Saturday, 10 December 2011

Nicholas Shaxson ‘Treasure Islands. Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World’ (2011)

What did I learn from this? When I stopped whimpering and came out of the wardrobe, I guess I could say I learned pretty much what it says on the back cover:

Tax havens have declared war on honest, law-abiding people around the world.
Wealthy individuals hold over ten trillion dollars offshore.
Tax havens are the most important single reason why poor people and poor countries stay poor.
Britain and the United States are the world’s two most important tax havens.

In a race to the bottom, governments have conceded whatever the multinational corporations want in the way of tax breaks and banking secrecy – otherwise they’ll take the little tax they do pay elsewhere. A banking system devised to enable dictators, crime bosses and other kleptocrats to hide and launder their money has been rolled out globally, so it’s no longer just third world peasants who have their bones picked clean – the governments of developed countries have also been captured by the financiers.

The history goes back further than I realised – not just to the deregulation of the Reagan-Thatcher years, but to the late 1950s, when the City of London created an unregulated market in dollars (the Euromarket), allowing American money to escape American regulation. Switzerland was at it even earlier, of course, but Britain comes very badly out of the story, with a “spider’s web” of colonial and offshore (Jersey, Guernsey, Man) tax havens acting as fronts for the City. But everybody’s at it now – Delaware! Who knew that Delaware was the new Cayman Islands?

Shaxson looks back to the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, and praises the world order engineered then by John Maynard Keynes. Keynes appreciated that the interests of finance capital and investment capital are at odds, with the former always inclined to gravitate to where taxes are lowest, not to where it can be most productive. For a brief, prosperous, period, Bretton Woods controlled the international movement of capital in order to minimise capital flight. It was also partly an American attack on the British Empire, and the long fight-back was partly a reassertion of British (or at least City of London) global interests.

Can anything be done? Shaxson ends with a list of actions that need to be taken, e.g. “pursue transparency”, “tackle the intermediaries and the private users of offshore”, etc. Big question – you and whose army? In chapter 10, he has already described the failed 1998 attempt by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to challenge the tax havens. All the OECD managed to do was to shift the ability to tax multinationals more towards the rich countries and away from the poor ones.

As it is, governments are fighting each other for the taxation crumbs. At the moment, many people are congratulating the EU on its efforts, as they see it, to clamp down on the City of London. To my way of thinking, the EU simply wants to cream off revenue for its own corrupt bureaucratic spending, at the expense of Britain, and nothing else would change.

I can’t imagine any solution that doesn’t also wipe out my savings and my pension entitlements. In other words: bank failures, sovereign defaults, currency collapses. After all, those trillions that the kleptocrats are holding – it’s largely imaginary wealth. Money is mostly digital. Their wealth is in the form of IOUs held against us. That’s not going to be paid. There isn’t that much productivity in the system, even if they squeeze our children and grandchildren dry. It’s going to be protectionism. Tatties all round, with a bit of salt herring if you’re lucky.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Eric Richards, The Highland Clearances (2000, 2008)

Didn’t think I’d sit down and read this cover to cover – you’d think it would become repetitive as he takes each locality in turn, but he draws on such a wide range of information that he manages to show the particular features of each situation, and each tragedy emerges as unique.

This is a book that had to wait for its time to be written – there is a universal loathing of the Highland landlord class and their agents, the factors, so Richards is a brave man, even now, to attempt an even-handed treatment of the Highland Clearances. Without in any way detracting from the dreadfulness of what happened to the evicted families, he challenges the reader to say what else the landlords could have done to manage their over-populated, poverty-stricken estates. Indeed, it emerges from his detailed accounts that the most inhuman clearances were those carried out by trustees after landlords had bankrupted themselves trying to maintain the population through the famines of the mid 19th century. (Notwithstanding the violence of the Sutherland clearances, the people were provided with somewhere else to go.)

One surprising thing is the amount of capital (fortunes made in the Empire or brought in through marriage) that was sunk uselessly in attempts to establish manufacturing and fishing industries in the Highlands. The fickle herring moved elsewhere. Kelp was a success for a time, but was replaced by imported chemicals.

