Monthly Archives: November 2003

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It’s good to be home. I arrived back from Australia early yesterday and was far too zonked to do anything. Thanksgiving, sadly, isn’t any kind of holiday in the UK (although we’re doing a Thanksgiving meal with another Anglo-American family tomorrow), but I took a day off as though it were.

If I had been writing yesterday, I would have pointed to Benjamin Zephaniah’s excellent article on why he scorned an OBE. “Let me make it clear: I have nothing against her or the royal family. It is the institution of the monarchy that I loathe so very much, the monarchy that still refuses to apologise for sanctioning slavery.”

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I try to be a tolerant person, but I generally don’t exhibit a lot of tolerance where religion is concerned. But I think the decision of the French justice minister to ban a woman from jury service for wearing a headscarf is wrong and dramatically illiberal.

I’d normally have sympathy with the French determination to avoid ideological symbols in schools and courts. But would they ban someone wearing a crucifix (a rather common decoration in France)? A Star of David? I’m happy to be proved wrong, but I think those symbols would pass without comment.

Book choice 

Kevin Drum is a bit sceptical about Bill Clinton’s announced 21 favourite books. His wife’s work apart, I think it’s a pretty decent list although mine would be very different. I particularly applaud his inclusion of Taylor Branch and Yeats.

“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou
“Meditations,” Marcus Aurelius
“The Denial of Death,” Ernest Becker
“Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963,” Taylor Branch
“Living History,” Hillary Rodham Clinton
“Lincoln,” David Herbert Donald
“The Four Quartets,” T.S. Eliot
“Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison
“The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century,” David Fromkin
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes,” Seamus Heaney
“King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa,” Adam Hochschild
“The Imitation of Christ,” Thomas a Kempis
“Homage to Catalonia,” George Orwell
“The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis,” Carroll Quigley
“Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics,” Reinhold Niebuhr
“The Confessions of Nat Turner,” William Styron
“Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber
“You Can’t Go Home Again,” Thomas Wolfe
“Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny,” Robert Wright
“The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,” William Butler Yeats

Travel day 

Today is a travel day, hallelujah! I’m not particularly looking forward to 22 hours in airplanes, but I am looking forward to getting home. One slight regret: it looks like I’m leaving on the very day when summer has decided to come and stay in Melbourne. In weather terms, late November in London is not quite so appealing.

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Date for the diary 

blair: Prime minister Tony Blair and Homer Simpson

Mark 9 January in your diaries. That’s when The Simpsons’ Regina Monologues, with a cameo by Tony Blair, is going to air in Britain.

Like most shows, I find The Simpsons is often at its weakest when it leaves home ground. But one of the dominant images in my mind yesterday in Canberra was the episode where the family goes to Australia’s capital to apologise for Bart’s insulting behaviour. When you see Parliament House, it’s clear that it was built for Austria, and someone has hastily scribbled in the extra “al”.

On the ground 

Doc Searls rightly points to an important posting in Baghdad Burning:

“The troops were pushing women and children shivering with fear out the door in the middle of the night. What do you think these children think to themselves- being dragged out of their homes, having their possessions and houses damaged and burned?! Who do you think is creating the ‘terrorists’?!! Do you think these kids think to themselves, “Oh well- we learned our lesson. That’s that. Yay troops!” It’s like a vicious, moronic circle and people are outraged.”

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I was in Canberra, capital of Australia, today. Since I was there for business, I didn’t get to see the sites (a phrase that some people would consider a small joke). One of the people I saw referred to Canberra as “Australia’s most boring city”, but another said she absolutely loved living there.

The history of created capital cities is mixed. Think Brasilia, Astana, Abuja, Yamoussoukro. But also think New Delhi and Washington, DC. On a small scale, my impression of Canberra was that it bids fair to make it to the better category of invented capitals.

The layout is spacious, but not unduly distended. So there is a feel of a small urban fabric. The main political complex, in the middle of Lake Burley Griffin, looks impressive both from the air and the ground. There’s plenty of green and lots of bike paths. It’s clearly a liveable, well-functioning place.

But it doesn’t excite many people. Australian prime minister John Howard has never moved to the capital, keeping his home in Sydney and commuting in on Australia’s two weeks on, one week off legislative calendar. And this weekend in Melbourne I met a number of Canberra politicians who all flee the capital first chance they get on Friday afternoon. Some, of course, are visiting constituents. But more are gulping frantically for some urban vibrancy.

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Tomorrow England play Australia in the Rugby World Cup final. Yesterday in Sydney, the world cup was very much in evidence, and there was at least one reference to it in every meeting I went to. Back in Melbourne, the fever has died again (the team sport they care about here is the footie: Australian Rules Football).

There has been one interesting side story that has struck me. Australia beat New Zealand last Saturday in the first semi-final game. The Kiwis are apparently in mourning (rugby means absolutely everything in NZ). But in all reports, the New Zealand players and public will be supporting Australia, their neighbours across the Tasman Sea, tomorrow night.

Contrast this with England’s neighbours, Scotland. I was speaking to the manager of my hotel this morning. It turns out he is originally from Aberdeen (his family moved when he was a bairn). He spoke yesterday to his aunt in Aberdeen, commiserating about Scotland’s 6-0 loss to the Netherlands in football. His aunt told him, “Oh well, just you make sure you beat England on Saturday night. That will make everyone here happy.”

Last year, during the World Cup in Korea and Japan, Scotland was the same. I had a friend who had business in Glasgow on the day of the England-Argentina match. His office up there was decorated with Argentinean flags and everyone was wearing blue and white.

I know there are centuries of animosity to overcome, but this detestation of any England representative team strikes me as sad and foolish. If the roles were reversed, just about everyone in England would be cheering on Scotland. Shouldn’t the Scots grow up?

