Friday, August 31, 2007

Market forces

To risk boring my non-financial readers, there's a brilliant letter in today's FT from a true Republican called Dimitri Triantafyllides, which derides Barack Obama's solution to the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. Obama has proposed that unscrupulous mortgage lenders should be fined. Mr Triantafyllides makes an analogy of buying a car for his son and essentially arbitraging his son's bad credit with his own good credit. If his son defaults on the repayments to his father, why should the son keep the asset and the father be fined? The letter ends, "Washington needs to allow people and companies to face their responsibilities as adults, not children."

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The value of art

There has been much press about Damien Hirst's $100m skull. The diamonds cost $24m so his return on investment is just over 4 times, critics say, which is nothing compared to the ROI on Van Gogh's portrait of Dr Gachet where the costs were paint and canvas and which sold for $117m in 1990 (ok, it wasn't in his lifetime).
Do you remember the story of Saatchi buying the head made of frozen blood for his new wife, Nigella Lawson? He thought it was be a good joke not to tell her about it and to put it in the freezer in their kitchen so that she'd have a shock when she came to prepare dinner. However, the builders were working on their house and they switched off the electricity so Nigella came home to find a stream of blood emanating from the freezer onto the kitchen floor. Rather a waste of £25,000.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The demon drink

My friend who owned a small part of Spandau prison has drunk himself to death, aged 44. I've been reading Voltaire's Candide which is a good thing to do if you're feeling miserable. The characters encounter disaster after disaster, each one worse than the one before. Candide's beloved, Cunegonde, does not believe that the old woman who has become her servant could possibly have had a worse life than hers. "I am afraid, my good woman," she says, "that unless you have been raped by two Bulgars, stabbed twice in the stomach, had two of your castles demolished, seen two mothers' and two fathers' throats slit before your very eyes, and watched two of your lovers being flogged at an auto-de-fe, then I don't see you bettering me. Added to which, I was born a Baroness with seventy-two heraldic quarterings and yet I have been a cook." Of course the old woman could better Cunegonde: she had been born a princess, had suffered far worse misfortunes including having one of her buttocks sliced off and ended up as a servant.

Friday, August 24, 2007


A friend has just forwarded this letter to me:

Rt Hon David Miliband MP
Secretary of State,
Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA),
Nobel House
17 Smith Square

19th June 2007

Dear Secretary of State,

My friend, who is in farming at the moment, recently received a cheque for £3,000 from the Rural Payments Agency for not rearing pigs. I would now like to join the "not rearing pigs" business.
In your opinion, what is the best kind of farm not to rear pigs on, and which is the best breed of pigs not to rear? I want to be sure I approach this endeavour in keeping with all government policies, as dictated by the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy.
I would prefer not to rear bacon pigs, but if this is not the type you want not rearing, I will just as gladly not rear porkers. Are there any advantages in not rearing rare breeds such as Saddlebacks or Gloucester Old Spots, or are there too many people already not rearing these?
As I see it, the hardest part of this programme will be keeping an accurate record of how many pigs I haven't reared. Are there any Government or Local Authority courses on this?
My friend is very satisfied with this business. He has been rearing pigs for forty years or so, and the best he ever made on them was £1,422 in 1968. That is - until this year, when he received a cheque for not rearing any.
If I get £3,000 for not rearing 50 pigs, will I get £6,000 for not rearing 100? I plan to operate on a small scale at first, holding myself down to about 4,000 pigs not raised, which will mean about £240,000 for the first year. As I become more expert in not rearing pigs, I plan to be more ambitious, perhaps increasing to, say, 40,000 pigs not reared in my second year, for which I should expect about £2.4 million from your department. Incidentally, I wonder if I would be eligible to receive tradable carbon credits for all these pigs not producing harmful and polluting methane gases?
Another point: These pigs that I plan not to rear will not eat 2,000 tonnes of cereals. I understand that you also pay farmers for not growing crops. Will I qualify for payments for not growing cereals to not feed the pigs I don't rear?
I am also considering the "not milking cows" business, so please send any information you have on that too. Please could you also include the current Defra advice on set aside fields? Can this be done on an e-commerce basis with virtual fields (of which I seem to have several thousand hectares)?
In view of the above you will realise that I will be totally unemployed, and will therefore qualify for unemployment benefits.
I shall of course be voting for your party at the next general election.

Yours faithfully,

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Earlier this week there was a huge fire in a fortunately empty flat across the road from our office. Flames and this black smoke belched out, Knightsbridge was closed and it took the fire brigade two hours to extinguish it. It brought to mind a fire which had occurred when I was at Cambridge. Two of my friends (Tim and Tim), in their final year at St.John's, shared a set of rooms on the ground floor next to the Cam. One of their friends in who'd graduated the previous year, had lent them his uncle's collection of animal heads and the sitting room was resplendent with a fierce leopard, an antelope and a boar as well as a couple of oil paintings loaned by the college. Anyway, Tim 1, who had rather a penchant for fine wine, fell asleep in an armchair at about 1am , cigarette still lit and the smoke and heat resulting from this unfortunate event soon awoke him from his slumber. Tim 2 was asleep in bed and as his bedroom was next to the river and the college didn't want undergraduates getting up to high jinx and jumping into the river, there were bars on the window and the only way out was through the sitting room. Tim 1 saved Tim 2's life. The notes for their Finals were destroyed, however, as was the set of rooms which were thick with charcoal and stank of destruction. All that remained were the skulls of the animals on the walls and the blackened frames of the paintings whose canvasses had gone up in smoke.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Roll on Saturday...

