Monday 17 August 2015

What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

The intersection / Chuck Coker
An article on religion in politics from 2010

In 1775, just  before the birth of the United States, and two years after the Boston Tea Party, British lexicographer Samuel Johnston declared that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Today, after hearing the modern day Tea Party, it appears that religion may the first refuge of the scoundrel.

The problem is that nobody actually knows the thoughts of the Almighty, but some people fancy that they have privileged access to this information. Take the invasion of Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair, were guided by God to invade, whilst, those more traditionally considered to be on the receiving end of the Holy hotline were speaking out against such an attack. This included a cross-schism alliance of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The obvious conclusion is that, either the Creator of All has a stranger and darker sense of humour than previously suspected, or some people confuse their own desires with divine instruction.

The latter is the more plausible. It has been said that the problem with religion isn’t that God made Man in his image, but that Man has the tendency to make God in his image. So often, people, especially those in the political sphere, find that they are doing God’s work, and that they are also living in God’s own country.

Who can argue with that? Not a sinful voter who went for the other candidate. There can be nothing more dangerous than a political figure who believes they are doing God’s will. Or are things slightly more complicated than that? The puzzle is that people react to faith in different ways. Martin Luther King Jr’s faith enabled him to act with great courage, not on his behalf, but on a moral crusade, the rightness of which is accepted by all but the lunatic fringe.

Is this the same faith that produced Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker or even Sarah Palin? A God who believes in big guns and small taxes? It appears that the religious sentiment, that once produced great reformers has now switched sides.

We can look at the main branches of the Christian faith in the West. Both the Catholic Church and the Church of England have spent the last few decades tearing themselves apart over... women priests.

The justification for this is an arcane reading of theology, derived from interpretation of scriptures. The rest of the world has moved on from these medieval injunctions.

In recent years various atheists, including leading top God botherer, Richard Dawkins, have argued the case against religion. How these books, or in some cases, polemics, are received is usually down to the reader’s religious beliefs. However, most of these books share a certain perspective.

The real target of the author’s ire is not the existence of a divine being, but how religions, sects and cults have placed a rigid interpretation on spiritual teachings and then imposed them on others, frequently by using violence or psychological manipulation.

For religious tolerance to thrive, what needs to happen is for those who claim to be pronouncing God’s judgement to learn a little humility and to understand that they could be wrong. After all, they have been proved wrong on many issues already, just ask Galileo.

As Martin Luther King jr said, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

When we understand this, the spiritual journey becomes something that unites us, rather than dividing us.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Van Rompuy's Haiku Anthology To Cause A Storm

The Herminator
A satirical look at the short poem president who found time to publish his haikus in 2012

The President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy has announced that he will shortly be publishing a collection of his Japanese poems. He has been known to relax by composing the traditional short rhymes for many years, but this collection is going to cause outrage, according to a source who has seen the preview copies. 

The source said, "I can't believe how disgusting they are, people are going to be surprised and offended." The mild mannered President, it is alleged, uses the compositions as an outlet for his darkest thoughts, and one reader has shown Brussels Jungle some extracts:

Baroness Ashton
Wearing tight leather bodice
Tied up in my bed

Dreaming of power
Listening to Barroso
Wanting to shoot him

An aide explained that, "If people think that is shocking, wait till they read his book!" The tranquil President has been seen carrying around a large black notebook to Council meetings and an aide, who wishes to remain anonymous said, "he never lets it out of his sight, but he spends all the meetings just quietly scribbling in it. We thought he was taking notes of the meetings or using it as a diary." 

The true story is more disturbing, according to the President's inner circle, one of whom was visibly shaken as he recounted looking inside the book, "I was really tempted to see what he was writing, I know it was wrong, but I accidentally spilled a glass of water over him at Council and as he went away to dry off, he left the book behind, so I took it and had a look inside."

"What I saw will remain with me for the rest of my life. I wish I had never opened the infernal book, perhaps God is punishing me for my curiosity," said the aide, through tears. He took a long drink from a bottle of whiskey and continued his tale, "Inside, I saw that he had written 'all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy'. Over and over again. 

There must have been over 200 hundred pages, each covered with the same phrase. Only the last few pages were different. There he had scrawled in a red crayon 'REDRUM' all over the page. I'm really scared to be near him, he frightens me."

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Letter from Santa

From Xmas 2011 and Austerity has reached the North Pole

Dear All,

First of all, Christmas is postponed, probably until Q2 in 2012. The reason is that we’ve all been waiting for the markets to quiet down so I can shuffle some funds around before we can get into serious toy production. What? You’re surprised? Of course I need hard cash to get this show on the road, did you really think I finance it all with magic beans? Stability bonds?

And another thing. There’s going to be a delivery charge. Normally a bit of pie and whisky is a suitable trip for my chimney acrobatics, but as things are tight, you want to leave around €20 per kid with the booze. Oh, and no cheap supermarket stuff. A single malt is what’s required, or at a push, some Wild Turkey. It’s purely medicinal and helps keep the cold out while I’m riding the jetstream.

I’m also going to tighten up the rules on who’s been naughty. Frankly, being a kind old soul, I let a lot of stuff slide, you know the minor bits of trouble they all get into, thinking it was all part of growing up, but the fiscal situation means that I’m going to be applying the naughtiness criteria a lot more strictly. Be prepared for it. Leave a folder of supporting evidence by the bedside, it will save time.

Of course some things change. I might pop over Italy. I’ve avoided it for several years after Berlusconi suggested I should visit his party after I’d finished my rounds. Very nice it was too, a BBQ, lots of ladies and sambuca . Left the sled outside and went back to check on it a few hours later. One reindeer missing. The little swine had taken one of my finest sleigh pullers and cooked him.

Poor little Bunga Bunga, he was a favorite of mine. For Berlusconi to BBQ him was bad, to then feed him to me was very bad, but to then go on and name his sordid little gatherings after sweet little Bunga Bunga is just grotesque. I’ve not been back since. I would go and see Mario Monti, but, well, what do you buy the man who has… nothing?

The other big news is that I’m leaving the North Pole. It’s melting and I’d rather not take the chance that I’ll be spending the New Year watching my home melt. We had a group of slightly too shiny young things looking the place over for signs of global warming, wanting to “make observations on climate change.” Got ‘em smashed on home brew vodka (aka Santa’s Little Helper), got the elves to strip them down to their underwear and left them on a small iceberg. They looked like Smurfs as they drifted off. Not too sure where, exactly. Let’s say it’s a pretty good bet that they’re heading south.

So are we all. Watching a Herzog film about Antarctica, with the elves and a few drinks, we were stunned to see the South Pole base. Now, we kind of knew that our place was going a bit downhill, but when we saw that base, we all looked at each other and thought. “Nice. We’ll have it.” Already occupied? No problem. I’ve been showing the elves John Carpenter’s remake of ‘The Thing’. They’re finding it inspirational…

I reckon they’ll have it cleared in a few days.

Monday 10 August 2015

Fighting the drug trade

A 2011 interview with Raymond Yans as the International Narcotics Control Boards issue their annual report.

Do you see any changes in the way the international drug trade operates?

If we look at Europe, a lot of trends start here and continue elsewhere. One trend, that is new, is the designer drugs, which are new chemical substances, such as mephedrone, which is just a little different to other substances and the people who use this, usually clubbers have changed from ecstasy, which can be difficult to find. It is much more dangerous and there have been quite a few deaths reported from this. It started in the UK in 2007 and is now spreading through Europe and beyond.

The focus on the report seems to be on criminalizing and using prohibition. Is that a rounded strategy?

We check how states are implementing the drug control conventions that they have agreed to. We know about the global debate, which is launched by those who claim that harm reduction is better than drug prohibition.

