Sunday, 30 May 2010

These Foolish Things

This was the Reading Group’s book for June and a very enjoyable read too. I had already read a previous novel by Deborah Moggach - Tulip Fever. That was a kind of romantic thriller, set in Amsterdam in the 17th century and also very good. These Foolish Things could not be more different. Here the setting for the novel is a retirement home for elderly Brits located in India. This does not seem a very promising idea and could easily have degenerated into the Anglo-India equivalent of 'Allo 'Allo!. However Moggach is far too clever and serious a writer to fall into that trap. For this home for the elderly is not set in one of India’s beautiful tourist centres, but rather in Bangalore, a modern bustling city, home to India’s high tech industries, and with little to offer the sightseer. The home itself is a somewhat dilapidated former bungalow, now rather somnolent guest house, where some of the staff are older than the retired residents.

So the backdrop for the novel is the real India, nothing fancy and a bit down at heel. And Moggach uses this backdrop to weave a gentle, but entertaining and witty tale which features a rich and vividly drawn range of wonderful characters. The novel is unusual in that there is really no central character. The Kapoor family - husband, wife and father-in-law - feature prominently, but this is not just about them. In telling the stories about the various retirees from Britain and the local people associated with the home, Moggach is able to touch on some serious and important subjects - racism, the attitude of Brits to India and Indians, family relationships and of course growing old. No doubt because it is mainly set in India, the novel is able to contrast the differing attitudes to aging, caring for elderly relatives and to death itself. For one of the strengths of the novel is that it does not attempt to paint a rosy picture of growing old. People die and others suffer pain and loss. On the other hand life goes on and some people, even elderly people can make a fresh start - get married, re-marry or just come to terms with growing old.

Given the perilous state of the UK economy and a government hell bent on cutting public spending, perhaps the idea of setting up cheap retirement homes in India will become a reality. Though please not in Bangalore. If I am to end up in India, make it somewhere nice, like Goa or Kerala. Now where is that statue of Ganesha!

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The Future of the Euro

The Euro is back in the news as it continues to fall, and the various anti EU factions in the UK are having a field day. From Eurosceptics to the downright hostile they cheer on every sign of weakness in the Euro and anticipate with glee its imminent demise. However they are in danger of suffering from the old Chinese saying - beware of what you wish. For they seem to be unaware that an effective devaluation of the Euro or the break up of the Euro and the re-emergence of national currencies with devaluation damages the UK economy and perhaps pushes us into Greece style crisis. Then again the anti EU brigade have never been known for rational thinking anyway.

What though is the Future of Euro? The first thing to remember is that like every development in the EU, the single currency is first and foremost a political decision and not merely an economic one. As such I would expect that the EU will do all it can to ensure that the Euro survives, come what may. If that means further economic and fiscal integration then so be it. And in the short run pretty savage austerity measures. The markets however, especially the financial markets are pretty irrational artifices and no-one can predict what will happen.

