It’s Downhill All The Way

Today’s blog came about after a friend on FaceBook wrote complaining of the usual aches and pains of old age, especially as her 65th birthday was that day.  One of her friends commented that at her age it was going to be downhill all the way from now on.

When I read his comment I knew what he meant, but the more I read that sentence I came up with a totally different interpretation and left her a comment that she should be more positive and think of the future as “Downhill all the Way” as though she was riding a bicycle and from now on is going to be freewheeling downhill all the way.  Wheee! Lift your feet off the pedals, and go!

The landmark age when you become eligible to collect your pension certainly doesn’t have to mean that you suddenly become decrepit or senile.  The Government doesn’t even call it an old age pension or even a retirement pension.  It’s the State Pension now, more political correctness!

 We are now being told that 60 is the new 40 and that 60 is now middle-aged.  What it is telling us that improved medical science has meant that we are living longer and we are aware that sensible eating is vital.  Certainly with life expectancy being so advanced those things have changed.  100 years ago a person of 60 would have been considered very old and 200 years ago 60 would probably have meant that you were dead.

In the past years we hear how each decade makes the population younger – 40 is the new 20, 50 the new 30 and 60 the new 40 – At this rate aging sounds exciting.  Truthfully aging can be difficult on all levels, emotionally, physically and spiritually.  It’s how we work these categories that will make the difference between feeling 40 and feeling 60.

Truthfully old age is a state of mind and there is no doubt that people who have a younger outlook are healthier in old age.  People who consider themselves frail are more likely to abandon activities which can keep them healthy in old age, such as taking regular exercise and others with a positive attitude can remain socially active and healthy and enjoy a greater quality of life despite having equal or greater levels of physical weakness.

A recent study found among people whose ages ranged from 66 to 98 whom had varying levels of physical health – some who lived independently and other who were under some sort or care.  Participants were asked about their experience of aging and frailty, to determine how their attitude could affect their health and quality of life.

Most participants even those in poor physical shape, maintained that they were still in good condition, with one commenting “If people think they are old and frail they will act like they are old and frail”.  There were two people who took part in the study who did consider themselves frail and their outlook had led them to withdraw from socialising and exercise even though they were physically stronger than others in the study.

So that’s the answer isn’t it? Age is a state of mind!  Well from experience I can assure that although that is a great help, its medical advances are probably the greatest help in keeping old buggers ticking over.  It is paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to the majority but the idea of getting old doesn’t appeal to anyone.

My own outlook on life is that old age starts 15 years from now!  I am old enough to have served on an armed merchantman in the Korean War and to have damaged my hearing in an underwater explosion when clearing the wrecks of ships sunk by Colonel Nasser (spit) in the Suez Conflict.  I’ve shot people and been shot at and came out unscathed (physically that is), mentally my brain has given me a death wish by taking part in dangerous sports and pursuits from white water canoeing, ocean racing, rock climbing and surfing and I still participate in anything that I think I physically can!

Medical science over the years has given me carbon fibre pins in my medial and cruciate ligaments in my left leg, prosthetic stainless steel joints in both knees and two replacement thumb joints.  I took my new knees up Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons to do the ‘Fan Dance’ without using a walking stick or even hiking poles, just to prove that I could.  Early this year I walked the Watkin Path up Snowden until I got out of breath somewhere beyond the Gladstone Rock.  Two months ago I went to Perranporth to go surfing.  I discovered that I can no longer stand up on a board because of my dodgy knees but I enjoyed a bit of belly boarding.  I was knackered after half an hour and found the water too cold for these old bones.

In about three weeks time my son is throwing me a party which is called “I can’t believe he’s eighty” which is very kind of him.  He was born in 1961 so I suppose that makes him only the new 35.  Do you know I’ve never heard anyone say that 80 is the new anything – just 80 so I suppose I shall keep celebrating that it’s Downhill All the Way! Wheee – here I come no brakes – Wheee!

Thanks for listening; I’ll see you again next week!  If I’m spared…



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And for the very last time – “Rio isn’t the right venue”

I promise that this will be the very last blog that I write telling you that “I told you so” about the stupidity of holding the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  It’s been almost seven years since Rio de Janeiro was chosen to host the 2016 Summer Olympics and I’ve been telling anyone who would listen, that it was a big mistake.

All I could think of when I saw Barack Obama was flying to Denmark to pursue his home town of Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Games.  All I could say was great, anywhere but the UK.  Then I saw that the winner of the Olympic lottery was Rio de Janeiro and very unlike me, I was lost for words.  I was struck dumb, where have the Olympic Committee been for the past 30 years?  To be honest my first thoughts were to suspect the honesty and integrity of the whole panel.  No-one with any nuance at all could not know that Rio de Janeiro is known the world over as the City of Violence, the City of Corruption.

The opening ceremony is this week.  So far we have had one competitor apparently mugged by an armed Police Officer in uniform who took him to a cash point to empty his bank account.  We have had Bernie Ecclestone’s Mother-in-Law kidnapped and held to ransom for £30 Million. Fortunately the kidnappers have been arrested and she was released after 13 days, unharmed and without the ransom being paid.

Policemen, whose salaries were delayed by a bankrupt state government, have been greeting arrivals at the International Airport with a sign, written in English, “Welcome to Hell”.  Well they have been warned.  The promised and much vaunted Metro Line extension and the Bus Corridor which were promised to be the games legacy for the residents are nearly 2 years behind schedule.  Bus links are also late.   Days ahead of the opening ceremony, traffic has caused chaos with 20 kilometres of tailbacks in traffic jams.  A friend tells me that her normal 1 hour commute took her 4 hours.

The new Metro extension which finally opened last Monday is only available to Olympic ticket or pass holders.  Commuters with not be allowed to use the extension until the end of the year.  By the way the Metro extension stops more than 10 kilometres short of the Games Venues, so for the remainder of the journey visitors will have to use buses or taxis to add to the traffic jams.

Rio’s high crime rate is already up on its already high world ratings.  There are many reports of drivers caught in traffic jams being physically dragged from their cars and robbed.  On top of Rio’s local difficulties they are compounded by a national crisis.  Brazil is suffering from a really severe recession, it’s President Dilma Rouseff, is being impeached on charges of manipulating government accounts; an interim government is in charge.  Rio is one of the centres of this national dysfunction.  Petrobras, the state-controlled oil firm is at the centre of a multibillion dollar scandal is based in Rio.  The city’s policemen are no exception to Rio’s violent norm; they killed 40 people in May this year alone.  Last year 133 people died violently just in Santa Cruz, a deceptively tranquil district at Rio’s western tip.  Meanwhile in the Favelas, the shanty towns that cling to the hillsides and which house over 20% of the population, the shoot outs between gangsters and trigger happy police have become even more frequent and the death toll continues to rise

The federal government has sent 27,000 soldiers and national guards to fight crime and prevent terrorism.  There are a number of Jihadist threats and some home grown ones have had their plots foiled.  In spite of Rio’s reputation as a party city famous for its fiestas and carnivals and the forthcoming Olympic opening ceremony taking to the streets, the mood in Rio is very downbeat and even a successful games is not going to be enough to lift that depression.  It has spectacular scenery but that is not going to be enough to compete with outbreaks of mosquito borne diseases, sewage infested bodies of waters with levels of viruses so high that athletes competing in them are in life threatening danger.

Apart from health concerns for the athletes, and horrendous crime threats, there is also civil unrest among Brazilians themselves over misappropriated funds for the games and a worry that this may be remembered as among the worst in Summer Games history.  I will reserve my judgement until a later date but I still have to say “I told you so”

There I’ve said it and I promise that I will not say it again.  If you are interested in my warnings over the past seven years my blog at will take you there and has links to all of my previous Rio rants.  In spite of that I hope the games are more successful than I predict.  Especially for the British teams, for the sailors I wish you fair winds and following seas with no life threatening detritus.  

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You talkin’ to me?

There’s no-one else here, so who do you think I’m talking to?  I’ve begun talking to myself and I’ve no idea when it started.  “What have I come upstairs for?”  Out loud and often without knowing that I’m doing it.  Did it come with my grey hair, the wrinkles, or expanding waistline?  Kids do it without embarrassment all of the time, they even have imaginary friends, but at my age?  No, what I do is furtively look around me wondering if anyone heard me.

It doesn’t help that another of my signs of old age is that I have become very deaf and I’m not sure how loud I am speaking.  Perhaps if I lived alone it would make more sense, but I don’t, I live with my very understanding wife.  She is quite used to being asked if she has moved my watch/reading glasses etc. But now it’s me that I am speaking to.

The more I write my web logs to keep this old brain ticking over and I research a subject or recall something from my past for a story, I find myself chatting to myself and suddenly realise that I’m chatting loud and I’m guiltily looking around to make sure that I’m alone.

Oh my Lord, where do I go from here?  Will I find myself dressed in Salvation Army couture pushing a stolen Waitrose trolley along the street as I hold loud, dribbling conversations with myself?  Should I get myself a dog that can act as a ‘beard’ to hide behind?  Nah! I’m a cat person and my cat always knew that I was weird.  He was also totally irreplaceable.  Sometimes now that he is no longer with us I find myself chatting to him.  I just hope that no-one hears my conversations.

Talking to yourself is supposed to be a bad sign.  What about hearing voices. Also bad, talking to yourself suggests a mild neurosis or perhaps improper socialization. Hearing voices in your head talk back to you? Now we’re talking psychosis.  Me? I talk to people that aren’t there.  They talk back. Of course they talk back. What do you think I am, the sort of fool who’d waste time talking to people who don’t answer?  Please!

Sometimes they’re conversations I really need to have with real people, sometimes they’re scenes from stories I’m going to write, or that I’m writing right now.  So I don’t tell my mind to run. I just let it play.  So far, it hasn’t complained.  I talk to myself a lot. And I don’t mean only in the privacy of my own home. I talk to myself while I’m walking down the street, when I’m at my office computer or even when I’m shopping.

Thinking out loud helps me materialize what I’m thinking about. So I’ve done a little research to help me make sense of things, it may even help to convince my friends that even though it might make me look insane, I’m not really.  Talking to one’s self, it turns out, is a sign of genius.  The smartest people on earth talk to themselves. Look at the inner monologues of the greatest thinkers. Look at poetry! Look at history!

Albert Einstein talked to himself. He wasn’t an avid social butterfly when he was growing up, and he preferred to keep to himself, he used to repeat his sentences to himself softly.  So, you see? I’m not alone, and I’m not completely bonkers. I’m just really smart. Ha!

