Thursday, August 28, 2008

A good news story

THREE-YEAR-OLD Finlay Cavanagh is a little hero.

The Coorparoo toddler has been credited with saving the life of playmate Jorge Koch.

Quick-thinking Finlay alerted adults that his friend was being strangled in a freak playground accident.

After taking their bikes for a spin, the two were playing underneath a timber fort in Coorparoo’s Majestic Park, when Jorge, also three, got his helmet stuck between two platforms.

Their mothers, Marin Simpson and Daisy Koch, were supervising their other children on equipment nearby when Finlay came running over screaming.

“He was yelling ‘mum, mum Jorge’s hurt himself’,” Ms Simpson said. Ms Koch said her son “had turned blue” when she found him dangling off the ground by his helmet’s chin strap, unable to breathe.

While nearby parents phoned the ambulance, she resuscitated Jorge with mouth-to-mouth.

“It was horrendous. The most horrifying thing that has ever happened in my life,” she said.

“He was a bit dopey for about 20 minutes.

“He was pretty quiet for a couple of days after.

“I wondered if he was OK he is fine.”

When the situation was no longer life-threatening, ambulance officers arrived in about 10 minutes to assess Jorge, before letting the boys have a look around the vehicle.

Ms Simpson said the officers inspected the play equipment and believed the incident was simply ``a freak thing’’.

The proud parent said her son’s actions were rewarded with a meal every three-year-old dreams of.

``He had lollies for dinner that night,’’ she said. ``We’re so proud.

``He isn’t even four and having the know-how to recognise something was wrong, we’re so proud.’’

The friends of two years returned to the playground last week for the first time since the August 4 incident, playing as though nothing had happened.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Family matters

“Shall I be mother?” I ask the woman sitting across from me in the tearoom of a hotel in South Kensington. I pour tea for both of us. The woman sitting across from me looks familiar, with features similar to those I look at in the mirror every day, but we haven't been formally introduced before. We last met 41 years previously ago, when she gave me up for adoption.

Although I had been searching for my mother for more than nine years, with the help of two law firms, I had done so only in a half-hearted manner, easily dispirited. And, although my adoptive parents had been lovely, they were not enthusiastic about my search. In fact, they seemed hurt by my interest. Then, at work one day in New York, I received an e-mail from the social worker who had been on the case for a few weeks. He wrote that he had made contact with my mother and enclosed a note from her. She said everything I had wished she might say — that she hoped I was happy and well, that she would love to meet me and that she, too, was happy and well. I wrote back and said I could be in London by the weekend.

As we sat there, I peppered her with questions. After a while, she pulled out a set of family photographs and a card, which she handed to me. She had received it 41 years and three months previously. “Would you like it?” she asked. “No,” I said. It was a note from the parents who raised me, a kind note, which had accompanied a vase filled with freesias. She had also kept the vase. It smashed at some point in 1975, and she kept all the pieces. Had something terrible happened to me in 1975? No, I assured her.

As I talked about my schooling, I was aware of a look of concern on her face. I had been raised by two perfectly lovely people who made sure I was well educated, well loved, well fed. But I had still managed to be expelled from six schools in a row.

When I mentioned being expelled from just one, my mother said: “Oh, that must have been terrible for you.” I left it at that. No need to mention the arrests, the university expulsion or any of my more grim living situations.

After a few cups of tea, she said she had something strange to tell me, and that I should prepare myself. She built up the moment with a few more cautions, which were quite unnecessary — after all, I had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and had gone through dozens of scenarios. I had expected this woman to be living in the north of England, on which my search had centred for nine years. I’d expected her to be drunk and angry and chain-smoking, unpleasant and unkind about the posh background she had afforded me. I expected her to demand money.

Or I expected something spectacular — to be Mick Jagger’s love child; a connection to the royal family. I assured her I was quite ready for whatever weirdness she had to tell me.

“Well,” she said, “your father and I ended up getting back together several years after you were born. We had two daughters and have lived together for more than 30 years. So you can meet your father and your two sisters as well, if you like.”

“Oh,” I said. “You’re right. That is strange.” Of all the things I had imagined, a romantic story like that hadn’t occurred to me.

Two hours went quickly by. I suggested that she invite her husband, my father, to join us. He was there within 10 minutes.

I was raised by a couple who were in their late thirties when I came along, so this couple, barely past 60, seemed young to me. My natural father looked like me and had a soft Irish brogue, just as I do when I drink too much or get angry.

We sat for another hour. All the while, I kept trying to think of a way to describe the family who had raised me without saying “mother” and “father”, but it was impossible without coming up with awkward phrases. Coincidences mounted up. My father told me that my mother went out and bought a pack of cigarettes right after hearing from me, the precise reaction I’d had to hearing from her. After getting back together, they had lived at the same address in London for 30 years. As a teenager, I had lived a five-minute walk from their house. We used the same Tube stop in the 1980s. We must have walked past each other’s houses a hundred times.

My father also told me a funny story about once being in his office and seeing a three-year-old boy walk in wearing a camel-hair coat. The boy said: “What are you doing?” My father said that he asked his boss, who had arranged the private adoption, if I was his son, and he was told yes. He said he knew I must be doing okay if I was wearing a camel-hair coat at the age of three.

The process of finding these people had been so tricky, I had given up on several occasions. I had been told to attend a self-help group in New York, to obtain written authorisation that I was of sound mind. At another point, a law firm promised that it was moments away from discovering my family’s identity, but could I manage another £10,000 fee? No, I said. On it went, for nine years, until they popped up quite by accident, when I least expected it and when the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

My father suggested that we have dinner. It was a Saturday night in Chelsea, and a nearby Italian restaurant said we could have a table in an hour. We walked up and down the Fulham Road.

They pointed out the pub where they had met in 1966, both of them new to the city. I had drunk in that pub dozens of times; it was next door to my grandparents’ home. They showed me the flats they had been living in, evidence that they had nowhere suitable to raise me. Both of them were a five-minute walk from the home I grew up in.

Over dinner, my mother described the circumstances of my adoption. She had been 19, and had wanted to keep me, but neither of them had enough money to raise a child. Everyone who talked to her told her she had to give me up. Even my father.

She described the London hospital where I was delivered, how the nuns there were unkind to her, disapproving of her condition, and how you could smoke and drink Guinness on the ward.

As we had coffee, I suggested that, maybe, I wasn’t their son after all. They roared. I was relieved: they had a sense of humour. My father paid. “You never pay around me,” he said.

The next morning, I flew back to New York, spending the whole flight staring at the photographs of my mother and father, of my two sisters, of other family members. Little more than a year before, I had got married; and when my wife, Hanna, had our first daughter, Evie, and I held her, I saw, for the first time, someone who shared my blood.

Now I was looking at a whole cast of characters who shared my blood. It was completely settling.

A few weeks went by, during which my mother, father and sisters e-mailed back and forth. It took me a few days to tell my wife about this new-found family, but when I showed her all the photos my mother had given me, she immediately framed them and put them on the wall in our flat. Every morning, as I walked to my study, I would pass by two big frames containing photos of my new grandfather, parents and sisters smiling on a beach in Thailand. It was all so fresh — none of the loaded sadness of regular family pictures. A clean slate.

We had planned a christening in England for my daughter just a few weeks after that first meeting. We arranged a lunch in London where I would meet my sisters for the first time, where my mother would meet my daughter and where my wife would see where I had come from. I had the same experience of a time warp. My wife and daughter fitted right in. I sat with my two sisters, women who looked oddly like me, only 13 and 15 years younger, and pretty. They were the kind of sisters you might wish you’d grown up with. My daughter didn’t object to being passed around.

My wife and I went on to the country, and had the service in the same church where I was christened. More than 100 family and friends came, 30 of them children running around in the same fields I had grown up in. Here, I had embarked on my search nine years previously, when my brother got married. I was adopted and he was a natural child, and I wanted some of his connection to this extended group of people we both called family.

When it was over, we escaped back to London and saw my new family. They were just as relaxed as I had remembered. After the charged atmosphere of the family I grew up in, it was a relief to be around these new yet familiar people who had no demands, only boundless curiosity. They looked around where we were staying and my mother said: “You’re too posh.” I assured her I couldn’t be.

I put it to my new old mother that I had this oddly settled feeling, one I had never felt before. “That’s because we all love you,” she said.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Scots and Mrs T

Breakfast in Bute House, Alex Salmond's official Edinburgh residence, is normally, one would imagine, a cheery affair.

The SNP still riding high in the polls ... Labour in a self-inflicted slough of despair ... the First Minister himself apparently incapable of putting a foot wrong. Nothing there that would make the porridge turn to ashes in the mouth.

But all the normal Salmond breakfast bonhomie and bombast seemingly disappeared yesterday morning as the First Minister scanned the daily papers and discovered that he was the object of much editorial ordure for having come close to committing the original Scottish political sin - giving Baroness Thatcher an even break.

What Mr Salmond had actually said in an interview with Total Politics magazine, was, if not all that cogent, not especially shocking either. “We didn't mind the economic side [of Lady Thatcher] so much. We didn't like the social side at all.”

Now put to one side whether the economic and social aspects of the Thatcherite agenda can actually be separated; put to one side whether her reforms were in fact a wrongheaded experiment or, as some economists argue, a necessary correction; put to one side the fact that while tens of thousands of Scots detest Lady Thatcher and all her ways, they still went ahead and bought their council houses.

This very faint praise of the lady's economic policy was enough for outrage to spread throughout the land - or at least these parts of it inhabited by political journalists. In Scotland, even the most innocent suggestion that she was not as bad as the Scots want to paint her is a sure-fire way to create a political “stooshie”. The Herald reported that “Salmond excuses Thatcherite economics” (note the damning word “excuses”); The Sun characterised it as “Alex in Maggie storm” and the Daily Record put the boot in and said it was “Salmond's shocking claim”.

