Saturday 28 February 2009

Iraq - closing a disaster?

So, nearly six years after George W Bush announced American “victory” in Iraq, the US has finally found a way to scramble out of the morass it created. To a considerable fanfare, Barack Obama has announced that troops will leave by the end of August next year. As with all politicians, though, you have to look at the small print, and in fact, it turns out that a modest little contingent of 50,000 – the same size as half the entire British army – will not leave, and could stay until the end of 2011. It seems like a clear breach of President Obama’s promise, before he was elected, to withdraw all troops within 16 months of coming to power, but, hey, you know election promises sometimes turn out to be nothing more than, well....election promises.

The US-UK attack did remove a murderous, tyrannical regime – though this, of course, was not the reason for it. Indeed, a few days before the attack, Tony Blair promised Saddam Hussein that he could remain in power – and presumably continue to be a murderous tyrant – provided he gave up his (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction.

We do not know what Iraq would have been like today if we had not bombed it to smithereens. We do know that after the “shock and awe” we inflicted on them, nearly a million Iraqi people today do not have enough food, that many are without electricity for more than half the time, that only one person in three has clean drinking water, that only one in five is served by a proper sewerage system, that cholera is a constant danger, that the country is riven by bitter sectarian enmities, and that, as the BBC’s John Simpson so eloquently pointed out last night, although violence has fallen, it remains one of the most dangerous places on earth.

How many Iraqi deaths did we cause? As far as we and the Americans are concerned, the answer is the one given by Nikita Khruschev when asked about the victims of the great famine created by the Soviets in Russia in the 1930’s – “No one was counting.” A number of independent research organisations, though, have tried to answer the question and have come to the conclusion that we may have been responsible for the deaths of up to 1.4 million Iraqi people.

Friday 27 February 2009

It's only money (8)

There’s a saying in journalism – “you couldn’t make it up.” In other words, fact truly is stranger than fiction. Nowhere has this been more true than with Labour’s alleged financial rescue package. It is weird enough that they did not bother to find out that RBS was going to use a slice of our money to give its former boss Sir Fred “the shredded” (sorry that should be “the shred”)Goodwin a pension of more than £13,000 a week, before they handed it over. (I’ll bet the growing army of jobseekers trying to claim their 60 quid wish they were treated with such insouciant generosity by Labour.)

Now because of this breathtaking negligence, the Prime Minister is reduced to degrading pleas to Sir Fred, who has made it quite clear that he does not see his leading role in destroying the bank as any impediment to picking up his loot.

But even more bizarre surely is Labour’s plan for the taxpayer to take £325 billion of worthless assets off RBS’s hands, which could cost each one of us £10,000. In return, RBS has promised to lend British people......£25 billion! Sorry am I missing something? Why doesn’t the government just lend us the £25 billion(maybe through our nationalised bank - Northern Rock) – in which case even if none of it was ever returned our loss as taxpayers would be only £800 each – and save us £300 billion by letting RBS keep its “assets”.

What is Labour’s fixation with banks? You would have thought the events of the last few months would have cured them. Beware, Gordon and co - the dustbin of history beckons ever more ominously for you.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

The secret disaster

Outside the dwindling circle of fanatical Blair- and Brownites, it is now virtually universally recognised that the bombing, invasion and occupation of Iraq was Britain’s greatest foreign policy disaster for at least half a century, possibly longer. Predictably, Jack “Man of” Straw – one of the leading conspirators behind the war – has banned the release of the cabinet papers that would reveal how ministers took their disastrous decision.

Labour’s line is that it would damage the quality of our government (!) if it was revealed who said what during this momentous debate. In fact, it seems what we would actually have learned would have been just the opposite. All the indications are that far from there being a ding-dong argument, ministers nodded through the war in an astonishingly supine and casual manner.

This was not a decision on whether to spend more on schools, or how we should organise hospitals – important though those things are. This was a decision to bomb, invade and occupy another country in the sure knowledge that it would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people who had never done us any harm. The actions of some of those sitting around that cabinet table may well have been criminal. Six years later we still do not know what went wrong, nor how we would avoid the same things going wrong again if we were asked to, say, bomb Iran.

