The British papers have conflicting stories on what is going on in the eurozone. The pro-euro FT says ‘EU signals last resort backing for Greece’ whereas the anti-euro Telegraph quotes a statement made to the German parliament by Rainer Bruederle, economy minister, that there would be "no bail-outs" for struggling debtors and no move to a "European economic government". There is a divergence of opinion in Europe as to what to do. The Germans, as was bound to happen, have decided they don’t want to pay.
The markets went for the Telegraph’s version and hammered Greek debt. It hadn’t helped that an auction of Greek bonds had sold well to hedge funds who believed a story that China was going to invest in Greek bonds. The story seems to have been put out by Athens and its advisors. When they found out they had been conned they sold heavily. Greece now pays 4% more than Germany on its debt and must renew some 50 billion euros by June. It can’t afford these rates, which means it can’t afford the uncertainty being allowed by European leaders to diffuse over the markets.
So what will happen? Simply enough, a country in Greece’s position must either have an external devaluation (of its exchange rate) which Greece can’t do while it is in the euro, or an internal devaluation, which means wages and asset values must go down and taxes must go up. Many people think Greece doesn’t have the political will to do this.
No one knows what would happen if Greece left the eurozone. One idea is that it would create a new internal currency called the drachma, in which all internal transactions would be made. External transactions and the payment of taxes would be in euros. So Greece would be both in and out of the euro. It would be a temporary measure and the Government would undertake to buy back all the drachmas with euros in five years time. If you own a property in Greece it would now be valued in drachma (probably 30% lower) but so would any mortgage you might have.
But what of euro notes issued by Athens? Are they, like the Bank of England’s ‘I promise to pay the bearer..’ an obligation of Greece?. Have you got any?
The number on Greek issued notes begins with a Y. That on German issued notes begins with X.
On 3rd January the courthouse in Reggio, Calabria, was firebombed. No one is in any doubt that this was the work of the n'drangheta, the Calabrian mafia, telling the government to back off. A week ago, a car containing explosives was found a few hundred metres from the route taken by the President, Giorgio Napolitano, to the airport after a visit to the city. On Monday a prosecuting magistrate investigating the n'drangheta received a bullet through the post.
On Thursday Silvio Berlusconi, himself recently attacked in public, held a cabinet meeting in Reggio and unveiled a new plan against the n'drangheta, the Camorra in Naples and the Sicilian mafia. The plan includes stringent procedures for asset confiscation.
It would be nice if just some of the press could recognise (a) that Berlusconi has balls, which can scarcely be said of 99% of European politicians and (b) that more has been done by this government against organised crime than any before it. Papers in England and Germany in particular are still putting out sly little insinuations that Berlusconi has connections to organised crime. Funny way of saying thank you.
Following the noises being made about banning the burqa in France, I suspect that there are sympathetic rumblings in many parts of Europe. The party I helped to found, UKIP, is making noises in this direction. I suspect and hope it is purely a political machination and they aren’t serious.
Now, I am of the view that if you are coming to live in a country you should adopt as many of its customs as possible, and in the absence of proof that it is required by Islam, I regard the wearing of the burqa as refusal to integrate and damned bad manners. I have problems banning it, though.
I don’t want to get to the stage where the State decides what you can and can’t wear. You can imagine in the past we would have banned such things as jeans (except for manual workers), miniskirts and long hair (except for women).
You can make the ban conditional. For example in France they are considering banning entry into government buildings for those wearing the burqa (except presumably the courts), withholding benefits and denying citizenship. But with the conditionality you have to say what it is about those circumstances which makes the ban necessary or desirable. Presumably it would be banned in the offices of France Telecom but not if it were denationalised. Why shouldn’t you receive benefits for dressing in a particular way? If they are conditional on suitable behaviour why do we allow benefits for drug addicts? And the refusal of naturalisation: what if the woman doesn’t wear the burqa for the qualification period and puts it on once she has got her passport?
No, the only one that’s remotely viable is banning the covering of the face, motorcycle helmets included, in any organisation where there is the risk of robbery, such as Post Offices and banks. For the rest we must confine ourselves to reminding these women to their faces that they are not playing the game.
But I don't suppose many of us will be doing that. It just might be a cross dressing karate black belt under that sheet.
I live down the road from Il Passetto restaurant in Rome. It is known to be expensive, but you may remember last June that two Japanese tourists complained to the police after forking out 700 euros for their lunch.
