29 February, 2012

Leap Day

Legend has it that St. Brigit of Kildare asked St. Patrick whether there couldn't be a day on which a woman might propose to a man (not, I think, self-interest: she was fiercely celibate). Anyhow, it has stuck and for a while in some places it was an offence for the man to say no (there weren't the tax implications then).

And speaking of the economy, if the UK's Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne could claim last year that growth was slower due to the day off for the Royal Wedding, presumably he will have to acknowledge that growth ought to be higher this year due to the extra day. What goes around, as the Gregorian Calendar makes clear, comes around.

A child born today will legally be allowed to vote on 1st March 2030, assuming we still have voting then.

28 February, 2012

Investment advice

This blog doesn't give investment advice, but is quite happy to recommend things not to invest in.

Top of the list is Costa Cruises (motto: Vada  a bordo, cazzo!) which suffered the debacle of the Costa Concordia. We read of the strange discovery of cocaine in the Captain's hair, and an Eastern European dancer making claims for the night she was about to spend if only the boat hadn't crashed.

Now these master mariners have lost another ship.

The Costa Allegra seems to have run out of power off the Seychelles and the passengers are being treated to an extensive view of the Indian Ocean starscape.

Perhaps they should rename it the Costa Andante.

Greeks bearing beer

There are reports of thousands of Greek émigrés, impoverished by the crisis, becoming waiters in richer countries

Incidentally, that sounds a rather 1940s soundtrack, doesn't it?

27 February, 2012

The Oscars

I didn't watch the Oscars, indeed not many people did. Audience figures have been steadily declining for the American film industry's love fest, and this may be the year that Hollywood fell out with itself.

Last year the highest winning film was about the last British king, this time best actress went to someone playing a British Prime Minister; the best foreign language film went to the Iranians (whom nobody likes) and most awards were won by the French (whom nobody likes either).

There were no speeches this time criticising American wars, indeed little or nothing of interest seems to have been said all evening.

Perhaps next time they should cut it back to a sensible size and hold it in Idaho.

25 February, 2012

23 February, 2012

Too fast

CERN, which has been doing such interesting work bumping hadrons into each other (I can't quite remember why), found in the course of its researches that some neutrinos travelled faster than light.

This would have turned physics on its head, but I'm afraid it isn't quite so exciting (in fact nothing about particle physics ever is). It turns out this was a case of faulty wiring.

This is certainly the reason I shall be giving the next time I am stopped by the Polizia Stradale for a more modest breach of the speed limits. If the pointy heads at CERN can't measure speed correctly then we can't expect the cops to either.

Marie Colvin

What would you risk your life for? It is a question which, thank God, most of us in the West, for two or three generations, haven't had to ask ourselves.

Marie Colvin risked her life to get news of war, of repression and suffering, in front of ordinary people like you and me, knowing that if these horrors were not published nothing would ever be done. She would often report from lesser known conflicts, recording and reporting frankly the terrible events to which she was witness.

Marie Colvin was killed in Homs, the main battleground of Syria's civil war. It seems her attackers knew who and where she was, which brings a new level of awfulness to an already sad tale.

21 February, 2012

Tonight's the night

Shrove Tuesday.

If you're doing Lent, it starts tomorrow, so go at it with a will. If you're not doing Lent, it's polite to keep company this evening with those who are.

I shall decide tomorrow.

20 February, 2012

Very clean hands

Germany has opted for Joachim Gauck as President.

Good decision.

Gauck, once described as 'Germany's Mandela', was born in Eastern Germany during the war. His father was imprisoned by Stalin. and Gauck waged a long battle for human rights under the Soviet yoke, becoming, with Vaclav Havel, one of the signatories to Charter 88.

He is a Lutheran preacher with no party affiliation.

After the corruption scandal this seems like just the guy.

19 February, 2012

Mani pulite

As proof of the rule that big things often have small beginnings, it was twenty years ago that a small time Socialist politician named Mario Chiesa was arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe from a cleaning company.

The Socialist Party itself denounced him - unacceptable behaviour, one bad apple in every barrel etc - and Chiesa, outraged that his colleagues failed to stand up for him, sang like a canary, evidencing a widespread web of corruption involving all major parties, one fiddle leading to another. The entirety of Italian politics was itself funded, it seemed, by bribery and extortion, money for favours.

