Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Is this the same thing?


I find it strange how the media seem to think that the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Trump are somehow related.

Last June, I voted to leave the EU.  I didn't do it because I believed that immigration was wrong - I actually believe that in manageable numbers it's a good thing.  I didn't do it because I felt I'd been left behind by the political class - I've had a very good and very lucrative career, thank you.  And I didn't do it because I was persuaded by a particular newspaper - I don't read them.

I did it because, on balance, I felt that the EU had become an organisation driven by principles that I don't share.  An organisation run by political appointees, rather than democratically-elected, accountable representatives.  An organisation that gives too much space to lobbyists, that listens too much to commercial interests to make rational decisions that are truly good for the people of Europe.

No, I'm not a conspiracy theorist.  I don't doubt that there are any number of politicians out there who actually try to bring their idea of "good" to the people they represent.  However, I don't believe that companies or corporations can do the same thing.  Companies exist to make profit for their shareholders, and everything they do is about maximising that profit.
And when they get big enough, and influential enough, they use that influence to try to steer government policy.  And with Europe, they can steer twenty-eight governments at the same time by influencing directives, which then have to be enacted in national laws..

I don't like that.

And having worked in the finance sector for the last thirty years, I was rather surprised, to say the least, that the former PM of Luxembourg, that little country of 600,000 (very rich) people, should be the consensus candidate for President of the European Commission a couple of years back.  Here was the man who had - in 20 years as Luxembourg's Minister for Finances - steered the little country to its position as the top tax haven in Europe.  And this guy was the best that Europe had to offer?  Or did it have something to do with the influence of all those global multi-nationals whom he had persuaded to store their money in the Grand Duchy? And when I heard his eve-of-the-referendum comments on the possibility of any future renegotiations (it was de Gaulle's "non" again) I didn't even need to answer the question for myself.  I voted Leave.

Mr Trump, however, is altogether another matter.  

Try as I might, all I can see is somebody who thinks that running a country is the same as running a corporation.

It isn't.

In a corporation, you only hire people you think will succeed, and when they don't, you sack them.  Countries have a lot of people who will probably never succeed, but you still have to provide for them, because you can't sack them.

The tragedy for me is that Trump managed somehow to persuade those people that he - the man who seemed to take pride in the fact that he had paid very little in tax for the last 20 years - would help them.  Paying tax actually means helping other people who aren't as lucky as you are.  If you're a sentient human being then you'll see it that way.

So for me, voting Leave in the U.K. does not make me a Trump supporter.  The real problem for the people of the US, as I saw it last November, was that the only alternative to Trump was to vote for Hillary Clinton.  I was a big Bill fan (after all, he played the saxophone) but in this case I think I would have had to vote for None of the Above.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Six months along the road

The first day of October...

It's now a whole six months since I hung up my suit (or more precisely, commited six suits to the large metal bin at the recycling centre and put the best two into a black dustbin bag in the spare room for posterity) and waved goodbye to the profession that I had followed for thirty-something years.  Today is, I think, Saturday, which would have meant something to me once.  Saturday was, for me, the second day of the weekend, the one before Sunday, which was increasingly depressing because at the end of it the weekend would be over and I would have to kiss goodbye to Patricia and disappear to London for four days.

I don't know why my mind keeps on focusing on that, because life is so very different now that all of that professional stuff seems like a life on another planet.

So how are the days now?  I get up, usually, sometime between seven and nine, depending on how much sunlight is coming through the bedroom window.  Down the stairs, ruffle Lola's tummy as she rolls on her back full of excitement because the day has started at last, put some bread in the toaster, some water in the kettle, switch on the espresso machine and wait for electricity to do its job while we see to breakfast for the cats. 

Breakfast is usually in the garden, either out front if the sun is beckoning, or under the parasol / umbrella on the terrace if it isn't, and Patricia comes and finds me with her first coffee of the day and we contemplate what is to come.

And at some point, during the day, the dog gets a walk, the shopping gets done, usually combined with a visit to the tip with a sack or two of garden rubbish, the work of the day is accomplished (or from time to time not, as the case may be) dinner is eaten and digested and the evening ends in a mental catch-up on the events / successes / failures of the day, before a glorious eight hours or so of sleep.  And in the words of Scarlett O'Hara, tomorrow is another day.

