kenny hodgart

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The gospel according to Mr Magic Miracles

You can also read this blog post at SCMP.COM –

Mr Magic Miracles is explaining to me how the interests of business and health are inimical. “You charge a lot of money, you decide you don’t want to make the patient better,” he says. “You just want him to come back and pay you more money. Me, I cure people instead. Too much money, I don’t need.”

It occurs to me to that “Miracles” as he most frequently refers to himself, might be on the cusp of some kind of revelation – an outlier’s indictment of social good being thrown over for cartel interests, or some such. But he’s driving, and I don’t wish to distract his attention from the large scrapbook of testimonials he is now excitedly leafing through at the wheel for my benefit.

In an excellent column in the newspaper last week, Peter Guy pondered whether predatory capitalism must always prevail over the common interest in Hong Kong. The city, he wrote, “is obsessed with wealth and its symbols. There isn’t much more to the Hong Kong psyche besides making money.”

I won’t venture to gainsay Peter’s pessimism. There is a spirit of well-reasoned wisdom about it. But still – here I am in Miracles’ van and he is preaching rather a different gospel.

According to his card, Miracles, aka Patrick Yan Kin Lam, is a “mover and healer”. I’ve been helping a friend to move house; the job’s a good ‘un and Miracles is dropping me off. That’s the moving part. Now he’s telling me about his magic powers.

“Everything is connected,” he says. “My technique is like a massage. Something is blocked in the body, it causes pain – I find the blockage and re-open it. No medicines, no herbs, nothing. I learned this by myself. By experience I can find the blockage. ”

A spry 63, Miracles’ story begins 30 years ago, with a friend who was suffering from chronic back ache. “Many times, doctors treat him, but none of them can help. Common sense tells me I must be able to help my friend. He trusted me – and so I tried to use my own way. And it works! After a few times practising on him, no pain.”

In the early days, it took Miracles 10-12 minutes to send his patients into remission. Nowadays, two minutes is usually long enough. “Two minutes!” he yelps. He can hardly believe it himself.

The scrapbook is a catalogue of satisfaction. Miracles’ clients are Chinese, Western, Japanese, Russian, Filipino. Their ailments range from back injuries and sciatica to bad sinuses, colds, high fever and insomnia. There is a woman who had been told she’d soon be in a wheelchair – cured. A man plagued by sporting injuries has been able to extend his footballing career. He signs off “Marlon Brando”, but the entries appear genuine and all include phone numbers.

The medical establishment is not, as a rule, interested in the likes of Miracles, but that hasn’t stopped doctors coming to him with their own complaints. “One was a chiropractor,” he says. “He couldn’t touch his toes. After Miracles – perfect. I found some dead air inside his spine and I used my finger to force it out, to get rid of the dead air. I don’t expect professional doctors to understand this – they do not research dead air.”

I ask him about the removals business. Wouldn’t he better off phasing it out and focusing on his healing work?

“Moving business is OK,” he says. “I can support myself, support my family. I don’t want to retire. What are you doing with your life, retired? Playing mahjong? From time to time I hurt my back, but providing I can reach, I can fix myself. Miracles is word-of-mouth – any treatment is HK$300. But it’s no use for business, because my patients only come once. To me, it’s against my conscience anyway – human beings should help one another.”

My stop is up ahead, but Miracles pulls the van over at a 7/11, jumps out and returns moments later with a can of Blue Girl. “For you,” he says. “My VIP customer, ah! Tell your friends about Magic Miracles.” I find myself quite disheartened at having no medical infirmities to be cured.


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Why banker’s blog jars

You can read this blog post at SCMP.COM

I’m not sure David Y Zhu entirely deserved some of the more extreme epithets I have seen directed his way on social media over the last week or so.

If you have not read his widely-circulated blog post, Zhu is a 20-something Canadian-raised ethnic Chinese who works in finance and after two years living in Hong Kong recently decided to up and leave for Beijing. By his own admission, living it up under the bright lights of Lan Kwai Fong – night after night of standing on tables “feeling like I’m with the most important people in the entire world” – had left him tired and spent.

Zhu’s reflections seem to have jarred with a lot of people – in my own immediate social circles, at any rate. Good riddance – I’m summarising – to yet another parasitical banker type who embodies the crude excess and presumption of this city’s casino capitalists at play but knows no other side of it. In his defence, he has grasped the un-reality of life in Central much earlier than many of his peers and even hints at the end of his post at doing something more worthwhile with his life (although not yet – he’s leaving banking for private equity first).

Okay, so that’s the case for the defence out the way. Zhu is patently a very smart young man – and yet, and yet, he exhibits a galling absence of self-awareness. Denouncing Hong Kong’s lack of social mobility, he will not, he remarks, miss “gazing upwards to tycoons who will always be tycoons, and dancing alongside white-collars who will always be white-collars.” What the f*** is he talking about? Well, setting aside the question of the precise angle at which he expects to be gazing on tycoons in Beijing, let’s be clear that yes, in Zhu’s world it is he whom the Gods of social immobility have grounded, beached, thwarted.

