Tuesday, December 30, 2014

X is for Xmas (the A-Z of blogging)

I came across a website the other day that challenged readers to write a series of 26 essays, within a selected theme, each essay to be identified with a different letter of the alphabet. Mentally flipping through my blog’s archives I found I could handle the assignment only if I used X for Xmas – or, X for Xnty, which is my private shorthand for Christianity.

Q & Z were easy: they could stand for Queensland and Zorba, respectively. Zorba the Greek was a movie that was showing at a cinema in Thessaloniki, Greece, one night in 1964; a gang of us from the Youth Hostel went and watched it – dubbed in Greek, with English sub-titles. I was reminded of the event by a Canadian chap we came across in what is now Vanuatu eight years later; I blogged about that meeting in January 2012, and it’s in the Archives under the name of the movie.

It’s nice to have a legitimate “Z for …” in my bag. My cousin Arthur was Secretary to the Bishop of Zambia in the 1950s, but I’ve never written about that; and nothing memorable has ever happened to me at a zoo. So it was Zorba or nothing. It’s much the same with Queensland. I’ve hitched to and through Queenstown in New Zealand and Qum in Iran, and I once took in a day’s polo at Windsor Great Park in the company of a Duke named Quentin. But Qs are slim pickings in any context.

This month I’m reading “The Atheists’ Guide to Christmas” – which to my surprise uses the C-word and not the X-abbreviation. That’s weird. I myself always write Xmas, unless to a known or suspected Christian whom I don’t want to offend. (My shorthand for “Christian” is Xn, naturally enough. Among some of my US acquaintances, Xian is a code word for Zionist, which is interesting; maybe they use it to throw the censors off the scent.)

X was and is the letter of the Greek alphabet whose sound was and is similar to our English hard-C. When Christianity began as a religion, Greek commentators translated the Semitic title “Messiah” [“the anointed”] as Christos – in Greek lettering which was later transliterated into Christ. Christos meant “anointed” (smeared with ointment) in a general religious context, and was conveniently close in sound to Horus, the Egyptian sky-god widely respected (and sometimes worshipped) in the Greek culture of the time. And who was born of a virgin, and whose holy day was 25th December. What a coincidence!

Happily, too, Jesus/Iesus was conveniently close in sound to Isis, that same virgin mother. Thus: Jesus Christ = Iesus Horus, as though the “Christ” part was a surname and not a title. There is another Greek word (probably related), that transliterates as kharis, meaning “grace”, which is used in their “thanks” – efkharisto, from which we got our English Eucharist.

Christianity is a largely synthetic religion, absorbing rituals, traditions, legends and names from just about every belief-system it encountered. It pinched the whole of the Old Testament from Judaism – and, more recently, the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus from the Germans.

Our English name for God is Germanic – Gott from the Goths and Scots, both of which peoples took their names from the same ancient tribal god. In contrast, southern European tribes mostly stuck with the name of Zeus in its several forms, inherited from the even more ancient tribal god of Sumer in southern Iraq. I blogged about The Names of God in March 2012.

For centuries the name “damn” was considered a blasphemy, after Christianity had commandeered the general sound of it for its own god. (“Damn/domine” in Latin meant “master” or “lord”; its origin – as far as can be speculated – was the ancestor of the Aramaic god Tammuz, whose name endures in England’s River Thames. And in the word democracy – as explained in a blog-post of November 2011.

Gods’ names are the very devil to shake off.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cousin Harry and the Branson girl (India 1905)

Several cousins and ancestors on my Barlow side were involved (to a greater or lesser degree) in the maintenance of the British Empire’s Indian branch-offices. My grandfather’s cousin Arthur was the last of them; he retired in 1947 after twenty years in the Indian Civil Service as a Political Officer and Agent. The Political Office was an informal sub-agency of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – British India being regarded as “domestic” – so Arthur was a spy of some sort.

(Flipping through an old address-book of his after he died, I came across the name Anthony Blunt, who also joined MI5, and who notoriously spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and ‘40s. Arthur couldn’t have spied for them, or he wouldn’t have been buried inside the grounds of Wells Cathedral! Only for his Queen and country.)

The first head of MI5, in 1909, was a British Army Officer from the South Staffordshire Regiment. From that same regiment had also come, in 1905, Arthur’s (and my grandfather’s) cousin Harry Barlow. In that year, Harry was appointed the Official Tutor of the son and heir of the Raja of Sirmur – one of the nominally independent Princely States of the Punjab, in the north-west of what is now the nation of India Bharat.

I have no access to the records of whichever agency preceded MI5, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Harry was instructed to teach the boy how to further the interests of the Empire. His pupil generously contributed the lives of some hundreds of his soldiers to Britain’s war effort against the Germans in the European theatre of the War of 1914-18. Besides coaching the boy, Harry probably had a hand in training The Sirmur Rifles, a regiment of Gurkhas based in the Protectorate.

He had been a Captain in the South African War of 1899-1902, and the Military Administrator of an Afrikaner town after the War. His parents had died young, and he had been raised in the household of his uncle, a former Private Secretary to Cabinet Ministers in London. So he would have been considered “the right sort of chap” to represent British interests abroad – at least at the modest level required.

There was one blot on his escutcheon, though it wasn’t fatal to his career. In 1902 his wife divorced him for adultery, naming as the co-respondent an actress daughter of the house of Branson & Branson, English barristers in Madras for at least three generations, and in Bombay for at least one. He married the girl immediately afterwards. (Not so much a girl, by then, but I always think of her as a girl.) As a professional actress, she was probably reckoned to have “married up”, in England; but in India it would have been Harry who married up.

Branson is not all that common a name, and Google has links to the ancestry of Sir Richard-of-the-Virgins, whose grandfather was a cousin of hers. Her side of the family may not have been as successful at lawyering as his side, because her deceased estate amounted to only 647 pounds when she died in 1954, aged 90. 647 pounds wasn’t much, in 1954. Maybe she received a monthly remittance from back home; I hope so.

Harry died of cholera during one of the region’s regular epidemics, in 1909 – on the train down to Delhi, on his way to stay with Ada in Bombay. He was buried where he fell, more or less – in the Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi; I even have the grave number (#800F in Pukka Plot 15 #25), although I doubt it’s still there. As far as I can tell, Ada lived the rest of her life in London, where she must have had relatives. Her mother had been buried in Golders Green.

 She (Ada) had been married before the affair with Harry, and presumably her husband divorced her about the same time as Harry divorced his wife and two children. A few years ago I had to track down one of Harry’s granddaughters (by the first wife), when she and I inherited a few quid on the death of cousin Arthur’s widow. She (the granddaughter) had never heard of Ada Branson; I expect the name was taboo in that household.

I once asked Arthur how Harry came to be employed in the Palace of Sirmur, only to be brushed off with the suggestion that he had probably answered an advertisement in The Times. A typically MI5 lie, it seems to me now.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tough as old boots (local foods)

We have become local-food fanatics in our old age. It’s taken us a long time to see the light, but what can I tell you? We’re slow learners.

Cayman doesn’t produce much food – at least, food that we both like. I’m notorious (in my family) for disliking all vegetables except the staples – potatoes, tomatoes (yes, yes, I know…), beans, peas and carrots. I will eat lettuce and chick peas in salads, and fried rice with little unidentifiable bits and pieces mixed in, but I don’t seek those things out.

Cayman grows only tomatoes, of my staples, and those only in the season, whenever that is. Linda tries to grow them, but they ripen too quickly in the tropical sun, before they have time to reach a decent size. The farmers grow a lot of other veges that sell well, though not to me: callaloo and ackees and yams, breadfruit and plantain and cassava. And pumpkins. Linda makes super pumpkin scones, but there's not much pumpkin-taste to them, fortunately.

Plenty of local fruit, as it happens. In their respective seasons, we’re never short of local bananas, mangoes, papaya, limes, oranges of a sort, sweetsop (which is what we called “custard apple” when I was a boy), and the ever-present coconut. That’s quite a variety. We’re spoilt for choice, pretty much.

I don’t think any of those are organically farmed. Our small farmers use chemical weedkillers by the barrel, and some of the chemicals are wildly toxic. The local favourite is Paraquat, which is deathly, and the weapon of choice for the neighbours of dogs that bark all night. I wouldn’t want any of that on Linda’s tomatoes.

Local jams are occasionally sold at the farmers’ market up at Camana Bay every Wednesday, and at the main farmers’ market out Bodden Town way. There’s local honey again, now that Otto Watler is back in the game. All his bees died a couple of years ago, and had to be replaced. $15 is quite a high price – but they are big jars, and hold about a pint. About a pint: Mr Watler’s labels don’t tell us exactly how much; but we buy anyway. What the heck. Two tuppennies.

For meats and the like, we limit ourselves to local pork, beef and eggs, Jamaican chicken, and fish caught by local fishermen off the coasts of South America or on the reefs between there and here. All of that is more or less pure. Jamaican chickens aren’t free-range, but we trust the factories there not to pump them full of hormones like more sophisticated farmers do.

For the first fifteen years of my life I was brought up on home-grown mutton, and raw milk that Dad coaxed out of his Jersey cows first thing in the morning, every morning. We never drank sheep’s milk, for some reason; and Dad never kept goats. I’ll have to ask my brother; he will know why. Our meat always came from the skinniest old wether Dad could find. Tough as old boots, it was; all the fat and tender sheep went off to the markets in Toowoomba, to be sold at auction to the butchers.

We had a low-tech separator machine that separated the cream from the milk. Dad or Mum (I forget) churned some of the cream into butter – with more salt than was good for us, I’m sure. All that full-fat cream we guzzled… I wonder we three boys are still alive to remember it.

Actually, it’s not nostalgia that drove Linda and me back to locally produced food, but the artificial additives in today’s mass-produced food. American veges are dosed with Agent Orange to keep the bugs at bay, and American animals are injected with steroids and hormones to make them mature faster. This much is true: my man-boobs began shrinking the minute I stopped eating USDA meats.

