Blog Archive

Monday, April 1, 2024

Singapore Success Story

Singapore - A Success Story

I have made two quick visits to Singapore (Lion City) in my business career and my interest in this remarkable tiny city state has been revived after watching a documentary presented by former MP, Michael Portillo. It makes a change to talk about something positive - and Singapore most certainly is - a remarkable transformation from a swampland to one of the wealthiest countries in the world in a relatively short period of time.

The facts go like this:

Sir Stamford Raffles established Singapore as a trading post of the British Empire
Singapore falls to Japanese occupation - Winston Churchill called the defeat "the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history". Tens of thousands were slaughtered.
Japanese surrender and the rebuilding of Singapore commences
Singapore becomes independent under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew following a brief spell as part of Malaysia
Population almost 6 million
GDP per capita $87,884 - 5th highest in the world
HDI value of 0.935 - 9th in the world (Human Development Index - UK is 15, USA 20, France 28)
Largely democratic

Portillo visited the Port of Singapore, currently the second busiest port in the world. Work is underway to double it's size. The new fully automated Tuas Mega Port will be extended onto reclaimed land and will free up other land to be used for other purposes.

Raffles Hotel in Singapore

The famous Singapore Sling cocktail in the Long Bar

Today many people associate the name Raffles with the luxurious Raffles hotel. I popped in there on one of my visits and of course ordered a Singapore Sling cocktail at the Long Bar! My daily commute to school in Mill Hill as a child took me past Highwood House where Raffles and his wife lived in their later years.

Highwood House today - divided into flats and with a Raffles blue plaque 

Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), was the first Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He is widely recognised as the founding father of the modern Singaporean state, and for his leadership in turning it into a highly developed country.

LKY in 2005

Quote for the Month

"It's not who votes that counts, it's who counts the votes" 
Vladimir Putin wins another term on March 18th 2024 with '87%' of the votes.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Trip to Seville, UK going to the Dogs, Dogs going to the Dogs, Amazon Returns

Trip to Seville

We went to Seville for a long weekend. It's the third most visited city in the second most visited country in the world. That means lots of tourists! We loved it and would like to return. Volver a Sevilla.

Plaza de España - so busy that the authorities are planning an entrance fee

I like:
  • 400 churches and 4,000 bars means there is a church on every street. And somewhere to have a drink every few metres!
  • The architecture is over the top but the more modest creations are often beautiful.
  • Food quality: tapas, ham, ham, ham.
  • Le dépaysement: fans, religion, ham, meal times, tapas, OTT architecture, bull ring, flamenco.
  • Deep blue skies
  • Cultural mix - Mediterranean / European / Arabic / dark
  • The people are friendly and have time to talk
  • Cleanliness (for big city)
  • The river Guadalquivir
  • The Neo Victoria, first ship to circumnavigate the world in 1509-12
  • My 18,000 steps a day!

I dislike:
  • Meal times! Many restaurants don't open until 20.30. Lunch is often not served until 14.00.
  • Too many tourists (like me)

Las Setas - world's largest wooden structure

La Basilica de la Macarena

La Basilica de la Mercadona

The Cathedral and the Giralda

Lifesize replica of the Neo Victoria on the Guadalquivir

The UK is going to the Dogs

You may be forgiven for thinking that after 14 years of Conservative government, the country might be going okay - at least economically. Well you would be wrong. Growth is almost non existent as the graph below demonstrates:

Source: House of Commons Library

And compared to similar countries, only Germany has done worse than the UK since 2019:

That means we are poorer than we should be, if we had say an average growth rate, and that there is less to invest in our public services as is amply demonstrated by daily media stories such as:

Queues for the third day when a new NHS dentist opens their doors in Bristol

The King gets seen immediately after been diagnosed with cancer while ordinary people have to wait months: in November 2023, 65.2% of people treated began first definitive treatment of cancer within 62 days of an urgent suspected cancer referral, breast symptomatic referral, urgent screening referral or a consultant upgrade. NHS Data

Nearly 35,000 patients a month waited for 12 hours or more for a hospital bed in 2023, new FactCheck analysis of NHS England data reveals. That’s more than 3,000 times higher than in 2011.

Cancer waiting times for 2023 in England were the worst on record, a BBC News analysis has revealed. The waits have worsened every year for the past 11. BBC News 08/02/2024

And my personal experiences:

When I drive into town people must think I'm drunk as I swerve to avoid the potholes, reminiscent of a third world country.

I have had to cancel several trips to London as the trains have been on strike. The NHS doctors and nurses are regularly on strike, making the the health service even more unreliable.

Even the Dogs have gone to the Dogs

Facing a surge in dog attacks, the most violent breed - XL Bullies - has just been banned 

The hideous and violent XL Bully dog breed

Amazon Returns

I recently ordered the wrong digibox for my French satellite TV. So I ordered the correct one and returned the first one. Amazon provided me with a label and I took it to the post office, paid the postage and off it went to a European Amazon Returns centre in Slovakia.

