Thursday, 26 November 2015

Thanksgiving day reflections

To my American friends celebrating Thanksgiving I wish them a happy occasion and remind them of a joke of Garrison Keillor, whom I love. 
"My ancestors were puritans from England. They arrived here in 1648 in the hope of finding greater restrictions than were permissible under English law at that time."

I am not sure what Thanksgiving is about but it is about puritans landing in America. G.K. Chesterton said,
"The English might very well establish another Thanksgiving Day to celebrate the happy fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left England."

Puritanism runs through American culture like Southend through a stick of Southend rock. 

The puritans, even more than the Pharisees, get a rather unfair press. I, for one, shall be sorry when the USA loses its Protestant religiosity which is what makes the country what it is. But even if Americans cease to be religious they will still be puritans, albeit, as they are now, debauched puritans. 

Political correctness is all about puritanism. One of the most attractive things about Orthodox countries, like Romania, is that they do not have puritans. It is Protestant countries like England and America that are bedevilled with them, like wasps in summer. 


On the other hand puritans are much better at book-keeping and probity in general than other faiths. It is no coincidence that Orthodox countries score above Catholic and Protestant ones in every index of corruption. 

Calvinism and puritanism flourish even after belief in God dies. When the left likes homosexuality and sexual freedom it does so for puritan reasons, not cavalier ones. 

Mr. Obama today likened the Syrian refugees whom he wants his country to accept to the pilgrim fathers.  He has a point. Muslims are puritans as well, of course, Calvinists plus polygamy, so maybe Muslim immigrants in America will fit in. I am sure that, unlike the original puritans, the Muslims will not displace the natives. They may, however, cause quite a few changes.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Is Bucharest, though not old, the most beautiful city in Europe?



I thought walking through the streets between Cismigiu and Buzesti, decaying 1880s buildings, trees bright brown with autumn leaves, that Bucharest though not old is the most beautiful city in Europe. Like living in a lithograph illustration for a strange book found in a second-hand shop. It won't be so compelling, though, if or rather when they ever give the houses a lick of paint and repair everything.


An example of what I mean is a house I walk past every day. photographed by my gifted friend Davin Ellicson.

Candidates are advised not to attempt this question



I remember my history master of genius, Dr Alan White, mentioned this history exam question
'Asquith was the last British Prime Minister not to travel by plane. Discuss'

saying drily (he said everything drily) we would be well advised not to answer this question.


Which reminds me of an exam question from Sellars and Yeatman 


' "Cap'n are't thou sleeping down below?" Candidates are advised not to attempt this question.'

Another exam question from the early 1970s
"The world owes more to Marks and Spencer's than to Marx and Spencer". 

I think Harold Wilson may have made that pun first, though he omitted Herbert Spencer.

A borderless world


I was on a bus - my ticket cost $1- going from Palmyra to Damascus and they were showing a BBC thriller with Arabic subtitles. TV in a bus was a novelty for me. I watched the mime. 


It was essentially a John Buchan type thriller, but the well dressed upper-middle class senior civil servant turned out at the end, inevitably, to be the bad guy. In place of the patriotic Rhodesian Richard Hannay, the brave, resourceful hero was a young black man. And I felt sorry, as I watched, for Al Qaeda, who I realised had no chance against global post-national culture.

American writer Gary Brecher put it very well.
Not everyone is like us, and a lot of people are actively trying not to become like us. Jihadis are, roughly speaking, the armed wing of that group. The truth about the clash of civilizations you hear people discussing is that it’s all the other way: The Mall is invading Islam, the Mall is taking over. There isn’t any Sharia Law in North Carolina, but there damn well are US-style malls in even the most conservative Islamic countries. 
Bill Clinton told Australians on Sept. 10, 2001 that he believed in 
the ultimate wisdom of a borderless world.
Borderless and with one global deracinated culture.

There is nothing but Western civilisation anymore, though it is ceasing to be Western, if Western means mostly white and mostly Christian. The future will be countries made of communities that do not comprehend each other, identity politics and an authoritarian state or superstate imposing approved behaviour. They will be bound together by pop music, Hollywood and a secular theology of human rights.

