Archive for the ‘Rants & Musings’ Category

China comes to my home

July 9, 2013

We are having a Chinese primary school teacher to stay. She and a bunch of other Chinese teachers are supervising 40 Shanghainese kids on an English language immersion trip to Cambridge. Since our teacher (the senior one) doesn’t speak much English, I figured it would be good for our kids to have a week practising their Chinese.

It turns out that our kids also get a cultural lesson thrown in for free.

The Chinese teachers and schoolchildren have been billeted with Cambridge families around town. So far so good. But in order to consolidate them in the morning  so as to get everyone to school, they are not using one of the regular Cambridge taxi firms. Instead they are using a Chinese taxi firm I have never seen before. It’s a guanxi thing, you see.

Sure enough the driver gets to our house already half an hour late having gotten lost. Being Chinese, he doubtless also left half an hour spare in case of mistakes, so the group has likely already wasted an hour this morning going to wrong places. Plus, of course, the actual origin to destination driving time.

Finally the car pulls up outside our house and disgorges two panic-stricken occupants, both teachers. Spotting Senior Teacher Zhang, who is staying with us, they head for our front door. ‘We need the toilet!’ they exclaim, pushing into the house and straight past me in the corridor. ‘Hello!’ says one, as he locates the downstairs toilet under the stairs and heads in. A female teacher, beaten to the downstairs toilet, scoots straight off upstairs in search of another one, quickly locating it.

I wander into the street with my espresso to take in the scene.

After a couple of minutes the toilet-seeking teachers reappear becalmed and join Senior Teacher Zhang and the others in the taxi.

‘Sank you!’ says one.

And with that the people who are taking over the world are off.

Weekend reading and viewing

June 21, 2013

Just started watching The Bridge, but I imagine the whole world has seen that by now. Not too bad. Below is the first 14 mins, enough time to decide if you like it.

What journalists deserve when they ask incredibly stupid questions. We’ve all been there as hacks. But this woman really cops it from Lou Reed. An interviewee after my own heart. See the very end.

Martin Wolf’s piece on Greece (sub needed) stuck in my mind this week.

The death of Michael Hastings in a car crash made me read his remarkable Rolling Stone story about Stan McChrystal in Afghanistan. It was the end of McChrystal in Afghanistan. He is now reduced to speaking with me at a conference in Wisconsin next week.

Booked my tix for the Young Lions, below, in the Django Rheinhardt festival in NY next week. What is not to like?

Only thing you can really say against them is that the original guy had two less (functioning) fingers

Just in:

US government files sealed complaint against Snowden. Britain’s government and GCHQ are mindless lickspittles (again); with their own, non-existent moral bottom line.

The Snowden White House petition will go through 100,000 signatures today, 22 June. If you are an American, sign this thing. You’ll have something that makes you proud to tell your kids.

Obama (below) does a good job of defending what has been going on (though he weasles around the hard bits). But in the end, he is wrong. Because he is defending a means of opposing terrorism that rests on intrusion into privacy and the support of despotic allies, with money and guns, instead of solving the problems that create terrorism in the first place. He needs to break out of this way of thinking. If he wants to be the greatest American president since Truman — and he should want that — he needs to go back and look at the way in which the United States headed off insurgencies in the 1945-52 period by supporting land reform programmes and tackling the root cause of poverty and anger in the third world. Think bigger. Drones and snooping are not the stuff of a great American leader.

Thought food

January 31, 2013

Here is a rather powerful piece of writing – particularly the historical analysis in the first half — encouraged by The Guardian’s George Monbiot having turned 50.

It connects up to this article about Nick Clegg who, I think, fails to recognise that if the Liberal Democrat party cannot be more principled than the Labour party, then there really is no reason whatsoever for its existence.


Completely separately

Have I entered a parallel universe, or did I just give a speech to a large conference in the US at which these were the newspapers people were reading?


Books about Salem I

September 19, 2012

Raffaele Sollecito’s book about his experiences in Italy’s witch-burning capital (and until recently my provincial capital), Perugia, is out. I haven’t read it, but The Guardian has an early review.

There are no surprises about the tales of police brutality and incompetence, which I have discussed at length under the ‘Italy to Avoid’ tab.

