Abba’s genius was never to write a happy love song

Memories. Good days. Bad days. In 1992, U2 mounted their Zoo TV tour. U2 being U2, the gigs were over-earnest affairs, their showbiz razzmatazz never emulsifying with their agitprop posturing. But disbelief was colloidally suspended the night the show hit Stockholm – and U2 were joined on stage by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulväeus for a cover of ‘Dancing Queen’. In truth, that evening’s take on one of Abba’s meisterwerke was a lumpen affair. Bono had to drop his voice an octave for what ought to be the song’s soaring refrain. And while Björn looked happy enough strumming a few chords on an acoustic guitar, Benny, at a keyboard the

China is set for a serious economic fall

 The future trajectory of the Chinese economy is a subject for doctoral theses rather than casual column items. But the advent of the Year of the Dragon, at last weekend’s Lunar New Year, was greeted with such pessimistic commentaries that the natural contrarian should ask whether the consensualists are getting it wrong: maybe the dragon is merely marking a pause before martialling its mighty resources for the next transglobal burst of fire? The negative narrative goes like this. In spite of deflation in consumer prices, Chinese shoppers are frightened of spending. Despite central bank interventions aimed at boosting asset prices, the property market is crashing after the collapse of the

In praise of Harry Cobden

For the past two years anybody who has asked Harry Cobden, Paul Nicholls’s stable jockey, which horse in the yard he was most looking forward to partnering, the answer has always been the same: Bravemansgame. But when declarations were made for the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock last weekend, the rider’s name attached to King George winner Bravemansgame was that of Daryl Jacob. Jacob was thus in line for the jockey’s share of the £112,000 prize. Cobden, said Nicholls, would be riding the yard’s entrants at Ascot instead. Although it was rapidly announced that Cobden was happy about the arrangement, a few eyebrows were raised and tails swished, particularly

My top tips for the racing season

The cockerels of jump racing had better look out: the Hen is back. At 76, Henrietta Knight, whose feat of training Best Mate to win three consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups will probably never be equalled, is to renew the licence she relinquished 11 years ago to care for her late husband, Terry Biddlecombe. Racing fans will be delighted; perhaps a few of the 27 trainers interviewed in depth by a ‘retired’ Henrietta for her revealing book The Jumping Game: How National Hunt Trainers Work and What Makes Them Tick slightly less so. Henrietta, who has continued pre-training and advising owners looking for future stars, is known as the best judge

The beauty of mid-range products

Once or twice, when on a crowded overnight flight, I have taken a sneaky stroll through the different cabins for the purpose of comparison. My reaction on first peering into each cabin goes like this. First class: ‘Gosh, this is fabulous. It’s like a restaurant in the air.’ Business class: ‘Ooh, this is nice; they get flat beds and everything.’ Premium economy: ‘Well this is OK; the seats seem comfy and it’s all pretty civilised.’ Economy: ‘It’s the “Raft of the Medusa”.’ Now here’s the thing. In terms of comfort, the biggest gap between two adjacent flight classes is between economy and premium economy. This improvement is simply achieved with

Britain has an entitlement problem

An Institute for Fiscal Studies paper, published at the end of last month, makes grim reading. Through the prism of the media reports it generated (‘One in 11 workers in England could be NHS staff by 2036,’ said the Guardian; ‘NHS staff will make up 49 per cent of the public sector workforce in 2036,’ said the Times), the most sensational finding was that our health service will be eating up an ever-increasing share of public spending. But, as so often, this particular cuckoo in the nest of public provision is only the most newsworthy of so many indications of Britain’s long, slow slide into insolvency. The gap grows between

How chefs cut costs in the kitchen

My grandmother, and many like her, kept an account book for household spending. This was not the product of an overbearing marriage or mistrust on anyone’s behalf – it was simply how things were done at a time when habits had been formed during rationing after the second world war, and banking was manual and slow. I spent a lot of time observing her kitchen on childhood visits. It was where my lifelong obsession with cooking began, and I can still recall a sense of balance in how she shopped and cooked; she was fond of naughty treats and lavish cuts, but she kept a stock pot, knew her way

What’s behind the bungalow boom?

