Friday, 28 December 2012

Travellin Bob's 2012 Review


Well, I suppose on a scale of 1 to 10, this year was no more than a 5. 

OK, the Olympics in London were well worth watching (even if London was clogged up for weeks with visitors and in one of my few overseas trips this year I got well and truly ripped off by a hotel that was blatantly profiteering from the event), and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations seemed to go off pretty well.  Over the past week or so, for the Christmas schedules, the Polish version of BBC Entertainment has run several programs on that theme – a look at Royal Weddings from the Queen Mum to Wills and Kate; a very good three parter presented by Andrew Marr celebrating the Queen’s reign; and the Jubilee Concert outside Buck House that had its high points and its shite points – so I’ve only just caught up with all that went on.  She’s a grand old lady, is Liz 2, and after seeing Marr’s series she has I admit gone up a lot in my estimation…..she is without doubt a tough act to follow for Charles (who will have quite a short reign by the look of it) and William.

We had a couple of good vacations too.  The first, three weeks at the Polish seaside, I only had a couple of days there because of (rare) work commitments, but Ania and the kids enjoyed it.  The most entertaining thing about that trip was the fisticuffs I got involved in with some pillock at the local garage here when I tanked the car immediately before we set off.  Police were called, but no charges were brought, and off we went, me with a badly sprained wrist and the pillock a lovely black eye.  Happy days.

The second vacation was three weeks in Almeria, Spain, staying at my second cousin Don and his wife Heather’s apartment in Roquetas de Mar.  We went in August for three weeks, the weather was perfect (for once in my life it didn’t rain during my vacation – hardly saw a cloud, in fact) and we had a great time.
We also squeezed in a trip to Kiev in at the beginning of May, shortly before Ukraine and Poland hosted a pretty successful Euro 2012 football championship.  Interestingly, the post I did about that trip is by far and away my most read piece – I guess a lot of people looked at it to get a feel for the place before the football but since no-one ever bothers to comment on the Blog I can’t be sure.

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In the wider world, we had the usual list of natural disasters.  This time the biggest story was “Superstorm Sandy” that ripped through the Caribbean in October, devastating parts of poor old Haiti (still recovering desperately slowly from the last two years’ worth of earthquakes and hurricanes), walloping Cuba then running up the eastern seaboard of the US where it eventually came on land and flattened a good part of the Jersey shore and New York City.  Cue much hand-wringing from wealthy Americans who had never suffered anything like it before (they should try being a poor Caribbean islander, acing these events every year) and the inevitable Benefit Concert in Madison Square Gardens, where a pretty good bill included Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi (Jersey boys both) performing together, plus Alicia Keyes, some talentless NY hip hop artists, the Stones (still Rolling along after an amazing 50 years, despite all being around 70 now) and The Who (ditto).  Oh, and Benefit Gig Specialist Sir Paul McCartney, who also headlined the Queen’s Jubilee Concert.  All I can say is thank God for the Beatles’ back catalogue. 

Talking of the Jubilee Concert, was anyone else as embarrassed as I was by Annie Lennox, who I think is a great singer, swanning around in angel’s wings singing a dreadfully plodding version of Must be Looking for an Angel?  Dire.  As was Sir Cliff Richard – still looking about 25 (plastic surgery????) but prancing around stiffly and with a voice that faded by the verse…..another 70 plus artist who really should retire gracefully.  Much as I love The Who (they were one of my favourites back in the day), they never recovered from Moonie’s death (although current drummer Zak Starkey, son of Ringo Starr, is pretty damn’ good), and the sight of Roger Daltrey’s stiff stage movements and freshly waxed chest and fake tan (when he had the idea of unbuttoning his shirt completely a la Who c.1973), to mention nothing of a somewhat expended waist line, was, not to put too fine a point on it, embarrassing.  His voice is shot too.  Such a shame: I have fond memories of their Charlton Athletic gig with Alex Harvey and others back in 1973, in their pomp, and an equally great show at the Hammersmith Odeon the following year, when the guy could really move and had a voice that blew anyone else (apart from maybe Robert Plant) away.  He also nearly ran me over in his Ferrari Dino once, in Tunbridge Wells, as I was crossing the road by the Pantiles and he came roaring down the Frant Road and skidded to a halt about a foot short of me.  He was listening to what I assume was a rough cut of The Who By Numbers album – not one of their best.  Sorry, Rog – loved you in the past but it’s time so say bye-bye and concentrate on the trout farm.

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What else?  Well, no world class tyrants snuffed it this year: despite the Arab Spring running into a second year (and now rapidly approaching a third) Ahmedinajad and Assad are still hanging on in Iran and Syria respectively.  It is incredible to me that Assad is still merrily slaughtering his own people on a daily basis, still blaming it on them for being “gangsters”, and still being allowed to get away with it.  Next door, Israel continues its efforts at Genocide against Palestinians, ignoring feeble UN complaints and ignoring sanctions, secure in the knowledge that there isn’t a Western politician (shame on you, Messrs Obama and Cameron….) with balls enough to condemn them outright and impose real and swingeing sanctions – if the US and EU were to withdraw military and financial support for Israel it may make a difference, but the chances of it happening are zilch.  It amazes me that a country founded as a result of botched British diplomacy that essentially gave in to the demands of terrorist organizations – people not unlike Hamas, in fact, only better armed and organized – has been able to achieve such “respectability” despite its despicable behaviour over many years.

Obama won a closely fought Election and is now in his second term, but with the GOP still controlling half the legislature he’s in for a rough four years again – as the current “Fiscal Cliff” impasse shows.  Cameron continues to baffle me: he tries to say the right things all the time, but invariably makes a prat of himself and is deeply unpopular.  His policies seems to change with the wind direction, he’s surrounded by politicians in the Coalition who are clearly not up to the job (those on the Opposition benches are no better either) and his fixation with Europe and austerity measures is clearly damaging the country – and yet, the UK is stuck with the bloke for another couple of years, courtesy of his first piece of his legislation guaranteeing a full five year Parliamentary term.  Democracy, I hear you say?  Yeah, right.  I’m glad I’m not living in the UK now, because I have absolutely no bloody idea who I would vote for…..  It’s very sad to see my country going to the dogs in this way.

In Europe, the financial crisis continues.  Remarkably, Greece has managed to avoid a default, as have Spain, Italy,Portugal and Cyprus - but it's been very very close at times.  "Austerity" is still being demanded everywhere, despite wide spread opposition and civil unrest in all the ailing countries, and an increasingly popular view that it's not actually working anyway.  Berlusconi was kicked out and his political obituaries penned - but he's making a comeback, apparently.  Personally, I love the bloke: he's the most corrupt politician in Europe by a country mile, everybody knows it - but he doesn't give a toss.    Merkel is up for re-election in 2013 so continues to bang the drum for austerity (thereby not upsetting the German electorate who don't want to foot the bill for the incompetence of the Greek government, to mention nothing of Spain, Italy etc....).  Sarkozy went, to be replaced by the fervently anti-austerity Socialist Hollande.  He has managed to piss off most of Europe's leadership without changing a thing so far, despite his election promises.  Perhaps he'll have more luck if Merkel gets kicked out next year....

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And what of work?