The newspapers love a story like this, partly because of the opportunities offered to sub-editors ‘Restaurant lands itself in the soup’, ‘Bill left a nasty taste in the mouth’ (and here I must apologise for that ‘forking out 700 euros’). In part however it is because the Roman restaurants have a bit of a reputation for this. The Romans themselves don’t suffer, because they all know a little place round the corner which makes an Amatriciana better than your mother does and costs less than a hamburger.
Anyway, the restaurant was closed by the authorities, rather elegantly, I thought, for hygiene reasons. It is part of life in Italy that you can get away with blue murder but cross the line one millimetre and you will get the book thrown at you. They probably checked the owner’s car had been properly serviced. His crime seems to be giving the sport a bad name.
Now the owner is fighting back. On the window of the restaurant he has posted a list ‘For the curious: this is what those two Japanese ate in June’.
And I must say it is a pretty sporting little lunch. A couple of beers, and three antipasti: 2 portions of porcini mushrooms, 2 of scampi and two of oysters (6 of which were au gratin). That would be enough for most people and with the bread and a half bottle of sauvignon notched up 176 euros. A full meal for two would be fifty or sixty in that little place round the corner but this is Passetto and they are eating seafood.
Then the Japs went for the primo, or pasta course. Tonnarelli pasta with two kilos of lobster, if you please, at 104 euros a portion.
They seem to have been getting into their stride now because they ordered 1.5kg of roast sea bass with potatoes at 55 euros a kilo, together with an interesting chardonnay at 79 euros.
Dessert? Naturalmente. 2 portions of fruit compote and only one of ice cream (perhaps one of them was running out of steam or it was a desire to economise).
And the whole lot, with a bottle of water, came to euro 579.50. They then had their photos taken with the waiters and, according to the proprietor, offered a tip rounding it up to 700 euros.
I rather think I am coming down on the side of the proprietor. It is difficult in a foreign country but the prices are on the menu and I am sure 2kg of lobster would cost a fair bit in central Tokyo.
The name of the restaurant, by the way, is taken from the secret passageway from the Vatican to Castel S.Angelo, used by the Pope when besieged by angry restaurant proprietors for not paying his bill.
Details have emerged of the terror campaign conducted by British Police on Britain’s roads during the Christmas period.
223,423 people were stopped in December while going about their lawful business and made to take a breathalyser test. Only 7,638 were over the limit. That’s about one in thirty.
That this is an enormous waste of police time is self-evident: in no other field would such an enormous effort with such low results be tolerated. What is less often mentioned is the erosion of civil liberties. The laughably low success rate means that there can have been no suspicion of criminality – police were just randomly stopping anyone they felt like stopping.
Even the incidence of being over the limit when there had been a collision was only 7%, which means that for every fourteen road accidents, thirteen were caused by something other than alcohol. What?
Where I used to live, near Shaftesbury, the major problem was not drunks but old people. They had poor eyesight and were often unable to control their vehicle. But the police weren’t stopping them and subjecting them to carbon dating tests. No, this is purely and simply a caving in to the ghastly busybodies who want us all to behave in an approved manner.
An example of what we have to contend with is Sarah Fatica, from the road safety charity Brake (funded by your taxes), who bemoans the fact that Britain only stops 1% of its drivers annually. ‘As a country we’re still lagging behind other world leaders’ and you can almost hear the swivel-eyed loony licking her lips as she mentions that in New Zealand they test 50% of drivers ‘they block off whole sections of road and test everyone who comes through’.
Ms Fatica needs help so that she can look objectively at herself and at what she is doing, so she can see how her brand of do-good fascism is ruining the country. What she doesn’t need is to be taken seriously or given taxpayers’ money.
I can scarcely believe I am writing this. The American Justice Department has said that out of 192 inmates of Guantanamo Bay, which President Obama has promised to close, 110 could be released, 35 could stand trial but the remaining 47 of the prisoners should be detained indefinitely without trial. The Justice Department admitted that there was not enough evidence against them to stand up in court, but said they were too dangerous to release.
Well, if they weren't dangerous before (and it seems that the majority of the detainees were not), they have every right to be now.
As I say, I can scarcely believe I am writing this. Obama must stand up immediately and declare this is not an option. America must retain the moral high ground when fighting other peoples and detaining people without trial on the say-so of a civil servant is the moral gutter.