During our backpacking days in the Middle East in the ‘60s, not being able to understand the languages of the region, and travelling poor, Linda and I used to inspect the pots bubbling away in the slum restaurants’ filthy kitchens. As a rule of thumb, and all else being equal, we would choose from the pot furthest away from the cockroaches and rat-droppings. Looking back now, we suspect that what we ate then was probably healthier than the food the agri-businesses palm off on the world today. What a sad judgment that is, on the modern way of life.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Tebow Time!” (American Football)

One of the sporting icons of recent times was a nine-days wonder – a young American Football Quarterback (QB) named Tim Tebow. A champion at College level a few years ago, idolized by most followers of the College game, he played only one season in the professional NFL, and was an exciting addition to the mix. One of the most erratic of players, his competence in the game was like nothing so much as the little girl with the little curl in the nursery rhyme – who when she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad she was horrid.

Tim’s problem was that he was often (usually?) horrid for the first 80-90% of every game, and sometimes superbly good in the closing minutes. During the latter period, passes that had flown yards above the heads of receivers or wide of their hands, suddenly began to hit their targets. His fans called it “Tebow Time”, and spent a lot of nervous energy waiting for it to arrive. When it did – when it did – they forgave him all the wretchedness and delighted in his glory.

During his second season as a professional in the NFL, in 2011, he was the erratic and unreliable QB of the Denver Broncos – only in the team because of his College reputation and the fact that the Broncos’ Number One QB proved to be even worse. His coaches mixed jubilation with despair, and attributed his last-minute victories to what they called his “intangibles” – plain luck, as often as not.

The last three minutes of the Miami game became the stuff of legend. Denver’s Defensive Unit had kept Miami to two touchdowns and a field goal (17 points); Miami’s Defense had kept Denver’s Offensive Unit scoreless for the first fifty-seven minutes of play. A walkover. But… but… wait… The remaining three minutes were Tebow Time.

Out of nowhere, the Offence scrambled and blocked and fizzed around like a fart in a bottle, and conjured up the necessary 17 points while the Defense – miraculously inspired – harried and hurried the opposition off the field without points. Tebow Time had come, just in time to tie the score; and Denver went on to win in sudden-death overtime.

That and similar flukes along the way got Denver into the post-season Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the bookies made 13-point favourites. This time, Denver’s Offence and Defense were both erratic for the entire game. It was Pittsburgh who fought back like tigers to overcome a two-touchdown lead and tie the game in the fourth Quarter.  Overtime again! High drama! The toss of the coin gave Tebow one last chance to do his thing.

On this occasion, eleven seconds was all the Tebow Time he needed. In the very first play, desperately protected by his Offensive Line from the Pittsburgh rush, he waited a tad over two seconds (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…) and fired a bullet up-field. The plan called for the receiver to run twenty yards north and cut fifteen yards eastward, and arrive exactly when and where the ball arrived.

It’s a beautiful piece of action – the crossing route executed at high speed. Eight or nine Offensive players are running every which-way, and the defenders don’t know which of them is the designated catcher. This time, the intersection was perfect. The receiver on the left ran up and across to the right, caught the ball at full speed, brushed aside a couple of grabs, veered left again and galloped sixty yards to the goal-line. Game over.

The home crowd went bananas, while Tim did his two-second kneel-down before joining in the hysteria. After scoring, he always went down on one knee for a couple of seconds with his head bowed, in the gesture known as Tebowing. Asked once whether he prayed to his God for a win, he shrugged and said, “God doesn’t care who wins football games, but it’s only fair to thank him when things go right.”
The son of missionaries, he was an evangelical Christian. During his College career, he adopted the common custom of football players of pasting black strips beneath their eyes to shield them from the glare. He advertised his faith by having John 3:16 (a famous verse from the Gospel) hand-printed in white on the black strip. In that Pittsburgh game he passed for 316 yards at 31.6 yards per completion. The TV commentators made a big play of the figures, and John 3:16 was the top search item on Google next morning. If you Google “3:16 game” you will have your choice of 56 million entries to read all about it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Minimum Wage in Cayman

The idea of a formal minimum wage is very attractive. Nobody should have to spend every hour of his waking life working just to keep body and soul together. A “living” wage, paid to reasonable people working reasonably conscientiously, for enough hours each week to allow time for a reasonable amount of leisure and a reasonable amount of savings. What could be fairer?

In practice, though, there are difficulties. By definition, only the lowest-paid workers in a community would receive the formal minimum. Everybody else would be paid more. Indeed, a formal “minimum wage” would in practice actually be several minimum wages – one for each of several occupations and personal circumstances.

So we’re faced with the likelihood of finding ourselves lumbered with yet another bloated Civil Service bureaucracy to monitor the separate minimum wages for all the occupations listed on the Census forms and maybe even in the Yellow Pages. Plus rewards for skills, experience and responsibility. Plus, gratuities and commissions would need to be reported and monitored. Plus, plus, plus. All formal minimum wages would be based on some kind of political advantage, with little consideration given to economic realities.

Would single individuals receive the same money as married-with-children? Surely not. Would every re-assignment mean a different pay-scale, like the notorious Civil Service “promotions” do? Probably. All disputes would require arbitration; there might need to be an entirely separate arbitration-justice system. All private-sector wages would be set by faceless bureaucrats assuaging their hunger for control.

There won’t be much left of our private-enterprise system. The FCO requires that all our professional politicians be native Caymanians, and almost all their cronies are too, naturally enough. The birthright-entitlement foolishness (endorsed by all the MLAs and cronies, as well as the FCO), would ensure that any minimum-wage legislation would discriminate against immigrants one way or another.

