More Jottings (with additions of 13 Aug 06)
A few disconnected items that I have come across recently.
- The aircraft bomb plot foiled: "Suspicion falls on al-Qaida" — Guardian headline, 12 Aug 06. Well, what do you know! Those spooks don't miss a trick.
- American friends of ours were remarking to us recently on the generosity of the US in helping Britain's war effort during World War II under the Lend-Lease scheme. They were incredulous when we told them (1) that at the end of the war the US had driven a hard bargain by insisting on early repayment of all the money lent despite the ruined state of Britain's economy as a result of the war: and (2) that we were still paying off that debt more than half a century later in 2006. The then Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Ruth Kelly, said in a written answer on 28 February 2002 (Hansard Column 1441W) that under a 1945 Agreement the United States Government lent the United Kingdom $4,336 million (around £1,075 million at 1945 exchange rates) in war loans, including a Lend-Lease loan facility of $586 million (around £145 million), representing the settlement with the United States for Lend-Lease and Reciprocal Aid and for the final settlement of the financial claims of each government against the other arising out of the conduct of the Second World War. Under the Agreement the loans would be repaid in 50 annual instalments starting in 1950. However the Agreement allowed deferral of annual payments of both principal and interest if necessary, an option exercised by the UK six times so far. Repayment of the war loans to the United States Government were due to be completed on 31 December 2006, unless the UK had to defer any more payments meanwhile. As at 31 March 2001 principal of $346,287,953 (£243,573,154 at the exchange rate on that day) was still outstanding. With generous friends like that, who needs to be helped up from the canvas? (Hat-tip: Owen's blog post and its link to the Hansard excerpt.)
- My usually admirable MP is among the British Muslims who have written to the prime minister calling for "urgent" changes to UK foreign policy. In an open letter they say British policy is putting civilians at increased risk in the UK and abroad. "Attacking civilians is never justified. … We urge the Prime Minister to … change our foreign policy to show the world that we value the lives of civilians wherever they live and whatever their religion." This argument is both fallacious and dangerous. Civilian casualties are inevitable in any war, whether in a just cause or not, as the Geneva Conventions recognise, and as we saw when NATO bombed Serbia to encourage the Serbs to stop beating up the Kosovo Albanians. The fact that some aspects of British foreign policy offend and anger some sections of the British population is no reason in itself to change the policies: almost every government policy offends someone. People were angered by Mrs Thatcher's poll tax, but they didn't channel their anger into blowing up tube trains and aeroplanes. There may be many valid reasons to argue for changes in UK policy in Iraq (especially) and Lebanon (more questionable), but hoping thereby to appease British Islamist terrorists can't be one of them. We really can't allow British policy to be determined or distorted by terrorist threats — even if the Muslims' letter comes perilously close to saying we should.
- There's a partial exception to the ban on carrying liquids into an aircraft cabin as hand luggage for fear that it may be liquid explosive disguised as something innocuous like mineral water or whisky: baby milk is allowed on if the passenger drinks some of it in the presence of a security officer to demonstrate that it's not liquid nitroglycerine or worse. This conjures up the unusual spectacle of a young man in his 20s or 30s, travelling on his own and clutching a baby's bottle full of what appears to be milk. That would take a bit of explaining, wouldn't it? So the intelligent terrorist will have to take along a baby — and also, for even greater verisimilitude, a woman playing the part of the baby's mother — to have any hope of deceiving the security people. The question then arises: what happens if the baby is required to have a sip of nitroglycerine? It's too awful to contemplate.
- ‘ELT’ used to stand for English Language Teaching. No more. Now it stands for the ‘Extra Large Telescope’ proposed to be built in Chile. According to reports it “could be used to address mysteries such as what the first objects in the universe were, how many types of matter exist and whether there are any other Earth-like planets in our galaxy.” Presumably if it can do all that, it will also be able to tell us whether there is life after death and reveal the Purpose of Life, but perhaps only on an exceptionally clear day. Incidentally, isn’t there something slightly odd about dignifying a term such as ‘extra large telescope’ with capital letters and that ELT acronym? A bit like labelling a new publication as an FIB (Fairly Interesting Book) or hearing the television weatherman forecast a QND (Quite Nice Day).
And two updates (13 August 06):
- George W Bush referred to Muslim extremists as "Islamic fascists", and has been angrily denounced for doing so, on the grounds that the remark was divisive, unhelpful, and likely to give offence. It looks perfectly all right to me. He was clearly referring only to extremists, not to all Muslims: and I see no reason to go out of one's way to avoid giving offence to fascists. It's strong language, and the term is often devalued by being used to describe anyone with whose views the speaker disagrees. In this case it seems to me entirely apt. Think Taliban! (On the other hand, Bush also said we (or they) were 'at war with' Islamic fascists, and there we part company. Whatever the nature of the conflict, it's not a war, and it's dangerously misleading to misrepresent it as if it is.
- On a completely different note, I hope lots of other UK bloggers enjoyed the stirring performance of the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony on Saturday evening (12 Aug.) by the European Youth Orchestra, with the splendid old trouper Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting. For once the BBC had the sense to televise this Promenade Concert as well as broadcasting it on Radio 3, perhaps because 90 per cent of the European Youthful musicians of the orchestra were gloriously telegenic. There were so many beautiful blondes with shoulder-length golden hair playing their hearts out on their various instruments that I began to wonder if they had been cloned by some mad musical scientist to constitute the perfect orchestra. At this evening's Prom (Sunday) the Philharmonia played the sumptuous Ravel G Major piano concerto under the great Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, with François-Frédéric Guy at the piano. That slow movement really makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up. Ravishing Ravel! I feel sure that Gershwin knew the piece well, although he died only five years after the Ravel concerto was premiered in the US. Sadly, the BBC didn't televise this Prom, perhaps because the mature musicians of the Philharmonia might be rather less telegenic than the European Youths. Or could the Philharmonia ladies be just as young and just as glamorous?
Please send in more such curiosities, fallacies and irritants as comments.