Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Exciting news

I was unaware until today, when I happened on its website, that the Daily Express was the "World's Greatest Newspaper", although I was aware that it was such if you were a Diana-ultra. The website does not back this up, but websites are not always a good guide to the printed newspaper.

So I will buy a copy on the way to work and report back on this exciting news.


Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Maybe they shouldn't have bought an Ipod?

The "Ipod generation" are having a bad time of it, according to Reform.

Of the average graduate's salary, which stands at £27,155, £4,608,40 now disappears in income tax, £2,432,21 in national insurance contributions, £3,043,15 in indirect taxes such as VAT, £1,493.53 in pension contributions, £1,093.95 in compulsory student loan repayments, and £618.50 in council tax.

This leaves them, excluding VAT, £16,905. Diddums. It's worth noting that if that really is a graduate's starting salary (see below), then that's a lot more than I and most graduates I knew had to spend (allowing for inflation) in 1996 after direct taxes, council tax, pension contributions and student loan repayments.

Slightly bizarrely, the report then demands (well, the Daily Mail report of the report says it does, which might not be the same thing):

Strict public spending curbs, tax cuts and more private contributions to healthcare and pensions were needed to allow resources to be redirected, he said.

Er..private pension contributions are what they say play a factor in reducing disposable income.

Update: Reading the actual report adds to the confusion. Of course new graduates don't have an average starting salary of £27k, it's an average of those aged 21-35. So it includes me! The average for new graduates is given as £14,515.

This though is puzzling, as they say the average 21-35 year graduate old has to repay £1,100 of student loans this year. Can that be right? It assumes surely that every ex-graduate aged 21-35 is paying back a student loan (at 9% over £15k)?

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Monday, October 29, 2007

David Cameron thinks the population is too low

"Gordon Brown cannot tell us if he thinks the population of the country is too low, too high, or just about right", Mr Cameron said.

What a bizarre criticism. I have no idea whether the population is too high, too low or just about right. It's not something, it seems to me, that anyone can really have a view on with any confidence. Too low/high for what? It's entirely to Gordon Brown's credit if he really doesn't have a view.

And the absurdity of the question is shown by asking what is David Cameron's view? Apparently he thinks that immigration should continue, albeit at a lower level. So he must think the population is "too low", if that's how he wants to frame it.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Your friends are ruining your life!

This article says apparently there are seven types - you might recognise some. For those of my readers who don't have five friends, perhaps they have ones who combine multiple types.

Passive aggressive underminer

The friend who uses their knowledge of you to subtly undermine you, often making barbed comments about your appearance or habits cloaked in a veil of concern

The constant talker

The friend who hogs every conversation and wants to be the centre of attention, with you in their orbit and shadow

The drama queen

The friend who elevates every minor setback into a major crisis, who is convinced that she's going to be fired because the boss didn't smile at her

The naysayer

The friend who dismisses your hopes and dreams as unrealistic and is generally negative about your plans. The classic 'glass half-empty' individual

The peer pressurer

The friend who imposes their need for fun and attention over your best interest, who knows that you have a job interview tomorrow morning but pressures you to drink until midnight

The plan breaker

The unreliable friend who agrees to go out for dinner but then ditches you at the last minute because they got a better offer

The sob sister

The friend who saps your energy by whining all the time, who would rather complain about the things in his or her life than fix them, dragging you into a culture of victimhood and using you as a therapist


The EU Treaty

An interesting report here on yesterday's pro-referendum march. The march wasn't a success, which gives some evidence to my view that is not an issue that people really care about. Anthony Wells had some good polling evidence on this score. That doesn't necessarily mean they don't want a referendum, many people presumably will say they want a referendum merely on the grounds that referendums seem jolly good things to have.

The blog post and commenters take the line, it seems, that English must free ourself from th EU (or 'interfering foreigners' in the blog's lingo) in order to continue to be allowed to create such a horrible country.


