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Ode to a Venetian sojourn

A version of this article appeared in Gafencu magazine

In 1963, aged 15, my dad was taken to Venice on a school holiday. It was the first time he had been abroad. For a boy who had grown up in Ayrshire, Scotland – then a place of cows, coal and Calvinism – it was a kind of spiritual awakening: into a world of art and architecture, sunlight and marble, operetta and open-hearted Southern European sorts.

The Venice of today is substantially the same as that of half a century ago – just as the city my dad experienced would have been entirely recognisable to, say, Giacomo Casanova, its most representative 18th Century citizen. Okay, sure, there are probably more American tour groups nowadays, muting the colour scheme with their pastels; and, of course, the African chaps selling you fake Gucci stuff are relatively new. And there aren’t prostitutes everywhere, like in old Gio’s time (I forgot to ask my dad about the ragazze in ’63). But generally speaking (and as you might expect of a World Heritage site), this most visited of cities has been preserved, the patina of its history deferred to and respected. The prospect that blindsides the pilgrim, arriving vaporetto-borne on the Grand Canal – of the Byzantine Basilica di San Marco and Palazzo Ducale, around which cluster several others of the most magnificent Medieval and Renaissance buildings on the planet – is the very same prospect that has been doing so for centuries.

For all that Venice may seem immutable to the outsider, though, immutability is not the story for the 21st Century. See, Venice is in need of saving – for some decades, people who know about these things have been warning that it is done for. The acqua alta (seasonal high tides that account for the huge puddles of seawater often to be found lolling about in St Mark’s Square like fallen Italian footballers hoping for a penalty) has been a feature of Venetian life since time immemorial, but a combination of rising sea levels and the fact that much of the city is slowly sinking into the mud on which it is built, has seen flooding become increasingly frequent and severe. Due to rising waters, the lower floors in some buildings are already uninhabitable; at the crypt of San Zaccaria, where some of the earliest doges (the city’s rulers when it was a republic) are buried, the tombs almost seem to float; belltowers lean; and everywhere the salt water that has got into brickwork is causing it to decay.

A controversial and costly project involving a series of mobile gates that will be able to temporarily isolate the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea during high tides may partly save the day and is nearing completion (or at least they’ve reached that stage of things in Italy where the mayor has had to resign after being arrested on charges of taking bribes from the construction company). But the city’s problems don’t end there. Even if Venice survives, Venetians may not: it now has only 70,000 permanent residents, as families have sold up and moved to more affordable places on the “mainland” where they can still find a plumber in the Yellow Pages. Venice ceased being any kind of commercial or political centre about 200 years ago. Now it welcomes some 20 million tourists every year – it has rightly been called an “urban theme park”; history is at its end-point.

What a history, though. Settled by refugees from Roman cities fleeing Attila the Hun, the early Venetians were traders who fished and made salt and worked out that if they drove enormous wooden piles far enough into the mudflats they could then slap a layer of marble on top of the crossbeams and build dry habitations on a lagoon. And so they built – a city-state that would become a hub for the silk, grain, spice and pigment trades, and a staging post for the Crusades. By the end of the 13th Century it was the most prosperous city in all of Europe and it would remain the region’s dominant maritime power into the 16th Century. Its unique system of democracy instilled civic pride and traders plundered the Mediterranean to burnish the imperial city’s might: trophies from east and west speckle Venice indoors and out, perhaps most famously in and around the Basilica di San Marco (the four bronze horses situated above the church’s main doorway, for example, came from Constantinople, while another party relieved the cathedral in Alexandria of the supposed remains of St Mark himself). Building, printing and the arts – painting, sculpture, opera – flourished, and even after the Turks weakened Venice in the late 15th Century, setting it on a path of slow decline, it remained a major cultural capital. In the 18th Century it became a required stop-off on any young European aristocrat’s Grand Tour. And, indeed, his bordello.

FOR A REAL taste of all that historical stuff – and if you’ve bought the idea that Venice might soon disappear and just can’t bear the thought of missing out – you might as well check yourself in at a palazzo. The Hotel Danieli, centred around the 14th Century Palazzo Dandolo on the Grand Canal, should serve the purpose. Rooms start at €750 (HK$7,568 – pollo alimentazione!) a night, but if you feel that’s just not flexing your finances enough, you can stay in the Doge Dandalo Royal Suite, for €12,000 a night.

Built by the Dandalo family, who in fact produced several doges, the original palazzo – around which are annexed a 19th Century palace and a marble-fronted addition put up after World War II – is truly, ornately, stunningly, brazenly beautiful. Its pink facade, marble sills, white turrets and balconies are as a gift box for what’s inside: stuccoes and frescoes from the 16th and 17th Centuries, antique portraits, furniture and Murano mirrors, wooden mosaic floors and Sansovino ceiling beams. The highlight, though, is the four-storeyed courtyard, with its scala d’oro (golden stairs) and its natural light beaming in through Venetian Gothic-style pointed arches.

In imperial times, emperors, kings, princes and ambassadors all lodged at the Dandalo; after it became a hotel, in the mid-19th Century, its guests included Goethe, Wagner, Dickens, Proust and Balzac. Make no mistake: few places in Venice afford a more authentic glimpse of the city of Vivaldi and Byron, Greta Garbo (she has a suite) and, um, James Bond (watch Casino Royal or Moonraker again). Or of the city of John Ruskin, the English art critic and thinker who panegyrized the Gothic in architecture and who stayed here with his wife Effie (and, it’s claimed, encouraged her to have an affair with an Austrian army officer as an excuse to leave her).

