Thursday, May 28, 2009

To The East

My oft-travelled cousin, Sir Robert Hazeltown, brings me some odd news from Russia. He had seen Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, and was startled to note that the ballet had created a happy ending, with Odette and her prince happily going off, no doubt to raise a number of ugly ducklings. He wondered what had happened to Odile, and two fates sprung to my mind. She had gone to Wall Street, as a true Black Swan. Either that, or she had fled Russia and landed a job pole-dancing in Bangkok. Whatever the case, this bore investigation, and since I had business in Ukraine, thought I would extend the trip a bit further east. I also needed to raise a rather serious matter with Putin. The trip was fine with my pilot, Hank Grimsby, and soon I was in the Lear, sipping Laphroaig and pondering the ironies of existence.

In Kiev, I met with my sugar beet overseer, Bohdan. All was going well, although he was having trouble fending off requests for a larger piece of the action from Yuliya Tymoshenko. I said not to worry -- I will get in touch with La Tymoshenko and remind her of certain favours owed, not the least of which was getting the gas flowing again. And the woman still hasn't lost that damn braid. Yuliya can handle a leveraged buyout, but her sense of style is the pits.

Then on to Moscow. At the airport, I had just got off the Lear when my cell phone rang. Very few have the number, but one who does is Vladimir Putin.

"Simone, dorogaya, word reached me that you were likely to visit. Where are you precisely?"

"At Sheremetyevo airport. And I am not your sweetheart."

"One can always hope. Stay there. I will send a car."

Shortly after, I was ensconced in a suite at the Kremlin. We spoke in Russian, in that I am fluent and Putin's English is awful , although he has mastered one word very well: 'no'.

"Vladimir," I said, "What's this nonsense about Swan Lake, with everyone going off into the sunset in a state of bliss?"

"Yes," he replied, "rather neat, that. Leaves people very happy, and forgetful that the economy is not what it might be. And we have a new version of Romeo and Juliet in the works."

"Don't tell me. The lovers survive, and go on to become major shareholders in Gazprom."

"Not exactly, but you get the drift, and the endings will be well received. Czar Ivan did the same thing with various court entertainments."

"I'm sure he did. He wasn't called 'The Terrible' for nothing. But sooner or later the populace --"

"Will do what we tell it to." He leaned forward. "And by the way, we have intercepted some information from our operatives in Pakistan. Apparently you are Number One on Al Qaeda's hit list. Just what did you do? I can only think of one thing that would get them so impossibly riled up. Let me see if I have it right."

"Speculate away."

"Our information is the following. We know you were in Afghanistan, near Tora Bora, a few days before the Americans attacked. We also know that somewhere in those mountains was one Osama bin Laden. Finally, we know that you left the area in one hell 0f a hurry." Putin stared at me for some time, then finally said, "You got him, didn't you?"

I kept silent.

"It's OK. The room is not wired, nor am I."

"No, your not Richard Nixon, nor were meant to be." I fussed with my skirt for a moment, then spoke. "Hypothetically, it might just be possible to track down a six-foot Arab with kidney trouble traipsing about Tora Bora dragging a dialysis machine. How hard could that be? And putting a bullet smack into the forehead. Hypothetically, mind."

"Ah," he said, "and of course the Americans knew, hushed it all up, and created a, a... I've forgotten the English term --"

"A bogeyman," I finished. "And now it's my turn. Vladimir, you and Medvedev must pay more attention to Iran and, particularly, North Korea. The Dear Leader is spinning out of control."

"That's China's problem. But we are monitoring things closely."

"You and China may have to do more than monitor."

"Point taken." Putin rose from his seat. "Now I must go. I've been invited to attend a seminar given by our leading physics researchers. All on the origins of the universe and the Big Bang."

I rose as well, saying, "I understand. Oh, and if you're meeting with your physics scientists on the Big Bang, you might raise a certain question."

"What question?"

"Just WHAT banged?"

There, that should start a healthy debate.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Meetings in Chicago

To the Windy City, where I had a number of meetings with various representatives of the Mercantile Bank of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Trade. At issue were figures related to sugar beet futures: to put it bluntly, they had flat-lined. What was going on?

Turns out that both institutions were participating in the current craze affecting American finance -- downsizing everything in sight. The result of all this was the letting go of senior managers (who knew their business) and retaining junior and less costly personnel (who knew squat.) Thus I quickly learned that these these ingenues made no distinction between sugar beets and beets, and this lumping together of two distinct entities had played havoc with the figures. After some heated words, this got straightened out, but still.


