Thoughts on Spectre

On Sunday I went to see Spectre, the most recent James Bond and the fourth starring Daniel Craig.  I didn’t expect much, not after having been rather disappointed with Skyfall, and sure enough I thought it was pretty ordinary.

My main gripe is that the story was too damned complicated (spoilers follow).  The actors lurch from place to place on the flimsiest of pretexts, with each new location serving to raise more questions rather than advancing the plot.  We start off in Mexico, then go to London, then to Rome.  We do all this because after her death M (the Judy Dench version) had left a message for Bond telling him to kill an Italian in Mexico and then attend his funeral in Rome.  Now M died at the end of Skyfall in Bond’s childhood home in Scotland, to which they’d driven together from London.  She didn’t go there to die, so she must have recorded the message before their journey.  Rather than just mentioning it in over breakfast at the Little Chef on the A1 outside Darlington.  In fact, the whole premise of Bond going to Mexico on a rogue mission is completely unnecessary: Bond “going rogue” has been done multiple times already, and twice by Daniel Craig himself, so they’re not doing anything original.  It only serves to ask why M didn’t tell Bond about this startling new threat when she was still alive, and why she didn’t handle it in her official capacity as M.  We’re never told the answer.

But never mind that, we’re already in Rome and Bond is banging the widow of the bloke he offed in Mexico before the funeral music has died away.  Through her he finds out about a secret meeting taking place that very night in Rome between the members of a shadowy cabal which wants to hold the world in its iron grasp, or something.  We’re never quite sure what motivates these people (other than their leader) but it is implied they want to control the world’s information, and presumably make money.  But judging by the fleet of Ferraris parked up outside this meeting, they have plenty of that already.  Once again, Bond villains are motivated to spend tens of millions in order to…make money?  I’ve never been convinced that world domination offers itself up as a better alternative to fatten the wallets of those who are already multi-millionaires than investing in pork belly futures.  Jeez, even the cabal’s hired muscle drives a super-Jag.  What’s he still in it for, the final salary pension?

Anyway, this meeting is taking place because the person dispatched by Bond in Mexico was the cabal’s assassin, and they need to select a new one.  Apparently this requires the entire membership to assemble on the evening of his funeral, leaving standing room only.  Why this must be we don’t find out, because the new assassin selects himself by striding out of a back room and murdering one of his pals.  A democratic selection process there was not.  Oh, and this took place in Rome because the previous assassin just so happened to be Italian.  Either that or it’s purely a coincidence and…oh, look over there, a car chase!

Back in London, Bond finds out that a cryptic name he heard at the meeting refers to a bloke in Austria so grab your passports, we’re off again!  In some lodge in the middle of nowhere Bond catches up with a man who we saw in Casino Royale and then (so I thought) was shot and killed in the early stages of Quantum of Solace.  But I was wrong, and we learn he is alive and well dying of radiation poisoning, dealt out by the leader of this shadowy cabal we saw meeting in Rome, which we learn is SPECTRE.  SPECTRE had this chap – Mr White – poisoned because he went against their leader.  Mr White explains he was fine with the guns and drugs but not with what they were doing with “children”.  We’re never told what this refers to because the rest of the film presents SPECTRE’s main mission as controlling information, and their leader later confirms as much.  But potential plot devices upon which we must concentrate are being thrown out by the shovelful,  leaving us with no time to wonder whether the mysterious leader of SPECTRE is in fact Jimmy Saville.  Mr White has a daughter, who happens to be young, fit, and French.  I tried to figure out why she was French but couldn’t come up with anything more plausible than the actress chosen to play her was French.  Mr White fears for her life and is reluctant to divulge her whereabouts to Bond, but in return for 007 promising to keep her safe he reveals that she is working in a clinic sitting atop a mountain in Austria, and that he should ask her about L’Americain.  At this point the audience is led to believe this refers to a person, but in fact we later find L’Americain is a hotel in Tangiers with a hidden room behind the honeymoon suite set up by Mr White.  So why did Bond need to see the daughter to find this out?  Mr White could have simply told him not only the existence of this hidden room, but also the information therein – the location of SPECTRE’s hideout in the North African desert.  Yet instead, he puts his daughter’s life in considerable danger by using her as a conduit through which to transmit information which he could have passed to Bond directly.  And then he blew his own head off.

In writing this it occurs to me that the only reason Mr White tells Bond to go and see his daughter is because the scriptwriters somehow needed to shoehorn a fit, young French girl into the plot.  Looking at it this way, her actual contribution to the story as it panned out was minimal.  But the script does give us the opportunity to witness a thrilling car chase through the Austrian Alps, and then to visit Tangiers, whereupon Bond and his new bird board a pretty bog-standard African train which nevertheless features a dining car in which people eat their meals wearing tuxedos and ball gowns.  Look, I know Daniel Craig looks good in a suit, and suits look good on him, and the French chick looks good in anything (or, I suspect, nothing) but having the two of them turn up in the dining car dressed like this was preposterous.  Obviously the script called for the two to be dressed up in evening attire somewhere, and somebody thought if the plot doesn’t really allow it then let’s just shove it in anywhere.

