Saturday, 25 May 2013

What's Going On?

I sometimes travel by train to random destinations - for the pleasure of discovery and the luxury of a prolonged period of reading, uninterrupted by the distractions of domestic routines and commitments. On the way I read newspapers, periodicals and magazines in order to find out what's going on in the world. And, when I arrive at my destination, I nose around to see what's going on there. Lately I visited the small, Welsh coastal town of Pwllhelli which sits, with its missing consonant, so temptingly at the end of a branch line.

In my newspapers the big story was taxation or, rather, the avoidance of it by the rich and determined. According to one columnist Google paid a total of £2.4 million in UK taxes in the same year in which it received £2.5 million in government subsidies, making it a net beneficiary of the social security system and enlightening us as to the hollowness of its "don’t be evil" slogan. Taxation is a simple principle to understand - a proportion of the wealth generated within society is pooled to provide services - but it is complicated in practice by those who consider themselves to be exempt from the social compact.

Less prominently featured was an article describing how software companies are actively recruiting people with autistic tendencies to work at testing their products. Could this land them in trouble? Legislation seeks to prohibit employers from discriminating between potential employees. But then, what type of personality is most likely to apply for such a job?

Less prominent still was the startling revelation that a bumblebee with a full belly is only 40 minutes away from starvation - such is the rate at which it burns energy. Having just eaten my lunch and with no imminent prospect of physical exertion I was inclined to feel that we humans lead a privileged life.

The train eventually pulled into the Welsh-speaking stronghold of Pwllheli just after the shops had closed for the day. I walked through the quiet town-centre to my accommodation, a high street hotel/pub which had recently been rescued from closure by a thirty-something bloke with a rough-and-ready approach to the hospitality business. He asked me to write down a lot of personal details on a form while he went upstairs to prepare my room and left me in the bar with the only other customer, a silent, tramp-like figure who looked as uncomfortable as I felt. My room was clean and comfortable enough but I left it in search of food and, hopefully, company. I found the former but, having decided against attending the performance in Welsh at the arts centre, the remainder of my evening was filled with more reading.

On the return journey, while scouring the pages for hidden gems, I took wry pleasure in the discovery that a growing number of French universities are now offering courses taught in English so as to attract international students. The French, who - like the Welsh - are protective of their language and harbour resentment towards us English for the pan-global adoption of our language, seem to be learning to live with the inevitable.

I felt less than smug, however, when an article about internet identity theft made me realise  that my own security precautions are quite inadequate and that I should change all my passwords (if I can remember them) toute suite (see, no hard feelings). I recalled with a chill that I had last night obligingly written my name, address, email and phone and credit card numbers on a piece of paper for a stranger in a deserted bar in semi-hostile territory.

On reflection, trying to determine what - if anything - is going on in small-town Britain probably requires more than just a quick nose-around. And I have to agree with the man who said that “trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock”.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Tree Time

A few years ago the City Council planted trees along one of the streets next to mine. Ornamental steel tubes were thoughtfully placed around the saplings to protect them as they grew. The trees are thriving but the steel tubes (which are no longer required) have become stuffed to overflowing with empty cans, bottles and paper litter. Now the street looks pleasantly green when seen from a distance but comically untidy close up. When the Council arranged an early evening rendezvous last week between residents and the people who run our services I went along, curious to put faces to emails - and keen to raise my concern about street aesthetics.

It was an unstructured gathering attended by three residents and a dozen or so official delegates - disheartening for the organisers but useful for us as it presented an opportunity to command the undivided attention of our public servants. The other two residents, coincidentally, were on a mission to green up the neglected nooks and crannies of the urban landscape, so trees quickly became the main item of discussion. It transpired that the Council is aware of my particular concern but unable to resolve the issue promptly because of a legal complication: although the trees belong to us, the protective tubes belong to some arts organisation which designed and provided them as part of the original project. It was deemed a sensible collaboration at the time but the arts organisation, having lost its funding, is now defunct and negotiations to remove the tubes are stymied.

During this discourse I also learned that the cost of planting a city centre tree is approximately £5000 despite which, somewhere near the bottom of a prioritised list, there is a plan to plant some more as part of the rejuvenation of a nearby square. Tree-lined squares attract people and increase footfall for local businesses.

The meeting having soon disbanded for lack of attendees, I made my way to the square in question, motivated partly by curiosity but mainly by hunger and an urge to visit the noted pizzeria which has lately been established there. Pizza, once a simple, Italian street food, now features as a main course on many a menu and even has worldwide chains of restaurants devoted to it. This place, however, hopes to succeed by following a more traditional model - pizza al taglio - such as I experienced once upon a time in Rome when, near the bus station there, I queued outside a bakery for pizza which was made, once or twice a day, in big rectangular trays to be sold by the slice.

The square itself was deserted and the only bar I could see was closed. The pizzeria was open but there was no sign of life: its colourful display of pizzas, focaccia sandwiches and bottles of ruby red Montepulciano had attracted no admirers.  Inside, candles flickered invitingly on the tables at the back but the tinny sound of a cheap radio echoed in the empty room. I sensed a business doomed to failure.

A young man appeared from the kitchen, apparently pleased to see me. He helped me order and, when I had taken a seat, brought me a dish of livid-green Sicilian olives. It was a bribe, an inducement to talk. As one of the two proprietors he was keen to explore ideas on how to attract business. In exchange for the olives I offered him some observations from a customer point of view and encouragement in the form of the news about the trees. By the time I left he seemed more optimistic and shook my hand warmly.

