Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Pedal Power

About 18 months or so ago, when I was actually working, I had some health issues on a trip to Cyprus.  The flight from Vienna took just under three hours, immediately following an hour and half from Warsaw.  When we arrived at the gate at Larnaca, I stood up to disembark and there was a shooting pain through both hips and I collapsed in a heap.  It was very unpleasant, especially the tut-tutting and laughter from other passengers as they shoved their way past me to get off the plane.  I eventually managed to hobble off myself, collected my baggage and limped painfully out to my taxi.  I spent the rest of that day laying flat on my back at the hotel, waiting for the pain to subside and my joints start working again.

Over the next two weeks, while on the island, I had several similar attacks, and spent a lot of time knocking back painkillers and hobbling around groaning like an old man.  The bank people were exceedingly pissed off and complained about my absences, which I thought was a bit much, especially when our German PM seemed to side with them.

Anyway, I got through it, and on my return home went to see an orthopaedic specialist on my company health insurance.  He wiggled the joints around a bit - quite painful, that was - and sent me for full CT scan.  This revealed that both my hip joints are basically falling apart.  The damage isn't severe enough to warrant replacement surgery yet, and he explained to me what I needed to do to manage it.  Basically, knock back three tablets a day, and if I need to - say after a long flight - augment them with painkillers.  It seems to be working.

He also kindly gave me a letter confirming that my Economy Class flights need to be limited to 3 hours maximum - this came in very handy a couple of months later when my company insisted I flew to Santiago in Chile, and were forced, very reluctantly, to pay for Business Class flights (and very nice they were too).

The final thing Doctor Bones demanded was that I exercise more, to keep the joints active.  He recommended swimming daily and cycling as much as possible.  Now given that I swim like a rock, and have a lingering fear of water more than six feet deep (courtesy of three near-drownings when I was a kid), getting my bike out of storage seemed the best idea.

Now I learned to ride relatively late, at the age of 11.  I tend to do that a lot: I was 25 before I learned to swim (and to this day remain weak, even though despite my fears I do enjoy it - especially in warm seas), and 30 before I learned to drive and passed a test (this was through sheer laziness - all my mates drove and gave me lifts.  Having kids put paid to that).  I learned on this little kids bike that belonged to my mate's sister, and I managed 10 yards.  Thrilled, my mate ran to my house (about 200 yards away) and dragged my mum out to see - I proceeded to ride all the way to my front gate, where I fell off and cut my knee.  This, too, is typical.

So that Christmas, my parents bought me my first bike.  It was yellow and red and had a single gear.  But I spent hours playing around with it - altering the handlebar positions, covering it in bubble-gum stickers, taking the mudguards on and off......I loved it.  At the end of the summer term, the following July, my mate and I decided to cycle to school instead of catching the bus.  It seemed like a good idea at the time - even though school was a good 15 miles from where I lived, and worse, the ride was pretty much all uphill.  So I puffed along on my one-speed bike, struggling to keep up with Graham on his 5 speed racer.......  But we made it, and arrived to a hero's welcome at 9:45 (we had left a 7:15....).  Going home would be a blast, all downhill......  Then I remembered I had two bags full of books to lug home.  I slung them on the handlebars, and puffed off.....  Less than three miles in, I gave it up as a bad job.  My mum wasn't on the phone and didn't drive, so all I could do was abandon the bike and catch the bus.  As luck would have it, I was about 5 minutes ahead of the scheduled bus time at Bidborough, so persuaded the local garage owner to look after the bike overnight, and flagged down the school bus when it came along.  I got home safely, and travelled back the next morning, again by bus, to collect the bike.  The ride home, downhill in the July summer sunshine was indeed a blast.  The thing to remember here was that I was 12......can you imagine, in this day and age, a kid of such tender years being allowed to do such a thing?  Different times for sure - much less traffic on the roads, and hardly any nutters around: I don't think the word "paedophile" even existed.

I spent a great summer out on that bike, with my mates.  We went everywhere, most frequently the six miles or so to visit my elder sister and her kids, living in a very pretty little hamlet in the middle of the Kent countryside, surrounded by fragrant hop-fields and fruit farms, where we spent hours playing cowboys-and-indians, or War, and got sunburnt.  Wouldn't happen now of course - cowboys-and-indians is old hat, and the only War games worth a light are on PSP or something.  But they were happy and innocent days, and I treasure the memories.

