Twenty Years Ago Today: First Flight of the Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon: so sophisticated and European that it's wearing a moustache. You may have heard that the RAF have picked up some cool new fighter aircraft over the last decade or so. And surprisingly, we actually build some of them ourselves! Well, okay, we build them in concert with European partners, because this instils European amity or something. Although mainly it seems to result in political squabbling, like the time Helmut Kohl vowed to cancel the project and then discovered he couldn't because his predecessor had built all kinds of horrible penalties into the contract.

The aircraft in question is the Eurofighter, which is officially known as the Typhoon now that it's in active service - although it was in development for so long that everyone still thinks of it as the Eurofighter. For a while, they were going to call it the Spitfire II, but the Luftwaffe objected to operating an aircraft with the same name as one they were fighting against in world war two. So instead it was named after a world war two ground attack aircraft, because apparently the German Army don't care about this quite as much as the German Air Force.

And twenty years ago today, it flew for the first time.

It was already over budget by this point in 1994. Of course it was. It was a massively complicated technical project being built by engineering geniuses and overseen by highly competent managers who, unfortunately, answer to politicians. This kind of cost overrun is endemic to such programmes, and legendarily so in the United States, where politicians from the various states scream loudly if the money and jobs provided aren't spent in their districts, leading to such interesting results as the US Army saying they don't need any more tanks but Congress forcing them to take them anyway because otherwise jobs would be lost.


Now imagine this kind of insanity happening between different countries that speak different languages and have different governments. That's why there are four production lines in four nations, all making little bits of the planes. The left and right wings aren't even made in the same place. It's small wonder that the budget ballooned from £7bn in 1988 to £17bn in 1997, and then to... well, actually, the UK government stopped releasing official cost estimates in 2003, so it's hard to say. By 2011 there was a guess of £37bn by the National Audit Office, while German authorities said that the price was in a state of perpetual increase. No wonder the French left the project and made their own fighter instead.

But still, the Typhoon is flying. Well, most of them are. The RAF contingent were grounded in 2010 due to a lack of spare parts, and were only brought back into service by cannibalising some of them. Nevertheless, they flew their first combat operations in 2011, despite having a lack of pilots as well as spare parts, and did actually manage to drop some bombs on Libya very successfully - although they had to rely on older Tornado ground attack aircraft to do the targeting, because the Typhoon pilots hadn't been trained how to do it yet.

The Tornado has now been retired, leaving the Typhoon as the only air defence fighter used by the RAF. It won't be deployed by the Royal Navy on their new aircraft carriers (which are also late, and also over budget) because the government decided in the late 90's that they should rely on the American F-35 instead, what with the Eurofighter being a disaster in the making. Because surely the yanks can organise a pissup in a brewery design an aircraft in an aircraft factory, right? Well, not so much. The F-35 is currently about as late and over budget as the carriers it's supposed to fly from. So they'll probably go together just fine.

The RAF version can also be deployed in 'handlebar' mode

Despite all this ham-handedness, it is, by all accounts, a very nice aircraft. It's unlikely to be tested in air to air combat any time soon (unless Vladimir Putin really loses his marbles), but it's manoeuvrable, fast, packs a punch and can go toe to toe with anything else out there (or so the simulations and wargames say). It's just the human element that lets it down: we always seem to make a mess of procuring these things when there's so much money at stake and we don't have an actual war to fight.

But never mind. The next generation of fighters will be free of human taint. They'll be pilotless drones, designed by computers, built by robots, and directed to their targets by Skynet. Humanity will probably be doomed, but at least our extinction will be brought about on time and under budget.

Here's a nice little video from the Science Museum that shows what it's like in the cockpit of a Typhoon:

Twenty Years Ago Today: Death of Dame Whina Cooper

Whina Cooper Twenty years ago today, a 98-year old woman died in Panguru, New Zealand. Whina Cooper was born Whina Te Wake, daughter of the Maori leader Heremia Te Wake - though this didn't exactly make her a princess. She was born on the mud floor of a cookhouse, and though she was recognised for her intelligence and leadership skills from an early age, she still spent a great deal of her life working as a shopkeeper, a teacher, a gum digger, and a farmer. Maori aristocracy don't seem to enjoy the same kind of privilege as their British counterparts.

Her father favoured her before his sons, realising that she was something special. Sadly, this kind of attitude was all too rare. Maori women were usually expected to keep quiet when dealing with important matters - but she refused to be silenced. They were also supposed to marry whoever they were told to marry - but she made her own choice. She annoyed a lot of people, though her father protected her from the anger of the community. She endured hardship once he was gone, despite having proved her worth at the age of sixteen, in a protest against a white farmer who was trying to claim Maori land. She was too radical for some, in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

Her greatest fame came in 1975, at the age of eighty, when she led five thousand people on a seven hundred mile march to Wellington to protest the seizing of Maori land over the last 135 years of European occupation. It didn't make any immediate difference, but the sight of an elderly, arthritic woman making herself heard helped to radicalise a younger generation of Maori activists. Yet when she accepted accolades from the establishment, such as her knighthood in 1981, she was castigated by some of these younger people for what they saw as a willingness to appease the domination of European colonists. She was too conservative for some, in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

She carried on all the same. As far as she was concerned, accepting awards just made her job easier. Civil servants couldn't refuse her calls when she was a Dame Commander of the British Empire (no matter how much they wished they could avoid the earache). This was useful when working for social causes, something she'd been doing for decades. She founded the Maori Women's Welfare League in 1951, which helped support people during the mass migration into cities. Her goals were anything but separatist, or violent. She was looking for racial harmony, not racial strife. Her last wish was that the two peoples of New Zealand learn to live together and love one another.

She was given many, many honours during her lifetime. But among all the honours bestowed on her in the name of the British Empire, there was one that was purely Maori: Te Whaea o te Motu - Mother of the Nation.

Here's a profile on her from New Zealand TV:

Twenty Years Ago Today: Operation Quickdraw

US Marines boarding a transport plane to leave Mogadishu. Twenty years ago today, the United States rolled out of Mogadishu in a planned withdrawal that they termed 'Operation Quickdraw', presumably because that sounds so much better than a retreat. And yet a retreat it was (albeit a well-organised and orderly one), for the US was leaving without having achieved its aims, which were to assist the UN mission in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the Somali Civil War.

