We said the day would come. Has anyone noticed that it has?

If we don’t stop kicking the planet in the guts, one day it will kick us back. A comment that was already banal five years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have identified Covid19 as the kick in question and what astounds me is how intelligent, how compassionate and gentle it is. Not the biblical plague many of us expected, but as gentle and effective as Mr Spock’s Vulcan nerve pinch.

I will come back to the intricacies of the design, but first I have to declare myself a believer. I don’t attempt to describe what I believe in, or even give it a name, because language is too limited a tool for the job. But part of what I believe, based on what I observe, is that the planet is being protected as a place of human habitation, mainly from humans themselves, just as a mother protects a young child from actions that it is not yet able to recognise as dangerous. Even to the extent, when all else fails, of giving the child a corrective smack. Years ago I recall a friend smacking her two-year-old on the leg because he persisted in running across a busy street. She was resolutely opposed to corporal punishment but had realised that no other effective remedy was available. She couldn’t lock the kid up 24/7 and it had become a game for him. The hard slap on the leg worked.

So now that force, whatever it is, has slapped us.

Why do I think we are being protected from our own worst impulses and actions? Because, looking over the purview of recent history, an era when the powers of states had reached the potential to encompass the globe, I see at least two examples of critical moments that turned the course of history away from the triumph of evil and planetary disaster.

The first happened at Dunkirk. Almost the entire remaining allied forces were backed into a corner on a French beach, defenceless, and the unstoppable forces of the blitzkrieg were racing to finish them off. I will simplify what was a slightly more complex situation – in fact a number of separate pivotal and simultaneous events took place and significantly, every one of them tilted the odds back in favour of the stranded army. Panzer General von Rundstedt, poised to hammer the expeditionary force to pieces, simply stopped 15 km short of Dunkirk. History has given at least three different reasons for this, none of them particularly compelling.

At the same time a British patrol stumbled in the way of a German staff car and killed the driver with a pistol shot (note: an extremely unlikely event). An officer fled the subsequent crash, leaving a briefcase containing the German plans for attacking the remaining active troops further up the coast. Effective countermeasures were immediately taken.

Then the weather moved in to complete the good fortune. For day after day the Channel remained as smooth as glass and a huge rescue flotilla of naval vessels and hundreds of small boats evacuated the 335,000 stranded men. It is rare, very rare, for the Channel to stay that calm for that long.

If the Dunkirk rescue had not happened, Britain would have been wiped out as a free country. Churchill, only days in office, was surrounded by ministers keen to appease Hitler, believing that the English and the Germans were natural allies. With the army gone they would have sidelined Churchill and gone cap in hand to Hitler. It would have been a surrender on the knees – we don’t have to guess who would have ended up fully in charge. With Britain out of the war and the US not yet in it, Hitler would have won in Russia and moved on to a probably successful invasion of the US. The Nazi thousand year Reich would now be 80 years young and going strong.

The number of discrete pieces of good fortune that rescued Britain and the world at Dunkirk are simply too many, and too heavily against the run of play, for me to believe they were blind luck.

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Take a good look at this man – he saved the world. Literally. His name was Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. He was second-in-command of the submarine B-59, intercepted  on the 27th of October 1962 during the US blockade of Cuba. Showered with depth charges, B-59 was forced to the surface. The Yanks believed it to be conventionally armed; in fact it carried a 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo which the Captain and Political Officer prepared to fire, mainly to prevent the technology falling into US hands but also because, after days in radio isolation, they thought that the expected nuclear war had broken out. Protocol required all three men’s assent. Arkhipov dissented and maintained his opposition during a raging argument, two against one. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr described this as ‘the most dangerous moment in human history’. That nuclear strike would, without a shadow of doubt, have triggered nuclear armageddon.

Once again, we are looking at an extremely unlikely event. Arkhipov may have been the second-in-command on the B-59 but he was also the commander of the entire flotilla. You did not rise to the upper echelons of any Soviet organisation by being a maverick or by having a sensitive conscience. And yet, there he was when the planet needed him.

Of course, those two facts alone are not enough to convince me that we are being protected from our own worst impulses. There’s much more and I’m not actually trying to convince anyone. Just sayin’, as they say.

Now to Covid19. Those of us who have thought that the planet wouldn’t take being trashed sitting down have tended to mutter darkly about plagues and pestilence on a biblical scale, like the bubonic plague, for instance. Vast numbers of human dead. Not merely warned but forced to stop the carnival of devastation. But Covid has done it. Carbon dioxide emissions have plummeted. Many of us have recently taken a moment to reflect that we have probably taken our last quick break to the Greek Islands, or the Canaries, or Marbella. Furthermore, I doubt the residents of Venice, of Barcelona and Dubrovnik, are just going to throw their doors open when this is all over. The planet, Gaia, whatever, has shown us what peace and quiet, the end of the rat race and runaway consumption looks like and by God it is good!

