22 November 2010

Some Royal Marriage Statistics

As Sesame Street might say, this post is brought to you by the number 7.

It’s a pretty unpleasant response to the announcement of a couple’s engagement to call them shallow, and predict that their marriage will last seven years. Given that the couple are Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the Bishop of Willesden (NW London), Peter Broadbent, should have expected a rough ride from the press for his remarks on Facebook. His opinions are not much worth considering, but I find the choice of seven years amusing. To us pedestrian techies seven is just one of the ten digits. But for those of a mystical turn of mind and who like to see some deeper spiritual or esoteric significance in numbers, 7 is a big deal, certainly fighting above its weight between 1 and 9. It must often be on the Bishop’s mind as he spreads the Christian message – sins, virtues, loaves, pillars etc, all coming in sevens. He might also be a Marilyn Monroe fan – she was, of course, the temptress in The Seven Year Itch.

By the way, it seems likely that Adelard of Bath (a town in SW England, the Roman Aquae Sulis), often regarded as the first English scientist, was the translator into Latin of a treatise on Arabic arithmetic by al-Khwarizmi (hence algorithm) and so brought the Arabic numerals to England, c1125AD.

Now for some stats. Since 1945 prominent members of the royal family have married for the first time on six occasions:
  • 20 Nov 1947 Princess Elizabeth m Philip Mountbatten
  • 6 May 1960 Princess Margaret m Antony Armstrong-Jones (divorced 11 July 78 )
  • 14 Nov 1973 Princess Anne m Mark Phillips (divorced 23 April 92)
  • 29 July 1981 Prince Charles m Diana Spencer (divorced 28 Aug 96)
  • 23 July 1986 Prince Andrew m Sarah Ferguson (divorced 30 May 96)
  • 19 June 1999 Prince Edward m Sophie Rhys-Jones
The four marriages which ended in divorce did so after 18.2, 18.4, 15.1 and 9.9 years respectively, not much support for a forecast of 7 years. But the Bishop might quote the only significant royal divorce prior to Princess Margaret’s. Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Victoria, married Prince Ernest Louis of Hesse in 1894 and divorced him in 1901. Better still, on 9 April 1894 and 21 December 1901, so not just 7, but 7.7 years after! However, Victoria then remarried to her Russian first cousin, Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, in 1905. Most of that marriage was spent in exile in France, but it lasted until her death in 1936, over 30 years later.

PS The Bishop has now admitted to “a major error of Judgement” and has apologised, just once so far!

17 November 2010

'The Pre-Raphaelites in Italy' at the Ashmolean

Away from the great South West again, just for a day, driving through frost and fog to Oxford, primarily to visit the Ashmolean Museum.

Rick Mather’s skilful redevelopment of the Ashmolean has provided space for temporary exhibitions on the third floor, their first major show being The Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was closely associated with Oxford and many of their works are held in the Ashmolean’s collection or by the colleges. Italy was a central inspiration for the PRB and provides a good subject for this scholarly exhibition, definitely worth seeing before it closes on 5 December. Busy, but not crowded when I went; captioning good by current standards (I recently moaned about this); £6 maximum, guide good value at £4.

Two oddities: John Brett’s Capri in the Evening, lent by a private collection, being last exhibited in 1866; Burne-Jones’ The Tree of Life, lent by the V&A, with an unusual, almost geeky, formatting of some of the details on the frame:


The Ashmolean Dining Room was as described by John Lanchester in the Guardian last month - attempting to select sensibly from the menu items which were actually available had a Carrollian twist.

15 November 2010

Blair and Science (again)

My first post consisted of some hand-wringing about the political class’s view of science. It touched on Blair’s reporting in A Journey of his Chief Scientific Adviser’s contribution (“faute de mieux”) to dealing with the foot and mouth epidemic - “Blow me” etc.

I was delighted to find this passage in Allan Mallison’s Spectator review (The other Prince of Darkness) of The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World by Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, (drawn on before in a post):
When Foot and Mouth strikes, for example, Powell rings (‘most days’) a farmer in Cumbria whom Blair had met on a visit: the impression is one of surprise that there are telephones in Cumbria, or farmers who speak the language. But just when there seems no solution to the terrible plague afflicting the people of this little-known country, ‘a saviour appears in the unlikely form of the government’s chief scientist, David King’. Why, one wonders, is it unlikely that the chief scientist would be the source of cool scientific analysis?

Mullin Diaries: Public Expenditure

Chris Mullin was Labour MP for Sunderland South for 23 years, standing down at the May 2010 general election. The first volume of his diaries, A View from the Foothills, covering his period as a minister (1999-2005), was published in 2009. I have quoted before from the second volume, Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010.

Some of the entries reveal that there had been a long-running concern about public expenditure levels in some Labour circles. After the bank bailout in the autumn of 2008 which led to a sharp drop in the tax yield from financial services and stamp duty, the consequences were inevitable.

13 May 2008
Later, in the Library corridor, I came across a loyalist colleague who was lamenting the ‘awfulness’ of Gordon. He added, ‘The truth is that public expenditure has been out of control for the last three or four years because there are so many sacred cows ...’
21 October 2008
During tonight’s Division, a former Treasury minister whispered that, about a year after we were elected, he took part in a two and a half hour meeting at which officials briefed Gordon that our apparent prosperity was built on unsustainable levels of debt and that, sooner or later, the bubble would burst. Gordon rejected the advice and the rest is history. In fairness, let it be said that Gordon no doubt took the view that this was an attempt by officials to nobble Labour’s spending plans before we had our feet under the table.
24 November 2008
To London for Alistair Darling’s pre-Budget statement. ...Billions splashed about everywhere in a desperate attempt to kick-start our ailing economy. ...Of course it will all have to be paid for but not until well after the next election.
22 April 2009
Budget Day. A budget anticipated like no other in recent history. A last throw of the dice as we contemplate oblivion. ...borrowing is predicted to rise to a shocking 11.9 per cent of GDP and the books are unlikely to balance again before another decade or more. So much for having ended boom and bust. The Tories were surprisingly subdued. As well they might be. This could be their inheritance. ...Cameron’s response (‘the government has run out of money and moral authority’) was devastating, provided of course that one forgets that all this stated with his irresponsible friends in the City.
21 May 2009
This evening, as I was departing, I ran into Chief Whip Nick Brown. ‘Between you and me,’ I said, ‘given that we are going to lose the election we should be planting a few booby traps.’ I had in mind a few modest measures such as the selection of select committee chairmen.
‘I think we’ve done that with the PSBR,’ replied Nick, smiling wickedly.
6 July 2009
To the meeting of the parliamentary party ... Our debt, [Darling] said, would rise to 80 per cent of national wealth ‘because we took a deliberate decision to increase spending up to 2011. We will need to halve the deficit over a five-year period. ...’
29 September 2009
[Labour Party Conference, Gordon Brown’s speech] ...Of spending cuts, there was scarcely a mention, which leaves us just a teeny bit vulnerable, since much of what was promised seems to involve more, not less, public spending.
9 December 2009
Alistair Darling delivered his pre-Budget report. ...Re the deficit (a whopping £178 billion), containment rather than reduction is the strategy. It will not go down next year, but he did talk vaguely of halving it in the four years thereafter. ...The great unanswered question is, of course, how we are going to extricate ourselves from the vast swamp of debt into which we have been sucked by the avarice and stupidity of the bankers.
... For all his bombast, one suspects that George [Osborne], too, is none too keen to go into detail this side of an election as to precisely how the Tories would tackle the deficit. The electorate would run a mile, if only they knew.
Only Vince Cable affected to remain above the fray, pouring scorn in equal measure on both our houses while at the same time leaving us none the wiser as to what he would do either.
24 March 2010
... Some good news – the deficit is £11 billion less than previously expected, but still a whopping unsustainable £167 billion.
PSBR – Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, the UK government budget deficit (excess of spending over income) now called the Public Sector Net Cash Requirement (PSNCR).

9 November 2010

Glasgow Boys and Gauguin

I am ‘out of area’ for a few days and have been to a couple of excellent exhibitions: The Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy and Gauguin at Tate Modern.

Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880 – 1900, to give it the full title, shows works by the group of about 20 young painters who, the RA says, created a stir at home and abroad in the final decades of the nineteenth century. They were the first significant group of British artists after the Pre-Raphaelites and “by the turn of the century the Glasgow Boys were acknowledged as the only British painters of international standing”, according to the curators of the exhibition.  The Gallery Guide at £2.50 is poor value, particularly in comparison with the educational guide at £4.50 (while stocks last). The exhibition runs to 23 January 2011, £9 max per ticket.