Despite that sounding like a very leisurely existence, we've accomplished a bit these last six months.  The front garden, which used to look like this:


now looks more like this:


and the part of the back garden that was once rather worse than this:
now looks like this:
and the Lola that looked like this:


now looks like this:


and a hundred other things are a little bit nearer to fruition, if less visible.

Life is, slowly, moving on.

One day in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to satisfy ourselves with worrying about a little bit of maintenance, or planting / tending to / harvesting something that has grown in the garden, or painting, or making music, or reading, or walking the dog, or just doing "nothing", but for now that is still some way off in the future

It's a journey that has its ups and downs, like all journeys, but it is, inexorably, getting there, and the steps along the way bring a lot of pleasure, punctuated by the antics and interactions of Djé, Pastelle, Jazz, Java and Lola.  All that I can say is that life, now, seems to have a lot more purpose than it did when I took the train to London every week, and a lot more fulfillment, albeit it can be physically hard sometimes, but it has a lot more enjoyment too.

And sad Sunday evenings are no more, a thing of the past, forgotten in the annals of time.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Lola !

A few pictures of Lola from her first few months with us.  Here she is at 8 weeks on 29 December, her second day with us, still holding onto a rag that carried the smells of her mother and brothers and sisters.  She weighed in at 6.1kg...A week later, 9 weeks and 7kg, her ears still very floppy, but that character starting to develop in her face...
...but still very much a baby.  Yawning and then..
falling asleep on the kitchen floor.
9 1/2 weeks, 8kg now, and starting to get interested in the cats
11 1/2 weeks, and 11kg, all that growing can make you very sleepy.

13 1/2 weeks, off the lead in the fields on top of Withycombe Hill, 13kg now and starting to look more like a young dog than a puppy from time to time.

The same day, on Minehead beach, starting to practice her "wolf" look!

A few weeks later, 16 weeks old and out on the hills again. 18kgs now and growing very fast indeed.

At 20 weeks, Lola is 21kg and starting to look like a young adult, with a very mature look in her eyes as she surveys the mess she's made of the front garden.

Still practising the "wolf" look, and it's getting convincing now.  At 22 weeks and 24kg, it's starting to be a struggle to lift her in and out of the car.

Amazing how a five-month old puppy can look like a fully grown dog - but she's still got a lot of growing to do to catch up with those paws. 23 weeks and 24.6kg, slowing down a little...
...and enjoying her morning walk up on the hills.

Two weeks into a new life.

A slightly different place to be at eight in the morning than sitting in front of a couple of screens in the city...

This is a rather nicer way to start a Monday morning, up on top of the hills with the dog, enjoying the April sunshine.

It's two weeks now since my last day in the office, two weeks so far to get used to not being compelled to be somewhere at a certain time.  To not have to shave, not have to put on a suit, not have to do anything because I'm being paid to do it.  Freedom.

So far, it feels pretty good to me.  The last couple of days, lots of physical work to do, shifting a ton (literally) of floor tiles, cutting a 100ft, ten foot high privet hedge, turning a huge mess of pyrocantha, bay laurel, jasmine and cotoneaster into shredded pulp.  My hands are burning from all the thorns, my back is aching from moving the tiles, my legs are bruised from pressing against the step-ladder, but it feels really good all the same.

Maybe I'll tire of it in another thirty years or so...


Sunday, 10 April 2016

Finally did it.

My retirement drinks...


I think it's going to take me a little while to understand that I won't be going to work any more...



In October 1977, I started my first real job, working for the National Trust on a job creation scheme.  I spent six months cutting away laurel undergrowth in a large pine forest on the hillside between Selworthy and Allerford in the Exmoor National Park. For eight hours a day, we hacked and we sawed and we built ten foot high raps of cut laurel, and I spent my weekly wages in the pubs of West Somerset and on keeping my  motorbike on the road.



That was over 38 years ago, and that's quite a long time.  Long enough to change career direction a few times and eventually to find a niche somewhere that was not too trying and that more than paid the bills.  Yep, I know I'm lucky, and I always have been, on balance.  I sometimes think I must have been built that way.



But anyway, here I am. Retirement.  A little early, but retirement all the same.

To me that word  - retirement - sounds like two things: old age and pottering about.  So either I am older than I think, or I need to change my ideas.  Or find a new word that means what I think the word "retirement" should mean when it describes me.   I'll have a think about that one.  And before I can potter about, there's some real work to do, renovating the house and fixing up the garden.  A couple of years probably to get it all done properly.

