Monday, 30 November 2009

Normal People - Again

For reasons too complicated to explain, I found myself over the weekend needing a serious definition of the phrase “normal people”. The flip definition is that a normal person is anyone who protests that there is no such thing as a normal person: genuine misfits, weirdos, addicts and head-cases know damn well that they aren't like everyone else and that normal people exist, even if they are defined negatively. As not having substance- or activity-abuse issues or a DSM IV-strength Personality Disorder – a group of people colloquially known as “screw-ups”. That's the strong sense of normal. The underlying claim is that you simply can't have much in common as regards background, upbringing, specific developmental abuses and personal attitudes with screw-ups without turning into one yourself. There are very few shades of grey between being a screw-up and normal.

There's a slightly weaker sense of the phrase, as it used in such as examples as “Windows 7 boots fast enough for normal people” or “normal people don't read postgraduate mathematics textbooks as culture”. Normal people, in this sense, are not at either end of the Bell curve: neither dumb beyond belief, nor smart enough to actually use LISP in daily problem-solving life. Normal people can do anything that clever or dedicated non-normal people can do, but just not as well. Doing anything really well – from cultivating a garden to chess - requires an amount of dedication, application and practice that is incompatable with a couple of pints with the gang after work, playing with the kids when you get home, paying attention to your partner when (s)he talks about, well, anything that isn't on your agenda, putting in time at the local church, visting friends and family and of course wasting hours watching reality TV (which is what normal people really do with their lives). Channeling Ambrose Bierce for a moment, in this sense, a normal person is a mediocrity whose motives elude you.

Then there's a judgemental sense of the phrase, as in “normal people don't do X”. Normal people don't blow themselves up on a crowded bus, they don't suddenly shout out a word-salad in the middle of supper, nor do they get fall-over drunk on the second date. They don't have mood swings, collect train numbers and they always notice when their lady partner has had a haircut. A “normal person” wouldn't do or say something you've just done or said that the person you're with wishes you hadn't. We can dismiss this sense of the phrase as nothing more than a fancy insult.

The converse compliment to that insult is as in “gee, (insert name of famous person here) was just like a normal person”. As in having no airs, false graces, attitude, extravagent demands, stand-offishness or distance. They said hello and goodbye and helped you carry your shopping to the car because they could see you were struggling.

For me, normal people live in the world but don't feel it under their skin. They can tune it out, let it in one ear and out of the other, and have most things pass them over like water off a duck's back. Occasionally something will rankle with them for longer than they know is healthy, but not often and not for much longer. As a result of this temperament, normal people generally have enough skills to do their job, but don't acquire any more for the sake of it. They don't stick at exercise regimes past three months (except Marathons – running Marathons is very normal as long as you take longer than three-and-a-half hours to do it), they can't play a musical instrument with facility and don't have maths, science or philosophy degrees. Barristers are not normal, nor are musicians, soldiers and athletes. To adapt the only phrase of Tolstoy's that everyone knows: all normal people are normal in the same way, non-normal people are each non-normal in an unique way.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Sonera, Helsinki and London

This is Helsinki Cathederal, taken, I think on a June evening in 2002. Back then I was working for Sonera, the Finnish telephone company responsible for international traffic (Helsinki and many other parts of Finland have their own phone companies). Every now and then, I would be deputed to attend the monthly meeting of all the subsidiaries: London, Stockholm, Frankfurt and New York. We would meet during the day and the Finns would use it as an excuse to go drinking in the evening. Being tee-total, I would head down to the excellent Nevski restaurant by the harbour for supper. That far north, it doesn't really get dark in June, though the quality of the light changes. In the afternoon, it's a regular summer day, but by 22:30 hours it feels like three o'clock on a sunny November afternoon. My inner clock and calander was seriously confused by the whole experience.

