The Bubble is Growing Again

Wednesday 20th November

Forget house prices for a moment; stock markets are going crazy too.   Yesterday the Dow Jones in America broke the 16,000 barrier, for the first time ever.  BitCoin, a virtual currency that you can only use in (dubious) internet trading, or sell to other people has reached 780 dollars a ‘coin’; this is a currency that doesn’t even exist, it has no real value, only what people think it might be worth one day.  Twitter floated on the US markets and was valued at over 20 billion dollars, yet has made huge losses since it started, and only had advertising revenue (revenue not sales) of 500 million dollars last year.  Over here they sold the Royal Mail (some say too cheaply) and the price has soared as those who missed out on shares are eager to buy them at almost any price; and this for a business in decline for years, that will soon face real competition as their monopoly is diluted.

What exactly is happening?  Panic.  An ordered panic maybe, but panic nevertheless.   Interest rates have been so low for so long, and Quantative Easing (printing money to you and me) is threatened to end soon (especially in America) and investors, speculators and assorted spivs know the good times won’t last much longer.  It is almost a game of out-staring each other, waiting for the blink that starts the race to increase interest rates.  Actually the game is more like pass the parcel, buy some shares, no matter what price, because the market is still rising and then sell them at a profit before the music stops.   And money is so cheap to borrow, and yet useless to hold, as you get nothing in interest on it, so you have to spend it somehow.  Shares, Houses, anything except keep the money in the bank.

What will happen when the music stops?  Oh, we don’t worry about that.  

The New Book Is Almost Written

Tuesday 19th November

I have done a first draft, and just completed a second sweep, trying to polish it up, add a touch of magic and sparkle.  Also I have written a few extra bits.  When you start out on a new story, you don’t really know where you are going with it.  This one actually grew from a very early exercise for writing class.  It was a throw-away piece, written on the hoof, and read at class, then put away.

Something made me exhume it.  Maybe I always knew I needed to develop it, write a bit more, see if it would fly.  And I feel it is.  Flying, I mean.  It seems to have taken on a life of its own, with bits of philosophy and politics coming in to the story.  And I think it is actually quite a good story.  A clever idea has emerged which was never there at the beginning, but which has grown as I continued writing.

What next?   Oh, the inevitable third rewrite.  I must resist the temptation to develop ideas any further and  just concentrate on the text.  While at the same time being aware that knowing when to walk away is just as important as writing it in the first place.

I used to (and fully intend to resume) paint.  In oils, in enamels and drawing in monochrome.  And the hardest bit was knowing at what precise point the picture was finished.  The temptation to tease out a line here, to darken a hue there had to be resisted.  Somehow some little voice would work like  a conscience and let you know that enough was enough.  Hopefully the same will be true of this story.

The title is “2066 – a personal memoir”.  Which might or might not intrigue you. 

The Torchum never Stops

Monday 18th November

You are probably wondering what the Hell the title of this little piece means.  And so, almost am I, but like most things it just popped into my head, and seemed to fit.  It is actually the title of a song (wouldn’t you just know it) by the one and only Frank Zappa.  And not only that, it isn’t even the right title of the song.  Frank had a habit of recycling themes and songs, and in some ways would have been happy playing the same thing over and over again and just seeing what variations came out.

The real title of the song is “The Torture Never Stops”.  I can’t really remember what album it first appeared on, and even Frankophiles have difficulty because he released so many records.  The song kept cropping up, especially on the more and more common live albums.  Then he did an album called “Thingfish”, possibly the most over the top and outrageous record he ever made; a triple album of vulgarity, and not a little great music.  A lot of his old songs were recycled and sung in an exagerrated “Negro” voice, and some even by Ike Willis, a black singer in the band (Irony of ironies).  And the song morphed into “The Torchum Never stops”

Well it made me laugh, even if the subject of the song is the unrelenting nature of life itself.

And so with us all – The Torchum Never Stops.  There never seems a time when you can just relax and do nothing, no worries, no cares, nobody expecting anything of you, no-one to please.  The torchum never stops.  All you can do is put on a silly voice and sing along with the record, because as Frank also said “Hey, it’s the twentieth century – as long as it doesn’t cause a murder.”

Actually it is of course now the twenty-first century and so far the torchum has still not stopped.  Hahaha

The Panic of Christmas Shopping

Sunday 17th November

One gets 365 notice of it, and yet Christmas always comes as a bit of a shock.  There is just so much to buy; presents, cards, decorations and we haven’t even begun to think about food yet.  I have literally a mountain of presents to buy.  Eight grandchildren, three children (and their partners), Mum and Dad, my sister and her partner and her two children and last but not least my own partner.  I did begin this year in France at least, so I got a bit of a head-start and  for reasons of logistics the only date when we can all (or most of us anyway) get together for our now annual pre-Christmas gathering and present exchange is the fifteenth of December.   I seem to be spending every Saturday, and the occasional evening in the week rushing around and shopping.

