Q: So, where’s NATO when you actually need it? A: Not At The Office (note new name)

WAY back in the 1960s, there was a telly ad running on TV, guaranteeing that should any disaster befall your life, home, health, jewels or car, fear not…restitution was at hand.

‘Get the full strength of the insurance companies around you,’ was hardly a snappy slogan. However, even if it didn’t exactly catch the mood – like: ‘Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum’ or ‘Go to work on an egg’ – it was an implied reminder of the perils that can afflict the uncovered (and I’m not referring to nudists).

In the then icy bite of the Cold War, insurance on an international scale was needed to safeguard the West’s wellbeing against the threat of Soviet expansion, so the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (a.k.a. NATO) was born.

The Russians countered with the Warsaw Pact and, for over three decades, a military stalemate existed, predicated on the tacit understanding that mutual nuclear annihilation was assured if ever World War III was sparked.

Though the Pact is dead, following the implosion of Soviet communism, NATO still exists, with some ex-Pact members even joining the now 28-nation alliance.

You’d imagine, then, that the small print in our insurance policy with the world’s premier military muscle would be vigilantly scrutinised right now, after Vladimir Putin’s Spetsnaz stormtroops invaded Ukraine and land-grabbed Crimea.

It isn’t. And the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, whereby the West and Russia agreed to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, isn’t worth the paper it’s scrawled on.

And, as regards the numerous NATO projects designed to forge closer ties with Kiev, aimed at beefing up Ukraine’s military capabilities in the event of attack, they don’t apparently to matter an iota, either.

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

This was made abundantly clear by US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who dismissed suggestions the alliance should do something – anything, even a slight rattle of its sabre – in response to Putin’s outrageous and unprovoked act of belligerence.

Nope, blithely stated the five-star general, his tailored ‘blues’ so overladen with ribbon it’s a wonder he can stand up straight. NATO has no contingency plan to deal with Russian thuggery. And even if there was one gathering dust somewhere in the organisation’s opulent Brussels HQ, it wouldn’t be adopted. Full point, as the Yanks would say.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask: what exactly does NATO stand for today…Not At The Office, perhaps? Because it sure seems to have passed the buck, as the Yanks would also say.

No-one is proposing the West and the rest actual go to war over Ukraine. But some true grit show of defiance – a tad more potent than the tut-tutting response that’s been the order of the day so far from the European Union – might just send a signal to Vlad The Invader enough is enough.

Small wonder former communist bloc countries, like Poland and the Baltic states which joined NATO for the protection it promised, are aghast at how supine the West’s military tiger is.

All this procrastination and lack of resolve must be music to Putin’s ears and grist to his mill of reconstituting the old Russian empire.

And, if anyone believes his incursion into Ukraine and annexing of Crimea are Vlad’s last territorial calculation, then welcome to Cloud Cuckoo Land and have a nice day.

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

Hence, his forces continue their intimidating war games along Ukraine’s border, while casting covetous glances at Moldova’s quirky, Russian-speaking enclave of Trans-Dniester, notorious for its chicken-smuggling industry (no, I kid you not; that’s its chief source of revenue).

But wait a mo’, you say. We are taking stern steps to punish Russia and curb any notions Putin has of further aggression.

And they’ve started…by freezing the assets of a half-dozen Kremlin apparatchiks you’ve never heard of, while expat oligarchs – like Roman Abramovitch – might be forced to hand back their Tesco loyalty cards.

We’ve even expelled Putin from the exclusive G8 club, which is as stinging a sanction as being blackballed by the Grand Order of Freemasons.

The only problem is the wannabe tsar isn’t quaking in his Timberland boots and billions of roubles mysteriously fled Moscow – to destinations unknown, but probably London – days before the infamous Crimea referendum saw the accommodating citizenry vote, almost unanimously, to re-join Mother Russia.

But diplomacy not NATO will rein in rapacious Putin, insists Barack Obama.

For once, however, in a passionate speech to the now G7 in Brussels last week, he sounded robustly presidential, shelving the ‘peacenik’ image embedded in his core, like Blackpool or Coney Island runs through a stick of rock candy.

After lambasting Russia, tellingly Obama tongue-lashed the EU’s timid stance against Putin and rapped Europe’s lamentable attitude to defence – particularly that of Germany – demanding a review of military spending ‘to examine whether everybody is chipping in.’