The story of these recurrent failures is instructive in the sense that they provide a measure of the difficulties which confronted and broke even the best motivated, most prosperous, and most humane of landlords. (p.411)

Ultimately, sheep farming and deer stalking were the only activities that brought an economic return for Highland landlords.

Richards points out that the same process of clearance went on all over Europe, with the small peasants being pushed off the land as commons were enclosed and large farms created. (In fact, Tom Devine has coined the term ‘Lowland Clearances’ to encourage people to see the Agricultural Revolution in Lowland Scotland through this sympathetic lens.) Towards the end of the book, Richards quotes Jeanette Neeson’s Commoners on the English Enclosures: “‘The sense of loss, the sense of robbery could last forever as the bitter inheritance of the rural poor’” (p.405). This might seem an exaggeration in the English context, where there seems little folk memory of the peasant past, but it is still the English countryside that defines whatever ethnic consciousness the English have.

What was exceptional, then, about the Highland Clearances? This is a theme that runs through the book. One answer is their scale, with whole settlements being emptied at once – though this was not the only type of clearance, and much of the eviction was piecemeal and not dissimilar to rural depopulation elsewhere. However, the late arrival of agricultural change in the Highlands meant that the blow fell harder and more suddenly than in many other places.

The distinctive social system of the Highlands, the patterns, of local authority, its unusual priorities in the utilisation of its landed resources and the geography itself, all joined to render the Highlands less able to accommodate the urgency for change which descended on all quarters of western Europe in the late eighteenth century. (pp.41-42)

One puzzle that Richards doesn’t manage to solve, though he states the problem with his usual clarity, is why the population of the Highlands expanded so quickly from the late 18th century on, especially in the least favoured agricultural regions, the west and north. He is resolutely unsentimental, and doubts whether the land could have sustained the people even if it had been made over into their ownership. And there would still have been a large body of landless cottars and squatters, almost invisible to the historical record.

Then there was the near-destruction of a whole culture and way of life – though that, as Richards points out, has as much to do with Culloden and its aftermath as with the Clearances.

Another compelling answer is the anachronistic survival of a culture that was, though Richards doesn’t put it this way, basically tribal in its relationship with the land. The tribal leaders had only fairly recently reinvented themselves as property owners, and their right in law to evict their tenants were at odds with a persisting sense of the clan’s customary right to the tribal territory. It was the old moral economy that eventually reasserted itself, against the whole flow of history, in the Crofters Act. As Richards says, “Ultimately, the story has always been about who should possess and control the uses of the land” (p.xiv).

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Ian Jack, ‘The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain. Writings 1989-2009’

Jack is a writer with a coherent vision, a commitment to the values of a lost world, the Great Britain of the late Victorian era and the first half of the early 20th century. He identifies these values in the small coin of everyday life, he teases them out of major events, and he recognises them when he finds them lingering in India, just as much as in reminiscences of his mother.

The essay ‘The 12.10 to Leeds’ is typical of his approach. Exploring the background to a series of fatal rail crashes in the late 1990s, he immerses himself in the history of the railways, in the physics and engineering of the wheel on the track, in the politics and economics of the denationalisation, and in the work of the men whose job it is to inspect the rails. He emerges with a thorough understanding – which he communicates in clear, direct terms – of how all of these factors combined to produce the tragedy.

More than this, however, he expresses the tragedy of such failures being allowed to happen in the country that invented the passenger railway. He does not complain that we have lost the sense of “technological mission” exemplified by the Permanent Way Institution, “founded by a group of railwaymen in Nottingham in 1884”, whose publications acted “to inspire the institution’s membership of permanent-way inspectors with an idea of vocation, of historical mission, in their long, often lonely, days and nights spent walking along miles of track” (pp.43-44). It is enough to point to this high-mindedness to show how different their time was from our own.

