Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Mozart and Mussolini

What a difference a day makes: blue sky, blue screen, no short positions; all is sweetness and light. I'm missing my old Italian colleague who had a very good voice and would sing jolly snippets of Mozart when he was happy. When he was frustrated he would open wide our office windows and shout the words of Mussolini down to the pavements of Knightsbridge, unbeknown to passers-by as his words were drowned by the traffic.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Joke of July

The stockmarket or the weather?

Thursday, July 26, 2007


Yesterday was the end of an era: goodbye to the family home. It has taken us weeks to clear out years of stuff hoarded by my mother. Bills dating back to the 90s, cherished letters including a handmade birthday card from me aged 11 saying "Happy birthday - Twenty-one again!", ancient files, family wills, diaries, in fact, as my father's still virtually blind after his operation, we've had to bring four suitcases of papers to Winchester. NB: throw things away in life! On the last day, yesterday, we called in the house clearers and winced as we heard them smashing up wardrobes upstairs. Things which were dear to us were heading for a skip; once prized possessions, now discarded. I went upstairs to see how they were getting on. To my amazement, all that remained on the floor in my parents' bedroom was a pair of my mother's old shoes. We'd cleared out all her clothes ages ago so these must have been stuck behind her wardrobe. I looked at those familiar shoes and saw some familiar feet. I was as if it was the final farewell from her.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jerome K.Jerome

Has anybody read Three Men on the Bummel (sequel to Three Men on a Boat)? Parts of it are quite funny, including this extract when the (English) heroes are testing a guide to English conversation for German travellers and they go to a boot shop in London using only the phrases recommended in the book:
"We stopped the cab at a boot shop a little past Astley's Theatre that looked the sort of place we wanted. It was one of those overfed shops that the moment their shutters are taken down in the morning disgorge their goods all round them. Boxes of boots stood piled on the pavement or in the gutter opposite. Boots hung in festoons about its doors and windows. Its sun-blind was as some grimy vine, bearing bunches of black and brown boots. Inside, the shop was a bower of boots. The man, when we entered, was busy with a chisel and hammer opening a new crate full of boots.
George raised his hat, and said "Good-morning."
The man did not even turn round. He struck me from the first as a disagreeable man. He grunted something which might have been "Good-morning," or might not, and went on with his work.
George said: "I have been recommended to your shop by my friend, Mr. X."
In response, the man should have said: "Mr. X. is a most worthy gentleman; it will give me the greatest pleasure to serve any friend of his."
What he did say was: "Don't know him; never heard of him."
This was disconcerting. The book gave three or four methods of buying boots; George had carefully selected the one centred round "Mr. X," as being of all the most courtly. You talked a good deal with the shopkeeper about this "Mr. X," and then, when by this means friendship and understanding had been established, you slid naturally and gracefully into the immediate object of your coming, namely, your desire for boots, "cheap and good." This gross, material man cared, apparently, nothing for the niceties of retail dealing. It was necessary with such an one to come to business with brutal directness. George abandoned "Mr. X," and turning back to a previous page, took a sentence at random. It was not a happy selection; it was a speech that would have been superfluous made to any bootmaker. Under the present circumstances, threatened and stifled as we were on every side by boots, it possessed the dignity of positive imbecilitiy. It ran:- "One has told me that you have here boots for sale."
For the first time the man put down his hammer and chisel, and looked at us. He spoke slowly, in a thick and husky voice. He said:
"What d'ye think I keep boots for--to smell 'em?"
He was one of those men that begin quietly and grow more angry as they proceed, their wrongs apparently working within them like yeast.
"What d'ye think I am," he continued, "a boot collector? What d'ye think I'm running this shop for--my health? D'ye think I love the boots, and can't bear to part with a pair? D'ye think I hang 'em about here to look at 'em? Ain't there enough of 'em? Where d'ye think you are--in an international exhibition of boots? What d'ye think these boots are--a historical collection? Did you ever hear of a man keeping a boot shop and not selling boots? D'ye think I decorate the shop with 'em to make it look pretty? What d'ye take me for--a prize idiot?"
I have always maintained that these conversation books are never of any real use. What we wanted was some English equivalent for the well-known German idiom: "Behalten Sie Ihr Haar auf."
Nothing of the sort was to be found in the book from beginning to end. However, I will do George the credit to admit he chose the very best sentence that was to be found therein and applied it. He said:.
"I will come again, when, perhaps, you will have some more boots to show me. Till then, adieu!"
With that we returned to our cab and drove away, leaving the man standing in the centre of his boot-bedecked doorway addressing remarks to us. What he said, I did not hear, but the passers-by appeared to find it interesting. "

