Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Train Journey and Class of RY

Between 1978 and 1985, I went to University College, a public school located in the heart of Hampstead.

In September 1981, at the age of 14, I began the class of RY. Confusingly, this stood for Remove Yates. This did not denote a pressure group or political campaign of any type, rather the Remove year (public school jargon for Year/Grade 10) of Mr Yates, our form teacher.

There were about 25 boys in the class and in the previous year we had been called EY, which stood for Entry Yates. (Years 11 and 12 were respectively called Upper Remove and Transitus!) One of our first collective discoveries, as RY, was that our charismatic English teacher, Mr Ronnie Landau, had been replaced by a Mrs Mary Read (soon to be nicknamed Hairy Mary).

Mrs Read’s first English essay assignment for the class was to describe a train journey and she gave us a couple of days to complete this task. The results were very interesting and gave an accurate snapshot of the type of class I was in.

The first category of pupils had no imagination at all. They observed the world scientifically and empirically. These pupils literally described their train journey to school. So, for example, their essays would be along the lines of, “... at around 8am I get to Golders Green Station. The train travels for about a minute before entering a tunnel and then after another couple of minutes, we get to Hampstead station...”

The second category of pupils had some imagination but not very much. Their essays described journeys in France, travelling through the countryside or along the coast.

Then, in the next category, you had the pupils, like me, with the strange imagination who had already read too many books. I described being an 8 year old child being rounded up and forced into an extremely crowded cattle truck, alongside my family, with only a tiny crack to peer out of. I detailed how, during the tortously long journey, people died of thirst around me and how screaming guards with machine guns and snarling Alsatian dogs greeted our arrival as we were all bundled off to the gas chambers.

(Incidentally, I got a B for this essay, with the comment: “good, vivid description and use of imagination. Well done!”)

Finally, there was the Jonny Zucker category. This category surprising only contained one pupil, my old friend, Jonny Zucker and was in a league of its own. Zucker wrote about a young man who got onto a train at his usual local stop. As the train journeyed, the man gradually aged and he watched all the main events of history unfold outside the windows. He saw the great world wars, the assassination of Kennedy and so forth. Then the train moved into the future as the man continued to age. He observed the nuclear holocaust and Armageddon caused by the final world war and then the train reached its destination, the burning fires of hell.

Zucker rightfully obtained a straight A for this and Mrs Read admitted she was dazzled by his ability. These days, he is a successful children’s author.

Class RY also produced Adam Lent, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, Dr James Hyman and Sam Bourne/Jonathan Freedland all published, well respected writers and thinkers.

A Great Idea

What do you do if you are running a newspaper and there is a comparatively quiet day, a tiny lull from the ever plummeting sterling and ever deepening recession? Well, here’s a great idea. Why not create some further bad news? Everyone likes bad news, right? And the country can always do with some more.

But how can you manufacture a bad story, run it on your front page and give everyone a headache in the process? Easy, take some high sounding fool in a suit and ask him to predict that things will actually get much worse. Predictions aren’t lies, exactly; they are a good honest stab at the truth. It doesn’t matter that the so called experts have a terrible track record and couldn’t predict a sandstorm in the desert. If it comes true, the expert can be treated as a quasi-divine sage, if it proves hopelessly amiss, well, most likely everyone will have forgotten the original prediction anyway.

I love it! But who do we use? Well, which area has consistently got their predictions wrong and proved utterly inept at managing risk? Hmm, what with politicians, bankers, economists, and financial regulators, there’s quite a large selection. Yes, it’s a tough one. But let’s go with a very senior banker, preferably one with a tie, waistcoat and glasses so everyone takes him more seriously.

He can spout the usual rubbish about house prices falling between 15% and 30% in the next couple of years. I mean with that margin of error he’s bound to be somewhere within the ball park. Then let’s all get very upset about his prediction and talk about it all the time and forget that, in fact, it’s only a silly forecast from someone who has no more (in fact, probably less) idea than you and me.

Ah, this is fantastic! But who can we use? Who, indeed? Wait, what about that bloke, John Varley, the Chief Executive of Barclays? Ok, Barclays invests much less in property than the other high street banks and so he doesn’t exactly know what he’s talking about. But never mind that. Do you think he’ll do it? Somebody, make the call...

