Thursday, September 30, 2004

30 September 2004

Having reproduced two poems about death yesterday, it's probably giving too much rein to my morbid side to reproduce another today. But I've just bought a copy of the recent anthology, 'Poem for the Day Two' (Chatto & Windus), and the entry for 30 September caught my attention.

The first 'Poem for the Day' anthology was put together by Nicholas Albery, who died before completing the second. Each contains 366 poems – one for each day of the year, including leap years. Nicholas's idea was that the poems would not only delight and inspire their readers, but also encourage them to learn some of the verses by heart. Poetry, he believed, is meant to be recited aloud, and he did it often – including after lunch each day to his friends.

Some of those friends completed the compilation, 'Poem for the Day Two', all proceeds from which go to the Nicholas Albery Foundation. This supports a number of innovative projects that aim to come up with creative solutions to some of the problems of the world. The projects include the Institute for Social Inventions, the Natural Death Centre and the Poetry Challenge.

The Poetry Challenge takes place in London on the first Sunday of October each year, with associated events taking places in schools throughout the autumn term. The idea is to get people to learn and recite a poem by heart in aid of charity. I'll be doing one, which I'll post on here on Sunday. Further details about the challenge are available from: poetry@alberyfoundation.org.

In the meantime, here's the 30 September entry from 'Poem of the Day Two'. It's W S Merwin's poem, 'For the Anniversary of My Death'.

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what


Wednesday, September 29, 2004

29 September 2004

My birthday and a good day for dead poets. W H Auden, one of the best, died on this day in 1973. And William McGonagall, commonly referred to as the very worst, died on this day in 1902.

Auden's thoughts on death included his poem, 'Stop all the Clocks':

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

William McGonagall, meanwhile, bequeathed us a whole series of poems on death and disaster, including this one on 'The Death of the Rev Dr Wilson'. The first few verses will have to stand for the rest:

'Twas in the year of 1888 and on the 17th of January
That the late Rev Dr Wilson's soul fled away;
The generous-hearted Dr had been ailing for some time,
But death, with his dart, did pierce the heart of the learned divine.

He was a man of open countenance and of great ability,

And late minister of Free St. Paul's Church, Dundee,
And during the 29 years he remained as minister in Dundee
He struggled hard for the well-being of the community.

He was the author of several works concerning great men,

In particular 'The Memoirs of Dr Candlish' and 'Christ Turning His Face Towards Jerusalem';
Which is well worthy of perusal, I'm sure,
Because the style is concise and the thoughts clear and pure.

How glorious is the English language, that it can accommodate two such giants of poetic verse . . .


Tuesday, September 28, 2004

28 September 2004

A woman was arrested for smoking a cigarette in a car on Fifth Avenue in New York 100 years ago today. Nowadays that's one of a shrinking number of places in the city where she wouldn't get arrested.

It's smoking marijuana, though, that really gets the New York Police Department going. Annual arrests for partaking of de 'erb increased 70-fold in the eight years from 1992 to 2000, from 720 to 50,830. That represented about 15% of all arrests in New York, and about 9% of all arrests for marijuana possession nationwide.

It's reassuring to know that the US police had got their priorities in order when the Al Qaeda terrorists were planning their attacks of September 2001.


Monday, September 27, 2004

27 September 2004

The steam locomotive is 200 years old this year. And it's 175 years ago today that the world's first locomotive-powered passenger train was pulled down the tracks of the Stockton and Darlington line.

George Stephenson's 'Rocket' marked the onset of a revolution in transport and helped to usher in a new era of trade and industry. It also marked a great leap forward in human evolution, with the emergent sub-species of homo trainspotter beginning to don anoraks all across the globe.

Which reminds me . . . What do you get if you combine trainspotting with an eating disorder? Answer: Anoraksia nervosa.


Sunday, September 26, 2004

26 September 2004

I owe this entry to Chris Walker of the Other Place, with whom I agree entirely that this largely unknown person deserves to have today as his own.

On this day in 1983, Stanislav Petrov saved the world from Total Global Nuclear War and Mutually Assured Destruction.

Petrov (born c 1939) is a retired Russian army colonel, who refused to launch Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles on 26 September 1983 despite computer indications that missiles had already been launched at the USSR from the United States. The Soviet computer reports were later shown to have been in error, and Petrov is credited with preventing World War III and the devastation of much of the earth by nuclear weapons.

Because of military secrecy and political and international differences, Petrov's actions were kept secret until 1998. So most of the world has never heard of this man, arguably a hero who saved the lives of millions.