Labour in Scotland even raised itself from its now permanent dwam to suggest that Mr Salmond should “hang his head in shame”, although the impact of such inflated rhetoric was somewhat disssipated by the fact that they chose the mild-mannered Malcolm Chisholm to give vent to it.

Now, whether the air around the Bute House marmalade turned saltire-blue as he read all this, no one really knows. But what became quite apparent as the day unwound was that a highly embarrassed and exercised Mr Salmond felt that he had to clear his diary and clear the air at one and the same time.

Nothing would do apparently but for the First Minister (the First Minister, remember) to arrange to call a BBC Radio Scotland phone-in programme and put an immediate stop to the tiniest suggestion that he was a secret Thatcherite admirer or that he had misrepresented Scots for whom the name Thatcher remains a term of vicious political abuse.

The criticism of him, he told the phone-in, was “total tosh”. He added: “I'm well on the record as never having approved of either Margaret Thatcher's social or economic policies - that's clear if you look at the interview.” He then proceeded to call on the name of Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations and a man deeply admired by Mr Salmond ... and Lady Thatcher.

Never one to miss a chance to show off, he claimed: “Margaret Thatcher could have only ever read the Penguin edition of Wealth of Nations and she missed out the moral sentiments.”

The clear implication, of course, was that “Our Alex” had read the real version, although how on earth he can speak for Mrs Thatcher in the matter, only he can say.

He finished with a flourish and a very Salmond-like barb at Gordon Brown. He would, he said, never follow Mr Brown's example of inviting Lady Thatcher to tea.

In Mr Salmond's case, however, even if he did, there is no guarantee that she would accept. He probably figures, on her list of political hate figures, somewhere just above General Galtieri and Lord Geoffrey Howe.

Labour, thinking that they had the man who has contributed to their recent woes where they wanted him, were not prepared to let go.

John Park, the Labour MSP, accused Mr Salmond of panic. “The screech,” intoned Mr Park, “of the First Minister going into reverse gear can't disguise the own goal he's scored with his praise of Thatcherism.”

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Saddam's luxury train to return to service

Saddam Hussein's private luxury train, equipped with chandeliers and Italian-made curtains, is being put into public service to help ease a train shortage, Iraqi rail officials said.

The 23-carriage French-built train was kept in a secret location for three decades and shielded from the widespread looting that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Starting in September, the train will ferry passengers between Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, said Karim al-Tamimi, a spokesman for Iraq's rail system.

He said the train, which also has three locomotives, was moved recently from a rail yard in Baghdad to the city's main railway station.

Saddam used the train only once in the late 1970s, shortly after becoming president, for a trip to Basra, said Khadum Abdul-Wahid, the head of the Basra railway branch.

The train's carriages are air-conditioned and equipped with TV screens, officials said. Windows are draped with Italian-made curtains and chandeliers hang from the ceilings.

Some compartments served as offices, including a library, while others were furnished as living rooms. The train also has several restaurants and luggage compartments.

It was not immediately clear whether some of the expensive fixtures would be removed before the public uses the train. Tamimi said the train is in good shape and only requires simple maintenance.

Currently, the Baghdad-Basra train runs only once a day, with three carriages. Tamimi said railway officials are now considering reinstating train service between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

Iraq has suffered a train shortage because of years of UN economic sanctions and looting following the US-led invasion.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Chinese is British

According to recent figures from the Restaurant Association, Britons eat more than 110 million Chinese meals a year, while a survey earlier this year from the food company Amoy found that three out of five Britons said that their favourite food was Chinese.

"The Chinese restaurant is part of modern British life," says Ching-He Huang (pictured above), host of the current BBC2 series Chinese Food Made Easy. "Everyone talks of having a 'Chinese' on a Friday or Saturday evening," she says. "The food may often be Anglicised and not representative of all of China, where there are more than 50 different regional foods, but there is a place for everything in our cuisine." Now, as the sweet and sour restaurateurs celebrate the centenary of "The Chinese", it is beginning to change.

"The food is getting more authentic, more regional and more sophisticated," says Alan Yau, proprietor of London's stylish Hakkasan.

"Chinese food has not changed very much over the past 20 years. But now chefs are moving on. They are using healthier food and making mainstream cuisine much more discerning." Sir David Tang, owner of China Tang in London's Dorchester Hotel, agrees that there is now a broader acceptance of what he calls "the non-standard chop suey food".

"Like all cuisine, a niche was found from a broader range," says Sir David. "It will probably take a little bit of time to move on, but eventually people will understand the different kinds of regional Chinese cooking - just as the distinctions between northern and southern Italian, or urban and provençal French, are already appreciated." This new sophisticated approach to Chinese food is a long way removed from the world of monosodium glutamate that most of us were weaned on. And that MSG culture bore even less relation to the early Chinese restaurants in Britain, which were crude cafés in the docks of London and Liverpool, catering exclusively for Chinese seamen.

"Until the Seventies, Chinese restaurants served British-style food such as chop suey, curry and sweet and sour," says Tatyan Cheung (pictured left), who has been running Tatyan's restaurant in Cirencester for 20 years.

"Then Yang Tzu Kune, a Cambridge graduate, founded the Rendezvous restaurant chain in London and introduced more truly Chinese dishes such as shredded beef and crispy duck." The Chinese restaurant moved from being a cheap and cheerful after-pub joint to a middle market establishment for a more upmarket customer. But today most of those restaurants still offer the simplified Hong Kong Cantonese menu that we have all come to know by number and love by name. Now the move towards more regional dishes is about to change the menu once again.

"London is the innovator and the city has made modern Chinese food sexy," says Alan Yau.

"This will be followed by an uptake in provincial England. It has happened before - there was Ken Lo in the Sixties, Mr Chow and the Rendezvous in the Seventies and Zen in the Eighties. They were all players who set the agenda." But while the food is changing, there are fears that the traditional "Chinese", which Culture Online - part of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport - recently nominated as an English icon, is losing out to the new ethnic restaurants.

Tatyan Cheung says that in the past 10 years there has been a gradual decline in both the restaurant and the take-away business.

"The British are travelling to more exotic places and now want different food - Thai, Mexican and Malaysian food are all currently cutting into our core business," he says.

Meanwhile, with a bit of luck our Olympians will be enjoying the food in Beijing, confident ordering from menus they first encountered as children from the 100-year-old British institution that is "The Chinese".

How the French learnt to love McDonald's

McDonald's makes more money in France than it does in Britain, and Paris has as many golden arches as London - but no self-respecting French diner will admit to eating there

Magali, the photographer, is appalled. We are in McDonald's, just around the corner from the Louvre in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, and we are tucking into some breakfast. With a beer. Because we can.

“But what ees thees?” she demands. Croque monsieur. Well, technically a Croque McDo. Jambon and a spot of fromage. It's rather good.

“No,” says Magali. “It is not. A croque is something ... beautiful. But thees is ... my god.”

Correction. Magali is not appalled. This is something deeper than appalled. This is existential.

Magali doesn't eat in McDonald's. In fact, she says, she doesn't know anybody who eats in McDonald's. Stop any Frenchman on the street - and we stop plenty - and he will shrug and snarl and say that he doesn't eat in McDonald's, either.

Yet an awful lot of people do eat in McDonald's. In this city of all things haute cuisine and gastronomique, you will find almost 70 restaurants under golden arches, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That's much the same as London, but with only a third of the people.

McDonald's, or “macdoh” as it is ubiquitously known, is France's dirty secret. In 2007, as you may have read on our business pages, the chain's French revenues increased by 11 per cent to €3 billion (£2.3 billion). That's more than it generates in Britain. In terms of profit, France is second only to the US itself - and this in the land that first realised that food wasn't just about eating. How on earth did this come about?

Asking the customers can take you only so far. At the next table a family are eating together. “We're only in here because we're in a rush,” says the father, much like a husband explaining a mistress to his incredulous wife. “It's not normal. We would never eat in McDonald's usually.” He says that he is from Montreal, anyway, and that we may refer to him only as Mr X. The rest of the family stay silent, and munch, and blush.

This year, for the first time, McDonald's looks likely to make the bulk of its earnings from outside the US. This has much to do with the French, and not just with their eating. McDonald's in Europe has changed. Three years ago, Denis Hennequin - president of the chain in Europe and a Frenchman - embarked on a makeover of the Continent's outlets. Just outside Paris there is now the McDonald's European design studio, which has created a variety of theoretically upmarket restaurant templates.

“We have eight concepts at the moment,” says Stephen Douglas, implementation director in the European design studio, “but none are France-specific.” They are Quality, Eternity, Generation, Lim, and Pure and Simple, with three variations thrown in to make up the eight. Some are intended to give a business vibe, some are targeted at families. Eternity is the most impressive and design-heavy. “It provides a fast-food environment that is significantly different,” says Douglas, “inspired by an American architectural heritage.” In other words, your average McDonald's no longer looks like a crèche in a lunatic asylum on a cross- Channel ferry.

But it's not exactly a chic French bistro, either. And the food remains much the same, in France or anywhere. There are different regional flourishes, to be sure. You can drink your beer in France, although nobody except me seems to bother. You can have your (photographer-derided) croque. Also, as you may remember from Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, what you call a cheeseburger is known in these parts as a Royal Cheese, and your cheese is the Alpine delicacy reblochon.

