Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: Australia

Delayed News

Motto of the month (and up to you whether you speculate on why it was chosen): When fire is blazing throughout a building, throwing a glass of water on the flames is not help but self-advertisement


If this issue arrived very nearly on time that is thanks to extraordinary efforts by its Editor (myself).

I had to make a 900 kilometre off-island journey to get an elderly distant cousin released from mental hospital.  She recently moved to the Auvergne in order, she said, to ‘get away from Brexit’, with plenty  of financial resources arranged by her nieces and nephews in Kent, but with wholly inadequate training for the bureaucratic warfare that awaits would-be settlers in that ‘Pays d’égalité et fraternité’ (© every French government), and with only dim memories of the schoolroom French which once allowed her to borrow a pen from her uncle, but certainly could not now enable her to explain why she had been carrying a large gleaming kitchen knife whenever she left the cottage, and which she had flourished from within when refusing admission to all callers.  However I discovered that things had actually proceeded without widespread civil unrest for the first week or so until the day when the Foreign Ministries of the western world had run their combined campaign about the massive threats posed by Russian hacking and black ops.  It transpired that, confused by her new and quite different style of living, isolated by her monoglossia, and terrified by her wild interpretations of what had so far appeared on the screen of a secondhand television set installed for her by a well-intentioned neighbour, she concluded that Russian tanks would soon be visible on the northern skyline with heavily armed ‘hackers’ swarming along behind them.  Her notion of ‘hacker’ seemed to be based on confused stories about the atrocities in the war in Sierra Leone, where one of her relatives had served in the pacifying forces.

             Until taken away by a team of strong men, and women, in white coats she had, she told me, barricaded all windows and doors each night and slept under the bed; I could not make out whether this was with a view to escaping the notice of Russian burglars, or on the grounds that if she was already in situ she would have a better chance of resisting any other body attempting to manoeuvre itself into that space during the hours of darkness.  It took a day to extract Aunty from the protecting institution, two days to restore her to approximate normality at home, and another three or four walking around the village, literally holding her hand, and explaining to those we met that she was not only not dangerous but in need of assistance herself, before we had her on an even keel.  But from there, the interactions with the villagers could not be faulted.  It took the rest of my stay, however, to explain to Aunty why there may be a certain measure of truth in what the television told us about Russian activities but this still did not need to bring any immediate major change in our sleeping arrangements.  I put it to her that the situation is much like the ‘phoney war’ in the first few months of World War II which she remembers fondly as a paradise of sunny days and the excitement of going to school for the first time.  I explained to her that there had in fact been a lot of nastiness going on but that it had been far away from ordinary people living in southern Hampshire in England.  Of course ‘our’side (she belongs to the branches of the family tree who lived so long in England that they went native) had been busy behind the scenes getting the ships and the men and the aeroplanes ready for the real war against Mr Hitler.  She was not so easily soothed as I had hoped, and came back at first with such questions as why so many ‘important people’ (by which I suppose she meant Stoltenberg and Trump and the likes of Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab)  were so worried about what Mr Putin was up to.  It needed much persuasion from me, ably supported by the village schoolmaster who by great good fortune was an obsessive with annotation of back numbers of LeMonde Diplomatique as his personal raison d’être, before Aunty accepted  that it wasn’t only the Russians who were hacking into ‘our’ networks and that in fact everyone is at it everywhere all the time (including big business, not just governments) even if for some reason ‘our’ media cover that aspect less fully (about 98% less).  But the clincher was when I pointed out that it was most definitely the duty of our own intelligence services to find out all they can about what the other side might be up to, and if they needed to do that by hacking, or cheating or stealing documents, or installing hidden cameras in places where they might be useful, then more power to their elbows, in order to protect all the good citizens on our own side.  Fortunately, her attention seemed focussed on that word ‘hacking’, as with many others of her generation, and I didn’t have to go into the altogether darker issues of black ops.  Eventually she agreed that what we call gathering information the Russians would call espionage, and what we call espionage they would call gathering information.  Everyone who has the competence and can afford the equipment is at it all the time.  Even the Finns reported without any drama a few months ago that they had been at it for ten years; spying on Russia, to be specific.  As all thinking autocrats know, if you’re going to keep a population in reasonably disciplined order it is essential to run a proper ‘us and them’ approach in dealing with foreign countries and other blocs.  Of course it was a slow business talking Aunty down to a sensible sanity level.  Two days before I left, as we watched the sun go down – sunsets shouldn’t be watched by people with troubles on or in their minds – she came out with “But if all those important people decided to give us all warnings about what those Russians are up to, doesn’t that mean there really is something going on, something bad, I mean?”   Pointing out the interesting co-incidence between the running of the campaign and the approach of the American mid-term elections coupled with the threat of an imminent collapse of Theresa’s rule didn’t really cut the mustard, however relevant it might actually be.  But the loyal support of the schoolmaster and the engaging of his granddaughter as a temporary and charming home help, together with the continuing complete absence of Russians in the neighbourhood, just carried us through, and I scrambled onto the old stomach-churner back to this precious isle two days ago.



