Sunday, 24 May 2015

Poetry In Motion

It is the Whitsun Bank Holiday. We will not be travelling.  Between the works on the lines and the numbers on the roads and distaste for air travel we shall be staying put and watching the TV reports of chaos and shiver.

This remembrance of the past in The Independent tells of the poet Philip Larkin, the Librarian of the University of Hull, and his work "The Whitsun Weddings", in part about newly wed couples taking trains for their honeymoons and Ian Macmillan, the writer says, unlike the poet he has never seen this.

Larkin was someone I never met, but was warned about.  There was a time in the 60's when I had dealings at the University of Hull and needed to park the car adjacent to the Library.  The people I was meeting were anxious about this.  Larkin in some ways, like many poets, had his obsessions.

One was the car park and who may or may not use it and had the necessary permissions.  If in his prowling and policing he found an intruder he would be onto the case quicker than an Inspector Maigret.  It was said in the University that he was the highest paid car park attendant in the country.

But the poet wrote this in 1958 and at a time when I was often doing shifts on the railway.  I remember such couples being a feature of holiday periods and some weekends.  The happy pair would be seen off by family and friends and I would be cursing.

It meant the Station Master would want the sweeping done to get rid of the confetti and this could interfere with my tea break having just dealt with the parcels.  Other station staff had different sentiments, including the lady carriage cleaners, who welcomed the happy events.

One veteran lady, born during the reign of King Edward VII before the First World War, a person of robust character and direct speech liked to comment.

It is my abiding memory on seeing a train pulling away, the couple waving good bye and hearing Doll's voice crying above the hubbub, "She'll get more than brown ale tonight!".

Larkin, I think, would have understood.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Are You Sitting Comfortably?

The handbags at dawn spat between Labour and the SNP over where to put their backsides in the House of Commons featured a sad event where a party led by a wealthy former RBS banker, his fortunes protected by the taxpayer bailout, displayed their OK Anti English racism and public sector funded middle class distaste for an ageing English former coal miner.

Yes, poor 83 year old Dennis Skinner, Derbyshire born, Derbyshire bred, strong in the arm (when younger) and, well we will omit that part of the old saying out of respect for his vigorous and broad command of the English language.  It is palpably untrue in his case.

The SNP took his seat in The House as part of an exercise in cheap publicity stunts. Given that The House is normally almost empty when business is conducted, the real action being in the Committee rooms and only seems to fill when the TV coverage appears on main news channels it is an indication of the current level of debate and priorities.

But the surname Skinner got the twitch going.  It is one that appears in various parts of the Atlantic Isles, including Scotland.  Could Dennis in fact be one of the SNP's own descending from one of that name who moved South as so many did in past generations?  The fact that coal mining might be involved raises the question.

There were other potential Scottish links.  Notably Hercules Skinner, a Scot, who went to India in the 18th Century, married a local princess and created a famous family.  The soldier scholar James Skinner of Skinner's Horse and the HEICS Bengal Army is one.  Being of mixed race if our Dennis were to be of descent from him or his kin that would be an intriguing addition to issues of racism.

Alas, on inspection, from the evidence seen it is likely that none of this is the case.  If this is correct then Dennis is certainly very English but not Derbyshire.  It is Kent and he seems to be a Kentish Man rather than a Man of Kent and of deeply rural origins.  Kentish Men are alleged to have Saxon origins if of ancient stock.

There is, however, a twist in the tale.  The vicinity of West Kent where his family may have lived has Chartwell House plum in the middle of it.  From the early 1920's to his death it was home to Sir Winston Churchill.  But by the time he bought it the Chartwell Estate had financial problems and the estate was split up into lots for sale to get a better return.  So Churchill only bought a small part; what happened to the rest?

This would have affected many in the area, which was already having serious problems arising from the economic downturn immediately following the First World War.  But before then, in the 1890's,  Dennis's grandfather had moved north to Clay Cross to take up other work.  As did the family of The Lady's grandmother moved from Kent to Sheffield.

Here is the National Trust item:


The Campbell Colquhouns

The Campbell Colquhouns were moderately wealth Scottish lawyers, churchmen and politicians and bought the land in 1848, renaming it Chartwell. They developed the house and land so by the time the house was up for sale in 1921 it extended to 816 acres and included several farms.

