Thursday, 27 May 2010

Not the Chelsea Flower Show

Just what was blooming in our back garden today.


It's good to see the end of threatened ID cards for UK citizens, but why are we keeping them for some foreign nationals?

Despite the demise of national identity cards, a separate but technically similar scheme for some foreign nationals will continue. That scheme is run by the UK Border Agency and is still being rolled out.

Some 200,000 cards - known as biometric resident permits - have already been given to migrant workers, foreign students and family members from outside the European Economic Area.

By definition, these people should have a form of ID; passports. Duplicating identity documents seems like a poor use of taxpayers money (which, if you're that concerned about illegal immigration, you could spend on checking up on people's existing ID documents).

I'd be more comfortable if the the whole project was scrapped - if some future event convinces the current administration or its successors to have a Blair-like Damascene conversion in favour of ID cards for all, there will be a pilot programme with infrastructure already up and running.

Unlikely for the foreseeable, given the state of the public finances, but why take the risk?

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Car crash on a plate

The Ford Pinto, manufactured from 1970 to 1980, became notorious, and gained a place in legal history, in the case of Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co.

The court case followed a road accident in which one Lilly Grey was killed and a teenager, Richard Grimshaw, was badly burned. An incriminating memo indicated that Ford were aware of a dangerous design fault which made the Pinto's fuel tank vulnerable to damage following a rear end collision, but failed to correct it, calculating that the necessary modifications would cost the company more than simply paying compensation for any deaths and injuries resulting from the fault:

Through the results of the crash tests Ford knew that the Pinto's fuel tank and rear structure would expose consumers to serious injury or death in a 20 to 30 mile per hour collision. There was evidence that Ford could have corrected the hazardous design defects at minimal cost but decided to defer correction of the shortcomings by engaging in a cost-benefit analysis balancing human lives and limbs against corporate profits. Ford's institutional mentality was shown to be one of callous indifference to public safety. There was substantial evidence that Ford's conduct constituted ‘conscious disregard' of the probability of injury to members of the consuming public.
(119 Cal. App. 3d at 813)

Eventually, in addition to compensatory damages of $2.5 million, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District awarded punitive damages of $3.5 million against Ford.

By now you must all be asking yourselves the obvious question - where you can get a dishwasher safe melamine plate, commemorating Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co, picturing the crumpled wreck of a Ford Pinto? Just imagine what a wonderful wall hanging or dinnertime conversation starter it would make! The answer, my friends is here!

Yours for only $20.00!

Warning: plate may explode in microwave ovens.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Brown Inheritance 2

Brief correction to my earlier post. There is one other candidate in the Labour leadership race with a better voting record than the high-profile clones. It looks as if John McDonnell has also retained some principles and capacity for independent thought. To date, of course none of the on-message apparatchiks seem to be voting for him, either.

Via Chicken Yoghurt, again.

With an opposition wasting a good crisis like this and a coalition government probably unable and/or unwilling to protect Mr and Mrs Average from an uncaring world in continuing economic turmoil, I was beginning to think that nothing could save us from a future of crushing misery. Then I discovered that, with a microwave oven and few simple ingredients, you can make chocolate cake in a mug in five minutes and realised that life still had meaning, after all.

Aircraft of the day

If you don't have enough votes to govern solo, you can always slap two parties together and hope the resulting coalition flies. If a single-engined aircraft doesn't have the range to do what you need, stick two of 'em together and ditto.

One result of such thinking: the P-82 Twin Mustang*.

During World War 2, long-range P-51 Mustang escort fighters provided the most effective protection for US bombers over Germany. With a range of over 1,500 miles, the Mustang was one of the few aircraft up to the job. In the Far East, however, even the Mustang's impressive range wouldn't take it far enough to escort US bombers on two thousand mile missions from their bases to Japan and back.

The solution - stick two P-51s together. The resulting aeronautical duumvirate looks odd, but it worked. In the end, the Twin Mustangs were never used against Imperial Japan's dwindling fighter squadrons. Before the Twins were ready, the atom bombs had been dropped and the war was over.

The US Air Force used some of their Twin Mustangs as radar-equipped night fighters in the Korean War.

There's a rather ironic British angle to this story. The P-51 Mustang first became an effective long-range escort fighter when it was fitted with a licence-built version of the high-performance British Rolls Royce Merlin engine. After the war, the Americans baulked at the increasing cost of the licence to keep producing the Rolls-Royce engine and fitted their production Twin Mustangs with inferior, US-built, Allison V-1710 engines.

