Friday, 18 November 2022

The Qatari World Cup

 


Somehow, I simply can't get excited, even slightly, about this year's FIFA bean-fest.  As World Cups go, it's the first one I've failed to have any enthusiasm for - and it has nothing to do with the controversial location.

I understand the controversy.  I watched the draw that awarded the competition to the country live on television while working in Trinidad, way back in 2010. Like everyone else, it came as a surprise, as did the award of the 2018 competition to Russia.  In all honesty, that was more annoying to me, since England had bid for it too, and it was disappointing not to get the nod again after nearly 50 years since the glorious summer of 1966.  Although the worst excesses were still years ahead and perhaps unforeseeable, I had even then doubts about Putin, who at the time was strutting around on the world stage as it he owned it.  It seemed to me that such behaviour was out of character - way out of character! - for someone who had formerly been a high ranking KGB officer. It seemed to me, even then, that he undoubtedly had blood on his hands, and was not the benevolent modern leader he was being made out to be, leading his country into a powerful but peacefully dominant position in world affairs.   On the basis of the saying about leopards and their spots, I didn't trust the man at all.  Without wishing to blow my own trumpet and say I told you so......I think I've been proved spot on.

But my American colleagues were absolutely outraged, since Qatar was awarded 2022 instead of the USA.  Coming so soon after the Snowden affair and WikiLeaks publishing the cache of classified material given to them by (then Bradley) Manning which proved that America's conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan had been, shall we say, less then professional (highlighting as it did avoidable friendly fire incidents and cases of completely ordinary men, women and children - not to mention foreign reporters - all unarmed, being essentially murdered by air-strikes based on the most spurious, if any, intelligence) being snubbed by Blatter and FIFA was the straw that broke the camel's back.  I can't remember such total outrage over something so relatively unimportant as that shown by my esteemed colleagues.  They were angry, they felt victimised, they insisted, possibly correctly, that it was all funded by brown envelopes stuffed with cash being handed out with the name tags at the award meeting and wanted the CIA involved....  I fell about laughing, which didn't do me any favours at work, but what the hell: I just found it funny.

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Fast forward three years, and I found myself working in Doha.  The company had made me redundant and after several months of job hunting, and setting up my own consultancy, I managed to get a six to twelve month contract at a bank there.  In the event, I was only there for about four months, as for reasons totally beyond my control, the project was cancelled amid a flurry of lawsuits between the three companies that were project stakeholders,  But I was there long enough to form an opinion of the place and the people.

Doha, then, was a growing city, springing up from the surrounding desert, and a vibrant, multi-cultural place to be. It had some of the most spectacular modern architecture I've ever seen anywhere in the world: in my view it exceeds even Dubai, despite the existence there of the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa - and that is saying something.  The picture at the top of this piece I took one November evening on a waterfront stroll after work - there were similar views all over the place. Mixed in with all the modern stuff were smaller, traditional Arab houses and shops, and a big souk at one end of the bay that, like all such places, sold silks and carpets, spices of all kinds and scents, and cages full of animals and birds - it was a fascinating place, especially one guy I saw, strolling along with about four wives in tow, three or four laughing and chattering kids, all dressed in the full Arab robes, including a big curved knife stuck in his belt.  On his shoulder, watching everything closely with its beady eyes in a constantly swivelling head, sat a full grown falcon.  Apart from me, no-one batted an eyelid: perfectly normal behaviour.  I found it all fantastic.

The people at the bank were all perfectly friendly and helpful to we foreigners, even the few who were part of the Family that owned the bank and half the country.  I hadn't realised some of them worked there, until I bawled out one very beautiful girl, mid-twenties I suppose, who worked in the bank's Product Sales department, because she was playing about on her mobile phone when I was running a training course she was attending.  I told her if she was going to take thing seriously, the phone had to go off or be given to me immediately, as it was disturbing the other participants.  Failing that, then stop wasting all our time and leave the group.  She was as good as gold, apologised to us all, switched her phone off and placed it on my desk, and gave her full attention for the rest of the day's training. I told my boss about it over a drink in the hotel bar that evening, and he was horrified: her father was Sheikh Someone Or Other, part of the Qatari royal family and the bank chairman.  I'd essentially been bollocking Princess Anne, which as a working class council house kid I though was great.  We both expected fireworks the next day, (and I expected to be on the next flight out of there, in disgrace) but no-one ever mentioned it, and the girl was great for the rest of the course.  For me, it was an undoubted career highlight!

Even then, eight years away from the tournament, construction work was gathering pace, and there were metro lines being built to serve the football grounds under construction, the new airport was two-thirds finished, and work was beginning on an ambitious undersea tunnel between the airport and the downtown business area across the bay: it was supposed to have glass walls so you could look out at the fish and sharks and whatever else as you drove through it (or, more likely, were chauffered).  For all Doha's beauty and modernity, it was also like living and working in a huge building site.

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With this construction work came the influx of migrant workers that have been flooding the news for years.  Any article in any news outlet, newspaper, telly, internet, the lot, about Qatar's preparations for the tournament focuses on the issue of the country's record with human rights, slave labour and so on, at the expense of everything else.  There are accusations of migrant workers dying at work because of safety issues, about them being treated badly, housed in barracks, passports taken away from them, underpaid and so forth.  There may be some truth in some it: certainly, there have been deaths, but major construction programmes are invariably dangerous and accidents do happen.  There were deaths and serious injuries on the Channel Tunnel project, for instance. I can remember workers living in caravans beside the M25 motorway and elsewhere (Bob Geldof had stories of that in his autobiography, he was on the crew that built the M23/M25 intersection at Redhill), so living in barracks could be seen as an improvement on that.  Passport withholding, the so-called kefala problem, was an issue when I was there, being roundly condemned by the UN amongst others, and the practice was removed soon after I left.

I honestly believe a lot of it has been blown up out of all proportion, as has been the sportwashing outcry over the ownership of Manchester City, Newcastle United and other clubs with Middle Eastern ownership.  Similarly, complaints about human rights abuses have been exaggerated: I saw many work gangs in Doha, largely from places like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, all of them earning as much (or more) in a couple of months as they would in an entire year at home, and able to send most of it home to their families.  And I honestly can't remember seeing anyone looking sad or frightened or wishing they were elsewhere - but I did see a lot of cheerful faces and hear a lot of laughter, games of cricket taking place on closed roads during lunchbreaks, none of which appeared to me then or, on reflection, now, as evidence of people whose human rights were being abused.  

