22 february 2013, shock and pawe

I've spent a lot of my week on something that many roads have led me to in the past years, but on which I have not really travelled: the children of the great unwashed; or "early years" in the jargon. Though not quite one myself, I was born and bred in a serially-unemployed household and so knew deprivation, but not of the kind that has been pulled from the back of my conscious in the last few days to the front. It's a world of far too many streets where most are unemployed, alcohol and other drugs are rife, mothers smoke and don't breastfeed, depression is a norm and infant mortality rates are serious. Children starting school are already obese and have tooth decay, and domestic abuse and crime are real and present dangers, as are injured children turning up at hospital. I was intellectually sucked into this world years ago by an excellent study that identified this basic system failure as a key cause of economic underperformance, and I'm back now as an intellectual exercise in transforming the norm of providing public services from dependence on an ever-dwindling government grant to self-sustaining investment. Poverty though, even in this abundantly rich country we live in, is emotional, and so are children, making the two together an exercise worthy of a cause.

13 february 2013, smooth and tumble

A very pleasant distraction from work today, with a visit (strategically vital of course) to mediacityuk, the new home of the bbc. It is amazing. Deserving of the uk epithet, manchester's own little canary wharf really does start to make you believe the hype that some of the things happening around the place really are of a size and quality that have resonance around the world. And this just a stone's throw (albeit a large one) from manchester united. Not only do coronation street, bbc sport, 5 live radio, cbeebies (once a permanent feature on our box; alas no more) and breakfast (which I never watch, strictly today for me) beam out from what were once abandoned docks, but there's real digital research and development going on behind closed doors, as they try to invent the next iplayer. Here. I peered down onto the match of the day studio from the gantry, got to grips with the nasa-command style control centres that tv gets made from these days, gazed across europe's largest purpose-built studio and strolled past mr tumble's wardrobe. Yes, total corporate capture, but sometimes you've got to take a step back and admire what's been achieved to recharge the inspiration batteries and help make the next steps forward. Tomorrow, the 10,000 children in the conurbation's most deprived households. They could do worse than watch mr tumble.

9 february 2013, it’s a boy !

I am impressed. After a couple of years or so of process and negotiation, which is the way of these things, 27 different countries have agreed a budget for a 28th which is the sum of them (see the state we're in) for the next seven years. Nor is it small, coming in at just under 1 trillion euros, or around 1% of the budget, about what the uk spends on culture, for example. Even more impressive, they have collectively taken into account the public opinion of the woman on the clapham omnibus who doesn't know whether or not all this austerity is right, but thinks that if every other government in europe is cutting expenditure, so should the eu. And a little bit more prioritisation never did any harm to a system. It's also very positive in the ongoing battle for the eu to be seen as a "good thing". This happy compromise came about as it spoke to a varied coalition of those that want to "reform" the eu, who come in many varieties, those who just want to trim it, and those who actually want "more europe" but would like it to be some combination of leaner and, well, more austere. And so now to the real work of what the money is actually going to be spent on. It's also a girl, or it was 28 years ago (ahem) when my other half was born; happy birthday !

2 february 2013, hilaryous

There's a lot of it around, but I'm going to have a go too. Bill was there when I was at my most intense political period (not least in israel, read christmas in bethlehem for the optimistic pax clintona period) and I have many times written that he was an exceptional president, at least from the waist up. The redoubtable madeleine albright was his (foreign) secretary of state, who lit the path. Then came hilary. They were always a double act, and even before the end of bill's time the baton passed as she easily won her senate seat, very effectively winning hearts and minds. 2008 then brought a dilemma: what to do as the eminently wonderful obama became a serious candidate, at hilary's expense. I must admit I was easily won over to him at an early moment, but to the end had deep doubts about whether, having won the nomination, he could actually beat the traditional white male he would face. Hilary, who was easily above the threshold, seemed a safer bet. In the end of course it all worked out, with hilary gracefully becoming secretary of state and making the role her own, even as the administration she was part of will hardly look back on foreign policy as either defining or transformative. Slips, like the killing in benghazi, seemed not her fault, as did vacuums in policy, like ducking entirely the israel-palestinian peace process. For a while it seemed she might stick around, becoming the first woman at defence, for example, but eventually it became clear she will retreat to consider a presidential run in 2016. If the chips sit well, the biggest thing against her will be her 69 years, the same age as reagan won his first term, so adroitly turning it to his advantage in the debate against walter mondale when he promised "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." It is not, I am sure, the last we have seen of one of the very rare women who doesn't even need a presidential surname attaching; happy hunting, hilary.

23 january 2013, indelible

The opposite of risk-averse is putting on paper (or whatever this is) thoughts about the likely outcome of israeli coalition negotiations; but here we go. Whatever the instant consensus, this was not a defeat for netanyahu. Hardly a resounding victory, but at the end of the day he's still going to be prime minister and the most dominant figure in the country's history since ben gurion. Habayit hayehudi might not have won the "biggest surprise" award, but 12 seats was astounding, and allied to the likud it gives them a 42 seat starting point, making it the bedrock of the coalition. And stand together with his mentor bibi's former chief of staff surely will, no doubt merging with the likud just before the next election, a now tried and tested formula. The big decision then is whether they go with the traditional ultra orthodox (shas and utj bringing in 18 seats) or with the winner of aforementioned award tomi - sorry yair - lapid. This is a no brainer, both because secularism, the economy and the haredi-in-the-army issue has defined this election (much more so than the peace process), and because of arithmetic: lapid's 19 seats bring a majority, and will snag others to join too. The power then, as well as the zeitgeist, is all with lapid, but there is little doubt they will seal the deal and we can genuinely expect, for the first time, a shift in the balance on a fundamental israeli axis. Not alas from hawk to dove, but from religious to secular, which is big beans to most (secular, jewish) israelis, and who knows how one shift in the infinitely-fortified status quo may in time lead to another.

