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Modern life

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“Conservatives are not necessarily stupid, but most stupid people are conservatives.”

John Stuart Mill

I have manfully resisted (with but a few exceptions) making any commentary on the grim farce that is being played out in the old country in the matter of the leaving (or otherwise) of the European Union. The reasons for my reticence will – I feel sure – be obvious to many. Quite aside from any other consideration it is hard in the extreme to know what one could possibly write about this farrago (which quandary does not, sadly, seem to stop many of the more rabid online commentators).

If it weren’t all so damnably serious it would be quite good fun watching the Tory party twisting in the breeze as they try to hold together the fractious coalition of extremists of all hues that is their core constituency. Unfortunately the matter is serious – and thus no fun at all.

Yesterday’s ‘deal’ – which will apparently enable negotiations to move on to the next phase (trade talks) in the long, long process – was such an extraordinary piece of work, however, that my breath was quite taken away. I cannot decide whether it is a work of utter genius or just more stupid than can possibly be imagined. Without going too far into the nuts and bolts of the whole ghastly business, much of the recent debate has concerned the impossibility of maintaining a soft (ie – no controls) boarder post-Brexit between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (very much a member of the EU). The rebarbative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland  (who are currently keeping the Tories in power as a result of a desperately poor post-election decision by the PM) scuppered the first attempt at an agreement on the very reasonable grounds that they didn’t want a ‘boarder’ between themselves and the UK either.

The essential paradox at the heart of the ‘interesting‘ compromise that was eventually agreed was summed up by online commentator, Andrew80, thus:

“That agreement in plain text:

  1. We’re leaving the EU single market and the customs union.
  2. There will be no hard border between NI and Ireland.
  3. To avoid that, we’ll come up with something clever.
  4. Failing that, we will stay in the single market and the customs union.”

The devil is – as ever – in the detail and the detail here will be decided at a later stage in the process… or not! This classic fudge – essentially kicking the can as far down the road as is possible – seems to have achieved the impossible and united all shades in… in what no-one quite seems to know! According to a range of commentators of all complexions the agreement is a vindication of their position. Others – again of all hues – are apoplectic with rage at this ‘betrayal’.

I guess that for Theresa May this counts as a ‘result‘!

You literally could not make this stuff up…

 

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Image by Andrew Thomas on WikimediaI could not resist sharing with the gentle reader this extract from a longer opinion piece concerning public offence – by Tim Dowling of The Guardian. In my view Tim absolutely nails it!

This snippet goes under the banner “In-flight entertainment“:

 

“Which brings me to the giant penis in the sky. If you know about it at all, you will have seen the image online at the weekend: a huge penile outline – with testicles – drawn using the condensation trail of a US military aircraft. About 2,500 people from Okanogan county in Washington state had a brief opportunity to be offended by it, although I can’t find any accounts of actual outrage – and one has to assume the locals are the source of all those gleefully retweeted pics.

I will admit that my first reaction to the image was: skill. I think all trainee pilots should be able to trace a passable penis in the sky before they graduate. The US navy thought different: it apologised for “this irresponsible and immature act”, and grounded the air crew of the E/A-18 Growler responsible. But I have to say that this is my kind of public offence: immature, irresponsible and absolutely massive. If there’s a better use of the $67m fighter jet, I can’t think of it.”

Too true…

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“At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas of which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is “not done” to say it… Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.”

George Orwell

I found myself quite taken aback the other night whilst watching the season opener for the new series of ‘Saturday Night Live’ on the TV. The item concerned was actually pretty funny; a skit featuring actor Ryan Gosling delivering a rant about the designer of the credits on James Cameron’s film ‘Avatar‘ having chosen the font ‘Papyrus’ for the main titles.

I was surprised because I had not heard that this was ‘a thing’ – (or what would now probably be referred to a ‘meme’). The InterWebNet rapidly set me right – informing me that Papyrus is one of the most hated fonts ever and offering me a panoply of websites dedicated to pejorative references to its usage. The level of loathing was well up to usual InterWebNet standards, comparing the antipathy toward the typeface to that of ‘Comic Sans’ (though I did find it amusing that some wag had apparently merged the two to create what was briefly called ‘Comic Papyrus’ before being renamed for legal reasons to ‘Comic Parchment’. Blimey!).

