Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The neo-cons' next war

1999: 'Genocide' in Yugoslavia.
2003 'Weapons of mass destruction' in Iraq.
2007: 'The nuclear weapons programme' of Iran

Coming to a television screen near you (or if you're unlucky enough to be in Iran, coming to blow up your home and kill you and your family), it's the next stage of the Neo-Conservative 'Let's Build a Global Empire and Make Lots and Lots of Money for Ourselves'' World Tour.

Roy Jenkins paved the way for selfish capitalism

Daniel Finkelstein, writing in today's Times, takes issue with the thesis of pyschologist Oliver James that 'selfish capitalism' is to blame for Britain's current mental health problems.

Finklestein puts forward an alternative explanation: that 'secular liberalism', and not selfish capitalism is the culprit. But it's not a case of either or. Far from being contradictory, secular liberalism and selfish capitalism in fact feed each other. If you operate a selfish capitalist system, you sooner or later get a secular liberal one: nothing destroys spiritual beliefs and 'family values' faster than rapacious capitalism- a process which many Thatcherites still fail to grasp. And conversely, if you opt for secular 'anything goes' social liberalism, sooner or later you get a selfish capitalist economic system. The real architect of 'selfish capitalism' in Britain is not Margaret Thatcher, but Roy Jenkins, whose social reforms of 1960s paved the way for equivalent reforms in the economic sphere two decades later.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Britain of 1947: A less selfish society

Many thanks for your emails in response to my recent Daily Express article on how Britain coped in the winter of 1947.

Reader Graham, who is approaching his 60th birthday, was born in his grandmother's house which had no electricity and with rationing still in force, there was not a lot of food for either him or his mother.

"I wonder how, as a nation, we would cope with life if the same conditions were to visit today!", Graham asks.

The answer, I fear, is not very well. Our increased material prosperity since the 1940s has not made us better people, but more spoilt and self-centred. Yesterday's horrific report on the amount of elderly people suffering financial abuse at the hands of their own children, tells its own story.

In my piece on 1947, I told how villagers in Llanstephan in Wales had risked their lives to dig out an eight-mile route through to Carmarthen so that a soldier, who had contracted a serious disease while in the Army, could be driven to his parents’ home. In the individualistic 'I've got my rights' Britain of 2007, how many people would act in such a selfless way?

Of course there are still many people who do put their lives at risk to help others, such as firemen and
lifeboat crews. But too many people nowadays are concerned only with their own selfish, material needs and not with the common good. That's great news for the greedy global corporations, whose end goal is to transform all of us into amoral, alienated consumers, but for humanity as a whole, the era of what the psychologist Oliver James has labelled 'selfish capitalism' has been a disaster.

Death of a Nimby

Today's Daily Telegraph carries an obituary of Lord Kelvedon, (aka Mrs Thatcher's former Transport Minister Paul Channon ). The DT informs us that Channon once proclaimed himself to be "the biggest road and bridge builder since Julius Caesar".

"He prised funds from the Treasury to complete the M40, began widening the M25.
Channon pioneered open public debate on road pricing and toll roads and private financing for transport schemes, allowed the sale of "cherished" car number plates and prepared the way for rail privatisation
."

But Channon's enthusiasm for the building of new roads did have its limits. After retiring from the Commons, the DT informs us:

"Channon and his wife opened their gardens to fund a campaign against the proposed M12 motorway, which looked like running uncomfortably close to Kelvedon Hall."

Politicians, eh. Don't you just love 'em.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Set your videos: The concert party returns.....

If you want to see some classic comedy clips from the golden age of BBC comedy (the 1970s) make sure you set your videos at 10.35 tonight for the BBC1 programme on the making of 'It Aint Half Hot Mum'.
IAHHM has always been one of my all time favourites and this hysterically funny programme surely has to rank in the top half-dozen comedy series ever made, along with the likes of Dad's Army, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life, Rising Damp and Ever Decreasing Circles.
If you want to join the Official It Ain't Half Hot Mum Society, you can do so here.

A Small World

These are bad days for big drugs companies. The Pfizer Corporation, the American giant which manufactures Viagra, is the latest firm to announce redundancies. One of Pfizer's sidelines is to finance the pressure group Centre For New Europe, which recently appointed our old friend, the arch neo-con and pro-war hawk Stephen Pollard as its president. Now here's an interesting coincidence. The Pfizer Corporation's MD, Chief Medical Officer and all-round big-wig is one Joe Feczko.
Feczko is a very unusual Hungarian name. But I do know of one other Feczko. It's my wife Zsuzsanna's maiden name.
Could it be that a distant relative of my wife's is helping to pay Stephen Pollard's wages? That really would be quite amusing, wouldn't it? I'm off to check the family tree.....

Venezuela's democratic revolution

Here's a wonderful piece in today's Guardian by Calvin Tucker on the democratisation of Venezuela which is currently taking place. Adolf Hitler once claimed that if you have democracy, sooner or later, you'll get socialism (which is why he opposed it). For once, he was right. Conversely, if you introduce socialism, you'll also get democracy, because it restores political power away from the wallet and back to the ballot box.
But democracy means far more than asking the electorate to cast their votes every four of five years. It means active participation of the entire populace in the decision-making process.
Chavez' introduction of a more consultative democracy- described in Tucker's piece, is a model which has also been adopted by Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
Venezuela and Belarus are at the forefront of the new democratic offensive, which empowers people at the expense of global capital and wealthy elites. Why is why of course, Henry Ford democrats have done so much to demonise the leadership of both countries.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

They've got it wrong again

Here's my article on the western reaction to Serbia's general election, from today's Guardian.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,1997898,00.html


Are you a true democrat or a Henry Ford democrat? True democrats accept the right of people to vote for any party they choose, be it socialist, nationalist or Islamist - and accept the results with magnanimity. Henry Ford democrats accept the right of people to vote for any party they choose, so long as it's pro-western.

The leaders of the "international community" take their cue from the famous automobile manufacturer. For having the temerity to vote for Hamas, Palestinians were punished with suspension of aid. For re-electing the unreconstructed statist Alexander Lukashenko, Belarussians were hit by fresh sanctions. And Fordian democracy has again been illustrated in EU and US reaction to elections in Serbia. Despite European and US exhortations, the Serbs voted the wrong way at the weekend, making the anti-Nato, Eurosceptic Radicals the largest party in the new parliament.

