Cultural, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Travel

Brexit – the most pointless masochistic step in UK’s history

It’s done. A triumph of dogged negotiation by Theresa May then, briefly, Boris Johnson, has fulfilled the most pointless, masochistic ambition ever dreamt of in the history of these islands. The rest of the world, presidents Putin and Trump excepted, have watched on in astonishment and dismay. A majority voted in December for parties which supported a second referendum. But those parties failed lamentably to make common cause. We must pack up our tents, perhaps to the sound of church bells, and hope to begin the 15-year trudge, back towards some semblance of where we were yesterday with our multiple trade deals, security, health and scientific co-operation and a thousand other useful arrangements.

The only certainty is that we’ll be asking ourselves questions for a very long time. Set aside for a moment Vote Leave’s lies, dodgy funding, Russian involvement or the toothless Electoral Commission, consider instead the magic dust. How did a matter of such momentous constitutional, economic and cultural consequence come to be settled by a first-past-the-post vote and not by a super-majority? A parliamentary paper at the time of the 2015 Referendum Act hinted at the reason: because the referendum was merely advisory. It “enables the electorate to voice an opinion”. How did “advisory” morph into “binding”? By that blinding dust thrown in our eyes from right and left by populist hands.

We endured a numbing complicity between government and opposition. The door out of Europe was held open by Corbyn for Johnson to walk through.

What did we learn in our blindness? That those not flourishing within the status quo had no good reason to vote for it; that our prolonged parliamentary chaos derived from an ill-posed yes-no question to which there were a score of answers; that the long-evolved ecology of the EU has profoundly shaped the flora of our nation’s landscape and to rip these plants out will be brutal; that what was once called a hard Brexit became soft by contrast with the threatened no-deal that even now persists; that any mode of departure, by the government’s own estimate, will shrink the economy; that we have a gift for multiple and bitter division – young against old, cities against the country, graduates against early school-leavers, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; that all past, present and future international trade deals or treaties are a compromise with sovereignty, as is our signature on the Paris accords, or our membership of NATO, and that therefore “Take Back Control” was the emptiest, most cynical promise of this sorry season.

We surprised ourselves. Only a few years ago, asked to list the nation’s ills – wealth gap, ailing NHS, north-south imbalance, crime, terrorism, austerity, housing crisis etc – most of us would not have thought to include our membership of the EU. How happy we were in 2012, in the afterglow of our successful Olympics. We weren’t thinking then of Brussels. It was, in Guy Verhofstadt’s famous term, a “cat-fight” within the Tory party that got us going. Those cats had been fighting each other for decades. When they dragged us in and urged us to take sides, we had a collective nervous breakdown; then sufficient numbers wanted the distress to go away and “get Brexit done”. Repeated ad nauseam by the prime minister it almost seemed impolite to ask why.

In the early days of the referendum campaign we learned that “on the doorstep” it was all about migration; but we also learned that it was the UK’s decision, not the EU’s, to allow unlimited migration from the accession countries before the permitted seven years were up; it was the UK’s choice to allow EU migrants to stay more than six months without a job; it was the UK that successfully campaigned to enlarge the EU eastwards; it is the UK, not the EU, that lets non-EU migration continue (and why not?) as EU migration declines. We also learned that the UK, not the EU, opted for our maroon rather than patriotic blue passports. Though, as I look, my old passports seem almost black.

There is much that is historically unjust about the British state, but very little of that injustice derives from the EU. Brussels didn’t insist that we neglect the post-industrial towns of the Midlands and the north; or demand that we let wages stagnate, or permit multimillion handouts to the CEOs of failing companies, or prefer shareholder value over the social good, or run our health service, social care and Sure Start into the ground, close 600 police stations and let the fabric of our state schools decay.

It was the task of the Brexit campaign to persuade the electorate otherwise. In the referendum they succeeded with 37%, enough to transform our collective fate for a generation at least. To cause sufficient numbers to believe that the source of all their grievances is some hostile outside element is the oldest trick in the populist handbook. As Trotsky was for Stalin, as the USA is for the mullahs of Iran and Gülen is for Erdoğan, so Brussels has served its turn.

Hedge fund owners, plutocrat donors to the cause, Etonians and newspaper proprietors cast themselves as enemies of the elite. More magic dust. The claim that the Northern Ireland issue has been settled is a dangerous pretence. We have witnessed reasoned argument’s fall from grace. The Brexit impulse had strong elements of blood-and-soil, with hints of Empire nostalgia. Such spooky longings floated high above mere facts.

