Tag Archives: USSR

Tony Blair and the Lord God persuaded me Britain should get out of Europe

Tony blair - These are the eyes of a man who has talked to god (Photo: Marc Müller

Tony Blair – These are the eyes of a man who has talked to God (Photograph: Marc Müller)

Tony Blair has opened my eyes to the way the Good Lord God thinks.

I saw him (Tony Blair) give an impassioned speech this morning on why Britain should stay in the European Union.

Well, I suppose it was not actually impassioned because we are talking, here, about Tony Blair. But I suspect he would have had a chat with God before making the speech, so I guess what Mr Bliar – eh, Blair – was spouting was what he deemed to be the Word of God. And it clarified my thinking on the matter.

Before I listened to Tony Blair, my gut instinct was that Britain should get out of Europe, but there might be some slight economic reason for staying in. Now, after Mr Blair’s impassioned pro-European Union speech, I have no doubts.

I am old enough to remember the referendum which took us into what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). The politicians said the economic argument for being a part of – rather than outside – the European Economic Community was strong. There was no political angle. You could banish that thought from your mind. There would never be even any talk of political union. The clue was in the name – the European Economic Community. It was merely a free trade community like the existing smaller free trade community of which we were happily a part.

Pro-European politicians now seem to act as if the choice back then was – and still is – between little Britain being on its own or being part of Europe.

That is utter bollocks.

Wikipedia’s map of the current EFTA (dark green) showing ex-EFTA members who are now EU members (light green0

Wikipedia’s map of the current EFTA (dark green) showing ex-EFTA members who are now EU members (light green)

We were part of the European Free Trade Association – Austria, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

The bigger EEC comprised Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

When we joined the EEC, so did Denmark and Ireland. (Portugal joined in 1986)

Soon after we joined the European Economic Community – “It’s only a free trade area, nothing to do with politics” – started calling itself the European Community and now it calls itself the European Union.

I always thought it was bizarre that we were joining an economic organisation with vaguely similar Western European economies and abandoning or weakening our Commonwealth trade ties with countries around the world who had complementary not competing economies – Australia, Canada, New Zealand, developing countries in Africa and lots of other complementary economies including the rising future superpower of India.

Culturally, Belgium and France – just 22 miles away – are far for more foreign than New Zealand – literally on the other side of the world. And our historical and cultural ties with India are – arguably – as close as any ties to continental Europe.

EFTA made sense. Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are far ‘closer’ and far more complementary to us than France, Germany and Italy. The Commonwealth makes sense.

Wikipedia’s map of the NAFTA free trade area

Wikipedia’s map of NAFTA’s trade area

My gut instinct is that we should get out of a pointless European Union of power-hungry politicians who want to control larger areas and get back to a trade-based economic association of countries. The Commonwealth is already ideal. EFTA was fine. And there is the interesting though embarrassingly acronymed NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico. Not ideal, but interesting.

Free Trade = good.

Power-crazed politicians trying to get control over ever-larger areas = bad.

I remember being in a hotel in Samarkand in Uzbekistan in the mid-1980s.

Opposite the hotel, a new multi-storey building was rising. Only the concrete skeleton was visible so far… and the concrete was already cracking.

One of the people I was with was an architect.

He explained: ‘The trouble is someone in Moscow is deciding which concrete they will use across the USSR but, in Siberia, it’s freezing – way-below zero – and, around Samarkand, it’s baking-hot desert.’

Centralised decision-making does not work.

Wikipedia’s map of the USSR

Wikipedia’s map of the USSR

The USSR fell apart – partly – because it shoved totally unconnected countries together which had nothing in common. The same thing happened, in a way, in Yugoslavia.

The European Union is a dog’s dinner of separate countries with little holding them together except politicians’ lust for greater power over more people. I mean – come on – is Denmark really a neat cultural and historical fit with Greece?

One of the few sensible ideas the appalling Tony Blair (the UN’s peacemaker in the Middle East) ever floated was for a Council of The Isles  – but not just the British-Irish Council – one to encompass a possibly independent England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Economic links between countries with complementary economies or a clubbing-together of countries with cultural and/or historical similarities tends to work. Just shoving together incompatible entities into bigger and bigger units for the sake of increased political power has a tendency to lead to wars.