To put it in terms Mr Blair might understand, Labour lost its soul the day it decided to bomb Iraq. Perhaps even worse, though, is what has followed – the party’s cold-blooded determination, over weeks, months and years, to ensure that none of those responsible for the disaster is called to account. It beggars belief that the only people who ever lost their jobs over Iraq were the chairman and director-general of the BBC, and the BBC reporter who dared to tell the truth.

Wake up Labour! No good will come of you until you call the warmongers to account. The only way for a once-great political party to regain its self-respect is to release the cabinet and all other relevant papers forthwith and to have a full INDEPENDENT inquiry with witnesses testifying on oath.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Sri Lanka endgame?

The United Nations and the European Union are pressing for an immediate ceasefire in Sri Lanka to allow up to 200,000 civilians to escape from the battlefield on which perhaps the final struggle between the government and the Tamil Tigers is now raging. The Tigers say they would accept a truce, but the government is insisting that the rebels lay down their arms and surrender, and this they have so far refused to do.

Government troops have now entered Puthukudiyiruppu, the last town held by the Tigers, who are alleged to be shooting people who try to flee. The rebels also mounted two suicide attacks on Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo with light aircraft, but one was shot down, and the number of deaths on the ground was limited to two.

The Tigers have been fighting for an independent state in the north-east of the island since the 1970’s, claiming that Tamils have been oppressed by the Sinhalese minority in Sri Lanka ever since independence from Britain in 1948. An estimated 70,000 people have died in the fighting.

Monday 23 February 2009

It's only money (7)

Now I know this is highly irregular, but I’ve got a leak from the next meeting of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. They’ve found the solution to the lack of people wanting to lend – they’re going to cut interest rates again to minus 2.5%!

The reasoning works like this. Back in October, if you lent someone £1,000, at the end of a year, you would get back £1,045 – a profit of £45. No one wanted to lend. So what could the Bank do to ensure a steady supply of lenders? Slash that profit margin! So today let’s imagine you’re brave enough to lend someone £1,000, in the middle of a recession. There’s always a chance, of course, that you won’t get some or all of your money paid back at all, but if you are lucky enough to get the whole debt repaid, you ‘ll get the princely return of £10.

Bizarrely, this change has not resulted in dozens of people queuing up to lend money. So now Labour has persuaded the Bank that the way to attract lenders is to charge them for the privilege. From next month, if you’re fortunate enough to get your money back at all, you’ll receive only £975 for every £1,000 you lent. How could any lender resist this prospect? (I understand the government is also planning to ensure a steady supply of orange juice in the shops by decreeing that its price has to be cut by 80%)

Should this courageous initiative fail, the Bank has another trick up its sleeve - “quantitative easing” – printing money to you and me. It is a policy that has been used with great success by the Weimar Republic and Robert Mugabe among others. There is a ready solution available to the crisis we are in (see my blog of January 29) but that would involve helping the poor, so Labour dogma means it cannot possibly be implemented.

Sunday 22 February 2009

Chinese mining disasters

At least 73 miners have been killed, and dozens more are trapped underground after an explosion at the Tunlan colliery in China’s main coal-producing province of Shanxi. More than 100 injured miners have been taken to hospital.

China is the world’s biggest producer of coal, with perhaps 5 million people working in the industry, but it also has the worst accident rate. Last year, the official death toll in the industry was 3,200, but many believe the true figure is much higher. In 2007, a Hongkong-based human rights organisation said it could be as many as 20,000.

The worst mining disaster in history happened in the Honkeiko colliery in the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1942, while it was occupied by the Japanese. An explosion killed more than 1,500 miners, about a third of those working in the pit at the time.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Palestine - a scandal ignored

The western media is devoting lots of space to the shenanigans over who is going to be Israel’s next Prime Minister, but suppresses news of how Israel continues to oppress the Palestinians in the territories it illegally occupies. People like the BBC present Benjamin Netanyahu as the right-wing Israeli candidate, with Tzipi Livni as the “centrist”! (Yes, that is the same Tzipi Livni who just a few short weeks ago massacred 1,300 Palestinians.)

