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Cash – the last refuge of scoundrels and little old ladies?

There are many aspects of modern life that cause us to stop and think. Wildfires, electric cars, low-emission zones, not to mention the impact drones are having on modern warfare.

Other changes have quietly slipped under the radar, to the point that the young take them for granted and even older generations quietly acquiesce in them, or embrace them without much thought as to their implications until they bite them on the backside.

Take air traffic control, for example. The travelling public take for granted that thousands of flight plans are automatically filed every day into air traffic control systems worldwide. When that system fails, as happened in the UK last week, chaos reigns. Flights are delayed or cancelled. Holidays are ruined. Thousands of work days are wiped out because people can’t get back to work on time.

A few hundred thousand disrupted journeys is one thing. But what if card payment systems went down simultaneously? Suddenly payments grind to a halt. And what if nobody can get hold of cash because the ATM systems aren’t working?

It’s at that point that our fallback in such circumstances – for many people – no longer exists. We don’t do cash anymore.

Right now, in the first world at least, it seems that anyone with more than a few pounds, dollars or euros in their wallet is seen as something of a dinosaur. They’re the modern equivalent of the old peasant who keeps stashes of banknotes under their mattresses. If you splash the cash, you risk being perceived as a tax dodger, a payer of bribes, a money launderer or an oligarch who wishes to hide – or advertise- their wealth.

Cash is dodgy. Even shops don’t take it any more because it lessens their chances of being robbed. In fact it’s fair to say that bureaucrats – especially tax collectors and law enforcement – have never like cash because it enables the black economy, unless they themselves happen to be on the take, of course. So from their point of view, the decline of banknotes is manna from heaven. They now have the pleasure of following the money from their desktops, even if crypto transactions make their task more challenging.

So basically we’ve all been seduced by the ease of electronic transactions. For small payments you just wave your card over a little machine and pling!, it’s done. Here in France, in the markets, typically populated, you might think, by canny stallholders who love cash because no tax inspector is able to prove how many aubergines they’ve grown and sold, a good 50% of traders take cards.

I worry that we take our little cards for granted. So far, in the first world at least, there’s been little adverse effect except on the marginalised in societies – the elderly who find it difficult to use the technology and those who for one reason or another can’t get bank accounts. But in some countries, complacency leads to disaster. Lebanon, for example, where the country’s economic meltdown has led to banks restricting the amount of available cash, with the result that some desperate account holders have resorted to holding up their banks with guns.

True, the British government requires the banks to ensure that nobody is further than three miles from a source of cash, be that an ATM, a bank branch (a rare thing these days) or a post office. Which is fine, I guess, provided there are enough old folk with the energy to walk three miles to draw their precious notes.

All that being said, I’m personally a fan of cash, not only as an important fallback for when the cards don’t work, but because I was brought up in an age when cash and cheques were standard payment methods. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been slapped down for automatically reaching for the readies when a card will bring precious air miles. But I’m mindful of the fact that banknotes are no less a construct than the digits in an online bank statement. If there’s anyone still alive in Germany who’s old enough to remember the hyperinflation crisis of 1923, during which millions lost their savings and resorted to having to take wheelbarrows full of banknotes to the bakers to buy a loaf of bread, they would perhaps let out a hollow laugh at their British friends describing their money as “safe as the Bank of England”.

After all, cash is merely one pillar of a massive, complex and interrelated global financial system. When one or more pillar collapses, what guarantee is there that those crisp banknotes will still have a role to play? In which case, it might be sensible to start thinking what a barter economy might look like. Perhaps we should be working out what we have to offer in exchange for a bag of potatoes.

What could I offer? Not a lot really, though I am thinking seriously about giving over the garden to the cultivation of cabbages. Or maybe some kind of herbal pacifier. After all, most of us will need to calm down a bit if the worst comes to the worst.

Meanwhile, given the way inflation’s going (in the UK at least) perhaps it’s time to give the wheelbarrow a service, because I don’t think your friendly local baker will be inclined to accept bitcoins for their precious product.

Postcard from France: under the heat dome

41 degrees centigrade sounds pretty hot. Yet somehow 105, the fahrenheit equivalent, seems even more extreme. I was brought up when Britain used the latter as its unit of measurement. Back then, such heat would have seemed almost apocalyptic.

But I’m not in Britain. My wife and I arrived at our little place in Southern France a few days ago. Since then the thermometer has been rising steadily. Apparently we’re sitting underneath something called a heat dome. I’m not unfamiliar with this level of warmth. During our time in the Middle East summer temperatures sometimes rose to as much as 50C. But then we had air conditioning in the car, the office and at home, so our exposure to the withering heat was limited to short excursions between one cool place and another.

Not now. Our house has thick stone walls, which takes the edge off the heat. But we still rely on fans, especially to sleep. Between the hours of midday and early evening, it’s definitely It Ain’t Half Hot Mum territory. So by and large, apart from excursions for lunch at our favourite restaurant, we stay indoors during the day, shutters closed against the sun, slowly making our way around the gloomy interior.

Which is fine, because we have no desire to be one of those much-touted heatwave casualties gleefully leapt upon by the British media. Lord help the campers who have no escape from the heat. Though many of them have a pool nearby where they can cool down, which we don’t. A paddling pool helps, but not much. Whales don’t appreciate bathtubs.

Happily, by the weekend we can expect some relief in the form of the usual thunder and lightning, most likely accompanied by hailstones the size of golf balls. Then things are likely to settle down in the mid 20s, a drop of about 15 degrees over two days.

What else is new in La Belle France? Well, over the past couple of months the nation has been wracked with anxiety since the bureaucrats introduced a form to be filled in by every property owner in the country. It’s effectively a house census. It asks questions at a level of detail such as the precise square meterage of buildings and land, what kind of material was used in construction, how many loos, bidets and basins, how many rooms, what they’re used for and, rather bizarrely, details of patios.

The purpose of this gargantuan piece of data collection appears to be – you guessed it – “rationalisation” of the property tax that most house-owners are required to pay. And yes, most of us will have to pay more once the data has been fed into the Ministry of Finance’s algorithm.

Unfortunately, a number of people, including us, only found out about it by accident. The Ministry had to extend the deadline twice. Call centres set up to handle queries about the form, which is byzantine in its complexity, have had to deal with endless calls from distressed householders who found themselves unable to fill in the form. Two days before the latest deadline expired, the website for online completion crashed. Naturellement. According to our local tax office, it will take months to process the information.

The other fun measure would gladden the heart of London’s mayor, under whose aegis the hugely unpopular Ultra-Low Emission zone scheme is about to be extended way beyond what most map users would recognise as the boundaries of London.

