30 June, 2011

Noise on court

Saw some of the women's tennis. Some, not all, of the players grunt, or even shriek, as they hit the ball.

In my view this can only be seen as cheating, and the authorities should do something about it.

While they are at it, the Second Serve must surely go. It allows the server to go wild each time whereas having only one serve would be a better test of ability and nerve.

North and South

It is, I know, difficult for the cold, Protestant north of Europe to understand the warm Catholic and Orthodox south. Here, you say to the electrician ‘I really need this done by the weekend’ and he says ‘I will be there tomorrow’. But both he and you (if you are experienced) know that he won’t be there. Your insistence that it be done by the weekend is merely a statement that the matter is important to you. His statement that he will be there tomorrow is an acknowledgement of your feelings: he doesn’t want to be rude. His non appearance the next day is a statement that he is his own man.

Things are different in the South.

I wonder how many of the Greek MPs had their fingers mentally crossed when they voted for the austerity measures. To understand the effect of implementation of the measures they only had to look out of the window to see their constituents fighting the police in Syntagma Square. It must have made them wonder if they had the necessary courage. They haven’t. ‘Let’s just vote for what the Germans want’ they might have said: the political equivalent of ‘I’ll be there tomorrow’.

I think it is in the same light that we must see the Italian budget cuts, proposed by Giulio Tremonti, of €47 billion. You don’t have to delve too far into the small print to see that the cuts are for €1.8bn this year, .€5.5bn next year and a fantastic €20bn in each of 2013 and 2014. Perceptive readers will note that there are elections in 2012 and one of the candidates for the top job is likely to be one G.Tremonti.

In the words of St. Augustine, a man of the Mediterranean himself, ‘Grant me chastity and continence, only not yet’

29 June, 2011


Iceland is apparently considering applying for membership of the EU. It is hard to find anyone who thinks it a good idea for either party.

It does however show that the EU is quite tolerant of countries which default on their debts.

Greece votes today......

The grenouilles have it

Christine Lagarde has got the job of Managing Director of the IMF, as many had thought she would.

For myself, I am not so sure this is a good idea. It is not that I doubt her abilities, it is just that she is, well, French.

There are other problems, too: it is high time the job went to one of the newer developed countries, and this should have favoured the enormous Mexican, Carstens. Presumably the Americans don't like him.

And the French, if she survives in her post for the full term, will have held the post for 46 out of the previous 58 years.

But it is her Frenchness I want to talk about. Why is it that when a Briton goes abroad, within a few months he goes native: think Chris 'Fat Pang' Patten in Hong Kong, and almost everyone we have sent to Europe (Leon Brittan was a sensible realist until his plane landed in Brussels); but when the French go abroad they become even more French? And French means believing in the power of the State, and in a ruling political élite, and of course in the interests of France, which should be the interests of everybody.

The appointment of Mario Draghi to the ECB was held up because the French complained Italy already had a member of the board and France did not; therefore Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi should resign. The first president of the ECB was a perfectly competent Dutchman, Wim Duisenberg, but he had to step down half way through his term because he wasn't French.

Perhaps those who choose the IMF head  didn't think all this was important. I rather think I do.

28 June, 2011

Pensions cock-up

There is going to be a mass strike in the UK on Thursday, over pensions. I heard the leader of the teachers' union say that she couldn't even get details of the pension fund.

This seems to have been ineptly handled by the Government, which made one blanket announcement even though each profession has its own scheme. Naturally when workers hear that the terms of their pensions are getting worse, they see it like a paycut.

It isn't quite like that, though. A fund has a duty to pay back what has been put in, but cannot demand that any shortfall be topped up by the employer in the event that it cannot meet its liabilities. The funds cannot meet their liabilities because people are living too long. This has to be explained to the unions separately, with the figures for their fund. Heaven knows it is no secret that the Government hasn't got any money.

