Friday, 23 December 2011

Repost on Life 100 years ago

This is a repost of something I did way back in April when I was new to this and maybe didn't have as many followers as I have now.  I was promoted to repost this as I had yet another email that started differently but then went on to complain about taxes.  Exactly the same as the previous email obviously copied without any research.

The other day I received an email, one of those that get sent around between friends which are sometimes funny, sometimes sentimental, sometimes informative and sometimes someone’s rant.  This one comes under the rant category.  It started off quite interestingly, asking the recipient to consider the enormity of the number one billion.  I must admit I was concerned when politicians and others started throwing the figure One Billion about as if it were nothing.  I can remember when the national deficit was measured in Millions not Billions.  Anyway, the beginning of the email went like this:

 ‘I find this quite staggering and really brings into perspective the actual figure of one billion.

This is too true to be funny.
The next time you hear a politician use the word 'billion' in a casual manner, think about whether you want the 'politicians' spending YOUR tax money.

A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into some perspective in one of its releases.

A billion seconds ago it was 1959.

A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.

A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.

A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.

A billion Pounds ago was only 13 hours and 12 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.’

That part of the email made me smile and nod in agreement.  Then it continued and I could not believe what followed :

‘Stamp Duty
Tobacco Tax
Corporate Income Tax
Income Tax
Council Tax
Unemployment Tax
Fishing License Tax
Petrol/Diesel Tax
Inheritance Tax
(tax on top of tax)
Alcohol Tax
Marriage License Tax
Property Tax
Service charge taxes
Social Security Tax
Vehicle License Registration Tax
Vehicle Sales Tax
Workers Compensation Tax
  Not one of these taxes existed 100 years ago and our nation was one of the most prosperous in the world.

We had absolutely no national debt.
We had the largest middle class in the world and Mum stayed home to raise the kids. 

What happened?’

Now the claim that not one of the above taxes existed a 100 years ago shows a lack of research on the part of the writer. 
Stamp Duty – there has always been some form of duty for large financial transactions.
Tobacco Tax – this has existed in one form or another since 1660.  It has varied in amount but has always been there. 
Income Tax was first introduced by Williams Pitt the Younger to raise funds for the Napoleonic Wars.  It was brought in as a temporary measure but apart from a brief gap between 1802 and 1803, when it was rescinded, it has been in existence ever since.

Having got this far after a mere twenty minutes research, I lost interest in looking up the history of all the other taxes mentioned above.  I think there has probably been a License fee for marriages for a long time, someone had to be paid for keeping the registers for Births, Marriages and Deaths.  Lucky they did, else all those people now tracing their ancestors would have nothing to go on.  Land owners have always charged for fishing on their property, that’s why you get poachers.  Some of the other taxes are obviously modern.  Social security did not exist and some of the other things like Workers Compensation Tax and Unemployment Tax I’ve never heard of.  And if any of these taxes sound unfair consider some of the things that have been taxed in the past.  Salt and windows to name just two; the government has never failed to find something to tax.

But the thing that really amazed me was the last paragraph.  ‘We had absolutely no national debt.  We had the largest middle class in the world and Mum stayed home to raise the kids.  What happened?’

We may have had the largest middle class in the world, and those Mums were probably very comfortable with cooks, housekeepers and scullery maids looking after their needs.  The working class, on the other hand, were much less lucky.

Life expectancy for people in 1911 was just 54 years for women and 50 for men.  Families were often large and living on the breadline.  Children were lucky to have their own bed let alone their own bed room.  There was no health care, if you were poor and ill, tough.  You had to pay for the services  of doctors, dentists and midwives and tried hard to do without them.  There were no pension schemes – but then people didn’t live long enough to need a pension.  Clothes had to last for years, not fashion seasons.  You were lucky if you had shoes.

Industrialists made lots of money and created the new middle class at the expense of factory workers who worked long hours, often in dangerous or noisy conditions with no recompense if they were injured.  Children were still being used in factories and down the mines.  Maybe they weren’t as young as those working in the previous century, but they were still working at an age when modern children are expected to be at school.  And talking of mines, the miners had to crawl, sometimes for hours, without pay, to the coal face before they could start work and start earning. - and this was less than 100 years ago.  

We ruled the world with our Empire!  Or, to put it in modern terms, we subjugated the peoples of Africa and Asia, taking the natural resources, the produce of the fields, the treasures of the past, all for the benefit of the homeland. 

