Dear Friends and Readers,
As we are still on the road, actually still closer to the beginning of our journey than the end, today’s posting will again be a bit staccato.
It will also probably be short, as the group is gearing up for a visit to Bath. With, I suspect, a side trip to Stonehenge. As mentioned in the last entry of this journal, these are the sort of tourist destinations I am reluctant to visit… specifically because of the presence of so many tourists.
Even so, trying to improve my reputation as a Grinch about such things, I ventured out in the pouring rain for a visit to Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Duke of Marlborough and birthplace of the family’s most famous modern descendent, Winston Churchill.
On Blenheim Palace
Having traveled quite a bit over the years, I’ve seen more than my fair share of rubble from antiquity and stones stacked in attractive arrangements.
With that experience as my baseline, I will report here and now that Blenheim Palace could very well be the most visually attractive arrangement of stones I have seen. In fact, viewed in concert with the idyllic landscaping, it would not surprise me if Blenheim was the most aesthetically pleasing estate on the planet.
Of course, these things are a matter of personal taste, but were I given a pop quiz on the topic at this very moment, Blenheim would get the top marks.
However, other than that its architect, Sir John Vanbrugh, was a grand master of the architectural arts, there is more one can learn from Blenheim.
The toll inflation takes. The house, which began construction in 1705 and ultimately took 21 years to complete, cost a sum of £300,000. Being cavalier with the exchange rate at 2:1 dollars to pounds, we are left with a cost of $600,000.
What did $600,000 buy you back then?
Of course, these days $600,000 would buy you a modest apartment in most cities (or a cardboard box over a heating vent on a sidewalk in Vancouver).
Money can’t buy you love… or life. John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, was a man of grand plans, as witnessed by the legacy that is Blenheim. Unfortunately, he died before construction was finished. And that left the work of completing the place to his widow Sarah, who apparently thought the grand plan was a great folly from start to finish and never really liked the place.
Time heals all. Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect, was actually fired from the work after a fight with Sarah about finances. Adding insult to injury, in its time, the style of the house was considered gaudy and was noted as a black mark on Vanbrugh’s career, which was pretty much ruined as a result. He was so out of favor that when he showed up at the grand opening as a member of the public, he and his wife were turned away.
Don’t trust the government. John Churchill was awarded the estate and palace as a gift from the appreciative government for his winning a series of important battles during the War of Spanish Secession. However, following a falling out with the monarchy in 1711, the government reneged and all further funds were cut off, leaving Sarah constantly scrambling about to find the funds to complete the place. (Ergo the firing of the architect and adding vitriol to the unmerry widow’s attitude about the palace.)
There’s money to be made from history. Even though we were visiting Blenheim Palace on a rainy day, the crowds were thick: the door-minder told me they expected 9,000 people to pass through during the day. According to the same door-minder, that number paled in comparison to the busier days, mentioning that a few weekends before, they had 130,000 visitors over a three-day period.
Which means—at least for us uncultured Americans, who by reputation always assign a monetary value to such things—at ticket prices of about US$30 a head, the place is a gushing fire hydrant of money. Yet, the set-up for tourists is quite poorly thought out, starting with one collection of rooms featuring the lamest and most boring series of past-the-sell-by-date “animatronics” imaginable.
Worse, however, is that, in order to view the main salons, everyone is first required to elbow their way through a series of tiny rooms for a homage to Winston Churchill. Being a bit on the claustrophobic side, and given that it began to feel like the Tokyo subway, we squirmed our way against the tide and exited.
Did I mention I’m a lousy tourist?
Regardless, if I were 30 years younger and brimming with energy, or someone with skills in the visual arts and entertainment, I would set up a company to handle the management and monetization of historic sites such as Blenheim, as the money to be made from the steady flow of humanity is spectacular.
And, frankly, the current management is pretty much blind to the experience they are offering to the public, which, with just a bit of thought, could be greatly improved upon.
In any event, enough on this topic. Let’s saddle up and hit the trail for the next topic.
Servant of God
The night before last, we flagged down a cab in Oxford and were picked up by a young Muslim man. As there were five of us, I sat in front and, as is my nature, was quickly engaged in a conversation with the driver.
The man, probably in his late twenties, was meticulous in all regards, from his long but carefully trimmed beard to his clothes, to the state of his cab and, most noticeably, his mind.
With little urging, it became obvious he wanted to talk about his religion and the misperceptions we Americans have of it. And so we dove in. While I wish I had recorded the conversation so I could repeat it precisely, I will have to rely on my memory. Which is to say, impressions. Among his views:
He quoted Yusuf Islam, formerly the musician Cat Stevens, from a concert he had attended recently, as saying that “they”—being him and his fellow young devotees to Islam -- were the “bridge to peace” between the cultures. When I countered by asking about the violence of the Middle East and elsewhere at the hands of the Islamists, he responded by gently (and correctly) turning the point to the million or so Iraqis who died as a result of the American invasion.
