Wednesday 5 March 2014

Me on the Crisis in Ukraine

Ukraine: the Violent Enigma

In Ukrainian the country’s capital is spelt Kyiv while in Russian it goes by the name of Kiev, though both languages use the Cyrillic alphabet. Strange then that the Western media, such as the UK’s BBC, choose the latter term to denote the city, despite being clearly in favour of the protestors who played such a major part in deposing former president Viktor Yanukovich recently.

This contradiction may seem superficial but in my view it underpins much of the crisis that has gripped the nation of late.

It has frequently appeared to be a country that has been split down the middle, almost symmetrically, with the people in the West fervently anti-Russian and those in the East equally as pro.
However, the situation, as usual, is more complicated than that. I have been to Ukraine twice, once to the Western city of Lviv and the other time to the Black Sea resort of Odesa.

The first city is supposedly a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism, while in the second only Russian is spoken. Yet, when I was in Lviv I communicated to hotel receptionists and taxi drivers using a hybrid of Russian and Polish and had no negative reaction whatsoever. The irony was that, despite being so Western-oriented, in Lviv daily routine matters were less easy to manage than turned out to be the case in Odesa. Cash machines, for instance, didn’t work properly, the waiting staff were surlier than in the East and though there had been heavy snowfall, it took ages for the roads to be gritted. It was like travelling back in time a decade.

Then there was another twist, slightly, when I was in Odesa. I chatted regularly and casually with one of the waiters who worked at the massive Soviet-era hotel I was staying at near the Black Sea beach. One night in the bar on the television Russia were playing a qualifying match for EURO 2012, partly to be played in Ukraine. I got talking to him about Andrei Arshavin, the Russian striker, and what a good player he was. He agreed but was adamant that while Arshavin was an excellent footballer, he was Russian, not Ukrainian as was the waiter and this conversation happened in Russian,

In spite of all these complexities, it is clear that Ukraine is close to being torn apart between East and West. It is not as if the matter is unprecedented, however. When Poland’s marshal Pilsudski’s forces marched into Ukraine to confront the Soviet Red Army in 1920 they were initially beaten back until Lenin rashly ordered his forces into Poland itself and was repelled by a national upsurge. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that Leon Trotsky, the creator of the Red Army, was firmly against the incursion into Poland, arguing that you cannot export socialism. He was also Ukrainian by birth.

As was Nestor Makhno, who during the Russian civil war set up his own anarchist battalion called the Revolutionary Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine. An anarchist, he took on every participant in the civil war, including the Red Army, proving that the country is one riven by divisions.

That has not changed by all accounts. An impasse has been reached where civil war is not off the cards. The question is who is responsible for the current mess? Some say Russia, others point to Western interference.
As the Moscow-based left-wing campaigner, Boris Kagarlitsky, has often remarked, the apparent architect behind the turmoil, Vladimir Putin, is an opportunistic bureaucrat without any ideological scruples at all. 

We can probably place Yanukovich in the same category too, alongside the likes of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic. Though of seemingly entrenched opinions, all three have been deeply sensitive to the swaying of public opinion. Two have been felled by this position, it remains to be seen if the third might also be.

Yet the West’s role in this affair is also compromised. In the former Soviet bloc they have stuck their noses into Georgia, in the so-called ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, in Ukraine in 2004 and Kyrgyzstan in 2010. As with all these with all these high-profile confrontations, words from either London, Washington or Berlin are likely to prove of no help at all.

Monday 28 October 2013

Me and The Lancet

Seems amazing that I had this published all those years ago, given my own history with drink, and the subject matter of other pieces on this blogspot, such as this and this. Was certainly one of my proudest moments at the time to have the article appear in such a prestigious journal.

Friday 18 October 2013

Birmingham Back on the Map: Peaky Blinders

No Brummie with a heart could be failed to be moved by BBC 2’s recent six-part drama ‘Peaky Blinders’. Others from outside Birmingham have poured a certain amount of scorn on the apparent inauthenticiy of the accents, despite the fact that they know nothing about the city, nothing worthwhile, anyway. Take a look at most of the spurious reviews that have abounded in the national press. Grace Dent, from The Independent, who apparently hails from Cumbria, has cast doubt on the validity of the second city’s intonation as depicted in the series. Lazy journalism from the increasingly downmarket, militantly PC liberal press, as usual.

Cillian Murphy, an Irish actor, who could probably have done much more, albeit superficially, with his pretty boy looks, doesn’t  just look the part of a Small Heath villain, he sounds like one to a tee as well.  When he struts down the terraced streets, his dead eyes always ready for combat, he makes people run, not towards him but well away. Good looks and incipient violence can have that effect. I have seen his type many times in Birmingham. The charm mixed with menace. It is Birmingham personified.

