Sunday, February 22, 2009
A marvellous story from a very decent man. Field is an old-fashioned Labour man
Like most MPs, when I was first elected to Parliament in 1979 I was determined to do the best for my constituents. My arrival in Westminster coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.
So when I needed to get something done for my Birkenhead constituency, it seemed obvious that the best way to do it was to lobby the most powerful person in the country on their behalf.
For some reason, Mrs Thatcher usually agreed to see me. We met frequently during her 11 years in Downing Street and our meetings were usually very formal. Quickly I would know if Mrs T, as I often called her, would agree to any of my requests. But I shall never forget our last two meetings in her final days in No 10.
On the first occasion, I had asked to see her to request more funding for the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. This time, our meeting was not the usual formal affair. When she invited me in to her study I had never seen her so animated.
She had flown back that day from meeting President George Bush Snr in the US to discuss what to do about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Mrs Thatcher was adamant that the Allies must go to war with Saddam but Mr Bush was agonising over the decision.
Pacing around the room, she told me how she had urged him that military action was absolutely vital. Her whole being was consumed with energy as I pleaded with her to come and sit down and talk about Cammell Laird.
Eventually she said to me: ‘What is it that you want, Frank?’ I told her how important her overseas tours were in attracting inward investment. On her next trip would she please secure crucial investment for jobs in Birkenhead and provide a little more from the regional assistance fund?
‘Everybody depends on me,’ she said.
‘I know, but will you please make this commitment?’
‘Don’t worry, you’ll scoop the fund,’ she said.
Less than 48 hours later, I bumped into one of her Cabinet Ministers, David Hunt, who at the time was MP for the Wirral, next to my Birkenhead seat, who said: ‘I see you have been to see the Prime Minister.’
A Prime Ministerial minute had been written straight after her meeting with me and sent to the relevant secretaries of state and their permanent secretaries, instructing them to grant the additional funds. ‘What was the phrase Frank, “scooped”?’ he said.
There wasn’t much in her record as Education Secretary in Edward Heath’s Government to suggest she would be a great Prime Minister.
But when she entered No10 she understood she had to get control of the Whitehall machine – and not be bypassed by it, as had occurred with so many of her predecessors.
A few weeks after we discussed Cammell Laird, I saw her again at No. 10 and the atmosphere could not have been more different. It was the day she had to decide whether to resign. I recalled all the times she had delivered for me. When I saw how some of her own Conservative MPs hated her and called her ‘that woman’ it sickened me.
I had phoned No. 10 and asked for Peter Morrison, the Tory MP who was her Parliamentary Private Secretary and responsible for keeping in contact with her backbenchers. The voice on the switchboard said Sir Peter had gone home. Startled, I repeated: ‘Gone home?’ The switchboard lady was clearly as shocked as I was. ‘Yes, that was my reaction too,’ she said.
‘Is the Prime Minister there?’ I asked. The switchboard lady said: ‘I am not supposed to tell you, but yes, the Prime Minister has come home.’
‘I will come over to see her,’ I said. The voice said: ‘I think that would be a very good idea.’ The next time I heard that voice was seven years later when she put through a phone call from Tony Blair asking me to become a Minister in his Government.
That fateful day for Mrs Thatcher, I went to Downing Street and was shown into the waiting room, despite protests from staff who told me the Prime Minister was too busy to see me. I had taken some work with me and sat down making a few phone calls when in walked Norman Tebbit.
Norman asked: ‘Why have you come?’
‘I have come to tell her that she is finished,’ I said.
Norman told me I would see her shortly. A few minutes later, in came Mrs T. I guided her to her chair and sat beside her. The energy, so evident the last time we met, had ebbed away.
‘Why have you come?’ she asked.
‘I believe you are finished, Prime Minister.’
‘It is so unfair.’
‘I have not come to discuss fairness, Prime Minister. You cannot now go out on a top note, but you can go out on a high note. You must resign before you face the Commons again. Otherwise those Tory creeps will tear you apart in public.’
‘But it is so unfair. I have never lost them an election.’
Eventually, she agreed that she too thought she had no choice but to resign – but others were not saying it to her face. ‘Why have you come, Frank?’ she asked again.
‘Whenever I have asked you for help for Birkenhead you’ve tried to help. And I feel I owe it you.’
Only then did I notice that the door was still ajar and in a moment Norman was back in the room. He too was protecting her and I think he wanted to repeat what I had said.
‘When is Denis coming home?’ I enquired.
‘Oh, after 11.30,’ replied Mrs T.
‘Will you talk to him about what you are to do?’
