On Jack Bruce

“You got to give up/ What you don’t want/ To get what you do/ What will we ever do with you?/Rawalpindi  blues.” Paul Haines, librettist, Escalator Over The Hill.

Jack Bruce is dead. Most will recall him as the bass player and singer with Cream. He also wrote a couple of great songs in his solo career – check “Theme From An Imaginary Western” or better , “Rope Ladder To The Moon”, about unrequited love, from his album “Songs For A Tailor”.

He lived the rock and roll life to the hilt. He was also the prime mover in one of the most bonkers ever musical productions, the operetta “Escalator Over The Hill”. Composed by the Californian jazz musician Carla Bley, this was a mix of extreme avante garde jazz, rock, Indian music, modal yodelling, electronic  systems music…

Jack played Jack, a guest in Cecil Clark’s Rawalpindi hotel, along with roommate Ginger. (Not Ginger Baker.) They don’t do a lot. “What will we ever do?” is the refrain. Anomie. It sprawled across three LPs. Paul Haines, who wrote the words, delayed the process when he disappeared to India to spend time in an ashram. This was the late 1960s. You get the picture.

Three entire LPs of anomie? Linda Ronstadt, Don Cherry, the late father of Neneh Cherry, John McLaughlin, Don Preston, various bit part players in the Andy Warhol circus, singer Jeanne Lee,  drummer Paul  Motian, some fierce new jazz players such as Gato Barbieri, they all wander through, playing their part, doing their thing. Don Cherry’s playing on “All India Radio” has become a classic. Jan Garbarek extends it out to 20 minutes on his own extemporisation on his own album. Listen to it, the original, if you like modern jazz. Or even if you don’t.

It nearly bankrupted Bley, one of the great jazz composers of our time, who released it on her own label. She pushed ahead with it. (Listen to her “Dinner Music” or “Social Studies”. An easier intro.)

I first heard EOTH when I was 19. I listen to it every six months or so even now. I wonder if, were I to hear it today, it would have the same impact. Much of it is by any meaningful standard barely listenable. When you are 19, your mind is so much more open.

“People raised for one thing/Like cows for milk and chickens for legs/Vote for something weak and to the point/Riding the escalator over the hill.”

Now go and listen to it, if you want. RIP Jack Bruce.


On “Gone Girl”

I have been mulling over the success of “Gone Girl”, the book and now the film. It is well acted, particularly by Rosamund Pike and by Kim Dickens as Rhonda, the detective. It is competently directed. It is only about 15 minutes too long.

This puts it well ahead of the average Hollywood blockbuster on all three fronts, but doesn’t explain why the film, and the book, has hit such a chord. Sometimes this happens. In 1987 Fatal Attraction came along, about someone who had it all, the Michael Douglas character, took a bit more and was brought down as a result.

I suspect, and forgive me if this sounds like cod psychology, that this tapped into the fear among many at a time of growing affluence, in the West at least, that we were having it all too effortlessly and that one day we would have to pay. I suspect it also tapped into some men’s fear of dominant, aggressive women who were beginning to make their way in the workplace.

I suspect “Gone Girl” has to do with our insecurities over marriage and other steady relationships. Someone pointed out recently that in today’s society, the partner is supposed to provide for all our relationship needs, replacing roles that would earlier have been played by friends or relations.

This, and economic circumstances, may explain why one in three marriages ends in divorce. We expect too much, and we often have the financial means to walk away and start again.

If we are so dependent on one other, what if that other is not what we think he or she is? Do we really know what they are thinking? I suspect anyone in a long-term relationship must occasionally have looked at the other and wondered. It is a fear that “Gone Girl” plays to.

The glance to camera Pike gives at the start, deliberately repeated at the end, is chillingly blank, deadpan. It says, you know nothing about me.

Not a great date movie, then.

David Freud, Again

The backlash over Lord (David) Freud’s remarks over paying less to the disabled to get them back into the workplace has been truly encouraging. Labour tried to make a cynical political point by misquoting Freud, whom I knew as an investment banker but is now a Tory minister, claiming he wanted to force the disabled to take slave wages.

As I pointed out the other day, he didn’t. He wanted them paid a salary according to their abilities, thinking particularly of those suffering from mental illnesses such as depression, for whom a job, if only part-time, might serve as a useful bridge back into society.