But in any case, the day has finally come... and gone.  Although technically I am still employed and on holiday until 13 April, I've had my last day in the office, handed back my mobile device and my security pass.  That career that I've been working at these last 30 years or so, it's over.  I am no longer Chris the MD, I'm just Chris again.

It's a wonderful feeling - a mix of freedom, relaxation and excitement.  Let's see what happens next!

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Countdown to a new life

It was August 2011 when the seed of an idea germinated that turned into a four-year project.  We were living in our town house in Bordeaux - Ticia and me, along with Lucie, who was soon to start the final year of her degree at the University of Bordeaux.

Having finished all the renovations three years before, we'd been enjoying the fruits of our labours in terms of our immediate environment, the house, the courtyard.  I'd been making music in my studio in the basement, Ticia had been getting more and more involved in an organic lifestyle, trying to make our food, the products we used, as natural and as harmless and as effective as possible, whilst producing the occasional painting in her own studio, her atelier, in the converted attic space.

I would catch a plane to go to work in London most Monday mornings, and return early Friday evening to spend a weekend writing music, eating (and sometimes cooking) the latest inventions to issue forth from our kitchen and our imaginations, and generally enjoying the city life and the seasons in the south-west corner of France.

The only real problem was money.  Life was very expensive.  In addition to a mortgage on the house in Bordeaux, another on the apartment in La Rochelle we hadn't yet managed to sell, and the rent on a flat in Earls Court where I stayed during the week, there was the cost of my flights every week and the expenses and upkeep of three properties, two of which were lying empty.   But still, if all we wanted to do was keep that lifestyle going, it didn't really seem to be a worry: debts built up over the course of the year and then in February, a hand reached down from somewhere, lined the bank account with a bonus, and everything reset to a little above zero again.

So life was bumbling on in a comfortable kind of way, and then two things happened that made us reconsider.  One - Lucie decided to move in with her boyfriend and we realised that, if we had seen her being at university in Bordeaux as a reason for us to be there, that reason was gone.  And then in the same week...


...in the aftermath of a storm that lasted just half an hour, the road in front of the house was flooded with water that rose up out of the drains as the underground system overloaded.  And it flooded the basement, where I had built my music studio, again...  After the first time it happened, back in 2008, I was always a little wary of having my gear down there, with all those electrical connections.  This time I started to get depressed about the whole idea. If it had happened twice, it would happen a third time, and a fourth...

The two things together - Lucie checking out of home and the wet basement - catalysed our thinking, and over the next few weeks a plan emerged.  We'd sell the house in Bordeaux, and the apartment in La Rochelle.  If possible, we'd sell the house in Sonnac too, but that was more of a difficult one to find a buyer for.  In any case, we'd pack up all our stuff, and we'd move to England, where - if we had just one house and one mortgage and no rented flat, and if we watched out for the pennies a little - we could think about me taking early retirement.

As the plan hatched, and then developed, I worked out that the date of my retirement could be three years after we sold the two properties in France and bought a house in England.  We put a big effort into advertising and selling the apartment in La Rochelle, and by the following spring, we'd found a buyer.  After that it was time to try to sell the house in Bordeaux.  That took a little bit longer. After a lot of promising starts that came to nothing, and a big part of the summer spent installing Lucie in an apartment in Toulouse,where she had been accepted for a Masters degree, we'd still not found a buyer by the time our plan reached the next stage - moving over to the UK to start out in rented accomodation.  But in December, two months after taking up temporary residence with Djé and Pastelle in a freezing cold flat in Porlock, we found a buyer for the house and set about our own search in the UK in the run-up to Christmas.  And in the last week of February 2013, we completed on the purchase of Vexford House, and there we were.

And as the plan said, three years after that date, I could retire from my job in London...  And here we are, we've been in the house for two years and nine months, and I have just 16 weeks of work left to go...

It is going to be strange to stop.  OK, I tried it eleven years ago - I gave up work, and for eight months, I stopped living by the clock, but that was kind of different and life was complicated.  This time, everything is more simple.  And giving up work is for real, it's based on a stronger financial position - I can't wait.  It's not that I don't enjoy what I do - sometimes it can be really quite fulfilling.  But ask me whether I really want to get myself out of bed at 4am on a Monday morning to get myself to the station for the early train to London, ask me whether I can truly be bothered about what the audit trail of my sales activity looks like on the management information systems, ask me whether I truly believe that what I am doing is bringing people a better future.  Much as I am sure somebody, somewhere would like me to say "yes" to all those three, the enthusiasm and the belief are starting to wear a little thin.

