Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Echelon

Venice and Death

This article appeared in the April 2014 edition of Echelon.


A city born to die – by drowning.



Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley visited Venice and sent a telegram to David Niven: “Streets full of water. Advise”. The city is certainly flooded these days – with tourists.






Writers and Venice



death in venice

In his novella, Death in Venice, Thomas Mann describes the fetid atmosphere of the city and the cholera outbreak that kills his protagonist. Other writers apart from Mann have been inspired by Venice. Shakespeare set Othello and The Merchant of Venice in the city. Venice inspired the poetry of Ezra Pound, who wrote his first literary work in the city. Pound died in 1972 and his remains are buried in Venice’s cemetery island of San Michele. The city features prominently in Henry James’ The Aspern Papers and The Wings of the Dove and is also visited in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. The English writer, artist, photographer and eccentric, Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian VII, died in Venice in 1913. Mark Twain wrote about Venice in The Innocents Abroad:”The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent.”

Henry James visited Venice 15 times and used the city to explore themes of  the contrast between the new world and the old.






At the  Hotel Danieli, the famous affair between the French novelist and playwright George Sand and poet Alfred de Musset was consummated. At different times Goethe, Byron and Dickens also stayed there.



Geoff Dyer was born not far from me in Cheltenham. He now lives in Venice Beach California where he was reminded of his mortality recently when he had a stroke.





Venetian Empire


The Venetian Empire thrived between 1206 and 1450. In its heyday, it stretched down the Adriatic, along the Peloponnesian coast, across to Crete and Corfu and Cyprus, up the Adriatic and into Asia Minor, with its eastern outpost at Tana on the far end of the Sea of Azov beyond the Crimea.


Centre of Commerce

In the Middle Ages Venice was a major centre for commerce and trade, a leader in political and economic affairs. Venice created an institutional basis for commercial capitalism, creating political and legal institutions that guaranteed property rights and the enforceability of contracts. It was a pioneer in developing foreign exchange and credit markets, banking and accountancy. It created a government bond market, starting with compulsory loans with regular interest payments. Its fiscal system was efficient and favourable to mercantile profits and the accumulation of capital.


The biggest enterprise in imperial Venice was the Arsenale, a public shipyard created in 1104. It was operative for centuries, and employed thousands of workers. Some small boat building is still carried out there and the rope factory is today one of the venues of the Venice Biennale.





Wealth and Art
The wealth of the Venetian Empire attracted great artists such as Giorgione, Tintoretto and Titian. Glassworkers, woodworkers, lace makers and sculptors made satisfactory livings. Venetian Gothic architecture, as seen in Doge’s Palace and the Ca’ d’Oro, has attracted visitors for centuries. During the 16th century, Venice became one of the most important musical centers of Europe, marked by a characteristic style of composition and the development of the Venetian polychoral style. Venice was famous for the splendour of its music, as exemplified in the “colossal style” of Gabrieli, which used multiple choruses. Venice was also the home of many famous composers during the baroque period, such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. Opera was born in Venice through the works of Monteverdi.





Demographic Decline



In 1171, the city had about 66 000 inhabitants, and was one of the three biggest cities in Western Europe until the sixteenth century. In 1557, the population of Venetian territories was about 1.5 million. Venice experienced three demographic catastrophes. A final one may be underway now. The other three were plagues. The modern plague is tourism. The numbers of the native population have been falling for centuries, but the pace of decline has quickened. The population fell from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city’s days as a sustainable community are numbered. The danger point was thought to be 60,000 and the population has now dipped below that.


la salute
Venice has been trying to find a role. Should it aim to be a creative, living city, or to be a kind of museum? Real people cannot afford to live there but the tourist trade needs workers.




The city of Mestre, on the mainland connected by rail and road over the lagoon, supplies what Venice’s tourist industry needs most: people. Since the end of World War II, Mestre grew quickly and chaotically into a vast human settlement, which now includes migrant workers from Romania and Africa. Unlike Venice, Mestre has normal shops with normal prices.


Italian street



Built on Sewage



It might seem like a crazy idea to build a city at the centre of an empire in a waterlogged space. Water gave Venice life and water will be the death of Venice. The current city administration is ignoring the rise in sea level that global warming will bring. On November 4, 1966, an abnormal occurrence of high tides, rain-swollen rivers and a severe Sirocco wind caused a flood that left thousands of residents without homes and caused over six million dollars worth of damage. Climate change will bring regular flooding twice a day, because of tidal oscillation.


Many visitors comment on the smell of Venice. The current sewage disposal system is a patchwork of old and new and does not fully meet the needs of a modern city catering to thousands of tourists. Some houses and apartments still discharge untreated sewage directly into the canals. Significant levels of hepatitis A and enteroviruses have been detected.

The 12th edition of the Baedeker guide to Venice published in 1903 noted that the vaporetti were introduced in 1888. These new steamboats churned the water below the surface and increased erosion. Today motor boats have a worse effect.







Worse still are the huge cruise ships, most of them three times the length of an American football field, with gross tonnage of 100,000 or more (the Titanic was only 46,000 tons). In 1997, 206 cruise ships came to Venice, in 2011, 655. In 1990, 200,000 cruise tourists disembarked in Venice; in 2011, it was 1.8 million. On just one day in July 2011, six of these ships tied up in port and 35,000 tourists disembarked at once.




The cruise business provides 1,600 direct jobs in services for the ships and passengers, 2,600 jobs in supplies, maintenance, repairs, bunker sales, etc., and 1,270 direct jobs created by tourist spending in Venice (at least €363 million a year).
St Mark’s Square has hundreds of people milling around. You cannot enjoy a quiet coffee at Quadri or Florian’s. A huge queue obscures the façade of St Mark’s. The acceptable maximum number of tourists for Venice is 33,000. In 2011, the average number of visitors to the city daily is 60,000. Tourism destroys that which gives it existence.


Much of Venice’s appeal lies in its air of unreality. Canaletto and Turner captured the dream-like quality of ancient buildings reflected in water in the constantly changing light. Proust said his dream had become his address. The film Don’t Look Now captured the sinister aspect of Venice, the fog from the canals drifting down the maze-like alleyways hiding who knows what dangers.


dont look


Venice is a good example of anicca, impermanence. It was born to die and this gives it its beauty. Venice’s death warrant was signed at its birth by its very location. The city has always been sinking, frayed by the salty air, the thrusting marine current, the sirocco and the oscillation of the Adriatic Sea. Now it has a plague of tourists with which to contend.


How much longer can it live?


Democratic Deficit

This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.


Will austerity trump apathy at EU Parliamentary Elections?


All EU member states will hold elections between 22 and 25 May 2014 to choose 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This will be the eighth Europe-wide election to the EP (European Parliament). The EP is the only EU institution to be directly elected.

The electorate in EU member countries never displayed much enthusiasm about the EP. Voters think voting is futile because decision-making generally resides in the European Council, which comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain, the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004. Turnout is not yet as low as that of the US Midterm elections which usually falls below 40%. The participation of young people voting for MEPs is particularly discouraging. In 2009, 50% of those over 55 voted, while only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, while in Spain, the approval plummeted from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

In Ireland, polls indicate that Sinn Féin, once the political voice of the IRA, as the TNA was the voice of the LTTE, will easily elect three MEPs. The political gains to the Irish mainstream parties and the ruling coalition arising from positive economic indicators now mean nothing. UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) support rose from about four percent in 2012 to about eleven percent in 2013 – despite having no members in the British parliament. Proportional representation in the EP favours UK fringe parties that do not do well under the first-past-the-post Westminster system. At the last EP elections in 2009, UKIP came second behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Radical right-wing populist parties do well in EP elections because of differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake. Diverging levels of turnout allow populist parties disproportionate representation. For example, the Dutch PVV, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party, obtained 5.9% of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5% in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0% in the 2009 elections for the EP.


Exit polls suggest that PRRPs (Populist Radical Right Parties), a group of parties with fascist tendencies, could win around 67 seats, close to 10%, up from the 37 they now control. The Economist estimated in January 2014 that anti-EU populists could win between 16% and 25% of seats. Cross-border alliances may strengthen their bargaining power. Dutch right-wingers are discussing an alliance with their right wing French counterparts.

Not everyone believes that fascist parties will take over the EU. Some assert that concern about populism is exaggerated. In Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament, Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that uses social science methods to examine social, political and cultural dynamics, investigated how the PRRPs currently operate in the EP.

The report concluded that PRRP MEPs face a fundamental conflict. On the one hand, their ideology commits them to being fiercely critical of the EU – in some cases they want out altogether. At the same time, they benefit from the EU – obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts – and are part of one of its core institutions.


Some PRRP MEPs react by rebelling against the institution and regularly voting against the majority on the issues that matter to them, such as immigration. PRRPs do not find it easy to maintain alliances and their weakness is rooted in ideological heterogeneity, a fear of stigmatisation, and conflicting nationalisms. The populist radical right has little impact on policy and substantive issues in the EP. When compared to other political groups, its MEPs participate less, write fewer reports and opinions, and are less successful at pushing through amendments and winning votes. They rarely hold the balance of power and so have little ‘blackmail power’ to offer the other political groups votes in exchange for advancing their policy interests. The PRRP focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities.

Why do EP elections matter? These elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as: How can the eurozone be made robust? Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned? The power of banks operating on a global scale is beyond the control of individual states. So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections. The ability of citizens to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better.

Even if the EP is reformed, it will not be a parliament as we know it. In democracies, the legislature normally initiates and amends laws, whereas in the EU, faceless technocrats devise directives behind closed doors. Axel Weber, chairman of UBS, told an audience at Davos that the coming elections could undermine recent progress by governments and the ECB (European Central Bank) by allowing extreme anti-European parties to gain influence in the parliament. What Weber calls “progress” is that banks are not lending to businesses. Bank lending has been falling for years now. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to the banks at the height of the crisis, ostensibly to stimulate national economies, has been repaid to the ECB. There is a liquidity trap because European banks have been paying money back to the ECB while starving companies and people of credit – in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain and Greece.

Even a higher voter turnout will not put right the lack of democracy in the EU. Technocrats, not the elected parliament will continue to make the important decisions. Voters know this and do not bother to vote. This allows right wing parties that have no chance of representation in their home parliaments to win seats in the European parliament. They may not be able to affect EU policy but they do get a platform and the oxygen of publicity. Even those, like Axel Weber, who warn of the dangers of right wing parties getting into the EP, are really saying that they do not want elected representatives interfering with the plans of the technocrats (who favour bankers like Weber).

Herr Weber would probably also object if voters elected non-right parties who did something practical to restrain the banks.


He is probably not really in favour of democracy.



Beware of Greeks Bearing Good News

This article appeared in the March 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.

Greece takes on the Presidency of the Council of the EU

It is not so long ago that there was much talk about Grexit – Greek exit from the eurozone and possibly the EU itself. Now Greece holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU. Every six months a member state of the EU holds the Presidency of the Council of the EU and presides over its work. This is not to be confused with President of the European Council (current incumbent Herman Van Rompuy) or the President of the European Commission (currently José Manuel Barroso). During the time a state holds the Presidency of the Council, it plays host to the majority of the EU’s events and plays a key role in the activities of the EU. It is responsible for organising EU meetings, setting the Union’s political agenda and ensuring its development, integration and security.

As I write, Greece holds the Presidency from January-June 2014. The Greek government will have to lead hundreds of meetings, conduct complex negotiations, and host 13 ministerial councils in Athens. The Greeks will have to manage with a budget for the next six months that is about 40 percent lower than that of the previous presidency. Greece’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dimitris Kourkoulas, announced, to show what good managers Greeks could be, that he planned to make do with an even less than the allocation.

Panagiotis Ioakeimidis, professor for European policy at the University of Athens believes the presidency will give Greece the opportunity to improve its image within Europe and restore the credibility it has lost in recent years. Greek Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos insisted that Greece was not thinking of its domestic priorities, but of those of the EU. The EU parliamentary elections in May are likely to bring a new political balance and a rise in euroscepticism and representation for far right groups.

Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras declared: “Greece starts the EU presidency on a positive record, with a primary surplus and an imminent recovery. This is going to be a presidency of hope – hope for more Europe, and hope for a better Europe.”  Athens seems to want to do whatever it takes to show that Greece is on the path to recovery, reminiscent of what Ireland did last year when it held the presidency of the EU. Hit by the economic crisis, Ireland was in an ideal position to lead the way in driving forward policies and legislation on core priorities of jobs, stability and growth. Getting agreement on the €960 billion Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) budget for 2014-2020 was arguably the Irish Presidency’s greatest achievement. The budget is effectively an investment in key policy areas that will help boost growth and create jobs in all Member States. By December, Ireland became the first EU member to exit its bailout.


Few believe at this stage that Athens can make good. The latest figures show a jobless rate of 27.4%, with youth unemployment standing at 59.6%. Critics say the average Greek on the Athens omnibus does not perceive improvement and the upcoming municipal elections, which will take place at the same time of the EU parliamentary elections in May, might show the crisis is not over. Austerity policies have shrunk the labour market by 21%, throwing 40% of the workforce out of the national insurance system.


The state holding the presidency should not push through their own interest. Nonetheless, Greece started its six months in charge by declaring that the imposition of austerity by Berlin and Brussels could no longer be tolerated. One of the first things the new presidency will have to do is renegotiate with the Troika about itself. Greece will also have to reach an agreement with the rest of the eurozone on how to finance its debts beyond 2014, when the current aid program ends.

This will be Athens’ fifth run in the rotating presidency. Previously, they tried to advance a socially conscious agenda, albeit with moderate success. In 1988, Andreas Papandreou pushed for a European Social Charter, which only a year later became a reality under the French presidency. In 1994, Athens’ social agenda was set aside in the face of negotiations for an enlargement of the EU to the north. In 2014, in particular, Greece wants to devote attention to youth unemployment and EU subsidies to get young people into jobs. Greece plans to focus on proposals for a banking union and amending the data protection act, and the policy of particular importance to its own interests – growth.

