Friday, July 4, 2014

A Sporting Life - Horses

I only ever rode in a proper horse-race once in my life. At age ten, I came second in a children’s trotting race at the Hannaford Gymkhana; the prize was five shillings and a red sash. My horse at the time was a natural trotter, and it was the devil’s own job to kick her into a canter at any time. I hated her with a passion, but, well, five bob was not to be sneezed at.

Gymkhana is an old Anglo-Indian word meaning a country fair. It was an annual event in Australian bush communities – food stalls and shooting galleries and the like outside an arena where horsemanship was shown off and polo was played.

The polo ground was a far cry from the clipped lawns of Windsor Great Park, the home of the game in England. There, the beau monde bring their stables of thoroughbreds and Argentinians, and sit around sipping Pimm’s, and a spectacular festival it is. At Hannaford, sheep farmers and their station-hands charged up and down on work-horses trained to keep sheep in a bunch, and tossed down gallons of beer that were tossed up again in due course.

One year, two station-hands got into a fight over a girl who had been in my class at school; one of them forced strychnine down the throat of his rival, and sat on his head until he died. The patrons of Windsor Great Park would never have countenanced such behaviour. They kept the riff-raff out altogether, and it was only as the friend of a friend that I was there. I put on the poshest English accent I could manage, and didn’t mention The Geebung Polo Club.

The Geebung Polo Club was a fictional up-country bush club invented by Banjo Paterson, Australian poetry’s answer to Lord Tennyson. The poem was not quite The Man from Snowy River, but equally dramatic, in its way:
    They waddied one another till the plain was strewn with dead,
     While the score was kept so even that they neither got ahead.
     And the Cuff and Collar captain, when he tumbled off to die,
     Was the last surviving player - so the game was called a tie.

The Windsor polo was not the only horsey event that I ever attended in England. Besides the racing at Chepstow with local friends, there was “the following of the hounds”. My cousin Lucy introduced David and me to that during our visit to the village where my English grandfather was born and raised. (David was my chum from the boat over, immortalized – in my mind – in the “two tuppennies” story told in my blog A cupful of cold water in July 2013.) 

Lucy’s piercingly loud voice made her famous around Bath as a deranged follower of the hounds at the local hunts, and she dragged us excitedly from fence to fence in borrowed Wellies watching one of the local “hunts” do its thing.

Following the hounds is a grand old English tradition, and a surprisingly democratic one. Peasants, townsfolk and sundry others wade through the mud in a mad dash to see the horse-owning gentry and nouveau riche gallop up and down pretending to care whether their dogs caught and killed a fox or not. After the fox eventually meets its doom, all the survivors retire to their cars and eat picnics. Jolly good fun or incredibly boring, according to taste.

But it has always been flat-racing that captured Australians’ hearts, not any other horsey events. Champion horses became household words, and jockeys, folk-heroes. “You’re better stayers than Tulloch”, the father of a friend grumbled one night when we overstayed our welcome – Tulloch being a horse that had led the field from start to finish for the whole two miles of the Melbourne Cup a few years before.

A friend of my Dad’s took me aside at a party and confidentially warned me against returning via the USA on my upcoming round-the-world trip. “The thing is, you can’t trust the Yanks, Gordon. The bastards killed Phar Lap, remember.” As indeed they had, in 1932, in California where the legendary horse (yes, another Melbourne Cup winner) was in training to show the American horses how to race.

Australian doctors today are still debating who could have fed him the arsenic.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dodging “Big Brother”



How will my grandchildren fare in a “1984” world? (By which I mean anybody’s grandchildren, really.) It’s not going to be easy for them. They’ve grown up in a world where human rights have been held up as a practical ideal, and individual rights have been respected above the collective rights of communities. 

Now human and individual rights are fading away – dismissed as a faddish fancy whose time has come and gone. The very nations that rushed to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the aftermath of the Second World War have baulked at submitting themselves to the Nuremberg Principles. Britain is a prize example: signing international human-rights treaties galore, but waging wars of aggression and occupation for commercial gain.

“1984” (the book by Orwell) described what we call a totalitarian society. But “totalitarian” is not absolutely total; there are always loopholes. Despite comprehensive domestic spying programs – even with electronic chips implanted in every limb – there will still be groups of individuals beyond the reach of Big Brother’s servants. The powerless will be of little concern to the ruling classes. Who cares what they think?

During our grand adventure in the ‘60s, and rank amateurs as we were, Linda and I managed to by-pass restrictions of one sort or another in several supposedly totalitarian nations. My blog-post Russian Roulette in January 2012 told of safe-enough exchange-control dodges in the USSR, and Checkpoint Charlie the month before reported our quasi-authorised crossing of the Berlin Wall. Ross did similar things, in his turn. We were all foreigners, but even so…

There usually is a way, for those who fly beneath the radar. So what we have to do, when or before the time comes, is teach our girls how to do it. Their parents were both hippies, to whom it is a natural way to live. Maybe hippies will be the models for everybody, when the time comes.

The society outlined in “1984”comprised a three-tier system of the rulers, their civil-servants, and the proletarians. The servants were monitored closely, but the proles – drugged, peaceful, incorrigible – were largely unwatched. (They didn’t feature in the book’s plot, so readers are left to imagine their worthless lives. I imagine them as living carefree lives beneath the radar as long as they didn’t get ideas above their worthless station. They were also cannon-fodder in the perpetual wars, but I imagine plenty of draft-dodging occurred.)

If for a moment we can pretend that the fictional story is actual history, we can remind ourselves that although history of any kind repeats itself, it never repeats exactly. The Western World’s current rulers may indeed be using the book as a basic “how-to” guide, but they are adding new stuff of their own as they go along. It will be enough for our grandchildren to learn the broad principles, not the details.

The culmination may occur as many as ten years from today. Perpetual war is already in place. The security-state creeps forward with every anti-terrorist drill. The lockdown by 6,000 paramilitary police of a million residents in inner-city Boston following the 2013 explosions was a wake-up call that failed to wake many of us. A collapse of paper currencies following the mother of all false-flag attacks would usher in the real deal – the freezing and confiscation of savings, enforced by martial law.

Hmmm. Maybe. But probably not everywhere. The internet is full of “preppers” – people preparing to flee to isolated communities when the SHTF and when TEOTWAWKI arrives. (If you didn’t know already: those sets of letters stand for “Shit Hits The Fan” and “The End Of The World As We Know It.) I respect their diligent preparations, and they may have identified the best escape route. But I think they’re mistaken.

IMHO (that one you surely must know!) the most effective escape will come from the mind. Being mentally prepared will be a lot more important than being physically prepared. When chased by a bear in the woods, you don’t have to be able to out-run the bear. You just have to be able to run faster than the person you’re with.

I’ve always doubted that the meek would inherit the earth: but the stoners might do, in a SHTF situation.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Sporting Life – Rugby League



Just recently I discovered that one of our ESPN channels shows Rugby League club-matches from Australia and England. It’s the end of a long drought for me, and I’ve been watching avidly ever since. 

There was no football of any kind in our sheep-raising district when I was a boy. My boarding-school in Brisbane made us play Rugby Union every Saturday – rain, hail or shine! Kids of my size traditionally played either half-back or hooker. Yes, I was a teenage hooker – the poor bugger in the middle of every scrum. 

But League was our game of choice in pick-up games. The rules were simpler, and anyway League was far more popular with the public in Queensland. And in NSW. In all the other States, Aussie Rules was the football game – a variant of Gaelic Football.

It was my Dad’s boast that he had been present the day the Toowoomba League team beat the England touring team in the 1920s. 30,000 people were in the ground, he said. That equalled the town’s entire population, but many of the watchers had come in from the hinterland. A very exciting game, he assured me, although the crowd was packed together too closely to let him see much. No CCTV, then. "Nigger" Brown (I blogged about him and his nickname in May 2013) wasn’t playing; he’d retired by then. Dad would have given his right arm to see him play.

And, speaking of right arms… My proud boast is that I was present at the second Test Match in 1958 (“the Battle of Brisbane”), when Great Britain beat Australia. The GB captain broke his forearm three minutes after the start, and for the rest of the game he played his arm hanging loose from the shoulder – packing down in the scrums, tackling and passing as best he could. No substitutes allowed in those days. 

Four other British players were badly damaged during the game; only the one with the broken collar-bone went off. I don’t remember much about the game, but the captain’s absurd bravery is a very vivid memory for me.

