Showing posts with label United Kingdom. Show all posts
Showing posts with label United Kingdom. Show all posts

30 April 2021

Graffiti Tunnel at Lower Marsh, Southbank, London

People come from all over the world to paint at Lower marsh, a quaint street in Lambeth where we are living for a couple of months. It takes hours and hours of work for a graffiti to come alive and they are gone a few hours late, usually the next day, perhaps in a week.

The tunnel is near Waterloo station, and it is officially sanctioned for graffiti. Every day dozens of street artists congregate and let their imagination loose through spray color cans. Hours of work go into each graffiti, only to be covered up the next day. Ephemeral art.

A young Slovakian (I know she is, I asked) lady sells fresh fruits just outside the gallery and only a few meters away from our apartment. Too bad she does not work on weekends when the graffiti painters are most active.

04 April 2021

Book review: The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (1986) by Jan Hogendorn and Marion Johnson, *****


This study examines the role of cowrie-shell money in West African trade, particularly the slave trade. The shells were carried from the Maldives to the Mediterranean by Arab traders for further transport across the Sahara, and to Europe by competing Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French traders for onward transport to the West African coast. In Africa, they served to purchase the slaves exported to the New World, as well as other less sinister exports. Over a large part of West Africa, they became the regular market currency but were severely devalued by the importation of thousands of tons of the cheaper Zanzibar cowries. Colonial governments disliked cowries because of the inflation and encouraged their replacement by low-value coins. They disappeared almost totally, to re-appear during the depression of the 1930s, and have been found occasionally in the markets of remote frontier districts, avoiding exchange and currency control problems.


 A most thoroughly researched book on a peculiar aspect of monetary economics in Africa and South Asia for several centuries. We learn how the Maldives played a central role in this system that could be considered an aspect of embryonic globalization ante-litteram. We learn how the shells were collected, with strenuous labor-intensive efforts, then stored underground until putrefaction had gotten rid of the mollusk, and finally shipped to Malé for export. Of course, the latter was a royal prerogative for centuries!

See my other reviews of books on the Maldives here in this blog.


02 April 2021

A conversation about China

- Hi I am from Indochina. I'd like to think what you think of China.

- Hi I'm from Europe, I'd be interested in your views too, wanna start? 

- China has traded with Indochina for thousands of years. Several times over those centuries, it was the world’s most powerful empire. Never once they sent troops to take our land. Admiral Zhenghe came to Malacca five times, in gigantic fleets, and a flagship eight times the size of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, Santa Maria. He could have seized Malacca easily, but he did not. 

- True he did not, but not because he was an especially nice guy, it was not his order from the emperor. He was to explore. Many Chinese emperors did not want much contact with the outside world. They wanted isolation.

- In 1511, the Portuguese came. In 1642, the Dutch came. In the 18th century, the British came. We were colonized by each, one after another. When China wanted spices from India, it traded with the Indians. When they wanted gems, they traded with the Persians. They didn’t take lands. 

- True they didn't invade India or Persia but they did at various times invade parts of Siberia (later lost to Russia), Korea, Vietnam, Turkish central Asia, and of course Tibet. The last two they are still holding on to. 

- The only time China expanded beyond its current borders was during the Yuan dynasty, when Genghis and his descendants Ogedei Khan, Guyuk Khan & Kublai Khan conquered China, Mid Asia and Eastern Europe. But Yuan Dynasty, although being based in China, was actually a part of the Mongol Empire. 

- I'm glad you brought up Mongolia. Here either you argue Mongolians are really Chinese, then "China" invaded central Asia and eastern Europe. Or you argue Mongolians are not Chinese, then China is now occupying half the country, which explains why the other half (the independent Republic of Mongolia, called in China "outer Mongolia") is always staunchly pro Russian, whether it's the Soviet Union or capitalist Russia. They want Russian protection against a potential Chinese threat. You can't have your Mongolian cake and eat it too! 

You also forget that The Chinese empire under the Mongols tried to conquer Japan, but failed because their fleet was destroyed by typhoons, the "kamikaze" or divine winds. That saved Japan, but China did try to invade, a couple of times actually.

And now China is slowly occupying the South China Sea on no internationally recognized legal basis. 

- Then came the "Century of Humiliation". Britain smuggled opium into China to dope the population, a strategy to turn the trade deficit around after the British could not find enough silver to pay the Qing Dynasty in their tea and porcelain trades. After the opium warehouses were burned down and ports were closed by the Chinese in ordered to curb opium, the British started the Opium War I, which China lost. Hong Kong was forced to be surrendered to the British in a peace talk (Nanjing Treaty in 1842). The British owned 90% of the opium market in China, during that time, Queen Victoria was the world’s biggest drug baron. The remaining 10% was owned by American merchants from Boston. Many of Boston’s institutions were built with profit from opium. 

- I agree with you on this point completely. The British conquest of Hong Kong and its opium trade was disgraceful and ought to be remembered as such. 

- Eighteen years after the Nanjing Treaty, in 1860, the West started getting really really greedy. The British expected the Qing government: 1. To open the borders of China to allow goods coming in and out freely, and tax-free. 2. To make opium legal in China.

