Other Peoples’ Lives

I used to read almost exclusively novels. Fiction. Usually contemporary. Sometimes a classic novel. Always escapism.

But something has changed in the last few years…..

It started with I’m Your Man, the mesmerising biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons. I had grown to love the great man’s uniquely poetic music, but Ms Simmons gives a depth of insight into an extraordinary life that allows you to begin to understand the very human form behind the stage performer.

Artemis Cooper’s An Adventure brings depth and colour to another remarkable life. Arguably the greatest British travel writer, Patrick Leigh Fermor was only 18 when, in 1934, he walked across Europe. In just over a year, he had traversed 9 countries and taught himself 3 languages. And that was just the beginning of a life that is so well-lived that it seems more like fiction than fact.

This Christmas, Gill has bought me Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s autobiography. I heard him reading excerpts on the radio a few weeks ago, and I’m looking forward to understanding how huge early success – and a self-confessed abuse of fame – has moulded his later years.

And I think I might have to splash out on Easily Distracted, the newly published autobiography from Steve Coogan. I admire some of his recent work – including The Trip and Philomena – but I’d like to understand how he reached this point, and how he has dealt with some of the many demons in his life.

So why the sudden interest in real people?

I think I find it humbling, as I go deep into the second half of my own life, to read what others have achieved in theirs. It certainly forces me to confront the reality that I haven’t done much of substance, relative to these well-known high-achieving personalities.

In the same way, I’m increasingly drawn to listen to Desert Island Discs, hearing Kirsty Young peel away the layers of a guest’s character and life, whether in the arts arena, business, sports, science or any other aspect of life.

I’ll continue to escape into fiction, but sometimes reality is just that little bit more incredible. For some people.

Bears and guns

It may be wilderness myth, but when we were in Canada a few years ago someone told us that you should run away if you see a grizzly bear, but stand your ground if it’s a black bear.

Image result for black bear

Or maybe it’s the other way round.

Either way, what are you going to do if you’re not an ursine expert….ask the rather large animal which type it might be, before you make your decision? Even more tricky if you happen to be colour blind.

I was sadly reminded of this impossible quandary in the last couple of days, when a firearms officer was arrested for shooting dead Jermaine Baker, who was allegedly on the point of attempting to free two convicted criminals from a prison van in Wood Green, north London.

Jermaine Baker

All sorts of conflicting rumours are now swirling around.

Jermaine was a gang member. No he wasn’t. He was armed. Maybe, but it was a fake gun. He was asleep in a car when he was shot.

I fear the officer has been arrested in an attempt to alleviate community tension in the Tottenham area, close to where Mark Duggan was shot by armed police in August 2011. That death caused widespread unrest and rioting across London and other parts of the country. An inquest in January 2014 found that Mr. Duggan had been lawfully killed.

We hope of course that our justice system will ultimately get to the bottom of this latest – and highly inflammatory – death.

But if I were a betting man, I’d guess that the odds of Jermaine somehow being involved in the failed escape plot – either with a fake or real gun of his own – are higher than those that he was an innocent, sleeping victim who had nothing to do with the alleged escape attempt.

In which case, what message are we sending to the police and security forces who risk their lives for us every day to try and prevent armed criminals from perpetrating violent crimes, and terrorists from murdering innocent people?

David Cameron has today ordered a review of the use of guns by police in this country.

According to the BBC report:

There have been warnings that fears of lengthy investigations, public inquiries and even prosecutions following a shooting could deter police officers from taking up firearms roles.

Former Met Police commissioner Lord Blair told Sky News the “investigative and judicial processes” needed to change, rather than the law.

“When somebody is shot dead, of course the police have to account for what has happened, but some of these cases take five, seven, 10 years to resolve. That’s completely absurd.”

He added: “These are men and women who go to work to do an incredibly dangerous job for which they volunteer and if they do their duty and shoot somebody because they have to… they should not be treated as criminals.”

So what was the firearms officer supposed to do….politely ask Jermaine if that gun he had with him was real or fake? Loaded or empty?

Madness. Utter madness. We’re putting these people in an impossible position, and unless we take steps to defend them, fewer and fewer will be willing to carry guns on the streets, on the hopefully infrequent occasions that we need protection.

And then we’ll feel as vulnerable as a hiker in the Canadian wilderness, with a bear – whether grizzly or black – running towards us.

 

 

 

A country of estates

Centuries ago, our green and pleasant land constituted a sparsely populated countryside of vast estates, owned by the landed gentry and worked on by oppressed serfs.

Today, that lush countryside is being  inexorably filled in with estates of a very different kind.

