Uncategorized


speed awarenessOh dear; going too fast again!  This afternoon I attended another speed awareness course; this time in a plush hotel on the Chesterfield by-pass.  This is the third such course I have attended; each time for the same reason, going at 37mph on the identical stretch of 30mph dual carriageway just off the Leeds ring road going towards Headingly.  I was fed up, a mixture of shame and frustration.  Four hours seemed a very long time to have my wrist slapped.  Didn’t they know I had a book to write?   

There were about 10 sad looking people waiting in reception when I arrived.  Are you coming to join the naughty boys club?, somebody asked, but it wasn’t just boys; there were as many girls there. But it was rather like being caught for doing something wrong at school.  The two instructors, Keith and Steven, who were somewhere between a comedy duo and primary school teachers, laboured their points. Surely there was only a limited number of times they needed to tell us that National Speed Limit for a single carriage road was 60mph and it was the presence of regular street lights that defined a built up area.  That is except when neither applied, like when these were overridden by repeater signs indicating 20mph, 40mph, 50mph or on dual carriageways and motorways where the speed limit for cars was 70mph.  Of course, if you happen to be towing a trailer, driving a bus or a van, it was different.  Heavy lorries were more restricted, particularly in Scotland.  But speed limits are the fastest you can legally go.  In practice, motorists have to drive at the speed of the road and also use their judgement, depending on traffic and weather conditions. So they should slow down when the view ahead is obstructed by a parked traffic, a sharp bend or the brow of a hill. That’s all very well when the speed of the road is slower than the speed limit, but when it’s a lot faster like on the dual carriageway where I was caught, going at the speed of the road is no excuse.  After two hours of this, I began to lose the will to live.  

Don’t get me wrong;  I do understand the seriousness of speeding;  I realise my frustration might reflect a degree of disavowal – it’s not me guv’ner; it’s the councils who set the limits.  It was all beginning to sound like they just make it all up as they go along (just below the speed limit), when Keith pointed out that the system reacts to the number KSIs on that particular stretch of road.  KSI stands for Killed or Seriously Injured.  When there has been one such incident, they lower the speed limit.  When three such incidents occur, they put a camera up.  Five people are killed on our roads every day, though the rate used to be a lot more.  Suddenly it seemed a good idea, but drivers who are out on the roads all the time know where all the cameras are and frequently break the speed limit without getting caught. Looking around the room, I estimated that about 75% of us were over 60 and part time drivers, and none were speedy Gonzalez.  In fact, we had all been caught for doing 34 to 37mph in a built up area; any faster and we would have had an automatic 5 points on our licences.    

I was rather relieved that they didn’t show videos of children being hit by cars this time.  Instead they made the point about the lethal effect of speeding by a demonstration showing that when you are just a few miles per hour over the limit, both the stopping distance and the speed at impact increase exponentially.  At the point at which a car will stop when going at 30mph, just an extra 5mph will increase the speed at impact by 17mph. And travelling at 100mph will increase impact speed by 71mph and braking distance by over 200 yards. 

We spent a lot of time talking about psychology of speeding.  Did people drive too fast because they were frustrated, were short of time, or because they were distracted?   Children in the back seat and mobile phones are the commonest reasons for distraction.  Then we were asked what we would do differently to avoid getting caught speeding again.  Some said they would update their SatNav so that they would know where all the cameras were, but as Richard pointed out, SatNavs are not reliable and are no excuse.  I thought I could allow plenty of time so I could chill and focus.  Also, I could avoid driving when I am too tired and not get distracted by listening to the Radio 4. Keith had one good tip, always drive in third gear through a 30mph area.  Modern cars will have use any more fuel and the engine noise will feel much more comfortable at 30.  

Speeding does not actually get you to your destination much shorter.  If you go at 80mph instead of 70mph along a completely empty motorway, you will only get there 10 minutes earlier.  And if you go at 35mph through a town, the time saved will be seconds.  When I remember, I set the cruise control, but it does mean that I cruise up behind people a little faster than usual.  