Insane requests, the Qing government said no. The British and French, started Opium War II with China, which again, China lost. The Anglo-French military threatened to burn down the Imperial Palace, the Qing government was forced to pay with ports, free business zones, 300,000 kilograms of silver, and Kowloon was taken. Since then, China’s resources flowed out freely through these business zones and ports. In the subsequent amendment to the treaties, Chinese people were sold overseas to serve as labor. 

- Sadly this is true as well, shame on the French as well as on the British. 

- In 1900, China suffered attacks by the 8-National Alliance(Japan, Russia, Britain, France, USA, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary). Innocent Chinese civilians in Peking (Beijing now) were murdered, buildings were destroyed & women were raped. The Imperial Palace was raided, and treasures ended up in museums like the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. 

- Again I agree and am ashamed my country was part of this shameful attack. 

- In the late 1930s China was occupied by the Japanese. Millions of Chinese died during the occupation. 300,000 Chinese died in Nanjing Massacre alone. 

- Japan's horrific occupation is well known and should be remembered as such. The Nanjing massacre too, though the numbers you mention are probably too high. One sad problem is that Mao and Chiang were too busy fighting each other instead of joining forces against Japan. 

- Mao brought China together again from the shambles. There were peace and unity for some time. But Mao’s later reign saw sufferings and deaths from famine and power struggles. 

- Be serious: yes Mao won the civil war, but then he brought unprecedented misery to China. More innocent people died at his hand than did in Nazi camps and Soviet gulags combined. Mao destroyed the economy, the cultural revolution destroyed more of the country's cultural heritage than all foreign invasions. Luckily Chiang, for all his crimes and corruption, took Some 7000 crates of artifacts to Taiwan, now preserved in a museum in Taipei. 

- Then came Deng Xiaoping and his famous “black-cat and white-cat” story. His preference for pragmatism over ideology has transformed China. This thinking allowed China to evolve all the time to adapt to the actual needs in the country, instead of rigidly bound to ideologies. It also signified the death of Communism in actual practice in China. The current Socialism + Meritocracy + Market Economy model fits the Chinese like gloves, and it propels the rise of China.

- There is no socialism in China except for one-party rule. Education is not free nor is housing or health care. As for meritocracy, yes there are many opportunities for capable people to emerge, but still, China is very corrupted, ask any Chinese in private (they won't say it in public or post it online). 

- Singapore has a similar model and has been arguably more successful than Hong Kong because Hong Kong is the gateway to China, was riding on the economic boom in China, while Singapore had no one to gain from.

- To compare Hong Kong and Singapore is difficult, too many differences. Both have been successful, but Singapore has been free for half a century, Hong Kong was never free: not under the British, not under China. 

A comparison of China and Singapore is even more of a far-fetched proposition. There is minimal corruption in Singapore and much more meritocracy. Hong Kong was successful because of its market economy and free trade, both of which are now in question. 

- In just 30 years, the CCP has moved 800 million people out of poverty. The rate of growth is unprecedented in human history. They have built the biggest mobile network, by far the biggest high-speed rail network in the world, and they have become a behemoth in infrastructure.

- Indeed, when China jettisoned socialism in all but name and embraced capitalism the economy predictably took off. 

- They made a fishing village called Shenzhen into the world’s second-largest technological center after the Silicon Valley. They are growing into a technological powerhouse. It has the most elaborate e-commerce and cashless payment system in the world. They have launched exploration to Mars. 

- Indeed huge progress in all of this, though Shenzhen was more than a fishing village, and I am not sure about the second-in-the-world, still, it is now an amazing XXI century city. 

- The Chinese are living a good life and China has become one of the safest countries in the world. The level of patriotism in the country has reached an unprecedented height.

- Sadly not all Chinese have a good life, far from it, much the countryside is still poor, inequalities are huge and many workers have no holidays, no pension plan, no insurance, in other words: no rights. 

- For all of the achievements, the West has nothing good to say about it. China suffers from intense anti-China propaganda from the West. Western Media used the keyword “Communist” to instill fear and hatred towards China. Everything China does is negatively reported. 

- Obviously, there are different views about China in the west, this is the nature of democracies. Many, like me, admire China's achievements and think we can all learn from them, but that does not hide its faults and shortcomings. 

- Westerners claimed China used slave labor in making iPhones. The truth was, Apple was the most profitable company in the world, it took most of the profit, leaving some to Foxconn (a Taiwanese company) and little for the workers. 

- Indeed it is not difficult to find many western companies which profited from China's labor laws, which give little protection to workers. That western companies make money in China does not make these laws good. I believe things are changing, as Chinese workers claim more rights, the way their colleagues in the west did decades ago.

They claimed China was inhuman with the one-child policy. At the same time, they accused China of polluting the earth with its huge population. The fact is the Chinese consume just 30% of energy per capita compared to the US. 

- The one-child policy was Deng Xiaoping's overreacting response to Mao's push to have as many children as possible. Both policies were wrong. Now China has a demographic time bomb waiting to go off as not enough young people will be there to support an aging population.