The one thing that grabs me is that Sollecito says both his family and his lawyers urged him to not to provide evidence in support of Amanda Knox in the hope that the police might let him off (because all they really wanted to do was convict a witch). That is the Italian parenting and the Italian lawyers we know and love. It also explains Sollecito’s evidence in court that he ‘couldn’t remember’ precise details of Knox’s movements the night of the murder. He found some sort of moral half-way house between honesty and the demands of his family and lawyers.

Amanda Knox’s book, out next year, will be much more interesting than this one. It looks like she is taking the time to give Perugia and the Italian judicial system the deconstruction they deserve.

IMF headlines you thought you’d never see

November 30, 2011

The FT (sub needed) today has an article headlined ‘IMF raises alarm on capital flows’. I kid you not.

It is about a new IMF report highlighting cross-border risks from uncontrolled capital flows. This from the agency which helped global banks rape half the world by campaigning for the premature lifting of capital controls in Latin America and Asia in the 1970s and 80s. (You will remember that the IMF was trying to make the abolition of all capital controls an objective in its Articles of Association in the midst of the Asian financial crisis in 1997.)

The FT is apparently unaware of the ironies inherent in an article of this nature. One era just segues into another.


Rich and miserable, by graphs

November 15, 2011

Krugman highlighted a great site on his blog this week. And it is a great site, so here’s the link if you haven’t seen it.

The World Top Incomes Database has income distribution data for 22 countries, with more being added, over long periods of time. Go to the graphics page and you can call up series for different shares of the population for your favourite countries.

I went for the top 5 percent of tax payers in the UK, US and Denmark since 1900. The top 5 percent of earners in the US and UK have gobbled 25-30 percent of national personal incomes in recent years. In Denmark — the country which consistently tops out the rankings in European ‘happiness’ surveys — the percentage is consistently under 15 percent. (UK and US shares were of course lower until the well-known inflection point in the 1970s).

Unfortunately I can’t reproduce the graph here. But you can make your own.

Liberal parenting II: blending seamlessly into Cambridge

October 31, 2011

I have gotten into the habit of taking the kids on a very beautiful walk in Cambridge. We cycle five minutes down to the west gate of Kings, lock up the bikes, and enter the college via its back door. We walk down to the college’s internal bridge over the river Cam, survey passing punts and geese, take a loop around the gardens, and exit the front gate to a tiny cake shop down an alley opposite. This is the pay-off for the children. Caked-up, the three of them gambol merrily around the corner to Clare College — to me the most beautiful — via whose courtyards, bridge and fellows’ garden we return to the other side of the river and our bikes.

It is hard not to feel pleased with yourself in such august surroundings with three attractive children behaving with reasonable decorum. I am normally too nervous of them to enter any of the college buildings. But today, seeing there is a service in Clare chapel I accept the request of the eldest to take a look. Arriving early, we mill around with devout, serious-looking old people in the narthex. After a couple of minutes, I am summoned animatedly by the eldest child, eight, to view a large book displayed in the middle of the room in which people are writing names.

‘What is this?’

[I ponder.] ‘It is an ‘In Memoriam’ — in memory — book where people are invited to write the names of those who have died in the last year so that they can be remembered in prayers.’

‘Grandpa died three years ago. Who can we write in the book?’

[Pause.] ‘I don’t know anyone who died in the past year.’

‘I do — Gaddafi.’

‘You are not writing Gaddafi’s name in that book.’

‘Why not? He died this year and someone should remember him.’

‘Because, because…’

‘He died a few days ago… How do you write his name?’

Luckily, at this point the eight-year-old’s younger male sibling butts in with a very loud ‘I don’t like churches’. Before the four-year-old — who originated this refrain and caused a major scene in St Peter’s in Rome last year — can join in, I herd them out.


English honeymoon

September 6, 2011

Last week I loaded a child into the car and headed north, through Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium to the UK. The wife and other kids joined us this week. We will spend at least a year in Cambridge. I cannot say that I am sad to have moved my base away from Italy at this point, although we will be back regularly and there are friends we miss.

