Where’s Paul?

An endlessly helpful man called Kevin sends me a regular weekly bulletin about the latest properties he has for sale on his list.

Kevin is an estate agent in central Portugal, where I have conceived a fancy to retire. I hope to escape from this increasingly unpleasant nation of ugly, poorly informed moaners, trolls and Daily Mail readers who honestly believe that the United Kingdom Independence Party is not a proto-fascist movement dunked in liquid nostalgia for the good old days; that it provides a genuine, principled alternative to the existing political parties and that, if elected, it will reintroduce competent government, throw out immigrants and asylum-seekers and people on benefits, provide millions of jobs just for English people, abolish the Health & Safety executive, rescue the economy from austerity, turn all the clocks back to 1954 and restore the Commonwealth. The great British Banana must henceforth be curved!

The emails Kevin thoughtfully sends me never have anything on them. Other than briefly stating their place of origin and purpose, they are completely blank. They used to have stuff, properties and so on, but gradually the information content has been digitally whittled down to zero. I got in touch with Kevin about this, and he suggested I paste the emails into my web browser, or something. I hadn’t the foggiest idea what he was talking about, there doesn’t seem to be any way of doing it. Anyway, the properties are all on his website, so I can just go there to pass a pleasurable hour or so, dreaming of flight. The only remaining obstacle is to sell my house! But, just as all the houses have disappeared from Kevin’s e-bulletins, so have all the house-buyers disappeared from Britain’s grimy streets. Very peculiar.

And, indeed, I am noticing one or two other things disappearing. About two weeks ago, the little icon on my taskbar, that you click to bring up a slider to adjust the speaker volume, just vanished. I checked the hidden icons, everywhere around the desktop, on the Media Player, in the Control Panel and all the audio settings, and it was nowhere to be found. Finally, I located an obscure checkbox in which the Volume control appeared in the Off position, but it wouldn’t let me switch it On again: it was greyed-out, for no apparent reason. This morning, after a couple of days away in London, I turned on the computer and, like the proverbial teenager, it was back again with no convincing explanation of its whereabouts.

Various other things have been disappearing, but the sad thing is, they are also disappearing from my memory and I can’t think what they are. I had a list in my head before starting this Post, but it’s gone. I know about the letter ‘r’, that often doesn’t appear now first-time while I am typing; also, the lettering on my keypad is wearing off after only nine months in use. The ‘a’ and the ‘n’ have completely gone, but most of the letters are showing signs of word-weariness, with amputated limbs and only partial curves. The ‘o’ looks like a crescent moon.

I have recently been performing in a play in which I occupy two minor comic characters. I have invested them with great personality and presence, deploying all my considerable thespian skill and experience, funny voices, rolling eyes and all, but once again, the reviewers have ignored me and instead, lavishly complimented another actor who speaks two lines. I do not wish to detract from her performance, I am sure it was noteworthy, but I am reminded that recently, with the same company, I have twice played leading roles and created characters and sung solo unaccompanied songs (tunefully, in key) and was again ignored by the critics in favour of praise being heaped on some interesting aspect of the set.

I fear therefore, that I too may be disappearing inexorably (although tradespeople keep taking my money, that at least must still be real). My eventual exodus to Portugal will ring down the curtain on my undistinguished, but sadly extinguished, existence. ‘He’s gone to Portugal’ will become a euphemism among my few acquaintances to rival other slighting geographical references, such as ‘Ugandan discussions’, ‘French letters’ and ‘Spanish practices’.

And I shall awake to find myself gone.

PS – I have it! I have remembered another thing that has vanished! When I click Publish, there used to be a little whizzer next to the button, that showed WordPress’s thought processes in motion. Now, there is nothing there and I have to have faith that my words are being recorded. I wish I had learned to touch-type in my youth, but journalism taught me only how to use three fingers while staring morosely at the keys, whose letters are vanishing one-by-one. There is some hidden meaning there, I feel.

