8 september 2013, looking up

I have spent much of these new year days with my family, some living, but most dead, as I have been putting my hands into the magic box of family history I've been accumulating for at least a decade, and the magic box of the internet, which knows considerably more about my family than I do. My current investigative bout was sparked by relatives from australia and rediscovered memories of that big chunk of family that moved literally half way around the world after the war; though I've learnt most about my dad's family, and my namesake, my grandpa baron morris frankal, on the far left of the picture. Next to him is my dad and his cheeky grin, and then my (great) uncle joe, whom I remember very well. Then comes an older lady I don't know, then ivor, my dad's brother, my great uncle jack (see 17 november 2011) and harry, the also-remembered husband of pearl, who is sat in the middle of the front row, flanked I think by two sisters (dolly) and hetty, and there's my grandma eva on the left wing and my aunts olga and irene on the right. I've found that grandpa baron's father was leon haiman frankal (leon is my middle name), and his mother dora louise schneider, who I now know had two sisters (may and harritte). Her parents, and so my sons' great, great, great grandparents, were neimann schneider (born in preussen, germany in 1839) and rosetta lazarus. I'm also pretty sure, but seeking to verify, that rosetta's parents were joshua lazarus (born 1814) and rachel (1816) and she had four siblings: lewis, charles, mary and kate. Fascinating stuff, I've hardly started with, but am determined to continue.

30 august 2013, shrink to fit ?

Crispin blunt was unusually erudite in his commentary after the british prime minister's defeat in the house of commons, ending the prospect at this time of the uk joining any military action against assad's syria. His point was that it was high time london lost its imperial hangover of thinking it was a country of a size that deserved to have a hand on the world's tiller. We should stop, he said, pretensions of "punching above our weight" and act in a way that is sustainable for a country of our means. It has been a while since such (to use the derogatory term) little englander views had any traction, anathema as they are both to the internationalist left that seeks concerted global action and the patriotic right that likes britain standing tall in the world and pretends a seat on the un security council is more than just an accident of history. Both wings though reject the obvious consequence of the retreat from power that the vote is a significant crystallisation of: europe. Though the last decade of construction has been economic, the 3rd pillar of the union created in 1992 was foreign and defence policy. Although progress has been slow, it has not been absent. Though the eu's new foreign minister and ministry have been low-profile, they have been clearly established and not without the odd success. The foundation is laid for a serious figure to take over when the time is right. More than that, this is the last big area run on inter-governmental, as opposed to community, lines, and so has seen development throughout the period, just as member state control may be coming back into vogue in other areas too. For britain, american power and diplomacy will for a long time yet be the wing under which we're most comfortable sheltering, and happily the last years have seen strong european movement to manage its growth within that broader nato structure. However, in the long-term, the only platform where real integration, cost reduction and sustained projection of british power can ever take place, is in a european setting. When you think about it, there are relatively obvious answers to the utterly unaffordable replacement generation of unilateral nuclear deterents that both britain and france are separately grappling with, and to untying the un security council knot that makes it deeply unrepresentative of today's world and so unable to act as the real forum in which war and peace is decided within an agreed global framework.

27 august 2013, a piece still in germany

I have always been fascinated by politics; our latest stay up until 2am binge series is house of cards; and I remember the original. I have always had an interesting relationship with germany, my earlier institutionalised boycott replaced by deep fascination through living there longer than I have anywhere else but the uk. My first article when I started writing my column was on the country that is too big for europe and too small for the world, and I've never really stopped, so it's no surprise I am watching the 22 september election in the euro area's hegemon closely. Angela merkel, europe's calm captain, looks a strong probability to remain chancellor; yet there are more open questions than most suggest. As in most western economies, the main parties, both merkel's centre-right (cdu-csu, black) and the centre-left (spd, red) have bled support over the last decades, giving ever more power to the greens, the liberals (yellow) and the hard left (purple), which together won nearly half the vote in the last election. Hence the talk about whether merkel will keep her black-yellow coalition or there may again be a grand (black-red) coalition, probably the most likely outcome. There is though the possibility of a red-green-yellow (traffic light) coalition freezing out angie, or even an unprecented red-green-purple that brings the left into government for the first time; highly unlikely. The last grand coalition though, led by the current two main leaders, speeded the decline of their parties, making this logical and internationally-sought outcome of a balanced election a tall order, especially for the spd, whose leader has said he won't agree to serve under merkel under any conditions. That probably won't be enough to stop it though, and no bad thing either. In germany even more than most places, stability and consensus wins out in politics over radical and sexy every time.