Most people seem to have appreciated this. Several parents with disabled children have stepped up to say, yes, that is exactly what should happen. It has emerged that this is, indeed, the policy of at least one large charity that supports the disabled.

Most hearteningly, a Labour minister who tried to score a cheap political point on Question Time, assuming the audience would agree, was roundly booed. It seems you can’t fool all the people, all the time, with the sort of smug, yah boo sucks grandstanding and posturing that has replaced serious debate over policy inside the Westminster bubble. People are increasingly viewing these political games, and those who play them, with contempt.

And Freud is still in his job.

Not that I am convinced the Tories would have behaved any better.

Apocalypse Deferred

I hate to say I told you so, but I did rather tell you so. At the start of last week I suggested here that there were reasons to worry about stock markets, and the financial system generally. At that time the FTSE 100 Index, the generally used measure, was at about 6,527. Last night it closed at about 6,212.

A fall of about five per cent in ten working days does not take us into Wall Street Crash territory, but it does suggest plenty of others shared my concerns. The past few days have seen something close to panic. Not that panic is unusual on the markets.

The way stock markets work is that people who suspect their shares are overvalued continue to hold them anyway. This is because they are afraid that, if they sell too early, they will miss out on further rises. They then dump them in an insane scramble when bad news comes along. This is what drives markets. Fear and greed.

I suggested that shares were being held up because people were forced to invest there for any kind of income, there being no ways of generating a return on your savings anywhere else. Meanwhile, there were signs that sophisticated investors, the big banks and other financial institutions, were so disenchanted with the geopolitical/global economic situation that they were preferring to stuff their cash into safe havens, government bonds, even if these were actually losing them money year on year.

What has happened is that most of the negative factors known then have got worse. Ebola, worse. IS and the Middle East, worse. The US economy,  worse. The eurozone, worse, with the three biggest economies, Germany, France and Italy, all apparently going into reverse, for different reasons.

The falling oil price, which is at a level that would have been astonishing a month ago, should be good news, if we as consumers and our basic industries have to pay less for fuel. Except that the price is falling, despite international tensions that would normally force it up, because of global economic weakness, particularly in China.

The other day the UK inflation figures came in well below what was expected. Again, this would once have been good news. Now it is seen as a negative, because it suggests our economy is stagnating.

I suspect the markets will stabilise at around this level, if a little lower. But it leaves an awful lot of clever and highly paid City analysts, many of whom saw that FTSE 100 figure at 7,200 or 7,400 by the end of this year, looking very silly indeed.

David Freud

As it happens, I have known David, now Lord, Freud for about a quarter of a century, on and off. He is the minister who has got himself into trouble for some ill-reported words that appeared to suggest that the disabled should be forced to take work at well below the minimum wage. He has been required to make a grovelling apology.

We’ll come onto what he actually said later. David is part of that diverse Freud clan, a descendant of Sigmund Freud. The clan witheringly, if unfairly, summed up in Absolutely Fabulous as “bunch of no-talents with an ancestor”, one of those insults that will stick long after the facts are forgotten.

I first knew him when, as an investment banker, he was selling shares in Eurotunnel and Euro Disney. These were, he will admit, not the greatest of investments, and some remember him for this alone. We later had a mild falling-out over the flotation of an airport in, if I remember rightly, Austria.

David worked for Blair and Labour, which hardly suggests a free market ideologue, although admittedly, some odd people did get dragged into the Big Tent at that time. He also worked for a charity promoting peace between Israel and Palestine. He is by no means a tooth-grinding, “starve the poor” right-winger. He does, occasionally, have difficulty expressing himself as perhaps a professional politician would. Some earlier remarks about food banks were badly received.

What he said, clumsily, or what I suspect he meant to say, was that some disabled people are not able to do a job that would justify their being paid a full wage. This is self-evidently true; it is why they get disability benefit. Freud was wondering aloud if there was a way that, if they were keen to gain some self-respect by working, they might be paid less than the minimum wage and continue to receive benefits to provide them with a decent standard of living.

This has been deliberately misinterpreted, to whip up an artificial controversy and provide the Opposition with some cheap, temporary political gain. An honourable man has been forced to apologise for remarks he did not make. He may even leave politics, and politics would be the poorer. No wonder Westminster is so widely despised by ordinary people.

