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Cambridge Analytica: a movie in the making?

George Sanders

A few perspectives on a couple of the dramatis personae in the Cambridge Analytica furore.

First, Carole Cadwalladr has played a blinder. Speculation on CA’s role in recent political developments has rumbled away for some time, but Carole had led the pack. She has written other pieces on the subject in the Observer over the past year, on which I commented at the time:

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Jamie Bartlett, in his BBC series on Silicon Valley, also did a jaw-dropping interview with a person who was involved in Trump’s online campaign in 2016, in which Facebook and CA featured prominently.

But up until now, official comment, and even media coverage (apart from the Observer’s) has been on the lines of “yeah right, very worrying, but the elections are over, so let’s move on”. Admittedly the UK’s Information Commissioner has been investigating electoral malpractice in the EU referendum, but at what appears to an outsider to be at a snail’s pace. Until yesterday.

But now the whole thing has exploded, and everyone’s excited. Will Cadwalladr, a journalist many of us have never heard of, turn out to be the Woodward and Bernstein of the current decade? Maybe not, but all power to her nonetheless. This must be her career-defining moment. She surely deserves a medal for showing that the traditional skills of investigative journalism – integrity, determination, meticulous research and the protection of sources – are not dead.

Then there’s Alexander Nix, the Cambridge Analytica kingpin.

Once upon a time, Hollywood used to characterise the English – using actors like George Sanders – as cads and villains. I’ve never met Mr Nix, but if, as is highly possible, someone eventually decides to make a movie on the whole Trump/Bannon/CA saga, I would definitely exhume Sanders to play him. Not that I’m suggesting that the gentleman in question is a cad or a villain, you understand. It’s just his manner that brings Sanders to mind.

Mr Nix was educated at Eton. In the old days, scions of Britain’s elite private schools, of which Eton is one, would go into politics, run the empire, join the army or husband their family wealth, and sometimes all four of them. A few would become adventurers and some of them ended up in jail. Winston Churchill – an aristocrat who lacked the essential ingredient of wealth – might well have been tempted to embark on a less illustrious career had he not managed to acquire a seat in Parliament after his heroics during the Boer War.

These days Old Etonians still end up in politics. David Cameron and chancer-in-chief Boris Johnson are recent examples. But a good number go into other fields in which their finely-honed communication skills and excellent all-round education – topped up at Oxbridge, of course – serve them well. Advertising, public relations and corporate finance, for example, where they can capitalise on their well-tailored suits, excellent manners and impeccable connections, but where morality sometimes takes second place to self-interest.

As I said earlier, I don’t know Mr Nix, but to hear him boasting to Channel 4’s undercover reporters about his contacts in MI5 and MI6, and the mysterious Israeli contractors to whom he has access, you sense that here’s a person who is quite happy to wade through dirty waters, yet who is confident that none of the muck will splash back at him. A bit like Mark Thatcher, actually, but probably more intelligent, and a good deal more charming.

I may not know him, but I’ve met people in my time who gave a passable impression of pirates in pinstripes even if they were perfectly upstanding individuals. And a few seemingly upstanding individuals who ended up revealed as pirates in pinstripes. Not surprising, given that I went to one of those smart schools.

It’s not for me to speculate whether Alexander Nix and his Tigger-like sidekicks who featured in the Channel 4 programme will end up in some kind of trouble. That’s for officials such as the Information Commissioner, now that they’ve been presented with potential evidence that will be hard to ignore. Until anyone can prove otherwise, he and his associates deserve the benefit of the doubt. As I hasten to point out, just because someone might look, talk and walk like George Sanders, that doesn’t mean they’re a cad.

But I return to what I wrote six months ago, as Carole Cadwalladr was posting dispatches on the path that led to the bombshell she’s just detonated:

… if it was legally permissible to do so, I would be happy to see certain individuals put in a darkened room and asked some very hard questions in the harsh glare of a spotlight.

Common sense says that the government would go to any lengths to avoid such an inquiry, since it could quite possibly undermine the legitimacy of the referendum, and therefore of the government’s subsequent acts.

But it’s conceivable that as more information emerges about the possible subversion of the US election, and especially if that information also relates to the British referendum, the government might find itself forced to react, no matter how traumatic the consequences.

Well, more information has emerged, so one would hope that those hard questions will now be asked, whether or not they are posed in a darkened room.

Oh, and all is never quite what it seems. George Sanders, the archetypal English screen nasty, was born in Russia.

Putin, McMafia and the avenging assassins

The timing was perfect.

My wife and I watched the first six episodes of McMafia, the BBC’s flagship series about the Russian mafia, before we set off for a month in South-East Asia. By the time we got back, the denouement was waiting for us.

Then, as we got to Episode 8, when the tit-for-tat assassinations intensified, came the attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. How fiction intersects with reality remains to be seen, but as the McMafia narrative played out, the involvement of government officials in the web of intrigue added an extra element of spice.

So first, a few thoughts on the fiction.

The makers of McMafia clearly had a taste for travel. The series lists some very sexy locations – Britain, Croatia, Russia, Israel, Istanbul and India. I guess there weren’t many people queuing up for the gig, though poor old James Norton had to go everywhere except Mumbai. Tough life.