This morning, fortunately sitting alone in the sauna at the gym, I once again caught myself talking to myself out loud as I was planning my day – I stopped the conversation as soon as I realised that I was doing it again.  Then I said to myself, out loud, “Bugger it! I’m old and I’m entitled to be a bit eccentric – I’m off to see the Wizard. . . . . . . . . .

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“Dumb Insolence”

Over many years as an investigative journalist I’ve come across many stories of the great and the good but one that has stuck in my mind.  It is about that great political pacifist Mahatma Gandhi who began the movement to gain independence of the Indian Continent from the British Empire.  He also sowed the seeds for the Anti Apartheid movement in South Africa.

In the British Army there is a punishable offence against discipline, called ‘Dumb Insolence.’ I believe that it’s included in the rule book purely because the powers that be simply do not know how to deal with it but I just love it.  Perfect for an old grumpy such as I and I’ve become an active practitioner.

So with my storyteller’s hat on please allow me to pass on this little gem  – When Mahatma Gandhi was studying law at the University College London’ a professor by the name of Peters disliked him intensely and always displayed animosity towards him.  And because Gandhi never lowered his head when addressing him as was expected by his students’ there were always arguments and confrontations.

One day Mr Peters was having lunch in the University dining room when Gandhi came along with his tray and sat next to him.  The professor said “Mr Gandhi’ you do not understand’ “A pig and a bird do not sit together to eat!”  Gandhi looked at him as a parent would to a rude child and calmly replied “You do not need to worry professor, I’ll fly away”.  He went and sat at another table.

Peters, red with rage, decided to take revenge on the next test paper but Gandhi responded brilliantly to all questions.  Unhappy and frustrated, Professor Peters asked him the following question.

“Mr Gandhi, if you were walking down the street and found a package with a note addressed to ‘the finder’ with instructions that he could choose between the contents.  Within were a bag of wisdom and another bag containing a lot of money!  Which one would you take?   Without hesitation Gandhi responded “The one with the money of course”!  The professor smiling sarcastically said “I, in your place would have chosen taken the wisdom”.  Gandhi shrugged indifferently and responded “Each one takes what he doesn’t have”.

Mr Peters, by this time was livid, so great was his anger that he wrote on Gandhi’s exam sheet the word – IDIOT – and handed it back to him.  Gandhi took the exam sheet and sat down at his desk trying hard to remain calm while he contemplated his next move.

A few minutes later Gandhi stood up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone.  “Mr Peters, you autographed the sheet, but you did not give me a grade”!

Like many tales of the great and the good I’m sure that this story is apocryphal but I am old enough that I remember Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi during his civil rights performances and stunts to gain attention to his movement.  I can remember being shocked and stunned when we got news that he had been shot by an assassin in 1948 at the age of 78, an assassin from his own Hindu community who was displeased at Gandhi’s attempts to appease the Muslims and bring peace between the two religions.  After his death, India was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu majority, India and Muslim, Pakistan.  His vision of peace descended into mayhem and violence and even today still simmers between the two dominions.  Who knows what would have happened if Gandhi had been given just a few more years. . . . . . . . . . . . Dumb Insolence eventually wears down the Establishment, who will never understand it.


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Cor bugger Janner!

 Another sailor’s yarn, it’s time to swing the lamp to give you landlubbers some force fed naval culture.  A “Janner” in naval terminology or Jackspeak; is someone from the West Country specifically Plymouth.  It is believed to originate in Devonport dockyard when talking to their workmate “John” tis pronounced Jan in Devonian see?

Rather like workers in the Chatham Dockyards being known as “Marmites” from colloquially talking “Estuary English about “mar mites” instead of my mates.  As for Portsmouth being known as “Pompey”! it is reputed to be from the Portuguese, Bom Bahia, two words meaning good harbour; also the origin of Bombay, sorry Mumbai.

There was a yarn about an infamous Portsmouth Lady of the night known as “Pompey Lil” who reputedly, perhaps that should be disreputably, had two false legs.  Two Devonport ratings had removed her legs and hitched her up on the church railings.  After having their wicked way they had walked off without paying, leaving her hanging.  She was heard to berate the matelots as “You bloody Janners are all the same, if you’d been proper Pompey men you would have helped me down when you finished”.

I digress as usual; Once upon a time when Nelson was a lad, I was a Midshipman, an embryo officer and gentleman taking a run ashore in Weymouth.  Our huge Aircraft Carrier being too big to go alongside was anchored out in the bay.  All the libertymen were ferried ashore using a naval MFV (motor fishing vessel), as per standard operating practice.

My shipmate and I proving our suitability for gentleman status, went sightseeing in the lovely Dorset countryside, had one gin and tonic and returned to catch the liberty-boat as per our orders at 2100 hours. Meanwhile the remainder of the crew had promptly got themselves completely rat-arsed (another naval term meaning as drunk as skunks) on the local “scrumpy” once they had discovered it was only one shilling a pint. (That’s 5 pence in new money)

There were quite a lot of merry sailors aboard the MFV, singing their tribal shanty “The Janner Song” as we approached the gangway. It was November, cold, dark and blowing up for a gale, imagine; about sixty somewhat inebriated crew men, singing:-

Half a pound of flour and marge, Makes lovely clacker, Just enough for you and me, Cor! Bugger Janner.

Oh how happy us will be,When we gets to the West Countree, Where the oggies grow on trees, Cor Bugger Janner! 

