Sunday, December 9, 2018

Kate Mulvey: A life of foolish optimism

The latest installment of the life of Kate Mulvey. She seems to specialize in bad decisions. Her search for the ideal has ruined her life

My dad stands in the kitchen, angrily telling me to ‘put the butter back in the fridge’. I roll my eyes and mutter ‘whatever’, under my breath, then harrumphing loudly, storm off into my bedroom, slamming the door as I go.

I am not an hormonal 15-year-old. I am a middle-aged, menopausal woman. How did it come to this? How on earth did a successful writer, once engaged to be married and living in a beautiful home in West London, end up living back with her dad at 55?

To say I feel cross, hemmed in, a failure, would be an understatement. My life was never supposed to be like this. I couldn’t wait to leave home. When I went to university, I never, for one moment, thought I’d ever return.

Looking back at my mid-20s, I lived a glamorous life. A roving reporter, constant parties and a dating diary full of eligible bachelors, I was footloose and fancy free. In my 30s, the landscape started to change. Friends either got married or tightly clutched the hand of a potential husband-to-be.

In hindsight, I should have started to think about settling down and making serious plans for the future, but I was young, idealistic and lived in the moment. And I loved being single.

To make matters worse, when I got my first book deal in the late Nineties, I had the chance to buy a London flat. But even though I found the perfect place, I changed my mind and spent the money on holidays instead. That flat is now valued at about £1 million.

Then nine years ago, aged 46, I met Josh through friends at a dinner party. It was an instant mutual attraction. He was a handsome banker and we lived together in his house in Barnes, South-West London.

On Sundays, we’d curl up together and watch black-and-white movies in bed, drink green tea and say how much we loved each other.

When he proposed to me one summer in Italy, I was over the moon. I saw us enjoying a life of comfortable companionship. Just the two of us — neither of us had children.

Josh bought me a beautiful gold ring with a turquoise stone, but somehow, whenever I dared to bring up the subject of marriage, the reality seemed to scare him rigid. One Christmas in Barbados, as we were lying in bed, I told him how lovely it would be if next year we could do it as man and wife.

Josh completely clammed up and changed the subject.

For the next 18 months, we carried on the same as we always had. Then, one day, just shy of my 50th birthday, after four years together, something inside me snapped. I realised that Josh was never going to commit and told him the relationship was over.

Although heartbroken, I packed up all my stuff and moved out there and then. I don’t know where I thought I was going to live. I spent a few months sleeping on friends’ sofas, while looking for a flat of my own.

But the sheer awfulness of my situation soon became apparent. The property market had sky-rocketed. The stark reality of what I could actually afford on my own came as a huge shock. Buying wasn’t even remotely possible, but neither was renting — a bedsit in London could set you back £1,000 a month.

When my father suggested moving back to my parents’ three-bedroom flat in Chelsea, I jumped at the chance. It was to be a temporary arrangement.

My mother was suffering from dementia and Dad was glad to have some help. I would live there rent-free, but contribute to the bills.

I thought it would be for a few months at most. Certainly, on the day I lugged my 37in TV and other belongings from my adult life back to the spare room in the flat I last lived in as a teenager, I never anticipated that I would still be here four years later.

The first thing I did was put my stamp on the bedroom; I got rid of the old single bed, bought a new double one, and gave the walls a magnolia makeover.

And to begin with I was happy to be back with my parents, in a lovely flat where I didn’t have to label my milk in the fridge.

My father is an artist and pretty laid back, but what I failed to appreciate is just how difficult it is to adjust to life with your parents when you are an adult.

My naive dream that we would be two generations co-existing in a stress-free home proved to be just that — naive. Life as I knew it came to an abrupt halt.

After years of running my own house, hosting lavish dinner parties with my ex, not having my own space to do what I want and the lack of privacy was something I found hard to adjust to.

Forget a leisurely cappuccino and reading the newspapers. Every morning, all I could hear was my father’s TV blaring. (He is an avid watcher of current affairs programmes. Like a lot of older people, he likes the TV on extra loud, a noise that makes my nerves jangle.)

But it did feel good to be able look after my mother. Dealing with her illness could be harrowing. She would scream out at night if her covers had fallen off or if she thought it was daytime and no one was there. I would pat the duvet reassuringly, telling her everything was all right. At those times my eyes would well up and could feel my heart breaking.

She died a year after I moved in. After that it was just me and Dad rattling around in the flat. My father was consumed with grief. ‘I’ll never see her again,’ he would say, clutching a photo of her when they were younger.

Overnight, I went from being the naughty middle child to surrogate parent. There was a role reversal and for the first time in my life, Dad was leaning on me for support. Two years on and it is still nice to be able to be there for my dad, who is 77.

But what I now realise is that it doesn’t matter if you are 15 or 55, the child/parent dynamic never really changes. I may see myself as an independent career woman, but my father still sees me as his little girl, who has to live by his rules.

‘Please don’t ask me what time I am coming back,’ I grumble, when he starts to quiz me.

And over the years Dad has become a lot more set in his ways — as have I. There is his bizarre kitchen behaviour. He accumulates large piles of old tea bags and coffee grounds destined for the compost in our small back garden and lines them up on the marbled kitchen countertop.

This has clearly become an issue. But then it is his house and I have to tow the line.

I am not naive enough to think I do not irritate him. He quite rightly complains about mess I leave in the kitchen, the clothes drying on the radiators and the way that I leave the cupboard doors open.

On a sweltering day this summer, as I was happily plucking leaves off the basil plants in the garden, he came out and shoved a pair of scissors in my hand.

‘You have to cut them off at the stems,’ he said, witheringly.

Did I respond with calm maturity, did I heck! My inner teen raised its ugly head. I sighed heavily, rolled my eyes — again — and told him in no uncertain terms that I would get the basil my way.

I love Dad dearly and it is my fault I am back under his roof, but sometimes, I find myself lying awake at night wondering where it all went wrong. It has impacted on my confidence and self-esteem.

There is still a stigma about a grown woman living back home. Being middle-aged is hard enough. But when you are middle-aged, unmarried and living with your dad, it’s a thousand times harder.

Somehow, without even realising it, I have slipped into the role of maiden aunt, that derided central figure in large Victorian families, who gave up on marriage to devote her life to looking after her ageing parents, without complaint.

Only this is 2018. Back in the 19th century, a spinster living at home was part of the social fabric. Nowadays, women are supposed to be super-efficient, independent creatures, with their own flats and high-flying careers to boot.

My friends joke that I am the oldest teenager in Britain. Who can blame them? What could be sadder than a woman in advanced middle age who can’t even bring a boyfriend back for a glass of wine or — God forbid — to stay the night.