I ran that bike for about three years, I think, and outgrew it.  Then my dad replaced it with a second hand racer.  It was red, with drop handlebars and 5 speed Derailieur gears and incredibly slim and fragile wheels - I seemed to get a puncture every other week.  By today's standards, it was heavy and old fashioned, but it was good enough for me - I loved it.  Over the next 8 or 9 years, I rode it into the ground.  I kept it pretty much until I got married although the last few years it was gathering dust in my mum's garden shed.  After my dad died when I was 19 and I discovered booze, I was too pissed most of the time to ride it, and then all my mates passed their driving tests and I started travelling cramped up in the back of smoke filled Minis and Hillman Imps and Riley Elfs (Elves?).  Besides, you could hardly turn up at the Beacon or Clouds discos, or the Wiremill Country Club on a push bike and expect to pull, could you?  I have no idea what happened to that old bike - I guess my mum gave it away eventually, after I got married and moved away to my own place.

That was it for a good few years, really until my kids were in their teens.  Then one year, I got a particularly good bonus at work, and spent it on mountain bikes for the whole family, a five-berth frame tent, all the cooking gear, sleeping bags, and roof and carrying racks for the car to carry it all,  One Friday in August, a hot sunny day, we loaded the lot onto my company car, a Montego 2.0 GTi estate in British Racing Green (very possibly the best car I've ever had), and at 4 the next morning we headed off to Cornwall for a two week camping holiday.  Despite the load (remember there were also five of us - two adults and three teenage boys - plus all the rest of the, clothes, footballs and the like) the drive was a pleasure and the car remarkably did over 100 mph on one stretch of the M5 - everyone else was asleep and I just couldn't resist giving it the welly.  We camped at a site just outside Portscatho, on the Roseland Peninsula, a lovely little fishing village we knew very well, having stayed there for several years in different apartments and cottages.  It's still one of my favourite places, and I have many happy memories from it.  I do wonder what it's like now - I haven't been there for a good twenty years - but at that time, the mid 90s, it was still small and undeveloped and there were many good beaches and secluded coves in the area that we used when the weather permitted (this being England and Cornwall rain was, shall we say, not unheard of even at the height of "summer").

The first few days were great, hot and sunny, and we hit the beaches - cycling to them of course.  Then on the Wednesday we were sitting on a beach, eating sandwiches after a swim, and spotted a black line on the horizon.  It grew and thickened, and rapidly turned into what were clearly storm clouds heading in our direction - but slowly.  We had another three or fours on the beach as planned, then headed back to the camp for dinner.  And the rain came.  It arrived shortly after we did, huge pebble sized drops that pounded on the canvas like bullets, accompanied by gusting winds, thunder and lightning.  Camping in Britain can be such fun.  And the rain continued, unabated, for the next three days, by the end of which were cold and fed up and everything we had with us was as waterlogged as the campsite.  The end came when I unzipped the sleeping compartment at 8 on a (still) wet Saturday morning, and saw a huge puddle in the middle of the groundsheet that was just turning into a stream and carrying with it out the doorway a plastic cup.  Water was dropping from several places in the tent roof like a bathroom shower.  Fuck it, time to go home.   We spent the rest of the morning packing everything up and loading the bikes onto the car, then gingerly I backed out of our pitch on to the stone-and-dirt site road (that was now running water like a woodland stream).  It was very difficult, and I came very close to getting bogged down in the mud where previously the car and tent had stood......the boys had to give me push at one point.  Another half hour and we would not have been able to get out at all.   It turned out that we had experienced the worst spell of weather in living memory - a month's worth of rain had fallen in 48 hours, followed over the next 24 hours by half of September's average.

I haven't camped since.  The tent was ruined and remained stored in the garage loft until I divorced and threw it out along with so much else as we cleared the family home.

But the bikes were fine, and continued to be used.

