Monday, July 27, 2009

Dame Edna Everage returns to Britain

Flags are out for Barry Humphries as his alter ego prepares to revive her Last Night of the Poms show

Barry Humphries has been a housewife superstar for 54 years; a dipsomaniac diplomat for almost 40 years; a performer committed to getting a reaction since he was in short trousers. “Barry, stop drawing attention to yourself,” his mother used to tell him as he grew up in Australia. As maternal pleas go, it was the least effective since Mrs Wilde told her boy Oscar to stop being such a smart-arse.

Now 75, Humphries is getting ready for his first British shows for ten years. We should have seen him return as his greatest creation, Dame Edna Everage, at the Glasgow Comedy Festival in March last year, but an emergency operation on a burst appendix three months earlier put the mockers on that. “I had this massive tap on the shoulder,” he says. “When you wake up in hospital and the doctor says, ‘That was a close one’, it’s a little alarming.”

But not so alarming that he considered retirement. He cancelled Glasgow and an American tour. He scaled back to less physically demanding work, such as sitting on the panel of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s talent contest I’ll Do Anything. He began work on a biography of Dame Edna, which is due out at Christmas. He mounted an online exhibition of his paintings: “I’m quite a good painter, you know,” he says. “I’m considerably better than Damien Hirst.”

And then he went back to his usual busy schedule as Dame Edna, whose American career has been as blooming as her trademark gladioli since a triumphant Broadway run in 1999. You suspect that part of the appeal of America is that Edna’s bumptious disrespect for propriety, dressed as an obsession with propriety, has more barriers to kick down there. But Humphries insists that there is no great strategy at play: “You can’t plan a career,” he says, “not in my job. It just kind of drifts on.”

And now he’s drifted into a revival of Last Night of the Poms, a large-scale show first staged at the Albert Hall in 1982 in which Dame Edna and the drunken Sir Les Patterson are backed by an orchestra and choir. Sir Les performs an Aussie parody of Peter and the Wolf called Peter and the Shark. Dame Edna performs a cantata, a history of Australia in music. Carl Davis conducts his own score. And if that sounds a bit precious, Humphries insists that it’s a crowd-pleaser, with plenty of banter and insults. He offers to send me a CD of the show from Melbourne in 1982 — and much of it backs up his claim. Whatever Sir Les was wordlessly doing during an orchestral section of Peter and the Shark, it got some huge laughs.

Sitting opposite this steady, watchful man, with his foppish black hair and fine suit, it’s hard to keep remembering that you’re with Dame Edna. Can he keep playing her indefinitely? “It’s a kind of therapy,” he says. “I’d miss it if I couldn’t do it. On the other hand, there is a point where you wish performers would stop, isn’t there? My mother would take me to matinees where once-favoured actors and singers would appear, and she would say to me, ‘Isn’t it pathetic at his age?’.”

Humphries has a quiet confidence. Edna has a deafening confidence: “People adore me,” she confided to Jonathan Ross on his chat show this month. “I’ve tried to analyse that and the answer is so simple. I adore myself. My self-esteem is infectious.” Yet she wasn’t always quite so infectious. She was created for a student show in 1955. “Then, every time she was revived, every time I’d take the Edna costume out, it was different, it had more jewels on. And every time Edna gained confidence I gained confidence. And it is a question of confidence, the job of a comedian.” Edna only truly took flight, he says, in her chatshow appearances in the 1970s. Since then, she’s been almost as famous as she thinks she is. “So, by now, I have a great deal of authority on stage. And it’s very relaxing to do.”

Relaxing? “Yes, it’s restful,” he says. “It’s a bit like channelling. When Edna’s on stage I sometimes get that rather spooky thing where Edna speaks something that I couldn’t have written.” No audience member, he insists, has ever been offended by her. Even during the time when he called a woman up on stage at a first night on Broadway, only to find that she was blind. “There was a silence in the room a tragedian would envy,” he says. “She tottered across the stage with a white stick. So Edna said, ‘At least you didn’t bring the dog.’ The woman burst out laughing and the audience were off the hook. It was like going into a skid — you don’t try to redeem the situation, you push it farther. You learn that with experience.”

Humphries had been rehearsing this satire on suburban complacency since his own childhood in Melbourne. Neither his mother nor his father, a successful builder, valued culture as he did. Indeed, when he was 9, his mother gave his books away to the Salvation Army, reasoning that he had already read them all. “And now,” he says, “I am a bibliomaniac.” He owns some 25,000 books, divided between a house in Australia and the house in North London that he shares with Lizzie Spender, his fourth wife.

He has his father’s interest in construction, his own desire to tear things down. The art critic Robert Hughes once described Humphries as “the only Australian who ever understood the Dada principle of provocation”. He would play outlandish, Dadaist pranks as a student. On a train he would dress up as a blind man and then get an accomplice to attack him, tearing up his Braille book, waiting to see how far he could go before anyone reacted. He wanted — and wants — to make things come to life. “Yes, I wanted to feel something. Or I wanted them to feel something. Something they can’t explain. In a way I’m still really a Dadaist.”

