Tuesday, December 29, 2009


My four brats all descended on the Manor for the Christmas Holidays, something that took my mind off a very great worry (See Virago of a Virus). All went well, various presents were, well, presented, and an added plus was the presence of the Compte de Rienville, who arrived along with his cook, Stephane. This was indeed a Good Thing; my own cook, Ludwig, had left in a huff over a disagreement about asparagus. I wanted it steamed. He wanted to boil it. Obviously he had to go.

Isolde, my concert violinist daughter, had brought along her agent, Lolulu, who went by the name of Luke. An austere woman, she was clothed in a dark, nondescript pant suit, in marked contrast to the colourful party frocks worn by my daughters. She said little, but obviously adored Isolde. Well, who wouldn't?

Stephane did wonderful things to a turkey, with a wine-based gravy that was superb. And he readily agreed that asparagus should always be steamed. Good man, Stephane.

After dinner, the kids all assembled in the drawing room for the Christmas Monopoly Game, a Strunsky tradition. I retired to the library with the Compte and cognacs, and was soon involved in a heated discussion about Yemen. My point was that if Yemen was going to screw with us, we were bloody well going to screw with them. The Compte took the view that if airport security had been better, that addled Nigerian would never have been allowed on any plane whatsoever. Yes, the authorities in Lagos were inept, but the Dutch are not, and how they had missed him was a bit of a mystery. "Although," he added, "I gather the man was in transit."

"Seems to me," I said with a bit of jaundice, "we are not far away from having to strip before boarding an airplane, and being forced to wear one of those ghastly hospital gowns. And don't get me started on body scanners. I can think of at least three explosive materials that would not be picked up. What was that?"

A dull thump had echoed throughout the Manor.

"I think it came from your firing range," said the Compte.

The two of us scurried downstairs, where we came upon my ex-Mossad butler Irving engaged in reeling a target sheet back from the range. Standing on the shooter's mark was Luke, cradling my Ruger M77 in her hands.

The target sheet had arrived. I looked at it. "Nice grouping."

"I'm a bit off," replied Luke calmly, as if she walked into peoples' houses everyday and fired weaponry. "My own preference is a Steyr-Mannlicher SS6-69. I would have liked to try the Erma SR 100, but Sir Harry said that was your baby, and I respect that."

And now things became clear, and I felt a huge surge of relief.

"So Isolde has nothing to do with any of this?" I asked.

"Well, there was that courier thing in Vienna, but Sir Harry said you gave him what for, and put a stop to it. She's just to good a violinist to waste The Trade. When I met Isolde, however, and got to know her --"

" --No doubt in the Biblical sense --"

" -- And way led on to way," Luke continued, firmly ignoring my interjection, "we seemed a perfect fit. I get her bookings, Sir Harry helps, and this gives us access --"

"I get the picture." Bloody opportunistic Sir Harry. But at least I now knew what Matilda Hatt had been hinting at about another sniper. Thank God it didn't turn out to be Isolde.

"I would though," said Luke, "like to request a favour."

"Go on."

"Isolde's next concert is three weeks away. In Prague. I won't be able to be with her until then, and it would be neat if she could stay with you during that time."

"Consider it done. What takes you away?"


"Only one place, I should think." This from the Compte. "Where things have gone a bit pear-shaped."

"And little training schools have started to grow like evil mushrooms," put in Irving.

"Mushrooms that badly need rooting out," I said. "So, Luke, enjoy....Yemen."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Virago Of A Virus

Yes, very late this time. Put simply, I must have picked up a nasty virus while in Copenhagen, pointing out likely sniper positions that could, if employed, disrupt proceedings. Actually, that boondoggle could have used a good dash of reality, but attentive readers, and which of you are not, already know my position on global warming.

Anyway, here I was, back in Toronto at the Manor, and flat on my back. This was a body position more in keeping with the Compte de Rienville than coping with a vicious bug, but what can you do? Yet I continue to believe that we create our own reality, that an illness is in fact dis-ease, and therefore there was a reason for my coughing, lack of sleep, fever, loss of appetite, and innumerable aches and pains. I was obviously uneasy about something, but what?

So, a chance to reflect. Where had the virus come from? The only time I was exposed in Copenhagen was when I had to make my way through the protesters to retrieve a certain microdot for Sir Harry, and get it out of the country. Easy-peasy -- I am a woman, and microdots can be hidden in a variety of places, places only the most stalwart of custom officials would dare to look. They didn't, and Sir Harry was pleased.

Must have been the protesters, a scruffy bunch of Muslims screaming for the downfall of Switzerland. Something about minarets that escaped me, and what this had to do with global warming remains a mystery. And why the Swiss, of all people? I mean, a thousand years of democracy, and what have they produced? The cuckoo clock.

As for the virus, this might be the 'where' of the question, but not the 'why'. The answer still eluded me.

After two days of absolute misery, things were beginning to look up, both literally and figuratively (I was still flat on my back). A visit by Matilda Hatt helped as well.

She entered, bearing a pot of tea that she said worked wonders. I was at that point more interested in a serious Laphroaig, but drank the stuff anyway.

"This is good,Tilly," I said. What is it?"

"A special mixture. Lavender, with just a titch of belladonna."

"Belladonna! That's poison --"

"Only in certain doses. A very small amount gets your insides on full alert, and they attack anything out of the norm. In this case, your virus."

"And just where, Dr. Hatt, did you learn this?"

"Yemen. And you know about that. As for Copenhagen, I can report that there were no incidents."

"Wasn't there someone from Zimbabwe caught in the vault of the UBS Bank?

"Yeah, the silly bugger was attempting a robbery. And the fact that he got that far is a tribute to the rotten security of UBS. Bloody initials should read 'Used To Be Smart'. And why the climate conference organizers let Mugabe in, well, there's no accounting for stupidity.

"Now, Tilly," I replied, "he has a low carbon footprint."

"Sure he does. Destroying an entire country will do that."

This produced small silence. One cannot argue with the inarguable. Then Tilly said, "Oh, I had a small talk with your Sir Harry. He's found a new sniper that might be able to match your abilities."

"Yes, Code Barry is very good indeed."

"No," Tilly replied, 'this person is not with CSIS. Someone being groomed by Sir Harry himself. He said she reminded him of you in your younger days."


"She. But that's all I could get from Mr. Secrecy. You know how he is."

"Too well."

Tilly left shortly after, and following a moment's reflection, I had a very disturbing thought. A very disturbing thought, and quite likely the cause of my viral distress. This needs dealing with, I thought, and very soon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Clowns In Copenhagen

A trip to Copenhagen and the World Conference on Global Warming was not on my "to do" list, not by a long shot. However, Sir Harry had said that certain of his colleagues had requested my presence, and hence, "no" would not do. Apparently my expertise was sought, involving key sniper positions that could come into play should something untoward occur. Having bargained for first class airfare, and successful in this, off I went.

Once there, I immediately saw a definite plus. In an act of insane Danish political correctness, all Christmas shrubbery had been removed from the site -- couldn't offend the burka-and sari-wearing set you know. But such shrubbery might have been used to hide IED's or whatever, to the detriment of delegates' health, so what you loses on the roundabouts, you gain on the swings. So I set about discussing with the appropriate security personnel the likely spots where trouble could erupt, and without much ado, agreement was reached. It is always a relief to work with competent professionals. Such people have very direct reporting lines that bypass the usual middle and upper management types who's whole existence lies in the necessity of putting their oars in, usually screwing up whatever is being proposed.

Back at my temporary quarters at the British Consulate, I reflected on the Conference, the reflection aided by a bottle of Grey Goose Sir Harry had thoughtfully provided. (He does have his good points.) First off, I have no doubt that global warming is occurring, although this would be a hard sell right now in Alberta -- average temperature minus 30 degrees Celsius. And yes, I am aware of certain e-mails that indicate certain disagreements among the scientists studying the matter. Who knew that scientists occasionally differ? No, my argument is that such warming is part of forces that we can do little to influence.

In short, the delegates seem blissfully unaware of the cosmic forces they intend to rein in. The last ice age we experienced is still in retreat, and of course the world is warming up. In time, the situation may come about that currently-frozen Alberta might once again experience the 40 degree Celsius temperatures that allowed dinosaurs to happily roam about. Hence, in my opinion, time could much more usefully focussed on adaptive strategies. If given some planning time, we as a race have proved rather adept at formulating and enacting these. Mind you, if the cosmos suddenly began to play really dirty pool, we would be in the position of looking skyward, noting something huge hurtling our way, and left with nothing but "What the fu--"

So going on and on about greenhouse gases, carbon capture, L.E.D. bulbs, cap and trade, or whatever, seems a total waste of time. The earth, (and the cosmic forces that enable its existence) is oblivious to the pleas of the Copenhagen delegates, however earnest they be. It is as if a person screamed at the universe "I exist!" to which the universe replied, "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't feel any sense of obligation."

Unless....there is another game being played entirely. Carbon capture is going to raise a gazillion taxpayer dollars, particularly where cap and trade is concerned. Might the whole thing be a gigantic money grab? And then I had a zero at the bone sensation a la Emily Dickinson. Who was it some time ago that argued forcefully for the capping and trading of carbon? My memory is not what it was....then I had it.