Friday, October 26, 2007


We were discussing over the weekend the need for a word to describe, when boarding an aircraft, the feeling one has when it dawns upon one that the horror one felt on walking through business class and arriving at the overcrowded and unpleasant economy class was in fact misplaced, as one has only got to Economy Plus/Premium Economy, and it - almost unimaginably - is actually going to get worse.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Britain 100 years ago in colour

I really like the Daily Mail website these days - loads of fun things to read. It never disappoints.

I also like old colour pictures, so I thought I would love this article with previously unseen colour pictures of the UK 100 years ago, but in fact they're a little boring. Anyway here you go.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Aged politicians

In largely sensible piece (my own view of Ming Campbell was that he was always too old to be leader of a major party, as it's a job that requires a bit of street-fighting), Matthew d'Ancona said this last week about Menzies Campbell:

Ming's problem was never age - Mick Jagger and Michael Heseltine are proof enough that you can still bring down the house after 60.

This isn't really true, is it? Heseltine was 60 on the 21st March 1993, and I'd say by then he was looking a bit past it. The coal mines fiasco had damaged his reputation as a moderate, fairly or unfairly, and only a bit later, in June of the year he had a heart attack.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Spectacular missing of the point

From just about everyone involved.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Quick links

Hurrah! Apparently men can drink 63 units a week without any negative health effects.

John Lewis is to narrow its price promise of 'never knowingly undersold'. I suppose the advantages of it are that only a few people have to do it for us all to benefit, as I was going to say I don't know anyone who has ever used it.

The Telegraph says Chinese growth will overtake US growth in dollar terms at market exchange rates for the first time in the modern era. I don't know if this is absolutely correct - did America not have negative GDP growth in 1980? Anyway you know what they mean.

Back at home the economy is still growing at a rate of over 3% a year, or at least was in Q3 07.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Daniel Finkelstein must think his readers are fools

...and it is The Times*, so he might be right.

In this post here he defends himself against complaints that he was accusing Richard Dawkins of anti-semitism in this post here:

Because I didn't accuse the Professor of anti-semitism. I just noted his comments and said I found it frightening that he could believe that. Which I do. It is pretty standard this. A comment is made about Israel or Jews and when that comment is questioned the originator or their defenders says: "Ooh, don't get all shirty and come the politically correct with me. Don't accuse me of anti-semitism every time I criticise you". But they haven't been accused of anti-semitism at all. No one even mentioned it. They are using the idea that they are being accused of anti-semitism as a cover for insupportable remarks. [My italics]

In the comments he even gets a little exasperated:

I didn't call him an anti-semite. Perhaps it would have made your life easier if I had. But I didn't. Live with it.

There's a major problem with his protestations though, even if you don't accept that the post was implying Dawkins is an anti-semite. That is the subject heading, or category, that Finkelstein gave to his original piece, which was...

ANTI-SEMITISM [his capitals]

I can't imagine why people though it was about anti-semitism.

* Actually I found copy on the Tube the other day and I have to say the news pages are pretty good these days, perhaps better now than the Telegraph, which has slipped into Mail/Independent style campaigning.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

“I’ve made passes, at women of all classes” ...

Gawd bless 'er.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Former Conservative voter will switch to Labour at next election

Some good news for Gordon Brown in a week without much. He seems to have swung one formerly Tory voter in a marginal constituency. Is it too late for a November election?

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Friday, October 12, 2007

North South divide in tax and spend

The Daily Mail has some figures (not necessarily correct, however I find the Mail more accurate than say the Telegraph in these matters). There seems no recognition, however, that the differences between areas might to some extent reflect difference in income, and what is seen as regional transfers are also income redistribution. You might not agree with that, but it should at least be referred to.

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What % of Americans are richer than you?

Well you have to go back to 2005, as that's the last available data.

To be in the top 1% of income tax payers you need to earn (individually) $365k, whcih is about £180k or I guess £200k back then. To be in the top 5% you need $145k, or about £70-80k, and the top 10%, $104k, which his £50k or a bit more.

