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Thank heavens for a failure in further European monetary union… August 30, 2005

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This must be the only thing I can half-agree with Lukashenka on… Mind you, surely monetary union with Russia was at least half his idea to start with. Anyway, the fact that this project has been put off again only makes me all the more positive that it might never happen at all. Surely it would be the kiss of death to Belarus’s maintained independence. (And, honestly, would it really be so hard for the BBC Russian service to write Беларусь and not Белоруссия?)

Aggers, do stop it! August 28, 2005

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And it would seem I’m not the only one to enjoy that little gem…

Cricket fever August 28, 2005

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This is really a blog entry to myself, for the first time I’ve got involved in the annual Ashes fever since Botham was at his heydey. And in cricketing mood, and just so that I can always have a link to make me laugh, here’s this audio cricketing gem. You might need to be English to appreciate it, though perhaps not. RIP Johnners.

Third Way August 22, 2005

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I haven’t really scoured this site, but it looks fairly interesting, and any initiative in Belarus that isn’t imposed top-down has got to be worth supporting. It hosts the animations that could cost the creator his liberty referred to in another post earlier today. My only quibble – although this is a personal quirk of mine – is that Belarusian isn’t one of the working languages of the site (although German and English are). I don’t think it’s being prissy or pernickety to want Belarusian. (At least it appears to flourish on the forum pages.) It is one of the two state languages, after all, and is far from dead. (I met a native-speaker this weekend, in fact. He was with another Belarusian passport-holder originally from Russia. You can guess his reaction when I asked what language they spoke to each other.) Anyway, who knows what hopes for a Third Way solution to benefit Belarus? And the fact that 46.55% of voters in the only poll I looked at said, ‘я за Лукашенко, пойду защищать его с гранатометом’ (I’m pro-Lukashenka and would defend him with a grenade-launch if need be), thus winning the day, is a bit of a worry…

Berlin blues August 22, 2005

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I couldn’t resist linking to this. I’m delighted to see one can now blame geography – as I’ve always secretly wanted to – for a good chunk of one’s ills!

All about Belarus August 22, 2005

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All About Latvia brings attention to Lukashenka’s latest outrage. Imagine that efforts are made to stop someone sitting at home in his flat from creating animations on his computer! Too ludicrous. Yes, obviously they’re critical of Lukashenka and his ludicrous cronies, but one would be hard pushed to believe that, even in Belarus, an amateur’s creations are what the regime most has to fear. But fear them they clearly do. I’ve said it before, and it goes without saying, but do let’s hope Belarus will one day flourish and prosper, as it so easily could. Жыве Беларусь!

Those Germans, eh? August 22, 2005

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…coming over here and stealing our places on psychiatric wards… In a way, there’s nothing THAT interesting about the piano man and his not-that-unusual-surely story, but I, like, no doubt, millions of others, of course got vaguely into the intrigue of it all. So, it turns out he’s German. Now we Englanders are rather proud of our ability to produce eccentrics. Yet I think our German cousins are certainly pushing us for top spot. I know it’s understating things slightly to call this man’s behaviour – silent for four months – mere eccentricity, but he’s in the top flight of Germans doing the oddest of things. Sven Jaschan made something of a name for himself by inventing the horriblest computer virus yet and ruining plenty of people’s lives, if only fleetingly (although perhaps long-term, too. I usually consider suicide if my computer is broken for more than 12 seconds)… And, then, the number of extraordinary moustaches one still sees adorning German chops is another string to their eccentric bow. It makes me like them. As an Englander living amongst them, I think I rarely outeccentric them (although I must be the ONLY person in the country not receiving some kind of state benefit. Now that IS majorly odd).

Tiergartenquelle drawing August 19, 2005

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: a drawing on a beer-mat of a dear friend, penned by my own good hand, in keeping with the tradition of the Tiergartenquelle, a nice, traditional Berlin restaurant, serving good German stodge and heavenly beer. So comforting in winter.

You callin’ my mum a slag? August 19, 2005

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Au contraire… These immaculate conceptions are becoming a bit of a habit. What with cloned dogs and all sorts to keep Dolly company, we’ll soon be able to have a second Noah’s ark of purely cloned specimens, although it might give a whole new meaning to ‘the animals went in two by two, hurrah.’ Anyway, I don’t have majorly strong feelings on cloning, I have to say, though Dolly’s queer fate made rather an impression on me, and finding her photo has just brought her flooding back. The deeper question it all asks, I suppose, is not whether we should be playing god (so to speak), but is it possible to put a lid on human knowledge? I’m guessing not. It is in our nature to explore, to stretch the boundaries, and I don’t think there’s that much chance of people not experimenting with the boundaries to their intellectual abilities. Of course it is to be hoped that such knowledge can be for the good of humankind. And being a godless type, I suppose I can look upon ‘messing with nature’ in a somewhat lighter light than some. Which is why I can’t get overly excited about stem cell research – I mean overly excited in a worried way – or, even, genetically modified foods, until we know for sure that there really is a problem. If so, OK, then humans have tried and failed to improve nature. But, if their efforts are successful – I’m thinking of new rice strains being talked of today, for example – then shouldn’t this be hailed as humankind doing something good for humankind? How boring I find the ‘nature is perfect’ crowd.

