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Passport to Partick

2014 September 15
by Passer over Perilous Ways

The Scottish Independence debate causes me to revisit a favourite old film.

A Thistle

Ah, digital downloads, bedrock of the “I want it now generation.” Gone are the days when, reminded of an old favourite, I have to wait for it to appear on TV, rummage through the bomb-site of my rainy-day VHS collection or venture out in the rain to the high street or my local rental shop (ah, remember those?). Now I can impulse buy in a second and impulse watch in a few seconds more.

Well, I can if what I want is actually on iTunes of course (rare!). And if my neighbours aren’t hogging the local bandwidth with Strictly Come Dancing (rarer!). Otherwise I’m kinda screwed.

This Saturday’s impulse buy came in the form of the 1949 British classic from the venerable Ealing Studios, Passport to Pimlico.

The motivation for it? This weekend’s Scottish independence debate on Radio 4‘s Any Questions.


Passport to Pimlico

Unlike most of my favourite Ealing comedies this one unusually doesn’t feature the malleable Alec Guinness in at least one role. This time it’s the redoubtable Stanley Holloway in the lead, ably supported by an array of names-yet-to-be (perhaps most noticeably a young Charles Hawtrey).

Passport to PimlicoOh, and of course, Margaret Rutherford.

It’s post-war London; rationing is still in force and times are hard. The good burghers of Pimlico are awaiting the detonation of a wartime bomb. When it happens they’re joyous to discover a horde of buried treasure and surprised also to find a charter that makes Pimlico technically part of Burgundy and no longer part of Britain. They’re even more joyous when they realise their early break into the European Union frees them from such British impedimenta as those ration books (not to mention the alcohol licensing laws).

Joy soon turns to pain as a horde of crooks and ruffians descend on Pimlico to take advantage of its tax and law free status too. The British Government (dare I say, the evil “Westminster Elite”?), through a combination of diplomacy and dithering, escalate the standoff to the point where the “poor Burgundians” are starved of the security, water, food and electricity they’d all rather taken for granted.

As with all Ealing’s finest this story has a happy ending, with the people of Pimlico cheerily re-united with the rest of the UK and still managing to keep their treasure.



Passport to Partick?

It’s not the notion of Scottish independence that sent my mind spiralling back to this gentle comedy classic from my childhood. Rather, it’s the Scottish independence campaign that brought it to mind.

The much mentioned televised debates between Alex Salmond, titular head of the secessionists and wannabe first Sultan of an independent Scotland, and Alastair Darling, a former British government minister leading the Unionist campaign, were widely considered a one-all draw by the popular media. Darling got the upper hand in the first while Salmond bounced back in the second.

That the rambunctious Salmond was bested just once by a Dalek in a suit seems to be a cause for thought if not some concern
To the fair-play Brits a one-all draw is of course terribly sporting but this had my Spidey-sense tingling. Alex Salmond is an earnest, impassioned, down-to-earth public speaker whereas Alastair Darling wouldn’t be at all out-of-place as a funeral mourner. That the rambunctious Salmond was bested just once by a Dalek in a suit seems to be a cause for thought if not some concern.

And I think I see why.

In that Any Questions debate a pro-independence panellist remarked that not one of the nations that has achieved independence in the last hundred years would want to go back. Whilst many of those cases aren’t direct parallels this seems a fair, historical point. But the birth and early life of those independent nations was far from an easy journey and hardships were endured for several years while they found their feet. It seems self-evident that the early days of an independent Scotland would see such hardships; some UK businesses will be forced to keep themselves and at least some jobs in the UK, some workers’ tax revenues and company tax revenues will drain out of Scotland’s economy, new trade alliances will need to be forged around the world and confidence won around the world. Yet the independence campaign seem to suggest those warning of this are being negative, dismissive, or even worse plain lying from being in the sway of that sinister “Westminster Elite”.

And then there’s the open-sore and done-to-death subject of the currency. When the Baltic states achieved independence from Russia did they fight to keep the Rouble? It was arguably their Rouble as much as Russia’s after all. No, they wanted their own currency and recent economic history has plenty of good examples to show why they were wise so to do. The Euro, which has no fiscal union underpinning it (though it has a limited proxy via block grants), has painful stories to cover both extremes. Ireland overheated in the early noughties whilst Greece chronically underperformed and both, many years after the credit crunch, are still some way from being back on their feet. Compare them to tiny Iceland which suffered a short, sharp shock but seems to be recovering rather better. Amazing what your own central bank, monetary policy and currency can do isn’t it?