According to figures from the Greek Finance Ministry, 98% of EU bailout funds have been directed back to Greece’s lenders, rescuing French and German banks, while only 1.6% of the money from the European Stability Mechanism’s flows into the real Greek economy. Officials are lethargic about pursuing tax evaders — including the 2,000 prominent Greeks with Swiss bank accounts on a list provided to the Athens government by IMF managing director Christine Lagarde.

In order to maintain the pretence that Greece has turned the corner and is on the road to recovery, EU and Greek officials celebrated the beginning of the EU presidency amid draconian security and a ban on public demonstrations. Nigel Farage of the Eurosceptic UKIP became a hero to Greeks when he told PM Samaras “I must congratulate you for getting the Greek presidency off to such a cracking start.” Farage said Samaras should drop his party’s name, New Democracy. “I suggest you call it No Democracy because Greece is now under foreign control. You can’t make any decisions, you have been bailed out and you have surrendered democracy, the thing your country invented in the first place.”

Although Venizelos warned of the growing appeal of neo-Nazis, there is a strong folk-memory of what German Nazis did to Greece during World War II. There is rising anti-German feeling in Greece, even though, in the year up to August 2013 Germans were the biggest spenders among visitors to Greece, with a total of 541 million euros. Angela Merkel is seen as the architect of the austerity policies that are hurting Greeks. Merkel, whose steering of the euro crisis propelled her to soaring popularity at home and a third term, has become increasingly resented in the rest of the EU. Greek newspapers regularly run articles on how much money Germany owes Greece. There is persistent resentment over hundreds of billions of euros in reparations that Greeks say Germany owes the country from World War II, money that some say should go toward helping to forgive Greece’s debt. Just before the Greek Presidency was due to begin, a gunman sprayed the German Ambassador’s residence in Athens with bullets.

Some critics question the wisdom of the rotating presidency. Greece was the recipient of the EU’s biggest bailout. Other EU states were anxious when Cyprus, a bankrupt member, whose economy represents a mere 0.2% of the eurozone, led policy-making just when Europe faced its greatest hour of need. Barely a week before taking over the presidency, Cyprus was forced to follow Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain in resorting to the EU and IMF for emergency financial assistance. Another economically weak country, Italy, takes over the presidency in July 2014. Italy is not relying on money from the bailout fund, but it too is suffering from a recession and is heavily in debt. After Italy, Latvia, the newest member to join the eurozone, takes over. In 2008, Latvia lost a full quarter of its economic output and during its recovery lost 8.5% of its population.

George Soros wrote, “What was meant to be a voluntary association of equal states has now been transformed by the euro crisis into a relationship between creditor and debtor countries that is neither voluntary nor equal. Indeed, the euro could destroy the EU altogether.”



Cuzco – the Navel of the World

This is an extended version of an article that appears in the March 2014 issue of Echelon magazine.

Sacred valley at the top of the world with great clubs and restaurants.


Peru has had a violent history even until recently. There continues to be a divide between indigenous people and the descendants of the Spanish conquerors.

Getting There

There are flights to Cuzco from Lima but there are dangers to health because of altitude sickness; the ancient capital of the Incas is 3,400 metres above sea level. Paul Theroux told a story, probably apocryphal, of a tourist’s teeth exploding. I became distinctly dizzy in Huancavelica (3,660 metres).  It is advisable to make a gradual progress by road or rail to Cuzco, in order to acclimatise yourself gradually to the altitude.


I bought a fascinating book in Cuzco written by one of the city’s native sons. Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios Reales de los Incas, was published in 1609. Garcilaso’s dual heritage enabled him to provide a subtle critique of Spanish colonialism and the sufferings of native Andeans. Garcilaso’s mother was an Inca princess, and his father was a Spanish conquistador. Garcilaso unsuccessfully argued for a colonial regime led by men who could harmoniously reconcile Spanish and Incan traditions. That kind of harmony is still lacking today. He based his accounts of Inca life and the conquest on stories heard from his Inca relatives when he was a child in Cuzco.  He portrays the Inca as benevolent rulers who governed a country where everybody was well-fed and happy.


The Incas carried out human sacrifices and used slave labour. The conquistadors employed great cruelty to extract precious resources to sustain Spain and its Empire. The Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path Maoist terrorists) were brutal, purportedly in pursuit of social justice, as were the peasant groups formed to oppose them in the face of government indifference. When the Peruvian army did take an interest, they slaughtered innocent villagers as well as revolutionaries. The army captured the last surviving Sendero leader as recently as 2011.

Shining Path

In January 2014, the shrunken figure of Abimael Guzmán, the  philosophy professor who founded  Sendero Luminoso, appeared in a Lima court to face charges of killing 25 people and injuring more than 150 in 1992 with two car bombs in Miraflores neighbourhood of the capital. I stayed in that neighbourhood. I also stayed in the Andean town of Huancavelica, where I registered at the local police station. Sendero Luminoso blew up that police station the day after I was in it. In August of 2003, Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee stated that upwards of 69,000 people died in the struggle between Sendero and government security forces. A major Sendero tactic was the mass slaughter of the indigenous people it claimed to be fighting for in order to goad the authorities into matching savagery.


Today, not everything is perfect but there is relative peace in Peru. Cuzco epitomises a Peru where foreigners can come to enjoy historical monuments and incredible scenery, eat and shop well and party. Travelling high up in the Andes, I witnessed grinding poverty among the indigenous people. A citizen of Lima earns 21 times what a resident of the interior earns. In one small town, drunken Indians were rolling in the gutter and rats disturbed my sleep in the “hotel”. Even in coastal areas, life seemed hard. In one seaside village, we were hungry and disgruntled at the lack of food in what passed for restaurants. I later realised, to my shame, that the large fish they managed to find for us was probably intended to feed the whole village.



Peruvians have been eating guinea pigs for millennia. I tried it twice myself while in Cuzco. The first time was in a rather swish restaurant called Cicciolina (waiters wear dark frock coats and white gloves). I swear that I did not know what cuy was until after I had swallowed it. This was a minute cube of meat, rather like liver, which went down in one swallow. The second occasion was at lunch in a more downmarket restaurant where the creature was  splayed whole out on the plate allowing no room for doubt that it was a guinea pig. Although, I knew that it was rodent rather than porcine, it did taste like pork crackling. I am afraid the creature died in vain because I could not eat much of it. I did not like the way it was looking at me.


Trip Advisor reviews 368 restaurants in Cuzco. After travelling in the altiplano and surviving on dishwater and dog soup served in cracked plastic bowls, it was very heaven to be in Cuzco.


On the second floor of a lofty colonial courtyard mansion, Cicciolina is eclectic and international – as well as guinea pig or alpaca you can eat crisp polenta squares with cured rabbit, duck carpaccio and tender lamb. The service is impeccable as well as amiable. The restaurant provides haute versions of cuzqueño classics like anticuchos (beef skewers),

anticuchosrocoto relleno (stuffed red peppers), rocoto relleno

sopa de gallina (chicken soup) and chairo (beef and lamb soup) served in a clay pot.


The humble potato came from Peru before Sir Walter Raleigh took it to his stolen land in County Cork. Peruvian potatoes come in many varieties – and colours.


Where to Stay

When I travelled around Peru, I experienced some very basic accommodation. However, Cuzco has a wide range of hotels to suit every budget. The Loki Hostel caters for backpackers and partygoers.

loki hostal

There are many two-star hotels. Hostal Qorikilla is possibly the cheapest. It is practically falling apart, but the kind, unassuming staff make it a favorite.

At the other end of the scale is the Palacio del Inka, an opulent colonial mansion built on Inca foundations, with parts of the building dating back to the 16th century, when Francisco Pizarro was an occupant.


Multi-layered Navel

The name “Cuzco” means “the navel” – the centre of the Inca Empire and therefore the world.  It lays claim to being the oldest continually inhabited city in the western hemisphere. Cuzco is a many-layered city – beginning with a culture dating back a thousand years before Christ, through the Incas, via the Spanish conquistadors to, in 2014, nightclubs, designer boutiques and restaurants run by celebrity chefs.  After the conquest, the Spaniards used the stones of the Inca buildings to build a new town. Most of the buildings in post-conquest Cuzco were rebuilt after an earthquake in 1650. There was another earthquake in 1950, after which the buildings were faithfully restored using pink or grey stone often using material from Inca buildings.

Night Life


Modern Cuzco is a lively place with attractions for young people as well as those interested in historic monuments and trekking. Cuzco is a party place with an unlimited range in bars and clubs spread out all over town. As Cuzco has become increasingly important for the backpack industry, many hotels and hostels have organised pub-crawls, theme nights and live performances around town. Paddy Flaherty’s must be the (in the altitude sense) highest Irish Pub in the world.  If you wish to travel to the capital of the Inca empire to drink proper Guinness on draught, mix with Europeans watching British sports on the big screen, this could be the place for you.


The dance clubs don’t get going until around midnight or one in the morning and you can stay out  until dawn.


Armchair Travel

You can enjoy Cuzco vicariously from your armchair. Michael Palin visited Cuzco in 1997 for the BBC. You can watch this on YouTube

Palin visited the most famous relic of the Inca Empire: the lost city of Machu Picchu. Palin wrote about Pongo de Mainique, the portal to the afterlife of the Machiguenga Indians and home to the Spectacled Bear among other animals.  “Nothing I have read or fantasized about has prepared me for this place. It’s an enchanted world.” If you get to Cuzco, you can take a trip to Pongo.

In December 1980, the BBC broadcast a programme called “Three Miles High” in the series Great Railway Journeys of the World in which the late lamented Miles Kington travelled from Lima through the Andes via Punto Ferroviario, Huancato by steam train to Huancavelica, by bus to Cuzco & Macchu Picchu to Ayaviri and Lake Titicaca to Bolivia.

Sites to See

The Inca fortress of Sacsaywamán is less than a 2km trek uphill from the Plaza de Armas. In 1536, the fort was the site of one of the bitterest battles of the Spanish conquest. More than two years after Pizarro’s entry into Cuzco, the Incas recaptured Sacsaywamán and used it as a base to lay siege to the conquistadors in Cuzco. Thousands of dead littered the site after the Incas’ defeat, attracting swarms of carrion-eating condors.


manco inca

Resource Curse

revolting peasants

Peru was blighted by the resource curse in the 16th Century and is blighted still in the 21st. Huancavelica, 200 miles from Cuzco,  was founded in 1572 for the purpose of mining mercury, which was essential to extract silver from ore.  Today Peru still has an impoverished indigenous population prey to the extractive industries, this time run by multi-nationals rather than the Spanish Empire. Today illegal gold mining in Peru is causing deforestation and serious mercury contamination of the food chain.


The Peruvian economy is heavily dependent on the export of copper, gold, oil and gas, often located on indigenous lands. A new law offers some hope to the indigenous communities. Extractive projects will require prior consultation. The government will have to listen to the concerns of indigenous communities and try to balance their needs with the desires of multi-national corporations given a free hand by previous administrations. The current government seems committed to the idea that all Peruvians should benefit from the nation’s natural resources. A new tax on the mining industry is expected to bring in additional government revenue of more than $1 bn, which will be used for social programmes.


Let us not forget that tourism is itself an extractive industry. In my dreams of visiting magical sites such as the Taj Mahal and Venice, I imagined myself all alone. Macchu Picchu, like those places, is always full of people. Machu Picchu was completed around  1450 at the height of the Incan empire.  The Incas abandoned it less than 100 years after its foundation, following the Spanish conquest of Peru.  Macchu Picchu was unknown to the outside world before the American historian Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911. The removal of cultural artefacts by the Bingham expeditions gave rise to a long-term dispute between the government of Peru and Yale University. As well as natural phenomena like earthquakes and weather systems, sheer volume of tourists threatens Macchu Picchu.


Tourism in Peru has expanded faster than all other sectors. In 2005, the World Tourism Organization stated that Peru had the second largest tourism growth, 28.6%,  in Latin America. There have been problems, such as seasonal unemployment, a rise in sexual abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, poor urban planning, a lack of residential regulations, and destruction of the environment. Before the tourism boom of the last decade, Cuzco supplied a vast majority of the agricultural products for Peru but now former farmers rely on tourism. During the off-season, many people struggle to live.


Spanish conquistadors in America destroyed all the settlements in their path and returned from their wanderings to starve, because there was nothing left to loot. Now the emphasis on economic growth and tourism could have the same effect.



This is an extended version of an article published in the February 2014 issue of Echelon.

The Almoravids under Abu Bakr founded Marrakech sometime around 1060 and it later became the most important of Morocco’s four imperial cities. His cousin Yusuf ibn Tashfin, with the help of Christian and Negro mercenaries ousted him. Yusuf conquered Northern Morocco and by the time of his death in 1106, he had conquered most of the Spanish Muslim principalities. This opened up Marrakech and Morocco to the civilised world of the Mediterranean. Physicians, philosophers and poets from the whole Islamic world visited the city. After a period of decline, in the early 16th century, Marrakech regained its pre-eminence under wealthy Saadian sultans and again became the capital of the kingdom. The French ruled Morocco from 1912 to 1956.

Some say the city’s name from murra kish, meaning “pass by quickly”—a warning about highway robbers. The “Red City” of Marrakech is a magical place, combining old world mystery and French elegance. Marrakech is the third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat, and lies near the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the Sahara Desert. The city has two distinct parts: the Medina, the historical city, with its intertwining narrow passageways and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle.

Getting There and Staying There

If you are flying from the US, Canada, Asia, you may have to change planes in Casablanca for a 45 min flight to Marrakech. Plenty of low cost companies now fly from Europe to Marrakech. Ménara International Airport in Marrakech is 3 km southwest of the city centre receives several European flights as well as flights from Casablanca and some of the Arab world nations.


