Monday, 9 December 2013

Voyage IX – Market forces

Wen, Lisa and I are dozing in the sun up on deck. It’s busier up here but since Ruth told the rugby team about the sauna it’s rarely quiet down there any more. We sometimes go down in the middle of the night when it’s deserted but otherwise we’ve taken to staying up here. Raz and Ruth seem to be having a good time anyway. Which is not to say we aren’t. We’re just more subtle about it.
‘I don’t see how come Ruth never got married or whatever anyway’ muses Lisa.
‘How do you mean?’ says Wen.
‘Well, she’s very good looking, don’t you think. Gabriel?’
‘She’s a bit on the skinny side.’ I say.
‘I know. There’s nothing of her’ says Lisa, sighing.
Lisa turns to Wen. ‘Do you think she’s good looking Wen?’
‘I suspect she must be, technically speaking. Come on, what about you Gabe? You think she’s hot? He’s not answering, Lisa. What do you think that means?’
‘I’m thinking’ I say testily. I make a show of pondering some more. ‘I can’t help thinking she’d be bad news.’
‘Not because of the politics.’
‘No no. I mean, I wouldn’t have the same problem with Raz, although I don’t really fancy her either...’
‘But I’d have thought a woman like Ruth could have any man she wanted’ says Lisa. I know she’s fishing and I’d love to bite but don’t. Something tells me it’s best not to encourage her.
‘All I know is that I wouldn’t. I like a woman with a bit more... I don’t know... substance?’
‘Not even for a quick shag?’ says Wen.
‘Maybe once, if I was extremely pissed.’
‘That’s what she said’ says Lisa, vindicated. ‘Men just want one thing and once they’ve got it...’
‘That’s not what I said Lisa’ I say a little sternly, and can’t resist holding her gaze until she looks away confused. I look back out to sea. A small island drifts past. We’ve been seeing these all day – little floating platforms of trees covered with birds. ‘All my life I wanted someone I could really love’ I say. ‘I remember that, even when I was a kid.’
‘And did you find her?’ says Wen
I think for a moment. ‘Yes’ I say and for the first time the memory does not make me want to cry. Instead I feel a brave pride well up in my chest and I want to laugh. I did love her, with all my heart. And I was true to her – always.
Lisa looks down at her book but doesn’t read ‘I wish I had’ she says.
‘You’re going to have to tell us what happened sooner or later love, you do know that don’t you’ says Wen and Lisa nods deeply and sniffs.
‘I’m sorry’ she says, trying to hide her face, then gets up and runs along to the doorway and disappears. I pick up her book and look at the cover. More poetry, but this time accompanied by woodcuts that seem to dance and sing in my hands.
‘Do you think I should go after her?’ I say. Wen shrugs. I turn and watch for her, trying to make up my mind. Then she reappears, holding a tissue to her nose. She blows it loudly and without looking at us comes and sits down again. I pass her the book and she says thanks and puts it face down on her legs. She smiles sheepishly at me but her nose and eyes are quite red. ‘I’m sorry’ she says again, waving her troubles away with the tissue ‘Silly things, sometimes...’
‘I know’ I say, and she reaches over and grips my hand, like we’ve suddenly reached some new understanding but I don’t think we have. Still, I like the feel of her hand, small and soft and cool on mine. Then Raz and Ruth appear, still glowing from the sauna. Lisa swiftly lets go of my hand and concentrates on her book.
‘Ruth’s got a new boyf’ says Raz exultantly and Ruth reddens even more.
‘Not really’ she says, in an oddly girlish way. It doesn’t suit her.
‘Oh he’s sweet. You never know girl. This could change everything. God, is that land?’
‘Just floating vegetation. There’s probably a river mouth up ahead’ says Wen.
‘God, do you think they’d let us get off and explore if we asked nicely?’
‘Is that a tree?’ says Ruth, amazed.
‘Mangroves’ says Wen. ‘I’ve seen it before. Whole patches of mangrove can come adrift during tropical storms and float out to sea. Mind you I’ve never seen it on this scale before. We saw lizards and monkeys earlier didn’t we chaps.’
‘Well you pointed’ says Lisa, ‘and we went “What? Where?”’
