Sunday, 30 March 2014

Shit happens, but sometimes that's not such a bad thing

Thirty years in business have left me with a highly-developed appreciation of bullshit.

Here are a few pearls for your delectation.

“I’ve glanced through it but need to read your document again at more leisure.”

Translation: “I haven’t read your paper at all, but by all means outline to me what it says, unless you’d like to just cut to the chase and let me tell you what you ought to be thinking.”

“I think this needs a discussion in a wider group.”

Translation: “I really don’t want to take a decision today, so let’s call a meeting for two weeks away and give me a bit of a reprieve.”

“We don’t really think of you as a supplier, more as a partner.”

Translation: “We know that all your clients tell you that they’ll open doors for you to take lots of other sales, in return for a discount, but we really, really will so we’d like a really, really big discount.”

What I hadn’t previously grasped was that as well as bullshit, horseshit is a highly desirable commodity. My wife Danielle cultivates two plots of land with three of her friends. This being the spring, it’s the time to get hold of dung and spread it liberally on the plants. And not just any old dung, apparently, but the well-seasoned stuff. Plants, it transpires, relate to dung like a connoisseur to fine wines: the young stuff may be enjoyable, but real appreciation only comes after it’s aged a bit.

So Danielle and our friend Moira presented me with an enticing prospect this morning. Go and shovel four year-old horse manure into plastic bags and cart them to our allotment. One of the great advantages would be that it would spare me having to play badminton, which is what I’d have been doing otherwise.

You can no doubt imagine how much the prospect attracted me. What better ways are there of spending a Sunday morning?


At the horse farm:
manufacturing plant converting raw material into finished product
As it happened, I was to be cheated of my opportunity to display real virtue. The woman who runs the horse farm had taken pity on her customers, and was offering the alluring stuff pre-bagged.


Shovel the stuff ourselves?
Or buy it at a pound a bag?
So hard to choose
So instead of the joy of shovelling, I simply loaded bags into the back of the car.

My simplified task: dump the bags in the car...


...and deliver them to target
The benefit became particularly obvious when I took a look at the heap I’d have been shovelling otherwise. 

What the task might have been.
Spade, wheelbarrow, back and arms. And what a setting.
It wasn’t until I dropped the stuff off that I at last learned my real lesson. That was when I realised that this ancient horse dung really was as wonderful as Danielle and Moira claimed. I only had to look at how the plants were visibly enjoying it. 
Incipient rhubarb.
Pushed upwards, with obvious pleasure, by the fine material around it
Why, I might even be forced to the conclusion that it’s richer and more beneficial than bullshit in the business environment.


Friday, 28 March 2014

Misty’s Diary: I’m sociable. And on a diet. Damn it

After a bit of a gap, I've managed to unearth another entry from Misty's diary, which I make available below for the general edification of mankind.


March 2014

Who’d be a cat? 

The domestic staff just appal me with their cheek. Why, you should have heard them last night, as they were chucking me out of the room. I mean, getting chucked out is bad enough. Hey, they let the dog spend the night, and all she does is lie on that silly mat of hers and snore. 

When I’m in the room, they don’t just get a presence, passive and dull, they get an experience. I’m genuinely affectionate, so I get right on the bed. Fairness is my middle name, so I make sure I give them both roughly equal time to enjoy the privilege of having me lying on them, and I go to the trouble of making sure I lie on different bits of them at different points of the night. I move around on the bed too, so that the duvet gets a bit of a fluffing up every now and then. 

You’d think they’d appreciate my thoughtfulness. 

What's it for if it isn't for sleeping on?
But no. They prefer to chuck me out. Unbelievable. 

As it happens, I thought they’d miss their opportunity last night, as I shot straight under the bed. Clever, I thought. They wouldn’t find me there. But obviously I had to come out, and the number 2 domestic was waiting. He pounced on me. 

And that’s when they added insult to injury. He made this great groaning sound over picking me up. If you don’t like picking me up, pal, you can just stop. You think I like it? I haven’t scratched you enough for you to get the message?

And that’s when the number 1 domestic added insult to injury. Really stuck the knife in. So disappointing, so treacherous, seeing I think of her as a bit of friend. Reliable, you know. A supporter.

“Careful of your back!” she called out to number 2. “He’s quite a lump, isn’t he?”

A lump? A lump? Me?

And the worst of it? They’ve put me on low-calorie feed! See what I mean about cheek?


See? At least six times my height to get at my bowl
And only to find it's low calorie...
Now, I admit I’m not anorexic. I like to think of myself as sleek. Particularly compared to them: they’re not exactly slim themselves. How shall I put this? Don’t want to call them lumps or anything – I don’t do rude, or at least not like them – but well – shall I just say “high BMI”? And when I go for food, I have to jump six times my height onto a shelf, and I do that just fine, thank you. I’d like to see them make that kind of effort. It’s about as much as they can do slump onto the sofa with their heaped plates of food, to watch TV while they stuff themselves. Pathetic.

To top it all,when they do that, they can’t even make a lap for me. They just sit there gobbling away and watching some bloody silly thriller with subtitles (do they think that a TV series has to be better for being in Italian or Danish? I suppose it does make it more mysterious but, hey, isn’t that something that ought to be left to the plot?)


I don't mind watching the series that actually make sense.
At least this one isn't in a foreign language
No lap means nowhere for me to lie. Which is pretty much the same as chucking me out of the bedroom. How can I show my affection if they don’t let me? And then domestic 2 moans on about me being anti-social.

Anti-social? He whinges about my weight. He chucks me out of the bedroom. He keeps me off his lap so he can stuff his fat face. And then he says I’m anti-social?

Anti-social, me?
Here I am entertaining domestic number 1
and one of her friends
Actually, I like nothing better than company. Unlike him I have real manners. And I’m happy to blend in with others.

Look. I'm even nice to the neighbours
If he’s not getting that treatment, isn’t it perhaps time he asked himself what he’s doing wrong, rather than me?

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Archaeology, myth and magic

Stonehenge.
Awe-inspiring construction designed to play with sunlight
There are few sights as awe-inspiring in England as the great circle at Stonehenge, mute testimony of a great civilisation four and a half millennia ago.

Stonehenge is part of a wider area full of neolithic remains, including my favourite, the great circle of unshaped, mismatched stones at Avebury stone circle.

