Thursday, 25 August 2011

Random Thoughts

                               Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Consensual (but hurried) Sex

The case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is dismissed. DSK, as Strauss-Kahn is widely known in his native France, is let out of jail, literally and figuratively. The Manhattan prosecutors did not feel comfortable about going ahead with the prosecution as they had serious concerns about the credibility of Nafissatou Diallo, the woman at the centre of the sex scandal that cost Stauss-Kahn his job as the head of the IMF.

‘Our inability to believe the complainant beyond a reasonable doubt,’ said the Assistant District Attorney, the exotically named Joan (this is not the exotic part) Illuzzi-Orbon, as she formally recommended that the case be dismissed, ‘means, in good faith, that we could not ask the jury to do that.’

The much talked about DNA evidence, in the end, was ‘simply inconclusive’ according to prosecution lawyers, as all it confirmed was that ‘a hurried sexual encounter’ took place between Strauss-Kahn and Diallo.

Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer did not deny that he had had sex with the hotel maid (but maintained that it was consensual), which may well have been hurried sandwiched as it was between Strauss-Kahn phoning his millionaire wife (probably telling her how he missed her) and meeting with his daughter before he flew off to Europe to solve the weightier problems of world economy (where one hoped his brain and not his penis would do the thinking).

Diallo’s accusation that she was held hostage and was forced to have sex by the about-to-be-ex chief of the IMF suffered a serious blow when it was revealed that she had lied in her asylum application about being raped by soldiers in her native Guinea. She also changed her account of her activities after her encounter with Strauss-Kahn: initially she said that she ran out of the room and hid in the stair-well until the (alleged) rapist left. She changed this account subsequently and claimed that she went to the next room, cleaned it, and after that actually returned to Strauss-Kahn's room (where she claimed to have been held hostage and forced to perform sexual acts against her will, which made her cry non-stop for the next one month and gave nightmares) and cleaned it as well!. While one may applaud the maid's courage in returning to the scene of crime (as it were) as also her work ethics (not letting anything come in the way of her job), one doesn't have to be a hot-shot lawyer to figure out that this somewhat weakened her case. Finally, Diallo was also captured on tape, talking to a friend (who has had more jail sentences than you and I have had hot meals), and saying, ‘he [Strauss-Kahn] has a lot of money and I know what to do.’ This was refuted by Diallo’s lawyer, one Kenneth Thompson, who was mightily pissed off that the prosecution decided to drop all the charges against the Frenchman, although whether that was on account of the maid being denied justice (or his version of it) or he being denied fifteen minutes of fame (had the charges been pressed) was unclear. What was Thompson’s explanation? It was an error in translating the taped conversation. Diallo spoke in her native dialect called Fulani, which, we were invited to believe, is ‘one of the most complex in the world’. So what was Diallo saying to the jailbird? Thompson would have us believe that what the maid said was: ‘A man tried to rape me at my job. I did not know who he was.’ Quite how this sentence, even when spoken in one of the ‘most complex’ dialects in the world can be translated as ‘he [Strauss-Kahn] has a lot of money and I know what to do’ is beyond me (although on occasions I have come across instances when similar mistakes have been made even when both parties are speaking English, as in case of an erstwhile friend from my university days who was convinced that any woman who smiled at him and wished him  good morning (or afternoon of evening) was inviting him for a session of hot sex). If you believe that then (paraphrasing Harry S Truman) I am Hottentot. 

The truth of what really happened between Strauss-Kahn and Diallo in the luxury suit of the Manhattan hotel will never be known, as, at the end of the day, it is one person’s word against another’s. When Diallo claimed that Strauss-Kahn forced her to give him a blow-job she might have been telling the truth, or she might not. The point is: when you have a history of repeated lying for personal gains you are less likely to be believed when you make these accusations.  

It was also interesting to see the battle-lines being drawn along the racial lines. When Diallo decided to go public with her story (an indication, if any, that the case was going to be dismissed and her team had advised her—ill-advisedly—that she should come out all guns blazing, as it were, to destroy what remained of Strauss-Kahn’s reputation), she was flanked by an assortment of Blacks—the self proclaimed leaders, activists, lawyers, they all came out of the woodwork and flanked Diallo as she gave a public account of her side of the story, throwing, for good measure, accusations about race and politics. That was—as I told an ex after she broke three of my Queens CDs when we broke up—unnecessary.