My two sisters, one older and one younger, find my situation utterly hilarious. Once a month they all come round for Sunday lunch. And every time the doorbell goes, childish resentment smoulders within me as my sisters waltz in, laughing and content, eat, then leave — to their homes and families. Back to their busy adult lives.

It’s all right for them, I think as I sulkily stack the dishwasher, I am not only burdened with the lion’s share of looking after Dad, I feel as though I have been left behind.

This is the stage of life when many of my friends are watching their offspring going off to university, and I am still stuck at home!

I don’t want to be ungrateful or drown in a vat of self-pity, because there are many unexpected benefits in this new living arrangement.

Unlike many of my friends, who are one pay cheque away from the bailiffs, I go to sleep deeply secure that I have a roof over my head. Unlike a bank or a landlord, Dad is hardly going to evict me.

Besides, Dad and I have always got along, sharing the same fiery Irish temperament and sense of humour.

I have introduced him to the pleasures of Netflix — we are both addicted the American series Designated Survivor — and he will listen patiently whenever I launch into a boyfriend rant. But most important of all, we have found that we have been able to give each other support.

He was always on hand throughout my childhood with sound bits of advice to do with life and love.

It is reassuring to feel that shoulder to lean on once again. And, I am on hand when his grief about Mum overwhelms him.

Earlier this year I heard a muffled noise coming from the kitchen. There was Dad, clutching a couple of bracelets that Oskar — my youngest nephew — had made for Mum. Tears were plopping into Dad’s sandwich.

I took his hand, understanding there was nothing that I could do, except be there when he needs to talk about things.

So what next? While I feel happy to have this chance to get to know my father again, I certainly hope to be moving on at some stage. Of course, one glance at the property prices and I can’t ever see that happening.

On the plus side, I have started seeing a wonderful man, who lives down the road in Fulham. I told my father the other day, how much I liked him.

‘OK,’ he said, absentmindedly, ‘but put the butter back in the fridge before you go out.’

Earlier versions of the Mulvey story as under:

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why didn’t the rest of Europe adopt the English longbow?

Eirik Ronald Fossheim

Answered Jun 14 on

Some of them did, but they were no match for English longbowmen. Here’s the story - the short version.
Charles had 100 Scottish archers as part of his bodyguard in 1418. In May 1419, 150 Scottish men-at-arms and 300 archers was garrisoned at Méhun-sur-Yévre. Later that year John Steward, Earl of Buchan, Constable of Scotland and son of the regent recruited 6000 men. The ratio of archers to men-at-arms was 2:1, or 4000 archers and 2000 men-at-arms, bringing the total up to 4300 archers and 2150 men-at-arms.
In 1421 a joint Scottish and French force achieved a notable victory at Baugé in Anjou. Thomas, Duke of Clarence, the brother and hire apparent of Henry V, was slain together with 1617 men-at-arms. The 4000 English archers were spread out to loot the countryside and didn't participate in the battle. After the battle Pope Martin V made his famous remark "Truly the Scots are an antidote to the English".
In 1423 this Franco-Scottish force together with Spanish and Lombard mercenaries besieged Cravant. The English and Burgundian relief force faced the Franco-Scottish force on the opposite side of the river Yonne and defeated them. The Scots lost around 2500 men, predominately to english archers with greater range than the Scottish archers.
In 1424 a second major Scottish army arrived at La Rochelle. The army consisted of 2500 men-at-arms and 4000 archers. It was led by Archibald, Earl of Douglas. United with the remnants of the Scottish forces after Cravant, this army may have totalled some 10 450 men, of which 4150 were men-at-arms and 6300 were archers.
Later that year this Scottish army met an English army at Verneuil. The Franco-Scottish force was made up of approximately 10 450 Scots, 500 Lombard mercenaries and 4000 French and Spanish men-at-arms. The English force was made up of the personal retinues of Bedford and Salisbury, 300 men each, 2000 garrison troops, 3400 indentured reinforcements from England and Wales, and the rest, the nobility of Normandy with approximately 3000 men. 2/3 of the English soldiers were archers, and maybe half the contingents from the Norman landowners. Approximately 5500 archers and 3500 men-at-arms.
The battle started with an archery duel between the Scottish and English archers on the English left. During the second phase of the battle the Lombard cavalry swept the English archers aside on the English right, disrupting their formation, but moved on to attack the baggage train in the rear rather than reform for a new charge. This meant that the English archers, even if they numbered only 2500 on the left flank, decimated or drove back the entire 3000 men strong division of Scottish archers on the opposite side during this phase of the battle. The Scottish archers are not mentioned anymore after this, whereas the English archers on the left moved on to repel the French cavalry and therefore could not have been affected much by the Scottish archers.
Waurin wrote the following "they began to shoot one against the other so murderously that it was a horror to look upon them, for they carried death to those whom they struck with full force"
The Scots had sailed to France and violated a truce between England and Scotland, which had been a condition for the release of king James I. Bedford ordered his men to give no quarter and virtually annihilated the Scottish force.
Charles VII implemented a series of reforms. In 1448 parishes had to provide archers from every 120, 80 or 50 hearths. In 1449, 4000 France-archers took part in the successful siege of Harfleur. In 1466 their numbers were increased to 16 000.
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Sunday, November 4, 2018

The bird who forgot how to fly: Scientists discover world's smallest flightless bird is descended from flying ancestors but gave up because there were no threats to it

The world's smallest flightless bird is stranded on Inaccesible Island because it has forgotten how to fly.

Its flying ancestors ancestors gave up the winged-travel because there was no threat on the deserted South Atlantic island they live on.  
Less than 100 years ago, scientists believed that the bird species once wandered there on land extensions now submerged in water, and therefore gave it the Latin name Atlantisia.
Atlantisia, the world's smallest flightless bird is stranded on Inaccesible Island in the south Atlantic ocean because it has forgotten how to fly
Atlantisia, the world's smallest flightless bird is stranded on Inaccesible Island in the south Atlantic ocean because it has forgotten how to fly
The bird's flying ancestors ancestors gave up the winged-travel because there was no threat on the deserted island near South Africa and Argentina they inhabit
The bird's flying ancestors ancestors gave up the winged-travel because there was no threat on the deserted island near South Africa and Argentina they inhabit
The birds, which are listed as vulnerable, have sparked the interest of a research team from Lund University in Sweden.
The four biologists have now shown that the ancestors of the Atlantisia flew to Inaccessible Island from South America about 1.5million years ago.

