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Hello Donald my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again

There are many obnoxious human beings in all walks of life, and of all religious, social and political persuasions. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, one of them. He’s also a special case for many reasons, though not because he is or should be above the law.

He’s special because of his malign influence over the world’s most powerful country. Over the past decade he has channeled much of the hatred and envy festering across the United States and amplified it with a witches brew of disinformation and a naked appeal to the worst instincts of his followers. If he had remained an eccentric billionaire from New York, he would deserve sympathy for his obvious mental illness.

But as a former and possible future president, he has dragged the rest of the world into his endless psychodrama. I’ve written plenty about him in the past and I was hoping that I wouldn’t want to again. He’s the reason why since 2016 I have not visited the United States. I doubt if I’ll visit again.

He’s the reason why an American friend of mine recently described his successor as the worst president in American history. Really? Worse than Warren Harding, Ulysses S Grant, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan? Thus has Trump distorted the perception of those who have previously held relatively temperate opinions.

He’s the reason why political rhetoric, in my country as well as his, has become a battle between best and worst, between good and evil with no room for nuance in between.

And now he’s been indicted for the first but likely not the last time thanks to one of the many squalid episodes in his life. Will he get a fair trial in this and future prosecutions? Will his chances of election remain unscathed? I haven’t a clue. The US justice system is a dense and impenetrable jungle. These cases may drag on for years.

One can only hope that the US electorate tires of his relentless attention-seeking and disposes of him forever, even if the courts are unable to do so.

Sadly, even if this is the beginning of the end of Trump, the poison he’s injected will continue to pollute the politics of his own country – and by extension of the world – for some time to come. The departure of one malevolent influence potentially makes room for another. And we still have plenty of others, not restrained by their political systems as Trump has been, to worry about.

You could argue that if Trump hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. That he was a symptom, not a cause. A useful idiot, perhaps. That may be. But though many might disagree with me, I for one would be delighted to see him shuffle off the stage, because although he may not be a genocidal tyrant or a ruthless oppressor of his people, he has tarnished the reputation of a country of which I’ve always been more than fond and set a baleful example both to demagogues and to their gullible supporters far beyond America’s shores.

It’s not good riddance yet. But if a New York jury brings that day closer, then all well and good, even if his loyal base howls with outrage like a child deprived of its comfort blanket.

In the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a wealthy noble, Didius Julianus, buys the throne in an auction held by the Praetorian guard, who have just killed his predecessor. The narrator solemnly intones that “a great empire is not conquered from without, but until it has destroyed itself from within.

As Trump’s followers invent all kinds of specious reasons why the law shouldn’t apply to him, what would that narrator have said about America in 2023, I wonder?

Hello Donald my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again

There are many obnoxious human beings in all walks of life, and of all religious, social and political persuasions. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, one of them. He’s also a special case for many reasons, though not because he is or should be above the law.

He’s special because of his malign influence over the world’s most powerful country. Over the past decade he has channeled much of the hatred and envy festering across the United States and amplified it with a witches brew of disinformation and a naked appeal to the worst instincts of his followers. If he had remained an eccentric billionaire from New York, he would deserve sympathy for his obvious mental illness.

But as a former and possible future president, he has dragged the rest of the world into his endless psychodrama. I’ve written plenty about him in the past and I was hoping that I wouldn’t want to again. He’s the reason why since 2016 I have not visited the United States. I doubt if I’ll visit again.

He’s the reason why an American friend of mine recently described his successor as the worst president in American history. Really? Worse than Warren Harding, Ulysses S Grant, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan? Thus has Trump distorted the perception of those who have previously held relatively temperate opinions.

He’s the reason why political rhetoric, in my country as well as his, has become a battle between best and worst, between good and evil with no room for nuance in between.

And now he’s been indicted for the first but likely not the last time thanks to one of the many squalid episodes in his life. Will he get a fair trial in this and future prosecutions? Will his chances of election remain unscathed? I haven’t a clue. The US justice system is a dense and impenetrable jungle. These cases may drag on for years.

One can only hope that the US electorate tires of his relentless attention-seeking and disposes of him forever, even if the courts are unable to do so.

Sadly, even if this is the beginning of the end of Trump, the poison he’s injected will continue to pollute the politics of his own country – and by extension of the world – for some time to come. The departure of one malevolent influence potentially makes room for another. And we still have plenty of others, not restrained by their political systems as Trump has been, to worry about.

You could argue that if Trump hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. That he was a symptom, not a cause. A useful idiot, perhaps. That may be. But though many might disagree with me, I for one would be delighted to see him shuffle off the stage, because although he may not be a genocidal tyrant or a ruthless oppressor of his people, he has tarnished the reputation of a country of which I’ve always been more than fond and set a baleful example both to demagogues and to their gullible supporters far beyond America’s shores.

It’s not good riddance yet. But if a New York jury brings that day closer, then all well and good, even if his loyal base howls with outrage like a child deprived of its comfort blanket.

In the movie The Fall of the Roman Empire, a wealthy noble, Didius Julianus, buys the throne in an auction held by the Praetorian guard, who have just killed his predecessor. The narrator solemnly intones that “a great empire is not conquered from without, but until it has destroyed itself from within.

As Trump’s followers invent all kinds of specious reasons why the law shouldn’t apply to him, what would that narrator have said about America in 2023, I wonder?

ChatGPT and the wrath of human blight (or should it be the blight of human wrath?)

ChatGPT continues to amuse. In my second session with the app, I decided to ask it for a hundred words on climate change – first in the style of Shakespeare, then Dylan Thomas and finally Donald Trump. Here’s what came out.


The earth, once fair and full of life’s delight,
Doth now endure the wrath of human blight.
The air, the sea, the land, all in despair,
As climate change, with fury, doth ensnare.

With heedless haste, we spew forth toxic fumes,
And reap the whirlwind of our careless dooms.
But yet, a glimmer of hope doth remain,
That we may yet undo this dire refrain.

Renewable ways and mindful hearts may lead,
To a future bright, where all may thrive and feed.
Oh climate change, we shall not rest or cease,
Till we bring back the earth, to a state of peace.

Next, Dylan Thomas:

Climate change, the raging force that breaks,
Like waves that crash and leave in their wake,
A trail of destruction, a world undone,
As we march towards a setting sun.

The earth, once teeming with life and light,
Now struggles against an endless night,
As we continue to plunder and exploit,
Without a thought to the damage wrought.

But hope remains, a flicker in the dark,
A chance to make amends and heal the stark
Realities we face, with courage and grace,
And turn the tide before it’s too late.

And Donald Trump, whom the app has unexpectedly turned into a poet:

Climate change, it’s a hoax, folks, a total scam,
Fake news, from the left-wing media, all part of a plan,
To take away our jobs, and make us all pay,
For something that’s not even real, I say.

The climate’s always changing, it’s nothing new,
And there’s no proof that humans are causing it, too.
We need to focus on jobs, and making money,
Not on some phony baloney, environmental gobbledygook, honey.

So let’s not be fooled, by these liberal elites,
And their fancy talk of carbon footprints and greenhouse heat.
We’ll keep on drilling, and pumping gas,
And we’ll make America great again, you can bet your ass.

It took less than five seconds to churn out the above. Now I’m neither a poet nor an informed critic of poetry. The last time I was asked to write about Shakespeare or Dylan Thomas was when I was fifteen, which is a long time ago. So I leave any hole-picking on these verses to others. But what I will say is that if I read them in passing, I’d probably be fooled into thinking they were the real thing, assuming that climate change was a issue in 1590 or 1950.

As for Donald Trump, ChatGPT has clearly gobbled up all the usual Trumpisms and siphoned them into a hundred words to impressive effect. The result would do credit to a 12-year-old from Waco, Texas producing their first bit of poetry. I especially like the gloriously gauche rhyming of money with honey, not to mention elites and heat. I also wonder whether he, she, they or it (for surely I must find a suitable pronoun for an app that speaks human) borrowed something from Pink Floyd’s Money – “it’s a gas…” and so on – for its Trump impersonation.

You can pick and choose the news outlets challenging you to tell the difference between AI-generated stuff and that produced by humans without assistance. The Washington Post is the latest. But leaving Trump aside, I think it’s significant that most of us read stuff in passing. Does that mean that we’re easily fooled, or do we skim anything that passes a superficial recognition test – and only if it causes us to pause on grounds of obvious error or dissonant language do we take a closer look?

It depends on our level of interest, I guess. In other words, are we likely to be fooled by stuff that’s important to us? Or, if for example we’ve bought into the Trump nonsense, will ChatGPT take us further into the realm of what we want to believe?

One thought keeps occurring, even though it’s not a new one. Is this the death of school coursework? If it’s so easy to construct a piece of writing, even with a few edits, what test is that of intellect or attainment? And even if examiners were able to do a plagiarism test on every piece of work submitted, how do they mark such work? Perhaps we shall return to the results of an invigilated exam as the overwhelming indicator of knowledge. Handwritten only – no hiding places there. Either that or observation of collaborative work, which is more akin to modern job selection techniques. But I’m sure the professional educators are ahead of me on these questions.

Two things are for sure. First, political speechwriters, for the most part, will find themselves out of a job. They’ll be replaced by skilled editors whose job is to put the pop into the pap.

And second, there’s one sure way to tell whether anything published in this blog comes through the good graces of ChatGPT or from my own hand. Just look for my typos, deliberate or otherwise….

Saying Hi to AI – a very short-lived God

I’ve just had my first encounter with ChatGPT. Having read countless tweets about its capabilities, I thought it was time I met it in person.

Yesterday we had a visit from an old friend who over the past few years has taken to muttering about dark forces and deep states. So I decided to ask the app about conspiracy theories.

My first question was “What is the best way to debunk a conspiracy theory?” Here was the response:

As an AI language model, I do not endorse or support conspiracy theories. However, here are some steps that can be used to test the validity of any claim, including conspiracy theories:

  1. Research and gather the evidence: Gather all available facts, data, and research related to the conspiracy theory. Evaluate the sources and their credibility, including the authors, publishers, and any biases that may be present.
  2. Verify with experts: Consult experts in the relevant fields who could provide insight into the theory or who could test its claims. It is important to ensure that such experts are unbiased and objective.
  3. Analyze the claims: Scrutinize the claims made by the conspiracy theory, to identify any inconsistencies or contradictions with the available evidence.
  4. Evaluate plausibility: Assess the plausibility of the conspiracy theory by considering the probability of its claims as compared to other known facts.
  5. Test the theory with experiments or further analysis: If possible, try to recreate the conditions or conduct experiments that could support or refute the claims of the conspiracy theory.
  6. Seek out alternative explanations: Verify if the claims of the conspiracy theory could be explained by more rational, plausible explanations.
  7. Consensus of the experts: Finally, consider the consensus of experts in the field. If the consensus is against the conspiracy theory, one may conclude that it is not valid.

Pretty good answer, except that it doesn’t explain how to reach out to people who will not be persuaded by logic and reason to disbelieve stuff, however wacko, that has effectively become part of their identity.

Then I asked “Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?” After the initial disclaimer about not endorsing or supporting such theories, it came up with this:

  1. A lack of trust in institutions: People who have a general mistrust in government, media, or other authoritative bodies may be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.
  2. Cognitive biases: People are more likely to believe information that confirms their existing beliefs, and may discount evidence that contradicts them.
  3. Need for control: Conspiracy theories offer a sense of control and understanding of complex events in the world, since they often identify a single ‘culprit’ responsible for a series of seemingly unrelated events.
  4. Social identity: Being part of a group that shares a belief in a conspiracy theory can create a sense of belonging and purpose.
  5. Lack of information: In situations where information is limited or unclear, people may create their own explanations for events, which can lead to conspiracy theories.

Another sensible answer, especially item 4, which will at some stage naturally lead me to ask it about cults. Then I posed what I thought might be a more challenging question: “How would I invent a conspiracy theory?”

The answer? Nothing. It just hung. Was it spending half the world’s computing power to ponder the answer, or was this simply it’s way of telling me to bog off? So I asked someone else to put a similar question to it, and it said that it disapproved of conspiracy theories because it’s designed to be rational and logical. So it was bog off, basically.

Make sense. You wouldn’t want everyone and their aunt learning how to peddle crazy theories. We have enough of them already, thanks to the efforts of folks like QAnon, Trump and Fox News. It’s probably worth pointing out that I know very little beyond the superficial about the app, its developers and its raison d’être. I wanted to approach it without foreknowledge or prejudices, much as a child might.

Based on its answers to the first two questions, which were pretty much spot on (though it could have added that mental illness was another reason why people gobble up conspiracy stuff), I was beginning to see why some people treat the app as some kind of rational God-substitute. Or at least as an infinitely more subtle and variable substitute for Wikipedia.

But then it blotted its copybook. When I – at someone else’s suggestion – asked it why Elon Musk bought Twitter, it came up with this:

As an AI language model, I don’t have access to Elon Musk’s personal thoughts or intentions, but to the best of my knowledge, Elon Musk has not bought Twitter. He is an active user of the platform and has a large following on his personal Twitter account (@elonmusk), which he uses to communicate with his fans, customers, and the public. He has used the platform to share news about his companies, SpaceX and Tesla, to respond to questions and criticisms, and to announce new initiatives.

Which, even allowing for its weasel-like Boris Johnsonism “to the best of my knowledge”, is plainly wrong. It was almost as though our new techno-God was seeing the world as it was two years ago, rather than as it is today.

So I get this much: it’s not a God after all. It’s an extraordinary system of fallible algorithms written by organisms well known for their fallibility: humans.

From what I understand, ChatGPT is great at writing student essays, coming up with legal documents and writing new Shakespeare sonnets. And I’m sure that it writes better blogs than me, should it be called upon to do so.

As I write this, I believe that millions of people are putting the app through its paces, and no doubt having a lot of fun doing so. After this little toe in the water, I intend to join them, if only because it’s an entertaining diversion from my usual reading material. Also it gives me a new point of connection with younger generations whom I sometimes suspect live on another planet.

More considered opinions and wild theories to come once I’ve dug a bit deeper.

Life, therapy and the pursuit of happiness

I’m a great believer in therapy. Not necessarily the type that Prince Harry swears by, along with just about every American who can afford it. I’ve never felt the need for that stuff. Nor do I have any desire to return to my childhood in order to examine some traumatic event that has scarred me for life.

I suppose I’m lucky, in that the only therapy I’ve ever received was from a National Health Service physiotherapist who helped me recover from two bulging spinal discs that left me barely able to walk for a few months. Today, six years after the original injury, I still do the stretching exercises he prescribed.

The physio who worked on me was deaf. (By the way, I hesitate to call him deaf in these linguistically mangled times. Too black and white. Perhaps I should call him a “person with impaired hearing” or even “person with fully functioning sight, touch, smell and taste”.) Did he ever have therapy, I wonder, to cope with realisation that he was lacking the gift of hearing, and was therefore different to the vast majority other humans? Probably not. If he was deaf from birth, his whole education was probably dedicated to helping him make the best of the senses he did possess, and realise that he could have a successful life like anyone else.

In America, it seems, it’s almost expected that if you’ve reached a reasonable level of prosperity and success, you will have a therapist helping you along the way. Which is OK, I guess, if your desire is to be happy as well as successful. I suspect, though, that the frequency with which many patients change therapists is evidence that happiness is a holy grail they never find.

My kind of therapy involved lying on my back and spending five minutes every day stretching my body in order to strengthen my core muscles. I’m sure there are equivalent mental exercises to be found in a multitude of self-help books – wherein you are encouraged to stretch your brain in an equivalent manner. Equally, though, I wonder whether lying on a couch and wallowing in your traumas is something that comes with exercises that help you deal with it and ultimately get over it. Or do you simply lie on that couch, racking up huge bills, until you finally figure out the answer for yourself?

Either way, I have a sneaking feeling that for some, therapy is simply an exercise in narcissism. An hour a week during which you bathe in the undivided attention of someone you pay to focus on you and only you.

Because I’ve never lain on that couch, I wouldn’t know. Any opinion I have is pure supposition.

But if you will indulge me for a moment, I have a few more suppositions. For example, if you ask someone how the therapy’s going, they might tell you it’s going really well. They know so much more about the reason they were so screwed up. They’re so much better now. No doubt that’s true for some people. But how often do people tell you that they’re doing well because they don’t want to seem idiots for spending outrageous amounts of money with no positive results? And how many people will have the honesty to tell you that the whole thing was a total waste of time?

Another thought: how on earth did the last nine thousand generations get by without therapy? How did Ludwig van Beethoven produce his miraculous music despite being beaten about the head by his father so badly that the physical trauma probably led to his deafness? Or did the cruelty he suffered during childhood in some way inspire him to make the most of his talent? If he’d been brought up with kindness, I wonder whether he would have settled for a quiet and anonymous life as a burgher in Bonn, the city of his birth.

And the same goes for many other people who suffered difficulties at some stage of their lives and yet emerged to achieve things that made them famous. With therapy, would the murderous Genghis Khan have built his empire?

I suppose you could argue that ad hoc remedies were always available to treat inner pain. The listening ear of a priest, for example, or a kindly parent, or even the guardians of Bedlam. But these sources of help were frequently powered by dogma or tradition. Very little of what we now consider to be science was involved.

How many people are driven to succeed in order to prove their doubters wrong? If they’d lived by the mantra “I’m OK, you’re OK”, would they have conquered the world? Would those who lived on the edge of insanity, yet created immortal music, art and literature, founded phenomenally successful companies or came up with ground-breaking inventions have achieved these things if a few years on a therapist’s couch had helped them become “happy”?

I don’t know. And yet the same cultures, including, increasingly, my own, that glory in the pursuit of happiness also tell us “no pain, no gain”. That we must be self-reliant. And that only the strong survive. (Whoops, that last one is straying into Nazi territory. But no problem. I don’t work for the BBC).

I sometimes wonder whether, if I had more demons waiting to jump out of my closet, I might have achieved more. I’m certainly aware that moments of sadness or struggle make the triumphs of life all the sweeter. So yes, I do believe that without a dose of agony, ecstasy is hard to achieve. But if the therapists are there to attenuate the agony, how will we reach those moments of perfection that are often tantamount to blissful oblivion?

I suspect that Lincoln, Churchill, Tesla, Einstein or Mozart would be amazed to know that the societies that succeeded them would have looked at their quirks and told them that “you need therapy”. And those who survived war, famine and disease, whom society at the time expected to“get on with it” might laugh if they were told that therapy would heal their wounds.

And how did nations cope with trauma? Not with therapy, I suggest. Take the Germans, whose country was pulverised during World War 2. Those who survived the destruction were expected by the victors not only to share the blame for the Holocaust, but to pick themselves up and start again. Did they do so with the aid of therapy? I doubt it. Instead, they placed the pain, suffering and guilt in a locked closet inside their heads, justified their silence by saying “we suffered too” and got on with creating the powerhouse that is Germany today. It was not until the post-war generation grew up that the survivors were forced to confront the uncomfortable memory of their embrace of National Socialism.

Therapy has its place. Of course it does. But has it become an industry – a fashion accessory for the self-obsessed? I have a sneaking feeling that if you took away all the therapists and lawyers, America’s GDP would decline by a significant chunk, and the UK’s by not much less. A jaundiced view might be that lawyers who help their clients seek redress for ills uncovered by therapists are parasites feeding on unhappiness; that some of your friendly local therapists are not much different – they just do their feeding at different stages of the process.

I don’t subscribe to that opinion, of course. Some of my best friends are lawyers and therapists. But then that’s hardly relevant – I don’t have an overabundance of friends, despite what Facebook says.

There’s another aspect of therapy that I find interesting. Most people think of it as an individual thing. But what of society-wide therapy? I’d argue that, in Britain at least, over the past twenty years we’ve been indulging in an endless process of examining abusive ancestors. We curse the slave traders, the imperialists and the East India Company for causing us a miasma of guilt. We tear down statues. We demand the fall of Rhodes, Clive and even Churchill. To what end? That we live out our days of national decline wallowing in shame? That we make ourselves feel better by pointing out the iniquities that brought us those country houses, handsome town halls and museums glistening with looted treasure?

In a way, looking at our history in a relatively objective fashion without drawing conclusions and constructing agendas also offers a pointer to a sensible approach to our individual woes. History helps us to understand. Yes, it highlights mistakes that we would be wise to avoid in the future. But it rarely points to definitive courses of action, because the circumstances that led to historical mistakes are rarely repeated.

Likewise we, as individuals, surely benefit from understanding the root causes of our sadness, our neuroses or our underachievement. But I suggest that the next step – to translate that understanding into resolution of our ills, and, ultimately, into happiness – is a process no therapist can help us achieve without our willingness to take responsibility for our future, any more than destroying the icons of imperialism without replacing them with new icons will make a nation feel at ease with itself.

I worry that we are becoming a country divided between the rich, who can afford their sessions on the couch, and the poor, who can’t. The state doesn’t do much to bridge the gap, even if it provides facilities to treat those whose mental problems have driven them over the edge. To keep us on an even keel, our doctors feed millions of us with open-ended supplies of anti-depressants.

Just as our reliance on happy pills is often cited as one of our national ills, is not the endless self-examination that results from therapy not equally dangerous? Just as those of us who can afford it hire lawyers at the drop of a hat to right wrongs done to us, so we hire others with equal alacrity to right our mental wrongs.

My inner pub landlord, while sympathising with those who clearly need help, wonders whether those with less than fundamental problems shouldn’t simply lock those demons away and make the best of life as it presents itself, just as my wonderful physiotherapist has done despite lacking one of the senses that the rest of us prize the most: the ability to hear. Which, by the way, is not the same as the ability to listen.

After all, if we turn into a nation of happy lotus eaters, where will we find our next generation of neurotic, obsessive geniuses who will bring us joy with their creativity and help us solve all our problems?

But enough of this meandering sophistry. I must get back to the important stuff – worrying about the state of my aging body, the availability of vegetables in the supermarkets and the threadbare condition of my lawn. Maybe I need therapy.

Suppression, the canary in the literary coal mine of societies that value ideas they don’t control

Fat. Gross, obese, jowly, pot-bellied. Folds of quivering lard overflowing tight trousers and heading to the floor. Such words and phrases (mine) wouldn’t pass muster with the sensitivity editors of frightened publishers, if the recent bowdlerisation of Roald Dahl’s work is anything to go by.

I’ve just finished reading Colin Thubron’s The Lost Heart of Asia. It’s a description by someone widely considered to be one of the world’s greatest living travel writers of a journey through the Stans – those five states in Central Asia that won their independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. He wrote it a year after the USSR’s dissolution. It’s a sorry tale of loss, alienation and displacement. Ethnic groups, including many Russians, finding themselves on the wrong side of one border or another. Some regretting the loss of their status as Soviet citizens. Some fearing the nationalism of the newly formed republics. Others worried about Islam, always a mild influence, metamorphosing into the strict Sunni fundamentalism imported from other parts.

It’s a great read, yet I find myself wondering whether Thubron’s laser-sharp observations of the people he meets would pass the modern publisher’s health checks if he had tried to get it published today.

A few examples:

“The next moment my floor-lady appeared, agitated. An obese Russian babushka with hennaed curls, she too seemed to belong to a fading species.”

“They were stout and old, with thick bodies and course necks: a Russian couple with their small granddaughter. They wore an identical look of clouded defence. In their shared face a tundra of cheeks and jowls overpowered all else, isolating their vision and squeezing their mouth to a fleshy bud,”

“In the cubicles around us the Turcomans lay asleep on the railway’s flowery pillows. Their padded coats dangled decorously from every hook, but the faces coddled below were of Hunnish destroyers. Their beards forked angrily over the clean sheets.”

“‘Look at them,’ one of the Uzbeks said. ‘The heroes are still there but the Soviet Union’s gone!’ A delta of smile-lines flowed from his mouth and eyes, but he was not happy. He had the face of a wizened monkey”

“She had Polish, Ukrainian, Tartar and even Uzbek blood, she said, but she looked wholly Russian. She talked about books while her fingers writhed in her lap. She had contracted a synthetic, Slavic charm, whose veneer had eaten inward, like acid, until its lilting voice seemed to have become her own.”

“Some of the people around me were Uzbeks still – Turkestan was an early site of pilgrimage – but the stocky childlike Khazaks were all about. They looked guileless and enduring. Their faces, economical with low brows and close-set ears, seemed shaped for battling head winds. Epicanthic folds squeezed their eyes to humorous cracks, which sparkled out from a plane of thick-fleshed bones”

“The dwarfish Sadik, meanwhile, was insinuating his lit cigarette between the others’ dangling fingers, allowing each a puff before he retrieved it. From time to time he stared into my face with the half-evolved eyes of a lizard, then nudged me with a question. But his voice came always in a venal near-whisper as if everything he said must be secret or ugly.”

What I would give to be able to write phrases like those! Yet would a modern sensitivity editor not be tempted to excise the guts out of them in grounds of racial stereotyping, orientalism, cruel pictures of ugliness which might cause hurt to those portrayed, or worse? Would it be OK to describe someone’s features as “mongoloid”, as the author also does on a couple of occasions? At least, an editor might acknowledge, Thubron finds myriad words to describe fat people without using the word fat. So that’s alright then.