We acquired an argot. “Article 50”, “frictionless trade”, “just in time”, “the backstop” – how they tripped off the tongue. We learned to respect an “invisible border”. Before it all began, only a very few knew the difference between the customs union and the single market. Three years on, not much has changed. A survey last year showed that quite a lot of us thought that “crashing out” was the same as remaining. If only.

The Brexit leadership and the leader of the opposition were always in a hurry to start article 50’s two-year stopwatch. They feared that leave voters might change their minds, that those who didn’t vote last time were 2:1 for remaining, and that young voters coming on to the rolls would be mostly pro-EU. The Brexiter generals reasonably feared a second referendum.

At least, we can all agree that we will be a bit poorer. As one of my school teachers used to say, if a thing is really worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Theresa May could never bring herself to say that Brexit would make us better off. She wouldn’t even tell us if she would vote to leave in a second referendum. We should credit her honesty. By contrast, Boris Johnson, laying his post-Brexit vision before parliament, promised he would narrow the UK’s wealth and opportunity gap between north and south, and make it the home of cutting-edge battery technology. He forgot to mention that the EU never stood in the way of either project.

Redefining our new trade relations with the EU will preoccupy us for years. As for the US position, take a long walk in the American mid-west and you’ll go a month across a monoculture desert and not see a wildflower. To compete, our own agriculture would have to welcome the hormone hypodermic. Our farmers will need to divest of inefficient hedgerows, boundary trees and three-metre field margins – museum pieces all. When it was in trade talks with the EU, the US wouldn’t contemplate higher standards of husbandry, food standards and environmental protection, even though they would have granted access to half a billion consumers. American farming corporations will not be changing their ways for a nation of a mere 65 million. If we want a deal, it is we who must downgrade.

We sense damage and diminishment ahead. In a dangerous world crowded with loud-mouthed “strongmen”, the EU was our best hope for an open, tolerant, free and peaceful community of nations. Those hopes are already threatened as populist movements have swept across Europe. Our withdrawal will weaken resistance to the xenophobic tendency. The lesson of our nation’s history these past centuries is plain: turmoil in continental Europe will draw us into bloody conflicts. Nationalism is rarely a project for peace. Nor does it care to counter climate change. It prefers to let tropical forests and the Australian bush burn.

Take a road trip from Greece to Sweden, from Portugal to Hungary. Leave your passport behind. What a rich, teeming bundle of civilisations – in food, manners, architecture, language, and each nation state profoundly and proudly different from its neighbours. No evidence of being under the boot-heel of Brussels. Nothing here of continental USA’s dreary commercial sameness. Summon everything you’ve learned of the ruinous, desperate state of Europe in 1945, then contemplate a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. Until Friday this was where our grown-up children went at will to live and work.

That’s over, and for now the force is with English nationalism. Its champion is Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back in the days of the old Soviet Union. I’m lying, you know I’m lying and I know that you know and I don’t give a damn. As in, “The five-week prorogation of parliament has nothing to do with Brexit.” Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg were masters of the mocking grin. The supreme court’s inconvenient judgement that this prorogation was illegal clearly still rankles. Recently, the ex-home secretary Michael Howard was set on to murmur against the judges. Extending political control over an independent judiciary would be consonant with the Johnson-Cummings project. Victor Orbán of Hungary lights the way.

The remainers held out for a kinder sort of world, but we were always the herbivores in this debate, with our enormous, good-natured and derided marches – “a hate-filled crowd”, the Sun; “an elite”, the Daily Telegraph. If 16 million remainers are an elite, then we may rejoice that the UK is a model of meritocracy.

We were, in truth, the left-behinds. By the grace of Corbyn and his grim lieutenants, we had no effective voice in parliament. On her first day as prime minister, Theresa May promised outside No 10 that she would govern for us all. Instead, she threw half the country to the dogs to appease her party’s right wing. Initially, Boris Johnson’s elevation was decided by a tiny, ageing constituency, the majority of whose members told pollsters that they wished Donald Trump ruled Britain and that they longed for the return of hanging. In similar spirit, Johnson found fresh depths of populist vulgarity when he spoke last June of pitchforking the EU incubus off the nation’s back. He has realised his dream.

