Friday, April 29, 2016

No more EU for now (except, of course, to mention ‘no more EU for now’), but the eternal, infrenal itching now has a name - great! - and I plan my next invasion of Europe. Sorry, wan’t going to mention Europe, was I?

I have to say that for some odd reason I have held off posting here for several weeks because my main urge was simply to repeat how insufferable the whole should we/shouldn’t we stick it up the EU/cement the sacred relationship we have with our European cousins? campaign has been. But as I would merely be repeating what I said in an earlier post - a plague on both their houses - it seemed rather pointless.

Were I to do such a post, there would be much to report, for example the fury of the Fuck The EU camp when President Obama warned the U.S. would stop sending tourists to London if Britain left the EU, which naturally roused the Brexiteers to fury even had one Boris Johnson - not my favourite person and something of a nine-bob note - rather gracelessly refer to Obama as ‘half-Kenyan’.

Then there’s the strange alliance of God and Satan who have temporarily come to a truce and jointly come out to warn that if Britain does not vote to remain in the EU, that’s it - Armageddon (to which both, of course, though for their different reasons, are looking forward with some pleasure. (So why aren’t they supporting Brexit? You didn’t think that one throught, did you, Patrick? Ed.) So, for the time being, no more EU in these hallowed pages.

. . .

Well, the itching which has been the bane of my life since last October has got a name: hives, or if you want to use the posh medial term uritcaria. And if you want to use another posh medical term and make as though you know what you are talking about, call it idiopathic urticaria.

We already know what uritcaria means. Idiopathic means - well, in a sense it doesn’t mean anything because doctors use it when they don’t know what is causing a disorder, illness, rash or, in my case, itch. After visiting my GP and being referred to a dermatologist, I have now been prescribed an anti-histamine. I was already taking one, but the new one, fexofenadine hydrochloride, was prescribed by the dermatologist and she said it ‘was better’. Well, better or worse, from folk who adopt posh-sounding pseudo-Latin words such as ‘idiopathic’ to hide the fact they don’t know what’s actually going on, I’ll take it with a pinch of salt.

As you can imagine, I have been scouring the internet for info and can tell you this: for most folk hives come and go in a few hours or a day. For some poor unfortunate schmucks such as me, the
are chronic (where chronic doesn’t mean ‘really bad’ as most people think, but ‘ongoing/long-lasting’). I have to say it isn’t half as bad as it was from last October to the end of February when a perfectly good and respectable weekend in Rome was ruined and consisted mainly of spending the very boring day at Fiumicino airport itching like fuck, waiting for a 10pm flight to Gatwick and wanting to be nowhere else but home. Maybe that’s the antihistamines.

I have also taken to eating a bowl of three chopped up satsumas and half a tub of Greek youghurt for breakfast, and although it hasn’t cured the itching, it has done wonders for the rough, red, dry skin I had on my arms and perhaps on my back, though I could never get around there to take a look. (NB Picture posed by model and for illustration purposes only. I’m a bit older than that.)

The odd thing is that for the past 50 years I thought I didn’t like yoghurt (and I’m talking about the natural, unblemished stuff, not the heavily sweetened and flavoured stuff which has enough e-numbers to form a Yorkshire chorus). Then I tried it and decided I do actually like it. Admittedly, it has an acquired taste, but it is a taste I have since acquired. I must be honest and add that I do sprinkle just a little sugar over it all, but I’m sure - we’re all liberal free-thinkers now, aren’t we? - you’ll find it in your hearts to forgive me. The odd thing is that given that the worst seems to be over - fingers crossed - and I am now reduced to slight tickling and itching all over my arms, scalp and torso, I realise I have been suffering from mild hives for some years, because I have long felt like this, though I didn’t think much of it.

. . .

My next holiday is booked: ten days in some ski resort in Austria which has a spa. It’s called Bad Gastein. I can’t for the life of me remember how I hit upon the place except that it had something to do with looking up possible quite spots in the Appennines for a break and then somehow travelling just a little further north on the map.

Then, using Expedia, and having settled on Bad Gastein, I hunted down some three/four start hotels and a flight and found Pension St Leonhard which isn’t exactly a hotel in that they only do breakfast (which, of course, many other hotels only do, too) and the front desk shuts at 6pm (understandable as it is ‘family-run’. It remains to be seen whether that is an Austrian Addams family - after all, they do have form).

After my experience of wasting a perfectly good weekend because of the bloody itching which ruined that trip to Rome, I had held of booking a proper holiday, as I dind’t want to spend several hundred pounds to fly somewhere far away, then spend ten days holed up in a hotel room, scratching and feeling very sorry for myself. But once the antihistamines began doing their bit and I was once again sleeping through the night (although two nights ago was something of an ordeal) and when I discovered that at work available weeks to be taken off were rapidly diminishing, I there and then got on my computer and booked. And it’s great to have something to look forward to.