I now realise how much the Glasgow Boys had come under the influence of pre-Impressionist French painters like Millet and Bastien-Lepage. Whereas Gauguin, their contemporary (1848-1903), started as an Impressionist and eventually was selected by Roger Fry as one of the original Post-Impressionists in 1910.

Gauguin: Maker of Myth is a 'must see' exhibition with many of his major works and so, unsurprisingly, very crowded. Curators currently seem to favour captioning works in very small print and sometimes at a considerable distance (up to 2 metres!). Perhaps this is to boost the sale of audio guides, but does nothing to ease the crush. Gauguin runs to 23 January 2011, £13.50 max per ticket, free brief guide.

Down below, Tate Modern's Turbine Hall was given over to Ai Weiwei's Unilever Series commission, Sunflower Seeds, which consists of 100 million porcelain replica seeds, no longer to be touched or walked on. The Tate thinks that the sight “invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today”. The artist has just been released from recent house arrest and is urging David Cameron to raise the issue of human rights on his current visit to China (BBC News).

Outside, it was a cold, grey, wet London November day, nothing like Tahiti.

7 November 2010

Blair and Trident

I posted last month about Tony Blair’s A Journey. Some unkind reviewers have called it an “autohagiography” (ie an autobiography by a self-styled saint), a word apparently coined by the occultist Aleister Crowley in 1929 for his The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography. This work is still in print at 984 pages - 266 more than the UK edition of Blair’s book.

Towards the end of A Journey, Blair touches on various issues which came up at the end of his premiership, one being Trident (pages 635-6):

"We agreed to the renewal of the independent nuclear deterrent. You might think I would have been certain of that decision, but I hesitated over it. I could see clearly the force of the common sense and practical argument against Trident, yet in the final analysis I thought giving it up too big a downgrading of our status as a nation, and in an uncertain world, too big a risk for our defence. I did not think this was a 'tough on defence' versus 'weak or pacifist' issue at all. On simple, pragmatic grounds, there was a case either way. The expense is huge and the utility in a post-Cold War world is less in terms of deterrence, and non-existent in terms of military use. Spend the money on more helicopters, airlift and anti-terror equipment? Not a daft notion. In the situations in which British forces would likely be called upon to fight, it was pretty clear what mattered most. It is true that it is frankly inconceivable we would use our nuclear deterrent alone, without the US - and let us hope a situation in which the US is even threatening use never arises - but it's a big step to put that beyond your capability as a country.

So, after some genuine consideration and reconsideration, I opted to renew it. But the contrary decision would not have been stupid. I had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon who was similarly torn. In the end, we both agreed, as I said to him imagine standing up in the House of Commons and saying I've decided to scrap it We're not going to say that, are we? In this instance, caution, costly as it was, won the day."
“You might think I would have been certain of that decision” – well certainly you might if you had read Blair’s Foreword to the Defence White Paper in December 2006, The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent, Cm 6994. This is easily accessed so just a few extracts:

"... we need to factor in the requirement to deter countries which might in the future seek to sponsor nuclear terrorism from their soil. We must assume that the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism will continue for a generation or more.

We believe that an independent British nuclear deterrent is an essential part of our insurance against the uncertainties and risks of the future.

I believe it is crucial that, for the foreseeable future, British Prime Ministers have the necessary assurance that no aggressor can escalate a crisis beyond UK control. An independent deterrent ensures our vital interests will be safeguarded.

These are not decisions a government takes lightly. The financial costs are substantial. We would not want to have available the terrifying power of these weapons unless we believed that to be necessary to deter a future aggressor."
In A Journey giving up Trident is seen as “too big a downgrading of our status as a nation”, a justification not addressed in the Foreword. Some light is shed on this discrepancy in the second, somewhat melancholic, volume of Chris Mullin's diaries (Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010). On Tuesday 23 January 2007 Mullin had a conversation about Trident renewal with Des Browne, the Defence Secretary.

"I said I thought it was all about keeping up with the French and retaining our permanent seat on the Security Council. Interestingly, Des said that the Foreign Office had included that argument in the first draft of the government’s position paper, but he had asked for it to be struck out."
On the other hand, the Foreword’s references to “the global struggle in which we are engaged today between moderation and extremism” and to the sponsorship of nuclear terrorism aren’t reflected in A Journey in the context of Trident renewal.  Elsewhere, however, particularly in the final chapter, Postscript, Blair takes a robust line on the need to confront extremism (page 674 et seq).