In any case, it seems to me "human rights" are difficult to categorise. and most (if not all) major, developed nations are guilty of abusing them.  I would suggest the human rights of the Native Americans counted for nothing when tribes were being wiped out across the USA and Canada in the 19th century (and those of their descendants dumped into poorly maintained  reservations still are).  The same could be said for the Aboriginal population (the First Nation) in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand, even those who were wiped out or enslaved in Colonial India.  This is without considering the victims of the Slave Trade from Africa, or the Amazonian Rainforest indigenous people still struggling to survive in modern Brazil.  Or the Palestinians bottled up in Gaza and the West Bank by an aggressive Israel supported by the US.  Or even people in Ukraine currently struggling to survive Putin's War.  I seriously can't see that Qatar's behaviour is either unique or much different - which is NOT to condone it.

There also many complaints about LGBTQ+ rights and fears that such people may find themselves in difficulty, or somehow persecuted because homosexuality is illegal in Qatar.  This again is an exaggeration: it's illegal in most Arab or Muslim countries, and frowned upon in many western countries, but that doesn't always lead to any kind of persecution. I believe a gay person is more likely to face problem in eastern European countries than in Qatar: in Poland, for instance, being gay is considered (and promoted thus by the government) to be an "ideology", and illness to be treated medically, for instance by electroshock therapy - I kid you not.  There is a loudspeaker van, funded by a nationalist organisation that receives financial support from the government, that spends the summer touring the country, spouting anti-gay propaganda (I prefer the term hate speech) - I've seen it a few times. Amid all the anti-Qatar stuff in the press, this is never mentioned, for some reason..... 

And this is why I find getting excited simply not possible.  It's not Qatar, or its human rights record. Or even the way it was awarded the tournament in the first place.   I can't get excited simply because of the reams and reams of hypocrisy, slanted press reports and simply  misrepresentative YouTube videos that have killed it for me.

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That said, I have no doubt I'll watch some of it.  I'm not sure which television channel(s) will be broadcasting it here in Poland, I still need to find that out. I'm betting that once it kicks off, it will be an entertaining few weeks of football, with its heroes and villains, the way it always is.  I expect my home country will make the quarter finals, then lose on penalties to Germany, as England tends to do a lot.  I also expect Poland will struggle to get out of its group, and if it does so will promptly lose to an unfancied surprise packet who will in turn be eliminated next game.

As to the winner: I suspect Argentina (Messi's Last Tournament is a hell of a driver for them) or Brazil.  Germany cannot be discounted (they never can be), nor France (provided they don't implode this year, as they have a tendency to do).  But I hope The Netherlands do it: they are possibly the Best Country Never To Have Won it, so it's about time they did.  They also have the remarkable Louis van Gaal coaching them (as he was when they lost the Final to an ascendant Spain in South Africa a few tournaments ago). He is 71 now, but as cantankerous and filled with self-belief as ever.  He is also suffering from Stage 4 prostate cancer, meaning he has to use a catheter (under his track suit when he's coaching) and increasingly nowadays a wheelchair.  Whatever happens, this will be his swansong.

And what a wonderful goodbye it would be! 


      

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Mikołajki - a lakeland jewel

 



The restaurant, Bella Italia 2.0, is in a prime position, right on the promenade running along the waterfront past the rows of sail- and motor-boats moored in the hot August summer sunshine.  The prom was thronged with people, strolling and laughing and talking, looking at the many stalls selling the usual gifts: hippy beads and leather bracelets, assorted fridge magnets, coffee cups in blues and whites adorned with representations of yachts and seagulls and the resort's name, and piles of stuffed toys, genuine fake Ray-Ban sunglasses and cheap straw sunhats.  Many were enjoying delicious ice-creams, less delicious hot-dogs and kebabs and pink candy floss.  Young girls paused by stalls where teenage girls platted fluorescent green and yellow, blue and purple hair extensions, the youngsters tearfully trying to persuade parents to let them have some too.  At others, equally youthful stallholders sold henna tattoos of dragons and scorpions, and tribal marks like Justin Bieber.  Everything was, of course, at inflated prices, but what the hell - it's a holiday place, closed for six months a year.  

It was a good restaurant, and we were given a perfect corner table for 8, by the open full-height window to enjoy the views as well as the food.  I took some photos of the panorama of bobbing boats and whizzing jet-skis and the chugging replica pirate ship that, despite the three masts, bowsprit and fake cannon, was diesel powered as it headed into its berth further along the prom, its day of pleasure cruises over. 

The place was packed, to be expected given its position, and our host had secured us the best table: she was a favoured and fairly regular customer in its parent establishment in a street further back from the promenade, so knew the owner well.  2.0 hadn't been open too long, but had clearly gained a good reputation already - and as it turned out with good reason. The food, as our friend had promised, was excellent, well-cooked traditional Italian fare, good wine and locally brewed ice-cold beer, served quickly and efficiently by friendly smiling staff.  We stayed there well over an hour, eating and drinking, chatting and laughing, before settling the very reasonable bill and heading off for a further stroll around town.

As I watched the beautiful red sunset, I decided I liked this place very much.

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We were in Mikołajki, the holiday capital (if not the administrative one) of Poland's Mazurian lake district in the north east corner of the country. It had been a hot sunny day, so we had stayed at our friend's house in a town some 100 kilometres away until late afternoon, still recovering from the previous day's extensive and tiring canoeing expedition elsewhere in Mazury, before driving back to this area as the temperatures cooled.

I had been to the town once before, the best part of 20 years ago, when I had a long weekend sailing with a group of friends.  We had come into port on the Saturday morning to pick up some much needed supplies (not all of them alcoholic), and I had managed to slip getting off the yacht, much to everyone's amusement.  But not mine: I had landed flat on my face, my full weight on one arm under which was the unforgiving concrete promenade.  I was in a lot of pain and discomfort, but did my best to hide the fact. I got through the rest of the weekend with the help of Tyskie beer and aspirin, then we went home as I was off to work the next day.  I flew to Zurich, the pain still throbbing in my elbow, and when I finally got to the office excused myself and headed to the nearest hospital.   The x-ray showed I had fractured my elbow, a lovely clean crack in the ball joint of my lower left arm.  They plastered me up and told me to come back in a month to have the cast removed, further x-rays, and hopefully physio. It all went well and in a very short six weeks all was healed.  But it was not a good memory of Mikołajki, and I still haven't lived the incident down.