All of which might seem terribly exciting if you lived in, say, Stornoway. But Paris? Part of the chain's success may be down to the way that France has changed, and continues to change. In the British stereotype, the Frenchman - banker or binman - takes a long lunch. He goes to the flawless restaurant around the corner, sits down at his usual white-and-red-checked table, undoes his top button and tucks in. He starts with a baguette, he orders a bottle of red wine. Two, maybe three hours later he finishes his cheese, emits a discreet belch and settles the bill, which comes to about €3. Then he gets back to work.

This is no longer true. Or at least, it is no longer entirely true. As the French have begun to adopt Anglo-American working practices, they have also begun to adopt Anglo-American eating practices. One oft-quoted statistic is that the length of the average French meal has fallen from 1 hour 22 minutes in 1978 to a mere 38 minutes today.

To find out how they fill that 38 minutes we head to the 9th arrondissement, an area full of offices and office workers, evidently requiring a considerable number of lunches each day. The streets here are relatively narrow and the buildings relatively high, but flat-fronted and wood-shuttered in that very Parisian way. At street level, everything is food: Pizza Venezia, Café la Roseraie, quite a few McDonald's, too. We pass one with a super-fast takeaway hatch, like a walk-thru drive-thru. It is next door to a gym.

Aside from the many McDonald's, we are told, the big change around here is that an awful lot of these little cafés don't have much room to sit. You are not expected to sit. You are expected to grab your food and go away. Like an American. Or, worse, like a Brit.

Typical of these new places is the shorthand-unfriendly CinQfrUitSetLeGumEScHaQueJoUr. That is to say, “five fruits and five vegetables each day” but with the words all run together and capitals applied with wild Gallic abandon. Fast food or not, the vibe here is all about health.

“Our typical clientele is businessmen. A lot of creative types,” says Robert Renaud, 47, who is the co-owner and knows everybody who so much as wanders past the window. “The women love it: they are much more up for trying something new. The men just want ham and cheese baguettes.”

Robert agrees that Parisian life has changed. People have a quick lunch so that they can leave earlier and have a longer dinner. It's not that they are no longer interested in savouring mealtimes, he says, just that they are favouring one over the other. “Most people are between the ages of 30 and 35,” he adds. “The old people don't like the idea of takeaway so much.”

Philippe, 35, is one of his last customers and has grabbed something involving salad and goat's cheese. He agrees that people no longer have the time for a long lunch, but takes a more complex view on senior resistance.

“The French do not disapprove of fast food as a meal,” he insists. “What is wrong is to eat between meals. It is the mealtime that is sacred, not the type of food. When your Lord Sandwich invented the sandwich, he did so to eat without stopping. This is not French.”

True enough, even when the French visit McDonald's, they do so differently. They are more likely to visit as a family event, much like our “Canadian” family above. A French McDonald's is busy on a weekday lunchtime but busier still at the weekend. Here, in the birthplace of the Michelin guide, McDonald's is considered a treat. It's enough to make you weep.

Healthy fast food is something new. Unsurprisingly, panting hard on the heels of a convenience food culture comes the chubby spectre of obesity. French obesity rates have rocketed in recent years. According to estimates, 11 per cent of the French are obese and 40 per cent are overweight. This is better than the UK or the US, but it grows by about 5 per cent every year. One thinks of those previously untouched indigenous tribes that manage to wipe themselves out in a generation after being introduced to booze. The French are failing to eat in moderation. For a culture that prides itself on its waistline, this is a difficult failing to accept. Only a few years ago, remember, there was a bestselling diet book called French Women Don't Get Fat. But they do.

Not before time, the French seem to be wising up. In recent years, at least in Paris, there has been a boom in fast-food eateries of the sort described above. The pioneer in this respect is a newish chain called Cojean. It was set up in 2001 by Alain Cojean, who had spent the previous 15 years working in research and development for - yes - McDonald's. Cojean is a very different beast.

We visit the branch across the road from the Louvre. Cool and airy, it is tastefully converted from an elaborately corniced patisserie. It sells fresh salads, proper coffee and sandwiches that are resolutely not triangular. We pick a ham and melon salad with noodles and rocket. The melon tastes as if it has just fallen from a tree, and the ham just scraped from a happy pig. There is a surprise bit of jagged plastic lurking in the middle, true enough, but we are not in McDonald's so we have no urge to sue. It just adds to the sense of handmade authenticity.

At the next table we find Johan, Gilles and Caroline, all groomed, trendy and in their twenties. Johan works in an office near by. The other two are students. They eat, they debate. It is all very French.

“It's not too embarrassing to go to McDonald's. Although I wouldn't go often.”

“Not more than three or four times a month.”

“No. And I don't think of the burger as being part of an invasion of American culture, or anything like that. Burgers generally are much better quality than they used to be. There is a tendency to eat better. More healthily.”

“This stuff is much better than McDonald's. It's really good. I'm not ashamed to be here at all.”

If only Cojean would cross the Channel. Everything looks wonderful, and at only €6 a pop. This place is to Pret A Manger what the Eiffel Tower is to the Blackpool Tower.

Even with takeaway food, the French are deeply reluctant to eat at their desks. They prefer to hang around in the office kitchen or sit in a communal area. The food may have changed but the concept of lunch remains so ingrained in French life that none of the many diners we meet bothers to mention what, for a Brit, is the most striking French culinary fact of all: they don't pay for their lunch. Their employer does. Mais oui. Bien sur.

The French economy may be Anglofying at a rapid rate but, for now, the ticket restaurant survives more or less intact. This is a voucher, normally for between €6 and €12, which every employer provides every day, by law, and which may be spent only on lunch. So you have to go out for lunch. You are being paid to go out for lunch. It is the rules. The French take the ticket restaurant for granted to such an extent that they barely notice it. Most would probably be appalled to realise that the system actually originated, like the sandwich, in Britain. Virtually forgotten about here, they generate heavy tax breaks for employers in France and are often credited with sustaining the French restaurant industry. And, in these troubled times, they could provide a clue to the French fast-food boom. Whereas €10 will pay for only two thirds of your plat du jour, it will pay for your whole takeaway.

Or a meal for two in McDonald's. Not, of course, that we have yet found anybody French who is prepared to admit that the macdoh is their lunch-spot of choice. Around the corner, on Rue La Fayette, we try once more.

Dareth, 33, works in property. “This burger is disgusting,” he admits. “Every couple of months I get a craving. It's a chemical thing, I think. I don't even work near here. I just came for the McDonald's. I had to.”

And does this embarrass him, as a Frenchman?

“I wouldn't know,” shrugs Dareth. “I'm from Switzerland.”

A miracle but a very upsetting one

An obvious medical misjudgment -- though not necessarily a culpable one -- nearly killed a child

A couple from Kafr Yasif in the Galilee received the shock of their lives Monday when the wife's miscarried 610-gram fetus, which had been declared dead five hours earlier, was found to be breathing.

The five-month-old baby that 'miraculously' began breathing after doctors assumed she was dead.

The baby girl, born during the 23rd week of gestation, still has an uncertain future. Hospital spokesman Ziv Farber said that any premature infant of that weight and age had only a 10 percent chance for survival. But five years ago, he added, "we had a baby weighing only 580 grams, and she survived."

The 26-year-old mother and her husband have a five-year-old son at home. When she gave birth after going into premature labor at the hospital, the doctor on the scene pronounced it dead and it was taken to the morgue.

The father, Ali Majdub, told Channel 2 that his wife realized the child was alive after asking to see her dead daughter one last time.

"When we unwrapped the baby to see her, she realized it was moving. I began screaming and ran with it toward the doctors," he said.

She was then rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit, where doctors are fighting for her life.

The mother who miscarried on Monday after five months of pregnancy. The baby started breathing in a cooler hours after doctors announced her dead.

"I was in shock," the mother told Channel 2 last night. "I thought I wasn't hearing it right when they said she was still alive."

Dr. Moshe Daniel, the hospital's deputy director, said that in his 35 years as a physician, he had "never heard of such a case. It was like a medical miracle."

The hospital informed the Health Ministry, which will now decide whether to set up an internal or external investigating committee. Daniel speculated that the cooling effect of the morgue slowed the infant's metabolism, causing her oxygen consumption to be very low. There have been rare cases of people who nearly froze under snow "coming back to life," but there have been no reports of babies doing so.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

I like the name of this guy

Chinese police dragged away and roughed up a British journalist this morning as he was reporting on a protest by a group of foreigners demanding freedom for Tibet.

John Ray, the China correspondent for Independent Television News (ITN), was grabbed by police and forced to the ground before being bundled into a van. He was dragged along the ground, spreadeagled, his hands stamped on. Then his shoes were ripped off, apparently to try to prevent him from escaping.

Police took barely a minute to detain the protesters from Students for a Free Tibet. Two members of the activist group who waved a 'Free Tibet' banner from a bridge outside the Chinese Ethnic Culture Park near the Bird's Nest stadium were detained before they could even unfurl the banned Tibetan Snow Lion flag.

Another six members who handcuffed themselves to each other and to bicycles at the front gate of the park were also swiftly rounded up and taken away by police. They were holding up yellow banners that read 'Free Tibet', witnesses said. They did not have time to unfurl the Tibetan flag before police pounced and halted their demonstration.

Police cordoned off a gravel area in front of the park around a number of thatched stone buildings containing a refreshments stand and a number of souvenir shops. Another van pulled up beneath a nearby road bridge disgorging further policemen.

The group has tried to stage several protests coinciding with the Olympics in Beijing to publicise their demands for freedom for the deeply Buddhist Himalayan region where Tibetan monks and ordinary people irked by Chinese rule held demonstrations in early March.

China is particularly sensitive to any attempts to demand independence for Tibet, especially since a riot in early March in Lhasa when angry Tibetans ramapaged through the streets, setting fire to shops and offices and killing some 22 people, mostly ethnic Han Chinese.

