Friday, November 23, 2012

The Great Escape Part II: Adjusted for Inflation

Free as a bird. Soaring in the skies above Libya.

As I write these words I am flying in the belly of a giant metal bird over the duned sands of the Sahara Desert. No, I’m not dreaming or hallucinating, I’m sitting on board a huge plane and making my way from Amsterdam to Kenya, where I will be spending the next couple of weeks. Below me stretches out the seemingly infinite expanse of Libya.

What is a peak oil blogger like me doing on a monstrous energy-guzzling vehicle like this? Well, that’s a long story and you’re quite welcome to call me a hypocrite if it makes you feel better. The fact of the matter is that I’m being paid to go and write about Kenya for the company I work for. It’s not a bad job, compared to some that I’ve had.

Did I mention how big this plane was? It has two floors! Two floors! And it’s as long as a very long bowling alley. What’s more, for every passenger there are around five empty seats on this giant bird. We are moving at 597mph and our weight is almost 400 tonnes. It doesn’t seem right that something so huge and heavy should be able to glide through the skies as I sit here and sip Chilean wine from a plastic glass. My grandchildren, if I ever have any, will never believe it.

So there will be an official me and an unofficial me. The official one will be writing about safari lodges and charismatic megafauna, while the unofficial one will be keeping a steady uncensored eye on the things going on in this corner of Africa - the exact spot where John Michael Greer recently set his end of empire short story and identified as a likely flashpoint for a proxy war between the US and China.*

But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here in what is supposed to be the second installment of my autobiography-lite. You can read the first installment by clicking here if you haven't already done so.

Where was I? Oh yes, London.

After I completed my first round of A levels at 18 I was faced with a stark choice. For reasons that are too boring to go into, I found myself facing another year in Solihull while all my friends went off to different universities around England. If I stayed on and completed my studies in classics and English then I should be all set for studying archaeology at some vaguely prestigious university, which fitted in with my new plan to become a dusty-bearded globe-trotting itinerant who might perhaps one day discover something interesting in a tomb somewhere.

But of course I lacked the will and stamina for that so I decided to drop out and become an economist. My motivations for doing so were purely social ones. I couldn’t face another year in my home town and, it was rumoured that they let any Tom, Dick or Harry onto economics courses.
So when my parents came back from a two-week caravanning holiday in France they were shocked to hear that I was leaving home. When? they asked. Next weekend, I said.

And that’s how I suddenly found myself in London. Well, not quite London. The university to which I had been granted access was Middlesex University, based in Enfield, north London. Because of the tight timespan there was no chance to find anywhere to live and I found myself living in my parent’s caravan in a field outside the northern boundary of the city, not far from the M25 orbital motorway. That’s where I spent the first term, which just happened to be winter, trying not to freeze to death in an icy field.

The university had several campuses spread over north London, but there were two main ones. One was a large stately home in acres of parkland populated by art students (a codeword for ‘nice girls’) and the other was a dreary concrete tower block in a depressed suburb (Ponders End, if you must know) populated by belligerent boorish militant socialists. Guess which one I ended up in?

When I had recovered from the culture shock I decided I had better start trying to enjoy studying economics. And here was the surprising thing: it was nothing like I had expected it to be.
For the first year the course was mainly concerned with philosophy. Thus I was introduced to Rousseau, Marx, Smith (to balance out Marx), Malthus and a whole load of other deep thinkers. The fact that I had chosen to study the social science path rather than the maths-based path of econometrics seemed like a good decision to me.

I moved into a flat with a bunch of new friends and a number of wild parties ensued. Anyone who has ever seen the TV programme The Young Ones will have some sort of idea where I am coming from.
The first couple of years passed in a flash. It was also an interesting time politically. The Berlin Wall had just been knocked down, Margaret Thatcher was in the process of being back-stabbed and got rid of, and large scale riots were erupting in London over the introduction of the Poll Tax (and those riots were being organized by my fellow students at my campus).

At the end of my second year I had to find a job for a year in some place that vaguely complemented my study of economics. I was a bit despondent as I had grown used to being a student i.e. not doing much work at all, and anyway, I had no idea where to apply to. So imagine my shock when I was, for reasons unknown to me, suggested as an intern at Her Majesty’s Treasury. When I saw the official letter, with its embossed letterhead, my eyes almost fell out of my head.

And so I spent one of the weirdest working years of my life as an intern in the Economic Forecasting department of the Treasury. I sat in a huge office with just me, an irritable stuttering boss (who was a genius with statistics) and a greenscreen computer console. My boss generated the statistics, I laboriously typed them into the monitor and then made computer printouts of the charts I made. At the end of each day I saved all my work on a brick-sized hard drive which I then locked in a bombproof safe (it had to be bombproof because the IRA kept letting off bombs nearby, one of which shook my office like a thunderclap).