A few weeks ago I was sorting through a pile of old British coinage.  Lady W, our generous patron in darkest Dorsetshire, sends money at irregular intervals to support our magnificent (her word)  but almost entirely useless struggle to make this world a better place.  The amounts would be scorned by any London journalist (except those into their sixth or seventh period as an unpaid intern) but they are large enough that the irregularity doesn’t matter.  Long time readers will not be surprised that irregularity also applies to the form of her contributions.  Usually there is a basic cheque which is bulked out by spare change she has found lying around in her mansion, items of personal jewellery which have lost her favour (once there was a niello ring valued by a mainland jeweller at 1200 euros) or gifts in kind (e.g a bottle of wine, or an old horse cloth, but notably once including a kid goat, which came in totally illegally to Anse des Geôliers up north on a Saturday night).  This latest instalment brought a sockful of old British coins.  I noticed that some had a smooth circumference, while others had been given a milled edge; that is, a succession of tiny ridges, at right angles to the face of the coin lying flat, proceeding right round the coins, thus making them easier to grasp securely.  Those familiar with the ancestral practices of the British will not be surprised if I report that it was the coins of higher value which got the more careful treatment.  The half-crown for example (one eighth of a pound, and therefore handsome pocket money for a teenager in the 1960s) (but approximately worthless in terms of today’s purchasing power, and definitely worthless after 29th March 2019) has an easily distinguished milling.  The low value coins could of course be left unmilled since it was only the lower orders of society whose members would go scrabbling in dark corners for a dropped penny or farthing.  There is an interesting contrast with the attitude of for instance Singapore where the government takes great care that citizens who behave as it believes all Singaporeans should will receive in return helpful and thoughtful administration, extending into the details of daily life.  Thus even the tiny Singaporean ten cent coin has a milled edge.  Across the world there seems no general agreement as to when the better grasp provided by milling is needed and where it is unnecessary.  Normal for the tops of plastic milk bottles, yet not standardly incorporated on the nightsticks of American police, I am unreliably informed. (Perhaps there is an opening here for an enterprising young bureaucrat to establish UCMASA, a Universal Conference on Milling and Associated Security Aids, with himself, or herself, as both inaugural Chairman and CEO on a ‘compensation package’ of millions – unless of course it’s already been done somewhere.)  As it happens I was witness myself to the need for properly applied microsecurity techniques ten days ago.  An Australian tourist down at the harbour had buttonholed me to expound the wonders of his new ‘smartphone’.  (I clearly need to work harder on looking like a tramp when I go out for an evening stroll in the tourist season.)  If I understood him correctly, the thing was a marvel, able to tell the time in Timbuktu at the top of its screen while simultaneously conjuring airy spirits from the vasty deep in the lower half, and it was certainly a rather beautiful object, a slim smoothly gleaming rectangle of glass and black plastic with gracefully rounded corners.  As he seized the chance to photograph a fishing boat that had just come into view, the smartphone seized the chance to escape his grasp, shooting up out of his hand in what turned into an appropriately beautiful swallow dive into the murky waters off the jetty.  My Aussie friend took it hard.  I, naturally, took it as the moment to clear off for some pressing appointment or other which I had just remembered.  But I heard later that he reckoned he would have to pay 15,000 Aussie dollars to get a replacement.  And it was all made much worse by the fact that the would-be amphibian phone was itself a replacement for one snatched out of his hands as he consulted it in Tottenham Court Road looking for the shortest route to Trafalgar Square.  Why ever is there no milling on such high-tech instruments?

