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12 thoughts for Christmas

Published on December 15, 2016

While 2016 may have been a challenging year on the global front, our personal lives have not been much affected yet, it seems: full employment, rising/stable markets and the only unrest so far has been transport – hardly a change. But only a hermit could fail to take note of the marked change in the world order at the start of 2017 which could lead to some of the dramatic effects of which we’ve been warned.

We develop coping strategies to deal with threats and one of the most successful for me has been singing, with Some Voices, – “The closest thing to being a rock star”. Whatever my mood,its sound never fails to warm my heart and tingle my spine. And it is now a thriving community, like the best village where everyone is accepted, no-one is talked about negatively and whose harmony is the perfect metaphor for guiding a rapidly splintering world.

We successfully sang songs from Christmas movies this week and brought joy to another 2,000 friends and relatives. And last Sunday we sang carols in the Church where some of us rehearse, which prompted me to consider the 12 days of Christmas. I wondered why my true love sent such a copious variety of gifts and I came to the (less than obvious) conclusion that they are a metaphor for our times. Let me expand?

12 Drummers drumming: drumming means drumming, as we have now been told, several times. I wonder why we didn’t reach that conclusion ourselves and needed a new leader to clarify it?

11 Pipers piping: he who pays the piper calls the tune. As I pointed out recently, the political class is no longer chosen from a pool of experienced people with different views, that can be challenged, but FROM THOSE WHOSE VOICES ARE HEARD MOST CLEARLY. Shouting and media spend to amplify the message (even patently untrue ones), has won power. And now those with extreme views have worked out how to use social media to get their messsages out without challenge and at lower cost;

10 Lords a leaping: “only 10?” you might exclaim. It seems that anyone who has been to Downing St for coffee (I had water) is now a peer, and a valuable check on our constitution is losing credibility, at the hands of those who have already lost credibility;

9 ladies dancing: they’re allowed to, even on their own. And it’s not OK to grab parts of them just because they’re dancing; nor insist that they stay at home or cover themselves to avoid the appreciative gaze of others;

8 maids a milking: come 2019 Britain will be on her own, so we’d better make sure we know how to do things that others used to do, like milking;

7 swans a swimming: don’t be fooled (again) by these apparently gentle creatures which appear to make no effort, yet still reach their destination. Rather like Boris.

6 geese a laying: and creating little geese. As our little ones stare wide-eyed at the feast around them, spare a thought for their future in which they’ll still be paying for the mistakes of the last decade;

5 gold rings: the ultimate safe haven (except from an Italian referendum apparently), and now the ultimate two-way bet. You can be sure that even if we go to hell in a handcart the price of gold will keep going up, if only to re-furbish the recently nuked Trump Tower.

4 calling birds, who sing in harmony. Our finale was The Beatles’ All you need is love. There are 7.2bn people on the planet at the moment and it will be 9.6bn by 2050. If we don’t use the knowledge that we have gained (a.k.a. civilisation) to live with each other then at the very least we’ll be worse off spiritually, emotionally and materially.

3 French Hens: better enjoy them before they become unaffordable? Well that’s what some would have us think. But French growers need to sell their products too and they won’t take kindly to having their market reduced in order, apparently, to maintain free movement. It’s not very useful without a destination.

2 Turtle Doves, who live all over the world, migrating from one place to another, rather like people, only peacefully.

And a partridge in a pear tree, which I’ve never seen. And nor have I seen a protectionist, fascist inclined, post-truth democracy rear its ugly head, yet.

I’m not looking forward to 12 such gifts from my true love (I haven’t got the space). I thank her for her most precious gift – true love – which I enjoy 365 days a year, and hope that you are similarly endowed.

Happy Christmas.

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The rhythm of business

Published on December 1, 2016

rhythm

It’s been a year of upheavals: I’ve moved house twice this year and helped my aged aunt re-locate. So I count myself a bit of an expert in the removals business. I’m no stranger to hard work – I’ve watched it for hours – and observed that my concern that they wouldn’t finish in time, which built to its peak after about 40% of the time when there was no real sign of progress, coincided with an acceleration to a timely conclusion. Humping stuff keeps them fit. But, like Ed Balls, their movement is not what inspired me to think of the waltz when discerning their rhythm: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Or as Chris would describe it – Survey; Box; Load; Drive; Deliver.

