Sunday, September 28, 2008

Two countries separated
by more than a common language

Here's reviewing last Friday's edition (September 27th) of the Economist:
An editorial supports Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke's $700 billion bailout as "a plan that could work." By providing banks with much-needed capital, the plan would restore "transparent prices, [and] would at last encourage investors to come in and repair the financial system." For this reason, "the economics of Mr[.] Paulson's plan are broadly correct, [but] the politics are fiendish"—if the bailout succeeds, Wall Street will return to raking in millions while the average American "will scarcely notice a depression that never happened."
The original of that read in part (this is the eighth of ten closely-argued paragraphs):
If the economics of Mr Paulson’s plan are broadly correct, the politics are fiendish. You are lavishing money on the people who got you into this mess. Sensible intervention cannot even buy long-term relief: the plan cannot stop house prices falling and the bloated financial sector shrinking. Although the economic risk is that the plan fails, the political risk is that the plan succeeds. Voters will scarcely notice a depression that never happened. But even as they lose their houses and their jobs, they will see Wall Street once again making millions.
If Malcolm were still putting work in front of students, he might be tempted to throw both efforts out for scrutiny and comment.

Yet what attracted Malcolm's interest was the discord over the use of a stop after "Mr", which felt needed correction.

Malcolm prefers, and not just for nationalistic reasons, the Economist style.

He learned that the stop after an abbreviation indicated that the latter letters had been omitted. Since "Mr" is "M(aste)r" or "M(iste)r", there is nothing removed from the end of the abbreviation. It might, just might still be possible to do an eighteenth-century "M'r", but that seems over-cooked. Furthermore the "Mr." usage creates an ugly extra space in the text.

The clincher is the OED:
Since the 17th cent. it has been the customary courteous prefix to the name of any man below the rank of knight. It is customary not to use the prefix when Esquire is appended to the name, and it is now omitted after ‘The Hon.’ and ‘The Rev.’ In less formal use, however, ‘Mr’ may often be substituted for these titles. It is customary in Britain (and South Africa, and predominantly in Australia and New Zealand) for surgeons to be styled ‘Mr’ rather than ‘Dr’.
Now that would have been on the table as well, for those aspiring students of that version of the English language which the computer-programs insist on terming "International English". Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hawkeye and Arnie
One audience member asked him about playing Republican Arnold Vinick on NBC's The West Wing, an experience Alda enjoyed, he said, because the writers made the character real, not just a straw man for the Democratic characters to knock down. But one thing still puzzles him. "People always say, 'It must have been so hard to play a Republican,' '' he says. "But nobody ever asked me that when I played an ax murderer."

That's Connie Ogle for today's Miami Herald.

Malcolm, who avoids "celebrity" news at all costs, found himself reading just that. He concluded that there has to be an exception to every objection, and that Alan Alda was such a case.

Alda was promoting his book:

Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself, which combines biographical stories, speeches he's given in the past and his quest for discovering what constitutes a meaningful life.

Which provoked two thoughts:

First, anyone who has messed with a politics would recognise the poignant moment when Arnold Vinnick faces up to the new-found anonymity of being a defeated candidate, and has to give his name in buying his own coffee. That's the episode The Last Hurrah.

Second, can there be an apter name for an entertainment writer than "Connie Ogle"?

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Naught for your comfort?

This blogging lark means one never quite catches up.

A couple of hours back, Malcolm went public on the way the economic situation was impacting on the McCain campaign.

He hadn't appreciated quite how far.

The overnight Rasmussen figures are in; and it all comes down to the blame game:

As the financial sector meltdown continues, consumer confidence has plummeted, falling 8% overnight. Forty-seven percent (47%) of voters now rate the economy as the top issue of Election 2008. That’s up from 41% this past Saturday morning. The number saying the country is heading in the right direction fell from 23% on Saturday to 18% now.

The financial crunch provides both opportunity and risk for the candidates. Voters are closely following the story but only one-in-four believe that either Obama or McCain is Very Likely to bring about the changes that are needed on Wall Street. Adding to the complexity for politicians everywhere is the fact that 49% worry that the federal government will do too much while just 36% are more worried that it won’t do enough.

As for the political implications, polling conducted last night shows that 47% trust McCain more than Obama on economic issues while 45% trust Obama.

A note of caution: that isn't quite what the the latest New York Times/CBS News poll suggested:
By overwhelming numbers, Americans said the economy was the top issue affecting their vote decision, and they continued to express deep pessimism about the nation’s economic future. They continued to express greater confidence in Mr. Obama’s ability to manage the economy, even as Mr. McCain has aggressively sought to raise doubts about it...

Despite weeks of fierce Republican attacks, Mr. Obama has maintained an edge on several key measures of presidential leadership, including economic stewardship. Sixty percent of voters said they were confident in his ability to make the right decisions on the economy, compared with 53 percent who felt that way about Mr. McCain. Sixty percent also said he understood the needs and problems “of people like yourself,” compared with 48 percent who said that of Mr. McCain.
Now we are beginning to see how the McCain camp will spin that:

So it's FUD -- fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Which means we can expect the Obama counter-attacks to include:
  • identifying McCain with the problem (which means the link to Big Money through Gramm); like this:

  • and pushing a message of hope (which will sound close to the one that saw Clinton home in 1992).
In fact, if we can take the Guardian's Ewan MacAskill on trust, that is what is already happening. Obama, flush with campaign contributions, bought a two-minute slot for a direct-to-camera presentation:
the kind of thing campaigns usually save for the very last push
It looks like this:

47 days to go

A long while to dish the dirt; or to keep the focus on "It's the economy, stupid".

For the moment, it's difficult to see how McCain can distance himself even further
  • from the broken brand that is the Republican Party,
  • from the President with whom he has identified himself, and
  • from the consequences of his own association with Gramm.
It's a long time to be mud-wrestling. Sphere: Related Content
A quantum of solace? No: a Gramm of discomfort.

The one that got away:
When the economic history of these years comes to be written (the clatter of Ph.D. keyboards grows by the day), there will be an episode on the lunacies of deregulation.

How did we get into this mess?

Cue Phil Gramm.

Back in December 2000, things in Washington, DC, were somewhat feverish:
  • There was the small matter of Bush v. Gore, recently settled at the Supreme Court.
  • The "holiday" recess ("Christmas" being a forbidden word in the land of the First Amendment) was coming up.
  • The Republican majority in Congress was, again, toe-to-toe over the budget with the (now lame-duck) President Clinton.
Let's stick with that last one.

The issue at dispute was a spending bill, to the tune of £384 billion. Billion, note. At the last moment, Senator Phil Gramm slipped in a measure (262 pages in length) entitled the Commodity Futures Modernization Bill. This had been drafted by Gramm's associates on Wall Street, giving pretty-well unlimited scope to invent new money-making wheezes, without any risk of scrutiny or surveillance. Even Gramm was taken aback that it passed without more ado.
That was Malcolm's start for a rant.

