Monday, March 28, 2011

Why greens make me often see red, and a question: did Gandhi bat for the other side?

There is something very odd about the following: the West is 'concerned' about global warming and the EU sets targets to cut the emission of carbon dioxide (also known as 'devil gas' in parts of Islington and Stoke Newington, both boroughs in London). As cars are reckoned to be some of the worst offenders, there is a rush to develop 'biofuels' made from 'renewable' sources. One of those renewable sources is jatropha, whose seeds yield an oil which (according to the various net sites I have just been scavening, he said honestly) can be used as a high-quality fuel for cars. So far, so green. But these past few days, several environmental groups have claimed that jatropha creates six times as much carbon dioxide as standard petrol and diesel. Quite how, I don't know, but then that isn't my objection.
(I'm not particlarly green. I dislike waste and think it is scandalous how the West wastes an enormous amount of food while elsewhere people go hungry. But the zealotry of the whole green thing gets up my nose. There is rather too much about it of 'the latest cause'. I ask myself, for example, what happened to the campaign for nuclear disarmament. In its heyday in the Fifties and Sixities only about five nations around the world had nuclear weapons. Now everyone and his bloody aunt has got a stash of A bombs tucked aways somewhere, but CND and similar bodies seem to be dormant. Why? I'll tell you why: because a newer, sexier cause has arrived - bloody global warming.)
My objection is quite simple: in countries such as Kenya people are in real danger of being evicted wholesale so that jatropha plantations can be established. So there we have it: to 'save the planet', people who have no means of fighting back - try finding a straight politician in Kenya to fight your corner - are being shat upon. Does that not also strike you as rather odd? Who exactly are we 'saving the planet' for? Then there's the question of cultivating land and growing jatropha so that cars in the Western world can drive on 'green' fuel instead of growing food on that land for people who have precious little of it. If that isn't utterly daft, I don't know what is.

. . .

A new book, of which I have, however, only read a review printed in the Wall Street Journal, rather dents the 'demi-God' status of Mahatma Gandhi. The book, by a former New York Times executive, has only just come out and I have no idea (at least no idea until I search the net) how it has gone down in India. But the review in the WSJ is by the British historian Andrew Roberts and is not in the slightest sensationalist, despite the many claims made by the author. Roberts notes that, in fact the author goes to some lengths to excuse Gandhi for the failings he lists. Roberts describes the book as well-researched and well-written, so when I remark that one of the many claims made about Gandhi is that he had a gay love affair with a German-Jewish bodybuilder, it is crucial that the book is accepted to be not at all sensationalist. Other claims made are that the great man was politically inept, did not practice what he preached, was in many ways a hindrance to Indian independence rather than a help, upset the leaders of other groups unnecessarily (which is given as one reason why Indian independence was delayed) and was sometimes quite a racist himself - it seemed that once when arrested by the South African authorities, he objected to being put in the same cell as 'kaffirs'. Mind stripping the gilt of ours heroes is popular pastime. Who next, I wonder?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Life, my children and what are birds saying? And will it get worse or just very, very bad?