Although I was relieved to get to the end of four hours, but I did feel I had learnt something. I would be much more aware of motor cycles. Only 1% of vehicles on the road are motorcycles, yet they include 18% of fatalities, most not the fault of the cyclist but of the car that does’t see them – often because modern cars have been so strengthened that the blind spots are much larger.  I would also try not to get frustrated with cyclists on hilly Derbyshire roads.  The highway code even recommends that cyclists ride two abreast so that cars have to slow down to pass them.  But what if bikes break the speed limit?  Do the same laws apply?  

 

Was there ever a more thrilling ensemble?   

The wild whoops and daring dives not of the solo violin,

But the rolling tumbling, death defying  lapwings. 

The woodwind section, a haunting of curlew,

their querulous ascent and curdling decline, 

 a wild race of  whistling oystercatchers,     

the redshank that pipes and dips from the wall.  

The choir, an alchemy  of plaintive plover,

banking  gold and white and back to gold again,  

 the skylarks locked in their trilling elevators

and the paragliding squeaking of pipits,

the brass is the honking  pairs of greylag  geese on morning  patrol,

percussion, the  humming, thrumming, drumming of roller coaster snipe. 

All this, while wheatears, that slate and primrose spring  

take silent  ownership  of cup and ring.    

‘It should be easy, you know.  The actual facts are so simple.  I love you.  You love me. You love Otto. I love Otto.  Otto loves you.  Otto loves me.’

Oh My God!   Or as Mrs ‘Odge might say,  ‘Well, ‘eres a pretty pickle.’     

So why isn’t it easy?    Why shouldn’t people be free to love whom they like when they like?  Why do people get hurt?   Why do they feel guilty?  Why does it always turn bad?

Gilda is one of those delightful women, beautiful, intelligent, impulsive; a loving and free spirit with a real zest for life.  Otto and Leo are two sensitive and sensuous young men, who are both enjoying the  exhilaration of success.   Otto is a painter;  Leo an up and coming playwright.   They are young, and in love.   Gilda first chooses Otto and they live in a romantic garret in Paris.  Then Leo returns after a successful run in New York and she abandons Otto to live with Leo in London.  Then a year or so later, Otto returns and after a steamy night, she leaves them both and the next we know she has married the older, safer and rather tedious Ernest and become established as a New York socialite and art dealer.  Meanwhile, Otto and Leo get drunk, realise how much they love each other and go off round the world on a sequence of slow boats.  Two years later, they turn up in Ernest and Gilda’s apartment in New York, whereupon Gilda decides to leave Ernest and live with Otto and Leo in a ménage a trois.  

It is all so wonderfully romantic and amusing – so Noel Coward!   But is this so much a design for living as a strategy for loving?   And will it ever work?   One feels that it’s alright for Gilda.  She has the attentions of two handsome, successful young men who both adore her, but how will she cope with their love for each other?   It may be so exciting for the moment, but what will she do when they both get a bit fed up with her attention seeking and want a bit of basic male bonding?   Go off to Ernest again?   And can you imagine all three of them in bed together; the competitiveness, the jealousies?    Which of the men will go first and where?  How will she hold them together?  How will she satisfy two enormous egos?   For this to work, it would mean them all being terribly responsible and level headed.  When has Gilda ever been level headed?    

It’s not so much that it’s morally wrong.   It is, of course, but morality is a social construct;  there to protect us, not just an edict to be ignored.   Any one of us can love more than one person deeply,  but it is impossible to maintain an intimate relationship with two people for very long without resorting to a whole complicated web of secrecy and deception.  

When people fall in love, they expose the most vulnerable aspects of themselves.  It’s a courageous act of absolute trust and it risks nothing less than devastation of the personality through destruction of meaning.   Gilda and Leo and Otto may think they may have acquired sufficient experience and wisdom to maintain a stable triangle, but it takes enough time for any of us to sort out a relationship with one other person; how much more effort would it take to sort out a three-way intimacy?  And how long would it last without resorting to the rot of deception.    And finally, would it be worth it?  Some of the recent literature to come out of the middle east, illustrates the complex  jealousies of polygamy.  I can’t see polyandry being any better.    