So Strauss-Kahn has walked free, but it would be fair to assume that his political career is over. The man who was widely tipped to beat Nicholas Sarcozy in the French presidential election next year before the sex scandal exploded in his face, will wonder where it went wrong for him. He may even wonder whether it was the conspiracy of his political opponents (was it Sarcozy?. .  . no it must have been Putin, . . . wait a minute, it must be right wing nutters in the USA, and so on and so forth). However, if he is honest to himself—and he might not dare to be—he would realise that the thing that put paid to his presidential ambition was his insatiable libido. In vulgate:  if you take your d**k out when it should be in the trousers, sooner or later you will land in merde.

As for Diallo, she should take heart from at least one comment of the prosecution. ‘Diallo,’ the prosecution said had ‘ability to present fiction as fact with complete conviction.’ How about a career as a novelist (although, if she is going to write in her native Fulani she should hire a better translator)?

                                  Eurozone Debt Crisis: We haven't See the Worst

I heard a stand-up comedian, a German stand-up comedian, no less, who makes a living in the UK, on Radio 4 the other day. He said that many Brits were going to Greece for holidays, purportedly to help the Greek economy. His advice? It is pointless going to Greece; the tourists should go to Germany as it is the Germans who are pouring money into what everyone knows is a lost cause. 

Trying to bring moribund economies of countries like Greece and Ireland is like bringing a corpse back to life. It has not been known to happen. Surely, the sensible thing to do is to accept that the case is hopeless, declare that the patient is dead, make funeral arrangements, and pick up the pieces of what is left of your life.

Anyone with more than a dozen functioning neurones would have seen that the Greeks and the Irish couldn't possibly live with the same currency as the Germans; they were never going to make up the yawning productivity gaps between them and the Germans. The Greeks probably managed to gain entry to Euro in the first place by fiddling their accounts.

The pillars that supported the Eurozone as a monetary entity were made of clay, and it should come as no surprise to anyone with a modicum of interest in the financial affairs of the world that it is all collapsing.

The Greeks (and the Irish and the Portuguese and the Italians and the Spanish) either don’t earn enough or they spend too much. Either way they are a burden which the Germans—by that I mean the German public and not the politicians—may not be prepared to bear for much longer.  (And before we Brits wrinkle our uppity noses at the Greeks, we would be well advised to take notice of what Ratan Tata, the chairman of the India-based Tata Group, which now owns the Jaguar and Land Rover, thought of the British work ethics. Tata, who flew to Britain for meetings, was unimpressed by the British managers who, he felt, did not compare favourably with their Indian counterparts. ‘It’s a work ethics issue,’ Tata was reported as saying, ‘no body is willing to go the extra mile, nobody.’ He was unhappy to see the employees leaving the work place even before their bosses; he felt they were lazy. We might make snide remarks about how Europe is different from India and how we work here differently from the sweat shops of India, but the truth is Tata is proposing to close some of the plants in Britain, which means thousands of jobs will go. And can you blame him? As Tata remarked, ‘When you are in crisis, if it means working till midnight, you’ll do it’, not clock off at 4.30 on a Friday to meet with your mates for a pint.)

The German (and the French) politicians have characteristically opted for the fudgy approach which, one might argue, is not dissimilar to how the Americans deal with the Indian reservations or the Australians with the Aboriginals—bunch of people that is never going to be productive and forever going to be dependent on the state largesse for survival.

This may be an acceptable solution to the politicians but it may not be acceptable to the German public. A time will come when the Germans will be faced with another decision time—are they going to bail out the Italians and the Spanish? Given the eye-watering levels of Italy’s public debt and the impossible demands it will put on the budget simply to refinance the debt, that day won’t be far.

It would be erroneous to dismiss the recent plummeting of the stock-markets (all the shares in my virtual portfolio have taken a hammering—what more proof do I need that times— they are a-changing, and not in a way I approve?) as the irrational behaviour of the markets. If one goes by the historical behaviours of the markets and their links to world economies, then one would have to conclude that stock-markets antedate the changes in the economies; in which case what is in store six to eight months down the line is not nice.

The world went into recession three years ago (in defiance of Gordon Brown’s assertion that he had personally abolished the boom and bust cycles). The hope that the recovery would be V shaped (rapid ascent out of recession) soon gave way to the realisation that it may be W shaped. Now, even the prediction of W shaped recovery seems overoptimistic and looks like the recovery is going to be L shaped—we are going to spend prolonged period in the trough.

The Eurozone crisis will not go away. We did not really sort out all that crap the first time round; we just kicked it high up in the air; and now it’s falling again on our heads.

Posterity may well mark this as the period when the balance of power began to shift away from the West tot the East.      