Next posting scheduled for 16-11-2018.  Perhaps.





Monty Skew writes:

The next President?  Absolutely straightforward except for the complications.  If Clinton picks Sanders for her Veep (which she should because he has huge support from a large block of idealistic voters who would vote for a ticket with him but won’t vote gladly for anyone else) she will win.

    But she won’t pick Sanders because she is an old Washington professional who knows how these things are done.  Therefore she will pick an obscure middle-ranking middle-aged (but well-dressed) male politician nobody has ever heard of.  And anyway…

    …if she does pick Sanders, (which she should because….[etc]) he will turn her down as incompatible with his burning desire to bring a new spirit of honesty and justice to American politics.

   If she picks a woman?  Just check how women have fared when they got near a presidential campaign in the US, from Ferraro onwards (nothing to do with personal merit by the way).  Even Hillary’s judgement can’t be that dumb.

    Therefore it depends who Trump picks.  If he picks a man he will lose.  If he picks a competent woman who is ideologically incompatible with him (Carly, why ever?!  Just two more days could have been enough!), he will win.

    Just one thought though.  Suppose Bernie is just so ornery different that he decides to run as an independent Vice-candidate?  ‘Run’ may be the wrong word – he could walk it.


Berthold takes up the torch

It is unsurprising my colleague writes of the Vice-Presidency.  Once the easy reportage that comes with the presidential primaries is finished, the automatic reaction of political hacks is to keep the ball rolling smoothly with long insight-free articles about possible candidates for V-P.   Interesting topics like ‘Why does the vote have to be on a three-legged race?’ or ‘How can we avoid finishing up with V-Ps who have to be thrown out of the White House on grounds of bribery, corruption and tax fraud?’ seem to be a bit too hard for them.  Once the V-P is in office, anyway, he will be just a figurehead sitting in comfort on the poop (for American readers I should explain that this is a nautical expression), unless he is Dick Cheney (allegedly the only self-appointed Vice-President).  It wildly overstates the case to speak of a V-P being just a breath away from the Oval Office.  The life-expectancy of American Presidents in office has historically been better than the average for men of their age, despite the repeated evidence of an unconscious national urge to speed up the input of fresh ideas and policies at the top political level by means of the input of lethal weaponry.  In fact, quite generally being a head of state is one of the best life assurance policies one could have (as opposed to life insurance, which of course pays out on death of the insured).  Although it is not often publicly mentioned there is a well-established international agreement about this.  It is not actually a law but unlike all other international agreements it is almost never broken.  When difficulties arise between states all means to resolve them up to and including war are in practice accepted as understandable and often eagerly urged on by rabble-rousers with axes to grind.  There is one step forbidden, however.  Governments must not dispose of the difficulties by assassinating the head of the opposing state.  This  move is known as the Express Exit , often referred to in intelligence services as the XX  play.  The reasons why the prohibition is almost universally accepted are obvious.  Hitler is the last national leader who is reasonably believed to have broken the rule, having personally ordered the poisoning of Boris of Bulgaria in 1943.  In the reverse geopolitical direction Churchill explicitly ruled out any such action to get rid of Hitler.  The XX taboo is perhaps part of the reason for the carefree smile regularly seen in photographs of Kim Jong-Un.  The names of  Qaddafi and Arafat have been raised as possibly the subjects, or objects, of recent breaches of the rule, but there is at present no general public agreement among specialists as to whether there was actual direct involvement of the hostile governments in their deaths.