The place lies at the centre of a channel linking two of the area's larger lakes, to the north west Tatry, to the south east Mikołajskie which in turn connects to Lake Sniardwy, the biggest of them all. The town has thus been a tourist destination for pretty much as long as there has been a tourist industry, and remains one of the most popular destinations, not only in Mazury but in the whole of Poland.  

It's a well deserved reputation, because it's a lovely place, full of night life, good restaurants and bars, shops and plenty of accommodation at all price ranges. There is a constant stream of vessels arriving and leaving the port, because many of the lakes that comprise Mazury are linked to form a navigable network, including feeder streams for canoes.  It's a quite wonderful area for a holiday, come rain or shine: given its location, the weather is not always the hot and sunny conditions we enjoyed this year on our visit.  On my original trip, all those years ago, we had hot sunshine, windy overcast and pouring rain, all within the same week, and enjoyed the sailing through it all.

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The town has changed somewhat since then, and now boasts more of everything.  Most eye-catching is a new pedestrian bridge, Most wiszący Mikołajki, that spans the channel, towering over the water and the surrounding streets and buildings.  Floodlit at night, it is spectacular and offers panoramic views across the town and the channel out to the lakes at either end.  I snapped away, trying to do the view justice: the picture at the header of this piece, looking towards Tatry, is probably the best of them.

At either end of the bridge are more souvenir and fast-food stalls, and a cobbled footpath led us back into the old town square. We were in time, in full darkness now, illuminated by dull street lights and the neon signs of bars and pubs and open store doorways, to catch the end of a live concert by what I believe was a local group - and very good it was, too.  I can't remember their name, but we looked them up on Spotify on the drive home and enjoyed more of their music than the couple of songs we had caught live.

There was also a local beer festival with stalls selling a variety of local beers, but I gave that a miss - way too inviting for my own good!  We checked out a few gift shops and my daughter bought me a new hippy-bead necklace to replace the one I broke at sometime in the past - I can't remember exactly when, but I think during the Pandemic on a rare trip out. I love 'em.

Then we strolled back to the car, and headed back to our lodgings after a lovely day out.  It's a place that I liked first time around, and like even more after this visit.  I really is a lakeland jewel, and I can't recommend it enough.  I must return for a proper look around at some point, to see more of the town and the beautiful countryside that surrounds it - perhaps next year.



Monday, 24 October 2022

The Party's over - please!

 


I'm going to place a bit of a caveat on this piece, namely that I'm not a political scientist, have never held membership of any political party, and due to my non-resident status find myself politically persona non grata - more on this later. So the comments and views that follow are certainly personal, and not influenced by anything except my own experiences and a contemplation of poilitics in Britain. As I wrote in a previous blog, politics is top of my list of inventions I can do without - but has always (and still does) hold an unheallhy fascination for me.


For avoidance of doubt, I started voting in the 1970s, when the voting age was cut to 18, and have always taken it as a serious public duty. I have always taken note of the policy plans announced by all the major parties (and some of the minor ones) in the run-up to an election, and tried to vote for the party that in my view seemed the best fit for what my personal and, later, family needs were. My parents and sisters were never overtly political, never watched any party political broadcasts (they considered them at best boring and at worst just another pack of lies - and were probably accurate in that) nor political discussion programs like the BBC's once excellent Question Time, for the same reasons. So they never tried to influence my vote, and frankly I'm not sure they even cared who I voted for. In all honesty, my vote was generally meaningless anyway: through an accident of birth I always lived in constituencies that invariably voted for the same party, safe seats all. My vote simply increased or decreased the Member's majority by one.


Taking that methodology (and sorry, I can't think of a better word - it's not a favourite of mine as it reminds me of work...) at least gave me the chance to understand a bit more than most about what the parties stood for at any given election. It also meant that, over the years, until moving abroad and losing my voting rights, I dutifully put a cross against the names of candidates representing the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Liberal Democrats. I also voted for the Green Party once in a local election. I never met a candidate, was never door-stepped or stopped in the street, and only once met my MP.


But today, I'm only writing about one party: the Conservative and Unionist Party.


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The Tories have always considered themselves the only party fit to govern. Every time there is an election, be it local or general, one of their major selling points is still that they are "the natural party of Government". They also brag about being "the biggest and the best, most successful political Party in the history of the world". Clearly, then, they are quite happy to blow their own trumpet. The first boast seems to me hubristic in the extreme and is no longer anywhere near true, while the second may contain a grain of truth (although frankly I can't be bothered to trawl through a couple of hundred years' worth of electoral results to prove it one way or the other). Even if it is a statistically accurate statement, in my view it has little value now, and indeed has not been the case for most of my voting lifetime.


In my childhood, the party certainly seemed that way. The leaders, at least in my memory, MacMillan and Home, certainly carried a gravitas that Harold Wilson could never match. When they said something, in their clipped public school accents, people tended to listen, but that may simply be a distortion of the truth due to my then young age and my working class upbringing. My parents were both born during World War One, working class country people who met while employed as a gardener and a housemaid in service to the de L'Isle family at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent. So they insisted that, like it or not (and I think mostly not) people of our stock should defer to people of MacMillan's and Home's stock: the class system they had grown up through, though damaged by the two Wars, was still prevalent. At least MacMillan and Home and their various senior Ministers looked like statesmen, in their pinstriped suits, bowler hats and so forth, and gave the impression of knowing what they were doing and caring for the entire electorate. Going back through the history books now, that clearly was not always the case.


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But to me, they seem to have been a bit of a Last Hurrah. Look at the line of succession.


Ted Heath presided over a sliding economy and months of industrial strife that led to power cuts, train cuts and postal strikes: I can remember in my first job, at a venerable old stockbrokerage in the City, working by candlelight in positively Dickensian conditions as a result, and spending days cycling around my home town in the cold and rain delivering company mail to our clients in the area. He also presided over the "once in lifetime referendum" - now, where have I heard THAT before? - that took Britain into the European Economic Community, thereby releasing forces that have been ripping apart both the party and the country ever since.