Police usually swiftly deport any foreign activists who try to raise the issue of Tibet. Several have already been expelled in the last week.

However, such heavy-handed treatment of foreign journalists is relatively unusual in China - especially in Beijing.

A Chinese pedestrian, who witnessed the treatment of Mr Ray, told The Times: "What I saw is the security guards were very rude to the reporters. They pushed them. I heard orders being shouted by the officers. 'Just use your hands,' they said. They said 'Get to the reporters and cover their camera lenses'. As a Chinese person I feel bad."

The guards made attempts to cover the lens of Times photograther David Bebber as one of the protesters was driven away. She had come out of the small thatched security hut at the end of the row of shops and made a T sign before she was put into a car and driven away.

Mr Ray said police held him for about half an hour. They pulled him into a nearby restaurant, startling lunchtime diners, sat him down on a sofa and held his arms down. "They made 'T'signs and one of them asked me for my views on Tibet. I said I was a journalist and had no views on Tibet," he said.

He said police would not allow him to put his hands in his pockets so that he could show them his official accreditation papers. He said he had been shaken by his treatment at the hands of the police but had not been hurt.

However, the incident raised doubts about China's willingness to allow free coverage of the Games. Mr Ray said:"I wonder how this fits in with their solemn promise to allow free and unrestricted reporting during the Olympics.?"

Mr Ray noticed a yellow banner was tossed into the van after him and the police told his Chinese assistant that he had tried to display a pro-Tibet banner. He said: "I did not at any time try to unfurl a banner and I have never possessed any banner or protest material. I was there simply to report on a demonstration not to take part in it in any way."

The Foreign Correspondents Club of China said: "We are appalled at this treatment of an accredited journalist within half a mile of the Olympic Park. We call on the government to apologise for his treatment."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How many arms does an octopus have?

The answer is six: the other two are legs

A giant Pacific octopus called Mavis has helped researchers to prove that the one thing everyone knows about the creatures is wrong.

The name octopus is derived from the Ancient Greek for eight feet. Mavis, who lives in a tank at Weymouth Sea Life Centre, actually has six arms and two legs.

Researchers who were studying octopuses’ behaviour were taken aback to discover that some of the most basic assumptions about them were wrong.

Until now it had been believed that the tentacles were deployed in two equal sets, one set of four for propulsion and the other for manipulation.

The research, conducted at 20 centres across Europe, was originally intended to establish whether octopuses favoured one side over the other, as people do, or were multidextrous.

Toys including a Rubik’s Cube were placed in the octopus tanks and a careful watch was made of which limbs the animal used to play with them.

Claire Little, who led the research at Weymouth, where the project was devised, said: “We’ve found that octopuses effectively have six arms and two legs. “ It had been thought they used four tentacles for movement and the other four for feeding and manipulating objects, but observations showed that they use the rearmost two to get around over rocks and the seabed.

“They also use these two legs to push off when they wish to swim, and then other tentacles are used to propel them.”

Mavis, whose head is the size of a dinner plate and whose limbs are about half a metre (20in) long, is a member of one of the largest species of octopus. Helped by the suckers on her tentacles she can easily prise open clams and mussels that would defeat most people.

The giant Pacific octopus can weigh up to 71kg (more than 11 stone) in the wild, although Mavis has some way to go. Ms Little said: “We haven’t tried to take her out of the tank to weigh her because she’d find that quite traumatic.”

Octopuses are among the most intelligent of marine creatures and can learn to open jam jars and manipulate small objects such as the Rubik’s Cube – although, so far as is known, none has yet succeeded in solving the puzzle.

During the study, researchers discovered that when octopuses get in a tangle they use their third pair of arms to help. Ms Little said: “The real surprise was the frequency with which octopuses employed their third tentacles from the front on both sides.

Though it was markedly less than the front two pairs, it was more than we expected, given that earlier studies suggested the four rearmost limbs were reserved mainly for propulsion.

“More than half of the octopuses studied were found to display no bias at all for either right or left-sided limbs. The rest were split fairly evenly between those preferring the right side and those favouring the left.

“An octopus’s eyes are angled towards the front of its body, so if it used its eyes to determine which tentacles it mobilised, you would expect the choice to favour those more directly in its line of view. That was precisely what we found.”

Some previous studies had found that octupuses favoured one side over the other, and the explanation for this was that some were shortsighted or had visual impairments.

Ms Little said: “We identified seven octopuses that genuinely do prefer one side over the other, possibly because of some weakness in the other eye.

“If any of those animals should fall sick, we can now care for them that little bit more efficiently by delivering food and medication from the direction they prefer. As with any sickly animal, any measure that reduces stress, however slightly, can make a crucial difference,” she said.

Researchers gathered the data from more than 2,000 separate observations, assisted by members of the public who were invited to take part in the study. The octopuses were mainly the common octopus, Octopus vulgaris, which also inhabits British waters.

A larger-scale study is now planned so that the findings can be published in a scientific journal.

Expensive Japanese grapes

Guests at an upscale Japanese hotel had a special treat after dinner: "dream grapes" that are fresh, juicy - and cost nearly $34 a pop.

Kagaya, a renowned Japanese-style inn in the central prefecture of Ishikawa, bought a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes for Y100,000 ($1030) when the first batch of the new-variety grapes came to a local market.

"We served them last evening to our repeat customers who were staying in top-notch rooms," Kagaya's chief cook Fujio Uko said Tuesday.

"We wanted to delight our customers and also wanted to wish producers good luck" on the debut day, he said.

The bunch of around 30 grapes weighed some 700 grams. The red-skin grapes look almost like tomatoes and can be as big as three centimetres in diametre.

A pair of grapes was served to each customer, Uko said.

"They said the grapes were not excessively sweet but fresh, delicious and juicy," he said.

The average price of the 48 bunches auctioned Monday was Y27,000, according to Kiyoaki Umeda, an agriculture official in the prefecture, who said the figure was higher than producers expected.

The prefecture took 14 years to put Ruby Roman on the market since it first sowed the seeds. It dubs Ruby Roman "dream grapes" and hopes they will boost the region's profile.

The prefecture plans to ship 1,500 bunches, or one tonne, of Ruby Roman grapes this season only to the Ishikawa market, Umeda said.

"There may be a possibility of exporting them in the future, but we first aim to distribute the grapes to people in the prefecture," he said.

Japanese often present top-quality fruits such as melons as gifts. The first batches of carefully grown fruit often fetch extraordinary prices, making headlines in newspapers.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Fly into Gatwick and see why London needs another airport

By Boris Johnson

Good old blighty, eh, I whispered at the porthole as we began to descend upon the darkened fields of Sussex.

OK, so it was pouring with rain, the grey black clouds rolling like gunsmoke over Gatwick, but think - I told myself - of the advantages of home.

Think of all those little inconveniences you never find in England. You never get kept awake by mosquitos whining in your ear. You never get sunburnt after only 10 minutes. You rarely get nappy rash from walking around all day in wet swimming trunks.

Yes, it was still in a mood of post-holiday euphoria that we taxied to the terminal, where the lights winked welcomingly in the puddles.

And morale was still pretty buoyant 10 minutes later, as we yomped down the interminable Gatwick corridors in the direction of passport control; and even there, our mood was not wholly deflated.

It did occur to us to wonder why there were so few passport controllers, and so many hundreds of exhausted travellers shuffling round the oxpens, like inmates of some Victorian penitentiary.

But then I saw a sign reminding us of the extra precautions that were necessary these days, and apologising in a nice British way, and my irritation abated; and then we were in the baggage reclaim area, at getting on for 11pm, and after 40 minutes it was no use trying to bicycle-pump my spirits.

By this time, I knew that sullen hall. By this time, I knew we stood in hell.

Across the vast neon-lit Hades were knots and clumps of dejected humanity.

Some sat and stared at the barren carousels; some tried to cheer themselves up by pretending to be their own missing luggage, sitting on the conveyor belts and taking pictures of each other with their mobile phones.

Every so often a Pyongyang-style announcement would come over the loudspeaker, proclaiming that the baggage of this or that flight would be making an appearance "shortly".

"Huh," said a woman who had arrived on a flight from Las Palmas. "That's what they said two-and-a-half hours ago. They said it would be arriving shortly."

She spoke wearily, bitterly - and if there was no particular rage in her voice, it was because there was no one there with whom to be enraged.

There were just the telescreens with the list of arrivals, with the advice by each flight that passengers were to "wait in hall", as if, frankly, we had any blooming choice in the matter.

By now, it was almost midnight. We wondered whether to abandon the luggage and go home to bed; but that raised overwhelming practical difficulties, and so finally I began the quest for whoever the hell was meant to be in charge.

It is a measure of the extreme cowardliness and cynicism of the airport authorities that there was no one from BAA in that baggage hall.

There was no one from Servisair, the baggage handlers whose entirely foreseeable "staff shortages" had caused the problem.

The only representative of authority was a nice but increasingly rattled young man from the lost luggage department. Shielded behind his attack-proof glass, he told a growing crowd of passengers what he knew. He knew nothing.

Why had some bags arrived from Dalaman, and not the others? He didn't know. Where were the bags from Cagliari? He didn't know.

All he knew was that our bags were out there somewhere in the dark on the rain-lashed tarmac. We offered to mount a Entebbe-style raid to liberate our luggage, and were told we couldn't do that for health and safety reasons.

Where were the baggage handlers? He didn't know.

It seemed that he had been in contact with a senior baggage handler as recently as an hour ago, but then this chap had gone out on to the tarmac, to search for the other baggage handlers, and had not been heard of since.

