Category Archives: society

What Brexit says about the choice the United States has…


As a Brit with an interest in US politics that’s lasted pretty much my entire adult life, all I can say is that if Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that those promoting the politics of fear and division don’t care about you or I. Their ideological, selfish campaigning has nothing underneath it. The vote to Leave was a shock, but not unexpected. The Remain campaign simply thought they could scare voters into staying, while Leavers simply peddled negative, xenophobic, racist and outright made-up figures that played to that populist, “we don’t need anyone else to be Great Britain” rhetoric. It resonated with people that thought politics had failed them and saw solutions through demonizing others rather than the very people telling them to Leave. The very same people from the heart of the establishment who were claiming to be anything but. Sound familiar?

There are many things about Hilary Clinton that I have issue with, and while Bernie made inspiring and principled speeches and energised youth and disaffected voters, surely we all knew the reality was that the majority of his plans would have never been reality (Obama’s two terms fighting the House and his own party tells us that an overwhelmingly decent and principled man still struggles to push through even the most sensible policies). And we only have to look at the Labour party to see how a candidate that’s come to power on a wave of populism and left wing ideals has proven a less than competent and effective leader.

But Bernie has forced Hilary into adopting more of his language and policies. This can only be a good thing. Is she as inspiring? As emotive? As warm and engaging? No, she isn’t. And she’s up against a candidate that, however abhorrent, knows how to speak in a way that (unfortunately) connects with many people, playing to their fear and anger. She has to be positive, she has to be able to reach out to voters that want to be heard, that are being attacked by her opponent. That’s a potentially huge demographic. The more he alienates, the more voters are up for grabs for the democrats. Simply refuting his “policies” won’t work, because he makes them up as he goes along, which makes them hard to lay a punch on. And yet Hilary seems to be held up to a level of scrutiny that no man and certainly not a “personality” like Trump ever is.

But however depressing it is to see another dynasty crowned (between Bush and Clinton, that’s most of my life covered, more than half if Hilary gets in) and feel as if there’s such a narrow choice for leader, the alternative surely must galvanize democrats? So many here voted Conservative in 2015 thinking it was a safe bet for a coalition only for a majority to get in and set about further ruining the country, culminating in our decision to leave the EU. Many voted there as a protest, or because they bought lies on immigration, the economy, public services, and it’s going to affect the rest of our lives in the UK.

Trump would be the same. It would be an atom bomb in the US political landscape. Like Leavers, I’m not even sure he wants or expects to win. It’s just about his own ego and popularity. He’s willing to divide the country to feed his own myth and coffers. It’s a crazy situation, but Hilary hasn’t even made her convention speech and yet democrats are fighting each other: it’s just what he wants. I can’t see any reason not to vote against Trump, and to prevent him from being in office, Hilary is the only choice, surely? Anything else is just giving a vote to the devil….

Brexit – where do we go now?

Back from the mud and pretending we’d not left the EU until I got home, I’ve been trying to rationalise the campaigns, the vote, the result, and what it means for the UK, England and the EU. Whichever way you look at it, it isn’t going to be pretty, and I very much doubt it’s going to be the ‘new Britain’ that many Leavers hoped from the mess that both sides threw around for the last few months. If we wanted our country back, what sort of country is that really going to be?

Some things to make clear: however disappointed I am in the result, and whatever bile and hatred is already emerging, all Leavers are neither racist, nor xenophobic, nor are they all little Englanders wanting us to return to the 50s (18 or 19), nor do they hate Europe, or each other, nor are they idiots. Some are some, many or all of these things, but just because some voted Leave as a protest (I mean seriously) and others regret it, that’s democracy. You can be disappointed in a result, detest those that drove us to it, even those that made that choice if you want to, but this is how democracy works. If we’re going to get angry, get angry that those that lied to us. Many voted to control immigration, save the NHS, ‘take back control’ (and what a loose and nebulous premise that was.. of what?), to make our own laws, to halt pressure on public services… all of which are admirable and sensible choices. Sadly, I very much doubt many of these things will be resolved.

