Thursday, October 28, 2004

The only law is right 

At last! Our client has finally made up their mind, so work is getting busy again. This means that the additions to this blog are going to get less regular, and probably shorter. Looks like career number four will have to wait until a more terminal crisis. Now I’m left with a nagging discomfort with the whole corporate, business thing. I feel as though I am less than convincing in what I am doing because there is a little voice in the back of my head yelling at me.

“What are you doing wasting your time with this business stuff??”

I can’t help the feeling that there is something vaguely irrelevant and pointless about keeping the wheels of finance turning. Of all the things I could do, is trying to make sure that this particular bit of the insurance industry works a bit better in 2005 than it did in 2004 the best option? Am I missing out on an incredible opportunity to change the world? Why doesn’t this mess come with instructions? Oh wait, it does: “suck it and see…”

Friday, October 22, 2004

Thinking about the government 

Ahh, South Africa… you’ve got to love it, and I do, despite what I sometimes type here.

Our president, Thabo Mbeki, was on TV last night. On SABC (the state broadcaster), he was reiterating the government’s commitment to healthcare and the fight against AIDS. On eTV, he was dodging some difficult questions from the opposition about his beliefs about the causes of AIDS, and refusing to be prompted into admitting that HIV causes AIDS. Just for the record, South Africa has more AIDS victims that any other country on the planet.

On Wednesday, it rained all day: monsoon city, thunder, lightning, huge puddles everywhere, floods, a water-logged garden, and an over flowing pool. Today (Friday) it is mid 20s (Celsius), a few puffy clouds scattered in a neon blue sky, and I wish I was on the beach.

The other night I was sitting on the sofa when I felt something tickling my leg. I hoiked up my trousers to dislodge a tiny bug, about a fifth of the size of my little fingernail, which then wriggled about hopelessly on the floor. On closer examination, it turned out to be a tick, which I must have picked up when walking the dogs. Ticks are nasty little buggers, attaching themselves to nice warm parts of your anatomy then sucking your blood so they swell up to 3 or 4 times their original size, like a cartoon character plugged into a hosepipe. They can also give you something that everyone tells me is Very Nasty called tick bite fever. Nobody seems to know quite what tick bite fever does to you, only that it is Very Nasty. Having intercepted him heading north up my leg, I don’t want to imagine where he might have ended up. The trick when removing them is to burn them off, so you don’t leave the head behind. They move very slowly, so once you have found them, they are easy to catch, but difficult and unsatisfying to kill, in that you have to squish them with something hard. The reverse of a cockroach, then, which is hard to catch, but very satisfying to splatter. Nice topic.

Back to South Africa, which is – according to the Economist – the 44th least corrupt country in the world, not as good as Italy (42nd), but better than South Korea (47th). Meanwhile the deputy president, Jacob Zuma, is on trial by proxy as it emerges that a close friend of his paid him a small fortune, whilst simultaneously working with one of the companies that won a huge government contract as part of the arms deal. At the very least. Worst case, Zuma took bribes to block any questioning in Parliament of the arms deal, and smoothed the path for his friends to get the work. Let’s see what the judge says. Our judiciary is far more independent than the state broadcasters, luckily.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

The joker to the thief 

The South African dinner party expression for petty theft is affirmative shopping. This sums it up beautifully – just helping myself to something I would have had anyway, but for the colour of my skin and the whole apartheid thing. Think of it as redistribution. A pathetic liberal like me almost agrees with it. At least I did until the buggers nicked my stuff. Even then, I sympathise. Here’s me: worried about the huge bond on my house, the state of my job, the repairs my car needs. Here’s you: no house, no job, no car. I have everything, you have nothing. To the average South African, I am impossibly wealthy. To the average Brit, I am enjoying an incredible lifestyle. It never feels as easy from this side, but it certainly pays to count your blessings from someone else’s perspective occasionally.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Insurance men who go check to see that nobody is escaping 

While I’m in the mood for a rant, I think I’ll compose a letter to Momentum.

Dear Momentum,

As you may remember, I recently cancelled my pension contributions. You then sent me a letter detailing a charge of $50 for this service, despite the fact that all of your costs are in Rands, and all of your employees in South Africa. The investment is offshore, denominated 50/50 in Euros and dollars, so apparently that means you can charge me in dollars if it suits you. You also charged me almost $1900 as a deduction from the value of my investment to cover you against commission charges that you had not yet recouped. These are commission charges that you paid someone to sell your product to me.

I understand that you have every right to charge me pretty much whatever the hell you want according to your contract, which of course I did not read before I signed my application, but this seems a bit steep. Since the tax statement that you sent me last year was denominated in the wrong currency, you will understand that I am a little sceptical of your abilities when it comes to getting the details right, so I requested a breakdown of how you arrived at this calculation.

