Sunday, 28 August 2016

Born in the USA

Imagine that your parents are having a last holiday in a foreign country, before impending parenthood makes travelling complicated. Imagine that you happen to decide to turn up early. Imagine that nine weeks later you and your parents leave the country where you revealed yourself sooner than expected and you all return to your homeland, never visiting the country where your birth took place again. Imagine that almost six decades later you arrive in Brussels and go to set up a bank account and are told that you cannot because there is an international alert in force, preventing the banking authorities in Belgium from providing you with any services until you have paid the taxes you owe in the country that all those years before you chose - recklessly, as it turns out - to be born.

Believe it or not, if you were born in the United States of America, however limited the contact you have since had with that nation, this is now the fate that you are liable to face. Yesterday I met a woman who had just encountered this exact dilemma. Having lived and worked for all her life, apart from that first nine weeks, in Australia - the country whose passport she travels under, the country that she, plus her parents, her siblings, her entire extended family are all citizens of - having dutifully paid her taxes to the government there, year after year, decade after decade, she decided to move to a job in Brussels. Shortly after arrival, she went to the local bank to see about setting up an account for herself. She was told it was impossible, as the United States tax authorities have some kind of warrant out for non-payment of taxes on her behalf. To add insult to injury, if she doesn't want to continue being liable for annual US taxation, she is going to have to renounce the US citizenship she wasn't even aware she had - and the US government will charge her a mere 3000 Euros for that, on top of her current tax bill! (This may be the first exclamation mark I have ever used in this blog, but, in the circumstances, really nothing else will do).

Apparently the US government enacted a change in their laws in 2014, which makes these extortionary actions legal in their eyes. But what are they thinking? What do they think taxes are for, why do they think most of us pay them without much fuss? In my naive imagining, taxes are a fee that we pay to the government of the country that is our home - and in exchange that government, (our own government, not some government in another country), provides services that when seen as a whole create - or at least attempt to create - the kind of society in which we feel happy to live and able to call home.

Taxes are not just some form of extortion or robbery that you arbitrarily exact from people who happen to have been, no matter how fleetingly, on your territory at the time of their birth.  Taxes are not something anyone should be required to pay to the government of a country that they do not live in, that they have never voted in, whose services they have never called upon. How can the United States of America defend this shameful policy?

As someone commented, on hearing my new acquaintance's sorry tale, "Surely the United States already has quite a few enemies; does it really want to make a whole lot more?"

Thursday, 25 August 2016


I've been on holiday. I think it may have been one of the best holidays I've ever had. But it's over now. Which makes this appropriate:

And speaking of 'appropriate', I once - somewhere or other on this blog - had a moan about that word and its mate 'inappropriate'. However, I didn't get near Michael Bywater for nailing why the latter is so exceptionally objectionable.

Here he is, grumbling about 'inappropriate' in one of my favourite books in the world, Lost Worlds, a ridiculously overlooked volume that I urge everyone, (especially you, Age of Uncertainty, as I think it would really appeal to your sense of humour [and you'll have time, now that you've decided to deprive the world of the charm of your blog posts{cruel decision}]), to get a copy of:

"inappropriate: a smug, purse-lipped word which the professionally self-righteous can use as a cloak beneath which to don their neo-Stalinist robes."

To provide further incentive to seek the book out, here is another bit of Lost Worlds, selected at random, but typical of the whole. If you like it, the full volume will give you so much pleasure; if not, not:


If ever there were a symbol of contented domesticity, it was flour. Good wives were always lightly dusted in flour; the better the wife, the higher up the arms it reached. Floury kisses betokened licit married love, as opposed to the lipstick and scent of the illegitimate liaison; no mistress or courtesan knew what flour even was. A house without flour was no home. Flour sustained explorers and stockmen; floor moved us from hunters to agrarians, and thence to villagers and, presently, citizens. Once, it came in sacks; fortunes were to be had from milling it; the Miller himself was a potent symbol of aspiration and the misuse of power (think of Schuberts Schone Mullerin).

Now it is tucked away in supermarkets in little bags barely enough to flour a decent woman above the wrists. Where are the sacks? Where are the millers? Where are their yeasty, flowery daughters, bosoms rising like well-proved dough? The dogs bark, the caravans move on, and even for those of us who aren't gluten-free or on the Atkins diet, flour lives, like everything else, in factories, computer-controlled by executives. And they never get their hands… clean."

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Different Values

One of the things that I like about trying to learn foreign languages is the insights it gives you into different national preoccupations. For a perfect example consider the Hungarian version, which I only learnt today, of the English phrase "streets paved with gold". It is, apparently, "kolbászból van a kerítés". 

"Kolbász", as many probably know - similar words denote the same thing in various Slavic languages - means sausage. "-ból" is the suffix meaning "out of" and "kerités" means fence. In other words, Hungarians see sausage as the most valuable thing in life and imagine a really wonderful place as one with fences made from salamis.

This actually seems a very wise way of looking at things, since, when you think about it - (you cannot eat it and it only has value because an unquestioning collective agreement has grown up that insists it is) - gold is useless. Sausage on the other hand can be enjoyed at any time, plucked from a park railing or the enclosure round a cow paddock, tasty in all weathers, portable without being messy, remarkably long-lasting, really an all-round, ever-welcome thing.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Let's Face It I

For a long time I have refrained from posting pictures of stone faces on this blog. This odd, (bad?), habit of mine was curbed in any case by the fact that I was living in Canberra, where there are very few examples of the genre, and then in Brussels, where there are some but not the rich profusion left scattered across the majority of buildings in the former Austro-Hungarian empire.

But I knew my restraint would not last, especially when I was let loose again in the regions where face-covered facades are the norm. For a while after going travelling in those areas, I still managed to abstain, even if all the time I was hording examples; like a 1950s holidaymaker in possession of a cine camera, I longed to share/bore people senseless with/ my pictures.

And today, for some reason, (the fact that I have some time free at last?), my resistance has finally broken; I am now going to begin the process of unleashing a torrent of lions and ladies and moustachioed gents onto an unsuspecting world.

I'll start with just two towns today but they will soon be followed by others. Watch out. You have been warned.

The first town whose faces I present is Debrecen, the capital of Hajdu Bihar county, in Hungary.

I was only there briefly, and I was going through a phase of taking photographs of people taking selfies because I was fascinated by the enthusiasm people had for going to places and then spending less time looking at the places than they spent taking pictures of themselves - or getting me or someone else to take pictures of themselves - with their backs to the places they were visiting. I still don't understand that phenomenon, although it is certainly less unusual than hunting down faces on buildings, so I can hardly criticise :

Anyway the faces I did snap were all from round the back of this building:

The next lot are from Worcester, which I would be the first to admit is not a town that could even faintly conceivably be described as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Nevertheless, it has a reasonably good supply of stone faces. Mind you, I expect it had many more once, before one or other of its town councils made the decision to demolish the medieval centre and provide instead a selection of multi-storey carparks. To date, no architect on earth that I know of has turned their attention to designing carparks of grace and beauty and therefore the effect on Worcester has been predictably dispiriting.

The town when approached from the riverbank, up steps leading to the cathedral, looks wonderful, but quite quickly dribbles out into the usual modern Britain scunginess of litter strewn streets smelling of Subway sandwiches (is there a less appetising smell in the takeaway world?) and populated with branches of that chain of bun shops that always signal poverty, plus the usual array of charity shops that represent all that remains of the nation of shopkeepers we were all taught was the essence of Britain. After about three in the afternoon, most of the people on the streets are overweight, drunk, angry or, from their expressions, almost on the point of suicide. Yet the cathedral is beautiful, a reminder that humanity can create wondrous things - or could once.

Here are the faces I collected, mostly from one building, the magnificent Worcester Guildhall which mercifully escaped the let's-sweep-away-the-old-and-bring-a-bit-of-modernity-to-this-fusty-place brigade:

Here is the approach to the cathedral end of Worcester, along the riverbank on a foggy morning - all looks promising:

This is the cathedral:

Here are some of the lovely things inside it, (mainly the tombs of knights and kings, including King John. The feet and the animals upon whom the memorialised dead charmed me in particular):

I find these kneecaps enchanting 

Poor swan, lain on for eternity

Unfortunately an aesthetic sense seems to have deserted the Worcester clergy as thoroughly as it did its councillors:

There also appears to be a mismatch between what they say they offer and what is actually available to worshippers:
Poor Worcestor. There are still fragments of a fine town:

The cathedral close in particular remains lovely, despite the concrete shopping centre now opposite it, the result not of World War Two bombing but senseless planning decisions post war:

All too often though the visitor to Worcester is left wondering, "What were they thinking?"

But never mind, Starbucks is coming. Happy times undoubtedly lie ahead: