Archives mensuelles : août 2015

My personal SDG

The world is currently going through the process of ratifying the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are the new development targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which end in 2015. The SDGs are even more ambitious, with a set of goals and targets (more than a hundred I think) to be reached worldwide by 2030.

By coincidence, and slightly tongue-in-cheek, I’ve been projecting my own finances forward, and 2030 looks to be a time in which on current trends, I might be able to ‘retire’. My definition of ‘retirement’ is having a decent income regardless of work income, and so being able to prioritize my working efforts around motivations other than earning money.

If for the next 15 years I save around $XX each year (roughly equivalent at the moment to a quarter of my salary), and that grows at 15% per year over the next 15 years, then I should be able to live off my investments, and leave the 9-5. The idea would be to dedicate more time to things that seem personally important even if they don’t pay the bills – personal writing, church work, photo/video, spending time with family, studies, and travel.

It’s of course pretty fool-hardy to project forward over such a long-term period, so everything must be taken with an extreme pinch of salt. There are major upheavals up-ahead that none of us see coming (Black Swans), and also some fairly obvious other risk factors, including (in rough order of significance as they appear to me):
– Staying in good health
– Maintaining employment with my current employer (or a similar employer) over that period
– Seeing 15%+ investment returns on my shares (I’ve always had more than that in five years on the West African stock exchange, but nothing is certain)
– Being able to save that much each year (particularly with two girls in higher education, and one starting school in a few years). Expenditures have a nasty habit of expanding to gobble up income.
– The stability of the Euro or the CFA Franc (pegged to the Euro)
– Being able to afford the rest of my children’s education post-2030.

So, I’m sure the picture in 2030 will be far from as foreseen. Nevertheless, I think it’s useful to have a long-term version, even if it’s understood that this is only very approximative. I have other goals for 2020, and even for the next quarter which sets my eyes on different horizons.

There are other dangers, in doing this sort of thing:
– I definitely come from save-for-tomorrow rather than spend-today parents. Perhaps one should spend a bit more in the present rather than straining every sinew to leave as much money as possible to your descendants.
– You can end up ‘living’ for the future – putting off life until retirement. Many people do this, and then end up being disappointed when they get to the destination they’ve been dreaming about. I enjoy my life and job, so hopefully I can avoid this ‘tomorrow’ syndrome.

Nos ancestres

I tend to perk up when I listen to or read interviews with leading thinkers, writers and journalists, especially when they talk about their families. I admit that I sigh slightly when I hear the comment that their parents were professors, writers, teachers, diplomats, journalists etc. While it shouldn’t take away from their achievements, how many from the intellectually elite were in fact born into this life? Could Dietrich Bonhoeffer have been anything other than a successful leader, thinker, scientist, or doctor depending on his choice?

But perhaps this is just confirmation bias. I’m remarking when academics beget academics, and not noting the counter examples. I just finished a biography of Martin Luther, whose father was a coal miner. My youngest brother has been spending time researching our family origins. They can best be described as humble – the word ‘labourer’ crops up a lot, and in the 19th century it seems our ancestors moved from a poor part of Wales to Manchester for work. We’ve come up with little colour so far – it seems the poor leave less trace than those a little higher up the scale, as noticed by my brother’s girlfriend as she also researches her family tree. Where we do know details, the news is inevitably bad – alcoholic, orphan, mistreated, etc.

In some ways, our family history is similar to many who benefited from the dramatic social change of the 20th century. Labouring / mining / fishing jobs have all but disappeared. A government training scheme mid-career changed the prospects for my unemployed father, backed up by a move to the south of England for work with a bank. University education became far more accessible, and the three sons ended up in respectable white collar work (journalist, pilot, teacher).

We like to look at the elites and feel that they got lucky at birth, though we rarely apply the same question to ourselves. A friend on Facebook recently joked that in job interviews, in America they ask ‘what can you do?’, in France they ask ‘what diplomas do you have?’ and in Cote d’Ivoire they ask ‘who do you know?’ (lit. who sent you? (Qui t’a envoyé?)). How would it feel to work hard and show talent but be in a society in which only those with connections could succeed? A society in which it might be hard pressed to dream at all?


