The Times, 5 January 2008


I’m not an envious person by nature, preferring as I do to wallow in self-satisfaction on what I have than to turn my brown eyes green with wanting what I don’t have, but sometimes, I find that I am jealous of people who grew up listening to Radio 4. I can’t remember ever hearing it before I was 25. Other than, occasionally, the shipping forecast, which can still make me grind my teeth with the effort it takes not to start shouting, ‘Everywhere is Moderate or Good! Everywhere! Just miss that bit out! Or find somewhere that’s Immoderate or Bad! Most of us aren’t even at sea – we live on land! For which piratic licence-fee payers is this even broadcast?’ before descending into my own particular pit of loathing and despair.

I especially resent the absence of the Today programme from my formative years – I think I instead spent my childhood breakfasts in the company of Roland Rat, which probably explains a lot. Not least my sporadic facial tic. And it is because of this inbuilt telly-over-radio bias that on Wednesday morning, I was watching BBC Breakfast, and swooning inappropriately over Bill Turnbull, instead of listening to Today, where I would have heard Stephen Schork, a former floor trader on the New York Mercantile Exchange suggest that the record rise in oil prices to $100 a barrel had been caused by a lone trader (like the Lone Ranger, but with a Porsche instead of a horse, and slightly fewer friends). The lone trader had bid up the price of oil by buying the minimum permitted number of barrels for $100 each, and then selling them instantly for $99.40 a pop, losing $600, and leaving grateful farmhands turning to one another in his wake, asking, ‘Who was that masked man? And what else can we sell him?’

Schork claimed that the trader ‘absolutely overpaid. He paid $600 for the right to tell his grandchildren that he was the first in the world to buy $100 oil.’ I really wish I’d heard that go out live, although I might have choked on my toast. It must be the most pitiful claim to fame I’ve ever heard, and bear in mind this was in the same week that Harold Shipman made the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and the line-up of Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack was announced. Exactly which grandchildren, in thirty or forty years’ time, will have nothing better to do than listen to surely the world’s dullest anecdote? ‘What did you do when you were young, grandpa? Did you walk on the moon? Did you transplant hearts into little children like me, and save their precious lives? No? You did what? You paid too much for some oil? Wow. I bet Jimmy’s granddad didn’t do anything as cool as that. He just flew aid missions to Africa. Boring. Have you got any other stories, grandpa, about how you paid too much for water, or maybe paper?

I’m sure I could have achieved more in my life than I have, but if the best thing I could brag about was paying too much for oil, I think I would probably take my own life. We can all pay too much for oil, you know – it isn’t a skill. My local supermarket is Waitrose – you should see what they charge there for fancypants bottles of olive oil. The ones with chillies inside retail for roughly the same price as if they were an elixir of eternal life, and I could go and buy one right now if I wanted, if I were a little richer, and a lot stupider.

I spend quite a lot of time hating people who work in financial trading, mainly because they can afford a house and I can’t, and also because they wear the most horrid clothes, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for one of them. Of course oil is more expensive now than it used to be – more of us are using it, and it’s a limited resource. It’s only going to get more expensive, not less. By the time this trader is boasting to his grandchild about having spent $100 on a barrel of oil, it will sound like our grandparents telling us that you used to be able to buy a week’s groceries for thruppence and still have change for the bus home. And with inflation, $100 will be slightly less than it costs to buy a bag of sweets in 2050 (on the black market, obviously, obesity laws having by then rendered treacle toffee the moral equivalent of heroin, and turned Thorntons into the den of iniquity that it always should have been). So good luck with the bragging rights – I hope they were worth $600. Or six bags of toffee, in the new money.