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Charlie Parker

In my last year at University, I became obsessed with Charlie “Bird” Parker, the enormously influential jazz musician.

Parker was an American saxophonist and composer. He was born in Kansas City in 1920 and died in the Stanhope Hotel, New York in 1955, aged only 34. Such was his fame and reputation, that only a few hours after his death, a giant graffiti “Bird Lives” appeared in the New York subways. He had abused his body with drugs and alcohol to such an extent that the coroner mistakenly estimated his body to be between 50 and 60 years old.

Parker was a leading developer of bebop which was characterised by a blistering pace, virtuoso improvisation and technique built on harmonic structures. Many of his tracks became standards such as “Anthropology,” “Billy’s Bounce” and “Now Is the Time.” He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Parker was also a consummate blues player and could fuse jazz with other styles from Latin music to classical. In his day, he was so admired by other musicians that they shamelessly copied him. After his death, his numerous recordings blazed paths that were followed by others.

Parker also became an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer.

A huge amount has been written about Parker and he was the subject of the acclaimed 1988 film, Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Forest Whittaker. My father bought me arguably the best book about Parker called The Triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins (first published in 1987 by Hodder & Stoughton). It’s superbly written, full of wonderful photographs and a book I still treasure today.

However, the purpose of this blog is not to provide a biographical account of Parker’s life but to give you a slight favour of Bird’s genius by means of a few contemporary and personal anecdotes. Of course, it goes without saying that the best way to appreciate Parker is to listen to his music. Any “Best of” collection will do!

In 1937, Parker joined a band led by a pianist called Jay McShann. Bird rehearsed relentlessly (15 hours a day for 3 to 4 years) and became so good that his colleagues could only marvel at his talent. They were amused, too, by how fast his mind worked, as he imitated sounds echoing in from the street – engines, backfiring tires, auto horns – and worked them into musical phrases. He also learnt the trick of quoting melodies that had lyrical relevance to the moment. He might nod to a woman in blue with a snippet of “Alice Blue Gown,” or to woman in red with “The Lady in Red,” or comment on a woman headed to the ladies’ room with “I Know Where You’re Going.”

Later in his career, Parker became friendly with another musician called Buddy De Franco. When interviewed by Gary Giddins, De Franco recalled a young tenor saxophonist who challenged Bird on a track called “All the Things You Are.” Parker welcomed him to the stand, counted off the number and played in a key that nobody played. “The kid was devastated and Bird could do that to anybody. He taught me that trick of playing in all the keys, because it forces you away from your basic patterns – from what we call fail-safe jazz.”

Parker’s conversation with De Franco often turned to the great Russian composer, Prokofiev, since Bird knew Prokofiev was his favourite composer.

“Every time he’d get a new recording of Prokofiev, he’d say let’s go to my place and listen. He knew about so many things. We were in New York in the winter, working some concert together, and we’d been up all night. It was snowing, freezing cold, and I wanted to get back to the hotel and sleep, but we passed the Salvation Army band, and he says, “Wait a minute, let me hear this.” I can’t believe this is Charlie Parker standing in the snow listening to this horrible band – I missed whatever cues he found in there. Finally, I said, “OK, I’ll catch you later.” It wasn’t until next spring that I got a job on Fifty-Second Street. He was playing at another club and I go down during my breaks to hear him. The first time I walked in I sat very close to the stage; he gave me a little nod, pointed his sax at me, and played one of those pieces from the Salvation Army.”

In 1982, at the age of 15, I bought a used tenor saxophone, mainly because Marilyn Monroe said in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, that she always fell for the tenor sax players. However, I always found the tenor too heavy and in 1987, I switched to the smaller alto and started to practise compulsively. I also played the clarinet up to Grade 8 standard and this gave me an advantage.

There was one book I was desperate to buy but it was so popular that it was very difficult to obtain. Finally, in 1988, I was able to swap a load of records for what saxophonists reverentially called The Bible. This was a yellow book called the “Charlie Parker Omnibook” that transcribed Parker’s recorded solos exactly.

