The bloody-minded Brits

So THAT’s why we did it!

I love the frightfully British Financial Times Weekend edition in all its pink businessy glory. (No, I’m not getting paid to write this, although I wouldn’t say no to a weekly column.)

Speaking as a chronically strapped-for-cash writer of historical novels, who knows very little about finance, business or economics, the FT is my window on a strange exotic world full of corporations, hedge funds and commodities. It’s a world where meta-money and financial derivatives not only exist but seem to have offspring, a world with completely different customs and rules to the one I inhabit. Also it’s a world full of extremely rich people who wear jeans and give to charity. In the fabulously aspirational (and funny) “How to Spend It” magazine, there are 5000 quid Patek Philippe watches and 100 quid dustbins.

But that’s not why I buy it. That’s an eye-opening bonus. No, I buy it – in physical copy – for the Opinion pages and for the Life & Arts section which I think contains simply the best arts coverage anywhere.

Bloody-minded

What brought on this fangirl effusion? This weekend (4-5 August 2018) was particularly noteworthy for outgoing leader writer Robert Armstrong’s article “How I cracked the code of the British,” which finally made sense of the entire Brexit mess for me.

Actually, how could I have been so stupid and slow? Robert Armstrong has a clearer view of Brits because he’s an American – but I’ve been saying for years that the British are a spectacularly bloody-minded bunch, always up for a brawl and generally boozed up as well. Not the cold, polite, deferential, cricket-playing bastards of our national legend – first acquired in Victorian times and successfully sold all over the world to this day.

Nope. As Armstrong says, the Brits are a pain in the arse, with a continual subversive itch to deflate authority by telling fart jokes and occasionally throwing things. We like rioting so much, sometimes we riot for the pure fun of it.

In other words we are bloody-minded – a slightly old-fashioned quintessentially British phrase which means more “contrary, stubborn and explosive” than actually steeped in blood. I’m not sure why Armstrong didn’t use it although “pains in the arse” also fits quite well.

Foreign

I say “we” but in fact I’m half-Hungarian and have always felt a little foreign, a little more objective about the strangeness of the Brits. Hungary, where I now live, is obsessed by them and during the summer of 2016 the Magyar media ran many stories about Brexit in tones of wonder, horror and fascination.

When you think about it, how else could such a tiny country, with possibly the worst weather in the world, have acquired not one, but two empires, although they lost the first to their even more bloody-minded progeny, the Americans.

Also it’s no coincidence that the second try was mainly in places warm and sunny. As a nation, we go a bit mental whenever we find any sun strong enough to turn us lobster-coloured. I put it down to a chronic shortage of Vitamin D because we no longer eat enough fish.

Brexit and Cameron

So I think Armstrong is bang on the nail when he attributes the Brexit vote to so many Brits wanting to give Lord Snooty Cameron a good kicking, in a referendum they didn’t think was important. And, of course, it wouldn’t have been important if Cameron had possessed even a smidgeon of common sense and made a Leave vote require a supermajority. Why he didn’t is one of those eternal mysteries, like why all the defences of Singapore in World War II pointed out to sea, with nothing pointing inland into the jungle – because of course no one could possibly get an army through all those trees. Until the Japanese did, on bicycles, with the help of their own particular brand of bloody-mindedness. Let’s hope Brexit isn’t quite as disastrous.

Hope

Armstrong’s last paragraph also gives me hope as I look at the difficulty of the task of disentangling Britain from Europe, the current mess and the total incompetence of the twerps and nutters in charge of achieving it.

“Is Brexit then, a return to genuine Britishness, to be celebrated on cultural grounds, if not economic ones?” he asks. “Certainly I admire the uppity side of the national character. It is an important part of my cultural inheritance as an American… If choosing Brexit ultimately gives the UK cause for regret, the fact that the choice was characteristically British will not make that regret less painful.”

However he sees a potential solution and I think he’s absolutely right.

“All that has to happen is for someone sufficiently powerful to come along and tell the British that they can’t change their minds.”

Simple! Come on Trump… Merkel… Macron… I dare you!

