Thursday, June 22, 2017

My Log 546 June 22 2017: Recalling my most intense heat experiences, in Oklahoma, Arizona and on the great plains of India awaiting the monsoon

A surprising thing I have noticed for years in newspaper and TV weather reports is that very often Phoenix, Arizona seems to be the hottest place on earth. I am reminded of this by the news in recent days that hundreds of flights of smaller jet planes scheduled to leave the Phoenix airport have had to be cancelled because the temperatures have exceeded the maximum operating temperature of the particular brand of plane ---- Bombardier planes are among those affected, apparently --- because in these circumstances, the air is lighter, causing the plane engines to have to do more work just to get the plane off the ground, which could have dangerous consequences.
I suppose everybody must have his or her own story of some extreme heat event: I have three that spring to mind: one is driving in our tiny Austin A30 into Ponca City, a small city in Oklahoma in such heat that I could scarcely keep my hands on the steering wheel, it was so hot. On another occasion I remember coming up from Mexico in that same little car and stopping overnight in a small village called Gila Bend, halfway between Tucson and the Californian border, checking into a motel, then driving a mile or two out into the surrounding desert, where we took our respite from the heat just by sitting there as the day faded into night.
These were both extremely hot places, but they did not rival what has remained for me the quintessential heat experience of my life, that of existing on the great plains of India for the three months  during which the heat built up as we awaited the arrival of the cooling monsoon rains. This was the heat that drove the British administration of India into the hills, where they built some 50 of India’s 80 hill-stations to which they could escape when needed, taking their administrations with them (rather a bold thing to do, I have always thought, for an occupying power). Such places as Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, Darjeeling, above Calcutta, Poona, south of and higher than Bombay,  and so on, became summer capitals. Of these I visited from time to time Simla, Pune (or as we splled it in those days, Poona) and Srinigar in the Vale of Kashmir.
My wife and I had somehow found our way to a newly-constructed model village 85 miles north of Delhi, to which, like many people from around India, we were attracted by the extravagant enthusiasm of a man known as the HTA --- the honorary township adviser ---   a businessman for whom the partition of his country had produced an epiphany that caused him to throw up his well-paid job and declare his free availability to the government of India for whatever use they might make of his capacities.
Of course, he was slightly mad, his man, S.K. Dey, but he had the enthusiasm that moves mountains. Ignored at first by the leaders of the new nation, eventually he forced himself to the notice of Pandit Nehru, who made available to him the resources enabling him to take a band of refugees from among the 400,000 languishing on the field of Kurukshetra (site of a famous dialogue recorded in the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s sacred books), to carve out from a neglected piece of scrub land, a new village dedicated to this man’s philosophy of Mazdoor Manzil, or the Music of the Muscles, to play his part in uplifting Indian life.
We were given a small adobe house, and left to find our own way to make ourselves useful. My wife, supported by a group of youngish women, started a nursery school; I worked as editor of the English version of  a weekly  news-sheet called Kurukshetra, and doubled as the secretary for a remamrkable man from Calcutta, P.K. Gupta, who was dedicated to ensuring that the co-operative nature of the whole enterprise should be achieved (against the wishes of the government of India bureaucrats who comprised the village administration. They won, unfortunately.)
We arrived there in January and managed to stick it out until June or July, by which time the intense heat (combined with our somewhat minimal supply of suitable food) had caused both of us to fall ill.  The heat increased day by day, relentlessly, with hardly a second of relief. I have no idea what the temperatures reached, but I know that after a day of such intense heat that it caused all work to stop at midday, when everyone retired into  houses and  offices,  whose windows were painted  deep blue in a futile  effort to reject the sun’s rays. By 6 pm, the sun usually fell, but this did not bring any respite: one could put one’s hand on the inside house wall and it felt like the wall of an oven. In other words, the heat continued relentless throughout the night  until about 5.30 am, when just the smidgen of a relief could be felt before the sun rose at 6 am, immediately plunging us back into what felt like the full heat of a normal day again.  It is almost impossible to describe the clutch that the heat had around one’s essential being. Not only I felt it: everyone felt it. In the colonial days, only the British were able to escape to the hills, callously leaving the local population to struggle through the heat.
