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Sunday, 27 November 2011

One Hyde Park: Parliament's Gift to the Super-Rich

One Hyde Park is London's most prestigious residential address. Developed by a Guernsey-based company, its 80 apartments are designed for the super-rich: the most expensive sold for £136 million according to a report in today's Observer.

Sixty two apartments have been sold. Just nine have been registered for Council Tax (capped at an annual £1375 on each apartment) with five owners claiming second home discounts. Westminster City Council is now trying to track down the owners of the others and get them to pay up. They may have to doorstep them, if their officials can get past security and into the building.

Even more significantly, an estimated £750 million in stamp duty has been avoided by buyers using a relatively simple device. (It's unclear from The Observer whether this device was available to the original buyers or only to those buying second hand).

Instead of claiming ownership yourself when you buy one of these flats, you assign ownership to a company based (in most cases) in The British Virgin Islands - and a separate company for each apartment. Then when you want to sell, you don't sell the flat, since stamp duty would be payable, you sell your Virgin Islands company. The buyer gets the flat as the sole asset of the company. Simple, elegant - and a scheme licensed by the UK Parliament just a mile down the road.

That's because the British Virgin Islands, like the Caymans, Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man, is one of those bogus jurisdictions created by Parliament and endowed with offshore rights solely in order to allow the rich and the super-rich to avoid their fair share of UK taxation.

I suppose the residents of One Hyde Park think to themselves, We're All In It Together. I am sure they pay up for the Door Security.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

My Breakfast

This is autobiography.

Forty years ago, academic year 1971 - 72, Roland Barthes gave a seminar course at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes titled "Ten Years of Semiology". I was in the audience. The stylish presentations were enlivened by digressions:

Barthes remarked that he had once begun a project on the semiology of food and had tried asking his students what they ate for breakfast. They were very reluctant to talk about this, Barthes said - and added, I think they would have answered more readily if asked about their sex lives.

Breakfasts are things of habit, sometimes ancient habit. I began drinking Breakfast Tea - strong with milk (British Rail tea, Workman's tea) - when I was a child and I continued more or less uninterruptedly for over fifty years. I would only abandon the habit (in favour of coffee) when abroad in hotels and faced with the impossibility of getting strong tea and milk. I stopped adding sugar when I was about eleven.

Then, following prostate surgery a couple of years ago, I developed an irritable bladder. (The consultant said that since my prostate had been reduced in size by fifty percent, the bladder was now free to wobble ...).

A few experiments convinced me that part of the solution was to give up the habit of a lifetime in favour of weak Jasmine tea ( now sometimes I vary that with weak Bombay chai. You need some kind of hit in the morning)

I drink my tea with McVitie's Digestive Biscuits,which I dunk even though they disintegrate, occasionally varied with Rich Tea, shortbread (too sweet at breakfast time really), and Scottish Abernethy (also too sweet).

Then, after a pause or a second cup of tea, I eat a bowl of muesli (fruit and nut; supermarket own brands) to which I add a portion of All Bran and, always, fresh fruit - a banana, a pear,an apple, berries, a peach ... simply depending on what I have in the kitchen. The milk is always semi-skimmed.

This is another recent habit. For most of my life, I ate buttered toast and marmalade for breakfast, and though not a connoisseur of the bread I cared greatly about the marmalade. Unfortunately, as I knew but failed to act upon, first thing in the morning two or three slices of buttered toast and marmalade made me feel bloated and a bit nauseous. The same was true of the croissants which substituted for the habit when abroad.

As with most habits, I was not put off by this major disadvantage to my diet until I ran into some additional digestive problems occasioned by a liver disorder. Eventually, I tired of feeling nauseous and found my way to my new diet with which I am very happy. I never feel rubbish after eating my bowl of muesli.