No list of famous Belgians would be complete without the name of Django Reinhardt, the jazz guitarist, the centenary of whose birth is today.
So original was his technique that a critic hearing Django for the first time said it was as if he had become adept on the guitar without ever having heard another person play it. Part of the cause was partial paralysis of the third and fourth fingers of his left hand. He played his famous solos using only two fingers.
Django came 65th in a 2005 list of the greatest Belgians compiled by Belgian television, showing what a cultured lot they are. The list contains 16th century mapmaker Mercator (famous for his projection), Rubens, Erasmus and Adolphe Sax, plus a lot of people you have never heard of.
Chris Huehne, who on a couple of occasions has been in danger of giving the Liberal Party a good name, reminds us that since Labour came to power in May 1997 they have introduced roughly one new offence per day. These include causing a nuclear explosion (pity I missed the chance when it was still legal) and disturbing a pack of eggs when ordered not to by an authorised officer.
This is an aspect, and an important one, of the sort of society Britain has become. Egg inspectors, dustbin searchers, CCTV watchers, wheel clampers, busybodies and petty fascists. This is where to start, Mr Cameron.
Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia, has an article in the Times, broadly to the effect that however charming Prince William may be, they still want a republic. And good for them: I am quite unable to understand why such a vibrant country would want as its head of state an octogenarian aristocrat living thousands of miles away.
Turnbull says the best time for another referendum on becoming a republic would be at the end of the Queen's reign. What with this and other stories about the Royal Family recently I might almost suspect we are being groomed for the Queen's retirement on her 60th anniversary, in 2012.
But Turnbull makes a point worth thinking about: with Britain being incorporated into the EU, in fact Australia is a more independent nation than the 'mother country'.
Mr Obama, perceived in America as having been too close to Wall St, has suddenly moved in the opposite direction. Middle America was confused and angry about the billion dollar bail outs and fabulous headline salaries (rather than the average wage bill in financial services but that is another matter). Obama, in trouble over healthcare, is making a leap towards the middle classes. This is political, but there again most things are.
I posted in March last year about what used to be known as the Glass Steagall Act (GSA), separating commercial banks from investment banks, so that a financial institution either deals for the customer or for itself but not both.
The points against GSA, and these will come out strongly as the financial sector lobbyists swing into action over the next few weeks, are valid: inhibiting the free flow of money will reduce the efficiency of the markets and will ultimately be against the interests of the consumer. We have benefited greatly from the loosely regulated markets, right up to the time they went belly up.
But I am broadly in favour of GSA. The legislation, in place since the thirties, was cancelled by Bill Clinton at a time when we didn’t think the markets could possibly crash in the way they in fact did. Now we know differently, we have to consider this implied contract: we know deep down that we can’t let major banks go bust because the whole edifice would come down round our ears. The Central Bank is clearly an insurance for them and they must therefore suffer detailed regulation and mitigate all possible losses, as you have to in any insurance contract.
GSA was clumsy and we don’t yet know the details of Obama’s plans. But it should be possible to allow the banks to operate in the casino but ring fence the capital for the bits we can't afford to go under. A holding company would own an investment bank and a commercial bank, capitalising both. The investment bank could make its losses and go under but could not use the capital of the commercial bank, dragging it down too. There would be no guarantees between the two. The commercial bank, in return for operating in a safe environment, would be subject to closer regulation and not allowed to play in the casino. An advantage of this is that as we understand more about the financial instruments that are being created we could allow them, simply adding them to the list of what is permitted to the commercial banks.
The advantage of this method is that it accepts that, with the ceaseless development of new products in the investment banking scenario, the regulators can’t keep up. Some investment banks will go bust, but they won’t take us down with them.
There seems to be a feeling in the UK that the purchase of Cadbury by Kraft is robbing the country of something. Whilst it may be understandable that people harbour suspicions of the makers of Kraft cheese slices, which terrorised so many of us in our youth, it has to be said that for the chocolate aficionado Cadbury’s Dairy Milk is no great shakes either. It contains so little cocoa that they had to get a dispensation from the European Union to allow it to be called chocolate. They now use environmentally unfriendly palm oil instead of cocoa butter.
