Monday, 24 October 2016

A Gap in Medical Science

The other day I got one of those irritating memory thingies pop up on my Facebook home page.  You know the type of thing - an automatic re-posting of something from a year or more back that you had probably forgotten all about and hoped everyone else had too........the death of an old friend, perhaps, or a particularly embarrassing result in your team's football match.  Or throwing up all over your boss's lap at the Christmas party.  Whatever.....  The one that arrived, unwanted and unannounced (and just WHY do Zuckerberg and his merry men think this is such a great idea in the first place? A topic for another day and another rant...) related to a dental problem from a year ago.

Now, I hate dentists.  I firmly believe they are all sadists.  This dates from visits to the school dentists in my late 50s and early 60s childhood.  Once a year this big vehicle, a cross between a bus and a lorry, would arrive at the school gates, and the school dentist in his blood-spattered white coat (not really: I made that bit up....I think) would examine our teeth and while our mums looked on anxiously, do what he deemed needed doing.  This might be just a clean-up (involving scraping plaque and last night's dinner leftovers away with a spike like a medieval torture implement) to a filling (the drill grinding slowly away by foot-pedal power) to - God forbid! - an extraction!  Fillings were usually done under local anaesthetic administered by the sort of huge needle you typically saw manhandled by Dr. Frankenstein in late-night horror films on the telly, sterilized by rinsing under a lukewarm tap and used repeatedly until blunt......  The dope, whatever it was, never seemed to work properly either......  Extractions were done under gas, I remember - the rubber mask, when placed over your nose and mouth, stunk evilly, and that was before the gas was turned on.  I had just the one, and suffered headaches for a week afterwards....not to mention the bleeding from my poor gums......

As I grew into my late teens, machismo insisted I took myself off to the dentist, and this I did with decreasing regularity, because the treatment never seemed to get any more pleasant (or at least less unpleasant....).  The major advance seemed to be an electric motor for the drill, that did away with the slow, deep grinding inside your head and replaced it with the shrill screeeeech we all know and love to this day.  The little hosepipe that part drowned you and part did away with the burning smell of your rapidly incinerating tooth added to the experience, if I can call it that.  But at least injections were done with smaller and better sterilized needles, and were more efficient so the gas mask was dumped......  But still less than pleasant.

What finished me, once and for all, was an issue with my lower wisdoms.  Not untypically, these brutes were coming through and shoving their neighbours out of the way.  My admittedly poor dental hygiene made things worse by allowing some rapid rotting to take place on them and, again, the adjoining choppers.  My dentist told me they had to come out.  Now I had heard - as I'm sure you have too - horror stories about wisdom teeth, and how the best, most pain-free way of getting rid of them was in hospital under a full anaesthetic, so I wasn't keen.  But he was insistent - they had to go, and he would do it under local.  I had no less than six injections before the lower half of my face was dead enough to allow him to start - that process alone was alarming enough, and took half an hour.  The lower wisdoms actually popped out very easily, in fact - not a problem.  But the tooth next to the right lower.....oh, dear!  That was another matter entirely.  It was like something on a poor television comedy or cartoon.  The dentist pulled and twisted and tugged and sweated and swore.....nothing worked.  So he did a big filling on a tooth on the other side, just for fun, I think, while he got his breath back.  Then he grabbed the pliers, gripped that bloody tooth again, braced himself with both feet, and leaned right back, pulling with all his weight.  He literally lifted me out of the chair by the tooth.......

There was a loud crack.  He staggered across the room, and I slumped back in the chair, sweating like a pig (but curiously not in much pain).  In the pliers was half a tooth.  It had snapped off, leaving the roots still firmly embedded in my gums.  The dentist sighed, tossed it in the trash and got back to work.  Another couple of injections.  Then - I kid you not: this really happened! - he had to slice my gum open, and drill away a bit of jawbone in order to release the root.  When he eventually pulled it out, it was nearly an inch long, much longer than the snapped-off piece.  The job was finished with 8 stitches, thankfully the kind that dissolve over a week or so as the wound heals, and a cheery "See you in six months".  He never saw me again.

The experience has left me, nearly 50 years later, with a deep fear and loathing of dentistry.  Over the years, I've been back for more fillings and extractions and check-ups and polishings, to a wide range of dentists both in England and abroad.  It hasn't got any easier.  I am still physically sick before going for a check-up (I literally can't eat for a day or so beforehand).  But back to that Facebook memory.....  It recalled an event last autumn - almost exactly a year ago in fact - where, visiting friends, I took a bite into a salami sausage, found it a bit crunchy and took from my mouth half a tooth.  Not any tooth, but the one right next to my front teeth, right side, leaving me with an interesting gap in my smile.  It didn't hurt, because much of the tooth was in fact a filling from some indeterminate time in the past, but it looked unsightly.  So to the dentist I dragged myself the next day.  I had a root canal done, and a general tidy up, and a temporary crown fitted, just to get me through before I left for a two week business trip.  I was told that it should hold through to the New Year, but I would need another three visits to replace the temp with a permie tooth.  Ha!  with my track record?

Anyway, the Facebook post made me think a bit - unusual, considering the general quality of stuff on that social media abomination - about advances in medical science.

In my lifetime, we have clearly come a long way in the field.  Appendectomies and tonsilectomies are routine.  Heart transplants commonplace.  Knee injuries that in my youth could and did end football careers are treated surgically and enable players to make full recoveries in a few months at most.  We're even in the realms of face transplants now, as well as a whole list of replaceable organs and limbs. Cataract surgery, enabling the gift of sight to people who in my childhood would be left blind for life, is carried out under local anaesthetic (my sister had both eyes done over the period of a few weeks the year before last).  A friend of mine had a heart attack a few years back, due to a blocked artery.  He was stabilised, then a few days later underwent a procedure, again under a local, that involved inserting a tube in the artery in his groin that held a camera and enabled a fine wire mesh tube, a stent, to be slipped up the artery all the way to and through the blockage, wherein the stent was opened to clear the blood vessel properly.  He watched it all on a screen, and tells me the most painful part was the injection in his testicles that froze the area where the camera was inserted.  Extraordinary - and a life saver that is carried out on a daily basis.

So if we can do all that, and much else, WHY can medical science not come up with some painless dentistry?  Why do we still have to suffer those injections to freeze the gum, and then prolonged drilling to remove a decayed patch of tooth (the noise alone scares the shit out of me, and that damned hosepipe and vacuum cleaner that prevents drowning and speech all at once gives me nightmares)?  Can't lasers be used instead?  They are used to repair eye damage and zap cataracts, and surely the eye is far more sensitive and delicate than teeth......

It seems to me we're missing a trick here......

And my temp tooth?  It's finally going.  A part of the outer plastic flaked away a week or two ago, so clearly it needs taking care of.  So I'm busily plucking up the courage for that first appointment of the three needed to give me a permanent replacement.  I hope to get it done by Christmas.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to vomit.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Bobby Z, The Boss and Sir Rod

Nice to see Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature – it shows that you don’t have to be academically acceptable to win it.  One of the people he beat to the Prize was Salman Rushdie, who is eminently academically acceptable but possibly the most over-rated writer in history.  I've waded through The Satanic Verses and a couple of his short stories and found them bloody near unreadable…….if it hadn’t been for the Fatwa and years of personal bodyguards (at tax payers’ expense, I seem to recall) I think he might well have sunk without trace. 

But he was not as bad as Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Party politician and professional Yorkshireman.  Many years ago, in a budget bookshop in Tintagel, Cornwall, I bought a book of his called The Maker’s Mark, about a steel family in Sheffield in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It was billed as “part one of an epic and unmissable seven part family saga”.  God only knows what happened to parts 2 to 7 – I’ve never seen them anywhere, which is no surprise: the first book is without a shadow of a doubt the worst book I have EVER read.  Apart from how badly written and turgid and humourless it was I remember nothing about plot or character (I think one of the characters rose to fame playing football for Notts County or someone, but I may have imagined that bit….).   I spent the best of part of a year reading the thing, out of sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to be beaten, and then, exhausted, passed it over to the second-hand book stall at the local church summer fete.  Priced at 10p, it was still languishing, unsold and dusty, at the last fete day I went to, perhaps 8 years later.  It’s probably still there now.  I remain convinced it only found a publisher because of who wrote it, not its quality.

So the fact that a songwriter and musician has won this years’ Nobel is refreshing and a bow to popular culture rather than Academia, and this is no bad thing.  Without a doubt, Bob is a fine and inventive songwriter, but whether songwriting should be considered “literature” is an open question.  Judged on sales and influence over a generation, then possibly – and no-one could seriously question Dylan’s output or appeal over the last 50 years.  He knocks Rushdie and the other contenders this year out of the ball-park in that respect.  People will be singing along with Like A Rolling Stone or Lay, Lady, Lay long after our Salman has been forgotten, in my view.  But literature?  Arguable, I would say.