Meanwhile, the British had decided to allow the Soviet Union to build the Rolls-Royce Nene jet engine under licence. By the time of the Korean War, the Soviets had reverse-engineered the Nene and built it as the Klimov RD-45, used to power the MiG-15 fighter, used against Western forces in Korea. So Britain's enemy used the best of British engineering against Britain and her allies at the same time as her ally was giving US pilots inferior kit, because British engineering cost too much.

There's probably some sort of moral here about alliances making strange bedfellows, but I'll leave you, the reader, to work out the details.

*later re-designated F-82, following a change in US military nomenclature

Onward, Christian soldiers

By way of a belated apology to the splendid Evan Harris* for having conflated his name with Evan Davis on election day, I can do no better than directing your attention to this article by Professor David Colquhoun, (FRS):

One member of parliament, above all others, has championed reason for the last 13 years, But Evan Harris was not re-elected in Oxford West and Abingdon. On May 6th he got 23,730 votes, a mere 176 votes fewer than his conservative rival.

Let me declare an interest. Evan Harris is one of the most principled men I have ever had the pleasure to meet. His stands on human rights, civil rights and libel law reform have been exemplary. He is also one of the few (and now fewer) members of parliament who understands how science works and its importance for the future of the UK. He has been a tireless advocate for the idea that policy should be based on evidence (as opposed to guesswork)..

Harris is also an atheist, something that one would not expect to be very relevant in a country where the influence of religion has declined progressively for many years. It would not be relevant if it were not for the fact that his defeat was brought about by poisonous lies propagated by, ahem, evangelical christians. I’m an atheist too, but I have met some good christians, I think they are wrong about their sky fairies, but I also think they should be free to believe in them if they want. Some of them do good things as a result of their beliefs. But not in Oxford West and Abingdon.

Professor Colquhoun goes on to detail the smears, half-truths and lies spread about Evan Harris by unprincipled religious extremists like the The Reverend Lynda Rose, Keith Mann, Cristina Odone, The Reverand Goerge Pitcher and Father Raymond Blake . Ironically, Rose, Mann, Odone, Pitcher and Blake all claim to be followers of the bloke who's supposed to have said:

And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

(John 8:32)

It seems to me that the godless Evan Harris knows a lot more about the truth than this discredited army of Christian soldiers.

*Well, at least I didn't mix him up with Rolf "can you tell what it is yet?" Harris in the excitement.

Zadie Smith for leader of the opposition

Our "progressive" opposition is learning from its mistakes, seriously debating policies and getting back to a coherent, compassionate set of principles. Only joking - the surviving hollowed-out management droids are still apparently incapable of uttering a thought that might cause the slightest discomfort to the powerful. So it's back to reflexive triangulating and shifting blame where it belongs, down to those least able to fight back. Me, I'm still backing Zadie Smith. Here's the straight dope, via the Torygraph and the Chicken Yoghurt blog:

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Mr Burnham said: “We were in denial. We were behind the issue all the time, and myths were allowed to develop. There’s still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration. I’ve been accused of dog-whistle politics for doing so.

“But it was the biggest doorstep issue in constituencies where Labour lost. People aren’t racist, but they say it has increased tension, stopped them getting access to housing and lowered their wages.”

It’s a classic transfer of blame thing this, isn’t it? New Labour’s abject failure to address the housing shortage ’stopped them getting access to housing’. New Labour’s failure to address the rights of agency workers, living wage programmes and exploitative employment law ‘lowered wages’.

Have refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants had their hands on the levers of power recently? I’m pretty sure Johnny Foreigner didn’t dictate housing and wage levels in the UK over the last decade. I’m almost certain that was down to the Thatcherite settlement Burnham and his mates hug so close.

On the basis of past voting records, there's depressingly little choose between the real-world candidates scrabbling over the Brown Inheritance, although at least Diane Abbott distinguished herself by voting (moderately) against some of the excesses of the War On Terror hysteria, voting against the introduction of student top-up fees and at least dithering over ID cards, rather than voting strongly for the sorry fiasco.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Word of the day


tr.v. re·i·fied, re·i·fy·ing, re·i·fies

To regard or treat (an abstraction) as if it had concrete or material existence.

