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'It's like bombing the Louvre'


'It's like bombing the Louvre'

Marie Smith Jones was the world's last Eyak speaker - by the time she died last week, she could use her mother tongue only in her dreams. But the loss of a language is not just a personal tragedy, says Mark Abley, it is a cultural disaster

Mark Abley
Monday January 28, 2008

Some deaths come as a shock. The death last Monday of Marie Smith Jones did not. She was 89, blind, a heavy smoker and a recovering alcoholic, who had borne nine children and buried two of them. People had been expecting her death for years.

By "people", I mean linguists. Most residents of Anchorage, the Alaskan city where she spent her final decades, had never heard of her. Even after she addressed a UN conference on indigenous rights, she managed to maintain her privacy. Yet among the advocates for minority languages, Jones was famous. A few of them knew her by a different name: Udach' Kuqax'a'a'ch', a name that belonged to the Eyak language and means "a sound that calls people from far away".

Jones is thought to have been the last full-blooded member of the Eyak, a saltwater people of southern Alaska. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, it spilled 240,000 barrels of crude oil into their traditional fishing grounds. More important, Jones was the last person to speak Eyak fluently. She had held that melancholy distinction since her sister's death in the early 90s. Her passing means that nobody in the world can effortlessly distinguish a demex'ch (a soft, rotten spot in the ice) from a demex'ch'lda'luw (a large, treacherous hole in the ice). It means that siniik'adach'uuch' - the vertical groove between the nose and upper lip, literally a "nose crumple" - has fled the minds of the living.

Are such arcane details significant? Jones thought so. Asked by Elizabeth Kolbert of the New Yorker how she felt about her language dying with her, she replied: "How would you feel if your baby died? If someone asked you, 'What was it like to see it lying in the cradle?'" Jones added that she hated reporters. A fisherman's daughter, who had worked in a cannery from the age of 12, she could not then have imagined how many journalists she would meet in old age.

The Eyak language has no offspring - no close relatives of any kind. Kolbert wittily described it as "the spinster aunt of the Athabascan language group". Linguistic evidence suggests the Eyak people split off to become a separate culture roughly 3,000 years ago, travelling downriver to a salmon-busy coast. In verbal terms, Eyak's nephews and nieces include the Apaches of the dry south-west, familiar to us from westerns.

The Eyak may never have had a large population, and in recent centuries they suffered badly from the ravages of smallpox, measles, influenza and colonisation. A larger Indian group, the Tlingit, began to encroach on their territory. Today, powerless and divided, the Eyak scarcely survive as a cohesive people.

Yet even after Jones's death, their language will enjoy an academic half-life. Unlike hundreds of other tribal tongues in the world which fell silent before the linguists arrived, Eyak is richly documented. Video and audio recordings, transcriptions of ancient stories, a hand-typed dictionary that runs to well over 3,000 pages: all this now exists in DVD format. Future scholars who set out to explore Eyak's grammar, or its exact relationship to other languages, will have plenty of material to draw on.

The dictionary's compiler, Michael Krauss, founded the Alaska Native Languages Center in 1972 to record, preserve and (if possible) strengthen the 20 indigenous languages in the state. He is an informed and eloquent spokesman for minority tongues. But despite his work, most Alaskan languages are in feeble health.

They were weakened by terrifying epidemics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, by the economic and social destruction of their communities, and by the unsparing malice of an education system that promoted the silencing of all indigenous tongues. Can they now survive a force that Krauss has described as "cultural nerve gas"? To minority languages, he famously predicted, the mass media will prove "insidious, painless and fatal".

As in Alaska, so it is in much of the world. The statistics have become routine; their shock value has faded. Even so, it may be worth repeating that if a child who is born today survives the century, three-quarters of all human languages are likely to vanish during his or her lifetime.

Thanks to Jones's feisty presence, Eyak became something of a poster child for the cause of language preservation. The notion of a "last speaker" carries a powerful mystique. But perhaps Eyak was an unwise choice. Now the poster is out of date, what happens to the cause?

Linguists and cultural activists were not the only ones to seize on the solitary example of Jones. In a famous essay published a few years ago in Prospect, Kenan Malik did the same. He used her to illustrate a trend he saw as both inevitable and desirable: the concentration of human intelligence among fewer and fewer languages. "The reason that Eyak will soon be extinct," Malik wrote, "is not because Marie Smith Jones has been denied her rights, but because no one else wants to, or is capable of, speaking the language. This might be tragic for Marie Smith Jones - and frustrating for professional linguists - but it is not a question of rights. Neither a culture, nor a way of life, nor yet a language, has a God-given 'right to exist'."