During the dinner, SPECTRE’s assassin shows up and wrecks half the train, before inevitably dying at the hands of Bond with a little help from mademoiselle.  Now, bear in mind that when his predecessor died the entire membership of SPECTRE had to assemble in Rome in order that a replacement be picked (or rather observed murdering one of their number).  But this time?  Well, we meet half of SPECTRE the next morning and they don’t even mention it, let alone jet off to whichever city the great brute’s funeral is being held in.

Then we find that SPECTRE exists partly to control all the world’s information and partly to piss off Bond because when he was a kid he was orphaned and another family took care of him and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…sorry, where was I?  I nodded off there.  Is the Bond film still on?  Or is this a remake of Party of Five?  I think the latter, because Bond is still pining over Vesper Lynd who died 3 (three!) films ago.  Jesus, either make her death a major plot point driving Bond’s murderous desire for revenge, or have him actually move on after he’s shagged his way through a platoon of seriously fit replacements in the intervening films.  One or t’other, please!

Apparently Spectre employed no less than four scriptwriters, all working at the same time.  And it shows.  What’s that proverb about too many cooks?  That’s a major criticism I have with a lot of modern films: the plots are overly complicated, as if they are trying way too hard.  A good story does not need to be complicated, and some of the best are brutally simple.  A good film doesn’t need half a dozen false leads, red herrings, twists, and potential plot devices blasted at the audience in every other scene.  If you’re going to take up the challenge of a complicated plot, it needs to be as tightly structured as The Usual Suspects or L.A. Confidential to work, otherwise the result looks like a high-school kid trying his hand at writing his first novel.  The plot of Spectre looks as amateurish as hell, with so many plot holes and inconsistencies that I’m wondering whether its complexity was a deliberate attempt to distract the audience from its shortcomings.  But I think I’ll go with my less conspiratorial opinion that the modern plot serves merely as an excuse to flit from one set-piece to another in rapid succession in order to serve up nice cinematography.

By far the best film I’ve seen recently was Mad Max: Fury Road.  It wasn’t just the stuntwork, action, and visuals that pleased me but the conspicuous lack of storyline.  Perhaps knowing his audience well, the director chose a plot with just about enough backstory and exposition to provide an excuse for the convoy to go from one point to another, turn around, and come back the way they came.  If you’re going to rely on the action to carry the film, then it is best to keep the plot as simple as possible.  If you’re going to rely on the plot to carry the film, then you’ll need to start with a decent story, and that probably means taking one that has already been written.  The films adaptations of books sometimes don’t work, but when they do it is often because the screenwriters are working with solid source material.  Spectre didn’t do either of these, and we had entertaining albeit sometimes cartoonish action mashed together in almost three hours of torturous, nonsensical plot.

There was still plenty of life in James Bond when they rebooted the franchise with Casino Royale.  Nine years later, Spectre must surely have killed it off completely.

Posted in Films | Leave a comment

Power cuts in Crimea

I’m surprised this didn’t happen earlier:

Three-quarters of Crimea’s population remain without power after four electricity pylons were blown up.

Gas-powered generators have been providing power to major cities. A state of emergency has been declared.

The pylons brought electricity from Ukraine. Engineers were reportedly denied access to the site by Ukrainian activists.

Crimea was annexed by Russia last year, but the Ukrainian authorities have continued to supply power to the area.

It spoke volumes of Ukrainian incompetence, real fears of an all-out invasion by Russia, or a combination of the two that Russia was able to take the Crimean peninsula so easily.  The Crimea is not accessible from Russia by road, and is dependent on Ukraine for both its electricity and water supplies.  Had Russia gone up against a different adversary, one would have expected to see both cut mere hours after the Russian takeover, and at the very least in the middle of the referendum which saw the population supposedly vote to become part of Russia.  I can only suppose that the Ukrainian authorities refrained from doing so because they feared it would be seized by Russia as an act of war and provide them with a handy excuse to mount a full-on invasion, helping themselves to more territory.

But it did occur to me at the time that the Ukrainians would simply not bother to maintain the infrastructure serving the Crimea.  They have no obligation to, I would have thought: presumably “independence” does not leave one dependent on the former power for vital services like water and electricity?  At some point, they’re going to have to get this stuff provided by Russia, but I suspect they’re going to be waiting a while.  There is little sign that the overpriced bridge they had planned will be realised any time soon, but they’ve put in place a temporary one which should at least alleviate some of the issues they’ve had with the ferries in the past.  So although I expected the water and electricity supplies to deteriorate, it hadn’t occurred to me that some pissed-off Ukrainians might decide to blow up some power lines and leave the Crimea in darkness.  This is clearly not state-sanctioned, and so there isn’t much Russia can do about it other than piss and moan.  But the Ukrainian activists seem to have stumbled upon a way of upsetting the Crimeans and the Russians, and it surprises me now that this didn’t happen a year ago.  I expect we’ll see more disruption to the electricity and water supplies in the future, especially if Russia starts cutting the gas off again.

