They boast that they have not believed in Santa since they were six. And they knew there wasn’t an Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy. But I know different. It was only when Second Born found a baby tooth accompanied by his note to TF, carefully stored in the safe, that his faith was finally shattered - and that was just last week. This year they presented me with letters addressed to Mrs. Claus containing a printout of an Amazon wish list. The Elves agreed we could manage an electric scooter each and have them shipped to Bim along with bits of furniture needed for the home. The goods duly arrived in Bridgetown early November. It is Christmas week and I am still waiting for the much-anticipated scooters to clear customs.
You see on this small rock, with currency exchange controls and high import duties on nearly everything, it ain’t over even after the last click confirming your credit card details. Assuming you have a credit card that allows you to pay in dollars or pounds, you then have to persuade your overpriced shippers that you are the client and that they should clear your goods. I have found to my cost telephone promises are not worth spit. I only got action when I sat quietly in their office and refused to leave until someone assumed responsibility for clearing the goods. Mr. Lee Parken promised to personally take on “my case”. Sure enough at 7pm, a week later, the very night before six houseguests descended, the flat pack furniture was offloaded onto our front porch. In the hours of screw-driver assembly that followed I did not notice the scooters were missing. By the time I did, dawn was breaking and it was Saturday. They don’t work weekends.
‘Oh yes they are still in Shed Three.’ said Mr. Lee Parken when I finally got him on his mobile. ‘I can’t get hold of the officer in charge to know why they aren’t releasing the scooters.’
Then he added ominously, ‘ I’ll get back to you.’
Another week of constant phone calls followed only to be told each time that the elusive officer could not be found within these twenty one by fourteen miles of coral. So I got his number and tried to deal with him directly. When we did talk I found that my alternative dispute resolution skills were no match for the mighty Customs and Excise. Indeed the negotiators in Copenhagen would have been more successful had they cut their teeth doing battle with the customs officers of Shed 3. And as in COP15 definitions were all important.
‘What yuh call dis ting? Ah scooter?’ asked Officer McBady
‘Yes. It’s a toy for my son.’ I replied.
‘Dis eh no toy. It have ah battery. Dis could go pon de road. Yuh cahn clear customs till yuh get a licence.’
‘It’s a toy. It can’t go more than five miles per hour.’
‘Man, dis battery have nuff power. I telling yuh dis could go pon de road.’ he repeated.
I sighed. ‘It can’t and he can’t. He is not using this except in our yard.’
‘Well it eh leaving here till it have ah licence.’
‘Okay. What kind of licence do you think I should get? A bicycle licence?’
‘No ah vehicle licence. And yuh go have to pay de 100% duty plus environmental fee, plus licencing fee, plus road tax plus handling and storage.’
‘It’s a toy!’ I yelled.
Then I remembered who was wearing the trousers.
‘Please would you mind reading the instructions on the box?’ I pleaded. ‘It is for children up to twelve years old.’
‘Doh tell me is some kinda ting to play wid.’’ he shot back. ‘I looking at de ting right now and dis eh no toy. I doh have to read nutting to know what dis is. It go have to get ah road licence or it staying just here.’
And sadly he is right. The rules provide an unbeatable combination of broad discretion coupled with a lack of transparency. I might have been a lawyer once but he is The Law. There is absolutely nothing I can do except cough up. So, although furious, I have agreed to pay. It cost enough to get the evil things here and it is Christmas and the boys will be disappointed if Claus does not come through for them. But that was not quite the pound of flesh the officer had in mind. He now insists I must wait for a mythical creature known only as, The Chief Inspector, to approve the clearance and sign off. This creature was of course last sighted about the same time as the Hobbits began exploring Middle-Earth.
We are T minus three days and I have as much chance of getting those scooters as Tiger has of a cozy Christmas with the wifey. So, if you have a couple electric scooters going spare ‘tis the season to be generous and call me.
A worthy winner: Simon Johnson, Professor at MIT, Peterson Institute fellow and former IMF chief economist
Public intellectuals and the financial crisis
16th December 2009 —
Who has contributed best to the "public conversation" during these turbulent times? Prospect names the top 25 brains of the financial crisis
The financial crisis has destroyed both wealth and received wisdom. The idea that prices are always right and markets self-correct is fatally challenged. Even Alan Greenspan admits that the “whole intellectual edifice” of the efficient market hypothesis collapsed in the summer of 2008. The financial establishment is in a state of deep confusion. As the FT’s Gillian Tett put it in September’s Prospect: it is like “a priest who has lost faith in the Bible, but still has to go to church.” But this is not a bad thing, for it has opened up new ways of thinking about markets, institutions and the all-important cause of financial reform.
