Monthly Archives: July 2015

Why are we still going for gold?

First you get to the perfumes, cosmetics and toiletries. Then the chocolates. Then the shisha pipes and fancy lighters. After that it gets a bit more boring – no hand cream testers here. Just magazines, snacks and refrigerated drinks. Maybe some vacuum packed dried fruit, cheap flip flops and falafel wraps. And of course the dealers in bars of gold.

This was the scene as I walked through Oman International Airport last summer, and one that wouldn’t be much different from the many airport departure lounges scattered across the Middle East. Gold could be bought in the country of origin at internationally stated prices, transported elsewhere and sold in the local currency- thus circumventing any potential cronyism from an unknown currency exchange officer in another country, and preventing the chances of stacks of cash disappearing abroad. In an uncertain world, this seems pretty common sense. It wasn’t long ago that our own Bank of England was pegging the pound sterling to the price of gold. Still having the gold rich Americas to exploit and an unlimited supply of forced labour, until our conscience got the better of us and gold supply became more precarious the system worked alright.

But even now, the use of gold as an international medium of exchange has in no way disappeared. One of the big selling points of the airport gold dealers is that they’re duty-free. This doesn’t make much difference if the gold is staying in the country; sales tax is usually low to non-existent in most Middle Eastern countries (being sceptical, let’s remind ourselves or the reason most international businesses are there in the first place…) But undoubtedly, not all the gold is staying within its national borders. Whilst transfers of financial assets abroad would usually be taxed and recorded, gold can more easily be hidden. In effect, it’s the black market currency of the high flyers and the dubious.

Because gold is priced in dollars on international markets the price of gold is still intimately, inversely related to the dollar. This translated to a 200% increase in the price of gold between January 2008 and August 2013 over the course of the economic downturn. With the international economy seemingly on the mend, prices have since fallen 20%. So put simply, the better the US economy is doing the greater the demand for US dollars; the worse its doing, the greater the demand for gold. When interests rates remain low, at least the hope of selling on gold at inflated future prices keeps speculators on their feet.

But how long can the inverse boom and bust of gold keep going on for? As increasing emphasis is placed on ethical investing, surely the gold market will be scorned on as an archaic backwater- after all, it has few selling points; it’s an inert metal that in itself cannot accumulate in value, and one’s personal ownership of it has no collateral benefits. Buying gold doesn’t educate people, it doesn’t improve their infrastructure or healthcare, and it certainly doesn’t promote peace.

To an onlooker, the whole idea seems a bit crazy. We go to a country plagued by the ironic misfortune of being materially rich. We the already elite to exploit the labour of the already poor (invariably one of Michael Collins’ The Bottom Billion), circumvent local taxes – some of which, possibly, may have gone into the public purse, then dig another whole and pay someone else to guard it. And when the economy’s looking good we give it all up as quickly as possible (and, in america’s case, pretend we earnt it in real estate).

As the world attempts to respond to the pressures of increasing population, climate change and economic inequality we can only hope that the bubble of gold-mania will burst, and burst for good. We can’t continue to mine, process and distribute gold as is being done at the moment whilst neglecting the evermore pertinent issues we are facing. The storage of financial assets in times of uncertainty is of course understandable and sensible, but it’s high time that more equitable and environmentally friendly depositories are investigated. The expansion of government bonds are a clear suggestion. According to old- fashioned Keynesian teaching if more money is made available to a government to borrow it will become cheaper for them to do so. An increase in government spending will therefore soften the blow of economic downturn and hopefully get the economy back on the straight and narrow without such huge debts as may be accrued when borrowing from an international lender. With both genuine public investment of this kind being directed into emerging Asian and Latin American economies and the EU’s fiscal deal with Greece harbouring at least temporary financial security within Europe, let’s hope a trend is kicking off.

But this will require a sense of trust, and it probably be unwise to be too hopeful. As economic analyst Adam Forrest recently commented, ‘Gold is a mirror. It reflects our deepest fears that the people running the world don’t really know what they’re doing.’ When we loose confidence- in our governments, neighbours or investments, we turn to gold.  And as long as we turn to gold, we turn away from truly lateral development.

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The Pledge

I worry about being a persistent admirer. At least, being solely a persistent admirer. It’s quite a scary thought. One of those who makes deliberate visits to the magazine shelves in the Victoria Station WHSmith to gape at Beyoncé’s ability to be vegan. Or the toned physique of the latest celebrity unveiled in their holiday snaps from a secluded Caribbean Island; sea behind them twinkling in the sunlight and hair coiffured to perfection. Maybe even a yacht or collection of palm trees in the background. Of course, this admiration comes with no intention of adopting the required diet or exercise plans. Nor going on holiday (or buying the magazine). These are the lives of the rich and famous, and we’re waiting for the train.

