Diary

Burtle

This is our house which I will tell you more about later. And I will tell you about why the stock market just makes rich people richer, but not yet. And I will also tell you how quite a lot of stuff we do just seems to make rich people richer.

But first of all I need to tell you that although this page is called Blog/Diary, really it should just be called Diary. Even mentioning the word Blog is nonsense. It is a Diary. So it starts on December 7th 2014, and stops before Christmas. And then nothing at all for about seven years so it clearly isn’t much of a diary either. I had several diaries like that in my youth : started off with great enthusiasm and got bored after a few weeks if I lasted even that long. That’s my trouble see. No moral fibre!

No, honestly, I really am going to get started again…. soon.


Sunday December 7th 2014

I was going to start this diary thing on Jan 1st 2015 because that would seem to be a tidy date on which to start something. However, I have just ordered a book that will tell me how to kill myself when I choose, so I thought that perhaps I ought to begin right away, just in case.

I got it off Amazon. I do keep trying to put the boot into Amazon in some way for fiddling its taxes, or not paying any at all, but they are just so convenient.

Anyway, this book I’ve ordered is Five Last Acts (2nd Edition: revised and expanded) by Chris Docker. I don’t know if the revisions are to do with improving those methods that turned out not to work, or that the expansion consists of ten exciting new ways to kill yourself, but it hasn’t arrived yet so I don’t know.

I should tell you that I have discussed this whole thing at some length with Claire but she is inclined to glaze over after a bit. She generally prefers the philosophy of “head in sand”. This has served us both pretty well so far, but the last time I popped my head out for quick look it did seem that I couldn’t dodge it forever. This doesn’t mean that anything is likely to happen in a great hurry. About ten years ago Claire decided that it really was time that she took keeping fit seriously. So she girded her loins and went out and bought a pair of moderately expensive trainers. And that was the last I remember of having to worry about discussing keeping fit as a serious subject. Or dying.


Thursday December 11th 2014

The book I ordered with instructions about how to do myself in arrived the other day. I haven’t looked at it. I don’t need to at the moment, now that I have it. Claire opened it when it arrived as she does with everything that she thinks might be interesting. She didn’t notice what it was about and just put it on my desk. She glanced into it yesterday and asked me if I knew it was all about how to kill yourself. My saying that I did appeared to be a satisfactory answer and allow us a happy return to “head in sand” mode.

By coincidence this year’s Reith Lectures ( on BBC Radio 4, the old git station ) are a fascinating series by an American Doctor called Atul Gawande. The theme seems to be about how modern medicine, despite its best endeavours, is failing both doctors and patients. The third one is about end of life care and assisted dying. He says that in places where it is legal to obtain prescription drugs that will end one’s life, the vast majority of those who acquire them never use them. It seems that having the choice is important. Perhaps that is why I am in no great hurry to read my book now that I possess it. That, and the fact that I now find the prospect a bit scary.

Dr Gawande says that in those US states where assisted dying is legal, only about 1% of the terminally ill take advantage of it. He is worried that in Holland where assisted dying has been legal for rather longer, a similar percentage has crept up to between 3 and 4%. Whereas initially the majority reason was the relief from incapacity or pain, this has been replaced by “not wanting to be a burden on others”. This he finds worrying. I suppose I sort of agree, but I think it is more complicated than that. And in any case I am not entirely sure that not being an intolerable burden and worry to your nearest and dearest is that bad a reason for shuffling off in a dignified manner slightly earlier than absolutely necessary.


Wednesday December 17th 2014

Stephan and Edith Koerner died together in Bristol in August 2000.

She was 79 and he was 85. They had made their own arrangements for their death.

Edith fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 following the Nazi invasion. She met Stephan in England who was in the Czechoslovak free army and they married in 1944. They moved to Bristol where they lived until their deaths.

By the time I met them Stephan had retired from a distinguished academic career and was Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Bristol University. Edith had an equally eminent history as a passionate and influential reformer of the National Health Service and Chairman of the Magistrates Bench in Bristol.

I knew them for several reasons, but mainly because I was their general builder and odd job man. Stephan was hopelessly impractical and was always sent off to make the tea whilst Edith supervised anything I did. “You don’t mind if I watch you, Mr Howell”. This was, she said, “because next time I can do it myself and I don’t have to pay you”. During the twenty years I knew her, she always called me Mr Howell and I addressed her always as Mrs Koerner. It was a quaint formality, and I discovered only recently that it was a courtesy she insisted on with almost everyone.

Despite over half a century in England they both still spoke with an endearingly strong accent and a characteristic directness that still seems rather more European than English.

I probably spent as much time at their house talking and drinking tea as I did doing anything useful, but whilst I was a bit overawed by their academic and social status they seemed to enjoy my company. Each of us was interested in politics and the human condition, and I learned a lot from them.

One of the things we talked about in some depth was their personal determination to be in control of their own death.

Edith would say that if she died first Stephan would be on the next bus. This was not only because he was absolutely devoted to her, but also because he was physically dependent on her for maintaining all the practical logistics of life generally. It was a standing joke in academic circles that he would never have got to many of the international conferences he attended had it not been for Edith organising him. He would not have managed at home on his own. If he had gone into a care home, however good, he would have found the patronising indignities heaped upon him unbearable, and he knew it. And he saw no point at all in having to endure them.

I agreed with him at the time and I still do.

“On the other hand”, Edith said, ”If Stephan goes first, maybe I wait a little and see!”

This was all more than thirty years ago, and twenty years before their death. They lent me a couple of books ( apparently unobtainable in the UK ) whose titles I forget, and links to a couple of organisations I also forget. It was all a bit cloak and dagger.