I gave mine away when I moved to Poland, and after a couple of years here, we bought new bikes.  This time I bought a state of the art Scott Mountain bike.  18 gears (that 8 years later still confuse the hell out of me!).  Heavy duty off road tyres.  I added a kid seat on mine, so I could take the babies for a ride.  For many years they were relatively little used, but over the past three or four years they've come out of the moth-balls and been hammered a bit.  Kuba got a bike so he can come along and Ally graduated to the baby seat, but now she too has her own bike and loves it (still on stabilisers, but she rides to school every day when the sun shines), so it's turning back into a family thing again.

I'm fortunate that in the Warsaw suburb where we live there is a big network of cycle paths (including one running past my front door) and ten minutes ride away is the forest on the southern edge of the city that has many miles of cycle paths in it too.  This means we can ride safely, without risking life and limb at the mercy of useless Warsaw drivers, who as bad as they are at least manage to distinguish between the road and the cycle path.  Mind you, some of the numpties on their bikes aren't much better - on the way to school there is a stretch of path that forms a little S-bend, part of which is obscured by overgrown bushes so that as you approach it from one direction it's blind.  Not that that stops some people - typically overweight blokes in lycra, shades and headphones - thrashing round the section at high speed with no consideration that anyone may be coming the other way.  I've not had a collision yet, but had a couple of close shaves - now I sound my bell as I approach (just in case it's a] heard, and b] listened to).  

This is something I've noticed on my frequent rides.  Most men of a certain age seem under the impression they are Bradley Wiggins, or Chis Hoy or someone.  They wear the lycra shorts, gaudy nylon "team"shirts, helmets and wraparound shades, and charge around as if they're on the Tour de France or something.  They're not: they're largely overweight, look stupid and are a danger to everyone else on the path.  Similarly, many drivers seem to believe they are Robert Kubica, and drive like they are competing in an F1 grand prix - not a good idea on the average ill-repaired and over-crowded Polish road.  Not that a single one will accept they are anything other than the best rider/driver in the history of the universe.  Delusional and dangerous.

But despite all that, I love getting on my bike.  Doctor Bones was right - it's doing my joints the power of good.  Very rarely now do I have the sort of pain and stiffness that I had increasingly for a number of years until I saw him and took his advice.  I've cut down on my cocktail of tablets, and feel much fitter all round.  I've lost weight (not a lot) too.....for the first time in years.

So if any of you are feeling a bit heavy, a bit stiff, a bit under the weather - to paraphrase Norman Tebbitt, get on yer bike.  It will do you the power of good!

Monday, 17 June 2013

The G8 Summit June 2013 - A Taxing issue

There are only two sure things in life: death and taxes.
                                                                    - Mark Twain (1835 - 1910

Smart bloke, Mark Twain.  Very wise.  And a great writer.

He said that over a hundred years ago, and taxes are as much a part of life as they ever were.  As universally disliked, and as universally contentious.  The only difference is that nowadays, there is more crap spoken on the subject than ever before.

Not a day goes by without another story appearing in the news about another tax evasion scandal.  Parliamentary committees in the UK and the US both roundly condemn massive companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft for setting up accounting and management structures to reduce their corporate tax liability.  The world's best footballer, Lionel Messi and his father, are accused by the Spanish government of setting up an offshore company to avoid paying tax on the twenty-one million euros worth of income from sales of his image rights.  Inevitably, fingers are pointed in the direction of bankers too - Stephen Hester, the CEO of publicly owned RBS NatWest resigns (possibly pushed) and receives a pay-off in excess of a million quid in salary, bonuses and stock options - much of it tax free.   Led by Obama, Cameron and Merkel (the Three Stooges) the G8 this week debates moves to outlaw tax havens like Jersey, the Isle of Man, the Caymans and others (I wonder if the State of Delaware, population 900,000 but with over a million companies registered, courtesy of exceptionally low corporation tax, will also be included on the hit list?  There is a single building there that is the registered address of - you'll love this - 280,000 companies!).

But here's the thing: in not one of those cases has anybody acted illegally.  So why the witch hunt?

First of all, no-one has so far been able to agree on definitions of tax evasion, tax avoidance and tax efficiency - all of which it seems to me are different things but lie at the crux of the matter.