Not that you'd know that if you asked Major-General Thomas Montgomery, the commander of the US forces, who claimed that the operation had been a success. "We are very proud of what we have done," he said. "We know there are hundreds of thousands of Somalis alive because of what we did." He was referring to the relief work that the US had conducted, which had been the original purpose of the mission. But that had little to do with why they were leaving. Their departure had more to do with the thirty Americans and hundreds (possibly thousands) of Somalis who had died in battle. Most of these casualties happened during the First Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993, when an operation to capture one of the faction leaders, Mohamed Farah Aidid, went disastrously wrong. You've probably seen the movie.

For the US, this must have been tremendously frustrating - despite all the equipment and incredibly well trained people at their disposal, they still couldn't eliminate Aidid, who was one of the main stumbling blocks to getting a peace settlement between the warring factions. And he wasn't exactly a military genius. He was a petty warlord running a militia. No, forget frustrating - this was embarrassing. Possibly even mortifying.

So the US pulled out, leaving the UN mission's other contributor nations to keep on trying for another year before they finally gave up and pulled the plug on the operation, leaving Somalia to its fate.

The Americans had decided that peacekeeping was not worth the lives it would cost them, and subsequent forays into this kind of work largely happened at a safe distance, using air strikes (in Bosnia and Kosovo, for example). When the US next launched major combat operations on the ground, it would be as part of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 - the kind of thing that most military forces are far better suited for. The kind of thing they believed would result in a swift, simple victory. The kind of thing that peacekeeping could never give them.

If there's a moral to this story that military planners and politicians really ought to pay attention to, it's this: there is no such thing as a swift, simple victory. And if you think there is, then you're probably the reason why there isn't.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Gas Explosion Razes Apartment Buildings

Edison ExplosionTwenty years ago today in the town of Edison, New Jersey, a gas pipe finally gave way after decades of use, and a burst of flame leapt into the air. (Well, technically this happened five minutes before it was twenty years ago today, but it wasn't until a few minutes past midnight that the flames were actually threatening a complex of apartment buildings, so I'm treating this as March the 24th. Okay? Okay. Let's move on).

The force of the blast knocked people from their beds in the nearest buildings, smashed cars to pieces and left a massive crater - but it wasn't until some minutes later that the fires actually reached the structures of the Durham Woods apartments, where a couple of thousand people were living at the time.

"It sounded like thunder, but it just wouldn't stop," said a resident. "It just kept getting louder and louder and louder. Everything in our apartment was just orange. . .  It reminded me of a King Kong kind of movie where people are just running in every direction, not knowing what they are doing--just grabbing kids, people falling, tripping, running, people just scattering in every direction to just get out of there."

The residents fled - to the woods, to railway tracks, to anywhere that was away from the blaze. Only one person could not flee: Sandra Snyder, who collapsed with a heart attack and died. Eight buildings were incinerated in the conflagration that night, and there were fears that some bodies had been completely destroyed. But in the end there was only the one fatality. The explosion had been its own warning, and 1,500 people were given enough time to run for their lives. Only sixty were injured. Here's what it looked like on the ground:

The gas pipe that burst had been weakened during excavation works conducted by the gas company several years before. Laws regarding digging near pipelines were tightened up all over the US as a result, to the extent that companies needing to excavate now have to check to see if there's anything beneath the ground. Because clearly this wasn't regarded as sensible or obvious before...

In addition to this, the pipes were being run over capacity, were made of brittle materials and suffered from faulty valves. So the gas company had little defence as the residents turned to lawyers for redress. $65m had been paid out in damages by the year 2000 (with a substantial portion going to the estate of Sandra Snyder).

Meanwhile in New York, the radio show host Art Bell was talking to the noted lunatic Neal Chase, who claims to be the current successor to the Throne of David. Chase had predicted that there would be a nuclear attack on New York on this very day. Lo and behold, at the beginning of the interview, news of a large explosion in New Jersey came in: an airline pilot was screaming that Newark had been nuked, and that a Hiroshima-style mushroom cloud was rising into the sky.

Funnily enough, Art Bell is reported to have 'lost his radio composure' at this point. And also presumably his shit. Recordings of this moment seem not to be available online, which is a crying shame. If anyone locates one, let me know...

Twenty Years Ago Today: 1994's Most Bizarre Suicide

Falling ManTwenty years ago today, Ronald Opus jumped to his death from the roof of an apartment building. But he didn't die by smacking his head into the pavement. Instead, his head was blasted by a shotgun as he fell past one of the windows below. And that was only the beginning of the weirdness.

The President of the American Association for Forensic Science, Don Harper Mills, recounted the increasingly odd circumstances of Ronald Opus' demise at an association meeting in August of 1994. Opus had most certainly intended to kill himself; his mother had cut off financial support and he was thoroughly suicidal. But if the shotgun blast hadn't intervened, he would have survived, for safety netting had just been put in place for some workmen toiling away on the outside of the building. So was this actually a murder?

The only problem with a charge of murder was that the shotgun blast wasn't even aimed at Ronald Opus; it was randomly fired out of a window. Except that it wasn't entirely random. It was fired by his father, who was busy threatening his mother in one of their regular arguments. And just to complicate things even further, the shotgun was not normally kept loaded - yet on this occasion, it had been loaded by Ronald Opus himself, in the hope that his father would accidentally kill his mother - his revenge for her cutting him off. His father missed his mother when he pulled the trigger, and Ronald just happened to be falling past the window at that exact moment.

So was this a murder or was this a suicide? The medical examiner ruled it as the latter, although you might have heard differently, because you may have been told this story before. It's been adapted for film and television several times, usually as a knotty problem in a police procedural. The most notable version, though, is this segment from the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's 1999 film, Magnolia (which will, if nothing else, help you get your head around the craziness of the events):

The names are changed, the identity of the shooter is switched, the date is set back more than thirty years and the final charge is altered to murder - but it's essentially the same story. Quite a tale!

Except that none of it is true.

Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the script for Magnolia, but he didn't create this story. It has often been attributed to a 1998 article for the Associated Press under the byline "Kurt Westervelt" - but Westervelt doesn't exist, and the AP never actually published that story. The first real sighting of the story was when it spread across the internet by email in late 1994, going viral before anyone had actually come up with the term 'going viral'.

