This article was written by Anthony Lipmann. All views and opinions are strictly his own.
'Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked’
There are surely few in business who have not heard of Warren Buffet's maxim. But is there a chance that its author might be found wanting now in, shall we say, the Speedo department? The owner of the world's largest super alloy maker PCC (Precision Castparts Corp) is now in the position of a having a car without an engine. PCC's dependence on an industry that was already in pre-virus trouble with the Boeing 737 Max ramp down, is making its prospects look shaky. It is now threatened by the end of flying as we know it. Meantime, airline owners have not been shy about bleating to the government for support, despite the endemic use of off-shore structures that have allowed them to mitigate the payment of taxes for decades. Guilty of privatising profit and trying to socialise loss, those taxes might just have made our health systems more robust.
Testing the temperature
But it's not all doom and gloom in minor metals. Strange movements and dislocations produce odd outcomes. Only weeks after the last dribble of Fanya Exchange minor metals stock disposals were concluded in January, two of the most moribund elements in the periodic table have shown signs of life. Germanium's use in infrared detection devices that can tell a person's body temperature as they walk through airport gates are suddenly in hot demand and our stay at home working practices might even ignite further fibre optic demand for which germanium tetrachloride is required. Meantime, leading germanium producer, Vital Chemicals Ltd, says it is ramping up production from their onshore mine of germanium-containing residues to meet the demand. While germanium in metal form is about $1200 per kg, meantime, indium too has shown inexplicable signs of life following the largest sale in history of 3600 mt of the stuff at $113.40 per kg (Fanya stock liquidation) in January. It is now trading at $150-$160 per kg based on likely lower zinc output from which it is a by-product, and the world's dependence on China for this raw material, produced via a toxic process no longer permitted in the hand sanitised Occident.
Toilet roll and black markets
We think metal people know a thing or two about markets, but it takes a run on toilet roll (no pun intended) to bring out the true Harry Limes these days. But surely even Harry Lime would not have sunk as low as toilet roll and sanitiser? In my local Boots in Street, Somerset, the emigré South African pharmacist told me that as news broke that the virus was going to be serious, some local traders cleared the shelves of all of Aldi's 49p sanitisers with the intention of selling them for £24.99 a bottle. Attempting to make an amoral profit from others' misfortune, I can somehow understand - but can someone tell me why toilet roll is the first thing people buy in a crisis? And what does it tell us in the UK about a population that is so concerned with its ablutions and yet never routinely installs the bidet?
It's at times like this that we remember examples from history - and Keats comes to mind. He was a Doctor, trained at Guy's Hospital in London, when his brother Tom contracted TB. He knew better than any what the consequences for him would be and yet he chose to live with his brother so that he could nurse him. And Tom's friends nursed him too, who were later to nurse Keats himself. There was a greater belief in God in the early 1800s and a closeness to death, which in the modern West is largely gone. Today, we appear to act as if death is not going to happen, and that illness is not a threat because we are better armed than the disease. But coronavirus doesn't appear to want to play the game on those terms. It demands more of us - to question our very attitude to life. And it will question our altruism too. Are we going to isolate from our loved ones or will we nurse them when the time comes? Keats also believed poetry to be a form of medicine and it is interesting to note that a community has sprung up on Twitter in the last few days with people reading poems to camera to comfort each other.
A place called Nostalgia
Nostalgia, for me, is a place as real as, say, Walton-on-Thames; but so are Utopia, Ruritania and Erewhon. In Nostalgia, my long-playing records are within arm's reach on the shelf, my Garrard record deck at the ready for me to stack a couple of albums, while I read the sleeve notes. A good 45" has a 'double A' such as the Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane on Parlophone. Also on my shelf are my spine-worn Penguin Classic Edition Thomas Hardy novels, into which I sink without trace within his faultless prose, and wander with Tess, Jude, Susan Henchard and others. In my Nostalgic pubs the landlords pull warm pints of Fuller's London Pride which dray horses brought in barrels from the Hammersmith Brewery that morning, while later the same day we watch the boat race from The Dove pub by The Thames. Nostalgia is a great great land for which I have a multi entry passport. Occupation: Nostalgist.
But now I write as an exile from Nostalgia and have become a citizen of Reality. Here my fellow realists are mercantile and utilitarian. Occupation: Greed. In Reality, the weather is strangely grey most of the time, often rainy and even hailing. While in Nostalgia, it was often sunny with scudding clouds. In Reality homes are polite fortresses with key pad entrances so the Amazon man has to lob over the hand-picked consumable onto the driveway ('Sorry, we missed you'). Reality folk are not treated as citizens but consumers, a mere pixel of data to a government that thinks of itself more as a company with a CEO rather than a country with a leader.
In Reality, a virus broke out. It was strange. Some of us wanted to return to Nostalgia but the borders were closed.
The hero of Eyam
We have chosen to consider our sanitised life as the norm but perhaps the virus will provide an opportunity to reconsider our humanity. The parallels of the past are compelling, none more so than the well known story of the Rector of the small Derbyshire mining town of Eyam whose actions are still remembered by almost everyone in those parts. For the Great Plagues between the 13th and 17th centuries touched England deeply and a traveller to Eyam today will see the marks above the door of skull and crossbones which are a reminder of a village where 267 out of 344 people died. That not more across the region perished was down to the decisive sacrificial actions of one man - William Mompesson. I learned the tale as a 17 year old when I was looking after younger pupils on a trip to our school's tithe barn in nearby Tideswell and the story has stayed with me all my life. What had happened was that a London merchant had dispatched cloth samples to a household in Eyam for finishing with the same ease with which we move goods today to UK from China. The flea infested cloth carried the plague. But as people died, the Rector persuaded the town to isolate itself. They circled it with stones out of which no citizen might depart, and by which no outsider could enter. Food and necessaries were left on the stones. Those whose loved ones died had to carve their names in their tombstones. themselves. There was no vaccine, there was no cure. There was only altruism and self sacrifice. 150 million are said to have died of the plague between the 13th and 17th centuries, and 100,000 people in London, a quarter of the population in the 1665-1666 year of the plague. The Fire of London in Sept 1666, that destroyed much of the Roman remains of London, is cited by historians as one reason for the ending of the plague. In and around Eyam, there were many lead mines which we would today call artisanal and the inhabitants of the town were not poor - and yet so many of them made the ultimate sacrifice.