Wednesday, December 30, 2009


A few years ago, in fact, many years ago - it was in 1990 - I mentioned something to my girlfriend at the time and she, being French and, perhaps, a little more intellectually arrogant than we stout Anglo-Saxons care for (it's not unknown), described my observation as a lieu common. Even my limited French could translate that as a commonplace and further translate her description of my insight as something of a slap in the face. Perhaps it was a necessary one. I don't know. But as a result, I have become rather oversensitive to the possibility that what I say is sometimes blindingly obvious to others; and that by saying it, I am doing nothing more than making a big fool of myself. That thought has occurred to me again after completing the previous entry. So, if what I write is blindingly obvious, I apologise.

By the way, the French woman was called Rozenn Milin. She was from Britanny and spoke French, perfect English, though with a marked American accent, Breton and Welsh. At the time she was working as an actress but has since gone on to do other things. And if by chance she comes across this entry: Hi, Rozenn, get in touch.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Something which has been knocking around my head for a few years now, but examined here in a none-to-clear way. And rather at length.

Earlier today, on my way to work (just a 20-minute walk, which must be unique for a commute in London), I was listening to Start The Week on Radio 4 (chaired by Andrew Marr, not my favourite person and who I once purposely annoyed at a Conservative Party conference. That tale is worth an entry in its own right, so I shall say nothing here, except that the encounter confirmed my previous suspicion that he is something of a self-regarding pillock and he’s a short-arse to boot.)

His programme is, however, always interesting, though you often feel you are eavesdropping on metropolitan bien-pensant at a North London dinner party as they trade good impressions of themselves. This morning’s edition was up-to-scratch, with contributions as usual from this and that expert in this and that area, and one contributor was a Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, Barbara Sahakian, who (this description is from the Radio 4 website) ‘believes it’s time for an open debate about the ethical issues surrounding the use of new types of drugs which could in the future be used to make us all clever, well-behaved and sociable’.

Among other things, she reported that ‘16 per cent’ of students at U.S. universities regularly use cognitive-enhancing drugs which can boost your intellectual performance as athletes often use drugs to improve their physical performance. And it’s not just students who resort to that kind of respectable drug-taking. She claimed that arriving at a conference, she was offered one such drug to help soothe her jet-lag and that further inquiries among her peers revealed that quite a few of them took these cognitive enhancers as a matter of course - in the words of one colleague - to ‘get a good day’s work in’.

The programme went on to discuss ‘neuro-ethics’ (as in just how ethical it might be to resort to such drugs when others could not do so because they couldn’t afford them and whether the advantage they gave you over those not taking them was unfair). Whether taking them will be deemed unethical or not, we were also told that in the future taking them will be a matter of course for many people. Prof Sahakian also said that at the moment these drugs to not seem addiction forming or to have any side-effects.

To all that my response was a polite and restrained horror. But - and here’s the rub - as I am now 60 (as close readers of this blog have no doubt gathered over these past weeks), my future participation in such a brave new world of cognitive-enhancing drugs will be somewhat limited. But what interests me is this: is my horror merely that of an older man whose spirit is increasingly too ossified to adapt to a new cultural development? Am I now too long in the tooth to adapt to such a development? Or is there more to it than that?

I might, of course, be expected to claim that there is far more to it, that despite my age, I am as opened-minded as I ever was, and that my horror at the thought that in 100 years time dropping a tab of some cognitive enhancer will be as usual as drinking a morning cup of tea is principled and rational. But, in fact, I shan’t claim there is more to it than that for the simple reason that I don’t think there is more to it. Things change and the young are far more adept at changing with it. We who will not see 59 again must reconcile ourselves to that.

The fact is that my two children, one now 13 and the other 10, will grow up with such innovations and take them in their stride, much as I grew up with, say, the ease with which I could buy and run a car, whereas for those of my father’s generation owning and running a car was not something they took for granted in their younger years. Or to give what might be a better example, my generation is accustomed to buying what it wants here and now, thanks to the acceptability and availability of credit in the Western world. My parents, however, were still of the kind, when they were younger, of actually saving up for things.

So when young Wesley and Elsie are in their middle-age, who’s to say that popping a pill of a certain kind before an important business meeting will not be accepted as a matter of course?
But that is not quite the point I wanted to make in this entry. The fact that my children will adapt far faster to innovations made when they are young (though undoubtedly they will also suffer the fate of being increasingly horrified and disconcerted by change as they get older) has an unavoidable implication which is of far more consequence.

