27 February, 2012

LITTLE THINGS OF IMPORTANCE

Over the weekend, whilst reading the sports pages of my newspaper, I came across an article about highly paid Premiership soccer players. The article related to the often bizarre behaviour and life style of these young men. In particular, the huge amounts of money that those involved in many professional sports can earn seems, observed the journalist, to encourage what many might see as bizarre behaviour. A top footballer, earning perhaps over £100,000 pounds per week (as many do) has a life which is “financially meaningless.” And, continued the writer, “Instead they thrive on tiny margins of personal affront, obsessional – and sometimes laughable – details”. These details may be fashion related or general behaviour or attitude to other people or authority or indeed simply lifestyle choices or a misguided view on their own importance in the great scheme of things. The list is endless – both in terms of bizarre behaviours and sportsmen: Mario Balotelli and his outlandish on and off the field behaviour, Ashley Cole with his philandering and unpleasant attitude to life and people, David James with his constantly changing hair colours and styles, David Beckham, Carlos Tevez..........and so on. 
The changing hair of David James

These young men are not “mad” or “bad” – they simply find themselves inhabiting a very different universe to that enjoyed by the rest of us. Because they are not bothered with the everyday problems of “making ends meet” and the everyday other issues and problems that the rest of us have to consider when we wake up in the morning, these young men have to find an outlet and meaning for their life in things which the rest of us might consider unimportant or perhaps even bizarre. They don't have to bother or worry about  the ordinary, the everyday things - so they worry about and become involved with the extraordinary or what many of us would call the bizarre or unimportant. I  suppose that this trait is not confined to top sportsmen – one can often see it with film stars or pop icons and the like. Michael Jackson springs to mind in this regard.

Ashley scores again!
I could relate to a lot of what the writer was saying and although part of me feels strongly that these obscenely highly paid people need to “get a life” I can also see how easy it is to become besotted with hair styles, fashion, expectations about ones rights or how you should be treated by lesser mortals when you really don’t have anything else to think about. And, the problem might be compounded when you constantly mix with other similar people – soccer players live in gated mansions far removed from the ordinary world and I suppose this increasingly becomes accepted as “the norm” and not at all bizarre. . I also read this weekend of the latest Lottery winner who has, I understand, won something in excess of £40 million - how can an amount like this not change a person. No matter how much you try to stay the same you have been removed from all the problems and associated considerations that were previously part of one’s life. Financially you can do anything and be anyone – you will change, whether you like it or not.


However,the more that I have thought about it the more I think we all might suffer from this characteristic to some degree as our life develops and changes. The article got me thinking about the small things of life which can become important as everyone's life changes. Many years ago when my family was young and Pat and I had little spare cash to enjoy any kind of luxury so a take away meal on Saturday night was a real treat. It became important to us - something to look forward to and to strive for, a sign that we were "on the way up!" We would shower, smarten ourselves up and make a bit of an occasion out of the event - all to eat  a take away chinese or curry! Sounds pathetic now - but  we did it! Today, our family have grown up and we are much more financially secure so it is not the treat it was! As a young man I dreamed – even lusted – after an expensive BMW car. Financially it was a pipe dream, unobtainable. Today,  I still haven’t got that BMW (although I could probably afford one) but it seems much less of an ambition and unimportant in the great scheme of things. Today, other things are important which only a few years ago were taken for granted. My heart failure means that an important thing for me is to be able to walk a couple of miles or cut the grass on  my lawn and not get too breathless – it pleases me when I do it because I feel that I am “beating” my heart failure.  And much to Pat's dismay I can get obsessive about proving that I can do it!. Or, because Pat and I are financially “comfortable,” it gives both of us pleasure to be able to take our children and grandchildren away for a few days to our favourite hotel each year - to me especially it is important that I do it and I would be hugely disappointed if we had to stop doing it. Our priorities and values have  changed as we and our circumstances have changed.  - we have a different set of things to get excited or anxious or obsessive about - which I suppose is  not so very far from how the footballer might react when he suddenly finds himself mega rich!

These vague ramblings and newspaper thoughts were going around in my mind over the weekend when a good example of how small things can become important cropped up in my kitchen.
The new kitchen takes shape
Let me explain.

