Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"The Ashes" and "Lords"

Cricket arcana explained

It's tiny. The prize that every Australian and English cricketer fantasises about looks rather pathetic sitting in its big glass cabinet, dwarfed by an exhibition about Brian Lara. The Ashes urn is perhaps the most feeble thing in the Lord's Cricket Museum but it's what a sizeable majority of visitors come to see. And if the titchiness comes as a surprise, then the story behind it is a bigger one.

Keith, our tour guide, is trying to explain to the Aussie contingent why the Australian cricket team isn't allowed to keep the trophy it won fair and square in 2007. The response is fairly simple. "It's because Australia and England have never played for the Ashes urn," he says. "It has never been a trophy." It's not really an urn either it's a terracotta perfume jar and its route to becoming cricket's most iconic symbol is a fascinating one.

The Ashes series derives from the England cricket team's first defeat on home soil back in 1882. The Sporting Times published an obituary for English cricket at a time when parliament was debating whether to legalise cremation. The "ashes" of English cricket came from an attempt to be waggishly topical.

The joke was continued by Ivo Bligh, the England captain, in 1883, who said he was going to bring the Ashes back. On the voyage to Oz, he met his future wife, Florence Morphy, who just so happened to be the music teacher to Sir William Clarke's children. Sir William was the president of the Melbourne Cricket Club.

After England won the series, they played a social match at Sir William's home in Sunbury, Victoria. Before everyone swanned off for drinks, Florence Morphy took the stumps, burned one of the bails and put it in the most convenient vessel she could find. The perfume jar was given to Bligh as a gift the famous Ashes "trophy" was actually a jokey romantic present. And, more interestingly, it's actually Australian after all. Bligh bequeathed the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) upon his death, which is another reason it can't be used as a trophy it's not the England and Wales Cricket Board's to give.

The MCC owns Lord's, which is almost universally known as "the home of cricket". Ordinarily, the pavilion is a strictly members-only affair but we're allowed to step into the hallowed Long Room and the players' changing rooms. We're also given a few interesting insights. The players have to battle through the huddle of members in the Long Room on their way to and from the crease. To get to the crease in three minutes, as the laws of the game demand, is not as easy as you might think.

It was two minutes until after the 2005 Ashes series, when Australian batsman Jason Gillespie took two-and-a-half. The umpires offered England captain Michael Vaughan the opportunity to appeal for "timed out" but he declined, knowing what a pain getting out there can be. Conveniently, the MCC is still in charge of the laws of cricket, so the committee decided to change the timed-out rule.

The dressing rooms are surprisingly plain. The players have nowhere to store their bags, have to walk across the corridor to get a shower and only three or four can comfortably sit on the small balcony at any one time.

It's the biggest cricket ground in England, with a capacity of 30,000, but the MCC is determined to keep it as a traditional ground rather than a stadium. There are no floodlights either although that's more because the neighbours object. It's in a residential area and planning permission has been refused. Yet sometimes a controversial new extension can become a treasure and the remarkable media centre is an unexpected highlight of the tour.

It's a unique piece of architecture best described as an extra-terrestrial egg with no interior supports. Going inside, it's not difficult to imagine what chaos it can be on match days, with hundreds of writers and commentators all shouting over each other.

But it's the ancient, rather than the modern, that draws people to Lord's. To the aficionado, 18th-century bats, scorecards from the 1930s, players' shirts and even sparrows killed by cricket balls are little slices of heaven. And then there's that little terracotta perfume jar, which may not be an official trophy but is a priceless prize.


Monday, June 29, 2009

The decline of the Church of England

If recent trends are any guide, many Church of England parishes will have been cheered by higher attendances at Easter services. The last published statistics for 2006/7 show rises of 7 and 5 per cent in church going at Christmas and Easter.

But these figures are just about the only signs of hope for the church and certainly not the first green shoots of a revival. Other statistics make for gloomy reading.
Annual decline in Sunday attendance is running at around 1 per cent. At this rate it is hard to see the church surviving for more than 30 years though few of its leaders are prepared to face that possibility.

In the short term we are likely to see more closures of buildings as the church battles to meet a big pension bill, pay clergy, and maintain a large bureaucracy.

To its credit, the church has been successful at getting members to give, but larger donations cannot offset the fall in numbers. At present the church is struggling to maintain 16,200 buildings, many of them old and listed with 4,200 listed Grade I.

If decline continues, Christian Research has estimated that in five years' time church closures will accelerate from their present rate of 30 a year to 200 a year as dwindling congregations find the cost of keeping them open too great.

Perhaps the most worrying set of statistics for the Church of England is the decline in baptisms. Out of every 1,000 live births in England in 2006/7 only 128 were baptised as Anglicans.

The figure rises by a small amount if adult baptism and thanksgiving services are included but it is hard to see the Church of England being able to justify its position as the established church on the basis of these numbers.

By way of contrast, out of every 1,000 live births in England in 1900, 609 were baptised in the Church of England. Figures for church marriages show an equally catastrophic decline.

The church is being hit by a double whammy: on the one hand it confronts the challenge of institutional decline but on the other hand it has to face the rise of cultural and religious pluralism in Britain.

How it responds to the second challenge will be crucial in determining whether it will be able to survive as a viable organisation and make a contribution to national life.

At present church leaders show little signs of understanding the situation. They don't understand the culture we now live in. Many bishops prefer to turn their heads, to carry on as if nothing has changed, rather than face the reality that Britain is no longer a Christian nation.