It is the first time we have lived properly in England for 20 years and there are forgotten marvels to remember, as well as new ones to behold.  I have been enough of a regular visitor over the years to know how much chocolate is sold in petrol stations. But on family visits to Marks & Spencer and Tesco we are dumbfounded by the number of refrigerated aisles containing those processed foods that Brits eat so much of. (At least six in a row just in M&S, versus two in our Italian supermarket. Many, many more in a hangar-size Tesco.) On a hot September day we are suddenly desperate to wrap up warm while inspecting the rows of chilled curry dishes, mezze, pasta favourites, pre-cooked joints of meat and the rest. The stuff is staggeringly expensive when you think how much veg you can buy for 10 quid. And yet for people not habituated to daily fresh food preparation, these offerings are compelling.

Tesco now has self-checkout counters which allow your children to experience at an early age the type of employment they can expect if they do not pay attention at school. First time round they find the work invigorating, especially when an item fails to scan and they have to call for assistance. But I reckon that by Christmas they will have figured out that it is worth up-skilling somewhat.

On Sunday morning we rise early for a ‘car boot’ sale — and it does not disappoint. About 100 people have their car boots open by 9am, offering up the most indescribably useless tat in return for money. A pair of low quality circa-1970 skis catch my eye. Imagine actually turning up to a ski resort with them. To be fair, the stuff is not that much worse than some of the junk displayed at the monthly ‘Retro’ Citta di Castello antiques fair — but whereas the Italians display their crap with a little finesse on tables in a beautiful piazza, here it is simply dumped on the Tarmac of a car-park. The children find the car boot sale as perversely interesting as I do, and when we leave I realise that we have acquired two serviceable children’s bikes for just £35. This could become a habit.

Part of the reason I came to England ahead of the rest of the family was to do appeals for school places. Our two eldest kids were offered places at their second choice primary school — 20 minutes by bike instead of five for the closest one — while the council wanted the youngest child to be shipped across town every day in a taxi to a new school several miles away. Cambridgeshire has the fastest-growing population in England and school places are failing to keep up. The appeal process was everything that Italy is not: immediate, decided by fairly sensible rules, and binding on the participants. The council puts its case, I put ours. The notion of sending the youngest child miles away by taxi was shot down and the council representative instructed to create a place at her first choice school. The other two kids were left with their second choices. We will have to cope with two different schools for now, but the situation is far from dire.

What else is immediately pleasing? Apart from the fact that Cambridge is very cosmopolitan and people are dedicated to getting stuff done in an unfussy way, I would say fast internet access. It really is another world after Italy. With connection speeds like these you could spend all day messing around on the InterWeb…

If you did, here are some examples of what you might find:

Bob Marley plays acoustic Redemption Song.

Brian Ferry covers Dylan’s A Simple Twist of Fate rather well.

A 12-year-old child plays You Shook Me All Night Long in his bedroom rather well.

ACDC’s Angus Young and Brian Johnson are interviewed by German TV while Angus nurses a tea mug.

Bob Dylan proves he is capable of smiling and having fun at Farm Aid in 1985.

Moreover Dylan keeps enjoying himself.

And Dylan really likes playing this song.

Bob Dylan is portrayed on the Simpsons.

Bob Dylan is portrayed on Family Guy with Tom Waits, Popeye and Ali.

Various interviews with people believed in some religions to sit on the left hand side of God the Father Almighty

Mr Dylan.

Mr Young.

Mr Waits.

Mr Cale.

Meanwhile back in Italy:

If this crisis were a movie, half the audience would be asleep. The government changes its mind every day about austerity budgets, there is no traction on structural reforms, the unions strike without offering any policy agenda of their own, Italian bank stocks are back in free-fall, and Italian bond yields are rising again despite the ECB having swallowed over Euro40 billion of government debt — much of which must be Italian — in the past three weeks. We all know the ending, so why not just cut to the IMF?

(Almost) nowhere to run to

February 22, 2011

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya… the list of north African countries to which Italian politicians may no longer be able to flee in exile gets longer every day. Bettino Craxi, the politician who ‘made’ Sivio Berlusconi, fled of course to Tunisia (here he is, all remorseful, on the beach). Italian spooks assisted the coup which brought the lately chased out Mr. Ben Ali to power.