I remember how excited I was when I took my alto out of its case and leafed through the well worn pages of The Bible for the first time. I settled on “Ornithology” which is one of Parker’s most famous tracks. I stumbled slowly and awkwardly through Parker’s solo and then played it again and again. It was incredibly difficult to play but worse was to come. Once I’d played it numerous times, I listened to Parker’s original recording through my Walkman headphones and tried to keep up on my alto. Bird played the solo flawlessly about ten times faster than me and it was just impossible for me to maintain his pace.

At that point, I made a decision. Come what may, I would learn to play Ornithology at its proper speed and without a mistake. I thought it would take me a few days to do this. In fact, it took me three weeks of hard practise (at least two hours a day, every day) and even then I still sounded nothing like Parker. Meanwhile, the more I practised, the more I was filled with awe and admiration for Bird.

Once I’d finally got the hang of “Ornithology”, I moved on to another famous number, “Koko”. This was even faster and more complicated and it took me months to play it at the correct speed. Parker was a maestro and a genius and trying to emulate him only reinforced this. It was a truly humbling experience.

Eventually, I gave up trying to play Parker, it was just too damn hard but I still listen to his recordings all the time. And each time I hear a track, I hear something new.

Bird lives!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Credit Crunch & The Jews

On the 12 May, 1866, the leading article of The Times reported breathlessly that in the City, “a tumult became a riot.....as a mob besieged the most respectable banking houses...making the narrow thoroughfare of Lombard Street impassable.” What was later termed The Great Panic of 1866 was caused by the crash of Overend, Gurney & Company, a London wholesale discount bank, known as "the bankers' bank", which collapsed owing about 11 million pounds sterling ($1.3 billion at 2007 prices).

This was the third British banking crisis of the nineteenth century. The first crisis was in 1825 and caused by a severe stock market crash which led to numerous banks failing, nearly including the Bank of England.

However, the Panic of 1866 was to form a notable watershed. There was not to be another banking run until September 2007. Northern Rock, one of the top five mortgage lenders in the United Kingdom, sought and received a liquidity support facility from the Bank of England following emerging difficulties in the credit markets. When this was reported, customer confidence in the Bank vanished and this led to the incredible spectacle, on 14 September 2007, of many customers queuing outside branches to withdraw their savings. On 22 February 2008, the Bank was taken into state ownership.

The run on Northern Rock marked the beginning of the credit crunch in the United Kingdom. Simply defined, this is the ongoing financial crisis triggered by the significant decline in housing prices and related mortgage payment delinquencies and foreclosures in the United States. The resulting ripple across the financial markets and global banking systems has caused a severe decline in overall liquidity as financial institutions have tightened their lending practices.

Although numerous forecasts have been made in the British media and elsewhere, as to how much worse things will get, the truth is no one knows. However, nearly all forecasters are agreed on one fundamental issue, it will get much worse before it gets better.

Last week, a series of grim predictions were made. The United Kingdom would see over three million unemployed within two years and London would be worst affected with at least 650,000 out of work. Meanwhile, the British stock market has continued to drop to 1997 levels, with no sign of improvement. Whilst property prices and general business confidence are in freefall, the number of foreclosures and insolvencies are increasing rapidly.

The Jewish community is by no means immune to the financial crisis and there is a very palpable concern. My father, a retired university lecturer, watched the anxious customers outside the Northern Rock Savings Bank in the Golders Green Road and was startled by what he saw. “I recognised several of them – many were wearing kippot. They were only able to withdraw money after about seven hours of waiting.” Others thought they were cleverer; their cash was earning nearly 7% in two Icelandic banks. However, they did not escape either. In October 2008, the British Government effectively bankrupted Kaupthing and Her Majesty’s Treasury froze the assets of Landsbanki. Confidence in all banks has continued to plummet and it was reported recently that there is now a shortage of £50 notes as people begin to hoard them.

At the other end of the wealth scale, the various Jewish masters of the financial universe have been reduced from being billionaires to mere millionaires or even worse. The favourite dinner party topic is no longer the price of your house but whether a particular individual can hang on to his or her job. Anyone connected to the Financial Services industry is racked by profound angst and disbelief. This is all true of the general population but probably more so among the United Kingdom’s Jewish inhabitants.