Many of them think that we are still living in the 1950s – a period described by historians as representing a hey day for the established church. The coronation brought church and nation together in a way which will never be repeated. School assemblies had a definite Christian tone and children still sang familiar hymns. The church could function as chaplain to a nation that was nominally Christian and Anglican, even if many actually only attended for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

That world has gone for good.

Gordon Brown's unilateral decision to take no part in nominating bishops to the Queen (a matter he did not discuss with David Cameron or Nick Clegg, in breach of constitutional protocol) makes it less likely that bishops will retain their place in a reformed House of Lords. Rather than try to cling on to their places in the House of Lords, they should take the initiative by withdrawing, which would show that they appreciate Christian Britain is dead. The church can try to fight the forces of change or it can see the crisis as an opportunity to give itself a clearer sense of identity.

One reason for increased attendance at Christmas and Easter may be that people are looking for a way of affirming identity in a pluralist society. So far its leaders are choosing to resist but doing so in a very Anglican way: making concessions when necessary and hoping by small, strategic retreats to buy time and preserve the status quo.

The reason offered for upholding establishment is usually that it gives the church a sense of responsibility to the whole nation. In practice it often looks as if the church is really trying to keep its special privileges on false pretences.

For a time other faith communities may welcome the special position of the established church as a bulwark against secularism. The Chief Rabbi is a forceful defender of the valuable role the Church of England can play in bringing faith communities together and fostering understanding across creedal barriers.

But the church would be a more effective bulwark against secularism if it was stronger and the role the Chief Rabbi has mapped out is likely to disappear as different faith communities get used to dealing with each other directly.

Disestablishment will actually pose major problems for society. Every country needs shared rituals and celebrations to foster a sense of community and provide a backdrop to major national occasions. We are going to have to invent a new civil religion. Already the process has begun with the observance of Holocaust Day and increasing focus on Human Rights as providing a shared basis for morality.

If Anglicans could acquire a stronger sense of who they are and what they believe they might slow the rate of decline and possibly even stabilise their numbers. They would still be a minority but they could be a creative minority. The trick will be to reach this situation without falling into a fundamentalist trap or cutting off links with the wider world.

Other organisations, particularly Roman Catholics with their three-hundred year history of persecution and minority status, can be a guide, showing both the dangers to avoid and the opportunities to seize.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Silvio Berlusconi: how does he do it?

With every breaking scandal, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wins over more of his countrymen's hearts and votes

To most of us it seems extraordinary that Silvio Berlusconi is still prime minister of Italy. There can't be many politicians who could survive the sort of scandals he's been through: accusations of perjury, perverting the course of justice, proximity to the Mafia, accusations of membership of a sinister masonic lodge, of tax evasion and of corrupting public officials. And now, on top of all that, it has been discovered that he's been enjoying Dionysian parties with dozens of young girls at both of his Sardinian and Roman villas.

This time he doesn't even deny the central allegations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since there's overwhelming evidence of what went on: there are photographs of topless girls in G-strings lounging around his villa, there are wiretaps of businessmen lining up escort girls for Silvio's parties. One escort has revealed she was given only half her "appearance fee" because she didn't stay the night (she didn't make that mistake again). The question isn't did he or didn't he, but simply: how on earth does he get away with it? How is it that a country we think of as a close neighbour, which we all think we know so well, has such a different morality to ours?

The answer lies largely in the fact that Italians suffer from scandal-fatigue. Ever since the First Republic was swept away under a tsunami of corruption allegations in the early Nineties, the country has been awash with scandal. It's as if there's no normality left against which to judge wrongdoing.

Open any Italian newspaper and you're likely to see pages and pages of breathtaking allegations and furious denials. On any day you choose you'll be able to read the leaked details of an ongoing investigation, astonishing wiretap intercepts and interviews with "key witnesses". It might be about the implosion of Parmalat, the dairy company, or about Luciano Moggi's machinations with Serie A referees, or about the murky security sector within Telecom Italia. There are so many scandals that public discourse is often little more than mud-slinging, and after a while people don't notice the real dirt anymore. As my Venetian uncle-in-law memorably told me years ago: "It's not that mud doesn't stick; it's that there's so much of it that it doesn't matter if it does."

There's also the fact that some Italians have a slightly different attitude towards fidelity. It may be because Catholicism is so voluptuous and forgiving compared with our austere puritanism; or else because the women, and men, seem so irresistibly attractive; or maybe it's because so many television shows have men of retirement age surrounded by showgirls in bikinis ... Whatever the reason, there's little outrage about an old, married man flirting with teenage wenches.

If anything there's envy of, and admiration for, his harem. It's telling that Berlusconi's line of defence last week wasn't Bill Clinton's outright denial: "I did not have sex with that woman." Instead, using a defence that would only work in a country where the male conqueror is more admired than the faithful husband, he simply said he hadn't paid for the sex because that would detract from the thrill of the conquest.

If anything, Berlusconi's libidinous exploits appear to enable the electorate to identify with him more closely. They make him appear a man of the people. Before Berlusconi's entry into Italian politics, the country's parliament was largely dominated by elderly grey men who were measured and refined, but also distant, aloof and superior. Berlusconi, by contrast, has always presented himself as a uomo qualunque, an Ordinary Joe. People seem to admire him for his refusal to watch his step, for the fact that he can never be anything other than a bull in a china shop.

We foreigners find his show-boating and back-slapping and gestures and jokes rather cringey, but in Italy they all make him seem somehow normal, part not of a snooty elite but of the people, part of the sacred popolo. He is, says the propaganda, a man just like you, a simple man who loves money and sex.