That they will not regard as odd what I regard as odd rather queers the pitch for those who like to claim that standards are standards and must be observed. Furthermore - and this is, admittedly, something of a leap for which the reader will be wholly unprepared but which I do feel it is a valid leap - it rather queers the pitch for those who believe there is an immutable morality which governs all our lives. At the very least, the fact that something is ‘right’ and acceptable in 2009 which was not ‘right’ and acceptable in, say 1954 or 1808 makes arguing for the existence of such an immutable morality a damn sight more difficult.

If standards - that is what is acceptable - can and do change from generation to generation - and much changes quite drastically quite apart from standards - doesn’t that mean that at the end of the day our moral values have as much permanence - that is to say, have as little permanence - as this year’s winter fashion? And if our moral values are not as fixed as we would like them to be and can change and be adapted almost at will, in what does their imperative lie? What give those values their moral force?
At this point, those people who have a faith get a rather useful get-out-of-jail-free card on this score: they can claim that all morality derives ultimately from God (or Allah or Jehovah) and that this is what makes it immutable. They have a point, although, at the end of the day people who resort to such reasoning are doing nothing but shifting the essence of the argument. And invoking God in this manner does, as it happens, bring with it its own difficulties: one very pertinent example is what to do about homosexual clergy? It seems that God is not quite as clear on that matter as everyone would like God to be. But that aside - if that and other matters can be put aside - having God as your fixed point is very useful.

Those of us who don’t have a faith (or, in my case, have such an obscure and private faith which I would find it extremely difficult to outline to anyone and which doesn’t involve anyone ‘being divine’) are left with the problem: what is the fixed point at the centre of our ethical systems? Here it should be pointed out that we all have an ethical system, whether we think we do or not, rather as we all have health, irrespective of whether that health is good, bad or indifferent.

Our ethical system might be a shining example to us all or downright corrupt and tawdry, but we all, nevertheless, have such a system. Having said that, though, I am also obliged to point out that those characters whose ethical systems leave a great deal to be desired are the least likely to break their balls and anguish over exactly what gives ‘morality its imperative’. And although the point I make might superficially sound flippant, it does shine a certain necessary light on the matter.

Following on from that thought, it is also pertinent that at this point I can resort, quite legitimately and quite honestly, to being utterly and disconcertingly bathetic. For the fact is that what I have, in my own rather cackhanded fashion, indulged in and what men and women with far better brains than mine also indulge in is something of a luxury. Pondering on the nature of morality, ethics, good, bad, right and wrong is, when all is said and done, a pastime for the leisured classes.

Folk with more pressing needs, such as where to find food today, where to find help for my sick child, how to avoid those rebels who want to kill my and my kind, probably spend rather less time analysing the nature of morality and what gives ‘the right thing to do’ its moral force. They might, of course, do so, but, I should imagine, from position of bewildered despair.

This entry is all rather confused, and I’m not too sure I even know what it is about. But it is about something which has preoccupied me for some time, and I find that writing things down like this imposes a certain discipline which means I have to think it through more carefully. The unfortunate thing is that you have just been marched up to the top of the hill, then down again, but with very little to show for it.

Sorry about that. What needs to be introduced to make it all a little more comprehensible is the notion of relativity which has cursed these past 120 years. Cursed? Well, it was meant to make things easier, but actually makes them twice as complex. What can ‘good’ mean if it is ‘good’ for you but not ‘good’ for me? Some would say it means nothing. And that is less than helpful.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A contrarian writes

I have now looked up the word 'contrarian', and it seems that I have used it correctly, although as I suspected it could well be argued that the notion of 'wilful' is an intricate part of being contrarian. But what surprises me as that the online Oxford English Dictionary returns a 'not found' result when you ask it to define 'contrarian', as does the online Collins dictionary. However, if you google 'contrarian' you come up with may references. The key to this slight mystery is that it seems the word is more commonly used in investment circles and in an economic context (which, I must admit, was news to me) as in a guy taking the opposite - investment - tack to accepted wisdom. Fascinating? Perhaps not. I think whether or not you find this entry interesting will depend on how bored you are.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Introducing Matt, our obsession with 'heritage', why global warming is a tragedy/godsend (delete as applicable) and the art of faking knowledge

One of our better newspaper cartoonist is Matt of the Daily Telegraph, so I have decided to post four of his recent cartoons, just for the craic, as they say. The first two will raise a smile more from British readers than anyone less familiar with Britain and its vast array of obsessions, but the third and fourth will strike a chord with everyone. Here they are:

I've never 'got' this obsession with 'preserving the past'. Certainly, many buildings and artefacts are worth keeping, and we should always remember the past (especially our past mistakes). But here in Britain, and, I should imagine, elsewhere, there is a manic drive to save absolutely everything merely because it is more than 30 years old. Futhermore, such 'preservation' is now such a given that it is far more likely for my grip on reality to be questioned for wondering exactly why everything must be preserved than querying why we are now obliged to preserve everything we can lay their hands on. A result of this obsession is what has been referred to as the 'heritage industry'. At its best it can produce some extremely interesting, not to say, fascinating sites which serve as a useful educational tool for younger generations. At its worst it is downright ridiculous, as when public lavatories are preserved on the grounds that we should know exactly how our forefathers chose to take a dump.

