On Iain Banks

I have been reading Iain Banks’ The Quarry, the last book he wrote before he died in 2013. A humorous novel about a man dying of cancer written by a man dying of cancer. A literary first, then.

It describes a gathering of a group of people twenty years after they were idealistic students living and in most cases sleeping together. Not a wildly new idea, cf The Big Chill, the film, and plainly, the point is the different trajectories of their lives and how much of that idealism they retained.

Late teens and early 20s are a time when you are mature enough to make decisions but perhaps too idealistic to make the right ones. (My analysis, Iain, if you are listening, though you said you didn’t expect to be.)

I went to just such a gathering a few years ago, a dozen or so people I knew from the same period of my life. Such affairs are always deeply poignant. My crowd, in my adolescence, was an unconventional one, and idealistic too. None were going to return as bankers or accountants.

Most seemed happy enough, but they all had a back-story. The wrecked marriages. And the still happy ones. The careers that had promised to put them on the top of their world, and flattened out into mere jobs. The odd brush with cancer, or other serious illness. The ones who never fulfilled their obvious potential. Several had been aspiring musicians; none became successful, in the conventional sense. Most still enjoyed making music, though. Which is no bad thing.

I thought, there’s a novel here. But Iain Banks beat me to it.


On Bankers’ Psychology, And FO Numbers

Here is the deal. See those stocks over there? Stay in those for a couple of weeks, with people throwing things at you. Then walk away with a few million quid, and we’ll put some other victim in your place.

In other words, endure a degree of public opprobrium for a period, secure in the knowledge that after a while the public eye will shift to someone else. In return, riches beyond the aspirations of mere mortals.

This is the bargain accepted by those in the world of business who want to make a lot of money quickly. Back in the days when bits of our infrastructure were being privatised, the various heads of the resulting public companies became rather richer than they could have conceived of being as mere public servants. In return, they endured public opprobrium. For a while. The word fat cat was usually used.

Bankers are different for two reasons. As I have written before, they live in a hermetically sealed world, mainly meeting only other rich people, corporate lawyers, captains of industry. The only ordinary people they meet are generally ministering to their every need. They don’t get the public mood because they are not often faced with it.

Second, their psychology seems quite different to the rest of us. Most of us have a figure in the back of our heads, what I call the FO number. Were you to reach that level of riches, then you would tell the world just what it could do with its nine to five. (Though I don’t recommend retiring entirely. I know several people for whom idleness and the bottle have not proved a happy mix.)

I digress. Bankers seem to have no FO number. That part of their brains doesn’t exist. They go on and on earning more and more obscene sums, much of which can never be spent, long after you and I would have given it all up.

Maybe they really enjoy it, though it is not that fun a business, from my observation. This week we learnt of an American bonds trader who made £170 million in five years working for Barclays. £170 million is, I think, significantly larger than most people’s FO number

He is suing for yet more. Because enough is never enough.

On Mark Ellen

I have been reading the autobiography of Mark Ellen, the music journalist. Rock Stars Stole My Life. He is even older than me, amazingly, and he charts the progression of the music industry from an amateurish business run by people who mostly blundered into it into the controlling global behemoth, most of it owned by huge multinationals, it is today.

Ellen started out as a teenager sitting in muddy fields watching bands with names like Foghat and Dr Strangely Strange, who were actually much worse than they sound. He ends the book being flown around the world on a luxury jet for a week with a superstar and her entourage of dozens, who refuses at any stage to talk to stage with the press horde in the compartment behind her. Making the whole business a pointless charade.

Interviews are rigidly controlled, the music is product, mass-produced culture supported by monstrous marketing budgets little different from the witless, cynically researched popcorn movies that trundle off the film industry production line. By the end of the book, you get the impression that Ellen, no fool, has had enough of it.

Still, he did get to play guitar in a band with Tony Blair.

Ellen makes an interesting point. The current generation of teenagers are much more willing to listen to music from the 1960s and 1970s than the previous one. For the punk generation, 1976 was Year Zero, and nothing before that counted aside from the Velvet Underground and a couple of truculent proto-punk groups like the Stooges and the MC5.

For this generation, the earlier music is accessible on Facebook or wherever, and they are exposed to it through film and TV soundtracks that endlessly mine and remine it. The Boy has been listening to Gimme Shelter, which he first heard on the soundtrack to Layer Cake, a violent gangster movie he adores.

Likewise he likes All Along the Watchtower, heard on Battlestar Galactica. While also liking rap, especially Eminem. Daughter likes The Kinks, and Tracy Chapman. And the usual modern nufolk and indie, which she introduces me too. (Try The Last Bison’s Switzerland).

