Friday, May 28, 2010

A Visitor From The Skies

It was Sir Harry on the secure line.

"Your assignment has changed. The Americans are worried about an aspect of the forthcoming G20 coffee klatsch in Toronto. You should know more very shortly. In fact,"

I heard a thump, thump thump. Looking out my study window, I beheld a Black Hawk helicopter descending on the helipad next to the swimming pool. This action had several consequences.

"Irving!" I shouted.

"On it," he said.

I was also aware that Consuela and her cousin Maria were in the pool. Consuela was great with child, and because Toronto was enjoying a mini-heat wave, had taken refuge in the pool where she could move around with relative ease (on the ground, not so much.) I ran outside, cursing the American penchant for the dramatic and untoward.

The girls were terrified, and I could sense Maria's thoughts. She had been recently freed from the clutches of an Arizona gone slightly mad, and was now convinced that Arizona was now reaching out for her. This of course was nonsense -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio's reach had its limits -- but fear can be a very debilitating thing.

The copter had landed, and I made my way to it. The weather being what it was, I was wearing only shorts and a tank top, and was weaponless. I mean, where do you stash a Glock in an outfit like that? Not to worry -- I knew by this time that Irving was at the second floor window, an RPG locked and loaded. Just in case, although I was pretty certain that Al Qaeda or the Taliban couldn't commandeer a Black Hawk and fly it through a very secure air space, and then nicely land the thing. Al Qaeda doesn't land aircraft, they crash them into buildings.

A figure emerged, and jumped agilely to the ground. Immediately after, four soldiers also emerged, and formed a tight perimeter around the person. And now I knew who I was dealing with.

"Ah, Mr. Robert Gates, I believe," I said. "always interesting to receive a CIA visit. Now if you will excuse me a minute....." I went over to Consuela and Maria, and suggested some lemonade in the conservatory. "And Maria, everything's fine. This has nothing to do with you."

They scurried off, glad to be away from the hulking machine and its fearsome guards. I returned and stated, "Did you have to be this dramatic? A phone call..."

"We were checking out security, and this was one way to kill two birds with one stone. So to speak." He looked at me closely. "Hmm. Lady Simone Strunsky. Code name Ernestine. And they said you were a looker. De Rienville is a lucky man."

Bloody hell, but their files were up to date.

"I would also like to extend out appreciation to you," he continued.

"And why would that be?"

"For shutting up about the Bin Laden sanction. It nicely serves our purpose -- "

"I know what it serves," I interrupted somewhat testily. "Helps focus American minds on an understandable target. But just what is this little visit really about?"

"First, would you ask the Israeli to stop pointing that thing? I can see the reflection from here."

I waved at Irving, and he stood down. "Just being careful, Robert. May I call you Robert?"

"You can call me anything you like. Particularly if you agree to a small change in assignment. Oh, and not to worry. Sir Harry has been informed, and agreed."

I wondered what Sir Harry got in return. Probably the course of that Los Angeles class nuclear submarine he had lost track of. He suspected it was heading for North Korea, but wasn't sure. Well, not my concern. Yet.

I said, "What 'small change' are we talking about?"

"We want you to go to Niagara Falls."

"Ah," I said, thinking of Oscar Wilde. "The second greatest disappointment in the life of the American bride."

Gates' mouth twitched a bit at this, although his profession wasn't given much to humour.

"Apparently," he continued, "several of the delegates want to see the Falls, and have requested a trip on that misty boat, or whatever it's called."

"The Maid of the Mist."

"Whatever. But there is word --"

"There is always word."

"There is word," Gates continued determinedly, "from one of our operatives that security in that area has been penetrated. Now I doubt this very much, but this operative has rarely been wrong, although a bit of a loose cannon. She --"


"She. In fact, it was this person that suggested that you be involved."

"Matilda bloody Hatt!" I exclaimed. "Might have known."

He seemed a bit shaken by this. Good. Humility is always to be treasured.

