Sunday, 29 December 2013

That Was the Year That Was.....

...and, to be honest, not a particularly good or memorable one in this parish at least.

Those of you who have stuck with this meandering series will probably have read last year's End of Year review where I marked 2012 as a 5 out of 10.  Re-reading it just now that seems about right, and makes it increasingly difficult to apply a rating to 2013.  I signed off last year reporting of my pending unemployment, and looking back I was very optimistic about this year to come.  As you will know from other entries (notably What A Difference a Year Makes: Scraping Past the Scrapheap) that optimism was ludicrously misplaced, and 2013 was a year of virtually constant struggles.  Apart from those on the work (or lack of it) front, there were others of a far more personal nature - thankfully not health related - that I will not go into on this forum but which caused an equal, perhaps greater, amount of stress and unhappiness.  Sadly, they are still lurking in the background and drag themselves forward from time to time, and continue to wreak a certain kind of havoc with my life and that of my nearest and dearest.  Whatever else happens this year, I intend to lay them once and for all and get back to a normal, happy life.  So if any of the perpetrators (you know who you are.....) are reading this, be warned.

So it took much longer to find gainful employment than I had expected, but I'm now about half way through a good six month assignment in Qatar (I've posted three or four accounts about the place, so I'll leave you to re-visit them at your leisure).  Suffice to say, it's going well and I'm enjoying my time (and the work!) there very much.  I'm off on the World's Five Star Airline again next weekend for another month in the sun.  But all things come to an end, and I'll be moving on to something else in the spring, all things considered.  I need to make plans and work on the options currently on the table once the holiday week is over - so, Constant Reader (to borrow from Stephen King - I hope he won't mind), if you have any bright ideas do get in touch.  And that is a serious request - use the Comments section below to do so.

What of the rest of the world?  Funny, maybe it's because of my own travails this year, but I've been somewhat detached from what has been going on elsewhere, and relatively little has captured my imagination as has been the case in past years.

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have new leaders (Pope Francis and Whatsisname, the Archbishop of Canterbury).  The Pope seems a decent bloke, certainly one for the masses (if you'll excuse the unintentional pun) and if he can survive the Vatican Mafia that seems to have dominated the Church for too many years, and make the structural changes he seems committed to, then perhaps he will enter history as one of the best Popes ever.  The new bloke in Lambeth Palace seems pretty sharp too - at least with his past business life he's perhaps more in touch with what his congregation really thinks and needs than past more academic minded incumbents have been, but with a faith that seems even more riven by confusion and in-fighting than the Roman one he has his work cut out.

Both of them, of course, have to face up to the seemingly inexorable rise of Islam, and in particular its militant bastard offshoot.  For some time now Islam has been the fastest growing faith in the world, and sadly since the middle 90s Militant Islam seems to be growing even faster.  I confess to not being anything remotely resembling an expert in Islam, but it seems to me that up until then it was basically a peaceful faith, in much the same way as Christianity (in all its various guises).  Yes, there have been wars between Christian and Muslim, going back a thousand years and more to the time of the Crusades, but by and large both communities have got along side by side quite happily.  Quite what has caused this explosion (often quite literally) of Militant Islam I don't really understand, But it seems to me the gravest danger to non-Muslim people the world over.  How to deal with it should be uppermost in the minds of religious leaders and governments everywhere.

Ah, governments.  That is something I have noticed this year - a paucity of effective ones.  Obama, as I said last year, has got his second term, but so far it hasn't gone well.  All year he's been locked in battle with a Republican Congress whose every move has been to block everything Obama has tried to do - and yes, I know that is what "The Opposition" is supposed to do.  But when a law has been passed and signed into effect already, then trying to gets its repeal on funding issues and technicalities, using tactics that cause the entire government (in England it would be termed the Civil Service and public sector) to shut down seems to me to be taking Opposition way too far.  It's verging on revolution, not opposition.  Especially at a time when a Budget needs to be passed to avoid the potentially catastrophic default of the most powerful and largest economy on the planet, that would inevitably take down many people in many countries who have not the slightest interest in the petty squabbles of the Democrats and the GOP.  Thankfully, sense prevailed at the eleventh hour (well, nearer 10 to 12 actually) and a deal was reached to prevent that happening - for a few months anyway.  Look out for Round 2, sometime this spring I think.  The sad thing is, it's left Obama, who I honestly believed would make a massive difference not only to the US but to the rest of the world too, facing a legacy of two terms of failure. 