Their main concern was that having managed to obtain the right drugs in the right quantity to provide a pain free and reliable overdose, what was their realistic shelf life and how could you tell? The fear was that if the drugs were old they might have lost their potency. The worst consequence of that would be not quite dying! Or that only one of them would die.

I think I paid less attention to the books and contacts than I might have done since my likely time of death was still a comforting distance away, so I lapsed into my usual “head in sand” mode.

Edith’s assumption was that she would outlive Stephan and “would wait a little and see”. So, although we would discuss it if it was in the news for some reason, it disappeared from the front page.

That is, until Edith was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. She was an inveterate and unapologetic smoker and enjoyed smoking again after her terminal diagnosis.

Of course, like all of us, they were well aware that it was illegal to assist anyone to die, and had no intention of asking for help. They were absolutely determined that there should be no question that their death had in any way been assisted, or that it had been an accident. They planned it with the competence that she was very good at and at which Stephan was hopeless.

She had become very frail and confined to bed when I saw her about a fortnight before she died.

She told me, ”I feel so privileged to be able to choose the time and manner of my death when so many cannot“.

Edith had left a short list of people to be told that all was well after the event, So I knew that it had happened and I was never in any doubt that it was as they would have wished.


Tuesday December 23rd 2014

Whilst I am concerned with the manner and timing of my own final departure, I wouldn’t want you to think it was a preoccupation. There are quite a lot of things I need to do first, but I felt I should put down a marker for future reference.

Mostly, we don’t much enjoy parties, but this was a fancy dress one and allowed each of us to go as someone else. For some reason this made it different. I think it is mainly because I seem to be rather better at being someone else than I am at being me.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year


July 31st 2021

There was a time when lots of the clever and greedy argued that buying and selling shares in the stock market was essential to oil the wheels of industry. I just want you to know that it isn’t and it doesn’t. It just makes rich people richer.

Well, that’s what I think.

So here is your chance to win a small prize.

I know £1000.00 isn’t serious money. I have never had serious money, but come on: it must be a good family night out, and that is better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

If you can persuade me that buying and selling shares, or commodities, or options on commodities, or futures, or any of that shit, is fundamentally a good thing, and helps the world in general to be either a better or richer place for everyone, it will be my pleasure to give you a thousand quid.

So why would I even do that? Well, just because I said I would.

You don’t trust me? Why would you not trust me? Surely all these other clever investing people keep their word. Of course they do, my poor children. The whole shooting match has been sustained for hundreds of years on the basis that an Englishman’s word is his bond. For they are the grownups, and have a responsibility for keeping their word. Of course they do. And they know what they are doing. Don’t they? Of course they do, my lovely children.

Investment markets of one kind or another have existed for around a thousand years to provide trading funds, and reduce risk. Investing in things was exactly what got the merchants of Venice to be so rich and in my opinion rather unfairly got Shylock into trouble. If you don’t get the Shakespearian reference in this, don’t worry about it; in the scheme of things it won’t matter much.

You lend a friend some money so he can go and buy lots of spices or other nice things for almost nothing on the other side of the planet, bring them back here and sell them for loads more than he paid. Then he gives you back your loan and a bit extra as a reward for having lent him the cash in the first place.

With small variations that’s it really. If you get that you have sussed the principle of financial speculation. Or put another way, guessing what is going to happen next. That is, unless you are a money lender or a broker. If you are either of these you don’t have to guess what happens next because you won’t care. All you need to consider is how much extra a borrower is going to have to give you when they pay you back the money you lent them.

And if you are a broker you charge a fee when anybody buys, sells, borrows or repays money for anything, just for actually moving the money around. That’s it really.

For the same thousand years this speculative area of the economy of a nation or community has been regarded as fraught with potential abuse, and therefore socially suspect. One reason for this is that people often turn out to be quite greedy.

Around 500BC Confucius, the Chinese philosopher credited with formulating the social priorities of China for the next thousand years regarded bankers, money lenders, and traders of any kind as lower in the social scale and less valuable to the community than farm labourers because they didn’t actually produce anything. This was an extraordinarily wise idea, and the world might now have been a much happier place if we had stuck with Confucius and did what he said.

In fact, almost all the more abstract and risky mechanisms for making money have been regarded as unethical, illegal, or both, worldwide, until about fifty years ago.

In the whole of 2014 the London Stock Exchange put around £10 billion into funding IPOs. Just to remind you, an IPO is an Initial Public Offering. It is when a company offers its shares for public sale on the stock exchange and hopes that investors will buy them. If successful this will give a company a good lump of cash to invest in its future. That means £10 billion was invested to oil the wheels of industry.

But hang on a minute. In the same year The London Stock Exchange traded £4 billion A DAY in share trades that had nothing to do with IPOs, investing in your company or anyone else’s. On that particular day and most others, traders just made money out of buying and selling your shares and everyone else’s to each other. That is nearly £1trillion a year so I am afraid 99% of the LSE turnover didn’t oil anything except the greedy palms of the traders.

So what about this fabled liquidity the stock market is supposed to provide? Liquidity is the available cash floating about generally to keep the whole economy sort of moving. The value of the companies which make up the LSE is around £4trillion. This is four thousand billion so it is quite a big number and a huge amount of money. This valuation is what “the market” values your firm together with all the others, but this isn’t in cash. It is a nominal valuation. However, traders turn over the £1trillion a year in real money amongst themselves.

