30 August 2005

Unwelcome diversions

We in our beloved Province are a tolerant lot – if you exclude those awful people over in that other estate – and we put up with road-works cheerfully knowing that our very own Department of Regional Development (the energetic DRD) is devoted to our wellbeing.

Such confidence could be slightly misplaced.

It is true that the DRD gave advanced warning of the closure of the main Belfast-Downpatrick A7 between Saintfield and Crossgar.

So picture the hapless driver coming from Belfast on his way to Downpatrick. He sees that the road ahead is closed. As he did not grow up within the parish he innocently expects some further signs to guide him through an alternative route to his destination.

He might just notice a battered sign saying 'Diverted Traffic' and if he follows this he will soon be negotiating a maze of narrow unclassified lanes known only to local residents and dairy cattle. He will explore Listowen, Clontaghnaglar, Ballydyan, Drumgiven, Listooder, Creevycarnonan, Drumaglis, Carnacally, Drumaghlis, Tullnacree, Ballynahinch Junction, Tullynaskeagh and Teconnaught, to name but a few, and some of these he may visit twice.

At cross roads and forks he will be expected to toss a coin or throw a six. He will mount a ditch or two to avoid on-coming traffic. He should be prepared for possible three-point turns.

But he will get absolutely no information about how to return to the original A7 beyond the road-works so that he can resume his journey to Downpatrick.

The Department for Transport's website publishes details of its recommended signage for temporary road diversions.

DRD please note.

A first sign will warn of the road closure and will clearly indicate with a nice big arrow the alternative route. Then, once you follow that route, a series of simple follow-up signs prevent you from straying at key junctions so that you will eventually be guided back towards your intended destination.

So a typical first sign would say something like: 'Road Closed' and there would be an arrow (what a cunning invention) directing you to the alternative route and, guess what, it might read 'Alternative Route', or even 'Diversion to Downpatrick'.

How's that for a breakthrough in communication?

Note the really really clever use of language. The word 'Diversion' plus an arrow means 'this is the beginning of a diversion and it is the road you must now take' and 'Diverted Traffic', with another arrow, assures that you are still on that diversionary road.

You will find these stunning ideas throughout Britain and beyond.

So DRD, do you think you could show a little imagination and put up some emergency signs like the grown-ups do elsewhere?

23 August 2005

Crossgar revealed

This week's offering has been given an adult rating. It should not be read before 9 p.m. or by persons over 18, or by those who live alone or are of a nervous disposition.

It concerns the peaceful village of Crossgar, the place where I live and where my loyalties will forever be tied.

A question arose recently as to whether Crossgar was twinned with some distant township. I ventured to suggest Las Vegas or Bangkok. These ideas were discounted. A diligent search of the worldwide web produced no result. However we did find that Crossgar is lavishly publicised as a major centre for . . . well this is where the whole mystery begins.

It came as some surprise that Crossgar enjoys worldwide publicity as a major regional centre for lusts of the flesh. That is not the phrase used but it's one with which my generation can identify.

There follows this slightly censored quotation:

Swinging in Northern Ireland . . . no strings sex, adult contacts . . . video chat rooms, web cams . . . in and around Crossgar, County Down. If you are searching for any of the above then you have come to the right place!

I thought that 'swingers' had disappeared long ago but it is clear that both guys and dolls, straight and not quite so straight, are warmly welcomed, as singles or in groups, and that every possible variation of intimate relationship, gang-bang, fantasy, fetish or dress code can be catered for. There is also a list of contacts where persons from sundry parishes publish their peculiar offers or desires.

After a sniff of smelling salts I ask the question: can it be true?

Businesses and individuals, and even columnists, who are regularly 'on line' are plagued by a constant torrent of messages which are either scams or else pathetically pornographic. All such rubbish (SPAM) accounts for more than half incoming electronic mail.

Virtually all of it, in what passes for the English language, comes from the United States. It permeates the entire world and creates just one of the factors which make the American way of life so abhorrently decadent to various nations and cultures.

Russians have their own ways of dealing with Russian language 'spammers'. One Vardan Kushmir was bludgeoned to death in his Moscow apartment last week. The gruesome event was welcomed by the Russian media. However, this column is infinitely more humanitarian.

But whatever is going on in Crossgar, there seems to be no evidence on the ground, if you will forgive an unhappy phrase. Nor do I propose to seek out such evidence – even in the line of duty.

Indeed, as I proceed down the Kilmore Road, or traverse Downpatrick Street or negotiate Station Road, I shall look neither to right nor left.

16 August 2005

Got what it takes

The other evening my telephone rang. I picked it up and, as is my wont, I announced only my number in a voice designed to be easily recognised by friends but sufficiently imperious to ward off the latest unbeatable offer from the Far East.

Silence.

I repeated my number more slowly. A little voice at the other end said ‘Who’s that?’ Bowled over by such innocent charm I changed my tack and replied: ‘I’m James Hawthorne.’ And then, as paternalistically as I could manage: ‘And who are you?’

‘Oh I’m just a wee boy trying to find the right number.’

I guessed he was about eight or nine and I wondered afterwards if he had been in some distress and had I missed an opportunity to help in some way. But then I reflected that he had his wits about him. For one thing, I had revealed my identity but he had guarded his own.

Perhaps in a couple of years he will be sitting that awful Eleven-Plus or will it have actually disappeared by then? Either way he will end up in a grammar school (with nice playing fields) or else in a high school where the authorities obviously believe such things are unnecessary. Even now he could be one of that depressingly large number of young children, who, research has demonstrated, have already formed an opinion that the enemy is on the other side of the Peace Wall.