The problem is that if you try to legalise, do you think that the health of the population would be better? We don’t think so. If you consider that any new dangerous substance can be launched at young people, do you think parents will agree with this? We are aware that controlling drugs is difficult but we are not convinced that not controlling them is right.

The stress seems to be on law, not treatment or education. These new drugs you mentioned are designed to get around existing laws, I’m not sure a prohibition based approach is working

The INCB has a very balanced position. The first chapter of our report last year was on prevention. This year it is about corruption. We insist on the basic necessity of having a prevention policy. It is the most important thing in drug control, is to try and prevent the first drug use.

Another important thing is not to consider drug users as outsiders. They should be taken care of and every country should try to install facilities to treat them, including substitution therapy, such as methadone and syringe exchange programs. We do favour all of this, a balanced approach.

You get your information from governments around the world. If we take Afghanistan, there have been many reports that very high levels of the government are involved in the drugs trade. Does that compromise what they tell you?

We are aware of this and, we do have information from the international community as well. Our analysis is also based on that, not just what the Afghan government is telling us. On the other hand, INCB is a quasi-judicial body and we are applying to Afghanistan one of the articles in the 1961 convention.

Right now, we are preparing an important mission,  to the President of INCB for the highest levels of government in Afghanistan to visit us in Vienna, for a confrontation about the Afghan drug control, or not control, policy

How do you see the link between the drug trade and corruption?

Corruption is not new and it’s not limited to drug trafficking. It has been around since human beings started exchanging goods. We are trying to limit the scope. The problem is that some countries, which are now states where drugs, especially cocaine is passing through. The amount of money involved in cocaine trafficking is higher than some small nations wealth.

We see in some West African countries, a slow deterioration of the efficiency of the state itself. This is directly connected with corruption from drug trafficking and we want the international community to pay special attention to West Africa.

What would you like to see the EU do?

We could say many things, because the drug problem in Europe is an important one.

I would like to mention precursors, the chemical products that are used to make drugs, like acetic anhydride, used in refining heroin, and a lot is produced in Europe. With the help of the Commission and member states we could see that there is trafficking of this, from Western Europe, to Afghanistan. It is a very important point. If there was no such trafficking it would be impossible for Afghanistan to make heroin.

Last year, the European Commission published a report about the problems of acetic anhydride trafficking and underlined a few solutions. We are concerned that, one year later, none of those solutions has been implemented so we would like to ask the EU to take stronger measures over the trade in this chemical, so that there can be no diversions of it away from the legal trade to the illegal trade.

Highlights from the INCB report

In Europe alone, there are 15 “designer cathinones”; most worrisome is the designer drug 4-methyl-methcathinone (a.k.a. mephedrone). Abused in a growing number of countries, mephedrone has resulted in a number of deaths and has become a drug of wide abuse across Europe.

The abuse of cocaine is spreading from Western Europe to other parts of the continent.  1.2% of all European citizens used cocaine in the last year; Spain reports the highest percentage (3.1%).  The number of cocaine abusers in Western and Central Europe doubled from 2 million in 1998 to 4.1 million in 2008.  The combined cocaine consumption in these 2 sub-regions accounts for more than a quarter of global cocaine consumption.

The illicit market for opiates in Europe is the world’s largest. Western Europe is the world’s largest market for heroine and the United Kingdom, Italy, France, and Germany account for 60% of European consumption.  The Russian Federation has the highest percentage of opiate (heroin) abuse (1.6%) in Europe.  European countries consume almost half of all heroin abused worldwide.  Practically all heroin available in Europe originates from Afghanistan.

The illicit and dangerous cultivation of cannabis is on the rise in Europe.  68% of global cannabis seizures in 2009 occurred in Western Europe.

Eastern Europe is one of few areas in the world where HIV prevalence is on the rise; the use of contaminated equipment for drug injection was the source of over 50% of the newly diagnosed HIV cases in Eastern Europe.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Hell and high water: Television, New York punk pioneers

Iconic New York proto-punk band;s debut was released in 77, containing the acclaimed track, Marquee Moon

While many believe that the iconoclastic punk music started in London in late 1976, like many revolutions in sound, the revolt had begun earlier in a different place.

New York in the mid 70s had attracted the attention of the Sex Pistol’s manager, Malcolm McLaren as he headed out to manage the then decaying city’s trashiest band, the New York Dolls, giving him ideas he would take across the Atlantic and call his own.

The New York scene that was based around the legendary dive bar, CBGB, out of which came bands like Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith Group, Joan Jett and Talking Heads.

But before even these, there was Television, a group formed by Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine and their music, edgy yet melodic, abrasive yet tuneful was more like the birth of independent music than mere punk.

By the mid 70s they had rebuffed several major labels, including making a recording for Island records, produced by Brian Eno, but this too was rejected as Verlaine didn’t like Eno’s efforts, saying, "He recorded us very cold and brittle, no resonance. We're oriented towards really strong guitar music ... sort of expressionistic."

Patti Smith got them another label and her boyfriend produced a session, but Verlaine still wanted his hands on the dials. Hell left and Fred Smith of Blondie took over the bass.

Eventually in the hot summer of 1976, Verlaine was offered the chance to produce, and got former Rolling Stones producer Andy Johns to assist. In preparation, the band rehearsed the album all day, every day, rejecting most of their creations over the last three years.

The album was almost entirely recorded live in the studio, in one take, including the title track, which some of the band thought was a rehearsal not a recording. No frills were added to the production, leaving a minimal, authentic feel.

In February 1977 it was released.

Verlaine later said, “As peculiar as it sounds, I've always thought that we were a pop band. You know, I always thought ‘Marquee Moon was a bunch of cool singles. And then I’d realise the title track is ten minutes long, with two guitar solos.”

It was something very different. Jason Heller of The A.V. Club described it as an "elegantly jagged art-punk opus" which it is, and the guitar work between Verlaine and Richard Lloyd made the record one of the most striking and innovative in rock music.

The cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe, Lloyd too the photo to a copy shop and got the copyist to play with the colours while reproducing, which the band preferred to the original photo. The copy went on the cover, the photo on Smith’s wall.

Many reviews were highly positive; often slightly bewildered as it was something strange and new.

Many may not have heard of it, but if your tastes ever reach beyond the mainstream, your favourite guitarist has almost certainly been influenced by this album and its mesmerising title track.

Try it. From its doubled not beginning and another guitar riff floats around till the bass, then drums come in and finally, the strained, plaintive flowing vocal starts, “I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself,” and you’re off on a remarkable track from the most influential album you may never have heard of.

Monday 3 August 2015

Who's really paying for the financial crisis?

John Monks, was head of Europe's Trade Unions and is now a Peer
Interview with: John Monks Head of European Trades Unions in 2010

In a rare moment of summer heat in Brussels Andy Carling sat down with John Monks the Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation to talk about workers rights, just how we may get out of this financial crisis without increasing the levels of poverty and things that he and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso agree on. The interview follows below.

There seemed to be some unanimity between you and Barroso over the risk of social unrest right across Europe, but you seem divided on how you avoid it.

This is a very, very dangerous period for Europe because the economic crisis was the most severe crisis, and it’s affected the world, rather than specific countries. The costs of the bank rescue have been transferred to the public balance sheet. Within a period of about three or four weeks, the mood in European governments changed, from being relaxed about debt, to panicking.

Greece was the start and it spread to Spain and Portugal and the rest of them dread being in the same position, not least Britain. If Standard and Poor or Moody’s mark you down, that sends your interest rates up and the Greek one is still, on a 10 year market bond, over 10% a year. On a German one, it’s 2.5%.

