Saturday, December 28, 2013

Let them eat mud-cakes

They say charity begins at home. Families and communities should care for their own, before other families and communities. We all tend to do that, both individually and as a community.

From cans on shop counters collecting coins for sick children in hospitals in Miami, to excessively generous medical coverage for Civil Servants and their families, Caymanians in particular are extraordinarily well cared for.

Nobody goes hungry in Cayman for more than a day. Schoolchildren receive free hot breakfasts and lunches, if their parents can’t afford to feed them, or can’t be bothered. Nobody goes homeless, even when their homes are destroyed. Then, the destroyed homes are repaired or replaced free of charge.

Families are not as diligent as they once were, in looking after their poor; but that’s a worldwide phenomenon. Sometimes, individuals who have done well from Cayman’s boom turn their backs on their less fortunate relatives, and let charities pick up the slack.

Because Cayman is a rich little place, what we regard as life’s necessities are luxuries in other places. We tend to overlook just how lucky we are, and how unlucky much of the rest of the world is. Collectively, we don’t like to see pictures of extreme poverty, and don’t want to hear about it or even know about it. We are much more comfortable with charity that begins and ends at home.

Most of Cayman’s businesses have annual budgets for donations, and many of us individuals have too. But all the budgets are overwhelmingly in favour of domestic charities, with very little set aside for anywhere beyond our shores. Foreigners in dire poverty? Huh. Let them eat mud-cakes!

The poorest of our Caribbean neighbours do eat mud-cakes, actually. Mud-cakes don’t keep children alive, but they do keep them from feeling hunger. Many children in Haiti starve to death with full stomachs, while we collect money for our local athletes to play games overseas, and for school trips up north, and for local church-building, etc.

It’s natural to favour local charities, and we shouldn’t despise it. It’s a basic tribal instinct, and we are all captives of our instincts. Caymanians support Caymanian charities; Britons support British charities. That’s how the world works. Rich Haitians support Haitian charities, up to a point.

It would be a noble thing, if we as a community were to cut back our donations to local charities and divert as much as we can to needier folk overseas. But it’s not going to happen, and it’s not realistic to expect that it will. It’s not realistic to expect that we will increase our personal charity budgets, either.

However, what we could do is withhold some of our donations from some of the less essential local “good causes”, and support some of the more serious good causes outside Cayman.

We could go a bit lighter on school trips to Disneyworld and a bit heavier on clothes and medicines for Jamaica and Haiti. A bit lighter on Christmas presents for mildly deprived local children and a bit heavier on food for desperately poor foreign children who have nothing to eat but mud.

The Haitians aren’t going anywhere; they won’t suddenly stop starving, after two hundred years of it. By next Christmas they will still be in trouble even without another earthquake or hurricane. But they are our Caribbean brothers, and we are supposed to be our brothers’ keepers.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Going green

Here in Cayman, a few years ago, our supermarkets imposed a five-cents charge on plastic bags. The advertised purpose was to help save the world from plastic. Some of the cynics amongst us raised our eyebrows at the explanation – but, what can you do?

Cutting down on plastic bags is good for our souls, I guess. Self-denial of that kind is a tribute to the virtues of simpler times. It’s like after local hurricanes, when we all do without electricity and town water & sewage for a while. Forgoing our beloved plastic shopping bags doesn’t make heroes of us, but it won’t do us any harm. Indeed, logic demands that the supermarkets not stop with the shopping bags.

I bought a memory-stick for my computer last week. It was the size of my little finger, and came in a tough plastic package as big as a book. That package used more plastic than 200 shopping bags, and the plastic would stop a bullet. If the Police budget doesn’t run to Kevlar vests for everybody, they could keep a few of those plastic packages in stock to shove under their shirts when things get rough.

In fact, rather than sell us the bags for five cents apiece, why don’t the supermarkets simply divert shipments of new bags directly to Haiti, our poorest neighbour? Earth Day gimmicks aren’t a top priority in Haiti. Most of the victims of the last earthquake are still living in gutters and dying in pain. Plastic shopping bags are all that most Haitians have to keep them dry from the rain above and the filthy drains they sleep beside.

Plastic bags are all they have to keep their food safe, when they have food. When the only food they have is mud cakes, plastic shopping bags help to keep clean mud separated from mud mixed with faeces. We would be doing them a big favour by sending them all the bags we don’t use.

Anyway, we in Cayman are too few in number to make any noticeable difference to the world’s consumption of plastic. If our bag-usage is typical of our region, there must be ten billion bags a year doing the rounds throughout the Caribbean region. Why bother?

News reports tell of a gigantic floating pile of plastic and other rubbish in the ocean up between Japan and Canada, labelled The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Nobody knows for certain how big it is, but its area may well be thousands of times the area of Grand Cayman and its volume, billions of times the volume of the town dump we call “Mount Trashmore”.

Even Mount Trashmore is too big for us to do anything about. At least, it’s too big for our public sector to do anything about. There are enough engineers and other experts among Cayman’s retirees to fix it – if they could fend off the dead hand of state bureaucracy, which they can’t!

For the moment, we must settle for dealing with just the plastic shopping bags – a drop in the ocean, so to speak. Is it a futile gesture? Of course; but sometimes the world needs a futile gesture.

We are told that plastic shopping bags never disintegrate. Scientists (well, “scientists”...) tell us that they take somewhere between 400 and 1000 years to degrade. Hmph. I don’t know how anybody could know that. If you throw plastic bags on a fire they shrivel right up. Even left out in the sun they disintegrate in a lot fewer than 400-to-1000 years. Keep it real, people! That’s how “man-made global warming” scientists screwed up their act, by mixing lies with truths.

The thick plastic that can fend off bullets, though – that might last 400 years, with care. It might be a positive thing if we sent it to the Haitians. It could be that long before they become rich enough to classify it as a nuisance.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More trouble in Paradise

Government’s financial mess has us all worried, who care what happens to Cayman. Certainly there are many, many more worried long-term immigrants than there used to be. Whenever two or three of us are gathered together, the mood is sombre. Collectively, we aren’t feeling as comfortable as we used to do about the economic future.

Of course I can’t speak for the whole community of veteran expats, or for the current community of tax-haven expats; but it’s no secret that there is a general loss of confidence in the ability of our local rulers to fix the mess. The FCO probably has the ability, but does it have the will? Its attention tends to wander, where its colonies’ internal affairs are concerned.

The loss of confidence among long-term expats may soon reach critical mass. The endemic xenophobia of a large portion of the ethnic Caymanian community is a large factor. It is oppressive, and there are no signs of its abatement. Despite some reformist mumbling in the six months since the last general election, nothing has changed. Political interference with the private sector’s independence will continue as far ahead as we can see. So will the anti-expat sentiment that drives our Islands’ immigration policy.

Let’s be honest about it. Public-sector employment will not be reduced: its heavy hand will not be lifted. State-owned enterprises will not be sold to private investors; state-operated services will not be outsourced. Corruption will not be curtailed; cronyism and nepotism will not be suppressed. The Public Debt will not be paid down to any significant degree; unfunded government pensions and medical expenses will stay unfunded. The rollover policy will come and go according to the whim of the moment.

Last month, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in Bermuda, when a local independent Commission on “Spending And Government Efficiency” (SAGE) reported its findings. Huh. They must lead sheltered lives up in Bermuda, for the findings wouldn’t have surprised anybody in Cayman. It’s an interesting read, though. Google SAGE Report Bermuda for the Report and its Executive Summary.

The FCO may well decide on a similar Commission for Cayman – although ours would NOT be truly independent. ALL our existing Commissions are overseen by a shrewdly appointed “safe pair of hands”. Our politicians and senior Civil Servants are highly skilled in the suppression of independent opinions. My own experiences on our Human Rights Committee and Vision-2008 exercise can testify to that. Actually, a perusal of SAGE Bermuda’s Executive Summary shows many similarities with Vision-2008, whose reports and recommendations have been gathering dust since January 1999.

If a SAGE Cayman Commission were to be appointed, its first job should be to substitute Cayman for Bermuda throughout the entire Bermuda report. Nine tenths of the work would thereby be done. For the remaining tenth, it could simply dust off all the relevant Vision-2008 Reports and Minutes and slot them in where appropriate.

(The Minutes recorded what was agreed and what not, at least on the two committees I composed the Minutes for. The final Reports were subjected to skulduggery, and did not always reflect what had been agreed in the Meetings.)

Sigh. I wonder whether the FCO clerks would be prepared for all the shenanigans that would lie in wait for them. Almost certainly, not. The existing waste-of-space Commissions – on Corruption, Human Rights, and Standards in Public Life – have bamboozled our colonial masters successfully; small chance that a fourth one would be any different.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Holding hands in a movie show...

Early next month it will be 47 years since we married in Toronto, our mothers checking in by phone from Australia. The longevity has been a triumph of stubbornness, as much as anything. We were both brought up to honour our word, and that included marriage-vows.

Our child (1975) added an extra dimension to the marriage – an amendment to the contract, if you like. Even when both contracting parties positively like the prospect of such an amendment, the reality can be a nasty shock. As I blogged last September [A young man’s car], “Where two had been company, three was a crowd”.

We were children of the 1950s, when divorce was not readily granted by the state or condoned by one’s family and community. Simple incompatibility was insufficient grounds to break a sworn contract. Marriage was for life. Battered wives were not excused, unless their small children were also battered – and even child-abuse didn’t warrant a divorce in the eyes of pious Christians.

In the crowd I hung around with before I left on my travels, promiscuity was rare. A Frank Sinatra song captured the innocence of the era:
Holding hands in a movie show, when all the lights are low,  
May not be new. 
But I like it – how about you? 

London in The Swinging Sixties opened my eyes to a whole new world. Wow. My (our) son’s generation inherited that world, and built on it. It would have been a factor in their collective decision to defer marriage beyond what used to be the standard age – and sometimes indefinitely.

When he and I had “The Talk”, it was about marriage, not about sex. He was probably rattling his pots and pans plenty in his late teens, and here in the West Indies the advice of peers carries far more weight than that of parents.

Today, I fret about my granddaughters, who are just beginning to discover boys. Fortunately or not, they live in pretty much the same blithe innocence as Linda and I did at their ages. Their home and school are at some physical remove from urban pressure, and their peers are (generally) equally innocent. Will they think that holding hands in a movie show is a big deal, or will they want to join the trail a bit further along? When neither Mum nor Dad has ever bothered with marriage, will the girls be equally wary of long-term commitment? Very likely.

Do they wish their parents had stayed together? Possibly not, you know. After all, there is more variety in their lives when there are two parental homes. In a spirit of objective enquiry they once asked Ross why he had so many ladies in his life. (They used the Norwegian word that translates as “ladies”, not the word for “women”!) More recently, they marvelled – to me, in English – at how many official and unofficial grandparents they had, who loved them. They showed no regret or wistfulness, just a wholehearted contentment with the way things were. They were counting their blessings.

Linda and I spend four weeks each year in their company – two there and two here – and would like to spend more. However, more time with us might cause scheduling difficulties during school vacations. All the Norskies would not easily give up any of their share of the pie.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Turning Point

Mark Twain identified the turning point of his life as his infection with measles at age twelve. That was precocious of him. Mine occurred at age 26 in the US Consulate in London at ten o’clock one morning. I expect most people’s personal turning-points occur more in young adulthood than in childhood.

Fearful of a local measles epidemic, Samuel’s mother confined him to the house pro tem. Impatient with delaying what he reckoned to be the inevitable, he sought out an infected friend and crawled into his bed. When the epidemic had run its course – with the boys luckily still alive – Sam’s furious mother gave up on his schooling and apprenticed him to a printer of books.

Captivated by stories of the Amazon River, he ran away on a Mississippi river-boat headed for the international port of New Orleans. With no money, he stayed on the river, became a pilot, then a writer of occasional stories, then a literary legend. It all began with the measles.

I had never thought to identify my own turning point, until I read about Mark Twain’s the other day. It was always taken for granted in our house that I would travel overseas. There was never a realistic likelihood that I wouldn’t. My boss in Toowoomba had invested a lot of hope that I would abandon the ambition and become a partner in his accountancy firm. At age 22, I was made manager of his branch-office in Brisbane, and he wasn’t happy to lose me. It might have been a turning point if I’d stayed, but I didn’t and it wasn’t.

My adventures overseas were all merely incidents along the path of my manifest destiny. Linda was a large part of that destiny – as it transpired – but meeting her [Zorba the Greek, blogged in January 2012] wasn’t a turning-point either. The day before that meeting, a Yugoslavia peasant woman had caused me to miss a vital signpost [A back road to Bulgaria, March 2012] and end up in Greece by mistake. Missing the signpost was certainly the key turning point in my domestic circumstances, but it didn’t result in a deviation from The Master Plan.

That Plan called for the replenishment of my finances while auditing in the USA, then (if nothing exciting distracted me) heading home to Australia and probably the eventual partnership that awaited me. If something exciting did distract me there, I would go with the flow and wherever the wind blew. I might well have married, and sired American children. I would surely have wangled a transfer to somewhere warm, like Florida. All I needed to do was fill in the US Immigration form in London, and wait my turn.

But, as I explained in Almost American in February 2012, the waiting line in the Consulate was a long one, and to fill in time I went round the corner to the Canadian Consulate, where they interviewed me immediately. I never went back to the other place. Linda met me off the plane in Toronto a month later.

The New York office of Touche Ross & Co would never have sent any of its auditors on secondment to its correspondent office in The Bahamas, a British colony offshore from Florida. Even if it had done, the trust company in Nassau would never have given them access to its clients’ records. Nor would the trust company have hired an American auditor. US auditors were reckoned to be vulnerable to blackmail by the IRS. They still are, actually.

The Nassau trust company introduced us to the world of offshore tax-havens. We earned more money than we knew what to do with. Retirement was the obvious thing to do. And when that didn’t work out, we turned to another tax-haven – Vila in the New Hebrides, later Vanuatu. And when the next retirement didn’t work out, we turned to Cayman. It’s been a good life.

The wages-summary Touche Toronto gave me for the 1966 tax year said: Salary $8000, less Tax $1200 = Net $6800. I remember thinking, $1200! That’s 15%! Outrageous! I’ll never pay Income Tax again, if I can help it! That vow marked a turning point, too, in a way.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shame and scandal in the family

Doing some family-history research online, my niece in Australia discovered that one of our ancestors was murdered with an axe while lying drunk one night on his front lawn. He was a wife-beater, and one of his sons probably did him in. There was no trial, but the inquest made for some fun reading. The authorities may not have tried too hard to find the culprit.

Linda was shocked – shocked! – to hear the news. Her family-tree has nothing that can compete with such a scandal. She had a distant aunt of five generations ago who was a freelance prostitute down by the London docks, but pfft! Who hasn’t? Not in the same bracket as a murdered wife-beater, is it?

All families have skeletons in the closet. We today have no reason to be ashamed of them, or proud of ancestral heroes. We had nothing to do with what they did, any more than vice-versa. Bad stories are sometimes disappointing, sometimes amusing; but unless they’re personal to us, what do they matter? (I’ve never understood why people boast about important ancestors. Why brag about your family’s having come down in the world?)

Some of my family’s skeletons involved religion. When my Catholic great-uncle was discovered to have sired a child by his secretary, his wife and siblings were upset less by the illegitimacy than by the fact that the secretary was a Protestant. In Toowoomba, in those days, a “mixed marriage” meant one between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

My father’s hometown was a hotbed of mutual suspicion and contempt. The Protestant spouse in a mixed marriage came under heavy pressure to surrender the children to the mercies of The Church. My mother refused to knuckle under, which brought her a lot of ill-will from the other side. A visiting bishop referred to her “that woman”, and prayed for the souls of her lost children.

Much of the ill-will was tribal; the local Catholics were all of Irish descent, and the Irish-English chasm was as wide as eight hundred years of British invasions and occupation had made it. In 1981 the RC priest in my ancestral village in Tipperary was indignant. “Ours have always been tolerant parishes”, he said. “Protestants would have helped your ancestors build the parish church we’re sitting in.” I told my mother later, but she looked doubtful.

Here in Cayman, Caymanians have never had much of a problem with mixed-religion unions, whether blessed by a church service or not. There must have been plenty of problems with mixed-race unions, in the aftermath of plantation-slavery, but the public record is silent on the matter. Nothing seems to have been recorded of domestic unions during and after slavery. Surely, it’s high time to break the taboo. What’s the point of hiding old truths in the broom-cupboards with the skeletons? 

During slavery, almost all black-white unions would have involved rape by slave-owners. That’s an uncomfortable fact that we just have to live with. Sex between superiors and inferiors is usually categorised as rape because genuinely free consent can’t be presumed. Today in Cayman it sometimes happens between male employers and their female migrant domestics whose indentures they own. That’s a taboo subject, too.

Homosexual rape has always happened between male guards and inmates in prisons and asylums, and among inmates. It would certainly have occurred between European sailors and African men on the prison-ships crossing the Atlantic. And among the African captives themselves? Very likely. The latter is yet another taboo subject, throughout the Caribbean. But a prison is a prison, after all.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Children without books

[As with so many of my blog-posts, this one is of general application, not just to Cayman.]

Cayman’s government schools are failing most of their pupils. The Education Establishment and the local media concentrate their attention on the minority of academically bright pupils, while ignoring the majority of academically dull ones. High-school graduations are a topic of scorn. (“Academically dull” is NOT the same as “stupid”, by the way.) My February post Protection versus Education explained the origin of this system.

There are various reasons why some children are disadvantaged. Being raised in homes by parents who disrespect the virtues of discipline and learning is one; being distracted by shiftless siblings or companions is another. But most of the blame rests on homes without books.

Homes without books rarely produce children who can read comfortably or write grammatically. Even in this Internet Age, books are an essential base for learning. You can buy a book for ten or twenty cents at a yard sale, leave it behind somewhere, and replace it for the same price at the next yard sale.

Cayman’s charity “op” shops are replete with books. The Humane Society’s are relatively expensive, but the NCVO and Red Cross don’t have many books priced higher than fifty cents. The George Town Library occasionally flogs hard-cover books for 25 cents. I have shelves full of tatty old books on history and geography that I value highly.

A home without books is no proper place for a child, and it reflects poorly on our local rulers in the Civil Service and Legislative Assembly that such homes exist in Cayman. Considering the tens of billions of dollars raised by our government over recent decades, there should be no Caymanian child forced by circumstances to live without books. How could our representatives get their priorities so wrong, in such a tiny community?

While politicians and Civil Servants “earn” their wages and pensions by shuffling papers, our private-sector leaders concern themselves with newspaper photographs of large cheques for college scholarships. Each photo buys an extra Work Permit or two, so it’s a good investment; but there’s no investment of thought and care. Cayman doesn’t need more college graduates, as much as it needs a local labour force that is literate.

Local business organisations fall short of what they should be doing. After all, their members are forced by law to hire semi-illiterate high-school graduates and to educate them on the job. Yet the Chamber of Commerce, Cayman Finance, the Tourism Association and the rest all pursue their agendas without focussing on the prospect of a permanently alienated and illiterate underclass. For half the price of a photo-op scholarship, every bookless child in Cayman could be helped towards a productive future.

Fancy-shmancy schools don’t fix literacy, and aren’t necessary to education at any level. Rather, they are monuments to vanity, and provide no help for academic under-achievers. Before our government’s coffers became awash with money from the tax-haven, the children of the Islands were taught at home by their mothers or casual tutors. That wasn’t such a bad thing.

My brother and I were taught at home on the farm by our mother, until a one-room shack was knocked up by the local men out of slab-timber. The State Education Department 250 miles away provided moral support and a 17-year-old teacher straight from training-college.

