Thursday, July 31, 2008

Starbucks: Some Good News and Some Bad

Here's the good news.

The company which represents everything that is wrong with globalisation has announced that it is closing 61 of its 84 stores in Australia.

It has also announced its first ever fall in quarterly profits.

Time to pop the champagne corks and light up the Montecristos?

Not quite. Starbuck's ultra-aggressive CEO, Howard Schultz has also announced that despite the growing evidence that the world has had enough of his wretched company, he still intends to open 150 new stores in airports and railway stations in Britain, Germany and France.

The sight of a Starbucks anywhere is depressing enough. But to see one in a French railway station? That would redefine the word 'tragic'. A Starbucks world is a sterile one, an ultra-boring, ultra-standardised globalised dystopia in which every town in every country in the world would look exactly the same.

Let's hope that Mr Schultz's aggressive expansion scheme backfires. And for that to happen all you have to do is what increasing numbers of people now seem to be doing- namely not set foot in one of his stores.

It's a Gas: Ripping off the Public in Privatised Britain

The Daily Mail reports:

The parent company of British Gas today announced profits of £992m - just one day after customers were hit with a staggering 35 per cent rise in the cost of gas.

The astonishing thing about this news is that some people find it astonishing. Centrica, the parent company of British Gas, is a plc, and as such its first priority is not to the long-suffering British public struggling to make ends meet, but to make as much profit as possible for its shareholders. That's what plcs do.

Our anger should be directed not so much at Centrica, but our bovine political class who privatised our utilities in the first place, and who still reject the one step that would end the profiteering: taking our utilities back into public ownership.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Children of '68 (3)

Here's the third, and concluding part of my American Conservative essay on the longer term implications of the 1968 Paris riots. For those who missed them, Part One can be read here, while here is a link to Part Two.

In 1968 the fault lines became clear: on the one side the sovereigntists—a coalition of conservatives like De Gaulle and traditional leftists—on the other the globalists, socially and economically liberal, bent on destroying the nation state, national culture, national identity, and any links with the past.

Although De Gaulle’s party won a resounding election victory in June 1968, the tragedy is that it’s Cohn-Bendit’s pernicious ideology that dominates today.

Tony Blair may have attacked the excesses of the 1960s social liberalism, under which : “a society of different lifestyles spawned a group of young people who were brought up without any sense of responsibility to others," but in many ways the intellectual guru of “New Labour”—and the 21st Century “New Left” in general is Cohn-Bendit.

An obsessive hatred of conservatism- and conservatives- is a hallmark of both New Labour and Cohn-Bendit. “The one striking new paths in politics will always be accused of something: conservative thinking is always taking revenge“ he complained in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica earlier this year.

In a 1999 speech to his party’s conference, Tony Blair ferociously attacked “the forces of conservatism” a group that included everyone from fox hunters, hereditary peers, and the medical profession to left-wing supporters of nationalization and “those who yearn for yesteryear,” who stood in the way of the brave new globalist future.

New Labour severed Old Labour’s strong links with the indigenous and staunchly conservative working class and instead forged a new alliance with the global moneymen. It rejected the old left’s distrust of military adventurism and respect for the sovereignty of nations and instead embraced a militant interventionism, beginning with the illegal “humanitarian” attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, and culminating in the debacle of Iraq. “Old leftist friends of mine from the 1960s are now on Labour’s frontbench and staunchly defend the overthrow of Saddam Hussein,” boasted Christopher Hitchens.

New Labour and its imitators define their progressiveness not in terms of redistribution of wealth—the gap between rich and poor in Britain is now at its greatest for more than forty years—but in their support for gay marriages and other “liberalizing” social reforms. “From the cultural point of view, we won,” declares Cohn-Bendit today, and of course he’s right.

Cohn-Bendit’s militant ideology has infected not only the Left, but the Right too.

John McCain’s advocacy of a more liberal immigration policy and his championing of a “League of Democracies,” with the right to intervene in the affairs of sovereign states the world over, owes more to Red Dany than it does to Russell Kirk.

Forty years ago, Red Dany lost a battle. But the sad truth is that he won the war.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Will Justice Ever Be Done at The Hague?

This article of mine appears in The First Post.

"One of the worst men in the world, the Osama bin Laden of Europe, has been captured". That was the verdict of an ecstatic Richard Holbrooke, former US envoy to the Balkans, on the arrest of Radovan Karadzic (pictured above).

But no one should think that justice is done and dusted with Karadzic's capture.

While the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces was by far the most terrible single atrocity committed in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, other parties to the conflict were guilty of dreadful crimes too - crimes that have largely gone unpunished.

For the West, it seems that only crimes in which Serbs are the perpetrators are of interest. There was little media coverage of the killing of up to 1,000 Serbs by Bosnian forces led by Naser Oric, which preceded Srebrenica. 'Operation Storm', in which 200,000 Serbs were forcibly driven from their homes in Croatia, has also been airbrushed out of history.

And what of the prima facie evidence that Nato forces were guilty of war crimes – the bombing of a passenger train at Grdelica gorge and the RTS television studios in Belgrade, which together took the lives of 30 civilians in April 1999?

If the treatment of other Serbian defendants at The Hague is anything to go by, his chances of receiving a fair trial look remote. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic descended into farce as a succession of 'smoking gun' prosecution witnesses turned out to be damp squibs. After four years of proceedings, the prosecution palpably failed to land a blow - and it was a mighty relief for his accusers when Milosevic died in custody.

Many have claimed that Karadzic's arrest will lead to closure.

But 'justice' selectively applied to only one party in a conflict is only likely to increase Serbia's sense of victimhood - and prevent long-term reconciliation.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, despite the arrest of Karadzic, the bullying of Serbia continues.

Happy 95th birthday, Michael Foot!

Former Labour Party leader Michael Foot celebrates his 95th birthday today. Michael is the longest lived leader of a British political party in history- and on top of that he's also the oldest currently registered football player in Britain (playing on the left-wing of course!)

You can read my piece on what might have happened had Michael Foot's Labour Party won the 1983 election here; while here is a link to my Guardian article of twelve months ago, arguing that 'golden oldies' like Michael are pensioned off far too early nowadays.

The case for gerontocracy is, I believe, a strong one, though I'm willing to make an exception as far as this man is concerned!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gambling our future

This column of mine appears in today's Morning Star.

“The absurdity is that, precisely when the breakdown of the orthodoxy of deregulated markets, the small state and corporate privilege is plain for all to see, the main political parties are clinging to it ever more tightly“,
writes the socialist commentator Seumas Milne.

One example of Britain’s political elite clinging to discredited neo-liberal orthodoxy is the government’s shocking plans to hand over entire NHS hospitals to the private sector.

Another is the imminent privatisation of the Tote, the state-owned bookmaker. The Tote was set up in 1926 by that well-known communist revolutionary Winston Churchill: it shows you have far down the neoliberal road we have travelled when a state-run institution established by a Conservative government and which escaped the attentions even of the serial privatising Mrs Thatcher, is now to be flogged off.