Posted in Russia, Ukraine | 1 Comment

Paris Attacks Round 2

I am in Exeter this weekend visiting a friend, so fortunately I wasn’t anywhere near Paris when those fuckers were on the rampage last night.

I think it’s high time we saw some leadership and governance from Western leaders. Not rallies, vigils, politics, prayers, electioneering, hashtags, empty words, and more restrictions on our own freedoms: leadership and governance. They’ve taken the job, they have failed to protect the people whose liberty they have eroded in the name of their security and disarmed in the name of their safety, and this has happened on their watch. They need to respond, or in the near future those lamposts might be put to a use their designers never intended.

No, I don’t have the answers, I thought that’s what our so-called leadership was paid to provide.

I am seriously fucking angry.

Posted in France, Terrorism | 31 Comments

Russia gets in The Game

There’s a scene in an episode of Season 1 of HBO’s The Wire where Wendell “Orlando” Blocker, a “clean” front man for the Barksdale gangsters’ club, is sitting in jail on drugs charges.  Orlando was on the books of the club precisely because he had no criminal record, but having seen the alleged glamorous lifestyle of the gangsters in his bar each night, he harboured ambitions of stepping up into drug dealing, or getting in “The Game” as the series’ characters called it.  The hapless Orlando gets busted trying to buy cocaine from an undercover policeman and gets tossed in jail, whereupon he calls the Barksdale gang’s dodgy lawyer Maurice Levy to get him out.

Unfortunately for Orlando, things didn’t go as he’d hoped.  Instead of bailing him out, Levy hands him documents transferring his liquor license and the club to somebody else, explaining that “a front has to be clean, and right now, you aren’t that”.  With Orlando sat in his cell facing a lengthy prison sentence, Levy leaves him with the remark:

“You wanted to be in the game. Now you’re in the game.”

I was reminded of this yesterday when I read that evidence is mounting that it was a bomb which brought down the Russian airliner earlier this week.

Perhaps the cornerstone of Putin’s foreign policy has been that Russia needs to get more assertive in global affairs, protect its interests abroad, and earn “respect” from the rest of the world as it takes its rightful (in Putin’s view) place at the top table alongside the USA.  In other words, Russia wanted to “get in the game”.  In this respect, Russia has been steadily increasing its assertiveness abroad, most obviously in Ukraine but more recently in Syria in support of Putin’s ally Bashar al-Assad, the country’s besieged president.

It ought not to have escaped Putin’s attention that while he envied America’s occupying the role of sole global superpower, as with all superpowers before them this position comes at a price.  9/11 did not happen because America enjoys baseball, they were targetted specifically because of America’s involvement in affairs outside its borders, particularly in the Middle East.  This was not the first time Americans have been attacked by people who don’t like their interference in Middle Eastern affairs: from the blowing up of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon to the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Americans have been the target of terrorists ever since they themselves “got in the game”.  It has taken a while, but Americans have slowly hardened up to this.  Getting anywhere near an American embassy – even in a benign location like Singapore – is extremely difficult these days, and American companies, businessmen, and tourists are flooded with security advice which has led to an overall heightened awareness (which often borders on paranoia and results in abominations like the TSA, but that’s by the by).  The 9/11 attacks took advantage of a complacent American population where people hopped on and off planes as if they were buses and who (largely) cooperated with a couple of guys armed with box cutters because they had no idea what was about to happen next.  That all changed of course, and now many American interests probably make for “hard” targets whereas previously they were “soft”.

One would hope that Putin thought about this before he intervened with great fanfare in Syria, but in doing so he has now opened up Russia to terrorist attacks by the most fanatical people on the planet.  At home, Russia is probably geared up to deal with this: they inherited the security apparatus from the Soviet Union and have plenty of experience dealing with Chechen terrorism over the years, albeit with mixed results at first.  But abroad, Russia must look like a very ripe target for jihadists based overseas.  I’ve walked past Russian embassies and they are often protected by a crumbling breeze-block wall with a rusty coil of barbed wire fastened on top.  Several prominent Russian companies have offices overseas, not to mention thousands of tourists who concentrate themselves in a handful of locations.  Russia has got along so far by being the polar opposite of America, opposing whatever Uncle Sam was doing in the Middle East (and everywhere else) in a zero-sum game whereby what was good for America must, by definition, be bad for Russia and vice versa.

With their intervention in Syria, this is no longer the case.  Bashar al-Assad is detested by many, and the Gulf countries are fearful that an Assad-controlled Syria propped up by Russia and Iran could pose a serious threat to their own security.  For the first time in a long time, Russians are now seen as the bad guys by a whole swathe of the Middle East, and among their ranks are no shortage of nutcases – including ISIS.

If it turns out this Russian plane was indeed brought down by a bomb put aboard in Sharm el-Sheikh airport (a soft target if there ever was one), then there will probably be more such attacks, and Russia is ill-equipped to prevent them.  Maurice Levy’s parting words to Orlando ought to be ringing in Putin’s ears right now.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Terrorism | 4 Comments

Monica’s Ghost

Some jokes never get old:

ExxonMobil boss Rex Tillerson led the charge of oilmen on Forbes magazine’s latest list of the most powerful people in the world.

