Saturday 30 May 2009

Malaria worry + 1381 and all that

Last month there was some good news on malaria (see my blog of April 11). Now there’s some bad, with worrying signs that the parasite is becoming resistant to what is at present the most effective drug for treating the disease. The trend has appeared in Cambodia, where use of the drug is often poorly controlled and where fakes are sold widely.

Scientists say there is no cause for immediate alarm, but earlier anti-malarial drugs have been undermined by resistance starting in this part of the world. A million people a year die from malaria, and it’s estimated that no less than half of the world’s population is exposed to the disease.

On this day….628 years ago, a group of government officials rode into Brentwood in Essex, and summoned people from the villages around to come and pay the hated poll tax – raised to pay for the Hundred Years’ War. A hundred turned up, and stoned them out of town. It was the start of the Peasants’ Revolt.

The rebels would plunder Rochester and Canterbury, and take control of London, burning down the Savoy Palace and many other buildings. They killed tax collectors and foreigners, then they executed the Chancellor and the King’s Treasurer. Eventually, the authorities managed to murder the rebel leader Wat Tyler, and make enough concessions to con his followers into going home. The government quickly disowned the promises it had made, and pursued the rebels mercilessly, carrying out so many mass executions that there was a shortage of gibbets. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of Britain.

Thursday 28 May 2009

A Parliamentary disaster

Labour MP Margaret Moran is not going to stand at the next general election after allegedly claiming £22,500 from you and me for treating dry rot in her home at Southampton – a place not noticeably near Westminster or her Luton constituency. Mrs Moran is stepping down because she has done nothing wrong. Bizarrely, Conservative Julie Kirkbride is also standing down because SHE has done nothing wrong either, oh, and also because she has been overwhelmed by the support she’s been getting from her constituents.

Mrs Kirkbride is married to another Tory MP, Andrew MacKay, who has already said he'll step down. It appears that Mr MacKay and Mrs Kirkbride had put themselves in the odd but lucrative position of not having a first home, but having two second ones, which allowed them to get the taxpayer to fork out for both mortgages. Yes I know it sounds a bit complicated, but then a grand (or several) don’t come for free. Then there was the stuff about her brother living rent-free in one of the houses the taxpayer was bankrolling, and employing her sister as a secretary even though she lived 100 miles from her constituency.

Although a number of MP’s have now stepped down, contrition seems to be in short supply. In fact, judging from most of their statements, the whole expenses scandal is really our fault. If only we hadn’t got in such a tizzy about the amount they were claiming and what it was for, then they and their families would not have got upset, and MP’s could have gone on in their own sweet way. (And, of course, MP’s fought tooth and nail to stop us knowing what they were up to – see my blog of Jan 22nd).

There is still a way for MP’s to bring an end to the death by a thousand revelations current being visited on them. They could immediately publish all the expenses claimed by every MP, but the present crop sadly do not have the vision, the integrity or the courage for that kind of action, as they have showed by caving in in such a pathetic and craven manner to Labour’s construction of a police state. The Parliamentary disaster will continue.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Sri Lanka - a glimpse of the disaster

The outside world has been given its first glimpse of the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, as journalists, who have been kept out of the way by the government, were able to accompany UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on his visit. From a helicopter they saw the utter devastation of the area where the Tigers made their last stand.

The UN says 7,000 civilians have been killed since January. The Sri Lankan government denies the figure, but says the Tigers were using civilians as human shields.

Ban Ki-moon’s visit also meant that for the first time, journalists got to see the “refugee” camps in which Tamil civilians are being held. The main one holds 220,000. It is surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. There is desperate overcrowding, but the government says it will not let people leave until it has made sure there are no Tigers among them, which may take six months. The UN says people should be allowed to rejoin their families.

Aid agencies claim that their access to the Tamils has been restricted, and Mr Ban saw elderly, malnourished patients lying on cot beds in the open air with flies buzzing around them. There is also anxiety that unless there is a political settlement that offers reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minorities like the Tamils, trouble could soon flare up again.

Saturday 23 May 2009

A dreadful war

This day…..391 years ago saw the wonderfully named defenestration of Prague when the mainly Protestant Bohemians grabbed three of their Catholic king’s henchmen and threw them out of a window at the royal castle. The officials’ fall was broken by a pile of rubbish and they escaped serious injury.