The Radicals, with 28.3% of the vote, could reasonably be expected to form a government with Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's DSS party and the Serbian Socialist party. Except that this coalition - the best representation of the people's will - has been ruled strictly verboten by the self-appointed apostles of democracy. As soon as the results were announced, the EU's (unelected) foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, called for the "speedy" formation of a pro-western government "in line with the EU" - ie one without the largest party in the country. The US ambassador claimed "the majority of Serbia's citizens have spoken out in favour of a secure, prosperous future inside the Euro-Atlantic community", conveniently forgetting that more than 50% had voted for parties opposed to Nato membership or not voted at all.

Although the Radicals' leader, Vojislav Seselj, currently on trial for war crimes at the Hague, is an anti-Yugoslavia Serb nationalist with a history of ugly chauvinist rhetoric, it would be a mistake to see the vote for the Radicals as a sign that Serbs are enthusiastic for an "ultra-nationalist" agenda. Those quick to condemn the opposition to Nato membership as "hardline" should ask themselves if they would be keen to join a military alliance that bombed their country, without UN approval, for 78 days and nights less than a decade ago. The Radicals' line on the EU - that Serbia should join only when the time is right and on its own terms - is also shared by increasing numbers.

Then there is the economy. The "official" version is that Serbia, since the fall of Milosevic's Socialists in 2000, has boomed with the move to a free-market economy. The reality is different. GDP is still only 60% of the 1989 level. Unemployment is 31.6%. About 40% live at or below the poverty line. Like Hamas, the Radicals offer a social programme that the "reform" parties, desperate to adhere to the dictates of the IMF and global capital, lack. The Democratic party, likely to lead the next coalition, will accelerate privatisation - adding to unemployment and increasing popular discontent.

If these problems weren't enough, there's the question of Kosovo. The Radicals' strong stance against its independence is shared by most Serbs. The UN mediator's proposals - conveniently postponed until after the elections - are expected to recommend limited independence, which will only boost the party's support. Giving up Kosovo would be seen as the surrender of the cradle of Serbian civilisation.

For the west's Fordian democrats, financial inducements, cajolery and threats of isolation are usually enough to get the election results they desire. But the problem of what to do when the natives - be they in Palestine, Belarus, Iran or Serbia - insist on a car in a colour other than black, remains.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A real television treat

British readers: If you can't be in front of a tv set in person make sure you set your video for Channel Five from 13.35-15.40 today. The channel is showing the 1974 film 'Ellery Queen: Too Many Suspects', the pilot for the wonderful series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne. It's one of the best 'whodunit' films you're ever likely to see: a terrific cast which includes Ray Milland and Kim Hunter, a great script and fast-paced directon which builds up a genuine feeling of suspense. And in addition, there's the marvellous recreation of 1940s New York. Enjoy!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Time for a crackdown on yobs

Tony Blair has announced a new crackdown on yobs. I quite agree with him. Let's start at the top and
tackle those yobs who authorise illegal attacks on defenceless foreign countries, destroy their infrastructure and then have the gall to blame others for the damage. If anyone warrants an ASBO, it's the current inhabitant of Number 10.

Serbia votes 'the wrong way'

Those silly old Serbs. Don't they understand that 'democracy' doesn't mean voting for any party you like, but only for parties the west approves of?
Here's my piece from today's First Post on the very undemocratic reaction of the self-appointed apostles of democracy to the Serb poll.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Old Dogs, Old Tricks

I have written before of the extraordinary steps Oliver Kamm and his mysterious pseudonymous supporters have gone to to try to smear me and jeopardise my career, following my critical review of Kamm’s book 'Anti-Totalitarianism', which was published in the The Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2005.

A malicious email from a ‘Mr George Courtenay’, and cced to Oliver Kamm, was sent to the editor of The Australian, a newspaper which regularly publishes my work. I wrote to ‘Mr George Courtenay’ at the email address he supplied to The Australian, asking if he could identify himself as a ‘real’ person. I received no reply. Revealingly, the only two other traces ‘Mr George Courtenay’ has left on the internet was in defending Oliver Kamm on blog debates:
http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/archives/2005/12/oliver_kamm_vs.html
http://www.ministryoftruth.org.uk/2005/11/30/pot_kettle_fallacy/

Over a year on from my review of Kamm’s book being published, the vendetta shows no signs of letting up.

Three wikipedia editors, who go by the name of 'Elena Zam' 'Philip Cross' and 'Truth Professor' have been spending an awful lot of time and energy in maliciously editing my wikipedia entry.

According the trio, I am a not a journalist, but a ‘controversial’ journalist. ‘Controversial’ of course for opposing the US/UK war agenda and supporting peaceful democratic socialism- views I share with millions of people on this planet.

I am a ‘Stalinist sxxxt’ even though I have never expressed any support for Joseph Stalin or his policies.
I teach ‘A level retakes’ at a ‘cram’ college- even though I haven’t taught 'A' level for a few years now and Oxford Tutorial College offers a wide range of courses, not just retakes. (in any case, does a teacher of A Levels have less right to express his opinions than a hedge fund trader?)

I am, the trio claim, "a defender of mass murderers like Slobodan Milosevic". ’This is not only untrue, its also defamatory. Milosevic was not a mass murderer(after four years, the Hague show trial failed to come up with any evidence to prove that he was) and he went to his grave an innocent man. I defend him not because he was a mass murderer, but because he wasn't.

For ‘defending mass murderers’ I have ‘numerous detractors’ , such as (please don't laugh) 'David Aaronovitch, Stephen Pollard and (apparently- no doubt due to the Francis Wheen/Oliver Kamm link) Private Eye'. No mention is made of those who might happen to agree with my views on peace and democratic socialism (ie probably the majority of people on this planet).

I am ‘against gay rights and immigration': again both statements are untrue.
(I have written once that I did not think that support for gay marriages or an open-door immigration are essential preconditions for being a socialist)

All three editors are very keen to publicise my legal dispute with Oliver Kamm, but of course only giving his side of the dispute, not mine. In addition, references of my support for railway nationalisation, have been repeatedly deleted (that would make me look far too sensible).