Except it didn't. A couple of weeks later, the same package was returned by my postman having been refused entry in Slovakia. There was a small red sticker on my parcel marked 'Return' in French and in Slovak (I presume).

So I decided to use the Amazon Chat service to try to get it resolved. Here is a summary of my chat:

I spent 60 minutes on the chat
The bot transferred me to a real person (agent) when it was clear it could not help
I was transferred to each of the following people who reviewed my case
Maddela was unable to help me so transferred me to
Zineb was unable to help me so transferred me to
Ialla was unable to help me so transferred me to
Audrey was unable to help me so transferred me to
Maria was unable to help me so transferred me to
Inass was unable to help me so transferred me to
Nesrine was unable to help me so transferred me to
Saida was unable to help me so transferred me to
Mohamed was unable to help me so transferred me to
Saida was unable to help me so transferred me to
Awatef who said he would organise a refund. I said okay, what should I do with the digibox I am trying to return. He said whatever you wish.

Next I contacted the Royal Mail to get a postage refund as it was guaranteed delivery. After a 30 minute wait, I was told no problem and that they would send me a cheque for the GBP7.10. Remember what a cheque is?
I asked why it had not been delivered and he said that electrical appliances going into Europe (since Brexit I imagine) require a test and that it's not worth it for low value items. This of course leads to a lot of waste.

I have sent my digibox for recycling. What a waste.

Quotes for the Month

Mr Navalny would not want Mr Putin’s message to prevail. “[If I get killed] the obvious thing is: don’t give up,” he once told American film-makers. 
“All it takes for evil to triumph is the inaction of good people. There’s no need for inaction.”
Alexy Navalny 1976 - 2024 Murdered by Vladimir Putin

"Evil thrives on apathy and cannot survive without it"

Hannah Arendt 1906 - 1975 German Philosopher, whose passage to America was secured in 1940 by Varian Fry and his team.

“For evil to happen, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing.” 
Edmund Burke 1729 - 1797 MP for Wendover and Democracy Campaigner

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Iran is the Enemy, My Energy Prices, Government's Absurd Rwanda Asylum Policy

Iran is the World's Enemy No 1

 Iran is often called "The Head of the Snake"

In January, Iran launched airstrikes on Pakistan, who then retaliated a few days later. In both cases people were killed. 

Following that, "Iran fired missiles into northern Syria saying it was targeting IS bases, and into Iraq, aiming at what it claimed was an “Israeli espionage headquarters” and “terrorist groups” near the US consulate compound in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.''  The Guardian January 15th 2024

On Sunday January 28th, an Iranian drone killed three US soldiers in Jordan, near the border with Syria. The US has vowed to retaliate and Iran denies any involvement. This is a potential massive escalation point.

We already know that Iran is largely responsible for the Israel Hamas war as it encourages, trains and arms Hamas. Additionally, the current war in the Red Sea in which the Yemen Houtis are attacking and disrupting international shipping has drawn a powerful response from the US and the UK. The Houtis are also armed and trained by Iran.

This undeniable Iranian aggression is creating considerable unease across the Middle East. And whilst public opinion in much of the world is uniting against Israel, in part because they don't really get the full picture, there is a big shift in country leadership against Iran. Let's not forget that in 2014-15, the Saudis were engaged in a war against the Houtis in Yemen. The US refused to help them so they more or less gave up. Look where we are now! And, yes, the Saudis have refused to join the US in the current Red Sea conflict.

Remember that Israel has been warning the world for many years that Iran is the real enemy. That warning has largely fallen on deaf ears.

“Iran must be identified as enemy number one,” Mr. Alpher, then an adviser to Yitzhak Rabin, told the New York Times. From then on, Israel and its allies in America continued to accuse Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Mr. Shimon Peres warns the “international community” that Iran would possess the atomic bomb in 1999."

Le Monde February 2009

My Energy Prices

They are no longer in the news, perhaps because we have accepted that the prices we pay for our gas and our electricity are going to remain high. It's one way of reducing our carbon emissions, perhaps the most effective.

Here is how it has impacted on my household over the last 5 years:

Total usage and cost of gas and electricity combined in kilowatt hours (excludes standing charges) 

2019    31,310 kWh    £1,611

2020    30,370 kWh    £1,382

2021    31,195 kWh    £1,352

2022    20,893 kWh    £1,901

2023    17,021 kWh    £2,021

So over the 5 year period, we have reduced consumption by 45% and despite this, our costs have risen by 25%.  Wow! But you can see that the huge rise in costs has really made us reduce our consumption. I think this is the only way that the world is going to de-carbonise fast.

What a waste of electricity!

The data we get from our energy provider via app and website is so good that the smart meter is pretty redundant now. In fact I have unplugged it to save the electricity it wastes!