We've come a long way as far as animals are concerned and believe we know a lot more about them. Undoubtedly, future research will demonstrate beyond doubt that a great deal of what we now 'know' is complete cobblers, and research conducted even further in the future will demonstrate that the certainties of 2211 were just so much bullshit. But that is the way of the world, nothing much changes, and I don't think we should fret too much that our present knowledge is wanting.
When my daughter was born 14 years ago, it seemed a miracle had occurred. Naturally, I knew she was on her way - I like to think I had something to do with setting her off on her journey and my wife assures me that is the case - but even though a day before she was born my wife's belly was grossly distended with the child she was carrying, when little Elsie did finally make her debut - at 11.42am on August 7, 1996 - it seemed to me that she had come from nowhere. Suddenly she was there, a new life and a new person.
Her birth changed me, I hope for the better. One way I have previously described it is that my centre of gravity shifted from within to without. I also had a new conception of 'life'. 'Life' was everywhere, and 'life', which in those first few days and weeks of wonder always came back to be defined as this little bundle which was my child and which, it seemed, had come from nowhere, became far more valuable. I have never seen animals as 'dumb', although I have never sentimentalised them, either. But suddenly - and it was suddenly - the 'life' in a dog or a cat or in one of the bullocks on my brother-in-law's farm which were being reared merely to be slaughtered once they had reached a certain weight and size, was no less valuable than the 'life' which suffused my daughter. I could, at a pinch, have become a vegetarian. I took fright, when driving across the moor one of the thousands of rabbits which live there darted out from one side of the road in front of me in case I should run it over and kill it. I felt sad when I heard the cows next door in my brother-on-law's farm lowing over the disappearance of their calves - after a few a month or two, the calves are taken from their mothers to be reared elsewhere and all night the desperate mothers call out in grief. It might sound fanciful, but their grief was and is in no less than the grief I would have felt had my daughter been take away from me.
That feeling of wonder has slightly diminished, although the love and protective concern I feel for my daughter and the brother who arrived just under three years later is no less strong, but nor have I lost that wonder at 'life'. And life is everywhere. Often the wind can blow, and I am reminded of 'life'. Sometimes I look at plants and I grow confused: surely this is just a bloody nettle, so why does it remind me of 'life'. But it does remind me of 'life', and that 'life' makes of me a man who unashamedly believes in God. I have no idea what, who, why, where, when or how 'God' is. The only thing I know is that he or she or it is unknowable. But he or she or it is the essence of everything.
But this entry is not and was not intended to become a maudlin recollection of sentiment. All these things occurred to me again - again, because they are always close to the surface now, since the birth of my daughter - when I was walking the few hundred yards down the lane to visit my stepmother this afternoon. Today, March 25, 2011, was a lovely day, as was yesterday. The leaves and buds aren't yet out, but the weather is mild, the air is fresh and there is a whole spring, summer and autumn to come. Who couldn't feel enthused. But it was the birdsong which caught me.
At dawn, birds make a hell of a racket. Then, as the day goes on, they become quieter, but still sing. They only cease as the day draws to a close an hour or so before twilight. Their song intrigues me. I know various (whatever they're called) have made many, many in-depth studies of birds and birdsong, but the fact is we simply do not have a clue as to what is going on. But when, as this afternoon at about 5.10pm, I walk down the lane and several solitary birds are singing away their complex songs, I cannot and will not believe, that it is just something a little higher than 'noise'. Certainly, we are assured that 'this is a mating song' and that is a 'territorial song' but at the end of the day we know absolutely bugger all about what is going on, and why. Nothing. Zilch. And when I hear those complex songs I ask myself: is this an individual bird giving some kind of personal account of him or herself? Is he or she actually - well, the only word I can use, however silly it sounds in context is talking? Is this all really just 'reflex reaction', 'genetic behaviour'? Given that birds have spent far longer on this planet than primates, having evolved from dinosaurs, might, just might, it be possible that they are, in their own curious, quite specific way be 'communicating'. And not just 'communicating' along the lines of 'I am a female ready and will for a shag in order to fertilise my eggs and perpetuate my kind' but in some more specific way?
Well, I don’t' know, you don't know and mankind, hubristic species that it is, will never know. But when I hear that cow lowing for its lost calf, or see those bloody stupid rabbits dart across the road in front of me, and when I see 'little Elsie', now 14 with small breasts and attitude, and 'little Wesley', now 11 and a penchant for wanting to wrestle with me and again feel that wonder of 'life' I first discovered 14 years ago when 'little Elsie' was born, I do wonder.

. . .

Decision on decision 'just days away' we are promised. Nato convenes to decide date for a meeting to discuss agenda for possible future policy. Don't think me naive (well, do so, by all means, but that will only get you banned from reading this blog) and accept that I truly understand the difficulties in trying to round up 35 unwilling cats, but all too often the West's - in this case Nato's - response to a crisis descends into what would be farce were the circumstances not to tragic. 'More demonstrations in Syria' I read on the BBC news website, with 'gunfire heard after funeral of repression victims', then in another report we are told that Nato is 'all in favour of a considered, proportionate and effective response to [insert your favourite crisis hotspot here]', while EU leaders 'condemn unequivably and in the strongest language we can think of without running the risk of actually psetting someone' actions by various thugs around the world, more particularly Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
Of course the West faces dilemmas - it doesn't particularly want to upset Saudi Arabia, for example, by commenting on just how repressive that regime is. Such talk would only threaten oil supplies (and China is only too willing to buy up all the Saudi's have to offer if the West falls out of favour) and who else is going to keep our armaments industry going if we piss off all the dictators in the world - but behaving like some ugly virgin on her wedding night only makes it look very foolish.
I should dearly like to be around in 50 years time when I would be able to read a considered and sobre analysis of 'the situation which began to develop in early 2011', because understanding what is happening and how it will develop over the coming months and years is anyone's guess. All this is happening while Portugal is going to the wall with, and to make matters worse for everyone involved, it looks suspiciously as though the opposition social democrats are playing politics in order to get into government instead of supporting the government in a time of crisis. It is also becoming so blatantly obvious that Germany is extremely and increasingly disinclined to bail out all and sundry - well, the German taxpayer is, not necessarily the politicians who are always very keen to do the noble thing is someone else is picking up the bill - that its reluctance is being spoken of quite openly and is now regarded as a political factor. And why should they: it is all so easy, as many are now discovering, to embrace hi' falutin supranational communitarian ideals in a time of plenty, but when the going gets tough, it is usually those ideals which fly out the window soonest.
We have heard suspiciously little from Russia about the crisis in the Middle East. (Is it too early to call it a crisis? I don't know. Perhaps I'll wait a week or two.) But then Russia has always played its own game, and is sitting pretty while the U.S and the West get themselves into all kinds of trouble by insisting on being Mr Nice Guy withoug actually having a coherent strategy of any kind.