But peace also went out of the window on May 23, 1618, and for the next 30 years central Europe was turned into a battlefield for contending armies. The Thirty Years War, as it became known, began as a fight for mastery between Protestants and Catholics, and ended as a power struggle between Catholic France and Catholic Spain and Austria.

By the time it ended in 1648, the destruction was almost beyond belief. Perhaps 8 million people had been killed or had died from starvation or disease out of a population of 21 million, though some places suffered far worse. Bohemia was said to have lost almost three quarters of its people, while Chemnitz lost perhaps five sixths. A Swedish general declared: “I would not have believed a land could be so despoiled had I not seen it with my own eyes.”

See also my blog of May 20, and A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

War horses + 30 Years War crime

Normally this blog confines itself to human disasters, but this week I went to see the magnificent play The War Horse at the New London Theatre, and was astonished to see in the programme the figures for the number of horses killed during the First World War. One million were sent from Britain to France, and only 62,000 returned.

One of the first revelations of the conflict was that cavalry was now virtually useless, and defenceless, in the face of machine guns, artillery, barbed wire. Apart from their cavalry duties, horses were also responsible for huge amounts of the fetching, hauling and carrying that fed the war machine. Many were killed by direct attack – bullets, shells, shrapnel, poison gas – others maimed by the lethal debris lying around the battlefield.

This day….378 years ago saw the most notorious atrocity of the Thirty Years’ War – the sack of Magdeburg. After a six-month siege, the mainly Protestant city was taken by Catholic soldiers, and then, in the words of the great German writer Friedrich Schiller, there followed “a scene of horrors for which history has no language – poetry no pencil. Neither innocent childhood, nor helpless old age; neither youth, sex, rank, nor beauty, could disarm the fury of the conquerors. “

The city was burned to the ground. Perhaps 30,000 citizens were murdered while thousands of women were dragged off to the victors’ camp. The atrocity caused horror across Europe, so much so that the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor had to call off a victory celebration, and during the war’s remaining 17 years, many a Catholic soldier crying for quarter would be greeted with the retort “Magdeburg quarter!” and killed.

Monday 18 May 2009

Sri Lanka - end of the end game?

Reports are emerging from Sri Lanka that the leader of the Tamil Tigers may have been killed along with his son as his forces mount what looks like a last stand in a tiny area in the north of the island. The government claims that tens of thousands of civilians have been allowed to flee over the last few days, but with journalists banned and the Red Cross – the only outsiders allowed access to the conflict area by the Sri Lankan government – having lost contact with its people, it is hard to form an accurate picture.

We do know that the United Nations is saying that 300,000 civilians have had to flee their homes in the last few weeks, and it believes that many of those who have escaped in the last few days need urgent medical treatment for wounds or malnutrition, while the Sri Lankan army says only a few need hospital care.

The Tigers’ fight for a Tamil homeland has cost 70,000 lives over the last quarter of a century, and many in Sri Lanka are relieved that it now appears to be over, but others are worried that the army’s campaign will have radicalised the Tamil minority, and that the Tigers may soon launch a suicide bombing campaign.

Meanwhile the UK and the UN have called for an investigation into allegations that the Sri Lankan forces committed war crimes by shelling civilian targets such as hospitals. See also my blogs of Jan 28, Feb 24 and May 11.

Saturday 16 May 2009

A bonus for the taxpayer + decline and fall of Ronan Point

Maybe we, the people, are getting a bonus for a change. Yesterday Jack Straw, the alleged “Justice Secretary”, dropped his plans for secret inquests that might have allowed the government to suppress the truth about incidents like the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Mr Straw, of course, is rather hobbled at present after it was revealed that he had charged us taxpayers double the amount of council tax he was actually paying on his second home. With so many of Mr Straw’s “Labour” colleagues under a cloud, let’s hope they’re all feeling a little abashed. After Iraq, years of systematic destruction of our civil liberties, the invention of 3,000 new crimes, 24 hour drinking, super-casinos etc, “a period of inactivity from you would be most welcome”, as Clement Attlee, a real Labour politician, might have put it.

On this day....41 years ago, a section of a brand new 23-storey block of flats called Ronan Point in East London collapsed. One couple in their sixties were awoken by a dreadful ripping sound as their bedroom wall fell away, and they found themselves lying in bed two feet from an 80 foot drop.

