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Still going strong

A miracle of modern technology that took just a few decades to perfect, the bicycle is still going strong. I use one several times a day, except when I’m away in Slovenia (and that’s only because the town I stay in is so small I can walk everywhere, and has quite a few streets with uneven paving slabs and steep slopes). Hardly enough to keep me fit, but it has to be better for me than going everywhere by car (luckily I don’t have a driving licence to tempt me), and it’s certainly better for the environment. Not that bicycles generate no waste at all: one of my lights needs two new AA batteries once or twice a year (the other runs entirely on solar power and leg propulsion), and a bad puncture will occasionally  (every two years or so) require the inner tube or even the tyre to be replaced. But these days the batteries are collected for recycling, and so, I imagine, is the rubber. All in all, the bike has a very small ‘footprint’, and it is highly energy-efficient: 99% of the force I transmit to the wheels is used.

Bicycles can keep going for decades, and are less subject to changes of fashion than most technical products. To be sure, there are now sports bikes and recumbent bikes; but looking round me as I write this, in full view of several bicycle stands, I can’t see many of either. Sports bikes have the advantage of being lighter and faster; but they have the disadvantage of forcing you to bend forwards with your neck at an angle so you can still see the traffic, and they’re usually designed without a kickstand (to further reduce their weight), so you need something to lean them against when you get off. As for recumbent bikes (‘recumbents’), they’ve never been a success, for riders are so close to the ground that they’re hard for other road users to see, and vice versa; not being able to see over the tops of parked cars not only makes you feel unsafe, it is unsafe. To make sure they’re noticed, most users of recumbents fit them with brightly coloured pennants on thin poles like the ones you see on children’s bikes; but the tops of the poles are at other cyclists’ head level, and I’m always afraid one will poke my eye out as I overtake (the poles are made of flexible plastic and are apt to wave about).

In any case, whole weeks go by without my ever seeing a recumbent – and this is Holland, where there are almost as many bikes as people. Both sports bikes and recumbents have the added disadvantage that, unlike standard bikes, they can’t easily deal with such frequently encountered obstacles as kerbs, loose paving stones or bulges in the road surface caused by tree roots (sports bikes aren’t robust enough, and recumbents are too close to the road). The one undoubted advantage of recumbents – that you’re less likely to hurt yourself if you fall off – hardly makes up for their drawbacks, which include the fact that they’re substantially more expensive than standard bikes (sports bikes are even worse).

The history of the bike began just 200 years ago, in 1817, when a German nobleman called Karl von Drais (rhyming with ‘rice’) invented the first-ever two-wheeled vehicle. He called it the Laufmaschine or ‘running machine’. In English it was soon nicknamed the ‘hobby horse’ or ‘dandy horse’; another name was vélocipède, a French word derived from the Latin for ‘fast’ and ‘foot’; and to this day the everyday French name for a bike is vélo. For a while it was also known as the draisine (in French, draisienne) after its inventor; but this name has since been transferred to larger pedal-driven wheeled vehicles that run on rails. There is currently a draisine service for groups of tourists on a disused section of railway line between a small town near where I live and another small town just across the border in Germany – a pleasant day trip in fine weather.

Although the ‘hobby horse’ – which survives to this day in the children’s ‘push bikes’ (or ‘balance bikes’) that prepare them for the real thing – was certainly a faster means of locomotion than simply walking, and could be steered (the front wheel and handlebars were hinged), it had some major drawbacks. It was terribly rigid, with an unsprung wooden frame and tyreless iron wheels, and riding it on the then invariably cobbled roads was a painful experience (despite the upholstered saddle), since every jolt and vibration was transmitted to the rider. Users therefore tended to take to the smoother but narrower pavements, putting pedestrians (who were not expecting to encounter them there) in serious danger. Worse, it depended for propulsion on exactly the same movement as walking and running: the rider’s feet were in contact with the road surface, and the whole process was tiring. Clearly something had to be done if the new invention were to be a real success.

It isn’t quite clear when the next step forward occurred. A Scotsman called Kirkpatrick MacMillan is said by some to have produced the first mechanically driven bicycle in 1839: still with a wooden frame and tyreless iron wheels, but now with pedals attached by rods to the hub of the rear wheel, which revolved as the pedals were pushed down (so there was no longer any direct contact between the rider’s feet and the road surface, and the amount of foot movement was greatly reduced – less fatigue all round). The front wheel and handlebars were again hinged to allow steering; and the rear wheel, which was used for propulsion, was slightly larger than the front one (in the absence of chain transmission and gears, this was the only way to increase the vehicle’s speed – the larger the drive wheel, the further the bicycle would move with each turn of the pedals). However, the facts of the matter are disputed, and seem likely to remain so.

The first undoubted improvement in bicycle design took place in France in the 1860s, when Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement designed a vehicle with pedals mounted on the front wheel – which, for the reasons just mentioned, was now slightly larger than the rear one. This had the advantage that the propulsion force could be transmitted directly to the drive wheel, which was literally turning under the rider’s feet, making him – at this stage in history it was still considered indecent for women to ride bicycles, and their voluminous clothing was unsuited to it – more aware of how the bicycle was responding; the disadvantage was that the pedals were not in the most natural position (directly below the rider’s centre of gravity) and that having them on the wheel also used for steering made the vehicle harder to control. With rubber tyres still some years in the future, bicycles of this era were nicknamed ‘boneshakers’; the whole experience must have been like trying to ride a modern bike with two completely flat tyres.

In 1869 another Frenchman, Eugène Meyer, invented tensionable wire wheel spokes (the spokes had previously been made of solid metal) that greatly reduced bicycles’ weight and allowed the development of high-wheelers, with a vast front wheel (on which the pedals were mounted) and a tiny rear one. The saddle was now almost directly above the pedals, eliminating the earlier centre-of-gravity problem; but the front wheels were now so large that the bikes were very unsafe to ride. A small protruding step on the frame was needed to help the rider climb onto the saddle (and immediately push down on the pedals in order to stop the bicycle from falling over); and the distance between the rider’s feet and the ground was as much as a metre. The slightest obstacle on the road surface, such as a pebble, was enough to send the rider flying over the handlebars, often with serious injuries – it seems that two fractured wrists were a common result, and some riders were even killed as they attempted to break their fall.

