7 october 2012, are we there yet ?

Sitting here in the uk, the euro (or "euro crisis" as it is now known) seems further away every day, rather remote, talked out and embarrassing; a bit like the troubles in northern ireland used to be, or the intifada when I lived in tel aviv. We seem past the period when sane and senior people were assuring me it would all be over in weeks, and they're now watching the neighbour's dodgy extension still going up, despite those suspect foundations and the council supposedly coming round and telling them to knock it down and start again. Despite the odds though, the summer has passed largely without incident. If anything, it was good news, with tentative progress on the banking union, a startling election result in holland, and critical concrete of the new shoring-up order flowing when the german constitutional court finally enabled the european stability mechanism treaty - yes, it's a treaty (see 1 june 2012) - to be ratified by all (repeat, all). As opposed to the efsf, which is limited in time and capacity, the esm is a permanent institution, and a real pillar of the putative euro area ministry of finance that critics so bemoan is lacking. A reverse domino effect then kicked in, as with esm in place, and a treaty laying down the law on how it can be accessed, the ecb was then able to put real funding behind a lender of last resort role, addressing the weakest link of stressed member state bonds, provided that robust framework was utilised (i.e. a member state applied for a "bail out"). Super mario really is doing "whatever it takes", and if spain, and indeed any future others, want the benefit of that, they now know they just have to ask. This is not to say things are sailing serenely on, but the repeated refusal to sink, and the putting of the ecb's infinite balance sheet behind the currency, within a robust and agreed fiscal framework, gives a fair wind for the next choppy period, as no doubt spain (which really shouldn't) and greece (with it's still intractable problems not solved) will again be in the headlines; but have confidence (faith even) that calm blue waters will, one day, reappear.

1 october 2012, ryding the wave

After a long break: the words "european" and "inspirational " in the same sentence, as europe monumentally come from way behind to win golf's premier event, the ryder cup. Uniquely, ryder pits those two old world titans, the us of a and europe, against each other, and I have always been warmed by this very rare non-political instance in which europe is enthusiastically embraced across the patch as a national identity. I am not one of golf's bigger fans, but yesterday as I went about my business, entertaining and feeding my sister and family for lunch, ferrying the kids to and fro, looking after my mother, doing chores and then crystallising an analysis of stockport town centre's future, I dipped intermittently into what became a great drama unfolding during the latter part of the day. Maybe it was a bad night's sleep because I drank too much coffee, but I was almost in tears with the emotion of it when I listened to the triumph on the radio in the morning, with seve looking down and all that. Wonderful.

22 september 2012, hebron and on

One of the reasons a two-state solution to israel-palestine gets further away every day is hebron. When peace is finally won, the 1967 "green line" will loosely be the border, with in-roads made by permanent settlements compensated by land elsewhere. Kiryat arba though (7000 jews) lies deep in the west bank, and borders hebron, home of some 250,000 palestinians and around 400 jews. Dozens were massacred there in the 1930s; and dozens of muslims in the 1994 by baruch goldstein. Over time a slice of hebron, linking it to kiryat arba, has been carved out and emptied of palestinians. I saw it myself when I went for a walk down that road with a friend shortly after the massacre. The 160 bus from jerusalem had thick bars on the windows (against stones), even as we crossed beautiful countryside for the best part of an hour before reaching the breeze blocks of the entrance to the settlement. At its centre is meir kahane park, at the centre of which was goldstein's tomb, resplendent in beige marble with gardens, arches and a cupboard of prayer books. It is one of the most sickening and disgusting sights I have ever seen, the more so as kids on a school trip arrived as we left. I almost cried when the new government of ehud barak finally bulldozed it in 1999. The bus from there to hebron proper is a short one, looking much like any other arab town - until you reach the machpela, surrounded by roadblocks and the army. In the courtyard we dived to the ground as two soldiers assumed the position to fire on a group of arabs. There is no jewish quarter as such in hebron, just 3 isolated sites, with the army surrounding them and creating protecting routes between them which they travel in screaming jeeps. There are more soldiers on the rooftops. Foolishly shielded with our british identies and cameras, we declined the invitation to climb aboard and walked between them, though the streets were pretty deserted apart from smiling kids following us around as we bought chicken in pitta bread. Two jewish kids also passed us, with a heavily armed escort. The third jewish outpost has just one house, surrounded on all sides by sentries, who we chatted to. Quite how nutty the people they are guarding are is just incomprehensible, and decades on, they're still there, barriers to peace. It is my sincere new year wish that without any bloodshed, by 5774 they are gone.

