Saturday, 29 November 2014

Iceland

I've promised to keep some personal updates coming and it seems a nice idea to turn this blog into a kind of journal/ photo album to remind me of things in the future.  So here's a nice reminder of our Iceland trip a couple of weeks ago and some thoughts/ reflections on the place.

Iceland Trip 3/11/14 - 5/11/14


Flying Birthday Visit

I'd been to Iceland for 4 days once before, in July 2001.  I wasn't sure whether going in late autumn would be such a cunning idea, given the length of the days and what I assumed would be really bad weather.  Mind you, it had rained pretty much the whole time in July and hit a maximum of 13C AND it was Ste's birthday on 4 November and you can't really change when that falls.  He might be a queen, he's not the Queen, so doesn't get two birthdays.  So, off we went just for 2 nights, just literally to go somewhere cool (perhaps in both senses) to celebrate his 22nd.

I wanted everything to be really special, so we had valet parking (oooh get us) and then continued proceedings with free food and drink in the Manchester airport business lounge.  It was Ste's first visit to one, and one he made the most of.  I think he managed to pack away four bacon rolls, which is probably a good proportion of some poor pig's entire leg.  We flew Icelandair, which was really calm, classy and lovely.  I was surprised it was only a 2.5 hour flight, given we started a bit further north than London to start with.

Free food \o/ Free Food \o/

We arrived about 3pm to the most utterly brilliant blue skies and sunshine imaginable.  Iceland's landscape is like no other.  There are volcanoes, lava fields, the dramatic coast line, and miles and miles of unspoilt nothing.  It was spectacular to see it all so clearly.

I'd looked into packages with the various excursions I wanted to do included, but decided a hire car and doing it ourselves would be much more flexible, and more pleasant than hanging around for transfer buses etc.  So we picked up our little VW Polo and our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, which is between Keflavik airport and the capital Reykjavik, just under an hour away.  The first thing I checked was for the snowflake symbol on the tyres: yup, it has snow tyres and they were going to come in handy quite unexpectedly the following day.

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is a dream location.  It's a large man-made pool with water from the neighbouring geothermal plant, and it's surrounded by blackened lava fields.  The water comes out of the ground at absurdly high temperatures and pressures, but by the time it reaches the pool it's "only" around 39C.  That is the most delightful temperature on a day where it's 2C, as it was for us.   There's a typically beautiful Nordic glass, wood and steel complex where you get changed, can shower and eat... and then step straight into the milky blue water of the lagoon.  You can see the sun going down behind Ste and the steam coming off the water.  Heaven.

Blue Lagoon Posterboy!


People advised me on Twitter that the "in water massage" couldn't be missed, so I thought what the heck, it's his birthday and we've come all this way.  So I booked us each one, not knowing what to expect.  It's pretty much what it says on the label: you lie on a table in the water for the first part, then they transfer you to a float while they massage your head, shoulders and face.  You're wrapped in a warm towel the whole time, and when you're on your back it feels like you're in amniotic fluid.  You finish up in some kind of trance: it's an amazing, amazing experience.

Ste back in the womb

The water at the lagoon is very rich in silica and other minerals: apparently it's extremely good for people with various skin conditions.  You can scoop it up off the bottom of the pool, or there are barrels of it where you can paste it all over your face.  We of course couldn't resist the opportunity of this and had to do a double-selfie.  Look at the colour of the sky behind us: during the 3 hours we spent there it went from brilliant sunshine, through sunset into the most perfect clear night with stars visible with zero light pollution.  The Lagoon stays open until 8pm off-season and up to 11pm in the summer.

SMILE: It's Halloween!
Reykjavik

By the time we headed on to the hotel to check in the temperature was down to about -2C.   The roads are smooth, straight and easy to drive on and we checked in about 8.30pm.  We stayed at the Hilton Nordica, which I can't praise more highly.  Hiltons can be a bit [a lot] characterless and bland, but this one had some real Nordic design flair about it, including the stunning 11 storey central spiral staircase.  They upgraded us to a gorgeous junior suite too, which is always guaranteed to get me to write a nice review on Tripadvisor. Yes, I am that cheap/easy. 

Not often you feel the need to photo a hotel staircase

An added bonus for us of the Hilton for me was the unexpected surprise of finding that Reykjavik's best vegetarian restaurant is literally a minute away, across the road.  It's called Glo and serves huge, healthy, organic, delicious veggie meals in a really stylish environment.  I hate veggie restaurants that look like grotty student dives where a free helping of food poisoning comes with every meal, so this was bliss.

Even better there was a gaggle of chatty lesbians having supper, which added to the atmosphere.  Iceland is famously LGBT friendly (they had the first out lesbian PM, social democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir back in 2009) and it's worth just noting that we didn't have a moment's awkwardness checking into the hotel or at any other time in the visit.  In fact, the only time we've had any awkwardness anywhere about being a same sex couple was in a supposed trendy urban hotel in Shoreditch (the Hoxton: yeah you deserve to be named and shamed, fuck you) and in a tea rooms in North Wales where presumably if my partner had been a sheep all would have been fine.

We pottled down to the centre of Reykjavik after supper for a walk round.  Almost 2/3 of the country's 325,000 inhabitants live in and around the capital, but it feels like a small, cosy, typically Nordic town.  The houses are brightly painted, often with metal or wooden sides, it's prosperous, tidy and safe.  90% of all buildings in Iceland are heated by free, endlessly renewable geothermal power, so the air is clean.  Although the country took a real battering during the 2008 economic crisis, GDP per capita is still $50,000 and unemployment is under 4.5%.

Hallgrímskirkja. Try saying that when you're drunk.

My favourite building here is the parliament building: the AlþingiIt's the world's oldest parliament, dating back to 930, but the building it's located in looks like a British provincial town hall.  It's so wonderfully understated.  I started boring Ste about the linguistic meaning ("All" means everything, or great in old Germanic, and a "thing" is a meeting) but the sub-zero temperatures were making his eyes glaze over.  I think it was the temperature, anyway.  The Hallgrímskirkja Church towers over the capital from every angle and is a futuristic 1930s art-deco design.  It's looks all very Gotham City.  Apart from that, Reykjavik is charming enough, but to be frank it's not a reason for visiting the country.

BIRTHDAY BOY

I woke Ste up at 6.30am, which is always guaranteed to go down well.  You can see how full of beans and the joys of life he is in the photo below.  The point of the card is that it contained his surprise: "This card entitles the lucky birthday boy to a 1.5 hour Husky Ride Experience with Dog Sledding Iceland.  Begins at 10.00am on 4 November 2014. Bring gloves, a coat and a camera!"  The cuddly husky that accompanied the card is the one I photographed for the front a few weeks before and ordered from Moonpig.  We later christened him "Grauman" after the cutest, naughtiest, husky in the pack that pulled our sleigh.  He had to wear a cone when he wasn't out working, to stop him from licking his balls, which is always endearing.

