A dark Swiss secret

 

From unsplash.com / © Nadine Marfurt

 

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently living in the past, which is no doubt due to the lack of anything happening in the present.  And that, of course, is because of the ongoing and seemingly never-ending Covid-19 pandemic.  Since August 20th, Sri Lanka, the country I’m currently resident in, has been in its third period of lockdown.  When it was announced, my partner and I had just ended a state of self-imposed lockdown, for one of our friends was diagnosed with Covid-19 at the start of August and we’d had to self-isolate.  So, basically, we’ve seen little apart from the inside of our flat for the past two months.

 

Anyway, the following entry is a little stroll down memory lane that I originally posted on this blog in 2015.  While it looks back (fairly) fondly on an adventure I had in 1983, what revived my memories of the adventure was a disturbing article about Switzerland that I’d just discovered on the BBC news website.

 

For two months in the late spring and early summer of 1983 I worked on a farm in the Swiss municipality of Niederweningen, which is a 35-minute train ride out of Zurich.  I can safely say that in terms of sheer, hard, physical work, I’ve done no job like this before or since.

 

At the time, I was in the middle of taking a year out between the end of high school and the start of college.  As far as I remember, nobody else in my school-year did this.  Those who intended to go to college did so in the autumn of 1982, a few months after they’d left school.  Everybody around me, including my parents, seemed to think I was insane for delaying my entry to college by 16 months and spending the intervening period doing loopy things like working on a farm in rural Switzerland.  Nowadays of course, nearly four decades later, you’re considered insane, and lacking in initiative and employability, if you enter college and you haven’t taken a year out, or a gap-year as it’s known in modern parlance.  (At least, that’s how it was before the Covid-19 pandemic and presumably how it’ll be again after the pandemic.)

 

In 1982 I’d discovered an agency called Vacation Work International, which for a small fee arranged paid working holidays in Switzerland.  Switzerland wasn’t top of my list of places to visit but Vacation Work accepted people from the age of 17 upwards.  I was 17 at the time and other foreign-job agencies I’d tried had turned me down because, due to visa regulations, they could only take on people who were 18 or older.  In October 1982, Vacation Work fitted me up with a month-long job as a grape-picker in a vineyard near Lausanne in French-speaking western Switzerland.  This was a tough (and wet – those Swiss wine-producers had a very rainy grape harvest to deal with in 1982) but tolerable job.  So, after spending some time travelling in central Europe and working with the Community Service Volunteers in the English Midlands, I thought I’d contact Vacation Work again and give something else on their Swiss brochure a go.  This time I plumped for a two-month package where I’d work as a farmhand.

 

One thing this job did immediately was rid me of the assumption that everyone in Switzerland wore a smart suit and earned pots of money working in a bank.  The farming family whom Vacation Work attached me to were not wealthy; certainly not by the standards of any farmer I knew back in the UK (and my Dad is one).

 

Their house was plain but serviceable, but certain things I’d assumed would be a feature of any household in Western Europe, however rich or poor, such as a television set, were absent.  One basic commodity that seemed to be lacking was a decent strip of flypaper because, although the house was reasonably clean, its dining table was always plagued by swarms of big, impudent flies.

 

Their farmstead possessed a tractor, a trailer and one or two other bits of machinery, but nothing like what even a modest British farm would be equipped with.  When the farmer, Hugo, wanted to bale some hay, he had to arrange for the use of a baler that seemed to be shared among a number of farms in the valley.  And there were no machines for spraying or weeding crops.  Those chores had to be done by someone with a heavy tank of weed-killer strapped onto their back or by someone wielding a hoe, monotonously, all day long, up and down the furrows of a field.  Similarly, such devices as front-end or back-end loaders were considered an unaffordable luxury.  For shifting things like dung or loose hay, the shovel and the pitchfork were the order of the day.  During my two months there, such basic tools were rarely out of my hands.

 

My abiding memory from those two months is of the daily schedule.  Hugo would usually come knocking at my door at 5.30 in the morning and after a hurried breakfast both of us would be outside, ready for action, at 6.00.  We’d have an hour’s break at lunchtime.  We’d spend the first half that lunch-hour eating and then Hugo would give me a pitying look and suggest, “Jan…”  – neither Hugo nor his family could ever get their tongues around the correct /ǝın/ pronunciation of my name – “…eine halbe Stunde.”  During this free half-hour, I’d usually doze off in my room and wake up 20 or 25 minutes later with a headache and a rotten taste in my mouth that suggested I’d just been chewing a dead frog.

