Torysaurus Rex

We live, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. On the endless chaos of Britain proving itself incapable of finding an acceptable posture for its place in Europe, any coherence in its posture in the world has gone begging.  Whereas, a century ago, the known world sat up and took notice of what Britain did, this latest farrago may prove to be the swansong of Britain as a leading nation.

Adjustment to decline is never easy and a hundred years of decline is bound to leave scars on the national psyche. But some parts of British society do better than others. Academia and culture have made impressive transitions; youth had an outward outlook that would astonish their great-grandfathers; business—especially financial services—have gone global.

Other sections of British society have struggled to move from Rule Britannia to today’s modest reality. Prime among these are Westminster and the politicians inhabiting it, who beat patriotic chests to get themselves elected. This phenomenon is concentrated among the Tories and nowhere more so than the modern incarnation of the High Tory.

They once confined themselves to glaring out over their Lincolnshire estate, sporting ostrich feathers on their vice-regal helmets or murmuring over letters in The Times as they sip whisky-and-soda in the clubs of St James. Sporting the right school tie allowed one to run the ‘Empah’ with a nod and a wink to the right people. But, in the intervening century, tectonic plates in society have shifted. Brash upstarts who’ve never seen the inside of a public school now deal squillions in The City, Parliament is overrun with tradesmen and suffragettes and one can’t find domestics without falling foul of immigration laws. Bur The City’s ‘Big Bang” of thirty years ago was just a pop-gun, compared with the debilitation following the fall of MacMillan’s Cabinet of Etonian relatives though that odious Profumo affair.

High Tories prefer a traditional, hierarchical society over utopian equality and holding the traditional gentry as a higher cultural benchmark than the bourgeoisie and those who attain their position through commerce or labour.” —Andrew Heywood

But, though plebian upstarts like Heath and Thatcher usurped their traditional dominance, the High Tories lived on in the shape of the ‘backwoodsmen’. Typically representing a true-blue seat on the shires. They fought entry into Europe, bayed ‘betrayal’ any time disarmament was mooted and were loyal supporters of Britain “punching above its weight” in world affairs. They were also a thon in the side of every UK Prime Minister who sought closer relations within the EU, even as former colonies sought their economic futures everywhere but the mother country.

Their demise has often been declared since the post-Profumo decimation of their influence—as when Thatcher led the Tory party into harsh commercialism and Cameron wrapped the party in the more empathetic ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. But they lived on, encouraging Thatcher’s hand-bagging of Brussels and hounding Major into body-swerving the Euro. But their finest hour came when they badgered Cameron into going to the EU to demand concessions and then forcing a referendum on membership when he failed. The campaign was so emotional nobody bothered to define what ‘ending membership’ actually meant.

The subsequently victorious Leave campaign was led by members like Boris Johnson and Jacob Reese-Mogg, supported by would-be members like Liam Fox and Michael Gove. The latter fell away when it looked like the Brexit favoured by High Tories was an uncompromising hard one that would cost their Cabinet jobs: no customs union; no free market; no free movement; no backstop to secure an open border in Ireland.

So, the remaining true High Tories have circled their wagons in the shape of the (facetiously named?) European Research Group (ERG), chaired by Rees-Mogg. Not wanting to be a member of the European Union is a credible position to take. Neither Switzerland nor Norway are members. But they wisely recognise they must accommodate the economic heavyweight on their doorstep and have strong ties that allow trade to flow between them. The ERG will have no truck with such lily-livered compromise. They want Britain to stand tall in the world as it once did, free of all fetters and striking deals wherever it suits.

Were this Edwardian Britain, bestriding the world as an economic colossus (or were it USA or China, today’s equivalents) this would be plucky, but plausible. But the ERG appear oblivious of today’s reality—that, instead of dominating world trade, Britain accounts for only a few percent of it. Not just the USA and China but rising giants like India’s 1bn, or Brazil’s 289m, or Indonesia’s 260m people now dwarf Britain. They can out-produce and out-consume medium-scale Britain and make the world of trade a very chilly place for a country no longer famous for making much of anything.

High Tories do not accept this. While they are entitled to their opinion, the fact that they dominate the ERG and that, in turn, controls one third of all Conservative MPs is a recipe for national disaster. While Thereesa May has made a pig’s ear of bringing Britain together on a coherent Brexit position and has not been helped by an effectively leaderless Labour Party, the fact that no other formulation of a deal is acceptable to the EU at this late stage and the ERG show no sign of accepting a backstop in any permanent form, means they are clamping the steering wheel of the British jalopy and steering it towards the No Deal cliff edge looming on March 29th.

Which is a shame. Because, on top of Honda pulling out, Airbus and Toyota withholding investment and chunks of The City decamping to Frankfurt, Paris and Dublin, a whole flock of economic chickens will come home to roost, even after the lorry jams at Dover are cleared. People will get angry. They will lwant scapegoats and need not look far to find them. It will not be a time for dinosaurs to be caught wearing a Old Etonian tie.

