Saturday, 19 April 2014

Taxing Issues

When the Government's Culture Secretary resigned last week I was really quite pleased: she was someone in whom I had no reason to be confident and for whom I had developed a personal dislike (based only on her public persona). When her replacement was appointed I was dismayed: his life-experience thus far is not suffused with an informed, authoritative understanding of what he is now charged with nurturing. But the tradition of the amateur manager is at the heart of the British political system so, in that respect, there has been no change. I will do my bit to remedy this at the ballot box when I am next granted the opportunity.

Meanwhile, the little things in life distract me from troubling over big issues. For example, I used to have a perfectly good arrangement with Lovefilm whereby, for a small monthly subscription, they would post me films of my choice on DVDs. It was simple and pleasurable: I liked the anticipation of opening the post box, the satisfaction of an evening's film-watching from the armchair and the smug sense of completion on posting it back. All of this was overturned when Amazon gobbled up Lovefilm, rebranded it Amazon Prime Instant Video and sent me a leaflet which must have been compiled by or for teenagers, since I don't understand what it is telling me. I have cancelled my subscription until such time as I can find a translator for its over-enthusiastic jargon.

Shortly afterwards my computer died, not only putting an end to the resentment which has built up around my paying an annual charge for data back-up in The Cloud but also freeing up some time for me to read the papers. An article which caught my eye was the sale by Southwark Council of a garage in an alleyway for £550,000 - not surprising, given the fast-accelerating property values in the capital, but a marker none-the-less: publicly owned assets being sold into private hands is never good news as it represents short-term gain in the face of declining public provision. In another article I learned that the council tax on a £136 million penthouse in Westminster is less than that for the average family house in Blackburn. But it was a third article, a review of the thesis behind Professor Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, which helped me to join the dots.

Since the greed of the financial sector was exposed by the collapse in 2008 of its intricately constructed financial 'products', there has been growing debate around the effectiveness of the capitalist economic model to raise the standard of living for the whole of the world's population. Professor Piketty says that not only will it not happen, we will all in fact get poorer - all but the very rich, who will become even richer. The Professor has based his pronouncement on empirical evidence that inequality of wealth is accelerating around the world, undermining both social cohesion and entrepreneurial innovation.

As any determined plutocrat knows (and as Karl Marx pointed out) real wealth lies not in the vagary of employment - no matter how well-paid - but in the ownership of assets and capital. The majority of the population is not only excluded from such ownership but also denied the alternative of a decent wage by the momentum toward monopolisation of capital. Meanwhile the degradation of the public sector continues as it is forced into a fire-sale of its (our) assets. The Professor prescribes the redirection of taxes from income to property as one way to curb capitalism's excesses.

Armed with this insight acquired from an hour spent reading the paper I reckon I could do quite a good job of running the economy. I would be, after all, just as qualified as, say, the Culture Secretary. But I almost forgot: the Government doesn't run the economy, it's the other way around.  

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Gender Specificity

Women endure pain without complaining, whereas men like to let everyone know they are suffering. Generalisations of this kind are complete tosh, of course - until anecdotal evidence pops up to lend them credence, as it did in the case of my partner who, after walking 27 miles a day for five days, acquired so many blisters her feet were in danger of disintegration. Yet she never complained of pain or hinted at capitulation, despite the five more days of walking ahead of her. I cannot confidently claim that I would be as stoical in the circumstances.

With a swell of pride, a nod of admiration and a wince of empathy I watched her hobble off at the start of day six before directing my curiosity at the swarm of motorhomes and campervans which had begun arriving at our campsite. They turned out to be full of enthusiasts of a pursuit I had never previously come across - radio-controlled model yacht racing - and they were gathering for the National Championships about to take place on the adjacent lake.
"Nice boat," I said to a couple of chaps fixing the mast into the hull of their 1.5 metre long pride and joy. "Is that made of carbon fibre?" They looked up from their task - I had caught their attention by admiring their craft and, at the same time, flourishing a scrap of technical knowledge.
"Yes", they beamed.
"It's a very expensive material isn't it?"
They beamed even wider. "That's right. But we don't tell the wife," said one, while the other glanced sideways at a motorhome where a woman could be seen busying herself in the galley.
But I could not hold their interest for long: they probably detected the tone of incredulity in my voice and, besides, their attention was focused on the contest. Although I was tempted - briefly - to stay and watch the start of the racing, they took so long with and were so absorbed in their preparations that I grew restless for the open road. Fully-grown men racing radio-controlled model yachts: who knew?

When I stopped for lunch I made the by now ritual round of phone calls to solicitors and estate agents in order to chivvy along the process of selling our flat and buying another. "This", I said to myself, "is going nowhere (rather like a yacht with a defective radio control). It's time to get a grip on the situation." But my calls always seem to be effective only in irritating everyone - including me - while the process itself remains deadlocked. So deeply ingrained in our legal system is the adversarial mindset that even conveyancing solicitors seem to feel obliged to adopt a 'let's see who blinks first' technique, each side waiting for the other to send documents, then subsequently apportioning blame for the resulting inertia on the other's lack of competence. I was glad to get back to my duties as logistics manager for my partner's walk, in which capacity I could at least be effective.