As for the outer extremes, the occasional milkshake aside, we never violently assaulted a Brexiter in the street; we only rarely inclined to sending anonymous death and rape threats such as came so abundantly the way of Gina Miller, Anna Soubry and many female MPs. However, the antisemitic emails from within the Labour party were a disgrace. So too was the bullying mob jeering outside the Rees-Mogg home. But we remainers did not slyly exhort our compatriots to riot in the event of a second referendum going against us. Nearly two-thirds of the electorate did not vote to leave; most of business and the trade unions, agriculture, science, finance and the arts were against the Brexit project; three-quarters of MPs voted to remain. But our representatives ignored the evident public interest and shrank behind party cabals and “the people have spoken” – that bleak Soviet locution – followed by “get Brexit done”, the mind-clouding magic dust which has blinded reason and diminished our children’s prospects.

Ian McEwan is a Guardian columnist (published in the Guardian on 1 Feb 2020)

Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Autumnal Colours in America

In America’s Northeast covering New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and so forth the dramatic explosion of colour during autumn season starts typically in late September. It peaks in mid-October when leaves on the trees are emblazoned in gorgeous shades of red, orange, yellow and gold. After that, a gradual decline would ensue as the locust and maple leaves fall to the ground first, followed by the golden brown oak hanging on until late November, while the beech trees might let their leaves go sometimes in the middle of winter.

This year, all the precursor conditions—chilly nights and sunny, warm days—were in place for a fabulous fall foliage season. The display of bold colours confirmed that fall has finally taken over from the dog days of summer. But the days are also growing shorter which means the frosty days and nights of winter are around the corner. So, at this time every year, we throw the thought of winter out of our mind and venture into the wilderness to look at the transformation of the leaves. It gives us the feeling of “walking into fire without the heat.”

Some of the best places to see fall foliage are right in our backyard—the Catskills, Adirondacks and Bear Mountain, all within a short driving distance from our home in the lower Hudson Valley.  In the Northeast, New England reigns supreme for fall foliage viewing. Though the entire region is renowned for its vivid display of eye-catching colours, there is perhaps no other place more picturesque than the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Hence, it is one of our favourite places to gawk at the many trees—maple, beech, birch, elm and hemlock—burst into brilliant colours.

The nearest place where we can watch the fall fiesta is the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. One of the greatest attractions in the Catskill is the Hunter Mountain, where leaves change into a multicolour canopy in mid-October. For a glimpse of the delicate brushstrokes of Mother Nature on a larger landscape below and around us, we took the scenic skyride to the 3,200-feet summit of the mountain. The colours on the nearby Kaaterskill Mountain, as seen from the Hunter Mountain, were simply awesome. The mountain also offered incredible 360-degree views that reach out to and beyond the Catskill Mountains.

Few places in New York rival the Adirondacks for viewing fall foliage. The Adirondacks offer a different sort of autumnal splendour—lakes, mountains and forests combine to create a canvas upon which nature paints her annual pièce de résistance.  During our visit to Lake Placid, Adirondack was an unbelievable kaleidoscope of colours. The roads through the mountains of Adirondacks also afforded us one of the finest views of fall season’s palette—a photomontage of colors one finds in rainbows. The banks of the Ausable River were decked out in shades of crimson, orange and yellow.

While driving along the 35-mile stretch of the scenic Kancamagus Highway that cuts through the White Mountains of New Hampshire, we were treated to sceneries of majestic alpine mountains, quaint covered bridges, crashing waterfalls and colourful foliage. The splendid transition of colours throughout the mountains created a wonderful morphing beauty that accentuated our experience of viewing fall foliage.

As they say, “Fall is our jam here in the Northeast—when the colours switch from green to vibrant oranges, reds, yellows and gold.” For us, it is the time of the year to relax and enjoy the ravishing display of nature’s seasonal gift—the gallery of flaming colours, the “year’s last, loveliest smile” before the trees retire for the long winter slumber.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Environmental, Life as it is, Travel

Vacation in Alaska seeing Denali Mountains

Aerial view of Denali Mountains

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envision as a vacation, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Our 10-day trip started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We—my wife, myself, son and daughter—visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords on the Resurrection Bay near Seward. Tidewater glaciers are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea.

A trip to Alaska is not complete without seeing Mount Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), which is located in the south-central part of the Alaska Mountain Range. Denali is the Native American Athabascan word meaning “The High One,” and with good reason. From afar, it is massive; up close, the sheer granite walls, alpine glaciers and pillowing snow cornices are otherworldly.