Now – let’s sort out issues of self-interest right away. I use Papyrus in the banner for this site and have also used it in other places for titles. I like the font and I think that – in the right place – it works pretty well. So there!

Clearly at least some of the antipathy is simply down to popularity. Microsoft inadvertently created a monster by including the relatively obscure font with their Office suite, thus giving access to those who had no right to such things. Popularity seems to bring out the worst in some people and when Microsoft is involved it is clearly open season.

Certainly a case could be made concerning over (or inappropriate) use, but I suspect that something else is going on here. On one design website an article going by the title ‘10 Iconic Fonts and Why You Should Never Use Them’ includes the following:

“Unlike other reviled typefaces, though, Papyrus isn’t bad because it is overused: it’s bad because it just doesn’t look good. Kitschy, cheap and vile, Papyrus has no place in your designs.”

Ok – so those judgements are subjective in the extreme and the designer who wrote the article is an eighteen year-old entrepreneur, but do I detect a slight whiff of professional snobbery here?

Now – I spent forty years as an IT professional and it was certainly annoying when someone who had bought a computer from a store and read a couple of magazines believed that they knew better than I how to run an IT service – but the world has changed and the gap between the professional and the ‘amateur’ is no longer as wide as it used to be. Yes – I studied Computer Science and built a career in IT; I also spent more than four decades learning without formal training how to be a musician, a composer, a writer, a theatre practitioner… and in each of these I was aided by the rapid development of tools that placed in the hands of those who cared to put in the time and effort the means to reach a pretty decent standard.

The point surely is that – counter to some recent views to the contrary – ‘experts’ are a good thing… but that their expertise should be based on wisdom and such wisdom is usually acquired through (extensive) experience. Once achieved such doyens will doubtless be wise enough to recognise when some spotty youth armed with an iThing has actually produced something that they themselves could only dream of.

Flame off!

 

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Image by Jeff Dahl on Wikimedia.orgI wouldn’t mind betting that the anecdote that forms the basis of this post will ring a bell with many who read it – with similar circumstances being quickly brought to mind… because – after all – that’s just the way life is!

Way back in the early 1980s the BBC produced a six-part adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘school’ novel – ‘Stalky & Co’. The piece translated well into six thirty-minute episodes because it had in fact originated as a set of individually published stories that Kipling had subsequently fleshed out into book form.

I enjoyed the stories enormously, being set in a boys’ boarding school (based on the United Services College in Devon which Kipling had himself attended) and featuring as they do a gang of juvenile protagonists who display a know-it-all, cynical attitude to patriotism and authority which was – naturally – right up my street. I subsequently bought the book and it is one of those that I still revisit on a regular basis.

At some point it occurred to me that it would be good to own a copy of the BBC series on DVD as well. Unfortunately, the usual investigations on the InterWebNet revealed  that the BBC had not thought fit to release the series, though I did find an online petition (the which I quickly signed) urging the corporation so to do.

I thought no more about it; the years passed and ‘life’ happened!

Then, at the end of July this year – whilst pursuing an online link on a related topic – I discovered that the petition must have had an effect, because the series had finally been released (in a very stripped down form – ie, just the media with no add-ons) and could be purchased from Amazon in the UK. I did so immediately and then sat back to await further news.

After a while I received an email telling me that the DVDs had been dispatched and should be delivered to me in Canada by 17th August. That date came and went with no sign of the goods. Being familiar by this point with the vagaries of Canada Post I thought I should leave things for a while, but finally – after another month had passed – I decided to contact Amazon. Those who have had reason to do such a thing will know that it takes considerable effort as the company goes out of its way to make it as difficult a possible, but I persevered and a few days ago awoke to find an email from Amazon UK acknowledging my query, apologising for my delivery clearly having gone astray and promising to send out a fresh copy.

