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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Putin’ on his coat?

I have worked in and out of Russia now for more than ten years and am quite used to being surprised at what I see and hear there. “Big country – big mistakes” one of my friends said to me once. How true. However now I am really surprised. Since about November 2011, they have had politics again.

It seems to me that there have been no politics in Russia for a long time – certainly none under the Soviets, a bit under Gorbachev and Yeltsin and even in the early days of Putin. But over the last few years Russia has degenerated into a moribund kleptocracy. And from the glimmer of post-Soviet hope that is so sad. People deserve better and since November they have been demanding it Demanding it big time too. I have been amazed to see people I have known for years and with whom I have never discussed politics, marching, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and wearing white ribbons. All in aid, less of getting Putin out, but more of becoming what in simple terms might be called a normal country with normal respect for human beings. In short we are seeing a shift from the collective to the individual – people now want to matter more than the system. This change in the relationship that Russians have with their state is a major development.

But why now ?

My sense is that the answer is money. In three ways. First of all, Putin’s years have put money into the pockets of what might be called the middle classes in the big cities of Russia. I would argue that they are not middle class in the western sense, but that is another story. With that money, these people have travelled and that travel has shown them how things could or should be in Russia. They have seen the freedoms, the respect, the sense of decency with which people can treat each other. And no ‘the west’ is not perfect but all things are relative. They have also seen the infrastructure and this brings me to my second money point. The high price of oil in recent years should have made Russia a rich country. Petro- roubles have flooded into the state’s coffers but the country still has appalling roads, dreadful hospitals and a virtually non existent welfare state. And what of the petro-roubles? Numbered Swiss bank accounts opened by bent state officials might be a good place to look, which brings me to money point three, corruption. Russia is an absurdly corrupt country and as far as I can see it is getting worse and worse. People have simply had enough. So have I. As a shareholder in a Russian business, I was badly ripped off by a landlord from whom I rented an office. One of his officials pocketed the rent and then evicted us for non- payment. Only by bribing the security guard (yes, I know) with vodka was I able to get our IT kit out of the building. The landlord was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Obviously.

So what is going to happen come the presidential election? Well clearly Mr P is going to win, although I suspect only just. The main reason is TINA. Tina ? Yes There Is No Alternative. The opposition in Russia seem to hate each other more than they hate VVP and despite public displays of unity, my sense is they will never work together. The dramatis personae include the communists (pensioners only), the nationalists whose leader today said Alla Pugacheva (Russian pop goddess) was a whore – she was the one who when she was in Eurovision Terry Wogan thought was a man, a couple of Kremlin stooges/ independents and Boris Nemtsov who seems capable and likeable except there would be ‘errors in his nomination paperwork’ even if he had stood. So TINA it is.

But I think recent events have shown VVP is ultimately a liability, so like Margaret Hilda Thatcher and Julius Caesar, I think he needs to watch out for his own team. Et tu brute etc etc. The marches and the social media pressure will be even more important after the election than now. it is not obvious who might take over, but the siloviki need someone who will save them and can show Russia and the world that the Kremlin is democratic after all. I have now read one article and spoken to one source who both say that the hero required is currently in prison but is in talks as I write. Stand up Mr Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Who knows eh? Another surprise awaits us and nobody deserves a good surprise more than the Russians.

 
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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Nine Stations to Paradise. A short story.

1800 any Friday night

Victoria Tube Station

Gina steps onto the train –she looks hot and boy does she know it!  When out looking for pretty strangers she doesn’t tone it down.  Today’s offering is a pencil skirt, fishnets and a blouse that shows more than Gina’s Mum would have been happy with.  All finished off with her best ‘fuck me’ shoes. Standard dumb, neanderthal male fantasy stuff.  So she hopes anyway.

 

Sloane Square

Gina moves to stand opposite the opening doors – the best place to spot potentials. And lo and behold one steps onto the train as if to order. Rob also looks hot and knows it. Tall, shaven head, well toned and bleached jeans that show what needs to be showed.  He too is clearly looking to meet a pretty stranger. He sits to the left of the door – in the priority seat, Gina notices.  She has already guessed what his priority is.

 

South Kensington

Gina moves to stand opposite Rob. She looks – he looks away.  He looks – she looks away.  They just manage to miss that eye contact.

 

Gloucester Road

Eye contact.

 

High Street Kensington

‘Hi’.  ‘Hi’.

Here we go.

In unison, ‘You look great’.

A few newspapers held in the work weary arms of fellow passengers begin to slip down.  Bleary commuter eyes look at them fleetingly.

“I’m Rob – and you’re?”

“Gina.”

“Italian?”

“Mmm my Dad is.”

“Cool. Do you want a seat?”

“Nope – I’m enjoying looking down at you.”

Newspapers drop like flags – heads turn. Heads rapidly spin back. Nobody has seen or heard a thing.

 

Notting Hill Gate

“Busy day at work?”

“Dreadful!”

“What do you do?”

“PR. You?”

“Lawyer.”

“Hmm, where are you headed now?”

“Home – Muswell Hill. Where do you live?”

“Baker Street – at the back of the station.”

 

Bayswater

“Do you fancy a drink?”

“I thought guys were supposed to ask girls!”

“I’m different.  You need to know that.”

“Different. In what way exactly?”

“Well for starters I thought we’d do the drinks in your flat.  I mean it is the next but one stop, right?”

“Right. Yes  it is. Let’s do that. My flat it is then.”

The newspapers drop and the heads turn. They stay dropped and turned.  They eventually go up and turn back.  With some reluctance it must be said.

 

Edgware Road

Rob stands and Gina grabs him and snogs him noisily. Like the bad PR girl she is.

