VIEWED FROM outer space, the traffic in Edinburgh and Glasgow doesn’t look particularly bad. In 2002, the European Space Agency launched a new satellite – Envisat- to monitor air pollution levels across the planet. Envisat sees the spectral traces of man-made gases, such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as they rise in vertical tropospheric columns from power plants, shipping lanes, centres of heavy industry and major urban road networks. Compared to places such as northeast China in those terms, Scottish cities form an almost negligible part of a global picture.
IT IS the second and final day of the Body & Soul fair at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall, and the main event is sold out. Three hundred people, the vast majority of them women, have paid £15 each for a seat in the exhibition hall, where therapist, healer and author Diana Cooper will conduct a workshop under the same title as her latest book: Angel Answers. If Cooper and her readers are correct in their view of the universe, then the auditorium must be twice as full as it appears to be. They will gently insist that belief is not a such a simple matter of right or wrong, but everyone here is agreed that all human beings have their own guardian angels. So we must be, this afternoon and always, in the midst of an invisible multitude.
LAST Sunday in the French Alps, more than 5000 people gathered to watch a succession of professionals and capable amateurs attempt to ski down a mountain and across a lake, from one shore to the other. None of them made it, or even came close. Some were at least able to remain upright, even elegant, cutting a smooth, continuous line through the vertical of the slope and then horizontally across the water, before slowing to a stop and sinking well short of dry land. They looked like captains going down with their ships, and the crowd saluted them as such.
ONE morning last January, the fishermen of Taiji were surprised to find a large, living whale in their communal net. It seemed to have swum out of the past. For thousands of years, many and varied marine mammals have steered close to the Kumano coast on their long undersea circuits between breeding and feeding grounds. Where Japanese whaling began with a passive acceptance of beached creatures as gifts from the gods, it first became an active, organised hunt here in Taiji circa 1606, which was then known as “kujira to tomo ni ikiru machi”, or “the town that lives with the whales”. The town is now dying, along with its only industry.
TO arrive in Iga-Ueno on the first Saturday in April is to feel like a stranger in ninjatown. This small city in the mountains, about two hours by rail from Kyoto, is supposedly the ancestral home of those fearsome feudal super-sneaks and master-killers, whose name and reputation have long since spread across the world through martial arts movies, comic books, and video games. Here in Japan, ninjas are now something of a national myth, a slightly cartoonish composite of old folk tales and modern pop culture. This morning in Iga-Ueno, however, it would be discourteous to dispute their existence.
THE first time that Sudhir Venkatesh witnessed a drive-by shooting, he remained upright while everyone around him dropped to the pavement. “I just stood there,” he says. “Like a tree.” Venkatesh is a tall man – a big target. He would have been even harder to miss back then, almost 20 years ago, when he was a hippyish middle-class sociology student with a long ponytail and a tie-dyed t-shirt, conducting field research in Chicago’s biggest, poorest housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes.
IT is the night of the Led Zeppelin reunion, and the whole rocking world is divided between those with tickets and those without. Nowhere is this separation more awful than at the high-tech turnstiles of London’s O2 Arena, formerly the Millenium Dome.
LONG before Scotland was Scotland, when the population consisted only of green algae and the Highlands were as dry as Death Valley, a large natural object fell out of space and struck the Earth near where the village of Stoer now stands, in Wester Ross. This incident occured 1.2 billion years ago, but it has only been confirmed in the last few months. “If the same thing happened today,” says planetary geologist Scott Thackrey, “all the trees in Aberdeen would be felled. The trees in Inverness would actually ignite. Most man-made structures would collapse. Everything made of paper would burn. You wouldn’t be safe in Glasgow. But sitting here, we would be vapourised.”
THE short life of New York’s World Trade Center began with one spectacular crime and ended with another. Philippe Petit can only speak for the first. “My story is a fairytale, ” he says at the start of Man On Wire, a new documentary about Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between Twin Towers on August 7, 1974. This film goes on to confirm that the thinking behind the act was infinitely simpler than the staging, but its meaning has never been agreed upon.
ONE thing never questioned in a pub quiz is the pub quiz itself. Where did it come from? Who held the first one, and when? How has it become such a defining characteristic of British pub culture? Why do UK drinkers in particular seem to accept and enjoy challenges to their capacity for factual recall? What is the point?