This is not a liquidity that is available to you of course. You get less than 1% of that as the £10 billion for IPO initial share issues so that is the extent of the liquidity I am afraid. All the cash profit is made by the traders buying and selling £1trillion worth of shares by selling them to each other. If you want to make a profit out of the measly £10 billion they put into your IPOs you have to do real work for that, and pay the traders what they consider to be a decent return for doing bugger all in case they downvalue your shares which will make it harder for you to borrow money to keep working hard in your business.

You are all unbelievably gullible.

Look, suppose I bought some of your shares when you went public. To be honest I don’t even care what your Acme Widget Company makes, or even what it actually does. I don’t know where you are, or how many people you employ. I don’t care whether you are a good employer or not unless it has a bearing on how good a bet I think you are. I am a stock market investor, but I didn’t “invest” in your company. I just bought your shares because I thought I could sell them for more than I paid.

And when I do sell them at a profit do I use the profit to oil the wheels of industry? Oh, come on! I buy more shares in something else I don’t care about from other people doing the same thing.

And we will buy and sell anything if it makes a profit. Futures, commodities the price of a tortilla, oil, bread. I will short things, whatever that is; swap trade, hedge bet, in other words do absolutely anything that I think will make money.

If, at the end of the year the FT index has gone up 10% , I and my fellow traders will have made £400 billion out of it, and you have got a measly £10 billion between the lot of you. I don’t know what you think, but I reckon you got a pretty shitty deal.

Of course it’s only money. But that’s OK because once we have it we can buy your posh houses in the best places, and your prime farmland, and Scotland, and convert it all into real wealth at your expense. And then we will own your country.

Even investment as money is now rather old school.

We have moved on from big firms taking over smaller ones, and cashless mergers, to leveraged hedge fund buyouts designed principally to strip and burn. This is a model which often involves surprisingly little real money going in but quite a lot coming out. And “making money” seems to have taken on a whole new meaning. The creation of crypto currencies such as bitcoin now requires the consumption of sufficient electricity to bankrupt entire countries and send them into blackout and starvation of their poor. All in the cause of a vibrant and growing economy.

You might be a bit surprised to find that the UK seems no longer to actually own its defence industry, and is already beginning to lose control over its National Health Service, and its social care structure. The majority of care homes responsible for the mentally ill and vulnerable are now owned by private hedge funds, making three times the profit on capital invested that even Tesco and Amazon manage.

Our water, electricity generation, transport system, airspace and pharmaceutical industries are already long gone of course.

We will explain to you, the poor and ignorant, that this doesn’t really matter because actual money is no longer a crucial part of current economic thinking as long as it is sustainable, FFS!

And then we fiddle our taxes to a degree you couldn’t even imagine so that we don’t even have to contribute to educate your children, keep you well, or look after your old people. But then you are obviously too stupid to deserve looking after.

If that sounds a bit harsh prove me wrong and claim your £1000.00!

On the other hand if you did persuade me I suppose I could give you the grand and then just copy what you do.

Do you think that might work?

And by the way, we are just going to put up all your electricity and gas prices, so you can be cold and hungry as well this winter.


July 2nd 2022

The days that changed everything

I think the first of these was February 24th last year, 2021, shortly before I finished phase one of the Red Brick Life Factory with the £250,000 I got off The Towns Fund.

That evening Claire said I dropped a bottle of milk and had gone a bit weird. The following morning an ambulance turned up at home, and much against my better judgement I got carted off to Weston General hospital, where they insisted I had suffered a TIA. They spent all day incessantly asking me the same boring questions, and calling me Robin in a very annoying and schoolmistressy sort of way.

A TIA is a mini stroke, which I don’t remember having had at all, and by the afternoon was not only bored and grumpy, but was also sufficiently compos mentis to demand to be released with or without their blessing. I said that either Claire could come and pick me up or I would walk home, so she did.

I think the hospital had decided I was uncooperative which of course was true, but I agreed to take a couple of pills proposed by the GP, go to Musgrove hospital in Taunton to have an ultrasound test on my carotids, whatever they are, to be told they were fine, and get to drive again after four weeks.

After my cataract operation I was driving again the following day so that was good.

There was another small bonus resulting from my TIA. After my final report on phase one of the life factory at the end of March, they wrote to me for more information about objectives and outcomes and stuff. This gave me the golden opportunity to send a reply saying that I had suffered this stroke thing, and my medical advisers had said that on no account should I do anything that was the least likely to upset me. I said that I was afraid that ticking their boxes and filling in their tedious forms came well up that list so I was afraid it wasn’t going to happen.

This was complete twaddle of course, but much too good a chance to miss. I got away with it and was subsequently forgiven!

There were, however, a couple of more profound consequences of this TIA.

Firstly, Claire was, and possibly still is convinced that the TIA induced a personality change in me. I am not sure exactly what she thought this meant. I don’t think she thought I wasn’t so good at crosswords, or sums or geography, or remembering who famous people were. I think we are both equally bad at that. I think she felt I wasn’t such a nice person, or was more likely to bite her head off for saying the wrong thing. Now I am quite prepared to recognise that there may be an element of truth in this. However, being Mrs Tact and Diplomacy have never been things that Claire has been best at, and while I would be stupid not to accept the power of a woman’s intuition, it doesn’t mean they are always right. I feel Claire has always had a rather more adversarial attitude than I towards discussing anything. So, perhaps there are a few things that each of us feels the other one just doesn’t “get”, so we may have to disagree about them and see how things work out.

It did raise the much more important issue of what having a stroke actually means for me.

What seems to be generally agreed is that if you have a stroke of any kind, sooner or later you will probably get another one. Within weeks of having mine I was already discussing with anyone interested the idea that I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to hang around for the next one.