The actors were terrific, and despite the received wisdom, I include Norton. It must be hard to play the relatively inert centrepiece around which all the crazier characters revolve. He does cold-eyed well. Having said that, he will never play James Bond, for the simple reason that he runs like an ostrich.

As for the others, there were some fine performances, notably David Strathairn as the Russian-Israeli ship owner, Aleksey Serebryakov as Dimitri Godman, the exiled head of the Godman family, and Merab Ninidze, who played Dimitri’s arch-enemy in Moscow.

Norton’s character, Dimitri’s son Alex, plays a role similar to that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Like Michael, Alex is making a life outside the family business, trying to build a career in the legitimate world – in Alex’s case as a merchant banker. But just as Michael’s family loyalty sucks him into the gangster world, so does Alex’s, to the horror – in both cases – of their respective partners who have no connection with organised crime.

Looking at the series in retrospect, the plot was well-crafted, and came to a suitably apocalyptic conclusion. Mischa Glenny, on whose book it’s based, is a serious historian and journalist. One suspects that he knows what he’s writing about. The portrayal of Russia as a hub of criminality around which various gangster franchises revolve rings true.

Here in Britain – at least until recently – we have happily hosted oligarchs whose fortunes are of dubious provenance, mostly arising out of the wild west of Yeltsin’s Russia. We ask a few questions about their wealth but don’t get too many answers, so we leave it at that, because we like the fact that they spend their money in our country.

So the presence Britain of the fictional Godmans, a family whose paterfamilias created a fortune out of nothing, and then fled Russia because he made too many enemies, is entirely believable.

An interesting facet of the story is the involvement of the Russian government, or rather of elements thereof. We know from the outset that Vadim Kuliakov, the Godmans’ nemesis, is aided and abetted by an FSB agent, Ilya, whose shadowy presence as Vadim’s advisor and protector pervades the series.

But it’s only towards the end that Ilya’s fragile place in the FSB hierarchy become clear. And as other officials become involved in Alex Godman’s business dealings, the government looks less like a monolith, and more like a seething mass of rival factions. Something to note when considering the Salisbury attack.

In fact, by the end of the series “the government” looks rather like the Greek pantheon. Rival gods, whose presence is everywhere in the perception of the protagonists, but whose motivation is thoroughly human, who pull strings and occasionally intervene to dramatic effect, and certainly not in concert with each other.

Which leads one to wonder how closely this maps on to the real picture. Is Putin a Russian Zeus, presiding over a squabbling family of gods who acknowledge his supremacy but frequently act in their own interests without the knowledge of the ultimate Godfather?

Or is Russia’s president the all-seeing, all-knowing string-puller in whose domain nothing happens without his specific approval?

In McMafia, the first picture emerges. Putin’s name is never mentioned, and the gods only seem to intervene when the mortals get out of hand. But you definitely get the impression that there are several competing deities at play.

Back in the real world, Putin has consolidated his power by eliminating his rivals, so you could argue that there’s no room for an Apollo, a Hera or an Aphrodite strong enough to go freelance. Which leads to the British government’s conclusion that the Salisbury attack was Putin’s work. Either that, or the action of some real-life Mafia godfather. But no godfather who wishes to remain so would contemplate an act that might compromise the position of the capo di tutti capi.

Does Hitler’s Germany offer any clues? A regime presided over by a seemingly all-powerful leader, yet riddled with rivalries between ministers, each determined to carry out the Fuhrer’s “will” and each with their own interpretation thereof. What some historians claim was Hitler’s deliberate policy of maintaining deniability has enabled his apologists to assert that he was unaware in detail of Himmler’s implementation of the Holocaust. Others maintain that evidence of his direct involvement will have once existed but was destroyed in the final conflagration.

Laurence Rees, in his recent history of the Holocaust, argues that there was no master plan awaiting the right moment to be put in effect, but that the whole thing developed over time – ideology buffeted by economic and military circumstances. In other words, the Nazis improvised the Final Solution as they went along.

How might these arguments map on to Putin’s role – or lack of a role – in the Salisbury attack?

Putin is no Hitler. But one wonders whether his reputation as a master strategist isn’t overplayed. We have often overestimated the competence of Russia’s leaders in the past, as we did before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Equally, the idea that he is merely an opportunist who takes advantage of weakness where he sees it in order to further his Russia First agenda probably doesn’t do him justice. The reality perhaps lies somewhere in-between.

If he was behind the poisoning of the Skripals, Putin would most likely see the execution of the hit as a screw-up. I would have thought that the kind of assassination that best suits his purposes is one which leaves people guessing about the perpetrator, but causes them to assume that it was him because of the Russian state’s traditional expertise in murdering those that displease it. In Ancient Greece, an earthquake would have indicated Zeus’s displeasure. In 2018, the death of a Russian traitor can only have been Putin’s revenge in the eyes of the fearful.

So you would have expected that the action against the Skripals would result in their deaths, and would probably not cause damage to forty other people in the process. A nice clean hit, in other words. Deniable, but sufficient to put fear in the hearts of would-be traitors. Instead, it was a botched job.

As for the theory that the Russian mafia somehow got hold of a deadly nerve agent, you have to ask why they would bother to use it when a more conventional method of killing might suffice, especially on sitting ducks like the Skripals. Mafiosi use bullets and bombs. States tend to use more bizarre techniques. Not just the Russians, by the way. Consider the CIA-inspired assassination attempts on Castro, which included an exploding cigar and an attempt to infect his diving suit with tuberculosis.