None of the standard arguments wheeled out by the pro-privatisation brigade apply to the Tote. Inherently profitable, in its 82 years of existence, it has never taken a penny from the government in subsidy. Selling the Tote to another rival bookmaker will reduce, and not increase competition. “The selling off of the Tote would be a catastrophe- Armageddon for racing. There is no correlation between the Tote and any bookmaking firm, either in ideology, philosophy or reality” is the verdict of the renowned punter and racehorse owner Harry Findlay.

But while the Tote sale is rotten news for Britain’s millions of punters, its good news for some. Advising the government on the Tote sale are the US investment bank Goldman Sachs. The involvement of Goldman Sachs in the sell-off process has led some to raise the issue of a conflict of interest.

“Goldman Sachs, is acting for the Government. and it is reported that Gala Coral is the front-runner in the auction. It is also Goldman Sachs that acted as the chief advisor to Gala Coral last year during their own bid for the Tote. We all know that Goldman Sachs is the Government's favourite banker but surely it can't be that they are providing advice both to the bidder and to the Government?", asked Labour MP Greg Hands in a parliamentary debate on the future of the Tote in May.

In a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph, Jim O’Neill, Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs, claimed that globalisation was a ‘bonus’ for Britain. While there will be many people who will be sceptical over that claim, there’s one thing about which there can be no doubt : globalisation and its associated process of privatisation has certainly been a ‘bonus’ for Goldman Sachs.


* The late humorist Auberon Waugh was a great fan of Belgian ticket inspectors. As a regular traveller on Belgium’s ultra-efficient, reliable and eminently affordable state-owned railway, I can understand why.

On my most recent journey on Belgian Railways I got into conversation with a ticket inspector on the subject of railway privatisation. The ticket inspector had visited Britain and been shocked by the sky-high walk-on rail fares, the complicated fare structure and the fragmentation of the network.

The system is a huge contrast from the consumer-friendly Belgian Railways, whose kilometer based pricing system means that fares are the same price regardless of when you book the ticket.

But sadly, it’s the privatised, consumer-unfriendly British model that neoliberal ideologues, backed by global capital, are trying to impose on Belgium and the rest of Europe. The EU’s ‘Third Rail Package’ to take effect from 2010, provides for the ’liberalisation’ of international rail traffic in Europe. And the European Commission will report on the next stage of 'liberalising' domestic rail services by 31 December 2012.

If such ‘liberalisation’ goes ahead it will mean the end of state-owned railways, like the excellent Belgian Railways.

The good news is that the fight back has already begun. In London last month, the European Conference of Rail Trade Unionists called for European wide demonstrations against rail liberalisation, and for Europe’s railway unions to work together to defeat the privatisation agenda. The Campaign for Public Ownership looks forward to working alongside the European Transport Workers Federation, the RMT and all other progressive bodies to prevent the privatisation of railways in Europe. We simply can’t let it happen.


* Wars, conflict, it’s all business’ sighs Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin’s anti-hero in the 1947 film of the same name.

If Monsieur Verdoux were around today, I don’t think he’d be changing his mind.

Nine years ago, Yugoslavia was in the line of fire. Five years ago it was Iraq‘s turn for 'Shock and Awe'. And now it’s Iran turn to receive the threats and ultimatums.

Those three countries each had different political systems. Yugoslavia was a multi-party Socialist-led democracy. Iraq was a Baathist dictatorship. Iran is an Islamic theocracy.

But all three countries had one thing in common: the majority of their economy was in public ownership.

With the Serbian economy sold off en-masse to foreign capital and Iraq’s oil industry about to be privatised- is there anyone who still doubts that it’s the insatiable search for profits which is fuelling the war machine?

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's 2003 Again

Well, that was my reaction on hearing Gordon Brown's speech to The Knesset this afternoon. Brown talked not of Iran's nuclear energy programme, but its 'nuclear weapons' programme, even though there is no evidence whatsoever that such a programme exists.

Back in 2003, in the lead-up to the illegal invasion of Iraq, the propagandists for war talked of Saddam's WMD as a matter of fact- even though, once again, there was no evidence of their existence. The 'Iranian nuclear threat' is simply Iraqi WMDs Mark 2. It beggars belief that those who used bogus claims to take us into a disastrous war five years ago are now trying to do exactly the same thing again.

UPDATE: There's a good piece from Jonathan Steele on Brown's 'nuclear weapons' claim on Comment is Free.

Wally of the Week: Christopher Hitchens

Well, it looked like it would be a close contest, but in the end Hitch won this week's prize as easily as Padraig Harrington bagged his second British Open yesterday.
In his column for the Gray Lady, Hitch writes:

"If we had left Iraq according to the timetable of the anti-war movement the Iraqi people would now be tyrannised by the gloating sadists of Al Qaeda"

What a thoroughly dishonest piece of writing. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq at all until Hitchens' 'liberators' moved into the country in 2003. Now he and his fellow neocons use the presence of Al Qaeda to justify continued military occupation of the country. It's a bit like me driving a bulldozer into your house and then saying I've got to stay in occupation of it because otherwise gangs of burglars and other ne'er do wells would come in and take over.

But that's not all the hogwash that Hitch is spouting this week. He also writes:
"Most people appear now to believe that it is quite wrong to mention Saddam Hussein even in the same breath as (a)WMD, or (b) state-sponsored terrorism. I happen to disagree".

Well, Hitch old son, the reason most people believe that Saddam should not be mentioned in the same breath as WMD or state-sponsored terrorism is that no evidence was produced to connect him with either.

The great irony is that when it comes to religion, Hitch is scathing about those who believe in things without producing evidence. But it seems that when it comes to neo-connery, the same rules of evidence don't apply.

Hitch is of course, the pin-up boy of trans-atlantic neoconservatism. But next time you read a neocon writer drooling over the great man's utterings and praising his principled and long-standing opposition to Baathist and Islamist tyranny, just remind them of the man who once wrote this:

"The Baghdad regime is the first oil-producing government to opt for 100-per-cent nationalisation, a process completed with the acquisition of foreign assets in Basrah last December. It was the first to call for the use of oil as a political weapon against Israel and her backers. It gives strong economic and political support to the ‘Rejection Front’ Palestinians who oppose Arafat’s conciliation and are currently trying to outface the Syrians in Beirut. And it has a leader — Saddam Hussain — who has sprung from being an underground revolutionary gunman to perhaps the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser."

Yup, you have it: Christopher Hitchens, founder member of the Saddam Hussein Fan Club.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dr Branson is ready to see you now......

From today's Sunday Express, via The Campaign for Public Ownership:

VIRGIN tycoon Sir Richard Branson is being courted by health chiefs planning to privatise hospital casualty units.
Tens of thousands of patients walking into Accident and Emergency departments could be treated by the private sector in sweeping reforms of the NHS.
Billionaire Branson and his 26-year-old daughter Holly, who recently qualified as a doctor, plan to bid to run the new generation of GP super-surgeries called polyclinics.
Health chiefs in north London have confirmed that a meeting was held with senior officials from Branson's fledgling firm Virgin Healthcare.
Discussions took place about closing four GP surgeries in Camden and merging them to form a polyclinic at University College Hospital, pictured right.
The clinic, in a disused casualty wing, would treat all emergency cases except those brought in by ambulance or referred by GPs ñ about 70,000 patients a year.