Up to Camborne Hill we go, Down to Helston ‘Furry’, Come on Janner don’t be late, Come on Janner hurry.

Oh how happy us will be, When we gets to the West Countree, Where the oggies grow on trees, Cor Bugger Janner! 

You make fast, I’ll make fast, Make fast the dinghy. You make fast, kiss my arse, Make fast the dinghy!

There were also us two young “Snotties” trying to look as though we weren’t with them. The Officer of the Watch called down to the MFV “Coxswain, take them round the harbour until they have learned to behave”.

Bastard! Stupid, Sub Lieutenant; we fended off and took another trip around the bay. It started to rain and then some bright spark decided that all officers are Bastards and set of an ox-blood fire hose. This is a fire-fighting implement that pumped sea water through a barrel of ox blood which when mixed with sea water produces thick white foam. They aimed the foam at the two ‘bloody officers’ but also covered the vessel and everyone aboard with it. It was very cold, very wet and very slippery.

In spite of this, as we came up to the accommodation ladder for the second time, sixty voices began, “Half a pound of flour and rice, makes a lovely clacker, Just enough for you and I, cor bugger Janner”. This was followed by an apoplectic officer of the watch screaming at the Coxswain to take them round again.

So it went on, six trips around the harbour until about two in the morning, cold, and wet, bedraggled and by this time silent, we were allowed back on board. The only two to get it in the neck were my fellow Midshipman and I.  We were told in no uncertain terms that we ought to have known better.

Oh happy days; don’t worry, be happy! To quote Bob Marley, everything will be alright.  I was quite worried when I recently read in a Lad’s Magazine (it was in my barbers’, honest); “Fifty things you should do before you die” and I discovered that I have done them all but two.  I found that a bit worrying – Just two to go before I pop my clogs.  Then I read on and found that the two that I had left were Sodomy and Morris Dancing – NO WAY.  How does it go? In every life we have some trouble, when you worry you make it double, don’t worry, be happy.  It wasn’t a great ‘bucket list’ anyway, number forty eight has to be a pain in the arse and my dancing is worse than my singing, so that’s that then. 

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Ahh!  . . . . . . . Venice. . . . With apologies to Bisto!

I once was given an assignment by the Editor of a glossy, wedding magazine.  To write a travel article on the romantic city of Venice; so like Caesar, I Veni, Vidi, Vici Venice.  I gave him what he wanted and he paid me handsomely.  This isn’t the romantic twaddle that I sold him.  This is the Venice that I really saw. . . . . . . . .

I arrived in Venice in the late afternoon.  It was several years since I had last been there, but Venice changes very little and when it does the differences are barely perceptible.  When you walk out of the station and see the Grand Canal in front of you the impact is still exhilarating. Still sublime, no matter how many times you have been there.  And the smell is still the same – a tang of the sea mixed with undertones of fetid water, rank sewage and diesel fumes from the motor boats.  The walk to my hotel, a small pensione was the usual Venetian obstacle course of tourists and dog dirt.

I left my bags in my room and walked to the Grand Canal and stood for a moment on the Academia Bridge.  Venice has always been a chiaroscuro city, a place where light and dark change suddenly and unexpectedly.  One moment it seems dilapidated and tawdry, the next the sunlight alters and you catch a glimpse of a beauty that makes your heart miss a beat.  From the bridge the surface at one moment looks oily and brown and suddenly has the sheen of shot silk.  The exposed banks of mud along the edges can have the appearance of the expensive unguent women apply to their wrinkles rather than the poisonous slime it really is.

I walked further along and peered through a wrought iron gate, I could see and hear water lapping against the walls of a beautiful but somewhat dilapidated building.  Even in the gloomy light it was possible to make out the scum on the surface of the water, a thick layer of kitchen scraps and other rubbish which had been dumped there over the years and not been flushed away by the action of the tides.  I was certain that I could also hear the patter of the feet of rats.  I wandered to St. Marks Square for a drink before dinner.  It’s what all tourists do, but somehow in Venice it’s the only place for an aperitif.

The city is so cramped, its open spaces so small and so few in number that the Piazza alone gives any relief from the suffocating claustrophobia.  Only in St. Marks can you really see the sky, only there can you savour the exquisite atmosphere of the Venetian dusk, the shadows stretching out across the foot- worn stones, the water by the Piazzetta is as iridescent  as a sheet of Mother-of-pearl.  Here it was reasonably easy to write some romantic guff for the magazine for starry-eyed brides.

In fact when you get to the square you find it brimming over with foreigners, unscrupulous street sellers and overfed pigeons which splatter droppings on your head as you fight your way through the throng.  In history the Venetians had a reputation for savage cruelty.  The two men who made the fantastic zodiacal clock in the Piazza were officially blinded to prevent them from making another for somebody else.  Traitors were buried alive head first and other terrible tortures in the state dungeons sent shivers throughout the civilised world.  

This tradition still carries on to this day; in a modified form in St. Marks Square, not in the garrotte, or the rack of yore but infinitely more subtle and pitiless in the form of half a dozen cafe orchestras each competing with the others and the sounds reverberate around the surrounding building, assaulting your ears from every direction. . . . . . Can’t think of more romantic surroundings for a wedding. . . Honest!

I would just add that I had a conversation with a Venetian hotel owner who asked if it were possible for me to pay him in Sterling rather than Euros.  He told me that since the Euro was formed in 1999 the Italian economy has been a disaster.  Being fair he blamed a lot of problems on their political system but mostly the European Union Monster (his words).  I asked him what the solution was and he answered in one sentence – Leave the Euro!