It's said that as we get older we get more cynical about things.  I don't really want to think of myself as a cynic - a sceptic, yes, but not someone who has no faith in anything.  All the same it does seems to me that a lot of what I hear from a corporate level these days has a bit of the unreal about it.  I have a picture in my head of increasing stress in the system, in me, in those I work with, in the whole environment.  A few years ago, people were far more relaxed.  The working day had some holes in it - for example when travelling to and from client meetings, or when entertaining, or being entertained.  These days the ubiquitous iPhone or Android or Blackberry is always there, always alive, always giving you that guilt feeling - the vaguely uneasy realisation that someone is watching you.  There is no escape, and unfortunately, we're not actually paid more for the added burden or stress of being permanently connected by the technological umbilical cord to the office.  I feel quite sorry for those in the generation after me.  They will likely never know the feeling of freedom that we had in the past, the space that existed for those of us who were prone to laziness.  There is no opportunity to be lazy these days.  And that's a shame, because some of my best thinking - professionally speaking that is - probably came from those moments of idleness.

I pick up a Times from my hotel reception each morning I am in London, and I attack the crossword on the tube.  The stress of the coming day is there, in my head, and sometimes I find it really difficult to make those lateral connections, to solve those left-field clues, on the way to work.  But coming back in the evening - if I feel I've one a good day's work - the answers seem to flow out of my pen without thinking a lot of the time.  It's because I've switched off, and I can free my thinking and get it away from that structured, time-constrained pressure that is the working day.  Periods like that used to happen within the working day too, but now there is no time - there's always a list of goodness knows how many things that shout for my attention in my inbox.

The stress in the corporate system is increasing.  Everyone has to become more efficient and more productive every year, or - well - the system doesn't work.  Because there isn't often much focus on investing to grow the business - now it's all about maximising existing assets, and if possible, stripping the asset base a little.  And those assets, in a business like the one where I work, are the people.  So much so that there is (I discovered last week) a "human capital committee" in my organisation.

For me, the rather nasty inference of that title - the "human capital committee" is that the capital belongs to the firm, in the same way as financial capital or intellectual capital.  I rather prefer to think that my own "human capital" belongs to me, and that if I choose to, I can rent my skills to an employer, but I never become a part of their capital - I never become a part of their balance sheet.

OK, so I agree, it's not a nine to five job.  We get paid a lot of money in the city.  But this relentless grind upwards in terms of activity levels, technology, efficiency, connectivity, productivity, it can't go on for ever.  Something, somewhere has to crack.  Either it's the people, because they are pushed too far, made to run too fast, or it's the company itself.  And if the company cracks and the profits fall, then the market will beat up the share price, and there'll be cutbacks and down-sizing and more efficiency drives, and a proportion of those people - even the ones who didn't crack under the pressure - will be out of the door and on the market again.

I'm not saying that life in the finance industry has not always been very competitive and relatively high-risk in terms of job-retention in the bad times.  But things have changed a lot over the past five years or so.  It's like those dustbin men in France.  I'm sure that ten years ago, they could walk around the city, lobbing the bin bags into the back of the lorry as they made their measured way around a familiar route with the lorry keeping up with them and following their pace.  Clearly the demands from management to squeeze more collections into an eight hour shift have increased, because now, those bin men seem to spend the entire day running in order to keep up with the progress of the lorry.  So where once the lorry was a useful tool for them - effectively their servant as they went about their business of cleaning the city of waste, now the lorry is the tyrant and it inflicts its hard regime on the bin-men, who are forced to run in order to a) keep up with it, and b) keep their jobs.   And that is pretty much exactly my picture of the asset management sector now.  Where once, the company's progress and velocity was the result of its collective employees' individual progress with some benefits of synergy, now the company says what it is going to do, and God help the employees (and the share price) if they don't keep up with the corporate forecast. 

All I can say to that is thank God I'm retiring next year.

And yes, the weeks tick by... 

As I'm eating my breakfast on a Monday morning, I usually write Ticia a little note to leave under her laptop on the kitchen table.  Around two years ago,  I started noting down how many weeks remained until i could give up work - so the number was around the low 100s.  And now, it's down to just 16... March 2016 is D-Day - or maybe R-Month would be a better description.  In any case, the tax year 2016/17 will see me return to being a basic rate taxpayer for the first time since about 1990 I think. 