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Organised religion usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings…

(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)

A Siberian shaman, circa 1692

What a well-dressed Siberian shaman looked like, circa 1692

I have no problem with religions. They mostly boil down to the advice: Be nice to other people.

This is good.

But organised religion tends to eventually turn sour and it usually all ends in tears, discrimination and beheadings.

Yesterday, I went to a lecture at Gresham College in London.

Gresham College was founded in 1597. That was a year when 26 people were killed in Nagasaki because they were Catholics.

So it goes.

Yesterday’s Gresham College lecture was titled The KGB’s Bête Noire.

The bête noire of the KGB, allegedly, was the Keston Institute, founded in 1969 to study religions in Communist, and now formerly Communist, countries.

Xenia Dennen, Chairman of the Keston Institute, talked about how religions had been repressed in the Soviet Union, then come into the open again with the collapse of the Soviet Union but were now facing problems again.

Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations recognises four religions: the Russian Orthodox Church, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Note that it recognises only one branch of Christianity.

More interesting to me, though, was that, last summer, Xenia Dennen visited Buryatia, a traditionally Buddhist part of Siberia.

“In Buryatia,” she said last night, “I met some shamans. They weren’t exactly what I had expected. They wore shirts and ties and had mobiles going off during our interview. The chief sat at the head of a table in a splendid wooden chair with a high back with carved eagle and other creatures adorning its back.

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

The interesting Buryatia countryside just south of Ulan-Ude

“We sat in what was a small wooden hut on a hillside overlooking Ulan-Ude. This was the headquarters of the Religious Organisation of Tengeri Shamans – Tengeri, I gather, are gods of sun, moon and mother earth – to which 67 shamans belonged.

“They told us that altogether there were 3,000 shamans in Buryatia who were resurrecting ancient forms of Buryat shamanism which had survived during the Soviet period in Mongolia.

“They said: We are returning to our ancient roots.

“They said the sky was their main god with a large hierarchy beneath it, but they reassured us that they didn’t dabble in black magic, which never worked. They only wanted to ‘do good’.

Today, they said,  demands the resurrection of these ancient rituals as many current illnesses are incurable… We can influence the elements… We could put out the fires in California, in Chita, in Krasnoyarsk… We can deal with global warming, tornadoes, floods… We worship the gods which the West has forgotten… If the West does not recognise these gods, then these problems will continue… How many people will die if shamanism is not accepted?

“Despite the grimness of these warnings,” said Xenia Dennen last night, “I found them a very friendly lot. But, of course, I think they might have appeared rather different in their shaman robes and in a trance. Not at all cosy, I suspect.”

But I find it somehow reassuring that there are still people out there who believe in the sky.

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Other people’s lives: Freemasons, gangsters, a cat killer and the Cold War

Purveyors of fine petrol to the nation

Owners of fine petrol stations across UK

Last night, I went to Stowmarket in Suffolk to see two excellent Edinburgh Fringe preview shows by Doug Segal and Juliette Burton.

On the way back, just before midnight, I filled up at a BP petrol station somewhere on or near the A14.

Inside, a man dressed as a green duck was talking to a woman dressed as a yellow chicken.

“It was brown and grey and French,” the man said.

“Karen has always been difficult,” the woman replied.

Then they left.

Despite that, I have no particular blog to write this morning, so I idly looked through some old diaries at what happened today in previous years. These are extracts, going back in time to another era. Some names have been removed.

Boots: a frequent weapon in Glasgow

Two negotiation tools often used to settle disputes in Glasgow

5th MAY 2002

In  the evening, I went with (a fairly well-known English comedian) to a gig at a Masonic Hall in Easterhouse, a legendarily rough part of Glasgow. The low, unmarked building was surrounded by empty space, like a free-fire zone, and had 7 ft tall spiked grey metal railings surrounding it with barbed wire on parts of the roof. There was a full house: perhaps 150 people, all dressed up in their Sunday best as if for a West End occasion. They hated (the fairly well-known English comedian’s) performance. Their favourite star was ‘Christian’ a 64-year-old who sings as if it were still the 1970s.

