Sunday, December 14, 2008

The world's most wonderful Peppercorn



Standing proudly in its sparkling new green livery, it is the ultimate big boy’s toy – the first steam locomotive built in more than 40 years.

And the privilege of getting it under way on its first official journey will go to Prince Charles.

Charles, whose investiture as Prince of Wales came months after the last steam train service was scrapped, has agreed to name – and drive – the Tornado steam engine at a special ceremony next year.



The Prince will ride on the footplate as the 105-ton engine pulls the Royal Train – with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall as a passenger – on its inaugural journey in February.

The engine, whose full title is Peppercorn Class A1 Pacific 60163 Tornado, was built for £3million following donations from thousands of enthusiasts.

Tornado was unveiled while undergoing tests last month and will go into active service on the East Coast Main Line, pulling ‘specials’. It will leave its home at the National Railway Museum in York for the Royal journey before embarking on a series of tours between York, Newcastle and London.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who often champions traditional architecture and farming methods, the Prince has an abiding passion for steam engines.

He makes sure that at least one of his public appearances each year involves riding or driving a steam locomotive. The Royal Train that took him and Camilla on their honeymoon at Balmoral was pulled by a steam engine.



The A1s were among the last steam engines to be withdrawn from service in favour of the more reliable but less romantic diesels.

British Rail scrapped them in 1966 and the final steam-powered journeys took place in November 1968, a few months before Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales.

No A1s survived, so in 1990 a group of railway enthusiasts began their project to build an engine from scratch. They set up the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, asking supporters to donate the price of a pint of beer a week – £1.25 at the time – and slowly completed Tornado. After 18 years, the engine made its first run, of 120 yards, along track in a rail yard in Darlington on November 4.

It completed a further successful test run two weeks later, reaching 75mph between York and Newcastle.

Since the tests, Tornado has been given its new coat of Apple Green paint, the same shade as the first 30 A1s and the original colour of the Flying Scotsman.

Tornado will reach top speeds of up to 100mph with shorter ten-carriage trains.

Trust chairman Mark Allatt said: ‘The steam locomotive is the nearest thing Man has created to a living thing. You can’t turn it on. You can’t turn it off. You coax it along and it hisses and it bubbles and that is not like a modern machine.

‘A child when they first draw a picture of a train, they never draw diesel, they draw a steam engine. And that is what it is all about.’


http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1094505/Its-new-steam-train-40-years--Charles-Prince-Rails-gets-drive.html

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rail Britannia: Newly found pictures reveal how train travel was once a glorious experience, not a shabby ordeal



The golden age of steam was never more glorious than during the heyday of the Great Western Railway. As these newly discovered photographs reveal, the everyday workings of God's Wonderful Railway (as it was dubbed) reveal a world of style, order and civility almost unimaginable to harassed commuters.

Buffet car

A waiter serves serves tea in a dining car in the Thirties when being a GWR employee was considered a prestigious job

Uniformed porters carrying bags, dining cars where you would actually want to eat and stations that seem more like temples than places of transit  -  all this is a world away from the crowded, ugly and noisy experience of train travel in Britain today.



It is a timely reminder that there was a time, a few decades back, when travel was a glamorous experience and where the passengers' comfort was paramount. This glimpse into a long-forgotten world would have remained lost and forgotten itself were it not for a tireless team of volunteers.

Swindon Works in 1951

A Class 4 locomotive suspended from the ceiling in preparation for a valve fitting at Swindon Works in 1951



They pieced together the details of these pictures, which were discovered by chance when Swindon council acquired the old GWR workshops eight years ago. Piled up in scores of boxes, unlabelled and in disarray, was a pictorial treasure trove of GWR's heyday. It has taken thousands of hours of research by rail enthusiasts to sift through them and piece together the stories behind them for the Museum of the Great Western Railway in Swindon.

Holiday crowds

Holiday crowds waiting to board The Torbay Limted Express in 1926



'Our volunteers are retired railway workers, engineers and people who have knowledge of rail history,' says Elaine Arthurs, one of the curators. 'They set to work on the photographs and were able to provide details about each of the images.' What they discovered casts new light on the workings of this most remarkable of British railway companies, which operated lines linking London with the West Country, South-West England and South Wales. It was none other than the 19thcentury engineering genius Isambard Kingdom Brunel who had the vision that made this railway line the most advanced in the world at the time.

Holiday crowds

This publicity shot from the Thirties emphasises the style and cool sophistication of train travel at the time



Mooted by Bristol merchants concerned that they were losing port trade to Liverpool, the Great Western Railway company was founded in 1833. Brunel was appointed the company's engineer, and work commenced. The first stretch of line, from London Paddington to Maidenhead Bridge station, a distance of 22.5 miles, was opened on June 4, 1838. More lines followed, with Reading opening in March 1840, and Bath at the end of August. Brunel worked at a furious rate, and gave the line such engineering marvels as Paddington Station, the Chepstow Bridge and the Box Tunnel. By the early years of the 20th century, the GWR's links with Cornwall and Wales led to it being dubbed the Holiday Line.

Vending machine

GWR prided itself on being on the cutting edge of innovation with its vending machines



For a generation of holiday makers, the view from one of the two-tone chocolate and cream carriages provided their first glimpse of the south Wales countryside or the Devon and Cornish coast. The true stars of the company, however, were its steam engines. Magnificent, chrome, green and black creations, these powerful locomotives were at one point emerging from the heat and fury of the GWR workshop in Swindon at a rate of two a week. It was their efficiency that allowed the company to prosper, even during the height of the Great Depression, when a number of these photographs were taken.

Chef in kitchen

Restaurant cars were introduced for first class passengers in 1896 and four years later for second class travellers. Here a chef prepares a meal in 1946



So popular was the railway that when the last steam engine, the Clun Castle, left Paddington on June 11, 1965, a crowd of well-wishers mobbed it. For the crowds that turned out that day and for the thousands of travellers who had graced the line over the years, many might have agreed with Robert Louis Stevenson when he remarked: 'I travel not to go anywhere, but to go . . . The great affair is to move.' Having experienced the romance of the GWR, for these commuters the journey was all.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1093975/Rail-Britannia-Newly-pictures-reveal-train-travel-glorious-experience-shabby-ordeal.html

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The latest installment of Boris



They seek him here, they seek him there, that damned elusive London Mayor. Everyone has just seen Boris, cycling down the highway or jogging across Tower Bridge in his woolly hat. And yet, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Mr Johnson is impossible to pin down. Three attempts to interview him have been thwarted at the last minute. Even our meeting this week is nearly cancelled the evening before it is due to take place – then rescheduled twice on the morning of the event. Eventually, we are given a half-hour slot for lunch with the mayor – but he is running 45 minutes late and sends a series of aides to order for him before he arrives. “Girls, girls, sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, as he plonks himself down at the table before asking for a glass of red wine. Too busy to touch his food, he orders a doggy bag - then forgets to pick it up when he leaves.

Once the loveable English eccentric, who was as comfortable on Have I Got News for You as in the House of Commons chamber, suddenly showed that he could do serious during the mayoral election campaign. He didn’t drink, he combed his hair and he stopped cycling through red lights. He appeared determined to stay on track. But, as Mr Johnson has admitted himself, it’s much more fun to blow up the line and see what happens. His cartoon hero is, he tells us, Dennis the Menace.

Since taking over at City Hall in May he has become more chaotic, unpredictable and outspoken again. His short-back-and-sides has grown out.

“Do you think I threw a deliberate fire blanket of tedium over the mayoral campaign?” he says. “Did I ham up the buffoon image or did I get trapped in it? Neither of those two options seem to be particularly attractive. That level of auto-analysis is beyond me.”

Now, however, Mr Johnson isn’t just an MP, magazine editor or columnist – he is the highest elected Tory in the land. With a budget of £11 billion, and the endorsement of 1.2 million voters, he is a trailblazer for the new Conservatives. He went to Eton and Oxford (joining the Bullingdon Club) before David Cameron. He even holidayed in Corfu when George Osborne was still at school. Everything he does in London is seen as an indicator of what the Conservatives might do in power.

But, he says: “There is no fly-by-wire thing going on. We are doing our own thing. This is not some Petri dish in which various Tory ideas are being inserted like bacilli.”

In fact, Mr Johnson is carefully building up his own political identity to match his celebrity persona. He wants to replace Heathrow with “Boris Island”, he has proposed an amnesty for asylum-seekers in London and he has defended the City fat cats, in contrast to Tory high command.

His most dramatic intervention as mayor has been to ease out Sir Ian Blair as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police – leading to accusations of politicisation. This week the mayor, who is chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, got involved in the Damian Green case, saying he believed that the police investigation into his friend was “doomed”.

“I am not going to go into that – รงa suffit. I am not going to tell you anything. I am an exhausted volcano, I am a defunct man, I have let it all hang out,” he says when we ask whether he overstepped the mark in giving his views.

“Of course I haven’t prejudiced the case. Even if there is a trial, nothing I have said is remotely prejudicial. You can tickle my toes, you can pull my teeth out, I am not going to talk about Damian any more. I direct you to what I said on the day of Damian’s arrest. It was perfectly formulated but I have forgotten what it was.”

But, we say, lots of people think that it is improper for the head of the police authority to criticise a current investigation. At this point Mr Johnson breaks into song, declaring: “Let them think it’s weird, let them think it’s weird, I don’t care.”

Is he angry with the police because they seem to be on Labour’s side? “They aren’t politicised.”

But it is clear that he thinks that the mayor should, as in New York, have more power over the appointment of the commissioner. “The democratic component is provided by the mayoralty and we should refine and develop that.”