However what I do want to do in this post is to challenge the notion, prevalent in Anglo-Saxon discourses, that devaluation is the answer. For those calling for the demise of the Euro are in effect calling for a devaluation for countries such as Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland. This in addition to the UK which has already effectively devalued by about 20%. Why is devaluation not the answer? I found a good explanation of the dangers of devaluation in a comment by someone known as Scipio1 (I couldn’t find his or her real identity) on the Guardian’s Comment if Free site. Scipio1 wrote: Where to start! Okay: devaluation. A policy which is explicitly designed to make a country poorer in order that it will import less and export more, since its products will become cheaper. Pace Mr Wilson, this will affect the pound in your pocket. And of course although export prices will be lower, import prices will be higher. The point about this is that much of the imports into the UK is of raw materials and semi-finished goods used by the export industries. This cost push inflation will eventually will find its way into the export sector and this will make British exports less competitive as the imported inflation pushes up their price. Of course like all economic policies this has some very nasty downsides. The UK economy for example is running at less than full capacity producing niggardly growth rates, and yet already inflation is beginning to pick up. The latest figures being 3.7% for CPI and 4.4% for RPI (or should I say RIP!) Of course this is one of the consequences of low interest rates and devaluation which in any event amount to the same thing. But try to imagine what would the situation be like if Greece left the euro and went back to the Drachma. Of course there would be an immediate run on the currency with a type of Greshams law coming into existence. Wise heads would hold euros not Drachmas, the latter would be seen as Confederate money, which everyone would be trying to get rid of. So if anything the situation would be even worse in Greece than it is at present. Let us take this a little further. Imagine a Europe without the euro. All the separate currencies competing against each other with round after round of competitive devaluations, a situation reminiscent of the 1930s with each nation trying to make itself poorer in order to export their way out of stagnation. This would be the ultimate logic of the devaluation argument. If it is such a brilliant idea, then everyone would join in and it would be nullified and even counter-productive. It is a seductive but ultimately seriously flawed argument, reminiscent of Keynes fallacy of composition. What might seem productive when only one agency (country) carries out a policy becomes useless and damaging when everyone decides to carry out said policy.”

So, it seems that devaluation is not the answer, but more of a red herring. The key is that if the root cause of a country’s economic woes is that its industries and services are uncompetitive - which is the current case - then devaluation does not in itself do anything about changing this. Devaluation on its own is merely a temporary respite - at the expense of a lowering of living standards. But if nothing is done to make industry and services more competitive, then in a few years time the same crisis will repeat itself.

What can be done to help industries and services become more competitive? Ultimately this is up to the entrepreneurs and their management teams. What a government can do is ensure that its fiscal policy maintains a sound and stable economy. And this is so, in or out of the Euro. In Europe the benchmark for decades has been Germany, which has maintained a sound currency (formerly the DMark) and a stable and solid economy, based on high quality exports. It is instructive to compare the responses of various countries to keeping up with Germany. On the one hand there are those countries that have for decades more or less mirrored the German economic model. In particular have tied their currency to the DMark and kept government spending under control. This includes a group of non-Euro countries such as Switzerland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. It also includes countries which are now part of the Eurozone, such as France, the Netherlands and Austria. Their success over the long run would seem to indicate quite strongly that the Euro is not the problem. A most instructive case is France, which used to be a byword for repeated devaluations. But in the early 1980s the country moved quite suddenly, with a series of budget austerity measures, to the opposite policy. The French Franc was tied to the DMark and successive governments have stuck to the twin track of a strong Franc and budgetary rigour. This has paid off for France and the other countries, as they are all less affected by the market turmoils of recent months.

On the other hand the southern European countries along with the UK and Ireland have pursued a laxer fiscal and monetary policy. Some, including the UK have from time to time tried to track the DMark, but none have been prepared to follow this policy through. The result is that all these countries, in or out of the Euro, are to a greater or lesser extent uncompetitive with the rest of the EU.

What the above shows to my mind is that a country needs to adopt and maintain a consistent fiscal and monetary policy based on maintaining a stable currency, particularly in relation to Germany. It is also interesting to note that in all the countries mentioned above it was the political and business leadership which agreed on the policy and pushed it through. No popular referendums were held!

All this talk about the Euro and devaluations is just a smokescreen for avoiding the real issues - which is about how to restructure our economy. Though much of the above has focused on the strength of the German economy, this is not in my view a sustainable model. By definition not all countries can maintain an export surplus. Europe as a whole, including the UK and Germany, needs to rebalance its economy. As a main cause of the current crisis was the unsustainable levels of private and public debt, then a major part of the solution will involve devising an economic model that does not rely on ever faster and evermore unsustainable growth.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Al-Nakba Day 2010

On the 15th May Palestinians commemorated Al-Nakba - The Catastrophe: specifically the catastrophic removal of Palestinian families from their ancestral villages. 15th May 1948 was the date of the foundation of the state of Israel, and the Palestinian catastrophe is the little told part of this history. In the war that accompanied Israel’s birth, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their lands. They have not been allowed back. Today there are more than 4.7 million Palestinian refugees - by far the largest refugee group in the world.

