Monday, 6 April 2015

Eurovision Song Contest 2015: it's a very sad year

It seems like nobody wants a party this year. Or at least very few. With the Middle East in its most parlous state ever, Western Africa simmering, Eastern Africa failing to make any progress in stopping the rise of extremism, poverty and destitution on the rise everywhere, and rich European countries (who should know better) acting selfishly over a few lost Shekels in the Aegean Sea, it is no wonder this year's Eurovision Song Contest has a melancholy air about it.

There are a lot of real dirges this year and a lot of awfully miserable lyrics:

This offering from Hungary's Boggie ("Wars for Nothing") sums it up:

"Do you know how many innocents
Are hiding from punishment
For crimes they’d never commit?
All alone, all alone"

I would, however, suggest that the song itself is a very good one. 

Unlike Armenia's, whose lyrics seem to have been hastily thrown together by one of those online rhyme generators:

"We find so many ways fooling our heart
Playing too many games trying to hide
When you follow a dream, surrender the sorrow inside 
Face every shadow you denied

Feels like so many times life was unfair
Will you run and forget all the despair? 
If it’s breaking you down, remember the power inside
Face every shadow you denied"

There are some diamonds in the rough, for example France, whose chanteuse Lisa Angell offers peace, hope, courage and (that old French cliché) solidarity to her listeners when she sings about her village that had been destroyed by war and that she is back to rebuild it. We all need to have dreams - good luck with that...

It's going to be three very long evenings in May, and I have decided not to hold a Eurovision party this year. So let's check the potential winners at the bookmakers:

  • Sweden is about 6-4, even though the song itself, for me, falls very short.
  • Italy, at 4-1, had come with a powerful performance by three tenors and the song sticks in the head, although opera tends not to do so well at Eurovision.
  • Estonia are 5-1 third favourites, goodness knows why, it's a mess.

There are some worth mentioning:

Latvia's singer has a very special voice and the song has some very unique backbeats.
Lithuania, the only Baltic country never to have won, has a happy melody and will do well, even with the kissing gimmick in the middle of the song. A dark horse.
Austria, Poland, Ireland and Belarus all go for pianos in one way or another, as do several other countries.
Finland has sent some men with learning difficulties with another hard rock number, which will garner a lot of votes.
Cyprus has taken a leaf out of the cute shy guy book and sent a pleasant ditty.


The smart money should go on:

Australia at 9-1 - the song is strong, and it's their only attempt at it so they're liable to have an incredible act. At this stage, I think it will place high, but it won't win. I may change my mind on the night.

Denmark at 100-1 - it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest as an anthemic number that won't go out of your head, and is by a long way the best offering from the Nordic Eurovision powerhouses. It's got everything going for it - cute boy singer, no gimmicks and a memorable melody. I think I'm going to vote for this one.

The UK at 40-1 - quirky updated Charleston number with a feelgood beat and some humour attached. Some Louis Armstrong scatting in the middle is the only change in what is a pleasant melody but never really takes off.

The Netherlands at 66-1 - as usual, something different from them, and Trijntje Oosterhuis hits out a song that doesn't make you want to switch over to the news. Probably won't win, but is the best of the ballads.

Belgium at 33-1 - this young man will have the housewives and gay men purring. His video shows water dripping down his face, and I'm sure that's how most people will want to watch him as he sings "we're gonna rrrra ba ba tonight". If the staging is right (and Belgium is notoriously awful at it, although Wallonia less so than Flanders), he'll be sitting pretty in the top half of the final table.

Forgettable songs are aplenty though: Russia seems to have given up and is sending another copy/paste china doll; Greece really doesn't want to host it next year, but it feels left out without an entry; Switzerland is so desperate for votes, it has sent an off-the-shelf number that will appeal to the mediocrity lovers east of the Balkans; Armenia, FYROM, Georgia, Spain, Slovenia, Serbia, Czech Republic are all forgettable. But not as forgettable as everyone else I've not mentioned.

So here are my predictions for the winning song this year:

  • The winning song will have at least one man singing.
  • It will be a song that does not mention the current issues: an escape from the world's troubles.
  • It will be close.

To check out all this year's contestants and their songs, visit the Eurovision website.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Is the West endangered by Russia? No. By an ineffective Germany? Yes.

In recent weeks, there have been murmurs of Russian expansion into Western Europe, both in military terms and economic terms. I for one don't buy the theory that they are preparing for a wholesale takeover of the continent, or even a partial one; we should just keep them at arm's length, get on with trade and leave it at that. I fear Germany and its dismissive inactivity in areas of security and territorial integrity, combined with its grip on Eurozone austerity much, much more.