[Latin res, thing]

Straightforward language is usually better than jargon, as George Orwell pointed out in his essay "Politics and the English Language" (I know I could do better in this regard, but I do try). Rule five of his six rules for good writing was:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

"Reify" is a word generally seen in academic essays rather than being heard down the pub, so it doesn't qualify as everyday English. I think it's a useful word, though, as it actually embodies an important idea that aids clear thinking.

A concrete example. I get increasingly annoyed when people promoting some sort of "Complementary and Alternative Medicine" or "New Age" idea conflate two of the several distinct meanings of the word "energy". In ordinary speech, "energy" means a healthy capacity for vigorous activity. To a physicist, "energy" is the capacity of a physical system to do work. Both definitions are valid but, crucially, they are not the same.

When some New Agey character starts talking about "good energy", "energy flows", "the energy in the room" and so on, are they actually talking about something that exists in the literal, physical sense as chemical, gravitational, electromagnetic or nuclear energy, or a subjective sense of motivation and well being? Generally, getting a straight answer to the question is like trying to nail jelly to the wall, because definition of energy has been debased to a slippery abstraction hovering somewhere between a physical thing and a metaphor.

I think the confusion and conflation is deliberate. In an irrational world hypnotised by PR voodoo, "energy" is a positive-sounding word, calculated to put an upbeat spin on the speaker's message at the same time as implying the science-y credibility of people who work out hard, real, technical stuff* - or, as Orwell put it, 'give an appearance of solidity to pure wind'.

It's at times like this that I find the word "reify" to be a useful little mind tool. Once you've realised that the speaker is trying to subtly reify the word "energy" as used in a colloquial, rather abstract, sense into something as real as gravitational, electromagnetic or chemical energy, you're immune to the rhetorical trick.

A straightforward way of speaking and writing, with a simple vocabulary is usually the best way. Complicated, fancy words are used, as often or not, to show off, as a smokescreen for unclear thought, or to deliberately deceive (I plead guilty to occasionally showing off and having unclear thoughts myself, although I hope I don't use language to deceive).

There is a case for loving unusual, "difficult" words, too. Sometimes it's just for the sheer useless loveliness and exoticism of the word - I rarely need to use the words "evanescent", "nacreous" or "quadrifoliate" but they're beautiful anyway. But sometimes it's the precision of "difficult" words that makes them valuable, clarifying, refining and expanding the range of thoughts we can have and express. I think "reify" is a word like that - an aid to thought and an antidote to propaganda, PR and spin. Destroy a word like that and you chip away at an idea:

...All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality, for instance, were contained in the single word crimethink, while all words grouping themselves round the concepts of objectivity and rationalism were contained in the single word oldthink. Greater precision would have been dangerous...

"The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition," said Syme. "We're getting the language into its final shape - the shape it's going to have when nobody speaks anything else. You think our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We're destroying words - scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We're cutting the language down to the bone. In the final version of Newspeak there'll be nothing else. It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words...

"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it...

"There's no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect...

"Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."


Zadie Smith for Home Secretary

During the recent election, a lot of ideologues were blurting out a lot of shouty nonsense about "multiculturalism" - both for and against. The volume of propagandistic waffle coming out of the radio was so loud that I eventually had to turn it off to prevent a torrent of verbal candy floss being forced into my ears and pushing useful stuff out of my brain.

I was, therefore, charmed to hear Zadie Smith being interviewed on the "Today" programme this morning - her thoughts on the subject were refreshingly calm, brief and sane. Multiculturalism, she said, wasn't something she was either for or against. People travel the world and settle in different places, as they always have done. Being "for" or "against" multiculturalism is as irrelevant as being "for" for or "against" having arms. It's the way things are. It's just a fact of life.

In a better world, there would be somebody like Zadie Smith in the Home Office, being listened to with attention.

In the world we've got, there's generally a cretinous tug of war. On one side, we've got power-hungry politicians reducing groups of people to sub-human blocks of homogeneous constituents whose collective votes can be delivered by cutting deals with self-appointed "community leaders" who nobody ever voted for, but whose thin-skinned prejudices we're all commanded to "respect".

Heaving away on the other end of the rope, we have other power-hungry politicians and newspaper proprietors not-very-discreetly courting a block of angry blockheads who want to exterminate "political correctness*" and reclaim the freedom to be spiteful to people for the atrocious crime of being different, so we can return to a lost golden age, full of queer-bashing, racial purity and those creepy golliwogs that people used to collect with jam jar tokens.