Which got me to wondering what else falls to this rhythm? Here’s my list, so far:

  • Building work, where it takes ages for things to get off the drawing board and then everyone exclaims “look it’s already up”. It involves planning permission; finance; building (often from pre-fabricated parts); fitting out; and eventually the final account.
  • Selling, where the search can seem endless until a prospect crops up. The steps are – research the market; form relationships; identify the need; issue the proposal; sign the contract.
  • Business planning where understanding how the business really works is critical. So the steps are – analyse; model; write; recruit; finance.

If I’m right then there are a couple of useful things to take away:

  1. Don’t panic if after 40% of the time you seem to have not made much progress. But make sure that by 42% there are some signs.
  2. When things do seem to be happening don’t take your foot off the pedal and end up with nothing because the last piece didn’t get started in time. At FD Solutions we’re used to people saying that the proposal has been issued so the sale will happen very soon; and that the business plan is in place it just needs the finance. The trouble is that the commitment of others – a contract – takes longer than putting everything else in place. This is because, in my view, even when a person knows that rationally it’s right to buy the product or make the investment, their emotions haven’t caught up. It’s only when they feel emotionally committed that you can execute the plan properly because “thoughts produce decisions but emotions (“e-motions”) produce actions”.

So make sure that you factor this lag into your planning because otherwise you’re likely to run out of money. Which could mean that you’ll have to start the waltz again. Or worse, learn the cha cha.

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Capitalism 2.0

Published on November 17, 2016

capitalism

It seems that in the four years that I have been writing my blog the world has been getting stranger and stranger. I’m not referring to Hillary Clinton’s bid to be the first female president of the USA, but Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of King Lear on a set adorned with plastic chairs, whose manservant turns out to be Ian from The Archers. Oh, and the vote, announced on our 9/11 that the US had Trumped the UK in its decision to blow a rather large raspberry at the Establishment.

Despite my public school education and chartered accountancy qualification I don’t see myself as part of that Establishment. My aim, since experiencing true poverty in Lesotho in 1979, has been to seek to understand The System, to be listened to by it and to help it change for the better.

Some change can be the peaceful result of constructive debate and I have a couple of modest successes so far:

  • The WealthBeing calculator has helped people understand how much capital they need;
  • The Supper Club and Grant Thornton have just issued a review of tax which inter alia proposed an export tax credit, an idea that I floated 2½ years ago.

But these recent electoral raspberries indicate that I’m not the only resident of the Western world who believes we need rather more significant change. Those of you who are my contemporaries will recall the slogan which swept Margaret Thatcher to power – “Labour isn’t working”. I suggest that, 37 years later the fact is that “Capitalism isn’t working”. Like any slogan the truth is rather more opaque. But it contains a fundamental truth – that there are significant flaws in the current system. And we need to fix them, because my experience as an FD, entrepreneur and mentor tells me that if problems are ignored they only get bigger.

And there’s still a lot of ignoring going on. Those who say that Brexiteers are wrong because Britain is the 5th largest economy and it wouldn’t have become so without immigration, miss the point. The flaw is not the total wealth created, it’s about distribution. I think that the reason that people voted for Brexit/Trump is that the methods of re-distribution, on which an efficient free economy is based, are no longer fit for purpose; any more than the assumptions on which pollsters operate are. Whether it be QE, TTIP or a lack of competition in broadband, we are becoming suffocated by bad decisions and regulations, based on the premise that they give stability to the capital markets whose wealth trickles down to us. The “trickle down” theory was discredited in Third World development many years ago and is obsolete here.

The only way to keep capitalism working peacefully is to enlarge access to creation of capital and encourage innovation by removing barriers to free competition. Specifically I propose the following:

  • Infrastructure spending that improves productivity: ultra-fast broadband and at least one new runway are matters of urgency
  • A taxation system that levels the playing field between SMEs and the mobile multi-nationals. Withholding taxes on remittances from the UK would be a good start;
  • Fair employment. Taxation of employees and sub-contractors is significantly different even though in say the NHS people do the same job under different contracts and in transport (Uber, Deliveroo) it’s not clear which way they are actually working. I’m pleased that this is now being reviewed.
  • Where industries are in terminal decline, systems that enable its workers to re-train, to the same level of value adding that they were achieving before. I’m told that manufacturing is about to face a skills shortage and London always needs more workers than are available. Why not move away from academic to technical qualifications and include bursaries at technical colleges for older workers? A diploma in Drone pilotage is more useful than a degree in the History of Aviation.
  • Most importantly, if we are to get anything done we need leaders who understand their electorates. The boundary changes will be an opportunity for constituencies to choose people with real world experience, outside of the Westminster bubble; and a cap on electoral spending would reduce the influence of capital “1.0”.

