Not Saussure

May 14, 2007

Heavy Drinkers

Filed under: Blogroll, Russia/USSR — notsaussure @ 5:04 pm

Via a comment in Mr Eugenides’ blog, I see a rather unpleasant story by Iain Dale about the appalling behaviour of a senior Labour politician over a decade ago; Dale’s rightly been criticised by many people in the comments section for failing to mention that, at the time, the politician had an alcohol problem that he’s since acknowledged and that he’s been dry for 10 years at least.   Indeed, I seem to recall reading somewhere that he quit when the late John Smith had apparently told him to choose between drinking and a front-bench Labour post.

Reminded me, though, of a story a friend of mine who I haven’t seen for many years told me at my mother’s funeral.    I can’t vouch for it, but, knowing my friend, it’s almost certainly true, though possibly a bit embroidered.   She’s a London tour guide and, some years ago, was taking a bus-load of schoolgirls round London.   The coach pulled up near the Palace of Westminster, where she was supposed to take the girls off the bus and walk them round the area, take them round the Abbey and so forth.   However, as they were disembarking, a very flustered police woman, wearing a flack-jacket and carrying a machine gun (at least according to my friend) rushed up and ordered them back on the coach.   Panic among the schoolgirls, of course, and there’s my friend absolutely furious and trying simultaneously to calm the girls and find out what on earth is going on.

Then, round the corner comes a group of officials, police officers and so on, two of them carrying a semi-conscious Boris Yeltsin, who was then on an official visit to London.   As she said, clearly he’d had a brief walking tour round the area, or at least round the Palace of Westminster, on his schedule and turned up utterly legless.    What she couldn’t understand though, and neither can, is why on earth no one had the sense to cancel it, but instead decided they’d do the tour even though they had to carry the drunken president.   Presumably Boris Nikolayevich wouldn’t have minded — probably wouldn’t even have noticed — if it had been cancelled..


May 13, 2007

Curious searches

Filed under: Russia/USSR, Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 1:15 pm

I made a resolution I wasn’t going to succumb to the temptation of writing about the odd searches that lead people to this blog, so it was, of course, inevitable that I would write about it….

Every day, though, two or three people arrive here having googled for the phrase ‘Fuck you’.  It’s not my habit to swear — my late wife, who swore like a Hull fishwife (coming from Hull and having been PA for the director of a trawler company, you see) didn’t like it, since she knew that meant I was about seriously to lose my temper — so it leads only to a post about the Iranian writer of graphic novels, Marjane Satrapi, a lady whom it is clearly unwise to tell she shouldn’t smoke.  And now, of course, here.

Why, though, do people google for that phrase? Other than if you’re trying to find the Phillip Larkin poem, (it’s here, by the way), I can’t think of a reason for so doing. People presumably know what it means and when it’s commonly used.

Or maybe not — my sometime interpreter and PA in Russia, the lovely and talented Inna, had a somewhat mischievous sense of humour, as I discovered when I asked her to teach me a few useful Russian phrases. My, how we laughed when I discovered that, rather than asking waiters and waitresses for — as I thought — an ashtray, I’d been asking for something completely different (which I would doubtless have enjoyed, but it’s hardly the sort of thing one asks of a complete stranger….). No wonder I kept on getting strange looks, and it’s a tribute to the hospitality of the Hotel Astoria in St Petersburg that I didn’t get my face slapped. I began to smell a rat after the barman in the night club there told me he’d be glad to oblige, but I’d probably be better off asking one of the young ladies sitting at the far end of the bar, and it would probably cost $150 (the price one pays, you see, for staying in posh hotels).

I did, after that, tend to check her advice on colloquial phrases rather closely.

April 23, 2007

MPs and the evils of drink

Filed under: Politics, Russia/USSR, UK — notsaussure @ 2:54 pm

Mr Eugenides has an amusing story about the misfortunes some time ago of Baron Foulkes of Cumnock (né plain George Foulkes before Tony ennobled him) after enjoying himself too well at a party thrown by the Scotch Whisky Association.

