Saturday, 31 May 2014

Notes from the blue corner: A few thoughts following the recent elections

In a short interlude to my Latvian adventure I want to share a few thoughts as a loyal Conservative Party supporter about the recent elections...

It was difficult to watch the recent results of the Local and EU elections flood in without a slight admiration for Farage, his cocky and assured performance is one of a man riding the crest of a wave. In fact, he rather reminds me of Michael Heseltine when he stood for the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1990 or Tony Benn when he felt sure of his ambition of wrestle the ideological heart and soul of the Labour Party in the early eighties. There is something quite comical and yet tragic in watching such hubris unfold as he allegedly lays waste to the old political order to replace it with... more of the same but in a different clothing. 

The leader of ‘the people’s army’ has apparently spoken and now, with his loyal and charismatic lieutenant Roger ‘Hang em high’ Helmer (formerly of the Conservative Party and current UKIP candidate for Newark in the upcoming by-election) we are going to see a new brand of ideology to appeal to the masses. It’s all very well and under the very clever flag of yellow and purple (an amalgamation of the main parties colours) they seem to have the ear of both the swaying and disaffected voters.

I watched coverage the coverage of the EU elections and closely followed the local elections, indeed, I will be fascinated to see the results a Newark (a litmus paper to see if the Conservative vote can stand fast). One thing from the coverage was worryingly clear, UKIP have nothing to say. I was expecting nuggets of wisdom when Farage, O’Flynn, Helmer and Hamilton (a gross opportunist if ever there was one - who even had the gall to accuse Angela Eagle of Libel! I almost chocked on my whisky) got on their soapboxes but there was no talk about policy, constructive debate or even about their intention for their tenure in office at the EU coalface. 

I was at work the other day and where two colleagues had a mind to vote UKIP with another few friends of mine tossing up whether to follow the traditional blue or ‘shake it up’ in protest and go purple. Do people know what they’re voting for except a wish list of small ‘c’ conservative pipe dreams? A look at the UKIP website is revealing, particularly in its ‘issues’ section.

A longtime supporter of the Conservative, I was fortunate to work for them in the last election, and although I completely disagreed with Labour and the Liberal Democrat offers (I even had a few reservations of our own), all documents were grounded with an understanding of the social makeup of the UK, our international position and a varying degree of economic realism. I found all these points lacking from a read-through of UKIP’s call to action for voters. 

Ironically, the claims for lower taxes cannot be real, for all the money they want to take out of particular pots will have to be reallocated to deliver on some of their bolder claims: tougher borders, increased defence spend, tougher sentencing and more prisons, extraction from EU institutions, renegotiating treaties, finding new trade partners, means-testing social housing allocation, disestablishing the current education system to set up new grammar schools, introducing a new means-testing on benefits... just to name a few.

It sounds like an attractive proposition to a number of this in the blue corner, but it is a slim offer, just over a page of text. It takes no account of costs (not that most manifestos do!), it has no long term vision (for example, no elaboration on how it would be integrated) and furthermore, it doesn’t reference any tough decisions that the party would have to make in power. It’s a classic case of a person from the outside the ideological tent pissing in. Offering to outline the problems, but putting in marginal, unrealistic goals which might have looked more in place in the time of Macmillan and Wilson than in the landscape we now live in. 

However at this stage Farage has every reason to be pleased with himself and is enjoying his time in the limelight, Rothman’s in one hand, a pint of Courage in the other, but I urge swaying voters to ask him some key policy questions, expecting the same answers that Miliband and Cameron would have to give. Furthermore, what about his band of merry men and women who back him? I want to see other figures from the party, including Mr. Helmer for example, speak on key issues of the day. I have seen the latter on Question Time before and his comments are controversial (nothing wrong with that), designed to provoke reaction and chock full of NIMBY-ism and cynicism. If this is the UKIP vision of the UK I want it even less than I want the concrete-clad, Marxist visions of Ed Miliband and comrades. 

Far be it from me to tell readers how to vote, I certainly believe in following your conscience and the principle of the secret ballot, I urge people currently undecided to think very carefully when they put a tick in the UKIP box as, usually the case in these matters, they might live to regret the decision. 

Monday, 26 May 2014

Lash and Lacplesis - A bloody good trip to Latvia

“A pint of Guinness, if you will landlord” I said to the corpulent, red-faced proprietor of the Wetherspoon’s Gatwick Airport, no doubt one of Tim Martin’s most frequented establishments. It was a bold choice of drink for 9:30 in the morning, at that stage of the day all I had partaken of was a dubious double sausage McMuffin (no egg) and a black coffee - half of which I spilt when some nincompoop knocked into it with their bag. 

No matter, I was on holiday and had not a care in the world. Where was I going on that glorious Friday? You may well ask dear reader, for I was in fact going to Riga, Latvia which some called the jewel in the Baltic crown. It also had a dubious honour of being the prime location for many a drunken stag do or birthday celebration. 

The original idea of going was originally put to me by a friend who had suggested the destination on a whim and the attraction of the very cheap flights on offer from AirBaltic. Doing a little research, it looked like an admirable location for some bad behaviour and some heavy drinking. I was sold and, so it was, that on 16th May 2014 I found myself at the ‘Spoons with a metallic tasting pint of Guinness, surrounded by countless other brits doubtless on the same mission that I was. 