. . .

To blame, of course, are the media, and specifically television. My map below should give you a fair idea of how TV crews have been deployed to keep the 'concerned viewer' up to date. Each white flag represents a camera crew. Hacks of every
stripe have been filing reports about atrocities in troublespots more or less since mankind learnt to read and write, but for the past 35 or thereabouts, nothing can happen anywhere with some bloody TV crew sticking a camera lens up someone's arse and demanding to know what going on. And its all rather pointless. The theory is that 'in a democracy' people have the 'right to know' and 'be informed'. Which is all fine and dandy, but in practice 99 per cent of us have got the attention span of a flea and two and a half minutes of seeing images on bombing and tsunami victims is more than enough, before we demand to see footage of the Oscars or the Ryder Cup or Elizabeth Taylor's funeral or Michael Jackson's resurretion. Years ago the Economist did a survey: it asked a whole gang of people whether or not they supported the the then government's policy on someting or other. A majority said they did, many unequivocally. Then those who said they did were asked what that policy on something or other was. Less than a quarter knew. So on the one hand we crave TV coverage and demand to know what is going on, but on the other we pray to God they keep it short or else we'll miss the beginning of EastEnders.
The upshot of all this TV coverage is that politicians feel obliged to be seen to be doing something even when they either can't do anything useful. They have to justify their existence or, they fear, lose votes. The equation si quite simple, really. Yet, ironically, given a situation like the massacre in Rwanda a few years ago where because of the remoteness of the area there was no virtually live TV coverage at all, and precious little other coverage, more than a million were slaughtered without the West batting an eyelid. It was most certainly a real case of out of sight, out of mind. Oh, naturaly the wholesale murder was condemned in 'the strongest possible terms we can think of without actually risking upsetting anyone', but there was no talk of intervention, and the pitiful UN force subsequently sent in was so small it would have had trouble defending a street corner.
If the news editors of the West had decided that the civil war in Rwanda was sexy and worth the overkill it usually indulges in, our TV bulletins would have been filled with pictures of victims and our politicians would have felt obliged to act. As it was they didn't, it would have been too expensive anyway and - to be brutally honest - it involved blacks didn't it and however much we all abhor racism these days, well, blacks are blacks, aren't they, blacks, TV news editors seem to believe are quite up there with whites. A few years ago, when there was the widespread famine in Ethiopia, it was in all seriousness suggested to me that blacks, in this case the Ethiopians, didn't mind hunger as much as whites 'because they were used to it'. But there's no time to be shocked by that particular snippet, it's almost time for The Simpsons.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

They weren't planning four years of wholesale slaughter, but it happened anyway

Here in Britain we have a series of short books called [whatever you’re interested in]: A Very Short Introduction. ‘Whatever your’re interested in’ can be more or less anything – the range is vast. And the subject matter has to be reasonably academic – if you’re looking for the latest goss on Nicole Scherzinger, I’m afraid you’ll be out of luck. But if you want to get an overview of, say, Buddhism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, African history, myth, postmodernism and even the Marquis de Sade, they are immensely useful. The Short Introduction series is published by the Oxford University Press (always a good name to drop) and are written by scholars in their field, who have pared down the subject matter to give the lay reader an overview. And when I say they are available in Britain, they will most certainly also be available abroad, too. You can find out about them here.