Coincidence can be a remarkable thing, with the most significant cases making the hair on your neck stand on end, and some having the appearance of divine intervention. However these things can often be quite commonplace.

Three examples from this Sunday. In the morning in my quiet time Bible reading before church I read two chapters from Jeremiah recounting the persecution of the unfortunate prophet including when he was thrown down a well in Jerusalem because the king didn’t like what he was saying. Two hours later the same passage – not one which I recall ever being read out before – was read in church.

In the afternoon, a colleague’s washing machine breaks so he comes over to wash his clothes. As he’s on his way, I start a new chapter of the book I’m reading (‘The Art of Travel’) in which the author journeys to Israel. My colleague is Israeli.

Later on, the same chapter, discussing the concept of ‘The Sublime’, quotes from a traveller describing his journey in the Alps to the Grand Chartreuse monastery, which I visited last month with the family and which was just a few miles from where we stayed.

Today, Tuesday, I woke up early and read a subsequent chapter in the book which concentrated on Van Gough. This afternoon on the way back from work I start a new podcast episode from the London Review of Books, which is almost entirely concerned with…Van Gough.

The book then discussed a French author De Maistre who lived in Chambery. Ten minutes later I was having a shower and realised I was using a scented soap that had been bought the previous month in…Chambery.

I don’t put much store by these things, except to take pleasure in having ideas and information coming in from a variety of sources which then often resonant in conversation with each other and bring out unexpected fresh thoughts.

Gleis 7

Evenings in Switzerland have a unique feel for me: it’s something that I’ve struggled to identify clearly, but while on holiday there last month I was convinced I needed to write a post about it. As a happy coincidence, in the last few days I started reading Alain De Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’ which helped shed further light on the experience. Much of this is about trains.

The feeling is one of slight melancholy combined with dreamy possibilities, and also security. To set the scene, firstly there are the long evenings, which after a decade principally spent in West Africa are really enjoyable. In Summer (which is the main time I go to Europe), there’s the light the stretches well passed 10pm. Believe me, when this is no longer part of your normal life, it’s wonderful to experience.

Such dusks aren’t uniquely Swiss, but in Switzerland it’s just an element in a wider setting. Firstly everything seems so orderly – litter and pot-hole free, wealthy, and well-organised with golf-course-like greens stretching out to the distance. The combination of livestock farming and thin electric fences that vanish at distance mean the countryside can look like one undulating lawn.

Secondly, almost no-one is around after-hours so you get that feeling of being solitary in an empty but developed landscape: people quickly head indoors for the punctual evening meal. I was already thinking Edward Hopper when I thought through this experience, but De Botton brought a lot more detail. In chapter two, he writes about Hopper and Baudelaire, the latter of whom T. S. Eliot said had invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia through his appreciation of places of modern travel: waiting rooms, train stations and seaports. Hopper highlighted the dreamy and transitory quality of travel, particularly at night. The spirit of escaping our normal lives at home, of seeing into people’s lives, and the superiority of the outsider in our culture form a kind of modern poetry.

In July we enjoyed evening walks with baby Daniella around the small Swiss village where we were staying. She loves being in transit. Our walks often went alongside – or crossed over – the small regional railway track which ran past our home. I realised the illuminated empty carriages travelling through the evening landscape were a key part of the experience I was feeling, a sort of nostalgia. De Botton talks about how when you’re on a train, you’re out of your normal environment and you can feel much freer to think and dream. Often you see people’s lives from the window allowing the imagination to think of a different life for yourself.

When I was thinking through these things, I remembered my longest summer in Switzerland in 1999 when I stayed with my friend Thomas for several weeks. It was almost the only time I’ve been in Switzerland away from the family setting. At the time, there was a scheme on the Swiss railways called ‘Gleis 7’ (platform 7). If I recall correctly, you had to be a student under 26 (though I think the following year they changed the rules and you had to be a Swiss student). Paying a sum (I think around $100) gave you a card which allowed you to travel free on almost the entire national transport network after 7pm. In that sort of situation, it’s like you own the train network – hopping on and off at will, and without the stress of tickets, or indeed the stress of getting them stamped track-side. You sink into the train seat as if you were in your own lounge.