All of the above, constitute an attempt to portray me as a wild-eyed extremist, someone completely beyond the pale. Someone who defends mass murderers and who sues poor defenceless journalists without reason.
At teacher at a 'cram college' who is not only a Stalinist, but homophobic and 'opposes immigration'
Someone whose views are 'controversial', unlike the views of Oliver Kamm and Stephen Pollard, who together wih their neo-conservative chums are doing all they can to propagandise for another illegal war, this time against Iran. Of course, that's not 'controversial'.

Who, I wonder, can 'Philip Cross, 'Elena Zamm' and 'Truth Professor' be?

Wikipedia has no mechanism for finding out people's real identities, but nevertheless the trail of our mysterious editors can be traced.

The trio have two other sites in common. In addition to editing my page, they all have edited (this time favourably), the biography of Oliver Kamm (to see the edit history of Kamm's biography, just click on 'history' on the top of his wikipedia page.

And all have edited ) again favourably, the page of the translator Anthea Bell.

Who’s Anthea Bell I hear you ask, and what connection does she have with Oliver Kamm?

Well, quite a strong one actually. She’s Oliver Kamm’s mother.


UPDATE
‘citylightsgirl’ has been fighting a heroic battle to remove defamatory, misleading and malicious info from my wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Clark_%28journalist%29 .
and if any of you feel like getting involved with her to put the record straight, and to keep an eye out for any further malicious editing, I would be enormously grateful.

FURTHER UPDATE:
I have just had a look at my wikipedia entry and see that the mysterious trio I mentioned above have been hard at work again. I apparently 'used to teach International Relations', that's news to me, as I'm still teaching it this semester! And once again, my support for railway renationalisation has been deleted!!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Beyond chutzpah: A war criminal lectures Serbia

What would you say if you opened your newspaper one morning and saw a letter from the Prime Minister of Serbia advising you how to vote in the next general election?
'Mind your own bloody business' would be my response- and probably yours too.
Yet while most us would be incensed at such blatant interference in our own election, it seems that its perfectly acceptable for the British Prime Minister to write letters to newspapers in Serbia advising the Serbs how to vote.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/01/18/wserbia18.xml
Is there no limit to the man's arrogance?
If there was such a thing as international justice, Blair would now be languishing in a dark and dusty prison cell. As it is, a man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people has the audacity to lecture another country on the urgent need to hand over one of their suspected war criminals.
Chutzpah simply isn't the word.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Blair's earlier illegal war

Pop the champagne corks! Get out the cigars! At last! Tony Blair is standing trail for war crimes. Well, at least on Channel 4 anyway.
But as pleasing as it is to see Blair (or rather Robert Lindsay portraying Blair) in the dock, why is the British PM only being charged with starting just one illegal conflict?
Four years before Shock and Awe was unleashed on Baghdad, Blair played a key role in another act of international aggression, which like the Iraq war, was also based on a fraudulent prospectus.
Here's my piece, from The Guardian's Comment is Free website, on why Blair should also face the rap for the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia.
http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/neil_clark/2007/01/blairs_earlier_illegal_war.html

Pass the smelling salts...

I'm feeling rather faint. I've just read an article by Stephen Pollard that I actually agree with.....
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,6-2552741,00.html

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Save Europe's publicly owned railways

One of the worst things about living in Britain is its rip-0ff privatised railway system.
Yet, incredibly, the European Parliament is to vote tomorrow on a proposal which if passed, would see EU member states forced to follow the totally flawed British model. All the countries of the EU have a cheaper, more reliable and more user friendly railway system than the UK, but not for much longer if this crazy scheme gets passed.
The only people who will benefit from the 'liberalisation' of Europe's railways are the big multinational corporations and the banks. The big losers will be the paying public.
Let your MEP know what you think of this madness by writing to him/her today- before its too late.
Here is a list of all Britain's MEPs and their email addresses.

'Big Brother' demeans us all

Is there are more depressing indictment of Britain's cultural, moral and educational decline under modern turbo capitalism, than the television programme 'Big Brother'?
In the name of 'entertainment', a group of narcissistic thickos are put in a house together and spend the time talking about themselves or calling each other names. Can television sink any lower?
Here's an article by my wife Zsuzsanna on how the dumbing down process which 'Big Brother' represents has sadly spread to her native Hungary.
http://www.newstatesman.com/200307210020

Guess who's been talking to Syria......

I wonder what those gonzo-cons who attacked the Iraq Study Report because- horror of horrors- it called for dialogue with Syria and Iran, say now?
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2160086.ece

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Vote for your favourite PM

Meanwhile, The BBC's Daily Politics Show is holding a poll to find Britain's favourite peacetime Prime Minister.

My top three, in regards to policies, would be:
1. Attlee - for post-war reconstruction, nationalisation and the NHS.
2. Wilson- for keeping us out of Vietnam, extending public ownership and The Open University.
3. Macmillan- for his support for planning, progressive taxation, public ownership and the welfare state- all key elements of the post-war consensus. (though also gets a black mark for the Beeching Axe) .

If we were voting for favourite personalities, my vote would go for Harold Wilson, easily the most likeable inhabitant of Number 10 since the war.

How about you?

The only thing that puzzles me is why the present British Prime Minister is on the list. I thought the competition was for 'peacetime PMs'. All he's ever given us is wars. How many is it up to now? I've lost count.

Britain's Great Living Political Hero

It's great to see that Tony Benn has won the BBC's poll for Britain's Greatest Living Political Hero.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/politics_show/6161847.stm
It's also good to see the 'anti-war' charlatan Clare Short, who defended the murder of make-up artists and cleaning ladies during the NATO bombing of Serbian television in 1999, receive a piffling 2.07% of the votes.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Neo-Cons' next victims

Here are some photographs of those next in line for the 'Shock and Awe' treatment.
Just remember their faces next time you read an article in the press calling for 'strong action' against Iran's non-existent nuclear weapons programme.

A serial warmonger speaks

So there we have it. There is no alternative. Britain "must continue to fight wars" . Public opinion doesn’t even come into it.

What Tony Blair’s disgusting speech - and the one made by his political master Bush earlier this week demonstrate, is the overwhelming arrogance of the neo-conservative mindset- and the contempt that these so-called 'spreaders of democracy' have for the views and opinions of ordinary folk back home.

They are confident that whatever outrage we- the little people- feel about their lies, they are simply too powerful to ever be held to account.

Neo-conservatives- and those who want Britain to engage in a policy of perpetual war- constitute a tiny proportion of the population. Yet they hold an influence wholly disproportionate to their numbers.