It's awake! Birthday Boy :-)

The husky ride was 1.5 hours drive from the hotel, in the south of Iceland.  It was still pitch black until well past 9am, which is interesting.  One of the main arguments against Britain going onto double-summer time (i.e. being in the same time zone as almost all the rest of the EU) is that the Scots don't want it to be dark in the morning in the winter.  Iceland is far further north than Scotland, and by rights should be an hour behind us because of their geographic position.  Instead they've chosen to be in the same time zone as Britain, so that it stays lighter later in the evening.  The flipside of that is it's dark in the mornings, and they're apparently happy with this.  Today, for example, sunrise was at 10.40am in Reykjavik and sunset was at 3.52pm.  If I had the choice I'd do just the same.  Sunrise in London today would be at 8.42am and sunset at 4.56pm, if we did the same thing Iceland does.

Husky Ride

So after a nice long hotel breakfast we drove off, in the dark, and arrived at the isolated farm where the huskies spend their time when they're not up on a glacier for the summer season, or on lower snow covered land in the winter.  This meant it was a ride on a sleigh with wheels, over dry land.  It was pretty much the same experience (particularly the "cold factor" given the 1C temperature and rain) and we had 8 dogs pulling us.  Working in those temperatures for them is apparently the equivalent of us running a half marathon in the tropics: they can't be pushed too hard as it really is warm for them.

Husky Ride!

They're technically Greenlandic Dogs, rather than Siberian Huskies.  Each can pull up to 200kg on their own, so they made light weight of us, even despite breakfast and Ste's bacon rolls the day before.  We were seated and the lovely musher stood behind us and talked to us throughout about the dogs.  Here's a short video of the part of the proceedings!  At the end we got to meet all the dogs in person, including one who had been the star of David Guetta/ Sia's mesmerising She Wolf video, filmed in Iceland. Apparently she's all full of herself now she's a movie star.  Below is real life Grauman back in his run.  Bless him: he was SO happy pulling the sleigh, and so miserable when he had his cone put back on his head.

Poor Licky Balls :(
Doing dog-related is bound to make Ste incredibly happy, and I think he thought the day's treats were over after we'd given the huskies cuddles.  Instead I told him to get in the car as we had more places to visit.

Geysir

We left the south coast behind as the rain really set in late morning.  It was around 1.5 hours to our next stop, which was north and a lot higher geographically.  I hadn't really thought that it would snow, but all of a sudden the rain changed to sleet, then a few kilometres on to thick white snowflakes.  The roads are untreated, and this would cause utter chaos back home.

Winter Wonderland

Everyone is driving on winter tyres though (including us, remember?!) and I was amazed at how the little Volkswagen handled with them.  Going up hills or around roundabouts, all through fresh snow, proved to be no issue whatsoever. The scenery became beyond beautiful, especially with the snow.  It was even better than I'd remembered it from my trip before in 2001.

We stopped for lunch at Geysir, which gives its name to all geysers in English - it was the first hot water spring of this type known to Europeans.  I was really impressed there was no entry charge to pay: you just park and wander up freely.  It's actually a collection of springs and sulphorous pools bubbling out of the ground, with Strokkur doing all the money-shot work, as Geysir himself has temporarily stopped blowing water.  Apparently he will start up again after the next earthquake in the area. 
I

In the meantime Ste decided to play with his little geezer in the car park, which I thought made quite a charming pic.  The geysir "blows" about every 5-8 minutes and there's always a massive "ooooh" from the assembled crowd, followed by a "did you get it?".  The snowy sky doesn't do the scene justice: if you are here on a sunny day the photographs are absolutely stunning.  That said, do click here on this link to me videoing the whole thing with Ste's obligatory "did you get it?" at the end.

That guy is smoking!
Gullfoss Waterfall

From Geysir it's only around half an hour to Gullfoss, the next surprise on the trip: Iceland's Golden Waterfall.  It's the largest in Europe and apparently more impressive than Niagra.  It's a three-staged staircase that ends up in a 100 foot drop and was magnificent in summer.  In winter we just stood entranced for ages (well, between selfies anyway).  I feel this is worthy of several photos for the album, so here we go:

The main "Staircase". Look at the cold in my eyes!


To get an idea of scale, those are two people on the right

Double Selfie. No he isn't far taller than me. He's on a rock.

Our trusty little Volkswagen Polo hire car.

Afternoon Tea

It was now late afternoon, so we drove back through the Þingvellir National Park the 2.5 hours or so to Reykjavik for Ste's last birthday treat.  The whole way beautiful view after beautiful view greeted us.  It stopped snowing, the sun came out and then dusk arrived.  We got back, had a hot shower, and then it was time for Icelandic Afternoon Tea at the Hilton.

We do love a good afternoon tea!

I obviously had the veggie version, but we're not convinced that Ste didn't have both reindeer and puffin for his.  I particularly love the way Ste is mainly vegetarian when I'm not around, and then sensitively eats anything that breathes when I'm present. And SORRY KIDS, if Father Christmas doesn't make it this year with all your presents you'll know why.  Ste ate Rudolph.

Bye bye Rudolph, Donner and Blitzen

With that it was time to snuggle up in the world's most comfortable hotel bed, watching TV, and getting an early night for our 8am flight back to Manchester the following day.  Ste gave me the most incredibly perfect birthday in Beijing in April, so I did my best to return the favour.

Iceland, EEA and Schengen

After we returned the car and checked in at the airport, I mused how irritating it was that we had to go to a separate section of the airport reserved for US and UK flights.  Yes, Iceland is in Schengen and has signed up to the EU free movement of people as part of its membership of the EEA.  Anyone from within the EU can live and work here and claim its no doubt extremely generous social benefits if people were driven to do such things (they aren't). 

I thought about all those things you hear about Britain being a special case (We're an island! Our space is limited and our resources would be put under unbearable strain! They would all come pouring over to take advantage of our benefits!) would seem to apply far more so to a socially minded country like Iceland with just 325,000 inhabitants. Yet you can take a flight from Warsaw or Budapest to Reykjavik with no passport check and there's no equivalent of entering Fortress Britain.  In fact Iceland relies hugely on immigration to get the skills it requires and has no issue about the passportless European free travel zone that Schengen represents.

2014: A Year for Travel

This year was a phenomenal one for me with foreign travel.  I keep a little record of where I've been to each year and a grand total (currently 65 countries visited ever).  A "good year" averages about 14 countries a year for me.  Three times I've been to 17 countries in a single year.  2014 was a new record: from China to New Zealand to Iceland to Australia to all round Europe, I visited 22 countries this year.

World Domination Plans continue..  65 countries and counting!

It was the year in which I visited the land of the red earth, and the land of ice.  And on that note I'll leave these two beautiful images of similarly sized massive lumps of rock that sum up my 2014 travels for me.  The first photo was at Ayer's Rock (Uluru) in Australia in February.  It was 40C.  The second was at the Þingvellir National Park in Iceland in November.  It was -2C.  What a contrast.  The world holds so many treasures: here's to much more exploration in the coming years!