The truth of the matter is – to me (my opinion, not attacking yours) – this was a referendum that no one but a section of the Tory party wanted. That section’s been there ever since we joined the EU in its earliest form. Cameron shat himself over the threat of ‘up to 10’ seats going to UKIP last May, so pledged this in their manifesto. He never expected to be in majority government, and suddenly had to deliver. All this from the threat of an ‘outsider’ who’s a former Tory councillor, stockbroker and pint-drinking middle England upper middle class Tory, Nigel Farage. This is the political mess our country has become.

Once the campaign started, you had one side (Leave) who were energised, with the EU as a punchbag, marking it out as the root of all evil – immigration, public services, economy, democracy, human rights, red tape – when much of it was created by the very govt they existed in. They had the might of the press behind them, whose lies they’d been supporting for years. They vented against the very experts that supported their last 6 years in power, as if figures just didn’t matter any more. A motley crew of Farage, Johnson, Gove, Duncan Smith, Patel and more, evoking the colonial era success of industrial Britain, an Albion that’s a figment of our imagination (we were a terrible country then) as if pulling up the drawbridge would move all our problems away, instead of merely making us having to deal with them in isolation. They preached lies from the start: 350m went to the EU every week, it would all go to: the NHS, science, arts, rural areas, defence… you name it, pluck out a populist idea and sell it. We’d solve immigration issues with a points system that already lets in 180,000 a year from outside the EU, we’d reclaim our democracy (as if forgetting our membership of NATO, WTO, UN, Commonwealth and many other climate and trade deals we don’t write ourselves) or complaining of unelected politicians (whilst choosing not to reform the Lords, which is exactly that), and then moved onto, emboldened, the rub of it all. They lost the economic argument, so they hit home on immigration. They may have criticised Farage’s posters, but did nothing while in power. The very Tories that decimated our public services in the myth of austerity now blamed immigrants for it, when they are net contributors to the economy, and have allowed the growing xenophobic and racist voices to rise and demonise them, the working classes and post-industrial communities. They caused the problem, they pushed it onto someone else. A perfect storm. They had no plan for victory (did they really expect it?) and didn’t care. They’d lie with impunity, it was never going to happen, was it? And these are the candidates for PM. Cameron was awful, but this lot… you just wait.

And Remain? Half-hearted or invisible campaigning, or simply not campaigning at all, so afraid of standing alongside they hated they sucked all momentum out of the positive message that could’ve been made. They led on the economy, supported by almost everyone, but couldn’t put out a good message. It was only one thing: DOOM. And yes, that’s what’s going to happen, but they were hamstrung on the truth. Blame the EU too much for immigration, and people will question how their austerity helped public services. Cameron and Osborne started strongly but were the only big voices that anyone recognised. Their hearts weren’t in it in the end. Then the rest? Greens and Lib Dems did work hard, but their voices were drowned out by the main protagonists, and the positivity submerged by the lies and negativity. And Labour? Split, as were Tories, down the middle, riven by an internecine war for the party. Corbyn appeared half way through to support an insitution he’s been opposed to all his career, and refused to share a platform with any other party for fear of his own reputation. His colleagues did, but the message was almost entirely negative, and positivity doesn’t resonate with fear. A half decent campaign would’ve likely won, and yet refuting all the Leave’s lies simply was ignored by the press most of the time. By the end, even after the tragic killing of MP Jo Cox, no one could appeal to compassion or sentiment. The campaign, like all politics now, seemingly, has been poisoned.

All the same, I, like many still held out hope that we’d sneak a win by a couple of percent. So, what happened? The split of age ranges said it all – 75% of young people (but not enough young people) voted to Remain, most cities did, Scotland did, as did Wales, but much of rural England and working classes voted to Leave, and this tipped the balance. Even then though, the result was a shock. Even personally, putting aside my beliefs, it’s depressing to think that we can survive in a globalised world where immigration, climate change, economics, crime and trade are all internationally formed and affected by shutting the curtains. But the supremely negative campaigns destroyed all hope in the whole referendum. Fears and worries were inflamed, division and hatred fed, to the point where many people simply saw it as the only solution. A kick against the elite? If you think Gove, Farage, Johnson and Duncan Smith aren’t elites then we are in trouble. Yes, kick Westminster, but this wasn’t a changing of the guard. It’s going to be a lot, lot worse.