And its easy to brush off those who spend hours on youtube researching tracks and ‘unknown’ mixes. They play favoured consistently for 4-5 days until unable to bear it again- long after those around them have felt the same, before making the swift U-turn from 90s deep house to Chopin as the playlist of choice.

I am also that person who delves into the posts of arty instagramers (currently on @pauloctavious @thiswildidea ) and for an afternoon inspiration is found in every street lamp, shop window or park landscape. I am the unstoppable amateur artiste. The lighting, graininess and timing…. The pure depth and meaning of the shots convey so much…. to me. I then realise that I, my second hand acer (they do make phones) and admittedly poor photo editor fail to give the desired ambience. Perhaps I should stick to more generic shots.

I suppose I’ll probably always be all of the above, and that’s ok – but I’m not just all of the above. I’m also someone who wants to care. I don’t want to simply admire others caring. I don’t want to only receive. A few months ago I lost someone that I feel like I never really knew. Although I didn’t expect it to have a big effect on me, it really did. Before shock or sadness, pain or disbelief it was guilt that really struck me. Not because the death was especially my fault or I could have changed the situation, but because there was a person – a resource of thoughts, experiences, emotions and insights that I had neglected and a mind that could no longer be picked, let alone understood.

I became increasingly aware of the power of individuals, both in a personal and wider sense. The power of family bonds that I had previously not realised, and the power of greater, ‘global’ individuals that have such an impression on the lives of others- many of whom they may never come into contact with. How might the world be different if it were bereft of their particular passions and observations? What if Malcom X or Rosa Parks had played a more passive role in the fight for civil rights, sitting by and watching the progress take motion from afar? Or if Aung San Suu Kyi just wasn’t so bothered about the political potential of democracy?

Or, more to the point, the largely anonymous comedians and journalists operating from the bars and street corners of Harare who risk so much to bring to light the malpractice of the Mugabe government. If not change, at least their work brings about a collective political awareness amongst their neighbours, colleagues and friends. And those documenting the daily struggles of the people of Soweto, Johannesburg. The violence, unemployment and invisibility they endure as their elected government look on – but also the rich communal atmosphere and relatively developed informal economies that prosper from its corrugated steel huts. In a sense, the cultural wealth of its people.

These are people who really see the world. They don’t just admire it, but synthesise it, debate it within themselves and act on it. To me, this is the true power of humanity – the ability to conceptualise the world and pass on that conception.

So this is my attempt to make up for the guilt. This is a pledge to myself to both receive and ‘admire’ the world (even if it is through Heat magazine) but also to analyse and act on it. Who knows how long we’ll be here, and who knows what is contained in the minds of those around us.

A letter to the first person to tell me they loved me

So you said good luck and goodbye. You said maybe we should have seen other before I went. I said maybe. But we didnt, and I suppose if it mattered then we would have.

And then I didn’t know what else to say, so I said thank you and bye. And we simultaneously hung up.

I think we think we’ve spoken twice in the past year. The first time, at a mutual friend’s birthday party you hardly knew anyone. You stuck to me like glue, telling me about your great life at your fancy university with fancy friends and big ambitions. Your eyes were on the future and we weren’t going to discuss the past. I said I was happy for you and you said I should come visit, for a weekend perhaps. If I could take the time off work. Sure.

As it happened, a few months later I was passing nearby. I called and you came out to meet me; the first time I had been alone with you since the last time. And finally, I felt pretty hollow towards you. The knot of emotion that had kept me tied up for last five years had been released. Or at least relaxed. There was no excitement or nervousness, nor sense of anger or betrayal. I was blank and we had both at least partially found someone new to keep us going to the gym and occupied at weekends. I just wanted to understand what had happened and how I had got so caught up. But in your predictable dismissive style you relented once again about how ‘busy’ life was and trailed me through the supermarket listening to your deliberations over the superior washing powder and what to buy for dinner. When I realised you were buying for one, I got the hint and left you in peace.

