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Ian Fraser (Edinburgh, Scotland)

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La Vogue Women Cartoon Soft Warm Thick Knitted Anti Non Slip Slipper Bed Socks (#D Pink Giraffe)
La Vogue Women Cartoon Soft Warm Thick Knitted Anti Non Slip Slipper Bed Socks (#D Pink Giraffe)

4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing gift, 4 Jan. 2016
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This review comes from my 12-year-old daughter, who was given these for Christmas: "Soooo cool and cosy I love them"

The Bucks Stop Here
The Bucks Stop Here
by Jim Parton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funnier than Liar's Poker. Lifts the lid on City culture, 21 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Bucks Stop Here (Paperback)
The Bucks Stop Here is a hilarious read and the funniest book I have ever read about the City of London.

At times it is laugh-out-loud funny -- largely as a result of Jim Parton's eye for absurdity, his honesty about himself and what most stockbrokers actually do (hint: very little other than sometimes to impoverish their clients), his sharp character sketches of colleagues, suppliers and clients, his ability to skewer the pretentiousness of many who work in finance, and the fact the whole thing is laced with a dry, self-deprecating humour.

In amongst the humour, though, lurk some important revelations about the prevailing, self-serving culture of the City and the wider financial markets.

For example, in Chapter 17, Parton describes the seemingly criminal ties between Western fund managers and so-called "Big Four" Japanese securities firms -- Nomura, Daiwa, Nikko and Yamaichi. Parton, who was a Japanese equities salesman at various London brokerages in the 1980s and 1990s, writes:-

"Certain British fund managers must be hoping that not too much comes out. I know of one fund manager at a very blue chip UK insurance company who received a Ferrari in exchange for directing his business through the Big Four. He was found out and quietly, very quietly, sacked"

"In Tokyo a certain amount of handing over of anonymous brown envelopes goes on. For a Western fund manager in Tokyo, receiving a bribe is pretty much risk-free. If his company finds out, it is scarcely likely to sack him publicly. Much more likely to hush it up...

"Until recently, in Tokyo, Western fund managers who did a trade in the morning could, and did, book it to their own private account in the afternoon if it had gone up, to their client's fund if not. Japanese brokers co-operated with this, and ended up picking up a lot of business as a result. My understanding is that such corruption was not limited to the Japanese, but that British and American brokers did the same. It is after all, a practice that was commonplace in the City, until regulators started to have power."

What Parton is describing is criminal corruption and he gives the impression it was fairly widespread. It probably still is. Basically he is making it plain that some, or perhaps even many, of the people who work in finance, people who we as savers have entrusted to look after our money, are not averse to helping themselves to large dollops of it now and again.

So I'd recommend the book on many levels. Not just because it is uproariously funny. But also because of the important message it contains about the City and those who work in it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 6, 2016 9:42 AM GMT

Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life
Nicola Sturgeon: A Political Life
by David Torrance
Edition: Paperback

8 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for anyone interested in Scotland's political future, 14 Dec. 2015
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I learnt a lot about Nicola Sturgeon -- and indeed the SNP and Scotland itself -- from this book.

With biographies of the former Scottish secretary George Younger and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond behind him, Torrance is an accomplished political biographer and has produced a rounded account of Sturgeon with this book.

She comes across as a highly competent and determined politician (who else would carry on seeking political office after failing to get elected in five separate elections?), as a pragmatist who understands the dangers of zealotry and the need to look the part, as well as a stern disciplinarian who understands that a political party will get nowhere if it is disunited.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of the book was Chapter 6, "Project Nicola", in which Torrance describes how Sturgeon embarked on a personal makeover that was probably critical to her becoming an acceptable leader to the Scottish electorate. She successfully jettisoned the brittle, over-serious approach and somewhat dowdy look that characterised her early political years, adopting instead a more relaxed and self-deprecating style, learning to moderate her voice, losing some weight and donning smarter, more flattering clothes.

As "Project Nicola" was underway, Sturgeon admitted to a journalist that: "I'm serious by nature and have to work hard at my lighter side". Well the work definitely paid off though, just occasionally, her former brittleness still reasserts itself (for example, when contentious questions are suddenly thrown in to what she thought was going to be an uncontentious interview).

In his conclusion Torrance writes: "Sturgeonism [has] to be much more than just Salmondism with a social conscience; it need[s] time to become something deeper, compelling and genuinely transformative, finally making good on so many words and erudite speeches."

He is right. Though Sturgeon is one of the most impressive British politicians of her generation (this became clear during the televised debates ahead of the 7th May 2015 general election and through the SNP's success in winning 56 of Scotland's 59 seats in that election) she now needs to put words into action, overcome her disinterestedness in economics, and demonstrate how well her party can govern Scotland.