Whether or not NATO does what it says on the tin, the US now picks up 73 percent of its tab, so it’s not unreasonable for the President to ask (Angela Merkel in particular), ‘Show me the money.’

Obama even displayed some business acumen, suggesting a solution to economically moribund Europe’s reliance on Russian energy…by selling it America’s surplus of gas and petroleum it’s eked out from fracking.

Obliging, he’s even willing to lay on a fleet of colossal tankers to transport the fuel, rather like the WW2 Atlantic convoys.

After all, what are friends for, maybe the President added.

For his part, poker-faced Putin isn’t blinking an eyelid, but spending $400-billion on refurbishing his rust-bucket navy and quarter-mastering his armed forces with the latest lethal gizmos, which begs the question: Why?

He must be betting, too, he’ll continue running rings round Obama in diverse arenas of conflict like the Middle East, where he’s just signed a contract with Egypt to supply $2-billion of ordnance, after the US refused – on ethical grounds – to replenish the country’s military stock.

As for NATO, in Russia’s evaluation, it’s a paper tiger or whatever is the equivalent of a busted flush in the Cyrillic alphabet.

 

 

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Branded loudmouths in life, but lauded in death…what hypocrites we Brits are!

ACCORDING to some of the avalanche of obituaries mostly extolling him, Tony Benn was a ‘champion of Britain’s powerless’, ‘a conviction politician’ and ‘standard-bearer of the unrepentant Left’.

Not dissimilarly, Bob Crow, hard-line leader of the UK’s Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT), was actually a Mister Softie – not to be confused with the ice cream vendor of that name – and a far, far cry from the uncompromising, bulleted-headed bully he was caricatured as by Right-leaning tabloids, notably The Sun and Daily Mail.

To expand this theme further, self-proclaimed culinary genius, Clarissa Dickson Wright, of Two Fat Ladies TV show fame – or, to give her handle its full flamboyance: Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright – who recently expired, aged 66, was a great British eccentric, not the nasty, opinionated loutess, who thought badger scratchings would make a ‘supah’ bar snack.

Personally, my own life would have been mildly enhanced if all three had never drawn breath. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they added a splodge of colour to Brtain’s otherwise bland horizon, even if the depths of repulsion were plumbed at times.

So much has been expended eulogising Benn, who died earlier this month at 88, it seems churlish to put the boot in; nonetheless I will, if only in the cause of balance.

IMMATURING WITH AGE: That was ex-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson's verdict on Tony Benn, the man who tried to steer Britain's Labour Party hard Left

IMMATURING WITH AGE: That was ex-Prime Minister, Harold Wilson’s verdict on Tony Benn, the man who tried to steer Britain’s Labour Party hard Left

Because, for all his synthetic charm and contention democracy was the lodestar of his life, Benn – a.k.a. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, briefly the second Viscount Stansgate and Pipeman of the Year, 1993 – brazenly schemed to be the wrecking ball of the British Left and, in truth, espoused Leninism as the noblest political philosophy.

Not an iota of a notion that spewed from his maverick – some would say reckless – lips actually worked. And his insistence on adopting failed, extreme socialism backfired to pave the way for Margaret Thatcher’s laissez-faire revolution, so unelectable was Benn’s ghoulish vision of what the Labour Party should be.

He was, as Adam Boulton, Sky TV’s political editor and Sunday Times columnist, aptly categorised him, ‘a poisonous irrelevance’, who put self-aggrandisement above loyalty to the cause and imagined all those around him were intellectual inferiors.

A more stinging critique, perhaps, came from Harold Wilson, the then Labour Prime Minister, who said of Benn in the 1970s, ‘He immatures with age.’

Yet, mourning his passing, socialism’s usual suspects queued up with effusive tributes…‘an iconic figure’, raved Labour leader, Ed Miliband; ‘A principled politician and activist,’ chorused IRA apologist, Gerry Adams; ‘He remains an inspiration’, insisted hard-Left singer, Billy Bragg.

Even ex-PM Gordon Brown, whom Benn judged wasn’t fit to run a corner shop, joined in the adulation, plus a few nostalgia-addled Tories.