The school opened with thirteen pupils, aged from four to eight. The room measured eighteen feet by twelve; it had one door and two window-spaces with board-shutters. No air-con, no fans. Older Caymanians will relate to that – and to the slates and those slate-pencil things that had to be sharpened on the nearest rock. No school dinners, no cold drinks, no flushing toilets, no fans. Did I mention there were no fans? No fans. We dripped sweat onto our books, just like we did at home.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A weekend in Cuba

It took a weekend in Havana a couple of years ago to remind me that my travelling days are over. It wasn’t as much fun as that sort of thing used to be. The last time I had visited a “new” country was 1989, and the country was Grenada, where the natives speak a wonderfully melodic variety of English. In the parts of Havana where we visited, half of the natives spoke even less English than we did Spanish, for goodness sake.

We met a young chap whose father had been born in Jamaica, moved to the Isle of Pines, sired a son in New York, and now lived back in Cuba. He (the son) was one of only two Cubans we met who had ever heard of the Cayman Islands, a hundred miles to the south. The other was a retired maths teacher who was selling off his collection of books and minor heirlooms from a stall in one of the Plazas in the Old City every weekend.

The teacher’s pension was ten US dollars a month plus (I think) free accommodation and rationed utilities. There are no frills to life in Cuba, thanks partly to the power of the civil service (which owns or licences all economic activity) and partly to the American blockade of the past fifty years. Everybody with some service or goods of value to tourists does relatively well; the government makes concessions to them.

We were there in the off-season, but tourists were thronging the streets and squares of the Old City. They were mostly Latinos: our sightseeing bus was packed with a tour-group of Colombians. We heard English spoken by only two couples the whole weekend – one from England, the other from Canada. No English-speaking West Indians at all.

For US$30 a night, we rented a room in a run-down private apartment on the edge of the Old City – now a beautifully renovated tourist trap. Little putt-putts were cheap, and young men on tricycles seemed glad of $3 to pedal us home through the dark streets at night. The town was as safe as houses – somewhat safer, actually, considering the state of the poorer dwellings.

Our room looked down on the roof of a block of flats where four dogs, uncounted chickens and an old man lived all together in a nest of lumber that vaguely resembled a shed. Did he sell the eggs and fatten the dogs for their meat? Who knows? It was a bizarre example of urban poverty – though not unique in our region. I’ve seen a lot worse in Haiti and Jamaica.

Many people, when they think of Cuba, think of the longtime US military occupation of Guantanamo Bay and the torture camp there that gives the Island a bad name. The unelected government of independent Cuba no doubt has its own torture camps, though it does have the grace to be embarrassed about their existence. Cuban nationals in ramshackle boats wash up in Cayman from time to time; but no refugees from the American camp ever do. Independent Cuba may, arguably, be the less oppressive place.

The mainstream US media organs all reflect the fact that the US’s rulers classify the Republic of Cuba as an enemy. In fact, Cuba is a long way from the Big Bad Communist North-Korean Hell that most Americans are ignorant enough to believe it is. (These days, of course, Big Brother is as much of a presence in the US itself as in most of its enemies! As the preacher said, “To every thing there is a season...”)

The people of Havana seem to be a delightfully cheerful bunch, on the whole. The Latino temperament is amazingly resilient. Just about everyone works for the government, and their pleasure in what they do – and the loose discipline – is probably the same as any governments’ employees’ is. In Cayman, too, government provides a regular wage to its Civil Servants, plus the opportunity to make some private money on the side. Havana is a very Caribbean town, as well as a very Latin one.

Less than human (torture)

Communities in the Western World are cracking down on sex-offenders. These days, their names go down in an official Register – for life, sometimes. If convicted of a sex-crime against children, they must not live near a school or (sometimes) even be near a school. The Police must keep track of where they live. In some US states their names and home addresses must be open to public enquiry. Recidivism is rife among sex-offenders, apparently. They just can’t (most of them) hold themselves back from indulging their weaknesses.

I wonder if the same self-indulgence occurs among those who make careers of torture and mutilation. US and NATO drone-pilots, for instance, and prison guards at Guantanamo and other torture-camps – do they suffer withdrawals symptoms when they are back home in civilian life?

Do the pilots miss the thrill of taking close-up videos of body-parts of all ages and sexes being splattered around village streets? I’ve read some pretty gruesome descriptions of such mutilations – both of the original targets and their families and of the rescuers caught by the “double-tap” follow-up rockets.

Do the torturers miss the thrill of physically restraining their victims, and of hearing the cries of pain and anguish? Surely they must. For psychopaths – and we can take it for granted that torturers are psychopaths – the adrenalin rush must be like a powerful drug. Every day, a new fix. Just like for addicted sex-offenders.

What do they all do when their tours of duty end? Some sign on as security contractors to Armies and their corporate sponsors; some join domestic Police Forces (which would explain the growing brutality of those) or become Prison Officers. But most of them just take up ordinary jobs and keep their heads down, like their Japanese and German exemplars did after World War II.

Isn’t it in the public interest to know where they work and live? What a shock it would be, to discover one of them behind you in the supermarket line, muttering with impatience, or sitting at the next table in a restaurant. These are people whose lives have for years been focussed on committing horrific acts of extreme violence against civilians. Their minds are filled with a thousand images of bleeding meat and screaming children – bleeding and screaming that they themselves have been responsible for.

Being psychopaths, they must hunger for fresh images. They can’t look at a stranger – especially an unarmed and helpless one – without assessing the stranger’s capacity for agony. “Hmmm. I don’t have official status any more, but I have a sharp knife and a basement. I wonder if I would feel the same rush as I used to do. Well, there’s only one way to find out...”

Why are people like that allowed to prowl the streets? They are infinitely more dangerous than most sex-offenders.

When a professional torturer greets a friend or acquaintance, he shakes hands with the same hand that he twisted a victim’s throat or gut or balls with, following an eager wait for the doctor to revive a body for another session. (In the armies, all the torturers are professionals; they’re all well paid, with generous pensions and medical benefits.)

A blog-post of mine last April (The war against women) speculated that the only safe perpetrators and witnesses of atrocities were those whose memories keep them awake at nights. Those who sleep soundly are the psychopaths, who aren’t capable of remorse. They are less than human, which is what makes them such excellent mutilators of minds and bodies.

Free Labour vs Slave Labour

Here we are, late in the year 2013, and our local rulers still won’t accept that Cayman’s forty-year experiment with affirmative action and indentured migrant labour has failed. Sigh. How much more evidence do they need? Why are they such slow learners?

Cayman has three thousand registered unemployed men and women – in a community that employs 20,000 migrants, mostly unskilled. Despite all the pressure brought to bear on them by the authorities, private-sector employers continually refuse to hire individuals who can’t be fired for incompetence. Our government does hire incompetents, because one of its major duties is to be the employer of last resort. In fact, our three thousand unemployed are unemployable: even government won’t hire them.

But not all of them are unemployed. Some have unrecorded jobs in illegal occupations such as burglary, drug-dealing, pimping and prostitution. A few make a reasonable living by begging from strangers in the street or outside supermarkets. Some receive free meals, beds and occasional cash allowances from parents or other relatives; in effect, they live off their inheritances. None starve to death, and (to the best of my knowledge) none are actually homeless.

Further fiddling with the Immigration Law and regulations will not help a single one of them. Not one. So before our politicians toss any more xenophobic accusations around like confetti, they ought to stop pretending that permanent protectionism is the answer to the problem.

All intelligent people know that the answer to the problem is to abolish the indentured-labour system that all too often resembles bond-slavery. Only migrant labour is bound by indentures; only Caymanian labour is free to switch employers at whim. And free labour can never compete fairly with slave labour of any kind.

Our public servants are in thrall to Caymanian householders and other employers of unskilled labour. Most government bureaucrats run private businesses at taxpayers’ expense, and benefit mightily from the cheap migrant workers. Immigration Officers are famous for importing foreign slaves-in-all-but-name and selling their services. Again: free Caymanian workers can’t compete.

Unfortunately, there is zero chance that our politicians will acknowledge the truth. So the indentured servitude of the past forty years will be with us for another forty. What a prospect! Somebody once defined insanity as doing the exact same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. Yet that is what the politicians are doing. Well, they can fiddle with the protectionist legislation till the cows come home: the result will be the same. The insanity looks set to continue forever.

What humbug, to embrace the concept of human rights, while endorsing indentured servitude. If our local politicians – and the FCO clerks to whom they report – were honest in the matter, they would abandon the legal exploitation of migrants, and would accept the full blame for our local unemployment. To be clear: the blame is NOT the private-sector businesses: it is our rulers’ defiance of a basic law of economics. Let’s say it once more: free labour cannot compete with slavery.

Three years ago I posted on this blog an article called Everybody’s Cheating, commenting on how employers got around the law and how governments manipulated it. In February of this year (2013) I posted Protection versus Education, explaining the origin of the current indentures system, when the unskilled Caymanians of forty years ago were set up for exploitation by an alliance of the local elite of the day and the FCO clerks of the day.

They were tricked into giving up an educated future for the mirage of protection from competition by foreigners. Thus, the entitlement culture was born.

Monday, October 28, 2013

SUM TING WONG (mainstream media)

Our choices of news-services reflect our prejudices, and vice versa. It’s probably always been like that. Those who are always quoting conservative newspapers or mainstream TV are conservative and mainstream individuals; those whose references are to online blogs or forums (while ignoring the standard news-sources) are probably rebels and sceptics. People judge our characters by our choices. The internet has broadened the range, but the division is an old one.

What the internet changed, mainly, are the quality of the reporters and the independence of commentators’ opinions. The official news-media allows no departure from the Party Line. Indeed, it allows no departure from the teleprompter’s version.

A couple of months ago a Korean plane crashed while landing at a California airport. A local TV newsreader carefully read out the pilots’ names, while her audience could see the names printed on the separate video feed. Sum Ting Wong (Captain), Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk (she pronounced it “fook” rhyming with “book”) and Bang Ding Ow. You can Google those names, if you want to do your own peer review.

