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Out with Britain, in with English.

Anybody who thinks that Britain out of the EU will diminish the role of English in Europe could be in for a rude awakening. Though at the moment the EU is working in German, French and English and some have suggested that now is the time for Spanish to replace English at the top table, the opposite is more likely. English can finally take the role of THE official  EU language. The reason is quite clear, Europe needs one voice. It can’t be German, the French wouldn’t have it. It can’t be French, nobody really speaks it outside France and Spanish, with 45 million in Europe, just doesn’t have the numbers.  But English without Britain would be neutral, with none of the major EU players gaining a language advantage. Plus of course it is the child of a coupling between the German Anglo Saxon and the French of ancient Normandy with just enough words from other languages, from Italy to Scandinavia, to give everybody a stake. Who could ask for a better compromise? And there is a good precedent for an external language to be adopted as the official one. The world’s newest country, South Sudan, an area the size of France but with 100 local languages, has chosen English as its official one. Why? As the news director of the South Sudan Radio, Rehan Abdelnebi, said, “we can become one nation. We can iron out our tribal differences and communicate with the rest of the world”.

Countries which could benefit from the adoption of English include divided Cyprus and divided Ireland where only 10% of the population speak the Irish, as well as the whole of Scandinavia where the standard of English is often better than that of England.

In any case, those trying to maintain their current language with rules and laws are probably doomed to fail. There is no escaping the fact that English is so popular because it is easy. As a young Slovak told me recently, “we learn English, German and Slovak in school, but Slovak is over, it’s too difficult”. How long before young Germans come to the same conclusion? Have the French decided yet if WiFi is masculine or feminine? As though it really matters.

All this begs the question of exactly why nations have official languages which so few speak, for example Ireland where 10% speak Irish but as a second language. Clearly it comes from a political need to create a nation, to be different. Whereas of course the truth is that, other than being told they are Irish, they are just Europeans, like everybody else.

 

 

 

 

 

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The vulnerability of cities

The Moradi bridge collapse in Genoa is an unfolding tragedy for the families of those killed and injured. Yet beyond the personal, it throws into the spotlight the potential vulnerability of the urban infrastructure. As regional governor Giovanni Toti.said:

“The Morandi bridge connects three major ports in our country, used by tens, even hundreds of thousands of people. They depart from these ports on holiday. These docks receive most of our country’s imported goods. It damages the very structure of the Italian logistics system. We are expecting a very fast response from the government.”

Modern cities, indeed nations, can only exist if the logistics infrastructure is robust and efficient. As the relentless trend towards urbanisation continues, the Moradi bridge collapse shows that relying on a single option for so much traffic is a risk which perhaps should not be taken.

The next American Revolution

The cult of personality is strong everywhere so it should have been no surprise that Donal Trump was elected President of the USA. But the lessons from that election have yet to be learnt. The problem is not that Trump is President, but the power that this gives him. America needs a figurehead, somebody to rally around in time of crisis but that doesn’t have to be the leader of the government. So, time for a new constitution for the USA. Time to split the job. One to represent the nation and another to run the government. Not that Trump actually runs anything himself. He relies on a team (a pretty poor one it is true) to handle things. Nobody voted for them, they voted instead for a man that they believed had the ability to “do a deal” and would know the best people to pick. And of course as high priest of Mammon, he know all the best people, all the people wedded to the idea of a lucrative deal. You don’t know the origin of the world “lucrative”? Stop now and look it up!

 

All this make the possibility of Oprah Winfrey as President a rather more attractive proposition. She certainly has the “chops” for it if not the inclination. She is clearly intelligent, clearly rich and self-made, which is something Mr Trump cannot be accused of. And more, she seems to have the right tone, unifying rather than dividing, conciliatory rather than condemnatory. With the right team behind her she could make a first-class job of leading a new revolution in American thinking. Clearly it is needed.

Wanted, a European city willing to embrace the future.