- Western countries claim China underwent ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. The fact is China has a policy that prioritizes ethnic minorities. For a long time, the ethnic minorities were allowed to have two children and the majority Han only allowed one. The minorities are allowed a lower score for university intakes. 

- True indeed that minorities have enjoyed some privileges for a long time, but again that does not mean they are not repressing the Xingjian culture. Some in the West claim it is genocide, which it is not, but it is still a massive form of human rights violation.

- There are 39,000 mosques in China, and 2100 in the US. China has about 3 times more mosques per Muslim than the US. 

- I don't know where you got that number. The point is that in China all religions must submit to the central government, which is why the Vatican still does not recognize Beijing. China argues that its minorities are Chinese and is working to sinify them. 

- When terrorist attacks happened in Xinjiang, China had two choices: 1. Re-educate the Uighur extremists before they turned terrorists. 2. Let them be, after they launch attacks and killed innocent people, bomb their homes. China chose 1 to solve problem from the root and not to do killing. How the US solve terrorism? Fire missiles from battleships, drop bombs from the sky. 

- I agree the American response to Islamic fundamentalism has long been flawed and has failed. But China is trying to erase Turkic culture, not just Islamic extremism. 

- During the pandemic, when China took extreme measures to lock down the people, they were accused of being inhuman. When China recovered swiftly because of the extreme measures, they were accused of lying about the actual numbers. When China’s cases became so low that they could provide medical support to other countries, they were accused of politically motivated. 

- China initially denied there was a virus and repressed whistle-blowing doctors who flagged the problem back in late 2019. Time was lost and the problem got worse before they started doing something about it. 

- Western Media always have reasons to bash China. 

-I agree with you, it is always easier to blame others for one own mistakes. 

- Just like any country, there are irresponsible individuals from China who do bad and dirty things, but the China government overall has done very well. But I hear this comment over and over by people from the West: I like Chinese people, but the CCP is evil. What they really want is the Chinese to change the government, because the current one is too good. 

Fortunately, China is not a multi-party democratic country, otherwise, the opposition party in China will be supported by notorious NGOs (Non-Government Organization) of the USA, like the NED (National Endowment for Democracy), to topple the ruling party. The US and the British couldn’t crack Mainland China, so they work in Hong Kong. Of all the ex-British colonial countries, only the Hong Kongers were offered BNOs by the British. 

 Indeed it is hypocritical of the British to offer BNO just to Hong Kong, but any county is free to offer its citizenship to whoever they want. 

Because the UK would like the Hong Kongers to think they are British citizens, not Chinese. A divide-and-conquer strategy, which they often used in Color Revolutions around the world. 

They resort to low dirty tricks like detaining Huawei’s CFO & banning Huawei. They raised a silly trade war which benefits no one. Trade deficit always exist between a developing and a developed country. USA is like a luxury car seller who asks a farmer: why am I always buying your vegetables and you haven’t bought any of my cars? 

-I agree China is beating the old capitalist world at its own game though there are serious issues with intellectual property theft, cheating on licences, fakes etc. On the other hand I sympathize with China when it is requesting technology transfer from investors. Too many times in the past western multinationals made money in the developing world by localizing only cheap labor-intensive activities there while keeping all the high-tech for themselves.

When the Chinese were making socks for the world 30 years ago, the world let it be. But when the Chinese started to make high technology products, like Huawei and DJI, it caused red-alert. Because when Western and Japanese products are equal to Chinese in technologies, they could never match the Chinese in prices. First-world countries want China to continue in making socks. Instead of stepping up themselves, they want to pull China down. 

The recent movement by the US against China has a very important background. When Libya, Iran, and China decided to ditch the US dollar in oil trades, Gaddafi was killed by the US, Iran was being sanctioned by the US, and now it’s China’s turn. The US has been printing money out of nothing. The only reason why the US Dollar is still widely accepted is that it’s the only currency with which oil is allowed to be traded with. Without the petrol-dollar status, the US dollars will sink, and America will fall. China will soon use a gold-backed crypto-currency, the alarm in the White House go off like mad.

- China is playing this game as I understand it it is the largest holder of USD bonds in the world. Gold-backed cryptocurrency is a joke. But they could make the Renminbi convertible, it would be a strong currency, but the government in Beijing would lose control which is likely not acceptable.  Also, China is developing electronic money, not cryptocurrency, just e-Renminbi, this is a good model for others.

China’s achievement has been by hard work. Not by raiding other countries. 

- I would agree with you and admire post-Mao China a lot because of this.

I have deep sympathy for China for all the suffering, but now I feel happy for them. China is not rising, they are going back to where they belong. Good luck China.

- Yes China was a world leader several times in the past and it looks poised to become one again soon. Indeed good luck to China, it's going to need it. And the world needs a strong stable China integrated into the world economy.

31 December 2020




Siccome di messaggi con insulti al povero anno 2020 ne abbiamo sentiti troppi (ma non si chiama COVID-19?) ho pensato di raccogliere qualche pensiero in positivo sull'anno che si sta per concludere. Non per minimizzare, ma per guardare avanti con realismo, ottimismo e determinazione.

