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Ian Fraser (Edinburgh, Scotland)

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Hard Rain - The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen
Hard Rain - The Songs of Bob Dylan & Leonard Cohen
Price: £9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Opens your eyes, 10 Aug 2014
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This is another excellent album by Barb Jungr. I'm very familiar with the original versions of all 11 of these songs, but in each and every case Jungr seems to bring them to life, adding something fresh and original. With the title track, Bob Dylan's Hard Rain, and several of the other songs on this striking album, she opens your eyes to aspects of the song which were previously obscure.


An Officer and a Spy
An Officer and a Spy
by Robert Harris
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important message, 10 Aug 2014
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This review is from: An Officer and a Spy (Paperback)
In this long but easily readable novel, Robert Harris makes clear how, when a country that is xenophobic and paranoid seeks to cover up a major miscarriage of justice, the entire state becomes corrupted, though he does not do this in a didactic way. You grow to love the few who are willing to risk their lives to fight for truth and justice--especially Colonel Georges Picquart--and to despise those characters who have no qualms about seeing an innocent man continue to languish on Devil's Island just so they can spare themselves, the army and the French state the embarrassment of a retrial, or the admission that a "mistake" has been made. In his well-paced narrative, Harris captures the sights, sounds, smells and social mores of late 19th Paris brilliantly--especially the all-pervading stench of la merde.


Anglo Republic: Inside the bank that broke Ireland
Anglo Republic: Inside the bank that broke Ireland
by Simon Carswell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gripping read, 19 Jun 2014
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Anglo Republic: Inside the bank that broke Ireland is an excellent account of how a small Irish lender inflated a property bubble of epic proportions before becoming one of the biggest financial basket-cases in Europe.

Carswell, former finance correspondent of the Irish Times, has marshalled superb sources in order to give readers a ringside seat at many of the meetings and events that drove the Dublin-based lender's phantom success and its ultimate demise. He describes how Anglo Irish became a highly leveraged bet on the future of Ireland's increasingly unsustainable property market, a poster child of European banker profligacy and excess, and nearly brought down the Irish economy.

I particularly liked some of the quotes about the bank's former CEO, Sean FitzPatrick. For example on page 38, Carswell quotes a former director of Anglo Irish as saying: "Sean FitzPatrick felt that it was Sean FitzPatrick plc and not Anglo Irish Bank plc - he felt that it was his bank, that he should call the shots to the board and the management ... He didn't want a board at all." ... He also quotes a former executive as saying: "He had an ego that liked to be lauded. As the bank attracted more attention, the ego inflated. I think there was a lot of venerating at the altar within the bank."

There are parallels with the Royal Bank of Scotland, where CEO Fred Goodwin had an even higher opinion of himself, conflated the institution he managed with his own ego, and treated the board with disdain. There are other parallels between Anglo Irish and Scotland's uber-reckless twins, RBS and HBOS. All three banks prided themselves on their buccaneering attitude to loan approval, which short-circuited the normal credit processes and risk-management practices. It was a great way of ensuring more money could be lent out during the boom times but it didn't look quite so clever after the crash.

Carswell brilliantly describes how Anglo Irish's carefree approach to lending drove other lenders operating in Ireland. To avoid losing market share, profits and credibility with investors, rivals including Allied Irish Banks, Bank of Ireland, Irish Nationwide, Irish Life & Permanent, Educational Building Society (as well as RBS's Ulster Bank unit and HBOS's Bank of Scotland (Ireland)) convinced themselves that their survival depended on lending like there was no tomorrow (though it's debatable whether the two Scottish banks - once memorably described as "suitcase bankers in kilts" by one of Ireland's old school bankers - were followers or leaders in this regard. Some believe that it was their piratical incursions into Ireland in the late 1990s and early 2000s that caused Irish bankers to go off their heads).

Just like HBOS and RBS, Anglo Irish is a bank that has much to answer for and, as with them, it appears that several of its former executives ought really to be in jail. Hopelessly under-regulated when times were good, it was ultimately able to hold the Irish people to ransom.

