Paths to Otherwhere, by James Patrick Hogan. I knew nothing of this author until I had a bizarre Guinness-fuelled conversation with him in Dublin last September. Though the style is a little bald, the ideas are great – scientists research into parallel universes, discover that one of them is a utopia; how does this change them and the intelligence agencies who are monitoring their activities? I kept on thinking of Forever Peace, published the following year and hitting many of the same tropes, and how much better a book it could have been. I will look out for more of Jim Hogan’s work.
FFS, everyone knows that bugging is what intelligence agencies do. I thought Boutros Boutros Ghali was surprisingly good on this point on Radio 4 this morning: yes, it’s annoying, yes, it’s against international law (as is all espionage, which doesn’t prevent anyone from doing it); but really Clare Short should catch herself on. As I’ve said before, I was opposed to the Iraq war, but ratting on your own intelligence services for doing their job properly is a pathetic way to behave.
It would be a different matter if the spooks had been out of control and pursuing their own political agenda, independent of government policy. But they weren’t.
It would be a different matter if the spooks had been selectively leaking the information they got to particular British politicians in order to skew the agenda. But they weren’t.
It would, frankly, be a different matter if they had been caught. But they weren’t.
All of us who are involved in international politics are aware of our interactions with intelligence agencies; sometimes it’s overt, sometimes it’s not. I have assumed that most of my international phone conversations, and probably all from my workplace of the moment, were bugged since I got into this game seven years ago. And my experience is that whenever such bugging is revealed – eg the Croatian secret services tapping the Milosevic family chit chat, or MI5 listening in on Martin McGuinness and Mo Mowlam – you have to look really hard at the motives of the whistleblower.
Have I become a reactionary in my old age?
A few months later, Mark invited me to Macedonia (along with the woman who is now John Kerry’s campaign manager) to do a number of training sessions and also meet with the party leaders. We met with VMRO, the main opposition party, in a branch office in a prefab building on the outskirts of Skopje (no dount dationg from shortly after the 1963 earthquake), in a rainstorm. The leader, Ljubco Georgievski, was clearly a bit of a nut even then. The famous Boris sat beside him and was charming in fluent English; I felt that he was loyal but also slightly embarrassed.
Well, VMRO won the 1998 parliamentary elections in coalition with the corrupt former Yugoslav politician Vasil Tupurkovski. Georgievski became Prime Minister with Tupurkovski as his deputy in charge of international affairs, and Boris had to be satisfied with the post of junior foreign minister. The understanding was that Tupurkovski (nicknamed “Jumper-ovski” because of his habit of wearing woollen pullovers) would be the agreed presidential candidate of the government coalition when the post came up at the end of 1999.
But two things happened to screw that plan up. The first was that Tupurkovski’s cunning plan to get loads of money from a secret source to revitalise Macedonia’s economy backfired massively in January 1999, when it turned out to be a secret deal to recognise Taiwan as the “Republic of China” and cut off diplomatic ties with Beijing. The old president, an octogenarian communist who had been Tito’s best finacne minister back the 1960s, refused to allow this to go ahead, and Tupurkovski was left with much egg on his face and no good explanation (apart from the obvious) for his own sudden and visible increase in material well-being after his negotiations with Taipei. To cap it all, the Chinese took their first ever action at the UN on a Balkan issue and, in sheer revenge for Tupurkovski’s flirtation with the Taiwanese, vetoed the renewal of the UN preventive peacekeeping forces that had been successfully deployed in Macedonia for the previous five years.
The second was the Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovo which peaked in March 1999 as the NATO bombardment began. Boris was the most senior foreign affairs official who was not disgraced (as Tupurkovski now was) but did speak English, and so was responsible for presenting the Macedonian government’s reaction to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who flooded across the border – a difficult position, which did not make him universally popular with humanitarian aid workers, but did massively increase his standing with his own party which had otherwise seen him as a bit of a lightweight.
So when the elections came round at the end of 1999, Boris was the obvious candidate from his own party. He still had to fight off stiff opposition from his coalition colleagues and the former speaker of parliament, and in the end only won the election because he got a vast number of votes from the country’s ethnic Albanian minority under circumstances whose legitimacy remains murky and meant that his term of office started under something of a shadow, but was duly inaugurated as Macedonia’s second president in December.
I next saw him in Brussels in early 2000; I was by now working at the Centre for European Policy Studies, and had helped produce an ambitious plan for EU policy towards the Balkans (of which about a third has since been adopted). I had noticed that he was due to visit the EU at the start of February, and called the embassy to see if any press conference was planned that I might attend. They called back and said, er, could the President come and visit our thinktank instead? So he did, and had a surprisingly good discussion of the ideas we had put forward; he wasn’t completely in favour, but I guess this was the point where I registered as an interesting person with him. We had another good chat at a conference in Ohrid that July (I mentioned that my wife, like him, had qualified as a Methodist local preacher), and I stayed in touch mainly through his chief of staff.
