Bribes not bombs

Why have governments been so keen to legislate against civil liberties in the name of protecting us against terrorism, but remain so very reluctant to regulate financial markets.

Let me suggest a reason.

Banks offers juicy directorships to retired politicians and senior civil servants. Terrorist organizations do not. That needs to change.

I have always argued that if terrorists really want to achieve their political objectives  they should be employing bribes, not bombs.

Forget blowing people up. That will never work. It just increases the profits of armament companies and gives politicians an excuse to rant and rave.

Instead, terrorists should be employing well established methods for influencing political debates. They need to give lots of money to important politicians. Governments always have lots of people who appreciate a nice earner. The UK Parliament was [and likely still is] demonstrably full of such people. The US Congress seems to be packed with people who have 'For Hire' signs showing.

I suggest that your terrorist group set up a foundation [tip: do not include terrorist in the foundation’s name] and do the following –

1.  establish a big prize [say, about one million pounds] that can be awarded to a politician who has furthered the cause of world peace [i.e. has done as they were told].

2.  appoint politicians who have been ‘helpful’ to the board of the foundation. A salary of £100,000 a year for one days work a month would be about right.

3.   arrange a series of speaking tours that pay £50-200,000 per speech.  Hire lots of unemployed actors to make up audiences.

4.   start a book publishing firm [tip: Jihad Books would not be a good name for the firm] and pay, say, £20 million for the rights to publish a politicians memoirs.

Of course, all these are well established ways of making payoffs to politicians. They have worked well for many business organizations and other bodies. Zionism has been particularly handy with its cheque book.

You will also need to remember the stick as well as the carrot.  Threats to fund electoral opponents has been particularly effective in intimidating many American politicians. And lets not forget the old standby of paying journalist to write smear stories about anybody who does not toe the line.

If you employ these tactics in no time at all we will see your leaders dining at the White House and being ushered into Number 10.  A bit of spin and any past unpleasantness will soon be forgotten. If this seems unlikely remember that when Britain was being forced to give up its colonial empire we branded a lot of people as terrorists. Five years later the same people were running our former territories and were popping into Buckingham Palace for tea and biscuits with the Queen.

Pope had it exactly right.

"In vain may heroes fight, and patriots rave;
If secret gold sap on from knave to knave.

Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
That lends corruption lighter wings to fly!
A single leaf shall waft an army o'er,
Or ship off senates to a distant shore;
Pregnant with thousands flits the scrap unseen,
And silent sells a king, or buys a queen."

A few years of bribery lobbying, and we could see Osama bin Laden Drives and Osama bin Laden Roads joining Nelson Mandela Avenues all over Britain.

Don't worry about it!

Yeah, don't worry about it.

Kids getting you down?

Are the  domestic chores getting you down? How about a shot of Dexedrine?[Brand name for dextroamphetamine].  The advertisement claims that "Many housewives -- are crushed under a load of dull, routine duties that leave them in a state of mental and emotional fatigue...Dexedrine will give them a feeling of energy and well-being, renewing their interest in life and living."

Maybe the kids are the problem. don't worry, there are ways of rendering them more compliant.

How about a shot of morphine?

It's good for all kinds of problems.


If Mrs Winslow's magic ingredient does not work perhaps a shot of cocaine might keep the little darlings quiet.

Are the little bastards sweethearts still not getting the message. Maybe a good dose of Nembutal up the ass will slow them down.

Still not 'tranquille'?  Why don't you take a dose of  Nervine?


Maybe the kids have set the house on fire but after a good shot of potassium bromide you will not  care what they do.

The Certosa di Pavia

The foundations for the Certosa di Pavia [aka the Carthusian Monastery of Pavia] were laid in 1396. Over the centuries patrons came and went, but enough money flowed to the monastery to create what I think is the finest building in the world. What makes it my favourite is not only the architecture [the marble facade is considered by many to be the most beautiful monument in Italy], the frescoes in the church and the monks cells around the Great Cloister. It is also the sense of tranquillity that pervades the entire monastery.

The  Grand Cloister with the church in the background

The Small Cloister

The lavabo where the monks could wash their hands

The Certosa consist of both the superbly decorated church and the cells of the monks which are situated around the Grand Cloister.  The Carthusians were hermits. They worked in the fields and prayed together, but otherwise kept to their individual cells. These cells are really individual houses. Each has a cellar, two rooms downstairs and two rooms upstairs. Each house has its own walled garden where the monks could pray [and contemplate their good fortune].

Grand Cloister

Inside a cell

Back of a cell

In the garden of a cell

The Certosa di Pavia is a few miles outside the town of Pavia in Italy. Pavia is a 25 minute train ride south of Milan.  I have visited twice. On each occasion there were a few visitors but not the crowds that spoil so many places. The monastery is now in the care of the Cistercians. On my second visit we were shown around by an English speaking monk.  Apparently the monks do allow visitors to stay in some of the cells, though not at the moment because of restoration work.

Some other Carthusian Monasteries. The layout is very distinctive.

Grand Balcon Sud

The Grand Balcon Sud is a path which runs high along the side of the Chamonix valley from Brevent to Lac Blanc. There is another very good path on the north side of the valley, but the southern path has marvellous views of Mont Blanc and the Augille du Midi.

The best way to walk the path is to take the cable car from Chamonix to the station at Brevent and then walk north along to La Flegere. This will take a few hours. From there you can take the cable car down to the valley floor and catch a bus back to Chamonix. A better idea is to walk further along the side of the valley and another 500 feet higher to Lac Blanc. There will usually be plenty of snow around even in July. When I was last there the lake was frozen solid. From the lake you can turn south and walk to the station at L’Index, then catch the cable car down via La Flegere. The path is easy enough. There is one short iron ladder to climb and poles are advisable for the sections that are still under snow. The reward is superb views across the valley. If you do the walk later in the day you will probably be able to see the paragliders launching from Brevent.

There is plenty to do in Chamonix and you can easily spend several days there. There are lots of hotels and booking is not usually necessary except in August when the French take their holidays. I usually stay at the Sapiniere. The people are friendly and it’s in a good location.

For people from the UK Chamonix makes a good stop on the way to the Dolomites. It’s about two days drive to Chamonix from Calais with lots of good places to stay along the way. When you leave Chamonix the entrance to the Mont Blanc Tunnel is only a few miles from town. Once through the tunnel you can soon be on the Italian motorway network and in the Dolomites in the same day.

Salvaging the German High Seas Fleet wrecks of Scapa Flow

High Seas Fleet
Scapa Flow is a sheltered anchorage in the Orkneys, to the north of the Scottish mainland. During the First World War it was the main anchorage for Britain's Grand Fleet.

After the end of the First World War 78 ships of the German High Seas fleet were interned in Scapa, with some of the original crews aboard each ship. On the 21st June 1919 the German sailors began scuttling the ships and 51 battleships and other vessels went to the bottom of the Flow. The British succeeded in beaching a few ships before they sank.

Between the First and Second World Wars many of the ships were raised in an extraordinary salvage effort.

The potential rewards to the salvors were great. When the battleship Freiedrich der Gross was raised and broken up she yielded 18,943 tons of ferrous metal and 774 tons of lead, brass. gunmetal, copper and other non-ferrous metals. These metals were worth a total of £134,886.

The problem was, how to raise almost 20,000 tons of ship from the seabed.

The solution was ingenious and dangerous.

Long steel tubes containing airlocks were lowered down and welded to the ships hulls by divers. Some of these tubes were over 30m long. Air was then pumped into the hulls to begin forcing out the water. Workers would row up to a tube, climb down the inside, through the airlocks and work inside the ships whilst they lay on the seabed.

Being inside one of these huge ships whilst it was still on the seabed must have been an incredible experience.