Enough said.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Analysis, Interrupted

The following message came in from Sir Harry on the secure line: "The Russians are herding whales off the coast of Vladivostok. Why? And no, you're not going there. Analysis only. Usual rate."

I felt like hurling back Alford Korzybski's observation that the map is not the territory, but since my little promotion to the Analysis Department, I felt I better not push things. Anyway, I had some contacts in the area that would at least get me a picture of just what was afoot.

After some back and fill, and calling in some markers, I learned that the Russian navy had indeed corralled some whales. Five Minkes and four Humpbacks, to be specific. Further investigation indicated that the research was tied into their submarine program. This did not surprise -- Russia and submarines was a romance that too often ended in tears. Remember the Kursk? Obviously they were attempting to learn from pros just how to submerge and float with ease.

As I wrote Sir Harry, this would not work, and he needn't worry. It is always unwise to copy nature exactly. For instance, early attempts at emulating bird flight went nowhere. We only learned to fly by bolting a 400 horsepower engine onto the equivalent of a barn door. Nature never went in this direction. I mean, how would such a creature feed itself? What was important was to suss out the underlying principles, and work from there.

Just as I was to expand on this aspect, Irving, my butler and minder, entered, all apologetic. He knows I hate being interrupted when I'm on a Sir Harry assignment, so whatever it was would be of some importance.

"There is a woman," he began, "who claims to be your cousin."

"I don't have any cousins...wait. There is one. But she is deep in some godforsaken town in Iowa, if she's still alive. We never got along. Are you telling me --"

"Her name is Prudence Smith," Irving continued. "I put her in the drawing room."

"Well, needs must," I sighed, and we trotted downstairs, there to meet a very ruffled Prudence, her face flushed, and glaring at Irving. "That man," she said icily, "touched me!"

"Quick search for a weapon," Irving said dispassionately.

Oh, my, I thought. Prudence, I began to recall, was modest. I mean, so much so that she would eat a banana sideways. And her outfit! Ill-fitting jacket, and a dress that was more a tent than an item of apparel. On the other hand, I was in my comfy but very unstylish sweatsuit, so I was not in a position to comment.

"Prudence," I said. "Welcome. It's been, how many, twenty years? Twenty-five?"

"Thirty-one," she replied.

"And what prompted you --"

"I am attending a convention in the city. The World Temperance Union. And since I knew you lived nearby, I took a cab here. Something very disturbing has happened that involves one of your children. You must deal with it."

"Do go on." What the hell was she talking about?

"In the hotel, I made the mistake of turning on the television. There is a religious program on at eight that I don't like to miss. Instead, I got something called CSA --"

"CSI probably. Unless you were watching a program on the Confederate States of America."

"Anyway, there was a body. All bloody. And Simone, it was Victoria!"

"How on earth would you know that? You've never even seen her."

"I follow all the family", she said primly. "Our pastor encourages close family ties. So I keep a scrapbook, and get in touch with all family members. They send me pictures."

All this was news to me. "Well, I never sent you any pictures."

"I never asked for any. Considering what you do for a living."

"I raise sugar beets," I retorted.

"And kill. But I've always thought you were a lost cause. But you children can be saved. They can be protected. And Victoria should not be shamelessly exhibiting her body that way. Disgusting. You'll have to tell her to stop it."

"I have."


"I've already had a conversation with Vicky on the matter. She uses her little film career to supplement her income. It allows her to attend various seminars, and give papers. Right now she is in Boston, I believe, presenting a thesis on the decline of Western Christendom."

"The she is lost as well. You're probably proud of her."

"As a matter of fact, I am. I'm proud of all my children. All four. One of each."

"What does that mean?'

"Oh, you'll figure it out. In time. Anything else? Care for a cup of tea? Something stronger?"

"Nothing. You can call me a taxi."

"I can have Ahmed drive you back to your hotel."

Prudence flinched. "Ahmed? I think not. A taxi will do."

Shortly after, she flounced out.

I looked at Irving.

He looked at me.

"Lord protect us from protectors," I said.

"Amen," he replied.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Moll At The Mall

I had a spot of trouble recently. Not entirely my fault, but it might have been avoided. Just can't see how -- you be the judge.

I was on the way back from an excellent lunch with some colleagues in The Trade, during which we had evolved a solution for Iran. Can't relate the details, other than to mention that the cost would be minimal, and the results spectacular. The proposed action, involving a sound cleric's discussion of where Islam had gone off the rails, would certainly "kindle" a highly revolutionary flame. Further deduction of the precise technique I leave to you; enough information is given.

Anyway, as I reclined in the back seat of the Bentley, I thought the proposal had a chance, particularly given the low cost aspect. Suddenly, I felt a twinge, cursed, and spoke to my driver.

"Ahmed, I need something at a pharmacy. Soon." The Gucci purse I had was tamponless.

"My lady, we're not far from a major mall. Should be one there. But Irving said not to let you out in a public place. I will get the item for you."

"Not this item you won't, and Irving occasionally takes his protectiveness too far. I will be fine."

Shortly after, Ahmed dropped me at the mall entrance. I quickly made my way to a drug mart, obtained what I wanted, and headed for the nearest washroom. Even in my haste, I couldn't help noticing that, at least at two in the afternoon, the mall had been taken over by the senior set. Everywhere one looked were rickety individuals trundling about with canes, walkers, Zimmers, and various kinds of electronic conveyances. I assume as the day wore on they would be replaced by hordes of teenagers, but for now, the difference between the mall and a seniors home would be difficult to tell. Who knew?

The washroom was at the end of narrow, extended corridor. I entered, unzipped my skirt, and, well, that's enough about that. Suffice it to say that God was back in His "undisclosed location", and all was right with the world.

Not entirely.

As I emerged, I was confronted with three of the brothers, one brandishing a Smith and Wesson. Oh dear, I thought, reaching quickly into my purse and grasping my own Glock 9mm. This was going to get messy. Must have been my outfit -- the Armani skirt, Burberry jacket, the Gucci purse already referred to -- here would be easy and profitable pickings.

I looked up, and saw the gunman's eyes widen. I had seen that look before, too many times, and dove, rolling to one side as far as I could. Gunfire erupted, and the gunman fell writhing to the ground. Some distance away, but directly behind where I had been standing, another person was stretched out, but he was not moving at all. Good shot, bro' I thought. That second person I realized had been aiming for me.

The sound of gunfire was still ringing in my ears. Before anyone realized just what had happened, I decided to get out of there as quickly as I could. I calmly walked into a nearby store, Champagne and Ice, I think, and hid among the party frocks until things subsided a bit. I had no desire to be interviewed by a mall cop, let alone a real one. Too many awkward explanations.

I managed to leave by a side entrance, walked around to the Bentley, and ordered Ahmed to get moving. As we left, four police cruisers were entering, along with a vehicle marked RCMP.

Later, back at the Manor, I duly received a tongue lashing from Irving. I also learned that the person behind me had been shot dead (not really a surprise to me) and that the gunman who had shot him, though wounded, was now being considered some kind of hero. (Wonder how he explained the Smith and Wesson?) Apparently the guy who had me briefly in his sights turned out to be an Al Qaeda assassin. Alleged, of course, although Irving said that he was the real thing.

Does go to show, however, that malls can be interesting places. And a further thought. I recalled that after the gunfire, all the seniors had suddenly disappeared. Speedily and effectively. So I guess there is truth to the adage, as you head downhill, you pick up speed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Prince Pops By

Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall were in town recently, and the Prince had requested a meeting. He had been to visit the UK program where my sugar beets were being studied as a future bio-fuel, and wanted to learn more.

Arrangements were duly made, and we took tea at the British Consulate, far from the madding crowd of paparazzi and rabid republican protesters. (These republicans are idiots: the monarchy gives enormous stability, with the nasty stuff all confined to the prime minister level, where it rightly belongs. As you know, I tried to tell Hamid Karzai this, but no, he couldn't see that by giving up power for ceremony he could become a much beloved statesman. Vanitas, vanitas, omnes vanitas.

The Prince was in good spirits, and we had a good chat. Camilla was off learning about long-horned beetles, or some other insect, I've forgotten which, so Charles and I could get right at it. He had done his homework, and complimented me on the management of my various sugar beet holdings.

"No union problems?" he inquired.

"Goodness no," I replied. "All the workers own shares, so there's no division between management and labour. After all, they are just as important as the sugar beets they grow. Should you have occasion to go to Ukraine, do have a discussion with Bohdan, my manager there. Nothing like seeing at first hand."

We then discussed the bio-fuel project, which was coming along nicely, and he was impressed with the environmental aspects of the initiative. This, I gathered, was Charles' Big Thing, along with some opinionated views on modern architecture. Soon, however, his princely duties called, and we parted. His last words, however, disturbed somewhat.

"Lovely to meet you, Lady Simone, and Sir Harry sends his regards."

Bloody hell. Sir Harry mucking about with royalty. On the other hand, Charles was the future King, so I guess keeping him somewhat in a very nasty loop was necessary.

Back at the Manor, I reflected a bit on Charles. His first marriage was, of course, a disaster; a more mis-matched couple I found hard to imagine, short of Stephen Hawking suddenly proposing to Paris Hilton. The marriage lasted a lot longer than I thought it would, given the serious gap between how Diana saw the world and Charles saw the world, and both perhaps were blameless, yet both also responsible for a number of acts better not committed. And certainly no one foresaw the tragic ending of it all.

