Thursday, January 31, 2008


It's goodbye to the Italians, the magpies, the 5.30am alarm call and the sales today as I have resigned. It was great fun working here but the commute, although brightened by the company of Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller, Rob Roy etc, was rather an effort and when my old boss offered me a job at his company in Bournemouth, I couldn't really refuse it. So down to the seaside on Monday. I'll report back.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Sand castles

Hilmi Panigoro, head of Indonesia's largest public oil company, Medco, is over the moon: all five of his wells in Libya have struck oil. This is a rags to riches story. He was one of 11 children. His parents owned a fabric shop in Bandung which went bankrupt in the 70s so they sold their house and got a loan to start a printing business. When the father died, Hilmi's eldest brother, Arifin, took over the household and paid for his siblings' education. Hilmi won second prize in a national classical guitar competition and a scholarship to study in Italy but his music teacher advised him to finish his engineering degree instead. Meanwhile Arifin had already graduated in engineering and had started an electrical equipment company. He was doing some repairs on drilling rigs for Pertamina and realised that the oil business was the way forward so he founded an oil drilling company which became Medco. Medco bought various oil fields in Indonesia in the 90s, one of which, on Sumatra, was extremely lucrative: they needed 15m barrels to break even and they found 200m barrels.
Hilmi had been working for 15 years as a geologist in Houston and joined Medco in 1997, the year of the Asian economic crisis. Medco was forced to refinance and sold half its equity to Credit Suisse. Hilmi took over the company from his brother in 2001 and managed to buy back a 34% stake in the company which had been sold on by Credit Suisse. The Indonesian oil industry is maturing so Medco has been venturing into Australia,Libya, Cambodia, Oman, Tunisia and Yemen. The Libyan desert is definitely improving the brothers' spirits and fortunes.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Feathered friends

Lady Thinker was talking about her parliament of rooks the other day ( which made me think of my own feathery friends whom I look out for every weekday morning at about 7.45am when I'm walking down Knightsbridge from Hyde Park Corner. They are a pair of magpies and it is extraordinary to think that whilst they have the whole of Hyde Park in front of them, they choose instead to have their nest high up in a tree on the Knightsbridge pavement. My only explanation is that they are fascinated by the bright headlights of the cars. Anyway, I hear them squawking every morning and have fun trying to spot them as they're out of their nest by that time and usually flying around the surrounding trees on the edge of the park. One is never far from the other. Today I heard their familiar cry as I was walking along and I looked up and saw one on a branch. At first I couldn't see the other but then I spotted him just as he was jumping back into his nest. I never see them at any other times of day so I presume they stick to a strict routine just like Lady T's rooks.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Heaven on earth

During Epiphany all the chairs are removed from the nave of Winchester Cathedral so that the building can be given a good clean and the services are moved to the quire. I was there yesterday, sitting next to the choir for a Mass whose setting was Mozart. At one point only four voices were singing: a choirboy, a tenor, a countertenor and a baritone. I was listening to them, looking down towards the nave where the sun was streaming in, thinking that I was sitting in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, listening to some of the most glorious music on earth and it was one of those exceptional moments in life. How wonderful it would be to be able to store such moments in bottles which could be taken out and re-experienced on duller, darker, gloomier days.

Friday, January 25, 2008

One Man in a Bank

Jerome K's tale of how he lost E5bn for Societe Generale after an argument with his girlfriend must go down as one of the most expensive break-ups in history. He is being described as "a genius of fraud" yet made no money out of it for himself. Facebook, that arbiter of social success, showed that he had 11 friends yesterday morning and none by the end of the day yet this is the man who some say forced the hand of Bernanke and obliged him to cut US interest rates by 0.75%. Jerome is clearly a legend and a man worth knowing.
I went to see The History Boys at the Wyndham last night which was very good. The key message was how important it is to tell young people about poetry, classic songs, films, art and literature which you find moving as, even if they don't appreciate it themselves, they may pass on the information to somebody who does. Pass the parcel of culture down through the generations.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The 3 Ps