On London, And Behavioural Sink

I have been out of London, for longer or shorter periods, three times in the past couple of months. Every time I am struck how generally pleasant, courteous and cheerful most people who live outside the capital are. Each time I have returned I have been met, within hours, with acts of gratuitous unpleasantness and aggression from complete strangers.

In addition, twice over the past week or so, I have been sitting on a crowded Tube train and an obviously pregnant woman has boarded. In each case, the row of seated twenty-somethings have ignored the woman and left her to stand. In each case it has been me, twice their age, who has had to get up.

I can say with absolute certainty that, had this happened on a bus, say, in any of the three places outside London I have visited, the woman would have got a seat immediately. Any number of people would have got up. In London, they don’t.

(In one instance, one of those who remained seated was wearing full soccer kit and had obviously been from, or was going to, a game. He could hardly plead lack of fitness.)

I have been wondering why this is. In 1962 a piece of research appeared in the Scientific American which coined the phrase “behavioural sink”. Rats were placed in a cage and their number was steadily increased. Above a given population density, their behaviour deteriorated.

They displayed symptoms of stress, violence, hostility, parental incompetence and other aberrant behaviour, including cannibalism and frequent miscarriages. They were either frenetically overactive, or they retreated into a state of pathological withdrawal, only emerging to eat and drink when others were not around.

Remind you of anywhere? Apart from the cannibalism, that is. So far. (Irony alert.) Much was made at the time of the read-across to what were seen as our overcrowded cities, because rats’ social behaviour is quite like our own. Those cities are now much more overcrowded.

Everyone in London has in most public places someone else a few inches away, in their face, invading their personal space. People respond with aggression – “MOVE DOWN THE CARRIAGE!” “STOP PUSHING ME!” Or, like my encounter on a bus on returning to the capital, the complete stranger who snarled at me because I didn’t get out of the way quickly enough.

We read that, by 2030, the population of London will have grown by another two million. That isn’t that far off. Go back the same space of time and you are in 1998. The Lewinsky affair. The Northern Ireland peace agreement. Sixteen years is not a long time.

So in 16 years, for every four people now on the streets of London, there will be five. It is almost impossible, passing through one of the city’s busiest transport terminuses at rush hour, to imagine what it will look like. Where will they all live? Will we even be able to walk down the street?

Behavioural sink.

On The Adam Smith Institute, And Democracy

If the Adam Smith Institute, or something very like it, did not exist, we would probably have to invent it. This is a think tank that prides itself in thinking up wacky, often extreme, occasionally excellent ideas of a free market, libertarian nature. Providing they never actually end up running things, they add to the joy of intellectual debate.

(Incidentally Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher and economist after which it is named, had his own considerable doubts over the wisdom of an entirely unfettered free market, but we’ll let that one go.)

The Institute’s latest posting, though, would seem to go a little further than usual, suggesting that voters are too stupid to be allowed to vote. On a day when a distinctly odd political party is acquiring its first seat in the Commons, by virtue of an overwhelming protest vote, this certainly provides food for thought.

The Institute quotes some startling research from the US. Voters were asked to list, in order of their size, which government budgets were larger, foreign aid, interest on the national debt, social security and transport.

They ranked them in that order, with foreign aid far ahead. In fact, foreign aid is the smallest, followed by transport. Next, interest on the debt, but well ahead is social security.

The Adam Smith Institute’s argument is that if voters are so ignorant about government, they should not be left in charge of electing one. Admittedly, they do not go so far as to nominate what system they would want put in place of democracy, though they rule out an unelected elite. A monarchy? Anarcho-syndicalism?

Anyway, here is the link:


On Markets, And The Impending Apocalypse

I was speaking to a City fund manager the other day, someone paid considerable amounts more than me to look after my and your money. He was baffled over where these markets are going, and why they are where they are.

The geopolitical situation is as bad as it has been since the Berlin Wall came down. Ukraine is not resolved, the Middle East and North Africa could continue as they have been for the past five years, in complete chaos, for another two or three decades, with who knows what consequences. Then there is China/Hong Kong.

The markets, which should respond to all this, seem oblivious. This is because, we concluded, after five years of near-nil interest rates there is nowhere else to put your savings and get any sort of income. The markets are ignoring the prospects of a serious crash because they are awash with funds that can go nowhere else.

