Archive for the ‘Popular Culture et al’ Category

Whatever you think of Martin McGuinness, or of his remarkable journey from senior IRA commander and reputedly Army Council member to Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland government, one thing is clear.

He was engaged in secret peace discussions with the British Government from 1972 onwards. And there is little doubt that, along with Gerry Adams, McGuinness was instrumental in turning the Republican movement away from continued violence and towards political engagement. He was a man driven in his eyes to violence, who came to reject violence as a political tool.

What is also certain is that without him, in all probability, Ireland and Britain would still be mired in violence over the future of the six counties.

He took huge personal risks for peace. His critics, he said were afraid of change.

“They would love the IRA to go back to war. I’m delighted that we have not fallen into this trap.

“I’m delighted that we have an organisation which understands the political dynamics [of the peace process].

“There is a confidence and assertiveness among nationalists,” he continued.

“We know who we are, we are Irish, we are proud of it.”

His republican credentials remained impeccable to his death. And ultimately, we all owe him respect for playing a fundamental – perhaps the most fundamental – role in stilling the guns.

McGuinness was living proof that we really can – and sometimes do – beat the swords we grasp all too readily into ploughshares.

Ireland is poorer for his passing.

One of the good things about the Oscars season (or the Baftas season, if you’re British) is that you get so much information about which movies are good and which aren’t that you have to be some sort of a klutz not to be able to find something to go and see at the local flea pit.

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But one movie doing rather well in the glitz- and glamour-loaded awards stakes has divided audiences. Not the professional audiences – critics have almost universally loved it, and it’s tipped to pick up plenty of gongs yet awhile. No, it’s the ordinary punters who seem to range from utterly under-whelmed to utterly over-whelmed and every possible reaction in-between when they go and see La La Land, driven there by the studio’s relentless publicity machine and, you know, the “buzz”.

So we thought we’d better eyeball it in order to tell you, Dear Reader – should you be the only other person on the planet apart from us who hasn’t seen it yet – whether or not you should shell out your hard-earned and see it.

Well, in short, go and see it. And go and see it soon while it’s still on at the multiplex, so you can enjoy it in all its primary-coloured glory and big speaker luscious sound.

As everyone must know by now, it’s a studied – even mannered – revival of the old-style Hollywood musical, where realism is set aside and people burst into song (or dance) in the middle of dramatic moments as if that’s the most natural thing in the world. And done as well as this, it feels as natural as any glorious Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie flickering away on late night TV, and that’s really the goal of the movie maker here, as well as the highest praise one can offer him. Because young director Damien Chazelle pulls off this tricky task with great aplomb, and we should be grateful to him (and the Producers who backed him) for even attempting such a ridiculously old-fashioned task. And for the vast majority of the movie he makes it look easy, which it unquestionably wasn’t.

There are moments of delightful hyper-realism, too, where things that just can’t happen in a world dragged down by miserable killjoys like the laws of physics nevertheless can and do happen, and when these unlikely events occur we realise that we are being invited in to a sort of cinematic guilty pleasure – a place where the world is frequently very funny, or charming or sad or even heart-wrenching, but where somehow you just know things will turn out OK, and it’s OK for an hour or two to forget about how nasty the world has become, or, indeed, whether or not it ever actually stopped being nasty to begin with.

It isn’t, by any means, a great movie. In years to come it will not be seen as setting (or more like reversing) a trend. We won’t see a rash of new musicals as a result of it, simply because they’re so damned hard to do well. But it is a very, very good movie, and for some very specific reasons.

La La Land received critical acclaim upon its release and is regarded as one of the best films of 2016. Critics praised Chazelle’s screenplay and direction, Gosling and Stone’s performances, Justin Hurwitz’s musical score, and the film’s musical numbers. At the up-coming 89th Academy Awards, the film is nominated for a record-tying fourteen Oscars (along with 1997’s Titanic and 1950’s All About Eve), including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Ryan Gosling), Best Actress (Emma Stone) and two Best Original Songs, “Audition” and “City of Stars”. The film also won in every category it was nominated for at the 74th Golden Globe Awards with a record-breaking seven wins.

But that list of facts doesn’t tell the story of the movie. Indeed, it may over-state the movie’s worth, because it implies it is somehow the Greatest Story Ever Told, but it isn’t that. What it is a thoroughly decent feel-good tale of young love that rubs every academy member and film buff up the right way, and could hardly be more tuned to have them gushing their praises (and votes) in response. The luvvies will, in simple terms, love every minute of it, because it’s all about a time when movies that simply made you feel good – not just to watch them, but to make them – were the norm rather than the exception. And no, no-one would turn the clock back holus bolus to the sanitised days before gritty realism, gruelling depictions of violence or emotional distress, and grunting, inavriably perfect sex between twenty-five foot high naked bodies and all the rest of it. But oh my, it is nice to get a rest from all of that, just every now and again.

The real story of this movie, though, is that parts of it are perfect. And here, Dear Reader, we are going to cut the crap and get to the point.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are beautiful. And we don’t mean easy-on-the-eye. We mean smack-you-in-the-eye heart-stoppingly “Dear God, how does anyone ever end up as cute as that” beautiful. Which is all very well, except that it’s not just their physiognomy or physique that makes them so. What makes these two actors so sigh-inducingly gorgeous is that their very niceness shines out of them throughout this ambitious film.

Indeed, it could be argued that Stone doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter layout of a typical starlet. If you wanted to (unfairly) rip her looks to shreds then her eyes sometimes somehow seem a bit big for her head, she’s got pale skin and freckles not an LA tan, and a noticeable over-bite, which the actress blames on sucking her thumb till she was 11. In so far as anyone’s hair colour these days is set in any one part of the spectrum, she’s a redhead in a town of blondes. (Although actually, and not many people know this, she is naturally blonde.) And whilst she has an adorably husky voice, she has a lisp, for heaven’s sake. She explains her famously throaty tones as follows: “They were actually deeper when I was younger. I have nodules and calluses on my vocal chords from suffering from colic as a baby. I had to do speech therapy when I was a kid to learn how to speak in a higher register,” she says. “But I still have a little lisp. I didn’t fix it all.”

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So how does Stone pull off secreting herself in our hearts so thoroughly in this movie? Simple: you’re looking not at her features, whether or not you think she’s gorgeous, (we do), but at who she is inside.

Everything is on open display here, a smorgasbord of feelings from a young actress now effortlessly hitting her stride. She is by turns ditzy, thoughtful, passionate, romantic, sensual, funny, sad, broken-hearted, tearful, angry and resentful. And her emotional range as displayed here is not only enormous, it is utterly convincing. Indeed, at many points in the film – the show stopping song “Audition”, for example, and when Gosling seeks to persuade her that she has the talent to succeed, and riven with fear and self-doubt Stone petulantly disagrees – that we feel like we are actually watching Stone as Mia as Stone as Mia and where, we wonder, does the dividing line actually lie?

Emma Stone left nothing to chance in this career-defining performance, and we’ll be mildly astonished if she doesn’t walk away with the Best Actress statuette, despite some magnificent opposition (in particular from Natalie Portman in Jackie.)

Perennial heart-throb Gosling is equally good. For one thing, he makes room to let Stone shine, which was a generous act by a hot-as-the-sun star lead who also seems like a genuinely nice guy, as evidenced by his sincere thanks to his partner Eva Mendes for looking after the home front as he waded through the intense preparation for the role, which included actually learning to play the piano and to tap dance.

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By not over-powering the whirling tornado of a performance from Stone, Gosling deserves praise for delivering the film balance and poise with his light touch. If he had been chewing the scenery there would simply have been too much to watch – the love affair would have become a caricature, the career strivings a mere artifice. As it is, we suspend disbelief and believe in the two lovers completely. His jazz-pianist cum latent club-owning businessman character is thoughtful, full of repressed humour and passion, and under-stated to the nth degree. In his smouldering eyes, whimsical smile, and rampantly out of control lick of hair, he is also completely credible, and we get the strong impression that a night in a jazz bar sharing a beer with this soulful dreamer and then listening to him musingly tinkle the ivories would be a rather wonderful way to waste an hour or three. Again, the over-riding impression is not of his frame and facial features – ideal though they may be – it is of the person inside.

With so much else going on in this film, for these two young actors to both deliver performances so nuanced and deep is remarkable.

And there is so much more going on. Some of the dance sequences are truly charming, and the choreography superb, and well judged. Neither Stone or Gosling are asked to do the impossible, and what they do in return for this consideration is smart, sassy and flawless. Similarly with the singing – neither would consider themselves singers first and foremost, but they hold a tune well, and much more importantly, deliver it as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to be singing to one another while waltzing. As the LA Times noted of their dancing:

“La La Land” shows that you actually don’t have to have professional dancers with brilliant technique for a dance pairing to work. Put attractive people together, have them lock eyes, move feet in unison and you can get a believable love duet. What is dancing but full-body, kinetic expression exploding outward for everyone to see? And it may be just about the best way to expose the raw and visceral emotions of new-love, fireworks feelings. A choreographer must be attuned to the message conveyed by every step, every swing of the leg or wave of an arm. For “La La Land,” Mandy Moore deserves much of the credit in translating the story’s love narrative so well into dance language.

Amen to that. As for the singing, the film is worth seeing for Stone’s performance of ‘Audition’ alone. You’ll see what we mean. Remember to breathe, people.

Not all the set-pieces work, to our eyes. Some have raved about the film’s opening sequence – a mass dance-in that occurs spontaneously in a traffic queue on a LA freeway. We thought it felt a little forced. And a little too “Fame” for our liking, too. But that is quibbling: in a brave movie, one can’t get everything right, and anyway, as we say, lots of people liked it.

One of the best things about this film is the way Director Chazelle has eschewed lots of jiggly-fiddly editing and allowed the actors and the scenes to do their job. Just like back in the good old days, the actors fill the screen with both their dancing and their singing. It’s unvarnished movie making, in a way, though that would be to fail to praise the effortlessly good cinematography and especially the exceptionally precise use of colour and lighting to convey mood. It hardly needs to be said that the score, and the lyrics, are simply fantastic, and never better than when the film focuses on its core act of theatre, the jazz itself.

So: it is not a perfect film. But it tries very hard to be so, and there is a great deal to admire. It has already taken ten times at the Box Office what it cost to make, which is decent recompense for the courage shown in making it in the first place.

And most importantly, you’ll walk out of it with a smile playing on your lips, and realise you haven’t thought about Donald bloody Trump for more than two whole hours.

For that reason alone, it is surely worthy of high praise, and well worthy of your time.

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May we correct a much-repeated mistake in coverage of the petition to the UK Parliament to prevent Donald Trump making a State Visit to the UK?

This has often been erroneously reported in Australian and United States media as a desire to prevent Mr Trump visiting the UK per se

This is not so. In fact, the petition refers specifically to such a visit being a State visit, the highest possible honour conferred on a visitor, and specifically so that he would not have to be entertained by the Queen.

As the petition states, Donald Trump should be allowed to enter the UK in his capacity as head of the US Government, but he should not be invited to make an official State Visit because it would cause embarrassment to Her Majesty the Queen. The petition continues “Donald Trump’s well documented misogyny and vulgarity disqualifies him from being received by Her Majesty the Queen or the Prince of Wales. Therefore during the term of his presidency Donald Trump should not be invited to the United Kingdom for an official State Visit.”

This is a little detail, perhaps, but surely a significant one. 

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Britons are presumably concerned that a man who used his Twitter account to encourage Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, (then known as Kate Middleton), to sunbathe topless so that paparazzi could photograph her would be especially offensive to the Royal Family, who have frequently had to protest at the unwanted attentions of photographers, and who successfully sued to have the Middleton photographs restricted. The Royal Family would be far too polite to point this out, so the public are doing it for them.

And just days after Princess Diana died in a car crash, in which the paparazzi were again involved, President Trump notoriously asserted on the radio that he could have slept with her.

Howard Stern asked him: ‘Why do people think it’s egotistical of you to say you could’ve gotten with Lady Di? You could’ve gotten her, right? You could’ve nailed her.’ ‘I think I could have,’ Trump replied. 

The internet is full of funny memes about the Queen and Donald trump. This is our personal favourite.

The internet is full of funny memes about the Queen and Donald Trump. This is our personal favourite.

On the same radio show three years later, he referred to Lady Diana as ‘crazy, but these are minor details’, again saying he would have slept with her ‘without even hesitation’.

Presumably more than 1.8 million people feel the Queen shouldn’t be forced to share a royal carriage with such a man, much less have to make polite chit chat sitting next to him at dinner.

And no doubt similar considerations were behind House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s overnight decision not to ask Mr Trump to address Parliament when he visits.

In a post-truth world, it surely pays to remember facts.

It seems like Donald’s election is causing a few problems for American companies doing business abroad, if this is anything to go by.

Just made us laugh to be honest … and struck us as a very funny piece of marketing given Trump’s approval rating in Europe, which would struggle to register on any opinion poll.

 

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Meanwhile, we see a petition to the UK Parliament to stop Britain offering him a State visit, as that means he would have to be met and looked after by the Queen, has currently reached over a million and a half signatures.

Will anything ever get through his thick skin? Probably not.

australia aborigines

If you are genuinely unsure, simply read these stories, which represent the tip of the iceberg as regards the effect of white colonisation on our native brothers and sisters.