It was during a visit to Avebury some years ago that I was told the story that moved me most about Stonehenge, and about its relationship to another site only a coupe of miles away, at Durrington Walls, sometimes called Woodhenge. As the name implies, it was made of wood which has, inevitably, rotted away leaving only the holes in which the great posts once stood.


Archaeologists have found pottery shards and animal bones in the area, suggesting that eating and drinking took place in Woodhenge – feasting, in fact. That, together with the perishable nature of wood, suggests that Woodhenge may have been a place associated with life, an idea that has been strengthened by more recent archaeology which uncovered the remains of a settlement of nearly 1000 houses nearby, quite a size for the time.

Woodhenge,
reconstructed by Sheffield University Archaeologists
An avenue (cleverly named ‘The Avenue’) leads from Woodhenge to Stonehenge. Stone feels permanent, like death or the afterlife. So the passage from Woodhenge to Stonehenge seems akin to the passage from life to death and, indeed, bones have been found buried at Stonehenge, but no trace of feasts.

So there’s a highly attractive idea that on the death of a prominent person, his or her body might be brought to Woodhenge, for a celebration of the life well lubricated with food and drink, after which the body would be transported towards Stonehenge, the place of stone and of death, for burial.

In other words, the mourners would accompany the dead on the first steps of the passage from the world of the living to the world of the dead, symbolised by the avenue between the henge of transitory life and the henge of lasting death.

It’s speculation of course, but we’re a society that loves our fiction, aren’t we, whether we read it or watch it. So why shouldn’t we go for a story as attractive as this one? After all, it’s plausible and consistent with the evidence. I for one find its charm quite enough for me to accept it, at least until anyone comes along with any evidence to disprove it.

However, why am I telling this story now?

Because I listened yesterday to the most recent episode in the excellent BBC radio series Beyond Belief, dedicated to the subject of Stonehenge. It reminded me for the story of the passage from wood to stone, as an allegory of life to death. But what really made me want to write about it was another remark by one of the experts.

Stonehenge, as is widely known, was built to align with the sun at key times of year, the solstices and the equinoxes. Archways of stone were set up so the light would shine through them and onto the altar at just the right moment. Pretty remarkable stuff in a society without maps, timepieces or astronomical equipment. I hear many people speaking of these achievements in hushed tones of awe-filled fervour.

So I was delighted to hear Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, say of the construction that it was “very cleverly thought out and rather badly done.” It turns out that the main archway, through which the light of sunset at the winter solstice, they dying light of the dying sun, was supposed to shine, was built in a hopelessly unsatisfactory way: one great stone was found for it, but the other was far too short. It had to be set up in too shallow a hole, but since it had a projecting piece at the bottom, a sort of foot, presumably the builders thought it would hold.

It didn’t. It fell and broke, and down came the horizontal slab at the top. So the key element of Stonehenge, its crowning glory, was destroyed through shoddy construction.

Now that story moves me particularly deeply. It brings those distant ancestors to life, and much closer to our lives today. I can just imagine the contractor talking things over with the high priest.

“Well, it’s not as good as having a proper stone, mind. It’s too short, see, it’ll never hold, not in the long term.”

“But it’ll last a while?”

“Oh, sure, it’ll do that. It’ll see you and me out, I’ll warrant. But – a few generations? Maybe not.”

He holds his hand flat and wobbles it from side to side.

“And what’s the alternative?”

I imagine a sucking noise on the teeth.

“Weeeell... That would mean heading back to West Wales... Finding another stone to match the one you’ve got. Dragging it down here, and you know how long it took for the first one... That’d be adding a few years to the project. And as for the budget! You’d have some explaining to do to the chief...”

The high priest looks aghast.

“OK, do the best you can. Use the short stone. Bury it as deep as possible and prop it up. I’m sure it’ll do.”

Which just goes to show that not a lot has really changed in 4500 years or so.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Crime and Vice, Tragedy and Farce, Privilege and Rights

My sermon today draws on two readings. 

The first is from an outstanding figure of British, indeed World, Conservatism, Benjamin Disraeli. In his novel Tancred he wrote “what is a crime among the multitude is only a vice among the few.”

By way of contrast, the second reading is from one the founding fathers of modern Communism, Karl Marx. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he pointed out that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”

I found the Disraeli quotation in Hannah Arendt’s excellent The Origins of Totalitarianism. She uses it to illustrate the curious phenomenon of the acceptance of certain, exceptional Jews in aristocratic and wealthy nineteenth-century circles. In such an anti-Semitic environment, being Jewish was a ‘crime’ in the masses, but in rare, privileged individuals such as Disraeli, it was merely a vice – something that added piquancy, a touch of the exotic, and was consequently more to be indulged than reproved.

Benjamin Disraeli: made his way into society
by stressing his status as an outsider
Disraeli seems to have understood this phenomenon, and although baptised, he affected an appearance to emphasise his Jewish origins, his status as an outsider, not least in his style of hair and beard. 

It worked. Doors opened to him which would have been closed to most people, let alone Jews. He became an MP, the power behind one figurehead Prime Minister, and then Prime Minister himself. And he was the friend of the Queen, his fairytale princess to whom he offered the fantasy title of “Empress of India.”

In passing, he became one of the dominant figures of world politics of his period. Not
 always for good, it has to be said: he was a key figure in what became the scramble for Africa, which did little for the wellbeing of the inhabitants of that stricken continent.

Now roll forward a century and more. It may not be as serious a crime as Jewishness among anti-Semites, but it’s still reprehensible to smash a shop window deliberately. The law rightly takes a dim view of such criminal damage, as a great many young people in England discovered after the riots of August 2011. 


A slightly different attitude was taken towards similar antics one Oxford night quarter of a century earlier. A flowerpot was flung though the window of a restaurant in the city. However, the young men responsible were not poor, unemployed or coloured. They were members of the famous – or notorious – Bullingdon Club, an organisation that brings together the wealthiest students of the university so that they can enjoy glorious evenings of drunkenness, sometimes capped by trashing the restaurant where they take place.

Who was in the group that particular night? One was Boris Johnson, now Mayor of London. Another, though it
’s possible he went home before the restaurant window was smashed, was David Cameron, now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

But these are members of the few. The happy few. What’s a crime among the masses is but a vice for them. Youthful indiscretion that shouldn
’t lead to long-term consequences. As it clearly hasn’t for Cameron, current leader of the Conservative Party, or Johnson, his leading rival, or indeed George Osborne, another former member of the Club, current Chancellor of the Exchequer and also a contender for Cameron’s crown.