Some poet (who needless to say I’ve never heard of and whose name I have immediately forgotten) was particularly critical, and described Dylan’s lyrics as childish, poorly written and lacking in rhyme and rhythm.  Probably overlooked for the Nobel…….  But childish?  The early stuff, maybe, when he was learning his trade (the same as all of us).  Poorly written?  No, a lot of it is unforgettable – The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and Isis are little gems.  Lacking rhyme and rhythm?  Possibly, but they are songs, so perhaps the rhyming bit doesn’t matter as much as it does in poetry (and since when did say e.e.cummings bother about that?  Great poet, but still trying to figure out upper case letters, never mind rhymes and metre).    Still, each to his own I guess.  If the judges are happy to call it literature, I ain’t going to argue.

As fine a lyricist Dylan is, though, he is not my favourite. 

Nor are Lennon - McCartney, or Jagger – Richard, ground-breakers though both pairings undoubtedly were.  Nor Elton john and Bernie Taupin, another 70s duo still going strong in this 21st century.  All six of them are touched by genius, and along with the late great David Bowie formed and continue to supply the soundtrack to my life and dominate the Music Library on my phone.

In fact, I have two favourites and simply cannot choose between them.  Both have been around for years, and share another huge chunk of my Library.  They are both firmly blue collar working class boys, much like myself, who have made good (and huge piles of money) working their arses off and making some quite brilliant music on the way.

From the US is the brilliant (though often denigrated, for reasons I can’t begin to understand) Boss, Bruce Springsteen.  I first heard him way back in 1975 or thereabouts, when over a few beers in a Tunbridge Wells pub I spent a drunken hour listening to two close friends complaining bitterly about what a poser he was, how his music was boring, pretentious shit, his guitar playing no more than rudimentary beginners' strumming, and much else that was a lot worse.  Intrigued, I wandered off to my local Our Price and purchased an original vinyl copy of Born to Run.  It simply blew me away.  I later bought Born in the USA, also on vinyl, tapes of Human Touch and Tunnel of Love, and later downloaded The Ghost of Tom Joad, The Rising and We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions), as well as a two volume Essential…. compilation.  And the 30th anniversary box set of Born To Run, complete with the DVD of that immortal 1975 London concert that broke him in my homeland. 

I remember watching an MTV Unplugged session, with a band of then young musicians (rather than the magnificent E-Street Band) including, if memory serves, on drums the excellent Cindy Blackman (now married to Carlos Santana and a mainstay of Lenny Kravitz’ band).  He played the first song, solo and acoustic, then said something like “That’s the unplugged bit, now let’s do the real stuff”, brought the band out, strapped on his battered old Fender and blew the place away for an hour and half.  A short concert by his standards – I saw him and the E-Street Band in London’s Earls Court in the mid 90s and was treated to a full-on three hour concert that remains the best gig I’ve ever been to.  Twenty thousand people – including yours truly -  singing along word-for-word Born To Run reduced me (and many others) to tears.  Magic is the only word I can find to describe that night.

But live concerts are transient things, by their very nature.  You buy your ticket, turn up at the venue, enjoy the show (or not – I dozed off in the front row of one once, Barclay James Harvest in Croydon, many years ago: sober too) and then go home again.  Springsteen at Earls Court was exceptional and not to be forgotten, others I’ve been to I’ve forgotten before I’ve arrived home.  What makes a show, and an artist, exceptional is the content – the quality of the music, the skill in the song writing.  In both areas, in my view, Springsteen is without peer.

He is more than a rocker (though tracks like Tenth Avenue Freeze Out and Born to Run, Born in the USA and Glory Days are American anthemic rock at its very best).  Listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad – the entire album is country music, and he is as adept at that as his lung-bursting stadium rock.  Or The Seeger Sessions – pure traditional American folk, complete with fiddles and washboards (and recorded with a local bar band in his kitchen in New Jersey, apparently).  And don’t forget the ballads – the Oscar winning Streets of Philadelphia, Nebraska (which is classic country too), and American Skin (41 Shots).  Ignoring Seeger, all of those feature some sublime lyrics that are in my view more poetic than anything Dylan has written. 

Springsteen appeals to the American blue-collar worker in a way few contemporaries have.  His songs are full of small town America, its people struggling with a depressed economy and unemployment, but always with some hope to keep them going.  In The River, he writes about a young family, High School sweethearts, whose love is fading – some of the most poignant lyrics I’ve ever heard are in this song: “We went down to the Courthouse and the judge put it all to rest/No wedding day smile, no walk down the aisle, no flowers, no wedding dress…”  and again: “I got a job working construction for the Jonestown Company/But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy”.  Rural New Jersey in the 1980s recession personified.  In Thunder Road there is more hope for the young lovers: “Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk/And my car’s out the back if you’re ready to take that long walk”…..and a final bellow of “It’s a town full of losers and we’re pulling outta here to win!”  You did, Bruce – you surely did.  I could write pages of this stuff, quote lines from song after song – but I won’t.  You can find ‘em all on Spotify or iTunes or You Tube, and enjoy them all at your leisure.

My other hero (and that is seriously not too strong a word) is Britain’s own Mod wide-boy, the recently knighted Sir Rod(erick) Stewart,  Highgate’s finest, professional Jock and Celtic fan.  I never saw him perform, but did once see him on the M25 motorway, near Swanley in Kent.  I was driving clockwise towards Sevenoaks one sunny Sunday afternoon, and across the carriageway, on the hard shoulder of the anti-clockwise side was a brilliant red Ferrari Testarossa, a cloud of steam streaming from the rear-mounted engine compartment.  And standing at the front, yelling (presumably) into a mobile phone was Rod.  I guess the AA or Green Flag Rescue was being summoned…..  At the time, as well as the LA mansion, he had an estate near Epping Forest in Essex, in the grounds of which he had laid out a full-sized football pitch that was kept in pristine condition and was good enough for the top clubs to use if they were in town and wanted to train away from the press.  Gordon Strachan, now managing Scotland but then in charge of Southampton used it from time to time, I remember.  Top man, our Rod.

I bought his classic Every Picture Tells A Story album back in 1973, largely because I liked Maggie May, the stand-out single taken from it and his breakthrough chart hit.  I remember seeing him perform it “live” on the BBC’s Top of the Pops show, using his then full-time band The Faces as back-up, with Radio One dj John Peel guesting on mandolin.  All a joke – Peel was clearly miming, as was the band – drummer Kenny Jones was pretending to play bass, guitarist Ronnie Wood was a half-beat behind on drums, keyboard wizard Ian MacLagan tried to look as though he knew how to play guitar, and bassist Ronnie Lane tinkled the ivories.  During John Peel’s little mandolin “solo” (played on the record by Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson) the rest of the band started playing football on the stage.  It was fun, and summed up that band’s entire ethos.  Thirty years later a couple of greatest hits compilations came out called, very accurately, Five Guys Walked Into A Bar and Nice Boys (When They’re Asleep) - the latter of which I downloaded and thoroughly enjoy.

If there is one thing The Faces enjoyed, it was having a good time.  A few beers (well, several, actually), some Jack Daniels bourbon or a vodka or two, Rothman’s King Size cigarettes, maybe a Castella cigar.  A game of darts or bar billiards (pool was not as ubiquitous as it is nowadays).  And of course, girls.  A whole string of them.  So basically what the vast majority of us were doing on a Saturday (or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) evening……Friday was usually a night off, because we had football matches to play the next day.  Followed by fish and chips, a curry or a Chinese.  Happy days.

But while the rest of us just enjoyed it all, Rod was busy chronicling it in a catalogue of good-time English rock songs, of which Maggie May was the first and still best known (although in my mind not the best song).  Lyrically, the songs are like Springsteen’s – working class guys enjoying life, stuck in dead-end jobs, looking to better themselves, falling in and out of love.  But instead of America’s vast plains and dusty dirt roads (to quote Springsteen again, from Thunder Road), Rod spread his net further afield to catch a decent phrase.  Whether he had been to all the places he referenced, at that relatively early stage in his career, is doubtful, but they worked exceptionally well in his songs.  The Faces classic Poolhall Richard, for instance, talks of the legendary Minnesota Fats “standing at the back in a plastic mac” while our hero beats the titular Poolhall Richard in a frame of eight-ball in order to save his relationship with his lady – “Man, you’ll never ever steal my lady then!” he sings joyfully.

There’s another reference to the States in You Wear It Well, a later single from the album Never A Dull Moment.  It starts “I had nothing to do on this hot afternoon/But to settle down and write you a line/I’ve been meaning to phone ya but from Minnesota…/Hell, it’s been a very long time”.  Call me cynical, but the American Midwest seems a bit of an unlikely destination for an up and coming singer from north London just starting out – but it works well in the song. 

