Issue42: 2016 02 25: contents

25 February 2016: Issue 42

Week in Brief     

       UK

The Nagalawa Cup

The Nagalawa Cup

International

Financial

Comment

Happy Birthday, Mr President  by Neil Tidmarsh

African leaders race for the record book.

Bushed by J. R. Thomas

Exit stage right for Jeb.

Chin Chin's throw A Kenning

Chin Chin’s throw A Kenning

In or Out? by John Watson

The start of the race.

A UK rate rise could come sooner than markets think by Frank O’Nomics

Markets or MPC. Who is right?

The Health Debate

Focus on Healthcare by a junior NHS manager

A perspective on the hospital crisis.

Meningitis B Vaccine, Junior Doctors and Budgets by Lynda Goetz

Sport in the belfry?

Sport in the belfry?

A minefield of emotion.

The Shaw Sheet would welcome further insights into this topic

Features

Trouble in the Belfry by J. R. Thomas

Raising a Clanger.

Bugs by Chin Chin

Their role in character assessment.

The Ngalawa Cup by Alexander Nimmo

Part 3 of a sailing adventure in the Indian Ocean.

Review

The Patriotic Traitor

The Park Theatre is reviewed by Adam McCormack

The Big Short

A film by Adam Mackay is reviewed by Adam McCormack

Bye bye

Bye, bye,  Mr Bush

Crossword

Modern Times

Solution to the last crossword “A Walk in the Woods”

Earlier Editions

Issue 37: 21 January 2016

Issue 38: 28 January 2016

Issue 39: 04February 2016

Issue 40: 11February 2016

Issue 41: 18 February 2016

A medium 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 41:2016 02 18:contents

18 February 2016: Issue 41

Week in Brief     

 "…to think he wondered what he would do when he retired!"

“…to think he wondered what he would do when he retired!”                          A. Kenning

       UK

International

Financial

Comment

Maskirovka by Neil Tidmarsh

In Russia, the season for masks isn’t over yet.

Trouble at the Folgate by J. R. Thomas

Choppy waters for the rest of Boris’s rule.

Bye Bye Indie by John Watson

The ringing of the bells of change.

A group of 5 white and purple hellebore flowers and a little of their stalks

Hellebores in flower by Neil Dunlop

Are worries about banks overstated by Frank O’Nomics

CoCos for conversion?

Vellum is for ever (well nearly) by Lynda Goetz

Is £80,000 per annum really such a waste?

Features

The bald facts by J. R. Thomas

The hairs to power

War and Peace by Neil Tallstory

illustration Andrew Kenning

Chin Chin                          illustration A. Kenning

A thoroughly up to date version.

The curse of the Pharoahs by Chin Chin

How many will die this time?

Clever Dogs by Princess Lottie of Islington

(with help from Frank O’Nomics)

The Ngalawa Cup by Alexander Nimmo

Part 2 of a sailing adventure in the Indian Ocean.

Review

Macbeth

12052643_10153853979342863_5175827825959796888_o

The Ngalawa Cup

the Basin Botanical Gardens, Wanganui is reviewed by John Watson

 

Crossword

A Walk in theWoods

Solution to the last crossword “War and Peace”

Earlier Editions

Issue 36: 14 January 2016

Issue 37: 21 January 2016

Issue 38: 28 January 2016

Issue 39: 04February 2016

Issue 40: 11February 2016A medium 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 42: 2016 02 25: News in Brief Financial

25 February 2016

Week in Brief: BUSINESS AND THE CITY

Headline image saying £NEWS
HEAVY POUNDING: The pound sank against all major currencies on Monday, though perhaps not as much as exciteable headlines suggested, after Boris Johnson announced his intention to campaign for a British exit from the European Community.  Boris cannot take all the blame (or credit) for this – the pound has been in slow decline against the US dollar and Euro for several months.   Great news for British exporters, of course, as British goods become ever cheaper overseas, but not so good for imports to the UK which will grow more expensive.  As Britain must import (for example: steel) to export (for example: cars) this is a double edged sword for such an intermediary economy.  There is no doubt that a lot of this decline is prudent position taking against the unknown (knowns and unknowns) that would follow a decision to Brexit – though perhaps not so much due to concerns as to the strength of a British economy outside Europe as to the turmoil that would follow the “Out” vote in the short term.  But it also reflects the general expectation that both Euro and dollar rates are about to rise, whilst sterling seems less likely to.  The Bank of England, though, may have views on that; the Governor, Mark Carney, has resumed his signalling that rates must at some point rise, hinting that this may be towards the current year end.  Certainly we are in for some broader foreign currency fluctuations in the future than we have been used to recently.
ASDA SINKING FEELING: After Tesco, J. Sainsbury, and Morrison all produced stronger performances than expected for the last (Christmas) quarter, the market has been awaiting ASDA’s figures – which came out at the end of last week.   Rumours were that they were not good, and that proved to be spot on – like for like sales dropped nearly 6%, which ASDA blamed on heavy competition both from its UK major rivals, and from the German cost cutters, Aldi and Lidl.   ASDA’s adjusted turnover has now fallen for six successive quarters.   Its problems are exacerbated by the fact it also has a larger exposure to clothing and fashion than its rivals through its George clothing brand; this has also suffered intense competitive pressure in spite of heavy promotion.
ASDA is owned by the American food giant retailer Walmart, which is supporting chief executive Andy Clarke in his efforts to define a more profitable business model for ASDA, which include a narrower range of products, heavy cost cutting, and many more own brand products – in all of this it is following its major rivals.   It also recognises that it has to cut central costs – as Tesco did last year and Sainsbury some time ago; which will mean redundancies at its Leeds headquarters.
But its parent in the USA is also looking at its own problems.  It published its figures the same day, with net turnover across the group – the largest real estate based retailer in the world – showing flat sales, although it was looking in earlier forecasts to 3% or 4% growth this year.  That, though, is not the core problem.  Rising costs are the big issue at the moment, especially wage increases for its one million plus workers who now are guaranteed by Walmart (formerly much criticised for underpaying its low paid staff) earnings of not less than US$10 an hour – against the USA minimum wage of $7.73 dollars an hour.  This has pushed net operating income down 7%.  Walmart says it is vital to invest in its business if it is to regain growth momentum.  Investors weren’t so sure – the share price fell 5% on announcement of the figures.
WEST BY NORTH WEST: The Enterprise Research Centre , an academic based analysis group reported that over 11,000 firms in Britain are regarded as “high growth”, recruiting more than 20% new employees over three years.  These firms show a remarkable regional concentration in London and the southern counties immediately to the west; and in the north west, around Manchester, Liverpool, and Chester.   In terms of towns, Liverpool is second to London.  The study attributes this performance to lower costs than Europe, a more enterprise friendly approach, and a strong technology culture in the UK.
TAKE AWAY: Sainsbury thought it had its deal for the takeover of Home Retail Group, owner of Argos, all sewn up.   A price satisfactory to both sides was agreed and the struggling Homebase D-I-Y chain sold off before the deal was even signed, giving a nice clean sweep up of Argos, the true target.  Sainsbury was basking in the markets congratulations for a clever piece of execution when along came a party pooper.  The surprise arrival at the party is the South African Steinhoff retail group, which has indicated that it intends to make a rival offer of 147.2p in cash, plus allowing exiting shareholders to keep the 25p a share coming in from the Homebase sale, and the final dividend, another 3p, thus totalling about 175p in cash.  This compares to 161.3p from Sainsbury, not a huge difference, but certainly enough to be worth thinking about.  Steinhoff is a retail giant, listed in Johannesburg and in Germany, more than three times the size of Sainsbury, so with much more firepower if it comes to a fight.  It is run by Christo Wiese who owns 20% of the business himself, and is pushing an expansion outside South Africa.  British assets include a sizeable shareholding in Iceland, the food retailer, and outright ownership of two furniture retailers, Bensons for Beds, and Harveys, and recent acquisitions of Virgin Active in the sport and health care sector and New Look in young fashion.  The Argos/Home Retail acquisition would take it into a new area of UK retail, though without the synergies of scale which would flow from a Sainsbury acquisition which has been seen as the core strength of the deal to Sainsbury.  The Take Over Panel has extended the time which Sainsbury has to make a counter offer to 18th March, to ensure equality of opportunity between the bidders.
LOW SCORER: HSBC, having decided to keep its headquarters in the UK, announced its annual results.   Not a great day for Chief Executive Stuart Gulliver who had to unveil his personal scorecard as to target achievements – 45/100 – which cut his share entitlements by nearly £4m compared with last year.  The bank’s profits were down US$3bn, reflecting mainly rising costs but also a US$858m loss in the last quarter as the bank adjusted various provisions.  The increase in costs relates mainly to regulatory costs and the improvements to its reporting regime that the bank is having to make across its businesses around the world.
LOW DIGGER: BHP Billiton, the international mining giant also announced its half year annual results to 31st December 2015, and had bad news for shareholders.   Firstly, profits were down to US$412m as the price squeeze on metals and mining continued to bite hard, including massive write downs for the values of its shale oil extraction business.   Second, the board reversed its policy of recent years in paying increasing dividends.  It cut this periods dividend by 75% compared with the same period last year.  It simply cannot spare the cash to keep paying out at the rate it has in the past.   In this, it is line with other large similar groups such as Angle American who are adopting the same policyKEY MARKET INDICES:
(at 23rd February 2016; comments refer to changes on one week; $ is US$)
Interest Rates:
UK£ Base rate: 0.5%, unchanged: 3 month 0.61% (unchanged); 5 year 0.85% (rising).
Euro€: 1 mth -0.18% (rising); 3 mth-0.11% (rising); 5 year -0.09% (falling)
US$: 1 mth -1.62% (major rise); 3 mth 0.72% (rising); 5 year 1.13% (falling)
Currency Exchanges:
£/Euro: 1.27, £ falling
£/$: 1.41, £ falling
Euro/$: 1.11, € steady
Gold, oz: $1,225 steady
Aluminium, tonne: $1,572, slight rise
Copper, tonne: $4,694, slight rise
Oil, Brent Crude barrel: $34.15, rising
Wheat, tonne: £104, steady
London Stock Exchange: FTSE 100: 6,038 (rising). FTSE Allshare: 3,308 (rising)
Briefly: Quite a positive week in all areas, except the currency exchanges, on which we comment above. The London stock market is making good progress recovering from recent weakness and the FTSE100 is back over 6,000. Oil and metals both made modest gains. Dollar interest rates at the short end continued recent volatility