Fair enough. But Eyak's death comes as a result less of personal choice than of longstanding government policy. For most of a century, indigenous children in Alaska suffered physical punishment if they were caught speaking their mother tongue in the classroom or the playground. In Wales and Ireland, Canada and South Africa, the same held true. There are many countries, including China and Russia, where language loss should still be a human-rights issue.

Official policy in Alaska centred on "reclaiming the natives from improvident habits," on convincing them to "abandon their old customs," and on "transforming them into ambitious and self-helpful citizens". Small wonder that after several generations of reclaiming and transforming, the remaining handful of Eyak were unable to speak their ancestral tongue.

Jones married a white man, and did not pass on her language to her children - a decision she came to regret. But she made it to spare them the pain she had endured. As a girl, she had learned to see bilingualism not as an asset but an impediment. Eyak, she had been told, was a useless language.

Or perhaps her teachers didn't deign to call it a language. In 1887, a federal commissioner for Indian affairs had made the prevailing wisdom clear: "Teaching an Indian youth in his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment to him." The word "barbarous" betrays obvious contempt; the use of "dialect" is more subtle and insidious. But any language can seem barbarous to its speakers' enemies, and no language is primitive.

So the cause of language preservation carries on, as it must. In Krauss's words, "Every language is a treasury of human experience." His fellow linguist Ken Hale put it more bluntly: "Languages embody the intellectual wealth of the people that speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."

How best to avoid that fate? For a minority language to flourish, its speakers need a sort of bullheaded confidence. Such stubborn self-belief emerges from a sense of cultural power and feeds back into it. The classic example is the astonishing rebirth of Hebrew a century ago in what would become Israel. In our own time the Basques and the Catalans, the Welsh and the Maoris display a similar faith.

These are the groups who should now act as poster children for minority languages: the Maori boys and girls in pre-school "language nests", the artists and producers who mutate the mass media in Welsh, the Catalan activists who have peacefully forced Spain to rethink its identity. The vigour in these cultures, and many others, belies the easy notion that all minority languages are doomed.

It was sadly different for Jones. During the last 15 years of her life, she could use her mother tongue only with a visiting linguist or in her dreams. She had, as Krauss said this week, "a tragic mantle" to bear, and she did so "with great dignity, grace and spirit". Perhaps last week she was called from far away under her Eyak name.

We can say "thank you" as a tribute. There is no one to say awa'ahdah.

Lost in translation
Words you'll never hear again

The following words are all from languages which no longer have a single native speaker

Unrihtwillnung: improper love (Old English)

Istamaasdu: Listen, you in the plural! (Hittite, Turkey)

Ebauthoo: water (Beothuk, Newfoundland)

Kälymentwam: path to heaven (Tocharian, central Asia)

Moíthgnatha: famously smooth (Old Irish)

Qeto: wine jars (Linear B Minoan, Crete)

Tehonannonronkwanniontak: they greeted him with respect; literally, they greased his scalp many times (Huron, Ontario)

Molatuendalaas: God's curse in your stomach (Cornish)

Tpochgo: night (Mohican, New York and New England)

Ngangki: sun (Yaralde, South Australia)

Mun*s: mouth - the fourth letter, here substituted with an asterisk, is the Runic thorn (Gothic, eastern Europe)

Xuqu'liilx'aax'ch'kk'sh: Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly? (Eyak, Alaska)

Mark Abley's book The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches From the Future of English will be published by William Heinemann in June.

Man-made chemicals blamed as many more girls than boys are born in Arctic


Man-made chemicals blamed as many more girls than boys are born in Arctic

· High levels can change sex of child during pregnancy
· Survey of Greenland and east Russia puts ratio at 2:1

Paul Brown in Nuuk, Greenland
Wednesday September 12, 2007
The Guardian

Twice as many girls as boys are being born in some Arctic villages because of high levels of man-made chemicals in the blood of pregnant women, according to scientists from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap).

The scientists, who say the findings could explain the recent excess of girl babies across much of the northern hemisphere, are widening their investigation across the most acutely affected communities in Russia, Greenland and Canada to try to discover the size of the imbalance in Inuit communities of the far north.