There are more geographical references throughout the Stewart catalogue, especially in what for me is the best song the man ever wrote, the title track from Every Picture…. The vinyl I bought is long gone, sold for the price of a beer sometime in the alcoholic haze that was 1972 to 1976 in my life, but even then I knew it by heart and loved it.  I found it again on a CD compilation called The Millennium Collection, in a Tesco superstore in Gdynia of all places.  It remains one of my favourite albums and has pride of place on my Music library – there is nothing on there later than about 1976, all taken from his classic solo albums (nothing by The Faces), and every track is good-time English rock that evokes memories of my own misspent youth.

Every Picture…. tells of Rod leaving home to seek his fortune with his father’s advice ringing in his ears – “Daddy said son you’d better see the world/I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to leave/But remember one thing – don’t lose your head/To a woman that’ll spend all your bread/So I got out….”. And out he goes – to Paris (“I got arrested for inciting the people to riot/When all I wanted was a cup of tea!/I was accused!”), then on to Rome (“My body stunk but I kept my funk/At a time when I was right out of luck/Oh my dears, I’d better get out of here/’Cause the Vatican don’t give no sanction”).  I was jealous of the man, and wanted to go too, especially after the next bit….."On the Peking ferry I was feeling merry/Sailing on my way back here/When I fell in love with a slit eyed lady/By the light of an Eastern moon/She took me up on deck and bit my neck”.  But it was perhaps a bit risky, because “Shanghai Lil never used the pill/She claimed that it just ain’t natural!”  And that little couplet sums up Rod Stewart…….a little bit racist (Slit Eyed lady indeed!), a little bit sexist (never used the pill?) but for all that having the time of his life – while I slaved away in what I considered the kind of dead-end job he had escaped from.  And of course I escaped too, in his music.

Apart from a slushy interlude when involved with Britt Ekland, his music never really changed, and the same themes and word play cropped up again and again.  In Dixie Toot from the album Smiler, he sings about being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras – “Sitting in my back yard, wondering which way to go/The sun shines on my back and it hurts” and in the next verse another brilliant batch of fun and games: “I might lose control of my powers/I might even lose my trousers/Smash my glass, behave like trash if I want! Ha!”  Who cares what anyone else thinks, I’m having a great time! From the same album, in Sailor, he sings about a narrow escape: “Running down the highway in the pouring rain/Escaping from my wedding day/I heard the bells ringing in the local church/The ceremony’s nearly under way/Her mama got hysterical, the bitch was cynical/Daddy’s in the corner drunk” then a cry of “Sailor, show me which way to go!/I screamed out loud!”  Considering the man has been married about four times and has eight kids, I find that one a little ironic……but it’s a great song.

He was the same in The Faces before they broke up (when he left to go solo and make his millions in the States, and his co-writer Ronnie Wood replaced Mick Taylor in the Rolling Stones - still there forty years later).  The best example is probably Stay With Me: another classic that these days may not have seen the light of day, with a final verse going  “So in the morning/Please don’t say you love me/’Cause I’ll only kick you out of the door/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!”  On Miss Judy’s Farm there’s another nice throwaway couplet that again offends, this time animal lovers: “She had a peroxide poodle/That I would kick if I was given the chance”.  Not my favourite mutt, either, Rod……

Over the years he mellowed and rather than being the cockney rapscallion he showed a more romantic turn of phrase, but there has always been the odd throwback to a freewheeling youth – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy is a more or less a disco re-run of Stay With Me (boy meets girl in club, takes her home…..the twist is in  “watching the early movie” rather paying “a cab fare home”), Lady Jane (bitter ex-lover who knows “secrets about you” and has “plans of my own”) to name but two of the better known.  And of course the universally panned (but I quite like it) Hot Legs (“You’re wearing me out/Hot legs, make me scream and shout/I love you honey!”).  Not sure whether that makes Rod the irresponsible kid or me……probably both of us.

So there we have it.  The Boss and Rod the Mod.  Two very different songsmiths, whose art has entertained me for most of my adult life and continues to do so still in my 60s.  Born to Run, Thunder Road and The River still bring lumps to my throat and a tear to my eyes, and Every Picture….., Miss Judy’s Farm, Dixie Toot and pretty much anything by The Faces a smile to my increasingly wrinkly old face.  Whether either of them are worthy of a Nobel Prize in the same way as Dylan is doubtful, but for this listener at least their work is better and more accessible than Bobby Z’s sometimes opaque verse.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Corbyn makes May's day

So Jeremy Corbyn has won a resounding victory in the Labour leadership contest.  Well, whoop-di-doop.  It comes as no surprise, I guess, because even if most of his Parliamentary colleagues think he is a walking disaster area, the majority of the Party membership love him to bits so the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  But it seems to me the big winners in this are Theresa May and the Conservative party, because the vote has probably guaranteed her a clean victory whenever she cares to call a General Election to rubber stamp with the population at large her own ascent to her party’s leadership in the wake of Cameron’s post-Brexit retirement.

She has little or no real opposition.

The Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out at the last Election: despite still having a reasonable say in local politics with control over 20 or so councils across the UK, but on a national level they are virtually non-existent – only 8 seats out of 650 in Parliament (a mere 1.2% of those available), representing only 7.8% of the country’s population.  They have a relatively new leader, Tim Farron, who no-one except the party faithful takes seriously.  This is a devastating position for a party that until last year was in Government (albeit as part of the Cameron coalition).

Then there is UKIP, the Millwall football club of British politics (no-one likes us, we don’t care).  Their claim to fame is playing, mainly through ex-leader and gravy-train riding MEP Nigel Farage, a leading role in that damned Brexit campaign, and winning.  He too has stepped down and been replaced by someone few people have heard of (Diane James – no, I hadn’t heard of her either).  They boast a single MP, the Tory defector and generally incompetent and widely disliked (and distrusted) Douglas Carswell, who despite being the One at Westminster does not feature anywhere in the list of the party’s policy makers and leading lights.  Like the LibDems, they hold more sway in local politics, largely through LCD politics – appealing to the Lowest Common Denominator of voter with rhetoric that harks back to the good old days of Britain’s colonial and world power status, and grossly exaggerating concerns about immigration, terrorism threats and border controls.  It worked during the referendum, but it seems questionable whether it will hold a similar appeal in a general election campaign.  Time will tell.

Then there is a collection of vested interest parties – groups like the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Ulster Unionists (all of whom are popular and indeed dominant in their own parts of the UK), the Greens and a few Independents.  But the chances of them forming a genuine threat to the Conservatives, come the General Election, are at best minimal, at worst infinitesimal.

And Labour?

If this leadership contest has shown anything at all, it is that the party is split.  This is a sad reflection of a once great party that has failed really to move with the changing times.  I voted for them in the past, back in the 70s when the likes of Wilson and Callaghan and Healey and Jenkins and Castle seemed to my youthful self to offer more leadership and hope than a then weak and less than competent Conservative party under Heath.  They were all from the older war-time generation, the same as my Labour supporting, working class dad.  But they were clearly in thrall to a trades union movement that despite its good intentions, seemed to be abusing its power by moving increasingly to the left, to a place that was close to an already discredited Communism.
I remember the strikes throughout the 70s – working by candle-light like a Dickens character in an office in the City of London, courtesy of power cuts enforced as part of the imposition of a three day working week due to an industrial dispute.  I remember the car industry, once the best in the world, being virtually destroyed by a succession of strikes.  I remember piles of rubbish in the streets of towns and cities because the refuse collectors were involved in a wider ranging industrial dispute with local councils.  I stopped voting Labour then, and switched allegiance reluctantly to the Liberals, then the SDP (before their merger), feeling they offered a better way forward.

Then came Thatcher, and a re-invigorated Conservative party took power and took on the unions.  It needed doing, but the price paid was regrettably high – a steel industry and coal industry all but destroyed as their unions took on the government and lost, with whole communities left unemployed and hopeless, and pitched battles between union activists and the police that cost lives.  But over the course of three parliaments Britain was transformed into a confident, share- and property-owning democracy, with generally higher wages and lower unemployment.  But as happens, it went too far, ran out of ideas, Thatcher was replaced by John Major, and started its own soul searching period.

Meanwhile for Labour Neil Kinnock took on the left wing nutters in Militant, and diluted their power within the party, moving it somewhat to the right.  He was replaced by John Smith, on whose untimely death Tony Blair took over, re-branded the party New Labour, moved it to even more of a centre ground and was rewarded by three general election victories (the only Labour leader to have done that).  Perhaps unfairly branded as Tory Lite, he achieved over his time as leader arguably some quite good things – the Social Chapter, the abolition of Clause 4, further labour, educational and tax reforms, that ensured the country did not lurch back into a wasteland of industrial disputes, and continued to grow the economy.   But he also joined the US in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts that were the response to the 9/11 terrorist atrocity, based on intelligence that with the benefit of hindsight proved to be at best inaccurate and exaggerated and arguably downright lies, and without a clear mandate from the UN that has tarnished his reputation and left him branded forever (and in my view unreasonably) as a war criminal.

