Friday, July 24, 2009

Layer 176 Laughter, Tax Havens, Spain, Limits on Interest, and Breasts.

That Mitchell and Young Look

“Making a woman laugh is halfway towards getting her into bed”, said Kirsty Young, knowingly, chuckling her way through her Desert Island Discs interview with David Mitchell. To his credit he didn't immediately say, “OK, Kirsty – your place or mine?” He just came out with “It's the other half I have a problem with”.

Earlier in the programme he'd said, “People often think that comedy and humour is frivolous. The truth is that it must be part of everything.” Amen to that.

Mitchell described himself as someone who probably sees the glass as half empty, but realises that half is better than nothing.

The other comment I took note of was about age. David Mitchell's known as a guy who's tweedy and anti-cool, or the antithesis of 'cool'. He said he'd like to live to be 90, providing he could be 50 the whole time. I know what he means. Or at least I think I do. It depends on what we define as the dominant characteristics of the average person of 50.

He obviously sees the positive aspects of 50, of which there are many, including maturity, better judgment, being knowledgeable, having a certain amount of wisdom, experience, etc. The average 50 year old should still be physically fit, sexually active, mentally sound, and emotionally strong. More so than people at either end of the age spectrum, at any rate. We could also assume a certain level of financial and material wellbeing, independence, autonomy and confidence. What's not to like about being 50? The challenge is to gain, and to hold on to, all those positives.

Wikipedia says Mitchell lists Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Peter Cook as being his comedy idols. Mitchell has stated that Morecambe and Wise, Monty Python and The Two Ronnies have been a big influence on his career. He once claimed he owns no records at all, and is "not remotely interested in music."

His lack of interest in music is curious, but pretty obvious, going by his choice of terrible discs for the desert island, which were presumably meant to be humorous and/or tweedy.


Gibraltar Revisited

Guardian editorial:

"The visit of a Spanish minister to Gibraltar yesterday could be regarded as historic. It was the first time anything like this had happened in 300 years, and it went off smoothly. Foreign minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos was denounced by the opposition People's party as a traitor – it claimed his visit was an insult to the dignity of Spain - and by the Gibraltar Socialist Labour party, which wanted the Rock to show the Spaniard just how British it was.

The discussions that took place between Mr Moratinos, David Miliband and Gibraltar's chief minister, Peter Caruana, represented a step back. They discussed six areas of future co-operation, including financial services, environment, maritime safety and visas. Everything, in other words, bar the main the issue, the only one that has kept this dispute going since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713: sovereignty.

Gibraltar's disputed sovereignty remains the elephant in the room.

It should be for Spain to demonstrate the very obvious advantages of joint sovereignty to a people whose identity would be underpinned by the ending of this ancient dispute, not undermined."

The thing that really struck me about Gibraltar is the sheer impressive dominance of its Rock over the surrounding landscape, and how galling it must be for the average Spanish citizen to feel that a foreign country has annexed this visually imposing part of their environment.

But surely the real elephant in the room is that this place is still a tax haven?

The Guardian's editorial also says this:

"Gibraltar's escape from the global downturn, with an economy that has grown at Chinese rates, can be read two ways: Mr Caruana's way, which is to say that, if Gibraltar were a sovereign state, it would be the 13th richest in terms of per-capita GDP; or the opposite, which is to say that Gibraltar's wealth would not exist without the 7 million visitors who cross the frontier every year."

In Gibraltar there are construction projects dotted everywhere, with gleaming new apartment blocks springing up all over. The work goes on. The majority of these smart apartments are supposedly the homes of 'residents', who in fact use them occasionally, if at all, for their tax exile. Very few people come and go through the lifts and lobbies of those tall buildings – the majority of the smartly and expensively furnished flats remain devoid of inhabitants for the majority of the year.

In Spain, meanwhile, huge building developments can be seen everywhere – abandoned and half-built. It's a strange world of speculation, accumulation, greed and bankruptcy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and those in the middle are more and more teetering on the brink. See also Jonathan Freedland's recent column (below), and the following piece on Spain.


Spain Revisited

by Giles Tremlett, published in G2

End of the dream for British expats in Spain.

Hundreds of thousands of Brits have headed to the sun seeking a Spanish idyll. But the economic crash has left many facing disaster.

"The British butcher has gone and the karaoke nights at Jack's and the Big Ben bar are all but dead. You can still get all-day British breakfasts and John Smiths on tap in San Fulgencio but a row of dusty, unkempt shop windows is all that remains of the internet cafe, the installer of pirated British TV channels and the Property Choice estate agent.

"It's like a ghost town," says Dennis Conway, 76, who is thinking of joining the exodus of Britons from this once bustling estate of bungalows and modest two-storey houses a few miles from Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast. "It's devastating. My pension is slowly disintegrating and there is nothing we can do about it. It is bloody frightening to think what might still happen."

Dennis has been here for 15 years. He has seen the La Marina estate in San Fulgencio go from a sleepy outpost of retired Brits to a boomtown of holidaymakers, second home-owners and young families trying to make a go of it in Spain, to the current bust. "I've never seen it this bad. I'm thinking of going back."