This must ring a bell or two in many: you are sitting listening to something like a Budget speech and allowing portentous phrases such as 'the fiscal imperative of blue-book adjustments being acknowledged no later than the third quarter of the next financial year' to roll over you and, quite simply, you despair. Oh for the days when your standing in the community was not at all great, when 'respectability' was something vaguely ludicrous and you were perfectly happy to settle for a colourful newspaper graphic of a pint of beer, a packet of fags and a petrol pump and the cheering news that it's 'a giveaway Budget'. I would not claim to be a total moron and I do - up to a point - understand aspects of the economy which in my younger days not only baffled me but bored me rigid. But it would be a lie to pretend that when Darling, Clarke, Brown, Lawson or whoever the current incumbent is gets up at the Dispatch Box and drones on for an hour or so my eyes don't glaze over sooner rather than later. When I was still working as a evening paper district reporter in the Seventies, one story we found ourselves writing every year was an account of the local council putting submitting to the county council for is 'precept' (which is what I think it's called - it was asking for the money it would need in the coming financial year). Before the meeting of the relevant finance committee ('Ways and Means' or some such) which would debate and then vote on a 'precept' figure - I do hope I am getting the jargon right - we reporters were always sent the committee minutes to look through beforehand. And I would always spend about 30 seconds looking through them and understanding absolutely nothing of what was laid out there in all its tedious glory. The drill was to put in an appearance at the meeting, then get a few quotes from councillors (making sure they kept it short - councillors are liable to drone on a little, especially in the South Wales valleys), then head back to the office to construct a story. I say 'construct' a story rather than 'write' one because that is exactly what we did: it was a question of producing 300-odd words of copy which did not betray that the writer was wholly out of his depth and which, furthermore, pulled off the useful trick of persuading the reader that if what he was reading seemed like complete goobledegook, it was his fault - he was simply too dumb to understand perfectly ordinary matters. One vital strategy in 'constructing' that story was to rifle through the bollocks in the committee meeting minutes and judiciously chose one or two passages to quote verbatim which might seem plausible and, crucially, were anodyne and said nothing whatsoever. I am rather proud to report that every year I managed to pull off the trick of writing a decent, intelligent, yet thoroughly meaningless, story about matters of which I understood nothing at all. That I was never caught out was, though, no great achievement but merely down to the fact that everyone else - from the news editor, to the subs, the editor himself and the readers - was also completely at sea in such matters (and, I hope, felt is was their fault that my account made no sense to them at all). The few people who knew what was being printed in the paper was all complete nonsense would have been the council finance director and, one hopes, the chairman of the finance committee. But they preferred to keep quite, content that the least attention drawn to their figures, the better. Scrutiny is not popular with council chief financial officers.

Crusty old farts who are agin everything are surely a universal figure, as likely to be found in Tblisi, Jakarta, Andean Chile and Kansas as Kent, Cheshire and Pittenweem. But that is not to say that scepticism about exactly what is going on with the world's climate and, if something is, who is causing it is necessarily thoroughly outlandish and irrational. My dad was the kind who might, were he still alive, have been prepared to doubt even the existence of Copenhagen, but I am more intent on trying to keep an open mind in both directions (and make damn bloody sure my children also understand the importance of keeping an open mind). That is, of course, an admirably quality if keeping an open mind means you are still inclined to see my point of view and might well eventually think I am right. But if, similarly, it means you are also quite prepared to consider that my point of view might well be a load of cack, 'keeping an open mind' is becomes shorthand for 'sitting on the fence', 'an irrational inability to see sense' and being 'wilfully contrarian'. (Er, being 'contrarian' might already be 'wilful', but having so far spent the best part of an hour writing this blog entry, I can't be arsed to look it up and will leave it to some wiseacre in Tucson to set me straight if necessary.) Perhaps there are those who feel it best to keep an open mind on the virtue or otherwise of keeping an open mind.