At least Crow, who died suddenly, aged 52, when at the zenith of his intimidating powers, was a genuine class warrior, though some viewed it farcical that he continuing living in a council house when drawing a £135K-a-year salary, plus generous perks.

The bane of every train and Tube commuter’s life, Crow couldn’t be faulted for serving RMT members, regardless of his ‘strike ballot first/talks later’ strategy often going beyond the call of negotiation table propriety.

Describing himself as a ‘Socialist Communist’, he forever demanded Britain’s railways be renationalised, denouncing their sell-off as ‘vandalism’ that just put money into shareholders’ pockets.

CLASS WARRIOR: Crow wanted Britain out of the EU and the monarchy replaced by Benn as UK President

CLASS WARRIOR: Crow wanted Britain out of the EU and the monarchy replaced by Benn as UK President

What the firebrand failed to address was why the number of rail-users doubled after privatisation or why his militant activism failed to gain traction across the rest of the trade union movement.

With an ego threatening to dwarf London’s St. Pancras Station, Crow could be excused for fighting to improve the lot of his members – even if their pay rises came at the expense of other jobs in the transport sector – but not when he elbowed his bulk into mainstream politics.

Hectoring Tony Blair for squandering ‘a massive landslide from an electorate hungry for change’, he accused the thrice-elected Labour PM of accelerating ‘the growing gap between rich and poor’ and vehemently opposed the European Union.

Crow’s red skies thinking embraced the reintroduction of capital punishment, abolishing the monarchy and nominating for UK President – you’ve guessed it – one Tony Benn, whom the trade union baron exalted as a ‘true representative of working people.’

Had she not been a real-life ogre, Dickson Wright could have been created by P.G. Wodehouse, after a particularly nightmarish LSD trip. If only in girth, she was certainly a match for the author’s prize sow, the Empress of Blandings.

Not that physique is the issue here. In fact, it certainly played no small part in her TV series hitting a peak audience of 3.5 million, despite the London Evening Standard’s Victor Lewis Smith lambasting the Two Fat Ladies – the other being the slightly less plump and plummy Jennifer Paterson, who died in 1999 – ‘as thoroughly ugly personalities.’

At risk of sounding endearing by resorting to first-name terms, Clarissa had a ‘Krakatoa’ of her temper and was obnoxious for various other reasons, not least her view of non-meat eaters as ‘manky, little vegetarians’ (I’m all for T-bone and chips, by the way). Fulsomely bosomed, she didn’t like bras, either.

KITCHEN STINKER: Clarissa Dickson Right (pictures right, with her Two Fat Ladies partner, Jennifer Paterson) was bombastic and foul-tempered

KITCHEN STINKER: Clarissa Dickson Right (pictured right, with her Two Fat Ladies partner, Jennifer Paterson) was bombastic and foul-tempered

No, despite her grand-mumsy image, Clarissa was a bombast, for years fuelled by so gargantuan an intake of alcohol as to make a two-tonne stud bull senseless – in fact she drank herself to bankruptcy – who rarely had a kind word to say about anyone or anything, except ‘country blood sports’.

Meanwhile, so cholesterol-saturated were they, her recipes were a ticket to heart disease.

Understandably, there will be some who disagree with my uncharitable views on the trio of personalities I’ve cited. Contrarily, I suggest an informed majority will concur.

But, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Martha Gill last week took issue with those who slate the reputations of the departed, condemning them as ‘cowardly’.  To support her claim, she referred to the obscure, ancient moralist, Chilon of Sparta, who asserted it was wrong to speak ill of the dead, since they’re no longer around to defend themselves.

What sinks Martha’s contention is that, in death, Benn, Crow and Dickson Wright have all have been elevated to cult status, which they didn’t deserve in life.

So it begs the question: Are we Brits such a purblind, forgiving lot, we’re inspired to pay respects to persons who, in life, were basically pains in the nether regions?

This perverse sense of Anglo-Saxon fair play appears to be an obsessional acquiescence to our naïve belief that there’s good in all folk…it’s just that we sometimes fail to recognise it until they’ve slid off the plate.

Conversely, it also smacks of arrant hypocrisy.