The most certain victims of discrimination would be our lowest-paid migrants. Most native Caymanian householders would flat-out refuse to return to the old days of doing their own housework, baby-minding and gardening. They would vote for a Minimum Wage only on the clear understanding that they could cheat with impunity. In practice, that would be allowed. They would pay their domestic workers below any formal minimum wage, regardless of what the law said.

Nobody in authority would hold them to account. Nobody in authority holds them to account now, if they short-pay their indentured servants and/or steal from them and/or over-work them. In the slavery era, there were good slave-owners and bad ones; it’s the same sort of thing now. It’s a personal option. Without protection from either law-enforcement or the see-no-evil Human Rights Commission, and with no labour unions permitted, unskilled migrants are easy to exploit.

Cayman’s rules for the poorest indentured labourers are arguably harsher than they were in the 1830s for the unskilled labourers imported to the West Indies from India and China. At least then there was a Protector of Immigrants charged with monitoring the migrants’ treatment. Today, we have an entire bureaucracy (the Immigration Department and its politically appointed committees) charged with protecting the migrants’ employers – i.e. the persons who hold the indentures. What a farcical situation that is!

So what would be the point of a Minimum Wage? It wouldn’t benefit migrant workers one bit, and would surely make unemployed Caymanians even less attractive to prospective employers. The most sensible way of helping our least-productive Caymanians would be to scrap the protectionism that is built into the labour-laws.

Make them know that in order to beat out migrants for jobs they must put in an honest week’s work every week. Holding yet another knife to the collective throat of private-sector employers, in the form of a Minimum Wage for Caymanians, would be yet another exercise in futility.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Who sold ISIS all those Toyotas?

Could it have been a Cayman company? Not directly, of course – dear me, no! But those who understand how offshore tax-havens work, recognize very clearly the advantages of channeling dodgy transactions through several jurisdictions in order to hide the paper-trail. A hot transaction like a fleet of Toyotas probably involved at least three offshore havens, plus a few onshore conduits like London and New York.

You have to feel sorry for the Toyota public-relations people. It wouldn’t have been they who did the deal. Or the marketing people. Yes, a sale is a sale, and Toyota pickups are ideal for dusty desert roads. But, enough already!

They’re extremely well built, Toyotas, and ideal for conversion to weapons of mobility in war zones. The ISIS ones look to have been modified according to US “Special Forces” specs, with speedy and heavy-duty off-road capabilities – and machine-gun mountings. Not the kind of vehicles evil revolutionaries could have bought in their local souk.

Did the Special Forces (CIA, specialist Marine units and the like) simply give ISIS some of their old vehicles left over from other US-sponsored conflicts in the Moslem world – or, worse, order Toyota’s US manufacturing plants to ship them directly to ISIS? No, no: that’s not how things are done in this electronic age.

Did some ISIS fifth-columnist in Texas buy a fleet from his local Toyota dealer and convert them in his back yard? Or, even, have the Toyota factory in San Antone or Tijuana make the required modifications? No: also unlikely.

Actually, it’s a mystery – and one that the Western MSM organs will turn a blind eye to, if they want to keep their advertisers, and their access to their political favourites. It would be interesting to know which offshore tax-havens were used in the transaction – from the initial purchase to the shipping and trans-shipping to the ultimate transfer of title- but we will probably never know.

A tax-haven professional from Cayman was once greeted warmly at a business luncheon in Brazil with the words, “Ah, the Cayman Islands… Brazil’s Number One supplier of oil!” As it was, technically, and may still be. Cayman-registered companies may still be the ultimate owners of most oil shipments to Brazil.

Maybe some Cayman-registered company is ISIS’s Number One supplier of Toyota trucks today. Who knows?

If you Google “Offshore tax-havens – what they do” (with the quotation marks), what comes up is a direct link to an item I posted on my blog in January last year. (If you do it without the quotation marks, it brings up a Wikipedia entry.) My blog-post doesn’t explain everything, but it gives the gist. There are other blog-posts in my Archive on the same general subject, usually identifiable by their titles. Though not always. “Lunching with the stars” – also Googleable – reminiscences about my life as a trust officer in Nassau.

Offshore jurisdictions are where exporters divert their profits to, mostly because profits are not taxed there. Title to international cargo can change a dozen times on a single voyage, as speculators buy and sell the goods or options on the goods. Sometimes, as with the ISIS Toyotas, profits are much less of a factor than secrecy.

The companies and security-agencies of any nation don’t want to be identified as the seller of sharp knives to the beheaders of Western citizens. The sellers all have their favourite tax-havens, of course. Cayman’s coterie of clever lawyers and bankers must make it popular with many of them. Not that our regulators would knowingly help anybody to ship weapons to known terrorists, even Western governments’ security-agencies. National security-agencies play their cards very close to their chests.