Lady Thinker, has sent me a meme about household management. As I'm chained to my desk for most of the week, I'm always short of time when it comes to domestic chores so my main tip is delegation, particularly with regard to polishing, hoovering and ironing. A laundry is very useful for sheets: I've never worked out how to iron sheets without part of them trailing on the floor, gathering dust straightaway; far simpler to collect them pristine and beautifully folded from a laundry.
Cooking and entertaining are more my forte and for these the military tip of "Prior planning and preparation prevent piss poor performance" comes in handy. Menu planning, shopping and making as much as possible in advance all mean than a dinner party is usually a four day event.
Being an office-wallah means that I don't have pets. I do, however, own a stone cat set in a crouching position with glass eyes which is an excellent mouse deterrent. I once came back to a flat where I was living and found a dead mouse six inches in front of the stone cat. It must have had a heart attack. There were mice in my house in Winchester last year and I moved the cat into the dining room. They didn't venture in there after that. (This year I sealed the hole under the oven which was their main port of entry.)
I'm sending this on to Eurodog, Sicily Scene, (both tags on my blog) Swearing Mother ( and Dave Cole (

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The cheerleaders are on hold

I giggled today when I read that, for reasons unknown, North Korea has postponed its first round of talks in 2008 with South Korea. They were supposed to be discussing repairing a cross-border railway as well as, wait for it, transporting a joint cheering squad to the Beijing Olympics. Perhaps it was all too jolly for the North Koreans to stomach. The phrase "cheering squad" has a totalitarian feel to it, rather like "firing squad". It's fascinating to read about what goes on in North Korea, whose government is supported by China, and whose leader visits China in a special train. I remember the previous leader, Kim Il Sung, once receiving the most extraordinary birthday present from the Chinese government: a full length cape made from the feathers of thousands of sparrows.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Game pie

Robert Carrier has some excellent recipes for game pie. I made one on New Year's Eve whose success depended on marinating the game for 12 hours in a mixture of half red wine and half brandy. I tried another yesterday which required no alcohol but was equally good. Mince some pork and veal. Mix them together with seasoning, parsley, marjoram and thyme. Line a pie die with half of the mince, put some chopped pheasant/partridge/whatever you like on top, then add a layer of cubed bacon. Repeat the three layers, moisten with beef stock, cover with some shortcrust pastry coated with beaten egg and leave in the oven at 190 degrees for an hour and a quarter. Yummy!

Friday, January 18, 2008


Today I heard of a conversation with a Texan oil producer. He didn't want to invest in oil wells in the US or the North Sea at the moment. Russia, the Middle East and Africa are off-limits for him. He's sitting on cash and hoping that his company will be taken over. The problem is that the oil companies which have cash are situated outside the US and are not allowed to invest in the US oil industry. There is labour and technology in America and capital in the Middle East but no deals can be done because of capital controls and regulations.
There has been a huge transfer of wealth from energy consuming countries to the energy producers, namely $3 trillion between 2002-07. The top six energy consumers account for two-thirds of global energy demand, namely, the US, the EU, China, Japan, Korea and India.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Pickwick Papers