Still, it’s wonderful entertainment and any good art; it makes you think. 

Design for Living by Noel Coward is currently playing at The Old Vic.  Lisa Dillon is delicious and delightful as Gilda (and that dress!),  though it was clear who was in charge.  The actors who played Otto and Leo were less credible.  And one had to feel some sympathy for Ernest, though his marriage to Gilda seemed less a meeting of minds and souls than a business arrangement, a mutual exploitation.  It was originally banned from performance on the London Stage.    

 In the beginning was the word and the word was ACGT – life encoded in combinations of three out of a possible four nucleotides; Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Thymidine.  This year is the 10th anniversary of the sequencing of the human genome.  At a stroke, it would appear,  a new perspective on health and disease has opened up.  By comparison of genomes from different individuals, it may be possible to identify the risk of getting disease and, armed with that knowledge, make the necessary changes in diet, lifestyle, and exposure to chemicals that would reduce it.  

But genes encode for proteins, not for diseases.  But we only know about defects in specific proteins in a few rare diseases.  In Duchenne muscular dystrophy, for example, there is a defect in the synthesis of a key protein known as dystrophin.      

Common diseases like irritable bowel syndrome are likely to be the end result of an interaction of a number of factors, each with their own genetic and environmental regulators.  And since IBS overlaps with other diseases as well as anxiety and depression, any genetic component will most probably encode for a protein incorporated in some generic factor involved in visceral sensitivity or emotional reactivity.  In addition, genes may predispose to an illness but only in combination with other genes and changes in the environment brings that tendency out.  For example, environmental change induces growth and connection of nerve cells by regulating gene expression.  And this can affect every system in the body.  It’s all very complicated.  Any advance in knowledge rarely provides simple answers, just a vast array of unforeseen questions.  

Only 1% of the genome encodes for specific proteins, about 20,000 of them – the same number as in a nematode worm.  Ten times as many are regulator genes, that are turned on and off by environmental factors and modify the expression of certain genes.  Anything that changes the expression of transmitters, modulates intracellular machinery, and induces growth and cell division will involve regulator genes.  These then are the targets for treatment and prevention.  The remaining 90% of the genome is thought to be junk, DNA fragments, stuff left by some viruses.  Scientists have found no use for it as yet.  Genetics, like human life, is a bit of a mess, not unlike the hard drive of your computer, which contains bits of everything you’ve deleted or copied. 

So the sequencing of the human genome hasn’t resulted in the dramatic breakthroughs that were expected.  Part of the problem is that it takes a long time to sequence the genome from a single individual and everybody’s genome is different.  At the moment, gene sequencing is rather like tearing a book up into fragments of page,  sequencing these and then putting them together again, but with new methods of sequencing coming on stream, things will be much quicker.  In five years time, the cost of sequencing somebody’s genome will be as little as £1000 and we will have a much better handle on the nature and function of the regular genes.  Then comparison of genomes from people with IBS will be feasible.  But will we be any closer to finding a cause  …… or an answer?

Well the people voted and no one single party won.  It’s a hung parliament and the conservatives and liberal democrats have combined to form a coalition government.  We have got the government we wanted or rather we have not got any of the governments we didn’t want.  Now politicians or at least little over half of them have a chance to work together to solve the economic crisis.  Perhaps we have seen the end of the boo – rah, rah adversarial politics of the past and will achieve some  concensus. 

This is democracy in action, but is it the best system to solve our problems?  Democracy is accountable, but to whom; to an electorate informed by media and over influenced by the personality of the leader?   Western democracy suffers from populism; it cannot make sacrifices, take the difficult decisions because it will be voted out of office. People expect to be more comfortable, better off; they will only support a government that has to make economic cuts as long as somebody else bears the sacrifice.  The media support the rights of the masses and will soon whip up a storm if they do not get a good deal.