He stepped down and was replaced by Gordon Brown, who had been a decent Chancellor of the Exchequer but proved a useless leader who led the Labour party to Electoral defeat in 2010.  He in turn stepped down and was replaced by a rather wishy-washy Ed Milliband who repeated the trick of leading Labour to an Electoral defeat in 2015.  Throughout the Brown and Milliband years, the Labour party seemed at a loss as to what it stood for, never really coming up with a coherent agenda or identity.  After the last election, Milliband stepped down (a recurring story so far this century) and was replaced by the surprise choice of Corbyn. 

Which is where we are now.  Corbyn has been in the party and in parliament for 30 odd years, and has served exclusively on the back benches – Leader of the Opposition is his first front-bench position and one in which he has at times struggled – hence the leadership challenge.  He is an old-style conviction politician, somewhat to the Left of New Labour, but at least consistent in his beliefs.  He is strongly anti-war (he voted against the Iraq adventure and has stated publicly he will not authorise military intervention in any foreign war) and pro-trade union.  He is against the austerity measures that have been forced upon most of the world after the 2008 financial crisis, and lukewarm as far as Europe is concerned – one of the main criticisms levelled at him is that during the referendum he failed to provide clear leadership in putting across the party’s Stay In stance.

His task now is to unite a fractured party behind a more left wing agenda – less austerity, more job creation, more public ownership of things like the railways, more cash for education and the NHS – that appeals to the party membership and the man in the street, but does not sit so well with a more moderate parliamentary party that whilst not rampantly New Labour is still more centrist.  Whether he is up to the job is debatable.  Whether there is actually anyone else in the party who could do that is equally uncertain.   But unless he does so, the party is quite probably unelectable.   Hence the glee with which May and her Conservative will undoubtedly greet this result. 

It reminds me of an evening back at the height of Mrs. Thatcher’s powers, when the Labour party was similarly soul searching and light years from an electoral victory.  I attended a dinner in the City of London (the annual beano of one of the finance industry’s many self-regulating bodies) at which the keynote address was provided by Jeffrey Archer.  At the time he was an ex-MP, best-selling author and rampant Tory with ambitions still of high political office (the libel case against the Daily Star newspaper that led to a subsequent conviction and imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice was still some years away).  

He was also a very entertaining after-dinner speaker.  Anyway, when we came to the after-speech Q&A, he wearily answered a few inane questions about how he would act if he were managing a securities settlement department in such-and-such a situation, or whether England would qualify for the next World Cup – matters for which he clearly had not the slightest interest.  Then I stuck my hand up, was passed the microphone, and asked if, given the state of the Opposition and the strength of the Tories and Mrs. Thatcher’s grip on power, he agreed with me that the country was in danger of becoming a one-Party state, and whether this was good for democracy and Britain.  He was delighted and answered at length (basically he agreed with me, and promised that when he became Prime Minister things would change to prevent such a thing happening again).

It seems to me, maybe 30 years later, that the wheel has turned full circle and we are back in the same place, with a strong Tory party under a female leader, and a fragmented and weak Opposition.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Tasty Tel Aviv Tucker

As usual, before travelling to Tel Aviv for the first time, I I did my usual search for favoured eateries.  If there is an Irish bar and a Starbucks within walking distance of the hotel and/or office then I’m a happy chappy.  That’s not to say I live on Guinness and grande latte – far from it.  I’ll always try the local food and drink (even horsemeat pasties in Almaty – delicious!), you can’t go far wrong with a pizza or a spag bol, and a decent Mexican chilli goes down well.  As does the occasional Big Mac or Whopper menu, and a good curry or chow mein for variety.   And of course, 9 times out of 10, the hotel food is very good too (if a bit pricy). A foodie I am not – but I do know what I like.

To my surprise, there are no Starbucks in the country, never mind the City – possibly the only country in the developed world where they are not represented.  Depending in what report you read, the reason is either Israelis prefer their own type of coffee shops to the franchised one-size-fits-all American style, or Starbucks did not make sufficient show of supporting the Israeli Cause backed up with significant financial donations to the local politicos, who in a fit of pique demanded – and got – a boycott.   Whichever it is, the half dozen outlets that were originally opened in Tel Aviv lasted less than two years and are long gone.

McDonalds are present (aren’t they everywhere?) but apparently in two guises.  There is the bog standard McD’s that we all know, complete with the Golden Arches, selling all the usual Big Mac Menus, McFlurry’s and so on.  I found one, tried it, and was not disappointed – the Big American Meal I had featured a burger the size of a dinner plate.  Then there are kosher branches scattered around – I haven’t seen one yet – where the Arches are blue and the food is prepared according to strict kosher rules.  (I had a read of them as my hotel is kosher, and I had never eaten such food before.  All very complicated, but it seems to be more the type of animal and the way it’s slaughtered rather than the way it’s cooked.  But I may be wrong.)

And there are five Irish bars listed, of which one is now closed down and two others I have tried – more of which shortly.


There are of course many other restaurants scattered around. 

On my first night here, I went to an Italian close to the hotel with two Greek colleagues.   It was ok, nicely decorated, decent draught Stella Artois beer, but the food very average.  I sampled the Spaghetti Bolognese – the minced meat and tomato sauce was tasty enough though not as herby or garlicy as I would have liked.  The pasta was not the usual thin strings but a flatter variety, possibly vermicelli or maccheroncini (I’m no expert…), and the grated parmesan was replaced with chunks of a tasteless local cheese (presumably in accordance with kosher regulations….).   It was also a small portion, more like a starter than a main course, and I thought it quite expensive.  I haven’t returned, nor am I likely too, even though the place is very close to both the hotel and the office.

The next day a group of us went to French bistro close to the office.  From the outside it looks scruffy (true of many buildings in the city) but inside it was roomy with a wooden floor, a balcony area that appeared to be used for storage, and many tables scattered around.  We sat at a corner table under a wall covered with pictures of famous French people – Jean Reno, Edith Piaf and so on.  Most of them my French colleagues did not recognise, especially the older generation.  Service was slow but the food good.  I had an excellent roast beef sandwich with pickles, there were good salads, and one guy had a schnitzel that, when delivered, was actually two huge cutlets and big portion of fries.  He left half.  I went back one weekend but it was not open – a shame: I quite fancied those schnitzels.  Another time, maybe.

In a small, grubby looking side street that runs between hotel and office I found a café called Lulu’s one Friday.  I was hot, tired and hungry after a foot expedition to Jaffa, so settled at a pavement  table.  The local beer was very pleasant, and to my surprise the menu featured a chicken breast wrapped in bacon, with roast vegetables.    I ordered that, and when it came the chicken was indeed wrapped in about four slices of smoked back bacon and nicely grilled.  Given that pig products are not acceptable here, that seems very odd, but it was a very tasty meal nonetheless.   I can only assume the owner is not local and doesn’t follow the Jewish culinary norm.  It’s also possible the owner is Jewish but disagrees with such restrictions – I remember forty-odd years ago working with an old Jewish guy whose favourite lunch was a couple of ham and mustard sandwiches and a packet of smoky bacon crisps, because despite his upbringing he “liked the taste”.  I’d go along with that….

Now – the Irish pubs. 

I’ve used two, situated quite close to each other, by the beach and just about a 2km stroll from the hotel. 

The first I found is called Mike’s Place, and it’s perhaps 100m from the McDonald’s I used, on the Retsif Herbert Samuel promenade that runs alongside the beaches.  It’s a fairly scruffy looking building, typical of Tel Aviv, with a covered terrace outside that faces over the beach to the Mediterranean.  The terrace is furnished with a selection of shabby wooden tables and chairs, and the interior bar is equally dingy looking.  I settled down at a table in the corner of the terrace, in the shade of a bush the grows up the terrace roof-posts, Joe Cocker on the headphones and my book (Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser – very good) in my hand.  The menu has a mix of local dishes, salads, sandwiches and the usual quasi-Irish fare like burgers, beef stew, fish and chips, and sweets like apple pie and cheese cake.  Draught beers included Guinness and Kilkenny, with local bottled beers and Magner’s cider in bottles.  There was also a wide range of spirits (Bushmills Whiskey prominent) and the usual range of cocktails including Sex on the Beach and Tequila Sunrise.

I settled for a pint of draught Kilkenny (I find it travels better than Guinness) and the sausage and mash with gravy and a side order of fries - I was hungry after a long walk along the beach to the harbour perhaps a further 2–3km further north, just before the Yarkon River flows into the sea.  The beer, as expected, was very nice – it’s my favourite Irish brew – and chilled to perfection.   I ended up having two.

