Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Up the Duff

More on Brexit....

I wrote about David Owen's beguiling idea that we stay in the EEA for a limited transition period by enforcing what he sees as our right to do so, but switching to the EFTA pillar, from the EU pillar (see post of 13 August).

The problem with this for Mrs May isn't just that she didn't think of the idea, but that it leaves the position open for that transition state to become permanent if there is a change of UK government before the transition is completed. Whereas dealing with the transition through the Withrawal Agreement puts a definitive end to the transition state. So it's all about the Tories making sure they "deliver Brexit".

My attention has also been drawn to an analysis of the state of play in the Brexit farce by Andrew Duff, who was a LibDem MEP from 1999 to 2014. His paper, Brexit: Beyond The Transition, was published by European Policy Centre Paper on 21 August*.

The whole paper is well worth reading for an overview of the status of the negotiations and next steps (if you're a sad git did you say?) It's written sympathetically to the Chequered Compromise (as I call it) but among many points that are well argued, three aspects struck me in particular. Firstly, what happens if Parliament rejects any deal negotiated with Barnier:

To date, the debate at Westminster has been curiously disconnected from the reality of the EU talks. Once an Article 50 deal is tabled for scrutiny, however, it should become clear that this is the EU’s final offer. Having laboured hard to deliver two versions of a new settlement for Britain, the rest of the EU is in no mood and in no fit state to devise a third. In 2016 the EU offered David Cameron a deal on continued membership which was rejected in the referendum. If Parliament refuses the EU’s 2019 offer of an association agreement, there will be no going back to the drawing board: Europe has run out of tolerance with the British. If no deal is reached in the Article 50 talks, or if the deal reached is subsequently rejected by the British Parliament, the EU’s contingency plans will be put into operation and it will extricate itself from the UK as best it can on 29 March. Soon afterwards, in any event, normal business will be suspended in Brussels until the new Parliament and Commission is elected and Mr Tusk’s successor takes his place in December. 

I've seen the argument before that any deal will be considered final and not further negotiable by the EU but I hadn't fully digested the point that the EU elections and formation of a new administration inevitably means that not much will happen on the EU front for several months after March.

Secondly, on the "People's Vote" idea:

Advocates of a ‘people’s vote’ have yet to explain what question they wish to put to a referendum. Some want it to decide between the Withdrawal Agreement and no deal. Others want a referendum to choose between no deal and the status quo. Yet others want multiple choice questions. All are deceptive. The first option is not acceptable to Parliament; the second is no longer acceptable to the EU; the third is a joke. In effect, referendum voters would be put in an invidious position. The campaign would not turn on the quality of Mr Barnier’s treaty. The argument on the streets, in fact, would be about nationalism, xenophobia and democratic betrayal. The pound would tank. The fragile UK constitution would be put under further immense strain, with the certainty that parliament at Westminster would again emerge emasculated and its discredited political parties split asunder. The nation would end up even more divided in terms of social class, generation and province, potentially pitching into a revolutionary situation. Instead of toying with populism, it would be better for politicians of all persuasions to shoulder their responsibility for the national interest. Parliament should not veto the Barnier deal. 

Although there are some vocal advocates I also just can't see how a second referendum would come about. And thirdly, how things move forward after that:

Once Brexit is done, Mr Barnier’s Task Force 50 will be disbanded and serious negotiations for the association agreement will commence under new EU management. A general election in Britain no later than May 2022 will determine Britain’s future as a European country. The options will include continuing to develop the association agreement or to apply again to join the European Union as a full member state

Hmm. I don't like the sound of Br-re-entry.... that really would put the cat amongst the pigeons in terms of heightening the tension between remainers and leavers and fomenting despondency and division. Basically, it would leave us up the duff, Andrew.

* http://www.epc.eu/documents/uploads/pub_8720_brexitbeyondthetransition.pdf?doc_id=2043

Friday, 24 August 2018

Role models?

After England, with its clean cut manager and captain, rehabilitated football as a sport with the wider British public in this summer's World Cup, rugby and cricket are vying to take over football's crown as the sport of undesirables and the kicking boy for the media.

In cricket's case the wheels of justice ran very slowly so the Ben Stokes saga will be played out over more than a year. One might call it a "timeless test", but only if you are a cricketing nerd. Stokes disgraced himself outside a Bristol nightclub last September and became a media anti-hero mainly due to a CCTV clip appearing promptly on youtube. One wonders how this happens but it isn't the first time (Joey Barton was another). Are people with access to the systems taking copies before the police collect the evidence? I accept this interpretation may be being charitable to the police (Barton clearly thinks the police leaked his meltdown, which was possibly even more spectacular than Stokes's). After all, if it is correct, why aren't the people who post this stuff being charged, as one would have thought it was prejudicial to a fair trial. Though this isn't the most concerning aspect of our legal system at the moment, as the CPS appears to be dysfunctional to the extreme. The Stokes trial is just the latest example of incompetence by the CPS, the not guilty verdict appearing to indicate that the CPS brought the wrong charges. Indeed, they tried to bring other charges at the start of the trial but were understandably given short shrift by the judge, as it could not possibly have been fair to the defence at that stage. With the lamentable failure to understand the first principles of disclosure in other, well publicised, cases one wonders whether anyone at the CPS has actually studied law. (I am, of course, a barrack room expert....)

As for Stokes he still has to appear before the cricketing overlords (should that be Over Lords?) so that will rumble on for some time yet. If they decide a suspension is merited, the fact that Stokes missed the last Ashes series is apparently not relevant as Stokes wasn't suspended then, he just wasn't being picked, which seems a peculiar take on fairness.

In contrast rugby player Danny Cipriani's case for resisting arrest (a mild charge given that he seems to have assaulted a female police officer while resisting arrest in Jersey) was heard almost before he had sobered up. His club took action against him within days and then the rugby authorities also had a go but, despite him attending the hearing in a classic "sod you" outfit (see below - at least he wore a tie to go with his untucked shirt, trainers and presumably borrowed ill fitting jacket) they decided not to go for some kind of triple jeopardy and apply further sanctions while finding him guilty of bringing the game into disrepute by behaving in a manner that "fell below the standard expected of a rugby player". (Er, what standard would that be? Biting, eye gouging, raking and excessive force being staples of the game as far as I can see, let alone no dress sense in Cipriani's case).

Cipriani is now left to wonder whether England boss Eddie Jones will select him or not. I would have had Cipriani in the squad for most of the past decade based on his playing skill, so one wonders whether other factors have kept him out. Jones will have to decide if Cipriani is reliable or disruptive as a member of the England squad.

It's easy to think that players misbehaving is a modern era problem when it was probably just easier to get away with things in the past - this whole business about role models strikes me as a modern era phenomenon. To show it's nothing new, England were without their wicket keeper in the first ever cricket test match in Australia in 1877 as Ted Pooley was in a cell in New Zealand after an altercation at the end of a match on which he had wagered money*. Pooley had previous - he had been suspended by his county after winning a bottle of champagne in a bet with a colleague, drinking it for breakfast and having to be replaced as wicketkeeper after lunch. The plot thickened in New Zealand when the chap Pooley had beaten up for reneging on a bet brought other charges about damage to property. Pooley was bailed for several weeks before being found not guilty. He returned to England a month after his team mates got home.

I've often said that I don't get the whole role model issue about sports stars, saying that they are only role models in terms of their sporting ability, not as people. It shouldn't be difficult to point out to youngsters the problems that aberrant behaviour can cause, as illustrated in spades by Stokes. David Walsh recounted a story** about a very famous but aging tennis star playing on the celebrity circuit who told his then 10 year old son to "f### off" when the lad was presumptious enough to politely ask if he could have the sweaty headband the tennis player had just removed at an invitation tournament. The look on his face made the lad's siblings laugh. Although the 10 year old was only just beginning to learn swear words, Walsh and his family weren't outraged.  "Conor would hear worse when he started playing football for Comberton Crusaders under 12s and hearing a tennis star swear didn't exactly scar those within earshot". The story never fails to amuse whenever it is told in Walsh's house. Walsh summarises what I feel admirably:

"It is not our youngsters who demand or expect athletes to be role models. It's us, the parents, hoping that sports stars will do our job".