The charts were all the same: GDP growth projections for the UK economy. My boss, in his cleverness, could make the dotted line, which was the projection, wiggle up or down depending on various factors and variables that were added into an unholy mix. There was nothing inherently wrong about this, it just depended on the simple fact that most people don't have a degree in statistics and can therefore not comprehend what 'GDP weighted for seasonality and adjusted for inflation including indexed data and excluding mortgage adjustments' is. Instead they just think 'growth forecast' and ignore the fact that it always looks better before budgets and elections.

Big Ben was right outside our window and its bonging signified lunch every day for me and the other interns. This was taken in the canteen with the great and good of British politics of the day. Norman Lamont was the chancellor at the time, with John Major having just left to fill Thatcher’s still warm shoes. Other faces we would see included David Mellor, Chris Patten and various other rabble from the Conservative Party.

The Treasury was a weird building. Cavernous doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was full of long corridors with giant offices, more often than not populated by balding depressed-looking men wearing crumpled suits: in other words, economists. Huge stacks of paper were got through each day, which were then wheeled away by porters with trolleys for shredding. Nobody spoke and the only sounds (except for Big Ben and my boss cursing under his breath) was the constant echo of footfalls along huge lonely corridors.

We interns found a way of avoiding the mind-numbing work. Down in the basement of the building, below the streets of Whitehall, there were dozens of rooms stuffed full of the dusty detritus of Britain’s vanished empire. It was here that Churchill set up his war office, and it seemed to us that nobody had been down there since.

We found a room with an old pool table in it and filled it with candles so we could see. This we set up an ongoing pool tournament, which wiled away many an hour when we were supposed to be working. Nobody ever found out about it because the Treasury was so big that all one had to do when reappearing after several hours MIA was make sure you had a pen stuck behind one ear and were carrying a piece of paper and looking serious - nobody ever questioned you. It was my first lesson in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and how to get around it.

While I was working there I rented a room in a house in Highgate, close to where Karl Marx is buried. It was a big house with a big garden and I made a couple of good friends there. We were variously, Luke, a carpenter; Idris, a Turkish Cypriot tennis coach; Katarina, a high class Danish prostitute who would bring rich businessmen round to the house like a cat brings in dead mice; Rob, a friendly bearded South African ex-soldier cycle nut who lived in a corner of the attic for free and would literally cycle across continents for fun; and Sam, a northern Irish Big Bank employee and wheeler dealer who taught me a lot about how to make money out of thin air.

I actually spend quite some time working for Sam with his various legal scams. He would, for instance, sell things he had seen advertised in the local papers for twice the value – and then quickly buying them if he got an offer, sometimes with disastrous consequences. (These days Sam scours the US looking for unwanted Airstream Caravans, ships the back to the UK, does them up and sells them for a fortune. You have to hand it to him.)

Occasionally, when something politically important was coming up at the Treasury (like a budget) there would be more visits by ministers to our department by ministers than usual. The lesson I took away from all this is that you can do all sorts of politically useful things with numbers and statistics if you make them complex enough. 

One day, to reward us for all of our hard work, we were invited to Downing Street. As I showed my security pass to the policeman and he opened the gate for me into what could be the world’s most famous street, I felt like I had entered another reality. Only four years before I had been a snarling rebel. What had happened to me?

At the reception I got to talk to the government’s head economist Alan Budd. He was behind much of the ‘neo liberal’ thinking that has driven economic policy in the UK for the past 20 years, but I couldn’t manage a single intelligent word. All I managed to splutter to him was that a student at my university had been propelled through a plate glass door that week by a police car after protesting against student grant cutbacks (loans were being introduced back then). It was meant to sound jokey, but it came across all wrong due to my nervousness and he gave me a funny look and moved onto the next person.

I also spent that year writing my thesis which was entitled something like ‘The UK in Respect to the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the inevitability of Economic and Monetary Union across Europe’.  Yes, it was a page turner. My tutor didn’t really care what I wrote as long as I included lots of authorative looking charts (which I was by now an expert at), dozens of footnotes and a conclusion that stated full monetary union would be achieved across Europe.

I think I must have put a curse on the Treasury because literally the week after I left at the end of my year-long stint Black Wednesday happened and the UK almost bankrupted itself trying to remain in the ERM. Happy days.

After I left, with a pocketful of money, for the first time in my life I got on an aeroplane and jetted off to Canada and America for a three month odyssey of hitchhiking and riding the rails.

I’ll talk about that and plenty more in my next blog post, which will appear at some point over the next two weeks, or whenever I encounter an internet connection.

* Okay, it's a day later now and I'm sat in my colonial era hotel enclave in Nairobi where non-VIPs have to walk through a metal detector and past numerous security guards to get in. I've just had a coffee and read the local paper which is full of the news that 40 policemen were massacred by a 400 strong armed militia as they were trying to crack down on Kenya's big boomtime business - cattle ranching. 