To express our solidarity with the sufferings of the Palestinians, Tayside for Justice in Palestine staged a public reading of Carol Churchill’s short play - Seven Jewish Children. This play was written at the time of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008. Its seven short scenes from different moments in history explore how the horrors faced by Jewish victims have been exploited to build and sustain an Israeli aggression that fails to recognise its own impact on the new Palestinian victims. In each vignette the different characters debate how to present their current situation to a young child, but at the same time they are constructing a justifying myth that supports an increasingly brutal society. Israeli Jews enjoy considerable material comforts while Palestinians have been reduced to poverty levels and are bound in by numerous restrictions. However the evolution of this Iaraeli national myth has led Israelis into their own social catastrophe. This will only end when Israel recognises the rights of the Palestinian people. One of our members made a video of the performance. You can watch part 1 here and part 2 here. Altogether the performance is just short of 15 minutes.

The play was accompanied with an exhibition of photographs taken by Rich Wiles, a British photographer who lives and works in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. The photo at the top of this post is one of Rich's photos. The key is a potent symbol for Palestinians as it represents their lost homes. Each refugee family passes the key to their former home on to the next generation as an expression of their determination to return.

Though Al-Nakba refers to the events of 1948/49, the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians has continued right up to the present. Since the 1967 war and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan, more and more Palestinians have lost their homes and land. Just about every day we see further Israeli appropriations of Palestinian land and further restrictions put on the lives of Palestinian people. To get an idea of what Palestinians face you can watch this short video by Joseph Dana. It is from last Friday’s demo in the West Bank village of Nabi Sallih. The demonstration is part of a weekly protest by the village against the occupation and the confiscation of their agricultural land by (illegal) settlers from Halamish. For a more detailed description of the protest and the Israeli military reaction you can read Noam’s first hand account of the day. Noam Sheizaf is a freelance journalist and editor who runs his own blog - Promised Land.

For another glimpse into the mindset of Israelis and how their violent occupation is almost blindly supported by the USA media, Philip Weiss recently ran a fascinating piece by David Samel recalling an incident that took place in April 1988 in which a young Israeli girl was killed. All the initial reporting in Israel and in the USA blamed Palestinians for her death. However it soon emerged that she had been killed by an Israeli. As David Samel puts it: “So let’s sum this all up. A group of illegal Israeli settlers take a deliberately provocative hike to an Arab village to show them who’s boss. They allow an Israeli racist hothead with a violent history to be an armed guard, and he predictably murders two Palestinians and shoots two others, and accidentally kills an Israeli girl. The (New York) Times blames both sides equally. The Israeli army kills a third Palestinian youth for “running away” and destroys 14 homes, most if not all of them after learning who was responsible for killing the Israeli. The killer of three is allowed to walk free, while the pregnant sister of one of the Palestinian victims goes to prison, and six men from the village are expelled from the country.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Whatever happens you can be sure that Israel and the media will blame the Palestinians. Read the whole account here.

If you want to learn more about Al-Nakba and the on-going struggle of Palestinians to exercise their right of return the following three websites make a good starting point.

Palestineremembered aims to preserve the memories and experiences of Palestinian refugees, especially those who were ethnically cleansed as a result of the 1948 war.

BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights is an independent, community-based non-profit organization mandated to defend and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees.

Al-Awda, The Palestine Right to Return Coalition focuses on the rights of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and land of origin.

To conclude this post here are a couple of short videos which recall in photos the tragedy of Al-Nakba.