I have bought quite a few of the series and have almost read several of them. Most recently, my stepmother decided she didn’t know anything about how World War II - ‘The Great War’ for those who get nostalgic about these matters – came about, and I decided I didn’t, either, so I bought two copies of The First World War: A Very Short Introduction. Both arrived safely and I presented my stepmother with her copy. She is now an expert on everything to do with the subject matter until April 13, 1914. Give her time.

My copy has already found a secure berth on my bookshelves where, if my life were to follow its usual routine, it would remain untouched and unblemished for a number of years. I don’t mean to be an enthusiastic, then lazy, sod, but unfortunately I am. I have a terrible habit of acquiring books I think would be interesting, then not giving them a second glance for any number of years. And even when I do, I all to often get sidetracked. So at the moment I am halfway through Misha Glenny’s McMafia, Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, a volume of short stories by Angus Wilson, The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham and an extremely useful book on teaching yourself to play bass guitar. I suspect, however, that in view of what is now going on and occupying the headline writers throughout the lands, my short introduction to World War I is destined to suffer less benign neglect than all the other books I have acquired (some of which I bought, others, like the book which claimed – rather convincingly, actually, that Jesus was a terrorist – I found knocking around the office).

As I haven’t yet read it, I am still on shaky ground as to how World War I came about, or rather I know an impressively long list of factoids, some of which might even be true. But I think I know that one factor which led to four years of slaughter in a part of the world which until then had regarded itself as reasonably civilised was that various European nations were rather impressed by their own might and weren’t at all averse to a bit of showing. Certainly, there were many other, far more complex, reasons, and when and if I do complete my Very Short Introduction, I shall be able to pontificate on the subject at far greater length at some future date. But loads of what here in the office we call ‘willy waving’ was most certainly a factor.

The point is that none of those involved expected the war they were all so very keen on waging would last more than a few months. You’ll be home by Christmas, all the sad patriotic saps who signed up were assured, rather as a former Labour defence secretary assured a concerned nation that quite probably not a shot would be fired in the operation in Afghanistan. None involved in the enthusiastic declarations of war which were made in the capitals of Europe expected, or even suspected, that it would not be a cakewalk and would, instead, become the long-drawn out slaughter of millions we know from our history books.

I mention that Very Short Introduction, and intend digging out that slim volume sooner rather than later, because I do wonder whether the current noble action by the West to impose a no-fly zone to protect the Libyan rebels is similarly an action which might precipitate the wholly unexpected. I think I mentioned a week or two ago the observation by a friend that 2011 might well turn out to be ‘one of those years such as 1848 and 1914’ and bring about all the changes they did. I don’t for a moment doubt that those involved – Cameron, Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and various faceless idiots from the EU aren’t fully aware of the dangers. After all, they, too will know their history. It’s just that so much else is going on in the world: the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, the world economy still recovering from the banking crisis of a few years ago, almost universal unrest throughout the Middle East – Syria is said to have experienced protests over these past few days – and the fact that the difficulties of waging war in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Iraq are far from over. If I were the kind to resort to cliché, then I might add ‘that it all adds up nicely for the perfect storm’. Oh, and then there’s the continuing hassles the bloody euro is causing, with the Germans understandably getting increasingly irritated that they should be expected to bail out all and sundry in the interest of European brotherhood.

I mention World War I because at the time the various chancelleries around Europe will have considered that they had fully thought through the consequences of what they intended to do. I mean, they didn’t have to go to war after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, but they doubtlessly decided that it was a good enough excuse to pick sides and start the fighting and to demonstrate what superior nations they had become. I doubt whether many involved even knew where Sarajevo was. But what happened, happened and World War I marked the end of one era and the beginning of another.

There is certainly direct comparison between the origins of World War I and what is now going on in the Middle East, but events do have a habit of getting out of hand. Take Iran, for example, a situation which has loads of potential for spinning out of control. Its own opposition might well be encouraged by the dissent that is being shown in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and, it now seems, Syria and Saudi Arabia so the country, and it all follows the problems the government had a few years agoa. It will also know that throughout history the tried and tested tactic for defusing internal problems is to unite the country against an external enemy. So what better time to launch action against Israel and invite attack by the West? Either the West felt obliged to respond in kind with all the problems that would bring, or it would – implausibly – regard it as wisest to leave well along and risk losing an enormous amount of credibility very fast indeed. I’m not saying that will happen, I’m just saying that it is wisest to expect the unexpected. So it really might well be time to dig out Armageddon: At Very Short Introduction (available I all good bookshops until they are all burned to the ground).

