Saturday, July 31, 2004

31 July 2004

Roll up, roll up for the full-moon party tonight – a special event indeed because not only is this a once-in-a-blue-moon occasion, but it's also a Saturday-night blue moon, which comes around on average only once in every couple of decades. (Coincidentally, the next blue moon – on 30 June 2007 – also falls on a Saturday, but there's a long wait after that one.)

The most common definition of a blue moon is that it is the second full moon in a calendar month. But in fact this is a modern invention, dating back only to 1946. An older definition is that a blue moon is the third full moon in a season that has four full moons. The reason for this is related to the Christian ecclesiastical calendar, which used to rely on the moon to calculate certain dates, such as Easter. When 13 full moons fall in a calendar year, identifying one of them as a blue moon keeps the calendar on course.

But even this ecclesiastical 'extra' moon has only been known as a blue moon for about 150 years. The original meaning of the phrase, which goes back much further (at least to Shakespeare's time), had nothing to do with double full moons. Its earliest known use referred to something that was impossible, or so rare as to be virtually impossible. The expression, 'once in a blue moon', referring to something that happened only very occasionally, came into being later, and the phrase was applied to what we know as a blue moon today later still.

Be that as it may, there are few better excuses for a party than a Saturday-night blue moon. Apart from a Halloween blue moon, that is, when I'll leave it to your imagination to determine what spirits might run amok. The last one took place in London in 1974. Due to time differences, in Chicago and further west, there was one in 2001. The next one takes place in 2020. Start planning what to wear now.


Friday, July 30, 2004

30 July 2004
You could choose to mark today by choosing from one of various saints, not the least of which is the third-century martyr, Saint Abdon. He's regarded in some quarters as the patron saint of hygiene, so make sure to wash your hands.

Continuing the theme of the past couple of days, however, I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that this is System Administrator Appreciation Day, so I couldn't let it pass without expressing my appreciation for the stalwart efforts of system administrators everywhere.

Today is also Father-in-Law Day, Cheesecake Day and Kiss Your Car Day. This last celebration has something to do with the fact that today is Henry Ford's birthday. Author of The international Jew: the world's foremost problem, a staunch anti-Semite and opponent of trade unionism ('At least I don't have to deal with the robots' union,' he once remarked), Ford also made motor cars.



Thursday, July 29, 2004

29 July 2004

I have clearly been missing out. Hot on the heels of celebrating National Drive-Thru Day, I have learnt of other momentous occasions that were marked in similar vein during the month of July in the US.

Independence Day on 4 July I can understand, and I suppose there is something to be said for National Ice Cream Day in the height of summer on 18 July. But are Americans really celebrating National Salad Week (25-31 July) at the moment? Or National Hot Dog Month? Or – forgive me while I make a rude noise – National Baked Bean Month?

Even more off the wall, what exactly is the purpose of having not just one but two Air Conditioning Appreciation Days on 3 July (which also happens to be Stay Out of the Sun Day) and again on 15 August, in case you missed the first? I can see that you might appreciate air conditioning when the temperature starts rising, but what do you do with the air con on its appreciation days? Tell it how much you regard and respect it? Give it the day off?

Other days that didn't make it into my diary until too late during July included Health and Happiness with Hypnosis Day (27 July), Virtual Love Day (24 July), Shark and Cow Awareness Day (17 July) and International Town Criers Day (12 July).

Oh yes, and apparently July is Anti-Boredom Month. Roll on August!


Wednesday, July 28, 2004

28 July 2004

The excitement is unbearable. This is the day that people have been waiting for throughout the world. It's like having your birthday, Christmas and the summer holidays all rolled into one. Yes it's . . . National Drive-Thru Day.

Only in America could you have a day dedicated to drive-thrus. And only in America could you have a church making a Christian festival out of it.

It's true. Youth Walk, which describes itself as a 'devotional magazine' published by the Walk Thru The Bible organisation, today urges its readers to 'Go on a progressive lunch with your friends.' A progressive lunch, the magazine informs us, is 'one where you buy each part of your meal at a different fast food restaurant—fries from McDonald’s, burger from Wendy’s, drink from Chick-Fil-A.' Sounds fun, I can't wait.

'But before you go,' says Youth Walk, 'put together a thank you kit to give to the drive-thru workers that you’ll come in contact with. Include wrapped candy and a thank you note that says you appreciate their service and Jesus does too.'

Youth Walk recommends Ephesians 6:7-8 as 'a great verse to include in the thank you note'. This says: 'Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does.'

'Be sure to explain that it’s National Drive-Thru Day as you hand them their packages,' the magazine advises, probably sensibly. Y'all have a nice day now, won't you?