Bah. Getting morose. I made a serious martini, and thought of my own marriage to Lord Strunsky. This heartened. We were in all things equal, and delighted in each other's perceptions. That's the way it should be. Even if he wore that silly ring on his left ear. Then I recalled an observation made by my good friend, Rita Rudner: "I think men who have a pierced ear are better prepared for marriage. They've experienced pain and bought jewellery."

Says it all, really.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

An Atrocious Act

The other day, while scanning a number of news sources, I came across the following: "My opinion is the very nature of the country begets speculation, extravagance, failures and rascality. Everything is chance, everything is gambling."

Wow! Who the hell wrote that? Well, it turned out that the writer was a general involved in that wee tussle known as the American Civil War, William Tecumseh Sherman, taking issue with life in the USA.

I thought he was talking about the Indian Act of Canada.

This was on my mind in that one S. Harper had asked for a brief analysis of this particular piece of legislation, and what might be done. I won't bore you with the long version of what I fired off to him, but can give you the highlights.

The Indian Act came into being in 1856, signed by Canada and approved by Britain, or, as the Indians of the day said, "The Great White Mother Across The Sea." (Victoria should have known better. Albert certainly would have raised more than a few issues). The Act was overhauled in 1951, and amended since from time to time, but it still remains a horror story.

There are, in my opinion, two root causes for the Act's dysfunction. It isolates the First Nations peoples (the term Indian is not on, correcting a mistake made by Christopher Columbus) from the rest of the populace, and it gives government largesse without requiring anything in return.

The first cause results in a classic we/they dichotomy to no ones' benefit, and the concept of containing the tribes on alcohol and drug-ridden reservations really has no place in the 21st century. The second cause is soul destroying in its bias towards life-long dependency. Worse, the largesse is handled abysmally. Every First Nation man, woman or child gets something in the order of $30,000 per year, but damn few women or children get that -- the Band Chiefs see to that.

What to do?

I advised Mr. Harper to scrap the thing in its entirety, giving all First Nations People a one off payment. To accomplish this, he would need a majority in the House of Commons --the howls of outrage from the Chiefs, aided and abetted by the NDP, would be stupendous -- and hence his goal should be to get that majority when he can. His area of expertise, not mine.

The analysis was well-received, but no promises were made. Sherman would have understood that.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Little Green Shoots

I will be first to admit that the world all too often resembles a darkling plain, where ignorant armies clash by night, to borrow shamelessly from Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach. Lately, however, I have been encouraged by a number of little green shoots that have popped up. Not those "green shoots" cited by optimistic economists with respect to the current financial mess -- that will continue for some time -- but rather others somewhat less obvious. To wit:

1) The proposed Asian Song Festival. This surfaced in that austere and fact-checked magazine The Economist, and hence has some validity. It is, of course, a riff on the Eurovision Song Contest, and is a much sounder (sorry about that) way to push national rivalries than shooting, beheading or bombing. Good on Asia, although I do recall that, in the Eurovision thing, the French are still mightily pissed off that Abba won the contest with their song Waterloo. On the other hand, no one went to war.

2) The advent of the mobile phone and its ability to effect monetary transfers is doing wonders at cutting down bribery and graft, particularly for those less well off. The cash actually goes where it was meant to, without being interrupted by various and venal government officials or third party parasites looking for a cut.

3) Finally, where my work in international intelligence is concerned, I have been promoted. Sir Harry has informed me that I am now in charge of a unit entitled "Special Circumstances". Does the name Pavlov ring a bell, I thought, because this term certainly did, resulting in this exchange between Sir Harry and myself.

"Yes, Simone," he said. Did I detect a faint note of trepidation?

"First, the promotion is welcome, along with the salary rise. But the term "Special Circumstances" -- Harry, have you been reading Iain Banks again? I warned you about that. His world view, his "Culture", is not ours."

"Worthy goal, though."

"Moot," I replied. "And I understand this is more an analytical job than field work. What of replacements --"

"Several are being trained as we speak. One in particular shows promise, but we shall see. Oh, and your advice to Hamid Karzai about power sharing was well-received by all."

"Yeah, but not by Hamid himself. Silly man is going for a second election."

"Doesn't detract from your thesis." Hah! I thought. This is typical Sir Harry, who once thought an agent's entry into a country was super brilliant. The guy had parachuted down in the middle of a soccer game in Bolivia, landing right in the centre of the pitch. Of course, the guy was apprehended immediately, but Harry had given him full marks for imagination. As SNL's Amy Poelher and Seth Myers would say: Really?

"Still," I said, "a pity. Another election won't really do the job."

"But Simone," Harry replied, "you're forgetting an adage you once hurled at me."

"And just what adage might that be?"

"From Will Rogers. 'No matter who you elect, the government gets in.'"

All right. So occasionally Sir Harry wins one.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Of Kabul, Karzai and Kooks

Got in late last night from Kabul, where, at the request of Sir Harry, I met with Hamid Karzai. While this was going on, apparently all of North America, and a goodly portion of the rest of the world, was watching a balloon containing a small child fly through the sky. The whole thing was a hoax, of course, something that should have been immediately apparent given the whacko family behind it. But no, the hoax worked all too well. Lots of other examples, mind you, both at the macro level (religion) or the micro (tree policy in Toronto). The perpetrators? Kooks, all of them.

But back to Afghanistan, and Hamid Karzai. I had never been in Kabul before (Kandahar is a different story) and recalled Lord Strunsky's father and his description of Kabul as "the Paris of Central Asia." This was said sometime around 1945, and indeed, the city prospered until the early Seventies. My husband, the late Lord Strunsky, remembered in the Sixties the well kept gardens, working fountains, and young Afghan women attending Kabul University, many sporting flowing locks and mini-skirts.

This lasted until 1978, when a very effective Prime Minister, Sardar Mohammed Daoud Khan, was killed in a Communist coup, whereupon things went steadily downhill and reached rock bottom with the arrival of the Taliban.

Karzai knew all this -- the man is not stupid -- and wanted to know how to bring all this earlier success back, minus of course the girls apparel -- that would be a hem line too far.

Apparently he had read my earlier synopsis of the situation (courtesy of Sir Harry?) and its thesis of ring-fencing the country for a time, and settling things on the Afghan border with the tribal areas of Pakistan via special forces, satellite-guided missiles, and a big push from the Pakistan army. I told him to take heart, indicating that Pakistan had woken up to the fact that the Taliban were lusting after those nuclear armaments and once had gotten a mite too close to Islamabad for comfort. So they were on the attack even as we met. Gently, however, I suggested that he himself had some decisions to make.

"Hamid, you are in a bit of a bind. The recent election was a tad more than flawed, you are far to close to certain narcotic-driven warlords, and little of government largess actually reaches the people. Hence, I offer the following strategy. Become a second Daoud Khan."

"What do you mean?" he asked hesitantly. (Everything the man does or says is done or said hesitantly).

"Become President, and make Dr. Abdullah your Prime Minister. Let him sort out the tribal alliances, something he knows a lot about. You trot about distributing goodies, attending international meetings, and cut ribbons here and there. In effect, a father of the country, standing above the nasty, and sometimes downright dirty, fray."

"But the UN wants another election --"

"The minute you and Dr. Abdullah come to an agreement, the UN will heave a gigantic sigh of relief, shower Afghanistan with money, and leave."

"But I would have to decide --"

"Yes, you would have to decide."

And there we left it.

Bah. They don't pay me enough.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Rewarding Possibility

Finally back at the Manor, after a grand sojourn with the Compte de Rienville that involved some ballooning and barging in Belgium (among other things). So relaxation was in order, and this involved a challenging chess game with my butler and minder, Irving. He had used the Reti opening, and I was pondering the Traxler Variation in response when my gardener Consuela and her husband (and my handyman) Ahmad burst in with two pieces of news.

"We're going to have a baby!" said Consuela ecstatically.

"Barack Obama has just won the Nobel Peace Prize!" said Ahmad, less ecstatically, but still with some fervour.

I doubted a causal relationship between these two events, but offered my congratulations on the first announcement, and said I would have to think about the second.

"Of course," said Consuela, "there will be the child's education to consider. Now a good Catholic school would be nice....And my little girl would look so cute in a white blouse and kilt..."

"Well," said Ahmad, "a boy can really profit from a good Muslim education..."

" A yeshiva never hurt anyone," put in Irving.

At that point I fled, muttering again that when religion tends to creep into a conversation, everything deteriorates faster than Lindsay Lohan in the grip of Grey Goose vodka. I wound up in my study, slammed on Shostakovich's Fifth (inner turmoil matching outer turmoil and all that) and pondered the giving of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama.

It was, I thought, strange, and established an odd precedent. If grammatical terminology be used, this was the future conditional tense rather than the past perfect. Other winners had all done something, whether the winners were people -- Lester Pearson, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, or poor Aung San Suu Kyi, (still in the grip of those thugs in Myanmar) or organizations such as Medicins Sans Frontieres. Even Henry Kissinger won, although I would be loath to let the man win anything. Obama has yet, in my opinion, to do.