What now? We puff up like angry roosters. We bluster. We expel a few diplomats. The Russians retaliate, and a few months or years later things settle down, just as they did after Litvinenko’s murder. Fine. We have to do these things to demonstrate that we matter, even if we’re weaker and more isolated than at any time in living memory.

Should we make it harder for Russians to visit and settle in Britain? Perhaps, but not yet. Aside from the ultimate deterrent lurking in our submarines, about the only real power we still possess is soft.

For all our flaws, Britain is still a country ordinary Russians love to visit. Here they see an alternative to Putin’s Russia. A country that is diverse and culturally vibrant. Where secret policemen are not waiting on street corners ready to pounce on those who step out of line. Where an element of free speech is still tolerated. And where everyday corruption is still limited.

So you could argue that every Russian who visits us has the opportunity to enjoy experiences not available in their homeland.  And some will return home asking why they have to live in a police state. Just as the coming of satellite TV and eventually the internet alerted citizens of repressive countries in the Middle East to pleasures unavailable to them at home, and caused them to put pressure on their leaders to grant them greater social freedom, is it inconceivable that prolonged exposure to the west is changing Russia’s cultural DNA?

Maybe, maybe not. But in this sense, every western country in which liberal democratic values still prevail and where Russians are free to visit and live is a threat to Putin. Which is one reason why he seeks to disrupt our democratic institutions, and also the reason why, as one of his retaliatory measures against the expulsion of his “diplomats” he has closed down the British Council, one of the primary instruments of British soft power.

Soft power is no defence against tanks, nukes, cyberweapons and avenging assassins. But in the long run, it’s perhaps as good as any method of ensuring that Putin’s legacy is eroded, and that he will be succeeded by a leadership that represents a people who don’t regard us as a traditional enemy.

We will not change Putin. But he will not live forever. And at some stage he might well make a fatal mistake which will discredit him in the eyes of his people. Surely our most effective counter until then is to seduce his people.

Why the first drone I flew will be the last

Last week I flew a drone for the first time.  No, not an aircraft-sized instrument of death operated from a trailer in Arizona that inflicts oblivion upon targets in Syria and Afghanistan. My drone was about the size of an Amazon delivery parcel. It had four rotors, and sounded like a swarm of angry hornets. It was made in China.

It actually belonged to a friend in Borneo, who fired it up for my benefit. As the little gremlin rose into the sky, its camera pointed back at us, my first thought was “I want one!”. I usually react that way when I see a sexy gadget.

I returned control to my friend before I landed it in his swimming pool. Fifteen minutes later I started thinking what I might use it for. I have no buddies in prison who are in need a mobile phone or a stash of drugs, so that’s out. Nor do I have any desire to buzz a Boeing 747 on approach to Heathrow.

But I do play golf, so I’m quite attracted to the idea of bringing it to the golf course so that it can hover over me while I tee off – a great way to improve my swing. On a slow day, I could also send it a couple of holes ahead to drop a polite note on the comatose players who are holding everyone up asking them to get a bloody move on. It would also help me to find my ball. And there’s nothing in the rules of golf saying that you can’t use drone-assisted distance checking.

Then there are the neighbours. I’m not a committed busybody, but it would be quite fun to fly over a few gardens on a summer’s day to see what they’re up to. Well once, anyway, before the injunction arrives.

If I was a disaster fetishist, I could use it to investigate the cause of wailing sirens in nearby streets. I could also fly it to the top of a tree in order to persuade a stranded cat to return to earth, thus saving the owners the effort of calling the fire brigade.

I jest of course. In truth, I really have no sensible reason to acquire a drone. I’m not into wildlife photography. Nor can I think of any other legal and peaceful application that wouldn’t cause acute annoyance to others.

I certainly wouldn’t take kindly to other people’s drones either. In our road, people are always buying stuff online, especially the family who live opposite me, for whom we regularly operate as a last-lap courier service. The prospect of a drone carrying an Amazon package past our front window five times a day would not appeal. And that’s just one house. Imagine a constant stream of angry hornets flying up and down quiet streets frightening the leaf blowers.

In fact, if I was American, even though I would vote to repeal the Second Amendment – the one that entitles you to bear arms – I would make an exception for any weapon that could down a drone, without harming humans of course.

I don’t seriously believe that we’re moving towards a time when drones are routinely used to watch our every move, as in Dave Eggars’ The Circle. But once our police and local councils start using them to catch us doing naughty things – such as allowing our dogs to defecate in the park without picking up the mess – as they surely will, who knows what other liberties they will take?

So all things considered, I’m unlikely to be getting a drone, even though my birthday is rapidly approaching. And anyone contemplating flying one near my house should be aware that I have purchased a catapult, and I’m in active discussions with friends in Beijing who think they can help me procure a device that sends a unidirectional electromagnetic pulse powerful enough to fry the electronics of any device that comes within a hundred feet of the Royston residence.

If that fails, I’ll just have to wait until someone invents an affordable suicide drone – a little bugger that takes out anything with propellers hovering nearby. Come to think of it, that would be quite a useful device for deterring squirrels from making whoopee in our loft.