‘Mini’ Crimea War result prediction: Vlad The Invader 1, Wobbling West 0

THE question facing Ukraine’s Crimean citizens in today’s referendum ought to ask, ‘Do you prefer to be part of Russia again – or be mashed into a gooey blinis topping by a bunch of uniformed goons, who’ve apparently arrived from nowhere to offer fraternal greetings?’

Because, however quasi-democratic – and America dubbing it ‘illegal’ – the plebiscite’s outcome is a given: the Crimea, once Stalin’s holiday playground, will revert to its previous status of a Russian entity, this time as part of Vladimir Putin’s new, expansive, nationalist empire.

It will also signal the culmination of one of the slickest coups d’état, a ‘mini’ Crimean War  that’s a throwback to Soviet power plays, with all the familiar Kremlin agitprop used to justify crushing upstarts (think Hungary, in 1956, and Czechoslovakia a dozen years later).

Also, it’s an ominous reminder of Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland, carried out in the name of ethnic Germans living in the Czech province.

Back then Britain and France gave the Nazis a free pass, but the warning signs were glaring. Thus emboldened, Germany invaded Poland – again on the specious pretext of defending nationals there – and the Second World War was up and running.

Like Hitler, Putin claims he’s intervening in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians and spare the country from ‘fascist, racist revolutionaries’, who overthrew their democratic leader.

CALLING THE TUNE: Putin shows off his piano-playing prowess and makes sure all sing from his hymn sheet

CALLING THE TUNE: Putin shows off his piano-playing prowess and makes sure all sing from his hymn sheet

For the record, that was Viktor Yanukovych, a thieving bruiser with a penchant for sharp suits and tyranny, who hot-footed it to safety under Putin’s protective wing when the people tired of his lies.

As an aside, totally disregard any scurrilous rumours the mysterious horde of heavily-armed men – in uniforms minus regimental flashes – who turned up weeks ago to corral Ukrainian forces into their barracks, are Russian.

They are merely local patriots, insist Kremlin mouthpieces, outfitted by a nearby army surplus store I wish I had shares in, who only sought to restore law and order. That they can’t speak a syllable of Ukrainian is a by-the-by.

So, game, set and match to V.V. Putin.

The only issue to be resolved is: what will be the grand bully of diplomatic chess’s next gambit?

Will he ‘liberate’ the rest of eastern Ukraine, with its Russian-speaking majority, who magically appear as a rent-a-mob to decry the ‘neo-Nazi’ usurpers in Kiev?

Or could other soft-touch nations bordering the Black Sea, like Moldova, be on Vlad The Invader’s wish list, because surely it’s a matter of time before he flexes his muscles again?

And who’s going to stymie the ex-KGB thug’s pursuit to rebuild the Russian Empire?

Enter the brave, bold West, with a procession of foreign ministers trekking to Kiev to allay fears that ‘free’ Ukraine has been abandoned.

Perish the thought, intimated Britain’s William Hague, as his boss, Squire Cameron, fulminated about ‘the most serious crisis in Europe this century’ and ‘unacceptable’ Russian expansionism.

Tough, if empty talk, because the reality was laid bare when a Downing Street policy document was inadvertently revealed, stating, ‘We should not support, for now, trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians.’

Heartening news, then, for estate agents in Mayfair and South Kensington, if not gladder tidings for Putin: British bluster is a sham.

Conversely, if briefly, it seemed President Obama – or The Great Ditherer as he’s now known – nearly discovered he had a backbone, after announcing, ‘Putin must know that there is a price to pay for his actions.’

HOT LINE: But Obama inaction is interpreted by the Russians as weakness, says a NATO source

HOT LINE: But Obama’s dithering is interpreted by the Russians as weakness, says a NATO source

Inexorably, he reverted to type and sabre-rattled with a penknife, merely despatching a squadron of Phantom jets to Poland and a couple to safeguard the Baltic republics…feeble gestures, indeed, and unlikely to wipe the smirk off Putin’s face.

But hark! More sanctions are being threatened, like Russia being kicked out of the G8, visas revoked, asset freezes on Kremlin apparatchiks and – who knows – oligarchs banned from Harrods’ food hall.

For its part, the punchless, witless European Union vacillates from the sidelines, despite Ukraine proverbially being in its backyard (as was Kosovo, remember – and look what a mess they made there).