Having got rid of Sir Ian, would he be happy to see him replaced permanently by Sir Paul Stephenson, the man responsible for the raid on Mr Green’s office? “There is a strong list of candidates to succeed Sir Ian,” he replies. “The Home Secretary will make her appointment in the normal way in consultation with the Metropolitan Police Authority, which I chair, which will make its recommendations, and I personally will make my representations.”

So will he be happy if Jacqui Smith chooses Sir Paul? “Blah,” he replies. A fire alarm goes off. “Hah, I’ve just organised that,” he declares before changing the subject.

In general, he says, the police are doing a good job. “There’s a massive disparity between what they are achieving and the public perception of what they are achieving. People don’t feel as safe as statistics say they should be feeling.”

As London’s elected representative, he receives regular briefings on the danger from terrorism. “There is a chronic threat,” he says. “The sheer number of people who could potentially be a risk is very large. We have 40,000 young men a year going to and from Pakistan. It is easy for someone to disappear into a tribal area and get up to God knows what. Since 9/11 there have been 13 foiled outrages.”

The attacks on Mumbai have, he reveals, led to a stepping-up of security on the Thames. “There is a great deal of work going on. There certainly are extensive preparations to stop a Mumbai-style operation on the Thames. They have thought all that through. There is substantial organisation to guard against the possibility of some sort of riparian assault.”

Mr Johnson wants an amnesty for illegal immigrants in London – a policy that he would like Mr Cameron to adopt as party policy for the country. “I certainly think the Conservative Party should look at this nationally,” he says. “There are probably 700,000 people living illegally in this country of whom 400,000 are in this city. Their position is precarious, it would be sensible if, after a considerable interval, they were able to earn their way into society. I don’t argue this out of some Christian idea of clemency or forgiveness, I argue it from hardheaded economic and political assessment. It’s not a good thing to have a substantial minority of people living here in illegal circumstances when there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell of them being put on a plane and expelled.”

He is just as worried about the super-rich leaving London. The rise in national insurance announced in the Pre-Budget Report made him “apprehensive”. And, he says: “The 45p top rate is a bad signal, it’s a bit of red meat pointlessly poked through the bars to slavering lobotomised Labour backbenchers.”

He also disagrees with the tax on “non-doms” – non-domiciled residents. “Measures which deter talent from coming to the City of London are generally to be deprecated.” His language about the bankers has been markedly different from the rhetoric used by Mr Osborne, the Shadow Chancellor.

“We were both speaking English,” Mr Johnson says. “I’m a friend of the bankers but do not forget this is a bankogenic recession. It wasn’t produced by some oil shock, it was produced by a crisis in the financial services industry. The recession will be a lot worse than it need be unless the banks understand that they need to reach out and help small businesses.”

Does he think that green taxes are a good idea in an economic downturn? “Green taxis [sic] are a brilliant idea,” he replies. “I’m very pleased that since I’ve been in office I’ve cut at least two taxes – one on gas guzzlers and one on the extension of the congestion zone. They were environmentally trivial.”

The mayor wants Londoners to spend their way out of a recession. “People who have money should spend,” he says. He won’t say what his personal fiscal stimulus will be. “I have many outgoings and I give far too much away,” he says. “I don’t like to brag, I wouldn’t dream of telling Times readers about the £200,000 I’m giving over four years to charity.”

To placate those who thought that he was juggling too many jobs, Mr Johnson agreed to give away £50,000 a year – a fifth of the salary he earns from his Daily Telegraph column – to London charities. “David Cameron had nothing to do with it. If you put that I was forced to do it by some f****** Cameron bollocks I’ll be extremely annoyed. It was out of pure goodness, sweetness, Mahatma-like compassion. I would like everyone to give away a fifth of their income.”

The Olympic Games are in his view a worthy beneficiary of government money. “We don’t want Spam fritters and an austerity Olympics – the whole of London is going to be street parties. People will love it.”

He is talking to some of Britain’s most prestigious universities about a plan to turn the Olympic Park into a “higher education hub”, funded by the Chinese. “I want a new university for people who aspire to get a first and a Blue.” He is also talking to Beijing about funding a new airport in the Thames Gateway – the so-called Boris Island. “The idea of endlessly expanding Heathrow is out of date and environmentally extremely foolish. There are plenty of sovereign wealth funds around who might be interested in investing.”

Mr Johnson has a Utopian vision for London. “I want a city with a wonderful new bike-hire scheme, with many more trees. I want a big programme of youth opportunities to cut knife crime, and traffic that flows freely. I want a London where people say they had a mayor who really cared about architecture, a mayor who said that too often when you look at buildings in London they could have been motels in Stuttgart or trade fairs in Trondheim. I want the people of London to have restored to them the Routemaster bus that was so brutally taken away from them.”

Would the mayor like to extend his vision to the whole of Britain? “Oh no, have they seen my Boris-for-PM placard?” Mr Johnson says to an aide. “A member of the Unite union bought it for me.”

So does he want to get to No 10? “No, my appetite for power is glutted. As Margaret Thatcher almost said, there is such a thing as satiety.”

Boris the Menace

Full name Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson
Age 44
Education: Eton and Balliol College, Oxford (where he read classics)

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article5295285.ece

Friday, December 5, 2008

Jewish and Moorish ancestry among Spaniards



The medieval reconquest of Spain from the Moors left a genetic legacy that can be detected today in the DNA of men from the Iberian Peninsula, scientists have discovered.

A high proportion of Spanish and Portuguese males have a genetic profile indicative of North African or Jewish ancestry, according to research that sheds light on the region’s history. As many as one in five has a Y chromosome of apparently Jewish origin, while one in ten has a Y chromosome showing a North African heritage.

“These proportions attest to a high level of religious conversion, whether voluntary or enforced, driven by historical episodes of social and religious intolerance, that ultimately led to the integration of descendants,” said Professor Mark Jobling, of the University of Leicester, who led the research.

After the Fall of the Roman Empire, Spain was ruled from the 5th to the 8th century by the Visigoths, who established a Christian kingdom. In 711, however, an Arab army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, beginning several centuries of Muslim rule.

The Moors tolerated both Christianity and Judaism, but Christians nevertheless progressively sought to reconquer the peninsula over a period of several centuries known as the Reconquista. When the Christian kingdoms of Aragon and Castile were united in the 1470s under Ferdinand and Isabella, they began the final phase of the Reconquista. The last Moors were expelled from Granada in 1492 by the “Catholic monarchs”, who began to enforce Christian orthodoxy.

Jews and Muslims were forced to convert, and the Inquisition was established to persecute as heretics those who maintained their old religions. Many converted Jews, or conversos, and converted Muslims, or moriscos, were expelled.

However, as well as their contributions to architecture, food and culture, they left behind their DNA, the study in the American Journal of Human Genetics reports. It examined the male Y chromosome to chart patrilineal descent. While women have two X chromosomes, men have one X and one Y, and the Y is always inherited from their fathers, remaining intact in the male line from generation to generation.

While the majority of modern Spanish men have a Y chromosome type that is common throughout Europe, a high proportion have profiles that correspond with a converso or morisco background.

Professor Jobling added: “In the long term, Jews and moriscos were either kicked out or were forced to integrate. That’s what we see the effect of now, the integration of their descendants.”

The results also show the extent to which it is possible to trace the impact of historical events through modern DNA.

Similar research has recently shown that the Crusaders may have left a genetic mark on modern Lebanon, where a high proportion of Christian men today have a Y chromosome of European origin.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article5289283.ece

Monday, December 1, 2008

Vast underground glaciers reported on Mars



NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has detected vast glaciers of water ice under Martian ground, researchers say. The findings could present new avenues for the search for life on Mars, they add, or provide water to support future human exploration. Scientists analyzed data from the spacecraft's ground-penetrating radar and report in the Nov. 21 issue of the research journal Science that buried glaciers extend for dozens of miles (kilometers) from the edges of mountains or cliffs. A layer of rocky debris blanketing the ice may have preserved the underground glaciers as remnants from an ice sheet that covered middle latitudes during a past ice age, scientists said.

This finding is similar to massive ice glaciers that have been detected under rocky coverings in Antarctica. "Altogether, these glaciers almost certainly represent the largest reservoir of water ice on Mars that is not in the polar caps," said John W. Holt of the University of Texas at Austin, lead author of the report. "Just one of the features we examined is three times larger than the city of Los Angeles and up to half a mile thick."

Scientists have puzzled over what are known as aprons -- gently sloping areas containing rocky deposits at the bases of taller geographical features -- since NASA's Viking orbiters first observed them on the Martian surface in the1970s. One theory has been that the aprons are flows of rocky debris lubricated by a small amount ice. Now, the shallow radar instrument on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has offered "the smoking gun pointing to the presence of large amounts of water ice at these latitudes," said Ali Safaeinili, a shallow radar instruments team member with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Radar echoes received by the spacecraft indicated radio waves pass through the aprons and reflect off a deeper surface below without significant loss in strength, he explained; that would be expected if the apron areas consisted of thick ice under a relatively thin covering. The radar doesn't detect reflections from the interior of these deposits as would occur if they contained significant rock debris, he continued. The apparent velocity of radio waves passing through the apron is consistent with a composition of water ice, he said.

http://www.world-science.net/othernews/081120_mars

Iceland



Iceland is unlike anywhere else, an incongruous mix of sublime scenery and few resources, writes David Marr.

Some countries start badly. We're driving over lava flows under a low sky in a taxi that might as well be eating our money. It's a grim scene. Reykjavik looks like a row of sheds impossibly far away. The driver is taciturn. On this bleak summer afternoon it's 11 degrees outside. In the distance by a range of grey hills, steam is rising from the landscape. We shell out kronur to the tune of $140 and find ourselves dropped on the footpath at the wrong address. In the rain.