The difference is, of course, that he has a lot more of both. But even the fact that he's a billionaire doesn't seem to alienate the voters. Paradoxically, many people believe that his vast wealth means that he can't be bought or corrupted. Indeed, whenever he's been accused of corruption, the accusation hasn't been that he's had his fingers in the till but precisely the opposite, that he was buying people rather than being bought. It's a subtle difference and it enables him to present himself as a man making financial sacrifices for the good of the country. You might not believe it, and I certainly don't, but millions of voting Italians clearly do.

And even if they didn't, there's the vexed question of whom else they would vote for. With Berlusconi you know, for better or for worse, what you're getting. If you vote for the Left, you've no idea what or whom you'll end up with. In the 10 years since I first moved to Italy, the Left has been led by, off the top of my head, Prodi, D'Alema, Amato, Rutelli, Fassino, Prodi again, Veltroni, Franceschini … and now they're about to start the electoral process for a new leader. There's something about the Left that is still reminiscent of the old-fashioned trasformismo, of the musical chairs of politics where everyone swaps places but no chair is ever taken away. It's the same merry-go-round of familiar faces, most of them decent enough but shockingly dull and very uninspiring. Next to Berlusconi, they seem short of red blood cells, short of chutzpah and charisma and cunning.

And it's cunning, of course, for which Berlusconi is truly admired. Being furbo – cunning or sly – isn't a slur in Italy; it's a sign that you can outsmart the rest, that you're clever enough to get away with it. Every time Berlusconi survives a scandal, his stock rises yet higher because people are in awe of how he does it. He's like Houdini, calmly shrugging off the shackles that magistrates and journalists and opposition politicians keep trying to put him in.

That admiration for his escapism suggests there's something about the moral geography in Italy that is simply different to our own. It's summed up in one of the adjectives most often applied to Berlusconi: spregiudicato. It's one of those words that is almost impossible to translate because it seems to have two contradictory meanings: both unconventional and unscrupulous. It implies someone who's without prejudice, a person who thinks for himself, a daring maverick. But it also means someone who disregards the rules, someone who rides roughshod over manners and etiquette and the accepted way of doing things. It sounds more of a criticism put like that, but in Italy the word is usually a compliment, especially when applied to
the prime minister.

Funnily enough, that moral chasm between Italy and the rest of the world also helps Berlusconi maintain his grip on power. The more he's criticised abroad (and, let's be fair, barely a day goes by without some foreign publication putting the boot into the Italian electorate and their chosen leader), the more he plays the patriotic card. While the opposition quotes eagerly from the "authoritative" publication, Berlusconi accuses them of betrayal and portrays himself – another role with which so many identify – as the down-trodden victim, the hard-done-by Italian of old whom all foreigners love to hate. A lot of Italians are fed up of finger-wagging moralists from northern Europe telling them whom they should elect and, I suspect, vote Berlusconi almost as a declaration of independence. After centuries of being ruled by foreign powers – the papal states, the Habsburgs, the Bourbons and so on – they're determined that foreigners should keep out of their affairs. Especially the many affairs of their Prime Minister.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Blessed be the shtreimel makers, despite fur fury

AT DUSK on the Sabbath, few things are more spectacular in Jerusalem than the fascinating passing parade of fur hats moving inexorably towards the Western Wall.

Great furry crowns of all shades of brown, lined with velvet and leather, some them 22 centimetres wide and 15 centimetres high.

Others are so wide and flat that they look like a sombrero made of sable. Some can be so high you might think they are a top hat of mink.

Shtreimels are what they are, the traditional head-wear of Hasidic Jews worn on the Sabbath and on holidays.

But the shtreimel is not to be confused with spodiks or kolpiks, other varieties of hairy chapeaux reserved for more revered rabbinical sages. Once symbols of persecution, they were first imposed by 18th-century Polish kings who decreed that Jews must wear the tail of an animal on the Sabbath to show they were not working.

The tradition spread through eastern Europe, with each Jewish sect adapting the shtreimel to their own taste, and instead of being a mark of persecution it became a symbol of pride.

Standing at the Damascus gate to the Old City at 5pm on Friday, watching the stream of shtreimels make their way to the holiest site in Judaism, the practised eye can tell a lot about each person just from the cut of their hat.

The name of the sect each Hasid comes from and from what part of Europe their ancestors came from. The shtreimel is also a dead giveaway for things such as income, what religious texts and customs they adhere to, and even whether or not they are Zionists.

All of which makes the shtreimel an important garment in the life of a Torah observant Hasidic Jew.

"It's the gift of a man to his son on the day of his wedding," said Menachem Eliezer Moses, a member of the Knesset in the United Torah Judaism Party.

"It's a very important part of the Jewish life."

Sitting in his parliamentary office, dressed in a black tail-coat, black vest and white shirt, Moses had just returned from a heated debate in the Knesset.

"People want to ban furs imported from Asia because of the way the animal is killed there," said Moses. "But what does this mean for the shtreimel?"

With the proposed law carrying a punishment of one year in prison, Moses asked who would pay for the prisons to house all the law-breaking Jews who import the wrong kind of fur.

"Today, as I told the history of the shtreimel, what it means to Jewish history and custom, I left them all wide-eyed in the Knesset. Jaws open," he said.

Moses said that the Opposition Leader, Tzipi Livni, was one who approached him after his speech offering congratulations. End result? The bill has been deferred to committee.

"We hope for compromise. Jews like to talk, no?" Moses surmised.

Not that this will affect shtreimel popularity in Israel, even if the law passed. In a Hasidic neighbourhood not far from the more celebrated Mea Shearim (100 Gates) quarter, we found Moshe Weiner, 31, a Melburnian and now one of Israel's leading "shtreimelmachers".