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Martin Amis keeps rumbling on

To recap the situation, Martin Amis is finally being called to account for his comments of August last year (the day of the liquid air explosives drama] that have feature here many times:

What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suff­­er­­­ing? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan… Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part.

There have been three views that most people have taken from this. The first is that by 'there is an urge' Amis means that he has it, and more he assumes it is widely shared 'dont' you', that such a programme needs to be carried out not just on the Muslim community but also on anyone who looks like they are from the Middle East or Pakistan. An urge, but only that. The less charitable interpretation, which I have leaned to, that he is using the formulation 'there's a definite urge' as way of saying what he doesn't wish to say directly, 'I think it should be done'. A third more charitable interpretation is merely that he is, much like Mary Beard, only passing on what he has heard.

A fourth interpretation is given in the comments here. I am not sure I understand it fully, but to the extent I think I do, it is that because of Amis's history of anti-discrimination, any knowledgeable reader would interpret his remarks as being of the form:

Such actions (terrorism) are giving rise to a wish to take collective action against Muslims. But this would be terrible because it would lead to not letting them travel, strip-searching...

In other words a prophecy, not in the 30th January 1939 mould as the harsher critics allege, but to non-Muslims about the risks of giving in to such urges. This interpretation (if I have understood it correctly) is not that obvious. The interviewer didn't read it like that 'This last response is likely to be extremely hardline, inflamingly so, if Amis’s message [ie the quote above - MJT] to me is anything to go by'. One of Amis's best friends, Christopher Hitchens, didn't either, seeing it as a potentially necessary 'extraordinary response' that Mark Steyn would recognise.

Amis himself has replied, once in a letter to an Independent columnist and friend, and second in a letter to The Guardian. The former is here and the paragraph that matters:

The anti-Muslim measures he says I "advocated" I merely adumbrated, not "in an essay" ("he wrote", "wrote Amis" – each of these is an untruth), but in a long interview with the press. It was a thought experiment, or a mood experiment, and the remarks were preceded by the following: "There's a definite urge – don't you have it? – to say... [etc, etc]." I felt that urge, for a day or two...There were two additional depressants [to the August plane drama]. At least one of the alleged would-be mass murderers had taken the trouble to convert to Islam, suggesting that the exterminatory virus was about to mutate, like bird flu. And I'm sure you remember, Yasmin, that passengers on this route were suddenly forbidden to take books on the eight-hour flight – a resonant symbolic victory for the forces of ignorance, humourlessness, literalism, boredom and misery. Anyway, the mood, the retaliatory "urge" soon evaporated, and I went back to feeling that we must, of course, build all the bridges we can between ourselves and the Muslim majority, which we know to be moderate.

To the Guardian he wrote:

I was not "advocating" anything. I was conversationally describing an urge - an urge that soon wore off. And I hereby declare that "harassing the Muslim community in Britain" would be neither moral nor efficacious.

So Amis is giving the second explanation, that he said those remarks, and meant them 'a retaliatory urge', but it was only a passing fad. That probably is the correct interpretation - he clearly says in the letter that he does not wish his urge to be put into practice.

Does this get him off the hook? Well probably not. Do most people ever have such an urge? To strip-search completely innocent people merely to punish people that look like them? Even on the day you learnt about the plot to blow up aeroplanes.

It's also worth noting that Amis's concern in the interview was the vast majority of Muslims, not just Islamists. In the same interview he said:

It’s a very chilling thought because the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

This has extra resonance currently because of this remarkable interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Reason magazine in which she makes it clear that she believes we are at war with Islam, and that it must be destroyed through various discriminatory measures. It doesn't even seem to be merely an urge in her case. As I have said elsewhere I think as she has had (credible) death threats one can understand she is not going to be very balanced in her view, which is why we must hope she is not representative of a trend.

