Archive for the current affairs Category

Masters of the universe

Posted in culture, current affairs, ramblings on December 4, 2011 by bridbeast

I had a deeply depressing conversation last night. My cousin started a course at the London School of Economics this year and reports back that all of his contemporaries want to become investment bankers. Even his friend, a physics undergraduate at another London university, has in the space of months changed her ambitions from academia to finance.

I suppose part of it is youthful skittishness and enthusiasm. Bless them, they’re barely a few months away from school and A-levels and all of a sudden they think they’re ready for Goldman Sachs. Partly it’s the sense of entitlement that comes from attending fee paying schools and arriving at an elite university.

But it still troubles me.

They’re smart kids who’ve lived through the biggest financial disaster for 80 years, the result of a credit bubble whose formation was mainly due to the actions of the financial sector and the politicians who pandered to it. All they have to do is read a newspaper for a week and they’d discover that Britain really doesn’t need too many more bankers. Instead we need innovation and science. We need to nurture our creative companies, whether they’re creating green technology or world-beating TV formats. We need the smartest kids to teach our most disadvantaged to raise up the dismal standards of education and productivity.

But no. Already the talk is of internships, of preferring research to trading, of how they’ll only do it for a few years before getting out. As D said of his friend: “She wants to do research in physics, but she doesn’t want to be poor.”

Well no one is claiming you’ll make big bucks as an academic, in fact given the effort to get there it’s shoddy. I found this in a few minutes this morning, and whilst the upper thirties is hardly a great salary for someone with seven or eight years of higher education plus a bunch of experience, it’s not poor.

Poor is the ladies who serve in the university canteen, or the cleaners who vacuum the office blocks of Canary Wharf in the dead of night. Poor is the white van man pulling £250 a week and trying to raise a family on it. Poor is the dole and JD sports and spliffs at lunchtime, the waste of smart kids who can’t get a foot in the door and go quietly mad with frustration, poor is two jumpers from November to April and reusing tea bags.

What poor isn’t, is an intellectually demanding job with a good salary that unfortunately happens to be ten times less than that offered by a bank.

Perhaps I’m expecting too much in the way of imagination from what is, essentially, a school for technocrats. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from kids, barely a few months away from school and A-levels, to resist these warped temptations, or to understand that right now something different is required of them if our society is to recover from this disaster.


9/11 revisited

Posted in current affairs, Journalism with tags , , on September 11, 2011 by bridbeast

From the Guardian, Mon 17 Sept 2001:

As American Airlines flight 11 ploughed into the World Trade Centre, I was sitting with a group of young Taliban in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan. I had just arrived on a tourist visa and was thoroughly enjoying myself. It was 5.30pm and we were watching the local gymnastics club practise beside the Kabul river. In the light of the setting sun, the boys rehearsed their flips and rolls, a thin mat their only piece of equipment.

Afterwards the Taliban lads took me to a stall, bought me some chips and Coke, and bombarded me with questions. Which country was I from? Why was I in Afghanistan? Could I help them get an English visa? Like most Afghans, they initially appeared stern and forbidding, but when I greeted them and held out my hand they melted into smiles.

On Wednesday morning I took a taxi to Kabul, still completely unaware of events in New York and Washington. We were pulled over at the first checkpoint outside Jalalabad by a group of black-turbaned Taliban sporting AK47s and batons. I opened my bum bag but the guard wasn’t interested in seeing my passport or visa. He reached in and pulled out a couple of “un-Islamic” family photos, examined them carefully, smiled and put them back.

The driver wasn’t so lucky. The Taliban found an illegal music cassette in the glove box and hauled him out, whacked him around the head and took him away for questioning. They politely apologised to me for the delay and found me another taxi. Judging by the streams of tape flying from a lamp-post, it was business as usual.

It was a dusty and incredibly bumpy journey to Kabul, along roads whose tarmac had been destroyed by tank treads and missile attacks. We passed ruined villages, abandoned Soviet tanks and fenced-off areas awaiting the mine clearance teams. But among the relics of carnage there were moments of rare beauty. Nomads led camel trains and flocks of goats across the desert. Unveiled girls in bright pink tunics gathered water from a turquoise river and balanced bundles on their heads while eagles soared above.

I first heard the news in a Kabul hotel from Gulbudin, a middle-aged Afghan with a short-wave radio. “Do you know someone has flown an aeroplane into the World Trade Centre in America?” This was so preposterous that I didn’t take him seriously, so I headed out to explore the city and see if anyone could confirm his story.

In the handicraft shops of Chicken Street, the desperate shopkeepers were more interested in selling me jewellery and carpets. But, when pressed, one told me: “Terrorists have destroyed a big business building in America. We saw it on the dish. Yes, we have television, it’s easy to hide.”