Marrakech has over 400 hotels. The Mamounia, the “grand dame of Marrakech hotels”, is a 231-room five-star hotel in the Art Deco-Moroccan fusion style, built in 1925.  The hotel has hosted Winston Churchill, Prince Charles and Mick Jagger (not at the same time). Other hotels include Eden Andalou Hotel, Hotel Marrakech, Sofitel Marrakech, Royal Mirage Hotel, Piscina del Hotel, and Palmeraie Golf Palace. There are innumerable modestly priced riad hotels (riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) listed on Trip Advisor. Customers describe most as clean and quiet.

The Best Food in the World?


Lemon, orange, and olive groves surround Marrakech and influence the cuisine. Food is rich and heavily spiced but not hot. Ras el hanout is a kind of garam masala, a blend of spices including ash berries, chilli, cinnamon, nutmeg, and turmeric. I enjoyed a rabbit tajine. Tajines are slow-cooked with steam in a clay pot with chicken, lamb, beef or fish, adding fruits, olives and preserved lemon, vegetables and spices, including cumin, peppers, saffron, and turmeric.


Shrimp, chicken and lemon-filled briouats are another traditional specialty of Marrakech. Rice or couscous is cooked with saffron, raisins, spices, and almonds. I also enjoyed a pigeon pastilla, a filo-wrapped pie stuffed with meat that has been prepared with almonds, cinnamon, spices and sugar.


Harira soup includes lamb with a blend of chickpeas, lentils, and tomato paste, seasoned with coriander, spices and parsley.


Green tea with mint is served with sugar from a curved teapot spout into small glasses.

mint tea

I was lucky enough to stay with a local family in the medina and enjoy home cooking – traditional specialities like low-roasted lamb cooked in a hammam, roasted aubergine and white bean soup. Villa Flore is an art deco, black-and-white riad right in the heart of the souks, which provides aromatic, lamb and duck, presented by stylishly suited waiters. At Haj Boujemaa, the adventurous can try sheep’s testicles. At Dar Moha, Morocco’s foremost celebrity chef,  Mohamed Fedal presents quail in a flaky warqa pastry nest, foie-gras and melon ‘couscous’ with thyme honey.

Music – Africa Meets Spain

Jelly Roll Morton said jazz should have a Spanish tinge. Berber music is influenced by Andalusian classical music with oud accompaniment. Gnaoua (people of Sub-Saharan African origin) music is loud and funky with a sound reminiscent of the Blues. It is performed on handmade castanets, ribabs (three-stringed banjos) and deffs (handheld drums) and can take the audience into a trance. Performers take to the outdoors and entertain tourists on the main square and the streets, especially at night.

A Masterpiece of a City

Marrakech contains an impressive number of masterpieces of architecture and art, ramparts and monumental gates, Koutoubia Mosque, Saâdian tombs, ruins of the Badiâ Palace, Bahia Palace, Ménara water feature and pavilion.


The Jemaa el-Fnaa square was once used for public beheadings. The name roughly means “the assembly of malefactors”. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.  The square attracts dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here – wild dishevelled snake charmers, dancing boys of the Chleuh Atlas tribe, acrobats, magicians, musicians, monkey trainers, storytellers, dentists, and pickpockets still ply their trade here.


Jemaa el-Fnaa square

The Saadian Tombs were built in the 16th century as a mausoleum and contains corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty. It was lost for many years until the French rediscovered it in 1917 using aerial photographs. Outside the building are a garden and the graves of soldiers and servants.


The Medina holds the tombs of the seven patron saints of Morocco, which are visited every year by pilgrims during the weeklong ziara pilgrimage. According to tradition, it is believed that these saints are only sleeping and will awaken one day to resume their good deeds. A pilgrimage to the tombs offers a cheaper  alternative to the hajj to Mecca.


Traditional Meets Modern and Becomes Modern

Marrakech has the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco, selling wares ranging from traditional Berber carpets and shawls made of sabra (cactus silk) to modern consumer electronics. Wooden items are generally made of cedar but orange wood is used for making ladles known as harira. Thuya craft products are made of caramel coloured conifer wood indigenous to Morocco. Metalwork made in Marrakech includes brass lamps, iron lanterns, candleholders made from recycled sardine tins, and engraved brass teapots and tea trays used in the traditional serving of tea. You can find designer clothes in Nouvelle Ville and jewellery in the mellah, the old Jewish quarter.

Getting around the City and Getting away to the Mountains

Marrakech is walkable and the Medina is closed to cars. I would advise leaving driving to taxi drivers. Petit Taxis charge Dh5 to Dh15 by day for trips within Marrakech, and slightly more at night. As in Colombo, you need to check that the meter is on. Grand Taxis are Mercedes, which take up to six people to out-of-town destinations. Red double-decker buses of Marrakech-Tour do a circuit of major landmarks and allow you to get on and off where you please. Public buses leave for the Nouvelle Ville from Place Foucault and cost Dh3. Calèches are the horse-drawn green carriages you will see at Place Foucault next to the Djemaa el-Fna.

If you wish to join Crosby, Stills and Nash on the Marrakech Express, Marrakech railway station connects the city to Casablanca, Tangiers, Rabat  and Fez. The main road network within and around Marrakech is well paved. The major highway connecting Marrakech with Casablanca is the A7A. A new road connects Marrakech to the seaside resort of Agadir, 233 km to the west. I found Agadir pleasant but it became more touristy on subsequent visits.

The Ouarzazate area is a noted filmmaking location. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia were shot here, as was part of the TV series Game of Thrones. The fortified village (ksar) of Ait Benhaddou west of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many excursions through the valley of the Draa River into the Sahara start from Ouarzazate. Some companies specialise in Kasbah tours.



Check online for many companies offering guided treks in the high Atlas. I trekked in the Jebel Sahro region with Exodus Expeditions. These mountains, though running parallel to the main Atlas range, are very definitely part of the great Sahara Desert. It was strenuous but unforgettable camping under the stars. It was also very cold at night – my water bottle froze. Even during the day, waterfalls were frozen to the mountain. atlas1







One night we camped at Bou Gaffer.


This was the site of a bloody battle in 1934 between the Berbers and the French. There is a desecrated grave of an Unknown Soldier. Old munitions littered the site and I found a wine bottle dated 1932.


unknown soldier

The trek took us through dramatic plateaux, deep gorges, pinnacles, ruined forts and sandcastle Kasbahs and introduced us to the warm hospitality of the Berber people.

Bou 1


Berbers at play1

Berbers at play2

Berbers at play3


The Price of the Eurozone

This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Echelon.

Is the Irish economy a specimen case for the future of the euro?

Some time ago, I met a delegation from the Irish Development and Investment Authority, which was visiting Colombo. I mistakenly thought that they had come to invest in Sri Lanka. In fact, they were looking to persuade Sri Lankans to invest in Ireland. The leader of the delegation admitted that, after the Irish economy doing very well for many years, “the wheels came off the bicycle”. Would not Ireland be a dodgy proposition for Sri Lankan investors? The official Irish line was that Sri Lankan businesses could benefit from Ireland’s long experience as an influential member of the EU. Ireland could be a gateway to Europe for Sri Lankan entrepreneurs. Ireland also has, through its diaspora, strong traditional ties to US markets, which Sri Lankan businesses could exploit.

As the old year 2013 waned, there was jubilation in some quarters in Ireland that the wheels of the bicycle had been fixed. On December 15th, Ireland became the first nation in the eurozone to leave its €67.5 billion bailout package provided by the EU and the IMF back in 2010. The Taoiseach [Prime Minister] Enda Kenny publicly thanked the Irish people for their sacrifices during three years of austerity. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, described the people of Ireland as the “real heroes and heroines”.

Ireland had long been an enthusiastic member of the EU and had gained much from it in infrastructure improvements and farm subsidies. I was living in Ireland during the changeover (beginning in 1999 and completed in 2002) from the punt to the euro. Whatever the experts might have said, we paid more in the supermarket after the punt disappeared. Another concern was that in the eurozone, any flexibility in managing national economies would be lost. It has, indeed, proved disastrous that countries in the Eurozone cannot devalue their currencies to attract investment and boost exports. Fiscal stringency to protect the euro will make it harder for countries to stimulate their economies with government spending.

Despite the Irish “success”, the eurozone still has not resolved the issues that threaten its future as well as its present. From 2000-2007, the flow of funds from the core to the periphery was presented as evidence of the success of the euro. After the crisis, these positive “flows” of capital suddenly became negative “imbalances”. The euro project now required that the taxpayers of the peripheral countries should pay the debts of the banks. In the case of Ireland, it is ironic that a Portuguese Communist should have insisted that Ireland must bail out the banks, which had contributed mightily to causing Ireland’s crisis. Manuel Barroso, the EU president, for whom no Irish citizen ever voted, insisted this was the only way of preventing bank runs all over Europe.

The measures taken to enable exit from the bailout have slimmed down Ireland’s banking industry. Foreign banks have pulled out. There were six big native banks before the crisis. Only three are still in business. The Irish state owns most of Allied Irish Bank (AIB) and Permanent TSB, as well as a 14% stake in Bank of Ireland. Between them, AIB and Bank of Ireland provide over 86% of new mortgage lending. Bailed-out banks are under pressure with bad debts. Ten per cent of the Bank of Ireland’s owner-occupier residential mortgages are in arrears. If the banks cannot raise money on the markets, deposits may be raided – as happened in Cyprus. The inability of banks to lend to Irish businesses is making the domestic economy stagnate.

The National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) is sitting on a cash mountain of nearly €25bn, placed on deposit in the Central Bank of Ireland, receiving interest at a rate of a mere 0.1% per annum. Ireland needs to keep such reserves in case there is a euro implosion, (or Irish exit from the euro). If the NTMA keeps its reserves in euros or in banks of eurozone countries, there is a danger that the reserves would be ‘sequestered’ when the collapse comes.

Eurostat, the EU  data agency, has calculated the cost of the banking crisis in each EU country. To date it has cost every individual in Ireland nearly €9,000.  The average throughout the EU is €192 per capita. The Irish people have paid 42 percent of the total cost of the European banking crisis.

It does not stop there. The ECB came up with a ruse, which extended cash to the banks in return for their dodgy loans, only if the banks then bought high-yielding government bonds. Finance Minister Michael Noonan claimed that the deal “eases the burden on everybody”.  The first principal payment on these bonds is not due until 25 years from now. The children and the grandchildren of the “real heroes and heroines” will have to pay the ‘debt’.

If there are any grandchildren. Government policy is to use emigration to reduce unemployment. There are posters around Ireland encouraging young people to apply for visas to America. In Dublin’s main shopping district, emigration “shops” help people find work abroad and do the paperwork. The welfare authorities tell the unemployed to find work abroad. Only mass emigration has stopped unemployment figures from rising over 20 per cent. This is a huge drain of human capital from the country. Growth will require a suitable labour force and the skills of the unemployed may have become obsolete during their long spells of joblessness. As Mario Draghi of the ECB and others have suggested, young people may be at a particular disadvantage because of lack of experience, or the skills employers are seeking. Employers  may have to depend on cheaper migrant labour and there has long been anti-immigrant sentiment in Ireland as elsewhere.

Would Sri Lankan businesses be wise to invest in Ireland? Forbes magazine would say yes. Forbes did a survey grading 145 nations on 11 different factors: property rights, innovation, taxes, technology, corruption, freedom (personal, trade and monetary), red tape, investor protection and stock market performance. Ireland came top in this index.

However, whatever Forbes might say, the Irish economy, and the eurozone, is still in a fragile state. Ireland’s national debt may rise to as much as 140% of GDP before stabilising. Ireland is not likely to provide a huge market for Sri Lanka exports. In order to exit the bailout, and pay off the gambling debts of the banks, the government opted for swingeing cuts in wages and benefits. Further cuts are planned. In November 2013, Eurostat reported that Ireland had the largest net emigration rate of any EU country at 7.6 people emigrating per 1,000 population. The current population is around 4.5 million. Those Irish people who are still there do not have much money to spend at present or for the near future. Will the last Irishman to leave please turn out the lights?

In Ireland’s case, the woes of the euro are the cause, not the consequence of the banking problems. Latvia recently joined the Eurozone. Latvia’s growth rate in 2014 is forecast to be four times higher than of the rest of the eurozone. Latvia’s accession has shown that one of Europe’s most (apparently) dynamic economies still regards the Eurozone as a club worth joining. Time will tell whether Latvia’s progress will be sustainable within the Eurozone or whether Latvian citizens will end up paying the price like the Irish. Those of them who are left in Latvia – between 2008 and 2012, Latvia’s population fell by about 8.5 per cent.


Liverpool – Scouse City


Previously, I wrote about New Orleans. Liverpool has similarities with the Big Easy. A slow erosion of New Orleans’s   prosperity began in the 1830s, when the Erie Canal began to divert the commerce of the upper Midwest to the East and New York and away from the port. After great prosperity in the 19th century, Liverpool as a port is now facing the wrong way, towards America rather than Europe.

Both cities depended on the slave trade. Both cities produced great music. Both cities had a spicy ethnic and cultural mix. I compared New Orleans to a gumbo. Natives of Liverpool are called “scousers”. Scouse comes from lobscouse, a stew commonly eaten by sailors throughout Northern Europe. The first known use of the term is dated 1706, according to Webster’s dictionary. Some suggest that the dish is “almost certainly” of Baltic origin.

Like New Orleans, Liverpool gets its distinct character from its diverse ethnic mix. Liverpool is home to Britain’s oldest Black community, dating to the 1730s, and some Black Liverpudlians are able to trace their ancestors in the city back ten generations.