More like, WHAT work.  2012 is without a doubt the most unproductive year I have EVER had – not only in my present job but going back to my banking days.  Sum total: a week in Florida, three weeks in Cairo, two and a half weeks in London and five weeks in Malta.  And EVERY single trip was basically a waste of time: a political bum on a seat, supporting testing (which means waiting for people to ask me questions).  None of it was particularly taxing or mentally rewarding (forget financially rewarding: the company doesn’t work like that), and unsurprisingly the company eventually called time and delivered in early November via DHL a termination letter – it quite spoiled my breakfast (I was tucking into a bowl of cornflakes at the time) – without the advance warning that everyone else seems to have received.  We’ve fired a lot of very good people this year, and it seems the company is really struggling, despite optimistic predictions coming from senior management.  Nobody takes much notice of them anyway, given that they don’t seem to have a clue what they’re doing.  All very sad: a potentially great company is going to the dogs.  And I hear that more very good people will be following me out of the door very soon.  

So as 2012 draws to close, I have one more month of official employment before I’m cut loose to fend for myself in any way I can.  I know what I’m planning to do, and there are a number of irons in fires that will hopefully come to something in the first few weeks of 2013 – but the uncertainty has meant a very low key Festive period this year.  Still, the kids enjoyed it, despite the chest infections that they and I have been battling against (with only limited success) for a couple of months now.  I will be glad to see the back of this year, and look forward to 2013……difficult to plan much, given the state of my employment and bank balance, but one definite trip to come is the UK in May for my nipper’s wedding – now that we’re all looking forward to!

So I’ll bid you all farewell, hope you had a good 2012, a good Christmas, and wish you all a very VERY Happy New Year. 

And as Schwarzenneger once memorably said....I'll be back.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The changing face of Warsaw


I needed to get out.

Apart from the odd school or shop run, I’d been stuck in the flat for the best part of three weeks.  Part of the time I’d been battling Man Flu (still am, for that matter), and for a bigger part I’d been on babysitting duties as one or both of the kids had been off sick from school with a variety of viruses and colds, while My Beloved had been out and about a lot attending to some pressing family business with her mum.  Daytime tv, especially CBeebies or Disney Junior, does not I’m afraid hold the attention for long, and nor does multiple viewings of Mamma Mia! or Tangled, no matter what my Princess may say.  And as for staring at my laptop screen, waiting for an e-mail or Skype message to pop up telling me I have a job to go to after Christmas – well, after a three week near silence on that front the anticipatory excitement had long faded.  The charms of the BBC, Guardian and Newsweek websites, and very definitely Facebook, had also faded, and even spending time working on the book no longer floated my boat.

No, I needed a change of scenery.

That’s the biggest trouble with this extended gardening leave (or if you prefer, notice period).   After 13 years of more or less constant travelling, averaging two or three flights a week, total mileage in that time getting on for half a million, this constant inactivity, in one place (and don’t get me wrong I love my home!) is driving me up the wall now.  Patience, as my dear old mum used to say, is a virtue – and it is, but now and then I like to see something other than the view of KEN, and the MarcPol supermarket and the apartment blocks across the road. 

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So yesterday, after the school run, I went off on the metro.  I thought perhaps a walk around the city centre might cheer me up a bit, even on a grey winters’ day, with a temperature of minus several.  I armed myself with some reading material and my iPod, selected Hector Berlioz’ Symphanie Fantastique for my opening soundtrack, and off I went.

When I first came to Warsaw, back in 2000, there was a single Metro line running for a dozen stops from Centrum to Kabaty on the southern edge of the city.   A few hundred metres stroll further on from the end of the line and you come to the Las Kabacki forest, with its cycle tracks, footpaths, and picnic areas.  It’s not exactly a wilderness but it’s countryside, and very green and pleasant in summer.  The line northwards was still under construction, but it’s finished now and runs a further dozen or so stops, and is very cheap and efficient and comfortable.  Rush hours, like metro lines the world over, are crowded and unpleasant, but off-peak it’s fine with trains every three minutes or so from about 5 a.m. to about midnight.  Last year construction started on an east to west line, that will pass under the Wisla river.  It seems to be very slow going, and there are no stations opened yet, and massive construction sites in the city centre where existing stations are being extended and new ones added, all of which adds to Warsaw’s chaotic traffic.

The city is quite compact, certainly in comparison with London, but has a wealth of public transport options.  In addition to the Metro, there is a comprehensive bus service, an extensive tram network and more cabs than you can count.  All of them are relatively cheap and efficient and offer good value.  I can hop a Metro from the station outside my block and be in the city centre in 15 minutes.   Recently there have been a number of park-and-ride options added, that allow people to commute in from out of town under their own steam, park cheaply next to certain Metro stations then take advantage of the public transport networks.  By 8 a.m., the park-and-ride by the bus terminus next door to our block is full, and late comers park wherever they can – which means that by 8:30 all the visitors’ spaces in the block’s car park are taken and cars are double parked or dumped on the footpaths outside by the station entrances.  It’s a nightmare, and the traffic on KEN, the main road that runs past the block from Kabaty to pick up the main Niepodleglosci and Pulawska roads into the town centre, about a kilometre past where we live, is always heavy from about 5 a.m. to midnight, every day (weekends included).    The traffic noise is constant, and you get used to it or suffer it, there are no other choices.

So within 20 minutes or so of leaving home, I came up the escalator at Centrum.  There is a forecourt there, below road level, that has always been, and continues to be, a magnet for all kinds of street entertainers and hawkers.  My favourite is a bloke who clearly imagines he’s Keith Moon or Buddy Rich or someone, and spends his days playing a more or less constant ragged drum solo.  But his drum kit is an old wooden dining room chair and his sticks a couple of wooden kitchen spoons.   He was there yesterday, as usual, and the cap on the chair seat, used to collect donations, was empty, as usual.   There was also a tv camera crew setting up, and a big 10 foot square mobile screen playing a speech made by General Jaruzelski, then ruling the country, announcing martial law and a 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew back in December 1981, as he struggled the contain the Solidarity revolution and preserve communist rule (yesterday was the anniversary of this event).   Thankfully, he ultimately failed.

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I strolled from the Metro station towards the main railway station, using the adjoining Srodmiescie entrance.  The station, Dworzec Centralny, has always fascinated me.  Architecturally, it’s a bit of a monstrosity, the main ticket hall being a big grey concrete block rising just next to the old Stalinist Palace of Culture.  The bulk of the station is under ground level, a vast cavern through which runs a series of tracks for both local (suburban) lines and intercity services.   The tracks are on different levels and there is also a huge mall of small shops and restaurants in the maze of tunnels linking the various parts of the station.  There are also exits to various tram and bus stops.  The place is like a sauna in summer and a refrigerator in winter, and in my memory always stank if stale piss and tobacco.   It was a gift from Russia to the Polish people, and was opened on the day Brezhnev paid a state visit back in the 70s – his was the first train (all the way from Moscow, of course) to use the station, and as he and his accompanying party of KGB guards and welcoming Polish minions walked through the halls to the fleet of limousines awaiting them outside, the team of painters and decorators who were still putting the finishing touches to the interior were hustled away and hidden from view, to continue their work after he had gone.
 
