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PERSONAL, UNDILUTED VIEWS FROM TOM WINNIFRITH

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Pond Life with Robert Sutherland Smith (February Edition)

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- Tom Winnifrith

My old ( very old) friend from t1ps.com Robert Sutherland Smith continues his monthly column dreamt up while taking an early morning swim on Hampstead Heath… Pond Life.

There is nothing better at about 7am on a raw February morning, when flurries of snow in the air are driven hither and thither by a hectoring easterly wind coming across the North Sea from somewhere south of the Ural Mountains, than to make your way to the ponds for a winter dip. Thankfully, it is not that cold this morning; only three degrees above freezing. Almost sub tropical compared with some days. You enter the enclosed compound to find that a few other sturdy fellows are already undressing; hanging their winter cloths on cold metal hooks. They stand there in the poor light of an early winter dawn, white as flour; more like spirits from another plane or dimension than living, breathing beings from north London before the working day.

What is this urge to plunge into forbidding steel grey waters on such a day – or indeed almost any day in an English winter? Is it some kind semi-religious compulsion; a daily ritualistic baptism in the name of some deity of wind and water? Is one shriving one’s self of sin by an act of self mortification? The truth is, it is a process of getting closer to nature; to be at one with winter; to take on winter on its own terms in a bid to release yourself from its debilitating February thrall. ‘Come on winter’, you seem to say to yourself, as you remove each layer of protective winter clothing and hang it on the hook ‘do your worst!’ Now garbed in nothing but swimming shorts, you make your way bare footed across cold concrete to the door that leads to the little jetty projecting out into the cold waters.
Out of the compound and onto the jetty, to catch the full unkind force of that wind as it blows the minute particles of dust like snow around you. The wind is its own incentive to get out of it and into the water, as cold and chilly as it may be. Down the wooden ladder like steps that vertically descend into the grey winter water. A deep gasping almost hyperventilating gasp of breath and you push off into the challenging, dark, mortifying habitat of duck and fish, swimming fast as the cold passes immediately from the pond water into your feet, legs and body. Staying in too long on days like this is not advisable, if you wish to avoid being be cold yourself for much of the day. Getting the dosage of immersion right is part of the judgement.
Then, when you climb back out of the water’s cold grasp, up the ladder onto the jetty you are no longer a deathly white but rose red, like floribunda in summer. You are no longer a slave to the elements but their master and now part of them; enjoined as a freeman and citizen of nature; no longer made cold by the wind; smiling and cheerful, consumed with what all we swimmers call the ‘buzz’. So we have become a less than triple AAA risk. That was predictable for those who had eyes to see! As someone who saw the implications of George Osborne’s plan ‘A’ clearly in late 2010 and complained about it then – when the Chancellor was a hero to every happy, beaming City Tory – I now feel a touch of sympathy for him now that most have turned against him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I suspect that the new animosity towards him is born in part out of a sense of embarrassment and failure of vision, displayed by his many early, unquestioning supporters, who patriotically waved him on like some unimaginative First World War general astride a white horse, but failed to see the shortcomings of strategy based on the iron, doctrinal, inflexibility of only one plan – and one plan only. That afforded neither him nor us – the poor ‘bloody’ infantry – the chance to withdraw to a better position as the situation developed. The cry ‘no surrender’ is nearly always the hallmark of failure of generalship. The failure is what happens when you make the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer, the instrument of narrow political doctrine and advantage which, by definition, rules out pragmatism. The best generals have plenty of that and as many strategic plans as seem necessary. Not just one marked ‘Plan A’. As many have come to slowly recognize, the UK’s economic problem is not one of inefficient economic supply but one of inadequate economic demand. The danger of economic recession, if it goes on too long, is that its ability to wipe out valuable real economic capacity. Paying debts is important but it is not as important as keeping and employing a nation’s scarce economic capacity. And it is not as important as repaying national debt over four years, rather than six or even seven, simply to serve a political time table. Gentlemanly George, used to tell us that we would suffer the fate of Greece if it was not for his Plan ‘A’. The truth is that it has made us more like Greece, not less. But I am more optimistic now. Sterling, performing to rule is at last, weakening. The currency and bond markets do not move on advice from rating agencies but usually on broad global economic logic. Sterling needs now to have the benefit not enjoyed by the Euro perifique; an independent currency that adjusts to economic reality. If the Chancellor will not bring on the economic stimulus that brings growth, the markets will. It means a greater potential inflationary challenge but that, for a short time, if it can be kept that way, will be healthier than unremitting stagnation and underuse of the Nation’s capital. Inflation is a tried and tested way reducing national debt; currency depreciation, a tried and tested way of bringing on economic demand. But we need investment as well in science and technology. Forget the UK labour market which is very competitive. Rather need government initiative to increase the supply of successful and growing small firms. Robert Sutherland Smith.

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