It referred to two key dates: the August 1994 dinner at which pathologist Don Harper Mills spoke, and the 23rd of March 1994, when Opus supposedly died. How the story acquired those dates is unknown, for nothing of the sort happened on those days. And we know this because Don Harper Mills admitted to having invented the story for a completely different meeting of the American Association for Forensic Science back in 1987.

It was a complete fabrication from end to end - but with a useful purpose. The point of the tale was to present a complex case for a medical examiner to resolve, as a test of legal knowledge in extreme circumstances. Mills had no idea who released the story to the internet, but had to field hundreds of enquiries as a result, including from professors of law who wanted to cite it as a legal precedent.

And what verdict should you, the casual internet user, give upon this case? Why, the answer is simple: if you hear a strange story that seems too amazing to be true, check it first. Your first stop should be Snopes, as mine was when I encountered this story associated with this date (something that saved me a good deal of embarrassment!) And if that fails you, then there's always The Straight Dope, or any of a myriad of Skeptical resources, provided by people who spend their lives figuring out what's real and what isn't.

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Iron Heart of a Meteorite Exposed

See all that gas and dust swirling around the sun? In four and a half billion years time, some of that will be you. Four and a half billion years ago (or thereabouts), the sun ignited. But there was more to the solar system than just the sun. The disc of gas and dust that swirled around the new star began to clump together to make planets and moons and asteroids. They melted under the pressure of their own increasing gravity and became so hot that the heavier elements sank within them down to their cores, leaving them with deposits of iron right at the heart of each one.

One such body flew on in its orbit around the sun for untold millions of years, cooling off until it was solid through and through. It could have gone on forever, until the heat-death of the universe put an end to all light; but it was not to be. The solar system was stuffed to the gills with lumps of rock and iron, so many that they smashed into each other over and over. Sometimes this would make a bigger chunk of rock and iron. This time it just smashed the asteroid apart, breaking up the iron core into tiny pieces that swung on around the sun in new orbits, going on for more millions of years...

Until one of them hit China.

In 1516, a fireball was observed over Nantan county in the province of Guangxi. The meteor flared bright, but it was too big and heavy to vapourise. It broke apart into a shower of meteoritic chunks weighing nine and a half tons between them. They smacked into the ground across the county, each one too small to do much damage or even to be noticed. And there they lay for centuries - ignored, forgotten, perhaps occasionally uncovered, but never desired so much that anyone went looking for them.

Until one day China had a desperate need for iron.

Mao Zedong, a man who counted his successes in terms of how many millions of people died as a result

By 1958, Mao Zedong had already removed all opposition to Communist rule by the simple expedient of asking for suggestions on how things could be improved, and then purging the half a million or so people who actually replied. So he was now free to push forward with his ideological campaign to industrialise China by forcing the heroic peasants to make a Great Leap Forward in production of all goods - including steel.

But the campaign was woefully mismanaged. Steel production couldn't be conjured from nothing, with no infrastructure. So to fulfil the ever-increasing quotas, people would melt down pots, pans and anything else they could lay their hands on - which included any meteoritic iron that happened to be lying around. And so the lumps of metal that fell from the sky centuries before were uncovered, and dragged off to makeshift furnaces. But they wouldn't melt. The iron had been mixed with nickel when it was formed, and the resulting alloy had a melting point far beyond the capability of the peasants struggling to meet their quotas. The meteorites were put to one side while 36 million people died in the famines caused by the disaster that was the Great Leap Forward.

The Nantan meteorite, once it had been sliced open.

By 1994, China was finally making rapid progress towards real industrialisation, mainly because Mao and his old supporters had died off, leaving the more practically minded (if still somewhat brutal) Deng Xiaoping in charge. Contact with the rest of the world blossomed, and some of the haul of meteorites from Nantan were sold off - one of them to a consortium of European museums for the princely sum of $25,000.

And so, twenty years ago today, a lump of iron and nickel weighing 255kg was sliced up into five pieces at a specialist cutting firm in Redditch, which was surprised but overjoyed to get the chance to prepare the meteorite for the Natural History Museum. The resulting shard was briefly put on display before being given over to research that would help to explain the story of the early solar system, and how dust and gas could go on to form the planets and moons and asteroids that we know today...


Twenty Years Ago Today: A Live Action Parliamentary Puppet Show!

A photorealistic image of John Major, the British Prime Minister Twenty years ago today, Spitting Image was between its fifteenth and sixteenth series, and therefore not on the air. Instead, the good folk of Westminster were doing their best to create a live-action Spitting Image sketch. Eyebrows were raised throughout Downing Street as a terrifying sound issued forth from the office of the Prime Minister: the monumental boom of an outraged Ulsterman.

It was an argument about the Northern Ireland peace process, of course. The loud Ulsterman was none other than the Reverend Ian Paisley, leader of the protestant Democratic Unionist Party. In those days, they were a group of hardliners who opposed any accommodation with the catholic opposition, but their support was needed if the process was to go ahead.

Behind Ian Paisley's booming voice lay the calculating brain of that most terrifying of creatures: a politician.

Paisley's refusal to participate was annoying the PM somewhat, and it's said that Mr. Major - a man caricatured by Spitting Image as so dull that his colour control was set to permanent monochrome - flew off the handle, shouting that Paisley was talking 'total rubbish', and throwing his papers around the room. Paisley - who needed no caricature for anyone to know that his volume control was set to a permanent maximum - claimed that he actually had to raise his voice to be heard.

Paisley dismissed the peace process as 'iniquitous and a farce' and 'a rotten sinking vessel which is going down now in confusion.' Major accused him of constantly misrepresenting the situation, and the bellowing continued to rise. 'I have a better voice than him when it comes to volume,' said Paisley later on, but it wasn't his office; after half an hour of the two men screaming at each other, Major threw him out.

Both sides were swift to present their own interpretation of events, with Paisley's being by far the more entertaining, depicting him as standing up for his principles in the face of a prime minister who threw his papers around the room in frustration. His intended audience was probably not the British government, nor even his true opponents, Sinn Fein - but his own people back home. As the years progressed, his intransigence would continue to win him support among Unionists until his party supplanted the former leading Unionist party, and took power after the eventual peace agreement. Because after all, the biggest fights in politics are usually more between allies than enemies, and in-fighting is vastly more popular (and profitable) than actual fighting.