I’ve just got back from my third road trip in a few weeks to the east of England. My mission was to take photos of mortgaged properties. I could tell you why, but if I did I’d have to make you suffer the same trauma I’ve been through.

I snapped just over 700 newly built properties, mainly in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hertfordshire, with a handful in Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire for a more central diversion.

The Shires. It conjures up an image of a bourgeois life close to rolling green belt land, buffering towns and cities.

Not any more. The urban team are gobbling up the green team, like Pacman on speed.

I saw new estate after new estate. Sprawling, dystopian communities with minimal infrastructure outside the over-priced house walls. Often, another new estate is already being built just a cement mixer’s churn away.

Some are designed by enlightened developers, sacrificing a few extra plots to create lakes, play areas and an illusion of space. And yet they still seem desolate, unreal places, especially with a chill winter wind whipping across the flatlands.

Others make no such pretence. Houses and apartment blocks jostle with each other, cheek by jowl, brick by brick.

They all have a certain scale. Hardly any new estate seemed to have less than 100 properties. Most were probably around 1,000. Some are townships, like Hampton in Cambridgeshire, just south of Peterborough.

Since the first arrivals to Holly Walk, Hampton Hargate, in 1997, more than 4,750 new homes have been built at a rate of up to 500 a year. 

Eventually Hampton will have up to 8,500 new homes spread over its four local areas, with additional schools, local centres and leisure facilities, as well as commercial and retail areas. Construction started in 1996 and is scheduled to continue until at least 2023.

At least the Hamptons has the scale to justify its own complete infrastructure. So it just keeps on growing. As will many others now, with builders and developers empowered more than ever before by the government’s further relaxation of green belt planning restrictions.

We all know the reasons behind the unprecedented demand for new housing. But don’t get me started on that thorny subject….

So all in all it has been a depressing, eye-opening, pavement-pounding jaunt around the eastern estates, my lord. I can report that our green and pleasant land is now, well, grey and sad.

My only pleasure came from the inventive whimsy of the estate road-naming teams.

Like birds? Just in case you never see one again, live in Magpie Close, on a vast estate outside Corby in Northants. Or Blackbird Road. How about Thrush Close. Or Robin Road. Siskin Close. Jay Road. Lapwing Close. You get the idea. The only tweeting here though will be 140 characters on your smartphone.

Racehorse fan? Ooh….you could move to another sprawling Corby estate and pretend to live on a racecourse. Chepstow Road, Haydock Close, Newbury Close, Kempton Close, Ayr Close, Cheltenham Road, Newmarket Close, Aintree Road. Just like being there.

But for a touch of class, move to an estate in Witham, Essex. Yes, Essex. Holst Avenue. Purcell Road. Elgar Drive. Ravel Avenue. Or soak up the blues on Gershwin Boulevard.

Laugh? Not really. I was crying, and the tears fell on to the concrete, covering over what was once lush, green English countryside.

Peer Pressure

The Bank of England base rate has been fixed at its historical low of 0.5% since March 2009.

Just last week the Financial Conduct Authority, the body that regulates our financial services industry, announced plans to force traditional banks and building societies to tell savings customers when they reduce rates on accounts. Often, these dinosaur institutions attract new customers through headline-grabbing rates, but then quietly lower the rate without the same fanfare.

The FCA are calling their initiative sunlight data. Never mind the euphemism, how about fining the opportunistic banks?

Shoddy treatment indeed, with some so-called savings accounts earning as little as 0.01%.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, savers have been punished by governments and the traditional financial institutions looking to shore up the mess created by benign lending conditions and over-extended borrowers, in a lax regulatory environment.

So it’s no wonder that there’s an ever increasing number of Peer to Peer (“P2P”) platforms, leveraging advances in technology and leaner overhead structures to match borrowers with lenders at much better rates than being offered in the conventional markets.

Ratesetter was one of the first movers in this space, and is now reckoned to be a Unicorn, the beguiling name being given to tech start ups exceeding a valuation of $1 billion. Nice.

P2P platforms are proliferating. But if something goes wrong, you do not get protection from the FSCS, in the same way as you would if your old-fashioned High Street bank fails. Yet.

Ratesetter have benefited from their clever early differentiator, the Provision Fund, though. Anticipating lender/investor caution, they established a ring-fenced fund – currently standing at £16.48m – in the event of borrower defaults. To date a total of almost £935m has been lent through their platform, and not a single penny has been lost. That’s no guarantee you might not lose some of your money in the future, but it sure does give a measure of comfort.