There's loads to do for a couple of years anyway - finishing off the earthworks in the garden, and getting on with the house, which has been somewhat neglected over the first three years, apart from the bathroom and our bedroom, which is still not finished.  But also, I'm going to spend a certain amount of my time meandering round the country lanes on my bike and getting fit again, writing some new music (God I'm bored with all that stuff I did in 2009-2011!) - yes there will be time for all of that, and maybe even time to spare.  After all, if you can get by on a limited income and be wide awake and healthy, then what is life but to be enjoyed?.

Come on, March 2016, I'm ready for you

Friday, 14 August 2015

Pause



For the next glorious week: no client meetings; no racing to get a presentation finished on tiime; no suits, ties and hotels; no airports or tubes or train strikes; no hundred emails each and every day; no 5.35am alarms; no Pret sandwiches and lattes; no spreadsheets and benchmarks and performance reviews and catch-ups and difficult phone calls and market indices and underperforming fund managers and liability cashflows and funding levels... In fact, no work.  Time to empty my head of all the endless data and strategies, and just think about all the good things in life, and maybe make some of them happen.

Some people seem to be themselves only when they are working, I am the other way about.  For most weeks of the year, I'm surrounded by people who are trying to get on, to advance their careers because they haven't yet arrived at the place where they want to be, the place that they see as their own, somewhere in the future.  I've now been there, where I wanted to be, for a good few years.  For a lad who grew up in the deep rural landscape of Exmoor, whose first full-time job was using a billhook and a bow saw to rid an overgrown pine forest of undergrowth for a 17 year-old's agricultural wage, I reached the acme of my working life one day in 2008, when I became a managing director at one of the biggest investment companies in the world.  Not exactly rags to riches, I don't think I was in rags to start with and I can't say I have amassed substantial material riches now, but an interesting journey nonetheless.  And since, whilst I've certainly got better at what I do, my only ambition in my work for the last several years has been just that, to get better at what I do.

And one day in the not too distant future, I'll stop, and (I tell myself) I'll become me again.  A me with wide horizons, with the same questioning mind that I always had, but concentrating on some very different questions - the ones I haven't had time to reflect on because my head has been full of all the paraphenalia that goes with maintaining ones place at a high level of effectiveness in a chosen career.  I hope I find that the "me" I think I am is still there!  Maybe it will take a little while, a few months, more perhaps, to find my "self" again, but whatever, or whoever, I am now, I will find out.

The trouble with working in the city environment is that everything moves very fast.  And when I'm at home, and trying to appreciate things that move slowly - plants growing for instance - I have little patience.  My timeframe is very short.  I know that in a day or three at most, I will need to get on a train and go back to that whirlwind of activity that is the office, and so it nags at me when I'm doing something that isn't going to yield instant results.  When my timeframe is based on the seasons, rather than a two or three-day weekend, I think that my perspective will begin to change.  To end the day, tired but with a job not finished, and to know that there's no rush, I can finish it tomorrow, or the next day, or if I want I can do something completely different tomorrow, that is real life.

I reflect on that already a lot, when I get the time.  We (those of us who spend our days in that square mile, and many others in many other places I'm sure) see very little of life as it really exists.  We focus on the urgent things, on the important things that need to be done.  But in any real human framework, are they either urgent or important?  The term "work-life balance" is widely used, but all it really seems to mean for most people is having enough time over from work left in their week to do all the other things that need to be done.  The "life" in that balance is for most people the routine of home-life, looking after children, doing household chores, finally earning the right to drink the odd glass (or bottle) of wine with their partner before falling into bed in the sure knowledge that they haven't left themselves enough time to get the sleep they need before it all kicks off again tomorrow.  And all that for what?  To buy an overpriced house because it is within commuting difference of the office, to run a car that doesn't embarrass them in front of their friends, to eat in expensive restaurants because that's an accepted form of entertainment for those with their status in life...  And the only way they can truly relax is to take a fortnight's holiday somewhere else, where they don't have all those things to worry about, only how they're going to clear it off the credit card at some point in the future.  And they still take their blackberry along with them and buy the FT to read beside the pool...

Whenever someone at work asks me if I saw some article or other in the weekend FT, I just give them a friendly smile and say no.  Until a couple of years ago, I didn't even know that there was a weekend FT, but I keep that to myself.