My point is that this is descriptive writing of the highest order, even if the style is somewhat high-brow and less accessible than that you would find in a children’s story by an author like Dahl. Would Thubron now feel the need to self-censor, as many writers claim they’re compelled to do today? I hope not, because in The Lost Heart of Asia he’s telling a story through his own perspective, as a European traveller with his own experience and prejudices. How else should he write? In the style of a sanitised Rough Guide?

The problem with censorship – be it legally, socially or commercially mandated – is and has always been where you draw the line. Such lines as exist are blurred by time and fashion. It’s not so long ago that countries like Ireland and the United Kingdom had official censors who prevented books like Joyce’s Ulysses and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover from polluting the delicate sensibilities of the general population. Today such books are read with barely a flutter of outrage. Likewise, we condemn the racist undertones of Enid Blyton, who was the companion of millions of children like me, yet cheerfully gorge on the sexually explicit poetry of Catullus, whose work was once only available in heavily abridged versions.

Social censorship, by which I mean that carried out by influencers with varying perspectives, knows no lines. What was acceptable today is poisonous tomorrow, or vice versa. Which leaves publishers less willing to take risks with work that might ignite firestorms of condemnation in one quarter or another. In extreme cases, such as that of Salman Rushdie, such firestorms can turn lethal.

Authors are cancelled, banned and excoriated not just because of what they write, but often because of the views they express personally, or because of behaviour in their private lives that might be found wanting. J K Rowling is an obvious example because of her contribution to the trans “debate”.

For me, the irony is that very few writers make more than a modest living out of their work. Yet individuals, movements and political groups are lining up to pass judgement on them, not because they’re bad writers, but because such groups believe that those of us – adults and children alike – who bother to read need to be protected from ideas found unacceptable by one faction or another. In many cases, those condemning a book haven’t even bothered to read it. Are we moving towards the point where the libraries will only stock anodyne mush, just as was the case in the Soviet Union, whose collapse in Central Asia was so rivetingly captured by Thubron? And how many would-be Rowlings, McEwans and Rushdies will decide not to bother with writing careers because of all the grief they see others going through?

And all of this, it seems, is in the cause of one side of the freedom coin: freedom from, as opposed to freedom to. The same freedom to that allows both kids and adults to spend their days blasting people to death in video games or slumped mutely in front of gore-splattered Netflix series.

Sad, really, because reading books requires concentration and memory, whereas other media often just passes in front of you. The ability to focus for more than a few minutes, to make yourself understand what you’re taking in, often by re-reading passages, and to form your own opinion on what you’re reading, are surely skills that will outlast any fashion or trend. In fact, they’re true life skills that can make the difference between drudgery and fulfilment.

So why are we so afraid of the printed word? Because knowledge is power is the obvious answer. Yet knowledge isn’t permanent. It needs to be maintained, developed and remembered. Through books, that knowledge tends to be acquired slowly, in a manner that enables it to be imprinted in us more permanently than through the passing clouds of fashion – for better or for worse.

So to hell with the censors, whatever their motivation. My idea of freedom is to be able to debate any idea, endorse it or reject it without some self-appointed deus ex machina – be it politician, publisher or social media influencer – snuffing out that debate through the power of the group-thinking mob. Yes, there are some books that should never see the light of day, such as How to Make an H-Bomb. But even books banned for a generally unimpeachable reason will usually find their way into the hands of those who wish to read them or use them for other purposes, be it through the dark web or other modern versions of the samizdat methods used by Soviet dissidents.

Attempts to suppress ideas in so-called free countries show us that that totalitarianism exists on a spectrum, at one end of which sit countries such as China and Russia. And if you want to see a democracy in peril, you only have to look closely at prevalent attitudes towards the printed word.

So beware Britain, the United States and other self-described beacons of freedom. Your demagogues are already riding the waves of disapproval, bigotry and intolerance. How long will it be before at their instigation the bonfires of books are set alight?

There’s nothing new in what I’m saying here, and very little that won’t be disputed by those, such as the Governor of Florida, who have other opinions. But occasionally it helps to shout out ideas that one day might never be allowed to surface. Not to mention to show a little solidarity with talented writers yet unpublished whose work might never receive the recognition it deserves.

Postcard from Phuket: when annoyance is entertainment

As our latest foreign visit meanders to its end, it’s time for a silly post about things that annoy me on trips during which it’s impossible to avoid other people. That’s most of them, apart from when we scoot off to our place in France, where my wife and I can, should we wish to, lock ourselves away and not see a soul from one week to the next.

Not having people to watch can be boring, depending on where you are. In France, wild boar, deer, hares and relatively exotic (by British standards) birds provide plenty of diversions. But in the Far East, and specifically Thailand, where we are at the moment, there are plenty of opportunities to observe, admire (not very often) and not admire (very often) our fellow guests.

Quiet disapproval is much more fun than admiration, so at the risk of our own disreputable habits being called out as examples of gross hypocrisy by friends and family, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite targets.

Let’s start with pool behaviour. We’re not pool loungers. I can’t think of anything I enjoy less than lying around in the baking heat, sustained by intravenous cocktails, having to listen to noisy neighbours yabbering at each other in Glaswegian, Italian, Spanish, Russian, or some other unidentifiable language. And when they’re not talking, they do what? Lie like basking seals for hours, thinking about nothing (I suspect), reading a murder blockbuster? Give me a break…

For us, the pool is for swimming. Lots of lengths to raise the metabolism so that we can cope with the delights of this culinary paradise. Unfortunately, unless we get our timing right- first thing in the morning and just before dusk – we have to deal with obstacles that make swimming in a straight line impossible. Such as:

Thrashers: I’ve spoken about these enemies of the people before. The Thrasher dives into the pool with a mission: to show off their inefficient crawl, arms flying about, creating massive turbulence in their wake. Worse still is when they try the butterfly, wherein limbs and torso flay the water in an epileptic frenzy, Get within a couple of yards of one of these creatures and you’re likely to sink. Oh, and whereas most of us have a keen sense of direction when we swim, these idiots don’t. They just plough on, paying not the slightest attention to anyone who happens to be in their way. Their only saving grace is that most of them can’t keep this performance going for more than a couple of lengths before they emerge exhausted from the pool. Job done. Attention created.

Splashers: Splashers are different from Thrashers, in that there doesn’t seem too much purpose in their arsing about. To be fair, most of them are kiddies. But that doesn’t excuse the parents from restraining their offspring from dive-bombing other swimmers with the efficiency of a fleet of Stukas. You can’t tell the little buggers off without provoking a row with Mum and Dad, so the best expedient is a rapid course correction. Did we control our kids in the water? I like to think so, but that was a long time ago.

Screamers: what is it about the physiology of three-year-olds that allows them to shriek at an ear-piercing pitch? And why? They’re bad enough in the queue for immigration at the airport, but put one in water with others of the same age, and the pool becomes a nightmare of cacophonous infants trying to outdo each other at the highest possible frequencies. Perhaps that’s God’s way of making them audible in distress. But they’re not in distress, the little sods. Fortunately, I’m beginning to suffer from noise-induced hearing loss, otherwise the screamers would be even more painful, but they’re still bad enough. I guess the parents are so used to living their lives with the soundtrack to Hitchcock’s The Birds ringing in their ears that they don’t notice the racket anymore. Again, there are some aspects of raising children that you tend to forget, until other people’s children remind you of the horror.

Greek Gods: men again, I’m afraid. People who pose ostentatiously around the pool, best exemplified by a guy we saw the other day who spent thirty minutes standing up, in a fixed pose, arms aloft, moving from back to front occasionally and changing the position of his body to catch the rays on every conceivable part of his toned physique. Why the Greek God? Because if you stuck him on the end of some Greek promontory, you might mistake him for the statue of a deity. Apollo perhaps, or Zeus, thunderbolt at the ready. All very stylised and designed to impress. And, truth be told, more ridiculous than annoying.

Moving on from the pool, the restaurant offers plenty of scope for annoyance.

Sneezers: in these plague-stricken times, unrestrained coughing and sneezing is a pain in the backside. Especially when you’re quietly enjoying your dinner and someone on the next table erupts into a spasm of explosive sneezing. No serious attempt to prevent the shower of god-knows-what organisms from settling upon you like the nuclear cloud from Chernobyl. No apologies or quick exits from the populated area. Just a stream of omnidirectional whooomphs that leave you to speculate how many days you have until you end up on a ventilator.

Shouters: the other day we were minding our own business in the quiet corner of a local restaurant when a guy came in and settled into the table next to us, shortly followed by three women. This chap must have been a screamer when young, because he seemed incapable of speaking quietly. In fact his voice was loud enough to have been deployed a weapon for deterring marine pirates. Within minutes, four of his friends arrived at a nearby table, and he started a long-running conversation with them at the top of his voice. His mates responded at a similar volume. Before long both tables were nests of cackling and bawling. And you know what happens next, don’t you? Everybody else tweaks up the volume in order to be heard. Had we not been waiting for our food, we would have baled out immediately. Instead we had to put up with the infernal racket for another twenty minutes. I’ve no idea where this lot were from, but I’ve been around enough to know that in some cultures yelling at the top of your voice is a cultural norm. I curse myself for not finding out their nationality, so that I can avoid their country like the plague.

Food queues. why do people queuing at the breakfast egg-station look so bloody anxious? As if they haven’t eaten for days. The closer they get to ordering their omelettes, the more serious they look. Why? Is breakfast on a tropical island in front of a shimmering sea such a trial? Clearly it is for many, because when I see guests loading their plates with mountains of food, I often wonder why they look so miserable. Perhaps it’s the prospect of spending the remaining days of their holidays with partners they can’t stand and offspring they can’t keep amused. Certainly enough of them sit silently at tables, frequently glued to their phones, presumably in an effort to avoid talking to their companions.

Dancers: forgive my cultural insensitivity here. Thai dancing is a wonder of grace and elegance. Beautiful costumes, swaying bodies and delicate finger movements. Unfortunately, it leaves me cold, just as other forms of dancing do. I have a sneaking feeling that many of the Westerners who watch these performances while dining feel the same as me, but are too polite to admit it. So they enthusiastically applaud each dance until, at the end, they whisper to their companions “thank God that’s over”. But hey, dancing provides plenty of employment, so it isn’t too much to ask to sit through yet another crashingly unexciting routine.

And finally two more pet hates that most of us have surely encountered somewhere in the world:

Aisle-blockers: before you even reach paradise, there’s a species of extremely vexing traveller you will often encounter before you depart the aircraft. These are the people who, before the engines have been shut down, arise from their seats and unload three Louis Vuitton cases directly in front of where you’re sitting. This makes it impossible for you to get your own bags down without contorting your body into a back-crippling shape. Could they not put their bags on their seats? No. And having blocked the entire aisle for five minutes they proceed to shove their way past others on their way to the exit without a please or a thank-you.

Happy Hour drinkers: it’s one of the great fallacies of our consumer society that getting something cheap makes you happy. After spending thousands getting to a holiday destination, does it really make you happy to be able to shove twice the alcohol down your neck for half the normal price? The fact is that people riot over discounts. Look at the scuffles at Macy’s or Harrods in the New Year sales, as people trample over old ladies in a desperate attempt to buy stuff they otherwise wouldn’t dream of acquiring. Likewise, Happy Hours are dominated by the fear of missing out – the dreaded FOMO. You end up drinking four times what you might otherwise, in an atmosphere of increasing anxiety as the clock ticks towards the end of the frenzy. And do you drink any less when the Happy Hour is done, and you’re back to full-price? Unlikely. You just get pissed early, at which point you keep drinking because you don’t know you’re pissed and you don’t care about the price. All of which is a little sad, really.

So what, you might ask, would I have these annoying fellow visitors do differently to escape my baleful gaze? Nothing actually, because the one positive by-product of watching them is that our attention is distracted from our own annoying habits. With so many behaviours to tut-tut about, we don’t have time to focus on ours, which allows for hours of uncensored badness on our part, which in a way is a holiday in itself.

But if you want me to confess our peccadilloes, you’ll have to wait a long time, because our marital non-disclosure agreement mandates the death penalty for any breaches.

Having said all that, I can’t praise our delightful hosts too highly, especially for their patience in putting up with cantankerous old sods like me.

Postcard from Bali: Eat, swim, read – and get soaked

Yes, I suppose we travel too much. The planet must be very pissed off with us by now. But I’m not so sure about the people of Bali, whose coffers returning tourists are beginning to refill after a desperate two years during the various COVID lockdowns.

We’re on our second visit to Bali over a fairly short period. When my wife and I came home in November after a long trip away, I thought it would be nice to spend a bit of time in Blighty, beleaguered or not. Luckily, as a member of the much-despised economically inactive, I wasn’t affected by the train strikes, I stayed healthy, so avoided dying in the corridor of some plague-stricken hospital A&E. And the prospect of teacher strikes was only a matter of concern for the next generation. As for the border staff strike, the army did a pretty good job, though I did wonder about the provenance of some of our fellow-passengers blithely waved through as we sailed through the e-gates on our last trip.

What did get to me was the feckin rain. That and the feckin ice and snow. And the fact that Christmas was severely disrupted by our offspring dropping like flies in the face of those innumerable bugs that seemed have jumped into the immunity gap left by COVID.

So I initially thought that another long-haul journey mid-January was a bit of a stretch after our neighbours started wondering if we actually lived in our home anymore. But by the time our departure came around I couldn’t get on the plane soon enough. To Bali then. To shorts and tee-shirts after weeks in polar gear. No matter that our visit was smack in the middle of the rainy season, which means that it usually tips it down at least twice a day. Who doesn’t like tropical rain (provided our homes aren’t swept away or we’re wiped out in a mudslide)?

Bali for us doesn’t mean temples, surfing, gamelans and yomps through paddy fields. We’ve done all that. Well, not the surfing perhaps, but that never suited someone with my centre of gravity. No, it means different things. A chance to catch up on some books that have languished unread after I’ve bought them in a fit of enthusiasm. See the subjects of my last couple of posts, for example. Also a chance to wean myself off certain food staples that I overdosed on back in the UK during the festive season. Cheese particularly. After Christmas we were left with an array of produce you only have to look at to start piling on the pounds. After creating a monstrously rich broccoli and stilton soup and a bunch of other overcheesed dishes, I was waddling a bit when we got on the plane. Constant grazing during the journey didn’t help either.

So it was time to adopt our usual Far East detox routine. Two swims a day. Plenty of fruit at breakfast, no daytime snacking, Asian food at night – meaning steamed rice or noodles, and modest portions of Balinese, Thai or Malaysian cuisine. Desserts? A scoop of ice cream, no more.

Not that any of this meant that we were living in a bubble. We always learn stuff by talking to our Balinese hosts. Take the fisherman who runs a beach-side restaurant near where we’re staying. The other night, he talked to us for an hour about the art of spear-fishing, about Balinese spirituality and the spirit of self-help among village communities. During lockdown, despite having a tiny market for the fish he caught, he still went fishing every day and gave it to those who needed it in the village. He also told us that a few years ago, when an Air Asia aircraft slid off the runway at the airport and went into the sea, he and many of his friends headed to the crash site in their boats and rescued many survivors.

We’ve often asked people how they coped during lockdown without the tourists on whom much of the local economy depends. Many of them said that they went back to their home villages in the country, where they would stay with their parents. The extended family seems to be very much alive, as is the wider community’s willingness to help out those in difficulty. I’m not sure that’s still the case in many parts of the world, including my own country (despite the food banks), and especially in the United States, where self-reliance is a form of religion.

There are stories in abundance, if you bother to ask. We’ve used the same taxi driver for our last couple of trips: a stocky woman with a big grin. When she met her husband twelve years ago, his parents didn’t approve of her. So she married him anyway. But instead of living with them in their big house in the city, she chose to rent a room nearby, which didn’t stop her from having a daughter. While she continued to work, she sent her daughter back to her home village to be raised by her parents. Three years ago, her husband died in a motorbike accident. A few days ago, her mother died, which left the daughter in the care of her grandfather and uncle in the village. Even so, she continued to work during the funeral ceremonies. When she picked us up the other day, she had to ask us for half her fare up front to pay for her petrol. In the absence of any welfare system worthy of the name, needs must, it seems.

And yet, like so many Balinese we meet, she has that quality of cheerful stoicism, an acceptance of what life has to offer without complaint. No sobbing tweets or lugubrious Facebook posts. Just get on with it.

Occasionally, blessings fall upon her, which we might describe as luck. When she dropped us off at the place we were staying at, an Australian woman walking past reception recognised her and immediately hired her for a journey. In a city with a couple of thousand taxi drivers, what were the chances of that happening? One small step away from the breadline, a gift from God.

Earlier in the post I asked who doesn’t like tropical rain. After three days of almost constant downpour, I began to revisit that question. On day one it was lovely. On day two the pool was getting a bit chilly. On day three our verdant paradise was populated with mosquitoes and frogs whose croaking reminded me of the kind of involuntary flatulence that used to erupt from my mother in her declining years, and which, should I ever reach 90, I shall no doubt emulate.

In each of the places where we stayed there was a strikingly large complement of Russians – many of them quite young. Strapping men with their wives or girlfriends, most of whom seem to have bought in to the Russian admiration for collagen-enhanced lips. Unfortunately, though their menfolk might not think that way, they reminded me of the koi carp endlessly cruising around the fishpond at our hotel, mouths perpetually open for the little scraps of bread the staff leave in a basket for the kiddies to feed them.

As in other pasts of the world where recently we also encountered large numbers of Russians, I keep coming back to the question of how these guys avoided Putin’s draft. Are they all in special jobs that exempt them from call-up, or are they waiting it out away from their country until the need for their services has gone away? I was half-expecting some well-oiled Aussie round the pool to yell Slava Ukraini! The reaction would have been interesting.

While we were in Bali, we met up a few times with some friends from England. Tony first came there in 1974 by sailing boat. At the time Kuta, which these days is a slightly run-down area full of hotels and restaurants along the coastline, was some distance from Denpasar, the island’s capital. Between the two was nothing but rice fields and dirt tracks. Which reminded me that when I first worked in Saudi Arabia back in 1981, the distance between the new Jeddah airport and the city limit was several kilometers of wasteland. These days the road is built up to the airport and beyond with equally unprepossessing properties. Both examples of how “development” creeps up on you without your even noticing.

When Tony was first in Bali there was nothing for tourists to do outside the city, apart from temple-visiting, volcano-baiting and a spot of surfing. For the locals, most of whom still lived agrarian lives in the villages, options for entertainment were also limited – no internet, not much TV and radio. According to Tony, the main source of entertainment was cockfighting, on which large sums of money would be wagered. The fights were short and vicious. Owners would go to all kind of lengths to revive their flagging birds, including mouth-to-beak resuscitation. As my friend suggested, the losing owner at least had the consolation of a decent helping of chicken satay. No, not funny….

Knowing the Balinese to be such gentle and spiritual people, the whole idea of cock-fighting seems counter-intuitive, but there you go.

For all I know, such un-woke pastimes may still be a feature of village life. But if you happen to be a Julia Roberts clone looking to heal yourself by meditation and mass yoga classes, there are plenty of places that will take your money, and not just in Ubud, the island’s spiritual centre. As for me, lying on my front naked while being singed by volcanic lava isn’t my idea of a good time. Such new age regeneration techniques have passed me by. Instead, I like nothing better than looking out over a hotel balcony at the greenery, croaking (or farting) back at the frogs before heading off to the pool for thirty lengths, where I receive free Russian lessons, and then wandering down to a beach-side restaurant for a spot of parrot fish freshly plucked from the sea and barbecued on coconut shells.

And no, I don’t apologise for being away from home. Britain can be pretty grim in the winter months, the more so in these miserable times. Anyway, three weeks in that magical island have been thoroughly restorative. Before very long we’ll be back in the land of shit-filled rivers, corrupt politicians, non-existent Brexit benefits and yes, yet more strikes. Better than living in a bombed-out apartment in Ukraine or a refugee tent in Turkey, for sure. But self-inflicted pain is surely more difficult to deal with than other forms of adversity, because the recrimination it produces denies us the opportunity to pull together and face our problems.

To their eternal credit, togetherness is a quality the Balinese seem to have shown in abundance.

How close we came to The End

I have no idea whether Buckingham, where I was at school, or Blandford Forum in Dorset, where my elder brother was, would have been wiped out in October 1962. But I’m pretty sure that my parents and younger siblings, who lived in Birmingham, wouldn’t have made it.

The context is the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the US and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breath of nuclear war. Britain, as a nuclear power and a NATO ally of the US, would inevitably have been dragged in.

I’ve thought about the Cuba Crisis often during the sixty years following its resolution. I suppose you could call me a child of the Cold War, which is why I was happy to bury myself in Max Hastings’ latest book Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Hastings is one of my favourite historians. He does his reputation no harm with his description of the crisis and how it came about.

The story is relatively well known: how Nikita Khrushchev sought to even up the military balance between the Soviet Union and the United States by secretly installing nuclear weapons 50 miles from the American coast, and how Kennedy resisted overwhelming pressure from his military to bomb the newly-discovered installations and then invade the island. Instead he opted for a blockade, which gave the two parties (Cuba had little say in the matter, and nor did Britain) the chance to negotiate.

Hastings takes us through the potential flash-points on the way. The shooting down of a US spy plane over Cuba on the initiative of a local Soviet commander. The Russian submarine captain, whose boat was equipped with a nuclear torpedo, driven half-crazy both by the heat within his malfunctioning boat and by the US Navy destroyer dropping practice depth charges around his boat, preparing to launch the weapon, only to be countermanded by another officer (Archipov, later lionised as the man who saved the world).

He also reminds us of other factors. The decrepitude of Pliev, Khrushchev’s commander in Cuba, which weakened the chain of command on the ground. What now seems the absurd length of time – up to eleven hours – for communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach each other, which led both parties to make public announcements as a way of sending immediate messages. And, most significantly, the fact that a number of the weapons were operational by the time Kennedy and his generals contemplated military action. An invasion would most probably have precipitated a general – in other words, nuclear – war.

Hastings is also convincing on the characters of the main dramatis personae. Khrushchev, blunt, sometimes brutal, impulsive but ultimately sane enough to step back from the brink. Kennedy, highly intelligent, well-read, an effective chairman and an excellent listener. And Castro, the romantic revolutionary, also impulsive and increasingly megalomaniac – an ally of convenience for the Soviets but never wholly trusted by them. A significant part of the book describes the ascent to power of each of them, and the encounters between the Soviet leadership and their American counterparts which led to Khrushchev fatally underestimating Kennedy.

He’s equally strong on the deliberations of Kennedy’s Excom – the executive committee formed to advise the President on the US response to the crisis, as well as the characters of the main players: especially Robert Kennedy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and the bull-headed generals who reported to him, of whom Curtis LeMay, the Air Force Chief, emerged as the most outspoken, and potentially most demented, of the lot.

Whereas Hastings had a wealth of source material to draw on describing the Excom discussions – which Kennedy, unbeknown to some of them, recorded, his material on the Soviet deliberations is somewhat light. He draws heavily on Khrushchev’s autobiography and that of his son Sergei. The other members of the Politburo, apart from Andrei Gromyko and Anastas Mikoyan, rarely emerge from the shadows.

As Vladimir Putin and his wilder supporters in the media keep flying their nuclear kites to intimidate those countries coming to the aid of Ukraine, do we learn any useful lessons from the Cuba crisis?

Possibly. Those who urge Putin to unleash his nuclear arsenal against Ukraine are of a generation that have no personal memory of 1962, let alone the horrors of the Great Patriotic War that the likes of Khrushchev lived through. Yet the craving for respect for their country as a superpower rival to the US was and is embedded into the mindset of both men. Likewise the concept of spheres of influence, first tacitly agreed in the wartime conferences between Stalin and western leaders in Tehran and Yalta, was a factor in the US determining that it could not tolerate the presence of nuclear missiles in an independent state a few miles from its own shores, just as the same principle lies partly beneath Putin’s decision to invade a neighbour determined to join what he sees as a rival political alliance.

Another common theme is the use by both leaders of deception and disinformation to mask their intentions. Just as Khrushchev and Gromyko, his foreign minister, flatly denied any intention to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, so Putin made the same denials of his intention to invade Ukraine. The difference is that Russia under Putin has turned disinformation into an art form, setting the stage for the morass of confusion and distrust that now characterises the social media. The nature of truth has been turned on its head.

In one other key area, the world that survived the Cuba crisis is not the one we live in today. In 1962, there were four nuclear powers: The USSR, the US, France and Britain. Now there are nine, with Iran looking to become the tenth. The compact America made with would-be nuclear powers – such as Germany, Japan, South Korea and others – under which the US would place these countries under the protection of its nuclear umbrella – is weakening. Little wonder that in the face of an aggressive Russia and the isolationist noises emanating most strongly from Donald Trump, some countries are starting to wonder whether they too should be equipping themselves with their own nuclear shield. A recent article from the Carnegie Endowment for International for Peace provides a convincing background on this dynamic.