is keeping me greatly amused at the moment. It was Dickens' first novel, published in 1837 when he was 24 and catapulted him to fame. Its humour largely derives from farcical situational comedy but there is also some excellent dialogue. Take this exchange between Mr Pickwick and his manservant Sam Weller when Sam is describing his earlier career:
"...I had unfurnished lodgin's for a fortnight"
"Unfurnished lodgings?" said Mr Pickwick.
"Yes - the dry arches of Waterloo Bridge. Fine sleeping place - vithin ten minutes' walk of all the public offices - only if there is any objection to it, it is that the situation's rayther too airy. I see some queer sights there."
"Ah, I suppose you did," said Mr Pickwick with an air of considerable interest.
"Sights, Sir," resumed Mr Weller, "as 'ud penetrate your benevolent heart, and come out the other side. You don't see the reg'lar wagrants there; trust 'em, they knows better than that. Young beggars, male and female, as hasn't made a rise in their profession, takes up their quarters there sometimes; but it's generally the worn-out, starving, houseless creeturs as rolls themselves up in the dark corners o' them lonesome places - poor creeturs as an't up to the twopenny rope."
"And pray Sam, what is the twopenny rope?" inquired Mr Pickwick.
"The twopenny rope, Sir, " replied Mr Weller, "is just a cheap lodgin' house, vere the beds is twopence a night."
"What do you call a bed a rope for?" said Mr Pickwick.
"Bless your innocence, Sir, that an't it, "replied Sam. "Ven the lady and gen'lm'n as keeps the Hot-el, first begun business, they used to make the beds on the floor; but this wouldn't do at no price, 'cos instead o' taking a moderate twopenn'orth o' sleep, the lodgers used to lie there half the day. So now they has two ropes, 'bout six feet apart, and three from the floor, which goes right down the room; and the beds are made of slips of coarse sacking, stretched across 'em."
"Well," said Mr Pickwick.
"Well," said Mr Weller, "the adwantage o' the plan's hobvious. At six o'clock every mornin', they lets go the ropes at one end, and down falls all the lodgers. 'Consequence is, that being thoroughly waked, they get up wery quietly and walk away!"

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Death is a safe haven

In these treacherous times for bond managers, two areas which have been performing well are death and cat bonds. "Death" or "mortality" bonds pay as much as 5% over LIBOR unless a pandemic or other event raises mortality rates in a given population by a specified amount such as 20% or more. In that case the interest and capital revert to the insurer to pay claims. A Swiss fund manager says his death bonds rose 7.6% last year and that the kind of event needed to trigger the bonds would have involved so many deaths that he wasn't sure he'd have survived it himself. "Cat" or "catastrophe" bonds are tied to natural disasters and there has only ever been one default: Hurricane Katrina which struck New Orleans in 2005, triggering $41bn of insurance claims. Cat bonds returned around 16% last year.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One man's meat is another man's poison

Eurodog has been pointing out the evils of reusing medical devices and she reminded me of another "recycling" episode which happened to my Dutch colleague from Paribas. He had gone on holiday alone to Indonesia and was taking a ferry from Bali to Lombok. A techtonic plate lies under the straits between these islands and the sea can sometimes become very choppy. The other hazard is that Indonesia makes economies by buying ferries which are being retired by wealthier nations.
The first part of the voyage went well. Halfway across the straits, the wind got up, the waves followed suit and the old ferry was riding up wave after wave and belly flopping down the other side. The passengers were alarmed, even more so when the back doors sprang open and the water surged in. People grabbed brooms in a panic, frantically brushing out the water whilst others were being seasick. Arjen assisted the men in trying to close the doors. "If I die here," he thought, "Nobody will know what happened to me. I shall simply be a missing person." Fortunately they managed to close the doors and reach Lombok in safety. Arjen was so relieved that he decided to book into an expensive hotel to soothe his nerves. He switched on the television: it was the tail end of the news and to his suprise he saw the outside of our office in London on the screen. He had to wait for the next news cycle to discover why: we were merging with BNP. "Great!" he thought. "On this day, not only have I nearly lost my life, I've almost certainly also lost my job." In fact, he was wrong about that.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The advance of science

Yesterday we heard that only 13 people in a million in the UK donate organs on their death and that Gordon Brown is urging more people to sign donor cards and to inform their relations so that lives of younger people may be saved. Today we read that scientists have successfully transplanted cells from the hearts of young rats and have created a beating heart. Bill Weldon, the head of Johnson & Johnson, says that there is huge scope for medical devices. He thinks that in the future a surgeon will be able to operate a medical device remotely so that you could be operated on in London by a surgeon in Edinburgh. It sounds rather alarming but I suppose Iraqis have been killed by drones being operated from Nevada. Maybe they could then operate on the people accidently wounded by the drones?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Nuclear power

