Friday, February 04, 2011

Friday Night Music - Strangeness and Charm

I've mentioned the glories of Lewis before. On Saturday at dusk not only the park gate is locked, but the swings and roundabouts chained up as well, in case any child should profane the Sabbath. The hospital's doctors have houses scattered across the island, so that remote communities have someone near - and I was told that a female doctor had been visited by a delegation, asking her to refrain from hanging up her washing on the Lord's Day - the washing in question being on an airer in the kitchen, but visible from outside.

On the more worldly side, everyone seems to drink a lot on Saturday night, and in the morning there's a lot of broken glass about in Stornoway. But 'when in Rome' - you respect the locals and on Sunday walk or go to church. If you are invited to a local home, the hospitality is humbling and the tea you get lasts you for the next two days. Small children, not yet school age, can play outside unaccompanied until dark, and I remember coming across a school on a main road, with the children's bicycles all propped against the outside of the school wall, by the road. Try that on the mainland.

And they do have this amazing church music - like nothing else in Britain. Or maybe in Europe.

Moving a little further south :

"The Clan Maxwell fared badly that day. In all, it is said that up to 700 Maxwells were killed, but this may be an exaggerated number. Many were wounded by downward sword strokes known as "Lockerbie Licks." And their chief, Lord Maxwell, who was one of the most powerful people in southern Scotland, was slain in cold blood by the Johnstones when he asked for mercy and offered to surrender. Although Sir Johnstone escaped punishment from the King for his actions, he did not escape the unforgiving hand of the next Lord Maxwell, son of the chief who was killed at Dryfe Sands. In 1608, Lord Maxwell shot Sir Johnstone in the back during a meeting held “under trust,” which rendered him an outlaw. Lord Maxwell was later captured and executed by hanging."

Quick Thoughts On Egypt

Everyone knows that an Egyptian prison can be bad for your health and your toenails, they stuff ballot boxes, suppress opposition etc, so when a lot of people come onto the streets declaring that the ruler should step down (29 years is enough for anyone, surely), one is sympathetic.

When their demonstrations are mainly peaceful (apart from a few clashes with the pretty nasty police force), one is more sympathetic still.

And when the government sends thugs out to attack them, the sympathometer is off the scale. I must confess I thought the anti-Mubarak people were all going to be horribly beaten at best on Wednesday night, as stone-throwing pro-Mubarak crowds pushed them back into the square. But they stood firm, fought back and were well in control today, despite deaths from what may have been sniper fire.

Naturally I'm on 'their' side. But who are 'they' ? They don't like Mubarak, that's for sure - but is that enough policy to run a country on ?

Not all the pro-Mubarak people were thugs, and I saw some being interviewed just outside the square. They looked prosperous middle class, and made some reasonable points. One eloquent guy asked what had happened to Iraq when Saddam went? He didn't want to see that in Cairo (and there has been looting. And didn't a lot of prisoners break out of jail?). Another reckoned that if Mubarak stepped down there would be anarchy.

I'd been impressed with the way the demonstrators had fought back - but according to one report many of the fighters were Muslim Brotherhood chaps doing jihad. I certainly saw the odd chap in robes chucking rocks with the rest.

And while the way ordinary people set up local vigilante groups to defend their neigbourhoods against looting was admirable, some of those same people were quick to believe government warnings of 'foreign agents' and to start their search for the 'Israelis' who are behind all the unrest (IMHO Israel were probably quite happy with Mubarak, who preferred anti-Israel propaganda to anti-Israel action). There are some eight million Egyptian Coptic Christians, members of one of the oldest churches in the world, who have kept the faith for 1400 years as second-class citizens in a Muslim country, and who have been discriminated against, as well as coming under murderous attack by Islamist extremists. Iraq*, where ancient Christian communities have been slaughtered or driven out, is a terrible warning of what could happen to them.

Over on the Left blogs and the Guardian op-eds, some idiots see their favourite flavour of socialist revolution as imminent, some idiots see Cairo as a useful exemplar for London, more see the bad guys seemingly losing - and cheer that process without too much thought as to what comes next. I worry that might be all too close to my position.

So I'm generally supportive but with no illusions. A corrupt quasi-dictatorship with a democratic front-end, a strong Islamist presence, and a young, over-educated and under-employed demographic profile offers plenty of ways for a transfer of power to go wrong.

* re Iraq - I supported the overthrow of Saddam, but no one can say the implementation's been anything but poor - with dreadful results especially for minorities like Christians. In my defence I'd say that

a) everybody who knew anything about the region and ever made the pages of the Guardian predicted that Iraq would be America's Vietnam, Baghdad their Stalingrad. And that all over the Middle East the "Arab Street" would rise, threatening regimes from Cairo to Casablanca.

What nobody, as far as I can recall (and I was keeping my ears open), said in 2003 was :

"If you overthrow Saddam, the Sunnis will kill all the Shias - and vice-versa"

b) one unknown blogger did seem to grasp the potential for disorder, writing in his third-ever blog post, back in 2003 :

"... will survival be the biggest worry for most Iraqis ? The US and Brits are going to have to turn themselves into aid workers and/or policemen with some speed. When a strong police state collapses, anarchy often follows ... Night is falling in Baghdad. Let's hope they don't wake up to a looted and burning city tomorrow. I'm very pleased - but it seems to me that for the Coalition the hard work has only just begun."

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Boom Bang A Bang

I don't know. When the 7/7 bombers struck, the press was full of stories to the effect that

a) the bombs were home-made TATP explosive, as used in home-made Hamas rockets.
b) there was a fully-equipped cookshop in Hyde Park, Leeds, where the TATP was brewed.
c) said cookshop belonged to an Egyptian chemist who happened to have gone to Egypt. The chemist was named as Magdi Mahmoud al-Nashar, of Leeds University. Apparently he was detained in Cairo by Egyptian police and interviewed by a couple of Special Branch officers - after which it was quietly announced that no charges would be brought. He doesn't seem to be at Leeds any more.

