Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 20 December 2008

Goings-on in Wasilla

In the confines of Newgate we seldom concern ourselves with goings-on in the far-flung colonies, but we are moved to comment this week on the arrest of a certain Sherry Johnston on drugs charges. Sherry is the mother of Levi Johnston, who is, you will recall, about to enter the state of holy matrimony with a certain Bristol Palin.

This upstanding young gentleman, who in his MySpace profile charmingly describes himself as a 'f***ing redneck', has had his own brush with the law after a youthful poaching exploit; this year, he found himself at the heart of a national scandal. The shock revelation of Bristol's state - forced on the family by media speculation about the parentage of young Trig - meant a damage limitation package involving happy plans for the future wedding which may have come as something of a surprise to the Johnston family.

It would be churlish to suggest that the 18-year-old, who says he doesn't want kids, found himself staring up the barrel of a metaphorical shotgun wielded by his future mother-in-law (whose unerring marksmanship is a matter of public record), but whatever the exact details of the case, it can scarcely be doubted that Ms Johnston has been under a certain amount of pressure over the past few months.

Once living in comfortable obscurity in Wasilla (pop.6,715), she has had her son's sex life and MySpace pages made a matter of public record (sample quote; 'You f**k with me and I'll kick [your] ass') and is about to see him led as a sacrificial lamb to the altar of Republican respectability. Now, in the ultimate humiliation, her arrest is reported throughout the world as 'Sarah Palin's in-law on drug charges'. Even when she breaks the law, they have to bring that woman into it.

And all over the US tonight political satirists are sighing into their beer over what might have been.

Thursday 18 December 2008

What's in a name?

As JM of Jonny Mac's Place has remarked, Bernard Madoff has rather dominated things here in Newgate over the past few days. Although there is little to add now that he is safely immured in his gilded cage, we have as yet left untouched the vast amusement being generated by his name and its easy incorporation into punning headlines.

Daniel Finkelstein in his Times blog goes one better and has collected his favourite examples of names suited to their owner's circumstances. I am sure even he was unprepared for the sheer volume of similar exmples his article has generated - the page rivals in size the 742 comments (and counting) clocked up so far by the Telegraph's petition against the sacking of Edward Stourton.

Although not in the same category as the solicitors Doolittle and Dally or the headmaster Mr Kane, I should like to offer for your contemplation the name Hugo Boss. If a focus group sat for weeks on end trying to think up a suitable name for a brand aimed at the go-getting professional, I doubt they could do much better, yet Hugo Boss was indeed a clothes designer in pre-war Germany - in fact, he had the dubious distinction of designing the black uniforms of the SS.

Sixty years after his death, the firm is still in business and is currently promoting the 10th anniversary of its fragrance range with a collector's edition - evoking the scents of apple and cinnamon with a hint of vanilla. So now you know, girls; get up close and the thrusting young executive smells of Apfelstrudel.

Wednesday 17 December 2008

Madoff in Manhattan

Where is everybody? A week ago, the well-heeled of the US eastern seabord were queuing up to shake the hand of Bernie Madoff. They wined and dined his in-laws to secure an introduction, or stumped up thousands in golf and country club memberships in the hope of bumping into him in the clubhouse and being - oh joy! - invited to invest in his funds. He could pick and choose; only a select few were admitted to the amazing returns generated by BMIS.

And yet this sought-after man is now under house arrest in his Manhattan apartment, tagged like a common felon, because he cannot produce the four 'financially responsible' signatories needed for bail. His wife and brother have signed the bond, but he still needs two further signatures to guarantee $3m (remainder of $10m after Madoff put up the apartment). Of the numerous people once so keen to meet him, not one has come forward to put a name on the dotted line.

Admittedly, electronic tags aside, there are worse fates than being under house arrest in a $7m apartment, particularly given that if he goes out, even in the select enclaves of Manhattan's wealthy elite, his reception is likely to be on the frosty side. His 7pm curfew should give him ample time to reflect on his new status as social pariah.

Monday 15 December 2008

It's a mad, mad, mad, Madoff world

The emperor's new clothes continue to unravel as bank after bank admits exposure to Madoff's investment services. As more details emerge, we are presented with a scenario which could have come straight from the pages of an airport novel.

From the mysterious offices on floor 17 to the locked filing cabinets and encrypted files, Madoff presided over an empire that was opaque and inscrutable even to the employees of other divisions. Only his close relatives and a select few others were privy to the workings of the organisation and the auditing was handled by an obscure three-person firm in a remote suburb.

The complaint filed on December 11th makes no bones about it - it states that Madoff 'employed devices, schemes and artifices to defraud' and -rather picturesquely - seeks an order 'directing the defendants to disgorge their ill-gotten gains'. Alas, therein lies the rub; these ill-gotten gains have presumably been disbursed either in the high returns which so delighted Nicola Horlick or among the $200m Madoff announced he intended to pass to associates before giving himself up.