When Tony Blair realised that the Iraqis were not producing weapons of mass destruction, he declared that they were fighting a war to restore democracy in Iraq.  But is that what they wanted?  We might argue that under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had the government it needed – at least for most of the time.  Saddam was seen as a strong leader in the Stalinistic mould.  He not only improved the prosperity of Iraq but he enhanced its stature among Arabic nations and throughout the world.  In the late nineteen eighties, my Iraqi students viewed him as a hero.  But like every dictator, he over-reached himself.  He declared war against the Kurds, the Marsh Arabs, Iran and finally Kuwait.  That was a step too far; Kuwait had oil.  Suddenly Saddam was a dangerous tyrant.  But having got rid of Saddam, is Iraq ready for democracy?  The problem is unless a country is ready, democracy can so easily lead to reactionary politics; the overthrow of one system for another – the tyranny of the majority, more conflict.  Democracy cannot be equated with individual liberty.

 But what is the alternative – a self imposed oligarchy of the great and the seemingly good?  Perhaps  but some system of checks and balances must be imposed to govern the government otherwise the system will be liable to corruption.  In the middle ages, it was the church who kept an eye on states, but this didn’t stop some monarchs setting themselves up as leader of the church as well and it didn’t stop priests abusing children. 

The other evening, I went to see a video documentary on the 2007 riots in Burma, filmed by under-cover  journalists, who smuggled their footage out of the country.  It demonstrated the panic- stricken defence by a government that had boxed itself into a corner by refusing to negotiate and had to react oppressively to restore order.  Once the monks and the people started marching, the outcome was predictable.   We might argue that what a new country needs as it learns to vote and rule itself is a system of monitoring or parenting, by another state.  But isn’t that just colonisation by another name.  And which state will parent Burma?  Not the west for sure, not Japan; memories run deep. So will it be China or India and won’t that just shift the risk of conflict to a larger arena?

‘It’s still the same old story; a fight for love and glory; a case of do or die.’ 

It is 1885 and there’s  trouble in the Balkans – as usual!  Sergius, so ambitious for glory, leads a foolhardy cavalry charge against the Serbian machine guns.  He’s not to know that the Serbians had been issued the wrong ammunition and could not retaliate.  So his glorious charge scatters the enemy, who disperse into the countryside.   The population are advised to keep their doors and windows bolted, but Bluntschli, a Swiss mercenary , shins up a drainpipe into stumbles into the bedroom of Raina, who is not only the daughter of the Bulgarian commander , Colonel Petkoff, but is also betrothed to the heroic Sergius. 

Raina is moved by Bluntschli’s fear.  She gives him chocolate creams to eat and hides him.  He falls asleep on her bed.  Raina and her mother, Catherine, then help him escape by disguising his uniform under their father’s old coat. 

A few months later,  peace breaks out and Petkoff  and Sergius return from the war.  Bluntschli, who has been promoted captain, calls to return the coat.  It’s the stuff of farce.  Petkoff and Sergius must not know their wife and fiancée concealed a deserter, but how can the return of the missing coat with Raina’s signed photograph,’ to my chocolate cream soldier’, in the pocket.  But Petkoff and Sergius are more  bluster than brain.  They welcome Bluntschi  as an honourable foe and use his practical abilities to help them organise the demobilisation of their troops and horses.  

Bluntschli is a professional.   For him, war is a job of work.  He keeps his head down, does his duty and waits for the peace.  By comparison, his erstwhile opponents appear ridiculously pompous.  Petkoff is actually scared of his troops and wants nothing more than to retire to his country house.  Sergius is a liability. He would sacrifice the safety of his troops in his desperate quest for personal glory. So much for honour! 