I think national borders (and languages) are wonderful and make freedom, democracy and a diversity of national cultures possible, but increasingly the borders are not between countries but within them.

The communications revolution means 
national identities are inevitably much less clear-cut than before. Increasingly, national independence is being subsumed by international law, international bodies and an internationalist political and business elite. Mass migrations are radically and quickly changing the rich world. 

I prefer a global post-national culture to Al Qaeda, but I don't like either. Come to think of it, Al Qaeda might appear to hate modernity but it is part of the global, post-national culture too and so is ISIS, which has now blown up a lot of Palmyra.



Wednesday, 18 November 2015

‎"Romania is Islamic land"

The murder of over 120 people in Paris by Muslim gunmen at the weekend raises the question: can the same thing happen in Romania? To which the answer is, yes of course. Romania is a likely target and if the terrorists badly want to stage an atrocity here they may succeed, but Romania is better protected in some ways than France or Great Britain.

There have been attempts by Muslim fanatics to enter Romania for at least fifteen years, but almost the only  advantage of having been a police state is that the  secret service (SRI) is one of the few effective Romanian institutions. M16 contacts tell me that the SRI know how to do their job.

The Muslim community, even after the recent noticeable influx of refugees from Syria, is very small. The Muslims live mostly in the Dobrudja, in other words the coast and its hinterland, reasonably law-abiding and loyal to the country. Romanian Muslims consider themselves and are in all respects except ethnicity Romanians. This makes it easier for the authorities to keep track of people. Unlike in multiracial London and Paris extremists here, even were they to get in, would not find vibrant Muslim communities in which to hide and be accepted.

Neighbouring Bulgaria was less lucky. A Muslim suicide bomber exploded a bomb on a bus full of Israeli tourists in Burgas in 2012 and six people were killed, over thirty injured.
Syrian Sheik Omar Bakri, who claimed responsibility for the Burgas bomb, was carefully watched and prevented from entering Romania. However, he said in an interview at the time that both Romania and Bulgaria were legitimate targets for attacks, because they are ‘Islamic land’ and because troops from those countries are fighting in Afghanistan. 

"Once Islam enters a land, that land becomes Islamic and the Muslims have the duty to liberate it some day. Spain, for example, is Islamic land, and so is Eastern Europe: Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia."

Actually, the Sheik's history is not accurate, at least not about most of Romania, though he could have dragged in the Ukraine, Hungary, Greece and Southern Italy where Islam did enter (even Rome was sacked, but not occupied, by the Muslims). All of what is now Romania was, it is true, once in some sense part of the Ottoman Empire and shown as such on the maps, but Islam never 'entered' Romania, except for the Dobrudja,, the Bucovina and for 150 years the Banat. The great achievement of the Wallachians, Moldavians and Transylvanians was, when they could no longer resist the Turk by force of arms, to make terms and preserve their autonomy and the property of their landowners. Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria and Greece failed to preserve their system of landownership and government. The three principalities which made up most of what is now Romania simply paid tribute to the Sublime Porte and were untouched by Islam. They were always ruled by Christian princes, owned by Christian landlords and governed by their own laws. In fact, Wallachia and Moldavia were never territories of the Ottoman Empire but protectorates. The only other semi-detached part of the Ottoman Empire which had this form of self-government was the Lebanon. Romanian landlords and nobles were very lucky to escape the fate of their counterparts elsewhere in South-Eastern Europe.

Muslims were forbidden to settle in Wallachia and Moldavia to prevent them from appealing to the Sultan for protection against the Christian authorities. Ethnicity in the era before nationalism was less important than religion and every Christian who owned land was a citizen. Greeks, Serbs, Armenians and Albanians were magistrates and bishops. Jews could settle, but could not be citizens unless they converted.

It is not clear how we should describe the status of the Regat in English, but protectorate or suzerainty are inaccurate approximations. Home rule is not quite right for the Phanariot era in the 18th Century, when the principalities were ruled by Greeks, who bought their throne from the Sultan and did not last long, but would apply to the periods of native princes in the seventeenth century and after the Wallachian uprising of 1821. At any rate the Sultan played no part in ruling the Regat whose rulers had far more freedom from Constantinople than Romania now has from Brussels. Only in 1876 did the new Ottoman constitution for the first time enact that Wallachia and Moldavia were full parts of the empire. The War of Independence followed in 1877, a war, though, that was not really fought for de jure independence, but under compulsion from the Czar who would have marched his army across the principalities in any case.