22 january 2013, no longer

There was a time when I would stay up all night for the results of israeli elections. They were so much more exciting than in britain. It wasn't just a matter of whether prices would go up a bit or some mines would close; it was war or peace, nirvana or total destruction. I even named my never-finished novel after the 1996 election: went to bed in a dream, woke in a nightmare (read a bit in ...and here's how it ended). Then, I was heavily invested, partying all night on the news that shimon peres had won: the forces of good and reason, a sane world, the closing of the circle of peace, not just with the palestinians, but with the jordanians, the saudis, the syrians, the moon ! Then, in the morning, we discovered that actually netanyahu had won, the epilogue to the assassination of rabin incited nine months earlier, the twisting of the knife that finally killed the years of what could have been. So went the hopes of a generation, the left never really getting over losing first that election and then the bitterness of the second intifada. We failed (29 september 2009) - and here we are, a generation later, still voting for bibi, and in bigger numbers than ever. I'm not staying up tonight - oh well, not too late anyway, there's always hope...

12 january 2013, the emerald isle

I am off to dublin on monday, on an oecd mission. I have been to almost every european country: fleetingly in finland, lots in lithuania, robbed in romania and barbed in bosnia (25-6 may 2011; see 31 august 2010 too), but I've never been to the subject of this week's charlemagne, ireland. It's a good article that touches on the massive success of what was once a backwater region most of whose gifted sons and daughters left. Antagonism with the old british enemy led them to tightly embrace a european alternative, and consistent policy paid off with a couple of roaring decades that shifted ireland into the ranks of established well-to-do economies. Against the mightiest odds they have retained their signature policy of rock-bottom corporate tax rates that still today drives investment and sustainability in an economy that has suffered the worst but bounced back the strongest. The contrast with greece is made and is stark and today everyone wants Ireland to pull through, as a posterchild of european policy. Though success, maturity and a tilt towards the nasty end of the british press tempered ireland's euro enthusiasm some years ago, leading to the infamous "no" votes, that does seem to have rather subsided to what could, hopefully without sarcasm, be called an all in this together attitude. Ireland needs europe to succeed as much as the other way around. They seem to be managing the politics in a very sophisticated way, and broadly to be coming through the worst well, and so it will be an interesting time to be there and take the country's temperature.

8 january 2013, time

It's not just women that mature. I'm listening to leonard, cohen of course (11 september 2012). Unusually though, I am listening to him on my computer, having downloaded the album (live from london as you ask). It was amazingly cheap, exceptionally easy and very convenient, so I don't know why I haven't done this before. It's partly because like my mum (now tragically ageing) and a video recorder, there came a point when I just can't effortlessly keep up. After months of me and my wife thinking about it, my 11-year old fixed up the i-player on the wii the other day (which would all have been gibberish to me just a couple of years ago), and the day before that he solved the skype conference call conundrum. Today, for some reason, my 8-year old (birthday week after next) was watching madness and adam ant videos - and (says the altecacker) - goodness me they are so young; and yet I clearly remember them being so adult. The new force in israeli politics was in an elite army unit, founded a business and made a fortune, served 4 years as the prime minister's chief of staff - and is now 40. My aches and pains don't disappear in a day, and the other day I caught myself thinking my kids rather reckless jumping off a wall twice their height. A great man once told me you get where you're going by 40, and then do your best 5 year's work. It's hard to avoid the idea that I'm there.

5 january 2013, morocco

Probably the most interesting stop on our cruise was morocco, where we learned casblanca has over 5 million people, and visited agadir and taroudant, a genuinely non-tourist walled market town. I was complimented when told I could be a moroccan, which quickly got us on to the topic of moroccan jews, which all the guides mentioned in passing. There was a big community there once, around 250,000, but they all emigrated after the war, leaving perhaps 5,000. Most went to israel in a noted "aliyah" of zionist yore immediately before moroccan independence, as that part of the politics of that part of the world were fundamentally altered by the creation of the state of israel in 1948. Our host made much of a bargain with france to "let the jews go" in return for independence, though the facts don't seem to bear that out. The population faced intimidation and fear before leaving, and now-famous prejudice on arrival, as the ashkenazi establishment treated them as poor and ignorant and used them to populate new development towns in the south. There seems disagreement where the next wave went, which is some combination of mainly france, canada and again israel, where with around a million descendants, morocco is the most common lineage after russian. Our host also talked about emigres still owning property and coming and going, which is certainly common in the russian experience. This is a part of the world I know far too little about and this fleeting glance was enough to spur me on to learn more before I become an argaze awassare. Salam !

1 january 2013, ...and a happy new year

After a week cruising the sunny islands of madeira and the canaries, as well as a packed stop off in morocco, we spend new year, as we almost always do, in budapest, with my other half's family. My eldest was on a quest to stay up all night, having been confounded last year when in an exception that proved the rule we stayed home and I pretty much made him and his friend give up the ghost at 4am when they woke me up. This year he had a bad night on the eve, an afternoon nap on the day, and woke up with a headache, so the two of us trekked a few blocks down to where we were staying (her father's flat) where he had a pill, brought his lunch back to celebrate too, and promptly fell asleep. I agonised about waking him or not, but he was so peaceful I decided against it. After all, new year will come again. For the first time in as long as I can remember therefore, I was marooned alone at midnight, unless you count a sleeping son and bill bryson, who kept me wonderfully entertained until somewhere near 1am when my wife escaped hungarian trivial pursuits and pizza with the other 9 kids to bid me, as I bid you, a happy 2013.

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