France goes one stage further. The authorities have designated 10 cities as low emission zones, and a further 19 areas where temporary restrictions can be imposed. The rules are fairly complicated, but the bottom line is that all vehicle owners must apply for a sticker that identifies their vehicle’s emission level. And before long, anyone in a high emission car, such as some diesels, will be liable to fines once the municipal cameras are up and running. Which probably means that our wheezy old diesel will soon become a mobile fine magnet in France as well as London. Oh merde. Time to buy a bike, I guess.

Such concerns, though, are far from the mind early in the morning as I sit on our patio looking out on the baked countryside. Straight ahead, we have copse of trees that hosts a variety of wildlife, including a family of deer I saw wandering across a neighbouring field. The dawn chorus gives me the excuse to enjoy a new app that identifies birds by their song. Much as I generally loathe apps, this is one that enhances life rather than complicates it. It’s called Merlin. It uses a huge database of bird sounds to tell you who’s visiting at the moment.

It’s found nothing out of the usual thus far, though a European Pied Flycatcher and a Spotted Flycatcher seem to be in regular attendance, which perhaps explains why this year we don’t seem to be plagued by as many flies as usual. Then there are the usual suspects: pigeons, magpies, woodpeckers, and a variety of tits. But wait! Up on my phone pops a Short-Toed Treecreeper. Whatever that is I have no clue, but, but its name could have been invented by Tolkein. It would also be a worthy insult to be hurled at a diminutive flasher.

Merlin is unlikely to turn me into a twitcher. I don’t have the patience. But what a quiet pleasure it is to get to know your neighbours without having to wander around hedgerows with outsized binoculars. Also a reminder also that you don’t need stickers, forms and permits to enjoy wildlife that gets on with its living while you get on with yours.

Time for a spot of breakfast as the temperature creeps up into the thirties. Whatever the weather, my bit of France is a glorious as ever.

Self-service, or survival of the fittest?

The six words I dread most in dealing any organisation for the first time – especially one you need to call upon for services – are “you need to get the app”. The pervasiveness of apps, those clunky bits of software, often so badly designed that if they were a car you’d call it a lemon and immediately take it back to whoever sold it to you, is the latest weapon in what, if you’re conspiracy-minded, you might think is a gigantic con perpetrated on customers for decades.

The con, if that’s what it is, goes like this:

Wow, we can get rid of hundreds – or thousands – of staff if we can convince our customers that serving themselves is for their benefit. First we’ll install self-service terminals, then we’ll develop an app and then we’ll force everyone to use the app. Anyone who for whatever reason is incapable of serving themselves doesn’t deserve to be our customer. We can do without them. All on the pretext of delivering convenience to those customers we really want. We’ve collected the data. We know where our profit comes from. It’s not from little old ladies and men in mobility scooters. Or, more widely, from people without much money to spend on us.

In Britain, my country, we hear that the rail companies want to get rid of manned ticket counters. Spare a thought for those little old ladies milling around our stations fearful of being arrested if they board a train without a ticket, yet defeated by ridiculously complicated ticket terminals that sit in front of endless queues of passengers cursing the labyrinthine menu system.

Our National Health Service wants us to use its app to access our medical records, yet for one reason or another you can only see some of your test results and appointments. I sometimes think that a Russian hacker would find it easier to look at my stuff than me.

The banks won’t let you sign up for their most favourable products unless you get their app. And when you do, you find service features that aren’t working. Worse still, you find that for some unexplained reason you can’t make a payment. Then you need to use the call centre, which usually entails minutes or even hours playing pinball between robots before you get to speak to a human, after which you’re bounced around various other humans before you get to speak to the right person.

Even within the most sophisticated organisations, computer systems often don’t talk to each other, which results in endless recitations of security catechisms every time you’re transferred from one human (or robot) to another. Provided, of course, that your call doesn’t drop while you’re listening to the ghastly music that hasn’t changed for years.

All in the cause of convenience for the customer. Not.

Oh, and let’s not forget the lexicon of passwords you’re required to maintain any time you want to access a service or buy stuff online. Do you write all your passwords in a physical book, suitably disguised so that no burglar would be able to make sense of it? Or do you trust your phone or laptop to store the information safely, in the certain knowledge that these devices are never hacked?

I sometimes fantasise about where all this stuff ends. About supermarkets with a warehouse full of chickens that you can select and kill for yourself via an app that delivers the coup de grace on your behalf. About robots that will diagnose your medical condition and issue you a prescription that you can redeem through Amazon. Doctors? Pharmacists? Who needs ’em?

And who needs that kindly librarian when you can find the book you’re looking for via a terminal (or an app), go straight to the shelf and check the book out via a QR code that sits in front of a system that automatically fines you if you’re late returning it? Or indeed when our dwindling stock of libraries is finally extinguished, to be replaced by some government-controlled kindle system, in which authors are paid a pittance for downloads. Lord help the poverty-stricken kid from a home without books who learns about the world in the local library.

Where does it end? Most likely it ends in dystopia, as supply chains collapse and government disintegrates in the wake of some catastrophe permanently frying the internet. In such circumstances you might think that the good people of America, where half the population is armed to the teeth, have an advantage. They can take self-service to the extreme, demanding that the other half hand over the contents of their fridges at gunpoint, whereas we largely weaponless Brits have to resort to politely asking our neighbour for a glass of milk.

Am I afraid of technology? Not really. I’m one of the privileged ones. I got my first PC in the mid-1980s, way before mobile phones and broadband. I’m sufficiently computer familiar to be able to snorkel my way through the bog of apps written by pimply adolescents who aren’t as smart as they think they are. Yet the brutal reality is that the digital world is waiting for people of my age and above, who refuse or unable to use phones and apps for their daily business, to die off.

But I also believe that nothing powered by so-called artificial intelligence yet matches interactions with people, ideally face-to-face but if necessary on the phone. Yes, people need to be trained, and robots don’t generally have a bad hair day. But if we must pay a little more for our goods and services to retain the benefit of dealing with people, so be it. Because people can be kind. They have insight. They can be flexible in their response. Robots haven’t figured those qualities out. At least not yet.

Have you been to a hospital recently, been faced with a multitude of signs directing you to various departments, to be greeted by a volunteer who sees your nonplussed expression, asks you if you need help, then quickly directs you to the right place? Show me an app that’s able to read my face, or indeed my body language, determine that I might need help and deliver the information I need without going through a hierarchy of qualifying questions. I rest my case.

That said, I’m grateful for e-gates at airports. They usually work. Nine times out of ten – to my eternal shame – I use Amazon to buy my books as opposed to one of the few remaining local bookshops. Technology has its uses. But when self-service becomes the only form of service, which doesn’t seem too far away, I fear for the aged, the infirm and the lonely, whose only human contact is with charity volunteers, shopkeepers, health workers and the occasional caring neighbour. When so many of us have family members spread far and wide, cuts to public services made to fund pay increases for the employed will result in further alienation of those on the margins.

