So, farewell then, 2014.
Not so different from 2013, were you?
A year ago, I wrote a long, doomladen report on the year’s events, showing all the major currents and trends in world affairs. The inescapable conclusion was that we were heading for dark times.
The best thing about it was that I did the whole thing from memory, with just a little help from our friends at Wikipedia as regards things like dates and spellings.
This year, I don’t seem able to remember much that happened. Certainly not in any detail. Not due to the darkness, just failing memory. But I’ll try.
Most of the world’s troublespots then are still the world’s troublespots now, and have fallen out of the news headlines. Editors think their readers and viewers are easily bored. Maybe they’re right.
The civil war in Ukraine, for instance, drags on. There’s another ceasefire, apparently. An election was held in Kiev, so the pro-Western side got a new President, a colourless billionaire who owns a sweet factory. An unofficial election was held in the pro-Russian east, and was won by the pro-Russians. Talks have been held, inconclusively. Four thousand people, mostly civilians, have been killed, mostly in artillery exchanges. Still no-one quite knows what happened to Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, downed over the combat zone in July.
More worrying, is the state of the Russian economy. The Rouble collapsed in November, losing 50% of its value against the dollar. Falling oil prices and economic sanctions over Russia’s ‘non-intervention’ in Ukraine were to blame. The West was to blame. Putin put in place a two-year recovery plan. In a four-hour speech. Or was it the other way round? His helpful response to Western sanctions was to ban imports of Western foodstuffs. MacDonalds’ Moscow branch announced the arrival of the caviar-burger, or somesuch. Russians stoically rallied round. Those who didn’t are increasingly being persecuted and imprisoned.
The civil war in Syria also drags on. The mind-numbing statistics of casualties and refugees continue to numb the mind. The moderate opposition has all-but vanished. The Assad dynasty has continued to reassert its power in the face of an increasingly terrifying neo-Islamist insurgency. The year’s big story has been the consolidation of ISIS, or ISIL, or IS, or Deish… whatever. Baghdad yet stands, but the battle has raged over various towns in the northwest of Iraq and over the border in Syria. A surprise coalition of Western and Middle Eastern states launched air raids against IS positions, but the movement continued to attract disaffected young men and women from around the world. Western hostages were beheaded in a series of propaganda videos. Clandestine forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters resist on the ground but without a general commitment to return combat troops IS remains in control of broadly co-operative Sunni areas and bathes in the glow of international outrage at its decidedly un-Islamic behaviour.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan ended in December, following withdrawal of US and British combat units. The Taliban immediately declared victory, celebrating with a series of atrocities in Kabul and elsewhere. The confused relationship between the Pakistan security services and the Taliban became more confusing when a Taliban suicide squad slaughtered 130 teenagers at a military school in Pakistan, apparently in reprisal for civilian deaths in army missions in Taliban-controlled Swat. The government in Islamabad immediately imposed retrospective death sentences on dozens of prisoners, some of whom may even have been Taliban. Way to go, guys.
IS atrocities seemed to embolden their counterparts in Africa: al-Shabab and Boko Haram irregulars continued their attempts to disrupt the education system in various countries with further kidnappings of pupils, imposing sex slavery on the girls and pressing boys into military service. President Badluck Jonathan and counterparts continued to wring their hands, with little effect, as there seems to be evidence of the involvement of senior ministers and military figures behind the scenes.
The year’s big Africa story was, of course, Ebola. By the year’s end the death toll stood at over 7,500, less than ten percent of the numbers slain by Malaria in the same period. A major international medical aid effort swung into action with increasing but still patchy efficacy, while journalists, quivering Daily Express readers and internet trolls remained vigilant to abuse any brave aid worker who might hopefully export the plague back to Western countries, thus fulfilling the Zombie Prophecies.
What has, of course, gone unremarked is the unusual degree of peace and economic development that has afflicted the Dark Continent all year. Apart, that is, from Libya, which continued to disintegrate in the factional rivalry that has inevitably followed the downfall of Gaddafi. In the wake of its democratic revolution, Egypt elected a military dictator, General Abdul Fateh al-Sisi. Ousted President Morsi remains in gaol, facing an ever-lengthening roll of trumped-up charges, while former President Mubarak was freed, all charges against him being dropped for lack of conviction. Al-Jazeera English (and former BBC) journalist Peter Grester and colleagues continue to rot in a Cairo gaol at the insistence of al-Sisi for just doing the job of reporting on the Islamic Brotherhood, hundreds of whom also continue to rot in gaol under sentence of death. Will someone declare the Arab Spring officially over?
From The New York Times, 5 August:
“After weeks of rising tensions following the killings of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager, Israel began a major offensive against Hamas in Gaza on July 8. On August 5, Israel announced that it had withdrawn its forces from Gaza, and Hamas said it would engage in talks on a lasting arrangement to keep the peace.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. That is because if I did, which I think I could, I should be accused of all sorts of things. Let’s just say that in July, the Israelites did smite Gaza under provocation from annoying but seldom lethal rocketry from frustrated young Palestinians walled-up for years in an economically blockaded collective punishment zone condemned frequently by the UN as a violation of human rights; slaughtering 1,882 mostly innocent women and children in what they claim was a carefully targeted campaign of shelling and airstrikes, destroying four thousand properties, including UN schools and vital utilities, and hundreds of illegal tunnels, in exchange for taking 67, mostly military casualties of their own? Quite Biblical, really, all that smiting, eyes and teeth. But Hamas don’t help themselves, and it looks like it may all kick off again in 2015.