So its fine if we never really connect again. I accept that recognition of what happened – that chunk of our lives that proved so formative for us both has been conveniently swept away (just as we conveniently swept away so much else) and I won’t ask anything more from you. Each time you pop up on snapchat looking tanned in the south of France or in dinner jackets at private parties I realise how far our lives have diverged and the full extent of our dissimilarities. I still remember your obsession with sunbathing and fear of appearing pasty in photos. And can smell your tower of hair gel and doses of Lynx. I suppose they now resemble a memory, not an emotion. (And thank God for that.) But even if I say nothing else to you again, I want you to know the effect you had on me and the distorted perception of ‘love’ that we somehow came to adopt.

We met fresh out of primary school. You were short and I was quiet. I don’t remember much more than that. As the years slipped by we shared classes and friends and interests, and probably stepped up the flirtation as we experimented in our own worlds of the early teens with little concept of the consequences. I had been suspicious of ‘romantic’ relationships from the start – my mum and sister had both been let down in some way through those they had loved and I had developed my own armour of never trusting a boy too deeply. Have fun, enjoy their company, but be wary of emotional attachment. In my eyes, it could only ever be dangerous.

I suppose you gave off the same attitude – or it seemed to suit you at least. The older you got the more ‘macho’ you became, with numerous ‘girlfriends’, jokes and well timed one-liners. You were clever and charming and flippant, and we were trying to understand ourselves. Looking back on it now, I had an unusually liberal upbringing and was free to experiment, discover and navigate for myself – and with us, nothing was a big deal. So when I found myself at home with you one night and, having just turned fifteen candidly stepped into my first sexual ‘encounter’ I thought little of the blood that soaked the sheets or the unusual pain I was feeling. You seemed to be fine, and the next morning we put on the washing machine and watched The Inbetweeners.

We drifted through another year of friendship. You would phone me in the holidays and I would walk around London streets in the dark. You would open my eyes to science, TV programmes and good music. Through you, I would escape for a bit into what seemed like a bigger, greater world and I really did value it. I’m sorry I didn’t show you at the time how much I appreciated you.

And I can understand how you felt betrayed. Just as I mock your ‘busy’ life now, as we got into sixth form I took on new courses, responsibilities and interests, and so did you. The circle of friends that had meshed us seemed to dissipate and I saw you less and less. Due to my timetable I ended up spending entire days with one of your best friends. But when I invited him and not you to the dinner you didn’t need to feel jealous – we had a different relationship and he had in no way ‘replaced’ you. (Whatever that position that you held was…) Anyway, you had other girls to chase buy that time, and were more than occupied doing so.

But when I next saw you at a house party a few months later and we crept out and got lost once again along winding London roads, reminiscing private jokes and past events and you made me laugh like no one else I couldn’t help but feel the sense of closeness and energy I had missed. Work and deadlines and home felt so far away. We once again seemed important.

And perhaps I should have seen what was coming. Perhaps we needed some confirmation of where we were. I realised I had grown a bit distant in the last few months, but we were still friends, I assumed? We were getting on with life. After all, it was you who had reminded me- for whatever had come before, we were just learning, right?

But from laughing and joking and a clumsy kiss under the streetlights it seemed within a second I was standing against the backdoor of a garage with my clothes discarded among the grass and gravel and I couldn’t move. We weren’t fifteen anymore. This wasn’t testing the water, or taking a punch in the dark. By that time you understand good experiences and bad experiences and roughly know what to expect from sex. I had thought you were a bit drunk. Well you obviously weren’t. In that moment I forgot where I was and who this person was I was with. I forgot the conversations we had had over the years and secrets we had shared. The experiences we had gone through and all those words meant nothing. I wasn’t this kind of girl. This wasn’t meant to happen to me, and I needed to get out.

I had lost my tights but I found my dress at least. And one shoe. You passed me the other without speaking. I charged out from the alley of garage doors back onto the street with no idea of where to go. Out onto the main road, pacing past kebab shops and 24 hour convenience stores- their vendors clearly perturbed by my shaggy appearance. I felt humiliated and embarrassed and for once, wanted to go home.  I heard you running after me, shouting. You grabbed hold of my arm and I pushed you away. I didn’t want anyone to touch me. I wanted to feel fierce and strong, although I probably looked much the opposite. You stood back, and said you knew the way. We walked in silence up to the house. I slipped past the throngs of drunken friends and into the shower and you slid upstairs and went to sleep. I had left by the time you woke up.