But at about 9.30 that night, the sun comes out. We are wandering back to the apartment after a plate of fish and chips when, for a few miraculous minutes before the sun sets, the street is washed with light. On the far side of the harbour, the mountains turn soft green and seem to float in the sky. It's a brief, uplifting moment: a promise of what's to come and a warning to be patient. Iceland isn't meant to be easy.

No one can really explain why anyone came here in the first place. Weren't there other islands without volcanoes further south? Islands where Vikings in the ninth century could take their sheep and stolen Scottish brides? Tourists face the same question: why here?

A part of Iceland's powerful draw is the sheer incongruity of the place: a toy-box civilisation built on one of the least hospitable stretches on earth. The women are beautiful, the men are plain, the scenery is sublime, the roads are dodgy and everything is expensive. Iceland has no military, no railways, no forests, no weeds, no safety railings and no lifts. The population is smaller than Tasmania's and most people speak English. This is one of those relaxing countries where there's no expectation visitors will learn much beyond a few polite phrases: yes (ja), no (nei), hello (hallo), thanks (takk). It's not hard.

One useful word, not apparently found in dictionaries, sounds like yay-ja and is heard all the time. It's a gap filler that means "yes" but also "give me a minute to think" or "I'm getting bored" and, when inflected with purpose, "I think you're a bit of a dickhead". It's a one-word demonstration of the Icelandic way of making do with few resources.

The sun shines brightly in Reykjavik for days. It's a pretty town. The houses clad in corrugated iron are painted bright pink and blue and lavender and rust red. Along fashionable Laugavegur where rainbow flags are still flying after Gay Pride, turf is being laid in shops and galleries in preparation for Culture Night. Turf matters in Iceland; it's a land of turf walls, turf roofs and, in 2008, even turf art.

The streets are crowded with American vulcanologists. Famous as the setting of the Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship of 1972 and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986, Reykjavik is hosting a world gathering of volcano watchers. Anything could erupt at any moment. Iceland's city power, earthquakes, perpetual hot water supply, geysers and lava fields come courtesy of a rip across the landscape where the Eurasian and American continental plates are coming apart.

At some point Iceland is going to split in half. Fish, aluminium and tourism have made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world, although that wealth is falling apart due to the global credit crunch.

Before setting off on our trip round the country, we hear many warnings. "Roads are a new thing in Iceland," warns the woman cutting my hair. "Before the war we only had horse tracks but the Americans came and brought roads." Roads avoid known "elf habitations" - true.

Other big safety issues are blind crests, precipitous drops and gravel. Iceland is a major gravel nation. Rent-a-cars get about looking as if they're sprayed with gun shot. The firms just flag the holes with little yellow stickers - and you head out of town, soon leaving behind both sunlight and the BBC World Service.

Somewhere ahead is Snaefellsnes, a mighty glacier-capped mountain, invisible in the murk and driving rain. We retreat to the swank Hotel Budir and eat lobster and sheep's head pate in the middle of the wilderness. Next morning the sun is shining and I ask the woman at the desk if it's always like this: a burst of sun in the morning and rain for the rest of the day. "No," she replies. "There is no pattern. It's random."

The sky lifts and we begin a long day driving north through the fjords. You have no idea how beautiful this country is unless you've stood on one of these hillsides and stared almost to infinity across fjords and bare mountains out to sea. Photographs give the colour but can't convey the scale. Iceland is elemental, mysterious and huge.

We miscalculated. Fjords take time. We drive a long way in and out to make headway along the coast. On the few short cuts over the mountains, the roads are gravel, the drops terrifying and railings rare. There are huts in the passes tethered to the ground by steel cables to shelter stranded travellers. Road signs give gradients up and down. The worst we face that day - 18 per cent - may not sound steep but the descent in failing light is heart-stopping.

We should have arrived hours ago when we round another headland and see yet another long climb ahead. It's almost dark and raining again. But in no time we're looking down into a perfect little fjord before slithering down into Djupavik with its ruined herring factory and one rough, good pub. It's late but they open the kitchen for us and the food is good.

We're learning the rules of the road. When you're exhausted, when you just want the day to be done with - Iceland offers something more, something unexpected and wonderful. I find myself swearing all the time. Often the only right response to the jaw-dropping surprises of this country is that one sharp word that may, come to think of it, be Icelandic in origin.

The land is gentler as we follow Route One towards Akureyri, the only other town with claims to be a city. We see red-roofed farmhouses in windswept valleys, each with a flagpole and a waterfall and a few fields of mown hay.

We learn to read the rivers: the smoky green of snow melt; muddy purple where fields of lava are being torn away; and creeks so pure the water seems invisible. Nailed on bridges is one of the strangest signs in the world: a red stripe across euros, dollars, pounds and kronur. It means: this stream is not a wishing well. Don't throw money.

Forests of birch and poplar are being planted. Iceland was denuded about seven centuries ago and has been naked since. Global warming is one threat to this country - glaciers are retreating and a hottest-ever 26.2 degrees was recorded in Reykjavik this summer. But a greater threat to its unique look is reforestation. It should be stamped out before Iceland loses its picture-book nudity.

No trees will ever grow in the lunar hinterland of boiling mud pools, geysers and fields of sulphur that haven't quite cooled since eruptions centuries ago.

All's quiet on Iceland at the moment but a magnificent film installation of Surtsey appearing out of the sea in 1963 can be seen at Reykjavik's Culture House and there is a mesmerising video at the Skaftafell National Park Visitors Centre of the 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull's mighty ice cap.

Why do we find hot rock being flung around so fascinating? Or water falling over cliffs? This is a place where the crust is thin, rivers are new, glaciers run to the sea and, depending on the season, the sun barely sets or barely rises. Iceland is one of those places we come to watch nature break the rules.

We didn't hire horses or take snowmobiles on the glaciers; we didn't go whale watching - two pilot whales came to us, cavorting one morning in Akureyri harbour - and we didn't go fishing or hike across the mountains. But we did just about everything else. I even got booked for driving at 110kmh. After a solemn interview in the back of a police car, payment of about $300 and being handed a ticket that detailed the exact longitude and latitude of the offence the officer said: "We now consider the case closed."

Reykjavik seemed tame when we returned but that Friday night it erupted as, we're told, it always does at the weekend, with the runtur - a pub, bar and club crawl that roars through until breakfast. On those last days we drove through a wild storm to eat lobster, spent a fruitless afternoon looking for puffins and ended the holiday on a lava field basking in the misty waters of the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik.

Iceland had one last surreal experience for us before our midnight flight. It was cold, it was dark, it was raining and the pool was nearly empty. A young attendant in full arctic gear stood on the boardwalk arguing with a couple of Americans who, it seemed, wanted to have sex in the swirling steam. They were stridently claiming a right to privacy. "That's what they all say," said the attendant and with perfect good humour threatened to see them jailed for breaking the decency laws. We left them to their argument.

In a country that has seen everything, not quite everything goes.

http://www.smh.com.au/travel/elemental-as-anything-20081113-633w.html?page=-1

Friday, November 28, 2008

Breakfast With Saint Peter



Thanks to a man with troubles of his own, I was able to face mine.

This past spring, just two weeks after I turned 56, I was laid off after nine years at a company. The news came suddenly. One morning I got word, and by the end of the day I was gone from the premises. I rode the subway from Manhattan back to Queens, thinking about how to tell my wife. I was the sole support of a family of four, including a son in college and a daughter studying music.

Within hours of getting home, I reached out to people I knew -- friends, associates, recruiters, former colleagues and clients. Almost everyone lent some support: a lead, a reference, an offer of office space or a freelance gig, a kind word. Along the line, I reconnected with Peter. I'd known him for 15 years; we'd once worked closely together and over the years had stayed in touch, though mostly by phone.

Peter had gotten laid off a few times himself, so he knew how I felt. He'd always found new jobs. Over breakfast at a coffee shop just south of Central Park, he fed me advice and encouragement -- and in the coming weeks never stopped. Though Peter had his own job, a wife and three kids, a long train commute and other, much closer friends, he made time for me.

Make a to-do list, Peter suggested, and then do it all. Call everyone important you know. Meet with anyone influential who will see you. You're going to be all right, he assured me. I tried to believe him. But no one, even the most confident, can be sure. Meanwhile, every day brought a new, unwelcome "first": the first family dinner jobless, the first supermarket trip jobless, the first rent bill jobless.

I knew full well how long it might take to find another job, especially at my age. The older you get, no matter how significant your accomplishments, the harder it can be. The looming recession and the tough job market gave me ample cause for anxiety.
But Peter would hear none of it. Day in and day out, he doled out pep talks laced with hard-won wisdom. Talent always rises, he said. Hold yourself accountable to your goals. After you've done all you can, do more.

On any job hunt, Peter said, the candidate always fears the "X" factor, the other guy. Make sure you're the "X" factor. Always be locked and loaded (he's big on military metaphors). Never get down on yourself, or let anyone see you sweat, or sell yourself short. Talk to so-and-so. Tell him I sent you.

Now, none of this might be all that unusual, except for this: Peter had cancer. After suffering a massive heart attack six years ago, last year Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Months of treatment, including external radiation and radioactive seed implantation, left him exhausted. It seemed his days were numbered.

The sight of him that morning at breakfast had taken me by surprise. Though still patrician handsome, he looked less than robust. Peter had issues of his own, and could have told me so, and I would have understood. But he never did, and just continued to help me. Thanks to him, I was better able to keep my own life in perspective. If Peter could face the end of life without complaint or a hint of self-pity, surely I could face my troubles. All I was missing was a job.

Eventually, by following his advice, I did land a new job. A better one, just as Peter had predicted. And so this Thanksgiving I hereby raise a toast to Peter, and to all the Peters out there.

