News & Current Affairs

September 19, 2008

Blair gets serious on comedy show

Blair gets serious on comedy show

For a man who has sat down for interviews with Jeremy Paxman – not to mention his 2005 grilling from Ant and Dec – Tony Blair seemed surprisingly ill at ease talking to Jon Stewart on US television’s Daily Show.

But Mr Paxman rarely lulls his guests into a false sense of security – they know they are in for an inquisition.

On the Daily Show – liberal America’s favorite TV program – Jon Stewart uses charm to win confidences from his guests.

Stewart – a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and the Bush administration – appeared to be genuinely interested in finding out what Mr Blair thought about the war, and about the president.

He was not looking to score points or catch him out.

But, if anything, the relaxed line of questioning seemed to make Mr Blair more wary.

And, other than the admission that he “would have been shocked” if he had known in advance just how much bloodshed and disorder the Iraq war was going to unleash, he gave little away.

We learned that “it would have been complicated” for Mr Blair to convert to Catholicism while he was still in Number Ten.

He managed to win a few laughs when he offered to have a word with President Bush to persuade him to come on the show

But we knew that.

And Mr Blair divulged the basis of his close relationship with President Bush: “I like him”.

But we knew that too.

He managed to win a few laughs when he offered to have a word with President Bush to persuade him to come on the show.

Mostly, however, it was the host who provided the jokes.

At times, the conversation was pretty serious for a comedy show.

There was an in-depth discussion of whether radical Islamist movements like Hamas, al-Qaeda and Hezbollah should be lumped together as a single threat.

Mr Blair argued that they were all linked, while Mr Stewart maintained that the groups had different aims and motivations and should be dealt with separately.

‘Pet’ issues

One topic that was not touched on was the state of politics back in the UK.

Perhaps unsurprisingly on a show aimed at a US audience, Mr Stewart asked no questions about Gordon Brown’s recent troubles.

Of course, no guest comes on a chat show these days without something to plug, and Mr Blair was no exception.

He is about to begin teaching a course at Yale University on “faith and globalisation”.

Not that anyone watching was going to be able to sign up for the course on a whim (although Jon Stewart expressed an interest in doing so).

All in all, both men got what they wanted out of the encounter.

Mr Blair’s wariness meant that he was able to talk about his pet issues – faith and security – without giving away any hostages to fortune.

Jon Stewart got a chance to quiz a man who had been at the centre of one of the most controversial policy decisions in recent US history.

And, as he himself pointed out, he is unlikely to be getting such privileged access to any members of the current administration in the near future – even if Mr Blair does put a good word in for him with his friend George.

September 9, 2008

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

Bush to announce troop reshuffle

US soldier in Falluja

The bulk of the 146,000 US troops deployed in Iraq will remain behind

US President George W Bush is set to announce plans to withdraw about 8,000 troops from Iraq by February and to send additional forces to Afghanistan.

Mr Bush will say in a speech on Tuesday that the improving security situation in Iraq will allow a “quiet surge” of troops in Afghanistan in coming months.

A Marine battalion due to go to Iraq in November will be sent to Afghanistan, followed by an Army combat brigade.

There are currently 146,000 US troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan.

Any long-term decision about their future deployment will be left to Mr Bush’s successor, who will take office in January.

‘Degree of durability’

The continued decline in violence in Iraq since last year’s US troop “surge” has given President Bush a chance to ease the growing strain on his country’s military.

If the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009
President George W Bush

Acting on the advice of his generals, Mr Bush will announce on Tuesday that a Marine battalion, comprising about 1,000 troops, scheduled to leave Anbar province in November will return home as planned without being replaced.

An army brigade of between 3,500 and 4,000 troops will also leave in February, accompanied by about 3,400 support forces, he will say.

“While the progress in Iraq is still fragile and reversible, Gen [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker report that there now appears to be a ‘degree of durability’ to the gains we have made,” Mr Bush will say in a speech at the National Defense University, according to the White House.

“And if the progress in Iraq continues to hold, Gen Petraeus and our military leaders believe additional reductions will be possible in the first half of 2009.”

Our correspondent says the withdrawals announced on Tuesday will mark the start of a slow and limited draw-down based on what Mr Bush calls “return on success”. However, it will still leave the bulk of US forces behind in Iraq.

Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said that although a timetable for the withdrawal of the remaining troops did not exist, he had tentatively agreed with the US military to end the presence of foreign combat troops by 2011.

The Iraqi government is currently negotiating a security agreement on the future of US forces in Iraq before a UN mandate expires.

Afghanistan ‘fragile’

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Bush will also signal that the US will make modest increases in the strength of its forces in Afghanistan to combat the growing threat posed by the Taleban.