Fire

Ice

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

It's Been Fun

I deleted my Twitter account a couple of weeks ago to take a break and think about whether I still wanted to engage in social media.  The immediate trigger for that was someone I thought was an actual friend deliberately being a nasty jerk to me online (subtweeting about my search for a new puppy after losing my dog Oscar, no less...), but I've taken a step back and thought about the bigger picture.

I've had some wonderful times on Twitter and with blogging over the last five years or so.  I've seen Twitter grow from a tiny community where everyone seemed to know each other into a much broader and more popular way of communicating.  In some ways that's a great thing: it's supposed to be about the free flow of ideas, chatting to people in all fields of life that you might not ordinarily have access to, and broadening your horizons.  I've met up with about 200 people from Twitter in real life and developed some lovely friendships.  I've even met the boyfriend of my dreams on here, and in Spring we'll be celebrating three years together.  Somehow I've picked up just shy of 5000 followers, even though I really don't have that much of substance to tweet about.

However, I've noticed that Twitter has also lost much of its innocence over the years.  It's become a place where there's a lot of abuse and nastiness just because people "can".  I remember the shock of this type of thing happening the first time and how it sent ripples of upset through the community I knew online.  Now we've become numbed to it: people throw out threats, abuse, hatred, take it onto themselves to language/thought police strangers, and argue endlessly for absolutely no constructive purpose whatsoever.  It's only the very worst stuff that gets any attention.  The constant low-level criticism, judgmentalism and fractious abusive sniping doesn't even register any more.   It may be amplified for me because of the "curse of the 2000 followers" that people talk about: your tweets get retweeted outside your familiar circle much more widely above this level, and it invites people who don't know you to kick off aggressive arguments and attacks.  Whatever the reason, I'm experiencing it more and more.  I just don't come online to receive abuse from strangers; and even if you block them straight off, a bit of a bitter taste remains.

As an example of this, two weeks ago I had a serious of four anonymous trolling comments on this blog, apropos nothing, calling me a "fucking sodomite", an "anti-white bigoted cunt", a "Muslim lover", telling me to go back to my "London shit-hole and die of AIDS surrounded by my immigrant chums" and calling me "a Euro-loving, bum-banging, left-wing, immigrant-loving, shirt-lifting cunt".  It contained a number of threats and ended by wishing that a Muslim cut "my fucking head off".  This was from someone purporting to live in my sleepy little home village in Suffolk, which I seriously doubt.  The funny thing is of course I'm pretty middle of the road politically, and hardly a raving Marxist.  God knows what type of abuse those we tweet or blog regularly on political matters attract.  In one respect it's all completely laughable, but on another it's not exactly pleasant to receive on a Saturday morning, even if I know it shouldn't be taken seriously, and it's just a keyboard warrior wanking him or herself into a frenzy.  I'd like to say this was an isolated example, but it's not: it's happened before, and it will happen again. 

I am also capable of putting it into context and know that the nastiness online is less than 1% of all the interactions I have.  This blog has had over 640,000 views since I set it up in January 2011 with my first piece, which was a eulogy to my then recently deceased grandmother.  That's an average of about 5000 readers per post of my 135 articles, which is staggering.  So many people have commented kindly on my thoughts and writing, and I've loved the positive feedback.  It genuinely makes me happy that people want to read what I have to say, and that they want to share it with others. 

On the other hand, it is the 1% that sticks in your mind, even if it shouldn't.  I'm so blessed to have a pretty wonderful "real" life.   I have a beautiful home, travel huge amounts, have a lovely family, good friends, am materially well-off and in great health, our work project to build a gorgeous luxury farm spa retreat is progressing beautifully.  I have a boyfriend I adore and we're about to finally get a new collie puppy together, which just fills me with excitement and happiness.

All that being the case, I have to ask myself why I should let my "real life" be polluted by the online nastiness, the homophobic abuse, and the judgements of others, none of which I would otherwise ever experience offline.  I'd simply never put up with this to my face from friends, family, colleagues or strangers -  so I've started querying why I should voluntarily allow notifications to flash up on my phone with this thing.  Another aspect is that although I'm not the one sending this stuff, I do feel it is my responsibility if I allow it to continue.  If it's bothering me, I should move away from the harm.  And if I conduct a simple cost/benefit analysis of my whole online experience, I'm afraid the costs now outweigh the benefits for me. 

Therefore, it's time to close up shop and delete my account for good.  I'll let the minority of unpleasant people I've come across stew in their own unhappiness and unpleasantness.  I just don't want or need to be part of it.  I know others feel very differently about Twitter and I hope you go on enjoying it as much as I once did.  I really like and care about many of you who be reading this.  I'm sorry if you'll miss me, and I'm sure I'll miss you too.

As for my blog, there's little point in continuing to blog on a regular basis, as my posts won't ever get the readership they did before without a platform to promote them.  That said, I'd like this to be farewell, but not goodbye - so I will be writing the odd personal blog post from time to time if anyone is interested, with updates on the farm project, pictures of the puppy, and photos of our various adventures abroad (For a start, Ste is meeting my entire German family just before Christmas for the first time.  The only German he knows is what I taught him, namely: when you sneeze and someone says "Gesundheit", you answer "Kartoffelsalat".  That might not be entirely correct, so this could be interesting).   You're more than welcome to drop by here and have a look.  I've disabled anonymous comments though, as that's one thing I definitely won't miss. 

Thanks to anyone who's ever interacted with me pleasantly on Twitter, who's amused or cheered me up, taught me something new, or who I've got to know well enough to have considered an online friend.

And as ever, thanks for reading my blog.

Macht's gut!

Peter

[Insert suitably cheesy smiling pic]









Saturday, 25 October 2014

EU Budget

The right wing press is having a field day.  The papers are full of headlines such as "One Step Nearer to the EU Exit", "Britain closer to quitting EU", "Cameron defies wealth tax" etc.  The language of the press is one of war.  War against our closest neighbours and most important trading partners.  Our prime minister banged his hand down on the table, went red and puffy in the face and spoke of his anger and said "I'm not going to pay that bill!"  Certain backbench Tories screamed that the demand was "illegal" and he was told to ignore it.

Judging by Twitter, Europhiles are left wringing their hands in despair, almost giving up the fight.  This is a gift for the Eurosceptics, must be an inside job by a UKIPer at Brussels, total idiocy by the EU, makes it hard to defend them etc.  Certainly a chunk of Labour is seeking to out Tory the Tories, as they have done on immigration, by rushing to get behind the populist call to stop Brussels in its latest outrage.  Let's just turn the pan off boil for a moment and look at all this a bit more dispassionately.


PM "goes to war"

We're being Singled Out

The first general reaction yesterday seemed to be that Britain was being singled out by "Brussels" by arbitrarily having a bill slapped on it to pay a great deal of money in a completely unreasonable space of time.  People were asking if this was deliberate spite by Brussels, or whether it was designed to push us out.  In total it was, perhaps predictably, a typically UK centric reaction.  It is of course the one that's being carried through in the tabloids. 

I looked at the story and asked myself whether any one else had been given a similar demand.   It turns out that 11 of the 28 member states have in fact been asked to pay more.  So clearly it's not just us.