My thinking went roughly like this. When you did get another one, the outcome was likely to be one of three things.

It might be another minor event from which one quickly recovers with few, if any, other effects.

It might be massive and just kill me. This would of course be pretty dramatic, and very sad, but quite clean and simple. The third possibility is that it wouldn’t quite kill me, which is without doubt my least favourite option, given any sort of choice. In fact the very idea of losing the capacity to choose my own fate very quickly came to dominate my thinking about almost everything.

It led me to setting up QWAC which is the Quit While you are Ahead Club. So far Tom Clark and I are the only members, and I am not entirely convinced about his unambiguous commitment.

So, the next really important day that changed everything was Tuesday June7th this year.

On Monday I had gone up to Bristol to collect Jonathan and his camping kit and windsurf board thing and drive him down to Beer near Seaton where he had booked into a favourite campsite he had been going to for years.

We had a very happy day setting up a tent, eating crab salad, meeting friendly people, and I spent a luxurious night sleeping full stretch in the back of the Volvo. I had taken all the tools out to get Than’s stuff in, and had lots of duvets and pillows to sleep on. The next day, after a leisurely getting up and coffee I pottered back in the direction of home, and called in to see Gabriel who was looking after Amy’s eco shop in the Crispin Centre in Street. The Crispin Centre is now a sad affair since Tesco moved out, consisting largely of empty shops, bored kids, wind, leaves and piss.

At some point I went for a wee. When I didn’t come back Gabriel came to check I was OK and I apparently said I was. When I still didn’t come back he found me unconscious in the loo, and very sensibly dialled 999.

Apparently some first responder paramedics arrived before the ambulance, which was pretty good. This was on Tuesday afternoon. It seems I had convulsions or fits or something on the way to Yeovil hospital, so by the time Claire arrived I think they had me on a ventilator and in a coma to keep me quiet and told Claire I had had a brain seizure. I don’t really remember much until Thursday. They did an MRI scan in the morning and Claire picked me up in the afternoon. I am now on a couple more pills, and can’t drive for a year!

So, thank you Gabriel for doing all the right things. Thanks for looking after me ’til the ambulance took me away. Thanks for getting me off a parking ticket, looking after my car and getting it back to me even if I am not allowed to drive it which is just such a pain.

Thanks for understanding that everything is on hold until I work out what I want to do.

I know that you also understand that the thing that worries me beyond all else is losing the capacity to choose my own fate. Claire has been saying to people that I am depressed. I am not sure whether this is what she believes, but I am afraid it is bollocks. I am not in the least depressed.

I have had a very good time and have done lots of stuff.

I am surrounded by friends and relations who all insist that they want to look after me even if I am a dribbling wreck.

It is however, not what I want.

Now that I am genuinely ancient and have done all the things I need to do, I would like the freedom to be able to say thanks a lot everyone: that was fun, and I now need to find an elegant way of just getting off rather than run the risk of losing the ability to retain the dignity I still have.


Diary 4th July 2022

Today, Claire has gone to visit her sister Ursula in the USA and I am not the least envious. I don’t know quite what America has done to itself since my little hitchhike round the Rockies in 2013 but what with Trump and guns, and shooting schoolchildren, and banning abortions, I have no desire to go there at the moment.

Perhaps one of the things I ought to think about is the extent to which any of these things bothers me any more.

I already know that in America neither politicians of any party, nor big business is the least interested in climate change. In fact a surprising number of both seem to think that either climate change isn’t really true or that the market will find a way to buy itself out of the problem. I tell my old friend Tom Clark not to worry because the rich and the rats will survive. They won’t of course, but they may last a bit longer than the rest of us.

So far as the UK is concerned I have absolutely no confidence that anyone in power, together or separately has the guts or determination needed to address any of the real problems we have, including climate change, which means that so far as I am concerned we are all pretty much stuffed.

As for the majority of the world, most of which is shortly going to be under water anyway, the outlook is equally bleak. I am not sure how much serious thought has been devoted to the details of our ultimate demise. I am not at all convinced that Elon Musk has really thought this through, and although Mars might offer an escape route to him, I am not sure how practical it will prove to be for the rest of us.

So perhaps I need to think about where I think I fit in to all this and the extent to which I decide to involve you in my thinking.

There seems to be quite a lot of chit chat at the moment about assisted dying. I think Molly Meacher’s bill is still bumbling its way through the system, and although I would count myself as being a supporter, I don’t think I would go so far as to say that I was an enthusiast. This is partly because I think it rather misses the point. It would certainly have missed the point so far as my dear friends Stephan and Edith Koerner were concerned. They didn’t even consider the idea that they should have to campaign for the right to get anyone to help them. They weren’t asking for anyone’s help. They simply wanted to be able to choose the time of their death and have the capacity and ability to achieve it.

So this is the point at which I considered whether I ought to get involved in the whole dying thing. What does Molly Meacher’s bill actually want the law to be? Is assisted dying just another version of being killed since by definition the assistance does seem to involve at least one other person who probably doesn’t want to die themselves?

Does everyone know that in England it was a criminal offence to kill yourself until 1961? And you could have been jailed, but only if you made a mess of it of course!

Helping someone to die is still a criminal offence.

You can still get fourteen years in prison if convicted, for goodness sake, even if this is helping someone to do exactly what they want to do and have the capacity to decide for themselves. In terms of sentence it’s not that different from what you would get for going out with an axe and killing someone else entirely, who almost certainly didn’t want to die. I am not suggesting that one would regard this as a choice but you know what I mean.