Friday, July 20, 2007

Climate change

Midday 20 July and the sky was dark, rain tipping down. It may as well have been 5pm in October. One of the drains in the road became blocked and soon half of Knightsbridge was awash in a red river of mud, not that it prevented buses, lorries and taxis from charging through the water, much to the pedestrians' horror as their shorts were splattered with the spray. It was only the brand new Mercedes and the cyclists who proceeded with caution. Our sporting porter cleared the drain and two hours later the sun was shining, all was dry and nobody would have believed the earlier drama.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


A Goldman Sachs report says that half of the world's population now lives in cities. The largest at 35m people is greater Tokyo, followed by Mexico City, New York-Newark, San Paolo (home to nearly 10% of the population of Brazil) and Mumbai all between 15-20m. They predict that Mumbai will overtake San Paolo by 2020 and also that Delhi will expand from 15m to 25m. Let's hope the quality of the call centres improves exponentially.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Who can recommend a really good novel to me? I've just finished Restless by William Boyd and Sovereign by C.J.Sanson, both of which were fairly gripping in terms of plot but disappointing in terms of characterisation. The book I read before those was P.G.Woodhouse's The Luck of the Bodkins which is very silly but quite funny. I suppose there's always the new H.P. to look forward to on Saturday.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Call centres

Earlier this month a US technology company decided to close its office in Bangalore and move it back to California because wage inflation made the economics unviable. I am looking forward to the day when call centres for UK companies move back here. It is most annoying not to be able to telephone a bank branch without having to speak to some individual in India first. The time wasted and souring of customer relations must almost outweigh the cost benefits. I was told by a man in Bombay that it is no longer possible to call a local branch of Barclays in the UK. I do not bank there but find it hard to believe that this is really true. Yesterday I rang to change the address on a store card and the automated service gave me various options, including one for notifying a change in address which I pressed. The call was transferred to India and I was first
asked the reason for my call (so much for the option service) and then transferred back to the UK. Such things are sent to try me and succeed in so doing.

Monday, July 16, 2007

St Swithun

Yesterday was St. Swithun's day, patron saint of Winchester. Swithun was Bishop of Winchester from 852-862. The only known miracle he performed during his life was to put back together some broken eggs. He wanted to be buried in the graveyard outside the old Minster, wishes which were respected at the time. After his death, many people reported being healed when visiting his grave and it was decided to build a shrine for him in the Minster as that would be a more suitable pilgrimage site. The date for the translation of his bones was set for 15 July 971. However, on that day there was a terrific storm and they were unable to move him and according to legend the rain persisted for forty days which gave rise to the following rhyme:

St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain.
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain nai mair.

His shrine was moved into the Norman cathedral in 1093, visited by thousands of pilgrims over the following 450 years. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries put an end to that and the monks at St Swithun's monastery which was attached to the Cathedral, hid Swithun's bones which have never been found. Part of him is in East Anglia and part in France but it is unclear to me if those bones were removed at his original disinterment or during Tudor times. Anyway, the site of the shrine remains, empty, in the Cathedral.