Monday, 15 August 2011

London Riots, David Starkey and Racist Britain

‘Did you watch the Newsnight yesterday?’ John asked me. We were in a bistro of a railway station near John’s village, where I was visiting him last weekend. (Before you wrinkle your noses, let me tell you that the bistro came very highly recommended (OK, by John; and OK, primarily because it was cheap, but not only because of that; it was what I have often heard people describe as ‘good value for money’) for its selection of cakes.)

‘No, I didn’t. Should I have?’ I asked, examining the menu on the blackboard. My attention was immediately caught by the lemon drizzle cake, Victoria sponge cake, and ‘rich’ fruit cake.

‘David Starkey was on it and he created quite a kerfuffle,’ John said.

‘The gay historian?’

‘The very same, although I don’t know why you are bringing up his sexuality. You could have simply said historian,’ John said.

‘I have not used it as a term of abuse; it was a mere identifier in my mind,’ I said.

‘Do you happen to know another David Starkey who is also a historian but is not gay?’ John asked.

(This might be a good time to tell you something about John. He loves to argue and derives enormous pleasure from scoring petty points. He also likes to take a contrary position in an argument, and does not concern himself with trifles such as consistency and logic. Depending on my frame of mind, I find this tendency of his quaintly entertaining or maddeningly irritating. It sometimes has the effect of him getting sidetracked into non-essentials. It also means that in an argument it is difficult to pin him down to anything. One moment he is bawling about the genocide perpetrated by the Israeli forces in Gaza, the next minute he is berating you for calling the Chinese Asians. Woolly thinking is what I call it.)

‘I might as well ask you what the kerfuffle was about,’ I said, ‘I can see that you are itching to tell me.’

John then told me what the kerfuffle was about. I was informed that David Starkey was one of the panellists on Newsnight, along with another bloke called Owen Jones who has written a book about Chavs (but not, I was told, ridiculing them; the book is a passionate defence of the chavs and their chavy lifestyle; we are urged to understand why they are chavs and why they do chavy things; and we are pressed to feel guilty about it, as it is clearly the fault of non-chavs why chavs are chavs). In the programme Starkey said that Whites have become Blacks and—this is important to remember—not in an admiring way. He then spoke about the gang culture imported from the USA and the patois favoured by that sub-culture, which apparently is spoken by both Black and White youths who admire and imitate the violent subculture, according to Starkey; or as conveyed to me by John.

‘OK,’ I said. ‘Are you saying; rather is Starkey saying; no that’s not strictly correct either; do you think Starkey is saying: it is bad enough that the Blacks are imitating the violent gun-totting subculture, but things have come to a very sorry pass if the Whites too are succumbing to that culture?’

‘You are missing the point,’ John said.

‘And the point is?’

‘Starkey is not racist.’ John said in a tone that suggested his patience was running out.

‘But I never called Starkey racist. I called him gay,’ I said.

‘But others are calling him that,’ John persisted. ‘That’s a bit rich coming from the champagne socialists who wouldn’t know a working class person if he slapped them in the face. They live in their posh houses in Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath, are privately educated, and go to Oxbridge. They do not care a jot about the working class or the Blacks, but are the first to get on their moral high-horse and wag their fingers when someone has the courage to say the obvious. Stop staring at her.’

The ‘her’ in question was a young waitress in the bistro with an ass of a size and shape you could have placed your lap-top on without any danger of it toppling. It was clear as daylight that her panties, from the panty-line visible from under her tight skirt, were totally inadequate to cover her glutei.

‘Would you agree,’ I asked John, ‘that men find visible panty-lines sexually arousing? If you do, would include yourself in the group of panty-liners-aroused men?’

‘What are you on about?’

I nodded in the direction of the derriere of the waitress who happened to be bending at that minute.

‘You pervert,’ John said. ‘She is young enough to be your daughter.’

‘Firstly, she looks to me to be in her early 20s. Which means I would have had to be fifteen when I fathered her, ‘I said. ‘Secondly, you have got to admit that it is very difficult not to notice an ass that size when it is moving about in the room. It is not as if you seek it out; it seeks you out. Thirdly, if Rupert Murdoch can marry a woman who is younger than his grandchildren, why can’t I look at the ass of waitress in a bistro? It’s not as if there is a lot to entertain me here. It’s either that or listening to you.’

‘But what do you think?’ John asked me.

‘About what?’

‘Starkey’s comments on the Newsnight you numbskull!’

‘Well,’ I chose my words carefully, ‘not having watched the original programme and having to depend on the notoriously unreliable witness such as you, I am not at all sure I can form a definite view about it. However, taking everything you have reported at its face value, this Starkey bloke was making sweeping generalizations.’

‘But was he wrong?’

‘In my experience sweeping generalizations often turn out to be incorrect.’

