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"This is the devilish thing about foreign affairs: they are foreign and will not always conform to our whim." (James Reston)

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since 29/08/2002


Brexit: what's next? 06/07/2016

When the Brexit hits the fan

Brexit: what's next? In two months’ time we shall have a new Prime Minister, whose most pressing and difficult task will be to pilot our nation through the uncharted waters of separation from the European Union. As I write it looks unlikely that this Prime Minister will be one of those who were at the forefront of the Brexit campaign. If so, this would in one way be a pity, since they will not therefore have to take responsibility for clearing up the mess they have created. In another, it would be a relief to see none of them rewarded with high office for the irresponsible dishonesty with which they campaigned. Whoever the new PM proves to be, the prospects facing them will be daunting. So far as we have been told, no plan exists for disengagement from the EU, or for mitigating the collateral damage that will result. Even the Leavers had no plan recognisable as such. The “Action Plan” they published was nothing of the kind, but a flimsy farrago of wishful thinking – shorter and less detailed even than this review. Let’s hope that Cameron’s government had a contingency plan for what to do if they lost, and that the new government will inherit it as a basis for developing their own. If not, our future looks as incoherent as it is dire, but let’s hope so anyway. And, while we’re hoping, let’s try to formulate what a good plan might look like for navigating our way through the swamp into which we have been steered. The divorce settlement First on the agenda will be negotiating the terms of our ...

How will you vote in the European Referendum? 21/06/2016

Trade talks

How will you vote in the European Referendum? Glad to see this topic is now listed. How shall I be voting in the referendum? REMAIN, in the hope that nothing like what follows ever actually takes place. “Good morning, Chancellor Merkel. Boris Johnson here, you know, the new British Prime Minister.” “Good morning, Mr Johnson, and congratulations on your appointment.” “Thank you. But do call me Boris. And may I call you Angela? I hope we’re going to be friends.” “For now, I think it is better if we keep to the formalities.” “But you were on first name terms with Cameron, weren’t you?” “Yes, but then David and I were colleagues, working together as heads of government within the European Union. Since you will be taking your country out of the EU, that will not be the case with us.” “Yes, well, that’s rather what I wanted to talk to you about. You know, arrangements between Britain and the EU after we’ve left. Trade and all that sort of thing. I’m hoping we’re going to be able to work out a super-duper deal, best thing for everyone.” “Your hopes, Mr Johnson, are not my concern. And it is not the correct protocol to speak with me about this. You should be addressing the Commission in Brussels.” “Well, yes, I understand all that. But it seemed worth having a quick word with you first, just the two of us. After all, everyone knows that it’s you Germans who really pull the strings around Europe, so if you and I can see eye to eye on what needs to be done, I’ve every confidence you could get the rest to fall into ...

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? 07/06/2016

The mourning after

If we were given a referendum on the European Union would you vote for the UK to stay in or come out? Having tried, and failed, to persuade Ciao to list "the advantages and disadvantages of EU membership" as a current debating topic, I’m posting this piece under the most relevant, if outdated, existing heading. Obviously, we do have a referendum, and therefore still time to vote to avoid what follows. 24th June 2016. Grey and drizzly, a typically British day dawns over Downing Street, where you, David Cameron, reluctantly stir into wakefulness. You’d hoped and believed that it wasn’t going to happen, but it has. Your referendum gamble has failed, and in a typically British display of wilful contrariness, the electorate has voted to leave the European Union. Sickening to reflect that a cynical campaign based on distortion, half-truths and the odd blatant untruth has prevailed. But you, David Cameron, can’t even legitimately complain about that, considering the tactics you’ve been party to in previous campaigns, perhaps nothing quite so downright dishonest, but dishonest enough just the same. In any case, faux-patriotic fantasy has won the day, and as your punishment for defeat you find yourself still stuck in the real world and saddled with the task of picking up the pieces. You could, of course, resign and leave the mess to someone else, but to whom? Discredited by defeat, you will no longer have much influence and, in its current mood, the Tory Party would probably insist on plumping for one of the triumphant Brexiters. With Michael Gove lacking popular appeal, the ...