With rubber increasingly imported into Europe from colonial plantations in Asia and Africa, solid rubber wheels soon became available; and since the large wheels allowed a smoother ride, as well as far greater speed, the high-wheelers remained popular despite the hazards involved in riding them. In Britain they were eventually nicknamed ‘penny-farthings’, because the different-sized wheels recalled the very large penny coin and the much smaller farthing coin, worth a quarter of a penny – the name is derived from ‘four’ – and still in use when I was a boy (the little farthing was taken out of circulation in 1961, and the big penny ten years later, when Britain finally adopted decimal currency).

Once again, however, something had to be done if bicycles were to become a truly popular – comfortable as well as safe – means of transport; and by the 1880s the solution was in sight. First, tyres that were inflatable, or ‘pneumatic’ (to this day the French word for ‘tyre’ is pneu), which allowed a comfortable and safe ride even on bicycles with human-sized wheels (another Scotsman, John Dunlop, is credited with this invention, but it seems he was reinventing something already designed nearly half a century early by yet another Scotsman, Robert William Thomson); and finally chain transmission with gears (devised by the English inventor John Kemp Starley), which allowed high speeds without having to increase wheel size, and eliminated the need for pedals on the wheel that was used for steering. At the same time, the saddle could now be placed in between the two equal-sized wheels, greatly reducing the risk of serious injury or worse if the bicycle hit an obstacle on the road, since the rider was much closer to the ground and much further away from the front wheel.

By 1890, with all the earlier problems solved – apart from punctured tyres, which are sadly still with us – the ‘safety bicycle’ was born; and despite some relatively minor changes since then, this is the bicycle that most of us still use, almost 130 years later.

A remarkably successful piece of engineering, and one that has greatly contributed to social mobility, the emancipation of women and environmental protection. In short, a damn good thing.

Rail disaster

I’ve passed through Brussels Central Station very often in the past half-century, and I’ve meant to say something about it for most of that time. Now this blog gives me the perfect opportunity to do so.

Quite simply, the place seems hardly to have been refurbished in all those years – and most probably ever since it was first built. It turns out to be a latecomer in Belgium’s extensive railway system, having been opened in the year I was born: 1952. Until then the Belgian capital had already been served for over 100 years by two outlying stations, Brussels North and Brussels South; but it seems there was a need for a new one right in the city centre, which would probably have been a better idea in the first place.

It is important in what follows to remember that Brussels Central was originally designed by the famous Belgian architect and Art Nouveau designer Victor Horta, and completed by someone else shortly after Horta died in the late 1940s.

When I say ‘hardly refurbished’, I’m not talking about the technological accretions that have gone some way towards making up for the station’s many failings. There are now electronic platform signs that announce train departures in alternating French and Dutch versions, to take account of the fact that Brussels is officially bilingual. And the spoken announcements – in French and Dutch for local trains, plus German and English for international ones, all in mellifluous, invariably female native voices – are some of the clearest I’ve ever heard in a railway station, and are only drowned out when a departing or arriving train screeches and thumps its way over the points (might a drop of oil help?).

There are now also modern (though frankly rather inconspicuous) black-and-white signs directing you to the various platforms and station services, using the now familiar international pictograms for ‘exit’, ‘entrance’ and so on. All well and good; but this is not enough to compensate for the fact that Horta designed a modernist architect’s pipe dream, rather than an efficient transport hub for what is now not only Belgium’s but also the European Union’s capital city. Too many architects – and Horta was evidently no exception – seem to see it as their sacred duty to ‘educate’ the rest of us by riding roughshod over such mundane concerns as being able to find your way quickly in a vast structure that is in constant use by tens of thousands of complete strangers.

Brussels Central Station is nothing short of a rail disaster. To start with, it is full of staircases, some of which are now at last also flanked by escalators; but the escalators (like some of the staircases) are very narrow, and at rush hour – which in a place like Brussels is most of the time – become dangerously crowded with people hurrying to get somewhere else. Another big drawback of staircases and escalators is that the differing levels make most of the station invisible to passengers – a problem made worse by Horta’s original heavy marble walls and pillars, which are all in one pale-ochre colour that must have looked very pretty on his drawing board, but in the practical environment of a railway station blend into an indistinct, untransparent mass. In this labyrinth passengers simply don’t know which way to look, or which way to turn – hardly ideal when you’re trying to catch a train, which is after all what stations are for.

Horta’s pale-ochre marble has not – as the euphemism goes – ‘aged well’. Perhaps the small cracks in the surface were there to begin with, but perhaps they have developed over time. In any case, in a place where the air was bound to be laden with fine particulates and other pollutants, the cracks in the marble and everything else soon became clogged with black gunk; and much of the station has always looked (and smelled) grimy, for it seems little has been done over the years to clean it. Litter and bird shit have of course been removed, but Horta’s monumental acres of stone have been left largely untouched.

I can only suspect that the Belgian government was reluctant to tamper with a ‘work of art’ by the illustrious Horta. But a railway station, like an airport or a harbour, is more than just a work of art – it’s a public service.