. . .

There are several pieces of music which send a shiver down my spine. Always. On is Aretha Franklin’s version of I Say A Little Prayer. Another is the beginning of of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But it is not always music. The cartoon below does so, too. It happened again when I googled it so that I could post it here. If you are not familiar with it, it refers to the ‘peace treaty’ hammered out by ‘the big four - David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, Vittorio Orlando at Versaille in 1919, which was so ineffably punitive for Germany.
The caption has Clemenceau observing: ‘Curious, I thought I heard a child weeping’. If you can’t make it out, on the left of the cartoon is that child, marked ‘1940’. The cartoonist was only out by a year.

The one I had in my mind’s eye is different, but perhaps what I thought I remembered is nothing but a false memory.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The world has lost the plot: the BBC provides the proof. And after that there's one for the boys (and sporting gals)

I know it is an article of faith for us centenarians that the world and everything in it is disappearing up its own arse, but I do now think I have what will pass for conclusive proof.
For many years now, our British television and radio news programmes have not only broadcast reports live from abroad, but have taken to actually presenting their shows from abroad. So there is one ‘anchor’ in the London studio and another presenting live from wherever the major news event has taken place. What the anchor presenting live from abroad can add to the programme from doing so tens of thousands miles away is not at all clear and your guess is as good as mine. He or she can’t actually go out and do some live reporting as he or she has to stay in the studio to present. And, anyway, there are plenty of other broadcast hacks who can go out and report live. Nor is there much to be gained from interviewing in situ, as it were, those figures of authority who can add a useful two ha’porth and clarify what is going on. For if the presenter weren’t abroad but at home in London, he or she would simply conduct the interview over an international link. (I don’t know what the technical term is and, to be honest, I can’t be arsed finding out. Sorry.)
Ah, I hear you all cry, but your just an old fart who refuses to move with the times. Having one anchor at home and another abroad makes the programme – well, I’ll guess: more relevant? More immediate? More vital? Which? I can’t deny that it does add a certain pizzazz to proceedings and imbue whatever programme it is with a spurious gravitas – I stress spurious – but if we are at all honest, we would be bound to admit that it adds nothing except cost. These chaps aren’t flying easyjet, don’t you know. No, sir.
But, well, you know, modern times and all that, so perhaps I am being a bit of an ageing moaning minny by pointing out how exceptionally bloody futile it all is, despite the added sheen of showing off what technology can now do. But now I can demonstrate exactly how bloody daft the practice is.
I usually listen to Radio 4’s Today in the morning and rather like it. But it, too, is addicted to showing off with one presenter in London and another, as the news agenda might dictate, presenting from Tel Aviv or Washington or Moscow or somewhere. And what with the horrible disaster in Japan, Today – naturally – had to get one of its presenters over there. James Naughtie was the lucky hack, so this morning it was Sarah ‘Jolly Hockeystick’ Montague in London and James Naughtie in Sendai. (‘Naughtie’, by the way, dear foreign reader, is pronounced ‘Nochty’ as it is Scottish. They do that kind of thing. ‘Menzies’, for example, is pronounced ‘Mingis’. Naughtie’s mugshot is on the left.) And who did Jimbo interview live from Sendai? Only the bloody Japanese ambassador to Britain who was not in Sendai, but in London. If anyone reading this can point out to me why sending a hack to the other side of the world to interview someone back home, I shall be very grateful. But I shan’t be holding my breath in anticipation.
Now I must have a large sherry and go and lie down.

. . .

I heard a good joke the other day, which I should like to share with you.
It seems one of the professional hazards of earning your living as a racing jockey is piles. All that bouncing up and down in the saddle at the 2.30 at Wincanton plays havoc with your arse, so British jockeys have for many years resorted to a traditional and effective remedy. Every morning after they have done the stablework, they take a bath or shower and then rub used tealeaves over their bottoms, inside and out. It seems that something in the caffeine in tea has a soothing effect and tends to solve the problem. But not always. And it seems one stable’s champion jockey was finding no respite at all and with his piles getting worse and worse, his performance on the racetrack was suffering. So his trainer decided to pay for him privately to see a specialist.
Off the jocky went one afternoon for his appointment. He explained to the eminent man what the problem was and he was told to drop his trousers and bend over so the specialist could take a look. After a few minutes, the specialist says:
‘Well, that’s interesting.’
‘Can you sort it out?’ the jockey asks.
‘Yes, of course I can,’ says the doctor, ‘but I should tell you that you are going to go on a long journey and will meet a tall, dark stranger.’

