Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Way We Were ...

I noted a while back the memoirs of Frances Roper, (nee Hubbard), an upper-middle class Englishwoman of good Christian family, describing the first twenty-odd years of her life in Ealing, the Forest of Dean, and her aunt's orphanage in South London.

More comprehensive, and illuminating a totally different society, is Gwilym Rhys Williams - The Story of My Life. Lord knows what it's doing on a Canadian blog - did someone emigrate ? Ah yes - Ruth Hartnup, Aberystwyth to Vancouver. Nice family pictures here.

This memoir incorporates descriptions of a boy’s memories of life in the colliery villages of Cymmer and Gwaun Cae Gurwen before the First World War; a remote Carmarthenshire farming community (Panteg) between 1914 and 1935; life as a Grammar School pupil in Carmarthen and a student at the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth 1925-29; a life-long teaching career at Llandeilo Grammar School (he probably taught some of my mother's relatives - LT); life and travels as a member of the Army’s Education Corps during the Second World War; and a description of a social life in Llandeilo centred around Capel Newydd; ending with a post-retirement period in Rhuddlan.
Here's some Original Sin from the early years in the 'Waun' :

These days there is a great deal of talk and press-reports about the increasing vandalism and lack of social conscience among children. It seems to me that there was little social conscience among the children of my childhood, even though, as I have mentioned before, parents had the Victorian attitude towards the up-bringing of their children. Children, indeed, may have been well-behaved at home, but once out of the sphere of its influence, moral standards were influenced by gang behaviour...

One example of vandalism in our childhood was the game of counting who had smashed the greatest number of what we called bottles on top of telegraph and electricity poles. One does not see bottles today. They were ceramic bottle-like fittings on the cross-bar of the poles, around which the wires conducting electricity were wound.

Another example of violence was the gang warfare between the boys of the Waun and the boys of Garnant. On many Saturday mornings, the Waun boys, equipped with rubbish-bin lids as shields and having a stock-pile of stones, stationed themselves on top of a viaduct facing another bridge, where the Garnant boys had congregated, similarly equipped. We then threw stones at each other. Sometimes the Garnant boys wilted and we were able to chase them as far as the bottom of the ‘cwm’. Once we had a serious problem on our hands. One of our boys had a facial injury, with a copious flow of blood, the result of being hit by a half-brick. The problem was how to carry him back to his home. I remember our trying to tie together some kind of stretcher, but I can’t remember whether we had any success.

I can also give more examples of behaviour which showed a lack of moral conscience These examples may give you, the reader, the impression that I am even now a man of doubtful moral and social conscience. No, I’m fairly convinced that children can go through this phase in childhood, and yet become responsible and morally sound citizens.

Looking back, I sometimes think that I should have been ashamed of certain irresponsible and inconsiderate tricks that we played. There was a sweets shop on the main road, not far from Gron Road. It was owned by the Hicks family, the son of which family, by the name of Haydn, I became very friendly with during my College days. There was a long passage leading from the shop to the kitchen. We were able to see through the glass door of the shop whether anyone was in the shop. If there was no-one there we assumed that the person on duty would be in the kitchen. We would then open the door a quietly a possible – there was no bell announcing an entry. There in front of us was a long row of glass-lidded boxes of sweets. So, before knocking for attention, we would lift the lids of several boxes and stuff our pockets with sweets. Then we knocked and when Dorothy – usually it was she who appeared – came to the shop we would ask for a pennyworth of sweets. A despicable act indeed! But did we have a conscience about it? Hardly, because it was repeated several times. It was no worse a crime than stealing apples from gardens!

There was another despicable piece of behaviour which was repeated several times. In a nearby street there lived on her own a woman, who was considered rather ’simple’ or ‘not quite sixteen ounces’. We used to play tricks on her, such as leaning a can full of water against her front door, and after knocking running round the corner to see what happened when the door was opened. Usually, the can of water tipped inside, accompanied by a loud scream. At other times we tied a black thread to the knocker, and pulled it from around a corner. As soon as she appeared and then closed the door, the knocker was pulled again – this being repeated several times.

He's right. Children have little social conscience and are much now as they were ninety years back - or a hundred and ninety, if it comes to that. And note the almost automatic compulsion to torment the weak (as in the memoirs of Frances Roper and Laurie Lee), or take advantage of the unworldly, not to mention the appeal of gang warfare (as in George Borrow). The difference between those days and our day is not in the way children are, but in the way adults respond to their behaviour.