It was fine yesterday morning and the Bishop and Dean were on great form but I am sorry to say that there was quite a downpour in the afternoon, and last night, and this morning, so the outlook's not promising. Swithun, I should add, was tutor to King Ethelwulf and to his son King Alfred. In fact one could argue that Swithun made Alfred Great.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Blogger arrested in China

Wang Xiujie, known in blogging circles as Daitou Dage 777, which means "senior big brother" as all schoolchildren learning Mandarin will know, has been arrested. His crime was to have established the most successful stock-tipping blogsite in China, attracting 33m hits. The Chinese press claims he's made a personal fortune of £651,000 from this although that's probably conservative if he's been front-running his tips. No charges have as yet been filed but Shanghai lawyers are looking forward to a benchmark case for "unlicensed activities." It looks as if his seniority's in doubt and that in fact he's junior to the real Big Brother (Mandarin translation's welcome).

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Ed Balls' ideas for yet another rehash of secondary education are depressing. He thinks it should concentrate on the 3 Rs. Sorry, I thought that was the function of primary education? He's still keen on the classics. That's a relief, drumming some Latin into young brains may improve grammar. Oh no - he doesn't mean Classics, he means traditional English literature. He wants to include "personal finance" as a subject, by which he means telling students how to open a bank account. Hello? That takes maximum 30 minutes to explain...He also wants to include cookery, Urdu and Mandarin as mainstream options. I expect those languages will be replacing French and German soon, to the delight of the EU. If they're staying on at school until 18 pupils may be able to learn a few Mandarin characters. Just how much more employable that will make them remains to be seen.

Monday, July 09, 2007


The price of a banana in Zimbabwe now costs more than a 4 bedroom house there did in 2000 (don't ask me what kind of a house). Mugabe ruled that many prices had to be halved a couple of weeks ago but this is causing havoc amongst businesses whose costs have soared. They're either closing down or risking being fined by ignoring the ruling. The press is mooting the possibility of pegging the currency to the rand. I doubt that South Africa's jumping for joy at this option.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Control freaks

Continuing yesterday's theme, the EU's consumer chief, Meglana Kuneva, is proposing that self-extinguishing cigarettes should be made compulsory across Europe. They automatically stop burning after a few seconds if not puffed. I'm not a smoker but the idea of a bunch of bureaucrats telling people how often to have a drag on a cigarette infuriates me!

Thursday, July 05, 2007


Today's FT reports not only that the Inland Revenue is planning to have the right to seize unpaid taxes from individuals' bank accounts but also that the European Commission is proposing to destroy 5% of the vineyards in Europe, namely the small "low quality" producers. The EC is also saying that wine producers should replace sugar with must to reduce the alcohol content. Another day, yet more personal freedom being eroded.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Market myths

The Sage of Omaha, Warren Buffett, was correct in describing CDO (collateralised debt obligation) pricing as "mythical". In recent years there has been an massive increase in debt financing, taking advantage of low interest rates and a myriad of new structures has emerged, embraced by both private equity houses and investment banks and lapped up by hedge funds desperate for higher yields to boost performance. CDOs are the black sheep of the moment. These gather together different types of debt eg leveraged loans and bonds and sell them off in packages. However, these packages are very difficult to value because of the variety of components and the banks issuing them take a yardstick of the credit rating agencies' valuations of each part and calculate the "fair value" accordingly. The slower US housing market is now highlighting the very poor quality of some of these loans and what was seen as fair value a few months ago is now on offer from a couple of distressed hedge funds for a mere 11% of its original price with still no buyers in sight. This is only one "mythical" product. No mention yet of CEDOs (collateralised debt and equity obligations). No wonder bond markets have been sweating and equity markets are still nervous.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Tasty morsels

I spotted the chirpy robin again. This time he was flying towards me from the left with a long worm in his mouth. When he saw me he must have opened his beak in surprise (unless he was replying to my greeting) as the worm dropped into a puddle with a splash. He screeched to the ground just in front of me, the worm wriggling frantically to escape the pool and the predator. I bade him farewell, leaving him to his watery feast.