Al Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe and "Al Nakba"--The Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

FC Barcelona 2009-2010

This was always going to be a difficult season for Barça. The previous season they won all three major competitions - Spanish League and Cup and the Champions League. The first time any team had achieved this triple crown. Something almost impossible to repeat. So Barça did very well to retain one of their crowns from last season - the Spanish League. And they did so with style, amassing 99 points - the highest points total in Spanish league history. They also had to overcome a rejuvenated and very expensively recruited Real Madrid. The competition went down to the last day and Barça only won by three points. Overall Barça dominated the season and only had one serious drop in form. This was immediately after the winter break. They dropped four points in the league, suffering their only defeat - away to Atletico Madrid - and losing out in the Cup to Sevilla, who went on to win that trophy. They reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and were a tad unlucky to lose to Inter Milan, 3-2 on aggregate. However last season Barça were the beneficiaries of good fortune in their semi-final against Chelsea - so you win some and you lose some.

In addition to retaining their League title, Barça also won three more trophies - the Spanish and Uefa Supercups and the big one, the World Club Championship - for the first time in the club’s history. All in all then a great achievement, for as the legendary Johan Cruyff points out, it is easier to reach the top than to stay there, year after year. One has only to compare this season with season 2006-2007. Then Barça had again just won the Champions League (and the Spanish League), but finished the season trophyless. What then was the difference between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010? Two key factors I would suggest. This season Barça has had a slightly bigger and more experienced squad and they have had slightly less injuries. Crucial factors in a long and tiring season.

The three new signings have had mixed fortunes. The most successful was the least expensive - Maxwell who came as cover for Abidal in the left back slot. But with injuries limiting Abidal’s appearances, Maxwell played most of the time, and did so with distinction. Ibrahimović was the most expensive and had the additional challenge of replacing Eto’o, a prolific goalscorer and fans’ favourite. Overall Ibrahimović did well for a first season, scoring 16 league goals. He started the season very well with 11 goals in 13 league matches. After the mid winter break though he was never quite the same. A series of niggling injuries and suspensions meant he was unable to recapture his early season form. Still not a bad return for his first full season. The third newcomer, centre back Chygrinskiy, had a pretty poor season. Ineligible for the Champions League, he found it very difficult to adjust to Barça’s style of play and at times looked slow and cumbersome.

What next?

Pep Guardiola and his team have already begun planning for next season. Which areas of the team most need strengthening? The defence has probably been the most reliable and consistent part of the team this season. Valdés continues his rich vein of form and has at last been rewarded with a place in the Spanish squad for the World Cup. Well done Victor!

The first choice back four of Alves, Piqué, Puyol and Abidal is one of the best in the world. Alas that Abidal missed most of the season through injury. While Maxwell did well as his replacement, he is more of an attacking player who can often be caught out defensively, as happened most noticeably in Milan against Inter in the semi-final of the Champions League. So a key question for Pep and his team is can they rely on Abidal to last a whole season free of injury? If not do they need to get in a top class replacement? On the other flank there is still no cover for Alves. When he is unavailable Puyol moves sideways to fill in. As Puyol started as a right back this is not a bad move, though it does leave the central partnership a bit exposed. For Puyol and Piqué make a tremendous pairing. Going on this season the cover is not too reliable. Marquez seems to be past his best and only played rarely. As did new arrival Chygrinskiy. Half way through the season they did recover Milito who had been out injured for two seasons. However the questions remain, how reliable is Chygrinskiy and is Milito fully recovered and back to his best? As usual with Barça the defence is probably not a priority for the coming season.

What about the midfield, which is usually the great strength of Barça teams. This is the one area where injury did play a significant part in the performance of the team. Iniesta missed about half the season through one kind of injury or another, thus leaving Xavi to shoulder most of the responsibility for creative play. Not that Keita or Touré for that matter do not make useful contributions, but neither has the control or vision of an Iniesta. Which probably explains why Barça are so keen to sign Cesc Fábregas from Arsenal. However Cesc is also prone to injury. If there are serious doubts about Iniesta’s full recovery, signing another (very expensive) injury prone midfielder may not be the best idea. Once again the future may lie with some of Barça’s up and coming youngsters such as Jonathan Dos Santos and Thiago Alcántara. Regarding Touré there are persistent media reports that he is on his way out. Pep Guardiola seems to prefer Busquets as his first choice holding midfielder which does not please Touré. He still gets to play plenty of matches, but will he accept that he is no longer first choice and buckle down to challenging Busquets for the position? If he does go, will Guardiola need to buy in a replacement? Not sure about the youngsters in that position in the B team.