Unless it does that, while also doing more to placate die-hard unionists, I suspect the SNP may struggle to secure a "Yes" vote in any future plebiscite on Scotland's constitutional future.

Overall I would say Torrance's book is essential reading for anyone who is interested in Scottish politics, by extension, the wider future of Scotland.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 28, 2016 3:20 PM GMT

Crash Bank Wallop: The Memoirs of the HBOS Whistleblower
Crash Bank Wallop: The Memoirs of the HBOS Whistleblower
Price: £6.00

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly readable account of one of British banking's most shameful episodes, 13 Dec. 2015
In Crash Bank Wallop, Paul Moore reveals how, under an egotistical chief executive whose impatience for growth led to corners being cut, HBOS had by 2004 already spun out-of-control. The bank was paying no more than lip service to risk management, capital and liquidity management, corporate governance, regulation, and treating customers fairly.

As group head of regulatory risk, Moore’s job was to alert the board to risks that might bring the bank down, especially where these might be in breach of UK banking regulations. But, after he identified predatory and dangerously flawed sales practices at the bank (euphemistically termed "misselling"), his senior colleagues responded by suppressing his report, firing him, and then seeking to smear him via a report commissioned from KPMG, an accountancy firm which also happened to be the bank’s auditors. They then sought to buy his silence.

Three years later, the bank imploded, only surviving thanks to a government bailout and a rescue takeover by Lloyds TSB. At this point, in the public interest, Moore contravened his gagging clause, and dared to speak out about the criminal dishonesty he had witnessed, first to the BBC and then to the Treasury Select Committee. Today, he can feel almost entirely vindicated – though the banking culture remains far from being fully reformed and scarcely any British bankers have gone to jail.

Crash Bank Wallop provides an unprecedented insight into the culture of groupthink, arrogance and invincibility at the top of HBOS in the build up to its September 2008 collapse. In particular Moore highlights how HBOS's finance director, Mike Ellis, was joined at the hip to the chief executive, James Crosby. Moore writes: "Mostly, Ellis was Crosby’s man and CEOs get the numbers they want by appointing CFOs who do what they are told and keep the auditors under control." The alleged lack of independence of thought and implied cooking of the books here is deeply concerning.

Highlighting one board-level report written by Ellis -- who is now, astonishingly, the chairman of Skipton Building Society -- Moore writes: "[it was] perfect evidence of the fundamental problem at HBOS that led to its downfall. When senior executives, and especially the CFO, cannot tell the truth to the board in situations of significant and material risk, there can be only one ending to the story – a catastrophe."

The book also reveals the uselessness of HBOS's non-executive directors. It didn't help matters that they were appointed by, and were close friends of, the executive directors -- which in and of itself was a fundamental breach of corporate governance which inevitably weakened the bank.

The revelations about Sir Charles Dunstone, one of HBOS's non-executive directors, are particularly concerning. Dunstone, whose day job was as a retailer running Carphone Warehouse, was chairman of the bank's supposedly "independent" retail risk control committee. In 2004, Moore asked him if he had any concerns about PPI -- the loan insurance product which HBOS was then misselling on an industrial scale.

According to the book, Dunstone responded by saying: “I’m glad you asked me about that Paul, because, by coincidence I was only just talking to Andy Hornby about PPI last week and he assured me that we had no ethical or mis-selling issues in that area.” If this is the best the chairman of the bank's "independent" retail risk control committee could do, he was clearly unfit for office. Hornby was at the time the bank's head of retail and, by all accounts, a close friend of Dunstone's! He was also, it seems, a consummate liar. Sir Charles had been a non-executive director of the Halifax since 1999 and continued in that role at the enlarged HBOS group after its 2001 merger with Bank of Scotland.

Moore reveals that HBOS "reinterpreted" both internal and external reports, especially those that were critical of its own internal practices, including those produced for the FSA by the supposedly independent (but actually 100% partisan) "big four" accountancy firms PWC and KPMG, with the goal of sweeping serious issues under the carpet. Moore writes: "The amount of paper [presented at board meetings etc] was ludicrous but it gave the illusion of governance."

Moore also highlights how the the UK financial regulator the FSA was effectively in on the act. The regulator was, at the very least, deeply compromised since, from January 2004 onwards, HBOS's chief executive James Crosby was moonlighting as one of its directors while his bank was desperate to ward off regulatory scrutiny.

In the end, Crosby sacked Moore because the risk manager had the temerity to highlight flawed sales practices in HBOS's retail and insurance arms and to point out that "the cultural indisposition to challenge [that was] pervasive throughout the bank" was a threat to its continued existence.