The power of the markets, which were ironically bailed out by the bank rescues, otherwise they’d have all gone down, has now turned their attention to sovereign debt. They managed to transfer their debt onto the public authorities, who are now in trouble. The initial response to the crisis was quite good, they kept up spending, stimulus packages to varying degrees.

The European approach, since the problem burst on individual countries has been less sure. It took them a long time to deal with Greece and the price of dealing with Greece has got higher and higher. Worse, the terms that Greece has got are penal. The basic message being, if you get into the position Greece was in, Europe will punish you, you’ve broken the rules.

Not only the terms are severe, they’re more severe than the IMF is imposing on other countries, but they’re more detailed. It’s almost a colonial imposition. The German approach is that it’s the rules that matter. We’re going to be tough. Whether the social systems of these countries can stand it, we just don’t know. The real pain will come this Winter. The cuts at the moment have been the prospects of cuts. They’re plans, not operative yet.

Some are arguing for austerity packages as a short, sharp shock? Could that approach have longer term implications?

The question is what kind of short, sharp shocks? Sweden did 50/50. 50% taxes on the rich and comfortable and 50% of public expenditure cuts. They spread the pain in a way that was socially cohesive. Nobody’s talking  50/50 now.

Cameron (British Prime minister), is talking 80/20. 80% public expenditure cuts and 20% tax, not always on those who can afford it. To be fair to him, He’s not Thatcher. He’s very different to her. The very poorest may be protected but those just above will be paying the bloody bills for it.

I think the effects on employment will be harsh. In many areas, especially the poorer ones, 50% are employed through public services. The public sector share of GDP is 50% - 60% in the weaker parts of the UK.

Will we face social unrest?

I’m aware of the pressure from a lot of countries, for Europe wide action. We’re having a day of action on September 29 and that’s building up to be a big thing, there could be 70,000 from Belgium alone.  There will be demonstrations in other parts of Europe and it’s getting momentum.

What effect could these austerity packages have on the European project?

There’s no doubt about it, that Germany, the Netherlands Finland and others believe that you can’t have a sound social system without sound finances. Secondly, they’ve managed more or less to achieve that. If they’re in the single currency zone, that’s got to be the rule otherwise they don’t want to be in the zone. They’re not giving people a free ride.

That is a political reality that the rest of Europe has not yet adjusted to.  The terms for any bailout are getting tougher. Is Europe going to be popular? It’s not, is it? It’s the IMF plus, particularly for countries in the Eurozone. You can understand why somebody in Germany could ask, why didn’t think of that before, but the Euro is a benefit to Europe. God knows what would happen to all the currencies in this crisis, a 1931 type crisis, if we didn’t have the Euro. This is a massive stress test for the Euro.

These cuts being imposed are being imposed, not just in Greece and Portugal, but also in Germany, where they’re obsessed with austerity and I don’t think they need be. I believe in counter-cyclical spending by governments, buy Keynesian economics never went very deep in some parts of continental Europe.

Talking of the 30’s is quite an emotional statement and coupled with Barroso’s reported apocalyptical remarks about the possibility of states losing democracy.

He didn’t quite say that. He did say they could not survive in a recognizable form, which we interpreted as the return of the colonels or something, but he would deny he was quite that lurid. But the mood towards austerity packages is “if you do it you’re in trouble, if you don’t, you’re in a lot more trouble”.

What is your vision of a solution?

We argue that there should be a concerted effort by the EU to spend. 1.4 of EU GDP, which is a hell of a lot of money, on a recovery package, that would be financed, in the main, by Eurobonds, issued to the Euros credit, which is strong, and financial transaction taxes. This would fund investment in sustainable technologies, investment in the young, who are getting screwed most at the moment by the economic situation. Youth unemployment is double the average, and support for the weaker regions.

A fund needs to be assembled, operated by the EIB or EBRD so we’ve got some growth spots and the charge doesn’t appear on the national register.

Friday 31 July 2015

The Towering Inferno - an investigation into the Berlaymont fire

Artists impression based on eyewitness accounts
2010 saw a fire in the Berlaymont HQ of the European Commission, we gathered a list of suspects

As eurocrats scuttled away from the flames, apocalyptic preachers roamed around Schuman quoting the more excitable passages from the Book of Revelations but the emergency services were feeling the pressure, as one senior policeman said, off the record, "We've got to hush this up, there's a lot at stake". Despite press releases trying to minimise the incident, others were beginning secret inquiries. 

The police source explained, "We've got suspects and there is already a lot of evidence gathering going on, but, " he tapped his nose knowingly, "there isn't any prospect of a court case, if you know what I mean".

A highly confidential list of suspects was shown to New Europe and we can exclusively reveal the lines of inquiry and why the authorities are suspicious:

Nigel Farage - An obvious suspect, but he appeared on UK TV saying he had an alibi. The CCTV cameras at the Gare du Midi are being examined as there may be a possibility that Farage lit the fire and quickly caught the Eurostar to give himself an alibi.

Robert Kilroy-Silk - Witnesses speak of a man in the inferno who appeared to be horribly burned. Police suspect this could have been the notoriously orange skinned ex-TV presenter. Also, his claim on election of "destroying the European Union" makes him a suspect. "We think he knew his career was over and he wanted to go out on a bang".

Guy Verhofstat - the ex Belgian PM was known to be angry by his failure to become Commission President and "may have acted out of a jealous rage".

Günter Verheugen - Long discussed making a bonfire of regulations. "We think this may have been what he was doing and it all went wrong, directives are highly flammable". He, allegedly, was spotted running naked through the corridors shortly after the fire began. A spokesman said "This in not unusual, he does that every now and then".

INTEL - There is a theory that they might have "sent the boys round" after being fined by the Commission recently. "The timing is suspicious".

Jöse Manuel Barroso - After reportedly losing support of some socialist parties, he may have become disillusioned. According to insiders, he has a bust of Nero in his office that he gazes at longingly. However his security team deny this, commenting on his departure from the burning building, "We've never seen him move so fast. In fact, we've rarely seen him move".

RELEX - Unverified reports suggest that Berlaymont was the target of a storm of blazing arrows, fired from the Charlemagne building's roof. "RELEX have been envious of the bigger building, especially as it's harder to see through the windows, where Charlemagne is more open and it's easier for people to see us sleeping at our desks or find out exactly long our lunches are. We're sick and tired of people in the LEX building waving at us and holding rude notices to us at the windows." said a source in RELEX

Lord Mandelson - It seems that after the UK MP's expenses storm a tabloid journalist broke into the strongrooms containing the ex-Commissioner's expenses claims. The suspicion is that the hack was so outraged he spontaneously combusted, thus starting the fire. Mandelson expressed "deep, heartfelt sorrow" that his expenses had been destroyed. He then asked if he could re-submit them.

Although nobody was hurt, there will be serious consequences. The biggest casualty was the Lisbon Treaty, which was burned beyond recognition. An official explained, "We were using it to prop open a door, but it has been destroyed. This means that every member state will have to sign it again, once we get a new one printed. This could cause problems".

The Commission is to be closed for six months as the entire staff have been signed off sick by doctors. Compensation claims are expected to reach over 3 billion euros as employees claim for trauma, inhalation of second hand smoke and tinnitus caused by "too loud" fire alarms. In brighter news, the Bada Bing Lap dancing club has offered alternative employment to some stagieres. 

There has been an appeal launched to refurbish the Commission headquarters, so far Microsoft has offered "extensive support" and claim that their investigations reveal that one of the press had a laptop running Linux and this was the probable cause of the fire.

One heroic moment during the crisis was that of an unknown functionary, in a desperate attempt to halt the blaze, urinated on a pile of burning Commission Directives, before being overcome by the smoke. This heroism is planned to be commemorated in a 10 metre high statue of this selfless act, to be mounted on the Commission roof, overlooking Schuman roundabout. 

