Saturday, September 29, 2007

Thursday night on a suburban London train

I haven't been out much recently- at least not in the evenings.

The preparation for and arrival of young Luis, has affected life like the proverbial earthquake affects the landscape.

Therefore when I attended the retirement party this week and travelled home from the City around 11pm, it was with fresh eyes that I witnessed the antics on suburban trains especially at the end of the week- Thursday certainly counting in this respect.

First of all the train was full and had a slightly fetid sticky atmosphere. The few remaining seats covered in discarded free newspapers, empty bottles or other wrappers looked espescially unappealling not least due to the burger munching, dozing or dribbling neighbours on offer. I therefore decided to stand.

Near me the effect of an evening out in London was taking affect on some of my fellow passengers. Several were sleeping, one snoring erratically but noisily. The mandatory i-pods were playing in the ears of others, just a little too loud.

One chap, little more than 20, was obviously feeling the results of drinking too many beers and was writhing uncomfortably on his seat. First he tried to lay his head back onto the head rest touched previously by a thousand heads in various conditions, then he turned to one side, then the other. Finally he twisted his body turned back on himself and lay his apparently throbbing forehead on the seat.

The train that started full gradually emptied.

The last character to make himself known was the booze fuelled Lothario (BFL). Pot-bellied, in his mid-forties with closely cropped hair to disguise his receding hair line he ambled out of his seat and stood near the opposite door where a young lady was standing grasping her outsized handbag. As the door closed at one station BFL play acted that the closing automatic door had almost hit his head. The young lady out of some misplaced feeling of politeness or maybe just nervousness laughed on queue. BFL then smile back although she realising the potential situation looked to the floor and pretended to be lost in the music from her i-pod. BFL was not particularly troublesome and appeared to know the limits of his attraction.

Nonetheless at his station he said to the young lady, "Thank you very much" (for what ?!), picked up left hand and planted a rather drunken kiss on it. He then sauntered off into the night while the young lady quickly pressed the door close button and returned to her i-pod.

At my station I was accompanied by some late workers but mainly late drinkers and realised what a difference a few hours and few drinks causes in suburban London commuters and their normally reserved behaviour.

Friday, September 28, 2007

28 years

I went to a retirement party last evening.

The man I am taking over from in my current job is retiring after 28 years with the Firm.

He has done many jobs in that time and got to know so many people as evidenced by the big turnout at his farewell party. Nonetheless at least according to superficial notions of success his 28 years could not be seen as a particular achievement. He remained one cog, albeit an important cog, in a much bigger machine.

I just had trouble comprehending the notion of working in the same place 28 years. The world has changed so much since 1979 and yet this man worked in the same place all that time.

My contemporaries just do not do that any more and moving jobs after a few years is the norm. I suppose staying in one place could be seen as loyal but generally few do not that now and people attach little value to staying put now.

It is just slightly scary to think you spend well over half your working life in one place and I suppose that is one of the reasons people move although in reality many of us end up doing similar things in different places and trying to fool ourselves that is "variety".

In this case a good man stayed the course for 28 years and has retired from the working lives of the people at our Firm. He will be missed. So far I am quite content in my job so maybe, just maybe I will still be there in 28 years myself although at this stage it seems unlikely.......

More mobile pictures

Mobiles really have come a long way. This short film is shot on my daily commute. The video quality (if not that of the actual shooting !) is amazing for a camera in a small phone.

Two points to look out for:

1) St. Paul's emerging majestically over the River Thames, after the train emerges from drab no man's land on the railway.

2) This is a packed commuter train and I was standing against the door due to lack of seats. Despite this the background is incredibly quiet with little noise apart from the arrival announcement. As all London commuters will know people generally are very quiet on trains in the mornings !

Thursday Night on the London Underground

A picture from my mobile phone- here the tube train has stopped at Moorgate.


From the very funny series on Channel 4. Here the fonejacker poses as an old man convinced he is talking to a cinema automated booking line. The real life human is quite offended !