He intended to demonstrate conclusively
  • that the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act was the root-cause of the present melt-down;
  • that Gramm was a personal beneficiary, beyond the dreams of avarice, of the grateful largesse of the financial corporations (Enron in one particular, of which Gramm's wife was a Board member0;
  • that Gramm's personal involvement continued (after Enron had blasted his Senatorian progress) as a Vice-Chairman of UBS, while he lobbied and machinated for looser regulation of the financial markets;
  • that there was and is a direct and continuing link between Gramm and John McCain.
At which point he diverted his attention to other matters of concern: bootlegs of Bob Dylan and a promising teccy by Jill Paton Walsh.

No prizes for coming in second

All of which was made pretty redundant by an article by Alexander Cockburn in this morning's First Post, which made all of those points eloquently, and in the context of a sweeping condemnation of American social and economic policies:

Over the past quarter-century the US manufacturing economy went offshore. Lately the so-called new economy of the 'Information Age' has been moving offshore too. Free trade has left millions without decent jobs or prospects of ever getting one above the $15 an hour tier.

Below a thin upper crust of the richest people in the history of the planet, there's the rest of America which, in varying degrees of desperation, can barely get by. Millions are so close to the edge that an extra 25c on a gallon of fuel is a household budget-breaker.

Wages have stagnated. For decade after decade the bargaining power of workers has dwindled. We've had the macabre spectacle of US-based workers ordered to train their overseas replacements before being fired.

(By-the-by, Malcolm now sees that neither he nor Cockburn had squatters' rights here. The marvellous Mother Jones has been ploughing this furrow since mid-summer. Paul Krugman, op-eding in the New York Times, was on the case as early as March.)

Follow the money trail

Which leaves Malcolm with just these thoughts:

  • what exactly is the McCain policy in this crisis?


  • how close are he and Gramm these days?
Those may not be wholly-separate questions.

McCain's wobbles

Gramm, a fellow Texan, was McCain's cheerleader, "top economic adviser" and chair of the McCain campaign -- until an interview with the Washington Times.

That interview was Gramm's shop-window to promote:
a detailed program to revive dynamic growth with dramatic tax and spending reforms.
From what we know above, we can assume that "detailed program" amounted to licensing the market to yet greater over-reaching.

Unfortunately, Gramm then fingered the culprits responsible for "the sluggish economy". They were none other than the Great American Public:
weighed down above all ... that economic conditions are the worst in two or three decades and that America is in decline.

"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," he said, noting that growth has held up at about 1 percent despite all the publicity over losing jobs to India, China, illegal immigration, housing and credit problems and record oil prices. "We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet."

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is the primary reason that growth continues in the economy, he said.

"We've never been more dominant; we've never had more natural advantages than we have today," he said. "We have benefited greatly" from the globalization of the economy in the last 30 years.
As the derision set in, the McCain first instinct was to close ranks. Gramm's Panglossian self-delusion was the McCain position. A statement went up on the Politico website, quoting a McCain aide:
Mr. Gramm was simply saying that we are laying out the economic plan this week. The plan is comprehensive, providing immediate near-term relief for Americans hurting today as well as longer-term solutions to get our economy back on track, secure our energy future and deliver jobs, prosperity and opportunity for the next generation. We're laying out that plan this week with an emphasis on the critical importance of job creation, and it's been a great success so far.
When general ridicule exploded, Gramm was then swiftly evicted from Starship McCain via the nearest airlock. Overnight, that previous statement disappeared from Politico, and the direction of travel totally reversed:
Phil Gramm's comments are not representative of John McCain's views. John McCain travels the country every day talking to Americans who are hurting, feeling pain at the pump and worrying about how they'll pay their mortgage. That's why he has a realistic plan to deliver immediate relief at the gas pump, grow our economy and put Americans back to work.
Enter, and exit, the Old Girl from Channing School

Another blast from the past, another Texan, was loosed to make the economic running. Carly Fiorina was on the stump:
John McCain has proposed a clear pro-growth agenda that will jump-start our economy and create millions of jobs ...
Americans know how to succeed. They need a government that creates an environment to unleash the creativity and ingenuity of the American people to create jobs, not more programs from Washington...

He'll also keep America competitive in the global economy by reducing taxes on businesses and giving a tax credit for the hiring of research and development workers. America levies the second-highest business tax rate of any industrialized country. To attract jobs here, that has to change.
Which sounds like the recipe for further deregulation and subsidy for Big Business.

Alas, in the course of true Texan love did not run smooth: Fiorina would follow Gramm through the air-lock.

She questioned the suitability of Mrs Mooseblaster for the Veep slot -- indeed the suitability of McCain and all-comers -- , and was decidedly more liberal on girly matters. Is it relevant here that Fiorina had been floated, not least by herself, as a name to share the McCain ticket? Malcolm notes, too, that Fiorina might not be the best arm-candy for McCain at this precise moment: she was, after all, the recipient of (allegedly) a $42 million golden parachute when she previously was decanted from Hewlett-Packard: that doesn't chime to well with the Mooseblaster manifesto:
Shortly after McCain promised he would "clean up" Wall Street, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, his running mate, appeared at a Colorado rally on Monday morning and proclaimed that "John McCain and I will put an end to the abuses in Washington and Wall Street that have resulted in this financial crisis." She promised a McCain administration would "reform the way Wall Street does business."
That hardly amounts to a cogent, coherent policy; and leaves us that enduring mystery:

Where is Phil Gramm these days?

He was certainly back on board, just a month after his eviction: we have the word of the Wall Street Journal for that:
Ousted John McCain campaign co-chairman Phil Gramm is back with the campaign’s top advisers this weekend, as the campaign gathers top supporters for a series of briefings in scenic Aspen, Colo. ...

Gramm was seated in the front row, with other top supporters, this afternoon as McCain addressed the Aspen Institute in a “conversation” with Walter Isaacson, president of the institute and a former editor of Time magazine.

Asked what his role in the campaign is now, Gramm said in an interview, “I’m a supporter.” As for whether he continues to advise McCain, he said, “We’re friends. I haven’t stopped being his friend. If he asks me, I’d give it to him.” He added, “I’m not an official adviser.”
As late as last Wednesday (10th September), the fine Italian hand of Gramm was still drafting the script, according to AP:
Republican Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas lawmaker who attracted a devoted following in the GOP primaries, said Wednesday he rejected an appeal to endorse John McCain's presidential bid.

Paul said the request came from Phil Gramm, the former McCain adviser and ex-senator...

Speaking to reporters at a news conference, Paul said Gramm called him this week and told him, "You need to endorse McCain." The Texas congressman said he refused.
Ordure! Ordure!

Just a few days ago, the newsprints were hailing the great turn-around in the fortunes of John McCain, following his public embrace of Mrs Mooseblaster. Now, once again, it has all turned sour.