I live in Germany, a country that looks east and west in equal measures. Because of its self-instilled role as benign regional superpower, it had bestowed on itself a mainly symbolic role in diplomatic affairs. This troubles me, because I see this policy as breathtakingly hypocritical. Germany is a country with a recent history of washing its hands of highly-charged political and economic upheaval, not throwing enough energy into the fight against the international threats of terrorism, disease, poverty, hunger, or saving the planet, and seems to be happy enough to let the poorest EU member states drown in the waters of its own enforced austerity measures. Germany is getting rich off the backs of others' misery. At the same time, despite jittery Poles, nervous Balts and baffled Swedes, all who have been recent victims to Russia's mind games, Germany seems to want to carry on playing the old appeasement tune, as if in some sarcastic way to say "you emasculated us in 1945, now you'll see what the consequences are!" At this time, sitting on the fence is the most alarming thing to be doing. It is making countries who have had a peaceful recent history get second thoughts on their alignments and allegiances.

Poland and the Baltic States have had a long and troubled relationship with Russia, and no other countries are better experienced in trying to second-guess Russia's next moves. They are justified in being worried about the future and believing they need to start preparing for a Russian onslaught. This is not necessarily because they think it will happen - it is because they do not trust the bigger powers, especially Germany, to defend them if necessary. I for one believe that Russia will stay away from Poland, although the Baltic States I am not sure. But we should encourage those four countries nonetheless to increase their military spending. We should also be helping them by bolstering the number of NATO troops in the area even further. This is however not happening. The West is running out of military personnel running around putting out little fires in other parts of the world, like the Middle East and East Africa. What it should be doing is watching its own back.

Russia is loving every minute of this - watching its former underlings criticising the senior NATO members for not providing enough reassurance that they will honour the NATO promise to come to the aid of any of its members. And this is the fundamental reason why we need not fear a Russian invasion: Russia has always believed politics to be like chess - you win the game not by a full-on attack, but by tricking your opponents and making them paranoid about you. Chess is war by proxy. You manoeuvre your pieces in a way that makes the opponent fear and respect you. But it is not about territory, war or invasion. Russia wants NATO and the EU to implode by itself and so it is sowing the seeds of doubt. And at the moment it is winning very comfortably.

The Poles and the Baltic States should rightly worry about the future, and prepare for the worst just in case, but the US and especially Germany should hang their heads in shame at the ambiguous and complacent way they are treating those countries. In the end, Realpolitik may win the day, as it should, where Russia and Europe co-exist and rely on each other for trade, but we should not allow Germany and Russia to ruin us by doing nothing to defuse the situation.

Germany needs to man up, start throwing some of its weight around and act like the geopolitical power it is. 1945 is no longer an excuse; it needs to prove itself militarily. Herein lies the problem - after such a protracted period of demilitarisation, Germany is now full of conscientious objectors: people who are against war whatever the reason. How can any nation justify that in this day and age? We should all strive to avoid war, but sometimes it is the only option. There is no other way to defeat the barbaric 12th-century mob of mercenaries that calls itself the Islamic State. Al-Shabab and the like neither. At the same time, we should not seek war with Russia, Iran or any state where diplomacy would be more appropriate, but we should encourage the defence of all of our borders, no matter what the threat, and with nobody in particular in mind. Germany has shirked its responsibilities in all these areas, and continues to lord it over the Eurozone, enforcing its draconian and remorseless policies of austerity on countries whose governments have become more or less de facto puppet states of Brussels and Berlin.

This is the type of country that goes about its business with nothing in its conscience except saving its own bacon by cuddling up to Russia and China, whilst at the same time looking like the Good European. Germany's ability to persuade countries from Finland to Portugal and Greece to Ireland dance to its tune unquestioningly but with a modicum of fear and reverence, is testament to its stranglehold on European affairs. Countries like the Czech Republic, Denmark and the UK, which have a tradition of being slightly more aloof in the European context, are often isolated to the point of humiliation, the UK often being the last one standing. These are all trade-offs, you see, and the UK doesn't often give in to that, even if others do.

However, I think our feckless and thumb-twiddling politicians need to start acting a bit more streetwise. At the moment, they look like a group of bumbling and out-of-touch buffoons not dissimilar to the two hapless detectives in the ever-relevant Tintin comic strips. If I were a member of the EU Council of Ministers, no matter which country I was representing, I would be trying to persuade or even embarrass Germany into changing its stance of selfish inaction on many fronts, the UK to stop listening to the oil lobby about its objection to creating more wind farms, and also to stop reducing the size of its military, and the rest of Europe to start getting a lot quicker in its response to everything. It is so slow - it often meets and talks about matters that may have happened a week or more earlier and the world has moved on by then.

Russia though is not off the hook. Crimea seems a long way off, and the east of Ukraine has dropped off the newsreels. But it does not mean it is over - far from it. Right now, the people of that region don't know what the world is doing to them. It could be that through Europe's own policy of letting Germany actively do nothing (yes, you can actively do nothing!) we are letting the people of Ukraine down. Who is to say that the same would not happen to Poland or the Baltic countries, if such a scenario were to happen there? And this is where the UK and France come in - if Germany, having its hands firmly squeezed by Moscow due to its patronage of a lot of Russian trade, is reducing talks between Russia and Ukraine to "kiss and make up", what does that tell us about its leadership? As long as its economy is going along nicely, there's food on the table for everyone, its austerity measures kicking in everywhere except in Germany itself, what does it care? It has never acted in the interests of the whole, only its own.