There have always been battles between owners and their employees but there are now a lot of people pushing at the pillars underneath the ivory towers whom the incumbents can no longer ignore. Lear’s daughters, who now control their former ruler, throw him out into the storm. Does he, who is now mad, consider their ingratitude? No for “that way madness lies”. Let’s have a sanity check before the storm arrives?

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Have we descended to this?

Published on November 3, 2016

us_election

I’m not an aficionado of films but one line that comes to mind in the run up to the US election is from Flash Gordon when his girlfriend cries “Flash I love you but we only have 14 hours to save the world”.

I think we’re close to this predicament now. And from these shores we are about as powerless to influence the outcome as Dale was to divert Emperor Ming the Merciless from his plan to destroy the Earth. But we Brits do have one weapon for which we’re renowned – our creativity, especially our wit and sarcasm. I wonder if this re-working of a popular nursery rhyme can penetrate the Lightning Field 3,000 miles to the west?

Hillary Clinton had a hunch

That she could get to the White House

Off she went (without Donald the Trump,

Trump, Trump, Trump).

Hillary Clinton lost first time

Cos she got beat by Obama.

President planned a healthcare event

Bump bump bump.

 

Eight more years

She danced to the Democrat band.

When Hillary led the big charade

She looked so proud and grand.

Then came tricks Her server to perform

The FBI looked her straight in the eye

And she cowered in the storm.

Electorate had been hurting

For a long time

It woke one night in a financial fright

And thought to make them pay.

So Cruz, Bush et al they hit this bump

And primaries looked like a circus.

Low they went led by Donald the Trump

Trump Trump Trump.

 

Hillary Clinton packed her trunk

And roundly beat Bernie Sanders

Off she went to meet Donald the Trump

Trump Trump Trump.

Hillary Clinton emptied her trunk In fighting to be POTUS

Can she win and dump Donald the Trump

On his rump?

Sometimes rational argument is not the right approach. Especially when there’s an elephant in the room.

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After Brexit, Robots

Published on October 20, 2016

robots

On June 24th I was asked by a technology magazine for my reaction to Brexit. I think I heard myself say that the solution to a lack of immigrant labour for seasonal activities such as fruit picking is… robots. I don’t think that there is a robot capable of such an activity at the moment but robots are going to do more and more, it’s inevitable. It’s so worrying that even capable business people have shared their fears with me:

  • Will they dislocate society by creating more unemployment?
  • Will they reduce economic activity – GDP – because robots don’t spend money as workers do?

Initially I think they will displace jobs. All machines displace human activity, that’s one reason why we create them. But they create new activities too. Imagine the delight at being the first train guards, 150 years ago. But it is beyond my imagination to see some jobs being done by robots:

  • Hairdressing is too intimate, almost a ritual intercourse between cutter and head owner;
  • Analysis of a company is always unsatisfactory, in my view, until you have reconciled the figures with your assessment of the managers;
  • And how could we ever live without handmade biscuits…

The removal of wages and their replacement by capital equipment is part of a trend that has been accelerating in the last 50 years – the concentration of wealth in the owners of capital rather than the providers of labour. Wealth attributable to labour has moved from 66% in the Fifties to less than 60% by the mid-2000s. This has been disguised by the reduction in poverty in the developing world and the consequent reduction in costs for consumer/workers in the West. But that boon is over and people can see it when they shop. I think that the degradation of jobs is at the heart of the Brexit vote and it’s an issue which will become more acute with the advent of artificial intelligences.

I don’t think that we can bury our heads in the sand any longer. We need to invest in re-training and that will need some tax revenue. Surveys show that the current tax regime never collects more than 40% of GDP and that’s why I subscribe to the view of Thomas Picketty that we should add a capital tax. I would exclude pension funds; and SMEs and houses up to a certain size because “the first million is always the hardest”. In my view taxing capital in this way and re-training workers strikes a balance between enabling wealth creation and re-distributing it – a new social contract perhaps?