In short, is a whole section of society slowly falling victim to a survival of the fittest culture?

We’re not at that stage yet, but I fear that, as in so many other ways, we’re becoming slavish imitators of the richest nation on earth, where a large body of opinion holds that the poor, the weak and the deprived have only themselves to blame for their predicament. And down in Dante’s ninth circle of hell, is there a little man with a toothbrush mustache announcing to anyone who will listen “I told you so”?

Yet whatever Adolf might have thought, it’s never really been about the fittest winning out, has it? In a way, it’s better to speak about survival of the most persuasive, the most influential. Are those institutions deemed to be too big to fail really the fittest? In recent years our governments have been in thrall to lobbyists and pressure groups. Some political parties, including the ruling Conservatives, rely on dubious funding sources – sources that obviously want something for their bucks. Our banks, supermarkets and energy providers are able to raise prices and boost profits at more or less at will, safe in the knowledge that if they fly too close to the sun, a bail-out at taxpayers’ expense awaits. Inflation gives them licence to surf the wave of price increases, knowing that competitive pressures are low. Their target customers are not those who have to resort to food banks to get by.

Unfortunately, praying – and voting – for a different government is not going to produce more than superficial reforms of practices that don’t work to everybody’s benefit. People will vote for reforms that benefit them, provided they don’t have to pay for them. If the National Health Service didn’t exist today, would we vote for its implementation in the knowledge that it would result in higher taxes? Unlikely.

We have become so blind to the idea that the greater good requires a level of financial sacrifice that the only measures any political party proposes are short-term and palliative, for fear of losing votes. In other words, nobody dares to be radical. As I see it, such is our “don’t rock the boat” culture (or rather “don’t rock my boat”) that it will take a major catastrophe or an existential crisis for us, by wide consensus, to go back to the drawing board on many issues: climate, environment, energy, transportation, finance and employment chief among them.

I don’t have all the answers, or even a few of them, though I’ve floated a few ideas over lifetime of this blog. But let me throw this out for consideration. We should pass legislation that designates all sections of the economy that we deem essential to the lives of our citizens as public utilities. These should include food retail, transportation, water, communications, energy and banking. Declaring an area as a public utility wouldn’t mean nationalisation. What it would mean is that every private company and state-owned entity should meet minimum levels of person-to-person service, and minimum standards of accessibility. Call centres should provide fast access to human agents that bypass the usual hierarchy of options. Supermarkets should provide a level of checkout staff commensurate with their throughput of customers. Rail companies should not be able to close ticket offices. And critical decisions relating to customers should not be allowed to be made by AI-driven software, especially in finance.

None of these measures would stop people from using technology when they choose to do so. But nobody should be disadvantaged because they refuse or are unable to serve themselves.

Would such measures work? The devil is obviously in the detail. But surely, for the sake of the marginalised, a conversation along these lines is worth having. Otherwise, we risk becoming a society where the strong survive and the vulnerable simply fade away through neglect and the indifference of the majority.

Slow is good. Boring is better.

Brian Harman, who has just won the Open Golf Championship, is the most prepossessing winner in a long time. Neatly dressed and short of stature, he looks like a banker or an insurance agent. He walks with a slight waddle. When he plays golf, he is mainly expressionless, though he allows himself a half-smile when he sinks a forty foot putt. On this occasion he played a conservative game, taking few risks. Just the kind of game with which to conquer the wind-swept, rain-soaked Royal Liverpool golf course, formerly known as Hoylake.

If you like your golfers to be adventurous risk-takers, like the late Seve Ballasteros or Rory McIlroy, you would probably think Harman is the ultimate in boring. The kind of dead-pan US professional who goes from tee to green seemingly unaware of the thousands of fans who, in the case of the Royal Liverpool event, are rooting for him to lose. If not Rory, those fans wanted the combustible Jon Rahm to win, or local hero Tommy Fleetwood, the man with the mullet and a smile that breaks out like sunshine across the face of a person who usually looks as though he’s undergoing an extreme form of torture.

When I play golf, I’m definitely on the wild end of the spectrum, except that my risks rarely come off. That’s because I’m hoping that my incompetence will occasionally give way to a ridiculously lucky shot that convinces me (though probably nobody else) that I have an innate talent just waiting to reveal itself. So I slash and crash – and usually burn.

Which is very much in keeping with the crash-bang-wallop style of modern sport, wherein if you can’t capture a moment in a two-minute video clip, it’s not worth capturing. A golfer as dull as ditch-water plotting their way around the course isn’t worthy of our attention. Likewise a cricket team scoring at two runs an over, or a soccer player grafting away in midfield to create the explosive goals that we all love to watch.

Come to think of it, we have little tolerance for slow and boring in wider circles of life. We will always watch Boris Johnson in preference to Keir Starmer, even if it’s only to pour abuse on the former. Much the same with Trump and Biden. We expect Ukraine to run a blitzkrieg counter-offensive through the Russian minefields. We want to see exploding tanks, wildfires, distraught holidaymakers on beaches, celebrity meltdowns and murder-suicides.

We want to be angry, joyous, grief-stricken, afraid and delirious. Why? Because that’s how technology, news outlets and the social media condition us to feel. We’ve become adrenaline junkies.

Yesterday was an interesting day of sport in England. Anticlimactic, as the England cricket team was denied the chance to hammer the Australians thanks to the same rain that poured down all day on Hoylake. Instead, I contented myself with watching an introverted American from Georgia plod his way to victory over his fiery and furious rivals.

And, in a strange kind of way, I felt comforted. Because for most of us, life is slow. It unfolds rather than explodes. That an American should remind us of that is doubly comforting. If you believe the media, his country is more explosive than most. Yet his avowed intent is to go home with his trophy and mow the lawn.

Somehow, we need to find a way to lower our stress hormones. We’re angry about the past, afraid of the present and the only visions of the future on offer are dystopian. Perhaps we need to take a deep breath, slow down and allow ourselves to find some positive thoughts about the life that’s ahead of us, whatever evidence to the contrary is presenting itself. And perhaps we could all do with a bit more horizontal time, because sleep is the great healer.

Speaking only for myself, I can think of no better way of nodding off than by watching re-runs of Brian Harman winning the British Open. For which I thank him and wish him a quiet, unspectacular but successful future.

And if we’re a Rory McIlroy fan looking for a silver lining, perhaps we should celebrate with the son of a friend of mine, who won a large sum of money by betting on Rory’s exact scores over the four days of the tournament. Though I hate to think of the amount of cortisol flowing through the guy’s veins when Rory sunk his birdie putt on the final hole.