So, what now? Economic shock, uncertainty, a plunging pound, and protracted battles for control of government and opposition. And what of the promises? 350m to the NHS, or schools, or public services? Just ‘suggestions’. Immigration? It ‘may well not fall’. Control is not constriction. Trade? Single markets mean free movement. Just ask Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The EU council’s made that 100% clear. So we best invoke Article 50 now. Oh, that’s not going to happen? Why? When? Because the Leave campaign have no plan, no post-exit ideas. They didn’t expect to win. They’ll crow and laugh as the markets fall, we all lose money, because it won’t affect them. It never would. They’ve got their wish? Who cares what happens now? If you believe any of their lies, that’s understandable, the country is a mess that needs many many things solved, and so you feel hope and empowerment from voting to Leave. But this was never going to happen. It’s far more complex than a Yes/No choice. It’s a modern tragedy, a vote that should never have taken place, or was supposed to, on the whims of a party riven by internal division over Europe. This was never anything but a Tory civil war, that’s resulted in the country in panic. And it’s going to be the reason for division and hatred. We’ve seen that already, and it’ll be the excuse for everything ‘well we’re just the UK now, everyone else needs to leave, we voted for it’. It’s grim. Scotland will leave the UK, maybe Wales too. And we may end up with a result that betrays everyone’s hopes – both Leave and Remain.

What will the future look like? PM Johnson? A man so much more right wing than Cameron or Osborne, a born liar who ruined London if you weren’t an investment banker or CEO or foreign property buyer, or Gove, another former journalist that finds truth a mere inconvenience. Or Theresa May, a Remain campaigner that really was 50-50 and who gave us the Snooper’s Charter. We’ll have a UK Bill of Rights, tear up so much EU legislation that protected our workers rights, environment, industry…. and unless we have a sensible opposition party we’ll allow the Tory party to steamroller this country and sell it off to the highest bidder. All while the division they stoked keeps us busy. I’m no Labour cheerleader either, and I’m deeply disappointed in the party tearing itself apart, with neither wing wanting compromise, so while they should be uniting with Lib Dems, SNP and Greens to hammer this terrible government, they’re going to be fighting each other.

It’s a mess. And it’s a mess built on a decade of lies and mistakes from all sides. The rise of the right in Europe (and many elements at the extremes of it) is continuing and we have a battle to prove we’re a friendly, open country and region. Leaving the EU can only hurt that, and for the many Leave voters that do not share that sentiment, we have to come together to try and ensure we don’t retreat into ourselves and into hatred and division, because this result is the means for many to now see their views as accepted. I’m incredibly disappointed, and sad, and angry with the politicians that lied to us all along now being at the control. The country will suffer and I have no faith they will do what’s right.

Ever feel you’ve been cheated…?

The rich get richer, and the poor….

Obama announces debt deal

Well, when you’re a Tea Party-backed Republican and you’re crowing about your ‘victory‘ in the debt-ceiling deadlock, why should you care? After all, you stood in the landslide mid-terms on a ticket of no taxes and rolling back so-called ‘big government’, under a misguided sense of taking America back to Washington-era constitution, and after weeks of acrimonious argument and Capitol chicanery, you’ve succeeded in hijacking a process that’s hitherto been smooth and commonplace and turning it into a means to push America further to the right.

It’s astonishing that, for an administration that still holds a Senate majority, this government can be held hostage by a group of politicians that, for all the aghast cries from dissenting Democrats, didn’t even support such a painful bill because the cuts were not nearly tough enough, and the compromises too weak. The likes of Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, who would sooner give up their right to bear arms than bring in tax increases for the rich, have come off best in a game of brinkmanship that played with the global economy as if it was a roulette table. While many thought that a deal would eventually be done, simply because it had to, it’s incredible to think that a President whose election ideals reached out to the poor and disenfranchised so much has now been forced to support a deal that must’ve felt like sucking vinegar, against everything he and many of his party stood for.

So why did it come to this? The debt ceiling had to to be raised, as it had painlessly by countless Democrat and Republican Presidents before, but this time the Democrats, shorn of their House majority, had to face the fact that this time the vote would be made, by those on the far right, to symbolise the deep divisions on Capitol Hill. The GOP, so riven itself in conflict that on Friday its House leader, John Boehner, humiliatingly lost proposed vote simply to approve his own party’s plan, has managed to play a game of chicken, safe in the knowledge that however opposed to their plans President Obama was, he would most likely compromise in the national interest, something they would refuse at all costs. And what costs? While many doom mongers had forseen another 2008, the reality was that a US that couldn’t service its own payrolls could’ve sent the markets into turmoil, and yet Tea Party-backed Republicans and many more moderate in their party saw it as a viable alternative to many of their bete noires, especially that spectre of all spectres, tax rises for the rich.

It’s a distasteful, unpalatable truth that many of these super-rich politicos see it as their divine right to save the majority of the wealth for the majority of the rich. Bush’s tax cuts, an abomination when they were brought in 2001, are staggeringly still here, making those with the most proportionally better off year on year. It was this unthinkable that saw the Right push back against a series of proposed Democrat plans that would’ve seen them take a hit along with many schemes designed to help the poorest – social security, education, Medicare, Medicaid – in favour of swingeing cuts that simply left them untouched. To a British citizen like myself, even with a Conservative-lead government, this seems an almost unbelievable truth. That a country as apparently welcoming and diverse as the United States, self-appointed global leader and trumpeter of its ideals, can allow this abomination to persist, in fact to be furthered is shameful beyond description. But this, to many on the Right, is the American Dream. You are responsible only for yourself, you reap what you sow, your success is yours alone to enjoy, and no-one, NO ONE, is going to deprive you of it. Perfect, if you’re a millionaire, but if you’re below the poverty line? Well, you just need to work harder. It comes as no surprise that the majority of these Tea Party-backed are white, middle and upper-class (yes, there are token minorities, there always are), and their supporters even more so, while all the poor are often black, many minorities. Well, they’re just poor because they’re lazy, or they don’t work hard enough, or they’ve not made their own opportunities. It’s one of the staggering conditions of the United States: try to redistribute wealth, to help using taxes those less well off than you? You’re a socialist.

In a Europe where Obama would be, and is, welcomed with open arms for his lofty ideals and balanced views, many in his own country happily equate him with Stalin. And as the Right pushes further from the centre, these viewpoints, festering in the fetid cauldron of the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly on Fox News, gain more and more mainstream credence, and soon, they are talked of as the ‘centre’ ground in a country whose politics are becoming ever more polarised. So, we’re left with a bill, that’s passed with disgust by the majority of Democrats, and amazingly rejected even more so by the Tea Party for its weakness, that ‘saves’ the States, for now. And you almost have to take your hat off for the way the Right fought the battle. They’ve weakened the President, undermined the economy, and a Senate majority, won a bill that’s abhorrent to Democrats, and for them this is just the beginning. And why? Because they’d rather see people on the street over medical bills, bankrupted by mortgage repayments, homeless and jobless, because they see it as their divine right to retain all the wealth they have, at the expense of those who have none. That is, in their eyes, the American way, the American ‘dream’.

It’s a disgrace, and no amount of argument, however eloquently expressed, will convince me that the Tea Party is anything other than the politics of the mean. The selfishness of the wealthy over the powerlessness of the poor. Helping those less well off than you isn’t socialism, it’s humanity, and these last few weeks have shown, as if it wasn’t already flashing like a million watt bulb, that these people have none.