For anyone working in property, the world is a frightening and unpredictable place. Andrew, a 41 year old surveyor, living in Edgware, North London, captured the mood accurately. “Many surveyors have lost their jobs. Those who have not face worry and uncertainty. I meet estate agents every day who say they will run out of money by the end of the year if things don't pick up. Every time I return to an area I haven't visited for a while, another estate agent has closed. Everyone in our community is anxious. We are in a prosperous area, but so many jobs and companies are dependent on property or investments. The younger families inevitably have larger mortgages and are having to cut their expenditure. Many people are worried about the cost of holidays to Israel and with the lack of spare cash and poor exchange rate; many will be not be holidaying abroad next year.”

At Jewish Care’s Employment Resource Centre, in Finchley, North London, the picture is no less grim. Alan Sanders, a consultant and member of the Jewish Care executive, reported that the number of unemployed Jewish people seeking assistance had increased by over 50% since the previous year. “It’s been right across the board from recent graduates to experienced professionals.”

Nevertheless, Paul Edlin, the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was slightly more upbeat. “The British Jewish community has not really been affected by the financial crisis, although some retired individuals or couples have had their savings threatened. However, matters looks like they will become worse in the next three months. No one knows where this is heading.”

Indeed, a few days ago, British Jewish leaders warned that the worsening economy could lead to a rise in antisemitism and increased support for the extreme right wing organisation, the British National Party. Henry Grunwald, Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council said: "We're already seeing and hearing things about who is responsible for the economic downturn and we know from history that when there are economic problems, there has always been an increase in antisemitism."

It would appear that, in the United Kingdom, worrying times are here to stay, as we venture into the unknown.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

How To Get Rich

Early last Friday, I was pacing about in the bookshop at Luton Airport, waiting for my mate, Jonny to appear, en route to a weekend break in Barcelona. A weekend break really does mean a break – from everything. It’s a chance to get out of the capital of Rat Race and chill by a pool, eat food, eat more food and.....read. However, crucial to this plan of action is an enjoyable book and so as I paced, I searched the shelves of the airport’s bookshop for something suitable.

What I was hoping was for a book to beckon me like a shining light, something compelling and intriguing, literally begging to be read. Unfortunately, my luck was clearly shot because absolutely every single book in that shop looked to be a piece of trash – and not good trash but bad, boring, life wasting dross. I simply couldn’t find anything interesting and by the time my long suffering pal had located me, I was beginning to panic. Screw the credit crunch; I couldn’t sit on a Barcelona hotel sun terrace just picking my nose and belching. My mind needed to be gainfully occupied.

As the plane was about to leave and Jonny was very hungry indeed, he displayed little patience for my dithering. He quickly surveyed the cramped shelves, snatched a book down and made me pay for it. It was decisive action. We rapidly grabbed a couple of smoked salmon sandwiches from Pret a Manky and boarded the Easy Jet plane to Barcelona.

Now, I could very easily write a couple of blogs explaining how flipping difficult it is for a six foot seven inch, 250 pound man to get on a tiny Easy Jet plane and the supreme grovelling skills required to get decent seat. But I’m not going to do that right now, dear reader. I’d like to discuss the book I’d bought.

You see, my buddy and I were in such a damn rush to get fed and boarded, I hadn’t actually checked what book he’d forced me to buy. When I finally did manage to sneak a peak, I saw that it was How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis.

The book, published in 2006, describes Dennis as a poet, publisher and planter of trees. His Wikipedia entry also describes him as a philanthropist and the first man to say the “c word” on television (on a live 1970 edition of David Frost’s The Frost Programme). The Sunday Times Rich List 2007 ranked him joint 95th with a fortune estimated at £750 million. This is serious wealth. He is also described as dividing his time between homes in Mustique, New York, and Britain.

When I asked Jonny why he made me buy a book with such an embarrassing title, he replied that Dennis was a “geezer” and worth paying attention to.

Ordinarily, I never would buy a book like this. I don’t, as a rule, like self-help books which I think, in attempting to appeal to a mass audience cannot simultaneously deal with the intricacies and complexities of each individual reader. In particular, I have little time for the numerous get rich publications. I just assume they are published to make an already financially successful author, even more financially successful.

Like many things in life, I think the ability to make large sums of money is something you either have or don’t. You can’t for example buy a book to teach you how to be witty, you either are or you aren’t. A book can divulge academic knowledge or it can entertain you or it can make you look at things from an entirely different perspective but it cannot change who you are genetically. That’s nature, or if you like, God’s job.

