Saturday, June 25, 2011

Good times, bad times, you know we’ll have our share. And why some idiots are still banging on about ‘ever closer integration’. All together now: Shut up!

My mother was born in Germany in 1920, two years after the end of World War I, and like the rest of use, she was probably not aware of anything more than her immediate surroundings until she was about ten. So I doubt whether she was aware of the hyperinflation and the unemployment which and more or less destroyed the Weimar Republic. But as she got older and matured, she might have realised that things were not necessarily as easy
as they might be because her father, a classics teacher, lost his job during that time and was never employed again. He did give private Greek and Latin lessons and that, I should imagine, was how he managed to feed his family. At one point, although I don’t know when, he lost a money in a venture with a Catholic priest who was going to set up a school, with my grandfather at the helm.

Nothing came of it (my mother says the priest broke his word). Finally, so my mother told me, he decided to join the Nazi party, assuming that membership might boost his prospects of getting a job. It didn’t so and, my mother claimed, he left the party again. Now I think that was unlikely, although not impossible. Despite their raucous reputation, the Nazis were more or less a legitimate party in the early years, and it would not have made sense to leave the party before about 1936, especially if you were still hoping  that membership would boost your chances of landing a job. I should imagine that by the time my mother was in her early teens at the time the Nazis gained power, she would by then have been a little more aware of politics and would have picked up on what was gong on. By the time she was 19, Germany was at war, and by the time she was 23 the war was not going quite as well as it might. Like
millions of others she later had very little to eat for several years.

I mention all this, because I suspect the experiences people of her age had meant they will have grown up realising that nothing in life is guaranteed and that things can go terribly wrong. We ‘baby-boomers’, on the other hand, have had a comparatively easy ride, and anyone in Western Europe under the age of 35 will more or less only have known times of plenty where he or she could have what they wanted simply by flashing a credit card. That their prosperity was, in a sense, a castle built on sand is neither here nor there. Certainly, there are exceptions — the lives of those living in parts of Bosnia in the Nineties, for example, could be rather dramatic — but those of use living in one of the 12 EU member states were, personal circumstances notwithstanding, unaccustomed to anything which might be regarded as hardship. So inured have many of us come to be to real hardship that these days having your luggage mislaid by an airline when you fly off on holiday or being burgled on the eve of your daughter’s wedding is ‘a complete tragedy’. And as, whatever the French might claim, we are empirical by nature, we tend to imagine the future will, more or less, repeat the past and remain rather pleasant

Why do I write all this? Well, now that we have ‘survived’ the first banking crisis (and I for one remained completely unaffected by it), we seem to think: ‘Well, if that’s the worst that can happen and if that’s all this Greek euro business might cause, bring it on. I think we’ll manage.’ The problem is that quite possibly and, to paraphrase Al Jolson, you ain’t seen nothing yet — perhaps.

Whatever happens, whether the Greeks get another bundle of EU moolah, whether they unilaterally declare they won’t pay their debts or whether they do something similar but in (as the papers say) an orderly fashion, the country will have to accept ‘austerity measure’ the like of which they haven’t known for decades. Unfortunately, it is those at the bottom to the middle of the pile who will carry the can. The well-off, who became well-off by the simply measure of not paying their taxes, have been squirreling their dough away in Cyprus, Switzerland and other such havens and will ride out the storm. Greece, which was ruled by ‘the colonels’ as little as 40 years ago, might well be in for an extended period of social unrest.

Far worse, of course, would be, if the banks were sucked into the mess. The first banking crisis of a few years ago (will that inevitably become the First Banking Crisis?) was caused because banks stopped dealing with each other as they had no idea how sound other banks were. Did they hold a load of worthless Greek debt or were they sound? Well, whether or not they did was neither here nor there: what was pertinent was that there was no way of knowing so it was best to assume they do, play safe and shut up shop.

A lack of credit will affect trade and as these days the world trades with each other, it might well bring a great deal of trade to a halt. On top of that China, whose recent manic expansion was based on selling to us in the West, will suffer if we can no longer buy their goods. And China is experiencing quite a bit of social unrest of its own. Then there’s the Middle East: a healthy economy will help stabilise the new regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and, one hope’s, Libya. A troubled economy will only make it easier for the troublemakers.

So perhaps we should get as pessimistic as possible about the coming decade. That would be wisest, because if it doesn’t turn out quite as bad, that will be a bonus.
(Incidentally, the two illustrations are by the Berlin artist Heinrich Zille who was working at the end of the 19th. Thus including them here in an entry which touches upon the Weimar Republic and hyperinflation is utterly spurious. I have done so because I like Zille’s work and in an odd way does remind me of Germany in the Twenties.)

