19 June 2022: A valuable wreck; Advice for Brits; IAG and sons; Boris the conman; & Other stuff.

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Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable
Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España 

Off the coast of Colombia lies a wrecked Spanish galleon, sent to Davy Jone’s locker in 1708 by – of course – some British ships. In it lies bullion said to be worth 17 billion(sic) dollars today. Needless to say, Spain and Colombia are arguing – in court – as to who’s entitled to this. And, since the loot was plundered around South America, a few other countries are expected to lay claims. The case could last at least half a century 

Two valuable articles from the estimable Mark Stücklin:-

The digital nomad visa opportunity for Brits et al.

The right of non-EU residents to vote in at least municipal elections, if not regional or national elections. In respect of which we are – scandalously – the taxed disenfranchised.

For info: Just in case you don’t know, these are the subsidiaries of the IAG holding company IAG, formed in 2011 via the merger of British Airways and Iberia:-

Aer Lingus

British Airways

IAG Cargo

Iberia [incluing Air Nostrum/Iberia regional

Iberia Express*

LEVEL*

Vueling*

Avios Group

* ‘Low cost’

The company has its registered office in Madrid but its HQ in London.

BTW: It’s pretty common – if not usual – for a plane to have both BA and Iberia flight numbers. 

En passant, In keeping with the Spanish love of syllables, Spain seems to favour long names for its major airports:-

Madrid: Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport

Barcelona: Josep Tarradellas Barcelona–El Prat Airport

The UK 

Richard North today: Johnson the con artist. See the cited article by Matthew Syed below.

The Way of the World 

According to a team of researchers from New Zealand, an insufficient proportion of parasitic worms are named after women, Of those creatures named recently, just 19 per cent bore the name of a woman. The researchers blame institutional sexism and “etymological nepotism”. I guess it’s just possible that’s an Antipodean joke. On the other hand . . .

Were the Beatles just lucky? See the 2nd article below.

Quotes of the Day

All the normal rules say Johnson must go. Trouble is, he doesn’t obey them

Look across the throbbing halogen tundra of Instagram and you will see parent influencers doing the same thing as the Beckhams: using their children as a way to promote themselves and their own choices while limiting those of their offspring.

English

Query: If your Spanish pupil say ‘If I was a child’, do you bother to tell them that they should use the increasingly obsolescent subjunctive form of ‘If I were a child/rich man? Probably not, is my feeling.

Finally . . .

An amusing foot note.

For new readers: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here. If you’re passing through Pontevedra on the Camino, you’ll find a guide to the city there.

THE ARTICLE

Blink and you’ll miss Johnson’s Ukraine trick, his greatest act yet: Matthew Syed The Times

The first time I visited New York, I remember being mesmerised by a guy on the side of Broadway inviting people to play a card game. He was witty, charismatic and surrounded by people wondering whether to have a flutter. I would later learn that the game was three-card monte: a classic con in which participants have to “follow the lady” — that’s to say, keep an eye on the queen of hearts.

Every three or so minutes a passer-by would be drawn in by the man’s accomplice, who had seemingly just won a game. “It’s so easy.” “How difficult can it be?” One after another tourists would lose $20 with a shrug of the shoulders, a few accepting the invitation to go double or quits. The conman was plausible and skilled in the art of misdirection. After a few minutes I had him down as a master of his art.

I was reminded of this experience on Friday when another master craftsman, our prime minister, visited Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky. His dealings with Ukraine have been described as the most conspicuous policy success of Boris Johnson, a man who — to offer a few of the phrases stated without fear of contradiction by Tory ministers — “got Ukraine right”, “led the West” and “stood up to Putin”. Jacob Rees-Mogg described Johnson as showing “extraordinary leadership” in the gravest crisis in Europe since the Cold War and was moved to describe serial law-breaking at No 10 as “fluff” by comparison. 

Even his opponents have swallowed the bait. I listened to a radio show after the photoshoot in Ukraine and noted his most trenchant critics inadvertently playing the straight man. One said Johnson had visited Kyiv because he “wanted to distract from his many failures by highlighting his one success”. You will note the grudging tone, but you will also note that the mark has been snared. Johnson’s opponents have effectively conceded the point that his Ukraine policy is a triumph. This represents, I think, one of the greatest conjuring tricks in modern political history.

For, with a flourish of a few Churchillian lines, Johnson has caused ten years of history to vanish in a puff of smoke. Have we forgotten that the British government failed to equip Ukraine with lethal ordnance in the decade leading up to the invasion? A superb Sunday Times Insight investigation included an interview with a former UK defence secretary who said that the government in Kyiv was “desperate” to buy British weapons. “[They] wanted almost everything. They were not able to resist the incursions into Donbas. At times they had little more than rifles,” Michael Fallon said.

It was David Cameron who conceived the policy of withholding weapons, but Johnson became foreign secretary at almost precisely the point in 2016 when critics were lining up to condemn it. Just a year earlier Liam Fox had described the failure to confront Putin as “a bully’s charter that is already discredited by history”. With Johnson in the Foreign Office, John Whittingdale, another colleague, compared the policy to Neville Chamberlain’s failure to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1938. By that time the military was warning of growing militarism in Russia, explaining that it “could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect”.