When the ships had been made completely airtight more air was pumped in and the ships raised and towed away to be salvaged. The photograph below shows the battleship Von der Tann passing under the Forth Bridge to be broken up at Rosyth. The Von der Tann fought in the Battle of Jutland. She put two salvos of 280mm shells in the British battlecruiser Indefatigable, causing a magazine explosion and the loss of the ship and all but two of her 1,017 crew.

The salvage operation was an arduous and risky business, and there were several fatalities. The full story is told in S C George’s excellent 1973 book 'Jutland to Junkyard'. A total of 26 destroyers, five battle cruisers, seven battleships and a cruiser were raised in the heroic salvage effort.

Not all the German ships could be raised and there are still ten wrecks remaining, including three battleships and four cruisers. I once spend a week diving some of these.

These wrecks, in addition to six other German wrecks, 28 British wrecks, 33 blockships and the massive wrecks of the British battleships HMS Vanguard and HMS Royal Oak, make Scapa Flow a wreck divers heaven. The only remotely comparable site is Truk Lagoon, but it does not have the big ships. Many of the turrets of the German battleships fell out when the ships rolled over as they sank. Some of these turrets weighed over 10,000 tons; heavier than most of the ships sunk at Truk.

The German battleships are so large that it takes several dives to adequately cover each wreck. Often it is hard to tell where you are on a wreck. All three of the battleships are below 130 feet and at the limit for compressed air diving. The development of mixed gas diving has made the wrecks more accessible.

Since the first atomic tests in the 1940s all new steel is contaminated by the radioactivity that is present in the air and is drawn into the furnaces during production. When uncontaminated steel is needed for medical and scientific instruments it can only be obtained from metal produced before the first atomic test. So it is that small amounts of steel are occasionally salvaged from the Koenig to make instruments. Some of these instruments are used in the space program and part of a WWI German battleship has been to the moon.

More images after the break

How university lecturers are chosen

It often comes as a surprise to those outside academia to discover how relatively unimportant teaching ability is considered in many university recruitment decisions. In one institution in which I worked, we took the radical step – resisted by some colleagues – of introducing sample teaching sessions as part of our appointment process.

As the students were leaving, after its first try out, one had a question: “Did you say”, he asked, “this was the first time you’d done this?”

“Yep”, we said.

“So before”, he asked perplexed, “you used to appoint lecturers without checking they could lecture?”

“Yep”, we said.

The cogs turned within his head, and – as if one of life’s great mysteries had finally been solved – he exclaimed: “Ah, well that explains it.”

Philip Cowley, Professor, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London    

This is very true. I cannot recall a single instance of an appointments panel checking if candidates could actually lecture [or considering it when promotion decisions were being made].

Only research mattered. That was not acceptable when higher education was free and students got grants. It is totally unacceptable when there are high fees and and students incur heavy debts.

There is a lot wrong with the UK's higher education sector but no sign that the government is capable of making the necessary reforms.

From Raubwirtschaft to Kleptocracy

I am currently reading Michela Wrong’s ‘In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz’. This excellent book is about Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime in the Congo. Wrong describes this as being a kleptocracy, which means a government by thieves. I looked up the full definition in Wikipedia which gives a number of examples of such states; including Indonesia under Suharto, Peru under Alberto Fujimori, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milosevic and Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu.

Following the links in the Wikipedia article lead to Raubwirtschaft, which means a plunder economy, and is a term for a form of colonialism where the goal is purely the plunder of the wealth and resources of a colony with no pretence of "civilizing" or aiding the native inhabitants. The Congo under King Leopold II of Belgium is the foremost example of such a state. This story is largely forgotten now, fortunately for the reputation of the Belgians.

From 1885 to 1908 the Congo was the personal property of King Leopold who maimed and murdered the inhabitants in his attempt to extract as much wealth as he could from the country. About ten million people died in this forgotten holocaust and many others had their arms or legs chopped off.