The affair, which became known as Tangentopoli ('bribesville') and the persistent investigation by lead magistrate, Antonio Di Pietro which was known as Mani Pulite ('clean hands') grew and all major political parties dissolved themselves and refounded. Scores of politicians confessed and a couple committed suicide. It led to the flight of former Prime Minister and socialist leader Bettino Craxi to Tunisia, where he died in 2000, and to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi.

The magistrate Antonio Di Pietro is now head of a political party IDV (Italy of values).

Incidentally, some people say that the name Mani Pulite was coined by an artist, who sculpted an exhibit supposedly made from Silvio Berlusconi's liposuction.


Many years ago, when I had to do boxing at school (the education system was different then), I simply could not understand why I had to follow rules. I mean, there we were, my opponent and myself, engaged in a fight - no other word for it - and yet I was not allowed to trip him up and poke his eyes out, or even let him off with a Chinese burn.

So I was a little sympathetic to a man I had not previously heard of, Dereck Chisora, who, while fighting for the world title, managed, before the fight, to slap his opponent's face and afterwards (he lost) to engage in a battle with another boxer who had not been involved.

That's more like it. 

17 February, 2012

Hypocrisy (No.3,422)

The German Head of State, President Christian Wulff, who is a close ally of Chancellor Merkel, has had to resign following a scandal involving an industrialist, some money and some property (the usual grubby stuff).

Presumably we won't now be hearing any more from Frau Merkel or her finance minister Schaeuble about corruption in Greece and Italy.

Nuclear peanuts

I was pleased when President Sarkozy and David Cameron announced a Franco-British deal on nuclear power plants. Then they said it was worth £500 million.

The latest add-on to the nuclear power station in Cherbourg cost €6 billion (note: not a new power station, just a bit more kit). £500 million is like saying you are going into car production and buying a couple of dinky toys.

Scotland the brave

It is almost beyond conjecture that a country's strategy for independence would include joining the European Union. Beyond conjecture firstly because it is like holding on to the coat tails of a man falling back on top of you, but secondly both in pronouncement and practice the direction of travel of the EU is towards integration. Scotland proposes to declare independence only to lose it in an undemocratic bureaucracy; to exchange having votes and an elected assembly to being governed by diktat.

Nevertheless, it seems that that is what a lot of them want. My belief is that they should be allowed to have it.

In the meantime we are witness to the worst of the dark arts of politics. Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party and leader of the Scottish Parliament, is as canny a political operator as the world has seen since Talleyrand. Yesterday David Cameron said that if the Scots voted 'no' in the proposed referendum they might be allowed a further measure of self-governance, known as 'devo-max'. Strangely enough, devo-max, a sort of independence-lite, would, being a changing of the rules of the UK, be voted on by everyone in the UK, whereas independence would just be voted on by the Scots.

Mr Salmond likened this to an offer by Sir Alex Douglas Home in the 1979 referendum, that they would somehow get more independence if they didn't vote for it. He demands details of what they would get. Salmond is calling Cameron's bluff: he seems to win at every turn.

Or does he? Is Mr Cameron playing an even darker game? If Scotland became independent, the Labour Party, easily the biggest rival to Cameron's Conservatives, would be finished in the UK, since it depends on Scotland for its support. Cameron's party would be what Harold Wilson said of Labour in the 1970s: 'the natural party of government'.

Is Cameron looking as if he is doing his best in an heroic battle to keep the UK together, only to lose it in the final struggle and be in power for the rest of his life? Is that what's going on?

Unfortunately only a couple of hundred people in the UK really care about the answer to this question, and I am not one of them.

15 February, 2012

Dropped like a hot coal

The 'troika', an unholy trinity of the European Central Bank, the European Union and the IMF, has postponed the meeting to approve Greece's bailout, citing lack of commitment as the reason.

In a separate and certainly unrelated piece of news, Luc Frieden the Luxembourg Foreign Minister, said 'The impact on other countries [of Greece leaving the Eurozone] will be less important than a year ago.'

They are shaping up to drop Greece, now that it won't look too bad.

Greece has had to accept a new Prime Minister imposed on it by Europe, and now they are asked to give up all semblance of being a democracy by promising their policies after the next election will comply with what this unelected shower want. It's irrelevant, because the people can (and probably will) vote for parties which have not made these ridiculous promises.

My advice to Greece is to default on all its debts, now. Don't pay a penny. Life will be tough for a bit, but it will be anyway. At least the country will have maintained its self-respect.

14 February, 2012

Good sense

Mario Monti has said no to a proposed bid for Rome to host the 2020 Olympics saying, refreshingly, that Italy couldn't afford it.