He was unhesitant in bringing up the Jews and stated that “they” had nothing against Jews, but they did hate Zionists.
He told me how he lives his life as a servant of his god and that every part of his life is as God wills it to be. As a consequence, he suffers none of the doubts or other mental distractions the non-believers are so troubled by.
When I mentioned that there are hundreds of religions that humanity believes in, and so what makes him think Islam is THE religion, he countered without missing a beat by saying there were three religions that have dominiated the world, and they all emanated from the same place, and that was no coincidence. He added that he and his fellows believe in the same god as the Christians and the Jews.
The conversation, all too short, continued in this give-and-take manner until we arrived at our hotel. If nothing else, I want to stress how poised and well spoken this young man was. At all times, his voice and mind were calm and clear, his thoughts concise and well presented.
There was something else. This was an individual who had been thoroughly indoctrinated and superbly educated about his religion.
I have never met a Christian with anything close to the same understanding of the god they purport to believe in, let alone devotion.
As a consequence, I have no question in my mind whatsoever, had I asked him whether he considered his first allegiance to his adopted country of Britain or to his religon, he would have had no hesitation in choosing the latter.
More importantly, if ordered by his religious teacher to join ISIS, or to take up a fatwah, I am likewise convinced he—and the legions who have been similarly indoctrinated—would do without hesitation.
That’s because, unlike the rest of humanity who pay lip service to their respective deities, this man and his kindred spirits truly believe their god is real and that the Koran is the literal work of that god.
Ponder, for a minute, the implications of that.
As we pulled up to the front of the hotel, I told him I understood that his views emanated from his core belief that his god was real, then added, “But what if there is no god? What if it’s all a 2000-year-old fiction?”
For the first time in our conversation, he didn’t have a quick reply, but I could see he was processing the thought—but certainly through lessons learned in his Koran.
As I opened my door to exit, he smiled pleasantly and said sincerely, “Thank you for our conversation, it is nice to speak with someone who listens and who understands.”
Dear readers, for the first time I understand at least something of the mindset of the young Muslims signing up to fight with ISIS and the Taliban and other such groups. And even though I liked the young cab driver, in my opinion, there is a clear danger to what might be called Western civilization, to the separation of church and state, to hard-won women’s rights, and to the live-and-let-live culture that emerged in modernity.
If anyone, governments or members of the public, thinks the fundamentalists are going to somehow become house trained through propaganda, or stopped by surgically removing their leaders from the gene pool, they are sadly mistaken. And widespread war-making on the Muslim countries is just feeding more fuel into the fire.
In the case of Iraq, a lot more fuel.
These are not mindless fanatics, but an army of millions of thoroughly indoctrinated individuals who, per above, sincerely believe their god is real. As a result, when commanded by their god’s representatives on Earth to bring down the infidels by any means possible, even at the cost of their own lives, these servants of God have no alternative but to march.
How deep the problem is in Britain and elsewhere in Europe was hinted at the next morning when, coincidentially, a guest on a BBC news program related the results of a recent survey in which one-third of British Muslim men under the age of 25 said in a poll that they wanted to live under Sharia law.
Of course, I’m far from an expert on any religious topic. As such, I’m simply sharing my personal observations in this post. But as I travel around Europe (I am now magically transported to France where I’m finishing this up), I can’t help but notice the large numbers of believers in the Prophet Mohammed mixed into the population.
There are, in my opinion, no easy “solutions” to this cultural collision. And maybe no solutions at all, because there is a fundamental and unbridgeable gap between the ferverent believers in Islam and those who believe in a secular world. History will take its course before we know its ultimate outcome.
Meanwhile, I remain comforted by the thought that I’ll observe it from afar, in the Argentine outback.
A Closing Word—About Natural Resources
In a previous edition of this blog, I mentioned that gold was reaching the level at which it may present a good speculation again.
With the price action of recent days, the time to begin taking speculative positions may have arrived. Personally, I have had deep stink bids filled on the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX), Natural Resource Partners (NRP), and, today, on CNOOC, the Chinese national oil company (CEO).
Over the last couple of years, as the carnage in gold and then oil stocks carried on, there has been talk of capitulation.
Well, if this latest leg down isn’t capitulation, then maybe I don’t understand the concept. In any event, for whatever it’s worth, I am now back in the market. Spdeaking of which, my favorite trading sardine, Seadrill, just tripped my stink bid at $8.20, so I have reentered that trade as well.
There are some serious bargains out there, and in my opinion, it is time to start paying attention again. Maybe not for a long run, but for a quick 10 to 20%.
And with that, I will bid you adieu for the time being from my latest stop on the trail of life, a small village outside of Carcassonne.