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In God they trust – it says so on the dollar bill…

The United States is a country that challenges the world traveller to adjust to its scale. Little slumdog children in India are told tales that its streets are paved in gold. Cartoon books the world over mock the culture’s lack of refinement. Newspapers around the world speculate on the effects of the American administration. Incredible landscapes, hidden throughout the vast continental mass, counterpoise the endless parade of WalMarts and McDonalds. While every preconception one has about the “U S of A” is valid, the challenge to the traveller is to accept this country for its gems. And here the gems are the brightest and largest, as Americans will tell you, ‘We’re number one!’

America, doubtlessly, is the First World and yet a visit to Katrina-devastated New Orleans or to the jaggedly backwards Appalachia makes one wonder whether the term First World even has any meaning. In this land of the free you had better not drink until you reach 21 years of age. The richest nation in the world does not provide its citizens proper affordable health care, and it has the highest proportion of lawyers and jailed criminals per capita.

All things are the best in America, but money does all the talking. The poor backpacker, scrounging to try and see this country on the cheap, is likely to be treated like something the dog left on the pavement. But for those with pluck, a thick skin, or a little money saved, the United States opens her doors.

For such a large country, America has an appalling sameness and a very monotonous culture from east to west thanks mostly to national television. And yet there are quite a few States that are like separate countries themselves – such as California, Texas and New England among many. The east coast, boasting a sprawling mega-metropolis from Boston to Washington, carries a sense of urgency in the atmosphere and there is no doubt something always going on in the city.

The South with its Bible belt states like Alabama and Mississippi slow down the pace a lot and race hangs heavy in the air. Along the Pacific a new braver breed of a people, with no history to speak of, cling to their mountain bikes or Louis Vuiton handbags depending on their personal market-influenced consumer choice.

Somewhere buried in all of this, perhaps invisible to the naked eye, is the heartbeat of a fresh continent that existed here even before the Natives came tens of thousands of years ago. This is the land of Walt Whitman’s plaintive singing, the land where technological marvels continually spring up in unlikely places and the country of highways carry such solitude that Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac canonized them.

The struggle for equality continues in the United States, too, and for every Bush and Nixon you have a John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to impart some hope. Echoes of the spirit of the ’60s can be heard, a time in history as powerful as any.

When I listened to Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech I thought that there is hope.  If he can impress a white, dyed-in-the-wool, English Tory like me I thought that he must have something.  But like virtually every politician it turned out that it was mostly smoke and mirrors.  He, like an old girlfriend, promised much and performed little.  I read somewhere, probably in a Republican newspaper that Barack Obama is close to having played more rounds of golf since 2009 than Tiger Woods.  Unlike me, who has an opinion about everything, I am not going to put my nose into American politics.  They appear to be a mystery even to most Americans and to this Brit they will stay that way.

While I make that statement I am equally certain that British and European politics and even world politics are an equal mystery to Barack Obama.  In fact during his first term of office he took such little interest in world affairs we were even wondering whether, like very many Americans he even possessed a passport.  This being the case no-one in this country can begin to imagine why he is getting involved in our referendum.  In actual fact if he imagines that he is doing ‘Bro Cameron’ a favour let me tell him that his intervention in a matter that does not concern him will probably be the straw that broke the camel’s back, for the ‘Remain in Team’.  End of political rant!

Yes the United States has much to offer for the traveller to see and attempt to understand. The vistas of the Grand Canyon are as mysterious as Mona Lisa’s smile, the city of Las Vegas that rose out of the desert is so artificial and enveloping, Los Angeles destroys pedestrians, the Great Plains are as flat as a pancake literally. The list could go on indefinitely. Hated for its imperialism and ignorance, America is still a great country and worth a traveller’s time.

You will hear stories of rude U.S. Customs and Immigration officials and long queues as you attempt to get into the country; then when they eventually get in it seems as though everyone there with a menial job is an illegal immigrant.  I am always puzzled as to how they got in but honestly things haven’t changed simply because of 9/11.

In the mid-1950s I was a deck apprentice on a cargo boat when we sailed into San Pedro, California.  I was a well brought up English lad whose politics have not changed lot over the years and would put me slightly to the right of Attila the Hun.

I was just 16 years old and I was subjected to the most bullying type of grilling imaginable by an immigration official before being allowed to go ashore.  Incidentally the ship had already called at Tampa, Florida and Houston, Texas where I had gone ashore without any problems, and my documents were stamped as such.  I was asked no less than 5 times whether I was or had ever been a member of the Australian Labour Party even though he had all of my documentation in front of him and could see that at that time I had never visited Australia.

I was a very frightened boy by the time that this cross-examination had ended and he had signed my papers to allow me to visit the land of the free.  I have told this tale many times since, you see the name of this officious, sorry I mean official, and U.S. Immigration Officer was one Herman Hoestetter.  Sixty years on, that ‘Pig’s Orphan’s name is still burned in my memory.  (A pigs orphan is a naval term that describes the bully to a T)

Obviously that proud, All-American boy thought that he was employed by the Witch-finder General, Senator Joe McCarthy.  As I matured I realised that America wasn’t at all like that self important, overbearing jobsworth and I have spent lots of time there as a visitor and love the place.  I’ve crossed from East to West and North to South by car, coach, plane and train over many, many years.  I still find the place and the people fascinating. 