 

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Theatre of the Absurd

East  Lothian Council Annual Budget Meeting, Town House, Haddington, Tuesday February 12th, 2019

It’s a bit like a cross between an Oberammergau pageant and an accountants’ convention, but one that costs punters (in our local case) one quarter billion of out hard-earned cash. I refer to the annual ritual farce of the council budget meeting. In Scotland, it happens in 32 venues with more or less the same Punch & Judy formula. Vital as the meeting is in fulfilling democratic requirements, it is timed while everyone is busy working and structued to least appeal to (and therefore involvement of) the public. For audience engagement, it is easily beaten by the most amateur of Am Drams.

To be fair, the context is already obfuscated. An extensive piece of Newspeak, produced by the Scottish Government called “Scottish Budget 2019-2020: Equality and Fairer Scotland” sets this tome. A number of highly-paid Sir Humphrey-plus-minions clearly spent much time crafting this. But if someone gleans any hard data from its earnest verbiage, please let the rest of us know. It is ambitious (but woolly) posturing and no recipe for joined-up thinking with councils.

Before it gets to a council budget debate, first the UK budget must be set, which now happens in Autumn. This then triggers an unholy scramble in the Scottish Government to then decide its own allocations from the pot given.  This gives councils (who get 75% of their money this way) little time to plan and approve a budget and set Council Tax (the other 25% of council income) in time for implementation om April 1st. It’s like geriatrics passing the ball down an attacking rugby line in slo-mo.

At the meeting itself, politics rears its ugly head. Even when councils are run by the same party as the Scottish Government, a pungent mix of political ambition and parochialism gets in the way. Councils resent going cap-in-hand for 3 in every 4 pounds spent. Government guards its central control jealously, so that it can enforce policies and claim achievements. There was once talk of “Parity of Esteem”, but that turned out to be spin. Had the Greens bot held the minority SNP government’s feet to the fire, councils would have seen a decrease this year. However, additional ‘burdens’ (i.e. required services) gave councils no option where to spend what extra they did get.

In Scotland’s fastest-growing council, East Lothian, the basic grant (no strings attached) actually fell 0.1%. A £5,476,000 rise in “Specific Grants” means the council has no choice where to spend them. By raising council tax 4.78%, an extra £3,625m 000 gives ELC a war chest of £248,116,000.

That sounds a lot. Until you consider almost half (£102,507,000) goes on schools, an obligatory service growing fast as families move into the county. Half of what’s left (£67,121,000) goes  on Social Work—again obligatory—as retiree numbers swell. Twenty years ago, ELC Social Work spent just a fifth that. This leaves a quarter of the war chest to squabble over for the myriad other services. Granted, you can do a lot with over £70m. But such are the demands that pips squeak as soon as you try to stretch this to cover everything else.

The resulting debate was not quite two bald men arguing over a comb, but it came close. Instead of speeches of visionary ambition, rival parties spent their time disparaging each other. Tories cosied up to Labour and got some scraps in exchange for support.  Both whaled on the SNP, as if local members were responsible for their Holyrood colleagues. SNP whaled on Tories, as if local members were responsible for their Westminster colleagues and tried to out-left Labour in concern for the vulnerable.  Nobody commented on the Lab-Con alliance, which is quite common across Scotland these days.

Meanwhile, bizarre and desperate measures to stretch the money lurk in the budget detail. Despite growth swamping the county and developers circling like sharks, Planning had its budget cut by 13% (£231,000). A spurious “Transform Ways of Working” item is to magic £600,000 in savings from staff. An optimistic “Change in number of chargeable properties (i.e. more homes to tax) finds an extra £3,625,000. Scary is a net increase in debt of over £130,000,000. Most desperate of all, a cool £3,000,000 is being drained from reserves. This is to be paid back next year. Ah hae ma doors.

And yet (to keep the Tories onside) the Roads budget had an unheard-of 50% boost to £7,500,000 and Corporate Policy (not what you’d call a “front-line service”) jumped by 10%. Because the county is desperately short of affordable housing, most welcome was a significant effort to build council housing by investing rental income in new builds, raising rents steadily by 5% and pushing housing debt towards its legal maximum of 40%.

Despite this being THE public forum to defiine  services across the county, virtually no-one outside council members and staff attended the 2-hour session. Can’t say I blame them. As theatre, it lacked substance, let alone appeal. The script was rubbish; the actors unrehearsed; indignation shown was transparently artificial and tribal politics dominated. It was so blatant  any casual observer could have scripted the debate from previous meetings. simply warming up the leftover abuse.

Altogether unedifying, considering its importance. But, should there be any hard-core anoraks who want to see the full details of all this, the papers are available as PDF downloads here.

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One of Ours

Across Britain these days, there is political friction on every hand. But one thing most people would agree on is a dislike of Donald J. Trump and his performance after two years as US President. People find him variously rude, unpredictable, egotistical, bigoted, un-statesmanlike and abusive. This is particularly true of the Westminster establishment, who are used to touting a ‘special relationship’ with the US. This is ironic. Trump actually represents the logical continuation of the mercantile imperialism that made Britain Great and continues to motivate hard-line English Btexiteers to this day.

trumprreality

Consider if he were time-warped back to various seminal stages of British history. He would take to them like a duck to water. In the Middle Ages, the brazen audacity with which 3m English sought to dominate 14m French under the Angevin Empire comes right out of his shell-company property empire playbook. The chance to break all the rules and plunder a lumbering Spanish empire in the 16th © meant he  would have out-pirated Hawkins and Drake to be Queen Bess’ favourite.