In the past couple of years a lot of work has been done to clean and modernise the place, as far as it’s possible to do so.  A lot of it was done with this year’s Euro 2012 hosting in mind, but the place needed sprucing up anyway.  Most of the corridors have been cleaned and repainted with white or light pastel colours to brighten them up, and they have been scrubbed clean and fumigated – I didn’t catch the old familiar odours at all.  There is new tunnel full of shops and cafes that is very light an airy, with a direct entrance to the relatively new Zlote Tarasy shopping mall.  The platforms too have been cleaned and re-decorated, as has the main ticket hall – as befits what is now an international station.   The intercity section (now with its own lounge for first class passengers, not dissimilar to an airport business lounge) serves not only trains to Krakow and Lublin and Poznan and Gdansk and all the other Polish destinations, but places further afield too.  As I strolled along the corridor, looking down on the platforms, an express service to Poznan and Berlin Hauptbahnhof came in.   Other services to Prague, Moscow, Basle, and Amsterdam were scheduled for the next half an hour…..some journeys there I’d love to make myself!

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I wandered into Zlote Tarasy.  This is the newest mall in central Warsaw, opening maybe three years ago.  It’s not the best mall in town, but the design, featuring a big curvy glass roof over the main atrium, is interesting, and makes the place bright and airy when the sun shines.  All the normal stores and food outlets are there, and it’s surrounded by towering office blocks that have radically changed the skyline since I first came here.  The mall stands on a piece of land between the Central Station and the Holiday Inn hotel, which is where I spent my first couple of months in Warsaw, before the bank placed me in an apartment.    At that time the land was used as a car park, so the front entrance to the hotel was quite bright and open.  With the building of Zlote Tarasy this is no longer the case: the Holiday inn is now surrounded on all sides by tower blocks higher than itself so there can no longer be anything resembling a room with a view.  I do wonder how trade has been affected by this.    When I stayed there, it was a pretty good hotel.  The rooms were very comfortable, and every day I had a complementary International Herald Tribune newspaper delivered and found a king sized Mars or Snickers Bar on my pillow when I got back after work.  There was a decent fitness centre with sauna and Jacuzzi that I used from time to time, and the bar and restaurant were good meeting places for all our projects teams (at the time we had a couple running in Warsaw, so there were getting on for 20 people here).  I remember there was a middle aged hooker in the bar every night, looking for business.  We called her (rather unkindly) Monkey Face.  None of us ever used her services, but one night, after a particularly good evening where more than the usual number of Zywiec beers were put away (I think it was someone’s birthday), my mate decided to have a bit of a laugh.  He invited her to his room, and she agreed with alacrity (she never seemed to do any business to speak of).  In the lift between the Lobby and the fifth floor, where his room was, he managed to haggle her price down from PLN150 to just 10, then as they were leaving the lift, put his arm across in front of her, pressed the Ground Floor button, and said, “No, can’t be bothered.”   Apparently she burst into tears.  Cruel man, that Dan.  To put that money into context: at that time our per diem rate was PLN250 per day, and the exchange rate was over PLN7.50 to the pound.  Everything was very cheap then, and we lived very well on the money – I never came close to spending an entire days’ allowance in one day.  We figured you would need to eat two good meals a day and use taxis everywhere to do that.   Since then, prices have gone up quite a bit and the exchange rate is now just over 5 to the pound.

Anyway, I went to a little coffee bar, called Cawa, on the second floor overlooking the atrium, and settled into an armchair outside with a latte to read my book for a while and watch the world go by.  The coffee was okay, not up to Starbucks standard, but adequate, and came with a free shot of Bailey’s liqueur in a little glass.   You’ve probably seen in some places the servers do a little pattern in the foam – usually it looks like a leaf or something simple.  The guy at Cawa was clearly getting into the festive spirit (the sound system in the mall was playing carols) – he did a really good reindeer head in my foam.  I still can’t figure out how he did it, even with eyes and nostrils…….smart guy.   I stayed there half an hour, reading, while Berlioz gave way to Coldplay’s Left Right Left, a free concert download I picked up a few years ago – really good (I’m sorry, I happen to like Coldplay).   The book is called I, Partridge: We need to talk about Alan.  It’s a spoof autobiography of Steve Coogan’s finest comic creation, and is hilarious.  It’s written in the style of the character, and is illustrated with stills from the various tv series, with the most ridiculously complex captions.  There are also footnotes on virtually every page that illustrate the text, including some that refer to a playlist built from three days solid study of Partridge’s iPod (he writes in the introduction)– all typical of the Great Man’s musical tastes as broadcast on his Radio Norfolk show…. ;-))   I bought it in Malta earlier this year and thoroughly recommend it. 

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After that, I decided to move on, and headed off to catch a tram to another mall, Arkadia, that is one of the biggest in Europe apparently.
 
Like everything else, the tram service in Warsaw has improved a lot in my time here.  The network is pretty much the same (I don’t think there are any new routes at all) but the cars themselves have improved tremendously.   Back in 2000, all the cars were rickety old things, unheated and with hard, un-upholstered plastic seats, that jerked and lurched slowly along rusty tracks.  They were overcrowded and frequently broke down.  Since joining the EU, a lot of the money from the development funds received by the government has been spent modernizing the entire fleet, and the vast majority of them are now new and comfortable, with padded seating, decent heating systems and instead of tacky advertising posters and stations lists pasted to the windows (thus obscuring the view) there are now flat screen tv’s that carry constantly changing adverts, route listings and news stories.  All very pleasant, and still very cheap to travel on.

Arkadia was crowded with shoppers as the pre-Christmas rush gathers pace.    I spent a while browsing in the American (English language) Bookshop branch there, and spotted half a dozen volumes I’d like to buy at some point, but resisted the temptation to spend anything, then wandered around a Saturn electrical store looking at external hard-drives (I need to buy one for this beast) – again, I kept my hands firmly in my pockets with my wallet.  By this time, my soundtrack had moved on to a Chris Rea compilation, Still So Far To Go and I was getting peckish, so my next stop was Coffee Heaven for a large latte and a turkey, brie and cranberry sandwich (plus another half hour of Alan Partridge).

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By this time, it was early afternoon, and I felt much better for getting away from the flat.  I’d had enough, and my Man Flu was nagging at me, coughing and spluttering like an old man, and struggling not to sneeze more than once every couple of minutes, so I decided to head home.   I caught another tram, down the hill a couple of stops to the Dworzec Gdanski Metro station, and hopped a train home.  It had been a nice couple of hours, and I reflected that Warsaw has changed a lot in my ten years or so living here….and apart from the heavier traffic and higher prices, largely for the better.  Although there is still poverty here, as there is in every major city, by and the large the average Varsovian is financially better off than when I arrived.  Although prices have increased, wages have too.   The workforce is younger and better educated, and increasingly English is spoken (especially in the under 35 age group) in stores and bars and restaurants, almost as a matter of course.  A lot of this is down to changes in the education system where English (and French, German, Spanish and Italian) have replaced Russian as the second language taught.  There are also language schools scattered throughout the city now.  But it’s also because the majority of young Poles who left the country after EU accession to work in the UK and elsewhere have now returned home, better qualified and with language skills honed by the time away.  Although the Polish plumber still exists across the UK, most of them have now come back to work in the booming construction industry here as the country continues to modernise rapidly and new roads and buildings spring up everywhere.

The Warsaw skyline has changed too.  In 2000, the tallest building was still the Palace of Culture in the centre, with the Marriott Hotel opposite a little shorter.  Others were under construction  - the Warsaw Trade Tower, a little to the west of centre, the Bank Austria building behind the Palace and others.  They’re all finished now, and more are mushrooming across the city.  Many are modern office buildings, but many also are new apartment blocks that continue to provide the favoured home here.  Housing, as we would understand it in the UK, neighbourhoods of identical terraced, semi- or detached properties, exist but are few and far between, because there is relatively little available building land, at least in central Warsaw.  So apartment blocks still rule the roost – there is a new one under construction in the centre, 30 floors or so, that is state of the art, and offers penthouses at PLN3million or thereabouts – way out of my league.

