Thursday, 18 May 2017
It was 2004, and Kevin Irrawaddi Patel gazed despondently at the newspaper account of Saddam Hussein’s famous List of Largess, or Barrelgate as it had become known. Noticing how absurdly his name had been placed next to that of Mr. George Galloway - the ex New Labour MP – some Bulgarian professor, and half the government ministers of the Russian Federation, he was considerably baffled.
As he stared at an account of the billions of barrels of crude oil Russia had received for the Iraqi Oil for Food Program, his own published score of one single barrel seemed woefully insignificant. Astonished at the vast amounts of crude oil given to these other individuals – and for enormously spurious reasons - he sat in his Peckham corner-shop, trying to make sense of this dramatic life changing event. For what was, after all, a seemingly casual event that had taken place two years previously, his somewhat dubious place in history, had now been assured. But what had actually happened?
It had been a wet Wednesday, in the autumn of 2002, and he remembered it well. Accustomed as he was to visits by all the nutters in Avondale Rise, it was no surprise to him to see a burly Arab looking man entering his shop, lugging a large metal barrel.
“What you got there mate,” said Kevin in his typical South London Bombay accent, whilst viewing the shiny barrel with some suspicion.
The man glared at him as if Kevin was a total tosser - “I’ve brought you some oil,” said the windswept and dripping man, as he took off his beret, and shook off the rain.
“Do you mind,” said Kevin, “You will make the floor wet!”
The dark haired man fixed him with an icy stare - “Well, where do you want it, then?” His gruff voice made it sound less like a question, and than an order.
How odd, thought Kevin, he seems to be wearing some sort of uniform under his mackintosh - “If it is for the Greek chippy,” he said, pointing through the door, “It's in the next street, you should ask for Stavros.”
But by now, the man's demeanour had become even more threatening - “It's not that kind of oil, you Indian git,” the stranger said.
His penetrating eyes now seemed more familiar to Kevin, and he instinctively backed into the Mars Bar and Twix rack, which was immediately behind him, causing three boxes of Smarties to simultaneously hit the floor. Bursting open as he mistakenly trod on them, the contents scattered, leaving them to rattle around the shop like multi coloured ball bearings, as they went flying.
“You look like that Iraqi bloke Saddam what’s-his-name,” Kevin’s face gleamed with nervous self-satisfaction, as he demonstrated his considerable knowledge of world events.
But the man showed not signs of response - “This is Iraqi Heavy,” the man said stiffly, “I have brought it to Peckham on the UN Food for Oil Program. So, don’t mess me about, or I will get really annoyed.”
Kevin searched his mind for some connection between the humdrum existence, he experienced, in the nether regions of Avonmore Rise, and this man's last remark. Finally, his face lit up.
“Is that the cooking program on ITV with Marco Pierre White? You know, the chef who gets pissed in the kitchen, and finally thumps one of the waiters? Wicked.”
At this Saddam – whose age was estimated at between 35 and 140 years – and shouting with consummate rage, banged his fist on the counter.
“Listen to me, you Indian wally, I am extremely hungry. So stop pissing around will you, and give me some food, or I will go get some WMD, and give you a bit of really serious grief.”
Not wishing to aggravate this newly discovered Middle-Eastern nutter more than absolutely necessary, Kevin wisely did not ask the question, which now lay dormant on his lips.
Was WMD an acronym for something he had once heard on the news, or was it Magic Roundabout? Perhaps it stood for William Morris Designs, or even Waitrose Marketing Department; he was unsure. But, his silence probably saved his life.
“What’s that barrel worth, then mate?” Kevin’s mind raced as finally the fear of the moment gripped him. Realizing his imminent danger, his only thought was how he might get rid of this obviously deranged and obnoxious man. The Police were no good, and would probably turn up the following week, and granny Patel was deaf, so there was no point in shouting up the stairs. So he decided he had better comply with the nutters demands.
“Twenty five dollars US,” was the curt reply “Which does not include delivery, because this week it is on a free offer. So make up your mind quickly!”
Kevin didn’t know much about dollars, or even euros for that matter, and although the occasional rupee had passed hands in his shop, he doubted whether that nice Mr. Bush or any other American would ever visit Peckham.
