Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why the ‘historic’ agreement with Iran is mainly just good for business. Which is what it was all about, really

If you follow the news at all, you can’t have missed all the hoo-ha about the recent ‘historic’ agreement between Iran and the West, but it was – to me, at least – quite noticeable that details of what exactly had been historically agreed were quite sparse.

There was a certain amount of spurious drama about it all, what with the talks apparently coming to naught a few weeks ago, to everyone’s disappointment and the finger being pointed at the French for being pernickety, then out of the blue came the breakthrough, and the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and our very own Foreign Secretary William Hague as well as their counterparts from Germany, Russia, China and someone described as ‘Baroness Catherine Ashton’ dropped everything, grabbed their toothbrushes and took the first flight out to Geneva for an historic photo opportunity, sorry, make that ‘agreement’.

When news of the ‘breakthrough’ came through, I was rather baffled as to what had actually been achieved, because apart from being told the ‘agreement was historic’ and that ‘sanctions would be partially lifted’, no on actually said what had been historically agreed. To make it all the more confusing, on the one hand Iran’s foreign minister Abbas Araqchi immediately announced that agreement was a great deal for Iran in that the West had agreed to loosen sanctions and that it could carry on enriching uranium, although to a lesser degree than it had done so far; on the other hand John Kerry announced that it was a great deal for the West because as it had agreed to loosen sancstions, Iran had agreed to give up enriching uranium completely.

Well, they couldn’t both be right, I thought, and why haven’t news reports highlighted the discrepancy (which they hadn’t – they were spending far too much time trying to persuade us how ‘historic’ it all was and that now, surely to goodness, there was certainly no reason why everyone shouldn’t start sending each other Christmas cards and start going to each other’s drinks parties again (which is what diplomats do, apparently). But I was still puzzled.

The question remained stubbornly unanswered: what had, in fact, been agreed after all those high-level, late-night talks in Geneva? I was doubly intrigued when yesterday I came across an interesting news report on Der Spiegel’s online site, the first sentence of which ran: ‘Der Durchbruch im Atomstreit mit Iran lässt die Deutsche Industrie jubeln: Maschinenbauer, Chemiebetriebe und Zulieferer der Auto- und Flugzeugindustrie hoffen auf gute Geschäfte. Doch sie bekommen Konkurrenz von unerwarteter Stelle: Auch US-Firmen wollen profitieren.’ Loosely translated: The breakthrough in the row with Iran about uranium enrichment has got German industrie cheering: machine manufacturers, chemical works and car and aircraft industry suppliers are hoping to do good business. But they face competition from an unexpected source: US companies want some of the action’. You can read the report for yourself here.

Put aside the Spiegel’s apparent surprise that competition from US companies was ‘unexpected’ (was it really ‘unexpected’ and why is the Spiegel surprised?), here you have in black and white why after several years of sanctions the West and Iran suddenly found themselves able to reach a ‘historic’ agreement with which everyone is happy.

We have been getting news reports since the sanctions were imposed how they were biting, prices were rising ever higher and inflation was growing sharply, and even that if the shortage of goods caused by the sanctions worsened, there might even be civil unrest. But when I read that Spiegel story it all became very clear to me indeed: it wasn’t just Iranians and Iranian companies who were suffering. So were a great many firms in the West (and probably China). Bugger whether the Iranians were or were not building nuclear weapons, the sanctions were increasingly bad for business. And I don’t doubt that they all informed their respective governments as much in no uncertain terms.

Is that too cynical an interpretation? Not at all: as George Bernard Shaw put it very succinctly: The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it. Or here’s Ambrose Bierce’s take on such cynicism: a cynic, he says is ‘a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be’.

It was then that I decided to try to track down what was in the agreement. It didn’t take too long, although the so-called ‘serious’ journalists on the BBC website, The Telegraph and the Guardian didn’t bother recording it. Finally, I find it – or rather a link to a pdf of its text – on the Financial Times website. You can read the ‘historic’ agreement for yourselves here. It didn’t knock my socks off, but there again, at least its back to business as usual for those who care about such things.

PS Sunday, Dec 01: At least we can be reassured that our governments aren’t in danger of doing something wildly out-of-character and risking the status quo.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

JFK: saint or sinner? Well, neither, really, but don’t let that influence your particular prejudice. How’s about just another rich, jobbing politico? Or to put it another way, save me all the Camelot crap

Unremarkably, everyone and his favourite pony is commenting on The Death Of JFK. If they are over 50, they invariably inform anyone who cares to listen that he was a saint and changed their lives, and if they are under 50 they inform everyone who cares to listen that he was a saint and would most certainly have changed their lives had they not had the grave misfortune to have been born after 1960.

Then there is the minority who are loath to let pass an opportunity to describe John Boy in the most lurid terms: he was a devil, a drug-taking, adulterous philanderer who, if not actually a mafioso was so in cahoots with The Mob that he liked nothing better when not taking drugs and philandering adulterously than rustling up a mean spag bol while hanging out with others in the family.

