25 January 2005


As I write, the Asian tsunami has disappeared from the front pages to be replaced by disgraceful disturbing images of British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.

We thought we had seen the worst at Abu Ghraib and we were fed on the idea that, precisely because of Abu Ghraib, British soldiers were much more respected than Americans by the average Iraqi citizen.

That delusion has been blown away.

The root problem is that any army will include elements which will behave disgracefully. With the greatest respect to British military tradition (and all that stuff) squaddies are not recruited on the basis of their sensitivity but on their ability to cope with, and relish, a tough physical life. It will be argued that they are encouraged to think for themselves; not so. They are taught to obey orders without question. They are taught how to kill and maim. They are at their best in battle and at their worst when they have to live within a civilian society which they don’t understand, far from home, and where they have to keep the peace.

Nobody in Northern Ireland needs a lecture on that topic.

I once observed an ‘incident’ from the sixth floor of my office in Broadcasting House. An Army patrol had come across something suspicious in Bankmore Street, possibly a bomb of some sort. To my horror one of the soldiers completely ‘lost it’. He stood in the middle of the road, brandishing his rifle, and screaming obscenities at all and sundry. He ranted and raved about ‘the Irish’ – I have deleted the string of adjectival expletives that he applied to our noble race. He had cracked emotionally and was quite unable to cope with the situation. Two of his mates disarmed him and dragged him away. The public watched, open mouthed.

An exception perhaps?

Well here’s another.

In Hong Kong, circa 1975, I talked to a British soldier stationed there and discovered he had served in Northern Ireland. He did not twig that I had some slight knowledge of the place. I asked him about his time here. He had enjoyed it. ‘Was there anything he missed?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes,’ he said enthusiastically, ‘the hidings’.

He said the lads really enjoyed nights stopping fellas their own age, questioning them and then beating the excrement out of them if they made a false move.

Translate that into his rich Midlands slang and I think you get the message.

18 January 2005

Worse to come?

In 1953 two geologists, in search of oil, travelled to the remote Lituya Bay in Alaska. They gradually realised that in the past the bay had been struck by huge waves, and wondered what could have caused them. Five years later, they got their answer. In 1958 there was a landslide, in which a massive cliff collapsed into the bay, creating a wave over 500 metres high.

Unlike a volcanic force from below, the creation of that particular tidal wave – higher than any skyscraper on earth – was immediate, but the wave travelled but a short distance towards a nearby steep shoreline so the destruction, though gigantic, was reasonably confined.

The event failed to excite the world of journalism but scientists soon focused attention on islands with active volcanoes and particularly those islands which were actually created by volcanic activity. A volcanic island cannot keep growing for ever. At some point an outer edge may be pushed off.

The last such collapse occurred about 4,000 years ago on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean and, although there is no logic in my conclusion, we may have to wait another 4,000 before it happens again.

But the bad news is that ideal conditions for a landslide – and a consequent ‘mega’ tsunami – now exist on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. La Palma was created by volcanic activity. In 1949 the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island erupted causing an enormous crack to appear across one side of the volcano. The western half of the mountain slipped a few metres towards the Atlantic before stopping in its tracks. Earlier volcanoes have trapped a vast underground cistern of water below the crater and any future volcanic activity may again create enormous lateral steam pressure.

With regard to your holiday arrangements, if you are actually on the island you could be safe but, if a major volcano did occur, a huge section of southern La Palma, already dislodged, weighing 500 thousand million tonnes, is predicted to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

Scientists believe the displacement of water would remain near the ocean surface and would therefore generate a wave that will be almost ‘inconceivably destructive’. It would race across the entire Atlantic in a matter of hours and engulf the whole US east coast, sweeping away everything in its path up to 15 miles inland.

The computer model being studied in Switzerland indicates that Boston would be hit first, followed by New York, then all the way down the coast to Miami and the Caribbean, an area of total destruction with a current population of 40 million.

I have a suspicion you don’t believe me.

11 January 2005

Some higher purpose

Before Christmas few people knew the meaning of the Japanese term ‘tsunami’ though the phenomenon has occurred regularly throughout history. A tsunami is offered as an explanation for the dramatic escape of the Children of Israel and the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army.

Many people in the last few weeks, all over the world, will have the word engraved in their memories. Many will have lost friends and relatives. Some few will know the areas affected and may have personally been there at some time or another. Given the nature of the disaster, and the fact that it could have occurred at any time in our remembered past, we have our own ‘narrow escape’ thoughts.

More than thirty years ago, before such places in Asia were popular with tourists, my own children met a family on the east coast of Sri Lanka. My wife and daughters were walking along a beach, and were the object of gentle curiosity for the local people who lived in the forest edge close to the shore.

One family made a most courteous approach. They were articulate in English and they had a dignity that rose above the squalor they were forced to live in. The children’ s school exercise books were filled cover to cover with writing and arithmetic, then written over a second time upside down with more school work. Every inch of space on a jotter was precious.

They asked for nothing.

Later my wife and children were able to return, having emptied our suitcases of everything we had foolishly thought was essential to our needs. So easy the act of giving, so joyful the receiving.

We have often remembered that marvellous little family and have wondered how they made out in the battle of life. Had diligence triumphed over adversity?

We now know that that same forest edge has been devastated.

Were children torn from the arms of their parents by the force of the wave? What terror was in their eyes?

It is beyond our worst nightmare to imagine their last minutes of life.

We ask why, but no real answers emerge and we must fall back, with noble intention, on solemn ritual – a three-minute moment of contemplation, the burning of candles and the saying of prayers.

We look for some higher purpose but cannot find one.

04 January 2005

Beyond human understanding

An elected representative in our fair county (who shall be nameless) went out of his way to tell me that he regarded all religions as equally valid. He was, as they say, setting out his stall.

He then added, as if to restore some mature sense of balance, that he could not tolerate those who had no faith at all.

Careful not to reveal where I stood on this matter, I pointed out, with perhaps an unseemly touch of unction, that there was a possible difference between faith and belief. One could be guided, I suggested, by strong beliefs and principles, but faith requires believing in things that are irrational, or unproven, or miraculous – ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’. My deft quotation from the letter to the Hebrews seemed to revive some hope in the other party that I wasn’t a complete infidel after all.

The festive season is over and we look back on a period when Christian beliefs are intensified through stories, part biblical and part traditional, that warm our hearts, that give us hope in a well-ordered creation and that make us feel watched over. Ceremony and special music intensify our faith in an all-powerful, all-loving deity. It is he who made all creatures great and small, even to their glowing colours and tiny wings. I presume that includes the tsetse fly and the mosquito.

Such beliefs belong essentially to a white man’s tradition which developed in Europe, spread to the new world and through the large tracts of the world we conquered – a part that remains the third world, and a very poor third at that. The child of the Christmas card and of the stained glass window is fair skinned.

In the middle of our festivities a part of that same created earth produced a tsunami that killed thousands upon thousands of men, women and children. Insurance companies and lawyers will classify it as an act of God.

Good people all over the world, Christian or otherwise, will now support a massive aid scheme and those who have faith will pray for the bereaved, the injured, the destroyed and the broken hearted. Mercy and comfort will be the key words.

For those of strong faith the tsunami will be seen as part of a higher purpose which lies beyond mere human understanding.

But let’s have a bit of human understanding for those who may think otherwise.