19 august 2013, the knee bone’s connected to the...

I have for a long time tried to think about not just schools and education, but also - what is now well-used jargon - the early years. Though there has been some commentary about its use, the photo on the cover of graham allen's excellent report sums up well the importance of that period. By age 3, whereas most of the body is 18% its full adult size, the brain is 90%. Babies are born with about 75% more brain cells than they need, and do not use them until they are connected via synapses, the connections between neurons. As they are biologicaly finite, if these synapses connections that come through parental and other stimulation are not made by this age, use of those brain cells is lost for life. There is a mirroring when children are in a stressful state, when they produce cortisol, which causes brain cells to die and reduces the connections. These early emotional attributes are shown to have strong correlations to many things in later life, including violence, employment and academic achievement. The window of opportunity then is a narrow one and the case for public policy to seize it very strong, which is what the early intervention foundation is about (where manchester is a "pioneering place"), and I am wholly supportive of it. Modern science and methods though only illuminate and heighten our awareness, as hundreds of years ago we were already saying give me the child at seven and I'll show you the man.

2 august 2013, part 2 with number 1

In a few short hours, the second part of the holiday starts, our regular week by the lake (balaton in hungary), but with a twist. Whilst my youngest and other half are already in budapest, my eldest and I are making a 6am start to get on all manner of manchester transport systems before boarding the 7.55 to london, where a short underground trip to st pancras awaits us, as does a rather longer eurostar one to paris. This will be followed in short order by the tgv to munich, the overnight railjet to budapest and then some central european intercity niceties too as we make our way to our night in the capital before heading off to the country. If nothing else, it will be an adventure, which it already is for the other member of the party, who can't get to sleep from sheer excitement. For me, it is a most wonderful opportunity to spend some one-to-one time with my small baby who before our eyes is becoming a fully-functioning young adult, with reasoned views, the enthusiasm of youth and a sharp wit and intelligence that others can find quite daunting, but I of course take incredible pride in. I just wish we didn't have to leave so very early ! Oh well, all in a good cause.

31 july 2013, madonna meets boney m

These days holidays are a compromise: "we" want to go to the british museum, "they" want to go to legoland. In the end of course we do both. However, while we (or actually "I" as other half heads off down oxford street) shlepp around lego star wars for the third time without too much complaint, just half an hour gazing at the wonders of pompeii leaves them moaning and seeking a bribe just to stay. My favourite quote was in the dining room, sage advice for any dinner party, "don't dirty the couch covers, keep your eyes off other people's partners and take your quarrels home with you." We ate well, visited siblings, good friends, covent garden and the london transport museum (good if you like that kind of thing), were total tourists watching "we will rock you" (awful, but the kids loved it) and swanned around hampton court palace (beautiful, and very well presented) for the best part of a day, before stopping off at the very sophisticated design of bicester village for the rest of it. Next stop, a quiet week by the lake in hungary, for me and my eldest, by train (see 25 may 2013)...

23 july 2013, nudge, nudge

A few years behind those really ahead of the curve, I am getting my head around the application of behavioural psychology in public policy, or the nudge as it is popularly known. Why go to the trouble, expense and civil rights borderlands of troublesome law or regulation when a gentle application of science can sometimes have an equal effect. I want to be a choice architect. The examples are many, such as the changed wording of a letter that raised success rates 15% (in that case by suggesting paying tax was the norm); restaurant menu items at the beginning or end became more than twice as popular when put in the middle. My favourite is probably the hershey bars (p15), which were sold for 1 cent, compared to lindt chocolate, for 15c; 73% chose lindt. However this revealed preference was turned on its head when both prices were dropped by 1c, i.e. the hershey became free. Then 69% went for hershey. "Most transactions have an upside and a downside, explains the author, dan ariely, but when something is FREE! We forget the downside." There may be big lessons here for our free public services. How would charging £1 to go and see the doctor affect demand ? Having said that, some people genuinely can't afford a pound.

13 july 2013, ever ending ?