            Some enthusiasts believe that the XX taboo  should be respected and acknowledged as one of the few visible fragments showing that humanity aspires to a framework of international law.  Relatives of the hundreds of thousands killed in the Syrian civil war and surviving amputees from that conflict disagree.


Editorial comment

Mention of Berthold taking up the torch brings to mind the recent arrival of the so-called Olympic torch (apparently for most of its journey it is in reality a small portable gas-powered firelighter) in Brazil, delayed for ninety minutes until an official could be found to authorise the airport’s financial office to waive the usual fee to pay import duty.  The most puzzling feature of its travels before reaching Brazil was why there were any such travels at all.  If for instance the French government took one of the many locks of Napoleon’s hair which they possess by virtue of their responsibility for the nation’s museums, and enclosed it in a small metal canister, sending it on a similar journey, would hundreds turn out to see it pass each town on the route?  Somewhere between starting and ending that question I notice that my potential answer changed from a supercilious negative to a dismayed positive.  But what possible benefit could there be for the spectators?  What disorder of the human set of metabolic and psychological motives?  And is there a link with the baffling impulse that drives crowds of men into remote country areas where they can stand for hours watching other men, with almost none of whom they have any personal link, trying to use sticks of various kinds to knock  small balls into a hole in the grass? Perhaps some university that feels it suffers from a publicity deficit might like to try arranging for various receptacles said to contain curios of one sort or another (‘pen that signed the death warrant of Dr Crippen’, ‘toe of carnivorous frog’, ‘coin dropped from alien spacecraft’) to be despatched on locally advertised ‘celebratory circuits’ through forty or fifty towns and villages in a number of different countries, possibly selected on the basis of assumed differences in their scepticism quotients, to see what crowds would assemble, and in what frame of mind.  If nothing else, the experiment could yield valuable information for any who subsequently have to engage in diplomatic or ‘free trade’ negotiations with the countries concerned.


Beyond selfishness: A joint statement

With one exception we the undersigned are all migrants, now living in a jurisdiction other than the one where we were born and brought up.  The exception, our intern, is the daughter of migrants and all four of her grandparents were also migrants.  Three of us also have personal links to Australia.  We unite to express our disgust and contempt for the Australian government’s attitude to would-be immigrants.  We see it as a shameful disinterment of the xenophobia and racial prejudice which for so many years produced the ‘whites only’ policy.  Now, there is a case for asking the Australian government to up its game for the sake of its own self-interest.  Maybe memories in Aussie politics are too short to remember how well the country has done out of Vietnamese immigration.  But common sense ought to tell this government that the arrival of a few thousands or tens of thousands could be a very good move for a nation of 23 millions inhabiting a very thinly populated country, in a region where not so far away there are many hundreds of millions living at levels of subsistence far below what most Australians would indignantly reject.  However, we believe there are minimal moral standards to be met first, before we go into the cost-benefit analysis.  Any half-informed inhabitant of Canberra must know about the oppression, imprisonment, and deprivation, on a massive scale, in the countries from which these determined, resourceful and tough migrants (many of them well educated) escape, and might well consider these are just the kind of people Australia needs – just the kind of people in fact that it believes many of its recent immigrants (two and three and four generations back and mostly from countries they didn’t need to emigrate from) to have been.  When an individual middle-class family refuses to share any of its good fortune with others less fortunate, most will say they are mean-mindedly failing the standards we expect from civilised human beings and shamefully selfish.  When a country – the ‘Lucky Country’ – as fortunate and rich as Australia, with all its resources, arrests desperate would-be immigrants on the high seas outside territorial waters, forcibly takes them to places they do not wish to go, and detains them there indefinitely without legal charge in abominable conditions, then you have not merely what appear to be serious crimes requiring urgent investigation, but also the reason why here we have headed our statement Beyond selfishness.   We call on the Australian government to live up to its claimed ideals and return to civilised standards immediately.

Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems; Dr Karela Hangshaw; Costas Pheidakis; Montgomery Skew; Maud Timoshenko; the Editor