Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Two birthdays - Dave and Rod

Last week saw the birthdays of two of my favourite people.  On the 8th, David Bowie turned 65, to a fanfare from pretty much every newspaper and radio station, and two days later Rod Stewart turned 67, to a deafening silence from everyone except (I assume) his family and friends.  I grew up with both of their music forming a memorable background to my life, and it's as great to me now, 40 odd years later, as it ever was.

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Bowie has always been rightly acknowldged as one of the finest musicians of his (or indeed any) generation, constantly innovating both his recorded work and live shows.  When I was at school, in the late 60s, shortly before he really hit the big time, he actually played a gig at my old school, at the end-of-year 6th form dance.  I was unable to go that night, as I lived 20 miles from the school and my parents didn't drive, to my everlasting regret, but I'm told by people who were there that this guy David Jones, just sitting on the edge of the stage with an acoustic guitar and no backing band, playing songs and chatting, was absolutely rivetting.   Within a few months Space Oddity was released, Major Tom entered the public consciousness and Bowie (as he was now billed) started his journey to global superstardom. 

I remember seeing him on Top of the Pops, singing Starman, resplendant in shiny blue jumpsuit, stacked heeled knee length boots, orange hair and full make up.  His band, the excellent Spiders from Mars (this was his Ziggy Stardust persona) were similarly dressed.  My mum and dad were outraged.  I thought he was the coolest thing since sliced bread, and went out and bought the album the next day.  It was the first of many transformations for the man - through the Diamond Dogs era, The Thin White Duke (Station to Station remains an underrated album in my opinion - I loved it) and many others.  The heroin addiction didn't kill him off as it had many contemporaries, and looking at him now as he collects his bus pass he looks twenty years younger than his age.  He's not made a new album for a few years now, but with the back-catalogue he has he doesn't need to!  A few years ago I was working in Jersey for a few days, and one lunchtime, popping into Boots the Chemist in St.Helier for a hangover cure, I found a double CD of his Greatest Hits for five pounds.  I bought two copies, one for me and one for my son Pat, who considers Bowie to be an absolute genius.  It's on my iPod and I play it regularly. 

So happy birthday to the boy from Bromley, and thank you for the music.

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Now Rod (no longer the Mod) is a different kettle of fish. 

From Steampacket, through the Jeff Beck Group (probably Beck's best ever line-up - with Ronnie Wood on bass and the late great Micky Waller on drums) and the Faces to superstardom as a solo artist, Stewartie's music has been among my favourites.   It went very flat during and after his relationship with Britt Ekland who musically immasculated him, but came back strongly through a patchy dalliance with disco to his later efforts on the various Great American Songbook albums where his voice, still rough but mellowed with age, interpreted the wonderful songs of people like Sammy Cahn, Gershwin and Rogers & Hart as well as anything more respected crooners like Sinatra, Davis and Michael Buble have ever done.  And it's an interesting anomoly that during this musically fallow period (at least in quality terms) the bloke was selling more records and making more dosh than at any other time in his career. 

But the thing about Rod, for me, is his songwriting.....it's hugely underrated, and at its best back in the early 70s with partners like Ronnie Wood and Martin Quittenton, painted vivid pictures of life in the lad's lane.  Listen to the title track from the album Every Picture Tells A Story  - without a doubt the best song he's ever written, about a young guy fed up with his boring life and going off to see the world, taking in the student riots in late 60s Paris, living rough in Rome and falling for a Chinese hooker in the Far East before coming home a wiser man.  It's perfect, but has been condemned as sexist due to the wonderful couplet of "Shanghai Lil never used the pill, she claimed that it just ain't natural"......sorry, that's not sexist, it's just brilliant.  It's also a typical Rod Stewart lyric: his songbook is littered with little gems like that - in Maggie May, the song that really made him, there are several, my favourite being "I suppose I could collect my books and get on back to school, or steal my daddy's cue and make a living out of playing pool"  - for the twenty year old boozer I was when that came out it summed up my options perfectly.  Or this one, from the Faces track Stay With Me.  from the same year: "Yeah, I'll pay your cab fare home, you can even use my best cologne, just don't be here in the morning when I wake up."  Or this, again the Faces, Pool Hall Richard: "Sweating hard I didn't get a shot, all I did was stand around and get too hot" - any bloke who's been hustled in the local snooker club will know that feeling.