"My great grandfather used to make them, so I got interested in the craft and now my business is here," Weiner said.

To make one shtreimel can take up to 400 tails of various breeds of mink, sable of fox - the scrap of the fur industry. With only 10,000 shtreimels produced around the world each year, it's definitely what you call a niche market.

But at a cost of up to $4000 each, it can be a profitable one too. "All my furs I source from Europe," Weiner said. "So hopefully the law won't affect my business at all."


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Watch storm Taleban stronghold

Scottish Battalion’s surprise airborne attack at midnight on Taleban positions in western Helmand. Good to see the Black Watch still in form. My family was always proud that my great-grandfather had been in the Black Watch -- JR

The Black Watch, whose experience of combat operations goes back to the Battle of Fontenoy and the Peninsula War, yesterday claimed success after taking part in one of the largest air assaults in its long and distinguished history.

The night-time attack was launched with the aim of seizing a Taleban stronghold in western Helmand province, and was carried out by 350 soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (the Black Watch), flown in by British and American Chinook helicopters on Friday at midnight against Nad Ali, a western district of the restless province.

Last night Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cartwright, Commanding Officer of The Black Watch, described it as “a major air assault operation with a large number of helicopters, both UK and US.” He added: “The Black Watch met some resistance but we were able to establish a firm foothold in the area.”

Yesterday the Army revealed that the air assault on Taleban strongholds in Helmand was one of the biggest of modern times.

It began when the Chinooks dropped Black Watch soldiers into territory which had previously been held by the Taleban, who were taken by surprise but returned fire. Troops taking part admitted that it had been a nerve-wracking mission. Private Christopher Watson said: “The Taleban are well organised. They know exactly what they are doing, and exactly how to get to us, and that is quite frightening for us.”

Lance Corporal Peter Barron added: “The Taleban fight to die; we fight to survive.”

Officials said Operation Panchai Palang — translated as Panther Claw — was carried out just before midnight last Friday to ensure safety for locals voting in national elections due to be held later in the summer.

Twelve Chinook helicopters, supported by 13 other aircraft including Apache and Black Hawk helicopter gunships, and Harrier jets, dropped more than 350 troops from the Black Watch into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah. A further company of 100 members of The Black Watch followed overland in Viking armoured vehicles, along with Royal Engineers and teams responsible for neutralising roadside bombs, the greatest threat to British lives.

The aim of the attack was to secure a number of key canal and river crossings in order to establish a permanent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in the area, ahead of Afghanistan’s delayed elections on August 20.

“Operation Panchai Palang is a mission to clear and hold one of the few remaining Taleban strongholds,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for British forces in Helmand. “The end result will provide lasting security for the local population, free from intimidation and violence by the insurgents.”

Army chiefs said the Taleban launched a number of attacks against The Black Watch but each was fought off, allowing the Scottish troops to secure three main crossing points: the Lui Mandey Wadi crossing, the Nahr-e-Burgha canal and the Shamalan canal. They also found 1.3 tonnes of opium poppy seed and a number of improvised explosive devices and mines before they could be laid.

Speaking about the mood in the Battalion, Lance Corporal Andy McKenzie said that they had gone into the action with two aims in mind — to defeat the Taleban and to come out of the action without losses. “I’m determined to come home alive, and I want everyone in my section to come home alive,” he said. “We’ve lost two friends since we’ve been over here and hopefully that is the last we lose.”

The Black Watch took over as the regional battle group in the south of Afghanistan on April 10. The deployment is their first since their role supporting US troops in the battle zone of Fallujah, in Iraq, which later featured in the award-winning National Theatre of Scotland play, Black Watch.

Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a television interview that the operation led by the Scottish battalion had been crucial.

“All operations in Afghanistan are significant but we’re in a particularly challenging period at the moment with the run-up to the presidential election,” he said.

“The provision of sufficient levels of security so that we can have a successful election is extremely important. Of course, this operation is all part of the wider ISAF plan to deliver that.”

However, Mullah Ghulam Akhund, a Taleban commander in Babaji, denied that his men were in retreat.

“We are fighting and the local people are supporting us,” he said. “They are very angry with the Afghan government for bringing Christian soldiers to Helmand. The Christian soldiers are bombing houses, killing people.”

He said four Taleban were injured, and two killed during the operation. “I reject any claim that the government is advancing,” he added. “No one has passed us. The fighting continues.”

Nad Ali is part of the so-called “Green Zone” bordering the Helmand River. A warren of heavily irrigated fields, canals and narrow-walled tracks, it is ideal country for insurgent ambushes and roadside bombs as Western forces are funnelled into so called “choke points”.

The British-led attack was supported by elements of 2nd US Marine Expeditionary Brigade, part of the surge of some 12,000 US troops who are reinforcing the British in Helmand this summer.

Afghan leaders confirmed the enormous scale of the operation. Speaking to The Times from Babaji, a local tribal elder, Haji Ahmad Sahan, said: “It is very serious fighting. All the time the US aircraft are bombing Babaji. Many houses have been destroyed.”


Monday, June 15, 2009

British train firms want to reopen lines axed by Richard Beeching 40 years ago

Train companies are proposing to reopen many of the branch lines closed by Dr Richard Beeching more than 40 years ago.

They say that the growing popularity of the railways, with passenger numbers up by half since privatisation, means that there is a business case for reopening at least 14 lines shut by the chairman of British Railways.

The Association of Train Operating Companies says in a report today that the case for reopening local stations has been strengthened by lack of parking at main stations and congestion on roads leading to them.

