Wednesday, October 31, 2007

o tempora, o mores

The BBC News website has an article about the director of the CIA defending the methods used in rendition camps to extract information from suspected terrorists:
"Nominee Michael Mukasey condemned one technique, water-boarding, as "repugnant" and possibly "over the line," but declined to explicitly rule it out as torture, saying he could not speculate on classified procedures. Water-boarding simulates drowning by immobilizing a prisoner with his head lower than his feet and pouring water over his face. "
How the US can complain about human rights in other countries whilst it's perfectly happy to carry out torture itself, is beyond the pale.
The other disgraceful piece of news today is that the boss of Stan O'Neal who oversaw an $8.4bn loss at Merrill Lynch is being forced to step down yet still receives a compensation package of $160m.

A new colonial era

There are now over 900 Chinese companies working in Africa. There has been a rush to buy into mines in order to secure an adequate supply of minerals for China's rapid economic growth. The Chinese Government has persuaded African countries to let them in by offering investment in roads and railways. The Chinese are now buying African banks as well. ICBC (Industrial & Commercial Bank of China) has paid $5.5bn for a stake in Standard Bank in South Africa and China Development Bank is entering a partnership with United Bank for Africa, one of the largest banks in Nigeria. Chinese staff will work at the bank's HQ in Lagos, spotting opportunities in Nigeria and other west African countries in a variety of sectors including telecoms, railways, energy and farming. CDB hopes to finance a power project to tackle Nigeria's chronic electricity shortages.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The vegetable lamb of Tartary

One of Sir John Mandeville's sources was Odoric of Pordenone who lived from 1286-1331. He was a Franciscan monk who became a missionary in the East and visited China in 1323-8. Odoric relates a tale of a melon grown in Tartary which, when opened, contained a small lamb. Mandeville tells a similar story about Korea: "There grows a kind of fruit as big as gourds, and when ripe, men open it and find inside an animal of flesh and blood and bone, like a little lamb without wool. And the people of that land eat the animal, and the fruit too. It is a great marvel. Nevertheless I said to them that it did not seem a very great marvel to me, for in my country, I said, there were trees which bore a fruit that became birds that could fly; men call them barnacle geese and there is good meat on them." This is an old legend cited by Giraldus Cambrensis and Vincent of Beauvais which said that the geese grew from the stalked barnacle (lepas anatifera) which has some slight resemblance in shape and markings to a miniature barnacle goose.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ballad of the day

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.

Simon & Jude

Yesterday was the day of Sts. Simon and Jude. They were apostles who went to preach in Mesopotamia in the first century and who were martyred in Persia in 65AD. If you have a seemingly hopeless problem, St Jude is the man to pray to about it. His name sounds so like "Judas" that very few people pray to him so he is always efficient and benign to those who do call on him.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The phoenix

I'm reading the Travels of John Mandeville which was written in 1356 and became a best-seller. He was an English knight from St. Albans and travelled to the Holy Land, Egypt, India and China in the first half of the 14th century and the account he wrote of his adventures became the standard travel guide to the East for several hundred years. It's full of geographical and historical detail as well as local gossip and legend. Take this piece about Heliopolis in Egypt:
"In this city is a temple round like the Temple of Jerusalem. The priest of that temple has a book in which is written the birthdate of a bird that is called the Phoenix; and there is only one in all the world. And this bird lives for five hundred years, and at the end of every five hundredth year it comes to the temple and burns himself all to powder on the altar. And the priest of the temple, who from his book knew the time of the bird's coming, makes the altar ready and lays on it divers spices and sulphur vivum and twigs of the juniper tree, and other things that burn quickly. And then the bird comes and alights on the altar, and fans with his wings until the things mentioned be alight; and there he burns himself to ashes. On the morrow they find in the ashes as it were a worm; on the second day that worm has turned into a perfectly formed bird; and on the third day it flies away from that place to where it normally lives...This bird is often seen soaring about, when the weather is fair and clear; and men say there, when they see the bird soaring in the air, that there will be good, happy years, for it is a bird of Heaven. This bird is no greater than an eagle in body; he has on his head a crest like a peacock, but it is much greater than a peacock's. His neck is yellow, his back indigo; his wings are red and his tail is barred across with green and yellow and red. And in the sunlight he seems marvellously beautiful, for these are the colours that shine most fairly."

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Today's FT has an interesting article about the tension between Defra and Dberr (Dept for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) over the EU proposal that 20% of our energy should come from renewable sources by 2020. Dberr sees this as a threat to investment in UK nuclear energy. Defra supports investment in both nuclear and renewables as a means of creating a low carbon economy.
Defra's track record in environmemtal matters has not been good. In 04/5 it submitted a proposal to the EU which would have led to British businesses cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The DTI (Dberr's predecessor) forced the proposal to be revised. In November 05 Defra wanted new rules to require companies to report on the environmental impact of their business. GB scrapped this requirement at the last minute. This year, Defra supported New Home Information Packs on the basis that a report on a property's energy efficiency would help tackle climate change, but the Govt backed down on this as well and this week Sir David King, the Govt's chief scientist, infuriated environmentalists by calling for huge numbers of badgers to be killed in order to control the spread of bovine TB in cattle. Brown is not the new green.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

London's burning

urbis ardent tecta Romae;
ferte fontes, ferte rivos.
en flammas, en flammas!
tecta Romae dant ruinas.

imperatorem Neronem
in Palatino sedentem
aspectas, aspectas;
en Nero qui dulce cantat.

Christionos ad leones
machinatores malorum!
festina, festina,
et feris da mox saginam.

(Courtesy of the late Prof. John Crook)

I also have Jack & Jill, In Dublin's fair city and Waltzing Matilda in Latin and What shall we do with a drunken sailor in Greek. The ones whose tunes I don't know are There's a tavern in the town and Come, landlord, fill the flowing bowl (both in Latin).

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Balinese drama

A man I know built a house in Bali with another Englishman in the 1980s. It was shaped like a polo mint and situated on an old graveyard. Many good times were had. My friend was getting married, Indonesian property prices were going through the roof and they had an offer they could not refuse on their house. Oh well, end of the bachelor days, they thought and decided to cash in. They had a houseboy who had looked after them well and they wanted to give him a good reward. The thing he wanted most in life was a Mercedes so they promised him that on the day of completion they would transfer sufficient funds to his account for him to buy the car. He was wild with excitement.
The deal was transacted in Singapore in order to avoid Indonesian tax. On the day of completion, there was a bank holiday in Singapore so whilst they were enjoying a last glass of champagne in their house, the houseboy was furious that no money had arrived in his account and was convinced that they had lied to him. They suddenly noticed many police cars drawing up outside the house. Quick as a flash, they darted out the back and drove off to the hills in their jeep. They were terrified that the houseboy had shopped them to the police regarding the tax, that they'd be detained at the airport and put in jail. After much fretting, they decided to risk trying to board their flight to Singapore. In the end, they left safely, the houseboy got his Mercedes and all was well. This year, my friend has finally persuaded his wife to build another house in Bali.

Monday, October 22, 2007


A friend of my father's came over for lunch on Saturday. He'd been a fighter pilot during the war and told us of when he'd been flying over St-Omer and felt someone hitting his tail. Assuming it to be an English pilot mistaking him for the enemy, he turned round to display the full markings on his wings. At that point a bullet came through the cockpit into the instrument panel near his head. Realising his error, he made a dash for home across the Channel but his engine had caught fire so he had to parachute out, dinghy and air cannister in hand. He managed to inflate the dinghy and was eventually picked up by the Navy. His uniform was soaking wet so he asked on of the chaps on board to put it on the stove. The man misunderstood him and put it in the stove so he lost his lucky uniform.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I've decided to be very naughty and am visiting my jeweller at lunchtime. I haven't bought anything from him for seven years so feel that this seven year famine has now come to an end. The last time I went there, I ordered a divorce present for myself: a large blue topaz ring. You might call it a knuckle duster. This year my mother's amethyst necklace and brooch have come to me so I thought I'd commission an amethyst ring and earrings to complete the set. I've chosen the ring which will have an amethyst in the centre and white topaz stones on each side, set in gold and I'll see what suggestions he has for earrings. The problem is that his shop is like Aladdin's Cave. It's full of the most exquisite things (he's moved his shrunken heads from Borneo upstairs these days). I recommend a seven year famine from temptation every so often.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

in memoriam

When I was at Cambridge there was a triumvirate of great Classicists at my college: John Crook (no relation to the Winchester archaeologist), Guy Lee and Malcolm Schofield. John Crook and Guy Lee shared the same birthday: 5 November (hence the name Guy) and on this day a few years ago I went to Guy Lee's memorial service in the College chapel. His speciality had been Latin love poetry and the service was very moving with all the readings in Latin. John Crook came up to me afterwards, took both my hands in his and started jumping up and down, singing "I'm 82 today, I'm 82 today!" John died in August this year and as I was unable to go to the funeral, Professor Schofield sent me the obituary which he'd written for The Times.
JC had won a scholarship to John's to read Classics in October 1939. He got a first in Part I and then enlisted as a private with the 9th Royal Fusiliers and his platoon was captured at the Salerno landing so he spent the last two years of the European campaign as a prisoner of war in Silesia. He seems to have flourished in Stalag VIIIB, climbing in and out at night as if it were St. John's College, becoming fluent in German, acting, playing the clarinet and teaching languages to the other prisoners. He survived the death march to Berlin and returned to John's after the war for Part II of his degree. He became Professor of Ancient History in 1979.
He loved music and amateur dramatics. When lecturing he would stride up and down the stage in his gown, discussing the intricacies of Roman law in his sing-song style, leaning forward on the lectern when he wanted to emphasise something, at which point the lights would go off and on. He had translated many traditional English and Scottish songs into Latin and would hand out song sheets of these after College Classical Society dinners and we would sing in full voice with great hilarity. I'm trying to get hold of those song sheets: it would be fun to get them published.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Paper clips