As for the attack this again was not quite as lethal as last season. Though Ibrahimović did not set the heather alight, he did score a respectable 16 league goals. The big difference with last season was the almost complete disappearance of Henry, who rarely played and even more rarely scored. On the other hand Messi just gets better and better. He was the leading goal scorer in the league with 34 goals which equalled the club record held by Ronaldo. Pedro Rodriguez emerged as the leading contender for the third attacking spot, relegating Henry to the bench most of the time. Not only did Pedro score 12 league goals he also scored in all the other competitions Barça played in - a record. Another young player, still only 19 years old, Bojan finished the season strongly, playing instead of Ibrahimović for the latter part of the season, scoring 8 league goals. A comparison between Bojan and Pedro is most interesting. Their scoring record in the league is very similar. Pedro scored 12 goals from 34 matches, which works out at a rate of one goal every 2.83 matches. Bojan’s 8 goals came from 23 matches, half of these as a substitute, yet his goals rate works out at one goal every 2.87 matches. Nothing between them, yet Guardiola clearly prefers Pedro. Mainly I suspect because is a natural wide player who scores useful goals, while Bojan is more of a centre forward, but lacks the height to make the position his own. So when he does play he tends to play wide which is not his natural position. Hard game!

The attack is the one area where Barça have already make their first signing for the new season. David Villa, Spanish international, has joined from Valencia. Villa is a pretty reliable striker both with Valencia and the Spanish national team. His arrival should certainly strengthen Barça’s attacking options. The key question is does his arrival mean the departure of Ibrahimović? The club say no, but the media say yes. Will no doubt depend on how much they get offered for him. Money nearly always talks. However, Villa, though a striker, can play wide and a forward line of Messi, Ibrahimović and Villa looks a very powerful and flexible one. With the likes of Pedro and Bojan in reserve. With the number of games that a team like Barça expect to play, they need all the experienced players they can get. I would expect Ibrahimović to stay for at least the next season. Any other new arrivals? The media are as usual full of stories, imagined or not. With the world cup due to start soon the club will want to get any new signings sorted out sooner rather than later. Watch this space.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Post Election Blues

So that’s it then. The UK now has its first proper coalition government for almost a century. The week after the election was much more interesting and exciting than the election campaign itself. Would the LIbDems do a deal with the Tories? Could they do a deal with the Tories? After all most LibDem MPs and voters are opposed to the Tories. Could the LIbDems reach an agreement with Labour? And what about the other, minor parties - would they have a role to play in forming the new government?

As it turned out there was less real excitement or intrigue than imagined by the media pundits. It seems that Cameron and Clegg, both from a similar public school background hit it off almost immediately and that was that. The Tories were desperate for power and so it turned out were the LibDems or at least their Parliamentary leadership was.

What was most interesting about the negotiations is what didn’t happen. No serious attempt by the Labour Party to make a deal with the LibDems. Though Gordon Brown and some others in the cabinet made it clear that they were interested in concluding a pact with the LibDems this was never carried through. Almost immediately that it became known that talks were in the offing between Labour and the LibDems out from the woodwork came some dinosours from Labour’s past to rubbish any such deal. Why were people such as David Blunkett and John Reid so quick to scupper any potential Labour and LibDem government? After all the SNP and Plaid Cymru had made it crystal clear that they would support such a so-called ‘progressive coalition’. This would mean a Labour/LibDem government would have a secure if slim majority in Parliament. So why the hostility?