After he revealed these findings at a meeting of HBOS's audit committee on 8th June 2004, KPMG audit partner Guy Bainbridge blurted out that Moore must have "a death wish". The remark suggests that KPMG, which audited Halifax before its merger with Bank of Scotland and remained auditors to the merged entity afterwards, was so "embedded" and aligned with the Crosby-led management team -- effectively cheerleaders for Crosby and all his ways -- that they had lost any vestige of professional scepticism where one of their biggest banking clients was concerned. This too is a very serious matter which Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Treasury committee, recently said must be investigated by the appropriate authorities.

Moore writes: "Far from expressing his concern for my future career at HBOS, Guy Bainbridge, a highly experienced auditor, should have been proactively and vocally supporting my concerns. He should be ashamed of himself." (As an aside it beggars belief that KPMG Bainbridge is now the accountancy firm's audit partner on HSBC).

It required real bravery on Moore's part to speak out about the wrongdoing that he witnessed as HBOS's risk chief. Had he been listened to, it's conceivable the bank would have mended its ways and not required a £20bn bailout three years after his defenestration. When he made his first stab at speaking out publicly, in a BBC programme aired October 2008, he was asked what being a risk manager at HBOS was actually like. Moore replied: “I felt like a man in a rowing boat, trying to slow down an oil tanker.”

Moore is remarkably candid in Crash Bank Wallop -- talking about the rediscovery of his Catholic faith and admitting to his own personal failings and idiosyncrasies, including his lack of political nouse and bouts of heavy drinking. He even reveals his own nickname, "the Mad Monk". Moore is also candid about the fact he was being paid up to £850,000 a year at HBOS, adding "I quite readily accept that I was being paid far more than I actually deserved". I have yet to meet a single other banker, or indeed accountant, who has the honesty to acknowledge that he or she might be paid too much.

Flaws in this book include occasional repetition and perhaps slightly too much focus on the lengthy screeds that were written by Moore and others around the time of his unjust dismissal. Overall, however, it is a remarkably readable inside view of one of the most shameful episodes in British banking history.

Congratulations are also due to Mike Haworth, who co-wrote the book with Moore.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2015 9:25 AM GMT

Vax U91-MA-B Air Multicyclonic Upright Bagless Vacuum Cleaner
Vax U91-MA-B Air Multicyclonic Upright Bagless Vacuum Cleaner

5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent vacuum cleaner, 19 Nov. 2015
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Best vacuum cleaner I have ever owned.

My only complaints are that (1) the cable is too short (2) the hose also slightly too short (3) the fitting for holding the nozzle/brush seems poorly designed.

No Title Available

5.0 out of 5 stars Great jumper, 19 Nov. 2015
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Really pleased with this jumper. It arrived on time, it's comfortable and warm, and I've already been wearing it a lot

MiniSun - Modern Adjustable Satin Nickel Twin Picture Wall Light - Complete With Bulbs
MiniSun - Modern Adjustable Satin Nickel Twin Picture Wall Light - Complete With Bulbs
Offered by The Light Factory
Price: £24.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly effective illumination, 7 Sept. 2015
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An attractive-looking and effective picture light which is now illuminating an otherwise rather dark oil painting, whose dimensions are approx. 30 inches by 25 inches. I did have to have it installed by an electrician though.