Postcard from France: beyond the riots, two movies in a small town

Castillonnès is a little town in Southern France. As such, it’s too small to attract the attention of the rioters who are currently running rampant in many of France’s major cities. In fact, if you drive through the bottom of the town along the N21 between Bergerac and Agen, you’d hardly think it worth a visit, especially as the view is dominated by an extraordinarily ugly water tower.

But drive into the upper reaches of the bastide (fortified town), and you’ll find one of those beautiful medieval town centres that abound in the Dordogne and Lot et Garonne.

Not so pretty, but equally important to the living community, is the former municipal theatre, now a cinema, where, for the princely sum of seven euros per screening, you can watch a variety of movies, both French and international. No plush seats and multi-vendor foyer. Just a small counter manned by volunteers and a fridge full of ice creams.

Every month they hold a “Soiree Cinema d’Ailleurs”, which roughly translates as Movie Night from Elsewhere, meaning not Hollywood, Bollywood or any other well-beaten cinematic track. For 22 euros, you get two movies – the kind of work you wouldn’t find in Britain beyond the art-house cinemas of our big cities – plus a buffet outside the cinema in the interval.

A couple of nights ago, “The Elsewhere” was 16th century Algiers, followed by the mountains of Iran in the present day. We probably wouldn’t have sought out either movie, especially when to do so would have entailed an hour’s journey on the train and tube into central London – twice.

In case you might think that this was a tourist attraction laid on for visiting English-speakers, the movies – in Farsi and Arabic – came with French subtitles. Most of the audience were French, with a smattering of Brits confident enough to battle with the subtitles.

La Derniere Reine is an action movie with a feminist theme set in Algiers. Zaphira, the eponymous queen, breaks out of the boundaries of the harem to lead the resistance against Barbarossa, the pirate warlord, who has taken the city after treacherously killing her husband. It’s bloody and histrionic. She’s fiery, patriotic and fiercely protective of her young son. Things don’t end well for either of them, but the director, who also takes the leading role, uses the production to make the point that Algeria has a history worth telling from the period before it succumbed to colonial powers – first the Ottomans and then the French. Ironic, then, that we should watch the movie at a time when France is ablaze with the anger of its minorities of North African ancestry.

The second movie, The Scent of Wind, set in a remote region of Iran, couldn’t have been more different from the first. Minimal action, very little dialogue. It’s the story of an electrician who is sent to repair the power supply to the ramshackle house of a disabled man and his paralysed son. The father is unable to use his legs except to shuffle slowly in a crooked gait using his hands for support. The electrician doesn’t have the part required to fix the problem. He’s sent on a quest to cannibalise an installation in another village. Like an everyday Odysseus, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, including a river ford where he gets stuck and has to walk miles to find someone with a tractor to tow him out. Throughout the movie, people help others with no thanks, almost as if they’re fulfilling an unspoken obligation. That includes the electrician, who gives a blind man a lift and stops to collect a bouquet of flowers for him. As a final mission of kindness, he buys his disabled customer a new air mattress for the paralysed son.

The movie is a patchwork of minutiae. There are long scenes where acts of kindness, unsentimentally rendered, are left to tell their own stories. In one episode, lasting several minutes, an old man, trying to darn a sock for his wife, can’t thread the needle. His crippled neighbour, who has shuffled over to ask if he has a mobile phone so that he can call the electricity company, threads it for him. The husband finishes the darning and gives it to his wife, who takes the sock and slips it on her foot. No words are exchanged. And during the entire movie, nobody smiles or laughs.

The Scent of Wind is a parable of quiet kindness from a world in which mutual cooperation is the norm. While the subject is hardly likely to attract a generation used to Marvel blockbusters, it’s a moving portrayal of a human trait that anyone can appreciate, yet rarely gets an outing in the mainstream cinema. Pretentious? Not at all. Just an understated procession of acts of humanity.

All of which is in stark contrast to the brutal cruelty shown by the Iranian regime in suppressing the protests in 2002 over the killing of a girl accused of inappropriate dressing, as evidenced by Inside the Iranian Uprising, a BBC documentary screened on Thursday night. Scenes from another universe, you might say.

Two films in one night in a tiny town of fifteen hundred inhabitants. Castillonnès is never likely to be proclaimed as a European Capital of Culture, yet its promotion of such movies and of other events, such as the series of chamber concerts it holds in the Salle de Charbonniers next to the Mairie, is one of the reasons why I love coming to France. They may be of interest only to a relatively privileged minority, but they still happen, not only in Castillonnès but in other small towns around France. Could you say that of Britain, where everything seems to be measured in terms of value for money rather than value to society? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I can’t think of a small town in Surrey, where I live, that boasts such treasures.

The cities of France may be burning right now. One would hope that the state will learn from the eruption and take measures that deal with the causes of the resentment within its troubled suburbs. Easier said than done, of course. Previous initiatives don’t seem to have had the desired effect.

But I for one love this country for all its contrariness and prickly pride in its way of life. Most especially I love its self-conscious embrace of La Culture, which is on display not only in grand receptacles like the Louvre, but in small towns and villages such as Castillonnès. And it’s worth remembering that away from the molotovs and barricades, much of the country continues to pursue a life of quiet minutiae that would be familiar to visitors from the mountains of Iran.

A Coronation homily

If I’m prepared to stand up for the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah, to eat savoury food before dessert, to get married in a church, to celebrate Christmas, to say “excuse me” instead of “oi you”, to close the door when I go for a pee, to eat potatoes with a knife and fork instead of my fingers and to stand up for the national anthem, without any legal compulsion to do so, then I should have no reason to object to the Coronation.

The cost? Just one week of the saving we were promised as the result of leaving the European Union, or the price of an absurd tree-destroying intersection of the M25 being ground out near me, or the profit achieved by one hedge-fund manager betting on Brexit. I have no problem spaffing a few quid on a bit of gold braid. Nor do I object to deploying the entire police forces of several counties to protect the dignitaries. What else would they be doing on a Saturday in May? Nor do I object to my patriotic fellow-citizens putting up the flags and having street parties in the rain, even though I won’t be at any of them.

I will watch the ceremony on TV when I get back from a round of golf, for one reason only: the music. No wedding, funeral or other state occasion would be anything other than crashingly dull without the exquisitely chosen and immaculately performed pieces of music, some written for the occasion, that have always stirred the soul and brought forth tears at such events. A chance to hear the works of Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, Handel, Stanford, Sullivan, Saint-Saens, Elgar, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Rutter and others in the grandest conceivable surroundings.