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A pub bore apologises, a pretty picture (well, strictly speaking two) and a complaint

This blog has been going through something of an minor existential crisis these past few days. I mean: what is it? It started out as just another, digital way of keeping a diary/commonplace book and was that for some time. It still is that to a certain extent, but more recently it has done nothing by resemble a rather corpulent gent in late middle age and no longer quite sober (‘sobre’ for my American readers - the first rule of blogging is ‘don’t confuse your reader’) leaning against the bar and delivering a series of platitudes and threadbare observations. And to be honest, I can’t as yet see a way around that. Added to that was my growing addiction to the ‘stats’. Every day I would look at the ‘stats’ to see how many people had readmy blog, what entries they were interested in and what actually brought them to the blog. (Mandy Rice-Davies knocks them into a cocked hat, incidentally. The number of visitors who have found there way here because they were looking for more information on Many or, more likely, wanted to see a picture of her in her heyday, is quite startling. So here it is again.) It then got to the point where I was beginning to feel obliged to make an entry. At the back of my head was the niggling thought ‘they’ll be visiting today to see what else I have to say about the world and its foibles’. Well, how stupid is that? There are many ways of describing ‘a fool’, and most certainly one very good way would be ‘the kind of man or woman who takes themselves seriously’, and I can’t deny that I crossed that line recently, or even not so recently. So from here on in, I shall try to bear that in mind.

. . .

On loyal reader (who in his way sparked off the above confession) has alerted me to another blog. I visited it and came across this picture, which I have nicked. It reminds me of a young Evelyn Waugh. Oh, and if you were tuning in here to read all about the horrible earthquake in Japan or the West’s dilemma over ‘what to do about Libya’ (makes it sound like parents wringing their hands over their youngest son who they know is a spendthrift, promiscuous, gay and an alcoholic, but who cannot yet admit it to themselves), fuck off and watch it on TV. I’m in a bad mood. You won’t get any more platitudes here for at least another two days.

. . .

One of the more infuriating aspects of the internet is that however useful it can be, it is not always useful. Time and again while trying to track down something - a service, a product or, as now, a list of railway stations in Italy so that I can find out trains serve which towns around Lake Garda - you are merely directed from one long list of websites to another long list of websites, and from there, blow me, to another long list of bloody websites, without actually being directed to one which can give you the information you want. They say it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but ‘they’ were probably not trying to find out about railway stations serving the various towns around Lake Garda.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dining with the Devil - it's great while it lasts. And a couple of shorts

When does a saying become a cliché? Well, I don’t know. All I know is that one thing many sayings and clichés have in common is that they invariably contain more than a grain of truth. And the saying - or is it cliché? - I should like to use in today’s sermon
is ‘When you sup with the Devil, us a long spoon’. I think we’ve all heard that one, but it is surprising how often we ignore such sage advice. One of the latest people to pay the price of ignoring that advice is a chap - a knight no less, which will, of course, be of great interest to any Americans happening upon this blog - who is by no means a dumbo and who, therefore, is all the more culpable. The man in question is Sir Howard Davies, who was once a chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority and a deputy director of the Bank of England. Sir Howard has just resigned as the director of the London School of Economics for doing something which, in retrospect, looks rather stupid. As the LSE director he accepted a £300,000 donation to the college from a ‘charity’ set up by the family of Colonel Gaddaffi. Remember him? The thug who has ruled rather brutally over Libya for 42 years and is now bombing his own people who have decided they want rid of him? That’s the chap. The point is that the Gaddaffi regime’s brutal repression was not somehow hidden from view for these past 42 years, nor was it just an open secret. But a few years ago, the good colonel decided - he is known for being unpredictable - he wanted to get on better terms with the West and made all sorts of repenting noises. Western business was not slow in realising that here lay an advantage for them and leading the charge on their behalf were the West’s leaders. (I published a series of pictures last showing a number of them, as well as Russia’s Putin sucking up to the colonel. They weren’t exactly sucking his dick, but they might have been.) In that context and at the time it is perhaps understandable that when the colonel’s son, Saif al Islam, arrived at the LSE with 3300,00 in a suitcase in used fivers and announced he would like to hand over the money for the good of mankind, Sir Howard thought it would be all right to accept. If all the other great and good of the West were at it, why not the venerable LSE? you can almost hear him thinking. In a sense, all Sir Howard is guilty of is following the latest political fashion of shutting one’s eyes and counting the cash.