Rugby League has always been passionately supported in its home regions – basically, the north of England and the east of Australia. Rugby Union was a posh-Public-Schools game, and an amateur sport for most of its life; League was a working-man’s game. 

In recent years it has become a very “matey” sport, especially in Australia. Referees’ words are broadcast to the crowd, full of friendly advice. “Hold on, Billy: he wasn’t ready. Start that again!” “Stay behind the line, you fellows.” “Give it a rest, Jamie. I don’t want to talk about it.” To the captains: “Come over here, Michael. Josh, you too. Listen, tell your guys – Hey, Michael! Get back here. I haven’t finished yet…!”

Trainers run onto the field at any old time and squirt water onto sweaty faces. The other night I saw both trainers nursing an injured player on the ground, not waiting for the ref to stop the game. Everybody’s supposed to be concerned about concussion, but if a player gets knocked about, they wait for him to find his wits again and make him walk off the field with them. Only wusses get carried off. The spirit of the England captain lives on!

The rules have changed quite a bit since the ‘60s: some for the better, some not. The old-style scrums have been abandoned in the interests of making the game faster. Tackles are limited to sets of six, where they used to have no limit at all. Illegal passes are given the benefit of the doubt more often than they used to be. Players have to be doing serious mischief to be pulled up for offside; three or four tackles can occur before everybody is back behind the ball. As long as they're not interfering with play – no worries, mate!

In my day, Toowoomba teams used to play what was called “contact” rugby, which called for players to pass the ball pretty much as soon as they were touched. Gosh, did that make for a fast game! Naturally, it only worked with players who were light and fast, which our boys were. 

Frank Drake (our magical fullback) once caught a kick behind his goalposts and ran into the back line with it. He stayed with them, handled it three more times (or maybe four; it all happened quite a distance away) as it passed up and down from one side of the field to the other and back again, and again, and scored at the other end. That’s been as memorable for me as the man with the broken arm, in its way.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

No Bucket-List

It’s become the norm for middle-class Westerners to compose lists of places they want to see before they die, and the things they want to experience. Well, I dunno. I think I’m too old to do that. For the fifteen years after I left Australia at age 23, I tried to see everything that I wanted to see and to do most of what I wanted to do. I didn’t call it a “bucket-list”, just a “before-I-go-home-and-settle-down” agenda.

There weren’t many specifics on the agenda. I didn’t set out to see the Acropolis or the Bolshoi Ballet or Lincoln’s Memorial – although I did mentally tick them off as they came by. I didn’t go looking for a girl to drift through the Middle East with on ten shillings a day, and later marry. These things just happened. I’ve never been an ambitious fellow, and it’s too late to start now.

I didn’t plan to manage the Chamber of Commerce in a Caribbean tax-haven, persecuted by the local political and bureaucratic establishment. (How would you plan something like that?) It wasn’t by design that I became the grandfather of three Scandinavian kids who speak English only on sufferance.

Ross was conceived in Indonesia and born in England. We happened to be on vacation in Java, from our jobs in the South Pacific; and England was where we planned (!) to acquire a Kombi van that would take us down to the caves of Crete – as told in A Young Man’s Car in September 2013. Ross just happened to be within two months of being born when we hit England. (And he was in the van when the trip to Crete was aborted a year or so later.)

He and I bonded during my five years as his “parent of first resort” – a house-husband – between the ages of six and eleven. I never planned to become a house-husband. I certainly never expected to love a child with such fierce passion as I did (and do) my son. That was scary, and amazes me still – especially since I was absent in spirit for much of his babyhood. He was Linda’s decision, not mine.

We (he and I) pretend to believe in Loki the Norse god of luck, and remind each other that Loki has to be treated with caution and care. There’s no malice in him, only caprice – but he will withhold help if he’s disrespected. One has to meet him half-way: to hold oneself in a state of readiness for the goodies to come. The Boy Scouts motto “Be Prepared” is the same thing, of course. They must secretly believe in Loki, I think.

The three of us all have enough memories to carry to our respective deathbeds. The other two still have things to do and places to see; they have their bucket-lists. If I die first, Linda will probably go and live in Thailand; she’s been there a couple of times, and loves it. Ross has a hankering to spend a year in India, once his children are old enough to live their own lives. I’m the only one that has no bucket-list, no personal end-times agenda.