Here's my take on it: a personal definition that may well be different from yours or anyone else's.  Tax avoidance means you are deliberately trying not to pay tax - for instance, you are working for cash-in-hand payment, not issuing any invoices for the work, and not declaring your earnings in your annual return.  Clearly illegal and immoral, although not at all uncommon: many tradesmen I have come across over the years, in the UK and elsewhere, do it as a matter of course, be they plumbers, electricians, printers or whatever.   In some respects, tax evasion amounts to the same thing - you're trying not to pay tax.  However, this seems to me more a case where you are a salaried employee who also receives expenses, and you falsify your tax returns (and almost certainly the amounts claimed as expenses) to misrepresent your earnings and thus reduce your tax burden.  Again, clearly illegal and immoral, and again very common.....I can think of a number of cases where, for instance, British MPs have charged consultancy fees and not declared them, or issued invoices in the name of their wife or pet dog.  Both of them, then, are fair game for criticism and pursuit by the appropriate authorities.

But tax efficiency is something else entirely, and this is where the waters get muddied.   Tax efficiency, in my book, means that you are quite prepared to pay tax according to the law of the land, but use perfectly legal means to reduce the amount you pay.  I see no immorality in this at all.  For instance, when I started travelling extensively in my job, I dutifully filled out my annual tax return.  One of the questions asked if I had worked outside of the UK during the tax year in question, and if so to provide details.  I did this, and the Revenue promptly classified me as a UK resident (since my home address and employer were in the UK) but non-resident for tax purposes, as it transpired that I had only worked in the UK for something like 90 days that year.  I was thus placed in a zero tax (exempt) band, and given a full rebate.  I queried it with some colleagues who were in the same boat, and found that many of them were in the same position and my payroll guys confirmed everything was legal and above board.  Normally in this situation, your tax liability falls with the country where you worked outside the UK, but invariably there is a caveat there: you have to be in that country more than 180 days to qualify.  So because of the nature of my job, I spent several years happily globe trotting, working my arse off and paying no UK tax, and never once spending the required amount of time in another country to qualify for their regime (and in all honesty, even had I done so my company were simply not geared up to help me pay elsewhere).  I continued to fill in my returns, accurately and on time, and the Revenue continued to zero-rate me.  All very efficient, and more to the point perfectly legal.  I know one guy, in an identical position, who used the extra cash to pay for a lavish wedding in Tuscany.  But I don't know of anyone who voluntarily paid the "missing" tax.

Here's another form of tax efficiency.  I'm now a tax payer in another EU country, and have been a for few years.  The situation here is different from the UK, in that when I'm on the payroll of a company registered in that country, I have to pay full tax in that country, even if 100% of the work is done offshore.  There is no such thing as zero rating as it was (and maybe still is) applied in the UK - so I happily paid my 45%.  Now however, as a sole trader my tax rate is pegged considerably below that and I can offset pretty much everything against that as a business expense.   Mobile phone bills, printer ink, petrol for the car, air fares, hotel bills, it can all be offset, provided I can produce an invoice for the commodity or service.  I understand there are similar provisions in the UK and elsewhere.  Again, I fail to see where the problem is in this: at the end of the day, surely it is the duty of every family man to ensure that his income is maximized to take care of his family without unduly burdening the state, and tax efficiencies such as these can make all the difference.

Now then, much of the criticism I have seen lately has been levelled against companies and individuals who have practiced perfectly legal tax efficiency measures.  Invariably there have been charges of greed, immorality, pariahs and so forth - all very unpleasant.  The label "super-rich" has been applied to most of the individuals who have been able to reduce their tax burden via offshore companies or whatever.  But hang on a minute - in 99% of cases, they have done absolutely nothing different to me, and I am certainly not super-rich....quite the opposite, in fact.  Despite all my tax-free years, I have no savings to fall back on, no offshore bank accounts.  But many people who are riding this particular bandwagon would consider me doubly evil, what with my banking background and history of (perfectly legal) tax efficiency.