Having said all that, I didn’t have anything else to read so I gave it a go. At this point, I have to say thank you to my canny friend who I suspect knew exactly what he was doing.

How to Get Rich is a very interesting book, extremely frankly and entertainingly written. Unlike Richard Branson, Dennis is an entrepreneur who started in the early 1970’s with absolutely nothing and proceeded to make, as well as spend, hundreds of millions of pounds. Why is it so interesting?

Well, firstly, how many people do you know who have made (or spent) that kind of money? Not alot, I bet. (Funnily enough because of my profession, I know a few, including one or two billionaires but I’ll come to that in a minute). The book distills 40 years of learned wisdom into 300 compelling pages.

Secondly, it clearly demonstrates the mindset you have to adopt if you genuinely want riches (which Dennis defines as a minimum of £15m to £40m). This has to be a combination of an absolutely focused determination (to the exclusion of virtually everything else, including sometimes health and relationships), a crocodile thick skin together with – incredibly – the wisdom that the accumulation of immense wealth is just a game, chum.

Dennis agrees that this type of steely personal trait is partially genetic but believes that making money is a knack that you can acquire.

The book is full of valuable lessons including (to name just a few) always retain ownership, delegate cleverly, recruit young talent, toady to greed and watch overhead. Dennis teaches how to learn from failure and retain your wealth, once finally achieved. He also says that extremely few people get rich through having a great idea or just being lucky. To quote that terrible cliché: it's one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration.

To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, the very rich are different to you and me. Of course, this does not mean that they are physiologically different from the rest of mankind. However, one thing I have noticed about the financially blessed is that they have an innate confidence which can be observed no matter whether they were born rich, inherited it or aquired it through their own efforts.

By the way, Barcelona was truly wonderful. I think it’s the most beautiful city in the world and even more enjoyable when you have the company of a good book.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

I Predict More Predictions

If you’re not well, one of the first things you'll want to know is when will I get better? It's human nature to ask how long your suffering will continue and when respite will eventually arrive. To get an accurate answer, you can ask a friend or relative who has experienced something similar. Or if it’s a more unusual condition, you are entitled to ask a doctor, search the internet or read a medical book. You can also seek a second or third opinion, or pay a fortune to a specialist.

But what if the truth is no one knows. Are you happy to be fobbed off or accept the discomfort of uncertainty?

Whenever you ask someone for a forecast, you are making a fundamental assumption that they know something you don’t. They have superior knowledge, or intellect, or expertise or machinery that allows them to analyse a bunch of possibly complex factors, or variables and then make a prediction. However, an assumption is a terribly dangerous thing. During the Vietnam War, a sign was kept nailed above a particular marine commander’s desk which said: “Assumption is the mother of all f***-ups.” Those seven words should be nailed above the desk of every Prime Minister and President of the United States, especially now.

A fortnight ago, I was watching BBC24. A Wall Street financial analyst was asked to comment on the latest bit of terrible news to hit the markets. He did a proficient job before being asked “and how much longer will this all go on for?” Without any hesitation, the analyst gave some half spun yarn about matters getting worse before they got better and concluded everything would be fine within the next couple of years. I shook my head. To be fair to the BBC interviewer, he was, as noted above, merely seeking respite to an ever worsening financial situation. And, while we’re at it, in fairness, the Wall Street analyst is a highly paid talking head whose business is to provide economic forecasts. But his business is a foolhardy and arrogant one. For the truthful answer to the interviewer’s final question was, “I’m afraid I don’t have a clue” Unpalatable but true.

A few weeks ago, my September 12 blog “Thoughts on Eastenders and the Credit Crisis” was considered for publication by the Legal Gazette. However, the editorial team wanted the following removed:

“Expert” predictions in newspapers are ten a penny and usually completely worthless. The truth is absolutely no one knows how long this unholy mess will drag on for. Indeed, for all we know, it could continue for at least another decade. Accurate forecasts are virtually impossible due to the complexity of the issues involved and the consistent possibility of unforeseen random events that can powerfully affect the economy.”

It is fairly obvious why they found this paragraph distasteful. Newspapers, magazines and documentaries thrive on “expert” predictions, notwithstanding the fact that the vast majority of “experts” could not predict a snowstorm in the Arctic. (However, I should add, another professional journal, Estates Review, agreed to publish the article in full.)