What you can be sure of is that the outcome in Tel Aviv will make no difference to life for the millions of Palestinians living under an occupation that has now gone for 10 times as long as the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two. If you listen to those who support and bankroll the Israelis – Barrack Obama, Britain’s Labour government, the European Union – you will hear the refrain that if the Palestinians would just bow down to the Israelis, like Fatah has done in the West Bank, rather than resisting them, like Hamas is doing in Gaza, everything would be o.k.

Events on the ground constantly give the lie to that, but fortunately for our leaders, our media largely ignores them. Last week, Israeli troops invaded a West Bank village called Jayyous. They did the kind of things they did in the parts of Gaza they managed to penetrate – vandalising homes and schools, beating up local people, looting. They also kidnapped up to 90 people, to join more than 11,000 Palestinians they have already interned. These kidnappings go on the whole time. Last week the Israelis also abducted people from Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah and two other West Bank towns.

The reason for the assault on Jayyous appears to have been that local people had dared to mount peaceful protests against Israel’s Berlin-style wall which has robbed the village of thousands of olive and fruit trees in addition to a crucial part of its water supply. The Israelis are reportedly planning to use some of the land they have stolen to expand one of their settlements.

Friday 20 February 2009


On this day....153 years ago, the John Rutledge sank in the Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. The passengers managed to get into lifeboats, but the seas were so rough that only one man survived. Less than a month earlier, on January 23, 1856, the SS Pacific was also lost after a similar collision. All 186 people on board were lost. Later a message was found in a bottle washed up in the Hebrides, saying “ship going down. Confusion on board. Icebergs around us on every side. I know I cannot escape.”

The Titanic, of course, is the most famous shipwreck caused by ice, and the one that caused most victims (see my blog of January 21), but there were many others, like the schooner Maria, which went down off Newfoundland carrying 111 refugees from the Irish potato famine in 1849. There were only a dozen survivors.

The SS City of Glasgow which disappeared between New York and Liverpool in January 1854 is also thought to have been a victim of icebergs. 480 passengers and crew were lost.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Building a police state (3) + Tamburlaine

As Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith tries to justify an expenses claim of at least £116,000, evidence of the extent to which she is creating a police state in Britain grows ever more clear. Ms Smith is under fire for claiming that her sister’s home, where she sleeps in a spare bedroom while she is in London, is her main residence rather than the constituency house where she lives with her family.

Meanwhile, Tony Benn, a redoutable campaigner for civil liberties, who had served a mere 48 years as an MP before his retirement from Parliament, was stopped and searched by police on his way to the House of Commons because his presence in the area made him a potential terrorist suspect.

A group of Stoke City football fans found themselves in an even more Kafkaesque situation. They were having a drink in a pub on their way to a match in Manchester. The publican has apparently testified that they were well-behaved, however, police detained them in the pub, and required each one to sign a statement saying they were "part of a group of football fans … causing a disturbance". A fan who questioned whether they had to sign a document asserting something that was untrue was threatened with arrest. Then they were put on buses and sent back to Stoke so they missed the match, and all it’s all perfectly legal under Labour’s “Violent Crime Reduction Act” of 2006. Nor is this an isolated instance.

On this day....604 years ago, Tamburlaine the Great died. Born in a village about 50 miles from Samarkand in 1336, he would lead 35 campaigns and amass 27 crowns. Those who tried to resist him would be massacred and have their cities destroyed. After taking Aleppo, he engaged in learned debate with some captured academics while his soldiers ran amok murdering the citizens. He devastated Delhi so severely that it did not recover for a century, then razed Baghdad and built a pyramid of 90,000 severed heads on its ruins. Tamburlaine died on his way to invade China when he was 69. For more details see
A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

AIDS in China + it's only money (6)

AIDS has now been officially recognised as China’s deadliest disease. It killed nearly 7,000 people in the first nine months of last year, overtaking tuberculosis and rabies. The figure represents a big increase, but there are suspicions that the real total may be much higher, as many local officials are thought to be reluctant to report cases. According to UN figures, 700,000 Chinese people were infected with the virus by the end of 2007.

AIDS victims used to have a difficult time in China. A human rights activist was put under house arrest after exposing the failure of the authorities in Henan province to carry out HIV tests on blood donations in the 1990’s, which resulted in an estimated 55,000 people being infected. Other activists were said to have been beaten up with the connivance of the authorities.