I arrived at the airport late last night and was told by the driver that a shiny new airport is almost completed - built by the Chinese. "China is very good for us at the moment," he said. I bet it is.

Anyway, I'm just waiting for the same driver. Against howls of indignation I've persuaded him to drive me to Nairobi's biggest slum for a look around. I hear they have a bodged together a biogas electrical generator that runs off human sewage and gives electric light to the residents. Should be interesting...

Friday, November 16, 2012

Gas Price Manipulation? You don't say!

Part of the transcript from one of the so-called energy trading whistle blowers

The big news in the UK at them moment in certain newspapers is that various traders have been gaming the system to manipulate the market price.

As an ex gas trader in the very market that is currently attracting attention all I can say is: what took so long to figure that one out?

I mean, wow. I wrote a fictional story a decade ago about this based on my insider knowledge as a natural gas ops analyst and trader (within day and day ahead) working for a giant energy company, which I reheated last year and republished on this blog. The general thrust of my story is that it's not just prices that traders can manipulate but - potentially - the actual physical system as a whole. It really wouldn't be that difficult.

The actual allegations being made, in my opinion, are pretty minor and insignificant. What it might expose, however, could be far more important. The fact of the matter is that if you hand the entire system of energy provision over to private interests whose only raison d'être is to maximise profits, then of course they are going to employ the best brains to beat their regulatory overseers.

My personal take on it is this: so what if the energy market is experiencing price rigging under a privatised system? Would it be any different under a state owned one? Likely not. It's what we can expect of people when they are handed the controls of an essential commodity like energy from which vast sums of money can be gleaned. I'm not excusing the behaviour, just being realistic.

But my contention in the story was and is that it would only take one 'rogue' trader with operational authority to plunge not just the abstract market into chaos but the entire physical electrical grid. I'm just saying.

Disclaimer: I should actually say that I personally was never involved in any wrongdoing, and neither did I know of any traders involved in nefarious activities, although I did turn a few idling power stations down to MSG (minimum stable generation) when nobody was looking in order to reduce pollution and save fossil fuels.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Great Escape: Part 1: Maladjusted

Yes that's me. Avoiding being swallowed up by hungry gods of industrial civilization can be a hard trick to pull off.

It occurred to me recently that one of the reasons some of us have such difficulty in communicating with people about the seriousness of the global problems that beset us is that we have all ended up at different conclusions from taking vastly different paths through life.

The path I have taken which has led me to this point differs quite substantially from the regular well-trodden paths that others have taken. In my own case, if I were to simplify, looking back on the last four decades it seems quite clear to me now that I was being frogmarched by my elders towards a fate I was naturally vehemently opposed to. Why I should have been so opposed to it, I don’t know, but I can only suggest that I have a peculiar stubborn gene which has dictated my character, and which I now see re-emerging in my youngest daughter too.

Thus, when I express an opinion pertaining to a fact which, at least to me, seems perfectly obvious, I have to remember that my mind formed that opinion based on 41 years of experiences and influences which are in most cases vastly different from those of the person I am trying to communicate with. What’s more, further genetic markers would seem to prohibit me from seeing things in black and white, thus making everything into shades of grey that, when I step back from it all, looks like some gigantic metaphysical and natural system, and is actually pulsing with colour and complexity.

Anyway, to that end, I’m going to go a bit autobiographical for a few posts in an attempt to explain something of my background. If for no other reason, I aim to have my blog printed out and bound and placed in an old wooden chest I recently bought, along with other accrued photos, family trees and assorted genealogical paraphernalia in the hope that one distant day it will be discovered in an dusty attic by my generational offspring and they can cast their eyes over it and say “So that’s why old Grandpa Jason acted the way he did.”

If you are those offspring: Hello!

Back to the story in hand – where was I? Oh, yes: me. I am going to divide this narrative into three sections. The first post could be subtitled: confessions of a reformed nihilist. For anyone who knows me today as the mild-mannered, quietish, father of two, they might be in for a surprise. Yes, it was true that I was quite a tearaway, but this isn’t some kind of jokey brag. Instead, I want to make the point that I was basically a good kid driven to bad things by a crazy system. And that same system is driving ever more basically good people to do crazy things.

The second part will be a, ahem, intellectual journey. I’ll talk about the all the books and other things which have influenced my life over the years. The last part will expand on this, although it will be more of a metaphysical retelling. Okay, here we go.

I was born in Preston, Lancashire, in the north of England not too far from Liverpool in 1971. Don’t ask me anything about Preston or Liverpool though because I only lived there as a baby and have no memory of it at all.