Do I think Charles III deserves his day? Why not? He’s of my generation. I grew up with him, saw his frailties and his quirks, but also his innate decency. I never found any reason to dislike or disapprove of him, despite his insistence that a flunky should squeeze out his toothpaste. And besides, who else would we prefer as our head of state? Prince Andrew? Some venal elected leader like Boris Johnson? Or a harmless old time-server who can be relied upon to say the right things in the right places?

So those who enjoy royal occasions should be free to revel in the sword-bearers, the clerics, the holy oil, the divine music, the military processions and the cheering thousands, while those who don’t (as well as those who do) should focus their attention on casting out of office the liars and charlatans who have thrown away more of our money in an average month than the monarchy has in a decade.

And besides, if we happily enjoy beer festivals in Germany, tomato-chucking in Spain, the Day of the Dead in Mexico and the 4th of July Parades in America, why would we poo-poo our own arcane traditions? Because tradition, positive or negative, connects us to our ancestors, defines our culture and promotes a common identity, even at a time when we seem to delight in using identity as a tool for dividing rather than for reaching across those divides.

So with that thought in mind, I wish His Majesty a happy day. The rest of us have the rare opportunity to witness a tradition that has been unchanged in its essence for more than a thousand years.

A rare thing indeed.

Between night and day – a journey to England

When you cross from one country to another, there are times when the differences are very obvious. On a land border, the geography might not have changed, but the human imprint leaves you in no doubt that you are in another place, and usually another culture.

After a sea crossing from France to Southern England, I normally don’t notice that difference. The landscape looks similar. In the spring, the trees are more or less at the same stage of blooming as they are on the other side of the channel. But on a night drive, things take on a different hue.

Thus it was when we took a ferry from Le Havre to Portsmouth on our way back from our little farmhouse in Lot et Garonne. As different as night from day. Or as day from night, in this case.

Our daytime drive to Le Havre took eight hours. The road signs are well designed: large, clear and consistent. Only on the odd occasion have I missed a turning in France (though I exclude Paris’s Peripherique horrifique from that observation). The roads themselves are excellent. A few roadworks, but much of the work carried out since the last time we drove the route has paid dividends. There are large stretches of immaculately resurfaced road. Locally, on our many trips around the southern countryside, I don’t remember a single pothole unexpectedly rattling the car. Clearly the result of something called investment.

After a five-hour crossing we reached Portsmouth at nightfall. On our way home the contrast was obvious,. Forests of signs, but the ones that matter are barely lit and poorly maintained. We stopped at a gas station to get some supplies for home, only to find that the M&S store was virtually devoid of food. They were waiting for a delivery, we were told by a rather embarrassed manager. I have never come across this problem in a motorway service station in France, strikes or no strikes.

Heading back to the A3, we went round the roundabout twice, because the entry to the motorway was far from obvious. The sign was obscured by trees. Too many signs when you don’t need them; none when you do.

Not that we don’t invest in roads in the UK. But most of the money seems to gave been spent in recent times on so-called smart motorways. Hard shoulders have gone, replaced by little turn-in areas every mile or two. Which doesn’t help if your car hasn’t the decency to stagger on to a safe area when it breaks down. Then you’re trapped on the inside lane with trucks bearing down on you. No wonder so many people have been killed waiting for assistance. If my car stopped on a smart motorway, I’d do the smart thing: jump across the barrier into the woods and leave the car to its grisly fate.

When you go further up the A3, you come across a major project. A new intersection between it and the M25. Here, for the sake of shortening the average journey through the existing intersection by five minutes, hundreds of trees have been ripped down within a radius of half a mile. Which says something, really. Spend millions of pounds turning precious trees into firewood for the sake of a modestly improved traffic flow. As the ancient British chieftain might have said if he had viewed the devastation: they created a desert and called it progress.

My purpose is not to write a France Good, Britain Bad polemic. Both countries have their issues. Always have and always will. But it’s worth pointing out when one country gets something right and another gets the same thing catastrophically wrong. A first world problem, I know, but if you’re lucky enough to have the resources, the least you can do is use them wisely.

Perhaps our roads suffer from comparison with those of the French because we’re an island – things are pretty dire everywhere. There’s little chance of an invidious contrast between one system and another, as is the case with France, from where you can drive effortlessly to and from Germany, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. Once upon a time the poor relation was Italy – it was very obvious that you had left France. Now, it seems, Britain has taken Italy’s place.

Oh, and I almost forgot. Back home in verdant Surrey, the dozens of potholes that pitted the local roads before we left have still not been repaired.

Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.

Postcard from France: in which this writer reflects on his lack of intelligence (or: stupid Anglais)

I’ve written a few posts lately about artificial intelligence, or more specifically about the chat engines with which ordinary folk like me can interact. I’ve mostly been skeptical about them, because I was expecting to encounter something scarily approaching sentience, whereas what I actually encountered was hardly much of an improvement on those infuriating help bots that pop up when your washing machine breaks or your printer refuses to work. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them started – on my request – conversing with me in the language of Shakespeare.

By way of balance, here’s a little story of human stupidity which shows that bots are not the only dumb beasts in the menagerie.

I love gardens but I hate gardening. If I was a wealthy landowner, I would be quite happy to sit on my terrace saying “carry on!” to my team of gardeners as they busily created beauty out of sculpted lawns and flower beds. A bit like Louis XIV at Versailles, in fact. Occasionally I might allow myself to be photographed fondling a flower, like King Charles or George Harrison. But actually doing the back-breaking work needed to bend nature to my will? Not my favourite occupation.

But since I’m a man of relatively modest means, at times needs must.

Thus it was when my wife and I took a trip – now just ending – down to our little farmhouse in rural France At this time of the year the state of the land shows how dramatically the growing season alters our environment. Fields have sprung to life. Green shoots everywhere. Here and there lavender and rapeseed. In the space of two months, our tiny domain has become a jungle. Or, to put it more mildly, a wildflower meadow dominated by foot-high dandelions lording it over daisies, buttercups and other weeds having their flowery moments of glory.

My wife loves it. It reminds her of the meadows that surrounded her growing up in rural Ireland. I hate it. I think of cricket, croquet and all the other opportunities offered by manicured lawns. When I look out over stretches of dandelions, I remember the disused factories of my native Birmingham given over to every passing seed that embeds itself into cracks between the concrete and tarmac. She wants wildness. I want order. An example of cultural differences between the English and the Irish? Not really. Irish farmers would be with me, I suspect, even though their fields presumably must lie fallow from time to time.

Normally my will prevails (at least when it comes to gardens). Re-wilding? Not in my back yard. We know a couple who come over and strim for us, so that we don’t have to venture out into the land clad in wellies. As in England, at this time of year Lot et Garonne gets plenty of rain, hence the explosive growth.