Road-works remain more or less constant, as they have done since my arrival.  They are now not only to improve traffic flow in the city itself – like the new road out to the airport from where I live – but to get to Warsaw too.  There are highways (or stretches of motorway standard road) on the way to the coast, from Torun to Gdansk, that reduces the travel time from Warsaw to the seaside by a couple of hours; on the road to Lublin that eases traffic flow to and from Ukraine; between Warsaw and Krakow, Poznan, Wroclaw and the mountains.  Some of them are toll roads, but the tolls are quite cheap and well worth paying for the improved journeys.  Of course, these roads need to link up with the city, so there are many big construction sites doing just that.  Right now, it can be a bit of a nightmare, but in a couple of years it will be much better getting in and out of Warsaw than it currently is getting in and out of say London.

I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather live right now.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Hamas: Terrorists or resistance group?


Yesterday, in amongst all the other crap that appears every day on my Facebook page, I received (as a forward) the following map:


At that time, there had been getting on for 150 “Likes” – which mystifies me more than a little.  What are we supposed to “Like” exactly?  The quality and accuracy of the map?  The fact that the Palestinians have clearly lost over 95% of their territory – their homeland – in less than 60 years?  That, arguably, they are the continuing victims of the worst case of genocide since the Second World War (of which more shortly)?  Frankly, I “Dislike”, fervently, all of these points.

There had been over 100 comments, too – most of which were of course hidden for reasons of space, but the following was there, and I quote it in full by the wonders of Cut and Paste:

Bottem line they need to rid themselves of hamas.They are dangerous and until they do there will always be problems.They are radical and dangerous to anyone whom is not muslim.If Israel laid down there swords they would be all killed.They are protecting themselves.It is Palestines fault for allowing them to stay and at times hiding them out .

Leaving aside the poor spelling, punctuation and grammar (the poster possibly does not use English as a first language – although the name and photo suggest otherwise), the Comment in itself is rubbish, and I posted as much in a somewhat lengthy comment of my own.
 
What follows is an expansion of those views.

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In a nutshell, I pointed out that Hamas, whilst dangerous, was not solely to blame for the land loss – as the poster seemed to suggest – and used a perhaps stretched analogy between Hamas and various WW2 resistance groups.  I’ll expand on that in a moment.  I also stated that much (indeed perhaps the bulk) of the problems in the region could be laid at the door of the state of Israel and its seemingly powerless Western supporters.  Again, more in a minute.

Let me be very clear here.  I do not for one second support the Hamas tactic of launching unguided missiles across the border into Israel – I condemn it without hesitation.  However, I equally condemn without hesitation the consistently disproportionate response from the Israelis, tactics that in my opinion are nothing more than state sponsored terrorism. 

For a typical example, let’s look at the events of the past couple of weeks.  Tensions have been rumbling along between to the two sides for months without any publicity.  Then, seemingly out of the blue, Israel launches an airstrike – which they can do secure in the knowledge that the Palestinian people do not have the weaponry or strength to prevent it – that kills the Hamas armed forces commander.  Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of whether or not the man deserved to die: I don’t know enough about him to pass a judgement on that.  Hamas’ response, predictably, was to lob a few rockets in the general direction of Tel Aviv, along the coast from the blockaded Gaza Strip.  The action, and others like it the following day, was reported to be fully supported by the vast majority of ordinary Palestinians, whether Hamas supporters or otherwise, and killed a handful (literally: 5 fatalities) of Israelis.  Israel’s response was to launch a five day bombardment by air power and artillery of Gaza City and its environs, and the mobilization of 75,000 army reservists, mostly manning the tank regiments that were lined up along Gaza’s borders ready to roll as soon as Netanyahu gave the word.    Seventy five thousand reservists……that is around 25% of the population of Gaza City, and a high proportion of the City’s residents are of course women, children, the elderly and the infirm.  Throw in the weight of the Israeli regular army (plus navy and air force blockading the country), and it’s clear that Israel would easily win any conflict.  In any case, their bombardment, despite statements from various government spokesmen that it was “aimed at specific military targets”, succeeded in destroying entire neighbourhoods, including hospitals, and killed over 150 people, including large numbers of perfectly innocent women and children. 

Now, can someone please explain to me how a massacre like that can be an acceptable response?

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Now let’s look at the wider picture for a minute, and with apologies take in a bit of history.

The State of Israel was founded in 1948, courtesy of the Allies who had won the Second World War, to give a homeland to the Jewish people in Europe (mostly) who had been the main victims of the Nazi Genocide (and the lesser known but bigger genocide carried out by Stalin, in his own closed country).  No-one could seriously disagree that some recompense was due, after the way the Allies had ignored the stories (and evidence) that came out of Occupied countries (notably Poland) about the slaughter going on there.  The land chosen for this homeland was British administered Palestine, in the Middle East – the historic homeland of Jew and Arab alike.  It made a sort of sense, and had it been organized in a reasonable manner, and the wishes of the Arab population properly considered, much of the bloodshed on both sides probably avoided – or at least significantly reduced.  What actually happened – the forcible removal of Palestinians from lands they had lived in and farmed for centuries, sometimes at gunpoint, to make room for an influx of Jews from across the world - cannot be considered in any way a glowing example of British diplomacy.  Essentially, once the Israelis (as they now called themselves) were in place, and the Palestinians in their new territories – not only much reduced but also much less naturally  productive – the British withdrew at a rate of knots and left them all to sink or swim. 

Given that the new Israeli state was supported financially and otherwise by, in particular, the US (with its own large and powerful Jewish population), whilst the Palestinians were largely left to their own devices, the resentment and mutual dislike was allowed to fester – and that situation continues to this day.  Successive Israeli governments have launched offensives and land grabs, as the maps above clearly show, and still do.  There are Israeli settlements thrown up all over land that, according to the UN Resolution that defined the limits of the respective Israeli and Palestinian territories, lie clearly and hence illegally on Palestinian land.  There have been a number of Resolutions passed confirming the illegality of these settlements and demanding Israeli withdrawal from them.  Every single one has been ignored by successive Israeli governments.  In contrast – and again the maps show this clearly – Israel has forcibly moved the Palestinians from more and more land until they are largely confined to the narrow and barren Gaza strip, along the Mediterranean coast bordering Lebanon, and parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem.  Not content with that, they have blockaded Gaza by land, sea and air, so that only supplies they consider essential (certain foods, medicines and fuel, all in strictly limited amounts) are allowed through – meaning that the lives and dignities of ordinary Palestinian Arabs have been constantly eroded.  They are prisoners in their own lands.  The blockade is not all, however: at great expense, they have constructed (and continue to construct) the euphemistically named Peace Barrier.  Essentially this is a twenty foot high concrete wall stretching for miles along the border, aimed solely to ensure that Palestinians cannot have freedom of movement.  Again, the UN has declared the barrier illegal and demanded it be dismantled.  Again, the Israeli government has flipped the finger and ignored the Resolution.  And again, the US and its Western allies (that’s you, Britain and the EU) have allowed them to do so.

So by any sense of reason and fair play, the Palestinians have genuine and legitimate grounds for complaint.