Paper clips, aka Ace Greenberg, the legendery CEO of Bear Stearns who was so keen to keep costs under control that he sent a memo to all the employees reminding them to save their paper clips, must be having a fit. Since he left, the bank's risk profile has increased, culminating in a collapse of two of its mortgage based hedge funds this summer. Third quarter earnings fell 61%. Predators are smelling blood and yesterday a Chinese communist party official announced that China's Citic Bank wants to buy a stake. The People's Bank of China has bought a small stake in BG Group (good old British Gas). We should expect more Chinese takeovers (takeaways?) as a result of the massive liquidity bubble which is growing there.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Ming the Merciless

He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword, or, in the case of the LibDems, the knife in the back. I must say that I am not a fan of a Party system which asks all its members to vote for a leader and then forces him to resign a few months later without a vote of no confidence from the entire membership. The same is true for the Conservatives who forced out IDS. Courtesy does not figure highly in politics, which is perhaps one of the reasons that people are so cynical about it. With GB, we have the opposite situation: the people voted for the Labour Party with TB as its leader, and we all know that, when it came to the crunch, GB didn't have the guts to ask for a personal mandate. He simply pooh-poohed the idea, claiming that he had never intended to call an election anyway. Ho hum. Where are the heroes of yesteryear?
p.s. The bloggers lunch will be in London at 12.30pm on Thursday 15 November so please let me know if you'd like to attend.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Saxon music

I'm reading a history of the Pilgrims' School by our local archaeologist, Dr John Crook. He discusses the musical history of Winchester Cathedral and says that there's been an organ there for over 1000 years. In 990 the Poem of the Cantor Wulfstan says that when the organ in the Saxon Minster played, people in the streets of Winchester used to stop in amazement as "like thunder the iron voice assaults the ear, driving out every other sound." According to Wulfstan, this musical monster had 400 pipes and 26 bellows operated by 70 strong men, working like galley-slaves. It was played by two monks, each at his own keyboard.

Friday, October 12, 2007


I went to the annual Macmillan charity Gulls Egg lunch in the City earlier this year and won a prize in the silent auction: lunch for 14 people in the boardroom at Christie's. This included a private tour of any paintings which were on sale. When I read about the forthcoming Impressionists' sale in November, I booked the lunch which was greatly enjoyed by all yesterday. One of their specialists gave us some fascinating insights about the Picassos, Pisarros, Warhols, Richters etc which were coming up for sale. The estimated prices were staggering: £8m for Warhol's Liz Taylor, £3m for his Mohammed Ali, £25m for one of the Picassos and £10m for a stunning Richter post-war painting of a plane. My favourite was a Signac pointillist painting of a coastal scene in the South of France. For a mere £7m it could be mine. Somebody told me that there is a yield on paintings: if you own one: you also own the rights to any revenues from postcard, greetings card etc sales. It doesn't sound a compelling investment argument.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Kirsch Royale

Hurrah for Leo Kirch! He has won the rights to market Bundesliga football for the next 6 years, until he is 87. He has had an interesting life. The son of a vintner, he borrowed DM25,000 from his wife in 1956 to buy the rights to Fellini's La Strada. He then borrowed more and built up an extensive film library as well as the broadcasting rights for the football World Cup, Formula One racing and other sporting contests. He gave financial support to Helmut Kohl. In the 1990s he ran into trouble with his creditors and his media group collapsed in 2002, then Germany's largest ever bankruptcy. In an interview at that time he told a joke about a man who thought he was dead but whose friend comforted him by pointing out that at least he wasn't bankrupt. "Well I have my own version," Kirch said. "They say I'm bankrupt but at least I'm not dead." This week he's risen again.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Turkish delight