If only Tony Blair had shown the same good sense for Britain.

San Valentino

Left alone on Valentine's night (the other half has a gig in Britain) I noticed that the Duchess of Cambridge is in the same position and I thought we might do something together (I shan't say what). Her PR says she will be spending the day visiting alcoholics.

So watch this space.

Incidentally, it is said they fixed the date of Valentine's Day on the date when birds started pairing up and nesting. Presumably it wasn't during a period of global cooling such cold weather.

13 February, 2012

A new Jeanne d'Arc

The Parisian suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne is a fairly pleasing place, once popular with artists. It had several feather factories in the 19th century and the feather pluckers (I am using spell-check) or plumassières were largely the wives of Italian railway workers from Piacenza.

It was proposed that a statue representing the plumassières be erected in the town, but it was only after the local council gave its approval that councillors learned that it will be in fact be of President Sarkozy's Italian wife, Carla Bruni. The taxpayer is putting up half the money. President Sarkozy's re-election campaign is suffering enough, I should have thought, without this.

For myself I have left instructions that no statues of me are to be erected until after my death. I think it's the best way.

Greek tragedy

100,000 people were on the streets of Athens protesting against the new austerity measures (which were passed by parliament). I think we need to ask the European Union the following questions:

Is this what you were expecting?

In the future, is Greece likely to need more austerity or less?

Do you think the popular unrest is just going to go away?

How do you think the Greeks will vote in the April elections?

12 February, 2012

Whitney RIP

Daughter of a famous gospel singer, cousin of Dionne Warwick, goddaughter to the only comparable talent, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston had seen enough of the fame business to know how to cope. But she couldn't. Perhaps it's a lesson for us.

The first good news

The picture shows a cricket match, played in Sharjah, between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course Afghanistan didn't win - Pakistan have just beaten the world's top ranked team (England, although you wouldn't think it to look at them).

Cricinfo magazine, from whom I nicked this photo, says that cricket is booming in Afghanistan, with the national team now full time, league teams in 28 of the 34 provinces and a youth training programme.

I am a great believer in the ability of sport to pacify warring parties (look at the hard fought matches between India and Pakistan, played in a good spirit), and in particular cricket, the more so because it is the most popular sport on the sub-continent.

Afghanistan needs help to develop this, and it is to be hoped they will get it.

11 February, 2012

Abu Qatada

One of the reasons I started to write this blog having moved away from the UK, is that I believe that being away, living under a different set of cultural and legal circumstances, gives me a different perspective on what is going on. Expats see things through two or three different prisms.

And there is a strange matter going on now, where we need to take a pace back. It concerns a man called Abu Qatada (at least that is the name he goes under at present: he was born Omar Othman in, of all places, Bethlehem). Mr. Qatada is a citizen of Jordan. He entered Britain in 1993 using a forged passport, and fraudulently obtained asylum. He is believed by the British authorities, and by the United Nations, to be a spokesman and trainer for Al-Qaeda, and to be guilty of incitement to religious hatred, violence and murder. In short a nasty piece of work.

Mr Qatada has been in prison in Britain for most of the last ten years, and I must say I am not particularly happy about this. He hasn't been prosecuted with any crime, it is said because to do so would reveal the names of British agents who have infiltrated his associates, and put their lives at risk. Now a judge, rightly in my view, has said we have to let him go.

Back to basics. What should we do with illegal immigrants who are nasty pieces of work? Deport them of course. But the European court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has said we can't deport him, first because he might be tortured (he is accused of a number of serous crimes in Jordan); we gained assurances from Jordan that they would not torture him. Then we couldn't deport him in case information gained in the use of torture were used at his trial.

This is a piece of nonsense. Next they will be saying that the traffic in Amman puts his life at risk every time he crosses a road. There are plenty of aspects one doesn't like about foreign jurisdictions, even those of European countries using the Napoleonic code, but we put up with them and recognise them and so we do with Jordan. Mr. Qatada, who is regarded as a danger to the UK, should be put on the next plane. All the ECHR can do is write us a letter saying we shouldn't have done that, as they have with France and Italy. It isn't so bad.

Britain can be proud that it has offered a shelter to people from all over the world who are in distress, from Jews to Africans to Huguenots. Mr Qatada has abused this shelter. he must forfeit it.