There are places I wouldn’t mind visiting, or visiting again, and old friends it would be lovely to spend time with. But I don’t believe that memories carry beyond the grave, so what would be the point?

There are things I would like to know, before I go. Every week brings newly published facts and theories about old and current history, and the development of words. Will my theories about the ancient Hebrews ever be proven correct? (The Children of Israel in January 2012, and later posts on the same subject.) And my theory that almost all European surnames are clan-names in disguise? And did the CIA really kill JFK and Harold Holt the Australian Prime Minister? Did the US authorities have advance knowledge of 9/11?

But in the end, it won’t matter to me. If the cosmos is truly infinite in all dimensions, as my friend Gerry and I used to debate (Unfinished Business, June 2013), then those uncertainties will be resolved in some alternative universes. If the cosmos is not infinite... well, never mind.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Privatisation

In A day late and a dollar short (Archives, September 2012), I grumbled about the FCO’s belated intervention in Cayman’s fiscal affairs. The FCO clerks’ chronic Attention Deficit Disorder had allowed our small-island politicians and senior Civil Servants to spend and borrow as if there were no tomorrow. "A day late and a dollar short?" I scoffed. "More like fifteen years late and several billion dollars short!"

I meant to write twenty-five years late, not fifteen; that was careless. It was in 1987 that our then-rulers opted for an income-tax as a preferable alternative to disciplined spending by government. I was involved in the Chamber of Commerce’s victory over that option (Confessions of a subversive, October 2012) – but a limited victory it was. We did vanquish the proposed income-tax, and the guilty MLAs were defeated in the next parliamentary election; but all subsequent rulers have shamelessly indulged themselves in ever more reckless borrowing.

For a belligerent nation that invades foreign countries at the drop of a hat, Britain treads amazingly softly around its colonial tax-havens. Not without reason, of course. Most well-connected British companies divert a portion of their profits to places like Cayman, and much of the loot from the invasions is channeled through the havens. Some of it ends up in the re-election coffers of friendly politicians. That’s just the way it works.

After years of pussy-footing around, the FCO clerks recently suggested – ever so diffidently – that our chaps might give some thought to a slight reduction in the scope of government. So privatization is on the Islands’ agenda at last.

So far, discussion has been limited to the possible sale of loss-making state enterprises. Our Turtle Farm is a good example of what is available. It has been losing ten to twelve million dollars a year for the past how-long. There are no recent audited accounts, so the venture is to all intents a bottomless money-pit.

Last week it was reported that a skilled turtle-feeder was earning $90,000 a year; that’s US$108,000. We weren’t told exactly how skilled he was, but it seems a bit OTT. (I myself was a skilled chicken-feeder, at the age of five, and my pocket-money was never anywhere in that range. I’m beginning to wonder if my parents were short-changing me.)

The government’s reluctance to let go of such a crony-magnet is evident in the predictable conditions for its sale – no Caymanian employees to be fired or demoted (however overpaid or underworked), a government “golden share” with the power to veto all decisions of the Directors, all debts to government to be honoured (i.e. for past subsidies), and current subsidies to be discontinued immediately. What a joke.

This Turtle Farm is several things: a commercial farm, an endangered-species refuge, a tourist attraction with bells and whistles, and a zoo with a snack shop. It occupies a block of prime sea-front real-estate, which is the only thing that any private investor is likely to be interested in. All the operations could and would be closed down in a month, if private-sector standards were applied – but will almost certainly take a year or more using civil-service standards. Full privatization of all unnecessary government operations will take the best part of a generation.

Of course selling state-owned assets is a one-off fix at any time, and when bureaucrats are involved in the selling it’s an invitation to fraud on a massive scale. It’s how Russia ended up with so many overnight billionaire oligarchs. It created a few billionaires in Britain, too, during the Thatcher years. The amounts are smaller in Cayman, but there are plenty of bureaucrats and cronies panting for the chance to pick up government assets for cents on the dollar.

Selling off the operations side would save a heck of a lot more money, every year the government didn’t run them at a loss. The best way to minimize interception by crooked public figures and their relatives is to break the businesses into separate units – and, not to rush the process. Well, we know the process won't be rushed (!), but as for the rest... Hmm. We’ll have to wait and see if maybe little old Cayman can’t come up with one or two instant billionaires. Is anybody taking bets?