Once real empire-building hot underway, there would have been no holding him. Never one to brook opposition, he would have been sabre-rattling for Camperdown to beat up the Dutch and seize New York and The Cape to open new markets; he would have, to have a world war with the French in 1756 to seize Canadian fur and the riches from French possessions in India; he would be front and centre developing ports like Bristol and Liverpool, kitting out ships with beads for Africa, exchanged for slaves for America, exchanged for tobacco and cotton back to Britain. Nice little earners all that a contemporary Donald would be quick to exploit.

But it would be in Britain’s Victorian heyday when he would really have come into his own. Not content with being simply an exploitative mill owner or railroad baron, he would have made a great Sir Bartle Frere starting the Zulu was o sacrificing Gordon at Khartoum to nab the Sudan. But his shining achievement may have been fomenting Opium Wars that brought down the ancient Chinese Empire and founded money machines that became Jardine-Matheson and HSBC..

After Britain’s Edwardian swansong, Trump would have felt less at home. There was little money to be made in ex-German colonies, declining shipyards and the unholy mess carving up the Middle East that Sykes–Picot made. The selflessness, diplomacy and patience required are simply not on The Donald’s radar. Which goes some way to explain the present mismatch between British expectations and Trump’s actions.

But that should not detract from the recognition that Donald J. Trump represents a very modern disciple of the shrewdly pillaging greed that drove Britain to greatness, right down to the smart suits, creative justifications and bombastic language by means of which lesser mortals wee cowed. We should be less precious: like it o not, he’s one of ours.

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‘OMLET—A Tragedy in Three Acts

by Bard Brawl

ACT I

(a dark clearing, deep in the Bois de Boulogne)

WAROLD HILSON (puffing on a pipe): Let oos join yer cloob and you kin forget all that daft froggie nosh and coom t’ noomber ten fer soom  Theakstons an’ sarnies.

GENERAL DE NEZ-LONGUE: Je m’en fou de ton ‘application’. Va t’en!

WAROLD HILSON (knocking his pipe out on a tree that starts to smoulder): Flippin’ ‘eck! Can you tell me the bus to Huyton…or stand me cab fare so I can break this to the lads?

GENERAL DE NEZ-LONGUE: Franc-ly M’sieur, I don’t give a dime.

ACT II

ADMIRAL HEAD TEETH (erect in the prow of a dinghy with “Moaning Clod” scrawled across the stern in crayon): We shall join them on the beaches; we shall join them in the fiends; we shall join them at the tills. England expects every man to get his booty.

WAROLD HILSON (scrunched uncomfortably in a Dannimac): ‘Ang on!; Ow do we know the lads down the Stoat and Spittoon will wear this?

ADMIRAL HEAD TEETH (turning disdainfully) They’ll be fine once the Costa Packet is stocked with Watney’s and the Germans retreat from the beach towels. This yachtie is not for turning. Now, set sail for Carrefour and our Dunkirk spirits!

 

ACT III

(a WW2-era fort, poking out of  mudflats om the Thames estuary. A portrait of Churchill with Homburg, cigar and Tommy-gun is peeling off the dank, concrete wall, along with a 2022 calendar. A more recent photo of Bill Cash has many pin-holes and three darts sticking out if it.)

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FRRENCH-MANCHOT OBE KGB (in Bermuda shorts and mismatched flip-flops) Prime Minister, I’m afraid the Minister of Energy has not returned from his fishing trip.

MARESA THAY: (staring down at her feet) Yes, I do think pumps really suit me.

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FRRENCH-MANCHOT: As Principal Secretary, I must point out, short of eating what’s left of the Cabinet, there is nothing for dinner, nor has there been since we sold London to the Estonians and the last seven million disgruntled Britons took Irish citizenship. The only egg is on our faces.

MARESA THAY (turning one foot to gain a better look): I really like the kitten heels. I don’t then tower above my subjects.

SIR RODNEY-RODNEY FFRRENCH-MANCHOT: Shall I patch the inflatable so you can row across and pitch your Brexit deal one more time before the candles go out, ma’am?

(Silent pause, then fade slowly to black)

EXUENT

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The Great Bullshit Train Wreck

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” —Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Princeton University

The world has always been a complicated place. But, until this century, few know much about what went on in the next town, let alone another country. The internet, affluence, cheap travel and smart phones have, in theory, changed all that. Trade, travel and media are all global: Apple and Amazon make Standard Oil look a pygmy; people visit New York for the weekend; California wildfires are headlining BBC News before local fire trucks can uncoil their hoses. We are all world citizens now, right?

Wrong.