In Scotland at least this must come down to Labour’s almost pathological hostility to the SNP. Labour could not at any cost be seen to be relying on SNP support. Next year there are elections in Scotland and Labour is determined to put maximum distance between them and the SNP. Not sure why the likes of Blunkett and co. opposed a deal in England. Perhaps they realised that the Tories had an overall majority of English MPs and that a Labour/LibDem coalition would not be seen to have the legitimacy to push through English only legislation in areas such as education, health etc.

Whatever the reason, Labour willingly passed up an opportunity to try and build a progressive coalition. This will make their attempts to portray themselves as the only progressive party in the UK as a bit hollow. Won’t stop them trying though.

As for the future, only one thing is certain and that is that Labour will have a new leader by the autumn. Will he, and it looks like only men are standing, make any difference. A more media and camera friendly person can only help, but it still comes down to policies. And here it is hard to detect any real change in Labour. They are nearly all Blairites now. Not much hope of real progressive change from them.

Very difficult at this stage to know how the coalition will affect the LibDems. Throughout the UK they are now inextricably linked with the Tories. And in Scotland and other parts of the UK an election slogan of vote LibDem and get a Tory government will not go down too well. Next year’s elections in Scotland and Wales will therefore be even more interesting than usual. The LidDems have been quite strong in both countries and it will be a key battleground to see if their vote holds up under the scrutiny and stresses of being in government.

As for the coalition government itself - what is its likely future? For all the talk of hostility among some Tories and LibDems I expect the coalition to survive. The big problem, as for all governments, is what Harold Macmillan referred to as ‘events, dear boy, events’. Meaning something completely unexpected turning up to cause havoc to the government. Another financial crisis perhaps? Other than the totally unexpected I think the coalition will survive.

The big question is what damage might they do to the rest of us. Big cuts seem to be right at the top of their agenda. And as usual it will be the poorest who will bear the brunt of the pain and suffering. Rising unemployment, lowering living standards and a decline in public services is the bleak future that awaits most of us. The pain has yet to begin.

A final point about the election. During the campaign the media tried their best to make this into the most significant and trend breaking election ever. Yet after all the singing, shouting and the first ever TV debates not much changed during the election campaign. The final outcome was pretty much as the opinion polls had predicted before the election.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010


Tulips are one of my favourite flowers. Ever since we moved to our present house in Dundee, we have tried to put on a display of tulips. Here is the front garden, followed by some of our red and yellow tulips.

Though now very much associated with Europe and the Netherlands in particular, tulips are indigenous to mountainous areas. It seems that tulips first came to prominence as popular flowers many hundreds of years ago in Iran and the Ottoman Empire. I have always loved tulips and prefer them to the daffodil, the other popular spring bulb. The tulip offers greater variety in shapes and colours. If you are interested in learning about the fascinating history of this wonderful flower, then Anna Pavord has written a very good book on the tulip.

In addition to lots of reds and yellows, we have over the years grown quite a variety of colours, Here are some of my favourites.


One of the most spectacular varieties of tulips is the Parrot. This variety arose as mutations of normally flowering tulips. The name apparently comes from the appearance of the flower in bud which is thought to resemble a parrot’s beak. Parrot tulips have petals that are feathered, curled, twisted or waved. The flowers are ususallly very large and brightly coloured. It was almost certainly parrot tulips or their precursors that were at the root of the tulip mania that beset the Netherlands in the 1630s. The speculative frenzy that developed ended of course in a spectacular financial crash, not too dissimilar from recent financial shenanigans. Deborah Moggach has written an enthralling novel - Tulip Fever - about these events, which is well worth reading. I end this post with a photo of some parrot tulips. Unfortunately they are not from our garden, but from a garden we visited last year in Tayport.

Saturday, 8 May 2010


May is for me a transition month as spring gives way to summer. It can still be cold though, as is borne out by the old Scottish saying - never cast a cloot oot till May is oot - which basically advises us to keep on wearing our winter clothes. Though some people suggest that the May in the saying refers to the mayflower and not the month. Anyway it is still a bit cold up here in the east of Scotland, though it is sunnier and the nights are getting longer.