Former US president Bill Clinton almost outdid wife Hillary, but at number 62 as against 58, it was a case of close, but no cigar.

Posted in Politics, USA | Leave a comment

What next for England rugby?

A year or two ago it occurred to me that England’s winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003 might condemn them to never winning it again in the same manner that the football side’s win in 1966 appears to have done.

In the RWC tournaments before 2003, England would go in with little real prospect of winning but being happy to see how far they could get before being undone by one of the Southern Hemisphere powerhouses.  But 2003 was different: England went into that competition probably being the best side, very little weakness in any given position, and the team that the others wanted to avoid.  When they encountered South Africa in the group stages, England were favourites and duly obliged by winning 25-6.  Only Australia in the final got anywhere near them, with their closest game up to that point being their 28-17 defeat of Wales.

In the summer of 2003, a few months before the rugby world cup, England toured Australia and New Zealand where they beat both of them in full tests.  Any side that can pull off successive wins over Australia and New Zealand is special, and one that can do it away from home very special indeed.  In 2000, England had drawn a two-test away series in South Africa, so all three Southern Hemisphere teams had succumbed at home to the England of that era.  In the home “Autumn” internationals, England beat Australia and South Africa in 2000, 2001, and 2002 and New Zealand in 2002 (for some reason they didn’t play NZ in 2000 and 2001).  In other words, England in the 2000 RWC were an exceptional side who were hitting their peak after a sustained run which saw them see off their main rivals multiple times in the preceding years.  The team featured exceptional players and were coached by a chap who knew what he was doing.  This is why I, as a Wales fan who generally doesn’t enjoy England’s success on the rugby pitch, thought they thoroughly deserved that 2003 win.  Few will contend they were not the best side in the competition, in a year when other sides were not especially weak either.

The problem is, English fans quickly slipped into a mentality that because they have won it before then they can win it again.  Winning rugby world cups is not like rolling dice, it is not down to chance and probability where once an impossibility is ruled out then a recurrence can be expected.  Any team can win a major sports trophy if the stars align for them – look at Greece in the UEFA Euro 2004 championships who came out of nowhere to win the whole thing – but normally the sides who are in the running for overall victory have players and a team which, above everything else, simply perform well.  I have spent years watching English football fans believing – genuinely – that they have a good chance of winning a major trophy with a team that consists of mediocre players who don’t play very well together.  And now England rugby fans seem to have gone the same way: any criticism of England and how they play gets met with the same curious mix of nationalistic aggression and childlike optimism, which inevitably turns to disbelief and disappointment when they crash out.

What they should have been doing is listening to what the other teams think.  Were South Africa, New Zealand, or Australia looking nervously at England, hoping to avoid them in the draw?  Nope.  Australia went into the game reasonably confident they could beat England on their own ground.  They certainly weren’t afraid, and nor will they be much concerned about Wales when they play on Saturday.  Wales go into world cups hoping our team clicks enough to pull off an upset and get as far as we can, which we did very well in 2011.  We probably realise that it would take a Greece-style upset for us to win the rugby world cup, but England – with its financial might and far larger resource pool – should be aiming to produce a team that can contend, as they did in 2003, without lucky draws and shock upsets.  Instead they’ve opted for the worst of both worlds: unrealistic expectations of getting to the semis or final without making the necessary tough decisions (a foreign coach, perhaps?) to ensure they are genuine contenders.

Jeez, Lancaster turned up to this world cup not even knowing what his best XV is.  No team is going to win much unless the coach knows who his best players are in each position and, assuming everyone is fit, who will run out on match day.  The decision to include Sam Burgess in the squad, let alone the starting team, is looking more ridiculous by the day.  No doubt Lancaster was under huge pressure from the English RFU to promote this brilliant rugby league player who, for reasons known only to themselves, they prised from the Rabbitohs (where he was happy playing with his three brothers) and subsidised his move to Bath to play a different sport.  True, it worked for Jason Robinson: but it didn’t work for Henry Paul, Andy Farrell, and Iestyn Harris.  Serious teams competing in the rugby world cup do not include league-converts who have done nothing to prove themselves in the fifteen-man game.  What next for Sam Burgess, I wonder?

England have done themselves no favours at all by hyping Chris Robshaw for all he’s worth.  In the 2013 Six Nations, English commentator Brian Moore was opining in the press that Robshaw should be given the captaincy for the Lions tour to Australia that autumn, citing his Man of the Match performances as support for this view.  What he neglected to remind everyone is that it was Brian Moore himself, working for the BBC, who had bestowed these Man of the Match awards on Robshaw.  As it happened, England were thrashed by Wales in the final game of the Six Nations and Robshaw never even made the Lions squad.  Warren Gatland’s decision to omit him appeared to pay off as his side came home victorious having won the series 2-1.