In the communities of Greenland and eastern Russia monitored so far, the ratio was found to be two girls to one boy. In one village in Greenland only girls have been born.

The scientists measured the man-made chemicals in women's blood that mimic human hormones and concluded that they were capable of triggering changes in the sex of unborn children in the first three weeks of gestation. The chemicals are carried in the mother's bloodstream through the placenta to the foetus, switching hormones to create girl children.

Lars-Otto Reierson, executive secretary for Amap, said: "We knew that the levels of man-made chemicals were accumulating in the food chain, and that seals, whales and particularly polar bears were getting a dose a million times higher than that existing in plankton, and that this could be toxic to humans who ate these higher animals. What was shocking was that they were also able to change the sex of children before birth."

The sex balance of the human race - historically a slight excess of boys over girls - has recently begun to change. A paper published in the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences earlier this year said that in Japan and the US there were 250,000 boys fewer than would have been expected had the sex ratio existing in 1970 remained unchanged. The paper was unable to pin down a cause for the new excess of girls over boys.

The Arctic scientists have discovered that many of the babies born in Russia are premature and the boys are far smaller than girls. Possible links between the pollutants and high infant mortality in the first year of life is also being investigated.

Scientists believe a number of man-made chemicals used in electrical equipment from generators, televisions and computers that mimic human hormones are implicated. They are carried by winds and rivers to the Arctic where they accumulate in the food chain and in the bloodstreams of the largely meat- and fish-eating Inuit communities.

The first results of the survey were disclosed at a symposium of religious, scientific and environmental leaders in Greenland's capital, Nuuk, yesterday, organised by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholomew I, which is looking at the effects of environmental pollution on the Arctic.

Dr Reierson said the accumulation of DDT, PCBs, flame-retardants and other endocrine disrupters has been known for some time and young women had been advised to avoid eating some Arctic animals to avoid excess contamination and possible damage to their unborn children.

Dr Reierson, said blood samples from pregnant women were subsequently matched with the sex of their baby. Women with elevated levels of PCBs in their blood above two to four micrograms per litre and upwards were checked in three northern peninsula's in Russia's far east - the Kola, Taimyr and Chukotka - plus the Pechora River Basin.

To check the results the survey was widened and further communities, including those on Commodore Island, were investigated. The results were now in for 480 families and the ratio remained the same.

He said full results for the widening of the survey would not be published until next year but preliminary results for Greenland showed the same 2:1 ratio in the north.

Aqqaluk Lynge, the former chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference who hails from Greenland, said: "This is a disaster, especially for some 1,500 people who make up the Inuit nations in the far north east of Russia.

"Here in the north of Greenland, in the villages near the Thule American base, only girl babies are being born to Inuit families.

"The problem is acute in the north and east of Greenland where people still have the traditional diet.

"This has become a critical question of people's survival but few governments want to talk about the problem of hormone mimickers because it means thinking about the chemicals you use.

"I think they need to be tested much more stringently before they are allowed on the market."


The Inuit are nomadic in nature, having survived for thousands of years using formidable hunting skills to seek out the bowhead whale, seal, caribou and walrus. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), an international body, was founded in 1977 to represent the rights of the approximately 150,000 Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Chukotka (Russia). With relatively low levels of educational attainment and few opportunities, violence, alcohol and drug dependency are a growing problem as the Inuit try to safeguard its traditions.

Protect Rural England


The 0.0174069% of Earth we call home is glorious. The trick is keeping it that way

The best-selling American travel and science writer Bill Bryson, takes over today as president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In this exclusive extract from his inaugural speech, he explains how the British countryside is under threat

Bill Bryson
The Guardian,
Monday July 9 2007

Something I have often wondered is why you don't make the whole of England a National Park. In what way, after all, are the Yorkshire Dales superior to the Durham Dales? Why is the New Forest worthy of exalted status but glorious Dorset not?

It's preposterous really to say that some parts are better or more important than others. It's all lovely. And there's not much of it. Of all the surface area of the Earth, only a tiny fragment - 0.0174069%, or so I gather - can call itself Great Britain. So it's rare and dangerously finite and every bit of it should be cherished.

The miracle, in my view, is that on the whole it is. For all the pressures on rural England, and all that could be made better, the countryside remains one of this country's supreme achievements. I know of no landscape anywhere that is more universally appreciated, more visited and walked across and gazed upon, more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of England. The landscape almost everywhere is eminently accessible. People feel a closeness to it, an affinity, that I don't think they experience elsewhere.

If you suggested to people in Iowa, where I come from, that you spend a day walking across farmland, they would think you were mad. Here walking in the country is the most natural thing in the world - so natural that it is dangerously easy to take it for granted.

Because the countryside is so generally fine and looks so deceptively timeless, it's easy to think of it as somehow fixed and immutable and safely permanent. In fact, it is none of these things, of course - though it is very ancient, even more ancient than people often realise.

Not far from where I live in East Anglia there is a hedge, called Judith's Hedge, which looks like any other. But in fact Judith's Hedge is very venerable indeed. It was planted by a niece of William the Conqueror in the second half of the 11th century. So it is older than Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey, York Minster - older than most of the buildings in Great Britain.

Even closer to home for me -indeed just beyond my bedroom window - is a handsome church tower that was built at about the same time. It has been standing there, adding a little touch of nobility and grandeur to the landscape, for 900 years. I find that a literally fantastic statement. If this church were in Iowa, people would travel hundreds of miles to see it. Of course, you'd have a job explaining to them how it got there, but you take my point. It would be a venerated relic. And here it is just an anonymous country church, treasured by a few aging parishioners and one overweight American, and otherwise almost entirely unnoticed because it is just one of 659 ancient parish churches in Norfolk alone.

Altogether there are 20,000 ancient parish churches in Britain. There are more listed churches than there are petrol stations. Isn't that an amazing fact? If you decided to visit one every day, it would take you 54 years to see them all.

Wherever you turn in Britain you are confronted with wondrous and interesting things - 19,000 scheduled ancient monuments, 600,000 recorded archaeological sites, 100,000 miles of public footpaths, 250,000 miles of hedgerows, 73,000 war memorials, 6,500 listed bridges, 14 National Parks, a hundred or so Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, over 4,000 sites of Special Scientific Interest. You can't move 10 feet in this country without bumping up against some striking reminder of a long and productive past.

And it is almost entirely man-made - or human-made, I should perhaps say. That's really quite interesting. Where I come from, when the landscape is stunning it's because nature made it that way. In Britain when it's stunning, it is, more often than not, because people made it that way. Of Britain's 27 World Heritage sites, only four are natural formations. The rest are monuments and landscapes built by humans. All that posterity asks of us is that we look after what has been created for us already.

You hardly need me to tell you how lucky you are to have what you have in this country. Being surrounded by such a sumptuous diversity of history and beauty is a delight and a privilege, of course, but it is also a great danger. When you have such an abundance of great things, it is easy to think of it as essentially inexhaustible and to persuade yourself that it can be nibbled away at without serious loss. I hate it when people think like that.

To me, the mathematics of the British landscape are wonderfully simple and compelling. Britain has about 60 million acres of land and about 60 million people. That's one acre for each of us. Every time you give up 10 acres of greenfield site to build a superstore, in effect 10 people lose their acres. To enjoy the countryside they must go and use other people's acres. By developing countryside you force more and more people to share less and less space. Trying to limit the growth of development in the countryside isn't nimbyism, it's common sense.

In the meantime there are three matters that I hope and intend to pursue. The first is litter and fly-tipping. You are probably aware that this is something of an obsession of mine, and I am finding to my gratification that it is something many others feel strongly about too.

Second, pylons and overhead wires generally. To me, marching ranks of pylons are way too common in the countryside, and inexcusably alien and ugly.

Too often when you go into the country you end up feeling as if you have wandered onto a set from War of the Worlds. In 1986, when electricity companies were being privatised, the Economist magazine calculated that if all the generating companies were required to devote one half of 1% of their turnover to burying overhead cables, we would be able to bury 1,000 miles of them every year. There are 8,000 miles of high voltage power lines in this country, so they would all be buried now.

At a minimum there should be a presumption against pylons within sight of World Heritage sites, national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty. But really they should just be taken away.

Finally, number three, trees, forests, woodland. You can never have too many trees. The UK has less forest cover than almost any country in Europe. France has 28%, Germany 32%, Italy 34%, Sweden almost 70%. Britain has 12% - the fourth lowest amount in Europe. Even Cyprus has more. What's more, there are no specific targets for woodland creation in England. Well, I think there ought to be.