As usual I am making no plans. I shall be taking with me two or three books (of which one is Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx if I can find it again) and enought underwear to keep me respectable and that is it: as far as I am concerned the whole point of holiday is to have no duties,
no plans, no schedule, no obligations, just time off to do what the bloody hell you like, and if that means sitting in an Alpine field surrounded by cows with bells doing absolutely fuck all, so be it. My one stipulation when finding a hotel was that it had wifi internet (and not only because I have to carry on doing the puzzles for the Mail while I am away, but also because courtesy of a useful browser extension I shall also be able to watch Sky Sports while abroad).

Apart from that it was just a question of looking at the reviews. I pay particular attention to the one-star reviews if there are any and gauge from what is said and what is complained of whether there is any reason for giving just one star or whether the complainant is just another bad-tempered perpetual whinger who would find fault with the Second Coming (and that would be someone like my wife). And I have to add the Pension St Leonhard, on Tripadvisor, gets 25 excellents and 10 very goods, and no review is below four-star. So I’m rather looking forward to it.

Friday, April 8, 2016

You want humility? Here’s real humility (well, sort of) and the sad tale of how I came to realised I am not the world’s greatest stock picker

Every so often I take a look at ‘the stats’ to see which of my previous posts have been read. There are a few evergreen favourites - the travails of M. Hollande, of 4, Factory Close, Versaille, France, are a perpetual favourite, as is more or less a post on what a bloody little shit T. Blair, of Duncheatin Palace, 1 Moneybags Avenue, George Town, Cayman Islands, is. My musings on Somerset Maugham also prove more popular than other posts, although I can’t suggest why.

Yesterday I noticed that an entry published on December 3, 2009, entitled ‘A share tip from a certified sucker who is otherwise highly sceptical of ‘a sure thing’ ’ had had two visitors. Intrigued about what I could possibly have to say, I went along and subsequently almost blushed with shame.

The first thing that struck me was how the qualifying ‘from a certified sucker who is otherwise highly sceptical of a “sure thing” ’ of the post’s title, apparently an innocent and modest disclaimer, is nothing of the kind. And in view of what I am about to tell you, you will realise just how conceited I was to write that entry in the first place.

You can follow the link above and go and skim through the post, but if you can’t be arsed - and I wouldn’t be offended if you can’t - I’ll sum it up: when, in about 2006 when I heard of SIPPs (self-invested pension plans), I decided that the very modest sum I had stashed away with some mickey-mouse company based in Bournemouth and which was growing at the astounding rate of 0pc per annum wouldn’t do any worse in a SIPP. (I had taken out the pension about 18 years earlier with Hill Samuel, but it was then sold on several times - they are actually allowed to do these things, believe it or not - until it ended up with the losers in Bournemouth.)

Most of the sum I transferred was invested in three funds which went on to do rather well - one doubled the amount invested in nine years - but I had a little left over. In 2006, we were still living in an age of ever-greater credit and the stock market was booming. But I suspected, given that we were still living in an age of ever-greater credit, that at some point the music would stop and the party would be over.

That’s exactly what happened a few years later, although I can’t claim any credibility as a soothsayer, because I didn’t know exactly when it would happen. I mean you wouldn’t hand the keys to the Meteorological Office over to some herbert who assured you that as sure as eggs were eggs,
it was bound to rain at some point in the next two months. I just suspected that it would happen, and knowing that when the economy got into the doldrums and people were very much feeling the pinch, shares would undoubtedly be hit, I asked myself what kind of business might be expected to thrive in a recession. Of course: pawnbrokers.

I did ‘a bit of research’, i.e. I googled ‘UK pawnbrokers share price’, and discovered only one was a limited company quoted on the London Stock Exchange, a company called Albemarle & Bond.

If I remember, I bought the shares when they cost about 62p each - and watched in delight as the price rose and rose and rose. By the end of 2009, when I wrote my entry giving my ‘share tip’ and faux-modestly explained that otherwise I knew nothing about picking great shares (but, of course, hinting the exact opposite) the share price had more than doubled. And better than that, it went on to hit £3 - a startling rise.

Well, if I really was that smart an alec and if I really did have the faintest clue as to what I was doing, I should have sold the lot at the point. I don’t know how much I had invested in Albemarle & Bond, but whatever it was would have grown to almost five times the amount. But I didn’t. Patrick, me lad, (I told myself) you are onto a winner! Just hang on in there and Albemarle & Bond shares will grow and grow and grow (and I don’t doubt that privately I reflected on just what a financial genius I was).