Peter remains my guardian angel. His strength gave me mine. Remember your value, he said. If you believe in yourself, most of the battle is already won. He taught me the most valuable lesson of all: How to keep my head up. Peter made me believe we might be a city of guardian angels. A country, even.

I have extra reason for such a belief. Peter's cancer just went into remission.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122783270019463061.html

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A kosher revolution in the Holy Land



There are many things you might not know about Israelis. They drive like maniacs, they wear summer clothes through winter and when it comes to wine, they exhibit a surprising chauvinistic pride. With good reason. If you believe the Bible, the Holy Land is the oldest winegrowing region on Earth.

"We've been making wine around here for 5000 years," says Yaariv Katz, the owner of the Wine Hall, a popular haunt for wine drinkers in downtown Jerusalem. Noah, according to scripture, planted the first vineyard and then became the first man to get drunk when he siphoned off the harvest.

According to Israeli wine guru Daniel Rogov, author of the annual Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines, the Bible refers to the vine "as one of the blessings of the good land promised to the children of Israel". Thursday night was a big night for Israeli vintners and wine connoisseurs, who gathered at cellars around the country to celebrate the first harvest of the new season. "It's a French tradition, to sample open the first Beaujolais of the year, but we celebrate it here with even more passion I think," Katz says.

After struggling for international respect for many years, Katz says Israeli winemaking has undergone a revolution.

"We now make what I think are among the world's best wine - perhaps not as good as the French but being a Mediterranean climate, we're getting close."

Drive south-west from Jerusalem and in about 45 minutes you'll end up in the Ella Valley, the site of David's battle with Goliath. The valley is home to about 25 wineries.

"We looked long and hard for best possible area to grow premium wine and we found it here - surely one of the best winegrowing regions in the world," Iris Berg, manager of the Ella Valley Winery, says.

Established in 1998, the winery is regarded as the producer of the world's best kosher wine. "Israeli wine has struggled with the perception that kosher wine cannot be as good," Berg says.

Little wonder, considering that winemakers used to have to boil their wine to get the stamp of approval from the local rabbi, leaving little in the way of taste.

Nowadays, winemakers like Doron Rav-Hon at Ella Valley can make premium kosher wine without sacrificing the quality of the product. To make wine kosher, the grapes of any new vines must not be used for wine within the first four years. No other fruits or vegetables may be grown in between rows of vines, the fields must lie fallow every seventh year, and, most importantly, only kosher tools and equipment can be used throughout the entire process.

And until the bottle is sealed, only observant Jews may come into contact with the wine or the winemaking equipment.

"It takes a lot of work and planning but we have proved that you can make a premium wine that is of a world standard that is kosher and can be drunk by observant Jews," Berg says. "Kosher wine does not have to be boiled and it does not have to pasteurised. You just have to be careful about who and what comes into contact with the wine as it is being made."

The Ella Valley winery produces about 200,000 bottles a year, 80,000 for export.

Back at the Wine Hall, Michael Steinberg, 37, says things have changed. "My parents only used to drink European wine. Now I'm happy to only drink Israeli wine."

http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/a-kosher-revolution-in-holy-land/2008/11/21/1226770735314.html

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hitler HAD only one ball



AN extraordinary account from a German army medic has finally confirmed what the world long suspected: Hitler only had one ball. War veteran Johan Jambor made the revelation to a priest in the 1960s, who wrote it down.

The priest’s document has now come to light – 23 years after Johan’s death.

The war tyrant’s medical condition has been mocked for years in a British song.

The lyrics are: “Hitler has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall. His mother, the dirty b****r, cut it off when he was small.’

Until now there has never been complete proof Hitler was monorchic – the medical term for having one testicle.

But the document tells how Johan saw the proof with his own eyes. In the account, he relives the horror of serving as an army medic in World War I.

He died aged 94 in 1985, but had told his secret to priest Franciszek Pawlar, who kept a note of their conversation.

Johan’s friend Blassius Hanczuch confirmed the priest’s account of how the medic saved Hitler’s life. He said: “In 1916 they had their hardest fight in the Battle of the Somme. “For several hours, Johan and his friends picked up injured soldiers. He remembers Hitler.

“They called him the ‘Screamer’. He was very noisy. Hitler was screaming ‘help, help’. “His abdomen and legs were all in blood. Hitler was injured in the abdomen and lost one testicle. His first question to the doctor was: ‘Will I be able to have children?’.”

Blassius said that when the Nazis swept to power Johan began to suffer nightmares and blame himself for saving Hitler.

Hitler’s genitals have long caused controversy. Some historians dismissed the “one ball” song as propaganda. But an alleged Soviet autopsy on Hitler backed it up.

Records show Hitler did suffer a groin injury in the Somme.

It is the first time an interview with anyone who treated Hitler during WWI has come to light.

Dr Martin Farr, senior lecturer at Newcastle University School of Historical Studies, said last night: “This genuinely new twist is fascinating.”

http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/article1945960.ece

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Field Marshal Douglas Haig would have let Germany win






He is the most pilloried military leader in British history, caricatured as a butcher and a bungler who sent hundreds of thousands of men over the top to their deaths. Now a new biography pins a further damning indictment on Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. Late in the final year of the First World War, it argues, he was pushing for a peace that would have left Germany as the real winner of the war.

According to Dr J. P. Harris, senior lecturer in War Studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Haig was not quite the uncaring monster of popular myth but nor was he, as some recent studies have suggested, a clear-sighted and imperturbable leader who should take the credit for Britain’s ultimate victory. Rather, he was a poor battlefield commander who “didn’t have the sort of intellect that could penetrate the fog of war”.

In Douglas Haig and the First World War, published today on the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, Dr Harris argues that Haig’s failings led him to misread the strength of the German armies, counselling aggression when they were strongest in the middle of the war and caution as they weakened spectacularly in its final weeks.

Haig became the leading advocate of a compromise peace in Britain, Dr Harris said yesterday. “He wanted to offer the Germans very, very, easy ceasefire terms in late 1918.” This would apparently have left Germany armed and in possession of its territorial gains in Eastern Europe.

Among the arguments he cited were the weakness of the other Allied armies (the French were “worn out” and the Americans “disorganised”) and the threat of Bolshevism overrunning Germany if the peace terms were seen to be too humiliating. By 1918 Haig was “rather shaken, somewhat confused, subject to mood swings, oscillating in his strategic judgments and, at times, willing to abandon the pursuit of clear-cut decisive victory”.

Haig was a hero in his lifetime. As commander-in-chief, he presided over the greatest run of victories ever achieved by the British Army in the run-up to the Armistice and in later years he helped to set up the British Legion. More people turned out for his state funeral in 1928 than lined the streets for Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. By the 1960s his reputation was in tatters, with John Mills’s portrayal of him in the film Oh! What A Lovely War fixing his image as a buffoon.

The one constant belief has been in Haig’s unswerving pursuit of a final and complete victory. It is also inaccurate, Dr Harris said. In the final month of the war Haig “seemed to lose faith in his ability to conclusively defeat the German armies and thought it was necessary to offer them very moderate ceasefire terms followed by a moderate peace that may indeed have left Germany with many of its ill-gotten gains in Eastern Europe.” Haig did not even expect the Germans to disarm – they would be left with a full complement of weapons, including artillery.

The armistice that the Germans eventually signed amounted almost to unconditional surrender. Seven days later Haig was offered a viscountcy, which he bartered up to an earldom.

Terry Charman, senior historian at the Imperial War Museum, where In Memoriam, an exhibition on the First World War, runs until September, welcomed the new insights. But he added: “We tend to forget that it was the British armies that won the First World War in the field, not the Americans or the French or the Belgians and if we blame Haig for the disasters we must credit him for the victories too.”

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article5123293.ece

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The real history of the Great Depression in Britain



By Dominic Sandbrook

Keynesianism did not, as is often imagined, put an end to the Great Depression. Indeed, the record of big-spending governments during hard times is not one to be proud of.

John Maynard Keynes was, at first glance, an unlikely candidate to become one of the great icons of Left-wing politics.

Born in 1883 to a Cambridge economist and social reformer, he was brought up in an atmosphere of high-minded privilege.
Eton and Cambridge, where he got top marks, gave him social gloss and academic distinction.

He was no scholarly drudge, though, but a lover of beauty and pleasure. (Asked on his deathbed, in 1946, whether he had any regrets, he was said to have remarked: 'I should have drunk more champagne.')

By 1925, Keynes was building a reputation as the most brilliant and controversial economist in the western world. After advising the Government during World War I, he seized attention in 1919 with an attack on the Treaty of Versailles, arguing (correctly, it turned out) that its punitive terms were bound to provoke a terrible German reaction.


And during the Twenties he cemented his image with a series of onslaughts on economic orthodoxy, chipping away at the three pillars of the old order - the Treaty, the gold standard (the system whereby bank notes were literally exchangeable for gold) and laissez-faire government, the economic ideology which advocates minimal state intervention.

But one of the great myths about Keynes is that when the Wall Street Crash sent shockwaves through the world economy in 1929, politicians seized on his ideas as a solution to the Depression. They did nothing of the sort. For although Keynes' brains were highly regarded, he remained a heretic.

His trademark notions - government borrowing and spending on public works to boost demand and alleviate recession - were unpopular on both sides of the political divide.

Although Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government brought him on board in 1930, it did not take up his prescriptions. For as a Whitehall joke at the time had it, if you asked five economists for their opinions, you would get six replies - two of them from Keynes. And when a major committee asked his advice on solutions to the Depression, he gave no fewer than seven different answers.

In fact, it was only at the margins of British politics than Keynesianism, as it eventually became called, really caught on.