‘Bungalows are almost perfect,’ as the old gag goes. ‘They only have one floor.’ But these once unfashionable properties are rapidly becoming anything but a joke. While the mortgage crisis is cooling most sectors of the housing market, demand for bungalows is growing. Estate agents report the properties receiving dozens of offers, selling for tens of thousands over the asking price or being snapped up before officially going on the market. The usual breed of downsizers and retirees looking to replace large family homes with something all on one level are facing stiff competition from budget-conscious purchasers seeking to renovate single-storey homes – and often turn them into family homes

Portrait of the week: BBC presenter scandal, EasyJet cancellations and a baby boy for Boris

Home The government pondered whether to accept pay-review bodies’ recommendations on rises in public sector salaries. ‘Delivering sound money is our number one focus,’ Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said in his Mansion House speech. ‘That means taking responsible decisions on public finances, including public sector pay.’ Regular pay in the March to May period was 7.3 per cent higher than a year earlier, although it rose less than inflation. Unemployment rose from 3.8 per cent to 4 per cent; vacancies fell by 85,000 to 1,034,000. The average two-year fixed-rate mortgage rose to 6.7 per cent. Jeremy Hunt confirmed that he was refused a bank account with Monzo last year on the

Martin Vander Weyer

Would a German takeover of BT be so bad?

To the Mansion House, on an unbearably humid evening, for the Lord Mayor’s annual ‘Financial and Professional Services’ dinner. It’s a big night for the City, with the formal unveiling of reforms designed to channel pension money into unlisted equities, creating by 2030 a £50 billion pool of capital for high-growth UK companies that might otherwise list in New York or sell themselves elsewhere. Simplified London listing rules, favourable to founder-entrepreneurs, will be another part of a wider reform package, much of which has been foreshadowed in this column over recent months. But what a way to put out a major policy announcement. ‘No wonder the tech kids don’t want

Price caps are a slippery slope

Sometimes it’s the little things that depress most. I groaned last week to hear the news item. The government is contemplating a ‘price cap’ on ‘basic items’ in ‘supermarkets’. Forgive the quotation marks, but each of these terms is so horribly problematic that one has to start by asking what they even mean. Has Conservatism in the 2020s lost its ideological moorings? Or perhaps one should start with a quick recapitulation of the history of this idiotic idea, because price control has been tried before, first by a Labour government, and then by their Tory successors who went on to consolidate the folly. The background to those repeated attempts to

Is it time for the £100 note?

Thanks to the recent spike in inflation, never have indisputable luxuries such as Sharwood’s mango chutney or Anchor butter quite so tested the domestic purse strings. The sad truth is, however, that it’s much worse than you think. Because unlike the watched kettle, the frog of devaluation hasn’t just arrived at a nice simmer, it’s begun to boil over. And mango chutney at £4.10 a jar is but the tip of the iceberg. For the long view consider the BBC’s new drama, Ten Pound Poms, about Brits who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s for the princely sum of a £10 processing fee. These days the closest you’ll get to

Regulators should not roll over for Revolut

Since we launched our Economic Innovator (originally ‘Disruptor’) awards in 2018, I’ve had enjoyable contacts with well over 100 entrepreneur-led high-growth companies picked as finalists from across the UK. Most I met at convivial pitching lunches; the rest told me their stories by Zoom or phone. Only one chosen finalist has ever shunned both the lunch and the opportunity for a call: it was Revolut, the London fintech venture that’s currently hustling for a UK banking licence. Revolut’s 38-year-old Russian-born founder Nikolay Storonsky has built a serious disruptor, valued in 2021 at $33 billion. Though Schroders – as a Revolut shareholder – has marked that figure down to $18 billion,

Why are Americans buying up our castles?