Actually, it is an open question as to whether ISIS are the anti-Western terrorists they are held out to be. I mean… if they are allowed to acquire the CIA’s specially modified Toyotas, they are actually among the Agency’s sub-agents, aren’t they? Every Western security-agency has its own favourite rebel group, just like it has its own favourite tax-haven. The Western MSM’s reluctance to enquire how ISIS did acquire its Toyotas speaks volumes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Uncle Charles and the Boko Haram

Boko Haram is the name that Western commentators give to one of the fundamentalist Moslem organizations in northern Nigeria. In the context of Islamism, a fair translation is probably “Purity”. Its members are fiercely anti-all-things-Western – not least, the national borders of Africa that were set in stone by generations of European politicians. Boko Haram doesn’t recognize those borders, and would like to establish a Moslem Caliphate – a theocratic empire with administrative districts but no independent nation-states.

(Boko Haram is notorious for having abducted two hundred Christian girls from a school in the region, and offered to exchange them for members of its cult held by the national government.)

The people of northern Nigeria were pagans from time immemorial until Moslem slavers, armies and missionaries pushed down from the coasts of North Africa and converted many of them to Islam. Some of the converts, and some of the remaining pagans, were later converted to Christianity by British slavers, armies and missionaries pushing up from the south.

I blame my Uncle Charles for much of the current trouble, including the abduction of the two hundred schoolgirls. Of course he was just following orders, as all soldiers do. In his case, the orders from London were to annihilate the local Moslem resistance-fighters led by the Sultan of Sokoto, in 1903. He did a good job of it. The death of the Sultan and his troops signaled the collapse of the Caliphate of the day.

The British Army rewarded Charles and his fellow officers with promotions and medals, and the missionaries moved in to save the souls of the survivors and their families. Occasional later rebellions were successfully put down – “brutally”, Wikipedia says – and the soldiers no doubt filled their boots with native blood. Local resentment simmered away on the back burner, culminating (perhaps) in the abduction of the schoolgirls earlier this year. So thanks for nothing, Uncle Charles!

Actually, he was my father’s uncle – not mine – the last of his generation of Barlows to die. He and his older brother were career Army Officers. Both were participants in the invasion and occupation of the Afrikaans republics – “The Boer War”. Lionel stayed in South Africa after the war, and his descendants were eventually dispossessed of their farm in Zimbabwe a decade or so ago. What goes around, comes around, right? Empires come and go.

Another brother died of malaria while farming in Madagascar, of all places; yet another was killed by aborigines in the Australian bush while panning for gold without their permission. (Somewhere in my papers I have the envelope that once held the last letter his mother wrote to him from England. Addressed to Graham Barlow, Esq, Coen Gold Fields, North Queensland, it was returned undelivered in 1898. On the envelope she noted, “Graham was never heard from again”.)

A fourth brother signed on with an Australian shipping line after the South African war, and married a passenger from Toowoomba. Uncle Charles used to send his Australian nephews ten pounds every Christmas, just to keep in touch. That was nice. The expectation of meeting me, in 1963, kept him alive for an extra little while, his daughter Lucy told me. He died a week after we met, on his deathbed in the house where he and my grandfather had been born, outside Bath, Somerset.

Lucy died unmarried and childless, so I was allowed to take assorted bits of silverware the burglars didn’t carry away – souvenirs of a life spent expanding the Empire. Ross uses one of his Polo trophies from Nigeria as an ashtray in the cabin in Norway. Sigh. What can I say? Sic transit gloria, really.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Village Greenies Cricket Club

A “greenie” was a bottle of Heineken, the most popular beer in Cayman at the time, at least among cricketers. Our club’s name had nothing to do with the village greens of England, but the name was cleverly chosen.

In the beginning, the club was often scratching around for players in the weekend limited-overs league, so I got the odd game despite my overwhelming lack of talent. Fortunately, nobody wanted to open the batting except me. I couldn’t score runs, but I was hard to shift.

All my runs were scored through the slips, from deliberate nudges off the outside edge, leaning forward from a stance a foot or so down the wicket – left elbow well up in order to keep the ball down. Balls outside the off-stump missed my prod; balls headed for the stumps got the edge and bounced before they reached slip and usually went through. It was the best I could do.

As Cayman’s expat population grew, there became enough useless-but-keen players to warrant a second team. I was barely good enough to play even for the Greenies Two, but was appointed captain by virtue of my willingness to provide sandwiches for lunch every time we played. (Linda made the sandwiches, of course, but the responsibility for reminding her was mine…)

We were never the worst team in the league. We usually managed to give West Bay a kicking, and the Schoolboys, and indeed we had our moments of glory. Only two that I can think of, but they were memorable. Once, we actually beat our senior team. The local newspaper’s sports writer gave us a wonderful back-page headline in bold caps: GREENIES TWO ARE NUMBER ONE! That didn’t sit well with our embarrassed betters, but Alan and I got a good laugh over it. And From then on they made a point of promoting any of our team who looked promising.

The other “moment of glory” occurred the day we no-hopers fought the League champions to a forty-overs draw. Not a tie, mind, but a draw. Purists may point out that a limited-overs match can’t end in a draw – but there’s a story goes with it. On this occasion, By-Rite (the champions, whose sponsorship by a local supermarket meant they didn’t have to make their own sandwiches) batted first and racked up a massive total of 246 for two, if I recall. Maybe it was 264. Nothing we could ever reach, anyway. Their batsmen whacked our poor bowlers all around the park, and ran us ragged.

