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Cars, Guns and Money* June 17, 2011

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

*And if Cars, Guns & Money don’t push this up Google’s rankings, then my name isn’t Willy the Web-bot…

Now anyone who owns a car knows that ominous moment when the costs of continually repairing it suggests cutting one’s losses and flogging it. The days when I could afford to buy new cars whose value dropped 10-20% the moment you left the showroom are long gone and my strategy since has been to buy a reasonably contemporary 8–10 year-old car for under a grand and get rid of it when its worth has shrunk to £300-400, and/or it’s started to cost me more than that in repairs. That means a few years of agreeable and agreeably economic motoring and after 18 months that’s where I’ve got to with my latest daily driver – a term that prompts shrieks of mirth from certain female friends, all of whom naturally have weightier matters on their minds. (I’m obviously ignoring the automotive folly that is my beloved Lancia Gamma, but then that’s a ‘classic’ used only on  high days and holidays).

Normally this realisation would herald trawling the classifieds for another cheapo turbo-diesel estate but I recently had the misfortune to make a new friend who catapulted me back to 2006 when I briefly owned a Citroen XM. He and his wife both have one of these incredibly stylish, Bertone-designed machines with their highly sophisticated (i.e. complicated) hydropneumatic suspension and extensive (i.e. complicated) electrical systems which when working properly, endow the car with its legendary ‘magic carpet ride’ and gorgeous driving experience.

Unfortunately when Citroen launched the XM in the 1989 it was in the midst of a financial crisis and thus specified cheap, often flimsy electrical components that soon rendered much of its advanced technology prone to failure, which was expensive and tricky to fettle. And that’s why I got rid of mine. The value of used XMs duly fell off a cliff and sales of the somewhat improved Series 2 models introduced in 1993/4 never redeemed their tarnished reputation, so those that remain, and there are probably less than a thousand left on UK roads, usually cost peanuts but are a bit buggered.

My late, lamented but soon-to-be-replaced mobile money-pit, the Citruin XM

Nevertheless like meeting an old flame you wish you’d never deserted, when I saw my friend’s beautiful XM settled on its haunches in a Highgate street with all the subdued, elegant menace of a sleeping tiger – after starting their engines these cars rise sensually off the ground– I knew that nothing else could now replace a daily driver coming to the end of my wallet’s tolerance.

So these past few weeks I’ve been traveling the country to view XMs in various states of decline, their owners sheepishly trying to explain away lumpy suspension, knackered transmissions, stuck closed windows or stuck on warning lights as easy to fix when I know they’re not. This frustrating exercise is partly ameliorated by boisterous exchanges on the Club XM webforum where die-hard fans, most of whom seem to be retired engineers have the time and ability to repair a stable of weary cars so that at least one of them is always, ahem, a daily driver. As with most webfora, arcane and often incomprehensible references hinder the uninitiated from reaching informed decisions about cars with this or that fault in the hope that they might be cheap(ish)ly fixable by someone who isn’t a stellar mechanic (i.e. me) or lives near that increasingly scarce professional who understands these cars’ foibles (i.e. me again). But at least it’s a sufficiently entertaining diversion from what should be a pragmatic process of replacing one aging banger with a slightly younger model and indeed, the equally tedious business of day-to-day survival in the worst recession in living memory (although of course I am a victim of early onset Alzheimers).

Which brings me neatly to guns, or at least military expenditure, which according to the Commons Public Accounts Committee and taking into account cancelled projects and overspend on existing ones due to the MoD’s incompetence and possibly vested interests, is running some £36billion over-budget. Put into the context of the UK’s total budget deficit of £167billion, that mightn’t seem too much of a worry, but add on the cost of replacing our Trident nuclear submarines – currently estimated at up to £130billion – and suddenly all the political hand-wringing and subsequent public belt-tightening that we are told must follow in the wake of the bank bail-outs ought to make us very angry indeed.

That’s of course if you agree that threats of military Armageddon having diminished to the point of irrelevance (we can leave the yanks and the Israelis to bomb Iran if that country persists in its nuclear adventurism), replacing Trident is unnecessary. Indeed we would’ve been better off not scrapping the Ark Royal and the Harrier fleet which has resulted in, for example, the massively increased cost of our Libyan skirmishing by having to fly land-based fighter jets from Italy.

So as your heating, food, transport and education bills inexorably rise over the next few years, your public services close down and the pot-holed roads remain unrepaired because our government withdraws the financial support or increases the taxes that  would otherwise stay these very real threats to our living standards, ask your local political representatives why they refuses to address the elephant in the room that is military expenditure. As for me, well if I do manage to buy a Citroen XM that’s working properly, at least I’ll be floating over those pot-holes in comfort and style, possibly whilst playing my violin. And until then I shall persist in my insane pursuit of doomed Gallic romance.