Government's Absurd Rwanda Asylum Policy

The government's policy of outsourcing UK asylum applications to Rwanda took another step into the land of the absurd when the i revealed that over the last two years the UK has accepted 6 applications for asylum from Rwandan citizens! 

How can the UK government's flagship bill to outsource asylum processing to 'safe country' Rwanda be legal when we have been accepting Rwandans here because we recognise that Rwanda is not safe???

The i Front Page 15th January 2024

The i goes on to say:

'Accepting Rwandan asylum seekers in the UK threatens to deal a fatal blow for elements of the Government’s Rwanda bill, experts have claimed.

i has revealed that six people from Rwanda have been granted asylum since ministers signed a deportation deal with the country in April 2022.

The Home Office did not disclose the reasons for granting asylum to each individual, however Government data show at least one decision was based on sexual orientation.'

The government's insistance on proceeding with this absurd bill shows we are in the final throws of a bunch of mutinous selfish cretins who care so much more about themselves than their country. Bring on that election!

Quote for the Month

I was a human rights lawyer for 20 years. I believed those values of dignity, equality and non-discrimination were a given. I believed the only question in my lifetime would be - how much further do we extend those values? I did not think in my lifetime we'd actually be having an argument about those values.

Sir Kier Starmer, Leader of the Labour Party

Monday, January 1, 2024

Happy 2024! Love Thy Neighbour.

Happy 2024!

Love Thy Neighbour

That's not really a theme that the world seems to be embracing these days.

A more peaceful year would be very welcome. In 2023, we saw the Russian invasion of Ukraine move into its second year with some particularly heavy shelling over the Christmas and New Year period. Meanwhile Putin's crackdown on his people just gets worse and he declares he will stand for re-election with no real opposition left alive.  

Putin seeks new friends as his war on Ukraine alienates him from much of the world

We saw the obnoxious and brutal terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7th, followed by the heavy handed bombardment of Gaza by Israel that continues to kill thousands more innocent people as the days go by. Israel says it won't stop until the hostages taken on October 7th are released.

There is currently no end in sight for either war so my New Year's wish is for peace in those two regions. The ordinary people deserve that so badly. The rest of the world would also benefit hugely.

Israel loses the support of most countries as the world is flooded with pictures
of innocent victims of the war in Gaza

In my Blog of November 2014, I spoke of Sir Nicholas Winton, the quiet and reserved hero who organised the Kindertransport in 1938-9 to evacuate mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before they could be deported by the Nazis to be murdered in their concentration camps. He saved the lives of 669 children. Most of their parents were murdered. He died a few months after I wrote about him, aged 106.

Today, January 1st 2024, a new film on Winton's life comes out with Anthony Hopkins acting his part. Sir Anthony says that he agrees with Sir Nicholas Winton's view on averting conflict, which was that "the only way through is compromise".

I also agree. Compromise is under-rated. I look forward to seeing the film. 

Sir Nicholas remains one of those few special people who undertook such remarkable acts for others for no personal gain.

Statue in honour of Nicholas Winton at Prague railway station, July 2025

Quote for the New Year

"The only way through is compromise"

Sir Nicholas Winton on how to avoid conflict.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Government Debt, Sainsbury's Security, From AS400 to Chromebook, UK Immigration again, NL Votes Far Right, Has Rishi Lost His Marbles?

Government Debt and Reducing Inflation

In this financial year, the government is planning to spend £116bn on debt interest - almost as much as will be spent on education and more than we spend on Defence, Public Order, Housing and many other things. Why so much? Because they / the Bank of England have increased interest rates and because we owe so much money.

I still believe in my comments in an earlier blog about the Bank of England's policy to raise interest rates to reduce inflation being flawed. At last we have seen in November, inflation falling to 4.6%, less than half where it was in October 2022 at 11.2%. The reason for the fall is a reduction in global gas, electricity and oil prices;  Nothing that the UK government has done or influenced. 

Higher interest rates have led to wage prices increases above the rate of inflation, driven in part by higher mortgage rates and higher property rental prices. So instead of reducing inflation, our Bank and our Government have actually been helping to increase it! And then you have the huge increase in lending costs of government debt meaning taxes will have to go up even higher! Incompetence? 

Or perhaps I have just got it all wrong.

Sainsbury's Security

We recently bought a bottle of Martini at Sainsbury's and when we got home found that their security device was still attached making it impossible to open the bottle. 

I rang the store (took forever to get through) and was told that it required a special magnetic device to open it and that I would need to go back to a store to have it removed. This seemed like a good challenge and I certainly didn't want to waste 30 minutes and some fuel to return to the store.

I searched online and couldn't find any answers for such a device (there was plenty for other device types). I tried to prize out the tabs that prevented it from being removed but each time I pulled one out another one appeared below it! Time for my little hacksaw and 3 minutes later it was off and time to drink Martini!