I'm sure the pro-NHS privatisation brigade will be ecstatic at this news. After all, Dr Branson has made such a good job of running Britain's privatised trains, hasn't he?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Anti-Smoking hysteria reaches even greater heights...

Last week I wrote a piece for The Guardian on how anti-smoking hysteria had reached new heights with Dr Judith Nathanson of the BMA's call for films which feature smoking to be reclassified. A week is a long time in politics, but it's also a long time when it comes to anti-smoking hysteria.

Welsh Culture Minister Rhodri Glyn Thomas has been forced to resign. What do you think his offence was:

(a) claiming an extraordinary amount of expenses for himself and his family
(b) being caught having an extra-marital affair with the wife of a colleague
(c) walking into a pub with a lit cigar

Yup, you've guessed it, it was c.

It's sobering thought that if this wave of anti-smoking hysteria had been around in the 1940s, Winston Churchill (pictured above), a chain smoker of cigars, would never have become British Prime Minister. Britain- and the free world- would have lost the war and the Nazis would have ruled supreme. Millions of Jews, Slavs, Roma, communists and others deemed to be 'untermenschen' would have been exterminated.

But for the anti-smoking fanatics it wouldn't have been all bad news: old tobacco-hating Adolf would undoubtedly have passed a smoking ban.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A liberal dose of knife-crime denial

This article of mine appears on The Guardian's Comment is Free website. Since it was published yet another teenager has been stabbed to death in London.

Denying that violent crime is on the increase (and that it's all been hyped up by the Daily Mail) is a regular theme of Polly Toynbee's Guardian columns.
But even Toynbee has been massively outflanked in the "Crisis, what crisis?" stakes in recent days.

On Friday, in his Cif article entitled What knife-crime epidemic?, Sunny Hundal called for a "sense of perspective" on the knife crime issue and claimed that "the figures don't actually bear out the reality of a crisis". At the time his piece was published, there had already been 19 teenagers stabbed to death in London this calendar year. And in the 32-hour period following its publication, no less than seven people lost their lives in stabbings in Britain.

New figures show that almost 60 people are stabbed or mugged at knifepoint every day. If such shocking statistics don't constitute a "crisis" for Hundal, perhaps he could kindly inform us as to what level of knife crime in Britain would?

By denying the scale of the problem, and pretending that rising violent crime is an invention of rightwing tabloids, the liberal-left are, in effect, defending a society that is far from being a progressive, leftist model.

We live in what is easily the most ruthless capitalist society in Europe. Our European neighbours still have areas where capital is not allowed to go: here, almost every aspect of our lives is governed by market forces. The postwar Labour chancellor of the exchequer Sir Stafford Cripps, who once said that "inducements of a material kind can never and will never replace the spiritual urge which transcends our own personal interests", would turn over in his grave if he could see just how selfish and materialistic our society has become.

The rampant, me-first individualism – the seeds of which were sown in the 1960s, and which came to fruition with the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s, have exacted a heavy cost on our collective wellbeing. We have the highest level of drug use and the second highest level of drug deaths in Europe. Over 2 million Britons are on anti-depressants. The Samaritans report that 5 million people in Britain are "extremely stressed", while last year, a Unicef report listed Britain's brands-obsessed children as the unhappiest in Europe. "We live in a greedy culture, we are rude to each other in the street," headteacher Sir Alan Steer told the Guardian last week, making the connection between the economic system we live under and the deterioration in standards of behaviour. Within a generation, our towns and cities have been transformed into violent and dangerous places: according to the International Crime Victims Survey (ICVS), Britain comes second in the league table of 28 rich countries, whose citizens were asked if they have been attacked or threatened in the past five years.

You would have thought the liberal-left would be attacking – and not defending such an atomised and dysfunctional society.

But the fact that privatised, New Labour Britain, with its yawning wealth gap and price tag on every human value, is also a multiracial society which allows gay people to enter into civil partnerships, seems to be enough for some on the liberal-left to rally behind it.

In truth, the Britain of the 1940s and 50s, with its high level of state involvement in the economy, its staunchly progressive taxation system and its strong sense of community had far more to commend it from a leftist viewpoint than the Britain of 2008. And the greater social cohesion of the times, undoubtedly impacted on the crime rate.

What would the Metropolitan police do now to have to deal with only 28 armed robberies in one year – the total in 1949? How much would today's parents give to be able to bring up their children in a country where teenagers didn't carry knives and in which the word "mugging" was unheard of? A society in which people regularly left their houses unlocked and walked the streets without fear of attack?

In 1956 there were only 32 convictions for murder in the whole of Britain – in 2007/8 there were 167 murders in the Metropolitan police area alone.

A time-traveller from 1950s Britain would be astonished at the level of violent crime in the country today.

And having digested the daily diet of news of fatal stabbings and horrific murders, they'd be equally astonished at the complacency of those on the liberal-left who go around muttering "Crisis – what crisis?"

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Madeline Albright's 'warm embrace'

Back in 2002, in an article for The Spectator entitled ‘Colonial Wars‘, I wrote:

On the very day that KLA hardliner Hashim Thaci (having discarded his Balaclava and combat fatigues for a designer suit) was being warmly embraced by Mrs Albright for signing the Rambouillet 'peace' treaty, Europol was submitting a report for all European interior ministers on the connection between Thaci's organisation and the Albanian drug gangs that were supplying Western Europe with more than 75 per cent of its heroin.

Now we know that the Mrs Albright’s ‘warm embrace’ to the KLA’s Mr Thaci wasn‘t all to do with the achievement of US foreign policy goals in the Balkans...

One further thought:
I've heard of film stars sleeping with directors in order to get a starring role, but I think this is the first time I've heard of anyone sleeping with a politician in order to get a new state.

Iran's sensible game bears fruit

When Iran carried out missile tests last week, they were widely condemned as being 'provocative', by the usual suspects. Defence commentator Robert Fox claimed that Iran was playing a 'dangerous' game. In fact, by making it clear that Iran had no intentions to attack anyone, but that if it was attacked, it would retaliate in no uncertain fashion, Tehran was playing a very sensible game, as I argued here.

And what do we get a few days after the tests? A major shift in US policy towards Iran. The US is to attend talks with Iran, and it seems is set to station diplomatsin Tehran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Anyone out there who still thinks Iran was playing a 'dangerous game'?

UPDATE: I've been trawling around some of the leading neocon blogs and websites in the US and UK (clothes peg on nose of course) and guess what they've had to say about this major policy shift. Yup, you've guessed it, nothing. A big fat nulla.
What a surprise! I wouldn't like to be a cat, or a dog, in a neocon household tonight.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Maggie Gyllenhaal for President!

With the 2008 U.S. President election candidates all decided, it’s time to look further ahead. Who should the anti-war movement be looking to represent their cause in 2012? Step forward, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (above), staunch opponent of ‘Shock and Awe’ and star of the new film The Dark Knight.

A truly radical US President needs to be both brave and a real non-conformist, someone who will take on powerful vested interests. And what more radical statement of bravery and non-conformity in tobaccophobic 21st century America can there be than to light up a cigar (and rather a large one at that), on a television discussion programme, as Ms Gyllenhaal does in the clip above.

A female American President is long overdue. But instead of the warmongering frump Hillary Clinton, how much better an antiwar good-looker like Ms Gyllenhaal?

The ‘Gyllenhaal 2012' campaign starts here!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Children of '68 (2)

Here is the second part of my essay on the longer term impact of the Paris riots of 1968, from the American Conservative. You can read part one here, part three is to follow.

De Gaulle’s speech, while exasperating many conservatives who had hoped for a tougher line, exposed the anti-democratic credentials of the opposition—those who claimed to favor the “rule of the people” weren’t too keen on the people being directly consulted. De Gaulle’s next address to the nation, after a further six days of disturbances, was less conciliatory. “France is indeed threatened with dictatorship” he declared, and announced the calling of early elections. “The Republic shall not abdicate. The people will recover its balance. Progress, independence and peace will prevail”.

The address marked the turning point in the crisis. That same evening a huge crowd of de Gaulle supporters began to gather in the Place de Concorde. Up to 700,000 people took part on the march down the Champs-Elysees chanting pro-de Gaulle slogans. And in the general elections that followed at the end of June, the Gaullists recorded a resounding victory. Although Gaullism had prevailed, de Gaulle himself had been shaken by the events of spring 1968. After narrowly losing a referendum the following April, he resigned from office. He died the following year.

Meanwhile, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the man who had done so much to stir up discontent in France in 1968, moved on to pastures new. Back in Germany, he became involved in radical Green politics and ran a kindergarten in Frankfurt. His stated aim: to “radically transform” German mentalities. As in 1968, it started with sex. In his 1976 book Le Grand Bazar he wrote of children opening his trouser zipper and tickling him, and how he “caressed” the children. When these comments later led to Cohn-Bendit being accused of pedophilia, he claimed that the book had to be understood in the context of the sexual revolution of the time.

Today, Cohn-Bendit is co-president of the European Greens-European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament. He advocates the legalization of soft drugs and freer immigration. A strong supporter of Western military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s, Red Dany’s enthusiasm for overriding national sovereignty is something he shares with his fellow soixante-huitard Bernard Kouchner, the current French foreign minister.
De Gaulle believed the people’s verdict, delivered through a referendum, to be the last word. Red Dany’s views on referendum results are rather different: he infamously called for countries who twice vote “No” to the neoliberal EU constitution to be expelled from the European Union.

The anti-de Gaulle protestors in 1968 purported to be anti-capitalist, but their attacks on traditional values, the family, the church, the nation state, and a leader who, as a true conservative, was inherently hostile to the rule of money power, only helped the cause of global capitalism.

Forty years ago, the international moneymen were restrained, not just by currency and exchange controls but by the prevailing social attitudes that still held greed to be one of the seven deadly sins. By helping to crack what he called “the yoke of conservatism” and by loosening the ties of family and community that bind us together as human beings, Cohn-Bendit paved the way for the change in attitudes towards money-making that was to follow.

The “bourgeois triumphalism” of the Thatcher (and Blair) era, the greed-is-good ethos which even the governor of the Bank of England now condemns, and our materialistic individualism, might just have had their roots 40 years back” writes the conservative commentator Geoffrey Wheatcroft. The reality is that Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Gordon Gekko are two sides of the same self-centered, individualistic coin.

“No one has dared tell them that we live in a world of market forces” says Cohn-Bendit as he attacks those on the left in France who are less enamoured of 21st Century capitalism than he is. Although he has talked of “the extreme religion” of “Thatcherism and even Blairism”, Cohn-Bendit’s solution to the rule of money power is not public ownership or a return to the dirigiste policies of the “Les Trente Glorieuses”, but that classic New Left cop-out “the social market”. In other words, allow capital to rule the roost, but make government pay for the mop-up operation.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Happy Bastille Day!

To all our readers in France.

To celebrate France's national day, here's a video of one of my favourite chansonierres, the legendary Gilbert Becaud, singing his 1967 hit, L'Important C'Est La Rose'. I once wrote that my idea of heaven was sitting in a smoke-filled bar at 3 o'clock in the morning and hearing this song on the juke-box for the fifth time in two hours. It still is. I hope you enjoy it too.

Wally of the Week: Robert Fox

Well, Sunny Hundal made a valiant attempt to scoop this week's prize, but in the end there was no catching Vulpes Vulpes.

In his extraordinarily ill-informed and silly article for The Guardian's Comment is Free, Fox (above) repeated the old neo-con chestnut that Saddam could be blamed for the Iraq war for not coming clean that he had no WMD. Not only that, he accused Iran of adopting the same tactics. According to Fox, Iran is playing a 'dangerous game'.

In fact, Iran is playing an intelligent game. The only way the country will be able to prevent an Israeli/US attack on it is to make Israel/US fear the consequences of such an attack. That was the aim of last week's missile tests. The Iranian President has made it quite clear that his country has no plans to attack anyone. He's also made it clear that if his country is attacked it will retalitate, in no uncertain fashion. As I've said before on many occasions, Iraq was attacked not because the US and Britain thought Saddam possessed WMDs, but because they knew damn well that he didn't. In other words, Iraq was attacked because the aggressors (the US and Britain) were not sufficiently deterred from attacking. The lesson from Iraq (and indeed from the lack of US military action against North Korea) is that deterrence works. It always has and always will do. The Iranians understand the principle of deterrence. Which is why the 'game' they are playing: talking peace but making clear to their would-be attackers that the consequences would be grave if they attacked,is actually the safest game of all.

It's astonishing that Robert Fox, whose profile tells us has been a journalist specialising in defence/foreign policy issues since the late 1960s, can't grasp this. Had his article been written by a neo-con it would have been understandable- neocons have an agenda which is to propagandise for military strikes against Iran. But Fox is no neocon. Which makes his piece even more wallyish.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Anti-Smoking hysteria reaches new heights

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Complaints to the BBC after Top Gear presenters lit up pipes containing herbal tobacco in a light-hearted RAF parody scene. A pub stormed by riot police after a customer refused to put out a cigarette. A threatening letter and a £75 fine sent by a local council to a woman who had dropped a cigarette butt.

Thought the current wave of anti-smoking hysteria sweeping Britain couldn't get any sillier? Then think again. At the BMA's annual conference earlier this week, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the organisation's head of science and ethics, urged film censors to give "pro-smoking" films an 18 certificate. Dr Nathanson cited the film Independence Day, in which hero Will Smith celebrates victory against aliens by lighting up a cigar as an example of a pro-smoking film. And if smoking has to be portrayed on our TV screens, Dr Nathanson would like to see storylines being developed that show the damaging consequences.

If Dr Nathanson and the BMA get their way – and in the present tobaccophobic climate it is a reasonable bet that they will – a classic children's film such as 101 Dalmatians would need an 18 certificate all on account of Cruella de Vil's penchant for puffing on her cigarette holder. And smoking soap characters would have to be shown going through the agonies of emphysema/lung cancer/bronchitis and all the other dreadful illnesses which smoking can cause, just so viewers don't get the wrong idea.