Another supposed shoo-in for the Lions was Owen Farrell, who appeared to be selected for England largely on the basis that he is a good-looking chap and a perfect replacement for Johnny Wilkinson as the “housewives’ favourite”.  Oh, and his Dad just happens to be one of the coaches.  True, Farrell can kick well – but so could Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Sexton, so he was surplus to requirements in the Lions starting XV.  Fast-forward to last Saturday night and his selection in the England starting XV – and his bizarre shift out to the wing – was looking more like a moment of madness than an inspired choice by Stuart Lancaster.  As with Robshaw, somebody should have seen this coming a lot sooner and done something about it.

There’s too much sentimentality holding back English rugby.  Wales need it, because we don’t have the throughput of players, so babbling on about pride and passion is a handy addition to the genuine skills of the likes of Dan Biggar and Alun Wyn Jones (although you rarely hear any sentimentality from Gatland himself).  It is hard to see how Wales could do much more than play their skins out and hope they can pull off an upset – as they did against England the weekend previously – which will see them through to the next round.  Rinse and repeat as the competition progresses and the opposition get tougher and more antipodean.  But England have the population, youth structure, and financial resources to be able to challenge for a world cup without needing an easy pool, a friendly ref, or a marginal call from the TMO.  They don’t need Victoria Crosses on their shirts, and to impose off-field standards of conduct reminiscent of a 1920s convent (one of the most effective players for Australia was, as usual, Kurtley Beale, who has been cast into the wilderness more times than I can remember for various infractions, only to return each time somebody sensible decided they actually needed somebody who is very skillful and lightning fast).  Johnny Wilkinson was a nice bloke, but also happened to be a great player.  David Campese was a complete arsehole even by Australian standards, but also happened to be a great player.  See the pattern here?

I can’t help thinking that, as with so much in England and corporate life in general (and, having seen the ECB’s treatment of Kevin Pietersen I don’t believe national sporting organisations are much different from your average big company these days), dissent has been frowned upon, conformity and obedience rewarded, and any maverick player who might have provided the spark of creativity kept well away from a white jumper.  Beale would walk into the England team on playing ability, but would they have picked him anyway?  Or worried too much about the squeaky clean image being tarnished and the corporate sponsors upset?

England need a new coach, preferably a mercenary foreign one who isn’t interested in sentimentality and will pick the best fifteen Englishmen who currently play the game, and to hell with the rest.  Otherwise in 2033 we’ll be subject to another round of “30 years of hurt” and increasingly desperate cries of “but this was going to be our year”.  Over to you, RFU.

(Incidentally, England’s reaching the RWC final in 2007 probably did them as much damage insofar as expectations go: a very average team managed to make the game so interminably dull followed by last-minute penalty for a minor infringement that they somehow got to the final, and every English fan thought this was not only deserved, but a feat up there with the 2003 victory. It wasn’t, and was never going to be – foot in touch or not.)

Posted in Sport | 14 Comments

I flew 12 hours and suddenly I’m interesting.

This weekend an article appeared on the BBC website about property scams in Phuket.  Given I’ve owned an apartment in Phuket for the last 5 years, I was interested to see how these scams worked.

British expat Ian Rance and Irishman Colin Vard are now living almost penniless with their children on the outskirts of Bangkok as they struggle against overwhelming odds to recover properties they bought on Phuket. Both men lost all their investments through frauds that neither of them imagined were possible.

Frauds?  Okay, I’m intrigued.

“I’d made my money in England and had enough to retire I thought. I was looking for a place that was warm, a place that had some rule of law, where I could live in safety and peace,” says Rance, a chartered surveyor and professional arbitrator from Hertfordshire, who arrived in Phuket in 2000.

Uh-huh.  With you so far.

In 2001 Rance met and married a Thai woman called Suda and went on to have three children with her.

Uh-oh.  I can see where this is heading.

The prime minister at the time, Thaksin Shinawatra, had started a programme called “Thailand Elite”, through which he hoped to attract wealthy foreigners to settle by allowing them to own small amounts of land, something not normally permitted under Thai law.

Encouraged by this, Rance began investing in property, buying two houses, and eventually a restaurant and two pieces of land.

Sounds promising.

But the Thailand Elite scheme never took off, so in the end he did what thousands of other foreigners did

Pulled out of the deal and invested elsewhere?

he put the properties either in the name of the company he had already formed to run his consultancy business, or in the name of his wife.

Oh dear.

The family home was in his wife’s name, but leased to him on a 30-year lease.

Sounds legit.  I mean, which man doesn’t have his family home in his wife’s name and leased back to him?

The company was nominally Thai-owned but Rance, as a director, had majority voting rights – nothing could happen to the company’s assets without his approval. He was advised by local lawyers that this was legally quite safe.

He didn’t own his company but he had majority voting rights.  What could possibly go wrong?

But unbeknown to him, in July 2008 Suda began transferring the properties out of the company. In September she also removed Rance as a director. On paper none of this should have been possible. In practice, all she had to do was to forge her husband’s signature.