How many more of these wonderful memoirs are out on the Web ? Please drop any you know of in the comments.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Tasteless, but ...

I didn't join in (on either side) the Jan Moir/Stephen Gately brouhaha of a month or two back, as while the general philosophy behind her argument seemed sound, wages of sin and all that, I wasn't at all sure that any of it should apply in the particular case, because :

a) the poor chap wasn't even buried - there's a time and place and before the funeral ain't it. Bad form.

b) there seemed no evidence that Mr Gately was a particularly degenerate chap as practising homosexuals go - his civil partnership seemed to imply some kind of desire for respectable coupledom.

While a still stands, b seems at least debateable.

Friday Night Is Music Night ... Classical Edition

... and how better to relax at the end of the week than with a cello quartet playing Grieg ?

or if you prefer something a little gentler :

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Where's Blair's Dosh ?

Presumably triggered by these two FT stories from a month back, the Guardian attempts to navigate the tortuous stream of Tony Blair's finances.

Blair has a complex web of structures involving 12 different legal entities handling the unprecedented millions he is receiving since he stepped down from office in 2007.

So mystifying are the former prime minister's financial structures – which involve highly specialised limited partnerships and parallel companies – that the Guardian today launches an open invitation to tax specialists and accountants to attempt to explain the motivation behind such structures. We have published the Companies House documents and other legal papers regarding the structure of the partnerships at and invite expert comment via our site at

There is no suggestion Blair is doing anything illegal. But he refuses to explain the purpose of the secretive partnerships.
Cry havoc and let slip the accountants of war ! Tally-ho !

UPDATE - Tax Research Blog thinks there's a loophole which means detailed accounts don't have to be publically filed, if I understand correctly.

The limited liability partnership is tax transparent. If it had Tony Blair as a member he would pay tax at the UK highest income tax rate. So two companies are put in his place as members, and because of the loophole in the limited partnership accounting regulations this is acceptable: it does not change the fact that the limited partnership will not have to file accounts.

And then the two companies are owned by nominees to hide the Blair involvement – it’s just a pity one set of accounts had to give it away that he was the beneficial owner or we might still be unaware of all this.

So what did Tony want? Just a bit of secrecy and his profits sheltered at corporate tax rates seems the superficial answer.

But hang on – this structure came at some price, and has some cost to run – five figures a year with a first digit of more than one I suspect. So why do that? Because the entity at the top of the pile – Windrush Ventures No 3 Limited Partnership now has what most people want from a secrecy jurisdiction – complete secrecy and lower tax than might otherwise be expected, and all onshore.

So there is an obvious question outstanding still. Just what is it that Tony is so keen to hide that he’ll go to this length and this cost to do so?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

A Sad Tale

I've mentioned (favourably) Lionel Shriver, author and chronicler of childlessness, before.

I'm sorry to hear that her brother has died - a death she foretold. The poor chap ate himself to death :

I write with some reluctance, because I feel protective of him. He's topping 330 pounds: 24 stone. He was once 5ft 7ins tall, but his vertebrae have compressed, and at 5ft 3ins I now look him straight in the eye. I used to look up to him in every sense. I ended our last two visits in tears. My brother breaks my heart...

Obesity exacerbates his emphysema, and he drags a portable oxygen tank with him like a faithful dog. Not long ago, the tank's battery died at a bus stop. My brother went into respiratory arrest, and only a good Samaritan who rushed off the bus got him to hospital in time to save his life. Every time I talk to my brother, I wonder if it's for the last time. Planning to see him during an author's tour in March, I'm counting the days, actively anxious that he won't still be with us three months from now.

Tweaking The Mangy Lion's Tail

Mr Miliband said: "This is a human story of five young yachtsmen. It's got nothing to do with politics, it's got nothing to do with nuclear enrichment programmes... it has no relationship to any of the other, bigger issues."

Mr Miliband does what he's best at, back-pedalling. Is this the same chap who only the other day was telling the Pakistani government and military what 'we want' them to do ?

Either Tehran can decide to play the incident down and let the sailors go, or it could turn this into a full blown diplomatic crisis.