1. Chi mi sta leggendo è ancora vivo. Un buon primo risultato. Tanti ci hanno lasciato nel 2020, forse anche qualcuno che conosciamo, qualche persona cara. Io ho perso una cugina ed il padre di un amico per il Covid-19. Molti altri se ne sono andati per una serie infinita di altri motivi: incidenti, età, altre malattie, guerre, ecc. Noi invece siamo qui.

2. Abbiamo viaggiato di meno, e questo pesa particolarmente per quelli come me che vivono in vari paesi e del viaggio hanno fatto uno stile di vita. Però la prossima volta che partiremo il viaggio avrà un gusto speciale. Ce lo godremo di più, magari lo prepareremo meglio, lo ricorderemo più a lungo. Forse faremo più viaggi, che ci cambiano dentro, e meno vacanze, che nel migliore dei casi ci fanno solo riposare.

3. Siamo andati meno al ristorante, ma quando torneremo a farlo con tranquillità sceglieremo meglio il ristorante, la cucina, ed ogni boccone, ogni sorso di vino ci sembreranno più buoni.

4. Non siamo potuti andare a cinema, teatro, concerti. Ancora una volta, torneremo a farlo perché la cultura non si ferma. La prossima volta saremo più attenti ad ogni scena del film, ad ogni movimento della sinfonia, ad ogni aria dell'opera, ad ogni particolare della scena.

5. Siamo stati costretti a stare di più a casa, ma abbiamo passato più tempo con i nostri cari, fianco a fianco, giorno dopo giorno, ora dopo ora, come forse non facevamo da tanto tempo. Se siamo stati attenti, abbiamo imparato a conoscerci meglio, a rispettarci. Abbiamo capito che stare insieme non vuol dire solo avere interessi in comune o divertirsi, ma parlarsi (e ascoltarsi!), guardarsi, accarezzarsi.

6. Abbiamo riscoperto il significato della solidarietà, o almeno avremmo dovuto farlo, le occasioni non sono mancate. E dell'apprezzamento per il lavoro di chi si è impegnato per superare l'emergenza. Non ce lo dimentichiamo quando la pandemia non sarà più in prima pagina, loro saranno ancora in prima linea.

7. Abbiamo recuperato un po' della nostra identità, anzi delle identità, al plurale. Ci siamo sentiti un po’ più italiani, come forse non capita spesso tranne quando c'è la coppa del mondo di calcio. E, almeno per me, anche più europei. L'Europa si è mossa con ritardo, ma si è mossa, insieme, e visto come sono andate le cose negli altri principali paesi del mondo forse non ci possiamo lamentare. E questo nonostante la pandemia abbia messo da una parte a nudo le meschinità di tanti politici polemici, e dall'altra in risalto la mancanza di grossi calibri tra i leader della politica mondiale.

8. Abbiamo riscoperto il valore della scienza, anche di quella inesatta come la medicina. I chiacchieroni e i millantatori, i negazionisti, gli alternativi, i naturopati, gli anti-vaccinisti, quelli del "sono morti con il COVID e non di COVID" sono, mi pare, o forse lo spero soltanto, meno ascoltati di un anno fa. Abbiamo anche imparato qualche regola di igiene, di buon senso, che avremmo dovuto applicare comunque, da sempre.

9. Abbiamo capito un po' meglio il significato della disciplina. Non abbastanza e non tutti, ma ci farà bene interiorizzare perché ci sarà utile in tante altre occasioni. Prendiamo esempio da quelle società orientali che in questa circostanza hanno dato dimostrazione di grande disciplina ed hanno ottenuto risultati di conseguenza. Ho notato con dispiacere che i giovani, che hanno più da perdere, sono spesso meno consapevoli di questo degli anziani.

10. Abbiamo avuto tempo di riflettere su noi stessi, sugli errori commessi e sui traguardi raggiunti. Soprattutto su cosa vogliamo fare con il tempo che ci resta da vivere. Sapendo, mai come oggi, che potrebbe essere molto meno lungo di quanto speriamo. Riflessioni che dovremmo fare sempre, ovvio, ma quest'anno ci siamo stati quasi obbligati. Confucio scrisse che abbiamo due vite: la seconda comincia quando ci rendiamo conto di averne solo una. Mi auguro che molti abbiano cominciato la propria seconda vita nel corso del 2020.

11. Abbiamo scoperto tanta tecnologia che ci ha permesso di attutire l'urto della pandemia e che continueremo ad usare dopo di essa. Abbiamo inquinato di meno lavorando da casa e comprando online. Ci si può spostare di meno: meno traffico, meno inquinamento, meno energia sprecata. Molti continueranno a farlo anche dopo la pandemia. Viaggeremo ancora, certo, per lavoro, per piacere e per incontrare i nostri cari, ma auspicabilmente non per comprare una cipolla oppure per andare a timbrare un cartellino in ufficio e poi stare davanti ad uno schermo uguale a quello che abbiamo a casa.

12. Per molti è stato un anno drammatico sul lavoro, ed è stato importante l'intervento dei governi e delle banche centrali. Ma guardiamo avanti facendo tesoro dell'esperienza del 2020. Guardiamo al lavoro non come una punizione biblica che ci è cascata addosso perché abbiamo mangiato la mela dell'albero proibito, ma come realizzazione delle nostre aspirazioni. Tanti giovani in occidente hanno tutto ma non più aspirazioni, sogni. Sognando un po', lavoreremo serenamente, a prescindere dal guadagno, e invecchieremo meglio.