Mount Denali is the third highest of the Seven Summits—the highest mountains on each of the seven continents—following Mount Everest in Nepal and Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. At 20,320 feet, it is North America’s tallest peak, rightly celebrated as an icon of all that is awesome and wild in a state where those adjectives are ubiquitous.

There is a fact about Denali unknown to many of us. By one measure, it could be considered the third tallest mountain in the world. It rises about 18,000 feet from its base, which is a greater vertical rise than Mount Everest’s 12,000-feet rise from its base at 17,000 feet.

Seeing Denali from a distance can be difficult. As it is frequently draped in clouds, one can see only a small portion of the mountain beyond its base. Some days the mountain is obscured completely from ground level. Still, with clouds, storms, fog and sunny high-pressure systems all battling it out around Denali, the peak can appear at any moment. On the day of our visit―July 3, 2019―we lucked out. It was a sunny, calm, cloudless, postcard-perfect afternoon and we could see Denali from a distant vista point on the highway from Anchorage to Talkeetna.

The magnetic appeal of Denali draws climbers from all over the world. They flock to this mountain to struggle for the summit. Wasfia Nazreen, who conquered Mount Everest as the second Bangladeshi female mountaineer, reached the summit of Mount Denali on June 24, 2014. Dogsledders traverse Denali’s lower reaches.

For tourists like us who are not into mountain climbing, flight seeing planes from Talkeetna carry us up the glacier-choked valleys to view parts of Denali hidden from distant eyes. Paradoxically, Talkeetna is a totally flat town 60 miles away from the base of the mountain.

We took a 90-minute flight seeing tour on a ski-equipped de Havilland Beaver. There were six other tourists and everyone had a window seat. A few minutes after takeoff, apprehension of flying in a single engine propeller-driven aircraft gave way to wonder as we entered a world of rugged, high mountain peaks and spectacular glacier-filled valleys. The wind was calm but the clouds conspired with each other and surrounded the Denali peak, with layers floating between the uplifted knives of snow-capped stone.

Clouds may have prevented a flight over the Denali peak. However, as the plane flew at an optimal altitude of 15,000 feet and since we approached from the southeast, then maneuvered toward the south rim, we enjoyed panoramic views of all sides of Denali and had the best perspective of the sheer size of the mountains of the Denali Massif.

The surrounding mountains were shrouded in black stone and white snow with shocking patches of turquoise blue where the snow had melted enough to create little dish lakes. The pilot flew the plane over those mountains, around them, up to their edge so everyone could see them. We got up close to their snowfields, alpine glaciers, deep crevasses and sheer granite walls. At times—especially when the plane banked sharply left or right to provide better perspective for every passenger, it seemed the snow and ice were almost at our fingertips. When we saw the glaciers beneath the towering mountain peaks, we could understand why these immense ice fields attract people from all over the world.

The high point of the flight was landing on a glacier. Because of clear weather and calm wind, our plane landed on the Ruth Glacier, located at 5,600 feet in the Sheldon Amphitheater. From there, we had breathtaking views of mountains and glaciers all around. The experience of walking on a glacier was out of this world. After 30 minutes of walking through Denali’s icy alpine world, our plane took off for Talkeetna, but via a different route.

As one would expect, the vastness of such an experience could never be captured in a photograph, but we certainly tried. It is the memories that are so vivid and intense, as if the trip happened yesterday. Nonetheless, while going through the mountains, we photographed jaw-dropping scenery, including some glacial landforms we had seen only in textbooks.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Environmental, Games and Sports, International, Life as it is, Travel

Gulf of Mexico – a haven of tranquility

Planning to have a cruise in the Gulf of Mexico in September/October time, invariably the hurricane season in that part of the world, is a risky undertaking. This is because the Gulf Stream – the warm ocean current – which originates on the northern edges of the equator moves through the Caribbean Sea and then forks off to the Gulf of Mexico and the other part to the Atlantic Ocean and when the stream meets northern cold stream, it creates a vortex of hot and humid air in the atmosphere and hence cyclone. Only a couple of months ago, hurricane Dorian utterly devasted the Bahamas. But that did not deter us, as we applied our statistical insight that lightening is unlikely to strike twice at the same place!

