Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Aircraft carrier

It is the stuff of comedy. Suddenly taking his mind off the election, Gordon Brown discovers that hundreds of thousands of British air travellers - voters! - are stranded around the world. He goes for the dramatic gesture: send a battleship to pick up soldiers stuck in Spain, (together with a hundred or so civilians)! Why didn't he send an aircraft carrier? There would have been standing room for thousands. Oh yes, and there were 100 fantasy coaches on their way to Madrid.

Then British Airways announces that 20-odd jumbos are converging on Britain and all of a sudden 'new scientific evidence' emerges that it will be safe for them to land. For the two weeks remaining until the election there will be an awful lot of egg scraped off faces. Looking at the maps of the cloud curling round the anticyclone, and hearing that the dust was mostly in a thin layer, I thought it evident all along that there must be safe passages in.

Equally volcanic has been the explosion of popular support for the Lib Dems. People have suddenly realized that they don't have to vote Tory to keep out 'New' Labour, nor Labour to keep out the Tory toffs. There is a major party that wants more progressive taxation, firm control of the banks, voting reform, the scrapping of the Trident replacement programme and much else that is genuinely different. This should have happened in 2005, but this time the Lib Dems have a leader who is not on the bottle.

Sunday, 18 April 2010


I don't know what Eyafjallajoekull means in Icelandic, but it looks to me like Eyefuljoker. And what a practcal joke it is playing! Its little digestive problems as it swallows a glacier offer humans one huge problem for which we have no immediate solution.

Taking a longer view, it shows how risky it is to depend so much on air transport. If we had not pampered the airlines by building airports for them at public expense and subsisizing aviation fuel, and had spent the savings on more high-speed trains across Europe, the problems would now be half as big.

Also, it is time to re-assess how much transport we really need. Now that people simply can't go, they are bound to realize that in many cases it doesn't matter. Those who suffer most are families with members on the other side of the world, but it was cheap flights that encouraged much of that emigration in the first place.

Friday, 16 April 2010


When my grand-daughter Lila, aged 22 months, came to stay this week, I picked her up. She looked into my eyes and said "Picture! Me!" I think it amazing that she noticed her reflection in my eyes. Or is it amazing that so many adults do not realize they can see themselves in another's eyes?

It must have been well known to the speakers of the original Semitic language, since precisely the same expression is used for pupil in both Arabic (insan al-ayn, 'eye-person') and Hebrew (ishon, 'little person') - another case where Israelis and Palestinains should see eye to eye.

There is something beautiful about the fact that we see ourselves in each other's eyes. It is a sort of natural symbol for the capacity for empathy that evolution has given to our species. Misanthropists call humans 'selfish', 'cruel', 'the most terrible predator since Tyrannosaurus', but what other species makes efforts to save the whale or the elephant or the orang-utan?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

How many miles to the litre?

I remember feeling great pleasure when the British government decided in 1965 to go metric. I had resisted all attempts at school to make me learn how many rods or perches there were to a furlong or how many troy carats in an avoirdupois scruple, and I was proud to be one of the few Brits who knew their height and weight in metres and kilos.

Yet here we are 45 years later still muddling along with a mixture of systems. The height of absurdity is the fact that we meaure petrol in litres and distance in miles. Whether you want to know your vehicle's performance in miles per gallon or litres per hundred kilometres, you have a head-cracking calculation to go through.

Our failure to carry metrication through is perhaps another mark of the growing American influence of America, where they crashed a probe on Mars because one team measured its altitude in feet while another calculated its speed in metres per second. Yet the Americans don't strictly use Imperial units, since they have their own pints and gallons. And how shall we ever replace knots by metric speeds with hundreds of airlines working in knots and feet? What a mess!

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Al-Khalil or Hebron

Here is a deeply moving blog about life under occupation in the Palestinian city of Al-Khalil (in Hebrew Hebron):

Al-Khalil, 'The Friend', is the name given to Abraham in the Koran, and this is his city where he is supposedly buried. It should be a place of meeting and friendship between Jews and Arabs, who both claim to be descended from him. Muslims seem more ready than Zionists to forgive and forget the current struggle.