‘I wish I had my bins’ says Wen. ‘I wonder if the guides have any. Hang on a mo’ and with that she’s up and off.
‘Nimble for a big lass, isn’t she’ comments Ruth.
‘Now now’ says Raz and they both pull up loungers and settle in for the afternoon.

Later on, Ruth’s putative ‘boyf’ appears and crouches down next to her. He’s very good looking in an eager to please, Italian sort of way and seems to be about twenty-one. She all but ignores him as he squats there smiling and making small talk. Wen and Raz and I make polite noises but are aware that Ruth should be making a contribution. Instead she looks indifferently at the view. After some awkwardness I notice we need drinks and I ask him if he’d like something and he offers to come with me. At the bar we swap pleasantries and he tells me all about where he was from (Palermo) and why he was in England (sister in London) and how he died (quad biking). He’s very very chatty indeed and I zone out somewhat but he doesn’t seem to notice. We carry the drinks up on deck and he finds a chair and sits on it backwards, leaning forward next to Ruth. Still she says nothing. Raz finally engages him in conversation, fairly obviously to break the tension so we can all relax. After a while he says 'ciao' to us all and goes to kiss Ruth and we’re all surprised to see her get up and kiss him quite passionately and say ‘Ciao’ back to him in a very lingering and suggestive way. It’s a little nauseating actually.
‘So...’ says Wen, after he’s gone. ‘He seems awfully keen.’
Ruth doesn’t detect her tone at all, just smiles suggestively and raises her eyebrows. Lisa and I look at each other and shrug. After Ruth has left us ‘to get changed’ Lisa says incredulously ‘She actually seems to think that’s how people behave when they’re in a relationship.’
‘I wouldn’t say it was a relationship exactly’ says Raz.
‘No, but still. I wouldn’t put up with it, would you Gabriel?’ I shake my head in an “I told you so” sort of way. ‘No wonder she couldn’t keep a bloke. I’d dump her like a... I don’t know what’ she adds.
‘I suppose he doesn’t care too much if he thinks she’ll sleep with him’ says Wen.
‘Too late’ says Raz. ‘They’ve been at it like knives these last three days.’
‘Really?’ says Lisa. ‘I mean, I’m not judging, obviously. I’m just...’
‘Maybe she’s nicer to him in private?’ I suggest.
‘Come off it’ says Wen and we have to admit it’s hard to imagine.
Lisa looks at where Ruth disappeared down below.
‘I wonder if that’s how she was in life, or if it’s just now’ she says.
‘I think so’ says Wen. ‘I have good reason to believe she’s always been much the same.’
Raz pushes her sunglasses onto her forehead. ‘You heard her – all the men she got involved with she said turned out to be creeps one way or another.’
‘Or too short’ says Wen quietly.
‘Or too poor’ I add.
‘It sounds like she was forever out clubbing or speed-dating or whatever it was’ observes Raz. ‘I suspect she tended to go for men who were rather too young for her to be quite frank.’
‘Well you’ve got to give her credit for trying’ says Lisa, earnestly.
I say ‘It all sounds a bit desperate to me’ but Raz and Lisa seem not so sure. I realise I was very lucky but I can’t help feeling Ruth didn’t do herself any favours.

It comes out later on when she gets back. We knew she was something of a tycoon but not quite how much.
‘I know I was a workaholic. I confess. I’m not embarrassed to admit it and it’s people like me who keep this country afloat, Gabriel’ she says, slapping my knee, trying to be playful. I nod non-commitally.
I hear Wen mutter something like ‘Pity the nation that needs heroes’ but Ruth doesn’t hear her. She wouldn’t have got the reference anyway.
Apparently there were twelve stores in her chain of shoe shops by the end of her life so she’s not been entirely honest with me about her ‘little shop in Lewes’. She gives us some turnover figures and profit margins and describes some apparently rather ravenous manoeuvring against other ‘outlets’. Nothing about the actual shoes though. She’s especially proud of one particularly predatory take-over she masterminded up in Wakefield back in the nineties. The result was that she put a very old local independent out of business – a species of enterprise she seems to regard as inherently spurious and therefore fair game.
‘I said to them, I’m trying to run a business here. It’s not a charity...’