The management’s approach seems to involve a combination of conservation (a number of the suites were recently restored by Pierre Yves Rochon and the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice), and light-touch modernisation. The rooftop Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, which offers unparalleled views of the Adriatic, has a contemporary feel and offers a menu inspired by the city’s “historic role as a crossroad between East and West”, which I think means they use a bit of saffron.

A short stroll from the Danieli is the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, which with its intricately carved marble facade, lancet arches and Byzantine and Moorish influences represents the very apogee of Venetian architectural self-confidence. You could spend days on end here taking in its decorative brilliance and the paintings and frescoes that fill its rooms – but you probably won’t, because you’ll fall victim to sensory over-stimulation and end up jumping off the Rialto bridge and embarrassing yourself, or you’ll strain your neck admiring the gilt ceilings, or get thrown out for trying to pat one of the dogs in a Tiepolo canvas.

Worth taking is a tour of the Palazzo’s hidden passages, prison cells and torture chambers. You’ll see the cell Casanova (dandy, philosopher, cabalist, lawyer, clergyman, sexual adventurist, diplomat, inveterate gambler) broke out of on his way to fleeing charges of blasphemy, and get a glimpse of a grimmer Venice quite different to the idealised City of Light that seduces Henry James characters and Americans seized by an Oedipal yearning for a mythical civilised Europe.

Not that it’s all that hard to discover, this “other” Venice – a city of dark secrets, and spies, and the ghosts of medieval plagues. It’s the Venice you get in the Gothic horror of Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 movie Don’t Look Now (itself based on a Daphne du Maurier novella) and Thomas Mann’s funereal Death in Venice, which is all about disappointed idealism, excess and decay. And it’s there in the bocche di leone, the postboxes adorned with scowling lions – into whose mouths citizens were encouraged to dispatch anonymous denunciations of their neighbours – that can still be found dotted around (although Napoleon had most of them smashed to show that French law held sway); and in the crumbling, overgrown necropolis Boney had established on San Michele to keep the odours of death away from more populous islands; and the slightly fetid smell of the canals; and the eerie fog that seems to settle over them at nightfall.

There’s also the Jewish Ghetto, in the Cannaregio district, from which all other ghettoes derive: there was once a foundry here and the word comes from “gettare”, meaning “to cast in metal”. In the 16th Century, all Jews were ordered to live within the area’s boundaries – hardly the model of religious freedom, then, but in reality few states in Europe at the time tolerated Judaism at all.

Needless to say, elsewhere in the city the saints take centre, left and right stage. If you are so inclined, you might hump around Ruskin’s three-volume The Stones of Venice, with its detailed descriptions of over 80 churches, as a guide; alternatively, you could just walk in any direction, or jump on the vaporetto, and discover things for yourself.

Over on the island of Giudecca, Andrea Palladio’s splendid Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore boasts pictures by Tintoretto and Veronese – not a bad strike rate, although in Venice it must be rare to be more than spitting range from something by one of the “big three” (those two plus Titian), or at the very least a Bellini or a Canaletto. Meanwhile, down in Castello, you’ll come across San Lorenzo, the church where Marco Polo (fun fact: he has a type of sheep named after him in Afghanistan) was buried in 1324, only for his bones to get “lost” when they tore it down and rebuilt it in the 16th Century.

Maybe the dead explorer knew what he was about: “lost” is not a bad way to be in Venice. It’s not like you can wander into a bad neighbourhood, and you’ll always find your way eventually. Just don’t bet on finding the same restaurant twice. I did, incidentally, mean to tell you about What I Ate On My Holidays, but I’ve drifted off-course. All you really need to know is that it’s Italy so everything is brilliant; that you’ll get ripped off at some point, so be thankful when you’re not; and that even though Casanova claimed eating fish inflamed his eyes, the seafood is safe. May the Saints be with you.


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Somewhat Occupied in Hong Kong

This article appeared in Scotland’s Sunday Herald

The Chinese government hasn’t had a great deal to say publicly about events in Hong Kong over the past week or so, but it was inevitable that it would warn of the financial costs. According to business associations cited on Wednesday by state media, the loss to Hong Kong’s economy from a week of protests that has put life as we know it in the city somewhat on hold, will be at least HK$40 billion (£3.2 billion).

One operation that has certainly prospered is the 24-hour McDonald’s restaurant in the Admiralty Centre, an ugly shopping arcade that yields access to the Admiralty Mass Transit Rail (MTR) station, formerly the site of the city’s naval dockyards and right now the epicentre of Occupy Hong Kong. ‘Pure capitalism’ is often said to rule here, and Hongkongers do enjoy a visit to McDonald’s (the city has 234 outlets, serving a city of 7 million people). With tens of thousands having reclaimed the streets outside, its convenience foods seem never to have been more appreciated.

The “umbrella revolution” has been a unique sort of revolution. So-labelled by someone on Twitter – in New York – after images of protesters using upturned umbrellas to defend themselves against pepper spray went global last weekend, it is self-evidently no revolution at all. It has at times felt like one, though.

