Tuesday, 29 December 2009
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Auden wrote this three days before World War Two began. So far we haven’t such a prescient summary of the decade just ending - 2000 to 2009. Called the ‘noughties’ or whatever - this decade could, in other equally lethal ways, be as important, as pivotal as the Thirties because it has a sense of being a cross roads or even the searching, waiting feel of an interregnum (in Webster’s an interregnum is, ‘...the time during which a throne is vacant between two successive reigns or regimes.’
Now I’m not talking here about any one country but the globe itself and its politics because, below the surface, what a political sea change the last ten years has seen! The decade began with only the one world power, America, cleaving, or at least the ruling Republican party, to Fukuyama’s notion of the ’End of History’. This was where all the old ‘isms’ of the nineteenth and twentieth century; socialism, communism, fascism had been worked to destruction by the unforgiving politics of reality and a new but inevitable era had emerged. Of simple, clean apolitical politics, of straight forwards political and social management through the omnipotent medium of self regulating market forces. The great cleansing era of untrammelled capitalism had finally arrived.
And this was to be both the new and also the final global disposition for the 21st Century onwards (The End of History) - and with it came the parallel conviction that any backward or awkward state, once opened up by (unilateral if necessary) armed intervention (Iraqi, Afghanistan) to the self righting flow of market capitalism, would quickly and seamlessly be sorted from the grass roots up - or in these two cases, from the desert sand up – and that would be that.
Then in the last decade, three events came along in succession and turned everything on its head. First the insane dot.com boom went bust. It had been posited on an ever ascending, insane proposition that a business with say, fifty employees at fifty computers producing nothing that could be exchanged for anything remotely useful could justify market valuations in the tens or hundreds of millions! Kenneth Galbraith wrote a tract about this phenomenon called ‘A Short History of Financial Euphoria’ that had it all.
Then along came Bin Laden and the Twin Towers followed by the irrational response of the invasion of Iraqi – irrational unless you were George W Bush proving to his dad who was really the toughest!. A political cretin who, ‘...knowing no history, was doomed to repeat it..’ Unfortunately he doomed a lot of other more innocents to a real death.
Then in the last years of the decade, this marvellous self regulating tool we had all been waiting for since the beginning of time, ‘the market’ again proceed to swallow itself, with millions of dollars/pounds/euros, what have you, disappearing in milliseconds (The question was had they ever existed?). This was when real economic (manufacturing) power stopped pirouetting and began lurching away Eastwards to India and China, the latter buying up vast chunks of American equity in a race for diminishing collateral – while Bush and the neocons cons watched, apparently with great equanimity, while the last great Communist Dictatorship bought up the last great bastion of Capitalism...you couldn’t make it up.
So in the last ten years the world went from the certainties of the new and final capitalist settlement to spectral uncertainties of unknown enemies emerging from caves or slums to give the us all convulsions - whereas the real disaster for the West, hardly noticed, was the surging flow of economic power Eastwards.
Because, of course, Al Qaida and the Muslim extremist are not the threat to the West. We have this wrong as well. The Twin Towers and the urban incidents of exploding waistcoat are only external expressions of an essentially local and internal struggle in the Moslem world, a struggle between the irredeemable crass fourteenth century politics of the old ruling orders and the twenthfirst century aspiration of their educated middle classes, educated by the internet, satellite TV and the mobile phone to want out of medieval cultural purdah - and by definition, the middle classes will always win. And this old order is so far off the money it can’t see that this century particularly needs woman because it needs a special type of lateral intelligence and not the old blind clash of male egos - and in any case if the Muslims had onions instead of oil, we would hardly know about it.
The big thing, not anticipated by students of the status quo – and I’m talking here of most politicians and business people in the West and apparently also many historians and academic, was the now seeming inevitable flight eastwards of capital and power. And the thing is that this has been clearly signalled at home for maybe two generations and in the plainest of terms. The trouble is no one was looking in the right place...in everyday life, in the schools and the streets. Industry/commerce requires an educated and self disciplined work force and the west increasing now has neither simply because the future knew and arranged this, that they, the western proletariat, would soon be surplus to requirements.
This has all been shrieked at us for about half a century - for the future is made by people, it does not just appear out of the sun, and the future is always with us, around us – a huge cavity thousands of miles away in a desert would first be harbinge by tiny movements of sand around our feet, so is the future forecast by incremental changes in social mores, fashions and the predilections of people a generation or two before, not marked in big one off events. This is not Marxist Historical Theory sublimely ignoring the intervention of the Great Man, we’re talking here of social forces so overweening, so overwhelming they eventually sweep everything before them.