Margaret Thatcher took on the unions and won, destroying the coal, steel and car manufacturing industries, much of northern England, Wales and Scotland in the process. In a bid to create a "share and house owning democracy" - the ancestor of Levelling Up? - she de-regulated the Financial Services industry thus unleashing a vicious winner-take-all City culture of Get Rich Quick chicanery that changed the face of banking and finance forever, and broke up state-run service industries like the railways, post office, telecommunications, gas and electric provision to provide the service choices she championed but at the cost of a much less efficient and worse value for money proposition. Finally, she led a nationwide sell-off of council houses - and my mum benefitted from that, buying a big, three bed end of terrace for virtually nothing as a tenant of 40 years - but failed to guarantee their replacement by new-builds that is at the heart of the current housing crisis. In foreign policy, she managed to upset most of the other EU nations (the EEC had grown a lot by the time she took it on) by demanding and getting a rebate on Britain's share of the bloc's funding that still failed to please the increasingly vocal Eurosceptics within the Party, and successfully waged war against Argentina, who had had the temerity to invade the British dependency of the Falkland Islands. Over the period of her premiership, thousands of lives were lost or ruined, physically and financially, as a direct result of her actions. The Tory Party loved her. And still do.


John Major, her replacement as party leader and Prime Minister, led them to a fourth successive election victory in 1992, but remained a disappointing premier. As both a Foreign Secretary and Chancellor under Thatcher, much had been expected of him, and although enjoying some limited success in healing some of the societal divisions she bequeathed him, he failed to satisfy either the party or, ultimately, the country. The Citizens Charter he introduced was a partially successful attempt to create a fairer society by providing more open and accountable, results driven public services. It lasted through to 2010 before being quietly dropped. He abolished the much hated Thatcherite Poll Tax with a (quite similar) Community Charge, and managed to commit troops to the First Gulf war that followed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. He also withdrew sterling from the EU's Exchange Rate Mechanism (that was meant to stabilise currency rates in preparation for the euro single currency introduction) after speculators including George Soros made billions of pounds by shorting sterling and causing its value to crash on Black Wednesday in September 1992. He also led our negotiations of the Maastricht Treaty that defined the governing structures of today's European Union, succeeding in agreeing some opt-out provisions for Britain, including its non-membership of the Single Currency. It was still not enough for the Eurosceptics, whose continued agitation eventually led, indirectly, to his resignation after losing the 1997 election to Tony Blair's Labour Party.


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In Opposition, Michael Howard, William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith all tried to bring some sense and cohesion to an increasingly fractured Conservative Party and provide a strong opponent to a Labour Party that at times struggled to delivers on its own promises - especially after the second Gulf War, in the wake of the WTC atrocity in New York in 2001, that led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and the ill-fated Arab Spring (a complete misnomer since the series of uprisings in various Gulf States ran for two years between 2010 and 2012) in search of democracy that instead has led to civil war, failed states and much bloodshed at the hands of a global Islamic terrorist movement.


None of them made much of an impression, and the party continued to fragment, with opposition to EU membership continuing to gnaw away, and strengthen its hold. Not a single leader, whether in government or opposition, seemed able or willing to confront and resolve the problem. All complained bitterly about it, but no-one did anything.


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David Cameron, Old Etonian, Oxford educated, son of a leading stockbroker and the recipient of an impressive income from the type of Panamanian offshore trust fund - perfectly legally set up and administered - that in his term of office suddenly became a political Hot Potato that prompted public outrage and EU-wide legislation took over leadership in 2005 and led them to power in 2010 in coalition with the LibDems. It never really worked, for the simple reason that British politics in general, and the Conservative Party in particular, do not understand coalition government because it inevitably undermines their own authority. It's all me, me, me, and this effort was no different, with the major cabinet positions taken by Tories and LibDem policies generally watered down or dropped. It limped along through its term to 2015, hamstrung somewhat by the global recession after the failure of Lehman Bros that forced a rigid austerity economy to keep government spending under control and taxes higher than any Tory likes. Bits of legislation came through, including legalizing gay marriage, cuts to the defence budget that have harmed Britain's defence capability ever since, and measures that intended (but failed) to reduce net immigration. He also held a referendum on Scottish independence that he won and Scotland remains part of the UK despite a hefty (and growing) proportion of Scots wanting to break away. For the 2015 election he promised an "advisory referendum" on Britain's EU membership and duly won a significant majority and all but wiped out the pro-EU LibDems in parliament.


The Brexit referendum was a brutal affair, with Cameron's Remain campaign pitiful in comparison to the Leave campaign and allowed the Eurosceptics in the Party to have their day.. It resulted in a shock defeat, a narrow vote in favour of leaving the Union that split the Party. Cameron did the cowardly thing and resigned within a couple of hours of the result being announced. Everything that has gone wrong in both the party and country can be laid squarely at his door. He faced the same Eurosceptic agitation as every other Tory leader since Heath, and like every other Tory leader since Heath failed to deal with it.


Theresa May reluctantly took over as leader and PM, and struggled to deliver a Brexit that would not be too damaging, but, as usual, was dogged throughout her premiership by the increasingly influential Eurosceptics. She came to power with a decent majority, and squandered it in an unnecessary snap election. government business was dominated by the tangled negotiations and ultimately came up with a package that would have done the job but was voted down. With it went her premiership as she resigned.


Boris Johnson, arch-Brexiteer, another Old Etonian and contemporary of Cameron and Oxford, ex-Mayor of London and formerly employed by the Daily Telegraph (then the Conservative Party's newspaper of choice) as their Brussels correspondent where he spent his time making up stories (mostly untrue) about the EU and EU regulations, was overwhelmingly elected as party leader on the promise of having an "oven baked exit deal ready" that could bring the country out immediately, When put to the vote, in a very truncated debate to force it through, the Opposition parties demanded more time to go through it and ask questions. Johnson's answer was prorogue parliament (i.e. terminate the session), an action widely considered illegal, and hold yet another General Election. He won a record breaking 80 seat majority that allowed him to basically do as he pleased. The deal was signed and Britain left the EU - but within weeks it became clear that parts of the Treaty were not working so Johnson unilaterally decided to ignore them and re-negotiate: the clear inference being that he had failed to understand big chunks of his own agreement. The arguments continue to this day.


