Thursday 28 July 2011

Photo of the Month - June 2011

The first half of June was a continuation of our holiday visit to Switzerland.  So once again hundreds of snaps were taken.  So many to choose from. During this time we managed to fit in a long weekend in Italy, staying in Bologna.  This was our first visit to this part of Italy and deserves a post on its own.  Bologna is a large city and the capital of the region of Emilia Romagna.  As with most Italian towns it has an incredible number of churches.  A few can be seen below.
However Bologna is not just very old buildings.  The centre in particular was very lively and seems to be a popular place for weddings.  This bride carried a beautiful bouquet of red and white roses which I could not resist capturing.
Bologna is also famous for its food and restaurants.  Below is a selection of the goodies on offer near the Piazza Maggiore.
The restaurants were simply wonderful and we enjoyed just about everything we tried.  Here is yours truly enjoying a glass of lemoncello after our last meal.  Photo curtesy of Alessio.
While staying in Bologna we made a day trip to Ferrara, the capital of the province of the same name.  Ferrara is more touristy than Bologna, and much cleaner and tidier.  It has an amazing cathedral which occupies one full side of a very large rectangular piazza.  Here is the bell tower and the side view and next the beautifully intricate front façade.

Ferrara is not all pomp and circumstance.  At the corner of one of the narrow streets was this delightful teddy bear blowing bubbles.
Back in Zürich we found the time to visit to one of our favourite cafés - the Café-Bar in Neumarkt, which is part of the Neumarkt theatre.  We always like to enjoy a café crème and an almond biscuit there.  Here is the wonderful old fashioned interior.
On this visit Emma and I managed to take in a new museum to both of us - the Bärengasse Museum.  The museum has a lovely façade which you can see below.  You can get an idea of what was inside here.
Another little known museum well worth a visit is the Zunfthaus zur Meissen, right by the river Limmat.  This was previously a guildhouse and is now an adjunct of the Swiss National Museum.  Its speciality is ceramics and it has a fine collection of the major European manufacturers as well as Swiss pieces.  If you love ceramics as we do, then this is a must.  Here is handsome couple from the current exhibition.  You can find out more about the museum here.
We never restrict ourselves to either Zürich or Kilchberg, Emma always ensures that we extend our knowledge of the whole of Switzerland.  Thus we went on one of Emma’s walks round the Zürichsee - this time from Nuolen to Schmerikon on the Upper Lake.  It was a lovely walk and you end up walking along the banks of the river Linth, where I just managed to catch a bird about to land on the river.
Below is another view of the river with the remains of Castle Grynau on the other bank.  This bit of the walk is part of the Swiss section of the Camino de Santiago, or Jacobsweg as it is known in Switzerland.  This short section goes from Schmerikon to Grynau and we walked it in the reverse direction.  Kathleen still has a long way to go.
Though most of the photos were taken in Switzerland or Italy, I did manage to get a few snaps on our return and I close with this charming scene of a mother swan gently coaxing her young into the safe waters of Tayport harbour.

Monday 25 July 2011

Another Euro Fix?