Did Johnson heed those warnings? Did he read the signs of a bully who had, by that stage, seized Crimea, shot down a Malaysia Airlines plane and backed President Assad’s murderous regime in Syria? On the contrary, he became more convinced that Putin could be pacified by the hand of friendship. As foreign secretary he sought a “normalisation” of relations with the criminals in the Kremlin and called for a new “constructive” relationship with Sergey Lavrov, his opposite number. In December 2017 he became the first British minister to visit Moscow in five years, proclaiming: “I am delighted to say that there are increasing exports of British Kettle crisps to Russia, and in spite of all the difficulties I believe 300 Bentleys were sold this year in Russia.”

It wasn’t just the failure to confront Putin directly that characterised this period. The UK was also sustaining his kleptocratic power base by allowing a torrent of dirty money to be recycled in London. The policy was conceived by New Labour but it was taken to its zenith by the Conservatives. By 2016 the clamour against the policy had become deafening, with many of us warning that it was inciting Putin and violating the national interest. The American government had introduced the Magnitsky Act and moved against the oligarchs, but its sanctions were pointless when they could be easily circumvented in London.

Even after the Salisbury poisonings Johnson continued his merry dance, stating that he was reluctant to “start a great hue and cry against certain individuals who might actually have wealth that was perfectly proper”. By that stage a foreign affairs select committee had condemned the London laundromat, and an intelligence and security committee report would soon state that the UK’s golden visa scheme provided “ideal mechanisms by which illicit finance could be recycled”. Johnson, by now prime minister, said (without apparent irony) that the UK had “some of the strongest controls in the world”.

At this point one cannot help pointing out another pixel in this dubious vista. In the period after Johnson entered No 10, Russian-linked donors provided the Tory party with serious funding. In 2019 alone, the year of Johnson’s election success, they swelled its coffers by £1.5 million — the most in a single year. A Foreign Office minister interviewed by the Insight team made a direct link between these donations and appeasement. He said the message from the leadership of the party was: “Don’t rock the boat because we need the dosh.”

I should say, loud and clear, that I welcome the support that the British government has provided to Ukraine since the invasion and I am not surprised that President Zelensky is grateful. I am also delighted that we are expanding the policy of training Ukrainian troops, as was announced on Friday. It is refreshing to see Britain — along with a complacent western world (notably Germany) — finally waking up to the danger of dictators out to destroy the liberal order. In the past few months Johnson has indeed “done well”.

But history will judge that we should never have got to this place, never have so cravenly failed to confront Putin earlier, never have debased ourselves by turning a blind eye to an international laundering operation centred on London. Not a single oligarch was sanctioned until Russians were massacring Ukrainian civilians, and no lethal weapons were sent until tanks were massing on the border.

So, when the prime minister claims to have “given a lead” in confronting Putin and makes reference to “iron resolve” in The Sunday Times today, I would suggest that we owe it to history, not to mention the Ukrainian people, to place those assertions in their proper context.

It is not unlike claiming credit for paying a ransom after spending a decade colluding with the terrorist.

2. Were the Beatles just lucky?: Liam Kelly 

Everybody knows how the Beatles became the most popular and influential band in history. John Lennon met Paul McCartney, the two geniuses wrote songs together and, from playing Liverpool’s Cavern Club to leading the American invasion via a stint in Hamburg, they ended up with 11 No 1 albums, an impromptu rooftop gig above their Savile Row office — and next weekend, for McCartney, a headline slot at Glastonbury at the age of 80.

But what if that apparently inevitable and unbroken upward trajectory obscures the serendipity and sheer luck that helped four unlikely lads conquer the music world? Cass Sunstein, a Harvard scholar and behavioural psychologist, has put his head above the parapet to ask: were the Beatles really that much better than other bands around at the same time? Instead of Beatlemania, could we have had Kinksmania, Holliesmania or Dave Clark Fivemania? Did the Beatles, in other words, benefit from a healthy dollop of good luck?

Sunstein, 67, is best known not for his analysis of popular music but for his dozens of smart-thinking books. The theory he put forward in the 2008 bestseller Nudge, written with Richard Thaler, led to a top job in Barack Obama’s White House and inspired David Cameron’s “nudge unit”, set up to design policies that steer people towards choosing what is best for them. Sunstein is also, he says, in the “top echelon of Beatles enthusiasts”; Revolver, the first Beatles album he heard, is his favourite. Which is why he has written a paper for the first volume of the Journal of Beatles Studies, to be published by Liverpool University in September.

Sunstein became intrigued after watching Yesterday, Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle’s 2019 film about an alternative reality in w hich the Beatles never existed save in the memory of a struggling singer-songwriter, who achieves superstardom when he passes off the Fab Four’s songs as his own. “That’s a very attractive idea for those who love the Beatles, and it’s pleasing to the human soul that some iconic group would, if you heard them for the first time, make you explode with enthusiasm,” says Sunstein. But the story is really more complicated, and possibly jammier.