Along came Covid. Johnson's government created a massive program of public spending, essentially unfunded, to support the economy and save people's jobs, and spent further billions in a vaccine rollout that over a two year period did indeed save millions of jobs, and vaccinate and boost most of the population to bring the pandemic under control - but at the cost of spiralling government debt. Then the shit hit the fan, and stories, illustrated of course, came out showing that he and many of his close associates, fellow Member and office staff had frequently broken their onw lockdown rules. Reports emerged of he and his staff drinking beer and wine and scoffing sausage rolls in garden parties at a time when the rest of the public were not allowed to meet together in more than direct family groups, nor make hospital visits to relatives in ICUs suffering from Covid, and worst of all attending the funerals of parents and children who had died. Johnson denied doing anything wrong, denied knowing about the parties - until photos of him standing on a chair raising a toast while surrounded by his acolytes - and was investigated by the Metropolitan Police. Confidence in him evaporated amongst his own MPs (though oddly not within the party itself) and he was forced from office, kicking and screaming and crowing about his own (often questionable) achievements.


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Incredibly, it got worse. A drawn our election process that limped through this summer brought in Liz Truss as the new Leader. She was of course a Johnson ally and a fervent Brexiteer, and tried to bury her past as a LibDem activist and voting Remain in the 2016 Referendum. She went off to Balmoral and was invited by the Queen to form a Government. By the time she had filled her Cabinet the next day the Queen had passed away. The country and government business essentially ground to a halt while the State Funeral was planned and took place, and King Charles officially ascended to the throne. Truss and her incompetent Chancellor then presented a "fiscal event" - for which read, mini-budget - that pledged another forty-odd billion pounds of (unfunded) tax cuts and government borrowing that lacked any kind of validation by the government's own Office of Fiscal Responsibility. It went down like a lead balloon, outside her inner circle and perhaps the 80,000 Party Members who had voted her into the job. The pound crashed. So did the bond markets. There was criticism from the IMF and the World Bank. The Chancellor was called back from a meeting in Washington and sacked. Her new Chancellor reversed the majority of the pledges made in the mini-budget and made it clear that he would run the economy his way - i.e. professionally. Finally, the Home Secretary foolishly sent an official document from her own email address, rather then her office one, and was sacked for a breach of protocol, and a blazing row with Truss. The confidence in her premiership evaporated and she resigned on her 45th day in office - the shortest ever period, and probably the worst PM in history. She will not be missed. As one wag commented: in 45 days she has buried the Queen, the economy and the Tory party.

So: another Leadership contest...... the former Chancellor, who narrowly lost out to Truss, is as I write well in front and likely to take over today or tomorrow. The current Leader of the House, who finished third last time, is lagging way behind but insisting she will still win. And Incredibly, Boris Johnson managed to cobble together over a hundred votes amongst his loyalists, without even declaring he would run for the job. Surprisingly he stood down late last night as it became clear that a high percentage of his own MPs would not support him if he regained the job - governing would be too much like hard work for the lazy git. For perhaps the first time in his life he did the decent thing and walked away (for now, at least....).


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As things stand, the Conservative and Unionist party, a.k.a. the Caring Conservatives or, more popularly these days The Nasty Party, will remain in government with its third leader and Prime Minister since the spring, only one of whom had a public mandate via a general election. No-one within the party is talking about calling another general election because they would probably get wiped out at the polls: and rightly so after the incompetence and lack of leadership stretching back 50 years.


Now I accept that some of their leaders, notably Thatcher and perhaps Major did some good stuff that benefitted ordinary people like you and me, at least temporarily, but they too left chaos and inequality behind as part of their legacies that should not be ignored. The last four Tory Prime Ministers have been terrible, each one far worse than its predecessor, and the pain felt by the electorate is worse now than it has been since the 1970s when Thatcher was merrily destroying British industry: it took a generation to recover from that and all the gains and promises that were there pre-Referendum have been washed away by the Brexit fiasco. Britain is back to hard times, facing a health service in crisis (again), rising costs and unemployment (again), a still fractured transport system, a housing shortage and High Streets containing more For Sale boards in shop windows than goods. After 12 years in power, one way or another, it is impossible to blame it on anyone but themselves - but of course they try to do that.


The party is at a crossroads. It HAS to change. It HAS to put the electorate before personal gain and clinging to power at any cost. It HAS to govern, prudently and with vision, and forget all about this "we're better off under the Conservative Party" nonsense, because that patently is not the case. The new leader, who will simply be the best of a bad bunch (as an aside, I have never seen a parliament of so little talent, on all sides, than the current one: the Tories are not the only Party to suffer from internal crises and incompetence) rather than a statesman in waiting must first re-unite a party riven by internal struggles and competing ideologies around a common agenda and then KEEP it that way. It MUST govern for everybody, without favour.


It would be nice if the new government gave a thought to its ex-pat British citizens too, because we have families, children and grandchildren, back home and we care about them and our country just as much, wherever we may live. Right now, we do not count in ny policy discussion. Some, but not all, of us managed to get a postal vote for the Brexit Referendum (the mechanics of doing that were simple but never publicised) so perhaps two million of us were unable to have our say. That privilege was not extended to subsequent General Elections. We are disenfranchised. When the Queen died, no book of condolence was opened at the British Embassy here in Warsaw, and enquiries to them have remained unanswered nearly three months later. I have heard from ex-pats elsewhere who have had similar experiences. This is simply wrong: we are still British Citizens (it says so on our passports) and still pay tax into the Treasury's coffers at source from our pension arrangements. It would be reasonable to have a small say in how they spend the money....


I don't believe the Party is capable of doing any of that. I can see it limping on for another couple of years, hoping to turn a corner, before the next election must be held. Depending on how it performs in that time, it may not be completely wiped out, as it probably would be were the poll held this week. The longer it drags on the more damage will be done to the country, and it may take a generation or two to repair..


It makes very sad. And more than a little angry.


Thursday, 20 October 2022

Inventions: the Good and the Bad.

 


Funny thing, progress. Done right, it makes all our lives easier, more productive, more rewarding - both financially and mentally - and gives the entire human development a kick forward. Done badly and it can lead to disaster and regression. It's all subjective, of course, and I have no doubt everyone has a different view about what's been good and bad for both them and the rest of us.