I taught English to a family in Antakya (ancient Antioch) in my gap year. My pupils were two beautiful, lively Turkish girls, both senior to me, who'd just graduated from Ankara University. They lived in a flat with their parents, their elder married sister had a flat on the floor above and their two brothers were working as doctors in Germany. Living in the flat with that family was an interesting experience. The daily timetable revolved around food. A large breakfast was followed by listening to the girls read The Times to me (it was air-mailed everyday), explaining vocabulary and correcting pronunciation. Meanwhile a four course lunch was being prepared by the cook who came by bus from a local village. There was a two hour siesta after lunch. The mother and sisters would then take me out to tea at the house of one of their friends. There was a large tea party circuit, women only of course. These were ritualistic: tea with savouries, then coffee with baklava and lokum (aka Turkish Delight) and sometimes Turkish dancing. One of my pupils, the lovely Bute, who is now a Professor at Antakya University, was an excellent belly dancer. We'd then go home, watch television and end the day with, you guessed it, a light supper. I was size 8 when I arrived there and never managed to recapture that waistline. Sigh!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

St Woolos

St Woolos the Bearded founded the city of Newport in the fifth century. He was King Gwynllyw of Glamorgan and a fierce warrior until he was converted by Saint Cadoc. He then had a dream in which an angel spoke to him and revealed a white ox with a black mark on its forehead. The next day he saw the ox in reality on Stow Hill and founded a hermitage there.
Six hundred years later, Harold Godwinson burst into the church of St.Woolos in Newport, hell-bent on destroying it, and saw, to his astonishment, a huge cheese on the altar. He slashed it with his sword, blood spurted out of it and he and his men fled, leaving the church intact. This was thought to be an omen presaging his death at Hastings.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Bloggers lunch

It's quite a relief to be back at work after all the excitement of the rugby at the weekend. I wonder if GB will go to next Saturday's match. Thanks to his lack of guts over the election, I now owe the delightful Miss Lear lunch. The King has invited himself and Eurodog is also keen to come over. So....if there are any other bloggers who'd like to attend, please let me know and we'll organise a jolly.
p.s. I'm only paying for Miss Lear and myself!

Friday, October 05, 2007


I was asked yesterday what Sisyphus had done to merit such an awful punishment. As you may remember, he had to roll a large, heavy rock up a very steep hill and, every time, just as he reached the top, it rolled back down and he had to start again. I must confess I had to look it up in my Oxford Dictionary of Classical Literature where I read that he had been a treacherous individual, both to men and to the gods. He was the first King of Corinth. He violated the revered laws of hospitality by murdering visiting travellers. He seduced his niece and took the throne from his brother. His difficulties began when he told people that Zeus had raped Aegina (who may have been Sisyphus' sister). Zeus was furious and ordered him to be chained in Tartarus, which was the torture chamber in the Underworld. Sisyphus cunningly asked his guard how the chains worked and escaped. He had told his wife before he died, not to offer the usual sacrifice and so he complained to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, that he was not being looked after properly and persuaded her to let him go back to earth to talk to his wife. He went back to Corinth where he lived for another 100 years. When he died again, Zeus ensured that he suffered eternal torment.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Somebody told me last night that all four of the large UK banks had been interested in buying Northern Rock but that it was impossible to do a deal before the crisis hit the headlines because of EU transparency laws. Such are the perils of succumbing to EU legislation and regulation. Now private equity companies are going through its books. The feeling is, however, that there won't be much in it for shareholders.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

From Russia with love

I'm not a keen follower of football but I do find the interest of Russians in UK clubs amusing. When Abramovich was getting divorced, people were urging his wife to buy Tottenham. Today's FT has an interview with Alisher Usmanov who owns 23% of Arsenal. He is described as "a large man with a fondness for bitter and pubs" and he's very upset by snide comments on the blog of Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador in Uzbekistan. "People talk about me as an Uzbek businessman involved in narcotics and in a shady regime. It is beyond my dignity to respond to all these allegations..." Usmanov says.
What's happening at Manchester City? Is Thaksin still in the running to buy it? What about that special man, Mourinho? Is he going there? (Excuse my ignorance)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Dreams of the dead (part 2)

I have now had six dreams of my mother coming back from the dead. In the most recent one she said she can't keep coming back like this because she's too busy. After Duckers' memorial dinner, I dreamed that I was in a crowded room and that he came in looking rather serious and wearing a suit. I realised that he'd come back from the dead and went over to speak to him. Sadly, we had the briefest of conversations: I asked him how he was and he said, not very convincingly, "OK."

Monday, October 01, 2007

The 3 Rs

On a visit to Chichester yesterday, I was struck by this memorial in the Cathedral cloisters:

"Oliver Whitby dying unmarried Feb the 19th 1702 in the 39th year of his Age Founded and Endowed a School in this City for the maintenance of a Master and Twelve Poor Boys to be carefully educated in the Principles of Religion as Established in the Church of England and also to be diligently instructed in Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and so far in Mathematical Learning as may fit them for honest and useful Employments with a particular Regard to Navigation."

300 years later, we are still haven't worked out how to teach the 3 Rs effectively, there is little emphasis in schools on Christian teaching, the Navy has dwindled and class sizes have increased dramatically.