So his wife, who he appeared to have married less than a year after arriving in Thailand with his pockets full of cash, forged his signature and ripped him off.  Aside from the fact that he should have seen this coming a mile off, a wife forging a husband’s signature in the course of fleecing him or somebody else is hardly unique to Thailand, is it?

The Land Office in Phuket, where property transfers are formalised, was willing to accept a simple forged power of attorney from Rance to change ownership of properties worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and to cancel his 30-year lease on their home.

Presumably the Phuket Land Office should assume ageing expats are being ripped off by their Thai wives as a matter of course and, in contrast with the rest of the world, not recognise power of attorney documents.

To change the control of the company the forged signature had to be notarised by a lawyer – but that presented no problem. A local lawyer did this willingly, without Rance being present. When the BBC confronted the lawyer about this he admitted the signature was his, but claimed it was normal practice in Phuket.

Just as it is normal practice for expats to circumvent Thai ownership laws by running everything through a “local” company while retaining (hopefully) all control.  Funny that expats have few concerns engaging in legal gymnastics in order to set themselves up with a cushy life in Thailand, and then complain about dodgy practices used to strip them of everything a few years later.

But Rance’s attempts to sue the lawyer have got nowhere.

I don’t think we’re in London any more, Toto.

He only spotted the fraud in July 2010, when checking his company’s tax status.

According to the article, she started transferring the properties in 2008.  What kind of director – other than one who is nothing of the sort and became one only to circumvent Thai property laws – would allow fraud on this scale to go unnoticed for 2 years?

He discovered that all five properties, worth well over £1m ($1.5m), had been stolen. What began then was, he says, a nightmare period for him.

No, the nightmare started when you married a Thai girl a year after arriving in Phuket.  You just didn’t realise it.

His wife ran away.

Say it ain’t so!

Four men came into his house and threatened his life if he did not get out of Phuket. His wife phoned him and told him they would kidnap the children if he did not leave the house immediately.

At which point it dawned on him that the sweet, smiling girl he’d met dancing on that bar back in 2000 was in fact a hardened criminal.

The evidence Rance has amassed is staggering. Document after document shows the same land agent and two moneylenders, transferring the properties back and forth to his ex-wife in a form of pawnbroking, where she was in effect borrowing at astronomical rates of interest, using the properties as collateral.

None of which he was able to spot for two years as “director” of the company which he thought owned the properties.  What’s that saying about a fool and his money?

She was arrested in 2010, and is now serving a four-year prison sentence.

Ah, so justice prevailed after all. What’s the issue, again?

But nothing has happened to any of the other parties linked to the fraud.

I suspect this is because there is no document showing that they knew the signature had been forged when the property was transferred at the Phuket Land Office.  Of course, they would have known, but there is no evidence to show they did.  And Thailand, backward nation that it is, usually requires documented evidence of criminality in order to prosecute.

Rance has filed nine criminal and civil suits against them. He has had to travel to Phuket for every hearing, paying for himself, a lawyer, and a translator – hearings which are usually many months apart, and sometimes cancelled at the last minute.

Unlike everywhere else in the world where fraud cases involving treacherous ex-wives are cheap, simple, and closed out within a week with the utmost efficiency.

Worse, one of the moneylenders has filed a perjury case against Rance, claiming that he knew about the fraud all along.

A reasonable claim, given he was supposed to be the company director.  “Were you corrupt or merely stupid, sir?”

Over five years Rance estimates he has spent the equivalent of £200,000 ($300,000) on legal fees and other costs relating to the legal battle.

Rance has hired five lawyers, some of whom he says have overcharged him and sometimes deliberately sabotaged his cases.

Not content to see his Thai bride walking off with his properties, he’s decided to hand over another £200k to dodgy Thai lawyers.  Has this company director never heard of cutting one’s losses?

The only case he has won resulted in the imprisonment of his ex-wife and the restoration of his company directorship. Yet the same judge ruled that he had no right to sue the moneylenders for the stolen properties, because he had not been a director of the company at the time.

The judge probably thinks that a company director who hasn’t realised for two years that his wife has removed his name and started flogging the properties isn’t a director in any meaningful sense, and that the position was a fudge from the beginning.

Since I started working on this story a number of foreigners have contacted me to tell me about their experience of different kinds of fraud on Phuket.

Colin Vard also invested about £1m in Phuket, after a successful career in Dublin as an author and part-owner of a clothing factory. He lost a total of eight properties, over a similar time period.

Do go on.

Vard’s Thai partner, the mother of his son, has been sentenced to 17 years in prison for the fraud.

I do believe I see a pattern forming here.

Ian Rance has a new wife now, and they have a young baby girl.

Oh, for fuck’s sake!


Another Thai wife.

His main priority he says is to provide a proper home for the four children, and put them through school. With the boys’ mother in prison, and his funds exhausted, this is a huge challenge. He cannot even consider returning to the UK, because of the requirements regarding income and savings, which in his case are now insufficient.

Yes, money was so tight and my situation so desperate that I took another Thai wife and had another kid.

“Don’t. Don’t come here. The system of law is nowhere near as strong as you think it is going to be, there is no protection for you, and there are gangs of people victimising you. The lawyers have very little in the way of ethics or professionalism.”