So now it's clear that rugby players and cricketers are no different from footballers will the press and public lay off diving, cheating, occasionally loutish and hugely overpaid footballers and let ordinary justice take its course when they misbehave? Not a chance. Because of that word "overpaid". The comments tend to be fuelled by self righteous resentment and that's not in short supply.

* http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/539294.html
** David Walsh's Sunday Times column, 19 August

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Trans formers

The NHS has reported that the number of people over 60 who have undergone gender reassignment surgery is increasing though numbers remain small. Not that small, mind as in the seven years to 2015-16 a total of 75 people aged between 61 and 71 and seven people aged 71 and over had the operation*. As a result Age UK is offering advice to to older people looking to change sex and adjust to their new way of life. I'm not sure whether that is because of the demand or because someone somewhere thinks these numbers are too small...

Be that as it may, I also read about an 85 year old who had became the oldest British male to undergo surgery at the age of 81**. That was startling enough, but what Ruth Rose had to say on one point gave me pause for thought:

Rose said she had spent decades learning to think and behave like a woman. ......  If couples walked holding hands, the man's hand was held forwards and the woman's held back".

So I immediately checked whether Mrs H and I hold hands in what is supposedly the 'normal' way. A first I thought we didn't because I took the above to mean the man's hand faces forwards. On reflection, I think it means that the man's hand is at the front (so the back of the man's hand faces forwards). Just as well, as otherwise we might both have to put our names down for gender reassignment. Though at least we wouldn't need to look for new partners. (Mrs H's comment about how the change could be achieved was significantly more ribald than that....)

The other reason it's just as well is that the alternative to surgery would be to practice holding hands the "other" way. We tried this and it's even harder than the Dele Alli goal celebration "salute", which also makes you feel as if you're trying to turn your arm in a way it just doesn't want to go:

For those of you determined to have a go, there are many sites showing you how to do it (e.g.  on BBC here  ) but it's definitely harder than tying a bow tie.

More seriously though, one does wonder how the NHS can ever meet all the demands put on it if those demands include gender reassignment surgery for people who might be considered a bit old for a hip replacement. I suppose whether you think the world is mad depends more on you than on the world. Because it plainly is.

* Pensioners get tips on changing gender. Sunday Times 12 August 2018
** I became a woman at the age of 81. Sunday Times 12 August 2018

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Seen on my road trip

Good road trip this weekend including some walking in the wonderful Peak District with its edges and weird eroded rock shapes. But as usual some of the amusement was in the journey itself.

I've seen many amazingly daft and presumably personalised number plates lately, which I've failed to remember. But I couldn't get this one out of my mind:


Mrs H discounted my suggestion that this was, perhaps, a randomly allocated number plate, saying that, while we couldn't see the driver let alone how well endowed he was, in all probability it was "this big" (you know the gesture).

Some what more edifying was the dog kennels called Centre Barks.

All of which just goes to confirm that life will go on after Brexit......

Thursday, 16 August 2018

That's a bit extreme

The BBC website is carrying a link to a topical Radio 4 programme broadcast on 12 August. On the Radio 4 page the heading is "why wear the burka?" But the link on the homepage which caught my attention was titled "Should Muslim women wear a hijab, niqab or nothing?"  Er, nothing?! Interesting choice, if a bit extreme....

Talking of extreme, of course it's Boris Johnson who has got people's attention back on this subject. And, as he presumably intended, back on him of course.

As most people haven't actually read his Daily Telegraph article (their website has a paywall) it seems to have escaped many people that Johnson wrote that he thought the wearing of face veils should not be banned in Britain though he also said in graphic, comical and some say inflammatory terms on his opinion of what women wearing burkas and niqabs look like.

I have written before that I am conflicted on this since, as a libertarian at heart, I fundamentally don't believe it's right to tell people what they can and can't wear. But equally I don't see the problem in explaining to people why wearing certain things at certain times in certain places might be inappropriate or cause offence, whether it's skimpy clothing or beachwear in a church or a T shirt and jeans on a golf course.

But equally I really don't like women wearing burkas and niqabs. This is partly on the basis of security and the cultural issue that it is difficult to form any kind of rapport with a person whose face is almost entirely covered. But it is mainly because, as well as impractical, it is a symbol of subjugation. I am quoting a Muslim woman here, Iram Ramzan, who wrote in the Sunday Times* that "The veil enslaves and it isn't racist to say so". She says that many of her relatives hate the niqab and what it stands for and use much worse language than Boris in referring to it. She also says that in Kashmir, where her grandparents came from in the 1950s, the veiling of the face is an alien concept. Trecking in north Pakistan last year a native of the region, seeing a woman in a black niqab, said "What is this monstrosity? Why do they dress like that?"

Roy Harper put is succinctly for me when he sang:
And women in veils walking paces behind
Doesn't sit easy in my kind of mind
It speaks of oppression and no other choice
Than rigid compliance with the loudest voice

Underneath the black cloud of Islam

I accept that some women may be wearing the veil as a free choice of their own. But I'd bet that isn't the majority. Like Johnson, on balance I'm not sure we should follow Denmark and France in banning Muslim female face coverings, even though there are many examples of where we already insist that faces aren't covered. A friend noted yesterday that the petrol pump wouldn't be switched on for him wearing a motor cycle helmet and visor, but it is for a woman in a burka. There would be difficulties in framing a law but that must be possible. For example, care would be needed in drafting to make sure some bridal gowns didn't become illegal. But this ought not to be too difficult. While a bridal veil is partly transparent, I wouldn't suggest trying to define degrees of transparency. Much simpler to allow face coverings in places of worship as I'm not too bothered if Muslim women cover their faces in a mosque.

However, I would much rather Muslim women chose not to wear face veils and I would first go for a strong campaign led by Muslims to try to change culture and behaviour. But in the limit I could be persuaded that legislation is necessary.

Of course, the bit of Boris's article that got the attention was his comparison with letter boxes and bank robbers. Personally, I didn't find these comments particularly remarkable. After all, my personal comment would be "why do you want to look like Darth Vader?" though I've never actually been rude enough to say that to a veiled woman. I know we have to be careful about bullying minorities but it's no bad thing for people to realise they look ridiculous to the majority of us. (I know, glass houses and stones given some of my golf outfits. But I can take the stick!)

Predictably all sorts of people got in a tizzy about Boris's remarks. Most remarkably the Conservative Party, instead of ignoring the fuss, which would soon have calmed down, announced there would be a party disciplinary inquiry. A remarkable decision, allowing some of the heat to be deflected from Jeremy Corbyn on the running anti-semitism sore. Paul Mason writing in the right on New Statesman, compared BoJo to Enoch Powell, calling his article provocative, Islamophobic and peddling offensive stereotypes. This would be the same New Statesman in which a female Muslim comedian, Shazia Mirza wrote "A Muslim woman knocked on my door last night. I didn't open it - I just talked through the letter box to see how she likes it." Mirza also cheerily compared the burka to a bin liner. To be fair, this was in 2006.

While Johnson's remarks were deemed offensive by some, Rowan Atkinson made the point that we must hold firm that it is permitted to poke fun at religions and cultures. However, Johnson is not a comedian, at least for a profession. And there is something to be said for a politician speaking moderately even if the content is controversial. While at his best Johnson can get people's attention and understanding with memorable soundbites, e.g. "take back control", I find a worrying element of the rabble rousing demagogue about him, highly intelligent though he undoubtedly is. Though his avowed hero is Churchill, he seems to be going more for Trump style populism.