I can, however, see the difference between asking for help to alleviate unbearable pain and suffering, even if it does mean you die, and someone else deciding that you have had enough and ought to be put down!

So I suppose I could embark on a lengthy discussion about the difference between assisted dying and assisted suicide, and euthanasia, even though the end result is going to be pretty much the same. I am not sure I can summon the energy or enthusiasm to embark on a marathon discussion about pets and horses whose manner of death appears to matter more to quite a lot of people than the fate of each other.

I decided that it was all too difficult and complicated to waste a lot of time on, and in any case a lot of people with brains much bigger than mine were already doing it.

On the other hand I did think that devoting some thought to the principle of an off switch was worth a bit of effort.

I have a very old friend for whom life was becoming increasingly pointless and certainly a lot less fun. She had already set off down the Dignitas path, filled in some forms, and sent them a bit of money. She was, however, very frustrated by a lack of any sympathy or help from doctors. I think this is mainly because of their fear of being prosecuted or sued for helping her to make her own mind up about anything. You might think this is a rather cynical view, but that may be just because I am a bit of a cynic.

So we did discuss the advantages of having an off switch, just so that you knew it was there if you wanted it. I am now beginning to realise that sooner or later I may have to face up to explaining exactly how my off switch would actually work.

It did remind me of a recent series of Reith lectures by an American doctor called Atul Gawande. One of them was about end of life care and assisted dying. He says that in places where it is legal to obtain prescription drugs that will end one’s life, the vast majority of those who acquire them never use them.

It seems that having the choice offers most people a sense of relief and reassurance which is itself a sufficient comfort to postpone the need to instantly demand the pills or the needle. I am not sure where my old friend and I got to in our discussions. So far she has been content with complaining about how the doctors make everything so difficult and complicated. Neither has she demanded that I get her an off switch of her own, so I have decided to let sleeping dogs lie for the time being.

Well, I had decided to let sleeping dogs lie until her son Nick kindly rang me to find out how I was.

I had emailed Phoebe to let her know that I had had this brain seisure thing and wasn’t allowed to drive for a year, so this meant that getting to see her was going to be a bit of a problem, and I had copied Nick in. He was just off to Greece for a week or so and would contact me on his return. He was now back and both he and Jackie had got Covid, which he said was just as well, because he was beginning to feel a bit left out, since everyone else seemed to have had it, so they might just as well!

He said that Phoebe was not great, and visiting her was not easy or much fun these days.

This was partly because she still insisted on smoking which made her breathing more difficult, and inflicted her toxic smoke on poor old Nick. I had bought her a nicotine max strength vaping tube thing which was meant to help but she didn’t like it so it only lasted about ten minutes. As part of the conversion job Ben and I did on her flat we also got a very techy air filter system about the size of a large pedal bin. Nick thinks it works OK but since the windows in her big main room are painted shut, the filters may need changing more often. There was an instruction book with it, but as typical builders neither Ben nor I have read it of course.

We converted Phoebe’s flat so it had a separate bedroom so that she could have a full time live-in carer. This means she could continue to live at home, which is what she wanted, and smoke herself to death.

So while this works for her it does make it a bit hard on everyone else.


Diary July 11th 2022

Coulda Woulda Shoulda

For those of us who call ourselves Christians I suppose this phrase is about sins of omission, the things we should have done which we didn’t, and have left undone. So for Christians it is about confession, and asking for forgiveness. For heathens like me there is no redemption. There is only regret that I didn’t do what I could or should have.

I think I first heard this phrase from Alex when he came to help me with the Argos catalogue office more than ten years ago.

He became one of the most important aides in everything I did afterwards that was any good at all, and I have enjoyed having him at my side while we did so much stuff. It was an honour, a privilege, and fun to work with him.

We finished the Argos catalogue office and then went on to get the Red Brick buildings A and B open for December 2012.

He came up to Paddington Farm with me and the scrap metal recycling scheme. Without him we could never have built the pallet classroom which was a complete joy from start to finish.

More recently he has pitched up in all weathers to do all the landscaping and planting at the entrance to Red Brick without any help from me at all, and it looks great, so thank you Alex.

So, since it is now too late to do much about a lot of things, and there is no forgiveness available to us heathens, I need to tell you about some of the things I regret not doing.

Of course there are loads of things that I did do that I shouldn’t have but that’s a different story.

For a start I wish I had been more assertive when I was on the council in Bristol. I wish I had stuck to my guns when my colleagues or those in power said things I wanted to do couldn’t be done. They were always saying it!

They surprisingly seldom told me that what I wanted to do was wrong, or even a bad idea. They just told me I couldn’t do it. Or I couldn’t do it now and should be more patient.

So I wish I had been more courageous. I did a few good things but not enough of them. I could have done more.

One of my major sins of omission was The Morlands site in Glastonbury.

I retired from the council in Bristol in 1991 having been elected in 1979. Twelve years on the council doesn’t sound that long, but when I was elected I was 38 and when I retired I was 50, so it was quite a big chunk of my life.

We moved to Burtle in October 1997 shortly after the Blair Labour landslide victory in May. There is a much bigger villain than Blair in this story, but Blair is part of it.

It was his government that set up the Regional Development Agencies that were government sponsored quangos charged with responsibility for what subsequently became called economic regeneration.

In 2001 The South West of England Regional Development Agency acquired the entire 31 acre Morlands site in Glastonbury for £1. At that point, the whole site and all the buildings on it were intact. During the following decade SWERDA spent £21 million of our money, managed to practically flatten it, get a set of traffic lights, a bit of new road, and Screwfix!