My own impression, possibly false, is that, as in New Orleans, a kind of unofficial segregation is in place. On one of our visits to Liverpool, my colleagues and I got into conversation with a Black Liverpudlian who claimed that you do not see Black people much in the town centre because they keep to their own areas. He told us that, under the smart new Albert Dock development, there was a tunnel through which his slave ancestors had been transported in shackles.

Early Black settlers in the city included seamen, the children of traders sent to be educated, and freed slaves. As of June 2009, an estimated 91 per cent of Liverpool’s population was White British, 3 per cent Asian or Asian British, 1.9 per cent Black or Black British, 2 per cent mixed-race and 2.1 per cent Chinese and other.

The city is home to the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Many Chinese immigrants first arrived in Liverpool in the late 1850s as seamen working for the Blue Funnel Shipping Line. From the 1890s onwards, small numbers of Chinese began to set up businesses catering to Chinese sailors. Some of these men married British women.

Some call Liverpool “the capital of North Wales”. In 1813, ten per cent of Liverpool’s population was Welsh. Following the start of the Great Irish Famine, two million Irish people migrated to Liverpool in the space of one decade. By 1851, more than 20 per cent of the population was Irish. At the 2001 Census, 1.17 per cent of the population were Welsh-born and 0.75 per cent was born in the Republic of Ireland, while 0.54 per cent was born in Northern Ireland, but many more Liverpudlians are of Welsh or Irish ancestry.

In living memory, Irish tribal rivalries have been played out in the city. Even as recently as June 2013, the tricolour flag of the Irish Republic was publicly burnt outside the HQ of the Orange Order in Everton.  Liverpool is the main centre of the Orange Order in England, while groups like Cairde na Eireann, with strong republican views, also have a presence, and organised this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Vauxhall.  Liverpool is the only English city ever to have elected an Irish Nationalist MP, Thomas P O’Connor. The Athlone man represented Scotland Road from 1885 to 1929. On the other hand, the Liverpool Protestant Party long had a presence in local politics, winning its last seat in 1973.  Beatles John, Paul and George were all products of Catholic/Protestant marriages.


Speaking with a Scouse accent is a recent trend.  Up until the mid 19th century, Liverpudlians spoke like their Lancastrian neighbours. The Scouse accent like much else in the city owes its roots to Liverpool’s position as a port. The major influence on the Scouse voice comes from the influx of Irish and Welsh into the city. One wit said a major influence was the cold wind coming through the Mersey Tunnel giving a permanent nasal blockage. The mixing of different accents and dialects, joining with words and sayings picked up from global maritime arrivals, all fused together to create the unique Scouse sound.


By the middle of the 16th century, the population of Liverpool was still only around 500. The original seven streets were laid out in an H shape. Seven Streets is the name of a lively and informative current blog site about the city. By the early 19th century, 40% of the world’s trade passed through Liverpool’s docks. Despite the port’s connection with the slave trade, several prominent local men, including William Rathbone, William Roscoe and Edward Rushton, were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement.

For periods during the 19th century, the wealth of Liverpool exceeded that of London. Liverpool’s Custom House was the single largest contributor to the British Exchequer. As early as 1851 the city was described as “the New York of Europe” and the epic scale of its 19th century buildings demonstrate the city’s confidence. The first US consul anywhere in the world, James Maury, arrived in Liverpool in 1790. He remained in office for 39 years. Among those who served the US as consul in Liverpool was the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friend, that other great American writer Herman Melville visited Hawthorne In 1856. Melville was twenty years old in 1839 when he first visited Liverpool. What he saw there, on the thronging docksides and filthy streets, was memorable enough for him to write a novel, Redburn.


The resident population of Liverpool on Census night (27thMarch 2011) was 466,415.The same census showed that Liverpool’s population is a young one, reflecting the popularity of the city among students and young professionals. Over a quarter of people living in the city (26.8%,125,200 people) are young adults (15-29) compared with 19.9% nationally, while almost half (45.4%) are aged 16-44. One in 7 (14.0%) Liverpool residents are pensioners. This is lower than the England and Wales average (16.4%)


From the 60s, I spent time in different areas of the city and its environs with exotic names: Aigburth, Aintree, Toxteth, Croxteth, Dingle, Huyton, Fazakerley, Knotty Ash, New Brighton, Birkenhead, and Wallasey. In the early 90s, Netherley and Thornton seemed like ghost towns with boarded up shops and houses. In the city centre, liquor stores had armoured grills to prevent customers actually setting foot on the premises.

A great deal of rejuvenation has taken place since the unemployment of the Thatcher years. In recent years, Liverpool’s economy has recovered , with growth rates higher than the national average since the mid-nineties. The sturdy redbrick buildings of the Albert Dock area now house a complex of small shops, bars and restaurants as well as several museums in the old warehouse buildings.


The city is home to the UK’s oldest-established orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Sir Edward Elgar dedicated his famous Pomp and Circumstance No.1 to the Liverpool Orchestral Society, and the piece had its first performance in the city in 1901.

Even in the early 90s, walking around Liverpool at night with friends, I could hear music everywhere – the sound of hopeful bands rehearsing in warehouses. These were bands hopeful of becoming the next Beatles- or maybe just enjoying themselves. Even before Merseybeat, Liverpool had successful acts such as Frankie Vaughan, Lita Roza and Billy Fury. Music historians have praised The Beatles for being the first British pop stars to write their own songs. Billy Fury (Ronald Wycherley) was there before them. There is a statue of him at Albert Dock.


What is it about pop music and Liverpool? How did the Beatles put Liverpool on the music map? How did Liverpool create the Beatles? Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn says Liverpool was the only English city in the late 50s that had a rock band scene. The Irish influence meant that all families had musical events in pubs where everyone had to take their turn. The Beatles were in the right place at the right time. This is not to say that it all depended on luck. They worked hard for their success and they had a unique talent. The zeitgeist was right for them. As Charlie Gillett put it: “The Beatles provided in meat and bone and a sharp glance across the room the spirit that several authors and playwrights had been trying to depict in fictional characters and the film industry subsequently tried to represent with actors”.

The Beatles!

There is a received myth that Liverpudlian youths had relatives who went to sea and came back with records from America. John Lennon’s father was a merchant seaman. Ringo got a taste for country and western from records brought in from America. George also had cowboy records brought from America. However, most young people relied on record shops such as the NEMS shop run by Brian Epstein, who became the manager of the Beatles. The Beatles started as a skiffle group called the Quarrymen and later became the Silver Beetles. Sri Lanka resident Royston Ellis claims that he suggested to his friend John Lennon that they put the “a” into Beatles. They incorporated many styles into their music after listening in record store booths, hunting out obscure tracks. They listened attentively to the records that sold well in the US. Their first album drew on New York. The second drew on Detroit. The Beatles were the first band to perform a Tamla Motown song on BBC radio. Even on their 1969 album Abbey Road, they were drawing on diverse sources. In his 1996 book, Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues, Shane K Bernard quotes swamp pop producer Floyd Soileau on the McCartney song “Oh Darling”: “People from round here swore someone from south Louisiana did it. It was so typical of the sound, the rhythm patterns, the arrangements that you find in a lot of this area’s music”. John Fred (real name John Fred Gourrier), who with his Playboy Band  had a hit with “Judy in Disguise with Glasses” (a parody of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) met Lennon and McCartney and was impressed with their knowledge of obscure Swamp Rockers like Guitar Gable.

The fact that the Beatles became the first successful group from a provincial city and were such a phenomenon meant that record company executives went north looking for new groups and new groups tried to emulate the Beatles.


The Cavern Club on Mathew Street is one of many tourist attractions related to The Beatles, and the location of Europe’s largest annual free music festival. The childhood homes of Paul McCartney at 20 Forthlin Road and John Lennon at 251 Menlove Avenue still entice a large number of international and domestic tourists.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a punk scene centred on another club, Eric’s, also on Mathew Street. My late friend Roger Eagle founded and ran this club. Previously, I accompanied him when he had enticed mega-stars to his promotions at the insalubrious boxing venue, the Liverpool Stadium. In the 1970s, I lived in Denton, Manchester. Another Denton resident, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red confirmed to me his relationship with Roger: “He and I were very close friends. He did in fact manage me and the Frantic Elevators for well over a year and I used to also DJ for him at Adam’s club in Liverpool which was after his Eric’s experience.”

eric's roger

Eric’s was legendary as a breeding ground for Indie and New Wave bands, but also played host to jazzmen Johnny Griffin and Stanley Clarke. Others who appeared there were: The Stranglers, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Ramones + Talking Heads on the same night, Elvis Costello, The Police, Joy Division, The Pretenders, The Cure, Iggy Pop, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Simple Minds, Madness.

There were protest marches when Eric’s closed. Recent plans to re-open the venue came under strong criticism from those who did not relish the prospect of a fond memory being museumised for current profit.


Various venues around Concert Square, Mathew Street, Hardman Street and Hope Street present current music. Current venues include the Echo Arena Liverpool, Masque, Kazimier, Zanzibar, O2 Academy, The Magnet, and The View Two Gallery. The excellent blog Seven Streets gives news of upcoming gigs.

The former creation Records boss Alan McGee launched a new monthly club night to publicise his new 359 record label. The club is held at District on Jordan Street. McGee said “The reason I am doing it in Liverpool is simple – there is more talent in Huyton than there is in Hoxton. London is musically dead and Liverpool is still alive. The 359 club will be based in the pool of life…”


The Liverpool Biennial festival of arts runs from mid-September to late November and comprises three main sections; the International, The Independents and New Contemporaries and fringe events are timed to coincide.

Liverpool has more galleries and national museums than any other city in the UK apart from London. The Tate Liverpool gallery houses the modern art collection of the Tate in the North of England.  National Museums Liverpool is the only English national collection based wholly outside London. The Walker Art Gallery houses an extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelites. The Ceri Hand Gallery opened in 2008, exhibiting primarily contemporary art, and Liverpool University’s Victoria Building was re-opened as a public art gallery and museum to display the University’s artwork and historical collections that include the second-largest display of art by Audubon outside the US.


Liverpool was the site of the UK’s first provincial airport, operating from 1930, and was the first UK airport to be renamed after an individual – John Lennon. Formerly known as Speke Airport, RAF Speke, it is seven and a half miles south of the city centre. It has some domestic services as well as scheduled flights to locations across Europe. Between 1997 and 2007 it was one of Europe’s fastest growing airports, increasing annual passenger numbers from 689,468 in 1997 to 5.47 million in 2007. Around 4.5 million passengers passed through the airport in 2012, making it the tenth busiest airport in the UK.

Liverpool’s position on the River Mersey, close to the mouth into the Irish Sea, has contributed to its rise as a major port within the UK. In addition to the Port of Liverpool’s role as a major cargo terminal, the port also provides a base for ferry and cruise services.


Back in the Orange Juice days, Edwyn Collins was a regular in Liverpool. Playing Eric’s and frequenting the arts scene, he found a favourite hotel. I often stayed at that same hotel in later years. Edwyn said: “There was a shower in the middle of the room I used to stay in – not in the modern sense where you get that as a design feature. It was just there because that was the easiest place for it.”  I stayed in that very room. The hotel was the New Manx Hotel on Catherine Street. Edwyn shares my memories of the proprietor, Jim Gilmore, who used to receive letters from children addressed to Santa Claus. Jim had pictures on the walls of all the pop stars and actors who had stayed at the hotel. When talking to me he went very-dewy eyed talking about how lovely actress Gabrielle Drake was. Today, she is probably more famous for being the sister of doomed folkie Nick Drake. It is possible that I slept in the same bed as Nick Drake’s sister, though not at the same time. Edwyn recalls: “We were the first group to stay there. After us, lots of bands stayed there, he had photos all over the walls. Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen lived in Liverpool, but once he found out you could get a breakfast whatever time you woke up and it was only a fiver a night he started staying there too.”

Someone described Catherine Street today as “the cool Georgian Quarter”. The Blackburne Arms has been praised by Liverpool residents for its “authentic atmosphere …  created by the eclectic mix of visitors and great music (often live!).” Another visitor said: “I can highly recommend the pâté, ham hock terrine and the venison…followed by cheese board with chocolate wine.”

In the past five years, Liverpool’s bed count has skyrocketed, and there are stylish boutique city hotels aplenty. Some guides recommend a self-catering apartment as more convenient than a hotel. Posh Pads at the Casartelli on Hanover Street has generously proportioned suites. The Casartelli building is a replica of an 18th-century Liverpool landmark – a bow-fronted building that once housed a business manufacturing scientific instruments and later became a wine warehouse before falling into disrepair.

The Hope Street Hotel is a boutique hotel with large, light rooms, wood floors, friendly staff and excellent restaurant. It is directly opposite the famous Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and just a short walk from the cathedrals, shops and central tourist attractions. The spectacular restaurant, decorated with massive shards of glass, has a classy air and serves excellent and imaginative food. Bedrooms have a minimalist feel but the beds are enormous and extremely comfortable. However, some guests complained about the price, the service and the poor heating.

Hard Day’s Night is perhaps not a good choice of name for a hotel but this one is cashing in on Beatlemania. The hotel is close to both Mathew Street (where the Cavern Club is) and the heart of the shopping in the City, a ten-minute walk to both Lime Street station and the Docks. One guest had a disappointing stay, which again involved lack of heating and hot water. Most reviews are favourable. “Our room was so big and beautiful, with a large bathroom and as we were in the inner bit very quiet. Liverpool can be a noisy late night city, but we didn’t hear a thing.”