I’ve heard this ‘not a charity’ line so many times, whenever it’s suggested that business people do anything that doesn’t involve screwing the last penny out of the rest of us. It never fails to piss me off but I pretend to doze.
She goes on ‘I said to them, “If you don’t like it, you know what you can do. I hear Argos is recruiting” and she chuckles happily at the memory of putting all those people out of work and then being able to humiliate them into the bargain. Raz looks at me doubtfully but I pretend not to notice. I want to say something but actually am fed up of getting into these “debates”. I’ve getting into rows with these sort of people since the eighties. Nothing’s changed. Nobody ever listens to anyone, far less changes their mind.
‘No, you can’t afford to get sentimental about these people’ she says, picking up her book.
‘By sentimental I take it you mean give a toss’ I say. I just can’t resist it.
‘It’s not my job to “give a toss” as you put it Gabriel.’ From the tone of her voice I can tell she’s been waiting for this – the opportunity to put me right, to tell me what’s what. I’ve heard it all so many times before.
‘No, it’s your responsibility’ I say tersely, still not opening my eyes.
‘Excuse me?’
‘As an employer. As a human being.’
‘I don’t think so Gabriel. My responsibility is to make money, otherwise no one has a job.’
‘I understand you have to make a living, cover your overheads...’
‘There’s a bit more to it than that Gabriel. There’s the share holders to consider for one thing.’
‘And your salary, your bonus, your expense account... but not your work force apparently.’
‘I treated my workers very fairly I’ll have you know.’
‘But you just told us you got rid of most of them and gave the rest unskilled shop and storeroom jobs’ says Wen. ‘You boasted to us that by the end all but two of the original staff had left.’
‘And good riddance. They were a liability.’
‘Because they cared about what they did and you took that away from them’ I say.
‘Gabriel...’ she says and exasperatedly looks about, as if she’s trying to work out how to explain to a very stupid child that it shouldn’t play with broken glass and dog shit. ‘Do I really need to explain to you about market forces?’
‘No, I understand them very well’ I say. ‘But you told us they were profitable, this firm – before you came along I mean.’
‘Only just.’
‘They were a small family business with a skilled and loyal work force and a popular product and you put them out of business. Then you shipped in cheap mass produced footwear made by an unskilled underpaid work-force in Angola. You’ve said as much yourself.’
‘Low paid I said, not underpaid, but yes, I did that, and I believe the market as a result was healthier for it.’
‘The market perhaps... Fewer people with less satisfying, less well paid jobs, and the shoes themselves were less well made...’
‘And actually not terribly nice’ says Raz, almost under her breath, pretending to read.
‘But more affordable’ insists Ruth, ignoring her.
‘Except they wore out faster’ says Raz. ‘They weren’t actually cheaper in the long run were they darling?’
‘Well hardly anybody bothered to complain. I expect they all took the opportunity to go out and buy something new.’
I sit and look about for a while. It just all seems so lamentable I don’t know where to begin.
‘It’s economic reality Gabriel, look it up.’
‘But it’s not actual reality is it? That’s my point.’
‘Actually I have no idea what your point is Gabriel. You’ve made absolutely no substantive argument to support your position. I don’t know how you imagine the world functions. Are you expecting me to run my business less profitably than I could because, I don’t know, some people want to live in toytown? It’s not real Gabriel. Get a grip.’
I assume my most calm, well-mannered, patronising expression.
‘I understand that for you Ruth, economic reality is reality...’ she goes to interrupt. I shush her. ‘And also I understand that that is the way the world works, but lets not pretend that it is a good way to run the world.’
‘I don’t know what makes you think it’s up to someone like you to tell everyone how to live Gabriel.’
‘Hasn’t stopped you telling us how it ought to be done’ says Wen, under her breath. Ruth looks coldly at her but decides not to reply.
‘What I’m saying’ I continue, laboriously ‘is that it’s up to all of us. I’m talking about everyone taking a bit more responsibility...’
‘Which is where the free market comes in.’
‘No it’s not. The free market is only about what you can buy. It has nothing to say about what is right.’
‘I’m having real trouble with your banging on about right and wrong, as if you’re in some special position to tell us...’
‘Worthwhile jobs Ruth? Decent quality goods and services? A healthy environment? None of this is exactly controversial.’