I reluctantly accept that drones can be quite useful in an emergency – to send the paramedics the right blood should I cut my arm off with a chainsaw, for example. Or to whizz over an ampoule of anti-venom in the event that I get bitten by a poisonous snake while brushing up the leaves (which is a really silly thought given that we live in suburban Surrey and I rarely brush up leaves).

But should anyone be generous enough to buy me one, I can confidently predict that within a couple of months it would join all the other cool but ultimately useless gadgets languishing in my garage, such as the bread-maker and the espresso machine.

If it had some versatility, such as being able to mow the lawn in upside-down mode, I might think differently. But encountering a device as lethal as Boadicea’s chariot racing up and down the garden would probably give the dog a heart attack, which would be somewhat counterproductive.

I’d probably be better off getting a step counter. At least that might have a few months of useful life before my resulting knee and hip replacements rendered it redundant.

Which leads me to the rather gloomy conclusion that most gadgets have unintended consequences.

It’s time for your update – fasten your seat belt and hope for the best!

My laptop screen has an elegant crack radiating in three directions from just right of centre. It’s there courtesy of Ryanair, who very kindly insisted that they put my bag in the hold on a return flight from France last year. When they made the bag grab, I foolishly assumed that if I buried the laptop under six inches of clothing, nothing untoward would happen. My wife suspected otherwise. She wanted me to bring it into the cabin under my arm.

I’m not sure which was more painful – discovering the crack, or my wife telling me she told me so.

Which serves to remind me that laptops are fragile things, and if, like me, you rely on one to do your work, watch the world and communicate with people out of the immediate vicinity, you’d better handle it with care. The only comfort is the knowledge that unlike the tiny devices that the youth rely upon to remind everyone else that they exist, a laptop is difficult to drop down the loo.

That said, it’s also difficult to do much when Microsoft decides to update your operating system if, equally foolishly, you allow it to do so at a time of its choosing rather than yours.

A few days ago I turned on my laptop to find that the cursor had acquired a life of its own. Not only that, but the ghost in the machine had decided that I’m too old to see the icons on the start-up screen in their normal size, and had blown them up to at least four times the normal size.

As I struggled to gain control, rather like a desperate pilot in one of those Air Crash Investigation reconstructions, the cursor went its merry way around the screen, opening apps at random. After thirty alarming minutes of trying to zap rogue apps I concluded that I was under the control of Russian hackers. I shut the machine down by pressing the off button, which is the equivalent of knocking it unconscious. The same thing happened again on start-up. And again.

By this time I thought that my Russian hacker was driving me into a mountain. Finally, I managed to pull the laptop out of its deep dive by starting System Restore. This is supposed to reset everything to the state it was in at some earlier point in time. In my case, two weeks ago. I’ve done this twice before with this laptop, and on both occasions it worked.

Not this time. After two hours of showing me the stupid little wheel going round and round, it finally admitted that it couldn’t do it, but would I like to do a System Reset? Under this procedure, you don’t lose your files, but all the apps you’ve loaded yourself get wiped. How it differs from System Restore, I have no idea.

By this stage I reckoned I had two choices. Proceed with the reset, and treat the loss of all my apps as a form of virtual colonic irrigation, or take the machine to the local computer repair shop, who would charge me a non-refundable fee of £80 just for opening the damned thing.

I’m the kind of guy who, before the age of satnav, when he got lost would drive around for miles without stopping to ask for directions. I therefore chose the colonic irrigation. It worked. It took several hours to reload apps that I still needed, such as Microsoft Office. You would have thought Microsoft would have figured how to avoid slaughtering its own in its bonfire of apps, but no.

A few hours later, after digging around for passwords that other software providers required but that I hadn’t needed for centuries, I was up and running again.

Some things were mysteriously different from before. My beloved wallpaper no longer appeared on start-up, though it did occasionally reveal itself to me during the start procedure. All my unrecovered documents, which I occasionally delve into, were gone. But at least the thing worked, and the Russians appear to have been sent packing back to St Petersburg.

At this stage I thought that all this hassle might have been my fault. Perhaps I’d accidentally done something that unleashed this Pandora’s Box of mayhem. Then I happened upon a Facebook post by a friend who was complaining about his experience of the latest Windows 10 update. And below his post were a number of comments from fellow sufferers. It seemed too much of a coincidence that my laptop appeared to have dropped into a software washing machine at the same time as these other people were enduring their own little hells.

But each hell was different. And then it occurred to me that it must be fiendishly difficult for any software maker to avoid screwing up any of the zillions of computers out there, each with a unique collection of apps, data and history. In other words, your laptop and mine might share 90% of their DNA. So would you expect the same medicine to work on both human and chimpanzee? Probably not. Likewise with computers.

This is rather a worrying thought, since in most societies there is barely a single aspect of our lives that doesn’t depend on a computer to keep things on track.

It’s fine when the systems we rely on are like dairy cattle herds, living to a routine and producing their milk under tightly managed conditions. One cow might get sick, but the herd still produces with little noticeable impact.

Our own computers, on the other hand, are like wild beasts. They bear the scars and injuries of a lifetime in the jungle. They go where they will. They mutate randomly, and they’re vulnerable to forces outside their control.