And while we are talking meaningfully about planting things, I think we should be pushing forcefully for restoration and renewal of hedgerows. I am really worried about hedgerows. They define the English landscape and everywhere they are quietly fading away. Eventually you end up with no hedgerows at all and this is the fate that I fear is awaiting very large swaths of the countryside.

How clean is my valley?


How clean is my valley?

Bill Bryson's litter campaign has made him the champion of rural England. He tells Tim Dowling that the country needs tractors, and explains why paper cups get left on walls

Tim Dowling
The Guardian,
Saturday May 5 2007

The offices of the Campaign to Protect Rural England are on a busy, near-leafless road in London, just behind the hulking power station that is now Tate Modern. The CPRE's newest president, the author Bill Bryson, is being led round the corner in search of a suitably sylvan photographic backdrop. He is, as reports invariably describe him, jovial and agreeable, wearing a jacket and jumper combo which looks suspiciously like the one he wore in newspaper photographs the previous day. This week's announcement of his nomination (he still faces an election at their AGM in July) is the culmination of his long-running personal crusade against litter, although he still maintains the air of a somewhat accidental figurehead.

"I was starting to speak out about littering, and kept promising I was going to do something about it," he says. He is soft-spoken and sometimes difficult to hear over the insistent roar of traffic, but the words spill out in an enthusiastic tumble. At lectures and book signings he started asking people to contact him if they too felt strongly about litter, and he ended up with more than 900 emails in his inbox. "So I found myself at the head of this slightly small, growing army of disgruntled people, and I didn't know what to do with them. I thought, I don't know how to run a campaign - what am I thinking of? But I've got these 900 very willing people, and they are obviously just a specimen sample of the strength of feeling that's out there, so we must tap into this in some way and see if we can't make a difference."

His solution was to approach the CPRE, one of the most venerable environmental charities in Britain, founded in 1926 to fight the ribbon development that was beginning to threaten England's ancient landscapes. Past presidents include David Puttnam, Jonathan Dimbleby, Prunella Scales and Bryson's immediate predecessor, Sir Max Hastings. It is a Very English Organisation.

Its new president, however, is an American from Des Moines, Iowa, albeit one who has lived in England for the past three decades, apart from a sojourn back in the States (which stretched to eight years after his four kids became "embedded" in the school system). Bryson first came to Britain on a midnight ferry in 1973, blissfully unaware of the rationing and industrial strife in which the country was mired, and clearly thrilled by the prospect of a nation which could keep him in a state of almost perpetual bemusement. "Everything was mysterious and exciting in a way you can't imagine," he recounted in the bestselling Notes From a Small Island. "England was full of words I'd never heard before - streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet. I didn't know how to pronounce 'scone' or 'pasty' or 'Towcester' or 'Slough'. I had never heard of Tesco's, Perthshire or Denbighshire, council houses, Morecambe and Wise, railway cuttings, bank holidays, seaside rock, milk floats, trunk calls, Scotch eggs, Morris Minors and Poppy Day. For all I knew, when a car had an L-plate on the back of it, it indicated that it was being driven by a leper."

Whether he is tackling England or Australia or quantum physics, much of the charm and humour of Bryson's writing derives from his ability to maintain the perspective of a bewildered outsider eager to satisfy his boundless curiosity. This winning formula helped to sell 2.7m copies of his book A Short History of Nearly Everything, turning him into a publishing phenomenon (earning him, in turn, an honorary OBE), and it seems to characterise his whole approach to the litter question. "I never really thought about that," he says, "but the part of writing books that I enjoy does seem to be the part I'm drawn to with the litter campaign. With litter it's not trying to find information so much as trying to find solutions, but also why people do it. I'd love to see some sociological studies of what's going on in people's minds."

He believes that most littering these days is done stealthily rather than brazenly. "Studies show that it's done by a very small proportion of people, and of the people who do it, a very high proportion are subject to being reconditioned, and that's what gives me hope." On the walk back to the CPRE offices, he spots evidence to support his claim: a Starbucks cup sitting on a ledge. "It wouldn't be tossed down, it would be set down," he says. "They'll put it on a ledge as if it's not quite littering. They probably looked around for a bin and didn't see one within 20 yards."

