Definitely not The Economist

Not even an economist – I could never really handle all the hand-waving.  (Mathematicians will recognise this as a deadly insult, the rest of you will have to take my word for it).

There has been a lot of ill-informed discussion about large corporations (mostly hailing from one of our less successful ex-colonies) not contributing their fair share of tax to the UK exchequer in the media of late.  Never one to avoid a band-wagon – even well after it has passed – I figured it was time to jump on.

Much of the previous discussion has focused on the disparity between turnover in the UK and tax paid.  As I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned before, turnover is no guarantee of profit – just look at Comet or all the banks we’ve been required to bail out: plenty of turnover, but not much sign of an elusive profit.

If we assume a profit has really been made – something of which these tax-shy corporations have presumably managed to convince their shareholders – then there are quite sensible reasons for a foreign domiciled company to try and avoid tax in the UK.  Tax treaties between countries are generally fairly poor (as both tax authorities want the money) and so unless they are careful, companies can end up being taxed on the same profit twice (something they are understandably keen to avoid).  Unfortunately, a company based in country (US)A and operating in country (G)B having discovered how to avoid corporation tax in B can use much the same bunch of tricks to avoid paying tax in A.  Rather a classic prisoners’ dilemma – by both tax authorities trying to keep all the money, both in fact receive almost none.

Still, all is not lost – these companies do buy stuff (some of it might even be sourced in the UK) and will have to pay VAT on some of this, they also pay business rates and employ staff.  These staff will have to pay income tax and NI (well, those well enough paid to owe tax and too poorly paid to avoid it) and, should they be foolish enough to spend any of their salary, will also pay VAT and a range of other duties enriching UK plc.

So, how does this balance out I wondered?  Sadly, numbers are hard to come by without a large team of spies and statisticians – so I shall resort to a qualitative look at a couple of the case studies.

Starbucks saw the early brunt of outrage.  They entered the UK by buying an existing and rapidly-expanding chain of coffee shops: the Seattle Coffee Company.  I will assume that SCC paid normal UK corporation tax as it operated in the UK alone – so UK plc has lost all of this revenue.  SCC also provided all the other revenue advantages of Starbucks to UK plc, albiet in a rather smaller scale,  Such has been the growth of Starbucks that you are now (on average) closer to a purveyor of mediocre, over-priced coffee than you are to a rat.  The big question is: if Starbucks had not come to these shores, would all these coffee shops be empty and their staff unemployed or would other coffee vendors or better still, for the non-coffee drinker (such as myself), something more useful have taken their place?  This is a hard question to answer, but on balance I suspect Starbucks presence on these shores has not been a net benefit to the UK exchequer – so I shall continue my quest to buy hot chocolate and cake from independent coffee shops (the Indigo Cafe is my preferred venue in Cambridge) and leave Starbucks to wither on the vine.  Admittedly, whilst I have had some great chocolate and cake, Starbucks is withering quite slowly despite my endeavours.  I must redouble my efforts – it won’t be easy forcing myself to eat more cake, but George Osborne is depending on me!

Amazon is another whipping boy.  To the best of my knowledge, they did not enter the UK by taking over another business – so no corporation tax lost there.  On the negative side of the ledger, they have been one of the primary reason for the loss of bookshops, record shops and the like from our high streets.  That seems like quite a major loss of corporation tax and I have a nasty feeling that Amazon employ an awful lot fewer people than the businesses they have displaced.  They may well shift a lot more product, but until very recently a lot of this avoided VAT by using a tax loophole relating the the Channel Islands.  I rather fear Amazon has had a very negative effect on revenues for UK plc – and so my use of a Kindle and Lovefilm is looking ethically rather dodgy (I don’t buy anything physical from them, I stopped when they ceased using the Post Office for deliveries).  Sadly, ethical alternatives are hard to find, but at least Lovefilm does give the Post Office some business.