Another oddity came to mind. Did the Nobel Committee award the prize for the simple reason that Barack Obama wasn't George Bush? And would future prizes be awarded on the grounds of who you were not? The possibilities here are endless. Will the person who next comes to power in Zimbabwe get a prize for not being Robert Mugabe? Will the next ruler in North Korea get one for not being the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. You see what I mean.

Finally, I thought, the decision might be more based on hope than any thing else. And perhaps this is OK. After all, as in chess, it will be the end game that matters. And one should not forget that humans are smarter than people think.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Being Real About Real Estate

Apologies for being somewhat late with this missive. Sir Harry had called with a request -- well, actually an order -- and it took some time to get all the ducks in order. He needed three safe houses in various spots in and around Toronto, and needed them within the month, bought, paid for and secure.

"And pigs will fly, Harry" I said flatly.

"It's a simple request."

"No, it is not," I replied. "It is anything but simple. Real estate agents will be involved, as well as lawyers, inspectors, municipal government officials --"

"Why the hell would they be involved?"

"Ah, Sir Harry, the Mayor of Toronto in his rapacious need for revenue to support the homeless and bicycles, has created a land transfer tax -- "

"Details, Ernestine. Details." (Ernestine is my code name that Harry dreamt up in a weak moment.) "See to it. Her Majesty's Government will be grateful.

"How grateful?"

"That concession in Norfolk you want for your sugar beet adventures might become available."

Now that changed things somewhat, but one question concerned me. "Sir Harry, if I did manage to get the houses, and even managed to make them secure, just who would mind them? You just can't leave them vacant. Raises awkward questions."

Sir Harry replied, "Not to worry. three young couples from...well, never mind where they're from. Occupancy will not be a problem."

"Oh, and these young folk will simply sail through Canadian immigration?"

"Already taken care of. We've made an arrangement with the appropriate officials. Involved doing some free fix work on those wonky submarines we sold to Canada. Delight all round. Now get to work on those houses."

My next call was to Don Guido, on his secure line.

"Bella. Always a pleasure. But unexpected. The score, as I recall, is even."

"And will stay that way. This will be a tit for tat. Cosi fan tutte, as it were."

"That's not entirely accurate, but let it go. What are you after?"

I explained my need for three houses, along with the need to make them secure."

"Just how secure?" asked Don Guido.

"As your own home. Steel, reinforced concrete, the works. But not the internal systems. I will arrange that myself. And the exteriors should look entirely normal, Don Mills Functional if you will. No charming architectural wonders."

There was a lengthy silence, after which Don Guido said, "There is a possibility I could help. But Bella, if this is the tit, what is the tat?"

"Twenty per cent of the Calabria sugar beet farm."

"Forty per cent."

"Thirty per cent."

"Thirty-five percent" said Don Guido.

"Done," I replied. "I will have my lawyers draw up the necessary."

"Still using Lambaste, Lambaste and Scruem?"


"Good firm, that. In fact, I have a nephew --"

"I don't want to know. Now Don Guido, you know that various permits will be required --"

"And various people will profit. Or other arrangements will be made. My area, not yours."

"Well, then, we can proceed. And all this, as I am sure you would agree, falls under the Einstein equation."

"E = mc squared?"

"Not exactly. Let us just say that if A is success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x, y is play, and z is keeping your mouth shut."

"Brava, bella. May you have long life."

And that was that.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Of Prizes and Politics

I had been watching television (never a good thing; the word is half Latin, half Greek) and then discussing certain aspects of politics with my friend and lover, the Compte de Rienville. In America, the whole political arena appeared to be filled with wolves.

"You mean, as in Kipling, in The Jungle Books?" said the Compte.

"Not even. Those wolves had an ethos. Akela, Raksha, Grey Brother, they all followed a moral code, and straying from that code was ill advised. Listen:

'For this is the law of the wolf pack,
As old and as true as the sky;
Those that do keep it will prosper,
But those that do break it will die.'"

The Compte said, "Sounds pretty harsh to me."

"Only if the code is broken. Now, in many places in the world, the code itself has been shattered. Look at America. Poor Obama-Akela is at his wits end trying to corral that Bandar Log known as Congress. As for Russia, well, there we are dealing with Putin-Shere Khan. And in Zimbabwe --"

"Enough, Simone. Your point is made."

I shut up, and curled up closer. We were in a suite the Compte had obtained at the Georges Cinq in Paris, courtesy of one of his D.G.S.E. contacts. Wonderful set of rooms, delicious food and drink, and that edible dress I had purchased from Sebastian in New York had really proved its worth. As the Compte had remarked, it was not often that two primal urges, to eat and make love, could be satisfied at the same time. Or, if you were very skilled, simultaneously. And the Compte was very skilled.

What had brought me to France was the fact that my Ukrainian sugar beet holding had won first prize for producing better sugar beets than anyone else. Thus, Strunsky Enterprises was the proud recipient of the Golden Sugar Beet award, a beautiful trophy featuring a healthy sugar beet balanced somehow on top of a pyramid. The ceremony was held at Versailles, for a French concern had won a subsidiary prize, for most attractive sugar beet. (Are we surprised?)

I had chartered an aircraft, and brought all the workers down from Lviv for the event. I mean, it was their award, and their work, that was being rewarded. Yes, I take my 10 per cent, for providing the original finance, but the rest belongs to them. Would that certain bankers and financiers -- but I digress.

My Ukrainian supervisor, Bohdan, accepted the award, and spoke well and graciously on behalf of the workers. It was all good.

So maybe things will turn around in this wolf-like world we live in, and a code of ethics see the light again. Not for nothing had Lord Baden-Powell turned to Kipling when seeking a moral underpinning for his Boy Scout movement. In this regard, Tom Lehrer's somewhat scabrous words flashed into my mind, and I leave you with them:

"Be prepared! That's the boy scout's marching song;
Be prepared as through life you march along.
Don't solicit for your sister, that's not nice,
(Unless you get a good percentage of her price)
Be prepared, to hide that deck of cigarettes,
Don't take book, if you cannot cover bets,
And if you're looking for adventure, of a new and different kind,
And you meet a little girl scout who's similarly inclined,
Don't be nervous, don't be flustered, don't be scared --
Be prepared!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nuance in New York

Off to New York, to see my son Sebastian's new line of Fall clothes. Somehow Sir Harry had heard of this (Harry is good at hearing things) and asked me to transport something to one Lin Po. He of Chinese Intelligence.

"You have met before, I think." Sir Harry said.

"Yes. In Nome. At the Idatrod. Where the husky was wounded." I could sense Harry shuddering.

"That was unfortunate, and best forgotten," he said abruptly. "Now a very small package should arrive within the hour. Normally I would use diplomatic channels, but this is --"

"Extremely sensitive, and probably well off the official record," I interrupted. "But since America has started its little Homeland Security adventure, this will take some ingenuity. And double the fee. Or some help in obtaining that sugar beet concession in Kent."

Sir Harry sighed, "Given the state of Her Majesty's Government right now, I'll opt for the fee. Do well."

And that was that. The package duly arrived, a small marble about a half inch in diameter, containing God knows what in microchip format. So off I went, and there was no problem at customs. Women simply have a myriad of places to hide stuff on, or in, their persons, and it would take something much more elaborate than an airport scanner to detect where that marble was secreted. Smiling sweetly at the wand-waving airport officer just helped everything along.

After a nice lunch at Sardis, it was off to Sebastian's, where I purchased a number of items, including a sheath dress that was made out of some vegetable thingy and was entirely edible. This raised a number of intriguing possibilities, something I would explore with the Comte de Rienville. And soon.

Arrangements with meeting Lin Po involved the Rockefeller Center, and I duly arrived there, or at 30 Rock as it was better known. At least since Tina Fey's TV show. I have never met the woman, although I admire her work. I have, however, met her doppelganger, Sarah Palin. ("I can see everything from my house!") In fact, it had been Palin who had wounded the husky mentioned above. Contrary to her PR, she is a terrible shot. But I digress.

A limo pulled up, and out popped the chauffeur. This was, of course, Lin Po himself, he being no slouch at being perceived as a non-entity. We chatted at the side of the limo, knowing that the diplomatic plates would keep the N.Y.P.D. at bay. At least for a short time. I have found over the years that you can push the N.Y.P.D. a bit. But only a bit. Then they push back. Hard. So Lin and I had better be quick.

I gave him the marble, for which he proffered thanks.

"And my best to Sir Harry, as well." he added. "And I have something for you. It should fit on your fourth finger, right hand."

Does his homework, does Lin Po. And the ring was beautiful, an iridescent opal centered by four tiny golden clasps.

"Might I ask --"

"You may. The information in the opal contains certain land holdings that may be favourable for sugar beet growth. You would still have to go through official channels, but this data will save you considerable time in research. And any proposal would be looked at kindly."

"As, no doubt, would my value as a conduit."

Lin Po's expression did not change, and, not for the first time, I thought that the expression 'po-faced' had originated with him, or at least one of his ancestors. "As for future value," he said, "that's as may be. It could be that things are slowly getting out of control, and the relay of essential information will become crucial. As Louis XIV put it, "Apres moi le deluge."

"Wrong," I said with some heat. "It was not even Louis XV, as most sources relate, but his mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, better known as Madame de Pompadour. And what she actually said was 'Apres nous le deluge'. This is the sort of thing that happens when men write the history books. Check it out."

