The People’s Bank Is Deepest Red

Every now and then someone pops up to explain that what this country needs is a People’s Bank. One not run by typical bankers, but by those with the customers’ interests at heart. One of Labour’s policies is the creation, presumably by requiring existing banks to sell properties, of two so-called “challenger banks”.

We now have a pretty clear idea of what a People’s Bank might look like. The official report into the collapse of the Co-Op Bank has been published. It paints a horrifying picture of a bank that was indeed run by people other than bankers, who were supposed to be acting out of altruism and in their customers’ interests.

They seem to have known rather less about banking than I do – and possibly you do, as well. Discussions over whether the bank had enough money to survive appear to have taken second place to those on ethical issues. The former chairman of the bank, the disgraced Paul Flowers, seems to have been popular mainly because he ran meetings well. He knew virtually nothing about the bank and could not even get close to an accurate estimate of its size, as his appearance before Parliament made clear.

The acquisition that sent the bank under, of the Britannia Building Society, was not subject to the sort of checks as to its financial health that would have applied if the purchase had been by a quoted company. The auditors were not given proper access to its books. Had this happened with a quoted bank, it is almost inconceivable that the deal would have gone ahead.

I have no huge time for the banking sector, as other blogs will have made clear. But the rank amateurs at the Co-Op are hardly a good role model for a People’s Bank.

Incidentally, I notice one of Ed Miliband’s first speeches on banking, after he became Labour leader, talked about banks’ responsibility to serve the real economy and to build a long-term, trusted relationship with customers. It was delivered in 2012 – at the London HQ of the Co-Op Bank.


A Blind Eye?

I spent much of one day this week at the south London offshoot of Moorfields Eye Hospital. No complaints, the staff were cheerful and efficient. As they should be, of course, and in my experience of the NHS generally are.Whatever applies elsewhere. Something rather odd struck me, though.

I will state this as neutrally as I can. I estimate about a third of the crowded waiting room could have been identified as ethnically British, by name or appearance. Significantly more than half had names that suggested they were not. A number will have been recent or long-standing immigrants, of course.

But Moorfields is not like a typical A&E, which can be expected to reflect the make-up of the local population, large numbers of whom in some areas are of course members of ethnic minorities. Including that part of south London. It is a centre of excellence for ophthalmology. You have to be sent there, often from some way away.

The ethnic make-up should, therefore, more reflect the make-up of the population generally. It plainly did not.

You have to wonder why. One explanation is that a certain number in that waiting room were so-called health tourists, people only here to take advantage of what is a world centre of excellence, as I said. I have no idea if this is true or, if it is, to what extent.Some may have been from overseas and paying for their treatment, of course.

As it happens, I was asked to fill in a form that stated my ethnicity, how long I had been in the UK, and so on. At no point during my stay did anyone look at it.

On Portuguese Bonds

For those who do not pay as much attention to international bond markets as they perhaps might, something odd is happening in the Eurozone. Three of the real basket cases, Greece, Ireland and Portugal, have all in recent weeks issued bonds at startlingly low interest rates.

This, for the uninitiated, means banks and other investors are prepared to lend them money at favourable rates again. It is not entirely clear why, and frankly, it is a little worrying. We have rather taken our eye off the Eurozone crisis, what with Ukraine and the rest. But the intrinsic problems there have not gone away, and by some measures are increasing.

I talk to executives every day who do business there, and they say prospects are at best mixed. Germany, the strong man of Europe, is doing well enough. France is a mess, and not likely to get much better under the current administration. Holland flips in and out of recession. Confidence among employers everywhere is still low.

Yet hard-nosed investors seem prepared to treat those three above bond issuers as reasonably well functioning economies, where the risks of lending, and of those countries defaulting on their loans, are not significantly greater than in the UK or the US. This makes no sense.

As it happens, I was in Portugal last autumn, and believe me, that is not a place you would want to sink your life savings. Even in the prosperous bits, where we were staying, there are an astonishing number of derelict buildings which no one seems to have the cash or the confidence to buy up and restore.

The lasting image of my visit was a chain of uncompleted electricity pylons stretching across the countryside near to Faro, one of the biggest towns on the Algarve. Someone had obviously started the job and presumably then run out of money. They sat there, mute testimony to an economy wrecked by its adoption of the euro.

The Eurozone is not out of the woods yet, and it would be foolish to pretend it is.

On Modern Jazz

“There is so much to say about this music. I don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself.” Ralph Gleason, US critic, original sleeve notes to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.

I have been buying an awful lot of modern jazz. Specifically, anything recorded from about 1960 to 1970, often on labels such as Blue Note or Impulse!

There are two reasons for this. I am trying to wean myself off the sort of miserabilist alt-country that has been dominating my listening of late, to the detriment of my general state of mind. “Excuse me while I break my own heart tonight.” No, ideally not.

The second is that it is startlingly cheap to build up a substantial collection. Those who have never heard of the following, excuse me. But I picked up six John Coltrane classic LPs, in omnibus CD form, for six quid. I wanted Oliver Nelson’s Blues and The Abstract Truth. It was available as a single CD, for a fiver or more, in Fopp in Cambridge. Alternatively, you could have eight Nelson LPs, originally issued on Impulse!, including Abstract Truth, for eight quid.

(Fopp, for those who do not know it, is a chain that inhabits an alternative world where there are prices, but not as we know them. There is a big branch in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, packed with baffled looking tourists carrying baskets full of CDs and trying to work out what the catch is. It is not all cheap, but many of the back issues can easily undercut Amazon.)

Fopp’s Cambridge branch has a large rack of original Blue Note issues, at £3 each. Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, before they went electric, Bobby Hutcherson, Tony Williams before he went electric. Freddie Hubbard. Hank Mobley. Lee Morgan.

All classics. Barely a duff one among them. Blue Note and Impulse! were largely the creations of several committed individuals who produced all the albums and hired the studios, often at night. Some of the recordings were all made in the small hours, when rates were cheap. Jazz musicians keep funny hours.

Some of the best record labels creatively, Sun or Chess, were run along the same lines. ECM, the Munich-based specialist in chilly Nordic jazz, is a more recent example. If Manfred Eicher, who owns it and produces everything, doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get produced.

Blue Note specialised in more commercial, groove-based jazz. Some of it will be familiar from adverts or elsewhere. You would recognise Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder. The bass and piano line from Horace Silver’s Song For My Father was stolen, shamelessly, by Steely Dan for Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.

The Blue Note sleeves were artworks in their own right, moody, stylised and often, indeed, tinted blue. You really should play a Blue Note on a turntable, for the sound of the stylus hitting the groove, and the anticipation therein. Older readers will know what I am talking about.

Impulse! was the scarier, screamier, more difficult end of the spectrum. Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, Albert Ayler. Archie Shepp. Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, one of the dozen best jazz albums ever recorded. Not much of this made it onto lifestyle adverts.

What the two had in common, along with other jazz of the period, was a sense of freedom, and of possibilities opening out. Much of it was made by black men, who were emerging from that early, bright Technicolor jazz of New Orleans and elsewhere into a kind of music that, in terms of harmonic sophistication, rivalled the best of Western classical music. And they wore sharp suits. And the playing was astonishing, of course.

This is why near-racists such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin despised it. They liked their black music a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’, music that knew its place.

There was also a strong sense of spirituality, and transcendence. Coltrane was a Christian, of a particularly African-American, evangelical variety, and his A Love Supreme, another of those dozen best, is explicitly devoted to his religion. Others were Muslim converts, shaking off the religion of the slave masters.

Looming over it all was Miles Davis, a man who reinvented jazz once. And then did it again. And again. Possibly four times. Depending on whether you rate his later, more difficult work, such as Agharta and Pangaea, as truly revolutionary or the product of a mind at the end of its tether.
There was still Sketches of Spain, The Birth of the Cool, Porgy and Bess, half a dozen LPs by the second great quintet, Davis-Williams-Shorter-Hancock-Carter, In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew.

Yes, yes, Miles Kind of Blue too. We all know that one. Theme music to a few thousand dinner parties. But there is so much more to this music than that.

The Spitting Man Of Wimbledon

I try not to write about immigration. People tend to hear what they think you should not have said, rather than what you actually said. “So you think we should let ANYONE in?” “So you want to send them all back.” No, neither, actually. That wasn’t what I said. Listen to what I did say.

But some adverts from UKIP, which explicitly attack immigrants and the effects of widespread immigration, have been attacked as racist. This attack seems, speciously, to be confusing race with nationality.

The British have a remarkably good record of accepting, if slowly and sometimes grudgingly, new immigrants. But the clear majority have now had enough. Something has changed.
Let me introduce you, then, to the Spitting Man of Wimbledon.

Several years ago I was waiting for a bus outside my local Sainsbury’s. The queue was the usual polyglot London one. Sitting on the ground was a man, dressed in near rags, obviously here to do some menial task the indigenous population was not prepared to consider, or on wages they would not contemplate.