He came to London with his second wife, Rosalind, in 1959. He got involved with Peter Cook and other satirists of the early Sixties and wrote for Private Eye, “even though I felt like the dunce in the class. I thought I might end up a failed comedian like David Frost.” Throughout this time, as he worked steadily on television and in theatre, he was drinking to flamboyant excess. His benders ended for good in 1971, when he admitted himself to a clinic.

Had drink given him confidence? “I did find it very liberating. But I would get these blackouts. People would say, Oh, you were very funny last night. I’d say, no, I was at home last night. They’d say, no, we saw you at that party in Chelsea... It made me a nightmare to live with. I had two young children, so I was putting people at risk. I buy alcohol for people now and they say, why not have a drink, you haven’t had one for 39 years? And I say, there’s no new experiences for me there. I’ve had every possible alcoholic experience, all of which were disastrous. There were early times when it was euphoric. Many alcoholics say this. And then you try to recapture that wonderful experience and it’s ever-elusive.”

Humphries’s drug became performance. “I think I’m addicted to adrenalin, which I fortunately secrete myself, at no charge.” What if he couldn’t do it any more? “I’d probably put my hand on the wrong knee in the Tube.” Become a saucy old boy? “I hate to think! No, I have a very happy life. I’m grateful for it.” His two daughters live in Australia; his two sons in England. He rarely talks to their mothers, he says, except about the children. “You don’t have any ex-wives, do you? Not worth it. Not worth it.”

A few days later the promised CD arrives in the post. Out of the Jiffy bag falls a slip of pink card on which, in classy italicised font, it reads: “With the grudging compliments of Barry Humphries.” Who else can make being insulted feel like such a privilege?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Bad tempered cow disrupts Hindu worship

You can tell which one above was the meanie

BRISBANE'S Hindu Society bought a Brahman heifer for worshippers to adorn with garlands for worship and prayer ceremonies at their Burbank temple. In return for their adoration and specially prepared vegetarian meals, the worshippers were chased, hit and kicked by the bovine, whose attitude was more mad cow than sacred cow.

Unlike Brahman cattle in India, which are very docile and perfectly suited for being around a temple, this particular Australian animal was very aggressive – so much so that a month of important ceremonies in September looked under threat.

That was when the Queensland Department of Primary Industries stepped in to solve this cow conundrum. "Unfortunately this particular Australian Brahman has a very difficult temperament and was almost unapproachable," Primary Industries Minister Tim Mulherin said. "She was tethered in an enclosure, and the congregation was not sure on how they were going to handle the animal."

To solve the problem, the DPI brokered a cow-swapping deal between the Hindu Society and Maleny High School on the Sunshine Coast.

Biosecurity Queensland district inspector Janet Hull became aware of the situation when she was contacted by saleyard staff. "Ms Hull consulted with Binendra Pratap, a DPI Veterinarian of Hindu faith, who knew exactly what the cow was for and understood the situation," Mr Mulherin said.

Dr Pratap said that as soon as he visited the temple it was immediately clear that the cow was unsuitable for Hindu ritual. "If the cow was injured, it would be an insult to the Hindu society, which had purchased this heifer for the community to worship," he said.

However, Ms Hull knew Maleny State High wanted to sell some of its Southern Devon heifers to purchase new stock for the students. "When I contacted the school and told them the problems the Hindu community was facing, they offered to swap one of their docile heifers for the Brahman heifer the Hindu temple had purchased," she said. "Let me tell you, the joy on the face of the Hindu priest and the other people at the temple was worth seeing when I told them."

Ms Hull said the Brahman was "settling in beautifully at the school" and enjoyed its new surroundings. It had shown a completely different temperament with the children.

The Hindu Society's Asha Tripathi, wife of priest RH Tripathi, said cows were sacred and were treated like the mother of the family. "The old one was very aggressive. . . but this (new) cow is very gentle, very nice, very calm and we can handle her easily," Mrs Tripathi said. "We cannot express our feelings of joy. We love this cow, we have called her Ganga. We will always worship our Ganga."

Mrs Tripathi said the first cow had cost the society $3000.

They had also bought two peacocks, which are also important to have around the Hindu temple, but there have been no reports of behavioural problems with the birds.,23739,25833935-3102,00.html

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Italians like Berlusconi just the way he is

Silvio Berlusconi continues to enjoy approval ratings that most leaders would die for, says Tobias Jones

In any normal country Silvio Berlusconi would surely be dead and buried by now. In the past few months, he has been battered and bruised by a succession of scandals. It was discovered that he had been courting (to put it politely) 18-year-old Noemi Letizia and showering her with jewellery.

He then lied, embarrassingly badly, about how he knew her (we still don't really know). His wife has filed for divorce alleging that he consorts with minors.

