Sunday, 19 February 2017

A month in, Trump tells us what to think of him

Of the many bosses I’ve had the privilege to meet over a long career, one of the more memorable impressed me particularly when he called his entire team together and announced to us that, “I’m very good at what I do”.

Most of my fellow-attendees seemed to agree with him. They were smiling and nodding, their eyes shining with admiration. My own different sentiments probably left me in a minority of one, making me something of a jarring note in a company that was otherwise no doubt entirely to his taste.

It may be old-fashioned of me, but I feel that if someone needs to tell me he’s good at his work, he probably isn’t. I’ve worked with a great many people who do a good job and generally you can see from the results of their efforts. You don’t need them to point it out.

We hadn’t worked together long by then and I realised in the meeting that we wouldn’t be working together much longer. At the time, this man who was so good at his work had been twelve months without winning a single sale of his inadequate, defect-ridden product. By the time I left, he’d been eighteen months without sales of that same inadequate product.

At least I came away with a clear measure of the impressive quality of a man good at his work.

All this came back to me when I heard Trump’s words in Florida, where he went to address an audience who felt for him as my colleagues had felt about my boss.

…you've seen what we've accomplished in a very short period of time. The White House is running so smoothly. So smoothly. And believe me, I and we inherited one big mess. That I can tell you, but I know that you want safe neighborhoods where the streets belong to families and communities, not gang members and drug dealers who are right now as I speak being thrown out of the country and they will not be let back in.

Trump in Florida,  with his star-struck fans
The accomplishments have been spectacular indeed. His choice for national security adviser had to stand down, as did his nominee for Secretary of Labor. He orered the exclusion of all visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries, even if they were innocent of any offence against the United States, even though no one from those countries has ever launched a terrorist attack on US soil. As well as being unjust, the measure was probably illegal, and judges threw it out of court.

If these are accomplishments, it’s hard to imagine what failures would look like. And if this smooth-running, it’s hard to imagine what inept amateurs would do.

It’s as though the White House was in the hands of a braggart whose capacity for narcissistic self-delusion was rivalled only by his incompetence.

Or as though my ex-boss had been become President of the United States.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Time for a new Irish joke

It’s been wonderful spending a few days in Ireland. There’s a warmth and generosity to the people here that keeps surprising me, used as I am to the much rougher edge of England. And the place is beautiful.

Dr Steevens' hospital in Dublin
You can query the spelling of the name, but not the charm of the place
Its ironic that the English have the gall to make jokes mocking the Irish.

Not every one of the jokes is bad, as it happens. My favourite is a classic, the answer to a tourist lost in an Irish village who asks, “is this the way to Dublin?”

“Oh,” he’s told, “if I was going to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.”

Of course, the real reason I like it hasn’t anything to do with Ireland. It applies so much better in the world in which I spend much of my time, that of English business. In serious meetings about such crucial matters as strategy (“whenever I hear the word ‘strategic’,” a former boss once told me, “I get a chill up my spine because I know it’s going to cost me money”), I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, “we really should have completed that product last year” or “we should have taken on more staff” (sometimes in the variant form, “we shouldn’t have made all those staff redundant”) or “it’s a pity we don’t have more contacts in that area”. Whenever I hear anything like that, I want to scream that we didn’t, or we haven’t, or we don’t, and that we are where we are and that’s the only starting point we can work from.

It was fascinating to see how many Irishmen talked about Brexit. They’re preparing for it, but in discussing Brexit with us, they always have a metaphorical shake of the head, as though to say, “what on Earth are you Brits thinking of? Have you taken complete leave of your senses?”

Actually, one of the people I spoke to didn’t even leave it metaphorical. She just asked what possible form of brainstorm had affected Britain.

Most are a little more polite than that. In words, at least, even when their actions speak loud. One told me that he’d lived and worked four and a half years in London but has just moved back. He had been working in one of the many Europe-wide organisations that have their headquarters in Britain.

“They’ve already begun cutting back on staff, and others have gone of their own accord. I didn’t apply for other jobs but when this one came up, I leaped at it immediately. I don’t want to be around when the whole card castle collapses.”

“You think your organisation will move away?”

“I can’t see how they can stay, can you? And practically every capital in the other 27 states has already put in a bid to house it. You can’t miss the writing on the wall…”

This all leaves me feeling it’s time for a new joke, to be told by the Irish at the expense of the English. It would go something like this:

“Did you hear about the Englishman who decided to leave the European Union?”

“No. What happened?”

“Oh, that’s it. Nothing else. There isn’t a punchline.”