China/Japan and North/South Korea remained on the fixtures list, but despite random shellfire the belligerent language seemed to get toned down. Korea’s tufty president, Kim Jong-un, disappeared off the scene, his non-attendance at certain key events stirring the loins of Korea-watchers hoping there had been a coup. However, after a few weeks he returned, leaning heavily on a stick (believed to be the legbone of one of his uncles… no…), and the explanation emerged that it was probably gout – an unusual condition in one so young, often brought on by a diet of rich food and wine while your subjects are starving. Soon afterwards the decree went out that no-one else in North Korea should be allowed to call themselves or their children ‘Kim Jong-un’. A hairdresser in North London was ‘visited’ by North Korean embassy officials for displaying a Kim Jong-un poster, under the slogan ‘A bad hair day?’.
As well as MH17, in March the luckless Malaysian Airlines lost another of its Boeing 777 fleet, MH370. This has already joined the rollcall of historic Earth mysteries: the Marie Celeste, the Bermuda Triangle, the disappearance of Glenn Miller, the existence of Justin Bieber, as despite a massive international search covering millions of cubic miles of ocean there remains absolutely no clue as to the reason for its disappearance, its final flightpath or its current whereabouts. To add to the region’s tragic year, airwise, on 28 December AirAsia Flight 8501 with 162 people on board disappeared in a storm over the Java Sea. Its fate now looks certain. Bodies and wreckage have been found, The world’s media lenses insensitively shoved in the faces of weeping relatives confirmed the worst.
In fact, most of the year’s disasters were man-made. That doesn’t mean the planet got any more benign, merely that we seemed to be better prepared for natural calamities In December, the Philippines was hit by another massive superstorm, Typhoon Hagupit. Thanks to a large-scale evacuation effort, deaths remained in single figures and there was no repeat of 2013’s Typhoon Hayan, in which around seven thousand perished. Hawaii had to put up with huge lava flows from an eruption on Mount Kiluea, as well as a severe snowstorm in December, while dire predictions of another ash cloud affecting flights over the North Sea petered out as the Bardabunga volcano (a suitable location for one of Silvio Berlusconi’s soirees) continued to pour out lethal sulphur dioxide for two months, fortunately a long way from Reykjavik. In Japan, 36 sightseers died in September when Mount Ontake erupted without warning.
In late November a sudden shift in the Jetstream brought Arctic weather to much of the USA, with snowfall as far south as Florida. The ladies basketball team from Niagara U. were stranded on their coach for 30 hours. (He didn’t object…!) Seven people died as the cold front dropped up to eight feet of snow in three days over the states of New York, New Hampshire and Michigan. The big news story in the European ski resorts was that there was no snow. Then in one day, fifteen thousand motorists got trapped in their cars over Christmas when it all arrived at once, to the relief of the resort operators.
The big weather story for we Brits was a run of unusually powerful Atlantic storms that hit after Christmas 2013 and continued into February, with extensive flooding in Somerset and expensive coastal damage. The government and Environment Agency came in for criticism after it was found that budgets for flood defences and river dredging in the Somerset Levels had been pared back for years. (Everyone failing to acknowledge that the Levels is supposed to be a wetland environment – too much of the UK’s natural flood defences having been built over by speculators.) The long, dry summer made up for it, however, and by December (when the weather finally turned colder) the Met Office was already predicting 2014 would be the warmest year on record. Retail sales fell by 0.6% on an unusually warm autumn. A sudden deep depression in December threw up 50-foot waves and 80-mph winds on the west coast of Scotland and introduced us all to the phrase ‘weather bomb’.
The US and UK both continued their modest economic recovery, with falling unemployment failing to push up household incomes beyond 2008 levels. House prices rose, then fell, on mixed government signals. UK annual GDP growth was revised downward, from 3% to 2.6%, but unemployment at a little over 6% was the best in the EU, although it failed to result in the expected increase in Bank rate, which remained at 0.5% for another year. This was because of record low inflation, thanks in part to falling oil prices, Brent Crude hitting $60 a barrel in December from a previous high of $120. (This resulted in a whole 10p drop in UK pump prices per-litre.) Despite austerity measures, Government borrowing rose on a falling tax-take to almost £100bn for the year.
The Eurozone continued to struggle, even mighty Germany posting minus growth in the third quarter. The European Central Bank finally gave way to pressure for a little Quantitative Easing. Greece was back in crisis by December, the parliament refusing to ratify Prime Minister Samaras’ nominee for President. Shares fell 10% on the Athens exchange and Germany began making anxious noises as the anti-austerity opposition Syriza party looked favourites to win power in a January election. Republicans took over the US Senate in the mid-term elections. He walks like a duck, he quacks like a duck, but is Obama now a lame-duck President? It’s all been sadly disappointing.