Security device on Martini bottle finally removed

From AS400 to Chromebook via Windows - a 35 year journey

My schooling started in the early age of computers. I remember programming with punch cards. For one of my projects I got our school computer to compose a piece of music using random notes. Then I got together with two friends to play the music as a triple quartet (Piano, Violin, Trombone). It was no worse than Stockhausen! Arriving at Grass Roots in the mid 1980's the company  used an AS400. For all programming and also for secretarial work using these green dumb terminals:

AS400 Green Display Screen

I used to get extremely frustrated trying to type letters to my clients (yes, we sent letters!) as it was almost impossible to get any columns to align for quotations.I remember one letter with a column of figures that I sent back to the secretary about 4 times until she was about to cry as it wouldn't align. I gave up and sent it poorly presented.

Shortly afterwards, a consultant who was working with us showed me his new computer that was running an early version of Windows. He showed me the print button icon that he clicked with his mouse to get the letter to print on his little printer on his desk. Perfectly aligned! This was a revelation and a game-changer for me. I campaigned to have Windows computers for staff and was hugely disappointed when dozens of new dumb terminals were delivered and given to us so we could write our own letters and more. It was only a matter of time until they were binned and we switched to Windows PCs.


Then we moved to the era when everyone knew which processor and how much RAM was in their computer. I even had a T shirt with a 32MB RAM! Now of course most people don't have a clue what powers their machine.

Next I moved to Digital Fibre in 2014 and everyone was a devoted Mac expert, except for me. I remember going in for work in April 2014 and a brand new MacBook had been setup and was waiting for me on my desk. I still use the same MacBook almost 10 years later. That's quality for you!

However, I am writing this on my brand new Chromebook.  I bought it for several reasons:
1. My Macbook battery no longer holds a long charge - replacement price £250 - the same cost as the new Acer Chromebook
2. I want to discipline myself to save everything in the cloud and I believe the Chromebook will force me to do that
3. It weighs a fraction of the MacBook and my back is already saying thank you. (From carrying the MacBook around in my rucksack).

So I have gone 360 degrees - from a dumb terminal with everything saved centrally to a 21st century internet device that saved everything centrally in the cloud!

Migration rises since Brexit

I believe that many people who voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum did so as they believed the lying politicians who said immigration would reduce as Britain took back control. In fact, as the graph below from the BBC and the ONS shows, it is higher than ever. Only a severe pandemic and lockdown can temporarily reduce it.

Another European Country Moves Far Right

Following Viktor Orban's re-election in Hungary and Giorgia Meloni in Italy another EU country has voted in the Far Rights: Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. 

Ss Leonie de Jonge, professor of European Politics at Groningen University, points out, his party programme is anything but moderate.

"The PVV is an archetypical populist radical right party, characterised by nativism, authoritarianism and populism," she said.  Mr Wilders wants to cancel the overseas aid budget, cut EU funding and reduce the number of foreign students coming in.

Wilders, Orban, Meloni

He promises to have 14 year-olds treated the same as adults in criminal cases, cut taxes, provide 10,000 more police officers, show zero tolerance for "street scum" and bring back the controversial Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) character.

His manifesto ends with a promise of a government that will "put the Dutch back at number one!"

BBC News 25/11/2023

My previous article on migration into Europe is the main reason for the far lurch right. Until more moderate politicians and the EU do something more substantial about this, it will continue.  Along with the huge rise in antisemitism, things haven't looked this bad for many years.

Has Rishi Lost His Marbles?

One of the beautiful Parthanon Marbles, currently in the British Museuam

It seems surprising that the UK Prime Minister is prepared to snub the Greek Prime Minister, a close ally, over some old artefacts. If this causes a diplomatic incident, how on earth can he be expected to work with less friendly countries?

Statues and a stunning frieze

"Parthenon marbles row raises fresh fears over fraught UK-EU relations"

"War of words between Athens and London escalates after Rishi Sunak’s snub to Greek prime minister
William Hague, a former foreign secretary who is sometimes regarded as a mentor to Sunak, also weighed in, describing the affair as “not a great advert for diplomacy all round actually”.
He added that it “shouldn’t be impossible” to come to an agreement on the Parthenon marbles, but also told Times Radio that Mitsotakis could have “approached things a bit better” and that Sunak would not have cancelled without good reason."

The Guardian 28th November 2023

Quote for the Month 

"In Israel, Arabs can vote. In Gaza, Jews are either hostages or dead." 

Adam Sidbury, 1st December 2023

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

My Favourite Adverts, Hamas Massacre in Israel and Reprisals, Churchill War Quote

My Favourite Adverts

Each of these ads is in my opinion a masterpiece, and each holds a special meaning for me.

1. Virgin Atlantic, 1998, Agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R

I remember this enormous poster on the Cromwell Road in London, at a spot where there was always terrible rush hour traffic. That gave everyone plenty of time to enjoy the advert! At the time there was intense rivalry between BA and Virgin Atlantic who never missed an opportunity to have a go at their rival. I particularly liked this one.