Our figure, €2.1 billion, is however far larger than any other country's.  Except the British economy and population is far larger than say the Netherlands': we have 64 million inhabitants, they have 16 million people.  So I took the figures that were being reported and did a 3 second calculation.  We are being asked for €2.1 billion extra; the Netherlands are being asked for €642 million (I had to go to the Dutch press for that as the reaction was so uniquely UK-centric at first).

So that's a demand of €32 per person for the year from every Briton and one of... oh, 20% more than that, or €38 per person, from every Dutch person.


Suddenly it's becoming a bit tricky to see this as a hate campaign directed solely at Perfidious Albion, masterminded by a garlic munching Frenchman and a beer-swilling German, over a waffle in a side street Belgian café, determined to get their revenge for our success at Empire and the War.

It's "Brussels' Fault"

Some people talk about Brussels as if it is some huge amorphous blob made up of foreigner bureaucrats that is designed solely to make our lives miserable.   It is all imposed on us from abroad, with no democratic input whatsoever.  They seem oblivious to the fact that all the important decision making, the really key stuff, is made by a body called the European Council.

Who is the European Council made up of?  It's the heads of state or government of the national states.  Yep: it's David Cameron for the United Kingdom.  It's a tiny body: 28 people for each one of the member states, plus the Council president and the Commission president.  This isn't thousands of foreign civil servants.  It's our democratically elected national leaders setting out the political agenda and workings of the EU. 

The Council determines how the EU works, by creating and amending treaties, and by making decisions.  One of those decisions was made back in 2007 and it was unanimously adopted.  It wasn't anything sexy or exciting: it concerned the method for calculating the annual EU budget, and in particular the dreary way statistics are calculated.  Once the rule is made, it's then over to the hordes of bureaucrats at the Commission, Eurostat and other EU bodies.  Remember every one of these bodies was set up as a result of the decisions of the democratically elected national leaders, to carry out their will.

Don't like the rules?  Blame our leaders, who created them.  It's not the fault of people whose job it is to carry the rules as they have been instructed to.  If they're doing their job poorly they deserve criticism, but if they are applying the rules as they are supposed to, it is hard to blame "Brussels".  Unless you're a complete idiot, of course.


(Picture in no way linked to preceding sentence)

Why the Demand?

Britain has been consistently reporting too low values for our Gross National Income over the last years.  Hence there has been a large adjustments upwards.  It's that simple.  We weren't happy with the way the statistics were calculated by everyone, wanted the system to be fairer, and have now found out we've been underpaying. 

The reason the story has hit the news is that the FT published a leaked draft report on the statistics.  You can read here in detail why the report says what it does, but here it is in essence:
  • In May of every year the EU Commission is required to meet with representatives of each state to estimate what their Gross National Income will be for the coming year.  
  • Every autumn they meet again to see if there are any revisions to the numbers.  This is a purely mathematical revision.
  • It enables the Commission to set the revised figures in stone on 1 December of each year, as it is required to do.
This year, the difference was that because Heads of Government insisted on it, the statistics provided in May were calculated on a different basis.  The aim was to make sure each country calculates its statistics in exactly the same way, to ensure what everyone pays is fair and above board.  It's not a bad principle.  The calculations used 1995 as a benchmark year.

Patrizio Fiorilli is the spokesman for the EU budget commissioner.  He commented "The timing is far from ideal, but there are rules we have to follow."   As for using 1995 as the benchmark year for calculating the impact of GNI figures: “Member states including Britain insisted on this. It is their decision,” he said.

This is a one-off large scale revision: in the UK's case it actually relates to 11 years of underpayment that works out to £155 million a year on average.  It is a historic correction, not an ongoing demand for massive new contributions as many no doubt think.  The Commission confirmed this yesterday: "With all these issues now cleared, future such corrections will again be rather minor, as they were in recent years."

Addendum: What hope is there when the national broadcaster wrongly claims as it did in this report, that it is an annual additional £1.7 billion that has to be paid?  (They've since corrected it):


The Financial Times by contrast described the £155 million figure as "a sum that would barely deserve a footnote in the annual UK national accounts.

The 1 December deadline

The Commission hasn't plucked this date from the air either.  It is the date that is set out in the rules that are followed every year, as described above.   Apparently the PM found out about the issue on Thursday.  The government admits the Chancellor knew on 21 October, but didn't tell the PM until 23 October.  If this is such a massive issue (more on that below) you'd think George would have texted Dave and warned him WW3 was about to break out.  Maybe he didn't have his mobile number.  In turn, the Commission confirmed member countries were told of the revisions on 17 October.  You'd assume someone would have sent an email off to the Chancellor a bit faster than all that.

Our representatives in all this, the people on the ground, are employees of the Treasury.  A good question was whether they realised that there would be a large revision, or whether it was sprung on them.  They are the ones who prepared the statistics for the meeting in May.  It seems a little unlikely that someone didn't notice the massive difference in the GNI figures that led to the €2bn recalculation.

HM Treasury.  George's patch
Labour’s new shadow Europe minister, Pat McFadden, said last night that he had found evidence that ministers must have been aware of the upcoming changes five months ago when they were sent an Office for National Statistics report which stated that growth figures would be used in a recalculation of Britain’s contribution to the EU budget.

Did the Government delay making news public about this expected revision to the UK’s EU contribution because of fears about how it would play out for the Conservative party?” he asked.  Never!  Our PM would never allow a paralysing fear of UKIP to affect something as important as this just because of his party interests.  Surely.

Turning the Tables

The Prime Minister has ruled out paying the €2.1 billion on 1 December.  He hasn't ruled out paying it entirely on a different date.  He really can't: he is part of the club that has agreed the way all this works.  It's not up for him to argue that rules should be bent: a constant criticism of others is that they don't stick to the agreed rules and should do so.  It is also interesting to imagine a situation where it transpired the UK had been overpaying, rather then underpaying.  I can't imagine we'd be throwing our toys out of the pram if that were the case. 

It's the exact position Germany and France are in, for example.  They have been overpaying for years and are entitled to a reduction on that basis.  I don't see why they should agree to give up that refund of money, in the same way we never would.  In terms of the bigger picture, Germany contributes more to the EU budget than the 19 smallest states do combined.  They contribute not that far off double what the UK does.

It might seem instinctively "cruel" or "perverse" that Greece is being included in the countries that is being required to make an increased payment this year given its economic situation.  But hold on one moment: it is being requested to pay an adjustment of €89.4 million.  That is, with respect, chicken-feed in terms of a national budget, even a country like Greece that has been ravaged by the inhuman policies of austerity.  The fact they are being asked for the payment reflects solely the fact that they have been underpaying previously and there is a fair, objective application of the rules across the board.


Another important thing to note is the stat contained in the bottom right hand of the above table.  This isn't the EU conducting a "cash-grab" as has been suggested.  The budget will actually be €419 million shorter on revenues than had been expected as a result of the application of the rules.  Was it the Prime Minister or was it Farage (I genuinely forget) who excitedly said "This isn't fair, they weren't expecting this extra money!" - the fact is they are going to be working off less money, not more next year. 