We actually seem to be living a societal update of Desmond Morris’ seminal book “The Naked Ape” . Because our social habits and standards don’t seem to have kept pace with the torrid pace of globalisation of society in general. We buy Zimbabwean mange-tout and Colombian coffee with no clue about the circumstances in which they wee produced. We vacation in Tunisia or Phuket, gleaning nothing about their culture. Almost none of our high-tech toys and appliances are made in a country we’ve ever visited, let alone in our own.

There is a major question just how fragile and/or sustainable such a global society might be. But a more fundamental question is whether it is really functional in the first place. Society’s increased sophistication, the perceived shrinkage of the once-vast globe, the miraculous power of our devices and the ubiquity of media create a comforting impression of a world at our fingertips. Nobody, whether government, business or media, has any interest in disabusing us of this. But it is delusional.

Whereas even fifty years ago, the vast majority of people knew little, were aware of that, but wee nevertheless content with the relatively simple life to which it led. People knew their place and, because of a tight society surrounding them, were soon reminded of it, should they forget. But, as society became looser, as people moved about, their identity was boiled down into databases and credit scores. Beyond those, you could create who you wanted to be. While this freed many individuals to find their metier, it also created wide latitude for politicians, businesses and opportunists to fabricate a public image that bore little relation to the truth. The 21st century did not invent bullshit—but that’s when it came of age.

With control of modern media and people’s belief “if it’s on the telly, it must be true” allow tin-pot dictators from Mugabe to Kim Yong Un to survive indefinitely. By projecting a strong-man image that appeals to the Russian psyche, Putin leads his country with an authority that can sweep the corruption in and mismanagement of that great country out of public view. Venezuela, Nigeria, Syria, Iran, etc. are minor examples of the same liberal distribution of bullshit to the masses.

But, surely, this does not apply to the advanced and sophisticated West? It didn’t use to. say what you like of their politics but Thatcher and Blair, Bush and Obama developed and practiced a recognizable set of principles. Channel 4’s  recent series tried to determine the great leaders of the 20th century. There was quite a selection from which to choose: Churchill or Ghandi; Mandela or FDR. Admiration for and faith in such people exists even today.

But, with us already a fifth of the way into this century, such heroes are lacking. Because somewhere around the millennium, we became global citizens and institutions of all stripes cranked up the spin to compensate for the increased sophistication. And, with a myriad of TV channels, Facebook and databases huge and refined enough to track everyone’s purchases, honest brokers are drowned out by a cacophony of spin doctors.

The ever-more-furious pace of our global lives (c.f. Alvin Toffler’s prescient Future Shock from the 1960’s) weakens societal roots, driving a compensating need to believe in something constant. Movements and prophets gain adherents. But, whether the Atkins diet or UKIP, their human origins lead to disillusion. Which leads to cynicism. And that gives an opening for real bullshit;

“Only 13% of people trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 21%, while 82% think they do not tell the truth, up from 73%”—The Guardian

This is not confined to politicians. But, because so much is at stake, because a no-longer-deferential media holds them in the public eye and because the now-cynical public requires impossibly angelic behaviour, evasive arrogance becomes the posture of choice. “Let me be clear about this” now prefaces bullshit as sure as dark follows sunset.

As long we were dealing with relatively minor mattes like train punctuality or projected costs for a new power station, this was regrettable, but hardly catastrophic. Even Churchill and FDR were guilty of being economical with the truth. But they knew what the truth was and did not lose their moral compass. But the last two years have seen developments. In Europe, despite the EU having brought decades of peaceful growth and comfortable lives to 300 million people, cynicism and xenophobia have brought a swing to the right in Poland, Austria, Hungary and Italy. The great hopes of Macron’s giddy ascent have been lost in a sea of abrasive gilets jaunes protests. Even Mutti Merkel’s long stabilising influence is ending.

More seriously, two years of Trump have left the American establishment utterly baffled and still unable to cope with the first American President who doesn’t act like one. From Pelosi on down, a Congress steeped in traditions and legal niceties is unable to cope with a man living on ego and arrogance, honed by decades of winning deals by bullying, ignoring conventions and, where required, bullshit. “Never explain; never apologise” is an aphorism that might have been invented for Trump. But “Baffle ;em with bullshit” would apply equally well. The CIA’s guiding principle for its covert operations of plausible deniability has been adopted by their boss with a vengeance.

Horror-struck Americans, whether Democrats or intellectuals o salt-of-the-earth citizens still don’t realise how well fearmongering about floods of lawless Mexican immigrants and Muslim terrorists or Chinese trade pirates plays among the rednecks and rich Republicans who voted him in. And, because America is still (but only just) the world’s biggest economy, they can ignore the damage being done to America’s international standing—at least until he completes his second term. Which he will. What kind of train wreck he will leave is unclear. Nobody has had the ego to run a great country on bullshit before. Trump’s base can’t see across the Potomac, let alone across oceans, to see the damage being done

Which brings us to Britain. Brown and Darling deployed bullshit in modest amounts to justify their splurging public money to bail out banks whose geed had sunk themselves in over their heads, without Fred the Shred or any other red-handed-guilty banker up by their thumbs. Cameron and Osborne deployed comparable amounts to justify imposing austerity on regular punters, while the Philip Greens sat it out on their yachts at Monaco. And, under pressure from the bolshy euro-sceptic prima donnas in his party, he ushered in three years of political self-immolation now coming to a head today (Jan 15th).