Anyway, according to the newspapers – of which he had hundreds for sale, but rarely read – Mr. Bush probably thought that Peckham was a suburb of Peking, and Iraq an island off the coast of Cuba. Nevertheless, it was obvious he would have to give this man something, or he would never go away.
“Well,” said Kevin, “ I have thought about it very carefully, sir, and I am prepared to give you a bag of cheese and onion crisps, some frozen sausage rolls, a box of Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, and a bag of King Edwards. But, that's the best I can do for you I am afraid!”
Saddam glared at him and spluttered “What? You bastard! Last night I got the full monty for my other barrel, from the Star on India in Westbourne Grove, and they gave me extra chutney as well. So you had better watch it, you insignificant Indian twat!”
Furious, Saddam grabbed the cheese and onion crisps, the frozen sausage rolls, the spuds, and the box of Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, and stormed out of the shop. As he did so, he slammed the door so hard, that everything in the shop wobbled, leaving Kevin baffled and perplexed. Contemplating what to do with the shiny barrel of oil, which now stood next to the counter, his problem seemed insurmountable.
It was February 2004, and the barrel continued to sit unmoved, in the corner of the shop, but it was now used to support a rack displaying assorted dog food. Fido, the Finest Food for your Pet, it announced, with a further big sign saying Special Offer. The sign on the barrel simply said Iraqi Oil for Sale, and nothing else. But, alas, nobody was much interested in either commodity, because, there were very few dogs living in Avonmore Road, and the nearest oil refinery was in Depford. After he reported the incident to the local community watch, a number of days passed, before the visits began.
First to appear was a funny sort of policeman, with a red nose, a plumy accent, and wearing a scruffy green Barbour jacket. He demanded to know the whole story from Kevin, or else he would have to go down to the local Police Station for a thorough grilling. So Kevin blurted out the whole story, confirming even the most insignificant details.
“Yes, I think that must have been him after all,” the red nosed man said, leaving a business card stating that he worked for the Ministry of Agriculture. After him, it was the press.
Second to appear was a reporter from the Peckham Gazette, who entered the shop with some apprehension, knowing some of the basic truths behind the Food for Oil report. But his interest was of a local nature, and it was Kevin who was now in the limelight!
“What did he look like Kev?” Sidney Nodes knew how to keep his reading public entertained.
“He was some geezer, but a bit of a Muppet, really,” Kevins mind casually harped back to his strange encounter. “He kept going on about extra chutney at the Star of India, for some reason, and something about WMD, whatever that is?”
Having heard the food for oil deal Kevin had been forced to comply with, Sidney Nodes asked for a bag of cheese and onion crisps, in order somehow to feel closer to this bizarre incident, and – foregoing the Cadbury’s chocolate fingers – a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes.
Lighting his first smoke of the day, Sidney Nodes mused – “Evan that nice Mr. Bush and Tony Blair don’t seem to know much about WMD either, according to the telly!”
The next day, the headlines in the Peckham Gazette announced – ‘Saddam Demands Cadbury’s Chocolate Fingers.’
Sidney Nodes knew that it was not very accurate, but that was the general condition of journalism at the time. The dailies didn’t say much either, being too busy Blair- bashing, so Kevin Irrawaddi Patel finally sank back once more, into obscurity.
Sidney Nodes wrote one more follow up story, for the Peckham Gazette, when Kevin Patel decided to change his image a bit, by renaming his shop. The new sign now proclaimed that it was, The Patel Emporium – Purveyors of Fine Food & Wines to World Leaders.
That weekend, Sidney Node's newspaper headlines announced – ‘Patel Emporium Peckham, runs out of cheese and onion crisps,’ and quite frankly, Kevin Patel has never really looked back!
Monday, 15 May 2017
This is probably the most cogent and descriptive photograph taken during Michel Barnier’s epic address to the Dublin parliament. It makes it clear that, however well intentioned he may be, the ghosts from the recent past are ever present in the Irish Republic, and still mean business.