Finally, Blair says he “had a perfectly good and sensible discussion about it with Gordon” – well there certainly don’t seem to have been too many of those en route. Assuming Blair and the Chancellor only discussed Trident replacement once (which seems unlikely), the tenor of the discussion is open to doubt unless it took place before Brown’s Mansion House speech on 21 June 2006. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, remarks on that speech's aftermath in The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World (page 43):

"We were rather taken aback when, instead of a commitment to public service reform, the evening news announced he had committed himself and the government to continuing with Trident, our submarine-based nuclear deterrent. We had no particular problem with the commitment itself, but he had not consulted anyone before making the statement and it pre-empted the orderly discussions that were going on in government on the subject. The Cabinet Secretary, who was chairing the Committee of Permanent Secretaries preparing the advice to ministers, was particularly peeved."
Powell goes on to say that Brown was seeking the support of the Murdoch press. This view is only shared in part by Andrew Rawnsley in The End of the Party (page 437-8 in the revised edition):

"Brown announced that, as Prime Minister, he would modernise the Trident nuclear deterrent. This was widely interpreted as him sucking up to the right-wing press and getting in early with his disappointment of left-wing supporters. His main motivation was to pre-empt Blair so that his rival could not use the future of Trident as an excuse to delay his departure."

HMS Vanguard, one of the Royal Navy's four Trident submarines currently in service

2 November 2010

All That Glistens?

In today’s The Times (London) is an advertisement for bullionvault.co.uk. Their website explains that:
“BullionVault is the easiest, safest and cheapest direct way to own gold. You own the pure metal, safely stored in your choice of authorised vaults in London, Zurich or New York. You’ve access to your account 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your gold is safe in professional vaults, and is insured and audited daily.”
BullionVault explain that they will charge commission and an annual custody and insurance charge (costed in US$).

I was intrigued by this, although I’m neither wealthy nor an expert investor. It seems to me that there are two main reasons for the “mass affluent” (as opposed to the criminal) investing in gold: as an insurance against some form of catastrophic economic collapse, or because you think that world demand for the metal will grow strongly.
If you believe the first of these, then surely you would be better off keeping some kruggerands in a safe place (maybe not under the first loose floorboard) to be retrieved and exchanged for food and other essentials when the bad times come. The kruggerand may not a very pretty coin, but its price I believe reliably tracks a small margin above the price of bullion.  After all, if we are off to hell in a handcart, will BullionVault be online, and if they are, will the banking system be operating, and are you sure you can get to Zurich?

The Great West Window of Fairford Church, Gloucestershire: “The Last Judgement”
A blue bearded devil with a brown wheelbarrow wheels an old woman to destruction - “to hell in a handcart”

On the other hand, if you see the world (and in particular BRIC) as wanting more and more physical gold for jewellery, dentistry, or even to hold as coins, why not invest in a specialist unit trust like BlackRock Gold and General , which “aims to achieve long-term capital growth by investing in gold, mining and precious metal-related shares”?  Personal declaration: I hold some shares in this fund in my modest personal pension.

There is a third reason, I suppose.  If you are very rich indeed and want a part of your portfolio in physical gold as a safeguard against inflation, there will be a limit to how much of the stuff you can keep around the house – or more likely houses. After all, as the Gatlin Brothers used to sing: “... all the gold in California is in a bank in the middle of Beverly Hills in somebody else's name”. So is the ad in The Times aimed at the “mass affluent” or the super-rich?

China on my mind

Recently I went to a picture sale at a West Country auctioneers. Among the lots was a watercolour landscape of Hong Kong in the colonial period, at a guess late 19th century. It went to a phone bidder for more than twice the catalogue estimate and by now is probably on its way east. One can expect that there are quite a few people in 21st century Hong Kong who would appreciate the picture’s historic value. They are also too sophisticated to be offended by the red-jacketed British soldier in its foreground.