In ‘Women and children first’ he sets out to find the truth about the final tune (was it the hymn ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’ and if so to what melody) played on the deck of the sinking Titanic by the band, led by Wallace Hartley. He doesn’t find out, and it doesn’t matter, because this is just the warp on which to weave his thoughts about the Titanic generation, who went on to fight the First World War. He notes that Hartley came from the middle class. “It may have been a heroic class or a foolish one” – it was this class on the Titanic where the difference between the male survival rate and that of the women and children was greatest. Although these men had access to the boat deck, they behaved “nobly and stoically” and only 8% of them survived.

I wish he had been able to give a reference for the observation of “somebody” that the First World War was when “God died in Scotland” (p.31). This is something worth following up. I’ve been very aware since working on Tobar an Dualchais that the heart went out of communities after that.

Some of the reminiscence in the book is rather commonplace – the details of the past that we are invited to savour are often the same ones that anybody of a certain age would recall. There are moments, however – and it is worth reading the book to find these – when Jack writes with heart-stopping poignancy. (In some ways, the book is like a series of tremendously good funeral orations.)

I was particularly moved by his account of a dream in which he saw members of his family in a typical Scottish urban setting, to the repeated words, “These people and this scene are dead”. I’ve had dreams in which the dead have paid me a visit, and I’ve wakened, as he did, overwhelmed with emotion, which lasted for days. He writes, “I woke up in tears. I had lost my childhood, the people I loved, the kind of country I came from – there would be nobody else who knew me as these people had done, memories could no longer be exchanged, the sense of isolation from the past would be permanent and absolute.” (p.189)

The final words of the book sum it up: “Always and everywhere, this unequal struggle to preserve and remember.” (p.325)

For some reason, it made me think of Milton on his blindness:

Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev'n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of Nature's works to me expunged and razed,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Grant Morrison, 'Supergods. Our World in the Age of the Superhero'

Excellent book. A history of superhero comics by a creative genius who turns out to be very articulate about his work. He doesn't dwell on his own biography, relating his experiences as a comic book reader and writer only insofar as they illuminate the industry.

He grew up in Scotland under the shadow of the nuclear bomb threat, and explains the appeal of Superman as an imaginative response to that. 
We tell our children they're trapped like rats on a doomed, bankrupt, gangster-haunted planet with dwindling resources, with nothing to look forward to but rising sea levels and imminent mass extinctions ... Traumatized by war footage and disaster clops ... preyed upon by dark and monumental Gods of Fear, we are being sucked inexorably into Comic Book Reality, with only moments to save the world, as usual. .. Could it be that a culture starved of optimistic images of its own future has turned to the primary source in search of utopian role models? (pp. xvi-xvii)
Superman was a hero of the people, but unlike Charlie Chaplin, for instance, he was one who embodied "fantasies of power and agency" (p.7). He was a God. Batman, who came along next, occupied "the territory of the dark unconscious" (p.22). So the comic book pantheon began with the separation of light from darkness.

Captain Marvel represented the "eternal human hope for transcendence":

Eventually, everybody searches for his or her own magic word: the diet, the relationship, the wisdom that might liberate us from the conventional into the extraordinary. (p.33)
Mac Raboy's artwork made him "a lithe Ariel, effortlessly capturing the blue-sky freedom and potential of youth" (p.34).

Captain America was created by a WWII veteran, Jack Kirby.

His memories of war informed his work for the rest of his life, but nonetheless, Kirby portrayed violence as a joyous expression of natural masculine exuberance. (p.3)
As superheroes proliferated and new gimmicks were found for them, there was a "radical enchantment of the mundane" (p.48). They also moved beyond their American origins in a "glorification of strength, health, and simple morality ... born of a corn-fed, plain-talking, fair-minded midwestern sensibility" (p.49). Local legends, for example in Britain the Arthurian legends, "could always be relied upon to produce superheroes from whole cloth" (p.51).

The Golden Age ended with the end of WWII, and comics turned to other genres, though Superman remained iconic. There was an obsession with the dark and the deranged, and comic books were demonised as a corrupting influence.