According to a recent opinion poll, Germany is the most positively-viewed country in the world. Within 5 years, I think people will see that going down. It is starting to look a lot like Europe in the 20th century, as Germany is adopting a similar air of careless disregard for Poland, but this time as its so-called ally, not its master. If the EU is to survive Putin's mind games, Germany needs to stop relying on the UK and France as the EU's military wing, and allay the fears of Poland and the Baltic States by more than just words. Angela Merkel's dismissal of other nations' concerns, from protection of Polish and Baltic territorial integrity, through British repatriation of powers from Brussels, to Spanish and Greek austerity, could cause the EU to collapse. It is time we either started to take some of the responsibility away from Germany whether it likes it or not, or made it realise it is doing great harm to everyone else through its own lazy and two-faced policies.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland gets to decide who will I be in the morning.

What does it mean to be British? It is an all-encompassing term for a person or thing having ties to, or identifying themselves with, the United Kingdom and its islands and dependencies. It is a very versatile and inclusive name for people who live or were born there. It is another layer of identity lying under that of European, Asian, African, etc. and above English, Welsh, Scottish. But it is more than that - it is possible to be Australian and British, Jamaican and British, Chinese and British, or Eritrean and British, It is a very important part of many people's identity. Including mine. In fact, I don't have a third layer, I have only two: European and British. I do not see myself as English, even though I was born in London; I do not class myself as Polish, despite my surname; I do not see myself as German or Belgian despite my ties to them. I am British first and European second. What will I be if a very important part of my country decides to break away?

As I write these lines, the polls have been closed for 50 minutes. My identity is in the hands of fewer than 5 million people.

I have been trying very hard to understand why over 40% of Scottish people would like to separate from the rest and become foreigners on their own island. And what I have noticed is that many don't want to, but they feel they have to, either because their political views are not being recognised by the British government based in London, or because they feel they are not being listened to, or because they feel disenfranchised by them. There has become a certain amount of mistrust arising from this, and people feel the government in London is not representative of their views.

The Conservative Party is the main bête noire here. Many Scots feel that they often get governments in London that they didn't vote for. What they fail to remember is that, if you look at the European Parliament elections, the whole of the United Kingdom is not represented in the largest bloc of parties, as the European People's Party does not have a British participant: the Conservative Party is in the ECR bloc. At least in the British elections, all parties appear on ballot papers up and down the country, and if people don't want to vote for them, or have them as their government, it doesn't mean they should just leave - that is like selling your car because your road is being temporarily closed for roadworks.

Being disenfranchised is a far better reason, but it is a UK-wide thing. Politics in these times is very boring, full of glorified civil servants rather than visionaries. I think this is caused to some extent by the EU - all the major decisions take place there and so politicians back in their home countries sit playing with their stationery and writing memos to each other about dinner appointments. They are just there to do the bidding of faceless bureaucrats in offices far away. The one thing that needs to happen is a re-engagement of people in the political process. The referendum has certainly done that, and I hope, no I pray, that the political leaders of all colours grasp this moment whatever the result, to start a national debate in all areas, that we head towards a much more consultative political process.

I have always thought power should be more evenly distributed throughout the United Kingdom, and now there is a real possibility of this happening. Politicians can, however, take a good idea and fudge it out of reality. I would be very disappointed if that were to happen, and I truly hope they take everyone's views into account, not just narrow party politics, when they come to the rebuilding of this great country. If the Scottish should vote for independence, I hope London's representatives do not get dazzled by Alex Salmond's silver tongue and hard bargaining. I admire his wily competence but I have found his manipulation of the facts and figures and his really aggressive dismissal of the UK government ("Westminster government") have made me feel very uncomfortable. He said that a vote for the UK was a vote for closed-mindedness and nothing new, and a vote for independence was a vote for a bright new future, without really saying how. I found his aggressive tactics of persuasion very annoying and unhelpful.

Back to the point that concerns me most: I don't want to be from "South Britain", or England - I am British, and I will never feel the same again if that is taken away from me. The United Kingdom has a much bigger reason for staying together than other former breakaway countries like the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, etc., in that the countries that make up the United Kingdom have been together for at least 307 years. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are really late 19th-early 20th century concepts, whereas the UK is a work in progress and has been for centuries, at one time forging the largest empire the world has ever seen.

Someone today (a German) said, "I hear Scotland is voting today whether it wants to belong to England any more" - which made me furious. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are nations that belong to the United Kingdom, and that is how it has always been. My country, despite the rise of UKIP, and despite the clamour for a reduction in immigration and benefits to foreigners, is still the country of most opportunity in Europe. It is still a very welcoming place, if you come to it with a smile on your face and a willingness to be useful. It is still a very colour-blind nation, and long may it stay so.

Finally, I am, despite the predicament we are in this evening, very proud of my country for the adult way it has gone about this vote. There have been some very inspirational moments, like the BBC debate with just 16 and 17-year-olds, and the party atmosphere created in the land, no matter who you voted for, showing just how civilised the whole process has been. It is now 3 hours since polls closed, and the calmness and good humour I see on the TV as the votes are being counted is a credit to the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

I don't intend going to bed until I know the result.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Warmongers and peace protesters are sometimes two sides of the same coin

I have been having some almighty regrets recently.