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Now let’s get back to Hamas, and to my Facebook analogy
.
Clearly, much of what legally constitutes Palestinian land has been occupied and annexed by Israel, in clear contempt of international law and UN governance.  Equally clearly, the major Western Powers have allowed this situation to continue for many years.  Equally clearly, if you read your history books, the peaceful means that initially Palestinian politicians carried out in attempting to resolve the situation and reclaim their ancestral lands has failed.  This has led directly to Hamas.  Hamas is not, and never has been, a terrorist group: it is a legally and democratically constituted political party that took power in Gaza through a properly contested democratic election in which it defeated the more militant Fatah party of the late (and not particularly lamented) Yasser Arafat.  As such, it has every right to fight for the independence of Gaza and a fully recognized Palestinian state with full UN membership. 

It has its military wing, and it is this body (or elements associated with it) that is responsible for the rocket strikes and other, less well publicised, armed actions against Israel.    It could be argued that in Israel too – and indeed any other country – the government in power has its military wing: in the UK it’s called the Army, Navy and Air Force.    Their responsibility is to defend the country when under attack, or in war to attack the enemy and defeat it to maintain its sovereignty.  This is what happened during World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean War and indeed any other recognised “war” – yes, even the one in Iraq that got rid of Saddam.
But in this conflict, things are little different.  In this case, Gaza (or greater Palestine is probably more accurate, since Gaza is only a part of it, though the most visible) is the “occupied territory” – the defender if you will; whilst the State of Israel is the aggressor.  Again, look at the maps.  Now consider what happened when Nazi Germany overran much of Europe in the late 30's.  It essentially did exactly what Israel has been doing to the Palestinian state for the past 40 odd years.  The difference, it seems to me, is that the “democracies” – in particular Britain - stood up to Hitler and his cohorts in a way that no-one seems prepared to stand up to Netanyahu (or whoever has been leading Israel in the past). 

Despite that, to continue the analogy, many governments initially fell as Germany conquered pretty much all of Continental Europe.  In  many of those lands, notably France, Poland, and the Netherlands, active resistance movements sprang up, all of whom wanted to get rid of the Nazis and take their own land back.   They took armed action to do so: they blew up railway lines to disrupt the free movement of equipment and troops, provided intelligence to Allied forces, and, when the opportunity arose, killed Nazis.  To do this, they used arms and equipment either stolen or provided by the Allies.  When they were caught, the reprisals were swift, bloody and disproportionate – there are many documented cases where the death of one Nazi soldier in Warsaw for instance was repaid by the execution of 100 men, women and children.  Entire villages were wiped out in this way across the occupied lands.  Come the Allied victory and the end of the war, the surviving Resistance operatives were rightly lauded as heroes and freedom fighters, and the surviving Nazis tried, and in many cases convicted and executed, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So now we have a situation where by all definitions of the word, huge swathes of Palestinian lands have been “occupied” illegally by Israel (as huge swathes of Europe were occupied illegally by the Nazis), and the remaining Palestinians holed up in a small bit of territory that is not much more than a glorified concentration camp.  Indeed, by the constant bombardments they are being exposed to in Gaza and elsewhere, with consequent loss of innocent lives, death camp may be a more accurate phrase to use.  But, and it’s a big but, all this is going on in the public gaze, thanks to 21st century telecommunications. And this time, the aggressor – Israel, not Palestine – is the one with the tacit support of the major powers, by the failure of the UN, US, EU and so on, to do anything at all to rein in the Israeli action.  Indeed, the only support they have is from other Arab states like Egypt, Syria and, notably, Iran - all of whom are struggling right now with their own internal problems, and in any case are nowhere near as powerful as the US, never mind the likes of the EU and possibly even Britain.

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So what choice do the Palestinians – or if you prefer Hamas – have but to fight back in some way before they are totally exterminated (which I have to say seems to be what Israel really wants)?  Talking, diplomacy, peaceful means, are clearly having no effect: all the rhetoric coming from the Israeli and US governments, the UN, the British government and so forth, is having no obvious effect – the slaughter continues.  Israel complains that its citizens close to the border with Gaza go to bed at night “frightened” that they may be targeted, and understandably so.  I would think that the ordinary citizens of Gaza live in a constant fear of the same thing – with the difference that they have neither adequate shelters to hide in (as the Israelis have in abundance) nor anyone prepared to step in and help them afterwards – anyone who tries to do so is turned back, arrested or killed by the Israeli blockade.  It seems to me that in this terrible war of attrition that has been going on for so many years, and will probably continue for many more, that Hamas are doing no more than resistance groups throughout history – namely, trying to rid themselves of an aggressive occupying force and reclaim their lands – as did the French Resistance, the Polish Home Army and many others previously.  Only they are doing it alone, and being vilified as terrorists for doing so.

That is the tragedy and the scandal of the Middle East right now.  It seems to me that if Tony Blair and George Bush should be tried at The Hague for war crimes arising from the Second Iraq War then there must be an equal case to try Netanyahu and indeed every Israeli Prime Minister of the past 40 years for the war crimes they have committed (and continue to commit on a daily basis) against the Palestinian Arabs.  It will never, happen of course.  Neither Bush nor Blair, nor any Israeli politician will ever face the International Court – they are too big fish to fry.  But should there be an end to the Israel – Palestine Conflict, I would lay money that within months Hamas leaders, should they survive, would be indicted. 

Sometimes the world is not a fair place at all.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Gardening Leave


The problem with Gardening Leave, especially the extended version (in my case 3 ½ months) is that sooner or later the gardening runs out – as I live in a 5th floor flat, it took about an hour.   So what do you do then?  Move on to DIY, I guess.  The problem there is that I bloody hate DIY and in any case I’m useless at it, as anyone who has in the past seen my wonky shelves and bodged cupboard door repairs will testify.  Painting I can just about manage (as long as you don’t look too closely), but anything electrical, plumbing or (the worst) woodwork – forget it: time to consult Yellow Pages and call in the experts.

From this you may gather that my notice period is beginning to drag more than a bit. 

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The first couple of weeks were ok, as I had Things To Do.  For a start, a CV that needed bringing up to date and editing – reducing 50 individual project assignments over a 13 year period, not to mention a variety of internal projects, down to a handful of notables – sort of compiling a Travellin Bob’s Greatest Hits.   Not the easiest job in the world.  Then there was the LinkedIn profile to complete.   Now this little website seems to be rapidly replacing the good old recruitment consultancy when it comes to finding a new job.  Gone are the days when you’d hop on a train to London (or New York, or Berlin or wherever you happened to live) and do a tour of the agencies that specialized in your particular career path – banking and accountancy, say – and drop off a bunch of CVs (or for my transAtlantic readers, resumÄ—s), then go home again and hope that someone was interested enough to call back.  Instead, nowadays you set up your LinkedIn profile, upload your CV, join a few forums that specialize in what you want to do and hey presto.  Agencies (and others) post job requirements on the site, linked to these forums, you get an e-mail notification, and you can contact the agency (or whatever) directly from the site to register your “interest”.    Since it’s on-line, it’s global – I’ve responded to requirements in Canada, the Middle East, Singapore and Europe (various locations) and while nothing is certain, there has been interest from some of them and discussions are on-going, as they say. 
 