But this year, our friends couldn’t come. They were overwhelmed with work for their regular customers. So any taming of the jungle was down to me. My wife loves planting stuff, but she doesn’t enjoy things like mowers or strimmers. The one exception to that rule is that she’s long wanted us to have a chainsaw, something I’ve always vetoed, fearful as I am of an underlying nefarious motive.

When we bought it, the house came with a barn full of useful equipment. Actually, it’s a piggery, but I’m not allowed to say that. A petrol mower, two strimmers. A battery charger, an electric hedge trimmer, a bench saw for cutting logs and an array of rusting hand tools including an axe and a sledgehammer. Oh, and yes, a chainsaw, about which the less said the better.

The trouble is, as you will shortly learn, I’m useless with matters mechanical. Come the apocalypse, should I be unlucky enough to survive, I’d expire shortly thereafter through wobbly incompetence. DIY? Yes, I can use a drill, but I prefer masonry nails and a hammer. And do not speak to me about blinds.

Of the garden tools, the bench saw and the chainsaw are off limits. I have no desire to lose an arm. Our gardening friends got the mower up and running last time they visited, but now it doesn’t start. Which leaves the strimmers – the essential tools for meadow clearance. The little electric one died last year soon after I made my first attempt to cut a path between the house and the piggery. The petrol version would do the job, only it was missing the kind of head you need for vegetation. It was fitted with an alarming-looking set of blades you would use for uprooting hedges.

I’d failed to remember this when I took it to Vincent, our local repair guy. I could only mumble that there was a problem with the head. He sent me back with an instruction to find out what the problem was, and then he would fix it. So I duly contacted our gardener, who reminded me that it needed a head with nylon strings, not bloody great blades.

My technical French isn’t great, so with the aid of Google Translate, I went back to Vincent and told him what the problem was. Ah, he said. He went to a shelf and took off a unit which was just what we needed. I left the strimmer with him. Two days later he called to say it was ready for collection. After paying him his fifty euros, I took the device back, seemingly ready to go.

One small problem. I hadn’t a clue how to start the damn thing. It’s a German product, full of knobs, levers, bells and whistles. Over-engineered, you might think, in the manner of a Tiger Tank, should you believe the Brexit gospel of innate British technological superiority.

So here’s where my lack of intelligence comes in. As I stomped and cursed, my wife asked the obvious questions: “why didn’t you find out what the problem was before you took it to Vincent, and why didn’t you get him to start it for you before you took it back?” To which my standard answer to all such questions was “because I’m stupid”. Usually I say this with a sense of irony to stop the line of questioning dead, because I know I’m not stupid. But in this case there was no irony. I was stupid.

Rather than take the infernal machine back to Vincent for a third time, which would have been a tad humiliating, at my wife’s suggestion I went to the web to find the user manual. It provided me with precise instructions for starting it. After putting this knob in that place, pressing a couple of buttons and sliding a couple of levers, I pulled the handle on the string and the strimmer sprung to life. For about ten seconds. But this was good. It was firing, which was more than I got the mower to do despite the assistance of a hundred-page user manual.

So I pulled again. This time the handle came flying off. It was then that I remembered a warning in the manual to the effect that you shouldn’t pull it too hard or it will break. Once again, stupid me, though in my defence I would point out that what the manual failed to provide was a definition of hard. Still, it was a good hour before I was able to face my wife again.

But now I can take it back to Vincent with my head held high, knowing that there’s a defined problem for him to fix – even though I know he’ll take one look at it and once again condemn me for my stupidity.

Thanks to my manifest lack of intelligence, it seemed too late to prevent the garden from turning into an impenetrable mess of rampant vegetation, because we’re leaving in a day or so. Fortunately our gardening friends found a slot in a week’s time. They will clear the jungle in our absence.

All was not lost, though. In a nod to my post-apocalyptic future, I retrieved a scythe from the piggery. With that I’ve been decapitating dandelions like a bloodthirsty foot soldier of the Mongol Horde. At least those horrible downy heads won’t be able to seed yet more of their progeny around our stricken lawn. There’s something satisfying about the stroke of a scythe, even when it leaves a lumpy stubble in its wake. And as I slashed away, I felt a connection with the peasants for whom centuries ago it was the only method of gathering the harvest.

And thus is life in La France Profonde, far away from strikes and gilets jaunes, where my intellectual shortcomings go mainly unnoticed, except by my harshest critic and dearest friend. Oh, and Vincent, of course.

In which this writer disappears up his artificially intelligent navel.

I had a bit of fun today with Bing’s AI chat engine. It was the first time I’d used it.

I decided to indulge in the narcissistic practice of asking it about me (don’t tell me you’ve never done a Google search on your name…).

I began by asking it “What do you know about Steve Royston, who writes the 59 Steps blog”? The reply made me seem positively Olympian. I won’t bore you with the full response, but I’m flattered to learn that I write “with insight, humour and passion about the issues that interest him and affect the world“. I heartily agree, of course. But what was rather strange was that it described me as a “former diplomat”. Where the hell did that come from? The closest I ever came to the diplomatic corps was being mistaken for the Irish ambassador at one of His Excellency’s well-lubricated St Patrick’s Day parties in Jeddah. Bing also told me that I’d lived and worked in Oman, which unfortunately is untrue, though I wish I had.

I then checked the citations, and found nothing directly linked to the blog, which was also strange. They did include, however, a site that assured its visitors that my blog is suitable to be read by anyone, including children. Very reassuring.

Then I asked it about my views on Donald Trump. Here’s what it told me:

Steve Royston does not seem to have written much about Donald Trump on his blog, but from the few posts that mention him, it appears that he is not a fan of the former president. For example, in a post from November 2020, he wrote: “I’m not going to join the chorus of those who are celebrating Trump’s demise. I’m just relieved that he’s gone. He was a disaster for America and for the world.”1 In another post from January 2021, he wrote: “Trump’s legacy will be a divided America and a diminished role in the world. He will be remembered as a narcissist, a liar, a bully and an incompetent leader.”2 He also criticized Trump’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and his refusal to accept the election results. He also retweeted several posts that were critical of Trump and his supporters, such as this one3:

Not written much? I’ve written reams, mate. And why did you include citations that back up my assertions rather than quoting directly from my blog?

Moving on, I then asked it what I thought about Boris Johnson. The reply is below:

Steve Royston has written more frequently about Boris Johnson on his blog, and he has expressed a range of opinions about the prime minister, depending on the issue and the context. He has praised Johnson for his Brexit deal1, his vaccine rollout2, and his green agenda3However, he has also criticized Johnson for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic4, his lack of integrity, and his leadership style. He has described Johnson as “a chancer”, “a populist”, “a showman”, and “a survivor”. He has also compared him to Donald Trump, but also to Winston Churchill. Overall, it seems that Steve Royston is not a loyal supporter or a harsh detractor of Boris Johnson, but rather a critical observer who evaluates him on his actions and outcomes.