As I probably hardly need add… when I visited our post box at the end of the street later that very same day – sure enough – there were the missing DVDs!

Hmmmmm!

 

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“Hard times require furious dancing”

Poems by Alice Walker

Sometimes it is difficult to know quite what to write…

There was a relatively brief period – of which my recollections are still very clear – back towards the end of the last century during which it seemed that a corner had been turned and that the world was after all going to become a better place.

The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Iron Curtain had been rent asunder. Apartheid had been consigned to the trashcan of history and there was hope of a long-awaited resolution to the Irish question. Reaganism and Thatcherism had been kicked – if not actually into then certainly in the general direction of – the extremely long grass.

Things could only get better…

Then came the millennium… and we all know what happened next!

The further that recent history descends determinedly into farce the harder it becomes to conceive any rational view of it.

In the UK the tory party – clearly considering its brilliant strategy of holding (and losing) an entirely unnecessary referendum on leaving Europe to be an unqualified success – repeated the exercise by calling (and losing its majority at) an entirely unnecessary election. Seems that the tories – believing that they currently face no viable opposition from other parties – have determined to do the deed themselves and have emptied the barrels of the shotgun into both feet simultaneously.

One might take some pleasure from the unexpectedly reasonable performance (certainly with regard to its recent history) of the UK labour party, were it not for the fact that they seem to be enthusiastically celebrating losing the election by some fifty seats! Strange days indeed!

Then – of course – there is Trump! Trump!! How on earth did the world get from Obama to Trump?!

Of recent terrorist atrocities throughout the world it is also hard to know what more can be said – though it is clearly important to say something if only to reinforce that which we all know already – that this too shall pass. However painful for those directly involved, in retrospect it will become clear that in the grand sweep of world progress these small tragedies will be shown up for what they truly are – utterly meaningless and mindless.

One of the truest things I have read recently concerning these hideous events was penned by Guardian journalist Hugh Muir under the banner “This is a war on joy“:

“There is no obvious or significant ambition to destroy the pillars of the state: the men who use cars and vans as weapons and strike at random with foot-long knives aren’t obviously seeking to obliterate army barracks or police stations or the Bank of England. Theirs is a war not on the foundations of a free society or on our vital infrastructure, but on people enjoying the benefits of a free society. It is, in many ways, a war on joy, motivated by a warped sense of piety.

We go out and dance and drink and eat. To zealots, these things are decadent and trivial. Yet they are in themselves small acts of political symbolism: we go where we like, do what we like, wear what we want, we love whom we choose, because we have a social framework and a political system that largely allows us to do that. If the extremists cannot dismantle the system, or the foundations that underpin it – and they know they cannot – then they seek to strike and terrorise ordinary citizens who benefit from the gaiety it offers and the freedom it brings…

But there is a bigger danger, and it is that we now start to think twice about the things that bring joy – the night in a pub or a music-filled bar or club, the evening of shared experience in a public place, the mass sporting events, the standing-room-only concert halls, the shopping malls, the cinemas, the theatres – the many experiences that give life texture and richness. The risk in those places isn’t likely to disappear any time soon, for they seem to encapsulate everything the murderers hate. But the risk will always be minimal; we are going to have to price it in. How we work, how we play: they are two sides of the same coin. Even at a time as painful as this, the biggest risk is that we let the zealots rob us of what makes us who we are.”

You heard the man… Go out and spread joy!

 

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There are many across the globe – it would seem – who have over the last half decade or so (and certainly since the financial crisis of 2008) come to feel that the society of which they are a part has been of late seriously in ‘democratic deficit’. They may be right.

Certainly there have been in recent times a plethora of elections and referenda throughout the western world and in the melee that passes for electoral normality these days the body politic has done its best to destroy any possible vestige of complacency in those who govern us – by means of the delivery of a number of short (and not so short), sharp shocks to the system. Once upon a time we might have called this ‘sticking it to the man‘ – but we were all a great deal younger then!