According to these apostates, JFK would have been impeached and hounded out of office had he lived and worked several decades later (i.e. now) when our Press and TV weren’t such sycophantic pussycats as in the Sixties. Well, given that everyone and his favourite pony is commenting, whether to sanctify or damn the man, it really would be amiss of me not to join in.

Let me first answer that hoary old question: where were you when you heard that Kennedy had been assassinated? I was in my first year at my boarding school (note I am egalitarian and enlightened enough not to call it ‘my public school’, although naturally not sufficiently egalitarian and enlightened not to slip in the fact obliquely and let you know anyway. Subtle or what?) and we first year boys all lived in a house about a mile away called Junior House.

We had just finished supper and were in the junior changing room underneath the gym at about 7.45pm gathering our gear to make our way to Junior House when a prefect turned up and called us to order. Once we were all quiet, he told us (and I can’t remember him crying uncontrollably or his voice breaking, the insensitive bastard) that Kennedy had been killed. That was it. I can’t remember talking about it with anyone or anyone else discussing it, although we might well have done. It’s just that I can’t remember it.

Of course it was a shock, but not quite for the reason bandied about today. It was a shock because it seemed so unlikely, for, like the Pope and The Beatles, the President of the United States was unique. At any one time there is only one of him (yes, ‘him’ - I doubt we shall be saying ‘her’ for many a year yet). It was a similar shock to hear almost 20 years later that John Lennon had been killed (and, as you ask, I was on my way to work at the Birmingham Evening Mail, just driving away from West Bromwich hospital nurses home after spending the night with my girlfriend. I heard the news on either the 7.30 or 9.30 morning news - shifts started at 8am or 10am). Again, there was nothing special about Lennon, who is now inexplicably regarded as a saint who ‘worked for peace’. The shock was merely because it was so unexpected. But by then we were getting used to prominent figures being bumped off, so used to it, in fact, that when John Paul II got his, we all wondered why it had taken so long.

When someone tried to shoot Ronald Reagan 15 months later, we were already getting used to the idea that if you were in the public eye, having some nutter try to kill you came with the territory. When two months later someone tried to kill Pope John II, it hardly raised an eyebrow. ‘He probably had it coming’ was more or less then general attitude.

As for JFK, I think the sanest and most reasonable view to take is that he was neither particularly bad, nor particularly good. JFK fans conveniently forget that he was the presidend, not Lyndon Johnson, who got the US involved in the Vietnam War to begin with, although at first the poor saps being shipped over there were still euphemistically called ‘military advisors’ (or ‘advisers’ if you work for the Daily Mail, though why I don’t know).

When LBJ was sworn in, he already had the mess to deal with. JFK most certainly kept his nerve during the ‘Cuban missile crisis’, though here again I’ve heard that it wasn’t quite as straightforward as all history would have us believe (though I’m a tad hazy on the details). It seems there were elements of Kennedy helping the Soviet’s Nikita Krushchev in a power struggle with elements in the Kremlin who were a damn sight more hawkish than he was. (And the Soviets were later desperate to convince the US that they had bugger all to do with JFK’s assassination in Dallas.)

It was also LBJ, not Kennedy who brought in, against huge opposition, the civil rights reforms which set America’s blacks a little freer. I can’t, at this point, resist pointing out that the number of American blacks who are in jail, on death row, unemployed, homeless and drug addicts is still in 2013 vastly disproportionate compared to whites, and I should imagine it is scant consolation that Hispanics run them a close second. What Kennedy had in his favour was relative youth, good looks, a glamorous wife and the fact that he was voted in when the first post-war generation came of age. He was, to use that cliche, in the right place at the right time. Oh, and unlike Nixon he didn’t sweat in the sweltering heat given out by TV studio spotlights.

Finally, of course, JFK has the distinct advantage over the rest of them because: like Lennon, Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Rupert Brooke, Wilfried Owen, and several more he died young. We never got to see JFK in his dotage. I don’t think a single legend has yet survived the sight of a drooling, half-witted, skeletal and bald old codger in a wheelchair. JFK had the wit to die young, though it has to be said he didn’t have any say in the matter. But let’s, please, forget all this crap of either St John F Kennedy or Kennedy, Evil Personified. PS I was just hunting down a cartoon piccy of JFK to illustrate this entry. Of all those I found none was in the least bit disrespectful, showing him in some rather ridiculous light or other. That more or less sums the - in my view rather disturbing - sanctification process which has surrounded the man. So far there are no reports that he once walked on water. I suppose we’ll have to wait a few hundred years for that one. It does rather underline the principle which has made Press barons rich these past few hundred years: give the public the truth or a myth and they’ll opt for the myth always. I mean do we really want to be reminded that the Queen is obliged to poo at least once a day like the rest of us?

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hello again, I've been away - well sort of. And here’s why

This entry is written as the result of getting an email from a friend who reads this blog regularly. Why, he asked, had there not been any recent entries? Was something wrong? Well, nothing is particularly wrong, I told him. What follows is more or less the email I sent him in reply.

