28 February, 2009

Iceland: music for geysers

We hear a lot these days of the disastrous collapse of Iceland’s banking and business sectors but little or nothing about that nation’s cultural heritage. After my first sample I am here to tell you that it is right up there with Icelandic liquidity management.

The audience at the Borromini Sacristy of Sant’Agnese in Agone, Rome, were treated last night to a recital by Nina Margrét Grìmsdòttìr featuring works by Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson and Pàll Isòlfsson. These are composers whose work has largely, and rightly, been overlooked.

The nearest I can get to describing the work of Sveinbjörn Sveinbjörnsson (so good they named him twice!) is that it seemed like a random selection of the national anthems of West African nations, one moment grandiloquent, at times sonorous, at times jocular, as if three Olympic athletes had come joint first and the band had a go at playing the various themes concurrently.

Pàll Isòlfsson was along the same lines but for my money seemed to offer a new layer of randomness, almost Maoist in its insistence that you never get used to one theme, that you are projected into a new layer of horror before you have understood what’s going on. Grìmsdòttìr pounded the keyboard valiantly but you had the feeling she had abandoned all hope.

I recommend Icelandic music to you: an experience on a par with a visit to their frozen food shop.

27 February, 2009

Cameron and the NHS

Right at the start of Tony Blair's premiership we had a clue of the empty vessel we had elected. A nutcase, you may recall, had burst into a school in Dunblane and slaughtered a number of children. It was an horrific, shocking event, leaving the country numb. It was a time for strong leadership.

A group of bereaved mothers wanted the law changed, as a memorial to their lost children. They were called, if I remember, the Snowdrop Campaign. Blair, more interested in headlines than governance, acceded to their wants and 'handguns' (pistols to you and me) were banned. Apart from the idiotic incidence of the British Olympic Shooting Team having to train in France (for ownership of a pistol, deemed so dreadful by these bereaved mothers was part of a sport, subsidised by the taxpayer) there has been no beneficial effect of this law. It used to be that the bad guys, and a very small number of good guys, had guns, now it is only the bad guys. You can buy a pistol in a pub in many cities, for about £50.

The lesson of all this is that the bereaved are not in a position to make laws. They are too emotionally connected.

Following the tragic loss of his son Ivan, it is being said that David Cameron's politics have been shaped by the experience, and the poor boy's tragic life and death will influence the country. Here is Cameron quoted in the Times: "When your family relies on the NHS all the time – day after day, night after night – you really know just how precious it is.” The Telegraph says: "He revealed the treatment of his son at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, where he died was one of the prime reasons why the NHS had become such a campaign priority for his Conservative Party. "

I recently heard of a man who entered hospital without anything that much wrong with him and contracted, in the hospital, MRSA, C-difficile and E-Coli. There is an increasing number of reports of unnecessary deaths in hospitals. Doctors earn £100,000 a year and people can't get treated. Such is the rationing of healthcare that older people have to be deemed less deserving of treatment than the young. There is talk of not treating the overweight in order to save cash.

What the NHS needs is a good kick up the backside; I wonder now if David Cameron is equipped to administer it.

26 February, 2009

Directors' Disqualification

When a small company goes bust, if the directors are seen to have acted rashly and in particular wasted government money (not paid the VAT) they can be disqualified, under the Company Directors' Disqualification Act.

RBS and HBOS anyone?

Italian News Lenten Edition

The Villa Borghese Gallery in Rome, which has works by Bellini and Caravaggio and includes Raphael’s Deposition, now boasts an exhibition of photographs of Sarah Palin. The show runs for several weeks and you can get a taxi from the airport.

A series of rape cases has alarmed the public and engendered an anti-immigrant feeling. The Justice Ministry has confirmed that whilst the rapes in large cities had been committed largely by immigrants, overall in Italy most rapists were Italian.

Tests in the waters around Sicily are showing that an anti barnacle paint applied to the hulls of ships may be causing molluscs to change sex.

The San Remo festival, Italy’s private Eurovision Song contest (Italy, to its credit, does not belong to Eurovision) had been threatened with closure unless its audience ratings improved, and to the delight of all, pulled 50% of prime time viewing, against 18% for its nearest rival. The winner was Marco Carta with a forgettable song.

The largely charisma-free Walter Veltroni has resigned as head of the centre left Partito Deomcratico after disastrous losses to Berlusconi’s PdL, most recently in Sardegna. The new leader will be Dario Franceschini

18,500 people descended on Venice for Carnival, adding to more than 10,000 already there. The annual festival seems to be losing popularity, with nearly half of all Milanese, Florentines and Palermitans ready to cancel it. Carnival is most popular in Naples.