In the UK the repercussions from the 2016 Brexit referendum will rumble on for years yet and may even lead at some point to a rerun of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Prime Minister Theresa May – in an effort to demonstrate irrefrangibly the strength and stability of her government – has decided that the UK has not suffered enough at the polls in recent years and has called another (apparently one-sided) election for June. She has presumably been seduced by the prospect of doing to the UK Labour party what the Progressive Conservative Party did to the Social Credit Party in the 1984 Canadian federal election (and in turn had done to them by the Liberals in the 1993 election!).

Trump’s administration in the US is the gift that keeps on giving… should you happen be a satirist (or indeed just a smug cynic who likes to be proved right!). The orange one has only held the reigns of power for a few (though seemingly endless) months, but has already provided enough material for a trilogy of (extremely weird) mordant film-scripts. You quite literally could not make this stuff up!

The outcome of the recent French election was met with divergent reactions throughout the western world. The heavy sighs of relief from well-meaning social democrats everywhere as the French (following the example recently set by the Dutch) chose to reject the far-right populism of Le Pen for the centrist Emmanuel Macron were, of course, to be expected – not to mention welcomed with open arms. The howls of rage of those on the right in countries having little connection with France took me momentarily aback. A little contemplation, however, shed further light on the matter.

In a manner somewhat akin to that of the Bolsheviks in the early years of the last century (who believed that their communist revolution must not be limited to Mother Russia and her colonies but must sweep across the civilised world) those on the far right require that all nations should bow to their brand of populism… that the European Union must be seen to fail, that all forms of collaboration must be suppressed and that the globe should revert to comprising a set of adversarial nation states.

As ever there are some areas in which the right and the left are practically bedfellows. Both strains reserve their greatest hatred, not for each other, but for those who occupy the centre ground. The recognition in the latter part of the last century that elections are primarily won and lost in the centre inspired such dogmatists to paroxysms of rage. What they required of the centre was a large pool of clear blue water, such that their class war might be kept alive indefinitely.

One thus finds oneself assaulted by those on both flanks (though particularly by those on the left in this case) braying about the failure of centrist, liberal politics, along with the demand that such be consigned to the dustbin of history – all the while conveniently ignoring the fact that their own brand of dogma has itself demonstrably failed repeatedly.

Such ironies…

In British Columbia – meanwhile – the recent provincial election resulted in the first minority government for many a long year, with the crucial balancing riding being won by a mere nine votes!

Now that’s how you send a message!

 

 

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Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul

William Ernest Henley

On all too many occasions over the past five years I have found myself eschewing the gentle whimsy with which these meanderings are customarily imbued and instead penning some heartfelt lament for the state of a world in which acts of violence and horror have become almost commonplace. Watching from afar such scenes being played out on streets and in locations that are beyond merely familiar takes on a particular poignancy. My deepest condolences and sympathies to all those who have been affected by this latest atrocity, played out at the gates of the mother of parliaments in London.

I find it impossible to imagine what could possibly go through the mind of someone who could commit such a heinous crime. What I do know is that – should such a creature have any means of rational thought whatsoever – their reasoning could not possibly be that the act that they are about to perpetrate could make the slightest difference to – or to advance in any way at all – whatever cause or belief it is that they espouse.

Put simply, terrorism – the purpose of which is presumably to sew fear in the minds of a population – does not work! Further – I can think of few places (other perhaps than Glasgow!) that it might work less than in London. I had drawn to my attention this morning these two headlines following yesterday’s incident:

You’re not even in our top five worries, Londoners tell extremists

Londoners show defiance by remaining unfriendly and quite impatient

This stoic response should come as little surprise. The gentle reader will recall that during the second world war Blitz some 32,000 lives were lost, 87,000 persons were seriously injured and more than a million properties destroyed or damaged in London alone. What might be less well known is that over the decades since the IRA’s mainland campaign started in the early 1970s London has been subjected to in excess of two hundred different terror assaults.

There is little more to say. Didn’t work then… Won’t work now!