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Books: The Future is Daunted June 8, 2011

Posted by markswill in About me, Media, Navel Gazing.

It’s been a long time since I last gave vent to my skewed polemic – at least in this forum – but all good things must come to an end. And the end in this case is the completion of an oddly unsettling draft of a book I was paid to write, and as the job I thought I was moving onto directly afterwards has evaporated, I find myself with a window of opportunity through which I can now fling the stored-up bile that’s been festering these past few months. So abundant is this that I will probably be scribbling something every few days, so watch out…

But let’s begin with the news that the seriously loss-making Waterstones book chain has recently been acquired by a Russian oligarch, Alesander Malmut, who has entrusted the boutique bookseller, James Daunt, to run it. Ill-informed wannabe bibliophiles such as I allowed a smidge of relief at this news, because Daunt’s six London outlets are what good bookshops should be: comprehensibly stocked; well organised; knowledgeably and enthusiastically staffed. And because they are all in affluent areas such as Belsize Park and Marylebone, they attract well-heeled, middle-class punters who can live with his no-discount policy. But Waterstones has almost 300 branches, many of them in soulless shopping centres where discounts are essential to get people into the shops to buy a limited selection of heavily promoted titles.

Recent newspaper interviews have revealed that contrary to previous suggestions, Daunt will not be ending Waterstones’ discount policies and he acknowledges that adopting the ‘neighbourhood bookstore’ model that works so well for leafy Hampstead will be a tough call in, say, a dying shopping precinct in Hereford. He also is mindful that Amazon are selling more e-books that paper ones and tantalisingly promises that Waterstones will ramp up its own online business whilst claiming, rather naïvely in my view, “When people say books are dead, I don’t recognise that. Why wouldn’t you want to spend half an hour in a really nice bookshop?”

Well James, because they don’t have the time and inclination, or at least not enough of them do even if, as he also claims, “a good bookshop introduces readers to books that they otherwise might not have encountered.” And the key here is ‘not enough of them’ because there aren’t sufficiently well read, slightly genteel readers that his own bookshops profit from to make Waterstones work. And with the cost of just living, i.e. eating, traveling and paying the utilities rising inexorably in these straitened times, which casual reader going to buy a paperback, even discounted to £5.99 when they can get it at half that price for an Elonex e-reader they’ve just bought for eighty quid from, well, Waterstones?

I accept that I’m not as avid a reader as many of my friends, so Daunt may be right and I may be wrong, but what is undeniable is that according to comprehensive research by the National Literary Trust, one in four 11 year-old schoolkids can’t read properly, and according to the Evening Standard, one in six adult Londoners is functionally illiterate. The Standard’s research also revealed that one in three children doesn’t own a book yet 85% of them own a games console. Although you and I of a certain age and education may regard these statistics as little else but lamentable, they should be giving Mr Daunt sleepless nights.

He must also be mindful of Wellington College’s recent decision to dispose of half its library books in favour of providing e-book access to its students… or at least those that won’t be functionally illiterate by the time this policy kicks in. In enraged response to this news, my new friend and professional scribbler (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, ex-Wellington student), Terence Blacker commented in his Independent column, “A book, in its traditional form, provides, unlike any other medium, a direct, private and personal form of communication – imagination to imagination, brain to brain. It is unmediated, beyond the control of bosses, teachers, big business, politicians. It is an experience which can change lives. Reading by computers is entirely different. The communication between writer and reader is de-personalised. The surprise element – ‘I picked it up, read it’ – is almost entirely lost, and it is from those startling moments of discovery that real reading (and intellectual freedom) derive.”

James Daunt might well agree, but I wonder if he or indeed you may come, however reluctantly, to the conclusion that ‘traditional books’, and in their wake, printed magazines, will inevitably become extinct? For example I read in the latest issue of InPublishing magazine (the printed version, naturally) that increasing numbers of magazine subscribers – admittedly as opposed to casual buyers – want digital versions of printed magazines: 37% in the case of computer titles (not much surprise there perhaps), but also 22% of women’s celebrity magazines.

But if literacy as we know it is on the wane what will these magazines look like? Websites is the obvious answer, where gobbets of colourfully presented information in words of few syllables pander to the short attention spans of people who grew up glued to their games consoles and without books. And books themselves will exist only as glorified, or even simplified video games. One could argue that this is a good thing because it will give employment to the thousands of people laid off when Waterstones, like my local bookshop (see Better Read Than Dead blog, March 1st) go out of business and the printers, distributors and most of the traditional publishing houses who supplied them lay off now redundant staff… provided of course that they can re-train as website or video game developers. As for the rest of us who can’t or won’t, well we’ll be all the poorer, both financially and culturally.

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