Although he would be a popular choice as leader for many Tories, I can't see it happening. He is marmite and as many are repelled as attracted. When they come to pick a new leader the electoral calculation for the Tories is simple: would Johnson gain or lose votes for the party compared with other options? Johnson might help to keep voters with a UKIP tendency on board, but what about the middle ground? Many commentators have said that the only reason there hasn't been a Tory leadership election is because of fears in Tory circles that Johnson would win.

Well, he's got his name back into the public eye alright. But my eye is on someone who could mount broader appeal: Sajid Javid. Javid was apparantly considered a dead man walking by Theresa May a few months ago, in line to be culled at the next reshuffle. But I think he has started well at the Home Office. He agreed to assist the US authorities in taking two alleged British Isis fighters from the so-called "Beatles" cell of executioners across the pond for trial without seeking any assurances about the death penalty. The two men are understood to have been stripped of their British citizenship, so why would Javid seek such reassurances, even though that would be normal? But even so the Guardian got themselves into a predictable tizzy**. For me this was a pragmatic decision - why do anything to aggravate the Americans at the moment? But more importantly Javid acted promptly - these decisions are often left to fester, making them harder to take over time, not easier. He had to make a decision on that one but he immediately took another which he could easily have left in his in tray, ordering an investigation into why members of sexual grooming gangs are disproportionately from a Pakistani background. The Home Secretary announced this in a letter to the Rotherham MP Sarah Champion (Labour), who had been criticised last year for saying that "the UK has a problem with British Pakistani men raping and exploiting white girls" following the cases in her constituency, Telford and Newcastle, a list to which it seems Huddersfield can now be added. For speaking the truth Champion had to have increased security after receiving death threats. Javid said: “MPs should be able to do their job without being threatened or intimidated in any way. Sarah Champion has my full support.” He went on: “My officials have been working with investigating officers in relevant cases, and with the National Crime Agency, to establish the particular characteristics and contexts associated with this type of offending.” About time, but if this politically correct country in which we're living makes you give in and cry*** this was a brave decision to be applauded.

Javid probably only got the Home Office job because it was a way of neutralising, to some extent, the toxic Windrush scandal, which broke on the current government's watch and had Theresa May's fingerprints all over it as Home Sec in 2012 when she spoke of her "aim to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants".  OK, the word "illegal" actually makes that statement pretty unremarkable and I believe the phrase was in use in the Home Office during the Labour administration, but it was hard for the opposition to get really stuck into Javid, the first person of an Asian and Muslim background to hold one of the great offices of state.

And it does show, as was said at the time, that "dog whistle" political statements of the type Johnson made can cause problems, even if I wouldn't go as far as the James Moore writing in the Independent did**** in saying that "people who blow dog-whistles, and the politicians that pander to them" should be called out "for what they are: racists". 

I don't believe for a moment that Boris Johnson or Theresa May are racists but there's no doubt Boris is good at blowing that whistle.

* https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/boris-johnson-niqab-row-the-veil-enslaves-and-it-isnt-racist-to-say-so-0fzkkdfvw
** https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/25/sajid-javid-death-penalty-human-rights
*** rip off of lyric from Paul McCartney's Live and Let Die of course
**** https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/windrush-scandal-british-citizens-commonwealth-racism-home-office-immigration-a8310481.html

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

More guitarists - 4.6: Peter Buck and Robert Fripp

Back to guitarists - this is going on longer than Brexit!

I'm very fond of REM and their fantastic back catalogue of albums. And the work of their guitarist, Peter Buck. Predictably I got heavily into them with their first really big selling album, Out Of Time, which Wikipedia notes changed their status from that of a cult band to a massive international act. Though I rapidly caught up with Green, the previous album, which I think is even stronger if a bit less commercial. And their earlier albums - there were 5 before Green - contain some fabulous nuggets.

Driving around Cornwall on holiday with our then barely adolescent sons in the mid-1990s REM were the one band all of us could all agree to have playing on the stereo. Though Mrs H has always found them a bit gloomy and still makes that gesture of drawing a knife across her wrists whenever Everybody Hurts  comes on, even though I've often told her it's meant to be an uplifting song:

When your day is long
And the night
The night is yours alone
When you're sure you've had enough
Of this life
Well hang on
Don't let yourself go
'Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

Though my favourite of this genre, from Green, is World Leader Pretend with lyrics which chime with anyone who has a habit of beating themselves up (not that I'm as good at this as some other people I know well.....):

I sit at my table and wage war on myself
It seems like it's all, it's all for nothing
I know the barricades
And I know the mortar in the wall breaks
I recognize the weapons, I use them well
This is my mistake
Let me make it good
I raised the wall and I will be the one to knock it down

I've a rich understanding of my finest defenses
I recognize the weapons
I've practiced them well, I fitted them myself
This is my world and I am world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It's high time I've razed the walls that I've constructed

If you've never heard this track I commend it highly.

We saw REM en famille at Cardiff Millennium Stadium in 2005. I'm not a fan of stadium gigs but its was a grand day out. A lot of REM tracks use feedback but a personal favourite is EBow The Letter which, slightly surprisingly to me, recorded their next highest UK singles chart position. I had no idea what the song was about until I recently resorted to t'inernet: a letter Michael Stipe wrote to his friend River Phoenix but couldn't send as Phoenix had died from an overdose. (Yes, I know - more cheerful stuff eh?). So he had to send the letter by another means: an ebow. No, I didn't know what one of those was either, though I should have done. An ebow is an electromagnetic field-generating device that induces sustained vibration in an electric guitarstring, creating a violin-like effect. Which is why I first thought Ebow The Letter started with a cello until I realised the same sound shifts into echoing feedback at the end of the song. At the time I had no idea how Peter Buck did it.

I should have done because another of my favourite guitarists, Robert Fripp the ever present behind the many different versions of King Crimson, is a great exponent of the ebow if you believe what you read on the internet. Or is he? Well, if you google what an ebow is you rapidly get offered lots of youtube videos of King Crimson playing live. There was no sign that he was using such a device when I saw Fripp and Crimso twice in the early 70s, though it is small hand held device which the guitarist holds over the strings instead of picking them. However, the ebow, a brand name of a Californian company, though invented in 1969 wasn't marketed until 1976 several years after Fripp had established his very individual playing style. And I've looked at several of those videos and Fripp definitely isn't using one on any I've seen. So how does Fripp get his very characteristic sound which you can hear not just on King Crimson recordings, but David Bowie's Heroes and  my favourite Blondie track, Fade Away And Radiate?

Well his axe of choice is a Gibson: fairly standard, though like many guitarists of the halcyon days of rock he prefers vintage equipment. He started out playing 1950s Gibson Les Pauls. Later Gibson made a signature version for him - the Crimson Guitars Robert Fripp signature, made on a Les Paul body. He does use other guitars including the Roland guitar synthesiser. He is naturally left handed but plays right handed. And was supposedly tone deaf aged 11 (yes, I know, I know: that explains the raucous ending to 21st Century Schizoid Man and a few other Crimson tracks). And he always plays sitting down. Now a lot of acoustic guitarists do that, but I've never seen another electric guitar player doing it. Fripp always sits on a kind of barstool. A 1974 edition of Guitar Player called him "the guitarist who sits on stage". 

The one thing he doesn't use is an ebow to get the sustain and feedback he creates on those classic King Crimson tracks from Fripp's most productive era - 7 studio albums between 1969 and 1974. As well as playing most of his early stuff on 1950s guitars, Fripp has said* that he uses a "small pedalboard with volume, wah-wah and fuzz". The volume pedal he used until 1981 was the first he ever bought in 1967, the cheapest one he could get at the time. He also always used old fuzz boxes. By 1972 he was experimenting with tape loops using twin Revox tape machines and collaborating with people who would custom build kit for him, incorporting his ancient volume pedal and fuzz boxes.