The Cape Grim massacre was an incident on 10 February 1828 in which a group of Aboriginal Tasmanians gathering food at a beach in the north-west of Tasmania is said to have been ambushed and shot by four Van Diemen’s Land Company workers, with bodies of some of the victims then thrown from a 60-metre cliff. About 30 men are thought to have been killed in the attack, which was a reprisal action for an earlier Aboriginal raid on a flock of Van Diemen’s Land Company sheep, but part of an escalating spiral of violence probably triggered by the abduction and rape of Aboriginal women in the area. The massacre was part of the “Black War”, the period of violent conflict between British colonists and Aboriginal Australians in Tasmania from the mid-1820s to 1832.

The Convincing Ground massacre at Portland Bay south-west of Melbourne probably resulted from the Gunditjmara people’s determination to assert their right to the whale as traditional food and when challenged by the whalers, were aggressive in return. The whalers withdrew to the head station only to return with their firearms. Robinson’s journal entry says “And the whalers then let fly, to use his expression, right and left upon the natives. He said the natives did not go away but got behind trees and threw spears and stones. They, however, did not much molest them after that.” No mention was made in the conversation as to casualties. Later reports arising from a meeting in 1842 that Robinson had with Gunditjmara people stated only two members survived the massacre. Accounts vary, but the number of Aborigines killed is believed to be between 60 and 200.”

The Pinjarra Massacre was an attack that occurred at Pinjarra, Western Australia on a group of up to 80 Noongar people by a detachment of 25 soldiers, police and settlers led by Governor James Stirling in 1834. After attacks on the displaced Swan River Whadjuk people and depredations on settlers by a group of the Binjareb people led by Calyute had, according to European settlers, reached unacceptable levels, culminating in the payback killing of an ex-soldier, Stirling led his force after the party. Arriving at their camp, five members of the pursuit party were sent into the camp to arrest the suspects and the Aborigines resisted. In the ensuing melee, Stirling reported 15 killed (eleven names were collected later from Aboriginal sources but because of local religious beliefs many dead would not be named); police superintendent T.T. Ellis later died of wounds and a soldier was wounded. A more realistic figure for the Aboriginal dead, including many woman and children, is 40-50. The flood-scoured slopes gave the men, women and children little cover as they tried to hide behind what logs or bushes there were. Many ducked into the water, holding their breath as long as they could. Some tried to float downstream out of range, but the water was too shallow to permit their escape. They, too, were shot. A white attacker’s journal records “Very few wounded were suffered to escape”.

massacreThe Waterloo Creek massacre occured when a Sydney mounted police detachment was despatched by acting Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales Colonel Kenneth Snodgrass, to track down the Namoi, Weraerai and Kamilaroi people who had killed five stockmen in separate incidents on recently established pastoral runs on the upper Gwydir River area of New South Wales. After two months the mounted police, consisting of two sergeants and twenty troopers led by Major James Nunn, arrested 15 Aborigines along the Namoi River. They released all but two, one of whom was shot whilst attempting to escape. The main body of Kamilaroi eluded the troopers, thus Major Nunn’s party along with two stockmen pursued the Kamilaroi for three weeks from present-day Manilla on the Namoi River north to the upper Gwydir River.

On the morning of January 26 – ironically – in a surprise attack on Nunn’s party Corporal Hannan was wounded in the leg with a spear and subsequently the police reported four or five Aborigines were shot dead in retaliation. The Aborigines fled down the river as the troopers regrouped, rearmed and pursued them led by the second in command Lieutenant George Cobban. Cobban’s party found their quarry about a mile down the river now known as Waterloo Creek, where a second engagement took place. The encounter lasted several hours, and no Aborigines were captured. It is this second clash where details of its occurrence contrast substantially. Estimates of Aboriginal dead range as high as 70.

Murdering Gully, formerly known as Puuroyup to the Djargurd Wurrung people, is the site of an 1839 massacre of 35-40 people of the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan of the Djargurd Wurrung in the Camperdown district of Victoria, Australia. It is a gully on Mount Emu Creek, where a small stream adjoins from Merida Station.

Of particular note for this massacre is the extent of oral history and first hand accounts of the incident and detail in settler diaries, records of Weslayan missionaries, and Aboriginal Protectorate records. Following the massacre there was popular disapproval and censure of the leading perpetrator, Frederick Taylor, so that Taylor’s River was renamed to Mount Emu Creek. The massacre effectively destroyed the Tarnbeere Gundidj clan.

The Campaspe Plains massacre, occurred in 1839 in Central Victoria, Australia as a reprisal raid against Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and occupation of the Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung lands. Charles Hutton took over the Campaspe run, located near the border of Dja Dja Wurrung and Daung Wurrung, in 1838 following sporadic confrontations.

In April 1839 five Aborigines were killed by three white men. In response Hugh Bryan, a shepherd, and James Neill, a hut keeper were killed in May 1839 by Aborigines identified as Daung Wurrung, who had robbed a hut of bedding, clothes, guns and ammunition and also ran a flock of 700 sheep off the property, possibly as retribution for the earlier Aboriginal deaths. Hutton immediately put together an armed party of settlers who tracked and finally caught the Aborigines with a flock of sheep 30 miles away near the Campaspe Creek. An armed confrontation between the settlers and Aborigines occurred for up to half an hour. Hutton claimed privately that nearly 40 Aborigines were killed.

The Aboriginal people of East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia, known as the Gunai/Kurnai people, fought against the European invasion of their land. The technical superiority of the Europeans’ weapons gave the Europeans an absolute advantage. At least 300 people were killed, but other figures estimate up to 1,000; however, it is extremely difficult to be certain about the real death toll as so few records still exist or were even made at the time. Diseases introduced from the 1820s by European sealers and whalers also caused a rapid decline in Aboriginal numbers. The following list was compiled from such things as letters and diaries.

1840 – Nuntin- unknown number killed by Angus McMillan’s men
1840 – Boney Point – “Angus McMillan and his men took a heavy toll of Aboriginal lives”
1841 – Butchers Creek – 30-35 shot by Angus McMillan’s men
1841 – Maffra – unknown number shot by Angus McMillan’s men
1842 – Skull Creek – unknown number killed
1842 – Bruthen Creek – “hundreds killed”
1843 – Warrigal Creek – between 60 and 180 shot by Angus McMillan and his men
1844 – Maffra – unknown number killed
1846 – South Gippsland – 14 killed
1846 – Snowy River – 8 killed by Captain Dana and the Aboriginal Police
1846-47 – Central Gippsland – 50 or more shot by armed party hunting for a white woman supposedly held by Aborigines; no such woman was ever found.
1850 – East Gippsland – 15-20 killed
1850 – Murrindal – 16 poisoned
1850 – Brodribb River – 15-20 killed

The Flying Foam massacre was a series of confrontations between white settlers and Aboriginal people around Flying Foam Passage on Murujuga Burrup Peninsula, Western Australia.

The confrontations occurred between February and May 1868 triggered by the killings of two police officers and a local workman. The confrontations resulted in the deaths of unknown number of Jaburara (or Yaburrara, Yapurarra) people with estimates ranging between 15 and 150 dead.

The confrontations followed the killings on 7 February, on the south west shore of Nickol Bay, of Police Constable William Griffis, an Aboriginal police assistant named Peter, and a pearling worker named George Breem, by some Jaburara people, along with the disappearance of a pearling lugger captain, Henry Jermyn. Three Jaburara were arrested and convicted of Griffis’ murder. Sentenced to death their sentences were commuted to twelve years’ penal servitude on Rottnest Island.

Pearlers and pastoralists from the surrounding region, with the approval and support of the Government Resident in Roebourne, R. J. Sholl,organised two armed and mounted parties, which travelled overland and by sea to Murujuga, the heartland of the Jaburara. The two parties moved towards each other on the peninsula in a pincer movement. Anthropologist T. J. Gara – utilising official sources and oral tradition – suggests that one attack by the parties, on a Jaburara camp at King Bay, on 17 February, killed at least 15 people, including some children.

The Mowla Bluff massacre was an incident involving the murder of a number of indigenous Australians at Geegully Creek, near Mowla Bluff, in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1916.

Mowla Bluff is a cattle station 140 kilometres (87 mi) south of Derby and 75 kilometres (47 mi) southwest of Jarlmadangah. Responding to the brutality of the white station manager, some local men gave him a beating. In reprisal, an armed mob which included officials and residents rounded up a large number of Aboriginal men, women and children who were then shot. The bodies were burned.

One account states that three or four hundred people were killed and only three survived.

The Forrest River massacre, or Oombulgurri massacre, is a disputed account of a massacre of indigenous Australian people by a law enforcement party in the wake of the killing of a pastoralist, which took place in the Kimberley region of Western Australia in 1926. The massacre was investigated by a Royal Commission in 1927 which subsequently determined that 11 people had been killed. Charges were brought against two officers but dismissed for lack of evidence. A local man, Lumbia, was convicted of the killing of the pastoralist Frederick Hay. The findings have recently been disputed by journalist Rod Moran, whose analysis has received some academic support while other academic historians accept that a massacre did take place but disagree over the number of victims.In January 1968, Dr Neville Green interviewed on audiotape Charles Overheu, the brother of Hay’s partner and co-owner of Nulla Nulla station Leopold Overheu:

They all got together up there and there was a bloody massacre because I think they shot about three hundred natives all in one hit and there was a hell of a row over it. It was all published in the papers and somebody let the cat out of the bag and anyhow the government and the judges in those times they realised what the trouble was and the whole thing was hushed up you see.

In the same year, Forrest River Aborigines specified that the massacres had taken place at five different sites, and a German scholar, Dr Helmut Reim, from interviews with three Aboriginal elders, concluded that between 80 and 100 Aborigines had been killed in the massacres on the Marndoc Reserve, of which the Forrest River Mission was a small part.

The Coniston massacre, which took place from 14 August to 18 October 1928 near the Coniston cattle station in Northern Territory, Australia, was the last known officially sanctioned massacre of indigenous Australians and one of the last events of the Australian Frontier Wars. People of the Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye groups were killed. The massacre occurred in revenge for the death of dingo hunter Frederick Brooks, killed by Aboriginal people in August 1928 at a place now known as Yukurru, (also known as Brooks Soak).

Official records at the time stated that 31 people were killed. The owner of Coniston station, Randall Stafford, was a member of the punitive party for the first few days and estimated that at least twice that number were killed between 14 August and 1 September. Historians estimate that at least 60 and as many as 110 Aboriginal men, women and children were killed. The Warlpiri, Anmatyerre and Kaytetye believe that up to 170 died between 14 August and 18 October.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-3-35-08-pmThese records are merely the best known of the mass murders committed by the white settlers of Australia. That some of them were in response to provocation or retaliation is irrelevant. The indigenous people had been invaded and forcefully dispossessed. They saw themselves as fighting for justice according to laws developed over 40,000 of habitation. This, to a large extent, is why the native peoples of Australia still call for a formal treaty to be signed between the Government of Australia and its first peoples. For them, the war that was visited on them has never formally been recognised, or ended.

It should be obvious to anyone that 26th January is a needlessly provocative day to celebrate as Australia Day, and that a number of other dates offer themselves as equally significant and worthy of celebration. Anyone denying this simple proposition is merely continuing the assertion of white privilege and domination that these stories tragically demonstrate.

Remember, the killings of groups of Aborigines continued to within living memory, let alone later injustices which are just as well known.

We are big enough to acknowledge the past. It is time we made the change. Simple as that.

 

 

Dear President Trump

Congratulations on your election. We never supported your run for office, and we were frankly somewhat dismayed that it succeeded, as the trend in politics that you represent is far removed from our view of the world.

But we have to put that aside now. You’re in. And we have to work with you.

Of course we wish you well. The world needs a strong and successful America. You are still the locomotive at the front of the train that is the world’s economy. Or at the very least, one of the locomotives.

You are still the home of much of the most fortuitous innovations that will help us manage and preserve civilisation and the world. We need you to do well, which is why even those who oppose your brand of politics wish you success. Who knows? You may surprise us all.

But in saying that, Mr President, we have a problem.

It seems to us that a lot of what you’re saying simply doesn’t make sense. So we have some questions for you, which we hope you feel able to answer.

Your new White House website says the following:

The Trump Administration is committed to a foreign policy focused on American interests and American national security.

Peace through strength will be at the centre of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.

Honestly, this strikes us as short-sighted.

 

Free the shit out of you

Whilst we understand that you need to protect American interests, “peace through strength” just sounds to the rest of us like “if we’re big enough and ugly enough to make you do what we say, we’ll get along just fine”. Or in other words, more of everything that has managed to piss the rest of the world off about America on regular occasions since WWII.

There’s every chance that this type of attitude won’t result in a more stable or peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground, but possibly the very opposite. More chances for your country and others to rub each other up the wrong way, to create distrust about your motives, and to lead to more conflict, not less.

Next, we will rebuild the American military. Our Navy has shrunk from more than 500 ships in 1991 to 275 in 2016. Our Air Force is roughly one third smaller than in 1991. President Trump is committed to reversing this trend, because he knows that our military dominance must be unquestioned.

“Military dominance”? There you go again. But hang on a minute here, yes, you might have retired some ageing ships and aircraft – replacing them with better ones – but you still spend as much on defence as the NEXT TEN countries in defence spending in the world PUT TOGETHER.