Across the world last year, the World Health Organisation said that there were 33 million people living with the AIDS virus, and that 2 million had died during 2007. About 1.6 million of those deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa - the region that is worst affected with two thirds of the world’s cases. Countries such as Botswana, Swaziland, South Africa and Zimbabwe all have infection rates of over 15 per cent.

It’s only money. Has Labour completely lost the plot? We are being told that it is a great victory for the taxpayer that RBS is now going to pay out only £340 million in bonuses instead of the £1 billion it originally planned. That is still a forced contribution of more than £10 from every taxpayer, some of whom will be earning as little as £6,000 a year. RBS is broke. It is only being kept afloat by a huge hand-out of our money. There is no justification for paying any bonuses of any sort. End of story. When will Labour and the bankers get it?

Tuesday 17 February 2009

Building a police state - 2

If you wanted to take a picture of a policeman, Sunday would have been a good day for it – in fact, the last good day. From now on if you photograph one of our friendly coppers, you could find yourself sent to gaol for 10 years. It’s all part of a new law presented by Labour as essential to – you’d never have guessed – the War on Terror. Oh sorry, the alleged Foreign Secretary David Miliband has told Labour MP’s they mustn’t call it that anymore.

Still, lighten up you might say, Labour would never use the law to prevent, for instance, the exposure of wrongdoing by a policeman, or to arrest a harmless tourist who didn’t understand that Britain was now a police state. Oh no? Opposition MP Damian Green had his offices searched by anti-terrorist police for exposing inconvenient truths about the Labour government, an 80 year old Auschwitz survivor who dared question Jack Straw was silenced under anti-terrorist legislation, and anti-terrorist laws have been used by police to question 7,000 trainspotters just in the North-East of England! God knows how many have been stopped over the whole country.

I could go on. No wonder even Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5, now thinks it’s all getting out of hand, and has protested at the way Labour is stoking up people’s fears in order to destroy our civil liberties. Mind you, our MP’s must have kicked up a hell of a stink when that “snap a bobby, go to gaol” law was going through Parliament. Funnily enough, I don’t remember hearing a peep out of them.

Monday 16 February 2009

It's only money - an apology

I am sorry. I realise I may have given the impression by some of the things I have written that I did not consider that our bankers were the cleverest people on earth. Now I realise I was wrong – they ARE the cleverest people on earth. Who else could grab billions of pounds from taxpayers like you and me because they’ve run their banks so incompetently they are now broke, then pocket that money in bonuses?

Lloyds, in receipt of £17 billion from us – that’s about £500 from every taxpayer in this country – wants to hand out £120 million to its staff, and whines that some are earning as little as £17,000 a year. Well, some of the taxpayers who will have to fork out for the bank’s bonuses will be earning as little as £7,000 a year, and most of them, I suspect, never get paid any bonuses themselves.

RBS, bailed out to the tune of £20 billion, has still not denied that it wants to pay out £1 billion (!!) in bonuses. Surely Labour will not be weak-kneed enough to allow this. These banks are broke. If they insist on paying bonuses, Labour should put our shareholding in them up for sale forthwith. Then let’s see how much money they’ll be able to afford to pay out. But why on earth did Labour not set conditions BEFORE handing over our money, instead of having to plead with the bankers after they had pocketed it?

Sunday 15 February 2009

Ground casualties in air crashes

Investigations are continuing into the crash of the Dash 8 aircraft in New York State on Thursday. All 49 people on board were killed plus one man on the ground. It could have been much worse, though. The local emergency co-ordinator commented: "It's remarkable that it only took one house, as devastating as that was. It could have easily wiped out that entire neighbourhood.”

We do not know yet how far the skill of the pilot was a factor in averting an even greater disaster, but it certainly has been in a number of other cases. When two aircraft collided over the Indian town of Charkhi Dadri in 1996 in the worst mid-air crash in history, eye-witnesses praised the crew of a Saudi Arabian aircraft for managing to steer the jet in its dying moments away from people’s homes so that it came down in a field, where it dug a trench 60 yards long. Everyone on board was killed, but there were no casualties on the ground.