Superman comics in the Silver Age of the 50s were preoccupied with abnormal psychology. In the 1960s, the US State Dept asked the industry to cultivate the readers' interest in science and technology, and this was embodied in the Flash. Then came Stan Lee's Marvel stable of Promethean superheroes, for whom superpowers brought great responsibility and could be a curse.

The economically depressed 1970s coincided with family break-up for the young Morrison:
I'd watched  men leave footprints on the moon ... but now everything was running in reverse. With no excuse or apology, I was being offered instead of Starfleet a bleak tomorrow of fuel shortages, urban decay, and economic and social unrest. If anything drove the anger of young punks like me with our disaffected "no future" rhetoric, it was partly this sense of absolute betrayal. (p.161)
This is as far as I've got. Morrison is only four years younger than me, so the comics he talks about in the early part of the book are the ones I read as a child/teenager. I'm not familiar with the later material (apart from a recent taste for Gaiman), so I'm not drawn to finish reading the book just now.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Richard Sugg, 'Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires'

Very busy and not much time for reading. Not sure how much longer I'll persist with the unintentionally hilarious Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires by Richard Sugg (Routledge, 2011). 

I was interested to read it because there are frequent Shetland references to the use of bones and soil from the grave in witchcraft in the School of Scottish Studies collections (Tobar an Dualchais). And I did pick up some relevant information, and a general impression of the longstanding use of body parts as remedies in a way that was partly medical, partly magical. My suspicions about those Shetland witches have definitely deepened. After all, David Rorie was able to collect information about grotesque traditional healing practices that were within living memory at the turn of the 19th century, and Shetland seems to have put up a particularly strong resistance to the minister-led modernisation that eventually suppressed folk beliefs everywhere.

Sugg's book is very slight, though, for all its length and the research that's evidently gone into it. It's subtitled The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, and no doubt this literary critic thinks he is doing history, or at least cultural history. But it reads like an annotated bibliography, combined with an expanded version of the quotations in a historical dictionary. Every citation of 'mummy', for instance, is treated to a textual analysis, complete with speculation about the author's intentions and the effect on the reader.

The thing that had me rofling, though, was the brazenness of the author's agenda. He makes it quite clear that his purpose is to show that westerners are no better than anybody else, and preferably a lot worse - we practised cannibalism! How dare we criticise other cultures! 

(He seems to think that cannibalism is a philosophical concept whose meaning can be discerned by observation of how the word is used, combined with earnest reflection. A social scientist would just have declared, "In what follows, cannibalism will be taken to mean ..." That would have cut down a good bit of verbiage.)

Sugg's anachronistic projections of his own leftist pieties onto the past would make any real historian howl with laughter. Some examples:
 "Whilst the tenant families of great estates often languished in squalor and hunger in damp cottages, the aristocrats ... were rigorously scrutinising the excrement of their sporting pets" (p.27)
 "the preparation of the formula would have made vegetarians quail" (p.42, about a 17th treatment)
 "One obvious point about this treatment (aside from its somewhat shaky conception of animal rights) ..." (p.47, writing about a 17th c physician)
Where he's really priceless, though, is his treatment of THE question that anybody with a single scientific bone in their body MUST ask: would it work?

Obviously, ethics prevents any direct approach to the question of whether corpse medicine includes effectual treatments (though there might be scope for post-hoc investigation of African muti patients). But surely there must be people who could have given Sugg a theoretical opinion? And there are lots of relevant questions that are answerable - whether antibodies survive delivery through the stomach, for instance, whether iron is more available from blood if it's fresh, what substances would be found particularly in the blood of somebody who died a violent death, and to what extent any active substance would survive the sort of preparations Sugg describes. Sugg covers the use of faeces in medicine, but I look in vain in his index for Clostridium difficileBacillis subtilis or ulcerative colitis.