For what it's worth, here is a little list of 8 developments that could come under the label (perhaps misleading in itself) of inventions that I could quite happily live without as in my view they are more trouble than they are worth, plus an even smaller list of similar things that I simply could not. And why....

Remember: it's all subjective and I'm guessing few people, if any, would agree with me. So - here goes:

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Inventions I could do without:

Politics and Religion.  A biggy to start with, and calling it an invention is perhaps stretching things - but someone, somewhen, somewhere must have had the original ideas. Now I know some people would argue that, without either, human society would not be able to properly function - the obvious question here being what, precisely, is meant by "function". An advanced (er.....definition please!) society would probably insist that both activities - for want of a better term - are Must Haves to enable people to co-exist happily in an organised and peaceful manner, helping each other when life gets tough (as it always does) and draw comfort when facing the worst of all human problems: severe illness and death. Further, politics is needed to bring definition to right and wrong, to maintain order in society and bring order to chaos. Native tribes in the Amazonian jungle and elsewhere that have been decimated and had their lands appropriated in the name of progress may well disagree.

All of which would be perfectly fine if it wasn't for the fact that more people have died, or been injured, or lost everything they value in life - homes, health, money, families - in the name of politics and/or religion than for any other reason. Whether the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the two World Wars, Vietnam, not to mention the present slaughter in Syria, Yemen and Ukraine, Thatcherism, Brexit, Trumpism or Trussonomics - which thankfully has died an early death (as should her dreadful premiership) - they are all nonsense. I have no time for either (but to my despair cannot help myself from becoming terribly wound up about both).

Social Media.  For all the blather from Zuckerberg and Dorsey and Musk and all the other alleged idealists who have created this monster, Social Media is not the panacea for all ills they claim it to be. Sure, linking people up through a selection of on-line platforms to discuss stuff, for ex-pats of whatever nationality to stay in touch with Friends and Family in their homelands, swap recipes and cute pictures of kids and pets, birthday and Christmas greetings, is all very well and good. But when those same platforms act as a means for spreading all kinds of hate, from teenage girls body shaming to terrorist recruitment tool, via racism, anti-gay propaganda and political lies and deceit of all shades, then I'm afraid it loses a lot of its appeal to me. The platforms seem incapable of policing themselves, content to say all the right things about cleaning house and blocking "bad" users, then doing no such thing. Politicians talk about legislating to force this but, again, seem reluctant to do so, perhaps because it would make their own lives more difficult by making it harder for them to distribute their bullshit to their electorate. The horse has bolted through the stable door left gaping when this beast was invented, and for good or ill we are stuck with it.

E-mail. When I first got married, getting on for 50 years ago now, an uncle who lived in Canada inducted me into the family letter writing society. We corresponded with each other - my uncle and I, my mum, my sisters, my second cousin in Lancashire, and first cousin in Australia - through a circle of mostly air-mail letters. We all wrote them using proper fountain pens (none of this Bic ballpoint rubbish) and swapped news and gossip and exam results, births and deaths, all the usual stuff people talk about. I can remember the excitement when a letter postmarked Ottawa or Sydney or Warrington dropped through my letter box. It all died, sadly, partly as some of the older participants passed away, but also with the advent of e-mail. This meant that your gossipy epistle would be received immediately and a reply possibly come within minutes rather than weeks, and you would be able to read it easily in Times New Roman or Sans Serrif font on your computer screen rather than have to decipher sometimes poor handwriting - I know for a fact my own has deteriorated terribly since I started doing everything on a keyboard and screen rather than pen or paper. I tried to revive it last Christmas by enclosing a handwritten letter with the cards, inviting them to write back, by hand...... I received not a single reply that way, just a few e-mails...... I find that very sad: what used to be an art-form dying out. I'm sure the convenience and speed that e-mail brings is simply not worth it.

The Internet. Which is in a sense at least partly to blame for the previous two inventions, as neither would be possible without it. The World Wide Web is another those "fantastic on paper" advances that very quickly outgrew the original aims and visions to become an all-conquering uncontrolled force for good and evil in equal measure. It changed the way humanity interacts, does its business, communicates, shops, books holidays and tickets for trains and boats and planes and every other form of transport and trading. It controls airspace and sealane traffic and finds you the best route from A to B without spreading a bloody great map across your windscreen. It provide a means of taking thousands of photos and movies, most of which will be crap, and a means of storing them instantly, safely and mostly for free. It also guides missiles unerringly to their targets hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away, and shares information on troop movements, where in the delivery chain the tv you've just bought on-line is in real-time, and where is the best place to buy a pizza at your destination before you even leave h ome. And if it breaks down, for whatever reason, whether through conflict, power cut or natural disaster, there is panic....... We are too reliant on it, the old skills like map reading and journey planning and shopping declining, as indeed are attention spans. This is called progress, apparently.

Telly. Ah, the good old television. Ubiquitous for 70-odd years. Every home should have one (at least: in America and increasingly Europe that's just your starter). One channel, then two, then three,,,, Now literally hundreds beaming onto a screen near you, the vast majority of which you never even look at. News channels, drama channels, true life and entertainment channels. Comedy channels, car channels, cookery channels. Kid's channels. Shopping channels. Sport channels by the dozen. Free to air and Pay On Demand and Subscription. Movies old and new. Gold channels (for which read old 1970s and 80s repeats that appear more dated by the day). The Parliamentary Channel. God TV. Background noise, mostly, with pictures, while we eat, do homework or work from home. Talentless idiots with celebrity status whichever way you look. Nothing has had a bigger, more detrimental, effect on attention spans, especially those of children - apart from the internet and social media. The biggest conversation killer and family disruptor ever invented. Give me radio any day of the week.

Fossil fuels. They are killing the planet, and us with it, unless we wean ourselves off them, with a no-return tipping point set to be reached within my lifetime. We've used coal for hundreds of years to heat our homes and cook, and oil, both refined and unrefined, for cooking and power, in particular refined as petrol to run the internal combustion engines that power cars and trucks and buses and motor bikes and ships great and small the whole world over. The more power we generate, the more power sources we develop, the more power we insist we need. It's a vicious circle and we as a species are struggling to break out of it. Granted, it's only recently, within less than a century, that we have come to understand how much damage the gases produced from fossil fuels is actually doing to our atmosphere and hence our planet and our health, but despite this new-found knowledge we seem unable to leave the stuff in the ground. More needs to be done in educating ourselves about what we, as individuals, can do to help, and how we can force our politicians to make the difficult choices that are needed on the larger scale - something many of them are conspicuously not doing. It's not (quite) too late, but the clock is ticking and time passing very quickly.