You might think someone who grew up in the 356-room Belvoir Castle wouldn’t be too worried by a traffic fine. But when Lady Eliza Manners was caught speeding, she avoided paying off the full £100 ticket by claiming ‘financial hardship’. And apparently she’s not the only budget-conscious occupant of the Leicestershire property. Her mother Emma, the Duchess of Rutland, recently claimed she shops in Asda. While it might be hard for those on the actual breadline to sympathise with the troubles of the titled and entitled, such states of affairs do stand to some sort of reason. If you think heating your two-bed home has become an expensive business, try

Why do people assume I am posh?

If we cram any more doctors into our spare rooms we can put a sign outside advertising NHS accommodation. We came by the first one when he answered my ad on a well-known website, booked for a few nights and ended up staying for years. He has a family home elsewhere, but needs somewhere to sleep when he is working late at the nearby hospital. I cannot find a small house with a few acres that I can afford anywhere in Britain He is an anaesthetist and no trouble at all. We see him only one or two nights a week, or sometimes less, depending on his shift pattern. He

Would you pay £24,000 for a fridge?

At the start of this month, the modish kitchen appliance brand Sub-Zero & Wolf proudly announced the launch of its Classic French Door fridge-freezer. This beast of a machine, featuring Nasa-inspired air purification technology and an automatic ice-maker complete with ‘party mode’, will set you back £23,868 ­– or the best part of a year’s salary for the average UK worker. Admittedly it does look like an impressive piece of kit, what with its nano-coated glass shelves which stop spills from spreading, crisper drawers with humidity levels designed to keep food fresher for longer and shadow-reducing interior lights. And the kind of people who truly care about having a Sub-Zero & Wolf insignia

The death of the landlord

Spring is property auction season, when a motley collection of semi-derelict houses, flats with leases in the single figures and the homes of mortgage defaulters get sold off. This year, though, a scan of the catalogues of some of the UK’s leading property auction houses reveals a new class of property under the hammer: rental flats. Under pressure from rising interest rates and increasing regulation, many landlords are opting for an exit strategy. According to recent research from estate agent Hamptons, Britain’s rental sector is losing homes at a rate of 66 per day. Agents across the country report an influx of instructions from small-time landlords who’ve decided to invest elsewhere.

In defence of the £20 burger

Would you spend £20 on a burger? To many in Britain, that price would be unaffordable. Possibly this applies to more people in 2023 than it would have done five years ago because the country has become that much more egregious. Financial progress today is an increasingly laughable concept. Unless you own Amazon, that is, or landed a PPE contract in the pandemic.  But there are many others who could afford a £20 burger, yet find the notion of paying that sum unacceptable. This was made glaringly apparent recently when the chef Gary Usher shared the menu from his new Cheshire pub, The White Horse. The pub doesn’t open until

The UK is right to keep faith in crypto

It will be a charter for fraudsters. It will usher in an open-season mindset for money launderers and criminals. And it will drag down the reputation of the City. There will be plenty of critics of today’s government decision to push forward with a regulated cryptocurrency market in London. In the wake of the FTX scandal, one of the largest in corporate history, many would rather see it banned completely. But crypto is more resilient than that – and the UK, if moves quickly, it can carve out a lucrative space as its leading hub.  No one could accuse Rishi Sunak or Jeremy Hunt of taking any risks with the

In defence of Spotify

‘Pitiful.’ That’s the verdict of Damian Green MP, acting chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, on the payouts that streaming companies such as Spotify and Apple Music provide to musicians. An update to the group’s Economics of Music Streaming report, published on Friday, calls on the government to take a ‘proactive strategic role’ to make sure Britain’s music industry – one of the few that truly is world-beating – gets the cash it deserves. With streaming now accounting for 84 per cent of UK recorded music revenues, its businesses model really matters. Spotify controls up to 60 per cent of the British streaming market (Apple Music and