The report proposes spending just over £500 million to reconnect a million people to the rail network by giving them stations within walking distance. Lines would reopen only where they serve communities of at least 15,000 and where trains could run without any subsidy. It also calls for seven park-and-ride stations to be built on existing lines.

In addition to the 14 lines where the costs would be at least equal to the economic benefits, the report identifies 20 more lines whose reopening could be justified on employment grounds.

In some cases, the tracks are still in place, used by goods trains, such as the branch to Hythe in Hampshire, which the report identifies as having the best business case of the 14. Some others, such as the lines to Brixham in Devon and Rawtenstall in Lancashire, carry steam trains run by heritage groups. But some tracks have been removed and the lines converted to footpaths or cycleways.

The 14 lines include two sections of the National Cycle Network — at Cranleigh in Surrey and from Brockenhurst to Ringwood in Hampshire. The latter runs through the New Forest National Park and the proposal could face opposition.

The association says that the lines could be reopened within three to six years. It calls on the Government to begin immediately the process of safeguarding the routes and preventing any more development on them.

The train companies are not offering to pay for the reopenings, but say that much of the cost could be met by property developers in return for permission to build homes near the lines. The Kilbride Group has offered to pay for reopening the Tamar Valley line to Tavistock in Devon if its housing development is approved. Lord Adonis, the Transport Secretary wants to expand the rail network but is focused on High Speed Two, to run initially from London to the West Midlands. The £10 billion-plus project is also supported by the Conservatives.

Case study

The railway line at Cranleigh, in Surrey, ran for 100 years before Dr Beeching closed it.

The single track line was opened in 1865 by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, connecting the village, via the mainline at Guildford, to London.

Dr Beeching’s report found it to be serving fewer than 5,000 passengers a week, with reduced revenues from freight traffic. The route was shut in 1965 and the track was removed. It is now a tree-lined path and cycle route.

The Association of Train Operating Companies wants the stations at Cranleigh and Bramley, which together have a population of 11,000, to be reopened.

These days, commuters to London have to drive or take a bus to Guildford or Godalming.


Indian verbal ability

Talk is one of their major exports so this is not really surprising

How do you spell champion? I've been thinking a lot about Indian students lately. They've been hard to avoid. In particular, I've been following the progress of a 13-year-old girl, Kavya Shivashankar. She is the star of a cluster of schoolchildren who have reached an inspirational pinnacle of scholastic entertainment. Yes, there is such a thing.

There is a place in the public arena for public spectacle and acclaim for young scholars who are going to shape and heal the world rather than merely entertain it.

Our public space is bloated to the point of cultural obesity with scrutiny of young people who want to be models, singers or sporting stars, no matter how banal their utterances may be. Fortunately, there is a space in the entertainment solar system, admittedly small, which revolves around displays of intellectual brilliance. Unfortunately, such a space barely exists in Australia.

But the Americans have devised a system that allows sport and entertainment to be pushed aside, however briefly, to display on a national stage young people notable for their brilliance. On May 28, 10 million Americans, and uncounted foreigners, including me, watched Kavya Shivashankar win the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee. The bee is one of the most compelling TV spectacles of the year.

The chance that an Indian American was going to win was high, because seven of the 11 finalists this year were Indian Americans. Six of the previous 10 champions were also Indian American. They have come to dominate the event even though they make up just 0.9 per cent of the US population.

Why? Watching these Indians teenagers demolish the far larger number of Anglo-American entrants (whites still make up 79 per cent of the US population) prompted the question: why is India not a global superpower, given the super-abundance of brainpower and energy in the Indian community?

Kavya's triumph was not a victory of rote learning and fanatical, parental-driven study habits. In one of her numerous appearances on national talk shows after she won the title she was asked if she studied spelling in most of her free time: "No," she replied. "I have to finish my homework, and practise violin, and I also do Indian dance."

Given that this was the fourth consecutive year she has placed in the top 10, it marks Kavya as a stand-out in the 84-year history of the National Spelling Bee. Asked if her advantage was memory, she replied: "I don't use memorisation as a technique. It's really hard to memorise all the words in the dictionary. It's just not possible. So my dad is my coach and he and I work together and find the roots of the words, and we study patterns from the language of origin, like French and German [and Latin and Greek]."

By the time they reach the semi-finals, the contestants are given words so difficult, so obscure and so unfair (such as a variety of Swiss cheese which happens to have a silent vowel) it requires not just memory, but composure, technique and speed, with the clock running, the cameras filming live, and an auditorium full of hushed people. It requires the ability to analyse the sound of an unfamiliar word, break it down by its etymology (which can be requested from the judges), and reconstruct by remembering and applying word roots.

Routinely, the right answer is a brilliant deduction. The relief on the face of the contestants at such a moment, or the anguish when the bell rings to signal disqualification, is what makes the bee such arresting television. Plus the sheer virtuosity of the young contestants. The words Kavya had to spell in the semi-final and final were: ergasia, kurta, escritoire, hydrargyrum, blancmange, baignoire, huisache, ecossaise, diacoele, bouquiniste, isagoge, phoresy and, finally, laodicean.

I've been watching the bee every May for years, on ESPN, the sport network, getting a morbid thrill as the words become outrageously obscure. Occasionally I recognise one. I rarely can spell it. When Kavya spelled laodicean (derived from Latin and meaning indifference, especially in matters of religion), her father, mother and little sister spilled onto the stage. She began to cry as the gold trophy was placed in her hands.