The following year, 2001, brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war. By this time Boris was increasingly estranged from the erratic Georgievski, whose approach to government was a mixture of hysterical anti-Albanian bigotry in public and a cold-blooded carve-up of the economy with his Albanian coalition partners in private. In April, in the midst of the crisis, I visited Skopje again as part of an international team reporting on the conflict, we had a very good meeting with him (unlike some of the meetings we endured) and our report praised his initiative in starting inter-party dialogue. Over the next few months he took a strong lead in getting the peace talks going before the violence could escalate, in selling the eventual Ohrid peace agreement to the party leaders, and then also in putting through the legislative parts of it despite the opposition of the speaker of the parliament.
He then invited me to Macedonia again in 2002 as part of another dialogue process he had initiated, on security issues post-Ohrid. It turned out to be the first weekend of my current job; we were quite heavily stuck in to criticising the Georgievski government’s corruption and our report on the subject was thought by some to have had a role in VMRO losing the September 2002 elections (myself I think they were on the skids anyway). That brought the ex-Communists to power again, and put Boris in a position of cohabitation where basically the initiative lay firmly with the Prime Minister; from then on, he was really searching for a role.
This next bit is particularly sensitive and not-for-quotation. At the time the EU was gearing up to look once again at its Balkan policy post enlargement, and in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December 2002 Boris had the idea of writing a joint letter from all five presidents of Western Balkan states to the European Union asking that they be at least mentioned in the final declaration. I myself wrote the letter, and Boris and his staff finalised the wording with me in a meeting in Brussels during one of his increasingly frequent visits. The letter had the desired effect and the Western Balkan leaders got a nod to their European aspirations from the EU.
It was rather amusing to reflect that Vojislav Kostunica, then President of Yugoslavia, who was fulminating against us because of the rude things we were saying about him, was now putting his name to a text that I had written. I resolved that I would not ever write this down until I was sure that Boris could not be embarrassed by it politically (since I’m quite sure that he presented it to the other four presidents as his own text rather than mine); that day has arrived, alas, much sooner than I expected, but I’m still keeping it in a friends-only post.
We saw each other twice last year – it should have been three times, but I cancelled on another invitation to Skopje from him which was due to take place the weekend Zoran Djindjic was assassinated. But I bumped into him (literally) at a conference in Greece in May where he greeted me with a warm embrace (they’re very physical, these Balkan leaders) and then we had an excellent meeting with several of my colleagues in June, where we briefed him and his staff on what was going on in Kosovo and Serbia (to the point where I wondered what, if anything, they were getting from their embassy in Belgrade. There was another draft EU declaration doing the rounds at the time and he requested (and got) instant feedback from me on what I thought he should say on its contents; sadly less successful in June than we had been six months before.
And so we come to yesterday, when despite unfavourable weather and an aging plane, he and his team set off to Bosnia, only to be killed flying into a hillside, not twenty miles from where Clinton’s Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, met the same fate back in 1996. The corrupt and useless prime minister of neighbouring Albania was due to go to the same conference, but didn’t like the look of the weather and turned back. Boris was always more determined to meet his commitments; and unfortunately he was too conscientious for his own good.
So it goes.
A good three inches of snow fell last night and was still falling this morning. Gerlinde, our au pair, went out first thing to catch a bus and came back in again after twenty minutes, no bus having appeared. We had to explain to her about Captain Scott of the Antarctic.
It took me an hour and a half to drive to work, v e r y c a r e f u l l y. On the way Radio Netherlands interviewed me about President Trajkovski (via the handsfree phone). I see that both Reuters and Voice of America carried my comments this morning. And am waiting for a call back from the BBC.
The Meeting of the Waters by Caiseal Mór – Celtic fantasy, but not of the highest order; the last of my current batch for infinity plus.
It seems that President Trajkovski of Macedonia is missing in a plane crash, along with most of his staff. I’m devastated. He was probably the only current head of state I could describe as a personal friend, and I also knew and liked several of the staff members who were probably travelling with him. He was instrumental in keeping the peace process going, and the country together, in 2001. A really charming guy.
And the timing is lousy because the Macedonian Prime Minister was due to formally submit their membership application to the EU in Dublin today. They can hardly go ahead with that now.