The birds inhabit Inaccessible Island part of a group of islands which are an equal distance from Argentina and South Africa.
These feature five islands: Tristan, the main island and the only populated one; Nightingale and its two small surrounding islands; and Inaccessible Island.
Four biologists from Lund University in Sweden have now shown that the ancestors of the Atlantisia flew to Inaccessible Island from South America about 1.5million years ago
Four biologists from Lund University in Sweden have now shown that the ancestors of the Atlantisia flew to Inaccessible Island from South America about 1.5million years ago
The islands make up a cluster of extinct and active volcanoes in the south Atlantic Ocean
The islands make up a cluster of extinct and active volcanoes in the south Atlantic Ocean
The islands make up a cluster of extinct and active volcanoes in the south Atlantic Ocean. 
Left undisturbed in the south Atlantic Ocean for almost 400 years, Inaccessible Island is somewhat of a mystery to most explorers.
The extinct volcano is fringed with steep cliffs and only a few scatterings of boulder beaches. 
Its inhospitable landscape has warned sailors off landing there since 1873, before which, two German brothers made a livelihood there for two years.
The birds which are listed as vulnerable are thought to have wandered there on land extensions now submerged in water
The birds which are listed as vulnerable are thought to have wandered there on land extensions now submerged in water
Three fourths of the research team during field work on Inaccessible Island: from left to right Martim Melo, Peter G. Ryan, and Martin Stervander
Three fourths of the research team during field work on Inaccessible Island: from left to right Martim Melo, Peter G. Ryan, and Martin Stervander
The extinct volcano is fringed with steep cliffs and only a few scatterings of boulder beaches.
The extinct volcano is fringed with steep cliffs and only a few scatterings of boulder beaches.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Bloodstained ice axe used to kill Trotsky emerges after decades in the shadows

Weapon used in 1940 assassination to go on display next year – but why did Ramón Mercader, armed with a gun and a dagger, resort to the ice pick?

On the evening of 20 August 1940, a man known as Frank Jacson called at a large house in the suburbs of Mexico City, and asked to see the ‘Old Man’ – as everyone called its celebrated resident, Leon Trotsky.

A few minutes later, the tip of the axe was buried more than two inches into Trotsky’s skull, becoming arguably the world’s most infamous murder weapon.

The axe was fleetingly displayed at a police press conference, but then disappeared for more than six decades.

Next year, however, the bloodstained relic will go on public display at Washington’s International Spy Museum, which will reopen in a new building to accommodate thousands of other artefacts that have emerged from the shadows.

The story of the ice axe is a convoluted one, befitting the extraordinary and macabre story of the Trotsky assassination. After the 1940 press conference, it was stored in a Mexico City evidence room for several years until it was checked out by a secret police officer, Alfredo Salas, who argued he wanted to preserve it for posterity. He passed it on his daughter, Ana Alicia, who kept it under her bed for 40 years until deciding to put it up for sale in 2005.

Trotsky’s grandson, Esteban Volkov, offered to give blood for a DNA test – but only on condition that Salas donated the weapon to the museum at Trotsky’s house, preserved intact from the time of the murder. Salas rejected the deal.

“I am looking for some financial benefit,” she told the Guardian at the time. “I think something as historically important at this should be worth something, no?”

The weapon was eventually bought by a US private collector, Keith Melton, a prolific author of books on the history of espionage, and a founding board member of the International Spy Museum. For the avid collector, who lives in Boca Raton, Florida, the ice axe had become something of an obsession.

“It was a search that took me 40 years, and up lots of blind allies and lots of misinformation,” Melton said. He doggedly tracked down every rumour, including one claiming the Mexican president was using it as a paperweight, until Salas emerged.

Melton would not disclose what he paid Salas for the axe. Contacted on Wednesday, Salas denied any knowledge of the sale. Trotsky’s grandson, Volkov, said he was unconcerned about the axe’s fate.

“Frankly, we are not interested in this,” he told the Guardian. “I never did the DNA test. I was not going to accept being part of a business deal for that woman.”

“It has no significance,” Volkov said. “It could have been a knife or a pistol. It doesn’t have any significance that it was a pick. And it was clumsily done, too.

“Who knows if it is the real axe?” he added.

Melton said he had authenticated the artefact beyond doubt and by several methods. There is a paper trail confirming that it passed into Salas’ possession. It bears the stamp of the Austrian manufacturer, Werkgen Fulpmes, a detail that was not made public; it is of the same dimensions as those recorded in the police report and it still bears the rust mark left by assassin’s bloody fingerprint, identical to the one in the photograph from the 1940 press conference.

Melton also believes he has also solved one of the enduring mysteries about Trotsky’s murder. Why, if the killer had an automatic pistol and a 13in dagger, did he resort to the ice axe?

Two sons of the 1917 Russian revolution, Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, were locked in rivalry that – by the nature of the two men – could only end in death.

Stalin approved a final plan for Trotsky’s assassination in 1939. It comprised two parallel plots: the first was a frontal assault, led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Mexican muralist who was also an agent for Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD.

On 24 May 1940 Siqueiros and a team of hitmen, dressed as policemen and soldiers, raked Trotsky’s house with more than 200 bullets, but the intended victim and his wife Natalia survived.

It seemed to be a miraculous escape, but proved to be only a short reprieve. A back-up assassination plot was already in motion.

Two years earlier, at the congress of Trotsky’s Fourth International in Paris, a lonely young New Yorker and ardent Trotskyite, Sylvia Ageloff, was introduced to a dashing 25-year-old called Jacques Mornard, supposedly the son of a Belgian diplomat.

His real name was Ramón Mercader, a Spanish communist whose mother, a loyal Stalinist, had put him up to the task of killing Trotsky.

Ageloff was persuaded to move to Mexico City to work for the Trotsky family. Mercader told her that to move with her, he would have to adopt a false identity to avoid being pursued for military service. He would go under the name of Frank Jacson (the NKVD forgers misspelled Jackson on his passport).

Ageloff accepted the explanation and the Trotsky entourage grew accustomed to see him drive her to the compound every morning.

On August 20 1940, Mercader was making his 10th visit to the house.

He told the guards he was planning to publish an article in a magazine and wanted Trotsky to look at the draft. Since the May attack, however, a new level of security had been introduced. There was a second door with a lock that was controlled from a guard tower. If Mercader was going to escape after killing Trotsky, the guards in the tower would have to let him out.

“The only chance he had was to kill him silently and then exit as a guest before they discovered the body,” Melton said.

A pistol would clearly not work in that case, and a dagger could not be guaranteed to kill Trotsky outright. By previous experience, the NKVD recommended blunt force to the back of the head to guarantee a completely silent death; to do the job Mercader stole the ice axe from his landlord’s son.

The axe is now among 5,000 artefacts that Melton is pledging to the International Spy Museum from his collection, which also includes a British one-man submarine used in second world war raids, and one of the plates used by the Nazis to forge perfect pound notes.

According to Melton, none of his treasures has quite the eerie presence of the ice axe. After letting Mercader into his study, Trotsky sat down to read his article, and the assassin attacked.

Trotsky let out a long scream and fought with his assailant until the guards arrived.

“I still remember looking through the open door and seeing my grandfather lying on the floor with his head bathed in blood and hearing him tell somebody to ‘keep the boy away, he shouldn’t see this’,” Volkov recalled on Wednesday. “I always thought that was a sign of his humanity. Even in a moment like that he was worried about me.”

Trotsky died of his wounds a little over 24 hours later in hospital. Mercader was put on trial and imprisoned for nearly 20 years.

During his time in jail, his Soviet handlers ensured he was as comfortable as possible, sending money each week and even arranging a girlfriend for him: a Mexican starlet called Roquella, who became his wife and accompanied him to Moscow after his release.

Mercader died of cancer in Cuba in 1978, with Roquella by his side. His last words are said to have been: “I hear it always. I hear the scream. I know he’s waiting for me on the other side.”

Thursday, November 1, 2018

From Worldview to Worldstorm

DVD REVIEW The Soviet Story. Directed by Edvīns Šnore. (2008, 85 minutes.)
This award-winning documentary was directed by Latvian filmmaker, Edvīns Šnore, and debuted to considerable acclaim at film festivals worldwide in 2009. American audiences, if they haven't already caught the documentary on a few PBS outlets, may have seen clips aired on The Glenn Beck Show. The film is on DVD now and available for purchase online.
The Soviet Story begins with the kind of footage common to films about the Holocaust: Shots of mass graves, the evidence left of mass executions. And then the reveal: the perpetrators were not Nazis, but rather one of the Allied Powers of World War II—the Soviet Union. Despite a Cold War spanning the end of World War II until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, people in the West are curiously unaware of the existence and extent of mass murder perpetuated by its multi-generational mortal enemy.
The film focuses primarily on the period between the 1930s to roughly the death of Stalin, with some attention paid to recent Putin-era Russian attitudes about Soviet history. One of the primary themes of the film is that the similarities and (temporary) alliance between the Nazis and the Soviets ran far deeper than even committed anti-Communists ever imagined, and that much of what the Nazis did can be traced, either as inspiration or even as direct “technology transfer,” to the Soviet Union. The idea that ethnic groups could be either wiped out entirely or significantly reduced, as a matter of organized extermination campaigns, may have had some roots in the Holodomor. This, we learn, was arguably the most efficient mass murder in history, as roughly seven million Ukrainians were starved to death in a single winter (1932-33) as a concerted campaign to sap the strength of Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule.


What kind of regime would consider such tactics against its own recalcitrant population? To answer this, the documentary moves into one of its best sequences: an investigation of the intellectual roots of Soviet Communism. From Cambridge University historian George Watson, we learn, for example, that the atrocities of Lenin and Stalin may not have been deviations from orthodox Marxism as modern Marxist sympathizers might like to believe. Marx was concerned that some nationalities might not be able to adapt to the coming socialist and communist revolutions he foresaw and championed. Certain groups Marx probably had in mind, which he referred to as Völkerabfälle, “racial trash,” included Serbs, Scottish highlanders, Basques, and Poles. Poland, in particular, was a country that Marx believed had no reason to exist as an independent state. The documentary commits a minor error of attribution here, though, since one quotation is actually from Frederick Engels—a small error in itself, since it's unlikely that anything he published in Marx's journal deviated significantly from Marx's own thought. “The classes and races, too weak to master the new conditions of life, must give way,” Engels wrote. He openly declared the need for these weaker peoples to “perish in the revolutionary worldstorm/holocaust [Weltsturm].” One could argue that Engels is speaking descriptively, rather than normatively; that is, he is merely speaking about a particular desirable outcome without advocating that Communists play a direct role in making it happen. Nonetheless, later in the same article, Engels concludes, “The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.” If nothing else, the identification of entire peoples as “revolutionary” or “reactionary,” and to be presumably dealt with accordingly, is entirely consistent with the collectivism at the heart of any Communist worldview. Accordingly, Russian Communists would soon have no trouble identifying the Cossacks, Ukrainians, Baltic peoples, Poles, and many others as counter-revolutionary peoples.
Soviet and Nazi officers, in a scene from the filmThe similarities between the Nazi and Bolshevik movements were apparently first observed in 1925, by of all people, Joseph Goebbels. He proposed that the difference between the movements was only very slight, and offered his opinion that Lenin was the second greatest leader in history, second only to Hitler. This idea was unpopular with many Nazis, so it wasn't discussed publicly thereafter, yet there were still many in the Nazi leadership who continued to take it seriously. Privately, Hitler spoke well of Marx, insisting that they had much to learn from him. A dramatic moment in the documentary is the comparison between Nazi and Soviet iconography and sloganeering. The similarities are striking. Hitler and Stalin, both standing as giants over cheering throngs of people, hammers striking down the people's enemies, the glorification of the factory and farm worker, and even the red color schemes all line up in ways that make the posters nearly interchangeable.
The parallels began with the collectivist worldview of these ideologies. They were violently anti-individualist at every turn. They differed on a few particulars: Nazism, as a the National Socialist German Workers Party, emphasized the nation and race as the basis of its collectivism, whereas Communism purported to represent an internationalist point of view, taking economic class as the basic unit of society. (In practice, of course, Russian Communism was hardly above nationalistic tendencies, and certainly offered no shortage of anti-Semitism, as the film documents.) Nazi economic thought was just as stridently anti-capitalist as its Russian counterpart, but was willing to tolerate the continued existence of “private” property, as long as it was used in precisely the way the state directed. Crucially, both ideologies explicitly aimed at the creation of a New Man—a fundamental remaking of humanity in the image of the ideology. This meant that humanity, as it existed, was a problem, and would have to be remade by education and propaganda, and by pruning off those branches of humanity that stood as obstacles.