Since we have all heard too many messages with insults to the poor year 2020 (but isn't it called COVID-19?) I thought I'd collect some positive thoughts on the year that is about to end. Not to minimize the troubles we went through, but to look forward with realism, optimism and determination.

1. Whoever is reading me is still alive. A good first result. Many have left us in 2020, perhaps even someone we know, some loved ones. I lost a cousin and a friend's father to Covid-19. Many others have left for an infinite number of other reasons: accidents, age, other diseases, wars, etc. We are still here.

2. We have traveled less, and this weighs heavily on those like me who live in various countries and have made travel our lifestyle. But next time we leave home our trip will have a special taste. We will enjoy it more, hopefully we will prepare it better, maybe we will remember it for longer. Perhaps we will undertake more real "travels", which change us inside, and fewer "vacations", which in the best of circumstances only provide rest.

3. We went out to eat much less frequently, but when we return to do it we will take more care to choose the restaurant, ouru dishes, and every bite, every sip of wine will taste better.

4. We could not go to the cinema, theater, or concerts. Once again, we'll go back to doing it because culture doesn't die of any virus. Next time we will be more attentive to every scene of the film, to every movement of the symphony, to every aria of the opera, to every detail of the scene.

5. We have been forced to stay at home more, but we have spent more time with our loved ones, side by side, day after day, hour after hour, as perhaps we hadn't done in a long time. If we have been careful, we will have learned to know each other better, to respect each other. We understood that being together does not just mean having common interests or having fun, but talking (and listening) to each other, looking at each other, caressing each other.

6. We have rediscovered the meaning of solidarity, or at least we should have, we had plenty of opportunities. And we should appreciate the work of those who are fighting hard to overcome the emergency. Let's not forget that when the pandemic is no longer on the front page, they will still be at the front lines.

7. We have recovered a bit of our identity, indeed our identities. I felt a little more Italian, as perhaps does not often happen to me except every four years for the world cup. And even more European. Europe has moved with some delay, but it has moved, and given how things have gone in some of the other main countries of the world such as the US and the UK, perhaps we cannot complain. And this despite the fact that the pandemic has exposed, on the one hand, the pettiness of so many polemical politicians, and on the other the lack of heavy caliber guns among the leaders of world politics.

8. We have rediscovered the value of science, even of inexact science such as medicine. The deniers, the anti-vaccine activists, those who said someone "died with COVID and not because of COVID" are, it seems to me, or perhaps I only hope, less listened to than a year ago. We also learned some rules of hygiene, common sense, which we should have always applied anyway.

9. We have understood the meaning of discipline a little better. It will do us good to keep it in mind for future reference. Let us take an example from those countries in East Asia that in this circumstance have shown great discipline and got results accordingly. I have noted with regret that our youngsters, who have got more to lose for the future, are often less aware of this than the elderly.

10. We had time to reflect on ourselves, on the mistakes we made and on the goals we achieved. Above all we have had a chance to think about what we want to do with the time we have left to live. It could be much shorter than we hope. Reflections like this we should always do, of course, but this year we were almost forced to. Confucius wrote that we have two lives: the second begins when we realize we only have one. I think I did a long while ago. I hope that many more have started their second lives in the course of 2020.

11. We have discovered so much technology that has allowed us to soften the brunt of the pandemic and that we will continue to use after it is over. We polluted less by working from home and shopping online. You can and should move less: less traffic, less pollution, less wasted energy. Many will continue to do so even after the pandemic. We will still travel, of course, for work, for pleasure and to meet our loved ones, but hopefully not to buy an onion or to go and badge in the office and then spend our day in front of a screen identical to the one we have at home.

12. For many it was a dramatic year at work, and monetary and fiscal intervention of governments and central banks was important. But let's look ahead, drawing on the experience of 2020. We should look at work not as a biblical punishment that fell upon us for eating the apple of the forbidden tree, but as the fulfillment of our aspirations. Many young people in the West have everything but aspirations, dreams. Let us dream a little more, and we will work peacefully, regardless of how much money we make, and we will grow old better.

27 July 2020

Film review: Queen of the Desert (2015) by Werner Herzog, *****


Gertrude Bell, a daughter of wealthy British parents, has no interest in the social life of the London elite. Balls, receptions and the British aristocracy bring her only boredom. She wants to study, learn and above all see the world.

Aspiring to have at least some kind of activity in her life, Gertrude decides to find freedom and move to be with her uncle, who occupies a high diplomatic position in Tehran. From Iran she moves on to Amman and Damascus, some of the main political centers in the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

So begins her lifelong adventure across the Arab world, a journey marked by danger, a passionate affair with a British officer, Henry Cadogan, and an encounter with the legendary T.E. Lawrence.

With an all-star cast, including Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Damien Lewis and James Franco, Queen of the Desert is the uplifting, inspiring and extraordinary true story of one woman who, against all odds, changed the course of history.