Since the whole reason this alleged fraud came to light is that the pyramid was on the verge of collapse, it is unlikely that investors will see much of their money again. Those who were in early enough to reap the artificially generated returns are better off than recent investors lured in by the unwitting shilling of their predecessors. The fairy-tale promises were false; yet again, the goose's golden eggs turn out to be addled.

If John Grisham doesn't want to write the script, I'm free!

Sunday 14 December 2008

Madoff - the movie

Robbing Peter to pay Paul is nothing new but the scale of Bernard Madoff's alleged pyramid scheme is almost beyond comprehension. Even in less straitened times, it would be difficult for most of us to resist a frisson of schadenfreude at news of substantial losses for 'some of the most prominent and wealthy Americans'.

UK citizens have also been affected; city superwoman, earth mother and general Mother Theresa-alike Nicola Horlick - among those who invested heavily - endorsed Madoff in an interview in May, citing returns of 1% to 1.2% per month (see alphaville). In a display of handwashing worthy of Pontius Pilate, her company this week deplored the criminal activity and questioned a regulatory system which could allow the scheme to work unnoticed for years - did they never wonder how those returns were being consistently generated in the economic climate of the time? As a financial commentator wrote yesterday 'Even the savviest investors tend to look the other way when extraordinary returns are being made'.

The fact that Madoff's prominent firm used an obscure accountancy practice in Westchester and employed many of his nearest and, presumably, dearest in senior positions adds to the air of intrigue and speculation. Combine this with the high-society connections and country club lifestyle and you have a Hollywood blockbuster in the making - all we need now is John Grisham to write the screenplay.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Woolworths Sale - update

A pleasant surprise this morning that, despite the media attempts to create a feeding frenzy, the closing down sale at Woolworths began with a whimper rather than a bang. Footage on the BBC website, presumably garnered from camera crews sent out at dawn to catch the expected stampede, shows shoppers waiting patiently in line before filing slowly through the opening doors, some of them even giving way to others. The atmosphere was friendly and even a little solemn; appropriately funereal for the demise of a once-loved high street fixture.

Perhaps it should have been complemented by suitable music for the occasion - Pachelbel's Canon or Barber's Adagio - rather than the Christmas tracks I mentioned recently. Following that post, I have to admit that Kirsty MacColl/Shane McGowan's Fairy Tale of New York is more than acceptable and I would be happy to shop anywhere that played Cerys Matthews/Tom Jones, even if they're singing Baby It's Cold Outside.

Pride of place, however, goes to lampoonmeister Tom Lehrer for the following:
Christmas time is here, by golly! Disapproval would be folly,
Deck the hall with hunks of holly, fill the glass and don't say when;
Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens, roast the goose, drag out the Dickens;
Even though the prospect sickens, brother, here we go again!

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Woolworths Sale of the Century

The word has gone out - closing down sale at Woolworths tomorrow after 99 years of trading. All round the country shoppers are girding their loins for the struggle, ready to brave the hordes to secure...what? If you really wanted/needed it, surely you bought it last week when they knocked 50% off.

Woolworth's is struggling because it sold stuff people didn't want to buy. So what's changed? Why was it bursting at the seams last week? Has the stuff suddenly become irresistible? Or is it simply that we are programmed to respond when a retailer cuts prices? How much will be spent tomorrow on things people really don't want or need?

And as you jostle through the masses tomorrow to join a queue of Ouroborian proportions, spare a thought for the poor beleaguered staff. Already uncertain of their future prospects, they will tomorrow find themselves confronted with an army of ruthless bargain hunters, and, if the media succeed in whipping up a frenzy like that seen in a New Jersey Wal-Mart after Thanksgiving, facing the potential hazards of an undisciplined mob.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Dr Who versus the Clangers

Sad news today of the demise of Oliver Postgate, whose instantly recognisable voice accompanied the adventures of the Clangers and Noggin the Nog to name but two. Not only were the Clangers inherently delightful, they also conveyed a strong eco-message. Who could forget their ill-advised meddling with agriculture (in 'Sky-Moos') or the machine that produced useless plastic tat?

In fact, it's difficult to decide whether the most evocative voice of the seventies was that of Oliver Postgate or the mellifluous rasp of Jon Pertwee as Dr Who. To listen to either is to be instantly transported back in time. In fact, as austerity brings a resurgence of the tastes of that era (shops full of Angel Delight and Wotsits, a musical based on Abba songs), perhaps it's time for the BBC to bow to the inevitable and offer the role of the next Dr Who to Sean Pertwee, that gravel-voiced chip off the old block.

PS Was Bernard Cribbins actually reprising his Dr Who role from the Peter Cushing film when he appeared with Catherine Tate or was it just a weird coincidence?