As someone with “conversational Cantonese”, having grown up in Vancouver, it is quite conceivable that Zhu’s forebears knew what it was to be poor and immigrants. If so, it seems to me that their scion (St George’s School for Boys; Columbia University) has not been urged to reflect on it. It also seems to me that if there is a class of people who do not need help in becoming tycoons, Zhu very much belongs to it. Upper Ten Thousand? I wouldn’t doubt it.

In a world that is growing progressively less equal, social mobility – in that pure sense of people from ordinary backgrounds accessing the more lucrative professions – has crashed. If your entire life has been an exercise in chasing prestige, gaming the education system, networking events and nepotism, you may view the whole equation rather differently. You may well simply consider your own position in life to be fully merited – just never let it be said that your fruitful career, money and privilege are due to anything other than your own individual brilliance.

I did intend to look out a quote from Mao Zedong to carry this theme – you know, just for the mischief. But here instead is what Rod Liddle, a writer from England – where almost everyone who is anyone in public life nowadays was privately educated – had to say in his book Selfish, Whining Monkeys, last year: “My own maxim is never to trust someone who has been to a [private] school, even if they are terribly nice – perhaps especially if they are terribly nice. Always keep your eyes open and your hand on your wallet. There is a class war, and they are the enemy.”

Words to remember next time you see bankers standing on nightclub tables.

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8 existential panics for our times

You can read this blog post at SCMP.COM –

There’s plenty of evidence out there, if you can be bothered to Google, say, “world becoming safer”, that – just so – the world is becoming safer. Lower chances of dying a violent death, better healthcare, fewer basket-case states, the list goes on. Time to stop worrying and learn – in a manner of speaking – to love the bomb, then, you might think. Well, not if you’re Bill Gates, it seems. The billionaire philanthropist last month warned of the need to be prepared for a “war” against any future Ebolas or Sarses, and endorsed the view that artificial intelligence poses a potentially demonic threat. In that spirit, I bring you a selection of my own favourite existential panics de nos jours – and in listicle form, too, for added relevance.

1. Nasty video games. To believe some people – including a certain kind of censorious, self-styled radical feminist – the fantasy realm of the video game nerd is not only a bit sexist but liable to breed dissolute, misogynistic sociopaths intent on robbing banks, killing cops and visiting sexual violence on real women. This rather ignores the fact that in the western societies whence these games originate, crime – including violent assaults on women – has been falling since the 1990s.

2. Evil Cults. According to the People’s Daily: “Underground churches and evil cults are spreading like mushrooms … The problem is very urgent.” And who, in all honesty, can gainsay the People’s Daily?

3. Morgellons disease. It may have vanished off the radar in the last year or two but, well, the medical establishment has been wrong about stuff before so one supposes it’s technically possible Morgellons isn’t simply a new manifestation of “delusional parasitosis” cooked up by attention-seeking American mentalists. In other words, either sinister government activities or extra-terrestrials really have unleashed a plague that causes people to feel things writhing beneath their skin.

4. Overpopulation. Currently fashionable cri de coeur of the eternally misanthropic. “The single biggest thing you can do for the planet is to stop re-producing” is how neo-Malthusians frame it, grimly hostile to the reality that we are living in a golden age of prosperity and poverty reduction and that such factors as trade and women’s liberation are destined to make the current boom in the world’s population temporary. Humans are the answer, not the problem. But don’t just take it from me – in their Foundation’s “annual letter”, the Gateses said all this last year.

5. The Internet. Just, you know, in general. Good for blaming stuff on. Not least: evil cults, misogynistic sociopaths, censorious feminists, whingeing Malthusians, the spread of people who think they have Morgellons disease, and global jihad.

6. Global jihad. Okay, there’ve been zettabytes of memory, jeroboams of ink and a fair amount of blood squandered on this one and I have nothing remotely new to add. But fear not, because the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, last week kinda did. Not only, he said, are jihadists badly adjusted types who feel the world is against them, but “if you look at all the psychological profiling about bombers, they typically will look at porn. They are literally wankers. Severe onanists.” Any cartoonists care to… ah, let’s not go there.

7. Toxic food. If it’s not China with its gutter oil, its skagged-out fish, its pesticidal ravishment of Mother Earth and its soy sauce brewed from human hair and bits of old carpet, then it’s the fizzy pop and artery-clogging slime inflicting slow death on human porkers in decadent western nations. In reality, though, even the worst food scandals of recent years have taken vanishingly few lives compared to the devastation actual famine has wrought throughout history.