When I was in Edinburgh, I had a few minutes to kill and wandered round Blackwells: I’d forgotten the joy of wandering round a bookshop and the serendipitous finding of interesting new books; whilst Amazon recommends stuff, it is utterly useless in this regard.  I have resolved to spend more time in bookshops and to buy books there.  Yes, I know, I’m almost too selfless…

This has not been a terrifically scientific survey of the tax issue, but I think I shall try and use smaller, UK-based business for my spending needs (or, more honestly, wants) in future wherever I can.  It also leads to a more interesting life away from the corporate uniformity that seems to dominate in so many places.  Feel free to join me!

A grown up, at last?

My recent movie-viewing has led me to wonder if I am turning into a grown-up, albeit only in one very small thread from the complex tapestry that makes up my life.

Some of this film-watching has been in the comfort of Fish Towers thanks to the auspices of Lovefilm – now a scion of the tax-shy Amazon corporation.  To be fair to Amazon, they may not be tax-shy and may just be unable to make a profit in Europe – though in this latter case, their shareholders may be somewhat distressed that their investment would be better off in a deposit account.

Some recent highlights have included Atmen (an Austrian film about a troubled young lad working for the coroner) and Le Havre (a French film directed by a Finn about helping a young boy make it to the UK).  One of the joys of European cinema is that most of those on screen look like real people in contrast to much of Hollywood’s output where the cast are unfeasibly pretty.  Le Havre was especially well-stocked with the interesting looking – a great comfort to those of us well into middle age and suffering the entropy-induced deterioration of our (once) matinée idol looks.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the cinema to see the current, much acclaimed entry in the Bond-oeuve: Skyfall.  This has much to commend it, in particular rather more of Judi Dench than is normally the case: better still, Judi Dench quoting Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Movies just don’t contain enough decent actors quoting our better 19th century poets: the last one I can recall was Bright Star which had the new Q extensively quoting John Keats (and my blubbing rather more than was seemly).

Skyfall did have some rather significant flaws.  The Daniel Craig era Bond films do seem to be aiming at greater gritty realism than the more frivolous days of Roger Moore – and so egregious uses of CGI are particularly jarring.  The first offender involved largish reptiles from Indonesia which was reminiscent of the worst excesses of George Lucas (though admittedly with rather better dialogue).  Another involved a London Underground train in an entirely unnecessary CGI-fest which could have been more than adequately covered by a little falling masonry.  The Bourne films may not be truly realistic (I’ve already discussed the liberties taken with the mobile phone acquisition process in this log), but everything that happens does seem rooted in reality and to be filmed using real objects moving in the real world which does wonders for the suspension of disbelief.  I fear Mr Bond jumped the shark rather too often for my taste.

On the subject of the underground, the movie business does seem to play rather fast-and-loose with the system and Skyfall was no exception.  Some of the action takes place on what is frequently (though somewhat unnecessarily) referred to as the District Line but which was clearly the Jubilee Line (not a hint of D78 stock).  It was also clear that all the tube stations visited were, in fact, Charing Cross: probably because Charing Cross has a fairly modern but unused set of Jubilee line platforms which must be handy for filming.  This would be no issue for an international audience, but was decidedly confusing for we locals – and as the only plot-critical tube station was Westminster, which is on the Jubilee line, somewhat unnecessary.

I seem to be much less impressed by action, bangs and flashes than was once the case – and have replaced them in my affections with character, plot and the provocation of thought (though I do still enjoy the very silly, aimed at people half my age).  I blame all my recent theatre-growing – or my advancing age or dodgy chemicals in the water-supply (please delete as appropriate).  We can but hope all this late-onset adulthood  doesn’t spread any further … or GofaDM will be in big trouble,

Trust Twitter (sometimes)

It is very easy to wonder about the point of Twitter: particularly if you have the misfortune to read my occasional productions (or are awaiting the next chapter of my Twitter novel).  It is often seen as the haunt of trolls and a good place to find idiotic young people for the police to arrest in a blaze of publicity (and poppies).

It offers me an outlet for my shorter pieces of written stupidity and provides the occasional chuckle at the witticisms or pictures tweeted by the select(ish) few that I follow.  However, it can also offer real world utility to the user (well, this user anyway).