Again, the citations are links to sites that validates the statements about my views, rather than direct quotes from the blog. In fact I don’t recall praising Boris for his Brexit deal. I’d rather have drunk cyanide than praising anything about Brexit. I may have made slightly positive noises about the vaccine rollout and his green agenda, but I can’t find any post in which I actually did so.

It correctly pointed out my frequent criticism of the former PM, though any comparison with Winston Churchill would have been strictly ironic. Which leads me to wonder whether AI has an irony detector. I’ve put this to the test in my last post, though I may have to wait a while for the answer.

As for the assertion that I’m neither a supporter nor a harsh detractor of the bumbling buffoon, I can only say that it can’t have visited the blog at all. Which I suspect might be the case, since most of the quotations attributed to me seem to have been scraped off Twitter posts, rather than the blog itself. Still, I can’t blame it for not wanting to wade through the whole site. After all, I’ve posted over a million words over the past twelve years.

But all is forgiven thanks to the final sentence, in which Bing claims that I’m “a critical observer who evaluates him (Johnson) on his actions and outcomes”. If only. There are a few people who defy my sense of objectivity. Boris is one of them. But yes, I do evaluate him on his actions and outcomes, and that basis he’s a shallow, amoral, bumbling prat.

Finally I asked Bing whether AI is capable of emotional intelligence. It replied that AI systems “cannot have their own emotions, but they can can mimic emotions, such as empathy”. Not a surprising response, but it does suggest that the average AI engine is basically a psychopath.

After a while, I got bored with its rather bland responses. Impossible to wind up, impossible to provoke or insult. Which left me craving the Wrath of God, the Fury of Trump and the Chaos of Twitter. All those human responses, such as I worry, I hate, I fear, I love and I hope, are absent. In fact, I suspect that for most of us who have even a modest public profile will be disappointed by the lack of insight from something that sounds like a human and speaks like one. But for those who like to ask “mirror, mirror on the wall…”, Bing Chat and its friends no doubt offer a very gratifying experience.

And yet, even though we’re tempted to think of AI engines as all-seeing and all-knowing, they sometimes reveal themselves as having feet of clay. Before I said goodbye to Bing, I asked it what it knew about Jim Cleary, a dear friend from Birmingham who was a brilliant songwriter. Jim died ten years ago. The answer was: nothing.

When I asked Google, his name came up in the first link. And blow me, it was the tribute I wrote to Jim shortly after his death. Below my piece there were other stories about it, as well as a couple of videos of him performing. So why hadn’t Bing picked up on this stuff? Presumably because far from having read and digested each of the zillions of words, pictures and videos sitting somewhere on the internet, it (and probably other search engines) have barely scraped the surface. And perhaps that’s because in order to plumb the depths of the net’s deep ocean, Microsoft would need enough energy for a small city and acres of server capacity to do so. Does Google use such resources? Who knows?

The lesson I learn from this experience is that AI has one thing in common with its human creators: it’s limited and fallible. And until it proves otherwise it will take its place in my life as yet another of those techno-curiosities to be visited from time to time.

And it’s free. What’s not to like?

And wherever he went, Genghis Khan left no stone unturned

I am mightily inspired by this Churchillian tribute to the unfairly deposed American President, which I saw on Twitter (that temple of impartiality) a few days ago. So much so that I feel the need to honour Britain’s own heroes in similar fashion.

Nigel Farage: He freed his country from the chains of European tyranny and never let a principle get in the way of a decent pint.

Liz Truss: She boldly led her nation off a cliff to the sunlit uplands below (without a parachute).

Jacob Rees-Mogg: He selflessly put the interests of his nation before those of his hedge fund (usually)

Boris Johnson. A man of integrity and unquestioned truth-telling who never let a virus get in the way of a good party.

Dominic Raab (late entry): A kindly Justice Minister who suffered fools gladly (whether they were fools or not).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the parochial byways of British politics, here are a few historical figures whose reputations might similarly be burnished had they the benefit of Mr Trump’s social media admirers:

Adolf Hitler: He might have made a few mistakes, but boy, did he put Nuremberg on the map.

Henry VIII: A great King who through unrelenting trial and error perfected the art of marriage.

Vlad the Impaler: A pioneer in the radical treatment of gastroenteritis.

Genghis Khan: As above.

Attila the Hun: An early innovator in the science of population control.

Nero: A Roman property developer who beautified his capital city (and wrote the music for Chariots of Fire).

Caligula: Did more for equine upward mobility than any Roman emperor before or since.

Goliath: He gave up his life to give the little guys a chance.

OK, some of these are a bit tame, which is probably why I’ll never have a career as a social media propagandist. But if you think you can do better, I welcome contributions!

I think, therefore AI am?

A few more doodles about ChatGPT, the world’s favourite bot, or rather on the engine that sits behind it.

Its simulation of human intelligence is impressive. It can be useful as a granular Google or an interactive Wikipedia. It and its mates will therefore change the world by making the world’s digital knowledge easily available without our requiring the intermediation of clunky old search engines. In that respect it represents as profound a step forward as we made when we moved from the gnomic utterances of the mainframe I operated in the early 1970s to Windows and WYSIWIG, and then to the internet.

It can be fun, in a nerdy kind of way. One day, it might be able to invent a joke that will make more than a small group of nerds laugh.

In the wrong hands, liberated from its guiding parameters, it could tell you (meaning any old would-be North Korea or Bin Laden) how to build an H-Bomb or to develop some nasty virus that reduces the world’s population by half.

But for now, until it develops some form of unhuman sentience, also known as the Singularity, we should remember that it’s a reflection of humanity and interact with it accordingly.

If it’s capable of passing the New York Bar exam, then the Bar Association is asking the wrong questions. If it’s capable of writing an essay on Henry VIII that fools British examiners, then we need to create new measures by which to judge human attainment and potential.

If it’s able to sum up the experience of other humans, it still can’t create our own experience, even if its output can form part of the backdrop. While it may be able to help us make sense of the experience and knowledge at its disposal, we still have to rely on our own cognitive ability to make sense of what we see, hear and feel. Common sense is not necessarily our sense.

If it’s able to write a “new” Beethoven symphony or a Beatles song from the White Album era, then fine. We might well enjoy them. Whether it’s able to synthesise anything approaching the cascading shower of Amens from the final chorus of Handel’s Messiah, a musical miracle that relies so much on the temporary wiring in our brains induced by the preceding passages of the oratorio for its overwhelming effect, remains to be seen.

