Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Dictators v democracy: a (perhaps necessary) clarification. And as things go ever more wrong in Argentina, it begins to fake inflation figures and pick another fight with Old Blighty over the Falklands

After my entry of a few days ago highlighting Peter Hitchens report from Moscow, it occurred to me that I should, perhaps, clarify my view in case it is misinterpreted. The essential point I was trying to make was that everything comes at a price, just as energy cannot be created from nothing, but merely changed from one form to another, or ground gained here must be lost there.

Most certainly I would like to live in a free society, a democracy, and I do. But Britain achieved its freedoms after many centuries of complex evolution. Even the Commons we had at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century was more a gathering of rival gangs of cronies than anything resembling a group which represented the citizens of Britain. The apparently progressive Reform Act of 1832 was, at heart, just a cynical exercise by the ruling class – that is no mere buzz phrase, there really was one – to ensure its survival by allowing the upcoming commercial class to vote. This was done while memories of the French Revolution, which took place uncomfortably close to Britain, were still real for many.

It is, therefore, not just sheer nonsense to claim that democracy can be introduced to countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, is dishonest nonsense. Certainly, they can have a parliament which is elected by universal franchise and most certainly the voters will be glad for the chance to have their say. But there is far more to democracy than holding an election every few years. And it takes just a little more than an edict from Washington for a people to think democratically, for its culture to be so suffused with the principles of democracy that not living in a democracy is quite inconceivable. Democracy demands, at the very least, the rule of law, and where the rule of law is absent, claims that a country is a ‘democracy’ are pretty premature.

By all accounts the rule of law has absent from modern Russia. Certainly, a the level of traffic offences, of course, or petty theft, there is likely to be the usual mechanisms involving the police and the courts, although one does here that corruption among the police is widespread and that is quite possible to bribe one’s way out of trouble. But rule of law most certainly doesn’t exist where the stakes are higher. Any number of businessmen who fell foul of the Russian leadership – for which read Vladimir Putin – suddenly found themselves under lock and key for ‘tax offences’. And until there is a true rule of law, which would, for example allow businessmen and women who feel a contract has not been honoured to go to court for an impartial judgment on the matter, Russia can kiss goodbye to any thoughts of a thriving economy which doesn’t rely on selling off the family silver, or in its case oil and gas.

The trouble with democracies is that they can be messy. When a free vote was held in the Gaze Strip several years, Hamas came to power, an outcome which the West and Israel could well have done without. One of the difficulties slowing down all attempts to resolve the euro crisis is that our democratic principles demand that everyone affected should have their say according to the protocol laid out in a country’s constitution. And it is that delay (which in the case of the euro will most certainly lead to disaster) which is the price we pay for living in a democracy.

Conversely, in countries led by a ‘strong man’ there is, apparently, far more order. Things happen far faster (although the country is not necessarily more efficient as a result), for the simple reason that no one need be consulted. Wise ‘strong men’ ensure that the majority of their nations people life in comfort and have no immediate cause to get uppity and question the arrangement. Those at the bottom of the pile, of course, are kept in check by terror and sheer brutality.

My analysis is, of course, broad brush and each country will have its own local variations on the two themes. But I feel my central point still holds: you pays your money and you makes your choice. Opt for freedom and the rule of law and put up with any number of irritations, delays, petty differences and the like. Opt for a more totalitarian state and, if you watch your Ps and Qs life need not be too bad. But you have to watch what you say.

There’s the story of the dog who arrived at the Ukrainian/Russian border and demanded to be let into Russia. The amazed border guard told him that he got many dogs coming the other way, but he was the first actually wanting to leave the Ukraine.
‘Why do you want to go to Russia?’ he asked.
‘Because I’m fed up with going hungry every day,’ the dog told him. So he was let through.

The dog was back a week later.
‘I thought you were fed up with going hungry in the Ukrained,’ the border guard told him.
‘I was said the dog, and I shall be hungry again. But at least I can bark in the Ukraine.’

. . .

No one would or could, I think, claim the Economist is sensationalist, although almost every fourth issue contains an apology of some kind or another, so it might even gain a certain reputations among those who care about these things as being a maverick. It does often take an oddly high-handed tone as in: ‘The world is coming to an end: here’s how to stop that happening’, and my brother once suggested that the line it would take in the issue which appeared after Armageddon would be: ‘Well, the worst is over. What lessons can be learnt.’ But as a rule it is surely classed as one of the world’s more ‘boring’ newspapers and magazine (despite is glossy, A4 format, it likes to call itself a ‘newspaper’) along with the FT, the FAZ, Die Zeit, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Actually, they are anything but boring, but that, at least, would seem to be how they are regarded by the mass of people who would prefer to watch a soap opera than think.
One of the Economist’s features at the back of the magazine (‘back of the book’ is the newspaper jargon to this day I have never been able to get used to, though I couldn’t tell you why) are loads of economic data. This is very interesting stuff, I’m sure, if you understand it, but I don’t (understand the data, though I do many of the issues) so I have not spent more than eight seconds reading that section since I started reading the Economist.
Part of that data is the rates of inflation from around the world, and last week the Economist announced would no longer be publishing the official Argentine inflation figures, but would still publish relevant data from private sources. Why not? Well, because as far as the Economist is concerned, they they are thoroughly phoney: whereas Argentina claims inflation is running at around 8/9 pc, private sources reckon it is well above 20 pc. Remember, Argentine pulled the plug on all is debtors and defaulted a few years ago, so it has form.
When official figures are fake (as we can now only suppose they are), the obvious conclusion is that the economy is in a terrible state, and has been for some time. In recent months, Argentina has also become increasingly bellicose about what they like to call the Malvinas but which we all know are really called the Falkland Islands. This is no flash in the pan and it has already persuaded neighbouring countries to deny access to British flights and  only yesterday a cruise ship was unexpectedly and without notice turned away from the Argentine port it was heading for. Things are going wrong domestically, so external trouble is created to take the restless citizens’ minds off matters: a strategy as old as the hills.

