The Problem With Russia

Monday 19th March

The West has a problem with Russia.  In fact we have always had a problem with Russia; cartoons in the mid-nineteenth Century depict Russia as a bear scooping up little countries – a problem to be contained.  The Beast from the East indeed.  But actually Russia has always wanted to be part of Europe, rather than seeing itself and it’s vast Eastern wildernesses as part of Asia.  Successive rulers imported Artists and Scientists and musicians to the cold Badlands of St. Petersburg and Moscow. And still they were misunderstood.  True, they had long since overrun much of Southern Central Asia and the Ukraine, absorbing them into Mother Russia itself.  But although the vast majority of the people were serfs, there was a small intellectual middle class who wrote wonderful books and music and longed to be understood as Europeans.

Then came the Revolution, and even more reason to be fearful of the East; in fact Churchill sent a ship to blockade Archangel.  And then we had the brief acceptance of Russia’s help to win the War (although it is still not universally agreed that they really won it) but pretty soon after it was the Cold War, with mutual threats of extermination, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.  No wonder that we in the West are suspicious of the Russians.  And even after the fall of Communism, Yeltsin and now Putin, we still believe the same stories.  The Russians cannot be trusted, they are barbarians, they want to overrun Europe, they do not play by the rules.  And some of that is true, but only some of it.

We were more than happy to welcome the Russian Oligarchs, those lucky enough to be able to steal state assets, the cabal around Putin himself.  We merrily laundered their money for them.  But we still know deep in our hearts that they are really the enemy, the leopard cannot change it’s spots, the Tsars still rule, etc, etc.  And so we jump on every outrage, and the old familiar stereotypes are rolled out.

But maybe it is time to talk to Russia rather than shouting at them, to try to include it in what we call The West.  Another Cold War, another arms race and mutual hostilities are in nobody’s real interests.  And next time it could end rather more nastier than the last.

These Are The Good Old Days

Sunday 18th March

A title of a song by Carly Simon – she was singing about the mid-Seventies.  And looking back, they were the good old days; despite raging inflation and three day weeks and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, life was good.  It was the best of times musically, and for most people living standards were improving.  Colour TVs, Fridges, Freezers, Fitted Carpets, Central Heating, Cars, Foreign Holidays.  All of these were becoming available to more and more families.

And the escalator of wealth kept on rolling through the Eighties and Nineties….but it has ground to a halt, or is definitely creaking along at best.  But for many it is getting worse.  If you are poor or young the doors of opportunity are being slammed shut in your face.

And yet, we may look back in twenty years time….and fondly too.  These may, for many people indeed be the good old days.  The future has never looked so uncertain.  Britain’s slow decline (after the War we were the third most powerful nation, now we are sixth or seventh…and slipping) could accelerate with Brexit.  In fact of course the very bizarre decision to Leave was in part a hankering back to the time when we were ‘Great Britain’, when we were the ‘workshop of the world’, when we had an Empire even – or at least a Commonwealth that looked up to us, not down their noses at us.

But things still aren’t quite so bad yet – we still have a just-functioning NHS, our schools though slipping into debt and facing major funding shortages are still on the whole excellent, our councils despite cuts of a third are still just about managing to run most services.  But there are worrying signs; the economy is sluggish at best, house prices are slipping (not necessarily a bad thing), life expectancy rates have just fallen for the first time in decades, social care is in crisis and old people’s homes are closing almost weekly, the high street is full of closed shops as more and more of are using the internet, even mobile phone makers are facing a stagnating future as most of us now have a decent phone so why buy a new one, same with TVs – they are now so good there is no reason to upgrade.

And despite the TV being full of adverts for glossy new stuff, less and less of us can afford them.  At the moment most of us have a job, it may be minimum wage and we may be slipping into debt – but it is still a job.  With driver-less vehicles and rapidly accelerating automation, unless Governments rapidly change the whole nature of work and taxation it could be a very bleak future for many.

But it needn’t be such a terrible future, we needn’t be looking back at now as the good old days.  Things can change, indeed things will change, but we can help make those changes good ones.  Let’s all try to make the twenty-teens the bad old days instead.