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I was going to say "No sub-prime opportunities for Londoners (yet)"

Before the flu caught me, I had wanted to write a short peace on the potential effects of sub-prime in the UK and how this might not all be bad.

Quite a lot seems to have happened in the last few days so I risk being a little behind the times but I think the argument is more valid than ever. Northern Rock plc, a former building society, has been forced to borrow from the Bank of England as a "lender of last resort". Its share price tumbled and scenes I have never witnessed in my lifetime occurred at normal High Street British bank branches as investors queued to recover their deposits. Internet banking added another dimension with bigger sums being withdrawn online.

In a sense this makes the troubles of the bank a self-fulfilling prophesy as such high levels of withdrawal (the BBC reported today that the total since the news broke was £2 billion) will only add to the pressures on the bank.However I do sympathise with those trying to make withdrawals.

Several rather snooty comments have been made about the panicked depositors showing a herd instinct but for those who have their life savings involved rather than a current account, it seems better to be safe than sorry. Too many times those in authority advise there is no risk only to be proved wrong at the expense of those who listened to them.

Such scenes stem from the credit crunch from America's sub-prime as borrowing gets more difficult. Northern Rock a relatively small Newcastle based bank has expanded aggressively by borrowing securitised credit to enable growth far bigger than would have been possible through the deposits at its 75 branches. This growth now appears to have been built on the shifting sands of sub-prime.

However a bank failure seems unlikely and as has happened in Germany and the US recently, a buy out by a bigger bank on knock-down terms seems likely in the next week or so.

What I originally wanted to say is that there may be a silver lining to this, even now.

London is a City where the average home costs £300,000 and nothing is to be had in any form below £100,000. In the UK as a whole the average home costs £200,000. Yet the average salary has not risen so dramatically – around £30, 000 per annum for the average London male worker and considerably lower for women and in the provinces. With these averages the lack of affordability in the housing market becomes apparent.

While stock markets move nervously down and then up, merchant bankers face trimmed bonuses (sob) and dark whispers of City job losses begin, there is no evidence that the effects of the American sub-prime crisis are yet having any effect on British (let alone London) house prices.

While some surveys refer to a slowing in the rate of increase, even this is not a consistent theme. Overall the direction of house prices remains clear- upwards.

I don't want this to turn into a synopsis of a rather tedious middle class dinner party conversation.

However while sub-prime is in the news I think it is worth noting the positive possibilities from this "crisis":

1)Housing might actually get more affordable for those without it at present. While those who own houses (me included) would want their own home to rise in value indefinitely, this is surely a bit short sighted in the long term. In the last decade British property prices have at least tripled and in London the rises have been even steeper. A progressively aging group of middle class property owners acquiring ever more wealth while the young and the less well paid struggle to find somewhere decent to live is not a recipe for stability. Anyone with children will surely want their own children to afford somewhere to live. If prices were to keep rising at their current rate by the time young Luis is in the market, he'll be looking for over £1million just for a small flat. This seems unsustainable and pricing whole swathes of the population out of home ownership. The sub-prime crisis, if exported here, might wipe a few smiles off some rather smug faces but could make property affordable to many more people.

2)Sub-prime losses will remind banks to lend responsibly.
3)Sub-prime losses are a reminder to borrowers not to borrow over their head.

In short sub-prime needn't be a catastrophe as long as it is managed to prevent wide scale loss of homes.

Sub-prime is more about the power of the market to match supply and demand. Prices are too high so demand will fall. Sub-prime is also a slap on the wrist to irresponsible lenders and those corporations who "dabble" hoping for some cheap finance.Sub-prime may bring pain but it also brings opportunity. This may be heresy for some but I hope a little rubs off over here……. (In light of Northern Rock this all seems a little more likely now…)

Flu's silver lining

First came a rather painful saw throat on Wednesday evening. Then on Thursday I headed to work as normal only to start sweating and then shivering alternatively in the afternoon. I picked up the ringing phone only to drop it on my desk. I was not feeling well !

