Lincoln Drill Hall

Lincoln Drill Hall
Lincoln Drill Hall

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding

This is teen fiction set in the late 18th century. It begins with an engaging heroine, Cat, an orphan who is 'adopted' by a theatre company. I can see parallels with Lyra in her Oxford College. Within the first 60 pages Cat has been involved in s street fight as a result of protecting a black child actor. She earns a beating for her efforts. The book is evidence of the popularity of Julia Golding.
The language is slightly archaic as is often found in historical fiction and I wonder to what extent this helps.
There are humorous characters. I watched Star Wars for the first time last evening. I was struck by the importance of the droid side kicks in adding humour and providing the child viewer with a friend.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The nationalisation of capital

Earlier this month interest rates went to an new low, the rate current in the year of my birth. This places what is happening in a different context: it is no longer about a theoretical world of money; it is about the lives of the baby boomers. We began in the post war reconstruction, although we didn't know it, we had never had it so good. We moved into the white heat of technology and the fear or expectation of socialism. Perhaps neither happened. Then into Europe and winters of discontent, millions unemployed. From here the unions were crushed and deregulation first appeared, but in the name of financial proberty, the day of the monetarist. I suppose we then went into never never land as the western economy grew on a fiction, or perhaps two fictions, that financial services create wealth and that asset values will always rise giving everyone infinite scope for personal borrowing. The merry-go-round then came to a shuddering halt and many fell off.
We have witnessed central government taking on what is, in effect, that irrational borrowing of individuals: a negative income tax of some sort. Commentators are talking about a new capitalism. I wonder what this might mean. Will we, some years hence, read a party manifesto arguing for the privatisation of money? At current interest rates, capital has meagre reward. Would anyone want it?

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Pension Scheme funding

No, don't go to sleep; this one matters. You will recall the interplay between three or four numbers which drive the result of an actuarial valuation: inflation, wage increases, pension increase and equity premium. On these four hang all the law and the profits [sic]. A key question is the equity premium post credit crunch. The FTSE is where is was ten years ago, having been 50% higher both last year and twelve years ago. The equity premium is the amount by which returns from equities will exceed those from gilt edged stock (government bonds). The argument has to be that the premium will now be considerably higher; the starting point being considerably lower. This assumes that in the fullness of time the market will once again rise to 6000. I recall that when it did first time round, I thought it has assumed the growth for he next ten years. (One day I must follow my instincts.)
The question is whether it will rise again, or whether we truly are in a new world.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Engelby

Sebastian Faulkes takes his reader through territory which will be familiar to men and women or a certain age. Some of the territory was only previously seen, or rather imagined, behind closed door: the excesses of bullying at a public school, recreational drug habits. Other territory is more directly familiar, working life in London in the eighties. The first person narration is so wonderfully direct. Often it is a conversation with the reader. Time ebbs and flows but the navigation is well signposted. There are cameos from elsewhere: bits from the worlds of Birdsong and Charlotte Grey.

Half way and two things occur to me. He's writing a blog. Actually he is writing a blog of our generation. When I posted my first note there was something hovering in the mind which I wasn't quite ready to write. It is about war and the generation to which the author and I belong. We are certainly tinged with guilt. As Engleby puts it, his grandfather fought in the Great War and his father in the second; all we have to combat is feminism (page 198 if you don't believe me). His blog is wide ranging as he takes us through the events and personalities of our shared lives.
The second point to occur is that the character seems to be running along OK on increasingly interesting work supported less and less by pills and booze. The flip side of this is that before with less interest and more booze there must have been an imbalance. So the hints start about Jen. I had wondered at the time and no doubt will be kept wondering. The trouble is that when a possibility such as this emerged in a novel, the instinct is the read as quickly as possible to find out. It will be interesting to see what he does to grab attention to other things.

This is clever writing. Jen was painted in such a good light that whoever killed her demands capital punishment at the very least. Yet, we have spent time with Engleby, we have suffered with him, found a little bit of happiness with him. I find myself reading more and more slowly. I don't want to see what now appears inevitable, that he killed her. One particular way Faulkes achieves this is through the two time frames. It is masterly.

