Friday 31st August
So, the silly season is over and serious politics has returned. Or has it? Is Nick Clegg’s recent conversion to and espousal of a wealth tax a serious attempt to alter Coalition tax policy or just a crumb to the poor beleaguered troops of the Lib-Dem party? Difficult to say, and maybe a bit of both I suspect. And of course, George Osborne has already come out against it, as has most of the City and (why are we surprised) the wealthy too.
But laudable or not as the idea may be, it is fiendishly difficult to put into practice. The reality of the situation is that the super-rich will always avoid paying tax, and can afford to have experts to advise them how to do it. The burden almost always falls on those in the middle, however you define that. And by the way how can Nick demand the rich pay more when he agreed to the reduction in top rate tax just 6 months ago. He is now dead meat electorally, and the Lib-Dems only chance at the next election is to ditch him and choose a leader not so tainted with broken promises.
However, how to raise more money from the rich; well, there are a few ways, but they will be limited in revenue raising and may still be avoided by those with clever accountants. One way would be to change the formula used by councils to calculate council tax, allowing them to charge a much higher rate for larger value homes, though this would surely have to be in conjunction with a change in the valuation system which is years out of date. But this would allow councils to raise more in council tax, while keeping the level for most homes about the same. You could also have a financial transaction tax, levied both on companies and individuals for any transactions over, say £100,000. This would have to be fairly low, say half a percent, but have no exceptions, so that salaries and large purchases would be included. Companies could reclaim the tax if the purchases were for re-sale or for investment.
But I fear that until we are able to devise a system where ALL financial transactions are monitored by Government computers this may still be difficult. A police state?
So, a wealth tax, what a splendid idea; but like eradicating poverty or stopping war slightly hard to implement.
Thursday 30th August
Crowded House was the band behind the genius of Neil Finn, younger brother of Tim, with whom he has more than occasionally collaborated. Neil started out in his older brother’s band Split Enz, a New Zealand group in the seventies, who combined brilliant songwriting with an anarchy and ‘joie de vivre’ which made them both entertaining and orginal. I saw them in the early seventies at the Roundhouse, they all had multicoloured suits and spiky coloured hair, long before punk, they played fast and kept swapping instruments, and it was organized chaos on stage. But the songs were always good, and when Neil joined them the songs got even better. The band sort of died when Tim, the ringleader, went solo. In the early eighties Neil suddenly emerged with a small band of three and Crowded House was born. They only had four original albums but these were crammed with great songs from ‘Don’t Dream it’s Over’ to ‘Chocolate Cake’. They had a meteoric rise and fame took its toll and the band broke up, Neil going solo for a while, and though the songwriting was still good, the solo albums seldom get played nowadays. The band has reformed recently but somehow they aren’t such fun anymore. And fun was what they were all about. I saw them quite a few times and each concert was brilliant, full of jokes and banter and wonderful songs. They were easily the best band of the eighties, live and on record, and amid all the synthesizers and smart suits and continuing commercialization of the music business they reminded us what great music should sound like. And they are also the band who always take the weather with them.
Wednesday 29th August
And so yet again the weather Gods cock a snook at us mere mortals. After a pretty dismal weekend of cold and wet and wind we woke up on Tuesday to bright sunshine. Beautiful no doubt, but a few days late one must admit. And suddenly the working week is cranked up again. Where yesterday the streets were silent and the tube trains almost empty, today it is all rush and bustle. I have always felt a bit melancholy after the late summer bank holiday, the last one before Christmas, has passed. It is almost saying that the summer is now officially over, children soon back to school, and the onset of Autumn. A long featureless drag into Winter. But in reality, September is often a better month than August, and October can delight with late summer sunny days too. And today, despite the two week catch-up I have to contemplate at my work, I am sitting in Pret enjoying the scene. The sun on Green Park and everyone scurrying past. I will shortly finish my coffee and walk through the park for fifteen glorious minutes before work begins. And at least it ‘ain’t raining.