The CEO of EDF is very excited about the prospect of more nuclear power stations being built in the UK. 80% of France's electricity is generated by nuclear power. The sites being mooted for the new power stations here are Hinkley Point, Dungeness, Bradwell and Sizewell. The problem is the waste. At the moment, the waste is "temporarily" being stored at Sellafield in Cumbria and the government has a policy of building a long-term underground storage facility which many thought would be near Sellafield. If the new power stations are sited in the south, the waste will have to be transported across the country which is not popular. Why not simply do a deal with EDF? They get the contracts on the south coast on condition that they transport the waste back to France and bury it there?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ditties and dollars

Earlier this week we were being reminded of the "lyrical terrorist". Today Hillary Clinton repeats, "You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose." The reality is that cash is what counts in American campaigning. Both Obama and Clinton have raised a record-breaking $100m for their campaigns and Obama received another $0.5m after his narrow defeat in New Hampshire. One wonders whether $100m wouldn't be more than sufficient to ensure a double Clinton-Obama ticket but I suppose that is the point, Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton. Anyway, it's a relief that we don't run political campaigns like that over here. Far simpler to give donations and be rewarded a title or, in the case of Stuart Rose, get a title and then announce a profit warning.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Scholar Gypsy

If you're looking for a Victorian slant to the day, here's an extract from Matthew Arnold's poem (whose lines I've moved around):

And thou from earth art gone
Long since and in some quiet churchyard laid;
Some country nook, where o'er thy unknown grave
Tall grasses and white flowering nettles wave—
Under a dark red-fruited yew-tree's shade...

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
Before this strange disease of modern life,
With its sick hurry, its divided aims...

we others pine,
And wish the long unhappy dream would end,
And waive all claim to bliss, and try to bear;
With close-lipped patience for our only friend,
Sad patience, too near neighbour to despair-
But none has hope like thine!
Thou through the fields and through the woods dost stray,
Roaming the countryside, a truant boy,
Nursing thy project in unclouded joy,
And every doubt long blown by time away.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Blogger arrested in Saudi Arabia

Fouad al-Farhan has not been seen by his family since 10 December when security agents marched into his office in Jeddah, took him back to his house and drove away with him and his laptop. They acknowledged on 31 December that he'd been arrested. He's 32 and blogged in his real name, in Arabic, discussing politics and society in Saudi Arabia.

It's just not cricket

The problems besetting India's cricket tour of Australia make painful reading. It's a shame that insults have become the norm in international matches and that the age of sportsmanship seems to be over. David Milliband said on Channel 4 news last night that he thought the Zimbabweans should not be allowed to tour England this year. That is sad too, in my view. Why should politics interfere with sport?

Monday, January 07, 2008


The lovely Liz who gave me such useful advice on this blog when I was in Australia, persuaded me to go to the Olivier Messiaen concert last night at Winchester Cathedral which Sarah Baldock, the Assistant Director of Music who's sadly leaving us for Chichester in April, had been working on for a year with Sophie Hacker, the artist who's married to Canon Roly Riem. The organ piece which Sarah and Andrew Lumsden played alternately was La Nativite du Seigneur which is divided into nine sections: the Virgin and child, the shepherds, eternal designs, the Word, the children of God, the angels, Jesus accepts sufferings, the Magi and God amongst us. Sophie had designed a piece of art representing each section, in 3D using a wide variety of materials and Roly had composed a meditation appropriate to each theme.
We looked at the art beforehand and then sat in the nave where there was a screen. Roly began with the first meditation, the organ music began and the first piece of art, the Virgin and child, appeared on the screen. KMB Productions had made a film of Sophie's art in a very clever way. Instead of the picture being static on the film, the camera zoomed in to minute details of the painting and so, whilst listening to the organ, one could really think about the art work and see aspects which would scarcely have been noticed looking around the exhibition before the concert began. Faces of the shepherds and the wise men and nails on the cross seemed to stare out at us from the screen whereas when we'd first seen the paintings they'd seemed to be abstract. The richness of the materials came over brilliantly and all kinds of figures appeared to come forth from the mottled paint. I would have thought that a 2D representation of the work would not do it justice but in fact it enhanced it.