There is a more important matter here, though. I want the final court in Britain to be the British Supreme Court, not some foreign assembly containing people some of whom are not even proper lawyers. How can they complain about Jordan when they allow Romanians as judges? We should stick with the Human Rights Act, even though most if it is sanctimonious drivel, but withdraw our allegiance from the Court.

10 February, 2012

The trouble with democracy

Further to my last post about the EU attitude to democracy, it doesn't just apply in failing states. Here is Pierre Moscovici, campaign manager to François Hollande,the leading contender in the Presidential race, discussing their opposition to the Finance Treaty:

'We don't like the idea of a popular vote because we are pro-Europeans and we don't want a 'No' '

The Greek endgame

Mixed, confusing signals about the Eurozone powers and Greece. Last I heard was that the bureaucrats came up with a set of proposals on Tuesday night, the Greeks sent in their reports saying 'we accept' but that it mysteriously turned out to be missing €325 million.

This will resolve itself, I think, although not without a certain amount of tears among the hard pressed Greeks. They have gone on a 48 hour strike. Of course losing 2 days of production means lower revenues, bigger deficit, higher shortfall that needs to be financed....Once established the measures will hold until they need to be revised. No one is doing anything about the poor productivity in Greece (and the other countries).

One thing which could derail it is that the longer this goes on the closer we get to the Greek elections. As they get into campaigning mode the politicians are beginning to wonder how it will sound to the voters if they are seen to be opting for more austerity (Clue: not that good).

What concerns me more is the other requirement of the EU: that as well as being approved in the Greek parliament, the three main parties undertake to impose the austerity measures if elected. This is a case of the unelected telling the elected not just what to do but what to put in their manifestos. This is going down very badly in Greece, who could well vote in an extreme left wing government which would ignore the austerity programme completely. Europe must begin to understand that its cavalier attitude to democracy doesn't go down well with democrats.

07 February, 2012

Anniversaries good and bad

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

Dickens is an almost wholly good thing: a child brought up in poverty - his father was in the debtors' prison - who made an extraordinary amount of money from his writings and devoted himself to philanthropy. At one stage he ran a home for fallen women, who had to agree, at the end of their stay, to emigrate.

Like many Brits, I had Dickens forced on me as a child. His long winded prose style and plotting together, perhaps, with the books' being written for serialisation (he was thus paid by the column inch) make him somewhat indigestible and unfit for children. In later life, and with an understanding of the social reform he campaigned for, Dickens can be most enjoyable.

Today is also the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union and paved the way for the disastrous monetary union. An indication of how the thing is run is that a short time earlier the bank I was working for received a call asking to borrow money. We had to point out that the EU did not yet exist and so of course we couldn't lend them money. They were outraged: obviously having no intention of letting democracy get in their way.

Now they all have second thoughts. 'Marry in haste, repent at leisure', the saying goes, and the same is true for treaties.

Sign of the times

A gay man....follow me closely here....a gay man has entered a custody battle wanting access to his son. He was married to the child's mother but she was a lesbian....try to keep up....who went off with another woman. Now the child was born after he came out as gay and she went off with her better half (equal half?) because he donated sperm for her to be artificially inseminated. The women say that if they had known he would want to see much of his son they would have gone for another, anonymous, sperm donor.

This raises a number of questions, not least the one which in our political correctness we don't ask, whether this is an acceptable way to bring a child into the world.

06 February, 2012

Sixty Years

Today, Her Majesty the Queen celebrates an astonishing 60 years since her accession to the throne. On 6th February 1952 Britain was a very different place.

Churchill was Prime Minister, Truman President of the USA and Stalin ran Russia. In Germany Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was laying the base of the German economic miracle. King Farouk was tottering on the throne of Egypt, and the Tunisians were rebelling, then against the French.

Although the Second World War, in Europe at least, had ended nearly 7 years before, it was still at the front of people's minds: after the mass celebrations life was not much different for many people. Indeed Britain still was at war, in Korea, in Kenya where we were fighting the Mau Mau rebellion, and, officially, with Japan where the peace treaty had yet to be signed. In 1952 Japan was refused entry into the United Nations.

Rationing continued in Britain, and was still in place for tea, sweets and sugar; meat rationing would not be ended for a further two years.

The first commercial jet flight had not yet taken place, no one had climbed Everest, homosexuality was illegal, as was abortion, and murderers were executed. There was only one TV channel.

The average house price was £2,200.

After 60 years of dramatic change, and a number of family upsets, the Queen remains highly popular with her people, as this year's celebrations will show. She has pledged to continue in the job for as long as she lives.

