Darling’s economics need adaptability

…if you want to understand the recession, and where Alistair Darling is going wrong, then you need to have a grasp of the essentials of damsonomics.

Alistair Darling, things are even worse – our damsons are in distress.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, said the poet Keats. Yeah, well. He was right about one thing. We had plenty of mist yesterday morning. Then we had rain, then drizzle, then a bit of a downpour.

In fact the whole of August has been an exhibition match by the English weather, an opportunity to show off all the interesting ways of making water vapour condense and precipitate upon the heads of the suffering people.

I have no doubt Keats was spot on in thinking there will be more mist ahead. It’s the mellow fruitfulness that’s missing, frankly, and if the poet Keats had been with me in the garden, and if he had stared up – through the mist – at the damson tree, he would have seen a catastrophe of biblical proportions.

It was only last year that this tree had fruited so prodigiously that the boughs sagged with vast grape-like bunches of damsons. We picked thousands, literally thousands, off a single bush.

We filled bag after bag, and then we boiled them up in dozens of pans with about a hundredweight of sugar, and we marvelled at the properties of the damson, this plum of Damascus, given to this island by the Romans.

We watched the weird alchemy by which the yellow flesh turns bright red in the vat, and then we poured the arterial gloop into so many pots that we not only sorted out everybody’s Christmas present but I was thinking of going commercial.

It may sound odd, but I have actually been looking forward to autumn and the return of the damsons, and mentally rubbing my hands every time I pass the trees. The general level of anticipation has been so high that in June some friends gave me about 30 jam pots for my birthday.

That is why it has been so heartbreaking to look up, this year, at the damson trees and their branches – naked, desolate, mystifyingly barren. In the places where they clustered, fat and round with their denim-blue bloom, there is nothing this season but twigs and yellowing leaves.

Here and there, in solitary silhouette, you can see the pitiful survivors of the damson massacre of 2008, shrivelled like the sad dugs of some sub-Saharan famine, or white-spotted with premature mould. There is no doubt about it: this year the jam jars will remain as tragically empty and unused as the bath that Andromache ran for Hector.

I turn my peasant face to the watery sky and I want to know why. Why, oh Lord, has the damson crop failed so spectacularly this year? Why now, on top of the rain and the credit crunch and everything else?

And then an answer comes through the fog. It is a sign. It is a portent. It is a lesson from nature. In this season of gloom and economic woefulness, I believe we can learn and profit from the tragedy of my damson trees, and I say this particularly to the Comment Editor, who had the nerve to complain last time I wrote at length, on this page, about making jam.

Look here, he said, it’s all very well, this Tolstoyan jam stuff. But where’s it going? Where’s the relevance to British politics? Where is the cutting-edge economic analysis that the readers expect?

Well, I can tell him that if you want to understand the recession, and where Alistair Darling is going wrong, then you need to have a grasp of the essentials of damsonomics.

Lesson number one is that nobody knows quite what caused the problem – and, in case you think I am making heavy weather of this, my damsons are not alone in experiencing a disastrous downturn.

According to Christine Walling of the Westmorland Damson Association, the harvest is likely to be the worst since that body was founded in 1996. Prices are up 300 per cent.

Jam manufacturers are being forced to use frozen stock. In the damson heartlands of England – Herefordshire, Kent, Somerset – local papers are running stories headlined “Damson in Distress” and, as with the general economic conjuncture, the experts are divided as to the primary cause.

Some put the blame on the shortage of bees, essential for pollination. Some say it was a late frost; some say it was the torrential rain. But which was the real killer? We don’t know, any more than we understand the exact chain of events that has led to our current economic plight.

Was it really American sub-prime mortgages? Was it the Chinese lust for oil and grain, and the surge in commodity prices? Was it too much easy credit?

Damsonomics teaches us that we cannot predict when disaster will strike, because the field of causation is too vast, and we cannot predict when the crisis will end. Alistair Darling may be right to say that this downturn is the worst for 60 years; and there again, he may be wrong.