There you are: My Breakfast. A little tribute to Roland Barthes, forty years on from that seminar.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Gathering Winter Fuel Payments

Once again, the Government has slipped two hundred pounds into my bank account. I'm over 60, you see, and therefore in need of a Winter Fuel Payment. Doesn't matter what my income is, or whether I am still working (I am),or whether I spend my winters, as do many Brits, on the Costa del Sol. Nope, no questions asked, it's two hundred quid tax free - more if you are a Couple.

Once you have given them your bank account details, they will slip you the money every year until you die. It's meant not so much to warm your living room as warm your heart towards the governing party (or parties). The votes of the over 60s are the ones most worth having - there are lots of us and we are more likely to vote (though I don't).

If I sent the money back, it would cost them at least two hundred and fifty quid to process my donation, so there's no point in doing that. I suppose I should give the money away but I guess most of us spend it on Christmas presents and something to raise a toast with over the turkey: "Here's to continued electoral bribery. May there be more benefits for the over 60s in 2012"


Postscript: If the government had really wished the elderly stay warm in winter at affordable cost, then instead of universal winter fuel payments it would have funded loft insulation, double glazing, new boilers, installation of gas supply, and so on. Think how much could have been achieved in a decade! Not such good news for the energy companies, of course.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

We Need to Talk About America

Here in the UK, we are constantly reminded that we have a "Special Relationship" with the USA. That means that when the USA goes to war, we go to war (Iraq, Afghanistan). But not vice versa (Suez, Falklands, Libya).

Any half-way reasonable person should be terrified by the "Special Relationship".

Look at the wannabe Republican Presidential candidates: Bachmann, Cain, Paul, Perry, even Romney. They deal in ignorance and prejudice, and dangerously so. They should never have their fingers on any triggers. And it's not a new phenomenon: don't forget that the elderly Senator McCain chose Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate, so that if anything happened to him ...

Then look at the complete and utter inability of the American System of Government to deliver any strategy to deal with the problems of spiralling public debt, the budget deficit and the dire state of the US economy.

Then think about the enthusiasm of that System for uncontrolled guns, sending young black males to jail, ruining lives with decades-long jail sentences for nothing, executing the innocent after decades-long delays on Death Row. It's absolutely terrifying.

Then think about the religious fundamentalism, the crooked evangelists who are so overwhelmingly successful ....

When I was an undergraduate, we were set to read a textbook by Ernest S Griffith called "The American System of Government". It concluded by describing that system as not the least of the means by which is built the Kingdom of God among the Free.

We need to talk about Kevin. And, yeah, even more, we need to talk about America

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Ageing Populations and "The Ballad of Narayama"

Many years ago I saw Shohei Imamura's "The Ballad of Narayama" at Brighton's Duke of York's cinema. It's a beautiful and deeply moving film, set in the past, about a poor rural Japanese society in which the elderly are, by custom and tradition, exposed to die on the bleak mountains when they reach the age of 70. The central drama is between a mother, who believes in the custom, and her son who resists his duty - which is to carry her on her final journey to the mountain. At one point, to make her point that she is becoming useless, the mother smashes her mouth against a stone ledge in order to render herself a toothless old woman.

This Japanese film resonates with elements in Western culture. Think of "Greater love hath no man than this ..." and its exemplary case, Captain Oates, marching to his death in the snow.

In both Japan and the West, life expectancy has risen dramatically in just a short period and continues to rise. It places strains on government budgets, obliged to fund pension payments for many more years than was ever foreseen and to support expensive care for the elderly frail.

There is a lot of publicity around those who take themselves off to Swiss clinics which will help you die but none that I am aware of about those who take less dramatic measures to bring their lives to a close.

I class as the elderly frail those who are in no state either to seek to prolong their lives or to shorten them. But those in a pre-frail state have some choices. Occasionally, they refuse further medical treatment. Occasionally, they live it up and do all the things they have been advised not to. In other words, they do not strive officiously to keep themselves alive. But very rarely do they actually commit suicide.

People grow old at different rates and their circumstances are different: there are now lots of men in their seventies with young children to care for.