From the outset, the passive assumptions from Remain was swamped by clamouring alarm bells from Leave: we were being swamped by thousands of sponging migrants; we were suffering heinous iniquities under foreign laws; the NHS could be boosted by billions being squandered by Brussels bureaucrats. What grains of truth there might be were inflated to bullshit dimensions that Remain never bother to deflate. Boris, Gove, Fox, Davis—pick any you like. They were all guilty of simplistic Brexit visions, now seen to be bullshit. But they were never called on it.

That, however, set a precedence, hugely complicated by May’s horrible misjudgement about what the 2017 General Election might bring. It brought a political straitjacket, eased only by serial incompetence by Corbyn’s leadership. Carnage among a succession of Brexit ministers taught May that the easy exit promised by Leave would be anything but.  And so two years of frantic negotiations with a disappointed but resolute EU was kept under strict wraps and the waiting British public fed a diet of reassuring non-statements that led to today’s political train wreck—a humiliating defeat. on a scale not seen at Westminster since Ramsay McDonald got thumped in 1924.

No doubt, May will seek to continue after this. She will put on a brave face, try to get the EU to shift and maintain the dignified consistency she has managed to date. But it is a dead parrot, no matter how much she nails its feet  to the perch. And the bullshit involved in pretending otherwise continues to scupper any chance that the cynicism now rampant across the British public will make whoever has to sort out a future for them out of the impending Brexit train wreck will have their work cut out to be believed, let alone successful.

bull·shit (NOUN) [ˈbo͝olˌSHit]
  1. stupid or untrue talk or writing; nonsense.
    synonyms:
    rubbish · balderdash · gibberish · claptrap · blarney · guff · blather
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A Different Kind of Norway+

Norwegian Air Shuttle (NAS) started small. It was founded on 22 January 1993 from the bankrupt wreckage of Norwegian regional airline Busy Bee by 50 then-redundant former employees. Using three Fokker 50 aircraft, they contracted with  Braathens to link the scattered cities on Norway’s west coast. For the next decade, they grew steadily and profitably on this basis until SAS took over and absorbed Braathens, unilaterally cancelling contracts that should have been given 18 months’ notice.

Norwegian shrugged off this setback by re-purposing its fleet of MD-80 short-haul jets to become a low-cost carrier between Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. This was reinforced by their 2007 purchase of FlyNordic from Finnair. That same year, they ordered 42 Boeing 737s and their fleet of these had grown to 78 by 2011. By then, they had started leasing the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners for long-distance use between Europe and both west coast USA and the Far East.

Such a massive expansion was made possible by significant restructuring and creative financing, including sale and lease-back of much of its fleet. The spectacular growth has been led by by CEO and largest shareholder Bjørn Kjos, Under the control of Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA is a bewildering variety of associated subsidiaries. The group’s revenue passed £1bn in 2015 and has grown since—nu 30% in 2017. In its 26 years, it has grown to be the ninth-largest low-cost airline in the world.

nasroutes

It has managed to do this by luring passengers away from both conventional and low-cost airlines in Europe and by competing very effectively on long-haul routes—especially to North America—by bringing low-cost competition to airlines like BA. Not only does Norwegian undercut them on price but the Dreamliners used are faster, quieter and more comfortable than BA’s fleet of aging 747 Jumbos. But this growth has come at a cost.  Net profit in 2017 was a loss of around £100m, although it is difficult to be precise because of the flurry of operations run through subsidiaries. Although the stock trades on the Oslo exchange with an EPS ratio round 9, the stock value has halved since its peak of NOK 377 in 2015. (£1 ~11Norwegian Kroner). NAS’ capital structure shows ratio of its debt to equity stands at a dangerous level over 1,000 to 1.

By last summer, the financial gnomes of Canary Wharf and Wall Street had written NAS off as good to invest in only in hopes of a takeover by some other airline. Those in the know were advising friends not to book with Norwegian, in case they found themselves stranded. But NAS has flown on into the winter, paying its bills and keeping its vast network of routes carrying over 30m passengers during 2018. Even the Wall Street Journal admitted that (to paraphrase Mark Twain) rumours of its death had been greatly exaggerated.

This not to say it won’t suddenly go the way of  once-leading airlines like Pan Am, Laker, TWA or BMI in this highly competitive field. But if you don’t mind flying via Gatwick or Copenhagen, you can find deals under £200 to Los Angeles, Las Vegas or San Francisco you might consider worth the risk. I would.

Disclosure: I have no stock nor have any financial interest in NAS, or its subsidiaries. I have flown with them five times, finding the flights comfortable and punctual…but the staff training—both on the ground and in the air—was inadequate.

 

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The Blank Coast

Retirement is great. It means you can welly off somewhere without having to explain yourself. After half a century of travel, I finally decided to try somewhere I’ve been avoiding all that time: Spain’s holiday coast.