He's a great interpreter too - listen to his version of Tim Hardin's Reason to Believe on Every Picture.... or Elton John's Country Comfort, or Athur Cruddup's blues standard That's All Right - they are all brilliant cuts and arguably better than the originals.  And that's in addition to the Great American Songbook series.  Again, I have a number of compilations on my iPod, that cover his entire career (except the Songbooks) and they remain among my favourites.  Top of the list are The Millenium Edition that I stumbled across in a supermarket in Gdynia about 8 years ago - not a track on it after about 1974, garnered from all the solo albums - and a Faces compilation called Nice Boys (When They're Asleep) from the same era......every track is perfect, good time rock'n'roll, not a duff song there.  Quite brilliant for anyone who Was There and a perfect introduction to anyone interested in a 70s retrosepctive of the bloke's best music.

So Rod - a happy birthday to you too, and thank you for the music.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

2011 - The World According to Travellin Bob

Well, here we are, the start of a New Year.  I trust you all had an excellent holiday season, ate too much and drank too much – as one should do at this time of year.    Every good wish for 2012.
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But 2011,eh?  What a year that was!  At times I travelled through a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams – nothing odd about that, I suppose, it’s been that way for as long as I can remember but I can’t recall anything quite like it since those momentous days back in the 80s and 90s when the Communist world collapsed and introduced an entire new map in Europe.

The Arab spring was, I suppose, the counterpart to those days, only instead of overthrowing Communist regimes it overthrew (in most countries affected) cruel and corrupt or family dynasties (the Mubaraks in Egypt, the Gaddafis in Libya).   Those two “revolutions” in themselves offered an interesting contrast as they unfolded on the world’s TV screens.  In Egypt it happened quickly, as initial student protest marches in Cairo snowballed into a wider anti-government protest that in a matter of days hounded the old and ailing Mubarak from the presidency and into a prison cell with relatively little bloodshed.  Now he and his sons are on trial on a variety of charges, with Mubarak suffering the indignity of being wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital trolley, apparently too ill to attend in any other way, but nevertheless still protesting his innocence.  The verdict is probably a foregone conclusion, but the punishments handed down (eventually….) will be interesting.  The country itself seems to be recovering, and before Christmas there was a quite valid election of a new government…..not perfect, according to the press, but at least there is a transition to a democracy taking place.

In Libya, meanwhile, old Mad Dog Gaddafi responded to the anti-government protests there by sending in the troops.  NATO, with the support of the US but for once with Europe (mainly Britain and France) taking the lead, responded on the side of the rebels and started air-strikes on Gaddafi forces in a bid to stop him.  All this led to was several months of civil war between government forces, continually weakened by defections, and a poorly armed and ill-trained opposition militia.  But eventually the inevitable happened: the government fell, the Gaddafi family either buggered off to other countries seeking political asylum or were killed, and Gaddafi himself was eventually captured and killed within minutes in circumstances that are still unclear but are being investigated as a possible war crime.  His death then probably only delayed the inevitable – had he been brought to trial he would with certainty have been convicted of numerous crimes against humanity and hung like Saddam before him.   His remaining son Saadi, and had the revolution not happened his heir, was arrested across the border in Niger, where he is currently held pending extradition to Libya to stand trial for his part in the Gaddafi regime excesses – protesting his innocence, of course.  By all accounts he was as unbalanced as his old man, and has dipped his mitts in as much blood, so maybe in time he’ll replace Mad Dog on the gallows.  The country, meanwhile, is limping towards democracy, elections are planned but there are still many concerns – not least the amount of weaponry that is now in the hands of gangs of mostly young people formerly part of the opposition militia but now independent.  No-one is quite sure how to go about disarming them, nor how they may react if the elections do not go in the manner they might want – there are genuine fears (and possibilities) for a North African Iraq – for which read many years of sectarian violence and bloodshed.

Elsewhere, Tunisia overthrew its government (the first Arab country to do so), and in Yemen and Bahrain similar efforts have so far failed.  Bahrain in particular has been much criticized for the way in which its government responded with a military crackdown that has led to a very fragile peace breaking out and a large number of doctors being arrested and charged with treason for actually working and treating, in hospital, opposition supporters injured in the disturbances.   In Syria, Assad responded by sending in the troops and continues to do so after months of slaughter in Damascus and other cities, despite world-wide condemnation and the presence of Arab League observers.  He also denies personal responsibility for it all, and blames the bloodshed on the actions of a number of individual commanders taking inappropriate actions – not that he seems to be doing anything to stop them or replace them with more reliable officers.  Basically he’s a lying bastard who will surely be toppled, one way or another, sometime this year.