Many in the West could only look on in horror at these developments, to the extent they were known, but sympathy toward Hitler and especially Stalin could be readily found, even beyond the more obvious examples of Soviet apologists like New York Times journalist Walter Duranty. Many intellectuals, such as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, praised the examples of dictatorship as forms of government that got things done, while democracies could only dither. As Watson relates, in the case of Shaw, what made Hitler problematic was not that he had deceived anyone about his plans to liquidate people. Indeed, Hitler made his plans abundantly clear. But the problem was more that Hitler's targets were the wrong people. Class enemies, which is to say, the counter-revolutionary obstacles, should be the targets of mass killing, not races. The documentary offers a film clip of Shaw, in which he chillingly proclaims:
You must all know half a dozen people at least who are no use in this world, who are more trouble than they are worth. Just put them there and say, “Sir, or Madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence? If you can’t justify your existence, if you’re not pulling your weight in the social boat, if you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself.”
This is more a statement of eugenics than a particular endorsement of the Soviet ideology as such. But it certainly speaks to the attitudes that many intellectuals had during the formative years of the Soviet and later fascist states. And Shaw, although more of a Fabian than a Bolshevik, was an enthusiastic supporter of Stalin, dismissing reports of the Holodomor as slander, defending pogroms and Stalin's infamous show-trials. He even urged unemployed workers in the U.S. to seek work in the Soviet Union during the Great Depression. In 1934, he urged research into a “humane” gas that could be used to exterminate undesirables. The film hardly needs to make the obvious connection—Shaw foreshadowed the Nazis’ use of Zyklon B.
Picking up from where the story of the Holodomor left off, the next major mass killing under Stalin occurred under a series of pogroms, purges, and repressions of dissidents in the 1930’s. Even being a loyal Communist supporter was no guarantee of personal safety, if one showed insufficient deference to Stalin, or was otherwise a conceivable rival for the clique in power. Nicolas Werth, one of the authors of the Black Book of Communism, details how hundreds of people could be killed in a single night, how the trucks carrying their bodies would still be dripping blood on the roads. This created a new problem—orphaned children left behind, who subsequently swelled the ranks of homeless beggars in the worker's paradise. The solution here was to have children over the age of 12 shot, and the others placed in orphanages, kept safely out of the sight of western visitors to Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev provides shocking testimony: Stalin, he says, was “awash in blood.” Molotov, as Stalin's right hand man, habitually changed mere 10-year sentences to executions.
During the 1930s, even if one observed similarities between the modus operandi of the Soviets and the Nazis, an alliance between the two would probably have still seemed far-fetched. After all, the Nazis repressed Communists (who failed to convert), and the Soviets supported Communist-led resistance movements against fascism, particularly in Spain. But these dynamics shifted toward the end of the decade. Stalin refused to join the anti-Nazi coalition formed by Britain and France to defend Poland from Nazi aggression. While Stalin and his cohort never had great love for the Nazis, they began to see Hitler as a positive force. Allow Hitler to destroy the old order of Europe, the thinking went, and become the bad guy in the eyes of Europeans. Then, the Soviets could move in as “liberators.” Meanwhile, Hitler's ambitious plans for world conquest faced two major hurdles. First, he would have a giant, unsecure border on the East, and second, his armies would require raw materials Germany alone did not possess. Likewise, Stalin realized German technology would greatly aid his drive to industrialize Russia. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was the result of this alignment of interests.
Ignorance of history is such that many people do not even know that when World War II began, the Soviets entered on the side of the Axis, where it remained for nearly two years. Active talks, never completed, were conducted during much of this time to make the USSR a formal member of the Axis. Publicly, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty was merely a non-aggression pact, but its then-secret components spelled out the partitioning of Poland between Germany and Russia. Originally, Hitler's proposals only covered Poland, but at Stalin's insistence, more ambitious plans for the fate of Eastern Europe were drawn up. Russia would also gain the Baltic republics, Moldava, Finland, and portions of Romania. But the extent of the collaboration went much further. The film shows footage of Russian and German military officers toasting each other, exchanging salutes at parties, and marching together in parades celebrating the conquest of Poland. When German bombers attacked Poland, radio towers in Minsk guided them; likewise, the Russian port of Murmansk served as the staging ground for the German invasion of Norway. The Soviet Union quickly became the largest supplier of resources for the Nazi war machine. The friendship of the German and Russian people, Stalin told Ribbentrop, was sealed in blood. And so it was, at least for a while.
This left Communists and other western supporters and sympathizers with Stalin's Russia in a tricky place. Mere months before, their house organs had been attacking Hitler's Germany with no uncertain terms; suddenly, the Nazis were respected allies against the previously unvoiced threat of “Polish fascism” and later “Finnish fascism.” Molotov gave a speech declaring that it was a crime to oppose Nazi ideology. The French Communists urged their members to recognize occupying Nazi troops as comrades, at least until Hitler's June 1941 invasion of Russia. Previously “anti-fascist” Communist groups didn't necessarily switch sides outright, but they typically urged a suddenly pacifist line on their members, inducing their members in Britain, America, and elsewhere to propagandize for peace with Germany.


The deep ties between the NKVD and the Gestapo are explored.
Even more disturbing is the documentary's revelation of how deep ties between the NKVD and the Gestapo went. (The NKVD, or “People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs,” encompassed the public and secret police forces of the U.S.S.R.) Even before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, there is evidence of a written agreement between the two to cooperate and coordinate their efforts. The documentary notes that Russia today no longer denies that there was an agreement and active collaboration—they only deny that there was a written, signed agreement—but even here the documentary provides footage suggesting that such an agreement may have been discovered in Russian archives, only to be suppressed. Jews who fled to the Soviet Union, thinking they would receive sanctuary from Nazi persecution, were returned to the SS. Gestapo delegations traveled to Moscow for training by their more experienced counterparts. The Germans, it seems, innovated here only in making existing Russian techniques more efficient. The Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes free” or “Work liberates”), which was famously displayed at the entrances to a number of concentration camps, certainly sounds similar to a slogan appearing on many Russian camps: “Work is an honor.” By 1939 Stalin's desire for rapprochement with Germany was undermined, he feared, by the presence of too many Jews in his foreign ministry, which was also then headed by a Jew, Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, a man regularly mocked in Nazi press. In March of that year, Litvinov found his phone lines cut, and NKVD tanks surrounded the Foreign Ministry. The order came down to “clear out the synagogue.”
The film next covers a subject that seems to be gaining greater awareness, thanks to the efforts of Poland – the Katyn Massacre. In 1940, as the eastern half of Poland was being integrated into the Soviet Union, there came to be a question about what to do with Polish POW's, who by this point consisted mostly of officers in the Polish military and reserves, and much of the Polish intelligentsia—about 22,000 men. Fearing the possibility of a revived Polish state or Polish resistance to Soviet rule, and wanting to weaken any such movements before they began, Stalin arranged for all but the most dogmatically loyal Communists in the group to be executed, their bodies dumped in mass graves near Katyn village, in what is today Smolensk Oblast, Russia. Officially, when they addressed its existence at all, the Soviets claimed the Nazis perpetrated the mass murder during their occupation of the area in 1941, and it wasn't until 1990 that Gorbachev admitted the NKVD role. After Katyn, the documentary notes, similar massacres were carried out at Riga, Tartu, Lviv, and Minsk.
Nationalism and anti-Semitism are powerful forces in today's Russia. 
It should not be surprising that Stalin was scarcely much better to his own people. Considering he is the man most associated with the expression that a single death is a tragedy, but the death of a million people is merely a statistic, it may be fitting to consider another statistic—that during the war, the Soviet Union lost nearly 9 million soldiers, with civilian deaths, that number swells to 27 million. Considering that the Soviets could be considered the “true victors in the European arena of World War II,” (Jacob G. Hornberger) it might seem surprising that the numbers were so high. Some of this no doubt was due to the element of surprise in the initial German attack, and some dithering by the incompetent generals Russia had left after the best ones were purged by Stalin in the 1930s. But one of the main reasons, the film relates, could be called, in a Kafkaesque world, “friendly fire,” as only a fraction of those deaths came from Germans. When Soviet troops managed to rally and regain the offensive against the Germans, and begin the long march to Berlin, there were actually two armies in play. There was the basic Red Army leading the charge. But behind them was a separate NKVD army, with its own tanks and uniforms. Their task was to shoot any stragglers, and confiscate their dog tags to prevent the identification of their corpses. Thus, the Soviets could insure that their troops would march forward and not fall back, regardless of the strength of German opposition.
Although many of the perpetrators of similar crimes by the Nazis were tried and punished at Nuremburg, such was not the case here. The officers who carried out the massacres at Katyn were decorated for their actions, with the man most responsible for carrying out the orders of Stalin and Beria, Ivan Serov, awarded the Order of Lenin. The War Crimes Act, passed in 1991 in the U.K., effectively gave Russians immunity to any war-crimes persecution there. All war crimes in World War II's European theater, British historian Norman Davies explains, are by legal definition, Nazi crimes.


