Friday, 30 April 2010

The right words

We all know when the right words are found. They fit. They need no addition, no adornment, they just say it all.

Two years ago, a 16-year old, Alexandros Giroropoulos, was shot by the Athens police. The exact circumstances are the subject of a case that continues, but this was the spark that ignited a powder keg filled with resentment at crippling economic conditions, financial scandals, unpopular pension and education reforms, and a general strike. The Greeks took to the streets and battles raged in cities up and down the land.

A peculiarity of Greek law meant that the police are not allowed onto university campuses, so, under assault, the rioters in Athens had let it be known that they would regroup on the University library, a solid building. Professors and librarians, who had got wind of this at the last moment, and fearing the loss of incalculable treasures, locked the doors and barricaded the building, breaking up the furniture to do so, and grabbing lamps and chair legs to repel boarders. Thwarted, the rioters threw Molotov cocktails in at the windows and tried to break in. Some forced their way into the entrance hall, and a pitched battle began with white-haired, overweight bespectacled professors struggling in hand-to-hand combat with angry rioters. But suddenly, like a will o’ the wisp, the rioters retreated and moved off, leaving a lot of charred doors, smoke, smashed windows and broken white heads behind them. Luckily, with the collection being on the upper floors, none of the treasures were damaged. But it had been a close run thing.

One professsor, smeared with ash and distraught at the near disaster, was filmed by a TV crew with a pail of water still in his hand, trying to catch his breath. He was asked a question. He looked into the distance and shook his head, trying to control his anger and was at first unable to speak. Then, reaching into his memory, he found something.

“Two thousand years ago, we had a philosopher called Isocrates,” he said “who warned us of this moment.”

He turned to face the film camera and wagged his finger at it, and that night the citizens of Athens saw him on television framed by fire and smoke.

“ ‘Our democracy is destroying itself, because it abused the right to freedom and equality, because it taught people to consider impudence as a right, illegality as freedom, rudeness as equality and anarchy as happiness.’ ”

He left it at that, and went back to his work putting out smouldering fires.

It was quoted around the world, and one Greek daily newspaper cleared the front page and used the quote in isolation.

They may have been two thousand years old, but they were the right words.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

You ain't seen (or heard) nothing yet

Eyjafjallajoekull is a name to conjure with. It’s a name I like. Katla is also a nice name. Warm. Friendly.

These are the names of two of Iceland’s largest volcanoes and it is the smaller of the two, Eyjafjallajoekull, which is currently causing a lot of trouble all over Europe. But it is as nothing compared to the trouble that will happen when Katla blows its top, which it usually does when the warm-up act of Eyjafjallajoekull finishes. When that happens, we will all need to take to our cellars, stock up on rats and start licking the condensation off pipes to slake our raging thirst. Katla will be disruptive in a permanent and thoroughly effective way. It won’t toy with you like Eyjafjallajoekull.

It will start with a huge explosion below the glacier that sits on top of the volcano. This explosion will be loud, if ‘loud’ is a strong enough word. Possibly the loudest sound ever heard on earth was emitted by Krakatoa in 1883. It was certainly much louder than the loudest nuclear explosion, and was heard 3,000 miles away, with people up to 200 miles distant being struck instantly deaf. There is, therefore, a fair chance that we will get to hear Katla above the roar of party political broadcasts. The crater will crack open, the glacier will fall into the billions of tons of lava and a crazy mixture of lava, ice, steam, ash, gas and molten rock will pour out down towards the sea and up towards the stratosphere. This will cause trouble. Billions of cubic tons of lava will make the sea boil, surge and swell across the North Atlantic. Billions of cubic tons of ash, molten rock and quintillions of tons of volcanic gases will make a sizeable mess of the landscape, seascape and skyscape. Nothing will fly over Europe. Not even birds. Insects? Forget it. We will be gassed in our cellars to which we will have retreated after the opening salvo. Over the next few months, we will be buried under about 100 metres of volcanic ash.

We have one chance. Wind direction. Although the prevailing winds will probably take it to us, now and again, the circulation of winds will head everything West, that is, towards the US and Canada. Obviously if the eruption happens while the winds are westerly that would be fine. We’d be laughing. Until you remember that there’s always Etna, Vesuvius and Stromboli to our East.

Next week:
Earthquakes in New Malden +++Security against roaming gangs of looters +++How to panic-buy landmines.