On Londonistan August 18, 2005

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A gripping article exposing some of the spectacular dimness in the UK’s (former) laissez-faire policy regarding radical Islamist clerics. I agree with the impressive Camilla Cavendish that they were long seen simply as clowns, not a threat. I remember seeing Jon Ronson’s TV documentary as he trailed Omar Bakri Mohammad years ago, so these views were hardly unknown, and as Mr. Ronson has himself said in an interview with salon.com on his book on the subject,

My view is that the book is accurate. The way I portrayed the people is accurate. Because they’re human beings and we have a kind of wonderful capacity to be absurd and ridiculous. It would be easy to portray them as one-dimensional demons, but I wanted to do the opposite. Just because they’re buffoons it doesn’t mean they can’t fly planes into the World Trade Center. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

It is true that one of the things that makes Britain a wonderful place is the level of freedom. Mostly, you can get on with your life unimpeded by the state. Having lived in France, Russia and Germany, I can definitively say the state is far more in your hair here on the continent than there. But Britain now clearly has to conceive ways to deal with those who abuse that freedom. I can’t propound a solution. ID cards obviously wouldn’t have stopped the English suicide-bombers in London, or the foreign failed ones, come to that. Stopping the dangerous buffoons getting in in the first place would obviously have been better, but that horse has now long since bolted and I’m sure there are plenty of home-grown fools to go round. (I worked with one of them, Mr. Anjem Choudary, many years ago at a language school in London.) Still, some limitations must, however belatedly, be imposed to stop further foreign fundamentalist fools fomenting fanaticism forthwith.

On Darwin and Creation, God and America August 17, 2005

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One generalisation which I think we Europeans are perfectly justified in holding about our American cousins regards religious affiliation on the other side of the pond. As a religion-interested atheist, I am still heartened to read an article like this which doesn’t pussyfoot around the obvious contradiction in trying to combine Darwin with creationism in certain American schools. The article is, clearly, only stating the obvious, though succinctly and emphatically, but it also provides links to some interesting statistics about just what people believe and how, logically, a belief in evolution as propounded by Darwin can only have a weakening effect on belief in God and creation. (In the early 90s, roughly two thirds of Americans believed in God and one third in evolution. In the UK, the figures were approximately a quarter and three quarters respectively.) I am not so naive as to believe that there mustn’t be at least mini-swarms of atheist Americans too, but I’m still glad to see an American writer write it like it is (in my humble view, of course).

I repeat I am interested in religion and have far more respect for religiousness as I grow older. Not for the beliefs, really, as how can I reconcile them with my own views? If I believe there is no God, then I necessarily have to think those who believe there is a God are wrong. Yet I somehow can respect people’s pure faith – not what they believe in, but the fact they believe. And in these times when religion is cosseted, it seems to me, more than ever and there is something of a backlash against wicked atheism, I refute whole-heartedly the proposition that atheism is a religion too. The Hitchens brothers argued amusingly over this point here, with Christopher Hitchens’ ‘celestial North Korea’ line inviting a particularly huge smile in me.

More St. Petersburg August 17, 2005

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After Tom Masters’ efforts mentioned in my previous entry on St. Petersburg, this website hardly seems worth a mention, and I’d selectively amnesiaed it out of my head, perhaps because I now remember how much (or little) pay it was for how much work. BUT, I did contribute to this Petersburg guide, and I see the site does stay updated, so let them have a link anyway. Could be worth a quick peek if you’re visiting any new city ever…

Fan mail August 16, 2005

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OK, OK, so that’s exaggerating slightly, but my one and only reader – and if I am to have a one-and-only reader, then there’s no-one I’d rather it be than Pavlik – has written to me PLEADING (more or less) with me to add a site feed to my blog. As I am the most technically illiterate person on earth, bar the wolf-boy of Mandalay, I have probably done it incorrectly (let me know, Pavvers. It took me about a year to learn how to link and to do that clever underlining thing) but, being the most deferential person on earth, instantly ready to obey any order, I have at least done it.