Kavya became the seventh Indian American to win the title in the past 11 years, defeating six other Indian Americans, five girls, Ramya, Aishwarya, Neetu, Anaminka and Tussah, and a boy, Sidarth Chand, last year's runner-up (to yet another Indian American, Sameer Mishra) among the 10 other finalists.

This Indian dominance has come as the National Spelling Bee has become more difficult as it becomes more popular. By way of contrast, the championship-winning words in the 1970s included croissant, vouchsafe, incisor and narcolepsy, none of which would qualify for the finals now.

Indian prominence in this event is a reflection of values that place an emphasis on family, education, discipline and energy. Indians thrive in the open environment like America.

Two of the Indian American finalists said they wanted to be neurosurgeons; a third said she wanted to be a heart surgeon.

The triumph of Kavya Shivashankar, who comes from a close-knit family living in the midwestern heartland of Kansas, is an exemplar of these values.

Asked what she was going to do with the $US30,000 ($40,500) prizemoney, Kavya told a TV host: "I'm going to save most of it for college - I want to be a neurosurgeon when I grow up."

On the day after Kavya's victory, she and her father, mother and sister appeared together for a TV interview wearing black T-shirts with the words, "How do you spell champion?" printed on the front. On the back was one word: "Shivashankar."

I want one of those T-shirts.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

A wonderful story from Afghanistan

When a Dutch soldier was recognised for bravery in Afghanistan, the true role of the Australian troops was disclosed, writes Tom Hyland

A VEIL of official secrecy shrouding combat involving Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan has been lifted for the first time, revealing details of harrowing fighting that is still withheld by the Australian military.

The Sun-Herald has obtained a graphic account of desperate encounters in which Australian and Dutch troops have been surrounded, outnumbered and almost overrun by Taliban fighters.

The Australian Defence Force keeps a tight grip on all information about special forces troops, especially the SAS. But an official report on a Dutch soldier's bravery award paints a detailed picture of the intense battles they have fought.

The Netherlands Defence Ministry report tells how in one action Australian and Dutch troops were saved only when the Dutch soldier directed a devastating air attack on Taliban forces just 30 metres away - a range that put the allied soldiers at risk from "friendly fire" and showered them with shrapnel.

The ADF has released only a brief and vague outline of the fighting that took place in 2006.

In contrast, the Dutch report details weeks of ferocious and chaotic combat in which up to 300 Taliban were killed, with the loss of only one coalition soldier.

The report was compiled to coincide with the presentation to Dutch commando Marco Kroon of his country's highest military award, the Military Order of William, for acts of "bravery, skill and loyalty" in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province. Captain Kroon is the first soldier to receive the award in 54 years.

His bravery included repeatedly risking himself to help beleaguered Australians.

SAS troops who served with Captain Kroon in 2006 were present when Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands presented the award in The Hague last month.

The ADF refused permission for The Sun-Herald to interview any of the Australian soldiers involved.

The 50-page Dutch report includes details that go far beyond anything released by the ADF. In September 2006, when ADF chiefs gave what they said was a "full brief" on special forces operations in Afghanistan over the previous year, the Dutch were not mentioned.

Captain Kroon's award commendation highlights six actions between April and July 2006, all involving Dutch commandos and the SAS.

The combined force entered Taliban strongholds in the Chora and Baluchi areas, north-east of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt. Their aim was to prevent the Taliban attacking Tarin Kowt, where Dutch and Australian reconstruction troops were setting up a new base.

The first action was in late April, when 29 troops in then-Lieutenant Kroon's unit, called Task Force Viper, were sent with a similar number of SAS to the village of Surk Murgab, 15 kilometres from Tarin Kowt. The coalition troops came under intense fire, forcing them to call in air support.

Four days later the Dutch and SAS returned. Again they came under heavy fire, forcing them to stop the action. But then things went badly for the SAS - one of their vehicles got stuck and the Taliban "brought heavy fire to bear on the hapless Australians".

In response, the Dutch diverted the Taliban's attention with intense fire. This enabled the Australians to recover their vehicle, but it also brought the Dutch under constant return fire.

A month later, the Dutch and Australians moved further north into the Chora valley. This time they were caught in the open. "They, too, were taking heavy fire and were about to break off the action when one of their commandos was hit. Lieutenant Kroon did not hesitate for a moment and ordered his men to move forward again."

This drew fire onto the Dutch, allowing the Australians to evacuate their wounded comrade. (The ADF did not release details of this casualty at the time.)

Two weeks later, they were back in Chora. Again they encountered the Taliban, with the Australians taking the brunt. In an open, unarmoured vehicle, Lieutenant Kroon raced towards the Australians. His vehicle rolled and when he and his crew crawled from it "mortars and shells hit right next to it".

Tougher fighting came as the joint force moved to block a Taliban supply route. The area provided "outstanding cover for ambushes" and they came under heavy fire from close range, with one shot taking out the sights on Lieutenant Kroon's weapon.

He then led his troops to the rear - a precarious move, as his troops had to move through Australian positions in the middle of a firefight, creating a high risk of the allies firing on each other.

"The entire unit and the Australians finally made it to an emplacement," the report says. "With the temperature rising to more than 50C the platoon fought the Taliban in the full sun for approximately eight hours … When the smoke had cleared, 13 Taliban had been killed."

The final act came in mid-July, alongside an Australia-led offensive code-named Operation Perth, aimed at driving the Taliban out of the Chora valley.

In pitch black on the night of July 12, the Dutch and Australians found themselves "fighting for their lives" - surrounded, out-numbered, their ammunition running out.

However, the Taliban were within 30 metres of the allies who risked being hit by the US aircraft's withering fire as Lieutenant Kroon directed the air attack virtually onto his own position.