It's going to be called the Berlaymont Pis.

G’day Europe

The song remains the same

Australia's entry to the Eurovision Song contest shows they should become part of the EU

There was a mixture of shock and awe as people slowly digested the implications of Australia’s entry into the Eurovision Song Contest. Clearly they’re the favourites to win it until they bankrupt their national broadcaster and drag out Kenny Wilson or similar to end their gold run.

There’s also the delicious possibility of Nick Cave performing at Eurovision, which would be memorable, if not too disturbing to broadcast. Of course we’re more likely to get Kylie in a skimpy dress mouthing something vaguely coquettish, which quite frankly does the job for several key viewer segments.

At least they had the decency to wait till their 60s poster, Rolf Harris was ‘unavailable’ before joining in.

With their good and outgoing nature, born from self-confidence and pride in building a nation from the refuse from London’s jails in a land stuffed to the gills with poisonous creatures, it has to be said that Australia is just too good for Eurovision.

Why have they joined? It’s clearly part of a plan to join and take over the European Union, and good luck to them.

An inward looking Europe that is as neurotic and disturbed as a supermodel needs something new, a new energy, desire to roll up its sleeves and get to work, and, damn it, a joie de vivre.

We need to be honest. We can’t do it ourselves, so let’s bring in the big hearted Australians and gain a future and something even more precious, a Pacific coast.

After years of being dominated by Germany, the humour, empathy and bonhomie of Australians would be most welcomed by all. It could give us the renewal we’re looking for, not just the economic one, but that self-belief in the European project, the mission that we’re all part of something bigger than our little national obsessions.

Quite frankly, we’ve turned into the Leonard Cohen of economic blocs, we need to get our groove back and the accession of Australia could be our only hope.

Of course, in this most ancient of lands, all is not perfect, but perhaps this is one of the areas where we’ve gone so wrong, looking at dodgy neighbours, rather than widening the nex and asking who can enrich, who can add to our vision?

We can also get a whole new set of strange and unusual politicians. Like EU countries, the political elite is a hideous and bloated caricature of the ordinary citizen. Their current PM is a mixture of the political touch of Dan Quayle with the intellectual rigour of Dan Quayle. It’s a bit like an angry drunk version of Yves Leterme.

There’s an honesty to the way Australian politicians talk to each other and to the public, which would make Council meetings much more fun. It’s not just that they’re more insulting, but they are creatively so.

Who cannot savour the line, from a PM on opposition leader “He’s like a shiver waiting for a spine to run up.” Or the former Defence minister on the current PM, saying Tony Abbott, “stands for nothing. He is the Nancy Reagan of Australian politics without the astrology: say no to everything, just rancid, dripping, relentless negativity.”

Then there’s the most exquisite political insult of all time, when Winton Turnbull, who represented a large rural seat for the Country Party said in a heated debate that ended up as a rant “I am a Country member,” and Gough Whitlam replied, “I remember.”

Well done to Eurovision, let’s hope Europe follows their bold and visionary lead

Stan Laurel the quiet comedy pioneer

Way out in front

One of the best moments in journalism, is when you discover someone you admire is even more wonderful than you thought

On February 23, 1965, Stan Laurel told his last joke, telling his nurse that he would rather be skiing. "Are you a skier, Mr Laurel?" He replied, "I'm not, but I'd rather be doing that than having these needles stuck in me." Moments later he passed away from a heart attack aged 74, eight years after Oliver Hardy died.

He’s earlier warned friends, “If anyone at my funeral has a long face, I'll never speak to him again.”

Part of the most lauded comedy act, a global star, Laurel made 80 solo films, but is known and loved for his work with Oliver Hardy, a partnership that made 35 silent and 72 sound films. But what do people know about him today?

Philip Hutchinson is not just a passionate fan and student of their lives and work; he’s also played Hardy onstage, shows that have won appreciation from fans and old friends of the duo.

“The most important thing about Stan,” Hutchinson says, “is that he was a gentleman.” While others at the time had reputations for arrogance, even cruelty, Laurel was concerned about treating people well, especially the fans.
“Stan knew that they wouldn’t be anywhere without their fans, so they always made time for them, inviting them to tea, always making time to chat.” This kindly nature lasted even through retirement. He was listed in the public phone book and fans could call and make an appointment to visit or even just chat. One of those who called was Dick Van Dyke, who became a close friend.

Hutchinson says that Laurel was the creative genius in the partnership. Hardy had talent enough for both, “But Stan wrote and directed everything.” He adds, “Some scripts would just be a single piece of paper with the title and the pair would improvise and practise until they had their finished product. And they would often shoot in one take.” Laurel didn’t stop there. He’s attend screenings with a stopwatch, occasionally taking off a second, adding half a second to get the timing just how he wanted it.

He also was an innovator. They were the first in comedy to ‘break the fourth wall’ introducing the turn and stare into the camera to express bemusement, shock or resignation to whatever indignation was occurring in front of them. It’s so common that it has been forgotten who devised the look.

After sound began to be part of film making, Laurel also devised the trick of comedians reacting to off screen events, such as an accident happening just out of sight, but being heard.

As a gentleman, it was natural that Laurel was humorous, a prankster but never crude. There are no double entendres, nor any of the course humour of their music hall origins. Laurel had modesty when asked about his art, “A friend once asked me what comedy was. That floored me. What is comedy? I don't know. Does anybody? Can you define it? All I know is that I learned how to get laughs, and that's all I know about it. You have to learn what people will laugh at; then proceed accordingly.”

On another occasion he said, “Humour is the truth; wit is an exaggeration of the truth.”

So if we’ve only vague memories or kids who don’t know Laurel and Hardy, why should we still watch them? “It doesn’t matter than many of their films are old, black and white or silent, they are timeless,” says Hutchinson, “and they’re funnier than you think.”

To learn more about Philip Hutchinson's tribute to the comedians: Lucky Dog Theatre Productions

Thursday 30 July 2015

The Kindest Cut Of All

Kraftwek as a barbershop choir
The strange world of mens' hairdressing

Our body hair is generally pretty disciplined, but the hair on the head is one of the most insubordinate parts of the human body. It grows too much, acts strangely when damp and as you get older, it starts going a funny colour and finally, begins to disappear.

Could you imagine the chaos if any other part of our bodies acted like that?

This is why I’ve always been suspicious of hair. As a child, I learned that it was something that needed to be dealt with firmly. My first haircuts were performed by my mother, who had the art of cutting as I squirmed in the chair, trying to escape.

When I got a little older and it was more difficult to keep me restrained whilst wielding the scissors, and with an ever increasing likelihood that she would cause an injury sufficient to alert the child welfare people, I was packed off to a professional. A barber. This is where my relationship with my hair got a lot stranger.

Meet the professionals

The barbers I was sent to had one thing in common; price. The first one I went to, until I was around 16, had a small narrow salon in a cellar. I noticed something very strange about it. Every surface was covered in photos and news clippings of Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second eldest son. I asked the barber about it and he sang his praises for the half hour it took him to cut my hair, but I still didn’t get it. Now I am older, I can recognise homoerotic fixation, although the choice of Randy Andy is still a mystery. To Fergie as well, I expect.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, sitting in front of a dirty mirror as a strange man poked about your head whilst chain smoking, while being stared at by minor royalty.

I later moved to a village with only one barber. Most locals happily travelled far away to get their hair cut, but I was more loyal to local tradesmen. The barber, Johnny, was certainly a man of conviction. Several in fact. Apparently all related to missing items of ladies underwear from clotheslines.

He had a simple approach to his trade. When you sat in the chair, he would ask, “Much off?” A yes would mean a number two cut, a no would make him, reluctantly, bring out a number three razor. He approached his task as a farmer approaches sheep shearing. Apart from the concern about animal welfare.

