Peter Rhodes on the HS2 conspiracy, a global pandemic and all's not right on the Western Front

Read today's column from Peter Rhodes.

Starship Audacious?
Starship Audacious?

You have to admire the confidence of those headline writers who branded this week's blow as “the storm of the century.” We are only 20 years into this century. I can't help thinking some massive cyclone will remove our roofs in the next 80 years, dwarfing Storm Ciara.

Nor, at risk of tempting fate, do I think coronavirus will prove to be the plague of the century. There are much nastier things lurking out there. So far, about 1,000 have died of coronavirus. By comparison, the World Health Organization reckons that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics cause up to five million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

So HS2, the high-speed train that nobody wants, gets the go-ahead. How? Why? It helps if you believe the conspiracy theory that this massive white elephant has nothing to do with trains or passengers and its true purpose is to preserve jobs and keep Britain's steel industry going.

Dr Michael Fopp, former director-general of the RAF Museums, despairs at the historical inaccuracies in Sam Mendes' acclaimed film, 1917. He criticises the “modern profanities” used by soldiers and that old bugbear, soldiers saluting when not wearing headgear. But Mendes is not the only offender. From the infamous “steep learning curve” heard in Downton Abbey to last week's reference to a “scam” in the new Agatha Christie whodunnit, The Pale Horse (BBC1), modern terms stick out like sore thumbs in period dramas. Why not consult the experts or invite someone of a certain age to the screenings to tell the programme makers: “We never used a word like that.”?

Not that the experts are always used wisely. A reader tells me he had a friend, a retired officer who was a military adviser to a television drama. He told the director that the British soldier salutes only when he is wearing headgear. The director ignored him on the grounds that bare-headed saluting “looks more military.” There is no hope.

Our changing language. According to the BBC: “Europe's audacious Solar Orbiter probe has lifted off.” Audacious? What is it about this space mission that shows a willingness to take bold risks, or a lack of respect, which is how most dictionaries define audacious? Or is this just another example of the Humpty Dumpty syndrome? In Lewis Carroll's tale, Through the Looking Glass, Humpty declares: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.” I could not have put it more troglodytically.

The mission might be considered audacious if the Solar Orbiter carried a human crew capable of taking risks. As it is, the only thing they are taking risks with is our money. Under the EU's Lisbon Treaty we are committed to exploring space, whether we want to or not.

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