Australia is often called the lucky country but many others, including the USA and the UK, have been very fortunate in their history and geography. If there are lucky countries, there are also unlucky ones, and the Congo must be the unluckiest. After Leopold and Mobuto there has been a succession of wars. It has been estimated that 3.8 million people died in the Second Congo War [1998-2002]. Whenever we are tempted to moan about some aspects of life in our own countries it is worth remembering the awful lot of people who have had the misfortune to have been born in countries like the Congo.

Forgotten History – Bastides and Burghs

Bastides are small fortified towns which were built in France from the 13th century. Many survive to this day, particularly in Lot and the Dordogne. I have visited several, but I did not understand their significance until I read this Wikipedia article.

Before the bastides were built the peasants either lived in isolated hamlets dotted about the countryside, or in houses clustered around castles or monasteries. The bastides were built to create trading centres. An entrepreneur would set up a bastide and try and attract peasants and traders to it. The deal for the peasants was that once in the bastide they were free and had their own land; the deal for the entrepreneur was that he got to tax the peasants and the trade that the bastides generated. When the peasants had been dotted all over the landscape they had been difficult to tax and it had been hard to get any worthwhile trade going. Trading was much easier in the bastides because they had large covered marketplaces.

I found all this interesting for two reasons. The first is that what had been pleasant places to visit whilst on holiday were the products of medieval entrepreneurship and town planning. The bastides were also major social innovations and part of the decline of feudalism.

The second reason that I was interested in bastides is that that there is something very similar in Scotland. When David I became King of Scotland in 1124 he thought his country was backward, and he started construction of a number of burghs, or trading towns. Forres, Elgin, Crail, Berwick and Lanark are all burghs. The burghs were built for the same reasons as the bastides; to encourage trade and generate tax revenue. Merchants who moved into a burgh were given a feu. These were plots of land of about 25 feet by 430 feet which butted onto the marketplace. In many burghs the older part of the town still follows the original plan and the feus can be clearly seen. Burghs would also have a castle and a tollbooth. The latter was for the purposes of tax collection.

The January 1995 edition of the Scots Magazine has a good article on the Scottish Royal Burghs. There is also this Wikipedia article.

Both the French and the English built bastides in France. The one in the illustration is an English bastide called Monpazier. It was built in the Dordogne in 1284 by Edward I of England.

Dangerous sealife

There are lots of dangerous underwater creatures. The most dangerous is not the shark, as most people imagine. I have dived with sharks many times, and never had the slightest problem. I've even touched several sharks. Probably the riskiest encounter I ever had with a shark was during a night dive in the Red Sea. When we got out of the water my buddy told me that during the dive he had shone his torch behind us, and seen that we were being followed by a large shark. The consoling thought about that was that it would probably have taken him first.

Sea snakes are supposed to be six times as poisonous as the most venomous land snake. Yet we very rarely hear of anybody being bitten by a sea snake. I've dive with them several times and really enjoyed the experience. I once went on an expedition to the Swain Reefs, off Australia, specifically to dive with sea snakes. They're very curious creatures and will come up to you to see what you are and will twist themselves around your body. As long as you don't panic and try and strike out at them there's no cause for anxiety.

The really dangerous underwater creatures are the small and poisonous. Once when I was diving in the Red Sea I was just about to touch a piece of the reef when a passing Israeli diver stopped me. I had just been about to put my ungloved hand on an extremely well camouflaged and extremely poisonous stonefish. If I had touched the stonefish I would've been lucky to have survived.

The crowd of thorns star fish destroys coral reefs. They're been spreading through the barrier reef for many years and they leave devastated areas of white coral in their wake. I used to have the habit of stabbing them with my dive knife whenever I saw them. That stopped when I got a bit of thorn in my finger and was quite ill for several days. I was lucky, I heard of somebody who had to be airlifted off a dive boat to an Australian hospital after they had the same kind of accident.