They are open to anything made over the last 50 years. The difference, of course, is they don’t pay for the old stuff.

Though in the case of the Rolling Stones that doesn’t arouse in me much sympathy.

On LeftWingery

When my entry on Wikipedia went up a while back, I was asked by the person posting it for a summary of my political views. I described myself, without much thought, as “fairly left wing, but with a libertarian tinge”.

(Incidentally, as soon as the post was published, several people with whom I had been in dispute in the past, arguments I had entirely forgotten, posted disparaging accounts of these. Within hours. How did they know about the post so soon?)

I digress. I described myself thus because most would accept that the left-right spectrum has been recalibrated to such an extent over the past three decades that what was once centre ground is now dressing to the left. No one, save for a few political Flat Earthers, believes in Clause 4 Socialism, ownership by the state of the means of production. To anyone in the mainstream of politics, the free market is a given.

That means that you assess your position on that left-right spectrum according to two criteria. One is, obviously, the size of the state. Do we intervene to rescue the less fortunate from the consequences of their bad luck or bad decisions? Or is that merely funding idleness and lives of moral squalor? I tend towards the former.

The second, and a constant of this blog, is how that free market is regulated. In particular, as I have written again and again, monopoly providers of essential services. Not just corporates such as Thames Water and South West Trains, but quasi-corporates such as Network Rail and state providers such as HMRC, Transport for London and the NHS.

The right would want no regulation at all of the private sector. Again, I tend to the left, then.

The result of the election has seen that left-right gulf widen. On the right, a vicious triumphalism. We’ve seen the lefties off and they are never coming back. We’re all right wing now.

On the left, a rancorous misanthropy. It wasn’t our fault. We were robbed. It was the media. The voters are stupid, and deserve five years of the Tories melting the poor down for pills and soap.

Neither is especially edifying.

On HRH Prince Charles

Imagine this scenario. In the course of your normal working life, you happen to disagree, politely, with the views expressed by a Very Important Person, views which, incidentally, are not taken seriously by anyone else with any professional knowledge of the subject.

Said VIP writes to your boss to complain. Your boss warns you to keep your mouth shut in future, or else. Funds for your job gradually dry up, and six years later you are out of a job.

Soviet Russia? A corrupt Latin American banana republic? This actually happened here, and the VIP is the Prince of Wales, who is being criticised this week for the letters he has been sending for years, in black, spidery handwriting, to politicians in an attempt to convince them of the validity of his often cranky views.

I offer a link to the whole affair, from the respected US online current affairs magazine Slate and therefore presumably free of any pro- or anti-monarchy bias.


The story, broadly, is that of Edzard Ernst, a respected German academic, emeritus professor at Exeter University and, ironically in view of what subsequently happened, at one time a practitioner of “alternative” medicine.

Ernst wrote a memoir, A Scientist in Wonderland. In it, he detailed his experiences at the hands of the Prince and his entourage. He had earlier begun to wonder about the scientific basis of alternative therapies such as homeopathy.

This has no support whatsoever among proper scientists. Studies have shown it does not work, beyond the inevitable placebo effect. There is no reason, based on our knowledge of physics, chemistry or biology, why it should work, either. It is quackery, pure and simple. The marketing of so-called “compounds” based on homeopathy takes great care not to claim it works, because this would be in breach of advertising standards legislation. Needless to say, Charles believes in it implicitly.

Ernst published many papers and two books, all of which concluded all the above. In 2005 he criticised a draft report commissioned by Charles which claimed alternative medicines were cost-effective. A letter arrived at Exeter University from one of Charles’s staff on official stationery claiming he was in “breach of confidence”.

Ernst says he was personally warned not to express an opinion in the future. Support for his department at Exeter dried up, and in 2011 it was disbanded.

We only have his word on much of this – Exeter, as far as I know, has not commented, and the body he worked for appears to have operated with a degree of independence.

We know from this week’s revelations that Charles has used his influence to attempt, successfully, to alter government policy on alternative medicine. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this embittered, obsessive, spoilt man used the accident of his birth to end the career of someone who disagreed, with the backing of all the scientific evidence, with one of his cranky views.

God Save The Queen. For as long as humanly possible, please. And then perhaps we could all grow up and do something about this ridiculous royal charade.

Airports – An Idea

At some stage the new Government is going to have to come off the fence and decide what to do about the shortage of airport capacity in the south east, aided by the study being done on this by Sir Howard Davies, one of those all-purpose business panjandrums who tend to get roped in for this sort of work.