Note how clever the design has been. It has been exclusively rich nations which have been hit hard. Most poor countries lie between the two tropics and the virus does not flourish in temperatures above 25ºC. Some of those nations are quite serious polluters but out of the sheer weight of population, not because their citizens are running round in big SUVs and flying around the world for their holidays. It’s us rich buggers who have been given the hard word.

And all this achieved at a cost, not of 50% of the population, nor even 5%, but at levels well under 1%. If this is design, it is wonderfully elegant design. Compassionate design.

The lady sure knows her business.

Housing Crisis? Simple.

Across the road from my house, in a long terraced Victorian street, stands an imposing house in commodious grounds. Three stories high, a brick structure, Edwardian at a guess, the generous windows commanding a spreading view over eastern Bristol.

Well, would command. But the windows are shuttered and no-one is alive in there to enjoy the view anyway. The former lawn and garden have long since vanished under a horde of invading weeds and (this is the part that first puzzled me) the entire estate is surrounded by a formidable, and ugly, steel fence. An expensive fence, not something you would put around your home. Forbidding signs proclaim a mythical 24 hour vigilance. It is not that someone has just walked away. This place is on ice. Banked, I realised eventually, and gathering value as the growth in property values far outpaces interest rates.

This is simply wrong and where I come from it would not happen because of what you call Land Value Tax, probably a better handle than the vague ‘Council Rates’ we have in New Zealand but the same thing. They are the only tax we pay to maintain our councils and they are substantial.

 

Coming to the UK five years ago I experienced first hand the tyranny of the landlord, enabled and empowered by a chronic, inexplicable housing shortage. Why inexplicable? Because in every quarter of Bristol I constantly come across abandoned structures, some vast, wasting away on valuable land. Sturdy stone shells easily converted into thousands of apartments, often in reasonably attractive and desirable parts of the city. Big houses shuttered and empty, deteriorating office buildings in almost every part of most cities. Waste on a colossal scale.

How could this be? Slowly the penny dropped: they don’t tax land here. It was the only possible explanation and it turned out to be (mostly) true.

We simply don’t see this in NZ. In my home city of Auckland you can walk or drive for miles and never see an abandoned, deteriorating building – someone would own the land, unpaid rates would ruin them, the property would be seized and sold by the council to recover the lost rates and someone else would put it to use. Yes, that buyer would have to put in risk and work, probably the reason the UK’s banked properties stand idle. Development costs money. Landlording can be tricky in a country with well-established tenants’ rights. So much easier to park and forget. But in NZ the burden of council rates makes such development and usage unavoidable.

Why is this, to me, obvious solution to a desperate social problem scarcely on the political landscape? At first I was tempted to mutter darkly to myself about vested interests, but perhaps the simpler answer is that you British don’t see it. Since WWII you have grown up in a landscape littered by ruins. The abandoned house on the hill is a familiar literary trope. You simply don’t register that there is something fundamentally wrong about a Victorian factory, a house inherited by a distant, absent family member, just lying about the place unnoticed and unused. This is the way things just are. Or is it something else? I don’t know – you tell me. But waste on a grand scale it most certainly is, waste I have now seen in half a dozen English cities, and the simple remedy of Land Value Tax is standing in the wings waiting to fix it.

To be fair the government has not simply stood idle. Using the archaic mechanism of stamp duty, long since vanished from the NZ scene, they have moved to tax the purchase of second homes. This will not solve the problem, indeed may make it worse because it means that land bankers have to hang on to their empty properties even longer to wait for the investment to grow to where the profit from the eventual sale is still sufficient to justify the cost. Even worse, it applies only to residential properties. Buy an abandoned factory or office building and you’re fine. Bigger properties, potentially so many more homes.

The only real answer, a permanent and fundamental answer, is to make the holding of idle land and buildings uneconomic by taxing their value year after year.

There are downsides. During the late 20th century redevelopment of inner cities we saw elderly people rated out of their lifelong homes because the land on which they stood had been rezoned Commercial A, sending their rates through the sky. We are also rated on the value of the ‘improvements’, calculated on the rentable value of the buildings as they presently are. It can be argued that this is unjust, as it is the occupants, not the council, who have invested the resources to make those improvements. But the clearance of old housing stock in the wrong place to allow commercial centres to grow was inarguably necessary, and a pure land tax would avoid the injustice of taxing people for work done which has already cost them hard-earned resources.

But I promise you: it works in New Zealand and it will work here.

Just do it.

 

A Silent Witness? Secret History?

