Tuesday, January 28, 2014

On a seventy-foot yacht

Sometimes I fret about the world my granddaughters will live in. Of course they’re only young yet, and one or both may work and live in foreign countries, like their father and I have done. But wherever they live, it might not be as comfortable for them as the world Linda and I have lived in, and I wonder how they’ll cope. Will they find work easily? Will they find what health-care they need? Will they have pensions to look forward to in their old age?

They are Norwegians, and Norway has a huge “sovereign fund” that can be called on in tough times. But will it be enough? Several European nations have already reduced their state pensions, or have stolen money from private pension funds; and several US cities have already stolen money from their former employees’ trust funds.

Over-borrowing by greedy politicians has screwed everybody. Will my girls be able to find work at all? Economic commentators tell us that the whole world economy is entering a long depression, in which employment opportunities will be severely limited. High rates of inflation may destroy the value of all paper currencies. What then?

Linda and I have never worked in any one country for long enough to acquire government pension rights, and have never been forced to pay into company pension schemes. So now, we have no pensions at all. However, we also haven’t paid Income Tax since we left Canada in 1967, and working in offshore tax-havens has allowed us to salt our savings away. In effect, we financed our own pension fund, and are drawing on it now, in our retirement. (Note to self: persuade the granddaughters to find jobs in offshore tax- havens.)

The most diligent of plans and hopes will never get it 100% right, though. I recall reading a comment made by some English woman in a newspaper interview, about how she and her husband had been forced to pull in their horns financially, after they both stopped working. “He always dreamt of spending his old age on a seventy-foot yacht with a seventeen-year-old companion,” she said. “Instead, the poor old chap has had to settle for a seventeen-foot boat with a seventy-year-old companion. Hah!”

Here’s a story from fifty years ago, from my time as an auditor with Touche Ross in London... Half a dozen of us young auditors, all in our middle twenties, were standing around the office one day during elevenses, drinking coffee. I was the sole expat, and a newbie, being lauded for my reckless bravery in having struck out on my own to see the world. It was embarrassing.

“We could never do that”, one of the group said; “the company would never give us our jobs back.” “Never mind: there are plenty of other jobs”, I said. “I might not get my job back, when I get home.” “That’s all right for you”, he said: “but we’d lose all our pension rights!” They all paled at the thought.

I had no answer to that. English pensions weren’t portable in those days, and changing employers meant starting a pension programme on the bottom rung again, and walking away from however much had been paid into the old scheme. (Australia didn’t have compulsory pensions.)

Back in our Earls Court flat, my fellow wastrels and I marvelled that a bunch of 24-year-olds would worry about benefits that lay forty years and more into the future. Ah well... I wonder if those chaps today are receiving their full entitlements to their promised pensions. I wonder if any of them are spending their retirement living on a seventy-foot yacht, with or without a seventeen-year-old companion.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Lady Agatha’s legacy

Crichton the butler had assumed leadership of a small group of survivors shipwrecked on a desert island; Lady Agatha was one of three sisters who hoped to snare him in marriage; and I was Lady Agatha. I was too bad an actor to be a star in The Admirable Crichton, and except for singing in the chorus in H.M.S.Pinafore in the New Hebrides in my 30s, I never trod the boards again.

Why on earth a drama teacher at an all-boys boarding school would choose a play with female characters, God only knows. We stage-females were extremely self-conscious. This was the 1950s, in the most conservative state in Australia, for goodness sake. Looking back: our director must have been a skilled persuader indeed, to keep us rehearsing for weeks without any of us drifting quietly off into the night.

Why is it, that school plays are included in the education of young children? Children’s stage skills aren’t important in later life, although there are exceptions. I encouraged Ross (my son) to volunteer for school concerts when he was young, and I wept with love and pride when at the age of four he brought the house down with his recital of The Hare and the Tortoise.