True, there was no Vehicle Registration Tax but then again, there were very few vehicles and virtually no roads outside the towns and cities.  What roads there were, were narrow, rutted and often gated to allow farm stock easy access from one field to another.  People worked within walking distance of home.  Families lived within the same neighbourhood. 

So what happened? the email asked.

Conditions for the workers improved so that now everyone shares a decent lifestyle.  Home ownership has increased.  Healthcare is available for everyone.  Education is available for everyone.  We have decent roads (don’t complain about the pot holes, they have been the blight of travellers for centuries and you should see the state of the roads in America!)  Nearly everyone owns or has access to a car.   Every home has a washing machine and TV, probably a computer or two.  In short we have become much richer.

We need the taxes to pay for the things we now take for granted.  How else will roads, schools and hospitals be built?  Given the choice between paying taxes and having the living standards of the masses in 1911, I am happy to pay the taxes.  Whether the money is spent correctly is another argument.  How we can regain our position in the world as an industrial, profit making, country? I don’t know.  Service industry, banking, IT – these are the areas that have replaced the dark satanic mills of Blake’s time and unfortunately they do not provide enough jobs for the expanding population.  Again, this is another topic and nothing to do with the email.         

I doubt very much that whoever wrote the email in the first place will ever read this.  I wonder who he or she is.  What sort of environment they live in.  Have they ever read Dickens, or maybe more relevantly, The Road to Wigan Pier?  If they had I doubt they would regret the taxes we pay.  And remember, if you look at the list above not everyone has to pay all the taxes.  I’m not selling my house, I don’t smoke or fish, the marriage licence is only paid once (unless you are in the habit of getting married more often), I am intent on skiing (that’s Spend the Kids Inheritance, not anything to do with snow) so the government won’t make much out of me when I die!  Now I’m just off to the pub to do my bit for the brewing industry and pay my dues to the exchequer.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Future of Books

I have just watched a programme presented by Alan Yentob  about e-books and their impact on reading and the future of ‘real’ books.  As usual with such programmes, lots of pseudo intellectuals were interviewed along with some writers and publishers, researchers and librarians.  Not one ordinary book reading member of the public.

We were treated to a brief history of printing, an idea in its time so revolutionary it could be compared to the changes that are happening in publishing today.

We were shown books in the Bodleian Library and made to feel that all books held the mystique of those ancient texts which 99.9% of the world will never see (that is not a true mathematical figure, by the way, just my way of saying most of the people in the world).

We were introduced to a writer who works in a log cabin in the back of beyond with no internet or mobile phone who believed such things were evil distractions that made it impossible for people to think for themselves or maintain a train of thought.

There were also some people who believed e-books were good and I agree with them.

I have lots of books in my home, most of which I have owned for years and have never got round to reading.  They sit on shelves and collect dust.  They are bulky and cumbersome.  I’m not intoxicated by the smell of them.  If I sniffed them I would end up sneezing.  I don’t need to feel the paper between my fingers.  What I am interested in is the stories they tell.  It doesn’t matter to me whether I read them on screen on my laptop, on a reader or on paper.

Not all e-books are great masterpieces – but then not all printed books are.  I have read some and thought ‘how on earth did this get published?’  I have read some and thought ‘I want to read that again.’  There are thousands of new books published very year; tens of thousands new e-books.  Publishing is a business and a gamble.  Books are not some kind of sacrosanct commodity that has to be worshipped.  They are a product like everything else that is sold.  Once in a while something really great or profound will emerge, but not often.

The important thing about e-books is that they are giving everyone a chance to read.  It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, if you can get on-line you can download a book.  I’m not sure, yet, about the dominance of one particular provider over another, but you can search for and find lots of books.  Not all.  Some are still not published as e-books and I know hoards of independent writers who will moan if every book published also has an e-version.  But why not?  I would love to have some of my favourite authors on my e-reader – at the right price, or course.  I object to paying paperback prices for something that does not have to be printed, stored, distributed and sold over the counter.

Reading a book in electronic form does not stop the reader thinking about the content.  It does not take the magic away.  You are still reading words that were the thoughts and imagination of the author.  You can still get lost in the story, read for longer than you intended, curse that the journey has ended too quickly and you have to close the book.