Unsurprising, I suppose, since so many EU nations – notably Germany – rely on Russian gas, EU leaders just gassed on, condemning Putin’s moral, political and legal bankruptcy, but paying only lip service to diplomatic retaliation.

And, as regards Obama, the nationalist tsar sussed out long ago he was no Cold War warrior in the Reagan mould; that this occupant of the White House was a navel-gazing poseur, more social-worker than commander-in-chief, whose foreign policy – if, indeed, he has one – is anchored in the biblical credo that the meek shall inherit the earth.

For all Putin’s paranoia over perceived Western encroachment eastwards into Russia’s sphere of influence, like his inglorious Soviet predecessors, he recognises wobbling when he sees it.

As a NATO official noted last week, ‘The Kremlin respects strength and despises indecisiveness – they see comprise as weakness.’

So, for all his macho posturing, Obama has reverted to a default setting that’s hands-off and isolationist – or, in Russia’s eyes, jelly-kneed and wimpy.

Putin probably first recognised it when the President shelved plans to base missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009, then scotched talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO.

The next signals were Obama backing the losing, Islamo-fanatic side in Egypt’s ’s Arab Spring counter revolt and a retreat on Libya, when he subcontracted the destruction of Gaddafi’s maniacal regime to the RAF and French air force.

Then came the vacuous ‘red lines’ warning to Assad over chemical weapons in Syria, which vaporised into nothing and left Putin – of all people – orchestrating US foreign policy towards the Butcher of Damascus (NB: so far it’s going nowhere).

Worse still, security analysts agree almost universally that America’s deal with Iran over checking its nuclear weapons development was a diplomatic farce, with only one winner – the mad mullahs of Tehran.

Little wonder last week The New York Post heaped further scorn on the gullible President, dubbing him ‘Jimmy Obama’ in an unsubtle reference to James Earl Carter, probably the most inept US leader in living memory.

So apologies to the valiant Ukrainians. None of what I’ve said is any consolation, but be assured that with friends like us in the West, you don’t need enemies.

Paradise lost: How your friendly, neighbourhood conman is out to fleece you

KEEP this just between us, but it seems I’m about to inherit a shedload of dosh.

That’s why I’m racking my brains whether to plump for the Bentley Continental or the Aston Martin Vantage (it’ll probably be the Bentley, because the boot space can handle the small Himalaya of Louis Vuitton luggage my missus is ordering).

Anyway, as I said, it’s hush-hush, because I’m planning to surprise the kids with a postcard from Barbados, saying, ‘We’re in the money – glad you’re not here!’

Apparently, according to some firm of dogged heir hunters in Nigeria, a long deceased relative I never knew I had has left a fortune from mining diamonds and it’s never been claimed.

As luck would have it, they’ve managed to trace me via the internet. Now all I need do is send them my banking details and – hey presto! – I’ll be in the Forbes Magazine Rich List.

Funnily enough, as I mentioned two weeks ago, I recently received an email from another Nigerian, a kindly financier who promised that if I invested twenty thou with him he’d multiply it a hundredfold within a month.

You’ve got to hand it to these African whiz-kids. When it comes to cash, they really know what they’re doing.

That’s because they’re major players in the league of international conmen; all rapacious scamsters, hard-nosed hustlers, grifters or rip-off merchants by any other, scummy name.

And they’re all around, like a nasty rash – ‘phishing’ on online and phone for your bank security codes or in your face, posing as ‘financial gurus’ with get-rich-quick schemes guaranteed to deliver the golden goose…except its golden eggs fly from your pocket straight into their feathered nests, usually offshore.

Last week, the culmination of a two-year, joint operation between British and Spanish anti-fraud squads saw 110 suspects arrested in London, Manchester, Barcelona, Madrid, Marbella, Serbia and Florida when an alleged £15M (€18M) ‘boiler-room’ scam was busted.

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

BOILER-ROOM BUST: British and Spanish police swoop on alleged fraudsters in a £15M share-selling scam

It’s said to have tricked at least 850 Brits living in Spain and the UK into buying non-existent or, at best, worthless shares.

The fraudsters are reported to have spent the takings on £multi-million mansions in the sun, fast cars, drugs and prostitutes.

There’s nothing new about money-sucking lice preying on the financially naïve and, in the case of ‘boiler-room’ cons, the prime targets are innocent pensioners, some with just meagre savings.