She was briefly back to her old self as she explained how I would be smuggled out of the building so no one knew I had been there. ‘I have arranged for you to go out another way. You will be taken out into Whitehall, not through Downing Street.’
I saw her only once more as Prime Minister: her last appearance at the Dispatch Box she had dominated for a decade. Her voice was different – I guess it was because she was fighting back the tears.
Then Dennis Skinner threw her a lifeline by heckling her. ‘I am enjoying this,’ she said – and the temper of the speech changed. It was a parliamentary triumph.
The ranks of Tory MPs behind her cheered as if to cover their murderous intent. I watched her as I stood at the end of the Chamber and, when I caught her attention, I nodded my approval.
But I couldn’t help wondering whether I would ever see a Prime Minister who was more able in pushing through radical reforms. Two decades on, I am still waiting and wondering.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
Brooklyn's Russian-speaking, largely Jewish outpost -- provides an answer to many political problems facing Russia and the Middle East.
Jews from the former Soviet Union are probably the most successful immigrant community in the United States. Highly educated and urban, we came here in the 1970s and 1980s, when the number of foreign-born Americans was near an all-time low and the country still welcomed newcomers. We had the support of the U.S. Jewish community. No less important, we were given refugee status, which gave us access to additional benefits not available to other immigrants.
In the Soviet Union, we suffered the usual oppression of the totalitarian state, but this was exacerbated in our case by anti-Semitism -- both from the government and citizens at large. You'd expect us to love freedom and treasure democracy, protection for minority rights and other such niceties.
Not in the least. The fact that former Soviet Jews cast almost 85 percent of their votes for former President George W. Bush in 2004 and supported Senator John McCain by a substantial plurality last year is not the real issue, of course. More troubling, our community has begun to lean toward more racist, intolerant attitudes. It tends to dislike all dissidents and troublemakers, admires force and supports military solutions. And what I find most amazing, the Russian Jewish community is showing increasing intolerance and hatred toward immigrants who they fear are turning the civilized, white United States into a Third World country.
Does this sound familiar? It's those same post-Soviet attitudes that have infected Russia.
Even though Jews have been targets of anti-Semitic forgeries like the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," I received countless e-mails from Russian Jews alleging that U.S. President Barack Obama is anything from a Muslim to the antichrist. Only a bit more than 10 percent of Russian speakers supported him.
In the United States, the Russian-speaking community is too small to matter, but in Israel former Soviets comprise almost 20 percent of the population. In Israel, they initially had a problem. Their far-right proclivities are rooted in the fear and loathing of the Arabs, love for the grandeur of Great Israel and predilection for extreme or military solutions. These views were shared by groups the Russian Israelis disliked, like the Sephardim and religious zealots.
Now, however, Russian Israelis have found their spokesman in Avigdor Lieberman. A marginal entity in 2003, his Israel Our Home party is now the third largest in the Knesset and the kingmaker of the next government.
This year's Israeli election -- and the attack on Gaza that preceded it -- was pivotal. Israel is feeling pressure to rein in its far right, even as the country as a whole moves further rightward.
A small state in a hostile region, Israel needs powerful patrons to survive. It came into existence when Stalin's Soviet Union voted for it in the United Nations, even as the West was ambivalent about the new Jewish state. Israel's next patron was France, and only around the 1967 Six-Day War did a close alliance with Washington develop.
Now, Israel is ideologically ripe to complete the circle. Lieberman has cited tactics employed by then-President Vladimir Putin against Chechnya as an example for handling Gaza. Why not? Russia's ideology and actions dovetail perfectly with the attitudes of Lieberman's voters. Lieberman once asserted that when democracy and Jewish values conflict, Jewish values must prevail.
After the Kujau fraud, one does rather wonder at the authenticity of this document. Its provenance would have to be thoroughly investigated before it is taken seriously. There are a number of points which are rather surprising
ADOLF Hitler's uncouth behaviour and shocking table manners appalled his wartime dining companions, according to a secret intelligence report discovered during a house clearance.
The papers, marked “Must be destroyed within 48 hours of reading”, include a psychological profile of the Nazi dictator based on the interrogation of one of his closest aides.
The aide, an officer who kept the appointments diary at Wolf's Lair, Hitler's military headquarters at Rastenburg in East Prussia, described how the Führer bit his nails during meals, gorged on cakes and was often lost in his own thoughts, paying little attention to the conversation around him. He also spoke about the rages that kept Hitler's senior officers in a state of constant terror.
The papers are part of an intelligence summary prepared as the war neared its end and are believed to have been saved by a British officer. They were found at a house in Britain and are to be sold at auction next month.