Horta’s name has survived in the title of a small shopping precinct that obstructs and obscures access to Brussels Central from the city’s most central area, round the beautiful square known in French and Dutch as the Grand-Place/Grote Markt. If you arrive on foot from that direction, there is no indication whatever that this is the entrance to Belgium’s main station – just an uninviting grey-and-white void with still largely unoccupied commercial premises, and again a labyrinth of corridors that provide little sense of direction. Half the time the handful of escalators are out of order, forcing passengers to struggle up flights of stairs (again!), or else a ramp that is presumably designed for wheelchair users but is so steep that many of them might be scared to launch themselves down the scary slope or try to climb it without electrical power, and is twice as long as necessary because it curves ‘elegantly’ round the edge. There is a lift, but this too has been out of order for as long as I can remember (and I’m talking here about several years). Yesterday I saw a middle-aged woman helping an older one hobble painfully up the ramp; the ascent was clearly going to take them at least half an hour, and even then they would only just be entering the station.

Ramp just happens to be the Dutch word for ‘disaster’; but of course this is pure coincidence (?).

Yesterday I also saw that the central area of the to my mind totally useless Horta ‘centre’ was taped off with red-and-white plastic and all the glass doors were locked, forcing everyone (including the two hapless women) to use the ramp. Presumably the area is about to be redesigned – not that there any signs to tell you. But why not tackle the whole station while they’re about it?

Symptomatic of the whole muddle are the makeshift paper signs with arrows and the English words ‘Central Station’ (nothing in the two local languages) that are now taped to every door handle. People entering the area evidently need such guidance because they have no idea where the station actually is; and the only obvious way in – the main staircase (yes, another one) – is now taped off, even assuming you can find it.

Anyone arriving in the EU’s capital city by train must surely be embarrassed to see all this, year after year, decade after decade. Belgium is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, and cannot possibly lack the financial means to do something about this – especially as so little has been done about it for the past 65 years, so that the large amounts of money saved could now finally be put to good use.

Of course, one might argue that it would be an unconscionable waste of public funds to rebuild from scratch a huge railway station that, despite all its manifest visual and practical failings, continues to function without bringing the whole of Belgium’s railway system to a grinding halt – and that there are far too many costly ‘prestige projects’ as it is, at a time when more and more people can hardly make ends meet. But why then have the authorities poured so much money into smartening up the city’s South Station and improving its efficiency?

The answer can only be that the South station is the Belgian hub for three high-speed international rail networks that are mainly patronised by better-off Europeans and wealthy foreign tourists: the Eurostar routes between London, Paris, Brussels and Lille; the French-based Thalys routes serving Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne; and the high-speed TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse) services that now not only span the whole of France but also extend into Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium. Were there no smart, comfortable, efficient facilities, these routes would surely lose passengers who could as easily afford to fly or simply drive their cars (and pollute the environment at their leisure).

Brussels’s three stations neatly reflect a sadly predictable hierarchy in national and international transport. Serving the up-market Eurostar, Thalys and TGV, the South Station is at the ‘high end’ of the hierarchy. The North Station effectively only caters to local people (including many poor immigrants) and is located in one of the city’s less salubrious districts, which tourists seldom see; so it has long been the most neglected of the three stations. In between these two extremes is the Central Station, originally designed to give both Belgian and international passengers a convenient point of access to the city’s most attractive and prestigious districts, sights and shops.

Had the station not been designed within living memory by the country’s most famous architect and urban designer, its unmistakable problems might have been tackled by now. Instead, it seems the Belgian government has continued to put its funding into the station whose users could easily travel by another means, has withheld funding from the one whose users have little choice in the matter, and has hedged its bets about the semi-international one whose users fit into both categories.

Bad planning, bad social policy – and, in an age when money calls the tune more than ever, something we will not soon see the back of.

Rule of lawyers

Back in 1970 a new supermarket chain was launched in Britain. It seems the founder was a personal friend of a former Icelandic prime minister, and it occurred to him that Iceland would be a clever name for his new business, since it specialised in frozen food. The fact that it was also the name of a country (in English, though not in any other language) was an added benefit, and did not appear to bother the authorities in Reykjavík – at least, not then.

But times have changed. We now live in an age when economic interests predominate over all others. Businesses and other organisations go out of their way to defend their commercial or other rights against whatever they consider infringements, however minor; and their weapons of choice are lawyers. But in this case it is not, as you might think, the Icelandic authorities that have taken the supermarket chain to court – it’s the other way round. Incredibly, the company has managed to secure a Europe-wide patent on the name ‘Iceland’, and is now suing Icelandic businesses that trade abroad and use the name of their country in their marketing for trademark infringement.

The absurdity of this is mind-boggling. For one thing, there has always been a principle in patent law that everyday words and names can’t be patented, as this would prevent people from using their own native languages freely. You’d expect this principle to apply automatically to names of countries; but somehow the supermarket chain persuaded the European patent agency to rule otherwise, and now the Icelandic government is trying to get the patent invalidated on the all too reasonable grounds that it makes it difficult for Icelandic companies to do business. It makes particular sense for them to use English names, because (1) Icelandic names are difficult to pronounce and understand in other languages (to take just one example, the national airline Icelandair is the result of a merger between two companies called Flugfélag Íslands and Loftleiðir), and (2) the name of the country in Icelandic (Ísland) would clearly be confusing, at least in English (of course, it is an island, but that’s not the point).

No-one is trying to stop the British company from operating under the name Iceland; but the company is trying to stop anyone else from doing so. Perhaps Iceland the country could have saved itself a lot of bother by taking Iceland the company to court back in 1970 for misusing the name – but in those days most people’s minds just didn’t work that way. They still relied on a basic sense of decency and common sense.

Next thing you know, the UK poulterers’ association will manage to get the name ‘Turkey’ patented, and Turkish businesses will find themselves in a similar predicament. Porcelain manufacturers and China? Hat-makers and Panama? Spice-growers and Chile? And on and on.

There is – or was? – a Dutch band called Dow Jones, named after the American stock exchange index. Some months ago I read in a local newspaper that they had received a letter from lawyers in New York enjoining them to change their name forthwith or face legal proceedings. You wonder how the use of the name by a little-known group of musicians in Europe could possibly harm the American company (if anything, you might consider it free advertising, for which anyone should be grateful); and you can only suspect that lawyers scented a chance to get rich.