 

At some point in the early evening there’d be another meal, but the work usually continued until 8.00 or 9.00 PM.  During a busy period, like when we were hay-making, we didn’t clock off until after 10.00.  This was the routine six days a week.  Only Sundays were free.  I calculated I must be doing 70 to 80 hours of physical labour each week.  I’d grown up on a farm, and indeed the previous year I’d spent a busy summer working on my uncle’s farm in Ireland.  But I hadn’t done anything on the scale of this.

 

© schweizerdeutsch-lernen.ch

 

That said, I did quite enjoy myself.  I got on well with Hugo and his family were civil to me, although because I was equipped only with the basic German I’d learnt at school and as they spoke the robust – some would say impenetrable – dialect of German known as Schweizerdeutsch, communication was often difficult.  At the end of 1983, I received a nice Christmas card and letter from Hugo and his family, which had been written in English by one of their children who was learning the language as school.  It wasn’t very comprehensible and I wondered if I’d sounded as strange to them when I’d spoken German.

 

The family were also kind enough at the end of my two-month service to present me with a going-away gift: a bottle of illicitly-homemade kirsche.  This bottle of kirsche lasted for the next two years, into 1985.  It was so strong that it could be supped only in minute quantities.  A couple of times I sneakily gave glasses of it to college acquaintances who liked to boast about their drinking prowess and, soon after, enjoyed the spectacle of them falling unconscious.

 

Pleasant too was the scenery at Niederweningen.  It wasn’t mountainous but, half-farmed, half forested, it was gorgeous in a sedate, pastoral way.  And I formed a friendship with another Vacation Work person who’d been assigned to a neighbouring farm, Rebecca Macnaughton.  Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’ve kept in touch to this very day.  Actually, no matter how long and how hard I worked, it never seemed to stop me from accompanying my Vacation Work colleague down the road to the local pub for a beer after I’d finally finished for the day.

 

One evening, we tried exploring a different road and happened across a small restaurant that was run, somewhat unexpected, by a well-travelled and very interesting Sri Lankan guy.  In fact, he was the first Sri Lankan I’d ever met and I never imagined that, later in my life, I’d spend seven years living in his home country.  Anyway, he described how, previously, he’d worked in Zurich with some young Swiss heroin addicts.  And suddenly another of my assumptions about Switzerland, about how it was a bastion of order, decency and law-abidingness, had been turned on its head.

 

One other positive thing about the experience was how physically fit I felt afterwards.  Nowadays, with my body wracked by arthritic aches and pains and my waistline fighting a losing battle against a beer-belly, I look at photographs taken of me after I’d arrived home and can hardly believe how athletic I looked then.  Indeed, one of the things I did after that was to spend a fortnight tramping around the Lake District and I seem to remember bounding about those Cumbrian fells like a mountain gazelle.

 

For my Swiss farm-work I was paid a modest wage, but I was never sure if that wage came out of Hugo’s pocket or if it was provided under some Swiss farming subsidy scheme.  From what I could gather, the people provided by Vacation Work International were just one input in a system that saw lots of foreign people working cheaply on those modest-sized, modest-resourced farms.  Hugo told me how one farmhand who’d worked for him previously was an African bloke.  He’d also employed someone, at some point, from the Faroes Islands.  Hugo and the Faroese guy had got along so well that the latter still phoned him for a chat from time to time, from his home in the North Atlantic.

 

Mind you, the annual presence of foreign farmhands didn’t seem to improve Hugo or his neighbours’ knowledge of the outside world.  I recall one lunchtime having an argument with him and one of his neighbours about where Albania was.  I was the only one who maintained that it was in Europe.  Eventually, one of Hugo’s kids’ school atlases was dug out and consulted and, yes, it transpired that I was correct.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Roland zh

 

I’ve written nostalgically about my days on a Swiss farm, but I have to admit that what rekindled my memories of them and inspired me to write this blog-entry was something altogether darker.  Whilst browsing through the online back-pages of the BBC News website magazine, I happened across an article about a phenomenon that the Swiss authorities had until recently kept quiet about.  The article is called SWITZERLAND’S SHAME – THE CHILDREN USED AS CHEAP FARM LABOUR and is written by Kavita Puri.