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Paddling down the Amazon

The UK’s largest online retailer, Amazon, made sales of over £3.3 billion in 2011 but didn’t pay any corporation tax on the profits they made in the UK*. Frances and Keith have run the Warwick and Kenilworth bookshops for the past ten years. They don’t believe that Amazon should be able to dodge huge taxes and undermine local businesses who pay their fair share of UK tax.

I signed the petition, sent to me by online lobbyists Change.org. The passage above just about sums up the lengthy argument they’ve put forward on behalf of the bookshop owners, and I love small bookshops and want to see them survive and thrive, which a few are still doing.

But it’s a hugely complicated issue that can’t be resolved just on the basis of an emotional appeal to save the little guy from the global corporatist villains.

For a start, Amazon sells a lot more than just books. And it’s more than just an aggressive mail order company: it’s also a major internet portal for retailers. My most recent purchase on Amazon.uk was a CD, naturally a jazz recording, by the saxophonist Wayne Shorter. I didn’t buy it from Amazon, I ordered it through Amazon off their website from one of their many thousand third-party resellers. It arrived two weeks later by post, courtesy of a distributor in Taiwan acting on behalf of a Japanese recording company that appears to have a contract to remix and distribute old recordings by artists on the Blue Note label, based in New York. Blue Note is, in turn, no longer an independent jazz specialist, but is now owned by Columbia, which is part of the worldwide Sony Corporation.

So the £12.95 I paid Amazon for this classic 1965 album (with bonus track!) will be accounted as a very tiny contributor to their £3.3bn UK turnover. The actual profit margin on it in the UK will be even more infinitesimal, as the commissions and royalties trickle outwards across frontiers; some of the money finally – one hopes – reaching the bank account of Mr Shorter himself, thence possibly to help swell the coffers of the US Internal Revenue Service by a cent or less. Meanwhile, someone will have paid a little tax in Taiwan, and someone else in Tokyo. Why should it all end up in Whitehall, just because I live in Britain?

Now, Amazon.uk is apparently registered in Luxembourg, so if any corporation tax is payable on profits they make from sales in the UK it will be paid there, in one of the lowest tax regimes in Europe, where their profits are declared. This is still a perfectly legal arrangement. While it seems unfair on Amazon’s smaller UK competitors, such as the Warwick and Kenilworth books empire of Keith and Francis Smith, who have opted to pay their business and personal taxes to HM Government in a higher tax regime, nevertheless it is only fair and logical to ask what they mean by ‘UK sales’, in a commercial world where the very idea of national boundaries is virtually obsolete?

Amazon will argue, have argued, that they contribute £millions to the UK economy in other ways; direct ways in which Keith and Francis perhaps don’t so much. They employ thousands of salaried people who pay income tax, National Insurance and VAT to the government; they pay business rates on their vast warehouse premises, and support local retailers; they keep the Post Office and the courier companies and all their employees, the manufacturers of brown cardboard envelopes, alive; there is a service benefit to British companies advertising on and selling through their massively subscribed website, and a valuable free information resource is provided. They contribute significantly to the national GDP, whose flickering health in turn keeps the rates of interest the government pays on its borrowings among the lowest in Europe…

It is possibly disingenuous to argue that this should absolve them of having to pay corporation tax as well, but the difficulty of determining exactly where their profits are being made means we need to think laterally about more up-to-date solutions to the problem of global competition. Just because an order is placed in the UK, it does not mean that all the cash generated in that transaction is paid, received or profited from in the UK. Consequently, not all the tax owing should be paid in the UK. How would you distribute the liability for collecting it, without incurring huge accounting and transfer charges? Maybe the whole idea of corporation tax is obsolete and a barrier to free trade and we should just abolish it and enjoy the many incidental benefits of further inward investment as a result?

Some years ago, I noticed that there was a section in Yellow Pages for Walking-Stick Ferrule Manufacturers (a ferrule being the little bit of protective rubber or metal that goes on the end of the stick.) There were two listed. The following year, there were none. They had become extinct. This will not happen to booksellers quite yet, because they are (mostly) adapting to the new paradigm in creative ways, for instance by becoming third-party resellers with Amazon, or by running their own online mail order businesses. Of course, they cannot compete on buying power, but they cannot compete with Tesco either on that score, other than by becoming niche players.