Our house renovations are nearing completion (or at least the builder assures us this is so!) and we are delighted. Much of the kitchen is now in place, our shower is tiled our new central heating is keeping us warm, my new office is being painted as I write this. The builders have been superb – skilled, easy to get on with, obliging and much appreciated because of the advice they have given about what we should choose or how we should arrange our new facilities. 
And yet.......and yet....... I feel slightly cheated. 


You see when we had our last kitchen installed and completely refurbished some twenty eight years ago I did it. I tiled all the walls, installed the kitchen units and work surfaces etc. It was, as they say, “all my own work”. Of course, I didn’t do it as skilfully as our builders today, but even though I say it myself I did a pretty good job and it has stood the test of time. At the time, we could not have afforded to pay someone to do it and in any case I was almost thirty years younger – I could climb ladders more easily than I can now, I could lift heavy kitchen cupboards into position and the screw them to the wall. Sadly, I find those things a little difficult now! But twenty eight years ago I felt genuinely  proud that it was “all my own work!” Today, of course, we have paid our local builder to do the job and over the past six or seven weeks I have watched these guys doing the sorts of things that a quarter of a century ago I could do. I admire their work – far better than I could ever do – but at the same time with a bit of a heavy heart that I have had to become more reliant upon other people.

Yep - it's slowly coming along
I have been anxious, therefore, to increasingly say that when the builders have finished “I’ll ......put up the toilet roll holder in the shower room” or “I’ll touch up the paint on the radiators” or “I’ll put a couple of extra shelves in that new kitchen cupboard”. In other words, make a small contribution – a little thing, a detail that in its way says “I’m here; I’m still capable of doing something!”. Last week, when the new central heating system was finally in place I repainted our airing cupboard and put a couple of shelves in it – a small job in itself and one which our builders would have willingly done in half the time it took me but it which gave me pleasure to think “I did that!” 


In short, I have found it increasingly important to make my own small contribution – to prove to myself that I still have something to offer and this has become a bit of an obsession. I suppose, that like the millionaire sportsman with his fancy hair cut it gives meaning to my life. It defines me and who I am.  It says “This is me”. I can easily pay for someone else to do it but that seems a bit of a  cheat - and if you are a millionaire footballer you can easily do that - but it's not quite the same as expressing yourself and your desires, dreams, ambitions, skills etc. A psychologist or sociologist, I suppose, might say that is an aspect of one's self image.

The wine rack!
This need to define myself reached a bit of a zenith in the past few days! The kitchen is half completed and over our new fridge freezer we have an open storage space. We decided that this would make a good place to store a few bottles of wine. We already had some wine racks that we used in the old kitchen but unfortunately they would not fit the space available. What to do? Get our builder to build some units that would fit the space exactly? Trawl the internet looking for something that would do the job? Forget it and store something else in the space? All of those were quite easy solutions - but not for me!.The whole thing became became my raison d’ĂȘtre! It became something that I wanted to solve – with the emphasis upon “I”! And on Sunday afternoon – after measuring the old wine racks yet again, I suddenly had a brainwave, a flash of inspiration, an idea of how I could adapt the old racks.. A few minutes later after a bit of disassembling, sawing and reassembling the old racks fitted! Not perfectly, I agree, but just what we wanted. Our builder, I know, could have done a much better job. A kitchen designer would probably say this bit of “Heath Robinson” on my part has detracted from the new kitchen – and he’d probably be right. But that isn’t the point. I have put something of me into the job. It had become a statement of my being – how pathetic is that? But, to me, it’s important. The really sad part is that for the remainder of yesterday and indeed, still today, I keep popping out into the kitchen to admire my handiwork - gazing longingly at my contribution and my “good idea”!  When I stand in the kitchen now I see only my handiwork not the wonderful stuff done by the experts! It still needs painting so that it fits in with the new paintwork but that is for another day. For the moment this little detail, this obsession has given a bit of meaning to my life!

Mario' bizarre life style! 
Just like the footballer’s extravagant life style perhaps it reflects how little things can sometimes become of importance in our lives. As the journalist said of the mega rich footballer he might thrive “on tiny margins of personal affront, obsessional – and sometimes laughable – details”. Yep, that was me with my wine racks! Money wasn’t the problem – I could quite easily have asked my builder to do the job and paid him. I could have quite easily visited a carpenter and paid out for some bespoke racks to fit the space. I could have probably found something well suited on the internet – but that wasn’t the point. In the end it was about giving a perceived meaning to my existence!  Perhaps that is what footballer Mario Balotelli was doing recently when, for example, he set off fireworks in his bathroom; or what David James is doing when he changes his hair style and colour by the week; or when Ashley Cole has yet another affair with a top model or TV personality. These people have the excitement of the big game but for the rest of the week are rich young men rattling around in gated mansions. They can have anything they want - anything that money can buy - but perhaps like me deep in their psyche they want/need something else to sustain them. Something that says, "Hey, this is me!"