It is quite possible that next year the damson trees will burgeon and put forth their plenty, just as it may be that confidence will next year (or the year after) return to the economy as swiftly and inexplicably as it went.

And this year’s damson tragedy teaches us an important lesson about the limits upon our powers to intervene.

I could try pruning the trees, snipping here and there in the vague hope of getting rid of the unproductive twigs, just as the Government could always try new regulations for the diseased parts of the banking and mortgage sector, and in our blundering we could both of us end up making the position worse, creating the next crisis by trying to solve the last one; and then there is the final, vital lesson of damsonomics, and that is the importance of flexibility.

Britain – and especially London – should be well-placed to survive the recession, because we are, or should be, an increasingly high-skilled workforce, capable of adapting to all manner of shake-outs and disappointments.

Even in our forties and fifties we need to be psychologically prepared to use our talents wherever they are most fruitful. And that is why I find myself eyeing up those blackberry bushes, which seem to be coming on nicely, and look at those apples: they could be apple sauce, or maybe even cider.

Yes, folks, that’s the final lesson of damsonomics: adaptability. You may find yourself picking blackberries and not damsons, but it’s still a plum job.

[First published under the heading ” Alistair Darling, things are even worse – our damsons are in distress” in  the Daily Telegraph 02 September 2008

60 thoughts on “Darling’s economics need adaptability”

  1. This is such a beautiful article. OK then, we can stop panicking and have some faith in our own resourcefulness. “Damsons in distress!” CUTE.

  2. I think the other observation about damsonomics which should apply to actual economics is that Boris’s family and friends probably still have some of that jam from last year’s bounty safely tucked away in cupboards.

    Only a foolish jam-maker would assume that there will always be fruit and allow the cupboard to become entirely bare…

  3. “Even in our forties and fifties we need to be psychologically prepared to use our talents wherever they are most fruitful”

    Damsonomics work when the ability to recognise opportunity and transfer skills exists. For that one needs a lifelong education system that encourages the ability to think, synthesize ideas, explore and innovate. Without that, one risks seeing the skills base of the economy turn into this season’s other harvest disaster where young courgettes have turned overnight into plentiful marrows. In talking of employability skills, the Labour government is focusing on the current, not the future; the young, not the entire adult population; the unskilled not those wanting upskilling or reskilling.

    PS Thin-skinned Lebanese-type ‘Courgettes’ work great in dahl. Other recipe ideas welcome!

  4. Spot on as usual, old fruit. NuLab’s constant meddling, coupled with its chronic inability to predict the consequences of its actions, will be the death of us.

    My damsons are duds this year too, and the grapes in our conservatory have developed a strange mould for the first time. I think they’ve given up at the thought of 20 more months of Gordon Brown.

    “…and in our blundering we could both of us end up making the position worse, creating the next crisis by trying to solve the last one”. Brilliant – the perfect epitaph for New Labour’s headstone.

  5. Isn’t a large part of the problem, Boris, that Faroh O’Gord lacks a Joseph? If O’Gord had had such a mentor friend, Joseph would have sorted out the horrific nightmares that keep O’Gord awake night after night, leaving him unable to function by day. Joseph would have told O’Gord that the only way to deal with night terrors is to show some bottle, face them down and take appropriate action

    O’Gord, however, never learned having learned to trust himself, could never trust a sage like Joseph.

    Joseph’s interpretation of the pharoh’s dream should be telling O’Gord that periodic poor harvests are natural. Nature produces variable conditions, early frosts, wet summers, dry summers pestilence, plagues and droughts and the crop stores need to be kept full of reserve supplies to see us through such crises.

    Nature,much like SME’s, requires fallow periods to recover when a series of bumper harvests of crops, such as damsons, coincide with heavy rain to tax the soil of nutrients. We humans fail to adapt to this variablity of nature at our peril.

  6. They seem to think the solution is to swap all the unsaleable rotten fruit the grocers have found themselves landed with this year for nice fresh grade A specimens they’ve borrowed from somewhere.