It seems to me the Government has been peremptory, high handed. This bodes ill for industial relations in the future.

A Blogger's return

A few days' illness caused by dehydration while queuing in homage to the Roman bureaucracy.

Much has been going on.

Franco Frattini, who as I have said before has done an excellent job at the Italian Foreign Ministry, has welcomed the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Gaddafi. He says it bestows credibility on the military action taken by NATO, and this may be true, but on the other hand it prevents some kindly Arab nation from giving shelter to Gaddafi and his equally vile family, thereby shortening the hostilities..

Meanwhile the non-war rumbles on. Our problems will come when Gaddafi does leave, and we are obliged to support a new 'government' with no democratic legitimacy and which, in terms of personnel, may not be all we could wish for.

22 June, 2011

The biter bit?

My last post, about hackers stealing the census records, was based on a press release issued by LuizSec, a hacking group.

Now they are purporting to say it wasn't them: at least we are being asked to assume that the second ones, not the first, are the real hackers, or rather not the hackers in this case. Clear?

It comes at a time when a 19 year old British man has been arrested on suspicion of being a member of this group (that is to say, not the.... you understand, I am sure).

So have the hackers been hacked? Or did they hack what they thought to be the census but it turned out to be a list of public conveniences in the North East?

We may never know.

21 June, 2011

Here we go

I wrote just four months ago about the census. My penultimate sentence was:

'Well, well, we can guess, (cant we?), what sort of person decided what they needed to know, and we can guess with some certainty that they won’t be taking too much care of the information once they have got it.'

Now we learn that a group of hackers called Lutzsec has stolen the whole damn thing. Lutzsec have issued a statement, and you almost have to admire their chutzpah:

“We have blissfully obtained records of every single citizen who gave their records to the security-illiterate UK government for the 2011 census,”

The whole lot. Every single address, ethnic origin, details of every Sikh and every Jedi Knight are now in the hands of some people, we don't know who, and they can publish it all for whatever reason.

Incompetence and busybodying, that's what makes up today's State. In the future anyone who gives it any information must be mad.


Today is the summer solstice.

I used to know a chap who on this day each year would say 'Nights are drawing in, now', but in fact, due to the curvature of the Earth or some such, they won't be drawing in for two or three days.

Still, it's depressing.

Umbria is going through a nice warm, dry patch (32C yesterday) and the long summer evenings of eating outside are beginning. The fireflies are still with us, and the cicale are scratching in the undergrowth and all is right with the world, so I don't care if the nights are drawing in.

Greece is the word

Such a lot of money, placed by so many investors, rules the currency markets that movement in currencies is usually nuanced. When you hear ‘sterling fell badly’ it means it has fallen from 1.12 to 1.1, not from 1.12 to 0.6. It is, although few people seem to realise it, a great benefit of what they label ‘speculation’.

Occasionally, however, there are serious movements and these tend to be when the markets have lacked information or been misled. Such an occasion is happening with the euro. There is a tacit deal at the moment that no country will be allowed to default – by which investors mean they will not lose any money. This means bail-outs, and as long as they go on investors are happy to buy, say, Spanish debt at 2% more than Germany is paying, on the grounds that it is extra interest for the same risk (Germany).

The markets seem to have had almost unlimited confidence that this system will persist (I must say I don’t) but are beginning to be wary that its days are numbered. What we assume to be the Euro-Group’s final position is that Greece must agree to make cutbacks and must denationalise industry before the next tranche of money is made available. There is currently a debate in the Greek parliament over whether to do this and the outcome is far from certain.

Daniel Hannan, the MEP make a good point in yesterday’s Telegraph. When, in Dr. Zhivago, the good doctor is asked why the Bolsheviks had to kill the Royal Family, he replies ‘It is to show there is no going back’. This is how it is for the euro. The Euro-group feel that if one country leaves the currency system the markets will think that another, then another can. In this, I think, they are correct.