It was a one-off, and it would be unfair to build a case on one brief example of mindless recitation. Or would it? It did illustrate the mainstream zombies’ instructions to say what their superiors tell them to say – no hesitation, no doubts, no deviation.

An Israeli senior executive at the BBC ordered his minions to play down Israel’s bombing of a Gaza suburb during one of its raids. That sort of manipulation is common in the MSM these days. In general, it is beholden to its advertisers and to the legislators who can make life difficult – and to the lobbyists who own the legislators. A satirist on a US TV channel invented the word “truthiness” to describe the official versions of events.

The “alternative media” is free of such restraints. It offers alternatives to the official “truths”. Mainstream reporters, to a man and woman, presume they are reporting the truth; freelance bloggers increasingly presume they are being lied to by the authorities. The alternative media doubted Saddam Hussein had WMDs; the mainstream media weren’t allowed to doubt. If they were told sum ting wong, they reported it.

The mainstream news sources parrot the official versions of WTC #7 (the building that allegedly collapsed in its own footprint because of a few office fires), the gassings in Syria, the Iranian nuclear plans, and the death of Osama. The blogosphere insists the official stories are blatant propaganda, and wonders what is being covered up, and why. I myself jeered at the Osama lies in a post of May 2011, and at the infamous “wiped off the map” false-translation in February 2012. [Both posts available in the Archives.]

There is a gulf of mistrust. Parallels are being drawn with earlier false-flag attacks. The Reichstag Fire paved the way for Hitler’s equivalent of the so-called PATRIOT Act, also drafted ahead of the event. It has emerged that most of the military experts interviewed on Western TV are in the paid service of companies with a vested interest in Western wars. They are all part of a pro-war propaganda machine – TV stations and interviewees alike.

Unquestioning belief generates heresies that must be quashed, and heretics who must be persecuted. The MSM has become an arm of a 21st-Century Inquisition. We are on a slippery slope, now, with a rapidly increasing distrust of officials and their mouthpieces. There is a disconnect between us and them. On the one side the establishment’s stooges and shills: on the other, amateurs and anarchists. There is little scope for compromise.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Step away from the car!"

I have fond memories of getting pulled over for speeding along the Thames Embankment in 1963. A youngish copper in the old Bobby-uniform strolled back to us, poked his head through the driver’s window and enquired with the utmost deference, “Is this our car, sir?”

I didn’t quite know how to react to such a question. Fortunately, it was our car. At least, it belonged to the absent boyfriend of the girl I was with (he was off in Europe somewhere, silly man), and that was close enough. We were sent on our way with a gentle reminder of how naughty it was to exceed the posted speed-limit, and we drove off wetting ourselves with the effort to stifle the giggles.

The next time I got stopped for speeding was twenty years later, here in Cayman. The young copper was taken aback when I showed him the car’s papers. “This says Linda Barlow!” He said sharply. “Yes, that’s my wife”, I said. “It’s her car”. Stammering with embarrassment the poor fellow begged me to stay within the limit and hastened away. I wondered, what was that all about?

“Oh, that must have been Timothy Whatsit”, Linda said when I described the incident. “A lovely boy; he always wanted to join the Police.” To this day, she remains on hugging terms with just about all of her former students (Cayman Islands High School 1978-82). From time to time we still benefit in one way or another from her reputation as a teacher who really cared.

The quiet warnings I received on both those occasions were all I needed – all most people would have needed, probably. The courtesy from coppers over the years has left me with a strong respect for – no, not all policemen, by any means, but for those who still remember what their true function is.

American TV programs have changed our local Force since then. A few years ago Linda was pulled over and told that one of her back lights wasn’t working. As she walked around to see for herself, she was ordered sharply: “Step away from the car!” She hesitated, because our two young granddaughters were in the back seat. Again, louder and more urgently, “STEP AWAY FROM THE CAR!” Prudently, she decided not to make a grab for the bombs and grenades in the trunk, lest the clown shoot the girls where they sat in their seatbelts.

I wonder if it could be the paramilitary uniforms that encourage bullying. How can guards of any kind – government or private – think of themselves as part of their community, when they dress in what is to all intents and purposes gang-paraphernalia?

A public Police Force is obliged to serve its community, not to bully it. Regrettably, that idea tends to be honoured more in the theory than the practice. Our local Force a few years ago actually changed its name to “Service”, without in any way softening its attitude towards the people who pay its wages. It still operates largely in secret. Its public announcements are a mockery; we rely on our “marl road” (grapevine) for information on all but the most spectacular of crimes. The man in the street feels no obligation to give information to the Police until “They” start giving information to him.

The other week our Police held a public meeting to which only a handful of outsiders went, in the middle of what by our standards is an epidemic of burglaries, muggings and robberies. Well, the last meeting I went to began with two full hours of prepared speeches read out by the uniforms, affirming what a grand job they’re doing. Only the most diligent of us stayed for the Q & A session. We all left with a feeling of exasperation, and a determination not to waste time like that ever again.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

“My country, right or wrong”

This is written as a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. She is not as well known as she ought to be, and not as well revered. I revere her, because she fought for the recognition of what she called “human rights”. But the world loves a winner, and she was not a winner. In the end, not enough of us believed in basic rights for all humans. All her efforts came to naught.

Her memorial is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed as a Resolution of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution in 1948. What she did was persuade the UN member-states of the day to commit themselves to acknowledge and respect a list of defined “basic rights” for all humans. No mean achievement.

It was a first. All previous lists of basic rights had applied only to specific tribes, castes, classes or nations. The US Bill of Rights applied only to US citizens as then defined, the Rights of Man only to the French, the Magna Carta only to the English nobility, the Ten Commandments only to the Israelites. (“Thou shalt not kill” did not apply to foreigners; hence all the slaughters of Canaanites and what-have-you reported in the Books of Moses.)

Eleanor’s Universal Declaration was formulated in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials of German nationals and allies. The idea of a universal standard of behaviour was a new concept in international law. For the first time, national laws were accepted (in the strictest theory) as being subordinate to the Declaration whenever they were incompatible with it.

I was just following orders and I was just obeying my country’s laws were dismissed as illegitimate reasons for doing nasty things to people. Killing ethnic minorities (Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, etc) was now “a crime against humanity”. So was torture; so was imprisonment without a fair trial. Above all, so was waging wars of choice, on the grounds that wars give cover to all kinds of atrocities.

After a nod of acknowledgment to a notional spirit of universal brotherhood, the first “human right” listed in the Declaration is the right to life. There was nothing in the resolution about chemical weapons or nuclear weapons or any other sort of weapons. All that UN member-nations undertook to do was to recognise no distinction in the worth of human lives, regardless of race, nationality, etc.

It failed from Day One, of course. How could it not fail? Tribal and national loyalties are always paramount. Mrs Roosevelt should have had the wit to know that. The human DNA is not designed to spurn loyalty to one’s own kind. All humans believe, consciously or sub-consciously, that they are exceptional – and their families, home communities and nations. Self and patriotism trump the brotherhood of man, every time.

Does any Westerner think it’s worth the death of one single member of his own family or home community to stop the chaos in the Middle East? Of course not. I once read of a bumper-sticker at the time of the Iraq invasion, which asked “WHY CAN’T EXXON SEND ITS OWN DAMN TROOPS?” It made sense to me, but it never caught on.

Today there are patriotic young gamesters in air-conditioned offices who are paid good money to wipe out foreign villagers at the press of a button once or twice a day. Is it a good thing that our boys aren’t being killed and mutilated, and “the others” are? Well, naturally. Only anarchists and communists would even doubt it. I mean, surely.

It’s been interesting, watching the human rights experiment, and I am sorry it never got off the ground. A world without respect for foreigners’ rights is a world forever at war, and that bothers me. I have grandchildren, who may one day find themselves targets. (They live in Norway, and Norway has lots of oil. More oil than Syria, actually. Uh-oh.)

In the age of drones, foreigners (Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and their modern equivalents) can be slaughtered without the slightest personal risk to the slaughterers. That is tribalism gone mad.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Noah, Yahweh and company

Two earlier posts of mine (The Children of Israel, January 2012, and The Hebrews, February 2013) offered a revisionist history of the Israelites and their beginnings, working backwards in time from the exile in “Egypt” to the Ebuwa-im whose name was the fictional Abraham. The posts reflected my personal speculations, as does this one. I realise how cheeky it is to offer them as competition for the official history, backed by 3500 years of peer-reviews. Nevertheless...! The current job is to trace the Hebrew gods back to the new world that began with the arrival of Noah and his boat in the mountains of Ur/Ararat.

We are faced with the usual difficulty of working with English transliterations of words recorded in the ancient Hebrew of more than a hundred generations ago. Those records were transcribed at irregular intervals by different writers, were based on oral legends kept alive by tribal bards during the preceding fifty-odd generations, and bent into shape by the propaganda needed to facilitate Moses’s creation of The Children of Israel – the fanatical religious military force that was the Taliban of its day.

With that small problem in mind, one can perceive the similarity of the gods’ names that crop up in the story. Noah (No-wah) was a variant of (Ya)h'weh, (Je)hovah and Yakov/Jacob - all of them possible variants of Heber/Hepat, a god widely worshipped in the Hittite and Assyrian empires of the age.

Abraham’s god was Yahweh, written YHWH without vowel-indicators, in order to avoid squabbles among the diverse tribes that comprised the later Israelites. Different tribes, different dialects, different accents...

[B is a common vocalisation of P in different dialects, and N is a vocalisation of H, though not a common one. H is notoriously easily dropped, in speech. Ebuwa/Ebla (w=l) was a city and region named for Eber/Heber, and “Abraham” was Ebuwa-im, the people of the place. W and V are common variants of each other, as are V and B. This is not the place to expound on other variants. Some other time, perhaps.]

