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To Pre-empt

Twice within one day recently I heard/read this verb being used as if it means “warns of” or “signals.”

Once was by a member of Snow Patrol talking about vinyl records – which are apparently making a comeback. He said about their appeal, “It’s that pre-emptive crackle.”

The other was in a piece of fiction where this sentence appeared, “The sky has taken on that bright translucent quality that pre-empts a thunderstorm.” (The thunderstorm later arrived, thereby making the sentence obtuse.)

One more word in danger of losing its meaning because people don’t actually know what it means?

To pre-empt is of course to forestall, to stave off: as in a pre-emptive military strike which seeks to prevent an enemy performing an action or to destroy part of their forces before they can be used. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 was an attempt at a pre-emptive strike. I say attempt because, crucially, it failed to destroy the US aircraft carriers.

The Israeli air force has carried out successful pre-emptive strikes (at the start of the Six Day War and when they attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.)

Shalimar The Clown by Salman Rushdie

QPD, 2005, 398p

Shalimar The Clown cover

After the relatively disappointing aberration of Fury this novel sees Rushdie return for his setting to the locales and interests from which he made his name. He treated with Indira Ghandi’s India in Midnight’s Children, Pakistan in Shame and Islam in The Satanic Verses, before returning to (modern) India with The Ground Beneath Her Feet. In Shalimar The Clown it is Kashmir on which he focuses. In this sense the novel’s start is misleading as it begins in California with the daughter of a former ambassador in the days leading up to his assassination by his chauffeur/factotum, the titular Shalimar the Clown.

The book ranges far and wide with many digressions. In a strange resonance with the previous book that I read the ambassador, Maximilian Ophuls, [why Rushdie chose for his character the name of a film director is somewhat obscure; to me at any rate] was a (Jewish) native of Alsace forced to flee, leaving the family printing business behind, after the Germans took over in 1940. He became a leading member of the French Resistance, was involved in US-French relations, emigrating to the US at the end of the war, and was appointed ambassador to India in the 1960s. This novel is not without incident.

The story arc of the book deals, though, with the relationship between Noman Sher Noman and Boonyi Kaul (both of whom, along with Max and his daughter are given sections of the book – I was going to say to themselves, but other characters pop up all the time all over the book, in typically Rushdiean profusion) and the two villages in Kashmir, Pachigam and Shirmal, where they grew up. It seems all of life is here; the picture of a community, a way of life, is detailed. The plot of the novel is almost buried at times – yet this is true of every section. And is the placid, comradely, nature of existence there before the tensions between India and Pakistan led to strife in the region a touch overplayed? Whatever, the growth of Islamic fundamentalist influence, the deterioration in the situation and the horror of communal conflict is well depicted. Neither the Pakistan backed Muslim terrorists nor the Indian Army are spared implicit criticism.

When Ophuls visits the villages Boonyi seizes her chance to escape, only to end up in a different kind of entrapment. Noman meanwhile burns for revenge. He is recruited as a terrorist and suppresses his character while training. In this context the use of his name (no man) as a signifier seemed perhaps a little trite.

A short review can only touch the surface of the myriad elements which go into a novel which, like this, tries to deal with a big issue. There has to be some kind of story on which to hang the subject matter but at times, here, the human dimension is lost in a surfeit of detail. Do we really, for example, need to know the history of the main characters’ parents? This is a trope which Rushdie has employed in previous books. (A similar trait annoyed me in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead where, every time the author switched to a new viewpoint, we were treated to the character’s whole life story to that point, fatally interrupting the novel’s flow.) In Shalimar The Clown moreover, many passages are told rather in the style of a historical narration than a novel. I shall not reveal the true identity of Shalimar, even though it’s not hard to guess.

While I could have done without the ascent into fantasy in the final section, Rushdie’s sympathies are always in the right place and, despite the various horrors the book describes, overall it is, as perhaps all fiction should be, life–enhancing. After Fury, it represents a return to form.


I suppose a seventieth anniversary is something special but perhaps it is more so when it involves an almost iconic event.

7/12/2011 marks seventy years since the Pearl Harbor attack, the event which turned relatively localised war into World War. “7th December 1941: a date which will live in Infamy,” – FDR.

It is sobering to realise that the Second World War lasted less than four years after that. The US and UK have now had troops dying in Afghanistan for much longer than that; and in Iraq for not much less time. Not so many troops dying admittedly, but dying nonetheless.

I vaguely remember Gore Vidal saying something to the effect that the difference between Pearl Harbor and the September 11th attack was that no-one saw the latter one coming. He had a personal reason to blame the US authorities for the war with Japan, though. His lover died in the Pacific fighting.

US World War 2 Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire

I scheduled this post for a certain time today as it seemed appropriate.

This is the North entrance to the US WW2 cemetery near Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

North Entrance to US War Cemetery, Cambridge

We visited it just after Grantchester. It’s set in some nice agricultural land a few miles east of Cambridge. The grounds are beautifully kept. Several people were busy keeping the paths clear of leaves while we were there.