Could we ring him? We could not. All he could offer was a photocopied letter from Servisair, in the name of Mr Mark Poynton, the Service Delivery Controller.

It must be one of the most snivelling and insincere letters I have ever read. Mr Poynton apologises to passengers for the delayed arrival of their baggage and the inconvenience caused, and regrets that an airline or handling representative "may be unable to attend the arrivals hall" to explain what is going on.

What Mr Poynton does not point out is that hundreds of copies of this pseudo-apology have been distributed night after night for the past six nights.

In other words, Servisair has known perfectly well that it has too few handlers to handle the baggage.

It could quite easily have recruited more handlers, or made some provision for the extra holiday workload - but evidently decided to save money by sodding the public.

It ruthlessly refuses to allow its operatives to be exposed to the wrath of the passengers, so that if you want to inform Mr Mark Poynton, Service Delivery Controller, of his chimpanzee-like control of the non-existent delivery of his wretched service, you have to write to him at Room 3037, 3rd floor balcony, South Terminal, Gatwick, RH6 ONP.

To call this service "Third World" is an insult to the many gleaming and efficient airports of developing nations. In their contemptuous indifference to the customer, the airport authorities remind me of the 1970s, and the trades unions of my childhood.

Gatwick is the eighth most busy airport in the world, and the sheer volume of passengers coming to London airports is a testimony to the attractions of the city and the dynamism of the British economy.

But in four years, we are due to welcome the world to the London Olympics, and we need to sort this chaos out now.

With Gatwick full to bursting, and with Heathrow's third runway already bitterly contested - and I bet it never gets built - it is also ever more urgent that we investigate the possibility of a long-term solution, in the form of a new and more eco-friendly international airport at a site in the Thames estuary - of which you will be hearing a lot more in due course.

The glorious twelfth

This week sees a significant date in the British sporting calendar — and it has nothing to do with the Olympics. The Twelfth will inaugurate the grouse-shooting season, though it also becomes legal to take a pot at snipe and ptarmigan if that is your bag. For dedicated sportsmen, the driven grouse, flying high, is the quarry of choice.

Grouse shooting is still conducted on some scale, despite the problems that have afflicted it in recent years. There are 746 upland properties in Britain, covering nine million acres, that shoot grouse and 459 of them are grouse moors. The sport supports the employment of 700 grouse keepers and represents 12 per cent of total United Kingdom shooting provision, which contributes £1.6 billion to the economy.

So we are talking about a significant economic activity. That, however, is not the atmosphere on the moors, among the participants in a sport that, second only to hunting, is the essence of Britain (one feels compelled to eschew Gordon Brown’s horrid, synthetic neologism “Britishness”).

The heather is in bloom and there is a feeling of keen anticipation. Of course, the shooting will actually be better in a month’s time, when the birds have been fully nourished and matured, but the Twelfth has a ritual significance that cannot be gainsaid.

This is still rather a smart sport: even the grouse has a double-barrelled name: Lagopus lagopus scoticus. There is a correspondingly acute awareness of social nuances among the guns themselves.

A novice kitted out in brand-new knickerbockers and deerstalker might as well wear one of those conference badges saying “Hedge fund manager”. A gentleman will be wearing tweeds weathered to the same consistency as the suit of armour his ancestor wore at Agincourt.

If he has been obliged to replace his Barbour since last season, he may take the precaution of driving his tractor over it several times. Nor should the olfactory sense be neglected: if you cannot out-stink the wet gun-dogs, your bona fides may be suspect.

It should be noted, too, that protocol dictates that shooting another gun dead is an unfortunate accident; winging a beater or, worse, a keeper is unforgivable.

It is not necessarily ill-bred to shoot a human quarry: some of our best-born sportsmen had form. The Duke of Wellington was more lethal on the moor than on the battlefield.

While visiting Lord Granville in 1823, he accidentally shot him in the face. When shooting at Lady Shelley’s, he hit one of her tenants who was hanging out her washing. “My lady, I’ve been hit!” moaned the victim. To which Lady Shelley replied: “You have endured a great honour today, Mary — you have the distinction of being shot by the Duke of Wellington.”

More recently, Willie Whitelaw notoriously winged a keeper and simultaneously shot an old friend in the buttocks, after which he courteously gave up shooting.

Shooting, like hunting, has its distinctive humour and literature, including the cartoons of Mark Huskinson and books such as Douglas Sutherland’s The English Gentleman’s Good Shooting Guide.

The classic works of fiction are surely J K Stanford’s chronicles of that veteran sporting gun Colonel the Hon George Hysteron-Proteron, known to fellow members of his club as “The Old Grouse-Cock”, whose game book ran to 20 volumes after he had shot “about 200,000 head”.

Such prolific slaughter would be condemned today. A common complaint is that roaring boys from the City are ruining shooting with their vulgar drive for extravagantly big bags.

Over-shooting may be frowned on, but historically there are precedents that are far from plebeian. By the time the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury died in 1841, he had killed 10,744 partridges, 8,862 pheasants, 4,694 snipe and 1,080 woodcock — but no grouse: in Georgian times, it was wall-to-wall partridge.

In accomplishing this record, he had fired more than four tons of cartridges.

In the succeeding generations the 6th Lord Walsingham shot 1,070 grouse in one day on Blubberhouse Moor in Yorkshire in 1888. He fired 1,510 cartridges during 20 drives and twice killed three birds with a single shot. In the following January, he shot the most varied bag ever recorded: 191 kills of 19 different species, ranging from 65 coots to a rat and a pike shot in shallow water.

The seal of royal approval was given to large bags when George V downed more than 1,000 pheasants in one day in 1913.

The scale of events on Tuesday will be much more modest.

Ticks, parasitic worms, floods and raptors have taken a heavy toll of the grouse. In Scotland, long regarded as the doyen of upland game terrain but plagued with problems, this season is predicted to be slightly better than last, but it is very patchy.

Grouse stocks are reported to be up by somewhere between 20 per cent and 50 per cent in the Lammermuirs, but further north the ticks have done a lot of damage.

Yet the devotees will have their sport, rewarded for all their efforts by that heart-quickening moment when the sky first fills with the quarry. It is the timeless experience that, years ago, caused the Duke of Sutherland’s loader to exclaim excitedly: “Grace, Your Grouse!”

A more modern complement to the outdoor sport is the competition among restaurants to be the first to serve grouse on August 12.

In 1997, this reached a new pitch of extravagance when the first birds shot on a Scottish moor were rushed to Heathrow and transported on Concorde to New York where, thanks to supersonic flight and the five-hour time difference, they were served to diners at the Restaurant Daniel the same day.

A similar extravagance featured a courier parachuting into the grounds of a gourmet hotel to deliver grouse.

The Twelfth is a day for extravagance, nostalgia and enjoyment. Here’s to good sport for now, and the perpetuation of a great British rural tradition.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Let us pray in Latin: priests take on Catholics’ magic circle

Damian Thompson sniffs the incense of a revolution among Britain’s parish priests

For a moment it looks as if a fire has broken out in the chapel. A cloud of smoke is billowing from the back and rolling down the aisle – and it is fiercely pungent. This is grade A incense, pure enough to guarantee an instantaneous spiritual high.

A young man walks through the door swinging a thurible on a gold chain. He passes it to a priest, deacon and subdeacon – all in gold vestments – who take turns wafting it at each other. Finally, the subdeacon turns round and, bowing low, shoots plumes of smoke diagonally across the choir stalls with the accuracy of a mid-fielder taking a difficult corner.

We are witnessing an unusual sight: a Roman Catholic solemn mass, celebrated according to an ancient Latin rite effectively outlawed 40 years ago. And it’s taking place in the 13th-century chapel of Merton college, Oxford, which has been Anglican for 400 years.

Just for a week, however, it has gone back to being Catholic – but this is not Catholicism as most people know it. I’m at the summer school of the Latin Mass Society which – to the delight of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI and the dismay of trendy British bishops – is teaching priests how to say the Tridentine mass.

The last time Merton chapel regularly witnessed this sort of complex liturgy was in the 1540s, before the Protestant reformers pulled out much of the stained glass and toppled the statues of saints. The organi-sers of the summer school are reformers, too, but their aim is precisely the opposite: to restore Latin services and rich furnishings to their own Catholic parish churches, many of which were stripped bare by modernisers after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

What makes this summer school rather controversial is that most of the bishops of England and Wales disapprove of the return of the Latin mass, regarding its sonorous Latin prayers and intricate gestures as a relic of the Middle Ages. Until recently, the Tridentine mass could be celebrated only with a bishop’s permission, usually granted grudgingly for special occasions. Then, in July last year, Pope Benedict XVI swept away the right of bishops to ban the old services. Most of them were horrified.

So these are tense times. But the 60 priests who have gathered at Merton college – to brush up their skills or to learn the Tridentine mass from scratch – are careful to avoid talk of civil war in the church. All are aware that this autumn, Pope Benedict is expected to announce a successor to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, who presides over a liberal “magic circle” of bishops unsympathetic to the Pope’s reforms. Will Benedict break the circle that has run the English church for 40 years?

Whoever gets the job, however, nobody expects a sudden return to the Tridentine mass in parishes all over the country. The seminaries do not teach priests how to say it and teaching yourself is difficult. A glance at the manual explains why: “Bring the thumb of each hand over the upper front edge of the paten [communion plate], tilting it to let the host slide off onto the crease of the front-centre fold of the corporal [linen cloth]. Place your left hand on the altar and with your right hand set the paten halfway under the right edge of the corporal.” And all the while saying: “. . . pro innumerabilibus peccatis, et offensionibus, et negligentiis meis, et pro omnibus circumstantibus . . .”