This has reached even the attention of the Times:
John McCain embarked on a desperate – but defiant – damage-control exercise yesterday as he sought to justify his claim that despite violent convulsions in America’s financial markets the “fundamentals of our economy are strong”.

His Democratic rival has pounced on the comment as proof that the 72-year-old Republican nominee is “out of touch” not only with the plight of investors on Wall Street, but also the pain of homeowners and workers on Main Street.
Lies, damn lies, and statistical presentation

To make its point, the Times illustrates McCain's problem with a graphic derived from the Diageo/Hotline daily poll (which, in itself, provokes Malcolm's curiosity: what has a drinks giant to do with political polling?)

It is instructive to compare the original:

with what the Times has done to it:

Now what Murdochian sub-text is being conveyed there?

Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Flywheel, Shyster and Mooseblaster

Just when the whole Sarah Palin saga reaches a nadir of credibility, along comes something even more eye-openingly bizarre.

So, yesterday John Nichols blogging at The Beat, courtesy of The Nation, was noting:
... the McCain campaign's determined effort to shut down the investigation of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's abuses of power in what has come to be known as the "Troopergate" scandal.
Now, we've had numerous "-gates", ever since Nixon's plumbers had compression-nuts caught in the mangle, but it takes some doing to get a "-gate" to one's name while only a candidate.

Ex Alaska semper aliquid novum

Mrs Mooseblaster is being sold as a "maverick" and a reform candidate, and for that branding exercise to work, she needs to be "cleaner than a hound's tooth". Well, Mrs Mooseblaster's pitbull fangs are well recorded: they may not be Colgate clean. As Nichols says:

Palin stands accused of dismissing the state's public safety commissioner because he would not fire her former brother-in-law, a state trooper with whom the governor was feuding after he and her sister divorced.

If Palin did so abuse her office, she could face any number of penalties, up to and including impeachment as governor. That would make it harder to pitch Palin as an "original maverick" reformer.

That throws the review of Governor Palin's actions back to the Alaska legislators. They are overwhelmingly Republican, but:

  • have personal reputations at stake, in a State where the Republican Party has a dodgy past -- Palin herself made it to the Governor's mansion by dissing her predecessor, and elements of her (adopted) Party;
  • have no particular reason to show Palin any great loyalty. If she makes it to Number One Observatory Circle, there'll be a vacancy at home; if she doesn't, she'll be shop-soiled goods; and
  • (again from Nichols):
Alaska is a very small state where top Democrats and Republicans have traditions of working together -- especially on ethics inquiries.
So, the McCain campaign is going via the tradesman's entrance:
McCain's aides have gotten a handful of legislators who are tied to the campaign to file a suit in Alaska's Superior Court demanding that the investigation be halted. The clear goal is to prevent the completion of what is likely to be a damning report regarding Palin's misdeeds before election day -- as was evident when McCain aides suddenly began appearing on national news shows, fully briefed and ready to cheer on the suit, just moments after Alaskans learned it was being initiated.
In short, the McCain campaign is launching an action against a committee of the Alaskan legislature, eight Republicans and four Democrats, to prevent the truth coming out before 4th November.

Chicken-and-egg: question and answer

There is a case to be made for the McCainites: Governor Palin becoming such a national personality has made Troopergate into a partisan issue. But that, in itself, raises a different matter -- what did the McCain camp know about the Mooseblaster life and times before she was rushed to centre stage?

We are assured that the background scrutiny of Palin involved a three-hour interview and an eighty-item questionnaire.

Malcolm would love to know how that questionnaire worked. There would, inevitably, be one question, on the lines of "Is there anything in your private life which could emerge and embarass the Party and the campaign?" Was the Miss Mooseblaster pregnancy then discussed and discounted? Was the messy scandal over the Mooseblaster sister's divorce explained? Or, are the McCain team now involved in a continuing fire-fight to contain a potential Towering Inferno?

The song she kept singin' made a man's blood run cold When it's springtime in Alaska, it's forty below

It's worth taking the temperature in Alaska:

At issue is whether Palin abused her power by pressing the commissioner to remove her former brother-in-law as an Alaska state trooper, then firing the commissioner when he didn't.

The matter risks casting a shadow on Palin's reputation, central to her appeal in the campaign, that she is a clean-government advocate who takes on entrenched interests -- not a governor who tried to use her authority behind the scenes to settle a personal score.

(Steve Quinn for AP in the Anchorage Daily News).

The investigation into whether Palin abused her office by putting pressure on Monegan to fire her ex-brother in-law has become more heated since Palin was named the Republican vice-presidential candidate.

The Legislative Council, made up of four Democrats and eight Republicans, voted unanimously to investigate the circumstances of Monegan's dismissal. Although Monegan was an at-will employee who could be fired for almost any reason, lawmakers wanted to see whether Palin tried to use her office to settle a personal score with Wooten.

Before Aug. 29, Palin told reporters she welcomed an investigation because she has nothing to hide. Since being named to the Republican ticket, however, Palin now has a lawyer defending her during the investigation and representatives of the John McCain presidential campaign are now involved.

(Michael Rovito for the Frontiersman, the local for Wasilla.)

It's worth recalling a throw-away comment by a local newsman, when Palin's nomination was announced: despite the claims by the McCain team that she had 80-per-cent approval ratings in Alaska, he pointed out the actual numbers were in the sixties, and falling sharply. He then added, "but they're in the teens among local journalists".

Out of the State, the Kansas City Star sums it up with an op-ed which starts:

Sarah Palin becomes just another politician

So much for Sarah Palin's claim to be a maverick, someone who doesn't play politics the old-fashioned way. Now she is.

The character issue

Mooseblaster and her doings amount to a very small "-gate". Far more important is what it says about the judgment and methods of McCain.

McCain spend much of the Primary season running against his own Party (in view of the unpopularity of the President, even among Republicans, that was a no-brainer). It tallied with his record in the Senate: on tax, immigration, economic policy and much, much more. He went to his nominating Convention on a simple ticket:
The nominee's friend described him as a "restless reformer who will clean up Washington." His defeated rival described him going to the capital to "drain that swamp." His running mate described their mission as "change, the goal we share." And that was at the incumbent party's convention.

After watching two political conclaves the last two weeks, it would be easy to be confused about which was really the gathering of the opposition. As Senator John McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president, he and his supporters sounded the call of insurgents seeking to topple the establishment - even though their party heads the establishment.
(Peter Baker, New York Times, and generally syndicated.)

The shine is coming off that model. The more McCain resorts to the "old politics" for his methods (as is apparently happening in Alaska) and appeals to the coalition of conservatives and fundamentalists Karl Rove built for Bush, the less the "maverick" image can fit.