Well, as I don’t doubt you have already guessed (and wondered when they hell I will not just get on with it!), the fall which inevitably follows unwarranted pride came along in good time. Albemarle & Bond’s share price ended its starospheric rise and began what would eventually be a calamitous fall.

There were several reasons for this, as you can read here. But briefly, it made much of its money buying up the gold of men and women who, in the bad times which followed the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy had sold it all to help make ends meet. For a while the price of gold increased. Then it stopped increasing and fell again by over a quarter of its price. Then there was a second factor putting the break on all the good times and denting my imagined expertise as a stock picker: the competition Albemarle & Bond faced increasingly.

As it had not occurred to me that the price of its shares would not carry on rising for ever and a day, it didn’t seem to have occurrd to Mr Albermarle and Mr Bond that as their pawnbroking business thrived, others would take not of the moolah to be made and also move into pawnbroking to get a piece of the action. Which, of course, other firms did. Albemarle & Bond also made much of their money by giving short-term loans. And again other sharks weren’t slow to spot a winner, and the number of shyster firms also lending money in short-term loans at exorbitant prices exploded.

Finally, thinking they were onto a good thing Albemarle & Bond decided to expand. They announced that they were opening loads more branches throughout Britain and, crucially, borrowed a great deal of money to fund that expansion. Sadly, that was what is universally known as a Bad Move.

As business got a lot tougher, the new branches didn’t thrive, profits suffered and the share price went into reverse. I was - thank the bloody Lord - in the habit of keeping an eye on how the shares and funds in my SIPP were doing, and I noticed the decline in share price. Within months it was dropping from £3 to £2.50 to £2 and further. At first I wasn’t alarmed. ‘These things happen,’ this wise old owl of a financial wizard told himself. ‘Just hang on and it will go up again.’ But it didn’t, and finally realising just how unwise it would be to hang on in there, I sold up when the price hit £1.32.

Now that, admittedly, is not half as good as getting £3 per share, but at least I hadn’t lost the lot - as I would have done if I had hung on much longer in the hope the price would rise again: the share price dropped and dropped and dropped until Albemarle & Bond asked for trading to be suspended when it hit just 6p (£0.06).

Given the smug tone I managed to hit in the title of the original post - ‘A share tip from a certified sucker who is otherwise highly sceptical of ‘a sure thing’ - which implied that I was, of course, anything but a sucker, I shall admit quite clearly: I was lucky, very, very lucky. I would like to conclude by ‘well, that’s taught me a lesson’, but it hasn’t, of course. I - you, too, if you are honest, shall carry on believing my own bullshit, sadly. But at least I can recognise the odd occasion when Lady Luck as the good grace to suck my dick once in a while.

Things went from bad to worse for Albemarle & Bond without my help and the company is now once again a humble pawnbroker, all its dreams of grandeur and cutting a dash in the pawnbroking world in pieces. Here are two more pieces you can read about how fate caught up with Albemarle & Bond, one from the Guardian and one from its administrators PriceWaterhouseCooper.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Panama papers leaked: the Guardian fingers Putin (though why just him?). Then there’s another few nights at the St Endellion festival and I wonder why I can’t simply settle for being middle-class. But sadly I can’t

I must immediately be honest about this entry and state that it has less to do with what I am writing and posting a blog entry and a little more to do with the fact that I acquired a Bluetooth keyboard a while ago when I bought my iPad Air and have never used it. So now I am using it to write this. I am sitting outside La Pappardella restaurant in London’s Earls Court (or, as some would have it, Earl’s Court - no one know which is correct, so that’s both or neither) where I have been coming for my Sunday supper - I only work a single shift on Sunday’s after getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to London and am thus the other side of fresh - and where I then go outside to enjoy a cigar and another glass of wine or a sambuca.

I was sitting here just now when my son messaged me and asked me whether I had heard of the ‘Panama paper leaks’. I hadn’t, so I looked them up, first on the BBC News website and then on the Guardian website. The saintly Guardian’s story is centred on Vladimir Putin, although the BBC states that many other former and current heads of state and prime minister are involved. Briefly, a law firm in Panama called Mossack Fonseca has been helping various folk fleece their countries and build up fortunes. Putin is, for example, said to be in it for $2 billion dollars.

Well, I’m sure we’ll be hearing more of that over the coming days and weeks, so I shan’t blather on too much. But one thing I did tell my son was to look at the leak of the Mossack Fonseca documents in the round. By that I mean he should ask himself, as I’m sure are many other people: who was doing the leaking and, more pertinently, why these documents were leaked? The explanation could be anything from downright banal - a disaffected employee taking his chances - to something far more complicated. My bet is on the latter, although what is really going on we - Joe Ordinary like you and me - won’t find out for a long time or, to be honest, ever.

