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Bibitor, Potator

First, a confession.

I am, in general, a moderate drinker. I own up to two small glasses of wine a day, maybe three on Sunday and High Days. I like wine, and the occasional single malt whiskey. Most of all, I love – should you love alcohol? – aged rums, particularly those from Appleton Estate in Western Jamaica and Société du Rhum Barbancourt in Haiti, but I can afford them only rarely.

I try to be knowledgeable about what I drink, but I am no expert. I have learned to know what I am doing when I taste a wine, and I can spot a wrong-un by sight and nose alone. But there it ends, for my palate is only good enough to appreciate the broad character of a wine, the fine detail that distinguishes the great from the good eludes it.

So as a rule I set a rather low upper limit on what I will pay for a bottle of wine. Let’s say it’s more that €2, but less than €22 at the vineyard.

So why do I want to spend more than €75 on a book, not about wine itself, but about the 1,368 grape vine varieties used around the world to make wine?

Wine GrapesI have no need to know the lineages of these plants, but still I want the book. Am I suffering from book lust?

Judge for yourself:

Margaret Thatcher, My Part in her Downfall (Part II)

For my fiftieth birthday, in 1990, our children took us out to dinner. They chose an excellent country restaurant in the Northants/North Bucks borderland, popular with the county set, with stock brokers flush from the City Big Bang, and even with a few newly enriched entrepreneurs. Some years before, we had all eaten here to celebrate with my late father the eve of his 70th birthday.

This evening, we were having a great time. Now that the kids were adults, and living away from home, the chances of being all together were fewer than before, so it was good being reunited. We were in good health; the food was perfect; the wine, excellent. All was going well.

Then, somewhere between the fish and the main, there was a  commotion from the kitchen, noisy shouting, followed by cheering so loud it silenced all conversation in the dining room. After a while, the wife of the owner came rushing in, very excited.

“She’s gone! She’s gone!” she shouted.

Seeing her guest’s puzzled looks, she added:

“The Thatcher woman, she’s resigned!”

There was a long silence, and then almost everyone in the restaurant stood and applauded. Champagne was produced on the house and a quiet evening out became a sort of victory celebration.

But it was a bizarre celebration.

The people around us were of the kind who had greatly benefitted from the lady’s ill-advised reforms. They were part of the minority that had voted her into power in 1979, and kept her there for 11 long and confrontational years. They were very much part of the much smaller minority who benefitted most from the Thatcher years and would continue to benefit as her successors of all parties kept her inequitable policies alive. Yet here they were, almost savagely rejoicing at her downfall. A bit like the hunt celebrating the death of a fox.

In the middle of this noisy celebration, one table remained relatively quiet – ours. As a family we had in our various ways always opposed the Iron Lady – as Labour party activists: canvassing and leafleting, paying our dues, attending meetings even as the party drifted to the centre-right and the wonderful world of New Labour. We should have been overjoyed, yet among this bloodthirsty, ungrateful lot, we were subdued. Somehow the happiness we should have felt for this unexpected birthday present was wiped away by the rather unseemly display of schadenfreude around us. In the end we did celebrate, but what we celebrated was only my birthday.

Is there anything to learn from this? I don’t know why we couldn’t celebrate her political end, although we were pleased it happened. Perhaps we couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that she had indeed gone. Or maybe, we were just too worn down by opposing to enjoy the moment. It’s not that we felt any sympathy for her.

In some darker moods, I wonder if it was just that we could not bring ourselves to join in common cause with a bunch of people with whom we had nothing in common and whom maybe we, deep down, despised.

The Spirit of Munich Redux

I’ve been away, slumbering mostly, not thinking much while awake. But that’s the way with sloths…..

I wake to the tragedy of Malaysia MH17.

Yet, tragedy seems a poor word to describe this horror. ‘Tragedy’ suggests this was somehow inevitable, fore-destined, fated; the act of some malign gods. But this was a crime, a planned and conscious crime, committed by men we know to be criminals, aided and abetted by men, and women presumably, who are also criminal, corrupt, and venial.