Back in the early 2000s, whilst sitting in a bar in Belgium talking to some Americans and some locals, we (the Americans and me) launched a vitriolic attack on the others for their unwillingness to remove Saddam Hussein from power. What a bunch of white flaggers they were! Well no. Although we knew it back then, the war in Iraq was really about the oil (the US capture of the Ministry of Oil was one of the first things they did in Baghdad) and not the removal of Saddam Hussein. I naïvely thought Blair and Bush should have just come out and said it - we want to remove Saddam from power because of his horrific treatment of the Kurds and other minorities. But in fact they cooked up some cock-and-bull story about him having a deadly arsenal of lethal weapons. I personally thought they would have got a lot more sympathy from the UN Security Council and the EU dove countries (France and Germany in particular) if they had just said they were going in to remove a brutal dictator and liberate the people of Iraq.

How much I regret that now.

I look back and realise what a ridiculous notion it was to try to undermine the very embodiment of Middle Eastern stability that was the four-headed monster of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the king of Saudi Arabia and the Ayatollah in Iran, not to mention Gaddafi in Libya.

There is a saying in the Middle East: "Better a hundred years of dictatorship than a day of anarchy." And this is what Blair and Bush forgot about when they tried to enforce democracy on volatile lands that don't function like those found in Europe or North America. By trying to install a benign regime on a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country like Iraq, where there were many various victims of Saddam, they were opening Pandora's box. We know that now. I have always believed democracy is not good for everyone, but for some reason I got waylaid by Bush and his British stooge. I thought, OK, the reason is stupid, but that bastard needs to be taught a lesson.


I am quite sure, if we had just left the Middle East alone to sort it out with each other, not just in the nineties, but way back at the end of the French and British Empires, there would not have been half of these troubles as we have now. Quite possibly, the Arab world would have set up an enlightened, tolerant and progressive secular system where Muslims, Jews and Christians would also have flourished. But it would not have been a democracy like ours. It would have been an absolute monarchy run from either Riyadh, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo or Jerusalem, rich in oil and minerals, trading over time with the Soviets and then the Russians, the US, the Chinese, the EU and Africa. Due to their skills in business, the rulers would probably have made every other nation on Earth strike bargains to get what they wanted. It would have been the richest land on the planet. The scientific research and factory production of the region, stretching potentially from Mauritania in the west to Kuwait in the east, Khartoum in the south and Aleppo in the north, would have outproduced the West. Muslim science was far more advanced than Europe right up until, and in some cases beyond, the Renaissance. Rule by minority, coups d'état and flitting between monarchies and republics might have been the norm, but the people would have been far more peaceful had they had the chance to be united and peaceful. That is the key - a rich country at peace is always going to flourish, given the chance.

No wonder why the Middle East was divided along lines drawn up by the British and the French after the colonial period: keep them fighting each other, and it'll keep them poor and undeveloped for centuries to come. And unfortunately, that's what has happened. The number of wars fought in the name of politics, people or religion in that area is second to none, and the repression, fear and indignation many in those lands have felt at the hands of our rulers in the West is just as strong and must be redressed as soon as possible. It is impossible to redraw the borders now - the leaders in the various countries where stability fortunately reigns would find it difficult to accept - but I think there is a case for doing something practical with Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan now. We forget the hundreds of minorities, both religious and ethnic, spread through the region - Assyrian, Kurdish, Alawite, Yazidi, Druze, Shabak, Zoroastrian, Baha'ï people all living there, getting on with their daily lives, and concentrate our thoughts on the Sunni and Shia, as the two largest groups. And we shouldn't. We should help establish some kind of federation of peoples in that region, with a firm, strong hand on the wheel, steering it towards secular tolerance and non-violent acceptance of all people living there, a society based on a common identity through history and memory, whose inhabitants look out for each other.

But here we need to discuss the real meaning of nationhood. For some, it is a very small thing - the village or region you live in; for others it is about speaking the same language; having the same religion; sharing similar values, etc... And therein lies the fundamental problem - who would be happy now, sharing a state with former oppressors? Who would welcome the rule of someone from another group that does not represent you? It is too late to (re-)establish trust amongst the peoples of Iraq and Syria, and I fear we will only see peace if the various groups are allocated lands and told to go there unless they want to become foreigners in their own homes. Events like the Simele massacre in the early thirties are reasons why it is much too late to do much about it all.

The Islamic State is the result of the constant stigmatising, oppression and stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims by the West. It is the result of a century of mishandling of their situation, needs and values. It is the reason why wars were fought that did not need to be fought. It is why Israel feels justified in its brutal handling of Palestinians. It is why Bush and Blair felt they needed to enforce democracy there. It is why the Islamic State can recruit people from Birmingham, Brussels and Bergen. It is why oil has become so important, that we all have our hands dirtied in the muddy waters of Middle Eastern violence.