Useful facts to bear in mind are
The Headquarters is not in Bourneville but in Uxbridge
Many Cadbury products such as chocolate fingers, ice cream etc are made by other companies, using the name under licence
Only one in seven of Cadbury’s employees works in the UK
The Chief Executive is not Mr Cadbury but Todd Stitzer (of the Bourneville Stitzers, presumably) who earns £4 million a year, more than the vast majority of evil bankers.
The Cadbury board can’t agree to a sale; only the shareholders, who own the company, can. It seems they would rather have the money than their Cadbury shares.
The money the shareholders receive will not necessarily leave the UK (assuming it was from the UK in the first place). It might be used to create more British jobs. What decides whether this is a net loss to Britain is whether international investors want to keep their money in Britain, given the Government's lack of economic policy. Nothing to do with Kraft at all.
There is the whiff – just a whiff at the moment – of politics in the Haiti aid mission.
Alain Joyandet, the French minister for humanitarian relief is said to have been involved in a fight with an American serviceman in the control tower of the airport at Port au Prince, whilst Médecins sans Frontières say that one of their flights carrying a mobile hospital was refused permission to land, by Americans hogging the show.
The French, of course, are scarcely in a position to whinge about Haiti, having kept the islanders in slavery for years, then blockading it after the slaves revolted, only lifting the blockade after saddling the islanders with a massive debt for reparations to the slave owners which it took them more than a century to pay off.
Normal for the times, perhaps, (we are speaking of the early 19th century). A less appropriate presence is that of Bill Clinton who failed to give President Aristide the support he needed to turn Haiti into a functioning democracy, terrified he would turn into another Castro. Haiti, you see, is America’s backyard. It is right that if they are supplying the largest amount of aid (easily) they should run the show, but....
Obama is in trouble at home and, having been highly critical of the performance George W Bush over Hurricane Katrina has to look effective. Something going on abroad, and the use of the military for humanitarian purposes, constitute a welcome distraction. But there seems to be a longer term foreign policy at work here – he has sent in thousands of troops, such that some people are talking about an occupation.
I may be wrong. Let’s hope the Haitians don’t get caught up as pawns in a game they have no business in, and that nothing gets in the way of delivering food, water and medicines to the needy.
'Scots drink 46 bottles of vodka' shrieks the BBC.
What does this mean to you? All of the Scots? 46 bottles over a period of years? Every day?Vodka to the exclusion of everything else?
Well, what they wanted to force down your throat is that the average Scot, 'over the age of 18', drinks this amount, on average, every year. A bit less than a bottle a week, although how they know it was drunk by people over 18 is beyond me. My experience of Scotland (I worked in Edinburgh for a bit) is that it is a heady mixture of alcoholics (from the age of 6 upwards) and proselytising teetotallers.
Anyway, in modern nanny state parlance this is 26.5 units, on average, assuming no one under 18 drinks a drop.
So let's look at it, taking as our norm an adult professional person. He or she comes home in the evening after work and unwinds with a large whisky (like Margaret Thatcher) or gin and tonic. Just one. A pub double (which isn't very much when you pour it yourself) would make 10 units a week (weekdays). On Saturday and Sunday our person doesn't have the whisky but has 2 pints of beer or equivalent with friends in a pub; 9.4 units. Two pints isn't much; you wouldn't be in the pub for long. In the evenings man and wife share a bottle of wine; 33.6 units each.
So our person, who drinks, but not to what anyone other than a crazed temperancer could describe as excessively, has had 45 units, 70% more than the average level thought of as appalling.
You see, what they do here is take an average and in Scotland, perhaps England too, it's an average between some people drinking too much, some nothing and some normally . The people clogging up Scotland's A & E units are drinking far more than our model citizen above, perhaps three times as much, which would be five times the 'shocking' amount drunk at the moment (and that hasn't taken account of the drunken teenagers).
Their solution, of course is to penalise the average. Until we 'averagers' stand up and put a stop to it, this insane treatment of ordinary law abiding folk is going to continue, using the twisted statistics which we never seem to complain about.
An unpleasant if confusing little fracas on BBC Radio 1 teaches us something of British Politics. The dramatis personae, a cast guaranteed to send shivers up your spine, are Ed 'Blinky' Balls, described as Schools Secretary (he is in fact the Prime Minster’s Economics Adviser but uses this nom de guerre) an unmarried mother and N-Dubz.
