Friday, February 25, 2011

In the Beginning was the Word....

To lunch with a civil servant who has my respect; that is, his policy recommendations to various and sundry Ministers of the Crown are always supported by sound research and imaginative insight, along with a healthy dollop of common sense. These qualities, of course, have been somewhat career-limiting. In his words, his government tenure has been a movement "from total oblivion to relative obscurity." I liked him a lot.

We lunched at my favourite pub, The Gerundial Infinitive, where the beer and ale are kept well, and the chicken pot pie is fantastic. A further plus is the complete absence ghastly piped-in music, or anything else that would distract one from having a conversation.

The civil servant will remain unnamed -- he is still very much at the heart of things, and I am well aware that anything electronic can be suddenly available to anyone. Why this fact continues to escape politicians baffles me. But there you are.

Once we were happily into Guinness and the aforesaid chicken pot pie, I mentioned my curiosity about a recent government document that had become available in this way, a Minister who had scribbled 'NOT' on a funding proposal, after the government agency had argued for just such funding.*

"Now" said my friend, "that is a subject worth examining. I mean, there was an entire novel, and a brilliant one, devoted to just such an issue. Think of --"

"Jose Saramago. The Siege of Lisbon."

"Oh, well bowled, Simone!" (I do have my moments).

"But as I recall," I continued, "Saramago was exploring the nature of language as it relates to reality. Not quite what is going on here."

"Well yes and well no," John replied, in true civil servant fashion. "The Minister's action, her 'NOT' if you will, considerably altered reality for the group requesting funds. But I do admit that The Siege of Lisbon pursues the matter at a much deeper level."

"Still," I said, "The whole thing created quite a stir."

"And as usual everyone missed the point. You see, the Minister had every right to make such a decision. She is publicly accountable, not the government group arguing for the funding. Yes, it was gauche to see the scribbled 'NOT', and very awkward that the document popped up in the public domain, but there was nothing inherently wrong with any of that. What was unforgivable was, to use our word again, not admitting to the insertion. This was a cover-up, and government history is littered with fallen officials who have tried such cover-ups. Watergate is probably the best example, but there are a myriad of others."

After a moment, I said, "It strikes me, John, that 'not' is a very dangerous word."

"It is that."

I continued. "Just look at Arthur Hugh Clough, and 'Say not the struggle naught availeth.' Moreover, one can get tied up in these knots --"

"Stop that."

So I did.

* The reference here is to one Bev Oda, Canadian Minister for International Development. She turned down a grant request from an evangelical outfit called KAIROS, doing aid work in Uganda.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Follow The Drinking Gourd

I received an invitation from the Mother Superior of the convent I support, The Little Sisters Of Poverty And Pain. It was, I was told, "a matter of some urgency", and an early meeting was requested.

Intrigued, I arranged to meet her at the nunnery. It had been some time since we had last met, and I had always found the woman to be fascinating. After all, she had started out as a pole dancer at Fillmore's in Toronto, and then through a variety of circumstances that would beggar belief, wound up running the convent. That all its nuns were avowed atheists only added to its charm.

We met in her office, and she was accompanied by Sister Athena, the person in charge of the convent's finances. (Sister Athena's former occupation had been as an Executive Vice-President at one of Canada's chartered banks.) Now my curiosity was really piqued.

"Are you aware," Mother Superior asked, of the symbol of the drinking gourd?"

"Of course," I replied. Harriet Tubman. The Big Dipper. The Underground Railway. And of course the song. And I trilled,

Follow the drinking gourd,
Follow the drinking gourd;
For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom,
Follow the drinking gourd."

"Well," said Mother Superior, "not exactly Renee Fleming, but passable."

"Passable," chipped in Sister Athena unnecessarily.

"And now that that's out of the way," I continued, "what on earth is this all about?"

"Funding," said Mother Superior. "More precisely, lots more funding."

"I already fund this enterprise. Handsomely. Not to mention keeping the Vatican away from closing you down. Why more?"

Mother Superior said, "I will let Sister Athena explain. She has the financial logistics all worked out."

"I'll bet she has." I leaned back in my chair, and learned the following.

Apparently, the convent was in dire need of expansion. Sister Athena had explored the possibility of obtaining three adjacent properties, albeit at a stiff price. This expansion was necessary owing to a program begun by the Sisters to establish an underground railway similar to Tubman's. The purpose was to give young girls and women a chance to escape from horrific family conditions; to wit, being raped by an uncle or cousin, then being accused of adultery, and then being tortured or killed for the "crime". The program was growing in success, and using the underground railway motif in several countries, complete with hidden directional signals, a slew of females were able to flee from their ghastly situations. In short, the convent was swamped with new arrivals.