Will he grow up to be more tolerant than his parents? Will he beat the system and make it to university? Will there be a steady job at the end of it all – but no pension?

Will Ian Paisley Junior be on speaking terms with Catriona Ruane?

Will sweltering flood-ridden summers have finally persuaded the powers-that-be that global warming is more than a mere scientific theory? Will Arnold Gropenfuhrer be in the White House?

What price that increasingly scarce commodity, petrol? Will Downpatrick have introduced the congestion charge? Will cod with your chips be a thing of the past?

Like the rest of us he will develop his own nostalgia – for him it will be for those halcyon days when you could buy a bag of sweeties for less than a pound. It was pounds then, not euros. And those old-fashioned telephones without screens! And do you remember those weird computers that bumbled along on a meagre 80 gigabytes of memory?

But behind that still small voice there's a problem solver with initiative. I think he will make it, in spite of politicians, parents, preachers, patriots and pedagogues.

I’ve a feeling he’s got what it takes to find the right number.

09 August 2005

Sixty years on

The year is 1945 and four schoolboys are on a cycling adventure in the Wicklow Mountains. They have promised their parents not to miss church on Sunday. The rector explains the rudiments of nuclear fission to a somewhat bewildered rural congregation. Everybody seems to know, except the four lads, that massive bombs have been dropped on two Japanese cities earlier in the week and the war is coming to an end.

Hurray. Fantastic. The ultimate knock-out blow. Serves them right for starting it, bombing Pearl Harbour, invading other countries, maltreating prisoners.

Top secret minutes of the Target Committee at Los Alamos New Mexico on 12th May 1945 now reveal that four cities were short-listed – Kyoto, Hiroshima, Yokohama and Kokura.

Hiroshima had the 'advantage' of being surrounded by mountains, thus increasing the intensity of the blast against buildings and humans alike. Kokura had a huge arsenal. Kyoto was an intellectual centre where a bomb might more effectively press home the futility of continuing the fight. Yokohama was well defended and there was too much water around to concentrate the damage.

Hiroshima and Kokura became the final choices. But because of poor visibility over Kokura, the 'gadget' – the bomb's whimsical name chosen by the committee – was dropped over Nagasaki. Nagasaki had a substantial Christian minority and the epicentre of the blast was above the main Christian Church. Never mind.

The sixtieth anniversary of that act is today, 9th August.

There will be endless arguments about whether the bombing was a war crime or a necessary act to bring the war to a swift end, possibly to save even more human destruction. Around 103,000, mainly civilians, died. And was the second bomb necessary?

Today we are concerned that countries like India, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea might develop such weapons. By that we mean that they should not be allowed to possess, to the slightest degree, what the powerful nations of the world already have in super-abundance. And then there's the blind eye turned to what has been developing in Israel.

In 1970 the nuclear powers signed a non-proliferation treaty with a promise progressively to dismantle all nuclear weapons. As of today, the USA still has over 12,000 nuclear warheads, Russia 28,000, UK 400, China about the same and France around 500.

The leading nations of the world are finding it difficult to help the poor and the starving. So how is it they managed to produce, for every person on the planet, the equivalent of five tonnes of high explosive?

Over the years those four schoolboys developed broader, more humanitarian views. One became a clergyman, one a surgeon, one a cryptologist (look that up in the dictionary) and the fourth writes a column for the Down Democrat.

02 August 2005

The hard question

Fifteen years ago to the day 100,000 Iraqi soldiers backed by 700 tanks invaded Kuwait. Iraqi jets bombed Kuwait City causing over 200 casualties and there were reports of undisciplined soldiers looting shops and homes.

Saddam Hussein threatened to turn Kuwait City into a graveyard if any other country dared to challenge the take-over.

Within a few months, and with complete UN backing, an international coalition, led by the Americans, drove the Iraqis out, destroying their air force and smashing their army.

The fatal mistake, many will say, was not to press on to Baghdad and topple Saddam’s regime. Instead, certain Iraqi groups were encouraged, and promised help, to take on Saddam themselves only to be abandoned to suffer his cruel reprisals.

Little did anybody think that in 2003, with Saddam still in power, we would be invading Iraq again.

No universal support this time, no clear reasons, no reconstruction plans, no exit strategy.

Recently I interviewed an ex-soldier who was in that 1990 ‘Desert Storm’ campaign. He told me about an Iraqi sniper who was causing trouble to an American unit. The unit called up support and he estimated that about half-a-million dollars worth of the most sophisticated ground and air ordnance was used to flush the sniper out.

The large public building he was firing from was razed to the ground, several innocent people were killed and, after some hours, he gave himself up.

All it should have taken, said the soldier, was six well-trained infantry men and a little patience.

The story exposes the ridiculous and profligate side of war and the thoroughly deranged sense of values that believes such massive military solutions can spread liberation, democracy and justice – to be closely followed by McDonalds.

Simple-minded people like myself have frequently suggested that overwhelming firepower is useless in dealing with the resentment and chaos that an invading army inevitably generates. Everybody then becomes a sniper. In response, the military gets even more trigger-happy.

The first widely-accepted study of civilian casualties in the two-year occupation of Iraq estimates that around 25,000 have been killed and about 45,000 wounded. US-led forces and other 'military actions' have killed 10,000. Most of the dead are male and thus an incalculable number of innocent people have lost husbands and fathers. Around 70% of all civilian deaths have occurred after combat operations were declared over in May 2003.

Such facts are now virtually unreported as we come to terms with what is happening in London. The hard question is whether the London bombings are an extension of the chaos and suffering that has been visited upon Iraq.