Tuesday, July 27, 2004

27 July 2004

Leslie Townes Hope, the London-born son of a Welsh concert singer and a stonemason, better known as Bob, had lousy politics but a great sense of humour. Supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 US presidential election, Bing Crosby's partner in the classic 'Road' movies produced one of the finest political put-downs of all time: 'I don't understand what people have got against Jimmy Carter. He hasn't done anything.'

Not that he was a lot kinder to his favoured candidate. 'Ronald Reagan is not a typical politician because he doesn't know how to lie, cheat, and steal,' said Hope. 'He's always had an agent do that.'

Somehow Bob Hope managed to become a friend of many US presidents, including Kennedy and Nixon, as well as Reagan, without his political involvement damaging his popularity as an artist. But he never did win the recognition that he coveted most. 'Welcome to the Academy Awards,' he announced, introducing the Oscars ceremony in 1968. 'Or as it's known in my house – Passover.'

Bob Hope died, a couple of months after his 100th birthday, on 27 July 2003.


Monday, July 26, 2004

26 July 2004
You don't hear much about certain people in history, even though you know they must have existed. Grandparents, in particular, tend to get overlooked, although they often play a vital role in the upbringing of their more famous offspring. Spare a thought today, then, for Saints Joachim and Anne, grandad and grandma to Jesus on his mother's side, who had to deal with their only daughter getting pregnant by someone other than her husband and giving birth to their grandson in the insalubrious setting of a stable, surrounded by animals and strangers.

According to tradition, Joachim and Anne married at a young age and were childless for many years. This led to Joachim being publicly mocked as unworthy, with the Temple priest even refusing his offering of a lamb for sacrifice. Eventually he fasted for 40 days in the desert in an effort to get God to grant him a child. Anne is supposed to have given birth to Mary at the age of 40 and to have handed her over to the Temple for the service of God when she was just three years old.

Today is Joachim and Anne's feast day in the western church – although the church insists that there is no biblical or historical evidence for any aspect of their lives. There is not even any agreement on their names. The oldest account of their existence is in the apocryphal Gospel of James, but other writings refer to Joachim as Cleopas, Eliacim, Jonachir, and Sadoc.

The church argues that, 'Whatever their names or the facts of their lives, the truth is that it was the parents of Mary who nurtured Mary, taught her, brought her up to be a worthy Mother of God . . . It was their example of parenting that Mary must have followed as she brought up her own son, Jesus.'

When it comes to grandparenting role models, moreover, we can do a lot worse than the apocryphal gospels. What are we to make, for example, of the national survey of 'favourite famous grandparents' in the US in 2002, that was topped by Barbara Bush with an astonishing 64% of the vote. Her nearest challengers were Paul Newman (way behind on 11%), Mick Jagger (10%), Kirk Douglas (5%) and Joan Rivers (2%). Also-rans included George W Bush, Bill Cosby, Queen Elizabeth and Jimmy Carter, who as US president first proclaimed a National Grandparents Day in 1978.


Sunday, July 25, 2004

25 July 2004
Without comment:

'We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary Baker has directed me to emphasise the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.'

-- April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq, speaking to Saddam Hussein on 25 July, 1990, just before his invasion of Kuwait


Saturday, July 24, 2004

24 July 2004

Today is the birthday of Robert Graves, poet, historian, novelist and author of one of the finest autobiographies, Goodbye to all that, ever written. Born in 1895, Graves fought in the trenches of the First World War, where he saw his unquestioning patriotism shattered in the face of the relentless slaughter.

The author, among much else, of I Claudius and Claudius the God, The Greek Myths and The Hebrew Myths, Lawrence and the Arabs, King Jesus and The New Nazarene Gospel Restored, Graves made full use of his 90 years until his death in 1985. Perhaps he was spurred on by the fact of reading his own obituary in The Times on his 21st birthday in 1916. Mistakenly reported as having been killed in action, in fact he kept the grim reaper waiting for another seven decades.


Friday, July 23, 2004

23 July 2004

It's hard to believe now but 30 years ago the struggle for democracy was yet to be  won in much of Europe. Portugal and Spain still languished under fascist dictatorships; most of eastern and central Europe was under Soviet control; and in Greece, the cradle of democracy, a military junta had seized power from the elected centre-left government in 1967.

The junta suppressed any opposition to their rule, imposing strict censorship and controls over the media and legal system. Political activists were arrested and imprisoned; demonstrators were shot on the streets; thousands fled into exile.

But the regime collapsed following a Turkish invasion of Cyprus in response to a coup by the Greek National Guard, which overthrew the elected Greek Cypriot leader, Archbishop Makarios. On 23 July 1974, two days after the invasion, the junta announced its decision to stand down, prompting celebrations among the Greek community worldwide.
 The dictatorships in Spain and Portugal fell the following year. Eastern and central Europe had to wait a while longer, but the progress towards democratic government, which had been set in motion by first the English and then the French Revolutions of the 17th and 18th century, was finally to prove irresistible across the continent.