My parents, both now in their 80s, are quite financially savvy but also naturally cautious and – understandably – reluctant to invest in the longer term equity market.

A few years ago, they became fed up with the risible return being earned on their life savings from the banks and building societies they had been faithful to for decades. They drip fed some of their hard-earned savings into Ratesetter, and also Zopa.  They have become increasingly comfortable with Ratesetter, and have gradually invested more in an effort to eke out a better return.

You can currently achieve 3.3% lending for 1 month through Ratesetter; 4.1% for 1 year; 4.5% for 3 years; and up to 6.1% if you’re willing to lend over 5 years. Pretty attractive rates given the base rate outlook and the curmudgeonly rates offered by banks and building societies, still beefing up their balance sheets and annual bonuses.

ArchOver is another interesting P2P option. It’s a crowdlender, lending investor funds (min. £1,000 individual investment) to established businesses (min. £100,000 borrowing), rather than individuals. Their comfort blanket to investors is multi-layered….any loan is secured by assets (the accounts receivable book of the business, for example); it’s insured; and the credit rating of the borrower must be A+ (ArchOver’s own rating system).

You can currently earn 5.5% to 9% lending through ArchOver, depending on borrowing terms and other usual variable factors.

But with all these interesting newcomers to the P2P party, how can anyone accurately assess their potential rewards relative to  the risk in using these Johnny-come-lately platforms? And how do you know who your money is actually being lent to, and what it’s being used for?

Enter my old colleague from The Motley Fool days, Neil Faulkner.

Neil Faulkner, co-founder and MD

He has set up 4thWay, a comparison and risk-ratings service, allowing you to compare rates being offered by all the main P2P platforms and – more importantly – to see an objective ratings score for each platform.

It’s more complex than I’ve just summarised, but check out the website and you’ll find the full story.

I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about 4thWay, given the emergence of P2P platforms as a viable long-term alternative finance provider for savers and investors fed up with interest rates as low as a snake’s belly.

 

Pine Cottage Supper Club – entertainment

Well, my head still hurts and today is a very slow Saturday, after last night’s Tuesley Lane neighbourly shindig at Snoo Powell’s Pine Cottage Supper Club in Hydestile.

For better or for worse, we asked everyone to provide a short piece of inter-course entertainment. On a strictly voluntary basis. It helped the evening whizz by. As did the alcohol.

My own humble offering is reproduced below. It wrapped up the evening. It wasn’t funny but it came from the heart.

Numbers and Words

65 million people living in the UK.

22,000 in Godalming.

19 bottles of wine.

12 people.

3 courses.

1 host.

Numbers….functional, precise, unemotional.

But numbers can’t describe the friendships forged between 12 people over the gentle effluxion of time, initially neighbours but becoming so much more with each passing year.

You need words to describe the simple pleasure of those people sharing birthday celebrations; a bike ride on a grey winter morning; a walk across harvested fields in the full glare of a late summer sun.

18 years of marriage. But how can a stark number begin to convey the depth of love, affection and respect forged in that period, through times of work, stress and leisure alike?

Words are needed to portray a child’s love and memory of their parents, prompted as simply perhaps as by running a finger over the well burnished handle of an over-used garden tool.

5 holidays in 12 months, but only words can allow family and friends to share and understand the cultural differences experienced in an alien land, the exhilaration of seeing an Oriental sun rise at dawn from a volcanic crater rim, or the taste of a freshly cooked blacktip trevally, redolent still of the Indian Ocean waters.

4 countries in 16 years, but words are needed to give depth to the multi-layered emotions of expatriate life..the unalloyed pleasure of meeting new friends from a foreign culture; freedom from the straitjacket of domestic routine; the thrill of spontaneous weekends in another country. But all the while, an invisible force pulls you back to the home you left, as surely as a foraging bird returns to the nest.

19 bottles of wine. 2 colours. 5 countries. But that gives no sense of the soil from which the vines eased upwards, the passionate, nurturing hands of the winegrowers, the patient fermentation process in oak barrels as old as the estate owner’s grandfather.

1 host. Well, 2. But neither number can begin to tell of the generosity of spirit from Snoo and Gary in opening up the doors of Pine Cottage to 12 complete strangers. Nor of the flexibility and friendliness. Nor of the brilliant food and hospitality. Thank you, Pine Cottage….thank you, Chef Snoo & sous chef Gary.

Thank you, words.

 

Pine Cottage Supper Club

Love food? Love the sociability of dining with friends?

But hate all the shopping, preparation, and washing up?