Oh all right. N-Dubz are a hip-hop band consisting of Mr Hudson (I like this formality, which seems to have gone out with the Beatles), Fazer, Dappy and Tulisa, the last two, interestingly, children of the engagingly named Byron Contostavlos, who sang ‘In the Summertime’ with Mungo Jerry when the world was a happier place.
What? Oh, Ok then. Hip-hop comes from 1970s (nothing to do with Mungo Jerry, though) New York and purports to be a popular culture. The music involves repeats of a percussive pattern, overlaid by rap. Groovy, baby.
Anyway, our story concerns a Radio 1 show where a young lady called Chloe ‘phoned in to describe the band as ‘losers’ and Dappy, in particular, as ‘a little boy with a silly hat’. The aggrieved Dappy (Dino Contostavlos, son of the late Byron) obtained her ‘phone number and texted “Your (sic) gonna die, U sent a very bad msg towards N Dubz on The Chris Moyels show yesterday Morning and for that reason u will never be left alone!! If u say sorry I will leave u alone u ****." I’m afraid I really don’t know what the asterisks stand for.
Now the political context. Ed Balls, the Children’s Economic Adviser, said ‘This text message was completely unacceptable and it is right that he has not only apologised, but accepted there was no excuse for his behaviour. Every form of bullying must be stamped out.’
Wonder why this incident should receive the attention of the Puerility Minister and would be premier? Well, Mr Balls had recently used N-Dubz, Dappy y inclus, to launch a campaign against bullying.
The answer, or moral, is simple. People have a wrongly sentimental attitude towards children. In fact they’re shits, and bullying is, and always has been, rife. There is nothing a government can do to change this. It is the job of parents and teachers and older children to stop it. It is a foolish government which thinks it can make an ‘initiative’ out of bullying (of course it’s just for vote winning, not for helping the country) and typical of New Labour that they should try to look all trendy by getting Dappy and his ilk on stage with them, rather than work quietly behind the scenes to achieve their aims.
The other moral is: let’s sell off Radio 1 which has no place in the public broadcast sector.
By the way, Dappy’s father was far more contentious:
‘...do a ton or a ton and twenty-five Have a drink, have a drive Go out and see what you can find’
The Conservative Party has produced its plans for the Department of Health, covering the treatment of obesity and alcohol consumption.
One of the deeply depressing things about the modern day Tory Party is that despite accepting the need for government to get out of people’s lives, both for political and economic reasons, they seem unable to shed their own ‘government is best’ obsession. Here their spokesman, Andrew Lansley pledges ‘to work with fast-food restaurants and bars... to reduce the size of portions’.
Lansley appears to believe that it is the business of the State to influence or control the amount people eat. The Tories really do need to get rid of these people otherwise nobody is going to believe a word they say about cutting the deficit, but will think them as patronising as the last lot.
Lansley’s other wheeze is that he says most people don’t know what a unit of alcohol is. In this he is correct. Lansley wants to replace it with ‘centilitres of pure alcohol’.
Two problems with this: first, most people don’t know what a centilitre is, either. Second, a 'unit' is a centilitre of alcohol.
The Daily Mail is saying that we are in for 20-30 years of global cooling, a new mini ice age and the cause is water temperatures in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I mentioned something about this a while back (if it is the same thing) called Pacific Decadal Oscillation or some such claptrap.
I am a sceptic and I don’t believe this new stuff any more, or less, than I believe the old stuff about the climate getting warmer because of something I’ve done. I have a feeling it might be better if all the climate scientists got together and admitted they didn’t have a clue even about what it will be like tomorrow, much less in 50 years, perhaps blaming the strange weather on some metaphysical influence like God, or Margaret Thatcher. For all I know it’s caused by Des O’Connor and he should have been put down.
No, what I was thinking about as I read this was what a bunch of pillocks so many people are going to look if it turns out the anthropogenic global warming shtik is a complete nonsense. David Cameron, Ed Milliband, the entire Liberal Party, Prince Charles, Al Gore, the whole German nation. What are we going to do with them?
Public vilification is the answer. We know what they have said and written because it is all stored on the world’s computers and we need to subject them to a digital version of the stocks, where they can be jeered and abused 24 hours a day for everyone’s amusement.
When I was a kid – 6 or 7 years old – there was a craze for badges, in which I participated willingly. I remember some business friend of my father’s obtaining a BP badge, and the car companies used to sell them or give them away, I can’t remember. I must have had 30 of them, all pinned to my anorak.
