Saturday, 1 October 2016

Jamais vu

In my post "Deja vu"  (29 September) I noted that the EU nations are very good at postponing decisions which are necessary for financial stability. Its leaders recognise that there are things they must do but which they don't dare or care to do. Make us a properly functioning union, but not yet, or maybe ever.

To be fair to the mainstream political view in the EU they have recognised the need for freedom of movement to underpin the single market and the euro. But they still don't have the political and financial structures that are needed and the richer nations in the north do not recognise that the price of a one size fits all structure is wealth transfer to the poorer nations in the south. The southern countries are beset by extremely high unemployment, especially youth unemployment. Countries such as Greece complain that it is "austerity" that causes their problems, but it isn't, or at least I am certain that it isn't just that. It is because they can't compete with the German juggernaut. So the German economy benefits without them paying the price of subsidising the poorer countries. This is all very dysfunctional.

In the UK, of course, we have a single market, single currency, functioning central bank and patchy systems for the wealth transfers that are necessary for the parts of the country that cannot flourish under our version of "one size fits all". Yes, you jocks, I mean the Barnett formula.

You might be surprised that I am championing the Barnett formula and freedom of movement. Well, I'm not a fan of the Barnett formula as it discriminates in favour of Scotland compared with Wales and the poorer English regions, but the principle of wealth transfers is recognised here. And, if you want to have a single market and currency, I recognise that freedom of movement has to go with it. So yes, I agree that, for the EU to conceivably work properly, freedom of movement is essential. But so are many other things that they haven't got in place. And, if they had, that club is definitely not one I would want to be in. But the EU is a million miles from making it work at the moment and we are facing difficulties while we are in the EU as a result.

One of the difficulties is that our economy is a magnet for low earners, particularly in Eastern Europe. The availability of low cost labour has helped the UK economy but it has been unhelpful for low earners among the indigenous population, depressing wages. When freedom of movement was first conceived in the EU it was a smaller entity, comprised of Western European countries without large differences in living standards. They went for expansion and the single currency when perhaps it should have been one or the other.

I note that Jeremy Corbyn claimed in his conference speech to have the answer to the problem of wage disparity across the EU and its impact on what was his party's traditional core support, the lower paid British working class. On planet Corbyn  this is fixed by achieving "a degree of equality of work conditions and wages across Europe". As Poland's national income per head is 60% of ours and Bulgaria's is 40% this ain't going to happen on any sensible timescale. Unless, of course, Jeremy plans to rapidly reduce our level to theirs. I can perfectly well believe that's what he would do, though I even I might be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt over whether he actually intends that. Unlike John McDonnell, who probably does.

You will have all realised that I called this post "jamais vu" because Corbyn and the Eurocrats have something in common: they can't see, won't see and so will never see the right answers to these problems.

Friday, 30 September 2016

I have become a Europhile

Although I voted "Remain" I've long been a Eurosceptic, albeit one who thought the EU might be able to resolve its problems and that we would probably be better off in, with all its frustrations and bureaucracy, than out. Post referendum, I've become convinced that we have to leave and make the best of it. But today I'm ditching Euroscepticism totally and I'm fully behind Europe. Indeed, today I feel totally European.

But then I would as Britain is at the heart of Europe, at least this weekend, with 7 British players in  Darren Clarke's 12 man Ryder Cup team.

So it's "Go Team Europe". Normal service will be resumed on Monday.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Big bullies

Crikey, Jake Humphrey's colleagues in the media turned on him for saying that Sam Allardyce was brought down by a combination of "greed, naivety and our poisonous press". Humphrey retracted that tweet, then rephrased his next effort, saying the press had been "ruthless".

The Daily Telegraph, full of self righteousness, is maintaining that its sting was part of its fight against corruption. Given that the worst thing Allardyce said from this point of view was that the rules on 3rd party ownership could be "circumvented", I'm really struggling to see that this amounts to corruption at any serious level.

In practice Allardyce was damaged goods and had to go because otherwise this story would have kept coming up. Just as the chap I heard on a phone-in saying Glen Hoddle was the only sensible candidate didn't seem to realise that his fruitcake remarks about karma would just keep being regurgitated if he was reappointed, whatever you think of him as a coach.

But, as Allardyce said, it was entrapment and pretty shabby too. I think Humphrey got it right and the bullying that followed - for that's what it was - proved his point; the press can be poisonous. Poor Jake stepped outside the established groupthink and, perhaps acting as naively as Allardyce, told everyone on Twitter.

Having repeated the News of the World's fake sheikh sting but without the robes, the Telegraph obviously aspires to take over the mantle of the defunct Sunday redtop rather than undertake serious investigative journalism on topics of real importance.

Like how corrupt UEFA is, frigging the club coefficents by taking account of ancient historical success to ensure that, from 2018, clubs which used to be good but aren't any longer, like AC Milan, can get a ticket to the group stage for the foreseeable future while also changing the financial distribution to keep teams like Bayern Munich competitive in Europe even though the German league has been turned into a boring perpetual one horse race and is theefore commercially unattractive. Golly, Leicester have got them terrified....

Deja vu

Students of the European banking scene - and readers of my 18 July post (Mamma Mia here we go again) - won't be surprised to see banking problems in the eurozone, especially Italy and Germany, hitting the headlines again. The stories have got a bit more panicky since 2 months ago.

For example "Germany's banks are a timebomb. And if they crash, it'll be 2008 all over again" was the headline over an article by the Daily Mail city editor, Alex Brunner, on 28 September. He explained that Germany is averse to bailouts because they don't want to help bail out banks from across southern Europe, Italy having  £300billion of bad loans for example. So they haven't restructured their own banks including the focus of this weeks headlines, Deutsche Bank.

DB's shares have falken 50% in the last year and it has now been hit with a £10.8billion fine by the US regulators for mis-selling derivatives stuffed with rotten loans. (In passing I note just how hard the American regulators like hitting non-American firms, like BP. No wonder the EU is after Amazon and Google after hitting Apple). DB has a reserve of £5billion to pay the fine and is currently loss making, but say they won't need to raise money from shareholders. Reporters are wondering where the rest will come from. Mind, a shortfall of £5.8 billion doesn't sound much to me - not nearly enough to cause Armaggedon, you'd have thought. And small beer compared with £300 billion.

But I guess that's the point. Germany has an uncomfortable problem to solve. But the obvious solution - a Lloyds/RBS style bail out - isn't open to them because of all that dodgy debt in the EU's south.

So as usual the EU nations and institutions will prevaricate and kick this can down the road, none of which helps get EU economies back on a sound footing.

Which was and remains one of the strongest arguments in favour of us leaving the EU.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Big Idiot

So Sam Allardyce leaves the England job with a 100% win record (1 streaky win from 1 easy game) in strange circumstances, the victim of a Daily Telegraph sting with reporters posing as businessmen. But arguably he was primarily a victim of greed and ego. Big Sam was very foolish and careless. But, I would say, so were the Football Association.

After all, England managers making an idiot of themselves is not new. Sven Goran Eriksson was the victim of the News of the World's "fake sheikh" sting, causing him and the FA discomfort in the run up to the 2006 World Cup. Eriksson had his agent, Athole Still (yes, I've typed the first name correctly), with him , just as Allardyce had his with him this time. These agents might earn a lot but they only seem to have a nose for money, not trouble.

And Fabio Capello collaborated with a commercial company to produce a player performance index which was due to be published in the run up to the 2010 World cup until the obvious penny dropped that this would cause embarrassment, so it was delayed until after the tournament. When it caused embarrassment as the ratings for England's players in their disastrous campaign were published, while Capello was still England manager.

So you would think that the FA would have sat down with Sam and possibly some PR gurus and say "Sam, we know you're a very experienced guy but just be careful. This is the job you always wanted - so ask yourself in any situation 'what's the worst that could happen?' If people approach you wanting things and making offers, why not just tell them you're fully occupied with England but you'll be happy to talk with them once the England job is over and done."

Indeed, I'm surprised the FA didn't have clauses in Allardyce's contract saying that he'd give the England job his full attention and not get involved in any arrangements with third parties without prior agreement from the FA. Well, maybe there were such clauses, as they would be pretty standard in such a contract I would have thought. Crikey, even I had such clauses in my employment contract for a management role a dozen years or so ago. And Allardyce did say he'd need approval from the powers that be to commit to any of the deals that were discussed.

Though I've never been an admirer, I feel sorry for Allardyce at his dream job ending in this way. The crass and ill judged things he said seem rather trivial reasons for his dismissal - for that's what it was, as I imagine he wouldn't have left by agreement if he hadn't been told he would otherwise be sacked. And the Daily Telegraph is saying that he might yet face "further disciplinary action" from the FA. That would be very careless indeed of Sam, if he's quit without getting it agreed that there would be no such action. Meanwhile the Telegraph is getting praised for its "investigative journalism", when it seems to me rather sly and for no great principle. It's not exactly thalidomide, MPs expenses, or charities bullying old folk out of their savings, is it? Rather, it's a surprisingly naive fool slagging off his predecessors and saying there are ways of circumventing a rule.

The reason the whole things seems needless is that Sam's most damaging comments, about how to get round third party ownership issues, could easily have been rephrased as "I can advise you how to live within the rules" if the FA had wanted to stand by him. So I can only assume they were actually embarrassed by things like the sending up of Roy Hodgson's speech impediment. None of this seems to me to warrant any more than a telling off. I feel that if his employer had taken more care to brief him it needn't have happened.

But you could say he's a big boy and he should have known how to look after (and behave) himself. And realise that the next time the fake sheikh might not bother to wear any robes.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Picture This

Blondie is one of my favourite bands, though I haven't ever thought of their lyrics as cutting edge. But Picture This.....

Blondie's Parallel Lines is a classic album and generally regarded as their best, with its 4 hit singles, including the number ones Heart Of Glass and Sunday Girl.  The latter is one of my least favourite Blondie tracks, just too much saccharine, even sung by my favourite female singer, Debbie Harry. I fondly remember Harry appearing on Top Of The Pops in a black dress that appeared to be a bin bag with the corners cut out for sleeves (picture that - though I'm sure it wasn't). Actually, I've always preferred the previous album, Plastic Letters, but Parallel Lines has a bunch of great tracks, including my favourite Blondie song, Fade Away And Radiate, featuring some sublime guitar by Robert Fripp (another of my musical heroes). And it has Picture This, which preceded Heart Of Glass in the charts and features one of the most inane lyrics ever sung:

Let me give you my finest hour, the one I spent watching you shower"

But it also has the remarkably prescient lyric:

Picture this, a sky full of thunder
Picture this, my telephone number
One and one is what I'm telling you
Get a pocket computer
Try to do what you used to do, yeah

A pocket computer? Wow. This was 1978 and, while there were some rudimentary personal computers, the first pocket sized phone was 8 years away. The 1980s also saw the emergence of pocket calculators that had some programmable functions and the modern mobile phone that is undoubtedly a computer was preceded by varous types of PDAs. I checked all this out because "Picture This" was an answer in my wife's crossword puzzle on Sunday. I knew the lyric and found myself singing the "pocket computer" line but I hadn't ever really thought about it before. I certainly don't remember thinking about it 1978. Double wow. I can do no better than repeat what a Yorkshire IT website, Hull Digital, says:

"... I am struck that in my pocket sits a computer with my telephone number (but regrettably not Debbie Harry’s).  Picture this; it holds a local gallery of my personal photographs, a camera to take more and access to Flickr etc. to browse further millions. All the power and flexibility to do what I used to do and so much more besides… including listening to Parallel Lines whenever I feel the urge. I seamlessly switch between my pocket computer, my slate computer and my laptop. My content, my knowledge, my entertainment, my friends are accessible from all of them. The tools each contains are unimaginably capable; the capabilities are limited only by our imaginations."

Well, whichever member of Blondie came up with that line (3 are credited with the song writing), they certainly had imagination.

So, one of the dumbest and one of the sharpest lyrics in the very same song.

Friday, 23 September 2016

January Man

At about this time two weeks ago tonight in Manchester I saw a 75 year old man lose control of his emotions. And very touching it was too. After a 2 hour, 14 song set and faced with a standing ovation from an audience of over 2,000 people at the Bridgewater Hall,  Roy Harper, despite all his hard bitten experience in some 50 years of gigging, found it hard to speak. From our position in the centre of the front row we could clearly see the tears running down his face.

Harper's an old soldier and he's been in a war over the last 3 years, having been accused in a historical sex case by a sole complainant. The jury threw out most of the allegations but couldn't decide on two. The judge gave the CPS 2 weeks to decide on a retrial but they took 6 months to drop the case. The complainant (I refuse to use the term "victim" in any of these situations unless there is proof the events actually happened) recalled Harper's bald head (it is now but it wasn't then) and his blue penis (!) Harper's partner from the time testified, not surprisingly, that it wasn't blue.

Three years is a long time to lose out of your career at any time, but especially difficult when you are in your 70s. And galling when you've released your first album in 13 years to critical acclaim, leading to the most positive publicity you have received in 40 years, plus a BBC Folk Awards lifetime achievement award, before the court case killed his profile and, potentially, his career and legacy.

Harper sensibly didn't mention or even directly allude to the case, but two songs acquired special meaning.  Hors D'Ouevres, which starts "The judge sits on his great assize..." (er, yes, of course that's a play on words about his backside) is about the way society is all too quick to condemn. It was originally written about music critics but it fitted the circumstances.

And Hangman, written from the perspective of an innocent man about to be hung, fitted even closer. Harper's mood had been light at the start, with quite a bit of laughter (er, maybe a small spliff beforehand? It would have been a large one back in the day). But he sang this song with passion and anger. You can see an amateur video of it here (our seats were much better!)

Harper is clearly not young or strong anymore, but he still sings and plays convincingly.

Backed by an eight piece mini-orchestra and a supplementary guitarist, the set was accomplished and included songs released from 1969 to 2013. I particularly liked the double bass player ditching her bow and giving it some skiffle style slap on "Don't You Grieve", Harper's intriguing (or blasphemous, depending on your viewpoint) take on "the gospel according to St Judas". (Harper has no time for religion in any form). You can see an amateur clip here. (Scroll down to Dave Whittaker's post on 14 September at 21:03). Here is Beth on the double bass (Roy on the right, Bill Shanley the left):

Harper eventually managed to say "I'll try to see you again" (I'll See You Again being another song in the set) before waving and looking back as he left the stage. I've seen him play at least 10 times - all good gigs - and humble isn't a word you'd use about him, but humbled is how he seemed looking at us all standing there giving it large. And speechless, which I've certainly never seen previously.

Before the court case Harper had mused that he might have 3 or 4 albums left in him. Only time can tell where we're going to, but maybe now he'll still get to make at least one of them.

Or even, as he suggested in response to a shout out, bring the 1969 song McGoohan's Blues out on tour : an 18 minute long piece from the album Folkejokeopus - that would be worth seeing.

Either way, Roy, the memories are dear and you've always made us think.

Thanks a lot Roy, man.

Footnote: Of course there are several barely concealed references to Roy's songs above.

January Man is about a 70 year old man trying to keep passion alive. It includes the lines "I lost control of my emotions in the oceans of your eyes" and "I lost control of my emotions in the notion of your grace, I lost control of my emotions - a tear ran down my face".  From the 2013 album Man and Myth, I think it rivals the work from his halcyon years in the late 60s to the mid 70s.

There are at least 4 others but I'll leave experts out there to spot them.

For a review of Roy's gig a few day's later at the Royal Festival Hall, by Opher Goodwin (author of 45 books) see here. "We feared we might have lost him for good. But we haven’t. Roy is still there delivering something unique and exceptional. Nobody does it better. Nobody has produced songs of such beauty and magnitude. This man is England’s finest! It is about time he is recognised as our foremost Singer-Songwriter – up there with the likes of Dylan and Cohen."