So, Donald, if you don’t have military dominance now, we strongly urge you to look more closely at how you’re spending your trillions. Because you should be far and away the most powerful country in the world already.

And you are, of course.

You know that. Everyone knows that.

So what’s an increase in military spending really all about?

0053_defense-comparison-full

You know, since Eisenhower warned about the military-industrial complex in the first place, we have seen the taxes of Americans and the profits from American trade ploughed into a vast, bloated military, making some American corporations richer than Croesus. Is America really safer, as a result, or are just a bunch of banks and Wall Street types much richer?

Also, you said:

Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.

See: we’re not awfully sure what you’re getting at here. Sure, it sounds good, but honestly, what has the world been trying to do for more than a decade now? We’ve all been busy cutting off funding, expanding intelligence sharing, engaging in cyberwarfare and all the rest of it.

So the only thing that’s really different here is pursuing aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary.

 

Iraqi dead child is prepared for burial

A violently killed young Iraqi girl is prepared for burial. The photograph originally appeared at Salon.com some years ago.

 

It might be an idea to explain what that really means. See, we’ve just seen America endlessly tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq for what seems like forever. Apart from American losses, civilian losses in Iraq alone are up to about 600,000 and counting. We’re certainly not doing a great job of bringing enduring freedom to the Iraqi people, are we? And we’re getting out of Afghanistan with our butts kicked, and the probability that we will have achieved nothing very much at all. Honestly, we don’t really think the American public has the stomach for much more of that, do you?

So how about an alternative idea?

Sooner or later – and this is a very simple thought, but we encourage you to consider it carefully – the West is going to have to accommodate itself to an Islamic world with some very different agendas to ours, and different rules. As Churchill said, “Jaw Jaw is always better than War War”.

It would be hard to imagine more implacable enemies in the Cold War period than Russia and America – the titanic, historic struggle between state socialism and capitalism. And yet, ultimately, it was talking that wound back the tension levels, and created opportunities for both sides. Many, many more people died in the proxy wars fought to promulgate the cold war than have died in conflicts between Islam and the West. Yet we managed to talk our way to a better place.

So who in the Islamic world are you going to talk to, to try and bring some conclusion to the current conflicts? Yes, we know there’s no point talking to the leaders of IS, but they are only a very small part of the problem, and frankly most of the Islamic world hates them as much as you do. So where in your world view is the great West-Islam dialogue that must, inevitably, be the real solution to the problems we now face? What’s the plan? A few words about embracing diplomacy doesn’t really cut it, Donald. Would you care to be more specific?

Now. Trade.

Your website says:

For too long, Americans have been forced to accept trade deals that put the interests of insiders and the Washington elite over the hard-working men and women of this country. As a result, blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close and good-paying jobs move overseas, while Americans face a mounting trade deficit and a devastated manufacturing base.

Forgive us, Sir, but trade deals are not why blue-collar towns and cities have watched their factories close. Nor why America has a trade deficit. Nor why your manufacturing base is devastated.

All these things have happened because the American people have been sold a dream of an endlessly expanding consumer paradise with everything one could need for a modern lifestyle provided ever more cheaply, whether it’s cars or phones, or TVs, or white goods, or clothes.

 

china

And overseas – especially, but not exclusively, in Asia – clever, determined people produce those things at a fraction of a cost to them being produced in America. That’s why some of your very own private businesses manufacture over there, right?

So, Sir, the only way you can protect those all rust-belt manufacturers is either to forbid people from buying cheap consumer goods from overseas (good luck with that project) or by slapping tariffs on goods made overseas. That’s what your policy really means. And as soon as you do that, the countries currently supplying you will simply do the same to you, so the things you ARE selling into those countries (less and less already, as you know) will be priced out of their markets. (And the growing middle class in China and India and other such places will simply buy their own products. After all, they’re just as good. That’s why your own population buys them so enthusiastically.)

It’s called a trade war, Mr President. And like some other wars we could mention, it’s a war you can’t win.

Or we suppose you could try and persuade American workers to accept much lower pay and conditions. Somehow we don’t think you’re going to attempt that.

Sure, you can try and re-negotiate trade deals, but who’s to say anyone is going to want to negotiate with you? When you stand on the steps of the Capitol and call out “America First” like some sort of mantra, don’t you realise that what the rest of us hear is “And you guys second. Or last. Or nowhere. We really don’t care.”?

If you don’t believe us, can we suggest you watch this video from Holland? It’s not only very funny, but it explains the problem better than we can.

You see, if the success of a trade deal is no longer to be a quid pro quo – as the Jews say, “leaving a little something in the deal for everyone” – then can you explain, please, why you think anyone is going to want to negotiate with you?

Sir, the ONLY solution to America’s economic decline is to work harder, and more innovatively. To produce things that the rest of the world hasn’t worked out how to make yet, and to continue to produce those things at the lowest feasible cost until everyone else catches up, and then to repeat the process. Endlessly. That is your only defence against the new Tigers, wherever they are.

But we don’t hear anything about that from you.

Instead, for example, when the world is desperate for new, non-fossil fuel energy sources, smarter batteries, new power transmission technologies and all the rest, what do you offer us?

A huge increase in fracking and coal consumption. Have you walked down the streets in Beijing and Mumbai recently? Why would you want to visit more pollution on the people of the USA?

 

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we're wrong, please tell us why.

The inevitable result of an economy based on coal-fired energy. If we’re wrong, please tell us why.

And you say:

Lastly, our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.

But Mr President, even with “clean coal” technology (assuming it can be successfully developed, at a reasonable price, which is still highly uncertain) and even with the most careful rules over fracking, you can’t protect the water and air of the United States no matter how hard you try. And your statement completely ignores the effect on the climate of burning more and more fossil fuels.

Even if you don’t think climate change is man made, or entirely man made, or whatever your position is this week, surely you must appreciate that expanding fossil fuel production is taking a vastly greater risk with the environment that we don’t need to take? Renewable energy sources are now more than capable of taking up the slack, as Europe is demonstrating successfully in an incredibly short timescale.

If climate change disrupts American agriculture, the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change means Americans cannot live in safety in the forests, deserts, or coastal plains that they live in now, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence. In lives, and in dollars.

If climate change alters the make-up of the oceans so that fish stocks migrate away from your shores, or disappear altogether, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

If climate change increases the severity of weather events – hot and cold – across your nation, then the cost will be way higher than the cost of phasing out fossil fuel dependence.

See, Mr President, this is our real problem. It seems to us that you must know all these things. You are clearly an intelligent and ambitious man. You surround yourself with bright people.

Yet despite the fact that you must know better, you are simply not levelling with the American people, or the world, about the depth and the scale of the problems in trade, manufacturing, energy, and defence.

We could keep writing on and on about other areas of your program, but that doesn’t seem fair.

Lord knows, there’s more than enough here to be going on with.

So, Sir, we respectfully invite you to address the questions we have for you. We’re genuinely interested to know what you think.

Or if it’s all just politics – if it’s all just a con, playing to the gallery, shoring up a base of domestic support, then why not admit it? As you have said, it doesn’t seem to matter what you say and do, they’re gonna love you anyway. But the rest of us would really like to know what you’re on about, because from over here, it simply doesn’t make any sense.

At all. Not even a bit.

Yours sincerely

The World

Fascinating story from the BBC about how falconry – hunting with birds of prey – influenced Shakespeare and the English language generally.

As a falconer, for example, tightly pinches the bird’s jesses, or tethers, under his or her thumb to stop the bird flying away at random, we get the term ‘under your thumb’, meaning controlled, although the term nowadays is more common when describing hen-pecked husbands than hunting birds of prey. (Hen-pecked also having its roots in medieval observation, of course.)

Another phrase we get from falconry is “wrapped around your little finger” which is when the bird’s owner uses his or her little finger in conjunction with the thumb to hold on tight to the bird’s jesses.

When the bird’s eyes and head are covered with a small leather hood to keep it from distraction until it is needed we get the term ‘hoodwinked’.

This rare jargon of English 16th century falconry entered our colloquial language thanks in part to one amateur falconer, William Shakespeare.

Experts still argue about how much falconry Shakespeare actually practiced in real life, but he was no doubt personally acquainted with the sport, as his plays carry more than 50 references to the sport.

Macbeth advises “scarfing the eye”, a reference to hoodwinking a falcon to prevent the bird (his lady) from distraction. He continues the falconry metaphor with holding the lady back on her perch while other falcons prepare to “rouse”, or take flight. French terms like “rouse” (from the Old French ruser, when a hawk shakes its feathers) entered English with the Norman invasion of 1066. But it is Shakespeare who helped forge a new meaning: “to rouse” as in “awaken”.

“Eyes like a hawk,” is well-known, of course, and with good reason. A hawk’s eyesight is ten times stronger than a human’s eyesight: like reading a newspaper across a football field.

A hawk’s eyesight is ten times stronger than a human’s (Credit: Credit: Andrew Evans)

There are lots of other examples of words transferring from medieval falconry to modern English.

Bate Birds beating their wings while still tethered; from the Old French batre (to beat), eventually “to hold back, restrain”, as in a bated breath.

Fed up A bird that is no longer hungry has no incentive to hunt.

Booze From the 14th-century verb bouse (Dutch origin), to drink excessively. A bird that drinks too much water will not hunt, similar to those who are “fed up”.

Haggard A wild hawk that’s difficult to train. One of Shakespeare’s favourite terms.

In Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew, the male lead Petruchio likens taming his new bride to training a hawk:

My falcon now is sharp and passing empty;
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
Another way I have to man my haggard,
To make her come and know her keeper’s call …

A falcon or hawk that is fully gorged, or “fed up” will no longer work for her master. On the other hand, a “haggard” is a wild hawk that may never be fully trained. Shakespeare uses the term five times to describe different women in his plays, which in later English came to mean wild, unkempt and dishevelled.

What’s your favourite piece of curious etymology, Dear Reader?

286f2d946e60b55f7a0c7e69bcb3ae14North and Central America was populated by the Native Americans about 13,500 years ago. In that time, they have been a source of much interest and were “first” with a few things you might not know about.

Abstract art

Abstract art was used by nearly all tribes and civilisations.

Native American art was believed to be ‘primitive’ until the 1990s, when it served as inspiration for the modern abstract art movement.

The apartment block

The Anasazi and other tribes which once thrived in the present day South-West of the USA, developed complex multi-story apartment complexes, some of which are still in use today. Indeed, the Native Pueblo communities in present-day New Mexico continue to reside in some of these ancient multi-story apartment complexes which were constructed by their ancestors many centuries ago, even before the first apartments were built in the United States during the 18th century.

peublo-bonitoPueblo Bonito, one of the seminal archaeological sites in America, is a marvellous example of this ancient Native American complex construction technology, originally built during the Anasazi and Hohokom time periods of about roughly a thousand years ago.

The bunk bed

Was invented to squeeze more members of the family into Iroquois longhouses, where they lived communally.

They gave us words you use regularly

A number of Native American words have become a part of the English language. Just a few of these include: barbecue, cannibal, chocolate, hammock, hurricane, potato, skunk, squash and more.

Our personal favourite is the word ‘avocado’ which is from the Nahuatl tribe and actually translates to ‘testicle’.

Technology

Native Americans were actually quite advanced by “hunter-gatherer” standards.

Not unreasonably, their technology was sourced from the world around them.

toothbrush

They would use porcupine hairs to make hairbrushes, and sticks were cut into the right shape and frayed at the edges to make toothbrushes. Their dental decay was much less than their historic equivalents in Europe.

Native Americans in present-day Pennsylvania lit petroleum, which seeped from underground to fire ceremonial fires. In addition, they also used petroleum to cover their bodies against insect bites and as a form or jelly to prevent their skins drying out.

Drugs and Anaesthetics

The Native Americans possessed a huge knowledge of plants and how to to cure ailments with them. They had been using willow tree bark for thousands of years to reduce fever and pain (as were the ancient peoples of Assyria, Sumer, Egypt and Greece).

When chemists analysed willows in the last century, they discovered salicylic acid, the basis of the modern drug aspirin.

Historians have also discovered that they were the first developers of anaesthetics. While European patients were dying of pain during a surgery, Native healers utilised plants in their procedures to help them.

Indigenous people also realised the antibiotic property of peyote and used the extract to treat fevers and enhance the energy in their bodies, and as an anesthetic.

Oral contraception

There are recorded instances of Native Americans who took medicines which prevented pregnancies. Such instances date back to the 18th century, which are centuries earlier from the time modern oral contraceptives were developed by western scientists. The Shoshone tribe used the crushed powder of stone seed as a form of oral contraceptive, while the Potawatomi nation used herb dogbane, which when taken orally would prevent pregnancies.

A Third Sex

Pre-dating current LGBT+ debates by hundreds of years, some Native American tribes recognised a third gender that was separate from male and female. A “two-spirit” was one whose body manifested both masculine and feminine spirits simultaneously. They were often male – and they sometimes married other males – but weren’t seen as homosexual among their tribe.

small_indian-ball-game_catlin

A rich sporting life

Native Americans enjoyed sports and games. All the tribes played some kind of stickball or hand game which was popular and entire villages participated as games weren’t seen as strictly for children. Many of them are akin to games that Europeans would recognise like hockey and lacrosse.

North American Indians also invented the spinning top, used as a toy and made out of wood.