The operation was a great success, the report says. The pass entering the valley was opened and the coalition troops had freedom of movement.

The Dutch report includes a photo of the SAS troops presented to the Dutch commandos, inscribed "To our brave mates".

The ADF would not comment on whether Captain Kroon has been recommended for an Australian medal, saying the award nomination process was confidential.


Saturday, June 13, 2009

The beach riviera in Poland

The Baltic beaches have a distinctly Mediterranean feel - but at budget prices. Ruby Warrington visits Sopot

Sopot is one of the cities (along with Gdansk and Gdynia) of the Tri-City area — or Polish Riviera — and flooded with tourists from all over Poland and Germany during the summer months.

And it’s time we got in on the act. Out of the euro-zone, it offers an unbeatably cheap version of the classic Mediterranean city-on-a-beach.

From May, the beer gardens on the main street of Monte Cassino fill up, the beach sprouts volleyball nets and blow-up banana boats and the bars — where the favoured local tipple is Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka with cloudy apple juice — throb with life until the early hours.

With its quaint, leafy streets, café culture and everalluring seafront, Sopot has the feel of a 1950s Brighton. Indeed, there is even a wooden pier — the longest in Europe — jutting out into the blue-grey sea, and the oldest, and finest, hotel in town is called the Grand.

Built in 1927, this five-star property sits directly on the beach, with windows from the spa on the ground floor looking out directly across the flat, white sand.

We had our most authentic dining experience on the beach, at the fish shack Bar Przystan. After queuing to order, we received a number and waited again to be called – but the fish, as fresh as can be and on your plate for as little as £2, was worth the wait. It would have been rude not to sample the local speciality of dumplings or pierogi. They are served in most pubs and are delicious washed down with a pint of Zywiec, the local lager.

Culturally, Sopot will never be able to rival city beaches such as Barcelona or Naples, offering instead a Polish take on Biarritz. The surrounding countryside is hilly and often forested — we took a 40-minute walk though lush, green pines from Sopot along the cliffs to the pier in Gdynia, where the view across Gdansk Bay is of open water as far as the eye can see. By night, the city reveals itself as charmingly bohemian. Restaurants are low-ceilinged and non-showy, and the bar scene verges on the avant-garde. For that first Zubrowka, head to Spatif — Sopot’s oldest bar and run by local artists.

Full of larger-than-life characters, the atmosphere is one of impending anarchy and the music a mish-mash of everything from Elvis to the Cure, 1980s disco and everything in between. Puzon is a laid-back jazz pub, with ancient vinyls covering the ceiling, while Sfinks — just outside town among the pines — is a grimy late-night dance club, where the DJ booking policy extends to some of the coolest names on the European circuit.

And, yes, the local climate is balmy enough in high season that you could even kid yourself you’re in the Med. From June until August the average high is 23C (73F), while temperatures of up to 40C have been recorded in recent years.

The Grand (recently renovated by Sofitel, its new owner), with its restaurants, bars and spa, is the high-end option for accommodation, where a double room will set you back from £102 a night, while at the other end of the spectrum, a pension can be had from as little as £20 a night (www.eholiday.pl ). Prices which, much like this unassuming, quirky seaside gem, seem to hail from an altogether different era.


Thursday, June 11, 2009

France goes all sweet on Britain's exceedingly good cakes

France, the home of patisserie from the chocolate éclair to the profiterole, has acquired something of an appetite for British cakes and puddings.

Sales of sweet treats from these shores to French shoppers — mainly in Paris, the Riviera and Lyons — have leapt by almost 35 per cent in 12 months and are now worth £8.7 million. This surprising twist in Anglo-French relations has helped to boost food exports by 20 per cent, taking the total value of products, excluding alcohol, to £9.23 billion. When alcoholic drinks, such as whisky, are included, the total soars to £13.6 billion.

Sales of British goods in France have been driven in part by expatriate communities who miss some of their home comforts, such as Mr Kipling’s cakes — including French Fancies.

But the real winner has been to tempt French gourmands with the food they like best. The cake and pudding manufacturer Gü has built up a market worth £5 million in less than two years, selling chocolate soufflés, brownies and cheesecakes made in Walthamstow, northeast London.

James Averdieck, founder and managing director of Gü, said: “It’s amazing to sell soufflés to the French but they really appreciate our type of food. We don’t really look like a British brand, so any negative thoughts about British cuisine don’t apply.

“They like our cheesecake, our brownies and banoffee pie. We haven’t even invented new names — they like our English ones. We don’t make a crumble, but le crumble also sells well there.”

The French sweet tooth has even persuaded United Biscuits to launch a cross-Channel offensive for McVitie’s HobNobs and chocolate digestives. Growth in the market for cakes and biscuits is also being fuelled by consumers in Eastern Europe.

Chris Brockman, market research manager at Leatherhead Food International, who analysed the export data, said: “It is possible some sales have been driven by migrant workers who have returned home and taken some of our eating habits with them. These countries are also now part of the European Union and the market has also grown because there are no export tariffs. In sweet goods, the UK really is a market leader.”

Total food and drink exports to Hungary are up 74.3 per cent to £40.2 million in 12 months. In Poland sales are worth £116.4 million, up 53.6 per cent, in Latvia they are up by 51 per cent to £8.6 million, in Slovakia up by 45.2 per cent to £11.5 million and in Lithuania by 32.7 per cent to £9.7 million.

Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia and Poland are now among Britain’s top ten fastest-growing export markets. The low value of sterling against the euro has bumped up sales by helping to make British exports competitively priced, but other factors are at work — not least the inventiveness of British manufacturers.