Sonera was at the time embroiled in a series of financial and management scandels and the Finnish government sold it to Telia, the Swedish telephone company. In the summer of 2003, Telia closed the overseas subsidiaries – despite being offered over £2m for the business – and made us all redundant. Our sorrow in London was mitigated by the fact that our CEO, Cliff Derbyshire, had put very generous reduandancy settlements into our contracts. So a quick shout to Shaza Rahhal, Peter Davidson, Jessica Henley and Paul Woolley, who were the team in the London office. Cliff retired, Shaza went to work for Telia, Paul Woolley went to work for his local police as a CSI, Peter went on to run a local business for BT and Jessica went chasing City boys. It was a terrific team.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Revisiting A Home

At the end of October I went back to the house where I was a child. I don't remember the very first place I lived in: I'm told it was a cottage in Yorkshire. My parents moved from God's Own County to Bexleyheath, Kent, on the south-east edges of the London sprawl, sometime in the mid 1950's. This is the house, 5 Hyde Road, with that steep roof. My bedroom was the dowstairs room on the left, until may parents swapped my sister and I over, and I had the upstairs room with a little door to the under-roof attic space.

I did the walk from Bexleyheath station to Hyde Road without thinking. What I hadn't remembered was how short it is compared to the marathon walks I've had to stations since. Every street name seemed to have a ready-made slot in my memory. I realised that I haven't bothered to remember street names since I left Bexleyheath. I get around by landmarks, habit and some kind of internal map, not by knowing that Acacia Grove leads to Black Street and thus to White Crescent, which is what I used to know.

In the Nineties, the difference between have and have-not High Streets became more marked: Kingston, Richmond, Guildford and their ilk get Waitrose and Bang & Olufson, while Hounslow, Bexleyheath and their ilk get Aldi, Western Union and T K Maxx. And those High Streets make Dalston and other such places in east London look like third-world parades.

Maybe it was just too long ago, but I didn't feel any emotions. Boys between the ages of five and eleven pretty much live in the present and their emotions are transient. The scars get left by the cruelties of adolesence. What struck me was how small it was, and how cosy it seemed even if it is a farily uniform post-war suburban development.

While I was taking photographs, one of the three young lads messing around on their bikes – just as I used to – asked me if I was photgraphing for the internet. If I was, I said, I'd be a van with a whirling camera on top. I told them I used to live in that house. One of them told me that his mother lived in three houses: one on Hyde Road, two in other places I didn't understand. I have no idea what you say to that.

Monday, 23 November 2009

One-to-Ones and Conversations

My preferred conversational mode is the informal discussion, that just starts up around a subject and then stops because someone's phone rings or you have to get back to work. I can handle conversation round a supper table if I know the people, but if I don't, I tend to let the practiced talkers do their thing. At the other end are meetings at work, where I only speak if called on, and then keep it short. In between is anything arranged, from “let's have a chat and a pizza” to a one-to-one with a manager. These invariably turn into me listening and the other person talking, and when I do say something, it just launches the other person off again about half-way into my first sentence.

When I was a young lad, people used to say that the important thing was to be “a good listener”. You sat there, seemingly entranced, while the other person went on about... anything. Well, maybe that works if you're the young Marcel Proust and the other person is whoever the original for the Duchesse de Guermantes was. Since I'm not and neither are you, “being a good listener” is not a good deal. Why not? Because it turns me into a nodding donkey and a lot of the time I zone out. After all, I don't need to hear what the other person is saying if they don't need me to say anything substantial in reply.

If it's work, I have to listen, because I need to catch the subtext. Or not so sub-text-y, sometimes. I mean, if your manager says things like “If I didn't want you, I could get rid of you” and “I've been impressed by what I've seen” and “I need you to do ….”, how much interpretation does that need? I've lost count of the number of times he's used phrases like “engage with the stakeholders” and hasn't used phrases like “the sooner we start using the forecasting facilities of SAS, the better”. He needs me to do good work so he can “re-position me and help me get to where I want to go”. Except I told him where I wanted to go and he told me why that was the wrong answer. If he had just said “I need you to do this and in return I will sort out that”, he would have come across as honest. Now he's just come across as insincere. In a one to one, the manager tells you what he needs you to hear and you tell him what he wants to hear. Only a psychopath would think that's a good setup.

A large number of philosophers and psychologists will state without so much as a reservation that we gain a sense of our identity, indeed, that we become aware of our identity, through our interactions with other people. Well, that just ain't so. Almost all dealings of people with each other are instrumental, and since that includes the surgeon who saved your daughter's life, “instrumental” ain't always bad. Almost everyone either doesn't need to interact with us at all or is looking for someone to fit into their plans and fantasies. All you learn from them is that you're so not what they hoped you would be.