The unnamed German officer, a lieutenant colonel referred to as PW — prisoner of war — was based at Wolf's Lair for several months in 1943. He dined with Hitler at least 30 times and observed his daily routine. He told the Allies that Hitler would eat only vegetables and stewed fruit and banned smoking in his presence. His meals would be accompanied by one or two glasses of beer.
“Hitler eats rapidly, mechanically, for him food is merely an indispensable means of subsistence,” PW said. Conversation at the dinner table relaxed Hitler and stimulated his thoughts. When he spoke it was “in mellow baritone, without that raucous, unpleasant stridency of his public speeches”.
But the informant added: “At the table and in his speech he shows many facets of rather uncouth behaviour. He abstractedly bites his fingernails, he runs his index finger back and forth under his nose, and his table manners are little short of shocking.”
Although Hitler forswore meat and drank herbal tea in preference to coffee, the report said that he ate “prodigious amounts of cake”, which contributed to his “digestive disorder”.
The officer also gave an insight into Hitler's private life, saying that the dictator told companions that he had never married because he could not allow care for a family to interfere with his duty to the German nation.
He had female companions, including “a Miss Braun”, but it was generally believed that the relationships were platonic. The officer also dismissed as “rumours” speculation that Hitler had homosexual tendencies.
He told how Hitler threw “carpet-biting” tantrums. A major on night duty who failed to pass on a message confirming that the retreat from El Alamein had begun felt the full force of his wrath.
“When Hitler heard about this he threw one of his typical fits and greeted the major with the words, ‘If you say a word in your defence, I'll have you shot'. Then he raved on and finally demoted the major to private.
Hitler also had a profound belief in divine providence and his own destiny, encouraged when an assassin's bomb left him uninjured. The officer left Wolf's Lair convinced that the Führer was a madman.
Terry Charman, a senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, said: “It is a surprise to hear of Hitler drinking beer as it is generally believed he had given up alcohol in 1931. The description of the tantrum is typical.”
The auction will be on on March 5 and the papers are expected to fetch up to 1000 pounds.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The Styria region is a little untouched gem. When the Iron Curtain fell it suddenly wasn't a place at the "wrong" end of Austria.
Sitting on my sunny terrace munching juicy peaches and looking out over a field of vibrant sunflowers at a temperature of over 30C, I could be in some romantic idyll in the suny south of Europe; in fact, I'm right at the heart of it.
This is the scene that greets me every harvest time here in Styria, southern Austria, my new home since my husband and I left our home in a small village on the Pelopponese in Greece in June 2005. Now, instead of harvesting olives in winter and enjoying our own olive oil, we harvest pumpkin seeds in autumn and press these to make pumpkin seed oil – not as good for cooking as the olive variety, but a delicious salad dressing.
Styria is a little untouched gem. When the Iron Curtain fell it suddenly wasn't a place at the "wrong" end of Austria, going nowhere except towards the Eastern Bloc, but a glorious land of world class spa resorts and medieval towns. There are award-winning boutique wineries where the wine is already sold out before it is even harvested, hiking trails round long extinct volcanoes – oh, and of course all those sunflower fields.
Styria is so unknown that on going into a travel agency in Scotland, my home country, during the move the travel agent looked at me rather strangely when I asked about flights, thinking I'd moved to Syria in the Middle East. They do both have one thing in common, though – their hospitality. When my parents visited for the first time, my neighbour Maria was up at the crack of dawn to bake doughnuts which she very kindly presented to us for breakfast.
My mum and dad were impressed and so was I. In fact we sometimes think we must look underfed as baskets of food regularly appear on our front step – juicy purple aubergines, home-made bread, apples and of course bottles of pumpkin seed oil.
So why Styria? My "Mann" is a Vorarlberger – from that part of Austria next to Switzerland and Liechtenstein that is terribly mountaineous, terribly built-up and terribly cold. So when hubby wished to return to his homeland for health reasons – he has bad kidneys and liver and the Greek hospitals didn't exactly inspire confidence should he ever need dialysis – I, having got used to the Mediterranean lifestyle and especially the sunshine, said: "OK but we need to come back to the sunniest part of Austria" – and this is it!
Temperatures can reach the high 30Cs in summer – in fact we once measured 43C – but there's enough rain in between to irrigate the crops, and the growing number of golf courses in the area. And, of course, fill the pool without feeling guilty about the farmer down the road who has no water for his goats. In summer the climate tends to be subtropical and in winter we can sometimes enjoy lunch on the terrace or just as easily celebrate a white Christmas!