Unlike some company names, however, Dow Jones has not become ‘generic’, i.e. the everyday word for the product concerned, irrespective of brand. The classic case is the American vacuum-cleaner manufacturer Hoover, whose name became synonymous in British English with vacuum cleaners generally and the whole act of vacuum-cleaning or anything resembling it (‘I’ll hoover the carpet’, ‘he just hoovers up his food’). Companies eventually risk losing their trademark protection because their brand name has become ‘generic’ in this way. Examples include ‘zipper’, ‘velcro’, ‘aspirin’, ‘kleenex’, ‘frisbee’ and ‘videotape’.

But back to geography. When Yugoslavia finally disintegrated into its six constituent republics, all but one had names that preceded the establishment of the unified state: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Montenegro (a literal Italian translation of the original Slavic name Crna Gora, meaning ‘Black Mountain’). But the sixth republic did not. Its name was Macedonia.

However, simply calling it this is enough to raise national and political hackles – above all in neighbouring Greece, where most people still insist on calling the country Σκόπια (‘Skópia’), after its capital city Skopje. The official Greek stance on the matter is that Macedonia has ‘no right’ to use that name, for it is already the name of a Greek province: Μακεδονία (‘Makedonía’).

To most people outside Greece, the Greek arguments seem specious; for there are quite a few examples in the world of countries (or regions) that have the same name as a region in another country, and no-one seems bothered by the fact. Belgium’s south-eastern province is called Luxembourg; one of the three divisions (‘parts’) of the English county of Lincolnshire was called Holland (until it was abolished in a local government reorganisation in 1974); both Austria and Slovenia have provinces known in English as Styria; both Belgium and Holland have provinces called Limburg and Brabant, though the Belgian one has since been divided into Dutch- and French-speaking sections known as Vlaams Brabant (‘Flemish Brabant’) and Brabant Wallon (‘Walloon Brabant’), and the Dutch one is officially called Noord-Brabant (‘North Brabant’) to distinguish it from its southern neighbours in Belgium, with which it was once united); there is a Mexican peninsula called Baja California (‘Lower California’), and one US state is called New Mexico; both Peru and Argentina have provinces named after the Spanish region of Rioja; and so on.

So by what right does Greece lay exclusive claim to the name ‘Macedonia’? The answer, if it can be called one, is Alexander the Great. Although the evidence is less than abundant, it seems the language spoken in the ancient kingdom of Macedon (or Macedonia) was related to Greek; and King Alexander’s vast empire, which at its height extended as far as the River Indus in modern Pakistan and as far down the River Nile as Thebes (the site of modern-day Luxor), was essentially Greek-speaking, or Hellenistic. This was also the high point of Greek history; although such city-states as Athens and Sparta were to exert great influence, the Greek-speaking world would never again be as unified as it was under Alexander (the later Byzantine empire’s eastern borders extended no further than modern Syria and Jordan, and it only briefly held Italy and small parts of North-west Africa and Spain).

Since Greek influence has steadily declined since ancient times, and the whole country was occupied and oppressed by Ottoman Turkey for four centuries after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople, it is perhaps not surprising that many Greeks look back to Alexander’s Macedonian empire as a lost ‘golden age’ of Hellenism.

But how did one of the six former Yugoslav republics come to be known as Macedonia? Here the answer is Marshal Tito. Being of half-Croat and half-Slovene descent, he was well aware that Serb nationalism and expansionism had always been the bane of Yugoslav politics, and was determined to clip Serbia’s wings, however gently. Part of this involved turning Serbia’s territorial gains along Greece’s northern border (hitherto referred to as ‘Southern Serbia’) into a separate new republic; the local population spoke a language far more closely related to neighbouring Bulgarian than to Serbian and Croatian, and this seemed to justify a new identity. But Tito would surely have saved everyone a great deal of trouble after his death if he had not decided that the new republic should be called Macedonia.

As long as Yugoslavia remained a unified state, there was no real problem; but all that changed when the country broke apart and, one after the other, its constituent republics declared themselves independent. When Macedonia voted for independence under this name in September 1991, Greece promptly denied its right to use it, on the grounds that the name was ‘exclusively Greek’. Non-Greeks who disputed this interpretation were told to ‘read history’ – whereas in fact the historical facts are, to say the least, ambiguous. And since, for good or ill, the inhabitants of present-day Macedonia choose to call themselves ‘Macedonians’ and their language ‘Macedonian’ – as they do – who are the Greeks to say them nay?

But of course matters are not quite as clear-cut as all this. One of the firmer parts of Greece’s argument against allowing its neighbours to use the name is indeed based on history – but far more recent history than many Greeks would like to believe. Alexander the Great’s empire has little to do with the case. Once again, we are talking about 19th- and 20th century Serb nationalism and expansionism.

As the first south-east European state to gain independence from Ottoman Turkey without immediately falling into the competing clutches of Austria’s Habsburg empire, Serbia had hopes of becoming a major regional power; but unlike all its neighbours it had the serious disadvantage of being landlocked. It was cut off by its geography from all three of the nearest seas (Black, Aegean and Adriatic); and its future prosperity would surely depend on having a major seaport through which to export its products. The obvious candidate was Salonica, known to the Greeks as Thessaloníki and to the Serbs and other Slavs as Solun.

Although Thessaloníki is now known far and wide as Greece’s second-largest city, all this was in fact a matter of chance. As in that other famous Mediterranean seaport Trieste, its  population had always been a colourful mixture: in this case Greek, Slav, Jewish and Turkish. And at the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913 the Greek army only beat its Bulgarian competitors to the city by a matter of hours. Both Greece and Bulgaria already had coasts and seaports of their own; but Serbia lost out in the race, and was instead forced to seek a new coast and seaports on the Adriatic, which involved absorbing Croatia and Slovenia under the cloak of a ‘united’ Yugoslavia.