It rather reminded me of a tale I heard — from one of the other MPs who was there — about the late Andrew Faulds MP, memorable not only for his political but for his acting career before he went into politics. I knew he’d phalerus.jpgplayed Carver Doone in the TV adaptation of Lorna Doone, but I hadn’t realised he’d also appeared in Jason And The Argonauts as Phalerus. You learn something every day.


April 13, 2007

Encouragment of terrorism?

Filed under: nemesis, Russia/USSR, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 8:08 pm

Boris Berezovsky and his big mouth. To my mind, he’s certainly presented HMG with a bit of a problem in the form of his interview with The Guardian:

“We need to use force to change this regime,” he said. “It isn’t possible to change this regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force, pressure.” Asked if he was effectively fomenting a revolution, he said: “You are absolutely correct.”

The Guardian have the whole 42 minute interview here,to which I haven’t listened, and a couple of brief clips where he discusses using force to get rid of President Putin here and here. He also told the Guardian,

“There is no chance of regime change through democratic elections,” he says. “If one part of the political elite disagrees with another part of the political elite – that is the only way in Russia to change the regime. I try to move that.”While declining to describe these contacts – and alleging that they would be murdered if they were identified – he maintained that he was offering his “experience and ideology” to members of the country’s political elite, as well as “my understanding of how it could be done”. He added: “There are also practical steps which I am doing now, and mostly it is financial.” (more…)

March 24, 2007

Looking forward to The Trap

Filed under: BBC, Iraq, Politics, Russia/USSR, UK — notsaussure @ 10:20 pm

Perhaps I should wait until I’ve seen tomorrow night’s programme, but I’ve been puzzling all week about this quote from the Blairwatch interview with Adam Curtis about The Trap.    In it he says, of tomorrow’s film,

The only problem, which is what the last film says, is that when they then try and do that, the only thing they can offer, whether it be the Russian people or the Afghani people or Iraqi people, is a narrow economic idea of freedom which has no meaning or purpose if you are a complicated society divided along nationalist religious and political religious lines.

The thing that I find fascinating about the whole Iraq venture, which is really what I look at in the last film, is the way that they went into Baghdad with an economic plan which basically said that you get rid of all the elitist institutions that have ruled this society and spontaneously then people will rise up as these individuals in the marketplace. That was the idea, they had no other idea, and that’s a very narrow idea of freedom. I see Blair’s tragedy as a man who wanted to try and change the world but the sort of freedom he then tried to bring with him was too narrow and limited to cope with the complexities.

If that’s all he’s saying, it seems to leave a great deal out of the account. Russia, of which I saw something first-hand during the late ’80s and early ’90s, never actually got rid of the ‘elite institutions,’ as he calls them; there wasn’t a sudden change, and it’s hard to see how there could have been. By and large, the old elites managed the privatisation process (so-called; looting might be a better term); there was hardly much market competition for the more desirable assets. Those were merely transferred from the ministries that used to run them to companies, owned and run by the same people who’d been running the companies and ministries, who were now raking in the profits for themselves.

Furthermore, the country completely lacked the fundamentals of an open, free market such as the rule of law and a banking system anyone could understand, and the notional state regulation was so impossible that everyone paid bribes to avoid it as a matter of course. You do not have a free market, in any normal meaning of the word, when contract disputes are settled not in the courts but with firearms.

As to Iraq, I would have said that the plan Mr Curtis describes — going in, telling the people they’re free and expecting everything to work — sounds too bizarre to possibly be true, but since going in without any coherent plan for the occupation was pretty bizarre, too, I suppose nothing should surprise me. But how a market is supposed to operate without any production, without laws, without courts for quite a while… obviously you’d have chaos.