At a corporate level, Google and Apple, in particular, have been the subject to the most appalling and virulent criticism over their tax affairs in both the UK Parliament and the US Congress.   The complaint, basically, is that despite earning billions of dollars profit, they have only (only!) paid tax in the low hundreds of millions.  They have done this by setting up off-shore subsidiaries in low tax countries (Ireland, for instance), and reporting the bulk of their profits in those jurisdictions, despite being US companies (where there is a more punitive tax regime).  Now that seems to me a very prudent course of action to take, especially when you consider that, as publicly traded and quoted companies, they are legally and duty bound to provide the best possible return to their shareholders.  It seems to me they have merely hit upon a perfectly legal way of doing exactly that, and if anything should be applauded.   Google, to their immense credit in my view, have responded to the criticism by pointing out that very fact, and further making it clear that they have complied with both the letter and the spirit of the law in each country - and stated that since politicians make those laws, it is up to them to change those laws.  In which case, Google will happily comply with whatever the politicians come up with.  Cue accusations from Labour and Republican politicians that the company is being "mealy mouthed and dishonest"....a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me.  But then, when have you ever heard of an honest politician, or for that matter one admitting to have been wrong?

The so-called tax havens seem to be getting together a co-ordinated front in meeting this onslaught of criticism, and quite right too.  Most tax havens (for want of a better title, and remember there is no internationally agreed definition of a "tax haven" either) are small countries with little in the way of natural wealth - no oil revenues, too small to be manufacturing or agricultural powers, often relying to a great extent on shipping and tourism to pay their way and keep their citizens gainfully employed.  So I fail to see the moral objection to them developing financial services industries that allow companies and individuals to retain more of their hard earned cash through tax efficiency measures, and in doing so support their exchequers.  This is not a new situation, it's been common for many many years, and some of the biggest companies in the world were using tax havens to improve their balance sheets (and hence shareholder dividends), and this was encouraged.  In the early 1980s, I worked for a massive American bank, at that time the biggest company of its kind in the world.  It had a highly complex corporate structure, with many subsidiary companies by business line and domicile, but the holding company, the one whose balance sheet determined the profits on which shareholder payouts and tax liabilities were calculated, was registered in - Delaware.  An evil tax haven, according to current thinking,   It was considered a tax haven then, too, but was perfectly respectable.  The bank in question endured no criticism from any political body, and was held up as a perfect example of all that was good about America and American business.  The chairman resigned in my first year to take up the position of Treasury Secretary in the first Reagan administration.  It was not alone, either - virtually every major bank on Wall street, and many other major companies in the US and elsewhere, were registered in Delaware for precisely the same tax efficiency reasons.  They still are.

Despite all the noise and hot air blowing around Westminster, Capitol Hill, the Bundestag and elsewhere, about doing away with these "immoral tax havens" so that the relevant governments can make sure that the companies and individuals who pay (let's not forget that there is a fee, often a steep one) to use these facilities, are also made "to pay their fair share" in taxes.  Okay, that's all very laudable....but what exactly is a fair share?  That for a start is one thing you are NEVER going to get agreement on - France for instance will always want higher tax revenues to support a bloated state employment sector than will the US, for whom free enterprise and small government are more de rigeur (and we'll leave aside the different interpretations that Democrats and Republicans put on that concept for now).

The only way you will ever get uniformity of taxes across the world is if you have a single tax-setting authority - like a global inland revenue service, if you will.  And that, sorry Mr.Cameron et all, will NEVER happen.  No country is going to sign away its sovereignty in that way.  The UK remains out of the Eurozone largely because it does not want "Brussels bureaucrats" or "German bankers" to run its finances (although it could be argued they already do).  Can you imagine a nation like Poland, proudly independent after 50 years under Communist oppression and now prospering under democracy, handing over its tax setting powers to those same civil servants in another country?  Nope, neither can I.  And what of India, where only 2% or so of its 12billion citizens actually pay any tax - even though many more should do so but simply don't bother  (and escape any sanction because the Indian civil service and justice systems are themselves too corrupt to pursue them)?  No chance.  There are many more example I'm sure.

So, then, it seems to me the G8 leaders, or the G20, or any other number you care to name, can waste millions of pounds, or euros, or dollars, of tax payer money, sitting around big tables in opulent surroundings and debate the subject until the cows come home - and it will make no difference.  There will continue to be countries that will be happy to remain low tax environments; there will continue to be a global financial services industry specializing in assisting its corporate and private customers to take perfectly legal advantage of those low tax environments; and of course there will always, but always, be customers prepared to take that advice and reduce their tax burdens, whether they be the Google's of this world or the Travellin' Bob's.

