Tuesday 14 May 2013

Why the West is wrong to support the Syrian rebels

The Syrian civil war has reached its nadir with rebel groups using sarin against fighters of the Syrian army. Whilst Assad's regime is also nothing short of cruel and inhumane treatment of the civilian population, given the horrendous level of brutality meted out by the rebel fighters, it is time for the West to disengage from this conflict.

The latest incidence of a Syrian rebel fighter committing gratuitous violence to a body of a Syrian soldier is just one in a long list reflecting the Islamist radicalisation of the rebel forces with strong sectarian undertones. It seems to me that Russia has been right all along to insist that arming the rebel forces is tantamount to arming the most extremist wing of Islamism. Anybody who hopes that the sectarian hatred which has become second nature to the rebel forces bodes well for a liberated Syria is mistaken.

We should remember that Syria can never be Iraq, not least because no Western country, including the US, would ever want to commit ground troops to police a post-Assad Syria. That leaves one brutalised faction of Syria against another in the current scenario. It is time Western powers pull back from the brink and cease their support for the Islamist extremist rebel forces.

Monday 13 May 2013

Paedophilia and the Green Party

Traditionally, the Green Party has harboured some proud rebels against social conventions. Its politicians have a long history of making uncomfortable announcements that they may or may not regret later on. Paying the price for being radical is also currently the main defence of the Green politician Cohn-Bendit who has repeatedly publicly declared that pedophilia should be de-criminalised. In the past, he went further and said that girls as young as 6 'enjoyed having sex' with him and that this couldn't possibly constitute child abuse 'since we are still friends'.

Cohn-Bendit, from the Green Party, boasted about his pedophilia but now says it was all just talk

Over the last week, the Green Party (which advocated the legalisation of child abuse in its manifesto in the past) engaged in a damage limitation exercise. The party president announced that it would ask an independent panel to investigate how 'entrenched pedophilia' has been amongst party members. The party hierarchy does not deny that in the past, legalising pedophilia was one of its main social reform aims.

It is most instructive however that the party only feels obliged to examine its past mistakes at this stage,  as the public outcry became impossible to ignore over an award Cohn-Bendit received from the Prime Minister of Baden-Wuertemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, another Green Party member. In his award speech, Kretschmann compared pedophilia to homosexuality, arguing that being gay used to be illegal as well.

For those who always suspected the Greens as the standard bearers of vile behaviour there can be no surprise at the comments of Kretschmann or Cohn-Bendit. It is just another  incidence where the radical left reveals its real nature: for politicians like Kretschmann and Cohn-Bendit, political engagement is not a means to do right by victims of power, but to shift public perception to gain immunity for the wrongs they have committed themselves.

Monday 6 May 2013

What happened to Liverpool?

About three weeks ago, I moved to Liverpool. Leaving Cardiff was difficult since I have lived there for more than a decade. I only say this because my affection for Cardiff may cloud my judgement a tad. My first impression of Liverpool goes back to the year 2008, when it was European City of Culture. I visited the city and really enjoyed my stay. I don't remember much about where I stayed but the city centre seemed vibrant and clean.

My second impression couldn't be more different. When I moved here in April this year, I was genuinely shocked. The areas to the north of the city centre are mainly rows of boarded up houses or large free spaces without any urban feel to it whatsoever. I ended up taking a place in Kirkdale, just around the corner from Everton (Goodison stadium) and nothing I have seen in the UK or anywhere else in Europe in fact, prepared me for this. There is practically no community centre left in Kirkdale. The area is marked by large open spaces or newly built houses (the usual boxy, faintly bucolic style that passes as homeliness in Britain), with broad dual lane avenues running through the middle of it.

The former Police and Post Station in Kirkdale
There are hints of former glory which produce a pang of nostalgia. Some of the corners still have grand brick buildings with intricate ornate brick work, but the buildings themselves are either run down, burned out or simply left to rot. They are also typically standing alone with no adjacent buildings, adding to the feeling that this is not an urban place at all. It is devastation on a grand scale. But how did this happen? And why? What happened here? I am at a loss to explain it. I have never seen anything like this level of deprivation and devastation in an urban space in the UK. It almost seems as if this is a city in eternal decline.

Friday 3 May 2013

Mueller-Schott at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall

Having moved to Liverpool about two weeks ago, it was time to explore the classical music scene. My first outing took me to the Philharmonic Hall and a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The timing of my first experience with the Liverpool music scene was particularly fortunate since Daniel Mueller-Schott played Britten's Symphony for Cello and Orchestra in the first part before the interval.

Just lose that shawl - Daniel Mueller-Schott when he is not playing

Schott has made a name for himself with various recordings of modern classical music, amongst other things, many Britten pieces. I liked his recordings of Debussy, Poulenc, and Franck with Robert Kulek in which he showed a remarkable maturity of sound. His play is not just technically brilliant but also full of empathy and those qualities resonated with the audiences at yesterday's concert who demanded an encore. Sadly, the encore he played (nothing less than brilliantly, as you would expect) highlighted what is wrong with the hall itself. Britten's Symphony for Cello is a difficult piece (and probably not his best) in any venue, but the Hall's acoustics made it a mush at times, and difficult for me to even hear the cello amongst the orchestral 'noise' bouncing off the bare walls. Schott's encore, Britten's Declamato, however compensated for the loss of clarity during the Symphony and the playing was crystal clear as it should be.

The second piece was far better suited for the Hall with an orchestra reduced in size playing Shostakovich's Symphony No.14. It is not so much a Symphony but an orchestral version of a long operatic scene for two voices. Their singing resembles a drawn out lament at times, or a more direct exchange at other times. Alexander Vinogradov has probably literally blown away a few people in the audience at times with a bass voice that is unsurpassed in strength. It would be a real feat to hear him in a full length opera. Olga Mykytenko was a good match for his voice, both being greatly appreciated by the audience.

Overall, the performance was beautifully played and exactitude was the conductors strength who seemed to be in full command of the orchestra. The Hall itself just seems more suited to small orchestras or even chamber music due to the fact that it has the acoustics and the architectural charm of a Moscow Metro Station. But then again, I am sure there will be plenty of other venues in Liverpool that are still awaiting discovery.

Thursday 2 May 2013

It's not my fault!

We are all tempted to blame somebody else for our misfortunes sometimes. In Britain, pointing fingers at others for what you have done however has become a bit of a national sport when it comes to financial services. 'It's the bank's fault!' is something you hear almost every day on the news.

Now, those house owners who took out interest only mortgages in the boom years have somebody else to blame again for their problems: the mortgage lenders. A report for the FCA (the successor to the FSA) highlights the ticking time bomb on which some people are sitting as their interest only mortgage will mature over the next decade.

There is no doubt that mortgage lenders when giving knowingly false information to customers should be penalised and their clients compensated. The BBC Today programme this morning however struggled to find people who were genuinely duped into taking out interest only mortgages. In the programme, the most likely reasons people offered why they had opted for interest only mortgages were 'I didnt know what they were' or 'It seemed a good idea'.

That seems to reflect a mind gobbling ignorance on the part of the customers when taking out interest only mortgages rather than systematic failures of mortgage lenders. Yet, ignorance is no useful defence in financial matters. People have a responsibility to understand what they are signing. It seems to me that taking out an interest only mortgage to the tune of £188,000 when you have an income of about £40,000 is either reckless or plain stupid. It looks like this is not so much a case of evil financial advisers tricking people into signing things, but a case of 'I can't be bothered to think about it before I sign'.