Silvio himself might have been expected to skip off to his friend Muammar Gaddafi in Libya if things had gotten really nasty at home. But the way it is looking in Tripoli just now (here is some text from the first US tv crew in), there may be no north African option left. One feels for Silvio after all the effort expended smoothing the path of Gaddafi’s third son Saadi into Italian Serie A football, where he ‘played’ for four seasons and managed a cumulative half an hour on a first-team pitch. It is a wonder that Perugia, Udine and Sampdoria dared to leave him on the bench after his bodyguards in Libya had in 1996 killed eight opposing fans and wounded 39 for mocking this (please note) much underrated footballing prodigy.

Berlusconi has made multiple trips to Libya, including to Benghazi (search ‘Cooperation with Italy’) where the current rebellion started, but he likely won’t be going back soon. Gaddafi came to see Silvio in Italy several times, including just last August when he paid a modelling agency to supply him 200 nubile young women he could give a lecture to on the merits of (his version of) Islam. Muammar and Silvio were such a great team, but the former’s (liberal, London-educated) second son Saif going on telly and promising to keep shooting until the last bullet has put the relationship in a rather poor light.

I guess that in a worst case scenario Silvio can always go to Russia and see his best mate Vlad. But how would he keep his suntan up in Moscow? He could call in some of those unpaid holiday letting favours from Tony and Cherie (‘Flowers for me, Silvio?’) Blair, but he won’t get any more bronzed in north London. Surely there must be somewhere hot and dodgy left in the world where a man on the run can put his feet up? I know. Singapore!

Meanwhile: Stanley Ho, if you are watching, check this out. Perhaps you and Muammar should swap family management tips. Well, you both like ballroom dancing…

Fragrant harbour

February 1, 2011

I make it five times that Stanley Ho has changed his mind over his inheritance… in the last week. It was ‘You can have it’, ‘No you can’t’, ‘Yes you can’, ‘No you can’t’, and yesterday, 31 January 2011, ‘Oh go on, take it and just leave me alone with my dogs.’ Today, glancing at the headlines, it seems he may have changed his mind again but, frankly, I can’t be bothered.

Instead, here is a bit of commentary on the three videos that have been released on YouTube by Stan’s lawyer (I have used the link posted by David Webb). Let’s meet Stanley at home:

Video 1. Stan opens with: ‘We must get back Lanceford [the holding company he held all his big stuff through]’, speaking like and doing a great facial imitation of the bad guy at the start of an episode of Flash Gordon. Then the lawyer, more on him anon, asks Stan about some further comment for the press to which Stan replies he’s game as ‘I want to make it [the story] very big.’ Stan is already laying into Pansy, the daughter who is seen as both the most capable in business and about whom the most malicious and serious gossip circulates (perhaps these two things go naturally together). Then comes the now-famous: ‘It is something like robbery’ quote. Stanley says he wants to go ahead with legal action. Note the furnishing of Stan’s time-warp mansion on the south-side of HK island. To the left you can just catch a glimpse of a hideous mock-baroque table. The staff, family and nurses sneaking by the camera are also good value. In the foreground is the mandatory Chinese tea flask (must admit I have been caught on film with one of those myself) and a glass of hot water. ‘I want a fair division among my family,’ says Stan, before appearing to be pained by some inconvenient fact inside his head (like he never organised a fair division?).   At around three-and-a-half minutes you get a look at the always-on television, the electronic tombstone of the fading godfather. Stan’s ex partner Henry Fok was a big soccer fan, so at least with him you would get to take in the football. Another of Hong Kong’s octogenarian big boys is a closet Arsenal fan, and even has comfy sofas. Many are the mysteries of Confucianism… At the end Stan thanks the lawyer for having ‘blown up’ the whole affair in the space of a few days. The lawyer jokes about a huge fee to come. Or let’s say he laughs while talking about the huge fee to come; it may just be coincidence.

