Thursday, 5 December 2013

You may enjoy this...

Have a read though this  perfect short story, written by acerbic genius New Yorker Rebecca Schiff, a woman whose fire escape I am proud to have briefly sat on. No really! It was one of those ornate cast iron things...

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Pennine Autumn

Do you like paragliders? Do you like majestic Pennine scenery? Do you like surprising juxtapositions of the two? Well, here at The Langsett we've got a bit of a treat for you...

That's Rushup Edge above, and Castleton below. The hill in the foregournd is Mam Tor, making up for its fairly modest height by still being satisfyingly more massive than everything around it. I loved the way that it was still a bright, sunny afternoon on top of the hill, while in Castleton, it was dusk already.

Various members of The Langsett's family met on Mam Tor on Saturday. My eldest daughter Kate was particularly chuffed with her burgeoning mountaineering skills. "Daddy, I'm on top of the world!" she informed me from on top of the trig point on the summit. Powerful updraughts were sweeping up the northern slope from Edale, which I guess accounts for the sky full or paragliders.

I sometimes reflect on the misery inherent on living in London. There's the whole Boris Johnson situation, and those funny trains that go under the ground of course. But more importantly,there's the one hundred and sixty five miles separating you from all this stuff.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Coke and co-operatives

"Rather than the typical make up of company executives and non-executives directors, the Co-Op's board included a plasterer, a nurse and a horticulturist..." This line is from the Financial Times, but I've heard a lot of variations on it over the past few days. The FT's article doesn't explicitly say why having a plasterer on the board of the Co-Operative Group might be a problem, but I'm going to stick my neck out a bit and suggest that the implication is that the people the FT's referring to above have no business being on the board and that their presence there directly led both to the Co-Op Bank's financial trouble and also the hiring of the Reverend Paul Flowers. I'm going to stick my neck out a bit more and say that there's a further implication that Reverend Flower's presence on the board during the bank's financial issues and the reports of him buying illegal drugs tell you all you need to know about the man and the bank - that one explains the other; that the bank's failure to make enough money is worthy of moral condemnation, but that it is made even more worthy of condemnation by Reverend Flower's alleged brush with drugs. In short, the FT is saying that the Co-Op was always going to come off the rails if it let a bunch of comedy northerners and a drug abusing methodist minster run the show.

What the FT - and everyone else who casually trots out this line and conflates Reverend Flower's personal crisis with the Co-Op Bank's financial crisis - has forgotten is that four years ago, a whole shitload of banks with a whole shitload of guys on their boards with hundreds of years of banking experience between them managed to fuck themslves and very nearly everything else up. The fucking up of things that they accomplished was, if you remember, astonishingly comprehensive, and I thought we'd all kind of agreed that part of the problem was too much expertise on the part of the banks. Essentially shitty loans were parcelled up so as to look like good investments, by very clever people who'd forgotten all of their social and moral obligations and remembered only the obligation to make money. In 2008, I had a not particularly good seat in a very peripheral arena in which a tiny part of the financial crisis was played out. Even from where I was sitting, it was possible to see wealthy, financially literate blokes in good suits with nice cars being incredibly stupid with theirs and other people's money.  Some of them are still arguing over the repsonsibility they should bear for the decisions they took. So until someone can show me in a calm and carefully explained way how the plasterer, the nurse and the horticulturalist have done any worse than these guys, I would rather the Co-Op didn't change a thing about the way it does business.

The Co-Op's actual board of directors are here. The Group's interim financial results are here.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


Along with The Langsett (Sr) and my brother, I've just got back from three days in Berlin. Easyjet took us there, and treated us to a low banking turn over the lakes and woods to the east of the city, sun sparkling on the water and sailing boats bobbing in the bays,  as we flew into Schonefeld airport on a crisp autumn morning. I love this city, for a hundred different reasons. For instance; I was there for my stag do a few years ago. We stayed in a hostel on Simon Dach Strasse in what used to be East Berlin. I basically spent the whole weekend in a state of extreme euphoria because of the proximity of reasonably priced accommodation, excellent beer and hearty food, all linked to the centre of town by a public transport system of such sublime perfection that it could even be trusted to transport a group of drunken Englishmen from Freidrichstrasse to our hostel at god knows what time in the morning without losing any of us.

What I really love about Berlin though is its surprising combination of two characteristics: honesty and hopefulness. It's a city whose history is always on display. If you walk into town from Alexanderplatz, you'll pass buildings like the Berliner Dom and notice that the wall facing you looks like it has been caught in a terrible storm. Whereas the stone on the western side of the building might be crisp and  square cut, the stone on the eastern side is chipped, scored and pockmarked -almost worn away, as you would expect cliffs that have been battered by the sea to be. The reason of course, is that the East is the direction that the Red Army came from in 1945. The damage to the stone was caused by their shells, bullets and rockets. Just seeing the dramatic difference in the amount of explosives that the Germans and Russians were throwing at each other tells you a lot, in a very visceral way, about how the battle ended and what it must have been like to live through.

Right across the road from the Berliner Dom is a small thicket of tower cranes and a single section of balustraded stone wall.

This is the site where  the East German parliament building used to stand, housing not just the legislative chamber but also - in a cheery demonstration of the DDR's unease with its own grumpy nature - thirteen restaurants and a bowling alley. After a very public discussion about what on earth should be done with the building, the government took the decision to rebuild the Stadtschloss - the City Palace - that used to stand on the site: . I don't think there is exactly a plan as to what the rebuilt Stadtschloss will be used for, or even whether it will be a full steam ahead replica or not. But I liked the fact that the discussion about what happened on the site happened in public and took years. And I also like the fact that here, right next to the pin in the map that marks the very centre of Europe's largest economy and its most successful exporting nation, a decision has been taken which probably makes no financial sense. Standing across the road and watching the cranes working for a few minutes, you start to wonder whether financial sense might be overrated.