One thing is for sure, though; your euro or pound goes a lot further here than in other, more well-known parts of Europe. Our local Gasthaus does a super two course lunchtime menu with salad for under six euros. However, by far the most atmospheric places to eat are the buschenschanken or wine taverns, conveniently located next to the vineyards so you can enjoy breathtaking views while you have a mile-long-sandwich covered in locally produced meats or cheeses and some fine wine for under five euros.
But you have to hurry as buschenschanken are only open as long as they have enough of their own wine to sell. Many have their own rooms to let and "Urlaub am Weinbauernhof" (living with the winemakers) is fast becoming a popular experience. What's even more interesting is the price. Our local, the Erlebnisbauernhof has apartments for two with kitchen, WC, bathroom, living and dining area, bedroom and use of sauna for €32 per night. That's not per person but per apartment and also includes use of a pool with views over the vineyards. Bed and breakfast in a private house or Gasthaus can be had from €16-30 per person per night.
My greatest fear about the weather has not materialised; in fact, I look forward to some rain to water the garden. This is a very rural area with picturesque villages on golden hillsides and people who have a close connection with the land. It seems almost everybody here is self-sufficient to some degree with many having pigs, hens, goats or hares in their back yards and a garden full of fresh organic veg.
Property is much cheaper than more well-known parts of the country and also comes with a lot more land and space. Agricultural lands sells for about three euros per square metre and building land for about €11. Friends of ours are selling their farmhouse, with around 7,000 square metres of land, for €127,000 (details on www.remax.at).
Our "new" neighbours are Slovenia to the south, a favourite haunt for super fish meals even cheaper than in Austria. In fact on the new motorway we are a mere two and a half hours' drive from the Venetian jewel of Piran on the Slovenian coast. About 90 minutes away is another jewel, this time in Croatia; if you can't make it to Vienna, Varasdin is a good second best.
You feel as though you could meet Franz Josef, the last Habsburg emperor, around any corner. The border with Hungary, and its excellent Sunday markets, is under an hour from here too, so its actually possible to experience four countries in one day. Not bad for the "wrong" end of Austria!
Monday, February 2, 2009
Some of the warriors of old are still with us
CAPT. IVAN CASTRO will tell you he's an ordinary man, basically. You may wish to disagree. He is an officer in the U.S. Special Forces, and blind. He was blinded while fighting in Iraq about two and a half years ago. He did not then leave the military. He persevered, to an astonishing degree. He has attracted interest all over the country, as well he might.
He was born in Hoboken, N.J. (same as Frank Sinatra), in 1967. His parents were from Puerto Rico. His dad was a cook and other things, and his mother was a factory worker and other things. How he got that interesting name, "Ivan Castro," he doesn't know. His sister's name is Olga! The family moved to Puerto Rico when he was twelve. He wanted to be a policeman, a fireman, a soldier--"something with action," as he says. He went to a military high school, and joined the Army when he was 20. He expected to stay for four years. He fought in the Gulf War-and continued in the military. "I had done so much in those four years," he says, "it just didn't make any sense for me to get out."
After the Gulf War, he was in Bosnia, Colombia, and other places. And then he was back in combat, this time in Afghanistan. He was a platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne. In due course, he was in Iraq. It was in September 2006 that the mortar blast came. His injuries were extensive: his right eye gone, his left eye beyond repair, his lungs collapsed, etc. There is a long list of injuries and problems. "Believe it or not," he says, "we keep discovering things that are coming up-- injuries we weren't aware of."
I have come to see him in his office at Fort Bragg. He is a personable man, the kind who puts people at ease. There is also about him the air of command. He's the kind of soldier about whom people say, "Officer material." A white cane leans against the wall. On another wall is a picture of Captain Castro and his wife with President Bush. There is also a letter from Bush.
And Captain Castro has a specially equipped computer--one that reads him his e-mail, for example. He'll tell you, "I used to hunt and peck. But when you're blind, you can't do that. So I had to learn to type."
When that mortar round went off, "I was fighting to stay alive, fighting not to give up. That's all I remember. I knew I didn't want to die. I knew I wanted to come back to my wife and son." He was unconscious for six weeks. Then he woke up and began his recovery. His wife and mother-in-law never left his bedside.
After his surgeries and rehabilitation, the 82nd was "going to send me to the Warrior Transition Battalion"-that would ease the transition out of the military and into some other kind of life. He would begin life as a disabled vet. "But that was not my intent. My intent was to stay in the Army, to continue my service. I had been doing it for more than 18 years. Why should I give it up now?" (Others might have thought of reasons.)