Diving into the “black box” of serendipity, Sunstein identifies the band’s breakthrough moment as when the 27-year-old Brian Epstein heard them at a lunchtime club session on November 9, 1961, and became their manager. Epstein championed a band that already had a reputation for being “unreliable, unpunctual and arrogant”, had been knocked back by almost every record company and had almost broken up earlier that year. Another sprinkling of good fortune came when they were given the chance to audition by EMI even though the producer George Martin thought they had produced a “pretty lousy” demo tape. Two employees at the label, Kim Bennett and Sid Colman, offered to cover the recording costs.

The loyalty of Beatles fans on Merseyside drove the band’s early success. After their first single, Love Me Do, reached No 17 in 1962, Martin came on board as a producer. He turned out to be perfectly suited to the band. The band had a rare dynamic, too. “John and Paul seemed to spur each other to greater heights,” says Sunstein. George Harrison and Ringo Starr complemented them, and the American TV presenter Ed Sullivan also “deserves some credit”: the band’s performances on his show helped them crack America. “Those are just some [fortunate events] that are not lost to history — there were probably others like that that were necessary conditions for the Beatles’ success,” says Sunstein. “That isn’t,” he insists, “to deny their extraordinary quality. But it is to say that without all or most of those things we never would have had the Beatles.”

A 2006 experiment led by Matthew Salganik, an American social scientist, investigated cultural success and failure. Salganik and his colleagues gave 14,000 listeners a list of 48 unknown songs by unknown bands. They were asked to rate the songs and allowed to download those they liked. Half of the study subjects gave ratings without knowing what songs others had downloaded; the other half could see what songs were being downloaded in real time. Those who could see the download figures gravitated towards positive reviews of the songs that got off to the fastest start. This sort of “informational cascade”, as Sunstein calls it, helped the Beatles to catch fire.

“In my own mind, because I love the Beatles, I’m drawn to the view that, at least after a period of initial success, their quality was so high and their music was so amazing that they were bound to become ‘the Beatles’,” Sunstein says. “But my understanding of how culture works is much more cautious. Even after they had initial success, the fact that they became as iconic as they did was not preordained, and there are imaginable twists and turns which fate could have had in store for them that didn’t complicate their path to success.”

In Beatles mythology the ultimate stroke of luck is the song Yesterday coming to McCartney, fully formed, in a dream. Yesterday is “really good”, says Sunstein, but Ticket to Ride is “genius”, as is You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.

In the film Yesterday the main character, Jack Malik, beats the real Ed Sheeran in a songwriting duel by performing The Long and Winding Road. Sheeran concedes defeat, saying it is “one of the best songs I’ve ever heard in my life”. Objective analysis of the best band ever is difficult, says Sunstein. “If somebody plays The Long and Winding Road for the first time, are people going to go, ‘Oh my gosh, I just heard Mozart’? I don’t think so,” he says. “I think they’d say, ‘That’s good.’ They might even say, ‘That’s very good.’ But it isn’t astounding.”

It is not just the Beatles who were lucky. Bob Dylan got a record deal after a favourable write-up in The New York Times in 1961. Taylor Swift benefits from the “network effect”: the more people start liking an artist, the more likely it is other fans will follow. “Taylor Swift is terrific, but she is a massive success in part because people want to be part of the ever-growing group of people who know about, and like, Taylor Swift,” Sunstein says.

So, if the Beatles hadn’t existed, would a different band have filled their slot in cultural history, with screaming fans drowning out the music at their gigs? It would be “speculative in the extreme”, Sunstein says, to answer. It possibly wouldn’t have been the Rolling Stones, who were promoted as a less clean-cut band than the Beatles. What about the Kinks or the Hollies? Their frontmen, Ray Davies and Graham Nash, were “terrific”, Sunstein says. But, “Were they like McCartney and Lennon? I don’t think so.”

2 comments

  1. The second conditional here is taught that when the verb of the if clause is “be”, the first and third person singular can take either the form “was” or “were”. Preferably “were”, as it’s all that’s left of the subjunctive in English, and the conditionals would have taken the subjunctive.

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  2. The simple test is to reverse the order of the words. “Were I to try that….” is more of a consideration & differs in meaning from “Was I to try that…..? signifying “You wanted me to try that?”, a question. That leads to the “different to” & “different from” question, for which I gave the answer in the second sentence. However a comparison works with either “compared to” & “compared with”, though the second option is more RP.

    As Dr North wrote yesterday & previous occasions, 10 years ago, British artillery was inferior in range in comparison with Russian weapons. The AS90s were promised on 24th April & withdrawn on 25th April because they are non-functioning, The 22 M-109s that were delivered around 4th June were Belgian! The UK purchased them from OIP & fettled them for delivery.
    https://www.brusselstimes.com/231363/belgium-will-not-send-howitzers-to-ukraine-due-to-unreasonable-prices

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