Sex and Drugs

Some people in my timeline got terribly excited about the fact that our "black economy" was being included in the statistical calculations for the first time, and that this could be responsible for the increased payment.

It is correct that our GDP was given a £10 billion boost after officials worked out that paid sex work represented £5.3 billion for the economy.  In other EU countries such as Germany and Netherlands such work is legal and taxed, and has therefore been included in the statistics for years.  It is therefore fair (as the national leaders agreed) that everything should be calculated on the same basis.  Another £4.4 billion was added from the sale of illegal drugs.  However, our economy is worth $2,900 billion.  These figures represent under 1% of GDP and are hardly responsible for most or all of the €2.1 billion repayment figure.

Still, a headline of "Sex work and drugs lift EU bill" gets the clicks, I guess.

Huge Numbers

It's so hard for us mere mortals to understand numbers involving multiple rows of zeros on the end.  What does a million anything look like?  A billion?  A trillion?  We can only go on the outrage that politicians express and if they sound terribly cross, assume this must be a massive thing.  €2.1 billion sounds like a huge deal anyhow.  Will we ever be able to afford it?



It is undoubtedly a lot of money.  Just three days ago, however, it became clear that government borrowing was 10% higher than a year ago.  Its spending last month was £11.8 billion.  That's in one month.  The overshoot in spending was - wait for it - £1.6 billion higher (€2.03 billion) in that single month than it had been in September 2013.  The Tories' careful management of the economy involved an overspend that was a full £1 billion over the expectations of the City.

This sparked ABSOLUTE OUTRAGE.  TALK OF WAR.  CAMERON BANGING TABLES.  RIOTS IN THE STREETS.  WITHDRAWAL FROM EVERYTHING.  Oh. Actually, there was a story in the Guardian and one in the economics section of the Telegraph and everyone just carried on.

It's clear that utter double standards apply, and people just aren't applying critical faculties to this.  The EU payment is a one-off, correcting possibly twenty years of underpayment by us, which was because of the statistics we supplied.  It is in accordance with the rules we insisted on.  The Government is slashing spending left right and centre, quite deliberately taking away payments from the long term disabled, and yet they are overspending to the tune of £1.6 billion in a single month.  Hardly an eye brow is raised.

Where are the howls of outrage on the front page of the Mail or the Express over this?  The simple fact is that the howls in the EU case come from the fact that Johnny Foreigner is seen as making the "unfair" demand, and nothing sells as well as xenophobia in today's toxic Britain.

EU Myths and Lies

Whilst we're on the subject of myths let's get something straight about EU spending.  It is not going on an army of fraudulent, lazy bureaucrats in Brussels, and it does not represent a mountain of gold.

The EU budget was €144 billion in total in 2013.  The member states' national budgets were €6,400 billion by contrast.  It stands at around 1% of the 28 EU countries' GDP, whereas the budgets of national governments represent 49% of their GDP on average.  The EU budget is always balanced, so there is no deficit or debt - unlike with national governments.

94% of what we pay into the EU comes back on expenditure in EU countries on policies and programmes that directly benefit people who live in the EU.  That includes to you and me on all sorts of programmes, regional spending etc - £5.2 billion in the United Kingdom every year.  6% goes on administration.  Less than 0.2% of EU spending goes on fraud.

On top of everything the UK still gets an annual rebate on its payments: a legacy of Mrs Thatcher that is worth over €3 billion a year to us.  That's pure special treatment for Britain.


The Commission estimates that in 2013 the average EU citizen paid only €0,89 a day (£0.70) towards the EU budget.  It points out that's less than half the price of a cup of coffee.  It genuinely is hardly very expensive given the benefits that the EU brings its citizens.  The CBI puts the value of UK membership of the EU at between £62bn and £78bn a year in extra trade and intangible benefits.  This means jobs and income for ordinary people.  €8.6 billion in and over £60 billion back out?  That seems a pretty darn good deal to me.

Final Word: over to Carl

So there we have it.  In summary, we asked for these rules.  We've been paying too little for years.   The chutzpah of David Cameron is amazing.  He truly is a showman: he's successfully convincing people in this country that the EU really is a conspiracy that has unfairly singled out Britain (and pretty much Britain alone) to stump up loads of cash unfairly.  This hasn't been known for months: oh no, it's just come to light.  And it's a massive, massive amount of money with loads and loads of zeros (unlike the amount his chancellor and best mate is overspending on literally a monthly basis) that we can't and won't pay.  And Europhiles and Labour supporters are falling hook line and sinker for this utter tosh.

I have no idea who Carl Hornsey is, but this was retweeted into my timeline.  He puts it all much more succinctly than I do.  I like his style.









Sunday, 19 October 2014

Carry On Rome

The Lord Giveth

What a week it's been in the Carry On Rome series.  In case, you missed it, an interim draft report on the family came out earlier this week from a Synod of over 200 Roman Catholic Bishops.

This document included some "liberal", "inclusive" language on gay people.  It was only a working draft report for a fuller synod next year, but it was enough for people to speak of an "earthquake" in Rome.   In some respects, an earthquake it was; this move was pretty much unthinkable under John Paul II or the arch-conservative Benedict XVI.  The Catholic Bishops' work certainly got some great responses online from the more excitable faithful:


However, if you're not wrapped up in a bubble of Catholic belief, and aren't entirely sure whether Our Lady of Fatima is referring to:
  • A) the former Olympic British javelin thrower; or 
  • B) the ghostly apparition of a 2000 year old dead Jewish woman, who apparently appeared to some Portuguese shepherd children in 1917
Then this requires further examination.

By any normal, non-Church standards the language in the interim church shouldn't have got you praying.  The most positive thing it said was that homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community.  Wow, we're human beings who have qualities.  Groundbreaking.  It then posed the question whether the Church was capable of welcoming "these people" into the Church and described us as an "important educative challenge".  Having given these crumbs and posed a question, it went on to affirm that "unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman" and spoke about the "moral problems connected to homosexual unions".

So, the above words, which said our unions are second class and mentioned their moral problems, was heralded as a ground-breaking, liberal, welcoming document that threatened schism within the Church.  Guys, this isn't actually exactly the Pope coming out on stage wearing a rainbow tutu accompanied by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.  Srsly.

And the Lord Taketh Away

But then even the crumbs were scraped back.  This was because of a vocal backlash amongst conservative bishops.  Watered down language was instead proposed that removed the revolutionary statement that we have gifts and qualities to offer.   As the new version really didn't "give" gay people anything that wasn't already the case, it's extraordinary that 62 bishops are so deeply homophobic they felt the need to vote against it.   It therefore failed the 2/3 majority required and a new, third draft was created.  The "welcoming" language was thus entirely removed and we are left instead with a document that states:
There is no basis whatsoever to assimilate or to draw even remote analogies between same-sex unions and the plan of God for marriage and family.
So my steady, loving, same-sex relationship may not have any even remote analogies drawn between it and a marriage.  It does not constitute a family in the eyes of Rome - nor do those of countless same-sex couples across the world, many of whom are bringing up children, very happily and very successfully.