Friday, January 04, 2008

L'entente cordiale

Jane is on my mind as we're going on our annual visit to the pantomime tomorrow with her children. A few years ago she was feeling very stressed so we decided that a weekend in the South of France without her husband and children would be a good idea. We flew to Nice, hired a car and our plan for the Saturday night was to have dinner at Le Cagnard in Haut de Cagnes and then whizz off to Monte Carlo to see if we could break the bank at the casino. Haut de Cagnes is a mediaeval hill top village and visitors have to park their cars at the bottom and walk up. We did this, had a jolly dinner without much wine as we were mindful of our post-prandial expedition. We went back to our car at around 11.30pm to find that one side of it was completely caved in and the wing mirror lying in the road. There was a note (from "le temoin" as Jane called him) on the windscreen saying that a bus had gone up the narrow street illegally and had caused the damage to our car and the man had written down the number of the bus, the time of the accident and his name and phone number. The car wouldn't start so we called the roadside assistance number. It started to rain. The assistance arrived at 1am and started the car virtually immediately, by which time we didn't feel great enthusiasm for a spin on the roulette wheel and went back to our hotel for a quick game of backgammon instead.
We were going back to England on the Sunday evening and we thought we'd better get to the airport in good time to explain the sorry state of the car. When we arrived, they asked for the police report. We didn't have one. Then the insurance was invalid, they said. Jane established that the nearest police station was at Terminal One so we drove there and she went to get a posthumous police report. This was not possible, the police said. A report must be done at the time of an accident. She showed them the note from le temoin. She pleaded in her excellent French. Her persuasion was such that she dictated the police report to one of the officers who wrote it down verbatim. We drove back to the car return, presented the report, dashed to the check-in, just made the plane and the damage was covered by the insurance. That girl Jane really is brilliant, you know, and she called le temoin from England to thank him for his consideration.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Driving lessons

I was reminded this morning of my friend Jane's early attempts to drive a car. Her motoring career did not start auspiciously. The car was parked at the back of her parents' house and her brother was giving her a driving lesson. "Switch on the engine and put the car into reverse gear," he said, "Then depress the accelerator slowly and take your foot off the clutch whilst keeping an eye on the wall in the driving mirror and go backwards slowly." Jane was concentrating on the view in the mirror and she saw that the trees in the garden were getting smaller not larger. The car had started forwards with a jolt as she'd mistaken reverse for first gear and they hurtled forwards through the French windows of her parents' sitting room. Here sister had never got out of an armchair so speedily.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Credit crunch

The headline of today's FT is not cheerful: "Outlook worst since dotcom burst" and it has a good article comparing the Japanese banking crisis of the 1990s with America's today. Both were triggered by a credit shock. Japan's resulted in losses of $700bn. The Fed's initial estimate of US losses was $50bn but with defaults rising and property prices falling, most investment banks reckon the subprime losses will be between $200bn-$400bn. In addition, there are defaults on credit cards and commercial property loans and many bankers believe that the total carnage will amount to $400bn-$800bn.
There are two more problems. One is that with the massive growth in the debt markets, many of those bad sub-prime loans were bundled into bonds and derivatives and sold on to foreign banks, asset managers and governments so it is a global problem, not one confined to the USA. The other is that in the good old days, banks used to hold an ounce of gold or other tangible asset to back each bank note. This practice was abandoned long ago so if all the depositors of a bank asked for their money back, it would not be able to repay every one of them.
London Scottish Bank is the latest one to be in trouble. Its CEO said, "This is not another Northern Rock situation...we have a very strong balance sheet." He then says that the reason for that is that it is impossible for the 10,000 retail depositors to withdraw their money as they are locked into fixed-term high interest bonds. Oh well, that's fine then, isn't it?