I have a new library in my life and I carry it around with me wherever I go.  Is that a bad thing?  I have The Iliad, The Three Musketeers, Alice in Wonderland, nearly every book written by Dickens (can you imagine carrying that lot around in your handbag) along with books by C S Lewis which I read as a teenager and are no longer in print, as well as so many other classics and books by new writers, Brendan Gisby, Gerry McCulloch, Teresa Geering, Simon Swift and a long list of others.

I can remember the last printed book I bought and it was within the last twelve months.  I haven’t read it yet.  I’m not saying it was the LAST printed book I will ever buy, I might still buy another, but most of my recent purchases have been e-books and I love them, one and all.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The High Street

There is a great deal of concern all over Britain that our towns and cities are losing the traditional High Street.  Why? people are asking, especially those who want us to go and spend money in their shops.

Before that question can be answered we need to think back thirty or forty years and remind ourselves what a traditional High Street used to offer.  Butchers, bakers, fishmongers, greengrocers, banks, dress shops, menswear shops, shoe shops, chemists, furniture shops, carpet shops, electrical shops, record shops, bookshops, newsagents, jewellers – a long list, indeed.

Who would use these shops?  Probably the people who lived within walking distance.  Housewives going to do their weekly, or more likely, daily shop.  Weekly markets provided added extras and brought people into the High Street to look for cheap bargains.

People lived close to the town centres.  If you lived in a big town or city there would be more than one High Street, even if it wasn’t actually called High Street.  Forty years ago not everyone had a car and if you could not walk to the shops you were in trouble.

Most things were bought locally.  I furnished my first home entirely from town centre shops, everything from carpets to the cooker. 

So why are these places no longer thriving?

I think the first thing that happened is that people moved away from the town centre to live on new housing estates.  And I don’t mean council estates, I’m talking about the new housing estates that were built for the up-and-coming, the well-paid factory workers and those seeking the very British desire of owning their own home, complete with garage and garden.  These meant travelling into town, preferably by car because no one wanted to lug all their shopping back on the bus.  Coming to town by car meant parking, which meant councils had to provide car parks, which meant drivers had to pay parking fees.  Judging by the fact that it is often difficult to find a parking space on a Saturday I don’t think these fees have put people off coming to town, it just increases the cost.

Life styles have changed.  More often than not these days both partners in any relationship work (if they are lucky enough to have a job).  This means shopping is no longer a leisurely process but something that has to be done as quickly as possible.  Supermarkets and shopping malls which provide easy and usually free parking, have taken over.

Then we have the British weather.  Always unpredictable, never the same two days running, cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, likely to be wet whatever the season.

Question: would you want to go from the butchers, the bakers, the greengrocers etc, queuing  at every shop to pay, in the wind and the rain, or would you prefer to go to one shop and get all your food at once, in the dry and warm and only queue once?

Question: when you are looking for something special would you want to go around town, in the wind and the rain, looking in all the different shops, or would you prefer to park your car and wander round under cover in a nice climate controlled shopping mall?

Question: if you need something you have never used before and don’t know where to get it, do you wander round town hoping to find a shop that might stock what you want or do you switch on your computer and Google it?

I know which I would do!

So if people are deserting the High Streets for supermarkets, shopping malls and the internet what can be done to stop towns centres becoming black holes?

I am not a town planner or a shopping guru but I would think one thing that would help would be to bring people back to live in the town centres.  If people are living close by they might well use a small grocers to stock up on day to day things. 

Change the opening hours of shops.  What is the point of opening nine to five when your customers are at work?  Supermarkets realise this and most stay open into the evening.  The same with the big shopping malls, they don’t all suddenly close at five.  It’s a pain to those who have to work in the shops but that’s the way life is these days.   Shops are there to serve the customer not the other way around.  Not long ago I had to go to an event in my local town which started at about 6pm.  Because I wasn’t sure how the evening traffic would be I ended up arriving early and thought I would go for a coffee, only to find the town was closed.

I’m probably the wrong person to be writing about this subject as I hate wandering aimlessly around shops.  I’m not interested in browsing for things I don’t need and would happily do all my shopping on line from the comfort of my armchair and without the hassle of driving and parking.  Towns need to be places where people want to meet and do things together, where they feel safe and comfortable.  But then they also need the people who want to go out in the first place, not stop-at-homes like me!