Taleban in opium field in south-west Afghanistan, April 2008

Aid agencies point to a 50% increase in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan

“For all the good work we have done in that country, it is clear we must do even more,” he will say.

“Unlike Iraq, it has few natural resources and has an underdeveloped infrastructure. Its democratic institutions are fragile.”

“And its enemies are some of the most hardened terrorists and extremists in the world. With their brutal attacks, the Taleban and the terrorists have made some progress in shaking the confidence of the Afghan people.”

In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead go to Afghanistan. It will be followed in January by an army combat brigade.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said last month that violence in Afghanistan had reached its worst level since 2001, when US-led forces overthrew the Taleban, with more than 260 civilians killed in July.

Afghanistan’s government said the bloodshed was connected to peace deals Pakistan’s government had sought with Islamist militants in the north-western tribal areas along the border.

September 7, 2008

Man killed in bus and tram crash

Man killed in bus and tram crash

Dave Steiert

The bus was badly damaged. Pic: Dave Steiert

A man has died in an accident involving a bus and a tram in Croydon.

The crash happened at about 1000 BST on Sunday in George Street. The driver of the bus was taken to hospital.

Six other people also went to hospital with injuries described by police as “non-critical”. Two shop fronts and a BMW car were also damaged.

Transport for London said: “Following a collision involving a route 468 bus and a tram, a person has been killed. We will carry out a full investigation.”

Their statement went on: “Our deepest sympathies are with the family and friends of the person who died and those who were injured.

A Scotland Yard spokesman said the man who died was believed to be in his late 20s. Police were contacting next of kin.

He appealed for witnesses to the accident to contact police. Some roads in the area were closed while investigations were carried out.

August 21, 2008

Snail hides from march of history

Snail hides from march of history

By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

National Trust)

The snails were found in a balustrade imported from Rome

A colony of Mediterranean snails has been found at the UK’s Cliveden House, where they have lived in marble-wrapped secrecy for a century.

The snails, never found before in the UK, apparently came from Italy in a balustrade bought by a Lord Astor, a former owner of the mansion.

There are thought to be several hundred of the 11mm-long snails at Cliveden.

John Profumo met model Christine Keeler at the Buckinghamshire house in 1961, which led to a political scandal.

Footballer Steven Gerrard married at the National Trust property last year.

Amidst all this activity – and the visits down the years of luminaries as important as Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin – the Papillifera papillaris snail has been a reclusive guest.

What they’re doing, what they’re eating, we don’t rightly know
Matthew Oates

“They were found by a specialist volunteer who helps us clean the statuary in Cliveden,” said the Trust’s nature conservation adviser Mathew Oates.

“He went to a talk at the local archaeological society given by a snail specialist, mentioned his find, and it turned out he’d spotted the colony which had almost certainly been there since 1896,” he told BBC News.

Common around the Mediterranean, this is believed to be the UK’s only sighting of the species.

School for scandal

It was in 1896 that Cliveden took delivery of a travertine marble balustrade that now runs for about 100 metres along the top of the house’s immaculately coiffured lawns.

“It was purchased and brought over from Rome by the first Viscount Astor,” said John Bignell, visitor services manager at the property.

“He’d been an ambassador in Rome and was a great collector. The Villa Borghese in Rome, which he bought it from, now has a copy.”

When the snails climbed on board is not known, although the balustrade itself dates from about 1816.

At Cliveden, they have lived in crevices in the marble and at the bottom of the balustrade.

“What they’re doing, what they’re eating, we don’t rightly know, although it’s likely they’re feeding on lichen or algae growing on the marble,” said Mr Oates.

“But what’s important is they’ve also been found in two, possibly three other places at Cliveden, so all our eggs are not in one basket from a conservation point of view.”

Cliveden House

Cliveden’s past includes the pool party where John Profumo met Christine Keeler

Over the years, the snails would have had the chance to witness a number of seminal moments in UK politics.

Nancy Astor, wife of the second viscount, was the first woman MP to take her seat.

In the 1930s, ministers, prime ministers and other dignitaries came so often to mull the issues of the day that the circle of habitues gained the sobriquet of the “Cliveden Set”.

But the most notorious event was undoubtedly the meeting of Profumo and Keeler in 1961. The 18-year-old model and call-girl was having an affair with a Soviet military attache; and when she later started an affair with the cabinet minister, and he then lied to parliament about it, his fall was a matter of time.

Still owned by the National Trust, the house itself is used as a hotel. Its most famous recent visitor was probably Liverpool star Steven Gerrard who tied the knot there in June 2007, though whether he or his guests spotted the odd Papillifera papillaris is not on record.

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