‘You can’t deny,’ John said ‘that in many youths belonging to the Afro-Caribbean community, violence is a way of life. The proportion of children growing up in single- parent families is disproportionately high in that community. You can’t deny that children growing up in two-parents families are more likely to achieve better grades in schools and less likely to turn to a life of crime.’

‘You keep on telling me what I can’t deny, when you must know that I can deny. What you mean is: I would be, in your opinion, wrong to deny whatever it is, in your view, I am denying,’ I felt I needed to clarify the semantics.

‘So you don’t deny?’ John asked.

‘I am not saying that either. I don’t have to deny anything because a) I have not said anything either in support or against what you said with regard to Afro-Caribbean community; and b) I neither agree nor disagree with your observations because I have better things to do than forming my views about sections of the society from television programmes on which historians with a screw loose make controversial statements,’ I said.

‘Controversial does not mean wrong, though,’ John said.

Just then the waitress came to take our orders. My initial impression was that her breasts were perhaps not fuller but were of wide diameter and occupied considerable space on the chest wall. Down below one could sense the dark hollow of a deep naval. The young woman had a kind of provincial charm about her. As I looked at her bovine face, looking expectantly back at me, I could see the trajectory of her life which, in fullness of time, would take her from waiting at the station bistro to working in the kitchens of the local primary school; she would marry her childhood sweetheart who worked in the building trade, and produce 2-3 children along the way. I could just about see her taking her clothes off in 20 years’ time for a charity calendar—by that time one could safely assume her ass would have reached the dimensions that would easily support a desk top —but I could not see her going out rioting and putting a brick through a police vehicle.

‘You have such mouth-watering selection of cakes. I can’t make up my mind. What would you recommend?’ I asked the waitress.

The waitress reacted to the question as if her whole life up to then was but a wait for this moment.

‘I personally think the Victoria sponge cake is simply out of this world . . .’ (So is your ass, I thought) ‘. . . but the lemon drizzle cake is very yummy too.’

‘What about the rich fruit cake?’ I asked. ‘That looks delicious.’

‘Oh! That is very yummy.’ It was clear that the woman’s repertoire when it came to describing the edibility and desirability of cakes was somewhat limited. But then, if she had access to the kind of verbal fusillade David Starkey has she wouldn’t be serving cakes in a bistro of a provincial railway station.

‘What about the prune and date pie?’ I asked.

The waitress turned and looked at the pie. 'That is . . .' she paused to think. '.  . . Very yummy,’ she concluded.

‘They are all yummy, for Pete’s sake! Just order one of them. Tea for me.’ This was John.

‘What would you have, if you were ordering?’ I asked the waitress.

‘Oh . . .’ the waitress turned her head to the ceiling, pushed forth her chest, and inhaled deeply, the excitement of choosing between several cakes evidently being too much to bear . . . ‘they are all so yummy. I would eat all of them.’

‘I bet you would,’ I said, smiling.

‘Lemon drizzle cake for him,’ John intervened.

The waitress looked at me with questioningly.

‘Go on then,’ I said.

‘That’s one tea and a lemon drizzle cake. Would you like anything to drink, sir?’

‘How is your hot chocolate?’

‘It’s very yummy,’ the waitress said.

‘I see. Is it the type you get by inserting a sachet in the machine?’

The waitress became thoughtful. ‘I think,’ she said chewing on her pen, ‘it is machine-made, but I could check.’

‘Would you? Please?’

‘No problem, sir,’ the waitress said with a broad smile revealing a charming gap between her front teeth.

‘Oh for f**k’s sake! Tea for him,’ John said.

The waitress looked at me with raised eyebrows and shrugged her shoulder, a gesture I felt she should forego given what it did to the fleshy pouch under her chin. She then turned round and rolling her hips walked towards the kitchen.

‘If you have finished ogling at her,’ John continued petulantly, ‘can you tell me what is wrong about being controversial?’

‘Sorry. Are we still on the David Starkey business?’


‘Nothing wrong about being controversial, per se,’ I said. ‘But if you are going to say something which flies in the face of what everyone else thinks, or any sane person, at any rate, thinks, you should be prepared to take the flak.’

‘I don’t think there was anything racist in what Starkey said,’ John said.

‘My point stands,’ I said. ‘I was talking about sane persons.’

‘This is the problem with today’s Britain,’ John was getting a bit agitated now. From the corner of my eyes I saw a big group of locals entering the bistro, including an old man who was walking so slowly and gingerly, leaning on his Zimmer frame, that there was a possibility, I thought, that his heart would give out before he reached the table.

‘Would you not say that being brought up by both your parents is far more preferable to being brought up by a single parent? The problem with many Afro-Caribbean households is the absence of a father figure. A single mother is going to have difficulties in restraining a 16 year old boy intent on going out and creating trouble.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that depends. In the households where you say the father is absent, it may be that in a significant proportion of cases the father is absent because he is in jail. In which case it might be argued that it is actually a good thing that the father is not around; he couldn’t be a good influence on the child. Also, you can’t deny that there are certain advantages of having children you haven’t brought up.’

‘What might they be?’

‘Well, if you are not involved in their upbringing, you don’t have to blame yourself for how they turn up. Also, you won’t be first person they will run to when they are in trouble.’

‘You have a genius for missing the point,’ John said, shaking his head.

‘You were the one going on about single-parent families in the Afro-Caribbean community being responsible for the London riots,’ I pointed out.

‘The point I am trying to make, which you are so diligently avoiding,’ John said, pressing his palms in front of him, as if squeezing them for inspiration, ‘is: a culture of violence, a culture that does not value anything, has become prevalent in certain sections of our society.’ He flicked open his android and continued: ‘Starkey was bang on target:

“a violent, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion. And black and white, boy and girl, operate in this language together, this language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that’s been intruded in England, and this is why so many of us have this sense of literally a foreign country.

Tell me what is wrong with what Starkey said?’

I took the android from John. ‘Here,’ I said, 'is what is wrong with what Starkey said. He says:

“What’s happened is that a substantial section of the chavs . . . have become black. The whites have become black."' 

John looked a bit shifty. ‘Starkey is not a politician. He does not have to be politically correct all the time. He does not have to pander to the sentiments of everyone.’

‘Agreed. But there is a difference between being politically incorrect and being plain wrong and obnoxious. If you read what he says in totality what he seems to be saying that the ‘gangster, nihilistic culture' is some sort of deadly viral disease which the oh-so-good Whites have caught from the despicable Blacks. If only these criminal Blacks were not amongst us to corrupt the White youth, things would be all right. That’s what he is implying. Which sounds like total bollocks to me.’

‘Are you suggesting that the gangster, gun culture with its lingo was not imported into this country by Blacks? OK not all of them, but by a subsection of them. Indeed Starkey clarifies what he means by Whites have become Black. Only the blinkered lefties would not see it.’

‘So what exactly is your or Starkey’s point? Even if what he is saying is true, the question, which he neglects to answer, is: why has a subsection of Blacks begun identifying with that culture? And why have the Whites—or a sub-section of them—begun to feel attracted towards it? Also, I am not sure that everyone involved in these riots, in all the cities and towns where the riots took place, was a member of the gangster culture. Not all thugs and criminals play gangster rap and speak in Jamaican patois.’

The waitress returned carrying on a tray tea and lemon drizzle cake. ‘Here we go,’ she said, putting the tray on the table. Enjoy your pudding.’ She straightened up. ‘Is there anything you’d need?’ Yes, I'd need to dip my spoon in your pudding and waggle it about. I tried to steer away my thoughts from sex. ‘That looks delicious, thank you.’ She gave me her gap-toothed smile again and, walked away, her behind shivering.

‘How do natives in these parts entertain themselves?’ I asked turning towards John. ‘I mean, there can’t be much going on here to keep them occupied constructively all of the time. The pleasures of bestiality or injecting each other with pig serum ought to wear thin after a while. It has got to be sex in the loft of the barn, rolling about in hay.’

John gave no indication that he had heard me. ‘I would much rather listen to Starkey than to that hypocritical bitch Emily Maitlis. What has she got common with the people of Croydon? Has she gone even a mile south to the river? When I was in Cambridge, I did not meet anyone who spoke in a Croydon accent?’ He said.   

John grew up in Croydon, and although he no longer lives there—because like anyone who had any capacity he got the hell out of Croydon at the earliest opportunity—he feels a special bond towards Croydon, although it is difficult for me to fathom whether he has nostalgia for the place itself or for the people who live there.

‘Emily Maitlis may not have anything common with people of Croydon, but neither does David Starkey. At least she does not demonise people of Croydon or the Brothers. And you did not hear anyone with Croydon accent in Cambridge because most of them think University and education are towns in India which they have no desire to visit. And the few like you who did, hid the accent because they were ashamed of it. Nothing wrong in that; I'd be ashamed of that accent. Finally, I ask you this question, and think carefully before you answer: whom would you rather have sex with given a chance: Maitlis or Starkey?’