It was caused by a gas leak and explosion on the 18th floor. Miraculously, only five people were killed, but the accident raised severe doubts about the industrial building system used at Ronan Point. The block was repaired and people were moved back in, but in 1986, it was demolished. For the full story, see The Disastrous History of London.

Friday 15 May 2009

Pakistan - civilians caught again

More than a million people have fled their homes in Pakistan over the last year; 830,000 of them during the last month as the Pakistani government tries to reassert its control over the Taleban stronghold in the Swat valley. Many are pouring out of Mingora, the region’s main city, which has been blockaded by the army.

Food is now said to be very short, and a curfew was lifted to allow people to leave. Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities. One 66 year old man who had escaped said there were bodies in the streets, but it was not clear whether they were fighters or civilians. A family was said to have had to leave behind their son, who has polio, with just a supply of bread and water.

Pakistan's Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, said it was the country's worst refugee crisis since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Then a total of 10 million people in the sub-continent took to the roads to try to escape the fearful inter-communal violence and get on the “right” side of the hastily-drawn new boundaries.

Altogether, more than a million died – either murdered, or from the privations and disease of the refugee marches. For more details, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Swine flu - not gone away

Over the last few days, some of the initial alarm about swine flu has dissipated, but now scientists from Imperial College, London have suggested that one person in three across the world could catch it. So far we know of more than 5,720 confirmed cases in 33 countries, and 61 people have died. 56 of the deaths have happened in Mexico which has had 2,059 cases. The United States has had three deaths from more than 3,000 cases, while the UK has 68 cases and no deaths.

This suggests that the virus is behaving in a much more virulent way in Mexico, where about one person in every 40 infected is dying. In the USA, the rate is more like one in a thousand. Professor Neil Ferguson, the lead investigator, has pointed out that every year about one person in ten catches seasonal flu, and up to half a million die.

In Professor Ferguson’s view, we are not facing an epidemic on the scale of 1918, when perhaps 70 million people died across the world, but he thinks we could be in for one like 1957’s “Asian flu” which killed up to four million. Science has advanced enormously since then, and we have new vaccines and anti-viral drugs to defend us. On the other hand, globalisation will allow the virus to spread much further and faster, and if 2 billion people do indeed catch swine flu, we need to be braced for many deaths.

See also my blog of April 30th.

Monday 11 May 2009

Sri Lanka bloodbath + deadliest man-made flood

The United Nations is complaining about a “bloodbath” in the last Tamil Tiger-held area of Sri Lanka after it was shelled by heavy artillery. At least 378 civilians have been killed, including 100 children. An estimated 50,000 people are still trapped.

The Tigers blame the Sri Lankan government, while the government claims the Tigers killed their own people. It is difficult to arrive at the truth as the Sri Lankan government has banned journalists from reporting in the area, and has just arrested three British television reporters for producing “false” news. It is perhaps significant, though, that Sri Lanka’s official state-owned newspaper made no mention of the attack.

The Tigers have been fighting for an independent homeland since 1983, and more than 70,000 people have been killed in the war. (See also my blogs of Jan 28 and Feb 24)

On this day....71 years ago, China was being overrun by the invading Japanese, who were threatening a crucial railway junction at Zhengzhou. In desperation, the leader of the Chinese Nationalists, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the dyke of the Yellow River near the city to be blown up.

To make sure the invaders were caught by surprise, no warning was given to local people. The Japanese were swamped in a flood that eventually covered 21,000 square miles, and it is estimated that the ploy delayed their advance by up to three months. Unfortunately it also killed up to 900,000 Chinese civilians, making this the deadliest man-made flood in history.

Saturday 9 May 2009

The language of priorities

The clocks are striking thirteen. Knowing that its time is running out, Labour is racing to complete its key project before it’s ejected from power – the creation of a police state in Britain (see my blogs of Jan 17, 22, Feb 17, 19, and March 15). Labour can’t afford to provide decent pensions for the Gurkhas or compensation for Equitable Life investors who saw their life savings go down the drain, and we may all have to wait until 70 for our state pensions.

But finding money to build a police state? Not a problem. £2 billion is going to be blown on the project to snoop on every email we send, every phone call we make, every website we look at, providing, in the words of a former director of public prosecutions, “an unimaginable hell house of personal private information. It would be a complete read-out of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail." (I have just re-read 1984. Most instructive.)