The similarities would have been chosen in order to credit the Hebrews with remarkable consistency in their loyalty to the god of their ancestral homeland, for the entire period from their departure from Ur of the Chaldeans to their arrival in Haran [Genesis 11.31] in the border state of Ebuwa. Haran was a thriving commercial centre on one of the main trading routes from west to east. Merchants would have gotten rich from doing business in such a place, and Genesis describes Abram/Abraham as “very rich in cattle, silver and gold” when he left the town.

Those were disturbed times for the border regions of the rival empires of Hattia (Hittites), Assyria and Egypt. Many of the peoples – Abraham/Ebuwa-im, Mitanni/Midians, Hurrians/Aryans, Amurru/Amorites – would have experienced turmoil from changes of the boundaries. Tribal communities would have been pushed hither and yon.

By their association with the Hebrews (Ebuwa-im), the Children of Israel claimed the same ancestral god, with new legends to back up the claim. Once the Children’s priests and military leaders had expelled or killed those of the refugees who declined to buy into the legends, the new tribe and its god conquered the independent cities of the south. The “wilderness” in which the slaughters occurred is far more likely to have been the Lebanese hinterland than the Sinai Desert, by the way.

It remains only to wonder how “semitic” the Hebrews and Israelites were. Peering through the mists of time, historians have determined (provisionally) that the ruling classes of the Hurrians in the mountains and foothills of Ur spoke an Aryan language. What the lower classes spoke, is not yet decided. The best guess is “some unidentified native-Anatolian language”; all such languages were of the Aryan family.

Language is not the same thing as race, but it is to some extent indicative. It’s not at all out of the question that some of the Hebrews and Israelites had Aryan ancestry. However, whatever the cultures of the component tribes were or weren’t before their sojourns in Haran and “the land of Egypt”, they would have been thoroughly semiticised during those sojourns.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

On being a housefather

After completing my standard three-year stint of work in an offshore-tax-haven in 1981, in Cayman, I retired again. This time, I became an unpublished author and a housefather (“parent of first resort”) to Ross from age six to age eleven. During those five years, absent from the world of business, I was known as either Linda’s husband or Ross’s father. I had no particular identity of my own.

Home all day, it was I who rescued Ross every time he fell in the swimming pool – and (once) in the septic tank with the too-easily removable cover. I was one of the few men at the parent-teacher meetings of the private primary school and later the government high school. I was the family’s representative in the neighbourhood baby-sitting club (one ticket for every hour before midnight, and for every half-hour after midnight).

I dealt with all the injuries – lacerated feet from broken beer-bottles beside the cricket-field, a bleeding thigh from a friend’s pocket-knife while out in the scrub playing, a dislocated ankle from slipping on a concrete culvert...

My terms of employment included hospital attendance, so it was I who took the ankle to be un-dislocated – and who discovered the traditional Jamaican remedy. After administering a local anaesthetic, the doctor said to me, “You might not want to watch this next bit”. But of course I did watch – and bravely stifled a yell when he knocked the bone back into place with a mighty thump with the heel of his hand. Yikes.

One Saturday morning I risked a lynching by walking into the Hospital’s Waiting Room with a six-year-old boy whose face was puffed up to double its size – for all the world, a victim of brutal child-abuse. Hands raised to ward off the hushed hostility, I faced the mob and said “maiden plum”. Upon which, the room sighed with relief and resumed its conversations, leaving us to go about our business.

“Maiden plum” is a wild plant with a very effective self-defence mechanism: the touch of a leaf brings pain and swelling. Think poison-ivy times ten. Ross had been fooling around in the scrub behind our apartments with Jay again, had touched a leaf and then his face. (Somebody told me of a bulldozer-driver who ran his machine into a whole patch of maiden plum. He saw the mist rising, and ran – left the machine in gear, left the field, left the job: left the Island, for all anybody knew.)

Linda took Ross to Peru for a couple of weeks, when he was eight. An accidental dunk in the Amazon River exposed him to possible infection by some dread disease whose name I can’t recall now, that required an antidote to be administered with a large needle. The hospital nurse recklessly showed him the instrument; Ross fought him off; and I helped hold my struggling son still. It was the most shameful thing I ever did to him, or anybody else; the very recollection makes me break into a sweat. I apologised desperately at the time, and he forgave me; but I never forgave myself.

A few days later, the hospital phoned and told me the inoculation didn’t take properly (or something like that) and had to be done again. I told Ross, “The doctor says if you don’t get the injection again you will probably get very, very sick. I think you should do it, but I won’t make you. And I won’t let that stupid nurse anywhere near you. You have to decide.”

He trusted me, as he has always trusted me.

 I didn’t want to be a parent, and I haven’t been a particularly good one; but there is a huge, huge, love between us that makes for an amazingly strong bond. At age twelve, he begged me to give up cigarettes because he didn’t want to live without me. Well, fair enough: I knew I couldn’t live without him.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A young man’s car

We courted in Canada, Linda and I, for much of 1965 and ’66. I worked in Toronto, she in Barrie. She had a VW Beetle, I a “Yank tank” – a rusty Oldsmobile that could wind up to 92 mph on the highway, the passing road visible through a ragged hole in the floor beside my feet.

Our marriage early in ’67 began a fabulous 8 ½ years of fun. We packed everything we owned into a drive-away car , delivered it to its snowbird-owner in Orlando, and knocked on doors in Nassau until we got jobs. Then we spent 90% of our savings on a brand-new Triumph Spitfire, which we drove around with the rag-top down – weather permitting. [Me and Miss Ohio, Archives April 2013]

In Perth (Australia, 1971) we bought a second-hand Spitfire, also with a rag-top. Like “Vee Dubs”, Spitfires were a young man’s car. In Vila (New Hebrides, 1972-5) we had a company car – a Toyota: an exec’s car. Far too sedate for us, but it was free; what can you do?

The next year, we (I...) determined to chase down the dream of retiring to the caves of Crete [Zorba the Greek, Archives January 2012] in a brand-new VW Kombi that I got converted into a camper-van in Reading while waiting for Ross. The chase was a disaster from the day we set out, pretty much – unexpectedly traumatic for us new parents. Where two had been company, three was a crowd.

The mess came to a head with what could have been a fatal accident when I ran a red light in Malaga. In those days, in that place, the traffic lights shone in excessively dull shades – each colour scarcely distinguishable from the others, in the late afternoon. A giant truck (running the pale green light) screeched heroically to a halt five inches from my door.

I drove across the junction (on green!) and sat in stunned silence for endless minutes before limping on to the first camping ground we came to. Progress was suspended for the winter. We rented a flat and actually enjoyed ourselves, but it took a barrel of 10-mil Valium tablets to remove the numbness from my fingers and to recover just enough confidence to resume the journey towards the Promised Land.

I never did recover it all. We moved in safe, short stages: a few nights in Monaco with Linda’s sister, a month in Vasto on the Adriatic (where the brother-in-law owned a flat), then three pleasant months in a camp-ground in Corfu. We were only 200 miles from Athens, as the crow flies, and Athens was only 200 miles from Crete by ferry. But psychologically Crete was as far away as the moon, and it was never mentioned again. That dull red light in Malaga had signalled the end of the road for our life of travel. There were a few flickers of defiance, in years to come, but there was no fire any more.

Linda and Ross flew to Australia for three months. My Mum came over, and we camped all the way to London through Yugoslavia and northern Italy and Switzerland. She loved every moment and never forgot one of them. It was a son’s delight to watch her revel in the experience.

Reunited as a family in Bath, where my English grandfather had been born and raised, Linda and I agonised over our future for a whole year. Then, by default, we threw in the towel and retreated to Cayman for the rest of our lives.

That’s the end of the story. We drive sedate Toyota sedans now – old ones, but in good shape. Sometimes I see an old Beetle around town, made in Mexico or Brazil or wherever; but I’m not tempted. They’re a young man’s car, and I haven’t been young since Malaga. Sometimes – sometimes – what can you do?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Phoning Princess Margaret

We had chatted to this English couple cordially for a couple of hours, and gotten on like a house on fire. We were surprised, then, at the response to our invitation to dinner the next Saturday. “Sorry,” the wife said, “but Richard will be sick that day.” Wow! How does one handle such an abrupt brush-off?

“Ahh,” she said. “I’d better explain that.” And she did, and we let it go, and sure enough Richard was sick that weekend. (We checked.) His malaria, contracted in Kenya some years before, was of the recurring kind, which laid him out for three days around the same date every year. They had it marked on their kitchen calendar. It never happened in England, because the climate was different there – but here in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific, the tropical humidity was just like home, for the virus.

The New Hebs was an embryo “offshore” tax haven – and still is, pretty much, as the independent state of Vanuatu. A new Australian client flew in one day, checked into his hotel, and woke up with a high fever in the morning. The local British doctor was bamboozled. “It looks for all the world like malaria,” he said. “But the fever doesn’t come overnight. And you say you’ve never been up in this area before.” “That’s right,” the visitor said. “I’ve lived in Sydney all my life... except during the War, of course.”

Of course. Thirty years had passed since he had been a soldier in New Guinea, and the malaria-parasite had lain doggo ever since – coming to life as soon as conditions were suitable.

I was lucky with “my” malaria, when it came. It was the common-or-garden variety that required only a few days of heavy sweating at home in bed – and no repeats. Its worst effect was the weakening of my immune system that enabled Hepatitis ‘A’ to catch hold immediately afterwards. That kept me under for another week or so, but it didn’t recur either.

Neither illness warranted a trip to hospital, that’s the point of the story. Because the islands were a joint British-French protectorate***, our town had a British hospital and a French one. The latter was staffed by French Army doctors, who rarely met a leg they didn’t feel obliged to amputate. The British one had a better reputation, and very few people died in it. *** For a bit of background, read Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific, in the Archives of November 2012]

The Paton Memorial Hospital (“PMH”) was a short boat ride across from where the populace lived, followed by a long and steep stairway up a rocky hill. A ferryman was on call 24/7, at least in theory. One had to phone him at his home, and wait at the dock while he got dressed (if he was in bed), rode his bike down and got the boat seaworthy. After that, he helped the patient's companions manhandle the patient on board and off at the other end, and help him or her up the exhausting stairs – to the hospital if still breathing, or to the mortuary if not. The hospital had an excellent survival ratio, but the stairs didn’t.