If that’s the case, would it not be sensible for those who provide us with our software, when they upload updates, to give us the kind of warnings you get with medication, to the effect that this update works for most people, but there’s a small risk that you will be invaded by mad Russian hackers who will rampage around your laptop opening, closing and doing God knows what else with your apps? Or worse still, rogue algorithms that don’t answer to Putin or any other human turning your machine into porridge?

Whether these periodic agonies that send us howling like wolves at the new moon are the result of rank incompetence, or a sinister wheeze of the part of the computer industry to get us to buy more hardware or replace what we have after ludicrously short periods of use, I wouldn’t care to guess. My laptop is three years old, and is beginning to resemble our dog, who, at the age of fourteen, is getting somewhat wobbly.

Apple’s recently-revealed decision to deliberately slow down their phones though a software update in order to preserve battery life certainly suggests that some companies believe that it’s OK to sell us products that have the lifecycle of a gnat. Perhaps we should be used to this by now, as we buy washing machines that become irreparable after a year or three, or boilers that have only ten years of useful life, whereas older models used to last for thirty. The less you pay, the less use you get, it seems.

But it would be nice to know how much life we are likely to get from our computers before they collapse under the weight of increasingly memory-hungry updates and all the stuff we install at our own initiative. And it would be nice if the software vendors managed to provide us with updates that improve our experience of their products without putting our machines into intensive care.

Much of the time, in common with the vast majority of fellow technical illiterates, I shrug my shoulders and accept the occasional meltdown. After all, when they work, most modern products work fine. But just occasionally I get pissed off, hence this post.

Here’s a thought, though. If “planned obsolescence” is now the norm, wouldn’t it be good if the same principle applied to some of our politicians, who seem to hang around forever for no useful purpose?

Postcard from Borneo: Kota Kinabalu, a sacred mountain and my favourite fruit

Borneo Durian

Durian plants at the Kota Kinabalu Sunday Market

A few days ago, before I swapped Borneo for the chilling embrace of the Beast from the East, I posted a piece about the island’s wildlife. While memories are still strong, time perhaps to write a few words about human life. Less wild, though no less interesting to this inveterate people-watcher.

Sabah, which is on the northern part of Borneo, is a province of Malaysia. Its permanent population is a mix of ethnic origins: Malay, Indian, Chinese and native Sabahan. The predominant narrative about Malaysian demographics is that the Bumiputra – a word which loosely translates as “sons of the soil”, in other words descendants of the original populations of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak –  get most of the government jobs. The Chinese are the business dynamos, and the Indians dominate the professions, such as law and accountancy.

From a casual glance at street hoardings, that would certainly seem to be the case in Borneo. Malaysian law positively discriminates in favour of the Bumiputra in a number of areas, including access to further education, though how this is different from negatively discriminating against Indian and Chinese Malaysians is beyond me.

Be that as it may, the narrative doesn’t do full justice to the reality on the ground. There are plenty of poor Indian and Chinese Malaysians, and not all Bumiputra occupy cosy government jobs. And for that matter, there are plenty of representatives from the less advantaged ethnic groups in parliament.

How Sabah fits into this mix is quite interesting, particularly in terms of religion. In 1960, according to Wikipedia, approximately 38% of Sabahans were Muslim, 33% animist and 17% Christian. In 2010 the numbers were 65% Muslim, 26% Christian and 6% Buddhist. In other words, animism has virtually died out. The rise in the Muslim population is said to be because of immigration from the peninsula, and mass conversion programs – hence the demise of animism.

The ethnic mix has also changed. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the indigenous population – in other words, the people who lived in Sabah when we wicked Brits arrived – is now in a minority. No surprise, I suppose, since colonisation often results in the decline of the original population.

But enough of the demographic stuff, except to add that the influence of a conservative shade of Islam, as in the rest of Malaysia and virtually every other south-east Asian country I’ve visited which have significant Muslim populations, is manifest. More often than not, Muslim women wear the hijab, whereas forty years ago, I was once assured, this was far from the case.

The presence of the lavish mosque in the state capital of Kota Kinabalu, built with funding from Saudi Arabia, provides a clue as to why the change has taken place. So it’s worth remembering that not everybody subscribes to Western values, or takes kindly to our more esoteric holiday dress sense.

KK Cafe

Kota Kinabalu was our second stop in Borneo after our close encounters with French birdwatchers and the abundant wildlife of the rain forest.

Western tourists tend to think of Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Langkawi when Malaysia comes to mind. KK, as it’s known locally, comes a poor forth. Yet it’s a fast-growing tourist destination, not so much because of the delights of the city itself, but also as a jumping-off point for journeys into the interior. Wildlife, as always, awaits, and if you’re reasonably fit you can climb Mount Kinabalu, which rises 13,000 feet above the forest.

If you do, you would be advised not to take your clothes off when you reach the top, as a young group of tourists discovered a couple of years ago when they got into trouble for doing exactly that. The mountain is sacred to the local inhabitants, who claimed that the spirits sent an earthquake to register their displeasure. This is definitely something I would have avoided, since the sight of me unclothed would most likely have triggered the equivalent of an asteroid strike.