“It’s like a utopian state around here,” one protester, a 48-year-old salesman, told the Sunday Herald on Wednesday night, gesturing at Connaught Road, an eight-lane artery taken over by a mass of humanity. Along this vast demo site – and at smaller sit-ins in Causeway Bay, to the east, and Mong Kok, across the harbour in Kowloon – a new order had been established. Occupy Hong Kong is nothing if not well-run. There are First Aid points and makeshift Democracy Class Rooms, where activists with megaphones attempt to raise their fellow citizens’ political consciousness. Volunteers wander around with black bin bags, ensuring not so much as a cigarette butt is allowed to litter the scene; others crush plastic water bottles for recycling; some hand out cooling patches and crackers. On Tuesday a string quintet struck up a version of Do You Hear the People Sing? from Les Miserables, on an occupied stretch of road outside one of the city’s biggest department stores.

“No cars have been vandalised, no shops looted, nobody is throwing anything at the police,” another protester observed, with some pride, as we lingered by the window – no shutters – of the Admiralty Centre’s Audi showroom. His pride was widely shared; equally, the sheer numbers of Hongkongers who had come out to support anti-government sentiment were a source of surprise. “We all thought that the Hong Kong people were selfish and only interested in money,” is how one young journalist puts it.

What brought them out, then? The short answer is the heavy-handed tactics used by police against student protesters. There are several longer answers, but the first requires some technical explaining. Hong Kong has never chosen its leaders. However, written into the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 – under which the British and Chinese governments agreed the colony would revert back to Chinese sovereignty in July 1997 – and subsequently reiterated in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, its mini-constitution, is a commitment to eventual universal suffrage in elections for the city’s Chief Executive. Article 45 of the Basic Law states: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

Various pledges were given, down the years, by the Chinese Communist Party, that Hong Kong would be allowed to determine its own democratic path under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. But ultimately they settled on a conservative interpretation of Article 45: this year, both the Chinese State Council and the Hong Kong government have reiterated that candidates for the chief executive election of 2017 must be nominated by a 1200-member committee roughly similar to that which directly chose current leader Leung Chun-ying in 2012. In other words, people will get to choose between two, possibly three, candidates, approved by Beijing loyalists; civil or political party nominations are off the table. In June, a State Council white paper claimed “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, leading many to fear the city’s much-cherished rule of law was under threat.

The campaign group Occupy Central, led by Benny Tai, a law professor, had planned to bring only the city’s Central district – its financial heart – to a standstill, from October 1, National Day across China. Things changed, however, after a week-long class boycott organised by the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and Scholarism – an activist group formed two years ago by secondary school students – took an unexpected turn. After young demonstrators stormed a public square in front of the government headquarters in Admiralty which had been zoned off, they were held there overnight by police and subsequently set upon with pepper spray. Several arrests were made, including that of Scholarism’s skinny 17-year-old leader Joshua Wong, although all were later released. Occupy Central announced its civil disobedience campaign would begin immediately and thousands rallied to the protest site.

Last Sunday, as the swelling crowds attempted to block off major routes across the north of Hong Kong Island, another stand-off developed. This time, police attempted to clear the streets with batons, pepper spray, tear gas and threats of opening fire with rubber bullets. Again, the streets filled up, with more and more people coming out in support. Having botched their response from the first, by Monday the police were standing off and Occupy Hong Kong had taken on a momentum of its own. “Mr Tai and the other leaders never expected so many people to join, or so many spots in the city to be occupied,” a young office worker told The Sunday Herald. “We’re angry because we were provoked.”

Angry or not, by midweek the atmosphere was almost euphoric: hundreds of thousands had discovered a commonality of purpose; the public square belonged, squarely, to the public; yellow ribbons fluttered like a thousand flowers blooming. But still, there was a nervousness. On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party warned, via state media, of “unimaginable consequences” if demonstrations continued, and called on Hong Kong to “deploy police enforcement decisively”.

At a press conference late that evening, Leung rejected calls for him to stand down but announced chief secretary Carrie Lam would hold talks with protest leaders. The authorities had appeared to hope the protests might just fizzle out, but enough have expressed a determination to stay until they see evidence that the government means to address their concerns. Others, in a city where tens of thousands mark the anniversary of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre every year with a candlelit vigil, can’t help but feel apprehensive.

INA BRIEFING note prepared by a political risk analyst on Wednesday and shared with the Sunday Herald, he laments that the protesters had “no exit strategy”, and that their calls for Leung’s resignation had closed a window of opportunity for Beijing to grant a concession without losing face. “Even if… numbers dwindle to even 10% of current estimates, the continued disruption would require security forces to intervene… creating the conditions for a long burning fuse and ongoing confrontation and disruption,” he wrote, adding that: “If agent provocateurs from whatever side are successful… in fermenting confrontation the situation could spiral quickly downward to chaos.”

Since Friday, that prospect has reared its ugly head. With the overall police presence escalating once more, and scuffles breaking out between protesters and police near Leung’s office, there have also been skirmishes of a new sort in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay as some pro-Beijing elements have made their presence violently felt. According to reports, eight of the 19 men arrested following clashes in Mong Kok on Friday, when a group wearing masks attacked protesters, injuring several (including journalists), have triad backgrounds. Amnesty International said the police had failed in their duty to protect peaceful protesters from being attacked, while Occupy Central co-founder Chan Kin-man said the violence had been organised and planned and accused the government of being behind it in an effort to clear protest areas.

Whether or not that accusation holds truth, what’s clear is that the Hong Kong government’s failure to either quell or diffuse the protests will not please Beijing. And at present there are too many domestic and international issues that the Chinese Communist Party sees as threatening its survival – unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet; territorial disputes in the South China and East China Seas; internal party divisions – for it to be in any mood for compromise or retreat.

Awareness of this and of the fragility of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status has provided a wellspring of anger which has clearly fed into the current dissent. But there are other factors, too. For some decades, Hong Kong has benefited from being a “gateway to China” for multinational companies. With China’s economic rise and the gradual opening up of its economy, that gateway access to its markets via Hong Kong has become less appealing. No longer the privileged middle man, then, Hong Kong has also had to contend with an influx of mainland Chinese with money. Inevitably, they have been blamed for overcrowding and rising prices – Hong Kong is now the second most expensive city in the world, behind London – and friction between Hongkongers and mainland visitors is rife.

Such concerns cannot easily be dismissed, particularly when they seem to affect all but the wealthiest. As one middle-aged, middle-class protester puts it: “We’re pessimistic about Hong Kong but a lot of it is about the economy. How can I have a good job? How can I support my family. The housing situation is crazy. But the government is not helping people at all. It’s corrupt – nobody trusts the people running things. We see no way out of this without new leaders.”

Tragically perhaps for the young idealists who have forged an inspired and at times inspiring grass-roots movement over the last week, it is reasonable to wonder whether the wider world truly cares about any of this. Certainly, many see the British government’s meek response – “I feel for the people of Hong Kong” is about as much as David Cameron could muster on Tuesday – as a betrayal of its obligations stemming from the Sino-British declaration. Trade with China trumps all, it seems.

In Hong Kong, though, regardless of the outcome, these events will shape a generation. Whatever lies in wait, student activists and the young have done more to focus minds on democracy than any amount of pro-democracy politicians since the 1997 handover. Notwithstanding the possibility of an escalation of violence, it may be that they in themselves will be Occupy Hong Kong’s profoundest legacy.


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Disenfranchised

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

At first I wasn’t all that bothered. When it was decreed back in 2012 that anyone living in Scotland would be allowed to vote in this month’s referendum on independence from the rest of Britain – and that Scots living outside of Scotland would not – the whole business seemed a tad unreal. On a pragmatic level, it gave me an excuse (being in the latter camp) not to have to muster an opinion whenever anyone in Hong Kong picked up on my accent. Don’t ask me, mate; my opinion doesn’t count.

It should count, though. I can’t think of any ballot in my voting lifespan where my vote made a fart of a difference to anything much. But this time it’s different. Not only does it look like being a close-run thing, there’s actually quite a lot at stake – like, you know, possibly disbanding a 307-year-old nation state. It feels a bit like the family are squabbling over whether to sell up the ancestral home, but in the meantime they’ve thrown out all your stuff and sent the dog to live in kennels. Or something.

Ex-pats can vote in normal elections in the UK for 15 years after they leave. Including the 800,000 Scots living in parts of the UK other than Scotland, however, in this instance some 1.15 million people have been wiped off the franchise.

The suspicion among many ex-pats is that the Scottish nationalists have engineered it this way because they think we’d all vote “no”. Well, maybe. But the reality is that Scots have always gone abroad, and will continue to do so even after independence. Many of them go back. Right now, they’re being made to feel a bit less welcome.


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England’s dreaming

This article can be found on Spiked 

It’s not just about counting the bawbees, then. However belatedly, some on the No side in the battle for Scotland have been waking up to the notion that there are votes to be won by making the emotional case for the United Kingdom’s survival. The Nationalists have accused David Cameron at various points of trying to ‘lovebomb’ Scots. But hey, why not?

In a sense, this is less to do with what being part of Britain has given Scotland – or arguing over how the Union prospers Scotland or does not – and somewhat more to do with recognising the contributions of Scotland and Scots to having shaped Britain. In his appeal, in the Telegraph, to a half-dormant sense of Britishness, Ian Duncan Smith last month wrote effusively of the Union as a family and a ‘kinship of free peoples’. The subtext, aimed at Scots and non-Scots alike, ran along the lines of a notion that had hitherto been expressed rather well by the journalist Alex Massie – that ‘Scotland is Britain… for without Scotland there’s a much, much lesser Britain.’

It’s apparent too, though, that for every lovebomber there are others in England who believe she would be better off in a ‘lesser’ Britain and well rid of the Scots, with their statist ways and tendency to inflict men like Gordon Brown on everyone.

Plainly, Gordon Brown himself sees matters somewhat differently and has blown once more into the public square with a weighty-ish new tome: My Scotland, Our Britain. ‘At the heart of [Brown's] understanding of British values,’ writes the man from the Guardian who was brave enough to read it, ‘there lies an unexpectedly lovely fusion: that Scottish principles of solidarity, civil society and “the democratic intellect” have, through the union, entwined themselves with English values of liberty, tolerance and pragmatism.’

IDS’ list of things Scotland has given Britain, by contrast, includes the Bank of England – or at least William Paterson, its supposed founder. Paterson was a great advocate for the Union, although it must be noted he was also one of the originators of the disastrous Darien Scheme that brought Scotland to its knees, so it’s likely his own interests were at stake. There were, certainly, more notable Scottish architects – conservative and radical, Tory and Whig – of Britain’s nascent identity. Adam Smith elaborated the theoretical framework within which the new nation pioneered capitalism; James Mill’s History of British India had a profound influence on its imperial destiny; and actual architects such as Robert Adam and James Gibbs were responsible for many of the defining buildings of the age in both England and Scotland.

David Hume and James Mackintosh, meanwhile, laid the foundation for modern histories of England – of England, not of Britain, nor of the British Isles. And, well, here’s the thing: post-Union, England influenced Scotland’s sense of Scottishness in incalculable ways; but so too did Scots help to shape England’s sense of itself. Were it not for Scotland, one might suggest, there would be a ‘lesser’ England.

The key historical figure here is probably Sir Walter Scott. The most widely read novelist (in his own lifetime) perhaps of any age, Scott created and romanticised myths about Scotland’s pre-modern nationhood precisely in order to secure Scotland’s status as a full, rather than subordinate, partner in the United Kingdom. With Ivanhoe, however, he focused England’s attentions on its own medieval past, in the process stamping the myth of a country forged out of the conflict between proud Saxon yeoman and Norman oppressor indelibly on its consciousness.

And then, of course, there was Thomas Carlyle, the Scot who rhapsodised about England and Englishness probably more than any other writer before or since, and whose studies of the English character – “frank, simple, rugged and yet courteous” – still have a certain currency. His anti-intellectualism also remains something of an English tradition.

Carlyle’s somewhat Reactionary outlook later in life has not endeared him to the Scottish establishment of today. He also wrote, in a letter to Goethe, that “We English, especially we Scotch, love Burns”. Even Scott, who occasionally refers to Scotland as North Britain, would not have approved. But even so, though today’s go-it-alone Englishman might rejoice at a Yes vote in Scotland come September, he may never quite shake Scotland’s influence on his national culture.

This article can be found on Spiked 


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Hong Kong Rugby Sevens diary

These entries appeared in the South China Morning Post

SATURDAY

Is it ever OK to make light of tragedy? If it is, sometimes, then when? And if not, why not? And who decides?

Perhaps those in the audience at the Hong Kong Sevens attired as airline pilots – channeling, to adopt the fashion industry’s argot, the disappearance of Malaysia flight MH370 with 239 people on board – mulled the moral niceties long and hard before dressing yesterday.

Or perhaps they didn’t. Topicality is king in the domain of fancy dress; it’s like Twitter, only with costumes instead of keystrokes. No point getting done up like Colonel Gaddafi – that’s so 2011.

Funny or not, there’s a gory instant celebrity about pilot garb, as the amiable Kiwi gentlemen I spoke to recognised. They had, they said, ordered their outfits for this weekend’s tournament – for which they have flown to Hong Kong specifically to attend – some time ago. When news of the plane’s disappearance broke three weeks ago, they hesitated, but their qualms were easily mastered. Their next thought was to incorporate a black box recorder into the ensemble, “but it was doubtful that would get past security.”

One imagines the same impulse drives the popularity of the website Sickipedia, where currently a tab advises: “Click here for all the best missing Malaysia MH370 jokes.”

There is a theory that empathy in the wake of a tragic event diminishes the more geographically or culturally remote people feel from it; or, to put it more directly, “westerners” mourn less for disasters in places where there are fewer white people.

Not an easy thing to gauge, I don’t suppose, but on the other hand studies have confirmed that 9/11 jokes originated – in America – the day after the attacks, so it’d be wrong conflate dubious taste and discrimination. Either way, if avoiding the former is a priority, the Hong Kong Sevens may not be your thing.

******

It comes to our attention that the most read “Sevens story” on Friday was about an Australian chap who was, it seems, dispossessed of “almost HK$100,000 in foreign currency” after he met three African ladies in Wan Chai.

Police were keen to warn other tourists in town for the rugby that “butch African women” operating in the area are deliberately targeting drunken expatriates in pubs on Lockhart Road and Jaffe Road. The man in question apparently realised he was being robbed and tried to resist, whereupon he found himself deposited in a rubbish bin, his wallet considerably lighter.

Perhaps understandably the fellow did not come forward with more details of his misadventure and his identity remains a mystery. Instead, the reports stressed the intimidating scale of his assailants, who, we learn, were “powerfully built” and “stood about 1.8 metres tall” – proportions which would not preclude them, you might well think, from engaging in a more legitimate form of scrimmage this weekend.

Scientists announced the other day that they have discovered a new planet. Or at least they think it’s a planet; they’re not quite sure. Their uncertainty will be familiar to followers of rugby. Seeing an actual, fully-formed rugby player can induce a kind of wonder, even terror, similar, it might be supposed, to that engendered by the movement of tectonic plates.

Similarly, the rugby-going populace is little known for its “shrinking violet” tendency, either in appearance or temperament.

What I am driving at is this: could it be that our Australian friend, accustomed to being able to handle himself, magnified the immensity of his muggers out of embarrassment? It is to be hoped so. Visitors to Wan Chai must not succumb to fear. Keep calm and carry on drinking is probably the best advice.

******

With Fiji going for their third hat-trick of wins at the Hong Kong Sevens this weekend, one face in the crowd will be that of former captain Samisoni Rabaka Nasagavesi. The 44-year-old played in the Sevens here four times but hasn’t been back at the event since 2003, his last appearance. When we bumped into him on Friday he told us he was here on a “sort of pilgrimage, with my missus and her mate”, both of whom had gone shopping but would join him at Hong Kong Stadium on Sunday.