I didn’t mention Global Warming because it makes all the above a game of Russian Roulette staged on a level crossing with the midnight express coming round the corner..! It’s another story - or maybe after all, just a part of the main..!
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were...
Sunday, 27 December 2009
Monday, 21 December 2009
I was going to write about Prince Charles but before I could line up even a couple of thoughts, I was overtaken by the strangest ennui and I completely lost what I was going to write, so instead I'll resurrect the old old joke about an ancestor of his. It was a Punch cartoon, I think, where a little girl, indicating an earlier and equally pointless Royal figure, asks her mother, ‘What’s that man for..?’
Well I suppose prince Charles could be a joke except he is not in the slightest funny - and like most people without a sense of humour, he shows it by laying claim to the Goons, an ancient radio which, funny in its day, now make people cringe - but not as much as he does...!
He is shallow, dim and unbearably pompous - nothing much more to be said except that he is very unlikely to become king – somehow the succession will take a diversion around a bypass to his only son, William, again demonstrating the Hanoverian dynasties only real talent, for survival.
Friday, 18 December 2009
British Airways – how much do you love em..? More than British Gas or British Telecom? Hard to say, its so close you couldn't get someone else’s credit card between them! I know British Airways from way back – when they were masquerading as BOAC, which in case you’ve forgotten, means ‘Better On A Camel’ Often faster anyway - and probably just as comfortable, if you were a poor bloody passenger!.
So the cabin staff called a strike to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas and with the usual familiar mixture of aggression and stupidity, got it so wrong that it was declared legal. But this lethal writ is nothing new - it's run for a long time and it’s not only the unionised employees, the management has, step by crunching step, perfectly complimented them and until Virgin came along they really were British Aviation – the other airlines scavenging on the meagre extras BOAC didn’t care for. Remember when poor old Freddy Laker took them head on? They got rid of him through a mixture of dirty (and criminal) tricks and political intrigue – but Freddy lived long enough to get his own back advising Branson when Virgin Atlantic finally and successfully took them on.
I knew all this first hand as I flew for ten years from the mid sixties as an airline navigator for one of the pilot fish feeding of the scraps from BOAC’s table. We prospered (for a while) on the routes BOAC either didn’t want or couldn’t make pay (South America for example).
And this wasn't all, they also very nearly destroyed the British aircraft builders. Two examples – when the VC10 was on the drawing board, they told Vickers that if their spec was not accepted they wouldn’t buy any - in other words, build it as we want it or you won’t build it at all. The VC10 was a lovely aircraft to fly but because BOAC had insisted on a spec so insanely inappropriate that the VC10 only came into its own when operating out of about three airports in the entire globe – Abbass Ababa, Nairobi and Mexico City because they'd insisted on an optimum performance summed up by the three H’s – at their best when they were High, Hot and Heavy. The downside of this was that at sea level and at normal temperature – at Heathrow, New York, Paris, Los Angles and just about every other airport on the planet, it was practically out of the game, crazily over powered and overweight.
Now Abbass Ababa would usually have about half a dozen joining passengers and Nairobi a few more while at Mexico City they all flew on Mexican airlines anyway so BOAC and the two other airlines that bought the VC10 (my airline (BUA) and East African Airways had about another eight VC10s between us) - and so my job as a navigator was to bend the rules and fake the paperwork to add a thousand miles to the VC10s pitiful range to bring them back into contention with the Boing 707 and the 1011s.
I remember a trip once to Buenos Aires from Freetown where we legally had not enough fuel to continue. We shut an engine down to save fuel (didn’t make any difference, they were insanely over powered) and ignoring the last enroute alternate airfield, went visual, calling the field at BA a hundred miles out and landed with just enough fuel to get on to the stand.
BEA, the local arm of BOAC, insisted on a similar murderously stupid spec with an aircraft called the Trident – which then turned out to be about the most dangerous passenger aircraft flying with a succession of crashes to prove it. BEA had come up with a spec that gave the Trident so little lift that both take off and landing speeds had to be dangerously excessive to get it in the air and keep it there.
Again Hawker Siddeley, which built the Trident, couldn’t sell her to anyone except the Communist Chinese and even here they did their bit for democracy when one of the junta running China, getting on the wrong side of Mao, decided to take it on his toes. He commandeered a Trident and before his ex friends could even shoot it down, it crashed and did the job for them...
And what do we get when monopolies like British Airway, British Telecom and British Gas are dragged screaming into the light? Revealed are huge organisations ostensibly with some commercial raison d’être (like the BBC, the last member of this Gang of Four) but actually a huge self serving morass of stolid time servers and brown nosers whose only purpose is to stay in place, snouts to the trough – and who, by the same deadly dialectic, eliminate anyone of talent, independence or promise, leaving rank up on rank rank of fat slothful monkeys bent on eternal self service...
These organisations are all relics of structures that once seemed to offer answers at the time but instead invite inevitable abuses – the abuses when groups of self selecting, talentless people are allowed to conspire against the common weal (another take on the corruption power).
They have the same moral outlook as our darling bankers now rewarding themselves lavishly for spectacular failure - what for Christ sake does the word bonus mean...but that's another day!
Thursday, 17 December 2009
For all right thinking people, Greenpeace are beyond criticism, in fact they are an easy litmus test of good and evil – only the greedy, the utterly selfish could not approve of them, rescuing the whales, saving the rain forests, swimming out to the polar bears; what’s not to love..?
In the nineties I did half a dozen shipping voyages, mostly from Texas to north west India via the Cape of Good Hope, ferrying old single hull American tankers to be scrapped by running them up the beach in Gudjarat called Alang. They were then cut up to feed the ferocious building booms in Bombay and New Delhi.
It was an unusual work, the scrapping business, kickstarted by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska with the subsequent widespread pollution. The Federal government then ordered the systematic scrapping of all single hull tankers. India was the place and I was the man for a spot of beaching.
It was nearly two months from Texas to the beach at Alang, then we’d wait for the next high water spring tide and with a twenty minute window, whack them up the beach at full speed; the further up the better to cut them up. Then to get off, we’d lower a lifeboat because, although the ships were firmly aground, they were so large and so long, they were still entirely surrounded by the sea – and then, in a low key encore, run the lifeboat up the beach and climb out.
As I said, I did half a dozen grounding to that particular beach and conditions were terrible for the people who worked there, terrible through western eyes, terrible through any eyes! Gujarat is one of the poorest part of poor old India. Black boiler oil seemed to cover everything including most of the beach, safety was negligible and life was cheap.
On the way over we used to, as a matter of course, clean the cargo tanks to gas free them. This was to give these poor agmis half a chance to survive in the lottery of cutting through a tanker's cargo holds.
One little guy (they were all small and spectral) worked a flaming gas torch followed by his mate, linked to him by the acetylene gas bottle on his back, burning, burning night and day to cut the ship back to its parts - and also through to what could be a tank full of deadly explosive gases – the residue of a thousand petroleum cargoes – and many weren’t even getting paid, it was daily subsistence for the less useful ones.
I was told that upwards of twenty thousand of these poor fuckers were working in the seventy or so scrap yards the lined that beach - and why did they do this terrible work..? - because there was no alternative..!
Greenpeace fastened on to it – and through direct and indirect lobbying had all the scrap yards closed down – and there really was nothing to say in their defence except of course it gave twenty thousand men work and so supported – Oh I don’t know, maybe a hundred thousand other family members.
So we all felt much better about it afterwards, the liberal Western middle classes...and don’t worry about the hundred or so thousand locals who mostly starved and died, they were never going to write to the Guardian anyway.
Tuesday, 15 December 2009
Monday, 14 December 2009
Friday, 11 December 2009
Adam Smith would have disapproved of all this because by then even he was having his doubts about his very own invention - the transcendent wisdom of the unregulated market...and that was it, Scotland's history for a century and half taken care of....
Monday, 7 December 2009
Now some of her constituents are trying to deselect her - while she is making every effort to keep her seat. How is she doing this..? By holding small closed meeting, closed to the press and the TV reporters and closed to anyone who is unlikely to support her, while in the necessary fast trot to her car before and afterwards, refuses to answer any questions from behind a eerily animated smile that hovers close to a smirk.
She will probably make it back after the next election as the only thing likely to bring her down would be another Labour candidate splitting her vote and letting one of the other main parties in - Liberal maybe..!
But that isn't the point, the point is this general and now pervasive mistrust has caused a widespread apathy from the public conviction that nothing will change because nothing can change with a political elite who will continue working the system for themselves and themselves alone. And what will happen then..? Somewhere in some unlikely backwater a young Adolf will be sharpening his deadly skills, some poisoness, lethal demagogue will be limbering up...