But what of love?   Sergius is not in love with Raina; he does not know or understand her.   Besides, he can’t keep his hands off Louka,  Raina’s wily, cynical maid, who sees the little boy inside and is more of a challenge.  Raina, meanwhile, has developed a soft spot for her chocolate cream soldier; he understands her and makes her laugh.  Even her parents are won over when they learn of his inheritance. 

In ‘Arms and the Man’, George Bernard Shaw points a satirical Irish finger at the ridiculous hypocrisy of honour and romance.  As Bluntschli explains, sensible people are frightened, they lie, they deceive, they pretend.  They may like to think themselves honourable but faced with  mortal danger, they will do all they can to stay alive.  Only the mad will sacrifice everything for love and glory.

What Shaw is writing about, in cold psychoanalytical language, is narcissism.  Sergius doesn’t love Raina;  he is merely in love with the reflection of his own image in her eyes.  The beautiful and spirited Raina makes him feel much more of a man than he knows he really is.  He lacks confidence and can only gain self esteem by exciting the admiration of others.  He lives in the regard of others.  It is his life blood.  Without it he dies.  His need is so desperate, he will risk everything, even the lives of his men, the future of his country.    

He even feels compelled  to seek regard in the cynical arms of Louka, though he knows that she will be the one to destroy him.  An overweening desire for fame and celebrity is always accompanied by a tendency to self destruct.  Think of George Best, Gary Glitter, Paul Gasgoine,  Jade Goody.     

And for Raina, the commanders daughter who cannot go to war herself, Sergius is the embodiment of her own inbred projections of bravery and honour, the only man worthy of her love;  it’s glory by proxy.   The  narcissistic love object has to be impressive; it doesn’t work otherwise.  Raina is in love with how the attentions of so brave a man can make her feel adorable, admirable, desirable, loveable; all a self centred woman could even want.       

So are we to believe that romance and glory are but the delusions of a fragile psyche,  make believe; the stories we tell ourselves in order to conceal a reality we can’t accept.    Bluntschli explains that humanity is never that wonderful or glorious,  but he’s an administrator, the son of a hotel owner.  But do we always want to be that sensible?  There’s no meaning in that and life without meaning is not worth living.  Don’t we need make believe too?   If not, what would be the point of literature, music, the visual arts?   The moments of madness, falling in love, crazy projects, bring us life and permit change.  Banish them and we become depressed and die a little more.   But contain them,  allow our healthy narcissism, our self confidence and esteem to receive nourishment  of novelty  from friends and family and who knows, we could even be happy.     

‘The world will always welcome lovers.  As time goes by.’        

 

‘Just follow me dad!’  Alex reached the end of the lane and then turned left into an relentless wall of oncoming traffic, easing his bike across the path of motos, tuktuks, cars and trucks which just turned a little to miss him without altering their steady 20 mph, until he blended in with the flow of traffic going in our direction.

It’s an experience driving in Phnom Penh.  There are few traffic lights and roundabouts and  no obvious rules.  Drivers and cyclists just seem to know how others will behave and avoid them as they would just as if they were walking along a crowded pavement.

It’s the same if you want to cross the road on foot.  Just step out into the flow and keep walking slowly and deliberately so that nobody has any doubt of your intensions and they drive round you. 

Despite the volume and chaos of traffic, we saw just one accident, when somebody fell of their moto at the side of the road.      

Drivers are not neurotic in Phnom Penh.  There are no stops and starts, no irritations, no speed merchants, no horn honking or shouting just a blending into a steady inexorable flow of traffic.  Everybody seems to know what is expected.

But the way, they drive their motos looks incredibly dangerous; police in England would have a field day. Mothers balance children on the handlebars as they drive one-handed through  heavy traffic.  A family, a little baby sandwiched between mother and father, careers along in the flow.  A man controls his moto one-handed while wheeling a bike with the other.  Another balances a big water tank on the handlebars and peers round the side of it.    

Sundays evenings are the busiest time. Then everybody seems to go for a ‘promenade en moto’.  It’s the time to see and be seen.  Men ride upright in shiny suits while their women sit side-saddle in their best pyjamas.   And their children stand up on the seat in their designer football strips and wave.

‘Nobody wants a hung parliament.  Politicians of different convictions would never come to a decision.  It would lead to paralysis.  It would destroy confidence in the economy just at the time we are recovering.’   At least this is what Labour and the Conservatives think.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they?  They’ve worked hard to establish clear water between themselves and they want a free hand to do things in their own way.  ‘Only a party with a single majority can create a leader to make big decisions that are necessary.’ 

But hang on a bit.  Are the parties so far apart?   The Prime Ministerial debate on Thursday night was more like the X Factor than a clear exposition of policy.  Yes, the Lib Dems would scrap Trident, the Conservatives are wary of Europe and would give people more say in how schools, hospitals and local government is run,  Labour claims to be the only party with the knowledge and experience to run the economy.  But when it comes it comes down to it, isn’t this just political posturing – the need to say something different?  Wouldn’t all these stances need debate and modulation to arrive at a  policy that is likely to work? 

There is actually more that joins the parties than separates them.  Difference are of more of style than content.  We can always point to any government that has been in charge as long as Labour has and accuse it of ruining the country.  Novelty always seems more attractive.  But will a different party lead to different government?   The economy, war in Afghanistan, schools, the health service;  it seems that there is little room to manoeuvre.  What is required is a steady concensus.  People are fed up with the constant back biting and bickering of party politics.  It would be good to see Vince Cable sitting down with Gordon Brown and coming to an economic strategy that we can all trust.     Exit from Afghanistan is surely something that we all want and is too important to be left to party politics. 

Most governments in Europe are coalitions.  Are they any the worse for that.  Look at Germany for example.   Britain insisted on proportional representation after the war to prevent a return to totalitarianism.  Germany has been a model of success and stability since that time.     

 The problem with government is the politics.  Domination by a single party does not make for the best decisions; only those that are expedient.  The same could be said of our first past the post system.  It may facilitate decision making, but at the expense of important perspectives.   A significant proportion of the electorate are green, yet they are unlikely to get a seat.   The Lib Dems may capture the popular vote, but they will not necessarily get many more seats than they already have.    

Single party governments are  always looking over their shoulders to their supporters; the Unions, big business and the wider British public.  After a lifetime in medicine,  I am convinced that the NHS fails the majority of ill people, but no party dares address that.   I think our lives are too regulated, but any attempt to unpick that is accompanied with cries of outrage leading to reinforcement of health and safety.  There is too much fear in politics.  While an established coalition might affront the democratic principles we are so proud of and lead to fears of totalitarianism and tyranny,  there are times when it seems the only way to deal with a crisis.

Crisis creates opportunity for change.  We had a coalition during the war.  Even characters are dissimilar as Churchill and Attlee found they could work together.  Beveridge could bring on the Welfare State.  Surely the economy is too big a crisis to be left under the control of a single dominant politician, who shows every sign of being susceptible to paranoia.   But will the public see that?   Has the economy really created the crisis of a European war or is it like global warming – we know it’s there, but they effects of not hit us yet?  

The choice is this election is not really one of policy.  It’s all about personality.  I thought all three leaders performed really well on Thursday.  As polls indicated, there was really little to choose between them.   The choice, it seems, is between the devil we know and the bright new kids on the block, who we don’t.   Governance should not be about  politics.  This is not the way to solve problems. I think it’s time for proper joined up government we can have confidence in.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who nearly beat Darwin to the discovery of evolution, described it like this.  “It is like buttery custard, flavoured with almonds intermingled with wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion sauce, ground cherries [sherry wine?] and other incongruities.  It is neither acid nor sweet nor juicy.  Yet one feels the want of none of these qualities for it is perfect as it is.  Eat it immediately.”

The durian is a large fruit, like a spiky rugby ball.  It is so smelly that it is banned from airline cabins and some hotels. But the Asians love them; they consider them an aphrodisiac.  There’s a Malay saying that when the durians are down the sarongs are up.

