Monthly Archives: April 2016

Review of “Gweilo: A Memoir of a Hong Kong Childhood” – Martin Booth

GweiloJust finished reading Martin Booth’s autobiographic book, the third of the Gweilo canon I’ve read these past few months. The three books couldn’t be more different. John Lanchester’s novel Fragrant Harbour covers the period between the end of the first world war and the turn of this century. He skilfully weaves three narrators and three narratives into an intergenerational saga.  James Clavell’s Taipan is a swashbuckling story of  an early Victorian privateer who outwits mandarins, pirates and business rivals to found an enduring business dynasty that loosely based on  the Jardine story. Gweilo is set in the two-year stretch of time between 1952 and 1954 as seen through the eyes of the 8 to 10 year-old Booth. Booth’s father is a low ranking civil servant and his mother a vivacious and wise homemaker.

Reading it you realise a place is not so much geographic location as a period of time and a human perspective. So while you can spot familiar place-names which only another local might know – Old Peak Road, Mount Austin, Sham Shui Po – you also realise you’re reading about an entirely alien country. The Hong Kong being described in this book still has opium dens and people spitting in the street. The excellent public transport system is still in its gestation. Sha Tin and Tai Po are sleepy fishing villages accessed by single track roads already fully utilised by unswerving farmers herding their geese and cows. Nowadays both New Towns are settlements with quarter of a million residents each reached by MTR from Kowloon in 20 minutes. The Hong Kong people are colourful refugees fleeing the Mao’s communists’ predation of Chinese petite bourgeoisie. There is a hilarious description of a well-meaning relative who sends the family food and toiletries from a post-war rationed UK unbelieving of their pampered and sumptuously catered expat lifestyles.

Booth regards every fettering of his right-to-roam as a challenge. On being told he should not enter the notorious and lawless Kowloon Walled City: “To utter such a dictum to a street-wise eight-year old was tantamount to buying him an entrance ticket.” KWC has since been reformatted as a bucolic park and his description of the kindly triads, and brothels seems unimaginable . Surely even the most casual reader must see the contrast between Booth’s colourful childhood and the shopping mall-grade 8 viola lessons-Dr Spock maths crammer class existence that passes for childhood in Hong Kong these days.

The other striking feature of the book is the Oedipal complexity of his relationship with his inadequate, bullying and ultimately hated father. It’s an honest and often uncomfortable account of how a bad parent slips off their filial pedestals in their child’s eyes.

The book ends with the family boarding the boat back to England. There is a tantalising hint of a second book in which Booth and his mother return to HK sans father, but sadly the author dies soon after Gweilo is published so the next chapter remains untold. Curiously, I too spent the two years of my childhood between ages of 8 and 10 away from the UK, in India, when my parents tried to make a go of it back in the “mother country”. I only wish my recollections were as vivid and my days in India as eventful as Booth’s.

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Filed under History, Review

R.I.P. Prof. Sir David Mackay FRS

Two days ago my friend David MacKay died. We went to school together in Newcastle-under-Lyme between 1981 and 1985 and sat almost the same ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels. We were born one day, and one continent apart, and our lives seemed to dance around one another’s, always slightly out of phase but broadly in the same direction.  We were friends, and to the extent such terms can be used to describe relationships between two prickly, competitive, teenage loners, briefly best friends at school. He wasn’t the easiest person to be friends with. He wasn’t so much socially awkward as socially absent; I don’t recall him ever coming to any student discos, parties, gigs or the pub. The only time we did anything together outside of school was when we went to the preacher Billy Graham’s football pitch-scale sermon in Liverpool. David went because of his Christianity, and I out of curiosity. He of course excelled academically, but he also a good musician and a useful hockey player. I believe he had an austere home life, his parents were much older than anyone else’s, and they didn’t much care for frivolities like TV which were banned from his home. The photo above was our 6th form science class, led by by our inspiring form teacher Mr Beatson.

After school I went to Oxford and he to Cambridge. We didn’t much keep in touch. After his PhD at Caltech in US I visited him once or twice at his college. When we met I was surprised by our enduring similarities in tastes: we both enjoyed our Brompton bikes, our Psion organisers and our Raspberry Pis.

He had started dabbling in energy issues which were a bit of a diversion from his usual academic fare of information theory and machine learning. He was always incredibly modest about his achievements but I understand (but not from him) he had helped correct optical defects in the Hubble telescope algorithmically. By then I was working as Government economist on environment and climate change issues. We were both planning to write books on energy and climate change. We talked a few times about our respective projects and the gulf in our thinking was already evident. His Sustainable Energy was published in 2008, and I my Economical Environmentalist in 2009. We both mention each other in our acknowledgements, but I suspect neither much cared for the other’s book.

To me it was the Without Hot Air bit of the book that irked. The “Hot Air” of political discussion is necessary to align consumers, institutional investors and businesses. In Western countries (less so here in the East) it renders energy policy more than an arithmetic problem of balancing supply and demand. And amidst the book’s many useful facts and intuitions, there were also many niggling assumptions that betrayed David’s prejudices. We exchanged emails about whether he was being fair in his dismissal of combined heat and power (an area of policy I was then working on), his espousal of nuclear despite the clearly understated costs of the new reactor design evident even back when David wrote the book, and his overly simplistic caricature about wind power gobbling up an area the size of Wales. But he didn’t respond to my comments. But the book was well written, and revealed David’s excellent and seemingly effortless skills of simplifying and communicating. More importantly it sold by the bucket-load and has proved influential.

