Omnishambles

The Oxford English Dictionary bestows on us  its word of the year. I’ve adopted it today as my title, since it’s such a good description of the present moment.

The Brits seized it to describe the many gaffes of the conservative government, including Cameron’s text messages, and his rendering of LOL as Lots Of Love in his exchanges with Rebekah Brooks. The delirium included ex-minister Andrew Mitchell’s  infamous ‘you’re fucking plebs’ comment to Downing Street police, and of course the most recent effort, Osborne’s attempt to travel first-class with a regular train ticket. On a Virgin train, of all places.

This week I found myself drinking with Norwegians, as I worked my way north from Lisbon to Bilbao, then London and finally Hamburg. Actually the intent was to consume food, or at least I thought it was, but as we found yet another restaurant closed on a rainy Monday night in Bilbao, one of my new friends would point out an open café, and innocently say: “Shall we stop for a beer?”

These particular Norwegians had some serious China time between them, and we dwelt on their alcoholic adventures in the Middle Kingdom. I heard a story of a politician  from Norway who, beffudled by maotai, found out the next day he’d given his hosts a ship. Unlike Dan Rather, I think moutai, as the manufacturers spell it, tastes like paint stripper—in my time I’ve been treated to seventy proof, drunk out of tumblers.

That was up in Shandong (it means east mountain), where men are men. We were in a government canteen that had its own karaoke machine, and some of the older Chinese sang Russian ballads. We took two of our hosts back to the hotel for a game of pool, and next time we looked one of them was asleep on the pool table.

The Norwegians laughed at the British incompetence at coping with the weather. One of them said he’d been stuck at an airport because of snow. When he complained, he was told this wasn’t regular snow, it was a different kind of snow. He then informed me that in Norwegian there are seventeen different words for snow. The Laps have thirty!

While on the subject of Laps, he told me that in Lapland they now castrated their reindeer, having understood from pig farming that they could get better meat yields that way.

The Basque country came and went, and I learnt how to say eskerrik asko. My venue had simultaneous translation in English, French,  Spanish, and Portuguese. Once in a while, a local politician would harangue everyone in Basque, and the interpreter booths went silent. Many years ago, I watched the soap opera ‘Dallas’ dubbed in Basque, and JR took on a whole new light.

But this time, David Petraeus took center-stage on TV, wherever I went. He was on the screens at London’s Heathrow, and even on German television. This kind of story is not surprising, but America always seems surprised. Men and women in positions of power feel er… powerful, and they act accordingly. Not only is there a feeling of dominance, but with it comes a sense of impunity.

I can do anything I want, and get away with it

This has been the theme from Mao to Mobutu, from Nero right to the new millenium. Thankfully, the checks and balances in the U.S. mean individual power games are pretty much limited to personal matters. Of course the director of the CIA can be blackmailed for a secret affair, but once revealed, there’s not a whole lot to leverage.

So far, the story has been mostly comedic, from the Tampa socialite to the shirtless FBI man. National security risks? Unless a Chinese connection emerges, it would be most unlikely. The story shows basic human feelings that form an integral part of history, military and civilian, from the present day to The India Road. It also shows once again that nowadays, digital downfall is the weakest link.

Free sex? In Bilbao, size clearly matters, and the small print tells a different story.

Email, because of its bilateral candor, is the most vulnerable new technology. To reduce that vulnerability, Petraeus and Broadwell used a technique popular with terrorists—a dummy account is accessed by both parties, with messages for each other left in draft, to be read and deleted, and replaced by a new draft. The equivalent of dead letter boxes in espionage, but in this case those drafts will have been saved on a server. In the end, ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’

One of the words that didn’t make number one for the Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps even more delightful: mommy porn. This ‘new’ literature genre has become a smash hit with the ladies, and led to sites such as sssh.com, which promotes erotica for women. I had a quick look, but I’m not allowed in. The site clearly says ‘Ladies Subscribe Now’.

When I wrote The India Road, I remember reading on the net that more women are interested in sex scenes than men. And guy books of the Dan Brown and Tom Clancy variety don’t go in for that at all—it’s a niche market.

Oh well, in this omnishambles it feels good to step back from politics, Gaza, and dwell on sex for a while.

In Bilbao, the rain keeps falling. My Norwegian friend is now in his cups. Still on the subject of reindeer, he tells me the Lap was interviewed on TV about the castration.

“We use two bricks,” the Lap explained.
“No anesthetic?” The interviewer was horrified. “It must really hurt!”
“Not at all. Just make sure you don’t get your thumbs caught!”

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