There’s no shortage of posh hotels in the city, which is more than can be said about Sandakan, Sabah’s original capital. Both towns were devastated at the end of the Second World War in the fighting between the Japanese and the Australians. In KK, the only pre-war buildings still in place are a lonely clock tower and the original post office.

The modern city has a familiar mix of malls, office blocks and traffic jams. The airport is the second largest in Malaysia. It’s newish and swanky, an investment that might have something to do with the fact that an average of eight thousand Chinese visitors from the People’s Republic are said to arrive every week.

The coming of mass tourism from China is a phenomenon wherever you go in the region. If ever you needed evidence of the shift in economic gravity between west and east, this is the most striking. Most of the visitors from mainland China come in large tour groups. There seems to be few independent travellers. They arrive at airports, decant into buses that take them to hotels. And every day the same buses take them en masse on organised tours.

Just about every hotel we’ve stayed throughout the region on a regular basis over the past ten years reports a huge increase in Chinese guests. Which is good for the hotels because they have guaranteed business. But not so good for the local communities, because the visitors are often on limited budgets, and tend not to spend as much as European or American tourists might.

I can only see positives in the large number of Chinese exploring beyond the mainland, even if I instinctively reach for my noise cancelling headphones when I find myself among large groups of them. At present, they tend to keep themselves to themselves, but this is possibly because of language barriers. This too is changing. I often encounter travellers from Shanghai and Shenzhen who speak excellent English. The more Westerners learn mandarin, and the more Chinese learn English, the less we will regard each other with wariness and suspicion.

When we visited Kota Kinabalu, we were lucky enough to be able to stay with some old friends who had moved from the UK eighteen months ago. Our host knows the city from childhood; his father had worked there as a bank executive for a number of years.

Of all the joys of KK to which we were introduced, the Sunday market was the most memorable. If you haven’t encountered an Asian market before, you could certainly start with this one. It runs for about a mile down Gaya Street. You can hardly move through the throng, but if you’re looking for stuff to take home, you’ll find reasonably priced clothes, fabrics and local art, not to mention the usual tourist souvenirs.

Locals come for fruit – including the delicious-tasting but foul-smelling durian that’s in season right now – vegetables and all manner of exotic living things: baby turtles, frog spawn, cats, dogs, geese, chicken and other species that I failed to identify. You can actually buy durian plants, which I thought would be a nice addition to our friend’s garden collection. He politely disagreed.

After picking up a couple of gifts for our baby grandson, we finally had our reward – breakfast in a cacophonous restaurant that sells the best lakhsa in town.


Lakhsa addicts

Lakhsa is about as traditional Malaysian cuisine as you can get, rivalled only by the ubiquitous beef rendang. It’s basically noodles, tofu, seafood and chicken in a spicy broth. In this place, it was doled out on an industrial scale via waitresses who screamed out our orders across the throng to the serving station. Which partly explains the cacophony.

Will I visit Borneo again? You bet. Next time I want to see some pygmy elephants in the wild and say hello to a few more orangutan and proboscis monkeys. I love the people who live on the island, but I have to say that the animals have the edge – those that you don’t find sitting in cages at markets, that is.

Opioids – a crutch, a weapon or just the latest health crisis?

Andrew Sullivan’s beautifully crafted article in New York Magazine on America’s opioid epidemic is essential reading, even if you have no personal experience of the phenomenon, or if as an unsympathetic non-American you view it as just another symptom of that country’s decline.

Sullivan starts with a brief history of the poppy, the source of opium and all the synthetic compounds that offer us blissful relief from pain – both physical and spiritual – and thereby seduce us into the hell of addiction. He talks about how opioids work and offers reasons why so many Americans have found themselves in their thrall.

Perhaps his most important contribution to the discussion is to suggest that a solution lies not in “wars on drugs”, but in a deeper understanding of the causes:

To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.

His article leads me to three thoughts.

First, this is not just an American problem. To a greater or lesser extent, it’s everywhere. Sullivan’s description of American doctors who have little financial incentive to look deeply into the causes of the pain their patients present, and who dole out opioid prescriptions as a cure-all, should resonate with users of Britain’s National Health Service, whose guidance limits general practitioners to eight minutes per consultation. The temptation to prescribe rather than to deep-dive must be overwhelming.

Second, it would hardly be surprising if America’s rivals saw the US as a huge but diseased tree that only needs a few nudges to keel over. One super-power, Russia, seemingly believes that it can weaken and debilitate its greatest rival by subverting its democratic processes.

Does another, China, believe that by failing to clamp down on the mass-production and illegal export to the United States of fentanyl, by far the most potent and dangerous of all the opioids, it will make its own contribution to decline of the world’s most powerful economy? I find it hard to believe that one of the world’s most intensive surveillance states is incapable of stemming the flow of illicit fentanyl from within its borders if it wishes to do so.

If one was a patriotic American of a paranoid bent, one might be forgiven for thinking that stealing technology was only part of the plan.

And third, opioids are here and now. The next crisis will probably be antibiotic resistance caused by over-prescription. It’s already started, and it might soon dwarf the effects of opioid addiction.

One would hope that the drug companies are ploughing their opioid profits into antibiotic research. But to what extent are they? And are governments doing enough to prepare for and mitigate a clearly foreseeable crisis?