Thursday, July 22, 2004

22 July 2004
Imagine, if you will, a short, pink-faced albino with poor eyesight, a disproportionately large head, a brilliant mind – and a speech impediment that led him to transpose the sounds of words. Happy birthday, then, to the Reverend William A Spooner, who was born 160 years ago today and was associated with Oxford University for 60 years, including almost half a century as dean and warden of New College, before his death in 1930.
A friendly but bumbling sort of man, Spooner was in many ways the archetypal absent-minded professor. He once invited a colleague to a reception to 'welcome our new archaeology fellow' to the college. 'But sir, I am the new archaeology fellow,' the colleague replied. 'Never mind, come all the same,' said Spooner.
It's for his verbal slips, however, that Spooner is most famous. These have made him one of those rare people whose name has entered the English language, giving us the word 'spoonerism' to describe the way he switched around the sounds of words (and sometimes the words themselves) to create entirely different meanings to his sentences.
Some of the spoonerisms attributed to Spooner include the following (although he said he remembered making only the first): 

Kinquering Congs their titles take.
Our Lord is a shoving leopard.
I believe you're occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another sheet?
Three cheers for our queer old Dean!
Is the bean dizzy?
It is now kisstomary to cuss the bride.
Sir, you have tasted two whole worms, you have hissed all of my mystery lectures and have been caught fighting a liar in the quad; you will leave by the next town drain.
When our boys come home from France, we will have the hags flung out.
You farmers are noble tons of soil.
I remember your name perfectly, but I just can’t think of your face.


Wednesday, July 21, 2004

21 July 2004 
Ken Livingstone, now the mayor of London, said that Tony Blair would be the most right-wing leader the Labour Party had ever had if he was elected in 1994. Blair was elected leader ten years ago today. Ken Livingstone was kicked out of the party after standing against the official Labour candidate for London mayor four years ago; and then readmitted, in large part due to Blair's influence, in time for this year's mayoral election.
Back in 1994, the magazine that I edited asked the cream of Britain's comedians for their best Tony Blair jokes to mark his election as Labour leader. A rich seam of biting satire it was not, I noted at the time.
There were a few 'What's the difference between . . . ' attempts, which all ploughed the same furrow: What's the difference between Tony Blair and a blank wall? The wall stands for something. What's the difference between Tony Blair and David Blunkett's guide dog? The dog knows where it's going.
And then there were some recycled east European perennials: Why do Tony Blair's researchers always go round in threes? One can read, one can write, and the other one's there to keep an eye on those intellectuals.
None of them, as you can see, had us exactly rolling in the aisles. Anyone know any better ones ten years on? 


Tuesday, July 20, 2004

20 July 2004 
America likes to boast that it put the first man on the moon (and feminists like to ask why they couldn't put them all there). But Neil Armstrong's famous 'small step for a man' took place on different days, according to where in the world you happened to be at the time. So on which date – and at what time – do you mark its anniversary?
In America, it's 20 July. The Eagle landing craft touched down at 1617 (4.17pm) Eastern Standard Time, while Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon at 2216 EST. In Britain, he took his first step on the moon on 21 July. This was either at 0356 (3.56am) British Summer Time or 0256 Greenwich Mean Time. In Moscow, it happened three hours later at 0556; in Novosibirsk at 0956; and in Vladivostok at 1256, or four minutes to one in the afternoon.
But what was the time on the moon?


Monday, July 19, 2004

19 July 2004
Rock 'n' roll began 50 years ago today, according to some people, when Sun Records released 'That's All Right' by Elvis Presley. Others reckon it began two weeks earlier, when 'That's All Right' was recorded. Either way, the song never made it to the UK as a single – until now, to mark its golden anniversary, when it's been kept off its predicted number one spot at the top of the charts by Usher and Britney Spears.
Presley didn't make it to number one 50 years ago either. The chart-toppers of 1954 included the likes of Doris Day, Perry Como, Johnnie Ray – and even, in the UK, Vera Lynn. Top of the US charts 50 years ago today was 'Little Things Mean A Lot' by Kitty Kallen, while in the UK charts it was David Whitfield with 'Cara Mia'. One of the other number ones of the period was Frank Sinatra's 'Three Coins in the Fountain'.
Frank didn't respond warmly to the new music. 'Rock'n'roll is the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear,' he said in 1956. 'It is written and sung for the most part by cretinous goons, and by means of its imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty, lyrics is a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac. It manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.'

 Someone certainly stepped on his blue-sueders.


