Friday, November 23, 2012

The Great Escape Part II: Adjusted for Inflation

Free as a bird. Soaring in the skies above Libya.

As I write these words I am flying in the belly of a giant metal bird over the duned sands of the Sahara Desert. No, I’m not dreaming or hallucinating, I’m sitting on board a huge plane and making my way from Amsterdam to Kenya, where I will be spending the next couple of weeks. Below me stretches out the seemingly infinite expanse of Libya.

What is a peak oil blogger like me doing on a monstrous energy-guzzling vehicle like this? Well, that’s a long story and you’re quite welcome to call me a hypocrite if it makes you feel better. The fact of the matter is that I’m being paid to go and write about Kenya for the company I work for. It’s not a bad job, compared to some that I’ve had.

Did I mention how big this plane was? It has two floors! Two floors! And it’s as long as a very long bowling alley. What’s more, for every passenger there are around five empty seats on this giant bird. We are moving at 597mph and our weight is almost 400 tonnes. It doesn’t seem right that something so huge and heavy should be able to glide through the skies as I sit here and sip Chilean wine from a plastic glass. My grandchildren, if I ever have any, will never believe it.

So there will be an official me and an unofficial me. The official one will be writing about safari lodges and charismatic megafauna, while the unofficial one will be keeping a steady uncensored eye on the things going on in this corner of Africa - the exact spot where John Michael Greer recently set his end of empire short story and identified as a likely flashpoint for a proxy war between the US and China.*

But anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here in what is supposed to be the second installment of my autobiography-lite. You can read the first installment by clicking here if you haven't already done so.

Where was I? Oh yes, London.

After I completed my first round of A levels at 18 I was faced with a stark choice. For reasons that are too boring to go into, I found myself facing another year in Solihull while all my friends went off to different universities around England. If I stayed on and completed my studies in classics and English then I should be all set for studying archaeology at some vaguely prestigious university, which fitted in with my new plan to become a dusty-bearded globe-trotting itinerant who might perhaps one day discover something interesting in a tomb somewhere.

But of course I lacked the will and stamina for that so I decided to drop out and become an economist. My motivations for doing so were purely social ones. I couldn’t face another year in my home town and, it was rumoured that they let any Tom, Dick or Harry onto economics courses.
So when my parents came back from a two-week caravanning holiday in France they were shocked to hear that I was leaving home. When? they asked. Next weekend, I said.

And that’s how I suddenly found myself in London. Well, not quite London. The university to which I had been granted access was Middlesex University, based in Enfield, north London. Because of the tight timespan there was no chance to find anywhere to live and I found myself living in my parent’s caravan in a field outside the northern boundary of the city, not far from the M25 orbital motorway. That’s where I spent the first term, which just happened to be winter, trying not to freeze to death in an icy field.

The university had several campuses spread over north London, but there were two main ones. One was a large stately home in acres of parkland populated by art students (a codeword for ‘nice girls’) and the other was a dreary concrete tower block in a depressed suburb (Ponders End, if you must know) populated by belligerent boorish militant socialists. Guess which one I ended up in?

When I had recovered from the culture shock I decided I had better start trying to enjoy studying economics. And here was the surprising thing: it was nothing like I had expected it to be.
For the first year the course was mainly concerned with philosophy. Thus I was introduced to Rousseau, Marx, Smith (to balance out Marx), Malthus and a whole load of other deep thinkers. The fact that I had chosen to study the social science path rather than the maths-based path of econometrics seemed like a good decision to me.

I moved into a flat with a bunch of new friends and a number of wild parties ensued. Anyone who has ever seen the TV programme The Young Ones will have some sort of idea where I am coming from.
The first couple of years passed in a flash. It was also an interesting time politically. The Berlin Wall had just been knocked down, Margaret Thatcher was in the process of being back-stabbed and got rid of, and large scale riots were erupting in London over the introduction of the Poll Tax (and those riots were being organized by my fellow students at my campus).

At the end of my second year I had to find a job for a year in some place that vaguely complemented my study of economics. I was a bit despondent as I had grown used to being a student i.e. not doing much work at all, and anyway, I had no idea where to apply to. So imagine my shock when I was, for reasons unknown to me, suggested as an intern at Her Majesty’s Treasury. When I saw the official letter, with its embossed letterhead, my eyes almost fell out of my head.