. . .

A staple of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph letters pages are the furious ‘leave the EU now!’ and ‘Johnny Foreigner is bleeding Britain DRY! letters, invariably with a liberal sprinkling of capitals and which, were it technologically possible, would be printed in green type. I share their very low opinion of much of the EU and developments over the past few years revealed the cynical duplicity at the heart of the organisation: it’s all very well bemoaning the present state of the Greek economy, but Brussels knew full well that when Greece claimed it was finally able to fulfil the criteria for joining the euro (after having been rejected a year or two earlier), the figures were wholly fabricated. But it chose to turn a blind eye to those figures in the interests of ‘ever-closer union’.

But I take the pragmatic view that we should not leave the EU at all. Whatever happens over the coming years, the EU will be a major political factor affecting Britain’s future whether we are in or out, and it would be far wiser to be at the centre of the EU where we will at least have some influence over the direction it takes than on the outside where we would be wholly at the mercy of the mad fantasies of benighted supporters of the project. (Speaking of mad fantasists, a former Belgian prime minister was on the radio last night seriously suggesting that the only solution to the Greek crisis was to bring forward EU political union in order to establish fiscal uniformity. Give that man a glass of cool water and tell him to go and lie down for an hour or two. Oh, and remind him that Belgium has not had a government for over a year now and perhaps he would like to solve that problem first.)

The fact is that bringing down and even removing trade barriers was never a bad thing, and I would have thought that the crisis the EU finds itself in (because this is not just a ‘euro crisis’, it is a crisis of the whole concept of a European state) is to roll back some of the whackier aspects of the EU and take it back to an ‘economic community’ as suggested by a one of the organisations former titles the European Economic Community (EEC).

The fact is that the present crisis is an opportunity: trim the EU of all the flab and fat, the spurious trappings of a ‘state’, the doubling up of parliaments merely to keep the French happy, the well-intenioned but often quite bonkers welter of new regulations. Decentralise it and above all jettison all the pretensions to a ‘political union’. For all I know political union might come about over the next 40/50/60, but it will only happen if there is a real demand from the citizens of the member states for such a union. At the moment it is all top down, with governments imposing the idea on their people, but cloaking that high-handed behaviour in spurious democracy:

The people vote in a government, the government signs up to a new EU treaty, ergo the people are happy to accept that treaty. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. This is sophistry on an industrial scale, and a measure of how implicitly dishonest the argument is was the case of Ireland, whose constitution insisted that a referendum should he held to ratify any such treaty. The first time out, the Irish said no. Soulution? Hold another referendum and keep holding referenda until they say yes. Thankfully for Brussels, it was at the second attempt, but were a similar referendum to be held in Ireland now — on continued membership of the euro, say — I have no doubt that the Irish would give Brussels a two-fingered salute and send them packing.

We already have an the necessary mechanisms for an economic union and it would make great sense to salvage what we have. But the way things are going at the moment seems likely that the baby will be thrown out with the bathwater and the EU will slowly decline into insignificance with a rump of the most recent new members holding the torch, while the established member states once again pay more attention to their country’s interests than ‘the project’. That would be understandable, but, in my view, rather stupid. Above all, what is needed is honesty, both public and in private.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Save me from committee men, those who live by the rules, Roundheads and anti-semites. And a cheery hello to all my readers