Saturday, September 25, 2004

25 September 2004

When did the first Briton stand on top of Mount Everest? 1953?

Wrong. In fact, it was on 25 September 1975, when Dougal Haston and Doug Scott reached the 29,028 feet summit in an expedition led by Chris Bonnington. The May 1953 expedition, which reached the summit of Everest a few days before the coronation of Elizabeth II, may have been a British one but the climbers who got to the top weren't. Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa Tenzing) was Tibetan and Edmuch Hillary was from New Zealand.

The Brits had to wait another 22 years before they planted their feet on the top of the world's highest mountain. Now half of the universe seems to have been there – and left their rubbish behind as proof.


Friday, September 24, 2004

24 September 2004

Today is Mercedes Day in the Dominican Republic, parts of Peru and other places in Latin America. It's not a celebration of German motor cars, as you might have gathered, but the feast day of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, Our Lady of the Graces.

This is just one of the many incarnations of the Virgin Mary, who is also honoured on this day as Our Lady of Mercy (or Our Lady of Ransom), particularly in Spain, and as Our Lady of Walsingham, particularly in England. She has countless other feast days and celebrations in her honour across the world.

The Peruvian armed forces are among her special fans. The Virgen de las Mercedes is their patron and they celebrate her day with pomp and ceremony throughout the country. Like many Latin American Catholics, though, they hedge their bets and their religious practices have strong links to the pre-Conquest beliefs of their ancestors.
For example, many modern saints and feast days are substitutes for pre-Christian deities and festivals, often connected to important harvest periods.

Christian rituals are still often accompanied by elaborate fertility rites, including animal sacrifices or the ritual burying of coca leaves or spilling on the ground of chicha – the local alcohol – in deference to Mama Pacha, or Mother Earth. Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes is very often none other than Mama Pacha in Catholic guise.


Thursday, September 23, 2004

23 September 2004

Welcome to my star sign. Libra, the scales, is the seventh sign of the zodiac. It's beyond me why anyone should have chosen this insignificant constellation, with no major star, as one of the four cardinal signs and representative of one twelfth of the human race. But they did, and I'm stuck with it.

Of course I possess all the classic Libran virtues such as tact, diplomacy, sensitivity, fairness, balance, beauty, creativity and sensuality. I'm also gullible and self-indulgent, and find it utterly impossible to reach a decision about anything – from what to have for breakfast to what to do with my life. I'm pleased to share my sign with Oscar Wilde, Mahatma Gandhi and Bruce Springsteen – but rather less so with Margaret Thatcher. I'm sure that the fact that Libra's stars were once part of the scorpion's claws is highly significant in this context, although I'm less certain of the meaning behind the fact that Libra rules the lower back and internal reproductive organs. Likewise, I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Libra is the youngest constellation in the zodiac and the only one not to represent a living being.

Do I take astrology seriously? It depends who I'm talking to – and how good looking she is . . .


Wednesday, September 22, 2004

22 September 2004

'I don't know half of you half as well as I should like. And I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.' – Bilbo Baggins on his eleventy first birthday, which was on 22 September, like all his others.

He shares his birthday with his nephew, Frodo, and my daughter, Rachel, who might have been saddled with a very embarrassing name if she'd been a boy . . .


Tuesday, September 21, 2004

21 September 2004

Rocky Marciano, the Bockton Blockbuster, heavyweight champion of the world, got knocked down on this night in 1955 by Archie Moore, the light heavyweight champion. The fight, in front of 61,574 people at the Yankee Stadium in New York, was the toughest of Marciano's career. Moore put him down after one minute 19 seconds of the second round before himself sustaining a fourth and final knockdown in the ninth round.

The 31-year-old Marciano had been unbeaten in his previous 48 fights, 42 of which were won by knockouts or because the fight had to be stopped. The fight with Moore was to be his last, making him the only world champion at any weight to win every bout in his professional career. The contest was supposed to have taken place the night before, but it was postponed because of the imminent arrival of Hurricane Ione. It seems the weather was already causing problems even then.


Monday, September 20, 2004

20 September 2004

As you may have noticed, I've been getting my autumn references in early. The autumnal equinox – and the beginning of autumn – actually falls on 22 September this year (at 16.29 Greenwich Mean Time, to be precise). But the nights already seem to be longer than the days in this part of the world and some of the usual autumn migrant bird departures have already occurred, as too have some of the usual autumn arrivals.

On the other hand, there are a number of plants and animals in England that seem to think it's spring, with some of them blooming or breeding two seasons ahead of their usual time. It's all a product of global warming, of course, and the climate contortions that follow from it. The weather – and hence the seasons – is becoming less predictable than ever.