When it came the food was also good.  Proper mashed potatoes (not powdered), chunky chips made from proper sliced spuds, and three big veal sausages with a jug of thick spicy gravy.  The sausages looked and tasted like the Polish kielbaski that we grill on the barbecue or bonfire on sunny Sunday afternoons – Irish or Wall’s pork they were not.  It was just decent hearty food, not gourmet cooking, and would probably go nowhere on Masterchef, but that is fine by me.  Tasty and filling, washed down with good beer, it hit the spot.  I will certainly use the place regularly.

Close by, one street further inland and perhaps 200m further north, is Molly Bloom’s.   It’s a more authentic looking pub with perhaps ten high tables and chairs outside the corner doorway instead of a terrace.  Inside is much brighter and (dare I say it) cleaner looking than Mike’s, with several tables and booths scattered around.  There are three big-screen tv’s showing a variety of sports, including Sky’s transmission of English Premier and Italian Serie A league football, Irish hurling, Gaelic football, Formula 1 motor racing and American NFL football.  There is also a back room with another big tv showing the same programming but offering a little more privacy.

The menu was not dissimilar to Mike’s, but with a few additions – I settled for an old favourite, shepherd’s pie, again with a side order of fries (I had been on another long walk), and again Kilkenny.  By the way, why oh why do so many pubs and restaurants get it wrong?  Most of them deliver a perfectly tasty and acceptable shepherd’s pie made from minced beef – which makes it a COTTAGE PIE.  Shepherd’s pie is made from minced LAMB – the clue is in the name: shepherds care for sheep not cattle.

But I’m being a bit anal there.  When it came, it was delicious – minced beef in a thick gravy, with chunks of carrot and peas and onions, topped off with creamy mashed potatoes and grated cheese.  A fine meal indeed – and the chips were good, too.  So I spent a pleasant couple of hours watching the Singapore GP Qualifying and some football (Hull v Arsenal: so you can’t have everything), eating my fill, drinking a couple of beers and in between times reading my book.

I went back a couple of days later, largely for the football (Spurs v Sunderland) and tried some different food.  This time I had lamb sausages with mashed potatoes, coleslaw and a Guinness gravy.  It was ok – the sausages were a little dry but quite spicy, the spuds creamy but with nice little chunks that hadn’t been fully mashed (to prove again real potatoes rather than powdered), the gravy thick if a little insufficient (no jug this time, just a small helping poured into a little volcano in the spuds) and the coleslaw suitably sour.

I will go here again, too.


The restaurant at the hotel is also good.  I’m not a big breakfast eater – I tend to snack at lunchtime and have a decent meal in the evenings – except at the weekend.  The selection is pretty good: lots of fresh fruit and salad-y things, cooked meats, local cheeses, fish, cereals, a variety of fresh breads and rolls, and lots of different cakes and pastries.  As far as I’ve seen there are no sausages or eggs anywhere, nor bacon – kosher hotel, remember.  I usually settle for rolls with butter and jam or honey, and a couple of pastries or cakes, plus cappuccino from the machine.  It’s plenty.

The room service menu is fine, burgers, salads, pizza and local stuff, plus a selection of drinks.  The quality I’ve found variable – I’ve had a couple of excellent beef and chicken club sandwiches (on the Sabbath there are no cooked meals on room service), and twice a rather fine plate of chicken nuggets, frankfurters and fries (but the nuggets are actually chicken breasts fried in breadcrumbs) that have filled me up a treat.  But I also had a chicken kebab with fries that was disappointing: the chicken pieces were undercooked and very stringy and chewy – not to my taste at all.

But the evening meal is something else again.  I don’t have it every evening (I would be an even fatter old sod than I already am if I did!), but when I do it is invariably excellent.  It’s a self-service, as-much-as-you-can-eat buffet: and I can eat a lot.  The soup course offers a different flavour daily – today it was a very tasty lentil soup, and I’ve also had a creamy mushroom, a vegetable, and a spicy bean soup – and there is a huge selection of salads and cold meats for an alternative (or even additional) starter.  Main courses are of course a fish and a meat course, sometimes two of each, including a grill or fry course prepared to order by line chefs while you watch.  Tonight I had rather splendid spicy veal meatballs with grilled vegetables in a thick sauce, and huge roast potatoes topped with a thin coating of cheese and sesame seeds.  You can of course have more than one helping – I didn’t.  For sweet there is a huge range of things – individual crème caramels and souffles, apple pie, various fruit pastries, cheesecakes, blancmanges, meringues, chocolate sponges, ice cream, fresh fruit…..the sweet table is literally bowed under its load.  It’s good value but my company has a special deal that reduces the cost dramatically. 

I love it.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Here we go again.......

Now I’ve not written anything on here for a while.  Partly I’ve been too busy at work, and partly I’ve been based in Amsterdam for the best part of two years so had relatively little new to say after the first few months.  What essays I have written have been published on LinkedIn as they have been less about travel and more about business and politics.  But the Amsterdam contract has finished and after a relaxing summer, recharging these clapped out old batteries, I’m on the move again.  So I’m back……

To a new project, and a new destination.

It’s a place I’ve been very critical of in past essays and conversations, both here and on other social media and over coffee or beer in a variety of places, and one I’ve always said I had no real interest in visiting.  But the lure of a long term project and a decent financial deal have brought me here anyway.  And before you ask, my scruples haven’t particularly changed – my wider view of the country’s politics and behaviour remain unchanged, and had I been able to find an equally attractive proposal elsewhere would undoubtedly have taken that instead.  But in the event that didn’t happen so here I am, at least until the New Year and quite possible for a good while beyond that.

So here I am, in sunny Tel Aviv.  Israel.

Getting here was challenging.

There are plenty of options, both direct from Warsaw and on various alternative routes with one or more flight changes, but because of some mild disagreements over contract details (happily and favourably resolved) my departure was delayed to the extent that those options were limited.  I had proposed a specific (very reasonably priced) pair of direct flights on my old friends WizzAir, but the airline is not on my agent’s approved list.  So last Friday, once the contract details were in place, the client company tried to book flights for the following day, to start on the usual Middle Eastern business day of Sunday.  No chance – fully booked.  There were two options offered – a direct night flight on LOT Sunday night (arriving Monday early hours) or a 9:15 a.m. departure Tuesday morning on El Al, arriving mid-afternoon. 

I had no choice in the decision, since I was paddling along in kayaks on the river Pilica with my beloveds, enjoying a final break before my return to gainful employment (and their return to school) and thus out of touch.  My project manager made a judgement call and chose the El Al flight on my behalf – and very happy I was too.  An extra couple of days at home and a full nights’ sleep before work.  Perfect.

I packed my bags, for a 12 day trip, and on Monday went on the website to check-in.

Now, everyone knows that El Al are incredibly security conscious – nothing wrong with that – and I had heard some horror stories from friends who work at Okecie airport in Warsaw about long queues and arrogant Israeli security personnel.  Equally I had conversations with friends already working here who were insistent that it was straightforward and nothing to lose sleep over.  Traveller opinions on TripAdvisor and elsewhere were equally split – a huge number were scathing (some of the worst I have ever read anywhere) and others very complimentary.  Usually when I’m doing research like this I discount the really good and the really poor and settle for the middle ground as probably more accurate – but in this case there was no middle ground at all.  And so no real help at all. 

Incidentally, I did notice a bit of a curiosity in the reviews.  The complimentary ones tended to be by short and medium haul passengers, usually from Europe somewhere, with names like Goldstein and Cohen.  The worst – by far! – were from US located long haul passengers with names like Goldstein and Cohen, whose expectations were clearly way higher than the more local passengers.  There were complaints about security procedures, flight delays, quality of the food and service (too small helpings delivered slowly by harassed cabin crew was a popular refrain), and – ludicrously! – too many children on the flight (are they supposed to swim the Atlantic?!?!?!?).  Now having flown on various US carriers a few times over the last 15 years or so, I simply do not understand this – I can honestly say that the worst flight experiences and miserable, old and ugly flight crews, and the worst food, were all delivered courtesy of those US carriers.  Delta in particular were abysmal. 

Which all goes to prove my belief that in general terms Americans have little or no taste – any nation even half-seriously considering an oaf like Donald Trump for President is really in trouble and has nothing to brag about.

Anyway, check in was easy enough, but I could not change my over-wing seat, despite being offered the option: a technical problem of some kind blocked the seat map.  Not a big deal, but frustrating – I do like a good uninterrupted view when I’m going anywhere new, and with the Mediterranean sunshine stretching pretty much all the way to Poland I anticipated a pleasant flight. 

