THE VILLAGE SOAPBOX
Ron, inevitably has a view on the Banking Fraternity, politicians and the British Aircraft Industry
We all knew it was wrong; 125% mortgages - fantastic bonuses. People have been complaining about it for several years but we were told that the 'City' was essential to the British economy and that these city slickers were so brilliant that it was necessary to pay them these outrageous bonuses otherwise they would leave the country. Richard Lambert, Director General of the CBI claimed that the bankers contribute enormously to the vitality of the country and that bonuses are a very effective way of motivating staff. I am sure that he is right about the motivation but I am not at all convinced by the arguments on the extent of their contribution and I am not at all sure that we should worry if they did leave. Right now their contribution seems to have been something that we definitely could have done without.
So called short selling appears to involve borrowing shares that are anticipated will fall, selling them off, thereby encouraging the fall, then buying them back at the lower price (probably thereby encouraging some recovery), before returning them to the original owner. All this could happen in a period of a few hours. If all goes well the owner of the shares gets his shares back along with his commission and the trader has possibly made millions. How has that benefited anyone other than the trader? Somebody somewhere has to pay for those millions that the trader has put in his pocket. I agree with the Archbishops - it is robbery. Also partly responsible for the collapse of the banking system are those small speculators that bought houses to rent expecting to cash in on the increasing value of the property. Their actions helped to further inflate the housing market and, once again, other people had to pay for their gains. Perhaps some of them will lose out now but I will shed no tears for them. I say they were partly responsible but it was the banks that loaned them 100% mortgages, knowing that they were buying to rent, that were largely to blame. What is so puzzling is how it was that we all knew it was wrong and that it would end in tears yet those that could have done something to stop it stood back?
Ordinary folk work hard - some study hard and/or train over many years and receive poor rewards compared to the bankers. Many work hard manually, the builders, the factory workers and the farmers for example, others slog away in an office or provide support work to the community, yet others keep the lights on and the goods moving. Directly or indirectly they are the wealth creators and it is an extreme injustice that they now have to provide the funds through their taxes to rectify the mess made by the bankers. If they go on strike the effect is soon felt. The extent to which the bankers create wealth is very debatable however, they seem to be more engaged in moving around the wealth created by others. These oh-so-clever traders have devised all sorts of ways of trading, including trading in other peoples debts, so that they bamboozled people into believing that they had created wealth (even fooling themselves). Of course traditional banking, lending at a reasonable interest rate against reasonable security and paying a reasonable rate on deposits, provides a valuable service but that has little relevance to the way the banks have been behaving or the share dealings in the City. No doubt the City makes money by handling wealth from overseas investors but if the City went on strike I'm not sure that we would miss them very much at all.
The trouble seems to go back to the days of Thatcher and Reagan. They both deregulated the financial institutions - acting in the belief that if they allowed them greater freedom their greed would ensure that they increased their efforts, that they would become more wealthy as a result and that this wealth would trickle down through society - and Blair and Brown followed the same policies. They got the first bit right but the trickle down didn't trickle very far. Whilst it is easy and fair to blame the politicians for the financial situation, fair because they should have taken control sometime ago, we should not forget the real culprits. When the dust has settled I hope that the past actions of the bankers and traders will be carefully examined to see if it is possible to bring any criminal charges.
The past mistakes by our politicians are now becoming apparent. Quite apart from their failure to adequately regulate the financial sector, their belief that market forces could solve practically every problem have been shown to be wrong. As a consequence we have seen much of our industry lost to foreign concerns, along with the associated expertise. Our oil and gas has been squandered, our energy supply situation is in a mess and largely in the hands of foreigners, and we are dependent on others to build our urgently needed nuclear power stations. I think it was only two years ago that the British Government sold off its stake in Westinghouse, one company that did have the expertise.
We are suffering a triple blow, the credit crunch, the peak in global oil production and global warming. No way can we afford to let market forces deal with these problems, some planning and regulation from the centre is essential. In the last century the extreme of socialism was tried in the form of communism in the Soviet Union, in China and elsewhere. The result was a disaster for the people in those countries. We now seem to have tried a fairly extreme capitalism and appear to have come close to disaster ourselves. Perhaps as we progress through the 21st century we might develop a system somewhere in between.