Sunday, July 18, 2004

18 July 2004
Happy 86th birthday, Nelson Mandela. The first democratically-elected president of South Africa is about as close as you can get to a living saint in most people's eyes. Yet there are still some who share the opinion of him as a 'terrorist' expressed by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, he was still in prison and apartheid was still in power.
Councillors from Thatcher's party on Westminster Council, in London, don't express their views so crudely these days. But in turning down proposals for a statue of Mandela in Trafalgar Square, home to the South African embassy and the site of so many anti-apartheid protests, they've shown themselves to be stuck in a particularly unpleasant period of their party's past. Despite agreeing in 1996 that there should be a 'prominent piece of art' on the site, the report to their planning committee this month rejected the statue of Mandela on the grounds that his image is 'confrontational'.
Not even their one-time leader and heroine, Mrs T, seems to share those views these days. On a visit to London just before his birthday last year, Mandela revealed that she had donated £250,000 when he toured the world after his release from prison raising money for the African National Congress. Some of Mandela's colleagues were unhappy about receiving money from 'reactionary opponents', but not Mandela himself. He also took £10 million from the Indonesian dictator, President Suharto. Margaret Thatcher's money, apparently, was given to the South African Communist Party.


Saturday, July 17, 2004

17 July 2004
A new moon (in Cancer, since you ask): a time for new beginnings, fresh starts, clean slates. Today the moon and sun move together through the sky, rising and setting as one. But gradually the moon falls behind the sun, until they face each other at opposite ends of the earth when the moon is full again.
It was on one of these occasions that the moon and sun fell out in years gone by, when they couldn't agree on which of them was the more important to the earth. Eventually, after a long stand-off during which neither of them would rise or set, they appealed to the human race to judge between them. They nominated one man, a powerful ruler, to make the decision. After some deliberation, he concluded that it was the moon.
The sun was furious at this decision and demanded to know why he had chosen the moon. 'It's like this,' said the ruler. 'You, the sun, provide us with much more light and heat than the moon, it is true. But you do so only during the day, when we don't need it. The moon provides us with a lot less, but it does so at night, when we need it most.'
As a reward for his wisdom, the sun resolved that the descendants of this man should rule on earth forever. They can still be found dispensing their wisdom in places where the sun never shines in centres of business and government throughout the world.


Friday, July 16, 2004

16 July 2004
The day the world changed forever. On 16 July 1945, at precisely 15 seconds before 5.30am, the Americans carried out the first test explosion of an atomic bomb at Alamogordo Air Base in the New Mexico desert. 'No one who saw it could forget it – a foul and awesome display,' said Kenneth Bainbridge, the nuclear physicist who led the experiment.
The blast threw a mushroom-shaped cloud thousands of metres into the air, destroying everything within a one-mile radius. Three weeks later, at 8.15am on 6 August, an atomic bomb nicknamed 'The Little Boy', was dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, slaughtering 100,000 people instantly and condemning many thousands more to slow deaths from radiation poisoning. Three days after that, another bomb, nicknamed 'The Fat Boy', devastated the nearby city of Nagasaki. Another 64,000 lives were snuffed out in an instant.

It was a hard, hard rain that fell on the world that day – and one that St Swithun could never have imagined.


Thursday, July 15, 2004

15 July 2004

Today is St Swithun's Day in England – or is it?

St Swithun's Day is one of a number of days in northern Europe on which, if it rains, according to folklore, it will continue to do so for 40 days and nights – or thereabouts. Others include St Medard's Day (France, 8 June); Sts Gervaise and Protaise (France and Italy, 19 June); the Day of the Seven Sleepers (Germany, 27 June); St Godlieves Day (Belgium, 27 July); and the Dutch version of St Swithun's Day, St Henricus's Day, also celebrated on 15 July, of which it is said 'met St Henricus droog, zeven weken droog, met St. Henricus regen, veertig dagen duurt die zegen' – 'dry on St Henricus, seven weeks dry, rain on St Henricus, 40 days rain'.

But how can we be sure which day is the right one, when St Swithun was given his feast day under the Julian calendar but is now celebrated under the Gregorian calendar? Things can get a little complicated . . .

St Swithun was given 15 July as his feast day in 971, when his holy relics (bones to you and me) were removed to Winchester Cathedral. (One arm apparently went to Norway.) This was under the Julian calendar.

The calendar year, however, as the Venerable Bede pointed out in 730, is 11 minutes 14 seconds too long in relation to the solar year. The Julian calendar compensated for this by introducing leap years with an extra day every four years, but this meant that one day too many was added every 128 years.

The Gregorian calendar got round this by dropping the leap year when the year is divisible by 100, except when it is also divisible by 400 (which is why 2000 was a leap year).

The Gregorian calendar was based on how the dates would have fallen in 325, when the Council of Nicaea was held.

So, on that basis, 15 July in 971 would have been the equivalent of 10 July in 325, 11 July in 453, 12 July in 581 and so on, through to 20 July when Pope Gregory XIII made his change in 1582.