You don’t have to be into the Universal Brotherhood of Man to believe that at heart, we’re all pretty much the same. OK, cultures vary widely, and I don’t mean that we Brits think it’s quite bloody that those nasty French butcher their horses for a good steak. There are far wider differences than that, and if only the French wouldn’t insist on ruining perfectly good food by indulging in all kinds of unnecessary flimm-flammery in the kitchen, I do believe that we could get on rather well with our gallant Gallic cousins. But given those cultural differences, there are universal types you'll find in every corner of the world: the cheapskate will be recognised in any culture, as will the kind man, the frivolous woman, the dull bachelor, the long-suffering wife, the spoilt child, the overly sharp businessman, the foolish virgin, the humourless autodidact and any number of other ‘types’.
So, I am absolutely certain, everyone reading this blog will, at some time or another, have come across the man — and it is invariably a man — who knows the rules, plays by the rules, insists that the rules must never be broken, can bore all and sundry for several hours explaining the rules, will outline at length the antecedents of the rules and, when in his cups and thus a little more relaxed, might be persuaded to hint at how this or that rule might — just might — be improved. Such a man  — and it is invariably a man — can be found on any committee anywhere in the world. Such a man  — and it is invariably a man — is almost always found to have as much imagination as a beach pebble and as much charm as a wet Wednesday afternoon when the heating has packed in.
I have come across two such men recently when I visited the Wikipedia site of my old school, The Oratory School, and noticed that one of the more interesting sections, in which school terminology and slang were detailed, had been deleted. I wondered why and asked the first why he had done so. Ah, he told me, that section did not meet Wikipedia’s requirements for ‘sourcing’ and ‘verifiablity’. Well, that dear reader, is strictly true: the section consisted of explaining former and current school practice and several bits of slang which, as far as I know, are unique to the Oratory. And being strictly true, I am well and truly snookered from the off. I vainly protested that including such a section added an extra dimension to the Wiki entry in that it, perhaps, helped readers gain a better understanding of the character and ethos of the school, but they were having none of it. Here is a piece of Wiki officialese which might give you a flavour of the kind of thing I’m up against:
Please do not add or change content without verifying it by citing reliable sources, as you did to The Oratory School. Before making any potentially controversial edits, it is recommended that you discuss them first on the article's talk page. Please review the guidelines at Wikipedia:Citing sources and take this opportunity to add references to the article. Thank you. - SudoGhost™ 17:50, 20 June 2011 (UTC)
Then two other committee men waded in, with one telling me that ‘personal recollection’ was no justification for including the section. The other took me to task for commenting on the contributor rather than the contribution. (Did I call him a boring, unimaginative wanker? No, I didn’t, but I should have done, although it would have got me ‘banned’ from editing Wikipedia far sooner than is now likely.)
The really sad thing is, my dear, dear reader, that I have already thrown in the towel. My younger self would have battled on, re-instating the deleted section by the hour to prove a point, firing of sarcastic invective to those three idiots in the hope that they might be shamed into seeing the light and abandoning their dull, dull, dull insistence on ‘the rules, dear boy, the rules’. But I have learnt that the only consequence of banging your head against a brick wall is an increasingly bloody forehead and a thoroughly bad headache. And those I can do without. The sad fact is that a good — or even a mediocre — committee man can run rings around almost everyone else.

. . .

The above has reminded me of another distinction which might well be purely British but which, I suspect, is also quite universal. In our own Civil War here in Britain, the opposing sides were divided into Cavaliers and Roundheads. The cavaliers were, in the subsequent popular imagination, the supporters of King Charles I and were taking a last stand against the final abolition of ‘Merrie Olde England’. They drank to much, lived life with gusto, had women falling at their feet, were invariably
good looking and rode fine horses. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were dour, intense, officious, pug ugly (Oliver Cromwell had a particularly fine wart on his nose and how can you trust a man with a wart on his nose?), banned Christmas and dancing and were generally bad eggs. Well, like all such popular distinctions, it is largely so much cobblers. The Civil War was between two sides of the property-owning establishment, each wanting the upper hand. I suspect that neither side was too fussed on retaining a system of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings, and which side you chose to support depended largely on where you thought ultimately your best interests lay. You can see from my two illustrations that the Cavaliers (above) were fun-living, gallant, charming and witty swordsmen, where as the Roundheads (below) were dour, dull, cheapskate, sincere idiots. Surely no contest. There were more than enough of the ‘upper class’ on the
Parliamentary side, and King Charles camp had a great many supporters from the ‘lower classes’. But the distinction between cavaliers and roundheads is nevertheless useful. I think my friends and colleagues would universally agree that I am a ‘cavalier’ in outlook and action. The three wankers I describe above who have made my latest Wikipedia esperience a misery are most certainly from the roundhead side. I realise that what I have just written sounds horribly self-regarding, but  — well, fuck it. Do I care? The distinction has, furthermore, perpetuated itself to this day. Britain is, unfortunately, riven. There are cheerful souls about how claim in all seriousness that Britian is now becoming ‘more classless’. Don’t believe a word of it. We might no longer divide the nation into Cavaliers and Roundheads and talk, as there once was, of ‘them and us’ also sounds a tad archaic these days. But however you want to describe it, the distinction still exists.
I know very little about history, but I am convinced the distinction was created when William of Normandy invaded Britain and defeated the Saxons. But not only did he defeat them, he treated them as Untermenschen, at one point several years after his invasion, utterly devastating the North of England when they rose up against him. The old Saxon nobles were destroyed. The language of the court was Norman and remained Norman for almost three centuries and although there was, as there always is, a gradually intermingling of the two cultures, that happened because those who wanted to get on wisely realised that to do so, they had to kowtow (lovely word, that) and do quite a bit of judicious arse-licking. But what remained, and what, I suggest, remains to this day, is a hidden but definite hatred of ‘the other side’. There had and has always been a fair bit of social mobility — in both directions, however, one thing which, oddly, no one cares to acknowledge —  but the sides themselves quite often hate each other. It is very, very odd, but as I am a guy who, quite apart from not being anti-semitic but rather likes Jews, I am, perhaps, not particularly qualified to explain what is going on. All I can say is: whatever it is, it’s bollocks.