Then, the most distinguished champion of government spending in hard times was the former Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, one of the most dynamic and charismatic speakers in the country.

But Lloyd George was a political pariah, his image besmirched by a cash-for-peerages scandal and his private reputation damaged by a string of sexual misdemeanours.
Even many Liberals hated and despised him. 'The Goat', as he was called, was far from the ideal person to sell Keynes's radical economics to the political establishment.

Yet Keynes's biggest political admirer was even less salubrious. During the Twenties, he had met a dashing young Labour politician, Sir Oswald Mosley, and it was he who made the most determined effort to introduce Keynes' ideas into British economic life.

As early as 1925, Mosley was arguing for nationalised banks, an economic council and centralised planning for full employment. And in 1930, Mosley, who was then a minister without portfolio outside the Cabinet, presented his famous Memorandum to the Labour Cabinet, recommending 200 million pounds of public works and social spending to kick- start the economy into recovery.

This was Keynesianism pure and simple - and the Cabinet rejected it. To most Labour ministers, borrowing money to throw at public works during tough times smacked of profligate irresponsibility.

Mosley promptly flounced out of the Government and ended up founding the British Union of Fascists, horrifying his old friends and colleagues. He remained an admirer of Keynes's ideas, though - as did his great friend and mentor, Adolf Hitler.

Indeed, if there was one government that did embrace Keynesianism enthusiastically in the Thirties, it was Hitler's Germany - where borrowing, spending and public works were the foundations of the Nazis' economic appeal in a country ravaged by the Depression.

In Britain, meanwhile, Keynes remained a prophet crying in the wilderness. When the Labour government fell from office in 1931, ripped apart by the economic crisis and replaced with a National Government run by MacDonald and Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, Keynes was not impressed. He thought the Tories' ideas were 'medieval' and despised Baldwin's 'stupidity'.

And he was even less impressed when the first thing the National Government did was the exact opposite of what he recommended - slashing spending and ruthlessly pruning unemployment benefits to impress the markets.

And yet the common image of the National Government, supposedly a cabal of rich, hard-faced men watching with callous indifference as millions of workers in flat caps trudged through the streets looking vainly for work, is complete nonsense.

Indeed, the very idea of the Hungry Thirties is largely a myth. By comparison with most countries, Britain escaped the Depression relatively unscathed.

Unemployment did rocket, hitting a terrifying 23 per cent in January 1933, but then it quickly fell back to pre-Crash levels. Wages remained high and, for those people still in work, life was better than ever. And as early as the end of 1933, while Germany and the U.S. were suffering the worst throes of the Depression, Britain was already in recovery.

What was the key, then, to Britain's escape? It was certainly not Keynesianism - for Keynes's ideas were never tried.

The key economic figure in the National Government, Chancellor Neville Chamberlain, was a strong believer in protectionist tariffs and tight money. Despite this, he was a keen reformer, setting aside cash for unemployment benefits, health and housing, but he drew the line at borrowing millions of pounds to spend on public works.

And although he approved a programme of aid to depressed areas, notably the coalfields of South Wales and Tyneside shipyards, it cost a tiny 2 million pounds - a hundred times less than the programmes Keynes and Mosley had envisaged, and nowhere near enough to make a major impact.

In fact, the real key to Britain's recovery was probably the moment in September 1931 when the pound, battered by speculators, was forced off the gold standard. Until then, the Bank of England had been compelled to keep interest rates high to maintain the ludicrously elevated value of sterling.

But as investors lost their faith in the pound at the height of the Depression, the Bank finally gave up the fight and abandoned the gold standard. Now there was no need for the cripplingly high interest rates and by June 1932, bank rates were down to a barely noticeable 2 per cent - the ideal level to stimulate a recovery driven by private enterprise.

For while industrial areas, especially in the North, Scotland and South Wales, were suffering from the collapse of international demand in the Depression, the paradox is that many people had never had it so good.

As even a socialist like George Orwell was forced to admit, when contemplating the popularity of the cinema, gambling and High Street fashion in Wigan, Britain in the Thirties was an increasingly affluent society. 'It is quite likely that fish-and-chips, silk stockings, salmon, cut-price chocolate, the movies, the radio, strong tea and the Football Pools have between them averted revolution,' he grumbled.

As a result, as early as 1935, the Depression in Britain was virtually over. By contrast, the U.S., where government intervention - in line with Keynesian thinking - was much more pronounced, did not begin to recover until the outbreak of World War II.

While President Franklin D. Roosevelt's innumerable government schemes and unprecedented welfare spending undoubtedly protected Americans against the ravages of poverty and unemployment, they certainly did nothing to bring recovery.

In many ways, the New Deal, with its obsession with government control over the economy and money supply, intervention to control prices and agricultural production among myriad social projects, was a terrible advertisement for big government. For when businesses should have been investing for the future, they were defensive and angry, their confidence shattered by Roosevelt's attacks on them.

The great myth about Keynesianism, in other words, is that it was tried in the Thirties and proved successful. In fact, Keynes did not publish his landmark General Theory until 1936, and his ideas did not take hold among senior Tory and Labour politicians until the Forties.

And in the years after the war his complicated theory of demand management was gradually diluted into a recipe for government spending, with prime ministers such as Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson printing money rather than facing up to the realities of Britain's industrial decline.

By the mid-Seventies, the result was rampant inflation, soaring unemployment and a bloated, bureaucratic public sector, prompting Labour's Prime Minister Jim Callaghan to issue a famous repudiation of Keynesianism. 'We used to think you could spend your way out of recession by boosting government spending,' he told his party in 1976. 'I tell you, in all candour, that option no longer exists.'

Callaghan's words marked the end for Keynesianism in Britain - which makes it all the more surprising that it is making a comeback.

But while even Keynes's critics, such as the monetarist Milton Friedman, acknowledge that he was a brilliant economist, it would be a dreadful mistake to turn back the clock to the theories of the Twenties and Thirties.

In fact, as a die-hard Liberal who hated socialism and supported capitalism, Keynes thought of government intervention only as a last resort. He never envisaged a public sector on the scale we have today and would be horrified by the current regime of welfare entitlements.

What is more, he never anticipated the problems of soaring world commodity prices and massive inflation, which is why Keynesianism collapsed in the Seventies.

His admirers insist that he would have tackled the problem of inflation had he not died in 1946 at the age of 63 - but this only hammers home the point that, at best, his theories were a work in progress, not the definitive answer to the world's ills.

Above all, Keynesianism was the product of a world of national tariffs, protectionism and jealously guarded economic sovereignty. In a globalised world when governments badly need to win the confidence of international exchange markets, the idea of heedlessly borrowing and spending your way out of recession is as outdated as the films of George Formby and Gracie Fields.

The crowning irony, though, is that Keynes himself would have been the first to mock his new admirers. A daring nonconformist who loved to poke fun at conventional wisdom, he would have shuddered at the thought of dusting down the orthodoxies of the past instead of thinking up solutions based on changed global realities.

In other words, Keynes would have been no Keynesian. For as he rightly put it, politicians are never so ridiculous as when they make themselves 'the slaves of some defunct economist'.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1083998/The-great-Keynes-Labour-s-plans-spend-way-recession-argument-built-lies-says-historian.html

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Solomon's real mine? 3,000 years on, archaeologists uncover fabled site in desert



In a discovery straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, archaeologists believe they have uncovered one of the lost mines of King Solomon.

The vast copper mine lies in an arid valley in modern-day Jordan and was created in the 10th century BC - around the time Solomon is believed to have ruled over the ancient Hebrews.

The mines are enormous and would have generated a huge income for the king, who is famed for bringing extraordinary wealth and stability to the newly-united kingdom
of Israel and Judah.

The announcement will today reopen the debate about how much of the Old Testament is myth and how much is history.

According to the Bible, Solomon was the third king of Israel. The son of King David, he was renowned for his wisdom, the size of his harem and the splendour of his kingdom.


During his reign, he is said to have accumulated a huge fortune from mining and trading, some of which was spent on building the grand temple and opulent palace of Jerusalem.

Archaeologists and treasure-hunters have searched for the mines for more than a century since the best-selling Victorian novel, King Solomon's Mines by H Rider Haggard, claimed they could hold a treasure of gold and diamonds.

But now, it seems the real version could have been closer to home, supplying the king with copper.

The ancient mine was found in a desolate region south of the Dead Sea in southern Jordan in an area called Khirbat en-Nahas, which means 'ruins of copper' in Arabic.

The region was known in the Old Testament as the Kingdom of Edom. By Solomon's time, it had become a vassal state, paying tribute to Jerusalem.

Digs at the site in the 1970s and 1980s suggested metalworking began there in the 7th century, long after the time of Solomon.

But Dr Thomas Levy, of the University of California, San Diego, and Mohammed Najjar, of Jordan's Friends of Archaeology, have dated it to the 10th century BC.

Dr Levy said: 'We have evidence that complex societies were indeed active in the 10th and 9th centuries BC and that brings us back to the debate about the historicity of the Bible narratives related to this period.

'We can't believe everything ancient writings tell us. But this research represents a confluence between the archaeological and scientific data and the Bible.'

The ancient site contains around 100 buildings, including a fortress, in the middle of 24 acres of land covered in black slag. The mine works are covered with trials and holes, and are big enough to be seen on Google Earth's satellite images.
The team also found ancient Egyptian artifacts at the site including a scarab and amulet from the 10th century BC.

When Solomon died, his kingdom was thrown into chaos and the Pharaoh Sheshonq is believed to have attempted to crush economic activity.