The term ‘boiler-room’, incidentally, refers to the high-pressure techniques employed by sales ’advisers’ and the fact they often operate from small, cramped offices – maybe even a flat in a block of innocuous apartments – which draw little attention from neighbours.

Lists of potential investors can be bought from bent stockbrokers or data-capture firms which peddle personal information.

The scammers then contact the investor (a.k.a. the ‘mark’) offering tempting returns and they pester until the target’s resistance is so utterly exhausted, they cough up their bank or credit card details.

Sometimes the hustlers even pay out a small ‘dividend’ as bait for the ‘mark’ to part with more cash and often they do.

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court before his nine-year sentence - Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

BROKEN MAN: Hirst, the fallen conman, going to court to hear his nine-year sentence – Photo: Huddersfield Examiner

That’s a classic, Ponzi-scheme ploy, like the one crafted by conman, John Hirst, who hoovered an estimated £10M (€12M) from gullible clients here in Mallorca and the UK into his Seychelles-based Gilher ‘fund’ until 2009, when I helped unmask the callous fraud in stories for the Sunday Telegraph.

Part of the coverage revealed the Yorkshireman – dubbed the ‘Bernie Madoff of Mallorca’, after his multi-millionaire lifestyle was laid bare – had served a prison sentence in the 1990s for rooking miners out of their redundancy pay.

The reports triggered an investigation by Britain’s Serious Fraud Office and, in 2012, Hirst pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud and money laundering at Bradford Crown Court and was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.

His accomplice, corrupt accountant Richard Pollett, was jailed for six-and-a-half years after being found guilty to defraud, while Hirst’s spendthrift wife, Linda Waite, was banged up for 30 months for money laundering and deception.

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

SMILING SCAMSTERS: Richard Pollett (left) with John Hirst in the good times, when their con was scooping millions

If it’s any consolation to Gilher victims – many of whom were introduced to the scam by friends who’d already fallen into Hirst’s
sugared trap – there’s a possibility they may see some of their money again, if only a fraction of their original ‘investment’.

At confiscation hearings brought under Britain’s Proceeds of Crime Act, Waite was ordered to repay £785,000 (€942,000) and Pollett approximately £90,000 (€108,000) and a hearing regarding Hirst is due later this month.

Of course, scams can happen anywhere, any time, and many victims are left so financially and emotionally shattered their lives are ruined.

However, sun-blessed climes like Mallorca and the Spanish costas, populated by legions of expats with nest-eggs and pensions – albeit modest ones in many cases – are a conman’s paradise.

Intoxicated by their blissful environment and the easy lilt of Mediterranean life, the unwary can easily be wooed into believing investment fairytales, offering ludicrously high returns, in Hirst’s case up to 20% per annum.

Neither is it just the commercially unsavvy who get hoodwinked.

From his unpretentious offices in downtown Palma, Mallorca’s charming capital, Scottish hustler Michael Brown rooked £36M (€43.2M) out of high net-worth individuals – including former Manchester United chairman, Martin Edwards – generously donating £2.4M of it to the UK’s Liberal Democrat party.

Like Hirst, plus a host of others who have spread their wicked web across the Balearic Islands, Brown was a consummate actor;  a highly plausible Mr. Nice Guy, ostensibly blessed with the Midas touch.

In truth, they’re an evil blight on this sublime, pine-clad archipelago.

But, because it’s a Cloud Cuckoo Land, Walter Mitty types abound here, claiming to be whoever they fancy – including nobs and nobility. And most are harmless fantasists, desperately seeking celebrity, even if it belongs to someone else.

One who strode the fine line between dreamer and hustler was George Scott, a Hemingwayesque figure, who claimed to own two boutique hostelries in Mallorca – the once-voguish Scotts Townhouse in Binisalem, the other an aparthotel mountain retreat, Scotts of Galilea.

In 2006, the flamboyant ex-wrestler and shameless self-publicist invented a stunt to cash in on the 10 studios in his hillside hideaway by raffling them off on the internet.

Charging GB£100, €150 or the equivalent in US$ for a ticket, Old George told me he needed to sell 33,000 to pay off his creditors and leave himself with a comfy retirement cushion. However, years on he’d fallen at least 20,000 short of his optimistic goal, so nixed the idea, batting away entrants demanding legitimate refunds.