As has been established, it introduced me to 10 Greek Street which I visited yesterday evening.  I was in town for work, but manage to tack on some pleasure after my duties to “the man” were complete.  It was a particularly good visit in a number of ways:

  • Most practically, I learned a whole new way to prepare curly kale or cavolo nero to avoid introducing excessive stalk into the final dish.  It was a technique I would never have thought of for myself (I might even tell you what the trick is one day, but only after I’ve tested it myself – it looked easy, but that may have been down to the skill of the chefs).
  • The starter also gave me some ideas for something different to do with the squashes that are in season at the moment – and included that 10GS favourite, burrata.
  • The meal was accompanied by a particularly lovely (and reasonably priced) glass (OK, two) of red wine: a Costières de Nîmes.
  • Finally, such is my trust in the food there that I tried a main course that I would never have risked elsewhere (even at home).  I made the right choice!  The onion tart was absolutely sublime – containing halved onions so sweet and delicious I would never have imagined it possible.  It also avoided generating the adverse side-effects which onion-ingestion can engendered in your author.  A fact much appreciate by the later theatre audience and those sharing my train home.

The same chap who introduced me to the delights of Greek Street had also made reference to Albam Clothing – who, all too rarely in this day and age, sell clothing and related items which are manufactured in the UK.  Yesterday, I finally made my way to one of the London shops and left with a smart Aiguille rucksack made in the Lake District, so it should be able to keep my stuff dry even given the rather moist climate which now seems to dominate South Cambs (very much a new lake district in the making).  I also acquired a navy cardigan (the colour rather than the armed service), well I am middle-aged: what did you think I wore?

Before this orgy of food and shopping, I made time for some art.  I decided to check out some of the gear my membership of the Art Fund had helped to secure for the nation.  Can’t say I was wildly impressed by the Titian’s – his heads seem too small for their bodies – but that is probably my fault rather than his.  Still, I did see some very interesting stuff at the National Gallery and could feel that the odd square millimetre (or more likely, micron) of it was, in some way, mine!

Before that I went to a gallery in an area of London never previously graced by my presence – the area between Dalston and Haggeston.  I had previously though this was some sort of post-apocalyptic wasteland – and was pleasantly surprised to find that areas were really rather beautiful.  It also led to my first trip on the London Overground – which spent most of its time underground, but then again my immediately preceding journey on the Underground mostly took place above ground – much swankier than the East London line it replaced and hugely extended.

My destination played host to an exhibition I had discovered through Twitter – though I can no longer remember who brought it to my attention.  The exhibition was entitled Horrorgami and was a set of 13 kirigami works – each an iconic building from a horror film – in a light box.  Kirigami is like origami – it is made by folding paper, but you are allowed to cut the paper.  I have no particular interest in horror films, but the “models” were incredible and very beautiful and must require the most incredible planning and cutting and folding precision.  I am now wondering where I could fit one at home: I have narrowed it down to shortlist of four works, but it will need to be installed near a mains supply.  I would thoroughly recommend going to the exhibition – but you’ll have to hurry as tomorrow is the final day!

My final event of the day was unrelated to Twitter, but was vaguely trust-related.  I went to see a play which was very highly rated in reviews when it was on at the Royal Court earlier in the year, but tickets were impossible to come by.  Yesterday, it started a short run in the West End and I managed to snag a ticket for the first night (though at rather higher cost than it would have been at the Royal Court).  The play, Constellations, was very good – and pleasingly brief and interval free (so, home to bed at a reasonable time) – funny, sad and thought provoking.  No real scenery but an amazing set comprised of light globes and balloons and very clever lighting design to capture jumps between the many-worlds involved.

Sometimes, I feel my life is pretty good – but then again, I am a pretty cheap date: my ambitions and desires can generally be met on a pretty modest budget.

Slack security

I own several pairs of trousers – oh yes, life is going well for me.   For the vast majority of these, a single button is considered adequate to bind the left and tight halves of my trews together above the fly.  I find this arrangements to be very successful, and in my many years wearing trousers no disaster has ensued as a result of this single fastening.