The memorial itself is monumental in the same way that the corresponding cemetery at Collevilles-sur-Mer in Normandy is. Though Madingley has less than a third of the burials that are in Collevilles – which we visited over ten years ago now – it is still overwhelming when you pass through the entrance from the car park and see the thousands of grave markers. Most of the interred were airmen killed in the bombing campaign over Europe.

This is from the northern end. It doesn’t show the crescent effect that other angles give but from here the crosses (and stars of David) retreat into the distance.

All the Crosses (and Stars of David.)

The Flagstaff from the North

Long Vista  + Flagstaff from the Memorial Chapel

The flagstaff is massive and there is an avenue leading from it to the memorial chapel on whose steps the photo above right was taken.

The long wall on the left here contains the names of all those who died either in the North Atlantic or Europe but have no known grave. A starred entry denotes a Medal of Honor recipient, Lt Col Leon R Vance, who sadly perished when the aeroplane taking him back to the US after he was wounded, disappeared. The statues along the wall represent the various US services, including coastguards as well as airmen, soldiers and sailors.

The Long Wall

The chapel itself, seen below first from the flagstaff and then from among the graves, is an impressive building.

Long Vista And Water, US WW2 Memorial, Cambridgeshire

The Memorial Chapel from North

The circular pieces in the windows are stained glass images of the seals of the various individual States that make up the Union that is the United States.

The wall on the southern side of the chapel displays a map showing the location of the many US bases in WW2 Britain. The hedge enclosing the grounds made it difficult to get far enough back.

Map Of WW2 US Bases in Britain

The Memorial Chapel Doors
The Memorial Chapel Interior, South Wall

The chapel doors have bronze plaques of the heavy equipment the servicemen may have used and inside, a whole wall is given over to the North Atlantic and European theatres of war, showing the routes of convoys and various air-raids over occupied Europe. Below that, panels show the extent of the Axis advance and the Allied ripostes for both the Africa/Europe and Pacific areas over three different time intervals.

The visitors building near the flagstaff had a well signed visitors book and staff who were welcoming and helpful.

Despite the buzz of the leaf clearer, the overall effect was one of tranquillity and harmony, of a strange sort of peace. US citizens with relatives buried there may find that a small comfort.

The experience, like that of visiting any large war cemetery, was humbling.


When I heard that Severiano Ballesteros had been taken poorly again I had forebodings and it was only a day later that the news of his death came. At the age of 54 this seems cruelly early.

He was one of those sporstmen whose fame transcended his sport. The evident joy with which he carried out his work stood out against the majority of professional sportsmen, and even more so in retrospect. His fist pump at the Road Hole in the final round when he won the Open at St Andrews epitomised this (though admittedly it is easy to be joyful when you’re winning.)

His greatest contribution to the game of golf was to boost the standing of the game in Europe. It is possible that without him the European Tour would not have garnered such success and also that the Ryder Cup might have fallen into abeyance as the US used to win it more or less all the time (certainly retained it) until the conversion of the contest into the US vs Europe rather than US vs the UK and Ireland.

When his game declined – possibly as a result of the onset of the illness which has now claimed him – it was a disappointment even to non-golfers.

His apparent recovery in 2009 from a brain tumour was good news. Sadly it wasn’t to last.

Severiano Ballesteros Sota, 9/4/11 – 7/5/11. So it goes.

Where Were The Acid Rain Deniers?

I came across a television programme about climate change sceptics the other night and started watching it. The man-made-climate-change denier they followed the most seemed, at the least, peculiarly fixated (and was later shown up to be somewhat economical with the truth – not to say downright mendacious in his quotations.)

Where he began to annoy me was when he marched off to a geological site in Australia with some acid in a bottle in order to “prove” that there were high levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere when the whole planet was iced over. He proceeded to say, “Here’s a piece of Dolomite, let’s pour acid on it and see if it gives off CO2,” and I thought, “Wait a minute. Dolomite’s a carbonate, of course it’ll give off CO2 when you put acid on it!”

Any carbonate rock will do. Try the White Cliffs of Dover, you’ll get the same result. Or a piece of marble.

So this “proof” consisted of nothing other than an unremarkable bit of chemistry. Quite how it was supposed to relate to the atmospheric conditions which pertained millions of years ago was never quite made clear.

The same guy then went on to speak to an audience of Aussie sceptics some of whom the programme interviewed afterward and they spoke of him as if he were a prophet and climate change scepticism as if it were a religion.

He took the biscuit at a Tea Party rally in the US where he buttered the crowd up with the “great land of freedom” rhetoric, spoke to their prejudices and apparently almost omitted to mention any scientific evidence at all. Another of the speakers raised great cheers when he said, “Americans won’t be bullied.”

Speaking to the camera one more attender at the rally said they were standing up against tyranny. (Though what they have yet actually been forced to do that they didn’t want to I have no idea.)