I went to a restaurant for dinner and the atmosphere was more sombre. Three old men were listening intently to the BBC World Service news in Pashto. The only words I could understand were “Osama bin Laden” and “Taliban”, and it began to dawn on me. I was in the worst country in the world to be a westerner.

Back at the hotel, I tried to find Gulbudin but was gently marched upstairs by a young Talib. My paranoia was working overtime, but he just sat me down, gave me a cup of tea and tried to convert me to Islam before asking me, with real bemusement in his voice, why the west hate the Taliban. Once I escaped his passionate sermons, I found Gulbudin and his radio, and finally heard the news in full and shocking detail.

“Don’t worry,” said Gulbudin. “You are safe here. You are a guest in our country and we Afghans will do nothing to harm you.” Nevertheless, on Thursday morning I went to the Red Cross office, where Mario, the information officer, told me to get out immediately. All the other aid workers had already left Kabul and there was a real risk that the border would close. “In a city centre hotel you are vulnerable to missile attack, but also the Taliban will know where you are in case they carry out reprisals,” Mario said. In 1998, after the cruise missile raids, a UN worker was shot. There was no decision to make.

I walked back through a bustling Kabul, sad that I had to leave this ruined yet vibrant city. The bazaar was thronged with people buying half-rotten vegetables and cheap imported goods. On a stall selling western castoffs was a T-shirt advertising McDonald’s and another declaring “Nothing ever changes”.

“It is time for you to leave,” Gulbudin said when I met him at the hotel. He found me a taxi and told the driver to take me to the border as quickly as possible. “Don’t worry about the Taliban; they are scared of an American attack and won’t bother you. Now I will go to my village, where it will be quieter.” He gave me a hug and I got into the taxi.

Driving through the brown, bombed-out suburbs, I saw a tank belching out dirty fumes, heading towards the city centre, followed a little later by a pick-up truck carrying Taliban troops and their shoulder-held grenade launchers.

I had a nervous wait at the first checkpoint outside Kabul as my driver went inside to get permission to continue. I looked past the children selling cups of water towards a group of Taliban sitting and fiddling with their Kalashnikovs and wondered if I was about to be taken hostage and used as a human shield. The driver returned with a few crumpled slips of paper that he handed to the guard, and we were off.

For five uneventful hours we drove past the results of the last superpower bombardment, but I didn’t relax until we reached the border at Torkham. I pushed through the crowds of Afghans, holding my passport above my head to alert the Pakistani border police, who were lashing out at the crowd with pieces of plastic tubing. They shoved an old woman out of the way, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back into the safety of Pakistan.


National Service

Posted in current affairs with tags on August 16, 2011 by bridbeast

So David Cameron is flirting with the idea of introducing National Service, or some similar “tame the feral youth” type affair.

That was some scary news for my cousin, who is 15, and far from feral.

“Mum, I don’t want to go in the ARMY!” he pleaded, genuinely upset.

He will be receiving the following letter:

CALL UP NOTICE FOR MR XXXXXX (name removed to protect the innocent)



You have been chosen for the first batch of recruits under the government’s new General Rehabilitation of Irritable Teenagers (GRIT) programme. As a new recruit you will be required to attend a six month long Teenager Understand and Face your Future (TUFF) paramilitary-style training course. This will be followed by the three-month-long Teenager Or Recalcitrant To Undergo Re-Education (TORTURE) programme of advanced physical and mental training.

Please attend your local TUFF training centre at RAF Lockermouth, Inverness, Scotland, at 09:00 GMT 1 Sept 2011.

You will be provided with military-style fatigues for the duration of your TUFF course. All other equipment will be provided. You must bring:

5 pairs underpants
5 pairs socks

The following items will not be permitted and will be confiscated:

Mobile telephones
MP3 and other music players
Personal computers
Personal hygiene products (we will supply soap, shampoo and de-licing powder when required)
Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs
Knives and other weaponry

You are permitted the following personal items:

1 x Bible/Koran/Torah or other religious book
1 x 50m packet of dental floss
1 x pen

Please note this course is compulsory. Failure to attend will result in a custodial sentence for your parents. If you abscond whilst on the course, advanced students undergoing the TORTURE programme will be permitted to hunt you down and return you to base.

I do hope you enjoy your time on the GRIT programme.

Yours truly,

Col Walter Kurz
Programme Director
General Rehabilitation of Irritable Teenagers


Posted in current affairs, Journalism with tags , on July 10, 2011 by bridbeast

I’ve spent today cleaning and hanging out at home rather than doing anything that requires much effort, physical or intellectual. So I haven’t been following the news much, other than to hear now it turns out that an internal NI memo has turned up which indicates that, oh what a surprise, executives at the company knew phone hacking was more widespread than they let on, and that they’d paid police for stories.