Every morning at Rainbow Lodge, we were served a plate of exotic fruits.  It was an education. 

The Soursop is related to the Durian, only smaller, not spiky, but with an irregular surface. It has a chewy, sweet white flesh with flat black seeds. 

The Custard Apple is like the Soursop.  It has overlapping greenish flesh and is very juicy, sweet yet slightly acid.

 And then there’s the Mangosteen.  These when they are ripe are small, dark purple, round fruits with a rosette of sepals on the top of them.  The flesh is juicy, white and sweet yet slightly acid.  The bark and the skin of the fruit can be used to treat diarrhoea.

But for flavour, I just love the Long yong or Durkin.  It tastes like a lychee, but is softer and sweeter and one the flesh is peeled off, it is in white segments like garlic.

The Pomelo is the largest grapefruit.  It can be used as a salad vegetable or fruit.

The Dragon’s Eye Fruit, is a true lychee but contains a much larger black seed  and has the smooth white surface and disconcerting consistency of an eyeball.

The Rambutan is a hairy lychee.  “Rambut” means “whiskery hairs”.

The Sapodilla is one that I really like.  It’s a brown fruit that tastes like toffee, like a pear flavoured with maple syrup. 

The Snake Fruit looks interesting.  It’s shaped a little bit like an inverted comma or the head of a cobra.  The brown spotted skin also resembles that of a snake. The flesh is milky and sour. 

Then of course there are the sweetest mangos and papayas, (though the Cambodians also like to eat them unripe in strips as a vegetable) and pineapples.  The seeds of the pineapple are arranged in a spiral.  Cut them out in a shallow wedge with a sharp knife for a perfect presentation.

And did you know that the cashew nut nestles into the base of the green cashew apple, which tastes sweet not unlike an apple.

He stares wide-eyed and innocent, thin of face, with his moustasche and trademark long wispy beard slightly curved at the tip, from the all denominations of banknotes issued in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  Ho is the father of the country, the leader of the revolution, one time prime minister and president for life and enduring inspiration.  But what sort of man was he; this one time teacher, waiter, cleaner, and  chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing: a man of simple tastes, a remarkable intellect, a compassionate leader of his country, a dangerous revolutionary, a tyrant or all of those?  And what is his legacy?

He was born Nguyen Sinh Cung ,  the second son of a poor rural family living near the centre of Vietnam.  His father was a Confucian scholar, teacher and magistrate, who was later demoted for abuse of power but also because of Cung’s nationalist activities.  While Cung  was still at primary school his parents separated.  His elder brother went with his father down south, Cung went with his mother and sister to Hue.  But at the age of 10, his mother died and he went to live with his father.  He received a French education at the Lycee and then left to teach at a small school on the border. 

In 1911, he left on his great adventure.   He sailed to Marseilles and from there went to Paris, where he took jobs as a cleaner, a waiter and a cook, but spent all of his free time reading history and newpapers to familiarise himself with western politics.  The following year he travelled to America.  He worked in Boston and New York and made contact with Korean Nationalists.   1913 saw him in Britain, where he worked for a time as a pastry chef at the Drayton Court Hotel in West Ealing.  Returning to France, this idealistic and handsome young man restyled himself as Nguyen ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot) and embraced communism as the only type of government that would restore the rights of his people from French colonial oppression.  He even attended the Versailles peace conference in 1919 in a borrowed tuxedo and bowler hat and petitioned for recognition of the civil rights of the Vietnamese people.  He was ignored.  That same year, citing quotations of the American Bill of Rights, he petitioned President Woodrow Wilson to remove the French from Vietnam and replace them with a nationalist government.  Wilson ignored him too.  Two years later he and a group of like minded revolutionaries, founded the Parti Communiste Francaise.  Later that year he visited Moscow and  became Comintern’s principal theorist on colonial warfare in Asia.  While in France, he had a relationship with the dressmaker, Marie Braire.