17 september 2012, growing old

I have, this new year, been rather forced to consider the utility of the old; and indeed the fact that very slowly, but most surely, that adjective will one day be mine. Will I then be only a burden to my children and tax-paying society, guilty about everything I spend ? As a larger number of pensioners vote than any other demographic (youth are the worst; 2 pensioners use as many votes as 7 under-25s), they have disproportionate influence, and over time have redefined what was invented as a safety net against starvation, but is now more like a goodie bag that also, if not mainly, supports the better off. British pensioners, for example, regardless of income, get free tv licences, free bus passes and cold winter payments - even if they live in australia. Meanwhile a poor and freezing household without a pensioner gets nothing. Less than 2 workers to support every pensioner, down from 7, means, according to the european commission, eventual tax rises of 2% in italy, 4% in the uk and no less than 8% in spain. Already today, pensioners in the uk get a majority of all welfare payments, the country's largest single expenditure. It is not hard to argue that the system today is too removed from life expectancy and from benefits paid in. And someone pays for all this - silently but inevitably our children, taxed (albeit in the future) but not represented. Intergenerational equality has been the coming politics for a generation; it is time it arrived.

11 september 2012, I love to speak to leonard

For my birthday - ten to midnight, 9 9 69, though officially the tenth - I got a surprise trip to see leonard cohen, a wonderful old trooper who's a cross between a blues brother and al pacino, who he strongly resembles. It was an absolutely magical evening, four hours from start to finish, with no support and endless songs that I somehow knew smoothly going from one to the next even as you thought there couldn't possibly be more. It was simple and elegant, melodic and poignant and the most mysterious lyrics of anyone, stroked out ever deeper, in every sense. They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within. I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them. First we take manhattan, then we take berlin.

3 september 2012, and the other one

With the elder getting so much attention, on saturday I took out the younger (8). We started at the local pool, as he was always a big fan (not coincidentally, unlike his brother - see 29 august 2010) and the olympics have inspired both him to swim and us to convince him to go to lessons. He loved it, going up two classes in one session. Then subway, his current favourite, cashing in two of the seven promised on hols so we could walk past one in barcelona and have more of that fancy food we horrible parents force them to try. We then marched up and down heald green high street, buying bread from the bakery and odds and sods we needed in the greengrocers, chemists and charity shop. It doesn't sound a lark, but we had a whale of a time, as we pretty much always do when it's just two. The sting in the tail though was my weakness at the very end, as we passed the bookies, which he recognised from our annual grand national pilgrimage, which avid readers will recall he actually won (see 14 april 2012). I generally encourage him to read what's in the windows, and this time of course he did, discovering the 25-1 shot of manchester united beating southampton 3-2 and then of course we did maths too with many questions about just what led to that enticing bright red £250. In the blazing sunshine of all that cheer it was too hard not to pop in and put five pounds on, diligently explaining how highly unlikely this outcome was. The next day, after dropping my deteriorating mother home, I switched on the radio, exactly as robin van persie scored, making it 3-2 to the reds. We haven't told him yet; the dilemma again writ very large (see 10 april 2011). Feeling a bit like the rabbi who sneaked onto the closed golf course on saturday afternoons, and one day shot an incredible 18 holes in one. An angel questioned g-d how he could make that happen. Well, was the reply, who can he tell ?

