“Behead all those who insult the prophet” is a curiously worded slogan. Mohammed is a figure so holy even the mildest rebuke should end with severing that person’s arteries at the throat. It is a common punishment for trivial matters in hard-line Wahhabist regimes such as Saudi Arabia. One such trivial matter lies behind the latest calls for such barbarism, a “clumsily overdubbed and haphazardly-edited” low budget film with no production values. Its US-Egyptian maker Nakoula Bassely Nakoula could well be the Ed Wood of the 21stcentury. But because his film contains “insults to the prophet”, it is causing world-wide riots, multiple deaths including a US ambassador and the banning of youtube in Afghanistan.
If the Queen, the sovereign head of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth is upset a girl or a woman didn’t bend their knees in greeting to her, then she is getting more doddery in her dotage than she is letting on. She had had a lot more on her mind than a knee gesture. She would have been thinking about her role as conduit between the UK and Australian Governments or deciding practical considerations about the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth. This is an important meeting of 60 leaders she and Gillard will co-chair. It happens every two years and brings together a strange brew of countries who all share British colonial history, law and culture with varying degrees of adherence (We Irish need to get over our historical gripes and enter this intriguing league of nations).
The theme of this year’s conference is “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” which is not sexy sounding but of great importance to most of the leaders present as it talks about transnational responses to global poverty and climate change. A Google news search of the theme of the conference found just two occurrences – and one was the official press release from CHOGM. The other was in Trinidad Express Newspapers which quoted Trinidad & Tobago Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan. Ranbachan noted the theme would mean discussion on the challenges of food security, sustainable development and natural resource management. All these themes have much greater importance than a misunderstood gesture but attracted no media attention outside the Caribbean. Compare articles on “Building National Resilience, Building Global Resilience” to “curtsy”. A quick glance again at Google News found 1,160 articles on Gillard’s failure to bend her knees. Britain and Australia were particularly all over it. The British Telegraph noted a contrast with the Governor General. “While Mrs Bryce curtsied to the Queen, Ms Gillard, an avowed republican, opted for a handshake and shallow bow.” The Australian Telegraph headline stated two eight-year-olds were practising their curtseys ahead of an engagement with Her Majesty. Gillard meanwhile had to “explain” her behaviour: “As I greeted the Queen she extended her hand to shake hands and obviously I shook her hand and bowed my head. – That’s what I felt most comfortable with”.
News Ltd’s Melbourne paper Herald Sun read far more into it, saying Gillard’s “decision” was a “sign”. Australia, it trumpeted, was “catching up with the modern monarchy”. While many may have been unaware the modern monarchy had left Australia behind, the Herald Sun found a TV chat show host, an etiquette expert and the deputy chair of the Victorian branch of the Australian Monarchists League who all agreed Gillard had blundered.
Someone quickly added “–gate” to it. I can find no evidence any newspaper or website journalist referred to “curtsygate”, but it took off in Twitter. The phrase was attributed to Sydney 2GB radio shock jock host Ray Hadley, and the reaction in Twitter was either one of head-shaking weariness at the thought of this latest gated abomination or else sarcastic glee it was the end of democracy.
But if the journalists did not gate it, they should not have left curtsy past the gatekeeper either. The villains here are the chiefs of staff and the news editors who select these stories and give them prominence. They not only fit the ongoing destabilisation of an unpopular Prime Minister in contrast to a popular monarch, but also hyperinflate the primary news value of “conflict” (the fact that someone might be outraged by Gillard’s behaviour).
If the news editors are seeking genuine conflict then they should give their staff the link to the CHOGM paper and tell them to chase down the Trinidad foreign minister. I’m sure he has enlightening and possibly non-complementary things to say about Australia and other first world countries. The Queen might even give them his number if they bow politely enough.
Expect a deluge of commemoration in April next year for the 100th anniversary of the sinking. On April 15, 1912, 1502 people died in the North Atlantic when Titanic sunk on its maiden voyage. It was the worst disaster at sea ever and it remains among the top peacetime sinking today behind only the Filipino Dona Paz (1987) and the Senegalese La Joola (2002) disasters, neither of which have inspired Hollywood movies. Similarly unknown is the worst marine disaster ever the Nazi ship Wilhelm Gustloff torpedoed by a Russian submarine in 1945 with 7000 lives lost. Another 3000 died when the British Troopship Lancastria sunk in 1940 but its official record has been classified until 2040 possibly because the captain ignored maximum loading capacity instructions.
White Star line upped the ante with the Oceanic (1899), Celtic (1901), Baltic (1905) and Olympic (1911) trebling the tonnage. A year later their Titanic weighed in at a new record 46,329 tons, almost four times heavier than the law allowed for Lucania. White Star’s ships were built for comfort and style not speed. Cunard continued to dominate the Blue Riband, despite their smaller ships. White Star was cutting corners of a different kind.
In 1912 White Star was part of the International Mercantile Marine company owned by monopolist J.P. Morgan. IMM was overleveraged and suffered from inadequate cash flow that caused it to default on bond interest payments in 1914. At the British Inquiry into the Titanic disaster Sir Alfred Chalmers of the Board of Trade was asked about the lifeboat regulations. Sir Alfred made a strange claim.