Meanwhile, Amazon is doing its damnedest to get rid of books altogether, in order to support its sales of Kindl readers and its allied online publishing interests. Rather than their tax-dodging ways, their promotion of e-reading will probably be what drives the book trade (and libraries) underground in the end.

Pssst… wanna buy a good book? Tax Accounting for Dummies?

Postscriptum

I have, however, eagerly signed a petition against Amazon’s punitive, sub-minimum-wage employment policies. I spend about £1000 a year with a company that forces its poorest employees to take unpaid breaks and hit impossible picking targets, and stops their wages if they are seconds late back from the toilet. I buy from them, but I would not work for them. What a hypocrite, I know.

A night out at the theatre

The afternoon performance had gone well. A largely elderly but not wholly unsupportive crowd of ladies formed the audience. They seemed to be a coach party from the WI. Appropriate, as the play is about the role of the Women’s Land Army, that redoubtable corps of strapping gels who stepped in to run Britain’s farming industry during the Second World War, while the men were away fighting. A few chuckled contentedly, and in most of the right places. One very elderly lady, who had herself been in the WLA, kept up a running commentary. The applause was warm, genuine, but whooping isn’t their style.

In the evening, however, the audience seemed to come from a different planet. Warmed-up from the start, they laughed uproariously at the feeblest of the humorous lines and moments of slapstick, joined in the songs and tried to top the punchlines. There were even one or two under 60. We took our usual rehearsed curtain call – we go in for quick exits in this company, two bows and we’re off. There’s no milking the applause, it’s ‘leave ’em wanting more’ with our director. But the audience kept on cheering and clapping wildly, so we trooped back on for a second call.

At that point, before we had managed to line-up, a tall, grey-haired man in the third row stood up and slowly keeled over sideways, landing with a thud in the aisle. A flurry of concern rippled outwards from the crash site and we actors quit the stage in rapid disorder. Fortunately, with these nice, middle-class productions in provincial Aberystwyth, if the audience are not retired or soon to be forcibly retired academics from the university, which appears to have been taken over by a cast of evil aliens from Dr Who, The Silence perhaps, then a pound gets you twenty they will be hospital staff, doctors and registered nurses. We even had nurses and a radiographer among the cast.

It appeared the poor chap had simply become overwrought by the emotional denouement to the play, and was soon revived as the ambulance arrived outside, the hospital being barely half a mile away. If you are going to suffer a sudden collapse, a fainting fit perhaps, a stroke or a minor myocardial infarction, you will get no better medical attention in Wales than by having it during a production by one of our several excellent amateur theatre companies. But, like this audience member, who later said that he had thought he was feeling a bit unwell but hadn’t wanted to spoil the ending for others, we hope you too will have the consideration to wait until the final fadeout!

As a PS, one of our resident medics later told us a story, concerning an eminent local citizen who had managed to break his ankle hiking in the hills. He dragged himself a mile to the nearest road, and was duly admitted to hospital. Cutting off his trousers, the nurses observed that his underwear seemed less than sanitary. This defect, rather than the tale of his courage and fortitude, then became the prevailing legend among the community. A lesson to us all, I feel.

Live the dream

Ask yurself, comrade, what’s the most important thing in life to yu, right now?

If yu said ‘money’, please come and allow me to remove strips off yur slobby, unshaven face and stuff them one by one up yur rectum, using this small hammerdrill I carry about my person for just such eventualities.

No, it is what money can BUY that is important, right? WRONG! There is nothing that money can huy, my brothers and sisters, that is more important than the air yu breathe.

Send $5 and receive, free, my Guide To the Air Yu Breathe and How to Get Rich From It. I rit it myself!

Right now, there’s a Force 8 gale blowing outside. That’s a powerful lot of air. I estimate that every liter of air is worth just 10 cents of yur life. Yu actually breathe 10 liters of air a minute! I mean, how ridiculous can that be? Just five minutes of yur time spent breathing, and yu could earn $3.375.90 a week! It’d change yur life for ever, right?