2. Peugeot 206, 1988, Agency Publicis

Not only was it a great car, but the music by the Bhangra Knights became a hit. I remember buying the 12 inch single and trying to digitise it! Peugeot's big global ad agency (Publicis) asked each of its country offices to compete for the best idea. The Italian branch came up with this hit ad. Unfortunately, Hindustan motors were unhappy with their vehicle being portrayed in this manner and sued for many millions. Ironically, Peugeot bought the brand in 2017! So iconic, that Top Gear produced their own version, years later:

The Smash Martians began promoting instant mashed potato in 1974. The cackling hi-tech robots spied on suburban kitchens and poured scorn on such primitive implements as the potato peeler. In 2006, BBC Good Food magazine voted the cheeky robots most iconic British food advert of all time. The Martian ads ran for 10 years, although client, Cadbury, had initially been sceptical, saying it trivialised the product.

Fly Fishing by J.R Hartley - Yellow Pages, 1983, Agency Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV)

One of David Abbott's, masterpieces, this advert is always rated highly by the British public in polls. Abbott was the UK's greatest advertising copywriter, responsible for some of the most memorable campaigns of his era, for clients including Volvo, Sainsbury’s, Ikea, Chivas Regal, The Economist (see below), Yellow Pages and the RSPCA. Abbott did not perhaps conform to the public perception of a typical advertising man. Soft-spoken, charming and always elegantly dressed, he also had a reputation in the industry for high principle. AMV declined to advertise toys or tobacco.

Created in his honour, following his death in 2014

Hamas Massacre in Israel and Reprisals


Hamas must be destroyed following their coldblooded attack and slaughter of 1,400 innocent people who happened to be close to Gaza on Saturday October 7th and the taking of 220 hostages, men, women and children of all ages. Israel has the right to self defence and to do what it takes to protect their country provided they adhere to international law. Hamas does not recognise the right of Israel to exist so they will continue to attack until they are wiped out.

Unfortunately the people of Gaza are stuck in the middle of this and are suffering hugely as a result. Several thousand have already been killed during Israel's predictable attacks on Gaza aimed at obliterating Hamas and their military installations. Hamas use their people as human shields, operating in densely populated areas, next to, and underneath hospitals, firing rockets at Israel from residential buildings.

Does this make it all right for Israel to continue their heavy handed attack on Hamas? If the only way to wipe them out and stop them from attacking Israel means innocent Gazan's will be killed?

These are very difficult questions relating to two persecuted sets of peoples who have been fighting over the same land for thousands of years. We see large protests across the democratic world, mostly in support of the Palestinians as Israel continues its nightly bombardments of Gaza and the 2.2 million people who live there struggle to find accommodation, water, food and fuel. Pro-Palestinian media are very competent at showing shocking images that they know will turn millions against Israel. Much of the information is hard to verify. For example, it seems likely that a strike on a hospital car park that Hamas claimed killed many hundreds, was in fact a failed rocket aimed at Israel that mis-fired and fell back next to the hospital. Despite that, the images (it was widely filmed) have intensified hatred towards Israel.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a massive increase in anti-semitism, with Police in the UK and France saying criminal acts have increased fourfold since October 7th.

What should be done? My view is that the governments of the USA, UK and France should lead an international coalition to find a lasting and peaceful two state solution. Wealthy Arab countries in the region should be part of it and help pay for re-construction as Israel releases its grip on the West Bank and Gaza and agrees a reasonable ending to continued West Bank settlements.

But this will be impossible so long as Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel (which they continue to do regularly including during our visit to Israel last May) and so long as Hamas' military operation continues to exist in any real form. 

Most of the reporting I have heard on this war has been biased to one side or the other. The only sensible words I have heard have been from Layla Moran MP on the Laura Kuenssberg show on BBC1 on October 29th. She explained that she has a Palestinian mother and British father with relatives currently stuck in a church in Gaza following the bombing of their home. She expressed absolute horror at the activities of Hamas, defended Israel's right to defend itself but asked for help for the people of Gaza. She suggested that a long term peace should be mediated following this terrible war. I met some Christian Arabs during my trip to the West Bank; they were hard-working, charming, realistic, knowledgable and peaceful. They too need to be protected.

Quote for the Month

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.

Winston Churchill

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Crumbling State, Our Week in Mallorca, Highest Taxes Ever

British schools are literally crumbling 

174 schools across the UK had to face an emergency closure at the start of the school year due to RAAC concrete which crumbles after about 30 years. The problem has been known about for years but government has failed to act. It is due to under-investment in public services.