Instead we get occasional lines like these:

"The social and medical issues surrounding the claim can be treated together ... one recent author ... does not dispute ... the physician's attempt. If [he] were correct, it would mean that the treatment was considered practically valid" (pp.18-19, about an alleged treatment of Pope Innocent VIII with the blood of murdered youths)
"By their very nature, surgeons were typically dealing with the most practically physical ... class of medical problems. ... We must therefore take seriously the possibility that at this early stage corpse medicines were used because they were seen or thought to work" (p.24)
"From human liver can be 'drawn ... a water ...' ... ' such as are half rotten through diseases of the liver'. (The modern-day persistence of liver transplants for alcoholics and others suggests that this may have worked ...)" (p.44)
I'm really left with the impression that to the literary critic being seen to work and being thought to work are pretty much the same thing anyway.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Boddamers Hinged the Monkey

As sung by the Gaugers on Awa wi the Rovin Sailor.

There was a ship cam roon the coast
An aa the men on her was lost
Except for the monkey that climbit the post
An the Boddamers hinged the monkey-o.

Durrum a doo, etc.
An the Boddamers hinged the monkey-o.

A Boddamer up tae the monkey goes,
Says, “Tak im awa,” an awa he goes,
But the monkey jumped up an he bit aff his nose
An the Boddamers hinged the monkey-o.

Noo the funeral was a grand affair
An aa the Boddam folk was there.
It minded me o the Glesca Fair
Fan the Boddamers hinged the monkey-o.

Noo aa the folk fae Peterheid
Cam oot expectin tae get a feed,
But they juist got monkey pottit heid
Fan the Boddamers hinged the monkey-o.

The explanation usually given, for instance in the Aberdeen magazine The Leopard, is that the ship was a French man o’ war during the Napoleonic Wars, and the monkey was wearing a suit of clothes, and so was taken for a Frenchman. An alternative explanation is offered by Caroline Seawright, a contributor to a BBC discussion forum: she suggests that the hanging had something to do with salvage law.

The same thought occurred to me when I read Bella Bathurst’s The Wreckers. Her account of the law in medieval times isn’t entirely clear – her main concern is to find evidence for deliberate wrecking (such as mentions of false lights), but it seems that wrecks regarded as derelict, i.e. abandoned without hope of recovery, were treated (in practice certainly) as fair game (p.10).

By an English charter of 1236, “if any man or beast escaped alive from a ship, then that ship could not ... be considered a wreck.” The intention was “to ensure that wreckers did not seize and destroy ships which could have been refloated,” but, “in practice it became a permit to murder. ... ... The ‘man or beast’ ruling persisted for many centuries in different forms, and it was not until 1771 that it was finally and explicitly repealed. Even then, its effects lingered on in the common lore of the land” (p.11).

I spent a little time when I first read Bathurst trying to find out whether the law in Scotland was the same as in England prior to the 18th century, but legal history is too technical a field for casual enquiry. And I didn’t realise then that the song has English roots. It has become associated with Hartlepool as well as with Boddam, but it appears that the original, ‘The Fishermen Hung the Monkey, O!’ was written by Edward Corvan from Tyneside.

A contributor to the excellent Mudcat forum (scroll down to 19 Jun 03 - 03:37 PM) quotes from Keith Gregson’s book Corvan - A Victorian Entertainer And His Songs. It seems that Corvan was building on an existing myth of a monkey taken for a French spy.

IF such an incident ever happened, somewhere on the British coast, is seems most likely that the law of wreck lay behind it, and that the idea of the monkey being mistaken for a Frenchman was a piece of mockery, an example of blason populaire, used by the men of one village to rile the men of a rival village.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Theft by finding, salvage, and island economies.

Still thinking about the London riots, one of the ethical dilemmas that emerged (alongside that old classic, will I allow my criminal 19-year-old to put my council tenancy at risk or will I throw him out?) was the custom of finders keepers. Various accused tried to claim that they had ‘found’ the stolen goods they were caught with. Nobody believed them, but the interesting question is whether that would have made it all right.

In law, no - there is an offence in England of ‘theft by finding’. The Theft Act 1968 defines theft as:

Any assumption by a person of the rights of an owner amounts to an appropriation, and this includes, where he has come by the property (innocently or not) without stealing it, any later assumption of a right to it by keeping or dealing with it as owner.