 

This describes the old Swiss practice of taking orphaned children, or the children of unmarried parents, or children from poor backgrounds, and using them as ‘contract children’; as ultra-cheap labour, often on farms, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  Part of the reason for this was simple economics.  Prior to World War II Switzerland wasn’t a wealthy country and a low-costing workforce for its agricultural sector had to be found somewhere.  However, it was driven too by an unforgiving attitude towards poverty.  As one historian explains: “It was like a kind of punishment.  Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”

 

The phenomenon of contract children – which over the decades is believed to have involved hundreds of thousands of Swiss youngsters – began in the 1850s and continued for the next century.  It didn’t peter out until the 1960s and 1970s, when “farming became mechanised” and “the need for child labour vanished.”  Also, “(w)omen got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards the poor and single mothers moved on.”  Even so, Puri’s article mentions one case of agricultural child labour that occurred as late as 1979, just four years before I arrived there for my 70-to-80 hours of weekly hard labour.  What a sobering thought.

The kraken’s un-woke

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

Are you one of those many British people who feels ‘underserved and unheard by their media’ because your politics are a wee bit to the right?  Are you hostile towards that trendy left-wing phenomenon called ‘wokeness’ and convinced that ‘the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’?

 

Yes, life must be horrible for you in 2021 Britain.  There’s absolutely nobody in the British media to defend your views because it’s all so hideously lefty and woke.  Well, except for the Daily Express.  And the Daily Mail, of course.  But aside from those two newspapers, there’s nobody…  Oh, and the Sun.  And the Daily Telegraph.  And the Spectator.  And a good chunk of the opinion pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times.  But that’s it.

 

Meanwhile, with so many volleys of lefty, woke bullets whizzing around nowadays, there aren’t any right-wing commentators at all who’re bold enough to stick their heads above the parapet.  Apart from Toby Young, bless his baldy little socks.  And that feisty Julie Burchill.  And Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Darren Grimes, Daniel Hannon, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Katie Hopkins, Quentin Letts, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin Mackenzie, Jan Moir, Tim Montgomerie, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Alison Pearson, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Pierce and Sarah Vine.  And that plucky actor chappie, what’s his name?  Lawrence Fox?  Anyway, there’s only a tiny handful of brave right-wing holdouts against wokeness.  You can’t even include Piers Morgan among them.  Poor Piers used to be good on Good Morning Britain, but he’s been off the telly since his crusade against Meghan Markle, Woke Evil Personified, made him so angry that his head burst in a geyser of liquified gammon.

 

Thus, there’s hardly any media outlets or media people in Britain to defend your honest, decent, patriotic, right-wing sensibilities against the predations of the horrible, lefty, woke establishment.  That’s an establishment headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s right, the shamelessly woke Boris ‘tank-topped bumboys’, ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘Muslim-women-look-like-letterboxes’ Johnson.  An establishment run by a cadre of Marxist provocateurs like Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who’re forever up to no-good, lefty, woke activities such as imprisoning asylum seekers in pestilent hellholes, protecting statues of mass-murdering slave traders, wallpapering the rooms where they do Zoom calls with Union Jacks, and doing anything up to and including eating live cockroaches and hammering rusty nails into their eyeballs to prove their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.

 

Luckily, salvation is now at hand.  Today sees the launch of a new TV channel called GB News, which promises to push a right-wing agenda that all sensible, salt-of-the-earth Britons will agree with and promises to call out this woke nonsense that possesses our lefty British media and government.  Needless to say, just by existing, GB News has gone against the grain of the British establishment, and its creation is thanks to the efforts of several, heroic, anti-establishment figures.  These include financial backers like the anti-establishment American TV company Discovery; and the anti-establishment investment fund Legatum, which is based in that hotbed of punk rock, Dubai; and the anti-establishment hedge-fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, whose son Winston plays the banjo in Mumford & Sons, a band so hardcore anti-establishment it makes Rage Against the Machine look like wimps.

 

And the chair and main presenter of GB News is the most awesomely anti-establishment figure you can imagine: Andrew Neil.  Well, he’s anti-establishment if you look at his CV with one eye closed and the other eye half-open and manage somehow to miss his 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times; his involvement in the founding of Sky TV; his decade as editor-in-chief with the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings group, overseeing the Scotsman, the Business and the European; his 15 years as chairman of the publishing company ITP Media Group (also based in Dubai, home of the Sex Pistols and the Clash); and his 17 years with the BBC.  And that villa he owns in the South of France.