"So you want me to take a sniping position on the shore --"

"No. We want you on the boat. If you or our operative --"

"Tilly Hatt"

Yes, Miss Hatt," he said, getting right snappish now. Lord, how Americans love keeping everything all arcane and mysterious. "As I was going to say, if you see anything suspicious, you both are empowered to act." He looked me right in the eye, and I had no doubt what he meant. "And you must persevere, even to the extent of obstinacy."

"And He knows about this?

"He knows."

I must talk to Michelle more.

Good Lord, imagine being given such a carte blanche. After a few logistical details were discussed, he left, and I brooded for a bit on his terms. Perseverance. Obstinacy. Both problematical, as Lord Dundee knew, in that the difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that perseverance means a strong will and obstinacy means a strong won't.

Stay tuned.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Methinks The Protesters Do Protest too Much

It is not often that I disagree with Blake (William, not Hector Toe) but his adage, "If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise" fails when certain types of 'protesters' come under consideration. This thought surfaced when I was considering Sir Harry's request to 'keep an eye on' the British delegation' at the upcoming meetings of the G8 and G20 in Ontario. I agreed, but made the point that these meetings were almost impossible to control.

"Rubbish," replied Sir Harry. "You manage quite effectively to rein in Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives when required. Good God, woman, you nailed Osama bin Laden. What's so difficult about coping with operatives from some rather silly fringe groups?"

I explained that those concerned were not operatives in the sense mentioned, but rather deeply disturbed individuals who were incapable of learning from past experience. Many were scuttling along the edge of insanity, in that one definition of insane behaviour is repeating and repeating actions that continue to fail. (Hence my problem with the Blake quote.)

There were, of course, legitimate, non-violent groups who were rightly concerned that world finances were in a mess, wanted action to correct this mess, and were going to make that point vigorously and very, very loudly. Others were concerned about global warming, and thought that this should be more on the agenda than it was. Again, no problem, and if that's all the protests were about, all would be fine, with the added bonus that because the protest actions were handled with a certain amount of civility, they just might result in success.

But that's not what's likely to occur. Not by a long shot. Instead, various individuals will use the occasion to disrupt proceedings as violently as possible. These are people with "Causes", involving a host of concerns that have nothing whatsoever to do with the G20 discussions. (And many of these groups have been infiltrated by thugs, pure and simple.) Some slogans illustrate the 'causes':

"More hostels for the homeless!" (The homeless hate hostels, but the do-gooders are not into end-user surveys.)

"Troops into (______) now!" (Insert whatever country, state or area a recent immigrant sees as needing regime change.)

"Troops out of (_______) now! See above.

"God is watching!" (Perhaps, but He doesn't seem to do much else.)

"Save the (_______)! Insert favourite fish, bird, insect, flower or whatever.)

Well, you get my drift, and my concern expressed to Sir Harry stands. You cannot predict the behaviour of this lot with any degree of accuracy. All you can do is expect the unexpected, hope that those really over the top are few in number, and adopt a first class sniping position.

Sad, really. All these groups want something done for them, but are unwilling to do anything themselves. They have forgotten an often-stated but still valid truth: "IF IT'S TO BE, IT'S UP TO ME."

Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Litany Of Messes

"The world," wrote Wordsworth, "is too much with us." Well, he got that right. Outside the window in my study, the rain pelted down from a leaden sky, and the wind rattled about the manor like some moaning banshee upset at everything and everyone. This did nothing to improve my mood as I totted up all that was going awry on planet Earth.

First, that Icelandic volcano keeps spouting ash into the sky, causing airline disruption and irritating pilots, irritating passengers more, and really irritating airline owners and shareholders. Eyjafjallajakull it is called, a name that is unpronounceable unless your surname ends in 'son' or 'dottir', or you are an expert in Old Norse. (There are some.) And the eruption might go on for some time.