Is it right that the views of a few fanatical warmongers at the American Enterprise Institute and the Henry Jackson Society count for more than those of the great majority of Americans and Britons?

In the name of democracy, it’s time the majority in both Britain and the US, joined together to say enough is enough. If Blair wants Britain to ‘continue to fight wars’, then let him, his family- and the members of the Henry Jackson Society go out and fight them.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Yet more inaccuracies from 'The History Man'

Never be fooled into thinking that just because a person holds the title of 'Professor', he/she is a person of superior wisdom - or accuracy. Niall Ferguson is a case in point. I can't think of any other prominent academic who makes so many sweeping, factually incorrect statements.

In this piece, on the execution of Saddam, Ferguson castigates the Iraqi dictator for 'bluffing' that he had WMD. The inference being of course, if only Saddam he had come clean and told Dubya and Tony he was 'WMD' free, his country would never have been attacked.

What utter twaddle. Saddam claimed repeatedly that he did not possess WMD- as did all the other members of the Iraqi government. On no occasion in the build-up to war did Saddam 'bluff' that Iraq possessed WMD. If Ferguson can produce a source to prove otherwise, then he should make it public.

Iraq was attacked not because Bush and Blair thought Saddam had WMD, but because they were pretty damn sure that he didn't.

1947: The year winter brought Britain to a standstill

Before Britain became infected with 'affluenza', camaraderie, solidarity and a sense of 'we're all in this together' prevailed across the land.
They were qualities which not only helped Britain defeat the Nazis, but which served the country well during the incredibly harsh winter of 1947. Here's my piece from today's Daily Express on how Britons coped with the Arctic conditions of 60 years ago.


For traditionalists, it’s been a thoroughly disappointing winter. No snow, very few frosts and only a handful of those cold, crispy mornings when stepping outside into the fresh air gives us that exhilarating, good to be alive feeling.

But those of us who wouldn’t mind a short dose of proper seasonal weather, shouldn’t despair. The Met Office as reported in the Daily Express yesterday, have warned that a cold snap could be on its way. If they’re right, it wouldn’t be the first time that an exceptionally mild spell in January has been followed by much colder conditions, as those who can remember the incredible winter of 1946/7 will concur.

The winter of 60 years ago may not have been quite as cold as that of 1962/3, but it has solid claims to be the most dramatic Britain has ever experienced. The extreme weather conditions would have caused enough disruption on their own, but their effects were compounded by post-war shortages of fuel and food, which were more severe in the aftermath of the war than they were during it.

The first icy blast of winter came on the January 23rd, when snow fell heavily over the south and south-west of England. The blizzard in south-west England was the worst since 1891; many villages in Devon were cut-off and even the Scilly Isles were blanketed with snow. Temperatures started to plummet throughout the country: on the night of the 28th, -20.6 was recorded in Essex and the following night, -21.3C in in Kent. It was so cold that Big Ben started missing beats.

The Arctic weather brought with it fresh hazards: newspapers reported how the fireman on an early morning train approaching Bradford had stuck his head out the cab and been knocked senseless by a huge icicle hanging down from a bridge.

Fuel shortages were soon a major problem. Britain was already half a million tons of coal short before the winter had begun and even with the miners union consenting to 150,000 Poles, who had stayed in Britain after the war, working in the mines, supply could not reach demand. The government’s response was swift: the introduction of an emergency, country-wide programme of power cuts, with electricity cut-off every day from 9am- 12 noon and 2pm-4pm. The new-fangled television was shut down completely, (broadcasting did not start up again until April) while on radio, the Third Programme was taken off air and the Home and Light Programme (the equivalent of Radio Four and Radio Two today) merged.

Food was harder to come by in the winter of 1947 than it had been during the war. It was so cold, parsnips had to be dug up with pneumatic drills. Eggs, cheese and bread were all on ration. Bananas were only available for children. And in February, the ration-free status of tea, the nations’ favourite drink, was also under threat. Obtaining meat provided the biggest problem.

Newspapers reported that imported beef, allocated for the central London meat ration, had frozen so hard, it was doubtful whether it would be jointed in time. The alternative to beef, promoted with great enthusiasm by the government, was whale meat, which arrived in the country for the first time in January. A consignment of 15,000lbs of whale meat landed at North Shields from Norway and was soon available at fishmongers for 1s 10d (9p) a pound. “It looks exactly like British beef, tastes somewhat like it and is cooked in the same way” was the official spiel, but few were convinced.“I remember eating whale steak, which was called Moby Dick and chips. It wasn't pleasurable”, recalls the writer John Mortimer.

In many parts of Britain snow fell on 26 of the 28 days in February. In Oxford, the temperature failed to rise above freezing for over two weeks, while on 21st, -21 degrees was recorded at Woburn, Bedfordshire.
Sports schedules were disrupted. More than 140 matches were postponed and the back-log of fixtures meant that the football season did not eventually finish until June 14th, making it the longest of all time.

On 4th March, newspaper headlines held out hope for an end to The Freeze. “Real thaw tomorrow“ . “Complete Change”. “Mild weather forecast“.
But the Air Ministry had got it horribly wrong. Instead of a thaw, fresh blizzards swept across the country. In the Scottish Highlands, drifts more than 23ft deep were reported.
There were stirring tales of heroism. In Wales, the villagers of Llanstephan risked their lives to dig out an eight-mile route through to Carmarthen so that a soldier, who had contracted a serious disease while in the Army, could be driven to his parents’ home.

In the second week of March, milder air did finally start to move up from the south-west. The drama, however, was far from over: on 17th March London was hit by a hurricane and the thaw led to severe flooding in over 30 counties. Somehow though, the country muddled through.

Perhaps the stoicism that Britons had shown in the winter of 1946/7 was best personified by postman Samuel Jones of Denbigh. On March 6th, Jones had left the town at 7am to make his round of deliveries in the Bylchau district six miles away. At 8.30pm a day later, a “battered, bruised and exhausted postman” crawled into Bylchau Post Office and collapsed. But he had delivered all his mail. Could we expect such devotion to service today?

The never-say-die spirit that enabled Britain to win the war also helped see it through its toughest winter for over 100 years.