And after those awful wars of the 1990s and 2000s, the West has grown weary of it all. There is no appetite for more war. But when I see the reports coming out of Iraq, of the brutal treatment of those who don't want to play any part in the growth of the Islamic State, a truly terrifying and extreme band of militants, I think this is the first time a military strike is justified. And not just that - I think a land war is going to have to happen, in order to recalibrate the entire region. I was utterly horrified when I read that the US was still "considering" dropping humanitarian food and drink parcels to the Yazidi people stuck up the mountains of Sinjar. What did they mean, "considering"? There is nothing to "consider", just do it. But this is all the fault of those politicians who listen too much to peace protesters.

Peace is a good thing - we all want peace - but do they think this group of weapon-wielding nutjobs will say "OK, brothers and sisters, let's smoke a joint and forget it all"? No. This is a group that believes not in diversity or tolerance, but the unswerving and unquestioning devotion of all under their control to allegiance to their supreme leader and ultimately to their values, misinterpreted from the Qu'ran. They will stop at nothing. They even spoke about raising their black flag on the Palace of Westminster and the White House amongst others.

Pacifism in this instance is in fact just the lazy and simplistic way of letting the belligerents get what they want. It is washing their hands of the whole thing and condemning hundreds of thousands of people to die at the hands of those butchers, either through starvation and dehydration up a mountain, suicide out of fear of what is to come, or execution for apostasy. These extremists are brutal and nothing but the total removal of the organisation and re-integration into society of its members is necessary. The West has always been the one that has gone in to re-establish peace in areas of conflict - Bosnia-Hercegovina, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, amongst other places, always too little, always too late, often due to its own self-serving policies in the first place. Well now it's really time for the US and its allies to act, and do something for the benefit of mankind in the cradle of civilisation, and stop humming and hawing about legitimacy and mandates. That didn't stop them in the other wars, why should it now?

The hardest task is going to be trying to re-educate the younger members of the IS militants, so they can once again take their place in civilised society. It can be done, as the conclusion of other wars or ideology have proven, but it will not be easy. And in order to re-establish a proper, lasting peace in the region, a truth and reconciliation council not dissimilar to that in South Africa will be a good start, hopefully allowing the emergence of heirs apparent to take place: people who have suffered and can find room to rebuild their land in the new order.

Furthermore, the old stigmas attached to Islam and Arabic speakers need to be allowed to die. A slow increment in mutual respect needs to be established as soon as possible, and the full integration of all people respecting the law should be allowed to happen. But this will not happen while we continue to advocate the brutal subjugation by proxy of groups such as the Palestinians. We need to press the reset button on the relationship between us and the whole of the Middle East and the Maghreb countries. We need to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to stop our hypocritical mendacity towards the Gulf States, and we need to reduce our reliance on oil. All these things require one tiny thing: the US gun, oil, anti-climate and arms lobbyists to bring a halt to their interests for the benefit of mankind. For it is the sale of weapons and arms, and thus petrol, that keeps the immoral fat cats of business in profit. And to get them to change tack is very, very unlikely. We have trashed the Earth to sustain their wealth; why let people get in the way of short-term profitability?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A personal message to the people of Scotland: Don't you forget about us!

The debate over Scotland and its position in the United Kingdom has long been discussed on these pages, and in varying moods, depending on the context of the time. A while back I laid heavily into Alex Salmond for his demagogical bluster, opportunism and whipping up of sentimental feelings. I don't regret this, as I feel his policies after a possible vote for independence in Scotland are still incredibly self-glorifying and for all intents and purposes quite unfeasible. But this article is not about old fishface Salmond and his army of cybernats and spin doctors. This is about what the whole issue will come down to in the end: emotion, a sense of belonging, and ultimately familiarity with the status quo.

Comparable regions and nations inside other national borders would be Catalonia, Wales, Bavaria, Flanders, Brittany, Corsica or the Basque Country, and yet none of these have such a distinct identity as Scotland. There are certain items that people from quite close to those regions and nations would recognise as being typical, for example food or clothes. But with Scotland, there is a whole package, most of which would be recognised by many outside these isles, meaning there is simply no country like Scotland. It is a very, very distinct country within a country, and compared to all others in similar situations, Scottish culture and identity is so evidently unique.

Added to this, there are the everyday things we use that originated in Scotland: tarmacadam, the first passenger steamboat, the cash machine, modern economics, sociology, geology, electromagnetism, oil refining, fingerprinting, the Kelvin temperature scale, golf, curling, the refrigerator, the macintosh overcoat, the lawnmower, the Bank of England, the Bank of France even, the New York Herald, the television, penicillin, the ultrasound... the list is endless. Many of the inventions are based on a philanthropic philosophy that has been prevalent in Scotland for centuries. This is borne of a community spirit forged out of the unique conditions their culture, climate and history have created. That's my opinion, you may have yours.