Despite the shrieking of Putin’s harpies, the man himself is old enough to remember Cuba. He knows the risks of nuclear deployment. But does he share Khrushchev’s recognition of its futility? A problem for Russia’s adversaries is that a coherent understanding of thinking in the Kremlin – let alone the rivalries among those closest to Putin – seems as far away from us as it was in Khrushchev’s time. The blizzard of open-source information (and disinformation) that was unavailable in 1962 leaves most of us none the wiser.

And while governments will have teams of analysts dedicated to interpreting the signs coming from Russia’s leaders, the rest of us, as in 1962, have to make do with informational chicken feed. Battlefield analysts, of which there are plenty, are one thing, but psychologists who can peer into Putin’s mind and predict with any certainty what he will do next are entirely another. We, the bystanders and onlookers, are left to choose which “experts” we believe.

And finally, in the wake of a conclusion to the Ukraine conflict, will we, as our parents and grandparents did in 1962, breathe a sigh of relief, only to realise that the way ahead is infinitely more complicated. After Cuba, the road for the United States led to Vietnam. And today, even if Russia abandons its costly Ukrainian adventure, is another crisis comparable with Cuba germinating in the West’s relationship with China?

After sixty years of nuclear proliferation, the potential for miscalculation and accidental detonation are surely even higher than when the nuclear button remained in the hands of only two main protagonists.

Yet despite the parallels that might be drawn between October 1962 and where we are today, Abyss is not a tale of doom and gloom. After all, we did make it through the crisis, thanks to both parties stepping back from the brink. And although we’ve flown by the seat of our pants on occasions since then, the fact remains that for sixty years the ghastly events foreseen both by Khrushchev and Kennedy have not come to pass. So it’s right that we should still remember and celebrate our close escape.

Whether the current inheritors of the nuclear mantle have the sense and sanity to keep their weapons safely in their bunkers remains to be seen. At the risk of stating the obvious, let’s hope so.

A long-dead Soviet writer reminds us why now is a good time to remember Stalingrad

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over German forces besieging Stalingrad. So a few words in praise of a magnificent novel that describes the battle like nothing I’ve read before.

I have always been intensely interested in Russia. Be it fearing for a life hardly started during the Cuba crisis, or watching, fascinated, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a country that’s never been far from my thoughts throughout my adult life.

Fear, wonder, an instinctive sense of common humanity fighting a perception of otherness.

And what of Russia now? What face does it present to generations who didn’t live through the flashpoints, the summits and the ever-present mutual suspicion? It’s hard to not argue that among those who don’t speak Russian, have never visited the country and have no Russian friends, the picture is pretty ugly.

Even before the latest Ukraine war, the West’s old adversary was about oligarchs and their yachts, a grim-faced leader orchestrating election interference, poisonings and defenestrations. Mean, bitter and bullying. A country whose grudges and resentments over its past inform its future.

Its war against Ukraine heaps further damage upon its reputation. Murderers set free to kill. Progozhin the troll farmer and warlord, whose mercenaries castrate deserters or stove in their heads with concrete blocks. Regular soldiers walking down suburban streets randomly killing passers-by. And black-clad thugs bundling protesters off to prison.

This is the Russia you will find on the social media, and indeed in the mainstream media (as if there’s much difference between the two nowadays). At least, it’s what you’ll find if you live in a country that doesn’t control what you watch and what you post in response.  A country without a moral compass, loosely held together by the virulent nationalism spewed out by Putin and his propagandists on state TV. Search YouTube for Simoyan and Solovyev and you’ll discover what I mean.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia seemed to be adopting some of the trappings of the West. A form of capitalism, even if the intended spread of ownership of national assets was perverted by the mafia in league with remnants of the Soviet elite.  We were able to say that a Russian middle class was emerging, consisting of people who shared western aspirations: freedom of ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of movement. Yet if you talked to a Russian you didn’t know well there was always an elephant in the room. Putin, oligarchs and the mafia were subjects best not discussed unless the other person brought them up.

I’ve always been a believer that wherever they are, and whatever political system they live under, people share universal basic needs and values. I still believe that, even if the flip side of that belief is that given the right circumstances people are also capable of unspeakable evil. And that goes for people in Manchester and Philadelphia as much as it does for the citizens of St Petersburg and Shanghai,

I don’t believe that people are basically evil. Yes, they can be led astray by manipulation of resentment and a constant stream of propaganda. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most extreme example, though most recently the willingness of people in the US to embrace Donald Trump and in the UK to vote for Brexit are evidence that the dark art of manipulation is no less potent today.

I’ve read many books about Russia, its contradictions and its struggles, but equally its profound cultural contributions to humanity. One big book has been sitting for a couple of years in my library unread – waiting for me to devote sustained attention to it. Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, is a literary monument not to be skimmed or glossed over.

Now I’ve read it, all nine hundred pages, over a period of ten days. It’s a novel that was never published in the author’s lifetime. Grossman, born in Ukraine of Jewish ancestry, was the pre-eminent Soviet war reporter during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. He was covered every major battle, from the defence of Moscow to the final act in Berlin. He was the first writer to describe the horrors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka. And he was at Stalingrad, the most brutal battlefield of them all.

Stalingrad is the first of two novels that deal with the battle. The second, Life and Fate, I have yet to read. I mention it in the context of Russia’s current struggle for two reasons.

First, because for all Grossman’s riveting descriptions of the fighting, as I read it, the book is actually about love. The love of families for each other, of comrades for each other in the heat of battle and of those fighting to preserve of their nation for the land itself. Each aspect brings forth some of the most lyrical and moving prose I have read in decades.

Second, because the book was finished in the 1950s, the dark side of the Soviet Union was hinted at only in the most oblique terms. To do otherwise would have risked official censure and prevented him from publishing. So no mention of Stalin’s iniquities: the Holodamor (the man made famine that ravaged Ukraine in the early 1930s), nor of the Reign of Terror, nor of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which enabled Stalin and Hitler to carve up Poland and provided Germany with a vital source of war materials in the early years of the war. In the event, even though he danced delicately around those events, he was unable to get it published. Perhaps it was his ideas about the nature of truth that did for him. These days we talk much about alternative truths as a new concept. Grossman was there six decades ago,

Stripped of its malign context, you might read Stalingrad as a story of heroism and the power of collective will. It’s much more than that. It’s a tale, not of systems and ideologies, but of the power of people doing their best under impossible circumstances in the face of a vicious and remorseless enemy.

Every character has a story that brings them to life – some short and some long. You sense that Grossman has distilled into the cast of Stalingrad hundreds of real encounters in and around the battle scenes from which he reported. It’s commonly held that one major character, whose mother is killed by the Nazis in a Ukrainian ghetto, is based on the author himself, who suffered a similar loss.

The book is a blend of tenderness, compassion and brutality, interspersed with polemics against fascism, as well as the obligatory paeans to the joys of Soviet socialism. But above all, the humanity of the characters shine out – humanity with which any of us would empathise.

So in the week when Vladimir Putin unveiled a new statue of Stalin in the city that was subsequently re-named Volgograd, one wonders how Russia’s current autocrat will be remembered: for the iniquities of his authoritarian kleptocracy, or for what he might claim to be the power of collective will that’s reducing the cities of Ukraine to rubble and feeding his citizens into a human slaughterhouse?

There are many other books and movies that describe the Battle of Stalingrad, For me, Anthony Beevor’s account stands out, as does Enemy at the Gates, the movie that depicts the battle between snipers in the ruins of the city.

But I would recommend Grossman’s novel above all of them, because it reminds us, at a time when we might easily forget, that whatever their differences, human beings, wherever they might be, have more in common with each other than sets them apart. And that includes the capacity for evil as well as good.

What he would have thought of today’s Russia is anybody’s guess. He died in 1964, long before the regime that denied him fame and recognition in his lifetime itself perished. But he has left us a powerful lens through which to view the most brutal of conflicts. Not for nothing is he sometimes regarded as the Soviet Union’s Tolstoy.

Strictly Come Limping – how Britain’s boomers can rescue the economy

A few weeks ago, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister (or rather, if you’re of a similar political persuasion to me, you might prefer to think of him and his recent predecessors as our sub-prime ministers) was reported as suggesting that the country’s post-COVID population contains too many economically inactive folk in their fifties. By which he means the large number of couch potatoes who have chosen to go for retirement well before the normal age. Now the government seems to be talking about tax breaks and no loss of disability benefits for such people.

This got me thinking. Even though I’m into my seventies, I would be more than happy to do my bit for the economy should a suitable opportunity arise. But doing what? I’d like to think I’m good for something. I’m in reasonable health. I haven’t got any bits falling off me yet, and I feel as though I’ve retained a modicum of marbles.

After wracking the parts of my brain that still function, I’ve come up with a few attractive possibilities that might enable a baby boomer like me to prime my stricken country’s economic pump:

Call centre concierge. Let’s face it – call centres are not designed for the elderly. Myriad options, multiple layers, ghastly music and if you just want to speak to a human – which you’re discouraged from doing unless you want to buy something – what usually happens is that the human answers just as you’re brewing your third cup of tea after sitting in a queue for three hours. It then goes away when all it can hear is the white noise of a boiling kettle.

If the banks and insurance companies were really smart, they’d hire people like me to be the first point of contact for the over-seventies. So if you call the bank, you get through to me immediately. I ask what you want and put you straight into the right queue. But here’s the beauty of it. While you’re waiting to be put through to the right place, I stay on the line. I chat with you about your gout, the weather, about Harry and Meghan, Brexit, the cost of laxatives or whatever. Then, when the right person answers, I put you through.

You might think that this would be rather expensive, and you’d be right. But given that price-gouging the elderly is the favourite pastime of financial institutions, they can afford it. And if the greedy bastards decided to include my services in some kind of premium bundle, we can afford it. After all, we boomers have all the money, don’t we?

Museum attendant. What could be more fun than becoming one of those inert individuals who sit on chairs by museum doorways? Nothing to do except direct people to the right places. You don’t even need to stand up to do that. Endless hours of people watching.

Eulogy writer. A service for those who have to bury an elderly relative and can’t think of anything good or bad to say about them. All they have to do is send me a few basic details and I will describe an epic life full of heart-warming but largely fabricated anecdotes. If, on the hand, damning with faint praise is required, I’m also your man. In order to cement the inheritance, I’ll even write the eulogy while the person’s still living for their approval. After all, if you stand to inherit a fortune from someone, they deserve a rousing send-off, don’t they?

Sermon writer. My sister, who is a Church of England minister, has often said that I would write good sermons. This despite the fact that I lack what one would think is the one essential qualification: religious faith. No matter. I’m so steeped in the traditions of the C of E that I reckon she’s right. So perhaps I should start a subscription service in which I write a weekly sermon for the benefit of clergy who couldn’t be bothered to produce their own words week in, week out. Full of bang up-to-date social commentary with the appropriate references to the New Testament. Come to think of it, I might also, for a price, be willing to produce entirely original homilies on a one-on-one basis for clergy keen to become bishops. Nothing too theologically technical. Just simple, inspiring stuff for the faithful. After all, if the late Bishop of Durham managed to make it to the top despite, as he claimed, not believing in God, there must be an opportunity for a non-believing sermoniser.

Mystery shopper. I’m not sure there’s much call for such people anymore, since opportunities to physically shop are rapidly diminishing. But I would relish the opportunity to test the patience of staff at some of the supermarkets to destruction. For example, I could impersonate an old lady and spend fifteen minutes struggling to find exactly the right change in my handbag to pay for a basket of stuff of negligible value. And what havoc might I be able to wreak at IKEA?

Scam buster. I wouldn’t mind being a tethered goat. Set me up with a false identity designed to be attractive to online scammers. The opportunity to drive to distraction those who want to access my bank account, or try and take over my computer in the guise of providing “technical support” would be quite fun. As would interminable conversations with Nigerian princes seeking my help in unlocking millions lurking in obscure bank accounts. The idea of scams to catch scammers is quite enticing.

Book signer. Go to any bookshop and you have a good chance of buying a book signed by the author. What a pain it must be to have to sign thousands of copies of your book. For a fee, I’m prepared to be your surrogate book signer. Send me a copy of your signature and I’ll scribble away for hours at a time. Who would know? Not the bookshop, not the publisher or the customer. Only you and me.

Washing machine repair technician. You want your washing machine repaired? I’m your man. More specifically, I’m the guy you can send to a customer to look at their machine, tinker about for five minutes, and then announce, with much sucking of teeth, that to repair the machine would cost more than buying a new one. Such an announcement to be accompanied by a stream of unintelligible techno-bullshit and an unbeatable offer of a replacement.

I dare say there are a number of other occupations that would suit me fine. Perhaps a podcast for the elderly, featuring endless discussions on the state of one’s prostate or the price of Custard Creams at Tesco. And if you paid me, I’d be happy to tour the nation’s care homes organising Strictly Come Limping competitions.

The key to an economically productive dotage, it seems to me, is to forget about your former career. Focus on the knowledge and skills you acquired and think anew about how you can deploy them. In truth, I’d rather spend my time wandering around my favourite parts of the world, inventing new curses on the golf course and perfecting the art of the Christmas cake.

But hey, I’m always open to offers.

Postcard from Bulgaria – oligarchs, patriarchs and medieval miracles

If Basil Fawlty had been reincarnated as a Bulgarian oligarch, he would have created the Hotel Marinela. We’ve just finished a five-day trip to Sofia, during which this extraordinary hotel was a major source of amusement.

My wife and I arrived at the hotel by accident, after the place we’d originally booked turned out not to be suitable for a number of reasons. British Airways Holidays, bless them, re-booked us into the Marinela and absorbed the cost of upgrading us from a three-star to a five-star establishment.

And what an establishment. The vast lobby is probably the most garishly over-designed indoor space I’ve ever encountered. More spectacular than any bling-soaked hotel we’ve stayed at in the Far East or the Middle East. Tasteless enough to give Donald Trump a spontaneous wardrobe malfunction.

It seems that the Marinela was built late in the communist era. It was subsequently refurbished a couple of times, most recently by a Japanese designer. He must have been on acid. The whole optical effect is so dazzling that if I suffered from epilepsy, I would have fitted immediately upon entering the place.

What made it even more bonkers was the Christmas décor, clashing hideously with the eastern ambience. Thus a massive effigy of two polar bears – straight from Fox’s Glacier Mints – overshadowed a row of gloomy terracotta army replicas that guarded the outside of a bar called The Gentleman’s Room.

Another bear sat at the front entrance next to a no-guns sign on the door, a sentiment that his cousins in Svalbard would surely endorse.

The bear gazed sadly out at rows of luxury cars – a Maybach, a Rolls Royce SUV and a host of high-end Range Rovers and Mercedes saloons. The cars were guarded by chauffeurs looking like crosses between Russia’s General Surovikin and Alexei Sayle’s black marketeer in Gorky Park. Their demeanour as they waited to ferry their owners back and forth would suggest that firearms are more than essential fashion accessories.

Down in the basement, the interminable walk to the swimming pool takes you through a corridor adorned with Japanese samurai in full ceremonial armour. A little closer to the designer’s roots, perhaps, than the terracotta warriors in the lobby. But who cares? The overall impression of the Marinela’s public spaces is of a psyop masquerading as interior design.

A more conventional feature is the Japanese garden that sits in the middle of the hotel complex. Complete with ponds, exotic ducks, peacocks and geese, it also includes two life-sized fibre-glass sumo wrestlers, one white and one red, facing off against each other. A few metres away sits Mickey Mouse and an unidentifiable companion. When last I looked, Mickey had fallen off his pedestal and was lying forlornly in front of the wrestlers.

So where, you might ask, does Basil Fawlty come in to all this? While none of the hotel staff approached Basil’s gloriously flamboyant approach to hospitality, of which his Byzantine namesake Basil the Bulgar-Slayer would have been proud, the vast majority of them seemed to subscribe to the Fawlty philosophy that the guest is an encumbrance without whom the place would function far more efficiently. Not a smile to be seen, every interaction strictly functional. We encountered the same sullen attitude elsewhere in the city among museum attendants and church officials.

Is this a cultural thing – a hangover from the communist era? Could it be that service workers have inherited a sense that since they’re the equals of their guests, insincere expressions of civility and friendliness are meaningless and unnecessary folderol? Products of decadent Westerners, who don’t really want their customers to have a nice day, but are actually only in it for the tips? Or is the owner just a grumpy old git whose attitude has infected his employees? I don’t know. What I do know is that most of the ordinary Bulgarians we encountered were warm and friendly. The only exception was those who are paid to interact with the public.

Here’s a good example. When I asked why the door to the garden had suddenly been closed after being open for two days, I was told that it made the bar area cold. Why then had it been open before, when it was cooler outside than now, I asked? I got a shrug of the shoulders. When I pressed further, I got the ultimate argument-stopper: because the owner wants it. Only one answer to that, especially if the owner comes complete with one of those musclebound bodyguards, all buzz-cuts, widow’s peaks and simian gait who stood guard over the Maybach: I don’t like cricket – I love it. (If you remember 10CC’s Dreadlock Holiday, you’ll get the reference. Otherwise, sorry.)

As for the customers, there seemed to be a constant flow of glamorous young women sporting collagen pouts, knee-length boots and a Dubai-grade range of designer accoutrements, drifting in and out of the hotel and making their way to the 19th floor at the top of the hotel. What went on there I never discovered, but it seemed a popular rendezvous also favoured by lithe young men who looked like Premier League footballers, and older guys with the same don’t-mess-with-me gait as the minders of the Maybach. All rather sinister, the more so because of the presence of similar gentlemen in black suits and ties patrolling the lobby, whose purpose seemed to be to provide some form of security – to whom I know not. It all felt like a scene from a Bond movie.

Once we got out and about, Sofia took on a different complexion. On our first trip downtown to see the Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky and the ancient Roman basilica of Saint Sophia, we got talking to Maria (not her real name), who came to our rescue as we were trying to negotiate with a church attendant who closely resembled Rosa Kleb, James Bond’s would-be assassin in From Russia With Love. Maria’s a lawyer who has worked in London and Brussels. She took us to places we otherwise wouldn’t have known about, such as the remains of the city’s Roman colosseum, and the offices of Dr Ruja Ignatova, also known as the Missing Cryptoqueen, a fraudster who managed to make a fortune out of cryptocurrency and disappeared without a trace a couple of years ago.

Our new friend, who was a delightful companion, also regaled us about the iniquities of the communist system, and the corruption that still remains. She’s in Sofia trying to obtain restitution of the land confiscated from her great-grandfather after the communists took power. She’s getting there, but it’s a long and frustrating process. When I mentioned the glittering clientele at the Marinela and compared their apparent wealth with the national average monthly wage – a pitiful 3,000 Bulgarian levs (equivalent to £1,500) – she gave me a knowing look that needed no explanation.

Over the next few days, on Maria’s advice, we took in other delights of the city – not least the National Museum of Archaeology, which has a magnificent collection of Thracian armour. Then there was medieval church at Boyana, which boasts the finest 13th century frescos I’ve ever seen – superior to anything to be found of a similar age in France or Italy.

Boyana Church, Sofia (pic

Other highlights included the German Christmas market and Egur Egur, a splendid Armenian restaurant that Maria had never visited because of its previous use as a Soviet cultural centre. Before we met her at the restaurant, we stumbled into a sung liturgy at the Russian Orthodox church nearby. The music, as always at Orthodox ceremonies, was beautiful, yet as we watched the priest anointing the faithful, I couldn’t help thinking of Patriarch Kiril back in Moscow blessing Putin’s war on Ukraine.

The day before we left, we took a trip to Plovdiv, which is a couple of hours away by bus. In the centre of the city lies the remains of Philippopolis, which was named after Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father.

Plovdiv North Forum and Odeon

Within a large pedestrian area full of elegant Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, archaeology nuts like us could see Greco-Roman structures such as the forum, the theatre, a section of a white-marble stadium and the mosaic floors of a large early Christian Basilica.

Plovdiv Roman Stadium

Plovdiv is a reminder that Bulgaria is no Eastern European backwater. Istanbul is a mere five hours away by bus. You can be in northern Greece in two hours. Our flight from London took just two-and-a-half hours. Yet thanks to its geography the country seems torn between two gravitational forces: its cultural affinity with its fellow-Slavic neighbours and a desire to be an upstanding member of a European Union that demands solidarity against Russia’s territorial ambitions.

Maria pointed out that, as in Russia, the communist elite in Bulgaria didn’t disappear. They adapted, finding ways to enrich themselves by keeping alive the old networks of power and influence. Some, like her, deeply resent the political and social legacy of the Soviet era, but particularly what she believes is the end product: widespread corruption. Others are more ambivalent, including, I imagine, the owners of the impressive cars parked outside the Marinela Hotel.

But who am I to comment, coming from a country that is rapidly slithering down the corruption index after twelve years of an oligarch-cuddling government whose incompetence has led to epic enrichment at the expense of the taxpayer, not least in the matter of PPE procurement?

That said, on the evidence of a few days in a couple of its cities, Bulgaria is a fascinating country, well worthy of further exploration, preferably in the summer. In our short time there, Sofia showed us that my country doesn’t have a monopoly on climatic variation. When we arrived, the temperature was in the early teens centigrade. The night before we left, we were given a foretaste of what awaited us back in the UK: heavy snow.

I’ve wanted to see Bulgaria ever since reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (my review of the book is here) in which he described his walk across the country in the 1930s during his epic trek on foot at the age of eighteen from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. I was far from disappointed, even though the country he witnessed has surely long gone.

I suspect that with his powers of description he would have done a far better job than I ever could of describing the many joys of the country we visited, not least the memorable Marinela and its unforgettable denizens.

We shall come again.

Twitter, as seen by a grain of sand

I try hard to form an opinion on plenty of stuff, even if I don’t always share my views in public.

But I have to say that Twitter leaves me both fascinated and baffled. Elon Musk’s ownership hasn’t made much difference to my experience. It merely adds to the fascination, as affronted users chime in to give him advice – and abuse – on all manner of aspects of his stewardship.

I have no axe to grind, nor a blue tick to cherish. Nor do I feel qualified to criticise the management style of a guy who has made a significant difference to the world I live in. I may disagree with some of his opinions, but the same goes for many powerful people who use the platform for their own ends – be it ego, political gain or commercial advantage.

If Twitter were to disappear tomorrow, what would I miss? The views of hundreds of people who know far more about their subjects than I do. The former generals and military analysts who write about Ukraine, for example. The archaeologists who tell us of the latest discoveries from Pompeii. Historians, travellers, scientists, observers of society and yes, those who write about politics. I would miss them terribly. Life would be duller without them.

As for the bafflement, Twitter reminds me of a vast city. You might visit Paris to see the Louvre, or to stroll through Montmartre, without ever experiencing that city’s seething underbelly of poverty and discontent. With Twitter, perhaps because I’m an insignificant traveller, I rarely get to see the trolls, the deranged and all the other bitter voices unless their bile is highlighted by people I follow. Those glimpses are bad enough to persuade avoid the dark side whenever I can.

So my Twitter might be totally different from yours.

Of course, I’m fully aware of the hidden hand of the algorithm, which gives hints of itself in different ways. Why otherwise do I get new tweets doled out in batches of twenty-six, where a few months ago there were hundreds waiting for me after a few hours away? Why do some of the Russian tweets come with a translation link, but not others? But I have no skin in this game, so I can just watch and wonder.

Returning to Musk, I do find his communication style interesting. He seems to veer from the head teacher addressing school assembly to the impish provocateur on the sidelines, often contrary for the sake of it. Sometimes he becomes Delphic. I suspect he gets a kick out of people’s various interpretations of what he says.

One commentator suggested that he hire a professional communications company to do his tweeting for him. Maybe he should, but that would inevitably render his thoughts less enlightening. And in a way, even if he teeters on the brink of destroying the brand, it’s quite refreshing to see a CEO saying what he actually thinks rather than having a bunch of suits tell him what market wants him to think. I know Good To Great advocates anonymous leaders beavering quietly away, but for pure entertainment, give me Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary any day of the week.

CEOs, after all, are human, not gods. They have their stupid moments, their foibles, their blind spots. The bigger their organisations, the greater the chance that they work in a vacuum, devoid of people who tell them what they really think. But there are plenty of people willing to share their opinions with Musk. Most of them are not flattering. So perhaps he has a different problem. Bombarded with advice and abuse, he needs to retain a sense of purpose. That can be difficult, but he’s shown that he can stick to his bearings with Tesla and SpaceX.

If he ends up crashing and burning his new investment, it will no doubt fuel business school case studies for decades to come. The big question in my mind is whether he can be as adept in taking an established company and re-fashioning it as he has been in building new enterprises. Culture change is tough. In the case of Twitter, he must convince not only its remaining employees but its users and advertisers. It’s hard to see how he can do that effectively while keeping an eye on his other interests.

It promises to be a fascinating few months for the Twitter masses.

Twenty Days on the High Seas – Part Two

This is the second part of my diary of a cruise to Singapore. How do you occupy yourself for eight days of uninterrupted sailing? Read on….