Of course the reluctance of all of us to pay more tax is ever–present. But if it got the railways working smoothly, and removed wildcat strikes by taxi drivers et al, as well as creating new, desirable jobs then it might be accepted by resident capitalists. There is still the risk that a large non-resident corporation could claim that their robots are Irish and should be taxed at the rate it has agreed with that Government. But at least now we could revoke their Robo-visas and send them back.

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What’s the difference?

Published on October 6, 2016

customer_service

We’re all used to the fact that dealing with big companies – you know the ones where you can’t speak to the boss – is often unpleasant. They’re so big that no-one is big enough to matter; asynchronous communication has been replaced by unidirectional communication: emails are from “Don’t reply@” and phone numbers are private. Rather than grant a customer the right to query something, they prefer to use resources advertising the fact that they are a listening bank/store, creating FAQs that are banal and we are left to suffer. It’s usually the opposite with smaller companies which are keen to prove that they’re better than the competition. You can probably spot which of these examples that I have suffered/been delighted by recently are the big companies:

  1. I gave notice to the satellite TV company that I was moving out of my London flat and only needed to keep my Monmouth account. They told me I would have to pay the full monthly charge, keep the box with its unseen recordings (are all these recording devices 75% full now or is it just me?) but never use it or else pay £80.
  2. I gave notice to the internet provider too and told them that I would only need the one account in Monmouth. They waived the notice period.
  3. I gave my gym two weeks’ notice but they insisted on the full month. I queried whether I had had the full service given that the pool had been shut for about 10 days in the last year; and they managed to run out of towels! I know that there are unexpected surges, but towels?
  4. I took a rug back to the shop because it was the wrong colour. I’d accidentally thrown the receipt away the night before. I offered to email it but she exchanged it anyway.
  5. The new winch on my boat stopped winching. I got into port and emailed the site at 8.30pm. By 9.30 I had a director on the phone and by 2pm the next day I had a new winch, even though I was 400 miles from where I had bought it
  6. My ironing gets done weekly but the provider would only do it off-site. I asked for it to be delivered back in less than a week and got a delivery charge. I queried it, on the basis that it wasn’t on the price list, and arranged for the cleaner to drop it off on the way past. I got another delivery charge.

The first three are publicly quoted. The fourth is a big partnership and the last two are private. So it’s not always a question of size: any organisation can look after the customer and anyone can put themselves first. So what’S the deciding factor?

I think it starts with S. Prices usually follow an S curve: low as the business enters the market, rising as the product’s demand rises, then levelling off as demand catches up. It’s in the middle phase – where companies think that they’re in control and lay down the rules in ways that are patently unfair in order to maximise profit – that the business plants the seeds of its own destruction, destroying customer loyalty and enabling competitors into the market who don’t have to try that hard to provide a better service than the one now offered by the incumbents.

This was always a problem before mass communication but is more acute now. Some businesses get this and are using their resources to maintain and improve customer service. It’s tricky in the ever more complex world where allowing customer service representatives the power to waive fees is close to enabling employee fraud. But it is possible and so I plan to stay with BT. But don’t tell Sid.

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Negotiating Brexit

Published on September 22, 2016

brexit-poker

Having worked in SMEs for all but 4 years of my career (when I was FD of quoted companies) I’ve never had to negotiate in the full glare of publicity, as the Government does. But I’m pleased to see that Mrs May and her colleagues have resisted the temptation to reveal their hand, either to lead the news agenda as Alastair Campbell demanded, or to assuage the need for certainty and its implied safety which Maslow identified as one of our greatest needs.

Dealing with uncertainty is, I believe, an essential attribute of leadership so it’s re-assuring to see that we are not rushing headlong into invoking Article 50. Like Andrew Tyrie I think that we should start with the end in mind, and see when negotiations can be concluded and then work back from that rather than rush into acting. All that that would produce is a deadline for removing this particular uncertainty faster. It wouldn’t produce a better result. As they say in finance, when asking for a loan or investment “If you want a quick answer it’s no”. Agreements to lend or invest come from understanding how the organisation works, which is a product of communicating sufficient information and ensuring that it is correctly received. Given the scale of the task this will take some time.