8. Revolution. No slop tofu or bovine plasma sandwiches for the wealthy – no, they have their expensive farm shops and their delectable independent grocers where everything is organic and hand-fed and bijou. That might not tip the scales, sure, but whatever – the whole class war thing is back on the agenda. Why, they were even talking about it at Davos – hedge fund managers are snapping up boltholes in New Zealand in case things blow up, apparently; and those guys know how to look out for themselves. Plus, the Guardian says that Greece electing a bunch of Trots has got everyone all fired up. Incidentally, most readings of Marx will tell you China wasn’t ready for the Revolutionary Liberation of Humanity in 1949. Ticks a few more of his boxes now, though.

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Undone by fake Lafite

You can read this post at SCMP.COM –

Becoming inured to conspicuous wealth is a quirk of life in Hong Kong. Stirred into distraction near my office in Central by a revving Lamborghini or Porsche, I might well remark to myself “there goes an expensive sports car”. Having heard tell of a VIAGRA and a SATAN, I might even scan its personalised plates for some momentary amusement. But, pace their owners’ intentions, after a while these thoroughbreds of our gridlocked precincts come to seem, well, commonplace.

A Sheung Wan sidewalk stacked with cases of fine Bordeaux, long the turbo-consumer’s tipple of choice in these parts, might therefore be calculated to induce a similarly world-weary reaction. Something less passive reared in me, however, as, on a mid-day saunter, I was forced to circumnavigate easily HK$2million worth of Lafites and Latours, resting on the journey from loading van to some out-of-sight restaurant holding cell. Mingled with my excitement – at the thought of liberating a case and working a crowbar on it for a lunchtime straightener since you ask, yes – was the nagging reminder that I have some Lafite-Rothschild 1996 doing absolutely nothing for me in a cellar in London.

I don’t make up the rules; I’m just gullible enough to have invested, modestly, in fine wine when I was told it would outperform everything else in sight. If European aristocrats, the uber-charlatans who rate wine growths and multitudes of newly-minted Asians conspire to create a big fat money market in the stuff, then carpe diem, no?

Well, that was a while back now. Of late, prices at auction, for Château Lafite in particular, have sunk to at least a ten-year low on the back of President Xi Jinping turning the screw on corruption, guanxi and extravagance – his trapping of tigers and quashing of flies. Now even the tigers daren’t drink Lafite, even if it’s mixed with Coca-Cola (terribly infra dig – who’s to say the whole campaign wasn’t motivated by embarrassment, besides Xi’s thirst for power?). Or at least that’s what’s reported; I do wonder what they’re drinking at Zhongnanhai these days. And the wolves – are they to be spared?

In truth, the bottom had been falling out of the whole business for some time, owing to another facet of capitalism with Chinese characteristics: fakery. In its upward march, the country has excelled itself in many spheres, but in the standard of its fakes it is in a league of its own. Sure, the Ferraris and Lamborghinis have been easy enough to detect, but the best of the wine fakers have been so successful that they’ve fooled serious investors, auctioneers, even oenologists. It’s set some people back, myself included, but what can you do? In the purity of the deception and in the denuding of European exceptionalism, it almost merits awe.

Nobody really complains about the mass-produced but largely convincing knock-offs of Western oil paintings you can buy from Shenzhen’s Dafen Village. But then faking it, or at least repetition, is by and large the name of the game in the art racket anyway. Fear of cliché begets cliché in a world in which artists and critics collude to take themselves in – convincing themselves that they are, respectively, purveyors and arbiters of originality. It’s all so much intellectual evasion, but so long as the price tag convinces the purchaser he’s buying Art, it ticks along. And so it goes with the Lamborghini and the Bordeaux – their prestige depends on faith in the power of money itself.

By the way, marked up in a restaurant a bottle of that Lafite will still cost you HK$9,500, easy.

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Trivial hirsute

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine as a Rant column

Jesus Christ, famously a December birthday boy, declares in Matthew 6:3: “Let not the left hand know what the right hand doeth”. In other words, give alms for the sake of it, not so you can tell yourself, and everyone else, that you’re an alms-giver. In humility, there is beauty and grace.

If male facial hair is any guide, it cannot be said that November is a month for such things. The wisdom anchoring “Movember” – now a fixture on global calendars, with its mandate on men to grow a “mo”, or mo-ustache (clever, eh?) for 30 days – seems to be: “Let the left whisker, and by extension the world, know exactly what the right whisker doeth.”

Look chaps, I know you’re doing it for a cause – raising awareness of men’s health issues and suchlike – and if you’ve badgered me for money you’ll get it. And I know that, y’ know, you care about stuff. But what’s to stop us all doing charity, thoughtfulness and all the rest of it without the circus – and the endless selfies?

Movember, now in its tenth year, was just the start of it, unfortunately. Singposting that you’re good / moral / give a stuff – whether via self-defacement (an off-putting Movember tache here, an Ice Bucket Challenge video there) or some small act of self-empowerment (giving up the fags for “Stoptober”: that’s a real thing in the UK) is where charity is at now. It’s like social media has made little celebrities of us and we’re all running our own PR – you only care if you care conspicuously.

Narcissism is at large, unshaven and wearing philanthropy’s trousers.

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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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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


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.



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.



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.