Day Thirteen: Pool wars, or gobshites in speedos

Last night’s exit from Salalah came to a halt for a while. The ship stopped. Nobody could tell us why. This morning we learned that there had been a medical evacuation – the second on this trip thus far. This time though, because we were close to the port, there was no need for a helicopter rescue. As I looked over the side, I could see a little boat with a tiny red light approaching. Lucky patient, hopefully. Out in the Indian Ocean your chances of being picked up quickly must be slim, since we’re likely to be out of range of most choppers, unless we’re lucky enough to be passing near an aircraft carrier. So if one of us gets sick now, it’s either hang in there or curtains: down to the ship’s morgue for a transit to Singapore in cold storage, along with the steaks, cutlets and other perishables the rest of us will consume.

Mind you, I won’t be in the least surprised if one or two of my fellow passengers succumb over the remaining next eight days of the cruise. Such is the enthusiasm with which they pour into the restaurants for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and late-night snacks, that some will surely eat themselves to death. We, on the other hand, confine ourselves to two meals a day, interspersed with 30-length sessions in the pool and brisk three-circuit marches round the promenade deck, passing as we go rows of potential corpses lying on their sunbeds, insensible and open-mouthed.

I’m so determined not to gain weight that I’ve even brought a set of scales with me, and religiously step on them every morning. So far, so good. Not that I take much joy in being such a self-righteous git.

Why am I so uncharitable towards the grazing masses who seem to have nothing better to do than eat and sleep? Because I could easily be one of them.

Back in the UK there seems to be a contest going on between journalists to come up with the most comprehensive demolition of Boris Johnson. Matthew Parris, no lover of the flaxen blob, leads the field in his Times column with one of the most vengeful eviscerations of a politician I’ve ever read. I have frequently launched into purple insults at those of whom I disapprove: Boris, Nigel Farage, Trump and the rest of the gang. But my powers of description don’t come close to those of Parris in full flow.

Truss, on the other hand, is like one of those talentless sixth formers who get to be prefect because there’s nobody of any substance left standing. Everything about her says imposter. A useful idiot, the creature of hedge funds and far-right think tanks funded by unknown donors. At least that’s the opinion of Led By Donkeys in their video on the Tufton Street lobbyists. Boris is perhaps less of an idiot – more like a useful buffoon.

After twelve years of blogging, I’ve more or less run out of epithets to describe my least favourite people. Perhaps it’s time to invent some new ones, in the hope that one day they’ll make the Oxford English Dictionary, which would probably end up being my only claim to fame. I do have a few candidates, however. Puddlesucker. Bumscraper. Blatherhead. There will be more, but will they stand the test of time and usage? In the meanwhile, one glorious Irish word will have to do for today: gobshite.

More news from the UK. Much alarm, it seems, from a new class of disenfranchised citizens. Apart from the 99.7% of the population who won’t get their say on who is our next prime minister, it seems that around 12% of Conservative Party members don’t or can’t use email, the chosen method of voting. Much wailing and gnashing of false teeth among the care homes of England that 20,000 well-informed, selfless and unprejudiced Tory faithful will be unable to vote for the cuddly blob by next Friday. That will include at least a thousand passengers on this ship, because internet access is both exorbitant and no faster than a sleepwalking sloth. That would cost Boris a few votes. I guess. It also wouldn’t help his cause if the Russians brought the internet down for a few days in Chelmsford, Andover, Torquay and Scarborough. Otherwise, if he makes it to the final ballot, it’s quite possible that enough members will ignore the fact that he’s an incompetent, lying, bumbling, corrupt, law-breaking scumbag of a gobshite and will make him our prime minister again, God help us. There – that feels better.

This evening we encountered Pool Wars. Most of us use the swimming pool for gentle laps. It’s small, but ideal for lolling around, thereby getting in the way of swimmers who want to work off their breakfasts. Occasionally someone shows up who reckons they’re an Olympic swimmer. Flouncing their athletic bodies for the delight of the rubicund, coke-swilling zombies scattered about on their sun-loungers, they enter the pool and proceed to do a vigorous crawl, inundating all in their wake, which enrages the women, who were anxious to keep their coiffured hair dry in advance of dinner. One gargantuan lady, who stood in the same place and did an approximation of aqua-aerobics, complained loudly to the gentleman concerned, which sparked off a furious row, made worse when he accidentally kicked my wife in the ribs on his way past. A grudging apology followed before he left the pool to a hail of catcalls from the vengeful sealions.

Now at this stage you might wonder why I’m on this cruise, since I’ve been moaning about it constantly over the past few pages. There are several reasons. I love the sea. I love the food. I get to read many books. And above all, I enjoy meeting people. Because even if half of them look like they belong on a mortuary slab, the rest have stories to tell. OK, some tell you the same story every time you meet, especially if they’re pissed, and are best avoided for that reason. But on this cruise, we’ve met doctors, engineers, accountants, a highly engaging rabbi and a jovial Church of England clergyman whose last parish was in Handsworth, a district of Birmingham that I know well. From many conversations I learn something, and often quite a lot. And yes, I do spend a bit of time cursing Brexit, Boris and Truss, but only when asked. I do prefer to listen, hence the learning.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the independent financial advisor who happens to be a born-again Christian. Perhaps, now Truss has wrecked the British economy, he’ll become a born-again financial advisor.

This morning, I sat in on a lecture on Judaism from the rabbi and learned that the origin of the kosher rules that prohibit Jews from eating pork and shellfish originate not from sanitary concerns in the 9th century BC, but from God, for no knowable reason. As the rabbi freely admitted, this is the equivalent of parents saying to their children “because I said so”. Whereas rules prohibiting murder, theft, adultery and the like can be said to be socially desirable, the same logic doesn’t apply to shellfish and not eating dairy food at the same time as meat. The same applies to circumcision. So these inexplicable strictures come under the heading of “God said so”. Makes sense, though if like me you’re not convinced that God, if he exists, is likely to be particularly bothered with such minutiae of human existence (especially as He probably has billions of alien species to deal with), the whole edifice comes crashing down.

Day Fourteen: Meltdown in the laundrette

The longer this cruise continues, the more the inmates acquire the characteristics of a village. Particularly where gossip is concerned. The main source of tittle-tattle seems to be the bridge club, which has a direct feed into the smoking club, which hangs out on Deck 11. Since I’m partial to the occasional puff, I get to hear all the news that’s not fit to print. The Born-Again Financial Adviser, who seems to spend all of his time up there, had what he thought was a juicy tale to tell this morning.

Apparently, before we reached Salalah a couple of women had a row in the laundrette about access to the clothes dryer. It seems that one of them dived in out of turn and replaced someone’s laundry with her own. The other woman, who was highly aggrieved, waited for the transgressor to leave the laundrette and proceeded to add several bars of chocolate into the mix, thus staining (or, as my wife is fond of saying, destroying) the entire wash. The injured party complained to the purser. As a result, the choccie-bomber was offloaded from the ship at Salalah. Whether or not she was accompanied by her husband is not known. Nor is it clear how the complainant could prove that the accused committed the offense. Unless, of course, there was CCTV in the laundrette specifically to detect chocolate violators.

So now the cruise is at least one passenger light. My take on the fun and games? A waste of perfectly good chocolate. But if true, it does indicate how animosities fester and erupt in small communities – even temporary ones. In real villages, it’s more likely to be poison pen letters, adultery and endless boundary disputes. But I guess on a ship, chocolate is one of the few weapons at the disposal of the aggrieved. Wine, at $50 per bottle, would be far too extravagant. There remains, of course, the ultimate sanction: the heave-ho over the railings. But with cameras everywhere, I’m not sure how you would do the deed with impunity.

Later on, one of our dinner companions, a veteran of many cruises, told me that such incidents are by no means unusual. On a previous cruise a woman was offloaded for a similar offence: inserting a Mars bar in someone’s dryer. Apparently, chocolate in dryers not only stains clothes, but puts the dryer out of action. He also mentioned a couple of elderly gentlemen who got into a fist fight over the last piece of cake on offer in the buffet. They were also offloaded. Which goes to show that some old men are not just grumpy but quite prepared to act on their ill-humour.

The good news for potential miscreants is that we’re now far enough into the Indian Ocean that offenders can’t easily be offloaded, though I suppose a diversion to Iran might still be on the cards. Otherwise, it’s full steam ahead to Singapore, with only a spell in the brig to prevent an outbreak of World War 3.

Among the less febrile passengers, there appears to be an outbreak of beetroot faces. Is this because of their determination to sit out in the sun, or because of the cumulative effect of all the booze they’ve been drinking? Looking at these folks, it seems to me that the next step in their physical transformation is to turn into desiccated mummies of the sort to be found in the Atacama Desert. Perhaps there are one or two who are halfway there, lying undiscovered in their cabins, or even in some rarely visited nook elsewhere in the ship.

Day Fifteen: Rishi’s turn

The Pool War erupted again yesterday. It seems that the aging Olympic swimmer, also known as The Thrasher, was up to his antics again, splashing, crashing and kicking his way through the delicate bathers lolling in the pool. This time, the basking sealions had had enough. Several of them blocked his passage, thus thwarting his Olympic ambitions. Words were spoken, and eventually he left the pool in some disarray. Victory for the women, whose bulk wasn’t just enough to stop him, but would probably have prevented the D-Day invasion had they lined the shores of Normandy.

As we sail towards Sri Lanka, which was a planned stop-off, but cancelled because of the island’s political and economic instability, I wonder how many cruise companies are thinking of striking Britain off their destination list for the same reason. Perhaps Rishi Sunak’s imminent coronation will spare us this further humiliation.

Speaking of financial instability, Carnival Cruises, the owners of Cunard, must be in pretty dire straits if they think it’s OK to soak their passengers as they have on this cruise. As in $16 for a small glass of Provencal Rose, $13 for a small gin and tonic and a whopping $45 for two hours in the indoor heated pool. Not to mention $400 for internet access so execrable that I would have complained about it even in the days of dial-up.

Back to Rishi. If for no other reason than that the racist seal-farts in the home counties whom we have to thank for the disasters inflicted upon us by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss will not have a say in choosing between two candidates, I hope Sunak wins unopposed. At least then it will not be said that we choose our leaders on the basis of the colour of their skin. That will be progress of some kind that the wobble-chinned colonels and martini-marinated memsahibs will not be able to thwart.

And once he’s in place, I hope the rest of the British electorate, as soon as they get the chance, inflict such a defeat on him and his rotten party that it will take a decade for them to recover. After which time the other lot will be so corroded by power that it’ll be time to kick them out too.

This afternoon I chanced upon Rishi’s tutor in the jacuzzi. She told me that she’d been hired by his parents to get him into Winchester. He was, apparently, the brightest child she’d ever tutored. Also a very pleasant child to teach. Her job was to help him get a scholarship, which was important because his parents weren’t wealthy. Despite his ability, he wasn’t given an award. My new friend firmly believes that racism was a factor. But he still went on to be head boy and then to get a first-class degree from Oxford.

If racism held him back early in his education, it doesn’t seem to have impeded his subsequent career, until he ended up in his beauty contest against Liz Truss. Perhaps, though, he succeeded because he worked twice as hard as his colleagues. If he gets the nod this time, let’s hope his intelligence is laced with a little wisdom. If that’s the case, it’ll be the first time in a long while that we’ll be able to say that about a Tory prime minister. Not since Major, perhaps.

Day Sixteen: more cruise wars, and searching for whales

I learn more from Deck 11 Rumour Control about misbehaviour on cruise ships. On one cruise around Australia there was so much drinking – on account of the cruise line’s overgenerous drinks prices – that many people were confined to the brig. So many that there was an overflow, which meant that they were locked in their cabins with security guards at the door. Which, of course, thanks to giveaway prices of booze at our supermarkets, is something that takes place every night at some of our more lively city centres. No chance of that on this cruise where, as I mentioned earlier, the average booze package is likely to bankrupt most drinkers before they arrive at their destination.

Meanwhile, as we trundle our way through the Indian Ocean past Sri Lanka, I keep my eyes peeled for whales on their migration path to Antarctica. Alas, none to be seen. My enthusiasm is punctured by an Australian couple who tell us that from their house on a headland near Sydney, whales are a regular occurrence. Smug bastards. At least, unlike many an urban Brit, they don’t live near a dog walking route, where regular sightings of the most infernal packs of woofing, snarling, yelping creatures are to be seen and heard, along with their desperate owners or, should I say, dogherds. Sometimes the sound is deafening, rivalled only by the baying and yapping that greets the latest Tory prime minister as they arrive at party headquarters.

Day Seventeen: form anxiety strikes again

Our first day of “bad” weather. Up on deck early in the morning to be greeted by rain. Oh joy.

We’re three days away from Singapore, and panic has gripped the ship. Just as getting on board was a bureaucratic nightmare, with health declarations to be submitted, COVID certificates to be printed and even labels for our baggage to be created by origami, getting off again is even more tiresome, since we are all obliged to complete an online application to enter Singapore called a SG Card.

Given the primitive internet access whose awfulness is only emulated in Pyongyang, this is quite a challenge, since we’re competing with hundreds of other passengers for precious bandwidth. Half of them are so ancient that they still under the misapprehension that mobile phones are for making telephone calls. Some can barely read, let alone fill in an online form, which doesn’t make things much easier. Endless queues at the purser’s office begging for assistance makes any other kind of business impossible. This is all because you can only complete the SG card three days in advance of your arrival date.

Even though we’ve done this before, it still took us three crashes before we completed ours. Having a laptop that’s on its last legs through multiple organ failure (fan and battery actually) didn’t help. The major pitfall in the process is that you need to upload your vaccination certificate QR code as a photo (no more than a megabyte). This requires taking a photo of the certificate, cropping the image down to the QR code and uploading the image to the immigration site. Enough to give apoplexy to the average passenger, engorged by five meals a day and copious quantities of alcohol. I expect to hear alerts for medical emergencies any time now.

Anyway, we managed it before being trampled by sealions honking their way towards the purser’s office, so all good.

Last night there was a barbecue on the deck, with vast quantities of meat on offer. No complaints, you would think, but some still managed to moan about the food being cold by the time it reached their plates. However, a couple of old boys I met were cheered up by the three dancing girls, or more specifically the shape of their backsides – the most excitement they’d had on the whole trip, it seems. These comments were not made within earshot of their wives, naturellement.

We missed all the fun because we chose to dine inside. So we paid the price for being miserable killjoys by missing the only appearance of spare ribs on the cruise.

One of the more interesting features of walking round the deck on our twice-daily circumnavigation is the scars people have. Many chests appear to have been cracked at one time or another, which suggests heart bypasses. Knees that look like first world war trench systems. Then there are abdominal scars – hernias perhaps? These are only on the men. I try not to wander around taking a detailed peek at women’s maternity scars. But it is noticeable how many of the elderly gents have benefited from the surgeon’s knife. Beyond the scars, judging by the limps and the walking sticks, there are enough potential customers on board to keep an orthopaedic surgeon busy for years. Come to think of it, a cruise ship that provided in-house hip and knee replacements, heart bypasses and inguinal hernia repairs would make a fortune. And how about a floating plastic surgery clinic? Come on board, do the liposuction and emerge at your destination a new woman (or man).

The food on this cruise has been excellent. The chefs have taken great care with presentation, especially of the starters and desserts. Lots of little garnishes that make ordinary-looking dishes look special. However, it was noticeable how towards the end of the journey there seems to have been a growing shortage of cruise staples, especially for breakfast. The first to go was mushrooms. Followed by Cumberland sausages, and finally by prunes. The latter are much favoured by the elderly for their emetic properties. With so much food consumed you need something to keep you regular. God forbid that you suffer a couple of days of constipation, followed by a Krakatoa-strength drain-blocker.

Speaking of drains, I’m not sure if these vessels discharge their sewage into the sea. I hope not, but otherwise it would mean that our ship, over a 20-day cruise with 2500 on board including staff, accumulates  – on the basis of 1.5 movements a day – the results of up to 50.000 bowel movements. That’s shedload of shit by any standards. Not a pleasant thought.

If you’ve never been on a cruise, you might wonder what people talk to each other about. Prolonged encounters develop much as they do onshore. But very often you find yourself next to strangers in the pool, or at breakfast. With them, the conversation might proceed thus: Nice day, followed by a moan about the ship, followed by where do you live, followed by what did you do for a living before you retired. By this time you will have enough information to figure out how the person made their money, and therefore how they can afford to be on the cruise. Are they rich bastards, or people like us? If they’re rich bastards, why aren’t they at the top of the ship, where all the premium cabins and posh restaurants are? If they’re at the top, they’re fools for paying so much money. If they aren’t, they’re mean bastards for not spreading their money around. The rich can’t win, in other words.

I’m sometimes tempted to tell a pack of lies about my background, just to get a reaction. Very childish, I know. How much more fun to be the owner of a chain of sex shops or a forensic accountant specialising in tax scams.

Day Eighteen: time for the plague mask

It’s pissing down. Thunder and lighting deprives us of our only chance of a swim in an otherwise empty pool.

Much talk of disembarkation. We will be unceremoniously dumped onshore at 8.30 in the morning, from there to find our way to our hotel.

Tonight is the last of the so-called gala evenings, for which once again I’m expected to dress like a king penguin, with waddle to boot. You don’t have to dress like an Oscar-winner, but I don’t want to let the side down. I do draw the line at masks, even though this is a masquerade night. Had I known, I would probably have brought my 400-year old plague mask. Particularly appropriate given that Singapore appears to be going through a resurgence of COVID. I imagine that such a device, accompanied by a long black cloak, would duly impress the local authorities.

But no, no bloody mask for me, and as soon as dinner’s over I’ll be back to the room to remove my black suit and pack it away for the next five years, not to be unearthed again unless some future government chooses to award me a knighthood in recognition of my creative use of bad language (don’t laugh – wait till you see the parade of useless mediocrities about to benefit from Boris Johnson’s resignation honours).

I absolutely hate what these days is known as cosplay. Boris on top of a tank. Priti Patel dressed as a police officer, Robert Maxwell as Aladdin’s genie, Conrad Black as a cardinal, Putin as a bare-chested Apollo on horseback and so forth. I wore enough costumes as an amateur actor, and very silly they were too. But at least they served a dramatic purpose. Fancy dress is just plain stupid at best, and deeply narcissistic at worst.

Why then, you might once again wonder, when just about everything we’ve seen and done gives me an excuse to be grumpy, am I on this ship?

Well in the first place, I like being grumpy. Grumpy is good, especially when underneath my veneer of disgruntlement lies a pretty contented person. Being on a long voyage forces you to acquaint yourself with people you would never normally meet. And people have stories to tell. The older they are the more stories they have, provided they’re prepared to share them. Some are truly impenetrable, and are best left to their interminable eating and their ready supply of blockbuster novels. But others, if you take the trouble to ask, have had interesting lives. It’s just a matter of looking beyond the leathery masks, the bellies, the operation scars and all the other signs of impending departure.

Day Nineteen: a premature end to the journey

Our journey ends in a death, it seems. Not ours, of course. Yesterday afternoon there was a call from the bridge for the medical team to go to a room on our deck. Five minutes later, the same call again. At the time, my curiosity was only aroused by the fact that the call was broadcast. Wouldn’t it be better for them just to call the medical centre? And weren’t the emergency team equipped with radios?

Whatever the reason for the broadcast, we heard nothing more. Until this morning, when my regular informant on Deck 11 told me that someone had died. Sad, of course, especially as they didn’t get to see Singapore, when possibly they could have been revived. But hardly surprising, considering the massive amount of food and drink consumed over the past three weeks. Perhaps the unaccustomed input was too much for one of the elderly souls. Heart attack? If that was how they died, it wasn’t a bad way to go. Nor was it a bad place to go. And I certainly wouldn’t mind being buried at sea, which apparently isn’t an option on a Cunard cruise. Otherwise, we would have had to answer a question about death preferences on the pre-cruise questionnaire. That wouldn’t have quite set the tone for the voyage, I think.

As it is, the deceased will have to be flown back to Britain, Australia or wherever else they came from, at considerable expense to their loved ones, or rather their insurance company.

We have now arrived in Singapore. We’re not leaving the ship until tomorrow, so we have a day to pack and get things in order. Tips for the waiters and cabin boy, resolution of bill disputes with the purser and so forth. Most people have left on tours, so we have Queen Elizabeth more or less to ourselves. No hacking coughs in nearby rooms. No more whoop whoop as the vacuum toilets struggle to carry a neighbour’s bowel movement down to the bilges.

Plenty of time to re-read the endless rules of the Singapore government governing our arrival, with fines for this, jail for that and even the death penalty should you be foolish enough to bring a stash of heroin into this immaculately ordered country.

I once wrote during the COVID lockdown in Britain about an imaginary department in Whitehall whose sole purpose was to devise ever more detailed, obsessive, even anally retentive regulations about what we could or couldn’t do. Park benches out of bounds, people arrested for sitting on the grass. When was a party not a party, and all that crap.

I believe that Singapore must have a similar department, except that their brief isn’t just COVID, and their presence isn’t temporary. Why otherwise would we discover a host of new rules since we last visited Singapore only a year ago?

And there are still nutters in the British parliament who hold up Singapore as the model of governance to which we should aspire. Give me a break. I like Singapore, but I could never live under its overbearing social ethos. All in the cause of the great Confucian virtue of order. Which is another reason why I don’t intend to visit China, where the authority of the state weighs even heavier than in Singapore, even though it would have amused me to see Liz Truss being escorted off the podium by a couple of heavies during the Conservative Party Conference.

Day Twenty: decanted at last

We’re finally decanted off the ship. One little bit of excitement. After surviving immigration and customs, we’re queueing for a taxi to our hotel. I notice that my wife’s bag is not her bag. Panic. She rushes back to customs with the bag that isn’t hers, to find a distraught German woman standing beside a bag that isn’t hers. Our bag. This is the third cruise in a row, she says that her bag didn’t arrive. This time, she’s obviously third time lucky. Profuse apologies, and off we go.

So would I spend twenty days on a cruise ship again? Not sure. The trouble is that there are cruises and cruises. Obviously the clientele depends on the time of year you choose, which to an extent dictates who you travel with. October is not the time for families, so we were always going to end up with people past retirement. And Cunard, with it’s slightly fusty ways, is an ideal operator to choose if you want the company of the nearly dead.

Would I do a Caribbean cruise, full of burger-devouring Trump supporters who lay waste to a host of islands desperate for their dollars? No. Would I do another Nordic cruise with entertainment officers leading tacky singalongs round the pool? No. Would I go on one of those monster ships that accommodate five thousand screaming, whooping, jostling passengers? No.

Which doesn’t leave me with many options. Antarctica in a small ship? Perhaps. Or one of those niche companies like the late lamented Swan Hellenic, that took you around the Mediterranean, stopping off at archaeological sites with a latter-day Mortimer Wheeler to enlighten you about the places you’re visiting? Perhaps.

But I suspect that my main reservation about the Singapore trip had nothing to do with the ship, the cruise company or the port stops. It was that I looked at our companions and saw myself. And I didn’t like what I saw. Nobody likes getting old. And I suspect that most of us don’t like being reminded of our incipient decrepitude, even if we don’t feel particularly decrepit ourselves.

Aside from that observation, how was it for me? Food was great, the cabin was fine, weather was good, too much jerking around with the itinerary, the trips too short, the swimming pools too small. A shout-out for Newfoundland, a great Irish father-and-son duo whose music kept us happy for many an evening. But did I meet lots of interesting people? Some, but not as many as I hoped. Too many folks up their own arses. Like me perhaps….

Twenty Days on the High Seas – Part One

If, on reading the title of this post, you’re expecting a harrowing account of a voyage through the Southern Ocean on a life raft after a yachting accident, followed by a miraculous rescue, you’ll be disappointed.

This is the story of a much more mundane experience: nearly three weeks on a cruise ship from Barcelona to Singapore. But perhaps not so mundane. A tale of fear and loathing, of rabbis and vicars, of inhabitants of a temporarily village doing their best to eat themselves to death while mummifying themselves in the sun in preparation for their demise. Of swimming pool wars and duels in laundrettes. Of COVID and pirate alerts. And of whales that didn’t show. All the while, back in the UK, my home country, our beloved government was engaged in its own dance of death.

We’d booked the cruise before COVID. Why? This jaunt was due to stop at Heraklion in Crete (good for Knossos), Sagada (Karnak and Valley of the Kings) Salalah (the greenest point in Oman) and Columbo in Sri Lanka. All places where we’d never been or wanted to revisit. So why not?

Things didn’t quite turn out as expected. For one thing Heraklion and Columbo were struck off the list. Heraklion was replaced by Souda Bay, which is about three hours drive from Knossos. And Columbo was out because of the political and economic turmoil, to be replaced by an extra day in Singapore, which was fine for those staying on the ship on its next leg to Sydney, but not for us, because we were going to be staying in Singapore anyway.

Anyway, for the lack of anything better to do – unless you count the plethora of silly quizzes, the ballroom dancing or the West End hit shows – I decided to write a diary of the trip. I’m not going to bore you with everything I wrote because I doubt if your attention span and level of interest would let you get through the whole thing. So here’s an abridged version. It’s in two parts, in case you get bogged down somewhere near Iran. You could call it lowlights and highlights. If you’ve never been on a cruise before, you might find it useful as a forewarning of what you might encounter on the ocean wave. Beware: both episodes are quite long. And since trigger warnings are obligatory these days, both pieces are liberally spiced with cheap shots at the clientele and rude comments on the political nonsense at home.