It was a monumental act of gross vandalism and stupidity.

And I more or less didn’t really notice until I turned up in January 2011 by which time it was all over and too late!

I now find it difficult to believe that I could have been so blind, and I am profoundly ashamed of even being able to say that I hadn’t really noticed it happening.

The fact that between 1997 and 2011 I probably didn’t even go to Glastonbury doesn’t seem to be the point.

What I now realise is that we tore down the buildings and the physical fabric of a community that had supported 2000 jobs and a way of life for generations of families, and I had done nothing to stop it.

We had already done more or less the same thing in Street and exchanged 200 years of manufacturing and industrial culture together with another 2000 jobs in Clarks for a chain store retail park.

I should have done more.

This gross and utterly stupid destruction is not the cause of the problem but it is a symptom.

Nor is it the key symptom. So whilst the Blair government, the coalition that followed it, and the current government are all part of the story, the real villain has already come and gone.

As always, history will be the judge of the causes of the decline of industrial Britain, but I am not sure that history always gets it right.

If we are looking for individuals to blame, particularly over the last half century there can be little doubt that Margaret Thatcher is most likely to be top of the list. She is as far as I am concerned.

I know that she still has a substantial and adoring following. But then so do Trump and Boris. This doesn’t make them right or wrong of course, so once again I suppose history will have to be the judge.

However, considering the rate at which we are currently racing towards our own extinction I am not sure how much history we have got left!

So for tearing the heart out of our industrial and manufacturing infrastructure and culture I blame her. For believing that we no longer needed to make stuff I blame her. For saying that the whole philosophical basis of the trades union movement was something that had to be beaten and crushed I blame her.

For squandering north sea oil and our natural energy resources I blame her. For flogging off our water, gas, post office, steel industry and transport system I blame her. For even thinking that the Poll Tax was a good idea, I blame her.

So has history judged her? And has it judged Blair?

How long we have to wait before we decide which history to believe? And who decides?

What does seem to be as plain as the nose on your face is that all reality is now driven and shaped by money.

And that reality is all for sale. Knighthoods, degrees and citizenship can all be bought. Your homes and your heritage are being bought and sold and controlled by people you have never even heard of.

What also seems to be increasingly apparent is that political dogma and politicians generally are becoming irrelevant in a world where only money counts. Blair seemed to be beguiled by money and the power that went with it. Honours, citizenship, our prime properties and our farms and our countryside all seem to be for sale in a market controlled by huge quantities of virtual money leveraged and manipulated to purchase everything we thought was ours.

Thatcher seemed to think this was a good thing. She was wrong of course. A six year old could tell you that. You don’t even seem to know that most of your country and your culture has already been bought.

And a horrifying number of you don’t even appear to care.

Black Rock is a global asset management organisation. It controls assets worth four times the estimated value of our entire UK economy. That is quite a lot, just in case you didn’t quite get that.

Only China, America and Japan are worth more than Black Rock. Basically they already own your country. And if that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you, I am afraid you don’t deserve to be rescued from the illusion that something will turn up. Because it won’t.

PS

Everybody has told me that people don’t want to be lectured to or harangued, because it sounds like preaching, and apparently we don’t like being preached at either.

Well, I’m sorry but sometimes these things just have to be done.

I’m just trying to explain why I thought setting up QWAC was a perfectly decent option. But of course you will have to decide for yourselves. You and history of course.


Diary July 28th 2022

Death on TV

You don’t have to read this.
Do not feel you are to blame for any of it. Of course it is not your fault. But these things did happen, and things like it are still happening.

The BBC TV news the other night included a section on the unforgivable neglect of the mentally and physically disabled in Ukrainian institutions.

It instantly reminded me of so many neglected babies and children in Romanian orphanages after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It took me through the sickening hacking to death of over half a million men, women and children in Rwanda Burundi, and the million who simply starved to death in the Ethiopian famine of the eighties.

It took me back to the two million who were slaughtered in Vietnam.

All of which we watched on television in the comfort of our own homes.

And we all declared how awful it was, and how sad it made us feel.

I got myself into trouble with my nearest and dearest, and quite a lot of other people. This was because I felt that announcing yourself to be upset and sad about it was a self indulgent vanity which was of no use or comfort to any one, so you should either do something or shut up. This attitude was regarded as a bit hard by some of my nearest and dearest, and as unfair by nearly everyone.

Of course this was back in the good old nineteen seventies when we were only just being introduced to the new forms of mass death, war crimes and genocide on television. It was a time when Germany was still working hard to restore its reputation in the world having exterminated six million Jews, and the USSR wasn’t working at all hard to worry much about the twenty million peasants killed by Stalin. The world in general appeared to be not much concerned that at least twice as many had been killed or starved to death by MaoZedung in China.

And we hadn’t watched any of this live, as it happened, on BBC TV news.
When we could, what I do find extraordinary is how quickly we became immune to the effects of seeing these events on television, and by the turn of the century were becoming rather bored at having to watch them at all.

You might very well ask what I was doing during all this time since I now appear to be being so self righteous about it. The answer is that I was doing more or less bugger all, and I am very sorry. The more charitable will tell me that there wasn’t much I could have done, and that it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. But that isn’t the point is it?

And where do we go from here?


Diary August 4th 2022

Wot Climate Emergency?

It is beginning to dawn on me that you might be finding this diary a bit depressing. Not that my personal fate compares with the mass global extinction of humanity. Or the killing and starving of more than 40 million men women and children in China. Or any of that stuff.
But you know what I mean.