The check-in also advised getting to the airport a full four hours before departure for the “enhanced security process”.  It seemed extreme and meant a 4:30 a.m. start, but ok – I’ll do it if I have to.  The website lied.  I dutifully got there at 5:00, and check-in didn’t start until 6:20.  At least I was at the front of the “Other Passports” queue.  Rather than just a couple of desk agents, the airline commandeered an entire block of six, and in front of them set up about 10 small portable lecterns and a maze of rope barriers.  Each lectern was manned by a customer security agent (their terminology) who made a cross-examination of each passenger in turn, before allowing them to proceed to three gate agents and two supervisors to deposit checked bags.  At each end of the zone stood burly guards in camouflage suits, bullet proof vests, headsets and dark glasses, cradling Uzi machine pistols across their chests and looking suspiciously all around.  Just a tad intimidating…..

I got the Third Degree Interrogation (as opposed to the “have a nice flight” most of the other passengers seemed to be getting).  The very nice Polish girl who conducted it was having problems understanding how an English man can own a company domiciled in Poland, and through a separate English company work on a project in Israel supporting a Swiss software house.  There was also a concern about some old Qatari stamps in my passport, so my baggage had a thorough going over, both hand and hold bags opened and searched.  Oh, and the lack of a work permit didn’t help – the explanation that I was visiting the bank this week to finalise terms and conditions and the bank would then kick off the application was eventually accepted after some discussion.  It all took 45 minutes.

Time for a coffee and cake for breakfast, then onto the flight.  I asked about a seat change, on the grounds that their check-in system was broken and wouldn’t let me do it myself.  They offered to sell me a different seat for an additional $200.  I stayed where I was, over the wing.  I had a good book, and of course my music, so was happy enough.

The flight was actually ok.  A 737-800 is a comfortable enough plane, just about enough leg room and the person in front didn’t recline her seat much.  The weather was perfect, clear and smooth air all the way…..just a shame about the (lack of a) view.  We had a just about adequate breakfast – a very plain and very small omelette, roll, butter and apricot jam, a yoghurt, tea or coffee (glad I ate something before boarding!) but at least the flight crew were polite and helpful (unlike some mentioned in the various customer reviews I had read).

Breezed through passport control on arrival, a 10 minute wait for my bag and out through customs with not a second glance from anyone.    Efficient taxi service, and into the city within an hour of landing – better than I had expected.  Hurrah!

I’m staying in the Dan Panorama Hotel.  It towers over the beach and my tenth floor room has a small balcony and a nice view north along the promenade, the beach and Mediterranean – all very pleasant.  There is a decent sized pool here and a gym, neither of which I’ve used yet, and a couple of bars and restaurants that seem a tad pricy.  TV is ok, local channels, plus German, Italian, Spanish and French options, the inevitable CNN and (for a change) Sky News UK rather than the much better BBC World News.  The bed is comfortable and very big, free wifi, kettle and coffee kit provided so I have no complaints at all really.  It’s also only a 5 minute walk from the site, so I don’t need to rely on local transport – given that I understand not a word of Hebrew (in which of course all the destinations and road signs are written) this is a great advantage.

My taxi driver in from the airport insisted the beaches here were the BEST in the whole world.  He needs to get out more.  It’s a typical Med beach, so sandy, with warm shallow sea that I tested Wednesday evening (delightful of course, especially after the chilly Baltic in July), and it’s very crowded – as you would expect for a city centre beach.  Lots of umbrellas and sunbeds (at a price, no doubt), and hordes of young people in very small swimsuits and bikinis playing beach tennis or a kind of football keepie-uppie and showing off their tans and bodies to anyone who cares to admire them.  Very much like Greece and Italy and Spain, except that they are locals and not drunken tourists.

I had a stroll along it again last night, and located the nearest Irish pub (my venue for the football on tv at weekends when I’m here) and a McDonalds.  I tried it last night, and had a burger I’ve not seen before (at least it’s not sold in Poland or, as far as I know, England).  It’s called a Big American, and is basically a Big Mac the size of a dinner plate – huge.  But very tasty, with large fries and a coke.  My usual healthy eating…….

Anyway, here I am, for the foreseeable future. 

It’s the weekend today (the usual Middle Eastern Sunday through Thursday business week prevails – I always find adjusting to that a bit tricky), so I’m off to the hotel gym and the beach in a minute, to burn off that Big American.  Tomorrow, when more things are open, I’ll have a bit of an explore, see more of the town, maybe mooch along to the old port town of Jaffa a mile or so south, and see what’s there.

So further epistles to follow.

Happy days.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

BREXIT.......what to do, what to do????

So Mr. Cameron has completed his discussions with the other EU leaders and against the odds come up with a working agreement that he is happy to put before the British people.  The green lights have come on and the countdown to the promised EU Membership Referendum has started.  Oh, what fun the next few months are going to be!  By the time we all trek off to the voting boxes (or I and my fellow ex-pats send our choice by post or e-mail or however it works – forgive the vagueness here, this is my first time) I’m sure we will all be heartily sick of it.  The thought of smug Tories, raging Labourites of various shades of Red, and vacuous buffoons like Farage and his Little Englander chums regaling us with their conflicting and no doubt ill thought out and hugely exaggerated views every day for the next four months fills me with despair.  Thank God the vote is set for 23 June – I will need a couple of weeks’ summer holiday to get over it all.  How our trans-Atlantic friends can stand the long drawn-out process of electing a new President is beyond me.

But there is no doubt the decision to be taken is perhaps the most important one since we voted to join the EEC (as it was then) all those years ago.  It will affect our country’s future direction, for good or ill, apparently forever, and thus the futures of our children and our children’s children.  Unless, of course some bright spark Prime Minister in ten or fifteen years’ time decides it was all a mistake and wants to go back in again (assuming the EU in some shape or form still exists then) and holds another Referendum to reverse the decisions taken in this one.  Oh, the pressures we face!  It’s getting to me already – I really should go and lie down for a while…….

But, to paraphrase Joe Strummer, should we stay or should we go?

Of one thing I am sure (and it’s probably the only thing at the moment): our decision will end up being based on a whole tissue of misinterpretation and misrepresentation – right now I won’t use the term lies - of a whole range of issues, some of which may even be relevant.  I know every time we face a General Election we do that, given there is no such thing as an Honest Politician, but in those cases we at least get an opportunity to undo the result relatively quickly (from a matter weeks, in case of extreme Governmental incompetence, up to a maximum of 5 years under current legislation).  But in this vote, according the Prime Minister the result is binding “forever”.  Perhaps he should check the meaning of that word in the dictionary before he saddles us all with that sort of choice – “forever” is a hell of long time!  I’m sure when Lenin won the Revolution and began his life’s calling of spreading Communism to the masses he believed the resulting Soviet Empire would last forever, rather than less than a (longish) lifetime.   Even Adolf set a mere 10,000 year limit on the Third Reich.

He should take care with how his case for Staying In is presented, too, and ensure that those leading the Out campaign are equally diligent.  The last time something of this (relative) magnitude was put before the House it was Mr. Blair’s call to support the US in their war in Iraq.  At the time, he based his support on a raft of evidence, provided by the CIA and apparently validated by our Security Services, concerning Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction and a willingness on the tyrant’s behalf to use the things against The West.  Having read various memoirs on the subject, including his own “A Life”, that of George Bush (“Decision Points”) and a separate biography of Blair, I’m satisfied that at the time of its presentation the evidence was credible and both Blair and Bush and their respective Cabinets and advisors genuinely believed in it and took their decisions accordingly.  As things turned out the intelligence was not so much flawed as largely fictional, and both men are widely despised as War Criminals (whatever they are).  Now I’m not suggesting that Cameron and co will be considered War Criminals based on the EU Referendum result (current events in Libya and Syria in particular notwithstanding), merely that History is not always kind to a politician who shows well-meaning incompetence at key decision making moments.  So if he has any interest in leaving a positive legacy (I’m sure he does – as do all politicians) then he needs to ensure he doesn’t tarnish it by misleading the electorate on such a major issue.  Frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope, given statements so far about the agreement from last week’s Brussels summit “changing the EU” – it does nothing of the sort, and as Michael Gove (another irritant) rightly pointed out it will not do so until it is ratified by the parliaments of all the member states and incorporated into the various EU treaties.  I can’t see that happening any time soon as there are still too many contentious issues that have been glossed over by everyone.  It seems the misinformation has started on Day One of the campaign.

So what exactly are the issues?  The future of Britain for sure, but also that of the EU and other member states.  Let’s take a look at some of them, and for what it’s worth, I’ll try and sum up my own views on each one.  Remember: this is a purely personal view as of today’s date and hence subject to revision between now and The Day.