Photographs have been published of apparently orgiastic parties at his Sardinian villa that leave little to the imagination: young, topless women outnumber the occasional nude male. It then emerged that there's a network of people across the peninsula who provide these women for the Prime Minister and, ahem, pay them for their services.

This week the smoking gun arrived: a recording of one of those escort girls, Patrizia D'Addario, being seduced, if that's the word, by Berlusconi. She didn't charge because generous Silvio promised to sort out a little planning issue for her – something he has since denied.

One would have thought that such scandals would be enough to end his career, but Italy is no normal country and Berlusconi is certainly no normal politician. He has, as always, come out fighting, saying "the Italians like me just the way I am". And he seems to be right. He's won three landslide elections in the past and, despite the depths of a recession and the throes of these scandals, he enjoys approval ratings that most leaders would die for.

Bizarre as it may sound, he somehow manages to have his finger on the pulse of the nation. My Italian mother-in-law maintains that the majority of Italians have a mini Silvio inside them to whom Berlusconi speaks directly. He is what they wish to be: a person with chutzpah in abundance, a crazed fantasist with so much power and daring that his dreams come true. He's a man with his own, all-winning football team who is rich beyond comprehension, he's someone who defies the ageing process and sleeps with a stream of beautiful women. In fact, when you ask Italians about this current scandal, many say, "So what?" or "Good for him".

Some, of course, find him vulgar and repugnant, but many more are admiring and even envious. Rather than damaging him, these latest reports have allowed Berlusconi to present himself as a voracious, priapic leader, the sort of man who can make the Marquis of Sade look chaste. It all adds, of course, to his popularity. That's why the first magazine to splash a "Berlusconi's Harem" story two years ago was, in fact, one of his own.

Even if he weren't so popular, there's the vexed question of how to get rid of him. Political parties that have abandoned his coalition in the past, such as the UDC, have sunk almost without trace, and of his allies, neither Bossi nor Fini, Berlusconi's main political partners, seem likely to push their captain overboard .
The opposition hasn't even got a leader at the moment and the candidates have all the teeth of a new-born baby. They couldn't run a bath, let alone a campaign. The magistrature has brought accusations against Berlusconi in the past that far outweigh sleeping around, but if they haven't knocked him out, it's unlikely that a bit of hanky-panky will.

The recording of Berlusconi's moments of intimacy appears such a well-organised sting that there's been gossip about secret service involvement. But even though the secret services have manipulated, to put it lightly, domestic Italian politics at one time or other, they couldn't single-handedly bring down Berlusconi.

There is the media, but you know, of course, who owns most of that. In fact, these scandals have been much bigger news in Britain and abroad than in Italy. Partly because the Italian media have never, until now, been interested in the private lives of its politicians; and partly because there has been an injunction against the publication of the photographs from Sardinian parties on privacy grounds (they were published by El País in Spain).

Although publications such as La Repubblica and L'Espresso have been relentlessly pursuing the story, many Italian newspapers don't even have it on their front pages, if they have it at all; and were you to get your information solely from television you would barely know anything was up. Berlusconi was televisually, as much as democratically, elected, and there's no way the country's most powerful medium is going to turn on its overlord.

Which leaves perhaps two other sources of opposition to Berlusconi. The Vatican has never been averse to wading into Italian politics, but until now Berlusconi has been given a shamefully easy ride. His right-wing coalition has been seen as the bastion of family values, despite the fact that all of its leaders – Berlusconi, Bossi, Fini and, until he jumped ship, Casini – had split with their wives and set up with younger women.

There are signs that the Catholic hierarchy is finally waking from its slumbers: in recent months there have been veiled criticisms of the Prime Minister, with calls for "sobriety" in government, and critical articles have appeared in magazines such as Famiglia Cristiana. And yet given a choice between supporting a left-wing coalition that is determinedly secular and a right-wing one whose libidinous leaders nominally avow Catholic values, the Vatican will surely plump for the latter. It knows, after all, on which side its communion bread is buttered.

The only hope lies with the most enigmatic opposition of all: the sacred Italian popolo, the people. Once in a generation, it seems to rise up in furious indignation against injustice, oppression or corruption. In recent years the country has seen the usual pageants of protest in piazzas across the country: huge demonstrations and marches and strikes and so on. But there's no sense that another revolution is imminent.

Berlusconi derides such events as mere extremist agitations, the work of the "noisy minority". Until the silent majority switches off the TV, such ground-level protests seem unlikely to lead anywhere.