Video 2. Here Stan is trying to explain why he just withdrew legal proceedings and announced he had fired the lawyer. ‘The problem is Pansy,’ he starts. At this point I begin to become more interested in the lawyer than in Stanley. For one thing, you might argue that the lawyer is leading his client at the point at which he responds to Stanley: ‘To which I say: “So what?”’ The lawyer, Gordon Oldham, has a faded (south) Irish accent, though his profoundly undetailed official biography says only that he arrived ‘from the UK’ in Hong Kong 30 years ago. After Stan says Pansy is the problem, a woman, who for me has a stronger Irish accent, says off-camera: ‘But he [Stanley] is not afraid of her.’ What is going on here? My wildly speculative first thought is that there has long been a wee Irish mafia connected with the dogs and the horse-racing in Macau, but this is indeed wildly speculative. I must check further. The only thing I learn quickly from someone who knows Oldham quite well is that he is ‘a clever fellow’. Meanwhile in the video it is subsequently, I think, the Irish-accented woman off camera who butts in again to say to Stan: ‘Gordon will still represent you, ok?’ I think this is right, but then an ethnic Chinese woman I do not know moves across camera right to left saying ‘They made him, they made him [Stanley sign documents against his will]’. Stanley says he was forced during his television appearance to read ‘the plaque’ [cue card] organised by Pansy and Daisy. The video ends with the lawyer saying: ‘Are you telling me that I can now go ahead with filing and getting back your interests in Lanceford?’ To which Stan responds: ‘I suppose so…That’s what I want.’ The lawyer gesticulates everything to Stan as if he is an idiot. But Stan isn’t an idiot, even at the age of 89. After all, he is the one looking at the silly gweilo. Upshot of video 2. I think the lawyer has definitely got some questions to answer. I find it creepy the way he refers to Stan as Dr. Ho, using the title he never earned. Stan’s slaves, like Henry Fok’s (‘Dr. Ho’s office’, ‘Dr. Fok’s office’!) have long done this, but a self-respecting lawyer does not need to. I would also like to see the written consent from Stan to post this stuff to YouTube; it should have been put up with the postings.

Video 3. Roll on to January 30. Stan says Pansy says he can have his shares back, but it is ‘only words’. Third ‘wife’ Ina, who’s got a bunch of stock, doesn’t want to meet. (Ina was the ailing first wife’s nurse when Stanley got the hots for her. If you have ever seen the UK sit-com Are You Being Served you’ll have a picture in your head at this point.) Note that Stan here is saying he wants to get all the share scrip back and ‘then decide what to do’; do you remember the fair division promised in video 1, Stanley? Not much of interest here. It ends with Stan pointing out what a stand-up guy he has been.

Video 4. (Not yet released). Stan sits in his favourite cardigan looking into a full-length mirror intoning the mantra: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has shagged the most among us all?’ From a pair of old speakers the voice of Michael Jackson responds: ‘You have Stanley, you have’, followed by a trademark yelp. At length Stanely picks up a hand-held mirror and quizzes it: ‘Mirror mirror in my hand, who’s the foxiest in the land?’. From another pair of speakers, the double-deep voice of Errol Brown (per his legendary BabyCham add)  replies: ‘You da one, you da one Stan…’ This continues indefinitely.

A note on the lawyer, February 2:

The verdict from various people who know Gordon Oldham, personally and professionally, is that he is by no means the most amoral lawyer in Hong Kong (a warm breeze wafts across the Big Lychee as Ron Arculli, Stephen Cheong, Charles Lee and pals breathe a collective sigh of relief). Perhaps the mid-point of the opinions is one that calls him ‘aggressive and innovative and he doesn’t give a fuck about anything’. The others range from ‘decent guy’ to ‘slipperier than a donkey’s dick’ (the last, I would stress, is from a journalist who has only seen Oldham’s press performances). Anyhow, there does seem to be some consensus that posting Stan to YouTube without publishing his written consent and a full explanation of what is being done begs various question; as — and several people have said this pointedly — does the posting of edited interviews. You will notice there are plenty of cuts in the tapes. Can we have the full tapes please?

Mr Oldham has not responded to an email to the contact address given on his firm’s site yesterday. I will send another one.

Other points of interest: it seems that Oldham has not acted for Stan on other cases (at least ones I know about). Of course Stan, being a godfather, has almost as many lawyers as girlfriends, and so this is hardly surprising. But it does maintain one’s interest in knowing how Oldham got on the roster for this job. Finally, one who knows Oldham claims the accent is northern Irish, tho it sounded poshed up southern to me.

As to Stan’s choice of lawyer, I think it is good. There is an illustrious history of godfathers using gweilos to front for them when they need to do something very public. Remember all KS Li’s public relations problems at Hutchison in the 80s when he paid himelf a huge special dividend he had said he would not take? That was when he hired Simon Murray. Isn’t it great that everyone trusts white people? I think it’s fan-bloody-tastic.