I query what the driving force behind Obama’s decision to use a visit to the U.K. this Spring to urge the British public to vote to remain inside the EU at the upcoming referendum.  Does he not know that the E.U is unraveling?  What are his advisors thinking of?  Oh well it can only help Brexit on Independence Day. 

What did the Moody Blues tell us? Nothing changes and nothing stays the same and life is still a simple game. 

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Attention on the Upper Deck, Face Aft and Salute

In 2015, I wrote after we had finally pulled our troops out of Afghanistan and the Taliban were again threatening to swamp Sangin Province and our government having failed to learn the lesson last time are sending in Special Forces to “Advise” Afghan forces.  What was it Bob Dillon sang? “When will they ever learn?”

We then had the “Arab Spring” codswallop from our politicians after much chest thumping as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi met his maker.  After complete cock-ups in the Middle East with the wonderful Arab Spring with Libya, Iraq 1, 2 and 3, Syria, Kurdistan and Islamic State. Cameron’s poodle, Defence Minister Philip Hammond has announced to parliament that we don’t need the backing of parliament to send troops into Libya and he is deploying 1000 soldiers to help fight ISIS threat.  Apparently we already have around 100 British Special Forces deployed there.  Here we go again!

My blogs are a very personal outlet for my feelings and my readers will attest that I can get a bit hot under the collar on occasion.  This is such an occasion. 

Perhaps I should once again nail my colours to the mast, I am a Navy Veteran and began my military career during the ‘Cold War’ and trained in Arctic Warfare.  I then spent the rest of my time in the Middle East, embracing Aden, Suez and Cyprus all SNAFUs in their way but all absolutely necessary according to the politicians (spit)        (situation normal another f**k up.) 

 . . . . . . I perhaps also ought to further mention that I have a few good friends in the Royal Marines who served a couple of terms in Helmand in the early days.  They returned home uninjured, battle hardened and as cynical as I.      

In 2015, the long prayed for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan finally happened.  In Camp Bastion the Army lowered the Union Jack for the last time.  The memorial there etched with hundreds of names of the fallen was dismantled and flown home.  If it had remained it would have been desecrated and destroyed.  What a manifestation of the failure of Britain’s Afghan Mission.

Our troops have been giving their young lives for us in Afghanistan for longer than we were fighting in both World Wars.  UK forces have been in Afghanistan for thirteen long years and for what?  The death toll now exceeds that of the Iraq War and over 100 soldiers died last year.

It started in 2002 just after 9/11 in New York for which George W Bush blamed Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden personally.  He had information that Bin Laden was hiding in the caves of Afghanistan and he demanded that the Taliban Islamist rulers of Afghanistan should extradite Bin Laden and his associates.

He began an operation to drive out Al Qaeda and depose the Taliban government by air power and Special Forces alone. – Does that sound familiar to you? – He supported local Warlords and this was dramatically successful.  It all went downhill from there, the Washington Administration became hell-bent on invading Iraq and having supported the new Kabul Government a la Hamid Karzai to a point, they then left him swinging in the breeze while George W and his poodle Tony Blair left on another adventure.

In the years that followed as Iraq burned in chaos, Afghanistan staggered towards collapse with Taliban resurgence.  There is plenty of criticism for those foolish enough to underestimate the perils of involvement in a country that has over the centuries, eaten invading armies for breakfast.  Not least the British, who in Helmand Province rediscovered the kind of desperate frontier fighting not witnessed since the early days of Empire.

In 2006 with the US Army up to their neck in blood, sand and bullets in Iraq, the ‘special relationship’ was brought to bear and Tony Blair had the reckless decision thrust upon him to take the strain in Afghanistan and the British Army  should accept the responsibility for the toughest Province of the most corrupt nation in the world.

The British Army took on Helmand Province determined to bring order, justice and peace.  Using well thought out tactics, Blair decided that a battalion group of just 2,500 men would be sufficient for this task and only a third of them were fighting soldiers.  Defence Secretary John Reid went further by saying that they would soon be home without a shot being fired.

Within a few months 3 Para were suffering crippling losses.  The politicians blamed the generals and generals blamed the politicians.  Whoever’s fault it was there was no doubt that the poor bloody infantry was in deep do-do and were in a desperate mess.  Everything went downhill from there; in fact it went £37billion downhill from there.

Throughout all the military mistakes both British and Americans have attempted to work with Afghan Warlords and local Chieftains who obviously have only their own interests at heart. Western war propaganda has so demonised the Taliban that few politicians have the courage to propose the obvious and inevitable: a negotiated settlement to this pointless war.

The Karzai government could not extend its authority beyond Kabul because that would have meant overthrowing the Uzbek and Tajik drug-dealing warlords and Communists chiefs that are the base of their power.

We should not forget The Soviet war in Afghanistan lasted nine years from December 1979 to February 1989. Part of the Cold War, it was fought between Soviet led Afghan Forces against multi-national insurgent groups called the Mujahidin, mostly composed of two alliances – the Peshawar Seven and the Tehran Eight. The Peshawar Seven insurgents received military training in neighbouring Pakistan and China as well as weapons and billions of dollars from the United States, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia.  All on the grounds of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

This Mujahidin who call themselves the Soldiers of God or in Pashtu, Taliban were thus armed and trained by the West and our Special Forces.  We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind, we have tried to change a medieval society into something different and we hoped something better, not sure for whom.