His biggest achievement, as well as that of writer Stephen Knight, is to make Birmingham look like an epic environment around the post-World War 1 period. This has come as a shock to many, who still perceive my city as something of a shithole, if I may be frank. Spaghetti Junction, the old Digbeth coach station, ‘landmarks’ such as the cylindrical Rotunda building, have frequently been mocked as evidence of an ugly urban landscape.

Peaky Blinders puts that all into a wider historical context. Because we are an industrial city, the ‘workshop of the world’ at one point and one which produced the Spitfire during World War II,, as well as thousands of cars from British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. We have been presented as a dull city, with which the apparently grating tones of our accents have tended to dovetail. But there has always been drama in Birmingham, some of it tragic, some of it uplifting, and not just on Broad Street on a Saturday night,

It was one of the main centres of the Chartist movement in the 19th century, which fought bravely to win working men the right to vote.  We became the car manufacturing centre of the world in the early 20th Century and one of the most heroic moments of that legacy was when 30,000 Birmingham engineers marched down to Saltley Gates in solidarity with striking miners to close down the coking plant there at the time. Aston Villa also won the European Cup in 1982. I was there during the celebrations. The roof tops were replete with the teaam's colours, claret and blue. Tom Hanks is also a big fan of the club, part of strange coterie of well-known names that follow the team's fortunes.

There have been very bad times too. The Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 were sickening. They took many innocent lives. Worst still it happened in a city where many Irish-born people had made their homes, my parents included. I was only seven but I remember the unbearable pain. The loss of life was dreadful but the backlash against the Irish community was a nightmare too.

Peaky Blinders is an eye-opener, not only because it presents my home city as an epic environment: a crashing, thudding arena of constant industry amid bloody vendettas but also because 1919 Birmingham is a ethnical melting pot. There is a large Chinese community, the Italians have a marked presence and of course the Irish abound in their numbers.

The Irish will always be a part of Birmingham but the Asians and Afro-Caribbean’s have joined the rest of what is one of the UK’s truly multi-ethnic centres of excellence. I particularly enjoyed the presence of locally-born Benjamin Zephaniah, towards whom the Shelby family are utterly colour blind. If that is not a lesson in which life does not move inexorably forward, I don’t know what is.

I have many fond memories of Peaky Blinders. Polly’s toughness, hand on a most wonderful curvaceous hip, Billy Kimber’s arrogance until Tommy got him one straight between the eyes but above all my home city, Birmingham, in all its wondrous historical majesty.

Tonight I was passing an off-licence on Vigarage Road, Kings Heath near where I live. There was a row going on with empty bottles waving around. Unfortunately, not an unusual sight in these parts on a Saturday night but part of me wished that Thomas Shelby might turn up to put an end to it.. There is violence of one kind, mindless you might call it, and then there is violence of another ilk altogether, that of protection. Peaky Blinders errs towards the latter. A staunch defender of the UK's second city.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

A Charlatan of a Publisher

Back in November last year I met up in London  with  the owner of a Zagreb-based real estate research company, named Red Star (, who I had previously contributed articles to his blogspot. I was there to discuss an idea both he and I had to launch a new real estate magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

We brain-stormed some ideas and agreed that I should go away and think of a structure for the new publication. Through a fair bit of trial and error, as is the case in these situations, I came up with one, which divided CEE into three sub-regions, North-Eastern Europe, Central Eastern Europe and South Eastern Europe. I also set about recruiting another two journalists, one based in Budapest, who would write about Central Eastern Europe – Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania – and the other South Eastern Europe, consisting of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria. My own patch, North Eastern Europe, would involve following developments in the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine. Having worked for other commercial property magazines I knew this structure was an original one. During this time I was also engaged in other preparations for the magazine: liaising with the publisher and helping to get a sales representative on board. This lasted for a period of some months during which I received no pay.

Admittedly, when the first issue did come out, I was well remunerated but given the efforts I had put in leading up to that I didn’t think it unjustified. The magazine was also very well-received.

Real estate is a tough sector to write about, more difficult than covering other parts of the business world. As one source once said to me “in some languages the name for it is ‘immobilia”, that is it doesn’t move much”. Finding news on the market can be frustrating. But that did not prevent me from trying and I thought we came up with some original and varied articles, focussing on the different sectors of office, retail and logistics from as many of the countries on our beats as we could muster. Getting hold of company representatives to do interviews with us was by no means easy half the time, given that many were on business trips or were on holiday. The publisher also had a habit of disappearing without notice for weeks at a time as well, only then to turn up expecting everything to be in full swing.

With the third issue, which was due to coincide with an annual event Red Star held every year, things took an alarming turn, at least for me as a journalist. After being away from work for several weeks the publisher contacted me on a Tuesday and said he wanted us to arrange an interview with a company within the next few days before the CEO went on holiday on Friday. This, after I had already given the other journalists and myself a set of assignments. I told him that this was a very tall order to arrange at such short notice, which he acknowledged.