On leaving I noticed that he had placed two small bay trees in tubs outside the entrance - the vanguard, perhaps, of the coming greening. I hope he can hang on until the reinforcements arrive: he certainly knows how to make pizza.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Watch Out for Historical Klingons

I really don't know how the Queen managed to keep a straight face when she made her customary speech at the opening of Parliament this week. Given that its theme was the necessity for cost-cutting, there is hilarious irony in the fact that tremendous expense is involved in the custom and pageantry of its delivery. Perhaps her conscience was assuaged by the recent tiny reduction in the cost of the whole performance: her speech is no longer hand-written on goat-skin vellum with a special ink that takes three days to dry. In these straitened times one must suffer with the people, even if it means having one's speeches inscribed on mere (imitation goatskin) paper.

When Gutenburg first successfully employed his printing presses he could not possibly have envisaged that 560 years later, on a small island off the mainland of Europe, there would still be a solitary scribe labouring over goatskin as if nothing had changed in the intervening years. Nor could he, visionary though he was, foresee that his invention would produce one of the earliest side effects of industrialisation - putting scribes out of work. I do have some sympathy for those scribes - there would have been no job-seekers' allowance (JSA) for them to fall back on - but I would rather praise Gutenburg for his innovation than damn him for the temporary woes of a few workers. And he was himself later put out of work by the banker who lent him the money to build the presses and then confiscated them when the cash failed to flow back quickly enough for his liking. The visionary had not taken into account the fact that he was producing more books than were required by the very small numbers of customers who could actually read.

Reading is now more widespread, but the capitalist model remains unchanged since those days. Any business which cannot pay its way must forfeit its assets, and its directors must suffer humiliation and possible financial distress. Unless, of course, that business is a bank - in which case it is lavished with public funds and its directors are permitted to retire anonymously and in considerable material comfort.

I expect that the scribes of old soon found alternative employment, perhaps as typesetters in the growing industry of printing, but the prospects for today's unemployed are not so promising. The rapacious activities of the banks have laid waste to the economies of entire nations. As a result, businesses are damaged: many are wary of taking on new employees; start-up companies struggle to find backers and unemployment is becoming the norm for young people who should really be climbing career ladders.

But we Europeans are sticking together, helping each other out and jointly laying the foundations of economic regeneration. Only last week I had to transfer money to someone in Spain and discovered that my bank had discounted its fee for that particular transaction. Spain, as we know, is short of money, so I'd like to think it was a 'philanthropic' rate - but no one at the bank was available to comment. Then there is the Cypriot couple who have just become neighbours. Having graduated from Manchester University with more degrees than I had thought possible they now describe themselves, with considerable inventive flair, as "international job-seekers". (Perhaps this enables them to qualify for enhanced JSA subsidised by the EU and known as IJSA).

But, now that Europe is impoverished and the subsidies are on the wane, many Britons have concluded that their flirtation with the Continent has run its course and it's time to retrench. It is, after all, dangerously republican territory. Even in those few countries where monarchs remain they are mere shadows of the real thing. Just look at that Queen of the Netherlands who abdicated last week - without ceremony. She simply signed a form - and I bet it was on A4 copy paper printed out on an inkjet.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Put Yourself in my Shoes.

The season turns to spring and Nature's rejuvenation begins all over again. Looking out at the surrounding buildings I see windows, long closed against the weather, now flip open and neighbours' faces, not seen for months, jut out to breathe in the mild air. I discern in myself a lifting of the spirits, an accompanying surge of optimism - and a motivation to take positive action. I rummage in the utility room for the nesting hut for solitary bees which I had thoughtfully refurbished before storing it over winter. I hang it on the balcony rail (facing South-West as advised by the instruction leaflet) in anticipation of an eager tenant. I go inside to put away some winter clothes and come across my favourite but dilapidated brown leather boots. I have an idea to get them fixed so that they will be ready for next winter.

Within the hour I set off to the repair shop, motivated not only by the sunshine but also by the need to distract myself from constantly checking the bee-hut. There are three repair shops to choose from. At the first one the man inspected the boots, looked at me sardonically and said "Let me put it this way: how much do you love them?” He then quoted an extortionate price.  At the second shop the man quoted a similar price - but without the nicety of foreplay. I gave the third one a miss and opted instead to take my boots to a coffee house where I could ponder the following dilemma: should I get them repaired at all - or should I just throw them away and buy new ones? In my business days I would have resolved it with a straightforward cost/benefit analysis but now it has become a lot more complicated.

Years ago, when most of our things were made in Britain, mending them would have been a foregone conclusion. Nowadays our things are made elsewhere and more cheaply, by exploited labour in overseas factories we would rather not know about. Not only does the cost of repairing them in the West exceed the cost of making them in the East but also, for me at least, an ethical aspect has arisen. Should I get them repaired, thereby supporting the local workers' wage or should I buy a new pair, thereby contributing to the wages of poorer, foreign workers?

On top of this are the ecological considerations: if we were all to consume fewer manufactured goods the world's natural resources would be under less pressure; if we continue to transport these goods over long distances we risk global warming; and, if we buy ever more goods from emerging economies, we encourage them to over-industrialise instead of developing as sustainable economies.

In terms of shoes, we could address these concerns by buying fewer but better quality, longer lasting pairs, sacrificing fashion at the altar of practicality. We could even foster a return to the golden era of manufacturing when all shoes were made in Northampton - from best quality leather and to just a few established designs - tan brogue for country wear, black leather for city wear, glossy patent for formal wear. I recall that such shoes lasted for years and, if bought late in life, could be bequeathed in one's will to grateful offspring. Buy cheap, buy twice was the motto back then.

My mood of optimism had drained away by the time I was down to the dregs of my coffee, and I opted instead to postpone a decision until autumn. Who needs boots in spring anyway? So I mooched home via shoe shops, half-heartedly looking in windows for replacements for my old favourites. None could compare. After a while, however, I began to notice the new season's displays of natty, canvas pumps. Ideal for the coming summer, I thought.