The newspapers stay up, but the heads twist and turn over, under and around them.  There is a tense, trouble-coming-in-the-jungle type of silence.

 

Baker Street

Rob and Gina jump off the train arm in arm and make for the exit. Happy that their game went so well, happy that the audience enjoyed it and happy that they are about to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary in the only way they know.

 
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Posted by on February 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Auction – a short story.

Kevin woke, as usual late and as usual with the dying embers of an erection. The latter of pretty much no use to him as Kevin did not have girlfriends. Unless you counted his handjobs with Deidre from the library but she’d moved away now. To Swindon. And as usual Kevin did not even bother with a desultory wank. So the erection dwindled as did Kevin’s opinion of himself. He surveyed his flat – he knew it was a bedsit, even if the agent he rented from insisted it was a studio flat- and noted that that none of the contents were his. He owned very little apart from his clothes, a few Readers’ Digests and as of today the remains of last night’s Indian takeaway – still there on the threadbare draylon chair by the window.

He really was man of no substance, a librarian of no substance in fact. All he had was that picture of his mother, and that – today – was being auctioned.

His mother! Now there was the story. Celia Sanderson – a humanitarian heroine – the saver of childrens’ lives in Africa, a UN goodwill ambassador, CBE in the UK and countless other global honours. Years he had spent in her shadow and now all she could think of to do was die. She’d fucked off and left Kevin alone. He was free at last to be, well to be Kevin the librarian. And Kevin was selling all he had of her – the portrait.

He dressed quickly- the auction was at 10 and he wanted to see how much the picture of her went for – a few quid would be handy – as would getting rid of the picture. His best beige slacks on, Kevin was out the door and on the bus to the auction rooms.

Kevin arrived at about 1030 and the auction was in full swing. He knew his picture was due up at about 11 so he took a number, sat at the back patiently and waited. The room was full and things sold so fast that he almost missed the moment.

“Lot 54 a full length portrait of the world famous humanitarian worker Celia Sanderson CBE, painted by Peter Harris in 1974. Shall we start at 500?”

“550”

“600”

“650”

“700”

Suddenly, like a man possessed, Kevin was on his feet and bidding, every other bid he outbid as the price rocketed upwards. At 1600 pounds the other buyers stopped and

“For the first time, for the second time – sold at 1600 pounds to number …. ?”

Kevin held up his number.

“to number 94. So sir why were you so keen to buy this picture?”  Asked the auctioneer.

“She was my mother” replied Kevin.

There was a stunned silence in the room followed by a cacophony of voices.

“His mother.”

“What a woman.”

“You must be so proud.”

“She did so much good.”

“You must miss her so much.”

Kevin stood and Kevin ran out of the door. Kevin ran and ran and ran .

 
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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Coming over all patriotic.

If I have a political philosophy, I suppose it is to dislike the mainstream, the middle of the road and the conservative. And even the timid. Not a very robust or constructive view of life I grant you, but in general if the Daily Mail, the Tory party or Middle England like it, I hate it. And vice versa. On principle. One of those concepts I have always hated is patriotism.

But I have had some scary thoughts of late. I think I may be patriotic. There, I’ve said it.

Now the dictionaries seem to suggest that patriotism is about devotion to your county and suggest that true patriots will die for their country. I want to consider this for a while as it’s been bugging me. Let’s look at the UK – a very culturally diverse, vibrant and dynamic society. It seems to me that those who would typically call themselves patriotic are devoted to a version of the UK that has not existed for many years or indeed a vision that has never existed. Warm beer, capital punishment, white faces, heterosexuality and national service spring to my mind. So it may be fair to say that the devotion bit of patriotism in many cases is devotion to something that doesn’t really exist. Funny though, I do like warm beer, but I digress.

What about the dying for your country bit? Tricky territory, as there is always the risk of being accused of denigrating the soldiers currently dying in Afghanistan. Just to put that matter straight, I have huge sympathy for the families of those who lose their loved ones in military action and am angry for their losses. I also assume that they are as confused as I am as to why these men or women had to die. Do these soldiers die for their country? Is it an act of patriotism? I cannot see for one moment how some poor 18 year old squaddy being blown up in the sand is an act of patriotism. We do not need these guys to die and their deaths do not make us safer in our beds in the UK or improve our well being in some other way. These are simply lives burned on the bonfire of our politicians’ vanities. The soldiers are, to paraphrase a famous piece of graffiti in Belfast “ the unwilling, sent by the unqualified, to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful”. The Taliban do not pose a threat to our safety in the UK like Mr Hitler did, and it is devotion to the country that makes you a patriot. Not to the politicians of the day.

So where does this leave me? Well I have never considered myself to be patriotic, far from it in fact. But I am a bit worried as I really like the fact that in the UK

generally we are pretty tolerant of sexual, racial and linguistic diversity – you can be who you want to be

as a society we are aware that there is much more work to be done for real gender equality to exist

on balance the police and other organs of the state leave you alone most of the time

there is a high degree of freedom of speech and enough good people who will defend it

we have a functioning civil society with great traditions of volunteering and hands that go deep into pockets when there is a global natural catastrophe

we have a highly effective and free universal healthcare system.

In fact I feel bloody proud of these things. I am not being too rose-tinted about all this, I know the UK is not without faults, but my observations are based on years of travel and observation in countries where few, if any, of the above are a given.

So does being proud of these things make me a patriot? Maybe it does and in fact the recent attacks on so many of the UK’s freedoms, health provisions and liberal traditions are in my view unpatriotic. Attacks led by people who I am certain would consider themselves patriots. Confused? Me too. Would I die for it? Yes I suppose if it came to it, some of our values would be worth dying for. Not yet I hope as I fancy a warm beer.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

 
 
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