The total commission you agreed to pay the broker was apparently a shade over R17,000. At the date I signed the agreement, this translated to about $1600. Yet you say that I still owe you nearly R1900 worth of commission. The commission was paid to the broker in Rands, so I confess to being a bit mystified as to how you think I owe you more than you paid him in the first place, after two years of paying it off. Perhaps one of your clever actuaries got his signs wrong? Either the Rands in which I am paying premiums are converted to dollars to pay off the commission, or the Rands are used to reduce an outstanding balance of commission payable in Rands. In the first case, the outstanding dollar commission should be less than it was when it started (it’s not). In the second case, the outstanding commission is continuously variable, and thanks to the strengthening of the Rand against the dollar, the amount outstanding is more than was paid in the first place. Whoopee.

In either case, your invoicing of me in dollars for costs which are incurred in Rands seems like a con. Or you are complete fuckwits. The latter conclusion is supported by the statement you sent me with the right figures but the wrong currency. Given either scenario, please explain to me why the hell I should invest any of my hard earned loot in one of your schemes ever again?

Love and kisses


PS: What kind of a product name is “Investo”? It sounds like a magician. Or a clown. Maybe it is spot on after all.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Under pressure 

The fucking builders have been at it again. This time one of them, and again I think I know who, has stolen my drill – a wedding present from my brother. They are the most poorly-equipped builders in the world, forever borrowing my tools, both with and without permission, but this time the loan seems to have been permanent. Discovering the theft has totally buggered up my day. I find myself stomping around in a tense introspective mood. The anger and frustration are building up inside me, desperately seeking an exit, like steam in a saucepan. I’m dying to take it out on someone or something: my wife, one of the kids, the dogs, or any inanimate object that gets in my way.

(Minor digression coming up.) The same type of frustration and pressure is a permanent feature in communities all over the world. I have seen it in many inner city pubs of a Friday and Saturday night. The frustration of a life lived without full control, under financial strain and the threat or fact of unemployment, seeks an outlet. It comes in the beer, the football, and the ritual filling of accident and emergency with comatose casualties. Drinking is the catalyst, the drug that suppresses the self control and restraint that keeps our hands by our sides. That adrenaline and testosterone needs an outlet. For me the outlet used to be rugby, and I was less stressed and more amiable when I had the opportunity on a regular basis to knock the crap out of someone who was fully expecting it. The beer afterwards then brings you down instead of taking you up. I’ve always been an amiable drunk anyway, so I’m heading for the fridge. Cheers.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Drive my car 

Anglo-African contrast number 47: in an attempt to reduce my monthly outgoings, I have been getting insurance quotes on cars. When doing the same in the UK, I seem to remember that the key factor was the insurance group that the car was in. This was determined by its size, cost and power, i.e. how likely are you to get into an expensive accident? In South Africa, there were no questions about engine size, simply about the value, and where the car is kept, at home and at work. Despite the deplorable traffic accident statistics in this country, the key concern of the insurance company is that it may get hijacked or stolen. As a controlled test of this theory of insurance premiums, we once had two cars, one a bog standard Golf, the other a turbo nutter Audi. The Audi was older, but much bigger, and much much quicker, therefore in the UK would have been very expensive to insure. Here, they both went down as the same value and address, and therefore the same premium.

The upshot of this, of course, is that yours truly has worked out that a cheap, old executive express has a much higher fun to premium ratio than a nice sensible hatchback. Now if I could just convince the boss that the parts aren’t going to be impossible to find...

Thursday, October 14, 2004

You don’t have to worry 

Maybe it’s just the blogs I read, but there seem to be a lot of guys out there who have down shifted, changed their perspective, or otherwise slowed down their lives. Maybe they have more time on their hands, or have given themselves a job that they can do in a few hours a day, leaving the rest free for writing. Maybe that was the idea in the first place. Maybe they need a voice now that nobody's listening to them at work anymore. That's a lot of maybes.

I know that when I first floated the idea of leaving that “good” job in the city, my mother went through her own version of Kubler-Ross’s process:

Me: “So, we’ve been looking at house prices in Cape Town.”
Mum: “Do you know who I saw at Tesco’s last week?”

Mum: “Why do you want to leave [large consulting company] when you are doing so well?”
Me: “Because it’s soul destroying, and I can’t get promoted in my team without ovaries.”

Mum: “So could we come and visit you in Cape Town?”
Me: “No, South Africa’s borders are closed to white English women.” [Slap.]

Mum: “So what does a flight to Cape Town cost?”
Me “Alleluia!”

So, off the top of my head, we’ve got Black Rat, who has moved from trader to journalist, jammy sod; Late Bland, who slid from coke to Cotes du Rhone; Jonny B, who moved from high powered to candle powered; and finally Jules, who seems to be about to become an ex-employee of somewhere, and is the best writer of the lot of us.