I never got to go inter-railing (instead it was Greyhounding across the US), but it’s no longer just for students, so maybe it could still happen one day. I’m sure the experience will be slightly different from slumming it in stations and sleeping on overnight trains. But it holds the possibility of an adventure in a Europe that I’ve so little explored. And hopefully with some of the poetry of late-night train travel as well, through the well-organised landscape of Switzerland.

Looking for a house

I’ve started looking for a new house to move into in mid-October. Hopefully it will be second time lucky for property number two in Freetown, with a slightly higher chance of the family being reunited and enjoying some time together. With the Ebola crisis, they’ve reduced the posting time to two years, which means I could be halfway through. But I think they generally let people stay several more years, so I think four years would be a good shot.

Looking around properties in Freetown, the first remark is just how expensive things are. The limited land in Freetown and extremely poor roads off major routes make it difficult. The top end of the market is almost entirely run by the Lebanese community who generally know what expats want and need. Despite clear indications to a housing agent as to my budget, I was shown a couple of apartments that turned out to have an asking price of $50,000 (annual rent). It’s amazing that people can pay so much for property.

What more do you get at the top end of the market? Basically giant hall like bedrooms and lounges. In my view you reach a point where you really can’t add much more of value, especially if you’re not going for beauty/charm/gardens/pools, which surprisingly doesn’t seem to be in the mind’s of retail developers. Instead it’s simply ‘bigger rooms’.

In the end the property I think I’ll go for is a simple detached house in a secure compound with two bedrooms and two floors. It’ll be the first time I’ve lived in a house with internal stairs since 2007.

The height of the crisis

I remember the end of 2014 like a crazy dream. Hundreds of Ebola cases a week, the stress of constant 7-day work and pressure, and above all, the existential menace that this deadly disease could catch any one of us. I say a dream, because almost everyone I was close to at the time has left. Many had families and could no longer bear being apart. Others were only there on surge, destined to leave after a few months. The dream is no more.

But I’ll always remember that surreal time, including the very regular visits to the bathroom to wash hands; scrubbing hard just in case. Most of all I think of those evenings at M’s with colleagues in which we struggled to talk about anything else. We were all suffering from extreme fatigue – but the wine, the dancing and the attempts to discuss other matters (or at least life before Ebola) were like a caffeine boost to keep us going through the hardest times. It was winter in more ways than one, but somehow we survived, if only to go our separate ways.

Like any crisis, there’s an indelible mark left behind and you consider those times in all the richness of the experience. In many ways, these are the standout moments, the story of what was going on when your first child was born, the world events that you saw firsthand. Like war, they are terrible in their time, but memorable ever after, and something remarkable to have experienced. When we danced like 14 year olds and when we played card games, daring that most remarkable of feats in Ebola times – the human touch.


My body is aching all over. A mere five weeks without any sport and the return to the gym has left painful results. It’s discouraging how quickly degeneration comes. You could spend a lifetime waking up early to exercise and then if you stop for a few weeks (say you break a leg) you could fall back so far. It’s positively Sisyphean.

Within a few weeks of going to Oxford I felt like a new person. From the regular rhythms of office work and some French studies in the evenings, I was suddenly plunged into the intellectual freedoms of constant brain-stimulation. My brain felt like a new organ. The flip side of this, unfortunately, is the degeneration of intellectual capacity – and the alarming thing is that this isn’t as apparent. Instead it’s probably an unnoticeable decline, which is almost certainly difficult to put your finger on.

If the symptoms are hard to spot, it might be best to look at whether the causes are in place. For me, yes, I’m reading and listening to podcasts; yes I’m in touch with the news; and yes, I read a fair bit online. But still, I think there are things far more important than this which give the brain the stimulation it needs to grow. For me, I need to be engaging with things in a more physical way – lectures rather than podcasts. Secondly, there’s the social aspect – I’m not really involved in discussions with my peers. In fact my social life has ground to a near halt with the departure of friends. Even if – as an introvert – I can live without society for extended periods, there’s definitely an imperative to get some social discussion to make sure intellectual degeneracy doesn’t set in.

