The Exiles

Tomorrow, I am going on a Graham Park themed walk and so have been brushing up on my Walking on Glass (as discussed before, engrammatic collapse means that my earlier readings have been lost).  I have been using a PDF copy supplied by my blog soul brother, but am just returned from reclaiming my own physical copy.

As I may have been mentioned before on this blog (or, if not, on another) the vast majority of my personal library languishes in a storage unit some five minutes stroll from my abode.  This is costing me a small fortune and, had I been more organised, I could have had bookshelves in solid gold installed in the flat by now at lower cost (though I wouldn’t recommend it as the weight of the shelves would put a lot stress on the fixings and, indeed, the wall).

I try not to visit my black site storage too often as the books exiled there call to me and beg to be restored to their rightful place (by my side).  They are stored in cardboard packing boxes marked with the legend “BOOKS STORAGE” in a number of hands, none of which show any obvious promise in the art of calligraphy, in an almost (but not quite) entirely random order.  There is just enough pattern in the packing to give me hope, only for it to be cruelly dashed.  In consequence, I have to search through several boxes to find a specific volume – and so am brought face-to-cover with so many happy memories, so many old friends.

Every time I visit them, a few manage to worm their way into my bag, or secrete themselves about my person, and are re-patriated.   To counter my lack of willpower in the face of the literary, I only carry a very small bag with me when I visit the deportees.  This time a mere seven managed to smuggle themselves back with my intended target.  If I’d had a bigger bag, I would have struggled to keep the number of restorees into double figures.  Having been exposed to them, I just cannot resist their siren calls.

Also rescued from purdah was a physical copy of my earliest writing in the GofaDM style: dating back some twenty-five years (just be grateful blogging hadn’t been invented way back then!).  Looking at this example of my juvenilia (aka SSC814OP), I learn two things: (i) I still find myself funny and (ii) my style has moved forward very little in the last quarter of a century (which may explain (i)).  It can’t really be published here as the references are way too specific to my work at the time and some of the people mentioned are still among the living.  Frankly, I lack the time or financial backing to tackle a major libel prosecution at the moment.  I think that even under the Thirty Years Rule this particular document may have to remain under wraps – though I might be tempted to allow a selected few a brief glimpse of a time when my mind was marginally less disturbed than is now the case.

Идио́т

OK, I may have gone too far this time – though I think with a knowledge of the Greek alphabet, a mirror and a little low animal cunning you should be able to translate the title into English.  For those without the time, or necessary enthusiasm, to transliterate from the Cyrillic, today’s post is entitled The Idiot – a word which appears to be exactly the same in Russian (though they may pronounce it differently – but if I needed a low-level insult in Novosibirsk, I’d give it a go with a cod accent).

Despite the title (and its language), I will not be referring to the novel by Fyodor Dostyovesky (except now) or even the indecipherable Estonian film version of it I saw a few years back.  Talking of Estonian, a knowledge of the language might be useful (and not just on a visit to Tallinn) – only this week it could have saved me £12.99.  At a talk on the future of the oceans (worrying – and I won’t be eating prawns or scallops any time soon), the speaker – Callum Roberts – was selling his book, but giving away free the proof copies he had from his Estonian publisher.  Once again, the lack of application at learning Modern Languages in the Anglophone world is shown up for the myopic stance it is.

No, the idiot being referred to is the author’s flatmate (for any new readers, I should make clear at this point that the author lives alone – frankly, who would put up with him?).  To keep the length of this post to within reasonable bounds, I shall restrict myself to three recent incidents – the use of the number three also appeals to the history of both dramatic structure (the three unities or three act narrative) and magical practice.

Incident the first: this morning as I exited Fish Towers by the rear door I found myself uttering the words “Hello world, have you missed me?”.  This utterance was out loud – but, luckily, neither the world nor any of its denizens saw fit to make reply.

Incident the second: On leaving the Ritzy in Brixton last Sunday, I needed to make rapid progress to the tube station to avoid missing the last train home.  My speed was inhibited by the human sheep milling aimlessly (so far as I could tell, they might have a different story) on the pavement, but the road was empty.  As a result, I walked very briskly along the bus lane bypassing the ovine masses.  I justified the use of a bus lane to myself by dint of the fact I was wearing a red shirt (it claims to be Pink, but I believe that’s the maker’s mark rather than the colour) – and as I thought (and probably said out loud at the time) at the time, close enough for jazz (perhaps I should also have carried a flashcard bearing the legend “Not in service” to avoid confusion?  You can never by too careful with sheep).

