Sat, Jan 14, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Enjoy the new year while you still can

By William Keegan  /  THE GUARDIAN

It's the new year. It's not quite the Lunar New Year, but when it comes it will be the Year of the Dog. And the Scots have Burns Night still to come.

One of my grandfathers was a Burns man. In those far off days, decades before Google was even thought of, he used to quote huge chunks of Burns, his favorite line, when his grandchildren expressed irritation at the frustration of their plans, being that all too accurate observation: `The best-laid schemes o mice an men Gang aft agley' -- that last phrase meaning, `often go awry.'

Yes, Burns got to the mice and men before Steinbeck, and Burns of course had made a study of mice [`Wee sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beastie'] as well as men.

Now before we proceed further, I should just like to emphasize why I refer to `one of my grandfathers.' Have you noticed how when people speak of their grandfathers or grandmothers, they nearly always talk as if they only had or have one grandfather or grandmother? We all have two of each, but its as if half the family tree is removed, Kremlin-fashion, from the record.

But back to that Burnsian reflection which my paternal grandfather used to utter with an air of worldly wisdom and philosophical reflection. As this year gets into its stride, I fear that it may well be the Year of Burns. We began with President Putin, with his decision to cut off the supply of gas to Ukraine and other European countries, forcing the entire EU to rethink its long-nurtured plans for increasing its reliance on Russian gas supplies. Indeed, so great was the shock to the system, and remembrance of things past, that I was tempted to write `reliance on Soviet gas supplies.'

Then, my goodness, the British Liberal Democrats forced their leader Charles Kennedy to resign after a week of machinations that made Duncan's assassination by Macbeth a relatively peaceful affair.

For many Britons, this episode, and the farce over the succession to Kennedy, has completely transformed the British political landscape.

Why? Because the Liberals have for years now been the UK's natural party of protest: what I mean is that those members of the electorate who could not face voting either for the Conservatives or for Labour under Tony Blair were happy to vote Liberal Democrat -- not least last time because Charles Kennedy honorably opposed the invasion of Iraq. Now almost everyone I meet feels they must also register a protest vote against the bad behavior of the Liberals.

But perhaps the most potentially frightening development to upset the plans of us mice and men is the news that the third largest bank in the world, HSBC, estimates, in the words of the Financial Times (FT) report, "that up to half of its staff could fall ill or be absent from work at the peak of the next flu pandemic, as Europe began to come to terms with the first human cases of the H5N1 bird flu virus on its doorstep.

According to the FT, such estimates are not untypical of what other multinationals regard as possible if bird flu spreads westwards from Turkey. As for Turkey, where a number of tragic deaths from bird flu have been reported, and the disease seems to be spreading, this could hardly be a less propitious moment. Only a few months ago, under the British presidency of the EU, the gates were opened to Turkey's application to join the Union.

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