But as a general rule, governments should not strive officiously to keep alive the elderly, especially when their quality of life is deteriorating irreversibly. Budgets need to be finite for medical treatment and for care. There should be no funding for research aimed at extending life expectancy. If done intelligently and sensitively, the results would be better than an uncritical policy of keeping everyone alive for as long as possible


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog is incorporated into a longer piece on Ingratitude in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Trafalgar Square: a Health & Safety Free Zone

Today I arranged to meet a friend in Trafalgar Square. He was late, so I spent half an hour in the November sunshine watching children, young and old, climbing onto the plinth of Nelson's Column and clambering over the lions - some succeeding in sitting astride them for their photographs.

It occurred to me that in many cities - Paris, perhaps - no such thing would be allowed. Too informal and disrespectful.

Then it occurred to me that everything that was going on in front of me was in defiance of Health and Safety. The corners and edges of the stone plinth are brutally sharp, the lions are slippery, polished by thousands of jeans, the drop is substantial. Of course, the younger children were supervised by their parents, but the teenagers and older visitors not.

I guess there are accidents from time to time. But watching the scene, I thought: this place is dedicated to Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar. No one - no one - here cares much about that; probably they have never heard of it. They are having fun being in London just because Health and Safety has decided to turn a blind eye to what is going on underneath Nelson's blind eye. Long may it continue.

Friday, 18 November 2011

"Where are our Bobbies?"

I glanced at a newstand today and picked up the headline on The Daily Mail and the first line of the story - apparently, a quarter of UK inhabitants claim never to have seen a police officer "on the beat" (patrolling the streets)

The headline is, of course, sickly sentimental: "Bobbies" are in the same world as Janet and John in sandals and satchels. "Our Bobbies" compounds the sentimentality with it implication that police officers are cuddly Dixons of Dock Green. There isn't a journalist on The Daily Mail who actually believes that. The sub who composed the headline probably had two fingers down his (surely not her?) throat as he wrote it.

As for this quarter of the population who have never seen a patrolling policeman, one must always remember that, at any one time, a quarter of the population is drunk, hungover, stoned, depressed, preoccupied, short sighted, blind, deaf, stupid and highly unlikely to spot an invasion from Mars if it landed on the pavement in front of them.

Accusation and Acceptance

Go to the supermarket, walk through town, and soon enough you will hear a couple arguing - more precisely, bickering. Accusations are the currency of such arguments, whether small accusations or, eventually - in arguments we don't overhear - big ones: "You're having an affair with him", "You're always trying to undermine me".

It's a judicial currency of Right and Wrong, Plaintiff and Defendant. If you want, in the divorce courts you can actually pay for the privilege of trading accusations. In principle, any relationship where accusations are regularly traded is on skid row towards divorce.

Relationships work where there is a large measure of mutual acceptance. But sometimes acceptance turns into tolerating the intolerable. How can that be avoided?

The secret is not to get into a relationship with someone whose habits, values or personal traits you find intolerable. If you really cannot stand vain people, don't get involved with one - and, even more, don't get involved and then try to reform the offender. There is nothing more tiresome for anyone than a partner who is constantly trying to change them. It turns the relationship into a reformatory.

If you get involved with someone whose habits, values, personality you basically like, enjoy or admire, then acceptance is going to come easy. Maybe there is just one thing that is really hard to accept. Maybe he smokes. Then take a stand on it at the outset, and if he quits, make very sure that you do not promptly move on and find something else to disapprove of.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Review: Matthew Sweet, The West End Front

London is the whole world in one city - if it chose to become a country, it would be a rich and powerful one. Within its boundaries, a thousand and one narratives of great political, economic, cultural and social significance are constantly played out.

Matthew Sweet's The West End Front (Faber and Faber 2011) picks up some World War Two narratives the threads of which pass through London's grand hotels - the Savoy, The Ritz, the Dorchester, Claridge's. Each thread provides a chapter heading: Sweet has ten stories about - among others - spies, homosexuals, agitators, con men and women, abortionists and exiles.