    Quite what they’re going to do with 45 billion pieces of rotten fruit is anyones guess.

    I’m sure I heard one of them try to tell us that the fruit wasn’t actually as rotten as the grocers all think it looks and should become edible again if we put it in the fridge for long enough.

    I was wondering whether or not to believe them. Then I read Darlings curious Guardian interview where admitted he didn’t actually click on to the fact the fruit had all gone rotten in the first place last summer, even though all the grocers were talking about it.

    I don’t think I trust them to look after our fruit to be honest.

  7. Stephen_L said:

    Then I read Darlings curious Guardian interview where admitted he didn’t actually click on to the fact the fruit had all gone rotten in the first place last summer, even though all the grocers were talking about it.

    Darling doesn’t understand fruit at all, Stephen, because he comes from a family of drapers and women’s outfitters, you know, those old fashioned shops that smell of mothballs, still stock liberty bodices and Nora Batty support stockings with inbuilt wrinkled ankles.

    Fruit is, well, a bit too fruity for the wee Darlings.

  8. I think the Labour Party thinks of re-establishing a free milk suply to primary children, I overheard a conversation between two Labour Politicians (I do not say their names) and it was about “If we re-established the milk to primaries, then we’d be more electable…” (Obviously I had to keep walking otherwise they’d have noticed me spying)

  9. Funny joke Melissa. I love Boris’s articles when he describes nature, they are very poetic and he is our British version of Colette.

  10. Ah, the joys of leaving everything to the market. Absolving ourselves of all responsibility because none of us – not even the great and good – knows what’s going on.

    Trouble is, I think we DO know what’s caused our current economic problems. Runaway greed, encouraged by mountains of easy debt, which in turn was encouraged by runaway greed in the banking industry.

    It’s not complicated, and it could have been stopped.

    Boris’s solution, prettily written as it is, simply won’t wash. Unless, that is, we also stop sending people to jail for murder and theft, on the grounds that we have limited power to intervene.

  11. What an interesting article. This sensible comparism between the state of the UK economy and the Damson tree is apt and Damseconomic lessons are needed indeed to understand the future of this economic down turn, however the only missing factor for this lesson to be learnt is time; we are unable to predict the future in respect of the weather and in respect of commodity prices including the price of oil and other essentials

  12. “It’s not complicated, and it could have been stopped.” (Mark Gamon)

    How could it then? I’m getting a little bit fed up of all these pundits that clamour for more regulation but for one, failed to call the crisis themselves, secondly, most of them participated in it and thirdly always fail to specify exactly what regulation should be used to prevent future such bubbles.

    I disagree with you that greed was the sole cause of the crisis too. I think the problem is the financial illiteracy of the masses (and Mr Darling by the looks of things) and the national obsession for investing all their money in property.

    Consumers by and large want to own their own property, the financial services industry was simply providing them with what they wanted. Now the bubble has burst the popularity of the government is tied to the fate of the housing market.

    It’s funny if you ask me. It’s far easier, more liquid and cheaper for average Joe to speculate on shares, currencies or commodities than it is to speculate on house prices. It’s just that they are obessive, narrowminded, financially illiterate and childish if you ask me.

    I think the housing market should be left to its own devices, perhaps people will learn something. If people want to live in the free market, and want to be free to own, and speculate on, property (which most of them do) then they’ll have to put up with boom and bust, it’s as simple as that.

  13. There’s no mystery about the cause of the economic crisis. The lenders have loaned ridiculous multiples of incomes and made a house of cards economy out of booming house prices. The government totally failed to pressure the lenders or use fiscal levers to discourage multiple home ownership through buy to let mortgages and so we have built an economy based upon froth. Welsh and Cornish villages are full of unoccupied holiday homes that have excluded locals from home ownership and the government has totally failed to discourage this through fiscal levers. There’s no mystery, the only mystery is how long Gordon Brown kept his house of cards afloat.