This last cartoon and my inclusion of it here might seem a little callous, given that for whatever reason, the Arctic is shrinking and polar bears are finding foraging ever more difficult. But I would point out that since life has existed on Earth, environments have changed and species have always been forced to adapt. Are we really going to shed a tear about the passing of the North European mammoth? Or the bears and wolves which were once indigenous everywhere? Or that the wild boar no longer roams the countryside on Britain? I'll repeat that it might sound callous, but the polar bear is simply faced with having to adapt to a changing environment. Apart from all that Matt has come up with rather a good joke.

NB. I assume the Daily Telegaph and/or Matt hold copyright to all four cartoons shown here, so I would like to point that out so that my arse is covered and I don't have my festive season spoiled by some slick legal department brief getting in touch and demanding money with menaces.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The rise and fall of a literary genius, or how we can effortlessly fool ourselves at any age.

For a guy who had wanted ‘to be a writer’ since the age of 16, I still feel I am appallingly badly read and, more to the point, I have, to date, written very little. Still, that is what I wanted from quite an early age on, and it has only been in recent years that I have come to my senses and realised one or two basic truths about ‘writing’, ‘being a writer’ and, most crucially, self-delusion. On that last I can tell you at no extra cost: it is an affliction we are all highly susceptible to (oh, all right: to which we are all highly susceptible).
My ambition ‘to be a writer’ had a very mundane genesis and was based on a very silly misunderstanding and an innocent teenage conceit.
It is not unusual for young people to try to write poetry (and not all that unusual for older folk to do the same) and I was no exception. I can’t remember writing many poems, although I do know that I tried to and when I was about eight, I translated a piece of German children’s verse into English, illustrated my translation, stitched the pages together to turn them into a booklet and gave it to my parents for Christmas.
When I was 16, I wrote one poem which, as I remember, and in the manner of adolescents, addressed several then ‘contemporary’ issues. Doing so, we believe, gives the poems we write a certain gravitas and importance. That’s complete bollocks, of course, but try telling that to a 16-year-old. Not only will they not understand you, they won’t even want to understand you.
I can’t remember what issues I touched upon in that particular poem except that I made reference to ‘Red China’ and what a danger that evil nation posed to the rest of the world. Being the son at the height of the Cold War of a reactionary journalist who also, I later discovered, had a vague working relationship with MI6 for most of his life, and being securely locked away in a Roman Catholic boarding school for most of my teenage years meant that my world view was not necessarily sophisticated. A song in the charts at the time was Barry McGuire’s version of Eve Of Destruction which made reference to the danger of Red China and which was pretty hairy stuff for this reasonably immature lad, and perhaps that also influenced me. This was still the era, remember, when all things Western were ‘good’ and all things not Western were ‘bad’, particularly communism and socialism, and the end of the world is necessarily far more imminent when we are young than when we become older. When we are older, in fact, we have a horrible suspicion that it ain’t never going to end.
I was very proud of that poem, not least because I had actually finished it — all my life I have had the attention span of an impatient butterfly, and when I was younger started many poems and finished very few. I was so proud, in fact, that I showed it to Mr Hinds, one of the school’s English teachers. I showed it to him rather than Mr Walsh, my own English teacher, because Mr Hinds was young, and, I imagined, more broadminded that Mr Walsh, who was far older and quite ill for most of my school career. Mr Hinds, I felt, would be more open to my ideas.
I really don’t know what Mr Hinds actually thought of my poem, and I can’t remember him saying anything about its literary worth. But I do remember that, crucially, he advised me to ‘carry on writing poetry’ or something like that.
I now realise that he was simply doing what any half-decent pedagogue would do, what, arguably, any half-decent pedagogue should do: he was merely encouraging me to ‘carry on writing poetry’. Ah, but that was not how I interpreted his response. No, sir, I read it as his way of telling me that my poem was quite simply excellent and that, by implication, I was some kind of literary genius. And from that moment on that is how I saw myself — I was a writer, though not just any writer, mark you, but a writer of quite exceptional genius.
I can’t remember writing very many more poems, and although I did occasionally attempt a few pieces of fiction, my output was not large. (If I put my mind to it and utilise the technique useful to recall of trying to remember specifically where I was when, I could, perhaps, bring to mind a few of the - very - short stories I composed. I remember one in particular, written when I was spending the summer holiday after my second year at university working in Peppard Hospital as a porter. It told of a crane in a shipyard which was getting too old for useful work and was to be replaced by another, newer crane. One day, just after the new crane had been constructed, and while everyone was inside eating their midday meal, there is a colossal crash and the new crane is found toppled over and smashed to smithereens. The only way this could have happened would be if - well, it’s impossible, of course - but if the new crane had somehow become entangled with the old crane and the old crane had moved away and - needless to say, it’s all highly improbable - somehow pulled over the new crane. Now that would be an explanation, although being so very unlikely, it could not be the explanation, and the destruction of the new crane would have to remain a mystery.)
But, as I say, my output remained embarrassingly small and, more seriously, especially small for a would-be literary genius. I have since, I very relieved to assure the reader, written a little more and feel far more confident about writing. I can also assure the reader that I am no longer persuaded that I am a literary genius (a realisation which, oddly, came as something of a relief. It took a weight off my shoulders.) You see, I was all too conscious that I was not writing very much, that, in fact, my ‘literary output’ was not just minimal but virtually non-existent. Added my embarrassment was that every so often I would read of some writer or hear some writer on the radio describe how he or she ‘wrote every day’, that he or she ‘had to write’, that writing was ‘a part of [their] being’, sometimes even that ‘if they didn’t write [they] would go mad’. It was also a little embarrassing, not to say quite irritating, to come across friends and acquaintances who did actually write. Even worse than that was that they also read a great deal more than I did.
What made this all the more confusing was that when I did get to read what other, unpublished, would-be novelists and short story writers had written, I was all-to-often not very impressed. Yet what was better: rather bad stories, novels and plays which had, at least, been written, or works of sheer ineffably breathtaking literary brilliance which didn’t actually as yet exist?
Even I knew the answer to that one.
I could not be writing this if I hadn’t in more recent years finally put my back into trying to be a literary genius, or, at least, attempting to be one, and I can assure you all that I have finally got around to doing some of the necessary work. It is quite sobering to know that, if pushed, I could probably list everything, have written, but these days I prefer to be sober about my ambitions than to live with my head in the clouds.