Romanians tell me that Romania resembles other Balkan countries, especially Serbia and Greece, and they should know much better than me, but I always fancy that the Balkan feeling, which you get in other Balkan countries, Albania most of all, and which is really a Turkish feeling, is sensibly less in evidence here. This may be simply due to the fact that Romanian is, despite all attempts to deny it, a Latin language. But if I am right and it goes deeper than this, this would be the explanation. At any rate, there are no mosques here, except in the Dobrudja,.

I first came to the Balkans in 1990 by train, hoping to see Europe morph into Asia. Strada Lipscani felt utterly sui generis and un-Western, with gypsy or Arab music playing from transistor radios, but, apart from the old town in Bucharest, Romania was Europe and so was Bulgaria, despite her statues of Lenin, mosques and the gypsy quarter in Plovdiv. In 1990, after Romania, Istanbul was almost a bore - it was back to capitalism and Mars bars and foreign newspapers - but it was Muslim and the East. It felt like Asia. Now that I have lived in the Balkans for seventeen years, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey feel as if they have very much in common. At moments they almost feel like the same country, which historically they were - Greater Greece, Byzantium.

I didn’t know back in 1990 that the Moldavian and Wallachian landed class spoke Greek (and dressed like Turks) until the middle of the 19th century or that a Greek general, Alexander Ypsilantis, raised a revolt in Moldavia in March 1821 against the Sublime Porte in order to create a new Byzantine Empire, expecting to win support from Romanians, only to be defeated by Tudor Vladimirescu, who fought for the Sultan. Historians speak of Ypsilantis's revolt as the start of the Greek War of Independence but the Greece he was fighting for was not a national idea but a multiracial Christian state united by Greek culture and religion, Byzantium in fact. Vladimirescu, by contrast, wanted to free Moldavia and Wallachia from both the Turks and the Greek aristocracy. Nevertheless the idea of a Greek-Rumanian confederation still lingered on even into the late 1850s. 

When I went to Constanta for the first time in 1999 and saw the mosque there, overlooking the Black Sea, I felt that I was in an odd, hybrid place. My generation was the last that could forget that there were large numbers of Muslims in Western Europe. That was in 1999 and we cannot forget them now. The roughly 20,000 Romanian Muslims, who live mostly in the Dobrudja, inaccurately called Turks, are a tiny number compared with the millions in England, France, Germany and Spain. The town where I was born, like Constanta, now has two mosques.

I have met three or four Romanian so-called Turks, who were all very nice people. The one I liked most was a very sympathetic young woman (she might have had gypsy blood) in Constanta who told me she had converted to Christianity and in her spare time went around Muslim villages, trying to convert other Muslims. She wanted, she said, to set them free. How different from the Anglican way of doing things. Something about her simplicity moved me a great deal.
 

Monday, 9 November 2015

Romanian serial murderess Vera Renczi was a hoax by a future Pulitzer prize winner

Romanian women can be dangerous but the two most dangerous were in fact ethnic Hungarians. 

So it is said at least.

I have blogged before about female psychopaths and Romania, like every country, has plenty of them. 




Many know about the beautiful Transylvanian Countess Bathory, an ethnic Hungarian, who bathed, literally, in the blood of murdered virgins, but I had forgotten Vera Renczi, until I stumbled across a reference to her. She too was a stunningly beautiful woman and apparently one of the most prolific female serial killers in history. The usual account goes like this.

She was born in 1903 in Bucharest into a rich family. She left Romania at the age of 13, however, for the Serbian Banat (Voivodina) and she committed her murders there. Her family was ethnic Hungarian landed gentry. 