‘If you could pull your mind away from sex, difficult as it is for you, you would be astonished to know that the BBC did not send a single reporter to Croydon while it burned. They sent 437 reporters to Beijing Olympics, but not a single reporter bothered to take a mini-cab to go to Croydon when streets were being razed and even the police were running for cover. If you ask me why the riots occurred, I’d say that because no one cares about Croydon,’ John finished with a theatrical flourish.

‘May be no mini-cab driver was prepared to drive down to Croydon; have you considered that possibility? It would have to be a suicidal mini-cab driver to agree to drive to Croydon. Also, given a choice where would you rather be: Beijing where China was hosting the greatest show on earth; or Croydon which is a shithole? Seems like a no-brainer to me. I wouldn’t go to Croydon even when there are no riots—why, you got out of it at the first opportunity—I am not going to risk my neck when gun totting gangsters speaking Jamaican patois are marauding through the city centre, although I should clarify that it is the guns and not the patois that frighten me. Also, I don’t think that the looters were going round Croydon thinking ‘the BBC doesn’t care about us; I know what I am going to do; I am going to set high-street shops on fire; only then the world will know about the unbearable pain of my existence.’ They were going round the high street thinking ‘I am going to take home a plasma screen and not going to pay for it.’

‘So that’s your take on it? The rioters were looters, full stop. You don’t feel the need to figure out how things have come to this pass in our society?’ John asked.

‘The rioters were looters. This was not a political movement; there was no civil disorder. These guys—I use the word guys in a gender neutral way; it is possible that there were many women amongst the looters—were simply out to create trouble, cause mayhem, and help themselves to that which they did not have but fervently desired. They could not afford it, so they looted it opportunistically. It was greed.’

‘And what is your solution?’

‘I don’t have a solution. I am not a politician or a charity-mugger or an academic or a gay historian. I don’t need to come up with a solution. In any case, there is no solution. This country is going to the dogs and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I’d rather spend such time as is left thinking about that big-assed waitress, talking of whom I think you should tip her generously.’

‘Why the f**k should I tip her? You were the one ogling at her fat t*ts.’

‘I thought you were the one who cared about the working classes. She may even have a family in Croydon.’

‘Not enough to give her a tip,’ John said; and we got up to leave the bistro.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Markets in Turmoil

Until very recently I had no interest in the stock market. A friend of mine who has read rather a lot of Warren Buffet than I think is good for his health kindled my interest in shares.

It is an academic interest only, as, at this stage, because of my special circumstances (I am skint) I do not have the capital to invest in stocks.

Which means that I am likely to miss out on the opportunity of buying shares and investment trusts at what I have heard some pundits describe as basement bargain price. 

With the global turmoil several billion pounds have been wiped out of stock market, as investors have been selling in a panic. This apparently is exactly the time when a clever investor with intestinal fortitude (and obviously access to cash) goes on a buying spree that would make a Saudi Princess visiting Harrods green with envy.

The theory, as far as my understanding goes (which admittedly is not very far), is like this: If you, say, buy shares of solid companies with good fundamentals, and a long and proven history of increasing their dividends every year, cheaply; and if you are in the game for the long run, then you are on to a winner. You have earned yourself steady income (in dividends); plus, since the companies whose shares who have bought are strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of the markets (unless the unthinkable happens, as in case of the Royal Bank of Scotland during the last stock market meltdown), you can rest assured that the shares, in due course, will rise again. They might regain or even exceed their pre-slump prices; and then you are laughing, as your net worth has increased. Until the next slump hits you. Then you tell yourself the same thing; buy more shares again at bargain prices, and remain convinced that you are very clever and are becoming richer as a direct consequence of your cleverness.

The above is just one version of how you can strike it rich. There are several other variations of the theme I have come across. You might, for example, do the so called value investing. Dudes who do this buy shares of companies when they are cheap; wait patiently until the shares rise and then sell them at a higher price. They will then buy more shares of ‘distressed’ companies and repeat the cycle.

If you are following either of the above two strategies, you are going against the market sentiments. Thus, when you are buying shares when everyone else is trying to get out faster than a drug addict out of a crack-den following a police raid, you are essentially saying: all these millions are fools; they are panicking unnecessarily; I am altogether much cleverer, shrewder, and smarter than they are; and I am going to take advantage of this mass hysteria and buy shares even if that might seem contrary now. Similarly, when you buy shares of a company which is not valued highly by the market (because the market thinks it is a crap company), you are saying that the market has got it wrong and you have got it right. You are therefore going to buy shares of this company. In due course the market will realise its mistake and will accord the company its worth, the shares will rise and you will get richer.

As I said earlier, it takes, depending on how one looks at it, a confidence in oneself or an ability to delude oneself, to go against the sentiment of the majority.