"Between 1949 and 1978, according to an important paper by Jagjit Chadha and Issam Samiri for the Productivity Institute, net public sector investment averaged 4.5% of GDP. It then fell precipitately in the Thatcher years to zero, before climbing under New Labour from those depths to nearly 3% of GDP in 2010. Austerity prompted another steep fall, since when it has bumped along at about 2% of GDP."
The Guardian 4th September 2023

We need more investment to fix our crumbling state and make our people richer. The data speaks for itself:

"In France, arch-representative of the economic EU corpse to which Brexiters claim we were shackled, public investment has run at levels half as high as ours again for the past 20 years. As a result, the country works – from its high-speed train network to mandatory enrolment of three-year-olds in nursery schools. A generous welfare system and sector-wide collective bargaining arrangements mean it has much less poverty than Britain – and the investment in research and development is paying off too, with France registering twice as many patents as we manage. It has more companies in the global top 100 than any other European country. True, the tax to GDP ratio is 45% and social conditions in some run-down suburbs are execrable, but in terms of levelling up, its four new battery gigafactories in the depressed north-east stand in stark contrast to our paltry efforts. But, as France’s six out of Europe’s 10 richest billionaires (more than any other country) would concede, the overall approach leads to economic success. In the 21st century, the route to prosperity is not lower but higher taxes, which buy infrastructure, fairness, R&D and high skills."
The Guardian 4th September 2023

A week in Mallorca

A have just spent a week relaxing in warm Mallorca. Here are a few of my thoughts and comments:

Went to Port de Pollença beach. It was a hot day (27C) but for 5 minutes there were a few drops of rain. The Spanish people on the beach rushed for cover under the pine tree where we were staying for shade. When the rain stopped, they went swimming in the sea !!!!

Port de Alcúdia 

We went for walks around the Finca where we were staying. Lots of beautiful ancient olive trees and fig trees everywhere, heavy with fruit. There were a few ripe figs we could reach and they were quite delicious! Green or black varieties,  so sweet you can eat the whole fruit and imagine you are eating jam!! It became our evening dessert: searching for a few ultra ripe figs. Better than anything on the menu! Unfortunately they don't seem to interest the locals and the majority of them were rotting on the trees. We ate at a beachfront restaurant in Port de Pollença - the waiter was French and gave us some excellent local tips on the best beaches - and the whole terrace was covered in a 200 year old fig tree that produced plenty of figs.

Lunch at Port de Pollença under 200 year old fig tree

A Fiat 500e was our rental car. It proved very stressful finding an available charger that worked. And considerably more expensive than petrol. Won't do that again! Instead of driving peacefully to the plcaes we had highlighted to visit, we ended up planning our day trips around public chargers, many of which didn't work, were being used or were too slow to serve any real purpose. I have learned my lesson! Now I know why it was the cheapest car available at Avis.

We stayed at Monnaber Nou, a beautiful Mallorcan Finca

As always in Spain, we very much enjoyed the fabulous quality jamon that you find everywhere. This is a picture of the ham counter at the local Mercadona (they have over 1600 stores in Spain and 44 in Portugal). The least expensive ham is on the left and gets more expensive as you move right (from about €3 per pack to €10 per pack). We bought a pack at €7 at it was amazing!

The Jamon counter at Mercadona in Sa Pobla

Highest Taxes Ever

Tax levels in the UK are at their highest since records began 70 years ago - and are unlikely to come down, a leading think tank says. Here is the quote from The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS):

"At the time of the last general election, UK tax revenues amounted to around 33% of national income. By the time of the next election in 2024, on current forecasts, taxes will amount to around 37% of national income – a level not sustained in the post-war period. Compared with a world in which taxes had stayed at 33% of national income, the UK government will be raising upwards of £100 billion more in tax revenues next year. This is equivalent to around £3,500 more per household, though of course the tax rise will not be shared equally."
IFS, 29th September 2023

IFS Data. Not bad for the low tax Tory party.

Given our crumbling state, either the money is poorly spent (i.e. wasted) or it's not nearly enough!! Or maybe it's both of those.

Quote for the Month

"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

My thoughts above on tax and the state of our state remind me of this old quote:

LOUIS XIV’S FINANCE minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, famously declared that “the art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.” 

Friday, September 1, 2023

Summer Wildfires, Day out in the Cotswolds, UK Air Traffic Control Breaks Down

Summer Wildfires: Lahaina, once Hawaii's royal capital, is now a crematorium

It seems that each summer the wildfires get worse, more destructive and more common. This year the media have covered the fires on the Greek island of Rhodes and at Lahaina in Hawaii. Along with all the other fires, these two have had particularly high levels of media coverage because it's where Westerners go on holiday.

Two firefighters were killed in Greece, when their plane crashed

The fleeing holiday makers provide good reports and telephone film the disasters as they unfold. They escape, often criticising the response of their tour operators and are soon back in their homes usually with compensation or an alternative holiday. In contrast, the locals, who have been widely praised for putting the holiday makers first, are left to deal with the mess, re-building their homes, seeking alternative incomes and in the case of Lahaina on the island of Maui, burying the dead.