If she suspected her lovers, of whom there were many, were being unfaithful, which she regularly did, she gave them a dose of arsenic. Vera Renczi was convicted of murdering 35 men, including both her husbands and her son. who was ten and, she said, had discovered her murders. She is quoted as explaining that her son 

“had threatened to betray me. He was a man, too. Soon he would have held another woman in his arms.”
Otto B. Tolischus, an American journalist based in Berlin, who later won the Pulitzer prize, wrote that 
The victims were all between the ages of 23 and 30, except the boy. Fourteen of them were Roumanians.
He reported:
The complaint of a young married woman of the town that her husband, a leading banker, had disappeared after visiting Madame Renczi was the final stop that led the investigation of her career. Rumors of strangely missing men had been current for some time, but many persons feared to take action against the rich and distinguished widow, who seemed to exert a mysterious fascination over all who came contact with her. Nearly all the missing men were from distant places, and there was no relation at hand to investigate their disappearance. At last, came the pointed demand from banker’s wife that the police should search the cellar of Madame Renczi’s home, an ancient chateau. Realizing that the reputation of the town was at stake, the police acted with great energy. Before Madame Renczi had no idea of the charges against her they surrounded her chateau and broke into the cellar. To get there they had to go through long vaulted stone corridors and break through three iron doors. An old woman servant resisted their entry fiercely, and they were obliged to handcuff her. When at last they reached the vast, vaulted cellar an astounding sight revealed itself beneath the light of their electric torches. Neatly arranged around the cellar were no less than thirty-five zinc coffins, each of them bearing the name and age of the occupant. All the occupants were males. 
The police immediately arrested Madame Renczi, who had been trapped in her luxurious boudoir. She was taken before an examining magistrate on charges of causing the death of Leo Pachich, the banker, and other persons. Careful investigation showed that the coffins in the cellar bore the names of two of her husbands, of her young son [aged 10], and thirty-two men who had been her lovers. At first she boldly denied her guilt and protested with indignation at her arrest. “You have brought disgrace upon our town and I will have you all severely punished,” exclaimed the imperious beauty—with flaming eyes.

A full account is here. Very interesting but I am indebted to Douglas Muir for pointing out that it seems to have been an elaborate hoax. The existence of Madame Renczi has never been proven. Examination of contemporary Serbian news archives shows nothing about herThe online archive of the country's leading daily newspaper Politika, going back to 1904, does not seem to mention her nor do any other Serbian sources.

I presume it was made up by  the future Pulitzer prize winner, Tolischus.

This is journalistic behaviour worse than that of Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, who got out of the train in the wrong Balkan capital, went to his hotel and filed copy about a revolution from the wrong country, leading to a revolution really breaking out there. 
It was Hitchcock's greatest scoop.
At least Hitchcock was merely drunk.

Interestingly Tolischus in a 1940 book quoted Hitler as saying 
whoever wants to understand National Socialist Germany must know Wagner
and this quotation has no evidence to support it any more than Madame Renczi has.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The boiled egg story

I told my boiled egg story just now for the first time in over 20 years and Andrei at the office laughed uncontrollably. Apart from him and my father no-one I told it to ever found it even faintly amusing which is possibly why I stopped telling it.

The late Norman St John Stevas told it to me. When Walter Bagehot was 3 he attended his first breakfast party given by his grandfather and there came across his first boiled egg. He stared at it in wonder and his grandfather said to him, 
'Hit it hard, Walter. It has no friends.'

 (Thought. Did he laugh because I am the boss?)

More quotations


"The world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy."

Wittgenstein

"The happiest moment of the happiest man is when he falls asleep; and the unhappiest moment of the unhappiest man is when he awakes."


Schopenhauer

"All life death does end and each day dies in sleep."

Gerard Manley Hopkins

"Just as the soul sees but is not seen, so God sees but is not seen. Just as the soul feeds the body, so God gives food to the world." 

Cicero. He was a monotheist.

Sex is the mysticism of materialism.

Malcolm Muggeridge


Viscount Whitelaw, as he then wasn't, said the Labour government "are going up and down the country, stirring up complacency". He was widely misquoted as saying 'stirring up apathy'. I have seen this dated to the 1970 general election but am sure i remember it from the period when he was Mrs Thatcher's deputy in opposition between 1975 and 1979.