I suggest we get most of our positive sense of identity, and certainly I get all of mine, from our interaction with culture: from reading, listening to music, looking at art. (Those are produced by other people, but I'm not interacting with Ed Ruscha or Igor Shaferavitch, I'm interacting with their work.) There are a small number of people with whom I can have a meaningful conversation from time to time, and a slightly larger number of people with whom I can gossip, talk about movies, bullshit about the state of the world and who is and isn't fanciable. That passes the time of day, but it doesn't fill my world.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Bad Transport

The A316 is one of two major westerly arterial roads from London: it turns into the M3. It is surrounded by rabbit warren suburbs where cars are parked both sides of the road and buses can barely pass. If there's an accident on the A316 and they close the road, that's it. You're taking four lanes of heavy fast-moving traffic east- and west- bound and dumping it on two-lane side roads bristling with right turns, traffic lights, mini-roundabouts, traffic-calming and bus lanes. Ain't gonna move. Which it didn't this evening. I left Richmond at six o'clock, saw that the A316 wasn't moving and tried every back street I knew. All of them. Jammed. It took seventy minutes to make a journey that takes ten minutes when the road is clear. I thought I was going to run out of petrol. It was the kind of journey that reminded me of why people arrive home and pour themselves a stiff drink.

The traffic was made worse, and I was only driving in the first place, by the fact that the trains on the Reading and Windsor lines through Richmond aren't getting any further than the western edge of Hounslow Heath. A one-hundred year-old tunnel to take the River Crane under the railway had its foundations washed away by the recent heavy rain. No trains may safely pass. I've been driving to within walking distance of Richmond and catching the trains or tubes. It adds twenty minutes to the commute either way. If I took the emergency buses, it would add forty-five minutes. Which you really want, to be stuck on an emergency bus, stinking of desiel fumes, crawling through school-run SUV hell, at 07:45 in the morning. That would make my day. I'm glad this week is over.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Why Do I Go To Meetings?

Anyone with long-term sobriety asks themselves this from time to time. After all, we have lives that work – pretty much – and the last cravings for a drink or a drug were years ago, so why bother? I don't really have that much I need to share. I'm not sure the experience I have is all that transferable, as I'm an ACoA with a drinking problem, not an alcoholic with a parent problem. As for strength, I don't know that I have any: does it take strength to grind out endless forgettable days or just cowardice? I honestly don't know. And hope? I am so unfamiliar with it, I had to look up what it means: a feeling of expectation that something might happen; grounds for believing that something good might happen. Nah. Not so much. I would not even know what a “good” thing would be to wish for it. Everything in my world has consequences, after-effects and presents a bill for immediate payment.

It's been a long time since I went to a meeting and came out calmer and a little closer to centre – that used to happen all the time in the early days. So why do I go? To be honest, if I wasn't working in central London, I might not go that often, but my regular meeting is at six o'clock three hundred yards from where I work. Do I get any kind of social life from attending? Well, no. I don't. For one thing, I'm a lot older than most of the people there and I know how I felt about having guys with grey hair around when I was trying to have fun.

Maybe it's because I don't want to be crawling on the floor at two-thirty in the morning, crying with self-pity and thinking about calling someone to tell them how awful my life is. I don't want to be driving home someone back from a weekend in the country and almost falling asleep at the wheel because I've been up forty hours straight partying. I don't want to smell of booze on the commute and I don't want to behave like the piss-elegant asshole I could be after a little too much. I don't want entire weekends to vanish in hangovers and the pub and I don't want to find myself sloshed when I only needed a glass of wine with supper.

Do I honestly believe I will relapse? That I will lose what emotional poise I have? No. I think I'm pretty much okay there. I'm not the only person who goes to meetings “just in case”. It's an hour a week – what do I have to lose? Well, I can at times come out feeling worse than when I came in, but that, I have realised, is either because someone said something that stirred up stuff I'd been trying to ignore, or and more likely, that I started fancying someone and of course didn't do anything about it. (Which argues great sense: she's in a meeting fer gawd's sake! She's as screwed up as I am – or worse. Catch is, that's all true, but she's still attractive.)

Just in case” is one reason. The other is that every now and then I hear in those rooms something that speaks directly to my experience, either of drinking in the past, how I felt in the past or living sober now. It reminds me I only look like I'm leading a normal life, but really I'm not. I am not like you. You are not going to die the next time you have a couple of whiskies to get rid of a shitty week. I will. And those people in the rooms are the only people who know I'm not exaggerating when I say that.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Where's The Re-Lo?