Which is why Berlusconi's government will, like his last one, survive to serve its full mandate. And it's why he's already planning for greater things. It's an open secret that he's aiming to reinvent the position of President of the Republic, turning it from a ceremonial, red-carpet role into a powerful presidency like that of America or France. No prizes for guessing who he thinks should get the job. And the tragic thing is, he probably will.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ploughmen, peasants and boys aged 12... Named after six centuries, the unsung heroes of the carnage of Agincourt

Agincourt. After nearly six centuries, it's still a name that rings triumphantly in the English ear, one of those heroic, impossible last stands against overwhelming odds, up there with Rorke's Drift, or Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

Now, a project by the University of Reading, the Medieval Soldier Database, has put online the records of 250,000 soldiers who fought through the Hundred Years War, giving the very names of the archers and men-at-arms who fought at that historic battle.

Many have already found that something rather mysterious and marvellous happens when you read this list.

Instead of an abstract idea of '6,000 men', you suddenly begin to form pictures in your head of what this band of brothers might have looked like. Names are powerfully suggestive, and they give these ordinary heroes a startling, poignant reality.

Among their numbers, we find such good old English names as Robert Smith, archer, serving under Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and James Barton, man-at-arms, serving under Sir John Dabridgecourt.

They came from every shire, we can tell, because often their surnames simply record their place of origin, such as Lancashire lad, Richard of Bolton, or Richard of Kelby, from the tiny hamlet in the county of Lincolnshire, not far from Grantham.

From farther afield come more Celtic names such as Thomas Pentryth, surely a Cornishman, and David ap Llewellyn Lloyd, who might just have been Welsh, like many of the heroes of Agincourt.

Others are somehow quintessentially medieval, such as Watt Hunter, or Hodgekin Somerton.

The priceless muster rolls on which these richly atmospheric names appear survive because busybody bureaucrats were just as active in the Middle Ages as they are today.

The English exchequer, which controlled the state finances, wanted to know exactly which soldiers had served where, and so kept scrupulous records.

This is why we know now about Lord Despencer, whose military career had started at the age of 12; Sir Thomas Erpingham, who had fought from Scotland to Spanish Castile; and Thomas Gloucestre, whose soldiering lasted an astonishing 43 years, ranging from 'the vasty fields of France', as Shakespeare calls them in Henry V, to the sun-baked plains and valleys of Palestine.

Yet it's safe to assume that the redoubtable Thomas Gloucestre never saw combat quite like Agincourt.

A cold, wet morning, October 25, 1415, St Crispin's Day. The sun edging up over the thickly forested countryside to the east, not far from the River Somme. And in a muddy ploughed field, a small, bedraggled army of Englishmen, waiting for their inevitable end.

Henry V had led his men into France back in August, late in the campaigning season. They had besieged and finally captured the port of Harfleur, but it had taken longer than expected.

And now it was time to retreat, fast, before the onset of the bitter medieval winter. Their ships were waiting for them at Calais, 280 miles away, and the Channel was becoming rougher by the day in the October storms.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the hinterland, a vast French army was gathering. But if they could just make it to Calais and the ships...

They came so close. But in mid-October, as they marched north between the little villages of Agincourt and Tramecourt, across some fields hemmed in on either side by thick woodland, they came to a sudden halt.

Across their line of retreat lay a vast French army. They were cut off and vastly outnumbered.

Henry commanded about 6,000 men, 5,000 of them only lightly armoured archers. Before them stood an enemy army of some 30,000, ready to fight on their home soil and burning to avenge the previous defeats of Crecy and Poitiers.

The flower of arrogant but ferocious French chivalry, pennants fluttering, swords gleaming, knights grimly smiling.

Many of the weary English must have crossed themselves and bowed their heads in the rain when they saw that sight. They must have thought of their loved ones. For there would surely be no going home now.

On the eve of battle, the chronicles tell us, many of the English confessed their sins, ready for their deaths on the morrow.

Nevertheless, the next day, the Feast of St Crispin, under the inspiration of their great warrior-king, Henry V, they summoned their last reserves of energy and spirit.

Outnumbered as they were, they could not hope to attack, only defend. So they set sharpened staves in the soft ground, which would break the French charge and impale their horses.

Then they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, butted their long-handled pikes into the earth, and waited for that thunderous onslaught. It never came. The French nobles were quarrelling among themselves about who would charge first. So Henry gave his men the astonishing order, against all the rules of engagement for an outnumbered force.

Attack! And the English pulled up their defensive staves and began to march forward.
The territory gained proved crucial. Rapidly, the English set up a new line of staves, now only 200yards from the enemy. Well within bowshot.

Their men-at-arms stood shoulder-to-shoulder once more, hands clenched white-knuckled around the long ashen shafts of their pikes, raindrops beading on their steel helmets and running down into their eyes, trying not to shake with fear.

Along the lines, many faces of beardless boys, some as young as 12. And hanging over them all, the terrible sense of dread before a battle. Gregory More, archer. Thomas Langford, man-at-arms. Sir John Grey, Knight. They would stand or fall together.

King Henry gave the order and the English bowmen began to drop volley after volley of arrows on to the stationary French. A trained archer could shoot around 15 arrows a minute, so a force of 5,000 could shoot a staggering 1,000 arrows per second.

