Saturday, December 20, 2014

Cousin Harry and the Branson girl (India 1905)

Several cousins and ancestors on my Barlow side were involved (to a greater or lesser degree) in the maintenance of the British Empire’s Indian branch-offices. My grandfather’s cousin Arthur was the last of them; he retired in 1947 after twenty years in the Indian Civil Service as a Political Officer and Agent. The Political Office was an informal sub-agency of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – British India being regarded as “domestic” – so Arthur was a spy of some sort.

(Flipping through an old address-book of his after he died, I came across the name Anthony Blunt, who also joined MI5, and who notoriously spied for the Soviets in the 1930s and ‘40s. Arthur couldn’t have spied for them, or he wouldn’t have been buried inside the grounds of Wells Cathedral! Only for his Queen and country.)

The first head of MI5, in 1909, was a British Army Officer from the South Staffordshire Regiment. From that same regiment had also come, in 1905, Arthur’s (and my grandfather’s) cousin Harry Barlow. In that year, Harry was appointed the Official Tutor of the son and heir of the Raja of Sirmur – one of the nominally independent Princely States of the Punjab, in the north-west of what is now the nation of India Bharat.

I have no access to the records of whichever agency preceded MI5, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Harry was instructed to teach the boy how to further the interests of the Empire. His pupil generously contributed the lives of some hundreds of his soldiers to Britain’s war effort against the Germans in the European theatre of the War of 1914-18. Besides coaching the boy, Harry probably had a hand in training The Sirmur Rifles, a regiment of Gurkhas based in the Protectorate.

He had been a Captain in the South African War of 1899-1902, and the Military Administrator of an Afrikaner town after the War. His parents had died young, and he had been raised in the household of his uncle, a former Private Secretary to Cabinet Ministers in London. So he would have been considered “the right sort of chap” to represent British interests abroad – at least at the modest level required.

There was one blot on his escutcheon, though it wasn’t fatal to his career. In 1902 his wife divorced him for adultery, naming as the co-respondent an actress daughter of the house of Branson & Branson, English barristers in Madras for at least three generations, and in Bombay for at least one. He married the girl immediately afterwards. (Not so much a girl, by then, but I always think of her as a girl.) As a professional actress, she was probably reckoned to have “married up”, in England; but in India it would have been Harry who married up.

Branson is not all that common a name, and Google has links to the ancestry of Sir Richard-of-the-Virgins, whose grandfather was a cousin of hers. Her side of the family may not have been as successful at lawyering as his side, because her deceased estate amounted to only 647 pounds when she died in 1954, aged 90. 647 pounds wasn’t much, in 1954. Maybe she received a monthly remittance from back home; I hope so.

Harry died of cholera during one of the region’s regular epidemics, in 1909 – on the train down to Delhi, on his way to stay with Ada in Bombay. He was buried where he fell, more or less – in the Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi; I even have the grave number (#800F in Pukka Plot 15 #25), although I doubt it’s still there. As far as I can tell, Ada lived the rest of her life in London, where she must have had relatives. Her mother had been buried in Golders Green.

 She (Ada) had been married before the affair with Harry, and presumably her husband divorced her about the same time as Harry divorced his wife and two children. A few years ago I had to track down one of Harry’s granddaughters (by the first wife), when she and I inherited a few quid on the death of cousin Arthur’s widow. She (the granddaughter) had never heard of Ada Branson; I expect the name was taboo in that household.

I once asked Arthur how Harry came to be employed in the Palace of Sirmur, only to be brushed off with the suggestion that he had probably answered an advertisement in The Times. A typically MI5 lie, it seems to me now.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Tough as old boots (local foods)

We have become local-food fanatics in our old age. It’s taken us a long time to see the light, but what can I tell you? We’re slow learners.

Cayman doesn’t produce much food – at least, food that we both like. I’m notorious (in my family) for disliking all vegetables except the staples – potatoes, tomatoes (yes, yes, I know…), beans, peas and carrots. I will eat lettuce and chick peas in salads, and fried rice with little unidentifiable bits and pieces mixed in, but I don’t seek those things out.

Cayman grows only tomatoes, of my staples, and those only in the season, whenever that is. Linda tries to grow them, but they ripen too quickly in the tropical sun, before they have time to reach a decent size. The farmers grow a lot of other veges that sell well, though not to me: callaloo and ackees and yams, breadfruit and plantain and cassava. And pumpkins. Linda makes super pumpkin scones, but there's not much pumpkin-taste to them, fortunately.