Monaco: Day Two in the Principality

The calm before the storrm
The calm before the storm

Hangovers in a foreign country. I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. In fact, if I wake up somewhere outside England, and I’m clear-headed I almost wonder what’s gone wrong. The hangover wasn’t too stressful this morning (Will’s was – his one for the road turned out to be beers and vodka, but like a consummate pro he was on commentary duties with a coffee in hand mid morning), and by breakfast at the quaint Marcellin hotel in Beaulieu -sur-Mer, my home for the next 5 days, I was raring to go. This was the day I’d get to see cars throwing themselves round the world famous streets of the principality, and I could barely wait to get to Monte Carlo.

One of the joys of being where I am is that I’m two minutes from the station, which means 10 minutes of trains – through numerous tunnels and coastal views, one of my favourite journeys on rail, despite its brevity – and I’m slap bang in the middle of Monaco, much better than those that have to fight their way through traffic to get to the same place, poor David, for instance this morning. Today the city is a very different beast. There’ll be racing today – at least practice and qualifying – and the streets are teeming with fans of all shapes and sizes and nationalities, like a convention on motor racing has rolled into town. And F1 fans, in particular, are a dedicated breed all of their own. Top of this are the tifosi, Ferrari’s addicted followers, and they’re all here in the hope that Fernando Alonso can magic a pole. He’s a magician on these streets, but he’ll have his work cut out to top Lewis Hamilton, and of course, the Red Bulls, sweeping all before them this year.

The GP2 boys roll out to the grid
The GP2 boys roll out to the grid

For me, I’ve decided to actually buy a ticket today, because it’d be sad not to experience the racing from the grandstands themselves, but also because Thursday is the least wallet-shredding full day of them all. With some of the normal seats costing upwards of 500e on Sunday for the F1, and if you’re on a balcony somewhere, think more like 1000, I’m not about to take out a new mortgage for two hours of petrol and revs, however good it is. So, the slightly more reality-based price of 70e gets me a seat all day at Tabac, so I get to view the cars as they sweep down from the tunnel, through the chicane, round Tabac’s right hander, through the Swimming  Pool complex. In short, about a third of the entire lap. 30% of heaven, basically.

First port of call is the GP2 paddock. Because of Monaco’s premium on space, this weekend doesn’t get to share it with its big brother in F1, so it’s is parked out round the corner, through a tunnel, but it’s a beautiful spot, with its own beach (seriously) and a much more laid-back atmosphere than its bustling, A-list counterpart. As David comes to give me my hallowed pass, I’m more glad for it. F1 is amazing, but GP2 is like a little family, and having waited four years, it’s great to come back to see long-lost relatives, people that run a brilliant series on a fraction of F1’s budget with (whisper it) better racing, and ten times the fun. Getting introduced to some familiar faces (Bruno, Didier, the irrepressible Marco) and some new (Alexa, still in her cast, worse luck) fills me with a sense of warm familiarity. They may not have the glitz or buying power of F1, but they treat you as if you’re one of their own, and I never cease to be forever grateful to the warmth and generosity of everyone involved, particularly for letting some overexcited, 36 year-old boy into their office for a weekend and putting up with all my daft questions and my piss-poor attempts at appearing knowledgeable.

Still, it feels like I’ve not been away since Valencia in 2007. The cars may be different (the new 2011 GP2 car is an awesome machine, and looks every bit as good as it’s F1 cousin, minus, welcomingly, some of the bewildering aero and design elements that mega-budgets allow to sprout on the cars) but the atmosphere is just a good. Many of the drivers are young enough to be university age, and some of them even my kids,  (and some look younger than that), but it all just adds to the uncynical enthusiasm and happy atmosphere that pervades the paddock. The racing is still ultra-serious, but it’s all done with a wonderful air of unfettered joy.

The bald one and the birthday boy
The bald one and the birthday boy

We head out for practice, and into the pits, and for the next 30 minutes I’ll be seeing racing from the absolute sharp end. There’s something intangible about walking along the pit lane – apart from the overriding fish out of water syndrome (I’m used to the inner workings of clubs and festivals, not the minutiae of sporting arenas like Monaco), just like anywhere where I’m surrounded by the sort of utter professionalism that you see in a sport like motor racing – that seems to add a few bps to the heartbeat, and raise the blood pressure. I’m trying to be as nonchalant as I can, dressed up like I expect the ‘cool’ people to be here. But really, I may be clued up on what’s big in Dalston, but not sure I know much about Monaco. Still, I if love one thing, I love my t-shirts, and about 15 of my favourites, including the one I wore today, and in fact ones I’ll wear most of the weekend are designed by one amazing company: Millionhands. They’re a team that’s a labour of love, designing their own, and work with labels and the like in the electronic music industry to put together some of the most eye-catching ts you’ll see around. Nothing gives me more pleasure than wearing something you know was made by a mate, and in this case it’s a collab with superb London label Tsuba. House music at its finest. Not sure too many in the pit lane notice though, as they’re diverting 100% of their attention to getting their men to the top of the timesheets. This is motor racing in its most elemental, and scanning the names of the F1 drivers on the garages (GP2 get to wheel their cars down here and drive them back afterwards) and see the mix of marshals, mechanics, photographers, journos, and even the odd F1 star, once again causes the hairs on my neck to stand proudly to attention. I remember my first ever experience like this, in Bahrain in 2007, courtesy of the much-missed Super Aguri team, and the sensation of the screaming revs of an F1 car going through the length of your spine as they power out of the box for qualy was something I will never forget. I don’t think I’ve been quiet for so long in my life.

Imposter in the pits
In the pits

I keep talking, trying  and wishing to look like I fit in here, and make it through to the end of the session unscathed, which is better than some of the drivers manage, with Davide Valsecchi‘s Air Asia clouting Van Der Garde‘s Addax right below us as the session draws to a close. Watching it from this side of the wall only makes me realise what, despite its bonhomie and family atmosphere, a highly professional outift GP2 is. It may be in some eyes the very much second fiddle to F1, but seeing the cars, teams, officials, and the amount of organisation that goes into just a practise session is mind-boggling. And yet everything happens like clockwork, as if this has been done a million times. As a spectacle – and being a long-confirmed geek, I always lean to the minutiae of any process, it’s awe-inspiring, and an incredible thing to watch. Thirty minutes of Practice is adrenaline-busting entertainment at its best, and as we head back up the road for lunch I’m still a little light-headed. Yes, more pinching. Lots of it. After lunch – and it’s high class catering that keeps the GP2 army on its feet, and praise for another unsung group that provide a variety of mouth-watering fare for everyone here, day in day out, rain or shine – I do head off to Tabac, the roar of F1 engines filling my ears as I try to find where on earth the entrance to the stands are. It’s a maze, one in which I buy a McClaren hat to shield my shiny head from the sun. No attempting to look cool here (I don’t really do hats) but while I’m English, the last thing I want to do is fuel the stereotype by making my bonce a shade of pink for the next few days. Painful, and stupid.

Grosjean at Piscine
Grosjean at Piscine

Stand K – as is my home for the afternoon – is a supreme vantage point, and I get to see the cars I’ve watched so many times on television over the last 30 years scream past me repeatedly for an hour. It’s surreal, noisy, petrol-scented brilliance, sitting in a stand full of like-minded motor racing nuts, and drinking in the views of Monaco, the boats, the buildings, the track, that every so often I have to remind myself surrounds me. At times, it’s almost too much to take in. A cool beer between sessions gives me a well earned and shady rest under the stands before a frenetic 30-minute qualifying for GP2. And if you think F1’s 3-part shootout is busy, try twenty-six cars all on track at the same time desperately trying to get clear air, set a time, and get back in one piece. It’s easier said than done, and while many drivers are managing this with aplomb, there are still a dozen that manage to end up the wrong way, or in Romain Grosjean‘s case (the joint leader of the series), trying to drive over the top of your team-mate. It’s not the sort of skills becoming to someone that’s one of the top echelon of drivers in this series, and while he’ll be chastened by a later penalty, like anything in motorsport, the biggest relief is that both drivers walk away. The last 5 minutes of qualifying has more action than some of last year’s entire F1 races, and I need a sit-down to take it all in before the dust settles and Giedo Van Der Garde appears top of the sheets, edging out Sam Bird in the last minute of the session. It’s proper racing, and this is only deciding how the grid shapes up! And before you think F1, and the immense gaps on show, the whole field here is covered by little over two seconds. The time it takes you to even think about that, well, you can basically cover P1 to 26 there. Amazing, really.