Lin Po said, "I had forgotten your penchant for details."

"Details like liberty, brotherhood, and equality."

"Now Lady Simone," Lin replied as he re-entered his vehicle, "let us not carp. And as for liberty, wasn't it the American, Will Rogers as I recall, who wrote 'Liberty doesn't work as well in practice as it does in speeches?'"

Then he drove away. With Lin Po, you had to be satisfied with a draw.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Electing The Elect

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." So wrote John Keats of autumn, but his fine ode would have unlikely be written had he been in Canada. Here, you see, autumn is celebrated by having an election, whether that election is needed or not. And the one being projected is definitely not needed, and every non-Tory candidate that hoves into view should be asked one key question: "Given the global meltdown, just what on earth would you have done differently?" This will produce silence, of course, and you should cast your ballot accordingly.

Moreover, the cost of this running of the reptiles is roughly $300,000,000, begging a further comment: "Recession? What recession?"

That said, I still have doubts that an election will occur. After all, there are some 98 MP's who, if they lose their seat, would also lose their parliamentary pensions (you need to retain your seat for six years to qualify) and many of these creatures are making the most money they ever have in their life -- or will again. This would change radically in autumn of 2010, but for now..... I also wondered why this fact is not more reported on, but then it occurred to me that any reporter who brought this into the open would lose any chance of ever being appointed to that wondrous Canadian Valhalla -- the Senate. Myself aside, few would risk that.

Now to another election. My colleague Code Barry has just returned from Afghanistan, where he was monitoring, well, something. Certainly not an open and honest election. From him I learned the following:

* Over four times the ballots were returned than had actually been issued;
*They were returned in job lots of 200, 300 and 500, numbers which defy logic (although not neatness);
* In one case, Karzai received 700 votes from a district deep in Taliban-held territory. Great, except for one small fact: the polling station never opened; and,
* There is no word in Dari or Pushtu for "scrutineer".

Given this, it really is time for NATO and the USA to get the hell out of there, given the proviso outlined in my September 1 entry.

Mind you, elections are always tricky, in that it is the counting, not the voting, that is the rub. Just look at the American debacles of 2000 and 2004. Then, if memory serves, there was 1948, where Lyndon Johnson won his Senate primary only after the state Democratic committee voted to certify the ballots of dozens of loyal supporters.

Who, as it happened, were all dead.

I wonder what Keats would have thought about all this?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Once More Into The Breach -- Not.

Sir Harry called on the secure line, with a request. Apparently he and certain international colleagues were getting together to sort out Afghanistan, and he wanted my input.

"This meeting. Can I go?"



"Directors only. And you can be very upsetting at times."

"Directors only? Goodness, something might actually happen. Oh, and tell Robert Gates that I still haven't received that case of Dom Perignon for that nonsense in Minsk."

Sir Harry broke the connection.

I didn't bother asking where the meeting was being held, (Sir Harry wouldn't have told me anyway) although it would be some five star hotel or resort somewhere. They live well, do Directors of Intelligence.

After some thought, I wrote a piece and fired it off. This is the gist of it.

Where Afghanistan is concerned, the major focus should be on getting the hell out. It is, as history tells, the place where Empires go to die. Just ask the Brits. Or the Russians. Or for that matter, ask Alexander the Great. Yes, I understood why NATO and the U.S. was in there in the first place -- the Taliban wouldn't give up Osama bin Laden, but as I (and Sir Harry) know, the bunker bombs on Tora Bora took him out on the second day of the war. And the Taliban weren't going to invade anyone. Their own internecine clan warfare is quite enough, and they simply lack the wherewithal, both in military hardware and will, to think of moving too far beyond their borders. They tried this in Pakistan, but when they got too close to Islamabad, Pakistan decided to act. Bye bye Taliban. They also want nothing to do with Western women, who terrify them. I mean, what if their own burka-clad women suddenly saw that there was another role model? No, in Afghanistan they are, and there they will stay.

Al Qaeda is an entirely different kettle of fish. They do have resources, and the will to use them. But the plotting that led to the catastrophe of the World Trade Centre had little to do with Afghanistan. Hell, most of the plot was thought out in Europe, Germany in particular. So keep up the vigilance, and as the plots stand up, knock them down. That's what intelligence agencies are all about.

As for Afghanistan, bring the NATO and American boys and girls home, but not before sending this message to the various warlords and tribal elders in both Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan: "If we have knowledge that an Al Qaeda-like training facility has been constructed, expect a satellite-guided missile right down your throat."

What, you might ask, will happen to the Afghan women? Nothing good, would be my response, but as I have noted before, it is the women themselves that must throw off their chains. This will take time, but we did it and so can they. And yes, with the departure of NATO and the Americans, tribal warfare will erupt, and things will return to normal, as it has been in Afghanistan for hundreds of years, and change will only come slowly. As an Afghanistan saying puts it, "A Pushtun waited for 100 years, then took his revenge. It was quick work."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Grecian Reflection

A good friend of mine, who was also an editor of a widely-circulated magazine, called me and asked if I would write a short piece on the Kennedy Era, an Era drawn to a close with the death of Ted Kennedy.

I was reluctant to do this, for several reasons, not the least of which was that I never met any of the Kennedys, and would be writing from sources, not personal experience. (This would not be true of Lord Strunsky's father, who had an almost visceral hatred of Joseph Kennedy, a hatred he shared with Churchill.) In any event, I declined, but this did not stop me from reflecting.

My first thought, when I considered the most recent Kennedy to pass away, was a line from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus: "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight." There is little doubt in my mind that Ted Kennedy was set for the American presidency, until that horrific night at Chappaquiddick, a night that killed that possibility forever. (And really killed the unfortunate Mary Jo.) It is not my job to re-hash the details, other than to state that almost anyone else other than Ted would have been crushed. Period. Full stop.

But Ted continued on, and over the years, in the U.S. Senate, attempted to 'straighten' that branch. In doing so, the man achieved, if not redemption, at least a record of real accomplishment. And if his Senate work on universal health care can be brought to fruition....well.

Yet if you widen the scope on the Kennedy family, the whole tale plays out as if drawn from a Greek tragedy. Something along the lines of the House of Atreus, where most of the major players are doomed from the start. Yes, there is success: Jack becomes a beloved President, and entrances the world when he stated in a beleaguered Berlin, "Ich bin ein Berliner!" (Although, given his Massachusetts accent, the phrase came out as "I am a donut!" The Berliners attending were quick to forgive.) Less happy was his statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." This is perilously close to Horace's "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" [It is a sweet and noble thing to die for your country] something Siegfried Sassoon rightly termed "the old lie."

Then Bobby, who wanted to go after corruption, and as Attorney General, did. And would have pursued this even more fiercely as President. Well, said the Cosa Nostra, we can't have that. And they didn't.

So it may well turn out that the most lasting Kennedy legacy will be left to Ted, with the provision of affordable health cars for all Americans. In this he has switched from a Greek setting to one of the Old Testament, as Moses pointing to the Promised Land, but not allowed to go to it. And just who will the Joshua be to achieve this?

To that, I think we know the answer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Academic and Non-Academic Pursuits

My youngest, Victoria, dropped in for a few days. She had finished her thesis for an MA in History at Stanford, and wanted me to review it. No problem, and I was glad to see her still in one piece. You may recall that Victoria has a somewhat bizarre sideline, where she has perfected acting as a dead body for various American television shows. I thought this ridiculous, but could not deny that she received a good buck for being sliced, diced and mangled in all manner of ways.

I reviewed her work, and was impressed. She had argued well that while religion was at the basis of the Thirty Years War, the economics of the situation were far more important. Put differently, the religious issues (Catholic v. Protestant) were for public consumption; the real issues were decided by bankers, traders and merchants. Not unlike things today.

I did have one big quibble, and put to her the fact that she didn't give enough stress on the importance of the early Battle of the White Mountain (1620) and the brilliance of the Catholic commander, Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly. He was, I argued, streets ahead of his opposite number, Christian of Anhalt.

"Tilly was an outright bastard," Victoria said.

"Inglorious, you mean. Well so were they all. And Anhalt had the high ground on the mountain. No way he should have been defeated. He just didn't see the importance of the bridge. Tilly did. And why that battle was so important is that it led to three centuries of rule over Bohemia by the Hapsburg's. That should surface somewhere in your writing. And one other thing."

Victoria groaned.

"You miss one of the key outcomes of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia."

"And just what was that?"

"Now Vicky, no need to be snappish. What I am getting at is that at Westphalia, the principle of non-interference in a state's internal affairs surfaced for the first time. In fact, if you wanted to be really bold, you could draw a direct line from Westphalia to that ghastly mess in Rwanda. But better not. This would lead to a feeling of guilt on the part of your examiners, and this would not be to your benefit. But the principle could be highlighted."

Victoria was silent for a time, but then, in a complete non-sequitor, said, "I'm thinking of moving back up here."

"Wonderful! What brings this on? I thought your proximity to your little parts in film and television were of importance, and a lot of the work is in LA. "

"Oh, I'd fly down for that. In fact, I've got some more work in 'True Blood', and -- funny you mentioned inglorious bastards, or rather 'ingloreous basterds' -- I've been approached by some of Quentin Tarantino's people. They were impressed with the scene where the vampires --"

"I don't want to know. And as for Tarantino, he'll probably have you thrown into a threshing machine."