Now living in Australia, the former scrum-half won 29 caps for Fiji at XVs but lamented that even now rugby was not as lucrative a career prospect for Fijians as in other nations. “There is more support than there was when I was playing but there’s still not a lot of money or sponsorship,” he said. “Despite the fact that everyone in Fiji plays from the moment they can run.”

Rabaka’s first experience of the Hong Kong Sevens came in 1992, when he played in the Fiji side that beat New Zealand 22-6 in the final, the second time they had won three tournaments in a row here. His main memory of the game is that it was raining.

More discomforting was the Scottish rain he experienced the following April, when he played in the very first World Cup Sevens at a muddy Murrayfield, losing to England in the final.

Rabaka recalled fondly, however, that “in those days you just ran from one end of the pitch to the other, just like playing touch,” adding that Sevens is now more of a structured game. “It’s become more physical, there’s more breakdown, more stoppages. And the players are more muscular.”

Standing 6’2”, Rabaka weighed 14st in his playing days. A skelf of a lad.

 

SUNDAY

Tales abound of amatory trysts of every stamp at the Hong Kong Sevens. Some (including former Scotland captain Andy Nicol) have even met their future spouses during the event.

Love is a many-horned beast, however – and chance encounters often play out less providentially. Or at least so it was for two Canadian men whose eyes met across across the rows at Hong Kong Stadium on Friday. After several glances to and fro, the penny dropped that they knew each other; or rather they knew of each other – from having had the same girlfriend; non-concurrently, I understand.

Of course, for all we know this may be an everyday occurrence in Canada, where the winters are very long. Equally hard to verify was the boast, heard second hand, of a man who claims to have achieved sexual congress one year at the Sevens with seven different women – in one day – and that, furthermore, several of these conquests occurred inside the stadium itself; in the environs of the South Stand, inevitably.

However implausible such figures may seem, it cannot be truthfully said that prudishness holds sway in that area of the stadium. One American expat lady – stressing, in that way that girls do, that she doesn’t normally do these sorts of things – recounts one year taking home a Smurf. Having painted herself red for the occasion – she had dressed as a ketchup bottle – she awoke to find the mingling of colours had left purple smudges all over her apartment.

No doubt you are wondering whether Mr Seven at the Sevens wore a costume. Sadly I have been unable to settle that question; but anyway it strikes me that the age of smartphones and social media may have put the brakes on such activities. One imagines there are downside risks to it, if you will, for people “high up” at Standard Chartered.

Incidentally, our source reports back that “actually, it turns out seven might have been closer to two.”

******

They come from all corners of the globe for the carnival of rugby that is the Hong Kong Sevens – albeit mainly from Anglophone rugby strongholds like New Zealand, Britain and, erm, the United States. The roster of nations able to compete at Sevens suggests, indeed, that it may in fact be more of a genuinely global game than XVs.

On a personal level I have been frustrated in my search for visitors from Germany. It may be simply that they are more reserved than people from countries like Wales and Australia, who tend to festoon themselves in national insignia even for simple endeavours like nipping out to the shops for a loaf of bread. But the Germans’ absence is another missed opportunity to address one of the great sporting mysteries, namely the non-existence of rugby in Teutonic nations.

Also untraceable so far have been spectators from either the Cook Islands (population 19,569) or American Samoa (55,159), both of whom are represented in the qualifying competition this weekend. It would seem counter-productive that these territories compete in both rugby union and rugby league and no doubt they would be well-advised to consolidate operations; but clearly the very fact that they are putting out teams of players capable of not always getting completely trounced (I’d back them against a German select, certainly) is remarkable in itself.

As an aside, I note that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a significant presence in American Samoa, with 37 congregations. If any of their members have taken the pulse in the South Stand at Hong Kong Stadium this weekend, we would love to hear from them.

******

The phrase, I think, is “well-intentioned”. There exists a branch of the Hong Kong government called “the environment bureau” – perhaps you are dimly aware of it – and it has teamed up this weekend with the HKRFU and (don’t laugh) Sevens co-sponsor Cathay Pacific to mutter about about environmental impacts and the like.

Their big idea, according to our information, is “to minimise the environmental footprint of the event and trial new ideas and best practices that could be applied to other major events in Hong Kong in the future.”

Seemingly this involves sending out the bureau’s new mascot, “Big Waster” – who has a very large, swollen-looking head, presumably from inhaling bus fumes or something – and some student volunteers, to harry people about recycling. There are also a few recycling bins, somewhat indistinguishable from the other bins, dotted around the stadium. And that’s about it. Maybe some shrubs have been consecrated – I don’t know.

By my own admittedly rough estimates, Hong Kong Sevens weekend produces enough plastic waste (from beer cups alone) to litter all of American Samoa, methane (from various sources) equivalent to half the annual emissions of Argentina’s cow population and an asteroid cloud’s worth of other gases from whatever it is planes run on these days; not to mention frazzling Shenzhen’s power grid in the mania for fancy-dress costumes.

In short, minimising the Sevens’ “footprint” will be far from straightforward. It is to be hoped Big Waster understands the magnitude of his responsibilities.