The infamous Pan-Albanianism report has finally been published. OK, so the conclusion is unexciting, but my vital (and I think original) observation stands:
The Kosovo Liberation Army and the National Liberation Army only started to gain popular support in Kosovo and Macedonia respectively when they dropped their initial pan-Albanian nationalist goals and concentrated more on rights for their own people. The Albanian National Army, which overtly advocated a “Greater Albania” agenda, never managed to gain popular credibility at all.
I went home as soon as the publication process was irreversible, and hope to improve sufficiently overnight for work tomorrow.
I like it.
Crumbs, I’m feeling lousy. But the pan-Albanian paper is lurching towards publication today so I feel a need to stick around the office for the inevitable last-minute hitches…
As ever, Dan Savage has unconventional but sensible commentary.
March is going to be a hectic month.
17 Mar – fly to Oslo. 18 Mar – conference in Oslo. 19 Mar – fly home. (I’ve never been to Norway before so that will fill in a gap in the map.)
22 or 23 Mar – one day visit to Budapest
26 Mar – fly to Dublin for our board meeting. 27-29 Mar – board meeting in Dublin. 30 Mar – day in Belfast. 31 Mar – 2 Apr – more conference in Dublin.
April looks much quieter. The only trip planned so far is to the Dutch royal wedding on the 24th, and that’s not exactly work.
If you’re wondering how come I’ve read so many books in the last couple of days, I’ve been in bed sniffling and feeling sorry for myself, and getting through my “to read” pile. Anyway, this entry isn’t a review, nor a note of a book that I’ve read, but a note that I have officially given up trying to finish The House on the Borderland and Other Stories, by William Hope Hodgson, a review copy sent me by Infinity Plus. As noted several weeks ago, I read the three rather good short novels in the first half, but just couldn’t bring myself to finish “The Night Land” which occupies the second half of the book. I must now write a proper review for Infinity Plus, which has just published another (rather hostile) review that I wrote for them.
9) Worlds That Weren’t, by Harry Turtledove, S.M. Stirling, Mary Gentle, and Walter Jon Williams.
This was the most extravagant of my many book purchases in London last week, at £16.50, and to be honest I would have preferred to wait for the paperback. These are good stories, though, with interesting parallels between them: Turtledove and Gentle pick the Mediterranean for their setting, Stirling and Williams choose the nineteenth-century American West; more to the point, both Turtledove and Williams tell the story of their point of departure by injecting a real philosopher into a contemporary conflict at which they were not present in our time-line (Turtledove sends Socrates to Syracuse with Alcibiades, and Athens becomes a dictatorship and major military power; Williams rather more daringly puts Nietzsche at the OK Corral, though the historical consequences seem likely to be less serious) while Stirling and Gentle tell side stories from their own well-established Alternate Histories (respectively a glance at Texas in the world of the Peshawar Lancers, which I have not otherwise read, and the origin of the title character in Ash: A Secret History, which is superb).
In fact a characteristic more firmly shared by these stories than their Alternate History pretensions is that all four are very firmly in the tradition of military fantasy stories. Stirling and Williams basically tell of different militias slugging it out on the Texas/Arizona frontier. Turtledove tells of the siege of Syracuse and then has Alcibiades attacking other cities. And Gentle’s piece, the best of the four (and showing despite my earlier worries that Ash was not a one-off) is a meditation on women as warriors and the difference between historical and contemporary perceptions of them.
Turtledove’s story is competent; not as good as my favourite piece of his, “Down in the Bottomlands“, but well ahead of his execrable WorldWar. Williams’ tale is amusing but doesn’t really shed any extra light on history except to make the point that given all the other strange people around in Tombstone that day, Nietzche would have fitted in fine. Stirling’s piece is far too rushed and ends too quickly.
Summary recommendation: look out for Gentle’s story in a different paperback anthology.
8) Ilium by Dan Simmons – billed as one of the big books of 2003, indeed 570 pages and a grand storyline including literary cyborgs from the moons of Jupiter, Eloi-like humans living a carefree life on the far-future Earth, and the Greek gods living on Olympus Mons, Mars, rather like the characters of Zelazny’s classic Lord of Light, watching the Iliad being reenacted by nanotechnologically enhanced warriors. Our viewpoint character (first-person, present tense narrative) for the third of these strands has been yanked forward through time from a classics department of the twentieth century; at times he reminded me of Rincewind trying to cope with Twoflower’s technology in The Light Fantastic. That said, Lord of Light and The Light Fantastic are two favourite books of mine, and Simmons pulls it off extremely well (with a few reservations about consistency – the trajectory taken by our robotic heroes from the Galilean moons to Jupiter makes little astronomical sense, a character with little knowledge of human history or past culture yells “Jesus Christ!” in frustration, and I think the differences in air pressure between the respective planetary sea levels and the top of Olympus Mons, or the bottom of the Mediterranean Basin, are insufficiently explored). My biggest complaint is that we don’t discover Who (or What) Is Behind It All, with the partial exception of the cyborgs from Jupiter, and so I’ll have to buy the sequel to find out.