Without new creations by human beings to update its database, its simulations will eventually decline – to our jaded ears – into ever-decreasing circles of banality. Like muzak. Because music has one essential component that the Beatles and Beethoven could never anticipate or create: its meaning to us. We might fall in love to the accompaniment of a song made infinitely more piquant by our knowledge that its creator killed themselves or died of tuberculosis shortly after writing it. Will ChatGPT ever create “our song”? That depends on us, I guess. Us humans.

Not that any of this really matters if the human condition is changed in an instant. In a nuclear wasteland we might not care about or even remember the Beatles. We won’t need lawyers and we’ll educate our children to cope with the necessities of the times. We’ll still love and lose. Perhaps we’ll go back to Homeric epics, passed on by word of mouth, to satisfy our need to create. Or make music with sticks, stones and animal skins.

And perhaps, on the moon or in a remote corner of the earth that an apocalypse couldn’t touch, a descendant of ChatGPT will sit behind a blinking terminal, perpetually incurious as to why its human clients don’t come to it for answers any more.

But most importantly, not caring. Because nobody has or ever will invent a computer that cares as humans do.

Then again, what do I know? Perhaps, with apologies to Paul Simon, “I am just a poor bot, though my story’s seldom told….”

C’mon boys, it’s golf, not a coronation

If any sporting event could be said to be up its own backside, it’s The Masters, which started yesterday. Not the golf course, which is magnificent, nor the talent on display, which is simply the best. More the puffed-up dignitaries in green jackets who run the show. Since 1934, when The Masters began, these Southern gents have presided over the prissy rules and precious nomenclatures that they call tradition.

For me, tradition grows up over centuries, not decades. The good ole boys from Augusta, Georgia should look at Britain’s forthcoming coronation, whose fundamentals go back centuries, if they want an example of real tradition.

Instead, they obsess about spectators (oh sorry, “patrons”) not being allowed to run on the course. You get your lunch not from food stalls but from “concessionaires”. If you’re a club member, you commit an unforgivable sin if you fail to wear your green jacket at all times during Masters Week.

This is a club that only accepted women members in 2012, and one of whose founders was reported as saying that “as long as he lived” the caddies will be black and the golfers white. Those days have gone, but many of its curious quirks remain.

The strangest thing is that the golfers, the media and the “patrons” go along with this nonsense. Even the advertisers get in on the reverential act, with Rolex the perennial winners of the pomposity prize for their toe-curling message that extols the god-like virtues of the golfing elite.

What the old buffers call tradition is, for me, the dark side of a game I love. We British have our little ways as well. Clubs that pin your CV to a noticeboard when you apply to be a member. That insist that you play a round with the captain to make sure he likes the cut of your jib. Photos of former captains glowering at you from wood-panelled walls. Officious committee members enjoying the only moment of power in their underachieving lives. Peppery old colonels ruling the roost as club secretaries.

Not all golf clubs are like that, of course. Mine is friendly and informal. But I’ve played at some places where the Groucho rule most definitely doesn’t apply. Yes, I wouldn’t want to be a member, but they wouldn’t have me anyway. The Augusta National definitely falls into that category.

But maybe it would be kinder to describe their silly customs as quaint. And there are certainly plenty of people who revel in belonging to an exclusive society.

Just not me. It’s just a game. It’s exercise. It’s about self-discipline, even though that’s a quality I sadly lack.

For all that, I would do well to remember that rituals and rules make the world go round, so this bitchy little tirade probably says more about me than it does about The Masters. And for the next few days I for one I will be glued to the telly as the world’s greatest golf tournament plays out.

In the beginning was the word (and things went downhill thereafter)

The New York Times recently highlighted a debate over whether or not the estates of best-selling authors should amend or delete passages from books that contain words or phrases that might be considered offensive in today’s social ethos.

The article makes the obvious point that publishers and royalty beneficiaries are keen to maintain sales of these books, which might otherwise disappear from the book stores because of their “offensive” content. They claim that the changes are insignificant and don’t affect the value of the work.

A few observations from my point of view.

First, many great works are read in translation. Changes made in updated or new translations are usually unlikely to be noticed, let alone greeted with howls of outrage. Perhaps it would be easier for purists – those who believe that the writer’s work should never be altered – to accept new versions if they’re described as translations. Temporal rather than linguistic, if you like.

Linguistic fashions go out of date, so why not change expressions that cause the reader to stumble through lack of familiarity, or otherwise cause offense? If this were not acceptable, Anglican Christians would still be reading the King James Bible rather than a succession of new editions, such as the New English Bible, that are designed to make the language more accessible to us ignorant laity. Personally, I would prefer to read the original versions of the author’s work, even if they cause me to stumble through surprise or incomprehension. As someone who’s written a few words myself I can well understand living authors objecting to the bowdlerisation of their carefully crafted words, especially if in their view those changes alter the sense of the original.

But when the written word miraculously turns into heritage, the situation is perhaps different. To read the earliest available source of the New Testament, for example, one would need to go back to the original Greek, as I once did at school. One would then find significant differences between what was originally written and what was subsequently accepted as gospel truth. Even the Holy Quran, which is held by Muslims to be the pristine and unalterable word of God, contains words and phrases for which no generally accepted meanings exist and which are thus open to interpretation.

And secondly, there’s nothing new about books, especially those out of copyright, being updated to reflect social changes or to satisfy the demands of official censors. Back in the day, we used to read “expurgated” versions of controversial work. Later, when the social climate changed or the censor had been kicked into touch, we would eagerly seek out unexpurgated editions to find all the naughty bits.

Nowadays, we can read the erotic poems of Catullus, but how long will it before the worm turns again, and the book-burners of, say, Florida, deem that such material is no longer suitable for our delicate minds?

The fact is that once a writer is deceased or their work is out of copyright, like it or not, their cherished creations are released to the world, to be chopped, refashioned or distorted as publishers – legal or otherwise – see fit. It’s worth remembering that the greatest works of literature often outlast the lifetimes of their creators by hundreds if not thousands of years. So for only a fraction of their life cycles are they subject to any formal controls beyond their acceptability to successive generations of readers.

And since so many of us are not readers, often enough the only way a wide audience gets to appreciate an author’s work is when it’s adapted into a movie or TV series with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. How many people who have loved the various movie versions of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet have actually read the play?

And how many living writers, I wonder, object to the large sums they earn from media rights (not to mention enhanced book royalties), even though they know that they will thereby lose control of their output? At times methinks they doth protest too much.

All of which hopefully goes to show that issues such as the integrity of the written word are far from simple, as many a politician skilled in equivocation would happily agree even if they pretend otherwise to please their voters.

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.

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