Selfish capitalism is making us ill

All this week, the Daily Telegraph has been publishing instalments from Oliver James' book 'Affluenza'.
It's terrific stuff of which Erich Fromm, the first psychologist to warn of the social costs of modern capitalism, would be proud. Here's James on the damaging side-effects of a rapacious 'market' economy:

The rise of the "affluenza" virus and the resulting increase in emotional distress since the 1970s is caused by a form of political economy that I call "selfish capitalism".

By this I mean four basic things. The first is that the success of businesses is judged almost exclusively by their current share price. The second is a strong drive to privatise public utilities, such as water, gas and electricity. The third is that there should be as little regulation of business as possible, with taxation for the rich and very rich so limited that it becomes almost a matter of choice whether they decide to contribute. The fourth is the conviction that consumption and market forces can meet human needs of almost every kind.

My research, conducted during a tour of seven nations, reveals two fundamental facts about selfish capitalism and emotional distress. First, in a developed nation, rates of distress increase in direct proportion to the degree of income inequality. Second, rates are at least twice as high in English-speaking nations – where selfish capitalism is more widely practised – as in mainland Western Europe.


James puts forward some very sensible proposals on how we can reverse 'selfish capitalism'. Of course, they will be attacked by free market fundamentalists like the ASI/ Samizdata crowd, but if we are serious about reparing our increasingly 'distressed' society, such measures will have to be taken.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The neo-con rush to Armageddon

Many thanks to reader Bob Taylor for sending in this extremely interesting- and chilling- piece by Robert Parry from 'Truth Out'.
As I've said many times, there will be no lasting peace until the small, but extremely powerful, neo-conservative junta which currently governs both Britain and America is removed from power. Removing it is the most important- and urgent- task of our times. The alternative is - quite simply- preparing for Armageddon.

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Great Honour

It's a great honour to be quoted, with approval, by a respected world leader.
Especially one who did so much in the democratic struggle against one of the most repellent social and political systems the world has ever seen.
http://www.anc.org.za/ancdocs/anctoday/2005/at07.htm

Citizen Benn: Our Greatest Living Political Hero

The BBC Politics show is holding a poll to find Britain's greatest living political hero. There surely can only be one winner. Here's my piece from today's First Post on why it has to be Wedgie.
http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?menuID=1&subID=1020

And here's what Britain would have been like if Tony Benn had become Prime Minister. In addition, 650,000 people, now dead, would still be alive in Iraq (as well as those killed in the equally unlawful attack on Yugoslavia in 1999) and law-abiding citizens having a quiet smoke in an English pub or cafe would not face the imminent prospect of criminalisation.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Fifty Most Heartbreaking Moments in Sport

This month's Observer Sports Monthly, out today, features the top fifty Most Heartbreaking Moments in Sport.
Here are my two contributions: Crisp's gallant defeat by Red Rum in the 1973 Grand National (number 6) and the defeat of Hungary in the the 1954 World Cup final (number 25).
What's your most heartbreaking sporting memory?

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1981870,00.html

OSM 50 heartbreaking moments: Number 6.

Long-time leader Crisp is caught by Red Rum in the dying strides
31 March 1973, Grand National, Aintree.

Awful yet glorious: that's how Aintree historian Reg Green described the 1973 Grand National in his book A Race Apart. Even now, it's hard to think of a better description for one of the most stirring horse races of all time. Thirty-eight horses lined up at the start, but the race was a tale of just two of them, both class performers, but so different in their backgrounds. Crisp, the great Australian chaser, under champion trainer Fred Winter, shared favouritism with Red Rum, trained locally by a former taxi driver called Ginger McCain at the back of a used car lot in Southport. But although both horses started equal in the betting, they did not start on level terms in the race. Crisp, by virtue of his higher rating, had to carry top weight of 12st, a terrible burden.

Crisp showed up prominently from the start, taking a position on the inside. Jumping superbly, he took the lead at the Canal Turn and, when his nearest challenger fell at the Chair (the 15th fence), he was 25 lengths clear. 'I can't remember a horse so far ahead in the Grand National at this stage,' declared commentator Julian Wilson. By the 23rd, Crisp was a fence ahead of most of the chasing pack. But between the last two fences, jockey Richard Pitman felt his mount tiring. After jumping the last he reached for his whip. The horse did not respond. Instead, he veered left, losing around three lengths in the process. 'It was the biggest schoolboy error a jockey could make,' Pitman says now of using his whip. In fact, he had given Crisp one of the great Aintree rides.

As the horses entered the finishing straight, Red Rum, with 23lb fewer on his back, was gaining with every stride. Crisp was exhausted but tried to rally, and held on until the final few strides of the race when Red Rum passed him to record a dramatic victory, in a then record time. 'I watch it occasionally on video and one day Crisp is going to beat him,' says Ginger McCain. 'It was only bang on the line that he got there.'

I, too, watch the race occasionally and never fail to be moved by the extraordinary courage shown by both horses and their respective jockeys. It took a special horse to overhaul Crisp in 1973, a very special horse indeed, as we discovered when, 12 months later, Red Rum carried 12st to victory in the National, the knowledge of which, for those close to Crisp, probably makes his anguished and unforgettable defeat a little easier to bear.


http://observer.guardian.co.uk/osm/story/0,,1981893,00.html
OSM 50 heartbreaking moments: Number 25

Destiny slips away from the Mighty Magyars
4 July 1954, World Cup Final, Berne.

Between June 1950 and November 1955 Hungary won 43 of the 51 matches they played, including emphatic home and away victories over England, and averaged more than four goals a game. The 'Mighty Magyars' lost only one match in their incredible run. But it was the one game that mattered most: the 1954 World Cup final against West Germany.

The Hungarians had sauntered through the group stage in Switzerland with emphatic victories against South Korea (8-0) and West Germany (8-3). In the quarter-finals they beat Brazil 4-2 and dispatched reigning champions Uruguay by the same score in the semis. All looked set for Hungary's coronation in the final, especially when goals by Ferenc Puskas and Zoltan Czibor put them 2-0 up after only eight minutes, against a side they had already defeated comprehensively.

The West Germans pulled two goals back before half-time, however, and punished Hungary's profligacy in front of goal by taking the lead with six minutes to go. Puskas scored what appeared a perfectly good equaliser two minutes from time, but a Welsh linesman had other ideas and the goal was ruled out for offside.