Red-eyed and exhausted I stood on the train home due to the lack of seats and almost staggered through my front door.

Somewhere in London I had caught the flu. Flu is never nice but with a young baby presents an additional complication. The threat of infecting a baby is a real one so I was confined to a "sick" area by Mrs. Donatella.

As my luck would have it I had booked Friday as holiday anyway. To claim sick leave on a pre-booked holiday may look a bit dubious so I didn't bother.

However in my sick room with a small television and a rather shrivelled brain I discovered for the first time in many weeks or even months the diverting but rather shallow joys of television.

With a temperature a bit higher than it should be I first watched a programme about a 56 year old lady who was a school teacher and wanted to look 10 years younger. Through cosmetic surgery, dental implants and a fashion makeover I followed her before deciding that even if I was dying there have to be standards so I switched over before she had her hair done !

I made some headway on reading but then returned to television seeing Jonathon Ross for the first time since I became a Father ! Oh what a lot of free time I used to have ! Jonathon Ross sporting a new Charles I style beard was rather entertaining with guests including Trinny and Susannah, Quentin Tarantino and Samuel L Jackson.

Later I saw a rather smug self-satisfied middle class retired couple plan what French villa was best for them to retire too. They decided they had enough "in the budget" for a home in East Kent too and the presenter was delighted for them.

Last evening I stumbled accross a US series I had never seen or heard of before. It is called Heroes and is the tale of people who discover they have extraordinary powers apparently necessary for a mission to save the world or at least New York ! There was a catch up weekend on BBC so I saw at least 5 episodes back-to-back before falling asleep at 1.30 am. It was rather good or at least it seemed. However Mrs. Donatella seemed sceptical and explaining about men who could fly and a cheerleader who could walk through fire didn't sound very convincing ! Worse too was mentioning the Japanese office worker who could stop time !

Nonetheless, disbelieve suspended, it seemed well done and a bit of shallow escapism. Sadly I think I shall rarely know such escapism apart from at times of flu. I feel better now so I think a return to reality and away from the shallow make believe of reality TV is due. Here however is a brief taste of Heroes which I think is for me at least one silver lining from a long weekend of flu.......

Friday, September 14, 2007

How generous ! Brussels says we can weigh our tomatoes how we want !

This was a victory of sorts

However the fact that we see this as a victory proves that maybe the EU does go too far in our lives.

As someone brought up, post metrification, I can quite happily think in both Metric and Imperial. However the issue here is one of being able to decide for yourself rather than having one system imposed.

Metric proponents point to the obvious simplicity of the system with everything divisible by 10. However other systems are quite manageable for all but the most mathematically limited and in fact much of the confusion comes from those unable to translate between Metric and Imperial.

The system of measuring time itself, arguably more important than that used for measuring milk and tomatoes, remains unchallenged in its completely non-metric form.

The measurement for leases, mortgages and contracts comes in a system of multiples of 60, 60, 24, 7, 12 and 365 but no Brussels bureaucrat seeks to challenge the Gregorian Calendar, in place since 1582. So how Brussels got so worked up over miles and pints in the first place is a mystery to me. However now it seems they see Britain as a lost cause in the metric world !

We still of course happily live with both Metric and Imperial. Just don't expect us to be grateful for this Brussels !

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What would John Craven make of it all ?

A contributor to an American blog I read, Allegiance and Duty Betrayed ( pointed out that the internet version of Newsround gives a characteristically simple version of 9/11.

Worse still the Beeb becomes a virtual mouthpiece of Al Quaeda when it attempts to answer the question "Why did they (Al Quaeda) do it?".