‘We’d all like those things, if we could...’
‘No you wouldn’t’
‘What? Of course I would’
‘Not if you couldn’t make money out of it you wouldn’t.’
‘Well, yes, there has to be a return.’
‘So the bottom line comes before all those other things’
‘No. Well, yes. Nothing happens unless the accountant says ok.’ She shakes her head as if dislodging a troublesome insect. ‘But that isn’t the point is it? The point is it’s people like me take the risks, to set up companies to create wealth so that everybody has a job...’
‘But your firm employed fewer people than before’ says Wen.
Ruth ignores her. ‘ that the whole of humanity can aspire to the kind of lifestyles that...’
‘I understand all that...’
‘...lift them out of a life of poverty. It’s the only way. I promise you, there is absolutely no alternative ...’
‘The way, the truth and the life...’ intones Wen but Ruth is no longer listening to anyone. She’s yammering on about the horrors of planned economies and police states.
‘But surely if you put all those people out of business by making worse shoes...’ says Lisa with a confused expression on her face ‘That doesn't make sense.’ Ruth just looks at her. She didn’t expect this from poor sweet Lisa.
‘Whoa, hold on there. I think you’re getting a little muddled, all of you. It’s not in anyone’s interests to produce faulty goods. Our aim was always to make the best possible product for our customers at a competitive price.’
I see Raz snort with derision behind her back.
‘What?’ says Ruth, turning on her.
‘Companies are always making faulty goods sweetie. You know that. They make everything as cheaply as they can get away with so the margins are as large as possible. No successful company is in the business of making good quality products if they can get away with making shoddy ones.’
‘, Caveat emptor!’ says Ruth, triumphantly.
‘What does that mean?’ whispers Lisa to me.
‘Buyer beware’ I whisper back to her.
‘ “Get away with” being the operative term’ says Wen. ‘You can’t possibly have made a genuinely informed decision on most of what you buy.’
‘I’m not stupid!’
‘Nobody’s saying that...’ Lisa tries to mollify. ‘We’re all...’
‘I knew everything I needed to know’ insists Ruth, ignoring her.
‘Well, you have a great deal of self confidence my dear’ says Wen, lying back and opening her book.
Ruth seems to take this as a compliment. ‘Anyway I never knowingly sold substandard footwear’ she says.
‘Oh that’s cobblers Ruth and you know it’ says Raz. ‘Your shops were notorious.’
‘Excuse me?’ says Ruth petulantly, apparently genuinely taken aback.
‘In your defence’ adds Raz, ‘I’d add that you knew that if you didn’t do it someone else would and they’d put you out of business, as you did to those poor sods in Wakefield. And that’s the real world I’m afraid, Gabriel.’
‘So much for the free market tending to make things better’ says Wen.
There’s a brief but pregnant lull in the conversation and we all sip our drinks. Then Ruth puts her glass down decisively, and with a little self-satisfied smile she says ‘Actually, you know, I don’t give a flying fuck. If people want to eat crap let them eat crap. And who the hell are you Wen, Gabriel, to tell them that they shouldn’t?’
And with that the conversation ends – Ruth picks up her things and leaves, apparently under the impression that she’s won.

None of us says anything for a time but we sip our drinks meditatively. Lisa looks upset.
‘I just find it extraordinary that anybody still believes in all that “the free market will save the world” crap any more’ says Wen after a while. ‘It’s unbelievable. Surely after everything that’s happened it must be obvious to everyone that it was just about personal wealth all along?’
‘She’s not very bright.’ I say.
‘She’s a utopian’ says Raz charitably.

I read somewhere that highly successful businesspeople are often clinically indistinguishable from psychopaths. I don’t think I actually ever met one before. I ponder later what might have made her that way. Was she terribly deprived in some way, early on in life or was her family financially ruined later on? Did her mother ignore her or her father buy her affection with gifts? I don’t know, and I can’t imagine her being interested in those sorts of explanations. She likes being the way she is. I don’t suppose it’s ever occurred to her that there might be anything wrong with it. And that’s why I think she’s stupid. It should, every so often, occur to all of us that we might well be wrong.
But of course there’s no money in that.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.