Actually, on the fan-mail front, and not that I’m desperate for feedback or ‘owt, I googled my blog just to see if it had made an enormous impact without my realising, and I saw that it was mentioned on some Eastern Europe blog round-up (which I’ll get round to linking to by 2009). I must say I’m a bit mystified about how the blogosphere rumour-mill works, but work somehow it must. Anyway, it was so enormously enhappying to be mentioned, and even quoted, by someone else. Hurrah. (On my same google trawl, I checked which sites were ‘most similar’ to my blog. What are the criteria for that? How does that work? It can’t be random, as you’re right up there on the list, Pavvers, but it’s another mystery, as far as I’m concerned.)

An account like any other August 9, 2005

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…but none the less interesting for that. Many will no doubt think this is a thinly veiled bollocking for America, but this Japanese survivor-of-the-Nagasaki-bomb’s account to the BBC makes for pretty gory reading. I suppose, with age, I am coming gently round to the view that perhaps these bombs were necessary evils, yet it is, it goes without saying, always important to remember the scale and nature of the destruction these bombs bring with them. (And I, for one, certainly don’t think the BBC can be accused of anti-Americanism for such an article.) Proliferation is undoubtedly a cause for huge concern, and it’s depressing to know the Iranians have restarted their nuclear programme today. They may well claim it’s all for peaceful purposes, but it does now mean diplomatic channels are closed. The European softly-softly approach has had the door slammed in its face, loudly-loudly.

Hitchens on St. Petersburg August 8, 2005

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This article combines two loves of mine: Christopher Hitchens’ writing and the city he’s writing about here – my former home, St. Petersburg. Well, perhaps love is the wrong word to use about a city like St. Petersburg. It evokes such a mixture of emotions. It’s beautiful, yes, but dilapidated, although it’s allegedly had a good lick of paint – to celebrate its 300th birthday two years ago – since I was last there. Within Russia, Petersburg holds almost mythical status. Not just for the central role it has played in Russia’s (relatively) recent history but also for its culture. Petersburgers and other Russians agree (wrongly, in my view) that Petersburg is far more civilised than the rest of the country and that the people are far more polite. (Some Moscow friends of mine say otherwise.) In any case, Mr. Hitchens sums the city up nicely. But I always think more needs to be made of St. Petersburg’s grim side, its Dostoevski side, alive and well to this day. (OK, tourist brochures can avoid this angle.) An irony is, though, in avoiding the dodgier inner city parts, people miss out on some of its loveliest and nicely dilapidated corners. I lived just a few doors down from where Raskol’nikov committed his double murder (and just round the corner from Gogol’s disembodied Nose) and any tourists I dragged to see the house(s) were always doubly enchanted by seeing the house much as it must have looked then. I suppose these beautiful houses in dilapidated states being inhabited by some of the poorest people in the city can’t go on for much longer. Surely it’s only a matter of time – although one never knows with Russia, and most cash is in Moscow – before these areas are gentrified… In any case, my friend Tom Masters has written, rather cleverly, a whole new guide to St. Petersburg. He captures so many of the city’s new phenomena. A couple of my own meagre offerings from my time in the city can be seen here and here.

Far be it from me… August 7, 2005

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…to moan about what Berlin has to offer the eye, but on a day like this, when it’s grey and freezing in the middle of summer, and I’ve been stuck at the computer translating a dreary text about hiring sodding cars all day, photos like these of heavenly, wonderful, vivacious Barcelona can serve as a well-timed reminder that there is still beauty to be found everywhere. (There just happens to be a tad more of it there than here.)

Vive le croisement entre races? August 5, 2005

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Here are two takes from, shall we say, different spots on the bipolar continuum, but they draw similar conclusions.

Boris Johnson says we must all speak the same language – I’m not for outlawing foreign-language religious services, but I see what he means – whereas Johann Hari admits to being uneasy about acknowledging multiculturalism’s shortcomings, but acknowledge them he does nonetheless and is all for a bit of miscegenation.

In any case, what several blogs and commentators have pointed out is that there is no reason why the children of immigrants should have difficulty integrating. Like Johann, I too am the son of immigrants. OK, white, Christian Europeans and I never felt that I was a foreigner in my own land, but still. While I am all for bilingualism and am certainly not saying that children of immigrants have to ignore their parents’ (or grandparents’) pasts, I have always been slightly mystified by those types who attach greater importance to their ancestors’ culture than their own. Even now, when I am an immigrant myself, I feel my Englishness incredibly deeply and yet I also remember to do everything I should as a good Burger in Deutschland – pay my taxes, not flush the loo late, obey local laws etc.