I used to deliberate for ages before buying presents, worrying whether people would like what I had chosen, panicking that I hadn’t spent enough on one, or too much on another.  But now I am much more methodical.  Firstly I write a budget, giving myself at least an idea of the total outlay, and then a mental list of the order in which to buy them.  I wrap almost as soon as they are bought too; there is nothing worse than to be surrounded by a pile of gifts and you cannot remember whose is whose.

And every year all the adults tell each other to just buy a token gift.  We all agree but when it comes to it, how can you?  What can you buy for fifteen or twenty pounds.   Of late I have taken to making up goody bags for my children, a bottle of nice wine, some unusual jars or tins from France, a pot of jam, some chocolate, maybe hand cream for the women and a CD for the guys.   And it isn’t really the money that is the issue, just the hassle, the queuing up at the tills, the carrying of it all home that is the trouble.

And then all of a sudden it is Christmas day, it is over and we can relax.  At least for a few months…

S is especially for Paul Simon

Saturday 16th November

He was the creative force, the writer, the singer who had an edge to his voice, the one who had something to say – in Simon and Garfunkel.  He was also quite brave, discarding Art at the height of both their fame and critical approval.  And over here the Beatles had just split, so we hardly noticed this other break-up across the Atlantic.

In a few months Paul had a new album out, and boy was it different.  Far more edgy, some reggae tunes in there, a duet with violinist Stefan Grapelli; every track was different.  It was as if there had been an outpouring of frustrated musicality, a release which kept on coming, at least for a few albums.

And then we had Hearts and Bones, possibly at this point his best collection of songs.  Art and he had had some sort of a reconciliation and Art had recorded his vocals for the record.  At the last minute Paul told him by phone that Art’s vocals had been wiped and it would now be a Paul Simon record again.

The album didn’t do that well, and Paul new he had to be daring.  He went to South Africa and sought out new unknown musicians, and brought the exciting sounds of township jive to the West.  Combined with his cool vocals and witty urbane lyrics it was the biggest success imaginable.  Not without his critics, I believe in his inclusive way he did more to open up South Africa (still gripped with Apartheid) than those artists who boycotted it.

Since then, a series of albums of diminishing returns.  Some good songs, but it seems Paul has lost that excitement with music he once had.  One last vote of confidence for an album, of a musical he spent seven years writing, The Capeman, which was a total flop on Broadway.  But he recorded the songs, with a few singers, and actually it is rather brilliant.

Every new record I buy, just hoping he has made a winner again.  I am still waiting.

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Cities are the new Countries

Friday 15th November

It has probably always been happening, but cities are fast becoming the new countries. Even in Ancient Greece we had city states.  Rome was a vast empire, all designed to service and glorify the city of Rome.  London, since the middle-ages had been the motor of the economy.  And now the cities of China and India are booming.  Singapore and Hong Kong are basically just city-states.

Huge numbers are sucked in from the countryside into China’s cities, where everyone is seeking their fortune.  Mumbai is doubling in size every few years.   And yet, especially as you get older more and more people dislike city living.  The rat-race, the urban jungle, the daily slog to get to your workplace, the noise, the pollution – are all negatives.  And yet more and more youngsters flock to them.  I was one too; I knew that Suffolk was just too small for me.  I carved the anonymity which London gave me, the egalitarianism, the feeling that anything might be possible.

And where will it all end?  Will we all end up living in bigger and bigger cities.  London is stlll expanding, especially to the East, and if the somewhat bizarre idea of Boris Island ever takes off, who knows how big it can get.  So much wealth is generated by London anyway that it is an unstoppable force.   And as cities grow, so does the population.  When I first came here there were 6 million, it is now over 8 and if everyone were properly counted could be nearly 10 million.  The frightening thing is that London is a baby among the cities of the Far East now.  They really are huge.   Welcome to the Brave New World.

The New battle for the Environment

Thursday 14th November

David Cameron promised that this Government would be the greenest ever.  He was even phot-op-ed with a husky.  It was the fashionable cause a few years ago, everyone was talking about Global Warming, Carbon reduction targets, more and more Renewable Energy.  It was the new politics.

And just as quickly it has gone; the enthusiasm, the failed targets are brushed aside, no more mention of the Environment in his speeches.  It’s the economy, stupid.  We just cannot afford to be so worried about Global Warming, and anyway it seems to have slowed down a bit, doesn’t it?  Naysayers are reporting that the ice caps are increasing, not shrinking anymore, and who knows – I have no way of measuring them myself.   America has embraced Fracking and cheap shale gas is lowering energy costs there; here, our Government is giving the oil industries the green light to do the same.  Whichever way you look at it will still mean burning fossil fuels; it will still be pumping CO2 into the atmosphere willy-nilly.

So, we are now in a harder battle for the Environment, a rearguard action to attempt to defend the gains made, not even to press forward with more.  And the environmental disasters keep happening, though they cannot be one hundred percent attributed to Global Warming all the models predict more typhoons, more rain, more floods.

It may take a real disaster, here in Europe or New York, before things start to change.  And maybe it will just be too late by then.  China and India, Russia and Brazil are booming, and are consuming more and more oil and gas.  I cannot see them voluntarily slowing down, or changing tack.

