Not a sch-lur but a telling sch-lip

The moment in the Leaders debate passed not unnoticed. Jeremy Corbyn referring to Jeffrey Epstein pronounced his name in the German fashion – ‘Ep-schtein’. Understandably, commentators were hanging on every word and syllable to find proof of Corbyn’s deep anti-Semitism, and here were syllables dripping with meaning – not ‘Epsteen’ as the man called himself, but ‘Ep-schtein’: make him sound German, very foreign, for the man was Jewish and in this way Corbyn could emphasise that and how set apart he was for that reason.

Actually though, I have to defend Jeremy Corbyn to a certain extent. I will not deny that he is an utter twerp unfit for public office, and agree that he has permitted a foul sewer of anti-Semitism to thrive and grow in the Labour Party, and his own remarks put him within that toxic culture so that he might be attracted to Jew-haters’ ideas, if he had an idea in his head. On this occasion though it was something else.

He was trying to be clever and correct. He saw a name, saw it looked German and so pronounced it as German. It is a habit of the Islington classes to try to show their universalism by pronouncing foreign names in the way the foreigners do, and even if they get it wrong, they have the kudos points.

I will admit it myself: I read and speak German frequently enough that I use German pronunciations without thinking even when the word has passed thoroughly into English. In IKEA, I have to check myself to stop using Swedish pronunciations for products (or in fact Swedish-as-mispronounced-by-a-Norwegian). French words that have been part of English for centuries still get a retro-pronunciation as French in some mouths, including some words that French borrowed from English in the first place.

It is not always a show-off (all right, often it is) and it may be a way to display having had an education, or to show ones own cosmopolitanism. Alternatively, and think this is the main reason, it may just be anxiety to get it right and not to mispronounce and be seen to be ignorant.

We get it wrong. How many of us, after all, speak all the languages that come across our plates from day to day? In most delicatessens the staff call a chorizo sausage a ‘choritso’, because they think it is the authentic Mediterranean pronunciation, which presupposes that the first half could be Spanish and the second half Italian. I do not expect them to speak either language, and I now grit my teeth rather than correct them all to the Spanish pronunciation (‘choreetho’). That is one Corbyn would not get wrong – he speaks Spanish very well as most of his wives so far have been Spanish.

Trying to get foreign names right is the best way to get them wrong. Use “Peking” in a newsroom and you could be facing a half-hour dressing-down and insistence that the old name is insulting to the Chinese and it has to be pronounced the Chinese way as “Bay-jing” – if only they knew that names written in Pinyin are not pronounced as if they were English, and the name is actually pronounced closer to ‘Pey-ching’; so ‘Bay-jing’ is surely just as insulting? I cannot think that ordinary Chinese folk care. In any case, a name can be different in different languages – no one bats an eyelid at our capital city’s being called ‘Londres’ in French or ‘Llundain’ in Welsh, and to be fair, the Welsh name is older than the English name. Names have become part of English been transformed to be spoken in English. However the worry about being incorrect or (most horrifying) sounding uneducated, weighs heavily on some, and they keep getting it wrong, and thus proving the limit if their education.

This over-correction is nothing new. Throughout the 1980s the BBC insisted that the White South African government operated a policy pronounced ‘apart-height’: that would be correct if it were German, but it was an Afrikaans word and is ‘apart-hate’ (somehow more appropriate).

It is in this context that Jeremy Corbyn mispronounced the name of the late Jeffrey Epstein: not out of malice to expel his race from society, but out of an ill-conceived attempt to be right. As with most of his ideas, his concern to be right has been exactly the opposite in result.

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Round 1: both challengers still standing

The drama, the tension, the gameplaying and deception, the headlines written long beforehand. The Telegraph will say that Boris triumphed over a faltering Corbyn. The Guardian will say Boris was shifty and failed to answer questions. The Mail and the Mirror – well, you can guess. The stories were written before the match and just had a few blanks to fill in.

You would think it should have been a knock-out blow: the intelligent, bubbly Boris against a daft conspiracy theorist with terrorists for friends. It must be harder on the telly to make an impact than in a logical, one-to-one conversation where you have to make sense and not just rhetoric.

There we have today’s politics though: sound-bite against sound-bite, and just trying not to sound too insane or anti-Semitic. Can we perhaps hope for some winning surprises in later debates? Round one with no knock-out.

Still, it was there, it was live, it was raw, it was … a pity that I was out leafletting all evening and missed it.

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Ethiopia, mending paradise

It is hard to express how beautiful Ethiopia can be, and how harsh, and the two are complementary here. If we can think only of the hellish picture of famine, we do not know the land at all. It is as if all of Africa were compressed in one corner, with its lush forest, bare desert, grassland, and vertical mountains.  Here antelopes, giraffes and zebras leap across the plains, and lions, cheetahs and unique wolves hunt; here eagles and vultures soar from peaks above scorched land seeking the living and the dead, and beyond them verdant forests echo with joyous monkeys. In the waters crocodiles wait. Camels ply ancient trading roads in the desert. Here too are the unique churches of the Ethiopians, some carved whole and in one piece out of the living rock.

We know little about the land except the snatches we hear and see, and those do not do justice to this bewildering land.

When Napier was dispatched to Abyssinia (to punish the Emperor Theodore for his misdeeds) it was an unknown land and the expedition was in all received opinion doomed to disaster as no army could march in order through a trackless land where every advance was blocked by a razor-edged mountain range, and he was assured he could not even land his boats without their being sunk by herds of hippopotamus. What he found was a harsh, wilderness land indeed, but one of beauty and ancient culture through which he advanced to his task without loss.

He would find a great change today:  the former Communist government ravaged the land in the name of progress, and recovery is slow. Seeing the sights of Biblical famine in the 1980s you would disbelieve Adam Smith’s observation that “a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth”; but Smith was recounting recent history in Europe and not the unforgiving capriciousness of the African climate.  Still, here in Ethiopia it was human stupidity and malice which caused it.

There will always be poor seasons, drought and locusts, and misgovernment, and the latter is deadly. The Emperor was overthrown for reacting too slowly to a famine, but a year’s dearth was as nothing compared with what the Communists did. Their disruption of farm life and collectivisations did as they have done throughout the world – starved the people, and no worse famine has been seen in that land. Felling the forests denuded the land and left dust. Worst of all the afflicted places was Tigray, once the cultural heartland of the nation. It is struggling to recover even now, but there is hope.

If anyone is tempted to believe that humanity, crawling small upon the face of a vast Earth is incapable of destroying the climate and ecological system, he should look on Ethiopia. Forest were felled to produce fields for crops but just produced dust as the light soil blew away in the winds. The trees held it together, and made a home for wildlife. The trees made their own local climate which allowed man and beast to live – but when the trees were gone, the land died.

Now there is regrowth. The BBC’s Justin Rowlett recently reported on an effort to regrow destroyed forests in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The land is transformed and the bees are returning. (African bees, he found, and as I could have told him, are more aggressive and sting more violently than softy European bees – even elephants are afraid of African bees.) Without bees to pollinate plants, life struggles, so their return presages rebirth.

Worldwide forest are being felled, and we have the luxury here in Britain to be aghast at this, safe in the knowledge that we have already felled our islands’ own lush forests for farmland, millennia ago. There has been new plantation though – the Forestry Commission for a hundred years now has been busy filling with trees areas once bare – Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson who described trees moorland in the north would not recognise the lush pine forests there now, and it was done not from some care for the environment let alone ideas about climate change (not back in 1919) but because the Government needed wood. That is the key to success: a practical motive and a plan for sustainable forestry following over generations.

In America forestry is massive business, but the more successful forest plantations are those which plant as much as they fell, looking two hundred years ahead. If we know that our children will benefit, we care for the future, but if all our effort is taxed away at the end, we have no motive for sustainability.

In the meantime though, Ethiopia is making steps to recover Eden where once there was Gehenna. That is far, far more practical than marches and petitions. The efforts in Ethiopia to replant the lost forests and restore life, efforts carried out by Ethiopians to benefit their generations to come, are worth the praises of the world.

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Fallen riders – Auntie’s list

Thank you to the BBC (a rare compliment at election time), for a hilarious, or worrying article on all those would-be candidates who did not fall at the first fence but fell before the race began. The miscellany of frightening, fortuneless, fallible or frustrated fellows is actually just to scratch the surface:

The guiltiest men and women still won through and will sit in the House of Commons – those who have the personal power to prevent their being defenestrated or who have such seniority that the BBC will not attack them as it does the weaker members of the herd for fear of accusations of bias, or for fear that it will hurt Labour too much.

What a parcel of nutters and victims the list reveals. It is even-handed in covering all the main parties, mostly Labour of course as they are the weirdest. It has been painful to sit through the process through which anti-Semitism has become mainstream, even respected in some quarters.  Once it was just snide asides, like the old “More Estonians than Etonians in the Cabinet these days”, but a solidified doctrine taking over the mainstream of a major political party; that is new. As it is mainstream, the only surprise is that these candidates have been removed not celebrated (at least the more dispensable of them have been removed).

