Home » Backpacking in Thailand » Ghosts of the past return to haunt us

Ghosts of the past return to haunt us

I was looking for a better story to go with the catchy headline of this, muh latest Post, composed last week, and Lo! One has popped into the news.

Eleven million documents relating to tax avoidance schemes operated through a Panamanian law firm by some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, including many past and serving heads of state, have been leaked to a German newspaper.

The breathtaking scale of the leak has meant that Suddeutsche Zeitung has effectively had to spread the joy. Esteemed UK organs such as the BBC’s investigative Panorama programme and The Guardian newspaper have been handed large tranches of the stuff to examine, so that ‘we don’t have to’.

Panic among the wealthy is a fine thing to behold. The company itself has protested it has done nothing illegal, although many of the documents appear to relate to overt money-laundering schemes, not least by some of Putin’s cronies, and consist of correspondence from the company’s own executives.

One such thread amusingly implicates an American financial ‘guru’, who seems to have set up a phoney company to bury $1.8 million dollars and then found that the bank where it was deposited wouldn’t let her withdraw the money because, unfortunately, her identity couldn’t be linked to the account. Hoist on her own petard, her helpful benefactors in Panama City ‘persuaded’ a 90-year-old British man to become a temporary director of the company and sign for the withdrawal.

It seems quite a useful service, helping people access their money, and I’d personally like to volunteer to be one of these ghost directors, as the fees sound most generous and we’d be doing nothing illegal.

Along with others perhaps not wealthy and stupid enough to have been taking advantage of Mossack-Fonseca’s vast array of helpful and virtually untraceable shell companies, such as the leaders of the ruling Communist party in China who have gaoled and even executed thousands of their opponents on ‘corruption’ charges while salting their own fortunes away, President Hollande has welcomed the leak; as has UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. Odd, how leaks relating to possible criminal behaviour by large financial institutions are invariably welcomed by the virtuous and vote-hungry, but (as in the case of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) the leakers themselves are threatened with condign legal punishments by politicians and ultra-high net worth individuals caught with their pants down.

For instance, here is what Lord Ashcroft’s panic-stricken spokesman, Alan Kilkenny, had to say (courtesy of the BBC News website):

“These allegations are completely untrue, and the events as described never happened. The records upon which you claim to rely for those allegations either do not exist or have been falsified.”

Sure, it’d be a great wheeze to sit around making up eleven million documents, wudn’ it, complete with IP addresses and dates, just to piss-off a wealthy Tory peer and benefactor whose tax affairs have always courted a certain amount of controversy, being as he was until joining the House of Lords a registered citizen of Belize.

Just as well then that Tory PM David Cameron will be hosting an anti-corruption summit next month. Especially as the papers reveal that his own, late father chaired a Mossack-Fonseca-registered investment trust whose stated corporate policy was to avoid paying any tax at all in the UK, and who avoided the interest of HMRC by virtue of holding board meetings in the Bahamas, using ‘bearer share’ holders to shield the real directors, and paying proxies to sign documents.

So much for loyalty to one’s country.

But… all perfectly legal and above-board, old chap. Another snifter?

Meanwhile, as so often happens when abuses on such a scale are revealed – the 2009 revelations about MPs expenses being a case in point –  the entire focus of Establishment reaction to the leak, at least in the UK, is being adroitly shifted away to the ‘fairness’ or otherwise of irritating, but perfectly legal tax avoidance schemes, a complete smokescreen when the story is so obviously not about that.

The former Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, was even heard this morning expressing touching concern for the livelihoods of the ‘inhabitants’ of the British Virgin Islands, where around half the offshore shell companies are registered. By inhabitants, one supposes he means the domestic servants of the wealthy tax exiles who infest the foreshore, should we use our constitutional powers to shut down their cosy, ‘ask-no-questions, tell-no-tales’ banking arrangements.

It’s about the corruption of power: the sanitisation and concealment of ill-gotten gains, the blatant fraud, the illegal diversion of public finances, the undeclared ‘family’ interests, the proxies, the manipulation of shares and markets, the bribery, the busting of international sanctions, by vastly wealthy political and corporate kleptocrats; by organised crime syndicates.

And however ‘legal’ many of the 100 thousand shell companies created by Mossack-Fonseca over forty years might be (laws may vary from country to country) as vehicles for minimising their exposure to harsher tax regimes, surely any genuinely honest corporations involved with this appalling bunch must realise by now that their expensively created brands will be irrevocably tarnished by association?