The property did not make its reserve at auction so was split in to smaller lots with the house and 80 acres being one. Coincidentally John Campbell Colquhoun and Churchill had known each other as schoolboys at Harrow but did not keep in touch.


Going back to the time when Scot's such as these bought up English land and used their wealth to trample down the English farm workers, we find that the Skinner ancestor of Dennis in that part of Kent is an Ag Lab, an agricultural labourer.  In that same period, Margaret Hilda Roberts, later Thatcher, also was blessed with such an ancestor.

It is wonderful to see that Margaret Thatcher (she married a Denis) and Dennis Skinner have so much in common.  They were among the very few truly English lower class plebian politicians of their time albeit having one or two differences of opinion.

She was useful with a handbag and it would have been interesting to see her pitching in on behalf of Dennis to help him keep his chosen seat.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Ups And Downs

Despite all the confident clatter of politics and politician saying that they will cure all by doing things do not seem to be getting a lot better and we are all uncertain.  Change is all about us yet most of us cannot see it, let alone understand or explain it.

The Cobden Centre has had a run of articles, some long and complex attempting to analyse what is going on and why, but all have questions behind them, but with one common theme.  That is that the financial and economic world is a more dangerous place.

This particular article by Keith Weiner is short to the point of being terse.  He seeks to explain simply what he understands as being one of the critical features in the world at the moment. Quite simply falling yields and rising asset prices don't go together and mean long term trouble.

If you want some longer takes on other related issues in the last few days there are one or two there which may be worth the time.  One way or another the future is becoming more opaque and that in itself is a prime cause of difficulty and danger.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Eating Your Cake And Liking It

The story about the strict Presbyterian cake makers in Northern Ireland who felt unable to refer to gay marriage in the wording on a cake they were asked to bake has led to some comment.

It is being pointed out that this has wider implications, notably that there is a very wide range of differing opinions that could now be inscribed on cakes whether or not the cake makers or anybody else likes them.

The one above is given as an example.  But there are people I know who would enjoy a slice.  With the Irish Referendum on gay marriage imminent in the event of a "Yes" there are rumours that Channel Four will be running a "Father Ted" special.

Perhaps Father Ted will get to tie the knot at last with Father Jack in a ceremony conducted by the recently ordained Mrs. Doyle who has been tipped to succeed Bishop Brennan in the local See, who has left to open a cake shop.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Money Go Round

The General Election may be in the past and a new government in place for at least the interim but the spin, the flannel, the fictions and the fantasies go on.  Little or nothing is as it seems and as ever you need to look very closely at the terms and conditions.

We are five years on from 2010 and there are a few things still left over from the heady days of Blair and Brown to be dealt with and in addition there are the blunders of the Coalition to repair, if possible.  Also, beware of politicians with short memories and long shopping lists.

There are a lot of them about and in all parties.  In the matter of Europe there are differing ideologies, high sounding beliefs and the rest that have urged the EU on to more and more, including the Euro money project which made the fatal error of trying to run a monetary system without the basic safeguards or means to deal with serious crises or divergences of policy between the states involved.

Which brings, or coughs up the question of Devolution in the UK and what it entails.  Fancy notions are being brought forward and promoted as sounding good to the average punter.  Let local people decide on local taxes and spending.

The essential difficulty is that in the last analysis the management of a currency is crucial in international trading and markets and a raft of economic matters.  Attempting to divorce this, or control it as a lesser item, from public tax and spending always ends badly.

Clement Attlee, picture above, Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, found out the hard way, admittedly in a very difficult period of history.  One of his early actions was to nationalise the Bank of England to merge its controls over money into the Government's overall management of the economy.

It did not work and a crisis ensued when despite central controls, high spending and low interest rates the pound came under stress and by 1949 a Devaluation was forced at 30% of the currency.  The  upshot was an era of Austerity for many worse than the war years.

The position was then held, albeit with problems until the 1960's when the Wilson government in 1967 was forced into Devaluation and a raft of policies that directly contradicted its earlier policies.  The 1970's saw a complicated history where governments tried to manage the economy at the same time as determining the value of the pound.  This made the situation in the UK worse when radical changes were happening in the structure of industry and trade.

The Thatcher government in 1979 are supposed to be a very new regime, but in the early days they just took over the circus and tried to change a few of the Acts.  The recession of 1981 and its reaction put the Conservatives on the road to more radical changes.

One major problem area was that the Heath reorganisation of local government created a number of large local authorities who were given extensive powers of financial management in a partial sort of Devolution.  Because of the troubles of the 1970's many Labour ones, and most were Labour, were in the hands of militant Left wing activists.

So both Callaghan and Thatcher had serious problems with them.  They went on a spending spree, which due to the Rating system in that period hit private sector local business's very badly at a time when major industries were also in serious difficulty.

Eventually, the Thatcher government brought the situation under some sort of control and by that time the pound was free floating, but it was a very difficult period and inevitably there were casualties.  The alternatives were going back either to an Attlee austerity regime or a siege economy.

The answer for some was Europe and later the Euro.  The problem for many of the politicians, the media and therefore the ordinary voter is so few failed to understand or wanted to understand the mechanics of the international financial systems and the risks involved in failing to keep a check on monetary creation.

The risks at the moment are that the new government will be coming under pressure to devolve financial and fiscal powers in such a way that major liabilities or debt that cannot be funded will arise and a major financial or economic breakdown occurs.

The reason it can happen is a very simple one.  It has happened too often before and around the world happens again and again.

All it takes is politically popular and convenient deals being made on a short term basis by governments without taking account of the full potential risks and on the blithe assumption that next time round a crisis can be managed without damage.

It can't and it won't.

Monday, 18 May 2015

At Her Majesty's Pleasure?

Prince Harry, who is reported to have called for bringing back "National Service", is one of The Royals in more ways than one.  The important one is that his regiment is The Blues and Royals created in 1969 by merging The Blues of the Household Brigade with The Royal Dragoons (not to be confused with the Royal Dragoon Guards).

The Royal Dragoons was a regiment I was acquainted with and once played cricket against them.  We won, partly because their best batsman, their Adjutant, had to retire injured when caught where it hurt by a vicious in-swinger.

In those days upper class chaps often did not wear "boxes" to protect their genitals relying on the sporting instincts of opponents.  Sadly the bowler in question suffered a deficit in that instinct having learned the game in local leagues playing on public parks where bets were involved as well as other rivalries.

I name no names.  Before anyone thinks about National Service now it might be useful to look back at what it was.  As you now have to be 70 or more to have done it in the mid 20th Century it might be worth realising at what the intakes were like then in comparison with the youth of today.

You became liable for National Service at 18, but it might be deferred if you went for some forms of higher education or were in an apprenticeship in various trades etc.  For some it was an awkward choice.  Did you get it over first or wait until later, but then have a two year hiatus in career and life?

Most men went in at 18.  As the school leaving age was then the end of the term in which you became 15, typically the great majority had worked in ordinary jobs.  In the grammar schools then, many left at 16, again to take up jobs and a minority went into the sixth forms.

In short the majority of recruits had already had the discipline and experience of real work and usually for longer hours than today in highly structured workplaces.  Moreover, among that majority were very many in fact who had not been to a secondary school at all, but had attended all age Elementary Schools.

So National Service in general was not the first experience of strict discipline in their lives.  School discipline was a lot more physical and fiercer and for the majority who had been in work they had been obliged to knuckle down to do what they were told to do.  Broadly this was a world away from present conditions.  The Armed Services simply carried the discipline etc. thing further.

A more difficult area is the mind world of that period.  We need to very wary of what is usually suggested as the norm on the basis of some of the legacy media from that period.  All teenagers were not rock and rollers, in fact many regarded those that were as prats suckered by crap films and other noisy Hollywood stuff.

What was common at the time among all classes was the business of ballroom dancing, for most a necessary social skill.  Many took lessons others learned from friends etc.  On TV now it may look very old fashioned but that in turn had its disciplines.

Despite all this, many National Servicemen did not get on with the services, counting the days, learning how to avoid work, turning bolshie and become more questioning of authority.  One skilled worker friend of mine did his time working in a stores, picture above, and regarded it as a gross waste of time.

But experiences did vary.  There was education provided in the services which helped many.  Some had interesting and worthwhile work or opportunities.  Some did not, spending their time on routine work of limited scope.  Some, including men who saw active service came out damaged in one way or another.  It was a lottery.

National Service brought them into contact with the upper class in the shape of some of the officers and often they did not like what they saw.  But there was worse to come.  When National Service ended and major reductions occurred in the services it impacted greatly on the officer classes.