Pity the poor weather forecasters, then, who have to struggle to keep up. There are likely to be a lot more like the one who lost his job after getting the forecast wrong every day for three months. He had to emigrate to escape the public opprobium. When he's asked why he moved, he tells people: 'The climate didn't agree with me.'


Sunday, September 19, 2004

19 September 2004

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness!Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun

John Keats wrote 'Ode to Autumn' on 19 September 1819. But much as I love the season of my birth, and Keats' vision of it, I can't help also feeling the coming chill of Thomas Hood's 'old Autumn in the misty morn':

The year's in wane;
There is nothing adorning;
The night has no eve,
And the day has no morning;
Cold winter gives warning!

How cold will it be this year? I'm reminded of an old story.

Some years ago the native people on a remote reservation asked their new chief the same question. Like many of his people, he was caught between the old ways and the modern world, and he wasn't sure how best to predict the weather. In order to be on the safe side, he told his people that the signs said that the winter was going to be a cold one and that they should stockpile a large supply of wood for fuel.

Being a modern leader, with knowledge of science and meteorology, the chief also decided to consult the government's weather forecasting service to see what they said.

'Is this winter going to be a cold one?' he asked.

'Our long-range forecasts say this winter is going to be quite cold, yes,' the weather service's meteorologist replied.

So the chief returned to his people and urged them to stockpile even more wood for fuel in order to be prepared for the winter. Then, a couple of weeks later, he contacted the government weather service again to get a more up-to-date forecast.

'Are you sure this winter is going to be a cold one?' he asked.

'Yes, we're increasingly convinced that it's going to very cold,' came the reply.

The chief returned to his people again and urged them to stockpile every piece of wood they could find. And a couple of weeks after that he contacted the weather service for a final check on their forecasts.

'Are you absolutely sure that this winter is going to be a very cold one?' he asked.

'Absolutely, we've no doubt at all about it now,' the meteorologist answered. 'It's going to be one of the coldest ever.'

'How can you be so sure?' the chief asked, puzzled by the certainty of these government scientists.

'Well,' replied the meteorologist. 'The natives are stockpiling wood like crazy!"


Saturday, September 18, 2004

18 September 2004

Tomorrow (see yesterday) brings today, of course – the 24th anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix. From his first hit single, 'Hey Joe', which came to symbolise the Vietnam war and resistance to it, to his versions of the Troggs' 'Wild Thing' at the Monterey Festival in June 1967 to the 'Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock in 1969, Hendrix's performances were like psychedelic shooting stars illuminating the late Sixties and the height of the hippie era.

Hendrix also came to symbolise its end – or at any rate the end of the hippie illusion that good music and good motives alone were enough to bring peace and love to the planet. His last festival appearance was at the three-day Love and Peace Festival at Insel Fehrmarn in Germany. The festival was marred by fighting – including gunfire – between rival motorbike gangs. The gangs set fire to the stage and razed it to the ground.

A Rolling Stone readers' poll in 2003 put Hendrix at the top of the '100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time' list. Here's the full list to argue over:

1 Jimi Hendrix
2 Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band
3 BB King
4 Eric Clapton
5 Robert Johnson
6 Chuck Berry
7 Stevie Ray Vaughan
8 Ry Cooder
9 Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin
10 Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
11 Kirk Hammett of Metallica
12 Kurt Cobain of Nirvana
13 Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead
14 Jeff Beck
15 Carlos Santana
16 Johnny Ramone of the Ramones
17 Jack White of the White Stripes
18 John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers
19 Richard Thompson
20 James Burton
21 George Harrison
22 Mike Bloomfield
23 Warren Haynes
24 The Edge of U2
25 Freddy King
26 Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave
27 Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits
28 Stephen Stills
29 Ron Asheton of the Stooges
30 Buddy Guy
31 Dick Dale
32 John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service
33 & 34 Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth
35 John Fahey
36 Steve Cropper of Booker T and the MG's
37 Bo Diddley
38 Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac
39 Brian May of Queen
40 John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival
41 Clarence White of the Byrds
42 Robert Fripp of King Crimson
43 Eddie Hazel of Funkadelic
44 Scotty Moore
45 Frank Zappa
46 Les Paul
47 T-Bone Walker
48 Joe Perry of Aerosmith
49 John McLaughlin 50 Pete Townshend
51 Paul Kossoff of Free
52 Lou Reed
53 Mickey Baker
54 Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane
55 Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple
56 Tom Verlaine of Television
57 Roy Buchanan
58 Dickey Betts
59 & 60 Jonny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien of Radiohead
61 Ike Turner 62 Zoot Horn Rollo of the Magic Band
63 Danny Gatton
64 Mick Ronson 65 Hubert Sumlin
66 Vernon Reid of Living Colour
67 Link Wray
68 Jerry Miller of Moby Grape
69 Steve Howe of Yes
70 Eddie Van Halen
71 Lightnin' Hopkins
72 Joni Mitchell
73 Trey Anastasio of Phish
74 Johnny Winter
75 Adam Jones of Tool
76 Ali Farka Toure
77 Henry Vestine of Canned Heat
78 Robbie Robertson of the Band
79 Cliff Gallup of the Blue Caps (1997)
80 Robert Quine of the Voidoids
81 Derek Trucks
82 David Gilmour of Pink Floyd
83 Neil Young
84 Eddie Cochran
85 Randy Rhoads
86 Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
87 Joan Jett
88 Dave Davies of the Kinks
89 D. Boon of the Minutemen
90 Glen Buxton of Alice Cooper
91 Robby Krieger of the Doors
92 & 93 Fred "Sonic" Smith, Wayne Kramer of the MC5
94 Bert Jansch
95 Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine
96 Angus Young of AC/DC
97 Robert Randolph
98 Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer
99 Greg Ginn of Black Flag
100 Kim Thayil of Soundgarden


