Down in the dumps

Something struck us rather shortly after our arrival here. And that’s the effect of the global recession. While in South Africa, the impact was noticeable, it was rather distant. It happened to other people – exporters, textile manufacturers, and a few thousand mine workers. Ok, a few hundred thousand mine workers. But it was something you read about in the paper, rather than being able to notice it first hand. By and large, the middle class muddled through rather nicely. Between the reduced interest rates (having prime interest come down from 15.5% to 9% is a really good thing), the weaker dollar (and other major currencies too) leading to low inflation, life was somewhat more comfortable.

However, over here, the impact is noticeable in a lot of everyday lives.  People have been retrenched, jobs have been lost, and quite a few of our acquaintances are working two part-time jobs. And that’s not all – you may have heard of the after-Christmas sales in Europe. It’s a way for retailers to get rid of the little bit of stock that they didn’t flog over Christmas. This year, the sales have been ongoing continuously since we arrived. When our bed didn’t quite make it up the stairs, we looked around at furniture stores for a bed. At that point, there was one place offering 50% off a wide range of options, provided we bought before that Saturday. We decided to look around a bit more, and eventually returned about 4 weeks later, to discover that an additional 10% was discounted off the same beds, up to £100.

And that’s not the only example. The most extreme is Toys R Us – they’re offering a special loyalty-type discount – if you spend at least £100 over the course of October / November, you get up to a £20 voucher to spend in December. When a toy retailer offers a 20% incentive to attract customers in the run up to Christmas, you know things are going really badly.

(Ironically, as I write this, I’ve half an eye on a tongue-in-cheek show on TV on self-sufficiency. There’s a couple growing all sorts of vegetables in their back yard, making pea-pod wine, raising pigs, goats, and chickens, and making a mess of their allotment. Not sure whether this is an attempt by the BBC to get some sort of message across, or just purely providing a bit of comedy. I sincerely hope the latter – for one, it’s doing a much better job of being funny than being serious. “You can’t win a vegetable competition with a spring onion!”)

But I digress.

The UK economy, however, isn’t that much different from the outputs of this couple’s garden. There’s some good news (plenty of eggs) and some bad news (the smallest carrots you’ve ever seen). Just when you think it might end up going somewhere and picking up a bit, some bad news comes along. Like 500,000 jobs being cut in the (admittedly bloated) civil service. But the reverse is also true – the bad news is interspersed with just enough silver lining to keep the rain at bay. Rather like a drunk leaving a pub at closing time – not smashed enough to fall into the gutter, but not sober enough to walk straight either.

Part of me wishes that the place would pick up so I don’t feel so guilty about coming over here and picking up a job (although the demand for actuaries outstrips the local supply, so not sure why I feel that way). The other part wishes that the economy would strengthen so that the Pound would revert to its strapping historical self in order that what we earn over here will actually be worth something back home. It’s currently R11 to the pound – I wouldn’t be unhappy if it reverted back up to R15 or so, where it belongs.

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