Anyway, I think embracing the local culture is favourable for all sides. Middle Britain (or Germany, or America, or wherever) is happy, yes, but the children of immigrants are too. They will feel they belong. The grievances will be lessened. The queerness of being an outsider is diminished. I have to say that I have never been prevented from being perceived as being as English as Queen Victoria and I have never had much sympathy for other English people of Irish origin – that’s the group of ‘immigrants’ I know best, I suppose – who have claimed they’ve been discriminated against. They seemed mostly to have a grudge against Britain themselves, instilled by their parents and their own grievances for England’s past ills.

Religion can travel, yes. So there is nothing to prevent a Muslim, a Jew or a Catholic being as English as can be. I don’t think I’m endowing my countrymen with mythical levels of tolerance when I claim that that is so. But, in my view, nationality is rather about place. Catholicism may travel, but Irishness doesn’t. (I always want to puke with laughter when I hear about Irish Americans and the like.) I have British friends who spoke Polish and Lithuanian before they spoke English, yet they too are as English as can be and would not stand out falling over on Boris’s proverbial beach. And as has also been pointed out, most ‘immigrant communities’ have got on rather well, thank you. Jewish folk haven’t exactly done badly in England, in spite of the locals’ efforts to get rid of them. A Prime Minister – yes, yes, I know he converted to Christianity, but still, and he never hid his Jewishness and did a wonderful put down of Michael Collins once in the Commons – in the 19th century is proof of that. And ‘Indians’ today are another perfectly successful group.

So a lot of responsibility for successful integration has to be put at the community’s own door. Yes, speak another language, practise another religion (or none at all), but embrace your own country with open arms.

Poland and Belarus August 5, 2005

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I know The Economist is sneered at in some quarters, but I’m happy to see Belarus mentioned in any quarter, lest we forget the utter stinker, Lukashenka. Here’s an article making two points. The first bemoans Poles’ new-found political apathy since the heady days of Solidarnosc’s – can’t find the diacritics, sorry! – foundation a quarter of a century ago. But the second reminds us that this is the sign of a mature(r) democracy; the people know they have the luxury of a certain degree of apathy without running any major risks, and if we compare Poland with the hellhole next door, then I think we need not overly scold the Poles considering how far they’ve come in 25 years.

Poor, poor Belarus. In my harder moments, I have little sympathy, thinking it’s up to a nation to set its own fate, and the Belarusians have made their own mistakes, even if getting rid of the dictator is now no easy task (and many don’t appear to want to, anyway). But a double tragedy for Belarus, as opposed to Russia, say, is that it didn’t HAVE to be this way. Russia raises different questions because of its huge size, and governing it well is always going to be difficult. But Belarus is a nice little chunk of a country. Manageable. Only 10 million or so souls. They could so easily have gone the way of their Baltic/Polish (and belatedly, Ukrainian) neighbours (and initially appeared to be doing so), but instead they’ve blazed a trail for what the Economist calls, rightly, neo-Sovietism. Too grim.

I once travelled through the country and was grilled on the Polish/Belarusian border, both there and back, by young hooligan, thuggish soldiers with some aggression and clear animosity before they gave up trying to convince themselves that I was a spy. The mention, by me, of Lukashenka to two Belarusian women in the train carriage was an instant conversation-stopper. And the difference between Hrodna (Belarus) and Bialystok (Poland) was almost as stark as crossing the Finnish-Russian border. So, yes, poor, poor Belarus. And remember to hate Lukashenka, lest we forget!

Grappling with language August 5, 2005

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Now here’s an attachment to get you switching off in your droves, if you existed in your droves, that is, of course. But just as the previous entry is something about the mystery of sight, this one is about the mystery of speech, and how that gift has been somewhat lacking in me for the last few years. Is there something in my brain which has decomposed that just CAN NOT get to grips with these little gems which would make my life in Germany so much easier? I could do this learning by rote aged 12, after all. Why not now? Could always be that old chestnut laziness, of course. Anyway, verbs are the root of all evil when it comes to language-learning. In inflected languages, many fear the case system. Quatsch. It’s those verbs that should have you trembling in your boots. Without them, you’re a nobody. You can’t speak. You don’t exist. You are not. Du bist kein Mensch…

How I sometimes long for England!

The fun of it… August 5, 2005

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I am only really uploading this because I can, and because it’s fun to do so. I suppose this partly explains why one does most things, and why the painter painted this picture in the first place. But the cunning twist here is that the man who painted it is blind. There’s a now rather old article about him, from January 2005 at the New Scientist, here and it makes for fascinating reading – in a scientific way, of course – about how much seeing is done purely with the eyes and how much of it is the ability to see pre-programmed into our brains.

Expect me to be uploading whatever other bits of flotsam I find bobbing around my computer forthwith.