The position for the Greeks is that they feel they are being led along. They know that if they leave the euro there will be a massive devaluation – as much as 40% - and traditionally this means that the people suffer: imported goods are much more expensive, as is the servicing of their debt, which would still be denominated in hard currency. Thus an external devaluation means an internal devaluation anyway: as the currency falls the people get poorer.

But the equation is different if they default: they simply renege on a chunk of their debt, or take an interest holiday, or extend the maturities so that there isn’t much to pay right now. This constitutes an external devaluation resulting in not nearly so much of an internal one: something the rioting unemployed will appreciate.

And in this Greece has a role model: Iceland, which allowed its banks to go bust, a technical default which seems to have done them little harm.

And the Greeks know, deep down, that the whole thing is unsustainable. Their productivity is so low that the same crisis will occur year after year. As a well informed Italian once said to me, there comes a time when you just accept you are in the second division. It may well be the Greeks would be happier with that acceptance, or it may well be the charade will continue.

If Greece leaves the euro, the governments of the big countries will still be spending, this time to shore up their own banks which have lent so much money to Greece. But that may be preferable to these continuous bailouts.

20 June, 2011


The killing of 9 civilians by a stray NATO bomb is an inevitable casualty of war, and a good reason not to get into a war which was never going to serve British interests anyway. The news will make the Arab world increasingly uneasy, and less tolerant of what can only be described as action outside the UN mandate.

At the same time NATO is receiving criticism from the rebel forces for not involving itself to the full, and the Benghazi government in waiting is asking for money.

This all amounts to a failed political strategy and an ineffective military one.

Gay bishops

The late broadcaster Michael Vestey was once asked to train some bishops in coping with the media. Not being religious, he asked around quietly what it was they didn't like to talk about. He was told 'homosexuality in the Church'.

As he took the clergy through the experience of being filmed and recorded, he would put them at their ease ('I expect it's a difficult job being a bishop') and suddenly introduce the topic. The poor bishops were terrified and the experiment abandoned. Thus Michael saved us from a race of media-savvy clerics which we are better off without.

It has been remarked that the Church of England entered the twentieth century in favour of foxhunting and against homosexuality, and entered the twenty-first with the positions reversed. Amusing, but the matter is not quite so simple. The official position of the Church has been expressed twice: in 1987 the Synod stated 

 - that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;
 - that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
 - that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;

Then in 1991 the Synod declared that 'homophile' orientation and activity could not be endorsed by the Church as a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual.

Pretty straightforward, you might think. Now however they have decided, without, apparently, changing the above views, that homosexuals can be bishops, even if they are in a registered civil partnership (gay marriage) as long as they do not indulge in sexual activity. So, no bonking bishops.

Is this one law for the bishops and one for the rest? How do they check it is being adhered to? Do they take the bishop's word?

For myself I find it very difficult to regard homosexuality as a sin but I do object to the Established Church making a complete idiot of itself. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a liberal but surely even he must detect some lack of intellectual rigour here. He should get a grip.

19 June, 2011

Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons, famous as Bruce Springsteen's saxophonist, has died, aged 69.

Here is a clip of him playing, not with Springsteen, but with Aretha Franklin

18 June, 2011


In what he described as ‘a new contract between the monarchy and the people’ (a phrase which Tony Blair might have composed) King Muhammad VI of Morocco has made concessions to the Arab Spring, giving up some powers to the Prime Minister although retaining control in the military, security and religious areas. The Prime Minister would be able to appoint some (not all) cabinet ministers and he himself would be chosen by the King from the party with the largest number of seats.

Protesters from the February 20th movement by contrast, insist on a full parliamentary democracy and an independent judiciary.

The people, nearly half of whom are illiterate, have a fortnight before having to vote in a referendum.

Muhammad came to the throne nearly 20 years ago promising reforms. After a few tentative steps he stopped. My guess is that this is now too little, and far too late.