And there’s always that constant struggle to get the timing right, wanting to serve each course in a blaze of perfectly timed culinary glory, but without neglecting your guests.

The solution? A Supper Club.

Gill had heard about Pine Cottage Supper Club a while ago. Last night 12 neighbourly friends took advantage of the generous hospitality of Chef Snoo Powell and her husband Gary, in their beautiful home in the nearby hamlet of Hydestile.

Imagine the idyllic cottage where Cameron Diaz falls in love with Jude Law in romcom classic The Holiday, and you won’t be far off….

As Snoo says on her website:

Pine Cottage Supper Club is a new dining experience – supper clubs have been on the scene in London and other major cities for quite a while and now we have one in Godalming!

If you want to go out to eat with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or just the fact that spring has arrived, and fancy eating in a very informal and relaxed atmosphere, almost as if you were dining at home, then come and eat at my kitchen table. This is not a formal restaurant – more like eating at the chef’s table.

And although we all dressed formally, the evening could not have been more informal. Or fun.

Glasses of Prosecco were enjoyed in the kitchen, with some exquisite nibbles, as we got to know our genial – and remarkably stress-free – hosts.

Dinner was served at a long unfussy table in my kind of dining room. Surrounded by books. Especially travel books. This is beginning to sound a bit like Through The Keyhole. Who would live in a house like this? I just hope Keith Lemon doesn’t show up…..

The first culinary surprise was an amuse-bouche – although linguistically I prefer the more slangy amuse-gueule (pretentious, moi….?) – of creamy vegetable (courgette?) soup. Served in an espresso cup, it was sinfully calorific, I suspect, and all the better for it.

Most of us had the excellent starter of goat’s cheese and smoked salmon parcels, with rocket and lemon wedges. Although it wasn’t until later that the interesting sweetness was identified as white chocolate.

Through all the conversations and email exchanges with Snoo we’d had before the night, we’d been struck by her ideas and flexibility.

Some people don’t like fishy things? Or goat’s cheese? No problem. Enter an interesting mélange of beetroot and aubergines.

The main course was a vast platter of slow-roasted spicy pork. With perfect filling-threatening crackling. And crunchy spuds. And a week’s quota of fresh greens and vegetables. But – and imagine this in Marcus or Monica’s most portentous Masterchef voice – what really lifted the dish for me was the silky smooth apple purée, the sweetness of the fruit wrapping itself around the meaty pork and iron of the greens. Yum.

To be honest, around this stage of the evening the effects of the Prosecco, white and red wines (bring your own plonk) were kicking in. I have a sense of many sweets arriving, all good – Snoo, if you read this can you please fill in the gaps? But the taste and perfectly wobbly texture of the smoky lapsang buttermilk pannacotta will linger a while. It transported me to Italy, pronto.

The cheese board was laden with – ooh – at least 10 outstanding, and quite unusual, varieties. Bit hazy again….Snoo, any help here, please? And where did you source that great selection?

The evening was over all too quickly. For us, at least. The 5 hours had flown by, filled with an endless stream of imaginative food, laughter, conversation….and an, erm,  interesting choice of inter-course entertainment.

Snoo had offered up the piano’s ivories to be tinkled. Sadly nobody took up that option, but it epitomises the philosophy of Pine Cottage Supper Club….this is your home too for the night.

Huge – and well-fed – thanks to Snoo and to Gary. The word is out.

ps – we’ll be round soon to pick up the cars

CONTACT

Pine Cottage, Salt Lane, Hydestile, Surrey, GU8 4DH

Tel: 01483 860 318

Email: pinecottagesupperclub@gmail.com   

Snoo’s dining table can be found in her family home of over 10 years, nestled in the Surrey hills and overlooking the garden.

Nobody is safe now

A few hours ago, a knife-wielding man injured a few people at Leytonstone tube station. He yelled “this is for Syria” as he slashed his innocent victims. Police are treating it as a terrorist incident.

On Wednesday last week, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot dead 14 people and left another 21 injured in San Bernardino, California.

Their victims were attending a holiday party of social services organisation The Inland Regional Center.

The FBI found an arsenal of weapons at the couple’s apartment, otherwise left as though they had just popped out to do the shopping.

They leave behind their 6 month old daughter, dropped off with Tashfeen’s mother before they went to the party.

On Friday 13th November, 130 people were killed in a series of meticulously planned attacks on soft targets in Paris…..a music venue, bars and restaurants. A football match at the Stade de France was also targeted.

But something else in the last few days has appalled me even more than all these ISIS-inspired attacks around the world.

Remember the innocence of our youth, playing hide-and-seek on the local common, or around the house?