Now, as I’m getting on in years, and in a fairly specialized labour market, finding a new permanent employer is likely to prove a bit tricky – Ageism is rife in the labour market, no matter what legislation is in place and what government ministers may say in public.  So it’s time to look at alternatives - in my case this leads to the concept of the independent contractor.   They are rife in my employment universe – I’ve worked alongside them many times over the years, and I think complained about them on this blog somewhen.  Frequently they have been much less experienced than me, had much less knowledge of the product and, indeed, the investment banking business itself, and needed support and guidance (and education) to a ridiculous degree given their position within the project.  And nine times out ten, they have been earning three and four times as much money as me.  So, given the current situation, it’s time for this gamekeeper to turn poacher.  Cool. 

This leads to more activities to fill the long hours of Gardening Leave……set up a company.  Should it be on-shore (so locally registered and subject to local taxation) or off-shore?  If the latter, where is most tax efficient?  And how the hell do you establish an offshore company from here (with bank accounts and everything)?  And square it with my conscience?  Because, nowadays, tax efficiency is more commonly known as tax avoidance, and universally frowned upon – governments the world over are trying to close all the loopholes that make offshore companies less attractive and harder to establish, on the premise (that I find incredibly flimsy) that trying to reduce your tax bill is somehow Cheating and Unfair and likely to consign you to Hell For All Eternity.  Now I am firmly of the view that the most important thing any man should be doing is providing for his family, and hence making as much money as possible, legally.  Reducing the amount of tax paid, either directly or indirectly, is one way of doing this.  I have no problem at all with paying income tax, and national insurance, corporation tax, poll tax, VAT – whatever else: any government needs to raise revenues to pay for a million things, and that is done through taxation.  I pay the Polish equivalent of National Insurance here, but personally will receive absolutely no benefit from it at all unless I continue to pay in until I’m about 80, because there is a minimum membership period, if I can call it that, before you qualify.  I don’t begrudge it, because one day I may well need emergency hospital treatment (I hope not for many years yet, but you never know) and this insurance pays for that.  And for my wife and kids too, of course.  But that does not mean that I want to be paying the best part of 60% of my income to any government – and anyone who says otherwise is a liar.  Of course people want to pay less tax, whether it be income tax or sales tax or whatever.  This is why political parties that pledge to reduce taxation tend to win elections (even if they renege on the promises afterwards – as most of them do).   Messrs Cameron and Osborne, Frau Merkel. Monsieur Sarkozy and all the other politicians who are screaming for EU budget cuts, increased austerity, higher taxes and so on as a panacea for the world’s economic ills (and, God knows, something needs doing!), even when their people simply cannot take any more financial squeezing, are at best misguided and at worst raging hypocrites – I would dearly love to see statements from their various off-shore bank accounts and see just how tax efficient they are. 

Anyway, rant over: more days have been spent in looking at various options in this field.   I haven’t yet made up my mind which way to go – more information needed – but I’m getting there.  I did think of a couple of catchy names for my shop, but I’m not sure which one to go with.  First up: The TB Consultancy (or maybe, a bit snappier, TB Consulting).  Google it – there’s an outfit with that name in Phoenix, Arizona, apparently, although their business is hugely different than mine will be.  OK – what about BC Consulting?  Worse – it seems there are several of these.  Then someone suggested TB Professional Services.  Definitely not – Google took me to the Facebook page of a hooker in Las Vegas using that one.  So I’m still scratching my head on the name front – if any of you have bright ideas, feel free to get in touch on here.

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So how else am I passing the time, now I’m  in Week 5 of my Gardening Leave?

The school runs can be fun, especially given the NASCAR race track the road here turns into every morning and evening.  Now the evenings are drawing in it’s even worse – my eyes aren’t what they were and all the carrots in the world won’t make much difference if the annual new spectacles can’t help.  Spending so much time generally with the kids is great, actually. And their English is improving since they’re hearing it more. 

I read a lot.  I've just finished an entertaining book by Richard Branson, a personal history of aviation – very interesting once you put aside the self-publicity and advertising for the Virgin Group that’s scattered throughout it – and I’m halfway through an Official History of MI5 (it’s called Defence of the Realm, and is fascinating).   To come: a mock autobiography of Alan Partridge (ah-HA!) by Steve Coogan et al, and a history of the Second World war by Max Hastings.  On order from Amazon: a re-read of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (old favourites from my youth in a presentation hardback edition) and Cloud Atlas, an apparently extraordinary book spanning multiple times and dimensions just released as a film starring Tom Hanks, Hugh Grant and Halle Berry.  Then there are various internet outlets and sites like the BBC, the Grauniad, various blogs.  It all keeps me going.

I also write.  This blog, of course, when I can think of anything worthwhile (or not as the case may be) to blog about – being grounded, so to speak, reduces the inspiration somewhat.  I managed a post on the eve of the US Election that I thought, being topical, might generate some interest and comment, but it received a paltry 7 views, much to my surprise.  Also my book: many years ago I wrote a novel about sex and booze and football that for years I’ve been planning to transfer from the pair of Boots The Chemist notebooks in which it currently resides into a proper manuscript preparatory to selling the thing.  It’s pretty good, even if I say so myself (and the few people who’ve read and critiqued it agreed with me).  Anyway, now is the best chance I’m likely to have so I’m cracking on with it, typing away like a mad thing and editing bits as I go along.  I don’t do it every day (other things keep interfering) so it’s taking a while, but the intention is to finish the first draft by the end of the month, then review and edit by year-end, and then…..well, then I’m not sure.  I don’t know any publishers or literary agents (so if anyone out there does, please put me in touch), so I’m exploring the self-publishing or e-book route…..  We’ll see.

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Anyway, I’m keeping occupied and surviving.  I’m certainly sleeping better, now all the work bollocks over the past couple of years has gone, for better or worse.  And, Mayan Apocolypse next month permitting, I’m looking forward to a new year and new life in 2013.  It may turn out, in the immortal words of Pete Townsend, to be a case of “meet the New Boss, same as the Old Boss” – but you never know: a change is as good as rest, after all.

But for sure I’ll be glad when this bloody Gardening Leave is finished!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Election week - hurrah! China and the US go the polls.


I wrote on here last year sometime that in the previous 12 months I’d been in three countries – Lebanon, Trinidad and Britain – where sitting governments were kicked out in favour of coalition governments.  They’re all still hanging in there – no surprise in Lebanon, where coalition is a way of life and always has been, but Trinidad seems to be doing ok too.  As for Britain…..well, it seems to me that Cameron’s government is only hanging on for two reasons: first, the lack of a credible alternative, as the Labour party continues to struggle with the search for an identity (such a shame that after all the early promise of Blair’s New Labour it all soured under Brown and has left them totally useless).  Second, and more importantly, the first thing Cameron did after taking power was introduce legislation that essentially removed from Parliament the Vote of No Confidence, and guaranteed a full 5 year term in office – no matter how incompetent and unpopular the coalition turned out to be.  And they are certainly that – from the outside looking in, this ConLib coalition seems confused over policy, unsure of anything except staying out of the Euro at all costs, and specialises in government by SoundBite…….  Should the Vote of No Confidence still be there, I have no doubt they would be kicked out at the earliest opportunity, and it seems grossly undemocratic (and hypocritical) of Cameron to deny the British people the opportunity.  So Britons will have to wait another couple of years to make their feelings known at the ballot box.

Shame.

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There is no chance of a coalition in either country that has an election this week, of course. 