17 June, 2011

The burka and the berks

The French are supplying us with a valuable lesson on the limitations of government and the folly of passing legislation without thinking it through.

After the ban on the burka, the first two women were to be prosecuted, in the town of Meaux, where they had been arrested for wearing burkas at an anti-burka ban protest. One didn't turn up. The other was not allowed into the courtroom wearing a burka because it is a public building. She was asked to remover her veil before entering but, quite understandably, refused. She was sent home.

There was no procedure to deal with this rather obvious outcome: presumably the woman can't be identified so it might be anybody underneath the black covering. Equally it might have been anybody when she (even he) was arrested.

This would only work if at arrest and also at prosecution they were forcibly divested of their burkas, in which case the French would be subject to a barrage of human rights claims. It will still proably go to the Court of Human Rights, with the lawyers chuckling all the way to the bank.

The law is an ass and the French are even bigger asses still.

16 June, 2011

Happy Birthday Big Blue

IBM is 100 today.

It was first called The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company. For many years it was the world's largest technology company, and five of its employees have  won Nobel Prizes.

In the 1980s 'Big Blue' lost billions of dollars due to failing to keep up with the progress of technology and was returned to profitability only a decade later.

IBM has always been a champion of workers rights and was one of the first companies to give equality to black workers and women.

15 June, 2011

Italy ponders life after Silvio

The recent referendums in Italy are being seen, rightly, I think, as a personal defeat for Berlusconi. They were on nuclear power, denationalisation of the water industry, water pricing and Berlusconi’s draft law to allow politicians not to attend court if they are busy. Turnout was high – the first referendum since 1995 to produce a quorum, and 95% of those who voted went against the ruling coalition. In the final stages Berlusconi was reduced to begging people to stay at home so that there wouldn’t be a result.

There is of course a massive commotion here, but one of those commotions where you think the world has changed and then wake up in the morning to find it is business as usual. And indeed the old boy is still there.

So where are we? In the regional elections a couple of weeks ago Berlusconi’s PdL did badly, as did their coalition partners. The court cases continue. Mario Draghi., in a valedictory speech as head of the Central Bank, and new head of the European Central Bank, made a coruscating attack on the government. Things are looking bad for Silvio.

The Economist has an article ‘The man who screwed Italy’. I don’t agree with it: too many people and recently the Economist in particular, try to judge Berlusconi from an Anglo-Saxon Protestant perspective. Italy is neither of those things, but finally the Italians have had enough and Berlusconi will fall far and fast. He has already said he won’t stand for office at the next election. Originally he had wanted to become President. Then he set his sights on becoming some sort of Mentor Minister to a protégé, such as Tremonti, Letta or Alfano. Now it seems that won’t be possible after all. He will soldier on trying to get one of his men into the top job but, like as not, fail.

So what next for Italy? It seems as if this is not a pendulum swing to the left but a movement away from established politics, ironically just as the support for Berlusconi in 1994 was. We shall know next year what will become of it. Historians will, in my view, look back on Berlusconi’s administrations as a series of failed opportunities. He could have reduced the size of government and reduced the debt, but didn’t. He could have reformed working practices and got the economy moving, but didn’t. A hundred things, things which he professed to believe in, were left undone and he has no record to fall back on.

The Italian electorate can be bold, as they were to appoint him in the first place, and it is my hope they will be bold again, appointing competent outsiders. In the meantime, each anxious to get his knife in, the Italians have voted against nuclear power and against privatisation, two decisions I think they will regret.

14 June, 2011

Akkadian revealed

For a period of 32 years, Prof. Martha Roth and a team of more than 80 experts have been working on a 21 volume dictionary. It is of the Assyrian and Babylonian dialects of the Akkadian language, which has not been spoken for nearly 2,000 years. The texts they used to understand the language are in cuneiform script – little hieroglyphic-type composite letters made up of wedge shaped characters – which had been scratched on to clay and baked in the sun.