And that seems perfectly right to this tax payer, for whom the right of individual choice is paramount (provided those choices are legal and harm no one).

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Lunatics are running the Asylum.

I saw this week that the IMF have admitted to "mistakes" in their handling of the Greek debt crisis and admitted that they should have done more to arrange bail-out funds earlier than they did.  Of course, they made veiled criticism of the Greek government in their comment that "growth forecasts had been more optimistic" than they should have been - for which read, mind you our predictions were based on numbers provided by the Finance Minister in Athens. so it's still their fault not ours.

I'm sure the ordinary unemployed and skint Greek in the street was well chuffed with that.

The IMF, in the fragrant French person of Madame Lagarde, has also been calling for some relaxation in the austerity measures that her, and the IMF, have been forcing down everyone's throats for the last few years, on the basis that they have led to too many stagnant and recessive economies that are bad for the Eurozone  in particular and more generally the global recovery.

Quite right too....austerity measures will only get you so far in resolving the situation, as other countries in the world have realized and reacted on.  Austerity is fine to rein in unnecessary government spending, and tighten up the tax receipts, but sooner or later you come to a point where you simply can't cut any more without causing real harm, long term, to your economy.  Too long with half percent interest rates and next to no growth is certain, at some point, to deter entrepreneurs from starting businesses, lead to existing businesses reaching the position where they are not making enough profit to support their expenses (because sales are slowed to a standstill because Joe Punter is scared shitless to spend what savings he might have) so have to cut those expenses.....  Meaning branch closures and redundancies......and more people claiming benefits, supported by decreasing tax revenues.  Which means more austerity measures by the government to reduce costs - which will mean cuts to services like health care, and education, and infrastructure projects......and so the vicious circle continues.

The US has realized this and despite GOP objections Obama has introduced job creation measures and tax reforms aimed at inflating the economy - i.e. giving Joe Punter more dollars to spend.  It seems to be working.  The Japs have also gone to town, with the new PM introducing measures that essentially have the Bank of Japan printing money and giving it away so that Punter-san can rush out and buy the latest Samsung mobile or Toyota motor....a government-driven spending spree that will replace austerity with a projected 5% inflation, for multiple years probably.  And PM-san is quite relaxed about that, even happy.  China, India, Russia, Brazil and the other emerging market economies have basically said recession? What recession?  What's austerity anyway?  And carried right on producing and selling cheaply and inflating their economies by eight or nine percent (admittedly while leaving millions to live in poverty).

All of which means that while the rest of the world starts flourishing again, Europe remains stuck in a crisis of its own making, clinging stubbornly to a policy that is now beginning to fail miserably.  The IMF told the UK they really should boost public spending and job creation to drag its economy out of recession and into growth, or risk a further debt ratings cut from AA......  Cameron, the privately wealthy Old Etonian PM, and Osborne, another privately wealthy aristocrat and Chancellor of the Exchequer - neither of whom have done a real days' work in their lives - merely smiled smugly and politely insisted they would continue government policy.

As an aside here - take a look at Osborne's Wikipedia entry, and in particular his "work experience" prior to joining the Conservative party staff and entering parliament.  It says that, after leaving Oxford in 1992 with his shiny degree in Modern History, he did a bit of part time work as a "data entry clerk", a week at Selfridge's store "folding towels", then some freelance writing on the Daily Telegraph gossip column, before joining Central Office as an "advisor" to various departments including Agriculture.  He was also a speechwriter for John Major, apparently.  Now call me cynical, but how the fuck does that qualify him to be an elected Member of Parliament, representing (in theory) the best interests of his constituents, never mind the task of running the entire economy of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?  It is an absolute fucking scandal and says everything you need to know about the parlous state of the British political system that allows a couple of idiots who are barely qualified to wipe their own arses to run the entire country.  Ye Gods, I'm glad I'm not living in the UK any more or I would be sorely sorely tempted to do something extreme - like voting UKIP at the next election.

So anyway, in the UK the Lunatics running the Asylum are insisting that they will not change their policies, probably because they feel it would make them look stupid (which they are anyway).  But what about the other main players, the other Asylums across the Continent?