We leave behind a country with a few more schools and some of its women liberated from traditional servitude and predictably Hamid Karzai has got his running boots on.  We leave behind a country which produces 80 percent of the world’s illegal opium.  Some legacy!

Taliban is not a terrorist movement as is now claimed and demonised by western propaganda, but was founded as an Islamic religious movement dedicated to fighting Communism and the Drug Trade.

The current war in Afghanistan is not really about Al-Qaeda and terrorism, but about opening a secure corridor through Pashtun tribal territory to export the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Basin of Central Asia to the West. The US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are essentially pipeline protection troops fighting off hostile natives. So we have had a deadly, bloody, conflict that Tony Blair declared would save the West from Al Qaeda and would eradicate Opium production.  Makes one proud to be British.

Now as we once again are returning troops into Afghanistan having learned nothing, especially who our enemy is. We are also in the Middle East bombing Syria or is it Daesh? Or is it Iraq?  

We are backing the President of Turkey to join the EU even though he has declared he wants to become 12 Caliph – head of Islam in the whole world. This is once again our NATO ally who approves of beating Kurdish women with clubs.  He sounds an ideal member of the EU provided we are out of it. 

I’m no military strategist but I’ve enough experience to recognise a SNAFU when I see one. 

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Travel that broadens the behind

This was inspired by a story that hit the internet recently about a morbidly obese lady who had set up an online begging bowl to pay for her weight reducing operation, knickers elastic, rubber band or whatever they call it.  In spite of being broke and unable to pay for her operation, the National Health Service had now let her down.  Her sad story was that the NHS were going to do it but had now decided she didn’t qualify and were refusing to pay for it.  She had gone ahead and booked it private anyway for around ten grand.  She was hoping her story would touch the hearts of the charitable public.

 Her troubles had now got worse, ahh!  The media sniffing around for a story that would touch their readers hearts and kick the cruel NHS at the same time, discovered that the fat lady was not singing quite the same song and they discovered that her husband had inherited some cash, about enough to pay for his roly-poly wife to have her desired operation but . . . and here’s the rub, they had spent their windfall, wait for it. . . . . . . . on a luxury holiday cruise.  Here endeth the fat lady’s tale as far as I am concerned along with her all hopes of a free operation.

 I wrote a while back of a travel brochure that broadens the behind; it’s called a Cruise Brochure.  They say that travel broadens the mind but I think that travelling on a Cruise Ship just broadens the backside.

 O.K. a Cruise Liner may put on half a dozen lectures, force feeding culture to the masses with classical civilisations and the history of mankind etc. but travelling universities they ain’t.  These lecture rooms are laid on to give a bit of interest to overfed passengers whilst they rest their bloated, sun-burned bodies in a cool air-conditioned theatre, between meals.

When the Liner anchors offshore and crew members help the more adventurous passengers out of their sun loungers, where they have been relaxing after a vast lunch, down the accommodation ladder to sit their fat bottoms on comfortable seats in the ferry boats and then ashore to be helped into a comfortable air-conditioned coach seat, where they can relax as they are taken to view the volcano at Etna or Stromboli (no its Thursday so it must be Vesuvius) from a safe distance.

They then retrace their steps until safely back on board to their cabin to change in time for dinner.  What a dinner? “More larks tongues or perhaps a few slices of roast swan, Madame?”  I don’t pen this as a travel writer but as someone who was fattened regularly on the great Cape Liners and even once on the greatest of the Queens, (I also met a few of them ducky), this particular one was the RMS Queen Mary crossing the Atlantic.  My goodness! I got so sick of eating Italian Truffle shavings and caviar; even now I cannot look a foie gras in the belly.  I even prefer the humble crab to a lobster.

My job as an Extra, Extra, Junior fourth officer was to put my good training as a ship’s navigator to good use by showing the rich, over weight and over fed passengers around the ship, having to flirt with their trophy wives and then join them at their dining table to dine right royally.  Heigh Ho! It’s a hard life at sea.

It was a long time ago and both the Cape Liners and the Atlantic Liners carried richer and fatter passengers than modern day cruise liners but the recipe is the same.  Ask any ship’s steward and he will tell you that most of the sea-sickness is due more to over indulgence than to motion.

The Roman’s had a good idea when they set aside a room next to the dining area which they named a “vomitorium” so that they could binge and purge, “excuse me while I throw up, but tell the waiter chappie, that I’ll have another crepe suzette when I get back”.

Lie back and relax, pass the gin old boy, the sun is over the yard arm somewhere on one of the oceans.  I bet that when Freddy Mercury sang of Fat Bottomed Girls he had met them on a cruise ship.

Going back to my original Fat Lady’s troubles perhaps she can spend her time while laying on the sun-deck (I don’t think that she could fit her rather broad backside into a deckchair) writing further begging letters about her plight after her life was ruined by the rotten Mejia for letting the cat out of the bag and the horrible travel company who wouldn’t let her cancel and give her money back when she was found out.  

I know just what she means because as a former journalist and a former travel agent normally we are such suckers for a sob story; in fact we would usually have been the first to donate to GoFundYourself or whatever it’s called.

I’ll leave you with the words of one of my favourite sea shanties “Come all you no hopers, you jokers and rogues.  We are on the road to nowhere let’s find out where it goes.  It might be a ladder to the stars, who knows”

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Oops, there goes another one!