I thought about the cowardice of politicians who for years have refused to stand up to Murdoch, as a group, prefering short term tactical gain over their opponents to uniting in a long-term goal of reducing the power of one company. Blair had three meetings with Murdoch in the ten days before the Iraq war started, but ignored a million people marching in London.

Anyhow I was put in mind of something by the historian Tony Judt, and found the full quote here:

“Courage is always missing in politicians. It is like saying basketball players aren’t normally short. It isn’t a useful attribute. To be morally courageous is to say something different, which reduces your chances of winning an election. Courage is in a funny way more common in an old-fashioned sort of enlightened dictatorship than it is in a democracy. However, there is another factor. My generation has been catastrophic. I was born in 1948 so I am more or less the same age as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – a pretty crappy generation, when you come to think of it, and many names could be added. It is a generation that grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political. There were no wars they had to fight. They did not have to fight in the Vietnam War. They grew up believing that no matter what choice they made, there would be no disastrous consequences. The result is that whatever the differences of appearance, style and personality, these are people for whom making an unpopular choice is very hard.

“Someone once said: ‘But Blair’s choice to go to war in Iraq was unpopular with the majority of the population.’ I agree. But what Blair was doing was going for a different kind of popularity – he wanted to show his strength. To do this he had to do something unpopular, yet something that cost him nothing. Doing something unpopular that may cost you your job is much harder.”

(My italics.)

How wealthy is India?

Posted in current affairs, ramblings with tags , , on June 25, 2011 by bridbeast

The Economist did a really cool interactive map this week which is good for thinking about the aid to India debate.

One reason it chimed with me is that it compares Indian states to countries, something I’ve often thought about in terms of population. UP has around the same number of people as Brazil. The greater Delhi area has as many people as Chile. This is reflects what I’ve felt visiting India – many states and the biggest metros are so big they dwarf European countries.

But this map goes one further by comparing the states to nations in GDP and GDP per head. That’s when it gets really interesting. GDP wise plenty of states look like solid middle-income countries, and Maharashtra is as wealthy as Singapore, but GDP per head brings out a completely different picture. Huge swathes of northern India look like sub-Saharan Africa, and the poor bits too: Sudan, Benin, Eritrea. On this map Maharashtra is equivalent to Sri Lanka. The figures show better than any argument I’ve read why aid agencies continue to work in India, despite the existence of extremely wealthy people like Mukesh Ambani.

Of course there’s a positive spin too. With so much room for development in the Indian economy and a young, entrepreneurial population, the country should continue to grow strongly for a long time.

They did a similar map of China last year, which is interesting for comparison.

The scandal of low pay at the Palace

Posted in current affairs with tags , on May 18, 2011 by bridbeast

I read a story last week which really made my blood boil. The cleaners at Buckingham Palace have been asking for a pay rise – from £6.45 an hour, just above the minimum wage, to the London living wage of £7.85. How anyone could survive in London on even the later is beyond me, but according to the workers interviewed in the Guardian piece it would make a huge difference to their quality of life.

Needless to say they were moved on by police when they tried to protest at the Royal Wedding.

I can’t tell you how angry this makes me – the Royal Family, who get £30m of our taxes each year, can’t even give its cleaners a decent wage. Personally I think they should pay them not just a living wage, but an outstanding wage. Instead we’ve had statements from the Palace such as:

“We are currently in negotiations about paying the London living wage.

“We are in correspondence with KGB [the company with the cleaning contract]. As a publicly funded body, we are concerned that our staff have fair rates and proper working conditions.”

Well yes. There are a lot of people who’d like to see some movement on this, for starters the nine MPs who signed an Early Day Motion and the cleaners’ union the PCS.

The PCS have written a letter which they’re using as a basis for a petition which they want to go to the Culture Secretary. I’ve included a version of it below, but let’s go one better. Let’s make sure the Queen’s right hand man, her private secretary, hears about this. His name is Christopher Geidt and his email is

Please send him this letter, or your own, if you feel moved to write something.

Dear Mr Geidt,

I was was outraged to hear that cleaners working for the Royal Household in London are paid £6.45 per hour even though the London Living Wage is set at £7.85. Cleaners in the House of Commons and House of Lords are paid at the rate of the London Living wage.

As £30 million of taxpayer’s money is paid to the Royal family annually for the upkeep of the Royal Households it is clear that the London living wage of £7.85 is affordable.

Why then are the people who work so hard to maintain standards at The Royal Households paid so little?

I am asking you to do all you can to ensure that all cleaners working within the Royal Households are paid the London living wage of £7.85 per hour, a rate that is supported by the Mayor of London.