"How did you know?"

I looked at her, shocked.

"Oh, Mum, just kidding. But he is brilliant. Anyway, things are just getting too hairy in the States. You can just feel the hate, Republicans against Democrats. And every one's armed to the teeth. I just don't want to be there when things explode. "

"Vicky, you've forgotten your Churchill. As he put it, 'America usually gets it right, after she's exhausted all the alternatives.'"

"Maybe. But I'm still coming. And you've forgotten your friend Bill Maher, and his statement, 'Democrats have moved to the right, and Republicans have moved into a mental institution.'"



"Good to have you back."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Giving Perspective To Matilda

I had to cope with a rather distraught Matilda Hatt yesterday. All I knew was that she was furious with her immediate superior, whom she had dubbed Optimus Prime. (Tilly quite liked the Transformer movies.) I sent Ahmed in the Bentley to fetch her from the airport, something he was eager to do.

This was not always the case. Ahmed, being of a Middle East persuasion, was often singled out as he parked and waited for whatever personage was arriving. He would patiently explain to the officers that he was no relation to Bin Laden, had been a Canadian citizen for years, and indeed was married to a nice Catholic girl, an act that in certain areas of his homeland would result in him being beheaded. Eventually the officers, who all appeared to be retired drill sergeants trying desperately to fulfil a huge gap in their lives, would tell Ahmed to move on. This quite often resulted in his circling the airport and arriving again at his spot. Whereupon the whole process would start again.

Things were different now, thanks to the advent of the cell phone. Ahmed could wait, along with others doing the same thing, on a ramp just out of sight of the airport officers. When he received a call, he would know precisely the spot where the arrival was, zoom in and collect the person, and would then sail off, noting with pleasure the look of fury on the officers as they rushed to the pick-up spot, too late to harass.

So off he went to collect Tilly, and soon she had flounced into my study, demanded a healthy shot of Grey Goose, and began pacing around the room, venting. Big time.

"Simone, you're not going to believe this. I was all set to join a team to help out in the upcoming election in Afghanistan, and I was ready to kick ass. Get those Afghan women off their butts and into a polling station, and have them plump for any candidate that is pushing for their equality. And you know what Optimus did? She removed me from the team, with orders to take two weeks leave! The bitch!"

"I would have done the same thing."

"What! You've got to be kidding. After what we've been through? Simone, really."

"Tilly, stop pacing and sit down. By the way, I like the outfit." Tilly was dressed in a stylish black linen flared skirt and white blouse. It was a far cry from her usual army fatigues. Hell, I hadn't thought she even owned a skirt.

"Well, I'm meeting this guy later -- oh, stop it. You're trying to change the subject."

"Perhaps. But for now, just sit and listen for a bit."

Reluctantly Tilly folded herself into one of the big study armchairs, and I began. I explained that her "kicking ass" as she put it was precisely the wrong approach. You don't jump from the 9th century to the 21st that quickly. Just imagine, I asked her, if she was, oh, I don't know, say a serving wench in the 15th century who suddenly found herself thrust into the 21st. "You would be gobsmacked," I said. "What on earth would you do?"

"I would," Tilly replied, "get a job in a pub as a waitress. Some things never change. And then I would listen. And learn."

Good on Tilly, and she was right about the waitress job. A bum pinched in the 15th century is no different than one pinched in the 21st.

"So you would listen and learn," I continued. "Well, that's what you have to allow Afghan women to do. And it takes time. Look at Mary Wollenscraft. Look at Emmeline Pankhurst. And in Canada women were only considered legal persons in the 20th century."

"Really?" she said.

"Really. Look up Rosalie Abella on the topic. And this above all -- give them time. We needed it. So do they."

"I guess you're right," she said glumly. "God, some things are so hard."

"Progress is never easy. But where women are concerned, I have hope." I reached for a book. "This, Tilly, might give you hope as well. Emmeline Pankhurst said it. 'We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help free the other half.'"

And for the first time that day, Tilly smiled.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I Attend A Town Hall Health Care Meeting

From Nairobi to Chicago, leaving Hillary to go on to the Democratic (Hah!) Republic of Congo. Good luck with that. In Chicago, I undertook a small task for Sir Harry, who was helping out his American friends -- all five of them. This involved retrieving and dumping about $60 million dollars worth of heroin into Lake Michigan, all neatly wrapped in bags emblazoned with their point of origin, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. No doubt the number of blow fish will increase....

Having some time to kill before returning to the Manor, I decided to drop in on one of Barack Obama's town hall meetings, set up to explain universal health care to Americans. That evening found me in the wonderful town of Gary, Indiana. The meeting had just started when I slipped in the back. Two harassed congressmen were trying to make a case for revamping the horror story that is American health care, but were continually being shouted down by several people in the audience. Cries such as "Socialism on the march!", "We don't want our health care to be decided by government death panels!" and "It's a Canadian plot to take over our country!" filled the air.

Eventually the congressmen simply gave up, and those citizens who actually wanted to learn something were left none the wiser. As the meeting broke up, I heard several of the group that had caused the disruption say they were meeting across the street at Macy's.

Macy's turned out to be a rather seedy bar around the corner from the community centre where the meeting had been held. Sensing that there was more to all this than met the eye, I headed for Macy's as well. But not before taking precautions.

I wore a red flannel shirt tucked into a pair of Levis, and had on some rather scuffed boots (I had done the scuffing earlier in the day, sensing that Gucci would not be well received in this part of Gary). Before entering the bar, I fastened two buttons to my shirt. Over my left breast, I placed a button for the National Rifle Association; on the left, one in bold letters saying 'Truckers For Christ'. Sir Harry always was keen on an operative melding into a particular environment.

As I made my way forward, I was aware of several appreciative glances, and I had not been at the bar for ten seconds before one of the men had offered to buy. Seeing that all were Budweiser fans, I made a sacrifice and had the same. (We are a long way away from Laphroaig or Grey Goose). And then I listened.

They apparently could only stay in the bar for about an hour, because the bus that had brought them was set to leave at that time. All were delighted to be in Gary, and they were off to another town hall the next day, Des Moines, I think. What delighted them was the fact that not only were they receiving a small cash stipend to disrupt these meetings, they were also going to get deep discounts on any pharmaceutical drugs they might purchase, for the next three years. The bus and driver, you see, were paid for by a cartel of drug companies.

At this point I left the bar, headed for the rest room, and suddenly, and very violently, vomited. I had realized that the battle to give Americans a decent health care plan was not an uphill one, but more one that involved climbing a mountain akin to the Eiger.

But Obama knows this. Or so one must hope.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Of Bill And Hillary And Al and Walt

Sorry to be a bit late with this one. I have been out of the country, courtesy of Sir Harry (Lord, how that comes trippingly off the tongue) and the trip took longer than expected. My task was to deliver to Hillary Clinton certain obscure codes related to nuclear submarines, which raised the question of what Sir Harry got in return -- a kind of Rumsfeldian 'known unknown'. Well, time will tell -- too late as usual.

I thought it would be a quick trip to Foggy Bottom in Washington, but the woman had hared off to Nairobi, and hence things took a bit longer than expected. The codes were encrypted into a microchip, and although I was thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly, searched in Nairobi, the microchip was safely in....well, never mind where. So, a successful mission.

Hillary was also flushed with success. Apparently two reporters for Al Gore's TV station, Current, had strayed across the border between China and North Korea. Whether or not this was so is irrelevant -- the upshot was that they were seized and immediately fired off to Pyongyang for trial and a sentence of 12 years of hard labour. Why young women are continually and foolishly putting themselves into this sort of situation escapes me. Have they never read T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party?

So there were the two women, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, languishing in a Pyongyang jail, totally at the mercy of the Dear Leader, Kin Jong Il. As Hillary tells it, steps were immediately taken. She, Al, Bill and Barack got together, and through various back channels -- step forward, Sir Harry -- they determined what the Dear Leader really craved, the receipt of which would be a pardon for the two women. Kim, you see, had always gotten along fairly well with Bill Clinton, and wanted to see him again. (Kim had thought George Bush to be insane, to which I say, 'takes one to know one'.) And besides seeing Bill, he wanted a special gift. Apparently the Dear Leader is fixated on Disney films, and particularly wanted Snow White, The Little Mermaid and Cinderella. Bill agreed to bring the whole canon on DVD, but Kim said to not bring Fantasia -- the 'Night On Bald Mountain' segment scared the crap out of him.

All this was put in motion, and shortly after, success. Triples all round, a rare win-win situation for Washington. Even the Republicans stayed out of this one, busy as they were trying to prove that Obama's birth certificate was bogus. Oh, well, you can't have everything.

Hillary and I celebrated with some Grey Goose at the Embassy. However, one awkward moment arose when she asked me to tell her what she might be doing wrong.

"You're doing just fine."

"No, Simone, really."

"Well, you might consider, from time to time, wearing something else than a pant suit. A dress, a jumper, I don't know. I mean, you are an attractive woman. Such attractiveness can be a weapon, and weapons are there to be used."

"Point taken."

"But not just yet," I continued.

"What do you mean?"

"I have just learned that a woman has been arrested in Khartoum for wearing pants, and she's set for a flogging. So might I suggest something?"