We live in a society in which we are bombarded with images of violence at the cinema, on television and on our computer screens, and yet Dr Nathanson thinks the biggest problem is Will Smith lighting a cigar. Never mind the number of violent deaths in Independence Day; it's the celebratory cigar that causes the offence.

In truth, Dr Nathanson doesn't have too much to worry about: film and TV programme makers are already bending over backwards to appease the anti-smoking lobby. Ian Fleming's James Bond is a 60-a-day man (Balkan and Turkish with three gold bands on the filter), but in the latest Bond film, Casino Royale, 007 is a smoke-free paragon – a man fully in tune with the rather strange morals of the first decade of the 21st century. "I can blow off someone's head at close range and splatter blood, but I can't light a good Cuban cigar," says the film's star, Daniel Craig. In the 2004 film version of Thunderbirds, that hitherto most stylish of smokers, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, was deprived of her trademark cigarette holder. And in last year's BBC production of Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective was, for the first time, sans pipe.

How different things were 30 or 40 years ago. Back then, even the contestants on University Challenge were allowed to smoke. In Joan Bakewell's famous Late Night Line Up interview with Harold Pinter, both interviewer and interviewee smoked freely; today they'd both face fines and censure.

No one is disputing that smoking constitutes a health risk. But a society that gets into more of a strop over fictional characters puffing on pipes, cigars and cigarette holders than people blasting each other to kingdom come, is surely one which has lost all sense of perspective.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The 'Liberation' of Afghanistan

This is what they call the 'good war'.

What Knife Crime Epidemic?

Breaking news. The Guardian reports:

Four men have been stabbed to death across London in 24 hours, one of them a 19-year-old who became the 20th teenager to die in a violent attack in the capital this year.
All the latest casualties died within a two-mile radius of each other in unrelated incidents.
In a disturbing spate of violence, the 19-year-old died yesterday after being knifed in a confrontation in a bedsit in Edmonton, north-east London, at about 2.30pm.
Three hours later in nearby Leyton, a 20-year-old Asian man died from a stab wound to his chest after a confrontation with a gang following a car crash.
At about 8.30pm, a 22-year-old man was found with stab wounds to his head and chest in a street in Walthamstow, less than two miles away. He died an hour later.
Earlier, at 4am yesterday, the body of a man in his 40s was found with knife wounds behind a disused pub on Tottenham High Road.

What knife crime epidemic? asks uber-elite blogger Sunny Hundal, (above), the self-appointed leader of the 'liberal-left' blogosphere.

What knife crime epidemic indeed.

Children of the Revolution

Francis Beckett gets it in one:

The children of the 60s and those of the 70s thought New Jerusalem was around the corner, its arrival hindered only by the conservatism of Harold Wilson's Labour governments. They did not realise that they were living in New Jerusalem and that their generation, which benefited from this dazzling array of freedoms, would, within 20 years, destroy them. Nor did they realise - for they had never heard of Tony Blair - how lucky they were to have Wilson to hate. Wilson courageously kept Britain out of Vietnam, founded the Open University and made such cautious moves towards greater social equality as were allowed by the difficult economic circumstances.

Proud of having conquered their inherited inhibitions, the 60s and 70s generations thought, in their innocence and foolishness, that there was little else to conquer. Their parents had battled for healthcare, for education, for full employment and economic security. These battles having apparently been won, the young fought for, and won, the right to wear their hair long and to enjoy sex. These were the battles that the young Blair fought and won at a stifling old-fashioned public school, Fettes, at the end of the 60s. He rejected the statism of the Attlee settlement. It is precisely because Blair is an authentic child of the 60s and 70s that he threw away Labour's chance to change the Thatcher settlement of Britain's affairs. He had no quarrel with it.

Hat tip: David Lindsay.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Nothing to laugh about

From the Daily Mail:

The parents of a teenager killed by a speeding cyclist called for a change in the law after he walked away from court with just a £2,200 fine.
Jason Howard was convicted of dangerous cycling for killing Rhiannon Bennett as she walked to a shop with friends.
The two-day trial at Aylesbury Crown Court heard that as Howard, a line painter from Buckingham, sped towards Rhiannon on a quiet road near his home in April last year he shouted: 'Move, because I'm not stopping.'
Howard admitted he could have avoided Rhiannon if he had slowed right down.
Howard, who has a previous conviction and is well-known in his home town as a 'thrill-seeker', was also ordered to pay £750 in costs.
The parents of poor Rhiannon Bennett say the punishment handed down to her daughter’s killer was ‘laughable’.

I think the word I would have used was ‘obscene’.

How about you?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Just the tonic for a wet summer's day in Nu Labour Britain

A major recession looming. Spiralling food and petrol prices. A government and opposition both in the pockets of big business. Murders and stabbings every day. Neo-crazies gunning for war with Iran. And on top of all that, it's been raining all day.

For any British readers feeling a bit fed up after the wettest day since Noah built his Ark, (and for non-British readers who may be feeling fed up too), here's the perfect tonic: the wonderful Esther Ofarim singing 'Mad about the Boy', from a 1970 Morecambe and Wise Show.

Enjoy, and remember, the darkest hour is just before dawn.

An Old Chestnut

The Iraq war, as we all know, was a war founded on lies and deceit. Five years on, the deceit continues. A favourite neo-con porkie is that Saddam was somehow to blame for the conflict because he pretended to have WMD. Like all the other neo-con claims, it's a total fabrication: Saddam at no point in the lead-up to war claimed to have WMD, and it is because the US and Britain knew he was telling the truth that they felt confident enough to launch a full scale invasion.

While it's par for the course to hear/read a neocon make such a preposterous claim, its depressing to see an experienced journalist who is not a neocon regurgitate the old 'it was all Saddam's fault because he pretended to have WMD' chestnut.

"Saddam thought he could stay in power by pretending he might have some kind of exotic weaponry which would confound his enemies at the last minute.... his mistake was to continue to pretend to have what he didn't"
opines Robert Fox in The Guardian.

It seems that Fox believes that Britain and the US went to war because they thought Iraq possessed WMD.

Like they did with North Korea, Robert?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Children of '68 (1)

This essay of mine, on the longer term impact of the Paris riots of 1968, appears in the anti-war, anti-globalist magazine The American Conservative. The essay is nearly 2,000 words long, so instead of publishing it all in one go, I'll be serialising it, for easier digestion.

In one corner, a 77-year old general from an old aristocratic family, a war hero and the ruler of his country for the past nine years. In the other, a red-headed young anarchist, preaching the language of liberation and revolution.

Charles de Gaulle was portrayed by the 1968 rioters in Paris as a right-wing reactionary—an old fuddy-duddy hopelessly out of touch with the spirit of the times. Daniel “Dany le Rouge” Cohn-Bendit, unofficial leader of the student rioters, was billed the radical “progressive.” But 40 years on, it’s clear that the real hero of 1968—and the man whom history has totally vindicated—was de Gaulle. Conservatives probably won’t need much convincing of that—but for leftists, too, it’s the general and not Red Dany who should be hailed from the rooftops.