Even seashells can be dangerous. The 5 inch long geography cone has killed well over a dozen people. I've collected seashells from various places around the world and one of the specimens I have is a textile cone. Once, when I was visiting the Red Sea, someone picked up one of these cones on a beach and put it in in the pocket of his shorts. The creature inside was still alive and bit him through his clothing. He died within 24 hours.

I once had a chance to dive in a lake that had a crocodile in it. I have always been a bit wary about crocodile and wasn't entirely sorry when the expedition was canceled at the last minute when somebody had an accident.

Neville Coleman, the Australian diver, has published an interesting book called Hazardous Sea Creatures. This lists all the worlds dangerous marine life. My favourite is the mantis shrimp, also known as the thumbsplitter. To quote Neville's book "the shrimp's claws are normally carried at the ready folder to beneath the shrimp's head. When hunting, or when defending, these claws can be shot at with extraordinary power and speed, and the been known to crack aquarium glass. They should only be handled if you're wearing heavy duty gloves."

Teach Yersen Scots – NED

Your word for today is NED. It stands for non educated delinquent and is a generic term for the creme de la creme of young Glasgow males. NEDs are greatly admired in the West of Scotland because of their intellectual attainments, cool sophistication and dress sense. They are immensely proud of their title and welcome being addressed as NEDs.

They are very hospitable and, on your next visit to Glasgow, you can be sure of making lots of new friends if you address a group of them loudly and confidently as “Yer fugly wee NEDs”. They will immediately surround you and make sure that your visit to Glasgow is one that you will always remember.

Do not worry if they offer to give you a 'Glasgow Kiss'. This is not an homosexual overture.

Your bonus word was fugly. It means handsome.

Forgotten history - Scotland's Slate Islands

The photo below shows Easdale Island. It lies off the west coast of Scotland, a few miles south of Oban. It is one of Scotland's slate islands. The ponds which dot the island are actually flooded slate quarries. Some of them are over 80 metres deep. Tens of millions of roofing slates were quarried from these pits and shipped around the world. There are Easdale slates in Australia and New Zealand. The island used to be the centre of the world's slate industry.

 There are four slate islands; Easdale, Seil, Luing and Belnahau. Around 3,000 people lived on the islands when the quarries were working.  All the islands [and their quarries] belonged to the huge Breadalbane estate, owned by the Campbells of Glen Orchy.  The Campbells made a lot of money from the slate quarries but not much of it went to the quarry workers. The Campbells used some of the money to build the huge Taymouth Castle.

The Great Storm

One terrible night in 1881  a storm and a high tide sent water over the island.  Livestock was washed away, gardens destroyed, 40 boats lost and the quarries filled with water. All the  machinery and the workmen's tools had been in the pits and were now underwater. Quarrying  stopped and the islanders were destitute.

Two flooded quarries

Easdale island in the foreground. The village of Ellanabeich [on Seil] in the background.

The workers cottages were built of slate. You can see one below.  The ships that came to take away the slates brought soil in as ballast. This was spread on the island to create gardens where vegetables could be grown to supplement the islanders oats and fish diet.

Some mining continued after the great storm, particularly on the other islands. The photograph below shows some of the slate miners from that period.

By 1930 the demand for slate had shrunk, the Breadalbane estate was bankrupt, people moved away to better paid jobs and slate mining ended. For many years Easdale was almost deserted but now the population has increased to over 60 and new houses are being built. It was a lovely summer day when I visited and the island looked beautiful. From the top of the island's hill there were outstanding views of the Firth of Lorn, the other slate islands and Mull. I would imagine it can be pretty bleak in winter.

The old and new houses of Easdale
 A ferry connects Easdale to the village of  Ellenabeich on Seil. That is it in the photo below.

Easdale's main claim to fame now is that it is the home of the World Stone Skimming Championships. The contest is held in one of the quarries.


There used to be an island called Ellanabeich but the entire centre of the island was  dug out [Ellanabeich slates were particularly fine] and the spoil from the workings used to connect the island of Ellanabeich to the island of Seil.

The village of Ellanabeich now stands on that landfill.