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: The Ngalawa Cup, Part III (A Nimmo)

25 February 2016

The Ngalawa Cup (Part Three)

A sailing adventure in the Indian Ocean.

by Alexander Nimmo

12466135_10153853948942863_5593306052749287795_oLast week we left Alexander and crew returning to land with lashings coming loose and a detached outrigger; but the damage proves to be only a temporary setback…

We were delayed by a day, but had support in the form of two other teams who had also had to return, one with a broken boom and the other with a broken outrigger. Thankfully on day 5 of the race we were able to get going with no issues. We were now aiming to go as fast as we could towards the finish.  This would make for long days, but we thought we could manage this for just four more days. The idea was to island hop along the archipelago, which is scattered with small desert islands.

The first island we stopped on provided one of the least pleasant nights of the entire experience. We were in a fishing village, which by way of fresh water had a well full of muddy grey gloop, and no fish they wanted to sell us. We built a campfire and slept in our hammocks on the beach after making and eating a thoroughly unappetising meal of beans and rice with a few random herbs thrown in. The beauty of the night sky with the Magellanic Clouds visible on the southern horizon was not lost on us, however.

The following morning there was a very light land breeze blowing, so we departed early, only to find that the breeze died to nothing about half a mile from the shore. We drifted and paddled our way onwards, concerned that we would not make our next island, some 25 miles away, before dark. Thankfully the breeze filled in around midday and we had an uneventful sail for the rest of the day, landing at our anticipated campsite at 18.38. There we met up with three other teams, so now there were four of us trailing the fleet. One of the rescue boats was also there and the skipper’s brother happened to be a fisherman on that island, so he called ahead and got a delicious meal of barbequed fish and octopus together for everyone to share. I had cut my feet up badly on the reef when we were ‘shipwrecked’, and since then my cuts had gradually filled with sand, making walking more than a few feet incredibly painful.

The island was a typical example of a tropical paradise, fine white sand, turquoise water and palm trees, with few inhabitants. However, it was blighted by the most persistent sand flies, which would not stop attacking us. We were fine as long as we kept covering ourselves in 50% DEET every 30 minutes or so, but it did detract from an otherwise idyllic setting.

The next day was the penultimate day of the race. All four teams set off towards our final night of camping, an island called Songa Songa. We may have been racing, but the beauty of the coral reefs tempted one team to stop and have a snorkel! The wind again built to around 25 knots over the day and our navigation into the island was tough, running the boat as close as we could to the wind between two reefs. We were thrilled to see a pod of five dolphins come towards us and play around the boat for a few minutes. It seems, though, we were not going fast enough for them and they soon got bored and moved on. However it really lifted our spirits to have seen these stunning creatures.

Songa Songa has tragically been spoilt by the discovery of gas, and the huge offshore drilling platform really detracted from another beautiful island. Once in, we met up with the other teams again and one of them went off to the local market to buy fish and fresh vegetables. The fish was a bream-like reef fish which we salted and rubbed with garlic before frying in a large pan over a fire. This was more like it!

With the past few days having gone so well, we were slightly sad that this would be our last night. At the same time we were excited at the prospect of finishing the following day, although we were only too well aware that anything could still happen! We had heard from the guys in the rescue boat that two teams had definitely finished and at least one team was camping on a tiny island just outside the entrance to the river mouth which marked the finishing line.

12366081_10153853966377863_5971549783229851337_oOur final day again dawned clear and bright. We still had 26 miles to go, heading due south. We decided to cut off some time by going close inshore of a reef and hoping that the tide would be high enough to get over by the time we arrived. We saw two teams ahead of us try and work their way over it but without any luck, so we joined them in lowering the sail and walking the boat along this sandy bit of the reef.

The water here was picture-postcard clear with a sandy bottom and a wonderful turquoise hue. We crossed the reef and immediately turned right (west) towards our finishing line. We knew we couldn’t relax as the wind was very gusty and it was in similar conditions that we had had our first capsize. We lamented that it had taken us over nine days of sailing to master our boat, but finally it seemed, just as we were finishing, we were having the best sail of the whole trip!