Someone with a vague knowledge of Liverpool and some money to spend might decide that the Adelphi Hotel would be a safe option. It is right in the city centre; it is famous; it is long-established (the first hotel on the site opened in 1826 and the Adelphi served as the most popular hotel in the city for wealthy passengers before they embarked on their journey to North America); it is designated by English Heritage as Grade II listed building. Distinguished guests have included Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Laurel and Hardy, Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra. Roy Rogers stayed there with his horse, Trigger. However, it does not get a good press from recent customers: “NO NO NO!!! Don’t do it, part of the awful Britannia chain”. “Unfortunately, not many people have a good word to say about the place (which is putting it mildly!)”. Some reviews have been better but play down the hotel’s luxury past. Now the positive remarks are about it being cheap but faded. “Breakfast ok – evening meal poor everything frozen or out of a packet BUT it was a cheap deal so in reality I got what I paid for. However, if they turned the heating down to stop the hotel being like a sauna they could afford to have better food.” Not the usual complaints about the cold!


One can sample many cuisines in Liverpool:

  • Brazilian at the Fazenda Rodizio (100% of tips divided between all staff);
  • Chinese at the Lady Jade;
  • Spanish at Neon Jaman;
  • Thai at ChuBa ChaBa;
  • Turkish at Shiraz; Japanese at Etsu;
  • Greek at Othello’s; Italian at Amalia;
  • Persian at Zagros; Lebanese at Bakchich;
  • Cuban at Alma de Cuba;
  • Middle Eastern at Arabesque Bazaar;
  • North African at Kasbah Bazaar;
  • Mexican street-food joint Lucha Libre (96 Wood St serves spicy slow-cooked pork marinated in orange juice, Mexican fishcakes with a spike of red chilli, and generously stuffed burritos

The Trip Advisor website lists 917 Liverpool restaurants. The top-ranking one is an Indian restaurant called Yukti. At number five is Spire on Church Road, which serves excellent Modern British and European food at sensible prices. My stomach is rumbling as I look at the menu. I think I will have roasted monkfish tail, sweetcorn puree, broccoli, Parisian potatoes, and crispy Parma ham.

I am impressed with William Lyons, who answers comments from customers about The Monro on Duke Street. This gastropub has won plaudits for its finely presented, locally sourced modern European (mostly English) dishes, which may include Goosenargh duck breasts or leek and asparagus crêpes. The Monro serves a classic Sunday lunch. When a customer complained that his roast meat seemed to have been pre-cooked and was less than fresh, William went straight to the kitchen and sorted it out. “We now have two crews who now cater for half of each day and as the first crew leaves, new roasting joints are ready for the second part of the afternoon. This now solves the issue you experienced.” When a customer complained about his fish being expensive: “The answer was to go straight to the kitchen and say to the Head Chef – “people want to eat for cheaper in the week, can we do it AND still be ethically sourced?”,”leave it with me!” our can-do Head Chef says.”


Liverpool has a rich architectural heritage and is home to many buildings regarded as amongst the greatest examples of their respective styles in the world. In 2004, UNESCO granted World Heritage Site status to several areas of the city centre. I would like to see UNESCO recognise the utter magnificence of the toilets in The Phil.


“The Phil” is the local name for The Philharmonic Dining Rooms, a public house at the corner of Hope Street and Hardman Street, diagonally opposite the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. It is a Grade II listed building. The interior has decorations executed on repoussé copper panels with plasterwork mosaics, and items in mahogany and glass on musical themes.  Two of the smaller rooms are entitled Brahms and Liszt. Of particular interest is the high quality of the gentlemen’s urinals, constructed in a particularly attractive roseate marble.


Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral, Britain’s biggest church, which rises from a sandstone bluff overlooking the Mersey. Just north of it is the Liverpool Oratory: take the road that goes downhill  through dim tunnels and over faded tombstones, to St James Gardens – Liverpool’s Père Lachaise. The park is a deconsecrated cemetery that predates the cathedral. There is a secret spring bubbling up alongside the Huskisson Memorial.


Sir Edwin Lutyens (architect of New Delhi) planned for the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, on Mount Pleasant, to be even larger than the Anglican cathedral. Sir Frederick Gibberd eventually provided a simpler design. Locals call it “Paddy’s Wigwam”. Poet Roger McGough called it “God’s new Liverpool address”.

Liverpool Catholic Cathedral

Liverpool contains several synagogues, of which the Grade I listed Moorish Revival Princes Road Synagogue is architecturally the most notable. The city had the earliest mosque in England, and possibly the UK, founded in 1887 by William Abdullah Quilliam, a lawyer who had converted to Islam.

The city of Liverpool has a greater number of public sculptures than any other location in the UK, apart from Westminster. A statue depicting Ken Dodd with his feather duster was unveiled in Lime Street Station on 11 June 2009. Sculptor Tom Murphy called it “Chance Meeting” because Doddy seems to be walking to greet the redoubtable Labour MP Bessie Braddock.


Murphy also created the Billy Fury statue at Albert Dock, John Lennon at the airport, former Prime Minister Harold Wilson in Huyton, footballer Dixie Dean outside the Everton ground. Legendary Liverpool FC manager, Bill Shankly (football isn’t a matter of life or death. It’s much more important than that”) stands outside the Anfield ground.

There is a statue of Henry the Navigator in Sefton Park, keeping good company with Mercator, Captain Cook and Columbus. Sefton Park is also home to statues of Darwin and Linnaeus. Jung is in Mathew Street not far from The Cavern. There is a Titanic Memorial at the Pier Head.


The Liverpool One development catapulted the city back into the top five retail destinations when it opened in 2008. Made Here, in the Metquarter mall, is an emporium of made-in-Liverpool gifts, art, textiles and trinkets. You can buy flatpack make-your-own models of Liverpool’s cathedrals and earrings made from Liverpool’s legendary Meccano brand. Made Here celebrates the best of the city’s current crop of talented makers and designers. Metquarter has fashion and beauty outlets such as Jo Malone, Molton Brown and MAC. Gieves & Hawkes and Tommy Hilfiger cater for males. Cavern Walks is home to Vivienne Westwood and Cricket, which sells expensive handbags and designer clothes. Lark Lane has bohemian boutiques and street markets.


On my stays in Liverpool, I often visited Crosby. Antony Gormley’s art installation Another Place is on Crosby Beach. Some compare Crosby’s sea views to the Bay of Naples. There are several miles of beach, a marina, parks and a large area of woodland known as Ince Woods. Distinctive buildings in Crosby Village include the art nouveau Crown Buildings and three pubs, The Crow’s Nest, the George, and The Village.


Hightown Dunes and Meadows at Blundellsands is  designated as a Site of Local Biological Interest. Blundellsands takes its name from the Blundell family, Catholic recusants during the Reformation, who owned the land where building began in the 1870s. The area is generally considered very affluent with many local celebrities, footballers, politicians and businessmen living there and putting up the prices.

I often based myself in Southport when on business in Liverpool. As a seaside town, Southport has a long history of leisure and recreation and is still heavily dependent on tourism. The town went into decline when cheap air travel arrived in the 1960s and people chose to holiday abroad due to competitive prices and more reliable weather. It has recovered. In 2011, Southport was the 14th most popular coastal resort in the country, benefiting from a 23% rise in money spent in the resort in that year. The town is fourth in the country for the most notable investments over the past decade, with £9.7 million invested. Lord Street is an elegant parade of Victorian arcades with a whole host of smart shops and boutiques.

Chester is a picturesque and historic city, founded in 79AD with the name Deva Victrix by the Roman Legio II Adiutrix during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian. In 2007 Chester Council announced a ten-year plan to see Chester become a “must-see European destination”. At a cost of £1.3 billion it has been nicknamed Chester Renaissance. The city is a hub for major roads, including the M53 motorway towards the Wirral Peninsula and Liverpool and the M56 motorway towards Manchester. The A55 road runs along the North Wales coast to Holyhead and the A483 links the city to nearby Wrexham and Swansea to the far south. The more unusual landmarks in the city are the city walls, the Rows and the black-and-white architecture. The walls encircle the bounds of the medieval city and constitute the most complete city walls in Britain, the full circuit measuring nearly 2 miles (3 km). The Rows are unique in Britain. They consist of buildings with shops or dwellings on the lowest two storeys. The shops or dwellings on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street. Much of the architecture of central Chester looks medieval and some of it is but by far the greatest part of it, including most of the black-and-white buildings, is Victorian. Roman remains can still be found in the city, particularly in the basements of some of the buildings and in the lower parts of the northern section of the city walls.

North Wales is easily accessible from Liverpool. The region is steeped in history. The mountainous stronghold of Snowdonia formed the nucleus of the realm of Gwynedd and would become the last redoubt of independent Wales which was only overcome in 1283. It remains a stronghold of the Welsh language and a centre for Welsh national and cultural identity. In 2000, The Wales Tourist Board tourist identified the top 10 most visited attractions in the region that included Harlech Castle, Llangollen, Portmeirion, and Caernarfon Castle.

Liverpool has significant road and rail networks and an underground railway network that serves the city and immediate locality. Merseyrail is Liverpool’s local urban rail network. It has three lines: the Northern Line, which runs to Southport, Ormskirk, and Kirkby to the north of the city and Hunts Cross to the south. The Wirral Line, which runs through the Mersey Railway Tunnel, has branches to New Brighton, West Kirby, Chester and Ellesmere Port. The City Line, which begins at Lime Street, provides links to St Helens, Wigan, Preston, Warrington and Manchester. Within the city centre, the majority of the network is underground, with four city centre stations and over 6.5 miles of tunnels.


From the 1960s, I made many visits to various parts of Liverpool. I often got a distinct impression of defensive clannishness, as if Liverpool were a separate island whose inhabitants thought the rest of the world did not understand them. A blogger called Christopher England writes about how he feels as a Londoner living in Liverpool. “The overwhelming majority of people in Liverpool are multiple generation White folk with no experience of anything but their own culture, other than when they pop into a takeaway or newsagents… It leads to a lack of new knowledge or diversity entering the average workplace, and leaves them full of the prejudices that left London after the 1970s. Not just in the workplace, but in the social place. Pub conversations are like it’s still the 1970s.”

He continues: “They are blissfully ignorant of other cultures, and where once they were divided only by religion (Catholics -v- Protestants), they are now joined together in fear of the invisible enemy.  Currently the enemy are the Polish because, in their eyes, they take their jobs, and ‘Muslims‘ because, in their eyes, they want to change things and the way of life.”


Scousers may be known for their wit and many great comedians came from the city – Arthur Askey, Robb Wilton, Tommy Handley, Ken Dodd, Ted Ray – even the American king of the one-liner Henny Youngman was born in Liverpool (“My wife said to me, ‘For our anniversary I want to go somewhere I’ve never been before.’ I said, ‘Try the kitchen!'”).



However, Liverpudlians have also been the butt of scathing wit. There were some astute psychologists among football hooligans. They knew where to stick the knife and picked on the victimhood of Liverpudlians. One chant, sung to the tune of “In My Liverpool home”, went: “Your mum’s on the game and your dad’s in the nick/ You can’t get a job ‘cos you’re too f***** thick, in your Liverpool slums. . . “’.

Liverpool felt particularly victimised by Margaret Thatcher. Ken Dodd was a Thatcher supporter and campaigned for the Conservatives during the 1979 general election campaign, which brought her to power. In the last rally, at Wembley Arena, he introduced her on to the stage.

The Scousers was a sketch from the Harry Enfield’s Television Programme comedy show of the early 1990s. It featured a set of stereotyped Scousers, “Ga'”, “Ba'” and “Te'” (Gary, Barry and Terry). The Scousers had Kevin Keegan bubble perm hairstyles and bushy moustaches. Whenever a dispute arose, this would result in The Scousers repeating to each other:“Eh! Eh! All right! All right! Calm down! Calm down!”

Scousers have taken against celebrity chef Jamie Oliver because he has a column in the newspaper The Sun, which behaved badly towards Liverpudlians after the Hillsborough tragedy.

There is a perception in the south of a victim mentality of Liverpool. Detractors say Liverpudlians are renowned for having a chip on their shoulder, blaming everyone else for their misdeeds, and acting like the world is against them and owes them a living.

On Friday 22nd of August 1997, an episode of Room 101 was broadcast in which Alan Davies said that “all people from Liverpool think they’re funny”, he went on to Scouse comedians, from Tom O’Connor to Jimmy Tarbuck, who were not to his taste. Some Scousers threatened to kill him if he ever set foot in Liverpool again.


I was eating in a Liverpool Mexican restaurant. The waitress was friendly and casual. I was enjoying my burrito until I discovered a solid block of ice at its centre. I mentioned this to the waitress in a non-threatening kind of way. She said: “You won’t want any ice-cream, then?”

All of the online the reviews of the Adelphi Hotel complain about the attitude of the staff. A dissatisfied customer said this about the service at a very expensive restaurant. “Little things like no-one asks if they can take your coat and it stays on the back of your chair the whole meal; bread just plonked in a basket on your table; one of our party had to ask for a missing drink four times; waiter called me ‘mate’ all the time.” Someone who asked at a Greek restaurant if it was still open was treated to a lengthy “comedy” routine in which the waiter pretended that it was a laundry not a restaurant.

During the period of the burrito incident, I was spending a lot of time in Liverpool and also visited Dublin often. Irish waiting staff was unfailingly charming but also efficient and solicitous. One got the impression that they enjoyed providing good service and did not find their role demeaning. Service did not equate with servility. In Liverpool, I got the impression that the staff would rather be in a rock band or doing a stand-up comedy act. Or just rather be anywhere else. It was refreshing to read William Lyons’s responses to disgruntled customers at The Monro. This somewhat dispelled my suspicion that Liverpudlians are lacking the customer service gene. Critics of Sri Lankan hotels have warned that they too cannot hope to get by on amiability without efficiency and awareness.


The Romanians Are Coming

Britain trembles before an invasion from Eastern Europe.

In January 2014, hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians will be swarming all over the UK, clogging up the NHS and defrauding the benefit system. At least, that is what the doomsayers foretell. Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, but a number of countries, including Britain, imposed restrictions on the right of their nationals to work. These restrictions will expire at the end of 2013. Mainstream parties fear that the migration issue will give a boost to right-wing parties in the European parliament elections in spring 2014.