In one instance at least, behind the cloak of secrecy a Mossack-Fonseca client was quietly helping North Korea to acquire a nuclear arsenal. And their lawyers knew it.

It doesn’t get much worse than that.

 

What might have been

And timely, too, for my headline about ghosts returning to haunt us, that an inquiry has been hastily announced into the lacklustre performance in the field of UK sports anti-doping agency, UKAD.

That quaint old expression about the pot calling the kettle black seems apposite.

Here is the UK government, self-righteously demanding that Russia, Kenya and other dodgy countries should be barred from international competition until they sort out their addiction to performance-enhancing drugs, only for the Sunday Times, a paper not felt to have been much in the forefront of investigative journalism since Murdoch bought it, to produce a wonderful story based on a sting operation against a Harley Street ‘doctor’.

Mark Bonar, who is apparently not licensed to practise medicine in the NHS, was caught on camera boasting that he had prescribed testosterone and other known wake-up pills to more than 150 etiolated British footballers, tennis players, boxers…

Indeed, only bridge players fortified by nothing more illegal than a glass of dry sherry seem to have escaped the attentions of the good doctor, who (having evidently said what he said) is denying having done anything wrong. Top goal-scorer in my fantasy league at 66 years of age, I loved his comment that a 30-year-old footballer surely needs something to help him keep pace with 18-year-old players (I’m kept going on intravenous shots of Merlot).

And it also appears from the story that UKAD may have been told about this two years ago and somehow forgotten to investigate.

Poor Sebastian Coe. If only he had known.

Meanwhile, the Rio Olympics are snorting up on the rails just as Brazil’s government is threatening to implode over President Roussef’s apparent attempts to shield her predecessor, Lula da Silva, from prosecution on corruption charges that might implicate her, while she herself faces impeachment proceedings over her alleged role in the Petrobras (massive bribes for signing-off $billion non-existent construction contracts, etc.) scandal….

Am I the only one here living quietly on the State pension, haunted by nothing more than dreams of what might have been?

 

Oversupply

In our strange world, an oversupply of any commodity ultimately results in cheaper prices for the consumer. Which might be considered a Good Thing, unless the market can be ‘adjusted’ so that giant ships bearing container-loads of that commodity can be diverted to circle the world’s oceans like the Marie Celeste, sometimes for years, never entering port until the price goes up again.

Living as I do in ‘God’s Own Country’ (Wales, not Australia), I sometimes find myself driving through the industrial heart of Port Talbot, the huge steel-making and -rolling town on the coast; past miles of old sheds and smoking stacks and pipes and skeletal towers and stagnant ponds containing God-knows what toxic suspensions, a veritable Mordor; and privately observe that what ultimately has destroyed the community is most probably the motorway that bisects it, which came through long ago (and annoyingly still retains a 50 mph limit).

Motorways are roads to illusory freedoms, optimistic technology bearing us into an unknown future; bypassing the relics of our industrial past.

I read that Prime Minister Cameron on a trip to Washington  has ‘had a word’ with Chinese premier Xi Jiping about the dumping of steel on world markets, that has created an oversupply of cheap steel to undercut our best efforts in the West and is threatening the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. The Chinese shrug, while our reporters earnestly explain that in China, they have their own oversupply problems and are themselves cutting back production as their rampant infrastructure-building slows along with the economy.

But not fast enough to save our one remaining strategic heavy industry (not including Adele, of course).

Meanwhile, Mr Xi announces blithely that he is slapping a 34% tariff on imports of the special hi-tech steels we make, as it happens, here in Wales. Although we don’t actually export any to China.

Ironically, and despite the lies told in the Sun newspaper, which blames the EU for the crisis, Britain has been resisting attempts by other EU countries whose steel industries are also threatened by cheap Chinese imports, to impose higher tariffs in retaliation. Mr Osborne doesn’t want to upset the Chinese, whose investment is urgently required to shore-up the British economy and boost our energy supply with nuclear electricity after we vote to leave the EU.

The Chinese have us by the balls; no doubt exacting their patient revenge for the Opium Wars. And meanwhile, in my local town, a huge skeletal structure has been raised in recent months to support new shops and a car park, a giant Meccano set constructed I’m told entirely out of cheap imported Chinese steel girders; an economy measure that, if true, will no doubt enhance the profits of the developers whle costing Welsh jobs without the necessity to book tickets to Panama.

It seems we have ourselves by the balls as well.