Cyber warfare took over from rogue asteroids in late 2014 as the threat du jour, when hackers took down Sony Corporation’s website and released millions of emails embarrassing Hollywood execs with public exposure of their post-prandial views of various movie stars’ egos. The furore was over the impending release of a third-rate comedy depicting an unlikely plot by hack journalists to assassinate North Korea’s popular boy-president, Kim Jong-un. The FBI fingered North Korea as the source of the hack; North Korea denied it, calling President Obama a ‘monkey’. The internet promptly went down in North Korea for several days, although not many people would have known it. North Korea blamed the Americans. Sony pulled the film from general release after hearing of threats to movie theatres, but later changed their minds following criticism from the White House. The film has subsequently had over two million internet downloads. Way to go, guys.
Meanwhile, cyberheroes or villains, Assange and Snowden remain under their various forms of self-imposed house arrest. As for the Kardashian family, it’s been a wonderful, publicity-filled year, I have no idea why. Celebrities’ arses loomed ever larger in the popular media, the best remedy I find being to imagine what comes out. Bob Geldof had a tragic year, first losing his daughter Peaches to heroin, then re-releasing the creaking 1984 Band Aid ‘Don’t They Know it’s Christmas?’ single in a minorly updated version to raise funds for Ebola victims. The response from black Africa this time was: ‘Of course we bloody know it’s Christmas, now stop patronising us, for feck’s sake.’ It went briefly to number one. Relentless pap-promoter, Simon Cowell finally found the Y-factor, promoting a new celebaby, Eric.
Amazing feat of the year award went to the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission team that succeeded (12 November) in landing a probe called Philae on a small, rapidly spinning agglomeration of rocks shaped like a bathtime rubber duck, travelling at 30,000 mph, 327 million miles from planet Earth, after a 12-year voyage to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (yes, I had to look it up!). Before its battery went to sleep (a familiar problem for cellphone users), Philae found a) organic molecules necessary to the creation of life, and b) water, although not as we know it (yes, there are alien kinds of water. This had too much Deuterium in it, so it couldn’t be the kind scientists think may have created the oceans on Earth. Frankly, that would have taken a lot of comets.)
Finally, is there a paradigm-shift in the British political consensus of the past 100 years? 30-year cabinet papers revealed today that David Cameron’s policy adviser, Oliver Letwin, was key to advising Thatcher in 1985 to press ahead with the hated Poll Tax using Scotland specifically as a ‘test-bed’, leading to nationwide riots. The Scottish independence referendum in November produced a 55-45 split in favour of remaining in the Union, but subsequent stories like the one above led to a 300% increase in membership of the Scottish National Party, now expected to wipe out Scottish Labour to hold the balance of power in Westminster after next May’s general election. Revenge best comes deep-fried, they say.
The success of gaffe-prone, ‘non-racist’, back-to-the-’50s party UKIP in by-elections in 2014 and an apparent increase in support for the Greens led to serious suggestions that we are moving towards a multi-party state – just like other European democracies, in fact! Polls suggest Britain would narrowly vote to leave the EU if offered a referendum. The PM’s ‘friend’ and former £475,000 p.a. press chief, Andy Coulson was released from gaol in November after serving five months of an 18-month sentence for presiding over phone-hacking while editor of the News of the World. Perjury charges in another case remain unresolved.
Personally, nothing much happened for me in 2014. A former girlfriend sadly died, much too young, from cancer. No-one at all came to view my little house, which has been on sale now since November, 2012. But I sold all six of my remaining guitars, and bought another one, after some difficulties – and a car, a Citröen ‘Berlingo’ or somesuch (I wasn’t planning to go to Berlin!), to replace my disintegrating dog-kennel.
My short-term memory continues to atrophy, often to my embarrassment (for instance, I have just today overlooked a longstanding lunch invitation while writing this. My hostess emails to say she is miffed).
I became an Old Age Pensioner for the first time; with the heating turned off, wrapped for warmth in my old school scarf, I remain lovelorn and single but for Scat the Cat and (of course) my principal quadrupedal fur-bearing mammalian associate, Hunzi, who is in the pink, thanks for asking. Otherwise, I continue to function normally, apart from a slight, inconvenient urinary problem (To pee, or not to pee…) which my medical team continues to ignore.
I have applied for more caretaking work abroad, this year with no success whatever; done some singing, and some fine acting, and taken Portuguese lessons (I am proud to have learned off by heart, two Portuguese songs! But I cannot now remember a word of the Portuguese I expensively learned in August and so do not know what the lyrics mean).
And my tally of Posts to this, muh li’l bogl, recently passed the 400 mark, which may be some sort of pointless record; Pointless contestants please note.
“After all, tomorrow is another day…” (Scarlett O’Hara, in Gone With the Wind)
It is indeed, Scazza. Pip pip!
– Your Old ‘Uncle Bogler’