05 February, 2012

What's going on at the UN?

We wake this morning to the news that Russia and China have vetoed a UN resolution, sponsored by the Arab League, for President Assad of Syria to leave office. At the same time Assad’s troops were committing another massacre in Homs.

On the face of it this would seem to render the UN Security Council an irrelevance. Russia is the major supplier of arms to Syria, which allows it to maintain a naval base – its only warm water port. It might be seen as cold calculation on Russia’s part. But again, you might argue that Assad is almost certainly a goner, and the new rulers, whenever they accede to power, will not be kind to those who prolonged the conflict. Russia may lose out by this.

And what of China? Little has been said about its interest here. There isn’t enough in the way of minerals in Syria to interest China, and they have no military presence there.

Perhaps the key lies in what the Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov asked Hillary Clinton: ‘what’s the endgame?’ and I think in the light of the West’s recent willingness to undertake military adventures we are entitled to ask it too. What if the Security Council were to endorse a motion for Assad to hand over to his deputy and to stop the violence, and then he refused. What would we do? Eh? You can just hear the self satisfied tones of politicians ‘We are right to do this... clear mandate....helping the Syrian people....’

For myself I find it quite easy to condemn Assad and his henchmen without feeling the West should involve itself militarily. But there is some doubt as to whether the governments of the USA, France and Britain think that way. For some, and British foreign Secretary William Hague looks as if he may be one of them, seeing something wrong and feeling we have the right and the duty to try to put it right, go together.

And this, I think, is what Russia and China are concerned about. They did not veto the action in Libya, only to watch Britain and France openly flout the terms of the mandate. They have recently said that they will oppose any vote which interferes with the sovereignty of a nation. And with good reason: there is nothing the leaders of Iraq or Libya or Syria have done to their people that the Chinese and Russians haven’t done to theirs. Where will it all end? Of course I may be maligning them: they may just be on a moral crusade not to allow military crusades. If this is the case this blog supports them.

Of course the Arab League could go it alone. Tunisia has already said that it no longer recognises the Assad administration. And interfering in Syria would establish the League as the major power broker in the area. But I think that, even with the newly discovered muscular influence of Qatar, it lacks the co-ordination and the guts to do so. It’s a shame for the Syrians, but it looks as if they will have to overthrow Assad on their own.

But if this is the price of the UN Security Council not becoming a global army, it might just be worth it.

03 February, 2012


I don't quite know what to make of the news, but I have just learned that Chris Huhne's mother was once the voice of the speaking clock.

Crime and punishment

Chris Huhne, the absurd Secretary of State for global Warming, or somesuch, the man behind the windmills and expensive electricity bills, has been charged with perverting the course of justice.

What happened is alleged is that in 2003 he persuaded his wife, the economist Vicky Price, to take a speeding ticket on his behalf. In 2010 he left his wife for a bisexual research assistant, and Ms Price let it emerge in a Sunday newspaper that this was what had happened.

It is hard to see the crime as particularly serious, and I am sure it happens quite a lot, but it is perverting the course of justice, however grandiose a name, and he cannot remain a cabinet minister while he is trying to clear himself of such a crime. Not that I am defending Huhne (which means chicken in German; his actual name is Christopher Paul-Huhne but it probably lacked the common touch and like so many public figures he goes under an alias); the country will be better off without him.

Of course if he is found guilty he should not remain as an MP: you cannot be a lawmaker and be guilty of perverting the course of justice. It would be a nonsense.

01 February, 2012

It's cold

Damn cold

(Sir) Fred

The media is full of the news that Fred Goodwin, former head of RBS, or Royal Bank of Scotland as we used to know it, has been stripped of his knighthood.

I'm not particularly fussed one way or another, but it seems an act of petty spite rather than a considered decision.

What Goodwin did wrong was to bid too much in a takeover battle for a Dutch Bank ABN. I think criticism of his actions is quite interesting when it comes from people qualified to pronounce on the appropriate price/earnings ratio for a major continental bank. I'm probably one of them, and all I can tell you is that it's not easy.

With Goodwin in his decision were the banks who were joining his bid, and competing banks, including Barclays, who were also keen to snap up ABN at an inflated price.

Also in agreement were the board of RBS and of the other banks, and of course the regulator.

Goodwin didn't cause the recession, and in my opinion his bank dd not need to be nationalised.

So let's keep this sensible.