. . .

But we never, ever learn from our mistakes. And while the West does its best to forget how it sucked up to Gaddaffi as he goes about slaughtering ‘his people’ - apparently they still love him. The ones causing the trouble are young men high on drugs supplied by al Qaeda and the CIA (whose alleged congenial co-operation would be unprecedented) who will be hunted down house by house - it continues to suck up to other regimes which can be equally as brutal when needs must. China, for example.
China, the West tells itself (while keeping its fingers firmly crossed behind its back), is improving. Slowly, perhaps, but it is feeling its way towards democracy, or, at least - the qualifications are obliged to multiply as the truth sits increasingly uncomfortable with the claim - towards a kind of democracy. The evidence, says the West, is there for all to see: a burgeoning middle class (without which no democracy is possible, of course), unprecedented economic growth (without which no democracy is possible, of course), a growing private sector (without which no democracy is possible, of course), home ownership (without which no democracy is possible, of course), and far greater freedom for the West’s media to travel throughout the country and report on what it sees (without which no democracy is possible, of course). Or not as it now turns out.
In view of the unrest spreading throughout the Middle East and anonymous calls from within its own borders for the people to mount similar demonstrations, China has taken fright. The West’s media has now been told that it cannot report from certain parts of one or two of its cities and that it must again seek permission before travelling around the country. Oh, well, you might say, remember: it’s a ‘developing democracy’ and the path to freedom is not always smooth. Quite, and it was a damn sight less smooth for the BBC’s Damian Grammaticas and his television crew as well as other reporters who had gone to film in Beijing’s famous shopping street, Wangfujing. They were set upon and beaten up by state security agents. His report can be found here. Has China changed its spots? Well, for the past ten years while the West’s apparent prosperity was sustained by a never-ending supply of cheap consumer goods from China, we persuaded ourselves that it had. But if - make that when - the shit eventually hits the fan, when those in China whose homes are bulldozed overnight to make way for nice beaches for the ‘burgeoning middle class’, when the housing bubble bursts and that same ‘burgeoning middle class’ is reduced to penury, when the West really takes fright at how much farming land China is busily buying up in Africa and other parts of the world and decides to get tough, we will see just how reformed China has become.

. . .

China is, of course, very aware of the danger of its economic miracle turning to dust and the political unrest which would follow. In a speech delivered yesterday, Premier Wen Jiabao has acknowledged the growing gulf between the country’s poor and its ‘burgeoning middle class’ and widespread corruption and its 11 per cent economic growth cannot be sustained. The problem is, of course, that China is a very curious kind of dictatorship. It doesn’t actually have a dictator. Instead it relies on an intricate web of vested interests - in other words all those benefiting from the widespread corruption - to keep the system running, and it must tread carefully. Very carefully. And, as Caesar once pointed out, the solution to dealing with domestic trouble is to cause trouble overseas. It tends to take one’s countrymen’s minds of their own difficulties. I’m sure the Chinese leadership is aware of that, too. It’s not, of course, in anyone’s interests for there to be worldwide trouble: China needs us to buy its goods just as much as we need China to produce those goods more cheaply than we can. But if needs must, which they eventually might ...

. . .

And just for the craic...

and another for good measure...

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Who discovered olives and coffee? And enjoy the good times, they might not last much longer