Then there are those who have said something off-colour on Twitter. (I thought that was what Twitter was there for? Do people actually take it seriously? That may explain why Fay is so unnaturally restrained on Twitter compared with what she says in public. Heigh-ho.) One day we will ask ourselves as a society whether a word should condemn if it shows no actual intent to malice. For now we are all in Luke 7:32.

It is all at the last minute, and there were so many mild, inoffensive people who could have been picked as candidates, but they do not go into Big Politics.

I thought that the BBC were doing a public service by listing, with complete even-handedness, those who have been defenestrated at the starting gate.  That may be the wrong way round though.

The thing is, it is the BBC and its search for gaffes which has made the alleged wrong-doing of many of these candidates an issue.  We may prefer a rough-and-tumble candidate who feels free to mouth-off about his opinions, and unless we get those opinions then Parliamentarians cannot develop effective new ideas. We need men like Colonel Sibthorpe, who was wrong in just about everything and spoke in such a way as to bring votes to the other side, but who exposed humbug and questioned unthinking consensus.  The BBC will not allow us to have them.

That said, they have done a service in exposing Jew-hate amongst the Labour ranks, and while they will not expose the insane conspiracy theories which sustain it, Auntie can show us where it emerges, before it becomes so mainstream that those hatreds have to be accepted in debate for the sake of neutrality. As to the rest of the fallen riders, they may be the victims of an excess of sensitivity or of their own stupidity.  It has been entertaining though, and really that is what the Beeb is best at.

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Ultima Thule at the woke frontier

An invisible star has a new name. In the unfathomably far outer solar system, in the Kuiper Belt, the NASA New Horizons probe encountered, passed close to and photographed a body with the romantic name “(486958) 2014 MU69”. Even here, four billion miles from the Earth, where heat is unknown, mindless political correctness can reach its fingers.

There no criticism from me of the International Astronomical Union, nor ever has been, and for NASA nothing but awed admiration. The concept of sending a probe so far and fast and reaching an invisible object with pinpoint accuracy goes anything we can imagine. The New Horizons team have achieved the unimaginable with the first exploration of a cold, classical Kuiper belt object.

Its new name is ‘Arrokoth’, which is a good name. ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Powhatan/Algonquian language which used to be spoken in Maryland, where the team is based. It is good to hear at the new frontier an echo of a language once driven out of its ancient homeland, to hear its honour restored in this small way.

When first found though, observers gave (486958) 2014 MU69 the nickname “Ultima Thule”, and used that name for months. It is an uneven dumbbell shape and they even named one end “Ultima” and the other “Thule”. This name is of course a widely used metaphor for ‘a land beyond the farthermost’, and a natural thought when considering the farthermost object visited by man, or at least by his probes.

The came the objections.

The press release said that “Ultima Thule, one of Arrokoth’s first names, is a term used in ancient times in accordance with a place beyond the known world. However, the term was also used by Nazis and right-wing extremists when referring to a mythical place for the Aryan race.”

Here we have it – dead Nazis are ruining another thing for the rest of us. They have form in this: there is an ancient Indian symbol used not just in Hindu culture but across the world in many ages, usually with a positive, even celebratory implication and which became suddenly popular as a good-luck symbol in the west in the early twentieth century – but then the Nazis nicked it and it can never, ever be used without an implication of mass-murder drawn in the darkest corners of human nature. I do not even name it. It is irredeemable. I refuse to lose Thule though.

There is a better reason for not naming (486958) 2014 MU69 after Thule, because it is not the furthest humanity can reach and it will look daft when another body in the Kuiper Belt or the more distant Oort Cloud is found, and because I do not want astronomers purloining the name of Ultima Thule any more than I want murderous race-myth socialists having it.

For Longfellow this icy land as the ultimate destination was a vision of heaven:

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

The mystery land, the Θούλη described by Pytheas has had many interpretations. The description of Pytheas matches the coast of Norway most closely, but the Roman sailors who saw Shetland afar off named it Thule too, and later ages placed it about the Faroes, then Iceland, then Greenland, ever further off. Perhaps it is such a place that it should never be identified, so that it can remain a place of dreams, and then even the Kuiper Belt is not far enough.

Joanna Kavenna wrote a fascinating book on the identification and the myth of Thule, and travelled to many places that have been identified with it. She saw the ends of the Earth and spoke to people of many races and tongues, and met the name in ancient texts and poetry, and in modern poetry and art. She also found the lazy salons where proto-Nazis had met who wanted to claim Thule as a mythical Urheimat for their imagined pure Germanic race, but this was a minor aside at the fringe, and if there are modern loonies who follow it, frankly, they are not worth bothering with. The woke souls who forbid others from naming Ultima Thule are not opposing the neo-Nazis; they are empowering them, and such people should not be given the power to steal for themselves an ancient myth that belongs to all of Western culture.

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