Putting all that nonsense to one side, I think the basic principles governing people living together in a fair and decent society are, as the US Declaration of Independence puts it, self-evident. In terms of rights, all people - regardless of race, gender, disability, sexuality, background, religion, lack of religion or any other distinction you choose to make - are equal. What those rights are is slightly more complicated, although life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness will do for starters.

Where those rights end is also a little more complex, although the Golden Rule is a good place to start - your right to do as you damn well please ends when what you damn well please involves trampling all over somebody else's freedom (extremist libertarians, please note).

The only other major constraint is that some individuals don't have the capacity to exercise the full range of adult rights. For example, the law takes a dim view of eight year old kids knocking back bottles of alcopop and having sex. I heartily agree with this constraint on freedom - of course kids are not mentally, physically or emotionally ready for some of the freedoms that are an adult's right.

Treating children like adults and adults as children is simply a category error, but one that happens all too often. The last Labour administration was certainly guilty of that one - I'm just hoping that in opposition, they'll decide that prosperity, freedom and social justice are the things worth getting back into power to deliver, rather than dicking around with a stupidly intrusive, all-seeing ID-checking, DNA-retaining, mummy-knows best database state. We're free adults, not children. Children are those little people who are not yet quite mature enough to drink alcohol, have sex, or sit on panels interviewing teachers:

A teacher failed to get a job after being labelled as Humpty Dumpty by a pupil allowed to sit on his interview panel.

It almost sounds like a late April Fool joke.

But teachers union NASUWT says that Student Voice, a government scheme to allow students a greater say in their education, has led to pupils abusing their powers to humiliate teachers....

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates (correct) said that the scheme had resulted in many teachers being demeaned and embarrassed.

She cited examples from a 200-case dossier compiled by the union including how one teacher was told to sing their favourite song while another was asked by students on an interview panel how they would impress the judges of Britain’s Got Talent.

With ideas like that corker (presumably from the late-unlamented "Department for Children, Schools and Families" AKA "Department of Curtains and Soft Furnishings" - h/t Meridian), undermining state school teachers before they even set foot in the classroom, it's no wonder that pupils from micro-managed and mis-manged state schools are hitting a glass ceiling. A glass ceiling that's no barrier to the unstoppable rise of loftier beings like the mighty Eton/Westminster-educated Cleggeron, currently straddling our body politic like a two-headed, silver-spoon-sucking colossus with balls of purest gold.

Well, we haven't got Zadie Smith in the Home Office, but it could be worse - at least they didn't shove another public-school-educated hooray Henry in there, but Theresa May, who attended a reassuringly normal-sounding school (then called Holton Park Girls' Grammar, currently Wheatley Park Comprehensive).

Theresa May (who's also Minister for Women and Equality) has a mixed voting record - she's previously voted (moderately, according to They Vote for You), against ID cards, for a stricter asylum system, against equal gay rights and against Labour's anti-terrorism laws. Time will tell how she does in her new posts, but I just hope that she had Radio 4 on this morning and paid attention to the relevant minute or so of what Zadie Smith was saying. It's a long shot, but if she heard and inwardly digested the crucial words one of our rulers might - just might - realise that multiculturalism is just a description of the way the world is, not a machine politician's mechanism for delivering block votes or a scapegoat to placate the seething discontent of furious racist half-wits.

*otherwise known as basic good manners

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Class ridden lefties in the Daily Mail

Iain Dale's sick:

I'm just sick to the back teeth of the cant and hypocrisy of Guardian hacks slagging the new Cabinet on the grounds that its members went to public school or Oxbridge.

Slagging it off like this, for example:

So, if you ever doubted that you get what you pay for, take a look at the footage of David Cameron and Nick Clegg during their Downing Street rose garden love-in.

Two slim, handsome, affable and articulate men in their mid-40s, quick on their feet and comfortable in the spotlight: has there ever been a better advert for a public-school education?

Indeed, watching our new Prime Minister and his Deputy chuckling in the sunshine on Wednesday, it was easy to see them in terms of public-school stereotypes.On the right, Mr Cameron, the Old Etonian: dapper, upright, his iron ambition concealed by velvet manners. And on the left, Mr Clegg, the Westminster boy: relaxed, good-humoured, the very picture of effortless superiority.