Then we were told 'organic-peroxide' bombs. I assumed flour and peroxide as that seemed to be the choice of the 21/7 bombers. In fact the 21/7 wiki, for what that's worth, said "The explosives used by the bombers consisted of Chapatti flour powder mixed with liquid hydrogen peroxide, detonated by a booster charge. This was the same explosive mixture used by the bombers in the 7/7 bombings two weeks earlier."

Yet the 7/7 inquests are now apparently telling us the bombs were peroxide and black pepper. Sounds like a flavour of crisp.

"The bombs used in the attacks on three tube trains and a double-decker bus contained about 10kg of explosives made from a mixture of concentrated hydrogen peroxide and pepper and detonated by a 9-volt battery. Forensic explosives expert Clifford Todd said using this combination of materials for a bomb was thought to be "entirely unique" both in the UK and worldwide."

The Telegraph has most detail :

"The July 7 bombs and July 21 bombs were not identical, but they were, a source at DSTL said, "similar in principle". Both were a mixture of hydrogen peroxide, made by boiling down hair products, and an organic material - in the first case black pepper, in the second chapatti flour. The detonators were also similar - in the case of July 7, made from hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD), made by combining hydrogen peroxide, hexamine tablets from camping stoves, and an acid such as citric acid or dilute sulphuric acid. In the case of July 21 the detonator was triacetone triperoxide (TATP), made by combining hydrogen peroxide, acetone from nail varnish and sulphuric acid. The differences amount to just two main ingredients - nail varnish rather than camping stove tablets and flour rather than pepper - and leave the possibility that both bomb-makers were taught by the same man. The cost of the devices was also relatively low - just £500 was spent on hydrogen peroxide."

It must be a pain boiling down all that hairdresser grade peroxide (17 vol?) when a chemical supplier can do you 100 vol.

Now call me daft, but why pepper ? Indeed, why flour ?

I guess you want something flammable (high heat of combustion per gram), fine particles, can be soaked in concentrated peroxide. I've forgotten my chemistry - wouldn't charcoal be better, or doesn't it burn fast enough - as I guess the speed at which the mixture burns affects the power of the bang?

I suppose the driver is that the fuel must be able to mix intimately with the H2O2 - which is a watery oxidiser. Can't mix that with, say, diesel, as oil and water proverbially don't mix.

Is there someone in the Kurram Valley or Mohmand grinding up various foodstuffs and evaluating them as explosives? Seems that there must be.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The King's Speech

About a third of the way into Tony Hooper's The King's Speech, I had a feeling I'd seen the plot before. Stuffy, hidebound, repressed type meets irreverent, vital colonial and is charmed/seduced despite themselves? Ah yes - Titanic, where it was toffee-nosed Kate Winslet who (despite the lack of a formal introduction) needed to find charming chancer Leonardo di Caprio (and the entire cast of Riverdance, travelling steerage to show her what life could really be - Catholics have natural rhythm, dontcha know) before she could unloosen her stays and do some bouncing over the bounding waves with him. I'm not a cinema buff, but I guess that theme goes back a long way.

This time it's Colin Firth's Duke of York (fated to become George VI after his elder brother's abdication), unable to string a sentence together in less than ten minutes due to his stammer, who needs the help of Geoffrey Rush's speech therapist Lionel Logue ("me Lionel, you Bertie") to unbutton his buttons - after which he can bounce about a room shouting swear-words as well as any Brit monarch in history. Rush plays Logue somewhat in the style of Professor Laurie Taylor - a kind of smug mixture of matiness and superiority, a man with a fiver each way on himself. In fact Logue's grandchildren described him as a 'very Victorian' character, not over-familiar - pretty much the opposite of what Rush gives us. "I don't think he ever swore in front of the king and he certainly never called him Bertie.*"

Writer David Seidler takes the usual pop at Christianity, Rush's Logue (in reality a Christian Scientist) dismissing the religious element of the Coronation Oath as 'this rubbish'**, and he absolutely murders British history. Baldwin didn't resign with the words 'Churchill was right' - far from it, he laid down his office confident that Churchill was well and truly sidelined and out of the way. Nor was the Duke of York a strong anti-Nazi - nor a Churchill fan, any more than Churchill, who supported Edward VIII during the abdication crisis, was a fan of his (although he later became one). And if the King couldn't speak by the outbreak of war in 1939 he really did have problems - Logue had been helping him for thirteen years by then.

That said, the direction is excellent, as are the performances. Two hours fly by, and you find, as war breaks out and the BBC mike lights come on, that you really want the big speech to go well. It's not an easy job to make gripping drama out of a man reading three typed pages - but it works. The camerawork is fantastic - London has never looked more gloomily beautiful, a fog-bound sepia fantasy - although again you have to wonder if Logue, whose practice was in Harley Street, really lived in a neighbourhood straight out of Oliver Twist. The cinema audience applauded at the end.

But I fear that a generation*** will grow up knowing that the King was helped by an ur-hippie teaching him to loosen up by jumping about while shouting obscenities. The dramatic core of the film is also its biggest lie.

* as a naval officer who served at Jutland, the Duke almost certainly had been exposed to an extensive armoury of swear-words, but off his ship would not have used them, nor tolerated others using them in his presence.

** oh, and Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang wasn't the idiot presented here, either.

*** unless the sell-out audience where I saw it is typical. They were MUCH older than a typical cinema audience.