The latest round of Eurozone crisis meetings has come and gone.  At least this time they seem to have come up with some small, but useful measures.  Renegotiation of the length of government loans and a reduction in the interest rate charged are all welcome measures.  They will not only benefit Greece, but Ireland and Portugal too.  It also seems that there are to be additional funds to help with the modernisation of Greece’s infrastructures.  All good stuff, but not really addressing any of the main issues.
The first point to emphasize yet again is that this is not really about Greece, or Ireland or Portugal.  The Greek economy only represents about 3% of the GDP of the whole Eurozone.  Germany could probably bail out Greece on its own and still have some change left.  No, the main issue is the solvency of the banking system in the EU, not just the Eurozone.  Just ask RBS!   All these measures are primarily about saving banks, especially French and German banks.  At all costs make sure that Greece does not fully default and thereby expose the whole shaky mess.
The second point is that this is not fundamentally a Euro crisis.  Sure the Euro has plenty of problems and sooner or later the Eurozone countries will have to either agree to break up or to move some way towards fiscal union.  However the fundamental issue of the collapse of the banking and financial system is not primarily a Eurozone matter.  Otherwise why is the UK economy in such a poor and fragile state?  Not to mention the economic woes of the USA.
There is clearly more to this than just saving the Euro and helping Greece.  What needs to be addressed are the twin issues of how to get some growth back in the world economy and how to deal with large trade imbalances.  Neither is primarily a Eurozone issue, though both affect the Eurozone negatively.
Take growth, as without a growing economy the various indebted countries will never to able to repay their loans, even with reduced interest rates.  Yet every country is urged, if not actually forced to implement policies which restrict growth.  Pretty stupid really!  Yet that is the reality of the austerity measures which the IMF and the EU are forcing on all countries.  Here in the UK our nasty Coalition is only too willing to go down this route, without any outside encouragement.  In the UK this is for purely ideological reasons - the Tories as usual want nothing better than to attack the welfare state.  However it is economic madness to cut government spending in a recession or an economic downturn as we have now.  It is also very difficult to do as this article makes clear.  Though based on US experience, its argument is valid for the rest of us.  As we can see only too clearly in the UK, businesses are failing on an apparently weekly basis and there is little or no investment.  Why?  Because there has been a collapse in demand.  And this collapse in demand is primarily due to the cuts in government spending.  Surprise, surprise!  If we are to have any chance of minimising this crisis and returning to growth, then demand has to rise and only the government has the wherewithal to do this.
The other issue that affects us all is trade imbalances.  This is a global phenomenon with some countries - China, Germany and Japan for example - running large and regular trade surpluses.  In the case of Germany this has specific consequences for the Eurozone.  Since all countries cannot run a trade surplus, if Germany is to continue to have a trade surplus, then other countries must of necessity run a trade deficit.  In other words they will continue to import more from Germany than they export to Germany.  Now this is a situation that is pretty much unsustainable in the long run.  In the current situation of economic downturns it becomes critical.  Which is one of the reasons that countries such as Spain, Portugal, Greece etc are in the troubles they are in.  Under the current set-up there is no way that these countries can continue to afford to buy German goods at the rate they have been doing.  The onus here is firmly on Germany as the country that benefits the most from the current situation.  Germany has a rather painful choice to make.  Three options present themselves.  The first is for Germans to start spending more.  This can come via higher wages for German workers and from higher government spending.  This should result in more imports and less exports as the costs of production in Germany rise.  Another option is for Germany to transfer lots of money to the importing countries so that they can continue to buy German goods.  Neither is likely to appeal too much to many Germans.  However the third option is probably even worse.  Countries such as Spain, Portugal, probably Italy as well, leave the Euro and return to the peseta, escudo and the lira.  These currencies would immediately devalue, while the remaining Euro or the Deutschmark (if the Euro broke up completely) would rise in value.  The net result would be that most German goods would be priced out of the market in most other countries, while there would be a boom in exports from these countries.  This would most likely lead to a rise in unemployment in Germany as German companies moved production to southern Europe.  It was precisely to avoid this scenario that Germany agreed to the Euro in the first place.  However unless steps are taken to create some kind of mechanism whereby the profits that Germany makes on its trade surplus can be returned to the importing countries the system will break down.  At great cost to Germany.
So forget about Greece, the real issue is what will Germany do.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Broughty Ferry Beach - A Walk on the Wild Side

Last week I ventured out for a walk along the beach.  I don’t usually go on the beach itself, but it was such a lovely, warm and sunny day that I decided to get onto the sand.  The beach at the Ferry is a very long one and is mostly very soft, fine sand.  The warm weather had brought out families with children who were all enjoying the brief interlude of summer.  When I do wander along the beach I don’t usually bother too much with what lies at my feet.  But this time I was astounded at the amount of objects to be found.  The beach was covered with a rich array of dead creatures of one kind or another.  It all made for a wonderful mixture of shape, colour and texture.
I was first attracted by a couple of jelly fish which had found themselves stranded on the beach.  Some of children were rightfully fascinated by them.  As I continued my walk I encountered more and more jelly fish.  There was quite a variety both in size and colour and the patterns on their surface.  Here are a couple of the larger ones.
Most of jelly fish were of the smaller variety, and some of them carried lovely patterns as well as some very bright colours.  The bright sunshine probably helped to bring out these colours.  Here are another two jelly fish.
Various types of seaweed made up most of the contents strewn along the beach.  It was amazing to actually take the time and look at just how different seaweed can be both in terms of shapes, sizes, colours and texture.  Below are some single strips of seaweed, three in green and one in brown.  All are partly covered with sand to make a rather striking striped pattern.  A couple reminded me of cave type drawings of animals.
Here is a completely different kind of seaweed, more like straw or hair.  Though it was lying on the sand, it just has a hint of hanging in the air.
Some of the seaweed was in a lovely pinky purply colour as in this example below. 
Seaweed looks very different when wet, which is of course its natural state.  Here are a couple of brightly coloured slippery pieces.
In addition to seaweed there were lots of other things to see lying about, including the ever present little pebbles as here.
Twigs and sponges are other typical objects which can end up stranded on the beach.
I end my beach collection with this slightly less common example.  Crabs can often be found on beaches, but usually either the tiny varieties or just bits and pieces.  Here is an almost complete mid sized crab.  Must go down to the beach more often. 