By coincidence, Linda and I were familiar with the initials “PMH” from our three years in Nassau, Bahamas. There, they stood for the Princess Margaret Hospital, named for the Queen’s sister. The time interval for us had been only fifteen months, so Linda’s mistake was forgivable.

She had to phone and reserve a bed for after her appendix operation, which she had delayed until after the Queen’s visit. Royalty was on people’s minds. Somehow the call was answered not by the switchboard but by someone at the nurses’ station, who assumed it was an internal call.

So the greeting was casual: just, “Hello?” Linda, thrown a bit by the informality, asked “Is that Princess Margaret?” “Uhhh...” Linda, uncertainly: “Is that Princess Margaret?” Silence. Had the line gone dead? That was common enough. Linda, again, giving it one last shot, “Is this the number for Princess Margaret?” Finally, politely, puzzled and apologetic, a small voice ventured, “She’s not at this number. This is Nurse Bong at the Hospital.”

I must say Linda was treated very respectfully, when the time came. It’s always nice to have friends in high places, isn’t it?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

... you, and the horse you rode in on!

It has never made sense to me that the curse-word fuck was somehow related to the word for sexual intercourse. In fact it’s not related: the two words are homonyms. They look the same, sound the same and are spelt the same. But their origins are different – as different as the bill of a duck and the bill of rights. The curse-word may not be welcome at Grandma’s dinner-table, but it’s not obscene.

Back during the Vietnam War, a protestor in California was prosecuted for obscenity, for carrying a sign saying “Fuck the draft!” His lawyer argued (successfully) that advocating sexual intercourse with a law was such a meaningless comment that it couldn’t possibly be obscene. Correctamundo. BUT, he was lucky the judge didn’t know about homonyms. If he (the judge) had known, and had read the sign as “Curse the draft!” the protestor might have gone to jail for blasphemy. Who knows?

“May almighty God damn the draft to everlasting hellfire!” “Here’s my middle finger to the draft!” Those make sense. So do “Fuck it!” and Fuck you!” and “Fuck him!” and “Fuck off” and “Fuck me!” (“Somebody must be cursing me!”) Even “What the fuck?” We can take it to mean “God, I beg you: please tell me what’s going on!” It’s all very religious.

Most English curses call on the god of the moment. Today we say “Jesus Christ!” the way our ancestors said “Damn!” (from Domine, an earlier lord of heaven) and “Bugger!” (from Bog, a contemporary name of God, and still the name of God in some Slavic languages). “Shit/shite!” as a curse is probably the Arab or Indian evil divinity “Shaitan”, as is French zut!

There is a sameness about modern English curses that is frankly boring. Old reports tell of men who could curse for minutes without repeating themselves; but they must have been extremely mild curses. Cleaning out the camp-toilet box a few weeks ago, my son accidentally sloshed some of the liquid onto himself. He tried valiantly not to swear in front of his mother and me, but failed. “Oh shit! [longish pause] Fucketty fuck fuck fuck!!” he cried in exasperation. That’s about as original as modern swearing gets, these days.

The curse-word is probably related to our word fingerfig, in some early Germanic dialects. One of my grandmothers used to say “I don’t care a fig for that!” In many religions – perhaps most – fingers are used by priests to convey approval. “Bless you, my child!” The sign of the Cross; hands clasped in prayer or greeting; a hand raised in salute or greeting; both hands raised in the gesture of peace. Did I say “hands”? I meant fingers. Even shaking hands with someone in greeting or farewell, or to seal a deal.

Fingers crossed, two index fingers crossed to ward off the devil, knock on wood – they all reinforce silent prayers. One of my favourites – which I use myself – is the silent curse with index finger, pinky and thumb jabbed forward. Oooh, very powerful! The same gesture when pointed downwards at one’s side or behind one’s back is a prayer. It wards off the Evil Eye or any other devilish danger. I learnt that in Italy, if I remember. I wonder if they still use it.

Reportedly, it is a confrontation in an old Western movie that is reckoned to be the inspiration for what must be one of the most satisfying curses in circulation. “I’ll fight you, and the horse you rode in on!” Some character said.

Substituting “Fuck you” for the first bit while retaining the rest of the quote adds genuine quality to the curse, I believe. The poor old horse is so wonderfully irrelevant that the overall effect is just plain funny. Spoken solemnly and in genuine anger, though, it is a surprisingly effective curse. Perhaps the menace lies in daring the object of the curse to smile. After all, it really is still funny.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The man with the shopping bags

A Google search for “the man with the shopping bags” throws up the famous photo of the young Chinese fellow stopped in front of a column of tanks in Peking in 1989 on their way to Tiananmen Square. It’s a very moving photo and story. Bravery is always moving, isn’t it?

We should spare some praise for the tank-commander and his crew. They could have just squashed him like a cockroach, as the Israeli bulldozer did to Rachel Corrie in Gaza in 2003. An Egyptian man tried the same thing with a Police armoured car in 2011, and was shot dead on the spot.

When the US government was faced with its lone protestor, it chose the Israeli-Egyptian option. Bradley Manning was an Army soldier who blew the whistle on the “collateral murder” incident in 2007 in Baghdad, when an Army helicopter shot up a group of civilians including children. He was the only soldier in the entire Army with the courage to report the murders. For his courage, he was immediately jailed for twelve months in a bare isolation cell, in conditions amounting to torture (by international standards, if not US ones).

Manning’s defiance of the juggernaut of the US Army and its brutish prison guards is equal to the bravery of those other three examples. A comparison of the public-relations effects of all the incidents leaves the Chinese one looking good. How can that be? Whatever happened to Madison Avenue’s expertise in public relations?

My blog-post on Julian Assange in September 2012 marvelled at the British Government’s refusal to allow Assange free passage to Ecuador. I contrasted it with China’s generosity in a similar dilemma. Just recently, the world has been reminded of Britain’s cruelty. The contemptuous treatment by the London Police of Glenn Greenwald’s Brazilian boyfriend was stunning.

Ah well, as someone wrote about the interrogation of the boyfriend – he was lucky: the last Brazilian the UK Police had in their clutches ended up with eight bullets in his head.

Greenwald is an investigative journalist employed by an English newspaper. The paper's computers (some of them) were gratuitously destroyed by the Police in the newspaper’s offices - in broad daylight, in the Editor's presence. I kid you not. It really happened.

What on earth is wrong with these people? Don’t they care what the world thinks of them? If their nation goes National Socialist like Germany did in the 1930s, they won’t be held accountable. Is that what they think, or hope? The killing of Dr Kelly, the war crimes in Iraq and Libya – are they all to be shrugged off without credible explanation? Will all future dissidents and their associates be in line for similar treatment, at the whim of a Big Brother official called O’Brien?

A picture is worth a thousand words; an iconic picture is worth a book. The man with the shopping bags... Rachel Corrie in her yellow plastic overcoat in front of the bulldozer... the Iraqi hotel clerk’s dead face, beaten to a pulp by British soldiers ... each incident is worth a book.

The POW in the orange jump-suit shackled to a trolley, being wheeled by six huge stormtroopers to the torture-chambers of Guantanamo... the hooded prisoner standing on a stool wired for electrocution in Abu Ghraib... each of those photos illustrates America’s contempt for the Geneva Conventions more than a whole shelf of books could.

Again – why do they do it? Is it to frighten us into accepting the idea that we might be next? Could that conceivably be true? Have our rulers genuinely abandoned the moral values the rest of us still cleave to? Interesting times.Gosh!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Unemployment in Cayman

Several of my blog-posts have criticised Cayman’s generally low educational standards, which are the consequence of a poor educational strategy. Two generations ago, the Islands’ political representatives seem to have been persuaded by the British Colonial Office (now the FCO) not to bother about the standards of all but the brightest of their fellow Caymanians.

Last February [Protection versus Education], I noted that the permanent affirmative-action program installed by the FCO negated the need for ethnic Caymanians to ever compete on equal terms with migrants and immigrants at any level. Foreigners’ expertise and qualifications would be trumped by the birthright entitlement of local bloodlines.

As long as an ethnic Caymanian was “adequately” qualified for a job – in the opinion of a committee of ethnic Caymanians – he or she must be hired or promoted or retained ahead of any foreigner. (Once, in the 1990s, the Immigration Board actually turned down the Work Permit of the Manager of the Bank of China. Beijing called in the British Ambassador, and the problem went away – but, crikey...!)

The policy explains the predominance in government jobs of ethnic Caymanians of doubtful ability, work-ethic, and international experience. In the private sector, the program has pushed and pulled native Caymanians to the top of the ladder in many fields of employment, regardless of their experience or competence. Some are properly qualified, some are not; it’s not always easy to tell, from the outside.

Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Private- sector employers don’t like to be ordered who to hire, promote or fire. Their reaction to orders was outlined in one of my very earliest blog-posts – Everybody’s Cheating, in December 2010. Corruption, intimidation, tokenism and quotas became embedded in our society. Resentment and contempt between expats and Caymanians are almost palpable in many workplaces. In private conversation, the hostility is evident.

An economic recession, aggravated by the British FCO’s recent decision to rein in Public Expenditure and the huge unfunded Public Debt, has generated 3000 registered unemployed Caymanian citizens (including immigrants), out of a local workforce of 25,000 or so. The foreign workforce is about the same size, split 50-50 between skilled and unskilled. (I’m guessing the figures; no reliable ones are available.)

So why can’t unemployed Caymanians replace 3000 of the unskilled foreigners? Bearing in mind our annual Education Budget of thirty or forty million dollars, how come there are any unemployed Caymanians? The answer is, that for all practical purposes they are unemployable. The combined weight of government disapproval, intimidation and legal sanctions cannot shift more than half a dozen of them.

The 3000 feel entitled to be supported without working. “It’s our Island. We’re the landlords. From Jamaican domestic servants and Filipino security guards on five dollars an hour, to British lawyers and Canadian accountants earning a hundred times as much, every expat sucks at Cayman’s teats. Let them pay for the privilege!