 

MONDAY

My colleague Tim Noonan averred yesterday that the attraction of rugby for many female spectators is in large part to do with watching physically fit men run about. His thesis was supported by comments from one interviewee, a girl called Jessica (not her real name), who referred in glowing to terms to the “specimens” on show.

It is be hoped none of the players read Tim’s column – the objectification of men is a serious issue and can be very damaging to male self-esteem. It got me thinking about the levels of actual rugby fandom at the Hong Kong Sevens, though. My own observations tell me that sections of the audience have little interest in rugby and come primarily to ogle each other.

With this in mind, it seemed to me the best way to further probe these very pressing questions would be via what is referred to as the off-side test: asking women to explain how the off-side rule works. It is widely accepted that off-side in football is quite beyond female comprehension. Would they fare any better with the rugby version?

A selection of the best answers: “When there’s a yellow card”; “Something to do with passing forward when the other team is behind; “If you’re about to score nobody can be in front of you”; “When the ball goes out on the touchline”; “f*** off you sexist ****”.

For the record, none of my colleagues who write regularly about rugby know any of the rules. In fact, such knowledge is generally avoided by sportswriters and those who claim it are viewed with great suspicion.

******

You don’t hear them quite so much nowadays, those jokes that start off with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman – and sometimes also a Welshman – walking into a bar, and end with each of them confirming some national stereotype or other: thick Paddy, drunken Scot, English toff, that sort of thing. Political correctness – or more likely the exhaustion of the genre – has probably done for them.

I only mention this as of course the whole scenario will have played out in a thousand ways and with a thousand punchlines this weekend in Hong Kong. And as a Scot living abroad, I was curious to know how the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom might play into the social brew, as it were.

My findings were somewhat disappointing. Nary a Scot I encountered wanted to “go there” – so divisive has the question become, I gather, that people are on eggshells in social situations lest they unloosen a hail of brickbats from the other side.

It used to be that Scots exempted themselves from the old rule about no talk of politics or religion in company. What has happened to them? They cannot be accused of drinking any less, certainly.

******

I had hoped to report tales of anti-Russian sentiment at Hong Kong Stadium over the weekend. Foreign correspondents will know the feeling – “tensions” at least furnish you with copy; sadly for the news cycle, however, players representing the world’s newest pariah nation received only the most half-hearted smattering of boos as they took to the field to face Japan yesterday.

Not to worry. I will, instead, convey the major incidents from the match, which the Japanese won 19-14 in extra-time.

Hostilities got underway with the Russians well fired up – they considered that one or two of their opponents looked a bit effeminate; seeing the Japanese engage in conversation with players from European teams before the game had also riled them somewhat.

After racing in front with two tries, they attempted to camp on the Japanese 10 metre line, calling a plebiscite on the question of whether they should remain there (the results are still being counted). The Russians then came unstuck as the Japanese mounted a comeback and ultimately clinched it on sudden death. Vladimir Putin declared his team’s elimination unacceptable, however, adding that all options for settling the score would be considered.


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The West’s exam stress

A version of this article can be found at Spiked

One supposes people are right to be concerned about how simply dreadful Western schooling has become, as confirmed by the most recent statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. We already knew that Britain ranked 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables. Last month, however, it emerged that, in Britain and the United States, even the offspring of professionals are letting us down: apparently they’re being outperformed in exams by the children of factory workers and cleaners in parts of the Far East.

Perhaps Britons will take heart, in this reverse, from the fact that until fairly recently Team GB was completely useless at sport, too: at the 1996 Olympic Games, the country’s athletes came 36th in the medal table, behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan. We could have washed our hands of them and consoled ourselves with our prowess in pub sports, such as darts, but we didn’t – the powers that be jolly well rolled up their sleeves, put Lord Coe in charge of things and threw National Lottery funding at lots of people. In Beijing, in 2008, Team GB came fourth in the table, and in London, in 2012, third, winning just about enough gold medals to offset Gordon Brown’s firesale of the nation’s bullion a decade previously. Seemingly, British children partake in less physical activity now than ever before, but that is beside the point: the turnaround shows there is nothing inevitable about national decline.

For the right, at least since Thatcher and Reagan, halting such decline in the West has often been a powerful motivating narrative. The current British government’s Tory education secretary, Michael Gove, frequently appears to conduct policy as a form of warfare against his ideological opponents; but at least you know where he stands on this declining standards stuff – this rot, if you will. He believes the soft liberal emphases of prevalent teaching models must be diluted, that we must overcome our aversion to “passing on knowledge”, or rote learning, and that children need pushing a bit harder. In short, we need to copy how the Chinese and the Singaporeans do things – else our economic competitiveness will be increasingly blunted.

Who knows – maybe Mr Gove’s opponents on the left would argue Britain needs to be less competitive. The case against reducing all measurement of educational success or otherwise to a series of outputs that can be charted on international league tables has, at least, been forcefully made. But supposing his assumptions are all correct and our future prosperity depends on pupils performing better in core tests, then what next? Mr Gove’s underling, Liz Truss, led a delegation of English head teachers to China on a “fact-finding” mission last week. If hers was was meant to be a truly knowledge-based approach, it is to be hoped she kept her eyes wide open – for whatever the failings of British schools, China’s offer no panacea.