There are several questions which, even at the ripe old age of 104, I have yet to find answers. As they are of the kind of question a child might ask a parent, I am quite happy to be puzzled, and I can feel the years falling off just pondering them. Here’s one of the questions.
I eat a lot of olives. I love olives. So I recently googled olives to find out what health benefits they have, and I discovered they have rather a lot. But I also discovered that they have to be cured first before they can be eaten, because the fruit on the tree is incredibly bitter and not at all edible because of a substance called oleuropin. Fair enough, with you so far, but here is my question: how on earth did we, several thousand if not several tens of thousands of years ago make the connection between 1) picking an olive and eating it and thinking ‘Jesus, that’s awful, it’s so bitter!’ and 2) well, I still want to eat this incredibly nasty fruit and – who knows? – I might even want to squeeze it to see if I can’t get some oil out of it. I know, I’ll cure it by either soaking in oil, brine or water, or dry packing in salt.
See what I mean? Doesn’t make a great deal of sense, does it. I mean did the same thought process also take place with the bark of trees, with some bright spark thinking: ‘Well, it worked with olives, so although if I eat the bark of this tree it tastes bloody awful, if I do something to it, possibly by soaking in oil, brine or water, or dry packing in salt, I might find that it becomes edible after all’?
Then there’s coffee. It seems you can do bugger all with the bean as grown. So at some point, some bright spark, quite possibly the same bright spark who found how to make olives edible (you must remember that there weren’t half as many people around tens of thousands of years ago, so it could well be the same guy) thought to himself: ‘Well, this fruit isn’t very useful, is it? I know, I’ll extract the green bean in the centre, drop it into a fire to roast it, then, when it’s roasted, I’ll fish it out, grind it up, then mix it with water just off the boil and see what that produces. Who knows, it might well produce a stimulating drink and in time, I could sell beakers of that drink from a chain of shops all over the world.’
I won’t go on, as it is bad form to labour a point, but I’m sure you know what I’m getting at.

. . .

I can’t remember what I was doing yesterday, but the thought suddenly struck me that in years to come folk might remember the past 60 years as an era of peace and prosperity. Perhaps I’ve spend too many years working as a hack disseminating doom and gloom (it’s sells a treat) and am guilty of the cardinal sin of believing my own bullshit, but if things are to go very wrong for the world, the conditions could not be riper.
I have now remembered what I was doing when the thought struck me - I was reading about how the Germans, who seem to have shrugged off the recent ‘economic and banking crisis’ a lot faster than many, were said to be growing wearing at bailing out what they regard as feckless southern European types who lied and cheated their way into membership of the euro. I have possibly caricatured them rather, but if that is the essence of what they are thinking, they have very short memories. Wasn’t it the Germans who were all in favour of the European project and its badge of honour, the euro? And didn’t they turn a blind eye to what some countries were doing just to get everyone involved? Why, yes they did. Still, I can’t but have some sympathy for the dilemma the German government now faces over the EU bailout fund. It might still be in favour of helping out member states, but are Germany’s voters? And exactly who does the government need to keep sweet if it wants to stay in power? But what has all this to do with a stormier ride ahead for the world?
In two words: oil prices. Because of all the trouble in Libya, the price of oil has shot up and looks like rising even further. Barely two years ago, I was paying just over 90p for a litre of petrol and cursing the cost. Yesterday, that litre cost me £1.33. All other things being equal, the West might well be able to tighten its belt and ride out the storm, but there’s the little matter of the huge debts everyone is facing and the very nasty cutbacks all governments are obliged to make. A sustained period of widespread unemployment and widespread immigration could see rather a lot of trouble on the streets. For example, in May all migrants arriving in Britain from other parts of the EU will be as entitled to full welfare benefits as though they were British-born, and the danger is it could utterly scupper the Tories attempts at reforming the welfare system. For however ungenerous our welfare payments are, they are still more generous than those paid in other parts of the EU, and who can blame people living in those other parts from moving to Britain to get a piece of the action as, under EU law, they are entitled to do?

. . .

We were rather spoiled by the comparatively peaceful progress of what we hacks refer to the ‘Arab spring’ in Tunisia and Egypt, although it seems it most certainly isn’t all done and dusted in those countries and there is a lot of trouble bubbling under. But the situation in Libya is far more immediate in that ol’ Muammar Gaddaffi is most certainly not going quietly. There is talk of civil war developing there, Egyptian migrant workers in Libya trying to escape the troubles by fleeing westward are not too welcome in Tunisia, and the West has united against our very own David Cameron to slap him down over his suggestion that it should do something militarily to put an end to Gaddaffi’s regime. The White House is utterly aghast at the suggestion, which rather begs the question as to why the U.S. didn’t have such delicate feelings about chuntering into Iraq a few years ago. Ah, that was different, they will say.
But if the trouble does spread - and no one does repression quite as well as the Saudis, Americans’ best pals in the area - that will mean even higher oil prices, even higher food prices, even higher inflation, greater unemployment, an even higher danger of civil dissent on the meaner European streets and, generally, a lot of nostalgic looking back to that peaceful and prosperous second half of the 20th century. Oh, and the Belgians still don’t have a government. You couldn’t blame them for thinking that if the country can function rather well without one, as it has done for the past ten years - or thereabouts - why do we even bother with one?