For Bryson fly-tipping and littering are primarily rural issues, however, because the countryside lacks the infrastructure to deal with it. "In the towns there is litter but it gets swept up," he says. "In the countryside litter doesn't have a friend. It doesn't have anybody who's saying, wait a minute, this is really starting to get out of control." This was his thinking when he decided to join forces with the CPRE, but enlisting the aid of an organisation for a litter campaign is one thing; agreeing to be its president is another. While Bryson considers himself to be vaguely left-leaning in his politics, he is, he says, "pretty much apolitical. I'd very happily work with anybody. I had a really interesting meeting with Max Hastings, and I suspect that an awful lot of the things that go on in the countryside he would feel much more strongly about, but at the same time there was just a huge amount of common ground."

Being the CPRE's president means signing on to a raft of initiatives he may not have even considered voicing an opinion on previously. The latest newsletter offers updates of battles against polytunnels, the expansion of Bristol airport, road-widening, housebuilding and post office closures. "Before I agreed to do this," says Bryson, "I said, you know, let me read all your policy documents, and there wasn't anything I didn't agree with."

In the past, critics of the CPRE have described it as Nimbyish and largely concerned with what the countryside looks like rather than how it functions, but Bryson thinks this assessment is wide of the mark. "It's been about preserving what is good about the countryside and enhancing what should be improved, and keeping the countryside vibrant. One of the most fundamental beliefs of the campaign is that farming is central to the future of the countryside. It is unthinkable to have a British countryside that doesn't have actual functioning farmers riding tractors, cows in fields, things like that." He agrees that some development is probably necessary, particularly in terms of affordable housing, but, he says, "on the whole it better to approach these things conservatively. Make the people who want to make change prove their case rather than regret it afterwards."

Rescuing the countryside is not quite so straightforward these days: rural England is caught up in a tangle of competing political interests, even between conservation organisations (the CPRE and English Heritage, of which Bryson is still a commissioner, are backing rival plans for the Stonehenge site). Some of Bryson's own suggestions to combat rural litter, including the temporary deployment of signs that say "litter cameras operate in this area", run counter to the CPRE's stated aims. "True," he says, "and I'm very much against clutter in the countryside." He's not particularly troubled by the factionalism, though. "I think everybody's on the same side; it's just some questions of detail."

Contrary to some reports, Bryson has not given up writing. In fact he has only just finished a book - a short biography of Shakespeare - to be published in the autumn. "And then I will be moving on to a new book, but I haven't quite decided what. I've been wanting to do a book about baseball for the longest time, and nobody will let me do it. It's the one thing from America I really miss."

Club members gather to find solace in heightist world


Club members gather to find solace in heightist world

Stephen Moss
Saturday August 25, 2007
The Guardian

I am 6ft 4in, which yesterday made me one of the shorter men in the Wotton House Hotel, near Dorking, Surrey, the suitably spacious venue for the annual convention of the Tall Persons Club of Great Britain and Ireland. "I bet you don't often feel like this," says club director Jim Briggs (6ft 9in), as he and fellow director Stuart Logan (6ft 8in) peer down at me.

The three-day convention is the climax of National Tall Awareness Week, which highlights discrimination against tall people.

"Airlines don't make you pay more if you are blonde, so why should they be allowed to charge you more for being tall?" says Mr Briggs, a British-based American whose transatlantic twang bears an uncanny resemblance to Loyd Grossman.

"We're living in a heightist world," he says, complaining that recently he was barred from sitting in the exit row of a plane because he was not deemed "able bodied". "The stewardess was accusing me of being disabled because I am tall. But I'm not a disabled person. This is what we are fighting against."

Karsten Mathiesen (7ft 2in), a visitor from Denmark, demonstrates just how far he has to bend to enter the room. Mr Briggs launches another salvo. "The world just doesn't seem to cater for the taller, larger person. Take the average 6ft 6in doorway. That standard was set in 1865, so we are using 100-year-old technology here. We're gaining a couple of inches in each generation, so why are we using 100-year-old standards on these doors?"

Competition for the king-sized beds at the hotel must have been ferocious.

The club, which was founded in 1991, campaigns, provides information to its 600 members on suppliers that specialise in larger-than-average clothes and furniture, and offers help and support to people who have suffered psychologically because of their size.

"It can be isolating to be very tall," says Gill Hebb (a mere 6ft ½in). "Sometimes you are literally on a different plane. One of the nice things about going out with people from the Tall Club is that, when you go into a nightclub, you can hear what everyone is saying because they can talk straight into your ear. I don't think you can describe how comforting it is to walk into a room and have to look up to everybody."