The son of one of the people who ran the club told us: “My nose is getting better now. It’s still just tender here, towards the top.”

The other night, he had been driving home from some late night DJ work and stopped at a petrol station. After paying, he walked back towards his car. A man appeared, said “No-one talks to my wife like that!” and hit him.

Three other men then appeared and all four attacked him, knocking him down and kicking him, breaking his nose.

The police say they have the men’s faces and the number plate of their car on video but, because the beating itself is not seen on any video, there is no point finding and prosecuting them.

It seems that the DJ boy, drunk, had reached the pay counter at the same time as the angry man’s wife and (he says) told her: “You go first.”

Seeing this from outside, the other man and his friends somehow misinterpreted what had happened and got angry.

taxisign

How is this common sight linked to the Great Train Robbery?

5th MAY 2000

I had lunch with a chum. Last week, (a prominent London gangster) told him one of the Great Train Robbers who was never caught is black and now works as a London cab driver. He kept all of his share.

My chum went to Charlie Kray’s recent funeral in Bethnal Green. As Reggie Kray came out of church after the service, handcuffed to a policewoman, my chum found himself shouting “Let him out!” and it was taken up by the rest of the hundreds of bystanders. When Reggie went to his brother Ronnie Kray’s funeral, he was handcuffed to two gigantic policemen to make him look small, but instead it made him look very dangerous. This time, my chum reckoned, he had been handcuffed to a woman to try to belittle him in fellow-gangsters’ eyes.

Later, I talked with another chum on the phone. She has just got back from cruising the Caribbean in a yacht. She said the Caribbean is full of white South Africans who have left the country and put all their money into buying yachts and cruisers. She said her bottom was probably on the Internet because one man spent 39 days sailing from South Africa to the Caribbean and, when he got there, he was greeted by her buttocks exposed to him spelling out WELCOME NICK.  He took a digital photograph to send to his friends as an e-mail attachment.

Portrait of a killer

Portrait of a pitiless kitty killer with a track record

5th MAY 1999

I had lunch with a chum at BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane.

Last weekend, he and his girlfriend went to Chichester, where she has friends. In the evening, they were all watching a video of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Halfway through, the chief baddie was saying something to the effect of: “If things don’t happen, people will lose their digits.”

At this point, the living room door was suddenly pushed open – slammed open, really – by the family cat, who entered the room with the hind legs of a rabbit dangling from its bloodied mouth. The cat strode in, dropped the legs on the carpet, looked up at the humans and strode out of the room. The cat’s owner said they’d once sat and watched the same cat eat an entire rabbit in the garden, head first.

“You sat and watched?” my chum asked incredulously.

When he got back to his home in Brixton that same night, my chum found the head of a toy Teletubby (the yellow one) in his back garden. Just the head.

He recently negotiated a per-day pay rise for himself at the BBC; then negotiated a 4-day-week for himself thus, in effect, getting paid the same money for a day’s less work. He intends to try to write a novel on Mondays. His female boss is also going to take a day off work each week in an attempt to write a novel.

When I got home from the BBC lunch, I found an e-mail from another chum who works at Anglia TV:

Hey, today’s Eastern Daily Press is full of a story about an ex Anglia TV carpenter who murdered his wife and attempted to murder his daughter. You would recognise him. He looked like a little gnome and wandered around fixing things with a white coat on. He stabbed her to death because she spent more than £60 a week on the housekeeping!

Later, shopping in Tesco’s, I met the woman who used to live next door to me in Borehamwood. She, her husband, son and daughter moved to nearby Shenley about six years ago. She said her daughter was now twelve and “getting hormonal”. Nothing she (the mother) could do was right and her daughter was embarrassed by her.

Tashkent earthquake memorial in 1985

Tashkent earthquake memorial in 1985

5th MAY 1985
(four years before the Berlin Wall fell)

Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

The old city was flattened by an earthquake in 1966 and rebuilt mostly in ghastly Russian tower block style.