I have a modest proposal. Rather than concreting over more land near Gatwick or Heathrow and disrupting the lives of people who live there to facilitate yet more overseas visitors no  one wants, build Boris Island, the Mayor of London’s proposed project somewhere in the Thames Estuary. The main problem with this has always been cost. But I suggest a novel form of financing.

As anyone who lives in the capital knows, an awful lot of tourists, especially from the Far East, come here simply to buy ludicrously overpriced fashion tat. You can see them clawing each other’s eyes out each year at the opening of the January sales.

You build Boris Island, and the biggest imaginable retail park as well. Think Westfield, but ten or twenty times’ bigger, filled with every imaginable fashion outlet. Plus hotels. You use the forthcoming rents on these to fund the building of the project – this sort of arrangement is well within the ability of the average investment banker. Interest rates are low, so the initial debt is manageable.

This has three advantages. 1) It provides us with a much-needed infrastructure asset, paid for by the sort of people who are prepared to pay £2,000 for a tatty handbag with the right label.

2) Said “tourists” need never step off the island, their main purpose for their visit to the UK being entirely catered for there. Fewer of them cluttering up London’s streets and transport system, clutching their wretched luggage and shopping bags.

3) The sites vacated by said fashion chains as they decamp en masse to Boris Island can then be occupied by shops selling things local people actually want, at greatly reduced rents, so taking pressure off London rental values.

What could go wrong?

On VE Day

Some years ago we had a perfectly charming young women over from Berlin, for a few months of work experience on my newspaper.

There was one thing she found startling about life in the UK. Our obsession with the Second World War. Not explicitly, in some Fawlty-esque sense. No one accused her of starting it. But the TV, films, our whole culture was saturated with the subject, she said. Every weekend, The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day, Where Eagles Dare, Tobruk, Ice Cold in Alex, all the rest, seemed to run on an endless loop.

This was not true in Germany, she said. I am sure it is not, though I managed to stop myself from pointing out that had the conflict turned out the other way, the subject would doubtless have featured quite strongly on German TV.

I have known several Germans from her generation, and one from the previous one, who was born in the shadow of the War. They have all been staggeringly, vociferously liberal in their views – he, indeed, was a politician with the Social Democrats in Berlin.

In my youth, I would occasionally come across a German of a certain age and could never resist wondering, silently, just what they had been up to in the years between 1933 and 1945. That generation is now almost all dead. No longer relevant, then. Perhaps we should give it all a rest, once the last of the participants has shuffled off.

Incidentally, did I hear wrong, or was one of the high points of the VE Day celebrations a 1940s themed concert featuring Status Quo? I know they’ve been around for a while, but still…

On The Election

I am not going to say how I voted. Suffice it to say that my wife worked it out and promptly voted in the other direction, so ensuring my vote was cancelled out.

I have been a card-carrying member of two of the three main parties, as they were, in my youth, mainly for purely social reasons. I have voted, in my time, for all three of them – the SNP not being relevant, and UKIP not having been invented then.

The original floating voter, then. I have been wandering around for some weeks now muttering the words “shy Tories” and forecasting a far higher vote for that party than the pollsters had been suggesting. No great kudos in that – if I had the courage of my convictions I would have put some money down at the bookies. Except that I don’t bet.

Why were the pollsters so wrong? The newspapers pay a lot of money for such polls, and at least one is reported to want its money back. Two thoughts.

1)      We are not an especially left wing country. When we feel well off, we are social democrats, as witness the success of Tony Blair in 1997 and thereafter. When we feel less well off, we prefer to see as much of our earnings stay with us. Note the popularity of programmes like Benefits Street and the tabloid press’s obsession with finding fathers of 17, by eight different women, living in £1 million mansions.

There is a reason why such papers, which have an innate genius for knowing what their readers want to read, run such stories. They play to that readership, unfair and unrepresentative of the average welfare claimant though such stories may be.

The Labour Party has not won an election on an explicitly left wing programme since 1945, and it has just lost another one on just that programme.

2)      The Scots. Many of those shy English Tories went into the ballot box and were appalled at the notion that a grasping minority party with more than its share of violent nutters – see the scenes at various political rallies in Scotland ahead of the vote – would have any say in a future administration. That Tory line, vote Miliband, get the SNP, was what won it, in my view.

Where do we go from here, then? I doubt Labour, in its present form, is electable, particularly if the Tory Government pushes through boundary reform. A few more years in the wilderness, and a social democratic resurgence under Blair Mark 2. And if I were a gambling man, and prepared to wait for the money, I would be placing a bet on Scotland exiting the UK in due course. Possibly of its own accord, possibly not.

That’s enough about the election.

On “Boomerang Kids”

Apr 30 at 6:24 PM