Mercifully, the world’s five worst air crashes in terms of the number killed on board caused no deaths on the ground. One of the worst accidents for ground casualties came in August 1944 when a USAF Liberator bomber crashed on the village of Freckleton in Lancashire. 58 people were killed in the village, including 38 children in the local school.

Of course on 9/11, when four aircraft were hi-jacked with the deliberate aim of crashing them, the death toll was much higher – more than 2,700 on the ground, as well as over 250 on the airliners, while the Pan-Am jumbo blown up above Lockerbie killed 11 people on the ground.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Indian train crashes

At least 15 people were killed last night when India’s Coromandel Express train was derailed 60 miles from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa state. Hundreds of local people have been helping the emergency services to try and free people trapped in the wreckage.

India has one of the busiest rail networks in the world, carrying more than 18 million passengers every day and employing nearly one and a half million people. If also has lots of accidents – around 300 a year.

Two of the worst rail crashes in history happened in India. In 1981, a desperately overcrowded train plunged into a river in the state of Bihar, killing up to 1,000 people, while in 1995 the Puroshottam Express ploughed into another express train that had hit an animal on the tracks at Firozabad, and 358 people died.

Friday 13 February 2009

It's only money (4) + Dresden

A curious episode at the House of Commons yesterday when Gordon Brown excused his appointment of now-discredited banker Sir James Crosby to the financial watchdog, the FSA, on the grounds that he had been recommended by an independent committee. Since when have Brown and his Labour apparatchiks regarded the recommendations of expert committees as binding?

A couple of days before, they had seen nothing wrong with disregarding the conclusion of their expert committee on drug misuse that Ecstasy should be downgraded from Class A, nor with vilifying the committee’s chair for good measure. Come on, Gordon, you’ll have to do better than this!

On this day....64 years ago, 750 British bombers attacked the railway marshalling yards at Dresden in an attempt to disrupt Hitler’s plans to move more men to the Eastern Front, but they also started a ferocious firestorm that destroyed 11 square miles of the city. The next day, 450 USAF bombers attacked. Some fires burned for a week, and although the death toll was never established, it was almost certainly more than 40,000.

“Bomber” Harris had learned well from the Luftwaffe’s tactics earlier in the war. They had sowed the wind, he said, and now they were reaping the whirlwind.

Thursday 12 February 2009


Police in Australia are questioning two men in connection with the bush fires that have killed at least 180 people, though it is not clear whether they are under suspicion of arson or looting. If many of the fires turn out to be arson, this will be one of the worst cases in recent years, though probably not as deadly as the incident on February 18, 2003, when 198 people died on an underground train in Daegu, South Korea.

The arsonist was an unemployed former taxi driver, who was apparently unhappy about the medical treatment he had received following a stroke, and the fire may have been a failed suicide attempt. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but died in gaol a year later.

A more novel punishment was handed out to an arsonist in the fourth century BC, who destroyed the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus - one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The young man was named Herostratus, and apparently did it so that, in the words of a Roman historian, “his name might be spread through the whole world”. Not only did the authorities execute Herostratus, they also forbade anyone to mention his name under pain of death. The fact that we are still writing about him 2,300 years later suggests this latter penalty was not altogether effective.

The very worst acts of arson, of course, have been committed by armed forces in wars. The Luftwaffe tried the tactic of creating a firestorm – notably in Coventry, where they killed more than 500 people. The same method was adopted with even more deadly effect by the allies, who killed more than 40,000 at Hamburg, a similar number at Dresden, and perhaps 140,000 in Tokyo.

Wednesday 11 February 2009


Measles is on the increase again in Britain – with the number of cases in England and Wales rising from 990 in 2007 to at least 1,348 last year. The Health Protection Agency says the reason is that fewer people had their children vaccinated because of a scare, which most doctors now discount, over the MMR vaccine.

In 2006, a 13 year old boy became the first person to die from the virus in the UK in 14 years, and he had been taking an immunosuppressive drug. Across the world, though, the disease can be deadly and in 2007, the World Health Organisation said it had killed nearly 200,000. That in itself was a huge decrease from the figure for the year 2000 of 750,000.