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The Platinum Rule

I love the Financial Times Weekend edition – it\’s almost Celeb-free, it has excellent arts coverage and it has Tyler Brule\’s column.
Admittedly, for a long time I assumed that the magnificently spoilt, arrogant and picky Tyler was one of those amusingly exaggerated fictional characters that clever old satirists invent.
Then I discovered that there actually is a style magazine called Monocle and that Tyler Brule is, presumably, real. Or realish. I was gobsmacked. Of course, his wittily preening columns immediately became even funnier.
A few weeks ago he got himself into an entire column\’s worth of  hilarious passive aggressive tizzy when some dreadful woman stopped him getting to the treadmill at a gymn by digging in her bag and texting on her Blackberry… For a whole ten minutes!
This weekend, he was having a moan about the general charmlessness of modern First Class life – especially airlines and luxury hotels. The poor love had actually had to drink cranberry juice out of a plastic tumbler on a plane.
And yet he\’s right. Modern life is generally charmless at the moment because all the idiots in charge are squeezing the things their uncharmable accountants deem to be an unnecessary cost. Among which, of course, courtesy is number one and high-quality detail number two. And so with its roots gone, charm dies too.
The result of this self-destructive stinginess is that the most vital oil of society – courtesy – is replaced by computerised switchboards, robotic scripts for operatives and plastic tumblers.
Courtesy is expensive – though often not directly in terms of money, funnily enough. It takes time, effort and empathy. It\’s also something you can\’t really fake because it comes from applying the golden rule of \”do as you would be done by.\”
For any high-end company to have charm, courtesy has to permeate the whole business. It has to be in the cultural DNA from top to bottom. And any company where the directors grab as much money as possible for their pay and bonuses while cheeseparing their employees, will not have it. That kind of greed is the ultimate discourtesy to the people who need to be courteous to their customers: they\’ll know they are being taken for a ride. They may parrot the courtesy scripts and the mission statement and whatever, but they won\’t be able to be truly courteous.
The platinum rule backs up the golden one. It says that you get back from life and other people what you give out. If you go around with your passive aggressive teeth gritted, hating 99% of your experience for being charmless, what you\’ll get will be even less charm and courtesy. Your discourtesy will surround you with discourteous people. It\’s amazing, really – like magic. The minute you start giving out genuine pleasantness, you start getting it back.
Tyler Brule\’s columns are a perfect demonstration of the platinum rule. Everyone should read them.

I TOLD YOU SO, FINANCIAL TIMES

I normally get the Financial Times Weekend paper – it has excellent coverage of the arts and books, it does very interesting profiles and proper journalism in its magazine. I started reading the FT in the autumn of 2007 because I felt they had more of a clue financially than the other broadsheet newspapers.
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On 14th November 2008 I entered their competition to pick the Next Big Investment Idea. No, I didn\’t win (I think it was some guy with a shares scheme – and yes, I have tried but I couldn\’t find him).
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Here\’s what I wrote in the hangover month of November 2008:
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\”Future investments will have to be simple, real and ethical because, sadder and wiser now, nobody will touch anything else for twenty years.
I believe agricultural land will offer investments which will offer opportunities for increasing real value.
In the last two years of the property bubble, farmland had started to rise rapidly in value – at a rate of about 30% per year. Since the early 1990s farmland prices have increased by 130% – mainly due to City bonus bunnies looking for a refuge from inheritance tax – until they were approaching highs of £10,000 per acre. Since then farmland prices have dropped by about 2% and seem likely to return to pre-bubble levels of £5,000. They may well drop further as distressed bonus bunnies need to sell up quickly. This will be a tremendous opportunity because I believe the high commodity and oil prices that make local farmland valuable will inevitably return – and supplies are limited.
A fund should be set up to buy up cheap farmland. The land should then be improved, ideally by converting it to organic standards or by planting some form of
permaculture. Once the land is ready it should be leased to farmers to provide a regular income to pay to investors. Ultimately it should be sold to release a profit and more land purchased for improvement.
Importantly, investors will be able to visit “their” acres and see the improvements. This will make it possible to sell the investments into a very cynical market.\”
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Lead article in the Financial Times House & Home section this week (Sat 15 Oct 2011)?
\”Movers and Acres. The value of farmland has doubled in recent years, triggering heady investment activity in rural real estate.\”
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Well I was wrong about investors being \”sadder and wiser\”. I was, however, spectacularly right about the investment potential of farmland. Alas, as usual, I didn\’t have the money to back my prediction and so I can\’t point to my rolling acres bought on the cheap. That\’s what I wanted the prize money for.  
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Can I have my £10,000 prize now please, FT? I\’ve just had another next big investment idea.