Farming

Among the many items developed by the Native Americans were tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, the domesticated turkey, manioc, peanuts, vanilla, the muscovy duck and cranberries. They were also responsible for a number of breeds of domesticated dogs, including the xochiocoyotl (coyote), xoloitzcuintli (known as xolo or Mexican hairless), chihuahua, the Carolina dog, and the Alaskan malamute.

Tobacco

One of the less wonderful things the Native peoples bequeathed us was tobacco, which was used in the Americas for many centuries prior to the arrival of white Europeans. Consumed in high doses, tobacco can become highly hallucinogenic and was accordingly used by many in the Americas to inspire dreams and dream time. Tobacco was also often consumed as a medicine amongst some tribes, although this was strictly practiced by experienced shamans and medicine men. Eastern tribes in mainland USA also traded tobacco as a trade item in exchange for food, clothing, beads, and salt and would often smoke tobacco during sacred and ritualised ceremonies using pipes. Tobacco was considered to be a gift from the Almighty and it was believed that the exhaled tobacco smoke generated from smoking a pipe would carry one’s thoughts and prayers to the creator up above in the heavens.

Calendars

Were developed by Native Americans throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and South America. They are known to have been in used since 600 BC. American native calendars were so precise that by the 5th century BC they were only 19 minutes off.

Government

Think the Europeans dreamed up democracy and the American republic? Think again.

fig3Indian governments in eastern North America, particularly the League of the Iroquois, served as models of federated representative democracy to the Europeans and the American colonists.

The United States government is based on such a system, whereby power is distributed between a central authority (the federal government) and smaller political units (the states).

Historians have suggested the Iroquois system of government influenced the development of the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. In 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognise the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

A close relationship to nature

Like many “uncivilised” peoples – some would argue that should read “more civilised” – the Native Americans believed strongly in nature; they believed that all living things such as humans, plants, animals, and even the rivers and wind were all connected. They believed that these elements of nature were sacred as some of their religious beliefs involved the origins of the world and nature itself. There was no one religion that united all the peoples, but they all had common elements.

As we noted on our recent trip to Vanuatu, we risk losing so much if we let ancient civilisations wither and die.

zsa zsa gabor

And now Zsa Zsa’s gone
Darlink, a ray of sunshine!
Year ends. As it starts.

 

 

See also: Goodbye 2016. And good riddance.

 

 

You’ll have your own list. This is ours.

Alan Rickman

David Bowie

George Kennedy

Gary Shandling

Muhammad Ali

Billy Paul

Anton Yelchin

Robert Vaughan

Arnold Palmer

Bobby Vee

Steven Hill

John Glenn

Sir George Martin

AA Gill

Gene Wilder

Keith Emerson and Greg Lake

Elie Wiesel

Jo Cox

Victoria Wood

Terry Wogan and Sir Jimmy Young

Ron Glass

Peter Vaughan

and especially

Ronnie Corbett

and

Andrew Sachs

and the one we felt most:

Leonard Cohen

“Jesus was a sailor

 when he walked upon the water.

 And he spent a long time watching

 from his lonesome wooden tower.

 And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said:

 ‘All men will be sailors then, until the sea will free them!’

 Oh but he himself was broken.

 Long before the sky would open.

 Forsaken, almost human.

 He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”

 

Entertainer. Thinker. Priest. Poet. Mentor. Musician. Our world is much the poorer without him.

See also: A Haiku for Zsa Zsa.

partridge-in-a-pear-tree

The Twelve Days of Christmas” is an English Christmas carol that enumerates in the manner of a cumulative song a series of increasingly grand gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas (the twelve days after Christmas). The song, published in England in 1780 without music as a chant or rhyme, is thought to be French in origin. The standard tune now associated with it is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by English composer Frederic Austin, who first introduced the now familiar prolongation of the verse “five gold rings”.

Anonymous broadside, Angus, Newcastle, 1774–1825

 “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a cumulative song, meaning that each verse is built on top of the previous verses. There are twelve verses, each describing a gift given by “my true love” on one of the twelve days of Christmas. There are many variations in the lyrics. The lyrics given here are from Austin’s 1909 publication that first established the current form of the carol. The first three verses run, in full, as follows:

On the First day of Christmas my true love sent to me
a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Second day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

On the Third day of Christmas my true love sent to me
Three French Hens,
Two Turtle Doves
and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

Subsequent verses follow the same pattern, each adding one new gift and repeating all the earlier gifts, so that each verse is one line longer than its predecessor, as in:

4 Calling Birds
5 Gold Rings
6 Geese a-Laying
7 Swans a-Swimming
8 Maids a-Milking
9 Ladies Dancing (or Prancing)
10 Lords a-Leaping
11 Pipers Piping
12 Drummers Drumming

Variations of the lyrics

“Mirth without Mischief” (1780)

The earliest known version of the lyrics was published under the title “The Twelve Days of Christmas sung at King Pepin’s Ball”, as part of a 1780 children’s book, Mirth without Mischief. Subsequent versions have shown considerable variation:
  • In the earliest versions, the word “On” is not present at the beginning of each verse—for example, the first verse begins simply “The first day of Christmas”. “On” was added in Austin’s 1909 version, and became very popular thereafter.
  • In the early versions “my true love sent” me the gifts. However, a 20th-century variant has “my true love gave to me”; this wording has become particularly common in North America.
  • The 1780 version has “four colly birds” – “colly” being a regional English expression for “black”.

    This wording must have been opaque to many even in the 19th century: “canary birds”, “colour’d birds”, “curley birds”, and “corley birds” are all found in its place. Frederic Austin’s 1909 version, which introduced the now-standard melody, also altered the fourth day’s gift to four “calling” birds, and this variant has become the most popular, although “colly” is still found. (Especially in our household.)

  • The “five gold rings” may become “five golden rings”, especially in North America. In the standard melody, this change enables singers to fit one syllable per musical note.
  • The gifts associated with the final four days are often reordered. For example, the pipers may be on the ninth day rather than the eleventh.

Scotland

In Scotland, early in the 19th century, the recitation began: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, | A popingo-aye [parrot]; | Wha learns my carol and carries it away?” The succeeding gifts were two partridges, three plovers, a goose that was grey, three starlings, three goldspinks, a bull that was brown, three ducks a-merry laying, three swans a-merry swimming, an Arabian baboon, three hinds a-merry hunting, three maids a-merry dancing, three stalks o’ merry corn.

Faroe Islands

One of the two “Twelve Days of Christmas” Faroe stamps

In the Faroe Islands, there is a comparable counting Christmas song. The gifts include: one feather, two geese, three sides of meat, four sheep, five cows, six oxen, seven dishes, eight ponies, nine banners, ten barrels, eleven goats, twelve men, thirteen hides, fourteen rounds of cheese and fifteen deer. These were illustrated in 1994 by local cartoonist Óli Petersen (born 1936) on a series of two stamps issued by the Faroese Philatelic Office.

France

The French folk song “La Perdriole” (“The Partridge”) is a cumulative song with the same kind of lyrics and a similar (but slightly different) melody. One variant iterates over the 12 months of the year (“Le premier mois d’l’année”, etc…). Another version may be found in the Rondes et chansons de France, Vol. 10. It iterates over the first 12 days of May (“Au premier jour de Mai”, etc…)

Origins and meaning

The exact origins and the meaning of the song are unknown, but it is highly probable that it originated from a children’s memory and forfeit game.

The twelve days in the song are the twelve days starting with Christmas Day, or in some traditions, the day after Christmas (December 26) (Boxing Day or St. Stephen’s Day, as being the feast day of St. Stephen Protomartyr), to the day before Epiphany, or the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6, or the Twelfth Day). Twelfth Night is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the evening of the fifth of January, preceding Twelfth Day, the eve of the Epiphany, formerly the last day of the Christmas festivities and observed as a time of merrymaking.”

(Which is why we are supposed to take our Christmas decorations down on the 6th of Jan, even though in our household we never do, we like the pretty lights too much!)

The best known English version was first printed in English in 1780 in a little book intended for children, Mirth without Mischief, as a Twelfth Night “memories-and-forfeits” game, in which a leader recited a verse, each of the players repeated the verse, the leader added another verse, and so on until one of the players made a mistake, with the player who erred having to pay a penalty, such as offering up a kiss or a sweet. One hundred years later, Lady Gomme, a collector of folktales and rhymes, described how it used to be played every Twelfth Day night before eating mince pies and twelfth cake (also known as “King’s cake).

Writing around 1846, Edward Rimbault stated that “[e]ach child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake.”

Salmon, writing from Newcastle, claimed in 1855 that the song “[had] been, up to within twenty years, extremely popular as a schoolboy’s Christmas chant”.

Husk, writing in 1864, stated:

This piece is found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years. On one of these sheets, nearly a century old, it is entitled “An Old English Carol,” but it can scarcely be said to fall within that description of composition, being rather fitted for use in playing the game of “Forfeits,” to which purpose it was commonly applied in the metropolis upwards of forty years since. The practice was for one person in the company to recite the first three lines; a second, the four following; and so on; the person who failed in repeating her portion correctly being subjected to some trifling forfeit.

“Twelve days of Christmas” was adapted from similar New Years’ or spring French carols, of which at least three are known, all featuring a partridge, perdriz or perdriole, as the first gift. The pear tree appears in only the English version, but this could also indicate a French origin. According to Iona and Peter Opie, the red-legged (or French) partridge perches in trees more frequently than the native common (or grey) partridge and the red-legged variant was not successfully introduced into England until about 1770.

Cecil Sharp observed that “from the constancy in English, French, and Languedoc versions of the ‘merry little partridge,’ I suspect that ‘pear-tree’ is really perdrix (Old French pertriz) carried into England”; and “juniper tree” in some English versions may have been “joli perdrix,” [pretty partridge]. Sharp also suggests the adjective “French” in “three French hens”, probably simply means “foreign”.

(The French are very foreign, of course.)

In the northern counties of England, the song was often called the “Ten Days of Christmas”, as there were only ten gifts. It was also known in Somerset, Dorsetshire, and elsewhere in England. The kinds of gifts vary in a number of the versions, some of them becoming alliterative tongue-twisters. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was also widely popular in the United States and Canada. It is mentioned in the section on “Chain Songs” in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (Indiana University Studies, Vol. 5, 1935), p. 416.

There is evidence pointing to the North of England, specifically the area around Newcastle upon Tyne, as the origin of the carol. Husk, in the 1864 excerpt quoted above, stated that the carol was “found on broadsides printed at Newcastle at various periods during the last hundred and fifty years”, i.e. from approximately 1714. In addition, many of the nineteenth century citations come from the Newcastle area.

kennedyIn recent times, we have seen an upsurge in a rejection of the status quo and the success of populism, overwhelming the accepted norms of political discourse. The litany of events is very obvious … Erdowan in Turkey becoming progressively more authoritarian, the election of Syriza in Greece to oppose the EU-imposed austerity, the British public voting (albeit narrowly) for “Brexit”, the near-defeat of the Liberal-National coalition Government in Australia, the ascent of a virtual fascist to the Presidential run off in Austria, the likely ascent of the far-right National Front in France to a run-off in the coming French elections and the inability of a left-centre candidate to even make the frame, the rejection of Prime Minister Renzi’s attempt to rationalise decision-making in Italy leading to his resignation, the likely future success of the ultra-right in Holland, and above all, the election of businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump to the most powerful position in the Western world, President of the United States.

In reality, this trend can be traced back even further, to the velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union (although this was also a more complex situation than mere discontent with the failures of the incumbent power structures). It could also be argued that the ultimate example is the steady move towards a command-capitalist model in China, with attendant liberalisation – creeping, at times reversed, but inexorable in its trend – of the media, of criticism of Party officials, and of the material expectations of a growing middle class. Indeed, in unleashing the forces of capitalism on Chinese society, Deng Xiao Ping can be said to have headed off a more dramatic and cataclysmic change in China.

When people are asked why they are participating in these quiet (or not so quiet) electoral revolutions they invariably answer with comments like “I am just sick of all of them”, “I am tired of the status quo, we need someone to shake things up”, “Politicians have failed us”, “We need someone to fix things up.”

The danger, of course, is that the people wreak major changes based on their discontent, without necessarily taking the time to consider whether those changes are what they really want. Fed a diet of rubbish and lies by both the media and their political leaders they simply cannot work out what is true or not, and therefore fall back on their gut instinct. And their gut instinct is that they are being badly led – which they are.

This is emphatically not to say the people are stupid – not at all. It is simply to note that in their desire to punish the under-performing elite they place rational decision-making of what might come next as secondary to their desire to give the establishment a damn good kicking. They argue, if questioned on precisely this point, that “it couldn’t be any worse”.

Winston ChurchillThe fact that it could, definitively, be much worse, is ignored because of the same anger that created the switch to populist idols in the first place.

Churchill’s warning that “democracy is the worst form of Government, it’s just better than all the others” is forgotten as the public elevate people who do not essentially subscribe to democratic ideals to run their democracies, with as yet untested outcomes.

In Russia, for example, the putative glasnost and perestroika of the Gorbacev era has now been thoroughly replaced by the quasi-fascist rule of Putin and his cronies, with uncertain outcomes that could be argued to threaten peace in Europe, at least. The Brexit vote at a minimum calls into question the “Union” part of the European Union, which is now on the nose throughout most of the EU, and the great dream of a peaceful, co-operative Europe that transcends mere trade freedom seems to lie in tatters. We might also note Churchill’s prescient remark that “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” People used to understand the limits of Government to “fix things”. No longer, it appears.