I just sent to the spam file, an idiot who keeps on trying to sell me on some other guy’s fabulous plan for earning $3,750 a week by sending emails to bloggers yu ‘like’, telling ’em they can make £3,750 a week. This guy says he used to live rough in a VW camper but since he had an idea, he has a palace in Costa Rica. He’s made a video about it. He sounds like the most plausible guy in the world, with his squeaky voice and all. Yu too could soon have a palace in Costa Rica, the place is stuffed with ’em, right? See, here’s a crumbling shanty town full of palaces just waitin for yu to own one. And the beauty is, no IRS! They can’t touch yu there!

Sure, but would yu want to live next door? Say, Dave, try pushin them dollar bills up yur nose, down yur throat, up yur ass. Live the dream, I say.

So here’s your new life crisis

A couple of days ago I heard on the wireless that the Over-60s are increasingly suffering from a condition labelled post-life crisis. Actually, I made that last bit up. I have no idea what the crisis is called, I’ve already forgotten that part of the item.

All I remember is that my ambulant corpse gave a deep shudder of recognition, as I realised with a mildly guilty start (the Over-60s don’t really do full guilt) that I had just ordered online, at a cost of nearly £500, a bass guitar. Not just any bass guitar, ANOTHER bass guitar……

Now, I live alone, apart from my cat, Scat, and my faithful shchnorzer, Hunzi. I own my own house, except obviously for the parts they own, like the end of the bed where my feet used to be, and my gorgeous new living-room rug (handmade in India, 100% acrylic), on which small acts of bloody sacrifice are performed nightly. My tiny pension just pays for the fixed expenses, a kindly bank covers our food. My son is in China, leaving behind only a roomful of books about tanks in modern warfare and a jumble of complex electronic surveillance equipment.

So I can afford to indulge the odd whim, even if I am not a bass player. Not yet, anyway.

Yes, reader, I sold the car at Easter, my lovely little Alfa Romeo, sob, so I have a bundle of cash hidden in a cookie jar labelled Burglar, seek and ye shall find. Oh, not all of it. I did the sensible things: paid off some credit, or debt as it used to be known. Redecorated the living room. Ordered a new carpet to go under the rug (still waiting). Budgeted to have the roof fixed (builder has disappeared without a word). Went back on the wine, thus doubling at a stroke my daily groceries bill (but halving my chances of having a stroke!). Those sorts of sensible things.

It’s amazing, the sense of freedom and infinite possibility you get, when you no longer run a car. No more tax and insurance, no more grinding your teeth at the price of fuel. No more bitter little notes on your windscreen from residents obsessed with parking issues, no more rows with other motorists in supermarket car parks vehemently accusing you of opening your door on their side. No more worries about drinking too much wine (no such thing). When you acquire a car, you take on a vast and forbidding agglomeration of civic responsibilities and petty legislation. Not to mention a depreciating hunk of expensive metal whose more obscure parts can be dangerously worn.

Cars can get you in a whole lot of trouble.

But it occurs to me painfully that my Alfa was indeed bright red. With pale-beige leather seats. And could go at 130 mph. That I was 62 when I bought it. And that while I had it, no-one ever travelled in the back seats, access to which was academic. And that I now also own something like nine guitars, a drum kit (in storage), four amplifiers, a PA system, two microphones, a piano and a digital recording device whose instruction manual seems to be in Korean.

In God’s name, why?

I suspect these are all possible signs of some kind of systemic disorder, brought on by growing dissatisfaction with Things As They Are.

It occurs to me that I wake up feeling miserable and unfulfilled, and that I go to bed feeling miserable and unfulfilled, and that inbetween while going for long walks with and sometimes without the dog, while trying desperately in vain without panicking too prematurely to remember the title of that song I was rehearsing all last week (let alone the lyrics, and the tune), and when it was, exactly, that such-and-such a thing happened in my life (such as my first marriage), and why carpet salesmen can’t understand their own stock control systems, I have fantasies of being a bass player?