Update: There is also the Kingsley bit. I think there is a lot of conflicting evidence on the homophobia/racism/sexism (well perhaps not the last), testament to a man who said and did a lot of things. Obviously his views changed on certain subjects throughout his life too. But I think the defence led by his ex-wife and brother-in-law that he was not anti-semitic (although EJH perhaps meant only he was not an anti-semitic-boor), 'Calling him anti-Semitic should be actionable were it not so absurd' is a bit silly. Here's Martin saying he was anti-semitic in private to a certain extent, and in the Daily Telegraph.

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30 reasons to hate the French

I have no idea what this is about - it's not funny or relevant to a game of rugby.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Inheritance tax again

The Daily Mail is hilarious today. It says at one point that the government's proposal does nothing for the 500,000 couples who already split their assets so as to both benefit from their nil rate of inheritance tax. Er...yes, that's because they aren't paying the tax.

What does the Mail want - perhaps George Osborne should counter with a proposal that the government will 'top up' inheritances, perhaps matching them £1 for £1. On the score I presume the Tory policy will quietly be dropped, as it now just seems like a £1bn bonus for the very rich.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

A good article in the Daily Mail

I've been a bit critical of newspapers' reporting of research groups' reports recently - either because they accept clearly skewed estimates or they fail to note their obvious agenda. This report about Capital Economics in today's Daily Mail, who have forecast a house price decline and possible collapse, is actually quite good. I was reading it somewhat sceptically, when suddenly this paragraph turned up against my expectations:

Capital Economics and Mr Bootle have a history of forecasting property market slowdowns and busts that have failed to materialise. However, the organisation believes economic conditions mean the predictions are more likely to be accurate this time.

Now you might add, 'And so does the Daily Mail', and indeed, 'And so do you, Matt'. But it was refreshing to see some ability to remember the past, something that seems totally lacking in the D.Telegraph's financial and personal finance pages.

Obviously I too think it will be different this time, but if Capital Economics, me and the Daily Mail are all bears it might be time to buy.

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Monday, October 08, 2007

100% wrong

"Disposable income at lowest level in ten years", screams the Telegraph, still presumably on election alert. Actually a more accurate headline would be "Disposable income at highest level in ten years". But the whole survey is screwy - if the household income looks rather on the high side it's because they have simply divided GDP by the number of households.



The decision not to have an election is of course the right one. The political system might be increasingly presidential, but it is not, and for individual MPs it would be difficult to explain why they felt the need to get another mandate from the electorate given they don't.

On the other hand the system where the PM gets to call an election is ridiculous. The Lib Dems have suggested fixed terms, which I would agree, and admid the flying pigs, Gordon Brown should announce now that the next election will be held in May 2009 (I think June is getting too much into summer). He should also announce that it will be held under PR, but maybe I'm getting slightly ahead of myself.


Anne Widdecombe is to step down

There's not really much you can say. I can't remember anything she ever stood for, and only a few things she was against. She'll be most famous for her comment about Michael Howard, which seems less agreeable every passing year.


Inheritance Tax again

Why does it arouse such anger? The principle seems sound - tax mostly unearned inheritances rather than productive work. It is one of the easiest to pay, as it is levied as a % of money you are about to receive - not say like council tax. But in any case, most people don't pay it (about 5% of estates paid it in the latest available year, 2004/2005), and most people will never pay it if present trends persist (the rate goes up, house prices are likely to stagnate).

Many explanations can be easily dismissed. That it could be because they think (wrongly) they are going to pay it, or because they expect to pay it, much like people put their income in much higher bracket than it really is. Yet today's Mail on Sunday has a poll which puts paid to this line of thinking:

Only 20% say they would expect to inherit enough to qualify for inheritance tax at its present threshold of £300,000. And only 33% expect to leave enough money to make their children liable to pay death duty.

Given people must know the threshold will increase in 10-50 years before they die, this last figure must actually massively over estimate those who even think they will pay it. And yet the article says 71% welcome the Tories' proposal. It is also suggested that this issue is more salient in Britain than in many countries.