One of the most startling revelations in the documentary is that the concentration camps for which the Nazi regime is so justifiably infamous did not actually close in 1945. On the contrary, many “liberated” by the Soviets, such as Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, were merely reopened by the NKVD with new management and prisoners, and continued in operation until 1950. Medical experiments on prisoners were carried out throughout the Soviet gulag system well into the 1950s. In Poland, it was legally forbidden for decades after the war, to detail how Nazi camps operated, for fear that people would realize how similar Communist camps were to them.
This is a film everyone should see, including those college students who think nothing of sporting “Communist chic.”
Meanwhile, Eastern Europe's ethnic groups were subject to massive relocation programs by the millions. In the Baltics, for example, the major cities were partially depopulated of their native populations, with Russian populations transferred in to make Russians the new dominant demographic. Deported groups were transported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Poles living in the eastern half of Poland annexed to the Soviet Union were likewise deported to the new Soviet puppet state of Poland, as Russians were brought in to replace them. The German enclave of Königsberg was likewise emptied of what civilian population remained at the war’s end, repopulated with Russians, and renamed “Kaliningrad” as a newly annexed Soviet Oblast. The Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky relates, “Stalin exiled about a dozen of nations completely. Part and parcel. Chechens, Ingush, Kalmiks, Karachaevs, Crimean Tatars. A dozen nations completely wiped out!”   
At this point, the documentary takes us to the present, in which we see Vladimir Putin giving a speech declaring that the greatest political catastrophe of the Twentieth Century was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. As Bukovsky recently retorted at a Cato Institute event, one would think given its grisly history, the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 would be a much better candidate for that title. Still, the film suggests that Putin may have a point, albeit not in the way Putin meant. The film's survey of the current political climate in Russia contains eerie parallels with post-World War I Germany, with nationalism and anti-Semitism as powerful forces in today's Russia. When they are not mocked, atrocities such as the Holodomor and the Katyn Massacre are subject to denialism reminiscent of Holocaust denial. (Oddly, as the film documents, cavalier attitudes about the Nazi Holocaust also persist in Russia.)
The film's main ideological points are well taken: Europe should condemn Soviet crimes as emphatically as they do Nazi crimes, and likewise urge the extradition of those still-living Soviet murderers whose names and addresses are well known. But the film’s political agenda, however noble it is, also gets in the way of telling the full story. The connection to Nazism is far more profound than most ever realized, but by focusing so heavily on the Stalin era, major chapters of the “Soviet Story” get left out. We learn nothing of the uprisings against Soviet rule in 1953 Germany, in 1956 Hungary, 1968 Prague or throughout the existence of Solidarity in Poland. As with the stories of other totalitarianisms, the story of the Soviet Union isn't only about the creation of victims by the millions; it's also about heroism in the face of repression, of dissidents and resisters who fought back. In its singular focus on the moments when Soviet evil triumphed, one is left with a bleak portrait of nearly omnipotent evil at its most cunning. Even the German invasion, where Stalin's foolhardy trust of Hitler revealed just how inept of a strategist Stalin had been all along, is barely mentioned directly. The narrator's phrasing makes it sound like the Soviet Union just switched sides because it sensed the winds where shifting that way, instead of being caught off-guard and subject to one of the most massive invasions in history. The Soviet Union may have been the evil empire of its time, but it was hardly without its weaknesses.
Likewise, the narrator's melodramatic tone was distracting. There are times when less is more. It would have been much more powerful to employ a straightforward, sober tone, allowing the compelling facts and visual elements to convey the drama already inherent in the story.
In any documentary, one ultimately has to be selective about what details should be provided, and which are left out. But The Soviet Story clocks in at a mere 85 minutes, leaving ample room for more detail. More attention paid to the ideology of Soviet Communism at the beginning, western complicity and romanticizing of the “noble Soviet experiment,” and at least some attention paid to the heroics of the dissidents' ultimately successful struggle against the Soviets during and after the Stalin era, would have made the documentary more satisfying. Five minutes dedicated to explaining how the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed would make a huge difference. The filmmakers went to the trouble to interview Vladimir Bukovsky; I found myself wanting to hear more about his story, and thinking it would provide a beautiful counterpoint to the grisly evils we learn about.
These oversights by the film, however, should not obscure its value. Make no mistake: this is a film everyone should see, including those college students who think nothing of sporting “Communist chic.” There is a wealth of revelatory information here, more than sufficient to counter the narrative that while the Nazis were Satanic evil, the Soviets were just amiable, rough-edged vodka-addled Puritans who, at worst, are the butts of Yakov Smirnoff jokes. The Soviet Story lays as much waste to the other morally and factually bankrupt narrative common to the Left: that the Soviet Union was based on a romantic, noble idea that sadly just wasn't practical. And to be fair to Mr. Šnore, any of these topics that deserved attention here could, conceivably, have entire documentaries dedicated to each of them. One great example is the recent Freedom's Fury, which tells the story of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the subsequent “blood in the water” water polo match between Russia and Hungary at the Olympics that year. Another is The Singing Revolution, about how Estonians successfully rebelled against their Soviet overlords with little more than the power of song as a weapon of defiance.
All that remains now is for Mr. Šnore to put together a follow-up film, telling the rest of the story.