It occurs to me, in short, that I am living with some sort of crisis, whatever it’s called. And then, a follow-on, I wonder when, in fact, I have n0t been living in some sort of crisis? And if life is, in effect, not one perpetual crisis punctuated by fleeting unnoticed moments of tranquility; rather than, as the experts on the wireless seem to think, a gentle stroll through a verdant exurban space enlivened by the occasional urgent need to find a concealing bush behind which to pee?

Dum de dum.

Distant relations

Nowhere is the asymmetrical relationship between capital and labour more painfully evident, than in the ownership of a home computer.

There you are, the apparent owner of the technology – you have paid a hefty price to become its owner – in the middle of composing a densely argued essay on some complex subject at which you imagine you are vaguely expert, when, field by field, the text, the other elements of your composition, the search and formatting bars, and finally even the icons on your desktop, your currency converter, the little bowl of tulips you water every day, begin to disappear. Surely a metaphor for our existence on earth.

After a minute or so, you are left with a pretty blue screen and a message informing you coldly that They are Preparing to Configure Windows Updates – 15% complete – Do Not Turn Off Your Computer. And a minute or so later still, the screen announces ‘Switching off’, and you are left in total darkness, your thoughts in turmoil, the thread of your argument – along with your patience – irreparably snapped. After a minute or two’s deep thought, the screen lights up again, only to present you with the news that it is now Configuring Windows Updates, and requesting further complete submissiveness on your part.

It is at this point you realise you are not the owner of your computer at all: it is not a consumer good, a personal possession, a belonging, a chattel: it is merely the wrong end of a painfully taut ligature that holds you in permanent bondage to its designers and licenciaries, like a dog on a leash.

Thanks to one compulsive act of purchase, when you had done all the research you could bear, comparing this model with that until you just thought, the hell with it, this one’s pretty, and you did not read the small print (because, why? You needed the computer! What difference would it make, if the small print told you the US Government has legal jurisdiction over your thoughts, worldwide copyright on your ideas, and may uplift you to Guantanamo without a reservation? You still had to buy the damn thing!) They can do whatever They like to you. You are Their unpaid minion, a slave. If They want to shut your computer down for ten minutes or (as once happened) an hour and a half in order to send you a lot of patches to remedy Their own programming deficiencies and security loopholes, what matters if you happen to be using it at the time? That’s not Their problem!

Imagine if, having borne home a bag of shopping from the supermarket, the processors of smelly delicious cheeses, the canners of juicy fat beans, the growers of monstrous red Spanish tomatoes, the bottlers of oils and fine wines all turned up on your doorstep demanding you shut off the lights and go to bed early, just as you were getting ready to sit down and eat? Why, I bet you would tell them to fuck right off out of your face.

Are you listening, Microsoft? If you want to send me patches, why don’t you wait and do it while I’m in the bathroom, uh? Better still, why don’t you politely just ASK?

The value of knighthood

Following a damning report from a Parliamentary committee, Sir James Crosby, the former CEO of HBOS, one of Britain’s biggest banks, which collapsed in 2008 and had to be rescued with £42 billion of taxpayers’ money, has nobly volunteered to cut his £750,000 annual pension by 30 per cent and hand back his knighthood.

What brought about the banking crisis? Clearly, MPs want to pin it on the folly and incompetence of management and the general climate of greed and stupidity fostered in the post-Thatcher years – although greed and stupidity were characteristics the sharp-eyed, frugal housewife in her would surely have despised.  In some experts’ view it was a structural failure, in part the result of rapid internationalisation causing exposure to uncontrollable risk. In many other people’s eyes it was criminality, pure and simple. Evil bankers getting rich at our expense. (They always have! That’s the nature of their business.)

Ultimately, however – and where we might blame The Blessed Margaret – it was a crisis of value brought about through the relaxation of laws on both sides of the Atlantic governing competition.