You will recall that my grades in my section of The Bank had a re-organisation in summer. That was itself six months after we were told that a re-organisation was coming. Part of the re-organisation was closing offices in Chester, much to the traumatic dismay of almost everyone there. Those with children were having nothing to do with London schools (here “London” means “London commuter zone”), which would, they rightly feared, turn their children into illiterate crack addicts or make them wear burquas. Those whose partners had the higher-paying job in the area weren't moving either. This left about twenty people who were interested in moving to London.

Well, it's five months later and the management still hasn't settled the relocation offer. The latest rumour is that The Bank will pay a premium for two years but if the taker leaves before three years then they will have to repay some of it. You may think that doesn't quite show the required generosity of spirit that an organisation with free cash flows in the billions could afford. You may think that a professionally-run organisation would have had the relocation package in place before making the announcement: after all, it should be part of their standard terms and conditions of employment, right? That, at least, is what some HR professionals of my social acquaintance tell me. In the meantime, anyone who was thinking of moving to London is getting more reluctant by the day. The lack of love and co-operation with which they are being greeted by other parts of the organisation when they try to do their jobs isn't making a good impression on them either. You may think that the organisation would want to get people down and settled in quickly, so it can get on with the difficult task of re-building morale and letting everyone establish their networks.

Oh yes, the morale is shot – at least in my part of the business. The results of the summer staff satisfaction survey sucked so badly that they weren't released. I was privy to a handful of the results. The third quarter survey has closed and I await the lack of announcement of those results with great expectations. Management has done nothing to raise morale – in fact, they are in chronic denial about how bad everyone is feeling. They send out weekly missives describing their meetings for the week and praising selected troops for their sterling efforts. Because everyone is really convinced by that.

The whole exercise has made me appreciate just how effective the old-fashioned re-organisation was. That's the one where the guy at the top decides who he wants to get rid of, then the guys he's keeping decide who they want to get rid of, then the guys those guys are keeping decide who they want to get rid of... and so on. HR is brought in to fill in the P45's, make offers that will dissuade solicitors from taking on employee grievances, and back-fill the due process paperwork. One day names are called, one of the salesmen tries to hit a manager, one of the girls breaks down and cries, rumours fly, no-one else does any work for the day and the announcement is released around midday. It's cheap and nasty, but it leaves most people unaffected because you don't actually change anything except a few reporting lines, and who cares about those? It's a little tougher to do when you have to negotiate with the Union and make announcements to the Stock Exchange, but frankly, what the hell do you employ HR, PR and all those other R's for if not to make it all look legit while you get on with the job? The Bank did it in a manner that was supposed to be “open” but the decisions were still made by a bunch of guys locked in a conference room passing the dutchie on the left hand side and the results bore no relation to anything anyone wanted.

My thought last week was this: five months is way too long to be incompetence. Expecting ordinary white-collar workers to commit for three years is some kind of fantasy, and a claw-back provision is evidence of a very mean spirit or a recognition that people will find those three years unbearable enough to want to leave. No. Something is going on in the Upper Political Stratosphere. It might have been the recent Competition Commission announcement, but if it was, why wasn't the final re-lo package announced afterwards? So it wasn't that. I'm out of options as to what might be going on. But then, The Bank is the ultimate insider business: only the Board and a few Ministers know what's going on. Everyone else is a spectator, a bag man or a messenger girl. Which itself makes for feelings of dignity and worth all round.

Friday, 13 November 2009

My Philosophy of Gadgets

Following on from that last post, what I really want is a gadget that's a phone, handles e-mails and file transfer and connects to anything in sight: 3G, GPRS, WiFi, Bluetooth, 2G, USB, landlines and LANs. It should let me make VoIP calls and handle Skype. It has to play nice with iSync and Outlook. Plus if I attach an external ariel, I want it to connect to satellite services. I want to be able to plug this thing into any telecomms outlet anywhere in the world, have it identify what sort of communication protocol is being used and hook me up. When I plug into a landline, it uses that and not the wireless signal. The microphone cuts out all the background noise and the speaker has hi-fi quality. When a new comms technology passes some kind of acceptance tipping point, I can get an upgrade to include it. I don't want it to be a camera and I don't want it to play music. I have dedicated gadgets for that. I know: it's going to cost. I would be willing to pay.