Which brings me to Marx. 


With Disraeli, the crime to be converted into mere vice, was Jewishness. And the man whose privileges allowed him to do it was a political giant.

Sadly, as Arendt points out, making Jewishness a vice rather than a crime has its dangers, however well it worked for Disraeli. A crime is an action requiring punishment, but vice is inherent in personality and, when it loses its charm, it can only be eradicated. The sense that Jewishness is innate was the grounds for the Nazi programme of extermination in the century following Disraeli’s.

A harrowing tragedy.

Boris Johnson, George Osborne and David Cameron also enjoyed the privilege of having a crime treated as a vice. They’ve inflicted terrible suffering on the most vulnerable among the masses. But not one of them has yet achieved anything more memorable than their buffoonery in the Bullingdon Club.

A grim farce.

The common thread is privilege. Privilege is a gift to the few which, as Arendt explains, denies the rights of the many.

Which makes me wonder why those of us who lack privilege and depend on rights, persist in voting for any of the farcical lot of them.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Books that Kindle disloyalty

I’m a great fan of reading books electronically. 

Not that I thought I ever would be. I remember long arguments with one of my sons, in which I maintained that nothing would ever replace the facility a physical book, with real paper pages, gives you to flick through it looking for a passage that struck you or which you just want to re-read. 

Well, I was wrong. 

Noble. Majestic. But the user interface leaves a little to desire
It’s just amazing to be able to go on holiday with dozens of books, but without a case that wrenches your arm from your shoulder or makes you liable for excess baggage charges. Indeed, you can stick the whole collection in your hand baggage. You can even carry it in a (reasonably capacious) coat pocket. 

Nor is the experience anything like reading on a computer. On the contrary, today’s electronic book screens manage to create an experience not just spookily similar to that of a printed page, but rather superior to it, at least in clarity of typeface and ease of reading.

Still, there are drawbacks. There are areas where the printed page retains its advantage. One of them, as it happens, comes when travelling. The airlines still don’t let you use your electronic equipment during take-off and landing in. 


Amazing. Are they really saying that we still use navigation systems so vulnerable that a £130 Kindle can flummox them? Are they telling me that terrorists could bring down planes by just having a bunch of them simultaneously phone home from on board?

Cabin crew persist in rigidly enforcing the prohibition of electronic devices
. I don’t mind not reading if I’m leaving, or arriving at, a place I don’t know well. In all other circumstances, familiarity has bred contempt, and I want distraction from the instant I’ve sat down to the moment I stand up again. That means I need at least one physical book.

The other advantage of print is that there are simply certain books that have never made it to Kindle or its competitors. And some of those books, whatever the radical modernists may think, are rather good. You want to read them? You have to settle for paper, whose day, it seems, is not quite gone after all.

But sadly I’m beginning to feel disappointed with its limitations. I who was always such a strenuous champion of the joys of riffling through its pages, now frequently catch myself looking for the search function in a printed book, when I want to find a particular passage. It leaves me deflated when I remember there isn’t one. Flicking through the pages is fine, unless you actually have no idea where the passage was.

The sad thing is that I’m finding myself increasingly prone to this kind of electronically-distorted thinking. The other day, studying a map in a London Underground train, I realised I was looking for the cursor that would show me just where on the line I was. And once more had a sensation of disappointment that there wasn’t one.


London Tube Ads: on the way to extinction?
It may be that I was thrown by the fact that even the adverts that line the walls alongside Tube escalators are turning digital now. My grandfather used to print the paper version in years gone by, and he did his work with loving, artistic care, let me tell you. 

These days we increasingly get movies instead of posters, the displays carefully timed so that you don’t miss any of the unfolding action as you move past successive screens. It's like TV adverts even when you're away from your TV. 

The effect is to leave me wondering why, if they can do that, we can’t have a “you are here now” on the Tube maps in the cars.

Frightening. I who strove so long for tradition have been infected by the digital fixation of our time.

It leaves me guiltily uneasy at my own disloyalty.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Crimea: flashpoint towards another war?

I’ve been taken to task by a friend for not backing the obvious will of the people in Crimea, for reintegration with mother Russia. That will was expressed in the referendum held there on Sunday 16 March. The result, we’re told, was a 97% vote in favour of leaving Ukraine and joining the Russian Federation.

It seems likely to me that there really is a majority in favour of joining Russia in Crimea, which is 58% ethnically Russian. And I’m in favour of determining this kind of question by the will of the people: if it looks as though a majority of the Scots, for instance, want independence from the United Kingdom, I’d be strongly in favour of their being able to leave, though personally, as an Englishman, I’d dread their going: we’d be stuck with Tory governments for years or possibly decades.

In addition, Kruschev’s cavalier decision in 1954 to hand the region to Ukraine, without logic or reason and certainly without consulting the population, was high-handed and ill-advised. It makes sense to correct that abusive action now.

However, only a year ago, polls showed just 41% of Crimean voters favouring reintegration. And 24% of the population is Ukrainian, while 12% are Tatars, descendants of the original inhabitants, known to be strongly opposed to joining Russia. It seems highly unlikely that many of those groups voted ‘Yes’ on Sunday.

Indeed, even among the Russians, it seems unlikely that the proportion in favour of leaving Ukraine has grown quite so much in just a year, despite local misgivings when the Kiev government of Viktor Yanukovych, ethnically Russian strongman, elected legally though behaving abusively, was brought down.

So the chances that the vote really was 97% in favour strikes me as utterly unbelievable. Especially as no observers were allowed to supervise the voting or the counts. And as we all know, it isn’t the votes that count, it’s who counts the votes.

Besides that, with the Russian Navy still using the peninsula as its Black Sea headquarters, and with its soldiers in the streets – pretending to be local self-defence militias – it’s not clear to me that the referendum in any way represented an exercise in democracy. More of a simulation of democracy under the barrels of a gun. Indeed, the only concession to democracy seems to have been the Kremlin’s willingness to allow that 3% voted against; in Soviet days, majorities generally exceeded 99%.

Guardian picture of Russian forces on Ukrainian territory:
'democratic' muscle for the 16 March referendum
If that’s progress, it only shows how far today’s Russia still has to go.