Incident the third: Earlier this afternoon I visited a bookshop (by accident, I was after some whipping cream and a few raspberries), having been thinking that the unread content of my bookshelves was looking rather thin (and about the joy of books more generally).  Fool!  What was I thinking?  I was lucky to escape with fewer than a dozen books.  So many plaintive voices crying out for me to take them home and give them a bloody good reading.  Somehow, I made it out with only two (just marvel at that self-control!) – but am left nursing an unsatisfied desire for so many more.

It is truly said that howsoever far or fast you run, you can never escape yourself.  I suspect a worrying proportion of the world’s GDP is spent in denial of this simple truism.  I think I have mostly come to terms with the fact that I’m stuck with me – but haven’t quite given up all hope.

Meeting your heroes

The activity suggested by today’s title is somewhat contraindicated by proverbial wisdom: though I would have thought this would depend on the nature of both your heroes and the proposed encounter.

I don’t think that I have “heroes” in the traditional sense – whilst I clearly aspire to be other than I am, this is a yearning for a generic other rather than to acquire aspects of a specific other.  This may be down to a failure of imagination (a theory that GofaDM readers will find it easy to accept) or perhaps an acceptance of my lack of potential.  It also reflects my understanding (one which seems wholly absent from the media) that being heroic in one aspect of life does not (and probably can not) mean heroic in all: even if we could agree what that might mean.  To the extent I have heroes, they are also drawn from a slightly different pool than is probably typical: usually academics and writers, rather than the more typical celebrity aspirational targets.

In a desperate effort to keep the conceit of this post alive I will admit that there are many people who evince abilities that I find impressive (and often, frankly, magical).  In very local news, the latest follower of this blog (who would seem either to have some recent Greek heritage or be a major Hellenophile unafraid to use a Deed Poll) is a far better writer than I will ever be: his angry, funny tale of a painful coat-carrying incident does lead me to wonder why he is following this rubbish.  Still, GofaDM will offer refuge to any comers (whatever my views on their sanity): an idealised Ellis Island of the web (if you like).

Last week, I was uncharacteristically excited about the chance to meet someone (relatively) famous – and so was clearly setting myself up for disappointment (which to destroy any narrative tension, did not occur).  I have been a fan of A L Kennedy since hearing her on the much maligned Quote, Unquote many years ago.  It can’t remember what it was that drew me to her then, though the Dundee accent may well have been involved.  However, her reputation in my eyes has been cemented by her performances on A Point of View – which are incredibly well-written and read.  Usually, I cook (or do some other physical activity) while listening to spoken-word podcasts, but with A L Kennedy I have to concentrate fully on the words.  I think she may be my favourite contributor to the strand – and this is against a very strong field.  I’ve only read one of her volumes of short stories, which may have been a little too adult for me (and not in terms of an 18 rating) – but which were amazingly well written.

Anyway, the Nuffield offered a chance to see her live (long “i”, though she did also manage the short “i” version) as part of their Writers in Conversation series and so off I cycled through the drizzle to meet an almost hero.  As so often with the famous, Alison is much smaller in person than she seems on the radio – but less commonly, even lovelier.  She read a chunk from her latest volume, All the Rage (which as a result I now own, but have yet to read and really want the voice in my head to attempt the A L Kennedy delivery when I do) and then we had an hour’s Q&A session.  This was really fascinating – even to a lousy writer like me.  Given that even in my most serious writing phase (preparing my well-regarded Open University assignments) I used only three (major) drafts, the fact that every page of her books will have gone through more than 100 drafts indicated a whole different level of commitment to the result (and one which will not be applied to GofaDM any time soon!).  In answering my(!) question, she mentioned that aPoV is in the old Alistair Cooke slot and what an honour it was to be asked to fill it.  She mentioned a particular Letter from America dating to the first performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – and as a result, I have had to buy a book of his (Cooke’s) writings.  Oscar Wilde may have been able to resist everything except temptation but while I’m generally less easily led into temptation, when it comes to books (in the words of the Borg) resistance is futile.