The public schools that had sent so many into Empire and the services for decades found that their alumni had to look for other kinds of work.  One effect therefore was to redirect hordes of public school men into management and supervision in the public and private sector, very often into "personnel" and such.

There the subordinates were often former National Servicemen whose experience had the effect with many of causing them to distrust, dislike and often oppose the implications of the class system and to suspect the motives and attitudes of those at the top notably the managerial classes as they were then.

This may have been an underlying element in much of the industrial and other strife that became so common in the 1960's and 1970's.  Also, there may have been other effects arising from disenchanted young males.

It wasn't rock and roll and the media that created the freedom culture of later, for my money it was a male population who had mostly done time in the services and came out with a very different perspective on life, work and society.

Quite how modern 18 year olds in this very different world might react  I do not know.  It can only be a wild guess, but I cannot think that periods of forced military service would improve matters.

If Prince Harry were to play cricket against a bolshie conscript I would advise him to wear a well fitted box.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Bad Business And Worse Software?

In The Mail was an item of a man and his mortgage under threat of eviction. A tale of our times and one of many who are being repossessed for failing, allegedly, to pay his dues.  But what is going on here?

This is the story and apparently the property was bought in 1988 priced at £41,800 to which might be added some charges and now he is said to owe £43,000.  He will have paid in a lot more than that already.  What is a pity is other figures are not given, notably just how much he has paid in over the years.

If repossessed it will be sold.  From the small picture only a guess might be made as to its value.  A look at the web suggests perhaps a low of £120,000 but a high of up to £250,000 depending on location, size and condition etc.  Perhaps somewhere around the middle might be about right, say for argument £175,000.

The Building Society involved in 1988 was the Bradford and Bingley and the Wikipedia article on this firm had a whole carillon of warning bells in the mind.  Demutualisation in 2000 to become a high rolling bank, bust and nationalized in 2008, sold off mortgage book etc, and other things.

A crucial one was when a bank did it go in for collateralisation of mortgages and related insurance policies?  So who was or is the eventual holder or holders of these assets?  Add to this murky mix no doubt extensive software changes in account managements.  Tom Crawford's issues it seems began in 2007.

To add to the richness of it all, the crucial entity relating to all this appears to be located in one of those off shore places which in effect provide a secrecy backup to any or all of the relevant banking activity.  Which means that any action in a British court or the affected parties does not have access any of the critical evidence.

The County Court judge in this case appears to have taken on trust the case put forward by the entity that is acting either as or for the lender, gave scant regard to the alleged debtor and took no account of the wider background.  What rings another bell is that he is denied access to the Court of Appeal and therefore The Supreme Court.

It is quite possible that by 2007 Tom Crawford may have paid enough into his endowment policy to cover the mortgage and thought he had paid it off.  At this stage the last thing the then B&B would have wanted was borrowers completing early and ending accounts on which B&B had taken on major securitisation liabilities.

There is a bad smell about this.  I have already seen, notably with energy suppliers, something nasty in the software and payments systems.

This from the USA in recent years is a vivid illustration of what can happen at its worst.  Among many of the cases at present is there something like this going on in the UK about which the relevant authorities want to keep quiet? We know it can happen, the shocking recent example of the Post Office treatment of its small account holders is one.

Another figure we do not have is how many others have lost their homes who had mortgages etc. with this company.  Is the man here the one who decided to stay and fight and who would not be scared off?

It is my view that this case needs some impartial investigation which has full access to all the account information and transactions.  It might be a simple catalogue of errors and misunderstandings.  It might be that Mr. Crawford was sold a bad deal that was made worse.  It might, just might, be fraudulent.

George Orwell, in "Coming Up For Air" had an opinion on Building Societies:


Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, 
is that we all imagine we've got something to lose. To begin with, 
nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the
impression that they own their houses.

Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times.

My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it's an open swindle with the cards on the table. But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you're doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand.

I sometimes think I'd like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way.

In one hand it would carry an enormous key, the key of the 
workhouse, of course, and in the other, what do they call those 
things like French horns with presents coming out of them?  A
cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life-
insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and
concrete garden rollers.


The narrator in the Orwell book has just put in his first pair of false teeth which inspires the rest of his thinking on current affairs at the time.  In the late 1930's a decent set of false teeth could only be a dream for many people.

Rather like owning your own home.  Since then we have had the glories of the property owning democracy and our government is promising to do a lot more.  But for some reason fewer people are taking up the option.

Could it be because they have done the sums?