Even when two former executives - former head of lending in Ireland Pat Whelan and ex finance director Willie McAteer - were found guilty of making soft loans to illegally prop up the bank's share price, they were not sent to jail. They're serving community service instead.

Ian Fraser is author of Shredded: Inside RBS, the Bank That Broke Britain


The End of the Party
The End of the Party
by Andrew Rawnsley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A meticulously researched tour de force, 6 Oct 2013
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This review is from: The End of the Party (Paperback)
Well done Andrew Rawnsley. This is the best book about Britain in the noughties that I have read. Excellent expose of the multifarious failures of New Labour. Sadly, we will be paying the price for the blind faith that the likes of Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson had in cretinous bankers for many years to come.


Belkin Universal mini USB CLA. Slots in to Cars Cigar lighter socket.
Belkin Universal mini USB CLA. Slots in to Cars Cigar lighter socket.
Offered by BESTBUYIT
Price: £4.50

1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointed, 6 Oct 2013
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When inserted in the car's cigarette lighter, this did not work, either to charge my son's Apple iPod touch or my iPod Nano.


Cable-Tex USB to PS/2 Keyboard Adapter Convertor
Cable-Tex USB to PS/2 Keyboard Adapter Convertor
Offered by PCArena
Price: £6.38

5.0 out of 5 stars A great little adapter, 6 Oct 2013
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I made the mistake of buying an HP keyboard which came with a PS/2 plug instead of a USB one. With this adapter, I have been able to connect it to my Toshiba laptop, and it's been working perfectly for about four weeks. Without the adapter I would have had to junk the keyboard or send it back to the vendor. Strongly recommend


Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked the Best Bank in Britain
Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked the Best Bank in Britain
by Ray Perman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £17.90

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Friend or enemy?, 22 Nov 2012
In Hubris: How HBOS Wrecked The Best Bank in Britain, Ray Perman reveals that, in 2006, certain members of the HBOS board had serious concerns about the bank's behaviour in the UK mortgage market and that they failed to intervene. A plan to launch 125% loan-to-value residential mortgages in November 2006 was, Perman writes, greeted with 'mute astonishment' by some board members'. What he does not reveal was who was mute and why they bit their tongues. Given that their role is supposed to be to look after the interests of shareholders, surely these individuals ought to be named and shamed?

Maybe part of the problem was that, as Perman reveals on page 96 of the book, that the executive directors appointed their own non-executives - the exact opposite of what is meant to happen in a PLC.

Perman makes clear that until some 25 years ago Bank of Scotland was actually trusted by its customers. When it adopted its 'A Friend for life' slogan in 1984, Perman claims, 'it was not greeted with cynicism. People believed it meant it, and more importantly, it did.' However by the 1990s the leadership of the Bank of Scotland and other UK banks had no qualms about sacrificing this trust on the altar of greed. Not only did they start prioritising sales over service (and, latterly, financial stability); they also started playing fast and loose with their own balance sheets in pursuit of targets that were often quixotic and ephemeral.

Perman recounts how things deteriorated further following Bank of Scotland's ill-considered merger with Halifax in September 2001. The merged bank, called HBOS, immediately started taking a 'cheap and cheerful', 'pile it high and sell it cheap' approach to financial products under the leadership of ex-actuary James Crosby and former Asda marketeer Andy Hornby.

As long as the sales growth continued, the bank's board didn't seem to care how it was achieved, or if they were burdening their customers and the wider economy with debt they could ill afford, or that the assumptions that underpinned their approach (house prices couldn't fall, derivatives had banished risk etc) were wholly fallacious. Nor, seemingly, did they mind that they were leading a 300-year-old institution to the brink of destruction, even firing senior risk managers such as Paul Moore who dared to warn them of the error of their ways (this is an episode that I don't think Perman examines fully enough).

Perman describes how a collective amnesia overcame the top people at HBOS, their minds dulled by reassuring claims from the Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan that complex derivatives had banished volatility from financial markets and from Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown that he had banished "boom and bust".