Monday 18 July 2011

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

This is the second volume in what is expected to be a trilogy.  The first was Sea of Poppies which I have reviewed here.  Sea of Poppies ends with a dramatic escape at sea during a violent storm.  River of Smoke starts with the aftermath of that escape.  However this novel is very different from Sea of Poppies.  While we do learn about the fate of some of the main characters from the first novel, River of Smoke is more about new characters.  Like the Sea of Poppies there is some sense of adventure and sweep of movement as the action moves from Mauritius to Singapore and on to Canton, with a detour to Bombay.  But this time the focus is much more on one person and one place.
That person is Seth Bahramji Naurozi Modi, known as Bahram, and the place is Canton.  The year is still 1838.  Bahram, his current travails and his backstory, dominates the book.  He is a parsi, married into a wealthy and well established Bombay family.  Their main concern is ship building, but Bahram has branched out into the even more lucrative business of transporting and selling opium to China.  This trade is centred on the Chinese port of Canton and it is here that most of the action takes place.  This opium trade, though very lucrative is illegal.  It has only survived due to the connivance and corruption of local officials.  However all that is about to change as the Chinese imperial authorities set about to bring an end to the trade.  It is this bitter stand off which takes up most of the novel.
As with the Sea of Poppies, Amitav Ghosh has created a wonderful cast of characters for us.  Bahram of course, but many of the others are equally fascinating and colourful people.  They include Chi-Mei, his Chinese concubine and their illegitimate son Ah Fatt;  Zadig Karabedian, an Armenian merchant now based in Egypt;  Robin Chinnery, the illegitimate son of an English painter;  Fitcher, a plant collector from England and Paulette the young mamzelle from the earlier novel.  In addition there are the various characters who make up the foreign compound in Canton and their Chinese counterparts.
In addition to the personal histories and adventures of these characters, the novel describes in a dramatic way the disputes between the Chinese authorities and the foreign, mainly British opium merchants.  Ghosh mainly allows the representatives of the two sides to speak for themselves in a series of meetings between the Chinese and foreign merchants.  It is not a pretty tale as the British immediately request a resort to force - it is through the barrel of a sixteen pounder that free trade will come to China.  This is not a new story nor has it really ended, as can be seen in the military adventures of the UK and the USA to-day.  It is a major triumph of the book that amidst the adventures, romances and personal tragedies, Ghosh has managed to evoke the essence of Western imperialism in such a believable and dramatic way.  As one of the British merchants so prophetically puts it:  “After two centuries of commerce, it is impossible that we should abandon our factories and retreat from Canton.  It is here that we must make out stand;  we must show the Chinese that if they attempt to curtail foreign trade they will find their boasted power shaken to pieces.  Is it not time to ask what may be the consequences to this empire of the ignorance and obstinacy of its rulers?  Ignorance of everything beyond China, obstinate adherence to their own dogmas of government?  The answers are clear:  we must remain here, if for no other reason than only to protect the Chinese from themselves.  I do not doubt that it will soon become necessary for the British government to intervene here as it has elsewhere, merely in order to quell civil commotion.”  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Thursday 14 July 2011