I am writing this while watching live TV pictures from Larnaca airport in Cyprus where Egyptair Flight MS181 has landed after being hijacked from Alexandria.  It had been on an internal flight in Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria and was hijacked by an individual, later named as Saif Eldin Mustafa who was threatening to blow up the plane with a bomb.

My initial thoughts were, that couldn’t have happened on an El Al flight because the pilot could have confidentially said “You’re not the Messiah, you’re a very naughty boy” or words to that effect.  He certainly would have been able to refuse his demands by saying “You could not have boarded this plane with a bomb so you are bluffing and if you do not immediately surrender you are about to be shot by one of our Marshalls”.

The difference between airport security in Israel and America or Europe is that the Israelis do not just go through the motions of security; they are looking primarily for the terror suspect, whereas the American and Europeans are looking for weapons, bottles of water or illicit liquids.  The Israelis are advocates of what is known as profiling – building pictures of both passengers and airline staff – not in the manner of stereotyping such as looking for young Muslim men.  Instead it is based on behaviour both prior to flying i.e. when, how and where a ticket is purchased and behaviour at the airport itself.

El Al employs people who have been trained in psychological observation techniques to interview every passenger before he or she is cleared to go through physical screening.  Anyone who arouses their suspicion is then subjected to a further grilling and may be refused permission to fly.  It is thought, (by me), that some of their profiling techniques may be politically unacceptable in Europe. El Al just shrug and say “It works”

In Great Britain and Europe the prohibition on carrying liquids on board was introduced in response to the method of mixing chemicals to explosive effect revealed by a 2006 plot.  If security staff find illicit liquids they deliver a ticking off and confiscate the containers, but still allow the passenger to fly.  Discovery of a gun, by contrast would result in immediate arrest.  Despite the mild consequences nobody has been apprehended trying to get bomb making liquids aboard in a decade.

This is not really because such measures have deterred terrorists from trying such methods again.  The same likewise with passengers having to remove their shoes when no shoe bomber has been detected after Reid’s cack-handed attempt at being a shoe bomber.  The terrorists have succeeded in causing upheaval at every airport with what they did so its mission complete for them.

Both the U.S. and U.K. security is purely a theatrical performance intended to reassure passengers and lull them into a false sense of security.  In fact the American Transportation Administration have proved the inadequacies in spotting determined passengers attempts to get hazardous items on to an aircraft.  A team of Homeland Security succeeded in getting fake bombs and weapons through the standard screening process in 67 out of 70 tests in various airports in America.  Tests carried out by Special Forces teams have had similar results in the UK.

I wonder why? – The security screening process is an incredibly boring job.  Nearly all alerts and warnings are false alarms.  It is incredibly hard for people to remain vigilant in that sort of situation and sloppiness is inevitable.  Disassembled weapons have a good chance of getting through.

I had a lot of brickbats to throw at Sharm el-Sheikh airport security when the Russian Airbus was blown out of the sky, but it is no worse than others at vetting staff.  British airports employ those who follow Jihadist social media sites and at some big American airports, employees are not screened on their way into work if they have an identity card.

Some clue as to how easy it is to put a bomb into somebody else’s bag is shown from the number of valuables stolen from check-in luggage.  In the past 4 years prior to 2014 (last available figures) passengers made more than 30,000 reports of missing property.  This year police at Miami International Airport used a hidden camera to film baggage handlers rifling through bags in a plane’s hold and stealing whatever took their fancy.  Security experts reckon such practice is widespread worldwide.

El Al spends more than other airlines on different types of security with armed Marshals on every flight.  Hold baggage is subjected to pressure testing.  Elsewhere better technology might improve the performance of conventional screening.  Giving everyone a pat down is for too predictable and a waste of resources.  Terrorists don’t like unpredictability.  Confiscating my wife’s nail file and hand cream is too theatrical even for the most bored jobsworth, even if it did relieve his boredom.

Simply offering more airport security by rote also seems a poor idea.  There should be far more emphasis on dealing with insider threats through better vetting and more intrusive vetting of staff.  Plus far more, less predictable screening of passengers like swab tests and more sniffer dogs et al.

Keeping a sense of proportion – statistically everyone will tell you that flying is the safest form of travel.  You are more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist.  Terrorism is effective in doing what it’s name says – Inspiring profound fear.  But despite unremitting coverage of the Paris and Brussels attacks an objective examination of the facts shows that terrorism is an insignificant danger to the vast majority of people in the West.

The last couple of years have been especially bad in plane safety with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, the shooting down of MH17 over Ukraine and the recent crashes of Transasia Airways and Air Algerie Planes and the Russian Airbus A321 out of Sharm el-Sheikh but back to the sense of proportion – A look at the most recent atrocities will highlight that many more people travel by buses and trains, attend open air concerts and sporting events.  These are all potential targets for terrorists yet receive not even a fraction that air travellers get.  No-one confiscated my Swiss Army knife when I went to a recent Status Quo concert.

On a personal note I would add that enhanced security on airport staff would at least make me feel that far less valuables would be stolen from our luggage.  That could see a reduction in our travel insurance, yeah you wish.  Finally I am pleased to report that the hijack of a domestic Egyptian flight that caused it to be diverted to Cyprus has ended with all hostages released and the hijacker Mr Saif Eldin Mustapha surrendering.  No-one was injured.  Thanks be to God!

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