Regular readers of this blog will know I spent some time in the Arab world this year (a couple of months in Abu Dhabi).  I saw no evidence there of any unrest – see my various Gulf News posts for more detail)  - perhaps it’s because the UAE is more liberal than other Arab countries as well as being amongst the wealthiest.    I came close to Bahrain as well: I was supposed to work on a project there, an interesting looking one as well, but was sent somewhere else instead – Geneva, much more civilized – so missed out on being stuck in Manama for the duration or having to flee after dark.  Bit of a blessing really!
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But these political shenanigans were not restricted to the Arab world – the EU was shaken all year with major problems courtesy of the continuing Euro debt crisis.   This has been rumbling along for a while now, and I blogged about it in June last year (see The Euro).  At that time, Greece was the main concern as it lurched from one crisis to the next and battled to stave off a default – the similar problems earlier with Ireland and Portugal had receded.  Since then, there have been multiple summits called to resolve the problem and prevent contagion, and they have all pretty much failed.  Both Ireland and Portugal have changed government, and continue to struggle with the austerity measures introduced.   Greece also changed its government, and its premier is now an unelected bureaucrat, with no experience as a politician but impeccable economic qualifications as a former European Central Bank officer.  There seems little change in the climate there – the first strike of the New Year was held by doctors and health workers on 2 January: clearly, austerity measures are no more popular now than they were under Papandreou.

The contagion has however happened, despite the best (but arguably poor) efforts of Merkel, Sarkozy and their fellow European leaders.  Italy, a huge debtor nation with a large economy, was also in danger of default, and being charged unsustainable borrowing rates when it went to the markets to re-schedule its debt.  Good Old Silvio tried, rather lamely, to introduce his own version of austerity measures that went down like a pork chop in a synagogue and was forced to resign – Europolitics will be more boring without him around.  His replacement is another non-elected bureaucrat, this time a former EU official, and the situation there seems to be improving – at least their borrowing rates are falling now.  Spain, too, (another big and broken economy) had its problems and has also changed its government in a bid to stave off its own default risk.  The new prime minister (elected this time) promptly appointed an ex-Lehman Brothers executive as his finance minister – an odd choice, given Lehman’s bankruptcy a couple of years ago is widely accepted as the start of this entire global financial crisis.

Even France and Germany have had banks and sovereign debt ratings cut and are thus not immune.  Both Merkel and Sarkozy are facing re-election within the next year or so, so are not only fighting to save the euro but also their political lives.  At the last summit, just before Christmas, they introduced a package that is supposed to solve the euro crisis once and for all (now where have I heard that before?) but at the cost of closer political and fiscal unity – effectively, the EU commissioners will have the power to review and reject national budgets prepared and presented by individual nations, there will be more uniformity of taxes, etc.  Essentially, they want the 27 individual nations to merge into a single state – Europe – and in all honesty it’s probably the only way the debt crisis will ever finally be resolved.  All 17 euro-currency countries agreed to it, as did 9 out of the remaining non-euro countries.  Britain, predictably, disagreed vehemently and Cameron walked out of the meeting, to a mixture back home of praise and condemnation depending on which side of the political divide you look.  Since then, some of the other 9 have expressed concerns, and the likelihood is that this solution too will fail – it may take longer though.  In the meantime no-one has a clue whether the euro will survive much longer – the smart money is on at least a couple of defaults by the summer.  All in all, a lack of leadership across the entire EU is a major contributing factor in this, and there is no end in sight.   By this time next year, I expect the euro currency will be worth a lot less, some countries will have withdrawn from it, and the Sarkozy – Merkel plan will, like them, be history.  Where that leaves the larger EU community I have no idea……
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In the wider world, China and India (and less so Brazil) continue their seemingly inexorable rise to become globally dominant economic and industrial powers, despite being home to billions (and rising) of poverty stricken peasants.   China remains the world’s biggest holder of US government debt as well as massive positions in euro-government debt and hence has taken on the role of global paymaster.  During the various rescue bids, EU diplomats and politicians assiduously courted them and tried to persuade them to commit funds to various rescue funds – the Chinese, of course, refused to join in whilst professing their confidence in both the currency and the efforts to resolve the crisis. 