Never having been one for package holidays in the sun, the place that invented them offered little appeal. But, by taking the plunge out of season. it was easy to avoid acres of broiling pimples marking time between late-night clubbing. Having long been a fan of cosmopolitan Barcelona, that seemed a good launch pad. After catching the excitement of a massive Catalan crowd giving a boisterous finger to the visiting Spanish Vice-President, a weekend of tapas and sangria in the Ciudad Vella seemed tame, but enjoyable and a chance to dust off sputtering Spanish. People great; food great; city great.

Sadly, the launch pad of Sants station showed that it is RENFE that needs a rocket, with chaotic control of passenger flow, with misleading announcements in the mix. Though the Euromed train was modern, service was medieval—as was the track, which foes along way to explaining why the 200 miles to Valencia took over three hours when an equivalent LNER journey takes under two.

Getting to Valencia makes the wait worth it. Another bustling city mixing boulevards with narrow calles. Despite being mobbed by tours even out of season, the area around the cathedral that lies between Pllaza de la Reina and Plaza de la Virgen rewards exploration. It is full of hidden shops and restaurants. Tourist info helpful, people helpful bur RNEFE not. Why they need two stations within 200m of each other and run trains from both to the same place remains an Iberian secret.

A further 100 miles of coast south through Benidorm lies Alicante. The coast to there seems as despoiled as the 200 miles from the north. Trains do tend to run through industrial and less scenic areas. But, with the exception of dwarf orange groves and glimpses across sandy beaches to a glittering Mediterranean, the view was of endless beige tilt-up warehouses and boxy 12-storey apartment blocks. These latter were especially evident down the Costa Blanca, all the way into Alicante.

Less cosmopolitan than Valencia, Alicante boasts a marina, a broad beach-front promenade and an old city that wraps around the spectacular Castillo Santa Barbara atop its lofty 500-foot crag. unfortunately the promenade is flanked, as in Nice or Santa Barbara, by a four-lane arterial highway. The old city is a delightful maze of alleys and squares on a bewildering variety of levels, The old buildings towers several storeys above cobbled streets wide enough for a car to pass. The Calle Vieja leads down to La Rambla (main drag) and offers a variety of restaurants, my favourite being Casa Ibarra and their Sopa de Mariscos.

castle

The rest of the city—and the Costa Blanca—suffer the same problem: a profusion of sixties architecture that taste forgot. Lego towers clash at all angles to get a sea view. Many arre still half-built and the site fences regularly swallow the pavement. It’s as if Franco had all the building inspectors shot. The streets between are dark canyons where  traffic grumbles through a haze of tuk-tukking two-strokes. The city does have a tram  system stretching into suburbs on a scale with San Francisco that puts Edinburgh (at half again as big) to shame.

But, as with Valencia and Barcelona, Alicante is a city worth visiting. Stay in the old city —but NOT with a car. Try somewhere like La Milagrosa B&B. It’s fabulously central and you can hit both the Art Museum (MACA) and the Basilica (St Maria) with a bread roll from its rooftop terrace. And be aware the Spanish are noisy. They yell at each other in the street, especially kids; bats boom bass music until 4am, at which point, street sweepers and garbage collections take over. They still take siestas 1 – 5pm to compensate.

But if the noise and the tasteless towers get to you, try a day out on Tabarca. The catamaran leaves from the marina at 11 and gives you four hours on a mile-long piece of unspoiled 18th century dreaming just 10 miles offshore. Even the cats there are friendly.

lunchcats

 

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Drought? It’s a Fecking Desert

Say what you like about America but, once Britain had wearied of empire-building, the USA pretty much invented the modern world single-handed. China is a great country now coming into its own. But, like its prosperous Asian neighbours their recent growth comes from leeching off American innovation and technology by doing cheaper (and sometimes better) knock-offs. The gung-ho, can-do attitude among Americans is infectious and goes some way to explain how a liquorice allsorts of immigrants could forge the world’s leading nation our of a wilderness.

But this has a down side. Because they never know when to quit, they take on just about any environment if there is money to be made.  They took simple windmill-pumped we;;s on isolated ranches and ramped this up in California’s Imperial & Central valleys, as well as Arizona’s Valley of the Sun to make those areas among the most productive agricultural acres anywhere. To achieve this, massive projects trapped, stored and transported water from the great rivers of the Southwest. The mightiest of these was the Hoover Dam across the Lower Colorado River, storing its 22,500 cu.ft./sec flow for use. That’s an acre-foot or 334,000 gallons every two seconds. While the huge Central Valley is watered by the snow melt on the lofty Sierra Nevada, Los Angeles, San Diego, the Imperial Valley and almost all of Arizona squabble over this bonanza. A century ago, when settlements were barely villages and Arizona barely a state, almost all of the water flowed unimpeded on to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez.