That same Any Questions panellist protested that Ireland was “allowed to keep the pound” on independence. Again this is a fair historical fact but in this instance far more historical than fair. The world’s economy has changed a bit in the nigh hundred years since the Irish Free State left the United Kingdom and even then they only held on to Sterling for a few short years. Our understanding of world economics has moved on a fair bit in that time too. Yet once more it seems the independence campaign, a campaign who’s titular head is a trained economist mark you, just accuse anyone suggesting they can’t or shouldn’t keep Sterling – even such independent professionals as the head of the Bank of England – as politicking, posturing or again in the sway of that oh-so-sinister Westminster Elite.


Passport to prosperity

An independent Scotland can surely work and can surely flourish. Smaller nations with less going for them have pulled it off after all, Scotland doubtless can.

In fact, Scotland is perhaps at a unique point in its history to be able pull it off as painlessly as possible. Like the good burghers of Pimlico after all it has treasure under the ground, treasure that won’t last forever but treasure which nonetheless can bankroll it through those tricky early days whilst it finds its feet.

I’m an Englishman born and bred, but an Englishman with more ties to Scotland than many. I’ve worked in Scotland for about half of the last ten years and I keep my boat up there. It’s a great country with great people and I would seriously consider moving there permanently. As a man self-employed for most of my career the notion of going it alone and doing better for oneself is deeply entrenched in my nature too. Yet, if I were a Scot I’d be voting no in this referendum. That’s not because I have the slightest problem with the notion of Scottish independence, but because I can drive busses through the holes in what the Scottish independence campaign seem to be putting out.

Tragically, it seems to me, holes that simply don’t need to be there.

Which begs the question, why are they there?


Passport to politics

Whichever way the vote goes two things will stick with me long after this process is consigned to the history books. The first is how bloody long it’s taken – South Sudan managed to pull off an independence referendum in well under two and a half years so why the hell couldn’t we? The second is just how badly politics can contaminate, derail and destroy what should be a sober and informed debate. Both sides are equally guilty of this but I feel the independence campaign are the ones with the most to lose from it.

You can present the truth in a positive way and people will feel respected for hearing it, empowered for knowing it and trust you for saying it
Take the currency issue. What’s wrong with saying to the Scottish people that they’re going to get a Scottish pound and a Scottish central bank and Scottish monetary policy that’s right for the security and prosperity of a strong Scotland, that people can still trade in Sterling, that the central bank will endeavour to peg the Scottish pound to Sterling, but that a Scottish currency will put the people of Scotland in full control of their own destiny? It provides far less ammunition to the unionist campaign, it’s far more credible, and surely a better sell to the people of Scotland than saying that Sterling is ours as much as theirs and that the five million of us will have it whether the fifty-five million of them like it or not?

Take the jobs issue. What’s wrong with being frank with people that there will be challenges in the early years but we’ve got a once in our history opportunity to bankroll our way through, that some jobs may be lost but that they’ll be replaced, replaced with new jobs for a new Scotland, a better Scotland, blah, blah, blah?

You get my point I hope. You can present the truth in a positive way and people will feel respected for hearing it, empowered for knowing it and trust you for saying it. Instead the naysayers are tiresomely accused of lying, posturing, and being blackmailed by the Bond-villain Westminster Elite. Not to mention being threatened with a Godfather-esque Day of Reckoning when the revolution comes.

I’m left with the impression of independence modelled on a moody teenager – I hate you Mum and Dad, I’m not going to live here any more but I expect you to keep my stuff and still let me use the car
I’m left with the impression of independence modelled on a moody teenager – I hate you Mum and Dad, I’m not going to live here any more but I expect you to keep my stuff and still let me use the car. I smell politics and I feel that the independence campaign are relying on sugared words and snow-jobs to get a yes vote at any cost rather than present a reality they’re well aware of and have good plans in place for. But I don’t know it, I couldn’t be confident in it, and could not therefore put my future in their hands.

Perhaps the SNP will pull it off in spite of themselves. But if they don’t it won’t be the independence cause that will have failed but the independence campaign that will have failed it.


What next for Malaysia Airlines?

2014 August 7
by Passer over Perilous Ways

To lose one plane is an accident,
to lose two …

Malaysia airlines logoAn old joke runs something like this. A man, down on his luck, drives up to a cliff edge and says he’s going to drive right over it. All the people there take pity on him and have a collection to get him back on his feet. “Who where those people?” someone asks. “The passengers on his bus” comes the reply.