The rain of arrows forced the French to move forward and attack. Since the field was hemmed in by woodland, any attempt at outflanking was impossible. They could only march forward, heavily armoured, through the saturated mud.

Crossing even 200 yards in such conditions was exhausting. Some of them sank up to their knees, some even drowned, according to eyewitnesses.

And as they approached, that arrow storm from the English longbows became ever more lethal, shooting with a power and accuracy that would be unmatched until the invention of the rifle. At last they reached the English line, and the real fighting began.

Men on foot, facing each other with lead-weighted maces, war hammers, bill hooks, falcon-beaks ending in terrible pointed spikes, and pole axes, usually used for killing cattle.

And then it was a matter of bone-crunching, slashing and clubbing your enemy into the mud. Now those horny-handed, barrel-chested ploughmen and blacksmiths from the English shires, wielding little more than glorified clubs, proved themselves more than a match for French chivalry.

The left flank under the command of Lord Camoys came under particularly fierce attack from the French. Yet Camoys and his men stood their ground unyielding: men such as Simon Codyngton and John Colmer, Thomas Fitzhenry, and the aptly named John Bold.

They fought without mercy, trapped and outnumbered as they were. A second French wave was sent in, but as in the most atrocious scenes of carnage from the trench warfare of World War I - which Agincourt in some ways resembled - the dead bodies of their fallen comrades only made their advance harder.

Another key to English survival was the extraordinary fighting spirit of Henry V himself. An elite of 18 French knights, an assassination squad, had sworn to make directly for him across the battlefield and kill him, or die in the attempt.

Theydied. All 18 of them, at the very feet of the warrior-king, cut down either by him or his bodyguard. He fought in the front line for much of the day, taking many a blow, one of which demolished part of his crown.

And his resolute cries of 'Rally!' and 'Stand firm, men of England!' contributed immeasurably to the victory.

Yet along with his encouraging cries there were the sickening sounds of metal bludgeoning into flesh, the screams of horses, men drowning in a quagmire of blood.

If a Frenchman fell to the ground, injured or not, he would struggle to rise again in the sucking mud. And in a trice, an Englishman would be kneeling by his side like a ministering angel of death, flipping up his visor and dispatching him with a quick stab of a blade to his eyes.

Late in the battle, with the English slowly beginning to feel that they might yet survive and make it back to Calais after all, Henry feared that the French were going to try a final attack from the rear.

So he gave orders for all prisoners to be executed, in case they should be freed to fight again. But the French had had enough. Leaving at least 5,000 dead, against an English total of about 120, they fled the field.

Last year, French academics accused the English of having committed 'war crimes' at Agincourt. Applying 21st-century standards to the 15th century is the kind of stupidity which only the most eminent French academic could rise to.

You might as well complain that the French knights, in their turn, had some simply frightful ideas about the role of women. And as for their views on Jews...

The truth is that Agincourt was an astonishing victory, a testament to those centuries- old English qualities of sheer determination and stubborn refusal to acknowledge when we're beaten: a rock on which many more glamorous armies have broken.

Indeed, it is precisely because Agincourt was so atrociously unglamorous, so grim and bloody and mud-spattered, that it was so heroic: ordinary and exhausted men, achieving something quite extraordinary.

It's for this reason that many of us will be checking out the names of those who fought there on the Internet, and feeling a pride in our brave ancestors that stretches out across six centuries.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

More "incorrectness" from Boris

London's outspoken mayor, Boris Johnson, has caused controversy after describing the 250,000 pound ($500,000) second salary he earns for writing a newspaper column as "chicken feed".

Workers on London's transport network, which ultimately is headed by the mayor, reacted angrily to Johnson's comments, which he made in an interview with the BBC.

"Transport workers in London will look at Boris Johnson's claim that 250,000 pounds a year for moonlighting in a second job is 'chickenfeed' and wonder just what planet he's living on," said Bob Crow, the head of the RMT transport union.

"Our members working as cleaners on London Underground, who have been denied the London Living Wage that was promised them by Boris Johnson, will be especially angry when they are out there doing dirty jobs for little more than six pounds an hour."

Johnson, who attended Britain's elite Eton College and Oxford University and was a Conservative member of parliament, also earns a regular mayoral salary of 140,000 pounds a year. The average annual wage in Britain is about 25,000 pounds.

In the BBC interview, Johnson was asked whether he thought having a second job paying 250,000 pounds a year was appropriate alongside his busy mayoral role. He dismissed the amount as "chicken feed".

"I don't presume to ask what you earn from the taxpayer and frankly there's absolutely no reason at all why I should not on a Sunday morning, before I do whatever else I need to do on a Sunday morning, should not knock off an article," he said.

Johnson's secondary work, which amounts to about 5,000 pounds per article, is unlikely to go down well with workers in London, where the average earnings are about 630 pounds a week, according to the national statistics office.