There’s actually a very straightforward reason for not having written anything for a while, quite apart from trying to avoid, and usually failing to avoid, being some kind cut-price, Asda bargain pseudo-commentator dispersing commonplace observations and platitudes on what’s happening in the world. It is this: all my life (I inherited it from my dad) I have suffered from depressive periods, once or twice very badly, usually not too badly, though on each occasion I could have done without it. And this is one of them.

Why it has slowly started again I really don’t know. And the first thing to say is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with feeling ‘fed up’ or ‘unhappy’ or anything like that. It seems to be a physical thing. Looking back over my life and having gone through it many times, I can now spot the symptoms and know that I am in for another bout. It has gone on since I was young. Certainly, it can be brought on by upsets, problems and difficulties in one’s life – we are, after all, an amalgam of the physical and the spiritual, and I don’t use the word ‘spiritual’ in any religious or metaphysical sense – but to this day we are very unclear about how the one relates to and influences the other, and I’m not about to start here.

For example, various ‘talking’ and psycho therapies, if undertaken over several months, seem to help some people. But the question is: did the talking actually help or was the affliction they were intended to treat self-correcting? That is, would they have cleared up anyway? Similarly, many of us – and the ‘us’ means that obviously includes me – have been prescribed various medications, of which the most up-to-date (as far as I know) are SSRis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (e.g. Prozac and Zoloft). They seem to work, although they can have unwanted side-effects, yet some researchers claim it is all stuff and nonsense. And many are, anyway, uncomfortable with reducing it all to a physical level, a debate which can lead into the old, and never-ever ending, debate about free-will and determinism (after turning a few more corners, of course, and a debate I make a point of avoiding always as one being perfectly futile and a waste of time.)

I remember from my childhood having periods of being oddly very listless and reluctant to ‘do’ anything. It might have seemed like laziness, but it was nothing of the kind: it was, quite literally, an overarching reluctance to do anything whatsover and then some. I put off everything. I have also suffered extreme bouts of homesickness which is thought to be related to depression. When we moved to Berlin from Britain in June 1959, we first lived in a very large flat in the Olympische Straβe in Berlin-Charlottenburg, then moved to a house in the Heerstraβe few months later. About seven months later, I suddenly, and it was sudden, got very, very homesick. It was odd. I was also very homesick in my first year at the OS and spent the whole time in abject misery.

As I say it has plagued me all my life, but I should stress again that any ‘fed-upness’ has to do with irritating physical symptoms. In my case I have a very persistent and perpetual headache, which is rather like a mild hangover. I also don’t particularly like being with other people or wanting to be in company and would far prefer to be alone (‘I vant to be alone‘). I can’t say anything, of course, and I doubt anyone notices, but on these occasions I would far, far, far prefer to be alone. I also get to be very impatient with what I happen to be doing and want to move on to the next thing as soon as possible, irrespective of what that next thing might be. And, of course, once I have moved on, I immediately want to move on again. I cannot settle.

I find it almost impossible to concentrate on anything, especially reading, which is why I find it quite useful to do a lot of swimming or go to the gym, because it keeps me occupied. And this difficulty in concentration and rush to move on to something else has, unfortunately, in the past and to this day been the reason for certain slapdashness in my work. Now you know. When I am going through such a period, I also want nothing more than to go to bed and then to sleep, and I look forward to the moment I can put the light out and put my head on the pillow. I have to be careful that I don’t go to sleep to early, as I then wake up during the night and am awake for hours. Thankfully, I dream a great deal and apart for the very occasional anxiety dream – I had one last night which included trying to ring work to tell them I would be late, but failing every time to key in the right number on my mobile phone, which anyway began to crumble away like a biscuit. Oh, and once I had found the train I wanted and jumped on, I discovered I was travelling in the wrong direction.

However, I very rarely have bad dreams and enjoy dreaming. The trouble is that eventually I always wake up and while waking up I am conscious that I am waking up and am supremely pissed off. I try to turn over to go back to sleep again, but I never can. In the past when I have been going through a severe bout having a drink has temporarily helped, but I am loathe to do that these days and just grin, i.e. grimace, and bear it.

These days we insist on all kinds of enlightened attitudes to everything (though it has to be said that our enlightenment rarely progresses beyond the ‘insisting’ stage), but ‘depression’ – a horribly uselss catch-all word if you think about it - is still regarded with suspicion, despite innumerable Radio 4 programmes and newspaper features suggesting otherwise, as though the sufferer is in some way ‘less’. It is pertinent, for example, that despite what I have just written, I still feel a little shamefaced telling you about it as though I were admitting to stealing from a church poor box.

Perhaps you who are reading this have in the past been afflicted or are now being afflicted and know what I am talking about. Perhaps not (and thank your lucky stars if you haven’t). Perhaps you are one of those who feel that the only true solution is to ‘pull yourself together’. Well, if that’s your view, you know bugger all about it. You wouldn’t, for example, tell someone suffering from sinusitis or from cystitis to ‘pull themselves together’. At the end of the day all you can do is grin, grimace and bear it.

Incidentally, if you know of someone nearby who is living alone, consider giving up and hour or so to visit them. The chances are that they are rather lonely, and loneliness can also lead to depression.