Friday, 27 February 2009


I helped organise a surprise birthday party for a work colleague last night. Such things are fraught with small anxieties, not everyone likes surprise parties. I was once invited to a surprise party where the ‘victim’ walked through the door, the rebel yell of ‘Surprise!’ reverberated round the room at which point the birthday boy turned on his heels and ran off. He did not return until the next day or so his rather bemused girlfriend reported later. We still carried on with the party and after several glasses of very strong punch no-one seemed to recall that the cause for the celebration was on the bus heading across town to spend the night at his mother’s.

I think I might find a surprise party a little unnerving myself, being a recovering control freak ( well on a good day I’m in recovery on a bad one I am wondering why people don’t listen to me as I am always so right). There are good surprises, bad surprise and surprises that freak you out a little and make you feel rather unnerved. Then again the capacity to be surprised keeps us a step ahead of the drone, maybe astonishment makes us a little more human, the unexpected keeps your soul on its toes. Always liked this Paul Farley poem that burrows under the surface of that feeling in more ways than one.

Luckily the birthday girl at last nights party was both suitably surprised and pleased, sighs of relief all round. The birthday was a sixtieth and some of us started to talk about pensions, I mentioned the RBS head honcho’s, Sir Fred Goodwin’s, pension and his reward for working really really hard and making such a huge success of the bank ( for those who may be unaware this is an ironic statement). There seemed to be common agreement round the table that something was wrong, not just with this £693,000 per annum pension at the ancient age of 50, but with a society that deems his labour worth such a sum. The city has always had rules of its own about what constitutes worth. Some people spend years in badly paid jobs that directly benefit hundreds of people, firemen, nurses, care workers etc and they have to work really hard and their reward is very little whilst doing the job and even less when they retire. You could argue that such lowly people don’t generate money, they do not move and shake the economy or create profit. A labourer is never worthy of his hire because it depends on who the labourer is and it depends on the financial context in which the hiring takes place. Sir Fred’s mammoth pension is not about his real worth, nor is it about what he achieved, it is about what he can get, what the market will bear. It has been ever thus, the market isn’t interested in fairness, usefulness or levels of responsibility. A nurse may have to be responsible for ensuring someone is kept a live and healthy, Sir Fred had to do the same for a bank. Unfortunately the patient died and he was there standing over the body with his foot on the patient’s oxygen pipe. Over half a million pounds per annum to step away from the body seems absurd but if people are stupid enough to give him a golden handshake rather than call him to account for his failure to keep his patient alive then good luck to the man, he must be laughing all the way to the bank.

The government are now saying this pay-out is obscene whilst the man himself states that the government were well aware of the details of his pension. The government in the past denied that we had any involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition’. Now it seems we do recall giving the Americans two suspected terrorists captured in Iraq to be whisked off to be ‘questioned’ in facilities in a third country where torture is not illegal. Jack Straw had said categorically this had not happened, now Mr Hutton the defence secretary says: "Brief references to this case" were included in "lengthy" papers to the, then, Foreign and Home Secretaries without its significance being highlighted at the time.” Perhaps the details of Sir Fred’s pension were briefly mentioned in some lengthy papers as well and its significance was passed over as unimportant when losses of billions were in the offing.
We do have to wonder that the government at present do seem to be surprised by quite a lot of things, perhaps someone should arrange them a surprise a party.

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