UK = Pop and Fish'n'Chips

The ongoing attempt by unionists of all hues to come up with new ways to defend the Union continue unabated.   One of the latest was penned by journalist Kenny Farquharson in last weekend’s edition of Scotland on Sunday.  It was titled, Britishness is about pop and fish’n’chips.  Really.  Clearly we are in the middle of the silly season.  If not and this is what unionists are reduced to, then the prospects for Scottish independence can only grow by the day.
The crux of Farquharson’s claim is that there is a sense of Britishness which can become the most powerful argument against Scottish independence.  This revelation came from watching a Newsnight programme devoted to independence.  According to Farquharson, the English participants on the programme articulated a clear sense of Britishness which, “was predicated on common British values: tolerance; diversity; shared endeavour; unity; moderation; fair play; innovation; solidarity. All were presented as good reasons for the nations of these islands to stick together, to accentuate what we had in common rather than what divided us.”  Farquharson was so taken by this that he gushed to say, “I’ve never heard a Unionist argument this effective in 20 years of covering Scottish politics.”
Alas, for the likes of Farquharson, there is nothing new in this or similar litanies of “British” values.  There is also nothing to suggest that they are in any sense uniquely British.  No evidence is ever produced to justify such a claim and Farquharson offers none himself.  I am sure there must be many citizens of other countries who are more than slightly fed up of hearing yet another Briton lecture them on how superior us Brits are.  For all these assertions of so-called British values does, is confirm that arrogance and a feeling of superiority are probably the only two genuine British values.
There is another aspect to this claim which always goes unmentioned by its advocates.  The existence of the Republic of Ireland.  Do the good citizens of the Republic share these ‘British’ values?  After all most people in the UK consider the island of Ireland to be one of the islands that make up the British Isles.  And of course the whole of Ireland was part of the UK until the early 1920s.  So unless these ‘British’ values only emerged since then, unlikely, they must be equally shared by the Irish.  This becomes clearer when Farquharson outlines his own choice of emblems which can be used to save Scotland for the Union.  “More powerful than the NHS, Lancaster bombers, the monarchy and the British Legion, are alternative emblems such as Blue Peter, the Grand National, fish’n'chips and – most powerful of all – the cultural heft of half a century of distinctively British pop music.”
Is the esteemed Mr Farquharson claiming that the citizens of the Irish Republic have no feeling for Blue Peter, or that the Irish care nothing for the Grand National or have an antithapy for fish’n’chips?  Surely not.  And as for that great cultural achievement - distinctively British pop music - precisely what distinguishes the UK contribution from the Irish contribution?  Or is he claiming that Irish bands and musicians do not form an integral part of ‘British’ pop.  Once again we are back with the typical UK arrogance.  We just ignore the contribution of others.  
In this case thought it pretty much destroys his whole argument.  For unless he can prove beyond reasonable doubt that the people from the Republic of Ireland do not and never have shared in these common ‘British’ values, then their existence cannot not be used as an argument for maintaining the UK.  Will need to do much better than this young Farquharson.  
Though originally published in Scotland on Sunday, the whole article is available here on Scottish Labour Hame.  This is supposes to be a grassroots website for the Labour Party in Scotland, though most of the contributors seem to be MPs, MSPs or local councillors.  Worth a visit if only to confirm the terminal decline of Scottish Labour.

Monday 11 July 2011

Two East Neuk Gardens

Recently we have been lucky enough to visit a couple of lovely private gardens in the East Neuk of Fife.  The first one was in Boarhills a little village about three miles out of St. Andrews on the Crail road.  The house used to be the former schoolhouse and is now owned by some acquaintances of ours.  Part of it is now a studio as Liz is an accomplished artist.  The studio was open to the public on a glorious, sunny Sunday last month as part of an open studios weekend to promote the work of artists throughout the East Neuk.  As well as the paintings on display, we also had the good fortune to wander about the lovely garden.  It is a substantial plot of land which has been broken up into a number of little mini-gardens, all slightly different.  Here for example is a rose encrusted bower, with bench for sitting.
 This one shows a corner of the garden which has a very old hammock and a table full of bits and pieces.  Not sure I would like to try the hammock though.
 The garden is in fact full of fascinating objects such as this piece of iron work below.  The garden is a constant delight to the eye as there is so much to see, and much of it unexpected. 
Though the many unusual objects make the garden more interesting than most, it is full of wonderful flowers, which make a colourful display as can be seen in the next two photos.