In Germany, the situation is a little more complicated because there is an election due this year.  Mrs. Merkel of course wants to win it and remain Chancellor, probably because she likes the company car and house and all the trimmings, and because it means she's the most powerful woman in Europe if not the world (that old German superiority complex again....).   So she's not going to do anything that is going to piss off Herr Punter and spoil her chances - and any relaxation of austerity measures across the Eurozone could mean that Germany, as the biggest and richest economy, might have to dip into its pockets again to fund somebody else's spending spree.  Which would piss off Herr Punter very much.  So the lady's not for turning, but for different reasons than the Divine Maggie.

France is struggling with its own austerity program.  Hollande would love to scrap it and start spending his way to prosperity, as he said he would to get elected last year, but realpolitik prevents him doing that because it would piss off the Germans.  Italy is a basket case, and really hasn't a clue what to do - it can't even form a stable government, never mind one that can figure out whether to continue with austerity or start reflating.  Spain, Portugal and Ireland are basically broke and don't have any choice in the matter anyway - they have bail out funds to repay sooner rather than later, so can't afford to piss off the Germans either, just in case they need to borrow some more.

It's a mess really.  And for once, (whisper it.....) it's NOT the fault of Public Enemy No.1, the bankers.  No, they are being hammered just as much by the austerity measures as anyone else.  I know that from bitter experience over the last few months.  My old company sells software to banks and banks alone - it has no product lines in other industries at all.  It's a one-trick pony.   For the last few years, it has hardly made a single sale in Europe, because banks simply will not spend the money on a new system costing several tens of millions of pounds when they are so much in the spotlight over (allegedly) mishandling customer funds, miss-selling products to customers not competent to understand that product, false accounting, money laundering and God knows what else.  So my old company had to save money to prop up its own share price - so it closed a number of offices, and fired several hundred people.  Me included.  And it's still doing so.  And that in turn means that the contract market, the obvious next step for someone in my position, is flooded with potential contractors with not enough work to go around.  It depresses rates, and, worse, makes it next to impossible to find something else.  I can't see anything changing until austerity becomes a thing of the past and banks start spending again.  Whenever that might be....

No, this mess is wholly and completely down to politicians, many of whom (like the Two Ronnies - Cameron and Osborne) have never done an honest days' work in their lives and are as out of touch with Joe Punter's real life and needs as a Martian or visitor from the planet Zog would be, making decisions about austerity or inflation as a policy matter....for which they have absolutely no qualification whatsoever.

A final sobering thought.  The last British prime minister, as far as I can remember, who had a recognizable career before parliament, was John Major, twenty-odd years ago, who was a senior treasury manager at Standard Chartered.  It qualified him as Chancellor more than Osborne could ever dream of.....but as a Prime Minister - well, I'm sure you can all remember how that turned out. 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Return of Travellin Bob

So another month and half has gone by since my paean to Jeremy Clarkson hit the web and was (rightly) ignored by all bar 6 people (whoever you are, I admire you and thank you for your perseverance).   And not a lot has changed, or indeed happened.

I'm still at home, wondering where the next job will come from and becoming increasingly pissed off with the frankly ill-mannered way that recruiting now seems to be done in this web enabled age.  I used to work in the recruitment industry, many moons ago, back in the glory days of the Divine Maggie, and as I've fallen in and out of work over the years I've been through the mill a number of times, so I do think I know what I'm on about.  And I can say without a shadow of doubt an industry that has always been a little, shall we say, loose with the truth has become even more shambolic and (dare I say it) dishonest.

Back in my day, when I worked for a little agency near Liverpool Street station, we consultants - all four of us - split our time more or less evenly between calling all our industry contacts drumming up positions to fill, drafting up our ads to be placed in the wide range of freebie magazines dished out at all the mainline and tube stations that were the best source of applicants (everyone, but everyone, picked up at least one copy a week), and then vetting the deluge of CVs and interview the pick of the applicants.  We also had people walk through the doors sometimes, on the off-chance of finding something.   Very very occasionally, if we were short of applicants, we would invent a job just to drum up more CVs, but that was not something we did lightly nor often.  One thing we always did, however, was return phone calls.