A day or so later I was showing a class a (twenty year old) video about the acid rain problem and the use of catalytic converters in cars and a thought occurred to me.

Wasn’t the removal of leaded petrol equally “tyrannical” as any putative legislation to alleviate climate change? Or the introduction of catalytic converters? This was in effect a tax on people (and cars) exactly of the sort the Tea Partiers at the rally were apparently complaining about. Yet I don’t remember large protests about them. Nor hearing of Acid Rain sceptics – still less Acid Rain deniers.

Why was this? What made/makes the difference?

Where were the Acid Rain deniers?

The answer may lie in the fact that having catalytic converters in your car doesn’t imply a change in lifestyle, merely a slightly higher cost of living – sweetened, of course, in the UK when unleaded petrol was phased in, by the lower tax levied on it in comparison with leaded.

The programme also spoke to several US petrol heads who were not sceptical of anthropogenic climate change but still liked their cars and motor-bikes. One referred to oil as the US’s crack cocaine, that it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to wean them off it.

But it was this standing against tyranny thing that struck me.

How far do these people go in their individualism and disrespect for rules/instruction/coercion?

When they get in their SUVs or 4x4s and drive off to their rifle and pistol shootathons do they wear seat belts, I wonder? Do they drive on whatever-side-of-the-road-they-damn-well-please? Or do they accept there are some limits on their freedom?

Where, exactly, do they draw the line in standing up against tyranny?

Do they accept there are any limits on their freedom? And if they do, why are they so against what, if they are right, would be only a relatively minor inconvenience in the larger scheme of things but if they are wrong means they – and all the rest of us – may be totally stuffed?

Or do they think they are somehow inviolable and just don’t care about anyone else?

Call Me Irresponsible

I noted it mentally at the time but let it pass. However, Call me Dave’€™s remarks last night brought it to mind again.

His posturing over Georgia would have gone beyond recklessness if it were to be repeated in office. [I have to say here that David Milliband was as bad back then. Don’€™t they have advisers who know about this stuff?]

But not only did Call me Dave get it wrong over Georgia and thereby possibly antagonise Russia, he now wants to target nuclear weapons on Iran and China. Note Nick Clegg’€™s startled reaction in the clip.


Iran which does not have nuclear weapons (any more than Iraq had: anyone with knowledge of the Middle Eastern psyche knows what I’€™m talking about here) and which therefore our threatening them with amounts to bullying. And nobody likes a bully.

And China!

China: with whom we have no quarrel and which has more than enough capacity to make ours seem piddling and which, therefore, it makes no sense to threaten.

Quite apart from the fact that the UK most likely can not or will not use its nuclear weapons without prior US approval and we probably only have them because the French do too (as Yes, Minister put it once) what on Earth was he thinking? Or did he just let his mouth run away with him?

Either way such talk is dangerous and does not bode well for the country’€™s international relations under a Call me Dave premiership. For you can be sure the relevant authorities in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing (not to mention elsewhere) will have taken due note. Mehdi Hassan in the New Statesman makes much the same point.

So, Dave, I’€™m not going to call you Dave.

I’€™m going to call you irresponsible.

American Imperialism?

Inhabitants of the US tend to refer to themselves as American. This is of course factually correct as their country does lie within that continent (or those two continents if you prefer.)

However, they also tend to appropriate the phrase for themselves, to use it to mean a citizen of the United States. This is an implicit dismissal of the other countries in their hemisphere – possibly a linguistic reflection, or extension, of the Monroe Doctrine which explicitly regards the Americas as the USA’€™s backyard. The doctrine dresses itself up as anti-colonial but was of course in itself nothing but imperialist by appropriating to the US the right to interfere in the affairs of other continental – and Caribbean – states. (This right has sometimes been exerted whether the recipients of the benefit desired it or not.)

The terminology is also prevalent, though, on this side of the Atlantic. I may have used it myself at times, however much I try always to refer to the US or USA rather than “€œAmerica.”

I believe, though, that it is a source of irritation to Canadians in particular and also I suspect to Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, El Salvadoreans, Nicaraguans, Belizeans and Panamanians. Not to mention Uruguayans, Brazilians, Chileans, Bolivians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Argentines, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Surinamese, Guyanese and Paraguayans – even French Guianese – all of whom are American in the wider sense.

I have seen the proposal that the description Columbian – after the continent’€™s “discoverer”€ – be used to replace American in the narrower sense. This would be the supreme irony, as what was Columbus if not a European imperialist?

It is unlikely to catch on, though, as US citizens would doubtless not wish to be confused with their fellow continentals from South America, ie Colombians.

As other options this would leave us with the rather unwieldy United Statesian. This could be shortened to USian (which may, though, be misread as Usian,) or Uessian, or even in these days of cavalier spelling, Youessian.

Any of these would at least have the merit of being specific (as well as unimperialist.)

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