Can There be an "After Socialism"  by professor Alan C. Kors
"Until we deal with the Communist dead, there is no "after socialism...No cause, ever, in the history of all mankind, has produced more cold-blooded tyrants, more slaughtered innocents, and more orphans than socialism with power. It surpassed, exponentially, all other systems of production in turning out the dead. The bodies are all around us. And here is the problem: No one talks about them. No one honors them. No one does penance for them. No one has committed suicide for having been an apologist for those who did this to them. No one pays for them. No one is hunted down to account for them. It is exactly what Solzhenitsyn foresaw in The Gulag Archipelago: "No, no one would have to answer. No one would be looked into."  Until that happens, there is no "after socialism."

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

666: The number of the beast revealed

IT’S described as “the number of the beast”. But the New Testament’s description seems somewhat tame to the image it’s been given in recent years. 666 is now generally known as the mark of the ‘Antichrist’.

It’s appeared in books and movies. It even takes pride of place in some Halloween themes.

So what is it about this three digit number that makes it so spooky?

It’s simple. It’s circular. It’s symmetrical.

Which makes the sense it holds some secret meaning all the more palpable.

As does the context the Apostle John wrote it in:

Revelation 13:16-18 (King James Version):

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

18 Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

If you think the number is part of a secret message, you’d be correct.

It’s actually laid out in front of you, anyway: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast”.

The catch lies in understanding.

‘The mark of the Beast’ is a cry that can be heard echoing around advances in technology, such as barcodes, credit cards and microchips, as well as proposals for new public identification systems and online records.

So is it a warning about a looming social injustice brought about by an apocalyptic Antichrist?

Or is it an old code which has become so clouded by the passage of time that its meaning now bears little resemblance to its original intent?


666. Does the number hold a prophecy? Or is it something more direct and personal to the original authors in AD70?

Is it both?

The key to understand is the context of its times.

Those reading the apocalyptic writings — attributed to John the Apostle — would have immediately recognised the reference to “The Beast”, and its association with numbers.

The Old Testament figure Daniel mentioned “Four Beasts” — each representing empires that were a threat to Israel.

So the simple mention of such a Beast would, of course, evoke the context of the time — the occupying Roman Empire.

Rome ruled Europe, North Africa and much of the Middle East. Nations such as Greece and Israel had been subjugated. Nero Caesar held the throne at the time John was writing. And he was the first to orchestrate the persecution of the upstart Christian religion.

Roman Emperors were, therefore, seen as evil incarnate.

However, it was apparent there were not 666 Roman Empires or Neros. So the number must mean something else.

The key is therefore buried somewhere in its origins.

And that origin is the language — and the era — it was written in.

The original ‘number of the beast’ didn’t even look the way it does now.

In Roman numerals, it appeared as DCLXVI. In Latin Greek — the language the book of Revelation was written in — it was χξϛʹ. In Hebrew, it was נרון קסר‎.

So there goes at least some of the spooky symmetry.

Decoding the number of the beast requires understanding that both the Hebrew and Greek languages used alphabetical letters to represent numbers. They didn’t have stand-alone symbols as we do now — or the clunky combination of characters the Romans used.

So, just writing down a number could generate a riddle. One the clueless Romans had little chance of catching on to.


The Hebrew “666” נרון קסר‎ is a sum. Each part of that sum equals a character.

N = 50 R = 200 W = 6 N =50 Q = 100 S = 60 R = 200

From here, the code begins to add up.

It spells out NRWN QSR.

Given that the emperor at the time was Nero Caesar, it wasn’t hard to guess which ‘beast’ carried that number.

It’s an explanation that even survives suggestions that 666 isn’t the original number of the beast anyway. Some early copies of the book of Revelation state the mark was “616”.

But, given the language cipher, it appears that was the outcome — by authors who still understood the original meaning — to translate the Hebrew text into Greek Latin. In Latin numerals, Nero Caesar adds up to 616 — not 666.

But why bother being so oblique about the target of your mystical criticism?

The answer is apparent even in modern times.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has banned all images of Winnie the Pooh because some dared associate the pair’s cuddly features. Such associations are desirable: those that openly criticise Xi wind up in prison, or worse.

It was the same under Ancient Rome.

Like Napoleon and Hitler, Emperor Nero was despised by those who fell under the yoke of his empire. And his excessive behaviour did little to mollify his own population, let alone those in the dominions.

His enforcers and collaborators were quick to stomp on any suggestion of subversion. The rows of crucifixes alongside most arterial roads bore silent witness to this.

So anyone who blatantly wrote “Nero Caesar is the source of all evil” could expect an unpolite knock on the door, backed up by a host of Roman Centurions.

And the ‘mark’ of the Beast bore personal relevance to those John was writing to.

All provincial citizens were required to carry a Roman occupation document that certified the carrier had sworn allegiance to Emperor Nero. Without it, people were not allowed to buy or sell anything, including food. And swearing that allegiance left a stain on the conscience of all who opposed him.


Biblical scholars argue the Apostle John wrote Revelations as a captive on the Island of Patmos even as a Jewish uprising against their Roman overlords was being crushed.

Jerusalem was likely besieged. The final battle had yet to be fought.

But the prospect of almost 2000 years in exile was looming on the horizon.

His letters were full of ominous warning about events that “must shortly take place”.

Naturally, anything he wrote had to be obscure to get past his Roman captors. Being blunt would merely lead to a beating — and the burning of any letter before it was sent.

As simple as the cipher was, his Roman guards apparently saw no link between 666 and their commander-in-chief.

But, as time passed, languages changed. And the same vagueness that hid the meaning of the “mark of the beast” from John’s captors began to conceal his intent from more general readers.

The murk of history has added a similar sinister tone to another of John’s famous quotes.

In Revelation 18:9-10, he intones:

“Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while.”

Some modern evangelical movements associate the ‘seven mountains’ as being the pillars of society. But, in John’s time, the obvious meaning was less nebulous.

Rome was famous for its seven hills.

“Five have fallen, one is …” is an oblique reference to Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome.

And calling him a “Beast” was not anything new.

Nero had killed his parents, his brother and his pregnant wife. So he had … a reputation, even before he burnt down Rome.

“In my travels … I have seen many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs …. And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero gorged himself on this diet.”