Unfamiliar voices have come to prominence, aided by a new wave of financial bloggers eager to push fresh ideas. But who has made the most impact? Prospect assembled a panel of experts to draw up a list of leading “public intellectuals” of the financial crisis in 2009 and then decide on the most important. Our criteria were simple. Anyone who had made an impact on policy with their ideas, or who had changed the “public conversation” was a candidate.
The panel sifted hundreds of names, with an unavoidable bias towards Britain and the US, but felt the most important contributions had been in financial reform—those trying to work out what to do next. The crisis has laid a staggering financial burden on the world, with some $14 trillion propping up US and EU banks. We cannot afford another one. Moreover, we urgently need a new regulatory philosophy. Are liquid markets always good? Is complexity in financial services harmful? Can finance firms stop “herding,” creating wild booms and busts?
The role of the banks themselves is also being rethought. They have mushroomed in size without doing a better job—Royal Bank of Scotland’s balance sheet grew 20-fold in the decade from 1998. Some banks have become too big to fail and hence dangerous. Should we return to the strict division between commercial and investment banking, as proposed by Paul Volcker and Mervyn King? And how can we now rein in this super-sized financial system with its powerful lobby? Many of the surviving megabanks have pressured governments for a return to the status quo ante. They want their old economy back, with the implicit warning that if they don’t get it there will be no recovery—and politicians will be blamed.
We considered all of this, and gradually whittled the names down to a shortlist of just 25 (see facing page), and then a top three. In reverse order, the bronze medal went to Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, who bravely questioned the social usefulness of some financial activity, and called for regulators to force banks to hold more capital against risky trades, cutting their profitability. Next, silver went to Avinash Persaud, a respected analyst who spotted nine years ago the dangerous interaction between firms “herding” and new risk management techniques. During 2009 he has been arguing for new “macro-prudential” regulation to stop what he discovered a decade ago.
But there was a clear winner. He is Simon Johnson, an economist at the prestigious Peterson Institute in Washington, DC, who has been leading the argument against overmighty banking. His ideas are well grounded in theory, but he has also done more than any academic to popularise his case: writing articles, a must-read blog, and appearing tirelessly on television. As the FT’s Martin Wolf told Prospect: “Johnson’s significance is that he is a member of the establishment—a former IMF chief economist, no less—who has emphasised the capture of the state by big finance, for the latter’s own ends. An expert on crises in emerging countries and in transition from communism, he has called what he has seen: crony capitalism at the heart of the financial system.” In particular Johnson’s essay “The Quiet Coup,” in the Atlantic of May 2009, is one of the great polemical essays of the crisis. Far from skulking in an ivory tower, he has urged citizens to the streets.
We need an informed debate about making finance safer. Johnson, Persaud and Turner led that debate in 2009.
PROSPECT’S TOP 25 BRAINS OF THE CRISIS
1. Simon Johnson Professor at MIT, Peterson Institute fellow, former IMF chief economist, blogger, troublemaker and scourge of once-mighty banks—a worthy winner in 2009.
2. Avinash Persaud, Financial liquidity analyst, adviser to governments around the world, the man who has studied “herd” behaviour in finance, and now the man trying to stop it.
3. Adair Turner An unusually bold regulator, Turner made headlines worldwide slamming “socially useless” finance (in Prospect) and suggesting a Tobin tax to put sand in the wheels of global finance.
Ben Bernanke Cerebral Federal Reserve chairman, seen by many as saviour of the US economy while congress dithered.
Andrew Haldane Bank of England director who warned of a “doom loop” of perpetual banking bailouts.
Philip Hildebrand Swiss banker who boldly pushed cutting his country’s banks to size.
John Kay Well-regarded British economist who wants a return to simple banking.
Mervyn King Bank of England boss, initially wrong-footed by the crisis, but had a better, more aggressive 2009.
Richard Koo Insider adviser to politicians and banks, an expert on the lessons from Japan, and deficit dove-in-chief.
Paul Krugman Celebrated economist and author of a must-read New York Times essay on the failures of economics.
Christine Lagarde French minister of economic affairs who got just the right mix of stick and carrot for French banks.
donald mackenzie Edinburgh professor, author of many sharp LRB essays unpicking the anthropology of finance.
Lucy Prebble 28-year-old British author of Enron, the best play yet on irrational exuberance.
Nouriel Roubini Legendarily gloomy, normally correct finance analyst whose blogs alone can move markets.
Brad Setser Young policy wonk, co-blogger with Simon Johnson and author of Bailouts or Bail-ins? with Roubini.