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Selectively green 

Another small observation about Australia. There’s considerable environmental consciousness here, certainly compared to Britain. Each day’s newspapers have articles about water use, about encroachment on green space outside urban areas, about protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

But this consciousness strikes me as highly selective. A friend at dinner last night agreed, saying, “It’s about environment as magnificent pictures.”

What sparked this off for me was seeing the number of old bangers driving about on the roads in Melbourne. In London, you just don’t see anyone driving cars that are falling apart. It turns out that some places are instituting roadworthiness tests, but these will be just to check the brakes, lights and steering. No one cares about checking emissions.

Similarly, there are apparently few or no regulations about disposing of dangerous waste (like the stuff in your car when you finally come to scrap it). No awareness on this issue at all.

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I’ve had a crazy day, running between meetings in Sydney. Actually, running is a misnomer. I’ve actually spent a major part of the day sitting in taxis, stuck in terrible traffic. Like most big cities, particularly one with lots of bridges and tunnels, Sydney’s traffic is never very good. But the impending final of the Rugby World Cup has brought this town near gridlock.

I did meet some excellent people, however, about which more later. But the one thoroughly joyful experience today was in the principal quadrangle of the University of Sydney. It’s standard collegiate gothic, although very well done. But in one corner of the quad there was a completely stunning tree in full flower. I asked the receptionist what it was. Jacaranda. This has to be the jacaranda to end all jacarandas. Worth a detour at this time of year.

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Hit them where it hurts 

Stephen Byers reckons targeted trade sanctions by Europe could hurt president Bush’s re-election chances. I’d guess that it would just increase anti-European sentiment, which would probably help Bush.

Two worlds 

Deborah Branscum sums up many of the dilemmas for us Americans living in Europe. “When people ask me if I’m going to become a Swedish citizen, I start laughing because it’s such an odd idea.”

That said, when the day comes that Britain becomes a republic I’ll happily apply for citizenship and carry two passports.

Mr Darcy 

I’m glad to see that Brad DeLong is at last concentrating on matters of true importance.

“So how rich is Fitzwilliam Darcy, anyway? What does ten thousand (pounds) a year in the aftermath of the Napoleonic War mean, really?

“I have two answers, the first of which is $300,000 a year, and the second of which is $6,000,000 a year.

“In relative income terms — relative to the average of disposable incomes in his society — Fitzwilliam Darcy’s 10,000 pounds a year of disposable income gave him about the same multiple of average income in his society as an annual disposable income of $6,000,000 a year would give someone in our society.

“On the other hand, my guess is that someone today with a disposable income of $300,000 a year can spend it to get the same utility as Fitzwilliam Darcy could by spending his disposable income of 10,000 pounds a year. By our standards, early nineteenth century Britain was desperately poor. There are lots of things we take for granted–and that are for us trivially cheap–that Fitzwilliam Darcy could not get at any price. Consider that Nathan Meyer Rothschild, richest (non-royal) man in the world in the first half of the nineteenth century, died in his fifties of an infected abscess that the medicine of the day had no way to treat.”

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Jack the lad 

I’m a long-standing fan of Patrick O’Brian (read all 20 books, even went to a dinner in honour of the man himself), so I have to see this as soon as possible. I’m not sure I’d describe it as the Harry Potter of the managerial class, however. O’Brian’s writing is far too good for that.

Worth the detour 

Maybe a trip to Cyprus is in order: “A Greek play is to be staged for the first time in more than 2,050 years after fragments of the text were found in Egyptian mummy cases.
Cyprus’s national theatre company, Thoc, plans to perform a modern take on Achilles, a Trojan war trilogy by the dramatist Aeschylus, known as the father of tragedy. It will be performed in Cyprus and Greece. Scholars had believed his trilogy to be lost for ever when the Library of Alexandria burned down in 48BC.


John Robb: “The biggest part of the winning the war on terrorism isn’t our machinations in the ME, it is keeping the global economy growing over the long term (and expanding that growth to new areas of the world). New data indicates that the management of the US economy is key to making this happen (something the Bush team seems uniquely ill prepared to do — could you imagine a Russian, Mexican, or East Asian financial crisis with the Bush team at the helm?? Yikes!). If our economy falters, the global economy will contract severely spreading terrorism faster than we can stamp it out.”

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Five years 

France has long had one of the cosiest, morally loose business environments in Europe. But it looks as though things are changing. The jailing of former Elf Acquitaine chief Loik Le Floch-Prigent for five years signals that the old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable. It will be interesting to see if any of the high-profile business cases in the US result in anything like this penalty.

Kugelhopf and more 

Dobos: The masterpiece of the Dobos torte

I had a real taste of Proust’s madeleine yesterday evening. I went for a walk on Acland Street in St Kilda’s, which was once the centre of the Jewish community in Melbourne. Now Acland Street is mostly modern restaurants, bars, some good bookshops and an odd assortment of shops. But there are also four survivors of an earlier era.

The Europa, Le Bon, Continental and Monarch bakeries haven’t changed in decades. The windows are filled with the cakes and pastries of my childhood: kugelhopf, Dobos torte, Sacher torte and on and on. I have always had a particular weakness for Dobos torte — far superior to the famous Sacher — and didn’t restrain myself yesterday. Wonderful stuff that you certainly cannot find in London or Chicago. I suspect there are still some haunts in New York that do this, but otherwise you need to travel to Vienna or Budapest (or, in the south of Hungary, a wonderful Konditorei called the Virag in Szeged) — or Melbourne!

Yesterday’s local paper, The Age, had a lament at the steady disappearance of the ethnic character of some of Melbourne’s streets. I have no idea how long these four bakeries can hold the fort against trendier incomers, but I hope they manage to survive for a few more decades yet.