I end with this gorgeous display of climbing roses which adorn the entrance to the kitchen.  The roses gave off a lovely scent to add to the enchantment.

The other garden that we visited was Wormiston, which is an old estate just outside Crail off the main road to St. Andrews.  The gardens were open to the public last Sunday as part of Scotland's Garden Scheme.  The house itself is a very fine building which dates back to the 18th century.  Here is a view of the main façade.
 As this was an open day part of the attraction was the chance to indulge in some lovely cream cakes and tea, and buy some plants, or take home some delicious home made marmalades, jams or chutneys.  These were provided by Cecilia, the Jam Lady and here is her wonderful display of goodies.
 I, of course couldn't resist the temptation and bought a jar of gooseberry and elderflower jam and an apple and sage jelly.  This latter one I've already tried with chicken and delicious it was.  The main garden is a walled enclosure which is divided into five distinct sections.  Nearest to the house is this delightful mini maze.
Next to the maze is a wonderful old fashioned border, which as you can see was full of summer colour.
 Behind this border is a small formal garden with lawn, roses and more flowers.  This in turn leads on to a small orchard which has been left pretty much to its own and is now full of wild meadow flowers.  Such a lovely and unexpected contrast to the formal area.
The other side of the traditional border is the vegetable and herb garden.  This included these gorgeous sculptural alliums.
Throughout the garden you come across some genuine sculptures like these two creatures.  Below are some more examples of old artefacts which adorn the garden.

Apart from one little shower, we were blessed with lovely, warm sunny weather for out visit to Wormiston, which is well worth visiting if you ever get the chance.  I end with this photo of a blue dragon fly which I just managed to snap as it was hovering about one of the small ponds in the walled garden.

Friday 8 July 2011

Rupert Murdoch - A step too far?

The recent revelations of wrongdoing at the News of the World has brought about a barrage of criticism and hostility against that newspaper’s owners - Rupert Murdoch’s News International.  The wrongdoing of course is pretty substantial and includes illegal phone-tapping and illegal payments to members of the police.  In typical fashion Murdoch has reacted immediately and has taken the unexpected decision to close down the News of the World completely.  Of course this is just a sleight of hand, as another of his papers, the Sun, will now bring out a new Sun on Sunday edition.  Rupert Murdoch clearly hopes that most of us will now simply regard the whole issue as closed.  This is most unlikely, though some MPs may be willing to continue to give cover to the Murdoch empire.
This brings us to the core of the issue - the over close relationship between politicians and the media moguls and the concentration of media ownership in a few unrepresentative hands.   For a key question is why has nothing been done about these illegal practices before now?  Evidence about these practices were first filed years ago, yet none in the then Labour government was prepared to take any action.  Rupert Murdoch was deemed to be too powerful and our leading politicians were too frightened to challenge him.  This in turn was because Murdoch, along with a few other wealthy individuals, has so much control over our media.  
It is quite incredible how unrepresentative our media has become, especially the print media.  As an article in Left Futures points out:  “Murdoch is the most notorious media mogul, but other than the Guardian – which is managed by the Scott Trust – the entire mainstream press is in the hands of wealthy plutocrats.”  It is not only the ownership that is a serious issue here, the leading journalists also come from a very restrictive background.  The same article claims that:  “The journalists themselves come from unrepresentative backgrounds – according to the Sutton Trust, over half of the top 100 journalists are privately educated, with not many over 1 in 10 having attended a comprehensive school.”    
This has enormous consequences for our political and economic life.  It no doubt explains to a large extent the rise and fall of New Labour.  It is amazing that the main left wing party in the UK, the party that is supposed to represent and advocate for the interests and well-being of working people, people who represent the vast majority of the population, has for two decades or more simply advocated and implemented traditional right wing policies.  Polices that have done more for the likes of Rupert Murdoch than for ordinary people.  We can also see this in the responses of political parties to the current ongoing financial and economic crisis.  Just about all have parroted the same neo-liberal lies.  We cannot afford decent public services and we cannot afford to increase taxes on the well-off.  Not really surprising when we realise that almost all the journalists in the mainstream media are unlikely to use many of our public services and would to subject to any increase in taxation.  
Much has been made about the need for plurality in the ownership of our media.  However this has to more than just limiting the share that any one person can own.  We need to look at who and what these owners represent.  In an open and free society there should be at least one genuine left wing newspaper.  This issue is even more acute in Scotland where all the mainstream media outlets are staunch supporters of the UK.  Despite the fact that the SNP has just won its second successive parliamentary election and this time with an overall majority.  How can it be in a supposedly free and open country that all these people are simply unrepresented in the mainstream media?
The future of Rupert Murdoch and his media empire is an important issue, but much more is at stake than just the future of one company.  We should use this opportunity to challenge the whole media set-up.