Robert Shiller Credit-crunch US sage and behavioural economics pioneer.
Jon Stewart Brainy American satirist whose Daily Show has made finance a laughing stock.
Joseph Stiglitz Nobel laureate, chair of UN commission on financial reform and harsh critic of finance-as-usual.
Matt Taibbi US journalist, wrote a celebrated scathing attack on Goldman Sachs.
Paul Volcker Ex-Fed chair, pushing for splitting up investment and savings banks.
Elizabeth Warren Harvard professor, consumer rights watchdog, leads the panel watching over Obama’s bailout money.
Martin Wolf FT writer and the Anglosphere’s most influential finance journalist.
Paul Woolley Innovative LSE thinker on “capital market dysfunctionality.”
Yu Yongding Influential economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Zhou Xiaochuan Bank of China head, architect of China’s response to the crisis.
Thanks to those who helped us pick a list or select winners, including: Rudi Bogni, Diane Coyle, Will Davies, Meghnad Desai, John Eatwell, Christopher Hird, Will Hutton, Faisal Islam, Stephanie Flanders, George Magnus, Jasper McMahon, Felix Salmon, Richard Sennett, Rohan Silva, Laura Tyson, Isabel Hilton and Graham Turne
Christmas is partly defined by music. For years it meant an annual pilgrimage to listen to the Tallis Scholars and then Handel’s Messiah at St. John’s Church in Smith Square, London. In keeping with new traditions on this small rock we heralded the holiday season last weekend with Carols By Candlelight on the grounds of the Prime Minister’s official residence, Illaro Court. This year’s concert featured top musicians like the jazz artiste André Woodvine and several very talented young people including about a hundred kids from the Mustard Seed drama club. But the music and dance were merely nice background scenery for a carefully planned picnic with friends. And as darkness descended the park was transformed into a place of pure magic lit by a sea of candlelight. When you are sitting on the grass on a warm night in mid December, with candles and stars to light your way, it is obvious this is paradise.
This holiday season we are also lucky to have live music at home. Our two budding guitarists have been serenading us with precisely three-quarters of Silent Night. Several times. Every day. I am hoping that both St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, and their tutor, the extremely patient Paco, will take pity on us and teach them the last bit before the Christmas break so that we may all finally take the song to its logical conclusion and Sleep in Heavenly Peace, Sleep in Heavenly Peace.
This rock is however anything but silent as businesses gear up for the season. There is little sign of the restraint and fear that characterized last Christmas. The day I collected visiting relatives there were seven full flights from the UK at Grantley Adams International. Add to that visitors from Canada and the USA and you can see why it feels like the population has doubled almost overnight. And the shops are heaving. All my presents were bought to the song track of click, click, click. But there is always one forgotten person who I will have to find a gift for at 3pm on Christmas Eve. Can’t remember who that is but I’m sure all will be revealed at the appointed hour.
I have actually, by instruction, opened one of my presents already – a gift from our helper who knows my fondness for kitsch. This treasure is a Santa beyond anything I could have hoped for. Once fed three AA batteries, the ten-inch plastic doll does some pelvis thrusting that in real life would get him arrested for disturbing the peace while belting out a Katrina and The Waves song,
Now I don't want u back for the weekend,
Not back for a day,
No, No, No,
I said baby I just want you back,
And I want you to stay.
Put it this way: I have already had to replace the batteries as no one can resist this totally ridiculous object. The national health service should distribute them to anyone in need of a bit of laughter therapy. And clearly I am not alone in loving Fat Boy Red because when I went to the little Chinese shop on Swan Street that Diane had found him, his clones were all sold out.
While my Fat Boy Red and the Christmas tree are our household’s most prominent signs of the season, First and Second Born are increasingly curious about the true meaning of Christmas. At nine and a third years they have no trouble with the cultural precedents of gift giving, or more precisely, gift receiving. They appreciate the atmosphere of plenty with special food and decorations in the house as well as the numerous party invitations. But they are puzzled by our insistence that they participate in the religious activities of their Anglican school.
‘I still don’t want to go to the Carol Service.’ said First Born.
‘Everyone will be there. You have to go because you are a member of that community.’I replied.
‘No. It’s a Christian thing and I’m not Christian.’
‘Mom, what am I again? A humanist?’
It had been a long day and I did not want to rehearse the whole Dwarkins God Delusion arguments but he was unyielding.
‘So basically we don’t believe in a God up in heaven?’
‘So why do I have to sing all those songs and say all those prayers to God?’