Reassured by such falsehoods, the HBOS directors strove to grow their balance sheet at almost any cost, partly because it would trigger bigger bonuses for themselves. They had few qualms about piling into risky lending, highly dubious lending, overpriced speculative private equity and commercial property deals and proprietary trading on financial markets. And they did so mainly in five main geographic markets: UK, US, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.

Perman describes with aplomb some of the wilder excesses HBOS's retail and corporate banking arms, capturing the cynical mind-set of its Crosby-led management and the internal chaos that ensued. In particular he highlights that the 15% to 20% annual growth targets laid down by Crosby and his co-directors were 'startlingly demanding'.

As the FSA reports have made clear, internal controls were virtually non-existent, especially in the bank's now notorious corporate lending arm. It was no surprise that by the time the credit markets started to freeze over as a result of massive fraud in the subprime mortgage market from July 2007, HBOS was dead in the water.

It was laid low because, as a direct result of their knowledge of its own reckless and cavalier approach to lending, poor quality 'asset' base and inability to reduce its dependence on short-term wholesale funding, its wholesale funders no longer trusted it.

The disastrous institution probably ought to have been allowed to go bankrupt (or shut down in as orderly a way as possible) but, for fear of financial Armageddon, the Bank of England, Financial Services Authority, US Federal Reserve and the government of Gordon Brown stepped in to save it from the consequences of its own folly.

They did this by providing clandestine emergency loans, and by recapitalising the bank with £11.5bn of taxpayers' money, and waving through an anti-competitive rescue takeover by Lloyds TSB. At the time Brown chose to single out Fred Goodwin, the chief executive of RBS, which also failed in spectacular fashion in October 2008, for special blame - it enabled Brown to divert the media and public attention away from his own pivotal role in the banks' near demise. However, as Perman makes clear in Hubris, the greedy and incompetent former directors of HBOS, including its Teflon-coated chairman Lord Stevenson, are no less worthy of such opprobrium.

My main criticisms of the book are that Perman shies away from probing the well-documented instances when, at the apogee of its own reckless irresponsibility in 2003-07, HBOS broke FSA regulations and also, probably, the criminal law. Instances included when it encouraged customers who were taking out so-called 'self-certified' loans to lie about their incomes. Another was when it imposed known embezzlers on between fifty and two hundred of its small and medium-sized corporate borrowers, with devastating results. I expect a lot more will surface about some of the bank's more nefarious activities in the coming weeks and months.

I also think that Perman is sometimes inclined to take a rather simplistic, black and white, BoS = "good", Halifax ="bad" approach to this sorry saga. It is worth pointing out that the two HBOS executive directors who were directly responsible for the most damage at HBOS -- Colin Matthew (international, including Ireland and Australia) and Peter Cummings (corporate) -- both started as trainees at Bank of Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bank of Scotland is today a hollowed-out shell. It is no more than a trading name within the enlarged Lloyds Banking Group. Perman makes clear that, having squandered our trust, it and similar banks like RBS are likely to take at least a generation to regain it. My own view is that, unless those who were responsible for the carnage at HBOS (many of whom still work in the enlarged Lloyds Banking Group or, like Graeme Shankland and his team, have found other ways of profiting from their past idiocy and incompetence) are held accountable for their actions, trust will never be rebuilt, and proper reform of the UK's financial sector will prove elusive.


A Price to Pay: The Inside Story of the NatWest Three
A Price to Pay: The Inside Story of the NatWest Three
by David Bermingham
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Superb narrative, 11 Sep 2012
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David Bermingham and his two fellow NatWest execs, Giles Derby and Gary Mulgrew, may well have sailed close to the wind with some of the complex structures that they helped conjure up for the fraud-ridden US energy giant Enron. But as Bermingham explains in this book they were to some extent only obeying orders. And they had no idea that Enron was a fraudulent enterprise at the time. They had been asked to maximize their division's revenues, as NatWest believed that bigging up its numbers might help it resist the competing and unwelcome takeover offers from Bank of Scotland and Royal Bank of Scotland.