As Europeans took over the world from the fifteenth century onwards, the measles virus was one of the deadliest weapons they carried with them. It was estimated to have killed two million Mexican Indians in the 1600’s, and it also cut a swath through the North American Indians. In 1847, the victims were the Cayuse Indians who lived in Oregon and Washington, and soon after they were defeated in war and confined to a reservation.

Between 1875 and 1911 three epidemics hit Fiji, after the virus was thought to have been brought to the islands by a leading local dignitary who had been to Australia to discuss handing them over to the British. The first and deadliest outbreak killed perhaps 40,000 out of a population of 150,000. The two later epidemics tended to kill young people who had been born since the previous visitation, and so had not acquired immunity.

Tuesday 10 February 2009

Forest fires (3) + it's only money (3) + cricket, lovely cricket

The authorities in Australia are now saying that at least 173 people have been killed in its worst ever forest fires, but the toll seems certain to rise as the emergency services search the more remote areas. Many of those who died were trying to escape the blaze in their cars, but they were outrun by the flames which were whipped along at terrifying speed by powerful winds.

Police report some of the fires were started deliberately – crimes that amount, says Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, to “mass murder”. The revelation comes as a new report from the Australian Institute of Criminology says that every year more than half of the country’s 20,000 forest fires are the result of arson.

Bunch of bankers. Even though they have brought the economy close to destruction by their incompetence and greed they still want to pay themselves huge bonuses. The Royal Bank of Scotland, bailed out by £20 billion of our money wants to hand over £1 billion of it to its staff. Whose achievement was what exactly? To run the bank so incompetently, it is now broke.

Still bankers must be quaking in their boots. Labour has got tough! It’s going to, er, set up an inquiry into bankers’ pay. And this is the really scary bit – the inquiry will be chaired by – wait for it – a banker! Nor is there going to be any hanging about – if all goes well, Sir David Walker will be reporting his the end of the year. How many billions of our money will have gone down the bonus drain by then?

Not sure how much Labour was planning to spend on Sir David’s inquiry, but I’m prepared to do the job for a fiver, and I can report right now. No bonus of any description should be paid to any person working in any bank bailed out by the taxpayer until all the money has been repaid.

Cricket, lovely cricket. If you’re still smarting from England’s dismissal for 51 at the hands of the West Indies, see my blog of January 28th.

Sunday 8 February 2009

Forest fires - 2

The death toll in Australia’s forest fires (see yesterday’s blog) has now reached at least 93, making them the deadliest in the country’s history. Not surprisingly, many firefighters are exhausted, and police say they some suspect some of the fires were started deliberately. Some towns have suffered severe damage, with one burned to the ground, and hundreds of homes have been destroyed.

As I noted yesterday, the number killed, mercifully, is well below that seen in some American forest fires. Apart from the worst of all at Peshtigo in Wisconsin in 1871, up to 1,000 people perished in Minnesota and Wisconsin in October 1918, and perhaps 800 died in 1894 in fires that raged over 160,000 acres of Minnesota, destroying six towns.

Saturday 7 February 2009

Forest fires

Firefighters in Australia are battling dozens of forest fires across Victoria and New South Wales, spawned by one of the worst heatwaves the country has ever seen, with temperatures set to reach 117°F (47°C) this weekend. (I wrote on Monday about the deaths the heat had caused The fire service is using water bombs from the air, and thousands of volunteers are helping them on the ground.

Australia’s worst forest fires came 26 years ago on 16 February, 1983 – “Ash Wednesday”, killing 47 people in Victoria and 28 in South Australia. The dead included 17 firefighters. Over 300,000 sheep and 18,000 cattle also perished.

Perhaps the worst forest fire of all time was the one that devastated Peshtigo and other lumber towns on the banks of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin, USA on October 8, 1871. Because the blaze happened on the very same night at the Great Chicago Fire, it has tended to be rather forgotten, but more than 1,150 people were killed and Peshtigo was burned to the ground. For the story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Friday 6 February 2009

Munich + 51

For some Munich means 1938, but for a Mancunian like me, it will always be associated with 1958. Fifty-one years ago today, an aircraft carrying the Manchester United team home from a European Cup tie in Belgrade crashed at Munich, killing 23 people including 8 Manchester United players. (Above is the memorial at the old Munich airport which was beautifully maintained when I saw it last year, and a great credit to local people.) In addition to the eight killed, two others – Jackie Blanchflower and Johnny Berry – would never play again, and two more – Kenny Morgans and Albert Scanlon – would never be the same again.

