great success… but now I need to book some more dates in my diary!
Photo: Yes, I know the band members are missing (no photography allowed in the concert) - but we had seats in the front of the balcony immediately above the band and I wanted to capture this for posterity!

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

I'm afraid I'm at a loss....

Last week, eurozone leaders agreed a second Greek bailout worth 130bn euros as well as banks agreeing to take 50% losses on their holdings of Greek debt. It was meant to remove uncertainty and to help provide longer-term stability in the world financial markets. But now that deal is up in the air again. The Greek Prime Minister, in response to an increasingly bitter electorate, has now announced a referendum on the bailout deal. No doubt, this will take a little time to organise and, in the meantime, worldwide financial uncertainty (or maybe even panic?) will be back on the agenda (with 60% of Greeks apparently against the austerity measures, it seems likely that they will end up leaving the eurozone altogether).
Political leaders from the EU and beyond had hoped that last week’s measures would end (to some extent at least) speculation on the financial markets…. but surely, this was only ever likely to be short-term relief and that Italy, Spain, perhaps the UK and who-knows-who would be next in line? I don’t blame the Greek people at all – they are having to pay for poor government decisions/policies that probably go back an entire generation.
When it comes to finance on a personal level, I REALLY don’t have a good track record (Equitable Life investor, endowment mortgage etc etc!). However, what seems clear to even financially-naive people like me, is that our own individual efforts count for nothing. We work hard all our lives; we obey the rules; we trust our respective governments to take sensible decisions for the greater good; we strive to make the world a better place…. but, actually, we don’t stand a chance. It seems that the world is about greed; about power in the hands of CEOs, shareholders, bankers, city speculators; about profit and more profit; about dog-eat-dog and ignore the consequences…. and, rather like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, things have got completely out of hand and no one seems to know how to stop the depressing cycle.
This is background for the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York that started in September and have now extended to over 900 cities worldwide – including the “Occupy London Stock Exchange” (OLSX) outside St Paul’s in London. They’ve been protesting about "social justice, real democracy and challenging the unsustainable financial system that punishes the many and privileges the few".
Where’s Superman when you need him (and I’m definitely NOT referring to George Gideon Oliver Osborne)?