And a final horror

Towards the end of a long appraisal of McCain's foreign-policy attitudes, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic writes this:
In my conversations with McCain, however, he never appeared greatly troubled by his shifts and reversals. It’s not difficult to understand why: tax policy, or health care, or even off-shore oil drilling are for him all matters of mere politics, and politics calls for ideological plasticity. It is only in the realm of national defense, and of American honor—two notions that for McCain are thoroughly entwined—that he becomes truly unbending.

Equally, McCain has identified one of his "heroes" to be ... Henry Kissinger.


And for Malcolm's next trick,
how the "maverick" McCain,
scourge of Wall Street,
contributed to the collapse of Lehman Brothers,
and much more.
Stay tuned to Malcolm Redfellow's World Service!
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Mrs Mooseblaster's book bag

As so often in the life-and-times of Governor Sarah Palin (left, with irony), there seem to be variations embroidered on a theme.

Garance Burke, for AP, seems to have as straight an account as we have yet had:
Shortly after taking office in 1996 as mayor of Wasilla, a city of about 7,000 people, Palin asked the city's head librarian about banning books. Later, the librarian was notified by Palin that she was being fired, although Palin backed off under pressure. Palin's alleged attempt at book-banning has been a matter of intense interest since Republican presidential nominee John McCain named her as his running mate last month. Taylor Griffin, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said Thursday [11th September] that Palin asked the head librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, on three occasions how she would react to attempts at banning books. He said the questions, in the fall of 1996, were hypothetical and entirely appropriate. He said a patron had asked the library to remove a title the year before and the mayor wanted to understand how such disputes were handled. Records on the city's Web site, however, do not show any books were challenged in Wasilla in the 10 years before Palin took office.
That same article indicates that one book may have been at the centre of this dispute:
The Rev. Howard Bess, a liberal Christian preacher in the nearby town of Palmer, said the church Palin and her family attended until 2002, the Wasilla Assembly of God, was pushing to remove his book from local bookstores.

Emmons told him that year that several copies of "Pastor I Am Gay" had disappeared from the library shelves, Bess said.
That's book-banning and homophobia.
So far, Mrs Mooseblaster, you're on a roll.

Pastor Bess is now "retired": that is "retired" as in defenestrated via:
the threats, intimidation and his eventual forced retirement and his church's excommunication from the American Baptists over his stances on LGBT issues and that book.
Now David Talbot (the onlie true begetter of has interviewed Bess and gives a full account (which, of course, should be read in full):
When it was published in 1995, Bess' book caused an immediate storm in the Mat-Su Valley, an evangelical stronghold dotted with storefront churches. Conservative ministers targeted the book, and the only bookstore in the valley that dared to stock it -- Shalom Christian Books and Gifts – soon dropped it after the owner was barraged with angry phone calls. The Frontiersman, the local newspaper that ran a column by Bess for seven years, fired him and ran a vicious cartoon that suggested even drooling child molesters would be welcomed by Bess' church.

And after she became mayor of Wasilla, according to Bess, Sarah Palin tried to get rid of his book from the local library. Palin now denies that she wanted to censor library books, but Bess insists that his book was on a "hit list" targeted by Palin. "I'm as certain of that as I am that I'm sitting here. This is a small town, we all know each other. People in city government have confirmed to me what Sarah was trying to do."
But it goes further than bigots bashing their Bibles over a book:
Soon after the book controversy, Bess found himself again at odds with Palin and her fellow evangelicals. In 1996, evangelical churches mounted a vigorous campaign to take over the local hospital's community board and ban abortion from the valley. When they succeeded, Bess and Dr. Susan Lemagie, a Palmer OB-GYN, fought back, filing suit on behalf of a local woman who had been forced to travel to Seattle for an abortion. The case was finally decided by the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled that the hospital must provide valley women with the abortion option.

At one point during the hospital battle, passions ran so hot that local antiabortion activists organized a boisterous picket line outside Dr. Lemagie's office, in an unassuming professional building across from Palmer's Little League field. According to Bess and another community activist, among the protesters trying to disrupt the physician's practice that day was Sarah Palin.
Mrs Mooseblaster's Wasilla, let us remind ourselves, is where women were expected to pay for the medical examination necessary in reporting a rape to the local police:
Despite denials by the Palin campaign, new evidence proves that as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Sarah Palin had a direct hand in imposing fees to pay for post-sexual assault medical exams conducted by the city to gather evidence...

Under Sarah Palin's administration, Wasilla cut funds that had previously paid for the medical exams and began charging victims or their health insurers the $500 to $1200 fees... Palin, as mayor, fired police chief Irl Stambaugh and replaced him with Charlie Fannon, who with Palin's knowledge, slashed the budget for the exams and began charging the city's victims of sexual assault. The city budget documents demonstrate Palin read and signed off on the new budget. A year later, alarmed Alaska lawmakers passed legislation outlawing the practice.
That leaves only the obvious:
Another valley activist, Philip Munger, says that Palin also helped push the evangelical drive to take over the Mat-Su Borough school board. "She wanted to get people who believed in creationism on the board," said Munger, a music composer and teacher. "I bumped into her once after my band played at a graduation ceremony at the Assembly of God. I said, 'Sarah, how can you believe in creationism -- your father's a science teacher.' And she said, 'We don't have to agree on everything.'

"I pushed her on the earth's creation, whether it was really less than 7,000 years old and whether dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time. And she said yes, she'd seen images somewhere of dinosaur fossils with human footprints in them."

Munger also asked Palin if she truly believed in the End of Days, the doomsday scenario when the Messiah will return. "She looked in my eyes and said, 'Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.'"
That same report carries a tit-bit, which suggests someone close to Mrs Mooseblaster is a student of the early career of the lifelong anti-Semite Tricky Dicky Nixon:
The mayor of Wasilla before Sarah Palin, John C. Stein, was also a Republican, though the office was and continues to be non-partisan. Mayor Stein was defeated by Sarah Palin in a campaign that brought in the NRA, Republican partisans, and a whisper campaign that Mayor Stein was Jewish (he is a Christian, but is "proud of such a reputation").
And the Seattle Times has a similar story:
... a TV station called her Wasilla's "first Christian mayor." This prompted a letter from Stein, saying: "Really?" He listed eight previous mayors, all Christian, and added: "With a name like 'Stein' some suspected that I must be a non-Christian, have non-Christian blood or at least have sympathized with a non-Christian sometime in my career. I'm proud of such a reputation but I, my family and forbearers are of the Christian persuasion, too."
Why it all matters:

Three of the four candidates (for President and Veep) have undergone years of national public scrutiny; and survived reasonably unscathed. By all accounts, and on the quantum of evidence available, they are honourable public respresentatives.

Mrs Mooseblaster came from nowhere. Therefore, she and her history deserve considerable investigation. What that investigation is exposing is not nice.


Malcolm has one excellent reason for distrusting anyone who is totally convinced about anything: there is always an element of doubt.

Not so, for the Mrs Mooseblasters of this world. They have this hot-line to the Ultimate Authority.