. . .

Incidentally, this is the kind of thing we cavaliers are up against. It’s from a Google newsgroup for Mac news (which, admittedly, I consult myself when I need advice):

Just a thank you to Tim and Jim for getting me on the right lines.
I have now written a small app which can take information from Text Boxes, 
consolidate them into a JAddressData instance, write records to a SQLite 
database (using the raw API), select a record by Record Number and display 
it on the screen :-)
It's very early days but at least I feel I will be able to makes some 
Many thanks :-)

If the guy — for they are invariably guys — isn’t a roundhead, I shall eat my hat.

. . .

As I have previously admitted, I keep a keen eye on my ‘stats’ and who reads this blog, where they live and what particular entries they read. As to where they live, at the last reckoning it was the United States, good Old Blighty, Netherlands, Brazil, India, South Korea, Pakistan, Sweden, Canada and Germany. But I must admit that it has crossed my mind more than once: what on earth do they make of this opinionated idiot who knows far less than he likes to make out, has continually to revisit the blog entries to correct spelling mistakes, literals and the occasional complete gobbledegook, and who apparently takes nothing at all seriously? Well, my advice is: don’t take him at all seriously and remember that he loves to talk and given that often there is no one to talk to — some might say ‘talk at’ — he is obliged to settle for second best and write. It’s as simply as that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

As the shit gets ever closer to the fan in Greece . . .

When I was still a young lad, I, like many other young girls and boys, imagined that ‘grown-ups’ were more intelligent and knew what they were doing. I am no longer young and growing older by the hour and learned long ago that the only real difference intellectually and morally between children and adults is that adults are older. In all other respects - in the tendency to dissumulate, to tell lies, to feign ignorance, to regard themselves as the centre of the world - they are more or less identical. Of course, we adults like to think we have matured emotionally, but when push comes to shove, it is the exception who doesn't resort to outright childish behaviour and there is no other difference. It is something I have taught my own two children, who are now 12 and 15, from a young age: don’t (I urge them) imagine ‘grown-ups’ always know what they are talking about. Grown-ups (I have told them) lie just as much as children and it is worse than when children lie, because adults should know better.
This is all a rather roundabout way of approaching the coming calamity that is the default of Greece, it’s exit from the euro, and – possibly – even real trouble in the streets. But what I write above is pertinent because too many of us, despite our habitual cynicism, assume governments and bankers know what they are doing and that governments, in theory beholden to a fickle electorate, always act in what they feel is their country’s best interest. But, of course, they don’t.
Everyone – every EU functionary in Brussels, every minister and civil servant in the treasuries of EU member states, every economist and every financial journalist – knows that the only solution to Greece economic problems is for it to leave the euro and rebuild its economy on a revitalised drachma. But you have more chance of finding a virgin in a brothel than an EU functionary willing to admit it. For once they do admit it, they also admit that the whole euro project and, almost by implication, the EU project as envisaged by its starry-eyed adherents, is just so much cobblers. That is not to write off the EU as once was, just the EU as now is and as many in Brussels would like it to be. They insist – ironically quite rightly – that only greater political integration will make the euro work, but are in denial that in the current situation of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and soon Italy (and, if my Bordeaux-based aunt is to be believed, soon France) going bust, bust, bust, achieving ‘greater EU political integration’ is about as likely as a woman regaining her virginity.
What it all partly boils down to is that they are saving face. And that is why taxpayers in the Northern EU states are being asked to cough up £110 billion pounds to stop Greece and – they fear – the other states at risk going down the pan.
The other aspect to this is, of course, that a great many French and German banks are owed a great deal of money by Greece and are desperate to get their money back. So the ‘bailout’ to Greece is nothing but a mechanism to pay them back as much of the money they are owed before the shit hits the fan. And that money, of course, will come from the taxpayer. Already the Finns are thoroughly disillusioned and have voted in great numbers for their country’s only Eurosceptic party. Elections are also due over the next 12 months in Germany, France and Austria, and you can bet your shirt that those seeking election or re-election will not do so by insisting the voters should pay ‘those feckless Greeks’ even more of their money. Interesting times.