A primary concern in Britain is border security.  The popular view is that we aren’t safe all the time it is possible for a terrorist to disguise himself as a refugee, catch a rubber dinghy from Turkey to Greece, then make his way overland through the Schengen area all the way to Calais and then hop on the train to London, all on a false passport, with no visa requirements to hold him up. I’m not sure I follow the logic in this argument.  For a start, any self-respecting terrorist savvy enough to obtain a hooky passport for the trip would also be ready and willing to get a forged visa for the UK as well, and catch a flight from somewhere.  Why run the risk of drowning in the Aegean Sea or something?  There has been a flourishing market for false passports and travel visas for as long as the documents have existed, so I see no reason to suggest that leaving the EU will make Britain more secure from this sort of thing – quite the reverse, in fact.

Police forces across the EU are bound to share passenger lists, passport and visa details, particularly those suspected of being less than 100% genuine, and British police and border controls receive and use them on a daily basis.  It is possible that leaving the EU may disrupt the flow of that information reaching Britain – the (British) head of Europol has said as much and highlighted the potential damage such a delay might cause, suggesting at the same time that an Exit may make Britain less rather than more secure.  He should know, and I would suggest his view carries more weight than, say, that of Mr. Farage.

The Schengen Agreement is also a popular complaint of the Out campaigners, since it provides free movement of people across EU borders.  The case of the Paris bomber who apparently made his way to Europe on a false passport via Greece as a refugee and then was free to travel across France and Belgium putting his deadly plan into operation, is often used to validate how dangerous and outdated the Agreement  is.  On mainland Europe there may be some validity in that, but since Britain is an island that is NOT part of Schengen it seems to me irrelevant.  Fly into Heathrow or Stansted or any other UK airport from any EU country and the line for Border Control is as long for EU and British passport holders as it is for those from other countries.  So the border controls are already in place in Britain, and will not change with an Exit.  Granted, there are no visa requirements for EU passport holders, but the passports themselves are still checked diligently so this is NOT a Schengen problem.

The argument seems to go that if Britain leaves the EU then new visa rules will be applied to all citizens entering the country, regardless of whether a EU or other passport is held.  If you a) ignore the forged visa possibility,  b) are satisfied that the Foreign Office will be able to manage the increased demand (having reduced staffing levels significantly over the past few years) and c) the Government is prepared to foot the bill for the systems improvements and new staff and premises to handle that demand quickly, then it might work.  Costs would of course be recovered up to a point by passing it along to visa applicants, but setting the whole thing up is not going to happen overnight.  Remember too that if we start insisting on visas for people travelling from the EU then EU countries will in turn insist on UK visitors having valid visas before travelling to them.  Again, do-able, but it will undoubtedly impact on the travel industry, increase holiday costs for the average British family who wants to vacation in Spain or somewhere, and adversely affect British industry since export costs and those of travelling to do business in the EU will also increase. 

It is also unclear exactly how such a change would affect the million or so ex-pats (including yours truly) carrying British passports but living in another EU country.  In my own case, although English I now call Poland my home, and my kids have British passports (as well as Polish – they hold dual nationality).  So if I travel from Warsaw to say Luton airport to visit my family, I will presumably not need a UK visa as I’m a UK citizen.  However when I return home I will need a Polish entry visa.  If I bring my wife and kids, then my wife will need a UK entry visa, since she holds a Polish passport, but will presumably not need a Polish visa when we go home, and my kids can come into the UK, without a visa, on their British passports, and back into Poland, again without a visa, on their Polish passports.    It’s a relatively small thing, but one that membership of the EU prevents – and again, that Schengen bugbear is totally irrelevant.

If safety could be guaranteed, 100%, by these measure then the additional costs and inconvenience may well be considered worthwhile.  But it seems to me there can be no such guarantee.  So, as a reason to vote for an Exit, I don’t see the case of improved security proven at all.

Closely linked to border security is the major issue of immigration.  This is not a new thing for Britain, which has been welcoming migrants for over a hundred years.  Well, perhaps “welcoming” is not the right word – let’s try “admitting” instead.  For a country itself founded on migration – the Norse, Saxons, Romans and Normans all came here at times to mix with the existing Britons and Picts, so we were very much a melting pot even before modern times – our attitude to foreigners is sometimes hard to understand.  Since Victoria’s reign we have accepted large numbers of Irish, of West Indians, of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, and of Ugandan Asians.   The link in all these is our much vaunted (or vilified, depending on your viewpoint) Colonial Past.  As the Empire broke up and the vast swathes of pink disappeared from globes and atlases in British schools, so our former subjects followed their former masters – how I hate those terms! – back to Britain in the hope of finding a better life.  And most of them eventually did, becoming UK citizens, finding jobs, opening businesses and enriching both the British culture and its Exchequer.

It wasn’t always easy.  The signs in boarding house windows that read “No Blacks, no dogs and No Irish” were a reality in major cities like London and Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool.  But the migrants continued to come, continued to strive for betterment and got there in the end.  Turn the clock forward to the 80s and 90s and a new flood of immigrants arrived, this time from Europe, the Americas and the Far East.  Many of them were very much temporary – moving into a booming City of London and service industries that were replacing a failing and contracting industrial base in Thatcher’s and latterly Blair’s Britain.  They were more welcome, because the majority of them had money to spend and jobs to do, and in any case weren’t going to be around forever.  
Then we come to the first decade of the 21st century, the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, the expansion on the EU with countries like Slovakia and Poland and Hungary and the Baltic states joining.  Here the waters muddy, because contrary to popular opinion, then and now, none of these countries joined the EU for government handouts, but for increased security (who can blame them after 50 years of Soviet domination, courtesy of an ill-thought out and dishonourable post-war settlement) and the opportunity for a better life.  The signs on the boarding house windows changed to “No Poles”, “No Serbs”, “No Kossovans”…….and so on.  

Now the focus is on the migration crisis that is gripping the entire EU (and arguably the world, if you consider the illegals struggling and dying to get from poor central American countries to the US, or from Laos and Vietnam and Bangladesh to Australia, to be part of the same mass migration).  The vast majority of them are refugees, fleeing wars in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya (can you see the link there?  Wars started by US and UK/EU coalitions with no post-war plan envisaged or even considered that left those countries without structure or leadership, at the mercy of terrorist groups or power hungry violent militias) or penniless and often starving sub-Saharan Africans seeking a better life than they have in their poverty stricken homelands.  

I know and understand the arguments about Britain being a small country without room for huge numbers of migrants, but I find the media portrayal of  these poor souls as spongers and terrorists and bringing the whole problem on themselves frankly offensive.  They did not start the wars they are fleeing from.  It’s not their fault that when their various Colonial rulers, whether British or French, German or Belgian, left it was again done swiftly, without ceremony and little preparation, nor is the climate change that is turning their countries arid.  I believe from a purely humanitarian perspective Europe needs to do what it can, and Britain, whether In or Out, has the same obligation.  Agreeing to take a couple of thousand refugees, but ONLY from internment camps in Syria (as the Government is so proud of doing) will make no difference to the problem at all and frankly is an insult to EU countries of a similar size (like the Netherlands and Denmark) who are being more pro-active in their support.

It seems to me that leaving the EU will make no difference whatever to the UK’s immigration policy as it doesn’t actually have one worthy of the name.  

The economy is a different matter.  The In camp continually preach the virtues of being part of the EU, “the biggest single market in the world” – one assumes that is after China, India and the US? - , a market that amounts to getting on for half Britain’s overseas trade.   Clearly, there are huge advantages in the lack of tariffs and the free movement of goods and people thanks to the much maligned Schengen Area.  Even the single currency, for all its faults, makes the trade and travel much easier and yes, profitable.  Meanwhile, the Out camp points to various EU rules and restrictions (the good old “red tape”) that can hold back smaller businesses and insist that it would be better to be free outside the EU to negotiate own trade agreements.

Well.  At a guess, we’re talking about having to negotiate, simultaneously, at least 50 such agreements.  Does anyone seriously believe this is something that could be done quickly, say within the 12 months or so it would probably take to negotiate and realise the EU exit?  What if the vote says Out on 23 June – when do we actually become Out?  Immediately? By the end of the month?  By Christmas?  No-one really knows.  Is part of the package that existing EU Trade Agreements will remain in force until such time as their multitudinous replacements have been signed?  I haven’t seen anything to that effect, and I’m not at all sure that would be acceptable to the other 27 States.  With that level of uncertainty, how easy will it really be to negotiate anything?  What guarantees (that are worth anything at all) can Britain actually give?  What assets do we have that could be pledged, without completely bankrupting the country?  

Can anyone explain to me why the stock markets or the pound would NOT plunge to record lows in the event of an Out vote (which would plunge the nation into a period of uncertainty with no clear limit) when all markets love certainty?  And why such a plunge would be a good thing for Britain?  George Osborne actually said something sensible the other day (a rare occurrence) when he agreed with the IMF and G20 that leaving the EU would probably cause a global economic shock – not a good thing, given it’s hardly recovered from the last one caused by the Lehman collapse.   Factor in the problems in the Chinese economy and the (increasing) prospect of a Trump Presidency and we could all be in a world of woe come Christmas.  