It could have worked, you know. Paying the ethnic-Caymanian community for their “birthright” could have worked. Fees paid by tax-haven clients could have been put aside into a special reserve fund and distributed to all native-born individuals and their descendants. Why wasn’t it tried?

Because the FCO clerks of the day didn’t think of it, that’s why. Civil Servants are all trained to think in terms of precedents. The Whitehall/Westminster system of governance was the model for our micro-legislature and micro-public-service hierarchy. The importation of indentured labour in post-slavery times was the model for the new Cayman tax haven.

With precedents in hand, the whole strategic plan for Cayman was probably devised one afternoon before a Bank Holiday weekend, and wrapped up in time for the FCO clerks to catch the 6.12 train home from King’s Cross and St Pancras. Done and dusted. Well done, Sir Humphrey!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Pablo the Mexican

I was the youngest member of Churchie’s 1951 intake of boarders from “the bush”. (The Church of England Grammar School in Brisbane had always been called “Churchie”, for some unimaginative reason.) Painfully shy, and small for my age, I was put in the charge of a veteran boarder of my own age (eleven), who introduced me around.

Four or five of us squatted in the dirt and scratched our names in block capitals with twigs. When some older boys came by to see what we were doing, we hastily erased them, but I wasn’t quick enough to do more than wipe out my first name and bits of the surname. One of the intruders looked down scornfully at what was left. “What’s this name? It looks like PABLO! What is he, a Mexican? Hahaha.” “Yes he is”, my protector retorted. “So what?” “Huh. He doesn’t look Mexican.” “Well, his mother’s Mexican. Have you got something against Mexicans?”

Shamed, the intruders wandered away. My companions felt obliged, ever after, to call me and refer to me by the invented name, lest they be beaten up by the older boys for lying. The exotic newbie became a nine-day wonder. And indeed longer, for the name stuck like glue. Very few of the 1200 pupils ever knew my real name. Most of those alive today still don’t.

When my brother came the next year, aged nine, he was Little Pablo. Our baby brother came after we left, and he was Pablo too. Each of us was introduced to parents as Pablo, as a matter of course. Parents as a species don’t ask questions about their sons' friends' nicknames. “Rags” Alexander was always called Rags, and nobody ever knew his first name.

Six years at boarding school is a big chunk of one’s life. All of us boarders went home during vacations; on “long weekends” those of us from far away stayed with friends who lived closer, or were day-boys. One of my long-weekend hosts was Graham, whom I bumped into in Shiraz in late 1964 – reported in my blog-post Cattle Class to Kuwait [April 2012].

Years and years later, my mother apologised for sending me away so young – but I never minded, and in truth she had little option. I was in the oldest group at the one-room, six-classes, Hannaford Primary School, and the two others were scheduled to go off to (different) boarding schools the same year. I was the brains of the outfit, such as it was, and Churchie was noted for its academic achievements, so that's where I went.

Of the Hannaford kids, I ended up a political trouble-maker in the Caribbean; Ian wasted several years in Parliament in Canberra [Politics of exclusion, May 2013]; Richard was a wool-dealer in Sudan for a while; Liz Cox did professional modelling in Paris, reportedly; Kevin became a shearer in Victoria, the school magazine said. Everybody else made their lives close to home, as far as I know.

The local school didn’t open till I was seven and a half. Before then, all our lessons had come in the mail each week from the State distance-learning unit in Brisbane. Mum was a good teacher, and the seventeen-year-old sent out from Brisbane to open the School was too. So I carried my parents’ hopes and ambitions off to Churchie. I don’t think I returned much value for the money they spent on me; I should have been the one to apologise.

Academically, I peaked at age thirteen. I struggled dutifully, but could never see much sense in what I was being taught. The learning did enable me to qualify as an accountant, eventually, and that freed me to go overseas and try my luck. To the degree that it gave me a way to make a living in exotic places, it was worth the effort and expense, I guess.

Also, I finally got to Mexico, though I can’t say I identified with the culture. If my mother really had been Mexican, I might have done better. Who knows?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Unexpected places (pidgin English)

Our housemaid (four hours on Fridays, from an agency) is from Colombia and speaks English as her native tongue. She’s from San Andres off the coast of Nicaragua, which is home to forty thousand descendants of African slaves taken there by their British owners when the Island was British.

Our first-ever maid in Cayman was from Nicaragua – a large and cheerful woman who was on hugging terms with us and our son for years afterwards, till she retired back to Bluefields on the Caribbean coast, which used to be a British protectorate. She was a Miskito Indian, who spoke standard English, too, as well as Spanish and the local patois. I remember her with tears streaming down her face one day in 1980. The last of the Nicaraguan Somoza dynasty had just been assassinated. “They have killed my President”, she sobbed. I hugged her until she stopped crying.

The English language pops up in one form or another in unexpected places all over the world, as a by-product of Britain’s former trading empire. The Bay of Islands off Honduras is populated with families of early settlers from Cayman and Jamaica, as evidenced by the surnames. On the north coast of Panama, the black residents of Colon are descended from the diggers of the Canal, recruited from Jamaica and the eastern Caribbean islands. After Castro’s revolution, English-speaking residents of the southern islands of Cuba fled to Cayman, from where their ancestors had emigrated.

What should amaze us, but doesn’t, is the fluency of English spoken by so many black people of African descent in the Caribbean and North America. It was the strict policy of slave-owners and traders to split up tribes, clans and families on their arrival in the New World, in order to minimise the danger of revolt. Pidgins and patois originated to provide means of communication between owners and slaves and among the slaves themselves. Nevertheless, most blacks in the US, for instance, speak standard English.

Trade is the most powerful of forces. The word pidgin is reckoned to be the closest the Chinese merchants of Canton could come to the English word business. (It’s plausible.) Pidgin is called creole in most languages other than English. In Haiti everybody speaks a French-based creole except the brown-skinned social elite. In Curacao, Papiamento is Portuguese-based. The best-known Dutch-based pidgin is Afrikaans – influenced by so many other tongues as to be almost a separate language today.

Almost. Chris, my flatmate in London all those years ago, spoke Afrikaans, and could be understood in the Flemish part of Belgium. Once, though, he narrowly escaped getting beaten up in a bar for speaking what the locals heard as mocking baby-talk.

In the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the South Pacific, a pidgin called Bislama (from the French beche-de-mer, the sea-cucumber animal of the region) was the simplest possible pidgin. English words strung together separated only by long and blong (= belong). Something like that. We all made it up as we went along. It doesn’t seem to have developed much since we lived there in the 1970s, but – as happened in New Guinea – the native politicians changed the spelling of words to disguise their English origins.

It is now the main official language. The national motto (Wikipedia says) is "Long God yumi stanap", which translates as “in God we stand”: yumi is you-me, and stanap is stand-up. I would have said “blong God” was more correct, but what do I know? Bambae is “soon” or “later”, a vaguely phonetic rendition of “by and by”. Olgeta is “everybody”, literally “all together”. And so on. Wonderful stuff!

Well, that’s what politicians tend to do, especially in artificial nations with no common language and no sense of the ridiculous. In other circumstances, the process works in reverse. One of Britain’s former Australian colonies has a city called Air Delight, named for a British Queen Consort. Fortunately, the original spelling, Adelaide (she was German, actually), has been retained. Thank God for small mercies.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The slow-boiling frog (Chamber of Commerce)

My friend Colin used to refer to it as The Chamber of Comics. For its first 21 years it existed only as a monthly luncheon club. Then it had a few years in the public eye attending to its founding principles, and then twenty-odd more years of futility. The Chamber of Commerce today stands for nothing and achieves nothing. It has remained silent and immobile. A frog in a pot of water will stay there while the heat is raised one degree at a time, until it has no energy to jump out before the pot boils.

Back in its glory-years of 1985-90, led by dynamic Presidents and Councils, supported by Managers who believed in the founding principles, the Chamber had a strategic vision that is absent today. When Cayman’s first Labour Law was mooted, our people clearly perceived the danger of establishing a state labour-control entity to reinforce the existing affirmative-action program for native Caymanians. For the ruling politicians and their Civil Servants, control of the local workforce was an end in itself.

A new Labour Office would further forestall the prospect of a private-sector labour union. The Immigration authorities could deport any experienced labour organiser brought in from overseas; and the Labour Office would act as the Islands’ monopoly labour union. It was a standard Soviet trick. The British FCO knew that, but the locals didn’t.

 The FCO had failed to perceive any long-term danger in the establishment of the semi-slave workforce in the early 1970s that bedevils our society today. And it is the FCO that is reaping the whirlwind. Its lack of strategic vision at that time is why Britain is having to send in its own auditors, accountants, and economists to fix the present fiscal mess.

To oppose the proposed Labour Law, in 1986, the Chamber’s newly created back-office assembled all the trade-associations into a Council of Associations. In response, the politicians threatened to suspend their de facto subsidies to the hotels. It was a bluff, but it worked; the Hotel Association broke ranks. Government’s annual budget for overseas advertising was several million dollars, and the hotels chose not to risk losing that.

The Labour Law passed pretty much as drafted – a year late, but that made no difference. Emboldened by this success, the politicians pushed ahead with their next socialisation measure – a tax on private-sector wages and payrolls. The revenue raised would fund government’s Civil Service pensions-liabilities and perhaps even its equally unfunded healthcare liabilities.

Again our Chamber people clearly perceived the politicians’ purpose, and considered the new threat even more dangerous to Cayman’s future prosperity than the Labour Law. Cayman’s private sector had already developed a defence against additional labour costs [my blog-post Everybody’s Cheating, December 2010]; everyday shelf-price increases took care of them. But Cayman Islands Social Security (CISS – “the CISS of Death”, we called it) would force the private sector to bail out government’s reckless over-spending until the end of time.