Having annexed Thessaloníki by the very skin of its teeth, Greece was only too aware of its northern Slav neighbours’ designs on the Aegean coast; and when Macedonia declared itself independent, Greece eagerly sought evidence that the old Slav ambitions of an outlet to the Mediterranean were still very much alive. Unfortunately, Macedonia did not take long to provide precisely that explosive evidence.

Its flag is to this day based on a historical symbol that the Greeks see as their own: the ‘sun’ of Vergina. There are so many other flag designs it could have chosen – but it chose what was surely the most provocative of all the conceivable alternatives. A nationalist organisation in Macedonia then printed unofficial banknotes that showed the iconic ‘White Tower’ in Thessaloníki. The Macedonian government printed its own far more neutral banknotes; but the fact that it had allowed the other notes to circulate in the first place, rather than prosecute the counterfeiters, was of course grist to Greece’s nationalist mill, as supposed proof that, deep down, its northern neighbour sought access to Greek territory on the Aegean coast.

Finally, and worst of all, in 2006 the Macedonian government decided to rename its own international airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great – a politically inept act that could not have been better calculated to inflame passions at a time when Macedonia was seeking greater international recognition. There’s no reason to name airports after people at all – and why, of all people, someone as divisive as Alexander the Great?

Then again, why did Greece have to rise to the bait – as it predictably did?

Perhaps here we’re no longer talking about lawyers. But I still bet they’re doing damn well out of all this acrimony; for all too often it’s their stock-in-trade.

It’s (not) in the cards

Jack Higgins’s otherwise fairly realistic wartime novel The eagle has landed includes a passage in which a female character consults a pack of Tarot cards in an attempt to foretell two of the male characters’ futures.

It seems that Tarot cards were used as ordinary playing cards right up to the 18th century – but then they became associated with supposedly ‘occult’ forces, and it is this they are mainly known for today. Since I don’t believe in such forces, I find this idea not only absurd, but also – because of its potential misuse to manipulate people psychologically – dangerous (I reject religion on precisely the same grounds).

One of the commonly used Tarot packs, and the one evidently referred to in the book, consists of 22 ‘trump’ cards whose names have varied through history but are always emotionally charged: the Fool, the Magician, the High Priestess, the Empress, the Emperor, the Hierophant (an ancient word for someone who guides people towards knowledge, insight and wisdom – known in some packs as the Pope….), the Lovers, the Chariot, Strength, the Hermit, Wheel of Fortune, Justice, the Hanged Man, Death, Temperance, the Devil, the Tower, the Star, the Moon, the Sun, Judgement, the World. Clearly, all kinds of meanings can be attached to such concepts; and since there is no single accepted ‘reading’ of any of the cards, whoever is doing the reading can make of them anything he or she likes. Their meanings can change in combination with other cards, or if they are upside down (from the reader’s viewpoint), or if the wind is blowing from the east (I mean this sarcastically, but I can’t rule out that some readings do actually depend on such chance climatological factors). At one point the female character in the book reassures one of the male ones that he will not die soon, even though the seventh card she has dealt (supposedly indicative of his future) is Death – for it is upside down, and this (so she tells him) means he will in fact live for a very long time. Whatever….

I said ‘chance climatological factors’, but of course the whole point of Tarot readings is that there is no such thing as chance – for everyone’s lives are controlled by occult forces, and hence can be predicted in advance, provided you’re ‘a sensitive’ (as the female character calls herself, adding that the cards are in fact ‘a tool only’).

Sceptics (of whom there are many) have wondered how someone’s supposedly preordained future can change utterly from moment to moment – for if the cards are dealt again (face down so that the reader cannot see them) they invariably land in a quite different order, and quite possibly the right way up after all (so all of a sudden your life expectancy can be reduced by many years, only to skyrocket again if the cards are dealt a third time….).

Although the Wikipedia article on ‘tarotology’ admits that it ‘is considered pseudoscience’, the related article on the Major Arcana (as the 22-card pack is known) makes the following astonishing statement: ‘It is tempting … to dismiss the whole thing as one big, self-delusional failure … However the problem with this position [my italics] is that while no historical evidence may be invoked to justify any of the esotericists’ claims made for Tarot during the course of its 200-year evolution, nevertheless the notion that the tarot has occult, mystical, cartomantic, and magical significance has persisted to the present day, where it enjoys a certain degree of popularity and acceptance in a wide range of groups’.

I don’t for the life of me see why this should be a ‘problem’. Large numbers of people believe all kinds of things that are clearly self-delusional, but that does not make them true – as in ‘fifty million lemmings can’t be wrong’. Talking of which, the idea that the furry little hamster-like creatures called lemmings commit ‘mass suicide’ by jumping off cliffs is as mythical as the idea that our lives are controlled by occult forces and that our futures can be predicted by a pack of cards. In reality, they breed like… well, lemmings, and when demographic (lemmographic? sorry….) pressure exhausts the food supply they migrate in large numbers. They can swim, and in their urge to go elsewhere they often try to cross bodies of water; if these prove too wide for them, they simply die of exhaustion in mid-crossing.

We humans like to attribute purpose to all kinds of natural phenomena, hence the ‘mass suicide’ myth. The lemmings don’t want to die – they just breed too fast for their own good (rather like us humans, in fact). And since we don’t like to think that our lives are at the mercy of blind chance, we invent myths about ‘occult’ forces – such as religion, and the power of Tarot cards.

But when the female character in the Higgins book reads the Tarot for her soldierly lover – reluctantly, for despite being a ‘sensitive’ she clearly has no idea of what she’ll find, and just as clearly does not want the news to be bad – she promptly turns the seventh card face down, tells him it was Strength, makes up a plausible-sounding interpretation, and leaves the room. Once she has gone, he of course turns the card face up again, and discovers it was in fact the Hanged Man. Whereupon he says to his fellow soldiers ‘Women can be very silly at times. Is it not so, gentlemen?’

No further comment.