Monday 4 July 2011

Barça Transfers - Is Anyone Coming?

The saga continues and despite further forests of newsprint detailing this and suggesting that, nothing, absolutely nothing has actually happened.  Well, that is not quite true.  Thiago Alcántara, Barça’s great hope for the future has just signed a new contract which will keep him at Barcelona for another four years.  Thiago of course was one of the mainstays of the rumourologists.  Most journalists asserted quite confidently that if Cesc Fàbregas was to sign then Thiago would have to go.  Either to raise money for the transfer or just to make way for Cesc.  Just goes to show how well informed our Spanish journalists are!
As regards new signings - not a sign.  On the flip side, nobody has left the club yet either.  Though there are still plenty of speculation, some of which changes on a daily basis.  On the arrival front it looks like the first new player to come will be Kiko Feminía, a 20 year old winger who is set to join Barça from Hercules for a fee of around €4 million.  It seems that Kiko will play part of the time with the B team and part with the first team.  Clearly one for the future and not one to challenge the current hierarchy.
Whether they do sign someone who can challenge the current players will depend on whether Barça can finally sign Cesc and their other, alleged priority, Alexis Sanchez.  And despite the usual claims that an agreement is imminent nothing has been agreed.  Though things may reach a final decision, one way or the other, very soon.  At least in the case of Cesc.  Again despite claims to the contrary, he has returned to London today for the start of pre-season training with Arsenal.   His club are due to fly out to Malaysia sometime next week, and I would imagine that if he is to sign for Barcelona then it would have to be before flying out to Malaysia.  This one should be resolved pretty soon.
As regards Alexis Sanchez, he is currently in Argentina with Chile preparing for the Copa America.  It is most unlikely that he will be given permission to fly to Barcelona for any medical during the tournament.  The Chilean authorities would also not be too keen on any negotiations during the tournament.  Of course according to the press Sanchez has already reached an agreement with Barça.  The stumbling block is that Udinese, his current club, are none to keen to sell their star player.  They are holding our for a substantially bigger offer from Barça.  This one may run a bit longer.
Whether Barça can raise any more money will probably depend on how much they can raise from selling on some of their current squad.  Here, again, there has been little in the way of concrete movement.  It looks like Bojan will leave and at one stage it seemed that a deal had been struck with Roma.  While Roma still seem to be favourites to sign him, Tottenham Hotspur are also supposed to be interested in Bojan.  Jeffren is another who may be about to leave, with offers from various Spanish clubs on the table.  It seems that Barcelona would also like to move on some other players - Milito and Maxwell for example.  But it seems that there have been no offers so far for either player.  One way or another it does not look likely that Barça will be able to raise very much in the way of additional transfer funds.
Barça started with an initial budget of €45 million which could rise to €65 million if the club are lucky in selling on some of their players.  Even this sum may not be enough to sign both Cesc and Alexis Sanchez.  Especially now that the club has just spent €4 million on Kiko, and by all accounts would like to sign an experienced defender to replace Maxwell - if they can move him on.  Given this scenario and the lack of confirmed signings, it is no surprise to find that the Spanish media has begun to uncover the names of other players that Barça might want to sign, if, heaven forfend, plan A goes astray.  Of course plan A - Cesc and Alexis - may just be a figment of the media in the first place.  
The first team squad are due to start pre-season training on 18th July, which is just two weeks away.  On the 14th August they play Real Madrid away in the first leg of the Spanish supercup.  I expect that Pep Guardiola would like to know which new players he will have in the squad well before then.  So I expect a lot of movement in the next couple of weeks.  Any Spanish speaking readers who would like to dip into a relatively new blog on Spanish football with a Barça bent should try this blog by José Carlos Carrasquet.  Some good insights about the current transfer madness.