It’s only 150 years since a toff was roasted in the remote Dordogne village of Hautefaye. The poor soul was a French aristocrat resented by the locals. Perhaps he was an outsider. Perhaps he was a second-homer taking advantage of the delights of the Dordogne without ever turning up to any 19th-century equivalents of today’s wine and cheese festivals, arts exhibitions and boules tournaments.
Well, there are two ways. You can own a chunk of a successful spread-betting firm or you can be a spread-better and get things right. Miraculously, I have managed to do both. I shall come back to that.
First, let me tell you how it works. How many runs will England make in the first innings of their next Test match? The bookmaker — all spread-betting firms are bookies, whatever gravitas they may attempt to assume — might quote 260–270.
No Bank of England governor has ever been installed in office with quite so much advance hype as Mark Carney. When he moves from running to the Bank of Canada to his new office in Threadneedle Street, expectations will be running high. Carney arrives with a reputation as a master of economic strategy, a man who can single-handedly steer an economy through the most treacherous of waters, and get a country growing again with a few deft strokes of monetary magic.
My response to the appointment of Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian, to the editorship of BBC2’s Newsnight has been one of disbelief and amusement. Of course there’s nothing new in the Beeb hiring a paid-up Guardian-ista. It’s what we have come to expect. But one might have expected its new director-general, Tony Hall, to tread a little more carefully. Newsnight has a long history of Tory-bashing, and it disgraced itself last November with an orgy of false accusations against Alistair McAlpine, claiming without any evidence that he was a paedophile.
Imagine, if you can bear it, that you are a first-time buyer in the UK. You go to look at a 500-square-foot box masquerading as a two-bedroom flat in an average sort of area masquerading as an up-and-coming part of London. It’s a new build — one you can just about imagine downgrading your lifestyle expectations enough to live in. The problem is that you can’t quite afford it. The good news is that your Chancellor is behind you on this one.
To the British tabloids, he was ‘the Pied Piper of paedophiles’, the UK’s ‘most wanted child abuser’. But we all knew him as Willem: the fat, jolly, occasionally lecherous Dutchman who was a mainstay of Prague’s expatriate gay community. If you visited one of the city’s same-sex watering holes before last August, when Czech police arrested him, chances are that you would have seen, if not heard, the Pied Piper of Prague holding court at the end of the bar.
Gripped by his habitual despair, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote to a friend in 1872, ‘I am appalled at the state of society. I’m filled with the sadness that must have affected the Romans of the 4th century. I feel irredeemable barbarism rising from the bowels of the earth.’ Warming to his bleak scatological theme, he continued, ‘I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.
The first thing you see after leaving the baggage carousel at Toronto’s Pearson airport is an enormous photograph of Mayor Rob Ford. In it, the former high school football coach grins in his blingy regalia, teeth yellowed, one eye squinting in a semi-wink. His scalp is flushed and shiny through a receding blond hairline and his excessive girth spreads well beyond the frame. The overall effect is of a bloated albino lab rat on the wrong side of a thyroid drug trial.
You know Inferno, the new Dan Brown novel, the one that’s had such fabulously bad reviews? Well, it’s not really about Dante’s Inferno at all. What it’s really about — spoiler alert — is that old bogey: global population explosion.
For the baddie, a genetic scientist called Bertrand Zobrist, the big threat to humanity is the inexorable increase in the world population to nine billion by 2050. ‘By any biological gauge’, he tells the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Elizabeth Sinskey, whom he has lured into a darkened lecture room, ‘our species has exceeded our sustainable numbers… Under the stress of overpopulation, those who have never considered stealing will kill to provide for their young.
With the Dow Jones scaling new heights, and other markets not far behind, investors face a dilemma. Is this a time to buy? Or, for those who have suddenly found themselves sitting on a profit for the first time in a decade, is it time to sell? This is the question that faces most investors in good times and bad, but in 2013 the anxiety seems particularly acute. Many have been burned so badly in recent years that they have given up, preferring to keep their cash in bank accounts.
‘The central bankers have won,’ a senior City stockbroker said to me this week with an air of resignation. ‘There’s no point fighting them. Investors are doing as they’re told.’ And, wow, how they’re doing as they’re told. Thanks to central bank money-printing, cash is sloshing around the global financial system in desperate search of a decent return. There may still be little sign of a real economic recovery: China has slowed, to add to the misery in the eurozone.
When can a famine taste pretty good? The answer is when you are eating the cattle which have just died of thirst. And that’s where we are today in the investment market. The famine is a lack of income — cash held in a completely safe bank, or in short-term government securities, earns almost nothing. Where’s the feast? The answer is in yield-bearing investments, into which savings are pouring — they produce a modicum of yield, to be sure — but that is dwarfed by the capital gains which have accompanied them.
The Westminster pundits have all been obsessing over Andrew Feldman’s alleged ‘swivel-eyed loons’ comment about the Tory party’s grass roots. But what about the ‘loons’ themselves? Few in SW1 bothered to ask, so I spent a day in David Cameron’s back yard, hunting them down to find out what they really think of the Prime Minister and Ukip and whether they believe their party chairman’s denials.