On day ten she reached her intended destination and, after a celebratory lunch with family and friends, we drove back to Manchester. Once home, my duties were re-defined: I became medical orderly (all those awkward-to-reach creases under the toes) and fetcher/carrier for someone whose feet had quite suddenly become incapable of another step - due, I am sure, to the realisation that her mission had been accomplished. Stoicism, no longer needed, melted away as she went deep into recovery mode. It was then I heard the first expression of pain.
"My feet hurt," she said.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Historical Diversity

At seven a.m. on day seven of Rachel’s walk from Manchester to London via the canal towpaths, she set off across the fields to where she left off yesterday - Bridge 63 over the Grand Union. According to our rough estimate her average progress is 27 miles per day and she should arrive at her intended destination, The Rosemary Branch canalside theatre pub in Islington on Sunday night, after nine days of relentless toe-bashing. Her blistering pace (now I see where the phrase originates) has created extra work for logistical support (me) in the form of medical care. This morning I lanced a blister so swollen that the fluid squirted into her curious face. My daily shopping list now includes plasters as well as food and drink.

But, despite my onerous duties and our rapid transit, I have found some time to appreciate the route itself and the opportunities it presents to experience slices of England’s history at first hand. Through unpopulated farmlands there are stretches of canal which still have the feel of the 18th century about them: the silence of the pre-machine age, the grooves worn by tow-ropes on the edge of a bridge - even the act itself of walking to London evokes a time when travel did not generally involve wheels. Then there are the reminders that canals were built as vital transport for industry: the ancient and often ruined mills, factories and kilns; the abandoned quays and warehouses – the numbers of which demonstrate the huge scale of enterprise during the industrial revolution. At times the railway runs alongside illustrating the fact that technological innovation disrupts status quo. Elsewhere lorries on the motorways thunder close by, in their turn replacing the trains as the preferred means of transport for industry.

Now that we are in Northamptonshire, the Pennine hills at the start of the walk are a distant memory. The terrain has been flat through the Midlands and will remain so until we reach the Chilterns on the outskirts of London. What does change, however, is the colour of the soil and, as if sympathetically, the local accent. I like to think it is no coincidence that the stony soil on the fringe of Manchester is a suitable match for the clipped vowels and abrupt speech patterns of the locals; and as we moved through Cheshire the relaxing of the Northern voice seemed appropriate to the fields of reassuringly dark brown earth. Around Stoke, famous for its clay, I noticed a peculiarly sticky, rounding of the accent which made even large, macho-looking blokes sound slightly camp; the terrain of the West Midlands is particularly flat and dull which, around Droitwich, is reflected in the accent – unenthused and pessimistic sounding, with hints of Brummie; and in Northamptonshire, with its tilled fields of rich, reddish-brown earth, the local accent comes across as relaxed and imbued with the confidence of  a predictably good harvest.

Nor is it really true that all towns are now the same. Along with their traditional patterns of speech, some retain a good proportion of the buildings and layouts that formed them in the first place. In many of the High Streets it is evident which towns evolved from rural markets as opposed to industry and, despite the omnipresent national retail outlets, there are local names lingering nostalgically over the offices of solicitors and estate agents.  On the outskirts they do all look the same: but when you are in a hurry and in need of a supermarket, there is some satisfaction in that. No responsible logistics support person has time for searching out local organic produce in specialist shops.

I would like to tour the shires of England in a more leisurely fashion one day but, for now, I must make haste to the next rendezvous. I phoned to book a pitch for tomorrow night near Iver in Buckinghamshire: the lady sounded awfully like The Queen. 

Friday, 28 March 2014

Left Foot, Right Foot, Left Foot, Right Foot...

A few months ago my partner announced her intention to walk from Manchester to London via approximately 200 miles of canal towpath - a journey that would take about ten days.
"Nice idea," I said, thinking that I might look forward to a little 'me time'.
"And you can follow me in the campervan to provide sustenance and accommodation at the end of each day," she replied.
I foresaw a relentless evening routine of cooking, foot massaging and listening to the schemes she dreamt up during her miles of solitary tramping, although I would still have the days to myself - apart from a bit of driving, shopping and scouting for camp-sites.
The time has come and, as it's turned out, it coincides inconveniently with the possibility of our moving home. I say possibility because, although we have a willing buyer for our old flat and a willing vendor of our new flat, completing the deal is a convoluted transaction conducted through third parties i.e. two firms of estate agents and two firms of solicitors. It's a set-up guaranteed to maximise the opportunities for miscommunication and, unsurprisingly, that is exactly what is happening. With the Data Protection Act being quoted as the justification for not putting buyer and seller directly in touch with each other, the professionals have carte blanche to charge for a service imbued with a degree of old-fashioned, bureaucratic sloth such as hasn't been seen since the GPO was in charge of domestic telephone installations. Pinning down a completion date is as frustrating as trying to get through to someone on a help-line who is actually helpful.