How did it come to this?

It is important to see this collapse of the ruling consensus as more than any desire to attend to this particular problem, or that, because the matters creating the angst vary from theatre to theatre.

Unquestionably, above all, the refugee flood around the world (and not just from the Middle East, at all) has created great tensions – great fear of “the others” – because it has happened at a time when the world seems to be collapsing into an ongoing conflict between the West and extremist Arabist/Muslim sects. But when massive population shifts occurred immediately after the Second World War there was considerably less social angst about an inflow of refugees, although by no means was there none, as any of the Italians, Greeks, Albanians and others who were shipped en masse to Australia (and America, and Canada) can attest. But it produced no mass revolution against the status quo. As recently as the late 1970s, huge inflows of refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam produced barely a ripple of protest. So something different is happening here.

Unquestionably, economic uncertainty is playing its part.
The lost of traditional jobs has devastated some areas,
and not been replaced withtightrope anything else. That politicians seem unable or unwilling to recognise and successfully the problem is a staggering failure. During the 1930s, a huge “whole of Government” effort in some countries prevented the compact between the governing and the governed from breaking down altogether. The “New Deal” in America being the best and most successful example. But the mass unemployment caused by the breakdown of capital in that decade led inexorably to World War 2 and all that meant. That Western politicians can look at societies with 50% youth unemployment, can gaze on as we witness the wholesale collapse of traditional industries, can make mealy-mouthed contributions when someone brings up the obviously inadequate funds to support the aged and the ill, and yet imagine that such a cataclysm could not occur again? This is the ultimate desertion of responsibility.

It seems to us that the world is experiencing a “perfect storm” of fear – endlessly beaten up by politicians and the media – at precisely the same time as politicians are struggling, and usually failing, to come to terms with the stresses and strains created in economies by “instant” international banking (which can change the dominant rules of a market in seconds), globalisation (which has led to the wholesale demise of “old” industries in the established economies), a series of scandals that imply that our political leaders are little more than a series of ever-hungry pigs with their snouts so deep in the trough that their eyes can’t see anything over the top, and, and this is critical, a failure of leadership.

On the one hand we have the populists, with their broad brush stroke slogans, their breathlessly simple solutions, and their fellow travellers that constantly beat the drum praising the perspicacity of their chosen flag bearer. Only he (or she, in the case of Marie le Pen) have the strength and vision to ram through “the change we need”. And like parched wanderers in the desert, the people turn inevitably to the promise of relief. Tongues hanging out for any water, no matter how brackish.

But this is just a mirage of “we can fix it”. It’s a big lie. A big con. So big, indeed, that people swallow it, because surely no-one could be so ruthless, so uncaring of the effect they are having, so roguish in their pursuit of power, as to promise relief with no real idea of how to deliver it. But they can. As Stalin so chillingly said, “one man’s death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”. The same hideous calculation is made by the populists when they promise change they cannot deliver, and solutions that are paper thin in their analysis.

But what has the response of the liberal democracies, the “ruling elite”, been to this challenge? It has been to bury themselves in perpetual over-intellectual obfuscation, to sneer at the populists as if they do not represent a threat, to blithely fiddle as their Rome burns. It has been to bleat “but we are doing our best”, when Blind Freddie can see that their best is woefully lacking. It is to lock themselves in their ivory towers – towers made of parliamentary walls, and TV studios, and offices – and to make little or no real attempt to explain to the people why they are doing what they are doing, and that is assuming they are doing anything much, at all.

How has this situation been allowed to persist?

The reasons are many and various, but in our view they come down to this:

THE FIVE GREAT FAILURES

The failure of vision

Politicians are no longer driven by a desire to create better societies – to serve their people – but by careerism. There is no doubt that no one succeeds in climbing the slippery pole without a strong streak of self-regard, but until the relatively recent past politics was still full of people whose primary, over-riding motivation was the betterment of their electorate, and more widely, humankind. There were more “enthusiastic amateurs”, drawn from all walks of life, chock full of useful experiences. To be sure, they never turned their noses up at the perks of office, nor the thrill of handling the levers of power. But at the core was a desire to conserve what was good, and to develop what was promising, and – based on evidence – to eschew what was failing. It is highly questionable whether that still applies to most politicians today – certainly those of reach the top of the heap – and the people smell the rot with absolute accuracy.

The failure of honesty

It is now a dispiritingly long time since any politician, anywhere in the West, dared to say “Actually, we’re not really sure what to do”. And yet, in huge swathes of decision making, it is perfectly clear that our leaders do not know what to do. The pace of change, and the relentless news cycle, is leading them to pretend they know what they’re doing when they really don’t. In vast areas of public policy – balancing the structural changes in economies, achieving unanimity on climate change, reducing the proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere, preventing a new Cold – or Hot – war, it is plain they are thrashing about, confused and dispirited. And yet, turn a camera and a microphone on and they act like Mastermind contestants with all the answers.

This has two linked effects. Firstly, it destroys trust, when it becomes clear that the assurances and calming words are so much hogwash. Second, it removes responsibility from the public to be part of the solution to intractable problems, leaving them reliant on blowing up the entire system when they are – inevitably – disappointed, as they had no part in devising the solution, and no ownership of the outcome.

The failure of communication

Politicians seem to no longer be able to phrase their goals in simple language, without succumbing to the temptation to reduce everything to focus group-led slogans.

It would be hard to think of a single major Western politician – with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, although her days may well be numbered – who still has the required “common touch”, although Justin Trudeau in Canada is undoubtedly a standout exception – and he, it should be noted, is of the left, and is an intellectual, thus giving the lie to the assertion that all this change is merely a revolt against “left intellectualism”.

A politician like Churchill, for example, could be autocratic, even waywardly so, but he never forgot the absolute need to take the people with him. Perhaps in war-time this need is more obvious. But in the recent past – much as we disagreed with some of her policies – a politician who widely admired Churchill – Margaret Thatcher – also had the ability to communicate broad themes in a popular way, while making changes that many argue were long overdue in Britain despite being sometimes achingly difficult.

Where are the democratic politicians who offer us soaring rhetoric, yet rooted in common sense, to enliven and inform civic debate? Certainly Obama offered the soaring rhetoric, but outside of campaign mode he so often failed to return to those heights, and was too often hidebound by a toxic combination of an obstructive Congress, a swingeing economic crisis, and his own innate conservatism.

The cupboard is depressingly bare.

The failure of thought

The West, in particular, but by no means exclusively, is failing itself. The essence of democracy is free, vibrant and deep debate, the development of philosophy, the parsing of solutions. One of the inevitable results of the dumbing down of Universities – through the diversion of their funds increasingly to commercial “applied science” rather than humanities such as literature, politics, and philosophy – even theology – has starved our system of thinkers. The problems we face are massively complicated, yet those who used to work diligently behind the scenes in thousands of “thinking hives” are increasingly no longer there, and no longer contributing. Political parties are increasingly less full of thinkers and increasingly full of yar boo sucks partisans. Where political thought across the political divide was once welcome and respected, now it is virtually unheard of. While politicians of different ilk may well be friendly “behind the scenes”, for them to acknowledge the thoughts of an opponent as having value, of being worthy of consideration, is apparently political death. Little wonder the public don’t trust them, faced with such ludicrous and childishness obstinacy.

The failure of media

Our media organisations have become helplessly addicted to the brief, and the sensational.

Whilst this was always true of the tabloid media, it is now true of all media.

The people they employ are largely intellectual pygmies, and in television in particular they are in the job because they look good and can follow a producer’s brief.

Across all types of media, they don’t scare the horses, because they rarely ask any hard questions. Hard questions require that the journalist has knowledge and the politician can address that knowledge intelligently, taking whatever time is required. Neither is true, and anyway there is no time.

There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are very few and far between, and becoming more so. The success of the series “Newsroom” showed the public’s deep desire for a form of journalism that is principled, erudite and independent. But of how many journalists today can those three qualities be said? And increasingly, anyway, mainstream media is being over-taken by social media, where the provenance of any story is impossible to divine, and where the impact is so transient that clear nonsense is forgotten almost as soon as it has trended, but not before it has added to the dominant zeitgeist, whatever that may be. If we are in the era of “post truth politics” – a terrifying concept in itself for admirers of democracy – then the most brutal criticism of all must be levied at the media – all of the media – that simultaneously tolerates and encourages the situation.

So what’s to be done?

It may indeed be way too late to close the stable door after watching an entire herd of horses bolting in all directions. Or to mix our metaphors, we may all be just a bunch of well-boiled frogs who should have acted to redress the decline a long time ago.

Yes, we will be accused of being pessimistic because it appears “our side” of politics is currently losing, and we will also be accused of succumbing to conspiracy theories.

In fact, we confidently expect we will be today’s Cassandra, doomed to wail on the battlements while all around mock us.

But in our view, the first step in redressing this danger – the danger of the collapse of modern liberal democracy – is to acknowledge the problem and seek to persuade others to address it. Others, we note, regardless of their native political bent. This is a task for all of us, whatever our political persuasion.

As we do not have the influence to turn the ship around on our own, we simply point to the mounting evidence, and suggest the general shape of a solution.

It will take a mighty effort to reverse the trends outlined here. But as Horace said 2000 years ago, “A journey, once begin, is half over.” To begin this journey, we have to agree that there is a problem, yes?

Quite.

Quite.

Ah, yes, the F*** Ups keep rolling in: this one from the Newcastle area, where they have clearly developed a whole new way of recruiting the teachers they need.

As always, it just beggars belief that no one paid any attention to this when it was in preparation.

We guess that’s what happens when you don’t empower your staff to pipe up when they notice a mistake.

Or maybe no one noticed it, which is perhaps even more worrying.

college

 

Any more for any more, people? It does remind us of one of our all-time favourites, below. For more F*** Ups, just put “F*** Up” in the search box top left of this page and hit Return or Enter or whatever your keyboard says. There are dozens to enjoy.

 

Oh, those crazy whacky British private schools ...

Oh, those crazy whacky British private schools …

NOT meant to be served cold. Not, not, not.

NOT meant to be served cold. Not, not, not.

 

When one leaves the country of one’s birth to travel to somewhere else permanently – well, as far as one knows it’s a permanent move – it is inevitably a wrench, no matter how exciting the “new start” is. Nowadays, one considers oneself more Australian than British, but a deep affection for the land of my birth, with all its quirks and wonderments, persists and will never leave me.

Initially, of course, one misses friends and family enormously, no matter how one makes new links overseas. This is an experience known to millions worldwide, and when yours truly made the jump it was long before such things as Skype and so on. Even email was in its infancy. (Some would say ‘the good old days’.)

But distance can make the heart grow fonder, and welcoming one’s nearest and dearest to experience the new life one is creating is a joy. We will never forget going to the butcher’s with Mum and asking what she’d like for her first “Aussie BBQ”. She shyly indicated some lamb chops – one of her favourites – but was horrified when we simply told the butcher we’d take the whole tray. A lamb chop at a pound apiece was a luxury for her back in Blighty, but lamb isn’t something we’re short of Down Under. We also regularly piled her plate up with King Prawns, which are plentiful in warm Southern oceans, but an eye-widening world away from the tiny shrimps she enjoyed so much growing up in East Anglia and South Wales, coming in little pots sealed with melted butter.

Other friends have variously loved sweet and peppery pumpkin soup served in hollowed out pumpkins – a ridiculously kitchy 1970s thing to do, but a revelation to those visiting from a country where it’s called “Squash” and mainly served to pigs as fodder – and one memorable Christmas with friends disappeared into a comforting blur under the influence of vodka and homemade fruit punch cocktails that complemented the rock lobster.

But for all that entertaining overseas guests always offered a frisson of pleasure, everyday life proved less amenable in some important ways.

It was some time before one could get past asking incredulous barman to microwave our pint of English ale to bring it nearer room temperature rather than struggling with the ice-cold version served in Australia. (The precise time to do this in a 600w microwave is 47 seconds on full, by the way. Just in case you need to know. Then stir the beer with a straw or something to distribute the warmer beer at the outside of the glass to the middle, and wait 20 seconds before drinking – if you can.)

Everyone in Australia knows that Brits drink their beer warm. To see someone actually do it would frequently stop all discussion in the bar, and produce much sad shaking of heads.

Nowadays, of course, one has come to appreciate the frigid beauty of a lager-style beer on a forty degree day – or plenty of them – but like stout, (Guinness is also served everywhere at near-freezing), British ale is meant to be drunk at room temperature to release its gorgeous flavours. Now, at least, one can easily buy bottled ales that one can keep and serve at any temperature one likes, but it would be great to be able to have them served at the right temperature in a pub, especially during Melbourne’s frequently chilly winter. Still: one adjusts. But in the early years nothing emphasised one’s distance from “home” as a pint of Boddington’s served with pearls of condensation on it.

Globalisation, though, has its upsides. In the early years, friends were obliged to stuff their suitcases with packets of Paxo Sage and Onion stuffing and Colman’s Bread Sauce so a Sunday roast chook still tasted something like a roast chook should. One dear amigo, stopped at customs with at least 20 packets of Bread Sauce in his suitcase, had to patiently explain for some time that it wasn’t cocaine artfully packaged, and that if the packets were confiscated there’d be hell to pay from his irascible host.

