Give them Flowers – Coop update

Regular readers may have noticed that, given the recent furore involving the Cooperative and my previous blogs about them, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to write something new about the whole sorry affair. Well, if you have noticed that, then this is it.

As you may know by now, over the years I have developed a cautious (some may say cynical) mistrust of the flow of information as it is presented to us by the usual conduits. So when a story that has been simmering away for years suddenly breaks open thanks to a catalytic event like a drug-snorting, rent-boy loving Minister with no banking experience or apparently, any fear of discovery, I take a step back and just think, hmm, (affecting a cockney accents) “waz all this abaat then?”.

I don’t want to speculate about Paul Flowers drug habits, it seems quite obvious from the material released by the Daily Mail that he is a frequent and experienced lifestyle drug user. The more interesting questions I think, are, why now? What purpose does this serve (if any)? And how does this relate to the wider issues?

If the narrative of the media is to be believed, here is a man who has blazed a trail of incompetence and hedonism throughout his career in various guises, as a bank chairman, a Methodist minister, a Labour councillor and as a representative in various charities over several years. The floodgates have opened, it’s all coming out now, as if a thousand whistle-blowers have only just learned how to blow.

So what does this mean, given that it took the moral outrage of a man he met on a dating site, who attended drug parties with him and decided to secretly film him out of disgust with his hypocrisy, for this all to come to light? We could believe that large sections of the banking, political, religious and  even charity fraternities were all so naive and trusting as to not have noticed his behaviour over the years. As if this was a surprise and shock to them all – but that can’t be true, can it? Not given the deluge of past indiscretions that have now surfaced. So scrap that. But what’s the alternative? That at least some of these people did know about his lifestyle choices and inadequate faculties for the positions of power he held?

That latter option, which seems logical, is far more intriguing and worrying. What if, for example, key figures were acutely aware of his character, and used that to their advantage? It may sound far-fetched to you, but is it as far-fetched as a man who managed to avoid other major scandals from surfacing throughout his career, suddenly being caught out by a bloke with an iphone? If so, this incompetent buffoon (Flowers I mean), was up until that point, a master of deception and discretion, which doesn’t fit the narrative we are being given.

The obvious reason for having a fall guy like him at the top of a politically aligned bank, is that if it all goes wrong, you can just point the finger and say “he did it”. Which, given the ongoing inquiries into the Coop/Lloyds fiasco and the Coop’s own legacy funding problems, seems like a good time to do it, don’t you think? “Oh,” we collectively sigh, “it’s because they were being run by a druggy rent boy using idiot… that explains it then.”

But it really doesn’t, does it? And I know that the parties have all started slinging mud around as to who knew him, and how much they knew him and so forth, but despite that, the more important questions will now sit behind a sleazy, tabloid image of Paul Flowers in a car park buying crack, and jokes about crystal Methodists.

There are still some massively important questions to be asked about the whole affair, the majority of which sat not just with this one chairman, but with the various executive management teams, the interested political parties and the limp regulators. For the sake of posterity, I will record them here:

1.            The Buterfill Act.

When the Coop and Britannia announced the ‘merger’ of two profitable companies that had complementary synergies and would form a ‘super-mutual’ alternative to the big high street banks (that had been oh-so damaged by the global crash) – there was just one problem – just a little problem, nothing major really – THE LAW.

It was currently not possible for a bank to merge with a mutual, and as the Coop is basically a bank (with the only shareholder being the customer base) an act of parliament had to be drafted and passed before the house in order to allow this transaction to take place. The act was sponsored by Conservative peer, Sir John Buterfill, and passed, after it was announced the two businesses would merge.

At the time, Paul Flowers was still chairman of the Coop (a Labour councillor remember) while a Tory peer sponsored the act to allow a Labour (and Lib Dem) supporting bank to merge with a Building Society. It is hard to believe that this act did not attract the most careful scrutiny at the time, given the various interested parties and specific nature of its creation.

The customers and staff were told that both businesses were viable, profitable, and mostly unscathed by the credit crunch. They were told this was a merger, yet, even though the law of the land had to change, and massive regulator involvement was needed, this turned out not to be the case.

On a separate note, I was told directly (at a later date) that this was not the case. Britannia was in trouble, and without the take-over, sorry, I mean, merger, it would have gone down the pan. Which leads me to:

2.            The Britannia Members Vote to merge.

Given the above, and what has transpired, I would suggest that the entire member base of Britannia was deceived into voting for the merger to take place. The member vote was constitutionally necessary, and a bright rosy picture of synergies and super mutual’s was painted. If this turns out not to be the case – who is responsible, and what recompense or punishment is due? Given that we now know there was a bad loan book (all be it, not as bad as it is being represented by the Coop in recent inquiries) – this seems to be highly likely.

3.            The write-down of IT.

I worked for the Coop during the ill-fated IT upgrade that eventually cost them around £148 million according to their own accounting, which as we have seen, is probably not to be trusted. I would wonder if perhaps (again as was hinted to me directly) – a little creative accounting reduced this number down from a much more substantial figure. How was this figure arrived upon? A close look at the balance sheet may be a good idea. I worked on this project (all be it in a junior capacity) and the figures that were being quoted throughout the three years it was ongoing, were higher than this, much, much higher than this. Senior figures were popping off left right and centre when it became clear the IT upgrade was not happening, and apparently the Coop had been at it for many years before the Britannia merger, and still to no avail.

This may seem a smaller point that the others, but this is customers money they were spending, and the big accounting firms, the IT company itself and many third party contractors, all got their slice and left the company with virtually nothing to show for it. (not to mention the executive wages and pay-offs throughout).

So, I think that will do for now. There are obviously dozens more questions to be answered, many of which being heard by the select committee at the moment, but given the close political links to this affair, are they really best suited to be investigating this?

I would hate to see the media narrative use the whole sorry Flowers affair to divert attention from these issues. Let’s not forget that the culmination of all these failings is that both the UKs second biggest mutual (the Britannia) and biggest member owned cooperative are looking likely to end up mostly owned by American hedge funds as a result of all this, or in need of a bail out etc… So the ‘survivors’ of the Global Crash have finally caught up with the rest of the financial industry, it just took some twists and turns to get there.

Let us also not forget, that we still have not seen senior figures of financial institutions, political parties, regulators or big accounting firms go to prison or face any meaningful punishment for what they did to us all, quite the opposite in fact, they were handed their lifestyle back on a plate, and we were told to swallow austerity as a consequence.

So, they can give us Flowers, but it’s not enough.

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Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.