31 august 2012, first day

Today was my eldest's first day at school; a big day. Though we embraced the out with the old, which he was very much ready for, we were rather guarded over the summer about the in with the new. In these last days though, we've busied ourselves with unavoidable arrangements, trying on uniforms, scouting for friends and checking all sorts of lists. Unlike us he was very relaxed about it, and it all went well with his new class (of a remarkable 14, as they are split into boys and girls). There is a picture on our bedroom of my other half glowing with pride a day after giving birth, with a fuzzy head attached to the breast. Now that little man is just a head below me, firing off texts on his mobile, uploading you tube videos of his first day and patiently reasoning with us about the colour of eggs in a birds nest we found in our garden one day after the wind blew a tree down. This sapling though is strong and well on its way to becoming a tree, although not without the occasional teenage mood. Sigh. A very what do we want from life day, and a proud one.

25 august 2012, eur in or eur out

In my frankfurt days, the financial times was the indispensable daily coverage on europe, but it was the economist I read for everything else, and which was the last (even now) to resist my falling into the internet, even if reading it all, once a job done by saturday lunchtime, may now take weeks. I remember when the charlemagne column started, and how I compared my own meagre effort to it, occasionally beating them to it. Over time, it has become considerably less brusselsphere and more anglo; a shame. I must admit though that a few weeks ago it struck a chord, reflecting how the euro, intended as the step to cross the no-going-back rubicon in bringing member states closer together, has actually ended up by more strongly differentiating them: "the euro has now set the convergence machine in reverse". It name checks a report (for tomasso, my old boss, see 25 october 2009) of an old colleague, now at hertie (which I went to) and bemoans the "one size fits none" interest rate and judges the euro a failure. This is harsh. As much as its first decade lauded as all-conquering triumph was an exaggeration, so its second as inevitable decline and collapse is similarly overblown. The euro will survive, and in due course thrive. The strategy is the right one, and well conceived, even if the tactics have been poor and inconsistent, to say the least. Europe has survived sclerosis before and will do so again, though that won't stop this being a fraught decade for all.

23 august 2012, I go driving...

A side effect of my other half being in budapest with the kids, is that I get to drive to work rather than my usual bike-train combination (26 september 2010). Not that I'm complaining; in fact I'm rather proud of both the health and public transport aspects of my norm (13 and 2 december 2009); but things are definitely easier with my resource burning, expensive car park using, single passenger citroen picasso. My northern think tank friends brought out an interesting paper on this today, showing that contrary to uk public perception, motoring has actually got cheaper over the past 20 years - even as the cost of public transport has risen by over 60% in the last 10. This is surely ludicrous when policy should be getting people out of their cars. The paper comes up, though a little irritatingly guardedly, with the obvious route, road charging, which simply won't be accepted here, despite being the norm in most of europe, as we experienced last week driving up and down rather nice spanish highways. It surely makes sense for those using the roads to pay for them rather than receive public subsidy better invested elsewhere. Above all I am a believer in rewards and incentives, and until people are priced out of driving alone in a car and the alternatives, like cycling and public transport, are sufficiently cheap and convenient, the carbon will keep on flowing, and the roads will keep on expanding. They paved paradise...

16 august 2012, homage to homage to catalonia

During the earlier part of our stay, I got through one of the few george orwell novels I have never read. Perhaps I was waiting for this occasion, as it made it so much more exciting to read of the paving stones of la rambla being torn up and thrown into barricades one day, and to be treading over them the next. Evenings with the book was history and the sarcastic culture of war, which complemented wonderfully the sights and sounds that filled my days. If it isn't his greatest work (apart from the obvious, that would be burmese days), it makes up for it in vivacity and the acuteness of its chronicling of a unique period in a unique place that has always fascinated me. It's very readable, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As I did two from my current favourite author, paul auster: invisible and winter journal. The first showed patches of his best (the book of illusions, or perhaps the country of last things), and the latter touched me quite profoundly. So, as orwell said of his journey home, away from the mountain and the vine, back to the meadow and the elm.

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