Better than cocaine any day.

Better than cocaine any day.

Eventually, bemused, the customs guy waved him through, and the immortal phrase “Bloody Poms” was heard clearly in a stage whisper as he exited the green channel, head held high. Nowadays both items are freely available in Aussie supermarkets, where they walk off the shelves and into the grateful pantries of expatriates and their ever-patient families. The same is true of Heinz Salad Cream, which goes perfectly with both french fries and mashed potato, to the eternal horror of Aussies who were brought up with slightly healthier food habits. A bottle of HP Sauce peeking out from the shelves now restores a beatific grin when sausages are on the menu. And despite a wonderful range of home-grown biscuits on offer, still nothing complements a cup of tea quite like a McVities Digestive. As the immortal ad campaign once said, “a drink’s just too wet without one”.

Once upon a time one was thinking of a starting a business called pommygrub.com but neither international transport nor the internet were up to snuff in those days. Needless to say, time marches on.

We might have to order ourselves a pot of Marmite for Christmas. I mean, Vegemite is great, but there’s only ever been one Marmite. And some Bara Brith seems indicated for Christmas afternoon. As it says: “From a bakery in the heart of Pembrokeshire, Tan Y Castell Bara Brith is a delicious and traditional fruit loaf baked with fruit, tea and mixed spices.”

You can take the boy out of Wales …

Traditional Welsh recipe for Bara Brith

Bara Brith translates to ‘speckled bread’ and is an especially rich fruit loaf made with tea. Produced all over Wales, but especially in my “home country” of Pembrokeshire, the spiced fruit loaf is delicious when spread thickly with good Welsh butter.

bara-brith

Bara Brith ingredients

  • 450G/1lb self raising flour
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 175g/6oz Muscavado sugar
  • 1 medium size free-range egg
  • 1tbsp orange zest
  • 2tbsp orange juice
  • 1tbsp honey
  • 300ml/½pt cold tea
  • 450g/1lb mixed, dried fruit
  • Extra honey for glazing

How to make Bara Brith

Put the mixed dried fruit into a mixing bowl, pour over the tea, cover and leave to soak overnight. The next day mix together the sugar, egg, orange juice, zest and honey, add to the fruit. Sift in the flour and spice, and mix well. Pour the mixture into a buttered loaf tin, 1.2L/2pt. Bake in a preheated oven at gas3/160c/325f for about 1¾ hours. The loaf should be golden in colour and firm to the touch in the middle. Baste with honey whilst still warm. Allow to cool thoroughly before storing in a cake tin.

The recipe for Bara Brith can be altered slightly by adding a few flavours. When soaking the fruit, substitute ¼ of the fluid with a whisky liqueur. Replace the honey and fruit juice with 2 tablespoons of marmalade. Alternatively, replace two tablespoons of fruit with chopped stem ginger, and replace the juice and honey with lemon marmalade, and the orange zest with lemon.

You’re welcome.

In loving memory of Simon Titley, who would have understood.

AIDS

 

We warmly recommend you pop over to Time and have a look at their wall of the most historic photographs ever taken – to both remind yourself of the brilliant photos, but also to read the “back story” of any photo that interests you particularly.

http://100photos.time.com/

It is a very considerable effort by Time and they are to be commended for it.

Some celebrate or expose great moments in history. Some track societal trends. Some are simply the first time a photo was ever taken like that.

All remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe photographers for capturing what we need to know. A picture sometimes tells not just a thousand words, but many thousands of words; often much more immediately than tens of thousands of fractious, argumentative, disputatious words.

A picture frequently says much more, and without argument.

Sadly, in today’s “Photoshop” world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to trust the evidence of our own eyes. Nevertheless, a great photograph taken in context can still inform the world, like the little refugee boy drowned in the Mediterranean a little while back.

A fascinating read. Enjoy.

 

“Yes, We Can!”

barack-obama-yes-we-canIt seems like just yesterday that Obama came to the fore of world politics with this optimistic and energising slogan, shouted back at him excitedly by hugely enthusiastic crowds.

Eight years later, despite Obama winning a second election and ending his Presidency with quite high approval ratings, (reflecting a generalised opinion that he’s a likeable guy), that promise frankly seemed to many people more like “No, We Couldn’t.”

Whilst there were some successes in Obama’s presidency, too many people felt left behind. From Florida to Michigan via Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin, people came out in their droves in yesterday’s election to register their discontent.

Trump’s victory is going to be spun – everywhere, endlessly – as a great uprising against the elites, a sort of Western “Arab Spring”, and a repudiation of Obama (and by implication, Clinton), a generalised push back against left-of-centre liberal intellectualism, against feminism, against so many isms that people will be frothing at the mouth to get them out. And Brexit, we will be told constantly, was a similar rejection of the ruling European elite, and Trump, as he famously predicted the night before the election, was just Brexit plus plus – surely the only time a political event in another country has been quoted the night before an American election.

The problem is that this analysis of what’s going on in world elections at the moment is actually wrong. Too shallow. Too simplistic.

Not because people aren’t reacting against elites. They are. Blind Freddie can see that. But that’s really not the point. The real issue here is that people are scared, frightened, confused and casting about for someone to blame for what ails them, and the elites are merely the most obvious and useful target. After all, they’re in charge, so it must all be their fault, right?

“What must be their fault?” “This shit we’re in.” “So what do we do?” “Chuck the elites out.” “Yay! Pass the pitchforks.”

"Who's to blame?" "Dunno, but he'll do."

“Who’s to blame?” “Dunno, but he’ll do.”

The problem is that that analysis is skin deep, and chucking out the elites, if that’s going to be the solution, is only step one of a change, anyway. After all, if you’re going to chuck out the elites, you have to replace them with new administrators. Who are they going to be?

So before we assume we know what’s going on, let’s roll back a bit. WHY are people so scared and angry?

The answer is actually very simple. Breathtakingly simple.

The world has been going through a massive structural change – a fundamental change to free-er trade, and integrated global markets, fuelled by the freest and fastest movement of capital in human history. Massive movements of money wreak chaos in the world’s economic systems. Businesses get blown up overnight. Currencies wobble and slide alarmingly, with the knock on effect on future orders, travel, banking and a dozen other areas.

At the same time, new manufacturing bases like China, India, and elsewhere have sprung up to feed products and services into older, more established economies.

All this has cut the guts out of many key industries in America in particular, and because they have a Government which is periodically ideologically opposed to interfering in the economy, the people affected by the changes are often left to fend pretty much for themselves.

(Layered on top of this is a generalised concern about terrorism and conflict which keeps people permanently unsettled. The obvious fact that hardly anybody, in statistical terms, ever gets hurt by terrorism, is no compensation for those watching lurid pictures of those unfortunates that do, and especially when irresponsible politicians take every opportunity to talk up the threat instead of cutting it down to size.)

But back to economics. Because “it’s the economy, stupid”, right?

The only solution is for economies to be quicker, more flexible, and more innovative. The world might not want your eight cylinder Detroit-built gas guzzler any more, but it seems to want a super-fast electric Tesla, not just because it’s cheap to run, and environmentally friendly, but because it’s a bloody good car, chock full of driver goodness.

But for every Tesla there are dozens of clunky, slow-moving businesses, frantically trying to build firewalls around their markets, and failing.

Many of the people running these companies are more focused on merging with another company and making a quick buck out of stock options, and while they talk a good story about the need to expand and innovate it’s not really their focus. Otherwise they would, yeah? So sooner or later, the hungry and the fast eat the slow and the complacent, as they always do, and the hungry and the fast are increasingly somewhere else, not in our old, established economies. They are in places with fewer restraints on business – especially on labour issues and environmental protection – and they are frequently quasi-command economies where decisions are taken very fast, and without opposition. It’s a potent mixture.

The real problem has been that the political elites are locked into a zero sum game.

They can’t get elected, or re-elected, without saying they know how to fix things. But in reality, they don’t really know how to fix things.

The changes that are going on are so fundamental that they aren’t actually amenable to “being fixed”. Certainly not quickly, and certainly not just by saying it. Many of the changes taking place now are “forever” changes – the clock simply can’t get turned back. People are going to have to adjust, and no amount  of overblown rhetoric from the elite is going to smooth over or resolve the problems.

So if a business in America, for example, (or any old economy market), wants to continue to compete in low-tech commodity marketplaces that they once previously dominated, what are they going to do? Slash the wages of their workers to those of workers in China? India? Mexico? Vietnam? Indonesia? And increasingly – Africa, too? Install better (and more expensive) automation? And anyway, where’s the money going to come from?

What happens to the worker voters then? Longer hours for smaller pay – or being replaced by some whizz-bang new production line – isn’t going to go down well with a workforce that has been cosseted for generations by the terms won by pro-active and powerful unions.

So here is our fear.

The real terror we have is that Brexit will have little or no effect on whether or not Britain can compete on the world stage in the way that it used to when the country had preferential access to cheap colonial resources, and technological leadership in areas like car manufacture, aircraft design, heavy engineering, added value food manufacture, and much more. Brexit may, indeed, happen – or some version of it – but when it fails to produce some magical re-ordering of the state of Britain’s economy, and vast swathes of the country continue to be over-crowded and under-employed, where will electors turn next?

And what about America?

greatagainWhat if “Make America Great Again” turns out to be just so much more polly-waffle. Because America actually can’t be made great again, because it’s hopelessly under-capitalised (seen the deficit recently?) with a shrinking tax take, too turgid, not innovative enough, and rapidly being muscled out by new, cheaper more agile competitors.

And America’s too political. Just too damn political. So when someone calls for huge investment in “green energy” for example, sensible, laudable forward-thinking initiatives are killed by a bunch of old-economy oil barons protecting their turf, aided and abetted by politicians who are either in their pocket, or who would rather deliver a smart soundbite about how alternative energy sources will never match up to our needs, and anyway, “who believes all that global warming stuff anyhow?” rather than take on the task of educating the public as to why such investment isn’t just a good idea, it’s mandatory.

The very obvious point is that moving to alternative energy sources will simply make the planet cleaner, anyhow, and wouldn’t that be nice, even if global warming isn’t happening and 99% of the scientists in the world are wrong? And anyway, old-style energy sources are running out whether or not the planet is warming. One day we will run out of gas, oil, coal, and uranium, or it will simply be too expensive to extract what’s left. What then?

Doesn’t it seem to make sense to have a fall back solution?

Of course it makes sense, but we are idolising politicians who could care less if it makes sense. Look at Trump’s insistence that he will wind back support for solar energy and expand the coal industry. It plays well amongst unemployed coal miners, it played well in key swing states like Pennsylvania, and the owners of coal companies will be delighted. Not so much the future-focused industries. Among solar-power installers, SolarCity Corp. which Tesla Motors Corp. is currently trying to acquire, closed down 4% on Wednesday. Rival Vivint Solar Inc. was among the biggest decliners, ending the day off 6.3%, while SunRun Inc. tumbled 4%. Solar-panel makers and solar-power developers fared no better. SunPower skidded 14% and First Solar Inc. lost 4.2%. The American depositary receipts of China-based solar-panel manufacturer JA Solar Holdings Co. Ltd. fell 8.4%; Trina Solar Ltd. ADRs closed 2.3% down for the day. The Guggenhim Solar ETF  was off 5.6%.

This is just one industry sector out of dozens we could consider. We’re going to make America great again by massacring an industry of the future and pumping up a tired old industry of increasing irrelevance. Irrelevance, we say? Yup. Coal prices have fallen more than 50% since 2011 as it has faced stiff competition from plentiful natural gas which is easier to extract and transport, cleaner to use, and cheaper. That isn’t going to change.

We’re going to rob Peter to pay Paul – lose jobs and wealth in the solar industry to prop up jobs and profits in the coal sector. And in doing so, we will send the American ability to compete (against the Europeans, especially) backwards, again. And for what? So we can make it look like we are keeping in line with our hugely overblown promise. “Back to basics! None of this wanky new stuff! Let’s get those mines open again!” We’re in the process of doing exactly the same in Australia.

Politics, pure and simple.

But the stakes here are simply enormous. The howling, inchoate anger of the masses that saw Trump elected will absolutely not tolerate another failure. Trump has massively raised expectations of his (and by implication, the Republicans’) ability to fix things with a massive tranche of people who have lost all hope and trust in “the system’s” ability (or desire) to help them.

He’s their last throw of the dice.

He has blindly and repeatedly promised jobs, jobs, jobs with no plan as to how to create them, other than slashing taxes for business and for the well off, and vaguely “getting government off people’s backs”. Which is all well and good, except the evidence is that cutting taxes very often does not create jobs, because the “trickle down” effect of lower taxes for the rich is illusory, and there is no evidence that cutting corporate tax results in higher levels of investment in business, either.

And “getting government off people’s backs” is simply code for slashing the social credit: cutting money for hospitals, education, welfare, veterans, transport and more. Which are precisely the things that the disenfranchised people that vote for him need to survive. So in four Trump/Republican supporting areas in America last night electors voted to increase the basic wage – because they can’t live on what they’re getting now – an act which will now be opposed by the very people they voted for.

Sometimes, looking around can be instructive. This interesting little article about how constantly pumping up the electorate’s expectations has essentially wrecked the Icelandic economy and destroyed the trust of the voters is well worth reading.