I often pass by the Granada Cathedral, a huge pile of stone in the old city centre. I notice things. On the side of the cathedral I pass by I first noticed one thing, looked more closely and saw more.  Slowly I came to understand that I was looking at what I believe to be an undocumented but still visible relic from the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.

First I noticed the iron railing fence protecting every entrance.

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Interesting, I thought. Why does a church need such barricades?

Then I noticed how they were anchored to the building.

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That little alcove would have once contained a holy statue. Gone. In fact large areas of the exterior of the building showed many such alcoves, all similarly empty.

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Scanning further, I discovered that all the windows, stained or plain glass, were screened off with steel mesh.

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Note the smashed pane in the lower part of the window.

By now the penny had dropped: the Civil War. It is a matter of history where the Church stood in that conflict – firmly on the side of Franco and his Nazi supporters and against the socialist Republicans who had been elected to power – the legitimate government, in fact. The Church in Spain had been thoroughly compromised for centuries, comfortably in bed with the aristocracy, bleeding the peasants and working people white with their stranglehold on the hearts and minds of this deeply Catholic country.

The church and its fat, authoritarian clergy were in the sights of the Republicans from the beginning. Attacks on churches were legion, priests who stood by their power and privilege often put to death, either through the sentence of courts or by vigilante action.

I realised I was looking at the scars of this onslaught. The icons pulled down and smashed. The cathedral barricaded.

It gets worse.

The exterior of the building forms a series of bays demarcated by triangular buttresses.

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But the bay next to the gate I was looking at was special – it is cordoned off with ‘decorative’ chains.

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I wondered why. Then I noticed something unusual – at a consistent height between one and two metres from the ground the stones were pockmarked by something I recognised.

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These are bullet marks in the ceremonial gate to St Stephens Green in Dublin – the epicentre of the Easter uprising. They appear to be larger, either because the stone is softer (unlikely) or because they record the impact of the heavier ammunition from the Lewis machine guns the authorities deployed in the upper stories of buildings facing the College of Surgeons where the rebels were holed up.

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All between chest and head height of the average Andalusian man in the 30s (they were smaller then).

This, I am almost certain, was an execution site. Sacred ground, chained off. And unmarked by any overt signs.

They are gradually refurbishing the exterior of the cathedral. This, I expect, will be gone in five years.

There is no point trying to confirm this. To this day, I was warned by an Andalusian friend, a hood of silence hangs over the events of the war. My gitano guitar teacher spoke of it, but only inside our house and when we were alone. Raise the question in a bar, in conversation and someone will quickly and forcibly change the subject.

Repression in the south was swift and extreme. Neighbours dobbed in neighbours, who quickly disappeared. Of course, old scores were settled, and I sense in the often grim expressions of the very old that consciences remain troubled. It is dark territory.

Compare the pictures. This section of the cathedral wall is alone in bearing ambiguous, semi-legible graffiti. Look at the second-to-last picture above. Like the two or three other semi-erased graffiti, they consist of three letters.

Ireneo Antonio Torres, perhaps? Initials of somebody’s name, anyway.

They remember all right. And so they should.

Brexit – or Will They, Really?

David Cameron. We will remember that name all our lives. The walking, talking embodiment of the deluded, ivory tower dwellers of Downing St and Westminster. Never has a Prime Minister been so comprehensively out of touch with the people he represented. He has lived a life surrounded by the rich and powerful, fêted by big-time CEOs and sitting at tables with mighty world leaders. His wife comes from the élite landed gentry, and everyone knows it. When he went out and bought her second-hand Nissan Micra for £1,800 to get around in, I doubt that twenty people in the entire country actually believed she would even look at the thing. That’s how out of touch he is. Up till the last couple of weeks before the referendum he never seriously considered the possibility of a Leave vote, because he, personally, didn’t know anyone who would vote that way.

I imagine he thought he was popular. No. What he was was less disliked, less distrusted than ‘the other lot’. Virtually every well-known politician in England has completely lost contact with that bedrock of ordinary British folk who don’t trust politicians, don’t want foreigners pouring into the country, just want to have a job, drink a couple of pints at the pub, watch Eastenders and not have to worry about anything more serious than how well their football team is playing. On one side, Cameron and his ilk. On the other, beige neo-libs and the oddball, Corbyn, who thinks that the average Briton has five kids, lives on welfare and eats out of food banks. God help us, Nigel Farage is probably the only prominent English politician who reads the great unwashed accurately, which is why he has his triumph.

So where will it take Britain? Two likely scenarios. One: Cameron’s legacy, the destruction of Great Britain. Scotland gone within the year. Less likely but very possible, a united Ireland in the EU, leaving a ‘United Kingdom’ of England and Wales. A struggling, isolated and desperate little country shaking its head in disbelief. A simmering wall of hatred between the educated and the stiff-necked plodders who have pulled the house down around their ears.