. . .

It is just before 9am. Just outside my brother’s flat in London where I sleep when I come to work is a primary school. By this time I am usually up and gone to work (a short 20-minute walk away in Kensington) but occasionally I am still here. And as the young children arrive for school, they gather in the playground and play until the bell is rung to summon them in. And from around 8.45 until just before 9, there is a crescendo of young shouts, young shrieks, young calls and all the other noise young innocents make when they are playing with each other. For me, it is one of the most delightful (and when I am in a certain mood, most moving) sounds on earth: children playing. I just love it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A ‘strong man’ or ‘democracy’? Peter Hitchens sticks his neck out (again). And three cheers for a man who refuses to play the game

Oh, if everything in life were as simple as it was when you were five, supper at 5pm, followed by bath, story and bed. We who are no longer six know what lies in store for all innocent five-year-olds. Most of us survive into and beyond adulthood more or less painlessly, learning and adopting along the way into our dotage various strategies which will make the transition from birth to death a little easier. Others, of course, have shitty lives. But what we all have in common is that for three, four or five years we were utterly innocent of the ways of the world.

I mention this innocence because, ironically, as we grow older, it is what lingers longest if life is reasonably kind to us. The usual knocks and bumps meted out to us as we hit 20, then 30, then 40, then 50 might hurt, but at least they teach us a little and the personal innocence diminishes by the year. But there is another kind of innocence which no amount of experience seems to be able to - well, I was going to write ‘cure’, but even for me that would seem cynical beyond imperatives which dictate the attitudes of a hack writing a blog. So I will settle for ameliorate. Often that innocence, or some aspect of it, is necessary if the kind of idealism which fuels the anger of the young is to survive.

For us old fogeys youthful protest - for a freer country, against this, that or t’other dictatorship, for lower college fees, the list of what the young want to protest against is endless - might often elicit a sigh of resignation, but without that youthful idealism, are sighs would, sooner or later, come a lot thicker and a lot faster. We might despair that ‘the young’ rarely seem to wash, listen to ‘awful music’, drink far too much for their own good, and never seem to get a good night’s sleep, but at the end of the day they are doing us all a very big favour. And it mainly down to the fact that more or less each and every one of them is as innocent as the driven snow.

The innocence which keeps the world alive occurred to me when I came across a piece by a certain Peter Hitchens in today’s Daily Mail. Peter, the brother of Christopher who died recently, prides himself on being right-wing. And there is nothing wrong with that. Whenever guys like Peter Hitchens are derided for their political views, I always reflect on just how intolerant are a bunch which regards tolerance as one of the cornerstones of its philosophy life. The irony is, of course, that they tolerate only what they sanction. Views which are wholly at odds with their own are not to be tolerated.

So Peter Hitchens is something of a rarity in our liberal society: a man utterly at odds with established thinking, but one who is not insane, evil or stupid. That Hitchens (I shall now drop his first name because it should be obvious that I am talking about Peter not the late Christopher) is not a member of the great liberal consensus is important because as far as I am concerned he is a vital counter-balance to a great deal of woolly thinking.

In his piece today, which you can find here, he is skating on thin ice. But that is something he always does anyway, as he is rather more inclined to speak his mind than many another commentator. Next week, Russia goes to the polls to choose a successor to President Dmitry Medvedev and his predecessor, mentor and prime minister Vladimir Putin seems like a shoo-in. And Hitchens, who worked as a foreign correspondent in Moscow for two years in the dying days of the Soviet regime, is backing Putin.

The headline to his piece in the Mail on Sunday will give a flavour of what he writes and works well as a neat summary: ‘If not Putin, who? It’s because I love my own country that I can see
A Russian democrat. He might even be a liberal

the point of this sinister tyrant who so ruthlessly stands up for Russia.’ You can see why I describe him as skating on thin ice. There were surely gasps of disbelief around Britain when many opened their Mail on Sunday or logged onto the Mailonline website and saw what Hitchens was writing.

I trust readers overcame their horror and went on to read what Hitchens writes, because I think he makes some very good points. Were one to be very unfair, and, it has to be said, dishonest, his thesis could be described as: ‘What Russia now needs is a strong man’. But he is not actually saying that, and it should be obvious to all but the dullest that Hitchens values freedom and the rule of law. He is not urging the Russia should once again be ruled by a dictator, but warning (yet again, as it happens, it is more or less the leitmotif of his journalism) that not only is a certain kind of liberalism rather less effective than it might consider itself to be, but that it can often prove to be quite dangerous. The innocents of this world will cry out: Russia/Libya/Syria/Burma and the rest must become democratic. To which I give two cheers. But the rather less innocent, those who have been scarred by life a little will also know that it is rarely that simple and even more rarely that neat.

In short there is a dilemma: neither arrangement is perfect (and the naive search for perfection has caused a lot of misery). A ‘strong man’ might well ensure that the lights turn on when you want them to, that food is in ready supply and that, generally, order is predominant. But you have to be very careful what you say, and the rule of law is rather fragile. In a ‘democratic state’ you are free to express your thoughts and feelings and, in theory, are protected by the rule of law, and that will keep the idealists happy. But such states are often chaotic, especially when they are in the throes of transition from a dictatorship to a democracy.

Don’t forget that for all our huffing and puffing and rather smug pride about living in a stable democracy, it took centuries of political evolution to get here, and the road could, at times, be very bloody indeed. And in the United States, which can, at times, be the most insufferably smug of all the smug democratic states, racism, poverty and unemployment make life extremely unpleasant for a substantial minority. Yes, they are free to vote for whoever they want, but if you are being evicted, you’re hungry or you’ve fallen ill and can’t afford health insurance, that freedom slips rather lower on your list of priorities. And, another irony, in a democracy too many citizens take their freedoms for granted: in the 2008 presidential election only six out of ten voters bothered to go to the polls. That’s not bad, I hear you say. Perhaps, but it’s not good either.