Badges are a public statement of belonging to something. If you see someone with a ‘ban the bomb’ badge or a ‘rock against racism’ one they are trying to identify themselves, to people they don’t even know; where they stand, what sort of people they are.
Of course when I was six BP, in some vague way, was an association to be aspired to, for a child with no formed views of its own, but in later life I ask myself ‘why?’. I have quite firm views on fascism, racism, all manner of things, but I don’t profess them in the street. The reason these people do is a complex that they actually have nothing to offer in the way of opinion or conversation so they may as well hang their hat on some aspirant goal. It is a sign of weakness, of inarticulacy.
So what I want to know is why the American president has to wear a badge. George Bush wore one – I’m not sure if it was the same one – and I think Clinton, too. We can’t quite see it. Is it the vague aspiration ‘I’m pro democracy’ (let’s hope he is) or is it the sort of mawkish, folksy thing The Sun would issue to its readers ‘supporting our boys in Afghanistan’ (again, let’s hope he does, he’s the Commander in chief).
What can it be that, before shaking hands with him, before recognising him as the most powerful man in the world, we are supposed to think ‘Oh, you’re one of those guys who is a supporter of….’?
‘ ’Bin a lotta talk about..’ was how the Letters from Idi Amin in Private Eye Magazine used to begin and it seems a fitting way to approach the subject of the Royal Family.
An interesting start might be a series of extraordinary articles in a number of papers towards the end of last year to the effect that Prince William was going to become a ‘Shadow King’, taking over lots of duties from his grandmother, HMQ. The elephant in the room was that William has a still extant father, who hasn’t had his turn yet (big ears, ruddy complexion, married en secondes noces to that horsey woman… it seemed we had all forgotten his name).
Then, interestingly (this is interesting, even though sections of the media and the various palaces seem to be trying to feed us opinions) the Shadow King in waiting said he didn’t want the job but wanted to concentrate on his military career (judging by his uniform he seems currently to be in the RAF).
Then came a rather peculiar article in the Daily Telegraph from George Pitcher. It said that St James’ Palace had gone to some efforts to squash the ‘Shadow King’ story because ‘Loyal subjects were hoping it might be true’. And Pitcher goes on to give his view about why that might be the case. ‘..(Prince Charles) has the ill fortune to have been a victim of a changing monarchy in changing times, a challenge that regrettably he has not met well. His demand for old-fashioned deference and his resistance to globalisation and technology make him not just a stranger to the 21st century but ill-equipped for most of what happened in the second half of the 20th.’
Pitcher, astonishingly, goes on to claim it was Charles’ stint in Cambridge in the 1960s with its liberal atmosphere that ruined him. ‘Prince William is unencumbered by any of this post-modern clap-trap.’ So, old fashioned deference and 1960s liberalism, a curious mixture.
What proponents of the idea of skipping a generation (that is what this is all about) seem to omit from their freely given opinions is that if Prince Charles is old fashioned, how much more so must be his mother, who was born in 1926 when George V had ten years yet to reign. HMQ has not spoken out on the issues which annoy George Pitcher about Prince Charles (architecture, globalisation) for the simple reason she isn’t allowed to, and nor will Charles be when he becomes king.
I am a fan of Prince Charles, whilst thinking he is wrong on global warming and globalisation, and I am not a fan of the present queen, who is not and never could be in tune with the zeitgeist and should have abdicated in 1993. Others may differ, but we have had some good monarchs and some bad over the years and Charles may prove to be one or the other. What we cannot do is allow public opinion (that is to say the press and the insider rumour mongers) to decide who the Head of State should be. If we go down that road it should be by election, and don’t forget that republics have good presidents and bad ones, just the same. And they cost just as much, or more.
Either we have the monarchy, with its sometimes strange looking people and its rigid system of successor selection, or we don’t.
Today is Epiphany, when Christians celebrate Christ's manifestation to the Gentiles.
Some Italian children get their presents on Jan 6th, and some are even getting a second lot. In a curious mixture of paganism and Christianity the festival is known in Italy as Befana, represented as a wicked witch, who instead of presents gives lumps of coal to naughty children. Befana is thought to be a pre-Christian deity and black faced witch dolls can be bought everywhere, but not, I suppose, in the souvenor shops in Vatican City.
This is a country where people teach their children about Sabine/Roman witches, go to early morning mass, then home to read their horoscopes.