The work in fact began 90 years ago in 1921, and made slow progress because no one knew how to understand the wealth of information available to them from excavations in Mesopotamia, which comprised Iraq, with parts of Turkey and Syria.

Now, as Dr Irving Finkel of the British Museum’s Middle East Department says, ‘"We can read the ancient words of poets, philosophers, magicians and astronomers as if they were writing to us in English’.

This blog salutes a marvellous achievement. Scholarship at its best.

Belgium 2

Come to think of it, the story in Belgium is quite interesting, and my Belgian friends will forgive me if I remark that that in itself is an unusual state of affairs.

Belgium has become the archetypal European state. It has devolved so much power upwards to the EU, and downwards towards the regions that it had no need for the layer of government in the middle, national government.

Of course ‘regions’ is what Belgian politics are all about: there are two, of similar size and population, Dutch speaking Flanders in the north and French speaking Wallonia in the south, plus the bilingual or multilingual Brussels district in the middle.

But 'the regions' is exactly what Eurocrats' policy is about, too, splitting Germany up into Laender, France into Régions and Britain into artificial constructs like the North East. People have found maps in Brussels without 'The United Kingdom', 'France' and 'Germany', but with 'Wessex', 'Aquitaine' and 'Rhineland-Westphalia'. They want to get rid of national government.

The problem is the decision making on important things: going to war (done in Belgium by Yves Leterme’s caretaker administration), taxation (of course the unelected want to be in charge of that, and there are already plans for a Europe Tax being proposed), and, most of all, dealing with something proposed by the European Union which one didn’t agree with. Without a government you are powerless, which is exactly how they want you.

I need hardly add that we need to fight this. The Eurocracy, an unelected bunch of what we used to call civil servants but which are now civil masters, wants to arrogate powers to itself such as European budgets, criminal law and justice, health and safety, agriculture, and it wants an army of its own. Any democrat’s sense of justice must be offended by this: we want these important matters to be discussed among elected officials.

My previous statement, that perhaps there was something to be learned, was in jest. We should pity the Belgians, who through petty squabbling have thrown away their democracy. The slack will be taken up by the unelected.

13 June, 2011

Are politicians necessary?

Today Belgium marks a year without a government. For most of us this is an extraordinary state of affairs, but for the Belgians apparently not: they go to work every day, the streets are swept and the economy is ticking over nicely. They even managed to participate in the Libya 'no-fly' zone.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us all here.

11 June, 2011


It’s been a busy time for the British Royal Family. The Wedding, Obama’s visit, then Prince Philip’s 90th birthday, now the Queen’s official birthday.

Philip got as a present the title of Lord High Admiral, the titular head of the Navy. For myself, the sort of presents I like are not things which the giver can create, free of charge, at will, or, as in this case, which the giver owned before me. We're all different of course but I'd rather have a bottle of decent whisky.

In the preparations for the trooping of the Colour for the Queen’s birthday, an armoured car towing a gun skidded, came off the track, and the gun crashed into it, doing tremendous damage. The armoured car was destroyed at the scene of the incident.

No. You guessed it, didn’t you? It was a horse. They were towing the gun with a horse, which got injured. They killed the horse.


A rare visit to England for a funeral (my Godfather, Cyril Scolding, a good egg, who died a couple of weeks short of his 100th birthday). What really astonished me was the price of everything. The supermarkets contain every kind of food, condiment or drink you can imagine, a far greater international breadth than in Italy, but it seems 20% more than we are used to paying (and the Germans think Italy is expensive). The pubs in particular are an outrageous price.

It is still quite impossible to get a decent coffee, despite 'Italian' chains. A coffee flavoured dishwater in Costa (marginally better than Starbucks) was £1.45, twice the price of a decent espresso here.

France, with equally bad coffee, was slightly better on the food front, and I was introduced to Tripou, the Auvergne's answer to Haggis. At most hotels the wine started at €20.