The ship was the Queen Elizabeth. The operator was Cunard, once a venerable brand in its own right, now just a part of the Carnival Cruises empire. The customers were a mix of Brits and Aussies (most of whom were going on to Perth and Sydney), with a smattering of other nationalities.

Day Zero: Forms, forms and yet more forms

Boarding in Barcelona. Shedloads of paperwork. Vaccination certificates, a COVID test certificate no more than 72 hours old. A £2 million pound travel insurance policy. And a declaration of health. The latter made me laugh, as I listened to the click-clack of walking sticks all around me in the boarding queue. What could you own up to that would be sufficient to have you banned from cruising? A triple bypass? A degenerative neurological condition? Necrotising fasciitis? The plague? Looking at some of the passengers, I would be willing to bet that some of them might not make it to the end. The usual Mr and Mrs Blobbies, but also pallid, skinny folk who look like they would be blown over by the gentlest ocean breeze.

Anyway, COVID seems to be the main preoccupation. We’re informed that we must wear masks at all times other than at the trough or in our rooms. Which I find rather irritating, coming from a country that abandoned these practices long ago. But I guess that the proportion of “vulnerable” people among the eighteen hundred passengers must be quite high, even if the health declarations would have you believe that we’re all ready to run marathons round the promenade deck.

All of a sudden, I feel cast back two years, to the days when the Plague Ship docked in Yokohama while its occupants dropped like flies.

Day One: Queues, queues and pole-vaulting Aussies

Sailing. Much fun ahead of us, if we can navigate the strange catering practices. Long lines in the breakfast buffet snaking around the middle of the ship. Every time we enter the line, a masked attendant sprays disinfectant on our hands. After a couple of visits, I begin to forget the purpose of the queue. Passports? Or “Crucifixion?”

Much of the day spent not going to stuff. We gave the LGBTQ+ get-together in the Commodore Club a miss. Masonic gathering? Nah – never learned the handshake.

Dinner was a laugh. It’s waiter service. You have to dress up; no shorts and sleeveless tee shirts allowed. When you book your time in the coach class dining room (the premium customers live on the top decks and have their own restaurants, curiously known as “Grills”), you get assigned a table with the same people every night. Our companions included an engineer and a special needs teacher from Stafford, an anaesthesiologist from Vancouver who loathes “socialised medicine” and insists that Joe Biden has dementia (an established fact apparently) and an accountant from Queensland with an impenetrable accent and a sharp wit, who shared a few tales about pole-vaulting over large sleeping passengers to get to the loo on long-haul flights. Whether the joke supply will last over twenty nights remains to be seen.

Day Two: COVID Redux

We’re introduced to our Master and Commander, who apparently is the only female captain employed by Cunard. I never caught her full name. But ThorHauge is two of them, which is good enough for me. She’s from the Faroe Islands. there’s a deafening blast from the ship’s horn, and the Captain, in her rather dour tones, gives us our position, mainly for the benefit of the trainspotters among us who religiously log the information in little notebooks.

During the day, we were all asked to do a lateral-flow COVID test. Those who test positive will be isolated in balcony rooms just beneath our deck, where they can cough and splutter to their hearts content in the open air. Doesn’t bode well for those of us who might be taking the sea air at the time, since you would expect the virus-infested air to drift upwards…. Nobody was allowed out of their rooms until they’d done their test. I later learned that a number of people tested positive.

Every morning we’re invited to listen to a distinguished speaker hold forth on his favourite subject for 45 minutes (about the limits of the attention span of the average passenger, it seems). This morning it was General Sir Simon Mayall, formerly of the British Army, attempting to relate the entire history of the Ottoman Empire in a one lecture, which was somewhat ambitious. A fair bit of cut and paste from other talks was clearly evident. I’m sure he was a fine general, but as a public speaker addressing an audience of arthritic old farts, he made a lot of assumptions about their knowledge. Arrogant though I may be, but I reckon I could have delivered a more coherent account of the period by focusing on three themes: infanticide, the janissaries and Suleiman the Magnificent.

Day Three: Souda Bay, Crete – exploding Ottomans

Off we go to Souda Bay. We booked a trip to a monastery where in the 19th century hundreds of people resisting Ottoman rule blew themselves up with gunpowder along with an equal number of soldiers in the monastery’s wine vault. The church was nice, but overall not the most exciting visit, enlivened only by the arrival in a Porsche of a guy and his girlfriend, who was wearing shorts about three inches below her buttocks. Not the most appropriate clothing for a Greek Orthodox holy site. Our guide reproached her in no uncertain terms, though she kept gliding around with no apparent sense of remorse.

Later our bus took us down the mountains to the Venetian port of Rethymno. It was charming enough to have merited a longer visit. Unfortunately, we only had an hour there, which we spent in a harbour café guzzling Cretan yoghurt with honey while watching old ladies devouring big plates of fish.

Day Four: Pirate paranoia

This morning, the Captain conducted the Pirate Drill. This had been announced the day before. We were told that in a few day’s time we would be crossing past the Horn of Africa on our way to Salalah in the Oman. This, she reminded us, is pirate territory – as in Tom Hanks held hostage by a host of Somali fishermen turned privateers. No matter that it’s been at least ten years since piracy has been a serious problem and no pirate has been able to breach the defences of a cruise liner to date. The captain’s warning spooked us into taking the drill seriously. Which is why, at precisely 10.30, which barely gave me time to bolt down my breakfast, we were required to close our curtains, lock the door to the balcony, leave our cabins and stand outside in the corridor while the crew went through the prescribed rituals.

In the unlikely event that a boatload of pirates tries to take over a ship with 2,500 passengers and crew, I would hope that we have a few RPGs and people who know how to use them, as well as the legendary sonic gun that blasts out the eardrums from 200 metres. And of course, there’s the international anti-piracy task force patrolling the area, who would no doubt send their helicopters to the rescue if needed. My theory: it’s all for insurance purposes.

On our morning walk round the promenade deck, the sight of the people splayed out on the deckchairs is not edifying.

It’s a shame, in a way, that we don’t have technology on board that allows us see other people at the age of their choosing. Instead of the person in front of you at the age of eighty, face and much else besides sagging towards the floor, how much better if you could see them, say, at thirty, in the full vigour of youth yet with incipient maturity. I say this because it’s quite depressing to look at the hordes of seniors on the ship. Faces betraying what looks like disappointment, disapproval or just blankness. Gait that suggests a lifetime of toil, though more likely the result of years of obesity. Bodies that spread out over two seats, so vast that they begin to envelop the relatively tiny heads that perch on top of them.

Yet when you speak to some of these individuals, you realise that they’re people who have probably lived interesting lives and have perspectives and experience worth sharing. It’s also true that among the British contingent there are plenty of immigrant-bashing, lefty-despising, Truss-voting Brexit lovers, whose every response has been pre-baked for them by the Daily Mail. But the rest? I suspect we’ll meet some people who have not only have plenty to say, but experience to back up their words.

Day Five: welcome to our canal

Early in the morning, we glide into the Suez Canal. So this is what we fought a war for in 1956. Doesn’t look like one of the seven wonders of the world, but this little waterway carries a serious amount of the world’s maritime cargo. Fertile, irrigated fields on one side. Scrubby wasteland on the other. Down in the water, we pass a fisherman in a small boat who shouts “welcome”. To his canal, not ours.

After a succession of lakes, the canal finally squeezes us out into the Red Sea. I looked for the gouge in the bank caused by the Evergreen cargo vessel that blocked the canal last year, but no sign. All around the ship, strange devices are being set up. Also fire hoses that look a bit too dinky to make a serious impression on determined intruders scaling up their rope ladders. Young women with “Security” emblazoned on their uniforms scan the seas with high-powered binoculars. They include a fierce-looking Nepalese woman. Are there Ghurkas on board?

Day Seven: pharaohs, more pharaohs and Liz Truss

Luxor, Karnak and Valley of Kings – the big trip. I’ve never been to Luxor. We signed up because if we don’t go now, we might never have another chance. After an early breakfast, 800 passengers sallied forth on a convoy of buses for the three-and-a-half-hour journey. At least that was the theory. In practice, the departure was something of an EasyJet experience. Multiple staging posts, plus the delight of the Egyptian security station at the port. Not one X-ray, but two. It took an hour to get on our bus. By that time all the others had gone. So much for safety in numbers. Anyone intent on doing us harm could easily pick us off one by one before we had the chance to circle the wagons. In fact, I think the bus drivers were engaged in some kind of race.

We got there in the end, after a discourse from the tour guide about the iniquities of the Egyptian economic system, the various revolutions since King Farouk was deposed, ending with a eulogy of President Sisi, who, apparently is a good man doing his best to sort out Egypt’s problems, as evidenced by the second cutting of the Suez, the new capital and various new roads. Which must be a great comfort to the hundreds of political prisoners locked up by his security services.. Not by coincidence, as we passed through Egypt, I had decided to read Alaa Al-Aswany’s Republic of False Truths. Our guide’s description of the private sector’s methods of evading the labour laws very much chimed with Al-Aswany’s description of rampant corruption in pre-Arab Spring Egypt. The guide told us that some companies demand that you sign three pieces of paper before you are start a job. The first: the employment contract. The second: your letter of resignation. The third, a waiver of your outstanding wages and other benefits should you resign. The second and the third are, of course, undated.

Karnak – as magnificent as expected – was followed by the Valley of the Kings. About which I can’t say more than that it was good to have been there, among hordes of Russians, Spanish, Italians as well as our lot. Only four tombs are open, including King Tut’s, which costs an extra bung to visit. You enter, you go down and you come back up again in the space of 15 minutes per tomb. Yes, of course the carvings are impressive, but so are the queues waiting to descend. Did one have the opportunity to stand before the empty spaces for a few minutes contemplating the fleeting nature of power? Nah, unless you wanted to be crushed by lines of Russians on a last bash before going home to be mobilised. Still, I did spare a thought for Liz Truss, about to be deposed with a speed that would cause any self-respecting pharaoh to raise a mummified eyebrow.

The First Selfie

Day Eight: The Captain Phillips Zone

The Captain tells us that we can abandon our face masks. Hurrah!

The next five days at sea. The fact that we’re about to enter pirate-infested waters perhaps explains why General Mayall was rolled out again, this time to regale us about The Making of the Modern Middle East, with special reference to ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Given that I’ve read about twenty books on the subject he covers, I decided to give him a miss. More fool me perhaps. After all, he was there. My experience was more tangential. That said, it would have been far more fun to have a gin-soaked conversation with him and listen to his war stories. Or possibly his thoughts on the role of the tank in the light of Ukraine’s ongoing mangling of Russian armour.

As it is, I think about heading for the Hobby Club meeting, an event that promises fascinating possibilities. Do people sit around the room with little placards proclaiming their pet obsessions? Who knows – I might learn something about snakes, nematodes, crocheting or home-made pipe bombs. More fun, I should have thought, to produce a home-grown version of Mastermind. No subject too obscure. Or possibly Brain of Britannia.

If fact, if they employed me as their Geriatric Entertainment Officer, I’d be quite happy to come up with the questions. As it is, the entertainments people are on average 50 years younger than the customers. What do they know about what gets us old bastards going? How about designating a corner of the ship for Grumpy Old Men, where the malcontents can drone on about the quality of the food, the rudeness of foreigners, the size of the swimming pools and so forth? Actually, we have one. It’s called the smoking area.

Or a Speakers’ Corner, where guests can get excited about vaccine conspiracies, aliens (extra-terrestrials or the sort that arrive in boats), extol the virtues of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, or warn us of the Second Coming. They could call it the Q Corner.

Out on deck, the temperature is much the same as I remember from this time of year in Jeddah, where we worked for most of the Eighties. Which is not surprising, given that my favourite Middle Eastern city is a mere fifty miles away. The inmates are spread around the deckchairs, sizzling away in the sun, lost in thought – or possibly slumber – mouths open, corpse-like. The pool, which is large enough to accommodate around six people of massive girth at one time, reminds me of a tiny version of the Suez Canal, as human versions of container ships ease themselves from one end to another, before hauling themselves up the steps with all the grace of sea lions coming ashore to bask.

Out at sea, no sign of pirates, or even sharks, which tend to hang out in these parts and eat unsuspecting tourists.

Day Nine: The Penguin Parade

Rushing down the Red Sea. Very hot and humid. The ship is battening down the hatches for imminent pirate attacks. The sonic guns are locked and loaded. Water hoses are unfurled around the promenade deck. The young women in uniform are ranged around the ship with binoculars, looking out for suspicious-looking fishing vessels. The biggest threat would seem to be a USS Cole-style attack, wherein a boat blows itself up and, in the process, blasts a hole in the liner’s side.

Speaking of threats, there appears to be a new COVID variant waiting for us when we land in Singapore. Perfect.

And if our elderly fellow guests aren’t nervous enough, Cunard has kindly supplied a lawyer to lecture us about medical negligence law. I passed on that one. Likewise, I missed The General’s latest talk on the First Crusade, which he described in the title as a “victory”. I suppose in Putin’s terms it might have been, though descriptions of Jerusalem knee-deep in the blood of its occupants are hardly a story of victory worth celebrating.

Tonight, the ship’s external lights will be dimmed. For the next four days, until we reach Salalah, the dining rooms will be blacked out by curtains. The promenade deck, where we regularly do circuits in the morning and at night, is off limits from dusk to dawn.

Inside, it’s penguin night, when you are expected to don the black tie and all that jazz. Why they bother is beyond me. Our community of old trouts and leathery lounge lizards are no easier on the eye when draped with sparkly dresses and silly suits.

Conversation with an elderly American at breakfast. We talked about Brexit, Trump – all my favourite subjects. He told me that I was the first British passenger to tell him that Brexit was a bad idea. Which reminds me that we all have our blind spots, based on belief rather than logic. These are the no-go areas where discussion is pointless. Things get dangerous when, with the encouragement of manipulators like Trump, they metastasise and grow, to the point that they define the individual. And when they define sufficient like-minded individuals, that’s when they become cults. Or religions, or political parties, you might say.

What’s my blind spot? That’s for others to say, because the blind can’t see.

Day Ten: Worst job job you’ve ever had?

Of all the jobs on this ship, there are two I would least enjoy. The first is that of the security guard, who has to stand on deck for hours on end with a set of binoculars scouring the seas for imaginary pirates. Why this is necessary when the ship has perfectly decent radar is beyond me. The second is that of the spa therapists, who spend most of their time giving “treatments” to ancient passengers, and whose job is to convince them that they look years younger afterwards. I suppose one prerequisite of the job is to be a convincing liar.

But we all live in hope, so why wouldn’t you go to a Puffy Eye Seminar, or partake of Wrinkle Remedies? Though speaking as a man, I might baulk at The Ultimate Cut. Unless, of course, I was converting to Judaism.

Day Eleven: Bring back Boris

Distant rumblings from the imperial capital. Truss has fallen! We overhear a couple on the next table at breakfast expressing the hope that the ever-wise Conservative Party will bring back Boris. I resolve that if the mendacious tub of lard returns to “save the nation”, then when we get to Singapore I shall go straight to the authorities and apply for political asylum.

Not that that would help. I suspect that if there was a referendum on board that asked British passengers if they would vote for Brexit again today, not only would they vote overwhelmingly yes, but a sizeable majority would be in favour of applying to be a colony of Singapore. Then where would I be?

Day Twelve: Frankincense, Myrrh and Job

Hi ho. We’ve reached Salalah in Oman. It’s a seriously hot day. We opted not to go on one of the trips offered by Cunard. It’s Friday, so the souks are closed. We could have gone to see the tomb of Job, which is apparently an object of reverence to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. But as my wife says, do we really want to go to a rock, say “hello Job” and piss off again? Locals say that the Virgin May is buried somewhere nearby. Yeah right. So far, we’ve visited her tomb in at least two other countries, and very fine locations for tourists they are too. One can only think that when she died some smart apostle divided her into pieces, so that everyone could get to visit a bit of her. After all, this is what the ancients did with saints, whose relics can be seen in various cathedrals. Perhaps Oman got a fingernail.

Anyway, we made it past the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Oman without any visit from fishing vessels with AK-47s, so that was good. Looking out from the cabin, we can see a warship at anchor, looking very similar to the British destroyer we spotted in Souda Bay harbour. Good to know that one eighth of the British navy was keeping a protective eye out for us as we churned our way through the pirate-infested seas.

Speaking of British destroyers, it would be truly amazing if Boris, the arch destroyer, returns in triumph to Downing Street. Should that be the case, would he appoint to his cabinet any of those who “betrayed” him by resignations or their votes back in July? If not, he would have a very limited field from which to select his top team. All the greater chance that our immediate future will be in the hands of a team of all the talentless.

Tomorrow we hit the high seas, all the way to Singapore.

In Part Two, Cruise Wars break out…

Postcard from the Emirates: Khorfakkan – a retreat from the noisy neighbours

Soft or hard? For a Brit who’s become so used to those words being used to describe various shades of Brexit, it came as a surprise to hear them used in another context, in a town thousands of miles away from my troubled homeland.

“Kazakhstan is a Muslim country. Soft Muslim”. Thus spoke a lecturer from Almaty whom I met at a swimming pool in Khorfakkan. If you’ve never heard of Khorfakkan, you’re forgiven. Nor had I, until we ended up there a few days ago. And how would this coastal town in a lesser-known corner of the United Arab Emirates describe its Muslim identity? Certainly not “hard” if the multitude of young Russian women in skimpiest of bikinis lounging by the pool in our resort – a mere hundred miles from Iran – was anything to go by. But not soft either, given local strictures about alcohol consumption.

Khorfakkan is an enclave of Sharjah, one of the larger emirates. It’s an old settlement on the Gulf of Oman, once colonised by the Portuguese, that sits nicely on the trade routes between the Indian Ocean and all points East. It’s protected by the Hajar mountain range, which must have made it relatively easy to defend in days gone by. It also has a facility rare in the region – a natural deep water port.

It’s hot at this time of year – 35C – yet cooler than on the Persian Gulf side of the Emirates. Perfect for for our needs – a few days of swimming, reading and venturing out in the cool of the evening. Though it’s tiny in comparison, Khorfakkan reminded us of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second city, where my wife and I lived for most of the 80s. The town is relatively underdeveloped. The beach has yet to be populated by rows of hotels and apartments. In common with every self-respecting seaside city in the Middle East, it does have a corniche. As Jeddah did, it boasts some bizarre buildings and monuments.

Where the Jeddah corniche had a giant bicycle and a concrete block embedded with crashed cars, not to mention a huge marble thumb, Khorfakkan has a bit more class. For example, in the shadow of one of the mountains it has an immaculate Greek amphitheatre, complete with Corinthian columns and seating for at least three thousand spectators. For what purpose? Who knows? I doubt if Sophocles or Euripides would be box office in these parts. But very impressive.

Pic Wikipedia/Sherenk1 

A couple of hundred metres away, there’s a waterfall at what looks to be a natural cliff face. Except that it definitely isn’t natural. And I very much doubt if the huge volumes of water that pour down it come from some natural source. Most likely it’s pumped from the sea. I’m sure that the municipality can claim that it’s the largest waterfall in the Emirates, just as Jeddah once boasted the tallest fountain in the region. At night, it’s brightly lit. People come in family groups to sit around at its base, much as Jeddawis would gather at the lagoon in front of the fountain.

Our hotel, which is blessed with the obligatory large pool and spa, is the only resort in the town. We were a bit surprised at the absence of balconies. Someone explained that the emirate had banned all balconies in hotels because it didn’t want people jumping off them, which apparently is a popular way to end it all in some of the larger cities. Fair enough, though I wasn’t aware that suicide was so fashionable in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Its monopoly on high-end tourism appears to be about to end, as evidenced by the roadworks along the corniche. Another large resort overlooking the beach is on the way. Clearly someone’s investing, and won’t be satisfied until the town matches its wealthier neighbours as a tourist attraction. But meanwhile the immediate vicinity isn’t great shakes for walking, especially at night, when you risk falling down one of the numerous trenches in the gloom, because the street lights are turned off.

But what of the tourists? As I suggested earlier, the vast majority in our resort were Russian. Given the current circumstances, with people of military age fleeing the country to avoid being sucked into Putin’s Ukrainian meat grinder, that’s not surprising. The UAE, as it always did, continues to welcome Russian visitors. But it did feel a little disconcerting to be mixing freely with our fellow guests when my country is busy providing the means by which Ukraine is slaughtering their compatriots. And when I looked at the younger Russians sauntering around the pool, I wondered how many of them are facing the call-up when they return, to be fed into the war zone with minimal training. Perhaps this is me projecting, but they certainly didn’t look full of the joys of spring.

In any event, they were making the most of their stay, especially at the dinner table. Large ladies, plates piled with food, started eating before they even sit down. On their way out, they were still eating. Yet you rarely saw a smile or a laugh. Perhaps that might have something to do with the fact that in Sharjah alcohol is banned. If I were to follow the classic stereotype, it would be hard to imagine these folks arriving without suitcases stuffed with duty-free vodka. One guy we saw staggering around the pool certainly wasn’t suffering from a surfeit of orange juice. But by and large, our fellow guests were pretty low-key, which wasn’t the case the last time we visited a place popular with people from Russia (see Postcard from Phuket – Russia Town).

The kids seemed to be having fun though, which is as it should be. If only we were all kids again.

We spent a couple of evenings down at the local souk, which has definitely benefited from the ruler’s largesse. Unlike in Dubai, which has a number of large, somewhat artificial, souk-like retail outlets specifically for the benefit of its tourists, Khorfakkan’s Old Souk has been sensitively renovated on a site that has served as a market for centuries. Nothing plastic. Plenty of eating places catering for all tastes. In one restaurant you could buy dates, spices and perfumes, including rose water, which is a favourite fragrance throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Again, unlike in most parts of Dubai, it was full of locals, out with their families, enjoying a coffee or a meal.

Because Khorfakkan is 150km away from Dubai airport, we hired a car, which by currently outrageous European standards was relatively cheap. A big difference from the Jeddah we remember is that the authorities seem to have tamed the traffic. Speed limits within the town ranged from 40 to 60kph. On the main highway to Sharjah and Dubai, the maximum speed limit was never more than 120kph, which made driving less of a Formula One experience than in Saudi Arabia, where no self-respecting driver travelling between the major cities would do less than 150, slowing only at known police hideouts. Another difference was that the highway was lit from one end to another, which probably helps to keep the accident rate down. Not much chance of a collision with a wandering camel emerging out of the gloom.

Khorfakkan brought back many memories of more innocent times. Even if its development is less chaotic and haphazard than that in Saudi Arabia in the 80s, it seems to have preserved a sense of ownership on the part of the local population that was very much present in Jeddah, and less in evidence in Dubai, where the population of Emiratis is vastly outnumbered by tourists and foreign workers from most parts of the globe.

Though our resort was very much the preserve of Russians (and Kazakhs, according to the chap from Almaty), the streets were definitely not. There are no big malls and no mega tourist attractions. At the risk of sounding like a Trip Advisor reviewer, if you’re looking for an easily accessible Gulf location without the glitz, you might think about Oman first, but Khorfakkan, a town on a far smaller scale than that of its noisy neighbours, should come a close second.

With all the development that’s going on in and around its most scenic areas, that might change. And who knows, if the current Russian exodus becomes a permanent feature, perhaps a colony of exiles will exert its own influence on the town’s culture. Though I suspect there would have to be some changes to Sharjah’s alcohol laws for that to happen.

But for now, though its Emirati population is definitely the visible ruling class, rolling up here and there in expensive SUVs, yet rarely to be seen behind a shopping till or a hotel desk, it’s still a distinctively Middle Eastern city. If one needed a reminder of that, one only had to look at this ad in the hotel.

Though I suspect it won’t be the happy couple who will be doing much weeding in Khorfakkan’s manicured gardens.

Well worth a visit, especially if you’re not impressed by artificial islands, indoor ski slopes, endless malls and soaring tower blocks. And for us, a welcome post-pandemic return to a region and culture we love.

Hungry dogs licking plates: how the social media “reported” Britain’s longest day

The funeral is over. The Queen is finally at rest. From her family’s standpoint, there must be a collective sigh of relief that they can escape the cameras for a few days. For never in recorded history, one might think, have so many eyes been focused on one family over such a period of time.

Every gesture, every mode of dress, every tear threatening to roll down a royal cheek has been has been broadcast to millions. Even who stands next to who, who looks up, left, right and down.

The BBC has rightly been praised for its coverage, most of which I missed because we didn’t watch TV when we were in France. But I did get home in time for the lying-in-state and the subsequent funeral. I appreciated the Beeb’s less-is-more approach. The live feed, with no commentary, of the lying-in-state. The funeral itself, also without accompanying platitudes.