As countless newspaper stories will tell you, including this one from the FT https://www.ft.com/content/981379a8-f58f-11e7-88f7-5465a6ce1a00 the world is moving to English. Like it or not (and many do not) it is certain. Now is the time to for a European city to become officially bilingual . Of course English is widely spoken in many European counties and in any city it is possible to get by without a word of the local tongue but still, English is not “official” anywhere but Dublin or Valletta. So how about it Bratislava, or Prague? Your young people are great in English so why not make it official and embrace the future before somebody else gets with the program and pips you to the finish, scooping up all the businesses that want to work there but can’t because of the language barrier (particularly true of Vienna). Remember, it is not the strong that survive (despite the pop song that tells you it is), it is the adaptable!

One reason that smaller countries are better at English than the big ones is of course TV. The big ones, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, take International programmes, American mostly, and  actually dub the programmes into the local language thereby ensuring that English language will not get a dangerous foothold into the national psyche. The smaller countries and just add subtitles thereby ensuring that the general population (at least those who can read) are at least used to the sound of English, often from a very young age

The trend towards gender neutrality in language probably marks the end of German as we know it today. With no Der, Die, Das the grammar will collapse leaving it with, yes you’ve guess it, English, which is itself a German dialect made simple for all the Anglo Saxons and Norman French forced to live together!

Some have predicted that with Britain out of the EU and the US retreating globally, English will diminish in acceptance. In fact, the contrary is the case. English can now be considered neutral, giving no country the edge in language. Take the case of the world’s latest state, South Sudan. With over 120million people and 100 languages the official language is, yes, you have guessed it again, English.

It’s a long time since I wrote this blog and as I do so it I remember my long time friend and accountant Steve Baldwin. He always gave me feedback on my writings and his recent death, following a short illness is a tragedy.

A new form of warfare.

Asymmetric Warfare is the name given to a military conflict in which one side is big and the other side is small. Rather like the David and Goliath fight which features in the Bible. I have a new spin on this which came to mind when reading a BBC story about Israel using a $3.2 million missile to shoot down a $500 dollar drone. Pursued to its logical conclusion, a poor country could soon bankrupt a rich one, a real example of “asymmetry”.  But this story has made me reconsider the whole concept of modern warfare. For a very long time now “stealth” has been a buzz word in military circles. Stealth fighters, stealth bombers and even stealth ships (in the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies) seem to have become an essential component of every new aerial vehicle, manned or unmanned. Clearly, evading enemy radar is a good thing since invisibility is a kind of superpower which give a very big advantage. But encouraging the enemy to use up all its missiles before your planes arrive could be, I would suggest, a much better plan. How can this be achieved, you ask? The answer is simple. Take a look at the latest FURY drone from Lockheed Martin. It looks like a miniature fighter jet and of course Lockheed sell it as being stealthy, with a minimal visual signature, which of course means it is hard to see. Now with all the surveillance bits added, this is not going to be cheap, but actually, the only electronic bit it really needs as an “image enhancer”, a device which will make it look huge on a radar, in fact make it look like a real fighter. Then the enemy under attack can fire all its missiles at a swarm of these “targets” leaving it defenceless against the wave of stealth machines which will follow along soon after.

Actually the plan is a bit like the “doodlebug” VI flying bombs used by German in the later stages of World War II which was an unmanned flying machine with a very simple jet engine and basic navigation controls. Modern production techniques would make the thing a cheaper to produce. Even with a basic “pulse jet” engine it would probably cost less than $10,000, and that includes an auto-pilot. Now $10,000 might seem like a lot, but up against a $3.5 million it is clearly just a drop in the ocean. Now that is really asymmetrical!

Memories of Wine

Last week we were in the UK and visited an old friend. 17 years ago, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, I had given him a bottle of quite expensive vintage port and this year, on the basis that we might not have another dinner together, he decided to drink it. Opening it was a struggle. Despite storage on its side, the cork had hardened and broke upon attempted extraction. This was not really a problem as we had a muslin filter to hand as part of the decanting process though it proved vexatious to my friend who had become somewhat irascible in his later years. On sampling the wine, I can say it was good, but how good, and what defines good in this context? Thinking about this cast me into a pool of wine reminiscence.