Age of steam

I observe too that the images we see of the doomed steelworks on our screens nightly, as futile negotiations continue, plans drawn up and abandoned in the face of complex geopolitical calculations, depict an industrial landscape from before even the turbulent 1970s. What we are shown of Chinese steel-making are rows of white-coated technicians seated at computer screens, while all we see of UK steel-making is grimy, sweating men pouring molten metal by hand out of iron-encrusted ladles into the white-hot maw of the strip mill.

If Chinese steel-making might seem more efficient, that’s probably because it is. Do we need the media to rub it in?

In 2008, British taxpayers had no choice. The Brown government handed a trillion pounds (one thousand, thousand million. That’s 300o Olympic swimming pools full of money) to the banks, and told them to pay themselves bigger bonuses to get it right next time. Without banks, there would be no 39.5% interest charged on store cards and the economy would have collapsed. So we rescued them.

Unlike banking, which is merely a criminal enterprise the government has not yet got round to making illegal*, the steel industry is an industrial dinosaur. Yes, it’s tough on the 40,000 mortgage-payers who will lose their livelihoods when the appropriately named Ta-ta corporation pulls out of UK steel to focus on its more competitive plant around the world, tough on their communities, but hey, that’s progress in a modern, globalising economy.

We’re all in it together, apart from those who are out of it. Saddest of all, is the touching faith of working people in the permanence of work, a job, a wage for life, a pension like their fathers and grandfathers had; their incomprehension of the changing world they live in. When the last Labour government left office and a larky note was found at the Treasury apologising for there being no money, what they didn’t tell us was that it had been stolen.

As for me, I’ve been made redundant five times. Nothing I’ve ever been qualified to do has any commercial value any more. So you can understand my cynicism, can’t you.

 

*As you can probably tell, I’ve just had a letter from the bank letting me know that the interest payable on my savings account will henceforth be 0.20 per cent, i.e. for every £100 I lend them over 12 months they will pay me 20p. Should I wish to borrow £100 for a year, however, I will have to pay them £9.60. Plus the set-up fee, of course.

 

Deliver us from Evil

Speaking of faith, I read there’s a problem with Nigerian village women insisting on giving birth in churches rather than maternity clinics, because it is a time when you need to be closest to God; and, as one woman is quoted as complaining, nobody prays for you in hospital.

Unfortunately, too many are getting rather closer to God than they may have intended, as the mortality rate among women and babies ministered to by unqualified and unequipped pastors acting as midwives is horrifying even the Nigerian government.

I met a party of Nigerians while on a course last year, who had actually brought their own pastor with them so they could hold services anywhere at the drop of a hat. They had presumably heard that Christianity in France was a dead duck. Lovely though they all were, I was frankly alarmed at the psychotic degree of religious fervour they exhibited, bordering on the medieval.

It was perhaps unkind of me to mention it so late into the evening, but in all sincerity I had to point out that Christianity arrived in Nigeria in the C19th as an adjunct to more ruthless means of colonial oppression. In presenting Jesus as a kind of uber-shaman who rose from the dead and flew up into the sky, it was deliberately designed to appeal to simple folk with a deep-seated animistic belief in the supernatural.

The expression ‘water off a duck’s back’ sprang to mind.

Surely, then, the simplest and cheapest solution to the problem if these women won’t let go of their dangerous faith in the obstetrics skills of the Almighty, who is so clearly indifferent to most forms of suffering, would be to equip every maternity unit with a resident pastor?

 

Just the ticket

And still speaking of faith, on Saturday night I was alerted by email to the opening of the booking season for train tickets to my preferred holiday destination at the end of July.

Being mildly pissed, instead of sensibly waiting for a less automated time, imagining that the fare might suddenly leap up on Monday,  I immediately went online to the website of SNCF, the French railway giant, and bought a return ticket  – being also impressed by the very modest price of £85, compared with the £700 I spent faffing about with trains and planes last year, just to penetrate a few miles further south into the Dordogne (see Posts passim).

On checking the automatic no-reply confirmation of my itinerary, I noticed that I, or we; the computer, the calendar and I, had somehow managed to book the return leg on the 31st, instead of the 30th. Drink, tiredness, lateness and an unpleasant attack of conjunctivitis had combined to make the data on the screen all but invisible, and I guess I just overcooked the drop-down menu offering me travel dates, I don’t know.

Rather than having to spend one night in the centre of Le Mans, which (although I have never been there) is probably a bit of a dystopian horror-show, to judge by other French provincial cities, I tried to amend the booking online, only to receive an apologetic note telling me this service is not yet available.