Perhaps we could have learned more about the symbolic significance of those supporting dignitaries who looked like the characters in a pack of cards. And as the cortege marched through the streets of London, I would have appreciated a little insight from one of my ex-military friends about the provenance of all those bemedalled marchers in their magnificent uniforms. That said, before and after the funeral services in Westminster and Windsor, we did get some mood-appropriate words from Huw Edwards and his mates, so that we could shed a tear at the sight of Her Majesty’s pony and a couple of her corgis lined up to say goodbye. Do we humanise animals, or them us?

But where could we go for all the juicy stuff that we crave? The stuff we didn’t pick up on because we were too busy focusing on the music, or on the Archbishop’s waspish comments about leaders? The metacoverage, if you like?

Sure enough, up pops the social media, greedily feeding on the scraps. Lapping up “significant” signs and portents that were beneath the dignity of the BBC to report.

What was that piece of paper that fell from the lap of some cleric and briefly besmirched the pristine view of the coffin in Westminster Abbey? Why was Joe Biden seated several rows back amongst the lowly ex-kings and queens? Why were Boris and Carrie briefly blocked from entering the abbey by some official so that others could enter before them? Why didn’t Harry salute the cenotaph? What about Meghan’s bare arms? Come to think of it, why was poor Harry even allowed to be there? So that we the people could squabble about his appearances in or out of uniform like fractious siblings from decades ago arguing about how to dress Action Man dolls? Et cetera, ad nauseam.

As I mentioned in a recent piece about The Queue, I’m not averse to a spot of people-watching. But not with a particular agenda in mind – more out of a sense of curiosity and idle speculation. Unlike Donald Trump, who sought to make political capital out of Biden’s unobtrusive presence during the funeral – he would, he claims, have sat his fat arse wherever he could be best seen, because the funeral was all about him – I have no axe to grind, (unless, of course, the axe could be ground between his voluminous buttocks).

But my, what a spectacle it was. Probably the longest and most widely-covered funeral event in history, and certainly the most spectacular, rivalled only by the obsequies for the late King of Thailand and, in terms of popular fervour, by Ayatollah Khomeini’s farewell in Iran and the funeral in Cairo of the Arab world’s supreme diva, Umm Kalthoum.

Now it’s over, we, the Queen’s subjects, can return to other important news, such as Putin’s threat to reduce us to ashes, The Trussticle’s attempts to destroy our economy and any number of other incidental stories that can be extruded, analysed, embellished and varnished like polished turds for our enlightenment and petrification.

But if we want to ignore that stuff, there’s always the social media, like hungry dogs licking unwashed dinner plates, ready to tell us everything we really need to know.

After all, poor Harry and his troubles are surely more important than hurricanes, nukes, revolutions, mass poverty and progressive social degradation, are they not?

I’ll stop now, because I’m getting far too serious. Time for some Russian sacred music, followed by a few screaming goat videos. They’ll lift the mood, no doubt.

A nation that queues

There’s an abundance of words being spoken in the media about the queue that ends at the Queen’s coffin. That it’s five miles long. That it’s seven miles long. That it will take nine hours, eleven hours. That it sums up Britain, the nation that queues.

The Guardian has an expert professor who studies crowds. He says there are many reasons why people have put themselves through the ordeal of waiting in line to see a coffin guarded by six resplendently-uniformed soldiers and four Yeomen of the Guard.

He’s obviously right. For some, the long wait is a gesture of respect, of grief. For others it’s a spectacle. Far better than the Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace. A once-in-a-lifetime chance to take part in an event of mass participation that allows you to be closer to royalty – and an embodiment of history – than you ever have been or ever will be. An “I was there” event to tell your grandchildren about.

I can understand that. When I was 14, my school organised a bus trip to London so that we could walk past Winston Churchill during his lying-in-state. As we filed past the coffin, richly decorated with Order of the Garter regalia, I was well aware of the significance of the event. Well aware of being ten feet or so from the body of a man who according to the narrative of the time, had saved our country. This was no empty pageant. It was an occasion that demanded deep contemplation, not only about Churchill but about the history he helped to write.

It still resonates. A few days ago I was in a village square in France having coffee with friends. We were talking about the Queen’s lying-in-state. I mentioned that I’d been to Churchill’s. An elderly acquaintance chirped up that she’d been there too. She was the only person I’ve ever met who shared that experience. How different we looked then: she in her twenties and me in my teens.

Did my participation cement my lifetime love of history, or was it the other way around: that it was a sense of history in the making that led me to volunteer for the bus? I don’t remember.

Anyway, though there are many events in my childhood that I’ve forgotten, Churchill’s funeral rites were deeply imprinted in my memory.

I suspect that it will be the same for the people in this queue, though the pervasive coverage of the people walking past the Queen, not least the live feed on the BBC, will probably leave as strong a memory as mine. In fact, it’s quite possible that in fifty years’ time many who were not actually there will believe they were. Just as so many people of my age were at Wembley when England won the World Cup.

I shall not be there this time. Nine hours on my feet would be more than my ancient knees could stand. Which puts me to shame somewhat, considering the amount of people you can see on the live feed walking past on crutches.

The live feed is fascinating. Silence, apart from the odd baby (did that mother really stand in line for nine hours with a toddler in her arms?). The soldiers, eyes down, faces invisible anyway beneath the bearskins. How is anyone able to stand so still for so long? The ushers, in tails, knee stockings and white ties, quietly busybodying people into separate lines as they enter Westminster Hall.

The Hall itself, with its roof dating from the 12th Century, under which Charles I and Sir Thomas More were tried and sentenced to death. Where many monarchs, and Churchill of course, had lain in state before. The coffin, draped with the royal standard and laden with the crown, the orb and the sceptre. Interesting that those priceless objects, normally protected under reinforced glass cabinets in the Tower of London, are almost within touching distance of the crowds, protected by men with swords, staffs and pikes. Presumably the serious security is hidden away from view.

And the people. One guy shuffling past with his hands in his pockets. Stopping, taking his hands out, bowing. Most making some gesture towards the coffin: a salute, a namaste, a sign of the cross. But mostly bowing, some perhaps for the first time in their lives.

When I first watched the feed, I was struck by the ethnic make-up of those walking past. Far less black and brown people than the country’s ethnic make-up might lead you to expect. But a few hours later, many more. It would be tempting but misleading to draw conclusions about the mainly white composition of the queue. So no speculation. Just observation.

I also wonder how many of the crowd are tourists, with no direct connection to the country or its head of state. There to witness a unique event that they will tell their friends and loved ones about. But no photos or selfies to prove they were there.

This is no outpouring of unconstrained grief, Diana-style. A more decorous occasion you could hardly hope to witness. It’s as if the visitors have left whatever rage, joy or misery that afflicts them in their normal lives outside Westminster Hall. Nothing on display but perhaps a sense of awe at being part of something much bigger than all of us as individuals. Perhaps the actual funeral will be the moment when the emotional dam bursts, quietly, in pubs or at home, in front of the TV.

For me, as a dedicated people-watcher, the live feed is endlessly fascinating. Who are these people? Some dressed for a day out and some dressed in black. Some with medals, some with babies. Some with almost embarrassed expressions, perhaps aware that they’re on camera. Many with rucksacks, but many without. How could they queue for hours without any means of sustenance?

It’s not for me to ponder gravely on the significance of the event – to talk about the nation coming together in grief, or the beginning of a new chapter in our history. Plenty of people are paid to do that, and their words are spread across the media like treacle. In the murky waters of the social media you’ll find enough contrarians using the Queen’s death to make political points, about freedom of speech, our constitution, people holding hands (or not), or the snappiness of a mourning son, our new King.

Of course I’m interested in most of that stuff, just as I’m interested in watching Donald Trump slowly roasting on a legal spit, and Vladimir Putin explaining away the incompetence of his army, but not today.

Today is about The Queue. For we shall surely not see its like again, and certainly not in my lifetime.

Russia: remembering St Petersburg during a turning point – as a new one begins

I wrote a few days ago in the context of America’s upheavals about how music – be it songs or symphonies – sometimes helps us dream about the country where it originated. We look back to where we were when we first heard it. Where were you when you first heard Sgt Pepper, we might ask ourselves, and what was happening in the world you lived in at the time?

One of those “where were you” moments came to me a couple of evenings ago when I was listening to a collection of Russian sacred music. I bought the recording during a brief visit to St Petersburg in 2014, after a choral concert in a church.

The music is profoundly moving. Though I’m not overloaded with religious faith, I respect and often admire faith in others. I especially treasure the musical output of all faiths, from Sufi qawala and the plainchant of Hildegard of Blingen to the grand choral works of Bach, Handel and Mozart. The Russian Orthodox church has always produced magnificent music for choirs, with its emphasis on the bass voice as the foundation for the liturgy.

Revisiting those anthems, some of which rang out in that church in St Petersburg, set me thinking about the Russia that presents itself to the world today: warlike, resentful, intolerant of dissent and unspeakably cruel to those whom it perceives as its enemies. How could this nation have produced such deep and inspiring evocations of a Christian faith that preaches the antithesis of the values apparently espoused by the ruling elite? And how could Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, actively embrace Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine?

Then I looked back at that visit to St Petersburg. Though it didn’t appear so at the time, it happened at a turning point. After Litvinenko and before the Skripals. After the annexation of Crimea but before the war in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The weather was glorious. It was midsummer, so the sun never set. People were going about their business – enjoying the warmth, getting married, shopping in the markets. We visited the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, where the last Tsar and his family are buried, the fortress where anti-Tsarist revolutionaries were incarcerated, and the Hermitage, a museum rivalled by few others. We were escorted by tour guides, neither of whom were afraid to express their opinions, even though some of them were mildly critical of the government. I had a long conversation with Yelena, the guide on Day 2, who was with us in the church where choir sang and the faithful were kissing icons.

Her views on Ukraine jarred somewhat, though I listened rather than reacted. She couldn’t understand why the West was so hard on Putin. Again, I listened, but I suggested that the main reason many people were antagonistic towards him was because they were afraid of him, especially when his spokesmen came out with bellicose remarks about how quickly Russia could obliterate my country with its nuclear weapons. She claimed to be surprised, but we left it at that. A few days later I wrote her an open letter in this blog explaining at greater length why we feared Putin.

The article was actually an opportunity to give a first impression of a country that has loomed large in my consciousness throughout my life – initially as a potential bringer of destruction and subsequently, after the fall of the Soviet Union, as a potential friend and partner. I made it clear that I felt nothing but goodwill towards her country; that I was full of admiration for its artistic culture, especially its music.

But I also suggested that from my perspective (and needless to say from that of many others), Russia under Putin was headed towards a darker future. And so it has turned out.

The piece was, in my limited way, something of a tour d’horizon. If you’re interested, you can find it under Why the West Fears Putin – Letter to a New Russian Friend.

Of course Russia is not unusual in its tradition of creating beautiful music that rings out alongside the cruelty of its leaders. Yet there’s something rather medieval about the Patriarch calling Putin “a miracle”, while urging him on in his murderous endeavours. A throwback, if you like, to popes calling for crusades and bishops riding into battle. The nature of God’s work seems to have evolved since then, even if Patriarch Kirill, not to mention the fundamentalist right in the United States, seems intent on dragging it back to the elemental.

As I write this, we seem to be on the verge of another turning point. Ukraine’s armed forces have mounted a counterattack against the Russian invaders on two fronts. Will they succeed in driving the Russians out of their territory? If so, will the reported cracks in the nation’s support for Putin turn into a landslide that will sweep him away? And who might replace him? An even more ruthless leadership prepared to take extreme measures in a continued quest to restore Russian greatness? Or a regime that seeks reconciliation with its neighbours and a resumption of economic partnership with the West?

If it turns out to be the latter, the West would do well to avoid taking actions which might heighten the Russian sense of grievance that Putin exploited so effectively. Not to ignore the consequences of the widescale destruction of Ukraine, but to encourage internal reforms and negotiate restitution of the damage to its neighbour without humiliating the new regime. The only way to a stable future must be friendship and mutual respect, as well as recognition that both sides made mistakes after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But one swallow doesn’t make a spring. There are many vested interests in Russia that will resist allowing such a scenario to come to pass easily. The local war isn’t over. The wider, undeclared war between Russia and the West continues. Western Europe faces a hard winter. Most likely, Russia too.

I wonder what Yelena is thinking now, eight years since I met her in St Petersburg. Hopefully she’s well, and still remembers with affection her last visit to London.

To return to the music that inspired this post, the CDs were entitled “Russian Sacred Music”. Yet the choirs that performed it were from Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Would Ukrainian choirs be singing anthems in Russian today? I doubt it.

But perhaps before too long, when the healing has began, aided by music’s power to transcend national differences, they will.

Goodbye to our Queen: a hardy perennial if ever there was one

I never met the Queen, though I did encounter her husband at a couple of functions. So no anecdotes, no special insights.

When I was young, it was cool among my peer group to mock her. Not out of malice, but because she was a safe target. She would never know, and even if she did she would never react. We mocked her antiquated accent, her funny hats and her rather stilted public utterances. She was the epitome of old-fashioned. When we mocked her, it was because there was safety in numbers. It was the age of satire. Every institution – the church, the political establishment and especially the monarchy – was fair game.

Very few of the mockers wanted her gone, just as we wouldn’t want our mothers to disappear. She just symbolised for us the ultimate authority; the face on our coins, the person in whose name we went to war, made laws and brought miscreants to justice. And authority was what we beat our baby fists against.

She was always an object of mystery. Unknowable, unapproachable, not someone you would come cross cycling around Windsor. When we were beyond our youth and getting on with our lives, we would occasionally wonder – with scant evidence to draw upon – what she really felt about the people she had to deal with: pompous prime ministers, murderous dictators and flatulent buffoons like Donald Trump. Only a hint of disapproval occasionally surfaced in the form of a famously grumpy expression. Her self-control, her patience – at least as far as we could see – was superhuman. In an era of letting it all hang out she kept it all strapped in.

We British probably didn’t give her enough credit for the way in which she projected soft power, in a time when her realm’s hard power was slipping away. The visits, the tours and the ceremonies became newsworthy mainly because of the delicious prospect that her husband might produce another “gaffe” (a word seemingly invented for royals and politicians). Did we appreciate how much she was respected beyond our borders, and how much goodwill she generated for the country, especially in France, where I’m writing this, despite the slippery ways of our politicians? Probably not.

We did empathise with her – at least those of us who had children – when she had to deal with the behaviour of her offspring: the peccadillos and, in the case of her second son, activities that embarrassed her whole family. As we grew older, we learned about the pitfalls of parenting, and the limits of our ability as parents to steer our children clear of disastrous decisions. We felt closer to her for that reason.

And then, as she became very old, we marvelled at her ability to carry on, when most of us would have said to ourselves “sod this for a lark. I’ve done my bit. Someone else can do all the hard work now.” As we came to the end of our careers, there she was, still opening bridges, poring over red boxes and suffering fools on a daily basis.

So the woman we mocked in our youth won our respect and affection, not just for the consistency of her values but because of the little nuggets of humanity she allowed us to glimpse. The smile, the dry humour (also known as “quips”, a largely disused word preserved exclusively in association with the royal family), her delight in the company of her horses. We didn’t know her well. She was never the twinkly-eyed fairy grandmother figure that her mother became in the public’s perception. But we did know that she could be relied upon not to embarrass us, not to let us down. And in times of trouble, to say the right words.

Besides, how could we know her? Just as most of us don’t know Mick Jagger, the Dalai Lama and Vladimir Putin. Even those who lined up at the Palace to receive their gongs or had a few brief words at a garden party could hardly claim much more familiarity than the rest of us. Yet every encounter – even if it was from afar, at the Epsom Derby in my case – was imprinted in the memory.

To some extent, she was embedded in our subconscious, and surfaced in curious ways. People used to dream of encountering her when they had no clothes on. My mother, in her dotage at her care home, would tell me that she’d had tea with her the week before. Others, nervous about some social encounter with the great and the good, or terrified of public speaking, would imagine her in the lavatory to remind themselves that we’re all human.

She was everywhere, yet nowhere where she wasn’t wanted. Seemingly inert much of the time, yet always positive in her rare speeches and broadcasts.

If I was asked to choose one word that summed her up, it would be benign. And goodness knows, amidst the blundering, squabbling, fighting, grieving and hating that we seem to encounter at every turn, we have needed a benign influence to sooth our self-inflicted pain.

We will miss her. I will miss her, even though I never knew her, yet knew her very well.

American justice: with lawyers in the signal box, is a train wreck in the making?

Listening to a piece of music can sometimes feel like dreaming. For me, it often sets off a train of thought – not always linear – about the country and the time in which it was written. In recent days it’s been the work of Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny, that caused me to reflect on the politics of her country. What was before and what is now. But more on Roseanne later.

After decades of watching, visiting and doing business in the United States, I’m still intrigued by many aspects of the American way of life. My top three are politics, banking and – way out front – the law in all its glory. All, of course, are interlinked. All are essential to the acquisition and exercise of power. I suppose I should add the military as a close fourth, but I don’t rank them above the others on a scale of power factors because notwithstanding Donald Trump’s efforts during his presidency, the generals have been pretty successful in keeping the armed forces out of internal politics, at least since the Civil War.

The legal system is a wonder to behold. Despite having had a few interactions with US lawyers in my time (strictly commercial, I should add – no orange jumpsuits), I can’t say I know much more than the basics. I get the distinction between federal and state law, but ask me how many levels of appeal are possible before a case gets to the Supreme Court, and I would be stumped.

And then there’s the current litigation over the top-secret documents Trump is alleged to have squirreled away. I get that the Department of Justice is the federal government’s prosecuting authority, and the FBI is the primary enforcer. But then weird concepts keep cropping up that I’d never come across before. A special master? A magistrate judge as opposed to what other kind of judge? Given that I’m not American and not a lawyer, there’s no reason why I should have heard of such exotic creatures, the first of which sounds as if it was created for a Marvel movie.

It turns out that the special master would be employed to review the seized documents to ensure that their use will not violate attorney/client privilege and thus prejudice a defendant’s rights. Or something like that. That’s just one example of the bewildering rabbit-holes of due process that seem to provide American lawyers with a very comfortable living, thank you very much. Apart, of course, from those who are foolish enough to work for Trump, and who as a result always stand a chance of not being paid, or, at worst, going to jail themselves.

There are also mysteries in the process of making laws. Why, for example, is it OK for Congress to pass a law that is supposed to be about one thing, but is actually about a bunch of other stuff as well? Take The Inflation Reduction Act, for example. You would think from the title that the act’s purpose is pretty obvious. But this one doesn’t just do what it says on the tin. In fact the outcome Joe Biden is crowing about is the provisions that are intended to deal with climate change. And the relevance to inflation, however worthy the intention, is what?

But what intrigues me most about the current cause celebre is the suggestion by a number of commentators that the Department of Justice, even if they have overwhelming evidence that Trump committed one or more felony that if proven would send him to jail for many years, should not indict him until after the mid-term Congressional elections in November. I understand the rationale: that such a prosecution might have a material effect on the outcome of those elections. But one thought keeps coming to me. If Trump was suspected of committing murder, also a felony, and the evidence was also compelling, would the Department wait until after November to indict him? I find it hard to believe that he would avoid immediate arrest.

Yet here’s a guy being investigated for some pretty serious crimes, one of which is espionage. Would it not be irresponsible to allow such a person to roam the streets for another three months without charging him? Especially given recent press reports that the CIA has lost a number of agents over the past couple of years for reasons unknown. Nobody is outright accusing Trump of sharing secrets with America’s rivals as a possible explanation, even though he did exactly that in a meeting early in his presidency with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. No evidence produced, though the connexion is being implied – seemingly up to the limits of defamation law.

But goodness, what hoops the enforcement agencies need to jump through to bring him to book. Not only is he facing investigation because of the Mar-a-Lago search, but he’s facing proceedings in Georgia and New York for alleged breaches of state or federal laws, not to mention a potential reckoning in the wake of the January 6 storming of Congress. Some of these cases have been grinding on for months if not years. Such is the rich constellation of state and federal laws, each with their own cluster of associated case law, that Trump has managed to duck and dive away from the criminal courts thus far.

Then there are the local ordinances and regulations. In addition to the federal government, each state has its own laws, and each city has its own rules. Little wonder, therefore, that there are so many judges, lawyers, and, for that matter, prisons.

Here in Britain, we have to listen from time to time to attention-seeking politicians promising to make bonfires of regulations (most recently as a rationale for Brexit, despite the fact that leaving the European Union seems to be producing far more red tape than it’s removing). But in the United States, where the annual tax return is almost as long as the bible, it would take a full-scale conflagration to simplify regulations that have piled up on each other over many decades.

One of the favourite catch-phrases used by Americans, often in the context of personal relationships, is “it’s complicated”. Looking from afar (and I haven’t visited the US since Trump was elected), the country’s legal system seems more hideously complicated than ever before. And no stronger evidence of this is to be found in the interminable length of time it takes for major lawsuits and criminal cases to come to conclusion (especially when Trump is the defendant). This can also be the case in the UK, but the US doesn’t have the excuse that it has to contend with a whole class of lawyers withholding their labour because they’re asked to do their jobs for absurdly low fees, as is the case with our criminal barristers. In America, there always seems to be enough money to pay for lawyers. And lawyers thrive on complication and ambiguity, of which there’s plenty to be found in the American legal system.

By contrast, simplicity is the feedstock of demagogues, who project their messages in terms of black and white, for and against. There’s no room for grey, for doubt, for uncertainty. Which is how Trump pulled off his extraordinary ascent to power while using every nook and cranny the law provides to evade jeopardy on his journey.

Whatever Donald Trump might say, America has always been complicated. Even if the years before his election might seem to have been relatively calm, in my lifetime there have been plenty of divisive issues: segregation, civil rights and Vietnam to name but three. Yet such is the vicious, hate-fuelled chasm the nation seems to have fallen into today, that I’m left with the feeling that future generations will think of MAGA in terms of before and after, just as they did after the Civil War.

Which brings me back to Roseanne Cash. In her songs, complicated doesn’t automatically equate to divisive. Her songs don’t demand that you judge her protagonists as Democrats or Republicans. They’re simply ordinary people facing choices and challenges that cross the political spectrum.

But look now. So many themes that repeat themselves in country and folk music – tough childhoods, financial failure, failed relationships, misogyny and violence – are no longer just social problems – wrongs that need righting without pointing fingers in a particular political direction. They’re political minefields that threaten to place the songwriter and the performer in one camp or another – because someone must be blamed – where once they were describing universal human traits.

So it has always been with books, movies and theatre. Yet now, politicised library administrators and school boards in many states have started banning books. Hollywood has long been under the influence of studios afraid of offending not only national audiences but other state entities, such as China. Museums and theatres, long dependent on sponsorship, are finding sources of funding harder to come by because traditional sponsors, such as oil and gas companies, are under attack by pressure groups that disapprove of the source of their wealth.

Let’s not talk about woke, because woke and anti-woke, left and right, conservative and liberal are equally enthusiastic about circumscribing what we see, do and think. But to what end?

The MAGA people dream of an America that once was. But which America? Eisenhower’s America, in which a white majority ruled the roost and minorities were kept in their place? Reagan’s sunny era of deficits and tax cuts? Or that brief period following the collapse of the Soviet Union when there was only one superpower? I’m not sure many of those who follow Trump around the country on his rallies could answer that question, except to say that things are shit and we need a strong leader to make them better.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, also looks back. To pre-Trump, to a time when political violence was not tolerated and elections were not disputed. And further back to a hazy hinterland where the dignity of labour was upheld – a fair day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Sadly, neither side can point to a golden era without being rebutted by the other.

The grim reality is that the recent history of America is of periods of calm interspersed with moments of extreme ugliness. One of those moments was Watergate. It’s fifty years or so since a precedent of sort was established, when Nixon resigned the presidency and was pardoned by his successor. Perhaps some of Trump’s declared supporters are hoping that Biden might pardon Trump in return for a commitment to leave politics and never return. Because they know that he’s a train wreck, but that he’s started a movement that will survive and thrive after he’s gone.

That should not happen. And if the authorities are squeamish about bringing Trump to justice, perhaps they should look beyond America, and reflect that presidents and prime ministers in other countries are not immune to prosecution. Think, in recent times, of Chirac and Sarkozy in France, Najib Razak in Malaysia, Olmert and Netanyahu in Israel. Leaders can be prosecuted, and the institutions that prosecute them can survive. Why should America be any different?

But have things gone too far? Is the country beyond repair? The people of America know better than me. I just think of a Roseanne Cash song. Her words are ostensibly about a relationship, but could just as easily apply to her divided nation:

I’m worried about you
I’m worried about me
The curves around midnight
Aren’t easy to see
Flashing red warnings
Unseen in the rain
This thing has turned into
A runaway train

Long-distance phone calls
A voice on the line
Electrical miles
That soften the time
The dynamite too
Is hooked on the wire
And so are the rails
Of American Flyers

Blind boys and gamblers
They invented the blues
Will pay up in blood
When this marker comes due
To try and get off now
It’s about as insane
As those who wave lanterns
At runaway trains

Steel rails and hard lives
Are always in twos
I have been here before this
And now it’s with you

I’m worried about you
I’m worried about me
We’re lighting the fuses
And counting to three
And what are the choices
For those who remain
The sign of the cross
On a runaway train

This thing has turned into
A runaway train
This thing has turned into
A runaway train
Our love has turned into
A runaway train

(Runaway Train, Roseanne Cash)

Postcard from France: no jury required, thank you

Phillipe Duclos – Le Juge from the French series Spiral

France is still reverberating in shock after our next prime minister, Liz Truss (normally referred to in this place as Madame Straitjacket), reveals that the jury is out over whether it is Britain’s friend or foe. Riots in the street? Waves of migrants bid a fond farewell as they set off from Calais? A new Grande Armée gathering in Boulogne?