We set off from Galveston, a dedicated port some 30 km south of Houston, Texas in a Royal Caribbean cruise ship named Liberty of the Seas on Sunday. Our cruise ship was, what is known as super-cruise ship – nearly 340 meter-long, had five dining facilities, numerous restaurants and shops, a large auditorium, a running track, three swimming pools and many more facilities in 15 decks carrying nearly 3800 guests and over 1,200 staff. It took the whole morning for the guests to board on the ship and at 16:00 we set sail.  

There was no fanfare, no gunfire; the massive ship just quietly and smoothly slipped away from the port. As we were chatting and admiring our staterooms, I noticed that the building on the shore are gradually going further and further away and then started to disappear completely. Getting to know the various facilities, particularly the dining facilities – which one is for breakfast, which one for supper etc – is quite an adventure. On top of that, my friends had to learn the naval terms like port side (left) and starboard side (right) as well as aft (back) and forward (front). I had a head start on my friends as I was a Civil Servant at the Royal Navy for a number of years.

We kept cruising along the western part of Gulf of Mexico for nearly 40 hours until 07:00 on Tuesday morning, when the ship docked at the international pier at Cozumel, Mexico’s largest island off the eastern coast of Yucatan Peninsula. As the ship was scheduled to stay there until 16:30 in the afternoon, we were given a number of options for shore excursions. The one I chose was a trip to see Mayan Ruins in Yucatan Peninsula, which entailed a ferry trip of 12 miles to Tulum from the ship. We had to come back by 16:30 when the ship will sail again.

Mayan civilisation is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, civilisations in the chronicle of civilisations of the world. It flourished nearly 2000 BC in the central American area covering Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Columbia and Venezuela regions. Mayan progressed from pure agricultural living to sophisticated communal living in towns and cities. Around 600 BC they developed logo-syllabic writing script, astronomy, sculpture, art and mathematics. In the western world, they were the first to have developed the concept of zero (rivalling India). Their counting system was based on fours, not tens (Modern day computing algorithm is based on binary system). However, there is an enigma about Mayan civilisation – the early Mayan civilisation which lasted over two thousand years and then it disappeared – cities they developed had been abandoned, agriculture vanished etc.

And then from 250 AD to 900 AD, the civilisation surfaced again. After 900 AD it just collapsed. Subsequently, the Mayan people had been literally massacred and annihilated by the invading Spaniards in the 16th century.

Tuesday night was the Captain’s night. Although Captain could not be present in all three dining facilities that normally takes place simultaneously, his representatives were present in all dining facilities. But, more importantly, after dinner, at about 21:30 there was convivial music and dance, performed by the catering staff and any guest who felt brave enough could join in.

At 16:30 the ship sailed again from Cozumel heading eastward and reached Grand Cayman and docked at George Town the following morning (Wednesday) at 10:00. We hired a minibus to take us to the tourist spots. Although Caribbean islands won independence in the 1970s from Britain, British influence was very much in evidence – they drive on the left side of the road. We saw the Governor’s house (probably unoccupied), reminiscent of the Governor’s house in the then East Pakistan. The highlight of this visit was a trip to a village called Hell. People are welcome to Hell. If our so-called religious hell is anything like this Hell, people would be grateful to be allocated to this place by our non-existent creator!

At 18:00 we left George Town and set sail for Jamaica and docked at Falmouth, which is on the northern side of the island, at 08:00 on Thursday. Jamaica may be renowned for sprinters (Usain Bolt, the fastest man on earth), fastest cricket bowler, best basket-ball players etc, what we saw in Falmouth the artistic side of Jamaica. The whole precinct was full of artists painting, wood carving, engraving etc and there were Art Galleries, Florists etc. We had the whole day to soak up the Jamaica life in general. There were no restaurants or cafes for the obvious reason that people can pop in to the ship and have gorgeous meal at no cost and come back again to the precinct. However, coconuts and some mangoes (not very sweet) are too good to miss.

At 17:00 we got into our boat for the last leg of our journey back to Galveston. But then we had nearly 40 hours of uninterrupted cruise through the eastern side of the Gulf of Mexico. This was the opportunity to lazy around, indulge in excessive eating and breathing the freshest air one can get. The catering staff were always too keen to please us.

Altogether, Gulf of Mexico cruise was very relaxing and enjoyable. Cruising is becoming a choice holiday event for the public these days away from the hustle and bustle of big cities and towns. On top of that, because of tough competition, cruise standards are improving and prices are very competitive.       

– Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist