Archive for December, 2007

Maddie McCann: This Thing Must Stop

4044ba60f29bcd153cb2e8.jpgStrange or what? I now have to confess that my Christmas would get a real lift if little Maddie McCann suddenly turned up alive in a sled drawn by six reindeer, with a happy smile on her face and the world’s TV cameras in attendance. If that happened and there was a global fundraiser to buy the toddler a Ferrari Testarossa, a night of passion with David Beckham (to be delivered not before 2020 of course!) and all the marshmallows she can eat I would cheerfully chip in a few euros. And believe me: I’m not given to chipping in lightly.

Unfortunately I know with almost total certainty that I will be able to keep my money in my pocket and that my seasonal joy will have to be drawn from the knowledge that Christmas is going to be over by Thursday and life will return to its normal state. Yes, there’s still the hurdle of New Year’s Eve to overcome (why celebrate when, as every year before it, 2008 is going to be the world’s worst year ever?) but I’m already looking forward to the next eleven months and three weeks of ill will to all men. In other words: I’m not a fan of the ‘festive’ season; that time of year when, ostrich-like, people put their heads in the sage and onion stuffing, pretending that everything that seems bad is about to take a turn for the better, that old hatreds can be forgotten and that a free meal of turkey slices, Brussels sprouts and cranberry compote will see the homeless through to next December. Give me a choice between false, hyped-up cheer and genuine, comfortable gloom and I know what I’ll pick every time.

Funny thing is: I say this as a generally pretty contented person, with no major worries, a happy home life and a cold six-pack in de fridge. So what I cannot for the life of me understand is why the parents of Maddie McCann are having a Christmas at all.  I would have thought that, to a family plunged into the darkest fear and despair, haunted day and night by unspeakable images of what may have become of their darling little daughter, the very thought of Christmas trees, carol singing, angelic messages of peace and joy -let alone intrusive, round the clock media attention- would be anathema. Yet here we are: expensive detectives, retained with your money, having made no progress whatsoever (trust me on this!) suddenly start talking in terms of Maddie’s possible return home by Christmas. “We’ve got a pretty good idea who took her and where she is being held…..there may be an arrest soon.” Not now, you sucker. Not if she was taken by British paedophiles who read the papers.

And then came the McCanns themselves. Aware that they’re spending your hard-earned dough as if tomorrow will never come they felt it best to rein in the hired gumshoes a little, lest the inevitable public disappointment come Boxing Day might lead to a reduction of the cash flow. But, since there was a lot of dosh in the kitty already, there seemed no harm in keeping the public on their toes, interested and ready to invest in future wild goose chases, by means of a special Christmas video appeal. And so, the “Be Brave My Sweetheart” tape was born. Oddly, it wasn’t addressed to us, the general public, but to Maddie herself. Consistent, of course, with the McCanns’ campaign slogan “we believe, nay: we know she’s alive” yet, even if that were the case, the little girl would be unlikely to be given a chance by her captors to watch it. Tagged on to that was an appeal to whoever might be holding Maddie to get in touch with their better selves and chuck the whole thing in.

So no: the McCanns weren’t really talking to Maddie and they weren’t really talking to anyone they think may be holding the girl captive. They were, in fact, talking to us after all. Could we please help them keep the show on the road and the circus going until she’s back or buried? My answer is: no. What we need is closure. The thing must now be declared over and done with and everyone, the McCanns first and foremost, must get on with their lives. If Maddie should, at some point, turn up alive that would be both miraculous and -depending on the state she’d be in- marvelous. Until then there’s only one sensible position to take: she’s dead. No need to throw more good money after bad.