David at Maya's and my wedding

David at Maya’s and my wedding

David came to Maya’s and my wedding a few months after Sustainable Energy was published. But we didn’t communicate again until David was considering and being considered for the role of Decc Chief scientist. I told him while he had an excellent chance of getting the job, it would frustrate him. David’s clearly defined and often inflexible views of the world, were at odds in the nuanced and slow to change world of Whitehall. But I knew he desperately wanted to bring scientific rationality into energy policy making, so it was inevitable he would accept. I didn’t much speak to him while he was in that role. I have no idea whether he enjoyed it or not. His team developed a well received carbon calculator that allows people to develop their own energy scenarios. And I am told he retained his kind and patient manner with his staff. I doubt he bears much responsibility for the current mess that constitutes UK’s energy efficiency, and increasingly balkanized renewables policy.

By then I had left the civil service and joined the consumer movement. I was also active on the other side of the environmental fence. I had co-written a second book Repowering Communities featuring case studies and policies to promote locally planned decentralized energy, combined heat and power and energy efficiency. I took part in many working groups and community level actions to try and get these off the ground. Rhetorically Government supported such bottom up initiatives but the financial and policy support for such polices were slowly withdrawn from 2010 onwards. I was very much opposed to the large-scale nuclear, air source heat pump based future that David used to promote, and wanted to halt any further subsidy-junkie, nuclear power stations being built .

For several years we lived only a couple of miles apart on opposite sides of Hampstead Heath. But the only time I saw him after my wedding was the week before he moved back to Cambridge. It was late autumn and my son and I were cycling across Hampstead Heath. Ramesh was pregnant with David’s and her second child. He invited me to his going away event the following weekend. For some reason or other I couldn’t make it. I wish I had. A few months later I had left for Hong Kong.

I have recently been dabbling with data science. Bizarrely, I found myself drawing on his first book on information theory for an analytical problem at work about how to cluster people and draw inferences from  the vast amount of sometimes contradictory data from consumer surveys. I was  impressed with the lucidity of his explanation and quickly adopted one of his ideas to some work.

For the last few weeks I have been devouring his blog about how his stomach cancer is killing him. With his typical rationality and uncompromising forthrightness, he shared the slow shredding of his life in sleepless pain – researching and commenting on the efficacy or otherwise of each treatment he endured – even taking a side swipe at CHP in one of his final posts. I wish I could have been a better friend to him at school, or tried to make more of an effort to break into his busy schedule when he was in London. I feel so so desperately sorry his two young children, will only ever remember their father, ever so slightly.

When he died we were again in different continents. The night after his death I was overcome with a terrible nausea and pains from a stomach problem that have plagued me on and off for several months. The weird symmetry of our lives, displaced by one day and a continent, haunted me.

But I survived the night and I promised my wife I would go to the doctor’s and get my stomach seen to by specialists on Monday.


Filed under Technology

Review of “Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” – Paul Mason

PostcapitalismMason is best known to Brits as a broadcast journalist on BBC and Channel 4, and as a professional northerner-Trotskyist purveyor of political balance on the interview couch. He has drawn on an eclectic mix of economists, psychologists and futurologists to substantiate his obituary of neo-liberalism.
The book’s key argument is that several megatrends make it likely and desirable for traditional capitalism to collapse. Markets are becoming increasingly irrelevant in many of their key functions like the allocation of capital, price discovery and matching supply and demand. In a world of quantitative easing and dematerialisation of production there is excess capital rather than lack, digitalisation has meant that marginal production costs for many classes of goods are virtually zero, and the Internet is increasingly making geography irrelevant so the markets for many goods have become tournaments with a single supplier like Expedia or Amazon dominating the sector through unassailable network economies.
There is reference to a fascinating essay by Marx Fragment on Machines written in 1858 in Kentish Town (near my home) in which Marx argues that innovation in organisation and technology greatly increases labour productivity, more so than the simply accumulation of capital – and machines have the potential to cheaply displace the working classes. But as we know Marx dropped this line of reasoning and the first volume of his opus published in 1867 was called Capital rather than The Terminator. We had to wait 117 years for the other great seer James Cameron to finally identify the threat posed by machines.
The book also features a slightly quixotic discussion of an economist I had never heard of Kondratieff who reached the politically uncomfortable conclusion, at least in Joseph Stalin’s Russia, backed up by painstaking statistical analysis that capitalism instead of dying and being replaced by socialist utopia always survived its internal crisis, through increasingly traumatic structural shifts – like the 1930s crash – which took place every fifty or so years. This was roughly the interval of time that the collective human brain allows hubris to overcome caution.
Mason’s book could be criticised for its rather quixotic selection of writers and events to cite, but this would be missing the point. Mason is not projecting into the future, simply into a future if you buy into his thesis. But compared to his fire-in-the-belly analysis his policy recommendations are rather tame, and some naïve. Does anyone seriously believe that if his first recommendation “Model first, act later” that macro-economic crisis could be averted; that somehow cranking the wheel on some tired old model infested with dodgy data and prejudices dressed up as structural equations would provide us with actionable insight. His other recommendations similarly feel a bit like he’d reached the end of the analysis and was left struggling with how to finish. Unlike me.

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Filed under Economics, Review