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? 06/06/2016

Ducking out

What are your favourite bank holiday activities? “The trouble with retirement is that you never get a day off,” or so said American basketball coach Abe Lemons, and I have come to share his feelings on the matter. Without the pressure of going to work, every day becomes much like every other, pleasantly relaxed but unexceptional. If you want to stay at home and do nothing, that’s fine. If you want to go on an outing – to the seaside, perhaps, or a museum or a stately home or even an amusement park – that’s usually fine too. Usually, but not quite always. For just occasionally you will set off on such an outing to find the roads to the relevant attraction jammed, the carpark packed and the place itself filled to overflowing with competing visitors. Only then do you realise that your plans have had the misfortune to coincide with a bank holiday, and that you should have stayed at home. Having been paying uncharacteristically close attention to the calendar lately, I notice that tomorrow is a bank holiday. I have to confess that as I have grown older my attitude towards bank holidays has changed. There was a time, not so long ago, when I was unreservedly in favour of them, and the more the better. A fine-tooth trawl through my reviews here on Ciao would reveal that I have not only welcomed the celebration of those that already exist but have suggested that extra ones should be scheduled as follows: every April to perpetuate the one introduced for the royal wedding five years ago; at the End of Spring (formerly known as ...

Côte d´Azur (France) 04/04/2016

Côte of many colours

Côte d´Azur (France) The older I grow, the less clear-cut are my opinions. So equivocal have I become that I’m not even sure whether to interpret this as a symptom of (i) early-onset senility, the brain gradually turning to mush, or (ii) late-onset wisdom, or sense of proportion at least. Is it possible to have a sense of proportion about the Côte d’Azur? When I first wrote about the region, thirteen years ago, I thought not: “You either love or loathe the Côte d’Azur. There is no middle way. Like all places that are extremes of their kind, it excites extreme responses, both for and against. “Take Cannes for example. Five minutes on La Croisette – the promenade – at Cannes is enough to confirm me in my life membership of the loathers. The place is so insufferably pleased with itself. The swanky hotels, each with its private parasoled stretch of beach across the palmy boulevard, down which red Ferraris and black-glassed Mercedes cruise, their numbers swelled by stretch limos during the Film Festival. The posh apartment blocks that blister the leafy hill behind the town – ‘Californie’ as it is locally known. The ostentatious white yachts in the harbour with their ostentatious bronzed owners noisily treating cronies to champagne. The fur-clad widows escorting their fur-clad poodles for a promenade and a coiffure. What’s not to dislike? “To me, Cannes reeks of having been fashionable for far too long; indeed, of having reached a point where it can regard itself as above fashion and able to look ...

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton 23/03/2016

Off the eaten track

A Braijade Meridiounale, Menton Menton, as you might expect for a resort on the French Riviera, is packed with eateries, including some swish fine-dining establishments priced to match. Personally, I’m no keener on swish fine-dining establishments than I am on the swisher resorts on the French Riviera, especially when they’re priced to match, so I always try to sniff out some swish-free value off the beaten track. And in Menton you don’t need to go too far off the beaten track to find it. In fact it can be found just a hundred metres or so along the main street of the old town, so you’d imagine many diners would discover it – but few appear to do so. Peering down the narrow Rue Longue from the gateway to the old town, you can’t actually see A Braijade Meridiounale or any other café, shop or restaurant. It lies just out of sight round a bend in the road. At night, the whole area falls eerily silent and its ill-lit alleys are peopled by shadows, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that prospective diners find the prospect forbidding and are deterred. Instead, they keep to the bright lights and hubbub of the newer, more resorty part of town. If so, that’s their loss, and, alas, the restaurant’s, even if it does make it easier for those who do find their way to the Braijade (as I shall refer to it from here on) to secure a table. Ambience and decor The restaurant fronts onto the Rue Longue, with three or four tables outside, doubtless a pleasant place to sit in summer, since the street is pedestrianised, but ...