The friend who got me interested in equities is an enthusiastic private investor. He is more into shares than Michael Douglas was into Catherine Zeta Jones. He is self taught and, by his own admission, has learnt hard lessons along the way. A few years ago he bought shares worth several thousand pounds of the Royal Bank of Scotland. We all know what happened to RBS shares. I guess he was not alone in losing a fortune on RBS. Many people bought RBS shares when it was considered one of the sexiest shares on the FTSE. My friends bought RBS shares when the price started plummeting. He began buying RBS shares when they, as he saw it, became available for basement-bargain price. Unfortunately for him the shares have stayed in the basement and are not likely to come to the ground floor any time soon. ‘I tried to catch a falling knife,’ he told me. I complimented him on his excellent use of metaphor; and he said that this was a common phrase used in the world of stock market when your calculations regarding the value of a company whose fortunes are sliding, which are against the market sentiments go wrong. (In other words the market turns out to be right and you turn out to be a fool).

So has my friend learnt any lessons? He says he has. He shall no longer attempt to catch a falling knife. 

The thing is how do you spot the figurative knife falling and get out of its way?

I asked my friend yesterday how his ‘large and diversified’ portfolio had fared in the most recent rout of the markets. ‘Thousands of pounds have been wiped out of my portfolio,’ he informed me cheerfully. ‘I lost almost 2000 pounds in a single day,’ he added with barely concealed excitement.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me why he was so cheerful when he had lost several thousand pounds. I would be mightily pissed off if that happened to me.

‘That’s where you are wrong,’ my friend said. ‘You have to conquer your emotions. You can’t let emotions rule you. That is when you start taking illogical decisions.'

‘You mean to say,’ I tried to clarify,’ the decimation of your portfolio was a logical and planned outcome of a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre?’

‘You are missing the point, mate,’ my friend said with the exaggerated patience of a primary school teacher who is trying to get a not very bright pupil to understand additions.

‘What is the point then?’

‘The point is: you must learn to take reverses in your stride. If you let emotions rule you, you will make silly errors.’

Reacting with insane cheerfulness when you have lost several thousand pounds within a few days did not seem like a response I’d be able to manage if I were in his position, but I decided to let it go.

‘Not a good time to get into stocks, then,’ I said.

Au contraire,’ my friend (who has an irritating habit of inserting French phrases unnecessarily in the hope that it will make him appear more sophisticated) said, ‘this is the perfect time to buy shares. There is a party going on. Why do you want to miss out on it?’

He then rattled out a list of shares which I ought to buy.  ‘Believe me,’ he said, ‘these shares have become really cheap; all are treading at the multiples of less than 10. It can’t get better than this.’

‘Unless,’ I pointed out, ‘the share price falls further next week. Then, in defiance of your dictate, things, using your logic, will get better.’

‘But they may not get better,’ he countered.

‘By that you mean the share prices will get better or fall further?’

‘If the share prices rise, and if you haven’t already bought the shares, then you will be missing out,’ my friend was unwilling to let go of the party analogy.

‘So what do you think is going to happen next week?’ I asked.

‘I haven’t a clue,’ my friend admitted. ‘But,’ he added, ‘you are in it for the long term; not for the short or even medium term.’

I refrained from pointing out that he was in the whole shebang for the long term and had just seen ‘several thousand pounds’ wiped out of his portfolio.

‘So this is your strategy? Keep on buying through the bear market when others are selling?’


‘Do you think,’ I asked, ‘it is possible that if you can keep your head when all others around you are losing theirs, maybe you have misread the situation?’

‘Not possible,’ my friend declared with the assurance of an Estate Agent who is trying to convince you that the crack in the sidewall of the house he is trying to get you to buy is nothing to worry about.

‘What if there is a nuclear war tomorrow?’ I asked.

‘Then my friend,’ my friend said, ‘it wouldn’t matter crockshit whether you have bought the shares or not. The Western civilization will end and we shall all die.’

‘Fair point.’

It seems to me that the trick of investing in shares is to figure out what for you is the right thing. Once you have convinced yourself that it is the right thing to do, the right thing to do is to keep on repeating 'the right thing' until it is no longer the right thing to do (because, usually, of forces totally beyond your control). Then you figure out the next right thing to do and keep on doingit till it is no longer the right thing to do. And the cycle continues.