What I did not realise at the time was that this article was supposed to be paid for by the company being interviewed. In magazine publishing this is not uncommon but it invariably involves informing the reader that the article has been ‘sponsored’. However, in this case, the publisher had no intention of pointing this out and was happy for it to be presented as a normally-researched article. This contravenes all the ethics of journalism, which anyone with a modicum of intelligence will be aware of.

That particular article went unpublished and now the owner of the company appears to be reluctant to pay me for the four articles I wrote for that issue, as well as three others I spent a good deal of time editing. He has accused me of wasting his money, when this situation should never have arisen in the first place. Had things continued in the same vein, my job as editor would have become redundant anyway, as he seemed perfectly willing to go over my head in order to fulfil his squalid, money-grabbing aims. What had begun as a decent magazine was in the process of becoming a mere brochure.

All businesses need time to flourish and perhaps magazine publishing more than most. Not realising this is, in my view, a route to disaster, one the head of Red Star seems ever keen to follow.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

CEE Property Insight - First Issue

It has been a long hard slog, which began as a germ of an idea I had in November last year but finally, the new property magazine covering Central and Eastern Europe, CEE Property Insight, of which I am the editor, has seen the light of day.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Me and Maggie Thatcher

Allow me to call myself one of ‘Thatcher’s children’, though if that had literally been the case I would have disowned her. If the other way round had been the state of affairs the separation would have occurred as a matter of course, inevitably.  In 1979 when she was elected prime minister I was 12 years old but it was only when she really got into her stride at the helm that I myself truly came of age, if I can claim that. I was a teenager after all.

I remember quite vividly the party election broadcasts from that campaign in 1979, despite my tender years at the time. Leading figures in the Labour party, such as Callaghan and Healey, appeared on the tiny television my family had in a small room to warn of the travails the country would have to endure if they elected the Tories to power. Mine was a safe Labour home, parented by Irish immigrants, so even though I had just started wearing long trousers to school, I agreed with that. Little did I know that much of what they warned of was 100% correct.

My father, a proud and hard-working employee at one of Birmingham’s most illustrious plants, was made unemployed soon after Thatcher took up the reins. The effects on our family are easily imaginable to anyone with the imagination required. 

In 1984, aged 16, I was among a large crowd – several hundred strong - attending a meeting staged by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Tony Cliff was the main speaker. He said what I had been hoping to hear on that day about the miners' strike. That the closure of the pits was part of a general attack on the British working class..I agreed with him fully. I joined the SWP soon afterwards.

That year was a fascinating one. I went to a demonstration in Nottingham and saw how passionate the miners were to their cause. With other ‘comrades’ I sat warming my hands over a boiler on a picket line in the Cotswolds. You couldn’t be anything but be impressed by the resolve of those miners. And they were from a pit that were the minority out on strike. The refrain, however, was “She’ll not get me back”. “She”, meaning Thatcher. We visited the house of one miner who had been arrested, I believe on more than one occasion as a result of the strike. He’d also been a soldier in Northern Ireland. He was more resolute than any of the others. Thatcher has been described as divisive. She certainly was in his case. He stepped over to the other side completely.

I went to university, became active again in political activity, got tired with it and then concentrated on books. Then came a day in London.

The poll tax riots. I had seen other Thatcherite-generated violence in London before but never anything like that. It was mayhem and for a time the people on the demonstration had control of the streets. Police officers were running away from members of the public shouting “no poll tax!” repeatedly. Then a police van sped down the street straight at protestors. Miraculously, no one was killed. But one thing was clear enough. The people of the UK had had enough of Thatcher. Even the shop workers were chanting “no poll tax!” on that day. I was just scared of the police. That was another indicator of life back then. You can speak of the free market all you want and how it liberated people from the so-called bureaucratic post-war consensus but Thatcherism also gave policemens’ batons a free hand.

Today, David Cameron said, “We are all Thatcherites now”. I am not. I am a Socialist. I am an anti-Thatcherite. What I experienced during my teenage years will not leave me, nor should it ever. Hopefully one day there will be a proper tribute to the victims of that woman’s legacy, someone who trod on the lives of countless number of working class people, including that of my own family 

Friday 15 March 2013

Eric Joyce: A Man after my own Heart

I am beginning to warm to this Eric Joyce guy. At least when he gets tanked up he doesn't just pick on just anyone. He goes and batters other politicians. The UK population's id at work, in other words. He is also an excellent argument against minimum pricing on alcoholic drinks, one of a litany of shite ideas that Cameron and his crew have come up with. Drunken hooligans can crop up anywhere, even in Houses of Commons bars.