ISIS have just released their latest propaganda video. It shows boys, as young as 8 years old, being given loaded guns with which to hunt down captured Syrian soldiers – “spies” – in a ruined castle. The children execute the bound and defenceless men.

The pièce de résistance, however, is the 6th boy beheading his victim.

It’s been reported that this updated version of hide-and-seek, played out like a computer video game, was a reward for the boys winning a competition.

The message is clear. You can bomb our training bases in the Syrian desert. You can attack us on the ground. You might in time return Syria to some kind of uneasy peace.

But around the world, our supporters will deliver our message wherever and whenever you least expect it.

It might be meticulously planned, It might be random and spontaneous. But it will be deadly. And we have already trained the next generation to continue the fight.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this clash of ideologies is an insoluble conflict.

 

 

 

Paris – a city in mourning, but not in fear

Below is an article I have just had published on Paris for Silver Travel Advisor, a travel website for people of a certain age…..

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We have just got back from a weekend in Paris.

We arrived 2 weeks after 130 people were killed in a series of devastating, barbarous attacks by Islamic State murder squads, and the day after President Hollande led the country in a moving tribute on a day of national remembrance for the victims.

Outside the Bataclan club, a moving message from a victim's parent

The security in Paris was heightened on my last visit there in March, just 2 months after the Charlie Hebdo murders. That was clearly targeted at the satirical magazine that had so overtly lampooned the Muslim religion. The recent 13th November attacks assaulted global sensibilities, however, as the victims were intentionally innocent people in a liberal western democracy enjoying a sporting, musical and culinary Friday night out in one of the world’s most vibrant, multicultural and liberated cities.

Our trip was booked a few weeks ago, to benefit from a free Eurostar ticket (thanks to a 5 hour wait at St Pancras after a “jumper” at Ashford on a previous trip). And also to enjoy a free night at the wonderful Great Northern Hotel, smack bang next to St Pancras & Kings Cross stations, after Gill experienced her own Poseidon Adventure in the shower, en route to Marseille in June (it’s a long story…….).

We could easily have cancelled this trip. Belgium remains in lock down, and France is still hunting those connected to the recent murderous attacks, who didn’t die for their violent cause or who weren’t subsequently captured.

But we still wanted to go, for all those reasons that appear trite on the page: to show support for our French neighbours; to uphold the principles of freedom v the bullet; to carry on normal life in the face of terrorist atrocities.

Paris seemed quiet on Saturday. The Eurostar train was only half full and it’s rumoured hotel bookings are down on usual levels by as much as 40%.

But we enjoyed an entertaining and insightful guided walk around Montmartre, with Pierre from the excellent Culturefish Tours, and a cosmopolitan group comprising Swedes, other Brits, Americans and a young Chinese girl living and working in San Francisco.

We learned that the hilltop community was outside the city until 1860, populated at that time largely by winemakers and by miners, excavating gypsum from deep mines under the “butte”. This output was used to make plaster for the city walls….et voila, plaster of Paris!

We strolled in the footsteps of Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso and Renoir, some of the many artists who populated bohemian Montmartre during the “belle epoque” period – from the late 19th century to the early 20th – after it was embraced as another city arondissement.

We heard the bewitching story of The Man Who Walked Through Walls, now trapped in a moving sculpture.

Statue of The Man Who Walked Through Walls

And we saw where Dalida – the exotic singer and dancer of Egyptian and Italian – lived, and whose many lovers all seemed to commit suicide, just as she eventually did. And on a lighter note, we saw the cafe and greengrocer’s shop made famous by Audrey Tautou in the joyously Parisian movie “Amelie”.

Amélie (2001) Poster

We enjoyed dinner at a typically French bistro, Le Louis on rue Coquilliere in the 2nd arrondissement. We luxuriated in a cheese-based Sunday brunch at l’Affineur Affine, tucked away on a quiet neighbourhood street in the 9th, and we gorged on cheap Thai street food at Monthai in the 3rd.

We walked miles, as you always must in Paris. We felt safe.

But on Sunday night and throughout Monday, we saw lengthy convoys of armed police, and heard sirens wailing, and helicopter rotors droning in the Parisian skies. The world’s leaders had arrived for the climate conference, and the city felt under siege again.

We struggled to keep our emotions in check as we read the hundreds of tributes draped around the statue in the Place de la Republique, and then saw those in front of the Bataclan night club, scene of the most murderous attack.

We returned on Eurostar, humbled but glad that we had spent the weekend in Paris, a city in mourning but not in fear.

Tearful tricolour graphic