For years afterwards, rumours persisted in Budapest of a high-level conspiracy to prevent a communist nation from winning football's greatest prize. Whatever the reason, Hungary's historic opportunity had passed and one of football's greatest teams had been deprived of the honour they deserved.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Battle for Democracy in America

How is it that shortly after losing an election, widely regarded as a referendum on his war policy, President Bush has the temerity to try and send yet more working-class Americans to their deaths in Iraq?

The answer of course, is the disproportionate influence of the Washington War Lobby.

Is it right that a few neo-cons at the American Enterprise Institute have more clout than the majority of American voters?
No, I don’t think so either.

Here’s a suggestion, from Justin Raimondo of antiwar.com on how Americans can reclaim their democracy.

Friday, January 05, 2007

In praise of Twelfth Night

Here's my piece on a sadly neglected Christmas tradition, from today's Daily Express.

Have you taken down your Christmas decorations already? If so, you are not alone.
While decorations seem to go up even earlier each year, it’s also true that that more and more Britons are packing away their trees, lights and tinsel much sooner than they used to- sometimes with a sense of relief that we can get back to business as usual.

I walked along a few streets to my local shopping centre earlier this week and was taken aback at how few decorations remained. The space in the square where a few days earlier, a beautiful Christmas tree had stood with bright, twinkling lights, was now empty. How sad. It’s not just about missing the cheery spectacle that lights and decorations provide us on a grey and miserable day. It’s also about honouring a long-standing and colourful Christmas tradition, that of Twelfth Night, which has all but disappeared.

It’s curious that retailers, given the way they have promoted other festivals, such as Valentine’s Day or Halloween to their great commercial advantage, haven’t been tempted to do the same to Twelfth Night. There might be rich pickings in it for them if they do.

Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking". There are however many, including ‘The Lions Part’ (see sidebar), who hold that Twelfth Night should in fact be commemorated on 6th January, i.e. the twelfth full day after December 25th, due to the old custom of treating sunset as the beginning of the following day. However, some hold that Twelfth Night should be on January 6th- that is, the full 12th day after December 25th.

Twelfth Night marks the end of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, the length of celebration being based on a sequence of verses in The Bible (Matthew 2:1-12), and a belief that it may have taken 12 days for the Three Kings to travel to Bethlehem after first seeing the star signifying the birth of Jesus.

Those who believe that modern Christmases have degenerated into a feast of excessive eating and drinking, should consider the Bacchanalian manner in which the Twelve Days of Christmas were celebrated by our ancestors. In the Middle Ages, the festive period was one of continuous merrymaking.

In Tudor England, the celebrations were riotous. A ’Lord of Misrule’ (known as Abbot of Unreason in Scotland) , who was generally a peasant or sub-deacon, was appointed to be in charge of the revelries up to Twelfth Night. They promoted drunkenness, promiscuity and gambling. Even the sovereign had to follow his commands, however ridiculous.

Twelfth Night was considered the climax of the Christmas celebrations which the Tudors celebrated even more enthusiastically than Christmas Day itself. Everyone attended parties, in which practical jokes were played. A popular trick included hiding live birds in an empty pie-case, so that when a guest opened the crust, the birds would fly out. It was commemorated in the nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’.
The performance of plays, or ’mummings’ was also an important aspect of the celebrations. The characters, who were often masked, varied from play to play- but the hero was always St George who fights the power of evil, traditionally represented by the Turkish dragon.

William Shakespeare’s play ‘Twelfth Night‘, was written specifically for the festivities and was first performed in 1602. The play, in line with the Twelfth Night traditions of reversed roles and disguises, has a woman Viola, dressing a up a man, and a servant, Malvolio imagining that he can become a nobleman.
The festivities came to be associated with certain types of food and drink.

There was the ‘Twelfth Night Cake’, a rich and filling fruit cake which traditionally contained a bean. If you got the bean you were the King and Queen of the bean and could tell everyone else present what to do. But there were other, less desirable items in the cake as well. If you got a clove, you were a villain. If you got a twig, you were a fool. And if you got a rag, you were a ‘tarty’ woman. Nobody seems to know what a man who got a rag was called.

A hot, spiced punch called ‘wassail’, which was served in huge silver or gold bowls, was associated with Twelfth Night since the 1400s. It derived its name from the Old English toast ‘Waes hale’ meaning ‘be thou hale’- that is, be healthy. A related drink called ‘Lambs Wool’ . made of cider or ale, sugar, spices and roasted apples was used by farmers in England and Ireland to ‘wassail’ their apple trees on Twelfth Night, hoping to ensure a good harvest for the next year.

Another custom involved the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury. Pilgrims went to Glastonbury Abbey to see the ‘miraculous’ thorn tree that flowered at midnight. Legend has it that when Joseph of Arimathea reached there in AD63 with the Holy Grail, the staff he thrust into the ground miraculously blossomed.

Taking down Christmas decorations was, by contrast, not a Twelfth Night custom until comparatively recently. Before the days of Queen Victoria, people in England kept their homes decorated with holly, mistletoe and yew up until Candlemas on 2nd February, the Christian festival which falls exactly 40 days after the birth of Jesus. The tradition of taking down decorations on 5th/6th January- and of it being bad luck to take them down either earlier, or later, appears to have originated in colonial America. There, a Christmas wreath was always left up on the front door of each home, and would be taken down at the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, so that any edible portions would be consumed with the other foods of the Twelfth Night feast.

Now it seems that we are in such a rush to forget all about Christmas that many of us have taken down our decorations well before Twelfth Night. Not only that, but we’re missing out on a celebration which our ancestors regarded as the best party night of the year.


* If you do want to celebrate Twelfth Night in traditional fashion, head for Bankside, outside the Globe Theatre, on the south side of the River Thames in London, at 2.45pm tomorrow afternoon. (Saturday, 6th January). A group of actors called The Lions Part celebrate Twelfth Night with what they describe as ‘a fun combination of old and new seasonal traditions‘. To herald the celebration, the extraordinary Holly Man, the Winter guise of the Green Man from pagan myths and folklore, and decked in fantastic green garb and evergreen foliage, appears from the River Thames. Further details on 020 8452 3866.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The war crimes trial dilemma

This piece of mine appears in Thursday's edition of The Australian.