Another often heard suggestion is that people resent double taxation, i.e. the money has paid income tax when it was earned, and then again when it is disposed of. That this only applies to the dead person, and also that much of the concern is said to be highly inflated house prices, which of course weren't taxed, are factors to consider here. But more importantly, people don't seem to get so upset about double taxation that affects them every day, most noticeably VAT on expenditure funded by income that has been taxed. I think I even saw a poll that said people would prefer a cut in inheritance tax that won't benefit them even if it means a rise in VAT which will hurt them.

Is it the rate then - at 40% -- seen as simply too high? I find this a little hard to believe too given people seem to think its fine that higher-rate taxpayers pay that marginal rate on productive work, or at least if not 'fine' then there is not a huge campaign to get it reduced.

It must then, I think, be something to do with the nature of inheritance itself, an d as such although it won't affect most people much, and they realise that [1], they simply don't believe inheritance per se should be taxed. The most obvious explanation here is that it is a rare example of inter-family transactions on which tax is paid. The same would be true if your father employed you, which doesn't seem to be such an issue, but that is pretty rare. Nevertheless again I'm a little sceptical to this as an explanation as Britain hardly has the most close of family ties. The Daily Mail not only wants no inheritance tax but it also wants the state to pay for nursing care for people's parents, so 'they don't need to eat into their savings'.

I think for the inheritors it might have something to do with a British love of a "freebie", the idea that if you can get away with doing no work you should do no work. For many people their parent's house has risen in value far more than any savings they could ever hope to accumulate. This idea is boosted by the fact that many of the people who get most exercised about inheritance tax always strike you as the ones who aren't going to make the money any other way [2]. Maybe those who aren't going to benefit still enjoy the thought of others' doing so. Yet I don't really know if this is a particularly British characteristic, and if it is one that is strong enough to outweigh the other factors, or what those who have money to leave get out of it.

Unfortunately the case is probably lost. Will Hutton has a go here, and his arguments are sound, but even he somehow seems to have decided it is a tax the poor pay (his figures seem all screwy).

[1] Although I have doubts people realise the tax is 0% rated below £300k or thereabouts and tax is paid only on the balance - as two people I know who have financial-related jobs didn't know this.
[2] This would fit in with Tim Worstall's argument, that inheritance is good for social mobility because the children always fritter it away.


Sunday, October 07, 2007

A rather concerning moment

A rather concerning moment
Originally uploaded by mjtphotos
It's not quite a horse's head, or fish, but I arrived home from a weekend away to find a huge stack of Saturday's newspapers on my drive. One bundle of the Guardian and Independent, and two of the Express. What can it mean?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Terry Eagleton is, of course, largely correct

In his comments about Martin Amis. Amis's comments were disgraceful - his 'urge' to see people who looked as if they were from the Middle East 'strip searched' and banned from travelling - as I noted here, here and here.


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

George doesn't like Gordon as much as he likes Nicolas and Angela, although she's a Girl

Yes, it's international politics as the junior school playground. Of course this is the problem with going out of your way to cultivate the "Special Relationship" - it only lasts as long as you keep on cultivating it. It doesn't have very deep roots, despite all of the history. Even then it can disappear (see John Major) if the personalities change.

Brown's approach seems sensible. There's been nothing that can be seen as hostile - with any other country the relationship he has had with the United States would be described as 'close'. That is the right policy - good relations with the United States should be maintained. It is the most powerful country in the world by far, and its actions will have a huge impact on Britain now, and (given the imbalance in economic and military power will only get worse in the next 50 years and beyond) for the rest of our lifetimes. Furthermore the interests of the United States and UK are often the same.