Those days are gone. Now only a muddy trickle makes it all the way. Technology like air-conditioning, automobiles and swimming pools make life in the sunbelt not just possible, but desirable, the explosion in population soon followed. As most of the land was desert, development could be expansive. As the weather was both hot and predictably, the growing of high-value crops was both easy and profitable. The original citrus groves soon gave way to more exotic produce. While California could satisfy its own water needs if it could shift water from the wet North to the dry South part of the state, the same can’t be said for its partner in Colorado River consumption: Arizona. Although the forested North of the state around Flagtaff receives rain- and snow-fall, the lower half is the Sonora Desert, normally capable of sustaining cacti, chaparral, lizards and the odd coyote. Water made the desert bloom and agriculture become big business. Cattle, lettuce, cotton, melons, greenhouse plants and even water-thirsty rice are grown in quantity. As a result, these soak up half Arizona’s water allocation—about 4 million acre-feet a year (about 1,3 trillion gallons or five weeks of flow in the Colorado River). Sprawling Phoenix now houses 4m of Arizona’s 6m residents and soaks up 1,4 million acre-feet a year (about 440 billion gallons or twelve fays of  Colorado flow.

These are intangible numbers. But measured against annual water use by an American family of five at one acre-foot, this means Arizonans consume water at twice that rate. Why should that be?

For a start, there are 615,000 swimming pools—one for every 10 residents. With an average area of 400 sq. ft., each pool loses 10,000 gallons each year from evaporation in Arizona’s arid climate. That’s a day’s flow of the Colorado right there. Double that for leakage. Add in evaporation and leakage from many artificial bodies of open water. Arrowhead Lakes(!) development includes over 43m sq.ft. of open water, losing over 1bn gallons of water each year. Nearby 10,000-acre fishing spot Lake Placid alone loses four times that.

Then there are the 185 golf courses that spray with 29bn gallons each year, most lost to evaporation. That’s almost two weeks of Colorado flow right there. Add in massive amounts of landscaping, even if much has been converted to heat-hardy native planting you start to see how Colorado’s bounty is literally running out. And we haven’t even started on 6m people’s domestic use of toilets, showers, washing machines, etc.

Because of several years of below-average rainfall/snowmelt upstream, an urgent conference called for December 12th in Las Vegas to square the impossible circle of satisfying all users in the Southwest of Lower Colorado water was something of a non-starter because the Arizona delegation could not agree on a position. Farmers, Municipalities, businesses and Indian tribal lands have stretched the state’s demand for river water well beyond that allocated and are furiously pumping artesian water out of aquifers that, being beneath a desert with 12 inches of rainfall, are not being replenished. Over 40% of Arizona’s water use now comes from this source, which is unsustainable.

This is where American’s irrepressible gung-ho/can-do would appear to lead them into an incipient car crash. Arizona offers a California-like climate at 2/3rds the price, so this will get worse. With the population forecast to grow by almost 50% to 9m people by 2025, attracted by lakeside living and golf courses, the problem of supplying adequate water appears intractable. California and Nevada are desperate to increase their own share of the Colorado, so any increase from that source seems unlikely. There are no other substantial rivers to tap. Yet the business machine keeps development sprawling ever wider across the Valley of the Sun, lawmakers run scared of not boosting their patch and the whole fragmented layers enshrined the US shibboleth of a constitution mitigates against anyone having clear authority to bang heads.

The fact that the last few years has seen waters supplies shrink certainly exacerbates the problem. But it has bot caused it. What caused it was a gravitational shift in American population from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt and the blessing that the country’s second-biggest river flowed between the Sonoran and Mohave deserts. How this riparian car crash can be avoided is not clear. It is a hot spot when commerce and environment clash—and my money’s on the latter. I would not counsel investing in a lifetime membership of the Arrowhead Lakes Golf & Country Club as wise.

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“The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”

For a nation at peace, the United States packs a hefty military punch.  Apart from a ten-division Army, 286-ship Navy and a 5,000-plane Air Force, they also can deploy 190,000 in the US Marine Corps—a force larger than all Britain’s armed forces put together. Unlike the Special Forces role of Britain’s Royal Marines, the USMC  is actually more like British paras, tasked to deploy in large units overseas, with their own aircraft and support units. Known as ‘jarheads’, marines are known for their young, aggressive attitude, which cause some unrest and high profile around the 20 marine bases scattered down America’s coasts. A recent crash of a marine F-18 fighter refeuling off the coast of Japan was a reminder that there are also another 20 marine bases scattered around the world.

But if jarheads don’t fill the role of commandos, who does? The less well known and probably most effective of the many weapons in the US arsenal are the Navy SEALs. Their name derives from their ability to deploy and be effective by SEa, Air and Land. Formed in 1962, their first deployment was to Vietnam where they quickly earned their spurs. While the bulk of the 500,000 U.S/ troops deployed (including Marines and Air cavalry)fought a conventional was against the elusive Viet Cong, SEALs were deployed to beat them at their own game.

Trained not just as elite infantry but they deployed specialist skills, including parachutist, frogmam, stealth, unarmed combat, survival off the land and fluency with various weapons and explosives. They were, as the Americans say, some mean dudes, especially those assigned to Long Range Patrols, known as ‘Lurps’. Navy SEALs are called on to perform missions of ‘strategic importance’. including: Direct Action: Neutralize, Capture and Kill Enemy Forces Offensive strikes against an enemy target using tactics like raids, ambushes and assaults. Special Reconnaissance: Observe and Report. Heaven help the village commissar they were tasked to eliminate. Deployed in small squads of four, they  penetrated all over South Vietnam, far into Cambodia and Laos and even deep into North Vietnam as far as Hanoi.