Then there was the car bomb in New York's Times Square. It had been contrived by one Faisal Shahzad al Rube Goldberg, and therefore failed. But in different hands....and thank goodness for the sharp eyes of, not Homeland Security, but a member of the Tee Shirt Vendor Guild, who alerted the NYPD to the suspicious vehicle. He was, interestingly enough, a Muslim, but this little factoid, given in the initial reports, was quickly dropped from subsequent reporting. After all, this would confuse a neat we/they dichotomy, and call for some thought. Can't have that.

Around the world, things are not much better. Thailand looks to be tearing itself apart, and the only good thing to come from that is renewed interest on Broadway on mounting a revival of 'The King And I'. Nashville, including the Grand Ole Opry, is currently under water, and West Virginia is recovering from a deadly coal mine explosion. The mine itself had been cited a gazillion times for safety irregularities, but these had surfaced during the Bush Administration, and as George would put it: "To err is human, to forgive, deregulation."

In Canada, the Opposition is bent on embarrassing the PM about turning some Taliban fighters over to the Afghan authorities, who might (God forbid!) mis-treat them. I continue to be baffled by the thinking of leftist politicians, who would do well to read up on the British Admiral John "Jacky" Fisher, who put it succinctly when he stated: "Moderation in war is imbecility." And make no mistake -- we are at war with these creeps.

One bright spot surfaced, however, a little shaft of sunlight to pierce the gloom. Britain has come to its senses. Gordon Brown did the right thing, and resigned, and one could say with confidence that nothing became his political life as the leaving of it. Bill Cameron and Nick Clegg take over, two young, bright lads who just might over time just turn things around. Might.

It will all depend on whether their wives get along.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Off To The Opera

My daughter Victoria was in town, she who supplements her income by playing dead people, or those shortly to be, but also has her doctorate in history, and was giving a series of lectures at the University of Toronto on the Medici popes, and their influence on European morals and mores. Good luck with that, I thought.

She was at loose ends one night, and I suggested the opera. Toronto has a new house that I had yet to visit, and the performance that evening was Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, which was (sort of) within the time framework of Vicky's lectures. A quick phone call to my friend and enemy Don Guido, and two tickets in the Grand Ring became available. What Don Guido got in return...well, never mind about that.

It was certainly time for a night out. Greece appears to be in free fall, Spain, Portugal and Italy are looking shaky, and the U.K. was no hell itself, given its arrival into clutches of a hung parliament. In this regard, I fired off a note to Billy Cameron, urging him to have a meeting as soon as possible with Stephen Harper, who is proving brilliant at minority government. On top of all this, the Taliban -- but enough. Donizetti beckons.

The new house was OK in the front, but inside was magnificent, IKEA on amphetamines if you will. The warm, rich wood gleamed, and the acoustics were spectacular. Toronto owes a great deal to architect Jack Diamond and the late Musical Director Richard Bradshaw, who is sorely missed.

As for the performance, the first half, dominated by the soprano singing Elizabeth, was magnificent. It was, however, the second half that intrigued me. At the original dress rehearsal, in 1834, the sopranos singing Elizabeth and Maria were severely at odds. When they confront each other, (something that never happened historically) Maria, succumbing to taunts from Elizabeth, screams at her "vil bastarda!". The tone in which this was given was apparently a bridge too far, and Elizabeth hurled herself upon Maria, and a grand fight began. On this night, however, all was serene.

Things did drag along somewhat in the second half, and at one point Vicky leaned over and hissed, sotto voce, "Oh, for all our sakes, woman, suck it up and put your head on the block!" It should be noted here that Vicky herself had been in this position about three times in Grade B slasher movies, so the remark is at least understandable.

The last five minutes, however, made up for everything, and all involved in the production received a standing ovation. Several, in fact. Every so often opera pulls it all together -- no mean feat -- and the experience is staggeringly beautiful. Doesn't happen a lot, but when it does, well, worth every penny.

Later, over some Grey Goose at a nearby hotel lounge, I queried Victoria on Elizabeth's reputation as an esteemed monarch. Victoria's position was that here was a strong, capable woman that was bent on success. "After all, Mum, it was you that told me the Damon Runyan thing."