We went through another few months of not speaking. Not deliberately, I suppose. We just didn’t come into contact and I didn’t miss you. We were growing up once again, each discovering new people and I assumed that chapter of our lives and the ‘mistakes’ contained in it had closed. So when we realised that in the final year our school duties would bring about a forced closeness, it came as a shock. You apologised for scaring me off and I apologised for over-reacting and not much else was said. I’m still not sure if either of those two things really depict the situation but that was the easiest thing to say at the time and it was clear we needed to get over any past issues. This was a ‘professional’ relationship we were pretending to forge, although I think it was just as clear to you as to me that wouldn’t be the case.

As my work loads piled up, it was you who could relax me in the way I had relied on in the past. Perhaps it was the familiarity when so much of life had changed. Now, everything seemed exciting. Compared to the evening phone calls cut off by bad signal or hiding out in the churchyard at the bottom of my road suddenly we were dining on food we couldn’t pronounce and causing havoc on British airways. We would get crazily drunk from dessert wine (my tolerance level always being around a fifth of yours), then prowl about the City in the early hours forging ten-minute friendships with the homeless and road maintenance workers. You would blast out Duke Dumont on the train and we would take over the carriage (being the only ones on it), acting like we were thirteen again and everything meant nothing. And it was all our secret. The next day we’d both go back to lessons and duties and sports matches and homework and music practise and pretend we could take on the mantel of being quasi- adults. It scared me how quickly I always seemed to get used to you. And now it was you who was telling me that it was ok – don’t worry, nothing was serious. It was all on the surface, just having fun and avoiding the skirmishes and deep feelings that we presumed had been the problem in the past.

This was around the same time that another girl fell madly for you and you tagged her along until she could no longer accept that you would never be her boyfriend. You complained of her getting ‘too attached’. I hope you now realise that that’s what normal people do – they get attached, and it was us who deluded ourselves to the assumption that attachment was a bad thing. At least she recognised the need to know where she stood. And I was beginning to find someone who I unusually trusted and I suppose by accident he made me realise the gravity of the situation I had got myself in. Bit by bit the fallacy of the past years was inadvertently being knocked away and the remnants came crashing down. And regardless of that, somehow he was important. I found myself unable to backtrack on him in the way I had with everyone else up to then. Maybe I missed a chance, but we were friends and I liked that. More to the point because of you the idea of committing to anything felt so far away. He had had a succession of what seemed like serious girlfriends whom I doubted I could ever live up to. He was intense and serious and made me wary of all my weaknesses, but at the same time someone I specifically didn’t want to just dip into and forget about. Nothing about him was on the surface – completely your opposite. Even so, I was scared of slipping into the same again. My protective shields were up and it took me too long to realise that I probably wouldn’t have needed them. Before I knew it he had found someone else, and you and I had neatly lapsed back into our comfortable, ridiculous limbo.

Through her, you could have had the option to grow up. You can complain and bitch but she could have helped you. At the time, she genuinely loved and wanted to understand you. And for me, although it came as a shock suddenly I was finally willing to at least try to grow up. By then, we both needed it so badly. This wasn’t fun and carefree anymore; it was unhealthy and frustrating. I suppose I can really only be annoyed at myself for allowing you to get in the way again. Maybe it was my need for reassurance, or to stay in my quasi-comfort zone? Well, I was sick of it by then; I still don’t really understand.

This will be the third year since we left that tunnel. I’ve learnt that that the drama and insecurity that came with it isn’t normal. I don’t know if you’re still deluding yourself in your void between friendship and relationship. Or which of the girls on your facebook page have bowed down to your experience and  and been left assuming they were special. Maybe they’re older and wiser than I was. But for them- they shouldn’t be led to think that’s what friendship with you amounts to.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not blaming you, or me, or the situation we were in – I think we both realise it was all of those combined. And really, after all this I don’t resent the highs and lows. There were just as many good memories and bad and those are to be battled through and learnt from. I just resent how drawn out it all was. The time I wasted and the imprint you left on me. It seems like the more I took in the idea that everything meant nothing, the more this ‘nothing’ seemed to get in the way of everything. That fantasy may have been ok when things started out, but there were wider consequences by the end.

And after so long in the tunnel, without the structures that had surrounded us I was shocked by how unimportant you suddenly became. Yes, I was in the dark a bit. And it certainly took me a while to relax into my baby steps – but I enjoyed doing so, and I’ve once again learnt a lot in the years since. Things don’t have to be so complicated and covert. It’s ok to trust and believe in and even rely on people, and to expect the same in return. Of course, there a mistakes still to be made but we don’t need to worry about making them. I hope for you, you’ve been able to realise the same thing. Speaking to you on that last night I think we both felt equally grateful that that was it.