The local radio station interviewed him afterwards, but he didn’t have much to say. He liked being on stage, though, and did a fine Mowgli in The Jungle Book (Disney's version) nine years later. I coached him to identify with his character. It’s an axiom of show business that acting is all about sincerity, and that if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. True, that!

His various stage appearances did prove useful when he arrived in Mexico City, barefoot and penniless. Well, not literally barefoot and penniless, but his first job in the City was washing car engines for a dollar an hour. By a fluke of circumstance that’s far too unlikely to be worth relating, he was offered a job modelling clothes.

That morphed into catwalk shows and TV commercials at $100 an hour (!), and occasional TV interviews in Spanish. Unfortunately for his parents’ hopes of a well financed retirement, he got bored with the job after a few months and hit the hippy trail in Guatemala and points south. Ah well, what can you do?

His experience of TV interviews came in handy for me when I came under siege by Cayman’s political establishment in the year 2000. (My blog-post Confessions of a Subversive in October 2012 tells how I became persona non grata to the politicians; I won’t repeat it here.) On this occasion the Immigration Board took exception to some strong-ish criticism in my newspaper column, and invited me to explain why I shouldn’t be deported as a public nuisance.

The owners of our local TV station at this time were staunch freedom-of-speech advocates, and had me interviewed three times in a week. After watching the first one on the evening news, Ross said I must always look into the camera, not at the interviewer. Watching myself, I appreciated what a world of difference the change made.

The interviews made the political gangsters look like the bullies they were, at a time (by happy coincidence) when they were being secretly subverted in our local mini-parliament. My sound-bites may conceivably have been a factor in the success of the coup d’├ętat. But, whether or not, my chief persecutor was fired from the Board immediately after it, and I helped her replacement draft a public apology for the threat made to me. That was nice.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Mister Cool and the snakebite

Our son and his daughters returned to their home last week, so Linda and I can get back to killing cockroaches and centipedes. Oh, and snakes. A baby snake somehow got inside the house, and Linda demolished it with a machete before it could reach a hiding place.

Ross and the girls strongly disapprove of killing animals without just cause – including all insects besides mosquitoes. Flies, roaches, centipedes and lizards all have to be caught and released outside. The ten-year-old trapped a cockroach under a tumbler, and I had to find a thin-yet-sturdy sheet of cardboard to slide underneath so the beast could be carried out to safety.

Linda and I have never felt comfortable squashing geckos and other lizards, I have to say – even those who live in the house. We tolerate their nesting-places in the secluded spots where they lay their eggs, although our principles slip a little when their pellets of poop become too intrusive. Poop in the cutlery drawer, and on our pillows? Way too intrusive!

Iguanas are lizards, technically, but they grow to six or seven feet long including the tails, and they poop more like cows. The stench is more like cows’ poop, too – embarrassing when they drop their bundles beside our underground septic-tank just outside the bathrooms. We have to explain to visitors that our tank is not overflowing, and that we are having the problem seen to. In fact it is our next-door neighbour who sees to it, in order to protect the ripening mangoes on her mango-tree.

She hires an experienced iguana-catcher, who sends his wife up all the nearby tall trees with a noose at the end of a rickety pole. She manoeuvres the noose over their heads, and he collects them on the ground and duct-tapes their mouth and legs before they can gather their wits. The wife is from Honduras, and Honduraneans love eating iguana meat.

Traditional Caymanians eat mud-crabs and turtles, and also agoutis, which are the rabbits of the region. Not snakes, though, which is surprising. After all, we are regularly assured by our authorities that all Cayman’s snakes are non-venomous, and therefore (presumably) safe to eat. I can vouch for the non-venomosity, although my one experience probably doesn’t constitute a credible statistical sample.

Here’s what happened. Two summers ago I was walking around the house checking the security of our outside back windows, filling in time until our Saturday evening flight to Norway. I caught my foot in the tendril of a weed, and tried vigorously to shake myself free. In irritation, I looked down to find that the tendril was a middling-sized snake – maybe three feet long. Struggling to get out from under, it nipped me (gently, be it said) above the ankle.