But what about the haunting guitar line that hovers above the mix on Heroes suddenly changing pitch periodically? I read that Bowie's co-writer Brian Eno said when they invited Fripp in to play on the track they bounced him, giving him hardly any time to hear the backing track before recording, to put him on his mettle. But producer Tony Visconti said Fripp only had the weekend, so the limited time was due to Fripp's diary. And he definitely didn't use an ebow, he used "pitched feedback" by standing (so he doesn't always sit!) in different places around the studio**. They made three recordings and they all thought the third one nailed it. Then Visconti decided to play all three together and, to everyone's amazement, they synchronised to produce the version used on the record.

In another interview*** Visconti said:

Everyone who's played the song with Bowie since then has had to use an E-bow to duplicate it, but Fripp had a technique in those days where he measured the distance between the guitar and the speaker where each note would feed back. For instance, an 'A' would feed back maybe at about four feet from the speaker, whereas a 'G' would feed back maybe three and a half feet from it. He had a strip that they would place on the floor, and when he was playing the note 'F' sharp he would stand on the strip's 'F' sharp point and 'F' sharp would feed back better. He really worked this out to a fine science, and we were playing this at a terrific level in the studio, too. It was very, very loud, and all the while he was playing these notes - that beautiful overhead line - Eno was turning the dials and creating a new envelope and just playing with the filter bank. We did three takes of that, and although one take would sound very patchy, three takes had all of these filter changes and feedback blending into that very smooth, haunting, overlaying melody which you hear."

Indeed, some sources**** say Fripp has never used an ebow.

Heroes was 46th greatest ever song in a Rolling Stone magazine listing and 15th greatest in a similar NME list. Yet it only reached number 12 in the charts on original release, which just goes to show how some songs grow to achieve their status over time.

Now I didn't realise at the time that it was Fripp playing on Heroes though why it wasn't obvious to me I can't imagine. Fripp also guested for Blondie in 1978 on Fade Away And Radiate  - as noted above my favourite Blondie song and this time I did realise it was Fripp when I heard it.

Somewhere in the ether (probably Wikipedia!) I read this description of Fripp's guitar technique:

"unlike most rock guitarists of his era... is not blues-based but rather influenced by avant-garde jazz and European classical music#. He combines rapid alternate picking and crosspicking with motifs employing whole-tone or diminished pitch structures and sixteenth-note patterns for long stretches in a form called moto perpetuo (perpetual motion". (I don't know what most of this means either, but if you listen he uses a lot of sustain and the notes flow into each other). 


"He developed what he called a 'new standard tuning'."  

(Hmm, that explains some of the stranger riffs...)

Fripp was offered a teaching position at the American Society for Continuous Education (ASCE) in West Virginia in 1984. He had been involved with the ASCE since 1978, eventually serving on its board of directors, and had long been considering the idea of teaching guitar. His course, Guitar Craft, was begun in 1985 and ran for 25 years.

Fripp's was probably the most virtuoso guitar performance that I have seen. I can confirm that he didn't produce sounds then by moving around the stage as he stayed plonked on his barstool. The songs that live in my memory from the first gig I saw, at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in 1971 or 1972, were the encores. For two reasons: firstly it was well known that Crimson did not do encores. Fripp had often said in interviews "how do you follow 21st Century Schizoid Man?". So as soon as the deafening crescendo finished me and a buddy started making our way out of the building. Fortunately we were up with the gods in the third tier balcony so, as we were on the steps at the front of the building, we heard them come back on and dashed back into the stalls. I was a dedicated reader of the music press at the time and this change of policy in what was Crimson's first tour in some time was an unexpected surprise. The wonderful bonus came with the answer to Fripp's question - do a couple of acoustic tracks. So it was they played the delightful and haunting Cadence and Cascade and  Lady of the Dancing Water and hearing these confirmed  to me that, like Page, Fripp is a master of the instrument in both its main forms, even if he rarely plays acoustic live.

Peter Buck is a fine guitarist but he's not on my shortlist. For me Robert Fripp is a very special guitarist and he joins David Gilmour and Jimmy Page on my shortlist. Which will get one name longer yet.

* https://www.elephant-talk.com/wiki/Interview_with_Robert_Fripp_in_Guitar_Player
** https://originalfuzz.com/blogs/magazine/84621252-how-robert-fripp-recorded-the-guitar-line-on-david-bowies-heroes
*** https://www.thegearpage.net/board/index.php?threads/bowie-fripp-and-heroes.930892/
**** http://et.stok.ca/articles/1020-18.html
# There's a lot of classical stuff plagiarised in the early King Crimson material, notably Holst's Mars on The Devil's Triangle.  But then as Ian Anderson once said when we saw Jethro Tull, it has the advantage of being long out of copyright.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Lord Owen says it's EEAsy pEEAsy

I noted in my piece How Do We Keep Airbus and BMW in the UK (30 June) that one way of steering our way through the Brexit mess was to join the European Economic Area (EEA). I also noted that Lord aka David Owen had been commending this solution for at least a year.  He still is, writing a column in last week's Sunday Times* in which he said he has been trying to persuade the PM since 23 November 2016 "of the merits of preparing a reserve position in the event of the EU refusing her ambitious and now sadly flawed bespoke option". He has been doing this in a series of letters which are available on his website. (No, I haven't been sad enough to read them).

Owen's suggestion is slightly different from mine as I assumed - as most do - that we would have to apply to join the EEA. Firstly, Owen takes the view that we are already in it, so all we have to do is assert our right to remain, though accepts that the legal position needs urgent clarification. Secondly, he says we should do so as part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) "pillar" as he calls it. EEA members are either in the EFTA pillar or the EU pillar. We are currently in the latter. Owen says it is clearly possible to transition from one to the other as Austria, Finland and Sweden transitioned smoothly in the other direction in 1995.

Owen says that public debate seems insufficiently aware that the currently proposed transition period would be implemented by us staying in the EEA but in the EU pillar where the EU institutions are sovereign. The advantage of being in the EFTA pillar would be that, while still being in the single market, it would be international law and international dispute resolution that would apply, not European Law and the ECJ. He says if anyone doubts this they should note that Norway recently seized and fined trawlers from the EU Baltic States licensed by the EU to fish in Norwegian waters of the island of Svalbard in a dispute over snow crab fishing rights. The EFTA surveillance authority was asked by the trawler owners, supported by the EU Commission, to take the matter to the EFTA court, which it refused to do "in no uncertain terms".

Owen says that this avoids being boxed in between "a bad bespoke deal or exiting on WTO rules". It would leave us free to immediately pursue our own agricultural and fishing policies. Further he sees this as a transitional step to negotiating a Canadian style trade agreement, avoiding the main problem I see with the EEA "solution", that we are out but still in the EU sphere of influence, paying into the budget and open for entirely free movement but with no say over the EU rules we would be subject to and potentially stuck in that limbo for ever. After all, we would have left the "EU pillar".

Owen says we can't afford to wait for the outcome of the sh*t or bust negotiations (sorry for my indelicate phrase, but what else are they?) So we ought to write now to the three non EU EEA members (Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein) and the 27 EU members to ask if they are content for the UK to operate under the EEA as part of the EFTA pillar once we pull out of the EU. He doesn't say what we should do if they give us a raspberry, though he thinks it might take "some months" for us to establish our full EEA rights and we should not hesitate to fight for what he says are our existing rights using international law. He also thinks this option could win the support of a majority of MPs.

This all sounds pretty good to me, though Owen doesn't say what this would mean for freedom of movement during the transitional period or whether and how it would fix the Irish border issue, two problems I noted with the EEA fix in my blog referenced above.