Plastics. If Fossil Fuel was a terrible (but unrecognised thus) invention, plastic is arguably worse. It's another recent invention, but an estimated 9.2 billion tonnes of the stuff manufactured between 1950 and 2017 - add on a billion or so more to cover the past few years.(400 million in 2020 alone). Most of it ends up in land-fill sites and in the seas as trash. Unless specifically re-cycled or incinerated, the stuff takes years (no-one is sure exactly how many) to break down naturally. Of all the plastics made so far, just 14% has been incinerated, and a less than 10% re-cycled...... Just think about that for a moment.....

Micro plastics (tiny, microscopic balls of the stuff) are now finding their way into our food, via the meat and plant crops we are eating. No-one knows what the long term effects of that are going to be - I imagine not good. It's used in food packaging, soft drink bottles, consumer goods, clothing and footwear, cars and household goods. It's dangerous stuff: seas and rivers, lakes and reservoirs are already choked up with it all over the world and efforts to clean them never seem to keep pace with the inflow of yet more.

Smart phones. Mobiles phones have only been around for 25 years or so, and smart phones for not much more than 15. And yet they dominate communication all over the place - I only know of two homes that still have (and use) a landline, and they are my elder sisters' (both in their 80s, new technology being beyond them). The original mobiles, so-called feature phones (or dumb phones) were simple enough, good for voice calls and text messaging, but not much else. The better ones had rudimentary cameras and radios for entertainment. That was about it. Then Apple brought out the iPhone, and suddenly you didn't need a keyboard with buttons and letters to type with: they were on QWERTY keyboards on-screen. The cameras were better, the radios replaced by slots to hold memory cards with your own choice of music saved on them. They even came with calculators and calendars and notebooks and internet connectivity, and access to apps that gave you, eventually, pretty much any service or tool you wanted. Essentially, no matter which one of dozens of manufacturers' model you own, you now have a combination telephone, global atlas, web browser with a full set of productivity tools, a sound system and tv and games console in one package that fits in your pocket. It's a technological miracle and a pain in the arse, because unless you switch the thing off you are "online", "in touch" constantly, 24/7. If the telly is the conversation killer, then the mobile phone can be the life-killer (unless you use it in a disciplined manner - which most people don't, especially kids).

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And others I couldn't:


The Internet. Yes, yes, I know I said I wish it had never been invented and I stand by that. But like it or not, the web is here to stay so I have to accept that and use it to the best of my ability. For all its faults - and I only mentioned a couple: I'm sure you will have other ideas - it also has its good points that have made it a permanent fixture in all our lives. In health care, it enables prescriptions to be renewed by phone and held online at my local pharmacy without my having to queue up at the doctor's surgery: he can spend his time helping patients who need help more than I do and I can collect my meds at my leaisure. It also enables teams of surgeons in different locations to co-operate on major, complex and ground-breaking surgery by web-cam. In commerce, it allows shopping on line at chain-store websites with door to door delivery: handy for someone living along and unable to get to the store, or simply too lazy to do so. Similarly with luxury goods, clothing, books and whole universe of other commodities. It enables me to research, write and publish this blog, and keep up with the news that interests me, at any time, in real-time, anywhere in the world. I could do the same with my books, if I could only find the energy to finish the bloody things, and finish setting up my Amazon Kindle publishing account.....

Streaming services and internet radio. Another internet innovation with faults but still, for me, priceless. I know the arguments about platforms like Spotify and YouTube Music and Tidal and all the rest ripping off artists on a scale never before encountered, and I truly sympathise with content creators because they are absolutely right. I know too that the free versions with their adverts popping up every so often, sometimes in the middle of an intricate and superb piece of music, or, worse, freezing until you log in again, is a complete pain in the arse, and that I can stop it happening by subscribing. But the thing is, I don't actually listen to them all the time, and when I do it might be Spotify for an hour so, then YouTube Music for while, then a burst of Scala Radio and back to Spotify again. Subscribing to them all is, for me, an expense I can't justify, so I happily put up with breaks. Internet radio is similar and the only way I can listen in to Radio 2, Classic fm, Virgin, Scala Radio or hundreds of other stations scattered around the world from the comfort of my armchair in Warsaw. It's great. Then you have Netflix and Disney and Apple tv and all the others that produce often superb content, 24/7 to a telly or computer near you. Given the paucity and repetition of content on the majority of the channels on my Orange and Canal+ satellite package, these streamers too are a boon (though an expensive one).

Supermarkets. Even without online shopping, these beasts have changed the way we shop, and I'm not sure if that is entirely a Good Thing. In my home town, as a kid back in the 1960s, there were no supermarkets as we would recognise them today. But in the High Street, fresh meat and sausages, freshly cut on site from carcasses hanging in full view of we shoppers, could be bought in two butcher's shops. They even offered a delivery service: no DHL or UPS for them, instead there was a lad, a schoolboy, who was entrusted with a big heavy bike with a massive basket welded to the handlebars that was filled with packages wrapped in greaseproof paper (no plastics in sight...) to be ridden around town to the customers' houses. I did it a couple of days, when the lad (a good friend of mine as it happened) was unwell, and it was bloody hard work.

There was also a fishmonger and a couple of greengrocers for your fruit and veg (my dad grew all ours in the garden), a couple of bakeries for fresh bread, cakes and meat pies and an ordinary grocery store for things like tea and coffee, flour, sugar, washing powder and all the other household stuff. It was the closest we had at the time to a supermarket, but on a very small scale. In the 70s the International Stores and the Co-op came to town, opening places that were much closer to today's supermarkets, and the little stores, the butchers and so on, as small family businesses, were unable to   compete and over time all closed. It's a common story and has happened all over the world.


I could just as easily place supermarkets in the Could Do Without section, because I always find shopping at a small store - and there are many scattered around, if you want to seek them out, especially in Poland - much more rewarding, and generally lower prices and frequently fresher and better quality produce too. But, to be realistic, going shopping every day is a bit of chore (though one that I still have) and it's often easier and cheaper, when you count the special 2 for 1 offers, to do a big weekend shop and top up as needed. So we need supermarkets: again, like it or not, they are here to stay.