A gripping historical film on the life of an extraordinary woman who carved the life she wanted out of a hard world made for men.

We learn a lot about life in the latter part of the Turkish occupation of what is now Jordan and Iraq, areas where nomads roamed free without borders and ancient religions perpetuated irreconcilable conflicts.

Never seeking power she ended up making political decisions that are still relevant in the Middle East a century later. It would have been interesting if the movie had shown why she helped certain tribes rise to power through British help and not others. In the end, a successful but unhappy woman who spent most of her life alone.

04 December 2019

30 November 2019

Around Forter Castle, Glenisla, Highlands, Scotland

River Isla near Castle, this is what we learn from a local signpost: According to the legend, two giants, a husband and a wife lived in this area. The husband Cally Camb was believed to be one of the last descendants of the giant Fingal best known for building Fingal's cave in the Giant's Causeway. 

Colly Camb Lived in a cave among the boulders on the slopes of mound Blair. Because of his habit of throwing stones from the top of the hill, He was feared by local people.

On one occasion, for some reason, he flew into a rage with the inhabitants of West Mill and hurled a massive bolder after Homestead intending to demolish it.

Considering the size of the stone and the distance it was thrown it was a good shot, but fortunately, he missed. You can still see the Gled Stone where it landed by the road further down the Glenn.

We are at Glenisla, which means the valley of the river isla.

Our guide today is John, a retired politician who was also a Town Councillor for 22 years. Maybe 75 years old, designed path for walking trail around the area. he is a sociable man, who makes it a point to stress to us, as if we would be responsible for this, that he wants to be cremated and ashes dispersed from the highest point of the trail.

No animals today though yesterday we saw deer. Hunters are allowed to shoot deer, grouse, to keep their population under control.

We walk by a private cottage by the waterfront. It is securely locked up with no one home. John says it must have been there a long time, it would not get a permit today!

Walk 6.1 km in three hours. The whole Cateran Trail would be 64miles (103km) along a circular route. It can be waled in 4 to 5 days and accommodation with a hot bath and a dram of whisky is available every 12 miles or so. Maybe next time?

Cold below zero but crisp sunny day, actually feel warm after some walking to peel off layers of clothing.

Evening at home in Forter Castle with two Scottish musicians, they play the guitar and harmonica and teach us how to dance folk music.

09 June 2018

London Naked Bike Ride

Today our street saw the start of the London Naked Bike Ride, part of the World Naked Bike Ride.

People all over the world ride their bikes to draw attention to different issues, from the environment to personal freedom. I asked a few of the participants why they were doing it and the most common answer was that it was a fun thing to do.

Riders of all ages, genders, ethnic background share a day on their bikes around London.

As the London organizers put it themselves: The World Naked Bike Ride is a peaceful protest that intends to get its messages across by generating public interest. We like other road users and spectators to be pleasantly surprised and take notice. We do not behave badly!

Personally I think it is a great idea. No reason to hide a human body.

Nude bicycle riders in London


Today traditional annual nude bike rider tour of London, starting from just next to my home at County Hall.

22 May 2018

Smallest house in Britain, Conwy, Wales

Today I visited the smallest house in Britain. It was a real house, with someone living in it until it became a museum. 

The last occupant was, ironically, a very tall man!

And to finish a walk on the "dancing bridge"

The smallest house was more interesting than  Conwy castle, a dilapidated construction that seems rather neglected. The most interesting piece of information we received from our guide was that Wales hosts just 3 million people but 12 million sheep.

Road signs are in English and Cymry, a Celtic language that was wiped out by the English and now spoken by very few people.

21 May 2018

Belfast and Giants’ Causeway

As we disembark we see piles of coal at the harbor, they tell us it is still extensively used for home heating! We have a guide who is obviously a Catholic nationalist, here is a few points from his explanations during the day.

Now Northern Ireland is trying to revive the shipbuilding industry concentrating on repairs, 800 workers, used to have more than 25000. The Titanic, of course, was built here. Biggest exports from Northern Ireland are farm products, lamb cheese, and machinery.

Belfast now has 500,000+ inhabitants, 10th largest city in the in the UK. In 1888 queen Victoria gave Belfast city status.

Giant causeway, since 1996 UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one in NI. It was formed 50 million years ago by volcanic eruptions and is made up of about 40,000 stones.

According to mythology a giant from Scotland and one from Ireland were fighting. The Scottish giant bigger Irish ran back and wife.

The Vikings ruled here from the 9th to 11th century, then Anglo Saxons in 12th , build castles. Later English and Scottish domination take best land, Irish discriminated against.

1588 shipwrecks of Armada, uncharted waters on West coast of Ireland

1845 to 1852 famine 1 million died, another million migration to America
Catholics persecuted, Gaelic language prohibited during protestant reformation

Why the UK keep North Ireland after Irish independence in 1922:

- strategic reason: feel vulnerable to attack from Atlantic
- economic: 6 counties in ni richest, textile shipbuilding. At partition Northern Ireland had 80% of the island's gdp, today 9%.
- just over 50% in Ulster wanted to remain in the UK.