This past week has not only been the coldest of the winter in Rome but also the coldest in the past 100 years. However the coldest day so far this winter was said to have been on January 14, when it was fractionally below zero.

There is new excitement that work might begin this year on the Messina Bridge. Don’t hold your breath, though.

18 February, 2009

Mills no boon

News that tax lawyer David Mills had been sentenced to 4 years 6 months in prison came as a bit of a surprise - the prosecution had requested 4 years and I thought that was a bit tongue in cheek - but we shouldn't read too much into it. The sentence will only be confirmed once the appeal procedure has been gone through (2 separate appeals) and this moves so slowly it will certainly come up against the statute of limitations. This is what happens to 70% of crime here. White collar crime hardly ever ends in prison. One British newspaper archly suggested that this might bring down Berlusconi, which made me chuckle (him too, I expect).

I still think we have not heard enough about the British end. The way Mills washed the money was to take out a mortgage on his house (jointly owned with wife Tessa Jowell, the minister) and repay it with the ..er.. less clean stuff. Jowell, at the time a cabinet minister and now Paymaster General, if you will believe it, had to sign the appropriate forms on borrowing and repayment but claimed that it was just something her husband asked her to do for his business. Mills, and apparently this is not the first time it had happened, said to a Cabinet Minister with three University degrees 'Don't bother your pretty little head about this' and she didn't.

I'm afraid this beggars belief and really does need to be properly investigated. At the time the cabinet office said it was a matter for the Prime Minister (Blair) who simply absolved her. Not good enough for me.

15 February, 2009

Health Fascism and the Left

'Heavy drinkers are receiving nearly one in four of the UK's liver transplants, it was revealed last night, igniting a furious row .....' thus shrieks the Observer.

Actually, I'm a little surprised we tipplers don't make up for a higher proportion. What have the three quarters who haven't damaged their livers with drink done to need a transplant? They can't all have got Hepatitis exploring up the Amazon, surely?

According to the rant, Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the British Medical Association's medical ethics committee 'acknowledges' that this is raising new questions for surgeons, who 'are within their rights to refuse transplants to anyone with alcohol-related liver disease if they do not demonstrate a genuine desire to stop drinking.'

And I bet you were expecting this: 'Liberal Democrat shadow culture, media and sport secretary Don Foster, who obtained the new transplant figures, said only by increasing the cost of alcohol could the nation's health be saved from Britain's binge-drinking culture.' As with most Lib Dem MPs, I've never heard of him, but I bet he's a smug, sober bastard, hmm?

So, under the new fascism, when you are ill, before you are treated some godly soul is going to decide whether you have contracted your illness in a suitable way, and perhaps withhold treatment if you do not show remorse for your sins.

Now, I don't mind limiting healthcare provision for people who have brought their troubles on themselves, as long as we have a level playing field. Promiscuous homosexual who has contracted AIDS? No drugs or liver transplant for you! Respiratory complaint when you live in a town? Suffer and die, towny! Mountain climber? Cyclist? Nope, brought it on yourself.

Alternatively we could revert to the system of treating people who need help.

14 February, 2009


An Italian, who these days runs a good restaurant in Tuscany, married an English girl and lived for a while near London. Asked if he enjoyed his time in England he replied that he just could not tolerate the English attitude to lamb and returned to Tuscany with his bride.

I disagree. Apart from the fact that there are other and better reasons for leaving England, the separate treatment of Spring lamb, shearling (which has overwintered), hoggett (another year) and mutton (caper sauce) seems to me a triumph.

For Italians, and particularly for Romans, however, it is now that lamb should be eaten. They know nothing of mutton. Such is the heat in central Italy in summer that lamb is the only creature that spends its entire life out of doors. Pigs, ewes and cattle are brought in before the middle of spring. The lambs eat the early grass and are very good.

For fresh spring lamb the Roman way, which they call abbacchio, get the butcher to hack at the bones to break them, ensuring quicker cooking. Don't plug it with rosemary and garlic, just sprinkle with salt, heat the oven until it is exploding and cook for the shortest time possible. Serve with lemon. And turnips.

The tiny lamb chops are picked up by hand. The Romans call it scottadito - 'burn your fingers'.

Germany: The Aristocracy strikes back

The name of the new German Economics Minister is Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jakob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

Love it.

