Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Saturday Ramble: Hey Jude!, HS2 blues

River Exe
The River Exe in the aftermath of Hurricane St. Jude

This column is a little late thanks to issues related to Hurricane St. Jude — a very silly name for a big wind. St Jude is apparently associated with disappointment. In the event, for us in Devon and Cornwall at least, it was decidedly overrated as hurricanes go.

Locally, Acting Chief Inspector Robin Hogg, officer in charge of the Silver Command centre in Truro, said, “We planned for the worst and got away with the best.” Give that man a gong.

It was not quite a Michael Fish moment, at least Jude made an appearance. I am aware though that it grew stronger as it moved eastwards, ultimately to Denmark where it has been described as “vicious”.

Fish is the man who now lives on his reputation as the BBC weatherman who miscalled the 1987 storm. “There is not going to be a hurricane,” he announced in tones that reflected all the confident authority adopted by BBC types at important moments in national life.

Then WHAM! — 15 million trees down in Southern England.

It has taken almost a decade to clear up the mess. He is lucky we are not the sort of country that executes people who make drastic mistakes. Instead we make characters of them and wheel them out occasionally to cheer us all up.

We were living in Southern Spain during the 1987 touch of bother, so watched from afar. We didn’t entirely escape though. A year or so later we had the Spanish version: La Niña, the baby girl.

Some baby! Some girl! It originates out in the southern oceans, where it plays havoc with the world’s weather patterns. It’s opposite is El Niño, the baby boy, which raises sea levels and brings storms and calamity over a wide area of the planet. Malevolent twins indeed! Pure Alfred Hitchcock.

I had just bought a brand new villa, custom-made, with views across the Med to Morroco and Gibraltar. It had a flat roof carefully walled around to prevent folk falling off after a few drinks. The Spanish know the English.

The roof was our undoing. In the truly torrential rain of La Niña it quickly filled up and started overflowing. Dirty water poured into the house through every orifice, no matter how small. The walls were ruined. The ceramic floors were covered with a thick layer of Spanish mud.

I sold the house at a loss to a canny local and got rid of the stained contents at a knock down price and headed back to Blighty. It was something of a disaster.

There really is no place like home, where hurricanes are called St Jude, not Baby Girl, and Spanish irony is off the menu.

* * * * *

Listening to Ed Balls talking like a future Chancellor of the Exchequer about the high-speed train project, HS2, makes one’s flesh creep.

After his long stretch as mentor to Gordon Brown which ended with a financial crash and a truly massive deficit and national debt, one wonders how he can be so confident on HS2.

If he does become Chancellor, we will need many high-speed trains, not pointing north but out of the country.

John Evans

Publishing soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world..

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DIARY: Leveson lament, River ramblings, Poppycock Watch: Autumn Statement, Mark Carney, Profundity of the Week


What are we to make of the much-anticipated Leveson Report on the behaviour of the Press? The more one examines it, the more holes it reveals.

At first glance, two points stood out for me. The main one was the unexpected intrusion of “statutory underpinning”, a phrase meant to reassure, but had the opposite effect. Shades of Moscow and Beijing and dark forebodings of rampings up to come.

The other was the dropping in of that most tiresome of quangos, Ofcom. Apart from anything else its head is appointed by government, so represents, for the first time, an official interference in the workings of a Press that has been free for more than 300 years.

Shami Chakrabarti, a Leveson committee member and head of Liberty — a quango-esque outfit — seemed more than a little confused, backtracked on Marr, then appeared to do a backflip on the Today programme.

As a specialist lawyer in the field, if she can’t make sense of it, how are the rest of us meant to? There are far too many loopholes in Leveson for my liking.

It was interesting to see Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, a cultural magazine that never dies, take a stand against the whole package. Could he ultimately be jailed for his rebellion? Unlikely, I would think, given the hardening of attitudes in Fleet Street.

Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg made fools of themselves, jousting for attention and significance. An inadequate showing.

While the Prime Minister was right to reject the statutory angle, he should probably revisit his apparent support for Ofcom involvement. The status quo seems the safest option.