Here I must confess to a certain cowardice. I like to make out that I am neutral, neither proposing nor opposing ideas. When I write above of the eternal dilemma between, very broadly, a ‘strong man’ who brings stability and a ‘democracy’ in which too much tends to chaos, you will notice that I don’t come down on one side or another, which would be in keeping with my ‘neutrality’. I like to present myself as solely describing the dilemma. But therein lies my cowardice: at the end of the day none of us is ‘neutral’. All of us must make a choice. But we should also be fully aware of the consequences of that choice. That is one reason - there are many others - why life is just so much sweeter for a five-year-old. The trouble is none of us remains five for longer than a year.

. . .

Peter Hitchens is an interesting cove. Like his brother Christopher, he was a member of the hard left in his salad days, but quite soon drifted to the right of centre. Christopher did the same (though he would have denied it). There was a terrible sibling rivalry between the two, which began, according to Christopher, when Peter was born. Pyschologists could have a field day sorted out the roots of it all, but then psychologists could have a field day delving into the psyche of each and every one of us, and furthermore, as it quite a lucrative profession, at least, for private practitioners, psychologists treat themselves to as many field days as they possibly can.
As far as I can tell, Peter is a one-off. There are swivel-eyed, proudly right-wing Englishmen and women (and the women are twice as bloodthirsty as the men) who demand the return of capital punishment, flogging, the deportation of ‘immigrants’ (the irony being, of course, that we are all the descendants of ‘immigrants’ and insist to the point of apoplexy that garlic has no place whatsoever in an English kitchen. Peter is not one of these. In fact, I am often quite surprised that he calls himself ‘right-wing’. He seems to me less interested in the politics and rather more interested in highlighting the hypocrisy and cant which plays such and important part in our lives. I find I agree with a great deal of what he says, and I most certainly do not regard myself as right-wing.

His one failing might be that given we have to deal with the hand we are dealt, he is rather unworldy. For example, the Conservative Party under David Cameron has become as insufferably right-on as Labour and the Liberals. The point is that they really have no choice: no politician in his or her right mind would these days refuse to sing the praises of ‘green policies’ and ensuring ‘sustainability’ even though privately they think it’s all a load of cock. If you take part in the game, you are obliged to play the game. What I like about Peter is that he resolutely and honestly refuses point-blank to ‘play the game’.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Arriving home to misty, drizzly Cornwall and trying to appreciate what I have perhaps forgotten to appreciate

I first began to visit Cornwall after my father retired, remarried and settled here in St Breward, in a cottage less than a quarter of a mile from where I now live. His second wife, my stepmother (of whom I have become increasingly fond as the years go by) was born of an Irishman and Irishwoman in Bodmin. Her father, Ignatius Aloysius O’Keeffe, ran the local - well, what do you call it now? In years gone by it was, tactlessly, called a ‘lunatic asylum’ or, more colloquially a ‘looney bin’. I can’t offhand remember what his qualifications were, whether he was a medical doctor or a psychiatrist [she has since told me he graduated from Dublin University in ‘medical pysychology’, so really your guess is as good as mine], but I can tell you that the mental hospital - a more genteel, not to say kinder, description was St Lawrence’s Hospital. It was (according to the website I have just googled) ‘originally known as ‘Cornwall County Asylum’ it was founded in 1815 at Westheath Avenue, Bodmin and became known as St Lawrence’s Hospital under the National Health Service’.
Ignatius Aloysius was one of four: he had three sisters, one who, as it was told to me, ran away from home to become a nun and went off to China to work as a missionary, a second who died of cancer in her early 30s, and a third, Fanny, who came over to Bodmin with him and worked as a physiotherapist in the local hospital. My stepmother’s mother, Gertrude, a name she always hated, came from a far bigger family: she was one of 14. Both Ignatius Aloysius and Gertrude were Irish born and bred, and my stepmother, who will be 75 on March 19 and was born the fourth child and third daughter, has a great many of the virtues of that admirable nation. But as she was born and grew up in Bodmin, she might reasonably also be able to call herself Cornish. I put this to her yesterday, but she was having none of it. She regards herself as Irish, not Cornish.
In the early Seventies her Aunt Fanny died and left her a legacy. With this my stepmother - born Patricia Mary Josephine O’Keeffe, though known as Paddy O’Keeffe, a name perhaps familiar to some who regularly tuned into BBC radio’s From Our Own Correspondence which she produced until she married my father and took early retirement in the mid-Eighties - bought a cottage here in St Breward. My father had a little earlier sold our family home in Henley-on-Thames (which, oddly, makes it sound rather grander than it was) after my mother died in 1981 and with the cash he and his new wife the cottage. The kitchen became bigger, as did the bathroom, and above the kitchen a new room was created which was officially my father’s study in which he wrote the book he had always wanted to write, a history of relations between the Germans and the IRA.
Initially, after my father’s second marriage, relations between myself and my stepmother were, on my part at least, a tad frosty. Until, as they say, my father made an honest woman of her, my stepmother had been my father’s mistress for around 20 years, and I found it a little difficult to adapt to the new set-up. I had been close to my mother almost all my life, although in my early 20s, after a kind of very silly disagreement over my then girlfriend, I did not treat her as well as I might have done as is the way of the kind of self-regarding idiot I was in those years, and her death hit me rather harder than could reasonably be expected. She died of a heart attack at the comparatively early age of 61 and, more to the point, I had found her dead. Looking back, it took me quite a few years to deal with a shock which, at the time, I thought I had completely taken in my stride.
But my stepmother is a good-hearted sort and when, within two or three years of her marriage I began to come to see her and my father regularly, she was very kind to me. At 67, my father developed prostate cancer. The cancer eventually spread and he died at the age of 68 just over 20 years ago. One of his last wishes was that we, his four children, should take care of Paddy, so I began to visit her here in Cornwall more and more often.
From mid-1990 until I moved down here myself at the end of 1995, I lived and worked in London. I didn’t then run a car - there was no need to do so - so when I came, I caught the train at London Paddington to Bodmin Parkway. And - this is the whole point of this entry - every time I got out of the train at Bodmin - every time - I was struck by how much slower and more tranquil was the pace of life down here in Cornwall, and how much more peaceful. I must stress that this struck me the moment I opened the carriage door and stepped out of the train.
An hour or two ago, I arrived back home after leaving work in West London and taking the train to Exeter and then driving the 60-odd miles back here to St Breward. (I get out at Exeter and drive the rest of the way because it’s a damn sight quicker like that, quite apart from the fact that the last train to leave London which makes its way all the way to Bodmin leaves at 6.35pm.) But each time I get out of the car once I arrive back home, I am conscious that I no longer get that sensation of life being slower and more peaceful. I have, unfortunately, become immune to the change of pace. It’s something I reflect on every week when I arrive back home, but tonight I didn’t immediately go into the house after locking the car but stayed for several minutes to try to recapture that sensation. I’m sorry to say I didn’t, but I did once again appreciate being able to call deepest rural Cornwall my home. The weather was misty and drizzly and I love it. I really couldn’t tell you why, but I do. One day, I hope, I shall really be able to slow down properly and fully appreciate it. But I was glad that tonight I did manage it, if just a little bit.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Are they mad or just insane? Surprise as the Greek nation agrees to come quietly - or rather incredulity, Dom Strauss Kahn is revealed as pimping Mr Big (allegedly – I’m not daft) and will the real Angela Merkel please stand up (according to yet another group of conspiracy theorists)