It has taken a long time to get there, with the interruptions of daily life, but it has been so worthwhile. I seem to recall someone saying that they don't always finish a book. In this case (using the immortal words from Pretty Women) BIG MISTAKE.
I think I mentioned in an earlier blog the way that Faulks seems to be writing all our stories (that is those of us of a certain age). At the end of Engleby he dreams or fantasises perhaps that he is Jen and that the story could so easily have run differently. Not infrequently Engleby makes comments about genetics and the overwhelming similarity we have to other species; the point being that the differences are so marginal. So Engleby could so easily have been different, not bullied, not unhappy, not driven to killing the girl he loved and so longed to be loved by.
It is the experience of everyman, life is steered by marginal differences but to the most huge consequence. The chance of being born in England or Ethiopia.
Having now read quite a few of his work I think I can see that it is only by writing that a good writer becomes better.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Keynes, Bretton Woods 2, Citigroup and Alice

These really are heady days and feel rather like Wonderland. Is Mr Brown the Rabbit?
Last weekend was billed the great Bretton Woods 2 and those closet Keynsians amongst us perhaps felt our eyes water a little as the great man was dusted off. The difference is that last time he had spent months of preparation and even then only just manged to get his point across. It strikes me that the extent and level of thinking is a shadow of what went before.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

BT and efficiency

It is the old story, our work force has reduced from 250,000 to 160,000 and may well fall further as we seek to be more efficient for our customers. The announcement of BT's figures this morning showed a business that was growing but whose profits had fallen slightly. The market actually responded positively, having previously fallen on a profits warning.
Is a business more efficient if it employs fewer people? It is more profitable if it has lower costs. It is more effective if it gives its customers the service they seek. This perhaps naive, but there is scope for a debate. Last time businesses shed people and those people cost huge sums in unemployment benefits. The question is, who really benefits?

Sophie Parkin - Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites

Sophie is coming as guest speaker in a week's time and I am writing up her talk. I had looked at her website and at extracts from her novels but now I have her latest teen novel in my hands. She writes in the first person and I would say finds the voice of a teenage girl - the daughter in My Family. The opening seems to hang loose from the central action, but Parkin too knows her Aristotle as the visit from the school teacher to the bizarre family Christmas is given meaning as she quotes from the book her gave her on Morocco. The inciting incident is the coming of the French boy whom both friends fancy. Thus far most of the conflict about this is internal to Lily the protagonist.

I have come to the camel bite and the trip to the bazaar and I admit surprise. I am enjoying this book aimed at teenage girls. The protagonist has a convincing character; her voice is authentic and we spend a lot of time with her. The other characters are well shaped and the conflict is gentle but never far away. It is part overt but part internal and this is a strength.

I have finished Camel Bites and really liked it, which worries me. I am a tad older than a teenager and surely seriously out of touch; I would be fascinated to see how actual teenagers react (I will have a look at some reviews). Three things interested me in particular. There is a strong moral element; educational information is provided both by the lines in French, but also by the description of Tangier; finally prayer is given what seem to be genuine space as Lily enters a church and tells of her problems. If these things are acceptable to a 21st century audience then tell me where I begin.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

In Cold Blood

This is a provisional post having read the first forty pages, that is up to the inciting incident. It is reportage. I had the opportunity to compare it to Mary Wesley's Camomile Lawn (bear with me there is a point here!). I picked up this book at 3am to get me back to sleep. It was a mistake since the characters in the TV series flooded through my mind. The book though was disappointingly wooden. The first pages are close packed back story quite undisguised as dialogue or any such thing. Capote also has to communicate a load of background and also uses some chunky paragraphs but in his case punctuated by some showing in dialogue and action. I am stuck how much I dislike being told something in a book.
I will now read on and report back in a day or two.

I will write my impressions of this novel as I work my way through it. Having had the aloof reportage from the prologue, the description becomes more vivid as the moment of the murder approaches. An example is the pain in Perry's knees (p54) Perhaps I begin to see some force within Perry which results in the hideous crime? But the description generally becomes sharper. At around about page 60 a first person narrator becomes prominent. The eye witness accounts add to the gradual build up.

The slow progress is all down to my granddaughter - so no apologies!
The author is showing us two sets of characters: those grouped round the family decimated by the crime, and the criminals. He then paints both groups with the same sympathetic pallet. As readers the temptation is to cry out condemn, but he won't. He seems to offer very little in the way of clues to allow us to make the connection. Equally he doesn't, as yet, let us get close only to be disappointed. Yet I read on.
The style of writing as revealed by the page layout is intriguing. It is what I have previously referred to a reportage but interspersed with remembered speech and in some cases dialogue. This latter has the effect of making it feel that we are being shown rather than told.


I accept it is embarrassing how long I am spending reading this book. My defence is that there is plenty going on at the same time. The advantage is that there is an opportunity to savour after each short burst of reading.
I have just come through the part where Capote gives the texts of an exchange of letters between Perry and his sister plus a critique of the latter's writing offered by Perry's evangelical friend. These documents offer deep insights into Perry's character such that the reader is slowly nudged toward believing that Perry could have murdered. (I am not there yet).
The detective is not shown drink coffee and upturning clues, rather we are shown a view of the effect the investigation is having on his health and his marriage. This is deeply human stuff.