Mrs Mooseblaster and minions took over the town council and tried to use it to impose her prejudices on the local library. When that didn't quite work, she tried to boot the librarian. When that didn't work, she froze the library's budget (we are talking about the vast sum of $70,000 here).

The town of Wasilla went further into the mire with Mayor Mooseblaster's hockey-hall (a.k.a.Wasilla Multi-Use Sports Complex, though its main function seems to revolve around the Alaska Avalanche ice-hockey franchise). This is a 2,500-seater stadium, orignally for a town of no much more than twice that number. It was costed at some $14M, but went over-budget because Mayor Mooseblaster and her Council cocked up the ownership of the land on which it was erected. As a result, the library budget is still being squeezed so there will be no new stock (and, curiously, the local library blog-site has been taken off-line).

Then it was the turn of the local hospital. Again, fundamentalist pro-life views were preferred to any legalistic punctilio.

In passing, the local School Board got the treatment: we must have creationism on the curriculum! Except, of course, that would run against the writ of the Supreme Court. So, a quick snowshoe shuffle:
During a 2006 debate, she said she was a proponent of teaching both evolution and creationism in schools. She later clarified her stance in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, saying that she doesn't think creationism needed to be part of the curriculum and that she would not push the state Board of Education to add such alternatives to the state's required curriculum.
As Malcolm has discovered from recent threads on Slugger O'Toole (no, there's no debate: just blind obfuscation), creationism must be the total unquestioned truth because darwinism cannot explain everything ("D'oh!"). Certainty is all, sayeth the Lord's interpolators.

What these threads show is a total inability to accept scientific method. In this demi-monde of banality, human knowledge is finite; and cannot be expanded beyond the writing of Genesis 1.1:
Each new false religion of the post-Flood period has sought to detract from our Creator and from our responsibilities in this life; evolution's effect is no different and it (macro-evolution) continues to lack any scientific substance. Pray about this!
Then, it’s a small jump from saying "we don’t yet understand" to assuming "we won’t ever understand".

Malcolm recalls that there are too many good thinkers who ended up frying on religious bonfires (Giordano Bruno, for one notable example) because Mother Church extrapolated from don’t to won’t to shouldn’t try to understand. And that’s why he finds creationism is truly dangerous: after all,
if there can be no doubt about the origins of life,
the universe and everything,

we must stop people destroying their immortal souls
by looking for forbidden knowledge.

Over to you, Mrs Mooseblaster.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How they brought the good news
from CER
N to Aches
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see!
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with ‘Yet there is time!’
Thank you, Mr Browning: don't call us. We'll call you!

Malcolm's second thought was more impious:
I believe in the God particle, and the Higgs Boson mechanism, maker of heaven and earth, which was conceived by Englert and Brout, and born at CERN, was financed by the European Central Bank to the tune of £5 billion, underwritten by the poor suffering tax payers, liable to be crucified by the £5 billion debt underwritten by the European Central Bank ...
The Large Halidon Collider?

Malcolm hopes that, when they go back for the Family or Economic size, they wait until it's a special offer at Tesco. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, September 5, 2008

The fashion stakes

Malcolm guesses that "Tricky Dicky" Nixon is partly to blame. That story is worth revisiting: it tells us a lot about the workings of US political theatre.

So: a Malcolm aside:

During the 1952 Presidential campaign, Nixon's "slush fund" became an issue. The New York Post had a story that Nixon had taken $18,000 from Californian businessmen, on which Nixon had been drawing for his personal use. That might have gone away, had Nixon not gone into turbo-mode. His problem was the mud stuck because corruption had been precisely the claim he had directed at his previous political opponents. His first defence was to blame Communists for initiating a smear campaign. Everyone in his campaign, Nixon said, had to be "cleaner than a hound's tooth". The press, who had already worked out that Nixon was not that straight, were soon aiding the agitation for Nixon to be dumped from the ticket. Then Eisenhower, after a few days of hesitation,telephoned him, and gave him a soldierly instruction: "There comes a time, in matters like this, when you've either got to shit or get off the pot." Eisenhower, shrewd as ever, warned Nixon that the public reaction to a statement would decide whether or not Nixon stayed on board. On 23rd September, Nixon and his wife, Pat, mounted the dais at the El Capitan theatre, Hollywood. Nixon gave a virtuoso performance to the audience of 2,000 and (more important, and an innovation) to the television cameras. The portion that is generally remembered is when he denied that Pat had a mink coat: no, all she had was a plain republican cloth coat. That was followed by a piece of mawkish piety:
A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was? It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted. And our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it "Checkers." And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it.
Later, when Eisenhower (who, himself, had few illusions about Nixon) was asked how he took the speech, his reply was, "We're gonna keep the dog."
Flash forward to St Paul

On Wednesday, the wife of Senator John McCain, who apparently did not know how many homes he owned, was introduced to the audience by former school librarian, Laura Bush.

Cue some neat bitchery from Vanity Fair's Politics and Power blog:
It caught our attention, then, when First Lady Laura Bush and would-be First Lady Cindy McCain took the stage Tuesday night wearing some rather fancy designer clothes. So we asked our fashion department to price out their outfits.

Laura Bush
Oscar de la Renta suit: $2,500
Stuart Weitzman heels: $325
Pearl stud earrings: $600–$1,500
Total: Between $3,425 and $4,325

Cindy McCain
Oscar de la Renta dress: $3,000
Chanel J12 White Ceramic Watch: $4,500
Three-carat diamond earrings: $280,000
Four-strand pearl necklace: $11,000–$25,000
Shoes, designer unknown: $600
Total: Between $299,100 and $313,100
Obviously, "plain Republican cloth" is cut more generously these days.

Another Malcolm aside:

"Slush fund": that's an interesting one.

It goes back to an almost-respectable origin in the 1830s; and it's from the Navy.

Before refrigeration and other methods of food-preservation, meat on ship had to be pickled in brine. When it was boiled, most of the fat would be skimmed off into any spare barrel. This fat would later be sold; and the return went into the ship's "slush fund", to be used at the officers' discretion.

The term appears in a political context as early as 1894 (there is an earlier use, also in the Congressional Record, in 1874, but that seems to be in the original context of padding out officers' income). The reference itself is interesting: it is about the way $400,000 of John Wanamaker's money was used to influence the 1888 Presidential Election in favour of the Republican, Benjamin Harrison. Harrison repaid his debt by appointing Wanamaker Postmaster General.
Some things never change.
The defeated Democrat President in 1888 (he went on to serve a second term after the 1892 election) was Grover Cleveland. In the campaign of 1884, Cleveland had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child: he immediately admitted it, and went on, narrowly, to win the election. A further factor in 1884 was the New York Republicans calling the Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion". The Roman Catholics turned against the Republicans, who lost New York State by just 1,100 votes, and with it the national election.

Indeed, some things never change.