I’m sorry if I’m behaving like a dog with a bone, but the more I consider the ‘crisis in Greece’ and various ‘solutions’, the more I think that an awful lot of people have seriously taken leave of their senses. According to the Financial Times, which I don’t think anyone would regard as sensationalist, the list of EU demands of Greece in order to qualify for its bailout includes a change to its constitution to ensure paying off its debts the top priority of any government of whichever hue. The Greeks are also being asked to agree to a permanent team of ‘monitors’ based in Athens to ensure they – well, the only way it can realistically be described it to ‘do as they are told’. And they will not get one cent of bailout money until the austerity package agreed last week is actually seen to have been put into practice.
I know I am running the risk of being thought racist and could well find myself up before a magistrates court if a clever Crown Prosecution Service were dyspeptic enough to get me charged with something like ‘racism’, but for Christ’s sake, we are dealing with a proud nation of hotheads here, not a gang of dull Dutchmen or catatonic Scandanavians who could hardly be enthused to riot in a month of Sundays. It’s all very well for Greece’s politicians to agree to bend over and take it up the arse if that’s what’s necessary (an apt metaphor as it happens as I am writing about Greece), but that leaves the Greek people completely out of the equation. Does anyone reading this or anyone living high on the hog in Brussels honestly think that, fingers crossed, the EU might well see this one through? Does anyone seriously believe that either the extreme Left or the extreme Right in Greece whose ratings are soaring as high as those of the centre-left and centre-right are plummeting will feel in the slightest obliged to support and honour the austerity measures by agreeing to help form a coalition? And does anyone really believe that the election due in April will actually be conducted peacefully. Does anyone seriously believe that, y’know, with a bit of luck, God willing and all that, they might, just might . . .? Do they hell.
I wrote yesterday of The Slog’s conspiracy theory – that a Greek default will be formerly announced just after 6pm EST on Friday, March 23, and that everything else is simply a masquerade to avoid a run on the banks in the meantime – and although I am usually not a great supporter of conspiracy theories, judging by the incredible behaviour of many protagonists and the utterly naïve assumptions one has to adhere to if you swallow the whole bailout story, his theory tends to make a damn sight more sense than anything else at the moment.

. . .

When I look at the stats to see what people happening on this blog like to read, two names are always prominent: Mandy Rice-Davies and Dominique Strauss Kahn. And Dom is back in the news again and it involves sex, again. Now there’s a surprise. Lord, the Left in France must be thanking their lucky stars that the whole, extremely murky, business in New York happened before Dom, as expected by almost everyone, was put forward as their candidate for the presidency. It now seems that Dom wasn’t just the boss of the IMF. Oh, now, he was also moonlighting as a Marseille pimp, incredible as that might sound. Come again, I hear you ask. OK, it now seems that Dom – if that was even his
‘What can I say? Bang to rights?’

real name – was just swanning around with politicos worldwide as a cover for his real existence as the biggest of the Mr Bigs in Marseille. You can’t a couple of keys of coke? Dom, or more likely one of his minions, was your man. You wanted a couple of good-time girls for that party you were organising for a gang of visiting Red Chinese capitalists. Have a word with Dom. And he’s a card, too. Here’s a Dom quote I love (which isn’t actually from Mr Big himself, but from his lawyer Henri Leclerc, a name which could have come straight from the pen of an English novelist who has not once set foot in France). Responding to claims that Dom had been ‘romping’ with whores, M. Leclerc replied: ‘I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked women.’ On the face of it that sounds quite reasonable. The giveaway is, of course, that he the naked woman has either demanded money upfront or indicated that she will be demanding money after the act, then she’s a prostitute. Well, sort of.
Speaking of conspiracy theories, I have a vague recollection of there being one around the time Dom was up on sex charges in New York. I don’t remember the details (and can’t really be arsed trying to track them down), but the theory was that he was being stitched up in order to scupper his chances of being the Left’s presidential candidate and possibly even being elected Frances’ president. Like all conspiracy theories it makes sense, though that doesn’t mean it is true. And it might well have been either the left or the right stitching him up, if stitched up he was.

. . .