Technology: no substitute for using your head

It seems that some years ago the city council in Wales’s second-largest city, Swansea (in Welsh, Abertawe – ‘mouth of the River Tawe’), wanted to prevent lorries that delivered goods to a local supermarket from taking short cuts through an adjoining housing estate. So it designed the following English-language road sign: No entry for heavy goods vehicles: residential site only.

Since public signs in Wales were by then required to be bilingual, the text was sent (evidently by e-mail) to the council’s in-house translation service, so that a Welsh version could be produced. The response was almost instantaneous: Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd: anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu. How do I know it was almost instantaneous? Because it was an automatic message that meant ‘I am not in the office right now: please send me any translation work.’

Although as a Saeson (Saxon) my own knowledge of Welsh is very basic, I can recognise the words for I am not (nid wyf), any (unrhyw), office (since the UK government’s former Welsh Office in London, whose tasks have since been transferred to the devolved Welsh parliament in Cardiff, was known in Welsh as Swyddfa Gymreig) and even translation (gyfieithu, which is derived from the word iaith, meaning ‘language’). So you might have thought a civil servant in Wales’s second-largest city would have realised this was not the answer the council was looking for.

Unfortunately, Welsh tends to be less widely known in urban areas; and although Welsh lessons are now compulsory in Welsh schools, whoever read the reply from the translation service could have moved to Wales from some other part of the UK and never had the benefit of them, or was simply too busy (or couldn’t be bothered) to check.

As you’ll by now have guessed, the out-of-office reply was forwarded as it stood to the department responsible for making road signs (where it seems no-one noticed the error either – but perhaps it was centralised somewhere in England, and they just copied what they were sent); and, as the BBC online news service reports, Swansea’s Welsh-speaking drivers were ‘bemused’ to read the hilarious results: No entry for heavy goods vehicles: residential site only / Nid wyf yn y swyddfa ar hyn o bryd: anfonwch unrhyw waith i’w gyfieithu (‘I am not in the office right now: please send me any translation work’).

Photographs of the blunder were soon sent to Golwg, a Welsh-language magazine that took a gleeful delight in pointing out such errors – which it claimed were distressingly common. A local journalist with the unmistakably Welsh name Dylan Iorwerth was quoted as saying ‘When they’re proofing signs, they should really use someone who speaks Welsh.’

All very true, in a country that’s now officially bilingual. Yet in all the commentary I’ve read on the subject, a more important point seems to have been overlooked: why did Swansea council’s in-house translation service send its out-of-office replies in Welsh only?

Consider who the service’s customers must have been. If they needed a Welsh translation and couldn’t produce one themselves, it seems more than likely that they knew little or no Welsh. So, at the very least, you would have expected a bilingual reply – or perhaps even one in English only (for by then there were no native Welsh-speakers left who did not have a perfect command of both languages – especially if they were working for a city council).

But here two frankly irrelevant assumptions evidently came into play. One was that a Welsh translation service should go out of its way to advertise its linguistic identity and promote the use of its language – which in effect meant telling its customers ‘If you can’t understand Welsh, we can’t help you’. Yet the whole point was that its customers couldn’t understand Welsh, which was why they required help in the first place. And what they got here was the opposite of help.

The other assumption was that technological progress is by definition a good thing, and the faster and briefer the better. Automatic replies (which you invariably can’t reply to yourself – the dreaded ‘no-reply’ e-mails) are all very well in their place; but if they can be mistaken for something else, they are worse than useless. The out-of-office reply on a road sign in South Wales is a perfect example.

Of course, you would perhaps expect a correct translation to have been preceded by words such as ‘Dear X, Thank you for your e-mail of X. The requested Welsh translation is attached.’ But e-mail communications increasingly tend to dispense with such common courtesies – the faster and briefer the better. With results to match.

In short, technology is no substitute for using your head.

Bikini, Maralinga, Moruroa, Chagos: pawns in a game

To most people today, the word ‘bikini’ refers to scanty women’s beachwear – but this was not always so.

Just over 70 years ago, with Eastern Europe falling under Soviet control and the Cold War looming, the United States began conducting a series of nuclear weapons tests on, above and under one of the 29 atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) that make up the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The atoll was known in the local language as Pikinni, which apparently translates as ‘coconut place’; but such coconuts as once grew there have long since gone, or are no longer fit for human consumption. In English, the name was simplified to Bikini.

Although the Marshall Islands would officially become independent in 1979, they had been classic playthings of colonialism ever since being ‘discovered’ by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. Many immediately died of imported diseases to which they had no immunity. As the Spanish empire, and its ability to govern its far-flung territories, steadily withered, it eventually allowed the newly emerging power (and latecomer in the European scramble for colonies) Germany to take over some of its Pacific possessions; and for 35 years, from 1884 to 1919, the Marshall Islands were officially German. Then, having lost the First World War, Germany was stripped by the victorious Allies of all its overseas territories, from Africa to the Pacific; and the islands were now transferred to Japanese rule (ironically, Japan would be Germany’s ally in the next world war, but this was not foreseen at the time).

In 1945 it was Japan’s turn to be stripped of its overseas territories by the victorious Allies; and now it was the United States that took over. Having seen the horrifying effects of the newly developed nuclear weapons on its own territory (at the remote town of Los Alamos in the largely arid state of New Mexico) and later in Japan (when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki), the US desperately needed somewhere to continue testing them without prying eyes and vociferous local protest, not to mention severe and conspicuous long-term damage to health. Despite having posed as an opponent of colonialism in all its forms (in the next few years it was to exert strong pressure on Holland, France and Britain to grant their overseas colonies independence), the American government had no compunction about using the Marshall Islands – now effectively a US colony – for its own purposes, one of which was nuclear testing. The choice fell on Bikini Atoll, whose 167 inhabitants were asked to leave their homeland ‘temporarily, for the good of mankind and to end all world wars’. We cannot know what would have happened if they had refused, for their chiefs unanimously agreed to go; but it’s a safe bet that they would have been expelled regardless. After all, they were few in number, they had no political or financial clout, and they were not white – this at a time when racial segregation and discrimination were still the norm in America’s southern states.

They were subsequently moved to a succession of places which all proved incapable of sustaining them, and they soon faced starvation. Seventy years later their original home is still too radioactive for human habitation, and their descendants, who now largely depend on government welfare payments, understandably have no intention of returning there. The promise that their departure would be ‘temporary’ was a barefaced lie, for the long-term effects of exposure to radiation were no secret; in her ignorance, the illustrious Polish-French physicist Marie Curie had carried radioactive substances around on her person, and in 1934 she died of a disease that was by then known to have been caused by this.

But in the context of the Cold War no-one in the West was about to ‘rock the boat’ with indignant protests about the fate of a handful of powerless and deliberately misinformed Pacific islanders; and in July 1946, just four days after the first detonation, a Frenchman designed a revealing new line of women’s beachwear that he called the ‘bikini’ – supposedly because of its ‘explosive’ commercial and cultural potential (one female reviewer even called the garment the ‘atom bomb of fashion’).

Business as usual.

But this was just the beginning. Fast-forward to the early 1950s, by which time the USSR also had nuclear weapons, all of Eastern Europe was firmly under Soviet control, Mao Zedong’s communist forces had defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s pro-Western Nationalists and proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, war had broken out in Korea between the communist North and the capitalist South, and the French were fast losing the battle with communist insurgents in their Indochinese colonies Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Anti-communist paranoia (the ‘reds under the bed’ scare, coupled with the old ‘yellow peril’ fear of Asia’s masses) gripped Western governments; and three months after I was born, Britain produced a nuclear weapon of its own. But where to test it?

The answer must have been only too obvious. The British empire was only just starting to disintegrate, notably with the ‘loss’ of India (and Muslim Pakistan) in 1947; and although Australia was now nominally an independent country, it was still very much in the Western camp, and perfectly willing to let the Brits explode their highly radioactive devices in remote parts of the outback. Not that these were uninhabited; but, just like the Marshall Islanders, the inhabitants were few in number, had no political or financial clout, and were not white. They were Aboriginals – members of Australia’s dwindling indigenous population, who had always been treated as outcasts. A ‘white Australia policy’ that excluded immigrants with the ‘wrong’ skin colour was still very much in force at the time; and many Australian whites would happily have seen the ‘Abos’ die out (it was not for want of trying).

Three sites were selected for Britain’s nuclear weapons tests: one in the far north-west of the country, and two near the south coast, 800 km from Adelaide. One of the latter sites was called Maralinga. It was part of a ‘prohibited’ defence area known as Woomera – ironically named after an Aboriginal spear-throwing tool (on a par in its effectiveness with that iconic Aboriginal hunting implement, the boomerang), since the site was also used for missile launches. This may have seemed a nice cross-cultural mix of the ancient and the modern; but I expect the Aboriginals were not amused.

Here the native population was simply shipped out from what to them was a deeply sacred place; but some nevertheless suffered from radiation sickness and died, if only because hazardous waste was simply dumped in the ground, untreated. Today’s neo-liberal cost-cutters would surely have approved. The British and Australian governments also took good care to keep the whole thing secret – and above all to ensure that white people weren’t affected.

Business as usual.

Eight years after Britain, in 1960, France joined the still select ‘nuclear club’ (China’s first nuclear test was four years away); and since it still had some remnants of its empire left, it likewise looked around for convenient test sites well away from metropolitan France, so that its native white population would not be inconvenienced. Moruroa, an outlying atoll in the Pacific colony of French Polynesia, seemed to fit the bill, with plenty of fresh seawater to wash away the mess – environmental awareness was minimal at the time.

It is not to France’s credit that it did even less than the Americans and Brits to protect the local population – if only by evacuating them against their will. Moruroa (and nearby Fangataufa, which was also used for testing) were themselves uninhabited, but as recently as 2002 there were some 800 people living within 400 km of the two atolls. The pattern was a familiar one: the islanders were few in number, had no political or financial clout, and were not white. In 1995 France’s president Jacques Chirac even decided to resume the tests – precisely a year before a worldwide ban on such testing was due to take effect. French products were boycotted worldwide as a result.

Which brings us to the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean – and, once again, the Brits.

As the British empire disintegrated throughout the 1960s, the island state of Mauritius also sought independence; and its territory included the Chagos islands, off the south coast of India. Perhaps, given the 2000-km distance, Mauritius had no particular entitlement to them; but Britain, of course, had still less.

Then the Cold War intervened. The United States needed a military base in the Indian Ocean, and only Britain could provide the necessary territory: Diego Garcia (named for a Spanish explorer) in the Chagos islands.

Unfortunately, Mauritius was about to become independent; but Britain neatly circumvented this problem by enacting a law that detached the islands from Mauritius in 1965, three years before it broke away, so that the US base could be set up on what would then still be British territory.

The Americans had wanted somewhere uninhabited, precisely to avoid conflicts with newly independent countries. Unfortunately the Chagos islands were inhabited; but the British government acted swiftly to remedy this.

The local population were not ‘native’ in the sense of being descended from people who had lived there since time immemorial; instead, they mainly worked on coconut plantations established by European settlers, and had been brought in from elsewhere (Africa, India and Malaya). But this had been their only home for a century and a half; and by the mid-1960s they numbered over 1,000 (whereas Britain had told the US there were only a few hundred of them – as if this made any difference).

A deliberate depopulation policy was now pursued. ‘Chagossians’ who left the islands for any reason (including medical care) were not permitted to return; and those who remained had only restricted access to food and medicines, in the hope they would be persuaded to leave ‘voluntarily’. When even this failed to have the desired effect, it seems far nastier measures were adopted. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, family pets were killed in front of their owners; and people were forced onto passing ships that carried them off to Mauritius and the Seychelles. When newly independent Mauritius refused to resettle them without monetary compensation, the UK government forked out £650,000 to get the Chagossians off their hands. By the mid-1970s the whole ugly operation had been completed: a small number of people who were not white and had no political or financial clout had again been cleared out of the way. This time there was no nuclear hazard to deter them from returning home; but Britain and the US were determined not to let them do so. With luck, cynical civil servants in London and Washington must have thought, their descendants would settle down elsewhere and forget all about their former homeland.

Only they didn’t. They have continued to protest; and as late as 2016, half a century after the expulsions began, the UK government has made yet another nauseating statement denying the Chagossians’ right to return: ‘The government has decided against resettlement of the Chagossian people to the British Indian Ocean Territory on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer.’ Weasel words: their return is only ‘unfeasible’ because Britain and the US governments don’t want it to happen. As for cost to the British taxpayer, this surely pales into insignificance compared with the financial and emotional cost to the uprooted population; and the government’s spokeswoman should have been ashamed to even mention this. She continued by saying that the difficulties of re-establishing ‘a small remote community on low-lying islands’ (a perhaps injudicious admission that climate change is real – although evidently not serious enough for the US to close down its Diego Garcia base) and developing modern public services for them were too great. There would be ‘limited healthcare and education’ and a lack of jobs and economic opportunities – all simply because Britain is unwilling to provide anything more in a territory for which it remains politically, and above all morally, responsible. The bottom line is that it doesn’t want those people to be there.

And then the hypocritical clincher: ‘The manner in which the Chagossian community was removed from the territory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the way they were treated, was wrong and we look back with deep regret.’ Deep regret? Give us a break – this was quite deliberate policy, and no-one but the Chagossians ever shed a tear. Note the maudlin phrase ‘we look back’ – there’s no looking forward to a possible solution, for the British government is as determined as ever to prevent one from being found.

Once again, it would have done the spokeswoman rather more credit if she had omitted this manifestly untruthful part of her statement, instead of rubbing salt into the victims’ wounds by pretending to sympathise with them. She clearly couldn’t give a damn about what happens to the people whose lives were so wilfully wrecked all those years ago. They were – and are – just pawns in a game.


Basic physics….

…. of all topics, given that it was one of my worst subjects at school. But one thing in physics that always fascinated me was a device known as the ‘bimetal strip’; and today, for some reason, I found myself wondering just when it was invented.

The physical principles involved are older than humanity itself – though it took us quite some time to discover them and put them to practical use. First we had to learn how to extract metals from the earth’s crust and turn them into things we needed – rather more than 10,000 years ago, when the ‘Stone Age’ made way for the ‘Bronze Age’ (named for an alloy of copper and tin which, among other things, allowed us to make stronger and more deadly weapons).

At some point it must eventually have become clear that different metals have different ‘coefficients of expansion’ – in other words, they expand and contract by different amounts when heated up or allowed to cool down again. And almost 300 years ago an English clockmaker called John Harrison worked out a way to use these differing properties for his own professional purposes.

Pendulum clocks had the disadvantage that the pendulum got longer or shorter as the surrounding air temperature changed; this in turn increased or reduced the swing of the pendulum, on which accurate timekeeping depended. But in 1726 Harrison discovered that he could use the different coefficients of expansion of iron and brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) to design a complicated framework of parallel iron and brass rods that kept the swing identical regardless of temperature; I’ll spare you the details, but it was ingenious.

Later such ‘bimetal’ systems were perfected and extended to other fields. The discovery of gas as a source of public lighting and heating in the late 18th century was an immense step forward in comfort; but gas had the unfortunate drawback that it could ignite with devastating force at the wrong moment (and the tiniest spark was enough, as coal miners still know to their cost). So gas-fired heaters and water boilers were eventually fitted with small ‘pilot lights’ which ensured that the appliances did not have to be turned on and off again each time they were used; any incoming gas was instantly consumed by the flame, so that it could not accumulate unseen in the chimney, room or building. For additional safety, piped ‘town gas’ – which was normally odourless – was given a characteristic strong smell that warned of a leak; but by then it was often too late. Simply switching on an electric light, let alone striking a match, to see where you were in a dark gas-filled room could provide the fatal spark that would blow the whole building (or street) apart.

To avoid wasting fuel, pilot lights were kept very small; but this made them liable to be extinguished by draughts, or if the supply was temporarily cut off or the intake got blocked by impurities, allowing the explosive gas to leak unnoticed. And it was here that the ‘bimetal strip’ came into its own.

A small length of iron, firmly bonded (riveted or welded) to a similar length of copper, was installed in a position where it was exposed to the pilot light. As long as the flame was alight, the heat made the two metals expand at different rates. Being bonded together, they could not simply expand in a straight line; instead, the whole component curved away to one side, keeping the gas intake open. But if for any reason the pilot light went out, the metals instantly cooled down again, allowing the curved component to straighten back into a position that sealed off the intake and prevented a leak.

This basic principle of physics operated with unvarying accuracy; and until quite recently the bimetal strip was the safety device of choice in gas-fired appliances. But eventually it was realised that a constantly burning pilot light consumes almost as much gas on its own as the apparatus does when it is actually being used; and modern appliances are fitted with more environment-friendly systems. However, some older ones still have bimetal strips, for after three centuries the device has not outlived its technical usefulness. It isn’t vulnerable to electricity failures, or computer viruses, or other such hazards of modern life, for it simply depends on what has happened to metals since time immemorial when they heat up or cool down.

In my previous flat I had an old cylindrical cast-iron gas heater that was protected by a bimetal strip. If the pilot light had gone out and I needed to relight it, that meant keeping the intake button pressed down for as long as it took the heat of the flame to act on the strip until it had curved well out of the way. If I was impatient, the flame simply went out again, sealing off the intake – no gas, no sweat, no big bang.

Good old basic physics – and thanks, Mr Harrison.