Not only did he actually hate hair, something that would stop a normal person from becoming a barber, he had an attitude to customer service that Basil Fawlty would find shocking. He also wouldn’t allow women in his shop. I’ve even see him chase a poor tourist’s wife out with a broom more than once. He would break off occasionally mid-cut because he had a sideline in selling walking sticks and spotted a potential customer.

The advantage was that I always paid less than €3 for a cut and when Johnny cut your hair, it stayed cut.

Since then I’ve lived in Africa and had my hair cut on a stool in a car park, with only a broken wing mirror to guide the barber, or man with blunt razor blade, as I thought of him. I had better cuts by a river in West Africa and more relaxed cuts in the souks of the Middle East.

Then I moved to Brussels and my then girlfriend let me use her electric razor. Call me naive, but I wondered why a woman who went to the hair salon every month needed one. The penny eventually dropped, but I’d got used to cutting my own hair with it by then.

Together editor offers salvation

James Drew was listening to me explain why I had never paid more than €3 for a haircut, when he turned to me, with a look of real pity and concern, and passed me an envelope. “Here’s a voucher for a serious haircut at Alexandre de Paris. Go and have a proper cut and tell me about it.”

That is how I went for my first ever real haircut. Naturally, I prepared myself for this brave new world of styling. I waited for my hair to grow. Eventually it got too long to tolerate and I phoned up the salon. I got an appointment for the next day, so quickly and easily I found it a bit anticlimactic, to be honest.

As I entered the salon, everyone welcomed me and sat in a very comfortable chair as my hair was washed - how do they get the water temperature exactly right? Then the shampoo was massaged into my scalp and a rinse. By then I was so relaxed, I was in some type of zen calm.

Andre, with over 20 years of experience, looked me over and asked what cut I wanted. I had no idea, only having the concept of ‘short’, so I told him to do whatever he wanted. I felt comfortable with that as Andre had a manner that inspired confidence. I watched him begin to cut my hair, seeing the idea he had take shape. I was surprised at just how gentle it was. Having had decades of people hacking away, it was just a delight to see what a light touch could do. There were times when, if I couldn’t see him in the mirror, I wouldn’t have known he was at work.

Andre also has the ability to look focused and relaxed at the same time. I can’t explain it, go see for yourself. At the end, he had done exactly what he wanted. He gave me the best haircut I’ve ever had. He talked about how much he liked his clients, as they were professional and knowledgeable people who were interesting to talk to and he said that many were very busy and a half hour visit to Alexandre de Paris, was a chance for them to relax and take a time out.

That’s when I understood. Previously, getting my haircut was a chore, an intrusion, something I felt had to be done. It had never been anything actually enjoyable, something relaxing.

That’s why I’m going back to my friend Andre, nobody else is touching my hair ever again.

Amnesty Head asks Council to act on Roma deportations

Secretary General of Amnesty International
Interview with: Salil Shetty in October 2010

You’re touring the important capitals, how important is Brussels for Amnesty?

Brussels is at the centre of global policy making because of the EU, it’s one of the top three in the world. But there are new capitals, such as Delhi, Beijing and Sao Paulo, who are gaining in importance.

You said you’re going to put more effort into these places, how are countries like Brazil doing on human rights?

I think things, from a global level, are improving. Issues like the death penalty, where we have 135 countries now that do not use the death penalty, either by taking it off the statute book or simply by not using it, so there is some cause for hope and celebration.

If you take economic, social and cultural rights, Brazil has been a leader with some very innovative things, such as the Balsa Escola program which is the largest cash transfer programme in the world. Very significant chunks of the population have been lifted out of poverty and Brazil is one of the few countries where inequality has been reduced in the last few years.

There are issues on security and present conditions are atrocious, land rights are still tenuous and there are evictions, slum conditions are dreadful, but that’s why we want to be there, because there are big challenges.

How would you characterize the EU’s response to the Roma evictions?

The response has been mixed, we were pleased that Commissioner Reding made a clear statement about it, OK, it was a little bit colourful in the way she said it, but it helped push back on what the French did, loud and clear.

But the problem is not restricted to France. It’s there in many countries and it really weakens Europe’s credibility, to talk about these issues if they don’t address the Roma question, because it’s an old question.

We have been highlighting it, but this feeble and fragmented response we are seeing right now is unacceptable. Our call is for the European Council, when they next meet, to issue a clear and powerful statement that this is in violation of several European laws and human rights standards We need them to come clean and firstly, acknowledge that there is a violation, secondly, to come up with a clear plan of action on how to deal with it. It’s very doable, it’s a question of political will.

You met with Van Rompuy, what did he have to say?

He completely acknowledges that this is a big issue and it was discussed at the last council meeting, that he chaired. Technically, they are waiting for the investigation results, but I think they can not ignore it and I expect him to take a leadership role in this.

World Bank fraud chief: “I’m going to get the big guys”

Feared and fearless: Leonard McCarthy
Interview with Leonard McCarthy Vice-President, in charge of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank in October 2010

When it comes to fighting corruption, few investigators are more feared than Leonard McCarthy, Vice-President, in charge of Institutional Integrity at the World Bank. Before starting at the Bank in 2008, he was Head of South Africa’s Directorate of Special Operations, the specialist team of the nation’s best fraud and crime investigators, also known as the Scorpions.

 It is estimated that $1 trillion a year is spent on bribery and corrupt practices. Since starting at the World Bank, there have been 117 investigations in 84 countries that have led to 45 companies and individuals being debarred from bidding for Bank funds and 32 cases going to national courts.

Being barred can have significant costs for a company. In one case, an Indian firm lost $150 million in value after being debarred. Siemens were also debarred, but after reaching agreement with the Bank, their share price rose 11%.

He also advocates broadcasting their work to the public, believing it makes them more effective and accountable. Among other initiatives, he is developing a new aspect, the preventative services, who are working with evidence, uncovered during investigations, to develop a series of ‘red flags’ that can provide an early warning of possible fraud.

What would you say are the main challenges you face?

The first one is that I want to deal more with high impact cases. Right now we have a small number of big cases, most are in the middle and a few, what I call fly by night cases at the bottom. I joined the World Bank to deal with serious problems and deal with them aggressively.

Secondly, I want to commit myself to the stolen asset recovery side. It’s out there, but you need the political will from countries and you need to work through competent legal systems. All of that takes time but I want us to be in the position where we can see some real action by next Christmas.

Thirdly, it’s a structural and procedural issue, but I want to see it through. Investigators should be able to follow money that is deposited in the commercial institutions by people who have benefited from World Bank funds. We want to track the money from where it left our account to wherever it goes.

It’s not easy to do right now. It’s a political thing. You need shareholder buy-in, legal agreements and so on.

I am committed to find ways to bring restitution to victims of corruption. One thing I am beginning to consider is when debarred those who have been caught, come to us and say that they have co-operated and offer a large sum to reduce the period they are prohibited from bidding.

This is not a perfect world, but if we can structure a punishment that makes it weighty, payable in money and overseen, then it sounds like success to me.

You are talking about companies who have reformed and co-operate, but it looks like you’re trying to fine companies without the difficulties of legal action

Yes. You’ve got to be pragmatic in life. Any enforcement strategy has three elements. You need to clean up. You look for where you can use evidence to try to go to the big fish. The third area is someone has to prosecute the hard cases.

Africa has been perceived as corrupt, but it is often Western companies who have been doing the corrupting. How do we deal with multi-nationals, who sometimes have a corrupting influence?

If I look at the referrals in the last two years, 40% are to developed countries and although a project may not reside there, the company does. What you find with corruption is that money goes to the developed world and back. Many roads lead to London, but there has been so much done on the side of international enforcement in the last three years.