Here is the full answer aimed at British children:

"The way America has got involved in conflicts in regions like the Middle East has made some people very angry, including a group called al-Qaeda - who are widely thought to have been behind the attacks.
In the past, al-Qaeda leaders have declared a holy war - called a jihad - against the US. As part of this jihad, al-Qaeda members believe attacking US targets is something they should do.

When the attacks happened in 2001, there were a number of US troops in a country called Saudi Arabia, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, said he wanted them to leave. "

There we have it politics for children under 12 from the Beeb- all funded by the licence fee of course. What would John Craven have made of it all ?!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Life after birth: who needs freedom ?!

Many weeks have passed since I had the time or even inclination to write much here.The world of Mrs. Donatella and I is dominated by a little chap who weighs no more than about 12 pounds even at the ripe old age of 10 weeks.

Everything else from work, to sleep or dare I even suggest "leisure" has to be fitted around his requirements.If nothing else it makes me appreciate, in a totally sincere and non-cheesy way, what my parents did for me. Maybe that seems a bit late in the day but I think it is only possible from personal experience to realise all that parenthood means both in terms of joy and in terms of sacrifice.

I just exchanged notes with a friend I have known 10 years this September. Back in September 1997 we were both part of an "intake" for a major global accounting firm, albeit at a provincial office in Kent ! Since then we became very good friends and have observed the changes in our lives over just one decade. They seem to have been huge and of late they have accelerated.

Back in September 1997 before starting my new job, I decided I wanted to visit the US, having never been there before. For some obscure reason, known only to me then and not now, I chose to visit Texas and Arkansas. I wanted to see "authentic" America rather than the usual tourist destinations of Florida, New York and California. Back then, even as a relatively impoverished student working part time in a greengrocer, I had only myself to think about and had no real problem getting the ticket albeit with the new Firm's trainee salary on the horizon.

Other times I drove to friends around the country or even on my own- once to Switzerland once round the borders of all of France visiting most countries it bordered.I travelled with my friend to the US, Canada and even a hairy day trip into Mexico!

Later with work I visited many countries from humdrum industrial towns in eastern Europe to the screaming bustle of mega cities like Moscow and Sao Paulo to the soaring skyscrapers of Dubai and most recently Hong Kong.

Business trips aside, my life was not especially exciting or unusual but even the ability to mooch round a book shop or dive into the public library for an hour or two was a luxury I didn't realise I was taking for granted.

Now with young Luis in town not only is going to Texas not an option, but going to the centre of London with a pram and changing gear is an expedition not to be lightly undertaken! Horizons have shrunk and for now the old cliché about the world getting smaller has gone into reverse- it is getting bigger!

But as I tell my friend who is still relatively free, travel isn't everything. After all if you land in Boston, Rio, Madrid, Athens, Sydney, Shanghai or Jerusalem won't many of those photos, those hotel nights, those restaurant meals be so similar to thousands of others before and after your "experience" ? How authentic is the experience of the traveller anyway? In the age of mass tourism you are unlikely to see or do anything that hasn't already been done by someone else- not to mention written about and posted on a photo sharing website.

This may all sound a bit cynical but it makes me feel a little better as I contemplate top "destinations" in southern England !! Of course travel can be great fun and can broaden the mind or sometimes the person who returns from travel appears unchanged from the person who went on the journey. In my last job my manager had visited at least 4 continents with her job but still asked about Roman ruins while shown a Frankfurt WW2 bomb site. Sometimes travel does no good !

To look at this positively parenthood brings into the world someone totally unique who God willing will live many years beyond his parents and hopefully do some things better and differently from his parents.

Young Luis learnt to smile in the last week and against that I am happy to make do with a photo of what a Maldives sunset looks like.

Parenthood brings sacrifice and a loss of freedom that is at least physical. Travel becomes harder and probably less affordable too. But the freedom of the mind and spirit remains and we can still choose to travel there- although maybe not when someone is crying at 4 o'clock in the morning !

