5 april 2018, it could have been me

What I must admit is now a long time ago, I planned to write a book, which I got about one-third through. I started on my amstrad, but did the most part on a sleek black laptop I bought way ahead of time before I went to budapest, my base for a magical year and a half buzzing around the most incredulous countries of eastern and central europe working with students. Though most of my writing took place (and as it stands now is set in) my next big stop in life (the middle-east being wonderfully conducive to writing), the book is undoubtedly about that time in my european ancestral home. A bit late to the party, I've just read jonathan safran foer's everything is illuminated. I thought it was good, but not that good. More importantly, I read it thinking this was the book I could have written. Only better, I'd like to think, though probably not. I could have written it, perhaps, had I stopped doing everything else and stuck with that for a year, as I could have done then. It is or would be, of course, part-biographical, drawing on a very rich stock of adventures and emotions, which make me smile even now just to begin the remnants of remembering. I've started the novel many times. The current opening is "there was nothing she could do but wait..." though the real one is probably midway through the first chapter, "it had been a summer of love...". Oh, what could have been. Or, can I dream, may yet.

3 february 2018, the next dudline

Whatever else tries, brexit continues to monopolise uk political oxygen. The december narrative was progress (phase one complete !). In fact, the uk definitively scrapped its earlier (ridiculous) ambition to negotiate a trade treaty before "brexit day" march 2019. With its new (manageable) aim of a vague political declaration, the focus has moved to the so-called transition period. Again, the uk is taking a little time to understand the situation. It has asked if it can have a transition period, enabling it to keep the benefits of being in the single market and the rest until a new trade treaty is agreed and implemented, to which the eu has said yes - as long as all the current arrangements of its complex, interdependent legal architecture are maintained. Whilst breezily accepting that in principle, the dynamic of the next period already seems to be the uk popping up with various things it wants to be different (ecj jurisdiction and eu citizens rights the current ones) and the eu repeating, as if to a rather slow child, it's a package deal you can't cherry pick from. The other stumbling block is the supposedly-agreed withdrawal treatment. No sooner were handshakes concluded than the government's key negotiator (seemingly not understanding either the nature of an agreement or that his party-facing comments could be heard across the channel) popped up to say agreed yes but conditional on any number of other things. The withdrawal agreement, as was always clear, is not conditional on anything: it's the terms by which britain will leave the club, whatever happens, or doesn't, afterwards. That bravado made ensuring the agreement quickly finds binding legal form an eu priority. This then is the 2018 uk agenda: get the withdrawal agreement agreed and thread the political needle of moving into an open-ended transition period where nothing changes, with all those continuing positives and negatives. Handily, and contrary to media consensus, this enables the government to avoid the definitive "hard decision" around whether the uk wants to remain as close and aligned as possible to the european economic, social and regulatory sphere, or whether it will sacrifice some of that to strike out in a different direction (see 10 april 2017, going it a loan). It all needs to wrapped up ready for 29 parliaments to agree in October. At that point, the british body politic and public should see the choice before them differently from now. The question will be: how can we best negotiate our (post-brexit) future and have as much control of our destiny between now and then ? Option 1 will be to leave at 11pm on 29 march, accept all the rules for an open-ended period as they are handed down, as we will no longer have a seat at the table, and also give up our right to retain that influence, as once we're out, we're out. Option 2 will be to push back the date of our exit, which may require mutual agreement but will be entirely possible, so retaining our seats at tables and also retaining the possibility of staying a member should that turn out to be the best option as we work through what the world after we've taken our hard decision will actually look like. As October looms, so will the benefits of option 2.

22 december 2017, ever-shrinking england goes back to black

Finally a benefit of brexit: uk passports are to change back from boo brussels burgundy to brill british blue. Just don't mention that the uk voted in 1981 to go with burgundy nor is it impossible within the eu for the colour to differ (croatia's is blue). It's not just the pointless gestureishness that grates, but the presumption that going "back" is seen as a good thing. I like my passport, and not for the colour, but because it's like that of my fellow europeans. What next for faragist nostalgia: bring back hanging, shillings & inches ? Nigel really is the most successful politician of our era, riding the tide of anti-elitism into the coves and bays of little-england that have come to define the depressing rolling back of liberalism, openness and general progress that still laps our shores and beyond. My old passport - and its black not garish blue - is chock-full of stamps from my days stomping around europe. Do we really miss having to queue up at border posts to cross from austria to hungary or slipping underpaid border guards a few dollars to get into romania when the train stops at the border for an hour ? Just ten years ago (watch the video) I was lauding europe's seemingly unstoppable progress that where what was once a border fought over with thousands of lives is today a bridge over which without blinking you pass from germany to france. Today may have seen the pushing forward we had hoped replaced by the need for defence of what we've got, but that's just as worthwhile, even and especially back in little olde england. Keep the flame future dwellers, we'll be back !