The problem with this is how on earth is the vital clue going to be uncovered. The answer comes in chapter 3 where the only person who can make the connection begins to do so and in a convincing way.

Capote takes his reader through the trial and into the time when execution is awaited. In the TV court room drama the focus is on the verdict, with sub plots, often of loose connection, slotted in to keep attention. Capote sticks closely to Aristotle’s rule that the focus must always be on the Action/idea. We are told about the characters, but all the time the focus is utterly clear. It is a density of writing that perhaps Salman Rushdie used in Midnight Children. It offers the reader a much deeper but also more rounded experience. It knocks on the head the desire on the part of the writer to engage in flights of fancy as the plot wonders hither and thither. Be utterly clear what the point is and stick to it.

A great book





So the real culprit was economic growth

The new chief executive of RBS, Stephen Hester, interviewed by Robert Peston on this morning's Today Programme (4 November 2008) blamed the years of good economic performance for the excesses that led to the tidal waive of bad debts. This links in an interesting way to Saturday's Guardian Review and the book by Niall Ferguson The Ascent of Money. It would seem that there is a point at which the financial markets detach from anything resembling real economy. The knee jerk reaction to this is evident in politicians of the left who now queue up to preach the gospel of manufacturing, failing to notice that cost profiles make this a pipe dream for western economies. Yet the answer is not the focus on financial services from which we are now all reeling. It boils down to finding new ways to add value.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

JM Keynes

Is it possible that we have been Keynsian all along?

If we look back over the years of uninterupted economic growth, we see beyond question that it was funded by borrowing. Much of that borrowing has resulted in bad debts to the lenders, many of whom have been bailed out; by whom? Isn't this public borrowing by another name?

The Guardian (28 October 2008) headline 3 trillion lost, makes the inocent look round for a very large hole. Where has it gone? Indeed where did it come from in the first place? Pension schemes are a major source of investment and a great many of these are now money purchase. That is a frightening part of the answer. Looking back though at the way in which the ftse has moved, the story is, if anything, more chilling. There is a shifting sea of value, but it would seem a sea with a plug hole with plug removed.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Vince Cable

Monday's Guardian (27 October 2008) offers an appropriate reminder that the LibDems' treasury spokesman did make warning noises about house prices and the level of personal debt. The point remains though that it was in no one's interests to do so. A parallel is drawn of the other voice in the wilderness before WW2. Again, what incentive did Churchill have and were we really so surprised that government sought to shake him off. It is the problem of the status quo - it works in the short term, so why rock it?

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Greenspan

It was an article in a magazine, the subject of which has bubbled to the surface of my mind periodically over the fifteen or so intervening years, from time to time really quite fiercely: an interview with the then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. The magazine was Newsweek, I think, and its text the safe, massive hand on the world’s economic tiller. The article was a eulogy. There had been times through the Bush and Carter administrations when Greenspan had appeared fallible; poor economic performance is hardly the badge of the successful Fed chairman. Yet once times began to look good he became the alchemist, the wizard of Oz; consumer lead demand was the answer and we will trust the banks not to lend too much.
In Friday’s Guardian (24 October 2008) the front page announces: ‘Greenspan – I was wrong about the economy. Sort of.’ It goes on to report Greenspan’s appearance before the congressional committee, how the long term cheer leader of deregulation, had found a flaw, got it partially wrong. Nils Pratley in Viewpoint is adamant that Greenspan must share the blame. Pratley’s style brims with irony: ‘it turns out that banking executives couldn’t be relied on to act in shareholder’s interests. They enriched themselves, didn’t understand the risks they were taking, and then brought down the roof on everybody. Golly, who could have predicted that?’
The answer, Mr Pratley, is that if any one did, they kept mighty quiet about it. Monetarism in the sense of controlled public borrowing; financial market deregulation and the imperative of debt funded consumer demand all conspired to ignite an economy that sped along for nearly two decades only to collapse in a heap. The point was that it was in no-one’s interests to question whether it worked; it worked only so long as people believed it did. As soon as belief wavered there was only ever one direction in which it could go.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Pension Schemes and the dreaded crunch