I remember one day when a few drops of rain occurred, and we all went running outside like madmen to feel the cooling rain on our skins, but it was a false alarm. It was not part of the monsoon, not yet.
We decided, my wife and I, that if we wanted to survive at all, we had better make for the hills. So, to the accompaniment of a chorus of goodwill cries from the locals, we climbed on to a train, headed for Kashmir. We happened to arrive there in the middle of a political crisis --- one that has been  going on ever since --- and were almost the only tourists. So we had our pick of houseboats on Dal Lake, complete with servants, food and supplies, and in these ideal conditions our diarrhoea cleared up, and we began to regain our health. We had managed to book a berth on a ship leaving Bombay in September, and by the time we emerged back on to the plain, the monsoon was in full swing. The very minute we hit the heat, our diarrhoea returned. Mine disappeared during the voyage to England, but my wife was diagnosed with some sort of tropical ailments that lasted for a few weeks longer. Before getting on to the ship in Bombay, we had to  undergo the remarkable experience of walking that city’s streets in full monsoon mode, and I can tell you that to search for lavatories in which to relieve one’s diarrhoea in 1951 in Bombay was an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
I have always thought, since then, that to await the arrival of the monsoon in the great plains of India must be, absolutely must be, the most intense heat experience one could ever undergo.  And I never hear a weather report detailing the monsoon rains without thinking of the people of India, millions and millions of them, struggling every year to make it through. Better them than me, is all I can say on that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Log 545 June 19 2017: Like a cobbler back to his last: a persistent scribbling complainer awakens to a world he scarcely recognizes

 In the three months I have been preoccupied with health problems I have allowed the purpose for which I set up this site 21 years ago to languish. That purpose was to be a sounding board, a place where I could express myself on any subject of my choosing. It’s not so much that I believe my thoughts about anything are of particular significance, it’s more that after spending a lifetime at the typewriter, writing has become a sort of reflex action for me, and this is a place where I can continue to write.
But if I had just awakened from a sort of Rip Van Winkle sleep, I might have been excused if I had thought I was in a world that had completely changed, a world that I could hardly recognize. Subjects ripe for my sounding off board  lie around by the dozen, headed, of course by the current President of the United States.  Who could have believed it, that this great country, so proud of its democratic heritage (even though it was founded by an elite of slave owners who set the nation up to defend their own interests above everything), could have elected to leadership a man totally unsuited to the job. Moreover, a man whose every fault was already apparent, whose narcissism, prevarications, indifference to the truth, ignorance of the world and its workings, and absorption in trivialities, were already well-known. Yet 67 million Americans voted for him to become president and even if he didn’t win the overall popular vote, he won through the peculiar Electoral College system that judges the votes state by state and sometimes allows the second runner to emerge as winner.
As if all this is unbelievable enough, it is as nothing compared with the chaos this man has created in the brief time he has been in office. Truly, it is amateur time: apparently he spends most of his day glued to the television, and he writes twitter notes which are absorbed by the millions of people who have signed up to receive these 140-character emissions. Government by tweet? He boasts about having passed more legislation in a short time than any president in history, whereas he actually appears not to have passed any legislation at all. He governs by signing executive orders that do no more than establish intent.
His Cabinet is full of billionaires whose  attitudes are typical of that class of people, and who think nothing of wiping out the hard-won regulatory framework used to try to haul the United States back from its path of destruction of the natural world, and its headlong descent into oligarchy.  It seems to be an obsession with him to reverse everything that Barack Obama achieved, both in the United States itself (the modified and improved, but still inadequate, health care system); in international agreements (the Paris climate change treaty accepted by all but two of the world’s smaller nations; the multinational agreement with Iran designed to prevent that country from achieving a nuclear weapon, which this new president refuses to accept and constantly threatens to destroy)…..and so it goes on.  How can anyone say anything good about all this?