My father was trained as a draughtsman and was working his way up the ladder in the UK manufacturing industry. In those days there were still plenty of car and car parts factories dotted around the country, although the inexorable slide of deindustrialization had already begun back then. My mother was trained as a secretary, although she didn’t go to work until I was older. Instead she was what was known as a housewife, staying at home to cook, clean and look after her new baby i.e. me. Both of my parents were from working class backgrounds in Cheadle, near Manchester, in the north of England, and as such they were thrifty, saved sensibly and would never dream of buying anything they could not afford.

I have an older sibling, a sister. She is ten years older than me and spent much of her childhood before I arrived living in Ontario, Canada, which is where my family had emigrated to escape a depressed and depressing Britain. Apparently there were two or three other babies before me, but my mother miscarried in all cases. They had all but given up when a new drug was developed to prevent miscarriages, thus making me a product of modern medicine.

In Canada my father became one of those immigrant landlords there, buying and doing up old houses, which he then rented out. Apparently it didn’t end well and he warned me against thinking that renting property was ‘easy money’. They moved back to England shortly before I was born – if they hadn’t then I’d be writing this with a Canadian accent.

When I was three, the family moved to Banbury, near Oxford. My father must have had a decent pay rise with his new job because we moved into a fairly large detached house surrounded by gardens on a road called Queensway. Banbury is a largish town, famed for the nursery rhyme ‘Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse.’ I started at the local primary school and spent two years there until my parents removed me and sent me to a private prep school. I’m not sure why they did this. I don’t remember disliking Queensway Primary School, but I do remember my mother saying I was being bullied by the other kids. I don’t think this was the case, instead I think it had more to do with my father’s nascent aspirations for me.

The young me being forced to pretend to read a book and refusing to smile

Prep school, it turned out, was a lot of fun. The school was a converted stables out in the countryside and we had quite a lot of freedom to roam around climbing trees, playing conkers and another game which we invented that involved kicking a pebble into hole in the playground. It was a very small school, with only about 100 kids ranging in age from 6 to 13. The curriculum was easy and mostly involved two things: English and singing. There were other subjects too, but singing was really the one given the greatest priority. Oh, and Latin, which naturally led to singing in Latin.

By going to this school my parents thought they had been put on the conveyor belt to a higher social class. Indeed, my friends all had interesting parents. One was a Tory MP. Another was a daredevil salesman who flew around in his own plane and was credited with introducing pepperoni pizzas to the UK (!) Another was the nephew of a (now disgraced) pop star. And they went of holiday to far-flung places, such as Disney World in America. I couldn’t compete with any of that, but that didn’t seem to bother any of them.

I spent five blissful years at this school. It was boys only, so I didn’t actually get to speak to any, you know, girls until I was a teenager. Still, who needed girls? We had a lot of fun playing football and rugby and cricket, stunt riding our BMXs on a track we had actually built in a field next to the school, and playing Dungeons & Dragons and Horror Top Trumps (until they were banned for being ‘satanic’ by the pious probably-alcoholic Irish headmaster and his grossly obese wife). I thrived in this environment, and was made Head Choir Boy (probably a role given even greater authority and status than Head Boy, which was for squares). I didn’t realise it, but this ‘preparatory school’ was doing nothing to prepare me for life ‘on the outside’ and I’ve heard it since that there is no way such a school would be allowed to operate these days, run for profit as it was by someone seemingly without any teaching qualifications.

And then disaster struck. My father was made redundant during a massive round of firing at Automotive Products (owned by Lockheed Martin) where he worked. At the age of 12 we had to move away from our cosy life in Banbury and follow my father to his new job, which was in Wakefield, Yorkshire. I found myself pulled out of school in an instant and literally packed off ‘up north’ to another life.

Now, looking at my family tree I know that most of my ancestors come from Yorkshire. But as far as I was concerned I was a southerner, bred, if not quite born.  In case anyone doesn’t know, there is quite a cultural divide between north and south England which harks back to the times of the Danegeld and the subsequent Norman Invasion. That’s the cultural chasm and I was about to be chucked into it.

I’m not sure why anyone would send their kids off to boarding school. In my case I think it was my father’s burning ambition for me to be a success rearing its head again. In any case I was dispatched to Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS) – a school that is routinely in the top ten independent schools in the country, and a known pressure cooker. This is where I first learned all about bullying, loneliness and all the rest of it. To say I was desperately unhappy there would be an understatement. The headmaster, whose house we actually lived in, had evidently not heard that the Victorian era had ended. He walked around with a long black cape on, carried a cane and often sent us out on gruelling cross country runs in sub-zero temperatures wearing only skimpy shorts and tops.

Furthermore we had to wait on him, serving meals to him and his selected ‘top boys’ in a system of subservience known as ‘fagging’. Now fagging, in case you’re wondering, didn't involve that, and at least in this case didn’t stretch to anything more than being a personal lackey of the older boys, who would have been around 17 or 18 years old. This being Yorkshire, the other boys made fun of my southern accent and called me all sorts of names.