The claim that the MMR jab for children could lead to autism has now been recanted by the journal that published the original research, on the grounds that the doctor who carried out the study was being paid by supporters of the parents who believed their children had been affected.
My daughter B developed autism in the six months after her second birthday. She lost her speech, her interest in anthropomorphic play, and she is still in nappies (she is now six and a half). We think it may have been due to a bad fever she had just before she turned two, which presumably trigered a genetic predisposition (and looking around our weirder relatives on both sides, we have no difficulty in believing in a genetic predisposition). She lives with us, goes to the local special school (the best one in the vicinity of Brussels, which is why we have moved out here to Leuven), occasionally spends weekends at a respite care place, is generally very happy and affectionate, loves climbing trees.
But the shock of realising, four years ago, that our beautiful two-year-old would have a very different future from what we had hoped was quite simply the worst thing that I have ever experienced in my life; far worse than losing my father, or the occasional career setback. I completely understand that many parents need to blame the MMR vaccine as part of their coping strategy. But Dr Wakefield has not only fed this particular delusion, he has been making money out of it and gathering considerable fame as the heroic researcher who dared to stand up against the system. I wonder how he sleeps at night.
7) Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry, by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch (see also the website)
“the definitive guide to one of Eastern Europe’s most overlooked destinations.” “Once known only by war historians and Soviet drug runners, this landlocked republic is now being discovered by the discerning traveller. And this latest Jetlag guide offers all you need to know about getting there, getting around and safely escaping the forgotten jewel that is Molvania.”
Those who work (as I do) on the post-Communist world will at first be surprised that they have not previously heard of Molvania. But so much of it seems strangely familiar…
“Staff are attentive, although the service can be a little brusque. One traveller reported asking the concierge where he could find a non-smoking room, only to be informed ‘Austria’.”
This book was apparently the publishing hit of the summer over Christmas in Australia, and was produced by the same team who wrote The Dish, the beautiful film about Australia’s contribution to the first moon landing. OK, so it’s a one-joke book, but they’ve kept it up successfully for 166 pages. And the funny thing is that even the genuine Eastern Europeans I’ve shown it to thought it was hilarious rather than offensive.
I dreamt that a former colleague had written a libellous article about me, and that I was trying to sort this out at the same time as transporting my own family and some minor princelings to the Dutch royal wedding in April. Funny what the subconscious will fling up at you. Also I haven’t had access to my work email for the last 48 hours, so for all I know one of my ex-colleagues has written a libellous artivcle about me.
My first ever visit to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia was back in 1997, when I did a ten day tour for my then employers doing trainings for political party activists in various provincial towns. The other imported trainer, flown in at the last minute to replace someone who’d dropped out, was a very nice but tough fairly senior Irish American political campaign organiser for the Democrats, Mary Beth Cahill, parents from Donegal, had never been to Ireland herself. We spent many pleasant evenings in each other’s company, and have never been in touch since. (Of course, I’ve been back to Macedonia many times.)
I just discovered what she’s doing now. She is running Senator John Kerry’s campaign to be the next President of the United States.
It is a small world.
6) Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.
I’ve bought every William Gibson novel, though only for the writing style; I find the plot and characters completely forgettable (I know I’ve read Neuromancer five times, but can’t remember a single thing that happens in it). But Pattern Recognition is different, and much, much better. I write this sitting in an internet cafe off Trafalgar Square (finished the book on Eurostar yesterday morning) which seems like a perfect parallel for the central character’s unrooted, cosmopolitan, thoroughly wired existence, as she tracks down the reality behind a mysterious set of internet postings. The settings of London, Japan and Russia are brilliantly and convincingly depicted; I hope to get to Russia later this year to see for myself. This book is certain to be shortlisted for various awards, as it already has been for the BSFA and Arthur C Clarke awards. Its biggest problem in that respect is that there is in fact nothing sfnal in it; no stretching of the social and technical reality of 2002 when it was written. But it feels like science fiction,will be bought largely by sf readers, and is of course by a celebrated sf author. Recommended.
I learnt as a teenager that 43 pence is the amount of money you leave London with, no matter how much you had when you arrived.