The British Aircraft Industry - A sad story
Brian was an old friend of mine who started work as an engineering apprentice with the deHavilland Aircraft Co at Hatfield. When he started they had not long since stopped building Mosquitos. He learned how to use hand tools and machine tools and studied aeronautical engineering. He went on to become a well qualified aeronautical engineer and spent his entire career with the same company, seeing it become part of British Aerospace. He was involved in the design and development of a whole range of deHavilland aircraft from the Vampire, Vixen, Swallow, and ill fated 110, through a range of civil aircraft, including the Comet, the world's first jet powered airliner (also ill fated), the highly successful 125, equally successful Trident and the BAe146. Geoffery deHavilland was one of the very early aviation pioneers. He subsequently started his own company that went on to become one of the leading aircraft companies of the world, with sister companies formed in Canada and Australia. deHavillands was a pioneering company, not only with aircraft but with aero-engines - they were the first commercial company to produce a jet engine, the first company to have a jet engine pass a type test and the only company to get flight approval for a variable thrust rocket engine for use in a manned aircraft.. The tragedy of the Comet 1 was largely because of this pioneering attitude, others might well have encountered the same problem had they got to that stage with pressurised cabins first. The whole world learned from the experience with the Comet 1. Subsequently the Comet 4 proved to be a very good aircraft from an engineering standpoint.
Although his work did not involve the direct use of tools Brian very much enjoyed hands on work and retained the skills he had acquired as an apprentice, he maintained a well equipped workshop at home. When he retired at the age of 65 he did not want to stop working, he went on a course and subsequently obtained a job as a craft teacher in a secondary school, teaching woodwork and metal work. On one occasion he was talking to his pupils and he was asked where he had worked and, with a certain amount of pride he told them 'deHavillands'. To his immense disappointment and dismay he discovered that they had never heard of them.
To some extent that story is an indication of what has happened to the British aircraft industry. Not many youngsters today realise that we had an outstanding industry that led the world. From the early days of aviation Britain was in the vanguard of aircraft design. By the end of World War 1 we had a large airforce with several thousand aircraft, with some very successful machines. Between the wars we continued with exciting developments - Mitchell's Schneider Trophy winning sea-plane that won the Schneider Trophy race on three consecutive occasions and laid the groundwork for his design of the Spitfire, we had the large Empire flying boats and some useful airliners by deHavilland. During the second world war we had some very outstanding aircraft, most notable, I suppose, the Spitfire, the Lancaster and the Mosquito, the first two were manufactured in Britain in their tens of thousands, but there were many other extremely good examples, the Hurricane not least among them. The RAF became a formidable armada mounting raids with as many as 1,000 bombers at any one time. Many youngsters today have been so indoctrinated through films etc that they think that the US airforce was the major airforce in Europe but, for good or evil, the RAF dropped a much greater weight of bombs on Germany.
During the war Britain produced the first truly manageable jet engines (the Germans also had jet engines that were arguably of a more advanced design but they were rushed into service before they had been fully developed and were difficult to use, were unreliable and caused the deaths of a number German pilots). The first operational aircraft with British jet engines were the Vampire and the Meteor, a robust aircraft that was in service in 1944 and subsequently broke the world air speed record in 1945/6 and went on to serve with the RAF for many years. Immediately after the war, with Germany out of the way, Britain was the leader in jet aircraft. The Meteor was the first of a whole crop of British jet aircraft of the 1950s; including the Venom/Vixen, Swift, Hunter and the very impressive Lightning. There were the larger planes, the Canberra, a highly successful plane that was sold around the world and was built under licence in the US (the Canberra was only very recently taken out of RAF service) and the Vulcan and Victor bombers. All these planes represented major technical achievements and led the world. In the field of civil aircraft we produced the Comet, of course, and the Viscount and Vanguard airliners powered by British turbo prop engines. British jet engines also led the world with Rolls Royce and Armstrong Siddeley, in particular, setting a high standard. Armstrong Siddeley introduced their Sapphire engine, based on an axial flow engine developed by Metropolitan-Vickers, probably the best jet engine of the period.
The Americans had no jet engines in the early days of the war but they were given all the information acquired by Frank Whittle's team. A group of engineers from Whitttle's company went to the States with one of their engines to kick-start their gas turbine industry but they were always playing catch up until Armstrong Siddeley sold them the design of the Sapphire. That enabled them to make a big leap forward.
In the 1950s Britain had some advanced projects, the SR177 was a mixed power plant design of interceptor fighter with a jet engine and a rocket engine with control of its thrust over a wide range. The SR177 was potentially capable of high supersonic speeds. The prototype version, the SR53, successfully underwent its initial flight testing. We also had our own inter-continental missile, Blue Streak, under development.
Thus, in those early post war years, the British aircraft industry had the world more or less at its feet so to speak, except they were in competition with the larger American industry.