Walking along a street this morning, I encountered three thin policemen and a tubby officer with a moustache talking to a shirt-sleeved man who seemed to have committed a traffic offence. The shirt-sleeved man took some pieces of paper out of his right-hand pocket and offered them to the officer. But the officer noticed me – an obvious tourist – approaching with a camera over my shoulder. He dismissed the man’s offer of (I presume) roubles with a wave of his hand.

Walking into the grounds of a mosque, we were given a very crude propaganda magazine about how local Moslem customs are respected and how the Soviet state is renovating mosques. The Russians must be very worried about the Moslems in Soviet Central Asia.

My German chum yesterday encountered a local Uzbek newspaper editor called Igor who had met a girl in Bulgaria whom he (Igor) wanted to marry. This romance came to the ears of the KGB who interrogated Igor and told him there was no way he could marry her.

Igor earns 250 roubles per month compared to the average of 160 roubles per month, so he is well-off. He lives in a three-room apartment – unusually spacious – but he has to share it with his brother and one other man. There are weekly political meetings at his apartment block with a register of names and it is compulsory to attend them unless you are working.

Igor came very nervously to our hotel tonight to talk to my German chum. He wants to send my German chum a book but will have to get a friend to take it to Yugoslavia and post it from there. If Igor got mail from the West, he would be questioned by the police. He tried to persuade my German chum to send him money so he can travel to Yugoslavia himself and then on to Germany. My German chum met him just outside the hotel for this chat and thought it might be some form of set-up by the security police.

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That halcyon golden era before Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the trades unions ran the UK

PravdaLogoIn 1984, I went to the USSR. When I came back to my work at Granada TV in Manchester, I happened to mention that, in Moscow, I had taken a metro train out to the end of the line, had taken a walk round the bleak suburban area, gone into a few shops and found virtually nothing on the shelves. In particular, the food shops had a lot of empty shelves and very few items of food.

When I mentioned this to one of my Granada workmates (who had never been to the USSR but who had a university degree), she told me: “Oh! You’ve been listening to too much Western propaganda. It’s not like that.”

I have always remembered this conversation.

I told her I had been to Moscow, walked into shops and seen things.

She, never having been there, told me with total confidence that I had listened to too much anti-Soviet propaganda.

Because she knew what the truth was. She had talked to people she knew who had the same outlook as she did.

This was a university-educated person in her early thirties.

Beware of that most dangerous of all things: an airhead with a degree.

And beware of people who have inflexible opinions on events and eras which they never experienced.

I am buying a new carpet for the stairs in my house.

Yesterday, I was talking to a shop assistant who is younger than my stair carpet. My stair carpet was laid around 1986 – the height of Margaret Thatcher’s period as Prime Minister.

Also yesterday, someone not born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister told me they found my blog of a couple of days ago very enlightening. It was about the trades unions pre-Thatcher.

Let me take you back again to that halcyon golden era before Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK and ‘took on’ the unions…

When I worked at Anglia TV in Norwich, you could get no captions or graphics artwork of any kind made for an hour – sometimes two hours – in the middle of the afternoon, because that was when the Graphics Dept men (they were all men) played cards.

It was a pattern widely repeated in many ways in many other departments across the ITV network.

I started at college when Margaret Thatcher was newly Prime Minister. I took Communication Studies – it is now called Media Studies. We had lecturers who worked at the Daily Mirror newspaper.

The non-colour printed Daily Mirror in 1986

The non-colour printed Daily Mirror in 1986

At that time, for several years past, the Daily Mirror had had colour printing machines standing in their building under covers which they had bought for large amounts of money. (Newspapers, at that time, printed photographs only in black-and-white.)

The print unions told the Daily Mirror that the machines could not be used. In fact, they told the company that, if the covers were even removed from the machines, there would be a strike which could possibly close the newspaper.

The Daily Mirror did not print colour photos regularly until 2nd June 1988, after Margaret Thatcher had ‘taken on’ the unions.

Before that, I personally knew someone who was a part-time comedy performer and also a print union member. He ‘worked’ for the Sunday Telegraph in London on a freelance basis… except he lived in Norfolk and never went in to the Telegraph building in London. His friend ‘clocked’ him in and, as far as the newspaper was concerned, his name was Michael Mouse (as in Mickey Mouse – this is NOT a joke).