Nothing so exciting, I’m afraid. Just that sublime French gesture of indifference: a shrug of the shoulders accompanied by pouf – the gentle expulsion of air in the manner of an understated oral fart.

As President Macron suggested the other day, the presence of all those Volvos in the villages of Provence and the Dordogne is evidence that we British, or English, as the French prefer to say, continue to adore our neighbour much as before, even if the 0.4% of our population who are about to select Mme Straitjacket as our leader would prefer to sit tight in Chelmsford, far away from those smelly French cheeses and gut-rotting wines.

Of course, Macron is right to dismiss the utterings of someone whose opinions are no more considered and nuanced than those emanating from a half-inebriated guest at a dinner party fuelled by Chilean wine somewhere in Middle England. He knows, as most of us do, that the slow-witted Straitjacket and her dumb cronies are probably past their sell-by date before they’ve even reached the shelves.

In two years time, she will be gone, one hopes. France will still be a hop across the channel, as will its smelly cheeses, gorgeous chateaux, churches and medieval squares. No doubt Macron will be ready to extend the hand of friendship once again to a fresh bunch of politicians with a modicum of common sense and emotional intelligence.

Meanwhile, we disenfranchised plebs, who have no voice in the current leadership contest, will continue to enjoy everything our neighbour has to offer. And if the people from the market towns of England chose not to, tant pis to them. More cheese for the rest of us.

Confessions from a second-class (or maybe third-class) mind

When I was a child, I went through various phases of ambition, none of them concurrent. At one stage, I wanted to be Prime Minister. Unlike Boris Johnson, I soon tired of that aspiration. Harold MacMillan and Harold Wilson were hardly compelling role models. I also wanted to play cricket for England, until a kindly teacher broke the news to me that village cricket was more likely to be my natural home.

I don’t remember wanting to be rich, perhaps because until my mid-teens we were relatively rich, which in my limited imagination meant living in a big house, having a holiday home and watching my parents go off on foreign holidays while I was at boarding school. All that ended when my father suffered a financial disaster – explained to us offspring at the time as none of his fault, but in retrospect the result of an overenthusiastic appetite for business risk.

Come university, and all ambitions were drowned in the Summer of Love. It no longer seemed important to become the best at anything, only good at being myself. So I stumbled through my twenties, mostly having a whale of a time, succeeding at some things and failing at others. What others would describe as the real world only came to the fore in my thirties. Marriage, a long spell working in another country, the need to support a family. Only at the end of that decade did ambitions re-emerge, though much more realistic than in my childhood dreams. To start a business, to avoid the mistakes my father made and never again to be beholden to “a boss”.

That worked pretty well. There were ups and downs, but thirty years later I ended up with a reasonable financial cushion, plenty of priceless experience and an enduring curiosity that survived decades of the relentless focus needed to run a business.

It was only in my sixties that I started thinking about what might have been. My two school classmates for Advanced Level Greek became distinguished academics. Friends at university had varying careers – some writing books, others producing beautiful music. Though precious few of my acquaintances became lawyers or politicians, something of that ilk could have been my path – after all, for much of his career my father was a lawyer. Our family tree was dotted with clergy. For someone fond of the sound of his own voice, either career could have been a good option.

One thing I always enjoyed was writing. During my business career my output was confined to boring stuff – business plans, sales proposals and marketing materials. It was only when the need to earn a living receded, and I had the time to read extensively, that I started to write about things that really mattered to me: history, politics, travel, religion – all the stuff encapsulated in the headers you see at the top of this post. I wrote because all that input demanded some output.

At one stage I thought that the ultimate “might have been” would have been a career as a writer. Journalism, social commentary, history – who knows? But after ten years and a couple of million words broadcast to a relatively small (but perfectly formed!) audience, made smaller partly because I refuse to focus on one subject, I’ve come to realise that while I might have had moderate success as a full-time writer, I would never have emulated the brilliant work of journalists I read week in and week out, of historians and other published authors whose output has so enriched my life over the past couple of decades.

The reason? I can only conclude that I have what academics, politicians and assorted intellectuals in the past used to refer to as a second-class mind. Does that mean second-class intelligence? Not necessarily. And even if it did it would have been no bar to success. After all, nobody claimed that Ronald Reagan was the most intelligent man on the planet. Similar aspersions are being cast on the two turnips vying to become Britain’s prime minister.

There is a certain cachet about being regarded by one’s peers as being in the first rank of intelligence. The likes of Einstein and Bertrand Russell are considered a benchmarks, or even high water marks of intellectual attainment. But do their achievements condemn the rest of us to a life in their shadows?

Far from it. We are continually assured that there are different forms of intelligence. Emotional intelligence, for example: the ability to keep one’s head while others are losing theirs. Is it not also a form of intelligence to be able to accept and work within one’s limitations? And what of people on the autistic spectrum, who might once have been condemned by educators as slow, and often turn out to have gifts denied to most of us?

But woe betide a person who thinks of themselves as having a first-class mind, and who puts the product of that mind up for public scrutiny, only to be found wanting. Such a person, I suspect, is David Frost, the former diplomat and Brexit negotiator, who has just written Holy Illusions, an essay in which he sets out an analysis of Britain’s deficiencies, followed by his suggestions as to the way forward.

I’m not about to trash his work on the basis that he’s one of those right-wing ultras who’s helped the Conservative party to more extreme positions – most of which I oppose – than any adopted in my lifetime. But someone who takes it upon himself to write a State of the Nation pronouncement clearly has a high opinion of himself. He will also believe that his words, with the help of the think tank that published them, will reach a large audience.

The trouble with his essay is that he can’t decide whether he’s a politician or a sage dispensing dispassionate wisdom from a great height. In his summary of our problems, the sage diagnoses, but the politician is never far away:

Implausible energy policies based on technologies which can’t currently do the job and which seem likely to end up in rationing if not urgently rethought.

“Furring up of the arteries” – over-regulation, antipathy to risk and experimentation, the decline of the spirit of enterprise.

Unsustainable welfare systems, shrinking labour forces, and the declining birth-rate.

Education systems that don’t educate and indeed very often inculcate attitudes inimical to prosperity;

and the social and economic consequences of high volumes of immigration over a prolonged period on a scale that the West has not seen before

You get the picture. Sweeping statements, each of which can be disputed, none of which can be disproved because they’re rooted in the writer’s opinion rather than undeniable fact.

Frost’s paper is not all bad. It’s a useful summary of problems and solutions through a right-wing prism with which those of us who follow British politics reasonably closely would be familiar. It contains the usual prescriptions: small state, self-reliance, regulatory bonfire, scientific powerhouse, low taxes and so on. All the stuff, in other words, being parroted in various forms by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. But as a would-be magisterial overview it hardly appears to be the work of a first-class mind. In fact, in many places it’s a work of intellectual laziness – the very quality Frost deplores in his fellow citizens.

You might, for example, ask this Brexit prophet why, if we’re suffering from shrinking labour forces and a declining birth rate, we were so keen to cut ourselves off from the most readily available source of labour just across a narrow stretch of sea beyond our borders.

Lord Frost also has a dig at opponents of Brexit for blaming all of our problems on our departure from the EU:

…our politics is affected by the willingness — insistence, even — of a large share of political and public opinion to attribute any symptom of the current problems to Brexit (even though the same problems are visible across the West to a greater or lesser extent).

To which one might question why, if we’re all faced with the same problems, we chose to deal with them alone rather in concert with our closest neighbours. Perhaps he could also explain why energy costs in France are capped at 4%, while ours have risen many times that amount.

And then he states that:

All history and experience teach us that free markets and individual freedom produce prosperity and wealth and that state control and collectivism destroy it.

All history? Xi Jinping might disagree with such a suggestion, as might a number of the Gulf autocracies. Likewise Genghis Kahn and his successors, who presided over a hundred years of relative prosperity by the use of fear as the dominant instrument of rule.

There’s one word Frost uses that doesn’t appear regularly in my second-class lexicon: collectivism, as in farms, presumably. At least he doesn’t go the whole Trumpian hog and condemn any effort of a state to protect its citizens as socialism, or dare I say it, communism.

I could go on, but you’d probably fall asleep before I’m done. But it’s a bit of an irony that Frost accuses us of being intellectually lazy, and yet he feels the need to pepper his paper with assertions that have no obvious evidential basis.

None of this is surprising, given that Frost is one of those advisors upon whom recent government policy-makers have relied to fill the gaps left by their own lack of imagination (see my last post for a longer discussion on the empty minds of many of our ministers).

Perhaps it’s as well that we British lack the respect shown in France for intellect. Our suspicion of intellectuals is neatly captured in the phrase “too clever by half”. And in my business career I frequently came across employers who made it a rule not to hire people with first-class degrees because the effort required to achieve the highest honours suggested an unbalanced personality. They might have been thinking of Enoch Powell, in classical terms a first-class mind if ever there was one, but a failed politician who became a watchword for bigotry.

As for me, as the decades have chipped away at any unrealistic sense of my own intelligence, I’m happy to boast a second-class or even third-class mind.

But perhaps we need to re-think traditional estimations of what constitutes intellectual ability. Perhaps we need to be thinking in terms of “a mind fit for purpose”. In a scientist, the ability to win a Nobel Prize, requires a narrow, almost obsessive intelligence, for sure. But for most of us, and especially our political leaders, a broader palette of intelligence and abilities is needed. Joe Biden, for example, may not be a genius. But sooner him at the helm of the world’s most powerful nation than Dr Strangelove. And contrary to David Frost’s assertion, in my view most enduring enterprises, be they governments or businesses, succeed through collective intelligence in various forms rather than through the vision and determination of one person.

So who cares what kind of a mind you have, as long as you do something constructive with it. Me? I’m content to wallow in cheerful mediocrity, unconcerned by what the world might think of my intellect, but concerned only to follow the immortal Delphic maxim: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know yourself).

From that starting point everything else flows.

My country: flying blind

I don’t believe I’m acquainted with a single one of the 160,000 Conservative Party members who will choose my country’s next prime minister. So I can’t even comment in any small way on what this privileged minority is thinking, unless I choose to believe the opinion polls, the vox-pop interviews and the utterings of the candidates designed to mirror the prejudices of the lucky few. Much as it would be satisfying to sneer at the garage owners, the golf club bores and the upwardly mobile Tory boys, it would also be dishonest, because I’ve never encountered any of them, at least knowingly.

Equally pleasurable would be to recycle the insults thrown at Liz Truss – that she’s a lightweight version of Boris Johnson, that she’s equally a serial liar and that she’s as thick as a two short planks. Likewise the brickbats thrown at Rishi Sunak – that he’s too rich to relate to the rest of us, that his policies will condemn us to years of penury and that under the mask of bonhomie is a nasty mansplaining boor.

I’ve never met them, so I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s almost impossible to judge the character, intellectual capabilities and suitability of either of them for high office. Why? For more than one reason.

First, though both have held senior ministerial positions, they’ve done so in a time when their freedom to operate their ministries with a modicum of independence has been severely limited by the diktat of the prime minister and his acolytes. If something a minister does works, the prime minister will immediately take credit for it. Any disaster will lead to the minister being disowned or sacked.

Secondly, it’s impossible to know – and this applies as much to the prime minister as it does to every minister – what policies, ideas and initiatives spring from the imagination and intellect of the minister, and to what extent they rely on others to do the thinking for them.

In most cases ministers are presented with options – either by their political advisers or civil servants. It’s then the politician’s role to decide on which option to go for. As any fan of Yes Minister or The Thick of It will know, these decisions are usually made with an eye on their standing with the electorate rather than their long-term efficacy. In recent years it seems that the former usually trumps the latter.

This enables a minister without a single original thought in their head to appear far-sighted, wise or just a jolly good person to whom the electorate can relate.

In this case what we don’t know is whether either candidate – or the ones that didn’t make the cut for that matter – has that single original thought, or is simply an empty vessel filled with other people’s ideas and a good enough memory to trot out those ideas and the justifications for them in interviews, debates and casual encounters.

In other words, even if we were one of the few electors, we wouldn’t have a clue who we were electing barring the most superficial impression of the candidate’s personality. Which is how we ended up with Boris Johnson. We’re flying blind. Worse than that, in fact. Whoever is chosen gets to select their team of advisors, who might be the most talented team ever assembled or the most woeful set of dullards. Did those who selected Boris Johnson vote for Dominic Cummings? Obviously not.

As for the ministers whom the next prime minister will select, nobody, not even the Tory members, have any say on whether the likes of Nadine Dorries, Suella Braverman or Priti Patel, three of the more repugnant voices (in my view) in Johnson’s cabinet, will continue in office or be thrown out on their ears.

So it goes. That’s politics.

But how do you judge these people? On what they say, which is usually dictated by “the line to take”? On what they do, which is circumscribed by an untrusting centre and a cautious civil service?

Or do you base your opinions on what a person did before they entered politics? Which, in the case of Truss, is a few years with a couple of multinationals. Effectively, she’s a career politician. And in Sunak’s case, consultancy and hedge fund management, about which the average joe in the pub would no more have a clue than they would about the economics of Outer Mongolia.

It’s true that there are a number of politicians who have had eclectic working lives pre-politics. Wide experience often tends to give the person a wider wisdom, and dare one say it, the ability to think for themselves, which is never popular at the centre of power.

Perhaps, rather than staging debates in which candidates lob policies at each other, few of which are of their own invention, we might get a better insight into the character and potential of those before us by using a technique from the real world: situational interviewing. Rather than asking the person about their fiscal policies, why not describe a situation and ask them to provide an example of how they dealt with it? A crisis, for example, or a lesson in leadership learnt from hard experience. God forbid that they be asked to describe a mistake, and how they recovered from it.

Unfortunately those questions are usually asked of politicians in one-to-one interviews, and are rarely challenging. Which is why you had Theresa May, when asked if she ever broke the rules, reply that she once trespassed though a field of wheat.

Another technique that might be interesting is the panel interview, wherein the candidate is interrogated by several people, any one of whom might have a curveball question up their sleeve, and each of whom is appointed according to their different perspective. In other words, not a random selection of the faithful.

No doubt many of them faced such questions when going through the selection process in their constituencies, but since then, most of them – apart from those accused of indiscretions – have only faced scrutiny over how they are doing their jobs rather than whether they are suitable for those jobs in the first place.

It would be pointless asking them to go through some of the more sophisticated assessment techniques on the market. That would never happen. But at least some structured, penetrating questions that don’t depend on the wit of a single journalist would be helpful. As many Tories would like you to believe, old school isn’t always bad school.

There are several Conservative politicians who have backgrounds worthy of exploring, but they tend to end up in the cold. Rory Stewart, for example, who governed a province in Iraq after the Gulf War and is an award-winning travel writer. Tom Tugendhat had an interesting military career, which included tours in Afghanistan. Beside the military, there are former civil servants, doctors, lawyers, businesspeople and even accountants who should be able to to give good reasons why what they learned in those professions qualified them for careers in politics. Not so many social workers and bus drivers I’m afraid – they tend to migrate to other parties. But the current Tory ranks do include a mental health doctor, whose experience should be very relevant in these troubled times.

I have no affection for the Conservative Party. I’ve never voted for them and probably never will. But even though most of its representatives seem to have been pre-selected for their blind adherence to narrow sets of beliefs – and most of those uncomfortable with those beliefs, such as Stewart, have now left Parliament – it would be wrong to assume that all of them are without talent, principles and honesty. Even Liz Truss was probably honest once, before she immersed herself in the current culture of mendacity as the price to be paid for advancement and power.

Who knows? Perhaps the chosen one will confound my low expectations of them and rise to the occasion. If they don’t, they’ll almost certainly be gone in two years time when the next general election comes round.

But my point is, as I said earlier, that we’re flying blind. Not a comforting thought at a time of national crisis. One wonders what might have happened if, in 1940, when Chamberlain resigned, Britain’s future was determined by the votes of 160,000 people.

In politics, especially now, policies are often as ephemeral as passing clouds. What really matters is character. Good luck, Prime Minister. Show us what you’re made of.

Postcard from the Netherlands: snapshot of a wedding

At what stage of your life and under what circumstances do you cease to be a doer and become a watcher?

I was thinking about this a couple of days ago as I was sitting at a family wedding on the outskirts of Amersfoort, a small but comfortable city near Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Thomas, a beloved cousin of my wife, was definitely in doing mode when he tied the knot with Kees, his partner of the past couple of years. Both are in their fifties, or rumour has it. Their love is joyous and transparent – the sort you would normally see shining out from newly-weds in their twenties and thirties. To see two people show such enthusiasm in middle age despite bearing the scars we all acquire in earlier years was a powerful antidote to world-weariness.

What made the day doubly memorable was the gathering of two different clans – one Irish and one Dutch, with a smattering of friends from Germany, Italy and France. Each set of family and friends freely mixed with the other.

Die keltische Bruderschaft

What also made it special was that it took place almost without reference to COVID. Hardy a mask in sight, the occasion made all the brighter thanks to the delight of seeing people face to face for the first time in three years. COVID hasn’t gone away, but attitudes towards it seem to have changed profoundly. In contrast, a year ago our elder daughter was married. Though equally joyful, her wedding seemed like a triumph against the odds. It happened despite the pandemic, constrained by all the workarounds and precautions with which we’d become so familiar.

As for the doing and watching, I was an incidental player in Tom and Kees’s celebration. So I was content to watch, at least as far as the dancing was concerned. In years gone by, my contribution to the art of dance was to make an arse of myself. Stupid dancing, in other words, all gurning and galumphing. In that respect I’m a perpetual disappointment to my wife, who likes a good whirl, not to mention the occasional smooch. Fortunately, her cousin Karl played my part, stomping like a bull in a ballet around the dancefloor, occasionally raising his Irish kilt to display a spectacular pair of golden drawers.

Me? I sat on the side-lines, watching, occasionally getting up to capture some of the more compelling action with my phone. Unlike Auntie Margaret, who, at the age of ninety-one, was up there on the dancefloor skipping around like a teenager. Which reminded me that if you want a long life, watching is not enough. You need to keep doing.

The event was the climax of a road trip. Down from England via the horrors of the Channel Tunnel (see previous post) to our house in Southern France for a week. Then up to Paris for a night, where we picked up Karl and his partner Fiona, and onwards to Amersfoort. A couple of thousand kilometres, all told. After a hard week of gardening and municipal dump runs in our rural redoubt, we had a seven-hour drive past Limoges, Orleans and Chartres to St Cloud, where we stayed at a hotel on the edge of the race course. All very grand, with pictures of former owners, distinguished visitors and sleek racehorses covering the walls. Edward VII, le Roi D’Angleterre, who seems to have left his mark on every spa, golf course and country house of his vintage in Europe, was inevitably there. Sometimes I feel like his stalker, kept at bay only by the passage of time.

From Paris, with our new passengers, we set off again via Northern France and Flanders, where every second place-name reminded us of the destruction inflicted on the region during the First World War: Amiens, the Somme, Cambrai, Ypres, Menin and more. As we speeded effortlessly through country borders, first into Belgium and then into the Netherlands, the contrast with the British border – endless queues for passport stamps in the name of taking back control – seemed ever more ridiculous.

After six hours on the road we made it to Amersfoort. It’s a city known for its rail network, which made it something of a prize for the Germans in the Second World War. Luckily, the old town survived, with its typical Dutch architecture: high-pitched town houses overlooking canals and elegant squares full of restaurants and bars.

Most of us who gathered in the city centre hotel on the night before the wedding headed for the main square, which was about a mile away. It’s been about twenty years since I last visited the Netherlands. I’d forgotten about the domination of the bicycle. Just about everywhere you walk, you’re not far from a cycle path. To step onto one without thinking is to invite death or serious injury, both to you and the cyclist, because none of them wear helmets. So not only do you have to look left and right to avoid oncoming cars, but you need to do exactly the same with the cyclists, who ride down their parallel lanes with the confident expectation that no stupid foreigner is likely to impede their path. I had neck-ache by the end of the evening.

Which brings me to another reality about the Netherlands. Those who cycle look impossibly lithe and athletic. And that includes the old people. Those who drive cars – or many of them at least – reminded me of well-stacked buffaloes carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. I’m not a great fan of cyclists in England, because I often find them arrogant and self-righteous. But I have to say that the contrast was telling.

Kees had organised a bus to take most of us to his house on the morning of the wedding. We followed in a friend’s car, unaware that the bus driver had decided to give his passengers an extensive guided tour of the area. We thought he’d got lost, yet another victim of satnav’s whims. But on the long and winding road to the house, it seems that he was pointing out the local attractions. “On your left, you can see an alpaca farm. And here on the right are the remains of a war-time concentration camp.” Pity we missed the commentary, but it was a nice drive anyway.

For me, apart from the joyous ceremony conducted by a notary-cum-cheerleader called Babs, who treated us to a long exposition of how the happy couple met, before whipping us into a frenzy at appropriate moments in the formalities, much of the pleasure lay in conversations with strangers. The saxophonist-priest who discussed Luther and his impact on the German language. The German-Jewish woman who suspected that her grandfather was a Nazi, but will probably never know because her grandmother, now 101, refuses to say. Was this how her parents escaped the Holocaust? The nephew of a film distributor whose business was wrecked by Netflix, but not before he’d survived a number of riotous encounters with film stars in Germany to plug their movies. Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, in town to promote Easy Rider, particularly came to mind. How is Nicholson still alive, the uncle wondered?

Little snapshots like these hardly serve as evidence of the state of nations. But looking out on the well-ordered city of Amersfoort, at the cyclists, at the people gathered in the square for an evening’s eating and drinking and at our fellow guests at the hotel, who included a magnificently dressed Eritrean wedding party, I did get a sense – despite the best efforts of Twitter to convince me otherwise – of a country more at ease with itself than my own.

As for the guests at our wedding, I was one of the very few not to possess an EU passport, which entitles the holder to come and go across the mainland with hardly a second thought about borders. But no matter. I’m a European, and I’ll come and go despite whatever hurdles the jobsworths in my country put in my way.

And I wouldn’t for the world have missed the wedding of Thomas and Kees, the joyful reunions of brothers, sisters and cousins, the fascinating stuff I learned from talking to people I’d never met before, and above all, the love that was so much in evidence on a balmy weekend in the Dutch countryside.

It made the doing well worthwhile.

Postcard from France – beyond the grassy knoll

It was a sign.

The Creator of All Things, so bothered by souls across the world calling for the apocalypse, the rapture, the destruction of Joe Biden and his luciferian hordes, so busy sending us COVID, presiding over forest fires, massacres in Ukraine and lost baggage at airports, all in pursuit of his unknowable Plan, still managed to find time to warn us in his ineffable way: do not go to France this morning.

But we ignorant sinners ignored him. Which must also have been part of the Plan. Let me explain.

A month ago, we had the bright idea of combining a wedding in the Netherlands with a short trip to our house in France. We would drive, which meant that our bags wouldn’t end up in Timbuktoo. It would also give us the opportunity to haul more stuff to France, where we’re busy decorating in our own fusty image the second home we bought last year.

So on a bright Thursday morning, all packed from the night before, we would make an early start for the channel tunnel, a mere 90 minutes away under normal circumstances. Except that it didn’t happen that way. The Creator spoke. Our car, which normally doesn’t give us a squeak of trouble, erupted in the middle of the night in a frenzy of beeping. An ominous red sign indicating battery failure popped up on the dashboard display. Twice we gave it a ride around the neighbourhood to give it a little charge. Twice it started beeping within minutes. It only stopped when we left it unlocked, which meant that we faced a choice. Unpack our worldly belongings and get some sleep, or leave it unlocked and hope for the best. We chose the latter. It was the right call. The car burglars were busy elsewhere that night.

We then had to decide whether to heed the Creator and stay put, or to head for the channel in the hope that the battery would charge normally. But what if the alternator was knackered? In the end, we decided that breaking down in the middle of France during a heatwave wasn’t a good option. So we called the AA. A very nice chap called Rodney showed up an hour later, and pronounced that the battery was terminally ill. As we frantically called around looking for a replacement, Rodney had a rummage in his van. Bingo! He had just the one. An hour later (because in our German car you have to take the driver seat to bits in order to access the battery) he’d fitted a new one and we were good to go.

By now it was 10am, four hours later than we’d originally planned to take off. Even so, after a nine-hour drive from Calais, we should get to the house by mid-evening. But the Creator was probably laughing at our optimism at this point. We’d reckoned without the Great Getaway – the beginning of the holiday season in which thousands of people who would normally fly heeded official advice to avoid airports like the plague and drive to Europe instead.