To put himself in this position, was a remarkable piece of EU chutzpah, and by claiming that the EU would stand behind the Republic of Ireland, during these Brexit negotiations, was to hit the very weak spot that Theresa May and David Davis were hoping to sidestep. Putting the Irish position at the forefront of the proposed Brexit pull out, was not an idle threat, but a very real EU spanner in the works for the British Government to contend with.
Ireland, protected by the huge and powerful EU, sent a strong message to a waffling and incoherent British Government in London. With their absurd claims of getting a better deal, and hiding behind the usual smokescreen of establishment figures, political nonentities, and grinning Brexit opportunists, this has, once more, put the whole question of Irish reunification back on the table.
While the Brexiteers were regaling the British public with their wild and flippant rhetoric – claiming all sorts of wonderful changes, most of which will fade away over the next two years or be denied altogether – did any of them actually consider the possibility of a breakup of the United Kingdom, and that it might encourage parts of the UK to take a positive step towards a federated Europe?
Did these entitled politico’s actually believe, that there would never be a downside to their vote inducing antics? And, did it ever occur to them that – prompted by purely economic reasons – that even the most disenfranchised in the North of Ireland might prefer Irish unification, rather than some half baked, unworkable, retrogressive customs and passport control checkpoint, on the border between the two – soon to be – separated parts of Ireland.
One persons democracy, might well be another’s Bedlam. So, it follows that – other than Little England, and Wales – Britains immediate EU neighbour of EIRE, was also none too pleased. With English voters incipient madness, and Scotland and Northern Ireland not wanting out of the EU – by some a significant margin of votes – once more, the Brits completely misread the Irish position.
Nor, in turn, did the EU itself, and for that matter, neither did other EU members – or even potential EU members – begin to understand the UK position. So, despite all the handshakes and photo opportunities, clearly Messers May and Davis, PLC, are in for a hard time. But what is happening from inside the UK itself, and how is the media coping with the withering storm?
I am so lucky to live in Greece, to view world events through a clear pane of glass, and not through the prism of the British press, because right wing views are beginning to distort the Brexit debate altogether. It now appears, that many of the right of centre groups are beginning to view any Brexit decent as a form of national betrayal. It further seems that a particular category of Middle English, middle class extremists, are attempting to motivate dissenters from the middle ground, to get behind the Tories in the forthcoming June 8th Election, by calling them traitors!
Although there is little doubt that Theresa May will enjoy a landslide victory, as I sit this quiet Sunday in the birthplace of democracy, I do wonder how far right is right? As I cling to the arms of my front row seat, watching the boxers weigh up before the fight, I can’t help noticing how right wing politicians in Europe, have recently done rather badly in certain elections, and that the victors remain unashamedly pro Europe and the EU.
Perhaps it is time for these inward looking and self congratulating British right wing extremists, to stop thinking of Ireland as a vegetable patch, or a cheap labour market for navvy’s, and to wonder why it is that half the banks in the City of London are likely to relocate to Dublin, where the Celtic Tigre – with its legendary computer skills – is ready to pounce!
Tuesday, 2 May 2017
It has been the source of great wonderment, that I should ever have met Ahmed Chalabi. Ever since his death in November 2015, little has been said about him, and probably never will. But he was instrumental in convincing both President George W Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair, that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction – or WMD’s as they became known – and that he was prepared to use these weapons, despite careful inspection by Hans Blix. Chairman of the United Nations Monitoring, Verifications and Inspection Commission – and previously head of the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA – he was a very distinguished and highly respected Swedish diplomat.
It seemed that Blix’s findings were not what Bush or Blair wanted to hear, nor the American Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Although Blix admonished Saddam Hussein for playing a cat and mouse game, and warned Iraq of serious consequences, if it attempted to hinder or delay his mission, in his report to the UN Security Council on 14 February 2003, Blix clearly stated that –
“So far, UNMOVIC has not found any weapons of mass destruction, only a small number of empty chemical munitions.” In 2004, Blix made a further statement that – “There have been about 700 inspections, and in no case, did we find weapons of mass destruction.”
I will never forget watching Colin Powell at the UN, stating quite clearly, that the CIA was sure that Saddam had hidden his WMD’s in underground secret trailers – drawings provided – and I knew then, that he was lying. But, it ultimately and finally convinced both the Bush administration; together with the UK, to go to war.