In 1923 he was in Moscow and China, where he betrayed Pho Bo Chau, the head of a rival revolutionary faction to the police in Shanghai.  His excuse was that he hneeded the money for the communist party and he expected Chau’s trial to stir up French resentment. 

In 1926 he married Zeng Xeiming and when criticised for this, he replied that he needed a Chinese woman to help him learn the language and to keep house.  He was married in the same place as Chou en Lai and lived at the residence of Mikhail Borodin. 

But he was soon on his travels again.  In 1927, he was in the Crimea recuperating from TB.  He then travelled to Italy, Switzerland and Germany.  He was imprisoned by the British in Hong Kong in 1931.   In 1938 he was adviser to the Chinese communist party which forced the evacuation of the nationalist government to Taiwan.

By 1940 Quoc adopted the name Ho Chi Minh, (bringer of enlightenment) and the following year returned to Vietname to lead the Viet Minh independance movement against the Vichy French and Japanese occupation.  In this he was supported by the United States but later imprisoned by Chiang Kai Chek for his revolutionary activities.  On his release he lived with a Tay woman, Du Thi Lac and had a son by her.  

In 1945, Ho ignited the August revolution,  persuading the Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate.  He issued an American style Proclamation of Independance and petitioned Harry S. Trueman for support. Trueman failed to reply.  That same year, 200,000 Chinese nationalists arrived in Hanoi.  Ho agreed to dissolve his communist party and hold elections.  He then negotiated with the French in which Vietnam was recognised as an autonomous state in the French union, but his real purpose was to drive out the Chinese.   As soon as the Chinese troops left, fighting broke out with the French.   The following year the Viet Minh went on a purge of rival revolutionary groups and banned all rival political parties.   By 1950 Stalin and Mao, no doubt impressed by Ho’s single min ded ruthlessness, had recognised his government and given promises of support.  

In 1954, Ho defeated the French paratroopers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu.  The French ceded sovereignty to Ho’s government and the Geneva accords divided the country along the 47th parallel into the communist North and the non communist south, providing electrions were held in 1956 to unify the country.  US Colonel Edward Lansdale working in Siagon for the CIA persuaded the Vietnamese catholics to move south by claiming that the virgin Mary had herself moved south out of distaste for communism.  This propaganda was no doubt backed up by Ho’s land reform in which hundreds living in the north were accused of being landlords and either tortured and executed or fled south.  

Ho ignored unification of the country by elections and instead started supplying the southern rebels, the Vietcong via the Ho Chi Minh trail while moving his own forces south.  The French will still supporting the corrupt Diem government in the south, but Diem was assassinated by his own troops, a n action supported by America.   But fearful of a domino effect, in which the whole of south east Asia would come under communist influence,  Johnson committed combat troops to support South Vietnam in 1964.   it was a war neither side could win.  America had overwhelming fire power and helicopter mobility.  The Vietcong knew the country and could best wage a guerilla war merging into the jungle.  But Ho, ever the strategist,  recognised the weakness of the South Vietnamese forces and vulnerability of the Americans to public opinion at home.  He risked all in the Tet offensive, which, although a tactical failure was a great moral victory.  Americans lost heart and began to negotiate  a withdrawal. 

Ho didn’t live to see Vietnam reunfied.  Never of robust health, he died of diabetes and heart failure in 1969 but up to his death, he insisted that his forces continued to fight in the south.  Time and politics were on their side.  When the communist tankis rolled into Saigon, soon to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975, they bore banners proclaiming, ‘You are always marching with us, Uncle Ho.’     

Forty years after his death, Ho Chi Minh, is revered in Vietnam as a great patriot.  Despite his wishes to be cremated, his ashed scattered on mountains in the north, the centre and the south of his coutnry,, he was embalmed in Moscow and his body lies in the big square mausoleum adjacent to the presidential palace and where he lived his simple life in a House on Stilts by the lake.

Next Page »