12 February, 2009


Oddly, I have heard nothing of it from my American friends, nor does it seem to have got much coverage in the press, but today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

What I like about Lincoln was that he was a far from perfect figure. He seems to me a man of contradictions, and a man of doubts, which is healthy for a politician.

President Obama makes much of comparisons with Lincoln (they both began their politics in Illinois) but he will do well if he comes up with something as good as this:

'.....that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.'

Proportional Representation

Every time I hear one more crank go on about proportional representation (often ludicrously referred to, unchallenged by the media, as 'fair votes') I think of Israel.

Israel's insane system regularly delivers two parties with similar support and a host of tiny parties, some of whom are raging nutcases. As with most systems of PR, after the people have voted, the political class gets together and decides what sort of government they are going to get, often having little correlation with the wishes of the electorate. So the parties find that they can only govern with the support of some nutcases; which nutcases to choose?

In this instance, there are the usual deeply religious parties, some of whom believe they should nuke the Arabs, but one nutcase, Avigdor Liebermann, has a healthy vote. Either party could govern with his support. He is rabidly anti-Arab so it would more likely be Netanyahu who would form a coalition with him. So the people, having voted for Livni as the largest party, will likely get something very different.

It probably won't matter because Hamas wouldn't recognise Israel if it had Father Abraham in charge, so there won't be peace anyway.

10 February, 2009

Free Trade

Emma Marcegaglia, the Chairman of Confindustria, the Italian equivalent of the CBI, who runs a steel company in her free time, has written an article in the FT today, critcising the protesters at the Lindsey refinery and laying into Gordon Brown for being foolish enough to say 'British jobs for British workers'. She mentions that her company, Marcegalia Industries, is about to make an investment in Britain and that such cross border movements of people and capital are to the benefit of us all.

She is right, of course, but the reason I mention it is this: when the Italians start criticisng you for protectionism you need to take a long hard look at yourself.


Just as the debate was reaching new heights of self-righteous pomposity, Eluana, the girl in the coma for 16 years whose feeding tube was removed last week, has stolen a march on them all. By dying.

I am not sure we British, or anyone else, would have managed this much better, but it has been a period from which neither the politicians nor the girl's family nor indeed the press have come out well. Even those, like me, who are against the legalisation of euthanasia will find it hard to resist a feeling of relief that it is all over.

One change which could be introduced would be to enforce the privacy of the patient, whether the relatives want it or not.

08 February, 2009

City Bonuses

A lot has been said recently about City bonuses, and I feel it may be time to put the thing into perspective. There are essentially three types of bonus. When I joined the City in the 1970s, I received just a monthly salary but my friends in what were then called stockbrokers earned a lot less as a basic salary but had a bonus. With an average bonus we all earned about the same, but when times were bad they scarcely earned enough to cover their rent or mortgage. This bonus didn’t apply to personal performance but to the company performance: dealers and secretaries were on the same deal. In the present unhappy times it seems obvious that these bonuses should be zero: the banks aren’t making any money.

In the post Big Bang City the bonus idea was applied to a lot more people, on more of a personal incentive basis. If salesmen sold a lot they earned a lot of money. I have no problems with that. Picture a vacuum cleaner salesman: he was told to sell vacuum cleaners and he sold shed loads of them. He should get his bonus because it is not his responsibility if the vacuum cleaners are no good. Several junior bankers earn a lot more than their senior counterparts: we learn that the highest paid employee in RBS earned four times what the Chairman earned. Good for him. But let’s not blame the sergeants; it’s the officers that make the decisions.

It is with the senior management that we (the people as shareholders) have to get tough. It is the managing directors and directors who have allowed a lot of this to happen. They it was who subcontracted out the credit analysis function to ratings agencies. They it was who got their banks into the stage where they didn’t know what they had invested in; couldn’t say how much was tied up in property or what the exposure to Icelandic shares was. They it was who told the traders to pile these assets on to the books.

The City – and this should come from the shareholders, not the government, needs a new form of remuneration. Bonus should mean bonus, and you get none when times are bad, even if it’s not your fault. For the senior men the shareholders should be able to claw the money back up to five years later. This would instil a sense of responsibility into investment and lending which will be sorely needed in this part of the cycle.

If a junior guy has got a huge bonus for selling something he wasn’t to know was toxic, let him keep it. He’ll need the money when he is laid off.