The atmosphere was convivial, but my travelling companion and all round bloody good chap couldn’t help but remarking that us UK lot had a very poor style when it came to casual attire, surveying the tables and tables of pasty, overweight lads on tour with their upturned collars (of which I was one) or novelty t-shirts with ‘Larry’s lash up’, ‘Micky’s Stag’, ‘Bitches beware’ (just sinister) or ‘Fancy a shag’ (direct and to the point), I could not entirely disagree. 

Departure time came around soon enough and I amused myself on the plan with a can of Latvian lager (in a suspiciously super-strength style gold can) and a few chapters of Dickens’ David Copperfield. The arrival was painless and soon we were on a bus to Riga Old Town, during which time I nearly suffocated under the stench of a local gentleman’s terrible BO - the drawback of being a short-arse on a crowded bus. 

The Rubinsteins originally hale from Riga (or rather an hour south in a city called Jelesava/Mitau) and my fellow traveller had some nightmare notion that everyone in the city would look similar to me. Thankfully, his fears were quite unfounded. It would be an understatement to say that Riga had a higher-than-average proportion of incredibly hot women coupled with drunken british lads ranging from the age 25 -50. That seemed to be the demographic of the Old Town and, as one of the latter drunken Brits myself, this place was none the worse for it. 

First things first, we got the keys to the apartment we had rented in the town centre for a very agreeable €160 for two nights and were led by the cold, but glamourous recpetionist of DesignApartments to out bolt-hole... and what a bolt-hole it was. There was definitely something of the flat from the first scenes of Living Daylights about this accomodation. One could certainly imagine a duo of contract killers or a sniper using the location as a safe hideaway for their mission. Bare furnishing, two fridges , a plethora of wardrobes, it was an eccentric place, the sofa in the kitchen was quite frankly bizarre. 

But enough time had been spent admiring the decor and, dumping our bags we went out for a quick walk around the town and some much needed liquid sustainance. The Old Town itself was pretty but you could tell that it had been massively reconstructed following what must have been a very damaging and harrowing occupation by first the Nazis and then the Soviet Union. There was plenty of architecture associated with Eastern European/Baltic states including red brick, low protestant churches with sparse interiors, quiet cobbled streets, baroque flourishes and here and there a medieval feature or two. 

We had our first drink of the holiday underneath the majestic gaze of St. Peter’s Basilica in a well-appointed bar basking underneath the warm evening sun as a light breeze blew in from the Baltic. As cool glass of refreshing Lacplesis was washed down with a generous shot of the city’s hideous local gutrot... Black Balzams.

Black Balzams was going to become something of a theme for me on the trip as I did my very best to indulge in the local culture. this liqueur is a blend of herbs and spices with pure vodka to create a tar like liquid, unsettlingly coating the glass. I warn any curious travellers that you must have a fondness for bitter flavours to get any enjoyment out of this beverage. The manufacturers call it ‘deliciously different, exceptionally smooth and velvety on the palate’, different it sure is but I was not sure how delicious it was. The bartender who served me looked apprehensive when I order giving me a ‘do you know what you are doing’ look, but I was not to be deterred from my order. I shuddered as I took my first sip of this strange elixer, it was so strong and astringent that I believe a weaker many would have balked! But there was a part of me that thought, you know what, this stuff is so bad it’s actually quite good and, strangely enough it was a great foil for the Lacplesis that was being quaffed. Let me assure you, dear reader, this would not be the last shot of Black Balzams that would be a sampled on the trip. 

The night was still young so we picked up a few cans of some very questionable beer from the off license. Priced at a very reasonable €0.89, we invested in a few for the fridge and went back to get changed before hitting the town a la Tony Manero style for an evening of drunken debauchery. 

The town was starting to fill up with lads on tour but being sensible fellows, we decided that the best course of action would be to grab a bite to eat at a local eatery. I wanted to try some of the local fodder and would not be put off in this quest for smoked fish and dumplings. Sure enough we found a cosy, if slightly touristy inn just off the main square full of delicious smells of braising meat and boiled potatoes. The menu did not disappoint with all sorts of smoked fish, cooked fish, roasted and boiled meat on the bone and a definite lack of green vegetables. Following an obligatory stein of Lacplesis, we placed our orders starting with a couple of smoked fish and smoked meat platters. When I say that this was the best smoked and cured fish I have ever eaten I do not understate. The rollmops were like nothing I have every tasted, so sweet and succulent and the hot smoked sprats were a revelation (why can’t we get smoked fish like this in the UK without paying a small fortune?). 

I followed this up with a bowl of the most delicious Pelmeni (steamed dumplings) filled with roasted chicken and topped with sour cream and chopped dill. I greedily wolfed down these little parcels of deliciousness. My fellow pilgrim has a very succulent looking pork kebab for his part. 

Fully sated we prepared ourselves for a night of carnage by going first to a rock-a-billy bar in one of Riga’s many square and listened to a band definitely past their first flush of youth doing their best Commitments impression with interpretations of ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Sneaking Sally Through the Ally’ (an incongruous tribute to the late Robert Palmer). The show was stolen by the bootlace tie wearing, Maurice Gibb look-a-like on the keyboard. Certainly their performance was helped in my mind by the two rounds of litre steins that we partook of before moving onto the infamous ‘101 Shots’. 

Ahead of going on the trip I had done a little research and it was this bar that kept coming up trumps, the mecca for all drunken tourists and apparently a favourite amongst the locals. So it was here that we headed to officially start what was to become something of a lost weekend in the style of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson! 

Find out more in the next part of Lash and Lacplesis, which I will be publishing in the next few days...