The fact that this irresponsible and vainglorious narcissist has his finger on the nuclear button is an almost unspeakable fact that could plunge the world into a conflagration at virtually  any time.  A new feature of every political interview with leaders from around the world is that none of them has any idea what is the current US policy in any area and they cannot express any opinion about what might happen in the immediate future. This is hardly a recipe for global stability. 
As for our own little corner of the world, our new youngish leader governs mostly by personal charm, which he is not slow to exercise, and seems to be headed in a much more reasonable direction than the above-mentioned US leader. Nevertheless, there are strong signs of his trying to have his cake and eat it too: his Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna,  achieved a high level of hypocrisy when she said that the government of which she is a part had the dual responsibilities of playing a leading role in the international fight against climate change, and of  “getting our resources to market.” In other words, approve and build pipelines that would not only pose a threat to lands through which they carry the heavy bitumen oil of the Alberta tar sands, the world’s most polluting single industry, but would also allow that industry to be expanded, instead of being shut down as it will have to be if the world is to be saved from irreparable consequences.  Personal charm and photo ops are all very well, but when they are used to protect such damnable  industries, it is time to look around for a more principled leader.
That’s enough for the moment: I am just working back into form….

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My Log 545 June 17 2017: North Kensington, seat of the disastrous apartment fire in London, was a neglected area when I lived there in 1951, and it seems still to be neglected

I was interested when I read that the disastrous apartment house fire in London happened in North Kensington, because for about a year I lived in that peculiarly unattractive chunk of London, not far from Wormwood Scrubs prison. You reached our street by going north on Ladbroke Grove, but if you went south on that same street you came before long to one of the citadels of Britain’s exclusionary, snobbish form of culture.
  It was 1951 when my wife and I arrived in London for the first time, a couple of green youngsters who had previously exposed ourselves to the intense (and, for us, personally valuable) culture shock of having passed from the placidity,  calm and prosperity of our lives in New Zealand into an India in which millions of people were homeless, hundreds of thousands were sleeping on the pavements under ragged cloth shelters, and in which it was common to observe children, their bones almost sticking out of their emaciated bodies, in the process of dying as we watched them.
As we settled into a small apartment  in North Kensington, where we shared the bathroom with a student doctor living downstairs, we took with us the assumptions of our upbringing in a country which, if it had its faults, class-consciousness was certainly not one of them. My wife had no trouble being taken on as a supply teacher, moving from school to school as needed, and I settled in to trying to work as a journalist, from which my reward was a file of more than 80 letters of rejection, until I finally surrendered and took a job as a labourer in a food factory. This --- along with the problem of struggling with the strict food rationing system that allowed us a mere morsel of meat each week, beyond which one could only buy a sausage that seemed to be made of sawdust --- gave us a fairly abrupt schooling into the nuances of British class. The fact that one could move from a world of impoverished workers to  one of prosperous nobs in fine houses just by travelling the No 11 bus down Ladbroke Grove has always remained with me as a template for the things I have never liked about British life.
I learned a great deal from my workmates in the factory: we agreed on supporting the Labour Party, which virtually all of them did, but I silently parted ways with them over their intense prejudice against foreigners, especially when one old dear confided in me that “there’s one good thing that ’itler done, you know.” Oh, yes, and what was that?  “He got rid of all them Jews.”
We were still in London when the Labour government was tossed out in 1951 to make way for Winston Churchill’s extremely conservative brand of governance, so I never had any further hope that North Kensington could ever expect to be dragged up towards the standards of living of their southern neighbours, a few miles away.. We moved to other parts of the Kingdom after our year in North Kensington --- to Dalkeith near Edinburgh, then Coventry, where I finally did get a job, and after three years we decided to head back home to New Zealand by way of Canada. We entered Canada as immigrants, but six years later I was sent by the newspaper for which I worked, The Montreal Star to London to represent them as a correspondent.
This time, as luck would have it, I lived in South Kensington. Of course, nothing had changed during those six years of Conservative Party rule. We lived in comfortable apartments, surrounded by comfortably off middle-class people.  Our children, though they went to State schools, received in their first years an education as good as any that could have been provided by private schools, simply because the parents expected it.  I remember a young teacher coming from a school in the east end, working class area of London, who told us that the difference between the children she was teaching and those in our schools made it seem like they were from different countries.  Our children had all the advantages of their parents' prosperity; her pupils had all the disadvantages of their parents own poor education, and lack of the resources that would have been needed for them to rise above their station in life.
I was not surprised, therefore, this weekend, on watching TV to hear that angry neighbours were invading the premises of the Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council, to demand that a complete audit be made immediately --- as had been demanded years before --- of all the council-owned apartment buildings in the neighbourhood with the object of improving he quality of these particular premises. I was not surprised to hear an economist professor who said she had been raised in a council flat, describe the disastrous fire as “a  political question.”  Why? Because the dangerous conditions that had been allowed to fester in the destroyed building were the result of the rigid austerity politics practised for so many years by the national governments.  For the most part, these protesters blamed the two major political parties equally: the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown New Labour government as well as the David Cameron/Teresa May Tories. Nor was I surprised to read that Ms May, when she visited the site, did not even bother to meet the families who had been stricken by the horror of the fire. True to her behaviour in the recent election, she appeared to have no compassion for them, none whatever. Typically Tory, I would say.  Even conservative commentators mentioned how, when Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader,  got among the survivors, he was hugging them, and talking to them, and trying to ease their pain. Someone said a few days ago that the Grenfell fire is Teresa May’s Katrina (the hurricane that destroyed New Orleans) in that it illustrates nakedly how the poor are treated, somehow as if they are not really full  citizens whose needs must be taken into account.
Nor did it surprise me to read in today’s Globe and Mail a  report by Paul Waldie, that people in the area believe that “people here have been ignored for years simply because they were poor,” or that “today Kensington is one of the wealthiest boroughs in Britain and the burned out shell of Grenfell stands just a few blocks from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, not far from Kensington Palace, and close to mansions for the super-rich that regularly change hands for up to $40 million.”
A resident of a neighbouring building told Waldie: “the money is not spent on the north side of Kensington, it’s only spent on the other side where the rich people are. And a young woman said: “This is one of the richest boroughs in Europe. You have affluence right next to poverty.”
It was like this when I lived there in 1951, sixty-six years ago, and it hasn’t changed.  Of course, the customary outpouring of support, of gifts, of used clothing and food has occurred, just as it does after every disaster. But surely the lesson of the economics professor that “this is a political question” must at last be learned.
To someone like myself who has spent years as a journalist, it is salutary that the media today is one of the major obstacles to the election of a government that really would be concerned about the welfare of the people. For proof, see the barrage of ridiculous headlines with which the British voting public was confronted on the morning of the recent election. The Labour leader, they said, just as they had said since his election to leadership 20 months before, was hopeless, and no one would, or should,  ever vote for him. Somehow or other, that proved not to be true, and those among us who are optimistic have interpreted the vote for him as the end of austerity and the return of the old, socialist Labour Party whose basic concern is the welfare of the people.


Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Log 544 May 30, 2017: In a major political memoir, Greek economist Varoufakis bares the details of his tumultuous 160 days as a politician

I have just read a remarkable book that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in the workings of political power. It is called Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, and has been written by Yanis Varoufakis, who  was Greece’s finance minister for 160  days, less than six months,  but tumultuous months, during the first term of the leftist Syriza party government which took office  on January 26, 2015. The 550 page book is published by the Bodley Head, London.  
Varoufakis had been working as a university professor at the University of Texas  when Syriza, a coalition of the extreme left political parties in Greece, became interested in his undoubted expert knowledge of global financial matters, and a meeting was set up with him and the Syriza leader, Alexis Tsipras, to discuss the situation. For some years he had been refining a paper he called A Modest Proposal for Resolving the Euro Crisis, working in its most recent formulation with the well-known American economist Jamie Galbraith, who happens to be the son of Canada’s own John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist of even greater fame and accomplishment than his son. His foundation argument was that Greece, in spite of the protestations of the idiot politicians who preceded Syriza, was bankrupt, owing hundreds of billions of dollars in the form of bailouts provided by the so-called troika of the European Central Bank, the European Union, and the International Monetary Fund. He argued that it would be suicide for Greece to accept any further bailouts without first insisting on a restructuring of the debt, along with the granting of enough liquidity to get them over the hump, until a renegotiation could be worked out that Greece would have some hope of fulfilling. All proposals coming from the troika, for a third bailout, he dismissed as “extend and pretend” --- extend he torture from what he calls Bailoutistan, and pretend that Greece had some chance of fulfilling what it would be undertaking, when any serious economist must have known that there was no chance of doing so. He also argued that it would be catastrophic for the European Union if Greece were to leave the Eurozone, but nevertheless they must enter negotiations with the troika determined to use that ultimate deterrent, so that if such a moment ever arrived, the troika would be forced to concede to their programme.
After his first meeting with Tsipras, his wife, Danae, asked him what he thought and he replied, “He’s not up to it.”  He had the impression that Tsipras was more worried about the impact of any decisions on his party than on the impact on Greece, Europe and the world. But he persisted, when urged, met Tsipras again, and eventually, although not himself ever a member of the party, agreed to become the minister of finance in the new government. He says Tsipras and his party leaders agreed with what he called “our covenant”, which was to be their guideline in all future actions.
But the story is of how he managed, time after time, to get the major players to agree with his programme in private meetings, only to have them renege on their undertakings at the next public occasion. There is hardly a single major figure in European (and many in United States and British) politics,  who is not dissected, analyzed and more often than not found wanting in this book. (Two notable exceptions are Emmanuel Macron, then a minor minister in Hollande’s French government, who offered welcome support at crucial moments, and Bernie Sanders, who at least twice wrote letters urging important political figures to support the Varoufakis remedies.) But he warns the reader on the second page of the book of the general tone he adopts throughout:

Beneath the specific events that I experienced, I recognized a universal story --- the story of what happens when human beings find themselves at the mercy of cruel circumstances that have been generated by an inhuman, mostly unseen, network of power relations. This is why there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ in this book. Instead, it is populated by people doing their best, as they understand it, under conditions not of their choosing. Each of the persons I encountered and write about in these pages believed they were acting appropriately, but, taken together, their acts produced misfortune on a continental scale. Is this not the stuff of authentic tragedy? Is this not what makes the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare resonate with us today, hundreds of years after the events they relate became old news?..

It is perhaps not surprising that Varoufakis had a problem being taken seriously and trusted by so many people whose trust he needed. After all, although admittedly a man of the left, he numbered among his friends people like the former Tory Chancellor of the British Exchequer, Norman Lamont, and Larry Summers, the Obama eminence-grise who was one of those responsible for the economic meltdown of 2008, and many others who were looked on with suspicion by his political colleagues. Also, in negotiation, to gain his points, he was sometimes prepared to make extraordinary compromises. For example, on one occasion when various players were lined up to support one of his major  forthcoming presentations, they nevertheless argued that his paper should be re-written in the language of the troika itself, so as to make the message more acceptable to them: when this paper was leaked --- he suffered throughout his  term from a veritable tsunami of leaks designed to undercut his arguments, and himself personally --- the impression was given that he was recommending Greece follow their prescription, although he could not have been further from doing so.
But for me, perhaps the most amazing person to emerge from this book is the author himself. Portrayed in the press during his tenancy in office as a swashbuckling, free-wheeling, polished, accomplished but almost devil-may-care sort of fellow on his motor-cycle, he emerges as a man of real principle, and of intellectual brilliance such as almost to take one’s breath away. He peppers his text with classical illusions that always seem to be appropriate to their use, but what astonished me above everything was his perfect command of his second language, English, in which apparently no nuance, no vernacular expression, was beyond his reach.  He had, of course, been educated in English as well as Greek, having completed his secondary schooling in England, taken his University degrees there, become a professor in Britain universities before going off to work for an American company as an expert on games theory, and then emigrating to Australia where, at the University of Sydney, he settled in so well as to take out Australian citizenship before becoming disgusted with the right wing politics of the country.
He was, he says, perfectly happy in Austin, Texas, pouring out scholarly papers on the global situation ,when he was persuaded by Jamie Galbraith among others, that his talents were needed in the crisis in which Greece had found itself.
If there is a bete noire in the story it is  Wolfgang Schauble, Angela Merkel’s minister of finance, who seemed to have everyone else in the European financial world scared of him, and under his thumb.  He appeared determined to force Greece out of the Eurozone, if not right out of the European Union, and it was not until fairly well along in the drama that Varoufakis obtained an admission from him that his primary interest was to impose his authority over France and to prevent the weaker economies of the European south from exiting. According to the author he was not even interested in the fate of Greece, which --- as events so correctly confirmed --- he appeared to have under complete control. Let alone was he the slightest bit concerned about  the destruction of the lives of millions of impoverished Greeks.
But the story shows that these babies do not play around: at an early stage, telephone threats were made against the son of Varoufakis’s second wife if the economist with his bizarre arguments didn't make himself scarce,  which caused him to go into exile, from which he only reluctantly returned. Later on one memorable evening, he was dining with some friends when he was attacked by a gang wielding broken bottles. When they were persuaded to desist he followed them outside and insisted they talk to him.   The attack took place in an area of Athens he had grown up in and to which he had returned; this gang, leaning more to the left than the right,  was demanding he clear out of this neighbourhood, and when he appealed to their commonsense, they dropped their  hostility.
Another amazing thing about the book is the number of direct quotes, from speeches, conversations, documents, that he uses to tell the story. Except that most of these were, during the process, published in one way or another, and that Varoufakis himself was in the habit of recording, apparently clandestinely, many of the conversations he had with other actors, one might have had some uneasiness about this. He explains that in addition to these sources, “I have relied on memory and where possible the corroboration of other witnesses.” He appears to be an indefatigable worker. If one paper might be rejected, he would set to work on  a replacement, attempting to deal with the objections, compromising while never surrendering the fundamentals of his programme.
The title comes from Christine Lagarde, director of the IMF, who emerged from a meeting one day to say it would help the negotiations “if there were adults in the room,” a reference that was interpreted by the press to be directed at Varoufakis personally. I remember his denying that, in a BBC interview, because, if I remember corrctly, he was not even in the room from which she had emerged. He writes in his preface:

She was right. There was a dearth of adults in many of the rooms where this drama unfolded. As characters, though, they fell into two categories: the banal and the fascinating. The banal went about their business ticking boxes on sheets of instructions handed down to them by their masters. In many cases though, their masters --- politicians such as Wolfgang Schauble and functionaries like Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi --- were different. They had the ability to reflect on themselves and their role in the drama, and this ability to enter into dialogues with themselves made them fascinatingly susceptible to the trap of self-fulfilling prophecy.
It struck me as I was transcribing this passage how beautifully written it is and how precisely it catches the essence of Varoufakis’s own posture  as not only a  participant in, but an observer of, a major political drama. The result is that we get a unique view of the political process, told by an outsider from the privileged position of an insider: which makes the book, as The Guardian reviewer Paul Mason claimed for it, “one of the greatest political memoirs of all time.”