Saturday will be the first day after St Swithun's 40 days of rain curse. I suppose rain's better than drought but it really has been a depressing summer.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Bill Deedes

Of the many anecdotes about him, one of my favourites is the one about his driving test. He began driving before the mandatory test was introduced and decided on his 90th birthday that he would take the test and see how it went. Afterwards he asked the driving instructor what he thought. "I have two comments," the instructor replied. "When overtaking, it is customary to signal first, to look in the mirror and, if nothing is coming, to overtake. You, on the other hand, pull out first, then signal and then look in the mirror at the havoc which you have created. Secondly, you drive far too fast when turning left and you turn in such a way that you seem to expect a lorry to be parked around the corner." "Well," replied Deedes, "I live in Kent which used to be the garden of England but since the Channel Tunnel was built, has been the main thoroughfare for all goods travelling to and from the Continent so parked lorries are no surprise to me!"

Monday, August 20, 2007

Two countries divided by a language

One of the Americans at the wedding last weekend was telling me about "going round Buckingham." It was only when she mentioned that she had to keep gasping for breath out of the windows (post hen night) that I realised that she was talking about Buckingham Palace.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Second marriages

I'm not in tomorrow as I'm going to the rehearsal of my American friend, Carter's wedding: I'm giving one of the readings. She's from San Francisco and met her English fiance at a wedding which she attended one month after she'd arrived in England for a "short stint" for work 5 years ago. I first met Carter at the San Francisco University Club in 2001. That was the beginning of many adventures, one of the first being when she was driving us out of the city (SF) one Friday evening, the roof of her soft-top down. She handed me a bottle of wine and two plastic cups which we were to enjoy en route. This course of action does not go down well with American police and we were stopped. This did not dampen Carter's spirits, however. She flashed her brilliant smile, gave the policeman a $50 bill, assured him we were not intending to enjoy the wine until we'd arrived at our destination and drove on.
The last second marriage I attended was when a couple I know re-married each other. I was asked to make an impromptu speech (why do people always pick on me?) and began with, "Some of us here have a sense of deja-vu..."
Carter's father is under strict instructions not to mention her first marriage.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Associations of inanimate objects with their owners can add hugely to their value. Think how much a football shirt worn by David Beckham makes at auction compared to one bought off the shelf. Presumably that shirt is unwashed, so the difference in price is the value of David Beckham's sweat. One of the Queen's most prized possessions, apparently, is a shirt which belonged to Charles I (I'm not sure if it was the shirt which he wore to his execution). A friend of mine owns a small piece of tarnished metal. You or I may just throw it on the scrap heap. He knows its past, however: it was the flap used by Rudolf Hess to get the attention of his guards in Spandau prison.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I have a confession to make: I am a technological dinosaur. Eurodog has very kindly given me a blogging award but I have not the faintest idea how to publish it on my site. Mr Zip, that great painter from the north, ( also promoted my site and to my shame I didn't get round to completing the questions he posed. My excuse is that I have to steal a few minutes here and there in the office, whilst screens may be going ballistic around me, particularly in the last few weeks. That's also why my blog is often dull and relates to matters financial and why there are no photos unless I have a couple of hours to spare at the weekend. Anyway, enough of my woes. I enjoy all the blogs on my blogroll. I like chatting to King Lear and to my Welsh reader who often gets very frustrated with me, particularly regarding politics. I love Sicily Scene's blog with her beautiful photos. I like Wife in the North. Beautiful Revolution usually makes me smile. I also often read Braveheart does the Maghreb and Mutterings and Meanderings, as well as Mary quite contrary. All these sites have been given many awards already. Anyway, this is a weak tribute from a poor blogger.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Strawberries and cream

One of my Italian colleagues was collecting his daughter from summer school in Newbury on Saturday and he came over for lunch with his three children, two of whom had never been to England before. I have learned my lesson with children's eating habits in the past. They have turned up their noses at poached salmon and new potatoes and sat dolefully picking at lettuce leaves. Pudding has never been a problem, however. I asked my colleague what they liked. "Keep it simple," he advised, "burgers and chips always go down well." In the end, bearing in mind that it was a very warm day, the table was set with a variety of salads: chicken salad, rice salad, tomato salad, green salad, smoked salmon and, to make them feel at home, a large plate of various salami and some ciabatta and these were largely well received. I'd put together a red fruit salad and cream for pudding. Marco, aged 8, piled into a large helping of fruit with no cream at first. He was then persuaded to try a little and he pushed his fruit over to one side of the bowl and poured a little cream into the other side. He returned for second, third and fourth helpings. He then asked if he could have a fifth helping. That consisted of no fruit, just double cream.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Body and soul