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Never forget

Malcolm has a "thing" about media stories on animals.

On the whole, they bring on the irresistible urge to vomit.

Puppies and kittens in particular.

Yeukk! Nasty.

Mind where you step!

OK, on reflection, Malcolm amends that opening statement to exclude penguins and elephants. Elephants, in particular, with those deep wrinkles and solemn eyes, always seem so ... knowing.

Today's Times had an elephant story.

So, here goes:
Under carefully controlled experimental conditions — essentially comprising a large cage and two buckets of assorted fruit — one elephant at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo managed to get its sums right 87 per cent of the time.
Meanwhile, half-way around the globe

At CERN, pointy-headed scientists are willy-waving -- my cyclotron is bigger than yours... nah, nahdy, nah!
It is the most ambitious and expensive civilian science experiment in history, based on the biggest machine that humanity has yet built...
This colossal circuit, 17 miles (27km) in circumference, is the world’s most powerful atom-smasher, the £3.5 billion Large Hadron Collider (LHC), created at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva. Some 10,000 scientists and engineers from 85 countries have been involved. In the years ahead it will recreate the high-energy conditions that existed one trillionth of a second after the big bang. In doing so, it should solve many of the most enduring mysteries of the Universe.

Now, promise Malcolm ... please, please, promise him ... the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything must not be -- oh, please not -- 42!

We now reveal two moments of deep, lasting psychological trauma, that persist from Malcolm's past:
  • The second, paid job of his young life (the first was making fizzy drinks for Claxton and Son, Mineral Waters, in Wells-next-the-Sea: pay £6 a week: but that was 1959) was at a chemist's wholesaler in Norwich. He had to assemble orders, which frequently involved a closer working knowledge of brands of condoms than was usual for such a callow youth at that time. He had to sign off each completed requisition with his personal code. This code was ... 42.
  • When the second series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy aired, in 1980, Malcolm caught the first and second episodes as he lay on a bed of pain in the Whittington Hospital.
"So what?" you may say: well, try laughing constantly, through half-an-hour, with a broken and surgically-bolted leg, suspended in a sling.
No: to Malcolm, 42 is a very unlucky, painful and unfortunate number.

So, he raises a glass to that highly-intelligent elephant: 87% of the time correct. Malcolm recognises real talent.

One last flash-back from Malcolm's chequered past.

Seventeen years old, he had just completed his Irish Leaving Certificate (with honours).

This was his matriculation to Trinity College, Dublin, signed, sealed and delivered.

He was stopped in the corridor by the Maths teacher:
The Headmaster tells me you're staying on to the Scholarship Sixth.
Yes, sir.
Good. You're not planning to do Maths, are you ...
No, sir. Classics.
That wasn't a question. It was a statement.
Sphere: Related Content
Have a good summer, Malcolm?
It certainly had its moments.

Most of the highlights have appeared, one way or another, in this blog. One went missing, so is celebrated here.

Book a train ticket from the French Riviera to Turin; and you're likely to end up being routed via Ventimiglia. There's not much wrong with that; you have the joy of the journey along the Mediterranean, including the plunge under Monaco, with its spectacular new station. On the other hand, that way simply misses the point.

You want the direct train, the route of "le Train des Merveilles", from Nice-Ville to Cuneo, and then on to Turin. Or, if you have time and sense, stop off overnight (best: a Monday night, for reasons made clear later) at Cuneo (of which, more later).

In the summer season, the journey to Cuneo can be done with Carte Isabelle: this allows unlimited distance in Alpes Maritimes for a day for just €12.
On which, an extended aside: a privatisation too far

Whatever the logic for rail privatisation, and it mainly existed in the convoluted brains of misguided John Major and the misanthropic Adam Smith think-tank, even ten years on, the missing ingredient is care and concern for the passenger.

The prime example is ticketing.

Across Europe one can advance on the guichet, with a fair faith that one will get a fair deal. There will be a range of easily-available and properly-promoted discounts. The guardien, no Cerberus he or she, will be fully conversant with all, and capable of guiding a would-be passenger through any problem.

The most perfect is Deutsche Bahn: an exemplary web-site, with multi-language routing and ticketing information across Europe. Even Trenitalia can do it, with a certain degree of Latin clunkiness. French SNCF seem actually to want people to travel.

Not so in Britain. The different, train-operator based, websites are confused and confusing: just now Malcolm found four different prices for the same short journey (London to Cambridge) within minutes: the prices differed by a factor of 100% for the same service. All sorts of daftness persist: it is frequently cheaper, and considerably so, to book from the previous station up the line (as with the minor stations on that Cambridge line).

One may not even be sold a ticket: notably at Paddington, where the Heathrow Express booth stands aloof and away from the other sales point. The would-be passenger, often fluffed for time, is forced to queue twice. Or at Tottenham Hale, where buying a ticket for Stansted is a lottery, depending on whether it is obtained through London Underground or the "BR" desk.

Malcolm speaks ruefully, with painful experiences of both. And both airport links are grossly exploitative, with astronomical fares. In these days of no-frills airlines, one easily spends more on the first two dozen miles to the airport than the next six hundred.
And now, back to the Alpes-Maritimes

Malcolm's day started at Beaulieu-sur-mer, so the TER train was one of those splendid TER-Bombardier high-capacity electric regional expresses (see right), which whisked him into Nice-Ville.

Then the 12.35 "tous les jours" to Cuneo, arriving at 15.26. The Fiche Horaires shows this equipment does the return trip just twice in the working day. That three-hour schedule looks very leisurely for a road distance of less than 80 miles. Again: that's not the point.


This is a station in the grandest style. If Louis XIV had built railways, this is what he would have wanted. It had to be fit for royalty: Czar Alexander II was here, in his private train, the day after the railway to Nice opened. When the station went up, in 1867, it was outside the town of Nice. The town soon grew around it, and largely (large, indeed) in the style that became known as "la Belle Epoque". Leopold of Belgium was through here, on his way to the vast Villa Leopolda at Villefranche.
Queen Victoria roughed it on the Riviera from 1882. Between 1895 and 1899, this was where she would arrive, accompanied by her staff of over a hundred, to take over the west wing of the Excelsior Hôtel Regina (named and built in her honour), up the hill at the top of the Boulevard de Cimiez.

Today at Nice-Ville, we discover our train is a fairly-clapped-out diesel unit. The asterisk at the head of the column in the timetable had warned:
Trenitalia train des chemins de fer italiens.
This must be some kind of salami and spaghetti alarm; but all looks well. It has all the re-assuring look of older SNCF rolling stock. It even has the right French decals.

Well, to be honest, our train looks well and truly paupered alongside the grand TGV, bound for Geneva from the adjacent platform 4. Then again, the listed 6 hours or so to Geneva compares very favourably with the trip on which we are engaged. Anyway, there we are (see right), almost cowering at platform 5.