Plenty of local fruit, as it happens. In their respective seasons, we’re never short of local bananas, mangoes, papaya, limes, oranges of a sort, sweetsop (which is what we called “custard apple” when I was a boy), and the ever-present coconut. That’s quite a variety. We’re spoilt for choice, pretty much.

I don’t think any of those are organically farmed. Our small farmers use chemical weedkillers by the barrel, and some of the chemicals are wildly toxic. The local favourite is Paraquat, which is deathly, and the weapon of choice for the neighbours of dogs that bark all night. I wouldn’t want any of that on Linda’s tomatoes.

Local jams are occasionally sold at the farmers’ market up at Camana Bay every Wednesday, and at the main farmers’ market out Bodden Town way. There’s local honey again, now that Otto Watler is back in the game. All his bees died a couple of years ago, and had to be replaced. $15 is quite a high price – but they are big jars, and hold about a pint. About a pint: Mr Watler’s labels don’t tell us exactly how much; but we buy anyway. What the heck. Two tuppennies.

For meats and the like, we limit ourselves to local pork, beef and eggs, Jamaican chicken, and fish caught by local fishermen off the coasts of South America or on the reefs between there and here. All of that is more or less pure. Jamaican chickens aren’t free-range, but we trust the factories there not to pump them full of hormones like more sophisticated farmers do.

For the first fifteen years of my life I was brought up on home-grown mutton, and raw milk that Dad coaxed out of his Jersey cows first thing in the morning, every morning. We never drank sheep’s milk, for some reason; and Dad never kept goats. I’ll have to ask my brother; he will know why. Our meat always came from the skinniest old wether Dad could find. Tough as old boots, it was; all the fat and tender sheep went off to the markets in Toowoomba, to be sold at auction to the butchers.

We had a low-tech separator machine that separated the cream from the milk. Dad or Mum (I forget) churned some of the cream into butter – with more salt than was good for us, I’m sure. All that full-fat cream we guzzled… I wonder we three boys are still alive to remember it.

Actually, it’s not nostalgia that drove Linda and me back to locally produced food, but the artificial additives in today’s mass-produced food. American veges are dosed with Agent Orange to keep the bugs at bay, and American animals are injected with steroids and hormones to make them mature faster. This much is true: my man-boobs began shrinking the minute I stopped eating USDA meats.

During our backpacking days in the Middle East in the ‘60s, not being able to understand the languages of the region, and travelling poor, Linda and I used to inspect the pots bubbling away in the slum restaurants’ filthy kitchens. As a rule of thumb, and all else being equal, we would choose from the pot furthest away from the cockroaches and rat-droppings. Looking back now, we suspect that what we ate then was probably healthier than the food the agri-businesses palm off on the world today. What a sad judgment that is, on the modern way of life.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

“Tebow Time!” (American Football)

One of the sporting icons of recent times was a nine-days wonder – a young American Football Quarterback (QB) named Tim Tebow. A champion at College level a few years ago, idolized by most followers of the College game, he played only one season in the professional NFL, and was an exciting addition to the mix. One of the most erratic of players, his competence in the game was like nothing so much as the little girl with the little curl in the nursery rhyme – who when she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad she was horrid.

Tim’s problem was that he was often (usually?) horrid for the first 80-90% of every game, and sometimes superbly good in the closing minutes. During the latter period, passes that had flown yards above the heads of receivers or wide of their hands, suddenly began to hit their targets. His fans called it “Tebow Time”, and spent a lot of nervous energy waiting for it to arrive. When it did – when it did – they forgave him all the wretchedness and delighted in his glory.

During his second season as a professional in the NFL, in 2011, he was the erratic and unreliable QB of the Denver Broncos – only in the team because of his College reputation and the fact that the Broncos’ Number One QB proved to be even worse. His coaches mixed jubilation with despair, and attributed his last-minute victories to what they called his “intangibles” – plain luck, as often as not.

The last three minutes of the Miami game became the stuff of legend. Denver’s Defensive Unit had kept Miami to two touchdowns and a field goal (15 points); Miami’s Defense had kept Denver’s Offensive Unit scoreless for the first fifty-seven minutes of play. A walkover. But… but… wait… The remaining three minutes were Tebow Time.