Monaco from Le Rocher
Monaco from Le Rocher

With this over, I have a chance for a last mission – to head up to Le Rocher, the grass-covered slopes over Rascasse where the fans not willing or able to part with monster-size wedges of cash choose to watch the weekend unfold. There’s something great about this part of Monaco, like the Hill at the Adelaide Oval in Australia, that shows that it’s not just about VIP areas or 1000-euro grandstands (it’s 70e for Sunday here, which while still chunky, not a price that requires a loan at least), and it’s well-populated, even when only the Porsche Super Cup is due before the day’s action comes to a close. Come here for F1 sessions, and you’ll find a chap from the North of England wearing a mirrored army hat and shouting choice words to whoever will listen (whether they want it or not) and on whatever takes his fancy. That’s F1 for you. It breeds fans that are more than a little off the wall. And that’s why it’s so great. Nothing beats a few crazies to add some atmosphere.

This evening is likely to be less eventful than the last. For my head, my liver, my wallet and my waistline, this is probably a good thing. While David hammers away on the keyboard, dedicatingly compiling the official results and press for the day’s action like a machine, as well as creating a hugely entertaining GP2 blog, I’m sat here putting this together with the grooves of canadian Frivilous‘ Meteorology ringing in my ears. It’s a relaxing end to an amazing day. And I’m barely even 36 hours in. I really don’t deserve this, but there’s something about gift horses and mouths that’s appropriate here. The evening is indeed relaxed and civilised. David and I walked passed Le Rascasse on our way out, but we didn’t really feel like being deafened by shit electro-house and drowned in free Midori. If we wanted that we could go to Croydon. So, we headed back to Beaulieu, settled in a bar by the marina with a bottle of rose, chewed over the day’s proceedings, and calmly celebrated his birthday, a world away from the bustle (and posing) of the nightlife in Monaco. I think we made the right choice.

Obama’s changing religious image….

I was depressed but not surprised to see news of a poll this morning that almost a fifth of Americans think Barack Obama, their President, is a secretly pracitisng muslim. More worrying still, in a country where the religion, especially of a president, is seen as a key belief, those that think he’s a Christian has fallen from 43 to 34%.

Driven in a large part by the right-wing conversatives, above all in the media (Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, take a bow) it would be almost amusing if it wasn’t alarming. Clinging to the tenet that his middle name – Hussein – and schooling in Indonesia must’ve contributed to this, and the concious feeling that, unlike his very publicly god-fearing (and communicating, if you beleive Dubya) predecessor, he’s not visibily religious enough, those that oppose him politically and ideologically are slowly eroding his image. Most worrying of all, some of those whose minds have changed are his own supporters.

With the mid-terms approaching, this is another worrying statistic in a long and difficult term for a president that deserves a lot better from his people and his country.

When something sounds too good to be true….

It usually is.

Bernie Madoff

Take Bernie Madoff. Financier to the stars, the rich, the cream of America’s (and the world’s) elite. A genius player of the money markets, a former chairman of the NASDAQ, a Wall Street legend. What better pedigree could you choose? And who better to invest with? The perfect high-rolling individual with whom to invest your millions. Or so it seemed. An investment return that defied the markets. And yet, in the end, no more than a Ponzi scheme.

Despite the intelligence of many of his clients, it was the oldest trick in the book. There was no capital, merely the payment of money to investors using other investors’ money. A paper profit but a puff of smoke. A house of cards. Arguably the biggest private fraud in history – $50bn – and perpetrated by an individual with an aura of invincibility that allowed him to convince those willing to make a seemingly staggering return to part with their life savings. There was the rarefied air of the Palm Beach Country Club, home to most of his investors, who he personally chose. There was no application to this exclusive group, you were invited by Madoff, adding to the air of elitism.