QEGS in Wakefield

It was also a place of violence, with a class war being raged within the actual school itself. Placed in an historical context, Thatcher had recently come to power and was busy trying to break the trade unions and beat the coal miners into submission. Many of the boys at my school were the sons of coal miners, granted scholarships due to their brightness. So when the great Miners’ Strike of 1984 kicked off, so did plenty of school ground fights.  Rich upper class kids would name call the miners’ sons, which was normally not a good idea because the miners’ sons tended to be much harder fighters. What’s more, the sons of miners were even pitted (no pun intended) against one another, depending on whether their father was a ‘scab’ or not (i.e. someone who had decided to break the strike, for whatever reason). It was an ugly time.

Furthermore, the toilets were a no-go area due to them being the hangout of smoking ‘top boys’ who would grab you by the neck and shove your head in the bowl and flush. After this happened to me a couple of times I became too scared to go near them and had to develop the ability to ‘hold it in’ for a week at a time (I was sent home at weekend, mercifully).

After a year of living a lifestyle akin to that of an early 19th century lackey I had had about enough. Luckily my parents had by now bought a house in Wakefield and I was able to move back home. Ah the bliss! Also around this time one of the greatest things to happen in my life occurred: personal computers began to appear in the shops.

I rapidly became obsessed with them. They blotted out everything for me and I was able to escape into the world of computers and ignore the elements of the real world that were not to my liking. More specifically, I was obsessed with computer games – the more fantasy-oriented the better. I used to design games in my head and then spend hours at night lying in bed figuring out all of the details, and how I would code them. A few of my friends were similarly obsessed and we began writing programs for our ZX Spectrums. At first they were in BASIC but, probably to show off, we moved onto assembly language, machine code and even hexadecimal. I spent all my pocket money on games (which came on tapes, uploaded torturously slowly via a tape recorder), games magazines and hefty books about programming languages.

Although we didn’t realize it at the time, this was probably the golden age of computer games in that it was eminently possible to design, program and market your own game from start to finish – and get rich in the process. Puny memory limitations (my spectrum had a 48k RAM chip, and even that was fairly large by the standards of the day, although the laptop I am typing this on is 83,000 times more powerful) made sure you had to code tightly, and there was no room for huge, fast-moving graphics. My idols at the time were Jeff Minter, who created such classics as Attack of the Mutant Camels, and Matthew Smith, the Bug Byte goth programmer who created Manic Miner and Jetset Willy.

Anyway, while I might have been able to process computer code at the same level as a university degree undergraduate, the rest of my academic abilities left a lot to be desired. I was, in fact, the lowest out of 120 pupils in my year, academically speaking, and my father was not happy. I was consistently getting single digit percentages in test scores and the more trouble I got into over the more it became cemented in my mind that I couldn’t achieve academic success and that there was something wrong with me.

I was put out of my misery by yet another move – although this time it was a case of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. My father, having lost his job yet again, found a new one at a train factory in Birmingham, England’s second largest city. The good news was that I was leaving Wakefield, but the bad news was that I was being sent to Solihull School – a bastion of upper class privilege in a snooty satellite town.

The moment I turned up on the first day I knew it was bad news. QEGS had been somewhat rough and violent (one of my classmates who I went on a school trip to France with turned into a serial killer in later life, killing women with a crossbow and then eating them. This was the second serial killer the school had produced, for some reason.) but Solihull School had a sinister feel about it. 

With its neatly trimmed lawns and its obsession with sporting prowess I knew right away that I wasn’t going to fit in. Around this time my father bought a weight lifting bench and weights and decided it was time to put some hairs on my chest. He himself had lifted scrap metal around the back of the factory he worked in as a young man, building himself up into something quite muscular – and now he wanted me to do the same. I still remember all those Saturday afternoons in the freezing garage as he made me pump iron, and got me to perfect the ‘clean and jerk’.

One of the first things I was made to do at this new school was decide whether I wanted to join the Army, Navy or Air Force, or do community service. It was that kind of place – a feeder institution for the upper echelons of the armed services. From my experience with bullies in Wakefield I had learned that the best way to deal with them was not to look like a target. Anyone doing community service, thus spending their Wednesday afternoons dipping biscuits into tea with elderly ladies would be a prime target, I reasoned. Joining the Air Force would mean I had to wear flares (no way) and the Navy was full of boatey types who knew how to sail yachts. And so, at 14, I joined the Army Cadets.

I was fitted for a uniform and assigned an old First World War rifle from the school arsenal. Soon afterwards I learned what being in the army was all about namely: looking perfect, marching and being with psychopaths. Nobody had taught me how to tie my puttees properly or wear my beret, so I got yelled at a few times by the barking NCOs. Punishment for such infractions tended to involve running around a rugby field holding your rifle above your head. And those rifles weren’t light.