 

Anyway, setting the sarcasm aside for a moment… I was aware of Neil’s malign influence in the British media from an early age.  At school at the start of the 1980s, I did a Scottish Higher course in Modern Studies and I remember being advised by the teacher, Sandy Bowick, to read a ‘quality Sunday newspaper like the Observer or the Sunday Times’ every weekend to keep abreast of what was happening politically in the world.  Accordingly, I got into the habit of reading the Sunday Times, which was still under the stewardship of the much-respected Harold Evans.  But tragically, the gimlet-eyed Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times in 1981 and by 1983 had installed Andrew Neil as its editor.  Neil wasted no time in transforming this once laudable newspaper into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet that it remains to this day.

 

The Sunday Times wasn’t the only example of a newspaper being subjected to Andrew Neil’s reverse-Midas touch, i.e., instantly turning to shit in his hands.  Hired by the Barclay Brothers in the mid-1990s, newspapers he supervised like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.  Worst of all, he became editor-in-chief of Edinburgh’s one-time quality daily, the Scotsman.  It’s hard to believe today but the Scotsman was a newspaper that once was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles from London could.  Among other things, up until the 1990s, the Scotsman was a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its affairs.

 

In the late 1990s, after spending most of the decade in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a few issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London, even though the Scottish population had just voted for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in a referendum in 1997.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been in favour of Scottish devolution?  Then one night I saw Neil’s visage on a Scottish current affairs programme, where he was introduced as ‘editor-in-chief at the Scotsman’.  Horribly, it all fell into place for me.  Oh no, he’s back, I despaired. Returned to wreck yet another, once perfectly-good newspaper.

 

I suspect Neil’s tenure at the Scotsman alienated the Scottish demographic that it needed to survive as a healthy business concern.  I knew plenty of folk in Edinburgh who were around my age and, like me, were centre or left politically and interested in current affairs.  They weren’t young enough to be into new-fangled digital media and would have happily bought a traditional, physical newspaper if they thought it was worth reading. But whenever its name came up in conversation, such people would shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

Although Neil had nothing to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right, where he’d dragged it, and never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his regime.  By 2018, it was in the hands of JPIMedia and had a daily circulation figure – the one currently quoted on its Wikipedia page – of under 16,400 copies.  It’d had to lay off staff-members, reduce its numbers of pages and supplements, and flit from its old headquarters on Holyrood Road to a new one on Queensferry Road that was less than half the size and a third of the rent.  The last time I looked at it, much of what it printed was either shallow and vacuous, or hysterical, kneejerk, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style crap.

 

You’d think that with his antipathy to all things mild-mannered, lily-livered, pussyfooting and, well, woke, Andrew Neil would have given the BBC a body-swerve.  And yet during the past two decades he’s done very nicely out of the venerable corporation.  Most prominently, he hosted the BBC’s This Week programme (2003-2019), in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration / flirtation fest.  Indeed, at the time, I thought it was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.  Not only did Neil and co. believe they were offering cutting insights into the nation’s politics, but they also seemed to think they were cool.  Funny, even.  And nothing is worse than people who think they’re funny, but aren’t funny, trying to be funny.

 

For example, I can think of few things more ludicrous than the sight of Neil and Portillo prancing around in the style of the video for Peter Kay’s chart-topping Is This the Way to Amarillo, as they did during the title sequence of one episode in 2005.  At least in 2018, when they got Bobby Gillespie from the impeccable post-punk, alternative-rock band Primal Scream onto This Week to talk about Brexit – yes, this is a strange sentence I find myself writing – Gillespie summed up the viewers’ feelings at the episode’s end.  By this point, Neil, Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint (drafted in as a replacement for Diane Abbott) had jumped up and starting cavorting around the studio in the manner of the briefly popular, crap Internet dance craze the Skibidi Challenge.  Not only did Gillespie refuse to take part in this cringe-inducing farrago, but he sported the stony countenance of a man who’d just discovered a giant dog turd on the end of his shoes.  (Mind you, having Michael Portillo dad-dancing beyond the ends of your shoes wouldn’t be much better.)