"Send old Al-Bashir your picture in your pant suit, along with a note saying something along the lines of 'We're watching you, you old bugger.'"

"Simone, you're priceless."

"Yes, I am."

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"But what if honour pricks me off?"

Falstaff's speech on honour (Henry IV, Part I) was much in my mind after I received a frantic call from Matilda Hatt, my colleague in The Trade. She again was pushing the boundaries of the CIA, although I also knew that that organization wouldn't let her go. A crack shot, with superb martial arts skills, Tilly also had something exceedingly rare in bureaucracy -- imagination. In any event, she was calling from the Swat Valley in Pakistan, and wanted my help in re-locating some individuals. "They could," she tentatively suggested, "work in one of your sugar beet farms."

The individuals in question were four teen-age girls. According to Tilly, they had been badly battered, cut and bruised from being caught in a crossfire during Pakistan's attack upon The Taliban.

"Tilly," I said, "there were hundreds like that. Why these four?"

Tilly explained in an anger-tinged voice that, when found cowering under a large rock, the girls had then been treated for their injuries by a team from Medicins Sans Frontieres. They were now in good health, but couldn't return to their village.

I thought for a minute, then got it. "I suppose, Tilly, that they were treated by a male doctor."

"Bingo, Simone. No relative was anywhere near their location. If they return home, the village elders, those wise paragons of justice and mercy, will order their death, likely by stoning. The family's honour has been called into question, and word has it they've already dug four stoning pits."

"Well," I replied, "given this situation, a number of things are called into question, but honour isn't one of them." A plan began to form in my mind. "Tilly, they will need visas."

"Already taken care of. Your boss, Sir Harry --"

"Sir Harry?"

"Oh, hadn't you heard? The Queen tossed a bauble to him. For services rendered to the United Kingdom."

"No shit. Will wonders never cease. Now Tilly, here's what I propose."

The plan was to send the girls off to the UK, to the government run project exploring the sugar beet as an alternate fuel. This would necessitate a call to the now Sir Harry. It went as follows.

"Why?" he said. Harry's telephone skills left much to be desired.

"It's Ernestine," I said, using my usual code name. "Congrats on the knighthood."

"You wouldn't tie up a secure line for that."

"I need a favour."

"Good. So do I. A big one." (It was, but that's for another day.)

I explained the situation, and reluctantly he agreed to employ the girls until they could be comfortable in English society.

"And they will need an Urdu-speaking mentor."

He replied, "And no doubt a personal trainers, their own cooks, plus some fashion designers --"

"Stop it. And this is a good thing you do. An honourable thing."

"Well, I did make the Queen's Honour List after all."

He had a point. There is honour, and then there is cultural crap masquerading as honour. Even Falstaff could work out the difference.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Perils of Politics

A gloomy day outside, cold, with a driving rain that slashed across the mullioned windows of my study. The summer of 09 is resembling more and more the coming of a new ice age, and I am informed by a reliable meteorological source that the ice has only recently left Hudson's Bay and that the polar bear population is on the rise. Must call Al Gore and ask where his calculations went astray.

Given the mess outside, I was content to work on a paper I had been asked to give to the movers and shakers in the American Republican Party. My working title was "Then And Now", and described in detail just how far the Republicans had strayed from their original roots -- the importance of self-responsibility, the firm divide between church and state, small but effective (and transparent) government, and a tax system that was as loophole free as it could be, with a form that ran to no more than three pages.

Definitely, I thought, a recipe for future electoral success, although I did make the point that this would take some time to bring about. For instance, the rabid screaming of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh (to name three) had to be curtailed, something unlikely to occur overnight. At present, they do their party no good at all.

At this point my private line flashed. Since only four people knew the number, my interest was piqued. And then I was talking to a rather distraught Michelle Obama.

"Simone, this health care thing is horrible. People are saying all kinds of untrue things, and Barack at times despairs."

"Well, I never said it's going to be easy. It took some time to occur in Canada as well."

"And that's another thing," she continued. "His critics are accusing him of bringing in Canadian health care, and calling him a socialist. He's not. Really."

"Michelle, there's nothing wrong with a bit of socialism -- it actually can temper some of the raw edges of capitalism. But that's another issue. As for the harsh criticism, you must remember that he is aiming a dagger right at the heart of the health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. They will not go down without a fight. For now, however, I would ask you to emphasize to Barack the importance of the Tenth Amendment."

"The Tenth Amendment? What do residual powers....oh, I see. Like your Mr. Douglas." (One smart lady, this.)

"Exactly. Just ensure that the public health option is included in the final bill, but under Tenth Amendment provisions. That way each state can decide whether to opt in to a public option, and receive appropriate financing to do so. This might even draw some Republican votes, given that party's love of states rights. Of course, it won't play in Alabama or Mississippi, but it might in Vermont. Or even that promoter of gay marriage, Iowa. And once one or two states opt in, you're on your way. Up here, it was first Saskatchewan. Soon after, when the Saskatchewan hospitals and doctors realized that they weren't doomed, that they could survive, even prosper, other provinces followed suit, and the Federal Government shortly had no choice but to bring in a country-wide plan.

"Simone, that's a hell of an idea --"

"Oh, I suspect it has surfaced in Barack's mind as well. Might get a little more emphasis, though."

"I hear you. But those damn critics..."

"Nonsense. My critics have issued a fatwa that calls for my torture and beheading. So let it go. Although I do have a definition of a critic that might help."

"I'm all ears."

"A critic is a virgin who wants to teach Casanova how to make love."

"Oh, I like that."

"Thought you would."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Occasionally, You Win One

Bohdan, my Ukrainian sugar beet supervisor, called me to give an update on the various plantations scattered hither and yon about the planet. He should have been safely ensconced in Kiev, but this call was from Kandahar, something that gave me a jolt. Bohdan is brilliant at sugar beet nurture and growth, but AK 47's and I.E.D.'s are way beyond his remit. He replied that one must go where the sugar beet goes, as in the Frankie Laine song.

"Rubbish," I replied. "And the song was about wild geese, not sugar beets."

"Well, it sort of rhymes --"

"Stop it. Now what has happened?"

It turns out that the sugar beet project was doing extremely well. It is located outside the village of Deh-e-Bagh, south of Kandahar in the Dand district of Afghanistan. It got (pardon the term) its seed funding from Canada and Germany. Mind you, this took a bit of backing and filling. Originally CIDA, the Canadian international aid group, wanted to encourage Afghans to grow ginseng. When I got wind of this through Code Barry (see missives, passim) I used my not inconsiderable influence to bring this insane idea to an abrupt halt. Ginseng is difficult to tend and grow in the best of circumstances, to say nothing of the fact that the minute it is planted, it begins to kill itself. Sort of a mantra for CIDA, but I digress.

Long story short, after a quick conversation with the PM, the good Stephen Harper snarled down the blower, and soon CIDA officials were purchasing sugar beet seedlings like mad (I actually marked down the price somewhat -- we must all do our bit).

The Afghans who would be doing the actual planting and tending needed, and deserved, good wages. To underwrite these, I turned to Angela Merkel, who had really appreciated my help in getting the gas flowing again after that silly tiff between Yuliya Tymoshenko and Vladimir Putin. (And no, the woman still trots about wearing that braid.) I explained the situation to Angela, as well as reminding her that the German soldiers posted in the calm north of the country weren't actually doing much more than lazing about. She said I exaggerated, but was not averse to making a further contribution. So good wages came about.

As the project, approved and sanctioned by the village elders, began to grow, it naturally came to the attention of the Taliban. Horrified that a village was succeeding on its own, was enjoying the experience, and was actually creating wealth, they launched a suicide attack and an ambush. What is remarkable is that the Afghan National Army repelled the attack all on its own, wiping out several insurgents at the cost of one Afghan soldier who died, not in battle, but in a rifle mis-fire.

Bohdan, along with the Canadian commander stationed in the area, witnessed the whole thing.

After the attack, the villagers swelled with pride. This they had done by themselves, and it is this sort of thing that gives hope to the whole enterprise.

Nevertheless, I ordered Bohdan to get his ass back to Kiev as quickly as possible. Winning one small battle doesn't win the war, and the village would now be seen by the Taliban as a much greater threat than anything American marines could pose. I hope the Powers That Be see this as well.

A final comment. It is a truism that if Afghanistan is to succeed as a state, it is the Afghans themselves that will bring it about. In every state, in every nation, it has always been thus.

You go for it, Iran!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Not The Garb Age

Arrived back in Toronto, having trod the primrose path of dalliance in France, as well as being booted out of Turin. My son Mark was visiting, he who delights in hurtling down fearsome icy slopes on two sticks. The Vancouver Olympics loom, and he had persuaded Irving to give him some physical training suited to skiing. Since Irving works with me on training related to a somewhat different purpose, but still hard physical activity, I wondered whether Mark knew what he was getting himself into. Perhaps Irving will knock some sense into him. Or maybe break a leg -- that would do for the Olympics, and he would be safe. So go the musings of a mother.

Mark did raise a question, however, and one that demanded some thought.

"Ma, how come there's a garbage strike in Toronto? The Mayor is, or so everyone says, slightly to the left of Lenin, and is usually best buds with his union pals. But this time he's holding fast. So how come?"