Is there an alternative? Yes there is. We need politicians (and opinion leaders) who can explain the realities of the world in simple enough terms for people to understand. It is not a coincidence that Trump’s largest area of support drew from the under-educated. The same was true of Brexit. If the Legia Nord persuade Italy to leave the EU, or the National Front take power in France, the same will be true again.

That’s not a value judgement, it’s an indisputible fact that needs to be understood. If you haven’t finished high school, let alone done further education, you simply aren’t going to have the head skills to understand complex arguments. So what do we do in response? Do we work out how to make those arguments genuinely accessible? Do we re-examine our communications techniques to explain what’s going on to the widest possible number of people, to prevent an expectations bubble blowing up? No, we don’t – because we don’t think we can get elected that way. So we reduce our political messages to the mindlessly boiled down and un-achievably aspirational. We’re going to Make America Great Again. How? Sorry, I need to move on and talk about emails.

Trump has ratcheted the expectations for his incoming Presidency to impossibly high levels. If he crashes and burns, we genuinely fear for the very fabric of society. And we fear that effect appearing all over the world.

churchillOne of the most famous political speeches of all time was made by Winston Churchill when he took over Government in the most parlous situation in May, 1940. With Britain’s very existence at stake, he said:

“I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

The national unity that was engendered, and the national effort it produced, has never been exceeded before that time, or after. Indeed, many consider Britain’s War Cabinet from 1940-45 to be the most effective UK Government of any era.

Blood? Toil? Tears? Sweat? An Ordeal? Struggle? Suffering?

Didn’t hear a lot about that sort of stuff in recent years, did you? And yet now is exactly when the angry, bitter, betrayed working and middle classes desperately need our political leaders and our media to tell them the truth.

They won’t, so we will.

A lot of the next ten or twenty years are going to be shit, quite frankly, and there’s no real sign that we know what to do about it.

Our kids will probably be less well off than we are, at least some of them will, and some of us will be, too. Our kids are going to have a whole heap of challenges we can only guess at now.

Our world is changing faster than we can manage, the stars are realigning, and the very first thing we need to do is face up to it, because unless we do, there is not just a vanishingly small chance we’ll work it out, there is no chance whatsoever.

We need a massive effort, akin to being in a war against a tyrant. And we are going to make mistakes, there are going to be mis-steps, and if we try to slay our opponents or burn the house down every time there is, we’re never going to get anywhere.

The days of plentiful cheap resources and endlessly expanding markets are gone. Forever. And we can’t rely on population growth to take up the slack, because it creates as many problems as it solves.

How we handle the coming change, with its inherent difficulties, will be the measure of our shared humanity. Let’s start by facing up to the challenge, and taking the people with us.

 

 

woman

 

For 200 years. No, 400. Make that a round 700.
She has walked this street.
The same small, bent woman.
Separated from herself only by the inconvenience of birth and death.
She wears black. Her husband died decades back.
Lost at sea. Killed by the Turks. Hanged for thieving.
Shot by the Nazis. A cigarette heart attack.
And still she walks. Up and down.
Back and forth on this one long endless street.
To the tomatoes.
To the salt cod.
To the rooms she cleans for pennies.
And then home.
Hello to a friend in her window.
To the quiet room, and quiet dignity.
At the end of her street, at last.
For another 200 years. No, 400.
Make that forever.

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Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best, Dear Reader

Your indefatigable correspondent doing what he does best.

You find us on our occasional travels this bright autumn day, Dear Reader, this time to Italy again, to see the immortal Southampton Football Club scale the tobacco-smoke-filled heights of Inter Milan at the San Siro Stadium. Which lofty ambition was thwarted by our customary inability to score from a hatful of golden chances, while Inter Milan scored from their only shot on goal of the game, much of which they spent with eleven men behind the ball and employing every niggly, nasty, time-wasting tactic imaginable, which makes their baby-snatching victory all the more galling, but heigh ho, that’s football. And anyway, what can you expect from a game administered by an obviously blind namby-pamby incompetent fool of a referee, played against a bunch of [insert nakedly inappropriate insults here], who have made a virtue of winning by playing so badly the other team subsides in a heap of confusion and frustration. Bah, humbug and curses to youse all.

We would not use our precious leave to re-visit a country we have explored before, in reality, were it not for the precious nexus of European football and a bunch of good mates traveling to see the game, but Italy is one of those wonderful, shambolic, loveable, infuriating experiences that makes a return trip enjoyable under any circumstances.

If one can ever get there, that is.

Having left home 36 hours before one finally schlepped up to our Milan hotel bedroom, one could be forgiven for thinking the Arab states have got it right and it is, per se, perfectly appropriate to cut the hands off whichever idiot air bridge operator crashed their charge into the side of our plane, thus occasioning all of us to get off again and spent an uncomfortable few hours inside Dubai terminal C waiting for a new one to complete the hop to Milano. Or whatever it is they do to ground crew who mistake their handling of what must be the slowest vehicular transport known to man for racing their new Mercedes and proceed to crash it into a $250 million Airbus, leaving an unsafe dent in the fuselage. “So sorry, Effendi, I just didn’t see it there.” Yes, medieval torture has its place in modern jurisprudence, especially when its 40+ degrees outside and your credit card isn’t working any more than the airport air-conditioning so you can’t even indulge in an iced Starbucks as you disappear into a puddle on the immaculately scrubbed floor. Even the mid-day call to prayer over the loudspeakers fails to lift our spirits. If Allah existed surely he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people, right?

Milan is, of course, the jewel in the crown of northern Italy, home to fashion and fashonistas, and wandering its streets waiting for the game to start it is hard not to be struck by the fact that everyone is, well, not to put too fine a point on it, beautiful. The women are beautiful – effortlessly, so, with their immaculate coiffure and laughing eyes, high on life. The men are beautiful – boldly so, with their perfectly cut clothes in impossible, improbable colours. There is an air of stylish self-confidence evident everywhere. The short fat people are beautiful. The tall skinny ones are beautiful. Beauty is ageless – the retired indulge the autumn of their lives by dressing in designer fashions that actively defy death and wrinkles. Even the homeless guy pushing a trolley does it with a certain panache as he greets the street vendors who know him. The African migrants trying to sell useless tatt table-to-table in the piazza have adopted their hosts’ insouciant air of belonging, and the street-mime working the restaurants for tips is genuinely funny in a knowing, mocking manner. This is a city high on art culture, so that performance permeates its very fabric. Performance is the core standard. Everyone has an eye on everyone, and knows for sure that everyone’s eyes are on them. It is, frankly, as invigorating as it is scary. So one pulls in one’s belly fat and smiles at the impossibly gorgeous girl at the next table with what you hope is an appropriate devil-may-care atteggiamento. To your astonishment, she flashes you a warming smile back that would melt a Milanese gelato at a dozen paces. This stuff really works. It’s a psychological conspiracy, adhered to by all. We are all beautiful. Keep the faith. Pass it on.

churchSomewhere, a bell tower tolls the hour. Very loud. And very near. And all around, other bell towers take up the tune. The saints clustered around their tops stand impassively calm as the wild clarions ring out, as they have for centuries. They ignore the bells, as the walkers in the street ignore them, as we ignore them. Only the pigeons are startled, but not for long, and return to walking over our feet looking for crumbs.

Our hotel does not disappoint.

It is purple, for a start. Purple from top to bottom.

The grout in the bathrooms is purple.

The walls are purple.

The artworks are purple.

The helpful advice folder in the room is black type on purple paper, so that it can only be read when held under the bedside light at about two inches distance, at which point, like an ancient Illuminati text in the floor of a cathedral, it reluctantly gives up its arcane knowledge of the impossibly complex local train system.

table-and-chairsModern art furniture assails the eyes. Somewhere a table and chairs in the shape of a glass and two steins beckon the unwary. Stay .. drink … relaaaaaax. Tom Hanks rushes into the lobby, crying out to anyone who will listen that it’s not the Metro we allhotel need, but rather the slow suburban S2 line, except they’re on strike. He rushes out again, pursued by a bald monk with evil intent. Or it may have been a postman.

The carpet in the lobby is purple. Your head spins, and not just because ten minutes before you’ve gone arse-over-tit on the laminate floor in your room and you’re no longer quite sure what day it is. Ah yes, it’s match day.

Two Limoncello, please, and two beers.

The ubiquitous lemon liqueur turns up in frozen glasses that are surprisingly beautiful. That’s the aching knee fixed. Onward. Forza!

The game happens.

Having paid a king’s ransom to sit in the posh seats, we exit the ground quickly and safely, with all the fearsome Inter fans (their collective reputation marginally worse than Attilla the Hun’s) shaking our hands with courtesy and smiles and something that looked like pity, as they are enduring a season of shocking failure and they seem to say, “we know what you’re going through, we love you, we share your pain”. Halfway down the stairs, young men and women share the single toilet to serve hundreds, as the male lavatory is inexplicably padlocked, and as they wait in comfortable unisex discomfort they smile, and chatter, and look nothing more nor less than a slightly disreputable renaissance painting come to life. Caravaggio, perhaps.

We are not in Verona, but we might be. There Romeo. There Juliet. There, Tybalt, drunk of course, intent on lechery and perhaps a brawl. All beautiful.

To prevent a brawl, our friends are locked into the stadium for 45 minutes after the game, and then eight thousand Southampton fans are grudgingly permitted to exit down a single narrow staircase. As we stand outside shivering in the suddenly bitter late-evening breeze, they are greeted by a hundred or so police in full riot gear, as clearly the fact that every single one of them is cheerful and good-natured and very obviously they wouldn’t riot if you stuffed a cracker up their collective arse means nothing to Il Commandante Whoever, and having pumped millions into the Milanese economy and behaved impeccably they are now treated like morally dissolute cattle, and dangerously so, too. One stumble, and hundreds could have perished. Criminal stupidity from the authorities, who are obviously only interested in lining the pockets of their carabiniere with unnecessary overtime, as groups of young men in ridiculous gold braid with sub machine guns strut first one way, then another, then back again, noses in the air, sniffing for trouble. They glower. Only word for it. And it isn’t beautiful. It isn’t beautiful one little bit.

But after that distasteful experience, essential Milan reasserts itself, and we walk, semi-frozen and tired to a nearby restaurant owned by a friend and head of the Italian Saints supporters group, and the restaurant is tiny and warm and welcoming, and as feeling returns to our fingers and toes we are treated to a sensational repast of local salami and proscuitto, followed by the most ineffably delicious and unlikely Osso Bucco-topped risotto with creamy rice so imbued with butter and white wine and saffron that the plate almost glows as it comes to the table, and the Osso Bucco topping is gelatinous and rich and the bone marrow in the veal is luscious and braised for hours so that it melts in your mouth. And at the next table are members of the local Parliament representing the curious Legia Nord, the byzantine regional and federalist party which is anti-EU and anti-Rome, fiercely proud of local traditions, socially-conservative, and essentially a party of the right (especially in its anti-immigration activism) yet containing many socialists, liberals and centrists too, who care more for their local area than they do about mere matters such as political philosophy. We remind the leader that we had met previously, at Wembley Stadium, no less, and exchanged happy banter, even though he is Legia Nord and we are socialists. “Of course I forget you if you are socialist!” he laughs amiably, and then says, perfectly seriously, “We need more socialists in Italy. All our socialists are not really socialists, they all agree with the right. This is not good for democracy. How do you like the risotto? It is a local speciality. Best risotto in Italy! More wine?”

panatonneAnd his colleague at the next table waves his serviette in the air as he makes an important debating point about bureaucrats in Brussels and sets it alight on the candle, which seems as good a reason as any for everyone to adjourn to the doorway for a cigarette. And the wind has dropped so the sky is clear and cold, and in the distance a police siren cuts through the still and smoky air and the patron announces “We have Panettone!” which is served with sweet mascarpone cream and it is explained that this doughy, fruit-filled dish is really only served on Christmas Day, but in honour of our visit they have made it specially tonight. And our hosts make it clear that they, not us, are paying for dinner, and we must come again soon. And they really mean it. And everywhere is smiles and gentility and the Gods of football work their magic.

And tomorrow, naturally, the trains are all on strike, so we will not be visiting the Cathedral to see the Last Supper, so we will have time to write this.

And it is beautiful. They are beautiful. Life is beautiful. Italy is beautiful.

And mad. But mainly beautiful.

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united-states-capitol-night-view

 

After an increasingly likely trouncing by Hillary Clinton, which might extend a long way down the ballot paper and might even – in the fevered dreams of a few ironed-on Democrats anyway – result in Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress, although we think that unlikely – the “Grand Old Party” is going to have to do some very serious thinking about it’s future direction.

It is not at all improbable that the party will actually splinter beyond repair, and the right in American politics will find itself much like the Centre and Left in Britain, where the Conservative Party currently looks unassailable by an Opposition split between a Labour Party which is completely riven with internal discord much as the Republicans are now, with about another 20% or so of the vote shared out between the vaguely centrist Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and the Nationalists in Wales and Scotland.

With a “first past the post” electoral system for its main elections, just like in America, any major splits on one side of the traditional two-sided model of adversary politics can very quickly result in a long-lasting hegemony for the more stable side.

Which is why we are interested in Evan McMullin, the ex-CIA operative taking Trump votes in Utah. An independent conservative who calls himself “the opposite of Trump”, he is giving the Republican presidential candidate a run for his money in Utah, a state that has reliably voted ‘red’ for more than 50 years.