It has become common to call Christianity one of the 'Abrahamic religions', but considering the long history of Christian hatred of both Jews and Muslims this seems false. 'Scriptural monotheisms' has the same number of syllables and would be more accurate.

Saturday, 10 April 2010


Two handwritten letters came this morning addressed to Philip Stewart Esquire. It is a quaint old way of suggesting that a man was not quite Sir So-and-So but nearly. It comes from old French 'escuyer' from Latin 'scutarius' shield-bearer to a knight. I didn't think anyone under the age of 80 wrote 'Esquire', and sure enough one letter was from a lady aged 98, but the other was from an ex-student of mine aged not much more than 45.

My former student told me she refuses to use e-mail because it makes the pace of life too fast. She harks back to the days of Jane Austen, when letters were like small books and visits lasted for months (ouch!). I think, though, that if you added together all the e-mails I send and receive, the content would fill a small book every year, and it's nice to find out quickly if anything good or bad has recently happened to your friends.

But I do wonder how biographers and historians will write about this generation. Unless you print out your e-mails and store them safely, there will be hardly any trace of your passage in 100 years time. There is no guarantee that anything stored on magnetic or optical media will survive. So we should at least write our memoirs and print them out before our memories fade. Perhaps we need archive libraries where they could be stored in confidence until whatever release date we choose.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

16 degrees

Just a couple of degrees extra and life bursts out: baby rabbits on lawn for first time this year - bumble bees buzzing - ladybirds everywhere - tits nesting in hole in wall - blackthorn blossom in hedges... I rolled back the roof of my deux-chevaux to drink in the spring air.

Best of all was cycling to Oxford without any extra layers of clothing, whistling as I went. I wonder why there are not more whistling cyclists. It is the one form of mouth-music that you can make breathing in as well as out. And it helps pedestrians to hear you coming.

I wonder when early humans learnt to whistle. It seems to be something you need to be taught, but the first whistler must have foud it out for himself - or herself. A few days ago I was standing by a tree trunk with a hole in it, and the wind must have been at just the right angle and speed, and it began to whistle. Perhaps that's how it was discovered. Are there any other whistling mammals?

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Egg Day

This is the time of year when I used to read the final chapters of the gospels in order to remind myself of their contradictions. No longer! There is really nothing new to say. Nor am I going to remind people of my regret that Christians chose not to use the Babylonian/Hebrew calendar. But I have just read an e-mail about the nasty attack on Obama by Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, accusing him of being like those who failed to denounce Hitler in the 1930s - indeed of being 'anti-Semitic', because of his snub to Netanyahoo.

I personally refuse to use the term 'anti-Semitism', since the Arabs (and most Ethiopians) also speak Semitic languages and claim common descent from Abraham. Judeophobia would be more accurate, though 'phobia' means fear rather than hatred. 'Misojudism' would be better (formed like misogyny, hatred of women).

Anyway, my point is that the essence of Judeophobia is the belief that Jews (racially defined) are and always have been and will be, different from the rest of humanity, and will always be hated. This is the central doctrine of Zionism, which draws the conclusion that they must band together and defend themselves against all comers, even though it means that the Jewish State is exempt from all the norms of international law in its endless struggle against its enemies.

Actually the belief in Jewish exceptionalism was for about 1800 years specifically a Christian belief, based on the theory that they bore eternal guilt for executing Jesus (in accordance with God's Will!!!). In the 19th century, when increasing numbers of Jews were abandoning Judaism and asking to be accepted as equal citizens, some Christians, desperate for reasons to go on hating them, invented the idiotic racist theory. Now that they see what that led to, few Christians are still willing to say anything against Jews, however defined.

The alternative is to believe that Jews are normal human beings with all the normal virtues and vices, subject to the same emotions and the same logic as everyone else, and that the only basis for lasting peace in the Middle East and the rest of the world is the application of the normal conventions on international relations.

Actually, I have to admit that there is something special about post-exilic Judaism, which is at the origin of many of our ideas about universal values of justice and compassion. If I were going to adopt any form of monotheism (which I am not) I might well choose Reform Judaism, as a cousin of mine did.