24 november 2017, you don’t know what you’ve got til...

This week's charlemagne (my alter ego, see 25 august 2012, eur in or eur out) insightfully bemoaned how despite everyone's best efforts, brexit risks destroying the northern ireland consensus, because its open border, allowing everyone to be irish or british citizens and range of all-island institutions were steps shrouded in constructive ambiguity. Some questions are best left unanswered concludes the colomnist, which brexit's hard choices make impossible. After 2 decades of relative peace and tranquillity, our complacency over how things can change for the worse is remarkable, though perhaps not to the people of ukraine, syria or myanmar. Or indeed yugoslavia, who seemed a proud, successful and tolerant society just years before descending into all-out war that killed hundreds of thousands. In europe. In the 1990s. The last echo of that was heard this week, as ratko mladic, murderer in chief of some 8000 at srebrenica, was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. He will now die in jail a criminal, like slobodan milosovic, radovan karadizic and 158 others, the crowning, and last, achievement of the war crimes tribunal in the hague. My optimism of 2011 though (see 26 may 2011, mladic) is rather less today in a world where nationalism, putin and trumpian realpolitik seem to make all the running. What chance of similar convictions in a decade for the butchers of syria and myanmar ? Like british economic stability, international law and order is something we are far too complacent about and risk carelessly throwing away before too late realising the consequences.

2 november 2017, 100 years is not a long time in politics

Contrasting accounts this morning on the flagship today programme (1:32:25 and 2:36:35), with an eloquent ambassador making a compelling case for a palestinian state and a deputy foreign minister dismally refusing to admit the west bank is occupied at all. It's a long way since we were in touching distance of a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the excuse for a now-rare news item on israel is that its 100 years since the balfour declaration, which I happened to write my dissertation on. Tolerant, prosperous and open, england (as everyone then called it) had a sizeable jewish community, growing rapidly before ww1 due to polish/russian immigration like my grandparents. Zionism though was very much a minority sport amongst them and indeed world jewry. Yet, an eclectic group of marginal lobbyists somehow managed to get the greatest power on earth to give such a boost to its epochal quest that it's a leading news item a century later. Balfour is still seen in israel as the first great cornerstone of the state, with kudos for it generally given to the chemist chaim weitzman. Oh for the days when manchester-based lobbyists could turn government policy. In fact, balfour had form, having already offered the zionists uganda in 1903, which herzl accepted, splitting the movement. By 1917 david lloyd-george was pm, a devout sunday school-goer who supposedly learnt more about the geography of palestine than wales. The declaration though was not an altruistic gesture but hard-nosed pragmatism, granting something thought to be of no consequence at a moment of supreme national weakness to a group of people who were considered as having wildly-disproportionate influence on the two countries the foreign office saw as central to the country not losing the war, russia and america. The resulting 67 words did have consequences, giving international benediction to the concept of a jewish homeland which was then followed through with the british mandate there. As time wore on it became more burden than bounty to london and they eventually withdrew both their backing for balfour and then rather chaotically from palestine itself, facilitating israel's own declaration, of independence, so drawing a clear arc drawn from one declaration to another.