The first of May has traditionally been a day of celebration and festivities. In Germany and much of central and northern Europe this was celebrated as Walpurgis Night, which was a Spring festival. May Day used to be a popular festival in many parts of Europe with all kinds of traditional customs. It was never much of an event during my childhood, though on TV you might see some shots of Maypole dances and Morris dances from England.

Nowadays of course 1st of May is International Workers Day or Labour Day and is a public holiday throughout the UK and most of the world. In some countries this is marked by massive marches and demonstrations though there is less of this in the UK.

The first of May was also the day the Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, creating the UK, came into effect in 1707. This is not celebrated anywhere, and I was unaware of this fact until I did some research for this post.

May does not seem to be a month for great festival. Perhaps the most famous one is the Cannes International Film Festival, which this year will be held between 12 - 23 May. This festival always gets prime time coverage on TV and the newspapers over here. Any excuse for showing a bit of glamour. I have never been to Cannes, but it does look a beautiful place. Probably a bit busy and very expensive to visit during the festival though.

Buddhists will celebrate Buddha Day in May. This celebrates the Buddha’s birthday and in most Buddhist countries this falls on 21st May this year.

May is not such a happy month for Palestinians as 15h May is Al-Nakba Day. This commemorates the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes by the Israelis.

For my branch of the Rutherford family I could discover only three events for May. My mother’s grandfather, Henry Mohring Henderson, was born in Dundee on 13 May 1861. One of my great great grandmothers, Mary Edie Cunningham was born on 15 May 1831 at Leuchars. She went on to marry my great great grandfather, David Rutherford on 19 May 1855 in Newport.

People born in May have a choice of gemstone. Emerald is the most common stone as it is both the modern and traditional gemstone. Hindus and Arabs also have the emerald as their May gemstone. Emeralds have been worn to improve memory, intelligence and enhance clairvoyance. They have also been worn to enhance love and contentment. If you don’t fancy an emerald, you can go for an agate which is the May stone in the Ayurvedic tradition, or a sapphire which is the Tibetan May stone.

Lily of the Valley is the flower for May. This lovely flower symbolises happiness, purity of heart, humility and sweetness. It is also known as "Our Lady's tears" from the Christian legend that it came from Eve's tears when she was driven out of the Garden of Eden with Adam.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Big Bank Profits = Market Failure

Over the past few weeks the financial pages have been full of reports of the huge profits made by banks. Here are a few of the headline figures:

  • J.P. Morgan made first-quarter profit of $3.3 billion
  • Goldman Sachs declared $3.46 billion of profits
  • Barclay’s Bank reported £1.47 billion of profits
  • Deutsche Bank AG reported a 48 percent increase in first-quarter profit

What is most interesting about these figures is that they have had virtually no effect on the current general election campaign. This at a time when all the three main parties are vying with each other over who can cut the most public services. Yet none of the parties wants to discuss the issue of huge bank profits and the huge bonuses that go with them.

For what is key to all these profits is that they come from a massive market failure. In a competitive market, prices and fees should fall and margins should become thinner. Yet apart from a short dip, investment bank profit margins have remained sky high. Which is clear evidence of anti-competitive behaviour. The situation has become even less competitive with the disappearance of key companies leading to further concentration. It is clear that investment banks to not even attempt to compete with other banks. If they compete with other bankers, they drive down the profitability of the entire industry, and ultimately their own earnings.

How do they get away with all this? In part because of the incredibly lax regulations governing the financial industry. In part because the people who use these investment banks - the chief executives of large companies - are more than happy to pay these huge fees. The reason is simple - the fees do not come out of the pocket of these chief executives. The costs are just passed on the poor customers. Who have no say in any of these transactions. When you think of all the take-overs and mergers that have happened in past decade or so - who benefits from any of them? Nearly all of them reduce competition, which according to the neo-liberal theoreticians who dominate economics, is the bedrock of our supposedly free market economy. Their is less choice for consumers and workers lose jobs. Yet somebody makes a lot, a very lot of money out of all these take-overs and mergers. Who? - why the chief executives, the top management and the boards of directors of all these companies.