Interestingly, the Council of Mortgage Lenders finally became aware of the sheer uselessness of making housing predictions after all their forecasts were rapidly disproved. Finally and incredibly, on the 24 September, they admitted that house price predictions were “futile”.

Let’s be clear, there are some things that can be predicted in newspapers – they are good at getting cinema and theatre viewing times correct. But social, economic and housing matters, to name just a few, are complex and variable fields and no mortal can accurately foretell their long term future. How many people predicted 9/ll, the First World War, 1987 Black Monday, or even the rise of the personal computer and internet? Extremely few.

The credit crunch is a crisis that continues to unfold rapidly but no one knows where it will lead or when it will be resolved. Let us have some humility and accept this. For all we know, the crisis could lead to world war, another holocaust, the destruction of capitalism or the coming of the Messiah. We don’t know. We just don’t. But there is one thing I can confidently predict – more predictions.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

On Meeting a Real Life Politician

Last week I had the slightly dubious privilege of seeing the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling give a twenty minute presentation at the Anglo-Israel Chamber of Commerce, followed by a ten minute question and answer session. The event was held at Bloomberg’s spectacular building in Finsbury Square in the City and – just, in case I might have forgotten - the prominence of the guest speaker was driven sharply home by the hordes of waiting paparazzi camped patiently on the Bloomberg steps at 7.30am. Not only that, the anxious faces of virtually every worker I saw in the Square Mile, reminded me of the particularly troubled times we are all experiencing.

Several minutes later, I was seated, surrounded by several hundred fellow invitees, awaiting the Chancellor’s address. Now, before I tell you about that, I want to pause a second and relate what my impression of the Chancellor was up until that point i.e. until I saw him “in real life”. Like, I dare say, the vast majority of people in this country, I perceived the Chancellor to be a weak, incompetent man, bullied by the Prime Minister and completely unable to deal with his political remit. I also thought he was a peculiar looking individual with his shock of white hair and black eyebrows.

However, the “reality” was somewhat different. I still think the Chancellor looks a bit strange but he came across as very warm, witty and – dare I say it – competent. Although he didn’t say anything new, his address, which was given without notes, was flawless and he handled all the questions thrown at him with total efficiency. After the address, everyone around me was saying the same thing. How could the Chancellor’s “real” personality be so at odds with his media image?

Almost eighteen months ago, I had a very similar experience. The politician in question was also the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But it was a Chancellor on the verge of becoming a Prime Minister. Gordon Brown was the special guest of Henry Grunwald, the President of the British Board of Deputies of British Jews at their annual dinner. I was able to speak briefly to Mr Brown, who was extremely warm and charming and the then-Chancellor’s ensuing address was both humorous and profound.

Again, up until the time I experienced the “real” Gordon Brown, I had always perceived him to be dour, humourless and rather unpleasant. The contrast was remarkable.

But why is it remarkable? Logic dictates that to attain the highest echelons of political power, you have to be a very impressive individual. But maybe the underlying truth is that we live in a society that is deeply cynical about the integrity and competence of its politicians and this reflects itself in a media, dominated by short sound bites and scathing columnists. Either that or underneath their superficial charm and sincerity, top politicians are merely clueless, self-serving egotists.

Meanwhile, I have still not met anyone who has a kind word to say about Harriet Harman but please correct me if I’m wrong!

Friday, 12 September 2008

Thoughts on Eastenders and the Credit Crunch

As I was watching television the other day, it occurred to me that there was one part of the United Kingdom which had been completely unaffected by the Credit Crunch. In this place, the two vexed words had never ever been mentioned, let alone caused difficulties. Where was this utopian land which had so entirely shrugged off the economic hardships plaguing the rest of the country? None other than Eastenders’ “keeping it real” Walford.

It’s amusing to speculate what could have happened in Walford in the last year should the tedious scriptwriters been given a free hand to reflect the economic reality. There might have been a run on the Walford Bank; Bradley Branning’s former boss, the admirably complacent housing developer, would have been made redundant after a monumental drop in her company’s share prices, repossessions in Walford would have dramatically increased, Walford market would have suffered a sharp downturn in business and – well, anyway, you get the idea.