It’s not very funny, I know. But isn’t that the whole point? Brexit may be laughable, but in a pretty mirthless way.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Birds of a Brexit feather?

Birds of a feather flock together, they say. Or to put it the way the French do, tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are.

Erdoğan, Trump and May. Birds of a feather? 
Germany has just elected a president of the centre-left, backed by both the two biggest parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and her coalition partners, the Social Democrats.

It was interesting to be in France last week. Support for the Conservative candidate for the presidential election in May has collapsed, following the publication of revelations about his use of nearly a million euros of public money to employ as political assistants his wife (who claims she did no work or him) and his children (who weren’t qualified for the work they were ostensibly asked to do. Meanwhile, the far-right candidate, Marine le Pen, may we have seen her support peak, at a shockingly high level – perhaps as high as 30% – but with a growing probability that she’ll struggle to raise it any higher and will therefore miss her chance at the presidency. This has raised hopes that  a moderate candidate of the centre left, Emmanuel Macron, may take the prize.

Following on from the defeat of the hard right candidate for the Austrian presidency, it begins to feel as though the unappetising xenophobic nationalism that has gripped Trump’s America and Brexit Britain may not after all be unstoppable. It may, indeed, already have reached its high-water mark.

There’s a glimmer of hope in the darkness, then. A sense that the infection that has been poisoning our societies can be resisted. A growing feeling, even, that Europe can pull together, stand united, and uphold the kind of values we thought, in pre-Trump days, were secure in the democracies.

Sadly, for those nations where the populist currents have already wreaked their toxic harm, that doesn’t make life any easier. Facing a cold, bleak world out there, Britain is having to go, cap in hand, to some dubious friends. In order that it can leave the EU and turns its back on the old friends who may soon be making a stand for the principles we previously believed Britons held dear.

Theresa May was proud to be the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump. That’s the man who, on grounds of security against terrorism, has been trying to exclude foreigners from seven countries which have never been the source of an attack on American soil. Foiled by the judiciary in his first attempt to impose that diktat, he has resorted to attacks on judges worthy of autocrats anywhere. He’s not keen on journalists who dare to criticise him either.

His visitor, it seems, isn’t that keen on them either. It has been revealed that May’s government is planning legislation against whistle-blowers that threatens them, and journalists who publish the information they provide, with prison. Another hallmark of the authoritarian regime.

Which leads neatly into the tale of May’s next foreign visit, to Turkey. There she called on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the strong man who hasn’t merely attacked the judiciary in words, but has dismissed 125,000 people from their jobs, including police and judges, on no better grounds than a denunciation by anonymous informers. Indeed, he even has 45,000 in gaol facing terrorist charges.

Trump and Erdogan. These are the people Brexit Britain has to hang out with.

Does that tell us what Britain’s becoming? Because that feels like a pretty dismal picture of the nation.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Warm memories of hard times

It’s a pleasure to write this post in the dining room at Basel railway station in Switzerland, a setting of some historical importance for my family.

Basel station dining room: tasteful, pleasant, even luxurious
Now as it was 70 years ago
1946 was a hard year for Britain. The Second World War finished the country as a world power. By loading itself with debt and throwing all its resources into the fight, along with quite a few from its imperial possessions, the country managed to defend its home soil against Nazi Germany. It couldn’t go over to the offensive without support from the US. There was no question of its playing a significant role in the Pacific Theatre. That lack of strength and its crippling debts would spell the end of the empire in the first couple of decades after the war, a time when the country would also awaken to a sense that it should perhaps be less concerned with playing the world power, and focus instead on internal justice and opportunity.

That’s a lesson the nation could do well to learn again, in the face of the great power nostalgia that expressed itself in the Brexit vote. Why, Prime Minister Theresa May even suggests Britain can be a truly global player, a notion which would be amusingly quaint if it weren’t also a toxic delusion.

One of the organisations that was trying to improve internal conditions back in 1946, was the Fabian Society, one of the founding organisations of the British Labour Party.

“You didn’t work for the Fabian Society,” says my mother, who did, “if you wanted to make money. You did it for the principle.”

Bankrupt Britain was living with rationing. You could go abroad, but couldn’t take more than £10 with you. That’s the equivalent of nearly £400 today, hardly a princely sum – a yearly membership at Trump’s golf club in Scotland costs six times more. On a Fabian Society salary, however, even scraping together £10 wasn’t easy. To enjoy a foreign holiday, only the second in her life – the first had been nineteen years earlier, when she was three – my mother had to find an inexpensive option.