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Image from Wikimedia“The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth”

Jean-Paul Sartre

The release this week of UK cabinet papers from the 1980s reveals as true something that opponents of Margaret Thatcher’s administration have long protested – that she and other leading tories had continued to plan the dismantling of the welfare state – including the privatisation of education and the National Heath Service – even in the wake of her sophistical proclamation that “the health service is safe in our hands“.

It is – of course – jejune to be shocked at the mendacity and dishonesty of politicians of all hues… a truism that has been borne out in spades this year. As far as I can recall I graduated my own education in such matters shortly after the 1979 UK general election in which Thatcher came to power. That election campaign had featured prominently the infamous Saatchi and Saatchi advert showing a long snaking queue for the dole (unemployment) office, under the banner heading “Labour isn’t Working“.

In 1979 the tories inherited an unemployed total of 1.4 million. The monetarist policies pursued by the Thatcher government saw this figure rapidly rocket to north of 3 million! It subsequently became apparent that the thinkers behind the tories’ strategy – and in particular Keith Joseph, the chief architect thereof – had known all along that their policies would indeed cause unemployment to soar… a price that they considered ‘worth’ paying.

Such hypocrisies have led me to adopt the attitude attributed to Louis Herren – foreign correspondent for The Times in the 1960s and 70s. He would ask himself – on being briefed by some politician or other – “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?“.

Good advice!

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Image from Pixabay…of optimism – if I may (though not, sadly, for the short term!).

Political events on either side of the Atlantic over the past months have left those of centre and left of centre persuasions reeling. The next few years are going to be bloody; there is no getting away from it. There is also, sadly, little that can be done to improve matters in the short term.

It is, however, time to start looking beyond this immediate grim future… and therein – I believe – will be discovered the tender shoots of optimism. By way of explication of this unlikely notion I must first needs muse a while on that oft abused ‘philosophy’ – Neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has its roots considerable further back than the 1980s, but it was during that harsh decade that it reappeared renewed in its most virulent and corrosive form. The petrol crisis of the early 1970s that ended the long boom of the post war years led directly to the 1973/74 stock market crash and the 1974/75 recession. The years of discontent that followed unbolted the door to conservatives on both sides of the pond and they gleefully kicked it in. Carried to power on a now familiar wave of populism Thatcher and Reagan led the forces of the right on a rampage through the economies of UK and the US respectively – slashing regulation, selling off the family jewels, disposing of the unions and setting in motion the destruction of long established manufacturing industries.

So powerful was this tidal flow that in the UK the left was swept away on a tsunami of free market ideation. For a decade and a half it looked as though there would never again be a route to power for left and centre left parties. In the end the Labour party re-imagined itself (as did the Democratic Party in the US – though it had considerably less far to travel) as a party of the centre by adopting much of the ideology of the right. The much vaunted ‘third way‘ claimed to offer the benefits of both sides – the market discipline of the right with the social conscience of the left. Once the Tory Party in the UK had succumbed in its usual manner to avarice and corruption this cocktail brought New Labour victory in three successive elections.

The problem was that the ‘third way‘ was not actually a third way at all, but one of the original two ways with a slightly better user interface. In fact the centre parties on both sides of the pond had actually swallowed Neoliberalism hook, line and sinker. It may perhaps be that some thinkers on the left (and of the centre) thought that the creature could be tamed. They were to discover to their cost that it could not.

Though the true nature of the beast might have been determined from the start had anyone looked closely enough it took the financial crash of 2008 to finally bring home the repellent side effects. By opening the world to unfettered global trade (much aided by advances in technology) Neoliberalism enabled corporations and individuals to effectively detach themselves from individual nation states and thus to remove themselves from political influence and control. This trend has had many unpleasant consequences, not the least of which is that those concerned now pretty much only pay taxes when, where and to whatever level they feel inclined. This inevitably only increases the ever growing divide between the less than 1% and the rest of us.