. . .

The really irritating thing is that is happening – Greece is unable to devalue or, at least, manipulate it interest rates – was predicted quite precisely by those nasty, cynical old eurosceptics. It is madness they said, but times were great, credit was easy, everyone felt prosperous and they jeered at the doomsayers as tired old farts. Whose jeering now?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why we might forego a silly season this year as the world heats up, but don’t East Anglian dwile flonkers and the Duke of Portland’ shyness can step up (courtesy of Ben le Vay).

Traditionally, for newspapers August is the ‘silly season’ when news becomes so thin on the ground that they - or the skeleton staff who hold the fort - are reduced to reporting incidents of ducks taking to skateboarding (‘skateboarding ducks’) and that kind of nonsense. Admittedly, such reports might appear indistinguishable to the naked eye to what appears in the rest of the year, but as a rule, when you get into detail, they are far sillier. For example, any duck found skateboarding in any month which is not August will be found, on further investigation, to be nothing but a common or garden duck. A duck caught skateboarding in August (and newspapers are adept at catching that kind of thing on camera) will, on further investigation, be found to be fluent in French and one of Princess Margaret’s former lovers.

This August, I suspect, will not be a silly season. It might today seem like a long way off, but August 1, as of today, is just 44 days away. And there is enough bubbling under to make August not just not silly, but downright interesting. For example, in Argentina the country’s president Cristina Kirchner is stirring the pot marvellously over the ‘disputed Falklands’. Why? Well, there’s an election coming up and Kirchner wants to be re-elected. More to the point, my sources in the Ministry of Defence (Ships and Rum) complain that the recent defences cuts mean that should the Argentineans decided to invade the Falklands again, not only could Britain not get a fleet together to defend the islands, it would be hard pushed even to send a strongly worded telegram. An Argentinean writer memorably described the Falklands war in the early Eighties as ‘two bald men fighting over a comb’, but sadly that neck of the woods is now a little more important what with various oil companies drilling for oil they suspect might lie just offshore.

Then there are the bloody Greeks who, creative as ever, are coming up with ever more exciting and innovative ways of going bust in the certain knowledge that no one will let them until their own plans are in place to avoid as much of the flak as possible. Germany (quite rightly in my view) wants the money markets to share the pain, but the rest of Europe is fighting shy of that rather as one fights shy of standing up to a bully. This morning, it seems, the appeasers have finally persuaded Germany to stand down and accept that Greece should get another dollop of moolah just to keep the show on the road. At this point I might be inclined to advise everyone to bite on the bullet, face the music and stop dithering, but unfortunately the fall out from doing that would be so horrendous for Joe, Jose, Johan, Jacoma and Giorgio public that it isn’t worth contemplating. There’s the old joke about the traveller in Ireland who asked for directions and was told: ‘Well, I wouldn’t start from here.’ But that is exactly what we have to do. We are here and there’s nothing we can do about it. But given all the euro crap that’s been flying around, you do wonder why Croatia, or rather, the Croatian government is still so keen to join ‘the club’.
Or how about Syria. How long can that go on? Something's got give, either way. They say Turkey, which does a hell of a lot of trade with Syria, is both trying to persuade Assad to go a little easier (kill fewer people?) as well as keep on good terms with the Syrian regime. One commentator remarked that it is very possible that Bashir al-Assad is not quite the man in charge he is assumed to be, but being manipulated by the army and security forces, who have rather too much to lose if the regime collapses. The Assad Jnr we have now was not the Assad Jnr his dad had marked out as his successor. The old dictator had groomed his oldest son Basil to take over, but he was killed in a car crash in 1994, so there had to be a change of plan. The second son - and current president - Bashar was living in London studying ophthalmology (well, makes a difference to chicken farming which was Heinrich SS Himmler’s vocation) when his brother was killed and was recalled to base to become a trainee dictator.
Then there’s the question of whether the Syrian army really stay together. There have been reports on the radio that enlisted men and officers are defecting, but there are comparatively few of them. That one will run and run, too.

In view of all that, so much for a silly season this August.

. . .

Talking of silliness, I can’t resist the opportunity to plug a very amusing and comprehensive book by my friend and colleague Ben le Vay called Eccentric Britain. The title say is tall. If you have ever wondered whether dwile flonking (attempting to hit a member of the opposing team with a dishcloth soaked in beer) really does go on in rural pubs in East Anglia, if you would like to visit a museum of cornflake packets, if you want to read all about the fifth Duke of Portland who was so shy, no one but no one was allowed to look him in the face, if you want to visit a memorial to British pigeons who are regarded as heroes of World War II - if, to come to the point, you want to find out a lot more about true Brit eccentricity, get the book. It is published by Bradt Travel Guides and you can get hold of a copy here at Amazon.