I was raised as an engineer. (Okay, I have an OND in Engineering and did the first year of an Electrical Engineering degree before going off to read Mathematics and Philosophy.) I regard gadgets as tools to do a job. Non-engineers coo over the champagne colour of their hi-fi separates or how nice the iPod Nano feels in their hands. Non-engineers think that Swiss Army knives are a good idea. Real Engineers would not be seen dead with one. Real Engineers want an optimised tool to do a job, not a gimmick that will break if you put any torque on it. Marketers and designers love smartphones, but Real Engineers don't.

There's another reason I want simplicity of function combined with depth of ability. I want to believe I understand and am or could be a master of my gadgets. A gazillion features are not something I can master. I get nervous around Swiss Army knives: is there a killer feature I haven't found that will make my life easier and more convenient? I still feel that way about my digital camera – there's all sorts of things it can do I haven't internalised yet. (Programming languages are only an apparent exception to that: I can master the language fairly easily and most IDE's are very similar. The libraries are separate toolkits: I don't mind whole boxes of neat stuff I can rummage around.)

A gadget with a dozen redundant features is an offence to my sense of a properly-built, elegant, efficient, simple world. The tools are there to extend my mastery of the world, not to taunt me with my ignorance of twenty-three features I haven't gotten to yet. Non-engineers don't feel that way: they think it's great that they've just discovered their phone can do horoscopes.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Phones, Cameras, iPods and Other Gadgets

My trusty iPod Mini is on its second battery and that's starting to deteriorate. Where once a charge would last four days of ordinary commuting, I'm lucky to get two days out of it now. I could take it back to the tech shop and have them swap in a new battery. Cost about £30. Or I could just upgrade.

If only it were that simple. But there are so many all-in-one options. My mobile is a Motorola V220. I like it, but it's even older than the iPod Mini. It plays nice with my Mac, which the Samsung U600 I had doesn't. I lost the phone I really liked, which was the Motorola V3 Razr. While we're on the subject, I carry a Canon A590 IS as my camera. That's staying. How many cameras have a viewfinder these days?

So why not upgrade to the iPhone? Because it's expensive and I'd still keep the Canon. At £35 a month for an 18-month contract, it costs £97 for the 8GB model. That's a contract cost of £727 or £485 a year. Sure I get all that bandwidth and minutes, but I don't need all those minutes and I won't use all that bandwidth. My life is nowhere near that interesting. Plus I have a fixed abode and a credit rating, so I can get fixed-line broadband. The iPhone is for three groups of people: Apple fanboys; people who think the Apple cool will rub off on them (it doesn't); and people who don't have credit ratings and fixed abodes. None of those groups are me. I can't deny I'm tempted, but I think I can resist it.

So then there's a Nano. The 8GB model is £115 from my nearby Regent Street Apple store or £105+p&p from Amazon. It's the closest replacement for my 4GB Mini. I doubt I'll use the camera, but maybe I will if it's there. In between is the iTouch. The 8GB model is £149 from the Apple Store. I get better software, WiFi, a bigger screen, the camera and all for an additional £34 over the Nano. Same question: do I have an exciting enough life? Plus, I'll only get e-mails if I'm on a WiFi at Starbucks or Virgin trains or like that. Okay: not the iTouch.

I think I can see where this is going. Except for the Apple devices, you know the MP3 players on regular phones aren't going to be as good as an iPod, plus there's no guarantee the phones will work with iTunes on a Mac. So the Nano it is, if I don't just get the battery changed on the Mini. So the last thing I need is an all-singing and dancing phone. Except they all are now.

My current mobile phone costs me around £180 a year on a £15 SIM-only contract. Occasionally I overrun, so call it £240. Finding a neat handset that plays nice with iSync isn't easy. The only reason I need to update is that The Sodding Bank has blocked all webmail accounts, so I have to get home to look at my mails. Or use an Internet shop at £1 a time. A phone with webmail would be useful. A Blackberry price plan from Vodafone costs £10 a month more than the SIM-only with the same amount of minutes, but that's on a 24-month contract for the Blackberry. The phone is free on £25 (or more) a month contracts. At least I could get my e-mails. The issue with the Blackberry is its lingering “Crackberry” image, but I have seen Young Folk using them recently. Looking through the forums, it seems the Blackberry can be made to play with Macs, but not easily. So when the job search starts in earnest I'll need the Blackberry or equivalent smart phone, but not until then.