I am always pleasantly surprised by how much fun one can have for a fiver (or less) at the Nuffield – and elsewhere, for that matter: last week I also saw both Joe Lycett and Stuart Goldsmith do an hour of work-in-progress stand-up (though Mr Goldsmith in particular seemed to have little need for further progress) for the same modest sum at the Pleasance in Islington.  The downside (for me) is after these cheap events I then feel the need to blow many times the cost of entry on (often quite tangentially) related books (or supporting the institution so it can continue to offer such loss-leaders).

This talk of heroes led me to wonder if anyone considers the author in this context.  I would certainly hope not, I live with the fool and can assure you there is nothing heroic about him.  However, I did discover yesterday that an employee of a local tyre company (who had apparently witnessed some of my physical jerks) refers to me as “the silver fox” – not an epithet I have ever aspired to, but I think it was meant as a compliment.  I suppose he could just be referring to the fact that I am going grey and am often to be found going through other people’s bins – but I’m going to cling to a more positive interpretation.

On Reading

As is so often the case, fans of Berkshire will be disappointed by the contents of this post.  As a small sop to them, I can exclusively reveal that I bought my first ever pair of jeans in Reading!  Not funny, but certainly true.

No, this post – as so many before it – will reflect on my most persistent hobby: reading.  I have been a reader for longer than I can remember.  I am told that as a tiny tot I would insist that any text within eyeshot was read out to me, and in an abortive attempt to shut me up my mother taught me to read at a young age (possibly the most unsuccessful plan in human history).  In many ways, little has changed and I find it very hard to resist reading any text which passes into my visual field – whatever the language.  Slightly dangerously, this extends to reading any text displayed on other people’s clothing or, indeed, tattooed onto their flesh.  This can lead to me staring rather too intently (and sometimes obviously) at the bodies of others – an issue which has recently taken a worrying turn.  Over the weekend, I found myself staring intently at the body art of a burly chap in the changing room at the gym trying to decide which Mesoamerican culture’s art had been pastiched to decorate his upper back and shoulder.  I tend to think it was Aztec (or maybe Olmec), but am grateful he did not catch me pondering this weighty matter as I fear he may have found my explanation inadequate.

I am rarely without a book, as you never know when you will have a lacuna – a queue perhaps or an ad break – which could usefully be filled by knocking off a few pages.  In fact, I usually have at least two books “on the go” at any time – one for home (often a larger, less portable choice) and one for away (always a more modestly sized paperback).  I also like to strike a balance between fiction and non-fiction and a range of genres – but sometimes a book just cries out to be read now and to Hades with the system!

All very well I hear you say, but why is he boring us with this information now?  Well, because I can (obviously) – but there are a couple of other reasons why reading was foremost in my mind.  Firstly, as recently reported I recovered my copy of The Silmarillion from storage.  This was to lend it to a chap how works on the bar at the Nuffield (though he is mostly a student, something in the biological sciences I think) who I got chatting to at a previous drinks do (my life is not just hob-nobbing with celebrities, you know).  How the conversation ended up with Tolkien’s LotR backstory I no longer recall, but I promised to lend the lad my copy.  Before handing it over, I did re-read a little of it – and it is very much my kind of thing, but I was left wondering how it would go down with a normal human being.  It would seem I needn’t have worried, before the evening was out he had read a little of the opening (when Eru made the Ainur and they began to sing Arda into existence) and seems to have been hooked.  I think my childhood love of creation myths, and mythology more generally, may be partly to blame from my relative immunity to the siren charms of organised religion (my mother may also need to shoulder some of the blame).  In many ways, Ilúvatar seems a much better bet than most of the gods actual religions have saddled us with – though even he has some explaining to do around the whole Melkor issue.  Re-reading some of the book as an adult, I was also forcibly struck by how few female characters it contains – other than a few Valar, there only seems to be Melian and Galadriel – though perhaps JRR was just following the model laid down by “real” religions?  Despite this, I must admit my re-reading suggests I haven’t changed that much over the nearly 30 years since I first read the book – a perhaps worrying degree of continuity.