He said if there were fewer lifeboats on Titanic more people would have been saved. He said more people would have realised the danger and rushed to the boats filling more to capacity. This claim has superficial validity as the lifeboats could have saved 1187 people but only 710 survived. But then he gave the real reasons: Newer ships were stronger than ever with watertight compartments making them unlikely to require any lifeboats, sea routes were well-travelled meaning a collision was minimal, the availability of wireless technology, the difficulties of loading more than 16 boats. Ultimately, said Chambers, it was a matter for ship owners.
Those owners were well served by the highest ranking surviving officer Second Mate Lightoller – the hero of the 1953 film. Lightoller guided his upturned boat through four hours of choppy seas to safety. In testimony to the Inquiry he said it was “necessary to keep one’s hand on the whitewash brush”. That meant giving careful answers to sharp questions “if one was to avoid a pitfall, carefully and subtly dug, leading to a pinning down of blame on to someone’s luckless shoulders.” His job was to defend the Board of Trade and White Star Lines and he succeeded admirably.
But his testimony did force a change of the rules. Lightoller admitted the pendulum had swung “to the other extreme and the margin of safety reached the ridiculous.” But then he would remember the “long drawn out battle of wits, where it seemed that I must hold that unenviable position of whipping boy to the whole lot of them.” The only thing that bothered him was that White Star never thanked the whipping boy. They had others things on their mind. Although the Line survived the tragedy, both IMM and Morgan went under – just like their most famous ship.
I was thinking of Justinian as this quaint notion takes hold the British riots exist in a thuggish vacuum. According to the papers lowly scum have risen up in some mysterious “now” that pays no attention to anything that has gone before. It seems the chavish untermensch are incapable of collective memory nor is it possible to admit they might have grievances. Thugs are thugs because “they have nothing better to do”.
Whatever the motivation to cause mayhem and smash other people’s property, the idea the government, the media or the police are trusted institutions to deal with the problem had been smashed long before the first pane of glass. The suspicious death of a black man was a spark, but the tinder was bone-dry and sooner or later there would have been an excuse for conflagration. An army of brooms sweeping Kristallnacht 2011 under the carpet won’t stop the disenfranchised coming back for more.
As the Murdoch scandal showed, the British media are part of the problem. The BBC’s contemptuous treatment of an old black man speaking truth to power and the wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of thugs and scum reveals a frightened press desperate to hang on to privileges in the old order. Politicians too, needing to speak reassuring words of toughness to scared constituents, retreat behind paeans to law and order. There is a magical belief this will keep the disaffected off the streets.
The glue that holds communities together is losing its stickiness. Family bonds are harder to keep. Education works only for the wealthy. Religion is irrelevant. Culture is complicated and foreign. International capitalism is a stinking corpse bloated by greed and selfishness. Big business is venal, politicians are corrupt and police are inept. The cult of individualism is rampant, neighbours don’t talk to each other and everyone is suspicious of “the other”. Racism is endemic, the climate is going to hell in a hand basket and no one seems to care. A Norwegian goes berserk and tries to wipe out a political generation. But rather than examine all that, the media is besotted only by the daily minutiae of two useless royals.
Thirty years after the riots of her making, Thatcher has been proved right: There is no such thing as society. Why should the rioters behave? What’s in it for them? A fat pile of nothing, and there is no deterrent. If people will commit a crime for $2 of basmati rice then the slim prospect of jail time or a criminal record is not going to stop them. The criminals at the top end of the scale get away with their crimes, why shouldn’t the small fry try too? Their looting is caught on camera but the liars that run the business world put their hands in the back pockets of millions without youtube evidence.
My sympathies go out to the small businesses that suffered across Britain in the last few days – no doubt Constantinople’s unfortunate merchants paid an equally high price in the Nika Riots. They are on the frontline of a civil war that has a long way to go and like any soft target, will be picked on again. Cameron is no Justinian, nor is the equally ineffectual Ed Miliband. Britain must wait for the reliable rain to relieve the riots, not its robotic politicians.
One punter on Twitter said after the game a Dutch victory would have been a Scorsese award: given purely for their work in the 1970s – this is a little unfair on Martin Scorsese whose more recent films Gangs of New York and The Departed are on a par with anything he did in his earlier career but the point is well made nonetheless.
Holland (never the more geographical correct Netherlands) were the great side of the 1970s with Johan Cruyff at the certain of most of their brilliance. But they never won anything at national level being undone by their own arrogance in 1974, 1976 and 1978 losing to the hosts and winners of the tournament each time. 1978 was a particularly tragedy when Cruyff decided for political reasons not to go to Argentina. What better rebuff to the junta generals would have been him to lift the trophy in front of them.
The defeat of the current Dutch crop is no tragedy, being nowhere near the total football side of the 1970s. The current vintage is a good if workmanlike team epitomised by the starring role of Liverpool’s much maligned workhorse Dirk Kuyt. They beat Brazil which was perhaps the biggest shock of the entire World Cup. But otherwise they were like Brazil’s 2006 conquerors France, tough to beat and lucky but not worldbeaters themselves.