Owen is also aggressive on the £39bn divorce payment "for a bespoke agreement that no longer exists".  Here he is pretty well barking up the wrong tree as the divorce payment isn't a bung in exchange for a free trade deal, it's stumping up to commitments we have made as part of the EU budget. Ages ago I saw a mildly funny joke on the lines of someone quitting a golf club and receiving a bill after leaving for refurbishment of the locker rooms. But the EU is not like an individual being in a members' club, it's more like a company being part of a joint venture. If that company was party to spending commitments made by the joint venture it could not expect to quit and walk away from them.

After many pundits have claimed the likelihood of no deal has increased (though Owen says some of this is politicians on all sides of the argument trying to frighten people) some are now saying they expect to see a form of compromise, though the UK would have to make yet further concessions. Others are still pessimistic about the chance of a deal being reached and are now panicking over the fact that, if there is no deal, the EU will not be in a position to make decisions very quickly or effectively (nothing new there then....) as its parliament is near the end of its term. In contrast the UK will be able to take prompt decisions, so some think that the short term impacts of no deal would be greater on the EU.

This week David Smith completely pooh poohed the idea that no deal would be anything other than traumatic, saying the idea we should not fear a no deal exit next March isn't silly season, it's stupid. He notes that many are wilfully or ignorantly misreading the relevant WTO rules when they say trade would continue unhampered. For example, under WTO rules Britain could abolish all tariffs on EU imports on the post apocalyptic day one. But the UK would also have to abolish tariffs on goods from everywhere else, for example China, because WTO rules require equality of treatment if there is no specific "most favoured nation" trade deal in place. The mirror image applies - if the EU accepted UK goods as compliant with EU rules without checking (on the basis that the day before they were compliant) then they would have to extend the same privilege to other countries outside the EU 28 states. There are some real obstacles to "frictionless trade" in the absence of a deal.

Oo-er. This all makes Owen's beguiling solution look better by the minute.

Meanwhile several newspapers ran the story that the US is turning up the pressure on the UK  over Iran sanctions and wants us to split from the EU line and back the US. Woody Johnson, the US ambassador, told The Sunday Telegraph: “America is turning up the pressure and we want the UK by our side. We are asking global Britain to use its considerable diplomatic power and influence and join us.”  'Asking' is an interesting word here as there was a hint that we can forget a trade deal with the US if we don't choose the US bully rather than the EU bully. Having to choose between the US and the EU at this particular juncture is the stuff of nightmares for Theresa May's government.

Nobody said it was easy
It's such a shame for us to part
Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

sang Coldplay on The Scientist. Well some people claimed it was easy and could be all be done very quickly, like some kind of omelette without breaking any eggs conjuring trick. I didn't ever think it would be easy, indeed that was the entire basis of my Remain vote (I must have been just about the least enthusiastic Remain voter out of 16.1 million and not many could have held their nose more than me). 

David Owen's suggestion has had a decent amount of coverage but little critical analysis: I've seen one commentary in the Spectator***where Rupert Darwall noted that the PM replied to Owen in February saying that she wanted to agree the interim period through the withdrawal agreement, not the EEA. Remember at that time the government was saying we must leave the single market straight away, so the EEA was not an attractive option. Darwall describes this as a "bad call".  Worse, May replied that we are only in the EEA through our membership of the EU, which Darwall says is plain wrong. As Owen has been saying the UK is a contracting party to the agreement establishing the EEA in its own right. Darwall goes further than Owen in suggesting that we need only get the approval of EFTA members to borrow the EFTA governance pillar of the EEA, so it cuts the Commission out of the loop, enabling the UK to regain its negotiating freedom. 

Many Brexiteers say being in the EEA means we have to pay into the EU budget (I've probably said this myself) but EEA membership does not entail Britain paying a penny into the EU budget. The EEA Financial Mechanism provides for direct payments to EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, bypassing Brussels altogether and strengthening the UK’s negotiating hand in any Phase 2 negotiations. According to calculations by Oxford economics professor George Yarrow, Britain’s annual payments under the Financial Mechanism would be of the order of £1.5bn: a trivial amount in the scheme of things.

The EEA option does mean continued freedom of movement but the Chequered Compromise implies that during the transition period anyway, so there is no difference there.

Darwall concludes that the only real obstacle to using the EEA as the first and definitive step out of the EU is that it would put the Prime Minister in the uncomfortable position of admitting that a superior strategy had always been available. For her to accept it would be tantamount to a catastrophic admission that her whole Brexit strategy had failed. Darwall notes that loyal Tory remainers would grab the EEA option like "a port in a storm". So all it needs is for the Brexit wing of the Tory party to conclude that it could be the best way to save Brexit for Owen's idea to become the main strategy. And I guess it would be the end for Theresa.  Which, given that there have been reports of him canvassing the "EEA option" might mean we get Mr Sarah Vine, aka Michael Gove.

* Norway's snow crab can lead us to a smooth Brexit that preserves national sovereignty. David Owen, Sunday Times 5 August
** No-deal Brexit: the silliest of silly season ideas. David Smith, Sunday Times 12 August.
*** https://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2018/07/how-brexiteers-can-still-save-brexit/ 30 July

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Keeper Keeper!

With the football season nearly on us (sorry Democracy Man, I was overlooking the fact that the lower leagues, if that doesn't sound too snobby, have already started) I was pleased to see that Chelsea signed a goalkeeper called Kepa. Pleased for three reasons.

The first is that it meant that, when Tibaut Courtois inevitably went to Real Madrid, Chelsea did not take Jordan Pickford from Everton just as the transfer window was closing, which had been of some concern to me, even though the newspapers were reporting that Everton would be able to resist. (Pickford is only one year into a five year contract).

The second reason is I won't have to go to Goodison for the fixture against Chelsea to shout abuse at the overly tall (and while we are being politically incorrect in terms of body shaming) large nosed Courtois after what he said about Pickford during the World Cup (see Wide Open Indeed, 18 July).

The third reason is even more juvenile. By signing Kepa Arizzabalaga Chelsea have a keeper called Kepa, which appeals to my sense of the ridiculous. (I realise Kepa is actually pronounced Keppa, with a short 'e', but as he doesn't spell it like Peppa Pig, then in England chum your name is pronounced 'keeper'. You can see I miss the days when Liverpool's Jan Molby - pronounced "molboo" in his homeland - adopted the Scouse-Anglicised version of his name).

Some of you will know I have a kind of fantasy team of players with ridiculous names. One of my sons told me this was vaguely racist (guilty on reflection: though Steve McMananman is in it because that's always struck me as a ridiculous name - surely it was meant to be McMann or McMahon?) The combination of some names is far too rude for this demure blog (some of you will recall Christian Fuchs played for Leicester City in the 1980s but it gets worse). Keeper Kepa had already got into my squad last year when he came to my attention at Athletic Bilbao.

Now those of you who have played some football will know defenders are never meant to call for their keeper to come to the ball - they should let him make his own mind up. Only the keeper is meant to shout "keeper's!" when players are deciding whether to challenge for the ball. But it strikes me that, if the football was given the feminine gender rather than being called "it", the coach might shout "Keeper Kepa, keep 'er" if he didn't want his goalie to release the ball to waste time.  Of course this is all inspired by the character Major Major Major Major in  Catch 22. If anyone can think of how to get the 4th keeper in there please do let me know.

Meanwhile Liverpool have signed a Kepa - sorry keeper - called Alison (ok, maybe it's Alisson)  Becker. For those of us who watched Liverpool fans present Everton's Gordon West with a handbag every year when he went out to play in front of the Kop, while the crowd sang "Gordon West, Gordon West, he's a bigger tart than Georgie Best" this development is understandably amusing.