Then there’s me: clapped out in Cape Town. Still trying to work out how to do less and earn more. Or at least earn enough.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

One day we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny 

When you drive from home to somewhere new, it always seems to take ages. The anticipation of “it may be just around the next corner” stretches time so that the outward journey always seems much longer than the homeward one. I was thinking about this because I find myself at the moment being screwed around by a client on a proposal. Waiting on someone else to take a decision that will dictate the next 6 or 8 months of your working life is a painful process. We are in a continual state of maybe. Hurry up and wait. Any day now, they might sign. At that point, we will go from killing time to charging around like lunatics. It’s been any day now for weeks, and the indecision, the not knowing, is killing me. At the same time, we have another client who is desperately trying to tap dance out of the money he owes us, and when we tried to push our claims with him had the front to give us a whole “you’ll never work in this town again” speech. Trouble is, we will, and he knows it. Prat.

I find it very hard to do anything with the time. The stress of being on tenterhooks creates an inability – with me at any rate – to do anything constructive. The irritation with the situation, plus the stress of knowing that getting or not getting this project is critical to our future, takes up so much emotional energy that there is little capacity for anything else. Even blogging.

In the meantime, the company’s financial woes mean that I got paid 2 weeks late, and it looks like the same thing will happen this month. All this puts a strain on daily life, since I am overdrawn, with nothing left to pull out of my bond (mortgage). We moved to Cape Town so that we could live a low stress, high fun life, and now I find myself in deeper financial doo doo than I ever was in London. It’s all entirely of my own making, of course – if I had made some different decisions, latest of which was to over extend myself on the house, then things would be different.

What I need is a big advance, which will seem a lot cleverer if you know where the title came from.

Monday, October 11, 2004

On the beach 

The family went for a walk on Saturday: dogs, kids, and all. We went up to the dunes above Hout Bay. I had never been up there before, and it is beautiful. You climb a sandy slope from the car park, through some bushes, and then come out onto the top to find a lunar landscape unfolded before you. The dazzling sand sweeps away in great curves to the hillside, which was covered in purple flowers – whatever the South African equivalent of heather is. The dogs went mental and galloped around like puppies on speed, and the kids did their best to keep up. From there we walked over the ridge and down towards Sandy Bay.

Sandy Bay is Cape Town’s best known nudist beach, but it was too cold yesterday for anyone to be thinking about bearing their wobbly bits. Pom junior thought that nudism was a fine concept though, once I had explained it to him. I’ll have to bring him back for a frolic when the weather is warmer. The beach is more easily accessed by road from Llandudno, if you’re in the area. Llandudno, South Africa is a very expensive village between Hout Bay and Cape Town that clings to the side of the cliff above a long sandy beach. The beach is a haven for surfers and sun lovers, and the village has no shops at all, let alone one selling kiss me quick hats: just lots of very pricey houses with amazing sea views. A bit like Llandudno, North Wales really. The names of South African sea-side towns are great. Around the coast, I know of Llandudno, Clifton, and Margate. I haven’t come across Brighton or Blackpool yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I can think of three reasons why the British settlers gave the names of damp and grey British resorts to these sun drenched beach towns. They were either homesick, unimaginative, or had a very British sense of humour. Maybe all three.

Friday, October 08, 2004

It’s getting more and more absurd 

I was in the gym last night, sitting on a cycling thingy, listening to Paul Weller on the headphones while watching some cricket, when I noticed a Sky News headline on the next TV. The headline was something like: "Blair says Saddam was about to build WMDs".

Is it just me, or is this a bit "Minority Report"? Uncle Tone seems to be suggesting that Saddam was guilty of intent. I agree with sorting out Iraq, although not in the way it is being cocked up, and not for the reasons that are being peddled. I feel like sticking one on Blair's smug mug whenever I see him on TV. Does that make me guilty of GBH? I'd better steer clear of Westminster then.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Santa Claus is coming 

My wife, as I may have mentioned before, is an amazing woman. She has an incredible energy, which I sometimes find a bit scary, but is usually a force for good. She is also determined and dogged. This may be something to do with her Scottish ancestry. Her latest idea is a good example of what I am sometimes up against.

The boss has seen some pictures in a magazine of some Christmas lights. Now she loves Christmas – takes it upon herself to organise kids’ parties, decorations, celebrations, and the whole Christmas process for the entire extended family. This usually involves some poor sod sweating his arse off in a Santa suit in the middle of a Cape Town summer. (Footnote: South Africa has inherited the northern hemisphere Christmas trimmings of snowmen and robins even though December is summer down here. You thought fake snow looked weird in London…?) This year’s Christmas is showing signs of getting out of hand as usual, and my self-appointed role is to play Scrooge to try and tone down some of the wilder excesses.