It should not, you will agree, require an actual visit to China to establish that pupils there and in many other parts of Asia perform well in exams. That is no secret. But nor should it be a surprise. They tend to start practising at an early age. In Hong Kong, for example, formal exams kick in at the outset of primary school. By secondary school, private tutors are viewed almost as compulsory if you want to keep up with your classmates: a University of Hong Kong survey last year found that 54 per cent of third form (age 14) and 72 per cent of sixth form students go for extra tuition after school.

In China, the average school pupil nowadays spends five hours more in school than his American counterpart each day, but cramming has lineage in the country. The imperial civil service exams, or keju, taken by teenagers for some 1300 years, lasted several days and covered everything from arithmetic to horsemanship and the writing out of lengthy quotations from Confucian classics. Their modern equivalent is the gaokao, the national university entrance exam; in recent years, an estimated 10 million or so candidates have competed annually for around six million spots at Chinese universities. Every year, Chinese newspapers fill up with tales of exam-time suicides. In 2012, it was reported that a school in Hubei province had hooked up gaokao hopefuls to intravenous drips while they studied – to save them the distraction of nourishing themselves.

But many in China – and in places such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore – believe their sons and daughters will find themselves better jobs at home if they have a degree from overseas. In the 2011-2012 academic year, there were 194,029 Chinese students studying in the US, accounting for 25 per cent of all foreign students in the country. The bill, for tuition and fees alone, can run to $200,000 per student, over four years. But here’s the thing – it would be wrong to assume that it is only the wealthy in Asia who are prepared to spend big on their children’s education. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a third of Chinese students studying abroad in 2010 were from working-class families. Research indicates high levels of consumer expenditure on education, across all income brackets, in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, and reports abound of parents selling their homes, grandparents forgoing retirement and household debt soaring to fund junior’s advancement.

It is hard not to be a little awed by that level of sacrifice, even if many in the West find it somehow anathema. It is conceivable, certainly, that Michael Gove, though himself lucky enough – or, rather, bright enough – to have won a scholarship to attend Aberdeen Grammar and then studied at Oxford in the days when that still cost nothing, sees a nobility in it. But the pertinent question must be this: what does it avail the debtors? Well, here’s another statistic: 25 per cent of Chinese Ivy League entrants drop out. And the reasons? According to university officials quoted by the Wall Street Journal last year, many Chinese students, accustomed to an education system that rewards rote memorisation and exam training, find it difficult to adapt to those institutions’ liberal arts bias, which exalts analytical and critical thinking. The Journal’s report added: “Students are sometimes forced to choose between working hard to assimilate culturally and keeping their grades up, a failure to be college-ready that could be linked to the large number of falsified application documents.” The newspaper then cited a study by Zinch China, a consulting group that advises American colleges, claiming an estimated 90 per cent of Chinese applicants’ recommendation letters are fake, 70 per cent of their essays are written by someone else and 50 per cent of their high school transcripts are manipulated.

According to the Telegraph, Ms Truss’s visit to China “could lead to [English] schools adopting Chinese-style tactics such as more evening classes and eliminating time-wasting between lessons to boost performance in key subjects”. It also quoted her as saying Britain should learn from Chinese schools’ “positive philosophy”. It seems unlikely, then, that she will have returned armed with a dossier on falsified transcripts, but it doesn’t take much digging to corroborate some of Zinch China’s claims. School teachers on international programmes at prestigious high schools in Shenzhen spoken to for background on this article confirmed the inflation of subject grades by schools is common practice and unmonitored by overseas admissions authorities – the focus for schools trying to help pupils gain admission to American institutions is on preparing them for the US college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which consists primarily of sections on critical reading, mathematics and writing; scholastic transcripts are included in college applications, but there’s no way of checking that they give a true reflection of a candidate’s actual attainment.

What is also clear is that the pressure to gain acceptance to lofty seats of learning is not coming from young people themselves, nor even the Chinese state, but rather from those funnelling the cash: Chinese parents. Correspondingly, it seems unlikely they will accede to the government’s proposed fazing out of exams before the age of 9 and written homework before the age 12. Similar softening measures have been ignored in South Korea. In Hong Kong, a 2012 study found a third of students aged between 12 and 17 were depressed. It’s a wild guess, but parental pressure and expectation from early years might be factors.

In the 1850s, China was devastated by the Taiping Rebellion, in which an uprising led by one Hong Xiquan – who, following a nervous breakdown precipitated by his repeated failure to pass his keju exams, came to believe he was the brother of Jesus Christ – resulted in a civil war that killed tens of millions. A few short years later, on the other side of the East China Sea, Emperor Meiji – wishing to make his country wealthier – had set about Westernising Japan. But there was a problem: as the historian Niall Ferguson recounts in Civilisation: The West and the Rest, neither the Emperor nor his courtiers could work out which elements of Western culture were crucial to its economic success. And so they ended up copying everything from Western clothes and hairstyles to the practice of colonising foreigners. Unluckily, their adventures in empire-building came at exactly the moment when the costs of imperialism began to exceed the benefits. That particular experiment did not end well, as history records.

Ferguson refers to the East catching up on the West in the 21st Century as “The Great Reconvergence”. Let us, by all means, marvel at how China in particular has pulled that Reconvergence off. Let us even try to emulate aspects of the East’s success. But for heaven’s sake, let’s not persuade ourselves that Western education is in such a state that copying Chinese models will fix it.

A version of this article can be found at Spiked

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