In the US meanwhile, Obama’s popularity has plummeted as his administration is seen to have failed dismally to come to grips with the country’s own financial crisis, and is facing a re-election campaign  that he may well lose whichever idiot the Republican’s choose to oppose him (my prediction: Mitt Romney, if only because he looks vaguely presidential – I write this the day after the Iowa caucus, which he won.  Mind you, I predicted he would beat John McCain last time round, so what the hell do I know?).   I feel some sympathy for Obama, as he’s been hamstrung by a GOP controlled Senate that has thus been able to block or water down every proposal he’s placed before them – health care, growth and education packages have been heavily diluted from what was promised during the last election, and the desperately needed economic and tax packages blocked consistently all year since they included provision to increase taxation – anathema to the Republican right.  And of course he inherited a bigger mess from Dubya than anyone really knew existed, just in time for the global slump and economic crisis to really bite.  He’s been on a hiding to nothing throughout his term of office, and the notable successes of nailing bin Laden and (as promised) withdrawing troops from Iraq are no more than bonuses, insufficient on their own to gain a second term.  Unless there is a sea-change in the global economy, I believe this time next year we’ll be welcoming President Mitt Romney.

There was an election in Russia too, a real put-up job if ever there was one.  Essentially, the only change is that next year Putin and Medvedev will swap jobs – the former will return to the Presidency and the latter to be his Prime Minister.  Since Putin is widely believed to have been calling all the shots and wielding all the power throughout Medvedev’s term, I guess we can all anticipate more of the same.  Interestingly, the United Russia party (or Putin’s Boys, if you prefer) had a reduced share of the vote whilst retaining overall control of the parliament, but after the Putin – Medvedev manouevre was announced many ordinary Russians took to the streets in protest, as in the Arab spring but without visibly making any difference.    The police arrested some people, cracked some skulls, and the whole protest fizzled out quickly – but the fact there was any protest at all is notable.   It seems a true democracy may finally be coming to Russia….watch this space.

At the end of the year, Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea, finally snuffed it.   What a guy!  If you believe the state media published biography, the bloke learned to walk at 6 weeks, run at 3 months, wrote his first “Future of the Glorious State of North Korea” thesis at 4 years old, and went on to invent the internet, space travel and the mobile phone only to have them all nicked by the Yanks, and when he decided to take up golf, scored 11 holes-in-one on his first ever round…..  Even Uncle Joe Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung didn’t match those achievements.    The pictures on CNN and the BBC of hysterical North Korean men, women and children lining the barriers around his palace where his corpse lay in state for a fortnight, bawling their eyes out and howling in anguish, were quite sickening, I’m afraid – not out of a shared sadness for the deceased Supreme Leader and Father of the Nation, but because the vast majority of them were probably doing it purely out of self-preservation: grieve or get shot.  His replacement is his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, about whom little seems to be known – but he possesses without a shadow of doubt the dodgiest haircut in the world. 
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The world has not been without its natural disasters of course.   There has been the usual number of hurricanes and typhoons causing widespread devastation in the Caribbean and the Far East.   There have been major volcanic eruptions, including one in southern Chile that did as good a job on air travel in the south Pacific as the Icelandic one did in Europe in 2010.  There was a huge earthquake off the coast of Japan and subsequent tsunami in March that flattened vast swathes of the east coast and caused huge problems throughout one of the world’s most advanced countries for months afterwards.   The clean-up process is still going on, and the Fukushima nuclear power station that was hit by the wave and subsequently suffered an explosion and melt-down in one of the reactors has only recently been declared safe and “free from contamination” by the authorities who will now need to figure out how to safely decommission and demolish the thing.

The rains in Asia caused widespread flooding in Bangladesh and Pakistan again (it seems to happen every year), and left many people still struggling to make ends meet after 2010’s floods in a state of abject poverty.   Thailand too was hit by the worst flooding for years, and even Bangkok had areas close to the city centre (and hence tourist areas) under water.  Over the last couple of weeks the Philippines too have suffered from similar flooding.    The death toll mounts.