Fortunately, she had a German friend also working for the Fabians. The friend’s mother had managed to get out of Germany with her daughter during the Nazi period, after having spent some time producing clandestine opposition publications. The daughter reckoned she could sleep anywhere, having got used to being put to bed in cellars with the press clattering in the background.

Her friend told my mother about an organisation that was helping Germans trying to put themselves back together after the Hitler regime – Jews in some cases, but generally any Socialists, Communists, or others who’d opposed the Nazis and had suffered mental or physical injuries from which they needed to recover. The organisation had an Alpine chalet in the Ticino, the Italian-speaking Swiss canton. Whenever there were spare places, they could be made available to Fabians who wanted a holiday at reasonable cost.

It turned out to be one of my mother’s best holidays, one she remembers with pleasure and in detail seventy years on.

One of the key moments came after an overnight train journey down to Basel, her first stop in Switzerland. While they waited for the train out, they repaired to the station dining room for breakfast. Where, to use an anachronistic expression, they had their minds blown.

“The piles of fine white bread!” she tells me, “the heaps of butter! The jam! The coffee with creamy milk swimming in it!”

Bankrupt Britain, cold and with food rationed, could offer nothing to rival it. This, for the generation whose youth had been broken by the war, was luxury.

No wonder she remembers it so fondly to this day. So should we, who take such riches for granted. To say nothing of the international collaboration that guarantees the peace on which they rest.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

In resisting an autocrat, does good taste really matter?

“An address by a foreign leader to both houses of Parliament is not an automatic right, it is an earned honour,” House of Commons speaker John Bercow told fellow MPs. “Before the imposition of the migrant ban, I would myself have been strongly opposed to an address by President Trump in Westminster Hall. After the imposition of the migrant ban by President Trump, I am even more strongly opposed to an address b President Trump in Westminster Hall.”

As far as the House of Commons is concerned, claimed Bercow, “I feel very strongly that our opposition to racism and sexism and our support for equality before the law and an independent judiciary are hugely important considerations.”

Pretty blunt. Especially as such values as equality before the law and an independent judiciary are fundamental to the United States Constitution itself. He seemed to be accusing Trump of denying not just international political and moral principles but those on which his own country is founded.

That accusation was made still more harshly elsewhere. This week, the generally sober German weekly Der Spiegelhit even harder, with a cover that has raised an outcry even among people who don’t see themselves as allies of Trump’s. They feel it’s over the top to depict Trump with a knife in one hand and the head of the Statue of Liberty, dripping blood, in the other, over the caption ‘America First’.
A picture that lacks charm, perhaps,
but does it lack accuracy?
Critics view the drawing as tasteless, which it certainly is. But, I’d ask, is Trump a champion of good taste himself? At one end of his violent range, he rails at opponents in abusive tweets; at the other, he tries to exclude from the US people who have already been through severe vetting and issued with a visa.

Surely a visa is a commitment to allow someone to enter? Suddenly revoking it sounds like the breach of a promise. Now that’s tasteless. And those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

This strikes me as a good time to remember words that sum up the promise to the world the US once made, a promise that embodies much that’s best in the country.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

A land of liberty welcoming the oppressed of any other country straining for freedom.

It’s a vision of the US that makes many Americans proud. Not Trump or his supporters, though, one imagines. Unless they don’t see the contradiction between the words and the travel ban, which is is possible: their mental gymnastic ability is often breathtaking.

Of course, you know where the words most famously appear: on the plinth of the Statue of Liberty.

Could Der Spiegel be on to something?

Monday, 6 February 2017

The city of Strasbourg: a place of bridges, not walls

The city of Strasbourg is well worth visiting. For us, it’s particularly pleasant to be back here. We lived in the region for ten great years.

Today, we even popped by the war memorial, not because it’s particularly beautiful – it isn’t – but because it’s so rich in symbolism.

Not the most beautiful of memorials, 
but certainly one of the richest in undercurrents of meaning
The woman is Alsace, the province which has Strasbourg as its capital. In French, Alsace is feminine; in German, Elsass is neutral. There’s more to representing her as a woman that might at first seem obvious.

The two young men on her knees are naked because it would be painful to show them in uniform: they wouldn’t necessarily be wearing the same one. Alsace lost more men in World War Two than any other part of France, because the Nazis regarded the province as German, so young men were called up for service in the Wehrmacht and many died on the Russian front, wearing grey not blue.

That’s why the plinth reads “à nos morts”, to our dead, leaving out the usual words, “pour la patrie”, for the Fatherland. It would take far too much explanation if anyone asked which Fatherland they laid the lives down for.