Monetarism, the economic principle dreamed up by Hayek, Friedman and the Chicago school and espoused by Lord Young and Sir Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s chief henchmen in her early years – allowed the value of money to float and promoted free market competitivism. Both those factors, in my view, led to bankers having less regard for the value of their assets. They came to regard money as a commodity, rather than a utility. This loss of seriousness was reflected in the marketing of money, a subject on which I have heard almost no comment in all the tumult of media analysis. We hear of markets, we hear of marketisation – but we hear nothing of marketing: those activities by which the ultimately worthless ‘products’ of the banking system were packaged and sold to businesses and the public like cans of beans, or soap powder. My contention is that the banking crisis was at least partly caused by the dumb optimism of the marketing industry.

Selling money was something I was peripherally involved with in the late 1980s. I worked for an advertising agency that specialised in promoting savings schemes, pensions, mortgages, insurance, business finance and consumer lending for banks and building societies. Our clients were some of the big names of the day, many of which have since vanished or adopted aliases: Lloyds, Friends Provident, Equity and Law, Cheltenham & Gloucester, Allied-Dunbar, Lombard. Our methods principally involved what is known as ‘direct response’ media – junk mail, to you.

Junk is an unfortunate description: to me, it only became junk if the recipient threw it away unread. A lot of research and creative effort went into producing informative materials that people would read, and hopefully act upon. Usually, the junk mailshot was designed to elicit sufficient interest to attract some follow-up activity, a request for further information or a meeting, rather than a direct sale. And it could produce good results: readers of Investors’ Chronicle magazine might reflect that one mailshot we created attracted so many new subscribers, it saved the ailing weekly from being closed down by its owners, Pearson Group.

But the conventions of marketing required us to turn what had been a simple, boring proposition, that a bank was where you lent or borrowed, or for a time parked your wage, into a colourful, high-street bazaar where an increasingly complicated and confusing range of competing branded finance products were advertised, bought and sold on commission. For the bankers, marketing was an alien world, of which they had known little. But it was new, improved, exciting! They queued up for the ride. A whole industry of intermediaries and advisors and ‘secondary bankers’ (formerly known as loan sharks) sprang up almost overnight. It wasn’t the marketing that was junk, so much as the products we were selling that turned out to be pretty valueless; and the complicit watchdogs who licensed them.

Somewhere along the line, commonsense got turned on its head. While to the rest of us, debt was a liability, to a banker it now became the prime asset. The more money the banks could lend, i.e. the less they had in the vault, the wealthier their accountants told them they were, and the bigger the fees paid to the accountants became. That was fine, as long as the debts were repayable in time. But also somewhere along the same line, debt got rebranded as credit or, in the weasel words of the copywriters, ‘How to have the things you want, when you want them!’. The idea of credit was empowering: it made the chronically indebted feel as though they were in control of their lives. Orwell would have recognised the inversion of meaning.

The marketing of debt meant the marketisation of credit, and as competition pushed the banks to more and more extreme frenzies of lending (free pens!), consumers with worse and worse credit scores were sucked in to the ‘live now, pay later’ culture. The bigger the debt asset became, the bigger the bankers’ bonuses got. But what were these bonuses, other than commission paid on incremental sales of worthless products to worthless consumers, or even other worthless bankers, using an increasingly worthless commodity as the medium of exchange?

Credit has undoubtedly helped to raise the material standards of living for most ordinary people, while less helpfully enslaving us with debt obligations to capitalists. By replacing valuable money with worthless plastic bearing notional value exchangeable for debt-laden goods and services, sold at very high rates of interest, debt itself became the currency; a situation that could not continue indefinitely. Like the Roadrunner cartoons, people running ever faster to keep up suddenly looked down and realised there was nothing between them and the canyon floor but thin air. Credit had been absorbing real monetary inflation, until the aneurism burst and the bloodbath ensued.

A knighthood is not something you can simply take back to the shop and exchange for public sympathy or forgiveness, or whatever Sir James Crosby’s PR advisor has told him will mitigate his lack of sound judgement. While a knighthood is a reward for service, it also bears obligations to the Crown, which in turn is the servant of the people. ‘Sir’ James owes us £42 billion, along with the reputation of the banking industry. Of course, he is not solely responsible for the mess. There are many others. He is, in his way, just as much a victim of circumstance and the system as the rest of us are. But his knighthood, I fear, is very small compensation for our loss. And, seemingly, of little worth to him.