So, first thing this morning, I called the bookings hotline (post-sales department) to alert them to the error; mindful of the possibility that there would be a hefty ‘administration’ fee, despite giving them several months’ notice of my intended travel dates.

Stephen the friendly operative took four minutes of ghastly muzak at 7p a minute plus my normal call charge to convert my 8-digit  booking number into an actual entry on his computer screen. Having confirmed the dates of the booking, he then took another seven minutes to contact the ‘ticket office’ to make sure they hadn’t yet licked the stamp on my application for postal delivery.

It seemed unlikely, given that it was only 09.15 on a Monday morning.

Having confirmed that they couldn’t say if they had yet processed the booking, he told me he would have to call me back. Surprisingly, half an hour later he did, only to tell me about an odd problem that had arisen.

Apparently, the computer wouldn’t let anyone access my file to amend it, and he would have to get his supervisor to find someone in IT who could unlock it and get him in. If there were any further problems, he promised faithfully to let me know about them.

I refrained from suggesting that, this being the French national train operator, it was likely the computer was on strike.

This hopefully minor episode is typical of the forces of Chaos that invest my every attempt to make travel arrangements. It is no wonder I so seldom exit the well-trodden boundaries of my own small community.

But there is something reassuring, is there not, about a giant transport undertaking that, in 2016, cannot even talk to its own computer about such a simple matter as amending a date on an as-yet unprinted document?

Something that gives one faith that the nightmare of progress may be approaching the terminus of expandability.

Postscriptum

So the following Friday the physical tickets arrive, and sure enough the return portion is for the wrong date. Telephoning immediately, I speak to Guiliermo, who issues a new booking number and requests me politely to post the tickets back to Voyages SNCF booking office for a refund and exchange.

In Barcelona.

Note. 25th April. Still waiting.

 

Twisting the coils

I have never personally understood the attractionof wearing one’s hair like a Sulawesian mud-man, in plastered and knotted dreadlocks. It seems terribly uncomfortable and unhygienic and I can’t imagine ever trying to sleep on them.

Rastafarians thoughtfully wear theirs coiled up under a woolly hat, but muh lovely friend Hayley wore hers out and proud; and after tragically splitting with her equally lovely, but prematurely bald partner, went to live on a houseboat with a man whose matching waist-length ‘dreads’ were equally itchy looking.

Notably, both are white and fair-haired. But if they want to celebrate the late, great Bob Marley, why not?

Now the annoying Canadian ‘singer-songwriter’, Mr Justin Bieber (whom I once unkindly dubbed the ‘celebrity foetus’) has attracted a global shitstorm of twittery drivel over his tentative blond ‘dreads’.

And once again, I have been driven to switch off my TV or radio in despair by an interviewee, some silly little girl whose tedious and irrational opinions are so far from what I understand to be normal human responses that I cannot bear to listen to them.

Usually it is the Cheeky Chappie, Mr Nigel Farage, who garners hundreds of hours of free BBC airtime merely by being a loudmouthed arse, who forces me to get out of bed in the morning and flee downstairs to get away from the bombastic braying noise. I once dashed a radio to pieces on a stone floor hoping not to have to listen to any more of Ms Caroline Thomson explaining why her boss, Mr Mark Thompson, then the mealy-mouthed little Director-General of the BBC, had decided to ban a UN charity appeal on behalf of the survivors of another Israeli pogrom in Gaza, but didn’t have the guts to come on himself and tell us why.

In this case, it is a prettily coiffed young journalist drenched in black hair product who has been wheeled in to disapprove of cross-cultural appropriation. Especially of anything black by anyone white. Starting with Evis Presley, although I don’t recall she was even asked about him. And two seconds later she was on to oppression, although she didn’t look very oppressed to me. I don’t recall many young black female journalists guesting on Newsnight twenty years ago. Well done you.

Racist, or what?

If Mr Bieber wants to look a bit of a dick, let him. We know he already is one. Changing hairstyle has nothing to say about anything, other than you are bored with yourself. David Beckham is positively Protean when it comes to interchanging hairstyles and beards. When he grows the blond beard, do we invite Danish men onto the programme to whinge about it?

Just as internet trolls are capable of turning any news item against immigrants, feminists and Muslims, the black race industry will ever twist the narrative like braided coils to try to guilt-trip us all.

Tragically, all that does is trap innocent black youngsters in a perpetually self-reinforcing narrative of victimhood.

Not helpful. Not at all.

 

 

 

 

 

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