In the early 1980s when I was a schoolboy, my father, Brian Hartley, worked for Oxfam during a famine in Uganda’s Kara-moja. Like Dad, the other Oxfam people I remember in East Africa were earnest agriculturalists or engineers who had been overseas most of their lives. Some of them were religious or socialist, but they all had the technical skills to help local farmers rebuild their lives after wars or droughts.
The NHS is in dire straits. I never thought I’d say this but as a doctor, and having seen the extent of the current crisis, I’d be scared if a family member had to go into hospital. Despite the best efforts of staff, the pressures are such that it’s all too easy for mistakes to be made. Doctors and nurses are going to work fearful of the situation they will find. They know how unsafe it is, and yet they are utterly powerless to do anything about it.
I love Americans’ kindness, generosity and energy but am often thrown by their exaggerated politeness and euphemistic speech. They use ‘passed’ for ‘died’ and always say ‘excuse me’ if they brush against you in a shop. They sentimentally refer to ‘your puppy’ when the dog is patently over three years old. They refer to a dog’s ‘going to the bathroom’. And why say ‘a grown man’ instead of just ‘man’? Wads of paper napkins are handed out unnecessarily in cafés and at parties (where one is sometimes offered ‘a beverage’ instead of a drink).
On Monday, Angela Merkel did something quite extraordinary. As speculation about her party’s leadership mounted, she named an apparent successor: thae 55-year-old Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, appointed as the new general secretary of her Christian Democratic Union party. The choice came like a lightning strike: AKK, as she is already called, was to leave her job as a successful minister-president of the tiny federal state of Saarland and assume the governing position in her party.
One of the most memorable moments of the 2012 presidential debates came when the candidates were asked what they believed to be the chief national security threat facing the United States. Mitt Romney said ‘Russia’. Barack Obama thought that was ridiculous. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,’ Obama retorted, to the general hilarity of the panel and much of the audience.
Bankruptcy, wrote Ernest Hemingway, happens in two ways — ‘gradually and then suddenly’. By now, Angela Merkel will be beginning to fear that her remarkable career is about to move into that second motion. Barely a year ago, she was being talked about as the leader of the free world. Now she is blamed by her own party for upending German politics and, in the process, allowing the far-right to become a real political force for the first time since the 1940s.
In recent years, living in South Africa has been a bit like having cancer. The malaise eating us from within was corruption and there seemed to be no cure, which is why there was no dancing in the streets when our dreadful president, Jacob Zuma, was finally eased out of office on Valentine’s Day. For me, it felt as if the entire nation was hobbling out of hospital after a long and painful stay, almost too weak to walk, but very surprised and grateful to discover that it had somehow survived.
Two things always strike me when I visit Vienna. The first is how easterly the city lies. This was more apparent last century, when on maps of Europe the silhouette of Austria poked itself like a swollen proboscis into the dark shadows of the eastern bloc. But even today, with Bratislava, Brno and Gyor as its closest international neighbours, it’s a good reminder of how much ‘western European’ culture comes from quite far east.