Built On Sand?

If – like me today – you ride through pretty well anywhere there are shops, you’ll find boarded-up premises. That’s around Berkshire and South Oxfordshire, in this relatively affluent region. There are plenty of places where it’s far more common.

Austerity, crisis, downturn and recession aside, an underlying reality is that a lot of high street retailers are unable to compete with the dominance of the supermarkets and their localized not so super versions. Colin’s corner store ain’t got a chance against Tesco, whether it’s the superstore-sized one a few minutes’ drive away, or its little brother just up the road – little in size but still getting all the benefits of scale so that Colin’s crushed. For numerous other local shops that aren’t in supermarket territory, the big online shopping ‘destinations’ – the Amazons and eBays of this world – will do for them just as effectively.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of all that, if there’s one thing it surely means is that there’s going to be a decreasing demand for online advertising. Tesco doesn’t need to advertise when it’s your only choice …

If you’re a niche retailer outside of the ambit of the big boys then you’ll not need to advertise (much) either, precisely because you’re in a niche: if you’re so small and specialist that Amazon/Tesco et al can’t swamp you, then you’ll be easily ‘find-able’ in any search engine anyway – or known-to or find-able-by your audience through other channels.

Perhaps I’m being too simplistic with that analysis, but every time I read about yet another online business that’s going to fund itself from advertising, I can’t help but think that’s a business model built on sand. Even if the status quo persisted, I doubt that as of now there are enough advertisers out there to sustain everyone who thinks they’re going to be raking it in from happy entrepreneurs with shiny products and services to show off. And if the number is actually declining …

And if this current era of (largely) free online content is built on advertising, expect some big shifts there too. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch” may be a knackered old cliché, but it’s also true.

Whether that’s all good, or bad, or merely change, I don’t know.

Charity Aftermath

It doesn’t take much to spot charity activity – the direction signs for events left around for a day or two after the weekend. The tell-tale signs were there today, on a short-ish ride taking in Henley and Maidenhead and the lanes thereabouts.

The charitable detritus, and the news today, prompted me to wonder whether charities merit the effort.

That’s a tough one to ask. A lot of people give a lot – time and effort – to fundraising, with the some of the most generous, noble intentions that humans are capable of. No-one should take anything away from that – least of all me.

The ‘however’ comes with the charities themselves. In the news today were reports about the Charities Commission warning that the high salaries being paid to charity bosses can bring ‘the wider charitable world into disrepute’.

Inevitably, the charities shelling out the big salaries defended their actions. What struck me as I read the reports and reactions were three things:

  • That there’s an Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO). That such an association should be necessary is a warning sign: the Chief Executives need a mouthpiece, someone to provide PR puffery, a media ‘turn-to’ spokesperson. I’m not sure they’d need it without having something to feel defensive about. (And who’s funding it? Where does that money ultimately come from?)
  • That the chairman of the ACEVO denies high salaries among charity bosses puts people off donating. (Let’s face it, the chairman of the ACEVO would say that.) That just doesn’t correlate with my experience – on the personal giving front, and amongst friends and family. Time and time again I hear of people re-focusing their giving on small, local and transparent / accountable charities, because they’re sick of their money going to ‘fat cats’.
  • That the fallacy of having to pay top money to get top people is repeated in a charitable context, without question, as it is in any other context. Plainly, there’s no logic to it. Some of the highest remunerated people in the Western World brought about the current recession. Top money buys people who are motivated by money. That doesn’t make them ‘good’ people by any worthwhile measure – it doesn’t mean they’re good at their jobs, good morally, good ethically, good professionally … it just means they think money is good, and that they’re worth lots of it. They can’t even understand that money will never buy happiness.

Perhaps the best thing to hope is that all the charity runners, cyclists and whatever else people get up to for ‘a good cause’ are discerning in their choice of good cause. The information is out there to enable us all to make sensible decisions; the onus is on us all to do the scrutiny.

The BBC on the issue of charity salaries.
The Independent on the same.
A nice piece on why money doesn’t buy happiness, and the associated articles are worth your time.

Fools, or Civilized?