How come indeed. And it was ironic that the point I had made in Turin, that a strike should only involve two parties, not an innocent third, was occurring right on my doorstep. Not that the Manor was affected -- owing to some excellent legislative grandfathering, the Manor was in an area of the city that still used transparent tendering and commercial pickup, saving millions in the process. But I digress.

Mark's question was well taken. The thing didn't make sense. I poured a serious Laphroaig, and pondered, using the key analytical question that is always germane -- who benefits?

At first glance, no one: neither the union, nor the Mayor (who was taking considerable electoral heat) and certainly not the benighted taxpayers. I was momentarily at a loss, and decided to call in some help.

The help came from my friend/enemy Don Guido, who knew a thing or two about waste management.

"Ah, bella," he said in gutteral tones, "how goes la dolce vita? Perhaps you and I --"

"Will keep things as they are," I said crisply. (You have to be careful with Guido). "What's this garbage strike all about?"

"You buying that acreage in Caledon for sugar beets?"

This change of subject was not unexpected. If Guido was going to give me something, he was going to get something in return. Altruism and Guido were unknown in combination.

"I might if the price is right."

"I will see that it is," he replied. "As for the garbage nonsense, I have nothing to do with it. They're not my people, and anyway, I would have handled it--ah -- quite differently."

"I don't doubt that for a minute," I replied. "But what's really going on?'

There was a pause, and then he said "Streetcars."

"Streetcars? What the hell do --"

"Aspet, signora, aspet. I've given you enough. And the price for the land will be fair. Ciao."

And that was that.

I sat back, sipped, and thought. I then rummaged through some files, made some further calls, and managed to crack the mystery.

Toronto, via the Mayor, had agreed to purchase a goodly number of new streetcars from Bombardier, signed the contract, and everything would be fine save for one thing. Toronto didn't have the money. The Mayor had put in some, the Province more, and the Feds -- nothing. (I should mention that the current Conservative federal government hasn't managed to elect a member from Toronto in years -- why would they be keen on supporting the city in anything?)
But the Mayor, insanely, had thought that the Tories would be all embarrassed and cough up the dough.

The Tories decided to be embarrassed.

So a monetary shortfall had to be met, or the Mayor, along with his inner cabal, could find themselves in a nasty court fight, one that would appal the electorate. To top it all off, an election was due in 2010. The answer was to save money that would normally go to garbage collection. If the strike could be made to last until mid-to-late August, the shortfall could be greatly eased, if not erased entirely. Such are politics today.

I had thought originally that the Mayor was being frighted by false fires. Not so.

This time the fires are real.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Perverse Parallels

On my way back from Turin, I took the opportunity to visit the Compte de Rienville at his chateau in the south of France. He had heard about my little speech to the ILO.

"Run out of town, were you?" he kindly stated.

"Sort of. I thought logic and sanity would carry the day. I was wrong."

"Well," he said, "if you argue with a reformer, you will always lose. C'est la vie."

"C'est la guerre would be more appropriate. But enough of this."

Thus started a wonderful weekend, and resting up after one of our romps, enjoying a magnificent Chardonnay, the Compte raised an interesting topic. "Have you noticed, cherie, the parallel between the financial mess and the rise of vampires in film, television and books?"

"Can't say that I have." What the hell was he talking about?

He explained, and the subject was explored throughout the weekend. Truth be known, things got a little out of hand, and the Compte has the bite marks to prove it. But let us not stray from the point.

The gist of his argument goes as follows. Just about the time that organizations such as Citibank, AIG and Lehman Bros. were ramping up, one of the most popular shows on television was Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Now I actually got hooked on that show, because of a brilliant subtext. An example is worth repeating.

In an early episode, Buffy (the winsome Sarah Michelle Geller) is receiving an assignment back from Giles, the school librarian (Anthony Head, now slumming around in the BBC series Merlin, where he plays Uther Pendragon, about as far from a librarian as you can get.) Anyway, Giles hands the paper back to Buffy, saying 'And, Miss Summers, I really can't critique your use of pure reason.' Wow! (Kant himself, however, must have turned a bit in his grave.)

To continue the Compte's argument, things progressed in the real world, or rather went downhill. We had the insane growth of unsupervised swaps, collateral debt options, and shaky derivatives, all this accompanied by a staggering growth in sub-prime mortgages and that kindly personage known as Bernie Madoff. A huge and fragile pack of cards that could do nothing but tumble down. Which, of course, it did.

At the same time, in the media universe, we got John Carpenter's Vampires, Blade Runner, and the Underworld (rather silly) series. Even teen-agers were drawn in with the publication of the Twilight books, and the recent eponymous film. The most recent entry into this dark catalogue is the HBO series, the somewhat grisly True Blood. This is also one I watch, for the subtext, as in Buffy, is hilarious. The central plot hook rests on the fact that the Japanese (who else?) have invented a blood substitute that vampires can subsist on. This "true blood" is not as nourishing as the real thing, but a goodly number of vampires (not all) have emerged from the closet and are fighting for a place in society. As for the subtext, we learn that the state of Vermont just passed legislation that allows vampire/non-vampire marriages, and we also learn that Brad and Angelina are in the process of adopting a vampire baby. You see what I mean?

The Compte does not see this vampire fascination as an accident, and posited that unconsciously society knew damn well what was happening. He pointed out that government is very careful to outsource blood donations, it being a bit too close to the bone; that is, government literally taking blood from their citizens. Yet, he stated, the financial blood was metaphorically sucked out of the system. "They were nothing but vampires", he said heatedly. "Vampires! And we knew it."

I had my doubts, but then a further insight came to me that supported his thesis. What do we call all those beholden to financial firms and like organizations?

We call them stakeholders, that's what.


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Solidarity Not So Forever

My sugar beet plantations appear to have attracted some notice. Not the plantations themselves, mind you, but the relationship I have established with those who actually tend the beets. Apparently Strunsky Enterprises came out on top of a poll conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) involving the degree of satisfaction felt by the workers towards management. I was thus invited to give a paper on just how such a high level of worker satisfaction was attained. The paper would be presented at the ILO's International Training Centre in Turin.

I was glad to accept. I had not been to Italy for some time, not since a rather nasty incident involving the takedown of an Albanian gang trafficking women out of a house in a back street of Naples. The gang's crude motto was "See nipples and die", and I was happy to bring about some reality to the last word in the motto.

So it was off to Turin, along with Irving, who was always ever mindful of certain contracts out on yours truly. I stayed, of course, at the Meridien Lingotto. I mean, who wouldn't? Wonderful place, and the finest osso buco in the world.

I wore my little black dress (Thank you, Coco!) which may have been a mistake. The Italian official who introduced me, after mentioning my sugar beet business, went on to mention my four children and, staring pointedly at my breasts, allowed that I was truly a bella figlia of the Labour Movement. This could be taken in a variety of ways, but one should always give Italians some leeway.

The presentation started off well. I stressed the importance of workers uniting to achieve an honest wage, safe working conditions and sane benefits. I got a round of applause from the European participants by pointing out that the first recorded strike was organized by the weavers of Douai in 1245. Thus Europe had led the way. I also gave credit to the brave efforts of the miners in Wales and England, quoting some passages from Orwell's Down The Mine for effect. This was well received by the Brits.

The Americans in the audience came to life when I referred to the work of such Labour luminaries as Eugene Debs and John L. Lewis, and I ended this section with a tribute to the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as "The Wobblies". I even quoted the lines from the Joe Hill song:"But Joe, you're ten years dead. " / "I never died, said he."

So things were going swimmingly. Then the shit hit the fan.

I had stressed the power of a strike when a firm or business is maltreating its workers. The workers suffer financially, but so does the firm, and pressure builds inexorably to one of two conclusions. Either a deal is reached, or the firm goes out of business. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a deal is reached.

The process goes off the rails, however, when those workers work for government. A strike in the public area hurts the workers, but more importantly the public, who really aren't involved at all. The government is not hurt financially, and indeed may gain. The duality of management and labour is now compromised by a third party. This is akin to kidnapping an innocent for ransom, and holding that person powerless. The way out is that if you are going to work for the public, then you must accept that the right to strike disappears, and is replaced by a binding arbitration process. The arbiter, of course, must be acceptable to both union and management, and strategies such as publicizing the job action and 'work to rule' can, and should, be used. But a strike? Never.

Well, you must have thought I had summoned all the demons from hell. . First, a stony silence, then a cascade of boos and hisses, interspersed with terms such as "fascist" and "aristocratic bitch". My Italian host tried to quiet the crowd, but to no avail. Didn't matter -- I was done anyway.

At this point an overlarge (I am being kind here) Frenchwoman stormed onto the stage, and this brought a vision of Dickens' Madame Defarge to mind. She was screaming something about my having forgotten the true doctrine of union thought. The crowd had gone silent, intrigued by this frontal attack, although I suspect only some understood her French.

I looked closely at this personage, and caught a flicker of fear in her eyes -- she could recognize, as most can, when someone has killed.

"Doctrine, you say?" I responded in French. "Doctrine? Madame, I direct you to one of your esteemed authors, Michel de Montaigne, and I paraphrase from that fine mind: 'The doctrine which you have learned could not reach your mind so that it has stayed on your tongue.'" Then I turned to my host and said in his language, "La commedia e finita!"

Which it was.