On form, we could maybe last for half an hour against their class bowlers. If their fielders dropped a few catches we might accumulate forty runs. It was a beautiful sunny day, and most of their team were keen to wrap the game up quickly and hit the beach. But – well – never say die, eh? I persuaded my fellows to play for a draw. Let them bowl us out, if they could.

As it happened, they couldn’t. The opposition were livid when they saw what we were up to, and begged us to have a swish and get out. Every half-hour we hung around was half an hour less time for the beach. Looking back, I don’t know how we managed to score any runs at all; we certainly didn’t try to. At the end of the day – and it pretty much was the end of the day, by the time they had bowled their forty overs – we had sixty-something on the board, and nine wickets down. The last-wicket partnership was as tense a time as we ever experienced as a team.

A Village Greenies team did actually get to play on some real village greens in England, in 1981. It was a select team, eligibility for which was a willingness to pay for the trip and to give up one’s vacation time. Ross and I went (he was aged six at the time), and among our collage of snapshots here at home is a photo of Ross batting throw-downs from Charlie Griffith, our celebrity guest-player.

Charlie was a West Indies legend. He and Wes Hall were the best fast-bowling pair in the world, for a few years in the 1960s, and Charlie was ferocious. He was down to medium-pace in 1981, but as competitive as ever. “The most disgraceful piece of fielding I’ve seen in my life!” He told me with withering contempt, when I let a leg-glance through for a boundary at Budleigh Salterton. Well, maybe he was telling the truth, at that. So when he offered to give us all some throw-downs, later, I sent Ross in instead of me.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The ancient clans of Britain

Celtic clan-indicators have long held a fascination for me. They all seem to have originated as glottal-stop prefixes. A glottal-stop is the sound in the middle of uh-oh, and of butter in some English dialects. Think of that line from “Right Said Fred” (the song, not the band): “Bu’ i’ did no good; wew I never fough’ i’ would!” Hmmm. You have to say it out loud to get the full effect…

 In modern surnames, the stop is represented by the Irish O-apostrophe, and with closed lips it’s usually perceived in Ireland and Scotland as M-apostrophe – and indeed that’s how it was written until recent times: M’Arthur, M’Allan, M’Innis. In the 18th Century that was gradually changed to Mc or Mac: MacArthur, Macallan, McInnis. In Wales, with the lips still closed but with a slightly different delivery, the sound was usually perceived as either ‘p or p’, depending – and written ap as a prefix to surnames; ap-Rees and ap-Harry. (Priest and Parry, in later versions.)

The Celtic languages and dialects were relatively late comers to the spoken languages of Britain, and they were never spoken all over the Island(s). Between the very first settlers of Britain – described in the preceding blog to this one – and the Celtic settlers lie thousands of years and hundreds of generations, and an unknown number of other immigrant groups speaking other languages.

As far as I can tell, there has been little enquiry into the languages of Britain before the Celts – or even before the arrival of the Roman Empire. The whole of Britain is supposed to have been speaking one or other of the Celtic languages when the Roman armies arrived, but that’s unlikely to have been the case. After all, the whole of the territory under Rome’s rule didn’t speak Latin by the end of its 20 generations of occupation.

All the local nobles and administrators probably did, just as their successors spoke Anglo-Saxon by the end of those Germans’ occupation, and Scandinavian in the northern regions by the end of the Vikings’ occupation, and French for generations after the Norman conquest. But the bulk of any society doesn’t adopt a new language every time it’s conquered.

The peasantry is far too conservative to do that, and invaders don’t come in large enough numbers to change an entire population’s speech. Anyway, slaughtering the natives is never as sensible as enslaving them. Somebody has to till the fields and milk the cows and provide sexual services to the new masters. Genocide is a wasteful self-indulgence. The Roman Empire practised ethnic cleansing once in a while, but the Celts and the other foreign rulers didn’t.

The British peoples who were invaded and conquered by Rome two thousand years ago – were they radically different from either their distant descendants or their distant ancestors? There is no convincing reason to think so, whether in their basic DNA, or their language, or their clan-identities.

It would take an overwhelming invasion of the whole of Britain to alter those things to any significant degree, and there is no proof of such an invasion in the past. Histories claim that the Celts did come in overwhelming numbers – but the failure of any Celtic speech to survive east of the present borders makes that an implausible claim. Codswallop, in other words.

Actually, there is one important piece of evidence against a totalitarian invasion, although it has rarely if ever been taken into account. That evidence is the fact that English is unique in western Europe in its absence of grammatical genders. No le and la, die, der and das, -en and -et, or their Latin or Celtic equivalents: just plain old the. No grammatical genders for any nouns, ever.

On a typical farm, foreign male occupiers and their native female companions will call things by their respective names for them. That’s how genders arose in every western language but English. But when populations survive foreign invasions intact, a need for male and female grammatical genders never does arise. It’s worth saying again… English is unique in western Europe in its absence of linguistic genders. That didn’t come about by accident. English has always been the language of the native British, since Day One.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

England’s aborigines

Britain’s first settlers emigrated from what is now France or Spain, anywhere from seven to twelve thousand years ago, while Britain was still mostly covered with ice, and before the English Channel made an island of it. Well, that’s the conventional wisdom. I think France is a reasonable guess, but Spain might have been too far to come by boats made of woven reeds.