Landing on the beach was a fantastic feeling. The organisers were there with cold beers; the other teams had all stuck around to cheer everyone in and we could not have been more proud of ourselves. We had had many moments when we wanted to quit, but overcoming this challenge had left us with a clear view that, whatever happened in our lives, if we could sail a dugout over 500 km in eight days we could do anything!

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: Week in Brief – UK

25 February 2016

Week in Brief: UK

Union Jack flapping in wind from the right

SUGAR: An investigation has found that hot flavoured drinks sold in outlets such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee contain very high levels of sugar – as much as 25 teaspoons which is the equivalent of 3 times the amount in a can of Coca Cola. Both companies said that they were committed to reducing the quantity of sugar in their products.

GAMBLING: Campaigners have warned about the increasing danger of compulsive gambling, especially at fixed odds betting terminals (FOBT). Players can place bets for as much as £100 every 20 seconds. There is concern that gamblers who lose money may fall deeper into debt and even become violent. In one incident, a punter smashed 5 machines after losing £1,000. There are also worries about the safety of workers in the shops: a manager was murdered in 2014 by someone who was a compulsive gambler.

PAEDOPHILIA: The PIE member, Tom O’Carroll, mentioned in our last summary, has been suspended from the Labour party and is likely to be expelled.

IMMIGRATION: Figures released recently estimate that there are over 2 million EU migrants working in the UK. The countries which have the majority of workers in the UK are Poland, the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria. These counties are in the van of those who wish to oppose David Cameron’s reform of the EU and its policy in respect of migrant workers.

EU REFERENDUM: David Cameron has returned to the UK with the text of an agreement which he has reached about Britain’s relationship with the EU. Debate has begun about the effect of the agreement and whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has declare his support for the so-called “Brexit”. The debate is likely to become more and more heated in the months leading up the referendum which will take place on 23 June.  See comment ‘In or Out?’.

SERCO: The arrangements for the accommodation of asylum seekers in Glasgow has been entrusted by the Government to the private company Serco in a contract worth £175 million. Serco, in turn, have used sub-contractors under a contract worth £60 million. There have been allegations that the sub-contractor’s staff have not acted properly and have, in some cases, humiliated the people for whom they are providing accommodation.

JOINT ENTERPRISE: The Supreme Court has handed down a judgment which holds that the way in which the crime of joint enterprise has been interpreted is not correct in law and has been wrongly applied since 1984. There are fears that hundreds of prisoners who have been convicted of murder in a joint enterprise may have been wrongly convicted. This may lead to many such cases being reviewed by the Courts. The Supreme Court ruled that foresight that a killing would take place, was not sufficient: there had to be intent on the part of the accused.

GOVERNMENT BORROWING: It appears that the Government will not meet its borrowing target this year, despite a record surplus in January, the largest for 8 years.

SPECIAL ADVISER: Damien McBride, who resigned from Gordon Brown’s staff because of his involvement in the “Red Flag” blog which tried to smear Conservative MPs, has returned to politics as a special adviser to Emily Thornberry, the shadow Defence Secretary. She has not decided yet whether to commit the Labour Party to spending 2% of GDP on defence, as required by NATO.

YOUNG LABOUR: Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn have taken control of Young Labour. The group, backed by Momentum, took all 18 seats which were vacant in recent elections. If Momentum’s candidate is elected as the youth representative on Labour’s NEC, it would increase the number of Corbyn allies on Labour’s ruling council.

LASER ATTACKS: Calls for small, hand held lasers to be banned are becoming more persistent after a survey of eye specialists revealed that over 150 people have suffered eye injuries in the last 5 years. Reports of laser lights being directed at aircraft are increasing.

OBR: The Treasury select committee has criticised Treasury officials, a former Government minister and the Office for Budget Responsibility (“the OBR”) for being in breach of rules which are designed to ensure the independence of the OBR. The committee found that OBR had been subjected to political pressure and, as a result, had changed the text before publishing its economic outlook.

RBS: Criticism has been levelled at HMRC for allowing RBS to use investment in films as a means to avoid paying corporation tax. The scheme is similar to those which have been attacked by HMRC when used by individuals to reduce or avoid tax liabilities.

GLOBAL WARMING: Terence Mills, a Professor of Applied Statistics at Loughborough University, has written a paper published by the Global Warning Policy Foundation in which he predicts that the global average temperature will probably remain unchanged until the end of the century. His forecast is contrary to that of climate scientists who have warned that the temperature could rise by 4C˚. The Professor said that he had found no evidence to support the view expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN that there would be an increase.

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: In or Out? (John Watson)

25 February 2016

In or Out?

The start of the race.

by John Watson

Watson,-John_640c480So at last we know. The starter’s gate opens in April and the finishing line will be crossed on 23 June. The great Europe referendum, the apogee of David Cameron’s term as prime minister, is finally in the sporting calendar.