I also own a few suits and all of these possess three separate fastenings – two buttons and a clip, or two clips and a button – to hold the tops of the trousers together.  Why is so much additional security deemed necessary when wearing a suit?  Is the typical suit-wearer paranoid about his (or her) trousers descending at an inopportune moment?  Surely a belt or a pair of braces (or, indeed, both – or should that be all three? – for the really worried) would deal with any such concern?

Or am I missing something?  Should I be looking to add extra security to my less formal leg-wear?

Odd claims

Lest you were worrying, this will be nothing to do with insurance – I believe Jasper Carrott covered that subject matter some years back and I’d hate to be seen as treading over old ground.  No, this relates to a triumvirate of curious claims I saw back in the soi-disant summer – yes, I know this is rather slow coming to “print” and as you will see, this certainly can’t be justified on the basis of improved quality.

The first claim was on a poster I saw whilst awaiting a tube train and advertised a 5km tree walk.  I initially found myself wondering if Ents were involved, or perhaps I should start to worry about my invincibility in battle – well, there have been a lot of C-sections over recent years and a chap can’t be too careful.  My second thought was that this was a seriously tall tree and I’m not at all sure lignin could support such a massive structure – and certainly not in ambulatory motion.  My final thought is what a wonderful language English is, allowing so many erroneous interpretations of a an apparently simple four word phrase.

The second incident was also from an advertisement, but one I saw emblazoned on a cab door in Edinburgh.  This was extolling the virtues of a male comedian (name long since forgotten) with the claim that he provided “effortless delivery”.  It struck me that this was a slogan more appropriate for Royal Mail or DHL than stand-up comedy.  Let’s face it, delivery for a stand-up involves speaking aloud – something which most of us can manage with a relatively low level of effort and don’t feel the need to brag about, at vast expense, on taxi doors.  I can only recall seeing one comic with somewhat effortful delivery – and in his case, he had the excellent excuse that he suffers from cerebral palsy.  Perhaps this forgotten comic had overcome a stammer or Tourettes to perform at the Fringe?  If so, I am doing him a terrible dis-service – though I still feel he could do with some more work on his advertising copy.

I was also introduced to my final example at Edinburgh.  It came in the form of a song that Michael Legge used to make his entrance.  I believe the song was by something called Kelis and, if not so entitled, certainly made much play of the phrase “my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard”.  At a very rough estimate, there are somewhat more than three billion boys currently in existence – so, if the claim is true, this yard is going to be exceeding cramped (and the pressure on local roads and public transport doesn’t bear thinking about).  I also found myself wondering whether the singer(s) had considered the boys who were either lactose intolerant or vegan.  Perhaps this “Kelis” was singing of a soya milkshake and had established this in an earlier verse to which I paid insufficient attention.

I think the moral of this post is that people should think before going public with their outlandish or poorly thought-out claims.  Though, if they did, much innocent amusement would be lost – so perhaps we should just stay a moral-free zone.

The Traveller

I look at myself as a traveller, rather than a tourist.  This is not because I consider myself superior to the tourist hordes (though obviously, I do and am), and not because I go out of my way to seek out the authentic local experience (though I do try and avoid the nearest fast food chain, Irish pub or venue serving “English” food).  No, I make the distinction because the tourist generally chooses their destination with the object of seeking after pleasure – whereas my destinations are chosen for me by “the man” and my object is business-related.

After more than a year with work taking me little further afield than the horrors of Woking, the last month I have been racking up the air miles (or I would have been, if I travelled by airlines which offered such “incentives”).  Milan, Paris and Berlin have all be graced with my suited presence.

As a result of all this travel, I have discovered that Stansted Airport is entirely useless.  It is very close to Fish Towers, but has flights to no useful destinations unless your business involves sun, sea, alcohol abuse and gland games – sadly (or, if I’m honest, happily), mine does not (yet).  This means several hours of travel, before I see the airport let alone a plane, as I trek to Heathrow or Gatwick (neither of which are sited with the best interests of the denizen of South Cambs).