Out of nowhere, the Offence scrambled and blocked and fizzed around like a fart in a bottle, and conjured up the necessary 15 points while the Defense – miraculously inspired – harried and hurried the opposition off the field without points. Tebow Time had come, just in time to tie the score; and Denver went on to win in sudden-death overtime.

That and similar flukes along the way got Denver into the post-season Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the bookies made 13-point favourites. This time, Denver’s Offence and Defense were both erratic for the entire game. It was Pittsburgh who fought back like tigers to overcome a two-touchdown lead and tie the game in the fourth Quarter.  Overtime again! High drama! The toss of the coin gave Tebow one last chance to do his thing.

On this occasion, eleven seconds was all the Tebow Time he needed. In the very first play, desperately protected by his Offensive Line from the Pittsburgh rush, he waited a tad over two seconds (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…) and fired a bullet up-field. The plan called for the receiver to run twenty yards north and cut fifteen yards eastward, and arrive exactly when and where the ball arrived.

It’s a beautiful piece of action – the crossing route executed at high speed. Eight or nine Offensive players are running every which-way, and the defenders don’t know which of them is the designated catcher. This time, the intersection was perfect. The receiver on the left ran up and across to the right, caught the ball at full speed, brushed aside a couple of grabs, veered left again and galloped sixty yards to the goal-line. Game over.

The home crowd went bananas, while Tim did his two-second kneel-down before joining in the hysteria. After scoring, he always went down on one knee for a couple of seconds with his head bowed, in the gesture known as Tebowing. Asked once whether he prayed to his God for a win, he shrugged and said, “God doesn’t care who wins football games, but it’s only fair to thank him when things go right.”
The son of missionaries, he was an evangelical Christian. During his College career, he adopted the common custom of football players of pasting black strips beneath their eyes to shield them from the glare. He advertised his faith by having John 3:16 (a famous verse from the Gospel) hand-printed in white on the black strip. In that Pittsburgh game he passed for 316 yards at 31.6 yards per completion. The TV commentators made a big play of the figures, and John 3:16 was the top search item on Google next morning. If you Google “3:16 game” you will have your choice of 56 million entries to read all about it.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Minimum Wage

The idea of a formal minimum wage is very attractive. Nobody should have to spend every hour of his waking life working just to keep body and soul together. A “living” wage, paid to reasonable people working reasonably conscientiously, for enough hours each week to allow time for a reasonable amount of leisure and a reasonable amount of savings. What could be fairer?

In practice, though, there are difficulties. By definition, only the lowest-paid workers in a community would receive the formal minimum. Everybody else would be paid more. Indeed, a formal “minimum wage” would in practice actually be several minimum wages – one for each of several occupations and personal circumstances.

So we’re face with the likelihood of finding ourselves lumbered with yet another bloated Civil Service bureaucracy to monitor the separate minimum wages for all the occupations listed on the Census forms and maybe even in the Yellow Pages. Plus rewards for skills, experience and responsibility. Plus, gratuities and commissions would need to be reported and monitored. Plus, plus, plus. All formal minimum wages would be based on some kind of political advantage, with little consideration given to economic realities.

Would single individuals receive the same money as married-with-children? Surely not. Would every re-assignment mean a different pay-scale, like the notorious Civil Service “promotions” do? Probably. All disputes would require arbitration; there might need to be an entirely separate arbitration-justice system. All private-sector wages would be set by faceless bureaucrats assuaging their hunger for control.

There won’t be much left of our private-enterprise system. The FCO requires that all our professional politicians be native Caymanians, and almost all their cronies are too, naturally enough. The birthright-entitlement foolishness (endorsed by all the MLAs and cronies, as well as the FCO), would ensure that any minimum-wage legislation would discriminate against immigrants one way or another.

The most certain victims of discrimination would be our lowest-paid migrants. Most native Caymanian householders would flat-out refuse to return to the old days of doing their own housework, baby-minding and gardening. They would vote for a Minimum Wage only on the clear understanding that they could cheat with impunity. In practice, that would be allowed. They would pay their domestic workers below any formal minimum wage, regardless of what the law said.

Nobody in authority would hold them to account. Nobody in authority holds them to account now, if they short-pay their indentured servants and/or steal from them and/or over-work them. In the slavery era, there were good slave-owners and bad ones; it’s the same sort of thing now. It’s a personal option. Without protection from either law-enforcement or the see-no-evil Human Rights Commission, and with no labour unions permitted, unskilled migrants are easy to exploit.