Hear the words of Charles Krauthammer following Obama's emergency stimulus bill, not just a continuation, but an exaggeration of pork-barrel politics:

'Not just to abolish but to create something new -- a new politics where the moneyed pork-barreling and corrupt logrolling of the past would give way to a bottom-up, grass-roots participatory democracy. That is what made Obama so dazzling and new. Turns out the "fierce urgency of now" includes $150 million for livestock (and honeybee and farm-raised fish) insurance.

The Age of Obama begins with perhaps the greatest frenzy of old-politics influence peddling ever seen in Washington. By the time the stimulus bill reached the Senate, reports the Wall Street Journal, pharmaceutical and high-tech companies were lobbying furiously for a new plan to repatriate overseas profits that would yield major tax savings. California wine growers and Florida citrus producers were fighting to change a single phrase in one provision. Substituting "planted" for "ready to market" would mean a windfall garnered from a new "bonus depreciation" incentive.

After Obama's miraculous 2008 presidential campaign, it was clear that at some point the magical mystery tour would have to end. The nation would rub its eyes and begin to emerge from its reverie. The hallucinatory Obama would give way to the mere mortal. The great ethical transformations promised would be seen as a fairy tale that all presidents tell -- and that this president told better than anyone.

I thought the awakening would take six months. It took two and a half weeks.'

Some of us, unpopularly, suspected this. As the French, in their unsurpassed idiom put it: 'Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose'


07 February, 2009

Euthanasia in Italy

Italy is floundering in the waters of a familiarly intractable problem. Euthanasia.

This is something every country has difficulty with, but here it is being played out in a peculiarly Italian fashion. The case concerns Eluana Englaro, a strikingly attractive girl who, 16 years ago was involved in a near fatal car accident. I say near fatal because she has been in a persistent vegetative state all that time. Her father wants the feeding plug pulled.

The lower court agreed, but the minister said this could not happen in a state run hospital. Yesterday Eluana was moved to a private hospital. The government, some say under pressure from the Vatican, others say sensing the mood in the more religious South from where it draws much of its support, rushed through a measure banning the removal of the feeding tube. The President, Giorgio Napolitano, a former communist, refused to sign the decree. The government threatens to return the measure to Parliament.

This is not the time to rehearse the arguments in favour and against. The attractiveness of Eluana has tilted the balance – pictures of her laughing face make you think it incredible that such a being could have its life terminated. One doctor, in favour of pulling the plug, reflected that public reaction might be different if they saw her now. Initially I thought it would have been best if the father quietly removed the tube, she died and then they just didn’t prosecute him. Certainly if there were any evidence that the girl were suffering that is what I like to think I would have done myself.

But there is no evidence that Eluana is suffering. And there is a further complication: removal of the feeding tube means it would take her 10 days to die. It cannot be done clandestinely, so the story is played out in the media on a daily basis, and on balance they have handled it sympathetically.

Loss of dignity? Sanctity of human life? I don’t know. What I do know is that if it were me I would be very unhappy about my daughter’s life being played out in public, without her ever knowing.

06 February, 2009

Clarkson - Brown

The issue of what I don't suppose will come to be called Clarksongate could have been resolved easily by Brown's going to law. He could then have persuaded the court that
a he wasn't one-eyed or
b he wasn't Scottish or
c he wasn't an idiot.

Er.... perhaps his mother was Welsh?

05 February, 2009

Longleat in the snow

Photo by Robert Tilleard, who has recently completed a portrait of the Marquess of Bath, which hangs in the reception area at Longleat.
Tilleard also paints portraits of adults, children, animals as well as cherished objects and landscapes for the more proletarian amongst us, myself included. See http://www.tilleard.co.uk/

Another shameful disaster?

My reactions to the news that we are sending a team to bid for the 2018 Football World Cup alternated between humour and horror.

Could we please come back down to earth? It is going to be bad enough with the Olympics. Britain has a shameful record for bringing these grands projets in anything like on time or within budget. We have a transport system the quality of which would embarrass Cairo. The standard of the hotels is abysmal, it is near impossible to get a decent meal except at fantastic expense and, most important of all, listen to me, WE HAVEN'T GOT ANY MONEY.

Stop it! Lord love us!

04 February, 2009

A bit of Bob

Andrew Stuttaford quoted in Samizdata after Michael Phelps the swimmer had been caught smoking pot

'Look, I don't blame Michael Phelps for apologizing. He has a living to earn, so he did what he had to do.

In the meantime, I merely note that this broken wreck of a man's failure to win any more than a pathetic fourteen Olympic gold medals (so far) is a terrifying warning of the horrific damage that cannabis can do to someone's health - and a powerful reminder of just how sensible the drug laws really are.'