And for those of you who can't remember what Spitting Image was all about, here's a reminder:

Twenty Years Ago Today: I Can't Believe It's Not the Oscars

Golden_Raspberry_AwardTwenty years ago today, the glitter people of Hollywood were looking forward to a self-congratulatory schmoozefest on the following day, because it was that time of year when they like to reward people whose studios paid for massive advertising campaigns with statues of anatomically incorrect little gold men. But elsewhere in the wilderness of Los Angeles, another awards ceremony was in progress, though this is one that few of the recipients are ever brave enough to attend. For tonight was the night of the 14th Golden Raspberry awards, in which the very worst of the past year's films would be derided and mocked with all the solemnity of a hyena on laughing gas.

The big films up for mockery this year included:

  • Indecent Proposal: in which Robert Redford tries to pay a million dollars to sleep with a married woman, and murdery hi-jinks result.
  • Body of Evidence: in which Madonna gives a treatise on the creative use of molten candle wax when applied to Willem Dafoe. Or something like that. The candle wax scene was the point when I walked out of the cinema to seek an alcoholic remedy for my boredom.
  • Cliffhanger: in which Sylvester Stallone shows how much fun you can have with mountains and camera cranes. Not so much with the story or acting or anything.
  • Sliver: which was something to do with voyeurism and CCTV. Or possibly there wasn't a film at all and just a UB40 music video that you were forced by law to watch before every other goddamn film that year.
  • Last Action Hero: the year's biggest box office disaster, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger made a film that mocked both him and the pictures he'd been making for the last decade.

These were all horrible movies - except the last one, which was primarily a horror to the studio accountants. In my opinion (bolstered by a recent rewatch of the film), the Razzies failed to spot a future trend in film and television: growing awareness of the medium itself, and a willingness to take the piss out of its conventions. Last Action Hero had many problems, but it still had more charm and wit than most other films from 1993, and featured characters who were genre savvy before anyone even invented the term. Scream would take the same kind of obsessive movie knowledge and turn it into a hit in 1996 - but Last Action Hero was a financial disaster.

Part of the problem was that they were trying to mock massively-budgeted blockbuster films by making... a massively budgeted blockbuster film. The ridiculous budget meant that they had to get the largest audience possible, while the section of the audience that appreciated metafiction wasn't big enough to support the cost of the film. Whereas Scream, a much cheaper film in a genre where the fans were even more obsessive, could easily do so.

But there were lots of other screwups as well - the production was a nightmare, the script was heavily rewritten by lots of people, the schedule was so tight that they barely got it finished, and somebody thought that a magic film ticket was a good plot device. It's a miracle the film hangs together as well as it does. Yet despite its faults it still gave us the best version of Hamlet ever, Charles Dance in full-scale villain mode, Ian McKellen as Death himself, and Arnold Schwarzenegger being aware of his own ridiculousness. And unlike all those other films being 'honoured' at the Razzies, this one has actually improved with age.

Twenty Years Ago Today: An Exemplar of British Aristocracy

Darius Guppy (on the left) with Earl Spencer in better times. Twenty years ago today, it was revealed that a notorious fraudster was willing at last to tell police exactly where in Switzerland he'd stashed his loot. But this was no ordinary fraudster. Darius Guppy was educated at Eton and Oxford, was a member of the Bullingdon Club, and a friend to both Earl Spencer and Boris Johnson. While he had both British and Iranian heritage, he was an aristocrat through and through who could trace his line back to Francis Dashwood (of Hellfire Club fame) and the Plantagenet royal family.

To say that Guppy had a privileged upbringing would be to observe that water is wet, whisky is intoxicating, and rich people have a poor grasp on reality. Young Darius preferred to live by his own rules, which Boris Johnson described as a 'Homeric code of honour, loyalty and revenge.' Unfortunately, Johnson wasn't suggesting that Guppy was likely to spend most of his time sulking in a tent (as Achilleus does in The Iliad), but instead that he was perfectly willing to engage in extraordinary criminal activity in recompense for any slight against himself or his family. The offence, in this case, was to his father, who lost a fortune in the financial crisis suffered by Lloyds of London. Therefore Guppy enlisted a friend to help fake a jewel heist in New York, during which enough stones were 'stolen' to trigger a £1.8 million payout from Lloyds. This went off perfectly until Guppy's friend betrayed him, leading to a prison sentence of five years.

As Guppy was entering Brixton prison, he joked with a guard that it would probably be a lot like going to Eton. But after only a few weeks inside, he was beginning to regret this bravado. A former cell-mate told The Sun that Guppy was a wreck, living in fear of sexual assault from other inmates. He was apparently so terrified of all the offers of intercourse that he had taken to locking himself in his cell. One can only assume that this is not what he meant when he compared prison to Eton. Although this is The Sun we're talking about, so feel free to reach for a pinch of salt.

It's possible, though, that Guppy's willingness to help the police came from another source. By March of 1994 his appeal had been denied, with the judge taking a dim view of Guppy's claims that he only had a couple of hundred thousand pounds to spare, not nearly enough to pay back the insurers. But if he were willing to co-operate, perhaps the matter might be reconsidered...

Guppy was released after serving three years of his sentence, and immediately demonstrated how much he'd learned from the experience by beating up Earl Spencer. He accused the earl of having an affair with his wife while he was in prison (Spencer had made the mistake of giving his friend's wife and their infant daughter a house in which to live during those years).

Guppy then relocated to South Africa, from where he occasionally bemoans the state of modern Britain as an urban hell whose political and financial leaders are a bunch of clowns lacking in any vision. And given that he went to school with most of them, he should know...

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Conspiracy Ran Deep in South Africa

Inkatha Freedom Party supporters at a rally in 1994 South Africa in 1994 was on the rocky road to ditching the old system of apartheid. But it wasn't a simple process; both the white minority who had been running the country and the black majority who had endured systematic oppression were riven by divisions. In particular, there was a deep divide between the Khoi-San people who made up the bulk of the ANC, and the Zulus who formed the Inkatha Freedom Party; a divide that some within the white security forces sought to take advantage of.