I don't wish to define myself by regularly colouring my hair; I'm not really into setting off fireworks at any time - least of all at 1 a.m. in my bathroom -  and I'm not sure that I have the energy for a stream of affairs with nubile young ladies (although I might be persuaded to try if anyone out there offers!) So I'll stick to my little jobs around the house. and, anyway, although my wine racks were not so exciting as these other pursuits –  I might argue,  they are, perhaps, a lot more useful, satisfying and meaningful!

20 February, 2012

Austerity is spending

It’s about three weeks since I last blogged – not through lack of enthusiasm but simple lack of opportunity. Our house renovations continue – although I think that we are now on the “run in” – but more importantly, I have been busy with other matters. My football writing has been taking a good deal of time and we escaped the coldest week of the English winter by visiting  Lanzarote for a week in the sun – and very pleasant it was too.

So, back to blogging – but where to start?

On Saturday Pat and I visited a huge shopping retail park just outside Nottingham. There is a vast IKEA store there and a large number of other glossy retail outlets. It was a pretty bad idea from the word go – and when we eventually arrived this was confirmed as we trawled endlessly around the car park looking for a car parking space.  The world and her husband were there! We weren’t looking to buy anything in particular – rather to see what there was now that our new kitchen, office and shower room are almost complete. Together with thousands of others we shambled around IKEA comparing, measuring, arguing, dismissing the items on display and in the end came away with just a few bits and pieces.

As I walked around, becoming increasingly irritated and disenchanted, it struck me that this was austerity Britain! The politicians, the TV news, the newspapers, the Eurozone, the Bank of England and every other political, financial and media agency throughout the world tells me that we are in dire financial straits and have been telling me so for the last three or four years. The proportion of unemployed  rises inexorably,  the housing market is depressed because no one can get a mortgage, more and more people allegedly are slipping into debt and below the poverty line, we are finding it increasingly difficult, it is said, to fund basic services like health and education and certain groups – the less well off, the young and the old are, we are told, hit harder than others. And so the list goes on. Politicians of every hue tell us we are all in this together and that we must tighten our belts – financial Armageddon is just around the corner.
Thousands gate crash Selfridges sale in
London to grab a bargain coat or
dress or i-pad - is this austerity?

And yet.......and yet......this is not what I saw yesterday, or indeed what I see if I go into Nottingham (or any other large city in the UK). What I saw were thousand out spending money – on what essentially was unimportant trivia – not the essentials of life. Each time I go into Nottingham I see people returning home with three or four shopping bags filled with shopping – again, not food and other essentials but clothes, household goods, CDs and the like. If I go into Nottingham (any night of the week from 6 o’clock onwards) I will see thousands of people, mostly youngsters, dressed up and partying, pubs heaving, many  drunk, restaurants full, queues of people standing at cash machines or  outside night clubs waiting to get past the bouncers on the door.  As I walk through Nottingham shopping malls I see mobile phone shops and the like filled with people purchasing and discussing the latest must have i-phone or piece of technology. Only a few weeks ago in the post Christmas sales thousands were queuing all night outside fashionable stores of our big cities to get bargains – not food or warm clothes to ward off the cold winter, but designer handbags, dresses, coats and the like often costing hundreds of pounds.  I read in my paper recently that sales of luxury cars are at their highest levels ever and this seemed to be confirmed as I trawled around the IKEA car park looking for a parking spot - I commented on the number of expensive vehicles 4 x 4s, Volvos, Mercedes and the like – no sign of austerity there!  And our Chancellor, the lovely George Osborne, tells us “we are all in this together” and in a sense he is right. I am part of this culture and  a good example of this alleged austerity – I’ve just had a week away in sunny climes in a 4 star hotel, I’m spending many thousands of pounds having my house renovated  and only a few hours before my trip to IKEA Pat and I had enjoyed a lovely meal at our favourite pub. Yes, times may be hard but in reality there are many, many thousands - indeed millions - like me who don’t really understand the meaning of austerity. In these allegedly financially straitened times millions of us are, lemming like, racing to spend money that we may or may not have on items that we don’t really need!!