Monday, 9 November 2009

On Soho Cafes

The best cafe in Soho used to be Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street. It had communal tables at the front and two long bench tables at the back. You might sit next to anyone and strike up a conversation. The staff were extravert Italians and the cakes as good as it got in London. In the mid-Oughties they took out the long communal tables at the back, installed some stairs and opened upstairs. The Italian staff went down the road to Amato. The current Pat Val's d├ęcor is drab and lifeless, which can be a description of the staff, who are not Italian anymore. I went down the road to Amato, following a lot of the people from Pat Val's. A year or so ago, Amato changed hands and badly re-furbished: the atmosphere vanished. I went there twice and gave up. It was replaced by a Richoux that is almost empty all the time. Running cafes is in a nation's blood: the Dutch can do it, so can the Italians, Spanish, Austrians and French. Caffee Nero gets it right because it models itself on Italian cafes; a good Starbucks is okay, a poor one is dismal. You don't need armchairs and piped music, but you do need atmosphere, the sound of cheerful activity, good coffee and sweet things to nibble on. Look for the university lecturer in the corner, her papers spread around her, marking or making notes as if she's been there for an hour. Then you've found a good one.

I like the Milkbar on Bateman Street to read after work;

the venerable Bar Italia on Frith Street for a quick espresso;

and Number 34B on Old Compton Street for pancakes.

Friday, 6 November 2009

There's A Place for Me, Somewhere A Place For Me...

For reasons that don't matter but weren't indicative of my ability to work and play well with others, I didn't have a good first year at The Bank. As a result, I got “Partially Met” in my appraisals. Since the grades are given out on a distribution, someone has to get one. Once you've got one, you get all the others. Added to which, I am not of a temperament to be a “manager” as that role is understood at The Bank. Middle managers in The Bank are bag carriers and messengers: when senior management wants their opinion, it tells them what it wants them to say, often in farcical sermons passed off as interviews in the house magazine. That is not me and never will be. You've gathered by now that I don't drink the Kool Aid either. By their standards, I will never meet the criteria for my grade. I accept that, where we differ is that I know their standards suck and they spend more energy in denial than an apprentice cocaine addict.

So when the re-organisation came along this summer, I was given a choice: I could be made redundant after the inevitable failed effort of finding a job in another section (my appraisals would guarantee I wouldn't even get an interview) or I could take a role a grade below mine. I took the money. Under the rules, my salary is protected for two years starting on my date of appointment, after which they can review it and my role, and adjust accordingly. Salaries in the next grade down are thirty percent lower.

So when I accepted that role, both the company and I knew that I would have to leave sometime in the next two years or take a whopping pay cut. Knowing and believing, believing and accepting, and accepting and being unaffected by, are utterly different states of mind. I've been working through them over the last few weeks and it's been painful. I'm almost there. It's only when I am there I can draft a CV and a campaign that will sound positive rather than just help-get-me-out-of-here.

I've been doing this working shit for thirty years. I don't have a pension worth a damn, so I can't take early retirement and get a lower-paid but more manageable job to keep going. Anyway, I'm not sure there are lower-stress, manageable jobs around. Teaching sure ain't it. No public sector job is.

I've worked at a string of companies with busted morale and broken organisations, and some of them are household names. It's left me wondering if all small companies are run by chancers and all large ones have outsourced all the real work and retained the politics. The Bank's Head Office is like one of those mythical castles, with servants, courtiers, knights and nobles. Servants excepted, no-one actually does a real job in those castles: it's all about making alliances, sabotaging your competitors and getting preferment. Am I just going from one frying-pan to another?

The answer to that question does matter because it will affect the way I interview. If I believe it's all bullshit, I'm scuppered, because I can't fool myself anymore. I have to believe that The Bank is dysfunctional – more accurately, that the whole financial services sector is dysfunctional (of course it is: they trained all those people to mis-sell pensions and savings plans and no-one said “no, stop, this is wrong” - not and kept their job anyway) – and that there are decent companies out there with useful products and a right relation with their customers and staff. And that I'll find one. Just like the song.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Can't Live Without... Caffe Nero, Seven Dials

They know me here, as they know a lot of the people who come in through the doors before about half-past nine each weekday morning. I get a single espresso in the morning and a small tea in the afternoon.