He could have come from anywhere from Casablanca to Kabul. No idea. He was smoking a small, tightly rolled black cigarette and, every 15 seconds or so, spitting on the ground next to him.
Everyone thought the same thing. No one said anything.

His behaviour was probably perfectly normal and acceptable in Casablanca or Kabul. It was not in suburban Wimbledon.

If you take up residence in someone else’s country, even if only for a holiday, it is incumbent on you to observe the local mores and customs. If female and in a Muslim country, do not wear hot pants in a mosque. The Japanese do not like people fiddling with their noses in public. In France, engaged in even a modest retail transaction, it is normal to make small talk over the counter rather than barking out orders.

The trouble arrives when large numbers of people descend on a country from wherever who refuse to observe those local mores and customs. It causes resentment and upset. Some act out of ignorance, such as our Spitting Man. Others are here for purely economic reasons and find no reason to attempt to integrate in the short period they plan to be here.

And others arrive with the belief that those mores and customs are irrelevant to the way they want to live. That the liberal values that are intrinsic to that culture, of fairness, tolerance and a belief that democracy is the best way of ordering a society, are corrupting and are to be avoided at all costs. If necessary, by creating a separate society that never overlaps, culturally or even geographically, with that mainstream culture.

Tom Paine would have understood. The road towards the Enlightenment is not a one-way street.

On Regional Development Policy

One to get the pulses racing, I know. But I have spent the Bank Holiday weekend in Cambridge – Daughter is in her first year there.

One cannot but be astonished at the amount of new building going on, out by Addenbrooke’s Hospital and by the Science Park, and in the area around the station that is a way outside the historical centre. The building is to accommodate new companies, some perhaps not yet created, or flats for students, many from overseas. Property prices are up there with parts of London.

A don I was speaking to a while back said Cambridge had gone, in the quarter of a century he had known it, from being a country town with a large university attached to a centre for job and wealth creation.

We tend to talk lazily of London as being an economy entirely separate to the rest of the country. I have been guilty of this. It is like a medieval city state, where wealth, crime, overcrowding, poverty and entrepreneurship have coalesced together.

Actually, Britain has become a collection of centres of excellence, like Cambridge and parts of the capital, surrounded by large stretches where nothing much is happening, in terms of business or entrepreneurship. I have friends in Henley, at the other end of the south east. Much the same is true there, the wealth, the job creation, the feel of money in the air. There are plenty of others, in bits of Suffolk, Bath, other stretches of the corridor that runs from the capital westwards.
There are bits that have been left behind. Parts of Brighton, despite the tourism, are rough and deprived.

There is an odd multiplier effect here not often noticed. There are places, Henley, Cambridge, Bath, where people want to live. The transport is good, the area attractive. If you are setting up a business today, you want to be where well educated, motivated, bright people are. Such places attract them.

You no longer have, in today’s post-industrial economy, to be near a source of coal, or clay, or whatever. You go where people want to live, and that is where the jobs are created. The resulting wealth pulls in shops, restaurants, other amenities, which make such places even more attractive to live in. So more businesses want to locate or set up there, for that educated, motivated workforce. The effect multiplies, and in places like Cambridge, which had the additional advantage of a university turning out technical innovations, this process has been going on for decades.

It rather suggests that the billions that have been thrown at regional development over the years, to attract business and jobs to places that desperately need them, were wasted. If you want to set up a business in website design, IT services or any other technological hot spot, you will go where that workforce already exists and like-minded businesses are already established. You will not go to, say, Huddersfield. I have nothing against Huddersfield – I once spent a wet Saturday afternoon there, but I am not one to hold grudges.

I spent several years in Hull, a place that is never going to be able to rebrand itself as Silicon Estuary, I fear. There was an almost anti-Darwinian process going on there – anyone with anything to offer got out.

The rest stayed. What you do with the Hulls and Huddersfields of this country I do not know. But their antitheses, the Cambridges and Henleys, will go from strength to strength, and that inequality and imbalance of opportunity will accelerate.

A Parliament of Robespierres

Maria Miller, the Culture Secretary, has quit.

Let me tell you a story. Many years ago, when I was a trainee reporter, a colleague got into terrible trouble with her expenses. She was taken to one side by a senior editor and told that she would have to amend her ways. Or else. She was claiming too little.

In those days, trainee reporters were paid next to nothing, certainly not enough to live on, a bit like interns today. Their more senior colleagues weren’t paid much either. And this was the days of indecently high taxation.