The findings are reported in today's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1081107/Solomons-real-3-000-years-archaeologists-uncover-fabled-site-desert.html

Monday, October 27, 2008

War crime? Battle of Agincourt was our finest hour



By Bernard Cornwell

Legend says the Battle of Agincourt was won by stalwart English archers. It was not. In the end it was won by men using lead-weighted hammers, poleaxes, mauls and falcon-beaks, the ghastly paraphernalia of medieval hand-to-hand fighting. It was fought on a field knee-deep in mud and it was more of a massacre than a battle.

Laurence Olivier's film of Shakespeare's Henry V shows French knights charging on horseback, but very few men were mounted at Agincourt.

The French came on foot and the battle was reduced to men hitting other armoured men with hammers, maces and axes.

A sword would not penetrate armour and did not have the weight to knock a man off his feet, but a poleaxe (a long-handled axe or hammer, topped with a fearsome spike) would fell him fast, and then it was easy to raise the victim's visor and slide a knife through an eye. That was how hundreds of men died; their last sight on earth a dagger's point.

It is not a tale of chivalry, but rather of armoured men hacking at each other to break limbs and crush skulls. At the battle's height, when Henry V expected an attack on his rear that never materialised, he ordered the newly captured French prisoners to be killed. They were murdered.

Over the weekend, during a conference at the Medieval History Museum in Agincourt, French academics met to declare that English soldiers acted like 'war criminals' during the battle, setting fire to prisoners and killing French noblemen who had surrendered. The French 'were met with barbarism by the English', said the museum's director Christophe Gilliot.

The French pronouncement smacks of bias, but what is certain is that Agincourt was filthy, horrible and merciless. Yet it is still celebrated as a golden moment in England's history.

Why do we remember it? Why has this battle galvanised English hearts over the centuries? These are questions I came to ask as I researched my new novel Azincourt - spelled as it is in France - and discovered just what an extraordinary event it was.

Part of the legend about the archers is certainly true. Most of the English army were archers and their arrows caused huge damage, although they never delivered the knock-out blow it is claimed.

Henry V was also an inspirational leader. He fought in the front rank and part of his crown was knocked off. Eighteen Frenchmen had taken an oath to kill him and all of them died at Henry's feet, slaughtered by the King or by his bodyguard. And, despite recent claims to the contrary, it seems the English were horribly outnumbered.

In the cold, wet dawn of October 25, 1415, no one could have expected Henry's army to survive the day. He had about 6,000 men, more than 5,000 of them archers, while the French numbered at least 30,000 and were so confident that, before the battle was joined, they sent away some newly arrived reinforcements. By dusk on that Saint Crispin's Day, Henry's small army had entered legend.

But the English should never have been at Agincourt, which lies 25 miles south of Calais. England was in the thick of the 100 Years' War with France, and Henry had invaded Normandy in the hope of making a quick conquest of Harfleur, a strategic port. Yet the town's stubborn defence delayed him and by the siege's end his army had been struck by dysentery.

Sick men were dying and the campaign season was ending as winter drew in. Sensible advice suggested that Henry cut his losses and sail back to England. But he had borrowed huge amounts of money to invade France and all he had to show for it was one gun-battered port. Going home looked suspiciously like defeat.

He instead marched north to Calais with probably nothing more in mind than cocking a snook at the French who, though they had gathered an army, had done nothing to relieve the brave defenders of Harfleur.


Henry wanted to humiliate the French by flaunting his banners, yet I doubt he truly wanted to face that large French army with his own depleted numbers.

The French had been supine all summer, but now, suddenly, they woke and moved to block Henry's path. Henry tried to go round them. A march meant to last eight days stretched to 16. The English exhausted their food, they were ill with dysentery and soaked from the continual autumn rains.

They were driven far inland in search of a place to cross the River Somme and then trudged north, only to discover the French army waiting for them on a muddy field between the woods of Azincourt and Tramecourt. The English were trapped.

The French were barring the English road home, so Henry had to fight. He hoped the French would attack him and he ordered his archers to protect themselves from knights on horseback by making a thicket of sharpened stakes to impale the stallions' chests.

But the French remained motionless, so Henry was forced to advance on them. Did he really say 'Let's go, fellows!' as one contemporary claimed? It seems so, yet whatever his words, the English plucked up their stakes and waded through the mud to get close to the French line.

And the French, even though they must have seen that the English were in disarray, did nothing. They let Henry's men come to within extreme bowshot distance where, once again, the stakes were hammered into the ground and the battle line was reformed on a newly ploughed field that had been soaked by constant rain. If I had to suggest one cause for the French defeat, it would be mud.
The two sides were now little more than a couple of hundred paces apart. The English, astonishingly, had been given time to reposition themselves, and now the archers began the battle by shooting a volley of arrows.

At least 5,000 of them, most converging from the flanks, slashed into the French, and it seems that the shock of that first arrow strike prompted the French to attack.

A handful of Frenchmen advanced on horseback, trying to get among the archers, but mud, stakes and arrows easily defeated those knights. Some of the horses, maddened by pain, galloped back through the French men-at-arms, tearing their ranks into chaos.

Some 8,000 Frenchmen were now advancing on foot. No one knows how long it took them to cover the 200 or more paces which separated them from Henry's men-at-arms, but it was not a quick approach.

They were wading through mud made treacherous by deeply ploughed furrows and churned to quagmire by horses' hooves. And they were being struck by arrows so that they were forced to close their helmets' visors.

They could see little through the tiny eye- slits, their breathing was stifled and still the arrows came. The conventional verdict suggests that the French were cut down by those arrow storms, but the chief effect of the arrows was to delay and, by forcing them to close their visors, half-blind the attackers.

The French knew about English and Welsh archers. The longbow could shoot an arrow more than 200 paces with an accuracy that was unmatched till the rifled gun barrel was invented.

At Agincourt some barbed broadhead arrows (which were designed to cause maximum damage and could fell cavalry) would have been shot at those few horses that attacked the English line. But most were bodkins, long and slender arrowheads without barbs that were made to pierce armour.

A good archer could easily shoot 15 arrows a minute, so 5,000 archers could loose 75,000 arrows in one minute; more than 1,000 a second.

Why did the French not deploy their own longbowmen? Because to shoot a longbow demanded great strength (they were at least three times as powerful as a modern competition bow) and considerable skill. It took years for a man to develop the muscles and technique, and for reasons that have never been understood, such men emerged in Britain, but not on the Continent.

So as the first French line advanced it was being struck repeatedly by arrows, and even if a bodkin did not penetrate plate armour its strike was sufficient to knock a man backwards.

If the advance took four minutes (and I suspect it took longer), then about 300,000 arrows would have been shot at the 8,000 men.


Even if the English were short of arrows and cut their shooting rate to one-third, then they would still have driven 100,000 arrows against the struggling 8,000, and if the legend is correct, then not one of those Frenchmen should have survived.

Yet they did survive, and most of them reached the English line and started fighting with shortened lances, poleaxes and war-hammers.

The fight became a struggle of hacking and thrusting, slaughter in the mud.

But if so many arrows had been shot, how did the French survive to reach the English and start that murderous brawl? The answer probably lies in the eternal arms race.

Armour technology had advanced and the French plate armour was mostly good enough to resist the English arrow-heads. And how good were those heads?

Arrow-making was an industrial-scale activity in England, yet few men understood what happened when iron was hardened into steel and many of the English arrows crumpled on contact with the enemy's armour. So the many reached the few, but the many were exhausted by mud, some were wounded and the English, enjoying the luxury of raised visors, cut them down.

What seems to have happened was that the front rank of the French, exhausted by slogging through the mud, battered and wounded by arrows, disorganised by panicked horses and by stumbling over wounded men, became easy victims for the English men-at-arms.

There would have been the ghastly sound of hammers crushing helmets, the screams of men falling, and suddenly the leading French rank being chopped down and its fallen men becoming an obstacle to those behind who, being thrust forward by the rearmost ranks, tripped on the newly fallen bodies and so became victims themselves. One witness claimed that the pile of dead and dying was as tall as a man, an obvious exaggeration, but undoubtedly the first French casualties made a rampart to protect the English men-at-arms.

The French had attacked the centre of the English line where the King, the nobles and the gentry stood. Their aim had been to take prisoners and so become rich from ransoms, but now that centre was a killing ground and, to escape it, the French widened their attack to assault the archers who had probably exhausted their arrows.

Yet the archers had been equipped with poleaxes and other handweapons, and they fought back.


The bowmen wore little armour, and in the glutinous mud they were far more mobile than their plate-armoured opponents.

Any man capable of hauling a warbow's string was hugely strong and a battle-axe in his hands would be a ghastly weapon. So the archers joined the hand-to-hand fight and the tired French were killed in their hundreds.

The second French line, another 8,000 men on foot, tried to support their beleaguered colleagues, but they too were cut down and the rest of the French melted away. The extraordinary, awful battle was over. The field was now groaning with horribly wounded men; men lying in piles, men suffocating in mud, dead men, blood-drenched men.

Perhaps as many as 5,000 French died that day, while English losses were in the hundreds, maybe not even as many as 200. The few had gained their extraordinary triumph.

There were other victories, like Poitiers in 1356, that were more decisive, and it is arguable that Agincourt achieved very little; it would take another five years of warfare before Henry won the concessions he wanted from the French and even then his premature death proved those gains worthless.

Shakespeare's heart-stirring Henry V helped ensure the battle's place in English folklore, but Shakespeare was playing to an audience that already knew the tale and wanted to hear it again.

Agincourt was well-known long before Shakespeare made it immortal, yet even so there were those other great triumphs like Poitiers and Crecy, so why Agincourt?

It must have started with the stories told by survivors. They had expected annihilation and gained victory. It might even be true that the archers, when the battle was over, taunted the French by holding up the two string-fingers that the enemy had threatened to slice off every captured bowman - the V- sign that is common parlance today.

