Saturday, December 27, 2008

Woolworths: Zero Hour

Our local Woolworths closed today. You would need to have a heart of stone not to feel some sadness walking round the battered shelves knowing that all those who worked there would be without a job at 5.30pm. What began over 99 year ago is now ending. A shop that in its prime was valued by millions of Britons. Although it declined since then and no longer offered anything that other shops couldn't offer better, it is still part of the fabric of the British town with branches in over 800 towns.

Over two hundered Woolworth branches closed today. The remainder will follow in the next week or so.

The atmosphere in our local Woolworths was both sad but resigned. The staff seems remarkably cheery. It is good that they seem to be able to keep things in perspective. One can only hope that they are offered a job by another shop or go onto better things. Our local Woolworths like many others occupies a "prime" location on the High Street.

When Napoleon dismissed Britain as a "nation of shopkeepers" it was meant as an insult. What he failed to realise was that many Britons saw it as a compliment. A shop, amongst other things, is a place of service and community.

The photos below were all taken today and record the passing of a British retail institution:
By the end prices were 90 % off everything. However there was little to buy.
Battered shelves

Empty shelves

A scene of desolation in the heart of a British retail institution

Even the shelves are all fittings were for sale

Everything has been sold

There is not much left apart from the notices

Prime retail real estate on the High Street

A cold dreary day just after Christmas sees the end of Woolworths

Last orders

The day started with 70 % reductions. By the end it was 90 % off everything

The shelves that have sold greetings cards marking occasions for most of the last century are finally empty

Woolworths just missed it's 100th birthday. It goes after 99 years on the British High Street.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas with the Ahmadinejads

Just when you thought there was a limit to political correctness, Channel 4 (the Channel that gave the world such delights as Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother) goes and proves you wrong.

Channel 4 consider the Queen's Christmas message to be far too conventional. So, as a change, they have decided to invite an overseas Head of State to give a Christmas talk. That in itself may be unusual but we're not talking President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel or even Prime Minister Putin here. Viewers in the UK will tomorrow be addressed by President Ahmadinejad, the same one who wants to wipe Israel off the map. There will apparently be an independent explanation before President A speaks. I am not sure that one will be needed.

Not for the first time, you really couldn't make it up !

Monday, December 22, 2008

An Englishman's home is no longer his castle

When I read stories like this (, I think I have had my eye off the ball for too long. Liberty seems to be being eroded so fast and in so many areas that we are in danger of only realising when it is far too late.

Not only do we live in an over-regulated, over-taxed country but it seems that one of the last areas of freedom, your own home, is no longer free. The old cliche of an Englishman's home is his castle is sadly wrong.

The threat is that private bailiffs will be able to break into a house and "use reasonable force" to recover private debts. Up until now, as far as I knew, such action could only be taken with police support and court orders.

Several risks come immediately to mind, even for those who do not build up debts they cannot pay:

1) The bailiffs may simply get the wrong address. Who pays for a new door when the mistake is realised ? (not to mention the distress of it happening).

2) Identity fraud, previous occupants and other members of the same family all offer routes by which an "innocent" could be targeted at the "correct address" for the debts of others.

3) What is "reasonable force" ? English case law has taken centuries to determine this. I doubt a hired thug would be able to grasp the precise boundaries too quickly.

4) What happens if the alleged debtor fights back ? Deos the reasonable force escalate ?

5) What happens if the alleged debtor keels over from a heart attack or other cause ? Is using reasonable force to recover a debt a defence to manslaughter or murder ?

The Government has clearly not thought this through (not for the first time) but what is more concerning is that this is not some obscure issue. It effects everyone who lives in Britain.

Having had dealings with such delightful people as wheel clampers in my time, I dread to think that similar could be given the power to break into private houses and use force to recover parking fines, catalogue debts and similar.

This truly seems dreadful and the comments to the Times article suggest I am not alone in this.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Afghanistan: The mounting toll

Last evening, I watched the Russian film "9th Company" which portrayed a group of Soviet conscripts going to Afghanistan in 1988. As someone who has watched most of the better known Vietnam war films, the basic structure of the film was remarkably similar. A group of fresh faced conscripts with different backgrounds and personalities undergo training from a rather brutal commander before going onto the far worse horrors of the front line.

The soldiers were basically ordinary chaps in extraordinary circumstances. They were hardly driven by ideology but more a desire to survive. After all as it was noted towards the end of the film, as they battled the Mujahadeen in New Year 1989, they were fighting for a country that would not exist in 2 years.

Their political educuation was basic but one line stood out:

"In all of history, no one has ever managed to conquer Afghanistan. No one ever".