Getting into the ACTT union or the print unions was difficult but, once you got in, you were untouchable and the companies were terrified of even the threat of strikes. In my view at the time, the closed-shop ACTT was 10% a union protecting its members and 90% a protection racket, coercing money from its members and controlling how the TV production companies worked.

You – and the companies – did what the all-powerful union officers said or you suffered the consequences.

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The roaring, drunken yet very amiable Finns of the former Soviet Union

In 1985, I was in the Soviet Union – firstly Russia and then what was, at that time, called Soviet Central Asia. On the trip, I kept encountering a group of holidaying Finns. This is the shortened version of my diary entries about what happened…

Saturday 27 April – Moscow

In the evening, at the hotel, we encountered a group – about 20 or 25 of them – of absolutely roaring-drunk but very amiable Finns. They were swaying around in the foyer greeting each other loudly and embracing complete strangers randomly in a language which sounded like a tape-recorder playing speech at twice its normal speed. They were staggering, almost rolling, around trying to strike up conversations with all and sundry. Apparently Finns get cheap boats or planes to Leningrad, laden down with denim jeans which they sell for gallons of vodka and which they then have to drink before returning to Finland. The drinking laws are very strict in Finland.

Sunday 28 April – Moscow

Over breakfast, the amiable Finns are still paralytically drunk. Later, in a corridor, I hear people talking in broken English about belly-dancers. Yes, it is a couple of Finns talking to a complete stranger who is utterly bemused, slightly frightened and is looking round asking for help with his eyes. Suddenly another grossly-fat, drunken Finn staggers out of a doorway, naked from the waist up, his stomach bouncing and gyrating dramatically as he laughs:

“Belly dancer!” he shouts at the top of his voice. “Belly dancer!”

Tuesday 30 April – Samarkand

When we return to our hotel in Samarkand, we find a drunken lone Finn wandering sadly around the foyer holding his head and plaintively saying to no-one in particular:

“Bukhara…Bukhara…”

A hotel employee directs him to his coach outside.

At 1.40am at night, we get a train from Samarkand to Bukhara. The Finns are nowhere to be seen but then, a few minutes before the train sets off, we see two drunken Finns from the hotel being helped along the platform by four equally drunken friends.

“Bukhara!” they shout. “Bukhara!”

And then the others appear in one large singing, swaying mass.

The guard on the train looks at me and raises his eyes to heaven – an unusually expressive thing for a Russian to do in the presence of a Westerner.

Wednesday 1 May – Bukhara

In the train, two of our group – including a very strait-laced West German doctor, share a sleeper carriage with two of the Finnish men who enter and strip off immediately, moving the good doctor’s belongings whenever he isn’t looking in what appears to be a rehearsal for some slapstick routine. Meanwhile, in the other half of the coach, about twelve Finnish women strip off completely in their three 4-berth compartments and leave their doors wide open while they sing loud folk songs very loudly and slightly off-key.

When we eventually get to our hotel rooms in Bukhara just after 7.30 in the morning, we discover the Finns have somehow managed to reach the hotel first and there is a rowdy Finnish party in full swing in the room next to mine with riotous singing blasting through the wall. You can’t complain: they are just enjoying themselves so much.

Thursday 2 May – Bukhara

We are to be taken for an Uzbek folk song evening. My heart sinks. I come down to the hotel foyer from my room, the lift door opens and I am confronted by two Finnish men stripped to the waist, wearing very short, very bright red shorts. They have big grins on their faces. They have clearly just come back into the hotel from the outside world and I assume they have been out jogging, terrifying the locals.

“Bukhara!” they shout. “Bukhara!” and one plants a large wet kiss on my cheek.

Friday 3 May – Tashkent

We arrive at our hotel where a lone Finn stands by the lift, looking startled, with glazed eyes, clutching his bottle of Black & White whisky and swaying ever-so-slightly.

They must have drunk the Soviet Union dry of vodka and have moved on to whisky.

You have to admire their stamina.

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