* * * * *

This morning was one of those frequent days here on the Devon-Cornwall peninsula when the seasons go haywire.

Rough northerlies switch to the west and the breeze comes in off the Azores like an angel’s kiss — as the Poet put it. Along the river, shrubs often bloom erratically right up until January, while local people lunch outside at riverside cafes even in February.

Thus it was this morning. Springlike and bracing, the waterbirds making the most of the break from drear winter with its occasional reminders of the Northlands.

On the river — now thankfully back to sedate normality after last week’s flood surge — our lone black swan has returned from his summer break. Incredibly, he has brought a mate with him (see my picture).

Black Swan
Black Swan’s mate

Last spring, he was rather isolated from the white swan colony and often seemed agitated. Now he has a faithful companion whom I’ve named Tonto — even though she’s a girl.

Unusually, beneath her black wing feathers there are some that are snow white. Clearly she’s something of a cross which, instead of producing a greyer colouring, has given her a chequered appearance, especially when preening.

The question now is will they produce cygnets in the spring? That really will draw in the crowds with their cameras and bags of ghastly white bread as offerings to the inhabitants of the waterside.

River cafes are the order of the day here.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
I suppose I should say something about this week’s major event: Exeter Chiefs’ victory over Wasps in the Rugby Premiership Wednesday’s Autumn Statement.

George Osborne is the Lone Ranger these days. Even Tonto has deserted him for a berth on the River Exe [an oblique reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Black Swan]. However, all is not irretrievably lost.

All he need do is steer clear of taxing regional delicacies, mentioning rail fares and anything ending in “gate”, praising Ed Balls, announcing an imminent leadership challenge against David Cameron, commiserating with Paul Tucker, and declaring undying devotion for Brussels.

We wait with bated breath.

Now about Exeter Chiefs …

* * * * *

When I first heard a report that Mark Carney was to become the next Governor of the Bank of England, I misheard it as Martha Kearney, presenter of the BBC’s The World at One. I spent a puzzled hour wondering why.

Anyway, a lot of people seem to like the cut of his Canadian jib, and he certainly appears to be perfectly qualified for the post. As the current holder of Canada’s equivalent berth, plus 10 years experience in the City, including the ubiquitous Goldman Sachs, he out-sparkled a dowdy lineup of hopefuls.

The City of London is crying out for a New-World man — with the exception of Bob Diamond, of course — to breathe new dynamism into its ancient institutions. To say that the Square Mile has gone from “hero to zero” is to ignore the seriousness of the situation.

Wall Street is fighting tigerishly to regain top spot among financial centres, and while the City still has dominance in foreign exchange, including a new franchise for China’s currency, the renmimbi, it continues to take on the aspect of a ricketty house of cards.

The list of frauds allegedly prosecuted there would not be believed if they appeared in a Jeffery Archer thriller.

Let’s hope that Martha Mark Carney can steady the ship. London needs a Nelson not a Drake now. A game of bowls simply will not do.

* * * * *

Profundity of the Week
“Are you aware that you are time-travelling every moment of your life? What happens if you stop?” Unknown

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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Diary: EU misses UK already, Costa Losta, Mitt’s a hit, Poppycock Watch: Ed Balls, Profundity of the Week: Midwinter

British Lion Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper (FAZ) cautions the European Union against shrugging away a precipitate British withdrawal.

“… the consequences for the EU itself would be harmful. For foreign, security and defence policy action in Europe excluding the UK — that’s a pretty ridiculous idea. Just a Europe that exists in the world, wants to protect its interests and exert influence, should do everything possible to bring along a country like Britain.

“Of course, its idiosyncrasies are not easy to bear, [Cameron’s] demands extremely selfish. But Britain’s position is not just wrong because the British national institutions (much) closer than the European, and they tend to look at institutional development in general as misplaced priorities.” (Translation by Google)

What this illustrates is that Britain has an unassailable bargaining position in forming exactly how the trading relationship — minus the rest — will develop in the near future.