Things aren't much better in the UK.  As I said last year, the Coalition (as Coalitions do) is busy trying to be all things to all men, and thus managing to please nobody.  Mixed messages, obfuscations and downright lies seem to come out from the partners - if you can call them that - on an almost daily basis.  The Labour Party seems weak and ill-led and does not offer a meaningful alternative, except in the realm of mixed messages, obfuscations and downright lies.  The smaller parties don't matter. I remember many years ago, back in the days of the Blessed Margaret, attending a dinner where Jeffrey Archer (yes, him, when he was still popular and held political ambitions and had not yet been stung by the Press) was guest speaker.  He was actually (and I almost hate saying this) very entertaining.  But at the time, shortly after the Falklands War I remember, Maggie was unassailable and the Labour Party under Foot unelectable.  As part of the Q&A session, I alluded to this and asked him if Britain was in danger of becoming a one party state with a virtual dictator and was this a good thing for the country.  I can't remember his answer, but I do remember him saying it was the best question he had been asked all night.  It seems to me now, looking in from the wider world outside, that Britain is actually in a worse mess now as it's almost a No Party State.  I look and I don't see a politician worthy of the name and capable of running the country.  It's a very sad state of affairs.

Across the rest of Europe, there has been little to cheer either.  As expected, Merkel was re-elected, although perhaps not with the ringing endorsement she expected, the Greeks continue to battle their bankrupt way from one crisis to the next, as do the Spanish, Portuguese, Cypriot and Irish.  In Italy, Silvio's past finally came home to roost, he was convicted of various tax offences, bribery and corruption, kicked out of politics altogether and although escaping prison is effectively under house arrest - though probably without the usual electronic tag on his ankle as that would spoil his Gucci loafers.  The place just doesn't seem the same without him.  Eastern Europe continues to evolve.  On January 1, restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals being able to enter other EU countries, notably the UK and Germany, are being relaxed, prompting panic stories in the UK press about floods of benefit scroungers, thieves and hookers invading the country after UK jobs or, more likely, social security payments.    It's interesting to note that the other countries affected, if you can call it that, by the relaxation have made little or no comment and seem unconcerned.  So it seems the Little Englander mentality is in rude health even if the rest of the country is going to the dogs.  This is also a sad state of affairs.  It's also incredibly offensive to the vast majority of Bulgarians and Romanians, who are ordinary hard working people seeking only a better life for themselves and their families, and who are prepared to travel abroad to do so, perfectly legally and in a manner that very few British people seem prepared to do.

China continues to boom in a quite extraordinary way.  It's even managed to land a rover on the moon, the first country to do so since the Yanks and the Russians way back when.  As a further example of its continued Westernization, it's also allowed China Telecom, apparently the biggest mobile network in the world, to flog iPhones.  Apple and its fanboys (and stockholders) must be ecstatic.  The country has also been rattling sabres with Japan, as it does from time to time, over a handful of uninhabited islands in the South China Seas that both countries lay claim to.  Since the islands are just chunks of rock in the middle of nowhere, I assume mineral or oil wealth must be at stake or something.  Across in North Korea, the Man with the Dodgy Haircut celebrated the anniversary of his accession as Supreme Leader Mark III by having his uncle (apparently his closest advisor) publicly dragged out of a government meeting, tried, convicted and shot on various anti-government charges including "failing to applaud loudly enough", all in the space of a week.  The man is clearly nuts.

India continues to puzzle me.  For a country with such vast economic potential and a growing tech-savvy middle class, it is also in many respects a very backward country.  At the end of last year, a 21 year old girl was savagely gang raped on a late night Mumbai bus by 7 men, including the driver.  She subsequently died from her injuries.  The men were tried, convicted and sentenced to hang, apart from one bloke who did the job himself one night alone in his cell.  The country, from start to finish, was in uproar, with protest marches demanding better treatment for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes, and hand-wringing ministers insisting they would introduce measures to do so.  On the first anniversary, almost to the day, in the same city, another young woman, out alone, was gang raped, not once but twice on the same evening.  Clearly, the message that women are not inferior to men and not merely male playthings, isn't getting through.  Meanwhile, the majority of this rich country still lives in the most appalling poverty, lacking the most basic services.  Nothing changes.

Nelson Mandela died.  So did Peter O'Toole, a wonderful actor, and Iain Banks, a wonderful writer.  The Duchess of Cambridge (sorry, Kate Middleton) had a son called George, and the papers were full of the fact that Prince William changed the boy's shitty nappy and collected them both from hospital wearing Levi's rather than a lounge suit.  Well, good for him, says I. 