The government has produced its White Paper “The Best of Both Worlds – Our Special Status in a Reformed European Union” as an opening shot.  It sets out the deals done earlier this month in relation to economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and welfare. Some of it is less than exciting. After all it is no big surprise to discover that we will be allowed to keep out of the euro. On the other hand it is reassuring to see some of the consequences of this written down, for example the exemption from Euro bail-outs if the common currency goes pear-shaped.  Some of the welfare stuff is worth having too – such as the agreement that where we support the families of immigrants working in the UK, we only do so to the standards of the jurisdictions in which those families actually live.

A tightening here, a clarification there, the White Paper will be criticised as making little difference by some, while others will regard things like the statement that we are not committed to ever-closer union as important political markers. There is some truth in both views but at least Mr Cameron has enough to claim that his negotiations achieved something.

Whether that claim is true does not matter.  The referendum will not be about the changes themselves but whether membership of the EU, on these slightly adjusted terms, is or is not to the advantage of the British people.  It is not a simple decision because a voter, before he makes his decision, will need to look at three separate questions. They are:

  1. whether the EU will succeed or fail;
  2. whether if it succeeds we are better off within or outside it; and
  3. whether if it fails we are better off within or outside it.

Then he needs to stick his conclusions together to decide what to do.  If that is beginning to sound like an exercise in higher statistics, I am afraid that it only gets worse because there are any number of different degrees of success or failure. At one end of the spectrum is the collapse of the free market, the imposition of tariffs between the member states. Slightly less bad is the preservation of a tariff-free area but loss of the free movement of people.  Then there is the possibility of a successful Euro or an unsuccessful one, successful sanctions against Russia or unsuccessful sanctions, completion of the market in financial services or preservation of the status quo.

There are a lot of possibilities to play with and voters may need elaborate charts before the campaign is over but for the moment let’s keep it simple and look at the possibility of failure.  Where would the UK want to be then? Let’s not take failure as some dreadful cataclysmic event either, some event in which all the participants go up in smoke or fight a war but rather as a gradual disintegration: members disagree with each other, there are more and more opt outs and anti-European parties win majorities in an increasing number of jurisdictions. Gradually countries begin to leave the EU and its institutions and disciplines become gradually less and less effective.

What then? What happens next? Well, if the EU just gradually dissolved and disappeared it wouldn’t matter very much whether we were in it or not because we would still end up in the same place. What is much more likely, however, is that a much smaller international grouping would emerge made up of countries whose economies and social policies were better aligned, perhaps a bloc of the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Belgium say.  If that were to happen we would have a much better chance of helping to mould it into something we would actually like (internally liberal: formidable to outsiders) than if we had always stood apart. To an extent then, membership of the EU may give us some sort of option as to whether or not we wish to participate in whatever follows it. If you believe that the EU in its present form will atrophy and die that could be a reason for remaining within it.

If the vote is to leave the EU, there will be two whirlpools of instability. First in EU politics where the fact that a country has left may lead others to follow.  The negotiations for carrying through Brexit would not be pleasant. After all, the EU would not want it to be a painless process for fear that other countries would then follow our example.  Then there would be instability in the UK where the consensus amongst establishment politicians would have been rejected by the electorate. Would Mr Cameron’s government be able to continue? Almost certainly not. Elections would have to be held even though the normal five-year period had not expired. Who would benefit? Presumably the nation would expect tough anti-European politicians to lead the negotiation and they would be in a good position to take power.

If, then, you were an ambitious politician, perhaps a little outside the mainstream, you would be weighing up your options.  Support the EU and, if the public decide to stay part of it, you will merely be one of the political establishment going forward.  If the public votes for out, not so good but as most of the political establishment will be going the same way, probably scope for recovery.  Support Brexit, on the other hand and it is more exciting.  If the vote goes your way you will be one of the group eligible for high office.  If the country decides to stay in, you are probably finished for the foreseeable future.  What you have to do is to call this right but, to use Boris’s phrase, the ball is much more likely to come loose at the back of the scrum if we break from Europe than if we do not.

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: Bugs (Chin Chin)

25 February 2016

Bugs

Their role in character assessment.

By Chin Chin

“Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled”

The poet’s vision of arriving angels has inspired many a singer.  It is a very different story however when the arrivals are not angels at all but mosquitoes, moths and other assorted insects, all looking for some exposed flesh to bite or to flutter against.  No celestial singing then, I am afraid, but the steady swish of the fly swat, punctuated with slapping noises and swearing when the intruders get one back.  Finally the staccato bursts from the can of insecticide as the decision is made to put a good night’s sleep before long-term health risks.

bugYou can tell a lot about someone from how they react to an insect in the room in the early hours of the morning. At one level it is a test of competence. There are people who simply turn on the light, throw a book or a ball of socks and the insect is no more – the only trace of its brief life being an attractive addition to the pattern on the wallpaper.  However such skills are unusual outside the military and professional sport and most of us would simply find that the missile had broken a favourite ornament or something of that sort. That doesn’t mean that we cannot take action to eliminate the menace, merely that the action will have to be competent and well thought through rather than dramatic and based on reflexes.  More Montgomery, less Rommel, to borrow from the history of the North African campaign.