The men in Henry's army must have believed they had been part of a miracle. The few had destroyed the many, and most of those few were archers.

They were not lords and knights and gentry, but butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers from the shires. They were the ordinary men of England and Wales. They had met the awesome power of France in hand-to-hand fighting and they had won.

The battle is part of the binding of England, the emergence of the common man as a vital part of the nation, and those common men returned to England with their tales, their plunder and their pride.

The stories were told in taverns over and over, how a few hungry, trapped men had gained an amazing victory. The story is still told because it has such power. It is a tale of the common man achieving greatness. It is an English tale for the ages, an inspiration and - far from being ashamed of so-called 'war crimes' - we can be proud of it.


http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1080764/War-crime-Battle-Agincourt-finest-hour-says-author-Bernard-Cornwell.html

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Socialism works best where there is social homogeneity



A little country that ignored the rationalists is doing very nicely

IN THE years when Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia, it is estimated that up to 30,000 Slovenes - 2% of the entire population - left to settle in Australia. But these days, far more people arrive in Slovenia than leave. Go there, and you understand why.

For one thing, Slovenia and its capital, Ljubljana, have an irresistible charm. In the Financial Times the other day, travel writer Jan Morris called it "the most delightful small country in Europe … God evidently smiles on Ljubljana, as he does on all Slovenes".

But people are not migrating to Slovenia just for its scenery and cafe culture. It's a country that works, one that has chosen its own way to run an economy - a way that has little to do with economic rationalist models - and is developing at an impressive pace, in self-imposed isolation from global financial markets.

You may be struggling to place Slovenia on a map. It's a country of just over 20,000 square kilometres and 2 million people, tucked on what it calls "the sunny side of the Alps", just south of Austria and just east of Venice. It's the westernmost of the six republics that formed the old Yugoslavia. In 1991 it declared its independence, and these days it is part of the European Union and the euro zone.

Apart from its Australian connection (Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek is one of many to grow up in Slovenian migrant families), and the fact that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth, why should it be of any interest to us? Well, because it has made up its own rules for the transition from communism to capitalism, and done well by them.

It's far from perfect. Political leaders on all sides agree that big changes are needed to secure Slovenia's future. And at a time of record prosperity, Slovenians last month voted to throw out the centre-right coalition led by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, in favour of a centre-left coalition under Social Democrat leader Borut Pahor.

But under governments of both sides, the economic record has been impressive. Since 1992, Slovenia's real income per head has doubled. In 1992, the International Monetary Fund estimated its output per head in terms of real buying power was only 60% of Australia's. By last year, that had jumped to 75%.

Of all the former communist countries, it is clearly the richest and most advanced, a land where 62% of people surf the net, infant mortality is lower than in Australia, and 70% of its output is exported, mostly to other EU countries in areas from pharmaceuticals to auto parts.

How is this possible in a country where the state still controls 40% of the economy, including most of its big companies? Where it is virtually impossible for management to sack a worker, where pensions are so generous you might wonder why anyone works?

People I spoke to agreed that Slovenia was born with a good inheritance. "It's more central Europe than eastern Europe," Andrej Vijzak, outgoing Minister for the Economy, says. "We were part of Austria for many years, and that formed our traditions." As one MP puts it, "socialism in Slovenia wasn't so bad". Yugoslavia's longtime dictator Josip Tito encouraged factories to be autonomous.

"There was self-management, there was pricing, and there were profits," says outgoing Development Minister Ziga Turk, no fan of the communists. "People could travel to the West, people could leave."

Independence, and then EU membership, saw Slovenia successfully shift its exports to the West. But unlike the rest of the ex-communist countries, it chose not to follow the free-market reforms pushed by the International Monetary Fund. With some exceptions, it has not allowed foreign investors to control existing firms, although it encourages them to start new ones. Trade unions, now free of communist control, are more powerful than ever.

In part, this reflects Slovenia's political history. After Tito's death, the local communists in the '80s under Milan Kucan led a shift towards autonomy and free elections, culminating in independence. Kucan himself was elected president until 2002, while the communist reformers, as the Liberal Democratic Party, won three elections in a row - a sharp contrast to other ex-communist lands.

In 2004, the right under Jansa finally got its chance, winning on a platform of extensive privatisations, a flat income tax and reform of the unwieldy unfair dismissals law.

But Vijzak concedes that while it made progress towards these goals, it fell well short of its aims. The reason, he says, was the Slovenian tradition of consensus.

"We are dedicated to social dialogue when we want to make changes," he says. "We don't want to adopt anything without consensus. We haven't done it in the past, and we won't in the future."

Maybe Borut Pahor, the unions' choice, could persuade them to agree to the reforms that eluded Jansa. Then maybe he can get another of his allies, the pensioners' party, to accept the need to trim back Slovenia's potentially ruinous pension benefits. And if he can do that, then truly, God smiles on Slovenia.

http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/slovenias-economic-secrets-could-be-well-worth-discovering-20081020-54tt.html?page=-1

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stand-alone Scotland could look after itself



Far from making independence unviable, the banking crisis has shown exactly why it is needed

By Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland

Scotland has changed decisively in the past 18 months. As I said on the evening of the SNP's election victory in May last year, we are a country that has moved on for good and for ever.

Part of that change is the new confidence in every part of the nation, among young and old alike. And allied to that confidence is that people no longer believe the scare stories put about by our Unionist opponents.

The Unionist argument has always been, at its very core, a dishonest and insidious one. In the absence of hard facts and cold logic it has instead relied on fear, smear and misinformation. That is why it was so disappointing to see The Times last week question the viability of an independent Scotland.

Contrary to the assertions in a leading article in this newspaper, the case for independence has always been on a sound financial footing. The events of recent weeks have merely strengthened the case for Scotland to be given more control of its economy to protect jobs, investment and stability.

The economic maelstrom now sweeping the globe is affecting all countries large and small. The US, the biggest and most powerful economy on the planet, has seen 17 of its banks laid low by the crisis. Germany, Japan and Russia are also hurting - size has offered them no protection or immunity.

Smaller European nations are among those predicted to come through in the best shape. Norway has not, as asserted in The Times last week, “gone cap in hand” to the US Federal Reserve. The $5 billion currency swap for Oslo was part of a co-ordinated international exchange to get markets moving and provide much-needed dollar liquidity. The UK, Japan and many other nations were similarly involved. The UK's equivalent was $80 billion - that should not be described as the Bank of England going “cap in hand”.

Norway is forecast by the IMF to keep growing economically this year and next. So are Denmark, Finland and Sweden - all smaller European nations. The same IMF forecast predicts that the UK will move into recession. These Nordic nations regularly find themselves at the top of the international charts when it comes to standards of living.

Not that the Unionist case has seen fit to portray it that way.

Seizing on the particular problems of Iceland, the argument has lapsed from fear and smear into outright slander. The unedifying spectacle of Gordon Brown and Jim Murphy, the Secretary of State for Scotland, hitting the airwaves to besmirch the achievements of the likes of Ireland and Norway is surely the nadir of new Labour diplomacy.

For the Prime Minister, it also amounts to breathtaking hypocrisy. For it was Gordon Brown who, as Chancellor for a decade, presided over the age of irresponsibility in the City. That age has come to a shattering end. And Mr Brown's boast of “no return to boom and bust” is left looking ridiculous.

But let us return to the smears levelled at our near neighbours. Norway, with a smaller population than Scotland, now has an oil fund worth £200 billion. That fund, started only in 1995, gives it a national pension pot that guarantees its wealth in perpetuity.

If only the same could be said for Scotland, whose North Sea oil wealth, which the Scottish Government wants to invest in a similar fund, has been frittered away.

When we look west to Ireland, it is incredible that UK ministers should traduce the achievements of a country that has been a model of how to successfully energise an economy. Ireland may have moved into recession - but only after many years of fantastic growth, easily outscoring the UK. As a result, it is now nearly 40 per cent more prosperous per head than the UK.

Ireland was also able to act quickly and decisively to bring stability to its banking sector by guaranteeing all deposits. It was to Ireland that many in Britain turned when the UK Government did not offer a parallel guarantee. Dublin's actions were a clear demonstration of just how effective smaller independent nations can be when the going gets tough.

The age of irresponsibility, sadly, has not been confined to public finance. It has also given us the mother of all foreign policy disasters, the illegal invasion of Iraq. The financial costs of that debacle are gigantic, the human ones simply incalculable. And as with finance, so it is with foreign policy - it takes our small independent neighbours to show us the way.

Norway has been a shining light in its selfless and unstinting efforts to act as an honest arbiter and go-between in some of the globe's most intractable conflicts, including in the Middle East. That is the kind of role that Scotland should aspire to.

I have never been one of those Scots who indulges in the “Wha's Like Us” sentimentality. But neither am I one who, like Gordon Brown, Jim Murphy and their colleagues, seem to believe that we are uniquely incapable of looking after ourselves.

The age of irresponsibility has ended. In the new age of responsibility, Scotland will rejoin the international community as an independent nation.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article4974312.ece

Saturday, October 18, 2008

British bombers killed 500,000 in Dresden. Wrong, it was more like 18,000, say German historians



For more than 60 years Britain's Bomber Command led by Arthur 'Bomber' Harris has been vilified for causing up to 500,000 deaths in the carpet bombing of Dresden during World War II.

But now, after a four-year investigation, a panel of German historians has said that the true number of dead from the Allied air raids in January 1945 was between 18,000 and 25,000.

They reached the figure after combing through death certificates, hitherto sealed eyewitness reports, registration cards for people made homeless and hospital records.