Yesterday I mentioned happening upon another blog called The Slog, which I read primarily for it’s claim that there is conspiracy afoot to kick Greece out of the euro towards the end of March and that the conspirators are biding their time in order to erect a firewall around the banks they wish to protect (or something like that). But another entry caught my eye: a profile of Germany chancellor Angela Merkel which is not complimentary. Reading that I followed another link and came across a German website in English which strikes me already tending into paranoia country, or if not paranoia country, a nearby neighbour. (Incidentally, can one ‘tend’ or have I just made up a word?) All that got me thinking along the lines of: is it ever really possible to get neutral information about anything which can help one make up one’s own mind. I rather think it isn’t.
I’ve long believed, and long claimed publicly, that our newspapers aren’t quite as powerful as some would have us believe, that, in fact, they tell us what they think we want to hear. Well, OK, it isn’t usually that straightforward, but the tend to do that. I suspect something similar goes on with arguments: most of us believe what we believe, however irrational it might be, and then cast about for ‘evidence’ and ‘proof’, discarding any ‘facts’ we encounter which rather argue against what we believe and highlighting those ‘facts’ which ‘prove’ we are right in our belief. Well, I don’t want any of that, and that is why increasingly I choose not to take part in any discussion which strikes me - it’s always pretty obvious from the outset - as being essentially just another exchange of prejudice. I want to take part in what I can only call ‘neutral’ discussion. For example, when there is discussion of the euro crisis, I’m not at all interested in hearing from those who loathe the EU and everything they think it stands for and, given half a chance, will bend your ear till dawn with ‘facts’ proving it is nothing by a dark conspiracy organised by murky bureaucrats. Conversely, I’m not in the slightest interested in being invited to cheer along the European project and how it will, in time, bring about peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.
The blog entry about Merkel’s past is interesting and the facts are, admittedly intriguing (more of which another time). But I am disinclined to go along quite yet, if ever, with the writer’s conclusions.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I selflessly give another blog (The Slog) a plug and wonder whether in years to come GlaxoSmithKline will be in the hamburger flipping business

Added April 4, 2014.

I notice that this blog post has had several visits over the past few weeks, and I thought it might be best to add this preface. Although I shall leave the post below unedited, I should point out that my opinion of The Slog, the guy who writes it - John Ward, a retired advertising executive - and what he has to say was severely revised several months after I came across the blog.

I admit, rather ruefully, that I was taken in by The Slog’s ramblings for a while. Superficially, with all his talk of ‘my contacts’ in Frankfurt, Washington, Berlin and I don’t know where else, he seemed well-informed and in the know and gave the impression of doing a great deal of ‘research’. It was only when his apparently copper-bottomed predictions of the demise of the euro and other matters failed to come true time after time that I began to wonder whether he was tin rather than lead.

I began to wonder even more whether John Ward was the real deal when I found myself falling foul of him. It became apparent (and still will if you want to try) that anyone daring to disagree with his prognoses, querying his thinking, criticising him even slightly or even choosing not to share his very high opinion of himself, would have his or her comments removed and be banned from the blog (in the sense that future comments were always removed). I know this because after it happened to me, I was emailed by several others whose comments were also regularly removed.

I must stress that my comments were not in the slightest abusive - it was just that it was obvious to anyone reading them that I refused to share Ward’s ineffably high opinion of himself and his abilities as a sage and increasingly could not take him at all seriously.

Having said all that, you must make up your own minds. Perhaps it is me who is a post short of a blog. Perhaps it isn’t. Decide for yourselves.

There are conspiracy theorists and there are cock-up theorists and I usually pretend to belong to the second group. Actually, that is not quite fair as it implies that I am, after all, a conspiracy theorist. So I’ll try again: there are conspiracy theorists who believe humankind is the result of genetic engineering by spacemen who also built the pyramids, erected Stonehenge and were generally responsible for kick-starting the world as we know it. Then there are conspiracy theorists for whom the cynical saying ‘don’t believe anything until it is officially denied’ could be a motto. I suspect I belong to the second bunch.

We never really know the ins and outs of any affair until years later when it is safe for those who really knew what was going on to go public and for those who did awfully naughty things at the time to decry their admissions, confessions and revelations as just so much bloody nonsense. In other words, only when it doesn’t matter any more do we learn the salient facts and by then it is called ‘history’. There are one or two bloggers around who do keep their ear to the ground and like to go public on what they hear long before anyone else. The trouble is that what they say is always immensely deniable and is, naturally, always denied. I’ve come across on such blog which is written by a retired adman called John Ward who blogs under the name The Slog. You can find his blog here.

I came across it following up links about the latest wheeler-dealing going on to save the world - no, sorry, that’s global warming - to save the euro and, by all accounts the EU. The Slog claims to have reliable information that a Greek default is a done thing and that after the close of business on Friday, March 23, Greece will be declared bankrupt. He suggests - no, he insists - that all the various meetings about haircuts and bailouts and Troikas and the rest is just so much hooey used to stall everything until that announcement on March 23. Naturally, the parties involved - which don’t involve Greece - want to protect the banking system and make sure their plans are watertight to protect themselves from the worst of the fallout. This, says Mr Ward, is why every single time a deal seemed within grasp for the Greeks and their creditors to agree on the size of how much the creditors would lose, various bods would stick their oar in to scupper the talks. ‘The Greeks need to put in place more austerity measures’ was one recent ploy.

Anyway, whether or not it is all true, whether or not is is all complete bollocks, it is a good read which, I’ll repeat, you can find here. And, yes, The Slog is a conspiracy theorist, but has the saving grace of not involving spacemen in any of the theories he puts forward and to my knowledge has never yet claimed to have been abducted by aliens.

NB As I write this, EU finance minsters are still meeting in Brussels - it is now 23.40 on February 20 - to decide whether they can trust the Greeks with €130bn of bailout moolah. They will be unable to reach a decision and will want ‘further reassurances’ or some such in order to ensure that Greece does go bankrupt. So if by the time you read this tomorrow an agreement has been reached, you will know The Slog is bollocks. If, on the other hand, there is a delay - well, was there something in it?