And I am not sure I can make it any less depressing than it already is.
Thing is, here are quite a lot of you, worried about the fate of humanity, not even watching disasters and death on the telly at all, partly because it uses electricity ultimately derived from fossil fuels, so it contributes to global warming, and me cheerfully looking for a dignified way of leaving you all to it, having done a small amount of good and generally having had a lot of fun.
So how am I going to cheer you up a bit, or at least stop you worrying about me?

I am very sorry that James Lovelock has died He may not have been right about everything, but he was a hundred and three, which is definitely old, and he was dead right about quite a lot of things. And now he is just dead. He was convinced that we had passed the tipping point and there was little hope for humanity. It was just a question of time. He also pointed out that the same was true for planet earth itself even without us on it. It was, he said, back of an envelope maths to work out that since the sun was heating up, in the end the earth would no longer be able to sustain any carbon based life form. In the very end, which is still a considerable way off, I suppose it will just evaporate or explode or something.

I can’t remember how old he was when I came across my Chris being very upset because he was going to die. Or maybe he was upset because he realised I was going to die. Whichever it was I tried my best to reassure him that it wasn’t going to happen for a very long time so he shouldn’t worry about it. He said that wasn’t the point, and he was quite right of course.

So now what do we do?
I realised a long time ago that I couldn’t worry about everything.
Mind you, I think I probably went through a phase when I thought I might try. It wasn’t arrogance. I think it was a kind of naive optimistic hope that it might be possible to solve the problems of the world if only we put our minds to it. It was a very silly idea.
Since I was only four at the end of the second world war in 1945, I wouldn’t have known or understood what optimism was. The next five years brought the iron curtain, the cold war and the start of a global nuclear arms race, so by the time I might know what optimism was, it was probably too late to bother to have it.
In the late fifties I joined CND like everyone else, and I do remember being one of those who felt that if they were going to drop a nuclear bomb on us I wanted to be obliterated instantly rather than be one of those who survived for a bit , only to succumb in the end to some kind of radioactive and cancerous disintegration. Perhaps that was the beginning of my understanding that it might be more realistic to choose a few slightly easier things to be optimistic about, as opposed to trying to change everything.
I was still in my late teens when I began to feel uneasy about factory farming, and definitely not happy about Britain hanging on to an empire it shouldn’t have had in the first place. By some measures that could be seen as a laudably early political awakening. However, it was somewhat eclipsed by my primary preoccupation with getting sex and a driving licence.
It also reminds me of the following piece of platitudinous drivel which is probably equally pointless.

The Serenity Prayer is a prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is commonly quoted as:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

I mean, come on! Just how serene is it to be able to shrug your shoulders and say “Well, what can you do?”

So I suppose I do have to come up with some kind of plan to fill the time between now and the point at which I announce that enough is enough.
Forgive me if I have already mentioned that after finishing phase one on the Red Brick Building and having this minor TIA stroke thing I had resolved that I was no longer interested in doing anything that required getting anyone’s permission for anything.
And it was the beginning of my thinking about being in control of my own destiny. Having the brain seizure in June didn’t appear to do me much damage, but it stopped me driving and made me think a bit more about my increasingly uncertain future.
Neither was I interested in a project where I wasn’t in total control. This was, of course, complete self indulgence but I no longer care. The consequences of doing something wrong or daft seemed to be rapidly diminishing.
I had already decided that now I was genuinely ancient I no longer had to do actual physical work, especially if it involved getting either cold or wet.

I had also come to terms with probably not making much of a contribution to saving anything from its headlong and determined rush to self destruction.


Diary September 9th 2022

The Queen died. Yesterday.

I have decided that this is a more significant event than I had appreciated.

Most of the world hated the arrogant and repressive behaviour of Britain, which had invaded, colonised, bullied and exploited it, almost unimpeded, for around three hundred years.

And yet, almost all of it loved or respected Queen Elizabeth in one way or another for the whole of her long and dedicated reign.
I don’t think I have ever been an actual monarchist. The idea of an inherited monarchy with any kind of power over millions of people called subjects, let alone entire nations, is obviously totally archaic, utterly unjustifiable, and silly.

However, by the end of the eighteenth century it was no longer the personal responsibility of the sovereign to raise the cash to fight wars or conquer the world. This had now become the job of the government and seemed to be devoted mainly to beating the shit out of the French at any opportunity just because, robbing the Spanish, who obviously had far more gold than was good for them, and avoiding the Dutch.

By the beginning of the twentieth century a surprisingly large proportion of the world had become a gratifying pink colour and was part of The British Empire and its colonies, but the monarchy itself was already becoming a somewhat more benign, if paternalistic and patronising influence in the world. If only for that reason, by the time Elizabeth became queen in 1952 I had already adopted a somewhat agnostic tolerance towards the idea of a king or queen as being a sort of ceremonial head of something, and who, in any case, was no longer allowed to have their own slaves or tell you what to do on pain of having your head chopped off.

Of course, the government, industry and commerce, and so called free enterprise were still bleeding the whole thing as dry as possible for profit as they always had done, but the British monarchy continued to cling rather hopelessly to the idea of a giant, global happy family and call it the Commonwealth.

I think I continued in that rather apathetic state of slightly disinterested tolerance for the next fifty years or so.
However, during that same period I became less and less tolerant and enchanted by a political system increasingly controlled by the entitlement of heredity, and the power of greed.
So, what I had seen as a fairly harmless exercise of ceremonial tradition by a monarchy, I now began to see as a real and malevolent threat to the very heart of the dignity and freedom of the human soul itself, by politicians.