Interestingly, the most traditionalist priests here are also the youngest – and I spot four in the choir stalls who are popular bloggers on the internet. Walking down the high street later, I encounter two clergy wearing the old-fashioned soup-plate hats beloved of Italian village padres. One of them has long knotted tassels dangling from the brim, “so I can tie them round my neck when I ride my horse through the parish”.

A priest who looks barely out of his teens explains what he does when unsolicited copies of The Tablet – a liberal Catholic magazine that opposes the Latin revival – arrive at his church: “I painstakingly remove the staples and feed it into the shredder. It’s time-consuming, but God’s work.”

Most of the other priests at the summer school are less extreme: they have come because they are curious about the Latin mass and they can scent change in the air. “We’re not trying to turn them into traditionalists,” says Father Andrew Wadsworth, an authority on the old rite who is conducting classes. “We want to show priests how the underlying principles of the traditional liturgy can deepen their understanding of their priesthood.”

Father John Boyle, a parish priest in Ashford, Kent, recently taught himself to say the Tridentine mass by watching a DVD. “It’s made a profound difference to the way I celebrate the new mass in English,” he says. “There’s greater reverence now. I’m more of a celebrant and less of a compere.”

I sense a huge contrast with the atmosphere at the first Merton summer school in August 2007. Then, I was allowed to poke my head round the door of a training session. Now, Wadsworth lets me watch him take a priest right through the opening sequence of a Latin mass in a student’s room, using a reversed bookcase as an altar.

The priest, Canon Michael McCreadie, is in his fifties – yet today is the first time in his life that he has acted out the ancient gestures. He removes an invisible biretta (it’s a pretend mass). “Now, father, keep your hands joined,” Wadsworth reminds him. “Go to the centre of the altar, not touching it . . . left hand flat on the page. No, you should be over here,” and he gently turns his pupil towards the window.

After half an hour, we are still only five minutes into the order of service, but McCreadie is elated: “I wasn’t looking forward to saying the old mass, but after today I most certainly am.”

It’s only now I discover that he is dean of Leeds Cathedral. A year ago there were no senior main-stream clerics at the summer school. Later in the day, even more significantly, the Rev Malcolm McMahon, the Bishop of Nottingham, celebrates old rite pontifical vespers wearing a jewelled mitre and an embroidered cope that even Cardinal Wolsey might have considered over the top.

McMahon, a Dominican, is left-wing in his politics and certainly not part of a traditionalist faction – but nor does he belong to the politically correct, back-slapping magic circle. At dinner later, he effectively breaks ranks with his fellow bishops by unambiguously endorsing Pope Benedict’s vision of a church in which the old and new rites coexist. The traditionalists give him a standing ovation and a verse of God Bless our Pope.

He also tells Father Tim Finigan, author of the Hermeneutic of Continuity, the most influential of all the conservative blogs, to keep writing. Which is interesting, given that the Bishops’ Conference would dearly like to stop that particular blog.

Afterwards, Finigan writes: “Bishop McMahon has certainly won the hearts of the priests . . . All of a sudden, there is someone that many priests loyal to Pope Benedict will be watching closely . . . ecce sacerdos magnus!”

That’s Latin for “behold the great priest”. Those words will be read carefully in the Vatican, where Pope Benedict has been informed that the magic circle is desperate to install one of its own as the next cardinal. He isn’t pleased. Watch this space.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


I am a retired Cathay Pacific Airways pilot. I retired in 1987 with the intention of living in Hawaii, where my wife and I had built a house in 1982.

In 1984 we decided to buy a pied-a-terre somewhere in Europe. We purchased the smallest reasonable apartment in Andorra after a quick exploration of accommodation in France, Switzerland and Italy.

Two years into retirement we found that we were in Andorra most of the time and decided to take out residency, build a larger house, and plant our feet firmly in the Principality, and, would you believe it, I think we get more sunshine here than we did in Hawaii.

Although I was educated in the UK, I have lived abroad for most of my life, in Canada, Germany, Hawaii, and Hong Kong and expect to enjoy the remainder of my dotage in Andorra, where we have an international group of friends and little interference from a benign government.

advertisementIn the 19 years since we owned property here we have met with every level of the eclectic and polyglot society, and we do feel that we know the place well.

I have built two 2-seater aircraft in my retirement, but while they still fly, I find that my eyesight and reflexes indicate that I should give them up to the active syndicates that have helped me to build them, and returning to writing seems a good next step.

I am happy to answer any questions, I love Andorra and I am happy to share it with others.

Andorra: There is a simple dichotomy in the attitudes of people visiting or staying in Andorra; they either like it a lot, or they don’t like it at all.

To examine the negative vote; I remember asking a real estate broker who was naturally enthusiastic about the Principality, what was wrong with it? “Getting here” was her only comment and she referred to the three hour journey from either Toulouse or Barcelona where airline connections are available.

Those arriving by car from the UK are liable to find themselves caught up, at the end of a two-day journey, in a mind-numbing crawl of French or Spanish holiday shoppers, loading up with cigarettes and alcohol.

Geography Andorra with an area of 175 square miles, is about the same size as the Isle of Wight or two and a half times the area of Washington D.C. The population in 2001 was 67,159 and their life expectancy was a healthy 83.49 years.

Steeply sloped valleys present attractive scenery but sometimes a pressing sense of closeness for the claustrophobic. Most people like it, though some who have surrendered their pulmonary fitness to inactivity or tobacco, find that the mountain air, at 4000 to 7000 feet, is not sufficient for an energetic life.

Basically the country consists of a major road, 20 miles long, that connects the French border at Pas de la Casa with the Spanish border at Farga de Moles with numerous spur roads running into smaller valleys totalling 170 miles. It is not a big place.

The capitol, Andorra la Vella (Andorra the old) has merged with Escaldes-Engordany to form the civic centre where the shops are sufficient to cater to the 11,500,000 annual visitors, who arrive in the winter for skiing in Europe’s largest network of ski-runs, or in summer for shopping or hiking in the well tended network of trails.

Language and Culture: There is a vigorous expatriate society centred either within the La Massana Comu, which is built on a confluence of two river valleys without a through road, hence ignored by the shopping frenzy, or in the numerous villages in the mountains above St Julia towards the Spanish border.

The expats of both these communities are English speaking. French influence increases as one nears the northeastern border.

The national language is Catalan, and while it is politically beneficial to speak it to an Andorran, they all understand Spanish, which they refer to as Castilian, and most know French. English is a poor third language, except among the expatriates of any country.

There are signs of human occupation from the Neolithic era 6000 years ago, and while there is some evidence of internal struggle in the 13th century, and a visit by Charlemagne in the 9th, it is a country that has never been at war, nor occupied by a foreign power throughout the history of mankind.

Andorra joined the United Nations in 1993 and raised its flag, which incidentally is the same as the flags of Chad and Romania.

Taxes: The belief that Andorra is a tax haven is not totally correct, as 50.55% of government revenue is derived from taxes in a total budget (2001) of 350,468,240 Euros.

It is true that Income Taxes, Capital Gains and Death Duties are absent, as are Sales Taxes, but there is an Import Tax, usually 2% to 5%, and there are taxes on business which does not effect the expatriates, who are, in most cases prevented from working by restrictions on their residencia.

Government and People: Perhaps the following items illustrate the Government’s attitude to its public. All internal mail is delivered post-free. Stamps are only required on foreign mail, though it’s true that the post office is a bit slow.

Government car parks all give free parking for the first hour to facilitate quick errands, and, with the parking meters, from one o’clock until three to assist lunchtime diners, and evenings and Sundays to help everybody, which clearly illustrates that the modest fees are there only to control parking and not boost the exchequer.

I have received two parking tickets in the last 15 years. They were polite messages asking me not to park illegally. There was no demand for money, though fines are not unheard of.

When we decided to apply for permanent residence, which necessitated a lot of form filling, one of which was a statement from the mayor saying that we did live in the area. The town clerk asked me if I had paid the tax on the purchase of our apartment. I replied that I had given the lawyer a lot of money and I did not know how it was dispersed.

She checked with the computer and found that I hadn’t. I had to return on the morrow to collect my signed statement and said I would attend to it then, and returning to consult my neighbours about the tax I’d never heard of. They both said, "Don’t pay it. We’ve never paid it. Just keep quiet about it.”

I pondered over the success of a residency application from an applicant who started off saying he wouldn’t abide by the regulations, versus an unnecessary payment of an un-enforced tax and on returning to collect the letter from the mayor said that I couldn’t afford the tax, which was an outright lie.

“All right” said the clerk and that was that, until two years later I received a letter from the Town Clerk noting that I had never paid, and if I wanted to do so, the office was open from nine to five each week day, and that was all. No threats. No surcharges. No offer of jail or deportation, No deadline.

I was thoroughly ashamed of myself and hurried down to settle the bill that was less than 1% of the purchase price. And have paid anything else requested ever since.

Like any other contented resident I’ve come to terms with the drawbacks of living in Andorra. Not every expected deliveryman nor repairman seems to use a watch, and sometimes not even a calendar, but when they do arrive they are usually efficient and not too expensive.

Crime: There is no sign of poverty in the Principality and there is no record of unemployment, although the building trade among others, governs foreigners, mostly Portuguese, by issuing or withdrawing work permits.

Crime is low. I’ve never heard of a mugging on the street or a car theft. The banks removed all the barriers between the cash and the customers 10 years ago and had a bank robbery shortly afterwards, by two teenagers who made their get-away in a taxi and were caught within 90 minutes.

Any robber planning a serious crime is faced with the escape route, which can be instantly blocked at either border crossing.