Friday, September 17, 2004

17 September 2004

Pause the World Day was yesterday. Time's Up Day is today. And Arnold Schwarzenegger is celebrating his 21st birthday as a US citizen. What on earth will tomorrow bring?


Thursday, September 16, 2004

16 September 2004

Cheap Joke Day. I meant to tell you all about 'Do it! Day' (aka Fight Procrastination Day) on 7 September but – you guessed it – I put it off until now.


Wednesday, September 15, 2004

15 September 2004

You're almost certainly unaware of the fact, but this is Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month – so be nice to me this morning.

It's also Children's Good Manners Month, International Gay Square Dancing Month, Update Your Resume Month and Shameless Promotion Month. Oh yes, and it's National Mushroom Month – which is my excuse for experimenting with some fresh Ecuadorian psychedelics in the run up to my birthday.

The birthday's on 29 September, since you ask, which by some strange coincidence just happens to be National Attend Your Grandchild's Birthday Day. I can't work out what grandparents are supposed to do if their grandchildren were born on any of the other 364 days of the year, but tomorrow is Pause the World Day so there shold be plenty of time to find out.


Tuesday, September 14, 2004

14 September 2004

On 14 September 1814, Francis Scott Key is said to have seen the US flag flying over Fort McHenry 'by the dawn's early light', and was inspired to write the American national anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner'.

Like many anthems and other songs, however, the music was not original. In this instance it was borrowed from the 'Anacreontic Song', a drinking song of London's Anacreontic Society. The society took its name from Anacreon, an ancient Greek poet, and was dedicated to 'wit, harmony and the god of wine'. The tune seems to have been a collective effort by members of the society, while its president, Ralph Emerson, wrote the words.

It's one of those rare occasions when a national anthem is probably an improvement on the original, but you do wonder what the Founding Fathers would have thought about an anthem that is derived from a celebration of alcohol and the pleasures of the flesh. Here's the first verse to give you a sense of how it went:

To Anacreon in Heaven, where he sat in full glee,
A few sons of Harmony sent a petition,
That He their Inspirer and Patron would be;
When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian.
'Voice, Fiddle, and Flute, no longer be mute,
'I'll lend you my Name and inspire you to boot,'
And, besides, I'll instruct you like me to entwine
'The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine.'


Monday, September 13, 2004

13 September 2004

It's three years today since Ian Duncan Smith was elected leader of the Conservative Party. It's true that his election was overshadowed by somewhat bigger events in world politics, but the politician who became known as 'Ian Duncan Who?' might have promoted himself more effectively in the following months. Instead he nicknamed himself the 'Quiet Man' of British politics and threatened to 'turn up the volume' if people didn't start paying attention.

They still didn't hear him. For example, twice on the TV show, 'Who wants to be a millionaire?', contestants were asked to name him. Both times they had to use up a lifeline and ask a friend before getting the right answer. On one occasion, a father-and-son duo asked the audience for help. The majority couldn't identify him.

Spare a thought then today, if you will, for Ian Duncan Smith: truly the sort of man who was not even a household name in his own house.


Sunday, September 12, 2004

12 September 2004

Arsenal won 3-0 at Fulham yesterday, 90 years and a day since they beat the same team by the same score in the old second division of the football league.

The earlier game was played in wartime, with the first world war having just started, and the Football Association was under fierce pressure to suspend the football programme. Frank Keating, writing in the Guardian last week, quoted the Times as saying in 1914 that any club employing a football player 'is bribing a needed recruit from enlistment, and every spectator who pay his gate money is contributing towards a German victory'.

In the Daily News, meanwhile, the Scouts leader, Lord Baden-Powell, was remarking: 'War is the real man's game, full of honour and adventure for those with guts in them. Come on, my lads, and lend a hand. We can do our football when we have done our War.'

As a sort of compromise, half time at the 1914 Arsenal v Fulham game was given over to the War Office to appeal for recruits. At the end of the match, a military band was to march to the nearest recruiting station, leading those who had volunteered to serve king and country.

It wasn't a great success. According to Keating, the Times headline the following Monday proclaimed 'One Recruit at Arsenal Match'. Football continued to be played until the end of the 1915-16 season, by which time the government had run out of volunteers and introduced conscription.


Saturday, September 11, 2004

11 September 2004

The eleventh day of the ninth month; and while remembering the American victims of terror on this day in 2001, let's not forget the victims of American terror on this same day in 1973.

Back in the early 1970s, Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to "make the economy scream" in Chile to "prevent [President] Allende from coming to power or to unseat him". In fact, they made the whole country scream with their backing of the coup that murdered Allende and brought in Augustus Pinochet's military dictatorship.

At least after it's own '9/11', the United States can still choose its own president. In Chile, they couldn't even choose their own poets.

Victor Jara
words by Adrian Mitchell, music by Arlo Guthrie

Victor Jara of Chile
Lived like a shooting star
He fought for the people of Chile
With his songs and his guitar
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor Jara was a peasant
He worked from a few years old
He sat upon his father's plow
And watched the earth unfold
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Now when the neighbors had a wedding
Or one of their children died
His mother sang all night for them
With Victor by her side
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He grew up to be a fighter
Against the people's wrongs
He listened to their grief and joy
And turned them into songs
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He sang about the copper miners
And those who worked the land
He sang about the factory workers
And they knew he was their man
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

He campaigned for Allende
Working night and day
He sang 'Take hold of your brothers hand
You know the future begins today'
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Then the generals seized Chile
They arrested Victor then
They caged him in a stadium
With five-thousand frightened men
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor stood in the stadium
His voice was brave and strong
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

They broke the bones in both his hands
They beat him on the head
They tore him with electric shocks
And then they shot him dead
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong


Friday, September 10, 2004

10 September 2004

What were you doing on 10 September 2001? Most people can tell you where they were and what they were thinking when they heard about the hijacked planes being crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But what about beforehand? What were the issues that were concerning us? Did the world really change forever on 11 September, as so many commentators were quick to say it had?

The New York Daily News front page on the day before the twin towers came tumbling down was headlined "Killer Mold". It was a story about an East Side apartment building infected with Stachybotrys chartarum – a potentially toxic black mould that Time magazine had reported earlier that summer as spreading "like a biblical plague". Inside the paper, one of the main column features was discussing "Pets and their Celebrities".

On the economic scene, after a day of ups and downs, the Dow Jones index had returned to its opening figures, while the Nasdaq and S&P 500 made small gains. A panel of business economists had lowered their expectations on US GDP growth for 2001, but with America enjoying the longest economic boom in living memory, optimism remained high. The pension funds crisis and revelations of boardroom corruption were still in the future.

There was also optimism on the international front. Anti-globalisation protests were placing the issues of poverty and development high on the world's agenda. The Jubilee 2000 Coalition's campaign to secure a fresh debt-free beginning for a billion people had brought together an unparalleled campaigning alliance. "The world will never be the same again," it had declared in celebration of its perceived success.

Meanwhile, the 55th General Assembly of the United Nations was concluding in New York on 10 September 2001 with the adoption of the far-reaching Millenium Declaration, spelling out policies on globalisation, development and poverty, peace, security and disarmament, the environment, human rights and democracy.

The largest gathering of world leaders ever assembled, the Assembly had set itself ambitious targets. These included ensuring the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol on the environment by the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 2002; and, by 2015, halving the proportion of people with income of less than one dollar a day, and of those suffering from hunger and lack of safe drinking water; ensuring equal access to all levels of education for girls and boys and primary schooling for all children everywhere; reducing maternal mortality by three quarters; and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.

Only one world leader, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, mentioned terrorism in his statement to the summit. He called for a study of the funding of internationalism terrorist groups, particularly in countries that are "bridgeheads for terrorists".

No one showed much interest. George Bush's international priorities at the time were very different. On 10 September 2001, his defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was leading the attack on a military spending bill that would cut $1.3 billion from Bush's request for missile defence and restrict testing to keep it in line with international agreements. Earlier in the summer, the new US president had identified China as the principal threat to American interests, calling it a "strategic competitor" and talking of tougher trade and other sanctions to keep it in line. He also spoke of the importance of developing a "special relationship" with Mexico; floated the idea of a total amnesty for illegal immigrants; appeared to be supportive of the Kyoto treaty; and pledged to "show humility" in world affairs.

Whatever they meant for the world, the 11 September attacks made sure that George Bush's presidency at least would never be the same again. "When I take action, I'm not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It's going to be decisive," he declared soon afterwards.

It was certainly decisive – and a lot more expensive than a couple of million dollars. The US Congress has provided at least $165 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other anti-terrorism efforts since 2001. Estimates for 2005 put the cost of the Iraq war at around $5 billion per month. This is all on top of an annual military budget that has now reached more than $400 billion.

The sums are comparable with what the US was spending a generation ago on another war against a different enemy. During the eight years between 1964 and 1982, the US spent $111 billion, or more than $494 billion, adjusted for inflation, on its war in Vietnam – an average of $5.15 billion per month.

In one key respect, then, nothing has really changed at all since 11 September. The richest country in the world still spends the sort of vast sums on prosecuting war that could surely, if spent wisely, buy a better peace at a very much lower price.


Thursday, September 09, 2004

9 September 2004

On this night in 1956, a staggering 82.6 per cent of the US television audience tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. What were those 54 million viewers so anxious to see? A 21-year-old singer by the name of Elvis Presley, who was being paid a record $50,000 to perform two songs: Don't Be Cruel and Ready Teddy.

Elvis spent the next two decades making – and breaking – a lot more records, and continued to do so after his death in 1977. Between 1956 and 1996, he had 149 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 – more than any other performer in the US. And in the UK, he holds the record for the highest number of consecutive weeks in the charts, with 13 hit singles, from A Mess Of Blues, in 1960, to One More Broken Heart For Sale, in 1963, spending a total of 144 weeks in the charts. In all, Elvis's records have spent 1,155 weeks in the UK charts since his first hit, Heartbreak Hotel, was released on 11 May 1956.


Wednesday, September 08, 2004

8 September 2004

Born on 8 September 1886, Siegfried Sassoon, the British poet and writer and infantry officer in the first world war, was wounded and twice awarded medals for bravery. He was a hero who had no illusions about what that meant. His poem, 'The Hero', was met with outrage when it first appeared in print in 1917 for stripping bare one of the realities of war and potentially denying every mother who had lost a son one of the comforting illusions on which all wars are based.

'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quivered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.


Tuesday, September 07, 2004

7 September 2004

Born on 7 September 1533, Elizabeth I became queen on 17 November 1588 and ruled until her death on 24 March 1603. Her namesake who currently occupies the same throne has probably gone through many periods when she agreed with Elizabeth I's remark that, 'To be a King and wear a crown is a thing more pleasant to them that see it, than it is pleasant to them that bear it.' But then, as Elizabeth herself also said, 'Those who touch the sceptres of princes deserve no pity.'

A remarkable woman, who held power as a woman at a time when such a thing seemed inconceivable, Elizabeth's most famous remark was made when addressing her troops at Tilbury before the arrival of the Spanish Armada. 'I know I have the body of a week and feeble woman,' she declared, 'but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.'

Just as effective in its own way was her comment to the French ambassador, when he praised her linguistic skills. 'There is no marvel in a woman learning to speak,' she said, 'but there would be in teaching her to hold her tongue.'


Monday, September 06, 2004

6 September 2004

The day of Diana, Princess of Wales' funeral in 1997, this was an occasion when much of Britain stopped for a large part of the day. You didn't have to buy into the monarchist mystique of the Windsors, nor the faux republicanism of the Spencers, to get carried along by the sentimental power of the event. And you didn't have to buy Elton John's schmaltzy reworking of his ode to Marilyn Monroe to be moved by the emotion of it all.

Diana was a woman who died suddenly, unexpectedly and violently before her time. She was fragile, imperfect, all too human – and her death put millions of people in touch with their own fragility, humanity and personal experiences of death and loss among their loved ones.

Her funeral stopped London's traffic briefly. Millions watched as the cortege passed by. I went for a run on London's empty streets and thought of Len, much loved, who we'd nursed through cancer earlier that year.


Sunday, September 05, 2004

5 September 2004

I'm afraid I'm back on the Number of the Beast again. (And by the way, thanks to Jim from the Other Place for asking about 667 – the Neighbour of the Beast.) Even worse, it involves Bill Gates and Microsoft. So hang onto your bibles and keep your rosaries within easy reach.

On 5 September 1995, former Los Angeles Times staffer Jim Riley greeted the release of Windows 95 with an immoderate little article entitled 'Bill Gates is the devil (and other Windows 95 musings)'. Riley meant it literally: ' It all begins with Gates' name. William Henry Gates III. Shorten it to Bill Gates III, convert each letter to its ASCII character, and the sum of the numbers is 666. Do the same with MS-DOS 6.21. The sum is 666. Do the same with Windows 95. The sum is 666.'

Actually Riley is wrong. Gates is God, not the devil. He even gets credited for things he hasn't done, much like God gets the praise for every two-bit hymn in praise of crack, hoes and Rolex watches at any gangsta rap award ceremony in the business.

Take Gates' supposed speech on 'Rules Kids Won't Learn at School' to the graduating class of Mount Whitney High School in Visalia, California. This has been circulated widely via email and on the web (Google gives you 21,600 hits for 'Bill Gates Whitney High School') and provides a list of 11 worldly pearls of wisdom along the lines of 'Life's not fair: get used to it' and 'Be nice to nerds: you might end up working for one'. According the preface that usually accompanies the list, it's meant to show 'how feel-good, politically correct teachings created a generation of kids with no concept of reality and how this concept set them up for failure in the real world'.

Gates never made the speech. Nor did Kurt Vonnegut Jnr, who has also been credited with producing the same words of wisdom at his own college graduation. Nor did advice columnist Ann Landers, who has printed it several times, nor Duluth state representative Brooks Coleman, who has also had his name appended to it in print.

The list is actually the work of Charles J Sykes, author of the book Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can't Read, Write, Or Add. In Sykes' version, it has three extra rules; it's a lot less pithy and well-edited than the internet-circulated version – and of course it carries none of the weight of having been authored by the richest man on the planet.

There's a version of the list, which I've taken from Diddleysquat's excellent Bravenet journal (http://diddleysquat.bravejournal.com), together with my own adaptation of it below.

Bill Gates' (supposed) speech to Mt Whitney High School in Visalia, California about 11 things they did not and will not learn in school:

Rule 1: Life is not fair -- get used to it.

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 a year right out of high school. You won't be a vice-president with a car phone until you earn both.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping - they called it opportunity.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents' fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents' generation, try delousing the closet in your own room.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. You don't get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. In real life people actually have to leave the coffee shop and go to jobs.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one.

And Steve Platt's version of the same advice:

Rule 1: Life is not fair – so join a union.

Rule 2: The world won't care about your self-esteem. Friends will, so choose them wisely.

Rule 3: You will NOT make $60,000 right out of high school – unless daddy already earns $60,000 a week. In this case, you won't need to EARN anything to be a vice-president with a car phone.

Rule 4: If you think your teacher is tough, wait till you get a boss. Mostly they are bastards.

Rule 5: Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. But it's more satisfying if you own the burger shop.

Rule 6: If you mess up, it's not your parents fault, so don't whine about your mistakes, learn from them. Unless you're a CEO, of course, in which case mistakes will earn you a bonus.

Rule 7: Before you were born, your parents weren't as boring as they are now. They just spent too long delousing their own closet and forgot that there's a whole world out there.

Rule 8: Your school may have done away with winners and losers. Yeah, right, that's why everyone goes to Harvard.

Rule 9: Life is not divided into semesters. It's divided into rich and poor. Only the rich get summers off.

Rule 10: Television is NOT real life. The real stuff is far less believable.

Rule 11: Be nice to nerds. Not because you work for them, but because that's the best way to be.


Saturday, September 04, 2004

4 September 2004

After a three-year inquiry, the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden, reported on 4 September 1957. The 'Wolfenden Report' argued that Britain's laws against homosexual behaviour infringed civil liberties and recommended that sexual relations between adults in private should be decriminalised.

The Conservative government of the day rejected the report, however, and it was not until ten years later that this limited decriminalisation was carried out. In Scotland, gay men had to wait until 1980 for the law to be reformed. The age of consent was only made the same as for heterosexual behaviour in 2000.

Most democracies have now rescinded laws against homosexuality, although only a handful offer equal rights across the board. The largest democracy in the world, India, still forbids male homosexual behaviour under threat of a maximum sentence of life in prison. In Kenya, it is punishable with up to 14 years in prison; in Jamaica by up to seven years hard labour. China only removed homosexuality from its official register of psychiatric disorders in April 2001.

In many Muslim countries, meanwhile, the laws against homosexuality remain as savage as they have ever been. In Malaysia, homosexual acts are punishable with up to 20 years in prison and lashing. In Pakistan, they are punishable with life in prison and corporal punishment of 100 lashes, while Islamic law, which can also be applied, requires punishment with up to 100 lashes or death by stoning.

Even this is moderate by Iranian standards, under which homosexual behaviour is punishable by four possible forms of execution: being stoned to death; hanged; cut in two with a sword; or dropped from a high place. It makes George Bush's opposition to gay marriage appear liberal in comparison.


Friday, September 03, 2004

3 September 2004

Enough of numbers and of endings for now – today marks the 65th anniversary of the beginning of the second world war. It's also the 61st anniversary of the beginning of the end of fascist rule in Europe, since this is the day on which the allied invasion of mainland Italy commenced. We can find cause for celebration in the latter date, if not the former.

The Italians surrendered five days after the invasion started, leaving the Nazis to fight alone. The first allied landings in the 'toe' of Italy faced little resistance, with surrendering Italian troops 'rejoicing and exuberantly trying to fraternise with their captors', according to a correspondent for The Times newspaper.

The lack of resistance from the Italian troops added a reputation for supposed cowardice to the undoubted incompetence of their armed forces. Crude jibes about the number of reverse gears fitted to Italian tanks have continued into the present day.

In their eagerness to surrender, however, the Italians were in part demonstrating an opposition to fascism that Mussolini and his Blackshirts had never managed to eradicate to the same extent as Hitler and the Nazis. Their unwillingness to fight the allies should be a cause for pride not shame, even without the idiocy of a military leadership that had left its fighter pilots to communicate with each other by hand signals and its navy to do without aircraft carriers until the last year of the war.

Italy may have been like a dog hit by a car because it tried to bite the tires, as the US war correspondent Ernie Pyle put it. But at least it came out the war better than the rabid monster that lived next door.


Thursday, September 02, 2004

2 September 2004

Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six. Or thereabouts.

Today is 2.9.2004, or 9.2.2004 if you prefer the American notation. Two times nine is 18, or three sixes: 666. Two plus nought plus nought plus four makes another six. So what does that give us? The number of the beast plus another six for good measure. Four sixes are 24, and two plus four is six. Take away this six from the four sixes you had before and what are you left with? Six, six, six. Yet more proof, in other words, that the end of the world is nigh (see 1 September).

This takes us back neatly to 2 September 1666 (no need to point out the obvious in this date), when the Great Fire of London started in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane. Over the next five days the fire destroyed three quarters of the medieval city, consuming more than 13,000 houses, 87 churches, six chapels, four river bridges, three city gates, 44 company halls, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, the Guildhall and St Paul's Cathedral.

And it had all been predicted 14 years in advance by the astrologer William Lilly!
In October that year he was summoned before the Speaker's Chamber of the House of Commons to explain his foreknowledge of the fire, since people had become suspicious that he himself had something to do with it. He denied it, of course, and claimed that his astrological readings had not been precise enough to forewarn people properly.

Parliament accepted his explanation, but the significance of the date was not lost on numerologists. In Roman numerals the year 1666 is written MDCLXVI – a declining sequence (1,000; 500; 100; 50; 10; five; one), which was taken as a clear indication that it marked the beginning of the end for not just London but the whole world.


Wednesday, September 01, 2004

1 September 2004

Not a lot people mark the occasion these days, but the world was created on 1 September 5509 BC, according to the Byzantine calendar. The creation commenced at sunset the previous evening, to be precise, since the timekeeping used in this case measured the beginning of each new day from when the sun goes down.

The emperor, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, described the Byzantine calendar thus: `Hereby may the imperial power be exercised with due rhythm and order; may the empire thus represent the harmony and motion of the universe as it comes from the Creator.'

That 'due rhythm and order' included a date for the end of the world, as well as its beginning. This was to occur, according to the calendar, on the 'Eighth Day' or Eighth Millenium of Creation – 1 September 1492, as it happens.

Now it's extremely complicated adjusting dates from ancient calendars to modern ones. But it's clear that whatever way you look at it the world did not end on 1 September 1492. A man by the name of Christopher Columbus, however, did discover a 'new world' in the Americas at pretty much this time – setting in motion a chain of events that was to lead to the end of the world for many civilisations, most obviously those of the Americas but eventually also including that of the Byzantines.


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