I think what he means to say is “Don’t come here and hand over everything on a plate to a Thai wife.”

Now I may sound a bit harsh here but this Rance chap, and the other one, should have learned the lessons that were spelled out in Stephen Leather’s bestseller Private Dancer, which I have mentioned before.  Anybody but the willfully blind ought to know that you are never, ever going to meet a decent Thai girl with western values regarding honesty, integrity, and morality in a bar, shop, or restaurant in Phuket – or anywhere else in Thailand.  Difficult though it is to believe, the majority of decent, ordinary Thai girls are not interested in hanging out with fat, ageing, expats who do nothing but drink all day and are effectively long-term sex tourists.  Many expats don’t decide to live full-time in Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, they go because of the young(ish) cheap pussy that is on offer in each and every bar you stumble into between 4pm and 3am.  I know guys who have genuinely moved out to Thailand for the weather and lifestyle, and they generally do not marry a Thai girl within a year of arrival.  Indeed, most of them have their non-Thai wives or girlfriends in tow with them.

It is perfectly possible to own a property in Thailand without the involvement of Thais (the hiring of a Thai lawyer to handle the actual purchase notwithstanding), but you are restricted to foreign-freehold condominiums only, i.e. you can’t buy a house and the land underneath it.  Once you decide you want to live in a villa and impress your new Thai bride and start firing out kids and live like a king, then you will need the involvement of Thais who you can trust.  And although some might be lucky and meet girls in Phuket who can be trusted, a foreigner will have absolutely no way of knowing who is or isn’t trustworthy and must therefore keep very much on his toes in the way of looking out for the odd sign of something slightly unusual – like the wife selling off all his properties over a two year period.  Such naivety would not be without consequences in the UK, and so it is also the case in Thailand.  The problem is not so much Thailand being corrupt and the authorities incompetent as there being a seemingly never-ending stream of expat men who are blinded by the availability of young, foreign pussy over whom they wield (temporary) financial power to the exclusion of everything else, including basic common sense.  Little wonder the police don’t take much interest in their plight.

Posted in Thailand | 12 Comments

Les Marchés

There’s an idea which is fashionable in the UK, especially among lefties who, if they are not cash-rich are certainly time-wealthy, that supermarkets are bad and farmers’ markets are good.  Among this crowd there seems to persist the idea that France does things better with each town or suburb having a thriving farmers’ market where local folk can go and buy healthy, organic produce from jolly artisans who aren’t connected to evil supermarket chains.  And it’s true, you can.  But there are a few things people should know about these markets before advocating that they replace Tesco in the UK.

Firstly, the idea that the French eat only healthy food and shun ready-made meals is nonsense.  At the end of my street is a shop – Thiriet – which sells nothing other than frozen, ready-made food including the microwave meals which are apparently causing Brits to become fat.  The French eat this stuff as much as we do.

Secondly, French supermarkets aren’t a patch on the British ones.  Sure, you can buy everything a French person could want but the beauty of British supermarkets is they sell stuff a British person might want, plus what a plethora of foreigners might too.  Hence you can easily find egg noodles in a Tesco Metro.  Try finding them in a Carrefour City.  Or chilli powder.  Also, the French supermarkets aren’t very well run.  The queues at the checkouts are usually a mile long and there aren’t enough staff.  They restock the shelves during the day when they’re open, probably because employing people to work a nightshift is too expensive in France.  They close on Sundays, and a lot of them are dirty.  The Auchun near me is filthy, I haven’t seen baskets and trolleys with such grime on them since I lived in Lagos.

Thirdly, the quality and price of the vegetables in my local market is no different from that of my local supermarket.  I generally find it easier to use the supermarket because it’s closer, and see no advantage in buying vegetables from the market.  In all likelihood, it comes from the same place.

Finally, there is a hygiene factor.  I use the market to buy meat, the quality of which is superb and probably better than what you’d find in a British supermarket without knowing what you were doing.  The selection of fish is also brilliant, as is the cheese.  For this kind of stuff, the market is great which is why I go there.  But I did notice that this morning the chap handling my chicken breasts did so without gloves, nor did he wear a hat or hairnet.  He then handled the money with the same bare hands, picked up one of the coins he’d dropped on the floor, and then moved onto the next customer and handled a nice lump of pork without so much as wiping them on his filthy apron.  I don’t really care about this sort of stuff – so long as the chicken isn’t dry when I cook it, I won’t even remember when I bought it – but when I contrast this with the impeccable standards one sees on display at the deli countet in Tescos or Sainsburys – with everyone wearing hats, hairnets, and gloves – I wonder what the tofu-chomping Guardian readers would think if they were replaced one day by the rather rough looking bunch who man the meat counter at my local market?  Squeal for government intervention, I expect.

France is good and I like it a lot, but it’s often not as advertised.

Posted in France | 12 Comments

Speaking Foreign

A few months ago, somebody in the comments at Tim Worstall’s blog made the observation that one of the strong points of the English language is that people who speak it very badly can still be understood.  I don’t know if this is inherent in the language itself, but one thing is for sure: most native English speakers, especially those who live outside their native country, are used to hearing English which, to put it charitably, is less than perfect.