More importantly (can anything be less important?) I'm not having too much trouble confining my expectation for the new season. Pundits to a man are predicting Manchester City will retain their title, though watching excellence and possibly history being made shouldn't really be boring. Of greater concern is that Everton remain, well, a great concern. I was one of a minority of Everton fans who wasn't optimistic about last season - I couldn't see that the new arrivals would offset the loss of Lukaku and the expected loss of Barkley which of course materialised, as between them they were the source of the majority of the team's goals and inspiration.

As for this summer's signings, I will reserve judgement after last year's transfer window debacle.  I am trying (but failing) not to be pessimistic about the manager, Marco Silva who I still find a curious appointment. However, the team did need strengthening in defence, midfield and attack and on the face of it that has been done. A left back to compete with/take over from Baines was needed last time and the signing of Digne belatedly addresses that.  As for the two Brazilian signings, Richarlison (Richardson, surely?) and Bernard (full name Bernard Anicio Caldeira Duerte so Bernard with a short "a" will do for me), I will try to reserve judgement until Christmas (but don't bet on it) given that Watford under Silva imploded last November after a good start and Richarlison, after five goals and eight assists in the first half of the season, didn't contribute to another goal after Silva's departure (ok, sacking) in January. I doubt it's a coincidence that Richarlison can be bagged for your Fantasy Football team at a bargain value. Bernard has done quite well in his 5 years at Shaktar Donetsk but we were led to believe Klassen was a gem of a no 10 last summer. Bernard is a winger with pretensions of playing no 10. If he is a winger and Richarlison isn't an out and out striker either I worry that we are still doing the same as last year, filling our squad with similar players resulting in a chronic lack of balance.

As for the defence, I was pleased to see we got Colombian Yerry (inauspicously named after Jerry of Tom and Jerry) Mina rather than Manchester United's limited Chris Smalling or Argentinian Marcus Rojo, a permanent red card waiting to happen from what I've seen. Mina wasn't always an automatic selection at his last club in Brazil and only appeared 5 times for Barca last season. Some critics say he's better attacking corners - as he did so well scoring against England in the World Cup - rather than defending them. He did ok against Harry Kane in that match but I worry he has been picked on one performance. It wouldn't be the first time my club had done this over the last 50 years....

Andre Gomes, a utility midfielder who has played left, right and centre, as well as both full back positions, has also arrived from Barca on a season's loan. The Portuguese international figured in the 2016 Euros but lost has place for the World Cup. He did well at Valencia and appeared 46 times for Barca in two seasons but it is not clear to me that this standard of player would qualify for a work permit if that's what EU nationals require post Brexit.

So this just might be a better mix of buys than last time but we'll see about the quality. To even do ok Everton are going to need a decent tally from their centre forward, whether this is Cenk Tosun signed last January or the youngster, Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Pessimistically perhaps I see Everton's outstanding crop of young players (including Calvert-Lewin, Kenny, Dowell, Lookman and Holgate) getting increasingly marginalised and probably slowly drifting away from the club. Perhaps even Tom Davies, though he has nearly 60 first team appearances behind him, so I do hope that he gets a look in.

If you don't detect much enthusiasm here you are right - I am hoping that test cricket will more than divert my attention away from the start of the Premier League season. When I was younger I couldn't wait for the football to start. My parents would say it started earlier every year, which was of course nonsense. But it feels that way to me at the moment......

A few pulsating games would change that rapidly, mind.

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Well done G - and Chris

A remarkable win for Geraint Thomas in the Tour de France which finished last Sunday. G, as he is known to his friends and teammates (er, c'mon chaps, Geraint isn't the hardest Welsh name to pronounce*) had a stellar career in track racing. However, it looked like he would always be the bridesmaid in the big road races, especially le Tour. He had been Team Sky's star performer in their first Tour way back in 2010, but once Chris Froome usurped Bradley Wiggins as team leader, Thomas seemed destined to support others. He also had bad luck with crashes, some leading to significant injuries including a fractured pelvis (which didn't stop him completing the 2013 Tour) and a broken collarbone. When a crash didn't intervene he had occassionally blown up and lost huge chunks of time on a stage. Which made the last few stages of the Tour nerve racking and, for the first time ever for me, compulsive viewing. Before then Thomas had performed heroically to win two consecutive stages in the middle of the Tour. The second of those wins, stepping on the gas and using his track cycling experience to find the best line to the finish after the monumental climb up Alpe d'Huez in stage 12 has been listed by roadcyclinguk.com as one of the best stage wins ever by a Brit. Thomas always looked comfortable once he had the yellow jersey and he made the later stages uneventful, not only ensuring his rivals could not make gains against him but finishing strongly several times to extend his margin.

It's remarkable that, no Brit ever having won the Tour ever before Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012, three different Brits have now won it in seven years. We've almost monopolised the event, with only one non-British rider, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali, intruding into that sequence in the year Chris Froome crashed multiple times and was forced to retire with fractures to his left wrist and right hand.

Equally remarkable is the fact that Thomas, now one of the world's most outstanding sportsmen, with two Olympic golds and three World Championship golds, went to the same Cardiff school as Sam Warburton, the most successful ever captain of the British Lions rugby team - leading them to a series win in South Africa and draw in New Zealand - and Gareth Bale, three time winner of the Champions League with Real Madrid and a member of the Welsh team that got to the semis in the 2016 Euros. They were obviously doing something right at that school.

But there were some other things we learned from the Tour. We saw for ourselves that Geraint Thomas is a likeable, boy next door kind of character. But we also saw that Chris Froome, who clearly bridled at having to support Bradley Wiggins when it was pretty clear who was the stronger cyclist in 2012, is also a pretty good geezer, at least when it's Thomas and not Wiggins in front of him. Froome was perfectly happy to do whatever he could to support Thomas once it was clear the Welshman had the better chance of winning.

Froome was allowed to compete after what seemed at first to be a sudden and strange decision by the doping authorities not to proceed with the case against him for his adverse analytical finding during last year's Vuelta. Now I've always believed Chris Froome to be genuine though, like many, I began to have doubts over the athsma inhaler/salbutamol drugs test issue. Doubts that were fuelled when David Walsh, the Sunday Times chief sports correspondent who played the leading role in Lance Armstrong's downfall, lost confidence in Froome over the issue. Walsh knows Froome well and is more than expert in both cycling and drugs in sport so who was I to feel I was better placed to assess Froome's innocence?

In the Sunday Times on 8 July Walsh said that his first conversation with Froome after his adverse analytical finding was difficult. Froome said he had used his inhaler in the normal way, well within what was permissable and he couldn't explain how his level had got to 2,000ng/ml, well over the 1200ng threshold. Walsh thought it was hard to believe Froome would have cheated with Salbutamol (I understand no-one thinks salbutamol via athsma inhaler is performance enhancing anyway) but how could his level have gone from 100ng one day to 2000ng the next? Anti-doping is based on strict liability - the competitors are responsible for what is in their bodies, however it got there. Froome had to prove he hadn't done anything wrong. Walsh noted that, against the reality of the test, that was always going to be difficult. Walsh clearly thought it couldn't be done and he told Froome that he thought he should have withdrawn himself from competition while his case was being heard. But incredibly it now turns out that, throughout the period of the investigation, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was sitting on research that proved athletes using salbutamol in a multi-stage cycle race had a high probability of exceeding the threshold while staying within the number of permissable puffs from their inhaler. WADA had commissioned a Danish research group and they used 20 subjects who took eight puffs for five consecutive days, their salbutamol levels being measured at the end of each day. Seven of the 20 participants recorded levels over the 1200ng threshold although they had stayed within permitted doses. One subject recorded a level of 3,000ng, 50% higher than Froome's. Not surprisingly, Walsh says WADA's law on salbutamol is seriously flawed and will soon be changed. This is why they decided to drop the case against Froome.