Given the popular suicidal pilot theory for the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in March this year, one presumes this driver didn’t share his problems with his passengers first.


Red and Blue

Another tired old joke is the one about the struggling flag-carrier airline; loss-making year-on-year and only surviving through being propped up by the state. Malaysia Airlines comfortably fit this mould before the unfortunate and tragic disappearance of MH370 in March and the shooting down of MH17 in July. Stories of imminent bankruptcy tend to surround these struggling airlines like flies surround a pile of poo and they have risen in recent months in inverse proportion to this carrier’s appalling bad luck.

Airline passengers are a surprisingly forgiving (i.e. forgetful and penny-pinching) bunch though. All airlines have passenger-impacting problems from time-to-time – accidents, strikes and mechanical issues – that leave thousands of incensed people screaming they’ll never fly with them again. A few months go by, a few cheap deals are offered, a few competitor airlines piss off their clientele too, and things generally return to normal. Following MH317 in March, the airline’s reported load factor by June  was down by only around 7% on a year earlier.

Airline passengers are a surprisingly forgiving (i.e. forgetful and penny-pinching) bunch
Airlines can unquestionably survive these sorts of problems relatively unscathed and the bankruptcy reports circulating them often smack of “invented news”.

But is this the case with Malaysia Airlines at the moment? Though reports indicate it has plenty of cash to keep it going for the next year something could well be afoot in this case. The airline has not made many official announcements about it’s penurious situation but it did respond to press reports of a potential privatisation in early July with “…such a decision is in the hands of MAS major shareholder and the Government of Malaysia”

Something could well be afoot.

But what?


Red and Black

The media seems to like the “taking it private” story and since, only three weeks after the shooting down of MH17, the airline’s share price has already recovered to its post MH370 levels it suggests the market likes it too (or even perhaps knows something it shouldn’t)

And the story does have much to recommend it. Bankruptcy of a flag-carrier is embarrassing and potentially disruptive, and Malaysia is not constrained by the sort of state support rules that perhaps precipitated the demise of Sabena and Swissair, and which seem largely to be ignored in the ongoing survival of Alitalia.

The airline is also nearly 70% owned by Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund and, trading at around its net asset value, bankruptcy wouldn’t appear to offer much financial benefit –  especially if the government is going to end up intervening to save it anyway.

But there’s more than one way a government can intervene and more than one way to cut its losses. I wonder if the privatisation-bulls may be a touch too sanguine.


Black and white

It does appear that the fate of Malaysia Airlines largely rests with the government, but governments don’t have a great track record of running profitable airlines. Malaysia’s choice is between buying the remaining 30% of the airline and potentially bankrolling its ongoing losses, or taking an up-front loss on the 70% they do own.

Many national airlines have entered bankruptcy only to emerge leaner, fitter and stronger. Take the aforementioned Sabena for example, now flying as Brussels Airlines and 45% owned by Germany’s Lufthansa, or the aforementioned Swissair, now rebranded Swiss and 100% owned by Germany’s Lufthansa.

Hmmm, there’s a pattern here.


Black and blue

Many years ago I was working for a small IT startup which went titsup and called in the receivers. Within a day a buyer had been agreed for its assets; a buyer who intended to re-launch the service itself. By any measure this was suspiciously quick work on the part of the administrators and suspiciously quick planning on the part of the buyers. And there was very little that loss-making creditors (like myself) could do about it.

If a buyer has been found before bankruptcy happens then embarrassment and disruption aren’t problems at all
Given the odds against a government making a profit by taking a national carrier private, I can’t help thinking Malaysia’s might prefer an up-front loss whilst securing new ownership for its flag carrier. And since recent reports suggest the airline has a year’s worth of cash and equivalents to keep it going, the government has time to pull that off. Bankruptcy need only be embarrassing and disruptive for the period between a company declaring it and a fire-sale buyer being found; if a buyer has been found before bankruptcy happens then embarrassment and disruption aren’t problems at all.

A bankruptcy filing followed by an, er, impressively quick announcement of another airline – a gulf carrier such as Etihad or Emirates for example – buying the assets (on the cheap compared to buying it as a going concern) with a commitment to keep the brand alive and the staff on the payroll sounds like a rather more sensible approach to me. The Malaysian government saves its airline, saves the jobs, relieves itself of the burden of trying to make it profitable and minimises the losses to its sovereign wealth fund.