Justified Discrimination

Amazingly, in the same breath, and without seeing any contradiction at all, the document then goes on to say we must be accepted with respect and sensitivity, and every sign of unjust discrimination should be avoided.

I love the insertion of the word "unjust".  The Bishops are at least not so blind that they realise that actively encouraging over a billion of their faithful to treat us as less than everyone else does indeed constitute discrimination.  It's just they think it's okay, and is what their god wants.  It's the kind of statement a die-hard supporter of Apartheid might have said.  Shutting out black people from opportunity and civic life by means of racial discrimination was legal, and in their minds entirely justified.  As long as it was done with sensitivity, no problem at all.

Let's then throw in U.S. Cardinal Burke's comments during the Synod that a couple should keep their grandchildren away from their gay son or daughter at Christmas.  That "moral dilemma" was, he said, "made more delicate by the aggressiveness of the homosexual agenda".  Because, as any reasonable person knows, expecting to be welcomed by your own flesh and blood at Christmas is highly aggressive, and just the type of militant thing we homosexuals so unreasonably demand. 

A time of goodwill to all mankind. Unless they're LGBT.
If you'd like to read the exact texts of the draft report as proposed, and as passed, here's a link.  With typical English understatement, the Catholic commentator Damian Thompson put it like this:


The Catechism

None of this should of course be unsurprising if you're familiar with the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was put together in the 1990s by the later Pope Benedict XVI.  It's remarkably recent.  Everything you need to know is there in 2357 and 2358, just below the stuff on incest and rape.  It states that homosexual acts are acts of grave depravity, contrary to natural law and intrinsically disordered.   It says under no circumstances can they be approved of.  We who have "deep-seated homosexual tendencies" have an inclination which is objectively disordered.  It apparently constitutes "a trial" for most of us and is a "condition" the psychological genesis of which remains largely unexplained.  The only way to deal with this trial is celibacy.

As this Catholic priest and psychotherapist comments, "any effort by a gay person to reach out for human sexual love, no matter what the circumstances, is judged as evil.  The Vatican says that "if gay people enter into a human sexual love relation they know evil and will separate themselves from the love of God."  If this isn't religious extremism, I'm not sure what is.  The priest concerned calls the Catechism the worst document issued from the Church since it declared in 1866 that "slavery itself.. is not all contrary to the divine and natural law."

Not just gay Catholics, but all gay men and women around the world are dealt with in this way, in a few lines, following on from the subject of rape.  A nice question mark is vaguely, but entirely deliberately cast over our mental health.  Of course pretty much every reputable psychological association around the world has concluded from actual empirical evidence that homosexuality does not imply psychological disorder, but that didn't stop Benedict.  Having thrown this slur out there, the text then goes on, just as is the Synod discussion paper, to say we should of course be treated with respect, compassion and sensitivity, blah blah.

I should like to remain charitable, but I'm struggling.  In both instances there is a massive inherent contradiction: you cannot say we should be treated with respect and sensitivity, when you also systematically state we are worth less than you, that our relationships can in no way be placed on a par with yours, that we have a psychological condition, and that if we have sex with our partners we know evil and cut ourselves off from the love of the god that you're so keen on.  

I just can't don't see how you square a belief in the Catechism or that Synod draft and saying these things to my face, with at the same time being sensitive, compassionate and respectful to me.  You can't.  It's like sensitively inviting a vegetarian along to watch the slaughter of a pig followed by compassionately and respectfully offering them a nice gammon steak. 

We, the Disordered

Oh, but try they do.  A couple of Catholics have tried to explain to me that I shouldn't be offended in the slightest by any of this.  No, no, the words "objectively disordered" is just technical language that carries a special meaning in this context.  It simply means that when gay people have sex they are deprived of "god's gift" of creating a child.  According to Rome, only sex acts which can result in babies are natural: everything else is by definition disordered in the sense that you don't reproduce as a result.

I must therefore, I am patronisingly told by a heterosexual Catholic on Twitter, feel a personal loss that when I make love to my boyfriend because he can't get pregnant as a result.  Except I don't.  Not for one moment.

Not on the top of my shopping list. No, really.

What is lacking here (apart from any sensitivity, compassion or respect) is any understanding that people's moral beliefs and indeed their desires in life differ.  I am not a Catholic.  I am not a Christian.  I do not believe in a magical being who dictates, 2000 years after his son allegedly rose from the dead, through an elderly celibate German man sitting in Rome, what I should or should not do in bed with the man I love.

As positive as some aspects of Christian faith have undoubtedly been during history, I personally find belief in a god as a superstitious, somewhat ridiculous and unfathomable thing.  I don't think sex is about having as many babies as you possibly can.   Like me, millions disagree with the idea that sex is purely for reproduction, and it's extraordinarily arrogant to think only you possess the absolute moral truth, because the institution you belong to has spoon-fed you that "truth".  But that's the Catholic Church in a nutshell, I guess.

What I do feel is a rising amount of anger at trying to twist the meaning of words which have a very normal, natural definition.  You cannot expect to throw terms like "act of grave depravity" and "objectively disordered" at an individual about their life and not expect them to be irritated and offended.   The special Catholic meaning of the words is just not the way I or any reasonable bystander will interpret them.  Let's look at that term "disordered":


It is a little naïve to suppose that anyone outside the narrow little world of strict Catholic belief will not give the meaning "dysfunctional, disturbed, unsound, sick or diseased" to the term.  Looking at the specific context in the Catechism, and the fact this expression follows on from "act of grave depravity" I see absolutely no reason to believe Benedict did not intend the natural, offensive meaning in any case.  The other favourite trick is to say "oh YOU are not disordered/depraved"; it's just what you do that is depraved.  Because that's far better and far less insulting to me, obviously.

The same Catholic went on to describe my love making with my boyfriend as "using him as a sex-toy" for "masturbatory purposes".   He was hardly helping his case of coming across as sensitive and respectful by doing that.  Throw in a later comment from him that "a man who contracepts is using his wife as a sex aid" and 95% people are going to think him a sexist pig, as well as a homophobic idiot.

This is all from a man who claims he is fighting the "REAL" homophobes within the Church.  He says his god's love is limitless (and presumably extends to me if I torture myself by not being in a loving relationship for the rest of my life).  I'm afraid I ended up telling him to fuck off.  I further expressed the wish that said fuck resulted up in a nice baby, because that is all that he is reducing the sex act to.  Shucks, it takes the patience of a saint to deal with these people online.  I failed.  I gather from what he's saying to me it's a career choice which is probably ruled out to me now, anyhow.

Someone else had reserved my name anyway

Joking aside, the actual disorder here is in fact plain for me to see: it's the brainwashing abilities of the Catholic Church which are capable of convincing someone he is being a reasonable compassionate person, whilst spewing this bile to a non-Catholic, who has repeatedly asked him to stop it.  Why should I have to put up with this?  It's hate speech and it's absolute poison.