But look again at the footage of our new masters in the rose garden and you will see not just the virtues of two first-class schools, but a damning indictment of the collapse of opportunity in modern Britain.

For as our new Government gets down to business, there is an inevitable contrast between the new Cabinet's rhetoric - austerity and hard work, pain and sacrifice - and their own life stories.

Hang on, that wasn't an angsty whine from some Guardianista hypocrite. It was Dominic Sandbrook writing for that radical house journal of die-hard socialist class warriors, the "Daily Mail".

When even the "Daily Mail" thinks the cabinet's elitist and lacking in diversity, I'd say we probably do have a problem. If mentioning the problem makes Iain Dale feel unwell, I'm afraid that's just something he'll have to deal with.

Pure evil at 200mph

I never really thought that tobacco companies and advertising agencies were run by decent, public-spirited people. But this is so underhand that it almost qualifies as "evil genius".

Respect to Blazecock Pileon at MetaFilter for the heads up.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

There were three of us in this marriage

Trevor Kavanagh recently driveled in "The Scum":

The Lib Dems are little better than a gaggle of political tarts wandering Westminster in search of a John.

How very unlike the home life of our own dear Chairman Murdoch, who'd never think of cuddling up promiscuously first with the Conservatives, then New Labour, then scurrying back to the Conservatives with his knickers still round his knees, or sucking up to China's murderous totalitarian autocrats, all in the loveless pursuit of cold, hard cash. News International would never behave like an trashy, undignified, unprincipled great tart. Really.

When it comes to deals being stitched up behind closed doors, remember, there are probably three parties in this coalition all horse-trading for favours - Conservatives, Lib Dems and News International.

Looking on the bright side, although we're likely to see some bloody silly education policies from the new government, at least we now have a department for education that's actually called "the Department for Education", rather "the Department for Children, Schools and Families" as it got rebranded by some tin-eared PowerPoint-toting managerialist idiot in the last government. And ID cards are (probably) dead - hooray!

Full circle

Remember that moment, back in 1997, when we woke up and realised it hadn't just been a dream. After eighteen years, the Conservatives had been buried in a landslide. Well, they're back. It is a new dawn, is it not?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Resuming hostilities

As the "Hagley Road to Ladywood" blog recently noted, the right-wing press declared a ceasefire on the Lib Dems when it seemed they would be propping up a government of the Bullingdon boys. It no longer seems like a done deal and a glance at this morning's headlines shows that we're back to the normal Murdoch/Dacre diet of ranting pop-eyed, puce-faced, spittle-flecked outrage. Ho hum.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Child's play

I've always thought that MBAs were over-rated.


Ransom demand

My favourite comment so far on the European market-defying rescue plan:

Hello, Dr. Evil here.Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. In a few hours, I will destroy the Greek economy. Unless, that is, you give me the sum trillion dollars!

Even if it works millions, the BBC warns:

The fundamental problem for Europe is a lack of growth, inflexible labour markets and expensive public sectors. The challenge for politicians will be explaining that the old social model can no longer be sustained. Benefits will have to be frozen. Entitlements withdrawn.

As usual, then, the price of keeping a tiny minority of parasitic* blackmailers, spivs and gamblers happy will probably be another round of trashing the public services and benefits that make life tolerable for ordinary people across Europe.

*at least that's what I think - maybe the "creative destruction" of helping people's economies to crash and burn by betting against currencies to fail is a really useful service and very good for everybody in the long run, but that sounds like self-serving bullshit to me.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Engage brain before posting

Embarrassingly enough, in one of yesterday's posts I managed to type "Evan Davis", when I meant to write Evan Harris. Three times, for crying out loud! Unreserved apologies for this daft error (I nearly called it a Freudian slip, but that would have been an inaccurate euphemism - I mixed Evan Harris up with a BBC journalist, not a metaphorical cigar). My thanks go to Irim for taking the time to point out my howler, rather than just laughing and moving on.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Cleggmania is back!

A colossal star ... is seen growing in a bubble of excited gas.

Oh, hang on, that's not Nick Clegg, it's galactic bubble RCW 120. Well, it's an easy mistake to make - it can be hard to tell galactic bubbles and the Lib Dems apart:

The fierce light they emit should blast away their birth clouds, limiting their growth.