I don’t know the answer to either question. But it worries me that we seem to be living in an age in which the next quarter’s profit forecasts and the latest political opinion polls seem to be more important than the disasters lurking around the corner, and in which governments struggle to fix their cash-strapped health systems, while paying insufficient and ineffective attention to issues that threaten to blast the health both of people and corporations out of the water for years to come.

For all that, I comfort myself in the knowledge that should I be laid low in the hopefully distant future by some disease that used to be treated by a course of humble antibiotics, the equally humble poppy will still be there to ease me out of life with the minimum of pain and suffering.

Postcard from Borneo: encounters with my cousins and other animals

I am not, or was not until recently, a fan of going out to seek the glories of nature. Like many couch potatoes, I prefer others to do it for me. I love the Attenborough programmes – the Blue Planet and all – for their miraculous photography, and for revealing things about the natural world that we might never otherwise know. And no doubt, when he’s old enough, we will take our grandson to the zoo, where he will be as thrilled by the elephants, tigers and giraffes as my kids were.

When I’m abroad, I find it easier to rouse myself to go out and visit the works of man (or should I say people, Mr Trudeau?) than to commune with wildlife. Give me churches, mosques, temples and amphitheatres any day. To indulge in nature, you have to go to inconvenient places where you risk falling off cliffs, being struck by bits of flying lava or eaten by lions. Buildings don’t usually threaten your personal safety, but some do speak to you as eloquently as the natural world.

That said, the glories of Borneo lie not in buildings but in the endless rainforest, packed with mammals, birds, reptiles and all manner of creepy crawlies. It would have been churlish not to pay homage to them.

So when we arrived in Sandakan, one of the two main cities in Sabah, at the end of our current jaunt through the Far East, we resolved to leave as soon as possible. It’s an ugly city, built by the British as the main point of export for hardwood and rubber, fought over and destroyed by the Japanese and the Australians in World War 2, and rebuilt around a number of hideous concrete buildings that dominate the skyline.

But beyond the town lies the Kinabatangan river. It flows from the interior, through patches of virgin rainforest, past palm oil plantations and ends up winding its way through impenetrable mangrove forests through to the sea.

About 90 kilometres up-river sits the Sukau Eco Lodge, which, as the name suggests, is very eco. Just about everything is recycled. This was where we came to commune with whatever wildlife chose to show itself during our three-day stay.

You get there by boat, which takes about two hours, assuming there’s nothing to capture your attention on the journey. Each tour party is accompanied by a guide, whose job is to point you towards everything worth seeing on the tree-lined shores.

“Are zere Hotteurs here”? It took a few seconds to figure out that the elderly French gentleman was asking about the presence of otters. To which the answer was yes. But we didn’t see any.

Our tour party was dominated by French birdwatchers. I’d thought always the French were mainly interested in blasting birds out of the sky and then eating them. These folks proved me wrong. Armed with high powered binoculars, cameras that must have cost thousands, they ventured forth on the river, grimly determined to see every orangutan, proboscis Monkey and hornbill that hung out in the dense vegetation on the banks.

As I said earlier, I’m not a naturist, and certainly not a birder, or twitcher as we call them in England. Until now, my interest in birds has been limited to the robins in my garden and the red kItes hovering over my local golf course. I’m not sure that this trip has changed that. But I was amazed by the powers of observation both of Raman, our guide, and the Gallic Six. A large bird would flap at a stately pace over the river, and Raman would shout “sea eagle”, “heron” or “crested hornbill”. How on earth he made such an identification of what was merely a dark shape on the horizon is beyond me. But sure enough, as they landed on nearby trees, he turned out to be right.

And if he didn’t spot them, the French did. It was so taken with the enthusiasm of my fellow tourists that every time I saw an animal with wings, I wanted to scream out “look – a bird!” even if the creature turned out to be a humble pigeon. Not a humble pigeon as we know them in Trafalgar Square, mind you, but an Imperial Pigeon. Definitely a cut above. But it still looked like a pigeon to me.

But even if the pigeons didn’t produce gasps of admiration, most of the birds were heartbreakingly beautiful – herons, hummingbirds, hornbills, egrets, parakeets, birds of paradise, kingfishers and all.

Then there were the small animals. We went into raptures over a squirrel. Again, not the grey pest that hangs off every tree at home, but a black squirrel, or a red one that glides from tree to tree. Even a Pygmy squirrel, which looked much like a mouse to me, sent shivers down the spine.

Birds, however, are quite ephemeral. You see them, and a few seconds later they’re off to pastures new.

For my wife and me, the highlights of the four trips we made on the river – at different times of the day to catch different species – were the primates.

The boss species in terms of size and star quality were the orangutans. There aren’t that many left in the wild, so we were lucky to see a sleepy-looking female foraging for figs, and then a family of three, mum and two kids, just hanging around at odd angles off the branches of a tree overhanging a limestone cliff.

They are beautiful creatures. They have a sweet, slightly melancholy, demeanour. By all accounts they’re smarter than gorillas. Certainly they look less grouchy.

Then the proboscis monkeys, so named because the male has a long droopy nose like an elephant’s trunk gone wrong. The longer the nose, the more virile he appears to his adoring harem. The females aren’t so blessed. She has an upturned nose. They are only to be found in Borneo. Like the orangutan, they’re endangered, but they hang out in reasonably large numbers along the river.