Back to the Christmas lights. We are not talking here about fairy lights for the tree. Got those: indoor & outdoor varieties, flashing and non-flashing, white & coloured. Nope. We are talking illuminate your house, cause power shortages, divert aircraft to land in your back garden lights. Rudolf with a flashing nose, Santa parachuting down the chimney, ten foot neon Christmas trees. Take a look at these pictures, and you will see what I am afraid of. And she says the kids will love it. She’s probably right. It’s going to give me nightmares, though. Oh shit. Only a few weeks to talk her out of it too…

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Meet the new boss 

One of South Africa’s problems is that there is no viable opposition to the ruling party. The opposition parties are reactionary, with few coherent policies other than attacking whatever the ANC does, or picking on whatever the latest hot issue is. The other minor parties are grouped around specific demographic groups or narrow issues. This leaves the ANC in a position where it feels unassailable, and the only relevant national politics seems to be about the power struggles and jostling for position inside the party. The personal relationships and deals between members of the ANC have taken on a great significance, since the only place whence a challenge to the status quo will come is from inside the party walls.

One of Britain’s problems is that there is no viable opposition to the ruling party. The opposition parties are reactionary, with few coherent policies other than attacking whatever the Labour Party does, or picking on whatever the latest hot issue is. The other minor parties are grouped around specific demographic groups or narrow issues. This leaves the Labour Party in a position where it feels unassailable, and the only relevant national politics seems to be about the power struggles and jostling for position inside the party. The personal relationships and deals between members of the Labour Party have taken on a great significance, since the only place whence a challenge to the status quo will come is from inside the party walls.

Go figure.

Monday, October 04, 2004

The hardest word 

Yesterday I was taking the dogs for a walk when one of them was hit by a car. We live in an estate with private roads where dogs and kids supposedly have the right of way. The trouble is that a lot of the roads are steep, and it is very easy to pick up speed coming down a hill. They are also twisty, and there are a lot of corners where the view ahead is obscured by the (indigenous) shrubbery. The dogs are also a bit thick, and seem to view cars as some kind of threat to their doghood, so they chase them and bark at them unless I get their attention first.

To relieve the suspense, the dog is fine. It was a glancing blow, and she bounced off, and ran away. The car was going too fast, downhill and round a corner, but the dog ran out in front at the last moment so he would have had trouble avoiding her whatever speed he had been going. What really bugs me though is that the driver did not stop. He gestured at me with one hand, not the same gesture I subsequently made to his retreating bumper, but one of frustration: “why can’t you control your dogs?” This, and his refusal to stop and apologise, however culpable he thinks he was, is infuriating.

Once I had calmed down, and talked it through with my wife, who is less volatile and slower to anger than I for three and a half weeks a month, I started thinking about the driver’s reaction. Some people cannot apologise. Their reaction to a fault on their part is to project it onto whoever or whatever is closest and receptive. Thus this guy driving too fast and hitting my dog becomes entirely, instead of partly, the fault of the dog and me. If he had stopped and apologised, then I would have said sorry, he would have said sorry, we could move on.

For a certain type of personality, to apologise is to admit fallibility. If you allow responsibility for the error in your actions, then you snatch away the keystone of your psyche, and the whole protective edifice comes crashing down. This exposes the core that the whole structure was built to conceal: the man behind the curtain. You can’t reveal that person until you have got to know him, and that level of self awareness is too much for most. For most men, anyway. Most women don’t seem to have such a problem with owning up to who they are.

The same effect exists at a corporate and even at a national level. Some companies will admit their mistakes, say “yes, we screwed up, and here’s how we’re going to fix it”, while others deny all responsibility, not to mention liability. For all thinking, rational people who are honest with and about themselves, this is the only acceptable approach. The thing is, though, that all those modifiers whittle the number of people down to you, me and a couple of mates. That leaves the huddled masses, the men on the street, consumers – the electorate – to whom public figures and organisations are answerable. Since they don’t demand that honesty of themselves, it would be hypocritical to demand it of others. Hypocrisy isn’t a problem here, but there is only so far you can go down that road carrying any kind of conviction.

The ones that stand out, then – the honest ones – are the few. The tall poppies, with big expanses of weeds between them. Honesty is the exception, duplicity and deceit the norm. And that is how we got ourselves into these problems. So how do we solve them? People need some real perspective. The only thing that seems to provide that perspective is either an above average intelligence and self awareness, which by definition is rare, or an external shock. The type of external shock that seems to provide the required kick up the pants seems to be a national crisis. A big one. Enough to make a majority of people stop and think about what really matters. In the meantime, our society gets the society it deserves.

Next time, stop and apologise. You’ll be amazed what a difference it makes.

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