He’d also promised to hold regular draws for the properties, which – in my humble opinion – he’d grossly overvalued at between €250,000 and €500,000 – but only one ever took place and that was only after considerable pressure from angry, frustrated ticket-holders.

In any event, it ended in tragi-farce for the British couple who ‘won’ their holiday dream home in the sun, because they were denied their prize…’for complicated legal reasons I’m sorting out,’ insisted the silver-tongued charmer at the time, but who somehow never manage to unravel the complexities.

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed 'holiday-home internet raffle' - Picture: Mike Gunnill

HARMLESS OR HUSTLER? George Scott, the man behind the failed ‘holiday-home internet raffle’ – Picture: Mike Gunnill

For all his bluster about possessing financial acumen, if Old George was to be believed, his mistake was to become intoxicated with the bigger picture, losing sight of the devil in the detail; so the whole shebang became stuck in a morass of red tape.

Among oversights he admitted, not only had he neglected to obtain planning permission to carve up the Galilea hotel into individual parcels – each one requiring an escritura property deed – he failed to obtain a local licence for the raffle, though he insisted he had US, Spanish and UK permits.

Talking to Old George was akin to nailing jelly to a wall, but he was canny at attracting ‘investors/bond holders’ to his businesses, many later claiming they were fobbed off with collateral worth peanuts compared to what they were promised.

However, as I reported here in his obituary (‘Did Old George take the secret of the holiday homes missing millions to his grave?’ – 15 March, 2013), fate fatally intervened and the colourful, if flighty, entrepreneur shrugged off this mortal coil, avoiding a litany of legal actions and leaving the whereabouts of an estimated €1.3M shrouded in mystery.

Was Old George a hustler or just an egotist with an outlandish delusion that hadn’t a chance in Hades of coming true? Since he was never tried in a criminal court we’ll never know, though – wittingly or otherwise – he did a good many decent folk a deal of financial harm.

The really treacherous deceivers, however, are those who let it be known they have a knack for serious financial alchemy and – for a time – they actually deliver on their hollow promises.

Only when their Ponzi bubble inevitably pops or their ‘investment’ wheeze flops does the ‘mark’ realise they’ve been had by a ruthless shark.

It’s then – and only then –  victims wonder why they didn’t do due diligence checks on whoever claimed to make them richer than Croesus…like asking, ‘Who’s the official regulator of this scheme?’ and checking out the answer online.

The best advice is even simpler: if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Black gold, Texas Tea…the curious curse of striking it rich with oil

SWATHED in the smoke of burning barricades and swirls of tear-gas, the streets are awash with blood, as angry demonstrators clash with baton-wielding riot police, licenced to fire live rounds into the baying hordes.

In retaliation, protestors resort to farming Molotov cocktails and smashing up pavements to build arsenals of missiles to hurl at the brutal security forces, under orders from a detested, crisis-stricken government to quash the rebellion at all costs.

Up to last weekend at least six people were reported dead and hundreds injured, as unrest snowballed from the capital to provincial cities, where tens of thousands more joined the insurgency.

Meanwhile, from his jail cell, the opposition leader implores the protestors, ‘Don’t give up – I won’t’.

As much as this scenario sounds familiar, let me tell you I’m not describing Ukraine, but a land far away, yet nonetheless riven by violent political, economic and class tensions.

This is Venezuela, the latest state to be consumed by people-power fury and – like previous examples of where outraged citizens have taken to the streets to defy despots – in peril of descending into ‘a spiral of death and destruction’, to quote one of its cabinet’s own ministers.

However, unlike Ukraine, Egypt or Syria, in terms of vast, natural resources, Venezuela is one of the richest nations on the planet, sitting on top of the world’s largest reservoir of oil.

The contradiction, though, is food shortages are chronic, inflation hovers at an unbelievable 60 percent, unemployment is at astronomic levels, corruption endemic and, according to the UN, the country has the world’s fifth highest murder rate.

Commentators attribute this wretched fiasco to Venezuela’s 15-year dalliance with red-raw socialism, first imposed by the late president, Hugo Chavez, who died a year ago, aged 58, and was replaced by his weakling underling, Nicolás Maduro.