I was told the directional signals, but you will not learn them here. I and others in The Trade long ago realized that the Internet was a very leaky thing, and wouldn't think of putting anything really confidential anywhere near it. (Take that, Julian Assange!) Why politicians still -- oh, never mind.

Sister Athena also stated that English teachers fluent in Dari, Pushtun, Arabic and Hindi were critical to the program's success. Since such people didn't actually grow on trees and were expensive, funding was needed in this area as well. Yet, as Sister Athena stressed, these teachers were absolutely necessary in order to effect a smooth transition into North American society.

I was a bit gobstruck. This really was a program both useful and imaginative. But just how much were the Sisters requesting?

"One point two million Canadian," said Mother Superior flatly. "I should hasten to add that the figure includes the purchase of two more Cessnas at the Can Do program. Learning to fly really does up the women's self-esteem no end."

"Now your Ladyship," began Mother Superior --

"Shhh. I'm thinking."

A long silence ensued, and then I thought of a way to make this all happen. In the hands of Irving's friend Rachel, The Wraith software could assume control of another computer. It would be neat if she could waltz into old Karzai's numbered account, transfer the requested amount to the Sisters, and make it appear that the funds had been deposited into his brother's account. That should stir things up a bit in Afghanistan, and a number of Afghan women would benefit.

"All right," I said. "It's a done deal. But no queries into the how of it."

Both nodded with alacrity, and then Mother Superior said, "Come. We'd like to show you something."

I was taken to the convent's inner courtyard, where a number of young girls and women were being instructed in martial arts.

"The instructor is Sister Hera," said Sister Athena. "She has two black belts. Karate and Tae Kwan Do."

I watched for a moment, then gasped. "She's teaching killing blows!"

"Of course she is. These women will have to survive on the outside, and a number of them will no doubt be tracked down. The 'family honour' nonsense. And their opponents will go to the wall. After all, if they don't succeed, and are killed themselves, they are still promised Paradise. The 72 virgins and all."

"Although," said Mother Superior wryly, "one would think that after four or five virgins, all the man would want is a pro."

Well, once a pole dancer, always a pole dancer.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


My son Mark dropped in, a delightful surprise. He had been very hard to get in touch with since achieving employment at the CERN Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, and hence my pleasure at the unexpected visit.

There was, of course, more to it than filial love.

Mark had in tow a very attractive fellow physicist, a sweet young thing named Neela Karim, who was in a spot of trouble. Both were worried, and after settling them down with a good helping of Laphroaig, I asked just what was up.

It was a bit complex.

Neela had spent her childhood in Waziristan, and her beauty was noticeable even at a young age. Now in that area of the world, girls were commodities to be used for the benefit of the clan. (For clan read the male members). At the age of ten, she had been promised in marriage to a Pakistan trader operating in London. Neela, now sixteen, was duly sent off, but upon arrival discovered that her espoused had married another (and richer) woman. In Waziristan, the local mullah immediately issued a fatwa against the trader, calling for his death. At this point, however, clan warfare erupted -- something about goats -- and her parents and sundry tribal elders had simply forgotten about her.

Neela quickly made an alliance with another Pakistani family, who, to their credit treated her as a human being. She attended school, and her natural intelligence began to assert itself. In Mark's words, she was "bright as hell" and after her graduation, Neela had posted a paper she had written for her A level physics course. Mark had seen it, and suggested to his CERN colleagues that Neela would be an excellent candidate for one of the three internships that were currently available. Long story short, Neela was accepted, and the sun shone brightly on the land.

Well, not quite.

Back in Waziristan, after a number of people had been slaughtered and the goats returned, someone got around to remembering Neela. One of the clan elders, sixty years old and recently widowed (his oft-beaten wife had hurled herself off a cliff) indicated to Neela's parents that he would deign to marry her, thus bestowing great honour on Neela's parents. Her two brothers were sent to fetch her.

They traced her to Geneva, but by this time Neela had got wind of the enterprise. Mark had some leave time available, and he and Neela had fled, and then plunked themselves down at the Manor. In Mark's words, "Mum will know what to do."

Yeah, sure. Solve anything. Anytime. Anywhere.

Before taking any action, however, I wanted to know a bit more about Neela. I took her aside, and learned the following.

A. She really was extremely bright. (Well, so am I. Big deal)

B. She had come to the conclusion that Islam was a crock, and was beginning to think that all organized religion was a gigantic power and money grab. (I began to warm to this girl.)

C. She was aware of her beauty, but didn't trade on it. (If only some similar girls -- oh, never mind.)

D. She was hopelessly in love with Mark. (Uh, oh. This could be problematical. I will have to have a talk with Mark.)

I next had a conversation with my son, and learned that he was smitten, and was convinced that Neela was his entire universe. Well, these things happen. In any event, I decided to act. I realized that the pursuing brothers would not give up easily, "honour" being at stake and all, and therefore a strategy was necessary.