In China, there is the “election” (if you can call it that) of the new governing Politburo.  But since they are all members of the Communist Party and the decisions were taken weeks ago and are only being rubber stamped by the Party Congress in its once a decade beano, it’s all a foregone conclusion.  The major interest will follow over the next weeks and months as the new boys get to grips with running the second biggest (or is it the biggest now?) economy in the world.  This latest government has undoubtedly made monumental strides in bringing China forward, moving from a peasant and agricultural economy to an industrial and financial powerhouse.  The challenge for the new boys will be to maintain that progress, and maybe even move to a more democratic society.  Not that I will hold my breath over that happening anytime soon.  They also need to get to grips with the corruption that seems endemic in China (as in Russia, Ukraine, Byelorus…..see the common theme there?) and the continuing authoritarian rule that blocks freedom of speech, Google and Facebook (amongst others) for the merest critical comment.  I’m not holding breath over that one, either.  It will take a whole new generation to come through for that to happen – so probably not in my lifetime then.

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There will be no coalition in the US either.  While China is a one-party state, the US has two, and there is never any credible opposition or alternative to either.  Now and again someone will stand as an Independent, and proceed to get hammered at the ballot box and lose a fortune without making any difference at all – this is democracy, American style, where votes and elections are won by bank balance as much as policy.  This year, between them, the two parties have raised and spent half a billion dollars to try and get elected.  Much of the money has been spent in advertising, a lot of it virulent and nasty, as each party tries to paint his opponent in the worst possible light.  And much of the advertising has been, shall we say, less than honest.  Another heap of cash has been spent ferrying candidates from state to state, electioneering at town hall meetings and making speeches to carefully vetted invitation only audiences – and of course the world’s media.  Against a machine like that, what chance has any independent or minority party (for instance the Greens) of making any kind of impact come election time?  None – they hardly have any nuisance value, let alone a relevant voice.

But no matter how bad the situation, there is no prospect of the Democrats and Republicans sharing responsibility or decision making in the way a European style coalition ever would.  It’s just not in their political DNA.   For the past four years, Obama has been struggling with a global recession and a discredited banking system, not to mention two expensive conflicts thousands of miles away in Afghanistan and Iraq, all bequeathed to him by good ol’ Republican George Bush.   The recession gave him unprecedented unemployment numbers, and industries, notably the auto industry, that were all but deceased from their extreme uncompetetiveness.  He has tried to make a difference and do something about it, and at every step a Republican-dominated Senate has blocked him.  To his credit, he managed to force through bills to provide billions of dollars of state aid to save the car industry (and with it millions of jobs).  He forced through his “Obamacare” health reforms, decried by Republicans as an expense too much, despite providing guaranteed health care to millions who previously had been unable to afford any kind of treatment.  US troops have largely been brought home from Iraq and a timetable is in place to do likewise from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.  He even managed to do something Bush, for all his gung-ho rhetoric, had failed to do and take out Osama bin Laden.   There has been a huge cost, of course, to all this and the national debt is running at record levels. 

I think, given what he’s been up against, he’s done a pretty good job.  Things are turning round, the economy seems to be slowly recovering, with jobless numbers going down month by month.  If the rest of the world – notably Europe, that is in a dreadful state – could manage to drag itself out of its own recession, he’d be in a much better position, and his re-election guaranteed.  Even with all the problems still to be faced and debt to be paid off, he seems to me to deserve a second term, to finish the work he’s started.   Mitt Romney, his Republican opponent in tomorrow’s Election, seems to have spent much of his campaign calling Obama incompetent and worse, and offers the alternative of lower taxes and smaller government as a way forward.  He cites his success running private equity firm Bain & Co before moving into politics – despite Bain being a leading player in the very casino banking that is now universally (if somewhat unfairly) vilified as the root cause the world’s financial crisis.   Hardly a ringing recommendation, I would have thought.  He has also pledged that the first piece of legislation he will sign, on his first day in office, will be to repeal Obamacare in its entirety, thus throwing those millions of beneficiaries back onto the medical scrapheap.  That promise alone should set alarm bells ringing nationwide and disqualify the bloke from office.

But no.  With voting tomorrow, the Presidential race is neck and neck – too close to call.  Obama 49%, Romney 48%.   Or 48% and 50%.  Or 49% to 49%......it all depends on which poll you look at.    So here we are today, with the pair of them flying across country, last minute speechifying to try and persuade the few undecided voters to go their way.   Obama has surged a little over the past week, as he has been perceived to manage the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy very well.  Will it be enough?

Personally, I hope so.  The guy seems more genuine than Romney by a mile, and the policies he’s followed and implemented so far have clearly been aimed at the less well-off and improving the lives of all Americans, not merely the wealthy.  I remember at his first election, to counter his politics of Hope (“Yes, we can!” – remember that?) there were all kinds of scare stories circulating about his being a closet Muslim and dangerous, but of course they all proved to be so much hot air.  This time around, despite Romney being a Mormon, religion has proved to be a non-runner as a concern to the electorate…..and to me, this is how it should be: an individual’s religious beliefs should not disqualify him from holding office if all other factors show him to be the best qualified.  The same goes for colour, gender and sexual orientation – I can’t wait to see the first native American lesbian elected to the White House. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

The End of an Era.......


In February last year, I made a post on here called P45 anyone?  It dealt with the way our company had changed, and expressed concerns about a round of job cuts that at the time was in full flow.  Reading it now, it was a pretty critical piece and in hindsight I stand by every word (if anything I was too lenient).  I ended it by wondering what the future might hold, both for the company and myself – and fairly pessimistic I was too.
 
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With good reason.
From the company perspective, the turbulence has not visibly abated since that time.  Our Charismatic Greek Chairman stepped down.  I think he took his well-earned fortune into a kind of semi-retirement, in that he no longer has any impact (at least as far anyone can see) in the day-to-day operation of the company or its strategic direction, and limits his public appearances to selected events like our annual users conference.  He sends out periodic All Staff e-mails (signed by “The Founder”) – on major religious festivals for instance, like Easter, or the start of Ramadan, or whatever – or when there is a major event in the world that may have an impact on the business.  He also sends out regular congratulatory mails to people celebrating an anniversary – I received one myself the week before last, on the 13th anniversary of my joining the company.  All very nice I’m sure.
He was replaced as Chairman by our Greek CEO, who had been around for a long time and had been essentially running the company for years anyway.  In the mail he sent out announcing the changes, the New Chairman (let’s call him the Uncharismatic Greek Chairman) made it clear that he, too, intended to take a bit of a back seat and allow his replacement to mould the company and “take it to the next level.”
His replacement came from outside both the company and the IT industry, but with a decent track record of taking companies and building them up into leaner and more profitable entities through a combination of re-organizing them, cutting costs and acquisition (to paraphrase the introduction we were all given), he seemed a good fit for the strategic direction that had already been decided and started.  Let’s call him Le Gaul.
Those of us New Pretenders (and it must be said Old Guard) who had seen it all before (some of us a number of times) viewed all these pronouncements with a large dose of healthy scepticism.  Le Gaul of course brought in his own management team, thus creating a whole new (and expensive) layer to the company organization chart – odd, for someone who preached the Gospel of Lean is Mean.  He also succeeded in pissing off not a few people who suddenly and unexpectedly found themselves lower down the food chain.  God only knows what out Charismatic Greek Chairman Now Known As The Founder thought of it all……he apparently voiced unequivocal support for the changes in his annual conference address, but some people told me his tongue seemed firmly planted in his right cheek as he did so.  In any case, why should he worry?  He’d already taken the money and ran – not his concern any more.
To the rest of us?  Those at the coal face, so to speak?  An expectation that it would all end in tears.
 