In doing the necessary work, I have learnt several valuable lessons: that writing is hard, although enjoyable; that the best way to do it — I suspect the only way to do it — is to treat is as ‘work’ and to be extremely and horribly strict with yourself about sitting down regularly to do that work; never wait for inspiration — it will never come; that what you write need not be perfect from the off and that you can - and should - revise as much and as often as you like (although there is also the danger of the whole enterprise going horribly stale by being pfaffed about with too often); that in an odd sort of way, there is no such thing as ‘good’ work or ‘bad’ work, that it is, for example, more useful to speak of ‘interesting’ or ‘engaging’ work; that the essence of successful writing is thought, and lots of it, and that the more thought you put into the work you are doing, the less chance there will be that, at the end of the day, it's a load of cack; that we all love the smell of our own farts and are well-advised to remember that others, invariably, don’t; that there are an awful lot of bullshitters out there, rather more, in fact, than, at your most cynical, you might suspect; never — never! — talk about what you are doing, because the more you talk about it, the less you will do it; that most talk of ‘art’, if not all of it, is 24-carat, top-grade bunkum, especially when the word ‘art’ is used in the same sentence as the word ‘should’ (this ‘writer’ believes that ‘art’ is not an ‘entity’ but a ‘process’, but more of that, perhaps, in another entry); and that any writer, poet and playwright (or for that matter any composer, musician, painter or sculptor) can do what the bloody hell they like: there are no rules. However, whether you will find anyone who is the slightest bit interested in or engaged with what you have produced and who might, moreover, be willing to part with hard bucks for it, is another matter entirely. Here’s a principle I firmly believe in: payment is the sincerest form of flattery.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My cars: a short guide. Part IX - this interminable account is finally concluded but not before several Rovers reach a sticky end

I did promise a final instalment of this account of my motoring history, and I am determined to show I am a man of my word, however much it might distress anyone else. There are only another six cars to go, and once this entry is out of the way, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and attend to less important matters in good heart and with a clear conscience.
When acquiring the Volvo and the 2CV, we had become a two-car family, but it would be wrong to imagine that we were in any way wealthy. We simply needed two cars. My wife insisted she needed one to take our daughter to play school and to go shopping - although I can’t imagine she drove more than 48 miles in the whole week - and I needed to drive to Exeter St David’s station and back every week. The successor to the 2CV was an Austin Maestro which I bought from the guy who had started looking after our cars when he set himself up in business. I paid
£500 for it, which was about £480 more than it was worth, and looking back I should have known as much. But Hamilton B. - I shan’t give you his full name as I intend being quite nasty about him - gave every impression of being a good, conscientious and thorough mechanic, and who, furthermore, made a great deal out of being a Seventh Day Adventist who attended church several times a week. So I reasoned that even though the Maestro he palmed off on me looked like nothing more than a mobile wreck, it must, at least, be mechanically sound if Hamilton was selling it. Looking back, I find it almost impossible to believe that I could have been so gullible. I was 49 and no less cynical than I am now. I should have realised something was amiss with both Hamilton and the car when within weeks of buying the Maestro (which was red like the one pictured), he ‘serviced’ it, only for it to break down on the way back from Plymouth. I opened the bonnet and immediately found a rather large spanner lying loose next to the battery, which most certainly should not have been there and which Hamilton had forgotten to remove. The reason for the breakdown was obvious: the lead to one of the battery terminals was loose and kept slipping off the battery. But I still remained loyal to Hamilton and still I allowed him to service and MoT both cars for several more years. Looking back I find it hard to believe my idiocy, but that was the truth.
The Maestro’s end came rather suddenly when it developed a very severe leak from the radiator and I blew the head gasket. The last journey I ever made in her was quite eventful. On the Sunday, I had barely managed to limp to Exeter station to get to London, and knew I would be in for trouble on my return journey several days later. I gathered as many plastic milk bottles as I could find from the canteen at work, and once back in Exeter on the Wednesday night, I filled them all with water and set off on the 60-mile drive home across Dartmoor (which is not quite as bleak as it sounds, as it is dual carriageway almost all the way). I had filled the radiator on my departure - there can be no talk here of ‘topping it up’ because pouring several litres of water into the radiator and watching it gush out of the other end just moments later is a lot more than merely ‘topping it up’ - but I could only manage to drive ten miles or so before I had to stop to refill it. On my second or third stop, I realised that I was also losing a great deal of oil and that I also had to ‘top that up’. The drive home to the small village in which we live usually takes just over an hour. That last journey in that particular Maestro - believe it or not I subsequently bought another whose fate was equally tragic - took almost five hours. I was finally forced to abandon the car two miles from home in the middle of Bodmin Moor after the engine seized up and would no longer respond to generous doses of extra oil. I walked the rest of the way home and got in at just before 5am.
I had just four days to find another car in which to get to Exeter station, and that is when I came across the second Maestro. It only cost me £200 and seemed like something of a bargain. It had supposedly been owned by the father of the man who ran the garage in St Kew Highway and had been taken off the road when the engine manifold broke. The deal was that for my £200 I would get the Maestro, a new manifold and a 12-month MoT. There was a problem of sorts, however. For some reason the temperature gauge indicated that the engine was overheating although, oddly, it wasn’t doing anything of the kind. But seeing the dial sitting well in the red does not make for happy motoring, and I never felt comfortable in that car. Nor did I have her for long. One morning, I arrived back at Exeter, after taking the sleeper from Paddington, at 4.15am (my shift pattern was quite erratic at the time) to find that the car had been stolen. It was found in Exmouth several days later, and as the thief had wrecked the steering column when he broke in, it was a write-off. The only good thing about owning that second Maestro was that, for once, I didn’t lose money on her: although I had paid £200 to buy the car, I had told my insurers she was worth £350. They offered me £275 scrap value, so I actually made £75.
It was around this time that the first Volvo, a 360 GTE Turbo Fuel Injection Twin-Cam Gti TiG iTg Touring Saloon with little pink spots (or something like that) breathed its last and was shunted of the the great scrapyard in the sky (well, in Bodmin, actually) and none too soon. This was my wife's runaround and all sorts of things were going wrong: the sunroof was leaking badly, and as is the manner of the more mechanically-inclined woman, for at least a year she had attempted to solve this problem by stemming the leaks with a number of old tea towels. I knew none of this because I never used the Volvo and didn’t get into it in a month of Sundays. I did eventually find out because I did once have to use the car on one rainy day and was upset to get a pint of rainwater down my neck as soon as I pulled off. Her ingenuity with tea towels was not always very effective. There and then I resolved to buy my wife the best, most practical new car money could be, but in the event sanity and economic necessity prevailed and I found her another Volvo for £395, which she has been driving for the past three years, although I am bound to admit not exactly trouble-free. But I take the view that most problems are character-building and take pride in the fact that her character is immensely stronger since I have been buying her cars to get around in.
Incidentally, regular readers will recall how when I was younger I owned two Austin Allegros. I think I pointed out in an earlier entry that Allegros were regarded with derision bordering on sheer contempt by lads who took their cars seriously and revered Jeremy Clarkson. I should point out that when the Allegro passed into motoring history, that mantel was taken on by the Maestro. Owning and driving a Maestro was seen as convenient shorthand for the owner and driver being a total pillock. All I can say in attempted mitigation is that I have never claimed to be ‘a lad’, and that my one concern when buying a car is to get as good a value a car as possible for as little money as possible. That I have rarely achieved it is neither here nor there, but it does explain why I am content to be regarded with derision by a large section of the British public. To put it another way, I really don’t give a stuff.
Within days I had bought a replacement, yet another Rover. This was the model which was more or less a re-badged Honda. To help Rover solve the latest of its many financial crises, Honda had done a deal and agreed to allow the company to adopt and sell one of its designs, although in time Rover developed its own engine for the model. I bought the car from a garage just north of Camelford for £800, and it wasn’t a bad buy. I had it for just over three years, the car provided good service, with relatively few crises. It did have a terrible tendency for various electrical components in the engine to get damp if it rained for more than a day, but the trouble was almost always the rotor arm in the distributor, so whenever I called out the RAC, I invariably invited them to take a look at that first, which they did and which always got me going again sooner rather than later.
By this time I had abandoned commuting to London by train after being let down once too often by First Great Western, but driving up and down meant I was clocking up an enormous number of miles - a rough estimate would be that I drove around 25,000 a year - and that took its toll. The car began to look ratty and when I spotted another Rover which was several years younger and for which only £750 was being asked, I bought her. Unfortunately, I had that one for barely five months: driving rather too fast in a narrow, winding Cornish country lane just south of St Endellion (and, to tell the truth, after drinking just a little too much sherry with my stepmother who I had been visiting in her care home), I collided head-on with a county council van. The van was coming up the hill, I was driving down the hill, and we were both going too fast. The car was another write-off, although oddly enough the damage was such that I was able to limp home at about 8mph and then limp on further to the garage north of Camelford to see whether I could find a replacement in time for my weekly journey to London. As usual, my luck was in, and Rob Gibbon, who owns and runs the garage, sold me yet another Rover. This one wasn’t in quite as nice condition, but beggars can’t be choosers, and once again he was asking my sort of price.
That Rover cause me no major or even minor upsets, but it was long in the tooth when I bought it and was even longer in the tooth when I handed it back to Rob in part exchange for the car I now drive - yes, another Rover, which also cost £800. My relationship with this one got off to rather a bad start when it became apparent that the alarm needed attention - it kept going off for no very good reason - but that was finally sorted out, although I didn’t have the car for three weeks, during which time I was back driving the Rover I had part-exchanged which Rob was using as a courtesy car. It is only fair to come clean and admit that this new Rover has one small and very unimportant, although niggling, fault in that a bearing in the gearbox needs to be replaced, but with luck that will be done before Christmas. The major thing in this current Rover’s favour is that she doesn’t look like a complete wreck. Even though I say so myself, this one is halfway decent looking. And as I have reached the respectable 60 and am expected to behave like a real grown-up, that is only as it should be.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