It seems a little strange that people who banked with Icelandic banks - presumably to get a better return on their money - should be bailed out by the taxpayer, but I suppose if it weren't for the generosity of the island republic they would have stuck it with Natwest and we should have paid anyway.
Anyway Alastair Darling, UK chancellor, paid it all off when the Icelandic banks went belly up and now wants his (that is to say our) money back. Was there a proper loan agreement? Could we have a look at the terms?
But the Icelanders have decided not to pay it back (I really would like to have a look at that loan agreement). President Grimsson has refused to sign into law the bill providing for the repayment of the Darling billions.
Oh, and could they join the European Union so the Germans pay it off next time? Well. You don't have to have spent a lifetime studying the German mentality to suspect that this might not play too well in Frankfurt. Just a hunch.
But fortunately I have the solution. Those of us who can remember back to 1972 will recall the cod wars. The result of this conflict was that Iceland enforced a 200 mile limit round its fisheries and Britain gave away its fisheries to the European Union. So here we go: something the Icelanders will find easy and at the same time will greatly improve the British diet.
It seems that after the political parties have had a go at each other on health, social services etc it will soon be the turn of food. Labour wants to make us self-sufficient (why? are we expecting the U-Boats back?) and the Tory Party want to regulate supermarkets to the benefit of farmers.
Here's the best thing they could do: leave it alone. There's plenty of food in the shops, and it's cheap enough that no one is starving. The examples in recent times of people going short of food (outside agriculturally depressed third world areas) are where socialism regulated the supply chain. The queues in Russia were because the food couldn't travel from farm to shop without the state getting involved at several stages.
Instead of a quango (have the Tories taken leave of their senses?) we need a Can-Do, a completely autonomous non directed organisation. The farmers would pay for it and it would set out quality standards for a 'Produce of Britain' label. The reason? Other countries in the EU produce things a lot cheaper than us, not just because of low wages but because of lower standards. Polish pork springs to mind. To get people to pay more for British pork (and we can't keep the Polish stuff out because they're in the EU) they have to be sure of the quality. Prince Charles is the chap to sort this out.
There would be a second label saying 'This food is guaranteed free from political interference'
The wonderful Italian artichokes are in full season which lasts, with different types of artichoke, until Easter.
OK: 1 decent sized artichoke & 1 tbs chopped pancetta/bacon per person and some tomato. Wild mint (mentuccia) or a mix of mint and parsley. Or just parsley. Put a pan of water on to boil.
Pull off the woody outer leaves - a good 2 layers - until the artichoke feels soft. Chop off the pointed ends so it is the shape of a flattish bowl. Chop off the stalks and scrape them with a potato peeler until you get to the soft bit. If you are doing a lot rub them with lemon to stop them oxidising. Halve, quarter and eighth the artichokes and cook them and the stalks in boiling salted water for 10-15 mins. Rinse the pan and put it on for the spaghetti.
Heat 2tbs olive oil and turn the artichokes in this with the pancetta. You don't want the pancetta to brown, you want it to give its flavour to the artichokes. Put the spaghetti in when the water is boiling. Add the tomato and a bit of water to the artichokes to keep the whole thing moist. When the spaghetti is cooked drain it and put it into the artichoke sauce with the mentuccia, stirring and mixing over a low heat. Serve with or without grated parmesan.
Good news from France. Interior minister Brice Hortefeux confirms that the number of torched cars has ‘stabilised’ at about 4 a day, over 1,000 a year. In the riots of a couple of years ago it reached that number in a week.
In the meantime the French are tucking into the intriguing dilemmas surrounding the body of Albert Camus. The Nobel Prize winning author of La Peste, l’Etranger and La Chute debated the philosophy of the Absurd for much of his early life and would have been intrigued by the goings on.
Camus died in a car crash in 1960 and is buried in the Vaucluse region of southern France.
Nicolas Sarkozy has ordered that his body should be transferred to the Panthéon to rest alongside other literary greats such as Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emil Zola, 50 years after his death. The outrage has been widespread. Reading from left to right, the left describe Camus as one of their very own, and declare the centre right Sarko is stealing their man. Amongst these is one of Camus’ children, who would have the right to prevent his disinterment. Centrist opponents of Sarkozy point out that M. le Président is famously unlettered (it is important in French politics to look cultured, but in one interview Sarko seemed not to know who Mme de La Fayette was, and dozens of people mailed him copies of her novel La Princesse de Clèves) and that the diminutive leader is just trying to get some good publicity out of this.