I had booked into the Knickerbocker on East Walton Place, and after the meetings, took time to recover from such nonsense and to enjoy a serious vodka gimlet in the Martini Bar. I had travelled with Irving, who was responsible for my security on these jaunts. He was somewhere in the room, just in case. The mad Mullahs are just that. Mad.

"Might I join you?"

I turned around on my bar stool, and there, of all people, stood Stephen Harper.

"Certainly, Prime Minister." Politicians are much more approachable when you have contributed goodly sums to their campaign.

He settled his somewhat bulky frame on the adjacent stool, and said, "Can I order you something?'

"Another Vodka gimlet would do just fine. Grey Goose."

He ordered the gimlet for me, and a Corona for himself. It was interesting to note that he could swan about Chicago without getting so much as a glance of recognition. This was not entirely unexpected. Americans, when they think about Canada, which is not often, think of cold weather and the perils of socialism. That any would recognize the Prime Minister, well, just wouldn't occur.

"What brings you to this fair city?" I began. "

"Just renewing an acquaintance with a number of fellow politicians," he said.

From which I could conclude that the Daly political machine was being consulted. Well, he could do worse. Barack Obama had honed his skills in Chicago.

"One thing, Prime Minister, that I would like to raise -- "

"Now, Lady Simone, let's not get into scrapping The Indian Act again."

"No, although you bloody well should. Can't keep giving people something for nothing. Saps the soul, it does, and drives one to drugs and alcohol. But, no. I am more concerned about those silly attack ads on Michael Ignatieff."

"Don't tell me you financially support him as well?"

"Of course I do. And if I could, I'd also support Giles Duceppe, who I think would run the country rather well were he not, like poor Gloucester in King Lear, tied to the Quebec stake and cannot fly. Jack Layton, of course, would be a politician too far. No, those ads are not only in bad taste, they don't play well in Canada, and, finally, they get the electorate all worried about an election, an election that you know very well won't occur."

The Prime Minister took a sip of his beer, and replied, "And just why won't there be an election?"

"You know very well. Pensions. Some 80 odd MP's would lose their pension benefits if there were an election before 2010, most of them in the Bloc. Hence, no election. So stop the ads."

"I will give it some thought. Oh, and Laureen thanks you for the skirts. They're really made of hemp?"

"You know it."

He rose to leave, and said, "Always a pleasure to talk to you. Although right now, with the economy, things are really difficult."

"Not as difficult as they might be."

"What do you mean?"

"You could be Gordon Brown."

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Dire Dilemma

Lord Strunsky once said, when he faced a conundrum, "We're on the horns of a dilemma, my dear. Only thing to do -- throw sand in the bull's face."

This adage was much in my mind when I took a call on my secure line from Michelle Obama. She was fretting about Barack's response to all the torture stuff (actual pictures) becoming public, particularly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit dismissed the government's security concerns as vague, and that the public's right to know came first. Barack then quashed this, on the grounds that it would inflame anti-American feeling and lead to even more danger for the troops abroad.

"Well Michelle," I said, "you have reason to fret. What we have here is a lose-lose situation. If he doesn't allow the pictures to be released, the civil libertarians will be outraged. If he does release them, his statements about inflaming opinion and upping the danger ante for the troops will be all too true."

"But surely a few pictures --"

"Not a few. Hundreds. And some make what was earlier published from Abu Ghraib look like illustrations from Anne of Green Gables."

"Simone, just how do you know this? Barack, from what he tells me, hasn't seen them all."

"Because I'm in The Trade, and it's my business to know such things. But some others know as well. Why do you think Dick Cheney is running about the country, squawking like a headless chicken that torture really works? Or why Don Rumsfeld is applying for visas all over the place? They are very scared, Michelle, and they bloody well should be. If those pictures are released, along with documents that indicate that they both sanctioned and ordered that interrogations be carried out in that manner, they're very likely to wind behind bars for the rest of their lives. Hell, they might even be turned over to The Hague for crimes against humanity. The thing could actually reach George W., although that might be a bridge too far. Office of the Presidency and all that."

"But," said Michelle, "waterboarding doesn't sound all that horrific. Well, it is, but --"

"Michelle, you are entering one of the few areas you know nothing about. That's a compliment, by the way. You see, the problem with torture is who you've got. And this brings up a little axiom: 'There are old spies, and there are bold spies. But there are no old, bold spies." If a spy is captured, likely as not it will be someone young who has acted rashly; that is, he or she has made a mistake. So when they are interrogated in what I will call an 'all out' fashion, they will very shortly tell everything they know. Everything. Believe me, I know."