Crisp sales, for example, have risen by 26.4 per cent to produce an export market worth £47.5 million. However, it is the high-end crisp brands, such as Kettle Chips and Tyrrell’s, that are driving the market and have even tempted the Italians, who regard eating between meals almost as a sin. Sales in Italy are up by 84.4 per cent.

The reputation of British cheese is also growing apace, with exports up 16.7 per cent to £281.5 million. One of the best cheese markets is the United States, where sales of Cheddar are up 20.1 per cent to £8.9 million. The surprise winners across the Atlantic, though, are regional cheeses such as Lancashire, Cheshire and Wensleydale, with exports up 10.8 per cent.

Japan remains one of the best markets for English products, such as jam, tea and shortbread. Mr Brockman said: “The Japanese seem to have adopted our afternoon tea and there is often a British section in stores.”


Friday, June 5, 2009

WWII story: Charlie Brown, his B-17 and an honourable German

Look carefully at the B-17 and note how shot up it is - one engine dead, tail, horizontal stabilizer and nose shot up.. It was ready to fall out of the sky. (This is a painting done by an artist from the description of both pilots many years later.) Then realize that there is a German ME-109 fighter flying next to it. Now read the story below. I think you'll be surprised.....

Charlie Brown was a B-17 Flying Fortress pilot with the 379th Bomber Group at Kimbolton, England. His B-17 was called 'Ye Old Pub' and was in a terrible state, having been hit by flak and fighters. The compass was damaged and they were flying deeper over enemy territory instead of heading home to Kimbolton.

After flying the B-17 over an enemy airfield, a German pilot named Franz Steigler was ordered to take off and shoot down the B-17. When he got near the B-17, he could not believe his eyes. In his words, he 'had never seen a plane in such a bad state'. The tail and rear section was severely damaged, and the tail gunner wounded. The top gunner was all over the top of the fuselage. The nose was smashed and there were holes everywhere.

Despite having ammunition, Franz flew to the side of the B-17 and looked at Charlie Brown, the pilot. Brown was scared and struggling to control his damaged and blood-stained plane. Aware that they had no idea where they were going, Franz waved at Charlie to turn 180 degrees. Franz escorted and guided the stricken plane to, and slightly over, the North Sea towards England. He then saluted Charlie Brown and turned away, back to Europe.

When Franz landed he told the CO that the plane had been shot down over the sea, and never told the truth to anybody.

Charlie Brown and the remains of his crew told all at their briefing, but were ordered never to talk about it.

More than 40 years later, Charlie Brown wanted to find the Luftwaffe pilot who saved the crew. After years of research, Franz was found. He had never talked about the incident, not even at post-war reunions.

They met in the USA at a 379th Bomber Group reunion, together with 25 people who are alive now - all because Franz never fired his guns that day.

(L-R) German Ace Franz Stigler, artist Ernie Boyett, and B-17 pilot Charlie Brown

When asked why he didn't shoot them down, Stigler later said, "I didn't have the heart to finish those brave men. I flew beside them for a long time. They were trying desperately to get home and I was going to let them do that. I could not have shot at them. It would have been the same as shooting at a man in a parachute."

Both men died in 2008.


This is a true story, See Snopes


Monday, June 1, 2009

The naked truth in Italy

Jane Parkin endures some awkward moments at the gym

Exhilarated by my swim, I stand, dripping, in front of a row of grey lockers. I am in Skorpion Palestra, a gym that I have joined during a holiday in Milan, Italy. Centrally located, it is almost on the doorstep of the Duomo, whose Gothic spires make their flighty ascent about 300metres away.

With its Armani-clad staff and shiny glass interiors, it is also the most chic.

So I am by the pool thinking I have escaped the workout room above, in which television presenters and B-list celebrities languidly lift weights with great attention to the image before them in the mirror. But here, also, are perils for the less-than-laissez-faire.

When changing into and out of their Prada, Miu Miu and MaxMara, the women here exhibit an abandon I have never seen in an Australian change room. Regardless of age, they fill this place drying their hair, applying make-up, chatting "tutte nude", in such a way as to display the entire perfection of their tans, obtained withtypical Italian devotion.

I am shocked and fascinated and embarrassed to be both. However, it is not the nudity that shocks me but the naturalness of it. Inevitably a Roman mosaic image, in which naked females douse one another using water-filled urns, springs to mind.

Is healthy body image and the reason why Italian women don't get fat embedded in the Mediterranean psyche?

I ponder this as I cover myself awkwardly with my towel, cursing my British heritage. I am acting in a way that the Italians would regard with a customary mix of scorn and amusement as "anglosassone". Anglo-Saxon. And I know it.

For a moment I am paralysed with inaction, teetering on the edge. Can I contemplate doing the "undie trick", the tortured contortionist act employed by Australian teenage girls when modestly changing into and out of bathers?

No, dammit, that would be ridiculous, if not outright dangerous. And really, who among these women would raise a meticulously plucked eyebrow were I to expose my full body even if, to my mind, lumpy from indulgence in tortelli di zucca and a daily intake of mozzarella di bufala?

Perhaps if I do it with enough confidence I will even be forgiven for having mismatching Bonds underwear rather than the stylish lingerie that every Milanese girl-about-town considers an absolute essential?

In the end my desire to engage in this ceremony of freedom takes over. I don't want to be Eve, banished from the Garden of Eden with a fig leaf and a look of shame.

Nor do I want to be identified as a foreigner before opening my mouth. And so, taking a deep breath, I drop the towel.