Even David Blunkett now thinks ID cards are a bad idea, but Labour remains quite happy to spend at least £5 billion on them. Independent assessments reckon the cost will be up to £20 billion. In addition every one of us will have to shell out at least £30 for our cards, and unlike MPs’ chocolate bars, bath blugs, pet food, Chinese rug repairs, Tudor-style beams etc, the cost presumably will not be reclaimable from the taxpayer.

But why is Labour so fixated on destroying our democracy? I know they’re a pretty fifth-rate, incompetent bunch, and I know that their only guiding principle is to get favourable headlines in right-wing tabloids and try and make the Tories appear “soft”, but I do remain puzzled at their sheer fanaticism. Is it that they are so consumed with self-loathing over the lies they told about Iraq and the crimes they committed there that they feel like Macbeth:

“I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er”

Or is there something I’ve missed? Can anyone explain?

Friday 8 May 2009

Caribbean catastrophe

On this day....107 years ago, the volcano Montagne PelĂ©e erupted above the town of St Pierre on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Apart from a minor eruption in 1851, there hadn’t been a peep out of the mountain for a long time, but in April 1902, it started to grumble, and on the bright sunny morning of May 8, 1902, it went berserk.

As people gathered in the churches of St Pierre - the “Paris of the West Indies” – for eight o’ clock mass, smoke blotted out the sun, and boiling lava poured down the hill into the town killing everyone in its wake. More than a dozen ships were destroyed in the harbour; one having its masts and funnel sheared off “as if they had been cut by a knife.”

Of St Pierre’s 26,000 inhabitants, only a handful survived. One was a convicted murderer awaiting execution who was saved thanks to the thick walls and tiny windows of his prison. He was reprieved, and began a new career with Barnum & Bailey’s circus – sitting in a replica of his cell as the “lone” survivor of the “Silent City of Death”.

St Pierre would be partially rebuilt, only to be hit by another eruption in 1929, and would never again recover its colourful and rather racy reputation. For the full story, see A Disastrous History of the World.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Sierra Leone trial

A special United Nations court at The Hague has turned down a plea from former Liberian President Charles Taylor that charges of crimes against humanity that he faces should be dismissed. Taylor is being tried on 11 counts relating to his alleged role in the brutal civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, which cost tens of thousands of civilian lives. He is accused of bankrolling and equipping rebels who committed murder, rape, hacked off people's limbs, and used child soldiers.

Taylor had been a warlord who launched Liberia’s civil war in 1989, before being elected president in 1997. Two years later, though, an insurrection against him began and in 2003 he resigned under pressure from the United States. The trial is scheduled to resume on June 29, and if Taylor is convicted, he will serve his sentence in the UK.

Last month, an international court in Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown sent three rebel leaders to gaol for a total of 120 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity (see my blogs of March 4 and April 10) In Rwanda too, the process of holding people to account for their part in the country’s genocide goes on. (See my blogs of January 23, March 1, 4, 23, 25, April 9.)

Friday 1 May 2009

Bye-bye Iraq

As Britain’s role in the occupation of Iraq is declared officially over to the frenetic whizzing of the Labour spin machine, a reminder of the reality we leave behind us. At least 41 people killed by car bombs this week, another 150 the week before. That is nearly four times as many as were killed in London’s 7/7 bombings.

Of course, we did not bomb and invade Iraq to liberate its people. That was another hurried Labour invention following the exposure that Tony Blair’s claims about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction were false. Indeed, before launching his aggressive war Mr Blair made it clear that if Saddam was prepared to give up his non-existent weapons, Labour would be perfectly happy to leave him in power. We do not know how many Iraqi civilians were killed as a result of our actions as Labour and its American allies were not sufficiently interested to keep count, but independent studies suggest it could be as high as a million.

Apart from those most slavishly loyal to Messrs Blair and Brown, few now seriously dispute that this was the greatest British foreign policy disaster in at least half a century, possibly longer. Labour’s excuse for denying us a proper inquiry was that it could not happen, for some mysterious reason, while British troops were still in Iraq. So now they’re leaving, when does it kick off, Gordon? Usual advice applies – d.h.y.b. (I note, incidentally, that 400 British troops will be staying after the “withdrawal”. Is their key strategic role to delay any inquiry until after the next general election?)

See also my blogs of February 25 and 28, and March 1, 11, 20 and 28.