De Gaulle was no right-wing dictator a la General Franco. Distrustful of politicians—he once famously declared “politics are too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”—de Gaulle saw the referendum as the best way a leader could divine the wishes of his people. Always distrustful of the power of money and market fundamentalism, he introduced a mixed economy, a welfare state, and presided over the biggest rise in living standards for ordinary people in French history. “He was a man who did not care for those who owned wealth; he despised the bourgeois and hated capitalism” was the verdict of de Gaulle’s biographer Jean Lacouture. De Gaulle not only did not care for those who owned wealth, he didn’t care much for wealth itself. Despite occupying the highest office in state for ten years, he died in penury—instead of accepting the pension he was entitled to as a retired president and general he only took the pension of a colonel. The contrast between de Gaulle and the money-obsessed career politicians of today could not be greater.

De Gaulle’s foreign policy stressed national sovereignty and pursuing the French—and not the American or anyone else’s—national interest. Having done more than any other Frenchman alive to help liberate his country from Nazi occupation, he was not going to let his country be dominated by any other after the war. De Gaulle felt strongly that French forces should always be under French command. For this reason he took France out of the military command of NATO in 1966. An instinctive “live and let live” anti-imperialist, he pulled French forces out of Algeria and was the strongest Western critic of the war in Vietnam and Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

Cohn-Bendit of the “Anarchiste Group of Nanterre” was the antithesis of everything de Gaulle stood for. De Gaulle, the archetypal proud Frenchman, had been born into a deeply patriotic family. Cohn-Bendit, born in France to German parents in April 1945, was officially stateless at birth. De Gaulle loved France; Cohn Bendit hated almost everything about it in 1968.

While de Gaulle, the devoted husband and family man, preached social conservatism, Cohn-Bendit advocated extreme libertinism. He first came to national prominence when he interrupted a speech of a minister who was inaugurating a swimming pool at the University of Nanterre to demand free access to the girls’ dormitory. The disturbances of 1968 were kicked off when Cohn-Bendit, together with seven other students, occupied offices and lecture halls of the University of Nanterre and declared the birth of the “22nd March movement.” The student protests quickly spread to the Sorbonne, and soon France was a nation in crisis. Although economic grievances were added to the students’ demands in attempt to bring industrial workers into the dispute, the main motivation behind the protests was social, not economic. “It was a revolt, not a revolution—we wanted to change this old fashioned society,” admits Cohn-Bendit.

The old left were unimpressed. French Communist Party leader George Marchais famously denounced Cohn-Bendit and his fellow student protestors as “sons of the upper bourgeoisie who will quickly forget their revolutionary flame in order to manage daddy’s firm and exploit workers there.” The working class remained skeptical of the demonstrations. They had good reason to be. The French working class had done well out of Gaullism. Under de Gaulle’s dirigiste economic policies: the French economy recorded growth rates unrivalled since the 19th century. In 1964, for the first time in 200 years, France’s GDP overtook that of the United Kingdom. The protestors called for increased industrial democracy, yet this was also a policy long favored by de Gaulle, who announced in a national address on May 24 a referendum that would give the government authority to “amend the economy in favor of the less fortunate” and also to reform universities.

Monday, July 07, 2008

The double standards of the 'War on Terror'

Neo-conservatism is, as I've said before on many occasions, the most fraudulent ideology in history. Everything about is phoney-not least the 'war on terror' that neocon propagandists remind us of every time they put pen to paper or are handed a microphone.

The double standards in the 'war on terror' are glaring. In this excellent piece for the First Post, Matthew Carr writes of western support for terrorists in Iran:

The Resistance Council is generally considered a front for the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), an enigmatic Marxist-Islamist group based in Iraq. As well as bombings and assassinations of Iranian state officials, the MEK is accused of killing Americans, and aiding Saddam's 1991 repression of the Kurds and Shia. In the build-up to the Iraq war these activities were cited by the Bush administration as evidence of Saddam Hussein's supposed sponsorship of 'international terrorism'.

Yes, you've guessed it, the MEK and the Iranian Resistance Council, are now the 'good guys' as the hawks in Washington look for all the help they can get in their campaign to topple the current Iranian government.

Western backing for terrorists in Iran shouldn't surprise us. In the late 1990s, the west backed the KLA (Kosovan Liberation Army) in their campaign of terror against both Serbian and Albanian civilians in Kosovo. The aims back then were the same as they are in Iran today- to help destabilise a government which didn't do exactly what the empire builders in Washington wanted it to do. And that, for our neo-con terrorist-supporting 'democrats', really is the ultimate crime.

The Golden Age of Men's Tennis not the 1960s, the 70s or the 80s.

It's now.

I thought that I'd seen all there was to see in football before this year's European Championships. And I thought I'd seen all there was to see in tennis too, until yesterday's extraordinary Wimbledon men's final. Titantic is not the word. Nearly five hours of superlative tennis, with both men showing extraordinary mental strength. But it wasn't just the quality of tennis which made yesterday's match so special. It was the great sportmanship of the two finalists.

Throughout the match there was no screaming at umpires or shouting of obscenities. There was no big-headed crowing from Nadal after he eventually prevailed; instead he redefined the meaning of the word 'magnaminous'. "He (Federer) is still the best player in history. Roger is always fighting. He's still the number one, still the best, still five times champion here- I've just won one". I don't know about you, but Nadal's speech was the most graceful winning speech I've ever heard in my life. Federer for his part, paid generous tribute to his conqueror, like the true gent he is.

How different Federer and Nadal are from the petulant, spoiled-brat tennis stars of the 1970s and 80s. The on-court, bad sport antics of the likes of Nastase, Connors, McEnroe and that scowling sourpuss Ivan Lendl might seem humorous now- but they weren't very funny at the time. The golden age of so many things might be in the 70s- but with Nadal and Federer at the helm, the golden age of men's tennis is most definitely today.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Wally of the Week: Peter Mandelson

Sometimes, the contest for Wally of the Week is a close one, but this week the winner was never in doubt.
"Free trade is our only way forward" says Mandy, like the true totalitarian he is. Mandy's already given us Nu Labour, now he wants the rest of Europe to follow suit and sacrifice their industries and agriculture on the altar of neoliberalism. Nobody voted for Mandelson to be EU Trade Commissioner, but since when have the views of ordinary people counted where the globalist elite are concerned?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Happy Birthday to the NHS- and how we can save it

The National Health Service, the greatest of all the many great achievements of the post-war 'Old' Labour governments of 1945-51, is 60 years old today.

How should we mark the anniversary? By wearing badges like Nu Labour politicians and pretending that everything's hunky dory? No, we should mark the anniversary by doing all we can to restore the NHS to its original state. That means an immediate halt to plans for the greater involvement of private companies in public health provision. It means axing the planned polyclinics- which would eventually be run by big business. It means scrapping the scandalously expensive PFI schemes. It means bringing back in-house those hospital activities which have been privatised to such disastrous effect- such as cleaning and catering. It means putting Matron back in charge of the wards and stopping the politically motivated attacks on the medical profession. It means restoring NHS dentistry and scrapping prescription charges in England. In short it means fighting for the sort of National Health Service that that great socialist and humanitarian politician Aneurin Bevan envisaged sixty years ago.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Fourth of July to all U.S. readers!