Neil Clark: Shabby trial a loss for Saddam Hussein's victims
Those accused of war crimes should face an international court that is blind to nationality and impervious to political pressure
January 04, 2007

"ONCE again the more faint-hearted are beset with doubts and anxieties. But we can feel confident that when the smoke has rolled away from the battlefield of controversy, it will be realised that the charge was true and the prosecution fairly conducted."

The words could easily have been uttered by a White House spokesman seeking to defend the trial in Baghdad of the late Saddam Hussein. They were in fact spoken 70 years ago by the British Labour MP Denis Pritt after the conclusion of one of Joseph Stalin's show trials. The passage of time has not been kind on Pritt's judgment, and neither, according to human rights groups, will it be to those who reached a similarly upbeat conclusion about the trial of Hussein.

"It has been a shabby affair, marred by serious flaws," says Amnesty International. For Human Rights Watch, the trial was a lost opportunity to give a sense of the rule of law, and a loss for the victims in that the trial and verdict are unlikely to stand the test of time. In the view of the International Centre for Transitional Justice, proceedings fell short not just of international standards but of standards set by the Iraqi Government.
Human rights groups and other critics of the trial have argued that instead of being tried in Iraq, Hussein should have been brought before an international tribunal at The Hague, as former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic had been. But can we be sure that a trial outside Iraq would have been any fairer?

Our experience of the workings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and in particular the trial of Milosevic, suggests not.
The four-year-long proceedings, which ended with the death of the defendant, breached several important legal principles that underpin the concept of a fair trial. Hearsay evidence was allowed, as was anonymous testimony. There was blatant political interference: former NATO commander Wesley Clark was allowed to give his testimony in private, with Washington able to apply for removal from the public record of any parts of his evidence that it deemed to be against US interests. Most disturbing of all was the way judge Richard May dismissed as irrelevant the claim by an important witness that a written statement he had made implicating Milosevic had not only been falsified and embellished, but had been extracted from him by treatment legally amounting to torture.

In truth, the ICTY has proved no more a satisfactory organ in delivering justice than the hybrid body the UN established in East Timor in 1999, which was shut down six years later. The UN tribunal, made up of domestic and international judges and prosecutors, was scathingly described in 2002 by David Cohen of the War Crimes Studies Centre at Berkeley as "disorganised, understaffed, vulnerable to local politics" and featuring "a defence unit that is unfairly outgunned by the prosecution". Because of the limitations of the tribunal's powers to extradite indictees from Indonesia, no senior suspects from the Indonesian army stood trial. Indonesia's domestic ad hoc trials of those accused of war crimes in East Timor have proved equally unsatisfactory.

Unsurprisingly, recent experiences of war crimes trials have led some to conclude the whole concept of international justice is inherently flawed. All trials of defeated political enemies are invariably unjust, says John Laughland of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group. It is the very principle of such political trials which is at fault, not merely the manner of their conduct. But although constructing a workable and just system of international justice is problematic, we do have one historical model which can point us in the right direction.

The trial of Nazi leaders at Nuremberg, while still open to the charge of being victors' justice, nevertheless met important requirements that the trials of Saddam and Milosevic did not. For a start, there was no dispute as to the court's legality. Germany's unconditional surrender led to the transfer of political authority to the Allied Control Council, which had sovereign power over Germany and could legally choose to punish violations of international law and the laws of war. And although the London Charter of August 1945, which established the Nuremberg Tribunal, restricted the trial to "punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries", the Allies acted throughout in accordance with international law. Most important of all, Nuremberg delivered a judgment that we would all do well to remember, namely that to initiate a war of aggression was the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contained within it the accumulated evil of the whole.

Sixty years on from Nuremberg, supporters of international justice pin their hopes on the International Criminal Court that came into existence in July 2002. There are, however, two major stumbling blocks to the court proving to be an effective body. First, although the court was set up as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression, its jurisdiction over the crime of aggression has been postponed until such time as the state parties agree on a definition of the crime and set out the conditions under which it may be prosecuted.

Second, the world's most powerful country, the US, refuses to submit to the court's jurisdiction.
It's revealing that the court, despite receiving close to 1700 communications about alleged crimes in 39 countries, has so far opened an investigation only in three cases, all involving African states. Surely we can do better than this.

In order for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression to be properly punished, what is needed is a well-funded, permanent international court that delivers justice regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators and extraneous political pressures. That, of course, means the leaders of the world's most powerful nations must accept that they too may have to answer in a court of law for their actions. Whether that is a utopian dream or an achievable ambition, only time will tell.

Consumerism comes to India

Erich Fromm always told us it would be like this:
http://www.thefirstpost.co.uk/index.php?menuID=2&subID=1292

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Beyond sick: The mind of Stephen Pollard

Last night I dreamed that Neil Clark had fallen under a bus (actually he was crushed between a bus and a Mercedes). So far nothing. No doubt if Clark is at some point crushed between a bus and a Merc and he survives, he'll claim that I was driving one of the vehicles and Oliver Kamm paid me off.
Stated by: Joshua on January 2, 2007 8:42 PM

The above comment was posted on the website of Stephen Pollard:
http://www.stephenpollard.net/cgi-bin/mt/my-comments.cgi?entry_id=3091
Previous commenters to Pollard's blog have accused 'Joshua' of being Pollard himself, pointing to the fact that 'Joshua' only ever turns up to comment on Pollard's site. That's not strictly true: he once showed up to counter a comment I had made on The Times 'Comment Central' to accuse me of anti-semitism - his standard party trick as regulars to Pollard's site will know.

Whether Joshua is Pollard's alter ego is something only Stephen knows and I make no accusation here. But for Pollard to allow such a sick comment to be published on his site and not to delete it as soon as it appeared speaks volumes about how low Pollard is prepared to go. I was once warned by one distinguished and very experienced British journalist that Pollard was a ' total shit'. I'll leave readers to come to their own conclusions as to whether the journalist's opinion was accurate. I've already made my mind up.

UPDATE: Pollard claims that he removed the offensive comment, posted at 8.42pm, as soon as he read it on arriving home last night. But one thing is still unclear. Why did Pollard repost this http://www.stephenpollard.net/003092.html blog entry at 1.27 this morning? The post was already up last night at around 10.15, as I'm sure other readers of Pollards' blog will concur. I can't remember the exact time I read it, but it was certainly before I went to bet at about 10.45pm. The fact that the post was published earlier, strongly suggests that Pollard was already back home by 10.30 (as far as I know only Stephen posts on his own blog). Now it could be that Pollard did not read the offensive comment by Joshua before going to bed. But if that's the case, why was his Times piece deleted and then republished at a later time? Only Stephen knows the answer.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The wonders of the joint-newest member of the EU

At midnight, Bulgaria, together with Romania, became a member of the EU. Do try and catch this wonderful country before the real estate sharks, developers and other emissaries of 'progress' spoil it forever. To mark the accession, here's my travel piece on Bulgaria from The Spectator.