Twenty years ago today, it was revealed that a whistleblower from the police had approached a judicial commission with evidence that hard-liners within the police had been deliberately supplying Inkatha with weapons, and training their fighters to use them against the ANC - all in the hope that the movement to end apartheid would dissolve in a black-on-black civil war. This conspiracy was not unsuspected; and in this case the conspiracy theorist who suspected it was Nelson Mandela himself (along with quite a lot of other people, no doubt). But until this day twenty years ago, his suspicions had been disregarded as mere paranoia, at least as far as the authorities were concerned.

It had been going on since at least 1989. Weapons used in a war against Namibia were cleaned in acid and their serial numbers were removed. They were distributed to Inkatha, along with some that were manufactured by members of the police force. The effort was led by a group of senior police officials, including one who had once led Vlakplaas, a notorious police assassination unit that had since been disbanded (though some members were still working in hit squads with the collusion of the police). Violence in townships and massacres on trains had been the result, and the situation between the ANC and Inkatha remained tense at a time when it was desperately important that they co-operate in ensuring peaceful elections.

The National Party government was swift to deny any involvement, and, at least as far as the leadership was concerned, this seems credible. F. W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, was doing his level best to manage the transition to majority rule peacefully, and had made an effort to prevent the police from continuing their murderous activities. That he was being undermined by forces within the police just goes to show how desperate some people were to maintain their tyranny.

Here's a film about Eugene de Kock, one of the unpleasant people behind all this:

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Fuel Is Always Greener On The Other Side

Red DieselTwenty years ago today, glasses were raised throughout Ireland and across the world in honour of St. Patrick's Day. But HM Customs had a special reason to celebrate, because one of their least favourite scams was to be made illegal at midnight - and it was something green. In this case, green diesel. Now, we're not talking about environmentally friendly diesel here. This is diesel intended to be used for off-road vehicles, such as agricultural machinery. And there's a specific place for it to be used: on the Irish side of the border shared between the Republic and the United Kingdom, the only land border that either nation has to worry about. Diesel for agricultural use is a lot cheaper than normal 'white' diesel for road vehicles, because it's subject to a much lower rate of fuel duty. So in order to stop people cheating the taxman from his rightful share, it's marked with dye - green in Ireland, red in Northern Ireland - and the police conduct random checks to make sure that only properly taxed fuel is used.

By the 90's, diesel engined cars were becoming more and more common, so the practice of selling red or green diesel to normal road users at half the price of normal diesel became a scam that criminals could take easy advantage of. The police occasionally stopped vehicles to check them, but there was one trick they couldn't prevent. It was illegal to buy red or green diesel in each respective country, and it was illegal to transport the fuel across the border - but it wasn't actually illegal to buy green diesel if you happened to be in Northern Ireland.

So the enterprising criminals of the border (of which there were many), would drive a tanker up to a point a few metres inside Ireland, run a pipe across the border, connect it up to a pump in the UK, and start selling.

The police forces on both sides of the border did their best to prevent this trade in all the traditional ways, like actually going up to the criminals and arresting them. But the borders were a lawless place, and it was impossible to keep every mile constantly under surveillance. Special operations were launched to try, but as soon as they put one group of smugglers out of business, another would spring up overnight.

So they did the next best thing: they changed the law. From midnight tonight (twenty years ago, that is), green diesel became just as illegal in Northern Ireland as red diesel, and the police could seize the vehicle for the crown if they found the Irish fuel in the tank.

And did this solve the problem of fuel fraud in Northern Ireland? No. Don't be silly. The criminals just found new ways to make money - for example, by passing the fuel through cat litter to filter out the dye. Plus there are all kinds of other cross-border fraud possibilities, such as tobacco smuggling. To this day, both the PSNI and the Garda Síochána are still struggling to keep up with the ingenuity of the criminal gangs that live on the border.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Cameraman Dies in Zoo Rescue

Rick LombaTwenty years ago today, things were bad in Angola. A civil war raged between the two movements that had originally fought against colonial forces: UNITA and the MPLA. It had been going on since the colonial power left in 1975 and had been one of the many conflicts used as a proxy in the Cold War. There had been a fragile peace in 1991, but the fighting flared up again soon after. By 1994, UNITA had scored a devastating series of victories against the MPLA, and were threatening to take the whole country. But Rick Lomba was mainly worried about the animals.

Lomba was a documentary maker and cameraman whose 1986 film The End of Eden showed how Africa's ecosystems were being eroded by human agriculture, particularly the introduction of cattle ranching to South Africa. He supplemented a career in environmental activism by working as a TV cameraman, and it was in this capacity that he'd travelled to Luanda, to cover an effort to rescue animals trapped in Luanda zoo.

It wasn't that they expected Luanda to fall to UNITA. It was more that the chaos had left the zoo with no money to feed the animals, which were starving to death. The plan was to get the animals back to South Africa and distribute them among various zoos there - far safer than Angola, despite all the worries about violence in the run-up to the elections.

But a mistake was made. A safety gate was left open, and a hungry Bengal tiger was able to burst free and attack the first person in its way - Rick Lomba. The deputy director of the Johannesburg Zoo snatched up an AK47 from a guard, but it was too late. All he could do was kill the tiger before it pounced on anyone else.

The other animals, including tigers, lions, buffaloes, hyenas, mongooses, chimpanzees and a brown bear were secured, though an ostrich and a buffalo died after being tranquillised. At least one of the rescued animals still lives at Johannesburg Zoo - a brown bear who was named Luanda after the city from which he came.

Rick Lomba was commemorated by a ROSCAR award for environmental filmmaking. The End of Eden doesn't seem to be available to buy, but some kind soul has uploaded the film to YouTube in its entirety.

Twenty Years Ago Today: A Rainbow Flag Flies

South_AfricaTwenty years ago today, the government of South Africa finally decided what the design of the new national flag was going to be, something that had become imperative since the release of Nelson Mandela and his insistence that the old flag be abandoned if he was going to take part in the democratic process. Flag of South Africa, 1928-1994

The old flag was a compromise, but not one that made any concessions to Africans. It reflected the Dutch and British heritage of the Afrikaaner nation, being composed mainly of the old Dutch flag with a few teensy flaglets in the middle that came from the UK and the former republics on the same territory as South Africa. If you were black, it represented you not at all, and that was something that needed to change.