So what exactly will the future hold?  Of course no-one can be sure, but I think I trust the scientists rather than the Oil Executives.  Keep smiling.

So, Suddenly it’s a Housing Bubble Again

Wednesday 13th November

Humans are just like herd animals, aren’t they.  As soon as they get a whisper, they all turn and face the other way, then when they are spooked – they gallop in a mad frenzied rush, all in the same direction.  There have been whispers in the wind for weeks, and slowly that becomes a trickle and now the trickle is threatening to become a flood.  Reports have been creeping in of a rise in house prices.  They dropped quite dramatically at the time of the financial crash, and despite the benefit of much lower mortgages because of low interest rates, people felt aggrieved.  A house for almost everyone is your sole asset, and when it is worth less than you paid for it (and still are paying for it, in most cases) you feel wretched.  It has also meant that a lot of people were in negative equity.   But as I learned in the early nineties, as long as you keep paying your mortgage, the years will roll by, and one distant day the house will be paid for, whatever it is worth.

And now there is a reported mad rush of people desperate to buy.  Many couples, saving for their first house, now see that dream inflating even further out of their reach, and maybe with parents help, or even the Government’s Help to Buy, are rushing to market.  Then those who for years have wanted to move, but couldn’t afford to, now see this as their only chance.   And there is a sense of panic, that if you don’t get in soon, it will all soon be out of your reach forever.

The only solution is to build far more houses, to take the heat out of the market.  But with housebuilding almost exclusively in the hands of the private sector, it suits them to build slowly and keep the prices high.  The worst aspect of all, is that despite this, many are taking on far too large mortgages, which when interest rates inevitably rise will cause the market to crash.  Seems as if we never learn.

The Philippines – Cold Wet and Miserable

Tuesday 12th November

I’ve just taken the dogs for their evening walk, and it is, you guessed it – cold, wet and miserable.  And the weather here in Blighty often is.  And we rightly complain.  The cold goes right through you, and some days you just can’t even begin to get dry.  And Seasonally Affected Disorder or not, this wintry weather makes most of us pretty miserable too.  I used to be an avid weather forecast watcher, but mostly nowadays, although I do watch it, like the news; ask me ten minutes later what was it about and I struggle to remember anything.  But it used to be almost a standing joke that the one place in Britain you could guarantee would have rain was Lerwick.  I used to listen out for it, and nine times out of ten I was right.  Rain in Lerwick.  So, who would choose to live there?  Surprisingly despite the heavy rainfall rather a lot of people and it is one of the happier communities around.

And today of course I cannot forget the news.  It has been the same all weekend, and will be for days I am sure.  The terrible pictures, the eye witness accounts, the polite woman shivering behind a wire fence asking that if we had some water and food – then she looks away, embarrassed, then back at the camera and says – maybe, you could give us some.   I found this the most poignant of appeals.  And we still have no idea of the scale of the problem.  Just like the tsunami of 2002, there aren’t enough people to count, let alone bury the dead.

I have known quite a few Filipinos, they are lovely people.  Small and unassuming, and just like that woman at the wire, polite.   One can only imagine their pain as they sit cold, wet and miserable and waiting, waiting, waiting for some relief.

A day spent writing

Monday 11th November

I had been looking forward to the weekend for ages, even when we were still in France.  The idea of a few days, well at least two, just set aside for writing.  An exciting and also a daunting anticipation.  Daunting, because writing is a form of work, or at least you have to work at it.  It isn’t quite as you might imagine from watching some TV drama.  The empty page, the expensive Parker pen, and the copperplate handwritten words appear on the page as if by magic.  No, this is more down to earth.  At one time I used to write on paper, but more and more I now use the laptop.  One big fear is of losing your work, so every so often I send the latest version to myself by e-mail.  You don’t have to open it, but you know that even if the laptop gets stolen, you can access your stuff on a new machine.

But also with the laptop you don’t have to drag around a pile of paper.  I start by re-reading my last edited piece, and getting myself back into the story.  Sometimes I re-re-edit bits of that too.  You are coming at it fresh again, and so see ‘glaring’ errors or just the slight repetition of a word you missed last time.  Each paragraph is read, trying not to edit as I go along.  I am trying to look at the structure of the sentences, the placing of the commas, and semi-colons.  I have a tendency to write too long a sentence.  So I hack back and replace commas with full stops.  I also look at the tense, I write too much in the past tense.  Using the present tense makes it more immediate.  I look for repetition, starting too many sentences with the word I, that sort of thing.  Sometimes I also expand it a bit, widen out the action.

The mantra at writing class is “Show, not Tell” and I know I am guilty of telling a story rather than letting the reader see it for themselves.   Then I re-read the corrected sentence again and see how it flows.

It can be tedious work, but hopefully I am improving the thing, not messing it up further.  There is something about the immediacy of first writing that often gets lost with too much revision.   I sometimes re-read a whole section, and even go back and undo some changes.  It is impossible to really know when it is perfect, finished.  And maybe it never is.