I can remember at some time in the late 1970’s, taking a woman to a well reputed restaurant and, in order to impress, ordering a bottle of expensive Pouilly Fuissé. Frankly it blew me away. My drinking habits had, until that time, been confined to the lower end of red wine spectrum with a penchant for those from the Rhone valley, though my wine drinking experience had been initiated by the Sunday consumption of a “cheap” white from communist Yugoslavia, from a region now know as Slovenia, the first region of that country to gain independence after the fall of communism in 1991. At that time I would have been about 20 years old, the price of a bottle was 11 UK shillings (55pence in today’s currency) and its name was Lutomer Riesling. 20 years later it went on to become the UK’s most popular wine though I suspect it was more to do with the price than the quality as was the case with its later rival, Blue Nunn , a semi sweet white wine from the Mosel region of Germany which has a very low alcohol content, a significant factor keeping the price low as the tax on wine was directly related to its alcoholic content.

As time passed my wine drinking became more diverse. For a time I favoured a Christian Brothers Zinfandel from Northern California which was reasonably priced in the local Safeways. Subsequently I discovered that an almost direct comparison of Californian wines with those from Chile gave the prize to Chile both in terms of quality and price. From this I learned the significance of phylloxera a disease affecting the vines of which Chile is free.

My earliest wine experience came in 1963 when I found myself in Hungary on a visit to a pen friend. At that time, Hungary was in the very tight grip of communists and there was little of excitement to be found. We went to a summer vacation spot on the South Eastern shore of Lake Balaton and there was introduced to wine made illegally in bathrooms. It was white, tasted pretty good to me, a mere novice, and got me drunk. At 17 years old, that was I that was required. Lake Balaton remains a significant wine producing area with excellent wines found particularly in the Tihany peninsular.

I remember a day, some time in the 1990’s when I found myself together with my friend Guy, in a “booze” warehouse in Calais, which was, (an probably still is) an essential stopover for UK citizens returning the UK from the continent, given that the importation of alcohol for personal consumption incurs no additional UK taxes. We were both attracted to a Fitou which I recall, was popular at that time and both bought a case. Upon sampling the next day, I had another “socks blown off” moment and immediately telephoned to Guy who answered with “have you tried the wine?” With both of us so enthused is became obligatory for one of us to immediately return to Calais and purchase all that was available. The task fell to Guy who set of immediately. Five hours later he called. It had all been sold. Actually Fitou comes from the Languedoc, a region of the South of France bordering the Pyrenees and running towards the Riviera. it was the target of a Roman Catholic Crusade against the heretics of the region which continued for over 100 years.

At some time in the 1990’s I again found myself in Hungary though this time I was staying at the Hilton Hotel. I had dinner with another Hungarian friend, Balazs, at a restaurant within the Budapest Castle area. Again, a truly memorable wine from within the country though the only memory I actually have is of saying to myself, “this red is great!”

And so it goes on. In Shanghai I met an Australian who was trying to launch a wine brand in partnership with an Aussi producer. I can’t remember the name, but I managed to drink a bottle so it must have been reasonable. During the early 1980’s I went annually to Munich and whilst there always visited a Swiss restaurant to drink a Swiss red of outstanding quality. Switzerland? Red? Outstanding Quality? Yes, all true, though again, of name or specific origin I have no memory.

One wine always sticks in my memory, Gewurztraminer, from the Alsace, that German speaking part of France. Tending to sweetness, it is, for me, the quintessential summer wine. I call it liquid sunshine.

Given my extensive, though amateur, wine drinking history it is perhaps no coincidence that I now find myself living in one of the most wine aware countries in the world, Austria, the son-in-law of a wine producer and brother in law of Leo, one of that country’s most famous wine makers. Austria is a very good example of bad things ultimately producing good results. In 1985 a lot of Austrian wine was found to be adulterated with a sweetener and as a result, 90% of the country’s exports were wiped out. With purity laws introduced and an emphasis on quality over volume, the result has been remarkable. I would venture that it is hard to find a bad Austrian wine and much is really excellent. This could well be a precedent for the situation in the USA where Donald Trump is so unpopular, it could well produce a backlash which will end the Republican dominance and in the EU where Brexit looks to be such a disaster for the UK that the rest of the EU will realise just how lucky they are to be in such a Union, despite the populist campaign against it.