An sincere apology to a previous reader, how we can be extremely insensitive without meaning to be and, perhaps, a lesson learnt

I have one follower who has come out and declared herself. You will see a link to her blogs to the right of these words. I also have another follower who is a little more in the shadows, who professes, I can only accept sincerely, to be baffled by the kind of technology which makes a blog such as this possible, and who, thus, does not have his own blog.
Until a few days ago, I did have a third reader, who also declared herself to be a follower, and there was also a link to her blog to the right. It has now, however, disappeared. And I fear I have inadvertently upset her. I shall go on to explain how it might have happened, but before I go any further I shall ask her to forgive me - she will know I am addressing her - and I shall ask her to accept that there might have been a misunderstanding. If I am right and offence was taken, it was not due to oversensitivity on her part. If anything, it was down to a certain tactlessness on mine.
Some readers might know, because I mentioned as much in this blog when I was writing from Ibiza, that while I was on holiday, I came across by chance a copy of A People’s History Of The United States by a very respected historian called Howard Zinn. The purpose of his history was that it should serve as an antidote to other histories of America which told the story of the nation, so to speak, top down. He wanted to tell the history through the stories tribulations of the ordinary man and woman - the indentured servants who were all too often treated as no more than white slaves, the black slaves themselves, the native Americans, the immigrants who were played off against each other to compete for scarce work. I learnt a great deal from that book.
I was aware, in broad outline, of the history of slavery in America, but I did not know much of the detail. And while reading the book I came to realise what a horrifying, unspeakably evil detail it was and is. And I feel - I hope - that perhaps I understand a little better the deep sensitivity of Afro-Americans in matters of colour and their existence, and the reality of their lives both past and present. But it seems that I touched upon that sensitivity rather roughly, although inadvertently, in a previous entry to this blog, and for that I am truly sorry indeed. It was sincerely unintended. I think the reader concerned will know what I am talking about, so I don’t feel there is a need to be more explicit as this entry is almost entirely intended for her eyes only. From what I gathered from looking at this particular reader’s blog, she is wholly or partly of Afro-American descent and from what she writes on her blog very aware of the past lives of her forefathers and foremothers. The chances are that she has already given up on reading this blog, but if she does occasionally take a look, I hope she reads this and accepts my apologies.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A share tip from a certified sucker who is otherwise highly sceptical of ‘a sure thing’

