Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Girl number 20

There's something addictive about watching the little red figures change. Every so often they flicker into green for an hour or so. Sometimes a day ends with the figures locked into green. Then the descent begins again.

The stock markets are so remote from what really matters that it's hard to see the probable effect of the descending numbers. It seems as though the effects will be felt first by the rich and irresponsible. Those who made money gambling on the markets may have to do without new fur coats this year. They may cut their fleet of limousines, sell a country house or travel business class instead of hiring a private jet.

The rest of us have less to lose - but it looks as though what we own may be at risk. Those who obediently followed the advice of the government or experts may suddenly find themselves unable to take money from their bank, without pensions, without insurance - even without their home. In an economy built on debt and luxury services, jobs are beginning to crumble just as prices rise. So much of what we take for granted has been made in sweatshops overseas, at prices we thought we controlled - now it turns out that the market doesn't always run in our favour. The producers are beginning to take control and raising their prices. Soon we'll be looking around for our manufacturing industry and wondering where it went. We may even be asking why the coal mines were closed if we can't afford to import the fuel we need. We'll wonder what happened to the farms.

Or perhaps, suddenly and for no apparent reason, the markets will settle, banks will be able to borrow vast sums of money again - and will urge us to borrow it - and we'll get back to where we were before, thinking that we're rich.

I wander down the High Street wondering how safe the shops are and which will be there next week, let alone next year. A couple of weeks ago I set out with my son to buy him a birthday present at his favourite music shop. The shop had been there for years, staffed by dedicated workers who spent many of their evenings practising, teaching and playing folk music. The shop was a busy wonderland of instruments that careful visitors were allowed to play. I was startled to hear my son trying a harp for the first time and picking out a Christmas carol. There were sitars and Chinese lutes as well as banjos, guitars, violins and a basement given over to wind instruments. My son did work experience there and learnt to re-string his guitar and take a clarinet to pieces for cleaning. Then, suddenly, the shop was gone. Only a few cardboard boxes and a harp stood in the window. There were a few notices but no explanation. I wish I knew where the staff were. I'll never forget the kindness with which they showed my son new chords on the guitar and encouraged his playing.

There are so many small shops, set up by helpful optimists. They were encouraged by a climate which urged people to become entrepreneurs and work for themselves. They invested their life savings and so many hours in a dream - sometimes starting from scratch and sometimes paying for a franchise. But as jobs go and savings lose their value, who can afford beauty treatments, frothy coffee, fancy cakes, crystals, strings of glittering beads? Even food retailers find it hard to compete with supermarkets - and will find it harder to keep going. I fear Tesco has more chance of survival than the local greengrocer. (Our cheese shop, with its splendid array of British cheeses, closed years ago, despite its loyal customers. Apparently not quite enough of us transferred our custom from the big supermarket. I wish I'd known how close the battle was and I'd have encouraged all my friends to shop there.)

Even the big shops are at risk. Many seem to have been owned by Icelandic companies and, as Iceland goes bust, the companies (including Hamleys, Woolworth, Moss Bros and House of Fraser) are being "let go". I wonder who has money - or will risk the debt - to take them over. Perhaps they will be lost like the names of the past: Lilley and Skinner, Mackintosh sweets and all the rest.

For the moment, I'm more or less untouched. So far as I know, I still have money in the bank - and it's a small enough quantity to be, in theory, safeguarded by the government. In theory I can still look forward to a pension. What will really happen, if the crash is very bad, I don't know.

I keep looking back to prosperous times, only a few months ago, and for some reason I keep remember the lesson the children were taught in Charles Dickens' Hard Times which is, among other things, a critique of political economy. Mr M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster, is trying to teach a class of children what prosperity is. Most of the children learn their lesson but girl number 20, Sissy Jupe fails to get the point. Asked if a country with "fifty millions of money" is a prosperous nation, she can only reply, "
I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine." Mr M'Choakumchild persists, urging Sissy to imagine the schoolroom an immense town "and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?" Sissy responds, "I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million." But that, she is told, is the wrong answer. What matters is the prosperity of the nation as a whole and not who has the money or whether some people starve.

Our prosperous country hasn't just ignored the suffering of the poor in recent years. Mockery of the poor has become widespread while wealth, however acquired, has been a passport to fame and respect. Now it looks as though we're headed into the storm.

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