Yet they are only often the same, and often they are not. Blair seemed to think that if the UK interest and the US interest didn't suggest the same policy, the best thing to was change what was seen as being in the UK's interest, rather than the policy. The (limited) evidence so far is that Brown isn't that short-sightedness.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Tony Benn = Henry Scoop Jackson

Oliver Kamm loyally makes a brave defence of the left-wingness of Nick Cohen, saying of Tony Benn:

Note that this thoughtful and original sentiment comes from a politician who urged in the 1960s and 1970s a fundamental shift in the balance of wealth away from working people and their families, in the form of a huge taxpayer subsidy to rich people travelling by Concorde

This solves a puzzle. For obviously there is another politician of that era who will forever be linked with wasting taxpayers' money on a supersonic aircraft, repeatedly voting for funding for it, and against attempts to stop that funding, and minimising very real environmental concerns about it.

Of course I realise that the comparison of 'Scoop' with Tony Benn is quite unfair. Concorde flew successfully for 30 years, whereas 'Scoop's version didn't get off the ground. But it explains what Oliver meant when last week, he said of the late Senator:

His ... interventionist views on economic policy – he believed Nixon’s wage and price controls were too weak – would put him around the position of Tony Benn in today’s political debates.

He must have meant Scoop was too right wing.


Inheritance Tax proposal

The inheritance tax threshold is to rise to £1m. The proposal will cost around £4bn, which is going to be funded by an annual levy on the right to declare yourself 'non-domiciled' for tax purposes.

The proposal is very skewed towards the rich. In 2004/2005, 5.4%, or 32,000, estates paid inheritance tax, which raised £3bn. Of this 2,700 estates of over £1m paid £1.3bn. The beneficiaries of these super-estates will under Osborne's proposal receive an extra £280,000 or so. 6,722 estates over £0.5m paid just under £1bn, an average of £142,000 each, which they would now not have to pay.

I can't agree with in terms of good governance. All taxes have opportunity costs. The opportunity costs of this seems particularly extragavant. It would (on 2004/2005 figures) lower the tax of people inheriting between £0.5m and £1 by £142,000 on average, and of those above £1m by £280,000 on average. The money foregone here, from less than 10,000 estates, could have been used to cut income tax by 1-2p in the pound for millions of hard working families.

The more thoughtful advocates of such a proposal note that with rising house prices more and estates would be subject to inheritance tax. Yet this means that income tax could have been lower and lower. I'd rather tax bequests (often simply due to house price inflation) than productive work.

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Stamp Duty

The Conservatives propose to eradicate stamp duty for "first-time buyers" on house purchases of "less than £250,000".

I'm not sure if there are more details. For instance would someone who bought a house for £300,000 only pay stamp duty on £50,000, ie the balance, or on the whole lot? I think the reason a lot of people didn't like stamp duty was that it was levied at higher bands on all of the house value, rather than just the balance over each banding level. And will there be issues with "first-time buyers"?

Also, as many people say about the minimum wage, will there be regional variations? In the North-East very few buyers will pay stamp duty, but in London most will.

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Jeffrey Archer

Hardly the most novel of blog posts coming up, but (I can't remember why) on Amazon I saw this review of Jeffrey Archer's "cat o' nine tails":

'Stylish, witty and constantly entertaining ...Jeffrey Archer has a natural aptitude for short stories.' - "The Times".

It's repeated everywhere, so clearly came from the publishers. A Times website search, however, doesn't bring it up. There are two main references to the Archer book, one mainly about the cartoonist who illustrated it, and contains a passing complimentary reference to Archer as a person and a few negative ones, and this review:

by Jeffrey Archer
Pan Macmillan, £16.99

Will nothing stop this man? According to Archer, some of these stories are based on yarns heard from fellow cons in prison. Whatever. They are all vastly boring and apparently written by a team of trained chimps. Who reads this stuff? His books are bestsellers, yet strangely invisible. I’m starting to suspect that Lord A buys them all himself. This has the redeeming feature of illustrations by the great Ronald Searle, but even these do not justify the price. Sadists take note — a special “gift edition” is available. Ooh, the pain.

The price suggests the hardback, i.e. orginal, edition, and doesn't contain the words 'stylish' or 'constantly entertaining'.

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