Looking through this blog and the different entries in order to track down any literals and other cock-ups which have so far remained unspotted, I notice that, apart from the interminable account of the various decrepit cars I have owned - one last instalment still to come, but don’t hold your breath because even I am becoming a little bored - many of the most recent entries have centred on newspapers, journalism, newsroom and hack. So it’s time for a little respite: I should like to give you all a share tip.

I am not at all wealthy, but I do own some shares after transferring my miniscule pension pot from Abbey Life (motto: Trust Us, We’re Not Quite As Bent As The Rest) to a SIPP (self-invested pension plan). Years ago, in fact as long ago as the recession in the early Nineties, I reasoned that one of the few companies actually to thrive in a recession would be pawnbrokers, and that were I ever in a position to buy shares, I would invest in a pawnbrokers. I didn’t take all my money from Abbey Life to invest in the SIPP until about 2005, but once I had decided to do so, I looked up (the posh, rather, pompous technical term is researched, but I will stick with the phrase ‘looked up’) which of the pawnbroking firms was listed on the stock exchange, and I came across Albemarle & Bond. I bought 3,117 when they were around 158p and they immediately shot up to 220p (well, not immediately, over a matter of weeks). In 2007, when they hit 240 I sold 2,000. Over the next to years, they were up and down, but generally hovered around the 210 mark. In the late autumn of last year, they were even over 270, but I wasn't paying attention and missed out on selling (the theory being to sell, wait for the price to plummet, then to buy again. That’s the theory.)

However, in recent weeks, they have taken another lead up and are now at 248, while the rest of the market, though recovering, is lagging a little behind such enthusiasm. We all know, or think we know, what the business of pawnbrokers is, and it might strike my more sensitive readers as being a bit - well, off - to profit from the misfortune of others, but, in fact and by chance, I have discovered that pawnbrokers are also largely engaged in the business to lending money to people who are by no means on their uppers.

So my tip for the day: buy Albemarle & Bond. I doubt very much that they will be going bust in these next few years.

If you want to find out more about the company, you can do so here.
A while ago, I came across a firm of bailiffs who were also quoted on AIM and was considering buying into them. But I had a word with a chap on the City desk who pointed out that firms of bailiffs do not always attract characters of the highest moral fibre, mainly because of the kind of work they are engaged in, so it would not be unfair to assume that when it came to their bookkeeping, they might not be as scrupulous - and, crucially, might not treat their shareholders as fairly - as they should do. I took heed of his warnings.

By way off illuminating why I am otherwise rather sceptical of ‘sure things’, I’ll take you back to 1973 when I lived Milan for a while and was teaching English, and when I was caught hook line and sinker by a gang in one of the Metro stations working the three-card trick. In their case, it was a three blocks of wood, each with a rubber band around it and one had a postage stamp stuck to its underside. I watched for a while and thought I noticed that on the block with the postage stamp the rubber band was skew-whiff. ‘Ah,’ I thought to myself, ‘I don't have to keep an eye on the block with the stamp, I just have to look for the block with the skew-whiff rubber band when he stops.’ Well, and I’m sure you’ve guessed, they were streets ahead of me.

They always know a sucker when they come across one, and I was - and possibly still am - one of the biggest. I had already been hooked when a previous ‘winner’ had enlisted my help while he got his money out. He took my hand and placed it on the ‘winning’ block, thus making me feel a part of his victory and ensuring I was persuaded it was possible to win. I knew I had been well and truly suckered as soon as I told the guy to stop and I would point out the block with the postage stamp. I knew because of the certainty with which he asked me to hand over my stake. I knew! But I handed it over anyway and, of course, I was wrong. I reckon that the gang was at least 4/5 strong and consisted of the player with the rest of them making up the crowd around him, ‘winning’ and thus attracting suckers like me. To this day I feel stupid. Oh well.