Lahaina, population 13,000, looks worse than a war zone

Even where there are no fires, the summer temperatures are higher than average again this year, leading to many asking if the traditional summer holiday remains viable. It is likely that seasons will be extended to allow for more options at cooler times perhaps bringing more business to popular destinations.  

A Day in the Cotswolds

Our main destination was Daylesford, where we went for lunch.

Daylesford Organic is a farm shop in the Cotswolds near Moreton-in-Marsh that sets high standards for farm shops in terms of quality, appearance, price and facilities. They have a huge range of food, much of it produced on their farm and much of it organic. They have restaurants, gift shops, a home furnishing store, a garden shop and plant centre, a clothing and jewellery shop, a wine store, a large wellness spa and various other facilities all set in beautiful Cotswold style buildings and grounds.

Daylesford was founded in 2002 by Lady Bamford in the grounds of her 1500 acre family estate. She is married to Lord Anthony Bamford, the chairman of JCB, founded by his father J.C. Bamford.

Here is a great short clip from Clarkson's Farm in which he goes to his local farm shop (Daylesford) to buy the ingredients to make a Ploughman's lunch:

My only criticism of Daylesford Organic Fram Shop is the striking lack of diversity; all of the customers there looked like me and mostly sounded like me. Each time I saw a dark skinned person, they were either working in the restaurants or serving in the shops. 

We also visited Stow-on-the-Wold which was so full of tourists that it's hard to see it's beauty and charm. On the way back we stopped for a cup of tea at Burford Garden Centre - surely the UK standard in high quality garden centres? - which was surprisingly quiet. I assume it's not a tourist destination and that lots of the locals are on holiday.

UK Air Traffic Control Break Down

On Bank Holiday Monday August 28th, the UK's air traffic control, the National Air Traffic Services (NATS), broke down for a few hours. This was sufficient to see 1,500 flights cancelled and thousands delayed on one of the busiest days ever.

We were booked to fly to Toulouse that evening so I checked the flight status which showed an 8 hour delay on our flight from 20.40 to a revised departure of "04.28+1". I wasn't sure what to do so spent much of the day worrying and considering my options. At 18.00 we received this email from BA:

"Please be advised that due to a network-wide Air Traffic Control issue currently impacting UK airspace, your flight will be severely disrupted and we will need to cancel a number of services today. This issue is outside of our control and we apologise for any inconvenience caused." 

Looks familiar?

I checked the flight status again and it was now showing 'On Schedule" so we departed for the airport. The traffic was very heavy, the car park was pretty empty due to all the cancellations and we proceeded to check in. The landside area was pretty chaotic with people crying and staff trying to help. We were unable to either download or print my wife's boarding card so we tried to find someone who could help. After being directed and re-directed to 5 different people we finally got it printed by a member of staff in about 30 seconds.

We then had to check in our bags and were running out of time. The automatic bag check in didn't work - I pressed the button to send off my suitcase and it went, but then it came back again! Fortunately a member of staff was there and she did it all manually for us.

This was a very stressful and tiring experience, but remarkably we arrived in Toulouse 8 minutes ahead of schedule and even the Avis experience was a smooth one at 23.30 at night!

Surely NATS should pay up for their failure?

We were very lucky compared to the tens of thousands of people who had their plans ruined. On this occasion I have some sympathy for the airlines who are having to pick-up the bill of some £100M+. Surely NATS should take responsibility and pay up?

Quotes for the Month - John Donne (whom I have recently discovered)

Nothing but man, of all envenomed things
Doth work upon itself with inborn sting.
John Donne c1600

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Extract from a sermon by John Donne 1572-1631, Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, London

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Goodbye Jane B, Car Hire Hell

Goodbye and Adieu Jane B

The iconic Franco-British singer and actress Jane Birkin died last month at the age of 76. 

Jane Birkin in 1960 at the start of her career

Her big break following some small acting roles was when she met the iconic and talented Poet, and Singer Songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg, in Paris. He wrote songs for her, she became his muse and his partner for over a decade. 

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin 1969

They were catapulted to the world's attention on the release of 'Je t'aime, moi non plus' in 1969 which received worldwide publicity when it was banned by the Vatican, the BBC and many other organisations.

They went on to create many more hits written by Gainsbourg. Following their breakup due to his alcoholism, she continued to sing and act well into her seventies and he continued to write for her until his death in 1991.

Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg in 2021

Jane Birkin was a French icon, the IT girl of her time, creating fashions, sensations and newspaper headlines wherever she went. The French media could not get enough of her. In 2001, she was awarded an OBE "for services to acting and UK-French cultural relations"

RIP Jane Birkin.

Car Hire Hell with Virtuo in Toulouse

I have previously praised the Car Rental Company Virtuo for their modern high tech-based approach which cuts out layers of cost and in theory provides a better user experience. You can read my October 2021 blog "Car Hire: Serving Steak Tartare to Vegetarians" for more about how great I thought they were initially. They are the potential Disrupter of the Car Rental Industry. However, I have always said that their software is unreliable and unfortunately it let me down big time last month resulting in the worst car hire experience I have had in 30 years of renting cars. Worse even than Goldcar, Europcar and Avis!