"How --"

"Because I've experienced interrogation. Twice. Two errors, and two extremely painful results. And I told everything I knew, although the second time I managed to last for three days. Got commended for that. But we are entering classified stuff here. Suffice it to say that Barack faces a real problem. You see, and I really shouldn't be telling you this, some of the interrogation techniques employed by the contractors sub-let to the C.I.A. involved children, young boys and girls. It is, by the by, to the credit of the C.I.A. that they wanted no part of this."

"Oh, my God."

"Yes, an unholy mess."

"But when Barack asks me what he should do, what should I advise? Not that my advice is always taken."

I thought for a long moment, then replied.

You've heard of Marshall McLuhan?"

"The medium is the message guy?"

"Yes. Well, Dr. McLuhan also made the point that we live in a world where there are more Xerox machines than shredders. And he wrote that before the Internet. So I think those pictures will come out, probably in some country like Australia. And he'd better be prepared to react.

"He's good at that. Tends to land on his feet."

"Good to know. And when all is said and done, there is something to hold on to."


"A statement with which I know he will be familiar. Written by Justice Louis Brandeis: "Sunlight is said to be the best disinfectant."

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tale Of Two Trees

Consider the Norway maple (Acer platanoides). This is a tree that deserves to be in a special education program big time. The shallow and fibrous roots go everywhere, strangle everything, and eventually girdle the tree itself, effectively choking itself to death. The Mayor, naturally, urges planting them all over Toronto.

All this surged into my consciousness when Ahmed, who likes to fix things around the Manor when he spots trouble, noticed yesterday that no water was reaching the main house. He quickly switched to our Artesian well , then went to explore just what was going on. Two hours later, he had the answer.

"It's that tree down by the road, My Lady," he said. "The one you don't like. The roots have pierced the water pipe that leads to the house."

"Well, Ahmed, just arrange for someone to cut it down. It's an eyesore anyway."

"Er, may not be that simple."

"Nonsense," I replied. "The estate three lots down the road just cut one down, in almost the same location near to the road. I remember mentally applauding -- it is a very silly tree."

"Well, said Ahmed, "they got permission to bring it down."

"So get the necessary permission."

And there was the rub. Apparently there are in this tax-ridden city a group of tree police, (a.k.a. Urban Forestry staff) who refused permission, indicating that the tree was healthy and a significant and valuable part of the urban forest. An arborist whom I consulted said this was rubbish, the tree was actually dangerous, and should come down immediately. But she was a knowledgeable arborist, and hence unlikely to be part of the mayor's Urban Forestry staff. At that point I turned to my Councillor for help.

This man, whom I will call Peter X, was a decent, hard-working individual, who made it a point to respond quickly to concerns of constituents. There was, however, one big, black mark against him -- he was not part of the Mayor's inner circle of Council cronies, and he stated to me that while he would do his best, my chances were slim.

"But Peter," I argued, "The property three lots away just took down a tree in similar position."

"Simone, that property is in a different Ward, and that particular Councillor is part of the Executive Council"

"You mean the Mayor's Star Chamber."

"Oh, that's good. Henry VII would approve." (I told you he was decent and hard working. I should have mentioned that he was educated as well). "There is one Councillor, Joe X, that has, if you'll pardon the phrase, 'tree power'. Indeed, around Council he is known as The Italian Tree Emperor. Now if you could get him to agree --"

"He's Italian?" An idea was beginning to form. "Peter, say no more. I'll take it from there."

My next call was to an old enemy, but an enemy who owed me one. It was time to call in the marker. After some back and fill with various associates, I got him on the line.


"Don Guido. Lady Simone Strunsky here."

There was a moment's silence, then came recognition. "Ah, Simone, how goes the saying? Ah, yes, 'Our eyes have met, our thighs not yet.'" Oh, c'mon, give him credit -- the guy was pushing eighty.

"My thighs are just fine, grazie. But I do need a small favour."

"And why should I do you a favour? After wrecking that nice little earner I was involved with in Bosnia. Really, bella."

"That was because you were supporting the trafficking of women. Which, I'm glad to say, I note that you've quit. Now, I ask you to remember a certain warehouse in Palermo."

There was a longer silence this time. What I hoped he was remembering was a very nasty bomb that had been planted by the Italian Red Brigade in said warehouse, a warehouse right next to a factory wherein most of the money extorted by the Sicilian Mafia was kept for later and careful disbursement. I, along with some British colleagues, had been instrumental in defusing that bomb, not, to be sure, to save the factory next door, but to save the city. Half of Palermo would have been blown to bits.

I was also hoping that he recalled the dozen roses he had sent to my London flat, along with a profuse thank you and the terse phrase, 'I owe you one.'

Finally, Don Guido spoke. "Si, I am a bit in your debt. What is the situation?