In any case, you may have noticed, I have used "their", "them" and "they". That's because although they make up part of the peoples of the British Isles, their identity is indisputable. And that is the point. Although they are "they", they are also, due to their contribution to the British story, most certainly "us". And I like it that they are.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the United Kingdom needs to go back to the old ways of centralisation - totally the opposite - I am saying that they deserve their own recognition as the great nation they are, but I really don't want them to leave us to our own devices. I want the Kingdom to stay United. They are the down-to-earth counterbalance to the snooty southern English. They provide the social conscience for their southern neighbours' rampant capitalism. They put an anti-establishment middle finger up at the great and the good, which is what those obedient, docile Home Counties people should do more of. The Scottish people I know are also much better educated than any other people in the English-speaking world. In English schools, it's really not cool to be clever, but in Scotland I noticed intelligence is not something to be apologised for there as it might be in England.

I have no authority to tell the Scottish people to stay within the Union, but I would just say this: I have, for as long as I can remember, been British. Not English or Londoner. The universal nature of the word "British" signifies who I am and I would feel the legitimacy of that would be eroded if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom. No matter what happens, Scotland can do a great job of governing itself. Its ultra-modern Parliament is a uniquely transparent and enlightened institution, with a much more "village hall" feel to it, as a Parliament should be; its policies on education, health and welfare are far more generous and egalitarian than anything found to its immediate south, and quite frankly, its notions of Europeanness are much deeper than that of England. But I don't care about that so much. What I hope, though, that Scotland's political set-up can have a profound effect on England's. I hope England will, over time, take on Scotland's example of the treatment of the poor and needy. I hope England will make strides in opening up academic learning for all in the same way as that in Scotland and I hope England will learn from Scotland that not voting ideologically for the same mainstream parties will result in a much more representative and multi-party parliament in Westminster.

Whatever happens, the referendum in September will have far-reaching implications for the UK. And for that reason, here is my hope for after the referendum: if Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom, I hope England learns its lessons, changing its political stance and becoming more attuned to the needs of all people. I hope the nature of the debate that takes place after the referendum will allow us to make the UK much more federalised. Maybe with the knowledge that the Palace of Westminster needs huge renovations, we could even take the House of Commons on the road. Sitting in Edinburgh and Cardiff would be an excellent start to resetting the relationship between all the countries on the island. Parliament would need some logistical backup, but with the technology available to us, this should not be a problem. I would also hope a vote to remain in the UK would see the end of the career of Alex Salmond. His smartypants demeanour and opportunistic ability to articulate his mood whether offended, sarcastic, petulant, super-confident or any other state will have come to nothing, or even been the reason for his demise. My grandmother used to get animated and often threaten the destruction of the television each time Margaret Thatcher showed her face on it. I often feel the same way when that smug megalomaniac's fizzog makes an unwelcome appearance on mine.

If Scotland decides to leave the United Kingdom, I also understand. Let us forget the history of the relationship of the two countries and consider the present: why else would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party never really represents you? Why would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party did things completely against your own instincts? Why wouldn't you want to leave the union that forced the bedroom tax upon some of your most hard-up citizens? I hope the downfall of the Conservative-LibDem government would take place soon after such a referendum, and a lot of English soul-searching would result in the conclusion that England is just too right-wing and London-centric for its own good.

But I cannot stomach that for now. I am sure, if that does happen, I will feel totally devastated. I want Scotland to remain in the Union, not because of the scary scenarios that seem to be the nightmare du jour for the "No" campaign; I want Scotland to remain in the Union because this will do untold damage to my own identity and that of many others. It would make me feel incomplete.

If I were Scottish and had a say in the outcome, I would probably weigh up the pros and the cons and decide still to remain, because (whisper it quietly) I think we are going through a period where we might start learning from each other. The Commonwealth Games, taking place in Glasgow as I write these lines, seems to have had the opposite effect on its people, and provided a new friendship between England and Scotland that politics has so sadly jettisoned. It will be the people who decide the fate of Scotland, and I will not sleep so easily in my bed until I know the results of the referendum.

Finally, I wonder what we would call the UK without Scotland - could it keep the same name? I don't really think so. It would need a new name. Southern Britain and Northern Ireland? SBNI? What a mouthful. The Kingdom of the Isles? More acceptable, but a little bit too Arthurian. Union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Well no. So maybe it would keep the name. But frankly, I am not going to even contemplate the idea that the Scottish would vote to become foreigners on their own island.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Why I refuse to buy anything from China

I am an animal lover. I am also a meat lover.

I get great pleasure from tucking into a freshly-roasted joint of pork. I've also had some remarkable encounters with pigs, who are incredibly intelligent, contemplative and playful. I remember going to a Christmas market in the nearby town of Sierck-Les-Bains, just over the border in France, and seeing a wild boar on an open spit fire. This was the closest I ever came to becoming a vegetarian. I never will, of course, because I am also a part of this Darwinist set-up, and I firmly believe in the circle of life.

However, I believe in killing as part of the circle of life only as a necessity, for example as food, or to avoid infestations. So as you can imagine, I am a firm supporter of the least harmful ways of going about this. Speed of death being one. We are humans, after all. In the animal world, when I see a cat throwing a bird into the air so that it crashes onto a hard surface, I know that cat is softening up the meat. And although it is awful to see a bird being devoured by a cat, this is the circle of life. And death. Many creatures, when they know they are going to be eaten, go into shutdown mode, and curl up ready for their last second.