Since 2010, there has been a marked decline in non-EU net immigration. As a proportion of non-British immigration to the UK, it has dropped from 73% in June 2010 to 57% in June 2013. In the last year alone, it has fallen from 172,000 to 140,000. This year, net migration from the EU has gone up by 72,000 to 106,000. The recent increase in net EU migration has come from the older, more established (and traditionally more wealthy) EU member states, not the new member states from central and eastern Europe. It would seem that the crisis in the peripheral eurozone countries has made the UK a popular destination for migrants from countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 60 complaints expressing concerns about a high-profile van advertisement campaign. The adverts telling illegal immigrants to go home or not to come were “reminiscent of slogans used by racist groups to attack immigrants in the past”. Adverts displayed on billboards on vans in six London boroughs told overstaying migrants: “Go home, or you’ll be picked up and deported.”Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable has previously described the scheme as “stupid and offensive” and ­Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council in London, said it was “an act of desperation”. There was also a campaign telling Romanians how horrible Britain is. This investigation is in addition to one by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) into a wave of immigration spot checks across the country.

I get a rather queasy feeling when I hear Sri Lankans who have settled in England complaining about Kosavars and Somalis swamping the country and indulging in crime. Migration is a contentious topic all over Europe now. Whenever cold winds blow through the economies of European nations, “natives” look to the incomers in their midst as scapegoats. Politicians take advantage of the fears of ordinary people in order to make political capital and to win cheap votes. Discontent about immigration often gives rise to racism and fascism. It is very difficult to have a rational debate on the subject, though some have tried.

Migration out of Britain

Romania is an increasingly attractive proposition for British people. Though some expats reported corruption and bureaucracy, that was outweighed by low cost of living-  £25 a year council tax, beer for £1 a pint, flat income tax of 16 per cent. They were warmly received by their hosts, albeit occasionally taken advantage of.

Chris Lawson is happy to live in Romania. He told me: “I may be something of a romantic, but it is broadly true that, in Transylvania, Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons, Armenians, Jews and Roma have been living peacefully with each other for centuries, a model for the rest of Europe.” Another Brit living in Romania, Paul Wood is in the recruitment business. He says:  “When I moved here in 1998 the Romanian standard of living was that of Britain in 1959 and many of the ways of thinking were late 1950’s too. Things have changed a lot since then, but by no means out of recognition. Romanians have virtues that some in Great Britain have lost. Romanian women are womanly (and very often beautiful), Romanian men are virile even if they seem quite otherwise at first sight. Romanians are family minded and esteem education. They are old-fashioned, clean-cut, self-reliant, sceptical of authority and they believe in freedom.“

UK Government Response

David Cameron proposed stopping new EU arrivals from receiving benefits for their first three months in Britain There are proposals in the new immigration bill to require EU migrants to pay for the use of the NHS. Cameron’s plans failed to placate Tory backbench critics who demanded more draconian restrictions.

Labour leader Ed Miliband jumped on the migrant-bashing bandwagon. He said that he thought the Labour government’s decision to permit the unlimited immigration of eastern European migrants had been a mistake. He claimed they had underestimated the potential number of migrants and that the scale of migration had had a negative impact on wages.

European Commissioners condemn Cameron’s measures, given that the Government has been a keen supporter of EU enlargement and British citizens take full advantage of freedom of movement. Laszlo Andor, the European Employment Commissioner, warned that the move risked showing  the UK as the  “nasty country” in the EU. Viviane Reding, the Justice Commissioner, said she did not understand the “political logic” of the moves, given that the Government has been a keen supporter of EU enlargement and British citizens take full advantage of freedom of movement, setting up homes and businesses overseas.

However, the new governing coalition formed by Angela Merkel in Germany had committed itself to “reducing incentives for migration” by amending its domestic laws on welfare. Downing Street said the development proved that Mr Cameron’s initiative was gaining wide support across the EU. President François Hollande’s government in France also called for tighter restrictions on EU migrants and Britain says its stance is also being backed by the Netherlands and Austria.

UKIP (UK Independence Party) hopes to become the largest British party in the European Parliament after next May’s elections. Nigel Farage claimed: “The whole political scene is changing because of the strength of UKIP.”

For and Against Immigration

There is a debate going on in Britain about whether mass immigration is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, there are those who argue that mass immigration has undermined the British economy and society. They argue that low-skilled immigrants have taken jobs from unskilled natives, while high-skilled immigration reduces opportunities for ambitious and talented Britons. On the other hand, some claim that there is little evidence that immigration has made more than a marginal contribution to reducing educational or labour market opportunities for less advantaged Britons.

Benefits of Migration

A study by University College London’s migration research unit, found that people from the European Economic Area (EEA) – the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – were most likely to make a positive contribution to the UK’s finances. Migrants from the EEA paid about 34 per cent more in taxes than they received in benefits over the ten years from 2001 to 2011.  The study found a positive and significant association between productivity growth and the increase in the employment of migrant workers between 1997 and 2007.

The European Commission published a report by consultancy firm ICF GHK as a response to concerns from some EU member states about the application of EU law on social security to migrants. The report concluded that, in most countries, immigrants do not claim more welfare benefits than nationals.

Even the Treasury’s official watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility extols the benefits of immigration.  Britain, it said, has no choice but to welcome hundreds of thousands of new migrant workers every year in order to stabilise public finances and to help pay the growing bills for the NHS and pensions. Migrants to the UK tend (at the moment) to be young, they pay a third more in tax than they receive in benefits, and fill tough jobs.

David Goodheart

David Goodheart is Editor-at-Large of Prospect magazine. He has published a book called The British Dream. He argues that low-skilled immigrants have taken jobs from unskilled natives, while high-skilled immigration reduces both the incentives and opportunities for ambitious and talented natives. He writes of a “Saudi Arabianisation” of the labour market where millions of long-standing residents sitting at home on benefit while poorer foreigners come in and take the sort of jobs they would have been doing.

Goodheart also claims that the failure of at least some immigrants to integrate has led to the decline of a shared sense of community.

Jonathan Portes is director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and former chief economist at the Cabinet Office. Reviewing Goodheart’s book, he claimed there was a contradiction between Goodheart’s reasonable discussion of the evidence on economics and integration and his unsubstantiated and alarmist talk. Portes argued that there is little or no evidence that immigration has made more than a marginal contribution to reducing educational or labour market opportunities for less advantaged Britons. Unemployment of native-born youth rose less in areas that experienced a larger change in the share of immigrants.

Paul Collier

Paul Collier an Oxford economist at Centre for the Study of African Economies, has published a book called Exodus. Collier says that when studying migration, he was struck by the gulf between the strength with which opinions were held and the depth of ignorance about the subject. On the left, “distaste and disdain for opponents of immigration have become differentiating tests of identity. Beneath the vitriol is the fear that any concession to popular prejudice risks unleashing anti-immigrant violence.”

“In high-income societies, the effect of immigration on the average incomes of the indigenous population is trivial. Economies are not damaged by immigration; nor do they need it. The distributional effects can be more substantial but they depend on the composition of immigration.”

A Mongrel Race

“Foreigners” have been settling in Britain for many centuries. In fact, the British themselves are a mongrel race. The Picts and Celts were colonised by the Romans who, in 250AD, brought a contingent of black legionnaires, drawn from the African part of the empire. When the Romans left in the fifth century, Germanic tribes, Jutes, Angles and Saxons, moved in, followed 400 years later by the Vikings. In 1066, the Normans brought the French language and many rules of governance that survive today. William the Conqueror brought in Jews to help develop commerce, finance and trade.

At the end of the Second World War, there were work shortages in Europe and labour shortages in Britain. The British government needed immigrants. On 22 June 1948, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, delivering hundreds of men from the West Indies, encouraged by adverts for work. This was the start of mass immigration to the UK and the arrival of different cultures.

Racial tension seems to be the price Britain has to pay for once having an empire and for having labour shortages. There were race riots as far back as the 1950s. The 1981 riots, that started in Brixton and flared up all over the country, arose because of  resentment that the police were targeting young black men in the belief that it would stop street crime. The subsequent Scarman Report found that “racial disadvantage is a fact of current British life”.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell, as Minister for Health, had been responsible for recruiting thousands of black nurses to the NHS. Nevertheless, in the sixties, he became the unlikely spokesman for the beleaguered white working class, even winning the endorsement of Eric Clapton. Powell had dockers marching through the streets chanting his name after he made a speech warning of “rivers of blood”. He was sacked by prime minister Edward Heath, who said: “I have told Mr Powell that I consider the speech he made in Birmingham yesterday to have been racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions. This is unacceptable from one of the leaders of the Conservative Party.”

David Frost interviewed Enoch Powell in 1968, soon after the  controversial speech. I watched it at the Pimlico family home of a university friend and flatmate. He was a middle-class Marxist who affected scruffy clothes and a disdain for personal hygiene. I recall that when I persistently complained about him leaving the bath in our home dirty he responded: “I thought you were supposed to be working class”.  My friend’s mother was very posh and worked with a writer connected to the BBC. The father was a liberal vicar with an independent income. Their house was very different from my parents’ council house. Despite feeling my social inferiority, I shared their middle class outrage that Frost was too soft on Powell.

Powell deployed anecdote and hearsay in a way that knowingly played to the prejudices of those of those who were more racist than he was. This austere and donnish classicist had dockers marching through the streets in his support. Because he was a contrarian and mischief-maker, it is likely that he took delight in raising issues that both parties shrouded in complicit silence. His speech raised matters of real concern. In particular, he was right to suggest that areas like Wolverhampton were experiencing acute problems in adjusting to the concentration of recent immigrants.

According to Paul Collier, Powell’s forecast of immigrant numbers was remarkably accurate but his forecast of their social consequences was “grotesquely wrong”. “All high-income societies have developed robust conventions against intergroup violence.”

Nevertheless, one can, without wanting to join a fascist party, empathise with those white working class people who feel in their gut that decisions that they were powerless to influence were made by people who were cushioned from the consequences of those decisions. Collier writes: “In these circumstances, liberal intellectuals who dismiss concerns about future migration, as distinct from the complaints about its past effects, are being cavalier at other people’s expense. It is the indigenous poor, existing immigrants and people left behind in the countries of origin who are potentially at risk, not the middle classes.”

Powell’s memory is alive today. Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Vince Cable likened Conservative “panic” about Romanian and Bulgarian migration to Powell’s speech. “We periodically get these immigration panics in the UK. I remember going back to Enoch Powell and ‘rivers of blood’ and all that. If you go back a century it was panics over Jewish immigrants coming from Eastern Europe,” Mr Cable told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.



According to UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the relaxed EU work regulations due to take effect on January 1 2014 will change the very infrastructure of London and other British cities. London has already changed irreparably. Rich financiers have made it unaffordable for the working class. The real threat to British stability comes from governments giving incentives to wealthy elites to take up residence. Russians receive a quarter of the ‘investor visas’ that the UK gives to those who can pay a million pounds. The proprietor of the London Evening Standard is  Alexander Yevgenievich Lebedev, a Russian oligarch and former officer of the foreign intelligence directorate of the KGB.

It seems unlikely, that there will be a huge influx of Romanians and Bulgarians. Many believe it  improbable that those who do try Britain will stay permanently. Indications are that young people will try to make some money in the UK doing jobs for which they are over-qualified and then return to Romania using their savings to establish a family back home.

Paul Wood says: “If Britain and other Western European countries have decided that they need immigrants, and they have, they should be very grateful that the EU has a supply on hand of Romanian immigrants who share a European culture and will fit in easily. Probably no immigrants in the world assimilate as quickly as Romanians who seem not to stay together in clusters like other immigrant groups.”

In The Week, Nigel Horne interviewed some Romanians already in Britain. Andrea has a degree in accountancy from Bucharest and works as a cleaner in London. “It’s just… it is not a real life. It is only about making money so we can go home with the deposit to buy a place to live. I miss my family and friends – and the fresh air…We don’t want to come here NOT to work – we want to work and make money. If there was no job I would go home.” Romanian labour minister, Mariana Campenau, said it is the British, who exploit the welfare system, shunning jobs in favour of living on benefits. “If Romanians are happy to take up those vacancies, why should they be blamed?”

Between May 2004 and September 2009, 1.5 million workers migrated from the new EU member states to the UK. Many have returned home. Migration from Poland in particular has become temporary and circular in nature. In 2009, for the first time since the enlargement, more nationals of the eight Central and Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004 left the UK than arrived.

Paul Wood thinks differently. “The Romanians who return to Romania after working abroad will create the Romania of the future. They are the candidates I most value as a recruiter. On the other hand, inevitably, the great majority will not return and this is a huge, irreparable loss to Romania.”

Even if large numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians do descend on the UK, ordinary people will probably get along fine as they have mostly done with previous waves of immigrants. Nevertheless, there will always be those who resent immigrants. There is legitimacy to the fears of working class people having their neighbourhoods changing around them. However, it is evil and dangerous for politicians to exploit this.

Resurgence of the Right

Austerity feeds Fascism in Europe

Germany and France initially got together to lay the foundations for  the European Union project as an attempt by to prevent the two nations going to war yet again. The project was also an attempt to rebuild a continent laid waste by Nazism and nationalism. Today, fascism is gnawing away like a rat at the EU’s moral core. Most of the member countries in the EU today have some history of fascism. The economic crisis and the austerity measures implemented to counter it have exacerbated the situation.

Neo-Nazism borrows elements from German National Socialist doctrine, including militant nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Anti-Muslim sentiment is also now a component. Targeting of “the other” is common. Migrants are easy targets to blame when “natives” are unemployed.