Why Does It Matter?

If you're therefore wondering why it should matter to me what Rome has decided to do this week, I should have thought it actually rather obvious.  The Churches collectively still wield a massive amount of influence.  Look for example at the way the Tories fell over themselves to give quadruple locks to Christian Churches to allow them to exclude us and discriminate against us legally on equal marriage.  That's in this country, which by large, is not a religious one at all.  Still the Churches are given enormous special treatment and "belief" is still accorded an official respect in our society which I find baffling.

The attitudes of the Church, particularly on human morality, have determined to a large extent what people thought privately for the last two millennia.  I can think of no other institutional driver of  homophobia (past and present) than the Christian Churches.  This homophobic legacy has a very real effect today.  Ours is a country where in 2013 you still can have your life torn to pieces for holding your boyfriend's hand in public.  Read that link, please, and consider the effect of these dehumanising, degrading words by such a powerful institution as the Church.  It's a country where this week a gay couple was thrown off a London bus after the homophobic driver told them they weren't real men and to fuck off.   Sad to say, but without knowing a single thing more about it, my money is instantly on it being more likely than not that "Jesus" was involved in that story in some way.

Many British Christians appear to love screaming that they are being persecuted.  They have zero idea of what it is to like to be shouted at, thrown out of a store or to be fearful for their loved one walking down a street.  They have no idea what it feels like to hear the language of violence and hate being spoken in school playgrounds from the youngest age.   They have no idea of the fear that gay teenagers feel that they may be rejected by their parents for simply being themselves: the most unnatural act of all.  They have no idea what it feels like to be bullied.  They have no idea what it feels like to have be told on Twitter their relationship is worth less than everyone else's by a person who doesn't even know them. 

Inside and outside the UK, the Vatican contributes to making the lives of LGBT people utter misery.  The Church, if it cared about the well-being and dignity of all people, should be screaming from the rooftops about the injustices we face.  Instead they remain at its vanguard, perpetuating the hatred and poison in 2014 with their words and acts.  Millions of ordinary people, thoroughly decent souls who actually make up the Catholic Church, disagree with the stance of the bishops: that's part of the background of why this Synod was called.  That's a truly wonderful thing - but look at the result.  Despite a Pope who has achieved some remarkable things, Rome has moved one step forward and two steps back.

1 Corinthians 13

I've genuinely no desire to pollute myself with the bitterness I have experienced from some of the so-called Christians I've encountered, on a routine basis, over the years on Twitter.  So I shall quote Corinthians and try to wash it right out of my hair.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal... If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  Love.. does not dishonour others..  Love never fails..  And now these three remain: faith hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.
Your Bible may contain the most absurd logical flaws, and a load of stuff I couldn't believe in a million years, but it's sometimes great for a quote.  What truly beautiful words and sentiments.  LGBT people will not go away simply because you wished we didn't exist.   Show some love and show some real humanity, Rome, rather than the farce this week and the utter poison and hatred you've been spewing forth for hundreds of years.  It is, after all, what you're supposedly all about.





Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Holocaust Tourism

Welcome to Theresienstadt.  150,000 people were imprisoned here, including tens of thousands of children.  Roughly 90,000 prisoners went on to their deaths by cattle car in the Treblinka and Auschwitz murder factories.  33,000 starved painfully to death, died of illness or were murdered in individual acts of brutality by the SS.  The Nazi concentration camp and ghetto are also known by their Czech name, Terezín.

Souvenirs

Could we interest you in a souvenir fridge magnet?  We have a number of designs.  The German "Bier Stein" magnet with the Star of David on it is a classy reminder of your visit.  It's actually the Star from the garden of remembrance: look you can see the stones under it that Jewish visitors have left as a sign of respect.  Or, the one with the cycle sign showing "this way to Terezín" might look nice in your kitchen back at home.  They're a bargain: £1.60!  You could buy one as gifts for your friends and family.



Theresienstadt Souvenirs


I wish it were all a bad, tasteless, unthinkable joke.  But it's not.  I'm just back from there and Auschwitz with a group of students on a holocaust education tour.  As you enter the car park at Theresienstadt you are greeted by a sign with SOUVENIRS in large letters and an advertisement for the crystal shops.  Only after that sign has greeted you, do you see the one directing visitors to the Jewish ghetto (left) or the small fortress with the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei sign on it (right).  The souvenir shop has a two metre sign announcing it sells Bohemia Glass, Souvenirs, Jewellery, Playing Cards and Militaria.  "Militaria" at a place where the SS killed thousands of civilians.


Playing cards at Theresienstadt

I've long been unsettled by the weight of tourists descending on the camps.  The backpackers' bible "Let's Go" apparently used to tell people that if they had time for only two things in Munich, they should make it out to Dachau, and the Hofbräuhaus.  There we have the Munich Experience in a nut-shell: a concentration camp and a tacky tourist beer hall.  It's become a tick-box item: a must for any visitor on a tour of Europe to visit the nearest convenient Nazi killing site. 

I wonder about the motivations of those who come: is it genuine remembrance, is it a spiritual pilgrimage, is it to learn, is just to say you've been, or is to satisfy a ghoulish curiosity.  I'm sure for many it's a combination of all those things, though I doubt many would own up honestly to the latter two.  I fear for most the visit is a bit like Disney in reverse: you're not going to be thrilled and made happy; you're going to be upset.  I guess it shows that you are a sensitive being, who cares.  Then in the evening, it's back to the beer. 

Learning

In terms of the didactic value, I'm well aware that people learn in different ways.  There's absolutely nothing in the museum at any of these sites that you couldn't learn by watching a TV documentary, looking on the internet, reading a book, or visiting one of the excellent exhibitions at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in DC, the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, or our own superb Imperial War Museum in London.  I think it's fair to assume that if anyone is bothering to go out to a camp, they're familiar with the background.  It's not that likely they'll come away saying "Wow, the Germans murdered 6 million Jews.  I just didn't know that!"

"Fallen Leaves" at the Jüdisches Museum Berlin

For some actually being there, and seeing the place, might have an effect that the other methods of learning don't.  If we're really honest though, that has to concern a very few people.  Let's consider what there actually is to see.  In most of the camps (I've taken groups to 10 different ones myself, over the years, from Westerbork to Treblinka) there's a big empty space, sometimes huge memorials, and a visitor centre/museum.  The wooden buildings were long since pulled down, and the extermination camp gas chambers were almost all destroyed by the Germans at the end of the War.  In Dachau or Buchenwald the barbed wire has been nicely replaced with fresh supplies, and the watch towers are always kept newly painted.  At Birkenau everything is covered in grass, where before there was mud.  At Bergen-Belsen everything is gone: the place is turned over to nature and there are mounds where the dead lie.

Giant Menorah at Mauthausen

I'm not sure what the few iconic "sights" that remain at the camps actually teach anyone.  We're all so familiar from photographs with the train lines with the watch tower behind it at Birkenau, or the Arbeit Macht Frei signs at Auschwitz, that I wonder if it makes the slightest difference to anyone, in terms of actual learning, to see them in real life.

The same goes for the piles of shoes, spectacles or mounds of hair.  Yes, you're aware that these things each belonged to an individual, whose life was so brutally cut short.  But you already knew that.  I fail to see what viewing some of them in a room actually adds to understanding.  The picture below is powerful enough.  It is undeniably poignant and needs to be seen.  However, you are viewing it on the Internet, or can see it in any book.  You don't need to go to Auschwitz to get any better comprehension of the vastness, or of the personal nature, of the crime.

Shoes

We can't imagine what the camps looked like in 1942 or 1944: the piles of dead bodies, the selections, the crippling hunger, the illness, the human excrement, the desperation and the cruelty.   We wouldn't want to see them as they were, so what does visiting the santitised version actually add to our knowledge of the time, and the personal lessons we can learn from the period?

Dignity and Respect

These places are both killing places and cemeteries.  At Dachau this summer I watched a teenage boy standing in the centre of the Appelplatz where prisoners were forced to stand for hours in baking heat or freezing cold to break their spirits.  He was taking selfies.  It took him a long time to get the lighting and reflection right.  I do hope he got the right balance of "cute" and "upset" for his Instagram.  Perhaps a mournful tear was involved.


Auschwitz-Birkenau is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, followed closely by Treblinka, where at least 800,000 were murdered.  I know two Auschwitz survivors personally, both of whom lost close family there.  Even disregarding the behaviour of idiots such as the guy above, I find it hard to see how the dignity of those who died can be preserved with the sheer weight of people coming out to some of the camps.  I stood at the exit of Auschwitz I last week, watching group after group of teenagers came out, plenty of them laughing and goofing around.  It didn't use to be like this: you had to really "want" to go to any of the camps in Poland.  Nowadays there are cheap flights, easy access and all the commercial operators described below.

Auschwitz as a whole is simply sinking under the weight of all the visitors.  This was a weekday, off-season, in October.  The guide told me that sixteen tour buses just from Norway were booked in the following day alone.  1.33 million visitors came last year, which was a 12% increase on 2012.  1.4 million are expected this year.  That's nearing 4000 on average (roughly 100 tour buses) per day, with more coming on a busy peak season day.  Auschwitz-Birkenau is apparently now Poland's single biggest "visitor attraction".  


March in, collect headphones, do tour, back on bus. Repeat.

There is very little opportunity to afford the victims any form of personal respect or dignity, or to have individual reflection, when you are being shoved around in groups at the site with a set of headphones on.  Groups stand close to each other, jostling shoulder to shoulder, as the guides provide their often robotic commentary (I understand why they don't hardly ever show human emotion: working in this environment a strong detachment is a necessary defence mechanism).

Unlike somewhere like Pearl Harbor, there's no attempt to limit tour numbers: everyone just piles on in to hear the stories of atrocities, individual cases of murder, or to file inside the one remaining gas chamber.  No one is sure whether the scratch marks in the walls are original or not.  I wonder whether a system of regulation, i.e. a limited number of places being available on any day at any camp, wouldn't be a very sensible solution.

Buses arrive every couple of minutes to the death camp

The only opportunity you have to breathe is at the vast terrain of Auschwitz II (Birkenau), but most of the commercial tours allow you only 15 minutes there.  That might explain why few bother to go all the way down to the location of the actual gas chambers and cemeteries.  Or, perhaps, it's simply they agree with the girl I overheard who wanted a golf cart because it's just a bit too far to walk.

Commercialisation

Visits to the camps can be lucrative businesses it seems.  In Cracow you can hardly go anywhere without seeing posters for operators offering "all inclusive" trips out to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Given entry to the camp is free, that is a little puzzling.  The museum does charge a fee for its guides, but it's only £55 total for a group of 30, for the full 3.5 hour tour.  That works out at £1.80 a head.  The "excursions" from Cracow are charged out at £25 upwards, with transport provided on a 50 seater coach.  Trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau appear alongside fun tours of the Old Town and the Wieliczka Salt Mines.  It's a must for any stag or hen party in town - and again, would that were some tasteless joke.



In Germany the camps are, at least, apparently far more mindful of the acute criticism they would attract if items such as the Terezín fridge magnets were permitted to be sold in the concentration camp car parks.  For some unfathomable reason, the town of Oświęcim (present day Auschwitz) has  no such qualms about allowing a huge pizza, burger and other fast food complex to be built and exist directly opposite the main entrance to the camp car park.

The bus on the right is in Auschwitz I car park

Wait for it... why there's even a set of amusement machines inside.  After all, we all need to have a go on a pin-ball machine, having heard how painful and terrifying a death it was being crammed into a dark gas chamber, breathing rat poison into their lungs for 20 minutes, until they collapsed down dead upon the bodies of their elderly parents or children.  This is well under 100 metres from the entrance to Auschwitz I camp.  Just across from here there's a souvenir shop.  A set of 20 postcards of the camp is only £3.00 and you can buy lots of other stuff from around Poland too!


This commercialisation is grotesque.  It leaves me feeling sick writing about it.  Oświęcim and Terezín are towns where the inhabitants were expelled from their homes at gunpoint by the Germans, when the camps were built.  It is their right to come back and to bring their families up here, work here, and make their living here.  That could be done without the municipal authorities permitting fast food restaurants or tacky gift shops in such sensitive locations, so close to the sites.

Personal Irony

I'm aware of the enormous irony of this post, given the fact that I personally lead students on tours of the camps and have done so now for 20 years.  Every year, however, I become more and more uneasy with the fact that the camps are becoming tourist sites.

It is enormously and critically important that this chapter is never forgotten, which is ultimately I suppose why I keep on coming.  I can see the "positive" argument for so many people wanting to come here.  It's better I guess than the opposite, which would be no one caring and no one being interested in the subject at all.

Some visitors may get something profound out of their visit: if only one person in a hundred reflects on the nature of their own prejudices as a result of coming to a camp and does something about it, then that is a good thing.  I still can't get away from the feeling, though, that the vast bulk of visitors will learn little here that they didn't know before, or that I couldn't communicate without an actual visit.

More importantly, the sheer volume of them is utterly destroying the dignity of a place that means so much still to survivors, their descendants, and the family members of the victims.  I'm part of that and I'm very troubled by it.

Closing the Camps

One aspect of the ongoing crime that the 3rd Reich committed when it perpetrated the holocaust was the fact that it built many of the camps on foreign soil.  The Germans came to Poland, for example, created killing centres, murdered millions, and then left.  The Poles are now stuck with this in their country, and the obligation to keep up the buildings in all likelihood for eternity.  I don't envy them that at all.

For the first time in my life, for all the reasons above, I find myself having sympathy with the view others have expressed that when the last survivor dies, thought should be given to closing the camps and letting them go back to nature.  The chapter must clearly never be forgotten, but it can be kept open very effectively through museums, lessons, documentaries and books. 

May their souls rest in peace


All photos are my own.