When asked how to make children proud of England Churchill said "Tell them Wolfe took Quebec". English children probably don't know this any more and if they did would disapprove.

"Don't criticise anyone till you've walked a mile in his shoes. By that time you'll be a mile away and you'll have his shoes."

Anonymous

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Things I read recently

"This book is a product of its time and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relations have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work."

Wilder Publications place this warning at the beginning of their editions of the US Constitution, Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, Chapman's Homer, The Wind in the Willows and numerous other books.


"Nobody can give you wiser advice than yourself."

Cicero

“I'm killing time while I wait for life to shower me with meaning and happiness.”

Calvin and Hobbes

"I have discovered that in discussions it never helps to take a morally superior tone to one’s opponent."

Nelson Mandela from Long Walk to Freedom, 1994 I kick against the sanctification of Mandela but he had great qualities, despite being a Communist and revolutionary.

"Women make up less than 1% of the garbage-collecting workforce in the US. I look forward to the campaign for a 50/50 gender split in this line of work."


Brendan O'Neil

"There’s no question to me that life is a circle. The longer we last the closer we feel to our beginnings. And the harder it becomes to determine the sensory from the sensible in terms of what we’re feeling. It’s one of the rare occasions where my atheist convictions are seriously challenged. How cleverly conceived, and how benevolent to us as a species, that as we edge towards the end of our days, instead of looking forward with boundless enthusiasm we find ourselves slipping back to past memories. Just as the overwhelming protective love we feel for a child is watered down by troublesome teenage years before we can bear to let our offspring leave us, so our expectation of life dims as we approach the ultimate cul de sac. If that’s not intelligent design it’s a hell of a coincidence."

Mariella Frostrup. I'm amazed that that lovely girl is fifty, am sorry for her that she's an atheist, like her argument for the existence of God, but I don't remember looking forward with boundless enthusiasm when I was in my teens or twenties - I have much more enthusiasm now and ever since my mid 30s.


"And for men too, there is, according to a famous authoress, a hope of freedom. Men are beginning to revolt, we are told, against the old tribal custom of desiring fatherhood. The male is casting off the shackles of being a creator and a man. When all are sexless there will be equality. There will be no women and no men. There will be but a fraternity, free and equal. The only consoling thought is that it will endure but one generation."

G.K. Chesterton.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Victor Ponta has resigned



Mr. Ponta said on television a few minutes ago that he was

"handing in my mandate, I'm resigning, and implicitly my government too. I hope the government's resignation will satisfy the people who came out in the streets."
I did not expect this quite so soon.

Nothing in his premiership became him like the leaving it. It was absolutely the right thing for him to do and a victory for the crowds last night. But when the National Liberals were in power there were no more fire escapes in bars than now.

As soon as Victor Ponta unexpectedly lost the presidential election in December by a large margin he became a lame duck, despite his majority in Parliament. Since then he has been indicted for corruption which led him to resign as leader of the Social Democrats (successors to the Communist Party) but not until today the premiership. His successor as Social Democrat leader, Liviu Dragnea, himself previously convicted earlier this year of vote-rigging, has regularly overruled and contemptuously humiliated Mr. Ponta.

Last night the squares of Bucharest were thronged by sombre crowds demanding the politicians be held accountable for the deaths of 32 (at the latest count) young people in a nightclub fire and the government's resignation. From my flat in the old town I could hear the periodic roaring of the crowd in University Square at 1 a.m. 

Today Mr. Dragnea said

"Victor Ponta is giving up his mandate. Someone needs to assume responsibility for what has happened. This a serious matter and we promise a quick resolution of the situation. You probably noticed thousands of people last evening and what they demanded."
Mr. Ponta resigned the party leadership but not the premiership because President Iohannis comes from the National Liberal Party and will try to avoid inviting a Social Democrat to form a new government, despite the party's majority in parliament. A long period of humiliating impotence for Mr. Ponta has come to an end. His position for the last few painful months was the opposite of what British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin called 
"power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot down the ages."
Romanian politics is full of harlots, metaphorical and actual, but Mr. Ponta had the much less enjoyable prerogative of responsibility without power.

In keeping with this, Mr Ponta performs a final function as a sacrificial lamb, a sin-eater for the Government, the Social Democratic Party, the (robber) 'barons' who control the party machine in the counties and the entire, ghastly, compromised and incompetent Romanian political class. 

His resignation in itself is not very important. The President, who has been cohabiting with he man he defeated for the presidency 11 months ago, now has the chance to try to choose and create support for a Prime Minister from his own political camp, but even this is not really very important. 

What would be important - more important than who is Prime Minister or which party is in power - would be a change, it if came about, in what Romanian society is prepared to put up with. And I feel, after this victory for the people in the street, after this horrible tragedy and after the two-year-long onslaught of the Anti-Corruption Authority on the politicians, that this might be possible.

The man who knows talks about fire hazards in Bucharest

Thousands of people rally demanding government resignations as the death toll from a night club fire at the weekend reached 32, with dozens more in the hospital in critical conditions, in Bucharest, Romania November 3, 2015.  REUTERS/Inquam Photos/Octav Ganea

Bucharest is very deeply moved indeed by the deaths in the Colectiv nightclub. Tonight large well-behaved crowds line Bulevard Unirii and fill Piata Universitatii and Piata Victoriei. People are very angry and determined.

I tried to give blood today but the queue was too long and they said they didn't want any more people. A friend of a friend came to the office collecting money for things patients need, like nappies, that hospitals don't have.Tonight I hear occasionally a roar from the crowd a quarter of a mile away in University Square. There it is again now. It is 12.51 a.m. in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

I received this mail as a comment on my recent blog-post on the fire at the Collectiv club, which has killed, so far, thirty mostly young people. I think everyone should read it and I publish it with the author's permission. It's from one of the wisest and most experienced foreigners living in Bucharest.

Having been a visitor to young kids in a burns hospital when I was a teenager, I know the terrible havoc that fires wreak, and the suffering that the survivors then go through for the rest of their lives. 

Twenty years ago I gave up accounting to work as consultant for the BPB group and set up Rigips Romania for them. BPB was then the biggest manufacturer of plasterboard/plasters in the world and an early lesson that I learned with them was that 'a good fire' was the best seller of fire-resistant plasterboard. I learned how to build firewalls that hold back fire for 3-4 hours, but also learned that the wall is useless if the roof or the other walls allow the fire to 'go around'  Firewalls stop flame but don't hold back smoke and it is nearly always the smoke and not the flame that kills. 

I watched videos of building fires to get an idea how they start and how unbelievingly quickly they travel, but I also know that in the split second that you open a 'life-saving' fire escape you also feed the fire. Added to all that, people don't act normally in a fire. On Saturday I heard an interview with the guy who did recent building work in the club. He mentioned that the owner didn't want to pay the extra for fireproof painting, but he himself fitted the wooden slats that hung under a "polystyrene ceiling that had believed to have been recently cleaned and probably with a solvent" !! He was contributing to the classic death trap. Me...? I would have walked off the job.... but I would also have passed on a warning.  

I can see the fire in my mind's eye.... firework sparks ignite the polystyrene on the column and flame rushes to the ceiling. Even without the impregnated solvent the flame travels laterally faster than you and I can walk, the smoke is acrid and poisonous but globs of fiery molten polystyrene fall on everyone so driving the panic. At that point a hundred extinguishers held by a hundred fire-protected men couldn't put out a fire now burning at 800C.  but now the second door to the outside is opened..... and there is a loud and terrifying WHOOSH... 

You mention inspectors and fudged inspections but the problem is much wider than that. 
Fire engulfed a wooden stand at Bradford Football ground in 1985 and some folk in the stand remained seated, paralysed with fear. Back in 1973 a fire in Summerland, a brand new shopping/sports complex on the Isle of Man killed 50 and injured 80. In 1987 a terrible fire in the Underground station at King's Cross killed 27 and injured scores more. All of these places had been recently "inspected"...... but if the inspector is a functionary with a tick list..... he is missing the plot. Fire extinguishers are useless

Your assumption about a lack of fire escapes in many clubs and restaurants is very close to the mark but the paramount exercise is NOT HAVING TO USE THEM, ie. preventing a fire from happening or spreading is what it is all about. There ARE fire regulations in place here and there ARE norms regarding building materials. They might be old, but if they had been in application, I am sure that the fire on Friday would not have started. In Romania too,  "ignorance of the law excuses no man"... so the primary responsibility lies with the owner/operator to know the law or to b advised by someone who does.