He told Special Operations that "I wanted to serve as long as they gave me the opportunity, and I wanted to be productive. I didn't want to be sitting down licking envelopes and shredding paper." They agreed. His group commander said, "I'm going to treat you like everyone else, like every other captain here. And I'm going to expect a lot out of you"--which is what this captain wanted.
Why did he not simply give up, and slink away? "My mother, my dad: They were really hard workers. My mother was a survivor. They divorced when I was five, and she worked really hard for everything she had--and she taught me to work hard as well." Castro worked a lot as a kid, and "I was the man of the house. When something broke, I had to fix it. Had to figure it out." His military training made him tough, too: Ranger School, the Special Forces Qualification Course. Those are not cakewalks.
Also, he feels he has an example to set: for his peers, for the soldiers who were under his command. About those soldiers, he says, "They kind of look up to me. I can't let them down." There is the public to consider, too: "When I don my beret, and go out with my cane, people stop and stare." He can feel it. And "if you're a Special Forces Ranger, everyone expects more from you. You're never cold, you're never hungry, you're never tired."
Plus, "I got a son who's 15. I got bills to pay. I'm a husband. Just because I'm blind or injured doesn't mean I don't have to pay my mortgage or stuff like that." His wife, Evelyn, was a speech pathologist in a public-school system. Now she works with injured service members in an Army hospital. Castro describes her as his hero. For one thing, "she never expected to be married to a blind guy."
He also has laudatory words for military doctors and nurses: "We think about the soldiers that get hurt, and we don't think of the doctors and nurses who every day have to see the trauma and suffering that service members go through. It's tough on them. I'm pretty sure they have some post-traumatic stress as well."
Last year, Ivan Castro ran five marathons. (Best time: 4 hours, 11 minutes. He hopes to break the four-hour barrier this year.) He also did a triathlon. And climbed Grays Peak in Colorado (14,270 ft.). He lives life with gusto, whether running a marathon or visiting a museum: “I went to the Air Force Museum in Dayton. I didn’t see it with my eyes, but they let me put my hands on the aircraft. Incredible.” At Fort Bragg, he oversees the Spanish-language lab and carries out various administrative and logistical tasks, “making sure that soldiers are ready to deploy.”
He wanted to command an A-team, but “that wasn’t meant to be, so maybe, by taking this job here, I can clear somebody from having to do this job,” and let such a person “do the things that I wanted to do: go out and lead.” (Have you heard anything nobler than that lately?) “Right now, my main focus is what I can do to help other service members, and anyone else. It’s not about Ivan.”
He speaks before groups all over the country: various associations and organizations. He does a lot of teaching, too, particularly of those who face severe challenges, physical and mental. And he wants to accept no limitations. “If someone tells me I can’t do something, I have to keep myself from punching him in the nose. Instead of saying that I can’t do something, let’s figure out a way for me to do it.”
And how are his spirits? “I’m not going to lie to you: We all have our good times and bad times. I’m just like anyone else.” When the doctors told him he would never see again, “I was extremely, extremely bitter. I was at the point where I asked the Lord above, ‘Why me?’ I was bitter with the Lord, angry with the Lord.”
One day, “my wife came in and told me, ‘Ivan, if you could only see the hospital ward: You just don’t know how fortunate we are.’ It’s sad to say, but other service members have had to make a huge sacrifice. I have to be grateful for what I have, instead of dwelling on what I don’t have. I miss not seeing, I’m not going to lie to you. But I have two legs, two arms, I can talk, I can eat, I can laugh. I have my memory.”
Further, “I’m a military guy, and I speak in military terms: God has a mission for me. A plan, an operation.”
Castro has what he calls his “demons in the darkness,” or “demons in the closet.” And “the closet is my brain. I don’t see anything. I’m totally blind. I have no light perception. And when the demons want to take over, as soon as they try to, I try to keep them out. I think about all the things I’m grateful for: my wife, my son, the Lord above, His mission for me.” There are days “when I walk into the wall, both literally and figuratively. I try to take a step back and not get angry and figure out a way to go around things.”
And “you know the best thing about being blind?” (I couldn’t imagine what the answer would be.) “I saw for 39 years. So I was able to see the world for 39 years. I’ve traveled around the world. I saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good thing about now is: Everything is beautiful, in my mind. The grass is always green. There’s never graffiti on the walls. There’s no trash. Everybody looks good — everybody’s in shape, everybody’s a movie star or rock star.” And race is out the window: “There’s no brown, white, or black.”
A visit with Ivan Castro will teach you, or remind you, not to complain. It will remind you what a free people owes its warriors. And it will remind you to be in awe of those who do the awe-inspiring.