Two: the revolution that is already underway. 36 hours after vote Leave, a petition demanding a parliamentary re-think has 800,000 signatures. Cameron said this had to be a oncer, but nothing he said or says matters any more. In New Zealand company law, presumably mirroring the UK’s, major financial decisions such as selling off more than half a company’s assets have to be authorised by a special general meeting of shareholders and need a 75% majority. This is obviously the model Cameron should have applied, perhaps at a lower level, say 60%. But in his delusion that the referendum was a foregone conclusion he quite possibly never thought of it.

If I had to bet, it would be on the second option, but I may be tainted by wishful thinking.

The immediate, interesting question is this: where will the new politicians come from? Politicians who see that those who spent their time entertaining themselves in Parliament in childish point scoring off the opposition were a mob of well-paid Neros fiddling while Rome burnt. That all that shouting and laughter has earned them the contempt of the man and woman in the street and simply has to stop and will too, for a time. It will be a brave and foolhardy politician who roars with laughter at a cheap shot at the other side in the weeks to come. Quiet days in Westminster, at least.

If this sudden disaster were to result in the end of ideological experiments and the emergence of sober, collaborative and responsive government, it might even have been worth it. Sadly, that is not a bet I would back.

Brexit – England’s Culture Bites Itself Hard

Well, they’ve done it. Privately, I always thought they would, because I understand why.

I lived in the UK for 3 years. The most conspicuous characteristic of English culture for me was its fundamentally unwelcoming, closed and reserved nature. I spent the last three months living in a backpackers among young foreigners and the sense of ease, of bonhomie, even towards someone much, much older than them, was palpable, refreshing. Generally they liked much of the quality of life in England but none – no, not one – ever said they liked the English people. Cold. Mean. The most common descriptors. Actually, they are not. Not really. Among themselves, their friends and peers, they can be warm, generous, and relaxed. But the face they turn to the world they see as ‘other’ is resistant, unwelcoming. I began to notice, out at night in the streets of Bristol, that groups of young people out about town were either all English or all foreign. I’m a friendly guy, but I had enormous difficulty making friends in England. I left largely because of loneliness. (I have to say, in fairness, that if the English are slow to make friends with foreigners, once they do take that step they are intensely loyal.)
This is what has driven the Brexit vote. An Englishman’s home is his castle and when, and if, you enter it you had better watch yourself. When an English man or woman says ‘Make yourself at home’ they mean ‘Make yourself at my home’. That microcosm applies en large to the country as a whole. And most English people, deep down, genuinely believe they are superior to ‘the rest’. (Mind you, they’re not alone in that, certainly not in Europe.) Make no mistake – this wasn’t about economics, or even the contorted, domineering and dictatorial Brussels bureaucracy. The older, less educated English who swung this vote simply will not have anyone else telling them they have to make foreigners welcome. Bugger off!

Now they will pay for it.

Of course, you can’t blame a people for their culture. Culture is the product of circumstance over time. During the industrial revolution the majority of English people, costume dramas notwithstanding, struggled in poverty. And they were cold. Freezing, starved of warmth and sun during a mini-Ice Age that peaked in the 18th century.

So they spent their lives in dark, cramped rooms, huddling over small fires. Their home, their space, became enormously important. Their refuge. The class structure stoked the fires. In the streets, at work, the English commoner had to bow and scrape, tug his forelock, in the presence of his betters. But once he closed his door behind them …

So, in their homes the English are, to this day, lords of their preserve. New Zealand has a shameful slew of regulations and laws allowing a host of various breeds of official to enter our homes without warrants. Customs officers. Immigration officers. The police, as long as they cite the right formula – drugs, terrorism, whatever. Not in England. They simply wouldn’t stand for it. Admirable, that.

In time they came to extend this attitude to their persons. The English are physically isolated, almost neurotic about touch. Any inadvertent touch, even a near miss, is occasion for an instant, ‘Sorry.’

So twenty years of strangers, foreigners, perceived to be ‘flooding’ into their collective castle had become too much to bear. Even in communities with a tiny percentage of foreigners UKIP polled strongly. Sadly, ironically, the cities with most immigrants voted Remain. The ‘problem’ was largely illusory, fueled by sensational media stories, but it was sensed as real. Real enough to provoke this reactive spasm, a throwing off of this oppressive sense of invasion.

What now? Actually, I believe that, relieved of this fear, the English will make a go of it. They will work it out. They are tough, determined and capable. Don’t write England off any time soon. But how it will play out will be fascinating. An example: I know someone who runs a business that needs workers prepared to start at three in the morning and work hard. All the workers are Polish, because the owner has found it impossible to find English workers who measure up. The big question: who will do the hard, dirty work in the years to come?

We’ll see.