 

 ©BBC / From clashmusic.com

 

I’ve written scornfully about Andrew Neil and GB News and the guff they’ve tried to peddle about being some courageous, anti-establishment bulwark against a supposed tidal wave of wokeness.  It’s complete disingenuous garbage.  However, I have no doubt that they’ll find an audience.  One thing about right-wingers is their unswayable belief that they’re the victims, even when a mountain-range of evidence proves they’re actually the victors.  Britain has been in thrall to right-wing doctrines since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed there was ‘no such thing as society’, till today, when those in power claim to belong to the Conservative Party but are basically Nigel Farage’s reactionary, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in all but name.  For a few years in the middle, Tony Blair might have constituted a blip, but he was hardly a left-wing blip.  Yet in the paranoid minds of right-wing Britons in 2021, the nonsensical belief that everything they hold dear is threatened by Marxists and social justice warriors is probably more intense than ever.

 

He might be an utter chancer, but there’ll always be plenty of deluded souls willing to lap up Andrew Neil’s brand of bullshit.

Soft power? No, soft in the head

 

From unsplash.com / © Jannes Van Den Wouwer

 

“And our hard power, conference, is dwarfed by a phenomenon that the pessimists never predicted when we unbundled the British Empire, and that is soft power – the vast and subtle and pervasive extension of British influence around the world that goes with having the language that was invented and perfected in this country, and now has more speakers than any other language on earth.

 

“And up the creeks and inlets of every continent on earth there go the gentle, kindly gunboats of British soft power, captained by Jeremy Clarkson – a prophet more honoured abroad, alas, than in his own country – or J.K. Rowling ,who is worshipped by young people in some Asian countries as a kind of divinity, or just the BBC.  And no matter how infuriating and shamelessly anti-Brexit they can sometimes be, I think the Beeb is the single greatest and most effective ambassador for our culture and our values.”

 

So spoke Boris de Piffle Johnson at the Conservative Party conference in 2016 on the subject of soft power and the United Kingdom’s ability, at least back then, to project it.  The term ‘soft power’ was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, who described it as ‘getting others to want the outcomes you want’ on an international level. With sufficient soft power, a country can influence other countries through them ‘admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness’ rather than by ‘threatening military force or economic sanctions’ against them.

 

According to Nye, a country’s soft power comes from its culture, political values and foreign policies and its success in communicating and marketing these to an international audience. The UK had several historical advantages here. It was the original exporter of what is currently the world’s most popular international language, a language that, handily, it shares with the world’s number-one superpower.  It was also once a superpower itself, a ruthlessly imperial one, which left a legacy of connections around the world with its former colonies.  And, before 2016, it enjoyed a position as one of the main players in the European Union.

 

With these channels in place, all the UK needed were effective agents to facilitate the flow of its soft power and it had these in abundance too.  Not so long ago, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development (DFID), the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the British Council (BC) did a great deal to promote the UK abroad in the fields of, respectively, diplomacy, development, broadcasting and education.  It helped too that the UK had many world-famous educational, cultural and sporting brands it could draw on, ranging from Oxford and Cambridge Universities and William Shakespeare to Manchester United and the Beatles.  Though Johnson, never one to let the fear of appearing crass get in the way of what he thinks is a jolly joke, claimed that much of the UK’s soft power was due to foreign petrolheads getting off on Top Gear.

 

It’s been a long time since I felt any affinity for the UK as a political entity.  I would, for instance, be happy to see Scotland become independent of it.  But I still feel I have a dog in the fight over the issue of British soft power because for most of the last quarter-century I’ve worked for various organisations and institutions in the fields of education and development that, directly or indirectly, have helped to promote British soft power abroad.  This hasn’t bothered me too much.  The days of the imperialist British Empire mentality were, I thought, long gone.  And although there have been a few catastrophic foreign policy errors, such as Tony Bliar’s decision to involve the UK in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, I thought that the ‘values’, ‘examples’ and ‘openness’ Britain promoted abroad weren’t negative ones.  At least, in the early 21st century, they could have been worse.  I wouldn’t necessarily say the UK was one of the good guys as far as countries went, but it seemed one of the better guys.

 

That, however, was before the disaster of 2016’s Brexit referendum vote and the decision by voters in Britain – well, in England and Wales – to amputate the country from the European Union and embrace a parochial Little Englander nationalism.  This was promulgated by an array of shameless opportunistic chancers like Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Aaron Banks and of course Johnson himself.  Cheering them on was Britain’s right-wing press, owned by the billionaire likes of Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers.

 

Johnson’s government, and that of Theresa May before him, have done their best to play to a gallery of xenophobes, reactionaries, gammons and flag-shaggers, making decisions that right-wing tabloid headlines construe as sticking up for plucky little Blighty whilst giving Johnny Foreigner one in the eye.  In fact, what they’ve succeeded in doing is eroding the once-impressive edifice of British soft power on the international stage.  You can read about Britain’s decline in the world’s soft-power rankings here.

 

One example of this, perhaps small in the general scheme of things but telling in its malignant stupidity, is how the decision by Johnson’s government to cut UK overseas bilateral aid by at least 50% has impacted on the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) organisation.  VSO is dependent for half its budget on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which is the unwieldy result of DFID being amalgamated with the FCO in 2020.  With the foreign aid budget decimated, VSO is now preparing to shut operations in 14 countries, wind down its Volunteering for Development scheme and end its Covid-19 response initiative, which supports four-and-a-half million people in 18 countries.  This follows on from the demise of VSO’s International Citizen Service in February.

 

 

I worked as a volunteer with VSO in Ethiopia from 1999 to 2001.  Now, thanks to some of my experiences there and elsewhere, I’m cynical about much of what goes on in the international aid and development industry and I agree with criticisms of it made in books like Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty (1989) and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid (2010).  In Ethiopia, where I worked as an instructor at a teacher-training institute, I went into primary school classes containing 40 or more pupils who often had to share one textbook in groups of three or four and had to sit on the floor because there weren’t enough chairs.  Classrooms often had gaping holes in their floors, broken furniture and no electricity.  Meanwhile, officials at the local Regional Educational Board luxuriated in carpeted, air-conditioned offices equipped with computers, printers and projectors.  The money given to the region’s educational budget by a Scandinavian aid organisation had never percolated down past the hands of the middle-class bureaucrats into which it’d been entrusted.

 

The campus I worked on featured its own monument to aid-industry inefficiency.  It contained a language laboratory that’d been gifted by French money.  I’m not sure if that language lab had ever worked but it certainly wasn’t in use while I was there.  It was full of big, dust-covered consoles that, like computers in a flashy 1960s spy thriller, used clunky spools of tape.  Whoever had signed the original cheques hadn’t done any research.  They hadn’t realised that the language-teaching world’s preferred medium for giving students practice in listening, especially in a rough-and-tumble environment like 1990s Ethiopia, was the humble, durable and portable audio-cassette tape.

 

But VSO’s modus operandum was not about spending money that was vulnerable to being misappropriated by corruption or incompetence.  It recognised that the key was training.  Transferring skills from one person to another, so that the recipient is able to do his or her job better, leads to sustainable positive changes.  Accordingly, the people who volunteered to work for VSO were experienced professionals in their home countries. By doing a similar job in the same field in what was then termed ‘a developing country’, they could contribute to improving the training and performances of the local people they worked beside.  This wasn’t because they were better professionals than their local peers.  They’d just had the advantage of having trained and worked in more developed countries.

 

One important feature of VSO was that its volunteers earned the same salary as their local colleagues.  This meant they shared the same working and living conditions as the locals did – unlike employees of other aid agencies, there was no living in fancy compounds, working in high-tech offices or travelling in supersized 4x4s for them.  Therefore, the problems faced by local professionals during their jobs were as much of a headache for the VSO volunteers too, and together they had to devise solutions to these problems that drew on local knowledge, were realistic and would actually work on the ground.

 

In my criticisms of foreign aid, then, I’m not arguing that budgets should be slashed.  If necessary, they should be recalibrated so that training and sustainability are at the fore, if those things aren’t already.  As the old proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

 

 

I knew from the responses of Ethiopian friends and colleagues that VSO’s work in their country earned much respect for Britain at the time.  Meanwhile, my VSO experiences did a lot for me personally, helping me to become more organised, practical, resourceful, confident and diplomatic.  So Britain and the VSO volunteers benefitted as much as the local folk did.  It was a win-win-win situation.

 

The fact that government cuts have subjected VSO to this crisis shows what hot air Boris Johnson’s words about the value of British soft power, quoted at the start of this entry, really were.  He clearly has no interest in how the rest of the world perceives and interacts with the UK, other than it providing a few post-Brexit trade deals and being somewhere that he and his moneyed cronies can escape to for their luxury holidays.

 

Government actions elsewhere underline this.  The plug has already been pulled on Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  The BBC seems to stagger from one government-induced crisis to another and its main instrument of international influence, the once-admired BBC World Service, has been in freefall from budget cuts since the Tory government of David Cameron.  Other organisations that promote Britain overseas are in similarly dire straits and the current Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse.  But Johnson and company obviously don’t care if they wither on the vine.

 

Yes, as the Conservative government develops its new blueprint for the country as a giant sweatshop where the majority work for peanuts and without protections, and where a political / economic elite make a fortune and pay as little tax as possible, the drawbridge is being pulled up between Britain and the outside world.  It’s a tragedy that an exemplary organisation like VSO looks like being the latest victim of this mindset.

 

© Voluntary Service Overseas

The sound of silence

 

From unsplash.com / © Vienna Reyes

 

Having perused the British media for the past week, I’ve reached the conclusion that the song that best sums up late-August Britain in this coronavirus-stricken year of 2020 is The Sound of Silence, recorded by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel in 1964, although not a hit for them until two years later.

 

But it would have to be The Sound of Silence played with the volume turned down.  No sound.  Just silence.

 

The first silencing I’ve read about is one that’s caused the latest stramash in Britain’s seemingly never-ending culture wars.  Previous instalments in these culture wars have seen a statue of a notorious slave trader in Bristol get chucked into the sea and ridiculous long-haired historian Neil Oliver react to the deed by wailing about ‘anarchists and communists’ trying to destroy the British way of life…  Shaven-headed right-wing thugs giving Nazi salutes in London whilst attempting to protect another statue, one  of Winston Churchill, a man revered in Britain for, er, standing up to Nazis…  And a great deal of red-faced spluttering when the BBC, on its UKTV streaming service, temporarily suspended a 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers in which the dotty old Major character uttered some offensive racial epithets.

 

The BBC is also at the centre of the newest storm.  It’s decided to have the patriotic British songs Land of Hope and Glory and Rule, Britannia performed at this year’s Last Night of the Proms concert in the Royal Albert Hall without vocalists there to sing the lyrics.  The BBC claims this is to reduce the number of people onstage and allow for social distancing.  It detractors allege it’s because the lyrics have been deemed inappropriate in these overly sensitive, politically correct times.

 

In the clips of Last Night of the Proms concerts that I watched on TV in the past – in the distant past, because even as a teenager I found it a gruesome spectacle and never wanted to look at the thing again – most of the singing was done by the audience.  And the audience was a sea of drunken, Union Jack-waving Hooray Henrys and Hooray Henriettas making a cacophony that was as pleasant to listen to as a burning chicken-shed.  Due to Covid-19, the audience won’t be present this year.  That’s got to be an improvement, whether or not the songs are performed as instrumentals.

 

Predictably, the BBC’s decision to de-vocalise the songs was greeted by howls of outrage from the right-wing shit-sheets that make up much of the British national press, i.e. the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express.  It was also seized upon by Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, after performing a veritable Gordian knot of humiliating U-turns recently, was desperate to direct attention away from his governmental crapness.  Johnson declared that it was time to ‘stop our cringing embarrassment’ about being British.  Actually, at this stage, the best way to stop people feeling embarrassed about being British would be to build a time machine, pop back in time 56 years and persuade Stanley Johnson to wear a condom.

 

Also climbing onto the anti-BBC bandwagon was publicity-seeking hybrid human-donkey mutant Nigel Farage, who promptly tweeted footage of himself singing a lusty rendition of Rule, Britannia at some pro-Brexit rally.  This in turn prompted comedian David Baddiel to remark: “There might be some who feel a little sad about Rule, Britannia, seeing it, now divorced of triumphalist origins, only as a Proms tradition.  Watching this, however, makes it clear how it’s still basically a C*nts’ Anthem.”

 

Well, I wouldn’t be quite as severe as Baddiel in his assessment of Rule, Britannia, though I too have difficulty thinking positively of it and Land of Hope and Glory when I see the likes of Nigel Farage belting them out.  But apart from that, in terms of actual musical quality, I’ve always thought Rule sounded a bit cheesy and Land was a pompous dirge.  I say that as someone who spent his childhood in a fairly Protestant part of Northern Ireland, where the air often reverberated with the sound of people singing patriotically pro-British tunes.  While these tunes were frequently offensive to Roman Catholic ears, they, unlike Rule and Land, at least managed to be catchy.

 

(I remember one good friend from a quarter-century ago, a university lecturer who was a skilful pianist.  His university would sometimes rope him into providing live background music at official receptions.  He confessed to me that during one such event, bored stiff with ‘tinkling the ivories’, he felt a sudden powerful urge to start playing The Sash.  When I pointed out to him that he was a Glaswegian Catholic, and had a cousin who’d once been skipper of the Glasgow Celtic football team, and therefore wasn’t supposed to be a fan of The Sash, he shrugged and said, “Aye…  But at least it stirs the blood.”)

 

© Warner Music Group – XS Music Group

© Victor

 

However, it hasn’t just been Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory that have been silenced lately.  Reading a separate news story, I learned how restauranteurs in Scotland have been complaining about a ban on music on their premises, prompted again by the current Covid-19 pandemic.  The Scottish government implemented the ban on August 14th, afraid that if eateries were full of loud music, people would have to tilt their heads close together and shout and thereby increase the risk of spreading the virus.  The restauranteurs have dismissed this thinking as ‘ridiculous’, ‘nonsense’, ‘a disgrace’ and having ‘no logic’.  One even complained that “We need background music to kill the deathly hush as people feel they have to start whispering when a restaurant is quiet.  Diners want to eat out in a place with atmosphere, not a library.”

 

This set me thinking of the half-dozen restaurants that my partner and I most often go to in Colombo, Sri Lanka, our current city of residence.  I can’t remember hearing music played in three of them.  If it was played, it was at such a low volume as to be unnoticeable.  One restaurant plays music but softly and unobtrusively – I recall Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man (1965) getting an airing there the other week.  The fifth used to play some weird 1960s Euro-lounge / psychedelic / jazz stuff, like what you’d hear on the soundtrack of a Jess Franco movie, but they seem to have stopped that since the venue reopened after Sri Lanka’s two-month Covid-19 curfew.

 

In fact, only one of the six restaurants plays music at a distinctly discernible level and that makes it problematic for us.  Although the staff are lovely, the décor is charming and the food is decent, the music is often naff and intrusive.  Commonly featured on its aural menu from hell are Phil Collins, Robbie Williams, Coldplay, the Corrs and 1970s / 1980s-era Fleetwood Mac.  Come to think of it, there’s only thing I can think of it that’s more horrible than the Corrs and Fleetwood Mac, and that would be the Corrs doing a cover version of a Fleetwood Mac song.  And – oh yes! – the restaurant sometimes plays that puke-inducingly twee version of Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams that the Corrs did in 1998.

 

So in other words, the only restaurant we have an issue with is the one that plays music at any volume.  And the reason we like to eat in a quiet environment, or in a near-quiet one, is so that we can generate our own noise by indulging in the basic human art of conversation.  We like to communicate while we eat, and I certainly like to communicate without having to shout and risk spraying mouthfuls of grub into my dining companion’s face.  Also, I assume that any half-decent, welcoming restaurant will be one where the customers feel relaxed enough to strike up conversation immediately.  The afore-mentioned ‘deathly hush’ where people feel ‘they have to start whispering’ would suggest a venue that’s snobby and inhospitable.

 

The same news story contained one quote that made sense to me, however.  It came from a spokesman for a chain of pubs who snorted contemptuously, “We don’t go with the crowd so we don’t have music in any of our premises.  Our customers are used to it and like it.  We have shown you don’t need music to run a pub.”  Quite right.  Just let the punters chat to one another and create their own entertainment.

 

Alas, that spokesman represented the JD Wetherspoon chain, which run 75 pubs in Scotland.  It’s also the property of Tim Martin, who’s a well-known Brexit-loving, Faragist nincompoop.  Martin’s the sort of bloke who probably thinks Covid-19 is a leftist-woke conspiracy to stop patriotic folk from properly singing Rule, Britannia and Land of Hope of Glory by forcing them to wear facemasks.

 

Thus, realising that I’ve just agreed with a statement issued by Tim Martin’s outfit, I think I need to have a wee lie-down now.

 

© The Irish Times / Alan Betson