Note that it's all about what Iran's likely to do. We're just prisoners of events. Doubtless if Iran get stroppy we'll huff and puff for domestic consumption then resume backpedalling. It's what we do.

When Gordon Brown asked the Libyans to be discreet about the release of Abdel Bassets Allsorts (you know, the convicted Lockerbie bomber with only three months to live) in August, Gaddafi arranged a huge welcome party at the airport complete with Scottish flags, an event shown on TV world wide. Brown's response to this humiliation was to cancel a visit by the Duke of York !

This isn't something that just started on Gordon Brown's watch. Mark Steyn on the last Iranian hostage crisis in 2004 - or was it the last-but-two or three ? I think the last one was two years ago, when I was in the States.

Britain's boys got hijacked and taken on a classic Rogue State bender. And the version being broadcast throughout the Muslim world is that Teheran swatted the infidel and got away with it.

That's what matters: getting away with it. Do you think Mr Straw, fretting over the "complications" of Anglo-Iranian relations, will make the mullahs pay any price for what they did? And, if he doesn't, what conclusions do you think the Islamic Republic will draw from its artful test of Western - or, at any rate, European - resolve? Right now, the British, French and Germans are making a show of getting tough on Iran's nuclear ambitions. Is that "tough" as in "Go ahead, imam, make my day"? Or is it "tough" as in that official's "one-way conversation"? Just a bit of diplo-bluster. If you were the mullahs, you might well conclude that the Europeans don't mean it, that they've decided they can live with a nuclear Iran, and you might as well go full speed ahead.

A nuclear Iran is a lot closer now.

Me No Understand

Indie, reporting on yet another asylum route - the "Saudi adulteress gambit".

Last year, the House of Lords ruled that the SFO's decision to drop the corruption investigation into the £43bn Saudi arms deal with BAE Systems was unlawful.

In a hard-hitting ruling, two High Court judges described the SFO's decision as "an outrage".

One of them, Lord Justice Moses, said the SFO and the Government had given into "blatant threats" that Saudi intelligence co-operation would end unless the probe into corruption was halted.

"No one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice," he said. "It is the failure of government and the defendant to bear that essential principle in mind that justifies the intervention of this court."

How come all those Irish terrorists were let out after the Good Friday Agreement then ? Isn't that interference with justice ?

I see, they passed another law to let them out.

So all we need is the Serious Fraud Office (Saudi Arabia) Bill 2009 and we're laughing. Is that OK?

(my views on the BAe/Saudi bribery brouhaha are here.

I'd recommend anyone commenting on this issue to take a look at Anthony Sampson's book The Arms Bazaar. Bribery and large arms contracts have been together for a very long time. If we don't bribe others will. Even senior people in Western democracies can be bribed.

Now it's not unreasonable to say - no. We shouldn't bribe. Let others do it - we won't. Fine. If you don't want to bribe, get out of the arms trade. Which means closing a large chunk of what remains of Britain's technically advanced manufacturing industry. And in this case it also means a rupture with a powerful (we've sold them all that kit) oil-rich nation bordering Iraq. You can see why HMG might blink at this.

UPDATE - Jeremy Warner on doing business 'out there' :

Anyone with any experience of trading in the Middle East knows that the moment you tread further south than Marseilles, the law of contract becomes – how shall we put it? – somewhat pliable. For instance, it is relatively common place for clients in the Gulf to freeze payments to contractors. For us that may be breach of contract, but for them it is merely part of the hard ball of negotiation...

What's going on at Saad Group in Saudi Arabia is in some respects a great deal worse. Much of the money seems to have gone walk about, with local creditors being given preferential treatment over international lenders.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Domestic Violence As A Source Of Amusement ...

Imagine a man who finds his wife is unfaithful and attacks her.

Now imagine he attacks her with a golf club - a potentially deadly weapon.

Imagine she flees the house in terror, bleeding from head injuries, drives away, but because of her injuries crashes the car just a hundred yards away, while her husband follows, club in hand, to smash the car windows.

What would Cath Elliott say ? Or Laurie Penny ? Or the Stroppers ?

I dread to think what punishment would be deemed suitable for the offender - you all know I'm more of a rehabilitation type myself.

It's strange, but reverse the sexes of the protagonists, and both men and women find the idea* hilarious.

(* the idea, not the facts of the Tiger Woods case, which are obscure. Best of order in the comments please)