Apart from the civil airliners the military projects mentioned above were funded by government contracts. At the end of the war Britain was broke*, we were heavily in debt to the Americans (a debt that hung around our neck for years. Only recently Gordon Brown finally cleared that debt). Apart from servicing that debt we had very heavy expenditure trying to look after the Germans in the British Sector and, at the same time, helping them to rebuild their shattered buildings and industries. Because of the perceived threat from the Soviet Union we had to maintain a large British Army of the Rhine in Germany. Our industries had been geared to war production, those that hadn't were outdated. The move away from war production was difficult to accomplish hence the number of projects of the type mentioned above. The Government had continued with the wartime practice of issuing contracts for a new specification to a number of companies. We only needed one 'V' bomber but contracts had been placed with Vickers, who produced the Valiant, Handley Page, the Victor and A V Roe, the Vulcan. We had too many aircraft companies. The Government were confronted with some difficult decisions and, in 1957 The Conservative government of the time produced a Defence White Paper that led to the cancellation of a large number of contracts.
The Lightning and the SR177 had both been seen with potential for sale to the Germans to form the principal European fighter. When that fell through the SR177 was cancelled, the Lightning went into RAF service but with fewer numbers than originally expected. Unlike the British, the Americans came out of the war a good deal richer than they went into it, partly at our expense. Their aircraft industry forged ahead with generous government contracts. They went ahead and sold the F104 fighter to the Germans in place of the British planes. How they managed to do that was puzzling to many people, the F104 was not a particularly good aircraft and was quite difficult to fly, a number of German pilots were killed flying that also. Some felt that the British government did not fight hard enough, others suspected some behind the scenes pressure or financial 'wheeler dealing'.
Boeing had a government contract for a jet engined bomber that had much in common with the Boeing 707 airliner that subsequently appeared, the first jet air liner after the Comet. Thus much of the design and development costs of the 707 were paid by US government contracts. British companies had no such government help. Because of the booming aircraft industry in the States many British engineers were tempted across the pond.
The British industry struggled on, as mentioned above Vickers produced the Viscount and Vanguard and, later the VC10, all good aeroplanes, deHavilland the Comet 4 and the Trident, but they were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the Americans. When the Boeing 747 and the Tristar appeared they completely dominated the long haul market. British technical ability was undiminished however. Rolls Royce continued to produce excellent engines, the government did support some aircraft projects, in the military field there was the TSR2, but this was cancelled before coming to full fruition. In conjunction with the French, of course, they sponsored the Concorde, the world's only supersonic airliner. Technically Concorde was a huge success but it was not a great commercial success, partly due to American objections to its noise and sonic boom, those objections curtailed its use over America and may have been politically motivated. The Harrier vertical take-off was another technical success but I believe much of the production is now in the States. We continued to work with the French, we still have the Tornado and now the Typhoon, we have made a significant contribution to Airbus, but our aircraft industry is nothing like the world leader that it once was.
It may be that it was inevitable that we would need to co-operate with other countries to compete with the Americans but many feel that our government could have done much more to help the industry capitalise on that advantage that we did have back in the late forties/early fifties. Of course we do still have Rolls Royce manufacturing some of the best aero-engines in the world. We do still have an aero-industry of a sort, as represented by British Aerospace, and that is a significant industry and a big export earner, but we no longer have a big aeroplane industry. It is very sad that youngsters today are not aware of those great names from the past, like deHavilland, Hawker, A V Roe, Vickers, Bristol and Handley Page, or the engine manufacturers like Armstrong Siddeley, deHavilland, Bristol and Napier (all those companies became integrated with Rolls Royce, except for Napier, I believe)). All part of our heritage that seems to be almost forgotten already.
*Because of the current financial crisis our national debt is likely to reach 50% of GDP, a worrying situation, but not so worrying as in 1946/1947 when it was 300% of GDP.
THE HISTORY OF THE APRON
I don't think our kids know what an apron is. The principal use of Grandma's apron was to protect the dress underneath, it also served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven. It was wonderful for drying children's tears, and on occasions was used for cleaning out dirty ears. From the chicken coop, the apron was used for carrying eggs, fussy chicks, and sometimes for half hatched eggs to be finished in the warming oven. When company came, those aprons were ideal hiding places for shy kids. When the weather was cold, grandma wrapped it around her arms. Those big old aprons wiped many a perspiring brow, bent over the hot wood stove. Coal and kindling wood were brought into the kitchen in that apron.
From the garden it carried all sorts of vegetables. After the peas had been shelled it carried out the hulls. In the autumn, the apron was used to bring in the apples that had fallen from the trees. When unexpected company approached it was surprising how much furniture that old apron could dust in a matter of seconds. When dinner was ready Grandma walked to the doorstep, waved her apron, and everyone knew it was time to come in for dinner. It will be a long time before someone invents something that will replace that old apron that served so many purposes.
Grandma used to put her hot baked apple pies on the windowsill to cool - her granddaughters set theirs on the windowsill to thaw. They would go crazy trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron but I don't think I ever caught anything from an apron, did you?