My Record Collection 9

Saturday 17th March

Joan Armatrading 4   And then in 1980 she released Me Myself I, possibly her best known album, and certainly a more confident, more commercial and more accessible record.   And Joan was never a show-woman, appearing in plain shirt and trousers almost always – she let her voice and the songs make the spectacle.  She was never a tool of the record companies, she always insisted on complete artistic control of her output.  How rare is that for any artist, especially a black woman.  Unfortunately many brilliant black singers, both male and female get promoted and then dropped like cold potatoes just as quickly by the record companies, dressed up in satin and silk for an album or two and then…nothing.  Joan has survived by simply being herself.  And so, the record Me Myself I.  A strange statement but one that complete defines her.  She ain’t gonna be pushed around by anyone.  And the album is a triumph.  This is a new Joan, so confident, so aware of the sound she wants and gets from her band.  Favourite songs – the title track, obviously – and Mameo Beach and All The Way From America.  Every track is different from the others and from anything else she had done before.  What a way to welcome in the new decade.  New Romantics?  Who needs ‘em with the best romantic of all in town.  This is one of my all-time favourite albums; it is just 35 minutes long – but I have often found that short albums are indeed better than long ones which go on and on forever.  Better a concise little gem that just begs to be replayed.  Oh, and the final track, a quiet sad song with a string quartet to crack the strongest heart…

Walk Under Ladders came next, and again a strong album, from opener ‘I’m Lucky’ on, it just rolls along.  Best song is ‘The Weakness In Me’, where she tackles the guilt and confused feelings when you meet a new lover, and can’t quite let the old one go; and she handles it brilliantly – torn between two lovers.   And the albums kept coming year after year.  Joan was now established as one of the long-standing great artists from the Seventies; a loyal fan base, larger and larger tours and a string of excellent albums.     The Key was also a big hit, especially the single ‘Drop The Pilot.’.  Joan was mow releasing a record every two years rather than annually and they were generally better produced – or some would say over-produced.  Technology was moving on rapidly and multiple tracks were available, but I think that generally this diminishes the power of the songs.  Too much snappy ‘eighties’ drum and synthesisers sprinkled too liberally.  Joan seemed trapped in a cycle of big albums, hit singles and big tours.  And it isn’t that the songs were any less good, it almost felt she was trying too hard.

The World As We Think We Know It

Friday 16th March

Nothing is permanent, all permanence is illusion.  What we thought we knew only a few years ago is irrelevant to the constantly changing situation.  Predictions are useless, the World is changing so fast it is almost impossible to even guess with any degree of accuracy.  But maybe it has always been so; maybe it is just our heightened information technology that allows us to be somewhat reluctant observers of the changing world.  Maybe we just have too much news, although I am often frustrated by the paucity of genuine reporting, and the substitution of Opinion for fact.

In fact, we are already in the realm of 1984.  Facts are simply what we are told is the truth – unless we are actually there, witnessing events ourselves we can never really know what is going on.  We were lied to over Iraq, even jack Straw now admits that, though he was instrumental in trying to convince us all that lies were facts.  We have been lied to over Syria, over Isis, over the corruption at the heart of the City of London, indeed over almost everything.

In fact the more we know, or think we know, the less we can believe.  All we can do is to try to understand the motives behind those that are giving us ‘the News’ and read widely and compare differing viewpoints. In the end we are largely helpless in the face of this constantly changing world.  At least the internet allows us to communicate with other confused individuals and try to come to some understanding of the conflicting blur of information scurrying across our horizons.  In the end it is up to us.  We do not have to be passive receivers of information.  In reality the World is just us, each and every one of us.  And we can and do change it every day.


Genius and Stupidity

Thursday 15th March

On almost the same day, two examples – one, the sad passing of a genius, the other, yet more confirmation of stupidity.

Stephen Hawkings has died.  I didn’t read his books, but I have watched a few Horizon programmes on Astro-physics where his ideas were explored.  He seemed to have the ability to look beyond the rational, to imagine the infinite possibilities where even the laws of Physics, and time itself become distorted.  We all felt the pathos of his physical disability, and his overcoming of it.  And he never asked for pity.  He was always positive about humanity.  A real hero for our times.