I’ve never heard of any guesses as to why the first settlers moved from their homes to an uninhabited land at the end of the habitable earth. Were they nomads who slept in caves, or rude shelters in forests like those of the Australian aborigines? Were they men-only, or mixed company? Did they move of their own accord, or were they exiled by the folks back home, to survive if they could? Might they have been a convict colony, an early Devil’s Island? Or the remnants of a clan defeated in battle, victims of prehistoric ethnic-cleansing?

Despite the huge time-gap, could the 17th Century settlement of Cayman hold any clues? Maybe so. Our islands were first settled by vagabonds, outlaws and escaped slaves. There was no existing population, and no law or administration. We don’t know their individual names or colours, except to the degree that we can trace backwards in time from their descendants.

The point is that there is a huge difference between settling a land where others already live, and virgin territory. Britain would not have been a welcoming place: wild animals and weeds are all that would have greeted the original adventurers, and some young forests growing up as the ice retreated northward. The population of the new land may have amounted to only a few hundred – maybe a thousand – for the first several generations.

It has been claimed that the DNAs of those first few hundred are present in today’s “native” British (not just the English). If that’s so, then it’s more likely than not that one common language was spoken – the language of the folks back home. And it’s more likely than not that that language was the ancestor of both French and English.

The ancestral languages would have changed under the influence of other languages they met – more in France than in Britain, since there were no other languages in Britain to begin with. The rampaging tribes from the east took hundreds of years to reach Britain in any numbers.

Last year I blogged (English as she is spoke, July 2013) that it is accents that are responsible for the way words are pronounced, not dialects. In the course of time, seemingly insignificant changes of pronunciation cause words to become incomprehensible. Look at French and English words. Look at French and English personal names. 

What names did the aborigines of Britain bear? We’ve no idea. Ug and Ogg… Ben and Ken… Molly and Polly… who knows? We don’t even know what they called themselves as a community, or what differentiations existed within the community. Were they from a single family or clan, or were they clans that coalesced into a new tribe – like The Children of Israel did (as per my blog of January 2012)? And like the settlers of Cayman did in the 19th Century when former slaves and their former owners shrugged off their distinctions and became “native” Caymanians with a tribal identity that was peculiarly their own.

Molly and Polly are the same name, differentiated only by dialectal preferences in the way the initial consonants are sounded. Matt and Pat, too. The letter -p- requires only the slightest vocalization to become -mp- and then -m-. There’s no change of lip movement, even. In the middle of French words, it‘s called nasalization when mp shrinks to p – and when nt skips the n sound. La plume de ma tante… C'est simple.

The earliest recorded name of the island of Britain is, actually, Britain, called after the inhabitants whom the scribes called “Britanni” or "Pretani”. Unfortunately, that record is thousands of years – hundreds of generations – after the original settlement, and its value as evidence is negligible. Nevertheless, it’s the only hint we have. And if we can find a plausible base for Britanni, we may be onto something.

Next blog: The Ancient Clans of England.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

How could I ever forget Whatsisname?

The things you find when you’re throwing out old books and papers! Somehow, the other day, an old address-book from 1966 surfaced, and I’ve been surfing through it trying to put faces and incidents to the names in it. (I’m talking about a real old-fashioned handwritten address book. Younger readers can ask their grandparents what that is.)

The names are grouped by countries of residence, and some were transcribed from an earlier book. In A for Australia: Ray Hudson of Sydney, met at a Youth Hostel in Hammerfest on 12th August 1963 when I was hitching through Scandinavia on my own. (The Summer of ’63, in the Archives of January 2013.) We met up again in London that winter, apparently. And Ron Winch, also of Sydney, whom Linda and I hung around with on 19th & 20th January 1965 in Damascus. “A v nice bloke”, I noted: unusual praise. So why do I have no recollection of the hanging-around?

On the page for Austria there is an entry for Peter and Herwart Kramer, whom we visited in Vienna on 11th April 1965 for a cup of tea. Peter was the brother of Stefan Mueller of Tirgo Jiu in the Saxon region of Rumania whom we’d met a week earlier. A note says I spoke German with both brothers. That must have been fun for them.

 In The German Lesson posted on this blog in May 2012 I confessed how desperately bad my spoken German was. I can scarcely imagine how I had the cheek to impose myself on strangers in a strange land and language. Did I phone ahead (surely not!), or did we just turn up on the doorstep? “Hello. Your brother said you’d give us a cup of tea. How about it?” I can’t recall.

 Only years later did I read up about the Saxons (Sachsens), ethnic Germans settled in Transylvania from the 11th Century onwards by the rulers of Austria and/or Hungary. They had kept their own language ever since, though it would have been a distinct dialect, and probably not much like the German of the west. The ones we met spoke standard German to me: that’s all I know.

There were 250,000 or so living there at the time of our visit. One man assured us, “Things weren’t so bad during the War”. Probably not. But the community as a whole had looked kindly on the Nazi governments of Germany and Austria, and after the war the imperial Soviets relocated tens of thousands of them to other parts of the Union. The fall of Ceausescu in 1989 triggered the departure of most of the remainder, this time to Germany.