I know people who –

  • have spent all their life savings on trying to get decent medical treatment because the NHS is failing them – through lack of funding – and who still haven’t been treated properly;
  • are working well beyond their retirement age, despite having heart problems, because their savings have effectively been pillaged by the banking sector’s failures;
  • are unemployed despite being qualified and keen to work, who can’t find even a sniff of a job offer wherever they set their sights, because the sector they’ve worked in all their lives has been wrecked by the banking system’s crash;
  • can’t move house, to down-size, although they badly need to so they can keep their financial head above water, because the housing market is stagnant through the financial sector’s greed of the last however many years; who need to down-size in the first place because of this banking-created recession;
  • are working three different part time jobs to try and make ends meet, with all the inevitable consequences for their family;
  • are working ludicrous hours for no extra pay, just to keep their job.

And so on.

Today the headlines are dominated by the manipulation of banking lending rates by Barclays and others. Banks were once, supposedly, pillars of society, models of probity. Barclays has been fined £290m. That money goes to the Financial Services Authority. It will be used to cut the fees that banks and similar pay to the FSA.  That is to say, the fine is totally and utterly meaningless. It will do nothing to redress the harm caused.

Today, I was riding around the area between Reading and Windsor. There are any number of properties to be seen as you ride, owned by the very rich, doubtless many of them working in the financial sector. There were are fair few cars around as driven by people of that ilk too – Bentleys and so on – making their way to the regatta in Henley.

What I can’t decide is whether we, the  more-or-less lumpen mass, are fools for not lynching these people or whether we’re civilized for not doing so.

There have been any number of ‘raps on knuckles’ to financiers, bankers and all that ‘class’ of people and – obviously, as evidenced by this latest scandal – no lessons have been learned.

With some irony, it is always the ‘right wing’, to which the rich inevitably gravitate, who will call for severe punishments for crimes and will talk of ‘setting an example’ with sentencing. Perhaps we need to send a stronger message to these bankers and the like. Perhaps hanging them from lamp posts in public would work. Just ‘making an example’ of a few of them might prompt a return to honesty on the part of the rest.

How, against what criteria, do you judge when being civilized and non-violent might cease to be an appropriate stance? I don’t know. My natural instinct is to never advocate violence in any form. Every conflict always ends with talking, one way or another. I’m all in favour of skipping the conflict and cutting straight to the talking. But perhaps I’m wrong and perhaps the bankers and that type are correct in their instincts. Perhaps it would be more civilized – for the greater good of society – if we did start hanging a few of them, as examples.

Who do you ask what’s the right thing to do? Bankers? Doubtless it’ll be bankers who’ll be called in to look at the mess they’ve made, find it’s the fault of ‘a few rogue’ staff or whatever, rap a few more knuckles and let the truly guilty off the hook, again.

Is that too cynical? The horrible, corrosive truth is that it’s probably not. We should all be worried about what else is being corroded.

Commercial poppies being grown near Henley

Commercially grown poppies, here near Henley

Thieving

This year seems a good one for Magpies generally, and they seemed particularly evident today – boldly pecking at carrion in the roads; chattering – if you can call it that – with that harsh noise they make at each other in trees.

From seeing them around it was a short mental hop to thieving bastards, and again from that thought to government – national or local. Sometimes I just get sick of the whole cursed lot and all the waste that they represent.

For a cyclist the obvious example is the state of the roads. There are pot holes everyone. A very significant proportion of them are holes in existing patches. The patches are always done badly. They’re not sealed around the edges. The rain gets in; the hole reappears.

One pot hole marked to be filled, the one next to it not.

Here’s a good idea. Let’s pay someone to mark a hole to be filled but leave the one next to it. Then we’ll pay some other people to come and fill one hole but not the other. And then we can do it all again when the second hole gets big enough. Yes, that will be brilliantly efficient.

That’s not some great insight or deduction. It’s not hard to see what’s going on, but we – idiot tax payers – continue to have countless thousands of pounds just thrown away on more useless repairs. The people spending the money either don’t give a damn or are criminally incompetent.

I can’t see any alternatives apart from corruption – that there are back-handers being paid somewhere along the line.

It’s not hard to come up with a corruption conspiracy. After all, those mending the roads are on a job for life. Mend it badly. Get called back to do it again. It’s easier than snatching sweets from kids; easier than fiddling an MP’s expenses. Bung a sweetener to some government wonk somewhere and it all can carry on nicely.

I have no idea if that sort of corruption’s happening. The natural instinct is to hope not, but would it be better if those running this system were just plain incompetent? Or totally uncaring? I don’t know.

There has to be a reason why this thieving continues – for that’s what it boils down to, this constant leeching from the public purse for someone or another’s gain. And if it’s systemic, if ‘the system’ means repairs are always done badly, then those responsible for the system are the guilty ones. Systems don’t just happen.