After army training had finished every Wednesday we were free to walk around town dressed in our combat fatigues (sadly, though, without the rifles, which would have been handy). This was quite appealing to me as I was vary scrawny in my younger days, but the local teenage psychos from nearby schools tended not to mess with you if you were dressed to kill.  But the drawback of this was that my fellow army heads decided that I had better undergo some initiations to see what I was made of. That’s when I started getting into serious trouble.

Some of the minor infractions included things like lobbing fireworks at houses and buying bottles of cider from the off licence. Another thing was to pour Tippex thinner on your sleeve and inhale it. The more you could inhale, the tougher you were. Unfortunately one of the other boys had taken a dislike to me and told the teachers what I was up to. I was caught with thinner and cigarettes in my pockets and promptly suspended from school. My parents were devastated. What had they done to deserve this?

When I was allowed back to school again it was only a few short months before I was in serious trouble again. Another ‘initiation’ was to commit a burglary at a nearby boarding school. It was easy – me and another boy just walked in and ransacked the students’ possessions while they were out doing sports. My ‘haul’ was £2, a can of Lynx deodorant and a new format for playing music – a Boy George CD. I hated Boy George, but this shiny metallic looking plastic disk was a marvel to behold and I examined it at length in the privacy of my bedroom.

It didn’t take long before I was caught. The very next day I was summoned to the sadistic headmaster’s office and interrogated. He knew that I knew that he knew I was lying. As I got up to leave something hit me in the back of the head and almost knocked me down. He had literally thrown the book at me. “Sit down you moron,” he commanded. “Your life is over.”

Later, when my sobbing mother came to collect me, I made my escape when nobody was looking and ran away. My plan was to walk to France and live as an itinerant tramp. It was an unrealistic plan. In the end I spent the night shivering in a field with a horse barely three miles from home. I went back the next day, starving hungry, and faced the considerable music.

The police were involved and I was expelled from school immediately. My punishment was to be shut in my room for several weeks but after a couple of weeks in solitary I begged to be allowed to go and visit a friend in Yorkshire and was allowed to do so. Bad idea. My friend had become a punk. I wanted to be a punk too. I dyed my hair green, ripped my clothes to shreds and started acting like Sid Vicious, my new role model.

Arriving back in Birmingham, my father was less than impressed with my new look. It was the beginning of the end of good relations with him – for the next 25 years, until his death earlier this year, there was always a simmering hostility between us. He resented the fact that I was refusing to conform to his view of how I should act, and he never got over it.

After the expulsion debacle I was sent off to a school for no-hopers and the sons of organised criminals in the centre of Birmingham. It was the only place that would have me. I knew that I only had to tough it out for another year and then I could leave school and get on with being an unemployed and unemployable punk.  

As before, I had learned to avoid the bullies by acting crazier than them. Bullying is mostly psychological warfare, so by pretending to be psychotic, you are robbing the bully of any power they might have over you.
In my case I head-butted things. Doors, walls, other people - it didn’t matter what it was, I butted them all. 

By now I had spiked and bleached hair and a permanent bruise on my forehead. Bullies took one look at me and decided to pick on someone else.

I began to get into trouble as a matter of routine. Writing anarchic graffiti on buses, smoking cigarettes and dope, drinking whisky in class, fighting in the park after dark (well, pretending to – in most cases it was posturing and we ended up running away), carving an anarchy symbol across my whole chest with a razor blade right before an inter school swimming match – you name it, I was in trouble for it. I even got into a fight in a Birmingham backstreet with a bunch of Zulus (football hooligans following Birmingham City) who managed to knock me out, stab me through the cheek and were in the process of kicking the crap out of me when I was rescued by some security guards from an adjacent TV station who could see what was going on. I was taken to hospital to be stitched up, and a rumour went around the school that I was dead, making my subsequent resurrection something of a talking event for all and sundry.

I might have been alive, but I was still an academic dud, and the teachers told my parents there was little chance I would achieve even a single ‘O’ Level, the next year. My report said ‘Jason stares into space a lot and would probably prefer to do that all day long instead of doing his schoolwork.’

I didn’t care. I had been consumed by nihilism. In my mind, the world I was supposed to be conforming to was a world based of hypocrisy, greed and evil. I wanted no part of it and I figured that the way things were I’d probably be dead by 40, and fully intended to go out with a bang. I took to hanging around with my friends at the Mermaid pub in Birmingham’s Sparkbrook district. The Mermaid was an institution beloved of punks and skinheads. They would serve anyone, no matter how young, and every weekend the walls reverberated violently to thrash metal and punk. I followed bands like GBH, the Anti Nowhere League and Napalm Death (the lead singer of which went to my school).  I was an angry young man alright.