I have also been reminded about how vile flying truly is.  The poor flyer has to pay to be treated like a bovine with a grudge against the state who is possessed of a sufficient knowledge of chemistry combined with and weakly anchored enough moral compass to do something violent about it.  After you have cleared this feeble pretence at security, you put on your hiking boots and munch on your Kendal mint cake as you walk to a neighbouring county (or state) to find your gate before being locked into a cramped metal box with lousy air for a couple of hours.  I really feel that they should be paying us to endure this – but apparently, large numbers of people are willing to part with hard cash for this mis-treatment.

ImageMy trip to Paris was very different as I took the train, as the good Lord intended.  No nasty airport terminal full of the worst that multinational chains can offer.  Half-decent patisserie from Le Pain Quotidien and a very brief stroll through security carrying all the liquid I could handle.  A comfy lounge with free wi-fi followed by a very short stroll onto a comparatively spacious and comfortable carriage.  Even better, the train leaves from the centre of London and arrives in the centre of Paris – rather than an obscure location some miles and many minutes away.  The trip will also have made my nephew dead jealous – yes, I now find myself train spotting at one remove and taking pictures of all the interesting rolling stock I see while abroad as part of my avuncular duties.  For those unfortunate enough to follow my Facebook feed, the trip also clearly showed how poor I am at self-photography: the look of dread concentration on my face as I attempt to work the iPhone was really quite worrying (luckily, WordPress refuses to accept images of such poor quality, so here is a Gare du Nord train photo for my nephew instead).

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As well as the travelling, I have been sampling international hotels – or at least those approved by my employer.  These are perfectly adequate (if not entirely luxurious), but do suffer from a fault which seems common to almost all hotels.  Given the vast body of research that suggests 16°C is the maximum temperature that is conducive to sleep, why are all hotel rooms set at a temperature more suited to a Turkish bath?  I have also found that it is almost impossible to cool rooms anywhere close to a comfortable temperature for a good night’s sleep.  Surely, all this excessive heating is costing the hotel business a small fortune each year – dropping the thermostat a few degrees (as a standard) could provide the first chain to implement it with a huge competitive advantage (and I’d only want a modest fee for myself for originating the idea).

My visit to Paris offered other advantages over and above the mode of transport used to achieve that romantic city.  My meeting took place in a chateau (dating back to 1399, so the oldest building in which I have yet given a talk!) some way outside Paris.  I stayed in Paris overnight (opposite the Gare du Nare – which was very convenient, if rather expensive) and took the Transilien train out to Mery sur Oise in the morning (these services are almost entirely run by very new, very funky new rolling stock as shown below – but both my journeys were on some really antique old examples).

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Despite its enormous cost, my hotel did not include breakfast in the room rate – and I refused to pay a further €17 for hotel breakfast fare -so, I walked out of my hotel (imagining I was Jason Bourne.  Something I could do again in Berlin, as my hotel was on Alexanderplatz) turned the corner and saw no sign of a slightly beaten-up mini but did see an Artisan Boulanger.  So, a fine breakfast of orange juice and artisanal patisserie.  The chateau, as well as offering a more interesting and attractive venue than most of my business meetings, also did a fine line in patisserie-based snacks for the delegate (and, indeed, the keynote speaker).  Even the Gare du Nord on my journey home could offer something.  As a result, for roughly 24 hours my diet was nearly 90% patisserie – heaven!  (Obviously, not something to do everyday – but great fun when it is almost forced upon me).  Sadly, on more normal trips I am forced to snatch any food I can find when there chance presents itself – Berlin was a particular low point as I only just made my flight home and so was forced to eat easyJet’s over-priced fare to avoid my blood-sugar levels falling dangerously low.

This coming week, I believe I will manage to stay on these shores – though will have to head into London at least once (and perhaps more often).  Hopefully, with a little less travel this poor blog will be slightly less neglected.  Interestingly, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of recent updates, people continue coming to GofaDM in hope of enlightenment or entertainment (unfulfilled hopes, obviously).  Based on the geographical stats provided by WordPress, the sun truly does not set on this blog – the map is now coloured in shades of orange from east to west and north to south (thought is still a bit patchy in Africa and no Antarctica).  Still, it is good to have ambitions still to be satisfy – I don’t want to end up like Alexander the Great (though, if I am being realistic, this is probably quite a low risk).