There has also been a simultaneous timing complication because we have just traded our ancient campervan for one less decrepit but in need of some remedial work - fixing the pop-up roof, sealing the leaky gas pipes and so forth.
"I'll sort it out" I said and called a few places to book in for repairs.
"Sorry, sir, can't fit you in till after Easter," was the general response. Knowing that within days I would be on the road and held accountable for the quality of accommodation, I saw no option other than to buckle down and fix it myself. The gas leak was straightforward: it simply required the dismantling of the interior to get access to the leaking joint in order to tighten it. All I had to do then was make good the devastation. In all it took me eight hours. The rising roof was more problematic. It required a new gas-pressurised strut, bought on the internet and delivered next day (at huge expense) - but that turned out to be the easy part. Experienced mechanics probably have ways of compressing gas-struts which don't result in personal injury but I went through the learning process painfully - and in a mere six hours. The other, minor repairs were less demanding but nevertheless added up to a couple of days spent sourcing and fitting spare parts.

The great walk starts tomorrow, so today is one of tidying some outstanding desk-based admin. It has not started well: my computer has told me that it has stopped backing up my files to The Cloud. All else is under control: the van is fixed, the logistics are planned and the completion date for the move, although unresolved, is work-in-progress (we have established a programme of relentless harrying which refuses to accept the concept que sera, sera). I call The Cloud help-line and listen to the specialist talk to himself for an hour or so until my mobile rings. It's my partner.
"The van's broken down. The rescue man is here. He says it needs a new alternator."
I almost forgot: my partner's epic towpath trudge is not purely whimsical. She is determined to raise awareness (and funds) for the cause of Girls Out Loud.
You might like to help out with a little contribution via Just Giving
or by sending a text to 70070 and entering GOLW99 £(sum of your choice).

And you might like to follow her progress, share in her adventure and lend encouragement on Twitter @rachelmwl

Saturday, 22 March 2014


At the age of 87 the singer Tony Bennett is about to release a new album - hence the interview with him on Radio 4 this morning. He made an interesting point about the record industry when he said it concentrates too much on a youthful audience with the consequence that much of its output is trivial and has no "lasting quality". This may amount to no more than the familiar argument that things are not as good as they used to be, but it does raise the question of what makes an enduring song. Time, of course, is the ultimate arbiter but when we find ourselves singing songs first heard as children are we singing them because they have an inherent lasting quality or is it because we are nostalgic?

And if Tony is right about record companies concentrating on a youthful market then it would seem that they are playing a losing hand in more ways than one. By all accounts the young are averse to paying money they don't possess for physical product they don't need, so why are companies trying to sell to a shrinking market? Have they lost their commercial nous in the same way that the once-successful HMV chain of record shops did when it failed to adapt to change? HMV could and should have turned its increasingly desperate, frantic shops into calm, comfortable lounges where legions of older, traditional collectors of records and CDs would gladly have spent their ample leisure time - and their considerable disposable incomes - in blissful disdain of downloadable mp3 files.

Yet, despite the failings of the distribution end of the record industry (and my relative ignorance of its contemporary output), I am sure that songs are being recorded today which will prove future-proof: there have always been artists creating melodies and lyrics which capture our sensibilities and implant themselves in our consciousness, like undercover agents waiting for the moment to re-emerge. As for songs, so with films: I saw two this week which seemed to chime with the argument.

The first, a film in French by director Jacques Demy, was The Umbrellas of Cherbourg whose charm and visual appeal still shine undiminished despite the years that have passed since it was released in 1964. Demy used the unique qualities of the medium of film to great effect: he created a hybrid - neither musical nor opera - in which all the dialogue is sung by the stylish characters and all the settings are exquisitely coloured, some of them in almost impossibly vivid tones. The result is a fantastical production but one rooted in reality by plausible - and universal - themes of love, sex, money and war, all of which are guaranteed to engage audiences regardless of time and place. And my enthusiasm was hardly diminished by the appearance of the young Catherine Deneuve as the heroine.

The other film, the just-released The Grand Budapest Hotel by director Wes Anderson, likewise demonstrates how well-suited film is to fascinating us with illusions and captivating our senses via its repertoire of colour and composition. With his quick dialogue, sharp editing and farcical treatment, Anderson approaches the story-telling differently but no less engagingly than Demy. His mastery of the medium is convincing and he is confident not only in his idiosyncratic treatment of the story but also in its power - as well he might be - for it is about those favourite themes; love, sex, money and war.

According to my theory, all this should ensure that his film will still be entrancing 50 years from now. For a second opinion, though, I could ask Tony: he's been around long enough to make a call.