A very Happy 4th July to all American and US-based readers of this blog. And,(despite his views on Nicolas Sarkozy's trade policies), a special 'best wishes' to our regular US-based commenter Roland Hulme, who is to become a father. Many congratulations, Roland.

America's special day gives us a great excuse to celebrate that country's greatest detective: the one and only Ellery Queen. As regular readers will know, I'm a big Ellery Queen fan: the books are among the best mysteries ever written and as for the 1975 tv series.....well, words fail me.

You can hear the great theme music of EQ above (composed by Elmer Bernstein) and if you click here, you can watch a whole nine minutes of a classic EQ episode on You Tube. It was great that the BBC finally brought Ellery Queen back in 2006, but disappointing that the programmes were scheduled on BBC2 on Sunday mornings in the summer, when relatively few people would be watching. So if any BBC programme supremo does happen to wander pass this blog- please, please consider putting on the show on at peak time during the long winter evenings. You'll have a huge hit on your hands if you do.

UPDATE: Roland Hulme has become a father- his son being born on the 4th July!
Many congratulations to you and yours Roland, and I hope your son will eventually carry on the family blogging tradition. Being named after one of Britain'sbest bloggers might help!

Capital Punishment. Why not?

Now there will be many readers of this blog who hold a principled opposition to capital punishment, and I have much respect for such views. But can anyone seriously explain why the devil/s responsible for this unbelievably horrific crime be kept alive, at enormous expense to the taxpayer?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Vote for Sarkozy!

I've just voted for Nicolas Sarkozy.

No, don't worry, I haven't been smoking illegal substances or overdoing the Ouzo.
I've voted for Sarko in the Guardian poll on who would be the best person to be in charge of the EU Trade negotiations: The French President or EU Trade Commissioner Peter 'Mandy' Mandelson.

I've written some pretty critical stuff on Sarkozy over the past year or so and there's no doubt that his foreign policy initiatives leave much to be desired. But on the issue of the EU's trade negotiations, he's dead right.

"One child dies every 30 seconds because they are hungry, and we should go and negotiate within the WTO framework a 20 percent cut in European agricultural production? Honestly, there is one person who is of that opinion -- that's Mr Mandelson.", Sarkozy said recently.

Sarkozy, unlike Mandelson, is not an ideological free trader. He believes, quite rightly, that Europe's ability to feed itself comes before a dogmatic attachment to neoliberal economics.

It's Britain, and not France, that is pushing the extreme neoliberal agenda in the EU. And it's Mandelson, the architect of New Labour, who is playing a key role in this process: a process which benefits global big business and no one else.

So, please, if you've got a spare moment, get over to the Guardian poll, and help defeat Mandy! It may well be the only time in your life you vote for Nicolas Sarkozy, so make the most of it!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The decline of Britain's cosmopolitan culture

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

We've already read a lot on Comment is free about 1968 - the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Paris riots and the invasion of Czechoslovakia. But there's one interesting aspect of that most tumultuous of years - and of the late 1960s in general - that has so far escaped attention. Namely, just how open we were in Britain to European culture. It might seem paradoxical, but the more Britain has integrated into the European Union, the less European cultural influences there are in this country.

In the late 60s, the pop charts were full of great European music. In the spring/summer of 1968, a regular play on Radio Caroline was the hauntingly beautiful French orchestral hit Ame Câline (Soul Coaxing) by Raymond Lefèvre (itself a cover of a song by French singer-songwriter Michel Polnareff). Another big hit in 1968 was L'Amour Est Bleu (Love is Blue) performed by Paul Mauriat and his orchestra, also from France. The charts of the time were full of international acts, including Esther and Abi Ofarim from Israel (who in February 1968 became the first, and to date only, Israeli act to make it to No 1 in Britain), Nana Mouskouri from Greece, Aphrodite's Child (with Demis Roussos), Bert Kaempfert, Sacha Distel, Serge Gainsbourg and many others. The music of Jacques Brel and Gilbert Becaud was hugely popular, being covered by a whole host of British performers.

On television, BBC2 regularly showed foreign films on Saturday evenings. Today, if you ask Britons to name a continental film star, they'll probably only come up with just two: Juliette Binoche and Gérad Depardieu. Back in the 60s, Simone Signoret, Melina Mercouri, Yves Montand, Alain Delon, Fernandel, Catherine Deneuve, Romy Schneider, Gert Fröbe and Maximilian Schell were household names.

A feature of the mid/late 1960s was the international film - a production (sometimes co-produced) that featured actors from several countries. In Ship of Fools, France's Simone Signoret played alongside Austria's Oskar Werner, America's Lee Marvin and Britain's Vivien Leigh. In Topkapi, Greece's Melina Mercouri starred with Austria's Maximilian Schell, Armenian Akim Tamiroff and Peter Ustinov, a man whose own cosmopolitanism seemed ideally suited to the age. There were international comedies too: such as Monte Carlo or Bust: in which our very own Peter Cook and Dudley Moore starred alongside legendary French comedian Bourvil, Italy's Lando Buzzanca and Walter Chiari, and Germany's Gert Fröbe.

Then there's television. Children's TV schedules in the late 1960s abounded with excellent European imports from both western Europe: The Magic Roundabout, Hector's House, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (with its wonderful theme tune), Hergé's Adventures of Tintin, Belle and Sebastian, The Flashing Blade, and, from communist eastern Europe, The Mole, The Singing Ringing Tree and numerous animated features, as well as programmes that were co-productions between east and west, such as The White Horses, made by Radio Television Serbia and BR-TV of then west Germany.
Today, you will struggle to find a single programme on terrestial British television that has been made in continental Europe. There's certainly no children's television series that tells the story of a siege during the War of the Mantuan Succession, as The Flashing Blade did, or relates the story of a riding stables in the Balkans (The White Horses).

The sad truth is that the era of turbo-globalisation hasn't led to a greater cross-fertilisation of cultures as its supporters claimed it would - but the overwhelming dominance of an introspective, bland and dumbed-down transatlantic global culture that isn't a patch on the true cosmopolitanism we had in the 1960s.

The political changes in eastern Europe in the late 1980s has led to the slow death of the region's television and film industries: as subsidies were withdrawn, many film studios closed or have been taken over by western production companies. While in the west, media liberalisation has led to the decline of state television, a proliferation of privately owned satellite channels and a massive lowering in quality. The domination of the music industry by a handful of powerful multinational firms has led to a destruction of diversity: there's little chance of a French orchestral number getting into the higher echelons of the UK singles chart now.

Back in 1968, we faced currency restrictions whenever we travelled abroad and there were no cheap Ryanair flights or Eurostar trains to the continent. But while we may have found it harder to go to Europe, European culture certainly found it a lot easier to come to us.

Britain's Most Miserable- and Charmless- Sportsman

On Monday evening I was enthralled by that magnificent, white-knuckle fightback to a knee-buckling finish and a place in the Wimbledon quarter-finals. How I wanted him to win.
And when he triumphed, for a brief moment I thought I did love him – until he indulged in that ridiculous “Popeye” gesture, baring his bicep at the crowd, and I was reminded, again, of all the reasons I don’t. Murray is too aggressive, too surly, too focused, too hairy and utterly charmless.
writes Liz Hunt in today's Daily Telegraph.
I couldn't agree more. Here's my First Post piece from 2006 on Britain's most miserable- and charmless sportsman- and although Murray has clearly improved as a tennis player since then- his ridiculous "Popeye" gesture on Monday night showed he hasn't improved much as a human being.