Saturday, 1 October 2022

Ukraine - do we face a nuclear conflict?

 


So Putin has announced the annexation of the Eastern Ukrainian territories his troops have been occupying since 2014. This is in addition to the Crimea, annexed in a similar way earlier that year.  It should come as no surprise. 

Russia did the "decent thing" (that is a joke, of course), and held a referendum in each case, and reported residents voted "overwhelmingly" in support of "joining" the Russian Federation.  Given that credible reports and testimony has emerged showing that, throughout the voting process, people were being "encouraged" by heavily armed militia (for which read Russian troops) to vote in favour, the result was never in doubt.  The votes were of course roundly condemned by the Ukrainian Presidents and Governments; branded as illegal attacks, a land grab, and in breach of its Conventions by the UN and Western leaders including messrs Cameron, Obama, Johnson, Biden, Mrs. Merkel and other EU Heads of State.  Note there were dissenting voices: dishonourable mentions go to Salvini and Berlussconi in Italy, who consider Putin a personal friend, Orban in Hungary, who is as mad as a hatter himself, and of course the insurrectionist Trump (about whom the less said the better).

I wrote about much of this in the wake of the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 in Ukrainian airspace by Russian ground-to-air missiles fired by Russian troops who immediately scarpered back across the border.  The piece was called "What should we do about Putin?", and you'll find it at the following link.  I urge you to read it.

http://travellin-bob.blogspot.com/2014/07/what-should-we-do-about-putin.html

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The answer, of course, is we, the West, did nothing at all, except buy increasingly more of his country's abundant and cheap oil and gas reserves, thus giving him another potent weapon to use against us - which he is of course doing as I write.  We allowed him to strut around at G7 and G20 conferences, Davos get-togethers, buy Olympics and World Cups and Formula 1 Grands Prix and welcomed him on state visits.

None of which changed his basic character: i.e. a delusional bully and a killer and a Mafia leader.  We gave him free rein to do exactly what he wanted to do.  And he did it.

Assassinate, or attempt to do so, opponents no longer living in Russia?  Check, multiple times in the UK alone.  Likewise to critics in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia?  Of course: just ask Alexei Navalny.  Provide arms and support for brutal regimes elsewhere to use against their own citizens?  Absolutely - in Iran and Syria for a start. 

This has all left us facing the very real prospect of Armageddon. Putin has made it abundantly clear that his  "Special Operation" in Ukraine has, because of its open and strong support for the invaded country, become a conflict against NATO - a.k.a. The West, led by the USA.  He has also made it increasingly clear that he will use "whatever means necessary" to defend Russia and its territory - and stated simply that he is "not bluffing".  Given the the fabled Red Army has proved itself to be an incompetent rabble that is now being augmented by a draft of 300,000 conscripts, all ill-trained and many of them recruited from the ranks of the country's high security prison system and thus mostly murderers, rapists and violent criminals (all promised a full pardon for their service, assuming they survive), this has raised the chilling possibility of using nuclear weapons.

There is talk of this being done in "a limited way" - but let's be clear here: such weapons cannot be used like that.  They are way too powerful, way too final, to be just dropped here or there to get rid of a pesky enemy infantry group or something.  They are designed and built for a sole purpose: to destroy and render useless swathes of enemy territory, including major cities, and in so doing kill tens of thousands of innocent civilians (the invaders have been doing this for months anyway, so going nuclear will only speed up the process and add to the lengthening list of war crimes).  Russia has loads of the bloody things ready to go: they have been on high alert since March.  So do NATO member like the US, France and Britain....tit for tat strikes seem to me increasingly likely.

As usual, there are statements from both sides saying that a diplomatic answer is the only acceptable solution, but given that only one side is willing to sit at the table, and that country is not led by a gangster represented by a seasoned diplomat whose ability to lie and prevaricate and ignore the simple truth is a match for his own, this remains a distant hope.

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Before February this year, we all knew this was the position in terms of weaponry, but mostly believed they would never be used.  The argument was always no President would be stupid enough to risk the total destruction of his own country by retaliatory strikes: the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) Doctrine.

Then the insane Putin sent his troops into Ukraine and everything changed.  A raft of sanctions, the strongest ever applied, have been invoked on Russia and its leaders (including Putin and his family) and the Russian currency and economy trashed.  It has made no difference: he and his people - who are not getting a true picture of what is happening across their border and are fed a diet of propaganda (lies if, like me, you prefer that term) - are content to suffer that if it mean the clear victory he is convinced will be won.  Any opposition is met with strength, masses of demonstrators arrested and beaten (and potentially liquidated).  If the monster is prepared to do all that to his own citizens, and tacitly agree to the brutality that is being revealed daily in Ukraine - mass graves, murder, torture, rape, the wanton destruction of civilian areas - then I can't see him flinching at the nuclear option.

Will NATO respond in kind?  Will Joe Biden, Liz Truss and all the others back up their fine rhetoric with more concerted action, or will they back away?  To do that will surely release Putin to do exactly as he wants, wherever and whenever he wants - and he is mad enough to do just that.  But if they do respond militarily, like-for-like, then we are perhaps looking at the End of All Things.  With this latest annexation, any military action by Ukraine, backed with NATO weapons, in those areas will of course be considered and loudly proclaimed by Putin as an attack on Russia - and a ready made excuse for him to go nuclear.

What a position to be in!  It seems to me a no win situation. But it's one of our own making.  Our lack of action against Putin, indeed quite the opposite: our sucking up to the bastard for the last 20-odd years, has come down to this.  It shouldn't have happened.  The EU and NATO leaderships have had ample warning from newly admitted member states like Poland and the Baltic States, who after 50 years under Communist and Russian rule know what Russian governance is really like, but we dismissed it all as an exaggeration, that Russia has changed, that Putin is ok......  

Make no mistake: if the nuclear option is used, it will be at Putin's instigation..  But it will be the result of the West's criminal inaction over many years.


The Qatari World Cup

  Somehow, I simply can't get excited, even slightly, about this year's FIFA bean-fest.  As World Cups go, it's the first one I&...