14 october 2017, harold’s house

An englishman's home is his castle. Harold's backed onto a large, enclosed green where, before a ww2 rocket flattened it, a victorian school stood. The neighbours argued over what to do with their common backyard before a bold group across the stream bandied together, took out a big loan and eventually built a golf club. Harold, who had been patiently cultivating a perimeter rose garden with a couple of the other neighbours on his side was not happy. The club though was a great success and after a while all the neighbours signed-up to become members. Harold learnt to live with it. Membership brought a steady income and open access to the bar and spa; he even convinced them to refurbish it with a massive jacuzzi. The club also though brought tourists to the village, a new road and the extension on the other side eventually made the club practically a town centre: loud, rowdy and open all hours. Somehow, it just wasn't what harold wanted, so one day he walked in and handed over his resignation. The other members were rather surprised, but it was soon forgotten amidst a big discussion about the cost they'd been quoted for superfast broadband. Whilst his resignation was processed, harold, who had rheumatism and very much needed a daily dip to stop it becoming a serious health problem, continued to use the club spa, the only one in the area. He bumped into the club secretary, who was a little bit flustered, as she was trying to work out exactly how much harold's part of the club loan should be now the bank needed to set-up a whole separate repayment plan and she wanted his view on how to work it out. She also mentioned the 1974 trophy he'd captained the team to, which though it rested on harold's mantelpiece was actually club property. Harold missed their meeting the next day, but instead called the administrator, just to make sure his pass still worked. The next board meeting was tetchy. Some members enjoyed harold's company and were open to him still hanging around, especially those that knew about his rheumatism. Others though were annoyed: we're partners they said, if he wants the benefits, then stay a member. Sitting in his living room a month later, harold ignored the insistent knock at the door. He knew it was the club secretary, again, who wanted back the trophy and his pass. By him was the bank's confusing letter insisting he sign the direct debit authorisation to cover his portion of the later loan the club took out for the new bridge across the stream. He turned up the volume on the tv, but his joints were aching, so as soon as she'd gone it would be time for him to pop over for his daily dip...

7 october, now always #timeforachange

Never has british politics been more precarious. This is not though because of brexit, but a symptom of the same malaise. Setting aside the prime minister's triumphant conference speech (well done, simon, and best commentary is david mitchell's on how the failing lettering was the worst sign) her strategy behind the early election that so undermined her was actually a good one, undone only by its pitiful execution. It's hard to recall now that most of corbyn's parliamentary party were passively-aggressively willing labour to lose (just not too badly) and even his strongest supporters thought staying alive would be above-expectations. The conservatives looked imperious and about to enter a period of thatcher-like dominance giving them time to regenerate and cast the next era in their image, at least if they got through through brexit in one piece. Now universally seen as a disaster, in fact, just an incredulous 71 votes (yep, do the maths) flipping the other way would have given the conservatives a majority and just 23,074 (of the 32m that voted) would have provided a very decent majority of 60. Blair's fall from overlord of everything to pantomime pariah took years; may managed it in days. That is rather symptomatic of trend and time. It is not only british prime-ministers whose average tenure is shrinking, but that of a whole raft of leaders: ftse ceos average time at the top is down from ten to 5 years and the latest premier league manager to go lasted just a ludicrous 4 games, to mention but 2. The conservative party changed in months from being a bulwark of safe-hands and civilisation gallantly resisting the anti-elitist tide that brought corbyn, trump, brexit and the rest into an old people's home that looks a grounded ship with the tide receding. Life is getting ever quicker and expectations higher, driven by 24-hour mass and social media exposing and analysing every movement in real time. It's harder to hide and move quietly on from the small mistakes everyone makes. The demands of league points, dividends or higher poll ratings are incessant and instant. This doesn't make for a satisfied society or durable strategy with inevitable bumps in the road, but drives the desire for instant and constant gratification and results, which doesn't make for a happy life for anyone.

17 september 2017, another chance to get it right

I've always been a glass half-full person, as well as someone seemingly keeping his head when all around are losing theirs and indeed (I'd like to think) all rudyard's "ifs". That wasn't easy with bombs blowing up buses in front of me in the 1990s (see 10 march 2012, here we go again), and isn't easy now with the open, liberal, humanistic world I've seen move forward so strongly in my lifetime seeming to take some sharp steps back with those bombs here now, trump, brexit and all. That the world is getting worse is a general perception that drives the west's current "anti" malaise: 81% of trump's supporters think life has grown worse in the past 50 years. Yet, there's no doubt at all that any rational state of the world address could only conclude that things are getting better. Global poverty has fallen by half in the last 20 years. Johan norberg (another inveterate positivist) relates how his great-great-great-great grandfather survived the swedish famines of 150 years ago, a time when sweden was poorer than sub-saharan africa is today. In 1820, 94% of humanity subsisted on less than $2 a day in modern money. That had fallen to 37% by 1990 and today is less than 10%. As norberg relates, medical science, technology, nutrition and sanitation all played a role in this, and have resulted too in us being smarter humans. This resonates with sapiens, a summer read, which even on the bombs front contrasts the apparent danger we feel with a murder rate in hunter-gatherer societies about 500 times that of europe today. The average european is still ten times more likely to die falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist. Despite all inducements to the contrary then, I remain glass half full. Trump won't last forever, brexit probably won't happen at all and meanwhile we'll all do our best, and largely succeed, to live happy and healthy lives with our families and friends; a positive thought to go into a new year with (photo: neil libbert).