"What Damon Runyan thing?"

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong -- but that's the way to bet."

Can't argue with that.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Appraising Arizona

After a lovely few days in Paris with the Compte de Rienville, I decided upon my return that some emphasis on my sugar beet enterprise was called for. So to my office, and a focus upon supply and demand, accompanied with a good dollop of VaR -- value at risk, something ignored by Lehman Brothers, among others. (But not by Goldman Sachs.)

All was well, save for a request from China inviting me to enter into a joint agreement. This negotiation had been going on for some time, the stumbling block being my insistence upon majority control, and the contract drawn up under Canadian legal principles. (These are no hell, but a damn sight better than those proffered by the Chinese, who really have no word for transparency.) They would not budge, nor would I, and this has led to a raft of super-polite correspondence that seems somewhat pointless, although in a weird way, rather enjoyable -- cuff and kiss in an artistic form, if you will. But I am determined not to be hustled by the East, and was pondering my latest rejoinder when Consuela, my gardener, burst into the office, her face blurry with tears.

"Maria has been arrested!" she blurted.

"Calm down, Connie, calm down. Just sit," I said, pointing to a chair. Goodness, the woman was eight months pregnant, and the last thing she needed was stress. "Now who is Maria?"

"My cousin. And it's not fair! She didn't do anything!"

I will summarize Consuela's very disjointed account of what particular pit the unfortunate Maria had fallen into. The woman lived in a small Arizona town in Pima county, where she worked as a waitress. Upon leaving her place of employment, a popular bar in the centre of town, and while waiting for a bus that was running late, she had been knocked to the ground and her purse snatched. Dazed, she looked around, then saw a passing police car. Two of Arizona's finest listened to her story, and asked for some identification. Since any relevant documents were in her purse, she was unable to produce any satisfactory I.D. So it was off to the jail, and given Arizona's latest insane policy of deporting any Latino or Latina at the drop of a hat, cousin Maria, born in Guatemala, was shortly to be whisked back to Mexico, a place to which she had never been, didn't want to go to, and which terrified her, the drug cartels being what they were.

What to do?

Then a thought occurred, and I got Matilda Hatt on the phone. Tilly, I knew, had in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Agency made several forays along the Arizona / Mexican border, to the severe detriment of numerous drug smugglers and to the delight of the DEA. (It's amazing the effect of a hand grenade placed judiciously within the confines of a small room.) I apprised her of the situation, and indicated the need for some fast action.

"What county did all this happen in?" asked Tilly.

"Pima," I replied.

"She's a lucky girl. It could have been Maricopa."

"What on earth are you talking about?"

Tilly went on to explain that the sheriff of Pima County, improbably named Clarence Dupnik, was a sane and respected official. Not, Tilly continued, the situation in Maricopa, where the sheriff was one Joe Arpaio. Now even I had heard stories about Sheriff Joe, and his penchant for jailing and deporting Mexicans with a verve and keenness worthy of Inspector Javert.

Tilly indicated that she would get in touch with 'her friend Clarence' and see if the situation could be resolved, although she added that now would be a good time for Maria to come and visit her cousin.

"Isn't Consuela great with child?", Tilly inquired.

"She is."

"Then Maria could help with the baby. I can make travel arrangements."

"It would be appreciated."

Tilly said, "But you owe me one. A little expedition to the Congo. Right?"

"Right," I sighed, once again acknowledging that no good deed goes unpunished.

And so it transpired. The good Clarence was reasonable, and as well seemed aware that Arizona's ridiculous immigration policy was likely afoul of the U.S. Constitution. He even put a successful effort into retrieving Maria's purse from the low-life that had taken it, not a difficult feat to accomplish in a small town whose only failing in this case were the actions of two over-zealous deputies.

Still, the whole Arizona thing is rather sad, and Lincoln's words echoed in my head: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." For goodness sakes, WAKE UP, AMERICA!