My second reason was that I have just read The Quarry by Iain Banks.  I started with Mr Banks’ work in around 1991 with Espedair Street and swiftly went through all his M-free oeuvre.  I then knocked off his science fiction (with the M) and thereafter have had to read his books as they are written.  His work has, therefore, been my companion through most of my adult life (and nearly half my entire life) – but with his premature death in 2013, I always knew this would come to an end.  I read the Hydrogen Sonata a little while back, which will be the last I read of the Culture (a tragedy in itself – if there is one fictional place I’d like to live, it is in the Culture), but had been putting off reading his final work.  I really enjoyed The Quarry – and feel that Kit and I have quite a lot in common – but it was also sad to know that there were only 100 pages of new IB, then 50, then 25 and then it was all gone.  It was in many ways a good choice for a last work, started before he knew that it would be so – and so all the more poignant.

There have been many books from a whole range of authors that I have looked forward to over the years, but none held quite the place in my heart of a new Iain (M) Banks.  Still, there are a good half-dozen books in the bedroom awaiting my attentions and many more in bookshops and libraries (for the moment, anyway) across the land, so I shall learn to cope with the loss.  (And, of course, I can always return and re-read his work – so in a way, he is still with me).

My weakness

The title should not lead you to believe that the author imagines he has but a single weakness.  For a start, I have no reason to believe that I am any more immune to gunfire, “fire” fire or ionising radiation than the next mammal.  No, the title focuses on a single weakness in a vain attempt to keep this post to a manageable length.

The weakness in question is books.  For as long as I can remember, I have had a lot of books and a strong desire to have more.  While other crazes have come and gone, the near infinite variety of books has retained my interest for more than 40 years.  It is rare that I travel more than a mile from home without at least one book – indeed, I am far more likely to have a book than my mobile phone (which may say more about my age than my passion for literature).  With a book, you always have a friend and a source of entertainment at hand – and a bulwark against the howling void of your own undirected thoughts.  Never underestimate the importance of divertissement to the avoidance of a one-way trip to La Suisse.

The recent arrival of a branch of Foyles at Waterloo station is a dangerous development as any free time waiting for a train can (all too easily) result in a new book (or books) being acquired.  The latest such entry to my library was Into the Woods by John Yorke.  This explains how and why stories work and so may prove beneficial to this blog in due course.  It also invaded my life (as books so often do), firstly when watching The Code (a recent and excellent) Australian drama on BBC4) when I found myself analysing how much worse things had yet to become for our heroes.  This was relatively harmless, but I have also caught myself trying to apply its principles to my own life, e.g. trying to precipitate an inciting incident in order to launch the hero (i.e. me) on a new journey.

As I drew to the end of that book, I wandered to Waterstones in Southampton, seeking books – but with no particular targets in mind (not even a choice as to whether they would be fiction or non).  I came away with four books – and iron self-control was needed to keep it down to four!  All have proved to be excellent, and less than half of the fourth remains to be read.  They have all been informative and entertaining, but have also made my look anew at my life.

The Blind Giant by Nick Harkaway was picked as I had read and enjoyed his fiction.  A very interesting and well thought-out take on the digital world and our place in it.  My interactions with the digital world may shift in future – but don’t worry, GofaDM is going nowhere!

Deep Sea and Foreign Going by Rose George was chosen following last year’s winner of the Thinking Allowed prize for ethnography (about shipping) and given the fact that I now live in a container port.  A very interesting introduction into modern shipping and the container business.  When did any of us last think about the ships – and the (mostly) men that crew them – that bring most of the stuff we use?

Justice by Michael Sandel has already been mentioned in this blog.  I’d previously read his book on markets and have downloaded (but not yet listened to) his Reith Lectures from a few years back.  He really makes a chap think – and the book is also an excellent introduction to philosophy.

Is That a Fish in Your Ear? by David Bellos is a book about translation which sounded like an interesting topic.  So indeed it was, I now have rather more respect for the poor souls who have to subtitle films and TV shows – I will perhaps mock their efforts less in the future.

Sadly, there is only a little fish left in my ear and so more books have had to be sought (and indeed bought).  I have just started on The Undivided Past by David Cannadine, a chap introduced to me by A Point of View or BBC Radio 4.  It had started very strongly, so my hopes are high.  aPoV has also prompted me to download Adam Gopnik’s memoir of his time in Paris – a few eBooks are useful when travelling abroad with only hand luggage, though for me they aren’t going to replace the real thing any time soon.  A book needs no battery and its use during take-off and landing (the most important times to be distracted) is entirely unlimited.