Even more sadly, however, Putin’s behaviour doesn’t just recall the excesses of the Soviet Union. It recalls an earlier and even more disastrous spell in our recent history. As does the weakness of the Western response to Russia’s behaviour.

In 1936, long before Germany had rearmed, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, demilitarised by Treaty since the end of the First World War. The democracies protested but took no action.

In the spring of 1938, he annexed Austria to the Reich. The democracies protested but took no action.

In the autumn of 1938, he occupied the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia. The democracies had protested, but instead of taking action, had agreed to allow him to take over those areas. The agreement was the now infamous ‘peace in our time’ document.

In the spring of 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The democracies protested even more loudly but again did nothing else.

Finally, in September 1939, he invaded Poland and the democracies at last reacted. This was the start of the bloodiest conflict in history, the Second World War (well, the European bit: it had been raging in the Far East for several years already).

The question remains, would that have been avoided had France and Britain, even maybe the United States, reacted powerfully to the occupation of the Rhineland?

Putin has in effect annexed Crimea. Now he’s talking about the calls of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine for reunification with the motherland, just as Hitler had justified his actions in Czechoslovakia in the name of the rights of the Sudeten German-speakers.

We’ve probably left it too late to do anything about Crimea. But if we do nothing about Eastern Ukraine, will we just slip further down the same slippery slope that took us to war in the thirties? And might a more powerful response stop that? Say, economic sanctions that bite, even if they cause us pain too, perhaps even the stationing of token troops in Ukraine, so that it’s clear that an invasion would bring Russia into conflict with far more than merely the Ukrainian army?

After all, surely we’ve learned from the Second World War, that the pain that awaits us at the bottom of slippery slopes may sadly be a lot worse than taking effective action now.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The writing process Blog hop

There are invitations I just doesn’t say no to, and one from Faith Colburn, to take part in this blog hop, I was delighted to accept. 

Faith: the smile says it all
Faith writes with wry humour and never-failing optimism. Proud of her status as a sixth-generation Nebraskan, her writing is suffused with the rootedness that comes from so firm an anchor in the soil: raised on a farm, she went back to it after more than a decade away, studying journalism and working for a state game and fish management commission, and was back at the family farm just in time to be driven into bankruptcy by the latest agricultural crisis.

Undeterred, she took a master’s in journalism and went on to work for an organisation providing services for people with developmental disabilities – from which she was made redundant. Again, she returned to university, but this time for employment as well as study: she worked for a research and extension centre, and in parallel took a degree in English and Creative Writing. Her talent was quickly recognised, as she won awards for both the outstanding work of fiction in 2009 and the outstanding thesis in the college of fine arts and humanities in 2012.

She has three sons, a step-daughter, and a step-son.

The wisdom and talent that she’s developed down the years shines through in the two books she has out in paperback and ebook formats, Threshold: A Memoir and From Picas to Bytes, She is currently working on a novel based on the lives of a big band singer and a shell-shocked World War II vet, for the background to which she has drawn heavily on her family history. The award-winning short story, Driving: A Short Story, is available on Amazon.com.

As well as publishing, she keeps us all informed and entertained on her blog, faithanncolburn.com, and on her Facebook page.


She asked me to answer four questions:

What am I working on?

I have two novels complete in draft, and intend to publish one of them later this year on Kindle. Good Company is about the lure on a young man of the world of business, for which he deserts teaching, the fascination of an older woman, who keeps him spellbound and bemused, and the attraction of London over his origins in provincial Sheffield. But behind the glitter, things are less rewarding than he’d hoped, as he finds himself both faithless and betrayed in love, alone miles from home, and facing a work atmosphere which is not merely toxic but ultimately lethal, as death strikes among the senior executives of his company. And the worst part? There’s more than a whiff of murder in the air.

In addition, I keep blogging: five years now, with a Kindle collection to prove it, and working on the next five years.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hundreds of thousands of people spend their lives in business, but apart from thrillers about shenanigans in board rooms, few novels are based in the everyday lives most of us face in private companies – in my case, for over thirty years. It was time, I felt, to sing of the dramatic events that engulf us too, and why not wrap some love (or possibly just sex) into a thriller about office politics turning fatal?

As for my blog, it’s called ‘Random Views’ for a reason. It touches on anything that catches my fancy, so I hope it keeps a certain freshness even after five years.

Why do I write what I do?

That’s a question plenty of people ask me, though sometimes in its alternative form, “why do you bother to write what you do?” 


The short answer is that I enjoy it and I hope my readers do. There’s plenty out there to bore us  or drive us to distraction; I like to think I create a little oasis which to me feels like sanity, and if anyone else agrees, they’re welcome to share it with me.

How does your writing process work?

With blogs, an idea comes to mind and I work on it. It can take as little as half an hour. It can take as much as four hours. I usually write too long and then have to cut back. I try to put a little sting in the tail.

The worst problem is when I can’t think of a subject. But generally, there’s enough in the news to fill a gap if I have one, and my family, my animals and my reading don’t usually allow one to open up in the first place.

As for novels, I can only say that I’m the opposite of Henry James: he hated writing but loved editing; I wish I didn’t have to edit, but I do. And cut, cut, cut.



My thanks to Faith for having invited me to take part in this exercise.

I’ve invited two others, Lydia Aswolf and Sam Boardman, in turn, to join in. You should visit their blogs just for the fun of it, whenever you want to, but in particular on 24 March when they too will be answering these questions.

Enjoy their writing. And enjoy Faith’s.



Lydia Aswolf: haunting and intriguing writing
Social Media Brand Manager by day and aspiring author by night, Lydia Aswolf knows a thing or two about keeping busy. When she's not on social media, Lydia is behind the scenes lining up great guests on her podcast, Lydia's Literary Lowdown. On the weekly podcast, Lydia welcomes artists from all walks of life to discuss their latest projects, as well as the creative processes that drive them. 

Lydia also writes a weekly blog, on which she writes haunting and intriguing posts in her own distinctive style of blank verse:

It was due to the madness. 

The madness we see every day.
That I discovered what it is.
To grow up glib. 
And like so many things. 
Once knowledge came. 
It couldn’t be spirited away. 

which she varies with profiles and reviews on her podcast. She’s also been interviewed many times herself on podcasts and the websites of fellow bloggers. A former Featured Contributor at Vividlife.me, Lydia loves nothing more than handing out #tweettreats in gratitude to her many followers on Twitter and keeping up with Friends on Faceboook, LinkedIn, and other various social networks. She likes to say “Pop by and chat me up at your peril...” but in fact there are few people it’s more of a pleasure to exchange with, and to read. As she admits herself, if there's anything Lydia loves more than reading, it's chatting with people far and wide. 