Now, then...! My early childhood was filled with the fear of snakes, in the Queensland bush where all snakes are poisonous. Linda tells people I went white with fright, but as I recall the event, I was Mister Cool from start to finish. A nurse at the Hospital reminded me that Cayman snakes were indeed non-venomous, and if I did come by she would just give me a tetanus shot and an aspirin. So I sat down and reviewed my options.

We had to check in at the airport in two hours, and the wait at the hospital would be at least two hours. Either the snake was local and non-poisonous or it was an illegal immigrant and poisonous as likely as not. I decided to wait for a clear sign of danger, before panicking. Linda dabbed some Dettol on the tiny punctures while I sat and sipped a cup of tea, on the alert for a sign. Pain or swelling would mean a trip to the Emergency Room and maybe a night or two in hospital; no pain would mean no problem.

And that’s how it was. A week later, in Ross’s forest-cabin, a nasty boil appeared on the side of my shin, for the first time in my life. But it went away again, and probably had nothing to do with the snakebite anyway.Who knows?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


How important are grandfathers in children’s lives, really? How necessary are they? From my limited personal experience, the answer is “Not very”.

After all, vices and virtues are passed on - or not - via DNA, and don’t need personal interaction beyond the one-time transmissions. Nature can be inherited, but nurture can’t. And, since grandfathers are only minimally involved in their grandchildren’s nurture, their influence must be limited.

There’s always been a shortage of grandfathers in our family. I knew both of mine, though only for the first ten years or less of my life, but my parents never knew theirs. Linda knew neither of hers, and our son neither of his. That’s the downside of late matings, I guess.

My Hancock grandfather was a very gentle man, and I worshipped him. In his twenties, in the early 1900s, his job in the family’s timber-supply company west of Brisbane obliged him to negotiate tree-felling and on-site sawmilling privileges with the aborigines who lived in the area. That was his only exposure to a foreign culture, apart from short visits to China and Japan in later life, and not counting pen-friends in India and Central America.

He it was who instilled in me a strong determination to “see the world”. Without the influence of his physical presence, I might never have left Australia. So that’s one for the grandfathers.

My Barlow grandfather was an aloof English sea-captain who (according to my mother) treated his family as though they were crew. Forced to quit after his ship passed a buoy on the wrong side (!) while entering Wellington Harbour in New Zealand, he retired to his wife’s house in Toowoomba and lived off her dividend income.

Her father’s money bought my Dad’s sheep-farm out on the Downs, but he had little direct influence on Dad except to bequeath a bit of his posh English accent and his casual contempt for religion. He had no influence at all on me.

Neither of my parents knew any of their grandfathers. The sea-captain’s father lived and died in England; the other three were all English-born immigrants who died relatively young. One helped his father found the timber-supply company in Ipswich; one used his agricultural-labourers’ skills to establish a flourishing construction company, and a large hotel, in Toowoomba, the informal capital of the Darling Downs and points west.

The third one searched for gold in the southern State of Victoria, before migrating to Queensland and settling on a 160-acre “selection” in a sugar-farming district.

The Toowoomba contractor left all his children well-off, and that money helped one of the daughters to attract the sea-captain. Her Irish relatives’ rabid Catholicism brought some serious stress to our family whenever pressure was applied by some of them to convert us children to the One True Faith. Her husband kept well out of it all. (She honoured his request to bury him in the C of E section of the town cemetery, and even insisted that she be buried beside him. That insistence may or may not have sent her straight to Hell.)

 Looking back, it’s apparent that in my family, at least, grandfathers’ influence didn’t amount to a hill of beans. Is this typical in families, or have others’ experiences been quite different? Grandmothers, now: that’s a whole nother thing. The hands that rock the cradle, rule the world – and as often as not those hands are grandmothers’ hands.