Time Magazine announced that from a short list including Butcher Assad of Syria and whistleblower Edward Snowden, sometime of Washington D.C but now living in Moscow until he can find somewhere better, its 2013 Man (or Woman) of the year was......Pope Francis.  A decent enough choice, but quite how Assad, who continues to slaughter his own people with a variety of weapons including chemical and biological even made the short list is beyond me.  It's also beyond me how, after nearly three years of this murderous activity, the rest of the world - in particular the UN, the US and the EU - continue to do no more than condemn it in "the strongest possible terms" - as if that will make any difference to the bastard. 

So all in all, it's been a fun place, this planet in 2013. 

But even for us it wasn't all doom and gloom.  In May my boy John got married, and we all flew over for the nuptials.  I'm delighted to say that Kuba and Ally were the most beautiful ring bearers ever, and that I was a very very proud and happy father watching it all.  I also finally have a photograph of me surrounded by all five of my brilliant kids.  It was a lovely weekend and we had a great time.

We managed to get our couple of weeks at the seaside here, despite all the shite at that time going on, and enjoyed ourselves (though perhaps not as much as other years).  For obvious reasons, we didn't manage our foreign holiday to Spain or somewhere, and I for one missed it.  Please God we'll make up for it next year - I quite fancy Croatia or Crete myself, but we'll see.

The kids are well, growing fine and more gorgeous by the day, and I'm glad to say doing well at school.  We have a First Communion to look forward to in May, and hopefully all the boys will come over from England for it.  That will be a fun few days, as the event is a couple of days before Ally's birthday.

A grading then?  Well, if 2012 was a 5 then this one......thanks to John's wedding and the last few weeks in Doha I can give it a fairly generous 2.5.  I really hope (and expect) 2014 to be a lot better.

So Season's Greetings to you all.  A Happy New Year, and may all your hopes and dreams come true.


Wednesday, 11 December 2013


So Madiba’s Long Walk has ended.  May he rest in peace.

I woke around 9:00 Gulf time on Friday morning and, as usual, switched on the tv for my breakfast News intake. I was just in time to hear Martine Dennis on BBC World News announce (again) his passing.  To be honest it came as no great surprise.  He was 95 after all, and had been fading for several years, spending some months in hospital this year with a lung infection.  I remember remarking to my wife when he was finally released and sent home that he was probably going to battle through to his birthday and then quietly slip away – which is essentially what happened.  Quietly is probably not the right word, given the street party going on outside his house the last week or so, but still…..he was at home, surrounded by his family, and I can think of few better ways of dying.  Certainly better than being lonely in an old people’s residence somewhere, ignored by all except the staff there and forgotten by the people who should care most.

Like most people outside of South Africa (with the honourable exception of anti-apartheid campaigners) I hadn’t heard of him until the bandwagon for his release from Robben Island started in the late 80s and early 90s, and came to prominence with the Free Mandela Concert at the old Wembley Stadium.  I didn’t watch it, but have since seen some excerpts and it must have been a pretty good day – the other night I watched Eric Clapton on YouTube, playing “strictly rhythm” like Guitar George with Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”……and he seemed perfectly happy strumming away at “all the chords”, while Knopfler, as usual, made his old guitar sing.  Nice moment.  But the Concert served to bring the name of Nelson Mandela to a wider audience, and Labour councils the length and breadth of Britain - and indeed the world over - leapt onto the bandwagon, as politicians tend to do still, and named roads and parks and buildings in his honour.  Even the BBC got in on the act, with the Trotter family in the classic Only Fools and Horses living in Nelson Mandela House, Peckham.

But to many people, he was still a terrorist, and he and the ANC were blacklisted as such by, amongst others, the UK and the US for years, even after his release and elevation to the South African Presidency.  Which only goes to show that one man’s terrorist is another man’s statesman. As far as I could tell, the man was not a terrorist, if you accept the definition of terrorism being an effort to remove a legitimate government through means of violence and the widespread use of weapons on innocent parties and the general public.  Certainly he wanted apartheid to end, as did most right minded people, and was prepared to die for that cause, but I don’t remember him threatening violence to achieve those aims – like the Dalai Lama and others he favoured diplomacy and the ballot box.  Nevertheless, the South African government still banged him up for the best part of 30 years, for fomenting terrorism (though I would have thought their own police service’s operations in places like Sharpeville and Soweto did a far better job than anything Mandela might have said in that respect).

