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.