For me the first question was, I suppotes quite oddley: what is it that makes people want ever more money? I really, honestly, don’t understand. Certainly, most of us could do with a little more dosh as and when, and I shall in a few months’ time when I finally call it a day at the Daily Mail and retire. When I do that, my income will more than halve, but the bills will stay the same. But I can honestly say I really don’t want more.

Yes, I want enough to pay my bills and a little more to save for a rainy day as we say in Britain, but an extra $2 billion? What the fuck use is that? Does a nice gin and tonic really taste so much better because you are drinking it on some rich cunt’s yacht off the coast of Sicily? That is a rhetorical question, of course, but if you hadn’t grasped that, the answer - or at least my answer - is ‘of course it doesn’t’.  I have many faults, of course I do, as do you reading this, but in my case greed is really not one of them. But then I am not 20, 30, 40, 50 or even 60. And I am now closer to 70 than 60. Getting back to the Panama papers leak, well, let’s see what comes of it.

NB. This morning I came across these comments which might be of interest to you if you want to know more about the Panama Papers' leak.

. . .

I spent the past two evenings in the company of Michael ’Peter Simple’ Wharton’s widow Susan listening to some very fine music at the 2016 St Endellion Festival. I have written about it before and shall decline my usual imperative to make the same rather snide jokes about how the whole set-up is quite remorselessly English middle-class.

Yes, there were one or two younger folk there, but I bet the average age of attendees is around 50. Susan, who I like a lot and who is very good company, will be 90 next year (and, sadly, feeling it). I know, because she has told me, that their first few years after her husband died were hard and she felt very lonely.

She and Michael Wharton had no children, although he had four (of which two were really his, and two were born to his wife by another man). She was a working artist and art teacher when she was working and has a workshop but she feels (this she hasn’t told me, but I know this to be true because I am gradually feeling something similar myself) on the periphery. It is a young person’s world - think back to when you were young if you are my or even her age - and young people, as a rule, take rather less notice of their older compatriots than is comfortable for their older compatriots. So she knocks about the cottage she lives in in Buckinghamshire, I should think trying to come up with ways of filling and passing the time.

Susan is by no means wealthy but I’m sure she isn’t on her uppers, but loneliness is loneliness even for an emperor. The music we heard was, on the Friday night, Bach’s Mass in B minor, which if you like Bach, you will like very much indeed. I have the piece on my iPhone and was not completely unfamiliar with it, but - well, I like Bach and am continually fascinated at how he just kept writing such sublime music week in, week out.

On the Saturday were a piece by Beethoven for violin, cello, piano and orchestra (I can’t be more specific because I haven’t the programme to hand), a piece by Brahms in which he set a poem by Goethe to music, a piece by a Judith Weir and a James MacMillan and it ended with Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

That last - well, I haven’t heard it for about 40 years, but when I heard it last night, I realised it was one of the six or eight pieces I had on my three or four classical music LPs at college in the late
1960s and which I listened to again and again and again. So there was the odd and very welcome added pleasure of listening to a piece with which you are - in my case last night surprisingly - very familiar.  We were unable to attend any of the other concerts - on Sunday to Wednesday - because I was still up here in London, but I have promised her that by next year’s Easter festival I shall most certainly be retired and she must come for the whole week.

. . .

The odd thing about the St Endellion festival - and you might be able to tell this from my past and present snide remarks - is that, for better or worse - I simply do not and cannot identify with the rest of the gang who attend. For example, walking in we got chatting to one or two folk we - or rather I - was vaguely acquainted with, and without exception they all declared the previous night’s performance of the B minor mass ‘stupendous’ and ‘magnificent’ etc. Really?

Me, I have not heard the piece before performed live and, quite apart from the fact that my appreciation of classical music is merely that of an untutored listener, I have no way of knowing whether last Friday’s performance was good, OK, mediocre, bad, stupendous or awful. Yet it seems to be de rigueur for folk such as go along to such festivals as St Endellion to enthuse in superlatives. But I can’t do it. Sorry, but I can’t even if it is expected of me.

I suspect that is where I am more German than English. Ask a German his or her opinion and, as a rule, they will give you and honest answer, one which might even come across as blunt. Ask a middle-middle-middle type of English man or woman (though I’m sure the same applies to their Welsh, Irish and Scottish peers) and they seem obliged to enthuse beyond all reason.

Me, I enjoyed the performance because of the music. Certainly that music could and can be performed well or badly but, as I’ve pointed out, I am really in no position to judge. I suspect I would have enjoyed it had the performance been bad. Who knows?