How we fell in love with Bulgaria
The Spectator, 1st April 2006

What are the first images which spring to your mind at the mention of the word ‘Bulgaria’? Female weightlifters? Dour, unsmiling locals? Sinister secret agents who assassinate people with poison-tipped umbrellas in busy London streets? ‘No matter how many times you say it, no matter what accent you say it in, Bulgarian ain’t never going to be cool,’ opines a columnist in one of the glossy weekend travel supplements — and it’s certainly hard to deny that the Balkan republic does suffer from a rather serious image problem. But as in so many other cases — think coach holidays and Belgium — the popular image bears little relation to reality.

My wife and I came to visit Bulgaria by accident. Plan A was a trip to New York, finally to visit a friend whom we have spent the best part of a decade promising we’d go and see. Five days before the off, though, I made the discovery that I didn’t possess the machine-readable passport which Uncle Sam now insists upon. Faced with the prospect of seven days at home clearing the backlog of Christmas videos, we quickly decided on Plan B: a frantic internet search for a couple of cheap last-minute flights to whatever destination we could find, the only proviso being that it must be somewhere cold and cosy with the guarantee of plenty of snow. ‘How about Plovdiv?’ asked my wife. With our guidebook telling us that Plovdiv, ‘population 371,000, Bulgaria’s second largest city’, was a ‘delightful place’ and the BBC weather website predicting two days of snow and sub-zero temperatures, we didn’t take long to make up our minds. We landed at Plovdiv airport — a military airport only used in the winter for charter flights — at seven o’clock on a freezing cold January evening.

It was love at first sight: arrive at a Bulgarian military airport on a freezing cold January evening and you get a real sense of being in Eastern Europe — a feeling you no longer get when you arrive at the pristine terminals of so many of New Europe’s other airports. This is the loveliest of all towns. It’s beauty shines from faraway,’ wrote the Greek poet Lucian of Plovdiv 19 centuries ago, and if he was guilty of over-egging it, it certainly wasn’t by much. Plovdiv, or Philippopolis, to give it its original name, is older than both Rome and Athens. Its antiquity means that whatever your architectural fix, you’re likely to find it here — whether it’s Thracian ruins from 5,000 bc, a wonderfully preserved 2nd-century Roman amphitheatre (which could seat 6,000 people at its peak and which still stages concerts and shows in the summer), or 1960s socialist functional.

The crowning glory is the picturesque old town, famous for its remarkable collection of 19th-century baroque-style ‘revival’ houses, named after the cultural, political and linguistic renaissance which led to the country’s liberation from the Ottoman yoke in the 1870s. Several of these houses are open to the public. We opted for the Stepan Hindlyan House with its well-preserved Turkish bathroom, colourful murals and exquisite collection of restored period furniture. Don’t miss, too, the nearby Ethnographic Museum, whose magnificent entrance hall with its grand piano and intricately carved wooden ceiling is worth the admission fee alone. For us, the only disappointment with Plovdiv was the lack of snow — so after three days we decided to head for the mountains.

At seven hours long, the ride from Plovdiv to Bansko won’t be the quickest railway journey in your life, but it may well prove to be the most memorable. For the last five hours, after changing at Septemvri, you travel on a narrow-gauge railway, which meanders its way through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in Europe. Halfway through the journey, at one of the numerous small village stops, a group of peasants boarded, headed by a cheery soul with a Terry-Thomas grin who proceeded to treat us — and the other inhabitants of our carriage — to two hours of accordion playing and a sing along of Bulgarian folk songs. When’s the last time you experienced that on Virgin trains?

We arrived in Bansko in sky-high spirits, yet famished Fortunately salvation was at hand in the shape of a gloriously smoky, 1940s time-warp restaurant in the main town square. Bulgarian cuisine is among the finest in Europe, but a word of warning: for the Bulgar chef ‘waste not want not’ really is taken literally, and among the delightful dishes on the menu brains, tongue and tripe lie in wait for those who, like me, get their Cyrillic alphabet mixed up. That said, if you’re ever going to cock up your order, with an average price of about 50p for a main course, Bulgaria is the place to do it. It’s also a good opportunity to let rip with the wine list: in how many other countries in Europe can you order the most expensive vintage and still receive change from £2?

Having got our fix of snow from two days in Bansko, we decided to head to Sofia, three hours away by coach. The Bulgarian capital may not be one of the most high- profile in Europe, but it is certainly one of the most likable. In no other European capital of a similar size does one get such a sense of space: Sofia really is the perfect city for people who normally hate cities. It has enough attractions to justify several visits, but with time at a premium we had to make do with tours of the ‘Holy Trinity’ — the Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, the St Nikolai Russian Church with its five golden onion domes, and the awesome Aleksander Nevski Church, built as a memorial to the 200,000 Russian soldiers who died fighting for Bulgaria’s independence. We also, thankfully, found time to visit the splendidly old-fashioned Museum of Natural History, with its fabulous collection of over a million animal, plant and mineral specimens.

One of the nicest of many nice things about Bulgaria is the custom of posting notices with the names and photographs of the deceased on walls and doors. At first I thought this morbid. But being reminded of those who once walked among us helps create a great sense of continuity and community, besides keeping us focused on what really matters. ‘There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love ...the only meaning,’ as Thornton Wilder put it. We saw hundreds of these notices and, even in the centre of Sofia, not a single one was defaced. The lack of vandalism is not the only area in which Bulgaria outscores Britain. Public transport, besides being cheap, is clean and punctual. People may not be effusive or prone to shouting in the streets but they are kind, friendly and unfailingly helpful; family ties and religious beliefs remain strong. Crime is low and there is a high general level of education.

For those keen to experience ‘backward’ Eastern Europe, Bulgaria and not Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Poland is the real McCoy. Do try and catch this wonderful country before the real estate sharks, the EU commissars and the other emissaries of ‘progress’ spoil it for ever.