What I think would help is an interim framework, like heads of terms in business deals. It could say something like this:

“Nothing will change until a new arrangement is in place. Our new arrangement will recognise that the principles of free trade and free movement of people are beneficial to us all except where competition is unfair or migration exceeds levels that can be absorbed by the receiving country.”

I realise that this is not complete but I wonder why people would refuse to sign up to it?

There will be some tough negotiations for sure. We may need to stand firm for a while. In every negotiation there is a moment, sometimes several, when nothing is said while each party decides how much it can put up with. And when the other party says “take this because the alternative will be worse” then the time to pause lengthens. The pause may be some months. But I think that our ability to tough it out, and deal with this uncertainty will improve our ever uncertain future. At the moment the doom-mongers are being proved wrong -our stock market goes up, our exports grow and our interest rates reduce the strain on government spending and it is others such as France and Germany, who face elections, who have more negative influences to contend with. But even if it wasn’t looking pretty good, good leadership should work in this direction – helping us to deal with our need for safety, maybe by distracting us with announcements about schools and the Boundary Commission and even a bit of retail therapy. I’m just not sure that I would suit a pair of those kitten heels.

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Olympic business

Published on September 9, 2016

olympics

My passion is rugby so I was delighted when 7s – the shorter version – was included in the Olympics. My interest is purely as a spectator nowadays. And some may say that I had a similar role when I was captain of the under 13s whose record was a slightly underwhelming P12 W0 D1 L11. But this does allow us to observe and I find that I can learn much from sport to help grow a business. Here’s what I have learned from the Olympics:

Success takes time. I rarely believe forecasts of new businesses that show substantial profits in three years’ time. After four years of investment, cycling had still shown few results. In the eyes of some investors and business founders it wasn’t backable. But the evidence of long term investment is now clear: it took eight years to start to get close to success and has only really blossomed in the last five.

You need to get all the parts to work in order to succeed. I dare to suggest that The Netherlands were the better team in the women’s hockey final except in one significant aspect, the scoring of goals. GB took their chances and Maddy Hinchcliffe saved a penalty stroke in the first quarter as the first part of what was a Woman of the Match performance.

Office romance is ok. Jason Kenny and Laura Trott kept their romance secret until the London Olympics. Thankfully, for them as well as us, they’re still together and their performance stayed at its peak. The Richardson-Walshs were almost as far apart as it’s possible to be on the rostrum. Keeping good relationships with other teammates is one of the small details that the captain and her partner attended to.

Timing is all-important. Very few of the winners had won every competition in the last four years. Getting it all right at Rio (for which read exhibition or major tender) might require sacrifices elsewhere.

Progress is continuous. We got 65 medals in 2012 and this became the new normal.

Second is second. A silver medal still has value, so does bronze. And I’d be pretty impressed by someone who came fourth in the Olympics, or fifth… You may not be the best in your sector but there is still a place for you. Often those who have won find it hard to get motivated (Sir Bradley Wiggins spoke candidly of this pre Rio) and second keeps the team together and engaged in the venture. So long as that’s second in the market not second at each tender.

Or is it? (Did we come second?) The table that we all see ranks countries by gold medals then silver then bronze. But if you gave 3 points for Gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze you’d get a different result. In terms of number of sports in which a country won medals we’re top. But how about medals per population (winner – Grenada)  or per GDP (congratulations Taipei)? And giving additional weight to team sports? There is an old saying that asks what is 1+2? A mathematician would say it’s between 1 ½ and 2 ½; an engineer would say it’s3 but to be on the safe side let’s call it 9. And an accountant would say “you’re the client what would you like it to be?”

Rugby is a minority sport and 7s is a subset of it. But I still think that, whatever ranking you prefer, Fiji should be congratulated for winning the inaugural competition. Our women’s team showed what can happen when the pressure gets to you, with yellow cards at the semi-final stage that cost them a medal. Still, their record is somewhat better than mine.