So we have an economic system which steadily destroys jobs, reduces choice for consumers and generates vast profits and bonuses for a choice few at the top. Least anyone think this is just some left wing fantasy, read the views of the Financial Time’s Martin Wolf, no friend of the left. He has declared recently that "a large part of the activity of the financial sector seems to be a machine to transfer income and wealth from outsiders (that’s you and me) to insiders while increasing the fragility of the economy as a whole". And none of our main political parties wants to discuss any of this during the election campaign. Conspiracy anyone?

At a time of severe economic crisis, we are being offered in this election a false choice - cut public spending here or there. When we should be discussing the whole structure of our economy and how it can generate steady, sustainable growth which benefits all, not just the few. A key and necessary part of this restructuring will involve reforming the financial industry. The New Economics Foundation has produced a report on Better Banking which contains specific proposals for reforming the financial sector of our economy. You can see the report here. There proposal include the following”

  • Separate retail banking from speculation
  • Break up banks that are ‘too big to fail’
  • Launch a competition enquiry into the banks, that looks also at the role played by ratings agencies and accountancy firms
  • Introduce controls on bonuses
  • Introduce a financial transaction (or ‘Robin Hood’) tax

So when the next government, whatever complexion it is, comes out with proposals to cut public services and jobs, freeze pay and pensions, remember that there is an alternative.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Stitching - Fobs and Things

I have been fairly busy with my stitching in recent weeks. My first completed piece was this mini tapestry hanging.

The design is based on the tile pattern on the roof of a house in Thalwil in Switzerland. I used wool thread on canvass. This time I did not try to copy the design on the building but rather used the patterns to make up my own composition. Also, this time I used a completely different colour scheme as you can see from the original photo I took of the roof.

My other largish piece was the third in a series of Five Easy Pieces, which use Bargello designs to fill in the five sections. This one is predominantly in blues which I used for the four surrounding sections. For the rectangle I used three shades of grey. As usual not sure what I will do with the piece now that it is finished.

Other than these two pieces, most of my time has been taken up with little things - fobs and biscornus. The fobs were done to identify the different colours of the cotton threads I use. Each thread is now kept in its own little plastic wallet. The idea is that all the reds for example can be kept together in their own little box or whatever. The fobs are meant to be attached to these containers, but as yet I have not figured out how to do this. My technical skill is pretty limited. Anyway here are the fobs. The first group is made up of the fobs stitched in traditional Palestinian designs.

The next two fobs were stitched in Bargello patterns.

The final two fobs are a sort of mini samplers of needlework stitches.

Though tiny pieces it was great fun doing them all, and I may repeat the exercise, though perhaps more as just decorative pieces. The other small things I have been working on were mini biscornus. They can be used as fobs to attach to scissors or anything really. I have now completed two of these mini biscornus. For the first I made up my own designs using traditional Palestinian patterns. The following photos show the two sides of the biscornu. This one is still at present unattached.

For the second mini biscornu I used a design from Louison’s blog. She regularly puts up new designs for biscornus on her blog. The designs are in black and white, so you can choose your own colour scheme. I used greens and here are the two sides before the final stitching and filling.

And here is the finished article now attached to my scissors.

As the pattern came from Louison, I sent her some photos of my work and she kindly put them up on her blog. If you are interested in biscornus, then I would strongly recommend her blog, which you can find here. She does more than just biscornus, so it is well worth visiting anyway.

My current project is another biscornu. This time it is a 15 sided biscornu, and again the designs have come from Louison. The stitching is relatively easy. The difficulty comes with the putting it all together. Wish me luck.