And so I spent one of the weirdest working years of my life as an intern in the Economic Forecasting department of the Treasury. I sat in a huge office with just me, an irritable stuttering boss (who was a genius with statistics) and a greenscreen computer console. My boss generated the statistics, I laboriously typed them into the monitor and then made computer printouts of the charts I made. At the end of each day I saved all my work on a brick-sized hard drive which I then locked in a bombproof safe (it had to be bombproof because the IRA kept letting off bombs nearby, one of which shook my office like a thunderclap).

The charts were all the same: GDP growth projections for the UK economy. My boss, in his cleverness, could make the dotted line, which was the projection, wiggle up or down depending on various factors and variables that were added into an unholy mix. There was nothing inherently wrong about this, it just depended on the simple fact that most people don't have a degree in statistics and can therefore not comprehend what 'GDP weighted for seasonality and adjusted for inflation including indexed data and excluding mortgage adjustments' is. Instead they just think 'growth forecast' and ignore the fact that it always looks better before budgets and elections.

Big Ben was right outside our window and its bonging signified lunch every day for me and the other interns. This was taken in the canteen with the great and good of British politics of the day. Norman Lamont was the chancellor at the time, with John Major having just left to fill Thatcher’s still warm shoes. Other faces we would see included David Mellor, Chris Patten and various other rabble from the Conservative Party.

The Treasury was a weird building. Cavernous doesn’t even begin to describe it. It was full of long corridors with giant offices, more often than not populated by balding depressed-looking men wearing crumpled suits: in other words, economists. Huge stacks of paper were got through each day, which were then wheeled away by porters with trolleys for shredding. Nobody spoke and the only sounds (except for Big Ben and my boss cursing under his breath) was the constant echo of footfalls along huge lonely corridors.

We interns found a way of avoiding the mind-numbing work. Down in the basement of the building, below the streets of Whitehall, there were dozens of rooms stuffed full of the dusty detritus of Britain’s vanished empire. It was here that Churchill set up his war office, and it seemed to us that nobody had been down there since.

We found a room with an old pool table in it and filled it with candles so we could see. This we set up an ongoing pool tournament, which wiled away many an hour when we were supposed to be working. Nobody ever found out about it because the Treasury was so big that all one had to do when reappearing after several hours MIA was make sure you had a pen stuck behind one ear and were carrying a piece of paper and looking serious - nobody ever questioned you. It was my first lesson in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and how to get around it.

While I was working there I rented a room in a house in Highgate, close to where Karl Marx is buried. It was a big house with a big garden and I made a couple of good friends there. We were variously, Luke, a carpenter; Idris, a Turkish Cypriot tennis coach; Katarina, a high class Danish prostitute who would bring rich businessmen round to the house like a cat brings in dead mice; Rob, a friendly bearded South African ex-soldier cycle nut who lived in a corner of the attic for free and would literally cycle across continents for fun; and Sam, a northern Irish Big Bank employee and wheeler dealer who taught me a lot about how to make money out of thin air.

I actually spend quite some time working for Sam with his various legal scams. He would, for instance, sell things he had seen advertised in the local papers for twice the value – and then quickly buying them if he got an offer, sometimes with disastrous consequences. (These days Sam scours the US looking for unwanted Airstream Caravans, ships the back to the UK, does them up and sells them for a fortune. You have to hand it to him.)

Occasionally, when something politically important was coming up at the Treasury (like a budget) there would be more visits by ministers to our department by ministers than usual. The lesson I took away from all this is that you can do all sorts of politically useful things with numbers and statistics if you make them complex enough. 

One day, to reward us for all of our hard work, we were invited to Downing Street. As I showed my security pass to the policeman and he opened the gate for me into what could be the world’s most famous street, I felt like I had entered another reality. Only four years before I had been a snarling rebel. What had happened to me?

At the reception I got to talk to the government’s head economist Alan Budd. He was behind much of the ‘neo liberal’ thinking that has driven economic policy in the UK for the past 20 years, but I couldn’t manage a single intelligent word. All I managed to splutter to him was that a student at my university had been propelled through a plate glass door that week by a police car after protesting against student grant cutbacks (loans were being introduced back then). It was meant to sound jokey, but it came across all wrong due to my nervousness and he gave me a funny look and moved onto the next person.

I also spent that year writing my thesis which was entitled something like ‘The UK in Respect to the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the inevitability of Economic and Monetary Union across Europe’.  Yes, it was a page turner. My tutor didn’t really care what I wrote as long as I included lots of authorative looking charts (which I was by now an expert at), dozens of footnotes and a conclusion that stated full monetary union would be achieved across Europe.

I think I must have put a curse on the Treasury because literally the week after I left at the end of my year-long stint Black Wednesday happened and the UK almost bankrupted itself trying to remain in the ERM. Happy days.

After I left, with a pocketful of money, for the first time in my life I got on an aeroplane and jetted off to Canada and America for a three month odyssey of hitchhiking and riding the rails.

I’ll talk about that and plenty more in my next blog post, which will appear at some point over the next two weeks, or whenever I encounter an internet connection.

* Okay, it's a day later now and I'm sat in my colonial era hotel enclave in Nairobi where non-VIPs have to walk through a metal detector and past numerous security guards to get in. I've just had a coffee and read the local paper which is full of the news that 40 policemen were massacred by a 400 strong armed militia as they were trying to crack down on Kenya's big boomtime business - cattle ranching. 

I arrived at the airport late last night and was told by the driver that a shiny new airport is almost completed - built by the Chinese. "China is very good for us at the moment," he said. I bet it is.

Anyway, I'm just waiting for the same driver. Against howls of indignation I've persuaded him to drive me to Nairobi's biggest slum for a look around. I hear they have a bodged together a biogas electrical generator that runs off human sewage and gives electric light to the residents. Should be interesting...


  1. I dropped out of my first year of college and moved 2300 miles away because of a girl. Only I ended up enlisting in the USN to become a nuclear engineer. Only to drop out yet again due to having a problem with our actions in response to 911. I've dropped out a lot ;0)

    Your life has been very interesting. At least the way you write it.

    Tell your buddy i've got a 1969, 31 foot airstream, sovereign, international land yacht he can have for 1500 usd if he wants it. It's gutted.

  2. I'm gripped by all this, and can't wait to find out how it ends. :) I'm a few years younger than you, and in Canada, but I grew up reading Adrian Dole, watching My Beautiful Laundrette, and listening to Billy Bragg every time he toured the folk festivals out's amazing the twists and turns that have happened in the days since, and how romantic that Reagan-Thatcher era seems now to some. I've been really struck, in watching the US election, by how we've forgotten what polarization really has looked like--how violent and family wrenching--and how much we have been numbed and dumbed into maintaining a more "peaceful" status quo. Or maybe we've just outsourced the violence. Or maybe that's been so for the whole 250 years of the colonial-capitalist empire. I'm rambling. But looking forward to the rest of the story!

  3. "If I stayed on and completed my studies in classics and English then I should be all set for studying archaeology at some vaguely prestigious university, which fitted in with my new plan to become a dusty-bearded globe-trotting itinerant who might perhaps one day discover something interesting in a tomb somewhere.

    But of course I lacked the will and stamina for that so I decided to drop out and become an economist. My motivations for doing so were purely social ones"

    I have not laughed that loud, for awhile. Unquestionably, one of my favorite blogs of late. Global trotting shaman something-or-other. I love it.

  4. When I was about 10 in the early 70s my dad took me to Downing Street and we walked up to the door of number 10 and could have banged the knocker. There was a policeman but he was a friendly chap. The current excessive security tells you all you need to know about where Britain is today.

    I visited Kenya, in 2006 and did a birding safari with some local guides "Nature's Wonderland Safari's". They were great guys apart from being Arsenal supporters, they knew more about english football than we did. The issue that really fascinated me was the melting glacier on Mt Kenya which provides most of Nairobi's drinking water. How big is it now I wonder? Most of kenyas water flows into Lake Victoria and ends up in the Nile. Apparently due to a treaty perpetrated on all parties in the Nile watershed by the British around a 100 years ago, Kenya can only extract a certain low percentage of its own water for agriculture. The lions share goes to Egypt who apparently consider it an act of war if Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda or Kenya take more than was allocated to them. I'd be interested to hear how that one is going.

    1. Phil, I drove past a shack in the Masai Mara at the weekend and all the Maasai tribesmen were inside watching Reading play Man United on a flatscreen.

      As for Mt Kenya's glacier ... having asked a few people nobody seems to have any inking of there being a problem.


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