I very much enjoyed the Philip Pullman Dark Materials books and the Harry Potters, particularly the first one which I devoured in two hours in a cafe on a sunny Saturday morning in San Francisco. Both authors discuss the idea of the representation of the soul outside the body in the form of an animal. James Frazer writes about this ancient and widespread idea in The Golden Bough. Many tribes believed that whilst a person's asleep, the soul wanders from the body and actually participates in what the body dreams of. One story is that a man fell asleep and was very thirsty so his soul left his body, took the form of a lizard and entered a pitcher of water to drink. Just then, the owner of the pitcher put a lid on it so the soul could not return to its body and the man died. When his friends were preparing to burn the body, somebody uncovered the pitcher to get some water. The lizard then jumped out, returned to the body and the man came back to life, saying that he'd been dreaming of being stuck down a well.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Sex in the city

Just to appease one of my readers....One of my old colleagues, a trader at Paribas, was rather keen on a very pretty secretary who worked in a department on the floor above ours. One day they went out for lunch and returned after quite a long time, rather worse for wear. The girl's boss was unamused to find her quite incapable of any sensible work that afternoon and demanded to know with whom she'd been lunching. We were busy with phones and screens and hadn't noticed that anything was amiss with our trader until a man from HR appeared, tapped the trader on the shoulder and asked him if he'd been drinking. The giveaway clue was that he promptly fell off his chair. He was then asked to leave the office, which he was loathe to do. In the end he was persuaded and he was escorted to the main reception. He then had a bold idea, hurdled the turnstiles and ran up the escalator back to his desk, to the amusement of the trading floor. The amusement was short-lived, however, and five minutes later two security guards arrived and frogmarched him out of the building. He never returned.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

City flats

A friend was telling me last night that 30% of flats in the centre of Sheffield are empty. City flats have been the object of much speculation from the Irish who've been borrowing in Euros and buying in the UK, and from investment clubs. He reckons that prices will have to halve before they can find tenants.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Transparency and openness are words of the modern era, underpinned by the general belief that democracy is the best form of government. One institution which prefers to remain opaque is the Federal Reserve which has been discussing for over a year how to improve communications. Last week Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the European Central Bank, held a press conference to try to calm nerves amidst the markets' collapse. Ben Bernanke, however, remained silent: apparently the Fed believed that any reassuring statement could have in fact panicked investors even more as it would have been such an extraordinary event. The Fed is the only central bank amongst the Group of Seven not to hold regular press conferences. Today it's going to make an announcement about interest rates, which will almost certainly stay at 5.25%, and we're waiting to see what comments it makes about the economy. Bernanke's cautious about saying anything after remarks he'd made at a drinks party last year were misinterpreted, leaked to the press and caused a huge drop in the bond market.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Keep it in the family

Radio 4 yesterday was talking about the influence of family and friends on a young person's choice of career. Bermondsey, a sociologist said, used to be inhabited by families of dockers and when they left, they were replaced by families of criminals. A criminologist from Oxford University backed her up, saying that that crime does run in families, particularly in Calabria and Naples where there's a very low conviction rate as the families don't break ranks. Sicily, he said, was different: the mafia network there is structured on an individual rather than a family basis (the mafia is one's second family, or first, depending on how you look at it). This reminded me of an anecdote about Silvio Berlusconi. He was introducing his new Party chief in Sicily to a large delegation. "I have great pleasure in the appointment of Signor X here in Sicily and...let me tell you something...he really has his hands in the pasta..." At this stage there was a gasp from the crowd as this phrase has mafioso connotations in Italian. Berlusconi went on, "...he's a gynecologist!"

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Ice lolly

The Russian explorer Artur Chilingarov has reached the North Pole and his expedition is planning to dive down to the seabed and plant the Russian flag, thereby claiming the Lomonosov Ridge as Russian territory. This Ridge stretches from Greenland to Siberia and is believed to contain vast reserves of oil and minerals. It seems such an outdated idea that a flag in the ground can represent national territory, one reminiscent of colonial days which was an era Putin was pooh-poohing only last week. Obviously colonialism is fine for Russia. If Denmark were doing this, I'm sure Putin would be on his high horse. Anyway, there's no internationally accepted sovereign claim to the North Pole. Russia, Canada, USA, Denmark and Norway have made claims to the Arctic based on the Law of the Sea which cedes each country a 200 mile economic zone around the coast but the closest land to the North Pole is Greenland which is outside the zone at 440 miles away and and the UN rejected the last Russian claim to it in 2002. Imagine what the environmentalists would say if Russia started blowing up the underwater ridge: more floods in Tewkesbury would be the least of it.