Britain's fevered obsession with the Spanish good life is over. Once, ex-pat bars up and down the Mediterranean coast heaved with happy talk about cheap beer, low council taxes and why it was so much better to be in Spain. Now the drinkers are more likely to curse the pitiful pound, discuss who missed the last outing of the British pensioners' club, and swap stories of friends who are moving home. There are whispered tales, too, of repossessions and of people packing up, dropping their keys at the bank and trusting easyJet to save them from Spanish creditors.

"We've had retired people calling us and saying they are going to Bulgaria or places like that," explains Angie Russell, whose Union Jack company near Benidorm has been moving Brits – legally – for 22 years.

Television shows such as Channel 4's A Place in the Sun promised adventure, swimming pools and the good life. A collapsing pound and the credit crunch have brought a harsher reality: homesickness, financial hardship and something those who call themselves "expats" rarely take into account, that they are immigrants – often with all the problems of not understanding the language or the rules. Interestingly, a surprising number of them list immigration as one of the things they dislike about Britain. Few, indeed, come from Britain's own ethnic minorities.

For some, Spain has become a nightmare."


Jonathan Freedland:

“This morning an unlikely platoon of religious leaders will march on the City headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland armed not with bricks but books. Three to be precise: the Torah, the Qur'an and the New Testament. They'll be delivering them to the RBS chairman, Sir Philip Hampton – but not in a friendly way. They're meant as a warning to the titans of finance that a campaign is coming, one that starts today in both Britain and the United States, aimed at changing the way banks do business by reviving a law as old as money itself.

The law in question is the prohibition on usury.

It contains a powerful and simple idea: that there should be limits on the amount a lender can charge a borrower and that to charge too much interest is immoral.

The ambition is to do for personal debt what Jubilee 2000 did for international debt, to bring the issue of extortionate, exploitative borrowing back home.

People can always find ways to comply with the letter of religious law while breaking its spirit. But the guiding sentiment is unambiguous.

And that ideal has never been the exclusive preserve of religious types. Plato and Aristotle denounced usury; ancient Rome capped interest at 8.33% (a shade above the 8% limit sought by London Citizens), a rule that endured for more than a thousand years.

Only Britain was in a hurry to scrap usury laws, ditching them in the 17th century under pressure from – surprise, surprise – the burghers of the City of London, who claimed that they could barely pay for the orphans in their care. For the sake of the poor little waifs, the bankers needed to rack up interest rates. And so began the City's transformation into a commercial universe free from all but the most feeble moral constraints.

Now, nearly 300 years later, it's surely time to put the cap back on. It can't be too much to ask that banks which currently borrow from the Bank of England at a rate of 0.5% lend it out at no more than 8%: they'd still be charging customers 16 times more for money than they had paid for it.

The trouble is, it has been too much to ask. The banks have proven that they cannot be trusted to restrain their own greed: when even a respected, high street bank demands 22% in interest on money it all but shoved in a customer's hand, you know that any appeals to the bankers' better angels will be futile. The better angels packed up their bags and gave up long ago.

It is telling that the lead voices in this new effort are from mosques, inner-city churches and synagogues. The politicians have been left looking flummoxed by the financial crisis, apparently desperate for normal business to resume as soon as possible. It has been left to the Pope to offer the most comprehensive critique of our devastated economic landscape, in his latest encyclical. But those facing crippling debts will not be too bothered by that. When people are desperate, they will take leadership from wherever they can get it."


And finally . . .

G2 had more nipples on view yesterday than an entire issue of The Daily Sport, in an article called “Topless or Not?

It's a pretty unenlightened double page spread.

In the YES corner we had Joanna Moorhead:

"When I was a teenager I would think nothing of sunbathing wearing only bikini bottoms. In fact, I think my friends and I would have seen it, back in the early 80s, as almost de rigueur. It felt so good, taking off your top and lying half-naked in the sun on the beach: free, liberating, warm and, hey presto, no bikini-lines. Being on holiday wasn't being on holiday without a bit of topless sunbathing.

I still assert my right to sunbathing, and swimming, topless.

Women's breasts spend far too much of the year hidden away in often uncomfortable bras. We have to ask ourselves whose agenda it is to get women to keep their breasts covered, and why. My rather uncomfortable hunch is that this is a debate which is driven by the desire of men to keep a part of women's bodies that they (mistakenly) believe is only for them, covered up. And this, it seems to me, is why our society is shot through with all sorts of unhealthy problems about breasts and their raison d'etre.

So, in an age when the young seem to have decided to kowtow to the male agenda and cover up, it seems to me that it's all the more important for we fortysomethings to be flying the flag for feminism. If there's a half-decent sunny day in Devon this year, I think I owe it to the cause to get my breasts out."

In the NO corner we have Zoe Williams:

"The real reason I deride toplessness is that small matter of what I actually look like. Perhaps it's unsisterly to say so but taking your top off does rather draw attention to your attributes – and they had better be good.

With toplessness, my first and insurmountable objection is a "how do I look?" thing ("better with a top on" is the answer). This isn't a gravity thing. I cannot blame the ravages of time. I had this conversation with myself on my French exchange aged 14, and I think the decision I reached was the right one."

It's an interesting subject, and there must be people who have interesting and well thought out views on it, but they're not here.

Six pages of readers' comments!

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