French railways still believe in whistles and flags. The under-floor diesels roar (we sensitive souls will expend quite some effort opening and closing the vents at each tunnel). The train pulls out, to the scheduled minute.

Just out of Nice-Ville, we dip into the first tunnel (this takes us under the Belle-Epoch villas of Cimiez), and we part company with the main line, heading east.

The first few miles are less than impressive, through the pink-buff apartment blocks of the north-eastern suburbs of Nice, past the railway-yards at St Roch. By the second stop, L'Ariane-la Trinité, just eight minutes out, we are sitting beside a decaying industrial site: things are looking up, though: it's still urbanised, but the hills are in view.

We have passed the first of a series of frontiers, some more obvious than others. We have lost the electric catenary. We have left the electrified mainline, all modern glitz and glamour; and are heading into branch-line country. We have moved back a technological generation or two. That's partly the point.

We snake alongside the dry bed of the Ariane. Cars on the main road (the D2204B, the map says) out-race the train with ease. Again, today, that's not the point.

A couple of minutes late, 25 minutes out, we pull into the hybrid of Drap-Cantaron. The hills are high and tree-clad: high on one of them is an observatory. Tunnels are frequent and long.

We have passsed another of those frontiers. Along with the landscape, domestic architecture has changed. Houses have pitched roofs, with large overhangs. There are woodpiles in many gardens. We have passed out of the sunshine belt of the Côte d'Azur into alpine country. Here it rains: there is cold and even snow.

For a few miles, as the train poddles along the river valley, we run in a small cutting through overhanging shrubs o. From time to time we catch glimpses of the road running in the same direction, and odd isolated houses, all with laundry out to dry, and the allotment garden of tomatoes and melons, onions and brassicas.

Then Peillon-Ste Thèle and Peille before L'Escarène. The geography has changed again: now we notice the stone-built villages perchés on the rocky ridges.

At some point along here our Cartes Isabelle get a cursory once-over. The ticket-collector surely must be une lycéenne on a summer job or work-experience. She is shy, almost blushing about it, but has the proper SNCF hat and ticket-punch. One clip suffices, not the full-blooded macho multiple staccato-clicks of the New Jersey Transit into New York Penn last month.


We are doing well. Sospel, several tunnels, fifty minutes and forty kilometres gone, looks well worth further investigation at some other date.

There is a substantial exodus of earnest types, all with walking sticks and back-packs off to do the job for us. This is another of those frontiers crossed. Down on the coast les vacances involves balancing a beer in self-basting and reclining mode, merely lifting the ogle-licensing dark glasses to peer at the hyper-active fossicking around, in and on high-speed, high-value marine Tupperware. A few kilometres inland, a few hundred feet up the mountains, we are among les randonneurs and les promeneuses.

The guidebook says this is the valley of the Bévera, illustrated with a castellated bridge straight out of the Italianate canton of Ruritania. What we see as the train curves round the town is delicious: spiny church towers, tall terraces of houses -- many obviously constructed of pastel icing-sugar, shutters uniformly not-quite-closed against the sunlight, a Baroque basilica with white Corinthian pilasters. The station itself is a strong pinky-red colour wash (on second thoughts, all the stations along the line came out of that same pot). The whole place is pick-and-mix, off the Dulux colour-card, with heavy ornamentation. That same guidebook tells us the town was badly bombed in the second unpleasantness: that explains the toy-town squeakiness of the place.


On the move again.

More tunnels, before we pass a small lake formed by damning the river, and arrive at Breil-sur-Roya. We stop alongside the sun-faded eau-de-Nile of a Trenitalia on the down line: it must be "down" because we are still climbing, and now reaching 1,000 feet.

This, a town of some 2,000 hommes (it says here: presumably some of them are also femmes) is the metropolis of the line: here we join the route out of Ventimiglia (after war damage, the line did not re-open until 1979: a plaque on Breil station tells us so). There is an extended delay: tea-break or change of personnel.

A second aside

There's a video on YouTube, posted by Raphael40, of the journey from Breil back to Nice, by this route.

The differences between that experience and ours are:
  • it shows the return journey;
  • it is late March, with lying snow and bare trees, as opposed to the verdure of late summer;
  • it is afternoon, turning to dusk and dark: our trip is bright sun all the way;
  • he concentrates on the station stops, missing the essential and exciting bits in between.
And on from Breil

The scheduled ten minutes stop at Breil extends to a dozen. A breather for the diesels before the crest of the line, perhaps.

It's a time for the second, and last, half of the sandwich bought at the Flunch counter at Nice-Ville, another swig of the water bottle. A moment to meditate on Edward Thomas, that June day of 1914, remembering
Adlestrop --
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
This warm August day of 2008, no steam to be released: instead the diesels roar, and we have movement. On the left, in the disused sidings there seems to be a collection of old rolling stock, much of it well rusted.

Now the engines are working hard, and we climb higher into the mountains.

Brigue and Tende

We are not at the political border yet, but the national differences are becoming blurred. The whole of the county of Nice was only annexed by France in 1860. The north Italian influence is still apparent. The style, the life-style, the taste of these small towns are becoming increasingly like those across the Italian line proper. La Brigue and Tende, coming up soon on our trip, were absorbed into France only in 1947, after a local plebiscite.

We are passing through another of those frontiers of the mind and perception.

The High Roya valley was originally the private hunting estate of the Dukes of Savoy. Today it is the Mercantour National Park, advertised as the Vallée des Merveilles, the marvels being Bronze Age rock inscribings -- some 36,000 found to date. Hence in summer le Train des Merveilles, from Nice to Tende at 9.00 a.m., on our route, each morning: this transforms into a winter service, le Train des Neiges, with a connecting bus from St Dalmas de Tende to the ski-station at Castérino. Either way, the valley is being marketed for tourism.

By the time we have passed through these last few stations, our train is largely empty. We share a compartment with sleeping back-packers. The walkers and hikers have left us. They were along for the destination: we are here for the ride.

Four times along this mountain stretch the track enters a tunnel, does a 360 degree turn inside the rock, and emerges at a different level. In each case we suddenly emerge and see, thrice below and (having crested the mountains) once above, the line we are on. For Malcolm, and other railway nuts, this is the reason for being here. The first of these winding, climbing subterranean loops is after Fontan (counter-clockwise on our direction); the second after La Brigue, the third immediately after Tende (both clockwise). Each involves the snarling diesels coping with the ascent, the train wheels occasionally squealing as they manage the curve. Outside the window, the reflected light from the train interior shows the raw rock alongside.

St Dalmas de Tende

The journey has one more surprise: the station at St Dalmas de Tende. It is monumental. It is five stories high. It is a city block in length. It is solid masonry. It is abandoned, pointless, surrounded by chain-link fencing and empty.

Explanations are due.