PS: I started off writing this post with the intention of putting down my impressions of some of the money and personal investor blogs I have been reading, but got waylaid into writing something  different. More about the money blogs some other time.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Book of the Month: The Thoughtful Dresser (Linda Grant)

Linda Grant is one of my favourite writers. She has written five works of fiction, of which I have read three and liked all of them. She was shortlisted for the Man-Booker prise in 2008 for her novel The Clothes on Their Backs, and won the Orange prise for her second novel When I lived in Modern Times

She has also written non-fiction, which I have not read (yet) although I have in my collection Remind Me Who I Am, Again, Grant’s account of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s Disease, and I intend to read it one of these days when the mood is right (what sort of mood you have to be in to read an account of a progressive, incurable disease with hundred percent mortality?).

I wasn’t sure that The Thoughtful Dresser, Grant’s collection of essays on fashion, would be my cup of tea. I was probably not the target reader of the book (I felt), which was advertised as ‘the thinking woman’s guide to our relationship with what we wear: why we want to look our best and why it matters.’ The subject matter is not of great interest to me, or so I thought. When it comes to clothes I am one of those people whom Grant claims to have occasionally come across: people who ‘apparently’ do not care for clothes and wish they did not have to be bothered with them, apart from the primitive functions of covering themselves up. (Grant uses the gender neutral noun ‘people’, which includes both men and woman. I have always thought, in submission to the century old cliché, and based on my knowledge of the limited circle of men and women I know, that most men, heterosexual men in any case, are less interested in shopping for clothes than women.) My approach to what I wear, I realised after reading one of the essays in the book, is utilitarian. Clothing, for me, is about following a set of basic social rules, although that is not necessarily in order to, as Grant speculates, free up my mind to think about something else; I just find clothes and shopping for clothes about as interesting as watching a football match between Tottenham and Hull (that is, not interesting at all). I am no boffin but sometimes I suspect that it is really because of the way my brain is wired up; maybe there is a gene for shopping for clothes which I (and most of the men I know) lack.

I therefore borrowed the book from the local library with some apprehension. I was not sure I was going to like it, and borrowed it only because, as I said earlier, Grant is a favourite author.

I am pleased to report that Grant did not disappoint.

The book is not just about clothes and shopping for them—although there is a lot of it—; in these essays Grant tells the story of her immigrant Jewish family—both sets of her grandparents arrived in the UK from Eastern Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century—and its attempt to assimilate with the adoptive culture. And clothing played an important part in the assimilation process. When her grandfather walked out of the ghetto every day, he had to look the part. Both of her grandfathers—who, Grant informs, started very humbly, like Simon Marks who founded  Marks & Spencer; but, unlike Marks, they did not strike it rich—followed the dictum that the only thing worse than being skint is looking as if you’re skint. For Grant’s mother, shopping was an all absorbing activity; an activity that was not to be taken lightly; that required stamina and acquired skills. So much so that when she died her daughters—who have inherited their mother’s interest in clothes—put the following notice in the Jewish Chronicle:

“ . . . She taught us to respect others,  that chicken soup can cure almost everything and a good handbag makes the outfit.”

(How I wish Grant, while she was in the reminiscing mood, mentioned how she came to develop an interest in books, reading and writing; from whom did she inherit it? Or was it a gene mutation?)

Another inspiring story, told in three different sections, is of the fashion doyenne Catherine Hill. The story of how Hill, born Katerina Deutsch in Kosice (Kassa in old Hungarian), Hungary, how she survived Auschwitz, then destitution, and finally a loveless marriage to reinvent herself as a successful fashion entrepreneur is the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

Grant also traces the changes in the European women’s fashion from the Victorian era and attempts to link them (perhaps predictably) to the emancipation of women’s status in the society. She says that the purpose of the discourse is not to put forth a theory of fashion; but it is a fairly persuasive theory. In this context Grant also writes about the ‘niqab’, the all-encompassing chador, worn by some Muslim women. The usually outspoken Grant is very careful, as though anxious not to court controversy, when she writes about the Islamic dress, although she drops less than subtle hints as to what her views are when she describes it  at one time as ‘not I understand to be clothes at all’, and at another as ‘medieval black sheet’. Her conclusions, nevertheless, are very considerate (‘the teen age daughter of assimilated Muslim parents who chooses to wear the hijab as a statement of religion and culture is no more anti-fashion than the African-American men and women who in the 1960s made a similar point by abandoning the scalp-burning, hair-straightening chemicals and letting their hair grow into Afros’; and ‘Were I a young Muslim woman in post-9/11 and post-7/7 Britain, I too would be considering how to use my clothes to make a point’) and disappointingly anodyne.

These, however, are minor quibbles. The Thoughtful Dresser is an entertaining read. But it is more than that. It makes you smile; it makes you sad; and, above all, it makes you think of the world we live in from an angle you have not done before. What more can you ask of a writer?