This is Ben’s most comprehensive guide to eccentricity hereabouts, but he has previously written books on eccentric London, eccentric Cambridge and eccentric Edinburgh. It’s also available at (as they say) all good bookshops and, undoubtedly quite a few bad ones. Do get a copy. Not only will you keep yourself amused for hours but Ben would get a bit more money.

. . .

The major news this morning was that ‘the Americans are in talks with the Taliban’, presumably to end the war and get the hell out of Aghanistan. That would be no bad thing, of course, but who is asking for the talks and who is agreeing to them? That should give us a fair idea as to who thinks they are losing and who doesn’t think they are losing. That won’t be lost on the Taliban.

Incidentally, as far as I know the name ‘Taliban’ is perfectly useless, being used, as it is, to describe such a disparate group of people. The one thing they have in common is their desire to get U.S., British and other Nato troops the hell out of their country. But apart from that the different groups have nothing in common. They range from journeymen fighters who just want to earn a living and will fight anyone if the money is right, to would-be warlords who know a great route to power when they see one, to out-and-out radical Islamists to the kind of opportunist you’ll find the world over.

One new element in the equation might be, though, the hope and courage would-be Afghan reformists get from the so-called Arab Spring (as we are now obliged to call it - those damn sub-editors), who might not feel inclined to buckle under if and when the Taliban demand all women return home and stay there and reinstate all those vile, supposedly Islamist, punishments for a variety of offences.

. . .

Courtesy of Spotify, I’m listening to a few tracks from my salad days. While listening to She’s Gone by Hall & Oates my daughter - who is 15 at the beginning of August - asked me - who is 62 in November - what’s that? I told her it was pop. She was probably asking because as a rule if I play music in is usually baroque, jazz or Dave Fiuczynski. That’s not pop, she informed me. It is, I said. It’s not, she replied. I gave up.

One of the tracks on my playlist is Money’s Too Tight To mention - not by that ginger-haired twat Mick Hucknall, but by The Valentine Brothers, compared to whose version drinking shampoo is more preferable to Hucknall’s version. Anaemic, fake, soulless, plastic - that’s Hucknall and his bloody band.

Ah, now another of my favourites is on - Joy And Pain by Maze. There’s a great alternative version by Frankie Beverley and Kurtis Blow.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What's happened to saving the planet? And Smack and Chet, or, if you like, Chet and Smack (his funny valentine)

What with Libya, the atrocities in Syria, the Milibands pledging each other eternal loyalty (for which read ‘I’ll get that bastard brother of mine just as soon as I can’), Kate buying her dresses at Oxfam, drought being declared throughout the country despite the very heavy rain everywhere and widespread flooding, ‘climate change’ has had rather a poor Press these past few months. All together now: well, there’s a shame. But the debate is still going on, and canny businessmen throughout the land are still making a mint by building ‘wind farms’ everywhere, usually where no one wants them, on the back of government subsidies. It’s not really the government, of course, that is providing the money – we are.

I’m not going to go into the pros and cons of ‘climate change’ and whether it’s ‘man-made’, down to sunspots, just natural change or some mad scheme by the Teletubbies to take over the world. Life is simply too short for that. Either you believe that unless we do something now! we’re all off to Hell in a handcart, or you are thoroughly convinced it’s all stuff and nonsense dreamed up by damned lefties, I mean, look, it’s on record that the Vikings not only grew grapes on Greenland, but regularly used to sunbathe on the beach, and yes, I would love another G&T, but could you go a little easier on the tonic, please?

Me? I just note that we all love a disaster as long as it doesn’t involve us, and happens elsewhere.
There is a strong ‘apocalyptarian’ streak in all of us. A few years ago The Economist ran a feature detailing the various doomsday scenarios which had frightened the living daylights out of mankind for these past few hundred years, of which the Second Coming was always a favourite. The various Christian denominations learned very early on the best way to keep the faithful in line was to scare the living shit out of them.
In my lifetime the various coming disasters which were relied upon to put an end to humanity have ranged from ‘overpopulation’ (there won’t be enough food to got around / the Red Chinese – remember them? – will burst through their frontiers in search of Lebensraum), nuclear annihilation (which meant every earnest young man and woman and their beards and duffel coats were obliged to march to Aldermaston at least once a week calling for disarmament), acid rain (which was going to see off our forests for ever and always and leave Europe an arid wastleand), Aids (which was going to decimate humanity within months unless we all stopped shagging once and for all) and now global warming (there’s only 24 hours left to save the planet!)