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There was a series of roadshows, as managers new and old toured the world, telling us all what a bright future the company had, and how steps would be taken to improve things for all of us, apparently recognizing for the first time in living memory that perhaps things were actually less than perfect.  No excuses were acceptable for not attending one of these performances – I and all my colleagues on the site I was then working had to take a half day off and take a taxi ride 80 miles away to attend our one.  True to my reputation as a devil’s advocate (or, as some would have it, bloody trouble maker) I gave our hosts a bit of a hard time, as did other people at the presentation (possibly following my lead) and to be fair to our hosts, all criticism was well taken and noted for further action – although of course without any promises being made.  But that in itself was a departure from past experience and served to reduce our doubts (a little….).
That was in late summer 2011.  There followed a deafening silence for pretty much the rest of the year.  The odd managerial appointment was advised, Q3 and (eventually) Q4 results published together with the usual pep talk, and a new intranet site opened for business.  The final organization chart that had been promised at the roadshows remained conspicuous by its absence.  And all the while news filtered through of a few more redundancies, and a few more partnership agreements were announced.  It was all very confusing, but management (of course) remained very upbeat.
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Then, to paraphrase P45 anyone?, another volley of shit hit the corporate fan.  This time it came clearly from outside the organisation.   Early in the New Year, our major competitor announced to the world that it was In merger talks with us.  It didn’t go into too much detail, but said it was confident agreement could be reached before long.  It clearly took us by surprise, and as share prices in both companies started jumping up and down all over the place we were forced to rush out an announcement of our own.  We tried to be innocuous, and admitted we were in “preliminary discussions” but that nothing had been decided and we would make further announcements in due course, as and when there was a need……   The negotiations dragged on throughout Q1, while the press (in particular the doom and gloom merchants on the blogs) had a field day.  Throughout this time, business ground to a halt, as prudent customers and prospects decided to wait and see, on the understandable grounds they weren’t sure which product they were going to end up with.   Eventually, as many of us had expected, along came a competing offer, this time from some American venture capitalist I’d never heard of, whose offer of cash was more attractive to the competitor’s shareholders than our stock swap, so of course the deal (if it could be called that) collapsed.
Shortly thereafter, in the wake of appalling Q1 results, Le Gaul resigned to “pursue other business opportunities” (if you say so, monsieur….).  Our number one money man, a long-time employee and (just by way of a change) English, stepped up to CEO, and our Uncharismatic Greek Chairman announced he was going to play a more “hands on role” – although expressing complete support for English (so why are you immediately undermining him then?)
So now, a once lively and wildly entrepreneurial company is now being run by a trio of bean counters whose main priority is maximizing profits, minimizing losses and propping up the stock price to the satisfaction of all our shareholders (including one assumes themselves, with their no doubt substantial blocks).

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Predictably, within a week, the sackings started, for once at a higher level as middle ranking managers (not all of whom had come with Le Gaul) were shown the door marked Exit.   Then it percolated down, if that’s the right expression, and a bunch of people of my level were dumped…..across all business areas.  We in Services were assured (at least I was) that we would be ok since we had already been cut to the bone over the last 18 months or so.  It didn’t convince me at all.
While all this madness was going on, I was trying to keep busy and occupied since in this situation The Bench is not a good place to be.  Regular readers will have seen last years’ epistles from Geneva, Abu Dhabi, Cyprus and Chile and gather I was keeping busy and racking up some decent Airmiles – true enough.  But this year has been very different.  We’re in October and my total time on site has been a measly 10 weeks in total – in Florida, Cairo, London and Malta.  So despite best efforts – mainly e-mails every other day to our resource management team – I’ve been badly exposed.
So of course, push came to shove.  Half way through a bowl of cornflakes last Tuesday morning (late breakfast after two separate school runs for the kids – a great advantage of being at home, spending time with them) the doorbell rang.  DHL. 
True to form, my Termination of Employment Agreement (personally I prefer the phrase “Redundancy Notice”) arrived by courier with absolutely no advanced warning from either my line manager or HR.  It was no real surprise, despite my having spent a half hour on the phone the previous day, discussing how best to get a virus removed from my laptop, with my line manager, during which time the subject of my impending notice was not even hinted at. 
It would be very very easy to be angry and bitter about what has happened and, in particular, the way the deed was done – but I don’t.  There is no one person to feel angry at, of course – it’s not the fault of my various managers over the years, or HR, or even our Uncharismatic Greek Chairman, his predecessor or successors.  Rather, it’s a long line of errors of judgment and half-arsed strategic initiatives that have led to this, an insistence on crisis management and concentration on The Sale to the exclusion of every other facet of the business.  
That has created an imbalance in the way the company operates that someone, a total stranger, actually pointed out to me years ago in a bar in Almaty.   He wasn’t in our business, but knew the company and the way it worked through other people he knew, and his considered opinion was simply explained.  He stated that all companies, and in particular all software vendors, could be imagined as a pendulum, with Sales at one end of the swing and Services at the other (Product Development was somewhere in the middle).  If the pendulum swung too far in either direction, it set up an imbalance that could ultimately lead to disaster if not checked.  In his opinion, our pendulum was too far in the Sales direction – and nothing since then has been done to correct that imbalance – quite the contrary, in fact. 
There is frustration for sure, because I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed the job (I’ve written elsewhere it’s the best I’ve ever had|) and I wanted to continue doing it for the next few years, to my retirement.  I had my conversation with HR and it was all very cordial – in fact I received an apology for the way it has all been handled – and in all honesty, given the parlous state of the company right now I can’t argue with the cost-cutting logic behind it.    If I feel anything at all, it’s a sense of relief that the Sword of Damocles that has been hanging over my head for 18 months or more has finally fallen and done its job.  Since all this started last February, for me it’s always been a case of when I was likely to be dumped and how much of a payment I would get – I’ve never felt confident (hopeful, yes) that I would actually reach retirement age here.

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So now I can get on with the rest of my life.  I’ve started looking around for something new to do and financially I have maybe six or seven months before I need to panic – my notice period runs until February next, and I’m being paid throughout that.   I have a reasonable idea of what projects are coming through over the next few weeks and months, and the people I’ve spoken to are also aware of some if not all of them – since the company has taken the decision to use business partner staff for certain tasks, and it’s a relatively small world I move in professionally, I would have been surprised if that hadn’t been the case – so I’m confident something will come up before Panic Stations arrive.  There are other options as well, so we’ll see.
In the meantime, I have the kids to play with, and read to, and shout at when homework isn’t being done.  I have my books to read (four or five I’ve bought over the past couple of months and not yet started).  I have my music and of course the wonders of Polish daytime tv.  I can spend time finally transferring the handwritten manuscript of the “The Match” - a novel about sex and booze and football that I wrote nearly thirty years ago now but have never had time since to do anything about trying to sell– into a proper format that I might actually be able to do something with. 
And I have this.  The blog will continue, because I enjoy writing it, and I think a few people might even enjoy reading it (sometimes, anyway).  It may change a bit, for a while at least, because Travellin Bob has stopped Travellin.
But not for ever.  It may be the End of an Era, but not the end of all things.
So watch this space……