  14. StevenL – funny that. I’ve been calling the crisis since the late 90s, when I saw the implications of debt for myself at first hand. The extraordinary thing about Alistair Darling’s Guardian interview is that he claims no-one could have spotted the crisis coming. Duh. He could have asked me. And millions of others, blessed with basic common sense.

    And in answer to your ‘how could it then?’ question, you’re dead right: regulation would have stopped it. Just like regulation (generally) stops murder and rape and driving on the wrong side of the road. All we had to do is recognise that the banks were acting immorally, and we’d have been half way there.

    You’re right about financial illiteracy, by the way. They should teach compound interest and APR rates in school. That would have helped too.

  15. When Damsons become decrepit,the fruit withers and the roots begin to rot.The only solution is to chop the trees down and replace them with a different variety.

  16. Wise words, Ol’ Tom, wise words. Let me know when you come up with a new socio-economic model for the human race. I’ll write the Manifesto for you…

  17. Is TOTAL POLITICS an Iain Dale production and has anyone read it, because he is a bit of a sweety pie?

  18. The biggest boost to our economy, our mental health and our general well being would be a change of government. the newspapers continually ask the same question…. WHAT CAN GORDON DO TO SPARK A REVIVAL? the answer is NOTHING. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Things have got so bad that the nerves of this country are stretched to screaming point and we all want to yell in one concerted shout, GO! FOR GOODNESS SAKES GO!!

  19. “It is not the nature of politicians to surrender their own political lives: they are like wasps in jam jars. They buzz on long after hope has gone. They go on because it is their nature to do so, because all political careers must end in tears and it is profoundly in the public interest that they should do so, in the sense that politicians will work hardest and best if they know that their only exit is to be terminated in the Darwinian struggle for popular affection and interest.”

    HAVE I GOT VIEWS FOR YOU, written by Boris Johnson, Harper Collins.

  20. Also worth a read, Boris’s biography, by Andrew Gimson, get the one with the chapter on the London Mayor’s election. Extremely funny read.

  21. Blow the economy, I would just like a lot more poetic descriptions of nature by Boris to read.

  22. Brilliant, whoever thinks that a Mayor of London cannot enthuse about our countryside is totally wrong. More please Boris.

    And it is all too true, there is a serious shortage of damsons and because of the atrocious weather so many unharvested crops, especially wheat. It is still pouring as I write this.

  23. I refer to the creative intellectual garden of course – not the 2″x4″ that we’re all used to in London!

  24. I have to share this with everybody and I hope it is the right place. My MP is Glenda Jackson and there are a lot of Left Wing (I was going to put nutcases, but that isn’t nice) die hard enthusiasts who live near me.

    when Boris Johnson first became Mayor, they were scathing in their opinions on how they thought he would handle the job. THEY ARE NOT SAYING THAT NOW.

    I know they are telling me the truth, because the guy who sells the Standard at the bottom of my hill also talks to them, and they do not temper their views to him. He said THEY ARE NOT LAUGHING NOW AT BORIS JOHNSON. They are taken aback at how he has handled himself, they realise he is working his socks off and they are reluctantly impressed at the sincerity of his attitude in tackling knife crime, his enthusiasm for the Olympics and his determination to do a good job. They admit he is sincere.

    We knew that all along, but it is good to hear others have noticed our Mayor’s dedication and that left wing supporters have changed their opinion and no longer laugh at him.

  25. “Wise words, Ol’ Tom, wise words. Let me know when you come up with a new socio-economic model for the human race. I’ll write the Manifesto for you…”

    It’s a pity you got the wrong end of the stick,though.Twit!

  26. In the bad old days, when Boris meant Yeltsin, or even Becker, who would have thought that a tousle headed, laid back, joking funster, would become the most popular, powerful politician in the country?

  27. Article in today’s Express says Boris may surpass Cameron, sweep him aside and march into Downing Street. Who’s laughing now?