Paint!

The time has come for Fish Towers to be re-painted: inside and out.  In the interests of transparency, I should perhaps admit that the time actually came two or three years ago – but sometimes I take a while to move forward with a project (as perhaps the rather patchy recent updating of this blog might suggest).  Still, my procrastination has allowed time for the walls to settle properly and future movement should be very modest – well, unless they find shale gas in CB22 and frakking creates rather more exciting seismic conditions than have been our lot for an aeon or so.

As I am less than keen on either heights or dirty hands (though in both cases, only as they impact me directly) I decided it was time to find a chap (or chapess) to do my (high and) dirty work.  After a little research, I have found myself a absolute gem: the excellent Dan Alder.

The somewhat excessive precipitation this year has been well documented as has its impact on farmers and wildlife (among others), but there had been little mention of the dreadful effect on our painters (exterior rather than still-life or portrait).  My poor painter has had a very difficult year finding any days when it has been dry enough to paint outdoors – and gloss needs many hours of dryness if a decent finish is to be achieved.  As a result, work on Fish Towers started a little later than hoped.  Still, despite the rather erratic weather in the last few weeks all of the exterior has received at least one coat (and is protected from the elements) and most have a full three coats and look quite splendid – literally better than new as the original work was done to a much lower standard.

I have also learned a huge amount about exterior painting in the last few weeks – and am now even more glad that I didn’t attempt it myself.  There is so much more to painting properly than the layman would imagine – and I say this as the grandson of a painter and decorator.  It starts with selecting the right paint: Fish Towers is being coated in Dutch paint which is guaranteed for eight years (whereas “British” paint only lasts for five – though interestingly is made by exactly the same company) and which contains rubber.  There is then a huge amount to learn about brushes – and the number and type that you need to do a decent job.  New brushes have to be run in for several months on emulsion before they can be let loose on gloss – and the oldest, most worn-down brushes are the best for lining in.  The most extraordinary thing is brush maintenance: no white spirit or turps (or worse water) for these gloss brushes.  These are kept in their own special air-tight storage container which holds them all separate and vertical and which includes a small vessel of solvent: as a result they do not dry out and so are not cleaned from day-to-day.  This is both labour-saving and produces a much better finish with the brushes – and is something I had never even imagined might exist.

Still, a couple more dry days (which have been largely absent for the last fortnight) and the outside will be finished and it will be time to tackle the interior.  This has led to me poring over paint colour charts to pick a suitable new colour scheme for my domestic realm.  The plan is to stick with something vaguely beige – but there are so many shades of vaguely beige from which to choose!  I’ve bought houses with less consideration than on my choice of a suitable taupe – but I think I’m going to go with Natural Hessian for the bulk of the house.  I am planning a feature wall or two in a more exciting shade – probably something in the terracotta-red colour space – to give the inaccurate impression that I am an exciting, dynamic sort of cove.  For the ceiling I’m going to stick with plain white, I decide to eschew the Creation of Adam or any other visual hits from the Book of Genesis (it was never the same after the Archangel Peter Gabriel left) – and, as I recall, the Sistine Chapel did take quite a while to complete.

The only downside of this internal work is the need to move the furniture – and, in particular, my unfeasibly heavy piano (some 280kg worth) – away from the walls.  Still, my painter seems a young and fit chap – so I reckon between us we should be able to shift things without too many subsequent lumbar problems.  It will all be worth it as the walls are becoming rather shabby in places – and there are some quite sizeable cracks in the plaster (though as yet, no sign of Prisoner Zero).

In a few short weeks, Fish Towers should look very swanky – and as the paint will be wipe-clean, it should stay that way for quite a while even given my occasional (OK, frequent) clumsiness.  All without any DIY!  I would seriously recommend hiring a professional painter and decorator – there is so much more to the job than you might think and the results look wonderful and will last for many years!