And in a chaotic situation like that, people will naturally group round others who look as if they can protect their interests; these people will naturally be the chaps with the best guns and who’re prepared to be the most ruthless, and also the chaps who you feel you can trust to extent, because they’re from your clan or your area, or you feel you have some connection, even if it’s that you served in the army together and got on.

You cannot expect to have any sort of free society without the institutions to run it, and without people’s consent to those institutions — which will only come, if it comes at all, over time as people learn whether or not they can trust them.

I’d always assumed that the nonsense about the Coalition being greeted as liberators and Iraq becoming a free society almost overnight was just guff to feed the American public and that no one actually believed it. If Curtis is telling us that it was meant to be serious and makes out a convincing case that President Bush and Mr Blair actually believed their lies, then things are far worse than I thought.

I look forward to tomorrow night’s programme with great interest.

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January 6, 2007

Nuclear submarines and Siberian tigers

Filed under: Russia/USSR — notsaussure @ 12:25 pm

Via English Russia, a couple of oddities. First, a detailed set of pictures from Google Earth showing detailed images of Russian military bases, predominantly naval, warships and nuclear submarines up near Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula (in the North West, up by Norway and Finland), the sort of thing that only the spooks would have seen 15 or 20 years ago. There are some astonishing ones of huge hulks just lying on their sides in the water, rusting. Greenpeace would not be happy.

Second, this, taken by a CCTV camera in a Siberian village, apparently showing a Siberian, or Amur, tiger wandering into town one night and being chased off by a very territorial little dog.

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December 6, 2006

No extradition in Litvinenko case

Filed under: Law, Russia/USSR, UK — notsaussure @ 12:55 am

Why’s it news that Russia’s prosecutor general, Mr Yuir Chaika (if I recall correctly, his name means ‘Seagull’, as in the Chekov play) has announced that ‘any trial of a Russian citizen must take place in Russia’?

According to the Groan,

“If they want to arrest them it would be impossible – they are citizens of Russia and the Russian constitution makes that impossible,” he said, adding that any Russian citizens suspected of involvement would be tried in Russia.

His words contrasted with those of Tony Blair, who insisted no political or diplomatic barrier would be allowed to stand in the way of the British investigation into Mr Litvinenko’s death.

I can’t say I’d ever bothered to look it up, but I’d assumed that we didn’t have any sort of extradition treaty with Russia. We certainly didn’t have one with the Soviet Union, and I hadn’t remembered us signing one with the Russians. And, while I’m not sure if it’s the Guardian trying to make the news sound more … err … like news than it is, if you see what I mean, or yet another indication of our Dear Leader’s megalomania, it’s hardly surprising the Russians would see a constitutional ban on extraditing their citizens as a bit of a bar to sending someone here for prosecution.

We’re actually pretty unusual in our enthusiasm for shipping our citizens off for trial in other countries — and not just to the US, either; France, Germany and Austria, for example, at least as far as I know, won’t extradite their nationals anywhere outside the EU.

And I’m pretty sure that even Blair, confronted with a demand by the Russians to send a British citizen to stand trial in Moscow for an alleged murder there, would reply that we’d rather try him here if they’ll give us the evidence (murder, at least by a British citizen, is one for which the courts have extra-territorial jurisdiction), which is exactly what the Russians have told us.

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October 28, 2006

The Wild East

Filed under: Foreigners, Russia/USSR — notsaussure @ 3:12 pm

Via Tim Worstall, an account of official dinners and privatisation in Tiblisi from Johan Norberg. As Mr Norberg says, ‘When Georgians do things, they apparently take it seriously’.

A friend of mine in the airline business went to Tiblisi about 15 years ago to talk about setting up a joint venture with the state airline there (it fell though because Gatwick had concerns about Georgians and security; for some reason they seemed to think it was a bit like setting up a joint venture with Air Sicily).