Since the sale, China has kept coming up, to start with in the lead story in 18 October’s DefenseNews:
Turkey, China in Exercises – NATO Blanches as Ankara Looks East
“... In mid-September a fleet of Chinese Su-27 and Mig-29 aircraft flew through Pakistan, refuelled in Iran and reached Turkish airspace for exercises with the Turkish Air Force.”
According to DefenseNews this was the first time a NATO member has held joint drills with the PRC. So it wasn’t a surprise to read in the FT (£) on 24 October that India is considering:
“an $11bn deal to buy 126 multi-role combat fighter jets to rearm India’s out-of-date air force and boost defence capabilities against Pakistan and China. ... India has a choice of F-16s or F-18 Super Hornets over Mirages, MiGs, Eurofighters and Gripens. ... China’s assertiveness in the region – over trade, global finance and its borders – is overshadowing the traditional and better-understood threat from nuclear-armed Pakistan.”
The FT quoted an Indian strategic affairs analyst, C.Raja Mohan:
“... The rise of China is going to cause a whole set of problems across Asia.”
On a lighter note Decanter.com on 26 October revealed that:
“Chateau Lafite Rothschild's 2008 bottle is to feature the Chinese symbol for the figure eight in celebration of the First Growth's new vineyard venture in China. ...Lafite is in partnership with CITIC, China’s largest state-owned investment company, to develop 25ha of vines on the Penglai peninsula in China’s Shandong province. ...The symbol, which is considered especially lucky in China, will be on every bottle and magnum of Lafite 2008.”

The most expensive Bordeaux wines have recently taken the fancy of China’s wealthy elite, as David Gauvey Herbert pointed out on 28 October in Foreign Policy:
"Chateau Lafite is the wine of choice for those with serious RMB to drop. Just as the American hip-hop community rescued French cognac from the brink in the last decade, the Chinese obsession with this French Bordeaux is sending prices through the roof: Last year, Chateau Lafite sold its 2008 Lafite Rothschild for €185 a bottle, but that price hit more than €1,000 on the resale market last month, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The reasons for Lafite's success are something of a mystery, but Jean Marc Porrot, a wine importer in Shanghai, argued that it is a combination of the label's early entry into China, French origin and its Chinese translation of "lafei," which is easy to pronounce.
"Eighty or 90 percent of the people who buy Lafite know nothing about wine," said Porrot, who himself thinks the label is overrated and has only tasted it twice in his life."
Wealthy Chinese could easily afford to buy up all the best, not just Lafite, of every year's vintage if they wanted to now, let alone after another decade or two of spectacular economic growth. However, also on 26 October in his Asia in Numbers article in The Times (£), Leo Lewis, reported a:
“... grim government survey in which a third of the 6000 scientists at China’s best research institutions admitted to plagiarism or falsifying results. Revelations such as these, analysts argue, make it doubtful that China's corporate R&D departments actually have the expertise to match the country's roaring ambition. For Nicholas Smith, an MF Global strategist, these dismal realities deal a heavy blow to the notion that China is only inches away from performing the supposed "miracle" that turned Japan into the technological powerhouse it became in the 1960s. In that era, he says, the quality of Japan's education and its educated youngsters provided the perfect ingredients for the shift to knowledge and innovation-based growth. China’s system, by contrast, has already left its corporate sector facing a severe talent shortage even before the real shift from manufacturing has begun.”
which puts a different gloss on Tim Leunig’s view in Economy class in November’s Prospect (£) that:
“emerging economies such as China are very good at manufacturing and are moving up the value chain rapidly. After starting with textiles, Chinese manufacturers moved to medium-value manufacturing such as white goods, and are entering the higher value-added sector, such as high-speed trains. Chinese wages are very low, and countries such as Germany and Japan will have a serious competitor soon. I would not want to be in their shoes.”
Returning to the watercolour, I remembered reading earlier this year Christopher Meyer’s lucid account in Getting Our Way of how Britain came to acquire its former colony and our eventual departure. In the Opium Wars Britain had acquired Hong Kong Island (1842) and part of the nearby Kowloon peninsula (1860) in perpetuity, but in 1898 a large tract of land north of Kowloon was leased for 99 years. Well before time was up in 1997 the British had concluded that the colony would not be viable without the New Territories (as the leased area was called) and started tortuous but ultimately successful negotiations to hand all of Hong Kong over to the PRC.

One can only speculate as to the situation which would have emerged by now if the lease had been for 125 years, expiring in 2023. The relative economic and global significance of the two countries has altered markedly, and not in the UK’s favour, in the years since the negotiations. Probably just as well China’s post-Olympic supercomputing patience wasn’t put to the test.