It truly was – in the title of a famous book by crash survivor Frank Taylor – The Day a Team Died. One of the most striking things about the players who perished was how young they were – Eddie Colman – 21, David Pegg – 22, Mark Jones – 24, Billy Whelan – 22. Then there was the England triumvirate – the captain Roger Byrne – formidably experienced, but still only 28; Tommy Taylor, 26 – scorer of 16 goals in 19 internationals, and Duncan Edwards – just 21. Duncan was as brave as George Best, he could read a game like Bobby Moore, tackle like Tommy Smith, shoot like Bobby Charlton and was almost certainly destined to be one of the greatest players of all time.

Young though they were – they were already being challenged for their places by the next generation of talent – notably Bobby Charlton, who was to become perhaps the finest footballer England has ever produced, but also Morgans and Scanlon. You could expect the team to go on improving for at least the next five years, and yet they had already won the League Championship (the equivalent of today’s Premiership) for the past two seasons, and had just reached the semi-final of the European Cup (the equivalent of today’s Champions’ League) for the second time. I rarely watch a football match without pondering the unanswerable question of how good they might have become.

So a great team died, but the club didn’t, and today Manchester United stand top of the Premiership.

Thursday 5 February 2009

Bird flu

Egypt has just reported its third case of bird flu in humans this year, while China says that four people have died from the disease in 2009 – the latest a 31 year old woman in the Xinjiang Uygur region in the north-west of the country. China has also been accused of covering up an outbreak of the disease in poultry after more than 20 dead birds were washed up on beaches in Hong Kong. At least three have tested positive for the H5N1 bird flu virus.

The World Health Organisation reported 348 cases of the disease in humans up to January 2008 across 14 countries. Two hundred and sixteen of those infected had died. That represents a death rate of more than 60% - stoking fears that if the strain ever did manage to pass from human to human it could threaten us with a pandemic on the scale of that of 1918 in which perhaps 70 million died, including a quarter of a million in Britain (see A Disastrous History of the World and A Disastrous History of Britain).

So far, mercifully, there has been little evidence of transmission of H5N1 from human to human apart from isolated cases in Thailand and Vietnam.

Monday 2 February 2009


At least 20 people – mainly elderly – have been killed by the heat in Australia. Victoria and South Australia had seen the thermometer rising above 40°C (104°F) for days on end, though now temperatures seem to have subsided.

It’s often forgotten that in Europe, heatwaves are probably the deadliest weather events we get. In August 2003, when the UK recorded its highest ever temperature of 38°C, it’s estimated that up to 50,000 died from the heat across the continent.

In France, where perhaps 15,000 perished, the deaths caused a political storm. Because the heatwave attacked in August, much of the country was already shut down, with doctors and government ministers off on holiday. Families were accused of abandoning elderly relatives who were only found dead alone in their apartments when neighbours noticed the smell. The director-general for health resigned, and the health minister lost his job the following year. For more, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Cheering photos....if you feel the need to be cheered up, see this photo collection:-

Sunday 1 February 2009

Kenyan tanker crash

At least 111 people have been killed in Kenya after a tanker overturned in the town of Molo. A fire seems to have broken out when hundreds of people rushed to the scene to try to gather the petrol that had spilt. It is not clear what caused the blaze. Some witnesses say that someone in the crowd lit a cigarette, but there are also reports that it was started deliberately to obstruct police who were trying to stop local people scooping up the fuel in their jerry cans. At the scene, the Kenyan interior minister said four of the dead were police.

There was a similar disaster in Nigeria in 2007, when a tanker overturned near the village of Katugal. Again people tried to scoop up petrol and 98 were killed when it caught fire.

One of the worst road crashes in history also happened in Nigeria in 2000. A tanker with defective brakes ploughed into stationary traffic on the motorway from Ife to Ibadan. It overturned, and petrol began leaking, then ignited. A huge fireball devastated a wide area, and according to some estimates, up to 200 people died.