Without a doubt, the climate is changing, and weather patterns with it.  When I first moved to Poland, 10 years ago, the winters were vicious.  I remember my first winter here, when it snowed heavily in October and Warsaw remained snow-bound until April – six months.  I used to have to walk due east to the nearest Metro station from my apartment, and on some mornings the walk was directly into a bitterly cold wind that was howling in from the Urals far to the east, in Russia– it felt as though my eyeballs were freezing, and my beard and moustache actually did turn to ice.  My English winter clothes were hopelessly inadequate and I had to purchase an entire new wardrobe.   The following winter wasn’t much better – my flight home to England for Christmas 2001 was cancelled due to a blizzard that closed an airport well used to dealing with bad weather and arctic conditions (I got home at lunchtime on Christmas Eve – it didn’t go down too well).  But since then, winters have progressively moderated and it’s been a good five years since we had a real white Christmas.  Here we change our car tyres to special winter ones, usually around the end of October, for safety reasons as roads turn icy and the snow can come at any time from then.  But in 2011 the weather was so mild we only changed them in Christmas week, more out of habit than actual need – there is still no sign of snow in Warsaw, and not a lot even in the Tatra and Beskidy mountains in the south of the country. 

There are other instances world wide of odd weather patterns – in Chile before Christmas, during my visit, the temperature in Santiago was reported as being 10 degrees higher than seasonal norms, for instance.  Can it all be coincidence?  In my opinion, no – the global climate is changing, and it seems to be linked to the continued increase in greenhouse gases over the last 50 years or so (yes – amongst other reasons, I accept).   It’s a problem not so much for us, but for future generations – our children and grandchildren are likely to face far worse issues than a lack of snow at Christmas or the ski resorts – unless some concerted action is taken to address these problems.  There have been attempts, notably the Kyoto Treaty, due to expire sometime over the next couple of years, to reduce greenhouse gases, but they haven’t made much of difference.  This is partly because no-one who signed up to it actually achieved their objectives for reduction (which by and large were way too optimistic), but also because the three biggest polluters – India, China and the US – did not even agree to or sign the protocols and therefore have done little to change their output.   India and China cite the need to maintain their growth targets as preventing the kind of production changes needed in their manufactories as justification for failing to sign Kyoto, and the US – well, they’re the US: they do what the hell they want anyway, and bollocks to the rest of the world.   Bush was never convinced of the need for Kyoto, or indeed global warming as an issue, and Obama has promised much but (again) failed to deliver as to do so would “harm US interests”…..for which read cost money and jobs in US industries.  At the end of 2011 there was a further climate summit in Durban, ostensibly to come up with a replacement for Kyoto, but again predictably it failed as the big three polluters refused to play ball.

Quite what it will take to change their minds is anyone’s guess – probably polar ice caps melting and flooding New York, Chennai and Shanghai would make a difference, but of course it will be far too late then to do anything.
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So that was the World in 2011, in my view anyway.  And me?

Well, it was another up and downer.  I had a good bit of bench time, sitting around at home doing not very much, but still managed to rack up 69 flights and over 72,000 miles of travel…..so pretty good.  There were also a couple of brand new destinations (Cyprus and Chile – you can’t get much further apart, at least geographically!) and returns to a couple of old favourites (Switzerland and Luxembourg).    All covered extensively here, of course.   At a company level, it was a year of change as our Charismatic Greek Chairman stepped down to be replaced by the Bean Counter CEO – but not before firing over 200 people in my business area alone back in February (see P45 anyone? on here).  So we have a new CEO, this time a Frenchman, who has brought in a whole new layer of senior management and between them they are busily changing everything.  This means we’re in a constant state of job anxiety, not knowing who we report to or what direction we’re moving in, or even if we have a job this year.  This was exacerbated by a mail in November that hinted at more job losses and office closures – and this has indeed started happening.  A couple of friends have been axed, and  some offices are no more, with more job losses.  My own office here in Warsaw will close in the next couple of months. 

So I hit the phones, trying to find out how (or if) I am affected.  It seems I still have a job, and will be busy this year.  There are plenty of unspecified projects coming up to keep me going, and some options to do work in other areas of the company, working from home – hopefully!- more often than jumping on airplanes.  Not that I’m holding my breath over that one……too many broken promises in the past, I’m afraid…… 

I have January at home at least, which will include a week’s winter holiday skiing with a group of friends (that’s assuming it snows – if not, we’ll just get pissed).   Planning a long weekend in Barcelona for my wife’s birthday next month, maybe a trip to England in May for us all.  Holiday in the summer on the Baltic coast here, and maybe a couple of weeks in Spain again.  My kids visiting us from England too, so we have plenty to look forward to.

Whatever, I’ll still be travellin……

And writing this.

Happy New Year.