This week, in a weekly team meeting at work, I asked my colleagues for their views.  I should add my team is multi-national, with people from India, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg.  All agreed that Britain leaving the EU would be bad for Britain and bad for the EU, and would much rather the Union remained.  From an economic perspective, too, I have no argument with them and can see no viable or convincing reason for an Out vote.

Finally, there is the somewhat nebulous issue of sovereignty and the Out camp’s belief that in some way Britain will reclaim it by leaving the EU.  What is exactly meant by that is not clear to me at all.  My on-line Collins English Dictionary defines it thus:
(plural) -ties
  1. supreme and unrestricted power, as of a state
  1. the position, dominion, or authority of a sovereign
  1. an independent state
Now, I can’t actually see how membership of the EU has, in Britain’s case, negated any of that, nor how being Out strengthens it in any way.  In terms of taxation, defence of the realm, security and policing, Health care, welfare and education, for instance, the UK Government is in full control, thus satisfying point 1.  Where required, it co-operates with governments elsewhere, both within the EU and without, on matters of security and trade but this seems to me no bad thing and certainly nothing to cry over.  Britain remains a monarchy, and the last time I looked we still had Queen Elizabeth II on the throne with an heir, an heir to the heir, and an heir to the heir to the heir, so point 2 is fully covered and unless there is a revolution will be for years to come.  And being a member of the EU has not changed Britain’s status as an independent state – but then nor has membership of the UN, NATO, the WTO, G20 or any other inter-governmental body or forum.

So , in my view, we have another red herring, and another case of the Out view unproven.

There is perhaps one thing that does need to be considered as part of this discussion that, as far as I can see, has so far been rather ignored, and that is what other Europeans think of we Brits – in fact what the rest of the world thinks of us.  I have seen a number of comments that being out of the EU will enable Britain to “regain” or “strengthen its rightful place in the world”.  But what exactly is that?

Geographically speaking, Britain is a small group of islands just to the West of the European land mass. No more and no less.  Nothing remotely special.  It is separated from mainland Europe by the Channel and the North Sea, and has been for thousands of years (at least until the Channel Tunnel was finally opened 20 years or so ago).  As I said earlier, its island nature has led to a succession of invasions over many centuries, with varying degrees of success, so its people are essentially of mixed race – something that our friendly neighbourhood BNP or UKIP followers may find difficult to swallow.  

In past times, that offshore status has proved the spur for Britons to set sail and open trade routes across the world – that Empire everyone keeps harping on about.  Yes indeed, we had an Empire that spanned the globe, carved out by the sweat on the brow of our brave merchant sailors, and lubricated by the blood of the conquered.  Remember, it was not a peacefully built Empire – empires rarely come about without bloodshed, and the British Empire was no different to any other.  

Like all Empires, it came to an end.  From Edwardian times, perhaps from the end of World War Part One, it began to creak, and at the end of World War Part Two it collapsed.  India was hurriedly partitioned and became independent, Canada and Australia in turn strengthened their own independence but with continued allegiance to the Queen, African and West Indians members declared independence, became republics or separate states and went their own way.  The Empire shrunk to a Commonwealth of small island dependencies, bolstered by Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  So effectively, from around 1950 Britain ceased to be a major world power and has retained its seat at the top table in world affairs largely thanks to its permanent leading roles in NATO and the UN by courtesy of being on the winning side in the War.

Arguably, even that is tarnished by a foreign policy performance that, from at least the mid-1930s and Chamberlain’s note waving “Peace in our time” statement after meeting Hitler in Munich, has been less than impressive.  We declared war on Germany in 1939 in support of an invaded Poland, and then did little over the next six months or so while Poland was systematically dismembered by first Germany and then Russia too, after the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The thousands of Polish soldiers and airmen who eventually found their way to Britain, often after extremely difficult and courageous journeys, were treated first with suspicion, then with thanks (after the RAF’s Polish crewed 303 Squadron’s stellar performance in the Battle of Britain), then used as cannon fodder at Arnhem and Monte Cassino, and finally betrayed by a refusal to allow any representation in 1947’s Victory Parade in London, lest it offend Stalin.  Throughout this time, its Government-in-Exile had been promised support and no border changes after the end of the War, and Allied support for the Home Army.  What happened?  The Home Army was left to its own devices during 1944’s Warsaw Uprising after D-Day, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths and a city reduced to rubble, and at Yalta the whole of Eastern Europe (not only Poland but Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic States) happily signed over by Churchill and Roosevelt to Stalin’s clutches and 50 years of Soviet brutality and domination. 

Not content with that, the strident (and, yes, justified) demands for a Jewish homeland were then met, after a now unpublicised terrorist campaign by the likes of Menachim Begin and others, by British administered Palestine being forcibly cleared to make way for the modern state of Israel, thus giving rise to a running sore that exists to this day and is arguably worse than ever, given events in nearby Syria, Iraq and Lebanon over the past 20 years or so.  Factor in a bloody retreat from Malaysia and Kenya, an ill-judged adventure against Egypt over the Suez Canal (all the 1950s) and the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 10 years so (and I nearly forgot, and the Balkans in the 90s) and we have little to be proud of, in my view.

What all this has left is a strong anti-British feeling across much of the world, feelings that the average British tourist in Spain or Portugal or the Greek islands, or further afield in the Far East or India, seems blissfully unaware of.  But it is there, and every drunk throwing up in the gutter in Benidorm or Zante, or scrapping in the backstreets of Prague or Amsterdam, merely adds to the dislike.  

So demands for “special treatment” by Mr. Cameron (amongst other Prime Ministers at the EU’s negotiating tables since Margaret Thatcher’s time) are not well received, and never will be.  To the rest of the EU, Britain simply does not deserve any special treatment.  The various rebates that have been grudgingly conceded, whilst welcome to us and trumpeted as successes by our House, are resented by the rest of our partners (I use that word advisedly: the EEC, the EU, call it what you will, is essentially a partnership but one that we tend to treat with contempt).   Many, perhaps most, Europeans, whether politicians or the man in the street, would happily let us go – except that to do so may well prompt others to follow and lead to a break-up of the entire structure, to their own detriment.  

The EU was created, lest we forget, at a time when the Cold War was raging and Russia (or the USSR, whichever you prefer) was considered an imminent security threat, and when much of the continent, including Britain, was still struggling to recover from the War’s ravages while the US continued to bankrupt us by its insistence on repayment of its war loans and assistance.  Clubbing together, initially as a fairly loose bloc, together with NATO membership, seemed like a good way to provide security and strengthen economies by sharing the costs.  As this happened, we remained aloof, outside the club, looking down our collective noses, secure in the knowledge that we didn’t need any help.  Successive recessions under barely competent Labour administrations eventually forced our membership, but our belief was that, as The major power (that superiority complex again) we could change Europe more to our way of thinking. 

It hasn’t worked like that, of course.  The European dream has become one of closer integration, sharing common fiscal policies, common justice systems, common defence structures and so on – a genuine European superstate.   The euro is the first tangible result of that dream.  Of course, we held our hands up in horror, said “oh no chaps, this isn’t for us at all, thank you very much”, stayed firmly outside the single currency (rightly in my opinion, but more because the convergence criteria were all wrong and no thought had been given to how diverging and fundamentally different economies could be managed without complete consolidation at a political level – something that will never happen) and demanded a major say in Europe’s budget and trade control mechanisms anyway.  Again, Europe shrugged its collective shoulders, said ok – and proceeded to ignore us while all the time pretending not to.  And continuing to expand its membership by opening its arms to welcome small nations like Malta and Cyprus and bigger Eastern Europeans like Poland and Hungary – all of whom continue to be much more receptive to the European Ideal than we are. 

The result of course is that as the EU has expanded, what influence we might once have had there has been slowly eroded, to the point that we are considered not much more than an irritant.  So cutting any deals with individual nations on better terms than we already enjoy (if that’s the right term) as part of the Union when we are outside on our own seems highly unlikely.   Our place in the world is simply not as high or as important as most British people seem to think, so to rely on it as a reason to leave the EU seems to be the wrong approach.

So to summarize…… 

In my view, right now, there is nothing to suggest to me that Britain voting to leave EU on 23rd June would be a good idea for either Britain or the EU itself.   The arguments on the Out side just do not convince (that said, those of the In camp are not much better).  In this case it seems to me the status quo of remaining in the EU will provide British citizens and our descendants with a better standard of living, better prospects in the future and stronger security than taking the risk of leaving and attempting to go it alone in a world that often seems to be driving itself to destruction.  We are a small nation nowadays, not a major power, and as such need the support of our peers in so many different areas in order to survive, let alone flourish.

As an Englishman, I wish that were not so.  My heart say Leave, but my Head shouts Stay.