The impossible dream
My Excel spreadsheets are legendary across six counties. I get the same near-erotic thrill from not buying new shoes that some women claim to get from the purchase. When I close my eyes at night, I dream only of ripened pension pots overflowing with the fruit of my labour. Yet, despite all this, when the Chancellor said last weeks' Budget was "backing a Britain that saves", my heart sank faster than annuity shares. Because I knew he wasn't talking to me.
This nation isn't divided into the people who do save enough and the people who don't; it's divided into the people who can save enough and the people who can't. That latter category now includes most people under 40, public-sector workers on frozen salaries, already badly paid private-sector workers and, according to a recent Demos survey, 78 per cent of middle income families. Or, as I like to call them, the makers, doers and the if-only-we-could-we-would savers.
Would-be savers first have to pay off the student debt, pay the rent, pay the mortgage, pay their own children's tuition fees and likely also contribute financially to the care of their elderly parents. With rents high, and four in five new jobs in sectors that average under £16,640 for a 40-hour week, who has a spare £15,000 knocking around for an ISA?
That's not an entirely rhetorical question. If anyone has a spare £15,000 knocking around for an ISA, please use 50p of it to buy a second-class stamp and write to me explaining how you did it. Most of my financial education has been gleaned in this manner, courtesy of wealthier friends reflecting on their own canniness. For instance, I thought ISA was an island off the coast of Spain until midway through university when someone advised me of this wheeze: 1. Take out student loan. 2. Put student loan into an Individual Savings Account. 3. Kick back and enjoy £1 beers at the union bar while your ISA accumulates more interest than the low-interest loan. 4. Pay student loan back on graduation. 5. Emerge from higher education not only debt-free, but also in profit. Genius, isn't it? Unless, of course, you aren't already loaded and you happen to need the student loan for its intended purpose – to live on.
The oft trotted-out financial advice rests on a situation that's increasingly uncommon, whereby you actually have some pay cheque left at the end of your month. Like my grandmother's famous insight on the property market – "Barbara, what you want is a bigger flat, but for less money" – this Budget's encouragement to save for the future is undeniably sensible and infuriatingly obtuse, both at the same time.
Cause and effect
Last week, thousands of women without make-up helped to raise more than £2m for Cancer Research UK with their selfies, and one woman without makeup raised thousands for Sport Relief with her sweat and her tears. What have #NoMakeUp selfies got to do with cancer research? What has Davina McCall's impressive physical fitness got to do with poverty in Africa? Not a lot. But since both fundraising techniques made money, no logical connection between is necessary. As long as it's for a good cause, right?
Right. Except for one thing: the choice of activity isn't really arbitrary or incidental, is it? It's part of a trend which in recent years has seen the old fundraising model – promotion for causes and largely anonymous donors – replaced by another: promotion for donors and largely anonymous causes. This isn't just bad news for the introverted altruists who'd rather do good deeds without dressing up as a Teletubby. It's bad news for anyone interested in creating fundamental change.
For the public to become engaged in fighting global injustice, it needs to be informed about the issues, not just about celebrity's lives. To give credit where it's due, Davina: Beyond Breaking Point did include a segment in which the former Big Brother presenter visited children working at a quarry in Kenya. Ultimately, though, we still emerged with a more detailed knowledge of Davina's chaffing "noo-noo" than the causes of this international wealth disparity.
In need of a new image?
Just as Chinese vases can be categorised by the period's ruling dynasty, so a man's life may be understood according to his girlfriend at the time. It was only in the late Mariella Frostrup era, for instance, that the actor George Clooney ceased to be "the fit bloke out of ER", and became instead a man of exquisite good taste. This impression has been reinforced by his latest girlfriend, Amal Alamuddin, a glamorous, high-flying British barrister who is currently advising Kofi Annan on the Syria talks at the UN.
The tendency to judge a person based on their choice of partners can go the other way, of course. Mean Girls star Lindsay Lohan has been undermined by the list of questionable celebrity conquests that In Touch magazine has turned up, supposedly penned in the actress's own hand. Never mind, Lindsay, as George has demonstrated: you're only ever one night away from a total image turnaround. It gives a whole new meaning to the to-do list.
Putin aide Vladislav Surkov has laughed off US sanctions against Russia with this pithy summation of America's contribution to the world: "The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollack. I don't need a visa to access their work." In the same spirit of helpful curation, here's a list of the things British Russophiles could never do without: overlong 19th-century novels, the bracing honesty of no-frills customer service, and a binge-drinking culture. Come to think of it, we can get all that at home too, can't we?
Picket and picnic
Fred Phelps, the leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, has died, prompting an obvious question: does anyone fancy picketing his funeral? During his lifetime, Phelps drew attention to his Looney Tunes yet strangely consistent theology – God hates everyone except me – by picketing the funerals of soldiers, victims of school shootings, and of homophobic crime. So how about it? I'll bring a picnic and we can make a day of it. It's what he would have wanted.