From a jobbing commercial property solicitor’s point of view, such stories are all too familiar. The main problem for my clients, who are in any way reliant on finance, is that the banks have not only metaphorically shut up shop but also gone away on indefinite leave without leaving a forwarding address. I can imagine, in a few months time, lawyers reflecting on the good old days when banks used to issue “offers” as opposing to folding or desperately trying to offload huge amounts of debt for a fraction of their value.

Those clients who have long excellent standing relationships with their banks, may find their bank’s lending criteria change bewilderingly on a weekly basis or they may discover that previously reliable lines of credit simply discontinued. Theoretically, this means that cash rich investors are in a good predicament if they want to pick up cheap deals. However, although there is certainly some truth to this, it is not necessarily always the case.

A seller will not wish to be saddled with negative equity and so their asking price will be above their mortgage redemption value. Frequently, this figure will be substantially above current market value. Indeed, I have personally seen this happen time and time again. The seller is then forced to just “tough it out” and hope that the market will turn shortly. But will it?

According to Newton’s laws of gravity, what goes up must surely come down. But if you flip this on its head, does what goes down surely come up?

Generally accepted wisdom is that things will continue to get worse for another couple of years before starting to improve. But this may be akin to the historic prediction that the First World War would be over by Christmas.

“Expert” predictions in newspapers are ten a penny and usually completely worthless. The truth is absolutely no one knows how long this unholy mess will drag on for. Indeed, for all we know, it could continue for at least another decade. Accurate forecasts are virtually impossible due to the complexity of the issues involved and the consistent possibility of unforeseen random events that can powerfully affect the economy. The later factor has been termed the “Black Swan” by Naseem Nicholas Taleeb who has repeatedly shown, in his book of the same name, how unforeseeable events, such as war or 9/11 can have extremely wide-ranging economic consequences

However, one indicator is worth paying attention to: the stock market. In his fascinating book “Wealth, War and Wisdom” published by Hoboken this year, Barton Biggs showed the “wisdom of the market” was repeatedly proved during the Second World War. Financial markets aggregate the knowledge and expectations of their multitude of participants and have an uncanny way of “knowing” what the future holds. In retrospect, one can often look at a chart of broad-market indices and see that the market “called” important turning points by putting in a long term bottom or top, even when those turning points were perceived by few.

For example, in the United States, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined throughout 1941 as the threat of war increased, fell further after Pearl Harbour and the fall of the Philippines, but put in all-time bottom at the same time as the Battle of Midway which, in retrospect (but crucially not at the time), was seen as the key inflection point of the Pacific War. Even though the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy but had not engaged either in a land battle, the market somehow still “knew” that whatever the sacrifices to come, the darkest days were behind.

Notwithstanding all the caveats above, there is a good argument to be optimistic as to the long-term future. If the population continues to increase, there may be a resulting shortage of properties and this can only ultimately force prices up. Furthermore, there is a generally an upward trend in the value of properties in prime areas. Indeed, “trophy” properties are nearly always resilient in a poor economic climate.

The current situation is not particularly helped by the government response. Increasing the stamp duty nil-rate band by £50,000 is largely cosmetic and will have minimal effect in effect in London. It may have more effect outside London but sensible residential purchasers are far more likely to adopt a “wait and see” attitude.

It is worth recalling that the previous stamp duty holiday brought in by John Major’s government for the first eight months of 1992 completely backfired. The threshold for stamp duty was raised from £30,000 to £250,000 (plenty of money in those days!). However, as UK property consultant King Sturges said the effect was “a sharp temporary squeeze in the time taken to complete the average sale as buyers rushed in to complete before the holiday ended.” Prices actually fell in 1992 by 8.3% - the single biggest annual decline in prices ever recorded – and transactions were lower at any other time in the last 34 years at 1.1m.

However, the Government “free” five-year loans opens up an opportunity for potentially lucrative private investment. This is reminiscent of the opportunities produced by the Conservatives’ “right to buy” schemes in the 1980s.

As almost every newspaper headline will remind you, we are living in a difficult, unpredictable era. However, remember, those who bought property in the darkest days of 1992 and then kept that property would have been wealthy fifteen years later. Similar opportunities are arising again for those with foresight and a little courage. Now, what time is Eastenders on?