Not Lost in Translation

Looking for a good translating service? I’ve been asked by our good friend The Exile to give a plug to a new translation company a friend of his has started., based in Mexico City, provide translation services in English to: Spanish, Chinese, German, Hungarian; Spanish to: English, Chinese, German, French; Chinese to: English, Spanish; French to: English, Spanish, German; Hungarian to: English; German to: English, Spanish, French.

The company translates agreements, websites, pamphlets, journals, contracts, manuals and certificates, (so if you want a posting on your blog/website translated into Chinese, you know who to contact!).

For those interested, more details of Morfosintactica's services can be found here.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

After 100 years SOS is Still Our Saviour

Today, July 1st, is the 100th anniversary of the SOS distress call, recognised all over the world. Here’s my piece to mark the anniversary from The Daily Express.

A common misconception is that ‘SOS’ stands for something: popular choices being: "Save Our Ship,""Save Our Souls" "Survivors On Ship," or "Save Our Sailors".

But the letters have no meaning in themselves- ‘SOS’ is just three dots, three dashes, three dots in Morse Code- a simple, and easily recognisable message which became the internationally recognised distress signal for ships at sea exactly one hundred years ago this week.

The letters ‘SOS’ have, over the past century, become firmly established in popular culture. The rock group The Police sang about sending an ‘SOS to the world’ in their hit ‘Message in a Bottle‘. ABBA‘s ‘SOS’ also got to number one, while Rihanna’s ‘SOS-Rescue Me’ was a huge international hit in 2006.

SOS is recognised as a distress signal not just at sea, but anywhere where people find themselves in danger. Three short, three long and three short signals, transmitted by flashlights, has been used by those stranded in mountainous area at night. And people lost in the wilderness have used rocks and other objects to spell out ‘SOS’ to attract the attention of aircraft. ‘Sending out an SOS signal’ has become the parlance for anyone who sends out a signal for help-whether or not Morse Code is used- like the American hiker who earlier this month was rescued from a German mountain after waving and throwing her bra to attract attention.

The story of SOS begins in the late 19th century. Before the advent of radio telegraphy, ships in distress had to rely on the likes of semaphore flags, signal flares, bells, and foghorns to attract the attention of would-be rescuers. But around the end of the 19th century, sea-going vessels began to be fitted with radios. Ship radios back then did not involve vocal communication, but the use of Morse Code- a system of communication developed in the US in the 1840s.

The first ship to send out a Morse Code radio distress signal was the East Goodwin lightship, when the merchant ship ‘Elbe’ ran aground in Kent in March 1899. The lightship radioed the nearby lighthouse, which then summoned the aid of lifeboat to rescue the ship’s crew. Ironically, only a month later the East Goodwin lightship became the first vessel to send a radio signal of its own distress when it was rammed by another ship.

The problem was that different ships used different messages to say they were in distress, often leading to confusion. Some ships transmitted ‘Help’, while others used messages in their own language- not much use if in danger off the coast of another country. There was an urgent need for an internationally agreed standardised distress signal and the first one to be adopted was ‘CQD’ - devised by Britain’s Marconi Corporation in 1904. But although this was a major step forward, there were still problems. ‘CQD’ was supposed to mean ‘All Stations-Urgent’, but it was regularly mistaken for ‘Come quick- danger’. And if the final ‘D‘ was not heard, then the signal would be interpreted as the non-urgent "calling anyone".

Something simpler- and less open to misinterpretation was needed and the solution was found in Germany.

The Germans had originally used the distress signal ‘SOE’. But it was felt that the three ‘dots’ of an ‘S’ in Morse Code were easier to hear in static than the one dot of an ‘E’, so the final letter was substituted.

The real beauty of ‘SOS’ was its simplicity: dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot in Morse Code was far less likely to be misinterpreted than the more complex dash-dot-dash-dot, dash-dash-dot-dash, dash-dot-dot of ‘CQD‘. And it could be sent far more quickly- and with less chance of the radio operator making a mistake. For these reasons ‘SOS’ was officially adopted as the international distress signal at the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention in 1906- to come into effect on 1st July 1908.

It wasn’t long before the new signal was saving lives. In June 1909, a Cunard liner, the SS Slavonia, was wrecked off the Azores. The ship used the ‘SOS’ signal, which was received by two steamships who promptly went to the rescue. Not a single life was lost.

Although the use of ‘SOS’ had been officially ratified in 1908, ‘CQD’ lingered for several more years, especially on British ships. When the Titanic struck an iceberg off Newfoundland in April 1912, the ship first used ‘CQD’ to call for help. Later ‘CQD’ was interspersed with ‘SOS’, at the suggestion of the ship’s second radio operator Harold Bride. "Send SOS; it's the new call, and this may be your last chance to send it." Bride told the ship’s first radio operator, Jack Phillips.

Bride‘s words were indeed prophetic, as Phillips, along with over 1500 others, perished in the disaster.

The sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the use of ‘CQD’: from now on SOS was universally used as the international distress signal. Even America, initially reluctant to adopt international radio standards, officially adopted SOS in 1912.

During the First World War, when Allied ships faced the peril of being sunk by German U-Boats in the Atlantic- the SOS signal came into its own.

Sometimes though, fate transpired to hinder a successful rescue. In May 1915, the ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by a U-Boat just eight miles off the coast of Ireland. The ship immediately sent out an SOS, but because of a violent second explosion, the exact cause of which still remains a mystery to this day- it sank within 18 minutes- causing the deaths of 1,198 people.

In the Second World War, signals to augment SOS were devised. SOS followed by ‘SSS’ meant that the ship had been attacked by submarines; ‘AAA’ meant an attack by an aircraft, while QQQ meant attack by an unknown raider.

Today, there are now many other means of communicating that a ship is distress which don’t rely on Morse Code- such as the use of VHF radio, digital selective calling and even mobile phone calls to rescue services.

SOS messages can also be sent into space. In the 1970s the Soviet Union developed a satellite system (Kospas) which could receive distress signals from ships on earth. A similar American-French-Canadian system called Search and Rescue Satellite -Aided Tracking, (Sarsat), was also set up and in 1979 the two systems were joined together with the first satellite being launched three years later.

The quick location of ships by satellite technology has reduced the time it takes to rescue stricken vessels, helping to save even more lives. It’s all a far cry from the early days of radio telegraphy.

Today, there are now many other means of communicating that a ship is distress which don’t rely on Morse Code- such as the use of VHF radio, digital selective calling and even mobile phone calls to rescue services. But SOS is still the signal of distress that the whole world recognises.

It Ain't Half Hot Mum!

Well it certainly is here in Blighty, where we're experiencing the hottest day of the year. Which gives us a great excuse to watch a classic clip from one of the funniest of all the 'golden age' 1970s sitcoms. Prepare to enjoy the most hilarious game of snooker you'll ever see in your life!