Here planning counts for everything and it is important to learn from experience. Many years ago I had a great aunt and there was a nest of cockroaches under the sink in her kitchen. I don’t mean that she kept cockroaches as pets; they had established the nest themselves as a base from which they could run forays around her flat. Now there is a lot to be said for cockroaches. They are one of nature’s cleaners and do their valuable work silently and without reward – no demands from them for a living wage. Also I have always understood that they are perfectly good to eat – a sort of land-based prawn although rather smaller and less fleshy – perhaps a cheap alternative for the makers of prawn cocktail. One needs to be a little careful here, however, because Ed Archbold, the 2012 winner of the Midnight Madness bug-eating competition at Ben Siegel Reptile Store in Deerfield Beach near Miami, died choking immediately after his victory.  That may be simply because he ate too many cockroaches or it may just be the fact that he ate them live. Had they been sauteed in a little garlic the outcome might have been different – and I imagine that they would have had more flavour too.

Anyway despite these obvious benefits, my great aunt took against the cockroaches and a friend and I were given a can of Coopers anti-cockroach spray, the idea being that we squirt the spray into the cupboard under the sink to convert it into a lethal chamber – at least for cockroaches.  Simple, you might think.  Any fool could do it;  but it is at this point that we should have read the reminiscences of the great cockroach killers of the past because we overlooked an important piece of preparation.

If you are ever about to squirt insecticide into a cockroach nest, remember this. Before doing so you should squirt a large circle on the ceiling in the centre of the room. This tactic borrows from the use of castles by the Crusaders, a castle being somewhere where you simply cannot be got at by the opposition. If you do not create your circle, dying cockroaches will rush out of the nest and clamber up the walls in their bid to escape. They will then cover the ceiling and drop as they die, producing a gentle rain from heaven of rather a novel sort. They don’t stop at that either. They get into your hair and continue their death throes as they become knotted into it.

There is nothing particularly wrong with having cockroaches dying in your hair. As I have explained they are clean creatures but it certainly would not do to take one that was full of insecticide and absentmindedly eat it, so for safety would recommend the creation of a haven and standing firmly beneath it. Then any cockroach that would otherwise drop on you falls to the floor as soon as it touches the barrier.

So much for skill and tactics, but an invasion of insects can be used to test character as well as competence.  We all know that you can test whether your prospective daughter-in-law is a true princess by putting a pea under the mattress.  If you are a young lady and want to test the mettle of your lover, insects are a very good way of doing it.

All you need to do is to wait for a hot evening and then, once you’re in bed, open a match box in which you have concealed some mosquitoes. After a bit they will begin to “whine” and it is at this point that you pretend to be asleep and covertly observe your companion’s reaction.  Of course you will have liberally covered yourself with repellent in advance so that you are fully relaxed and able to weigh the results of your experiment dispassionately. There are a number of possibilities.

One is that your companion continues to lie with flesh exposed. That means one of two things. Either he is born in an heroic mould and is lying there determined to protect you by satisfying the predator with his own blood.  The other is that he has gone to sleep or is deaf. You should be able to eliminate the first of these with a quick kick in the ribs and “my word have you heard that, it sounds like one of those malarial ones”. The true hero will continue to lie with his flesh exposed.  You can test for the second by whispering “by the way I’ve agreed for us to have lunch with my mother on [choose the day on which he has tickets for the cup final/ has booked to go fishing/or has been invited to a particularly expensive restaurant with his boss]”.  That should test his hearing satisfactorily.

The second possibility is that he turns on the lights to attack the interlopers but, failing to close the window before he does so, he inadvertently invites many of their friends to join the party. It has been truly said that man is best judged in adversity so his behaviour when he realises what he has just done should give some useful clues.

The third possibility is that he surreptitiously pulls the sheet over his head hoping that the mosquitoes will bite you first and then be satisfied. At first sight that is a dastardly reaction but, before putting a line through his name in your little notebook of suitors, it is worth reflecting on the message in airline safety videos telling you to pull down your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else.  Perhaps he is just saving himself so that if you are struck down with malaria he will be fit enough to nurse you through it.

 

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Issue 42:2016 02 25: The Patriotic Traitor(Adam McCormack)

25 February 2016

The Patriotic Traitor

The Park Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

From “Yes, Minister” to “Non, Marshal”.   Every so often you see a play that captivates you from the outset and you just know that is will be a great success.  This will usually be a play that has been revived, for very good reason, so it is a great privilege to witness a brand new work which has triumph written all over it.  The stories of Marshal Petain and Charles De Gaulle may be little known to a modern British audience, but told here they say much about the history of France in the twentieth century, and more strikingly, the relationship between an old soldier and his young idealistic protégée.