Certainly two countries failed to do so. First Britain failed in the Nineteenth century. Even Sherlock Holmes' assistant Dr. Watson was an Afghanistan veteran. Second, the Soviet Union failed, a defeat that arguably hastened its collapse in the 1980s. Both the defeat of Britain and the Soviet Union a century later followed a similar pattern. Afghanistan is quite easy to occupy but much more difficult to hold.

Now the international coalition, as always with the largest contribution coming from the US, is facing mounting casualties after a relatively easy occupation seven years ago.

It is worth noting that at present this is truly an international force with contributions from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and several European nations including France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and the Netherlands.

All those countries have paid for their contribution with lives lost.

Total allied casualties now amount to around 1,036 killed. The breakdown by nationality is shown below (courtesy of .

Although heavily weighted towards the US, it is also noticeable that the contribution in Afghanistan is significantly spread amongst other countries with around 40 % of fatalities coming from other countries.

Of greater concern is the rising trend of casualties as shown below. 2008 will be the worst year for virtually every nation involved in Afghanistan. This ties in with the Soviet experience where the worst casualties were experienced in the mid to late eighties following the 1979 invasion.

Another British casualty was announced this evening, the seventh Briton to die this month alone. Denmark and Canada are both countries that have recently suffered casualties disporportionately high compared to their total presence in Afghanistan.

I still do believe there is a fight worth fighting in Afghanistan. The alternative is withdrawal and to give a whole nation to the Taleban which would effectively create a massive training camp for global jihad. If I didn't believe that then clearly I would see no point in a war in a country that has never been successfully conquered.

As we approach Christmas, it is humbling to remember the sacrifices that troops from many nations are making in ever increasing numbers in Afghanistan. The toll started small compared to other conflicts but will be close to 300 this year with every sign of continuing to increase next year.

The battle in Afghanistan is clearly not to be under-estimated.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Saving the World

Sometimes no further comment is needed. Here is Gordon Brown making a slip of the tongue and perhaps revealling his real inflated view of his own abilities:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The slow death of a corporation

A forlorn shelf in a forlorn shop on the brink of closure. This is not a scene from some developing country in an early stage of development. It was the scene today at our local Woolworths.

Woolworths is closing down which will leave 815 gaps in British high streets and 30,000 people without a job.
Walking around our local Woolworths today, it would have been hard not to feel a bit sad. This is a shop with a presence on British high streets for 99 years. Everyone knows Woolworths and it is known affectionately as "Woolies".

However Woolies has lost its way of late so although sad, its demise cannot be seen as wholy unexpected. Twenty years ago Woolworths was the place a lot of people would go to buy nails, a tin of paint or a new lamp. In fact its strength was that it really stocked most things. Of late it has focused on confectionery, CDs and DVDs, toys and children's clothes. These are all areas in demand but they are also areas that other shops do a lot better. There was no special reason to go to Woolworths. It had no area of particular strength.

It was a tired old giant trading on its name and former glories. However in the face of the gathering storm it has crashed to the ground, like a rotten tree in a forest.
I actually heard someone in my office this week, saying they hoped the government would "bail out Woolies". The mania for bail outs seems to know no limits.
While it is sad that an old chain of department stores is closing, that is not reason enough for the government to commit more millions (and probably billions) to support a business that has failed to supply anything that anyone really wants anymore. Of course those that lose their jobs may feel differently but that is to overlook the thousands who have gained jobs in Woolworths' competitors over recent year. In a free market, the price of failure has to be closure or it would cease to be a free market. If badly managed businesses cannot be allowed to fail, then there is much less hope for well managed businesses.
On a similar theme, but a much bigger scale, the fate of the "big 3" American auto companies should ultimately be determined on the basis of whether they are capable of providing products that people would really want to buy in a free market. While I would feel tremendously sad if any of the three companies failed (I once worked for the European operations of one and my Father worked for another), they should not be bailed out to postpone the inevitable. Otherwise money is being wasted that could be invested in other businesses with futures.

The free market is hard on failure but it is the free market that has allowed businesses such a Woolworths to flourish for so long. If they fail now, they are not failing solely as a result of the recession. They are failing after years of decline. Their death is not sudden but has been slow. They are only actually dying now because the recession is the wind in the forest that gets rid of the rotten trees. Only if we allow that wind to work its course will there be a fair chance of strong new trees growing in years to come.

This weekend I felt like I was bidding a sad farewell to a shop I have known all my life. The gloomy shelves scattered with rubbish and tacky products are a sad shadow of the Woolworths that once was so relied upon by millions of Britons. There is no pleasure in its demise but its management have been the authors of its decline. Where business is concerned we should not seek to protect failures but focus on how best to encourage future successes.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Suburban winter

Just to note that I am still here, despite rather busy times in the run up to Christmas.

London is cold and frosty with a northern wind. This was the rather frosty and slightly desolate scene in the outer suburbs of London this morning.