Margaret Thatcher once famously commented – and received much deserved criticism for it -  that there was no real poverty in the modern UK. Of course, she was wrong  - poverty is a relative word – but in another sense she had a point which I reflected upon on Saturday. There will be many millions in the UK (and across the developed world) who are poor and who are truly suffering in the present conditions as they are thrown out of work, are forced to live in desperate conditions - but the vast majority of the population, it seems to me, are merely inconvenienced rather than in pain. Austerity for them is rather about their savings are not earning quite the level of interest they would have hoped for, it is about having to pay a few pennies more for their petrol, it is about perhaps only eating out once a week rather than  twice, it is about waiting a bit longer for that luxury. What it is not about is poverty.
And....austerity is spending!

Now, of course, the clever economist would say that I am missing the point. He or she would tell me that what I say might be true but the fact is that people are not spending quite so much as they previously did.  And, he or she would continue, “this is having disastrous consequences on our economy and putting people out of work”.  And I would agree. The economist would say that “we have to keep spending to keep the economy going – this is the nature of the economic system that we have”. And I would agree again – but in doing so cannot escape the feeling that this is some Orwellian nightmare rather like that it “Nineteen Eighty Four” where Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth brainwashes everyone with the slogans “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Our modern day equivalent is “austerity is spending” – we have an obligation to spend money that we allegedly haven’t got in order to  keep the economy going. Orwellian indeed.

And  I might say to the clever economist or the politician that for me there is a flaw in their argument. As a confirmed Keynesian I believe profoundly in stimulating growth.  Unfortunately, however I do not believe that the  current practice of putting money into banks (what the government euphemistically call “quantitative easing” ) has not and will not stimulate the economy and create jobs – it simply stimulates bankers’ bonuses and makes banks more profitable. As a good Keynesian I want to see money in the pockets of people so that they can spend and create demand for the products that are manufactured. This in turn will mean that manufacturers will employ people to make these products, giving them a job, money and security and ensuring that they pay tax into government coffers to pay for all society's needs. The circle, as it where, will be squared.

But as I walked around IKEA and the other big retail outlets like NEXT at the weekend I shook my head – I realised that in modern Britain  even my  Keynesian economics, I fear, will not work. Yes, the spending of the thousands there was keeping the shop assistants in work and no doubt many back room staff at IKEA or NEXT. But as I looked at the products the overwhelming were imported from far eastern countries – this was globalization in its purest form – and very little of what was being spent would eventually generate jobs, security and long term prosperity in the UK. As a nation we have over the past decades consistently run down our manufacturing base – the chrome toilet brush we bought from NEXT was made in China, the stainless steel hot plate stand from IKEA was made in Thailand – few British workers, it seemed to me,  would benefit from our Saturday afternoon spending.

My  shopping trip seemed to impress two factors on my mind. Firstly, the reality of the present situation is that  there is still a lot of money washing about. It’s unevenly spread and many groups are being hit disproportionately hard. When I drive into Nottingham now it is not unusual to see young people standing in the cold on street corners with a placard advertising the local pizza parlour – sandwich board men and women like throw backs to the great depression of the thirties. In the town centres more and more shops are boarded up and if they do  re-open they open as pound shops. By all known indicators poverty is on the increase but despite this there are many, many more, like me for whom financial meltdown  is still largely academic, merely an inconvenience. 

Dennis Healey when he was Labour Chancellor in the 1970s   promised to “squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked”. No  politician could get away with that quote now – and perhaps that is more the pity because if the world is indeed  facing the financial meltdown  then  the millions of “haves” like me who were walking around IKEA on Saturday buying largely unneeded trivia manufactured in far off places and climbing into their 4 x 4s and Mercedes’  perhaps need to be squeezed more and reminded of financial realities. And secondly, the government needs to reverse the policy of quantitative easing (or to use my preferred term, subscribing to the banker’s benevolent fund) and pour the money instead directly into rebuilding a manufacturing  base so that the products that people buy at IKEA and Next are creating jobs and security in the UK – this latter point goes against all my instincts and beliefs  but to do otherwise, it seems to me is simply pouring good money after bad. We are currently  spending  money that we may not have but to no discernable benefit to our society - it is benefitting only multinationals like IKEA or NEXT or nebulous “entrepreneurs” like Philip Green  -  and that cannot be right.