It's even more complicated than that, however, because Britain didn't change the calendar until 1752, by which time 15 July would have been taking place 11 days later than in 325 and six days later than in 971.

So which date do you take as St Swithun's Day for the purposes of calculating whether 40 days and 40 nights of rain will follow?

The answer is that it really doesn't matter because there have never been 40 consecutive days and nights with rain starting in July in Britain since records began. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to find 40 consecutive days and nights in which the number of rainy ones exceeds the number of dry ones, regardless of whether it rains on St Swithun's Day.

And now I could do with a walk in the rain to cool down after all that mental exercise . . .


Wednesday, July 14, 2004

14 July 2004

A friend of mine sent out a group email today to mark the 17th anniversary of the kidney transplant that saved his life. He asked us to 'spare a thought for the donor and her family, and to send them, in thought and spirit, warmth, love and harmony'.

As I write, there are 5,075 people on the waiting list for a kidney transplant in the UK. The demand greatly exceeds the supply. Last year, for example, there were fewer than 1,800 kidney transplants carried out in the UK, including 1,330 from deceased donors. Every year, hundreds of people die for want of a suitable donor.

If you do nothing else today, register as an organ donor. It costs nothing – and you can't take them with you, after all.

You can register online in the UK at: http://www.uktransplant.org.uk

Receiving my friend's email also reminded me of a remarkable story about a remarkable man that I worked on for Channel 4 Television a few years ago. This is how I started that story:

On 31 December 1999, while most of the world was celebrating the eve of the new millenium, 10-year-old Lisa Ostrovsky lost her fight for life in the intensive care unit of St Louis Children's Hospital in the United States. Among those grieving her death was a 48-year-old caretaker from Northamptonshire, England. A self-professed 'ordinary bloke', who had never met Lisa beforehand, he had done something quite extraordinary to try to save her life. For Ron Johnson, who lives with his wife Denise, a nurse, in a village in Northamptonshire, had donated part of his own lung for a transplant operation on a girl he didn't know.

You can read all about it here:


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

13 July 2004

It's 19 years to the day since Live Aid rocked the world in aid of famine relief in Africa. That event had raised more than $250 million by 1990, and the Band Aid charity still receives donations of around £250,000 a year.

So there are worse ways of filling the weekend viewing schedules than a charity event like last Saturday's BBC Sport Relief "Go the extra Mile" fundraiser. And there are worse ways of massaging celebrity egos than by allowing them to parade their social consciences on the little screen on behalf of people less publicity-hungry than themselves.

I just wish we'd charge them a proper rate for our services.

Across the UK, according to the BBC, some 81,000 of us took part in 144 official races in the "biggest mile event in history". Ten thousand of us, including Prince William (who failed to break the six-minute barrier despite all his advantages of birth, breeding and starting at the front), did the run on London's Embankment. We raised what the organisers describe as "a record £11,078,359" on the day. And the BBC transmitted five hours of programmes for the event.

These included an interview with England's penalty-misser-in-chief, David Beckham, by the Fast Show's Ron Manager, aka comedian Paul Whitehouse. Beckham, it was generally agreed, had been an all-round "good sport" by submitting himself to jokes about those penalty misses, his high-pitched voice, his love of "bling", text-sex messages – and "holding his own" in the dressing room. The one question that was presumably off-limits, as it always seems to be on these occasions, was how much of his own money he'd put into the Sport Relief appeal.

The same was true of the trip to Peru on behalf of Sport Relief by Beckham's wife, Victoria, which featured in the BBC's documentary A Mile in Their Shoes. "I feel so sad and helpless, yet I really want to help," said Victoria, after spending time with 11-year-old Dinah, whose mum died three years ago and who lives and works with her dad on a rubbish tip – or at least did until the Sport Relief-supported charity ChildHope came up with the cash to enable her to go to school.

"People shouldn't have to live like this," Victorian commented. "I'm finding that everything I've seen and experienced is taking its toll on me – as it would any mum."

Now I'm not going to join the "former Spice Girl seeks to revive flagging image with public sympathy from charity work" knocking crew. Better a picture opportunity of Posh Spice bringing public attention to bear on the plight of Lima's quarter of a million working children under the age of 12 than yet another shallow photo shoot publicising some unnecessary product or other in the Beckhams' extravagant consumerist lifestyle.

But why don't we charge our celebrities to take part in these sorts of things, rather than, as is so often the case, allow them at a minimum to milk us for every penny of expenses they can possibly claim – or at a maximum to impose "appearance fees" that are usually more than most beneficiaries of the particular charity appeal in question earn in a year?

The rich and celebrity-famous owe us at least this much. Their wealth and fame, after all, comes from us. They clearly feel some guilt at not having earned it. (What else, other than guilt about unmerited riches, makes questioning someone about their money the last taboo in celebrity interviewing?) And they clearly feel some need to absolve themselves through good deeds.