Sam Boardman: concentrates on what's right in the human mind
Sam Boardman is a New York psychiatrist at Weill-Cornell Medical College, but as she points out, she’s a lot less interested in what’s wrong with people than in what’s right with them: a few small tweaks, she maintains, can make all the difference.

She regularly administers such small tweaks through her highly readable, entertaining and illuminating blog Positive Prescription – well worth following by anybody interested in the psychiatry of everyday life, including their own. She naturally also contributes to learned journals as well as more accessible media, such as Harper’s Bazar and Huffington Post.

Recently elected a board member at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she explained to website 1stDibs “Our biographies are not always written with a pen. The things we love also tell the stories of our lives, if we let them”, before choosing an inspiring set of objects by which most of us would be more than happy to be defined.

It all feels once more like concentrating on what’s right and not what’s wrong...

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Hear the knives sharpening, this Ides of March

2058 years ago today, a shady politician turned up for a meeting whose importance he had probably not yet fully grasped, but soon would. 

He was there despite being warned that it was a bad day for him to do anything. Indeed, as he arrived he caught sight of the man who’d given him the warning. He turned to him and, rather too smugly as it happened, commented:

“The ides of March are come.”

To which the soothsayer replied:

“Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

It wasn’t many minutes later that Julius Caesar lay dying at the feet of the statue his late rival Pompey. ‘Late’ in great part thanks to Caesar himself. All terribly ironic. Especially since it was men he thought he could count on who turned their knives on him.

Why did they prove the soothsayer right and turn the Ides of March into such a bad day for Caesar? They thought he was about to realise his ambition and establish his personal power in Rome. They made sure that didn’t happen.

15 March. Not a good day for Julius Caesar
Of course, things may not have gone exactly the way I described. I’m only quoting Shakespeare, and I suspect he wasn’t there. I mean, did they even speak English in those days?

Somebody who could no doubt tell us about all of that is the present Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The man’s a bit of a classicist. He even wrote a book called The Dream of Rome which was a bit glitzy and superficial, but had its merits.

He knows all about powerful men cut down in their prime by their own supporters. So he must have had a bit of wry smile yesterday.

Because being Mayor of London’s only a consolation prize for him. What he’s got his eye on is Downing Street. And with his ‘friend’ David Cameron, the current tenant of number 10, making such a mess of things, he must fancy his chances of getting the Conservative Party leadership after Cameron loses the next election and gets sacked. Then he’d spend a parliament getting ready to mount his own challenge for 2020.

Not all his ‘friends’ are entirely happy about this shady politician realising his ambition, any more than the ‘friends’ of his predecessor were two millennia ago. These days, though, we don’t generally settle these things with knives. So one of Johnson’s ‘friends’ has found a much smarter and sneakier way of doing things.

Boris Johnson
The target?
Michael Gove’s established himself as a special kind of education secretary. For instance, he tells us that he is “a decentraliser. I believe in trusting professionals.” Despite that, he has managed to infuriate pretty much the entire teaching profession, not least by his outspoken defence of the use of unqualified teachers. 

It was also he who sent a bible to every school in the country, which I presume was intended to be some kind of inspirational move. Personally, I have difficulty believing that students are pouring into their libraries for the opportunity to consult their Gove bible lovingly and with rapt attention. 


What has Gove done now?

Something truly surprising. He’s turned his fire on the number of old Etonians in the cabinet – the cabinet in which he serves. That includes his boss, David Cameron. Gove, in an interview with the Financial Times, draws a parallel between the present cabinet and that headed by Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury over a century ago.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, the Conservative cabinet was called Hotel Cecil,” declared Gove, “the phrase ‘Bob’s your uncle’ came about and all the rest of it. It is preposterous.”

It doesn’t bother him individually: “It doesn't make me feel personally uncomfortable because I like each of the individuals concerned, but it's ridiculous.”

And he wonders “I don't know where you can find some such similar situation in a developed economy.”

Extraordinary. Here’s Gove decrying his own government. A Conservative-led government. And for being elitist, of all things.

It seems inexplicable until you remember that David Cameron’s not the only Etonian around. Another is the present occupant of City Hall in London. Oh, yes. Boris Johnson’s another graduate of Eton College.

And that gives us the subtext to Gove’s interview, and with Tories, it’s always the subtext that counts. He’s saying we’ve got an Etonian Prime Minister, and that seems ridiculous in this day and age. On the other hand, he’s already there. Leave him in place. But we certainly don’t want another. 



Michael Gove
The dagger?
Boris has been warned. He needs to watch his back, where his so-called friends are standing. And sharpening their knives.

Then again. 2058 years ago today, Caesar was warned too. Perhaps we can still avoid a Johnson premiership.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Does a black face fit?

Years ago I saw a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II with Fiona Shaw – a woman – in the title role.

It worked superbly. One of the contrasts in the play is between the effeminate Richard and his much more macho cousin, Henry, who would eventually usurp his throne. Feminine playing effeminate? A stroke of genius.

But if a woman can play a male role, then why can’t a black actor play a ‘white’ role? After all, take a character like Hamlet. The original was probably white, but it’s extremely unlikely that he spoke English. Let alone in iambic pentameters.

If an Englishman can play the Prince of Denmark, why does he have to be white?

It seems, though, that we’re a long way from its being broadly accepted that non-whites can play the great parts in the Shakespeare canon. So it was fascinating last Saturday to go and see Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet, starring one of our finest English actors, Adrian Lester, who happens to be Chakrabarti’s husband. And also black. 



Actor and writer.
The play is based on the life story of Ira Aldridge, the only black American to appear among the 33 actors who have brass plaques to their memory in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

He was born in 1807, New York and free, but nearly half a century before slavery would be abolished in the US by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. He began to act in New York but soon hit a brick wall; he travelled to England at the age of 17 to try his luck on our stages.

He did well on the provinces stages, even winning the acclaim of the outstanding Shakespearean actor of his age, Edmund Kean, for his portrayal of Othello. Which has a certain irony, Othello being a ‘Moor’ and therefore non-white himself. Though it’s far more ironic that Aldridge got his break on the London stage when Kean fell sick and Aldridge was called in to replace him – as Othello.