Over time, the Court of Public Opinion had its way and a more moderate President de Klerk released him from Robben Island.  I can remember it being broadcast live on tv, and watching it while on holiday in Cornwall.  It was raining there so the beach was not an option, and my kids wanted to know who he was and what all the fuss was about and when was the weather going to improve so that we could go out somewhere.  I remember too the way he walked out hand in hand with his wife Winnie, both waving and smiling to the massed cheering crowds at the gates, and realizing that here was a momentous moment but without really grasping all of its importance – I don’t possess a crystal ball, nor was I much interested in politics of any kind, let alone global politics.  But it seemed clear that the winds of change were blowing through South Africa, and that Mandela was destined to play a huge role in all that came to pass.

And so he did.  His subsequent election, as the first democratically empowered black President in the first multi- racial election in that country, changed not only South Africa but the world.  Whether he was a good President, or whether his various policies and initiatives were successful or not is open to debate, and for people more qualified than me to comment on.  But it seems inarguable that South Africa has changed for the better as he and his ANC successors have continued the process he started 30 years ago.  Certainly there is still inequality there, as indeed there is in most other countries in the world – the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer everywhere, and rightly or wrongly this seems to be human nature, and neither capitalism not communism, nor any other political system makes a scrap of difference to that.  But most people are better off and have better prospects for a good life, an education and health care than was the case previously, where non-whites were at best ignored and at worst treated little better than domesticated animals.  It’s Africa’s tragedy that other nations have been unable to follow Mandela’s and South Africa’s lead and bloodbaths continue to proliferate the length and breadth of that vast Continent to this day, and show no signs of abating.

Mandela retired from the Presidency in 1999, and became a world statesman, feted everywhere, an example to everyone, young and old, that huge change could be attained through dialogue and patience and understanding.  He was a wise old man, and many of the things he said have been quoted over the last week or so on tv and newspapers and websites and blogs, and they all make huge amounts of sense.  My favourite is the one about no-one being born to hate, that you have to learn it, and if you can learn to hate you can learn to love too, and that’s a much better thing to do.   If only more people could actually do so…….

And so to yesterday’s memorial service, where the Great and the Good (and the Not So Good) gathered at the Johannesburg football stadium to celebrate his life and times.  There was music, and speeches, and over 100 world leaders and past leaders, pop stars and supermodels, and ordinary South Africans, came together in the pouring rain, and it seemed a fine time was had by all.  Of the bits I saw (not many as I was at work) Obama’s speech stood out – or at least the bit of it about not enough leaders trying to emulate Mandela by making things better and too many standing on the sidelines doing nothing to ease suffering the world over, struck a chord: I wonder who his remarks were aimed at (and whether they care very much anyway?).  The festivities, if you can call them that, will continue for days yet, with a Lying in State until the weekend and a final (allegedly quiet) family burial in his home village in the Eastern Cape.  And then Nelson Mandela will truly pass into the pages of history.

My memories of him are like many people’s, I guess – a smiling and genial old man, with a terrible taste in shirts.  But one with a twinkle in his eye (at least until old age and infirmity dulled them), who seemed to like a laugh and a joke with people – whether with the locals in Soweto, or popes or pop stars or royalty.   He loved his sport, as do I – the pictures of him in his usual loud shirt and SA baseball cap presenting the rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar are wonderful, and for me capture the spirit of the man more than any other.  The exchange between them speaks volumes too – Mandela: “Thank you for all you have done for my country.”, Pienaar: “Thank you for all you have done for mine.”  And his love of music too resonates – the way he would suddenly start jigging around whenever the mood and the music caught him, even if he was up on a stage somewhere speechifying – brilliant (and I dance like him too, which is to say badly, but who cares).  I loved his quiet dignity in later years, on the rare occasions he was wheeled out (sometimes literally) into the public eye, when he bore it all peacefully.

He was a unique man and a unique politician, that rarity that unites people rather than divides them.  I can’t think of another in my lifetime like him – Churchill maybe, but he did it during World War 2, before I was born, by which time he was on the wane.  No British Prime Minister since then, of any persuasion, has done anything except divide – Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron….all as bad as one another.  The same in the US and France and Germany and any other country I can think of.  It’s sad, but perhaps Madiba was the last of a dying breed, a politician who sought and worked in office through personal conviction, for the good of all his people rather than for a chosen few, for a lifetime, no matter the consequences. It was not a career choice to garner the wealth and power that by fair means or foul (and increasingly foul) these days comes the way of any President or Prime Minister, in and out of office, but a lifelong conviction and belief and determination to Make A Difference – and in this he undoubtedly succeeded.

He was a Great Man.