We know with very little doubt who these people are; soon we will know with complete certainty. After all, this is a crime within the envelope of other crimes, in the midst of the vast Russian – and Ukrainian – criminal enterprise. The guilt of the men who pulled the trigger that brought down this passenger plane is imprinted in their actions on the ground. The guilt of the men and women who encouraged them, who provided them with the opportunity and the means, is etched in the manifest fictions of their denials. A six year old’s claim that the dog scribbled rude words in lipstick on the wall is more believable than Putin and his cronies’ suggestion that others did it.

So knowing who is guilty, the injured parties will now act to extract justice and punish the guilty. The countries that lost people in the crash – The Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, the US and UK – will not tolerate this. They will now, with complete commitment, take strong action against Russia and the terrorists they support in the Ukrainian East. Certainly, the EU, which stands for justice and good, will support them in their actions.

Oh, apparently not.

“It will do too much damage to our financial sector.” “Our investors in Russia will suffer losses.” “Our gas will run out and we will be cold.” “Our warships will go undelivered and rust.” “Our arms salesmen, and their children, will starve.”

Later today, the EU will announce their sanctions against V. Putin’s Russia. Whatever they are, they will hurt a few of his cronies a little, but they will not pull the plug on his Criminal Enterprise.

And the reason for this? We have ourselves become so enmeshed in that Criminal Enterprise, so used to sharing in its spoils, that we cannot give it up. Even at the cost of our honour, of 298 airline travellers, and of the whole Ukrainian nation, we cannot give it up.

Today, keep your eyes open for someone waving a piece of paper, and declaring Peace in Our Time.

“Told you so.”

When I was nine, Nigel broke my train set. Because he was four years older than I, when he said “I broke it, so I know how to fix it”, I agreed. Last week, 60 or more years on, I came across the train set in the attic, still broken, still unfixed.

Before the banking and economic disasters of 2008, a very small number of economists, financial journalists and politicians warned us that we were heading for the rocks, that our financial institutions and markets were in danger of collapse, and that our economies were not sustainable. The majority, in thrall to the fantasy fairy tales of the Washington Consensus, mocked them, assuring us that all was well. “We have said goodbye to Boom & Bust!”

Then the Big Collapse, the inevitable slide into recession and worst. Were the bankers, economists and politicians who got it wrong in any way abashed?

Well apparently not. Instead of donning sack-cloth and ashes, and showering us with their remorse, they rushed forward to present themselves as our saviours. “We broke it,” they said, “so we are the ones who know how to fix it.” Fools that we are, we left them in charge, to get on with it.

So, six years on, how have they done?

Not very well.

Learning nothing from the lessons of the Great Depression, they now applied most of the remedies that failed then, and – surprise, surprise – they have failed again. Instead of spending their way out of trouble, creating growth that would fund the cost of borrowing for recovery; they opted for austerity and contraction, created an even more uneven playing field than before. Rising unemployment, low or no growth, cruel cut-backs, and victimisation of the poor and weak. Probably most offensive of all, the further enrichment of the already over rich, many of whom helped get us into this mess (The Davos Crowd) and also some members of the criminal classes of the former Soviet countries, the Middle East and the Asian tigers. Lots of talk about “trickle down”, but very little trickling down. These are just a few of the adverse symptoms of the austerity merchants solution.

But surely there’s an up side? Yes, some growth, in some places. Some recovery, in some places. But it’s very little, and very patchy. Importantly, for most of us there is no feel good factor.

The recent elections across the EU, European Parliament and municipal, have produced an interesting, and chilling, popular verdict on how the “Economy Breaker-Fixers” have performed. Austerity and recession always trigger off the anxiety, stress and fear that requires us to identify a class, some ‘other’, who we can blame for our current pain. It’s the politicians sticking their noses in the trough; it’s the greedy foreign bankers (never our own?); it’s the EU, the immigrants, the Romanians.

So it’s no surprise that extreme far right, and extreme far left, parties are doing well; just too, too predictable. It is no surprise that over 30% of British people today admit to being racially prejudiced; just too, too predictable. It is no surprise that a number of xenophobic and racist party leaders in the European Union are going around today, smirking. It was just too, too predictable.