Back in civilisation, we stopped at a trattoria near Carrara. The menu was €10, which included drinkable wine and mineral water. I had gnocchi with squid and zucchini, followed by a pork steak with chips and salad. That's £8.75 a head with wine.

06 June, 2011

Decline and Fall

There is something richly significant about the German E.coli epidemic: thousands of people have suffered, and they now believe the most likely source was a Germaqn farm growing mung beans.

Mung Beans? Thousands and thousands of Germans are eating Mung beans?

Whatever happened to the great German meal of a kilo of sausage, half a pig and two litres of beer, with a vegetable course which amounted to one small pickled cucumber?

Come to think of it this must be why they initially blamed the Spanish cucumbers: they reasoned that it couldn't be German, it couldn't be the sausage or the beer, so it must be the cucumber.

You read it here first: this namby pamby diet marks the end of German hegemony in Europe.

04 June, 2011

Poor Mario

Bloomberg reports that when Mario Draghi becomes the Head of the European Central Bank in November he will be taking a 50% pay cut.

Draghi's pay at the Bamca d'Italia was €758,000, which in dollar terms is more than five times what the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of America gets.

03 June, 2011

Italy ponders its future

We have had a day or two to digest the Italian Election results and no one seems to be much the wiser. As always in Italy there is a (quite unnecessary) complexity to who is up and who is down and whether that is a temporary or medium-term change. As well as not understanding it, there are increasing signs that the electorate doesn’t much care any more.

At first sight it would seem that no one did well. At least Berlusconi’s PdL, which lost Milan and Naples, his allies the Lega Nord, who lost Novara, didn’t do well, and it wasn’t really a great night for Bersani’s socialists.

The big gains were for the Ecology and Freedom Party (Milan) and the Italy of Values Party (Naples). But the PdL coalition’s gravest loss may well be seen to be the Lega Nord’s loss of Novara. There has already been grumbling in Bossi’s party that it must damage them being so closely linked to Berlusconi. It was Bossi who brought down Berlusconi’s first government.

So is Silvio on his way out? He has said that he does not intend to hold office after the next elections in 2013, so it might be safer for the other parties to let the parliament run its course. But Silvio has changed his mind before. Against that the Democratic Party have no strong following and would be reluctant to be plunged into elections. Might Bossi think he has held on too long, but that it would be better not to precipitate elections at a time of dwindling popularity?

Certainly if Bossi were to pull out of the coalition there would have to be early elections, or President Napolitano might appoint a specialist administration of technocrats.

Perhaps after all this is just the mid-term blues – regional elections where people felt they could rap the ruling party on the knuckles.

It is hard for us to read the signs and just as hard for the Italians to read them. An external shock, such as Greece defaulting, could change everything overnight. For the meantime, Italy does not seem to be going left, it doesn’t seem to be going right, but it is fed up with what it has got.

01 June, 2011

Stop Press: not the killer cucumbers!

News that 16 people in Europe have not been killed by cucumbers would not normally be cause for headlines, but people are still nervously awaiting test results to see what did cause the E.coli outbreak.

My guess is it’s the bratwurst.

Whenever there is a warm spring the Northern European man dusts off his barbecue and plays the manly host to friends and family. He thinks he is taking the pressure off his wife to cook, but in fact she is consumed with nervous tension as everyone is ill afterwards.

It may have come as a surprise that there have been several cases in England. In fact, purchases of salad vegetables are higher there than almost anywhere else, but the bits of lettuce and tomato are seen as a garnish. No one told the British male that you could eat this stuff.

Almost the whole of Southern Spain is now under glass so that they can produce spring vegetables and salads for those in cooler climes. The Spanish are rightly demanding compensation after destroying tons of salad, but they shouldn’t hope for much. The British were entitled to compensation after the French illegally banned British meat, but never received a penny.

How long before someone blames globalisation?