This is the central part of the action of Chakrabarti’s play. Because London received Aldridge’s performance badly. It was felt that using a black to play a Moor was, somehow, inappropriate. “An African is no more qualified to personate Othello than a huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff,” opined one of the reviews quoted in Red Velvet, “... English audiences have a prejudice in favour of European features, which more than counterbalance the recommendations of a flat nose and thick lips.”

Ira Aldridge playing Othello
Curious that the review correctly identifies the opinion as a prejudice but seems to feel that this somehow justifies it.

Aldridge was taken up on the Continent, and played to great success in Austria, Prussia and Russia. Indeed, he died in Lodz, today Poland, but at that time a Russian possession, where Chakrabarti shows him preparing to play Lear.

He had a successful career, and became probably one of the wealthiest free Blacks in Europe or America in his times. But one ambition eluded him: to play Shakespeare to acclaim in London and New York. And he’s faded into undeserved obscurity since, that plaque in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre notwithstanding.

We’ve moved on since his day. But how far? Are black actors through that particular glass ceiling yet?

That’s the question that Chakrabarti so skilfully leaves us asking, in a challenging and compelling play.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Ethical shopping. How much longer will it be around?

Just back from our local Co-op supermarket, with a few bits and pieces we needed in the house.

The Co-op. It used to make you feel good to shop there
Shopping at the Co-op still feels like the right thing to do. The 170-year old mutual society, still – just – run by its members for its members, has been the ethical alternative for so long that it’s hard not to think of it that way any more. And maybe, indeed, it can win that position back yet, though at the moment the omens aren’t good.

The public became aware of the 
Co-op’s downhill plunge in the summer of 2013 when it became clear that its banking arm had over-extended itself, leaving it with a shortfall of £1.5 billion. That made it sound exactly like all the other banks, which had gambled too hard and failed. 

It was boxed into a position in which the only solution to its difficulties was to turn to hedge funds for the additional finance, which was duly provided, but only at the cost of the Co-op becoming a minority shareholder in its own bank.

Not long before this happened, the Co-op’s chairman Paul Flowers resigned. He might have had to go anyway, because of the scandal over the bank, but his departure was hastened by his being filmed spending £300 on buying cocaine and methamphetamine. Flowers was a Methodist Minister at the time, and a former Labour Councillor, so the embarrassment he caused extended well beyond the confines of the Co-op alone.

So the Co-op had moved into that special status that’s known as ‘troubled’ in the business world. Things weren’t going well. And as the decline continued, the movement decided that it had no option other than to recruit new top executives.

Just this weekend, it emerged that its Chief Executive was being offered a package for 2013 worth £3.66 million. His predecessor received £1,3 million, a figure that presumably seemed far too little to struggle by on for a self-respecting business leader.

Serious increases were being handed out across the whole senior executive team. Six were on income of between £500,000 and £650,000; equivalent executives in the past had been on between £200,000 and £400,000.

When quizzed about these salaries, the Co-op responded that they were based on comparisons with other large companies. In other words, because other companies pay ludicrously inflated salaries to their top staff, so should the Co-op.

It’s ironic that they’re doing that just as their ethical credentials are becoming distinctly tarnished. But is that even a coincidence?

Interestingly, today Euan Sutherland, the Chief Executive due to receive the remuneration package that caused the scandal, resigned from his post. It seems it was the leaks concerning his pay that prompted him to go – he declared on Facebook that “an individual or individuals” were working to undermine him.


Euan Sutherland
Just the right smooth image for a Chief Executive
Though not for the Co-op, any more
More telling still was the sentiment expressed in his resignation letter. “Until the group adopts professional and commercial governance,” he said, “it will be impossible to implement what my team and I believe are the necessary changes and reforms to renew the Group and give it a relevant and sustainable future.”

In other words, as well as paying the kinds of salaries that are the norm in the City, the Co-op, in his view, ought to be run in exactly the same way as any other corporation.

Well, it’s made a mess of its banking arm. It’s having trouble coming to terms with its old democratic structure. And one of the great reforms that Sutherland had been trying to push through was the sacking of 5000 staff.

Sounds like he, and those on the board who supported him, were already well down the way to making the Co-op just another company like any of the others.

I’ll still keep going there. But I wonder how much longer it’ll feel any different from shopping at any other supermarket?

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Simply comparing a political opponent to Hitler is a terribly cheap ploy. It’s generally horribly unfair, not to say misleading. However, the reason we dislike such comparisons is that when we think of Hitler, we think of extermination camps, the Holocaust, the millions of murdered civilians guilty of no crime.

But there’s much more to Hitler than his murderous behaviour. There are other aspects of his time in power with which comparisons are well worth making. Especially when they can teach us lessons about today.


Not just a mass-murderer.
He had plenty of other faults
In 1938, a party close in sympathy to the German Nazis, was campaigning actively for the rights of the German minority in Czechoslovakia for redress of their alleged grievances against the majority. Hitler took up their cause. Leaders of the other Great Powers of Europe, Neville Chamberlain in Britain and Edouard Daladier in France, consulted with Hitler (though not with the Czechs...) and agreed to allow him to occupy the German-speaking areas, the so-called Sudetenland.

That agreement, signed on 30 September 1938, was to guarantee ‘peace in our time’. Hitler wanted the Sudetenland but no other part of Czechoslovakia, he assured the other statesmen. Granted his wish to occupy just those parts of the country, he would leave the rest alone and Europe need not fear war.

On 16 March 1939, German forces occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. Britain and France took no action. 


Less than six months later, the German army rolled over the border into Poland. Though bound to defend Poland by Treaty, it took two more days of heart-searching and indecision, before Britain and France at last declared war on Germany, and the European theatre of World War II got fully under way.

Now roll forward three-quarters of a century. 


Vladimir Putin feels himself honour bound to come to the defence of his compatriots, the Russian-speakers of Ukraine. ‘Self-defence’ forces, that look extraordinarily like Russian troops without their insignia, have seized control of Crimea. Optimists may believe that Russia can be persuaded to hand the region back to Ukraine; realists, and that includes the main governments of the West, know that there’s no prospect of that happening. It was, after all, a traditionally Russian area, and there’s overwhelming local support for a return to the motherland, undoing a unilateral decision of Nikita Kruschev sixty years ago.