Not just predictable, but predicted. When the EU countries opted for extreme austerity, the same very small number of economists, financial journalists and politicians who warned us of financial collapse before 2008, warned us that this would happen if we took the path we did. And it did!

Today, I guess, they have earned the right to say: “Told you so!”

Another route to take

This posting is novel for me. It is an attempt to post to the blog by writing myself an email. If I have set everything up correctly, this should appear in the blog’s timeline within 15 minutes of my sending it (at 10:18, on Friday morning, 23rd May.) Oh, the joys of technology!

P.S. It worked, but only after I sorted out an incorrect security setting.  Hrumph! As I said, the joys of technology. But once you get it correctly configured, the Post By Email plugin works like a dream.

Margaret Thatcher, My Part in her Downfall

I do not know why, but last night I woke up thinking of Mrs Thatcher, a sometime Prime Minister of Britain. What followed was a quite disturbing hour of memories, ended finally by sleep.

I am not an admirer of the lady. I never have been. She is one of the few people I know of, who seemed to me to have no redeeming qualities. (There, interest declared!) At her death, she was praised for her great intelligence, but I never saw it. I often wondered how a failed chemist, a failed tax lawyer, could be anything but a failed leader. I thought her a rather pedestrian thinker, who would seize on an idea or policy; then, without really understanding it, or the wider and long-term implications of apply it as national policy, bully those around her to bring it to fruition. The sad outcome of this is the unequal, unhappy and selfish society that Britain is today.

But I seem to be in a very small minority on this. It was deeply shaming to see how many people of the centre and centre-left, who should know better, rushed to be seen at St Paul’s her send off, praising her to the last.

I never met her, but was at some risk of doing so once. It was in 1985, October, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I had started a small software company producing educational programs and had taken a few shelves on a shared stand, under the general auspices of the British Council. Business had been bad. No, disastrous; and my hope was to sell some overseas rights, and publishers seemed a likely market (they weren’t.)

On the evening of the second day, as we were packing away, a man from the British Council came up and said that Mrs T. was to visit the Fair the next day, and the plan was to bring her down our corridor so that she could see for herself the entrepreneurial spirit at work among small British publishers. “You must be in early tomorrow, in your best bib and tucker, your stands spick and span.” Yes, he spoke like that.

A sleepless night followed. My life was hard enough at the time. Having the Iron Lady, whom I disliked so much, arrive on my stand was too much. The friends who shared the stand with me were as reluctant to entertain the lady as I. However, they had been through all this before, at many trade fairs, and reassured me that she would not stop with us.

But I did not believe them and spent the night planning how I would avoid her if she, plus entourage, plus press, plus fair organisers plus British Council Man, landed up on Stand B217, Hall 4.2, Messegelände, Frankfurt. The ingenious ploys were various and very elaborate. But as I played each of them out in my mind, each crumbled into nightmarish fantasy.

The morning of day three on Stand B217, was a hell of tiredness, anxiety, fear and loathing. British Council Man came by every thirty minutes to make sure we were still spick ‘n’ span, bringing us news of the great lady’s progress. The minutes took hours to pass, and any activity at either end of the corridor set off another sickening round of sweaty fear.

Alan Clarke claimed that Mrs T. was sexually alluring, and some I knew agreed with him. I could never understand it. But neither can I understand how dislike for a person and their politics, which is normal and rational, could turn into the sickening feelings I had on that day. It takes, I guess, a certain charisma to produce such strong reactions in another person.

In the end she never came down our row of little stalls. The British Council, ever vigilant not to offend a pay-master, took her instead where the respectable, large British publishers hung out. You know, the houses owned by safe people like Robert Maxwell, Rupert Murdock, et al. But well away from sweaty, possibly socialist, oiks such as the small independents.

Which is ironic because Mrs T. was supposed to be the champion of the small businessman and of their businesses; of the sorts of people who risked failure to start small enterprises and grow them.

Hello world!


Hey spammers. Don’t post comments about how you can help me improve footfall because I know you cannot. Go bother some other poor sucker, because here you will be ignored and thrown in the rubbish bin!

For real people, I have been away for a couple of weeks, and will start blogging in earnest next week; but only if I can think of something interesting to say.