So we zipped down the motorway, past lines of stationary trucks snoozing on the other side of the contraflow under the inexplicably-named Operation Brock, which is designed to manage the post-Brexit flow of freight heading for the Dover ferries and the tunnel. We were a tad worried by messages from Eurotunnel telling us that while their service was good, we could expect a five-hour wait for check-in and passports. But then another one said that the wait would be two hours. Doable, we thought, though our ETA in our rural paradise was moving towards midnight or later.

Then shortly before we came to the turn-off for the tunnel, the next Eurotunnel message said six hours delay. Merde! Nonetheless, in for a penny and all that – we persevered.

At the turn-off, everything stopped. The queue was about half a mile long and three lanes wide. I then endured the usual criticism from my co-pilot for being in the wrong lane. But this was normal. I’ve spent the last thirty-eight years of our marriage being in the wrong lane, so nothing new.

In half an hour we were past the point of no return and into the valley of death, alongside hundreds of other cars moving almost imperceptibly towards check-in. After another hour, people were starting to get desperate. Those with bursting bladders ran up a bank to the nearest bushes where they relieved themselves in relative privacy. Well sort of. As one guy dashed for cover, a woman ran out from the same spot like a scalded cat. Goodness knows what lay beyond. The first Glastonbury came to mind.

Eventually, after two hours of self-numbing, and giving fervent thanks that we didn’t have a car full of small children or feuding teenagers who never wanted to come with us in the first place, we made it to check-in, past the British immigration checkpoint, through the French one, where I got my cute little passport stamp (my wife, being an EU citizen didn’t have that privilege) and down to ramp to the waiting Euro-train.

And even though we had a nine-hour drive ahead, possibly made longer by forest fires in the south, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief to be away from Brexit and all its devilish works. Away from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Away from Boris Johnson in combat gear chucking grenades among Ukrainian trainee soldiers. Away from Mrs Sunak posing in front of Margaret Thatcher’s statue in Grantham and Mistress Straitjacket posing as Mrs T with her prissy white bow-tied blouse. Away from all the other evidence of my country’s tragicomic decline at the hands of the ideologues, fanatics and incompetents.

Not that France is without its own problems. But a nine-hour drive with only one set of roadworks to slow us down makes its own statement, I reckon.

By around 2am we were there. And the next morning, we were off to the local market, where French, British and other nationalities happily shopped together, loading their carrier bags with cheeses, tranches de jambon, shiny red peppers and juicy fat melons. As they always have and hopefully always will.

It seems that we got off relatively lightly. If media reports are to believed, the six-hour delays and more became reality in the two days following our crossing. The Brits blamed the French and vice versa. Straitjacket, in her role as Foreign Secretary, “ordered” the French to provide more immigration officers, and on our side of the channel the usual politicians rolled out their twisted logic to suggest that the aching bladders, missed weddings and overheated cars had nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the intransigent French. Oh, I almost forgot: and COVID.

And as the cars raced down the M20 towards the grassy knoll by the tunnel, nobody spared much of a thought for the poor truck drivers stuck in their ten-mile queues. Their plight seems to be the new normal. At what point will hauliers decide that enough is enough? Then we in our island fortress might discover that the price of taking back control is an entirely different kind of normal.

But that’s a future delight. Back in the present, walnuts, apples and pears are growing fatter on our trees. The worst of the heat is gone. Tonight we’ll be at producer’s evening where garlic snails, brochettes and chips cooked in goose fat can be bought. Where we’ll chat with strangers and hopefully meet old friends.

Last night we went to a choral concert in a beautiful church nobody outside the immediate vicinity has ever heard of. It featured works by Purcell, Sibelius, Bartok, Debussy and Saint-Saens. We sat next to a marble plaque honouring the twenty-five men from this tiny village who died in the First World War. They surely would have enjoyed a truly European collection finished off by a couple of American songs. Back in the house, we’ve been revisiting a CD of Russian sacred choral music, achingly beautiful pieces, made all the more poignant by contributions by choirs from Kyiv, Moscow and St Petersburg. Choral music, I’ve always thought, is an instrument of peace.

Neither Britain nor France is paradise. Yet both have so much to offer each other and the world beyond. Our problems are not dissimilar. So it seems a shame that our politicians and media tend to dwell on ancient rivalries rather than shared affinity.

When all the current sound and fury has died down, is it too much to hope that we can resume our pre-Brexit relationship – occasionally prickly but usually appreciative of each other’s virtues, values and glories?

I’m confident that we can, because beneath the attention-seeking babble, my experience tells me that in the street, the market and the home, that relationship has never gone away.

And yes, sentimental old fool that I am, I still believe that we’re stronger together. And I’d be surprised if the Creator didn’t feel that way too.

The Long Farewell – Chapter One

Now that Britain’s very own Steve McQueen has subsided into the barbed wire fence while attempting yet another great escape, we should be thinking about what comes next.

Not whether Boris Johnson will be allowed to linger on as a caretaker Prime Minister, because most likely he won’t.

Not even who might win a general election if one was called in the next few days, which would be the appropriate way of allowing the voters to pass judgement on all of their representatives who enabled and participated in Johnson’s lies, or who sat in silence, fearful of their careers, while he and his ministers stumbled from one self-inflicted crisis to the next, or who cravenly parroted “lines to take” created by unprincipled communications officers.

No, it’s the prospect that 100,000 unelected Conservative Party members will get to choose our next Prime Minister. The same people more or less who swallowed Johnson’s bullshit in 2019, despite the fact that his rottenness was as plain to see then as now. Will they be suffering buyer’s remorse? Will they rediscover the concept that competence and personal morality are as important as a sense of humour, a pithy turn of phrase and an optimism as comforting as tea and sponge cake? Or will they just swallow someone else’s bullshit, someone else’s vacuous posturing and chose a candidate with a superficially attractive personality that hides a soft underbelly of mediocrity.

And what of the wider electorate, of whom I am one? Have we been so bombarded with lies and misinformation over the past eleven years, not just three, that we’ve become numb to it all, because we don’t know what to believe? Do we gullibly and passively sup up the lies, or do we curse the political class in its entirety, because we struggle to find anyone who will tell us the truth? Or do we greedily devour the version of the truth that fits our prejudices, while dismissing all other versions as lies?

Cynicism about politicians, their motives and their morals is nothing new. But pervasive disinformation from various sources, spread by the social media, has polluted every corner of the consciousness of anyone who owns a smartphone. And those who still rely on newspapers for their news and opinions are fed diets of outrageous bias by the malignant oligarchs who own a vast proportion of our printed media, Murdoch and Rothermere among them.

And are we so stressed about pandemics, war and the consequent economic shocks that we are no longer capable of thinking beyond the short term, so that we clutch desperately at the straws thrown at us by politicians – the promises made that they cannot deliver because, whatever they claim, they do not have the control that we thought we were giving them in 2016?

That’s a discussion for another day. The day when the reprobates finally throw in the towel and call an election. Though anyone who wishes to see our government gone for good will need to be working on it now, whether the day of decision comes in two months’ or two years’ time.

To drain the poison that has seeped into the country might take much longer. And it won’t happen in isolation because whether we like it or not, the challenges we face – disinformation, inequality, economic hardship, climate change, migration – are global issues.

So much for taking back control.

Quelle horreur: the joys of travel in 2022

Which is worse, I wonder? Waiting at a station among thousands of others for a train that might never arrive? Being stuck on a motorway in a ten-mile tailback without a clue about what’s going on and when it will clear? Or sitting in an airport after your first flight has been cancelled and the next one you booked is delayed into the early hours of the morning with zero information from the airline as to whether it will actually leave or not?

This summer, if you’re a British traveller, I’d say that your chances of being caught in one of these scenarios must be better than 50%.

Best surely to go on a cycling holiday within a fifty-mile radius of home. Or why not hire a horse, a donkey or, if you’re crossing the Alps, an elephant?

Our version of spoilt-brat, first-world hell came last week, when we attempted to fly home after a short trip to our place in southern France. Three days before we were due to fly from Bordeaux, an email came from British Airways to tell us that our flight to London Gatwick had been cancelled. Not only that flight, but every other one for the following three days. Merde! We called BA, asking how they proposed to get us home. They very kindly offered to take us to Madrid, and then on to Gatwick. Given the extreme likelihood that at least one of those flights would also be cancelled, we said no, and could we book an alternative with another airline? Yes, said BA.

So we found a flight with EasyJet that was due to depart a couple of hours later than our original slot with BA. Just about acceptable, we thought. We should get home before midnight, which would give me enough sleep for the morning, when I had stuff to do.

Our house is about two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, so we hit upon a bright idea. If the EasyJet flight was delayed we could drop off the hire car and take a bus into the city centre for dinner. shortly after we hit the road, my wife checked the departure schedule to discover that the flight would indeed be delayed for an unspecified period. But we were still asked to show up two hours before the scheduled departure time. The logic? In case security decided to shut up shop on time.

Faced with several hours at the airport with nothing to do, we decided to pop into the city anyway. What we hadn’t reckoned on was that, what with the roadworks and all that, the bus would make twenty stops before dropping us where we wanted to go. It took an hour. We dived into a brasserie, had a delightful seafood tapas, took a quick look around the very handsome square, and then hopped back on the bus to the airport. Our total time in the city was around 30 minutes.

The most interesting thing about the bus-ride, by the way, is that every stop has a name: Gambetta, President Wilson and so on. Not sure the 28th president of the United States would have been happy about a bus-stop in a banlieue named after him, but there you go.

When we got back to the airport, the flight was listed as “Delayed”. For a while, there were EasyJet reps handing out vouchers for 4.50 Euros on account of the delay. It turned out that we could have stayed in Bordeaux for another couple of hours, because security, instead of closing on time, stayed open for our flight. Eventually, after a leisurely sojourn in Starbucks outside the terminal, mostly spent people-watching, we went in and through security. And there we remained for three hours, cradling our free cups of coffee.

In case you’re not familiar with Bordeaux Airport, by the way, it’s not great. Concrete brutalist architecture, and three entries: Halle A, Halle B and the low-budget cowshed allocated to EasyJet and Ryanair, which rejoiced in the name of Billi. I immediately thought of IKEA bookshelves, but none were to be found.

As we sat waiting for a new departure time, nothing was forthcoming. There wasn’t an EasyJet employee to be seen, so all we could do was sink slowly into our rather uncomfortable seats in the coffee shop. One by one, other departures on the board disappeared. A feeling of dread slowly gripped us as we looked on the web for news of departures from Gatwick, or arrivals at Bordeaux. For two hours, nothing that remotely resembled an EasyJet flight appeared on the radar. A night at the nearby budget hotel loomed. I tried stretching out on a row of steel seats, which didn’t work out well. I’m too bloody old and soft to sleep on hard surfaces, though in my youth, when hitchhiking, I’d been quite happy to curl up in the rain under a hedge.

Eventually, around three hours later than expected, the board announced that we were ready to go. Ours was the last departure showing. Just before us, a flight to Fes had gone, also outrageously late. Had it been possible, I would have been quite happy to zip off to Morocco as an alternative to more hours in the cowshed. But no, EasyJet came good, sort of, and we boarded via that curious ritual wherein you sit down in a crowded departure lounge, and when summoned, thinking that the airplane awaited, you’re ushered to another holding pen where you stood around watching the remaining passengers leaving your plane. It’s called “speedy boarding”, apparently.

Finally we got on the plane. We were greeted by the captain on the intercom, who said that he wasn’t about to give us a list of excuses for the delay. He was nearly out of hours, so he needed to get a move on. He’d tell us all about it after we’d taken off. He did assure us that he was planning to put on the after-burners so that we could get to Gatwick without further delay. I fell asleep as soon as we took off, so I didn’t get the excuses from the horse’s mouth, but I gather there were storms in Ljubljana, a war in Ukraine and a longish delay while they found a replacement crew, because the first lot was out of hours. No mention of the much-maligned baggage handlers, who got the blame on the flight status website.

When we arrived in Gatwick, I passed the captain, who looked red-eyed with exhaustion. I felt sorry for him, but somewhat relieved that he didn’t actually overshoot towards Iceland. I needn’t have worried, because apparently his “brilliant young first officer” landed the plane. I had visions of a twelve-year-old at the controls.

We picked up our car, and satnav took us though a maze of country roads on the way home, because a section of the M25, London’s pride and joy, was closed for repairs. We finally made it come at 3.30am, just as dawn was breaking. Two hours before I was due to get up.

So fourteen hours after we left our little French outpost, we arrived at our English home. In the same time we could have driven back via the Channel Tunnel and made it back with a couple of hours to spare.

Not that I’m complaining. Well, not much. Others have had it much worse than us. At least the nonsense happened at the back end of the trip, which enabled us to use one of the two most popular excuses for absence this summer, the other being COVID.

But what really got to me, as so often happens on these occasions, was the uncertainty. We didn’t even get an email or a text from EasyJet telling us that the flight was delayed. And in the terminal, nobody seemed to have the remotest clue what was going on. And that’s what would have put me in Irish mode – spittin’ fire – had I not been too knackered.

So beware, be warned, bring the travel scrabble and a pair of decent cushions. But never, ever, put your bags in the aircraft hold. You might never see them again.

And we do this stuff for fun? Roll on 2023, when hopefully sanity has been restored. But plenty more madness to live through this year, I suspect.

PS: Just learned that the EasyJet Chief Operating Officer has just resigned on account of the current chaos, but not the CEO. Very Johnsonian, je crois.

Scandi culture – keeping religion private

I don’t often quote posts from Facebook, because so many of them are profoundly uninteresting and, well, unquotable. That probably includes the majority of mine, by the way, unless you happen to share my narrow obsessions. But this little gem from John Whelpton, an acquaintance whose learning far exceeds mine, and whose posts are always stimulating, did get my attention:

Interesting observations on Islam and Scandinavian culture from Mats Andersson, a Swede answering a question on Quora about the reasons so many Scandinavians have a negative impression of Islam:

“Well… there really are two areas where Islam clashes with Scandinavian culture.

Firstly, and most importantly, in Scandinavia—just like in most of Europe—religion is seen as intensely private. Displaying your religion openly is seen as rude and intrusive. It has, with good cause, been likened to waving your genitals in public. It’s indecent, and supremely embarrassing to everyone present—no matter what your religion is. Atheism doesn’t get a free pass, either.

Islam has historically had an explicit imperative to be very, very public about your religion—more so than any other world religion. You are supposed to display it at every turn. About the only thing that could make it worse would be if it was also proselytising; some Christian denominations are more embarrassing that way.

Secondly, do you know how to make friends with a Scandinavian? Traditionally, you get drunk together. Because if you stay the same when you’re drunk, then we know that the inside matches the outside. This isn’t quite as common today, but many Scandinavians are still very suspicious of people who don’t drink alcohol, and again, who are very public about this. On some subconscious level, they are convinced that they are hiding something.

The way to get accepted here, as a Muslim, is actually quite simple. Don’t put on a big show about being a Muslim. Just be yourself, and don’t mention religion unless someone asks.

I just looked this through. Out of 350 FB friends, outside my immediate family, I know the religious affiliation of exactly 8 (of which one is atheist). A further 4 identify as Jewish, but they’ve only ever mentioned it as a cultural or ethnic affiliation, not primarily religious. I had known many of them for years, even decades, until it came up in discussion.”

Interesting observations indeed, on which I offer a few of my own comments.

The idea, as Mats puts it, that in Scandinavia, religion is seen as intensely private. I see no reason to dispute that. But the rest of Europe? Au contraire. In just about every country where, for example, Catholicism is the predominant Christian denomination, religious worship is at the forefront of public life. Processions to celebrate saint’s days are major events in many towns and cities in Spain and Italy. Easter and Christmas are openly commemorated across the Catholic world, from Poland, to Ireland and throughout Southern Europe. Watch a funeral procession in Ireland, and you’ll still see onlookers stop and cross themselves as the cortege goes by.

As for the assertion that Muslims are under obligation to be very public in their worship, I would put it another way: the obligations of Islam – prayer, pilgrimage, fasting, charity and so on often involve communal worship, yes, but Muslims are not required to make public displays of piety. In fact, it’s been my experience that in countries with overwhelming Muslim majorities, worship is often a private activity. Certainly many people go to the mosque to pray, but just as many do so in their own homes or in a private area in the workplace.

I would argue that public worship is no more or less prevalent among Muslims than among Catholics. As for the evangelicals, one only needs to watch a religious channel in the United States (or a Trump rally for that matter) to witness religious fervour that verges on the narcissistic.

It’s not for me to frown upon a culture that disapproves of open displays of religious devotion. But while Mats urges Muslims just to “be yourself” and keep your religion to yourself, that’s hard to do if you feel that your faith defines your identity. And isn’t personal identity everything these days for those who have the luxury of being able proclaim it?

It would be sad if such disapproval results in public resistance over national immigration policies. If rules on refugee admission discriminate on grounds of religion, then Scandinavian nations would be following the lead of Trump’s America, hardly the finest example of an enlightened approach to immigration.

Another point to make is that cultures do not stand still. They evolve over time. When defining a national cultures people often look backwards, not forwards. They focus on “This is how we were”, rather than “this is how we are are”. And often enough, they instil fear over “this is what we are becoming”.

If the Ukraine experience tells us anything about future population trends, it’s that refugee crises – whether they be the result of war or environmental catastrophes – are likely to increase, at least in the short and medium term. If Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark choose to tighten their borders for fear of diluting their cultures, they might allay those fears, but at the same time they run the risk of antagonising countries that are bearing the brunt of new waves of refugees. Since three of those countries are members of the European Union (Norway excepted), such policies wouldn’t bode well for cohesion within the EU bloc.

In the end, the Scandinavian dilemma is one with which, as a Briton, I’m very familiar: are we comfortable with a multicultural society or do we insist that immigrants conform to a monocultural norm? The latter sentiment was one of the drivers of Brexit, of course.

Which path will the Scandi nations chose? A grudging acceptance that multiculturalism is a reality in any society with significant ethnic or religious minorities? Or possibly to adopt the French approach of institutional secularism – laïcité – which I would argue is no more effective than a finger in the cultural dyke?

Or perhaps Mats is simply reflecting a societal grumble that is unlikely to result in any change to the current status quo.

Whichever way, I’m unlikely to get the answer from the horse’s mouth, since I’m not one to get drunk with anyone. So the innermost feelings of those fine people will have to remain unknowable.

And where do I stand? As someone who has lived and worked in various countries, I would opt for a pluralistic society any time. The sparks might fly from time to time, but something tells me that they will be the best prepared to deal with the great population movements to come.

Having said that, I’ve spent time in each of the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland. Each has its own distinct culture (as examined with great gusto by Michael Booth in his book The Almost Nearly Perfect People), so beyond the broad brush it’s potentially misleading to talk about a generalised culture within the region.

What’s true for me is that unlike an increasing number of countries I could name, I’m always delighted to return to any of them.

And are they so different from us Brits of a certain age, many of whom who were taught to avoid three subjects at the dinner table: sex, politics and religion?

Introducing Meldrew’s Disease

One of the joys of growing old is cheerfully succumbing to various mental conditions. They excuse all your bad behaviour.

Hypochondria, also known as I Told You I Was Ill Syndrome (per Spike Milligan’s tombstone), is one of them. Every ache and pain – a headache here or a chest niggle there – is the harbinger of a fatal affliction. A heart attack or a stroke, promising imminent death. Or some nasty little cancer that’s likely to have spread around your body before you know it. Yes, we oldies like to keep the doctors busy on the grounds of “just wanted to check”.

I wouldn’t say I’m a frequent flyer at my local surgery, but I do take the view that having paid my taxes over all these years I’m entitled to check occasionally whether I’m about to die. Not that our COVID-ravaged National Health Service will be able to do much about something that comes stealthily in the night and takes me away in short order. Not when you need to wait weeks for a doctor’s appointment and hours for an ambulance. One of the best insurance policies is to be married to a medic, which I am. But still, I don’t complain to her about a symptom unless it seems serious, such as when I find myself writhing on the floor in unbearable pain. It’s the little things that I keep to myself which let the hypochondriacal worm invade my soul.

Then there’s paranoia. A state in which everyday occurrences acquire a sinister hue. Refusing to open innocent-seeming links on emails or text messages for fear of being ripped off by a Russian hacker. Wondering whether berating a rude guy in a restaurant is going to result in a knife in the chest. Taking conspiracy theories personally. Are the aliens about to abduct me? Will Putin send the novichok merchants after me because I was rude about him in a blog post? Worse still, wondering if my wife’s beady eye is watching me for signs of incipient dementia. She has good reason occasionally. Frequent arguments with door frames in our ancient house are quite possibly turning my brain to mush. Outbursts of sweary frustration at software that doesn’t work, at apps deigned by pimply adolescents, at sheep-like audiences who applaud the demagogues on Question Time, as if I give a monkey’s what they think about anything anyway.

I can only say in my defence that my disinhibition is nothing new. Back in 2016 I was in a hotel during a golf tour in France the morning after the Brexit Referendum. My fellow breakfasters were somewhat taken aback when I let out an enraged diatribe at Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and all the other liars and charlatans who had so deceived the British voters. I was lucky not to be escorted off the premises.

But is this tendency towards disinhibition getting worse? I’m not sure, though I do worry that I might get in trouble on the rare occasions when I try to re-landscape my local golf course in fury at yet another incompetently-executed shot. And my wife sometimes has to restrain me when she sees me teetering on the brink of expletive-filled rage at some dumb jobsworth at an airline desk. Swearing at the telly? Guilty as charged. And for many other expressions of outrage at the stupidity of human beings, myself excluded of course.

Nobody these days can be considered a complete package without some real, imagined or threatened form of mental illness lurking in the background. What was once a tendency to drink from a half-empty glass is now depression. Forgetting what you had for breakfast is a sign of incipient Alzheimer’s. Believing that a burst bag of flour vaguely shaped like an arrow outside your front door is a sign that you are about to be burgled is paranoid schizophrenia. Going on a tidying-up binge after our grandson has given a passable impression of a Goth sacking Rome is a manic episode. In fact, any kind of binge is pretty suspect – a sign of an addictive personality.

But it’s not just us oldies, is it? Two hundred years ago, regardless of our age, a tendency to frighten the horses might have been enough to have us be locked away in Bedlam, and even twenty years ago we were reduced to quiescence by chemicals and kept our mouths shut about the reason. These days, though, we feel almost inadequate if we can’t cite some interesting condition on our Twitter bios, or if we can’t find some spectrum to be on.

Now don’t get me wrong. Illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD and dementia are genuinely debilitating conditions. Autism presents many challenges to those who live with its many forms. But it seems to me that the more we are aware of mental illness, the more we are search for those conditions in ourselves and use self-diagnosis as an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

Mental health has also become a cudgel with which to attack those with opinions opposed to one’s own. Universities try (vainly) to protect their customers (once known as students) by declaring safe spaces. Unfortunately there are no safe spaces to protect us from Brexit, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson’s army of vacuous zombies masquerading as a government. Nor, unfortunately from crimes of the mind: racism, phobias of all kinds (which aren’t really phobias but hatred). They exist, and attempts to wrap people into institutional wombs are counterproductive and doomed to failure. One person’s safe space is another person’s battlefield. Better to teach resilience and critical thinking.

Yet the most potent accusation one person can level at another, short of physical injury, is that the person’s behaviour has endangered another’s mental health. As if negative emotions such as fear, envy, loneliness, anger and the occasional bout of gloom are in themselves mental illnesses.

I refuse to use the word woke, because that in itself has become a political cudgel. I also refuse to submit my quirks to close examination, and find reasons from my past to explain my behaviour in the present. All in all, I reckon I’m a reasonably balanced individual, though I leave that assessment to others. And anyway, thanks to my age, I myself couldn’t give a damn either way.

However, I will admit to one condition that hasn’t yet found its way into the database of mental illnesses. I call it Meldrew’s Disease, after Victor Meldrew, my great hero in adversity in the BBC’s memorable sitcom, One Foot in the Grave.

Like many sufferers, I have a catch-all response to all the disasters, stupidities and inanities that trap us in a web of obfuscation and frustration. I use it when I get a ticket for straying into a bus lane in a town that has more road signs per metre than a pine tree has needles. I use it when my phone has forgotten the password for some unnecessary app that I’m forced to use because nobody works in customer service anymore. I use it when the elaborately-constructed tower of junk in my garage collapses into a heap of crap that should have been disposed of in a car boot sale decades ago. I use it when I fall asleep in front of the telly and the cup of coffee I’m holding tips over into my lap and soaks through the armchair beneath. I use it after every act of stupidity on my part for which I can blame fate, an act of god, a natural disaster, Brexit or those bloody politicians. Anyone except myself, of course. For am I not infallible, a paragon of reason and good sense?

The catch-all is Victor’s anguished shriek. I DON’T BELIEVE IT! Which, once uttered, sends me effortlessly into my realm of alternative truth. If I don’t believe it, it didn’t happen, right? Or if it did, it’s someone else’s fault.

To quote Roger Waters, another icon of a bygone era, I’ve become comfortably numb.

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