Through the looking glass

A cautionary tale, spotted by The Daily (Maybe). Nothing like a spot of Lewis Carrol to sharpen up your sense of the absurd...

My least favourite result

By a heartbreakingly narrow margin, Evan Harris* lost Oxford West and Abingdon to Nicola Blackwood, a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, an organisation that seeks to put prayer at the heart of government.

Harris, in contrast, sought to put truth, evidence and freedom of conscience at the heart of policy making, as Ben Goldacre pointed out before the polls opened:

The antivaccination conspiracy theorists hate him [Evan Harris], because he drove for more and better evidence on the MMR and autism hoax, and helped expose it through the GMC. The animal rights protestors hate him, because he has dared to stand up for necessary and well-regulated animal experiments, an unpopular cause even among those who quietly benefit from their results. He is despised by fundamentalist christians, because he defends stem cell research and a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body when she is pregnant. Homophobic christians (not all christians, but the homophobic ones) despise him, because he is clear that if you run a B&B, you have to let a gay couple stay, the same as any other (and although nobody ever mentions it, if you’re gay and run a B&B, you have to let a christian stay too). He is despised by homeopaths because he dared to examine the evidence for their magic beans, he is despised by climate change denialists for the same reason, and alongside all of this, he has led the field on libel reform and on free speech, on disentangling church from state while remaining respectful on religion, he has stood up and been a clear thinker on the role of scientific advisors and evidence on policy, and much more.

A defeat for clear thinking and a victory for people like Mid Befordshire's inexplicably re-elected screaming nutter, Nadine Dorries, who tweeted triumphantly:

Do my eyes and ears deceive me? Has Dr Death really lost his seat?

Unfortunately, Nad, although they deceive you about practically everything else in the real world, they are tragically right on this occasion. Now get back in the attic, you wretched loony.

*Post corrected - I originally made bizarre mistake of writing "Evan Davis", when I should have written "Evan Harris" (see comments). I clearly listen to the BBC too much and don't concentrate enough!

Farage "stable" shock

The BBC have just reported that Nigel Farage is in "a stable condition". Well, there's a first time for everything...

Always look on the bright side

Continuing my aircraft crash theme, here's Anton Vowl on the post-election hangover:

Well done, Sutton & Cheam, my one-time home town, for rejecting Philippa Stroud. But you know it's a bleak day when you're scratching around for crumbs of comfort like that and getting vaguely pleased that people you didn't want to win didn't win. I suppose we do have a Green MP today as well, so that's something. Like an undamaged bottle of duty free Malibu you find in the aircraft wreckage.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Plane crazy

Today's ironic aerial mishap got me thinking about famous air crashes in history. I have a personal favourite air crash of all time, a little gem of poetic justice.

Some background; it was July 1936. A junta of Spanish Generals had just launched their plot to overthrow Spain's democratically elected government, starting a bitter civil war that was to cost around three hundred thousand lives, a war prosecuted with such brutality that even Ciano, Fascist Italy's Foreign Minister, was shocked by the viciousness of his Spanish allies. They're still digging up the bodies of people the death squads threw into mass graves to this day.

Anyway, the ringleaders of the military coup were Generals José Sanjurjo, Emilio Mola and Francisco Franco. Sanjurjo was the figurehead of the uprising. Mola was chief planner and second in command. In July 1936, Franco had been secretly flown from the Canary Islands (where he was military commander) to take charge of the rebel Spanish Army of Africa, based in Spanish Morocco and a coded radio message had signalled the start of the putsch.

Sanjurjo, the nominal leader of the coup, was in exile in Portugal, scheduled to fly back to Spain to assume command on July the 20th. Sanjurjo was a very heavy man and, it seems, a rather self-important and vain one. Despite his pilot's warning that their little Dragon Rapide airliner was dangerously overloaded, Sanjurjo insisted on taking a large amount of heavy luggage, including a lot of fancy uniforms, dismissing his pilot's advice with the words:

I need to wear proper clothes as the new caudillo of Spain

Well, you can pull rank on your pilot, but ye cannae break the laws of physics. The plane took off packed to the gunnels with trunks full of spiffy uniforms, was too heavy and crashed, killing the narcissistic Sanjurjo.

Incidentally, by the time Franco became caudillo, his career advancement had been aided by not one, but two, air disasters - less than a year after Sanjurjo, General Mola was also killed in a plane crash.

Aircraft of the day

Election day - the in-depth political analysis

Dave Cameron looks like C3PO made of ham.