It is the waste that’s so galling; and against a backdrop of ‘austerity’ that waste is cast in ever sharper relief. And I have a strong dislike of being angry and impotent.

It’s not all bad. I owe some thanks to the friendly and considerate driver of the, I think, vintage Merc at the top of Aston/Remenham Hill coming out of Henley.

White Nature

Photo: Dead Nettle

Dead Nettle - called that, so I'm told, because it doesn't sting, not because it's dead

And all of a sudden, blue skies! Not unbroken blue but it’s not raining … That is progress. Off road – as today’s ride with Charli was in parts – it remains pretty soggy and it will take a few days to dry out so you don’t come back splattered, but it’s feels like a bonus to be able to ride without worrying about being caught in a downpour.

But being a happily mud-splattered 50-something year old is pretty good.

Over the last few days, the thing that’s struck me on the plant life front is how white the hedgerows are. An awful lot of the plants in the hedges at this time of year are putting out white flowers.

I’m not complaining; I have nothing against white flowers. It’s a reflection of my ignorance that I find it odd that there’s so much of more-or-less the same colour. I would have thought there’d have been some kind of competitive advantage in differentiation between the species. Presumably, there’s more to be gained from being white(ish). Perhaps it attracts those pollinators around at this specific time of year. Perhaps it repels things that would otherwise munch them. I am totally at a loss for an explanation.

And talking of losses, today the thing that strikes me in the news is JP Morgan’s massive losses. Yesterday, in the rain, I drove by a team of litter-pickers working on the verges of the road to Woodcote. Back in March litter pickers prompted me to muse on pay not reflecting value to society. Now, as JP Morgan’s losses show, we see that in the financial sector obscene pay doesn’t even reflect performance for the jobs people are employed to do. I am left at a loss to know why society should put any store by these people, bestow them any respect. And I am at a loss, too, to know how the fourth estate – the media – can continue to protest its value to society when it does so much to prop up this iniquitous value system that so bedevils us.

Photo: Lady's Smock

Lady's Smock

Photo: Cow Parsley

Cow Parsley

Photo: Field Mouse Ear

Field Mouse Ear

Photo: Jack By The Hedge

Jack By The Hedge

Emasculated?

Circumstances conspired so I ended up doing an afternoon ride. I go better in the mornings but so it goes. At least I had a decent, dry and warm afternoon for it. One should be thankful – it’ll rain again tonight and tomorrow.

It’s easy to forget just how much traffic the school run generates.  A loop taking in Woodley, Twyford, Wargrave and Henley at school chucking-out time reminded me forcefully enough. Of course, that’s absolutely nothing new.  What did strike me was the number of men doing the driving: I’d make a small wager that it was more than it would have been, say, two years ago.

Photo: A young Horse Chestnut

A young Horse Chestnut, near Shiplake Cross

If I’m right then I’d guess it’s because men are finding it harder to get jobs in this recession. Men ‘normally’ want ‘proper’ jobs – full time, a proper salary or wage and so on.  Women, for better or worse, are more readily pigeon holed into part time posts with less remuneration. As a result they’re often easier to sack – sorry, ‘downsize’ – but they’re also easier to re-employ.  If you like, many women are in a sort of flexible fringe which can expand or contract easily. So-called ‘male’ jobs or ‘proper’ jobs may be cut less willingly by employers, but once they’re cut they stay cut until there’s a very, very real need again.  There’s nothing about the economy that’s on a firm footing and we’d be fools to pretend otherwise.

I don’t know how that might feel if you’re a bloke on the school run – all other things being equal. If you’re managing to make ends meet and your partner’s out to work, you could feel liberated … or emasculated. It could be very hard to break out of the traditional way of thinking about yourself, your household budget, your role in the domestic set-up. It could be necessary. It might not be a bad thing – one day.  There’s nothing inherently right about traditions.

If any of all that is accurate, then if society wants to play a positive role it should be helping people adjust – men and women and children too. National and local government, charities and other not-for-profits, churches and media channels and any other organisation with a stake in society – they should all be working to help people adjust to changing roles.

Just writing that – and hopefully just reading that – brings home how little positivism there is in society. Society’s voices are largely carping, criticising, point-scoring, bemoaning … If you have something to moan about, do something about it – even if it’s only pointing up the need.