In 2012, the European Parliament allocated €289,266 to the European Alliance of National Movements (EANM). Among the seven members of EANM are the British National Party, France’s Front National and Hungary’s Jobbik, all of which are xenophobic. Claude Moraes, a UK Labour MEP, accused the BNP of “views which are undemocratic, such as repatriation of part of the population”.

There will be European Parliamentary elections in six months’ time. These elections usually have a low turnout, which gives an opportunity for protest voters. From next May, the European Parliament could have a radically different complexion. The Dutch Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has agreed an electoral pact with the French National Front. According to polls, National Front is the most popular party in France. In Austria, there has been a resurgence in support for parties whose views uncomfortably echo that celebrated Austrian, Adolf Hitler.


After the war, the far-right in Germany itself quickly re-grouped. The Deutsche Rechtspartei was founded in 1946. The Socialist Reich Party was founded in 1949. The German Social Union) was another 1950s Neo-Nazi organisation. The currently most successful rightist movement is the National Democratic Party (NPD), which won 9.2% in the 2004 state election in Saxony, and 1.6% of the nation-wide vote in the 2005 federal elections.

In 2011, Verfassungsschutz (Federal German intelligence) reported 25,000 right-wing extremists in Germany. In the same report, 15.905 crimes committed in 2010 were classified as far-right motivated. These crimes included 762 acts of violence in 2010. In 2011, neo-Nazis were linked to ten murders.

The NPD may be entering the mainstream. However, it has dubious friends such as Homeland-Faithful German Youth, which organises annual marches to mark the bombing of Dresden. NPD leader Udo Voigt was charged with incitement for distributing race-hate pamphlets about German footballer Patrick Owomoyela, whose mother is Nigerian. There are many smaller groups preaching anti-Semitism and calling for violence against immigrants. German neo-Nazis frequently attack refugees’ hostels.

There are many neo-Nazi enclaves in economically depressed East Germany. Dotted around the tiny village of Jamel, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, the vast majority of residents are neo-Nazis – and proud of it. There have been reports of pro-Hitler parties here during the summer where attendees chant ‘Heil’ around a bonfire.


France outlaws Nazi organizations, yet a significant number exist. The French government estimated that neo-Nazi groups in France had 3,500 members. In 2011 alone, 129 violent actions were recorded in France against Jews. In France in 2011, 260 threats were recorded, 15% related to neo-Nazi ideology.

An Ifop poll for the Nouvel Observateur suggested in October that Marine le Pen’s National Front (FN) will win 24 per cent of the  vote in next May’s elections for the European Parliament. Mass immigration from Eastern Europe, and from Muslim countries, has been the main target of the FN’s campaigning. Harry Roselmack, France’s first black newsreader, wrote in Le Monde on November 5 2013, “Xenophobia and racism are the essential glue that binds the FN. And it is not unhelpful to see its republican veneer crack from time to time.”

A significant minority of Italians look back fondly on the period between 1922 and 1943 when Mussolini got the trains to run on time, drained the Pontine Marshes and won a small empire for Italy. Fascism is still alive in mainstream Italian politics, thanks in part to Berlusconi merging his Forza Italia party with the Alleanza Nazionale, which has neo-fascist roots.

“Most old people remember only the total devastation fascism brought,” said Alberto Martinelli, a political science professor at the University of Milan, “But a minority, while not saying outright they loved Mussolini, will say how things were better”

The dictator also still provides a rallying point for today’s far-right sympathisers, Italian football hooligans, and the politically ambitious CasaPound, named after the celebrated American poet Ezra Pound who sided with Mussolini during the war. CasaPound won over 25,000 votes in the Lazio regional elections.

Every year, on October 28th, Mussolini’s admirers celebrate the anniversary of Fascists’ March on Rome. They march and pray, blessed by a Fascist priest, the famous Father Tam who gave a Fascist salute during a skinhead protest march held in Milan.


The far-right Jobbik Party won 17 percent of the Hungarian Parliament in 2010.  The party scapegoats Jews and ethnic Roma. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has failed to establish a strict line between his centre-right Fidesz party and Jobbik, and he has been reluctant to condemn its policies. A Jobbik Member of Parliament called for Jews in Hungary to be put on lists, saying they are a “security risk.”


The far right political party Chrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn) received 6.92% of the votes in the elections of 17 June 2012, entering the Greek parliament with 18 representatives. A few Golden Dawn members participated in the Bosnian War and were present during the Srebrenica massacre. Court testimonies recently revealed that Golden Dawn party members have allegedly committed dozens of criminal acts, including attempted homicides and violent street raids. The magistrate’s report revealed that party members had military training, including the use of assault weaponry. The Racist Violence Recording Network, a group monitoring hate crimes in Greece, estimates there have been 300 serious assaults by far-right gangs in the country over the past two years. Nearly all of them involve multiple attackers and end with stab wounds and broken bones. A Golden Dawn supporter stabbed anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fissas to death in the heart and chest on September 17.


The re-articulation of nationalist discourses in Greece is disturbing. Some online comment threads are reminiscent of Colombo Telegraph. A foreigner stirs up the trolls with this contribution: “Golden Dawn sounds like something I would clean my toilet with. You blame everyone for your nation’s position but yourselves. You know why Greece is suffering. It’s not because of America, or Jews, or immigrants. It’s because you have not contributed anything to the world in 2000 years. You live off tourists walking through the rot and ruin of an ancient era that is never coming back. You are not a nation, or a people. You are a museum. What do you think you’re going to do, conquer what Hitler could not, get rid of immigrants and hope jobs appear out of nowhere? What a joke a once proud people have become.” Responses to the provocation were like this: “What a pile of horseshit. This is all LIES. … misinformation and Zionist propaganda.”

Some in Greece have called for restrictions on hate speech from the right. In Sri Lanka also, hate speech has the potential to rekindle conflict. Censorship, however, is a slippery slope.

The rise of the neo-Nazis raises many complex issues, in addition to the question of freedom of speech and association. The economic crisis has highlighted the de-legitimization of liberal democratic practices and institutions. Even before the crisis took hold, many who were sympathetic to European integration and the single market, were somewhat queasy about the tyranny of un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels. Whatever about the moral tone of the EU project, the reality was too often rule by directive rather than democracy. The crisis has led to troika technocrats dictating to elected governments.

In Greece, from the 90s onwards new nationalist, anti-European discourses highlighted the democratic deficit. If EU institutions were not to be trusted, was violence not justified?

Are we seeing a similar situation in Sri Lanka? Is there a danger that frustration with the ineffectiveness of the democratic opposition will lead to extra-parliamentary action by extremists nostalgic for a non-existent past glory?

Perhaps no far right party will ever take power again as in Germany in 1933.  Vigilance, however, is essential.



New Orleans

Laissez les bon temps rouler!


New Orleans Gumbo

The history of New Orleans has made the city very different in character from any other city in the USA. Today it is a gumbo of different cultures. The city was founded in 1717. Scottish financial wizard John Law, who was Controller General of Finances of France under King Louis XV, was a gambler and a brilliant mental calculator. Law believed that money was only a means of exchange that did not constitute wealth in itself and that national wealth depended on trade. In May 1716, Law set up the Banque Générale Privée (“General Private Bank”), which developed the use of paper money. Like a modern day financial speculator Law set up a get-rich –quick scheme (Dubbed the Mississippi Bubble) which almost bankrupted France but did increase the population of the French colony in Louisiana from 700 in 1717 to 8,000 in 1721. Law deemed that a town named in honour of the French Regent, the Duc d’Orleans, should be established 30 leagues above the entrance to the Mississippi, which would also give access to Lake Pontchartrain.

Many hardships were endured along with political and religious discord. Large numbers of black slaves were imported. After the governor, Bienville, was recalled to France relations between the colonists and the indigenous population deteriorated. No one in France managed to make any money out of Louisiana and, in 1762, Louis XV gave it away to Spain. Those in New Orleans who had prospered under the lax rule of the French feared the reputation for strictness that adhered to Spanish rule. Dissatisfaction with the rule of governor Ulloa turned into open rebellion in October 1768 and Ulloa left for Cuba. Spanish authority was re-asserted by General Alejandro O’Reilly (those bloody Irish get everywhere). Generations of New Orleans resident referred to him as “Bloody O’Reilly”. The reality was that, for his day, he was lenient with the rebels and under Spanish rule, New Orleans prospered as never before.

Napoleon wanted to acquire an overseas empire and pressured Spain to cede back Louisiana. President Thomas Jefferson was alarmed at the possible threat to American trade and was under pressure to take military action to seize New Orleans. Diplomacy won the day and after negotiations lasting only two weeks, France sold the whole of Louisiana to the United States for $15 million.

Louisiana joined the Union in 1812. In the same year, the US declared war on Great Britain. The war, which ended with the defeat a large British force at New Orleans by US forces led by Andrew Jackson, (with the help of the pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte). As is usual with the deadly accountancy of war, the precise numbers of casualties in the Battle of New Orleans are disputed. All historians agree that American losses were small and British horrifically large. Ironically, a peace treaty had been signed two weeks before the battle.

New Orleans enjoyed over 50 years of prosperity after this, mainly thanks to its location at the mouth of the Mississippi. New Orleans became a tollhouse for the region because almost all goods had to pass through the city. The handling of transhipments made a good living for factors, insurers, shippers and stevedores. Large numbers of German and Irish immigrants began arriving at this time. The population of the city doubled in the 1830s and by 1840 New Orleans had become the wealthiest and third-most populous city in the nation.

Sadly, the prosperity was not permanent. Slow erosion began in the 1830s, when the Erie Canal began to divert the commerce of the upper Midwest to the East and New York. By the early 1850s, railroads accelerated the rate of diversion to the East. New Orleans weathered the Civil War better than most Southern cities. However, following the war, Louisiana, was under martial law. White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century.

Huey P Long, known as the Kingfish, was elected governor of Louisiana in 1927 and built what many consider to have been a dictatorship. Long was a populist who improved the roads, built hospitals and expanded social welfare programmes. One of his mottoes was “every man a king”. Another was “L’état est Huey”. Long stifled democracy through his vast political patronage system and demanded loyalty without dissention. The Kingfish was assassinated at the age of 42 and succeeded by his brother Earl who used similar methods.


New Orleans is below sea-level and has more miles of canals than Venice. In the early 1900s it was still mainly swamp and flooding was a great problem until an engineer called A Baldwin Wood invented the Wood Screw Pump, which enabled the Sewerage and Water board to construct an underground drainage system. New Orleans is like  an island. The Mississippi curves around it on one side, Lake Pontchartrain and its marshes on another side and the Gulf of Mexico on the southern rim. It could be considered the northernmost island of the Caribbean. There is a black majority in New Orleans, although whites have the economic power and the heritage is European.

New Orleans had attracted a steady trickle of tourists since the 18th century but they had been mainly wealthy individuals who had no impact. The New Orleans Exposition of 1884-85 failed in its grandiose aim of bringing new industry but it did mark the beginning of mass tourism. Journalist bored by the Exposition wrote about the charms of the city and visitors from the north became interested in discovering this exotic place in their own country.


The city has suffered more than its fair share of fires, floods and hurricanes. The city has gone underwater 27 times, about once every 11 years. Each time, the fractious French, Spanish, blacks, Creoles, and Cajuns raised the levees and rebuilt. Hurricane Katrina exposed the weakness of the levee system and the authorities reacted with staggering incompetence compared with the way Sri Lanka dealt with the tsunami. The rebuilding process after Katrina ignored the lessons that should have been learnt from the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Global warming is raising the Gulf faster than at any time since the last ice age thawed. Sea level could rise several feet over the next century. Even before then, hurricanes may draw ever more energy from warming seas and grow stronger and more frequent.

However, businesses have steadily reopened and the major festivals continue every year. Tourist areas weren’t flooded.

The BP oil spill in 2010 saw 4 million barrels of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico . A chunk of the $15 million BP initially sent to Louisiana in June 2010 funded emergency advertising to quell misperceptions that New Orleans was laden with oil.

New Orleans has been plagued for decades by economic decline—just a single Fortune 500 company is still headquartered there—shrinking population, failing schools, and high crime.

Oliver Houck sat in his office, hands locked behind his head, pondering the question on everyone’s mind. “There are people who will fight to the death to stay here because it’s such a damned joy to live here.”


The international airport for New Orleans used to be called Moisant Field. Now it is called Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. It is 15 miles from the city.  There are no direct flights from Colombo to New Orleans. We flew from London to Washington DC and stayed with friends on our way to visit family in Louisiana. Emirates fly daily non-stop from Dubai to Washington. They also fly to Houston. There are internal flights to New Orleans from other US cities. Union Passenger Terminal in the Central Business District is the arrival point for Amtrak trains from Washington and other cities. The terminal also serves Greyhound intercontinental buses. Major road routes into town are Interstate 10, 55,90 and 61.


We stayed at the St Charles Guest House in the Garden District. This was on the strength of enthusiastic reviews in “insider” guides. I see that it is still getting rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Dennis the proprietor was pleasant and helped us organise a trip to the bayous. However, we did not see the charm in shared bathrooms, peeling wallpaper and dim lights. There is no restaurant – breakfast comes in packets from vending machines. One review says “stay away from this rat hole”. Although the Garden District is but a short ride on the streetcar from the French Quarter, next time I go I will book a more expensive hotel in the quarter itself. It was a bit scary waiting for the streetcar late at night and was not easy to get a cab.

In the De Luxe category, the Royal Sonesta is on Bourbon Street itself. In the Expensive category, the Monteleone on Royal Street has 600 rooms and is the oldest hotel in the Quarter. Paul McCartney once stayed at Le Richelieu on Chartres Street. Macca is known to be careful with his money. This converted macaroni factory is classed as “Moderate”.

At certain times of year, it is best to book in advance. We went at Halloween, which is like a mini-Mardi Gras. Hotel rooms will be scarce and expensive around Mardi Gras, Jazz & Heritage Festival. and Superbowl. You will get exceptional hotel deals in July and August but you will also get heat and humidity.