Health care: There is a good medical service, voted number four in the world by the World Health Organisation and, when needed, patients are referred to France or Spain for more serious care.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

China still in the clutches of a dictatorship

By Greg Sheridan

I share Greg Sheridan's very positive regard for the Chinese people

IN 1985 I had simultaneously one of the most exquisite and disturbing experiences of my life. I was appointed this newspaper's first correspondent in Beijing. Although I benefited from the kindness of many Westerners in Beijing, I was determined to avoid the charmed but sickly isolated circles of the expat community, epitomised forever for me, no doubt unfairly, by the imitation English pub in the grounds of the British embassy.

I was determined to talk to as many Chinese as I possibly could, to interview every Chinese who would agree to talk to me, and to make as many Chinese friends as possible.

This afforded me many delicious and strange experiences. One day I went to see the head of the rapturously named Marxism Leninism Mao Zedong Thought Institute. He was a lucid but confusing man. He told me that Mao had made big mistakes from the early 1950s onwards. Indeed Mao virtually didn't have any orthodox Mao thoughts in his head from the mid-1950s. He also told me China was on the road to democracy and would never have a mass campaign or purge again. At the end of our discussion, he asked me not to use his name in the newspaper; after all, he didn't want to get into trouble in the next mass campaign or purge.

Despite its contradictions and mysteries, Beijing in 1985 was an optimistic city. The comprehensive physical transformation of the city was just beginning. Rivers of bicycles rather than cars flowed through the streets. The tiny courtyard houses in the endless hutongs or laneways were still intact. Above all there was a sense of limitless possibility about how far Chinese reform, especially political reform, could go.

This overall spirit of optimism did lead of course to occasional stellar moments in the great Australian fatuousness about China. Peter Abeles told us in a press conference how China would eventually become more liberal than Western societies such as Australia. I know eventually is a long time but I think the great capitalist roader meant nearer than several lifetimes. Nonetheless, though Abeles's optimism was extreme, it was representative.

Most of all, in my time in Beijing I fell in love with Chinese culture, especially the scroll paintings, and the great power of absence, space and understatement in classical Chinese art. Most of the books I read about China, it is true, were by Westerners, but I made delighted acquaintance with the stories of Lu Xun, in some ways China's George Orwell.

I was lucky to fall in with a group of Chinese artists who took me under their wing. They wanted me to write technical art criticism about their work, which I was wholly unequipped to do. What I found fascinating were the stories they told me of the politics of their institutions and of their city.

But here's where a Chinese contradiction defeated me. I knew that I was under surveillance. During my first week in the city I had got hopelessly lost and was rescued by a dapper Chinese bureaucrat who spoke flawless English as he pulled up in a car beside me and offered me a lift back to my hotel, which, mysteriously, he already knew the name of.

My contradiction was this. I loved Chinese culture but if I wrote about what my friends at the top of Chinese culture were telling me, they would surely get into terrible trouble. Meanwhile I came to detest Chinese politics which was then, like now, the politics of a dictatorship.

This is not an inalienable condition of Chinese civilisation, as the demonstrators at Tiananmen in 1989, the stories of Lu Xun and the sporadic, much concealed but widespread protests and complaints within China today attest.

My attitude to China hasn't changed much since 1985. I still love its culture but detest its politics. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, there was for a little while a renewed sense of counterfactual optimism. If the Communist Party had to resort to murdering its people in large numbers in the central square, surely its days were numbered. In fact that analysis has so far proved absolutely wrong. The party has undoubtedly managed the Chinese economy well and lifted the living standards of hundreds of millions of people. It deserves a lot of credit for that. But it has shown it is still perfectly willing to imprison or kill its people if they pose a threat to its rule.

Apart from its effective economic management, the party has relied on an increasingly ugly nationalism to give it a measure of political and ideological legitimacy with its people. It appears to be using the Olympic Games in part for this purpose.

The Olympic movement, which is exposed as increasingly vainglorious, money-grubbing and cynical, has either connived in this or not bothered to make much effort to change it. I agree with Andrew Bolt's argument in the Melbourne Herald Sun this week that Australia's obsession with sport has been overwhelmingly good for us: clean, healthy, good fun and much better than any of the alternatives. But the Olympic movement's creepy demands for ever more taxpayer funds so that, East Germany-like, we can sustain some nonsensical version of national pride dependent on a medal tally, strikes me as a very long distance from any Olympic ideal worth knowing about.

Kevin Rudd and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith were admirably straightforward and morally right to talk about China's human rights failures yesterday. Both, however, also felt compelled to argue what they surely know is not true, that hosting the Olympics has improved the human rights situation in China.

This directly contradicts the assessments of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and every other independent observer who has seriously looked at the evidence. Even The Economist magazine, sensibly a great friend of Chinese commerce, made the judgment this week that the Olympic Games have slowed China's political modernisation and made the human rights situation worse.

Amnesty International points to many things the Chinese Government has done against human rights specifically because it is hosting the Games: arresting dissidents, arresting petitioners to the central Government, increasing the numbers in labour camps. Human Rights Watch points to evictions and demolitions for Olympics infrastructure, silencing of Chinese citizens expressing concerns about Beijing's failure to live up to human rights promises, and increased media restrictions.

Both organisations list numerous dissidents sentenced to harsh terms of imprisonment for innocent political activism.

I can't really get past the view I formed in 1985. While China's culture remains a vast treasure house of human achievement, its politics remain detestable.,25197,24139287-7583,00.html

Japan even exports water!

What don't they export?

A JAPANESE company is looking into plans to export water to Australia in large ships for agriculture and industrial use, it was reported today.

Nomura Research Institute is exploring the idea and proposes delivering the water on ships that carry Australian coal to Japan's second-largest steelmaker, JFE Holdings, which has a mill in Kawasaki, near Tokyo.

US news agency Bloomberg reported that representatives from Nomura were to come Queensland next month to discuss the plan, as the state looked for ways to boost water supplies.

It said water shipped to Australia would be purified water recycled in Kawasaki after industrial use.

The report said bulk shipments could start in three to five years, and an announcement was expected on August 20.

But a spokesman for Queensland's Minister for Water Craig Wallace said there was no planned deal to import water from Japan.

Japan is the second most water-affluent country behind Canada in the developed world, and is in the process of expanding water exports to take advantage of the growing demand as a result of climate change.,23599,24141128-29277,00.html

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

QANTAS responds to typical LAX arrogance

SF might even be a more attractive portal to the West coast

QANTAS has warned Los Angeles International Airport it may start switching A380 flights to San Francisco if it is forced to park the giant planes at remote stands. The airline issued the warning after airport bosses said it will put A380 passengers on buses instead of connecting directly to terminal gates, reports The Australian. Qantas will begin flying its first A380 service between Melbourne and Los Angeles from late October.

While Los Angeles is a popular tourism destination, its airport is less fondly regarded by travellers because of long queues, often unfriendly staff and poor facilities.

Qantas senior executive vice-president for the Americas and Pacific Wally Mariani told Jane's UK that remote facilities would be acceptable to the airline only in cases of unexpected operational problems and not for regularly scheduled flights. "If in the future LAX is unable to keep up with the need for additional (very large aircraft) gates, we would be forced to relocate our A380 services to San Francisco."


Monday, August 4, 2008

Italian mayor bans gatherings of three or more people as soldiers hit streets

As soldiers prepare to be deployed on Italian streets, a city mayor has been accused of Fascism after he passed an edict banning groups of more than three people congregating in parks and public gardens.

The anti-gathering laws were enacted as thousands of soldiers were due to take to the streets of Italian cities for the first time on Monday under a controversial move by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to fight crime.

Massimo Giordano, a member of Italy's anti immigration Northern League party, defended the anti-gathering motion and claimed it would cut down on unruly behaviour.

However opposition councillors said it was "reminiscent of Benito Mussolini's edict of the 1920's which banned groups of five or more people".

The ban will not affect courting couples who flock to parks and gardens in the northern Italian city of Novara, where Mr Giordano holds power, but if anyone is caught in a group of three or more they face a fine of 500 euro (£350).

Mr Giordano said that the edict would ban "gatherings in a bid to protect public decorum and prevent damage to public parks and gardens" from people who gathered in them at night.

Novara, which has a population of 100,000, is not seen as a particularly crime-ridden or violent city but the mayor passed the law after several elderly residents complained of noise.

He has also banned the consumption of alcohol at the city's station after 6pm and closed a immigrant cultural centre.

Opposition councillor Sara Paladini said: "There is no emergency situation in Novara - there is no need for such a Fascist edict. There are other better ways to tackle the city's problems."

But Mauro Franzinelli, the councillor in charge of security, said: "This is needed to limit public disturbance. The citizens of Novara asked for it. I understand opposition left councillors plan to gather and protest in groups of more than three - we will not fine them this time.

"One thing I will say though is that to compare the ordinance with Fascism is absurd. We are trying to solve issues but are being accused of Fascism."

Around 3,000 troops are expected to begin patrolling streets of major cities - including Rome, Milan, Naples, Bari, Palermo and Venice - on Monday as part of a government clampdown on crime.

The capital has been earmarked for the highest number of troops - 1,000 will patrol high-profile locations such as stations, embassies and diplomatic residences.

Critics have complained that the sight of gun-toting soldiers on Italian streets will have a negative effect, especially on tourism and there have been contradictory messages from city and military leaders on the troops' role.

Gianni Alemanno, Rome's mayor, has said that they will not be deployed around the city's tourist sites. But Ignazio La Russo, the country's defence minister, has said they will.

Giorgio Sansa, a tour guide who runs a travel firm in Rome, said: "I really don't see the need for troops on streets, it will have a completely negative effect.

"I have already had people calling me after reading reports of troops on streets in Italy and asking me is there some sort of civil war going on."