It remains astounding to me that some pressed vegetable fibres covered in dark marks can take you to a different world and return you safely to this one.  However, you are often returned a changed man with new ideas, different ways of looking at the world and even a desire to change your life (hopefully for the better).  So, I plan on hanging on to this weakness for as long as I can – and to Hades with the storage issues!  Hooray for books!  (If only it were National Book Week – but I’m only a month or so late).

Be careful what you write…

In my recent outing as an (unqualified) economist, I came to the conclusion that Amazon was not a good corporate citizen and that to drag this country kicking and screaming out of its n-dip (where n=2 at the time of writing) recession we should be spending our money elsewhere.  This conclusion was by no means a foregone one – when I started writing I had no idea what the conclusion would turn out to be.

It struck me that if I was going to “talk the talk” then I had better “walk the walk”, as our American friends would say (well, the more clichéd among them).  Some readers of this blog have ditched Amazon, so I could scarcely do less.  This has meant Amazon and its ilk have not been a part of this year’s Christmas shopping.  So I have sought out UK tax paying alternatives – looking for smaller companies and those without major operations abroad.

For many of my online needs, it was reasonably straightforward to find more exchequer-friendly alternatives to Amazon, and even ones that use the Post Office for deliveries (though this latter may not entirely have pleased my postman!).  (Oh yes, for me shopping involves both economic and social policy considerations).  However, in a few key areas I was forced to bite a rather unpalatable bullet and actually visit a real shop.  Not just a shop, but a shop during the month of December – which I’m sure must be somewhere in Dante Alighieri’s masterwork (though, I’ll admit I haven’t actually checked the Inferno).

So, last Sunday I girded my loins and headed into Cambridge on my bike. Having cleared the gauntlet of cars waiting to enter the Grand Arcade car park (a queue which I think runs continuously from late November until Christmas day and fills several nearby streets) it was surprisingly easy to find a space to park my bike.  John Lewis was busy, but still readily navigable and the staff were astonishingly cheery.  Buying stuff was a breeze and queues were relatively short and moved quickly.  I may have to do this whole “shopping” thing again.  As an added bonus, shopping in the real (as opposed to the virtual) world also provides an excellent excuse to partake of a little fortifying cake (these loins don’t just gird themselves you know!).

Whilst in John Lewis, I noticed that they were stocking formal shirts made in England – rather in the land of our soon-to-be economic masters – and felt I might partake.  I need some new work shirts as my current stock are rather too voluminous for my svelte frame so that I tend to feel like I’m wearing a kaftan or small marquee beneath my suit.  I’m also finding myself making rather more use of shirts at work given my sudden rash of both client contact and international travel, and so the lack of fit is more often brought to my attention.  At this stage, I would like to make clear that even when working from home, I do dress fully – if informally.  No working in either the buff or PJs for me!

With a little help from a sales assistant, one reason why I was drowning in my shirts became apparent – my current shirts are all 17.5″ in the neck, whereas my actual neck is only 15.5″.  It would seem that my neck was much fatter the last time I bought shirts or very poorly measured (or both).  Is this (the shrinking neck) one of the infamous seven signs of ageing?  Still, whatever the cause, I can now dress formally in a little more style (once – but more may follow), rather than giving the impression of waiting for a friend to join me in my chemise.  Again, a benefit of the real over the virtual.

Another side-effect of my blog post is that I now feel the need to support real bookshops (as well as Greenmetropolis).  My favourite London restaurant is only a stone’s throw from Foyles (and we are talking my stone throwing ability here, so that means pretty close).  Despite some modernisation over the years, Foyles remains delightfully quirky and it is still quite possible to get lost when trying to find the exit (I can tell you this from recent personal experience).  I’ve been to 10 Greek Street twice since that fateful post and so have bought two books.  At this rate, I’m going to need a new bookcase worryingly soon.

So, the moral of this post is to be careful of what you write:  the need to maintain a modicum of internal consistency can have unintended consequence for one’s life.

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!