Friday, January 29, 2010


I always buy a Poinsettia before Christmas and when it wilts in January, I replace it with a sequence of hyacinth bulbs. The scent of the hyacinths lifts my spirits when I enter the house. This year, unusually, the Poinsettia remains robust and reigns over the dining room whilst the hyacinths are beginning to sweeten the hall. I was idly wondering whether the dream of keeping the Poinsettia going until next Christmas could be a remote possibility and found this advice on the internet:

Poinsettia is a native of Mexico, so it is likely that because of our reduced light levels in this country your plant will get some yellowing and leaf fall. To keep the plant in good condition do not let temperatures fall below 13°C (55°F). Place in a well lit location. Water thoroughly but wait until the compost is quite dry before watering again. Overwatering is the most common cause of failure in poinsettia.
To make the plant bloom again for next Christmas, in early spring, cut back the stems to 10cm (4in). Keep the compost almost dry, place in a cool shady position. In early May, water and re-pot the plant, shoots will then soon appear. Remove some of the new shoots to leave 4-5 stems

As the plant requires careful light control to make the plant bloom again, in September cover the plant with a black polythene bag from early evening until the next morning so the plant is in total darkness for 14 hours. Continue daily for eight weeks, then treat as normal and hopefully the plant should flower for next Christmas time.

It sounds a lot of hassle but I'll try it.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Some people are more equal than others

A gem from yesterday's Prime Minister's Question Time where Harriet Harman stood in for GB:

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The Business Secretary once famously remarked that Labour was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Is the right hon. and learned Lady equally relaxed about how the Prime Minister’s predecessor has decided to go about it?

Ms Harman: We have asked the National Equality Panel to look at how we can ensure that we help social mobility and—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I want to hear the answer.

Ms Harman: We are determined to ensure that there is social mobility, and one of the important findings of the NEP report is that more unequal societies have less social mobility, which is why we are determined, with Government action, to continue to support policies that spread fairness and equality.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poem of the day

I shall miss you so much when I’m dead

The loveliest of smiles The softness of your body in our bed

My everlasting bride

Remember that when I am dead

You are forever alive in my heart and my head

Harold Pinter to his wife Antonia Fraser

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Deadly gymnastics

There has been a drama at the gym in Bournemouth. A 60 year old man had a heart attack whilst exercising, an ambulance was called and very sadly he died in hospital. The staff at the gym, however, were unaware that the man's wife was in an exercise class there at the time and so she had no idea of her husband's plight. Our office has been preparing its annual "Disaster Recovery Plan" and, mindful of this, our office manager asked the receptionist at the gym two days after this tragedy if they had the correct emergency contact details for her. "I've no idea," replied the receptionist, "we don't have that information on our system."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Joke of the day

What's the difference between a pigeon and a banker?

A pigeon can leave a deposit on a Ferrari.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Oh bummer!

The timing of Obama's statement about separating the commercial and more speculative activities of American banks was awful. He should have announced this months ago. To make such a statement, with no details, at the end of a week which saw him losing one of the safest Democrat seats in the country, probably having to shelve his healthcare bill and looking foolish when Goldman Sachs announced big bonuses along with a record profit of $13.4bn in 2009, simply highlights his weakness in rushing for any political capital he can get.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Queen Eadgyth

Archaeologists claim to have found the remains of Alfred the Great's granddaughter, Eadgyth (Edith), wrapped in silk in a lead coffin in Magdeburg Cathedral in Germany. She lived from 910-946, was given in marriage to Otto, Duke of Saxony in 929 and bore him two children. She became Queen of the Germans after Otto's coronation in Aachen in 936. Otto outlived Eadgyth by 27 years. He married Adelaide of Italy, the widow of the king of Italy, in 952. In 962 he was crowned the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Out of control

Reading the details of Japan Airlines' $25bn (gross debt) bankruptcy is illuminating. The company's problems stem from its piling into resorts, golf courses and shopping centres in the 80s before the property market crash. Although it's been making losses for 18 years, it was still giving top executives $1m retirement bonuses. Maybe all that blue sky addled their brains? Then there's the scandal of the Spanish air controllers who force the government into crazy pay deals by going on strike. According to the BBC, some of these chaps are earning £800,000 by tripling their pay from overtime work. Makes you wonder if they're sufficiently alert to guide the planes properly.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Here's a creation in my garden last week together with its creator. All that remains is an eighth of its body.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Myth of the day

Phineas who lived in Salmydessus on the Black Sea, was said to be the son of Poseidon and had the gift of prophesy. Zeus was furious that Phineas was revealing too much of the gods' plans and decided to punish him. He blinded him and put him on an island with a banquet of food. Phineas, however, could not eat any of the food as the moment he picked it up, it was taken out of his hands by harpies. Jason and the Argonauts came to Phineas' rescue. They persuaded the Boreads, the sons of the North Wind, to chase away the harpies, who never came back. To repay Jason for his kindness, Phineas told him the secret of how to get the Argo through the Symplegades (rocks at the Bosphorus which clashed together randomly, causing many shipwrecks).

Friday, January 15, 2010

UK debt

Apologies for continuing with the sovereign debt theme but McKinsey has written a paper entitled, "Debt and Deleveraging: The Global Credit Bubble and its Economic Consequences" in which it estimates that the UK has the highest leverage in the Western world. It reckons that the gross level of British private and public debt is 4.5x larger than the country's GDP!