I explained, and was informed that 'he would make a few calls', to see what could be done. He also stressed that all debts were now repaid, to which I agreed. Too much dancing with the devil is dangerous. The devil won't change, but you will.

Two days later, a permit to cut down the tree arrived by Fed Ex, and shortly after that a city crew took down the tree, while at the same time a second city crew made short work of repairing my water pipe. Such service!

It was Irving (he can find out about most anything) who peeled the onion on this one, and I learned the following. Apparently, Joe X had initially resisted Don Guido's suggestion that I be awarded a permit. This attitude changed rapidly when he woke the next morning to find he was sleeping next to the bloody head of a chipmunk.

Satisfied that the whole barking mad incident was over, but feeling a twinge of guilt about the chipmunk, I wrote a hefty cheque to the S.P.C.A.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Free Speech and Film: The Repast

So. Daughter and Irving had gone off to this crazy film shoot. I had decided not to attend, for three good reasons:

1) I had no wish to see Victoria suspended by the ankles. Not the sort of things mothers' delight in.

2) A film shoot is boring, and takes forever, what with gaffers and gofers all over the place, and all afflicted with importance.

3) I had some homework to do. Apparently I am being sued by the City Council for what I did to a tree on my property, and I wanted to get my ducks in order before contacting my lawyers, the prestigious firm of Lambaste, Lambaste and McScroo. More about that in my next report.

From my terrace at the Manor, morning croissants and coffee finished, I saw that my driver Ahmed had brought the limo back. I went to greet the passengers, Irving and my daughter, who, I was glad to note, was still in one piece.

"How did it all go?" I asked Irving.

"It was great," said Victoria.

"Very well indeed," said Irving. "I arranged the ropes in a certain way -- "

"I don't want to know."

"But Mum," said Victoria excitedly, "the crew even gave me a little award. See?"

She handed me a little golden statuette of a girl suspended upside-down, with an inscription that read 'Best damsel in distress. Ever.' "Isn't that cute?" she crowed.

"Oh, just wonderful." I had much rather she had shown similar excitement when she had been awarded a Certificate of Merit for her work at Stanford that shed new light on the 1631 Siege of Magdeburg during the Thirty Years War. Come to think of it, that event was remarked at the time as one of staggering brutality in an age where brutality was all too commonplace. I am going to have to watch my youngest daughter a bit more carefully.

"Now, Vicky, lunch. And then off to your panel discussion." This I would attend, and, indeed, was looking forward to it. Victoria would be flanked by a biologist, a bishop and a physicist. Should be an interesting discussion.

Alas, it was not to be.

Ahmed dropped us off near the Convocation Hall at the University, and as we made our way towards the building, we were confronted with all manner of people shouting and waving big signs about. What the hell?

"Vicky," I said, "just what topic is this panel discussion addressing?"

Victoria was also a bit puzzled at the noisy throng. "Nothing dramatic, really. It's a statement by H.L. Mencken, you know, the writer --"

"I know who H.L. Mencken is."

"Yeah, well it's his statement. It's now in my memory: "Every time the scientists take another fort from the theologians and the politicians, there is genuine human progress."

Ah, I thought. I looked more closely at the screaming protesters. Sure enough, representatives of almost every major religion were present: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and one really tough looking group called 'Truckers for Christ'. Only Buddhists seemed to have stayed away, exhibiting their usual good sense. Then Victoria's cell phone went off. She listened for a moment, then said "But it's a university. This is where free speech is everything...really...oh, that's too, I don't really understand." With that she clamped her phone shut, and turned to me, fury in her eyes.

"The panel discussion has been cancelled, she snapped. "Apparently some Human Rights Tribunal sees this as a hate crime or something, and threatened the University that they would be charged. Really and truly, Mum. This is ridiculous. This would never happen at Stanford."

This, of course, was nonsense.

"Vicky, just imagine that by some freak of circumstance Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and, oh, Ann Coulter were scheduled to address the Stanford student body on the topic, 'Democrats are Dense and Dumb.' You think the students would give them a fair hearing?"

Victoria was silent for a moment, then said in a small voice, "Well, one could hope."

"One could, which is why Hope came last out of Pandora's Box. So let us hope. In the meantime, I have a question. Does your cell phone take pictures?

"Yes. It films a bit too."

"Excellent. Then document a bit of this demonstration, then post it on You Tube. Use a suitable heading such as, 'University Defends Free Speech. NOT!' Or something like that."