Unionists wanted NI to be a "protestant priority" land. In the late 1960s lots of catholic uprising, they were inspired by the American Civil rights movement, discrimination against Catholics similar to that against blacks in the USA
even segregation, created enclaves, separated by so-called peace walls still visible.

The army was sent in. In 1971 cases of internment of Catholics without trial
powers to army directed against Catholics, up to 5 years in jail without charge.

Demonstrations in Derry but the UK deployed parachute regiments
barricaded and 28 civilian shot 14 dead on bloody Sunday 1972

Belfast very divided city, conflict until 1994 the start negotiating. Good Friday agreement in 1998. But still divided, built more "peace walls" after the Good Friday agreement.

In many ways a backward country, everyone got the right to vote in local elections 1973, before that one had to be a  landowner!

Giant's Causeway at Cobh, Northern Ireland

Stop at the Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland's only Unesco WHS. Rainy day but fun to see this unusual site and waves crashing on the shore!

19 May 2018

Isle of Skye

Some consider it the most romantic island of Scotland, and maybe it is, but kind of windy and cold for that purpose today.

We take a leisurely tour of the perimeter and soak in the landscape.

Peat cutting was a major industry for centuries, was then abandoned as uneconomical but it's been resurrected by demand of peat for whisky.

The tomb of Alexander McQueen is a highlight, the fashion genius rests here.

Royal Dinner for the wedding of Harry and Meghan

Evening "Royal" ball on our chip Queen Victoria :)

16 May 2018

Stirling Castle, Scotland

Bits and pieces from our visit to Stirling Castle in Scotland.

Lucky to get (like every day!) forward seats in our bus. They are reserved for disabled tourists but there are never any and we board last so they are available! Pleasant ride to Greenock, the name means "sunny place" Forty-five thousand people, the economy developed on sugar from the Caribbean. This thanks to the 1707 union treaty, grow by trading with British colonies in America avoid French and Spanish pirates further south. 

James Watt from here Britain's oldest dry docks, now build submarine for Australia. Only 2.5% of the people now speak Gaelic.  Scotland issues its own own banknote GBP but sometimes it is not accepted abroad

We hear a story about the local kelpie, a horse/human figure that haunts the lakes of Scotland...

In the evening chat with Axel, our waiter from the Philippines. She's been on this ship for 2 years, before that 9 years on Queen Mary 2, that was her home. Once she had a serious problem with one eye lost sight. Cunard paid all treatment for two years during which he could not work. then took her back on Queen Victoria.

12 May 2018

Start of a new cruise on Queen Victoria

Again on a Cunard ship. As the saying goes, there are mostly newly weds or nearly deads. More of the latter this time, though we definitely belong to the former category.

It is drizzling and quite cold for May at about 10 degrees, hopefully it will change but this is a cruise of the British Isles after all, not the Caribbean isles.

Chat with our Polish maître D, Rafael talk we discuss how Poland has changed and my upcoming book on cold War Poland when I spent several months there.

We are lucky, we get to sit by ourselves at a large and comfortable table. On a cruise it is the safest option, better than being stuck with incompatible diners, but one misses the chance to meet now interesting people. As we did last time, when we made the acquaintance of Peter and Elisabeth. We are still in touch and plan to cruise together again soon.

29 August 2017

Film review: A United Kingdom (2016) by Amma Asante, *****


From director Amma Asante, starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Rosamund Pike and set against the breath-taking backdrops of the African savannah and period London, A United Kingdom celebrates the inspiring real-life romance of Seretse Khama, King of Bechuanaland (modern Botswana), and Ruth Williams, the London office worker he married in 1948 in the face of fierce opposition from their families and the British and South African governments.


A historical narrative of one sad page of the decline and fall of the British Empire after WW II. There are two levels to the story: a personal tale of love and a non-fiction account of the birth of a new African country.

Churchill is depicted for what he was: an anti-democratic imperialist, who would go back on his promises to try and salvage the decomposing British empire. But the prejudice of blacks against whites is displayed as well at length.

In the face of all these difficulties, it was a remarkable feat for the young leader to pull off a national reconciliation that would make Botswana a unique success story in post-colonial Africa. One of very few examples where the leaders who took over power from the colonial rulers actually improved their nation's lot and did not squander national resources for personal gain.

Highly recommended movie to understand a very special part of Africa.

05 December 2014

Gramex, Rogers Hewland's shop of records and CDs in London

With Roger at Gramex, 104 Lower Marsh, London
I am a music collector, and when I travel some of my first destination targets are the music shops I can find in various cities: mostly CDs and LPs, but also books about music and other paraphernalia. So it was a really amazing coincidence that when I moved to a city as big as London I should find one such shops, which turned out to be the best of its kind, just a few steps from my apartment.

As I walked inside, I was struck by the sight of a huge mass of CDs all over the place, but also LPs and 78rpm discs, and even cylinder recordings! The welcoming owner is Roger Hewland but the shop has been running non-stop, at different London locations, since 1906, when a certain George Russell founded the "Music Exchange" in the Islington market. The shop prospered there until 1922, when it moved to Oxford Street, and from there to Wardour Street in 1956.

