Amman — Beirut — Istanbul
I recently bumped into a senior officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army who was waiting in the passport queue at the Turkish border. I didn’t recognise him at first, out of uniform and without his entourage, and I told him so. He was following the example of the 7th-century Second Caliph, Omar bin al Khattab, he replied. The caliph was so humble he took turns with his servant riding a horse to Jerusalem to receive the city’s surrender.
What’s the most surprising thing that could come out of the current economic upturn? A rapid revival in northern manufacturing? The City really getting behind small British businesses? Ed Balls admitting higher public spending wasn’t always the best way to promote growth? Any of these eventualities would be fairly amazing. But the biggest surprise would perhaps be this: a gradual realisation that the UK is on track to become the largest economy in Europe.
Why didn’t I know about the Tarn Valley? I’d often been right next door. But here, north-east of Toulouse, between the baking fields of Gers and the rocky mountains around Carcassonne, is this best-kept secret. It’s a lush region of great rivers, rolling green hills and towns with magnificent red-brick gothic architecture and is sometimes referred to as the Triangle d’Or (mostly by estate agents). The sea is three hours away in either direction, which is a boon, meaning that even in August it was eerily devoid of tourists.
Two recent popes are to be canonised on 17 April next year: Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, and Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Both are being declared saints in haste: conventionally the Church has waited for a few hundred years for the dust to settle, with slow promotion from ‘venerable’ to ‘blessed’, before declaring de fide that a soul is with God in Heaven.
To establish that this is indeed the case — that a soul is in Heaven — miracles have to be ascribed to candidates for canonisation.
Are you a man? Do you have legs wider than the average pipe cleaner? Then this article is for you. You’ll need something to read as you sit at home, unable to go out because you’ve got no trousers. British clothes shops, you see, no longer sell ones that fit you.
At first I thought the problem was me. Every pair of jeans I tried on in Gap hugged me like clingfilm. Had I put on that much weight? I tried the only other place I ever buy jeans: Fat Face.
Imagine if correspondents in late 1944 had reported the Battle of the Bulge, but without explaining that it was a turning point in the second world war. Or what if finance reporters had told the story of the AIG meltdown in 2008 without adding that it raised questions about derivatives and sub-prime mortgages that could augur a vast financial implosion?
Most people would say that journalists had failed to provide the proper context to understand the news.
Scarcely a month goes by, or so it seems, without one or other representative body of the medical profession complaining about how dangerously overworked and generally unappreciated its members are. The latest is the Royal College of Nursing — still smarting, perhaps, from the Francis report into the fatal negligence at Stafford Hospital — which found that nurses today are frequently stressed out and ‘forced to choose between the health of their patients and their own’.
It’s hard to think of anything more badly run than a Chinese bank. Somalia perhaps, or the BBC’s remuneration committee. Certainly, Beijing’s embattled lenders make ours look like paragons of financial rectitude. We may dislike RBS et al for bringing our economy to its knees, but at least we’re not saddled with a cabal of banks inextricably linked to whoever resides in Downing Street.
Let’s start with good old-fashioned service.
In popular myth, King Cnut the Great, more commonly known as Canute, set his throne on the sea shore and commanded the tide to retreat. One version has it that Cnut’s display was a sign of regal arrogance — though if the event ever did occur, it was more likely a rebuke to obsequious courtiers.
Speaking of which, the financial media have been in thrall to a new king of finance since Mark Carney was elevated to the governorship of the Bank of England in July.
I know a lot of people who work in the financial industry. One on one, they are decent and kind. I’d trust them to look after my handbag in the pub while I went to the Ladies. But you know what? I wouldn’t trust many of them to look after my pension or my ISA. In fact I’m pretty damned sure that if I bought a financial product from them, they would devote themselves to slowly stealing my savings.
I’m not alone in feeling like this.
I stumbled upon a grand story the other day, thanks largely to my girlfriend Shmerah, who is doing a masters in anthropology at the nearby University of the Witwatersrand. One afternoon some weeks ago, Shmerah informed me that she and her classmates were excited about the imminent arrival in Johannesburg of the Italian-American philosophy professor Silvia Federici, described as one of the planet’s foremost leftist theoreticians.