Marshall Petain (Tom Conti), the hero of Verdun 1916, is on trial as a traitor following the end of the Second World War, where he had been the leader of the Vichy government and seemingly very sympathetic to the Nazis.  The new leader of France, Charles De Gaulle (Lawrence Fox) has the ultimate veto over what will happen to Petain if found guilty.  However, Petain and De Gaulle go back a long way, to a time before the first war, when they became great friends – to the extent that Petain was godfather to De Gaulle’s first child.  Yet by the time of the second war they had fallen out, and Petain went as far as to sign De Gaulle’s death warrant while the latter led the Free French from London.  Petain’s approach to battle, which riles the old guard in the first war by advocating defensive tactics to allow the enemy to exhaust itself, works very well in 1916, but in 1940 is seen as being collaborative.  Was his willingness for an armistice with Germany really a way of saving French lives from a battle that could not be won at that time, or was it a means by which Petain could achieve an objective of governing his country?  All such questions are raised with great intelligence and humour in this production, and we learn a great deal while being left with sympathy for both sides of the French divide.

Jonathan Lynn’s dialogue manages to deliver the story with the wit that made Yes Minister so compelling, but without losing any gravitas from such an important period of French history (the only gripe I had was a reference to lateral thinking, a term coined as late as 1967 by Edward de Bono).  His De Gaulle is totally lacking in humility but, while he professes to have no sense of humour, his wit is as dry as it comes.  Petain is played as a man whose faculties at times seem to be fading, but an underlying man of iron will and firm conviction is never far from the surface.  Fox and Conti are excellent, and are more than ably supported by a small cast who manage to cover a multitude of roles across senior generals and politicians.  This is a play that deserves to be a great success and a transfer to the West End surely beckons.  The play is both written and directed by Jonathan Lynn and runs at the Park Theatre, Finsbury Park until 19th March. Don’t miss it.*****

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: The Big Short (Adam McCormack)

25 Febreuary 2016

The Big Short

A film by Adam Mackay

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Director Adam Mackay, along with co-writer Charles Randolph, has done a tremendous job in explaining complex financial products to a level where film goers can both appreciate the enormity of the financial crisis of 2008, and marvel at the small group of investors who saw it coming.  That the audience does not immediately walk out on the mere mention of MBS, CDOs, CDS and ISDAs is impressive, given that so many supposed financial professionals involved in these products did not understand them at the time.  Much praise is due to Michael Lewis on whose book this film is based, which was equally compelling, but the decision to produce a dramatic film, rather than a documentary, is pure genius.  The use of humour and pathos produces a perfect vehicle for both understanding and entertainment.  Having the leading characters make contextual asides to the audience is not new but is very effective here, with the real innovation of using of well known celebrities (eg Margot Robbie in the bath and Anthony Bourdain making a fish stew) to explain financial concepts in a way we can all relate to.

At the heart of the story are two very complex characters who start to question the extent to which mortgages have been granted to people who have little prospect of paying them back (sub-prime borrowers,  many of whom get mortgages despite low incomes and extreme gearing -we meet a stripper who is financing 5 houses and a condo for example), as well as the products used to securitise their loans.  Hedge fund manger Michael Bury (Christian Bale) has struggled to interact with people since he lost an eye as a child (he has since concluded that he has Asperger Syndrome).  He decides to look under the bonnet of the mortgages behind a number of bond issues and is shocked by the level of delinquencies, which are seemingly ignored by the rating agencies.  Asking the same questions is fund manager Mark Baum, who is greatly troubled by the suicide of his brother.  Baum, looks at the myriad of products financially engineered on the mortgage market (CDOs) and see a potential domino effect that threatens not just a housing market crash, but the future of the whole US financial system.  He is persuaded by bond salesman Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), to look at ways to “short” the US housing market.  Thereafter the film very effectively poses questions as to how banks could justify their bond pricing, how rating agencies did not act for fear of losing banks as clients, and – a big question this – how the investors could profit from their “Big Short” if the banks they had traded with went out of business as a consequence of their having the correct view.

Ultimately they, and the financial system, are saved by the actions of the US authorities, but this leaves us with the biggest questions of all – why were these products allowed to be developed to such an extent? and still more important, why are they being created all over again? This film is first class entertainment, with particularly strong performances from Christian Bale and Steve Carrell. ****

 

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Issue 42: 2016 02 25: Trouble in the belfry (JR Thomas)

25 February 2016

Trouble in the Belfry

Raising a clanger

by J.R.Thomas
Rogue MaleIt is amazing what the human race will do for pleasure.  This column has a fascination with politicians, but it often ponders what on earth makes normal people want to spend time trying to shin up the greasy political pole, endure the anti-social hours, learn bitter lessons to never trust anybody around them.  All for what?  For careers that almost inevitably, as one participant in the great game memorably said, end in failure.

But turn to the supposedly more wholesome and admired pastime of sport – and there it is all over again – the stupid commitments of time, the sacrifices of normal life, the backbiting competition – to which must be added the ever present threat of life changing injury.  And for those serious about their sport, those who want to compete at county, national, or (sharp intake of breath) Olympic level, each step just magnifies the difficulties, the pain, the sacrifice.