Cayman’s rules for the poorest indentured labourers are arguably harsher than they were in the 1830s for the unskilled labourers imported to the West Indies from India and China. At least then there was a Protector of Immigrants charged with monitoring the migrants’ treatment. Today, we have an entire bureaucracy (the Immigration Department and its politically appointed committees) charged with protecting the migrants’ employers – i.e. the persons who hold the indentures. What a farcical situation that is!

So what would be the point of a Minimum Wage? It wouldn’t benefit migrant workers one bit, and would surely make unemployed Caymanians even less attractive to prospective employers. The most sensible way of helping our least-productive Caymanians would be to scrap the protectionism that is built into the labour-laws.

Make them know that in order to beat out migrants for jobs they must put in an honest week’s work every week. Holding yet another knife to the collective throat of private-sector employers, in the form of a Minimum Wage for Caymanians, would be yet another exercise in futility.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Who sold ISIS all those Toyotas?

Could it have been a Cayman company? Not directly, of course – dear me, no! But those who understand how offshore tax-havens work, recognize very clearly the advantages of channeling dodgy transactions through several jurisdictions in order to hide the paper-trail. A hot transaction like a fleet of Toyotas probably involved at least three offshore havens, plus a few onshore conduits like London and New York.

You have to feel sorry for the Toyota public-relations people. It wouldn’t have been they who did the deal. Or the marketing people. Yes, a sale is a sale, and Toyota pickups are ideal for dusty desert roads. But, enough already!

They’re extremely well built, Toyotas, and ideal for conversion to weapons of mobility in war zones. The ISIS ones look to have been modified according to US “Special Forces” specs, with speedy and heavy-duty off-road capabilities – and machine-gun mountings. Not the kind of vehicles evil revolutionaries could have bought in their local souk.

Did the Special Forces (CIA, specialist Marine units and the like) simply give ISIS some of their old vehicles left over from other US-sponsored conflicts in the Moslem world – or, worse, order Toyota’s US manufacturing plants to ship them directly to ISIS? No, no: that’s not how things are done in this electronic age.

Did some ISIS fifth-columnist in Texas buy a fleet from his local Toyota dealer and convert them in his back yard? Or, even, have the Toyota factory in San Antone or Tijuana make the required modifications? No: also unlikely.

Actually, it’s a mystery – and one that the Western MSM organs will turn a blind eye to, if they want to keep their advertisers, and their access to their political favourites. It would be interesting to know which offshore tax-havens were used in the transaction – from the initial purchase to the shipping and trans-shipping to the ultimate transfer of title- but we will probably never know.

A tax-haven professional from Cayman was once greeted warmly at a business luncheon in Brazil with the words, “Ah, the Cayman Islands… Brazil’s Number One supplier of oil!” As it was, technically, and may still be. Cayman-registered companies may still be the ultimate owners of most oil shipments to Brazil.

Maybe some Cayman-registered company is ISIS’s Number One supplier of Toyota trucks today. Who knows?

If you Google “Offshore tax-havens – what they do” (with the quotation marks), what comes up is a direct link to an item I posted on my blog in January last year. (If you do it without the quotation marks, it brings up a Wikipedia entry.) My blog-post doesn’t explain everything, but it gives the gist. There are other blog-posts in my Archive on the same general subject, usually identifiable by their titles. Though not always. “Lunching with the stars” – also Googleable – reminiscences about my life as a trust officer in Nassau.

Offshore jurisdictions are where exporters divert their profits to, mostly because profits are not taxed there. Title to international cargo can change a dozen times on a single voyage, as speculators buy and sell the goods or options on the goods. Sometimes, as with the ISIS Toyotas, profits are much less of a factor than secrecy.

The companies and security-agencies of any nation don’t want to be identified as the seller of sharp knives to the beheaders of Western citizens. The sellers all have their favourite tax-havens, of course. Cayman’s coterie of clever lawyers and bankers must make it popular with many of them. Not that our regulators would knowingly help anybody to ship weapons to known terrorists, even Western governments’ security-agencies. National security-agencies play their cards very close to their chests.

Actually, it is an open question as to whether ISIS are the anti-Western terrorists they are held out to be. I mean… if they are allowed to acquire the CIA’s specially modified Toyotas, they are actually among the Agency’s sub-agents, aren’t they? Every Western security-agency has its own favourite rebel group, just like it has its own favourite tax-haven. The Western MSM’s reluctance to enquire how ISIS did acquire its Toyotas speaks volumes.