But more seriously this shows that WADA behaved in a fundamentally dishonest manner, concealing highly relevant evidence while insisting that Froome prove his innocence. Froome's team submitted 1500 pages of evidence about how his levels of salbutamol had varied enormously even though his use of the inhaler remained constant. During the first two weeks of the Vuelta, there were times when Froome's sample was totally clear, literally zero ng but on one occasion it was 300ng. On the day before he recorded the 2000 result that caused the problem his level was 12ng. Froome says his use of the inhaler was precisely the same on those two days. Understandably, given cycling's doping history, many people felt Frrome must have done something wrong to produce a sample so far beyond WADA's 1200 limit. But as Walsh notes WADA, without admitting as much knew there was a significant chance this was a false positive as its salbutamol threshold was predominantly based on research conducted on athletes in one day competition. Salbutamol excretion in mutli-day events such as cycling tours had never been studied.

This is why Walsh was critical of the anti-doping authorities for putting Froome in a position where he would inevitably get abuse and probably threats of physical violence as the Tour got under way. "I cannot blame those who voice their disapproval because, knowing more about the man than they do, I doubted him. That was a judgement call I regret" said Walsh.

That's bad enough but I think it's actually much worse than that. David Lappartient, the head of the world cycling governing body UCI, caused a stir on the eve of the Tour de France when he told the BBC that Team Sky’s wealth had helped them fight the salbutamol case, their rich resources enabling them to hire an army of lawyers and experts**. The inference was that riders in the same position in the past had essentially been priced out of justice.

So WADA were sitting on unpublished info showing what Froome was saying was probably true. And yet Sky gets accused by the head of the UCI of using its wealth to clear Froome. If you ask me it stinks. No wonder Sky boss Sir Dave Brailsford got into a slanging match with Lappartient via the media as the Tour progressed with Brailsford saying Lappartient had failed to grasp the responsibilities of his role and accusing him of having a "local French mayor kind of mentality"**. (Lappartient had once been the mayor of Sarzeau in Brittany). Lappartient replied that Brailsford "does not understand much about cycling" (er, hello, 18 Olympic and 59 World Championship golds across different disciplines in 10 years as Performance Director of British cycling even without the 6 Sky Tour de France and other road race wins? That's a remarkable claim, monsieur). As the Tour swung towards the critical stages in the Pyrenees Brailsford suggested that the disgraceful behaviour of some fans that his team, particularly but not just Froome, have had to tolerate was a "French cultural thing" saying:

“I don’t think spitting has a place in professional sport personally, or in everyday life, but it seems to be the thing that’s done here. But we’re not going to let it distract us. It’s interesting, we just raced in Italy and if this is all about Chris and his case, well his case was open during the Tour of Italy and they were fantastic, the Italians. The Spanish, fantastic. It just seems to be a French thing. A French cultural thing really, that’s it."

While this was an interesting thing for Brailsford to say at that point in the race remarkably Lappartient, to whom the words had not been addressed, responded and, while he advised Brailsford to tone down his rhetoric, he also said

"he can't say it's down to mentality of the French. It's down to the mentality of fans everywhere. He has to understand that the Tour is the biggest race in the world, so there's more pressure, more media, and the decision for Froome to come to the Tour also focused on this."

Lappartient also suggested it wasn't necessarily French fans spitting as the fans passports weren't checked at the roadside. Er, so let me understand this Monsieur. They spit at Team Sky in France but not Spain or Italy. I'd wager the largest contingent of non-French fans at the Tour these days are Brits. So just who do you think is doing the spitting? Brailsford then backed down and said he didn't believe that spitting was a French cultural thing, but he was agitated about what had been happening to his team.

I find several things about this spat interesting. One is that Brailsford, the most successful team director in modern cycling history if not ever, has not met or spoken directly to the head of his sport's world governing body. But he's obviously got his man down to a "t": could you imagine the boss of the FA responding directly to a Jose Mourinho rant in the way Lappartient did?  Sure, the FA can slap a "disrepute" charge on a Mourinho, but even so....

Brailsford is of course controversial. Indeed he is tainted tainted by the Bradley Wiggins therapuetic use exemptions saga and the mysterious jiffy bag delivered to Team Sky during a race in 2011. Wiggins's TUEs , which enabled him to be injected with a powerful corticoteroid, no inhaler stuff here, were 100% legal but we can only wonder about whether they were opportunistic cheating - they just happened to be before Wiggins's biggest races 3 years in a row. However, Wiggins not unreasonably points out that the pollen season comes at the same time each year and, up till then he had been racing indoors. So legal but morally questionable. However, only Brailsford knows if he is really aware of what was in the infamous jiffy bag. The kangaroo court that is a House of Commons Select Committee made hay out of it, but it wouldn't surprise me if he genuinely didn't know. The Select Committee MPs seem to think someone like Brailsford, a banker or a Murdoch executive for example, knows every tiny thing that is happening everywhere in their operation every minute of the day and can remember it all seven years later. They feign disbelief if people say they can't remember or would never have actually known. Actually, I doubt they really think that, but it suits them to posture and go for soundbites to get themselves into the news. It's a system that I think should be overhauled urgently. How would any of them like to appear, without legal representation, in front of a panel of around a dozen hostile interlocutors, who make their own procedural rules and set about random points scoring rather than following lines of inquiry genuinely designed to elicit the truth?

Brailsford may be tainted and I had begun to doubt him and even to wonder about Froome. But at the moment for me the villains are the anti-doping and cycling authorities who would have left one of the world's most outstanding sportsmen of the last decade hung out to dry when they knew he was almost certainly innocent, or at least that his explanation made complete sense. If they had had their way Froome would have been stripped of his Vuelta win and wouldn't have been allowed to compete in the Giro or this year's Tour. And then Lappartient suggests that Froome had the advantage of wealthy backers. I'm not sure I can find the words to express, in polite language, how despicable I feel that behaviour was.

Fortunately, Froome now sits in the record books with cycling's equivalent of the "Tiger slam". He didn't win the Giro, Tour and Vuelta in the same year but he did win them back to back and held all three trophies simultaneously. This is a remarkable if not quite unprecedented feat: Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault are the only other riders ever to do it. (The cycling records are confusing for non experts as there is an unofficial "Triple Crown" involving winning the UCI World Road Race championship, the Tour de France and either the Italian Giro or Spanish Vuelta in one season, also only achieved by two riders: Merckx and Ireland's Stephen Roche). Anyways, it ain't been done in yonks and puts Froome in the highest echelon of road race cyclists. And he showed us, in coming third at the Tour, that he's not just out for himself. The authorities would cynically have denied not just Froome but all of us watching these outstanding achievements. I can only think they relented as it dawned on them that the truth would out and it would have catapulted international cycling into yet another crisis.

As you can tell I'm almost certain that Froome is genuine and, with some reservations, I'm also convinced that Sky were right to stick with Dave Brailsford.

Meanwhile there is speculation that Thomas might leave Sky to be a guaranteed team leader. But this year has shown it is very difficult, notwithstanding Froome's amazing achievement of winning three in a row, to lead more than one grand tour in a year. It's just too demanding. So why don't Sky have a chat with Thomas and Froome about the former leading in next year's Giro and Froome going for his 5th Tour? With the option that, if either rider falls away, the other goes for it.

I don't see why that wouldn't keep everyone happy.

And maybe I should go and pump my bike tyres up.....

* For example, what about Eifion, the name of our tiler on the house project. Pronounced "Avion" if you were wondering.
** http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/brailsford-the-quicker-lappartient-can-learn-his-responsibilities-the-better/
*** https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cycling/44785605
**** http://www.cyclingnews.com/features/we-dont-ask-roadside-fans-to-show-us-their-passports-lappartient-tells-brailsford/
**** https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/cycling/tour-de-france-2018-team-sky-dave-brailsford-france-culture-abuse-spitting-punch-chris-froome-watch-a8459791.html

Friday, 3 August 2018

The Brexit endgame

The ball is with the EU to respond to Mrs May's Chequered Compromise, dog's breakfast, whatever. Some europhiles in the UK are apparently urging the EU to respond gently, as they fear a tough response leads directly to "no deal". Oh, but not folk like Mandy (aka Lord Mandelson or the Prince of Darkness as you prefer) who are determined to thwart Brexit whatever. I read that some determined Remainers are supping with the devil (i.e. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg) in pushing to reject the deal, if it turns out there is one. Their logic is that the best chance of staying in is if there is no deal. Hmm, that's a risky, double or quits strategy then.