 I think it has something to do with systems being shock tested by the financial crisis. I think we are doing better now, the same with companies. Major companies are committed to clean things up. As recently as 1999 it was acceptable to pay bribes in most of the world.

The best thing to do is what Siemens did. Cut your losses. Come to us and sort it out.

Women, poor hit hardest by Climate Change

Women working on a fish farm in Bangladesh / Paul Thompson

Interview with activists working in Bangladesh

As the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21 in Paris at the end of the year, where it is hoped that a legally binding agreement on Climate Change may be reached, it is important to remember that, while all of us will be affected by future change, some of the world’s poorest and marginalised communities are often already affected.

While some Pacific islands are looking at relocating their entire population and culture, some have fewer options, such as Bangladesh.

With 57 trans-boundary rivers flowing through their land to the sea, Bangladesh also has a large, low lying coastal region, susceptible to not only rising seas, but extreme events, such increasing storms and monsoons. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that 27 million Bangladeshis were at risk from a sea level rise by 2050 and a net 15% increase in poverty by 2030.

The report says that the country lost 5.9% of GDP due to storms between 1998 and 2009.

There hasn’t been much work on gender and climate change, but in Bangladesh it’s not an abstract concept for academia, but one of the ways of building capacity and resilience into their planning.

Dilruba Haider, the Co-ordinator on Gender and Climate Change for UN Women in Bangladesh spoke to New Europe about what they had learned.

“What we are doing basically has two outcomes,” Haider said, “One is policy advocacy through which we are trying to influence the government and other actors including the UN to integrate gender equality prospective into their climate change policies and strategies. The other is to provide direct support to the climate vulnerable women in the form of livelihood support.”

Haider explains that they wish to empower women by supporting economic independence – so they are not dependent on a husband or male relatives, political independence – the right to be involved in decision making at the hyper local to national level and mobility, the right to travel.

Stating that nobody knows how many people live on the coastal plains, at high risk of climate change, Haider says there’s more to the problem. “Flooding is one consequence – one of the impacts of climate change. Increased frequency of disaster is the result of climate change. But there are also other problems as a result of climate change like health hazards.

“When there is extreme cold especially up in the north of the country it is usually elderly and people with nutrition deficiency who suffer more. We all know that the nutrition level of women is much lower than their male counterparts. So the new mothers, pregnant women and young girls suffer the most together with the elderly.”

There are already problems from higher salinity, as women showed a group of visiting parliamentarians, “They had rashes because of extensive use of saline water because women are doing all the chores – washing, cleaning and cooking – so women are exposed, including productive tract infection and urinary tract infection because of using saline water to clean themselves.”

She gives an example, of migration from the over-salinated areas, “It’s usually the males who are going to the city for a couple of months to work in some nearby towns. During these 6-9 months or year, the women are left in the village and struggling to survive. The men are not always able to send the money back each month but the women somehow manage. We are thinking how to increase their capacity to earn more might be to increase their skill level.”

There’s also the problem of food production. “food production is hampered. When there is a problem with the availability of food, the men eat first. So climate change is affecting women in various ways. But in the climate change discourse women’s issues are not being addressed.”

Haider elaborates, “But because no one is conscious about it or aware of it, all the discussions are about drought-tolerant rice varieties – issues women have no control over.”

That’s half the affected population out of the debate and, more importantly, excluded from offering advice and potential solutions. Haider has a message for politicians everywhere, “Please address the gender equality concerns in the climate change discussions and negotiations.”

She continues, “If you think about it this sounds and looks and feels so obvious that you shouldn’t, and you can’t talk about, climate change adaptation without supporting a population that is suffering and will be suffering as a result of climate change – you can’t do that by keeping half the population outside of their purview. If we don’t take this into account, we will never be able to come up with a holistic approach to adaptation.”

Noting that “Bangladesh has hundreds and thousands of NGOs,” many are using credit programmes, UN Women are using grants instead. “If there is a women doing rice trading, we buy the paddy for her and she processes it and with the money she earns she again buys the paddy. These kinds of things like fishnet making or poultry or tailoring these have been going on for 20-30 years now.”

But Haider asks, “Is it empowering? Money doesn’t give you power. Money brings you some wellness. You have some money so you are not starving and you can send your kid to school, but is it empowering?” She adds that this is a question they are studying.

There is one resource available; the people. “Bangladeshi people are the epitome of resilience. Each time I go to the field I really feel humbled. I have never been in a disaster. I am from a middle-class family. I have enjoyed gender equality in my home and work. But when I go to the field and see these women who have nothing and they are oppressed and still they are fighting back and standing there and educating their child and trying to better their life. My words fail me. The poor people have tremendous power to move ahead and make their life better. They fight everyday to make their life better.”

Haider concludes, “If anything, it’s the people power that is moving the country forward.”

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Nanotechnology needs ethical guidelines to guide the potential for good

The future is smaller than you may imagine

New science needs new rules

“There’s always been an element of science fiction to nanotechnology,” says John Crowley from UNESCO’s Commission on the Ethics of Scientific Knowledge and Technology (COMEST), and he is right. Perhaps more than in any other scientific field, work is going ahead to bring the wildest concepts into reality.

A nanometer is one billionth of a metre; approximately the length of three to six atoms placed side-by-side. By comparison, a human hair is between 50,000 and 100,000 nanometres wide. The science began in late 1959, when the legendary physicist, Richard Feynman raised the possibilities of working with materials at an atomic scale and the possibilities of building self replicating machines of that size.

It took decades to catch up with Feynman’s vision, but nanotechnology is no longer an experiment in the laboratory, it is in the real world. It is estimated that 800 manufacturer-identified nanotech products are publicly available, with new ones hitting the market at a pace of 3–4 per week.

The 18 members of COMEST are examining the technology and looking for an ethical framework that allows for new developments yet protects the public from potential dangers. “Nano-materials exist in nature, but manufacturing them is new to science and they have opened up some new horizons, but also fears and concerns,” says Crowley, who lists the main concerns as the speed of development and discovery, that it is being driven by “the wrong concerns, not in the interest of humanity, but military, who are the major investors in nano-research.”

Crowley is also worried that developing countries may be left behind, “that they may have access to the technology, if they can afford it, but be completely locked out from developing the science,” and worries over risk management.

Nanotech on the High Street

“Nano-materials are in the shops. You may be buying them without knowing it,” he warns. He gives several examples, including self cleaning concrete, a thin layer that coats the surface that uses sunlight to generate chemical processes that eliminate dirt from the surface.

“A brilliant idea, but what are the implications? Are these particles dangerous? How does aging affect the particles?” he asks. He also mentioned anti-odour socks, “they have particles of nano-silver, which is a very powerful biocide, it kills bacteria, properties that silver in its ordinary form doesn’t have. But the silver washes out over time and goes down the drain. What are the implications? What does it kill there? Does it end up in drinking water?”

“The concern is about a technology moving forward before there has been a systematic study of the possible impacts. It’s this lag between commercialization and sensible regulation which excites worries.”

COMEST has been looking at these questions for four years.  They see educating the public as a vital step and one of the messages is about risk management.  “There is no such thing as complete avoidance of any risk, but judgments have to be made and people have to be made accountable for those judgments,” says Crowley.

Are voluntary guidelines enough and should they be globally applicable? “Science is global and technology is increasingly global. To have radically different regulatory frameworks in differing parts of the world looks implausible,” Crowley observes, “The big question is, do we look at coordination or harmonization? It’s clear that harmonization, when it does appear, is a good idea but the search for it can be self defeating. Sometimes it is better to look for coordination, which can be achieved.”

