Friday, 30 August 2013

The view from the hill of beans

That vote in parliament looked very different from where I was. 
Just a few hour’s drive from Damascus. 
Not that it’s a drive I was thinking of. Not that it’s possible. Not overtly, anyway. 
Not without a tank. 
I guess if I’d been back in the editor’s chair at The World at One or Today, I’d have been bouncing around like everyone else at the British parliamentary manoeuverings. 
The microscopic points scored. The tactical blunders. 
And that laziest of lazy journalistic tropes; who’s won? Who’s lost?
It all seemed a bit irrelevant. A bit beside the point.
And the problems of three little people – Cameron, Clegg and Milliband – didn’t amount to a hill of beans … well, you get the point.
Crazy world.
Selfish
Before the vote, I was selfishly – really, really selfishly – hoping nothing would happen in the real world that’d close the airport before I was due to leave for home. 
Flicking across the Hebrew and Arabic TV channels didn't help the mood. Pictures of gas mask queues. Missile batteries. Finger jabbing threats of retaliation ... in every possible direction. Fatah and Hamas united on this if nothing else - the west shouldn't attack Syria.  
Crazy world, huh. 
But then, the draw of our narrow, self-regarding politics is too strong if you’ve spent your life somewhere in its vicinity.
So I watched what I could of the debate. And shared the shock of the vote. And got swept up in the calculations everyone I follow on Twitter was tweeting about.
What does it mean for Cameron? For the coalition? For what passes these days for UK foreign policy?
How did it happen? Where were the whips? What'll happen when Ed Milliband realises that smoke is coming from the self-administered holes in his feet? Etc. Etc.
Hill of beans.
No means no
We learnt last night what our MPs aren’t prepared to do about Assad. And by extension, it has to be assumed, any other dictator who can't find his moral compass under the barrels of sarin.
So what are they prepared to do? Now and in the future. And if, as the polls suggest, they're more or less speaking for us voters, what are we prepared to see done in our name.
It'd be profoundly depressing if last night's vote means we're heading down some amoral cul-de-sac. Traipsing behind little Englanders, wringing our hands at inhumanity muttering ‘somebody should do something’. Like curtain twitchers who tut at the yobs on the corner, hoping someone will stop them before they pee in our garden and violate the gladioli. 
But if we're not prepared to back the use of force. And still want to see a vaguely moral world ... what is it that we're prepared to commit to to bring it about?
Polluted    
There’s no doubt that Iraq and Afghanistan shifted our perspectives on the use of force.
MPs let us be bundled into war in Afghanistan in 2001 without any serious examination. Two years later, we trooped with more deliberation but more mendacity into Iraq.  
There are similarities, of course, between then and now. But the differences are much greater. And tell us much, much more.
If Afghanistan was instinctive – ‘something must be done’ ‘what?’ ‘dunno but let’s do it’ – Iraq was not. Blair had a roadmap. A detailed one. Written in Downing Street in March 2002.  If you care to, you can even trace his Iraq trajectory back to Chicago in 1999.
Cameron had/has no road map. If he has a foreign policy at all, it’s difficult to spot. And on Syria, his lack of both tactics and strategy has been painful to watch.
Blair’s convictions, of course, took us down another route. And to another difference between then and now.
We now know beyond any doubt that in 2002/3, intelligence that was known to be unreliable and which turned out to be pure fiction was massaged in Downing Street to remove doubt. To match Blair’s convictions and shape a misleading case for war in the shaming September 2002 dossier. Policy-based evidence.
This time, the JIC’s reasoning, doubts and uncertainties have been published intact – or at least sufficiently intact to make John Day’s document a very different one from John Scarlett’s.  
So, while the spooks can come to conclusions about Assad’s use of lethal chemical weapons over the past 18 months …
with the highest possible level of certainty …”
… when it comes to the 21 August, the potential trigger for military intervention:
“... we do not have the same degree of confidence."
And the conclusion that Assad was responsible, as he almost certainly was? Well, the document concedes it's derived not from hard intelligence but from retroductive reasoning – ‘we’ve looked for evidence of the alternative, that it was a fake or the Syrian Armed Opposition, but can’t find any’. That, and a:
limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks”. (emphasis added)
This time;
“the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August” (emphasis added)
“Saddam Hussein is continuing to develop WMD … the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt … the threat is serious and current … ”
Of course, the intelligence had done no such thing.
Perhaps it was the frankness this time round, those concessions of doubt that Cameron echoed in the House – another sharp contrast with 2002/3 – that guaranteed the government’s defeat.
Perhaps Blair was right. Perhaps we can only be taken to war in a spasm or on the back of an 'interesting' approach to creating the truth.
Long Haul
Whether you support(ed) or oppose(d) Britain's participation in punishing Assad, it was/is impossible to see how it could end well. Impossible even to see where or when it might end.
Possible, though, to see the global policemen ending up worse off than the crook. A prospect that remains even if - when - the UN inspectors' report demonstrates Assad's crookery beyond peradventure. 
Other options, though, are few - and require levels of commitment to the long haul that the bean-hill builders baulk at.
One is a decades-long project to create a solidly rule-based international settlement. A settlement that would create international institutions with the power and consensus to constrain and contain 'offenders' before they go critical. But we sigh at the thought, knowing that every 'internationalist' achievement since 1945 has seen its ideals trumped by power and self-interest.
Perhaps, too, we need some sort of coherent re-statement of Britain's policy on its role in the global police force.
Or perhaps we need to expect more from diplomacy. Perhaps that 'wait and see' setting needs attention for the 21st century.
If for no other reason than to avoid the absurdity of P5 members facing each other down over the corpses of gassed children.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thello goodbye