And on Tuesday Trump sacked Rex Tillerson, who though far from perfect, appeared to be one of the few thoughtful people in the White House.  The arsehole didn’t even have the grace to speak personally to his Secretary of State, who discovered his sacking when his secretary saw it on twitter.  What a way to run a country.

I have lost count of the sackings and departures in this administration, they are now coming almost weekly.  But the real damage is to America’s reputation.  The whole World, especially after Obama, is looking for leadership, and all we have is the tweets of a clown.  Nobody now has any idea of what America stands for, except Stupidity.

Anyway…the nightmare continues, hold on to your seats.

What If We Are Wrong?

Wednesday 14th March

It is rare that almost the whole House of Commons, and the Media are all in agreement.  It is usually at times of grave crisis, when party Politics are pushed aside that Unity breaks out.  The last time I can remember this (except for the death of Jo Cox, which did nothing to stop the Brexit landslide) was over the Iraq War – but even here there were a few siren voices, who turned out to be right as it happened.  And even then, it had taken Blair and Co., weeks of bombarding us daily with dossiers and intelligence reports declaring how we had to stop Saddam, as he had Weapons of Mass Destruction – and was about to use them.  It turned out that there were none, and yet almost the entire House of Commons and the Media were jubilant and jingoistic about the coming War.

I am, I can assure you, as appalled by the events in Salisbury as everyone else.  But I ask two questions. One – what if we are wrong?  And Two – will our response actually make Russia (if we are right) change course and stop this outrageous (if it is them) behaviour?

Well – you may say – it must be them.  The nerve gas was first created in Russia, and they have form.  True, but I detect a little too much haste and not enough circumspection, and not a little Political grandstanding in the Government’s ‘Strong’ reaction.  Only a couple of days ago everyone was saying that we had to wait for the Police investigation to conclude before laying the blame.  That is still ongoing, and to date (Wednesday p.m.) we have no suspect, or knowledge of how the agent was administered.  There is, almost certainly, a Russian Connection.  But we do not know much more.  One possibility is some sort of suicide pact between Skripol and his daughter (only just flown in from Russia), however unlikely that may seem. It could even have been a third country involved.  I am not trying to belittle the seriousness of the thing, nor am I an apologist for Russia.  But in the Litvinenko case we waited until we knew pretty well for certain who had done it and how before acting.  Why the sudden haste now?  It is of course quite convenient to detract from the Government’s troubles to have an external threat – and they are making the most of it.  This should have been handed to the OPCW (the body delegated to investigate all usage of chemical weapons) to identify and ask Russia for any information they might have.  Okay, Russia may have stonewalled – especially if they are guilty, but the due process of law would have been followed.

And of course, expelling a few diplomats will be followed by some of ours being sent packing.  Even further sanctions on some of Putin’s cronies won’t make a huge difference – they will simply move their money elsewhere, even if London is the best place to launder it.

The only real way to make Russia change is to talk with them, tie them into economic trade deals, encourage them to act more responsibly.  None of that may work either – but shouting at them wont work at all.  But, what do we do next?  What if another Russian dies mysteriously?  What if whoever killed Skripol kills someone else?  Do we really want war with Russia?   And, we know one other thing too – we cannot rely on America this time; not with Trump in the White House.

My Record Collection 8

Wednesday 14th March

Joan Armatrading 3   So, record number 4 Show Some Emotion came out the following year.  As records used to those days.  Artists were locked into, what would be considered these days as pretty onerous, contracts.  An album a year was normal.  So, back in the Sixties and Seventies, they would be touring for months on end, trying to find a space to write a song, then rushing into the studio to record.  It is quite incredible that such good music actually came out of these decades.  The pressure to come up with (decent) new material must have been incredible.  And sometimes it showed.  Many albums had a few good songs, maybe one or two superb ones and quite a few fillers too.  Joan was no exception, except that her ‘fillers’ are pretty good all the same.  On this record she seems to be trying just a bit too hard.  It has a more bluesy feel, and apart from the sublime ‘Willow’ doesn’t really hit the high spots of her last one.  Too many noisy songs, where she rocks out but somehow she appears to be shouting as much as singing.  Other highlights include ‘Kissin and a Huggin’ and ‘Wontcha Come On home’.  Although on a second listen it “ain’t half bad”.  But Joan has set the bar so high that almost inevitably some records seem just a tad flat.