World changing benefits

The potential of this technology is as expansive as a science fiction author’s imagination, but there are developments that are near to being viable. Crowley mentions three areas that would be world changing.

“Filtrations systems may not sound sexy, but if you’re one of the 2 billion without clean drinking water, this is huge. In principle, nano-scale filters could be developed that would get rid of all the impurities in water, not just biological impurities but contamination by heavy metals etc. There are existing applications, but they are expensive, the challenge is to bring the cost down. The filter would look the same, but would be 100 times more effective.

“The second area is energy. In principle, you can imagine systems where energy could be produced at the molecular level. This could be new kinds of fuel cells, new kinds of bio-fuels that wouldn’t require the acreage that existing systems need, with all the problems that causes. It could be a quantum leap in solar cell technology.

Some scientists feel that could happen, with regard to the effectiveness of solar panels. The impact of that would be incredible. Maybe next year, maybe in 10 years, the breakthrough will come. If so, it is possible that all the world’s energy could come from solar power in a few decades.

“The third is the most routine, but the potential is huge. This is in new materials, new alloys, plastics and polymers. New alloys for the aeronautical industry are already offering the potential for much lighter planes that will use less fuel.

There’s a lot of potential for carbon nano-tubes that are put together at the atomic level and are incredibly strong and light. Some moderately large objects have been made and they have properties that could be world changing. Basically, you wouldn’t need metals to make cars, planes, ships and so on. This is a whole new conception of what materials are and how they can be made.”

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Interview with Will Franken: comics need courage

Will Franken a comedian with a curious mind

QI's top elf speaks to Andy

It’s too limiting to call Franken a comedian. With his dark humour, sense of the absurd and an ability to point out the uncomfortable truths, he has made a real impact in this brutal business.

The young Franken was brought up in a small city of Sedalia, Missouri. A railway junction, it had the reputation as a hotspot of vice and prostitution in the last century, it is now known as the ‘Trailer capitol of the Midwest.’

Franken had a freewheeling mind that was recognised later in life when he was awarded ‘Best alternative to psychedelic drugs’ by a San Francisco newspaper shortly after taking up performing.
He’s also got a Masters in English, specialising in Restoration and 18th Century literature. But he’s not very happy with the state of comedy in the UK, his adopted home.

Why move to the UK? “Britain was the pinnacle. It was the great escape. Because what I saw from British television as a kid was just light years beyond what Americans were doing,” he says. Inspired by The Goons, Monty Python and the sitcoms, Franken headed to the UK.

“I was living in a hotel for three months and hadn’t had TV for quite a few years, so I was turning on the TV…” He pauses and looks exasperated. “I was just so depressed to see the height that it had fallen from in Britain,” he complains, saying that humour that was once groundbreaking is rarely seen.

While the Mother-in-Law obsessed comedians have largely gone as have those whose racial stereotyping seems as if it was a century ago, Franken feels that comedians should be allowed on the fringes, to be poking at the edges, something he sees too little of today. Why? “Laziness and fear,” says Franken, on both sides of the Atlantic. “When I was a kid David Letterman was the answer to Johnny Carson and he was very weird and he was doing weird stuff and had weird little sketches and now when I see Letterman I see a man that’s got to much money and so much status that he doesn’t want to rock the boat less he loses it.”

It’s not just fame and success that can dull the edge, “I think the political correctness has kind of encroached and has made people, comedians especially very afraid to talk about some subjects.”
He raises the musical about the Book of Mormon, put on by the creators of South Park, that became a Broadway hit, “By and large the Mormons are such a small population that they’re not going to rise up and revolt and that’s acceptable, but at the same time you can’t do a Jihadi musical so there’s all sorts of double standards at play.”

Franken is outspoken, but in a thoughtful way and he has a trace of the oldest traditions, that of the jester, who challenges by treading in uncomfortable areas, including how the comedy business works.
Like much of the entertainment business, life is tough on the lower rungs, with no pay, expenses for everything (At the Edinburgh Fringe some acts were actually charged for a glass of water whilst on stage, for example).

After a successful three night run at one leading alternative comedy club where he was expected to perform free, Franken passed round a hat and explained his plight.

As a result, “I was banned from the theater in LA and New York. Now they’re called, they’re the premiere alternative place so that’s your quote ‘alternative’ for you.”

This brings the comedian to another problem with comedy. “I said in one interview, you know the religious people killed Christ. If you think about who’s killing art? The artist, and that’s a sad thing to say,” he notes. He’s also noted that nascent performers have changed, “There used to be a Darwinian evolution to art, right? You got to a certain point. You tried you gave it a shot, and if it didn’t work, you’d go back to whatever job you did before.”

With anyone who thinks they are funny having the ability to make You Tube videos and publish, essentially for free on the internet, Franken argues that many people are continuing with ‘virtual’ careers but only produce work of low quality and value.

Not everybody should have a career in comedy just because they want one. He takes the view of if everyone is special, then nobody is. Franken is a working comedian, it’s a job, something he constantly works at.

A downbeat assessment of the business, but how can it be improved, especially at a time where it appears that comedians are doing more hard-hitting political comment than many broadcasters?
“The guys at the top are going to have to take risks,” he says. “You need somebody wise in the position of power to be able to say to be able to make decisions that aren’t based on fear and profit.”
“I’m a capitalist I love money but you need somebody to be able to make decisions that are based on artistic merit because to me at the end of the day that’s the only principle.”

From his experience in Britain, he says,  the cultural organisations “are doing the Shakespeare the Beethoven the classical stuff. We’re doing all that stuff. And I love all that stuff,” he adds.
“So the BBC and all of them, they’ve got to stop being afraid.

He continues, “I believe if you have enough freedom, the cream will rise to the top. But if you have those people on the top making those decision based on artistic merit rather than the legend books then you’ll start seeing good art again,” he pauses slightly, “I think.”

He says, “My point it’s on both sides. it’s not just TV people or Hollywood that’s keeping people out. It’s that bad are not being discouraged and bad artists are not being discouraged as well. So everybody is meeting in a real mushy middle. I either have really bad stuff or really good stuff. But that middle, it’s just a horrible place to be. No taste. “

Franken has performed not only in the big cities, but in many small towns and out of the way places and he often finds them to be more real, authentic and interesting than the more famous venues.

OK Boots, start walking

I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a Nancy boy

All newspapers have their little rituals and so has New Europe. As we hand off the paper to the printers there's a call of "It's Nancy time!" and we go to print as we play Nancy Sinatra's classic hit These Boots Are Made For Walking."

It made number one in the UK charts on 17 February 1966.

It has been covered by just about everyone, but it still is Nancy's song. "The one hit song that I have tremendous gratitude for is Boots, because it has a life of its own. It's like being identified with a brand name," she said.

The song was written by Lee Hazlewood and many would argue that, not only was it an inspired partnership, it produced some of the best and strangest music in pop, including the unforgettable Some Velvet Morning.

The song was taken up by US soldiers, fighting in Vietnam and a year later Nancy did a tour for the troops that went down exceptionally well. A liberal, Nancy was honest and non-judgemental about the conflict, especially those in it.

“All of the people in my generation were involved in one way or another with the Viet Nam war. They were enlisting, drafted, escaping to another country or a marriage and children they didn’t really want. I knew I had to do something so I called the USO and volunteered to go and entertain the troops," she said.

 “When you are in a war zone the people around you become your brothers and sisters. They were then, are now and will always be a huge part of my life.”

She was no precious star, despite having an almost indescribably famous father, saying about the tour, “Each outfit put us up wherever they could–sometimes a building, sometimes a tent–with shells going off over our heads. We spent one night on the carrier Kitty Hawk. My God, I was terrified. But once you are committed to something like that, you move past the fear.”