While such tasks could be undertaken by other branches of service but the trickiest tasks—and certainly those to be carried out deep hostile territory—would be entrusted to SEALs. That requires a rare breed: men at the peak of fitness with unswerving dedication, guided by astute intelligence, able to read and react swiftly and decisively in a myriad of unforeseen circumstances. All of this needed to be carried out professionally under the pressure of imminent death and a fierce loyalty to the handful of comrades taking the same spine-chilling risks with you.

SEALs proved so effective they have been used in every serious conflict the US has been involved in, from Somalia to Iraq, through Afghanistan to Syria and now in the Sahel. Eight ‘teams’ of several hundred each, ready for deployment and split between home bases at Coronado CA and Little Creek VA, But the toughest assignments must have been the myriad missions executed in the early days in Vietnam. Not only was this against a wily, tough and experienced enemy, but had to develop many of the skills now commonplace. These included exiting from a submarine at periscope depth and HALO (high altitude, low opening) parachute jumps to achieve safe and stealthy insertions.

Such an adrenalin-pumping life took its toll, The enemy was almost the least of the worries—very few SEALs died on engagement. But years in Vietnam of the tension of engagement and exposure to chemicals such as the Agent Orange defoliant in the field left returning SEALs with even more difficulty with re-entry in and acceptance by American society than the ‘grunts who served their 364-day ‘tour’. Even now, SEAL veterans are tight-lipped, stay close to buddies who walked through the same hell, show huge mistrust in ‘the system’ that put then in harm’s way and sometimes left them there unsupported to preserve ‘plausible deniability that America was ever involved. This extends to politics and government, for whom they have a bitter distrust.

And can you blame them? Their country created some of the most flexible, autonomous and effective fighting units, honing them to be fiercely self-reliant and trust no-one. Like a peak athlete or intrepid explorer, how do you return to the soft, easy civilian world and be content with it?

 

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Ultimo Tango in Roma

“After a fight with cancer, film director Bernardo Bertolucci died on Monday 26th in Rome, surrounded by family.”

Most famous for his Oscar-laden sweeping historic “The Last Emperor“, acclaim had come earlier in his career with the 1970 “The Conformist” But he achieved an almost permanent notoriety with “Last Tango in Paris” in 1972. Even allowing for the sexual revolution still echoing from the sixties, this film pushed the boundaries of taste to the point that one of the backers (Transamerica Corporation) withdrew from the publicity.

The story is straightforward: While looking for an apartment, Jeanne, a beautiful young Parisienne (Maria Scneider), encounters Paul (Marlon Brando), a mysterious American expatriate mourning his wife’s recent suicide. Instantly drawn to each other, they have a stormy, passionate affair, in which they do not reveal their names. They are driven to this by different demons: Paul struggles with his wife’s recent suicide and Jeanne has a last fling before marrying her besotted fiancé, who is making a documentary about her.

They both arrive to view an empty apartment at the same time and there is sudden chemistry between Schneider’s coquettish innocence and Brando’s brooding intensity. Many audiences at the time were outraged by the explicit sex scenes, especially one involving anal sex. But feminists especially rail against what they see as an egregious  brutality of behaviour and an exploitation of the innocent Jeanne on a vein against which the Me Too movement has vigorously campaigned recently.

It’s hard not to sympathise with that view. But I feel this is selling Bertolucci and his empathy for humanity short. In the earlier scenes, Paul is definitely cavalier, even callous in his ‘no names’ treatment of Jeanne as a sex object. But he is clearly tortured by incomprehension of his wife’s suicide and virtually punishing himself, as in the anal sex scene, which she performs on him. For her part, Jeanne is a willing partner, experiencing an excitement her ardent but sweetly innocent fiance seems unable to provide.

The brilliance of the movie is not the shocking sex but how the dynamic of dominance shifts in Jeanne’s favour. Their exciting, nameless intimacies revive Paol from his slough of despair and he starts to court Jeanne, as if he wants a serious relationship.  This shatters Jeane’s fascination as he takes her places outside the apartment that has been their sole connection, including a dance hall full of older people intently dancing the tango.

Appalled by an age mismatch with this and with Paul, Jeanne flees home, only to be pursued by Paul—roles now reversed— right into her parents’ apartment, where the terrified Jeanne shoots him with her father’s army revolver. The final scene has Paul standing on he balcony, mortally wounded, staring out in incomprehension at a beautiful view over the roofs of Paris and Jeanne repeating sotto voce: “I don’t know who he is. He just broke in…

It is a heart-rending masterpiece of how a brutally wounded soul in the midst of the beauty of Paris can find the innocence he had lost—and find it more brutal than his original anguish. To focus on the sex scenes (not, in my opinion, rape scenes), however distasteful they may be, and not see them as a necessary element in this arc of tragedy is to miss the insight into humanity that Bertolucci achieved.

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