It now emerges that the high number of deaths from 'Operation Thunderclap' was a myth invented by the Nazis, perpetuated by Communists and re-born in the past decade to serve the aims of ultra-nationalists.

The myth took form barely after the vapour trails of the bombers disappeared in the skies over the city.

It suited the Nazi propaganda machine to claim that half-a-million women and children had been incinerated in the firestorm. It helped persuade a struggling population that this was awaited them all unless they fought for Nazism with their last breath.

Then the Communist East Germans perpetuated the myth, mindful that it served their purposes by showing the destructiveness of capitalism and fascism combined.
In the last decade neo-Nazis have sought to keep the lie alive as they praise many of the policies of the Third Reich.

By the mid 70’s historians were beginning to question the real total of casualties.

Although many records lay in the still-Communist archives of Dresden, the accepted figure dropped to between 50, 000 and 150,000 deaths, based on Nazi German records and declassified Allied intelligence reports.

Then, when the wall fell and more records became available, the accepted number dipped even further, to 35,000.

A fortnight ago the myth was revealed as just that. A panel of German historians tasked by the modern-day rulers of Dresden said the dead numbered between 18,000 and 25,000.

They worked through miles of archived paperwork for the past four years to arrive at their figures, using death certificates, hitherto sealed eyewitness reports, registration cards for people made homeless and hospital records.

The historians found most people died in cellars, suffocated when the oxygen was sucked out of their hiding place or killed by the concussion of the falling bombs.
Strange climactic conditions combined to create 2,000 degree centigrade “firestorms” which whipped walls of flames through the heart of the city, incinerating everything in their path.

By contrast Operation Gomorrah, the saturation bombing of Hamburg, did indeed cause at least 50,000 deaths.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/worldnews/article-1078529/WW2-Dresden-bombing-killed-far-fewer-people-half-million-new-records-show.html

Stupid women think they can have it all



Thus making it likely that they will miss out big time

IT COST more than $3000 and was one of the more harrowing experiences of her life, but for Lesley Major it has meant another 10 years of breathing space while she waits for Mr Right.

Ms Major, 38, is one of a handful of Australian women who have chosen to freeze their eggs in a bid to beat mother nature and the man drought - but the technology is still so experimental that no fertility clinic in Sydney will agree to it.

The process is legal but fertility experts say the shell of the human egg is too thin and fragile to survive the freezing process, with some studies showing as few as 2 per cent become embryos - and only then if the woman is under 35 when she has them frozen.

Most clinics will allow women who are facing infertility from chemotherapy or radiotherapy to store their eggs, but only two in Australia offer the service, not covered by Medicare, to women considered "socially infertile" - those without a partner or wanting to delay motherhood to further their careers.

One in seven babies in Australia is now born to first-time mothers aged over 35 and it has become more accepted for women to take longer to choose a life partner. But this cultural shift has caused many to believe medicine will save them when they start a family in their late 30s or early 40s, says Warren DeAmbrosis, a director of Queensland Fertility Group. His clinic claims to have had more pregnancies from frozen eggs than any other in Australia, with a 70 per cent post-thaw survival rate, a 60 per cent fertilisation rate and a 30 per cent pregnancy rate for women under 37.

"I spend most of my day with women in tears because they have left their run too late - my heart goes to them," Dr DeAmbrosis says. "Obviously having frozen eggs is better than having no eggs at all, but they need to know that age is the biggest factor in infertility by a mile. If I have a single girl come to me at 39 or 40, it's just not worth her while."

Eggs at Dr DeAmbrosis's clinic are slow frozen but at some

international clinics they can now be snap-frozen in a process called vitrification, where water molecules do not have time to form ice crystals. Developed about three years ago, it has a 90 per cent post-thaw survival rate and a slightly higher pregnancy rate but still not high enough to convince Sydney fertility clinics.

"At this stage, we still see the technology as experimental and we have an ethical dilemma in taking money from a woman when there is very little chance of success," said fertility expert Anne Clark. "I definitely feel a bit uncomfortable telling women that this will give them a chance."

Peter Illingworth, president of the Fertility Society of Australia, agreed, saying women should not bank on egg freezing alone to have a family.

"In the United States and Japan they have huge egg donation programs where thousands are frozen and thawed within a few months, putting their success rates up, but in Australia, we freeze very few and we don't thaw them for years so most people have no idea whether it will work or not."

About 500 babies have been born worldwide from frozen eggs with no increased risk yet recorded but at Melbourne IVF fewer than 20 single women have had their eggs frozen because the clinic prefers to "be quiet and cautious" about the procedure in its early days. "We certainly don't promote it because we don't see it as a set-and-forget insurance policy for women," says clinical research director Kate Stern.

For Ms Major, though, it was a chance she was willing to take.

At 36, she had a great job, plenty of friends, a supportive family and a loving boyfriend nine years her junior. Neither was ready for children and Ms Major wasn't prepared to let her biological clock dictate the direction of the fledgling relationship.

"I know so many women around my age who start dating a guy and within months they are talking about having children. It's as if we all wake up one day at 35 and go, 'Holy shit, I forgot to have kids,' and then we're forced into making decisions. It frightens men and puts enormous pressure on the relationship. I just didn't want that."

But the process, which involved myriad medical tests and three weeks of hormone injections, proved far more confronting than she anticipated.

"It's not the easy ride people may think it is. I sat in the waiting room at the fertility clinic alone, feeling very singular. You are surrounded by couples, some of the women are quite distraught and I just felt so alone. I really had to reassess my values before I went into it but also be pragmatic about getting my bases covered."

Eighteen months later, with 14 eggs in the freezer, she is single again and living in Darwin. But she has set herself a deadline of 42 to find a suitable partner before discarding the eggs.

"I'm not the type of person who will have kids just because I can. I want a family of my own, a husband, a father. I'm the complete romantic so if I don't find the right person within the next few years, I'll let the eggs go. For now, though, I sometimes forget I have them until the bill arrives and I think, 'Ah, a postcard from my kids saying, Mum, please send money.' "


http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/putting-the-kids-on-ice-to-find-mr-right/2008/10/17/1223750333566.html

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Narcissists tend to lead, but not better



When a group lacks a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge, new research suggests. Narcissism is a trait in which people are selfcentered, exaggerate their abilities, and lack empathy.

Scientists conducting the new studies found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups.

Narcissism is so called after Narcissus, a mythical Greek character who fell in love with his own reflection. Above, Narcissus by Caravaggio (c. 1597.)

"Not only did narcissists rate themselves as leaders, which you would expect, but other group members also saw them as the people who really run the group," said psychologist Amy Brunell of Ohio State University at Newark, lead author of the research.

The findings are to appear in an upcoming issue of the research journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

The researchers found similar results in two studies involving college students, and one involving business managers in an MBA program. And while narcissists are more likely to become leaders, one experiment found that narcissists don't perform any better than others in a leadership role, Brunell and colleagues said.

A first study by Brunell's group involved 432 college students. They all completed assessments measuring various personality traits. They were then put in groups of four, and told to pretend they were a committee of officers of the student union, and they had to elect next year's director. Each person in a group was given a profile of a different candidate, and each was to argue for that candidate.

After the discussion, they voted on the director, and then completed a questionnaire evaluating the leadership of themselves and the other group members.

Results showed that students who scored higher on one dimension of narcissismthe desire for powerwere more likely to say they wanted to lead the group, were more likely to say they did lead the group discussion, and were more likely to be viewed as leaders by the other group members.

"Desire for power is what really drives narcissists to seek leadership positions," Brunell said.

In a second experiment, 408 students were again put in groups of four. They were told to imagine they were shipwrecked on an uninhabited island and had to choose which 15 salvageable items they should take ashore to best help them survive. After a group discussion, those who scored highest on the power dimension of narcissism again showed the most desire to lead the discussion, rated themselves as leaders, and were viewed as the leaders.

This study also investigated how well the narcissists did as leaders. Researchers looked at the lists, prepared by each individual and group, of the 15 chosen items. They compared the lists to one prepared by an expert who has taught survival skills to the U.S military. Narcissists did no better than others on choosing the most useful items, Brunell's team said. And groups that overall scored highest on narcissism did no better than other groups.

A third study involved 153 business managers enrolled in an executive MBA program at a large southeastern university. The managers were also put in groups of four and told to assume the role of a school board deciding how to allocate a large financial contribution from a fictional company.

Two trained observers professors or doctoral students in industrial and organizational psychology observed the groups and rated how much of a leadership role each participant assumed in their groups. Results showed that the students rated highest in narcissism were most likely to be identified as emerging leaders by the expert observers, the researchers found.

"Even trained observers saw narcissistic people as the natural leaders," Brunell said. "In addition, this study showed that narcissism plays a role in leadership among realworld managers."

Brunell said the studies took into account other factors such as gender and personality traits like high selfesteem and extraversion that may relate to leadership development. But even when these factors were taken into account, narcissism still played a key role.

It's important not to confuse narcissism with high selfesteem, she said.

"A person with high selfesteem is confident and charming, but they also have a caring component," Brunell explained. "Narcissists have an inflated view of their talents and abilities and are all about themselves."

Brunell said the results may apply to many areas of life, from the presidential race to Wall Street. "Many people have observed that it takes a narcissistic person to run for president of the United States," she said. "I would be surprised if any of the candidates who have run weren't higher than average in narcissism."

The same is true for the leaders of Wall Street firms that have made and lost millions in the past few years, she added. "There have been a lot of studies that have found narcissistic leaders tend to have volatile and risky decisionmaking performance," she said. That doesn't mean all the troubles in Washington or Wall Street can be blamed on narcissistic leaders, she added. "There's a lot more behind the troubles of government and business than the personalities of their leaders."

http://www.world-science.net/othernews/081008_narcissism