You wouldn't blame Berlin and Berliners if they felt traumatised by the last hundred years or so of history, and the rollercoaster ride from youngest European capital, to battleground, to walled front line of the Cold War. But it doesn't feel like that at all. Berlin feels incredibly at ease with itself. A few examples: Half an hour after that photograph was taken, we were right in the middle of the rush hour, on the U-Bahn, riding back to the Kurfurstendamm where we were staying. This is just not something you'd do in London or probably even in Manchester. You would let the convulsive indigestion of evening rush hour strike the city and fade away again before you tried using public transport. Berlin was fine though. Busy, but still usable - even for tourists who didn't know their way around. The Langsett (Sr.) projected an air of serene calm as the bright yellow subway train barged its way across town.

Berlin is beautiful too. Not in the way that central Paris is, where more or less every decision taken in the last thousand years has resulted in a small improvement on what was there before, until there is such an accretion of improvements that the city is as close to aesthetic perfection as any large city can hope to come. But it is a very humane, liveable city. Many of the decisions taken about the way that the city has developed have been taken with care and thoughtfulness. On our second day, we caught the S-Bahn to Anhalter Bahnhof. The underground station is huge, built to handle thousands of passengers every day. It's on a comparable scale to, say, Kings Cross Underground station. But when you walk up the steps from the station, you emerge in the middle of a park.

There was a station here once of course: a huge one, covering hundreds of acres of central Berlin. Badly damaged in the second world war, Anhalter Bahnhof was demolished in 1960. Now, there is this very beautiful park, smelling of autumn leaves and horse chestnuts when we were there. At the front is the heroic carriage porch of the railway station, hinting at how enormous the station itself must once have been.

I don't know anything about the decision making process that led to the park being created instead of the memory of the station being erased and the land being developed instead. But the decision was the right one. And that's the other wonderful thing about Berlin. It's a tangible demonstration of the fact that people can make good choices and stick to them, even if the circumstances are difficult. When the wall came down, Berliners need not have decided to knit their city back together again. But they did, and for twenty years now they have used that impulse to improve the city. Anyone living somewhere that faces difficult questions about its future might look at Berlin and feel hopeful.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

God vs the International Space Station

My eldest daughter goes to a Catholic school, as of about five weeks ago. When me and the missus were talking about what school she would go to, this seemed like a great idea. We both went to Catholic schools, and in fact when we first met, we bonded cosily about how innately funny members of the clergy were in a learning environment. "We used to have Brothers teaching at my school, wearing habits with hoods and a knotted rope for a belt!" giggled the missus.

What we didn't realise is that Catholicism has been going a bit funny since we were at school. Evidence of this started to arrive after a couple of weeks through our daughter, who had nothing to tell us about playing or doing sums or reading stories or making new friends, but lots to tell us about God and saying prayers and how God lives in the sky. It is worth me mentioning before I go any further that the school isn't run by the baddies out of The Da Vinci Code or anything, it's a normal state school that has to teach the National Curriculum and is located conveniently close to the curry restaurant that we sometimes get takeaways from on a Friday night.

I didn't realise it, but the scene was being set for an epic clash of ideologies.

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter asked me about space. I fired up the computer and showed her some pictures of the International Space Station, where you could see the Earth in the background and the land and sea lying beneath the clouds. I found NASA's Spot the Station website and showed her how if she wanted, we could get up early in the morning and see if we could see the space station through our binoculars. She was really excited about this, and she asked if we could get up one Sunday morning so that we could have a go at spotting the space station.

Then, the evening before, she walked up to me looking a bit nervous. She wasn't giving me eye contact, which is unusual for someone who is very comfortable with using the Fierce Stare as a negotiating tactic.

"Daddy, I don't want to get up and look for the space station. I'm a bit worried about space." she said.

"That's alright, Kate," I said, "it would have meant getting up in the middle of the night and we both would have been a bit sleepy the next day. Just let me know if you change you mind."

And I didn't think anything more about it. Until the younger daughter got us up in the middle of the night to tell us how unhappy she was about cutting her first tooth. And then, as I was falling asleep again, I realised: She was worried about God and the Space Station meeting.  Her teacher at school had told her that God lived up int he sky - told her in fact, that he hung around in more or less the same neighbourhood as the space station, and she was worried about them bumping into each other. Kate had cooked up a very literal clash of science and religion.

I am fairly well disposed towards religion. As I said a bit further up, me and Mrs L had really quite positive experiences of Catholicism when we were growing up which emphasised things like feeling yourself to have a place in the world, and a cultural heritage;  and looking out for your friends or family and feeling that they would look out for you too. The impression I think we both got of Catholicism was that it was big, but comfortable with its absurdities and its place in the world. If you'd asked me, I would have probably said that most of the Catholics I grew up with would have been comfortable with the idea that science is what you use to tell you about the world, and religion is what you use to put you enquiry within a moral framework. I would have been very surprised if you'd have told me that anyone could have honestly got that the other way round, thinking that dogma is important enough to get in the way of learning about the world. It's not just the god and the space station either. Over the last couple of weeks, I've heard the parish priest say that Martin Luther was wrong because he protested, and that Catholics can't - can't - support gay marriage, because it doesn't conform to what the Church says marriage is. "Religion should make you feel uncomfortable." said the priest. And it does.