This comment coincided with a period when, for the first time in a decade, I found people could not understand my Russian (I am still learning it, and am better than I have ever been).  Two of my collagues – both native Russian speakers – seemed to grimace, laugh, and otherwise not understand me when I spoke, and corrected me halfway through my first sentence each time I tried.  I found this offputting to the point that I quit trying, and spoke to them in English instead.  I also struggled to understand their Russian, as they used words with which I was not familiar.  This latter one didn’t surprise me so much because I have always struggled to understand Russian (I speak it much better than I understand, whereas for most people it is the opposite), but the former bothered me a lot.  I had no trouble being understood in Sakhalin, or during the trip I took to Shymkent in Kazakhstan last October.  Then at the start of this summer I discovered one of the interns in the office was from Tatarstan, and spoke to her exclusively in Russian (until she started sharing an office with a French girl, and it would have been rude to continue).  She didn’t seem to have much trouble understanding me, and it got me curious as to why I struggled with the others.

What I think has happened is this.  Without realising it, I have gotten very good at deciphering appalling English spoken in accents which sound like fingernails down a blackboard.  I did live in Liverpool for a year, after all.  In a regular week I will hear English spoken by French, Thais, Russians, Malaysians, Indonesians, Venezuelans, Jamaicans, Kazakhs, Indians, and Nigerians whose English ability ranges from extremely good to a dozen words.  Add in the accents and pronunciation, and the range which I can decipher is pretty wide.

It occurred to me that other nationalities might not have this skill.  Russians, for example, are not likely to be very exposed to novices mangling their language, especially if they are educated and live in Moscow.  The worst they will hear on a regular basis are the rather odd grammatical constructs of Central Asians and Caucasians, who they can nevertheless understand perfectly well.  Parisian waiters might have enough exposure to appalling foreign accents ordering food and drink in French, but a typical resident of Bordeaux won’t be bombarded with the range of accents and abilities that a Mancunion will be.  There is probably therefore a level of accuracy which is required to be understood in any language, and this will differ between languages.  With English, the accuracy is very low.  If somebody walks up to me in London and says “Where sant pow?” I’ll be able to guess he’s asking for St. Paul’s.  In French he’ll need to be a lot more accurate, especially if the person he’s asking is some random resident (as opposed to somebody exposed to foreign tourists like a tour guide).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that the worse the natives speak their own language, the easier they find understanding foreigners.  The Russian spoken in Sakhalin is rougher than it is in St. Petersburg, but people there had no problem understanding me.  The language spoken in Shymkent (or, more accurately, a tiny Uzbek village an hour away) was a confusing mix of Russian and Uzbek with some Arabic thrown in and delivered in grunts through rows of shiny golden teeth with a cigarette hanging out the side of the mouth.  Yet these lot understood me just fine.  It could be that, not demanding linguistic perfection amongst themselves, they don’t expect it from foreigners either.

Another difference is that those who don’t speak the language of the foreigner will make a much greater effort to understand than somebody who knows they can (somewhat contemptuously) demand that they “say it in English”.  When there is only one common language, the foreigner’s garbled syntax and odd placement of accents is good enough.  One of the reasons English speakers make an effort to understand foreigners is the uncomfortable knowledge that a conversation in any other language would be a complete non-starter.  I have noticed that the French and Russians who cannot speak English work hard to understand what I am saying; those who speak English, less so.

When speaking to educated Russians or French, who know English well, one finds the desire to correct can sometimes make conversation impossible.  Corrections are fine if a word is obviously wrong, or the mistake common and repeated.  Halting somebody mid-sentence to correct a pronunciation is usually unhelpful, and it would be better to let the person continue.  Some will argue – and they do – that the correct placing of the accent is vital for people to know what the speaker means, but context plays that role and if I stopped everyone I interact with every time they mispronounced words in English I’d barely get past good morning: in France, I am known as Teem-o-tee.

For all the complaints of native English speakers not modifying their speech to suit foreign ears, at least they don’t, by and large, insist the foreigners reach 80-90% accuracy before they make any attempt to understand what’s being said.  We’re used to hearing mistakes, and let them slide.  There are fewer things more infuriating than trying to speak to somebody in a foreign language and have them tell you, in English, that they don’t understand because you’ve placed the stress on the wrong part of the word or pronounced a letter which is supposed to be silent.  Or telling you, in a conversation which is taking place for strictly practical purposes, that “this other word would be better” even if the one you used was perfectly adequate to be understood (this is particularly true of Russian, which tends to have words with far more specific usage than English or French: just look at how Russian deals with “to go”, for example).  I don’t care if a foreigner “takes” somebody from the airport instead of picking them up: I know what they mean.  I don’t care if they “go to the shower” instead of taking a shower.  I wish others would grant me the same leeway.

Posted in Languages | 33 Comments

Ashes 2015: Fifth Test Comments Thread

Posted in Sport | 5 Comments