Tuesday 28th August
I am writing this on Monday, which despite this being a bank holiday is, for me at least, a work day. This was my choice; it is just that while Bank Holidays are nice, even if the weather hardly ever is, they don’t half mess up the working week. My (un) chosen field is restaurants, which are not only open on Bank Holidays but usually busier too, and the same amount of work has to be completed whether I work them or not. Besides I have just had ten days off, and have a lot to catch up on. As I said on an earlier blog, if I do not do my work I have to do it. So today (Monday – yesterday for you) is a workday. I am also invited to a Barbie this afternoon. So, sensible me set the alarm clock for six and was out by seven. I emerged at Green Park at seven thirty-five, and knowing the restaurant wouldn’t be open ‘till eight went in search of a coffee. But everywhere was closed, despite there being quite a few people wandering around like me on search of that early morning caffeine and sugar rush. Starbucks was like a ghost town, eerily half lit and half inviting but the doors were firmly locked. Pret had a smashed and boarded up front door, and a ‘Sorry We Are Closed’ sign. Disconsolately I wandered around until I found a Café Nero opening up and waited in line. The coffee may be superior but I am used to that mellow soft creamy Starbucks taste, and the almond croissant was obviously frozen and defrosted, but actually not so bad for all that. I suppose I am being selfish in expecting these establishments to be open on a Bank Holiday, and the staff probably appreciate a lie-in, but don’t they realise I have work to do and need my coffee.
Monday 27th August
In 1969 I was just eighteen and a hippie, a rebel and had already run away to London, but I can still remember being glued to a tiny secondhand black and white tv set as over and over again they showed Neil Armstrong taking those first giant steps on the moon. And now he is dead, but long before he died the space race died too. America ran out of money and Russia just ran out. There is also no excitement or appetite for space in the youth of today; the rover ‘Curiosity’ is exploring Mars, a whole planet away and it hardly causes an eyebrow to be raised. The achievements of those astronauts are all the remarkable when one realises that there is more technology in a mobile phone of today than there was in an Apollo spacecraft. They were incredibly brave, as there was more than a possibility that they would die in the attempt.
Billy Bragg wrote a song a few years ago called ‘The Space Race is Over’, where he is trying to explain to his son what it was all about. His son asks why they went all that way just to come back, and Billy sings ‘Don’t give me a place out in cyber space, cause where in the hell is that.’
So we are now in a new generation gap, where those heroes and achievements mean absolutely nothing to anyone under forty, who are more excited by the latest i-phone than travelling to another planet or moon. Strange but true.
Sunday 26th August
Having flown four times in just over two weeks, and this after a hiatus of about five years when I did not fly at all, I realise they have not improved at all. At least Stanstead has shops and restaurants to while away the time, and plenty of noticeboards to check on the ‘slow’ progress of your flight, but the tiny tin shed which masquerades as an airport at Bergerac is dismal beyond compare. And why, oh why do they all insist on you turning up at least an hour before takeoff. It usually only takes a few minutes to go through security, (don’t get me started on the ridiculous limitations on liquids either) and passport control, so why does the gate close at least 30 minutes before take-off. They should simply warn people that if you are not in the departure lounge ten minutes before take-off you will miss your flight, and let people work it out for themselves. Today for example we were told to arrive for a 12.55 flight at least one hour early. We were still waiting in the departure lounge at 1.10, even though they kept telling us the gate was closed at 12.30. The arriving flight was twenty minutes late, and yet a full flight managed to board and seat everyone and take-off in ten minutes flat. I find the waiting pretty intolerable, even with my i-player and kindle the time seems to really drag. I am okay once we are on the plane and flying, though this is only a very short haul, I am not sure what I would be like flying to America. At least with Ryannair and only hand luggage you do sail through the other end. With computers nowadays they can tell straightaway of a passenger is missing, I just think the time requirement is a hang-back to the bad old days of having to check manually names against lists, and no-one has considered a revision.
Yes, you guessed it….Grumpy old man is back in the UK.
Saturday 25th August
The trouble with choice is that human beings aren’t really designed for this concept. Given a choice of a fork in the road and two trails to follow we can usually decide. Given a choice of four or five shades of colour we will go with our favourites time after time. Given a menu in a Chinese or Indian restaurant most of us will choose dishes we know and have had before over something totally untried. We are basically conservative creatures who know what we like and like what we know.