That’s all changed now, of course. For one thing, no one refers to ‘Red China’ anymore, least of all the comrades in Peking / Beijing (it’s apparently racist to refer to Peking and Ceylon it’s got to be Beijing and Sri Lank, so that’s my goose cooked) because they are all – well, there’s no point in sugaring the pill – capitalists now. And anyway there’s even more of them (several hundreds of millions living on the poverty line by the way – so much for the ‘revolution’) but they still haven’t the stomach to invade Surrey in search of Lebensraum.

The fairweather bleeding hearts have also stood down on the Aids disaster (remember all those natty little red Aids badges they attached to their lapels. Can’t get one for love or money now). Granted it loome large in the late Eighties, but it has mainly peaked here in the ‘civilised’ West and we are, more or less safe (at least those of us who don’t own an extensive Judy Garland record collection). That Aids is still causing havoc in Africa and Asia (especially Russia) where in some countries infection rates are horrendous is, of course, neither here nor there, apparently. We in the West are OK now, so what is all the fuss about? Come on, get a grip.

As for ‘nuclear annihilation’, well gone are the good old days when only the Yanks, the Brits, the Frogs and the Ruskies had the Bomb. Now, it seems, everyone does, not least, India and Pakistan, who aren’t particularly inclined for a bit of peaceful negotiation when they fall out and from where I sit look more likely to pick a fight at the drop of a hat than not. But where are all the earnest folk in their duffel coats urging Britain to disarm? Well, a few years ago, they were all attending Aids benefits, but now the West is off the hook on that score, they have moved on to saving the planet. Unfortunately, first the Egyptians, then the Bahrainis, then the Libyans and now the Syrians have shown us they have other preoccupations.

. . .

Here are before and after pics of the great jazz trumpeter and occasional singer Chet Atkins. I dug out these two photos a few days ago specifically to post on this blog, but now I can't for the life of me remember why. Chet was once a good-looking young man described as having matinee idol looks. When he died (falling out of his Amsterdam hotel bedroom it seems while high on heroin and coke) he had lost those good looks and then some.

So all I will say is that they should be a warning to young folk everywhere: stay off the jazz!

Friday, June 3, 2011

One book and one film about the shooting of JFK. One is well-researched and fascinating, the other is a piece of cack. Sorry, Oliver.

I have just finished reading The Kennedy Conspiracy by Anthony Summers, and boy it is some read. Halfway through reading it, I sent off for a DVD of Oliver Stone’s JFK and sat through that, too. The two are like chalk and cheese. Summers is a journalist and former television producer, who worked on Granada TV’s World In Action (which, in its day, was highly respected) and he approaches the subject of Kennedy’s murder methodically and with a marked lack of drama. He states that his aim was not to reach a conclusion as to who was responsible for bumping of JFK or to ‘solve’ the case, but to marshal as much as possible of what we know so far. And he manages to marshal a great deal.

Oliver Stone had a completely different agenda and one which is true to what seems to me to be something of a champagne socialist outlook. I can’t deny that he can make very entertaining films, but the thesis of his film strikes me as being 24-carat bollocks and then some. Sorry, Oliver, but it does. (There is also the rather irritating fact that JFK was made in Hollywood, whose producers are not known for their interest in history and the truth, rather bums on seats and the cash to be made from getting those bums onto the seats.) According to Stone at the core of the conspirators was America’s military industrial complex who were rather alarmed by Kennedy’s intention to pull out of Vietnam. Stone postulates that the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the US armed forces were involved and that the ‘conspiracy’ went to the highest level with Kennedy’s deputy and successor Lyndon Johnson being in it up to his neck.

Naturally, I have no way of knowing what really happened more than anyone else, but Stone’s thesis does strike me as just so much steaming cack. He doesn’t help his case by inventing characters and scenes, including a ludicrous gay orgy involving two of the central villians on the ground. Some pretentious git might, at this point and in Stone’s defence, begin to talk about ‘dramatic truth’, but I’m not buying that either. In fact, the more I think about the film, the less it hangs together. If the security establishment really wanted to ensure Kennedy was bumped off, would they really have left organising it to two wacky gays, one of whom used to walk around in an orange wig and false eyebrows? There is also a welter of 'fact' - the rather neat and clean looking hobos who were rounded up, but who then disappeared who Stone would have us believe are CIA agents.