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EU Treaty: Which Part Of “NO!” Don’t They Understand?

images.jpgRight. When is a constitution not a constitution? Is there still anybody left in Europe who is not fully aware that the document that was signed in Lisbon on Thursday is the old, rejected European Constitution in all but name? When Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Chamberlain-like, returned home one day saying “I have here a piece of paper which we call a Reforming Treaty. It is nothing like that earlier piece of paper which you democratically binned” he gave as an example of the way he had fought tooth and nail for Dutch interests the assurance that there would be no question of a European flag and a European anthem. The Dutch people, after all, had made very clear to him that they already have a flag they like a lot and an anthem they like only slightly less. To trade these in for a blue cloth with an ever increasing number of stars on it and a few poorly sung verses of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was, the people had intimated, both unnecessary and undesirable. You know: national identity and all that. Phew, the nation sighed, that was close. Maybe there was now a good reason for giving the new treaty the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps our elected representatives were right in saying that a new referendum, given the totally different nature of the revised text, was no longer required.

But lo! Or is it behold? We’re to be lumbered with an EU flag and anthem after all. True, thanks to Balkenende’s tireless campaigning on our behalf the main text of the treaty no longer makes mention of either. But what is a good treaty without appendages? So there, in an annex included at the insistence of our good neighbour Germany, both flag and anthem mysteriously come back to life. What Brussels has given with one hand it has taken back with the other. It would be nice if the Dutch Prime Minister, knowing he’s been had, were to fly into a rage and threaten the EU with serious consequences. Other government leaders do when they feel slighted. But no. Jan Peter faces this betrayal with perfect equanimity. “Thank God we’ve signed the Reforming Treaty” he says, “now the European Union can at last move forward.”

The question is: forward to what? Future expansion, that’s what. The power-crazed aparatchiks at the heart of the EU won’t rest until they’ve pulled half the world into their sphere of influence. After Poland, Bulgaria and Rumania expect Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and Moldova. After that, who? OK, let’s have Israel, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Turks? Yes, they can join too, if they learn to be as good at democracy as we are. Kazakhstan, no problem. Next stop: North Africa. Already there are almost as many Moroccans in the Netherlands as there are in Morocco so why not? OK, I’m exaggerating, but you can be sure we have more Moroccans than we have Bulgarians. 

I’m a gregarious sort of guy and I have absolutely nothing against foreigners of any plumage. But this kind of burgeoning expansion is the road to hell. The European Union started many years ago as a smallish club of reasonably well-off countries. Begun as an instrument for pooling coal and steel resources, the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) comprised France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands. In 1957 these countries renamed the club European Economic Community and in a sense that’s when the trouble started. There were still a number of affluent nations willing to join: the UK, Denmark and later Sweden and Austria, but the number of poorer nations accepted into the EEC and later versions of it (including the current 27-member EU) grew even more rapidly. The effect: the rich core of the Union has to share its wealth with ever more impecunious newcomers.

Roughly, the countries of the EU fall into two categories: the givers and the takers. It should come as no surprise that, at grassroot level (though not necessarily among the political classes) Euro-enthusiasm is greatest among the takers. Countries like Ireland and Spain, once among the economically backward nations in Europe, have done fantastically well out of the Union, not merely because of their own efforts but also thanks to generous grants from the Brussels coffers. Coffers which had been mostly filled by the likes of Germany, France, Belgium and especially the Netherlands. This country, under successive governments, has allowed itself to be squeezed as a “net super donor” till our pips squeaked. If you’re the leader of a small country and you want to play big on the international stage there’s always a price to pay and boy, have we Dutch paid it! We’ve paid it through some of the highest taxes, fuel duties and VAT rates in the entire European Union, not to mention a bungled entry into the common currency the Euro which wiped about ten percent off our combined national wealth.

The prospect now looms of a European Union that becomes ever larger and diverse and at the same time ever more centralised. More and more national sovereign powers will have to be sacrificed on the altar of some indistinct greater good. And will we have a say in this? No. Our punishment for rejecting the European Constitution is that we won’t be asked again. For those who, like me, believe that the changes that are going to be imposed on us are so enormous and so drastic as to warrant a new referendum: tough luck. There won’t be one. But then, there’s always the next election. We can turn that into a referendum on Europe. That is, if we don’t fall asleep in the meantime. Or else we can always move to Switzerland. Great little country, that.

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A New Insult: Muhammad The Goldfish

teddy.jpgI read a funny story in this week’s Sunday Times. Police in the Italian city of Bolzano have seized a toilet from a local gallery. It’s not an ordinary toilet in that, when in use, it plays the Italian national anthem. Apparently, in Italy it is an offence to ridicule the anthem and the gallery’s owners may well find themselves prosecuted.

To me, this is absurdist lunacy masquerading as national pride. If I were an Italian, the strains of my anthem (often so delightfully conducted by Michael Schumacher after a Formula One victory with Ferrari) would make my bosom swell with pride whenever and wherever I’d hear it. I wouldn’t be particular, either, about the way it was played: full symphony orchestra, brass band, paper and comb, Inuit noseflute or Italian cistern. Conclusion: the Bolzano authorities are nuts. An anthem is an anthem. Once, on a holiday in Scotland, I saw the Dutch flag hanging upside down from an official building. Do you think I went in and angrily demanded that this deep insult to the Dutch nation should be undone immediately and those responsible punished? Of course not. Silly Scots, I thought and left it at that.

This eagerness to perceive offence or insult is one of Man’s least endearing qualities. I was pretty aghast -though not surprised-, therefore, that British teacher Gillian Gibbons became the butt of Sudanese zealots’ righteous fury merely for allowing a child in her class to give a teddy bear the name Muhammad. As soon as the news came out (or rather, as soon as someone squealed on her) poor Gillian was arrested and prosecuted for insulting the prophet. By now, she’s been pardoned by the Sudanese president and returned home, but that doesn’t alter the fact that hordes of Islamic fanatics had earlier taken to the streets of Khartoum, demanding her execution. Hers, by the way, not that of the kid who did the naming or of the teddy bear itself. How far up the wrong tree can you bark?

And there’s something else. I don’t know how many Muhammads are listed in the Khartoum phonebook (nearly as many as in that of Amsterdam, perhaps), but there must be a good few. Indeed, phonebooks throughout the Arab world and Europe probably list page after page after page of Muhammads. Did anyone, the Sudanese police for instance, bother to find out whether it was actually Muhammad the prophet that the teddy was named after and not Muhammad the halva dealer, Muhammad the bicycle repairman or Muhammad the chartered accountant? Also, did no one realize that the teddy bear is the object of love and affection all over the western world and that naming one Muhammad is, far fom being an insult, as close to a compliment the prophet is likely to get outside the thin-skinned realm of Islam? Love your teddy, love Muhammad; that’s how simple it could have been.

The pardon, that’s another thing. It took the personal intervention of two high-ranking British Muslims to get the Sudanese president to order Gillian Gibbons’ release. Not that Omar Hasan Ahmed al-Bashir had become convinced of her innocence. As the one who imposed Sharia law on his country he was unlikely to do that. Had Britain not been an important investor in Sudan -and had there not been strong voices in the UK calling for divestment over the crisis in Darfur- Omar al-Bashir might well have cocked a snook at the West and kept her in jail, or even executed her. As it was he did the minimum required: a pardon. The crime stood, the insult to the prophet stood, her punishment was deserved, but the Sudanese president, known for his generosity of spirit, was willing to relent.

This idiocy must stop. We cannot have people arrested, incarcerated or worse who have not done the slightest wrong, who dedicate themselves to the betterment of complete strangers in a foreign land. I am therefore calling on people all over the world to challenge the zealots and name their teddy bears Muhammad. They can’t kill us all so sooner or later they’ll have to either pipe down and relax or else die of apoplexy. Oh and while you’re at it, re-christen not only your teddy bears, but also your cats, dogs, hamsters, parakeets and goldfish. I won’t rest until each and every pet and furry toy on the planet is called Muhammad. Or, for that matter, Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Jehova. As I said, I’m not particular.

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