‘Because that is part of your education and it is good to understand all religions so later on you can decide if you still want to be a humanist.’
‘I’m fine with being a humanist mom. Really. And I don’t want to do any of that church stuff.’
‘You will go to church services with your classmates. No more discussion please.’
‘I don’t have to go if you send a note to my teacher.’
‘I’m not sending a note son.’
‘But you don’t go to church.’
‘I’m bigger than you and I don’t need a note from my mother.’
‘Grandma goes to church.’
‘Look I don’t need a note to get out of church. I stopped asking my mom for one when I hit forty.’
We settled into silence for about thirty seconds while I tried to find the page of a novel I was longing to continue reading.
‘But I am still getting an electric scooter for Christmas? Okay lovely mama?
‘Only if you are a very good, humanist boy and tidy your room.’
Don’t you just love Christmas?
I am stitched up.
I have been stitching from early morning to late night in the studio, BBC radio 4 my only companion. Three weeks it’s been like this. Sequestered with jewel-coloured threads, acres of cotton material, and photos from fifty-eight people who responded to a call to collaborate. I have stitched so intently and fiercely that the metacarpals of the ring finger on my left hand look strangely deformed.
‘How you manage to mash up yuh ring finger?’ asked E. ‘People doh use dat finger sewing.’
‘Have you seen my demented sewing? I countered.
He shook his head.
And there is no opportunity for him to now witness the crazed, compulsive needlework because it’s all over. C’est fini. It’s been a long haul. I have taken the offerings from my virtual community and transferred these digital images onto cotton – itself a tedious, involved process - then blanket-stitched these cloth photos to larger cotton squares. The large squares were then joined, bits and a border added for effect, and the whole sodding thing quilt-stitched to form what passes for a king-sized blanket. And it is a blanket for while it borrows elements from quilting it does not adhere to the rules of that craft.
The exhaustion from repetitive cutting and stitching is satisfying honest labour but at the same time I can’t wait to be rid of the blanket. The work is done and needs to find its own space. But stored somewhere in my hands is a lingering memory of hours and days and weeks of quiet meditation about the people who sent the photos, the images themselves and the shifting meanings of our individual and collective humanity in both real and cyber spaces. Benny has a thriving law practice in London. His picture was taken in the kitchen where once a week he helps cook and feed the homeless. Richard was boarding a BA flight. Indu in Trinidad watched over her sleeping baby boy. On Long Island George showed off his skill with a rip stick. Daniel is in Ghana. I have no idea when we’ll see each other again.
Square, by cotton square, the virtual offerings from places as far as Iceland, and as near as Bridgetown, became an object of physical comfort to a woman hunched over in her studio pulling needle and thread. And when the last stitch was stitched, and it was accepted that that was the last time my needle would push thread through three layers of cloth in an effort to bind them together, when I was completely sure, I did the only thing left to do. I striped off and wrapped the soft, warm fabric around my body.
After a few quiet moments of reflection it sunk in. I threw the freaking thing on the floor, checked on the internet that it was 11am somewhere in the world, and although most Bajans were having breakfast, I cracked open a celebratory bottle of the good plonk usually reserved for high days and holidays. Thank you London for being conveniently four hours ahead of this small rock. If you happen to be in Bim the real blanket is at the Morningside Gallery as part of a group show on collaboration that opens on 5 December. The virtual one is yours to keep. Or not.
I wanted to do a performance work by sleeping under the blanket in the gallery space for the opening. Second Born intervened.
‘You can’t sleep in the gallery, mama.’
‘I can if I think it will be a strong performance that will add another dimension to the blanket.’ I replied.
He looked at me intently with a pained expression.
‘That’s just weird.’ he whined. ‘People will think you’re a homeless person.’
‘No they won’t.’ I retorted.
‘Yes they will.’ he shot back.
‘Well it’s my art and I can if I want to.’ I said and folded my arms to signal I was The Boss.
‘You can’t have any food at the opening then ‘cause you’ll be in bed and you said we can’t eat in bed.’
He had a point. While everyone was gaining a happier perspective on life with the aid of a little free rum and hot fish cakes I would be stuck under the blanket on a make shift bed trying desperately to have a nap. But that now had to be weighed against the perverse pleasure of knowing you are a proper embarrassment to your kids.
‘Well I guess people can imagine sleeping under the blanket.’ I conceded. ‘It’ll be on the floor anyway.’
Second Born’s little face exuded pure relief through every pore.
‘Yeah, mom. That’s so much better.’
He walked off satisfied at having saved his family from public humiliation. Wait till he finds out about my next work that requires tea and a naked woman by the sea.