Soldiers will also patrol alongside regular police officers, but they will have no powers of arrest and can merely stop, search and identify anyone who arouses suspicion. They will carry small arms, but not machine guns.

Centre-Left opposition MP's have criticised the plan because they fear it will scare off tourists and actually do little to deter crime.

Marco Minniti, the shadow interior minister of the Democratic Party, said: "It's an image-boosting operation that risks turning into a boomerang.

"It will make Italy look like a country in the grip of an uncontrolled security emergency.

"Paratroopers guarding the centres of the major tourist cities aren't exactly a great calling card for a country at the height of the tourist season."

Antonio Di Pietro, of the Italy of Values party, said: "We will have one soldier for every 10 municipalities, doing nothing except going to the bar with a policeman. It's a joke. And to cap it all it's only a provisional measure."

The soldiers will initially be deployed for just six months with a provision to extend for a further six months.

The last time Italy put soldiers on the streets was to fight a crime wave in Naples in 1997, while they were also deployed in Sicily after a Mafia bomb campaign in 1993-4.

Troops have not been seen in Rome since the "years of lead" in the mid 1970s when the Red Brigades carried out a series of spectacular kidnappings, including the murder of Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Water as wine

Wotta lotta s....

ONE has an "elegant velvet" character when served at room temperature while another has a "large mouth feel" and is best served as a pre-dinner drink with hors d'oeuvres.

But these beverages don't come from a posh restaurant's wine list - they come from a water menu.

Sydney's Four Seasons Hotel launched its first water menu at its Kable's restaurant last week (see table above), with 20 varieties from countries such as France, Italy and Fiji.

Hotel food and beverage director Sven Fitjer said there was demand from patrons looking to cut back on alcohol consumption.

"People are increasingly conscious of maintaining a healthy and more balanced lifestyle. However, they are not prepared to sacrifice on the experience," he said.

"The new menu allows our guests to appreciate water in the way they value the significance of the regions and complexities in varieties of wine. "They can confidently explore how mineral contents and varying carbonations complement particular dishes on the menu."

A 750ml bottle of Cape Grim costs $18 and a bottle of Cloud Juice rainwater from King Island costs $20. But these are nothing compared to 420 Volcanic, sourced from the Tai Tapu spring at the bottom of an extinct volcano in New Zealand. The water bubbles to the surface through 200metres of volcanic rock. It sells for more than $100 a litre. 420 Volcanic is on the list at Claridge's in London, which launched its water menu last year.

The venerable hotel offers 30 different brands emanating from exotic locations such as the glaciers of Norway or India's Nilgiris mountains. Claridge's refuses to stock the so-called "Cristal of bottled waters", BlingH20, which comes in a frosted bottle hand-decorated with Swarovski crystals. At $85 a bottle, it is the refreshment preferred by Hollywood celebrities. Paris Hilton reportedly gives it to her Chihuahua.

In health-conscious Los Angeles a number of luxury hotels have employed water sommeliers to advise on food and water matching. In New York, teetotallers can imbibe at the Via Genova cafe which serves only water - 65 varieties. In Sydney, the Four Seasons is believed to be the only hotel currently offering the option.

While tap-water devotees may sniff, water experts can apparently differentiate between the mineral content and pH balance of various drinks.

Wine buff-turned water aficionado Michael Mascha has written a guide to bottled waters of the world told The Guardian newspaper: "Water is in a transition from being considered a commodity to being considered a product."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Britain's first new steam engine for 50 years puffs out of locomotive works

The first new steam engine built in Britain for almost 50 years pulled slowly out of Darlington Locomotive Works yesterday to loud applause, a blizzard of camera flashes and a guaranteed future running the length of the national rail network.

Tornado, a replica of the A1 Peppercorn Pacific class, has taken 18 years to build and cost almost £3 million. With sponsorship from some of Britain’s leading engineering companies, funds have come from steam enthusiasts across the country through deeds of covenant and a bonds issue.

About 250 people made the journey to the shed where it was built to see the engine, belching steam and blowing its whistle, move for the first time under its own power.

Numbered 60163, it has been built according to the blueprint for one of the last classes of engine built in this country, with up-to-date modifications and electronics to comply with today’s regulations for mainline running.

The A1 was designed by Sir Arthur Peppercorn. His 92-year-old widow, Dorothy Mather, is president of the A1 Steam Locomotive Trust, set up in 1990 to re-create her husband’s famous engine. She rode on the footplate and said: “I think it is wonderful. My husband would not have believed it. He would be very, very proud.”

The A1 Trust had hoped to finish Tornado in 2000 to mark the millennium. But soaring costs, delays in getting the myriad individually engineered parts and difficulties in commissioning and testing the huge boiler set back the project.

Tornado will steam down to the Great Central Railway at Loughborough, where inspectors will see how it performs. It is due to begin chartered tours on Network Rail this autumn and will be the star attraction for the thousands who book excursions on weekend specials. It will be able to run at a top speed of 90mph.

The trust needs £66,000 more to pay for trials. Appealing for the money, Mark Allatt, the chairman, said that he saw the engine as a living creature: “It has almost got a soul. The steam locomotive is the nearest thing Man has ever created to a living thing. You can’t turn it on. You can’t turn it off. You sort of coax it along and it hisses and it bubbles and it fizzes and that is not like a modern machine.”

Powerful memory

— The A1 was designed by Sir Arthur Peppercorn for the express service on the London and North Eastern Railway and 49 were built in 1948 and 1949 in Darlington and Doncaster

— The 164-ton A1s were among the most powerful and versatile locomotives ever built. Huge 50ft grates allowed them to use poor-grade coal, important in postwar austerity

— The final five engines were equipped with roller bearings to enable them to travel for an average of 118,000 miles between heavy repairs

— After British Railways’ decision in 1960 to all scrap steam working, the end came swiftly for the A1s. All efforts to save the last engine failed, and all 49 were broken up

Melbourne as a coffee Mecca??

I thought it was just "a good place for a village". But I guess I wouldn't know. I still make my coffee from Bushell's coffee & chicory essence so I am obviously in the sub-imbecile department as far as coffee goes. I mostly drink tea -- as all Australians once did. Some tea-drinkers are fighting back.

Frappuccinos may be too gauche for some tastes, but the coffee chain has its own reasons for retreating from the Australian market. SURELY, the critics said, it would be doomed from the start. With its trademarked frappuccinos and smorgasbord of syrup flavours, the day Starbucks came to Lygon Street was like Scientologists setting up in Vatican City. Sacrilegious. And now, with the American coffee giant announcing the closure of 61 Australian stores from tomorrow - 16 of them in Melbourne, including the Lygon Street venture - Australia's home of discerning coffee drinkers appears to have been vindicated.

"Melburnians would argue to their death that you can get a better coffee in Melbourne than anywhere else in Australia," says Andrew Brown-May, a senior lecturer in history at Melbourne University and author of a book on Melbourne's coffee past. "We've actually got, not just superficially but deep in our culture, a great knowledge and appreciation of coffee and certainly a mythology about it."

While mega-chains such as Starbucks, Gloria Jean's and Hudsons are relatively new additions, Brown-May argues that black gold has played an important role in Melbourne's social history for well over a century. In his entries on coffee and coffee palaces in the Encyclopedia of Melbourne, he retells the beginnings of Melbourne's coffee culture, traced back to the street stalls of the 1850s that offered caffeine hits to rushed city workers, then re-emerging as continental coffee houses in the interwar years of the 1920s and 1930s.

By the 1950s, the influx of Italian migrants had helped redefine coffee for Melbourne once again, serving it up in espresso cups instead of percolators. Yet two of the key proponents of the espresso bar were father and son team Harry and Peter Bancroft, Anglo-Australians who in 1953 secured the rights to manufacture Gaggia coffee machines and set up a cafe in St Kilda. This act enabled enterprising migrants to open similar businesses (Carlton's University Cafe and Bourke Street's Pellegrini's among them) and maintain, in Brown-May's words, a time capsule of coffee tradition.

So, purists, you've won. The humble cappuccino has triumphed over its Orange-Mocha-Frappa cousin. The latter probably never stood a chance. Those of you who know your ristretto from your machiatto, may sip at your crema with increased joy. And for anyone who has ever railed against the bulldozing sameness of American culture, go ahead, smile a little more smugly over that karmic cup of fair trade, East Timorese organic roast.

But don't think the downsizing of Starbucks has been all thanks to you. The trimming down of the Seattle-based coffee goliath, not just in Australia but in the 600 stores to be closed in the United States, may not have entirely been a result of the anti-brand, anti-consumer revolution. Nor was it especially about coffee. "In the US they were new; there wasn't anybody else doing this. I think Australia has had a lot of cafes well established, so I think there was just more entrenched competition," Deakin University marketing professor Michael Polonsky says. "Any street in Melbourne you could get a good coffee, so (Starbucks) had to be substantially different." Starbucks had attempted the Coca-Cola strategy of being available wherever people looked, Polonsky says. But it was its market saturation that was its undoing.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Temple University historian Bryant Smith argues that when Starbucks began, it offered Americans an entree into a status-filled world with is own language of ventis, grandes, Tazo teas and special-blend coffees, all stamped with the company's distinctive green logo. But by becoming too common - Starbucks first opened in Australia in 2000 and expanded to 84 stores in eight years - the company "violated the economic principles of cultural scarcity", Smith says. So the novelty just wore off.

But in a city steeped in coffee, and coffee of a particular preparation, Andrew Brown-May thinks it may also have to do with taste. "Starbucks coffee does taste different, and to many Australian palates has an over-roasted, almost burnt taste to it," he says. "And all the syrups and additives and so on, I think we're more sophisticated than that, actually." Snobs? Us? Never.