The word” Cajun “has accrued a derogatory connotation akin to “cracker” or poor white. The even more pejorative demotic is “coon ass”. The word itself is a corruption of “Acadian”. In 1755, six thousand French speaking settlers were forcibly removed by the British from a settlement at the Bay of Fundy and ended up after many hardships in Louisiana. Many more who escaped deportation were imprisoned in Halifax and moved to New Orleans in 1765. The colonial government found a use for them in raising cattle. Their frugality and industrious were an asset but also a source of friction with those with French Creole pretensions.

The French frontier elite of former army officers attempted to re-create along the banks of Bayou Teche their vision of feudalistic France with themselves as the aristocracy. On the other hand, recently discharged French enlisted men developed a group identity and fierce individualism, which gave them much in common with the displaced Acadians.

Those exiled from Nova Scotia intermarried with other ethnic groups including Native Americans. Present day Cajuns derive from a variety of ethnic groups.

The term “creole” used to refer to those who are descended from the colonial settlers in Louisiana, especially those of French and Spanish descent. The term was first used during colonial times by the early French settlers to refer to those who were born in the colony, as opposed to those born in the Old World. The commonly accepted definition of Louisiana Creole today is the community whose members are a mixture of mainly French, Spanish, African, and Native-American heritage. This is complicated by the fact that Louisianans of African descent also identify themselves a Creoles.


Chef Paul Prudhomme With Jambalaya Outside K-Paul's

New Orleans prides itself on food and sustains 1,500 restaurants. At the top end, you have Antoine’s on St Louis Street, which is still going strong after 174 years. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme works his magic at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen on Chartres Street. The place is small and they do not accept reservations, so there are long queues. Another celebrity chef, Susan Spicer, operates at Bayona on Dauphine Street, where the speciality is nouvelle cuisine. She has a number of restaurants around the city. On June 26, 2010, Spicer filed suit against BP for damages incurred by her restaurant, Bayona.

susan spicer

The Café du Monde on Decatur Street by Jackson Square is a must, even though they only serve coffee, orange juice and beignets (a kind of doughnut dusted with powdered sugar – it can make one cough and sneeze). Many moderately priced cafés serve tasty mouthfuls like the po ‘boy – a sandwich made with locally baked French bread loaves—crusty on the outside, fluffy on the inside. The loaf is sliced open and filled with batter-fried shrimp or oysters. Other popular versions are stuffed with andouille and spicy Italian sausage, soft-shell crab and catfish. A muffuletta sandwich consists of a loaf split horizontally and covered with layers of olives diced with celery, cauliflower, carrot, mortadella, salami and mozzarella.



Cajun and black Creole music developed side by side. There was much intermingling of different cultures. In the 1930s, Dennis McGee recorded with Amédé Ardoin. Ardoin was black. McGee’s name suggests Irish origin but his facial features reflected American Indian origin. The duo sang about the loneliness of the cowboy’s life in French to the tune of a European mazurka influenced by the blues. A distinctive Cajun sound is the diatonic accordion adopted from German Jewish merchants.


The exotic history of New Orleans and its rich ethnic mixture has made it a fertile place for wonderful music. Some great musicians helped build the city’s reputation: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, James Booker (Dr. John described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”) Sidney Bechet, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Dr John, the Neville Brothers and the Marsalis family to mention only a few.

Although purists might pooh-pooh it, one can get a great musical experience just walking up and down Bourbon Street. Bars and restaurants cater for musical browsing by providing alcohol in go-cups.  The house of Blues on Decatur is the prime venue which has hosted everybody from Fats domino to Eric Clapton.

mother-in-law lounge

If you want to be adventurous a list of some 80 music venues can be found here:

Michaul’s on Magazine Street in the CBD has live Cajun music and dancing as does Mulate’s on Julia Street in the Warehouse District. Tipitina’s (named after Professor Longhair’s most famous song began as a neighborhood juke joint, established in 1977, by a group of young music fans (The Fabulous Fo’teen) to provide a place for Professor Longhair to perform in his final years.) on Napoleon Avenue, Uptown offers classic New Orleans rhythm and blues as well as traditional jazz. The Nevilles perform here when they are in town. Special guest on November 7 was Hugh Laurie!



The Cities of the Dead have elaborate aboveground tombs and vaults because buried corpses had a tendency to float up again. The most ornate tombs are at St Louis Cemetery No.1 and Metairie Cemetery. Most of the cemeteries are in crime-ridden areas.There are many museums, my favourite being the Jazz Museum which is now located at 916 N. Peters Street. Others you might try are Ripley’s Believe It or Not or the Voodoo Museum. There are many art galleries, particularly in the Warehouse District which has developed into the Greenwich Village of New Orleans. Although various disasters destroyed many old buildings, much great architecture remains to be viewed, such as the Cabildo and the Presbytere. The architect of the Pontalba Buildings on Jackson Square was James Gallier, who was actually an Irishman called Gallagher.


Many visitors will feel under pressure to buy food-related items. My own feeling is that too many people labour under the delusion that Cajun or Creole masterpieces can be achieved with readymade concoctions in jars and packets. I was happy buying jazz and other genres on the French Market. I was lucky enough to find a young knowledgeably vendor who made some enthusiastic recommendations of artists (Davell Crawford and Danny Barker)  I had  not previously been familiar with. Not far from there is the Farmer’s Market, which, in addition to fresh food products, has a flea market on Saturdays. There are many posh shopping malls in the CBD. Go to Royal Street if you want antiques.


There is a contradiction. The French Quarter is compactly walkable but the city as a whole is not walker-friendly. Hitchhiking is illegal in Louisiana. There are interesting things to experience in the Greater New Orleans area, which includes Algiers, the Warehouse District, the Garden District, the Irish Channel, the Central Business District (CBD) and Uptown. London cabbies sometimes get a bad press. I have always found them professional, if sometimes unfriendly. They spend years learning their way around the city – “The Knowledge”. Some New Orleans taxi drivers are knowledgeable and tell you many things about the city and themselves. This can be charming or tiresome. Some drivers do not speak English and get lost. It is best to establish a relationship with a particular cab firm or driver. The RTA (Regional Transport Authority) operates the streetcars and buses and provides an excellent colour-coded map of routes. You need to have the correct fare ready but you can buy VisiTour Passes for unlimited travel. A ferry operates between Canal Street Wharf and Algiers.


Your hotel should be able to arrange a trip to the Bayous. Honey Island Swamp consists of nearly 70,000 acres of permanently protected wildlife. Top of the range here would be those trips arranged by ecologist Dr Paul Wagner. Do not watch the movie Southern Comfort before going. An hour and a half west of New Orleans is Lafayette, the centre of Cajun country, where you will be likely to hear good music and eat good food.


The plantation system may have been an abuse of human rights and a contributory factor to civil war but it left some wonderful mansions behind, among them Destrehan (the oldest, built in 1787) and Houmas House which was the location for the movie Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Many of the mansions offer accommodation.

My appreciation of the work of John James Audubon is tempered by the knowledge that he killed the birds before he painted them. You might wish to visit the 100-acre Audubon State Commemorative Area, which includes a mansion I visited on Oakley Plantation. Audubon lived at Oakley while tutoring the daughter of the owner.

There are many companies offering Mississippi river cruises by steamboat. Some carry on the old tradition of riverboat gambling.

I was offered a visit to Angola prison farm but I demurred. Bizarrely, there is a museum and shop at the prison and a rodeo.


Mention of Angola brings me to the vexed issue of crime. Even the most enthusiastic New Orleans guidebooks warn against venturing into some areas. Walking alone in Louis Armstrong Park even in daylight is risky. New Orleans was America’s most murderous city for much of the last two decades. According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States report for 2012, the murder rate for New Orleans was 53.2 per 100,000 people. This put it in third place behind Flint with 62.0, and Detroit with 54.5. Joy should not be unconfined because in 2012 Jackson, Miss., had the No. 4 murder rate in the country, but its rate of 35.8 was about a third lower than the New Orleans rate.

Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. Many of the recommended music venues are on a long street called Frenchman’s. At one end is a park which hosts abusers of many kinds of substances. I don’t know what is at the other end because I got in a cab after being stared at malevolently by sinister groups of people. This was in the bright light of morning. In 2004, a mugger shot and wounded the singer-songwriter Ray Davies CBE of the Kinks at 8.30 in the evening in the French Quarter.

New Orleans gave me the impression of being a segregated city. Although the music is a melange of black and white styles and black and white musicians often collaborate in the studio, there was taboo against them playing onstage together. Although Amédé Ardoin crossed racial boundaries by performing with Dennis McGee, he died in 1941 after being savagely beaten for using a white girl’s handkerchief to mop his brow.

The victims of Hurricane Katrina were disproportionately black.  More than 80% of African-American births in inner city New Orleans are to unmarried women. A cohort of rootless adolescent males translates into potential social disorder. Blacks form a disproportionate share of the US prison population. Louisiana State Prison at Angola Prison Farm, like US prisons generally, incarcerates a disproportionate number of blacks. Two of Louisiana’s great musicians – Huddie Ledbetter and James Booker – did time there. The prison is on land bought in the 1830s with slave-trading profits. In the 1930s, hardened criminals broke down upon being notified that they were being sent to Angola. Even in the 1970s, weak inmates served as slaves who were gang-raped, and traded like cattle. In 2009, James Ridgeway wrote in Mother Jones magazine that Angola was “An 18,000-acre complex that still resembles the slave plantation it once was.”

The average life span of an African-American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low as North Korea. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008  to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana.


The 1940s film noir Dark Waters shows dirty dealings at the Big House but portrays Cajuns as warm and well-adjusted. Southern Comfort shows them as inbred and psychotic. Some thrillers convey the atmosphere of New Orleans; Clint Eastwood wallows in the city’s moral ambiguities in Tightrope; Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin are charming in The Big Easy (great music on the soundtrack). In Werner Herzog’s version of The Bad Lieutenant Nicholas Cage shoots it out in one of the cemeteries. Alec Baldwin, Eric Roberts and Terri Hatcher put on a good show in Heaven’s Prisoners based on one of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux thrillers. In the movie version of In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, Tommy Lee Jones plays Robichaux and Levon Helm of The Band plays a ghost.

Tremé is television drama series created in which David Simon attempts to do for New Orleans what he did for Baltimore in The wire. It takes its name from, a neighborhood of New Orleans. The series begins three months after Hurricane Katrina as the residents of New Orleans, including musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians, and other New Orleanians try to rebuild their lives, their homes and their unique culture in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men has been filmed at least twice. The book fictionalises the story of Huey Long. Many people rave about Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I have read it more than once but still find it childish and irritating. The plays of Tennessee Williams convey the atmosphere of the city and many have been filmed. See Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. The streetcar line from Desire Street line was converted to buses in 1948. a 1906 Brill-built semi-convertible streetcar was displayed in the French Market with a Desire route sign, although there is no evidence that cars of this type ever served the Desire Line. It is currently housed at Carrollton Station in the car shops.

There are many guides to New Orleans. The most convenient to carry around is Richard Saul Wurman’s which is like a map that folds up to fit your pocket.  Wurman is an American architect and graphic designer who coined the phrase ‘Information Architecture’ and is considered a pioneer in the practice of making information easily understandable. Wurman has written and designed over 83 books, and created the TED conference, as well as the EG conference, TEDMED and the WWW suite of gatherings, now in development. His ACCESS city guides, using graphics and logical editorial organization to make places such as New York, Tokyo and Rome understandable to visitors.

A bulkier guide is the Insight Guide. Both Insight and Berlitz travel and language guides are produced in Apa Publications’ editorial offices in London, not far from the Old Vic. Every Insight Guide I have read has been excellent. The New Orleans Insight Guide is no exception. Essays on various aspects of the city, its history and culture, are written by experts. The photographs are excellent.

Much information can be gleaned online:

Sample some N’Awlins music on YouTube: Tipitina – Professor Longhair and the Meters. – Hey Pocky Way -The Wild Tchoupitoulas Meet the Boys on the Battleground – The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Right Place, Wrong Time – Dr John & Eric Clapton ZuZu Mamou – Dr John, the Night Tripper Four Hands Boogie Woogie – Dr John & Jools Holland Louisiana Saturday Night – Doug Kershaw Evangeline Special Jo-El Sonnier Cajun Stripper – Doug Kershaw Blues at Montreux – Clarence Gatemouth Brown Born in Louisiana – Clarence Gatemouth Brown Yellow Moon – Neville Brothers (with gusts Herbie Hancock and John Hiatt) Tell It Like It Is – Aaron Neville (with Bonnie Raitt and Gregg Allmann Walkin’ to New Orleans – Fats Domino Mahogany Hall Stomp – George Lewis The City of New Orleans – Allen Toussaint Southern Nights – Allen Toussaint Holy Cow – Allen Toussaint What do You Want the Girl to Do? – Allen Toussaint Get Out my Life Woman – Allen Toussaint Ride Your Pony – Lee Dorsey Down south in New Orleans – Bobby Charles (writer of See you Later Alligator). The Back door – DL Menard Paper in my Shoe – Boozoo Chavis Mathilde – Cookie and the Cupcakes The Valley of Tears – Davell Crawford Jock a Mo – Davell Crawford Busted – Davell Crawford I Know It’s Real – James Booker Goodnight Irene – James Booker Beatles Medley – James Booker Live at the Maple Leaf – James Booker Eh La Bas – Danny Barker Hindustan – Preservation Hall Jazz Band Mother-in-Law – Ernie K-Doe Ernie K-Doe at the Louisiana Hall of Fame. – Ain’t Got No Home – Clarence “Frogman” Henry – Ain’t Got No Home – Clarence “Frogman” Henry (live in England in 2004)

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