Evan McMullin was once the chief policy director of the House Republican Conference, but he decided to leave the party after he realised the GOP’s problems “are too deep” to resolve in this generation’s lifetime, he told NBC News. His platform now is based on differentiating himself from the main party candidates, who he argues are more similar than they are different from each other. A similar siren call in Australia – which has proportional voting in its Upper House (Senate) has seen a clutch of smaller parties and independents seize the balance of power from the two major parties, with as yet uncertain results.

The issue is at stake, of course, is have the divisions in the Republican party simply become too overt and too fundamental for it to recover?

Image: Evan McMullinMcMullin, (left), a Brigham Young University graduate, former CIA officer, investment banker and congressional aide, certainly thinks so. And it seems a large number of his local electorate agree with him.

“The short-hand is I believe both Trump and Clinton are from the left side of the political spectrum in most ways,” he said. “Both want to grow the size of the government. I’m the only conservative in this race. I favour a limited government.”

His alternative governing views, and his Mormon faith, have attracted so much support among Utah voters that in a survey conducted earlier this week by Salt Lake City-based Y2 Analytics, McMullin was in a statistical tie with Trump and Clinton.

The survey, conducted after lewd comments made by Trump in 2005 surfaced, showed Clinton and Trump tied at 26 percent, McMullin with 22 percent, and Libertarian Gary Johnson holding steady at 14 percent, according to Utah’s Deseret News.

The support, McMullin said, is as much about his policies compared to Clintons’ and Trump’s as it is about his character. “I think the American people know that both of these options are awful, and they’re looking for something better. That [Trump] tape really crystallised that sentiment for a lot of people. I consider myself the opposite of Trump in a lot of ways, both in terms of a lot of policies, and in terms of temperament and judgment,” he said.

McMullin, along with his running mate Mindy Finn, doesn’t have much of a shot at actually getting elected President — he’s only on the ballot in 11 states and a write-in option in 23 others — but political experts say his rise in Utah is notable.

“This is completely different than anything we’ve ever seen,” Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University, told NBC News. “I think there is just widespread frustration with Donald Trump and really with both of the candidates from the two major parties, so Utahns, including many who have typically voted Republican, are casting about for some other alternative.” McMullin, Karpowitz added, fits a “particular set of needs in this state: people who don’t feel like they can in good conscience vote for Trump, but they’re not ready to vote for Hillary Clinton, either.”

But political watchers aren’t ready to predict a win for McMullin in Utah, which hasn’t strayed from its Republican roots since 1964 — even with big-name Republicans such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Gov. Gary Herbert withdrawing their support for Trump in recent days.

“I still think it’s unlikely that he takes the state of Utah,” Jason Perry, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. But for Clinton and Trump, he said, “I think it’s going to be closer than anyone could have expected.” And losing the state’s six Electoral Votes could seriously complicate Trump’s ability to win the 270 needed to win the White House.

Whether he wins or not, McMullin says he fears for the future of the GOP.

“I seriously doubt the Republican party is viable as a political vehicle going forward. I think it will shrink in size, I think it might become a white nationalist party if Donald Trump supporters remain active after the election,” he said. “It’s time for a new generation of leadership.”

The interesting thing for anyone who can manage to look at the matter dispassionately is that both major parties in the USA are, of course, coalitions of the willing, but at the moment the Democrats are doing a much better job of yoking together their party, which ranges widely across traditional white collar voters who prefer an interventionists government but who hold conservative social views, socialists, urban radicals, environmentalists, social liberals, right over to really quite conservative characters like Clinton herself. The burying of the hatchet between Clinton and the populist “socialist” Bernie Sanders has been accomplished with panache despite dire predictions of widespread abstentions by his supporters.

The distinct strands in the Republicans include traditional centrists who could easily find common cause with the right of the Democrats, the religious right whose concerns are largely social, hard-right small-government “trickle down” Friendmanites, libertarians who combine far right economics with far left social values, Tea Party populists who detest Washington and want a grab bag of policies that mainly coalesce around “Leave me alone” and “Cut my taxes”, and near-fanatical States’-righters who want to re-write the constitutional settlement altogether.

rats-ship-aThe difference is that following years of internal strife between the centrist party leadership and the bands of loud and (for some) exceptionally (at least superficially) attractive Tea Party followers, the Republican Party had almost given up any pretence of being one party. And the selection of Trump – an act of political suicide in our view, an opinion we have maintained all along since his unlikely candidacy was touted – has now simply made the split more obvious than ever, as legions of rats leave the sinking ship in droves.

The dire problem for the Republicans is that, as we said, the American electoral system does not reward anything other than the creation of two coherent power blocks. Whereas in Europe you can afford to have a multiplicity of right wing parties trading preferences in a PR system, and then devising a working coalition in Government, the American system simply doesn’t offer that option. And as the system is essentially Presidential, anyway, that election invariably comes down to a choice between two candidates, as this year.

In the days when the contest of ideas in America was basically between two centrist parties, albeit with differing traditions, things were much simpler. But perhaps because of the much greater influence of a massively increased media market constantly deluging us with more and more “opinion”, or perhaps just from a generalised exhaustion amongst the electorate, who feel that both sides have taken them for a rise and the system – as far as them benefitting from it, at least – is broken, those days are over.

We are in uncharted territory. And right now, the Good Ship Republican is the one heading towards the rocks fastest.

And a system permanently leant towards one side of the political compass is not good for democracy, or any country. Those on the right in America need to some some hard thinking.

bill-hillary

We do. It’s just those who love to Lord it over us like to claim we never do.

There is little doubt that Donald Trump cheerfully boasting about having assaulted women – which when questioned about in the second debate he then denied – was a new low for American politics.

But let us consider the Clintons. Pace disputing the fine details claimed by the women produced by Trump to damage the Clintons, in the broad brushstroke view of history no one could pretend that Bill Clinton was (and for all we know, still is) anything other than what Australians call “a pants man”. Sexually highly active outside of his marriage, which fact he repeatedly denied until he could no longer get away with it.

Whether he is a rapist is more difficult to prove, simply because nothing has ever been proved, and anythign we might say or think, or indeed what anyone might say or think other than a jury hearing evidence, would be pure speculation.

Equally, despite claims to the contrary, no-one has ever proven Hillary’s role in “persecuting” the women seeking retribution for Bill wronging them. Indeed, in the Juanita Broaddrick case the investigators going after Clinton to impeach him specifically found that there had not been pressure on her to retract. Yet she says there has been, over the years.

The truth in the high-profile cases that Trump re-introduced into the debate is even harder to discern, given that some of those now accusing Bill Clinton are clearly partisan, and right wing.

Then again, had they been assaulted or raped, well, they would be very vocal in their opposition to him, and by implication his wife, wouldn’t they? We also know that victims of assault frequently offer confused or contradictory stories of their experiences, reflecting the intense psychological pressure they are under. Any understanding of their testimony needs to take that into account.

What can be said for certain about Bill Clinton is that he used the highest office in the land to seduce an impressionable young woman when the very slightest regard for moral norms should have told him not to. And even having done so, he should have re-considered.

He then denied it until he had no choice but to admit his wrongdoing, using weasel words like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”. From where we come from, clearly what Lewinsky and Clinton did was “sex”. His attempt to deny her in this wise was reprehensible.

Whatever else Bill Clinton is, he is no gentleman.

Some of the criticisms made of Mrs Clinton are patently ridiculous.

In the very sad case of the rape of the 12 year old girl, Kathy Shelton, Clinton has been repeatedly criticised for “putting her through hell” and “laughing about the case afterwards”. In fact, as can be read here, the truth is very different. After trying to avoid taking the case, Clinton did her job as a court-appointed defender for a thoroughly unpleasant offender, and her laughter was regarding the unreliability of polygraph testing.

People conveniently forget that in the adversarial court system employed in the States Clinton had a legal responsibility to mount the strongest possible defence for her client, or face sanctions herself. That the defending counsel in rape cases often have to blacken – or at least question – the character of rape and assault victims is a crying shame in many jurisdictions in the world. Nevertheless, Clinton was only doing her job.

A fact the victim acknowledged publicly: Shelton told a Newsday reporter in 2007 that she bore no ill will toward Clinton. “I have to understand that she was representing Taylor,” she said. “I’m sure Hillary was just doing her job.” Later, she changed her mind, having heard the tape of Clinton discussing the case.

Meanwhile, sexual scandals in America (and elsewhere) are a fact of life, crossing all political boundaries. Former Vice president Al Gore is now accused of demanding sexual favours from massage therapists – so-called “happy endings”. This interesting Wikipedia article shows just how common sex scandals – straight and gay – in the Federal political sphere in America are. And it’s not like the rest of the world is any different.

The list is long and miserable. So what is really going on here?

Let us try and take the politics out of this, for a moment.

There is little doubt, as has often been claimed, that power is an aphrodisiac. People in powerful positions – in business and in politics especially – are undoubtedly sexual targets for many people, just as a seemingly inevitable expression of their powerful character and position may be their own sexual wanton-ness.

The number of stories one hears whispered sotto voce from “the corridors of power” of the enthusiastic sexual excess or adultery of men and women of all kinds far outweigh whatever stories actually become public. In many cases, journalists actively connive in keeping the tales private, because they consider them to be nobody’s business but the participants, except when the behaviour has other implications. (Like the Profumo affair, for example.) And in many cases, journalists keep the stories “spiked” because they are participants.

The cliche of the “boss” sleeping with their personal assistant is a cliche simply because it happens so often. And an air of sexual innuendo and availability permeates political parties, in particular, and has been the cause of many women bemoaning the fact that their advancement seems to rely on being willing sexual partners to men whose advances they have no interest in receiving.

Mix both situations with alcohol – or being in a location away from home – and the effect is magnified.

Or to put it another way, it seems hardly surprising that sexual scandal seems the norm, rather than the exception, especially in an era when the ties of marriage seem somewhat looser than in the past.

But if sexual hi-jinks are the “new normal”, then what are the rules governing that brave new world?

It is surely clear that the first and primary focus of everyone must be on confirmed assent. And because many women, in particular, feel pressured into sexual behaviour that they are not entirely comfortable with – or at all comfortable with – then the nature of that consent needs to be explicit and unambiguous.

At its most simple, men simply have to ask, out loud, “Is it OK with you if I/we do this?”, and also to be aware that apparent consent (such as a bashful or embarrassed “Yes”) may in fact be a sign of really being a “No”, as may be physical body-language indicators such as looking down or away, physical rigidity, and so on.

Even more complex is that sexual activity is a continuum, not a moment in time, and what might have been acceptable at one point in the exchange becomes unacceptable further on because one of the partners changes their mind.

It sounds like a minefield, and it is, but after all – if both parties to a sexual tryst are jointly and equally excited about the prospect, it’s pretty damned obvious, isn’t it? So at any given moment, if a man senses no matter how fleetingly that the woman may be unhappy with the situation, and we are talking primarily about male-female sex here, they are surely duty bound to articulate the question above, and listen hard to the answer, on all levels, even if it’s been asked previously. Similarly, one episode of sexual consent does not necessarily predicate a future one.

So far so good. None of which, though, would have applied in the case of Monica Lewinksy and Bill Clinton, where Lewinsky was clearly infatuated with the older man.

Lewinsky candidly said:

“I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of a way,” she told a summit organised by the business magazine Forbes. “But my boss was the President of the United States. In 1995 we started an affair that lasted, on and off, for two years. And at that time, it was my everything. That, I guess you could say, was the golden bubble part for me; the nice part. The nasty part was that it became public.”

Should Bill Clinton have resisted the charms of Ms Lewinsky, as they were a betrayal of his marriage, his office, and also taking advantage of her naivitee? Undoubtedly. On the other hand, they were both consenting adults, and until the matter became public, contentedly so.

But Lewinsky also went on to say, in May this year, responding to a partial transcript of a late-1990s phone conversation in which Mrs Clinton called her a “narcissistic loony toon”, “Hillary Clinton wanted it on record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress. She may have faulted her husband for being inappropriate, but I find her impulse to blame the Woman – not only me, but herself – troubling.”

We agree. Clinton could choose to excuse or defend or overlook her husband’s infidelities – many marriages survive infidelity for all sorts of reasons, indeed, some become stronger – but without demeaning the character of his lover.

Anyhow: taken all in all, it is a sorry history. No side comes out of it with any honour.

Perhaps all we can hope for is that current and future generations will eschew power-oriented sexual behaviour entirely, and become much more adept at handling sexual matters in a more equal and sensible manner. Starting right now, we hope.

And as for the Clintons? No, they’re not perfect. In our experience all our idols have feet of clay, and how much clay goes to make up their lower limbs determines whether or not we feel we can support them despite their flaws.

They may well fail some or all of the “character” test, but in all probability so do many around them, including their opponents. Politics is a murky and unpleasant business some of the time, and certainly it is currently. Uneasy voters are left trying to parse which candidate’s program they feel more comfortable with, while holding their nose and voting for one or the other. We could devoutly wish that future choices will be more edifying.

And as for sexual assault and rape? If proved, the perpetrator should be punished, whoever they are.

But the key word in that sentence is “proved”. “There’s no smoke without fire” might well be true, and we will all make judgements based on what we think we know in any given situation, but it’s not a basis on which we can or should conduct public life.

The public life of anyone. Even the Clintons.


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