In the years since the CISS battle, the Chamber’s leaders have been careful to stay on the right side of the politicians. “Look what we did to Gordon Barlow” [Confessions of a Subversive, October 2012] was warning enough for employees; “Look what we did to Nick Duggan”, enough for Councillors. [Our President was denied citizenship for sixteen years for his devotion to duty.]

Now the Chamber – and we the public – are back to Square One. Again the FCO and its local agents are desperately seeking revenue, as an easy alternative to cutting waste and extravagance. Will the Chamber find the courage to do its duty? Doubtful. Like a slow-boiling frog it just doesn’t have the energy, now, to jump out of the pot.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Not the Swiss Family Robinson

You have to be pretty fit to be a hippy, sometimes. When my son lived in Guatemala, on the outskirts of a lakeside village, he had to lug a huge bottle of water every three or four days up a zig-zag path to his treehouse, then up a narrow ladder of 28 steps to the platform halfway up the trunk. Then go back for the two-year old and carry her up the ladder; then help his heavily pregnant girlfriend up too, and then the groceries.

I never stayed overnight there, not wanting to be present when the little girl fell over the fragile wooden railings. This was not a treehouse built to Swiss Family Robinson standards, I may say.

The local Mayans had built the platform to his specifications while he was away in Peru and Ecuador. He had bought the land for a song, in order to protect access to a sacred cave where a Mayan shaman held court. Something like that. I think I paid for the treehouse, and maybe the land too; I really can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter now. He still owns the narrow strip of hillside – in theory, at least: Guatemala has no central registry of land-titles.

On my next vacation in England, I checked in with my cousin Pip, a respectable lady who had not forgotten her own hippy life of thirty years before. Was it smart of me to be subsidising my son’s exotic lifestyle? She gave me a look that was half amused and half indignant. “Gordon, really! One should never not support somebody who chooses to live in a treehouse.”

The Norwegian was one tough Viking woman. She stopped for breath at each zig and each zag, but she made it home up to the platform every time. And her daughter was one tough Viking toddler.

By the time of my visit, Ross had been promoted from Ross to Papa Ross. Being el papa de Ross, it made sense for me to be called Papa Gordon. The little scrap spoke Spanish (well, two years old...) with Ross and the Mayan girls who babysat her from time to time: all forgotten now, more’s the pity. Spanish Papa became Norwegian Pappa when they removed to Norway for the birth of the new baby, and I became Pappa Gordon. Indeed, I am Pappa Gordon to both girls, and Linda is Mamma Linda, by analogy.

In Oslo, Ross took up the cause of the homeless, fighting in the front lines. He helped them “squat” in buildings left vacant by property speculators. The girls tagged along. The baby slept through most of the action in a pram, but the other was totally on her Dad’s side, whatever it was. During one Police-enforced clearing of an occupied apartment block, she wandered off on her own. After a frantic couple of minutes she was found in the cubicle of a security guard, lecturing him (well, three years old...) on his human-rights obligations. “She told me, ‘these people have to have somewhere to sleep, you know’”, he said.

Today, they live in their mother’s forest cabin, except when visiting their father’s cabin in a different forest. There is a court-sanctioned custody-arrangement, which the parents observe more often than not. The parents and their new partners, and grandparents both official and unofficial, all provide a regiment of support. School concerts and PTA evenings can attract a delegation of as many as four adults. “We have so many people who love us”, they say in wonderment, to us in English.

Forest cabins are a step up from a treehouse, by and large. But there is a ladder inside Ross’s place, and a thousand steps up to their mother’s house from where she parks the car. We look forward to the day when flush-toilets and septics will replace the present camp-toilets traditional in Norwegian cabins. Then, there will be no ritual daily burning of the family toilet paper, for the first time in the girls’ young lives.

Sigh. Hasten the day!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On not being famous

It must be fun to be a politician: a great wage and all the cash you can fiddle – junkets to faraway places with five-star hotels, regular bribes from lobbyists, all the standard goodies. Embarrassing, though, sometimes. Lying is a necessary part of the package of politics but it doesn’t come easily to me, even in trivial matters.

What book are you reading at the moment, they ask at interviews. Or, whose music do you like best of The Who and The Whom? What’s your favourite opera or ballet or Shakespearian sonnet? A well-prepared politician always carries the latest published report of some heavyweight institute in his briefcase – and a hardback copy of the latest fiction best-seller as well, to show his human side.

 I’m a philistine, with little respect for the classical arts, or the classical pop-artists. My favourite musical genre changes every six months; my favourite authors have been dead for decades. Only recently have I discovered the joys of Bluegrass music, on YouTube. Over and over I can watch Brittany Haas stamping the beat with her boots while playing the violin to some rousing number. I’ve never seen anybody do that before. Yehudi Menuhin never did it, I don’t think.

I’ve made a special effort to read some of the classic literature, just to check the quality – The Trial, Crime & Punishment, Don Quixote (all in translation, of course!), Boswell’s Life of Johnson... Mark Twain is the most skilful writer, in my book, but no more so than P G Wodehouse. I’m a sucker for epigrams. “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Ogden Nash wrote that, in 1931 – and what a masterpiece it is of brevity, wit, and sexual and social commentary.

Would my attendance at two operas and two ballets impress an interviewer? Linda and I watched Tosca in the Vienna Opera House in 1965, and the Nutcracker Suite by the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow a few weeks later. But those were simply “must see” items on our travelling agenda, like The Hermitage in Leningrad, and Persepolis in Iran, and Ataturk’s yellowed underpants in the dedicated Museum in Ankara.

My second opera and ballet attendances were even less laudable than the first ones. Ross got me free tickets in 2011 for performances at the Oslo Opera House where he worked: Tannhauser and Don Quixote. A backstage technician, he was actually on stage for a few minutes in Tannhauser, paid five hundred kroner a time to ensure none of the actors fell down the hole when the hydraulic platform went down to pick up the lead singer in a puff of magical mist. (He was in costume, but was so well disguised that I missed him.)

I’d be careful to omit mention of the freebies in any formal interview fame might require, but I might come clean about what books I’m currently reading. There are usually four or five on the go at any given moment. I dip into the non-fictions every day, pretty much. On my chairside table today are Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a 1982 book that gave Dan Brown the plot for The Da Vinci Code, and The Unauthorised Version, a 1991 hardback about the composition of the Bible that Ross gave me a few Christmases ago. Both of those were bought at jumble sales, for ten or twenty-five cents each.

Our Oriental Heritage, a 1935 history book by Will Durant, lies open on our dining table (at Page 623, today), bookmarked by an old Library card. (It was a Library throw-away, twenty years ago.) I’ve read all three of those before, and the Dick Francis mystery too, but they’re all worth reading again because of the quality of the writing. Would a professional interviewer be impressed? Not with their recent provenance, perhaps.

Should I confess to keeping an Oxford Concise Dictionary and a King James Bible beside my chair, for handy reference, and an Etymological Dictionary? Would that be too pompous? Hmm. I’ll decide that when the time comes.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Eight o’clock White Man’s Time (T-15, Haiti)

At my boarding school in Brisbane, our French mistress (no, not really...) taught us posh French. She spent whole lessons drilling us on exactly how to enunciate eu and au and eau. As Henry Higgins opined in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they say, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”

Not in Provence, though. There, most of the natives speak French the way the English speak French – sounding out every consonant the way God intended, and playing fast and loose with every vowel. Proper French is spoken more in Haiti than in Provence – by the ruling caste there, at least. Most Haitians speak Creole, which is a French patois – in the way that French is a Latin patois. I spent a week there in 1966, aged 27 – island-hopping by myself, on vacation from my job in Toronto.

On the plane from Puerto Rico I found myself sitting next to a boring young Canadian fellow – boring, at least, until he announced that he was visiting his brother at a Mennonite mission station up in the mountains. Then he became exciting. By the time we landed, we were fast friends and he was asking his brother if I could tag along as an extra guest for a few days.

Mennonites are a small Protestant denomination of no great renown, but they carried enough weight locally for the brother to extend my visa, change my onward flight and find me a hotel room for the night – all before the offices closed that afternoon. So instead of mooching around the desperately shabby capital city for two days on my own, I got a tour of the pot-holed mountain road through the heart of the country to a few miles away from Henri-Christophe’s Citadelle, and five days watching the missionaries at work.

The history of Haiti is depressing. Born in the vicious cruelty of a series of slave-rebellions, nurtured in the equally vicious cruelty of home-grown tyrants, and pauperised by US and European politicians (French and British) in order to discourage any future slave revolts anywhere in the world – the new nation’s government revenue was embargoed for the next hundred years and more, to pay compensation for the property lost (i.e. the slaves themselves) in the successful revolution.

(The slaves’ defeat of Napoleon’s army of occupation prompted his surrender of French “Louisiana” to the new United States of America. The removal of the French presence there left the native-American tribes open to conquest and settlement by European immigrants – and, as they say, the rest is history.)

On the Sunday I bought a ticket on the bus from Cap Haitien back to the capital, leaving next morning. I asked the bus dispatcher (in pidgin French) what time the bus would depart. “Huit heures.” Ah, but did that mean eight o’clock Caribbean time, or some local approximation? The missionaries would have to drive me down from the mountains, and I wanted to get the time right. “Oui, huit heures juste.” Okayy, but when you say juste, do you mean really, really exactly, or...? He sighed heavily. “Huit...heures...blanc!” I took that to mean “white man’s time”, and shut up. And it did leave at eight, on the dot.

Nobody on the bus spoke French, or was any colour but jet-black; no upper class representatives present! I volunteered to sit on the top of the bus with eight or nine other passengers, to help keep the luggage from coming loose, and to hand bags down and catch bags thrown up. My companions told me by gestures why we were stopping and how long for.

It was a ten-hour journey down the coast road via Gonaives, but the time passed easily; it was a lovely trip. The driver went out of his way to drop me at my shabby hotel. I was the most exotic passenger he had ever had, I expect: probably the only white person ever to have travelled the whole distance on the roof of his bus.

They all gave me a farewell salute, and I them. “A’voi, blanc!” “A’voi!” Respect.