Menton 12/03/2016

The likeable face of the Côte d'Azur

Menton When I wrote the original version of this review, some thirteen years ago, I knew exactly how I felt about Menton. It was the one place on the Côte d’Azur that I liked, unequivocally. Compared with glitzy Cannes, bustling Nice, money-mad Monte Carlo – or any of the other resorts along this overdeveloped, over-priced, too-long-fashionable coast – Menton held an altogether subtler and more powerful appeal. “Why?” I asked myself. “What’s so different? There are big hotels in Menton too, some with pretensions to swankiness, and apartment blocks, and yachts in the harbour, and pricey restaurants. There are widows with rinces d’azur, fur coats, gold jewellery and poodles in such numbers that one has to wonder what they’ve all done to attain such widespread widowhood. There are even specimens of la jeunesse dorée, although they look slightly lost, as if on their way to Saint-Tropez they somehow pointed their Porsches at the wrong slip road off the autoroute. “Subtly, though, the entire ambience is different, and induces a different mood. Menton is not flashy, nor even assertive. It is calm, relaxed, at ease with itself. Rather than being arrogantly above fashion, the town simply seems so self-possessed as to be impervious to it. You sense it has a long and comfortable history as a place of peaceful pleasure, and is content to remain just that, adapting to the ebb and flow of the times as necessary but never really altering.” Plus ça change All of which made it slightly ...

This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein 16/02/2016

The bigger issue

This Changes Everything - Naomi Klein What can we humans, as a species, do to overcome the most daunting challenge facing us today? That challenge is, of course, that all the practices we have come to rely on for our prosperity have grown to the point where their incidental impact on our natural habitat is threatening not only that prosperity, but our very survival. In other words, what can we do to avert the consequences of man-made climate change? Veteran campaigner Naomi Klein presents her own answer in this sometimes brilliant, but ultimately unconvincing, book. Mission statement Klein’s book is subtitled ‘Capitalism vs. the Climate’, foreshadowing the thrust of her case: that climate change and other environmental depredations are largely the fault of capitalism and are being irresponsibly aggravated by capitalists, who resort to all kinds of cynical propaganda and lobbying to obscure these facts and to prevent remedial action being taken. Multinational corporations, particularly those in the extractive and energy industries, are arraigned as the prime suspects behind this quasi-conspiracy. “There is still time to avoid catastrophic warming,” Klein asserts, “but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.” Hers is a case that needs to be answered, though this statement does rather imply that her essential purpose is to seek arguments for changing the ‘rules of capitalism’ rather than to present an ...

What's the best way to celebrate New Year's Eve? 31/12/2015

High on the Hogmanay

What's the best way to celebrate New Year's Eve? Oh lawks, it’s New Year’s Eve again. Too soon for my declining brain The world’s spun off another year, Spring, summer, autumn gone, I fear, And winter well into its stride. Indeed we’ve just had Christmastide – We’ve supped and drunk and overeaten This bitter season’s pill to sweeten And keep the icy chill at bay; Now here we are at Hogmanay. For yes, it’s New Year’s Eve again, That’s what our calendars ordain. Some celebration’s surely needed Before the old year’s superseded. If happy, it should be rewarded By being off the stage applauded, Whilst if you’ve found it were pretty dire Be glad it’s scheduled to expire, Giving you cause to shout hurray And raise a glass on Hogmanay. A glass? Of whisky? Or champagne? It scarcely matters; I’ll abstain From neither, no, nor even beer If that’s on hand to toast New Year. But where, with whom? Now there’s a question More to the point, for all ingestion For its enjoyment much depends On what you do and who attends; For there is truly many a way To celebrate on Hogmanay. When one is young and fit one’s main Object in life – need I explain? – Is meeting with the other sex, So New Year parties only vex If they do not include the chance To chat up talent, flirt and dance, Whilst midnight’s strokes are but the first Of many strokes, till, fit to burst You yield yourself to nature’s sway For an orgasmic Hogmanay. Such youthful ardour need not wane Once one is paired, but it is plain The urgency ...

Castries Market, St. Lucia 11/12/2015

Calypso Commerce

Castries Market, St. Lucia Sometimes, I find, you need a break from the beach. Not that I normally spend much time on beaches. There is only one place on earth that I go to laze around on the seashore watching the waves, and that is the lovely West Indian island of Saint Lucia, where I happen to know a hideaway hotel perfect for the purpose. But even when relaxing at the East Winds Inn* I occasionally become restless and want to see something of life outside its secluded grounds. At which point the time has come to venture out to the island’s capital, Castries, where there is plenty of local life to be found. Be happy Ideally, this restlessness takes hold on a Saturday, when Castries is at its most animated, above all because it’s market day. In truth the market is open every day, but it is on Saturday mornings that it really comes alive, when local producers bring their fruit, fish and vegetables to sell in an informal trading area behind the main market hall. In addition, an adjacent street is temporarily closed to traffic and is occupied instead by stalls selling all kinds of household goods and clothes. Both these areas jostle with colourfully-clad buyers and sellers amid a clamour of voices haggling, chatting and exchanging greetings. Meanwhile, the permanent market buildings, which chiefly house stalls offering handicrafts, souvenirs, T-shirts, hats, wraps and similar ware for tourists, are relatively quiet, unless there is a cruise ship docked in Castries harbour, when they too come to ...

Fattypuffs and Thinifers - Andre Maurois 20/11/2015

Does size matter?

Fattypuffs and Thinifers - Andre Maurois While searching on-line for Christmas gifts for my grand-nephews (you didn’t take all that stuff in my last review about trees literally, did you?), I was overjoyed to discover that Fattypuffs and Thinifers is back in print. When I last looked a few years ago, I could find only second-hand copies, but now there is a new paperback edition available to enthral a new generation of youngsters. And oldsters too, as I found on re-reading. Double trouble The story starts with the Double family, who are happily united despite a superficial difference in appearance and temperament. Mr Double and elder son Terry are thin, energetic and uninterested in food, whereas Mrs Double and younger son Edmund are fat, gluttonous and easy-going. Out playing in the woods one day, the two boys discover a cleft between two rocks, from which a mysterious escalator descends deep below the earth. Taking it, they emerge at length into a subterranean world, divided into two contrasting nations. The boys are separated, and skinny Terry is assigned to the Thinifer Republic, whilst chubby Edmund is directed to the Kingdom of the Fattypuffs. Fortunately, both have every reason to feel at home in their respective destinations, especially when taken under the wing of prominent local families. Terry finds himself lodged with the household of Mr Dulficer, Professor of History at the Thinifer National Academy, a gruff, demanding but essentially well-meaning host. Here, he is versed in the Thinifer way of ...

How to do Christmas presents while preserving the environment ? 10/11/2015

May all your Christmases be green

How to do Christmas presents while preserving the environment ? “Dear relative/friend/acquaintance/inadvertently-wrong-email-addressee, 1. As you may or may not have noticed, in the interests of cherishing the environment (nothing to do with saving money, perish the thought), I have not sent Christmas cards for some years, preferring to offer you my seasonal greetings by email, thereby preserving trees and reducing pollution from paper mills, printing works and postal vehicles. 2. To you all, therefore, once again for this year: Merry Christmas. 3. Mere acquaintances/inadvertently-wrong-email-addressees should now proceed directly to Para 16 below. 4. So should relatives and friends so distant or so little loved as to be omitted from my customary Christmas-Pressie list. If you wanted to be on it, perhaps you should have given me something sometime. 5. For those of you accustomed to receiving presents from me, let me explain that I have this year decided to apply the same green principles to gift-giving as to cards. 6. My initial step was to trawl the net for ideas for environmentally-friendly gifts. There are numerous sites that purport to specialise in such items, but none seemed wholly satisfactory. For a start, most of them seem to make only the haziest of distinctions between “environmentally-friendly” and “ethical” – a slippery term that encompasses all kinds of subjective value judgements of questionable relevance. Environmentalism is routinely conflated by these people with Fairtrade, Wholefood, and Vegetarian - all ...

Should we celebrate Halloween? 31/10/2015

Halloween Schmalloween

Should we celebrate Halloween? It's that time of year, alas, and Ciao's 'Current Debate' topic focuses yet again on Halloween. I won't be entering, having already expressed my views on the subject in the little rhyme below. Although originating on this side of the Atlantic, the deeply unpleasant festival of Halloween had been all but forgotten here until re-imported from America in the last few decades, presumably at the instigation of peddlers of cards and costumes. It would be best sent back there forthwith. Call me Scrooge-like, call me mean, But I just don't like Halloween. Call me, if you will, a grinch, For, given half a chance, I'd pinch This wretched festival and hide it Far out of sight. I can't abide it When young extortionists come knocking. It's criminal as well as shocking. Don't tell me they're just playing pranks; Those copying the beastly Yanks' Trick-or-treat protection racket Deserve a good kick up the bracket To teach them not to be so naughty. Call me pompous, call me haughty (It comes of being over forty - All right, plus a decade or two, Let me confess it, lest you knew) I can't face eating squashy pumpkins, A food not even fit for bumpkins When followed by tooth-rotting candy; Unless washed down with swigs of brandy This seems like a cuisine from hell. Meanwhile, the scooped-out pumpkin-shell, As lantern having served its time, Will end up full of sooty slime Its face caved in as if by bludgeon. Call me grumpy, a curmudgeon: You'll find me skulking in high dudgeon Come ...

Marx Memorial Library, London 20/10/2015

They'll keep the red flag flying here

Marx Memorial Library, London My first impression, on entering the Marx Memorial Library, was that it was like going back in time. But back to when exactly? Certainly not all the way back to the early 18th Century, when the handsome, listed, double-fronted edifice that contains the library was built, but when socialist ideology was in its infancy. Nor even to the mid-to-late 19th Century, when Karl Marx himself was living in London, and when the building first housed radical political groups. Perhaps to the early 1900s, when Lenin briefly had an office here when exiled in London. Or perhaps to the 1930s when the capitalist world was over-shadowed by the gloom of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, whilst the Soviet Union was widely seen as a beacon of hope by those who knew little of what actually went on there. 1933, the fiftieth anniversary of Marx’s death, was after all the year that the Library was founded. But there are also echoes here of the Cold War, when a rump of die-hard communists in the west closed their eyes and ears to all the iniquities committed on the other side of the Iron Curtain and continued to long for a Soviet victory. That is the era reflected in the interior décor, with its paintwork in tired municipal tones, though the art and artefacts on display also run the full gamut of the earlier periods. Behind the red door The crowd gathering to view Marx House – as the building is now called – ran the full gamut too. The occasion was London Open House weekend, when ...

Jeremy Corbyn 12/10/2015

Repetition, rhyme or now for something completely different?

Jeremy Corbyn Sometimes, admittedly not very often but sometimes, it proves useful to have a grounding in history, or perhaps just a reasonably retentive memory. I know, having read numerous newspaper columns to the same effect, that I am far from being the only one for whom Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party resounds with echoes of that of Michael Foot to the same position thirty-five years ago. In each case the party reacted to defeat by the Tories by moving sharply to the left, appointing a leader steeped in the lore of class struggle, syndicalism, nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. In each case too, a leader without much aptitude, or time, for the presentational skills conventionally regarded as essential for communication with the wider electorate. “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy…” In the early 1980s, the repercussions were swift and disastrous. Leading Labour moderates who could not stomach the leftward lurch broke away to form the Social Democratic Party (later to merge with the Liberals), splitting the opposition to Thatcher. Labour went into the 1983 election with a leader lacking Prime Ministerial credibility and a radically socialist manifesto, later characterised as “the longest suicide note in history”. The Tories, who might have been vulnerable if faced with a more persuasive foe, not to mention a united opposition, won by a landslide. There are, needless to say, those in the Conservative Party who hope that ...
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