And so a competition was announced, and the public were invited to send in their designs for a new national flag. 7,000 entries were submitted, of which six were picked to be put before the public and the negotiators working to manage the transition to majority rule.

Nobody liked them.

So it was back to the drawing board. A new solution was fast-tracked: get the expert in. The expert in this case was Frederick Brownell, a retired state herald and vexillologist - someone who designs flags, and understands the symbolism that goes into them. He'd already sketched out an idea on the back of a cigarette packet while in a Zurich restaurant. So he dug that out, messed about with the colours a bit to find something that worked, and presented his design: a "Y" shape that symbolises two cultural traditions and people coming together as one, featuring the colours used widely by black resistance groups (including the ANC) alongside those of the European colonists.

Nobody liked it.


When it was announced, it was immediately derided as the 'Y-Front' design and thought to be a singularly ugly compromise. But it was too late to start the process again before the elections in May, when it absolutely had to be flown across the nation and at embassies worldwide. So it was announced to the world with the proviso that it was only going to be the temporary state flag for the next five years. If it didn't work out - well, they'd come up with another one. The flag went into production, and there were barely enough completed in time for Nelson Mandela to accept the presidency of the new South Africa on May the 10th.

And then something odd happened. People started to get used to the flag and think that it wasn't that bad. The symbology actually works, while still keeping a form that looks like a proper national flag - and one that happens to be completely unique. You can't mistake this for anything other than South Africa. It became the branding for the rainbow nation, recognised across the globe - and when the time came to decide whether or not to ratify it as the permanent national flag, it wasn't even a question. It became part of the South African constitution with hardly any need for debate.

In the end, everybody liked it.

Of course, the success of the flag doesn't mean the path to majority rule was easy - there were violent clashes between the ANC and Inkatha, a terrible fear of Afrikaaners turning to terrorism, Bantustans dissolved in acrimony, grinding poverty and rising crime - and yet somehow they made it.

You can easily add another layer of symbolism to the flag: because just like Frederick Brownell's design, no one expected the new South Africa to work. And yet it does. It's far from perfect - but it's even further from the descent into anarchy that the world was dreading.

Twenty Years Ago Today: A Writer's Death

Sandra ParettiTwenty years ago today, a paid notice appeared in the pages of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Zurich-based newspaper. In it was announced the passing of the Swiss-German novelist Sandra Paretti, which came as something of a surprise to her followers as hardly anyone seemed to know that she was ill. What alarmed them even more was that the notice informed them that she intended to take her own life - and that by the time anyone read the article, she had already done so. This was no obituary. This was a suicide note.

Paretti (whose real name was Dr. Irmgard Schneeberger) was dying of abdominal cancer, and had decided to take her own life - but in a safe, sensible and controlled manner. She sought the help of EXIT, a Swiss charity that assists people with euthanasia (not unlike Dignitas, which you may also have heard of in recent years). She passed away peacefully of a supervised drug overdose on March the 13th.

She never had a massive following in English, but was exceedingly well known in German and had been translated into 27 other languages, with 30 million copies sold by the time of her death. She made no claim to be a literary author - she knew her audience and gave them exactly what they wanted, with no pretence at being anything else. She mainly wrote historical novels which were known for their melodrama and sentimentality, such as The Drums of Winter, in which a pair of Hessian half-brothers are sent to fight in the American Revolutionary War (and seem to fight each other as much as they do anyone else). She'd begun her career in 1967 with The Rose and the Sword, set in Napoleonic times, had seen another novel adapted for television in the last few years, and her last work was an original television series called The Red Bird.

Yet despite all this success, she'd managed to keep her cancer out of the limelight. The newspapers immediately started trying to dig up friends and relatives to find a juicier angle, but no one knew anything. The only one who could add anything was her lawyer, but he had only known of her illness for the last couple of months. She'd been ill for two years and had struggled through all the usual treatments - yet virtually no one knew, other than the doctors who treated her. There was no story to tell, save the one she wrote for herself.

The last page in her life was the notice in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, which was as unashamedly sentimental as any of her novels. "The name of the disease is of no importance," she wrote. "I did the same with my disease as with my life - I embraced it and behold, it was my last lover.

"I had an easy and wonderful life, like one of Mozart's symphonies, and I am now being swept towards an impatient but brilliant finale."


Twenty Years Ago Today: NaNoWriMo is for Wimps

Novelist at Work Twenty years ago today, an elite group of the nation's finest writers gathered at the Groucho club in Soho, London. There, they swore that that they would know neither rest nor sustenance, that they would write until their fingers bled, and that they would finish a novel in a single weekend - or die trying.

Well, okay, I may have embellished that a bit, but not entirely. The World One Day Novel Cup was indeed held twenty years ago. There were thirty-two entrants, they did all get together at the Groucho, and they did spend the weekend writing novels - or at least as close to a novel as you can get in two days. Realistically it was never going to be much more than a novella for each of them, if they finished at all. Quite a few of them did, and lo and behold, the collected edition of all these novel(las) is now out of print. The experiment was tried again in 1995, and then laid to rest. It's not hard to see why: the entrants were professional writers to begin with, and this could never be much more than a gimmick for them - a gimmick that required a lot of effort and probably didn't provide much of a return.

However, the basic idea was kind of resurrected with the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). In this rather more sane programme, people have a whole month to write their novel, and they have a sensible target to reach - 50,000 words. There were 428,584 entrants who finished in 2013, which is a bit of an improvement on 32 (unless you actually try and read all those novels). And of course, the entrants are a much broader group than just professional writers: the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to give anyone who wants to write a novel the motivation to get it done.

The main difference between now and 1994 is pretty simple - technology. NaNoWriMo works because it's organised over the internet. There's no need to gather in a single place. There's no requirement to lug your desktop computer to the venue, as the participants did twenty years ago; anyone can join in, and that's why it's been a success. But at the same time, there's also much less chance that your novel will actually be read. It'll almost certainly be lost in the near-half-million strong pile of other entrants - which does beg the question of why people write novels at all, when they know their work will almost certainly never be read. But then, this has been the case for virtually every would-be novelist since long before the internet existed, and it never seems to stop anyone...

(it certainly hasn't stopped me!)