Six or seven years ago someone that you and I both know took on a pub in Bucharest and asked me to do some building work on the kitchen, When I went to the pub the first thing I noticed was the ceiling made from wooden strips and very dry sacking hanging down from it. A cigarette in a raised hand would be enough to start a fire and make the place an inferno in seconds. I made my point and was largely ignored, but he has since moved to another pub.....which has just one way in and one way out !!     I for one won't go in there..

Four years ago I worked on another pub, with an Irish owner and and Irish building supervisor. Here there was a fire exit at the back, but it led into a yard that had steel gates to the street that were chained on the OUTSIDE by a company that ran a security business. I put the case that even if people escaped into the yard they wouldn't be able to get away from the smoke and the crush, and emergency services would be delayed in getting to them. I was politely asked to get on with my building works..!!

WE ALL KNOW that there is insufficient water pressure in the Historic Centre  to supply the Fire Service in the case of a major fire, and WE ALSO KNOW that people-packed streets slow down the firemen even getting to a fire. A big fire on Gabroveni two years ago was 'proof of that pudding' but left the firemen arguing with the Man from Apanova.
Official enquiry...? Anything done..?

It isn't just a case of bent inspectors and spagi. It is far wider than that. It is the application of old unrealistic or unworkable safety norms, it is using simple tick lists for inspections, it is not 'nailing' slack or bent inspections, but above and beyond all, UNTIL NOW it has been allowing the owner/operator the latitude to be ignorant and to get away with it ...!!!  But now, all of a sudden and a bit too late we are going for Omor Calificat ......... Murder..... and life sentences.  


I won't sit inside a place that has a single entrance and exit because I know the risks. By the same token, we have to make people generally more aware of the risks they are taking..... and I would be all for your mate setting up some form of green and red codes in his guide............. even if setting it up would cost the 'inspectors' a black eye here and there.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

"I am thy father's spirit" - poetry is what gets lost in the translation

Still on the them of Hallowe'en, vampires and ghosts, the line in Hamlet Act 1 Scene 5, 
"I am thy father's spirit" 
was translated into Afrikaans as: 
"Ek is die pappa spook."
I am not sure if this is true but I hope it is. It certainly ought to be.

I read this in John Julius Norwich's inimitable Christmas Crackers, a strong candidate for my all time favourite book.
Poetry is what gets lost in the translation
said Robert Frost and that's the best definition of poetry that I know. 

Note: my Afrikaaner friend Carmen Jurgens has confirmed that 


"Ek is die pappa spook" 

is a perfectly possible translation of the line from Hamlet. 

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Guenter Schabowski, who ended the Cold War by mistake, has died

It was announced today that Mr. Guenter Schabowski, who by mistake opened the Berlin Wall and ended the Cold War, has died at 86. It seems very recent to me. 

Schabowski, a member of and spokesman for East Germany's Politburo, was speaking at a routine news conference on November 9, 1989, when he was asked about travel rules. Pressure had been building on the East German government for months to let its citizens travel to the West. The clearly under-prepared Schabowski stunned the journalists with his answer.

"Therefore... um... we have decided today... um... to implement a regulation that allows every citizen of the German Democratic Republic... um... to... um... leave East Germany through any of the border crossings."
He was then asked when the new rule would take effect. He shuffled through the papers spread in front of him as he searched in vain for the answer to the question. So he extemporised.
"According to my information... immediately, without delay."
It later emerged the announcement was not supposed to be released until 4 a.m. the next morning and he was meant to say that East Germans could apply for visas in an orderly manner at the appropriate state agency. Instead ecstatic East Berliners flocked to the Brandenburg Gate, where border guards did not know what to do. The officer in charge at the gate decided that using bullets to stop the crowd would be disastrous and so allowed them to go through. The rest, as they say, is history.