But I’ve spent it well today. Having had some unexpected extra spare time (see previous post) I did Waterstone’s on Trafalgar Square, and New Worlds on Charing Cross Road, and the new expanded Forbidden Planet on New Oxford Street. And I bought:
On by Adam Roberts; The Green Gene by Peter Dickinson; Maul, by Tricia Sullivan; Coalescent, by Stephen Baxter; Changing Planes, by Ursula Le Guin; The Gambler’s Fortune by Juliet McKenna; and a collection of Alternate History stories, Worlds That Weren’t. Also latest editions of Analog, Asimov’s, Locus, NY Review of SF, and Foundation.
I think I still have the price of dinner left. And 43 pence.
So, I got up *bloody* early this morning to get to the capital city of a neighbouring country, where I was due to have a 0945 meeting with someone in the local equivalent of the Prime Minister’s office.
And they said, Oh, we see Mr X here occasionally, but meeting room Y is in our second building around the corner. And a passing official offered to walk me there, so I went with her.
So I got to their second building about 0940, and they said, Hmm, no Mr X on our books here; have you tried the third entrance across the road? Of course I hadn’t, and it sounded not unreasonable to me.
So at the third entrance, they had no Mr X and no meeting room Y. But they kindly realised that since meeting room Y was at the second entrance where I’d just been, and so they called the receptionist there who went and checked that meeting room Y was indeed empty and devoid of any meeting happening.
So they suggested I try the Foreign Ministry building next door, and since I had not previously heard of Mr X or meeting room Y, but I knew our meeting was about foreign affairs (since that’s what I do for a living) I thought it was a fair bet. And I tried two separate entrances to the Foreign Ministry but they knew of no Mr X, let alone meeting room Y.
So I gave up and checked into my nearby hotel, as I had been trogging my luggage around with me throughout all of this. And twenty minutes later came a call from Mr X. He had been waiting for me at his office in the first place I went to, and had planned to walk over with me to the second place for our meeting with a bunch of other medium-level important people, and the receptionist had never received his instructions, and it was now far too late to do anything about it.
I haven’t filled in the blanks, because it could happen to any country; indeed on the whole I find this particular country usually fairly professional. But I think it illustrates that you should never assume that foreign policy comes from a deep, reflective, mature sequence of thoughts and earnest meetings reflecting profound consideration of all the issues at hand. Simple human error plays a much greater part than people like to think, and cock-up is always a much more likely explanation than conspiracy.
Idly browsing livejournals this evening, I discovered an entire clutch of them from people at
Anyway, I’ve friended you for the time being; don’t expect a lot of comments from me particularly since I’m in London for the next couple of days (normally I live in Belgium). Time to go to bed as I’m on the 0701 Eurostar tomorrow morning; the “ghost train” as they call it round here.
From http://www.sjgames.com/errata/illuminati/ :
“There are no mistakes in Illuminati or its supplements. If something seems wrong, it’s simply because you don’t understand what’s really going on….”
“Several of the Special cards have numbers in parentheses after the title. Ignore these. You don’t see them; they are not there; they mean nothing at all.”
“Many people have asked whether the “Criminal” and “Weird” tracks on the gameboard have somehow been switched. That’s a very good question. Fnord.”
I’m very glad to see this is back in print. If I could only locate a cabal who would be willing to play it…
I dreamt I was in America, and for some reason had accidentally exchanged my Palm Pilot for a much nicer one belonging to someone else – I wasn’t sure who but thought it might be the Brussels correspondent of the Kosovo paper Koha Ditore. As I was about to fly to Rome to meet him I woke up, And It Was All A Dream.
I bet he doesn’t even own a Palm Pilot.
Don’t quite know what to make of this:
Advanced Big 30 Personality Test Results
My particularly low and high scores:
high on intellect; I feared as much
low on volatility = calm, cool rather than touchy or temperamental; seems right
high on adventurousness and trust: not really sure if this is me or how I like to think of myself
high on sociability: OK.
high on gregariousness, enthusiasm, sympathy, achievement: all seems familiar
For those who haven’t seen it:
Check out Jonathan Cowie’s con reports.
The infamous paper on pan-Albanian nationalism is at last off my desk and into the next stage of the publication cycle. It’s been hanging around my neck since I started this job in May 2002. The basic problem was that we didn’t have a full-time member of staff in the field writing it, so it bounced between a part-timer who is normally based in London and me for almost two years. But I spent most of the last month filling in the gaps, notably writing an entire section on the Albanian National Army. And now it’s in the hands of my colleagues for review, and hopefully will get published next week.
Basically the way you get around a project you have been procrastinating (can one use “procrastinate” as a transitive verb?) is to think how good you will feel when it has been done. And that’s how I got this one out the door. At least, to the extent that it is out the door…