Johnson has caused controversy before, angering the residents of Liverpool after describing them as having a "deeply unattractive psyche" and once referring to "flag-waving piccaninnies", a remark that drew accusations of racism.

Asked to comment on Johnson's latest faux-pas, the mayor's office said it had no statement to make.

Johnson's views are unlikely to sit well with Conservative party leader David Cameron. In an effort to make the party seem less elitist, Cameron has called on senior Conservative MPs to give up their second jobs.

Johnson said he had no intention of giving up his newspaper column, saying he was not in the Conservative shadow cabinet and therefore did not need to.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

World's oldest Bible published in full online

The world's oldest surviving Bible, which has been scattered around the globe for more than a century, has been published in full online.

More than 800 surviving pages and fragments from the The Codex Sinaiticus, which was written in Greek on parchment leaves in the fourth century, have been reunited.

Last year The British Library put The Book of Psalms and St Mark's Gospel online, and now the remaining pages have been made free for public use for the first time.

Along with the Codex Vaticanus, the Codex Sinaiticus is considered the oldest known Bible in the world. Originally more than 1,460 pages long and measuring 16in by 14in, it was written by a number of hands around the time of Constantine the Great.
It offers different versions of the Scriptures from later editions of the Bible, notably in St Mark's Gospel which ends 12 verses before later versions, omitting the appearance of the resurrected Jesus Christ.

The reunification of the book is the culmination of a four-year collaboration between the British Library, Leipzig University Library in Germany, the Monastery of St Catherine in Mount Sinai, Egypt, and the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, each of which hold different parts of the manuscript.

They hope that by bringing together the digitised pages online, the project will help scholars worldwide to research in depth the Greek text, which is fully transcribed and cross-referenced.

"The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the world's greatest written treasures," said Dr Scot McKendrick, Head of Western Manuscripts at the British Library.

"This 1,600-year old manuscript offers a window into the development of early Christianity and first-hand evidence of how the text of the Bible was transmitted from generation to generation. The project has uncovered evidence that a fourth scribe – along with the three already recognised – worked on the text; the availability of the virtual manuscript for study by scholars around the world creates opportunities for collaborative research that would not have been possible just a few years ago."

To mark the reunification, the British Library is also holding a new exhibition, open today that tells the story of the book.

Professor David Parker from the University of Birmingham's Department of Theology, who directed the team which made the electronic transcription of the manuscript said the four-year process was a "huge challenge".

"The transcription includes pages of the Codex which were found in a blocked-off room at the Monastery of St Catherine in 1975, some of which were in poor condition," he said.

"This is the first time that they have been published. The digital images of the virtual manuscript show the beauty of the original and readers are even able to see the difference in handwriting between the different scribes who copied the text. We have even devised a unique alignment system which allows users to link the images with the transcription. This project has made a wonderful book accessible to a global audience."

Hitler's stealth bomber: How the Nazis were first to design a plane to beat radar

With its smooth and elegant lines, this could be a prototype for some future successor to the stealth bomber. But this flying wing was actually designed by the Nazis 30 years before the Americans successfully developed radar-invisible technology.

Now an engineering team has reconstructed the Horten Ho 2-29 from blueprints, with startling results. It was faster and more efficient than any other plane of the period and its stealth powers did work against radar.

Experts are now convinced that given a little bit more time, the mass deployment of this aircraft could have changed the course of the war. First built and tested in the air in March 1944, it was designed with a greater range and speed than any plane previously built and was the first aircraft to use the stealth technology now deployed by the U.S. in its B-2 bombers.

Thankfully Hitler’s engineers only made three prototypes, tested by being dragged behind a glider, and were not able to build them on an industrial scale before the Allied forces invaded.

From Panzer tanks through to the V-2 rocket, it has long been recognised that Germany’s technilowcal expertise during the war was years ahead of the Allies.

But by 1943, Nazi high command feared that the war was beginning to turn against them, and were desperate to develop new weapons to help turn the tide. Nazi bombers were suffering badly when faced with the speed and manoeuvrability of the Spitfire and other Allied fighters.

Hitler was also desperate to develop a bomber with the range and capacity to reach the United States.

In 1943 Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering demanded that designers come up with a bomber that would meet his ‘1,000, 1,000, 1,000’ requirements – one that could carry 1,000kg over 1,000km flying at 1,000km/h.

Two pilot brothers in their thirties, Reimar and Walter Horten, suggested a ‘flying wing’ design they had been working on for years. They were convinced that with its drag and lack of wind resistance such a plane would meet Goering’s requirements.

Construction on a prototype was begun in Goettingen in Germany in 1944. The centre pod was made from a welded steel tube, and was designed to be powered by a BMW 003 [jet] engine.

The most important innovation was Reimar Horten’s idea to coat it in a mix of charcoal dust and wood glue. He thought the electromagnetic waves of radar would be absorbed, and in conjunction with the aircraft’s sculpted surfaces the craft would be rendered almost invisible to radar detectors.

This was the same method eventually used by the U.S. in its first stealth aircraft in the early 1980s, the F-117A Nighthawk.

The plane was covered in radar absorbent paint with a high graphite content, which has a similar chemical make-up to charcoal.

After the war the Americans captured the prototype Ho 2-29s along with the blueprints and used some of their technological advances to aid their own designs.

But experts always doubted claims that the Horten could actually function as a stealth aircraft. Now using the blueprints and the only remaining prototype craft, Northrop-Grumman (the defence firm behind the B-2) built a fullsize replica of a Horten Ho 2-29.

It took them 2,500 man-hours and $250,000 to construct, and although their replica cannot fly, it was radar-tested by placing it on a 50ft articulating pole and exposing it to electromagnetic waves.

The team demonstrated that although the aircraft is not completely invisible to the type of radar used in the war, it would have been stealthy enough and fast enough to ensure that it could reach London before Spitfires could be scrambled to intercept it.

‘If the Germans had had time to develop these aircraft, they could well have had an impact,’ says Peter Murton, aviation expert from the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, in Cambridgeshire.

‘In theory the flying wing was a very efficient aircraft design which minimised drag. ‘It is one of the reasons that it could reach very high speeds in dive and glide and had such an incredibly long range.’

The research was filmed for a forthcoming documentary on the National Geographic Channel.

Monday, July 6, 2009

A vast business "success" that wasn't

That good ol' journalistic "fact-checking"

Normally, Lord Bilimoria’s appearance in a business publication would be as remarkable as a bottle of Hildon water in a conference room. The founder of Cobra Beer has, in recent years, become omnipresent, banging on at every opportunity about the early days of the company, when he was delivering beer in a 2CV so battered that you could see the road through the floor.

But two advertisements in a recent issue of Management Today, one informing us that he would be a keynote speaker at the Chartered Management Institute’s 2009 National Conference, and another alerting us to the news that his book, Against the Grain: Lessons in Entrepreneurship, was available for purchase, caught my eye, because in the gap between them being placed and being published Cobra went into pre-pack administration.

Most of the company, which not long ago was touting itself around leading brewers with a reported price tag of £180 million, subsequently re-emerged under the ownership of Molson Coors, having been sold to the American brewer for £14 million, with Lord Bilimoria retaining a 49.9 per cent stake. But unsecured creditors, owed about £75 million, got nothing. Painful.

Something else quite painful: the way in which the business establishment failed to spot any problems. Here, in February 2007, we have the Press Trust of India reporting that “Bilimoria, one of the ten youngest members in the House of Lords, aims to make Cobra into a $1 billion retail brand by 2014”. Here we have Director magazine remarking in March 2007 that Cobra’s strategy “will almost certainly make [Bilimoria] a very rich man”. And here, just months ago, we have a trade publication reporting that Cobra reported a “20 per cent rise in beer volumes for its fiscal first half”, which “contrasts with an 8 per cent volume decline across the UK beer market in the last three months of 2008”.

No one seems to have picked up, until it was too late, that for all Cobra’s glitzy marketing efforts — it spent £40 million on marketing over 20 years — people rarely drank the stuff unless in Indian restaurants, that the company had never been profitable and that, in the year to July 2007, the latest for which accounts are publicly available, Cobra lost £13 million.

Indeed, the story of Cobra highlights a number of awkward truths for the business world, the first of which is this: business journalists rarely get the full truth about companies. The fact is that, despite all the awards we enjoy giving ourselves, with the exception of one or two individuals, we failed to predict almost all the crises enveloping us: the Ponzi schemes, the frauds, the credit crunch, everything in fact, including Cobra. Not that it’s our fault: journalists are only as good as their sources and if there’s one thing we’ve learnt this year it is that the people running businesses are as clueless as everyone else.

The second painful truth revealed by the Cobra debacle is that the business world is hugely susceptible to the influence of public relations. This is, in part, because business is overrun by PR people — and Cobra was more image-obsessed than most, announcing plans to sponsor this year’s Bafta awards as part of a £8.4 million PR and marketing drive only months before it went into administration — and, in part, because business is a bit boring and a good story, such as Cobra’s, gets seized upon.

I’m not guiltless in this respect. I was one of the hundreds of journalists who wrote positively about Bilimoria in recent years, penning a piece a decade ago that mindlessly cited growing sales without mentioning the lack of profits. Frankly, I should have realised when the company subsequently sent me some Cobra wine to try — a beverage that tasted like fermented mouthwash — that its attempts to diversify were going to get it into trouble.

Which brings me to a third painful truth revealed by the Cobra debacle: Asian entrepreneurs get away with more than most. I don’t mean this in a way to suggest some kind of politically correct conspiracy. But in my experience Asian companies don’t get subjected to as much critical analysis as they should be because: a) a huge number of Asian entrepreneurs are very successful and it is just assumed that they all are; b) the rags-to-riches tale is a seductive and romantic one; and c) people want to write about and hear about Asian entrepreneurs doing well, as it is one of the things that shows that multiculturalism and immigration can work.

As it happens, Bilimoria is not the most extreme example of the phenomenon. This unhappy accolade must go to Reuben Singh, who, as a schoolboy, founded Miss Attitude, the fashion chain, and was listed as the youngest millionaire by Guinness World Records, publicly fêted by Tony Blair, made a government adviser, dubbed “the most powerful man in Britain under 30”, had his picture hung in the National Portrait Gallery and named entrepreneur of the year at various awards ceremonies, but who in 2007 was unmasked as a serial fantasist, branded a “liar” by a judge and declared bankrupt.

Also, as it happens, Bilimoria is not your typical Asian entrepreneur, arriving in Britain with £5 in his pocket and subsequently building a huge company. For all the talk of delivering beer in a 2CV so battered that you could see the road through the floor, he comes from a privileged background. His father was a general in the Indian Army, he left India for England at the age of 19 to train as a chartered accountant, attended Cambridge and speaks with an accent that would make the Duke of Edinburgh sound chavvy.

But his ethnicity was undoubtedly one of the reasons he had a profile that far outstripped his achievements and one of the reasons he was so ludicrously overpromoted, being enobled and, among other things, being made deputy president of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, chairman of the UK-India Business Council and Chancellor of Thames Valley University.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Meanings of flower names

Throughout history and in cultures around the world, mankind has held a deep connection with flowers. From the smallest blossoms emerging from the melting snow, marking the end of winter, to elaborate bouquets given as gestures of love, flowers are unmatched in their ability to please the senses and delight the soul.

They have also been infused with symbolism that transcends their colorful blooms. A poetic regard for flowers is evident even in Neanderthal culture with the discovery of burial sites containing Hollyhocks -- an indication that the Neanderthals too considered it as "holy"' as its name also suggests today.

The names we give to flowers reflect a loftier esteem than the ones we give to, say, vegetables. Broccoli, for example, derives its unappetizing moniker from the Italian brocco, meaning simply a shoot or stalk -- in line with the opinions of countless picky eaters. But the names given to flowers often denote their benefit to the spirit.

Like many words in our language, many of the names of flowers hold clues about their history and relationship to us. The daisy, for example, known for its small yellow blossoms, is quite common throughout the world. Daisies are unique in that they close their golden petals during the night and keep them shut, as if in sleep, until the morning. This peculiar characteristic earned this little flower the name 'day's eye' from speakers of Old English. Eventually, that name was compounded into the word daisy.

Dandelions also derive their name from their characteristically numerous thick and slender yellow petals. It is not so strange for an imaginative observer to equate the dandelion's coarse petals to rows of teeth on a well-fanged beast. This comparison explains its French origin dent de lion, or in English "teeth of a lion."

Some flowers, on the other hand, were named not from their appearance alone, but for their associations with mythology. The iris, a flower which appears in a wide variety of colors, shares its name with the Greek goddess who unified heaven and earth. Aptly, she was personified by the rainbow.

The narcissus flower, too, is said to have sprouted upon the death of its mythological namesake, though there is no evidence that the flower is as self-absorbed. The Virgin Mary also has left her mark on floral taxonomy with the marigold, or Mary's gold. According to Flemish tradition, the flower sprouted from her tears.

Still, other flowers' names offer some insight into their utility in the past. The sweet, aromatic lavender was used to add a pleasant scent to recently washed clothes and to perfume bathwater -- as evidenced by its association with the Latin lavare, meaning "to wash." Calluna, the flowering shrub also known as heather, seems to have been appreciated not so much for its beauty as its handiness as a broom. Its name originated from the Greek word meaning "to sweep."

The Pansy blossom in late summer begins to droop. The flower's name is derived from the French pensée, or "thought" -- the source for the word pensive.

Carnations are also appreciated for their human qualities. Their soft pink petals are likened to the hue of skin, sharing its meaning closely with the word incarnation, "to be made flesh." There are early writings, though, that refer to this flower as coronation, which some scholars believe is an allusion to its use as a garland in Greek tradition.

Flowers are so universal in their appeal that nearly every culture names their children after them. From Ambuj (Indian for lotus) to Zara (Arabic for a blossom), floral names are timeless in their popularity. While millions of people around the world share their names with flowers, the opposite is also true. The Zinnia and Dahlia flowers, for example, can thank the 18th century botanists Johann Zinn and Anders Dahl, respectively, for their names.

Ultimately, the names assigned to flowers reflect less the flowers themselves than our longstanding relationship of love and esteem for them. A rose by any other name might still smell as sweet -- but a flower's name and the story behind it are deeply meaningful, human stories. They are our contribution to one of nature's most cherished creations.