UPDATE (Feb21 at 9.58am sitting at my desk just dying for another cup of tea): It’s only fair that I should this morning add a rider to the above in view of the news that the Eurozone finance ministers ‘have reached a deal’ with Greece on what Athens should do to get the next bag of used fivers to pay off its debts. The Slog is utterly sceptical and is confident this is just the latest scene in a long-running farce which will culminate in the announcement on Friday, March 23. Me, I know rather less financial jargon than he seems to, so I’ll just admit that I’m sceptical, too. That’s because too many of these ‘last-minute’ solutions (although, strictly, this isn’t ‘a solution’) began to unravel within hours of being reached. It remains to be seen what will happen.

I should point out that Mr Wards’ conspiracy theory is rather supported by one detail of the handover deal: that Greece’s austerity measures will reduce its debts to 121pc of is GDP by tomorrow lunchtime or whenever they are supposed to do so. Until now it was, I think, 124pc. And – a detail which eluded my hawk-like eye last week – the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi announced that when it came to creditors getting their debts, those bonds held by the ECB would get preference over those held by private investors. But things aren’t too bleak for those nasty capitalist scum who masquerade under the oh-so-innocent description of ‘private investors’: they have previously insured themselves against losses so they won’t be quite as out of pocket as might seem apparent and aren’t too concerned about Draghi muscling his ECB to the front of the queue.

What is so utterly farcical about the whole business is that, even if the meeting was gen, even if whoever is going to stump up €130bn to hand over to the Greeks – and I can only admit that I’m very confused on that matter - where does the money come from? Is it from the taxpayers of the rest of the Eurozone countries? The there is the very pertinent point that as the ECB and a great many French and German banks hold Greek bonds, this bailout will simply be used – must simply be used – to pay off some of the debt they hold. So, in effect, all the ezone finance ministers are doing is paying off their own.

Then there’s the complete unknown: with one in five young people without a job and with enough time on his and her hands to do nothing but cause trouble; what with pensions being slashed; what with the mainstream centre parties’

ratings plummeting in the polls and the popularity of the parties of both the left and right extremes rising ever faster, all this talk of a bailout is just so much piss in the wind if there is real trouble there. Remember, the Greeks are due to hold a general election in seven weeks, so after that all bets might well be off, however much backslapping the ezone finance ministers indulge in (pictured above. Aren’t they a lovely bunch).

Oh, and how anyone in Greece is expected to react with equanimity to the demand by the EU that a gang of North European technocrats should be permanently based in Athens to give their consent or otherwise for every item of proposed government spending is beyond me. But there you have it: the wacky, wacky, wacky world of the EU. But still no aliens, UFOs and spacemen. It's all very puzzling.

. . .

Well, there we have it: science advances in leaps and bounds and is, apparently, on the brink of creating meat in the laboratory. Haul out the bunting and crack open the bubbly! Could the news be any better. Dutch scientists - despite their cuddly we-don’t-mind-if- you-smoke-dope liberal image, the Lowlanders have as potent a Frankenstein tendency as the rest of us poor saps - have used stem cells to create a ‘strip of muscle’ several centimetres long, one centimetre wide and on millimetre deep. This, they assure us, is the future and in the future the meat we eat will be grown in labs rather than in fields. The strip they produced cost around £200,000 to produce but ‘costs will come down’ production is commercially viable.

What, you are entitled to ask, is the point? Well, they claim that the point is to ‘save the environment’ because conventional meat production does it no favours. Well, I must say that that’s a new one on me. I have read claims, with which I am inclined to agree, that if the land we use to grow foodstock for cattle which we then eat were used to grow food for humans, it would be used more efficiently. It’s a veggie argument, but not necessarily the worse for that, and does rather forget that land which cannot be used to grow crops for humans can still be used to rear some cattle and sheep. But I was unaware of the suggestion that farming animals actually damages the environment.

Actually, I rather suspect that ‘saving the environment’ and finding new ways to feed mankind is rather less of a motive for these Dutch scientists than to justify the funding they get to keep their labs in operation. I would be happier if they put their intellects and energy to better use ensuring that several million more people had access to clean water. And if and when ‘lab-grown meat’ us available to feed us, you can bet your bottom dollar that those who might benefit most from this additional source of food will be the least likely to benefit. The fat West is inclined to think of itself and its own needs first, last and exclusively.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t: please lay off the Germans. They really do mean well

In the beginning there were no greater Euro fans than the Germans, for reasons which have been well-rehearsed. They were also a, if not the, driving force behind the creation of the euro. They are one of the hardest and one of the best-managed nations in Europe and have a tendency to keep things tidy. For some reason it is a joke to many that the Germans value Ordnung, but the joke falls very flat indeed when you find yourself in deep in a situation where there is no Ordnung, as the unfortunate Greeks now do. But as one of the great Euro fans it is only right that they should shoulder some of the responsibility of how things have gone wrong. So why am I feeling very, very sorry indeed for all the abuse now being hurled at the Germans?

I have just read an interesting piece by Gideon Rachman in the FT in which he says Germans are slowly beginning to admit that the concept of the eurozone was fatally flawed: that in the long run a single currency would not and could not succeed unless all those in the eurozone belonged to a single state with all that entailed. Many people made that very point 12 years ago when the euro was established and were decried as little nationalists and killjoys. But here is not the place to shout, like kids in the schoolyard, ‘we told you so’. It would not only be impolite, but also utterly pointless: we’re in the shit and the priority is to get back out of the shit. Deciding who and what to blame can be done in many years’ time when the crisis is a matter of history. But it is interesting that influential Germans are now admitting that the whole euro project was flawed from the outset (and leave aside for now the important point that although a successful eurozone needed to be created in the context of a single state, creating that single Euro state would then, as now, have proved politically impossible to achieve.) In Rachman’s FT piece, he also quotes the head of Bosch as advocating that Greece should leave the eurozone. That, too, is a new development: until Christmas the very idea would not have been countenanced.