  28. But David Cameron is too classy a guy and too secure in himself to resent Boris’s huge popularity. There will be no unseemly squabble, like Blair and Brown, that shamed them and us too. They will work together for the good of the country, I know it from the bottom of my heart.

  29. Hi Boris,

    Your stuff is always very enjoyable to read.

    I think your damsons tree was overproduced so it must take a break.

    I don’t know much about economy and I never understand it because the experts make it look very complicated. However I always do what my grandparents told me: “never take a job you can’t perform, never get yourself in debts, never buy things you can’t afford, never live in a life style above your station. Simple life is good because it’s relaxing and less is more so you don’t have to fight with the clustering when it’s time to clean your place.”

  30. Dawn – bring it on! 🙂

    Boris for PM.

    But I guess Gove has got his eye on Cameron’s shoes and would scratch BoJo’s eyes out of he was urged to run for leader.

  31. Jaq well said. I love Boris Johnson and would be the happiest person in the world if he became PM. But I also admire and revere David Cameron. He is a brave and forward looking politician, he was the man with the courage to turn the party around and seize the leadership and he got there first. In fairness, what to do?

  32. I am in Hong Kong and was impressed by the relaxing body movement of Mr. Boris Johnson when i was watching the closing ceremony of Olympics on TV, and therefore i become a regular reader of his official website. I think the situation in UK is quite different from HK. Our government also promotes continuous learning, but there is not much job for the people to take after they have attended the continuous learning courses. For Hong Kong people, knowing how to invest in stocks seems to be much more important than developing any working skills.


    Was it too much easy credit?

    Too easy credit for home buyers maybe to blame. Since the mainstream advocacy for young couples to buy homes is discouraging any kind of investment in business opportunities – young couples go conservative too early in their lives which is translated into high dependency on stable salaried jobs, at the cost of downgrading any other aspiration because OF DEBT. A low risk agenda, low ambition, low inventive spirit!

  34. Hi Boris.
    “Now then now then” as my old townie Jimmy Saville would say. All you and dear Mr Darling need to do is drop my mate Jimmy a line and bob’s your uncle he will “fix it for you”. No more soggie plums; expensive fuel, or high inflation. Lots more low intrest rates; cheap food and booze. He will probably chuck in a free shell suit and a dam fine cigar to boot. Want jam on it. Jam now,jam tomorrow. Jam everyday (Raspberry please,with seeds in).


  35. Michael Gove has two chances to make Party Leader – zero and nil. Another egg head with and over inflated idea of his own importance, popping eyes and the charisma of a flea we don’t need. We have David Milliband already.

  36. Harriet Harperson said the electorate was annoyed with the Labour Party. YOU DON’T SAY. So you are finally getting the point.

  37. ps. The most annoying thing about Gordon Brown at the moment is the way he wilfully interprets the rude remarks of the electorate for his own benefit.

    One can imagine his comments were he burned in effigy.

    “The country are showing support for my energy policy. This is an indication that they believe I am the only man who can guide us through the current difficulties. They also are sensibley saving gas by making bonfires”.

  38. It’s like the old comedy routine.

    Man 1: Get out!!!

    Man 2: I’m not getting out until you say it to my face, and I hear the words right from your mouth.

  39. Catherine, apparently one of the dancers on Strictly Come Dancing has danced with Boris, and she said although he was very funny, he would not progress very far in the competition, if he entered. (She seemed to think he was too butch.) I disagree. The sight of Boris on Strictly Come Dancing would be so hilarious, he would win without a shadow of a doubt.

  40. He would win, because he would be so funny, nobody could take their eyes off him or bear to vote him out.

    Did anybody scream with laughter like me when Matt Dawson was on Strictly? He is so macho, and they stuck him in a pink Lycra leotard and told him to wiggle his butt. I bet he went through hell in the showers, with his team mates laughing at him and everything.

  41. Damsonomics !! That’s probably less gloomy than our economy anyway 🙂
    What about planting more fruit trees in parcs and create fruit picker jobs.
    Fruitynomics ! We’re all jammed up. lol.

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