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Brexit: the survival guide

Published on August 24, 2016

Brexit A Survivor%27s Guide

Having been promised an apocalypse if we had the temerity to vote leave I venture to suggest that it’s not turning out quite so badly. There is still much to resolve and the tough decisions are some way off but in the meantime life must carry on. So if you’re wondering what it means right now can I offer the following:

  1. Don’t panic. We haven’t gone to Mars, we haven’t even left Europe, just the European Union. Calais is still only 22 miles from Dover (about 12 hours by car or rail)
  2. Out is the new In. We’ve left the European Union, an enclosed trading area of 500m people and are free to trade with everyone now as freely as we like, so long as they agree. We’ve been making significant strides in this already with our non EU exports up 6.8% a year since 1999. We can join the World Trade Organisation and have a baseline of tariffs of 3%, not perfect but not a disastrous starting point.
  3. Don’t panic. Thankfully and I mean THANKFULLY we are not in the Euro and our currency devaluation not only does it mean our exports are priced as keenly as mustard – so keenly that Tata have postponed the sale of their Port Talbot plant – but if you want to sell your business then the overseas buyers will be almost 20% keener than they were.
  4. Inflation is good(ish). With a weaker currency our imports costs will rise. Everyone will use this to put their prices up. So should you. Even if you employ descendants of the Norman Conquest on land that produces King Edward potatoes and sell them to Smiths Crisps you will have some foreign inputs to justify increasing your prices. If you are uncertain just practise looking in the mirror and repeating the phrase “It’s Brexit mate” until you believe it yourself. Add “Innit” if you’re still having difficulty.
  5. Don’t panic. If inflation takes hold our national debt will finally reduce as a % of GDP. And as interest rates rise to satisfy holders of the devaluing of their investments you’ll be able to put money in the bank and get a return on it.
  6. We did it before so we can do it again. Those of us who worked before Maastricht didn’t have any problems selling goods and services in Europe. If you need an EU subsidiary to enable you to trade within the EU then you can get one. I doubt that it will be long before at least one country sees this as an opportunity and creates a cheap and fast hub in say Dublin or Copenhagen, which would validate transfer prices and ensure compliance with appropriate regulations.
  7. Don’t panic. The overseas businesses are not all going to leave. Pre-Brexit I used to listen to some hedge fund managers threaten to move to Switzerland if taxes rose. But they didn’t. Even for financiers there’s more to life than money. Do you know what is on at the theatre in Geneva? And could you understand it if you did?
  8. We can create new funds for scientific co-operation, farming subsidies and fisheries that are more effective than EU wide ones. In fact this has been announced in the time it took me to write this blog.
  9. Even better we can have new subsidies that won’t be prohibited by the State Aid rules. For example we can have as an Export tax credit scheme which I and other have proposed over recent years.
  10. Don’t panic. The labour laws in France and Germany are so strict that even tube drivers are envious. So moving large numbers of bankers there is unlikely. The need for flexibility will keep them here and so most (OK not all) of the industry will remain.

We’re going to have to pay something to the EU and the chances of us seeing that £350m in the NHS are as likely as winning the World Cup in the next 50 years. But so long as we don’t let the lunatics take over the asylum, and curbs on immigration are based on need not prejudice then we’ll be fine.

 

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BRian and EUnice were married

Published on August 4, 2016

brianeunice

Brian and Eunice got married in 1973 although Brian only asked his Dad if it was OK in 1976. Since he’d already done it, Brian’s dad, being a darn good bloke, said yes.

Eunice, petite and continental, was delighted. They lived on her farm and, with the money that Brian earned, she could expand its traditional methods until she had mountains of butter and lakes of wine. Brian promised never to eat Anchor from little New Zealand ever again and they and their growing family feasted on the fruits of their labour. In times of trouble the produce was a source of comfort for Eunice and in 1990 Brian looked up from his desk where he sold insurance 7 days a week in order to be able to buy enough fertiliser, took a long look at her and noticed how her slim frame had disappeared under layers of fat. Brian never wanted a big partner – it wasn’t who he’d married – but a deal’s a deal.

Things got worse soon after, when Eunice suddenly announced that she wanted to go out more often. This seemed harmless enough. There was no need for her to stay at home, she should be free to move around wherever she wanted. But she didn’t roam far. Her maternal instincts were strong and after rearing her natural offspring she also decided that she wanted to take in some poor distant relatives from the other side of the Continent. Brian, like his Dad, is a darn good bloke, so he wanted to help. He wondered about it out loud to his Dad while they were on a weekend vacation to Maastricht. But Dad was enjoying the food and didn’t really pay attention. Why would he? “Eunice is a grown woman, a big woman”, Brian explained. Brian’s Dad felt hot and just nodded. It wasn’t anything to do with him and anyway, Brian’s Mum, Maggie, had set up a family trust to make sure that Eunice couldn’t use the family money to look after them, before she passed away.

