Howard Davies: The MT Diary

A disgruntled Greek's tirade; Albania's Pompeii; Boston after Tea; and will Labour talk Balls?

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 04 Jan 2011
The sage observations of taxi drivers on the passing scene make few appearances in this diary. That is partly because the wise cabbie is a cliche and partly because in London I cycle everywhere, so they cut me up more than put me right. But I will make an exception for the loquacious Greek who picked me up at Corfu airport on a short late-summer sailing excursion.

He was - how can I put this politely? - not the greatest fan of the government of prime minister Papandreou, which is engaged in an EU/IMF-led cost-cutting programme that makes George Osborne look like the last of the big spenders. After 10 minutes of unprintable, ungrammatical but heartfelt abuse of his government, I asked if he was therefore a supporter of the other lot, led by Karamanlis. 'The same criminals,' he said. 'Pepsi-Cola - Coca-Cola,' thus casting aside billions of dollars of marketing spend in a trice.

Greece looked oddly normal in spite of the supposed devastation being wrought by evil foreign financiers. In other words, the food was still lukewarm and the wine slightly off. So, in search of a better meal, we sailed through the Corfu channel, full of sunken British destroyers, across to Albania, which has recently become a little easier to penetrate than it used to be.

We had called up an agent named Ben who offered to find us a place to tie up in a friendly seaside resort called Sarande. When we pulled in, there were two guys waving madly at us, trying to coax us towards them. One was Ben and the other a freelance operator (Bill, probably) tipped off by the port authority, which we had called to announce our arrival. Eventually, we discovered which twin was the Ben and tied up alongside.

Albania was a revelation. We had seen the crazy Enver Hoxha pillboxes on the coast before, but I had no idea that there were 700,000 of them across the country. Little round-topped concrete thingies, each snuggle designed for one soldier, all over the fields and the hills. The whole country looks like a Teletubbies set.

We drove over to a hill town called Gjirokaster, which happens to be Enver Hoxha's birthplace, with a castle proudly displaying captured Italian guns from the 1930s, including a cute tiny little Fiat tank which would be the ideal transport in Notting Hill. (The Italians contrived to be booted out of Albania - quite an achievement.) There is also a remarkable Roman town called Butrint, being slowly excavated with the help of Jacob Rothschild and John Sainsbury. Happening into Butrint is like finding Pompeii without having heard of it before. A complete amphitheatre, a forum, the whole IX yards.

If you could use a credit card, Albania would be the perfect holiday destination. But you can get by with handfuls of lek, which generally emerge from holes in the wall without much difficulty. The restaurants are acceptable and the people are friendly, too. It seems that all their pimps and villains are over here.

From Albania I moved to the US of A, not a great cultural distance, as it is another land full of people without passports or any but the haziest knowledge of the outside world.

But you can learn interesting and useful things on holiday in the US. On Interstate 90 across Massachusetts on the way to Boston, you find many signs reading 'Caution, solar glare in the morning', which is a helpful reminder that the sun does indeed rise in the east still, in spite of the best efforts of the Tea Party movement.

In New York, the talk was all of the projected mosque at Ground Zero. Except that it isn't really a mosque and it isn't at Ground Zero. There is a lap-dancing club slightly closer to the site, I was told. But that did not prevent the issue polarising opinion across the country.

Jon Stewart, host of the best and certainly funniest American talk show, tried to find a way through, noting that of course freedom of religious observance must be paramount, but that some awareness of local sensitivities was nonetheless essential. For example, he noted: 'You obviously wouldn't put a Catholic church next to a children's playground.'

President Obama, of course, famously said he supported the idea of the new Islamic Centre, then the next day that he didn't have a view on it one way or the other. On this issue, and on the economy, he is assailed from left and right, on the one side for spending too many federal dollars and on the other for failing to understand the weakness of the economy and starving it of finance. The verdict will come at the mid-term elections this autumn, and the prospects do not look pretty.

Back home, Cameron and Clegg are still on their honeymoon, slightly to my surprise. The Sword of Damocles hangs over public services as Osborne comes down like a wolf on the fold (that's enough literary metaphors - Ed). Yet the Great British People seem remarkably unconcerned by what's in store for them. There are no mid-term elections, of course, which are inspiring the Obama refuseniks. I forecast a warm autumn, nonetheless, as the realities begin to bite.

The Labour party, once free of fratricidal strife, may begin to find its voice. If so, and it comes out with a load of Balls on the need for a fiscal stimulus, a proper political and economic debate may develop. If so, it won't be so much Pepsi-Cola/Coca-Cola as Bollinger/Albanian merlot - an unpretentious little wine with hints of Balkan mystery - which may soon be all we can afford.

- Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics

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