It’s useful to stand in front of that monument. It’s a helpful reminder of what the European Union’s about. It isn’t really about the shape of bananas or the size of any one country’s contributions to the common budget. It’s about making sure we avoid ever engaging again in that kind of futile bestiality, dividing a province and even individual families. 

To say nothing of the entire continent.

Brexit specifically undermines the initiative to secure peace after centuries of war. That alone should be a matter of shame for Britain for generations to come.

There’s far more to Strasbourg than the war memorial, of course.

There’s Christian’s which has to be the best chocolate shop I’ve ever come across anywhere in the world. It’s just wonderful to pop in there for a hot chocolate, especially as the snooty waitresses always seem to make a point of letting me understand that I absolutely don’t belong there. I’m far too uncouth.
Oh dear, oh dear.
Not the way to behave – or dress – in Christian's.
We showed up in Christian’s this morning and covered the table with a computer and three phones, one of which was connecting the laptop to the internet. Neither of us was wearing suitable attire – neatly tailored jackets, a discrete touch of silk beneath them, or perhaps some fine creation in linen – and we were talking English. Absolutely the wrong tone. I always think that Christian’s would embody the spirit of Brexit perfectly, with its exclusivity and conviction of superiority, if it were translated into French. The difference, of course, is that at least Christian’s serves fabulous hot chocolate (I had Ecuadorian – magnificently spicy) whereas, if Brexit has any redeeming features, I’ve yet to discover them.

Another advantage of Christian’s is that it’s close to Strasbourg’s lace cathedral which takes the breath away even when you’re used to it.
Lace Cathedral
And then there’s the rive Ill (nothing sick about it, I assure you), for another form of beauty in the setting winter sunshine.
The River Ill at sunset
Ah, Strasbourg. Lynchpin of Europe. Jewel on the Rhine. A river now crossed near the city by four bridges (including a footbridge and an international tram bridge, would you believe), turning it into a link between two new friends, instead of a barrier between old enemies.

So refreshing when one lives in Britain, intent on turning the Channel once more into a Trump-like wall.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Under and over dressing in Luton

Wandering back towards my car through central Luton yesterday, I was surprised to hear a woman shout at a figure further down the road, “oh, put some clothes, why don’t you?”

I looked up and there, indeed, was a man coming the other way, stark naked. He wasn’t even wearing shoes. And yet it wasn’t as though he had no clothes. On the contrary, he was carrying shirt and trousers and, as far as I could tell from a quick glance, other items of clothing, neatly tucked under his arm. In the other hand, he was dangling a pair of shoes.

He seemed to be providing something of a public service. People had stopped to comment on his passage, giving them a moment’s distraction from their usual chores. Though, mostly, they were expressing disapproval.

“There are kids around. They might see him.”

It was difficult to understand what harm the sight might do them. I don’t like to stare at people’s genitals, especially if they’re not wearing clothes, but even a glance was enough to establish that he had some. They were, however, in a perfectly – how shall I put this? – quiescent state. Nothing about him suggested sexual appetite, let alone sexual threat.

Further up, his body, though not that of a young man, was in exceptionally good form. Abdominal muscles well delineated, good pectorals. A matter not of condemnation but of envy. I suspect I couldn’t have come near that level of bodily fitness had I gone far more regularly to the gym than I ever have, even starting from a lot younger than I am.

Still, all around me I heard disapproval being voiced. Some, like the woman I first heard, were shouting advice at him. Much of it was ribald.

It all strikes me as bizarre. Surely none of us can be unfamiliar with the structure of the human body. What’s our problem with seeing it? It was unusual, certainly, to put one on display in that way, but why should it be shocking? To me, it seemed the man was more to be wondered at than condemned: I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to lay aside a single stitch of the clothing I was wearing, on a cold, grey February day. Nor would I want to walk the streets of any town in bare feet.

Besides, given the weight of disapproval any such act of non-conformism with common standards is likely to attract, I’d have to wonder about the mental state of a man who willingly incurs it. If he’s deliberately, rationally attacking convention, good luck to him. If he’s making a desperate plea for attention out of a place of unhappiness, he deserves sympathy, surely, far more than reprobation.

I’d have liked to illustrate this post with a picture of the man, if only to prove that the incident happened. But to have taken a photograph would, I felt, be to line up with those who felt it was strange. Or possibly to attract attention to myself for entirely the wrong reasons.

So instead I’ve picked a picture of some who are more heavily dressed. I’m not sure, however, it would appeal much more to the shocked observers I saw yesterday than he did. But then, there’s no pleasing some people.

What are you complaining about? They're fully dressed.