Also in Transylvania we stayed with Alfred & Inge Bauman in Sibiu. “Board & friendship – 3rd-5th April 1965”, I wrote. That was while my car was in the shop (Co-op Tehnica Mona) having a new transmission installed. That incident, I remember: but the accommodation, not at all.

Nor do I recall the pension on the outskirts of Sofia (Bulgaria) where we had stayed 25th-28th March, run by Dmitri Ctaunoh. (I’m not sure about the name; he wrote it in the book in Cyrillic script, and the letters don’t all have exact transcriptions in Latin script.) I have "Rom" beside his name, which must mean he was of Rumanian nationality and not that we spoke Rumanian together. Bulgaria came before Rumania on our itinerary. I have no recollection at all – not only of Dmitri but of the whole city of Sofia. What ingratitude, in the face of such kindnesses!

Some sights are remembered, though not always in the correct context. For decades I claimed to have inspected the stuffed body of Ceausescu’s predecessor in Bucharest, and I can see it clearly. But Wikipedia tells me I’ve been wrong all this time. The body we saw was that of Georgi Dimitrov, sometime dictator of Bulgaria, and the place was Sofia.

We queued up with thirty locals and filed reverently though the mausoleum in the main square. Thirty doesn’t sound many: perhaps there were more. We were much keener to see Lenin’s body - embalmed and entombed - in Moscow when we got there, but there must have been a thousand people waiting in a long line on a hot day, and we didn’t have the patience. If you’ve seen one dead dictator’s mummy, you’ve seen them all, pretty much.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Toothpaste and duty-free gin

We have a good relationship with airlines, in our family. I only fly twice a year – once via London to Oslo and once back. But Linda takes occasional trips on her own as well, mostly to Central America and occasionally to south-east Asia. Ross spends the odd weekend monitoring Wycombe Wanderers’ slide down the Football League rankings in England, and occasionally takes short breaks to someplace warm on the Mediterranean coast.

A few weeks ago we missed our British Airways connection at Heathrow, and the girl at the BA desk invited me to phone Ross in Norway and tell him when to expect us. That was kind. At the Oslo airport one of the greeters called Ross and told him the exact time our train would arrive at the Central Station. (The airport chap wasn’t employed by an airline, but I don’t mind giving them credit for his niceness. The Norskies are like that, anyway.)

The secret of a pleasant flight is to lock oneself into a low expectation. We don’t find in-flight meals bad, really, except the bread rolls are always stale. The hosties are invariably pleasant, and keep us well watered. Even the toilets across the Atlantic are OK, considering the circumstances. Crying babies can’t be avoided every time, but what the heck. Maybe we’re becoming a bit more tolerant in our old age. Or a bit more deaf.

Touch wood, but we never encounter drunks on board. God, I would hate that. Why on earth do airlines allow passengers to board when drunk or to drink their carry-on liquor during the flight? Surely that’s asking for trouble. Is it beyond the wit of man to re-design airports so as to make duty-free liquor available after arrival instead of before departure? No, it’s not. Oslo’s airport sells duty-free items at both ends – which gets things halfway right, at least.

Every published blog or article about plane journeys contains complaints about passengers who recline their seats. “The most offensive thing people can do!” “The person in front should sit up straight at all times even if he has to go without sleep the whole night!” “Selfish buggers!”

Pfffh! I recline my seat (as gently and inoffensively as I can), and have never been chastised for it. Lucky me. Indeed, I protest vigorously if my seat won’t recline to the full extent. If challenged – and it’s bound to happen one day – I might offer to swap seats with the complainant; or I might ask the hostie to arbitrate; or I might just tell the challenger to shut up and live with it, and hope to get away with my defiance.

Surprisingly, every published blog or article about plane journeys does not complain about the so-called security-searches. Those farcical procedures are based on three major premises.

• Every terrorist-group in the world is fixated on destroying planes in flight. Not buses, trains, trucks, vans or boats – not even transport terminals. No. Just planes, and just while in flight.
• While every terrorist in the world is trained to disable planes and crews with eyebrow-tweezers and flip-flops (separately, I mean: either-or, not in combination), he or she has no idea how to use bottles of duty-free liquor as lethal weapons.
• While every terrorist in the world is skilled in making bombs out of a six-ounce toothpaste-tube and a bottle of water from the kitchen tap at home. They are not skilled (mercifully) in making bombs with the contents of two three-ounce toothpaste-tubes and a bottle of water from a shop inside the duty-free area. Or – OR – with the contents of innumerable phials of shampoo or conditioner stolen from a hotel the night before. The bomb-making syllabus is surprisingly narrow, at terrorist training-schools.

Those of us who criticize the Western secret-service agencies must give credit where credit is due. How many million man-hours of overtime must it have taken to discover the danger we face from six-ounce toothpaste-tubes – in such stark contrast to the innocuous three-ounce tubes?

The agencies know all the dangers, of course. But I don’t, and I take no chances. In my family we practice safe tooth-brushing even at home. We don’t mix our toothpaste with water from the tap. We brush and rinse only with duty-free gin, and we carefully decant the paste into three-ounce tubes. There will be no accidental explosions in this house, thank you very much!

Friday, July 4, 2014

The last surviving player (A sporting life - Horses)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Dodging “Big Brother”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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