Although Summers doesn’t reach a conclusion — I repeat that he is at pains simply to present what we know and to allow the reader to reach his or her own conclusion — what emerges from his account of the assassination is that Kennedy was probably bumped off in a conspiracy between anti-Castro exiles and Mafia who were aided and abetted to a certain extent by rogue elements in the FBI, the CIA, the intelligence services of the armed forces and the Dallas police department. The central character, Lee Harvey Oswald, was almost certainly — as he realised within hours of the assassination and announced to the world before he, too, was murdered — a patsy set up to take the wrap.

. . .

I’m not claiming, never would claim, that I, too, could never be hoodwinked, but everything about Summers book rings true. Despite the often outlandish incidents he relates and his often bizarre protagonists, the tone of his book is utterly unsensational. I mention that the possibility that Summers’ book might be just another in a long line of flawed accounts of an enduring mystery because by chance when I had just started reading the book, I received an email in response to one I had sent warning me off Summers in no uncertain terms. Summers, the email’s writer suggested, was all ‘this might have happened’, and then, within a few pages putting forward his postulations as accepted fact.

Well, I am familiar with that technique, and very effective it is, too. Eric von Daniken (the author of Was God A Gooner?) and a certain Graham Hancock (who writes pseudo-intellectual volumes suggesting that the Bible is full of encoded references to next year’s Premier League results written four thousand years ago!) and many others put it to use with great effect. (‘As I showed several pages ago, when the angels arrived on Earth, they were wearing Arsenal shirts. Could it be that they made their way straight to the Emirates Stadium, or rather to that part of Europe which 30,000 years later would be chosen as the site of the Emirates Stadium? We can’t say for sure, but ...’ ‘As I demonstrated earlier, the angels who arrived on Earth as the emissaries of God and were wearing the Arsenal strip immediately made their way to what would later become North London. Were they looking for the birthplace of Arsene Wenger? Or if not his birthplace, the place on Earth which would forever be associated with his work on this planet? We can’t say for sure, but ...’). It’s a technique you can also spot a mile off and it is not one Summers employs.

I suppose one problem he does face, which is certainly not his fault, is that a great deal of what his cast of characters do often makes no sense or is contradictory. And in his account
an awful lot of people seemed to have some kind of direct or indirect connection with the security services, which is invariably held against them. Another hurdle he must overcome is to get us, the reader, to accept that, according to his account, there was a great deal of disloyalty verging on treason in the CIA and FBI. And one small problem I had with his book was that an acquaintance with a guilty party most certainly doesn’t imply guilt all round. So we are told that so and so was ‘an associate’ of so and so. Fair enough, but in truth a mere association doesn’t prove anything either way.
But, on balance, Summers more than gets my vote.

. . .

Stone’s work is another kettle of fish entirely. I mentioned the entirely fictional characters he comes up with (‘Willie O’Keeffe’, a gay prostitute, and ‘Bill Bruissard’, an assistant district attorney), but the character who really takes the biscuit is a Mr X. Stone’s film is based on a book by the former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison in which he recounts how he tried to solve the Kennedy assassination. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know whether Mr X appears in Garrison’s book or is an invention by Stone. That character, who Garrison travels to Washington to meet in a cloak and dagger encounter in a park near the White House, is key to the whole military industrial complex, CIA, FBI and White House ‘conspiracy’.

Stone shows him as a retired army man who once headed a ‘black ops’ department who was not ‘in on the conspiracy’ and was conveniently sent on a mission to Antarctica at the time Kennedy was killed. And Stone has Mr X confirm to Garrison that the bad guys are those in charge. It is all rather to pat and convenient for my taste. And Stone makes no mention whatsoever of the murky Cuban exiles and mafia men (not least Jack Ruby, who murdered Oswald and thus silenced him) for which there is overwhelming evidence that they were heavily involved in all kinds of skullduggery to do with Kennedy’s murder. But look at Stone’s film and it is all apparently an open and shut case. Well, up to a point, Mr Stone.

. . .

Finally, I suppose, there is the question of whether there even was a conspiracy at all and whether Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t actually work entirely alone, as the Warren Commission concluded. Well, all I can say is that once I had seen the short snippet of film shot by Abraham Zapruder (which is available on You Tube), it seemed pretty obvious to me that Kennedy was hit twice. The first bullet came from behind in an area from where Oswald was allegedly shooting, but the second, fatal shot, came from in front of Kennedy (from somewhere on the now notorious grassy knoll).

So whether or not Oswald was one of the assassins, he most certainly wasn’t working alone.