And the winner, twenty years ago? That was The Resurrection of the Body, by Maggie Hamond, a supernatural thriller that she later expanded for publication outside the anthology of books completed over the weekend of the competition. This version is still in print (though you'll want to check out the reviews on Goodreads, first).

Twenty Years Ago Today: The Loch Ness Monster Uncovered

It's evidence, I tell you! Solid evidence! Twenty years ago today, a 60-year old hoax was uncovered: at long last, the 1934 photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was revealed to be nothing more than a trick to sell newspapers - although the newspaper in question hadn't actually organised the hoax itself.

The newspaper that was so desperate for sales in 1934 was the Daily Mail, which had hired a big game hunter the year before to go on the lookout for Nessie and discover once and for all if the legend of a strange beast lurking beneath the waters of the loch was true. Marmaduke Wetherell went a-hunting, and found some impressive footprints - which were swiftly revealed to have been made by the amputated foot of a hippopotamus. Or to be more exact, the amputated foot of a hippopotamus that had been made into an umbrella stand.

So the Daily Mail was all too pleased to have an actual photograph of the beast fall into its lap the next year, and did very little to question its authenticity. The image, known to history as the 'Surgeon's Photograph', was allegedly taken by Col. Robert Wilson, a London gynaecologist, who happened to be driving past when the beastie surfaced - although he was never terribly willing to shed any light on the precise circumstances of how the photo came to be. The reason for his reticence is not because he was driving with a married woman, as he quietly implied to his medical colleagues so they would stop asking him about it. The truth was even more simple: he was secretly working with the erstwhile hunter Wetherell, who had decided it was high time that the Mail got its evidence of Nessie, even if he had to invent if from scratch. Again.

Wetherell enlisted his son, Ian, and his stepson, Christian Spurling, to help build the model that would be photographed. A toy submarine was procured, carefully weighted with lead so it would reliably stay under the surface, and then surmounted with a protrusion that resembled the head of a sea serpent. The photograph was duly published and proclaimed to be proof positive that there was something uncanny living beneath the depths of the loch; at least until Spurling reached the end of his days at the age of 90, when he admitted to two researchers that the whole thing had been made up.

However, these weren't just any researchers. They were Loch Ness Monster researchers, and the uncovering of a hoax did not in any way dent their certainty that the Loch Ness Monster existed. After all, there were so many eyewitness accounts over the years! They couldn't all be hoaxes. Or simply false. Could they? Human beings aren't capable of getting things repeatedly wrong over a stretch of decades or even centuries, right? Surely we never make wild assumptions about things that have perfectly mundane explanations? And it's not as though we have parts of our brains that fill in the gaps when we can't quite see something, or which generate memories according to our expectations of what we think should have been there...

Well, yes, actually our brains do these things all the time. Which is why we need to rely on more objective methods like sonar (just to take one example). But the fact that no such objective evidence has ever been found will, of course, never deter those who truly believe, for when it comes to things that don't exist, belief is the greatest sense of all: it can see anything, so long as the believer wants it to.

For more on this subject, the Skeptic's Dictionary has all the exasperated noises you could ever want.


Twenty Years Ago Today: Media Circus in Cromwell Street

Gloucester's newest tourist attraction Twenty years ago today, the situation at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, was growing ever more grim. In the two weeks of excavations up to this point, at least nine bodies had been discovered with a possibility of a tenth. Fred West had been charged with eight murders. This was officially one of the most horrifying murder investigations in British history, which means it had also become one of the most sickening media circuses in British history.

Solicitors involved in the case, including the one appointed to take care of the interests of the West's children (who were then in care), had warned the media to restrain themselves, and that legal action might be taken against any newspaper printing stories that would prejudice West's trial. But this did little to hold back the hordes of journalists, whose chequebooks were practically dripping money. Everyone who knew anything had had their story bought by one newspaper or another - unless they were holding out for a higher price. The local newspapers were rapidly being squeezed out by the nationals, who had reportedly offered one of West's surviving daughters £40,000 for her story.

It wasn't just the newspapers. A house that backed onto Cromwell Street had its garden taken over by television news crews, who built platforms for their cameras and lights so they could look down onto the ongoing excavations. The owner of the garden was charging by the day - and charged more if something significant happened. Hotels and shops were doing a brisk business thanks to the hordes that had descended upon the city. The chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce regretted the circumstances that had brought so many to Gloucester, but hoped that now they were there, they would discover more of what the city had to offer, like the Beatrix Potter shop and the lovely cathedral.

Identifiable signs on the house were being removed by the authorities, for fear that they would be stolen by souvenir hunters - a quite reasonable fear, since Cromwell Street had become a mecca for gawpers and murder aficionados of all kinds. Some were just locals who couldn't resist rubbernecking as they drove past, but some came from all over the country, recounting stories of how they'd gone to see Dennis Nilsen's flat, and speculating on what kinds of horrible things must have gone on behind the walls of 25 Cromwell Street.

What's left of 25 Cromwell Street

In years to come, the house would be demolished and the land on which it stood turned into a broad footpath, to prevent as much of the murder tourism as could be prevented. But it'll never stop entirely. After all, I'm writing this piece twenty years later, and I still find the whole mess fascinating, if grotesque - I certainly can't claim I'm any better than the people who were staring with open-eyed fascination at the outside of an unremarkable house, knowing that murder had taken place within. Nor do I expect our descendants will be any better than us; people will still be reading about Fred and Rose West a century from now, much as we still read about Jack the Ripper more than a century on from the killings in Whitechapel.

We might like to decry the chequebook journalism and morbid voyeurism of 1994, but it doesn't change the fact that we still do the same things today (though with greater efficiency now that we have the internet). The only perspective the past gives us in this matter is upon ourselves; in glancing back, we can see how ugly we really are.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Naval Lovers Sentenced for Stealing Ship Funds

HMS Invincible. Who knew that such a fine, upstanding vessel could harbour such criminality? Twenty years ago today, two petty officers from the HMS Invincible were sentenced for stealing £11,303 in cash from the ship and then deserting their posts for a spending spree in Greece and Spain. Petty Officers Sylvia Panter and Ian Luff had fallen in love while serving together, despite the fact that both of them were married to other people.