The background noise is growing that the western powers are finally moving towards declassifying hamas as untouchable and making them part of the peace process. Indeed, what has been apparent for some time, not least in john kerry's invisible shuttling attempts, is that you can't have a two-state solution, indeed any peace process, without them. Europe, oddly, was always the swing voter that will make this happen, but until now has badly misjudged the call (you can read this thesis in full in how we made the fatal mistake of not talking to hamas), for fear of rocking the boat on more important things with the us, which israel succeeded in convincing the last american president was the price it needed to pay for that. The eu has always split on the conflict, and has very little influence over israel, although it has always strongly backed the (oslo-founded, plo/fatah-based) palestinian authority. Increasingly though, several member states are coming round to having more skin in the game by being the obama vanguard in ensuring that the ongoing big pragmatist-radical battle within hamas is won by the former. Ultimately that is the first stage of a sequence that needs to take place before anything can be achieved: hamas evidence a willingness to talk; the west recognises their right to be part of the process; america cajoles israel to do the same; the two palestinian factions unite; and israel and palestine (it's now a country) are put in a room under heavy international auspices until a process and a plan come out (we got there with oslo). Finally there then needs to be years of intense ongoing engagement to actually follow through until we have something like sustainable peace. If you will it, it is no dream.

1 july 2013, and now we’re 28

Its been a long wait, and some now doubt its wisdom, but finally, after many, many years of patiently knocking on the door, getting a foot in and gently pushing it open, croatia today became a member of the european union. I have several times mentioned my own experiences (25 may 2011) in this former yugoslav state, my friends there and its coloured history (26 may 2011). Today, croatia may mean festivals and holidays; but for my generation it will always mean bloody war. Yet, like central europe's accession in 2004, joining the eu really does end one chapter and confirm the page has been turned onto a new one, of sustainable independence in the european mainstream. There is no doubt that the enlargement process, in terms ensuring compliance with the war crimes tribunal, played a wholly positive role; and in a similar way croatia joining will remain a beacon to the rest of the balkans (22 july 2012) for the decade to come, even if the pace is tortuously slow and accession not quite assured. Nor for croatia is economic prosperity assured, far from it. Once upon a time joining the eu meant exactly that; today it is more throwing in problems with the rest of them. For all that though, there are a queue of countries still wanting to join, and a central core determined to go further, faster, and so apart from being a seminal moment in croatia's history, today is also a marker in the union's, showing how life goes on and nothing stands still.

28 june 2013, the delights of moscow airport

Though I can't quite claim the fugitive status of edward snowden, I did feel a hand on my shoulder when reading about him being holed up at sheremetyevo. While working in eastern europe in the early 90s, I blithely found that small dollars got you visa-lessly through borders in the baltics, balkans and bulgaria - but not mother russia. Niet visa, an incredulous and armed guard asked me. Problema. My passport and ticket were taken and I was led to my luggage and a dismal corner of what was then a dismal airport, where I can picture edward now. I was sat on a plastic seat with a black guy from zaire. He was full of the joys of spring, joking that I was sat on his bed. Actually he wasn't joking: customs had refused to believe his passport photo was him, confiscated it and ordered him on the next flight back to zaire. As this was fortnightly, he'd been there thirteen days. But its ok, he said, they bring me food & water. After three hours, the fun had rather gone out of the situation, but on cue, the guard returned, with a new resident for the pen, a besuited british businessman. He did have a visa, but one starting (some secretary in london was really going to know about this monday morning) the next day. The suit bawled out the soldier and refused to give up his passport, until finally he was taken to see the airport consul. $10 worse off, so was I. Having walked through the entirety of a massive airport, we arrived at a rather grand, modern portacabin-type structure. A secretary was busily hammering away on a monstrously-large typewriter with latin letters. Eventually the inner door opened and a red-faced russian in a terrible suit smiled sardonically, and walked off. When he returned we sensed permission to follow him in, which I did despite the angry glances of my compatriot, sitting down on a huge puffy green bench, facing an even larger desk. Suit turned from managing director to lamb, and begged to be let in. I should deport you, he was told. Erm, sorry, clerical error. After some moments he was allowed to buy a new visa - for $110 dollars, cash. The consul then took the old one, and, with his thick cigar shaped pen, changed the '1' on the visa to a '0', and stamped it, beckoning a soldier to walk off the now-fleeced lamb. He turned to me. Why you have no visa ? Excuse. You like us to deport you back to warsaw, where I'd come from, or london - at your expense of course. I asked, grovellingly if he couldn't perhaps, on this one occasion, buy a visa. Four hundred and fifty dollars. It took me a moment to compose my face, but really I had no choice given my round ticket back would be more, no doubt a calculation also made on the other side of the desk. Ten minutes hour later, I was through, as I'm sure edward will be too, eventually.

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