Now a number of people scattered around the global village owed me favours (and I them). I was thus able to learn that the Karim brothers were still in Geneva. I got in touch with a Swiss police officer with whom I had dealings. A few years ago, I had assisted in bringing down an arsonist who hated Swiss cheese and had burned down a number of stores selling the stuff. He was glad to help, located the Karim brothers through their hotel registrations (the Swiss register everything) and discussed the situation with them.

He informed them that their sister had fallen for a wealthy Mexican, and she had left Switzerland for that country. He gave a forwarding address (the Swiss are thorough) at a palatial villa on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, but warned them that it was probably a hangout for one of the drug gangs that currently infest Mexico. I doubted if the Karim brothers would follow that lead up, but if they did, the Mexican drug cartels were just as thorough as the Swiss. Good luck to them.

Still, it would be better if Neela had a new identity entirely. After some help from Sir Harry, who had been pleased at my assessment of the North African eruptions, Neela became a British citizen, with a passport in the name of Beena Patel. At which point we all went out to dinner, and an intense discussion of the where and what of the Higgs bosun.

Well why not?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A New Order In North Africa

Given the recent events in North Africa, I was expecting the call, and was not surprised when it came.

It was, of course, Sir Harry.

"Just what is going on over there?" he said bluntly, while assuming I knew where "there" was, and what specifically was occurring.

"Well," I said, drawing on my Yeats, "the centre cannot hold, the falcon cannot hear the falconer, and a very rough beast --"

"Stop that! I simply want a report, and not one that focuses on the obvious. I can get that from the media. I pay you to go after what is not obvious."

"Will do. And stay away from North Korea. It's a dangerous place."

"How did you -- oh, her, and that WRAITH thing. That we have to talk about some time. Now I would appreciate it if you could get right on it. Bye, now."

Goodness, he even said goodbye. Usually he just hangs up, something which leads me to believe that MI 6 is very, very worried.

Well they have reason to be.

I spent about two hours on the secure line, calling in a number of markers involving an halal butcher in Cairo, an olive farmer in Lebanon and a gold vendor in an Aden souk in Yemen, as well as having a fascinating conversation with a 'madam' I got to know in a Tunis brothel. Sources such as these, once they trust you, will always deliver useful information, and not the 'Will of Allah' drivel shouted out on the street. Or, for that matter, on CNN or Al-Jazeera. So here is my take on things.

The eruptions in Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt all appeared to occur at roughly the same time. This fact seems to have escaped the pundits and analysts reviewing the situation, and it was a fact to which that I gave some consideration. What had triggered all these uprisings? The only thing all had in common was the initial outrage at rising food prices. Hah! There it was, the Gini Coefficient at work. The top 5% of the earners wouldn't give a tinker's damn, but for the
impoverished 95%, it was a matter of life and death.

So the person responsible for all this is Al Gore.

Well, not really. He had just warned about global warming, when he would have been better off rabbiting on about climate change. Nevertheless, climate change has drastically curtailed food production in many places, and farmers take time to adapt to changing conditions. So prices rise, along with anger, and sooner or later there is spillage.

And that spillage that can be very bloody indeed.

[An aside: The Gini Coefficient in America is getting dangerously high. Both Republicans and Democrats should be worried about this; the lowly 95% are exceedingly well-armed. A topic for another day.]

Now to the players in the North African drama.

Lebanon: A thriving middle class and a slew of factions all wanting a piece of the action should be enough to see off Hizbollah. But Hizbollah has all the guns, so things remain dicey.

Tunisia: Tunisians are well-educated, and the middle class is an effective force. Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia, his family elsewhere (including Canada, where they may be sent right back) so things should ease and a new government take shape. If Islamic fundamentalists take charge, however, watch out.

Yemen: A number of my sources saw Yemen as easy prey for Al Qaeda. I am not so sure. Yemen is a tribal society, and clan loyalty will trump lunatic jihadists every time.

Egypt: The biggie. Here two things are of paramount importance, a vibrant and growing middle class (although it needs to grow much larger) and a well-equipped and well-led army (it gave Israel its toughest fight). Those two factors should be able to cope with the Muslim Brotherhood and their call for a 'New Order". Mubarak has already agreed not to run in a future election, and is eying property on the Riviera. We shall see.

And as for the Muslim Brotherhood's call for a 'New Order', I refer them to the words engraved on Franklin Roosevelt's memorial monument:

They who seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individuals call this a new order. It is not new, and it is not order.

Bye, now.