There is another related point. Investors, banks and other financial institutions that are meant to be clever and canny, are still happy to lend money to governments for no return or a negative one. The UK, the Spanish and the French have recently offered government bonds at negligible rates of interest – in the case of the French, with the catastrophe that is their economy, with a slight but real prospect that a future government will renege on those borrowings and never pay the money back.

There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the banks are themselves terrified of some market crash, probably triggered by one of those geopolitical events, and are instead doing the equivalent of stuffing their money under the mattress, putting it into government bonds that, notwithstanding my remarks about the French, are seen as a safe haven.

They would rather do that, and see the value of their funds eroded year on year by inflation, than risk the stock market and the returns available there

The second alternative is that they are taking a longer term view and believe there is no point in investing in business, whether in equities or by means of corporate loans, because the world economy is entering an extended period of stagnation and deflation, and the returns from government bonds, though negative, might over the next decades turn out to be more attractive.

So if I am right, you have three potential pools of investors. One is prepared to ignore the risk of market collapse because they have no better options. Another thinks that the Apocalypse is looming, in investment terms, and wants to protect its funds even if this means a negative return.

A third thinks the world is going nowhere and economic growth will go into reverse long-term. As someone paid to worry about this sort of thing, I find it all rather worrying.

On the ECHR

One of the few interesting courses I took as a law student four decades ago was in jurisprudence, or the philosophy behind the law. We studied people like Hugo Grotius, a Dutch writer who lived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

He wrote on something called natural law, an attempt to distil moral concepts into a body of rules that should govern all human behaviour. His contribution was to say that it was possible to evolve such a code without any divine intervention, and that if religious principles ran counter to this, they should be discarded.

If the law of God is unjust, it is no law at all, he said. (I paraphrase.) This was daring stuff for the time, and in a Catholic country would have brought him to the attention of the Inquisition. Fortunately, Grotius lived in the more enlightened Dutch Republic.

The principle became one of the foundations of the Enlightenment, see this blog passim. What has it to do with the European Court of Human Rights? Well, wind forward to the Allies’ victory in Europe and the Nuremberg trials. One of the defences put up by Germans in the dock there was that their actions were not actually contrary to the laws of the land, as they existed in Germany at the time.

This gave the Allies in the west some pause for thought. (The Russians, understandably, had no truck with such sophistry.) If the actions the defendants were on trial for were not illegal at the time, how could they be deemed illegal now? The (western) Allies were keen not to have the proceedings at Nuremberg appear a case of “victors’ justice”.

They fell back on the concept of natural law. The laws that allowed the defendants to carry out such actions were illegitimate because they ran contrary to any proper code of law.

Most people have a vague belief that the ECHR has something to do with the EU, Brussels, interfering eurocrats, etc. On the contrary, the ECHR was set up by the Council of Europe, separate from the EU though, confusingly, sharing the same flag and anthem.

The Court was created to enforce the principles of natural law and basic human rights. It would ensure that, if any country that had signed up to them subsequently passed laws that contradicted them or breached them, its citizens would have some authority to appeal to. That authority, the court, could overrule those laws and protect those basic human rights. What happened in Germany in the 1930s could never happen again.

The Conservatives say they will pull the UK out of the ECHR and ensure Parliament is able to overrule its decisions. It is true that many believe the Court has exceeded its authority and extended its remit into areas where it was never intended to go. It is true that some judges there are drawn from countries with debatable human rights records, and some do not appear terribly professional.

But disentangling the UK from the ECHR would be rather less easy, and raise more difficult constitutional questions, than some tub-thumping politicians may claim.

On Party Conferences, And Despair

I have never been to a party political conference, and after the past couple of weeks I hope I never will. We have had Ed Miliband proposing a mansion tax that will do little to raise funds for the NHS but will reduce to penury numbers of those ordinary people he claims to know so well.

Cameron has pledged tax cuts he can’t fund. Theresa May wants to stop people whose views she doesn’t agree with from using the Internet, a policy move about as feasible as proposing the repeal of the law of gravity so things can float upwards instead.

And we haven’t even had the LibDems yet. And there is seven months of this stuff to go before the election, too. That’s democracy for you.