There’s a very good exposition of what this means in practice here by ‘on thin ice’. A finder is obliged to “to take such reasonable and practicable steps as would be appropriate to the property to try and find the true owner”, which might include handing the item in at a police station. The same applies in Scots Law, as far as I can make out, though theft isn’t defined by statute, so isn’t as explicitly formulated to include finding (“innocently or not”).

But there is a lot of ethical and even legal (“reasonable and practicable steps”) wriggle room for people to take advantage of the luck of finding something. The loser has to assert ownership, so the playground chant, “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” is perhaps, basically, an assertion that he will have to do it by force. This point is made by ‘tutuzdad-ga’ here in a very helpful discussion of the proverb, “Possession is nine points of the law.” As he says, “[O]ne who has physical control of his property is clearly at an advantage should his rightful ownership of the property ever be subject to challenge.”

And where is the dividing line between valuable property and trivial stuff? Who goes to the police station to hand in a pound coin? A ten pound note? A twenty? Even the dividing line between property and rubbish is arguable. This was brought to attention recently when a woman in England was charged with theft for taking discarded out-of-date food from a supermarket’s bins. Most people would regard that as abandonment – the supermarket has given up ownership of the goods. That was certainly the attitude of writers in both the Grauniad and, at the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Daily Mail. Obviously, the supermarket stands to lose custom if the ‘freegan’ movement gains momentum, but what could be more clearly abandoned than rubbish in a bin?

Another recent case has much deeper customary roots. When the container ship MSC Napoli was wrecked in 2007, people flocked to Branscombe Beach to help themselves to the wreckage, in scenes reminiscent of Whisky Galore, the film based on Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel, itself inspired by the scavenging of the S.S. Politician, wrecked off Barra in 1941. There are songs and reminiscences in the School of Scottish Studies archives (Tobar an Dualchais), for instance these anecdotes from Roderick MacKillop.

What makes scavenging wrecks all right in the popular mind? Let’s consider first what the actual legal situation is. In both England and Scotland, there is a position of ‘receiver of wreck’. This official must be notified when wreckage is found. (There is a recording of George Gear, a receiver of wreck in Shetland, explaining his role.) If unclaimed after a year, wreckage found in UK territorial waters becomes the property of the Crown. The receiver of wreck also deals with claims for payment in respect of salvage services, and may settle these from the sale of wreckage. If goods are perishable, badly damaged or not worth the cost of storage, the receiver will arrange immediate sale.

These rushed sales will obviously raise derisory amounts in many cases, which immediately takes us into the grey area of property of trivial value. People will have correspondingly few qualms about keeping such stuff.

Then the insurance write-off comes into the picture. There are few goods that wouldn’t be damaged by exposure to sea water or by being thrown onto shore in a gale. The shipowners may actually be better off losing the cargo and claiming against insurance, rather than going through the process of reclaiming some of it (or its auction value), possibly in a damaged state, in dribs and drabs, broken out of any packaging, and awaiting collection from some distant coastguard station. When insurance is involved, people seem to see theft as a victimless crime.

Salvage services are another grey area. There are quantifiable costs in terms of time, fuel, damage, etc. if a vessel assists at a shipwreck, but there are also intangibles – the risk to life and limb, the holding oneself and one’s boat ready to rescue strangers in foul weather. Small wreckage is traditionally felt to be a quid pro quo for such things.

Listening to various tracks from the School of Scottish Studies (search on ‘salvage’ and ‘wreck’), it is clear that wreckage was regarded as a perquisite of island life. In the days when ships carried timber as a deck cargo, it was frequently lost or jettisoned overboard, and this was a major source of building timber in the treeless Western and Northern Isles. Other general goods could make a big difference to people living at subsistence level, and occasionally there was the chance to pilfer a really valuable cargo, like coins from the legendary ‘siller ship’, the Vandela, wrecked off Fetlar in 1737.

More brutally, salvage has traditionally been a way of making a living on some parts of the British coast, with life-saving a side issue. Bella Bathurst’s book The Wreckers: A Story of Killing Seas, False Lights and Plundered Ships is a terrific read on this subject.