Anyway, my chum came back a bit shaken because he and his colleagues had entertained the local bigwigs for dinner at the hotel where they were staying, the Metchi Palace (it was then owned by Kempinski Hotels, so things might have changed since, but it was still a five-star hotel run by a major Western chain).

They ‘d been a bit worried, when first they arrived, to see a sign there saying that firearms were not allowed in the restaurant and to find that they had to pass through an airport-style metal detector before going in for breakfast.

They were even more surprised when, as they went in for dinner with their guests, not only their guests’ bodyguards but also all the guests — including the Chairman of the Georgian national airline, a junior finance minister, the Minister for Aviation and several senior civil servants — had handguns to check in with the Austrian security folks, who seemed to think it as normal as giving your coat to the cloakroom.

As Garry said, ‘This never happens when we take BA out for dinner’.

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September 16, 2006

Language Problems

Filed under: Australia, civil liberties, Islam, Politics, Russia/USSR, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 3:25 pm

I learn from the Australian blog, Democracy Frontline, that

AUSTRALIA’S Islamic clerics have been told they must draw on the teachings of Islam to condemn terrorism, and preach in English.The federal Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Andrew Robb today called on more than 100 Australian imams and Muslim leaders attending a government-sponsored conference to denounce extremist misrepresentations of Islam.

Hmm. Does this mean they are only to be prevented from speaking to members of their congregations in the language of their choice while they’re preaching, or is the prohibition to be more wide-ranging?

I foresee problems; one can easily imagine circumstances in which several of the congregation, after the homily, explain to the Imam that they’re dreadfully sorry that their English isn’t better — no criticism of him whatsoever, they’re sure that he speaks perfect English — but, while they could understand he was condemning terrorism, they rather lost the detail of his argument, which they were sure was excellent, so we he mind summarising it in their mutual mother tongue. What’s the poor chap to do? Can he so do after the service in whatever a mosque’s equivalent of a vestry is, or do they have to go over the road to Starbuck’s? Or is he supposed to speak English at all times and in all circumstances?

That might be safest, and something similar’s been done before with some success, albeit temporary; a friend of mine from Barcelona recalls getting into great trouble as a child for speaking Catalan to his parents anywhere outside the house, since General Franco really didn’t like it and it could get his parents into all sorts of trouble if the wrong person heard.

Reminds me, for some reason, of a story I once heard from the landlord of a pub in Clerkenwell (I think it was The Green), the top room of which used to be hired by various shady foreign anarchist characters, including a Mr Trotsky, back in the early 1900s for their meetings and to edit their paper, Iskra. Special Branch got wind of this, particularly since they’d heard that some particularly important big-wig in this subversive movement, one Mr Lenin, was coming over from the Continent to see them. Accordingly, Special Branch arranged with the pub to conceal one of their finest in a cupboard in the room where the meeting was to take place, to take notes.

Unfortunately, they’d neglected to send an officer who understood Russian.

September 15, 2006

Some mistake, surely?

Filed under: Russia/USSR, UK, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 5:58 pm

The government’s habit of dealing with problems by appointing people to deal with them, or not, and calling them ‘Tzars’ gives rise to ever more strange results. The ill-fated Keith Halliwell’s job title ‘Drugs Tzar’ was bad enough — partly because it didn’t sit too well with his war on drugs barons (unless, I suppose, the Tzar in question was Ivan the Terrible), and partly because it kept on making me wonder who the Drugs Rasputin was.

But now, I see,

A national terrorism tsar overseeing up to 10 new regional squads is to be created under proposals being drawn up by the government’s policing watchdog

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Shake-up for anti-terror policing

Cheka-KGB emblem: sword and shieldThis is a bit inappropriate; surely we need a Terror Stolypin to lead this Okhrana or, since it’s New Labour, either a Terror Dzerzhinsky or — perhaps even better, given Dr Reid’s political history and the tabloids’ worries about the Poles coming here and taking everyone’s jobs, a Terror Beria to lead our new all-Britain extraordinary commission.

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