In 1992, an umbrella organisation was founded by the US Government, to overthrow Saddam. Called the Iraqi National Congress – or INC – it was a name chosen by an American PR specialist, a name which resonated with groups such as the Indian National Congress and the African National Congress. All it needed was a leader, with the charisma of Gandhi or Mandela, but what it got was Ahmed Chalabi.
At the time he was facing charges of allegedly embezzling money from the Petra Bank in Jordan, a bank which he had helped to establish. Nevertheless, he came from Iraq’s majority Shia population, and was very westernised. Destined – at one time – to be the new Iraq’s first President, he was capable of saying almost anything, to oust Saddam from power, a man he truly hated.
Chalabi had lived on and off in the UK for some time, finally leaving Iraq with his family in 1958, following the 14 July Revolution. Spending his formative years abroad, he was educated firstly at Baghdad College, and finally Seaford College in Sussex – in the south of England – before leaving for America. But where do I come in?
It was 1991, and living at the time in St Johns Avenue, Putney – South West London – one of my occasional haunts was a pub called The Green Man. A convivial place, it was and still is one of those London pubs where you can chat with almost anyone. One evening I noticed a foreign looking man, sitting by the bar, who stood out from the rest. Partly because he was wearing a peaked cap – reminiscent of Lenin – and wire framed spectacles, he looked like an early 20th Century revolutionary.
The man said he was staying with his father at Ross Court, on Putney Hill. We introduced ourselves, told me to call him Ali, and so the usual questions followed about what we did and where we worked.
He quite openly stated that up until recently, he had been working as a banker in Jordan, and in turn I told him about a project I had in mind in Bulgaria. I had heard recently that some builders from Kent had been very successful in Moscow, renting run down flats and houses, renovating them to a high standard, and then re-letting them for premium rents, to western companies and their managers.
Not knowing Bulgaria as I do now, but with many western companies moving into Eastern Europe, I had no reason to suspect that Sofia would be any different. Consequently, I had organized a cash flow spreadsheet, which made my proposals look very inviting. As a banker, Chalabi understand these figures very well, and he told me that he could help with finance, should there be a need.
He clearly knew Eastern Europe, and spoke as though he had been to Bulgaria in the past, and so I enlisted the help of an English friend, who was a civil engineer who worked at the time, for a Kuwaiti company in London. He also spoke a little Arabic – because in the past, he had served in the British Army – and so it seemed that there was a possible company in the offing.
Days passed before our arranged meeting, but meanwhile one day Chalabi introduced me to his father Abdul Hadi Chalabi. A very distinguished looking man, sporting a well trimmed and virtually white beard, he seemed to have all the airs of a country gentleman. Dressed in a Prince of Wales gray suit and waistcoat, I never met him again, but later in Sofia, I did come across his photograph.
It was presented to me by an alleged Iraqi dissident in Sofia, called Ahmed Taleb, who said it was a picture of his father. I knew that wasn’t true, and surely it didn’t come from the Iraqi Embassy? After all, if it had, it implied he was still one of Saddams boys; so I let it go!
I had known the Civil Engineer for some time, due to a land deal we had put together -opposite the Houses of Parliament – on behalf of his Kuwaiti employers. A few days later we turned up to meet Chalabi, to discuss some of the finer details of this project. Especially so concerning financial structuring, because most Bulgarian banks at the time were practically bankrupt, and finance was an important item.
We had only been there a few minutes, when Ahmed Chalabi suddenly got up, without a word, leaving his drink untouched, and was never seen by us again. What had spooked him, can be any bodies guess, maybe it was my friends bearing, maybe it was my amazing personality, but as far as he was concerned, it was a sudden and dramatic end.
I went on to live and work in Bulgaria, but my scheme never came to fruition. Bulgarians found my re-letting programme to be almost an infamy. It seemed to them, at the time, for a foreigner to be allowed to make a profit, or succeed at anything at all in Bulgaria, was against all natural justice.
Many of my contemporaries also found this to be the case, often learning the hard way. As did the Kent Builders in Moscow. One day they had a visit from some black suits, did a deal which they couldn’t refuse, and swiftly returned to the pleasant surrounds of Kent.