She followed this with one of my favourites of her early albums, To The Limit.  Somehow this sounds much better, more accomplished, more mature.  But this record has sad associations for me.  It was ’78, a year after punk really broke, though I barely noticed it apart form a couple of singles – it left me cold as hell.  It was my last summer with Joy,  and I knew it was slipping from my grasp.  We had been so happy those first few years, our wedding and honeymoon and the birth of Laura.  Very happy memories.  Then we started to go our separate ways, me – the Labour Party, and Joy her table tennis.  And so we had a holiday in Newquay; Justin was 10 and Laura 5.  We were staying in a dreadful hotel/come boarding house, and we were bickering  – or that is how I remember it.  I kept playing this record, taped onto a tinny little cassette player, trying to blank out all the bad thoughts. And listening now, I still love it.  Best songs – Barefoot and Pregnant and What Do You Want.  She followed this with a live album Steppin Out .   An excellent record of her then band; but I do have a live In Concert radio broadcast from 1980 (on cassette), just one year later and it is even better.  I am never sure of live albums, sometimes the versions are almost identical to the record, which is pointless, but sometimes extended versions and a few rarities make it worth it.  Some great live versions on this one though I must admit.

The Rise of Nationalism

Tuesday 13th March

The early Twentieth Century was plagued by a rise in Nationalism, with Autocratic Dictators popping up like daisies on the recently mown fields of Europe (mown by machine guns I hasten to add).  Stalin in Russia was matched by Mussolini, Franco and Hitler in Europe.  And war was the inevitable consequence?

I am beginning to be worried by the parallels of today.  Russia, since the fall of Communism has turned to another strong Nationalistic leader in Putin, who appears to have the job for life.  Several of the former Soviet Republics are also ruled by Autocratic Dictators too.  Erdogan, in Turkey, has used the recent attempted coup (which some believe he was behind) to clamp down on any opposition or press freedom.  And in China, Xi Jinping is now established as President for as long as he wants; the recent vote of nearly three thousand delegates had only 2 votes against and three abstentions (and these are certain to be rooted out pretty soon).

And in Europe we see more and more Governments that appear weak, with varying coalitions struggling to decide anything.  Every new election brings with it a new danger of Nationalist Right-Wing Parties gaining power.  Indeed, even in Britain, though UKIP has almost disappeared up its own arse, the Tory party is busy redesigning itself as a Nationalistic bulwark against Europe.  In America, Trump succeeded by being overtly isolationist and is now threatening Protectionism over free trade.  There have even been mutterings about removing the statute of limitations in the USA.  I doubt that will happen, but that is not to say that another Populist Right-Winger will not win next time.  And, so also with the crazy logic that you need a gun because of all the crazies out there with guns – there is a new arms race starting, where AI and drones and robotics are at the forefront (to say nothing of the proliferation of nukes).

And what are we to do?  Even yesterday, when Corbyn said we should be cautious about cutting off links with Russia (who we still do not know for certain were behind the Salisbury poisonings) he was attacked as weak. The nature of aggression is that standing up and threatening often results in more and more escalation.  We only recently came out of a Cold War, only for it to be replaced by a Crusade against Islam.  Why do we always need an enemy?  And will Russia, or Theresa May standing up to them really be her Falklands?  And even the surprise ‘rapprochement’ between Kim and Trump is now being amended by conditions and veiled threats.

I fear that the rise of Nationalism is not over yet.  You only had to listen to the jingoistic speeches in parliament yesterday as Tory after Tory (and even a few Labour) spoke of punishing Russia.  I do not know if Russia was really behind the nerve gas attack, or if it was sanctioned from the top.  In a way it doesn’t matter, because the public perception is that Russia is bent on World Domination.  But short of Nuclear War that it is very unlikely.  China’s economic domination is a much bigger threat – but of course, after Brexit, we will be able to have a trade agreement with them.  Just what we will sell them (that they don’t make themselves) I am not sure, unless we can make enough money out of laundering the ill-gotten gains of Xi and his cabal.

Let us hope that these modern flames of Nationalism blow themselves out before they blows us all up.

I’m Still Standing

Monday 12th March

Another great song – by Elton, of course.  This song practically kick-started a career beginning to be weighed down by a self-inflated ego, and the memory of when he was really good.

And, the surprise for me, is that I am still standing.  I was 67 yesterday (today, as I am writing) and to tell the truth I never imagined I would last this long.  I have lived a rather reckless life, nonchalantly courting danger, ducking and diving, and dodging the stones hurled in my path.  Well, 67 is not that old you might say.  True, but just recently Tom Petty died at 66.  And when those your own age start popping off you begin to consider your own mortality.  Not that one can do much about it, of course.

I am relatively healthy.  No serious health problems – but more than a few niggles.  But then, you never know just what might be round the corner.  My only known blood relative, my maternal grandmother died in her early Seventies of cancer.  But there is no point in worrying.  I go for the check-ups when required.

But how old do I feel?  Well, more and more I am beginning to feel my age, or older than I used to anyway.  That familiar struggle to get off the sofa, the bones that ache, the middle of the night shuffle to the loo (at least once).

I suppose my constant guide has been my parents, who are just 20 years older than me.  They are far more conscious of having less time; for me it is still a philosophical question.  Ten, twenty or even more years are simply numbers – though time does have a habit of going faster the less you have of it.

I write a lot about wisdom, but I have no idea what that really is.  Certainly, the older you get, the more experienced you are at dealing with certain situations.  Looking back we can all be amazed at how stupid we were twenty years ago. “We wouldn’t make those mistakes now.”  No, but we may well make others.

The other thing about ageing is that your memory becomes more selective.  I can often recall scenes from my teenage years in quite vivid detail, but my Forties and Fifties are harder to remember.  As for last year or a month ago, I really have to wrack my brains to remember what happened.

I suppose the greatest benefit of being a certain age is that you know what you are good at; and avoid what you aren’t.  Also, the value of things changes.  In my thirties a big house, lots of holidays, constant salary increases; all seemed quite important.  Nowadays I really don’t care much about money; I keep an eye on things and won’t get into debt, but my needs seem less and less.  My family ask what I would like for Birthdays and I really have no answers for them.  I have more clothes than I can wear, more CDs than I can listen to, more books than I will ever read.  I wish I could write more often – but I have always had to be inspired to write.  I did write a poem yesterday (words…) which I posted as my blog.  And incredibly that came to me almost complete, I woke up with the first line and the rest just followed.  And so many days I waste, even though I am fully conscious that there are less of them left.

But despite that, I’m still standing.  As a child the very idea of being Sixty was unthinkable; now the inevitability of being Seventy and even Eighty are looming larger. Well, let us hope so, anyway.


Sunday 11th March

Words of wisdom, words of hate, words that often decide your fate, words spoken in haste, they just won’t wait, words of apology coming too late.

Words you find you later regret, words that are honest, and yet, and yet, words where others fear to tread, true words, but better left unsaid.

Words that somehow just came out, words you needed to scream and shout, words you whispered in the dark, words of one syllable, silent and stark.

Words you wish that you had thought, words that taught you simply naught, words wasted on blinkered ears, words that crystallise your fears.

Words you so desperately wanted to say, words you saved for another day, words you kept inside your head, words you should have forgotten instead.

Words you wrote then crossed out, words so boring you repeatedly spout, words that people remember you by, words that always make you cry.

Words you simply can’t help repeating, words that sound like some sheep bleating, words that do nothing but turn you away, words that want to make you stay.

Words are like confetti blown around in the rain, they fly out of reach, or drift back again, but some words stick and refuse to fall, words that define the meaning of it all.

Words we constantly use and abuse, words are the weapons we use to bruise, words are our only saving grace, words that stroke the cheeks of your face.

Words that caress, words that undress, words spoken in the heat of passion, words that are going out of fashion.

Words are sometimes your only defence, but words don’t always make perfect sense, words can even condemn you too, words can beat you black and blue.

Words of wisdom, words of love, words to persuade when push comes to shove.

Words you spoke that were wasted on me, words that finally set you free, words that kept you by my side, words you said, then tried to hide.

Words of wisdom, words you hoped were wiser than this, words of tenderness, words full of bliss.

Words you can’t keep, words you can’t save, words deep inside that thoughts can’t erase, words you will take with you to your grave.