Thursday, January 14, 2010


There's a major row going on in Argentina where President Cristina Fernandez is desperate to regain access to capital markets for her country, eight years after the largest sovereign debt default in history ($100bn). Argentina now has $20bn debt and President Fernandez wants to repay $6.5bn of that, using funds from the central bank. However, the central bank governor, Martin Redrado, refused this request. The President was so annoyed by this that she fired him and issued a Presidential decree authorising the use of reserves to repay debt. Unfortunately for her, both these actions were overturned by injunctions, leaving the President's authority in limbo, and Redrado back in his job. The government will fight its case in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile Argentine bond prices have dived 10%.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Christmas rose

Snowy scenes from my garden this morning

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


My commute is being greatly enhanced by my nephew's Christmas present: Joseph Heller's Catch-22 on cd. I started the book many years ago but gave up on it. Listening to it is joy: Heller's cynicism buoys the spirits and he can be quite witty eg "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. Major Major managed all three." Heller was once told by an interviewer that he'd never written anything as good as Catch-22 and Heller replied, "Who has?"

Monday, January 11, 2010

Viennese whirl

We were treated to a marvellous Viennese concert at Winchester Cathedral yesterday, spearheaded by that brilliant operatic couple Mr & Mrs Gadd aka Stephen Gadd and Claire Rutter. The performances of the overture to Die Fledermauss, the Blue Danube and Wiener Blut Waltz by the Southern Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, warmed the heart on a freezing evening and the renditions of Lehar's "On my Lips Every Kiss is like Wine" and Millocker's "Dunkelrote Rosen" by Rutter and Gadd were amusing and touching. The only disappointment was the lack of orchestral jokes in the Tritsch Tratsch Polka which surely would have enhanced the concert had it been staged in Vienna.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Nowhere Boy

I went to see Nowhere Boy, the beautifully filmed story of John Lennon's last years at school directed by Sam Taylor-Wood. It's an amazing tale. JL (Aaron Johnson) had been taken away from his mother at the age of 5 and was brought up by his aunt and uncle. In his teens he met his real mother and used to go round to her house when he'd been suspended from school. It was she who introduced him to rock'n'roll and taught him to play the guitar. The tensions between the aunt and mother are very well acted by Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff. Paul McCartney is hilarious in the form of Thomas Sangster (who played one of the children in Love Actually) and it was interesting to learn that he taught JL the nuances of the chords and notes within the guitar.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Latest International Terrorism Threat Levels

A dear friend who's snowed in in the Highlands sent me this:

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist threats and have raised their security level from "Miffed" to "Peeved." Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to "Irritated" or even "A Bit Cross." The English have not been "A Bit Cross" since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from "Tiresome" to a "Bloody Nuisance." The last time the British issued a "Bloody Nuisance" warning level was during the great fire of 1666.

The Scots raised their threat level from "Pissed Off" to "Let's get the Bastards" They don't have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line in the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from "Run" to "Hide". The only two higher levels in France are "Collaborate" and "Surrender." The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France 's white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country's military capability.

It's not only the French who are on a heightened level of alert. Italy has increased the alert level from "Shout loudly and excitedly" to "Elaborate Military Posturing." Two more levels remain: "Ineffective Combat Operations" and "Change Sides."

The Germans also increased their alert state from "Disdainful Arrogance" to "Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs." They also have two higher levels: "Invade a Neighbour" and "Lose".

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual, and the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Americans meanwhile and as usual are carrying out pre-emptive strikes, on all of their allies, just in case.

And in the southern hemisphere... New Zealand has also raised its security levels - from "baaa" to "BAAAA!". Due to continuing defence cutbacks (the air force being a squadron of spotty teenagers flying paper aeroplanes and the navy some toy boats in the Prime Minister's bath), New Zealand only has one more level of escalation, which is "Shit, I hope Australia will come and rescue us".
Australia , meanwhile, has raised its security level from "No worries" to "She'll be right, mate". Three more escalation levels remain: "Crikey!', "I think we'll need to cancel the barbie this weekend" and "The barbie is cancelled". So far no situation has ever warranted use of the final escalation level.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


The massive demand for tickets to see Blair giving evidence at the Iraq War inquest reminds me of the quip by Winston Churchill when invited to address a large crowd at a political meeting. The woman who was to introduce him onto the stage asked him, "Doesn't it thrill you Mr. Churchill, to see all those people out there who came just to listen to you?"
Churchill replied, "It is very flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I were being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big."

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Rusal roulette

Oleg Deripaska, that well known friend of Peter Mandelson and George Osborne, has managed to get round Hong Kong Stock Exchange regulations and will float 10.6% of his US$26bn company Rusal in Hong Kong this month. Hong Kong normally requires its profit test to be passed and a minimum listing of 25% of a company's shares but it has waived both rules because of the size of the company (because of the size of the fees it will receive?). The 1141 page prospectus does not mince its words about the risks involved, warning that investors could lose every penny invested. Rusal has $16.8bn debt, $4.5bn of which is due this October to the state-owned Russian bank VEB. It is hoped that VEB will delay repayment and if this proves not to be the case investors can take comfort in a letter (with no guarantees attached) from another state-owned Russian bank, Sberbank, which states that it will assume the VEB debt and extend repayment until 2013. Another potential spanner in the works is the lawsuit proceeding at the High Court in London regarding a claim by Michael Cherney, Deripaska's former colleague, that is is owed 13% of Rusal. Were the Court to rule in Cherney's favour, there may be adverse implications for Rusal's debt repayment schedule and the whole company could go under. The prospectus even quotes an English judge's view that the lawsuit could not be heard in Russia because of the risks involved, including assassination. To prevent the retail punters from getting their hands burnt, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange is setting a minimum initial investment of HK$1m (US$129,000).

Monday, January 04, 2010

Christmas past

Happy New Year! We missed a white Christmas in Winchester by two days, sadly, and for the second year running still had a couple of roses blooming in the garden on 25 December. My colleague, on the other hand, discovered an igloo on the hills of Cumbria. Hope you had a good one.