Says Caitlin Moran. I'm grateful to A Cloud in Trousers for spotting that. Now that's a real challenge for geeks with way too much time on their hands.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Airships over Svalbard

In Britain, every schoolchild used to know who Roald Amundsen was - but only from the very Brit-centric point of view that he was the Norwegian who beat our own plucky (but less well organised*) Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole.

It's rather a shame that the full scope of Amundsen's achievements aren't more widely known in this country. Before reaching the South Pole, he was the first explorer to successfully negotiate the Northwest Passage. This was no minor "first" - mariners had been trying to find a northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific for around four hundred years when Amundsen finally did it.

Scott became "Scott of the Antarctic" after coming second in the race to one pole. Amundsen didn't just lead the first successful expedition to the South Pole but later, aged fifty three, acted as expedition leader and navigator for what was possibly the first successful overflight of the North Pole. On May the 11th, 1926, Amundsen and the crew of the Italian-built airship "Norge" piloted by its designer Unberto Nobile set off for the North Pole from their forward base in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard (currently the world's most northerly settlement).

The expedition was threatened by cold, dangerous accumulations of ice on the airship, noise, cramped conditions and personality clashes on board (Amundsen and Nobile didn't get on and Amundsen described life under airship captain Nobile as 'a circus wagon in the sky'). Nevertheless, the "Norge" flew over the Pole a day after setting off from Ny-Ålesund. On May the 14th, the "Norge", with about seven hours of fuel left in its tanks made landfall at the settlement of Teller, Alaska.

Frederick Cook, Robert Peary and Richard E Byrd all claimed to have reached or overflown the North Pole before Amundsen, but all three claims are questionable on grounds ranging from navigational error to deliberate fraud.

In 1928, Umberto Nobile organised another expedition to the North Pole in the airship "Italia". This time, Amundsen wasn't involved in the expedition and Nobile was both pilot and expedition leader. The "Italia" reached the pole, but then crashed on pack ice off Svalbard. Ships and aircraft from several nations mounted a rescue attempt to pick up the stranded crash survivors.

Amundsen was part of that rescue attempt. He boarded a French seaplane, heading for the rescue headquarters. This was the last anyone ever saw of him - the plane was lost over the sea and no bodies were ever recovered. Nobile and several of his crew were eventually rescued.

In 1969, a movie called "Red Tent" about the "Italia" crash was released. It flopped at the box office and was, apparently, quite historically inaccurate. Nonetheless, it sounds intriguing - Sean Connery played Roald Amundsen, Peter Finch was Umberto Nobile and Ennio Morricone wrote the title music.

I haven't read what he's written on the subject, but I'm guessing that the story of the arctic explorers and airships over Svalbard must also have provided Philip Pullman with some of the imaginative background for the Svalbard chapters of "Northern Lights" (AKA "The Golden Compass"), the first novel in the trilogy "His Dark Materials".

There's a short summary of Amundsen's remarkable career here.

All in all, quite an exciting and interesting life and a pity that all we Brits remember is the sight of that Norwegian flag at the South Pole, crushing Scott's hopes of glory. But history seen from a particular perspective can be rather one-sided.

As an example, it's surprising what English people with a passing interest in history remember about the Hundred Years' War. Mainly, they remember the battles of Crécy, Agincourt and, possibly, Sluys. Three decisive English victories. I think I'd have to go a long way to find an English person who could name me a battle in the Hundred Years' War that the French won.

Yet that the one key fact about the Hundered Years' War is that the French won and the English lost. By the end of the Hundred Years' War, the English possions in France had all been lost, (with the exception of Calais which we hung on to for another century). I plead as guilty to being as ignorant as the average English person (I was vaguely aware of Joan of Arc's role in raising the siege of Orléans, but that was about it). So, let's add two more French victories to the list - the Battle of Patay that turned the tide against the English and the final victory at the Battle of Castillon.

Part of this is down to sheer jingoism, although I guess that William Shakespeare bigging up Agincourt did a lot to create a one-sided myth of national valour. Stories can be powerful things - like the legend of Agincourt, Scott's compelling tale of suffering and sacrifice on the ice has been burned into into the national consciousness, to the exclusion of other narratives, such as Amundsen's.

*for all his undoubted pluck, he could have learned a thing or two about keeping his people alive from Shackleton.