12 august 2017, this was (and still is) the day...

Ten years and a few days ago, I went to work to find we (the european central bank) had injected a staggering 95 billion euros into the money market, after overnight lending rates shot up (due to bnp paribas freezing funds over american sub-prime mortgages). After being at it since 3am, an excellent colleague composed a great email to everyone explaining this was not the ecb giving away money but lending it to ensure no-one ran out, i.e. monetary policy. As in the normal run of things, it said, we'd soon be bringing it all back. After ten years of lowest-ever interest global rates and quantative easing, in spades for the uk, that deal is still not closed. A few days later, came the run on northern rock, and a year after that the credit crunch after the us decided to stop the policy of saving the banks and let lehman brothers fall. Less bank lending led to less investment led to less consumer spending (the twin peaks of economic growth) and so the crisis hit the streets and began affecting people's lives in various forms, including the resulting wave of fiscal contraction policy, the austerity still with us. It is no coincidence that during that period we saw the rise of nationalism and populism across europe and the west (see 26 march 2011, let's ignore the rise of the right). Whilst it existed before, this was the time it took wing and grew into the mainstream in more and more countries, resulting today in trump and of course brexit. It is ironic that the market that rescued britain from being the sick man of europe and is its greatest chance of increasing prosperity became the lighting rod issue for disaffection, anti-elitism and inequality, but that's democracy for you. Meanwhile I am still trying to read the runes of resistance to see if the tide has properly begun to turn, as those same banks all start setting up various headquarters outside london (dublin seems to be doing rather well) and the same ecb renews its battle to get euro clearing out of london too, on which it places a great deal of importance (as a globally-unprecedented 98% of all euro transactions are cleared outside the central bank's jurisdiction). Going forward britain, not being a member, won't be able to argue its case at the eu's court of justice as it did successfully last time. Oh well, another 900 billion a day (and 100, 000 jobs) out of the window. Gonzalez-paramo's "dark cloud" hasn't lifted yet.

7 august 2017, home alone

Though my other half and kids remain in budapest, I am back from a week in switzerland, and a second by lake balaton in hungary. Britons may be shunning fortnights away, but I have to say a longer break (still shorter than the august ecb grande vacances) is something I hugely appreciate. Unusually this year, we did several musical highlights, including reliving my youth at paleo nyon, an impromptu night with manchester's own david gray and a double dip into the paloznak jazz picnic, where we saw kool and the gang and matt bianco, who were apparently massive in eastern europe back in the day. We made a lovely start in geneva before mosying around the lake and then breaking new ground for me with 3 nights in interlaken (unremarkable but surrounded by gorgeous water & mountains) 2 in lucerne (gorgeous, amazing bridge)and 1 in zurich (lots to do, but 2 days enough). Mountains featured too of course, including eye-wateringly expensive trains up them, though in fairness the swiss have made an industry of building astounding complexes on top: saleve was our hors d'oeuvres, followed by the amazing la diablerets and then biggest of all jungfrau, where 3500 metres up are things james bondesque lifts flying up 8 floors of shops, restaurants, an ice-palace, a rope-bridge stringing peaks together and an unbelievable bob-sleigh ride. We drove a lot too, through gorgeous scenery, which I love, and managed tennis, spa and a chocolate workshop before jumping on board the night train from the swiss financial capital to our by-now regular hungarian campsite in balatonalmadi. In what has become my intense reading window of the year, I got through the excellent sapiens, the light disobedience, and about half of hugh young's monumental this blessed plot, aided by three hours on budapest's runway waiting for the summer storm to move far away from the airport enough for the them to refuel us, the spectacular lighting marking the end of a heatwave period even by hungarian summer standards, the mercury hitting 39/102. It was also raining when we touched down in manchester at 3am...

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