But the sad fact was many of these were older, couples, many charities that saw his philanthropy and followed it for the benefit of their charitable purposes. Big banks suffered as well – investors at BNP Paribas, Banco Santander, and HSBC were among the heaviest hit. Amazingly, the SEC investigated Madoff’s organisation eight times in the last sixteen years, and, incredibly, found no evidence. Similarly, a rival firm, determined to replicate his amazing results, concluded they were impossible, and in 2005, a report to the SEC still resulted in no findings. In the end, the credit crunch was what took the rug from under his manicured feet. Wishing to withdraw 7bn, Madoff couldn’t cover the cash. The end was nigh.

This week he pleaded guilty to 11 charges of fraud, and may face up to 150 years in jail. He’ll most likely die there. But while he admits his role, and remorse, only he will know why he did it. It is, in a time where greed is laid bare to us all, a staggering conceit, and one that probably says as much about personal greed (and, at the same time, the willingness for people to accept anything in order to make money) as any. Gordon Gecko would be proud.

How to get ahead in Russia

Marry an oligarch, then get him to publish an exclusive book to publicise his love and admiration for you. Or, more specifically, if you’re Olga Rodionova, pose in a series of ‘edgy’ photos with not much more than a smile to announce yourself to the world. An article in today’s Observer Woman monthly tries to shed more light on one of the new Russia’s fastest-rising females.

The Book of Olga

In this post-feminist world, perhaps this is the newest (or is it oldest?) form of empowerment, and you have to admire the sheer audacity of it (not to mention Rodionova’s attitude to, shall we say, self-promotion) but isn’t it a bit depressing that the one of the best ways to carve attention and impact still seems to involve disrobing? Or is it really that black and white? While Olga and Sergey epitomise in many ways the ostentatiousness of the new Russia – money, sex, glamour – they’re not as clear-cut or textbook as first appears. This isn’t the first time her husband has indulged her fantasies and put them into print. Far from it. It started a decade ago, the oft-asked question from photographer to aspiring subject: ‘why don’t you try it naked’? But she is hardly the usual subject either. Unlike many of their contemporaries, they shun the limelight, (though with that sort of hobby, it’s unlikely that in a country that’s still conservative, even as it changes, that high society would welcome them with open arms) and she sees this as a noble act of expression, of strength, even if it’s of the most unreconstructed kind.

Olga Rodionova

There’s no doubt that Bettina Rheims’ images are far more than simple tacky puff pieces, in fact we can only estimate the money that went to into their manufacture was at least sizeable. But what is their aim? They’re certainly explicit enough to at least match, if not eclipse the famous (and now rather dated) Sex that added another level of notoriety to Madonna’s already gargantuan profile, even if Rodionova doesn’t have the existing image to begin with, but as an act of self-promotion it can’t really be beaten. For the record, Olga is pragmatic about the collection. “We decided to do something that will go down in history” she states, though where this fits in with the Iraq War and Mumbai bombings I’m not sure. Her confidence and attitude aren’t in question though. As is her almost detachment from the images: “People don’t understand here, they can be primitive: they confuse the image with the person.” So, if they’re not her, then what do they really represent? Her husband, Sergey, sees them as art.

“This is about the freedom of a woman who dares to appear the way the artist sees her and who is aware of her beauty and strength…. It is also about the freedom of a man who is so sure in his feelings, in his family and in his relationship with his woman that he fully approves of her self-expression. I would be proud if this book occupies a place in the history of art.” I’m not so sure everyone that would purchase book would see it with such lofty ideals. It’s certainly yet another way to set the couple apart from the rest of their money-laden contemporaries.

The book won’t be onsale in Russia. “Our society is not ready for such things” Olga sagely notes. “Men prefer their wives to stay at home under lock and key. No one wants feminism here.” But is it feminism? Or is it ‘art’ wrapped up in exploitation, in high-class pornography. Maybe it says as much about the country they inhabit as the pair themselves. That is more easy to conclude than the motives and merit of the book, but you have to at least take your hat off to the Rodionovas. They know how to make an entrance, and they will at least shake up the system. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of people waiting for the sequel as well….