What appals me about this story, told with remarkable candour and breezy good humour (albeit laced with the odd use of cutting irony) by Bermingham, is the shabby way in which he and his two colleagues were treated by the UK authorities, and to a lesser extent by RBS itself, which acquired NatWest in early 2000.

Tony Blair and his entire New Labour cabinet come across as spineless. Much of the story revolves around the Extradition Act 2003, which revealed Blair & Co were only too happy to subjugate human rights and justice for UK citizens on the altar of a "special relationship" with the United States, even though this relationship was one-sided and illusory.

The act, which came into force in January 2004, made it possible for them to be extradited to the United States to stand trial for wire fraud and other alleged offences on what seems to have been the flimsiest of evidence. Bermingham describes how the "NatWest Three" launched a powerful media and online campaign against the act, and how one of the few British politicians who they persuaded to support them in this endeavour was the Conservative MP and former journalist Boris Johnson.

Two British institutions - the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Services Authority - come across as, to varying degrees, unscrupulous, perfidious and perhaps even corrupt. On page 195 Bermingham describes how Robert Wardle, the ex-director of the SFO, claimed his agency had had no involvement in their case, even through clear evidence to the contrary later surfaced.

The US justice system comes across no better, and perhaps even worse. In a review of A Price to Pay published in the Spectator, Conrad Black (a man who clearly has no axe to grind!!) described it as follows: "US criminal justice is based on the almost completely corrupt manipulation of the plea bargain, in which suspects, or alleged suspects, are interviewed and advised that they can have immunity in exchange for miraculous revenances of memory that incriminate the prime targets -- failing which, however flimsy or nonexistent the evidence, they too will be charged."

As a financial journalist myself, I found the section covering the interventions of the Daily Telegraph's business editor Jeff Randall and his journalistic colleagues particularly interesting. Bermingham reports that, after Randall published a couple of pieces questioning RBS's motives in not doing more to assist the 'NatWest Three', or not having the decency to arraign them for defrauding its NatWest arm (the main allegation against them) through the UK courts, he (Randall) received a call from someone very senior at RBS "begging me to call off the dogs".

Altogether A Price to Pay provides a fascinating account into where the worlds of finance, law, criminal justice, and the media collide on both sides of the Atlantic, and it is written in an accessible, narrative style. One of my main criticisms is the lack of an index.


African Dow
African Dow
by Jim Dow
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account of Africa in 1960s, 27 July 2010
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This review is from: African Dow (Paperback)
I read this book, an autobiographical account of Dow's years in Africa, in one sitting. It provides a fascinating insight into Africa on the cusp of change - as well as the workings of "dead tree" newspapers and journalists in a vanished era - and deserves to have a much wider readership. Jim Dow arrives in Africa as a naive teenager in the late 1950s and is initially shocked by the social and racial segregation that was then regarded as normal in the former East African colonies of Tanzania and Kenya. He leaves in 1963 as a more worldly-wise journalist, with a wife (Lorna) and daughter (Karen) in tow. For me, 'African Dow's' most interesting passages include Dow's eyewitness accounts of the tensions between white farmers and the new generation of black leaders (and their followers) who are desirous of change. He provides a fair and balanced portrait of the early post-colonial black leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyere and Daniel P Arap Moi, all of whom Dow knew personally. He also perfectly captures the complacency of the white ruling class, most of whom rather like the status quo and seem unprepared for change. Paradoxically it was the old Etonian UK prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who recognised that change was inevitable (with his famous "Winds of change" speech) rather than senior people on the ground. Dow ends this intimate and humane account of an African life by writing: "Everything is different in Africa. The dust of Africa after forty years is still on the shoes. It's in the hair, under the fingernails, in the nostrils. You never forget having been in Africa."


1800mAh Replacement Rechargeable Battery For Nintendo DS Lite
1800mAh Replacement Rechargeable Battery For Nintendo DS Lite

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Does what it says on the tin, 27 July 2010
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Easily installed the new battery into my son's Nintendo DS and it is now working perfectly again. Buying online is so much more painless than traipsing in and out of shops only to be told they don't have the product you want in stock.


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