The modern concept of choice has been concocted by marketers and ad-men. Who needs 50 shades of off-white, and besides the colour is never the same on the wall as on the tin. Who needs twenty different types of fridge, as long as it works and is roughly the right size is all that matters. And the illusion of politicians that we, the public need choice in our public provision has been proved wrong and yet they still regale us with this bit of prestidigitation as if it will solve everything. I saw the experiment at first hand in Sheffield when Maggie privatized local bus services. There were about six different companies running buses into town as well as the old municipal service. Nobody chose anything, they just piled onto the first bus that was coming, no matter how uncomfortable or overcrowded it might be, or how bad the driver was – all they were interested in was catching the first bus they saw. Eventually they have reverted back to the municipal service again. As a parent, do you really have the time or the information to correctly check all the schools in your area. No, what you want is for your local school to be very good. If you are rushed to hospital with a heart attack, are you really going to express an opinion about which one they take you to. ‘I don’t care, just make it quick.’
So rather than show me a menu with 100 items on it, where at least two thirds will be frozen and micro-waved, just offer me five meals and I will happily choose one I like.
Friday 24th August
Tomorrow, Saturday, I fly back to London. I am afraid I still have to work, at least for a while but I am planning my escape as I write. It has been a splendid little holiday, and the way to look on it is that my holiday is about to be shortly interrupted by a few weeks of work. We will definitely be down for half-term at the end of October, and I am planning a long weekend out here at the end of September. And in about a years time to be staying out here for weeks at a time. So, big decisions to be made about retirement, which maybe won’t be so hard to make nearer the time. I would like to do some work, but how practical it will be I am not sure, we will just have to wait and see. I would really like to write and paint out here, and at the end of the day, and of course, even before breakfast, if you don’t do what you want to do you are an idiot.
Today is my last full day here for a few weeks, and already this feels like my home.
Thursday 23rd August
Absolute chaos, French style. We were selling hand-made soap, ‘savon artisanale’, and had booked a stall. The evening market is run by the woman from the tourist board, and it is her chance to exercise a bit of power. There are two types of trader; the regulars, food producers, M. moules et frites, rotisserie chicken, and pizza van, and then a few other ones who have somehow managed to obtain regular pitches. From about 4.30 the regulars set up their stalls. Any enquiries are met with the words 5.30. At the appointed hour the poor few bedraggled lesser stallholders traipse around with the market manager and try to catch her eye as she doles out 2 or 3 metre spaces. You end up on a corner where people are streaming into the market and nobody really wants to stop. The next problem is electricity; there are a few electrical points but you are inevitably in a chain of extension leads and double sockets trailing like spaghetti behind the stalls. You dress your stall beautifully, all coloured soaps on different plates and nobody notices. A few admiring glances and the word ‘savon’ or a cut-glass English accent, ‘Oh look, hand made soap, how quaint.’ as they scurry past in their haste pour les moules. Lots of sniffers of soap but very few buyers. Pre-teen girls spend ages choosing their soap and then admit they have no money. Occasionally someone will buy 3, and in the end after 6 and a half hours we must have made about 60 euros profit, much of which we spent on liquid refreshment, but quite an experience.
Wednesday 22nd August
There are three pubs in the square; Café de Paris, Le Pub (Gambetta) and Tortoni, and you can guarantee that whenever you sit down you will hear English voices. And pretty soon you are into conversation and you hear why they came out here and what they are doing. Last night was a rather rotund fifty year old who was brewing beer here, though he looked as if he might be consuming more than he sold. He explained to us the processes to make his ‘Traditional Ale’, and the difficulties of storing and cooling it. He seemed to only have one regular customer, the bar we were sitting in, and I hardly think he would have made enough money to keep going. A few days ago we met Julian, who used to have a shop, still does – but it isn’t trading, selling stone floor tiles and luxury wood floors, until he realised the town was too small for both him and his in-laws who sell the same stuff along with Farrow and Ball paint (again one wonders how much of it they can possibly sell). Julian has now invested in a nineteen fifties authentic Citroen van from which he is selling very expensive Italian ice cream and coffee. Two days ago we met the owner of a ‘Brocage’ shop – Bric-a-brac to you and me. Her shop was full of very distressed pieces of furniture that you might find on a skip selling for prices that would make you wince, and very few customers too. There is also the English Barber, who has a very nice barber’s chair and beautifully tiled barbers shop – he spends all day leaning on the wall outside his shop looking at his i-pad – customers he seems to have none. We met a very interesting Welsh man who used to be a teacher and was made redundant and came out and bought a farm and has now sold that and just seems to exist somehow. There are those who play guitar in a retro band, there are those who buy and sell on the internet, there are those who have market stalls and sell jewelry or home-made pies and jam, and there are lots who do nothing. But you can find them all of a warm evening over a glass of beer or wine at one of the three English pubs in town.