She continues to act for veterans and veterans rights to this day.

The song was made with a group of session musicians, who went by the name of The Wrecking Crew. The name may be new, but everyone has heard them, not only did they record Boots, they also worked with everyone from The Monkees to Nat King Cole and were the musicians who provided Phil Spector's infamous 'wall of sound'.

Members of the Wrecking Crew played on the first Byrds single recording, "Mr. Tambourine Man", because Columbia Records did not trust the skills of Byrd musicians except for Roger McGuinn and They provided the backing for Leonard Cohen's fifth album, Death of a Ladies' Man.

Monday 27 July 2015

Al Jazeera - The Other Opinion

An interview with Jamil Azar, al Jazeera’s Senior Anchor as the channel launches it's English service

After 31 years with the BBC’s Arabic Service in London, Jamil Azar accepted a job at the fledgling al Jazeera in 1997. Since then he has risen to become a senior presenter and has a large input on their editorial policy. Among his achievements was to come up with the channel’s slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” In this interview, he discusses the original Arabic channel, the newer English language channel and how al Jazeera got where it is and where it’s going next.

What did you expect when you joined al Jazeera, before it had even started broadcasting?

Well, it was an experimental operation, but we found that the Emir of Qatar was serious about this venture, and I think he must have read the mood of the media in the Arab world and most of the Qataris had the BBC World Arabic service and he must have said we want something similar from Qatar and it fitted into his policy of liberalising Qatar. The Emir is still paying for it and he will continue to support us morrally and financially on the condition that we do our job professionally.

Is al Jazeera losing its Arab identity?

Many of its journalists come from places like the BBC, and launching the English channel has broadened its identity. Al Jazeera Arabic established its editorial policy on the lines of the western media, especially on the BBC, I consider it the mother of all broadcasters and I’m proud to have been with them for over 30 years, in radio and television. We, who left the BBC for a new oportunity to broadcast from the region, took these principles of journalism to the region where the audience was only given one opinion, the official side to the story, the other opinion was not allowed.

Giving the other opinion is important to us and to our audience. The English channel covers a lot of South, third world issues, not covered by the English-speaking media, then we should have some impact. After 9/11 the American audience felt that they didn’t know much about the outside world and they could watch us and learn about it and learn how to deal with the outside world. The Arabic channel is based in Arabic language and culture. The English channel speaks to a wider audience that doesn’t have a common culture, so they are different, addressing different audiences but we all work on the same principles and ethics.

You also devised the slogan, “The opinion and the other opinion.” Are you still keeping to that principle?

There has been no change to our principles but experience made us even more daring in tackling some very difficult areas, such as censorship by regimes. We are still al Jazeera, even after 13 years on air. We are banned by several countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia. Our offices have been closed in other countries for a time. For example, Saddam banned us from Iraq. We did not ask to be re-opened, but they asked us to come back. We do not target any country, we present the news where we find it. We report the facts, but that makes the governments who don’t like their problems being discussed attack us.

What are the limitations of just having two opposing views? Doesn’t that end up in a shouting match? Do you have a problem with people going on the record out of fear of reprisals?

We face the same problems as any media that wants to show a range of opinions. In the Arab world there are people who are worried that they might be imprisoned if they appear on al Jazeera and there have been some cases where this has happened. But for us, it doesn’t stop us from trying to present the other opinion.

You operate in very difficult environments, it must be very difficult to protect your sources, where the context may be a much more threatening environment than western journalists operate in. How hard is it to be ethical at the sharp end?

We have a code of ethics. We were the first Arabic channel to have such a code and we expect them to adhere to it. Protecting sources is enshrined in that code. We would go as far as we can to protect our sources. In Sudan, they stopped our reporter and manager of the bureau from operating because he wouldn’t reveal one of his sources. We were sure the source was correct and reliable, so the Sudanese authorities removed the ban, but we thought it best to recall our staff to Doha, but we do operate from Sudan. It’s very important that we keep our standards, otherwise we would quickly lose our credibility and lose the trust of our audiences. We take this seriously.

You are now global with the English channel. How well is it doing, because you aren’t in the US. Are you being censored?

Well, it looks as if there are certain quarters in the US, whether on commercial or political basis that do not allow al Jazeera English to go on the cable networks. It looks like an attempt to shield the American audience from what we can tell them, however in the last couple of days I heard there is going to be an announcement that a couple of cable networks are going to show us. We have a bureau in Washington and we are hopeful that attitudes will change. The Obama administration is bringing real change and there might be a change in attitude towards us. We were a revolution in Arab media and can al Jazeera English be a revolution in global media?

What does the future bring?

I don’t think we will change much in the near future, apart from some new programmes. We’re always responding to our audience, but we’re looking at more north - south issues so we can let the north understand more of the life and culture of other parts. This can bring people together.

Friday 24 July 2015

Set the economy to stun

There are no signs of intelligent policy, Jim

It's Greece Jim, but not as we know it

The finale of the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is more relevant to the EU than it may appear.

To save the ship and crew of the USS Free Enterprise, Spock, a cold, emotionless Vulcan, who fails to understand the personality and manifold quirks of his fellow officers and crew enters the radiation filled engine room and saves the day, sacrificing his life.

As he dies, he sees Admiral James Kirk, the rash, impulsive and fallible friend, who has rushed to try and save his friend.

As Spock dies, he explains himself to his distraught commander, “Don’t grieve, Admiral, it’s logical: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few, or the one.”

A little metaphor for the Greece/German crisis, it appears, except that the understanding of a higher purpose comes from the emotionally sterile Vulcan not the all too human Kirk.

It what passes for the real world here in Brussels, it is the new untermensch, the Greeks who are asking to look higher, further than immediate, selfish concerns and the emotionally stunted Vulcans who are demanding they rule over all.

Let us not forget that German solidarity is really only solidarity towards Germany’s banks and business and the creation of economic lebensraum. Merkel, the second least liked German Chancellor in history went ballistic when her EPP spitzenkandidat, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had posters put up in Germany for last May’s election with the slogan ‘Solidarity’. We can only assume that she has nothing but contempt for the word and concept.

The German interpretation of solidarity and assistance has pushed Greece into sub-Saharan Africa levels of poverty, while, and this is the real cruelty, blaming ordinary Greeks for their woes.

It is said that austerity has to continue because of public sentiment. Who can blame them? They’ve been told that it’s all the fault of the feckless, workshy, dishonest Greek citizen.

Well, as Tony Blair discovered that telling his people that Iraq had WMD and Islamic terrorists, repeating the Big Lie doesn’t make it true, nor does it lead to good policy choices.

Complicit in this is the Socialist and Democrats Group, led by election loser Martin Schulz, whose party just happens to be in coalition with Merkel.

Indeed, one positive aspect of the crisis is that it appears to have silenced the garrulous former bookseller. Less positively, Europe’s centre-left has been austerity-friendly for many years, leaving them with only mealy mouthed platitudes and statements that may have been typed by a near-infinite number of monkeys, who just can’t get to Shakespearian levels.

Asked to explain why the S&D lost the last election, with austerity, unemployment, anger etc that, on paper, would give them a landslide, Hannes Swoboda told New Europe why they lost, “We didn’t stand often enough with the victims of austerity.”

That position appears to be the case today. It is sheer cowardice. The public are set to vote for those that either say ‘no to austerity’ or ‘to the Devil with them all’.

Austerity has not only destroyed a member state, it’s finishing off mainstream politics.

Will this do anything but encourage a Brexit in a referendum? What will happen in the next European elections? By then it will be clear that even national elections are completely ignored if they go against what Germany wants. How is this going to do anything but hammer in the final nail in the coffin?

Remember, we’re risking everything for a policy that does not work.