So why, if you are enjoying a gentle pastime, the company of friends and colleagues, in some amiable pursuit, would you want to start to get involved in in sporting politics and the oft vicious world of competition?  What can be more bucolic, good natured, and gentle, than the intensely traditional pastime of bell ringing?  But peer around the belfry door and you may well find that not all is as you might expect to find it.

Probably there are very few people who have much to do with bell ringing.  They may have been persuaded to have the ringers at the church to announce their wedding, and had to hastily find the cash to lend to the best man to tip them.  They may be woken every Sunday by a quarter peal played to call the faithful to church and shake the unfaithful irritably out of bed.  Those who love a good detective story will almost certainly have read Dorothy L Sayers’s “The Nine Tailors” about a death in a church bellchamber in frozen East Anglia – you will never hear a peel of bells ringing across empty countryside in quite the same way after reading that.

But like so many marginally eccentric English hobbies, bellringing has a surprisingly large number of devoted adherents.  There were 40,000 at the last estimate who will  not just turn out early on Sunday mornings but will also disrupt their Saturdays for the tiniest of honorariums; they will drive miles and miles on icy nights to raise the bells of rarely rung churches, and at least once a week miss East Enders or Coronation Street to meet with seven or eight others to practice, usually under the eye and ear of an autocratic tower captain whose rule is absolute.  Such devotion must create wonderful friendships and a commonality of views, surely?

bell tower

A sporting arena?

Well, no.  An insight into what really goes on in those bell towers was given last week when “Ringing World”, the authoritative voice of campanology across these islands – the Shaw Sheet of the belfry, you might say – suggested bellringing should be reclassified as a sport.  This did not seem too inflammatory a suggestion. Though ringing is at its core mathematical, remembering all those counts and changes and variations in perfect timing,  it certainly keeps its adherents fit.  Ringing a peal can often take hours of hard work whilst maintaining perfect timing and control.  Strong arms and perfect breath control, to say nothing of powerful lungs, are an essential.  If you don’t have them the first time you step into the bell ringing chamber, you will if you keep the activity up for long.

Indeed, Ringing World says that bell ringing is more strenuous than angling and shooting (the Editor has obviously not done much walked up grouse shooting), and if it were recognised as a sport would attract young people and much extra funding from government funds devoted to getting us all out of the house and into some healthy sport.  The image of bellringing is all wrong, says Ringing World, and if it does not start to draw in the young it will eventually dwindle away, another rotting rope in the maintenance of church buildings and in the decline of the established church itself.  Robert Lewis, the editor of Ringing World, commending an application to Sport England for recognition, said “This is very much the sound of England…great fun as well as a healthy physical and mental workout”.

So that all sounds a done deal; the bells will ring out as the young clamour at the bell door and the grants pour in.

Hang on, hang on.  There are much more powerful forces in the world of bells to deal with.  And they are not keen, not at all.  The Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, the governing body of English campanology, has turned the idea down flat.  Sporting status, they say, might risk prejudicing bellringing’s relationship with various church bodies.  Chris Mew, President of the Council, said “Where is the glamour of the sports field and where are the David Beckham’s of the belfry?”, missing the point that assuming sporting status is designed to produce those very factors.

Sport England likes the idea and is not to be put off by a rejection by the governing body.  It has perhaps been studying recent developments in the Labour Party, and suggested that those keen on sporting status, those incipient Beckham’s, Rooney’s, and Pendleton’s waiting to step up to the rope and climb the belfry ladder, should start a breakaway body.  Indeed there is one, the remarkably named Ancient Society of College Youths, founded before the English Civil War.  But the College Youths so far have declined to get rebellious and also want to keep the present closeness to the church.  (One does wonder what happened to that glorious vision of Victorian times, the muscular sporting parson; hunting, running, rugger, and cricket were all part of healthiness in spirit and body to him.)

But once politicisation begins, it is a slippery slope.  In 2012 it was suggested that to mark the opening of the London Olympic Games the nations’ bellringers should grasp their ropes to ring in the world’s greatest sporting occasion.  The Central Council – who we met above – didn’t like that idea either.  Especially as the ringing was to last only three minutes and also involve hand bells, school bells, bicycle bells and…er…doorbells.  They said that this would produce a frantic and atonal fanfare, though that was rather the point.  The idea was quietly dropped, though some sporty bell teams rang out their church bells on the day in celebration.

Where will this all go? Sport England recognises, amongst other sporting activities, model aircraft flying, baton twirling, and quoits.  Experience suggests that if money is involved, a slippery slope has been greased; and if David Beckham should be seen emerging from some rural bell tower in a light sweat, his upper torso bulging, it will be all over for the traditionalists.  Even now the politics are starting to appear.  The College Youths (who presumably would be delighted to get D Beckham into their Ancient Society) have already shown signs of cracking.  Their spokesman pointed out that bell ringing in the C17th was regarded as a serious sport, and that it remains highly competitive.  The historical precedent has been set, the money is waiting; it only needs the construction of modernist belfries at the 2020 Olympics and a new world will be rung in.

 

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