My father-in-law produced about 5000 litres of annually, mostly of the Gruener Vietliner variety but with some Riesling also. As a member of the wine co-operative he sold the bulk to them retaining about 500 litres for family consumption. One day I was there with Leo, the real expert, and sampled his family production. Turning to my brother-in-law I said, “this is brilliant, how can it be so good?” He didn’t know but speculated that it was the comparatively slow and low temperature fermentation.  Another possible explanation lies in the position of the vineyards. Set in terraces below forests, the sun of summer is mitigated by the nightly decent of cool air from the trees. Not being an expert of course, I am unable to speculate.

On another occasion Leo offered me a red to try and asked me if I knew the provenance. I had the strongest feeling it was from New Zealand but declined to guess. It was from New Zealand and I lost a lot of brownie points for not saying it.

We drink wine almost every day, moderately, with food. With red meat or strong flavours is it always red, with chicken or fish, white. This is pretty conservative I will admit but it works for me. And the choice? Our every day red is the blend know as Flat Lake, produced by my brother in law (without his name) for one of Europe’s biggest chain of grocers. At €4.49 it is outstanding value. For a more upmarket experience we might take the other iterations of the brand though on those Sundays when I cook roast lamb in the traditional UK Sunday Lunch style, I will reach out to a French red which I purchase from a specialist local importer.

For white wines we push the boat out to €9.90 for a local Riesling though last week I had an interesting wine experience. My next door neighbour has a wine garden with 350 vines. The “heavy” work is undertaken by a local farmer whist my neighbour is responsible for pruning and harvesting, which is usually undertaken on a co-operative basis with friends of which I am occasionally one. The 2016 seems to have been particularly good not only in terms of quantity, 1050 litres, but also quality. It is an excellent Chardonnay vintage and one which I look forward to drinking.

So, what makes a great wine? One thing is clear. The difference between good and bad is readily apparent but to really get to grips with the shades of difference, blind tasting from a selection is vital. I discovered this one day when drinking Scotch. Looking into the cupboard I saw five different kinds and decided to do my own blind tasting test. The clear winner to me was Bell’s so, on the basis that year of production is of no consequence, it is my Scotch of choice. But of course the same thing does not apply to wine which, in comparison to Scotch, is subject to grape, soil, climate, producer and blend and, sorry to say, fashion. Todays “outstanding” can easily become tomorrow’s “indifferent” yet when I am at a restaurant I invariably leave it to the waiter to choose. Frankly I can drink almost anything but sometime the proffered wine is great, and all the better for it being a surprise. I like surprises!

Farewell Lloyds Bank.

I am the stupid type of person who maintains loyalty in the face of indifference. For over 30 years I have banked with Lloyds and, in that time, have seen over £13,000,000 go through my various accounts. The measure of my stupidity can be judged by various incidents which have occurred. The first was the manager who did a deal with a liquidator to close a company of which I was a shareholder. We wanted to close the company. We owed £750,000 and had assets of 800,000. After the liquidator mismanaged the affair, there was just over £100,000 left to settle with the creditors. Surprisingly, the fee the liquidator awarded himself was just over £100,000 and so there was no money for the creditors. And still I persisted.

When I offered Lloyds £500,000 in assets against loan of £200,000 for a building project the computer said no. In mitigation I would say that it was 2009 and they probably didn’t have any money to lend,  and so I stayed.

Move on to 2017 and a call to them to enquire about an account for a small company I own. After 20 minutes waiting on phone I gave up. I tried again. This time the call was answered after 12 minutes but I needed to be transferred twice so it took almost 30 minutes before I was finally connected to the right person, who then told me that, because I was on a speaker phone, they couldn’t speak to me.

On the recommendation of my accountant I called a different bank, a comparative newcomer to the UK. The call was answered in just over 1 minute. I was immediately given the details of my closest branch with name and phone number. I called him, immediately was answered, and arranged an appointment. This is looking good and I will report further when I meet him next week.

And did I mention NatWest? My little company banked with them handling a £ and a € account. What they didn’t tell me was that when I wanted to make a payment from the € account, I had to write a letter to them, put it in the post and wait for them to act on it. Just like it was in the 1970’s!