Everyone’s a winner (well, except perhaps for the other 30% shareholders)

But then common sense and national airlines don’t often go hand-in-hand. There’s a reason for old jokes and most probably Malaysia’s sovereign wealth will soon be the lucky 100% owner of a loss-making airline after all.


Can finish, won’t finish

2014 July 7
by Passer over Perilous Ways

A not-so-wet dream has me pondering both the predictive power of our sleep-time show-time,
And the waning power of my libido

A limp weinerWet dreams are of course most readily associated with the hormonal holocaust of adolescence. When a fortysomething like myself wakes up in a damp patch it’s far more likely to be an early visit from the incontinence fairy. But, though they are something of a rarity for me in these days of my dotage, I will admit to still waking up from time-to-time to find that I’ve shot my load in my shorts.

The trigger is always the same; a dream in which I’m having sex which suddenly feels partly real, in which the mental division between pure fantasy and physical sensation short-circuits and pretty quickly jolts me awake. Not always though, quickly enough.

Wet-dreams are rare enough to have just some novelty value for me now and I’ve been round the block far too many times to be embarrassed by them. They’re somewhat “as-per”.

Only I recently had one which was not “as-per.” A wet-dream in every single respect bar one, a sexual dream which suddenly seemed real and jolted me awake, only it wasn’t a wet dream but a dry one.

I didn’t come in reality because I couldn’t come in my dream.


Can come

I’ve never had this problem in real life (no, honest!) I get sex far too rarely to be in any way jaded by it and I’m a long, long way from pestering my quack for some Viagra or one of its bathtub variants. Hell, I’m still working on stopping myself from finishing too soon, let alone not being able to finish at all.

Which makes me wonder where this dream came from (no pun intended). Our dreams are a by-product of how our brains work; using its night-time down-time to take stuff from its inefficient short-term memory and mapping it into its long-term memory. It’s a process where our mind hunts for patterns, rules and relationships between our entire life’s experiences and the events, preoccupations and worries of our immediate experiences. It throws up some bizarre images, but when you look into the few you might be able to hang onto the following day you can usually find some logic and sense to them if you dig deep enough.

So, as a man not especially preoccupied with my aging, not suffering from an obviously waning libido, who’s only problems with sex are getting it and keeping it going long enough to have a chance of getting more of it, and who hasn’t had any recent conversations with friends about sexual inadequacy or read about it or seen films or TV shows relating to it, I am at something of a loss to explain why I would be dreaming about humping a hot eighteen year old for two straight hours and tapping the mat only when she’d fallen asleep and wouldn’t know that I didn’t get off.

Where the hell did this come from?

Unfortunately I can only find one credible explanation.

And it isn’t a comforting one.


Won’t come

More romantically disposed people than myself (i.e. idiots) may believe in a certain mysticism surrounding dreams; that they can predict the future or that they hold messages for us from beyond this world. To a realist like me this is total horseshit. Dreams are a by-product of our experiences, both near and far. They may reflect back to us aspects of our reality that we’re consciously ignorant of, and in this regard they can surely have some value, but they are firmly rooted in who we are as a person and where we’ve been as a person.

My dreams became sexualised before I consciously became sexualised myself
But this glib little summing up isn’t entirely accurate. Our dreams can sometimes be ahead of the curve too.

I hit puberty in the eighties, well before the sex-everywhere days of near-pornographic music videos and easily accessible Internet smut that we live in now. When I hit puberty, I was totally and utterly naïve; my knowledge limited to a single sex education lesson at high school that I didn’t remotely understand.

Yet, before I detected puberty happening to me and well before any experiences sprung from it to fuel my dreams, I was nonetheless having sexualised dreams. I didn’t understand why I was suddenly obsessed with girls and fantasising about seemingly bizarre situations with them, yet I was. My dreams became sexualised before I consciously became sexualised myself.


Don’t come

So it would seem then that our dreams do reflect more than just our experiences; they reflect our nature and our instincts too, even before we’ve acquired any experiences from following those instincts. Dreams can’t predict the future in the crystal ball sense of that phrase but they can act as harbingers of the future by reflecting changes in the natural life-phase we are in, even if we don’t yet know we’re in it.

Our dreams do reflect more than just our experiences; they reflect our nature and our instincts too
As an adolescent I dreamt about girls far before I had any real understanding of why and far before I had any material for such dreams. As a middle-aged man I find myself dreaming about a waning sex drive far before I have any material for such dreams too. Could it be the same thing?

If so, if this is a case of a dream that is ahead of the curve, I hope it’s a long, long way ahead of it!