Yes it would be nice not to be woken in the small hours and I do miss the concept of "free" time and despite all the above, the ability to travel. That said, in a world of choices, the arrival of a little boy who at 10 weeks smiles and looks so curious when a plane flies overhead is a choice and a blessing that I would put above any destination I visited or activity I took part in before.

The unlikely ecologist

Is it just me or is Osama "loosing it" as he enters his 50s ? If it is possible for a terrorist leader who has caused the deaths of thousands to loose it ?

His latest video was more the rant of a semi-educated drunken bore with North London political leanings than an inspired speech to martyrdom by a global jihadist leader.

Not only was Noam Chomsky singled out for relative praise but the Bush administration's stance on Kyoto came under attack. He also attacked the influence of corporations and made a passing reference to the woes of subprime.

While I will not attempt to deal with the merits or otherwise of those issues, they seem like a rather banal summary of today's concerned liberal agenda. Books covering all these points could be found on offer at Foyles bookshop on the Charing Cross Road.

In his next video will he no longer be promoting the caliphate but sporting a "Make Poverty History" white wrist band ?!

While such platitudes undoubtedly contain elements of truth and having worked for two different corporations could probably concur on some of their defects, I find this new found liberal agenda from Osama a little insincere.

Surely mass-murder isn't normally something to boast about amongst Guardian readers ?! As for Kyoto, 9/11 was hardly an "eco-friendly" crime. Coming from the world's biggest oil producer with a fortune made in construction are further unlikely credentials from a wannabe green figure.

What these rather unlikely sentiments do signal is that Osama is and remains an astute judge of the media. He knows that a divided enemy is a weak enemy so he tries to play on known divisive issues. I think he is far more likely to die in a cave than win the Nobel Peace Prize but similar albeit less extreme journeys have been made. Who would have predicted Gerry Adams' journey 30 years ago?

Osama seems to be thinking of his own mortality and looking to his place in history. Like many people he is ultimately looking for some kind of settlement to his career. It is just a hunch but this latest statement seems a repositioning. It is more an outsider's critique of the West than a condemnation of infidels.

Maybe he recognises that he will not change the world and bizarrely is looking to align himself with moderate critics of the White House rather than to destroy the West. There was no explicit threat of terrorist attack this time.

A changed enemy is somehow more unnerving than a known enemy. The new Osama is as strange as his dyed (or false) beard !

While any reduction in threat is to be welcomed no one should forget what happened 6 years ago and that the despite ticking the boxes of some liberal agendas, Osama does indeed make a very unlikely ecologist as well as a rather insincere jihadist !

Osama and his new beard

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

September 11 revisited

It is coming up to the 6th anniversary of September 11th. Understandably things are a little edgy in some quarters.

A plot in Germany has been thwarted :

In London normally level headed bloggers report seeing war planes over the skies:

I hope this anniversary passes like all others; with sombre remembrance but no other events.

There have been many films and documentaries on 9/11 but unusually for me I have largely been unable (or unwilling) to watch them. The conclusion to the story both completely known and painful so there seemed little point after the blanket news coverage.

Last week that changed a little. By chance I stumbled accross a repeat of the documentary containing the film by the Naudet brothers- two trainee firemen making a documentary about the New York Fire Brigade. Their first day was September 11th, 2001 and they both went to the towers.

As well as the horror, the one thing that came accross to me was the incredible escapes so many people had. Like a lift full of people whose lift suddenly opened and they walked to safety oblivious to what had happened and what was going to happen.

The clip link below is from the Naudet film and shows some incredible and disturbing scenes. There are amazing survivals though and the bravery of the firemen is humbling:

The confusion and mysteries of 9/11 remain. One of those that gets a lot attention is the collapse of 7 WTC (the Salomans Building) later in the afternoon of September 11th. The BBC along with several news organisations reported this before it actually occurred. Some point to this as grounds for a conspiracy theory. I am not convinced but the confusion was undoubtedly enormous. One thing is certain- six years on the man who claimed responsibiltiy for this attack remains at large.