Greek Ruins

‘The Athens shopping mall is full of young people buying the latest mobile phones and gadgets. So much about this recession remains confusing’

Economy Europe The Outsider's Diary

What do great recessions look like? I wonder about this as I stroll through an Athens shopping mall. As in London, the place is filled with young people buying the latest mobile phones and gadgets. There are more people queuing for public transport than last time I was here. One Athenian tells me there is more bin-scavenging in some neighbourhoods. But otherwise what is striking is that there is nothing especially striking. People are just getting on with it. Back in London, people question me about the trip as though I had been in a warzone.

Perhaps the surprise is because we are so used to photographs of the great inter-war Depression, of people shoeless and starving. There is a risk that unless the iconography fits that picture this time we’ll think we’re OK. I have lunch in a crowded restaurant overlooking the Acropolis. Were New York restaurants full in the Thirties? So much about this recession remains confusing. You can see why such a large proportion of people think it isn’t real or exists only in the minds of right-wing governments.

Last December the German Chancellor Angela Merkel pointed out that with just over 7 per cent of the world’s population Europe produces 25 per cent of the world’s GDP, yet has to finance 50 per cent of the world’s social spending. “Europeans,” she said, “will have to work very hard to maintain [their] prosperity and way of life.”

When I last quoted those figures in print I got a number of messages from people saying, “Twenty-five per cent of the world’s GDP with 7 per cent of the global population? Sounds good to me.” If people believe there is no floor or are determined to hit that floor, how exactly can you stop them?

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I am in Athens to speak in a debate on immigration. One of the participants is the wonderful Bernard Kouchner, the former French foreign minister. He recounts a recent debate in London in which he opposed General Musharraf, the former president of Pakistan.

The moderator asked if the general had known that Osama bin Laden was in his country. Musharraf gave a series of gnomic replies. Kouchner grew exasperated and with Gallic shrugs said, “I know why you have to say this, but your nose it is growing.” Even Musharraf laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. 

One country deeply in need of some humour is Saudi Arabia. It is also in need of some workers. According to the newspaper al-Ahram, the Kingdom is suffering from a dearth of “official swordsmen”. This has become so serious that the Saudis are replacing beheading, the traditional method of execution, with the relatively progressive innovation of the firing squad. Seven men were shot last month.

A committee of the relevant ministries (interior, justice and health, surprisingly) states: “This solution seems practical, especially in light of shortages in official swordsmen or their belated arrival to execution yards in some incidents.”

I am trying to think of another example of bureaucrat-speak which conceals so much human misery.

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Why is it worth trying to remember even just the odd line of poetry? One reason is for the occasions when you discover it provides the words to describe or even enhance the moment.

I was recently in Cambodia, standing at the top of one of the magnificent temples at Siem Reap. As the sun went down, the surrounding roar of birds diminuendoed to a churchlike hush and then silence. It brought to mind the wonderful end lines I had read a few days earlier in John Fuller’s “Concerto for Double Bass”: “But close your eyes and it is sunset / At the edge of the world.”

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Sentencing Chris Huhne and his ex-wife Vicky Pryce each to eight months in prison, Mr Justice Sweeney declared: “You have fallen from a great height.” I cannot see this. Huhne fell from a little height.

Even among the leadership of his own party one expects falls to go deeper. Recent Lib Dem top brass have included alcoholics, adulterers and a former leader accused of attempted murder. It is not only when compared with these that Huhne’s fall seems slight.

To me his sorry tale has a single moment of interest: the point at which he decided it would be better for his career in the party to swap what promised to be a minor inconvenience for a little lie. That a career in the Liberal Democrats could ever be worth this is not the point. Irrespective of the party or the pointlessness, in that moment of decision lies all of human folly.