On Christmas 1978 Gramex was relaunched under its current name at Wardour Street. Roger was running a book shop then, but was in love with music as much or more than with books. When Gramex went bankrupt in 1981 Roger bought the name and started anew in York Road, just next to Waterloo station, where the shop stayed until 1990. He then moved to 84 Lower Marsh and remained there until 1993. The next move took him to number 25 in the same street, where he remained until April 2014, and Gramex is now at 104 Lower Marsh. He has not had a holiday since he opened shop, and greets customers six days a week, 11am to 7pm, every week of the year. He said he will take Saturdays off when he turns 100, in about 18 years' time.

Roger Hewland's ancestors were Huguenots, protestants who fled persecution in France. Huguenots ended up in many places where protestants were accepted. I have met Huguenot descendants as far as South Africa, where they started that country's wine-making tradition. Roger's family crossed over to England in 1712. He has French, Spanish, Italian as well as English blood in his veins. He is a born and bred Londoner, you can certainly tell he is an Englishman from a mile away but he considers himself a member of the European nation. He hated the British Empire but loves the Commonwealth. He believes in the European Union and will vote accordingly when there is a referendum in a few years time. In his shop he accepts Euros as well as pound sterling.

"It's anarchy, not chaos" is one of the first things he told me. "Having all my music in random order makes you find what you did not know you wanted and trigger impulsive buying instincts in the collector. It makes perfect business sense." He also does not like shelves. Most items on sale are on tables and even boxes, but always displayed so you can see the cover. "No point showing a record spine, no one likes those, but collectors like covers." After a few months of frequenting the store, and several hundred CDs in my collection later, I agree.

Roger is a dealer, but first of all a collector. One has to be a collector before one can be a dealer in music, he says. Still today, he does not tire to repeat that the most important part of his job is not selling records, but buying them, and that is what he enjoys the most. "Good records sell themselves" he says "and customer are my staff: they help themselves to the music." Every day collectors bring in records they want to sell and Roger screens them carefully to pick those fit for sale at Gramex. 

He certainly is an experienced collector, and so are most of his clients. He bought his first record in 1948, on 20 October 1948 at 10:32am to be precise, a rainy day in London.  It was a 78rpm version of the Butterfly. He had £200, spent it all on records, does not regret it a bit, and has not stopped since. He now has over 50,000 opera 78s/LPs/CDs/cassettes/cylinders etc in his personal collection at home. He owns 27 editions of Traviata, all those he could find. Bohème and Trovatore are his favorite operas, though under pressure he would admit Beethoven's Fidelio, my favorite, is the greatest opera ever written.  

Originally the shop only dealt with classical music, but when, about twenty years ago, he asked his customers whether they wanted to add jazz, 90% said yes. And so it is jazz and classical now. Joe, a jazz musician, helps with the jazz part of the business. When a jazz collection comes in, the invaluable Joe is called to deliver his judgement! 

Customers also voted against having any music playing in the shop during business hours. So, no Domingo or Callas in the background: now the chatter and banter amongst patrons, as well as the typical London sarcasm at which Roger is a master, are the only sounds that mix with the franctic shuffling of CD cases by avid collectors. However, a headphone is available if you want to listen to a CD before you buy it.

It's more a club than a shop, Roger says. Many of his customers have become friends, and I like to think of myself as belonging to this category. When he was in the hospital for an operation a few years ago they kept the shop open for him!  People are free to use the toilet and the kitchen, where coffee an tea are complimentary. Good English tea for sure, but coffee left a bit to be desired, so I gifted Gramex with a good Italian Moka machine! One more reason because of which, if you love music, you must visit Gramex when in London.

13 March 2014

Electrician in London

Sono a Londra da una settimana e ho bisogno di un elettricista per riparare alcuni interruttori nell'appartamento in cui abito. 

Non si riesce a trovare un elettricista. Quello del costruttore che ha da poco terminato la palazzina cancella un appuntamento all'ultimo momento. 

Alla fine Anna, un'italiana che vive qui da un paio d'anni, mi manda Ken, un volontario dice lei. Non capisco bene cosa voglia dire, ma prendo un appuntamento per il giorno dopo. 

Ken viene fa il lavoro e se ne va senza volere un penny. Insisto ma mi dice che non può accettare denaro perché è in pensione e non ha più la licenza. Proprio come in Italia... Alla fine accetta una bottiglia di vino!

01 March 2014

An Italian actress in London

Celeste is a 29-yo Italian artist who has been here a couple of years. She is from Puglia and tried a career in Rome but as so often the case there were too many insurmountable obstacles for her to have a chance. So she moved to London and now works at a major theater in Soho. She has adjusted to life in London effortlessly, her English is excellent and she is quite flexible in adapting to the environment.

Their budget being limited, she and her boyfriend usually share a house or an apartment with other students or young couples. She tells me that she met many good and interesting people, but had several problems with muslim families. She has been repeatedly insulted by their men for wearing a skirt above the knee (inside her own house!). Her boyfriend has been accused of assault for having the temerity to enter the shared kitchen space while the Bangladeshi wife was already there cooking something or other.

The Bengali couple called the police who came and immediately realized the young Italian man had done nothing wrong but advised them to find another accommodation without muslim roommates as these episodes were all too common.