So everyone claimed on expenses to make up the gap. She was expected to keep up with the rest. Her expenses would be signed off by someone senior, without quibble or receipts. Otherwise one of the money men further up the paper would notice, and wonder why, if she was getting by spending so little, everyone else was spending more.

You will appreciate the parallel.

The unspeakable and largely unspoken truth is that a salary of about £65,000 is not enough to live on if you aspire to the sort of lifestyle that MPs can reasonably expect, and if we are to attract applicants of the calibre that can do the job. A home in their constituency for their families, somewhere within reach of Parliament to vote. Or a home in London, should they represent a constituency there, likewise sufficient for a reasonable family life

It can’t be done on £65,000. It can’t. But this sounds like a king’s ransom in some of the more benighted parts of the UK, economically, where the minimum wage is what you get. If you are lucky enough to have a job.

So the convention grew up that senior MPs would take their newly-arrived colleagues to one side and explain how to make up the gap. This little fiddle, this little break. The trouble with institutionalising corruption is that it is not easy to see how far the boundaries of what is acceptable should extend. This way lies duck houses.

The game is up. They will have to get by on £65,000 plus whatever they can legally claim.

What MPs need, to attract the right sort who can cope with the complexities of new legislation and the rest of what is a fairly pressured job if you are doing it well, is… ooh, £130,000. To pluck a figure out of the air. This will not play well in those economically benighted constituencies. And you can imagine the reaction of certain sections of the press if MPs voted to double their salaries.

So it won’t happen. The concern is that you will end up with a Parliament of Robespierres. Single issue fanatics. People prepared to give up any expectation of a normal family life in exchange for the sheer joy of ordering the country around. (There are a few of those in Parliament now.) And idiots and incompetents unable to find a job at that salary anywhere else.

(Robespierre was one of the leaders of the French Revolution, a demagogue known for his incorruptibility, his fanaticism, a fondness for power and a willingness to do anything in its furtherance. It did not end well. Not for him either.)

We are a fair way down that road already.

Game of Thrones

Like 700,000 others, I and the family sat down to watch the latest series of Game of Thrones. I confess I have difficulty following the plot, which makes the twists and turns of the War of the Roses, on which it is apparently loosely modelled, look about as straightforward as Rorke’s Drift.

I have to ask my son, 15, to explain who the characters are, and why they all seem to hate each other so much. Well, his brother killed that one’s uncle at the Battle of Westering Fields. Her mother was murdered by his brother. And that one’s from Dorn. They just hate everyone.

My son has now read all the novels – Seven? Or is it eight? – twice through. That might seem worrying, but frankly, anything that gets a 12-year-old, as he must have been when he started, to consume quite so much published matter, of whatever kind, must be a good thing. It establishes the habit. Cf Harry Potter.

The series is very, very violent, and there is a lot of gratuitous sex. It is also lavishly staged, wonderfully produced and imagined – the title sequence is arguably the best ever – and it has provided a decent income in their later years for talented British actors such as Charles Dance, Diana Rigg and any number of others. And probably a lot of fun.

They spend an awful lot of money on it and it shows. The classiest of its kind since that Battlestar Galactica reimagined. Sheer eye candy.

So it is no surprise that the wowsers among the press have started a campaign against it. They have dug up the usual professional killjoys, it-didn’t-ought-to-be-allowed types, whose careers and salaries are dependent on there being a sufficient supply of violence and filth on TV for them to complain about. Plus the odd sad soul on Twitter who simply doesn’t like GoT.

They say that, though it is screened after the watershed, there is worse out there and there are parental controls to stop children re-viewing it, that it is too violent and smutty.

Your problem is?

On fracking, and economic lunacy

Some comments to The Guardian, where else, by Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, should not go unnoticed. For Ms Lucas, the problem with fracking to produce shale gas in the UK is not earthquakes, contamination, etc, the main concerns opponents raise. No she says, in reported speech but presumably accurately, it is possible that stringent regulations could minimise those risks. “It’s not that fracking itself is necessarily worse than ordinary gas extraction.”

Instead, it is the mere fact, my paraphrase, that we are about to start a new method to produce fossil fuels.

Lucas accepts we do need gas to tide us over until the brave new world arrives when we can access our entire energy needs from renewables. (A date which gets no closer as the years pass – better to rely on nuclear fusion, which remains equally obstinately out of reach.)

She would prefer to keep importing the stuff from Norway because it would be easier to stop doing so than shut off our own cheaper indigenous supplies. This really is the economics of the madhouse.