I was always in two minds about it.
Going to Venice on the train. The overnight sleeper.
For all sorts of unimportant reasons, it was pretty late in the day that we decided to spend a week or so in Venice at the beginning of August.
A place we know well.
A place that can’t be spoiled even by the billions of tourists shambling around San Marco and the Rialto in the impossible heat.
We were going to be in France in July. And it seemed nuts to fly. And I didn't fancy the day-time train.
So, the Thello night sleeper from Paris it was. Encouraged by The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
A thirteen hour rumble through the night. Via Dijon, the Simplon tunnel, Milan, Verona, Padua. A whiff of romance. Bed down in Paris. Wake up in Venice.
Such a bad idea.
Pluses and minuses
On the plus side, three-berth cabins were easy to book straight from the Thello website.
And not too expensive … though at £100 per berth each way, it wasn’t that much cheaper than the most conveniently timed Paris/Venice flights. And more expensive than the red-eyes.
And that’s about it. For the plus side.
Place des Vosges
That and the afternoon we got to spend in Paris (most of it acting the bourgeois in the gloriously splendid Place des Vosges) before setting off at eight o’clock.
Well, that was the time we were supposed to set off.
We got to the Gare Lyon at six. Time for a drink, Something to eat etc.
Didn’t quite trust Thello’s boasts of “a menu card to suit every budget”.
Late and later
Bad news.
Up there on the departure board, the Venice train was showing a delay of one hour.
Grumpy.
An hour later, another hour’s delay clicked up. Two hours.
An hour later, a third. Then a fourth. Then ‘indeterminate delay’.
No one knew why. The staff in the Thello shop had all gone home. And the SNCF information desk denied all knowledge, responsibility or interest.
There’d been intemperies on the Riviera, apparently. And that was causing delays. We weren’t going anywhere near the Riviera.
And a train was stuck at Avignon. Not going that way either.
The best anyone in a uniform could do was shrug about “the late arrival of equipment”. But our train had arrived at Gare Lyon at nine-thirty that morning and had been sitting in a siding outside the station since. It seemed hard to see how those misfortunes were anything to do with it.
Grim gare
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to spend four and a half hours at the Gare Lyon as it closes down for the night. It’s not a very nice place.
Not at all.
Apart from anything else, it’s in the middle of a major re-build right now. So things that should be there aren’t. And things that should work don’t.
Like seats. And lavatories.
Some things are unaffected, though. Like the slamming shutters on Relay and anywhere else selling food or drink on the dot of eight-thirty.
I’ll never criticise an airport again.
Midnight comes and goes 
Thello runs two night trains. One to Rome, one to Venice.
Both were delayed.
Both, in the end, by over four hours.
Both victims of something we underestimate at our peril. The stubborn inflexibility of the French public servant.
A man or woman who, with a following wind, can make the most cussed jobsworths of any other nation seem like Good Deed Daily.
Thello, you see, is a new(ish) venture. A private venture. The first to exploit ‘open access’ on the French railway system.
Hence SNCF’s general lack of interest in it or us.
Sure, it leases its engines in a complex arrangement involving SNCF. But otherwise it’s a thorn in the sprawling side of the state behemoth.
And you can imagine what that means for the place it has in the heart of every SNCF fonctionnaire.
Think Robert Maxwell running a couple of trains on pre-Beeching British Rail.
Shrugs all round
So when things go wrong for SNCF – as they clearly had that day – SNCF is the priority. And if that means keeping platforms free for delayed SNCF trains and not finding one for those pesky private Thello trains for over four hours … **shrugs and makes that ‘muh’ sound**.
But at least it can't get worse, can it? We think. As round about a quarter past midnight we drag ourselves on board.
Obviously, our carriage is at the very far end of the platform.
And it’s clear that it’s very, very old. Between forty and fifty years old, it turns out.
Thello – which, for the time being, is a consortium of Veolia (the people who take your rubbish away and run the bus and tram systems in many European cities) and Trenitalia – uses carriages originally built for the Wagon Lits company when Charles de Gaulle was President of France and England was yet to win the World Cup.
They look like it.
They might even be the very couchette carriages I traveled on back in 1969 on a school trip to Switzerland.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn they hadn’t been cleaned since about then.
Shabbiness, you can just about forgive. Decades of congealed cack in every corner is a tad harder to ‘understand’.
Expectations
Of course, there’s no room in the cabins. Not for you and your luggage. You expect that.
And you expect the bunks to be four inches shorter than you are.
What you don’t expect is that the top bunk’s headroom – mine – is mere inches. A single digit’s worth of inches.
Nor that, by some evil trick of circulation, all the hot air from the rest of the train ends up there. Driven by the train’s ancient emphysemic ventilation system.
Never mind. “We’ll have the morning to watch the Italian countryside drift by.”
Not really. After Milan – we arrived there about the time we were supposed to be in Venice – we trundled along, stopping at every signal, deep in an embankment, hidden by trees or plastic wind shields or weaving through the industrial zones of Lombardy and Veneto.
Breakfast was marred by an electrical failure in the buffet car. So they, apologetically, made the instant coffee with lukewarm water pumped from a flask.
Oh. And the plumbing is … romantic. Best leave that there.
Way to go?
Would I do it again?
No. Obviously, no.
As it turned out, the return journey left Venice and arrived in Paris on time.
But the temperature on board was over 38 degrees. And up there on the torture bunk, sleeping wasn’t much of an option. Though the dehydration induced hallucinations were entertaining.
Bluntly, this is not a way to go to and from Venice. At best, it's an adventure in masochism.
If you're thinking about it, don't. Stop. Now.