Unlike the orangutan, which is a relatively solitary animal, the proboscis form family groups. A dominant male, surrounded by women and children. Very Saudi I thought, remembering patriarchs in the shopping malls of Riyadh with wives and kids in tow. Very Malaysian too, according to our guide. We saw plenty of them, hanging out along the river, jumping from branch to branch or just sleeping. Or at least the women and the kids do, while the alpha male hangs impassively form a nearby branch.

Proboscis family

More common than either species is the long-tailed macaque. Smaller, quite aggressive, often fighting each other, and not fans of the human race, at least in Borneo. I’ve met these before. Near Ubud, in Bali, there’s a monkey forest packed full of them, waiting for bananas to be thrown at them by the visitors, who buy them in bunches from street vendors.

Macaques in Bali

My anthropocentric perception of macaques is that they’re the primate equivalent of football hooligans. Arguing with each other, ganging up, backing down and generally behaving in a threatening manner, particularly towards the other team.

The fourth species we saw was the silver leaf monkey, which was somewhat overshadowed by the others. The only thing of note our guide said about them was that most of their young start with red hair, and go silver at about a year old. Some, however, stay a silvery red, but fit right in with their silvery brothers and sisters. No ethnic cleansing here, I’m glad to say.

Hornbills, eagles and crocodiles we saw. Leopards, elephants and pythons we didn’t. The good thing about the bit of rain forest we visited is that it’s a reservation. No tourists are allowed to set foot in it. It’s mercifully protected from the scourge of the palm oil plantations that have destroyed so much of the Borneo rain forest.

Rhinoceros Hornbill

The Eco Lodge where we stayed is full of enthusiastic, dedicated Malaysians who love their jobs. You can see a pretty neat video on their website here. It recycles everything, including the large quantities of sewage resulting from their generous provision of three meals a day. Four squat green cylinders at the back of our villa appeared to be the end stage of the process, even though they were odourless and seemingly inert.

There’s a long boardwalk into the rain forest where you can look at birds, insects, trees and any passing furry mammals. Much to the delight of the French contingent who spent considerable time taking photos of a scrawny little orchid that grows at ground level. This apparently is quite rare. Usually orchids in this forest transplant themselves into trees.

The rain forest walkway

I wanted to shout out every time I saw something flying past – such as one of the large black and white butterflies that abounded in the forest. In fact, I became quite competitive. I wanted to be the first to make a significant sighting, but the damned French always got there first. Rather like Martin Sheen and his buddies chugging up the Mekong in Apocalypse Now keeping an eye open for Viet Cong, our comrades trained their binoculars to pick up the slightest twitch or tree disturbance that indicated the presence of their beloved hornbills, kingfishers and herons.

In a way, it was quite a sanitised experience. We were spared the less pleasant aspects of the rainforest – no hacking through the jungle at the mercy of leeches, poisonous snakes and other nasties. And the rainforest was spared our intrusion. Yet sitting on the balcony at night, we felt very close to the various creatures cackling, cawing and crowing away in the darkness close by. And cruising down the river, we saw enough creatures to satisfy even the insatiable French without ever getting close enough to bother them.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world. We only scratched the surface. But the villagers we saw looked very different from the “natives” pictured crowded admiringly around a refrigerator in the 1930. I always thought of Borneo as a land of head-hunters. Maybe there are a few left, but certainly not in the coastal areas.

Large parts of the island are now dedicated to palm oil cultivation. Now I’m not consumed with guilt over the effects of colonisation, but I couldn’t help thinking that all those millions of hectares of rainforest burnt down to produce Nutella wouldn’t perhaps have suffered that fate if it wasn’t for us Brits, who in the 19th century thought we would find gold and silver, and settled for hardwood and rubber instead.

Fortunately, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, indiscriminate forest clearing is no longer happening, and the government has set up rain-forest reserves. The rain forests can return, given time. South of the island, in Indonesian Kalimantan, “accidental” fires still break out, to be followed by palm oil plantations. A couple of years ago, when on holiday in Thailand, we felt the effect of these fires. For about a week, the area where we were staying was covered by a smoke haze that led most of the locals too wear face masks. I came home with a chest infection that took a month to clear.

To the north, there’s an increasing awareness that eco-tourism is a major income generator. If there’s no ecology, there will be no tourists. So things are changing for the better, even if local villagers on the river continue to toss their waste into the water with little regard for the consequences.

Has Borneo turned me into an eco-warrior? Not quite, though I have been dreaming in recent days of hornbills and pterodactyls. But anyone wanting to see nature in all its glory could do worse than adding this beautiful island to their schedule. The locals are delightful – friendly and welcoming. The food’s great – this is, after all, Malaysia. And the wildlife is beyond amazing.

If our trip taught me anything, it’s that you don’t need to rely on what you see on TV while munching your popcorn. The glories of nature are out there, and you don’t need to be an intrepid explorer to witness them. And you don’t need to destroy ancient habitats in the process.

So whether you’re young or old, and if you’re tired of malls, temples and museums, go forth to Borneo, and catch up with some of your cousins.

(By the way, I had to cheat with some of the photos, because my IPhone couldn’t hack it. So thank you Wikipedia Commons for the pics of the orangutan, proboscis and hornbill) 

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