Now what happens?  Well, all the agencies use the web to post jobs and get CVs in, and there are a whole load of sites out there that collate jobs from various sources, sort them and re-direct your attention to specific agencies, automatically re-routing your application mail.  All very efficient......until you try to follow up your application personally.  Then the fun begins.  I've lost count of the number of potential jobs that have come my way via Jobserve (for instance), - probably 4 or 5 day - and lost track too of the ones that were actually relevant and applied for.  What I do know is that the vast majority of them have produced not even an acknowledgement of my existence, never mind a vague discussion or (God forbid) an interview.   So the CV goes off, I give it a day or two (no more) and call the agency, just to make sure the thing arrived, is there any interest, blah blah blah.  The brush off - she's in a meeting, he's on another call, he's off sick.  OK, here's my number, can you ask him to call when he's free.  And ninety nine times out of a hundred that's it.  Never hear from them again.

I applied for one a week or so ago, that from the job description was tailor made - they wanted exactly my banking background, they wanted my IT and consultancy experience.....not just some of it, but to a T.  I applied.  Called in two days later.  And again after three.  Finally got to speak to the bloke.  He at first denied receiving the CV, then when I pushed it found it on his system - and immediately said it doesn't fit the job profile.  I asked him why.  "Well, you worked for years at the Bank of Poland...."  Oops....big time mistake, you can't even read, fuckwit.  I pointed out this wasn't actually the case, and politely suggested (biting my tongue all the while) that he had another read through.  "I don't need to," says Jack the Lad, "I've been doing this for four years...."   What I felt like saying was, hang on a minute - I've been a BA for three times as long as that, and working in the banking and finance industry for probably longer than you have existed, you poisonous little toerag, so don't gave me that bullshit, and do your job properly.....  What I actually said was - nothing.  Bugger all.  There was no point, because the snivelling little cretin wouldn't have listened or changed his mind anyway.  I gave up and cut the connection.

Sadly that seems to be par for the course.  It's soul destroying, really.....

What's also soul destroying is the way your mates, people who you've traveled with, shared hotel bars and airport lounges with, frequently helped and supported in all kinds of ways, suddenly disappear.  Calls to their mobiles cut straight to Voicemail.  Text messages and e-mails go unanswered.   Those that do bother to respond usually pledge their help and say they'll let you know if they hear about anything - but they somehow never seem to hear of anything quickly enough, and by the time the word of this project or that opening reaches your straining ears, via an increasingly inefficient grapevine, and you apply - it's already gone to someone else (who as often as not is less well qualified).  Unemployment definitely clarifies who your real friends are, that's for sure.....

So my days are spent trawling the internet for openings, keeping in touch with old acquaintances (who I actually thought were mates....) to try and rustle something up, swapping leads and gossip with the handful of real mates about possibilities (it's interesting that my closest mates now seem to be in the same position as me and those still in work are reduced to mere acquaintances).  And reading news items and stuff from an assortment of on-line journals and news sources, in an attempt to stay abreast with what's going on in my workspace.  And reading various books.  And of course watching a bit (not a lot) of tv.  Doing the school run with my kids (sometimes, now the weather has improved) on the bikes, which is nice.  Ironing.  Cooking.  Gazing wistfully at outgoing aircraft from the nearby airport.......

I should really write more - it's not as if I don't have the time nowadays.  This blog for a start - I've neglected it for a while now, sorry about that.  I should finish the task of revising The Match, my long-written but unpublished novel about sex and booze and football.  I should start writing my autobiography - not for publication, probably, but more for the benefit of my kids and their (eventual) kids, just to remind them of their heritage and show them perhaps what the world was like when their old man was a nipper, because it's what made their old man the old man he was....and that's in their genes, too.  That could be fun......

But it's finding can I put it?.....the oomph to actually get started.  To get those creative juices surging again.  To drag from somewhere the sheer energy to do something about it (I've noticed that the more time I'm at home with nothing to do, the less energy I seem to have and the more I seem to want to's a paradox.  My doctor told me earlier this year that for a man of 60 I have the physical body and well-being of a man of 40, which cheered me up no end.  Now sometimes I feel like I'm a 60 year old man going on 80..... It's not nice.)

So here is a New Years Resolution (ok, I know it's June 6 - so I'm a bit late.....).

I WILL finish The Match.  I WILL start on My Life.  I WILL blog more often.

Well, better get started then.....