Solutions to the crisis - that is solving the crisis with the minimum damage - rest on Germany coughing up even more money and Germany agreeing to underwrite the debts of other eurozone members. Germany is adamant that it will not do the latter by agreeing to the creation of eurobonds and feels that not only would it be unfair to ask its taxpayers to pay up more, it is also politically impossible. I agree with them because I think the German position is the only sensible position. Unfortunately, many disagree, and when - not ‘when’ not if - the euro crisis explodes in sheer misery for millions throughout Europe, it is a very safe bet that Germany will come top of the list when appointing the scapegoats. And that is very, very unfair.

Predictably, images from Germany’s Nazi past are being hauled out of cold storage with Greek and Italian newspapers usually regarded as ‘serious’ and ‘respectable’ indulging in some of the worst behaviour. This, too, is wholly unfair. From where I sit, the very worst the Germans can be found guilty of is calling a spade a spade: they are inclined to speak their minds and that often comes over as tactlessnees. So when someone or other in Germany suggested that an EU-appointed commissar should oversee the Greek budget, this was immediately portrayed as a ‘renewed attempt by Germany to dominate Europe’. It would be funny if it were not so insulting. It is not a point one can prove, but of all the nations least interested in ‘dominating Europe’ it is the Germans. I think my German cousins would agree with me that the pervading sentiment in Germany is to lead as comfortable a life as possible, and ‘dominating Europe’ would not enable the Germans to lead a very comfortable life. Ah, I hear some of you cry, what about the Nazis. That’s a fair point. But perhaps you would allow me to ask: what about the Italian fascisti? What about Spain’s long dictatorship under Franco? What about Portugal’s long dictatorship under Salazar? What about the dictatorships, which lasted longer than the modest 12 years of Nazi rule in Germany, by the Communists in the then Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania? What about the Croatian fascists?

Are we all really so certain that every single last German in the country from 1933 to 1945 was wholeheartedly behind the Nazis? What happened to those on the Left, the communists and the socialist, all very active and who often engaged in street-fighting with the Nazis? Did they all, almost overnight, become convinced National Socialists? Do you know, I rather think not. Dredging up Nazi imagery and metaphors sells papers, most certainly - the British Daily Mail’s Simon Heffer has come out with some of the same crap, except that he is able to express himself in a more genteel fashion - but it is wholly unfair.

. . .

Just seen a trail for a programme on tonight: ‘Britain’s favourite supermarket food’ (ITV1 at 8pm). No doubt several tens of million viewers with rather more time than sense will be tuning in and congratulating themselves when a product is featured which they, too, ‘enjoy buying’. For God’s sake, get a fucking life. I won’t claim that the population is being dumbed-down because I think mankind, for the pas 300,000 years, has always had a dumb streak. So nothing really to worry about.. . .

A family visit to London tomorrow by the Powell family. They are coming up by train, and we shall spend the next two days visiting the Science Museum in South Kensington, Hamley’s in Regent St followed by Selfridges in Oxford St, and then go to a matinee performance of Billy Elliot in the afternoon before driving back home to Cornwall. I’m rather looking forward to it. It is all also costing me an arm and a leg.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Beware of Greeks bearing gilts, something about socialists, heads and hearts, and I’ve realised why country and western music pisses me off

There can be no one in the world who thinks that what is now going on in Greece can still all be sorted and that it will eventually all end with laughter, handshakes and ouzos all round. I also think it is clear to anyone but a blind bat that Greece will go bankrupt and leave the euro. Imposing yet more austerity on a nation the majority of whom no longer have a drachma to their name is as futile a solution as urging a corpse to lose a little more weight (‘Look, we can’t quite get you in the coffin. Any chance, y’know . . . ?’) We’re told that almost half of all those of working age under 24 are out of work and have no prospect of finding a job and there has been violent protests on the streets, with the police
being petrol-bombed and I heard a report on the radio last week that to save money hospitals are only operating every few days. Those with the wherewithal to do so are moving their money out of the country as fast as they can, and to say the outlook is bleak is an understatement.

The coalition government has been engaged in more than pointless negotiations about even how even more money can be saved in order to qualify for another bailout. The Greek parliament will vote on that austerity package in the next few
days, and there is a very real possibility that it will be voted down. But whether or not it is voted through - and remember, what parliament will be voting for will be whether to shit on the voter even more, all for the greater good of the euro and EU - is utterly irrelevant. Part of the deal to form a coalition government was to bring the 2013 general election forward. It is now to be held in April and will be a field day for extremist parties of every kind. I think what the EU has achieved in Greece is a new definition of ‘fuck-up’.

The whole issue is one of those curious matters which, when individual elements are considered, they make a certain sense. It’s just that when you look at the big picture you start to realise the total lunacy at play. I’m not yet again going to go through the litany of reasons why the euro was an ill-conceived notion in the first place, only because it

would be pointless to do so. When Greece has left, the commentators tell us Portugal is next and then it might well be Ireland. After that the currency will have lost so much credibility that surely to goodness it will somehow or other have to be revamped. But don’t bet on the idiots in Frankfurt, Berlin, Brussels and Paris who got the EU into this mess doing the right thing. If there’s some way to fucking things up even more, it’s a sure thing they will find it.

. . .

Several hundred years ago when I was at college, a number of my friends belonged either to International Socialists or Solidarity. Both were on the Left - bet you didn’t see that coming - and, if I remember rightly, were at daggers drawn. I am pleased to say, although they will perhaps not be too pleased to hear me say it, that all those of my friends who were members are now doing very well, holding down well-paid jobs, many have their own business (I am thinking of one in particular) and generally have become what their younger selves agitated against so zealously. C’est la vie. That was in the late Sixties/early Seventies, and since then or students seem to have become less politically engaged. In fact, there was a time in the Eighties in Britain well all they seemed to want to do was to own both a collection of ties and a Volva and have a weekend cottage in Dorset. But I knew that somewhere or other lurked the spiritual descendants of Arthur McDonald, Ian Renwick and the rest (I can’t remember any more names off-hand), and now I think I have found them.