The two had bonded after Panter was assigned to the Invincible, her first shipboard posting after nine years of service. She was given only three day's notice of her assignment to the post of ward fund cashier, for which she had no training. Luff, who was old enough to have survived the destruction of the HMS Coventry during the 1982 Falklands War, took her under his wing as her 'sea-daddy' (which is actually a time-honoured tradition within the RN - an older sailor mentoring a younger one is something that even Horatio Nelson benefited from).

But Panter still couldn't cope, and the pair grew closer. While the ship was moored at Corfu, she went to pieces after being denied shore leave for turning up late to duty. Eventually, fearing that she would follow through on her threats of suicide, Luff accompanied her as they fled the ship with the contents of the safe, and headed out into Greece and then Spain. But once they'd spent about £2,000 on clothes, drink and hotels, they realised just how much trouble they were in and came to their senses. They gave themselves up in Barcelona, along with the remainder of the cash - though not before selling their story to The Sun for £10,000.

Panter was sentenced to 18 months in a civilian jail, while Luff received 15 months of the same. Both were dismissed from the Navy and lost their good conduct medals. Luff managed to stay out of the papers after that, but Panter was 'uncovered' as a former criminal in 2006, when various newspapers expressed disgust that she was in a senior NHS job at a trust that just happened to be run by her husband. This is, of course, rather shocking, but it's worth remembering that one of the newspapers uncovering this particular scandal was The Sun, which had happily thrown money at Panter twelve years earlier. It's almost as if there wasn't enough hypocrisy to go around...

Twenty Years Ago Today: IRA Mortar Attack at Heathrow

Photo by Steve Duhig Twenty years ago today, Parliament was getting ready for its annual renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was largely designed to combat the threat from Irish paramilitary groups. There was little chance that MPs would vote against it, although the opposition would still make a token stand just on the general principle that they were the opposition. The news would doubtless be buried in the dismal middle pages of the next day's newspapers.

But not this time.

Late in the afternoon, a red Nissan Micra drove into the car park of the Excelsior Hotel at Heathrow. Inside were enough explosives to give the airport a really bad day. But they weren't intended to be used in a car bomb, for the car also carried a set of disposable mortar tubes.

Between 17:05 and 17:15, six major news agencies were called and a bomb threat was made using recognised code words. "Clear all runways," went the warning. "Stop all flights."

They didn't clear the runways. They didn't stop the flights. Instead, the authorities began a search, working on the assumption that the bombs - if they existed - were already in place.

At 17:40, a Concorde touched down after a flight from New York. At 17:57, four mortar bombs were fired at the runway. None of them exploded, though one shattered into pieces. Planes kept on using the runway, oblivious to the danger. It would take another forty minutes before the runway was closed and a search for the mortars began. The security services were not at their most efficient on this day in 1994.

The only explosion was back at the car park of the Excelsior Hotel. The Nissan Micra was almost completely destroyed when the mortars were launched, and cars around it were set on fire. Black smoke spilled into the sky. But not everyone had their daily routine immediately shattered; staff at the nearby Ramada Hotel couldn't hear the detonation because of the noise of ongoing refurbishment.

The actual mortar tubes used in one of the 1994 attacks on Heathrow.

The vote in Parliament went ahead, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act was duly renewed. No one was hurt in the attack, and the only damage was the disruption to flights while the runway was cleared. This was lucky for Heathrow, as these home-made mortars had often been used in Northern Ireland to lethal effect; like the security services, the IRA were not at their most efficient in this attack. But then they probably never intended to be.

Their true purpose was a political one. The Provisional IRA were saying: sure there's a peace process, but it's not going the way we want, so remember that we can still strike at will. The Troubles might have been about to transfer to the political sphere, but the combatants wanted to enter that sphere with as much advantage as possible from their days of violence. Attacking such a massively symbolic target as the busiest airport in the world just hammered the point home.

Similar attacks would happen again twice during March, both targeted at Heathrow. It didn't end the peace process; it just reminded everyone how much hard work still needed to be done to keep the bombers and killers from going back to their old ways.

Twenty Years Ago Today: Anglican Vicar Advocates Burning Women Priests at the Stake

Probably the first on the hit list. Twenty years ago today, the UK suffered a calamitous timeslip centred almost entirely around the mind of Reverend Anthony Kennedy, a 62 year old Anglican vicar. Infused by the spirit of the seventeenth century and the religious insanity that laid waste to the nation, Kennedy loudly decried the imminent ordination of women priests, and said that if he had his way, they would be burned at the stake.

You may be surprised to learn that I'm not making any of this up.

In only four days time, the first women would be ordained as priests in the Church of England. Previously, women had held a multiplicity of lesser positions, which the Rev. Kennedy had no issue with. As far as he was concerned, they could be deacons, prophets or healers and it was no skin off his nose. But to make them priests? God's blood, that was going too far!

He just couldn't see how a woman could represent Jesus at the altar, because he was absolutely certain that Jesus was a man. And of course Jesus didn't choose a single woman among the twelve apostles, and there was no one else present among his followers, right?

(unless they were called Mary, of course. But they don't count)

Because only a man can represent another man!

(unless the venue was a court of law, or parliament, or a theatre, or, well, basically anywhere)

But religion was different! Religion was special! And a penis was therefore absolutely essential!

(despite the fact that using a penis during a church service would probably be illegal...)

But to hell with that! If anyone without a penis wanted to officiate at the altar, Rev. Kennedy would happily shoot them. He did not, however, elaborate on whether this was to happen before or after the burning.

Actual documentary footage of the inside of an elderly vicar's mind.

The C of E's director of communications said that the church had voted in favour of women priests, and if the Rev. Kennedy didn't like it, he could always take advantage of the generous financial provisions for those who wanted to leave. History does not record whether or not he was fingering the controls of a trap door at this point.

Of course, the Rev. Kennedy claimed he was speaking largely in jest, and that his parishioners found his insane, mysogynistic, violent and hatemongering outbursts amusing. A local woman who was looking forward to being ordained agreed that he might indeed be joking, and sent the troublesome priest a box of matches. As if to say: "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough blindly insane enough."


In these enlightened days, of course, everyone has long since realised that religion is a pointless waste of time and simply laughs at such silly things, which could never happen in our happy, modern world.

...Oh, wait. Bollocks.