This she did, and a suitable amount of hell was raised. Doing our bit, if you will, in what really is a fallen universe.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Free Speech and Film: Setting The Table

This may take a bit longer than usual, and hence the two part approach, but a lot has happened since I last wrote. It all began with the arrival in Toronto of my youngest daughter, Victoria, the history major who supplements her income by portraying dead bodies for TV shows. Apparently she had written a paper stemming from her studies on the Thirty Years War. The paper stressed that scientific advance surged during that period, and this fact did a great deal to undercut the religious basis of that little dust up. (This theme was partly explored in Brecht's Mother Courage, but I digress.) In any event, Victoria had been invited to serve on a panel at the University of Toronto exploring the issue.

This suited Victoria, for she had also been approached to appear briefly in a Canadian TV show entitled Flashpoint, and thereby could fly from Los Angeles on the sponsoring network's dime. This made sense. Universities, I have found, are very free with invitations to give papers and presentations, but much much less free with providing expenses to make that happen. (Unless the speaker is Bill Clinton, but that's another matter entirely.)

Learning of her imminent arrival, I watched an episode of the show, and came away impressed. The theme focusses on the work of a police tactical squad, and, amazingly, sticks to its knitting; that is, no long sidebars into personal relationships, thereby avoiding the crippling slide into soap opera that so often afflicts many other TV offerings.

She stayed at the Manor, of course, and there I learned how the two things had come about. The history thing was fairly straightforward. Her paper had been accepted in an academic journal whose title escapes me, and had come to the attention of the professor at the University who was organizing the panel discussion. At the same time Victoria had received an invitation to act as a stunt person in a rather delicate segment of the show. Further questioning on such an unlikely request coming out of the blue unearthed the information that my son Sebastian had been involved, he of the New York dress shop.

"You see," said Victoria, "after that crazy arrest on the hemp charge, his business went through the roof. A whole slew of actors and producers, or at least their wives or partners, flocked to the shop, and, well, way led on to way. as someone once put it."

"Robert Frost."

"Yeah, that's the sort of thing you would know."

"More than just know, Vicky. Your grandfather, the third Lord Strunsky, got drunk with Frost in Oxford one night, but that's neither here nor there. Now what's the connection between Sebastian's dresses and your appearing in a Canadian TV show?"

Long story short, Victoria explained that Sebastian had mentioned to one of the wives, whose husband produced a variety of action TV shows, that his sister was becoming quite adept at playing victims. Sebastian was proud of her, had saved some clips, and after some complicated back and fill, the request was made. She then went on to hint that she had extended her repertoire somewhat.

"What do you mean, 'extended your repertoire somewhat'?"

"Well, I'm quite good at writhing and screaming. It's sort of fun, really, but sometimes the ropes can be a bit painful. Which is why a number of professional actresses ask for a stand-in."

"Good God, just what are you being asked to do?"

"I've seen the script. I'm bound and gagged, and suspended by the ankles for about a half-hour. Then I'm rescued by the tactical squad. Bit of a change, really. Normally I'm not rescued at all."

"It's a Canadian show -- we're kinder up here. But a half-hour is about twenty minutes too long. Your circulation would go haywire, and you would lose consciousness. And maybe not get it back." I knew this because I had been in a similar position when I was younger and not really adept in The Trade. Fortunately, it being a joint operation with Mossad, Irving, Uzi blazing, had shot himself into the Syrian warehouse where I was being held and got to me just as I was blacking out. Then Irving became my butler, but that's a story for another day.

I regarded my daughter. "Vicky, this is dangerous stuff. How to breathe is critical."

"Oh, Mum, it will be a snap."

I was baffled, and wondered why three of my children were drawn to danger. Mark, the skier, Isolde, who is sniffing around The Trade, and now this. Thank God for Sebastian, who is quite content with A-lines, and whose greatest worry was the next showing of Dolce and Gabbana. Well, needs must, and I rang for Irving, explained the situation, and, after some protestation, Victoria agreed to head for the gym and some training exercises that would serve her well.

Before they left, I said I hoped that the TV suits were paying her well.

Oh, yes," she said. "I'm getting $10,000 dollars. I'm covering expenses for the University thingy, and then donating the rest to charity."

"What charity?"

"Victoria replied, "The Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain. You would approve."

"And why would that be?"

"They are atheistic nuns, who run a woman's shelter. The Matron, Sister Cecilia, explained that while all the nuns well knew organized religion was hogwash, it did give great comfort to many of the women they cared for. That, Sister Cecilia said, was what was important. Her thinking also influenced my Thirty Years War paper, so you see, this trip sort of ties itself together."

Then Victoria trotted off with Irving, and I was left to ponder. I will, however, report as soon as time permits on what happened, or, in one instance, what didn't. One thing for sure, though. I must meet this Sister Cecilia. Sounds like my kind of woman.