So why not put a price on their absolution, as the church used to in medieval times with its sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins? David Beckham wants to turn his cheating on his wife with his former PA, Rebecca Loos, into a joke about "textual intercourse"? Fine. How much is that Vodafone sponsorship worth again, David?

Victoria really really wants to help Peru's poor children and not feel so "sad and helpless" about their situation? No problem. How about (as a down payment, of course – we'll talk final terms later) something like the £100,000 you laid out for that statue of baby Brooklyn posing with you and his dad?

We should be careful, though, lest the sale of celebrity indulgences is done too cheaply. This year's Sport Relief event sold its principal sponsorship slot to a chain of gyms for about what the Beckhams earn in a week. For around £250,000, the company got its name listed even ahead of Sport Relief itself in the 144 official Fitness First Sport Relief Miles held around the country. With five hours of prime-time television to accompany the races, you can't help but feel that the Fitness First folk bought themselves a bloody good deal.

The truth is that celebrity and corporate support for charity is built upon a con-trick. We, the charity-supporting public (whose generosity declines in direct proportion to the size of our income), are being taken for a ride by people who want wealth with a clear conscience – but are not prepared to pay for it.

The money raised by events such as Sport Relief makes a big difference to people's lives – and not only those of Peruvian children lucky enough to have their photos taken with a British pop star. But it's a mere fraction of what the celebrities alone could contribute if they wished.

I wonder, did anyone from Sport Relief make the obvious point to Victoria Beckham that the poor are poor because the rich are rich? And nowhere more so than in Latin America, where a recent report by Merrill Lynch and CapGemini revealed that the very rich have a higher average wealth than any other major region in the world.


Monday, July 12, 2004

12 July 2004

The story isn't in the bible and there's no historical evidence that it ever happened. Yet the legend of Saint Veronica wiping Jesus's face with her veil while he was on his way to be crucified constitutes the sixth Station of the Cross in the Passion of Christ.

The veil, according to this legend, was imprinted with an image of the face of Christ, complete with crown of thorns. Veronica was said to have taken it with her when she left the Holy Land after Jesus's death; and to have used it to cure the Roman emperor, Tiberius, of a disease. The veil is supposed still to exist at St Peter's in Rome, although other churches, such as at Milan, have claimed to possess it too.

In fact, it's thought that the name 'Veronica' came about as a result of these competing claims rather than being the name of an actual person. The veil held in Rome was referred to as a 'vera icon', or true image, to distinguish it from other relics held elsewhere. In time, common speech rendered this as 'veronica', and so a saint was born. It's her feast day today.


Sunday, July 11, 2004

11 July 2004

Yesterday, in case you hadn't realised, was Silence Day – which is why this column remained silent. (Well that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.)

Silence Day is observed by the followers of Meher Baba (Compassionate Father), born Merwan Sheriar Irani in Pune, India, in 1894. He remained silent from 10 July 1925 until his death on 31 January 1969, communicating at first with an alphabet board and later by gestures that were interpreted by one of his followers.

His philosophy, which combines strands of Muslim Sufism, Christian mysticism, Hinduism and Buddhism, is outlined in his book God Speaks, which is 50 years old this year. The title, of course, is a misnomer, because if there's one thing God doesn't do in Meher Babaism, it's speak. Indeed, Baba dismissed attempting to understand God in words as 'trying to see with your ears'.

Many of Meher Baba's followers believe him to have been one of the incarnations of God in human form. Others have included the Buddha, Rama, Krishna, Jesus, Zoroaster and Mohammed. I suppose you can afford to remain silent for a while with a lineage like that.


Friday, July 09, 2004

9 July 2004

At around 2am on the morning of 9 July 1984, a bolt of lightning struck the medieval cathedral of York Minster. It was, according to Christian fundamentalists and the Sun newspaper (whose front-page headline declared it 'The Wrath of God'), divine retribution for the consecration of David Jenkins as Bishop of Durham in the cathedral just two days previously.

Jenkins had committed the unforgiveable sin in the eyes of his opponents of questioning the literal truth of some of the things in the bible. He'd referred to the resurrection of Jesus, for example, as a 'conjuring trick with bones'; and he said that the idea of a virgin birth simply wasn't credible.

'I wouldn’t put it past God to arrange a virgin birth if he wanted to,' he remarked in one television interview, 'but I very much doubt if he would, because it seems to be contrary to the way in which he deals with persons and brings his wonders out of natural personal relationships. We have no right to insist on the literal truth about the Virgin birth. To insist on literal language is to get stuck in something very close to magic and superstition, and to encourage unbelievers that we religious people deal in fairy tales.'

This was enough to prompt one vicar to tell the Sun: 'I'm not surprised people are talking about divine retribution.' Another, the Rev Tony Highton, of St Mary's church in Hawkwell, Essex, who had previously organised a petition against the ordination of Jenkins, said: 'I believe it was a divine warning. I'm just very sad that a historic building had to be damaged.'

You can imagine him regretting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in similar terms: 'Yes, I know God had to take this action, but it's a pity two lovely old towns had to be demolished in the process.'


Thursday, July 08, 2004

8 July 2004

In the bloody history of English kings and queens, anyone with a name like Edgar the Peaceable deserves some sort of mention on the anniversary of his death. So this is for Edgar, son of Edmund I, who became king of Mercia and Northumbria in 957 and king of Wessex in 959, and died on 8 July 975.

'Peaceable' was only relative to the standards of his time, of course, and Edgar must have been a tough old boot to install and keep himself as the first king of a united England. He was also prepared to face down the strictures about his personal life made by his friend, Dunstan, who he appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan didn't crown Edgar until 973, apparently because of his disapproval of Edgar's liking for ladies of the cloth.

The king had affairs with at least two senior female religious figures during his reign, including Wulfryth, the Abbess of Wilton. She bore him a daughter, Eadgyth, or Edith, who was born around 962. Neither Wulfryth nor Eadgyth suffered as a result of the liaison. Eadgyth went on to become Abbess of Barking, and both ladies went on to become saints – as did Edgar himself, as well as Dunstan.


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

7 July 2004

The seventh day of the seventh month, and the festival of Tanbata in Japan. This is when Shokujo, the weaver-princess star, is said to meet Kengyu, the herdboy star, on the banks of the Amanogawa, the 'river of heaven' or Milky Way. Normally separated by the Milky Way, the two lover stars are permitted to meet just once a year. Since there is no bridge over the Milky Way, they rely on the sympathy of magpies, which form one for them with their wings – though not, alas for the lovers, when it is raining.


Tuesday, July 06, 2004

6 July 2004

Happy birthday Lhamo Dhondrub, born on this day in 1935 in Dharamsala, India. Or, to give him his full name: happy birthday Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso – Holy Lord, Gentle Glory, Compassionate, Defender of the Faith, Ocean of Wisdom. Also known as Yeshe Norbu, the Wishfulfilling Gem, or, for short, Kundun, the Presence. You can call him His Holiness, or, if you prefer, the Dalai Lama.

Acknowledged at the age of two as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama and enthroned as the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people before he was five, this diminutive figure stands alongside Nelson Mandela and very few others as a leader who is respected and loved by people all over the world. Exiled from Tibet after the Chinese occupation of his country in 1959 (he jokes that they are 'guests with weapons'), he has stuck to his pacifist philosophy through thick and thin.

Such is his popularity that on a six-day visit to Scotland last month, tickets to hear him speak in Edinburgh, originally priced at £15, were being sold by touts for £120 each. So who, would you say, was straying further from the path to enlightenment in terms of the Dalai Lama's Buddhist philosophy – the touts making the money, or the punters paying it out?


Monday, July 05, 2004

5 July 2004

I'll leave Greek gods and football to everyone else after Greece's victory in last night's Euro Championship. Instead, join me today in raising a fist for what may be the tricentenary of the birth of Jack Broughton, often referred to as the 'father of boxing'.

I say may be because no one seems to be sure when he was born. Chambers' Book of Days dates it confidently as 5 July 1704, but his gravestone at Westminster Abbey gives his age as 86 when he died on 8 January 1789. Either way, Broughton was responsible for introducing the first set of rules to boxing. This followed a fight in 1743, when Broughton killed his opponent, George Stevenson, with a blow above the heart that broke several ribs and caused internal injuries from which Stevenson died the next month.

Broughton's Rules, which predated the more famous Marquis of Queensbury's Rules by more than a century, prohibited hitting 'below the belt' and introduced 30-second rest periods. Broughton, who was undefeated English champion for 18 years and ran a boxing academy off the Tottenham Court Road in London, also introduced the use of boxing gloves (then called 'mufflers') – though only for use in practice, not in actual bouts, which did not see the end of bare-knuckle fighting until 1889.


Sunday, July 04, 2004

4 July 2004

I believe there's some special significance about this day over in the Empire's heartland, but exactly what it is escapes me for the moment. It's unlikely to be as important as today's European Championship final, however – even if the final that everyone wanted (England v the Czech Republic, of course) didn't quite happen.

The English tabloids (with special honours, as usual, going to Rupert Murdoch's Sun) have been behaving like print hooligans again during this competition. By publishing the telephone, email and other personal details of the referee who disallowed what would have been England's winning goal in the quarter final against Portugal, they have incited every bonehead with an internet connection to harass poor Urs Meier – whose only sin has been to take a decision that the European football authorities, having watched the replays, insist was correct. (I don't know what replays they were watching, but that's another matter – and Portugal were the better team anyway.)

We should be grateful for small mercies, I suppose. At least no one's going to war as a because of refereeing decisions in this tournament. This did happen on 3 July 1969, when war broke out between El Salvador and Honduras as a result of a World Cup qualifying match a week earlier. A late penalty award against Honduras sparked riots in both countries, which eventually led to direct conflict between the armies of the two countries in which more than 2,000 soldiers died.


Saturday, July 03, 2004

3 July 2004

One day early for the Independence Day fireworks, my old friend Ronald Reagan greeted the world with a special announcement on 3 July 1988: 'I am saddened to report that it appears that in a proper defensive action by the USS Vincennes this morning in the Persian Gulf, an Iranian airliner was shot down over the Strait of Hormuz,' he declared. 'We greatly regret any loss of life.'

A total of 290 people died when the Vincennes fired on Iran Air Flight 655, having apparently mistaken the civilian airliner for an F-14 fighter plane (which was presumably attacking the US warship single-handedly). I'm sure the relatives and friends of the dead took consolation from the fact that it was a 'proper' defensive action and not an improper one.

Also on 3 July, in 1976, the Israeli armed forces carried out a rather more competent action in securing the release of the 100 mainly Jewish hostages being held by pro-Palestinian hi-jackers at Entebbe airport, Uganda. One of the stranger stories of this operation involves the spoon-bending psychic, Uri Geller, being used by the Israelis to knock out the radar defences with his mental powers.

Among his many claims, Geller has spoken of saving a would-be suicide victim during a mystical experience on Bristol's Clifton Suspension Bridge. This prompted one disbelieving journalist from the city to raise the subject during an interview.

'Did you know that you're not the first person to claim such an experience?' the journalist asked. 'In the '20s, a Daily Mail journalist called William Comyns Beaumont was walking across the bridge when he suddenly realised that the British were God's chosen people and that all the action of the Bible had taken place here but had been disguised by a sinister Jewish conspiracy. After years of careful study of the Old Testament, he worked out that Edinburgh was Jerusalem, London was Damascus and Bristol was, er . . . Sodom. Could he be right?'

Geller replied: 'In everything a madman says, there is always a seed of truth. Our challenge is to find that little seed among all the weeds. I have never heard of Beaumont, but he sounds an interesting sort of madman.

'Is Bristol like Sodom? Well, I’ve walked through the centre at 11.30pm on a Saturday, looking for a taxi -- and all I can tell you is that if I had possessed the paranormal power to turn people into pillars of salt, I would have used it.'


Friday, July 02, 2004

2 July 2004

It was a 'monstrous oppression of the people', according to Congressman Howard Smith of Virginia. Forty years ago today, US president Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill establishing equal rights in voting, employment, education and public facilities including hotels and restaurants. The bill, which had been passed by the House of Representatives five hours earlier by 289 to 126 votes, prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sex.

Ironically, it had been amended to include sex discrimination by Smith himself. A conservative Southerner and one of the leading opponents of the bill, he had moved the amendment as one of more than 500 that were introduced in an attempt to derail the legislation. Little did he realise that he would go down in history as the man who put civil rights for women onto the US statute book.


Thursday, July 01, 2004

1 July 2004

Today is Canada Day, which gives me an excuse to retell one of my favourite jokes. But first, why did the Canadian cross the road? Answer: to get to the middle.

And now the other one.

God is getting ready for his day of rest. He's already been busy for the best part of six days, during which he's created the heavens and the earth, the sky and the waters and the land, and all the creatures and plants that move or swim or grow there. Just before he goes to bed, he calls his angel, Gabriel, and tells him, 'Now I'm going to create a country called Canada.'

'Here,' God says, 'I'm going to place the finest jewels of my creation. It will be a country of breathless, unspoilt beauty. There will be high mountains inhabited by eagles, vast forests full of elk and moose, and clear rivers teeming with salmon. It will stretch from ocean to abundant ocean, where men will only need to cast a net to feed their family for a year.'

Gabriel is impressed, but God isn't finished yet. 'There will be high cliffs commanding sandy beaches on which the people can play,' he says. 'There will be lakes filled with trout and carp, calm as mirrors under a clear, blue sky. There will be oil and natural resources aplenty. There will be places for their cities and space enough for every man to breathe.'

There's more too. 'The people who live there will be peace-loving and cultured,' says God. 'They will be renowned for their friendliness. They will speak different languages and follow different customs without going to war over their differences . . . '

'It sounds wonderful,' says Gabriel, daring to interrupt at last. 'But aren't you being a bit too generous to these people?'

'No, I don't think so,' says God. 'Just wait till you see their neighbours.'


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