Schabowski wasn't making an artful mistake. He was not very bright.Some of the high-ranking Communists were very clever men but most (think of Ceausescu) were anything but. Imagine an army of John Prescotts.

Early in 1990 Schabowski was excluded from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the renamed Communist Party. In 1997 Schabowski and two other Politburo members were gaoled on charges of tolerating the former regime's fatal shootings of escaping East Germans along the border. Unlike six other accused former Politiburo members, Schabowski said during the trial that nothing could justify that "even a single person" had had to pay for trying to flee with his or her life. He was pardoned in 2000.

Thus ended the German Democratic Republic. 25 years later another East German, Angela Merkel, has made a very much greater mistake, also without consultation or careful thought, by allowing what will turn out to be up to four or even six million Arabs into Germany.

Could something good come out of the bloodbath at Colectiv?



Bucharest is a tiny place - despite its 1.9 million inhabitants everyone knows everyone or so it seems. Three friends of friends of mine were in the nightclub Colectiv on Friday night and two of them have died, one heroically on Friday, one today.

In all three victims died today, bringing the death toll to 30. The Minister of Health, Nicolae Banicioiu, said between 80 and 90 percent of the 140 victims in hospital are in serious or critical condition. Secretary of State Raed Arafat told Romania to be prepared for twenty or thirty more deaths, though "that does not mean that it will happen”.

This incident means more than it would in England, France or America because Romanians are not used to terrorism or the kind of mass killings America regularly experiences.  Let's hope Romania doesn't experience a terrorist atrocity, although it is more likely than not that she will. Still, Bucharest, even if it escapes the terrorists, are due an earthquake any time now, in which thousands, not dozens, will probably die. What will happen then? The accident and emergency units in the city's hospitals were stretched to breaking point on Friday night and Saturday morning.

What will happen now is that sorrow will turn to anger. The corrupt, inept state will get the blame for this massacre and deservedly so. A state run by corrupt, inept politicians and corrupt, inept civil servants could not ensure, despite its Kafkaesque bureaucracy and battalions of officials, that nightclubs and bars have fire escapes that work. Thirty fine young men and women died because of slothful, compromised, unintelligent middle-aged ones. 
Health and safety in Bucharest is a complete joke and we all know a terrible tragedy like this was inevitable. I'd imagine, at an informed guess, that most of Bucharest’s restaurants and clubs do not have adequate fire escapes. Colectiv had none at all and the same I am sure is true of many others.


Craig Turp, the Englishman who edits the invaluable restaurant and bar guide, Bucharest In Your Pocket, said today:
Perhaps we should add a ‘Fire escape’ symbol to our listings in Bucharest In Your Pocket, so people know if they are dicing with death when they enter a club.
He was probably joking but it's a very good idea.

I am always accused of seeing Romania through rose tinted spectacles and it is absolutely true that I do, so I was the more shocked when a friend of mine told me how he watched his son die, while the ambulance took almost an hour to reach him, even though the distance it was coming was not far. The emergency workers had told my friend not to administer the kiss of life to his son and he obeyed them.

Until the Colectiv tragedy, Romania had been talking very angrily for a week about a police motorcyclist who died when his motorbike hit a pothole in the middle of Bucharest. The dead man and a large cortege of police were accompanying the Deputy Prime Minister while he went shopping. Perhaps this one policeman's death, the thirty deaths at the club this weekend and the deaths of the people in hospital, that are to come over the next few days, will cause a moral revolution.


Or accelerate one rather, one that started with the work of the Anti-Corruption Agency (Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie or D.N.A.). The D.N.A. is or has been prosecuting very many of the richest and most powerful Romanians for corruption, including four of Bucharest's seven mayors, who keep popping in and out of gaol, and even the incumbent socialist Prime Minister, Victor Ponta. This revolution received a fillip when Klaus Iohannis, an ethnic German provincial mayor, who is perceived as honest, unexpectedly defeated the same Victor Ponta to become president.


American politicians say that you should never let a serious crisis go to waste. I hope Romanians don't. I hope from this awful tragedy something good can be born. President Iohannis has not done anything very noticeable since he entered office last December. Now is his moment.