Every now and then I confuse them by changing the order. Sometimes I get croissant in the morning and maybe something in the afternoon. If get either, I have to pay respects to the god of diet and recognise it means I'm feeling upset about something. The afternoon tea is a break from the office. In the summer, I and a colleague would get tea and sit and watch all the pretty girls go by. Then the winter came and all the pretty girls went back to Spain and Italy and France.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Legalising Drugs

I usually steer clear of the detritus of passing political arguments but the drug advice board thing happened just as I'd finished reading Misha Glenny's McMafia: Serious Organised Crime and my brain was in that mode. This is about legalisation, not about whether the Government were right to sack their advisor.

Any product which costs almost nothing to make, has a high consumer value and requires almost no start-up capital and expertise to make is going to be interesting to organised crime. Especially if there are significant excises, customs and sales taxes – which allow criminals to undercut the legal price and still make super-profits. Criminals don't (at least in Europe) make cigarettes, because although a pack of twenty costs almost nothing to produce, you need a lot of money and expertise to set up the factories to make the things. Plus you have to haul a lot of tobacco leaf around. By contrast, the largest LSD factory in Europe in the 1980's was a small house in a sleepy south-west London suburb (Operation Julie). Nobody saw a thing for years.

Any product where there is a significant difference in the taxation imposed by nearby countries with leaky borders or bribable customs officials will also attract the criminals. Tax arbitrage is an easy source of super-profits for the bad guys as well as Barclays Capital Markets. Cigarette smuggling is still a popular sport along the Italian coastline.

Criminals love drugs because the margins are phenomenal and the production and set-up costs are minimal. They like diamonds, illegal immigrants, small electronics, CD's and DVD's for the same reason. Luxury goods – Louis Voitton and Rolex knock-offs – are not much more difficult once you have found your Chinese manufacturer. The work is all about logistics and security: that's why a gang can switch from drugs to people to counterfeit so quickly. Once you have the logistics in place and the guards bribed, you can move almost anything.

Legalising the substance will not remove the criminals from the trade. In fact, it will start a round of violence the like of which we have only seen at the movies, as gangs fight for control of the sale of something that is just too profitable to ignore. Worse, enforcing any licensing regime (for quality, manufacture or distribution) simply turns the British Government into another drug dealer enforcing its right to be in sole control of the trade and making sure it gets its cut. The accompanying corruption of public servants and the Police would make the 1960's pornography scandals look like your maiden Aunt's tea-party.

The debate is often about the absolute or relative harms caused by the drugs, but that's not the real issue. The real issue is about the damage to society caused by the organised crime that will follow legalisation.

(If there are genuine medical benefits for some people from marijuana, then let's confirm it and prescribe if it makes sense. What on earth the medicinal benefits from speed, crack, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, ketamine or skunk could be I have no idea.)

Maybe we de-criminalise use but criminalise manufacture and supply as the Dutch do. I suspect the liberalisers would be happy with this. But wait, drivers of taxis, private cars, buses, trains, lorries and cranes have got to be clean and sober. So have doctors, policemen, nurses, teachers, judges and Court officers, customs and excise staff, air traffic controllers, airline pilots, the guys who run power stations, oil refineries and the various power grids, anyone who works power tools or on a construction site... I'd rather like to believe that the guys who designed the buildings I work in and the lifts I use weren't stoned at the time, and triple that for any crucial software that runs anything... The legislation making drugs illegal would be replaced by legislation making it illegal or sackable for various employees to be caught under the influence.

You see where this is going? Given how long drugs stay in the system, the only people who will be able to take drugs without fear of losing their jobs will be the unskilled, unemployed and low-paid. Which is not what the skilled, employed, high-paid liberalisers want: they want to get high as well. But most of them won't be able to because of the jobs they do and because their employers don't want them coming in wasted. And so we get back more or less to the same frustrations we had at the start, except the entire underclass is now wasted all the time and their children go into school smelling of last night's skunk. Legally.

And no, this is England, land of the binge-drinker and exporter of drunken louts to the world. The English are not going to do drugs like the self-respecting middle-class Dutch do: they are going to do drugs like they do booze. Which is going to be a really pretty sight.