Tracking down images to go with the entry above, I came across a website for an organisation which calls itself ROAR (Reflections on a Revolution) - our young left-wingers are always rather good at coming up with heroic names for their groups. I read through several off the pieces and, us usual, they are of varied quality and depth of thought, but it is an interesting site nevertheless. You can find it here. I don’t mean to sound patronising, but it is reassuring that at least some of our young are still going through a left-wing phase. It is so disheartening to meet anyone under 25 who is a convinced conservative, yet they do exist.

. . .

There is a quote by someone along the lines of ‘If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain’ I thought it was by Churchill and tried to track it down. And it is, in fact, by
Churchill, but it was not an original observations. While tracking it down, I am across another blog which quoted yet another party, who in turn quoted a book called Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by Ralph Keyes, written in 1992. Keyes come up with several variation of that observation. Here they are:

Any man who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age 40 has no head
— Georges Clemenceau

On response to being told that, someone called Bennet Cerf is quoted as saying:

If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.

A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head
— Lloyd George.

The earliest known version of this observation is attributed to mid-nineteenth century historian and statesman François Guizot who is quoted as:

Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.

If you want more Churchill quotes, you can find some here.
There are some great ones, of which my favourites are:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all


He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire

which could well have been by Wilde. Incidentally, I have chosen to picture of Churchill as a young man, because we invariably only get to see those of him when he was more or less in his dotage, and it is good to remember that he, too, was once young.
NB I had never heard of Bennett Cerf and have just looked him up. It seems he will not be that unknown to American readers.

. . .

I’ve often wondered why I loathe country and western music, and now I think I know why. Musically, it is very, very attractive, especially to a guitar player. A country and western (hereafter referred to as country and western) tune will rarely consist of more than three chords. If it does, the additional chords will be related e.g. if G, C and D feature prominently - which they are likely to do - Em, Am and F might also show up. But anyone searching for the added sophistication of a sixth, major seventh, diminished or 9th and 11th chord would be best advised not to waste their time. Yet musicians who play country and western professionally are usually very, very good, and it’s not just because of the the three-chord trick.
What I have realised is that however much I might like the music, it’s the mawkish sentimentality of country and western music lyrics which pisses me off terminally and the truths which undoubtedly truths, but which are no more than skin-deep and trite truisms, the kind of truths which strike you was ineffably profound when you are pissed and a lot less so the following day as you search for those elusive paracetamol.

Ironically, there are several country and western lyrics which do hit the nail on the head, or, at least, do so up to a point. This particular entry was brought on by me turning on BBC2 to watch the France v Ireland Six Nations match and finding that it had been called off because of a frozen pitch and that instead a series of excerpts from country and western concerts were being screened. One was Kris Kristofferson and his then wife singing Me And Bobby McGee, a song which contains the splendid and very true line ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’. Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s catchy and true. But no, there is far more to the concept of freedom and, anyway, the line is not intended to covey a truth but a sentiment. Unfortunately, at heart country and western is merely music to feel sorry for yourself too, and although I, like everyone else, have often felt sorry for myself, I don’t feel it is an admirable emotion or one to be encouraged.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

I break my 11th commandment and visit a folk club. And given the guest spot, I’m rather glad I did, though I’m otherwise still no convert

A first for me last night: I went to a folk club evening and didn’t run out within the first ten minutes. You might gather that I am not a folkie, in fact, I am probably in the same relationship with folk music as matter is with anti-matter. But my brother-in-law was going with his teenage son and I decided to join them, if only for a rare night out down here in Cornwall (and up in London, for that matter, seeing I don’t leave work until 10pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, and spend Wednesday evenings travelling back home to here in Cornwall, whether by car or on the train).

But I wouldn’t have missed the guest act for the world: accordion player Kate Tweed and fiddle-player and singer Jackie Oates. They are proof, if proof were ever needed, that there comes a point where music ceases merely to be classical, jazz, Country & Western, pop, rock, folk or what have you, but is simply music.

Kate Tweed was especially enjoyable, hitting chords which would not have been out of place in jazz or classical music, and although Jackie had the kind of virginal, pure folk voice which usually sends me screaming to the loo (I prefer deep, gutsy women’s voices), oddly I didn’t object at all. Then there were the songs: they utterly avoided an - to my ears - insufferable worthiness which spoils it all for me, and instead at times created a kind of quiet beauty.

OK, so I am laying on the ‘isn’t folk awful’ with a trowel rather, and to be more specific I rather like much of the music. What does rub me up the wrong way is the ‘revival’ element in much ‘modern’ folk, which creates a kind of second-hand emotion. In days done by, when a great many people found themselves at the bottom of the pile, could be evicted without warning and for whom crushing poverty was a daily reality, one of the few ways they could express their misery was by singing about it. The songs really did come from the heart and soul. These days, what with a welfare state here in Britain, which might even be said now to parody ‘the welfare state’, when we are able, more or less to insure ourselves against anything except, as the saying goes, death and taxes, when healthcare and education are free (well, make the primary and secondary education) and when a panoply of human rights legislation goes some way to ensuring the kind of high-handed and merciless behaviour of an alleged toff class is more or less impossible, it strikes me as all rather phoney.

I must, however, distinguish between modern ‘folk singing’ and the music played. And much of the music played my Ms Tweed and Ms Oates was, to my ears at least, sublime. The sound of the accordion and fiddle (I’m told by my daughter I can’t and mustn’t call it a violin) are made for each other and are a marriage made in heaven. So all-in-all I’m rather glad I overcame my prejudice and went along to Bodmin Folk Club last night. In fact, there’s some American called Jeff Davis performing in a fortnight’s time, and I might just go along again. You can check out Karen Tweed here and Jackie Oates here.