The financial crash itself was enabled by totally inadequate regulation of the worldwide financial system; a result of decades of compromise and of paring back. This only encouraged the arrogant beliefs on the part of those immediately concerned that the credit bubble by which means growth had been ‘sustained’ into the new millennium might be extended indefinitely through sharp practice…

…which brings us smartly up to date with Brexit and the US Presidential Election. The unexpected outcomes of those ballots were not only the result of the lost millions expressing their anger at being left behind by the ever increasing inequality, but more so that those souls (along with many others who might themselves actually have done reasonably well) were left feeling utterly powerless to influence events through the democratic process, since that process itself – as a direct result of the Neoliberal agenda – was no longer able so to do. Little wonder then that when an opportunity presented itself to raise a finger (or two) to those seen as representatives or lackeys of the ‘elites’ the electorates grasped the chance with both hands.

 

Yes – I do realise that this peroration has thus far not exactly exuded optimism. Well – here’s the nub…

What has transpired this year has been a massive wake-up call. In neither the UK nor the US can politics carry on being ‘business as usual’. That model is broken. What now needs urgently to happen is that the centre and the left of centre must start over and build themselves completely afresh – learning not only from what has happened, but also from how and why it happened. This represents a huge opportunity – such perhaps as has not been presented since the end of the second world war. And – concerning that prospect – I feel optimistic.

Thinking caps on…

…flame off!

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Image from PexelsAnd you may ask yourself
What is that beautiful house?
And you may ask yourself
Where does that highway go to?
And you may ask yourself
Am I right?…Am I wrong?
And you may say to yourself
My God!…What have I done?!

“Once in a Lifetime” – David Byrne, Brian Eno, Chris Frantz, Jerry Harrison and Tina Weymouth

I have not been averse – within the bounds of these jottings – to venturing occasional comment on matters relating to current affairs. My motivation for so doing – it must be said – is usually engendered by feelings akin to horror and even despair at the manner in which at least some of the inhabitants of this fragile planet choose to conduct their (and by extension our) affairs.

I have made no comment thus far on the 2016 American Presidential Election. In common with many on this side of the border I find myself watching in fascinated horror the interminable slow-motion train wreck that has been what feels like the longest electoral contest in history. How can the observer not be rendered slack-jawed at the effect on the campaign of the extensive computer hacking by unidentified foreign agencies – or of the farcical on-again/off-again (but very public!) enquiry by the FBI into the modus operandi of one of the candidates?

In a race in which neither of the leading contenders inspires much in the way of confidence there is – amongst many to whom I have spoken here –  frank disbelief that the Republican candidate could even have qualified to stand for office – given the outrageous and frankly libelous nature of many of his pronouncements – let alone to be yet in the race for the presidency.

It does make one wonder at the hordes of apparently immutable devotees who seem so determined to deal a blow to the American political system that they could be so utterly blinded to the nature of the beast that they intend to install in the White House. It seems that no logic – no rational debate – no reasoning can get through to them. Truth is meaningless to those capable of holding contemporaneously such totally antithetical beliefs.

It is impossible not to compare the situation in the US with that in the UK, which has itself appeared over the last few years equally determined to self-harm to the greatest degree possible. I have ventured previously some horrified comments on the apparent willingness on the part of a small majority of the population to take a gigantic and unprecedented gamble on the economic and social future of the nation – again apparently based on the hazy notion of turning itself into some chimerical wishful-thinking fantasy version of the country that never was, nor ever could be.

The latest twist in this self-destructive saga came at the end of last week when the UK High Court ruled that the British Parliament should be consulted and hold a vote before Article 50 (the mechanism that would lead to Britain leaving the European Union) could be triggered. The executive had intended to put this into effect without any such consultation. This piece of democratic common sense was greeted by some of the more repellent UK newspapers with headlines such as “Enemies of the People” over images of the judges involved. The deep irony that a key feature of the Brexit campaign was supposedly the return of sovereignty to the British Parliament was utterly lost on those apparently unable to think clearly through the fog of their own rage.

Given the real tragedies that are being played out in the Middle East and elsewhere it seems wrong to fixate on the political idiocies of first world nations – however much their antics may cause us to rend our garments and tear our hair.

Bah!

Enough seriousness, though. My next post will feature photos of BC in the autumn (fall!).

Promise!

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