I am reluctantly coming round to Open Europe’s position that a straight in/out referendum could trap the UK in EU membership for decades if the electorate panics and votes for the status quo. This is perilous territory and could be manipulated by europhiliac politicians playing a sneaky game. Don’t rule that out.

Let’s use the muscle we have to state clearly that Britain wants a return to full self-government, trade freedom and fishing rights, plus the elimination of swathes of regulation from Brussels. Britain must no longer be owned by the EU.

Uniquely, that would be possible if the view of FAZ’s foreign bureau chief is acted upon with dispatch and determination.

I enjoyed his opinion of our weirdness, though: “Of course, its idiosyncrasies are not easy to bear, [Cameron’s] demands extremely selfish.”


* * * * *

If you have ever been to Totnes in Devon, you will have come away with one of two impressions. Either, it’s a town for eco-nuts and vegetarian throw-backs, or it’s a place of magic and mystery in an idyllic, unspoilt country setting.

As a confirmed worshipper of the West Country in all its aspects, I naturally hold the latter view.

Totnes is unique partly because its picturesque main street on a hill is filled to overflowing with independent businesses and shops of the craft, hand-made, medieval variety. It is a throw-back, but in the best possible taste.

This year one of the big, bustling high-street chains threatened its integrity. Costa Coffee was all set to take over the spacious premises of a health food store. It had already signed the lease and had council approval.

But, hell hath no fury like perfection scorned. The extremely vocal locals sprang into action. The story even made the nationals in the form of Minette Marrin’s column in The Sunday Times this summer.

Costa knew it was doomed. Today we heard it had backed out and left the battlefield with its tapas between its legs.

The modern world had been splattered and sent packing back “up country” where it belongs.

The magic spells did their trick.

* * * * *

After watching the US presidential election debates and devouring the views of various pundits and commentators on both sides of the argument, I’ve come to the ineluctable conclusion that Mitt Romney should be the next President of the United States.

Barack Obama looks tired after four years in office, and with the country mired in debt — $15 trillion, can you believe? — and a massive “fiscal cliff” looming in January, the situation is becoming desperate. If the United States tips into that chasm, it will take down most of the world’s economies with it, especially in Europe.

Republican Mitt Romney in the White House would rein back the GOP’s intransigence over the fiscal deadlock, at least enough to get past the latest crisis point. He will know that the previous Republican president, George W. Bush contributed to the present budgetary dangers and will seek to steer the ship of state into calmer waters.

ObamaCare will probably be doomed, or drastically amended. Defence spending will surely be trimmed by the imminent Afghan withdrawal and a redrawing of defence priorities from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

All this might happen whoever wins, but Romney’s sharp business sense could make a difference to America’s prospects in a uniquely turbulent world. Britain should welcome that outcome.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Ed Balls is one of those politicians who think they can blag their way out of anything.

Take the structural deficit, for example. This is the part of a government’s budget deficit that covers ongoing public services and employment. Payments recur regularly until the recipients are laid off and services scrapped.

Thus reducing a structural defict is painful and can lead to other built-in costs through the automatic stabilisers: unemployment benefits and social security safety nets. These are normally benign and can provide a balancing stimulus in hard times, unless they get beyond the capacity of an economy to pay. That is where we are now.

As Gordon Brown’s mentor-in-chief, Balls was behind a catastrophic increase in these state liabilities, not least the burgeoning of risible non-jobs in the public sector.

Following today’s announcement of a welcome 1pc increase in the nation’s economic growth, Balls has been trailing round the media centres claiming there was no structural deficit when he was in power.

Naturally, the astute political editors and commentators have gone to town on him. He might have been a little contrite, but that was never New Labour’s way.

Instead, he has now lost all credibility and joins Blair and Brown in political purdah.

* * * * *

Profundity of the Week
“I am a dweller in Old England. I am wholly content, for my calling is philosophy. I stand aside in life, and strike no blows and make no bargain, but I learn that which is hid from others.” From Midwinter by John Buchan.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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