I understand that things sometimes go wrong; that's precisely when you can see whether the company you are dealing with is a great company or a terrible one. Unfortunately Virtuo most definitely falls into the latter category.

What makes them unique is that they don't have staff and offices other than their central call centres. They cut out layers of costs. You pick up the car you have booked from a car park and you use their app to open and lock the car. It's a brilliant idea. Well it would be if it worked properly.

I picked up their BMW X1 with 850 km on the clock having paid €1400 and all appeared to be fine apart from the fact that it is almost impossible to submit a damage report at 1am in the dark. Anyway, small point. After a day or so using this stunningly modern car (congrats to BMW), I noticed that the lock/unlock system seemed to have a mind of its own; sometimes it unlocked itself, other times I had trouble unlocking it. I reported this using their in-app chat and they politely said they would report it to their tech team (standard response).  

The problems really ramped up a few days later when I was unable to unlock the car. Basically £40,000 of brand new high tech machinery sitting in front of me that was unusable. They went through all of their usual routine (re-install the app, login again, what colour is it flashing, do a somersault, brush your teeth, go to the toilet, try again, repeat, etc.) None of which made a blind bit of difference. The car was not going to open.

They then had BMW assistance call me who very politely declined to help as they don't support Virtuo's software.  Understandable.

Repeat of above. They had BMW assistance call me a 2nd time.

Then after I complained again, they had their insurance company AXA call me to provide assistance. Assistance was in the form of an independent breakdown contractor who would be with me within the hour. Except he wasn't. So I had to call back AXA and they said they would send another one who would be with me within the hour (another hour, not the same hour). He arrived and using the same tools as a criminal stealing a car, was able to open the car within a couple of minutes. At that point the Virtuo software decided to wake up and play. Christophe, the mechanic, told me he had done an identical job on another Virtuo BMW X1 the previous week.

Unfortunately it doesn't stop here. It gets worse.

Two days later, the Virtuo software decided to go on strike again. I wasn't very happy with Virtuo by this point, so instead of going round the houses again (their Contact Centre software takes the agent through step by step and as I had repeated my story at least 100 times by now patience was wearing thin) I just demanded that they send Christophe back and then that they replace the car as soon as I could drive it back to Toulouse. One hour later a different mechanic turned up and I had to instruct him what to do. It took him about 30 minutes following my instructions. Shortly afterwards I was able to drive the car to Toulouse for them to swap it. Or so I thought!

Unfortunately it doesn't stop here. It gets worse.

Virtuo's utter ineptitude made my 140km round trip to Toulouse to swap the car redundant. They instructed me to go to the Ibis Hotel just off the Maurice Bellonte (he was a French aviator who set flight distance records) roundabout to swap it for the replacement car that was parked there. Except it wasn't. They insisted that it was, but after I had walked round the car park at least 25 times in a period of 3 hours, I was absolutely certain it wasn't. But they told me it was. So I drove to another nearby Ibis to see if it was there. No it wasn't. And then I went to ask the receptionist at the Ibis where the Virtuo cars were parked and she told me they were precisely where I had been looking. And then they weren't sure if it was a BMW or a Mercedes I was getting. After 3 hours of waiting at the Ibis, they told me it wasn't actually there at all.

Hotel Ibis at Maurice Bellonte Roundabout

It gets worse.

They sent me via the in-app chat another address: Place de la Revolution. I wasn't sure if this was a joke as I was very much in the mood for a revolution and it's just as well there were no guillotine's to hand.  So I drove to Place de la Revolution and guess what? It's a very large roundabout in a square surrounded by large buildings. Offices, hotels, etc. Each has its own car park but there is no parking in the square itself. There was no way I was going to start hunting around in all of those car parks.  Fed up, I left Toulouse and drove back to where I started out from about 5 hours earlier.

Place de la Revolution

When I got back, I messaged them and instructed them to deliver a replacement vehicle to where I was staying. A Mercedes GLA 2020 turned up the following day. They offered me a €40 credit off my next rental to apologise.  They then proceeded to charge my credit card €32.76 for 14 litres of fuel that their software said I used. That too was incorrect and I asked for a refund which they agreed to 24 hours later. Another software error?

Data from my rental - what it took to get it sorted:

Chat messages: 236 sent and received
Phone calls: 10 with Virtuo, 2 with Axa, 2 with BMW Assistance, 5 with different Roadside Assistance contractors

My time wasted (estimate) between July 3rd and 5th: 10 hours

Value of my wasted time according to Virtuo: €4 per hour credit

Surely the most incompetent car rental company on the planet?

Needless to say I complained, and without further discussion they sent me a refund for €136 representing 2 days' rental. Frankly, that's an insult!

My Quote for the Month

"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
John Ruskin