Last week I was reading an assessment of the likelihood of various possible Brexit outcomes by Oxford Economics in David Smith's Sunday Times column.  I smelt a bit of a rat as the probabilities summed to more than 100% (I know probabilities sum to one but bear with me). Smith clarified this week that Oxford Economics were looking at two events: withdrawal and the ultimate deal. On withdrawal they were predicting a 15% chance of a cliff-edge Brexit with the balance split between agreement to move on to the next phase of negotiations and the article 50 timescale being extended. On the ultimate deal it's just over 30% for each of BRINO (Brexit In Name Only, i.e. maintaining our trading relationship as it is now) and the "hard Brexit" of trading on WTO rules, with 24% for a free trade agreement and 15% for staying in the EU after all.  So I stick with my first take on this assessment, that none of the options were being assigned a particularly high probability and no-one has much of a clue what is likely to happen. One might say, with extra time and penalties looming, the result is wide open. Wow.

My favourite blogger Wolfgang Munchau, as usual, has much to say on all of this. He commented on - well rubbished actually - an article by George Eaton in the New Statesman which tried to explain why Remainers think the EU would be keen on us having a second referendum to overturn the first. After all, that would be entirely in the character of previous EU behaviour when countries rejected "more Europe" in referenda and were invited to try again. Munchau patiently explains that there cannot practically be a referendum on any eventual deal because that deal would be seen not just by the UK as a deal but by the EU also. He predicts the EU would portray it as a take it or leave it choice. So the idea it could be rejected by Parliament on the basis that a better or different deal could be obtained is plain daft. It will be that deal or no deal.

He also thinks that dynamic means that the UK government would not ask for the article 50 deadline to be extended, since that would complicate things: Theresa May can't keep the choice "deal or no deal" if the timescale is extended.

He also thinks through the no deal scenario. He says the "meaningful vote" vote in the Commons a few weeks ago means that Parliament has been deprived of its only real chance of taking matters into its own hands. I'm not completely sure about that actually. I thought it was left that it was up to the Speaker to decide whether the government's motion was written in such a way as to be amendable or not. Maybe they will try to get the Speaker's agreement in advance that the draft wording is not amendable. But Bercow is nothing if not filled with a sense of his own power and importance. So who knows how he will react? Mischievously I can't help thinking about the prospect of Gina Miller taking court action to overturn the Speaker's verdict because he has over-reached his powers in allowing amendments to be voted on. As if! I suspect Gina's sense of what is legal is closely correlated to what would keep us in the EU.

Be that as it may, taking Munchau's argument, Parliament's only option if it doesn't like deal or no deal would be a vote of no confidence to try to force an election. Munchau thinks the evidence shows the votes would not be there to achieve that. But if they were and Labour won an election before late March it could ask the EU to extend the timescale. He thinks the EU would only do that for a plain vanilla customs union/EEA deal or a plain vanilla FTA with a customs border in the Irish Sea or a repeal of Article 50 after a second referendum. This sequence would require: failure to reach a deal, majority for a vote of no confidence, a Labour victory with a coalition of pro-remain parties and a total U-turn on Brexit by Jeremy Corbyn. Munchau finds this sequence incredible and says it would collapse at the first or second step. Hmm. I am not quite so sanguine: the Bolsheviks, er I mean Labour, will do anything to win power.

In recent days Munchau has noted a shift in the EU's position, which he says is causing panic in the UK Remain camp at the prospect that there will be a deal. He sees a wider recognition in Brussels than before that a hard Brexit would have severely negative implications for the EU as well, and especially for Ireland which would be under a legal obligation to erect a customs border (a point I've been making for months). Germany and other exporting countries have no interest in a tariff border for their largest export market. The UK also continues to be seen as an important and useful ally to Germany.  He also notes that Michel Barnier and his UK counterparts are edging towards an agreement on financial services, after the UK dropped its previous insistence of an independent arbiter, a development I find positive, though I worry that the EU will always interpret its rules in the way that suits itself at the time. After all, you would, wouldn't you? There are still many open issues but, he says "we are now in a much more normal phase of negotiations". Meanwhile Theresa May "steers a course towards a gradual softening in the position - a course we believe will ultimately prevail. The distance between her white paper and the EU’s preferred option of a customs union is still formidable, but not unbridgeable."

Plausible predictions I accept, but when the PM feels it necessary to go to woo the French president to her point of view - the very politician who has been pushing Germany to agree to "more Europe" in terms of financial control and the one who perhaps has the most to gain from Britain's exit - then I do wonder if we are clutching at straws. 
However, a prediction by Alex Barker in the FT has the ring of an odds on favourite: the EU is willing to fudge the political declaration to accompany the withdrawal treaty setting out the future relationship. Munchau says this is a development he expected all along - after all the EU will never allow a negotiation to fail if a fudge is available. Naturally, a fudge is not going to solve the problem and stores up trouble for the future. But it gets May past the Brexit date, and it removes the options of a no-deal Brexit and a Brexit reversal. And it focuses the political debate in the UK on the future relationship itself, which would be valuable in its own right.
The FT article cites a senior EU diplomat closely involved in the Brexit talks, to the effect that the priority for the EU is to get the deal done and approved in the House of Commons. The EU would not sacrifice its principles, including the safeguards for Northern Ireland, but would do anything in its powers to get a deal passed. The EU remains hostile to the specific customs proposals set out in the white paper, but the political declaration may include language to explore unprecedented models of future co-operation.
Given the uncomfortable reality that there is no majority for any particular Brexit in the Commons (accurately reflecting the public I guess) maybe that is the only way the "deal" can be got through the Commons - if it is so vague that it can't be rejected. An agreement to agree is meaningless but hard to oppose.

However, it would get us out even if all the detail still needed to be resolved. Since I don't believe that we should stay - there was no majority for that either - I might find it hard to oppose such a non-deal myself, though I am nervous that it feels like a slippery slope to pit of permanent fudge, out but not "free". But, given all the water that has passed under the bridge, I cannot imagine there would be a majority for staying under the terms we'd be given. Oh, you Remainers aren't so naive to think that we could just go back to as we were are you? Of course the EU would exact a price - no rebates, no opt outs - or some other advantage, wouldn't they? As sure as Martin Selmayr is Darth Vader! Though I accept for many Remainers that would be perfect as they've always wanted us to be more at the heart of Europe, signed up for everything, even the euro. Happy to be on the hook for bailing out Greece and Italy, whatever, bring it on.

The one choice that I cannot see being available is the status quo ante. It's more Europe or a lot less.

I know which I want - as I've said before, I'm out, for medical reasons - I'm sick of them. (I accept there is a counter argument, given that it will be obvious that I do not trust the Germans or, particularly, the French: that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer....)

But I will reiterate an earlier prediction, which doesn't need a crystal ball. The rights and wrongs of whatever course of action emerges will be debated for the rest of my lifetime. Campaigns to rejoin. Campaigns to modify the deal, if there is one. Campaigns that we should have been more in, or more out. Think we can stop banging our head against this wall come 29 March? Think again. There are too many people who just won't leave it alone.

What Oxford Economics didn't go on to assess was the probability of a Corbyn government. I'll tell you what I think about that -  my head hurts.

Still, the appetising test series against India has started. And the fascinating first test is still right in the balance. Oh and the football season will soon be here. Ah, but Everton - my head hurts.....