Notes from a small country

A few weeks in Switzerland made me realise there really is a qualitative difference between big countries and small countries. If you wanted a place where services, infrastructure and quality of life (by a certain definition) were high, Switzerland would come top in many rankings.

But perhaps I betray my childhood in the UK (admittedly a place Bryson wrote about in ‘Notes from a small island’). In Switzerland, I get the feeling that – with the possible exception of tennis – you feel on the edges of influence and world impact. The place seems to put dampers on significance – it’s a place to be contented and comfortable, but not to give you ambitions of impact.

The French Alps feel a touch more rundown and squalid (we’re talking relatively here). There’s a little less order, and so a more relaxed sense that you’re not going to break the rules. You do feel that there’s a younger more ambitious population, a grander scale, and more noticeable impacts of globalisation and immigration. I hope to visit and explore the beauty of Switzerland all my life, but outside a few years in Geneva at some point, I doubt I’ll ever live there.

Notes on return from paternity leave

The road to and from the office in Freetown is not generally an enjoyable ride. At night as you lurch up the narrow twisty lane, unlit by street maps, it seems to go on incessantly. You go home in first or second gear, mainly because of the pot holes. There’s no pavement for those walking and the motorbike taxis (Okadas) overtake on all sides. In my old car, I’m also nervous of stalling and being unable to restart. There is almost always some sort of accident on each journey. Today I observed a beautiful new Ford 4×4 driven by some Chinese go through a roundabout in front of me. Three minutes later, I saw a huge truck crawling uphill that scrapped down the side of the said car and took off the rear body panel. This morning – after the President announced bars and clubs could reopen – I saw some horrendous car crash remains on my early cycle around town.

It’s a far cry from the last five weeks – driving a new modern car on modern roads. What a different driving experience: everything so ordered and smooth. Last night a friend was telling me about running over a person’s toes while driving through the crowded market. The poor man was in serious pain, but you pity the driver as well. You do well to avoid the mob mentality in these sorts of situations. It makes me nervous driving.

« In these holidays I got to taste experiences I hadn’t had for nearly a decade: filing my own car with petrol, packing my groceries at the supermarket and cleaning my house. »

I was thinking of writing a social media post that way but thought it a bit risqué. But it is actually the truth. From Brazzaville to Dubai and everywhere in between someone has packed my bags at the supermarket, cleaned my house and clothes, and filled my car with fuel (when I had one). It honestly felt weird at the supermarket – no sooner have you unloaded the trolley than you realise that your stuff is just accumulating at the other side of the conveyor belt and the cashier isn’t able to process any more items. For a moment you think ‘hang on, doesn’t someone normally do something with my stuff?’ and then you realise ‘oh yeah, that’s my job’. You have to rush past the till and then try and find something to put your stuff in. I won’t complain about paying ny card though. There is a modern convenience I miss in West Africa.

The holidays were above all about spending time as a family with my now 8-month-old girl. It sounds like a truism but it was magical.

This week, back in the gym in Freetown, they were showing pictures on the television of Bournemouth getting promoted to the Premier League. There was a shot of one of the players celebrating with his young daughter on his shoulders and although I’ve seen such things before, I was really struck by the power of the moment. I thought, ‘Wow. Imagine having your child on your shoulders in the middle of a cheering stadium. What an incredible experience. That would outweigh any silverware for me.’ I guess fatherhood changes you.

It’s quite remarkable having a little baby sleeping beside you (in between you and Mum). You hear plenty of parents say that the worst mistake they ever made was letting the baby sleep in the same bed as them because it’s so difficult to correct. Maybe I’ll be saying that too before too long. But I’ve never heard people state the other side of the coin – you have this amazing little angel sleeping beside you – I often just watched doe-eyed. It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. And in the morning when they wake up, they give you a few kicks and when you open your eyes, they are incredibly happy.