PAYING HOMAGE: Venezuela's Maduro unveils a giant portrait of his predecessor, firebrand president Hugo Chavez

PAYING HOMAGE: Venezuela’s Maduro unveils a giant portrait of his predecessor, firebrand president Hugo Chavez

In contrast to the firebrand Chavez, who established a rabid, anti-US alliance with communist Cuba’s Castro brothers, Fidel and Raúl, and South America’s other, far-Left regimes – Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua – the new boss is a pale, ineffectual shadow.

True, Maduro won a hotly-disputed presidential election last April, but only by the narrowest margins and against a backdrop of claims his United Social Party resorted to its usual ploy of bribing the underclass with government cash.

The former bus driver, though, has not forgotten some lessons from his late, unlamented predecessor, including crushing media freedom – he recently expelled CNN – and using the security forces as personal enforcers.

His problems, however, stem from the country’s greatest gift: oil. Because, like many nations similarly blessed, Venezuela is a virtual one-product economy, relying on its vast coffers of petro dollars to import almost everything else.

Nor are profits spent wisely at home. Hugely impractical social programmes invented by Chavez no longer resonate with the frustrated poor. Unable to buy the daily basics, they, too, have enlisted at the barricades.

This, though, isn’t about a nation in critical melt-down; no, it concerns the mixed blessing of those countries whose most tradable asset is the black gold lying beneath their parched earth, sand or sea beds.

Of the dozen members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), barely one can be described as a functioning democracy. Indeed, most are repressive autocracies, using their stupendous wealth to suppress civil rights, finance international terrorism or prop up other repugnant regimes (i.e. Iran backing Syria’s butcher, Basher Al-Assad).

Outputting over 33,000,000 barrels of oil a day, for the record they are: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, of course, not forgetting Venezuela.

Add Vladimir Putin’s ultra-nationalist Russia to this unholy mix and it’s not difficult to deduce that control of the world’s most vital commodity lies in the grasp of some of the most detestable fists.

OILING THE WHEELS: A refinery employee rides to work at a Middle East oilfield

OILING THE WHEELS: A refinery employee bicycles to work at a Middle East oilfield

Unsurprisingly, then, the ‘oil weapon’ – even the mere threat of it – has been used to hold the industrialised West over the proverbial barrel for nearly half a century.

So, ignoring the negatives of this fossil fuel being an environmental blight – a debate for another day – there is a shrieking need to find a cheaper, synthetic replacement to power our factories, homes and cars purely on economic grounds.

As yet, there is no total answer. Hence, various Western nations dicker with a potpourri of solutions, by various, greener means of energy manufacture…from wind farms, to seawater wave power, to vegetable crops, to kinetics and hydrogen, to solar panelling, to – would you believe it – donkeys tethered to a dynamo wheel.

In lieu of the ultimate alternative to Texas Tea, America’s interim brainwave is fracking, which, in tandem with its homeland output, has taken the USA to the point of petroleum independence, if not beyond.

Elsewhere, the idea of drilling into the bedrock, then injecting it with high-pressure water to coax out oil molecules, is meeting with resistance, notably in the UK.

Nuclear generation meets with similar hostility: Germany, for instance, is shunning the whole idea for fear of a repeat of a Fukushima-style disaster, though it’s a mainstream source in France, which even exports nuclear-produced energy to the UK.

In summary then, in a world where a robot vehicle can be propelled to Venus, people can be linked by voice and video to others thousands of miles apart and innumerable killer ills are now curable, scientists haven’t yet invented a safer, all-embracing, affordable alternative to a dirty, dark, viscous fluid that’s a hangover from the industrial revolution.

And it’s darkly ironic that the nations blessed by a lucky toss of the geological dice should be the worst possible custodians of the substance that makes the world’s wheels turn.

Oil, though, isn’t a finite resource – even for Venezuela.

The multi-national petroleum corporations know time is running out; so do the tin-pot monarchs (no prizes for guessing who), pseudo-democratic tyrants (Venezuela’s Maduro) and religious fanatics (Iran and Iraq)

So, if ever there was a moment for science to solve the planet’s most pressing dilemma –discovering a viable, economical, non-fossil substitute for oil – it’s NOW!