The next year, when my exams finally came, I did better than expected. I scraped four passes, although failed both Maths and English. Still, it meant that I could join my friends at Solihull Sixth Form College. And that’s exactly what I chose to do so, in no large part due to the fact that my best friend at the time, Mark, managed to convince me that throwing my life away was a bad idea. I was, throughout it all, still very bookish, and there were certain things that appealed to me – especially the idea of being an archaeologist or a computer games developer.

By now, my beleaguered father had given up trying to fight me in terms of what I wanted to do. I chose what any snarling punk would want to do as A Levels: English Literature, Classical Civilizations, Computer Studies and French. As an olive branch to my father I agreed to study Economics as well. I was sick of the hostilities and was feeling guilty about bringing so much distress to my beloved mother. The reason I was allowed to study so many subjects was because I re-sat Maths and English (getting an ‘A’ in the latter) and the college realized I might not be as stupid as my academic record said I was.

After my stormy teenage years, being at college was calm and placid. I disassociated myself from most of my troubled friends – most of them were now working at McDonalds’ or for the big local employer Land Rover. They were, I noted, remarkably quick to conform, get steady girlfriends and grow beer guts.
I dropped Computer Studies in short order when I realized how mind numbingly dull it was to actually study it in an academic manner. I also dropped all the studded dog collars, winkle pickers and other black leather gear I had been wearing, and conformed to type by wearing a tweed jacket and blue jeans. I had my first proper girlfriends and actually fell madly in love with one, Emma. We went around Europe together on trains, and it was all terribly romantic.

It was during this time too that Mark told me about an environmentalist called Jonathon Porritt who was coming to give a talk in Birmingham one evening. He somehow knew I had an interest in these things (although I can’t figure out how when I try and recall) and took me along. The talk was riveting and I bought a book from a stall at the entrance, which I asked Mr Porritt to sign for me. I had a brief chat with him (although others were waiting in line) and by the end of it I knew that herein lay the key to dismissing the nihilist feelings of angst and hopelessness that had been eating me for so many years. For the first time I had heard someone in a position of power (well, okay, he was Director of Friends of the Earth) lay out what the core of our problems was. Here’s the kind of thing he was coming out with:

"I've learned that the fate of the world's indigenous people lies in the fate of us all. And the reason is very simple. At the heart of today's so-called 'environmental crisis' is something profound and disturbing. We are simply not at one with the world in which we live, we are not 'true dwellers in the land', and behave for the most part as if we were just uncaring itinerants hanging around until we've used everything up and then moving on."

The book was called Where on Earth are We Going? and it addressed many of the problems that beset the industrial world such as pollution, global warming and our unsustainable lifestyles. Jonathon Porritt, now Lord Porritt, went on to be a sustainability advisor to Prince Charles, and is still a leading voice of reason. I still have the book on my bookshelf with its inscription to me.

I’ll leave it at that for this post. In the next one I’ll talk about being plunged back into uncertainly again as I flee the family home Dick Whittington style, only to find the streets on London lined not with gold, but kebab shops and shady pubs.

About that chest. It’s currently sat on the floor beside me as I type these words. It’s a huge pine one of the type known as a marriage trunk, which would have accompanied the bride during her wedding and been stuffed full of all the sorts of tools, fabrics and ornaments accrued by her loving parents for her to take with her in married life. 

When I say huge, it really is – you could probably fit about four huskies in it, or maybe a teenage rhino. It’s light blue with a depiction of flowers painted on the front in what is known as ‘naïve folk art’. We bought it for 300kr (about $50) online, with the seller saying that if we didn’t pick it up that day he was taking it to the dump. It is about 200 years old and in almost perfect condition (but missing the key).

Antique furniture is a niche that my wife is moving into. As a skilled upholsterer with a City and Guilds education from England, she has found her skills unmarketable in Denmark. Here, people buy stuff new from Ikea, and then when they are finished with it after a handful of years they throw it away and buy new again. Occasionally they will inherit something finely crafted from a dead parent and they will make a funny ‘yeuch’ face and either throw it away or sell it for a pittance on Denmark’s version of eBay.

That’s where we come in. In the last few weeks alone we have bought three antique chests, a wall mounted display cabinet, a 18th century ‘Queen Ann’ chair (pictured a couple of posts back being transported on my new cargo bike), a solid mint-condition L.Lange Danish antique cast iron woodburner weighing almost 200kg and, yesterday, three solid rosewood chairs from the time of King Christian VIII of Denmark. There have also been a few knick knacks, such as a rye bread slicer from the 19th century and some stoneware, and copper kettles. In total the price we have paid for all this is about the same as you would pay for the new iPad that everyone is talking about.

[Note to descendents: an iPad was a flat device with a screen on it. On the screen you could manipulate images and text using your fingers and they had all sorts of applications. They could store music and books and you could watch films on them and chat to your friends through the Internet. People found them endlessly diverting, but given that they require colossal amounts of energy to manufacture and a vast range of government subsidized high-tech industries to support them I doubt they will still be around by the time you read this. You might find one in a museum, if you’re interested.]