The World We're In
The World We're In
by Will Hutton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £15.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Britons must accept they're Europeans, 7 Sept. 2015
This review is from: The World We're In (Paperback)
This book is a wake-up call to Britain.
Will Hutton argues that Britain has reached a crossroads in its development – and that we are facing some tough choices.
If we continue to be America’s poodle in economic and foreign policy terms, warns Hutton, we risk being sucked into a vortex of unfettered capitalism and liberalised markets. This will permanently scar our country, and by extension the rest of the world, as Britain and Europe are one of the last bulwarks against its devastating onwards march.
Less privileged Britons would be more permanently disenfranchised, inequalities of wealth further exaggerated, business and politics further corrupted. The United Kingdom would end up being governed by a self-serving monied elite, without any interest in redistributing their wealth.
To avoid this dystopia, Hutton believes Britain must to throw its lot in with Europe. He argues that we must join the euro and then assist the European Union’s evolution into an alternative political and economic model that demonstrably works.
In Hutton’s view, the EU would then be able to act as a counterweight to an increasingly isolationist United States. The new Europe could lead by example, perhaps by reforming its own farm subsidies to help raise living standards in the third world.
The first half of The World We’re In is a withering a critique of American values rubbishing, one by one, every myth of superiority that the US likes to disseminate about itself.
Hutton’s says US-style capitalism is a good deal weaker than it likes to pretend and that US society has been disfigured by the way America’s economy is run.
He reveals how the poorest Americans are less likely to escape from poverty than the poorest in other developed nations. He paints a harrowing picture of a society where the ‘‘haves’’ can have it all, and where the idea that the ‘‘have-nots’’ should be provided with a safety net by the state has never even been on the agenda.
Hutton warns that the US is plagued with ‘‘unsustainable imbalances – notably the disappearance of saving and the colossal trade deficit. Rather than being the possible engine of a global economic recovery, Hutton says the US economy ‘‘looks floored and faces years of depressed growth’’.
Hutton accuses Gordon Brown and Tony Blair of naivete in paying too much heed to the American right. He says they have been foolish to swallow the doctrine that publicly-owned and -managed activity is, by its very nature, inefficient. However he does suggest that Blair and Brown may have learnt something from the collapse of Railtrack.
Hutton also successfully demolishes the myth that senior executives are a breed apart – existing like top-class footballers in a global market for talent – and that they have to be paid accordingly. He cites the examples of European businesses such as Volkswagen, Michelin and Airbus Industries, whose chief executives are paid much more reasonable salaries, and yet are still able to beat their American rivals at their own game.
There are weaknesses in this book. In his praising of the German system, Hutton glosses over the string of bankruptcies which have recently blighted the country’s economy. These include those of construction group Philipp Holzmann, aircraft makers Fairchild Dornier, and media group KirchMedia. He also fails to mention that state-owned banks such as Bayerisch Landesbank have been dangerously over-exposed to such insolvencies.
Hutton is a realist. He acknowledges that his recommendation that Britain becomes firmly rooted into a reformed European Union will not have universal appeal. He concedes it will be a tough challenge in Britain because of our cultural and linguistic affinities with the US and our deep-seated mistrust of ‘‘Europe’’, coupled with the widespread support for US-style capitalism and economics in business schools, economics faculties and the financial press.
He accepts that Labour is taking steps in the right direction, such as the new Companies Act which will require directors, like their counterparts in Europe, to acknowledge their obligations to the whole organisation they serve, rather than just shareholders. For Will Hutton, however, this isn’t enough. We can still sustain some of our ties with the US but he believes that we must ultimately accept that we are Europeans.
[review written for the Sunday Herald in May 2002 but only posted in September 2015!!]

Fraudcast News - How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies
Fraudcast News - How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies
by Patrick Iain Chalmers
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Eye-opening, 20 Feb. 2015
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Patrick Chalmers has written an important and timely book. Building on his experience as a Reuters correspondent in London, Brussels and Kuala Lumpur, he lifts the lid on the subtle and pervasive bias of our mainstream media.

He outlines how this bias can include self-censorship, journalists allowing themselves to be "co-opted" by the rich and powerful, the cozying up of media to major advertisers (as we saw with Peter Oborne's recent revelations that the Daily Telegraph either removed, toned down or failed altogether to cover negative stories about major advertiser HSBC) and the "spiking" of stories that undermine media proprietors' prevailing pro-globalisation, neo-liberal agenda.

The chapters on the frustrations he felt as a Reuters correspondent trying to provide balanced coverage of the European Union, of dusty corners of the financial markets and of the attempts of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad to resist the "Washington Consensus" are particularly good.

Patrick argues that the mainstream media in the West, as well as global news outfits such as Reuters and Bloomberg (whose journalism is largely funded by the leasing of data terminals to the finance sector), now see their role as being to buttress a failed economic ideology and to pander to an often corrupt elite. As such, he says they have become a pernicious influence that's obstructing understanding and democracy. The lack of scepticism that most journalists display for international trade treaties like TTIP and unaccountable EU decision-making processes are just two of the areas of media failure covered in the book. Readers, listeners and viewers are being badly let down, writes Chalmers, adding that by amplifying 'spin', the media has unleashed a dangerous tide of misinformation that threatens to engulf our democracies.

The media failures outlined in Fraudcast News are also giving rise to a phenomenon that the writer and journalist Tariq Ali has separately described as the rise of the "extreme centre". Prefiguring his recently published book The Extreme Centre: A Warning, Ali wrote: "What is the point of elections? The result is always the same: a victory for the extreme centre. Since 1989, politics has become a contest to see who can best serve the needs of the market, a competition now fringed by unstable populist movements. The same catastrophe has taken place in the US, Britain, Continental Europe and Australia."

Chalmers ends on a positive note. In his conclusion, he examines how as a result of, among other things, the rise of social media and the internet, it has never been easier for civil society and public-interest journalists to develop a more ethical, balanced and responsible approach to covering the news. He provides examples of the rise of alternative channels of communication that bypass the mainstream media, arguing that these are much more capable of challenging our dangerously flawed governance structures than the media we grew up with.

Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation
Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation
by Gordon Brown
Edition: Paperback

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars One of the worst books I have read, 27 Jan. 2015
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One of the worst books I have read. It is platitudinous and self-serving. Gordon Brown displays absolutely no self awareness - for example in relation to his own pivotal role in stoking up the UK's banking crisis (with the regulatory race to the bottom on which he embarked as chancellor) - whatsoever. Alistair Darling's 'Back from The Brink' is a much better book.

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