So Eunice started taking in her second and third cousins from the countryside hundreds of miles away, and enjoyed time by the fireside sharing stories with them about how their parents had fought wars against each other for centuries, while Brian’s family had been sailing around the globe to places where they spoke his language, after a bit of persuasion. One day Eunice made presents of special tokens made out of wine and butter for her relatives. They loved them and asked her for more. Soon they were awash with the things and made huge towers out of them which they called property investments. But when Brian’s Uncle Sam came to visit, they all caught pneumoneya, a new disease which didn’t affect the children but made their towers crumble. Brian felt sorry for them so he made up new tokens which he called Nevernevers, and spoke of new property investments where his Dad lived, which had magical powers – many of them had samovars, some had oil lamps that lit up at night to show the empty spaces. Some of Eunice’s relatives came to live with Brian’s Dad, hoping to buy another property investment. But they didn’t have enough Nevernevers because they were all locked up in the banks, so they had to clean the samovars and lamps instead. So when Brian went to see his Dad, sometimes he had to sleep on the couch in the sitting room. He even thought he saw the odd rat outside the back door.

One day, while Dad was asleep, a wizard called Boris arrived from Hamelin and offered to clean up his Dad’s place. Brian jumped at the chance. Boris got rid of the rats, apparently, but his magical powers were not those of a Pied Piper – they just made everyone feel light-headed – and the children remained. Returning to Eunice, Brian asked her to take some of them back so that he could have a bit of peace and quiet, and sleep in the bed that had been his since childhood. Eunice looked at him with her piggy eyes and said that she would only look after Peter, the smallest one, sometimes.

Brian, still feeling slightly queasy, contemplated another sleepless night, looked around at the faded palace that Eunice had built, with the extra-large maze that everyone could get through except him, and forty years of frustration with his over-expanded wife and family erupted. Without thinking, he said “I want a divorce”

Eunice, despite her over-adequate frame, jolted. But she was a proud woman with a mission to look after all her family, however large it turned out to be. She thought of today’s calls from people in places she hardly knew, whose claims to be related rested on the fact that they both bred the same cows, and their insistent pleas to come and stay. With Brian gone there would be a bit more room….

She clenched her fists, but released them. She fought back the tears of rejection as her mother had done when her father sent his wife to sleep in the cow shed for 6 years, and maintained the hauteur she had inherited from Maman. “Well if you’re going, then go now” she replied haltingly. Brian suddenly wondered if he had done the right thing. He recalled happier times, getting their first car and holidaying by the Med where the alcohol flowed like water and was almost as cheap. “Can I come back and see you whenever I like?” he whispered. “Maybe. So long as you remember that you have been my husband for 43 years and I expect to be kept in the manner to which I am accustomed,” was her stony retort. Brian looked in his wallet and it was almost empty. He would have to toil long and hard to get to sleep in his old bed again.

He went back to stay with his Dad who was entertaining Uncle Sam and distant relatives from even farther off lands than Eunice’s brood. Bemoaning the fact that divorce seemed as much effort as marriage but without the benefits, his third cousin twice removed, while chewing on the lamb that he had brought from New Zealand asked, “Can’t you make a clean break with her? Might make things easier between you?”. “Hey, bud, great idea” said Sam. Brian thought it would be a strain but better than seemingly endless maintenance payments. Dad had just finished paying off Uncle Sam the money that he’d borrowed for his overseas expeditions some seventy years ago, so he might be willing to do something similar again.

And so, many moons later, when the dust had settled and both Eunice and Brian were calm enough to negotiate their divorce like grown-ups, the decree absolute was signed. Eunice was to receive a one-off payment of a million dollars, which Brian borrowed from his relatives. His relatives promised to buy his insurances, which had always been the best in the world and were now really good value, and that he could come and stay whenever he wanted. Brian said to Eunice that, so long as there was room, then he would have her relatives to stay from time to time too, especially if they made themselves useful; after all Dad was getting on and there was no-one else to help him.

Brian went back to his Dad’s, made his old bed and lay down on it. It wasn’t quite as comfy as he remembered.

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