And I suppose that is pretty much where I am now.
So, if I thought that the abolition of the Monarchy was the price we had to pay for a government that was actually interested in the welfare of those it had been elected to serve, I would become a raging republican in a heartbeat. I would be down at Buckingham Palace tomorrow queuing up to volunteer to help to build the scaffolds or the guillotines or hand out one way tickets to Mars, or whatever.

But, I am afraid that isn’t it, my dear children. You could get rid of the monarchy today and it wouldn’t make a single jot of difference to the way in which the hereditary, entitled greedy, think about any of us. Government is no longer driven by altruistic ideas of what might be good for all of us. Amongst other things, it is driven by getting back in at the next election.
It is driven by hanging on to what you have, and being prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure you have more tomorrow. And they will tell you that the more some of us have, the better it is for all of us.
This is, of course complete bollocks, but they will keep telling you that it is, for as long as enough of you believe it, my dear things, just so they can keep on doing it.
I am not sure how much any of this matters in the scheme of things, in the big picture, as it were.
Especially since, as I may have mentioned before, most of so-called civilised humanity seems hell-bent on its own destruction rather than sacrifice a single prawn flavoured skip in order to do anything about it.
And here I am, just looking for a convenient point at which I can cheerily wish you all the best of luck and get off. Just like when I used to be able to get on and off red buses when they slowed down for corners. But that was the good old days.

So, the queen died at Balmoral in Scotland where she usually spent her summer hols. The estate that contains the house is on is fifty thousand acres. I have no idea whether that matters or not, but it is quite big.
You could build a million homes for people to live in on that much land. If you wanted to. Or if anyone wanted to for that matter. But they don’t do they? That’s because they make more money by owning it and sitting on it than they would by building warm dry homes on it that you could afford to buy or rent.
If I have the time, I will explain how the greedy can make more money by not building, even though it sounds ridiculous, but it all depends.

So I am not quite sure where this begins or ends, except that I still feel vaguely tolerant about the monarchy itself and I think the new King Charles will do his best.

On the other hand I cannot describe the level of deep anger and disdain I feel for the entire world of British politics. I do realise this is a bit of a generalisation. I am sure there are good people out there trying to do the right thing, but as far as I am concerned they are all either actually guilty as charged or guilty by association.
I avoided watching the undignified and childish scramble for power by Truss and Sunak because, to be honest I no longer give a flying fuck about either of them. Neither do I believe them. But it doesn’t matter. Truss won’t last five minutes and what policies and strategies she has will very shortly turn out to be wrong.
At that point everyone who supported her will announce that they never did believe her really, and had never truly thought she was right, or even any good. We always seem to do that over things that are blindingly obviously wrong to anyone with half a brain. Just like the poll tax. And uncontrolled speculation on the stock market. And invading Iraq. And austerity. And energy prices being beyond our control. Come on my darlings, you don’t believe that either, do you? Of course you don’t, and in the end you will turn out to be right. You always are. But you don’t always know it. And sometimes it seems to take a depressingly long time to get there. But you will. In the end.
It was one of the rather endearingly kind things Churchill said about America: that it usually finished up trying to do the right thing, having tried everything else.

I am not sure where this gets us in my recruitment drive for QWAC. As you remember, this is my “Quit While you are Ahead Club”. My old friend Tom Clark is still the only other paid up member but he keeps insisting he is working on the membership thing. However he currently seems to have got himself involved in the Gordian Knot that is the Red Brick project to make use of all this money the government is apparently giving to Glastonbury for “economic regeneration”.
I am not at all convinced that the government actually knows what it thinks economic regeneration is. Mind you, the confusion the government feels about what it thinks this money is for is nothing compared to the confusion that the Red Brick organisation is in trying to work out what it wants to do with it, how it wants to do it, and perhaps most importantly why it wants to do it at all.
Tom Clark has been the most wonderful and reliable supporter of everything Red Brick for over a decade.
However, he does have an uncanny talent for getting the wrong end of the stick. Then, once he has a firm grip on it he seems to have an almost pathological determination to hang on to it. The other day this resulted in Chris Black and I having a very unsatisfactory lunch with him during which, as usual, I upset him.
Although I didn’t use those precise words, I did accuse him of wilful stupidity. This is similar to wilful blindness which turns out to be a “thing” but not quite the same.
Anyway Chris has now gone on holiday to Greece for a week or so, which lets him off, and I better keep my head down for a bit until Tom forgets which stick I told him he had the wrong end of.
It reminds me of Tristram Shandy’s uncle Toby. Actually everything reminds me of Tristram Shandy or his uncle Toby at the moment because he just happens to be a recent discovery for me. Since, my dear ones, you almost certainly have no idea who he is, I will explain.

The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy was published as a novel in nine volumes between 1759 and 1768 when its author, Laurence Sterne, died.
Although this was over forty years before Jane Austen’s first novel was published in 1811, apparently Laurence Sterne’s dad knew Jane Austen’s dad. Knowing things like this will contribute nothing to your cultural education.
In fact I am not entirely sure which bits of knowledge would count as cultural education at all. Jane Austen is widely regarded as one of the greatest English novelists of all time, and “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” is variously perceived as a work of comic genius and as complete drivel. Dr Johnson (yes, that one) thought it was OK but wouldn’t last, so that’s how much he knew!

The Queen’s funeral is on Monday.
The Burtle Village Hall is to be open so that we can take our own buns and go along and watch it.
Apparently, it is to be broadcast live, which is a bit of an irony!

Toodle pip

copyright Robin Howell July 2021
www.robinhowell.org       robinhowell.321@gmail.com