Jean Marie le Pen, founder of the hard right Front National, declared that Sarkozy was just trying to take away his supporters: Camus was a Pied Noir (Frenchman born in Algeria) and they vote for Jean-Marie. Finally another group have declared that Camus, born to a French father and a Spanish mother in what is not now part of France, was not French. This has caused a parliamentary debate on national identity.
Splendid stuff. In fact Camus was definitely French: his father died fighting for France and he himself was a part of the Resistance, editing their magazine Combat. Camus was not really of the left, as Sartre was, and warned against the totalitarianism which was the inevitable result of Sartre’s Marxism. He was one of the first to criticise the gulags, and spoke against the repression in Hungary in 1956. At the same time Camus was in no way of the right, and far from the traditional model of the Pied Noir. His philosophy, in modern terms, would be described as libertarian. His writing was of a quality to justify a position in the Pantheon (better than Zola), but he so despised government that I don’t think he would have received the honour from them. One of the problems Camus debated was whether life had any meaning, given that we are going to die anyway. He will be looking down, a sadder but wiser man.
2009 inherited from its predecessor one of the worst recessions in memory. And we haven’t seen the end of it: whilst most major economies (not Brown’s Britain) were technically out of recession by September there is bad news still to come as each little national weakness is probed.
2009 was expected to be Obama’s year and most people would say he disappointed, despite some clever diplomatic footwork getting him the Nobel Prize, the most surprising selection since Al Gore. Obama has grounds for optimism in 2010, however. His Health Bill will be passed, Afghanistan will look better, as will the economy, the jobless figure beginning to fall. His one black cloud is Iran. Here he will be expected to be tough. If he can get credible sanctions imposed and prevent Israel from bombing, he will have done well. If Israel does bomb Iran it will be with tacit American support. The world will then want to see a new order, which Obama must lead.
In the UK MPs’ expenses were one of the main topics of conversation through 2009, replacing house prices, but the new election will wipe that from memories, even if the new lot are just as corrupt as the old lot (but they won’t be).
In my opinion Gordon Brown would be wrong to leave the election too late – he should go in March before he has to present another budget. It is not beyond possibility that he will dither again however. Either way, the Tories will win , in my view more comfortably than people are saying. A majority of more than 35 seats.
I thought last year that the economic spotlight would fall on Europe and it hasn’t. But I believe it will in 2010. The deteriorating weaker economies Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain and Ireland will put pressure on the euro, just as it was becoming to be seen as a possible reserve currency. Austria will join this unhappy group in 2010. Overall for Europe, low consumer demand in the major economies and the weakness of export markets in the Eastern Bloc and the Balkans will hold back recovery. Rigid labour markets are preventing innovation and efficiency. In 2009 the £ traded at 1.02 – 1.19 (it ends the year at 1.13). By the Spring, with a new leadership and lack of good news for Europe I believe we will see 1.25. Over the last year the euro has been $1.25-1.51 (currently 1.43). If there is trouble in the Middle East we will see 1.25 again.
Oil will bounce along at $75-85 and gold will put on a bit, but not above $1,250, particularly if some economies start raising interest rates
2010 will be the year remembered for a shift in power away from America – Europe – Japan to China and India and the peripheral countries of the Far East. The decade to come will see Brazil join the new axis and the first signs that India might overtake China.
Traditional Roman New Year's Eve dinner of puntarelle and cotechino.
Puntarelle are a member of the chicory family, the thin sprouts shredded raw and dressed with anchovy and garlic.
Cotechino is a sausage made of pig's leg, wrapped in its skin. It is gelatinous and full of flavour. Cotechino is served on a bed of spicy lentils (believed to be lucky, a sign of fertility).
There may have been some wine involved.
I can't keep up any more with the revels. The last drunks were ambling down our street, singing hoarsely, at 6am, as I was getting up.
The Romans love fireworks, for the noise as much as the spectacle, and I usually keep a bucket of water by the window to chuck over anyone lighting bangers in our narrow vicolo. The rain kept most of them away but one time I did hear the telltale fizzing and threw the window open ready with the bucket but it was a neighbour, trying to reject the advances of a romeo, down in the street, by chucking a banger at him. Tough cookies, these Roman girls.