And in terms of sporting disappointment, they are only the second best of the month compared to unknown Frenchman Nicolas Mahut who lost his Wimbledon tennis match to equally obscure American John Isner in a record breaking three-day 11-hour contest 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68. I can’t begin to imagine how Mahut felt at the end of that final 183rd game after the shared almost a thousand points between them.
But even Wimbledon reminds us of the World Cup with a Spaniard Rafael Nadal carrying off his second crown. His fellow countrymen – and they are countrymen, despites their catalogue of Catalans – one nilled their way to the World Cup final and repeated the dose one last time to deservedly take the crown. I congratulate them on their first title, a magnificent achievement especially outside their own continent.
As convincing European Champions in 2008 they went in as the favourite side from the northern hemisphere, but few people though they could get past Brazil or Argentina to win outside their own continent. More still (myself included, I must admit) wrote them off after their opening shock loss to the unrated Switzerland. The defeat was occasion for great angst in Madrid and Barcelona yet two games later they were back on track having won the group while the Swiss packed their bags for home.
The group win was crucial. It meant they avoided Brazil in the round of 16. Instead they won a tense Iberian derby before squeezing past a Paraguay side that was just delighted to be in the quarter finals. Germany was a different kettle of pescado having thrashed Australia, England and then Argentina but Spain passed them to death to deservedly win before repeating the dose against the Dutch.
Perhaps it is appropriate that the most Africanised country in Europe (and the one closest geographically) should triumph in Africa though the players probably won’t feel that way. But this victory may do what 50 years of oppression under Franco could not: seal a farrago of nationalities into a nation. Though it was a Castilian Iker Casillas who lifted the trophy (and in the process joining Dino Zoff in the pantheon of goalkeeping greats), it was a Catalan backbone that sealed the win. And the celebrations would have been just as great in Basque Bilbao and Galician La Coruna as they were in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville. Viva Espana.
My first Anzac Day in Australia was in 1989 and it brings back happy memories purely because it was an unexpected long weekend and a first chance to visit Adelaide. When in the city of churches I paid no attention to Anzac Day ceremonies and probably spent the day either on Glenelg beach or in the Barossa wineries. Even when I got Australian citizenship a few years later, I didn’t think my love for living in Australia would ever cover its military history or traditions. (picture: 2010 dawn service at Muckadilla, Western Queensland)
The first 20 years of my life in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting institutions with links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal. My anti Anzac Day sentiments were shored up by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the angry lament of the Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.
Eric Bogle wrote that song in 1971 but Anzac Day would eventually prove him wrong. Although the numbers of the original diggers shrunk to nothing, there were enough veterans of other military conflicts and overseas engagements to take their places. The size of the march began to increase again and so did the audience for the services and parade. The young people stopped asking “what are they marching for” and began to wear their grandparents’ medals with pride. Gelibolu Yarimadsi became a compulsory stop on European tours.
Thanks to Hawke and Keating government funding Anzac Day was well on the mend in Australia by 1996. Through a collection of circumstances I was awake and in the centre of Melbourne for that year’s Anzac Day dawn service. I shivered through a crisp autumn morning at the city’s massive war memorial on St Kilda road but was fascinated by the formal solemnity of the ritual. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.
About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister, the times finally suiting him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism and the primacy of the flag. Anzac Day became bigger than ever.
I resisted most of these strains. Yet Gallipoli was growing on me. I read Les Carlyon’s history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the catalog of errors, was the number of Australian deaths. 643 in the first week, 1,805 through May, 265 in June, 143 in July, 2,054 in the August offensive with another 572 in the last four months. All across Australia that winter, people would have heard about the death of a father, brother, son, cousin or friend. This was Australia’s first major national tragedy since Federation in 1901 and it was communal grief Anzac committees tapped into as early as 25 April 1916.
The Anzac experience was compounded by events in Western Europe. Thousands more Australians would die in hell holes at Ypres and the Somme. Over 400,000 Australians enlisted in the First World War – almost two in five of the adult population between 18 and 44. 61,513 of them died (easily the largest of any conflict) and another 170,000 were injured or taken POW. In a country of four million people, most were affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was a way of honouring the memory of this harrowing experience.
This year, my job as a country reporter took me to two dawn services, the first in Roma and the second 40km away at Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since that one in Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few parades. The formal part of the Roma and Muckadilla proceedings had not changed. “Shortly after 2am, three battleships, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and London reached their sea rendezvous off Gaba Tebe and stopped to lower their boats,” began the narrative of 95 years ago. The flag was lower and raised, the Ode was recited followed by a minute’s silence, the last post and the national anthem.
Beyond the symbolism lay the meeting of real people. 250 people turned up in Roma, 42 in tiny Muckadilla, easily doubling its population. A bigger crowd still congregated back in Roma for the parade and another service. It wasn’t the ritual that was important. It was what those people did and said to each other before and after the ceremonies that gave the day its power. It brought people together for a common theme and common purpose. I asked people what Anzac Day meant to them. Almost all the answers were thoughtful and complex. Most remembered the deaths of family members or friends or people they knew about. The Anzac tradition concentrates the mind about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.