Will Putin stop there? Maybe. And if he does, we can no doubt learn to live with that. Perhaps Ukraine, too, can lick its wounds and come to terms with its loss.

This is where the comparison with Hitler becomes illuminating. Making concessions to Hitler meant feeding his appetite. Handing him territory only made him push his luck further and try to get still more.

There are Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine too, including its second biggest city, Kharkiv, and the great industrial centre at Donetsk. Will Putin feel the same obligation to ‘defend’ them as he has ‘defended’ Russian speakers in Crimea? And Hitler ‘defended’ the German speakers in Czechoslovakia?

There’s also another lesson. When we did stand up to Hitler, it cost us a bloody war – the bloodiest the world has seen. War with Russia today, however, would probably put the war against Hitler into the shade. It might, indeed, threaten the very existence of humanity.

The fact that no one seems keen on the idea of military intervention against Putin strikes me as thoroughly welcome. On the other hand, appeasement doesn’t work either, if we can learn anything from the experience of Hitler.

But between war and appeasement there are surely a great many other possibilities. What is much less edifying about the behaviour of Western governments today, is the rapidity with which they seem to be ruling out any kind of economic action, even though such measure might actually get Putin’s attention: imagine if he and his oligarch friends found themselves hurting in their wallets.

Instead, the message from Western capitals seems to be that we’re prepared to do whatever it takes, as long as it doesn’t cost us anything.

The only worry? If we’re not prepared to pay any cost today, the cost we may face later might be far higher.

That’s another lesson to learn from our experiences with Hitler.



Putin may not be a mass murderer
but he still needs to be stopped

Friday, 7 March 2014

You sure your enemy's enemy's your friend?

Today, for the first time this year, I took the dog for a walk in my shirtsleeves.

For the avoidance of doubt, I was wearing the shirtsleeves. The dog, Janka, just wore her fur. And fur suits her a lot better than it does our species.

'Is that Spring I sniff in the air?'
Just being able to leave my coat at home felt like a liberation. A relief. A sense that at last things are on the way back up again. A true promise of spring. 

Not that we’ve had a tough winter – no snow at all round here, unlike last year – but there comes a time when, however much you try to tell yourself that it’s good for the plants, the constant rain finally begins to pall.

The mood of joy was infectious and Janka seems to have caught it too. She was running all over the place, as though her thirteen years were just thirteen months. She even went for a cat at one point.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if a cat just stopped and stared at her. Would she run past, pretending it wasn’t that cat she was after? Or would she just a somersault and make herself scarce? I’m absolutely sure, at any rate, that she wouldn’t have the faintest idea what to do if she ever caught one.

With the only cat Janka doesn't chase (not that he'd let her)
Anyway, the one in the park didn’t hang around to find out. Positively high-tailed it out of there when she saw and heard the barking, black-furred fury bearing down.

It was only afterwards that I realised that the cat had been caught at the point of climbing up a tree. I looked further up and saw, in its topmost branches – the place where branches are actually pretty much just twigs – a squirrel showing at least as much enthusiasm as the cat for being somewhere else entirely. He must have been delighted to have the unexpected, unsolicited but far from unwelcome assistance of Janka, driving away the feline tormentor.

A great illustration of the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

And, come to think of it, of how false the principle is. Because the reality is that Janka likes nothing better than chasing a squirrel. Not that I think she’d do any more to a squirrel than she’d do to a cat, if she caught one, which certainly isn’t true of the cat: it would have no doubt what to do with a squirrel or any compunction about doing it.

On the other hand, while Janka may well have helped out the squirrel by chasing away the cat, as far as the squirrel was concerned, that only left him facing an even bigger and, for all he knew, more formidable enemy.

Sense enough to know that his enemy's enemy
may not be his friend.
And to get well away from both of them
Which makes me think of UKIP, the party that may take 20% in the British elections for the European Parliament in May,  at the moment, on a xenophobic and homophobic platform. There are people out there who tell me that they’re happy to see UKIP doing well, if it takes votes from the Conservatives. Well, I’d be delighted to see the ghastly Tories gone, but if the price is UKIP getting anywhere near power, then it’s just not worth paying. 

The squirrel in the park had sense. He took advantage of the canine support that drove away its immediate, feline enemy. But he didn’t hang around to find out whether Janka was actually well-disposed towards him, and not merely ill-disposed towards the cat. He just got out to somewhere as far as possible from either of them.

Sounds like the right thing for the British electorate to do, too. The Tories, UKIP? Out of our park please. We’re not going to back the enemy in the wings to get rid of the enemy we know. 


Otherwise, we might be forced to learn the hard way to be a lot more careful what we wish for.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Has this Salmond been caught on his own hook?

It seems that opinion in Scotland is running against independence by a margin of 18% in one recent poll, by 25% in another.

Thumbs up for Alex Salmond? Not if the polls are to be believed
Personally, I find that gratifying. Flattering, really. After all, I can fully understand that a Scot might want England off his or her back (and let’s not kid ourselves: the ‘rest of the UK’ is basically England: 53 million out of 59): after all, if nothing else, with England out of the way, no Scot would ever have to live under a Tory government again. And the so-called United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, is nowhere to be seen up there.

Why, I’d be seriously tempted to vote for independence myself if I lived in Scotland. But I don’t. I live in England, and I’m English. And the idea of losing the Scots fills me with dread. If only because we’d probably be stuck with Tory governments for the foreseeable future, and one in five of my countrymen is apparently unable to tell the difference between principled politics and the brand practised by UKIP.

Which is like a Ukrainian taking Vladimir Putin for a friend.

So given the obvious advantages to the Scots of independence, I have to take some encouragement by their pretty solid opposition to it. It feels like they actually like us enough to want to stick around and help us out of the predicament we’ve made for ourselves. Very kind of them.

On the other hand, the reason may be somewhat less flattering to us Sassenachs, as they charmingly call us. It may not be so much their fondness for us, as the fact that they actually don’t particularly like the brand of independence on offer. 


Which, strangely enough, has more than a few disturbing aspects in common with the kind of independence Putin would like Ukraine to enjoy.

First of all, the idea is that the Scots would keep the Royal Family. Well, I appreciate the family’s a bit of an irrelevance these days, but why would anyone want to hang on to it when they’ve got the opportunity to wave goodbye? Hang on to Prince Philip? Prince Andrew? Prince Harry? And this is supposed to help win support for the idea?

Secondly, and far more significant, they want to hang on to the pound.

Now, one of the reasons Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, gives for wanting independence is to get control over taxation. But the biggest factor determining the value of a currency is the fiscal policy pursued by the government that controls it.

So Salmond wants a ‘independent’ Scotland to use a currency whose value is determined by the taxation policies of the very country from which he wants to get away? 


Where on Earth’s the mileage in that?

The odd thing is that Salmond’s always truck me as a particularly astute politician. When his party emerged as the biggest single group in the Scottish parliament, but without an overall majority, he stepped up and formed a minority administration, negotiating with the other parties to put together a majority on each measure in turn. That was more than David Cameron had the guts to do in London in 2010, preferring instead to talk the Liberal Democrats into the pact with the devil that the ConDem coalition has turned into.

Salmond did such a good job as head of a minority government that he went on to win a healthy majority at the next election.

Pretty smart, one has to say. So where did he dream up the idea of a referendum to give Scotland independence on everything but its money?

Has Salmond turned out to be less of a smart Alex than I used to think?

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The powers that blunder and their victims in Ukraine

It’s agonising to watch the suffering of Ukraine today. And I feel it all the more strongly because of the work I was doing only fifteen months ago, with a group of Ukrainians who impressed me as much for their competence as colleagues, as for their warmth as friends.

At the time I worked for an American company whose founder and his seriously ill son, had undergone the pain of finding a way through the maze of the healthcare world. He emerged appalled at how little information is available about hospitals.

He decided to launch a software system to tackle the problem, and assigned the work of building one of the first modules to two Ukrainian students at Berkeley, near San Francisco. They amazed him by turning it around in a few day. He gave them a second much bigger task, and again they’d completed it in astonishingly quick time. There was more to them, he decided, than met the eye.

“You’re not doing this alone, are you?” he asked.

“No,” they admitted, “we’re getting help from a bunch of friends back home.”

“Well, why don’t you form yourselves into a company and I’ll give you an exclusive contract to develop the system for me?”

By the time I joined the American company, the arrangement had been working well for seven or eight years, and a pretty remarkable system had emerged from their collaboration. They were two separate companies, but they worked as though they were one. The people I met when I travelled out there didn
’t behave as though they were in a partner company, but like colleagues. Skilled and dedicated colleagues. I was proud to work with them.

Where in Ukraine was this happening? That’s a question one can’t answer without making a political statement. It’s like that city in Northern Ireland: call it Londonderry, and you sound like a Unionist who regards it as part of the United Kingdom; call it Derry, and you sound like a Nationalist who feels the place is Irish.

I knew next to nothing about Ukraine at the time, and had barely heard of the city, which I called “Kharkov”. That’s a Russian name, and arguably it makes sense to use it, the population being overwhelmingly Russian (it’s only twenty miles from the border).

On the other hand, it is in Ukraine, and many of my colleagues used the Ukrainian name “Kharkiv”, which was probably more politically correct. I didn’t meet any Russian speakers from there that objected to the name, and so made an effort to use it too.

Kharkov/Kharkiv illustrates the problem of that whole region. Russian speakers belong to the same community as the people half an hour’s drive away, the other side of the international border. Many of my colleagues had close family in nearby Russia.

The problem is particularly acute in one area of Ukraine that most Britons have actually heard of: the Crimean peninsula. British and French troops fought Russians there in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1854, at the battle of Balaclava, the British plumbed the depths of military incompetence at the same time as they scaled the heights of glory (glorious incompetence being one of the great characteristics of armies in combat). Tennyson summed it up for us:

“Forward, the Light Brigade!” 

Was there a man dismay'd? 
Not tho' the soldier knew 
Someone had blunder'd: 
Theirs not to make reply, 
Theirs not to reason why, 
Theirs but to do and die: 
Into the valley of Death 
Rode the six hundred.

A British blunder,
where the Russians are blundering around today
The Brigade captured the Russian guns, couldn’t hold them, and had to retreat to their starting point. Of the 600 who started out, just 195 were still unhurt and on horseback at the end. 

“C’est magnifique,” French Marshal Pierre Bosquet observed, “mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

In truth, it wasn’t magnificent, it was carnage, and it was very much what war’s about.

That was in October 1854. A century later, in 1954, Crimea was the subject of another historical blunder. In a fifteen-minute interlude in a meeting of the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, its General Secretary Nikita Kruschev told his colleagues that Crimea was being given to Ukraine.

He liked Urkaine, where he’d spent some time, and his wife was Ukrainian. At the time it probably didn’t seem to make a lot of difference: no one imagined the Soviet Union was going to unravel, so transferring a territory from one administrative unit wholly dominated by Moscow to another, was an empty gesture.

But then the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine became a sovereign state, and found itself in possession of Crimea. The Russians hastily agreed a lease to allow their Black Sea fleet to keep using the port at Sevastopol, but otherwise they were out.

Although not really. Ukraine remained heavily dependent on Russia, particularly for energy, as Russia showed by turning off gas supplies when it felt the need to exert some pressure. And it was glad to be able to work through a friendly President, in the form of Viktor Yanukovych.

But now Yanukovych has gone, to be replaced by people far less under Moscow’s thumb, far more inclined to look westward. We’ve seen the results: explicit military threats from Russia, and open army action in the Crimea, where “self-defence” groups, looking suspiciously like Russian forces without identifying insignia, have seized key locations.

It
’s deeply depressing.

But I’m particularly distressed for my former colleagues. Because just as the international political atmosphere around them deteriorates, the international commercial world has turned toxic for them too.

It was announced on Friday that the Ukrainian arm of the operation I worked with is suing the American company for $30 million. Why’s that? Because the Americans, under entirely new management, have unilaterally decided not to extend the contract after it expired on 28 February. After ten years outstanding work, my friends in Kharkov/Kharkiv now have to go the Californian courts to try to protect their position.

I don’t know whether those friends in Kharkiv/Kharkov will still be Ukrainian in a few months, or will have been made Russians by force of arms. I don’t know whether they would welcome such a change or resent it. Equally, I don’t know whether they’ll still be delivering services to their old American partners or whether they’ll be struggling to find new sources of work.

What I do know is that in both instances they have been the victims of international forces beyond their control.

All I can do is wish them well. These are tough times. I hope you and your compatriots emerge from them quickly, and unscathed. 


Unlike the Light Brigade.