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.