So wrote Apollonius of Tyana. And he wasn’t even a Christian, or Jew.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The surprising renaissance of America's railways

Something is stirring in America - and for once, it has nothing to do with politics. It is the unlikely image of a train, zipping across a vast landscape, conveying passengers from Departure Point A to Destination B with something akin to speed and purpose.

The USA has a long and noble association with the railway, but the classic emblem of the locomotive on Stateside soil is still the iron horses of the Wild West, thundering across Nevada, California and New Mexico - being chased by Apache warriors or masked bandits, depending on which John Wayne film you are watching. The modern Amtrak network, though it casts its tentacles across the nation, is not known for its velocity, and has long been out-performed by the airlines on journeys of high mileage.

This, though, may be set to change. This week has witnessed news of fledgling plans to construct a high-speed rail line that would connect portions of the Pacific Northwest - linking Portland in Oregon with Vancouver, over the border in Canada, in two hours.

This bulletin comes less than a month after the revelation of an ambitious scheme to construct an ultra-quick line between Las Vegas and Los Angeles - a trip which thousands of travellers make every weekend, but one which slots into a twilight zone of being too short a distance to fly and a long way by road (the best part of 270 miles).

This, in turn, follows the launch - by Brightline (see, the operator behind the Vegas-LA proposal - of a dedicated railway line running along the busiest section of Florida's Atlantic coast - between West Palm Beach and Miami, taking in Fort Lauderdale en route. The track came to life in January, initially serving the section between West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, with the continuation south to Miami joining the party in May. The service manages the 70-mile journey in just under one hour - which is faster than it can realistically be completed taking the I-95 highway.

Anyone with even the vaguest grasp of maths will note that a 70-mile rail journey which takes just under an hour is not especially fast. With a top speed of 79mph, the Brightline train through Florida does not even compare to services on Britain's delay-wracked network.

But this is still a leap forward for an America where the railway has largely become a relic of the past, chugging unhurriedly where it chugs at all. Although there are elements of the Amtrak system which work well and regularly (the service from New York to Washington DC, stopping in Philadelphia, is especially effective), Brightline's emergence in Florida counts as an innovation. This is the first privately owned inter-city passenger service in the country since 1983 - when the Rio Grande Zephyr, which tied Denver in Colorado to Ogden in Utah, hit the metaphorical buffers.

Nor is it going to limit itself to 70 miles along the Atlantic's edge. The Brightline network is set to be extended over the next three years, being channelled north along the coastline to the small city of Cocoa (136 miles from West Palm Beach) - before turning inland and dashing west to Orlando.

This is no minor endeavour. While the physical transport infrastructure already exists between West Palm Beach and Cocoa, the extension to Orlando will require the creation of 40 miles of new track - a construction project now almost unheard of in a USA that, for the last half-century, has been more obsessed with runways than sleepers. This section, which will run to Orlando's airport, will be able to accommodate services at speeds of 125mph - still a relative canter in terms of European rail, and decidedly sluggish compared to Japanese and Chinese trains, but fast enough to meet the USA's definition of "high-speed rail".

Brightline's daring blueprint for the Las Vegas-Los Angeles railway link will require a much greater level of planning, work and investment. Costs have been estimated at a considerable $6.9billion (£5.2billion) - as, currently, no track exists between the cities.

There are also challenges galore in the path ahead. To say that the line will run to and from "Los Angeles" is somewhat misleading. In its current form, the plan will see a new 185-mile line built roughly parallel to the I-15 highway, between Sin City and Victorville - a town which sits a full 85 miles from downtown LA. The track will go no further, as this would require construction through the San Bernadino and San Gabriel mountain ranges, probably using the Cajon Pass - a suggestion which has already been dismissed as prohibitively expensive.

Instead, assuming the connection to Victorville proves a success, the line could be extended 50 miles west, to Palmdale. And there is every chance it will be successful. The I-15 is one of America's most car-choked highways, and the drive to Vegas can take seven hours, depending on traffic. The train would cover the distance in around 85 minutes, at speeds of up to 150mph.

This is all, of course, for the relative future - ground will not be broken until next year, and the first trains are unlikely to run before 2022. But the prospect of a much faster journey from Los Angeles to Vegas should intrigue Californians and visitors equally.

A link to Palmdale would be significant. Here, the Brightline would lock arms with the California High-Speed Rail network - an enormous, state-funded project, now tentatively taking shape in the Golden State. Work has been underway since 2015 on a system which will revolutionise travel on the west flank of the USA. If fully implemented, the system will connect San Diego in the south with Sacramento 500 miles to the north - while spreading its arms into Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Again, this is a vision of the future. The first, central segment of the network, between San Jose and Bakersfield, is not due to be completed until 2027; the lines into San Francisco and Anaheim (south of Los Angeles) until 2033. But here, finally, America will have "high-speed" rail - there is a promise of trains running at speeds of 220mph.

In this context, the latest announcement of fast trains between Portland and Vancouver is not so much a bolt from the blue as part of a wider picture. The proposals announced this week rachet up the speed factor again - to 250mph, with services between Portland and Seattle in one hour, and Seattle and Vancouver in a further 60 minutes.

This would be a remarkable boon to a cross-border region, sometimes referred to as "Cascadia", which, even now, has a deep level of economic integration. You can, of course, already travel by train between Portland and Vancouver, using the Amtrak Cascades service. But the train takes nine hours; fine for tourists who want to enjoy the scenery of the Pacific Northwest at what is definitely a leisurely pace, but of no use to people with places to be and appointments to keep - all of whom know where to find an airport.

The Cascadia line is still firmly at the drawing-board stage. A wider feasibility study will be published in July 2019, but the rumble of wheels (or the rapid whoosh of magnetic maglev trains - if the state officials behind the plans decide to go with the cutting-edge technology currently in use in parts of China) is not due to be heard until 2035 at the earliest. But it is clear that America - once one of the planet's great railway-builders - is finally rekindling its love affair with a mode of transport it once eulogised.

Patrick Goddard, the CEO of Brightline, has been quick to outline the benefits of efficient rail travel, commenting - in relation to his company's Florida line - that "South Florida has a vibrant economy and unique lifestyle – yet some of the nation’s worst traffic. We are making an unprecedented investment in Florida, and the benefits can be seen through job creation and the launch of Brightline, and MiamiCentral [a resurrection of the city's 1896 rail terminus - demolished in 1963 - which Brightline's owners, Florida East Coast Industries, have put into place as a part of the project].

"We believe MiamiCentral will be a significant landmark in Miami for generations and Brightline will connect the state in ways that haven’t been done before," he contunues.

Apply this to the rest of the country, and America will once more be the home of the iron horse.

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