It was built in 1928, in a full blown neo-Baroque. This was, at that time, the Italian side of the frontier. This was another imperial echo by Mussolini's Italy. Here the Italian Railways not only ran on time; but built this monster to mark their territory. After 1947, with the transfer of the communes of Saint-Dalmas de Tende, Tende, La Brigue and Viévola, it became redundant. Many trains no longer have any cause to stop here, and don't bother.


Now let us reconsider that station at Tende. This, too, was an Italian construction, also from the time of il Duce, built in 1927. Quieter, classically square and neatly proportioned, far more elegant as it is less grandiose than the dinosaur at St Dalmas down the track.

It is clearly different in style (and paint pot) from the SNCF stations up to Breil. And so a penny (or centime or lire) eventually drops. We may still be in France geographically, but this section is run from Italy. In fact, the whole line from Coneo to Ventimiglia is operated by Ferrovie dello Stato.

The summit tunnel

The final station in France, Vievola, seems an afterthought. Perhaps its only function was to be a border post between 1947, when these communes were absorbed into France, and the cessation of hostilities after the 1990 Schengen agreement. This seems a wayside halt: there is no community of any coherence or size to justify its existence.

At Vievola we are at 990m, 3,250 feet, altitude: we have climbed something like a further 600 feet since Tende.

All the way up the valley, the rail line has been following the general direction of the RN204 (now D6204 and E74), though the track is famously on bridges where it is not in a tunnel. We now plunge into the long, 8090m Tende rail tunnel. Somewhere in the depths we pass the frontier between France and Italy. It seems, in many ways, the least significant of the borders we have crossed.

Somewhere above us, at the 128om level, is the road tunnel: just (just!) 3180m long. It was a wonder of the world when it was drilled, back in 1882. Higher still is the Col de Tende, at 1980m.

Up there is the old, unpaved original road: since the tunnel is prohibited to cyclists, there will be the odd hard-cases negotiating the rocks most summer days. Let us spare them a thought, as they gamely struggle, onwards and upwards, until their moment of deserved, breathless triumph.

Yet another aside

The RN204 is one of the great biker roads of the Alps, with enough"twisties" to satisfy the worst craving. This is what the Snake Pass should be like, in our Superbike dreams.

At the crest in the ruined Fort Central, originally from the 1880s, an enduring monument to the excesses of the military mind.

In our tunnel we pass directly underneath, as we enter Italy.


We are now on the descent. The train's diesels reduce to a mutter. Subtly, now on the north-facing slope, the scenery has changed. We are more obviously into winter sports country: Limone became a ski-station once the railway reached here in 1891.

Here, we are still high, 110 km and 140 minutes from Nice. We are back across another of those frontier: from here the line is electrified.

Down the Vermenagna valley

Once across the line into Piedmont, Michelin 527 Carte Routière et Touristique, which has served well this far, becomes less detailed. It anticipates the final circular tunnel just before Vernante.

About the only thing we notice is that this is a well-tended little town, with one difference. Even from the train one catches sight of murals painted on houses. A later check shows this is because Vernante was the last home of one Attilio Mussino, who, it seems, was to the story of Pinocchio what E. H. Shepard was to Winnie-the-Pooh (before Disney got to him). In his honour, during the 1980s, Vernante took to these wall decorations.

And to to Roccavione: the end is in sight. There is some kind of sense that we are finally coming out of the mountains, and into the river-plain. Roccavione has new-build housing and factories. It gives the impression of being a flourishing community. It is less obviously wholly dependent on primary products and tourism. We are, again, crossing one of those frontiers.

Borgo S. Dalmazzo

This is the first town the map grants bold type since Tende, and one of only half-a-dozen along the whole route. It dignifies itself as the "Città di Borgo San Dalmazzo", and it clearly is a place of some local importance.

The approaches to the "Città" show a rash of those Euro-economy apartment blocks that come off planners' desks (they can never have been blessed with the benefit of a fully-functioning architect) like peas from a freezer bag. Burgo S. Dalmazzo looks as if its doing well for itself: this must be where the depopulation of the higher country is heading.

At Borgo San Dalmazzo we are out of the Alpine valleys: from here on the mountains are a distant, if constant, blue horizon.

The Vermenagna, which started as a torrent, has now aged, become respectable. It has ceased to be a mountain stream, and here combines with, and takes the name of the Gesso coming down from Isola 2000. At Cuneo the Gesso mates with the Stura di Demonte, which has orinated out to the west at the Colle della Maddalena. In due course (geddit?) that in turns meets the mighty and all-conquering Po.

Standing at Borgo San Dalmazzo, we notice a long line of goods trucks, laden with what look like untrimmed pit-props. All the wagons have German identification. This is one of the few example of commercial traffic, and by far the most substantial, we have seen on the whole journey.

A final and irrelevant aside

When he sees them (inevitably in the summer or autumn, when they are not in spate), Malcolm finds it hard to credit that this or that particular river is the reality of what second-form Geography at Fakenham Grammar School, mid-1950s, was all about.

The teacher, in those days, had most likely seen no more of the Po than of the source of the White Nile, or the upper reaches of the Orinoco: about all of which he -- and it would be a "he" -- expounded, knowledgeably and convincingly. An exception to the gross generalisation of that previous sentence should be for the erstwhile-suffering ex-squaddies and NCOs (and there were many in the teaching force of those days, frequently two-year trained, and none the worse for it) who had been with Lady Astor's contemned "D-Day Dodgers". Nor is it curious that the assembled pupillage,
the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order,
ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they
were full to the brim
failed to object or even question the veracity or the vehicle of transmission of these topographical gems. We were, after all, the first beneficiaries of the Butler Education Act, and were suitably grateful for it.

As we pull out of Borgo San Dalazzo, the last leg of the trip, we are halted athwart a levl-crossing. For some minutes, perhaps ten or more, nobody is going anywhere. Another, busier Adlestrop. We watch as, one by one, the young cyclists and the not-quite-so-young motorists lose patience, turn and head off to find an alternative road.

Then again for no obvious reason, the signal must have changed, and we proceed.

Cuneo, at 15.26

The last bare handful of kilometres tick past: we are now on level track, well-fettled for faster and heavier traffic than us.

We have passed our last frontier: now the fertile river valley is laid out in large fields, growing fruit and vegetables. We pass orchards and vineyards. The grain has been harvested, and consigned to the granaries that dot the now-disciplined landscape. All is smooth, efficient, groomed agri-businesslike.

And so into Cuneo, a couple of minutes late.

We collect our possessions. We dismount. The smell of hot oil speaks of a job well done. The tick-tick of an exhaust pipe, now allowed to cool, seems almost a note of self-satisfaction.

Malcolm is no great afficianado of diesels. He prefers the smell of the brute force and sweat of antique steam. He admires the air-conditioned comfort and speed of modern electrics. Here, though, has been a well-used and even-abused train-set, possibly forty or more years old, doing a respectable, capable and workmanlike job.

Congratulations and thanks are due to someone, somewhere. Sphere: Related Content
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