It is thoroughly researched, carefully crafted and often moving. Sweet is not an academic, which appears to me increasingly a condition of writing a good book - I kept comparing Sweet favourably with an academic work in the same genre but without a heart: Frank Mort's deadly Capital Affairs which I tried to read a while back.

There is a moving chapter which details the death of just one young woman, Mary Pickwoad, following a botched abortion in a London hotel, the Mount Royal. Sweet has gone after every document which might still exist and every person still alive who might have something to tell about the story. It is a beautiful Memorial.

More shocking and often surprising are the details which show England's class system functioning at all levels, in government, in the military, the police and among the spooks who were denizens of all the big hotels. In the early stages of the war, at least, Hitler was not unambiguously everyone's enemy; Jews and Communists were more menacing enemies for some of Sweet's upper-class and institutionally powerful characters. In my previous Blog, I noted the extraordinary way in which at the beginning of the War, whilst the big hotels had deep bomb-proof shelters, the London Underground was initially closed as a place of refuge from the Blitz. How many of us knew that before, I wonder?

If you like reading about World War Two or about London, this is a very good book to go after

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Purpose of Poppies

When I was a young Leftie, I used to wear my Poppy. Now I don't. It's too clear that wearing a Poppy now has nothing to do with remembering the past and everything to do with asserting something in the present.

At the heart of it there is this, that the Poppy has been hijacked by the political class.They may be stupid, they may be corrupt, they may have sent service personnel to pointless deaths in ill-conceived campaigns - but, when the chips are down, they want to show you they are all in the same boat together. And, look, it's a Patriotic one!

And if you don't wear your Poppy, then the bully boys will finger you. "Wear your Poppy", his minders no doubt told James Murdoch, "without that, you haven't got a chance"

As for remembering the past, which the BBC encourages us to do, it is about old men's memories of heroism and sacrifice and not about the stupidity, the corruption, the callousness of previous political classes. The most memorable fact about the First World War is that it didn't end with every single Minister and General swinging from the lamp posts.

I just started reading Matthew Sweet's West End Front. In Chapter Two, I learn that when the London Blitz began, the Government at first declined to open the London Underground at night to provide Air Raid shelters. At the same time, luxury London hotels had deep shelters constructed in their basements so that their guests could find safety during air raids. Only pressure from Communist agitators in the East End (where most of the bombs were falling) opened the Underground at night. They had only to make a very simple point: All In It Together? How come then that at the Ritz and the Savoy they have deep shelters and here in the East End, we have only surface shelters? (Anderson shelters and such like). A couple of thousand East Enders died before the Underground was opened.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Karen Horney on Personality Types

This is from memory:

Karen Horney, the American psychoanalyst, classified people's dominant personality character traits like this:

- those who move towards other people (loving types of all kinds)
- those who move against other people (aggressive types of all kinds)
- those who move away from other people (recluses of all kinds)

The beauty of this simple typology is that it is exhaustive, though sometimes it may be unclear to which category an individual should be assigned. Does a person who gets close to others but in order to manipulate them count as someone who moves towards people or against them?

The typology is not simply exhaustive. It provides an umbrella way of categorising the strategies and solutions people adopt in different situations.

For example, faced with conflict initiated by a paranoid or a bully, some people will seek to move out of the conflict zone altogether. In effect, they become recluses of one kind or another.

A person whose drive is towards attachment is more likely to respond by trying to placate or buy off the aggressor in order to remain close to them. Such a person may even adopt the aggressor's values ("Stockholm Syndrome" would be an extreme example)

But when one aggressive person initiates conflict with another aggressive person, the result is a fight.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Ireland to close its Vatican Embassy

So should everyone else.
These absurd embassies only flatter the Vatican into thinking it is something more than a corrupt religious organisation. It is not a state and its officials should be subject to Italian civil and criminal law.