My point with the above is that due to these incredible finds (and hundreds more like it, though we don’t have the space) my wife has finally plucked up the courage to quit her terrible job. She has spent the last five years cleaning council properties, such as schools, old people’s homes and the public toilets down at the beach. After five long years of working with a small army of similarly downtrodden people, most of them immigrants with degrees (one of her fellow bowl scrubbers used to be the editor of a popular anti-regime newspaper in Iran, but had to flee for his life) she can now call herself an antique furniture restorer and dealer, which certainly sounds better at dinner parties than ‘mop woman’.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Best is Yet to Come

I try to avoid the politics of national elections. I know, I know. I'm well aware of all the arguments about engagement and all that, but when you only have a choice between, as Noam Chomsky put it once, the two wings of the business party, then what's the point?

In  my own country I vote in any case. Normally I'll vote Green - always have done. At least in the UK and EU there's a chance your vote will count. I can even get mildly excited when the Greens win a seat or two. Local politics is a different beast. I'm all for local politics.

Anyway, it didn't escape my notice that there was an election in America this week, and that one of the candidates actually won it. It was, in fact, impossible not to notice because there was much rejoicing in Europeland about the person who had won it. On this particular morning I found myself listening to one of Denmark's national radio stations which, between breathless reportage about dancing in the streets in the good old US of A, they played songs such as 'Things can only get better' and 'Wake up it's a beautiful morning'.

America, we were told, had decided to re-elect someone who would bring about an end to the recession, enforce world peace and halt global warming in its tracks. The Messaih, in other words, was having his third coming.

Later, I found myself at work, where some people were still in a state of some excitement due to the news which was oozing out of every iOrifice. One lady was even wearing the stars and stripes over her normal business attire. I managed to avoid all eye contact and banter until I was cornered in the kitchen by one of the copywriters while I was brewing a cup of tea. Isn't the news great? she enthused. Umm, yeah, I responded in flat tones that I hoped were just the right side of neutrality so as not to be mistaken for irony. She looked at me in a puzzled manner, perhaps assessing whether I was a crazed Mitt Romney supporter.

"It's funny how every news channel in Europe is so excited about Obama," I added.

"Well not really, because it means the world isn't going to hell now," she ventured, a little too fiercely for my liking.

"What makes you think that?" I responded, puzzled.

But my question was enough to confirm her suspicions that I was one of 'them'. Without responding she upped tail and walked out, leaving me to strain my tea bag in shameful solitude.

Afterwards, at my desk, I began thinking back to the time when I really thought that the election result in America made much of a difference. Twelve years ago I was on a pretty damned remote island in the Bay of Bengal, sitting on a beach with a crackly hand-held short wave radio, trying to pick up the BBC World Service while a group of other people eagerly listened in. The signal came and went, with voices in a number of languages being stretched and distorted and strangled by eerie alien whining sounds as I angled the antenna to get the best signal.

It was then that a cut-glass accent voice appeared out of the ether like an aural apparition and it said this: "George Bush has won the election in the United States." Immediately after this dinket of poisonous information had been relayed the distortion and whining came back and it was as if the message we had heard had disappeared like a genie set loose from a bottle washed up on the beach. My fellow listeners, namely my wife, an Indian fisherman, a German girl and a Kiwi couple all groaned out loud simultaneously. Here on this blasted strand we learned of our fate. Shortly afterwards several coconuts were hacked open, topped up with illegal Indian rum and the whole lot of us got gloomily drunk.

Back to the present and I'm unable to get as involved with the election result as I used to. There are so many what ifs and what abouts. What about the foreign policies that lock the US and much of the West into intractable and unwinnable wars? What about global warming? What about ocean acidification? Corporate lobbying? GMOs (which also won, with Californian voters giving the green light to be shafted by the industrial frankenfood lobbies)? Obama's drone wars? Topsoil loss biodiversity extinction ethnic cleansing feedback loops? The fiscal cliff?

Some Danish news programmes stated that Obama was going to prevent another recession - just by his sheer cussedness. He was going to make the US 'energy independent', whatever that means, while at the same time tackling climate change and helping the people hit by 'superstorm' Sandy, and make all that debt disappear because it was frankly not the kind of thing that he was into. He was going to stand up for the little guy and he was going to build a world for us where all of our children would have better opportunities and would become prosperous and slim and not feckless and fat. And most important of all, his wife was going to carry on being sassy and wearing different outfits, which is really what everyone wanted to hear.

Things Can Only Get Better.

ps Sometimes it's hard being a sourpuss.

pps At least Mitt Romney didn't win.

ppps My wife: "I hear Obama won the election."

The local baker (a middle-aged woman): "I didn't even realise the old mayor had retired."