This is when it comes real.
The first example is of money purchase invested as advised in equities. This is frightening stuff. Will a FTSE of 6000 ever return? It should; we have been there twice before. But it might be that the cash needed to drive it has gone elsewhere. The image as always is of a tray awash with cash. It tilts this way and that: sometimes into equities, others to commercial property, others to gold. Will the weakness of the pound have an impact? Just note these points in the context of who has money purchase plans.
The next is of the young final salary scheme. There must only be one and I am a trustee of it. there is a paradox. The actuary has to take market value and so there is huge deficit. But we can buy cheap. This may well translate into lower future contributions. We shall see.
The mature scheme is the money purchase writ large. The trustees have two choices. Ask for yet more contribution or reduce benefits.
None of this is pretty stuff. Keep working.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Heart of Darkness

I have been longing to read this book ever since it took centre stage in the myth module. For me since then it became a myth. Marlow and Kurtz took on flesh both staring intently at the Golden Bough. Now I have read it. I was back in the Scramble for Africa, in the Brussels Museum, in the yet to be written story of my father who went to East Africa in his late teens before WW1. Marlow on the ship in the Thames was surreal. The archetypal story teller talking to Everyman. He then journeys into Africa and into himself. Had I the time I could read endless commentaries, as it is for now I will make do with my own take. Pilgrims, forestsstaves are words not associated with Africa. Cannibals are and how interesting to read unemotional justification. I was looking forward to long conversations with Kurtz but they never come. Everything comes to Marlow as myth and in his own imagination.
I will read it again one day.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Is the equity a thing of the past?

Jill Treanor's report in The Guardian of 20 October 2008 highlighted the concerns of small shareholders with the prospect of the part nationalised bank ceasing to pay dividends until the state investment is repaid. The point made is that such shareholders invest for a steady income and not for a fast buck. This surely is the crux of the matter: there is a mismatch, investors are looking for steady income, companies are in need of risk capital.
The notion of risk capital was so vividly highlighted in the events of the week leading up to the rescue package. Share capital in a balance sheet is eroded in accounting terms when losses are recorded. Far more vividly the collapse of s hare price has now accounting significance but massive implications should the business in question need to go to the market to replenish its capital base. This genre of investment is hardly appropriate for widows and orphans and by that same token pension schemes. Are we moving to a position where there is a resurgance of the preference share?

Friday, 17 October 2008

City regulation

The interview with Lord Turner in the Guardian of 17 October 2008 sets an agenda for the new era of banking. There are though all sorts of echoes coming through the mists of the years of what was really free for all banking. Behind it all stalks the ghosts of Reaganomics and its insistence in controlling public expenditure and allowing the market to do the rest. What seems to have happened is that the private borrowing fuelled by the loosely regulated banks and encouraged by the market which needed it to pump money through the retail and building sectors has ended up on the public balance sheet as bank bail out. This though perhaps is cynical.
One aspect not touched on in Lord Turner's interview is the question of accounting disclosure. Just how could an investor in RBS, for example, know the quality of its assets. There seems to be a mutlidimensional aspect to both assets and liabilities which needs to be understood if a rational investment decision is to be made.
It will be intersting to see how the new regulatory environment unfolds.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Philip Marsden The Main Gages

This book is set in Cornwall in the 1930s. It has a protagonist, Jack, who comes to the sea as an adult and grows in his knowledge of it as the book progresses. The antagonist is the sea and this is painted richly from first hand knowledge by the author but supplemented by extensive research. There is an artistic sub plot with echoes for me from DH Lawrence who was in Cornwall at about the same time. The development of tourism brings out an interest of mine in seeing who did well in the interwar years. The inciting incident is the rushed repair of a ship for trips for hotel guests; the antagonist become the demon money personified by Bryant the industrialist from Birmingham. The crisis is when the fuel cap is left off allowing water into the engine. The wreck which follows is told in what I would term reportage. The surprise comes that the disaster is not of this ship which is saved but rather the life boat which does the saving. The wreck scenes are pages turners, so much so that there was a temptation to skip some of the sub plot passages which intervened.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

So many ways to begin - Jon McGregor

First fulsome praise for independent bookshops, the Falmouth Bookseller in particular. I wanted to read books which set the world of work alongside domestic life. They had recommended Revolutionary Road and I loved that (see earlier blog). They also recommended this. It has a little less of the work place that is relevant to me but so much more.
The style to begin with put me off. I couldn't cope with dialogue and no speech marks. But slowly I got used to it and began to wonder why in reported speech we use speech marks at all.
The story follows the rhythm of a man looking through those things he has collected through life. With each object or paper there is a memory. The memories slowly fill in what for me was a jigsaw. As with jigsaws I found myself guessing what the missing pieces might be. Slowly McGregor yields them up and the picture becomes clearer.
His style is gentle as is his treatment of his characters. The feeling is of an author who genuinely cares for his creation.
In a way it is reminiscent of Penelope Lively's The Photograph.
Jon McGregor has written another work of great quality.