Cats, who are notoriously fickle creatures, and may actually abandon the prey before eating it, or even leave it still alive but completely destroyed, have the air of harmless little things in front of their owners, yet carry the reputation of scourge of the garden amongst the rodent and bird populations. But they are cats. And they have little or no real understanding of the world around them, other than this strange instinct that they need to behave similarly to their ancestors back in Africa and Asia, although they don't know why. I hate seeing a dead bird abandoned or half-eaten on my doormat or in the garden, because I know, especially at this time of year, that poor creature had a family somewhere that relied on it to bring food, and the callous cat didn't even have the decency to finish it off. The circle of life. And what a circle it is. A majestic balance of nature that maintains the order of hierarchy among us living things.

And we are at the top.

This means we have a duty to tend to our planet, to act as custodians of the Earth, and to maintain the laws of nature. But we do not. We allow dastardly organisations to defile our food chain by wiping out the bees; we allow nefarious multinationals to stick out their sharp elbows and run farms into the ground in the name of their equally barbarous customers, the supermarkets; and we allow the killing of animals for the sake of vanity. And this I find to be the greatest tragedy to befall us in the 21st century. That the silent majority goes on buying utter rubbish in the supermarkets, feeding their families on stuff that comes out of plastic packets and paper boxes.

This has to stop. We are ruining our world by not doing anything about it. By buying the stuff that these multinationals fabricate to allegedly make our lives easier or better, we are also making others' lives much more miserable or of a much lower quality. Not just humans, but also mammals and fish, trees and plants. And this, just to save a few cents on an evening meal.

Why aren't more of us angry? How are we learning to live with and accept this? I'll tell you.

We are slowly learning to edit our lives. It's an unconscious thing, but it is happening. We are airbrushing out the cruelty that is going on in our world, from the unfathomable barbarism that humans are capable of, right down to Facebook's ridiculous policy of censoring some body parts, even in factual posts. They are being wiped out by politically correct zealots who complain that "this sort of thing is not suitable for people to see", by social media admins who control what you show to the world very rigorously and by yourselves, when you question whether you should show or introduce something to a wider audience. It also has to stop - we need to see some things in order to stop them. That's what warnings are for.

That is why I am posting this video from PETA (this contains appalling scenes of animal cruelty):

It is the most extremely shocking thing I think I have ever seen. It is barbaric beyond all comprehension, that people - PEOPLE - in the 21st century can still care so little for another living creature which, however far down the food chain it may be, still has complex feelings. But it is also beyond belief that PC nutters are also likely to point their pious fingers in the direction of those who expose this cruelty and tell them to remove it for fear of scaring those of a delicate constitution.

Well they can go to hell along with the monsters who kill innocent creatures for fur in the first place, for they are both supporting each other in helping to maintain the status quo. Next time someone wants something removed because it's upsetting, remind them that they too are helping the perpetrators by not passing on the gravity of the acts, all because they don't want to get too upset. Poor dears.

This is how I rationalise my world, and how I see the role of humans in it. Hunting in Africa, especially rhino and elephants, the fur trade, and dangerously cheap goods - the paper trail leads back to one country - China. There are other countries in the world doing this too, and I am sure the Chinese propaganda experts are, as you read this, finding ways to show me that other nations are a lot worse than the Chinese. I am sure they will try to disprove this or denounce me, but WMYTIGAF? I really don't. The more vociferous the denials, the truer the scandal they are trying to cover up. The more they try to expose their critics, the smellier the shit they are hiding. To be attacked by that lot I would regard as a badge of honour.

And so this leads me to the final thought on this matter: what should we do about it?

Well, just stop buying anything from China. Anything at all. You won't do much to their economy by boycotting just this awful animal trophy trade. Most do already. You need to make a principled and conscious effort to shun, ignore and denounce anything at all from there. I know it's hard, especially with computer equipment, but in other areas like toys, clothes, furniture and the like, there are richer pickings, and the more trade China loses due to its moral standing, the more embarrassed their leaders might become. Initially, probably not, but if it hurts their economy, they may sit up and take note that, despite the corrupt and nepotistic nature of worldwide politics these days, at least the ordinary people are doing something.

It is said that the behaviour of a nation's people towards their animals shows how advanced their civilisation is. I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

I don't usually swear, Mr Farage, but I'll make an exception for you

The European elections are in a few days' time, and I am voting with my feet. There are no politicians I really want to vote for and the answer lies in the fact that they are no longer politicians - they are just elected civil servants: bumbling drudges with such negligible inspiration or vision, that they need to pay external organisations known as think-tanks to come up with ideas for them. I could not imagine, when the great William Beveridge sat down to write his paper on the founding of the NHS, that he first called up some freelance ideologues in trendy suits, smoking slim cigarettes and mumbling "here's what we do with this, right?" before fabricating a fanciful presentation full of euphemistic terms like "care pathway" and "care programme approach" (or CPA for short) before sending an invoice for the "work carried out" on its conception. Mr Beveridge was so visionary, so driven and so original, that a copy of his report was discovered by the Soviet army when they arrived at Hitler's bunker.

My point is, politicians fall short of every single mark they are compared to. They are weak-willed, ineloquent, obfuscating, money-grabbing daylight robbers who revel in telling us we need to reduce our budgets yet give themselves fat pay rises and swan about between the darkened windows of upmarket vehicles that most honest Romanians would fail to pay for if they saved up for 20 years.

And this segway brings me nicely to Romanians. And UKIP. And Nigel Farage himself. And his hordes of tub-thumping minions, for they are the beneficiaries of the protest voters' anger at the lack of leadership and vision in Europe at this time.

Type "Farage Romania" into Google and you will see a host of texts and videos about his views on those people, including the fact that he would not want to live next door to any. Well Mr Farage, I can tell you for nothing, you odious little weasel, that I know a great deal of Romanians, indeed several of whom come to my house on a regular basis, and I see them no differently to anyone else. But I see the person, not the nationality.

Then you said something about feeling uncomfortable about hearing a foreign language on a train. Where do you think you are, Nigel, you loathsome scab? I live in Germany and work in Luxembourg. Every day I hear Portuguese, German, French, Lithuanian and lots of other languages being spoken on various modes of public transport I take, and not one eyebrow is raised from any of the other passengers. Only those who bellow inanely into their mobile phones for the rest of the bus to hear and those who play loud music thoughtlessly to us all, thinking we'd like to hear it, but they don't have to be Romanians, Nigel, you opportunistic piece of farmyard genitalia. And I think this is the same in the UK too. So why it should give you the tummy trots, dear Nige, is anyone's guess...

You married a German. And when questioned as to whether it applied to her, you said that she wouldn't speak German on a train.

Oh puh-lease!

But you also feel, do you not, you miserable shadow of a man, that we should know the difference between a German neighbour and a Romanian one, and we would want one much less than the other moving in next to us. Well I live next to a German-French family, and I would gladly swap them for almost anyone, even the Osborne family (Ozzy, not George). They bought the house for €450,000, selling their other properties to pay for it. They have several cars and work in fairly elevated positions. But they are the result of what happens when neighbourhood discipline and respect don't matter any more. Their offspring scream their heads off on their trampoline which is placed strategically next to our land without so much as an admonishing word on the dishonour and embarrassment this brings to their family; the mother glories in showing how upwardly mobile, capable and alpha-male her Tarzanesque husband is; they allow their elder two sons and three boisterous mates to noisily pack their minivan for a week-long trip to the Netherlands at midnight on a swelteringly hot Sunday-to-Monday night in the street outside my open window when the rest of us have to get up for work in the morning, and they love making backhanded compliments about my building and planting work in the garden, and how they are so lucky their garden was ready-made when they moved in. In other words, rich peasants who have no clue how to handle their upward societal trajectory.

I bought my house 6 months before they moved in. If they had been there when I came to view the house, there is no way I would have bought it. I can tell you, Mr Farage, what it is to live next door to nasty neighbours. But they do not need to be poor, or uneducated, or Romanian, or whatever. They just need to be sociopaths. I hate them so much, I don't care if they read this. It will do them good to know the contempt in which I hold them. And only a last-class monolingual, monocultural, uncouth fucking dickpunnet like yourself would associate the quality of a human being with their nationality. Only a blatantly racist scumbag would believe that speaking a foreign language is the path to sedition and deviant behaviour. I speak ten languages, Mr Farage, and I can only tell you how small your world is compared to mine. How much you are missing by not understanding anything else except your own language. How unimaginably broad my mind is compared to yours, because languages are not only about ordering a paella in Palamos or a pizza in Parma, it is also a gateway to understanding how minds work, how the collective memory of a country's inhabitants leads them to react in a certain way to various events in history or gestures you make.

Furthermore, Mr Farage, your own unpardonable views and comments on anyone east of the Oder-Neisse line leads me to this conclusion: I have walked among the poor and destitute of many cities in that part of the world, and this, and I have made some very poignant observations: the poorest people are often those who have the greatest protective instincts, the largest hearts and the most welcoming homes. If indeed they have homes. They can be ruthless when times are hard, but necessity is the mother of invention. If, Mr Farage, they were going to make their way to your home and camp on the grass, rather than calling the police, go and drink a cup of tea with them and see what you can do to help. You may find that showing respect to people will lead to reciprocal action. Rather than deport them for being here, find them a place where they can fit in. Yes, there are lots of rogue elements, but they are from every corner of our continent, and they need to be handled differently. But among those who move to get a better life, would you heartlessly send them back to square one? What has happened to that meritocratic ideal that our country is famous for?

So learn a few languages, go and smoke a pipe of peace and do a little research on why those people act the way they do. Don't pander to the uninformed; that's just being a dickhead. Stand up and be counted, be that visionary we so badly need right now, and lead us out of the darkness of ignorance and small-mindedness.

I apologise for the bad language used in this article, even if I believe and stand by every word I have written.