Today the 90-strong group of delegates is planning a ramble around Guildford, and they know they will attract unwanted attention.

"When we walk around together, people stop and stare, nudge each other and giggle, " says Ms Hebb. "Karsten and I once went into a pub in Edinburgh and I just couldn't believe how impertinent people were, staring at us and making comments."

Trying to change public attitudes is a key part of National Tall Awareness Week. "For some reason," says Mr Briggs, "it's OK to walk up to me in the street and say 'My God you're tall, how tall are you? But would you walk up to a large-breasted woman in Tesco and say 'My God you've got big tits, what's your bra size?' Of course you wouldn't. So why is it OK to come up to me and say 'What kind of freak are you?' "

The club emphasises the problems faced by teenagers and the prevalence of bullying.

"It's hard enough as a teenager of average height growing up," says Jackie Timbs (6ft 1in), "but when you're head and shoulders above everybody else, as I was as a teenager, you're not just dealing with the everyday teenage issues. You do get picked on."

But the convention is not just about campaigning. There's plenty of partying, too. Finding a partner if you're close to 7ft can be a tall order, and this is a good place to size up possibilities. Briggs says the club has so far brokered 40 marriages.

Above all, the delegates are pleased, for once in their lives, not to stand out in a crowd or be defined by their tallness. In one corner of leafy Surrey this weekend it will be the men of 5ft 10in and women of 5ft 6in who look out of place. Bending to enter rooms and struggling to get knees under tables will be the norm, and height will not be the sole topic of conversation, as it too often is in the wider (and shorter) world.

Death in the rainforest


Death in the rainforest: fragile creatures give the world a new climate warning
Amphibian and reptile numbers fall by 75% in reserve meant to save them

Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, Tuesday April 17 2007

A protected rainforest in one of the world's richest biodiversity hotspots has suffered an alarming collapse in amphibians and reptiles, suggesting such havens may fail to slow the creatures' slide towards global extinction.

Conservationists working in a lowland forest reserve at La Selva in Costa Rica used biological records dating from 1970 to show that species of frogs, toads, lizards, snakes and salamanders have plummeted on average 75% in the past 35 years.

Dramatic falls in amphibian and reptile numbers elsewhere in the world have been blamed on habitat destruction and the fungal disease chytridiomycosis, which has inflicted a devastating toll across central and South America. But scientists hoped many species would continue to thrive in dedicated reserves, where building, land-clearance and agricultural chemicals are banned.

The new findings suggest an unknown ecological effect is behind at least some of the sudden losses and have prompted scientists to call for urgent studies in other protected forest areas. The researchers, led by Maureen Donelly at Florida International University, believe climate change has brought warmer, wetter weather to the refuge, with the knock-on effect of reducing the amount of leaf litter on the forest floor. Nearly all of the species rely on leaf litter to some extent, either using it for shelter, or feeding on insects that eat the leaves.

The study revealed sharp declines among two species of salamander, whose numbers fell on average 14.52% every year between 1970 and 2005. Frog species slumped too, with numbers of the mimicking rain frog falling 13.49%, the common tink frog 6.69%, and the strawberry poison frog 1.18% a year. Lizards suffered similar falls, with one species, the striped litter skink, down 10.03% each year, and orange-tailed geckos declining by 8.05% every year.

The researchers also analysed weather records for the region, which revealed a rise of more than 1C in temperature over the 35-year period and a doubling of the number of wet days. The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences yesterday. "All of the falls recorded elsewhere have been in high, mountainous regions and those have mostly been driven by the spread of fungus. All of the tests we've done for the fungus here have been negative," said Steven Whitfield, a co-author of the study.

"Our best guess is that the declines are related to a drop in leaf litter on the forest floor. Most of the species use leaf material as a place to hide, but because it's moist, it's also a place to shelter when it's dry and warm. Many of these species also feed on the insects that eat the leaf matter, so if that disappears, so does their food and shelter."

The scientists say it is crucial to extend the study to other protected forests, such as those in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, to assess the populations of amphibians and reptiles there.

"If we are to design effective conservation strategies, we need to know what's causing these declines. If it's down to a link between climate and leaf litter, then we need to better understand that," said Mr Whitfield.

Amphibians are considered delicate sentinels of environmental change. Sudden population collapses were first noticed during the 1980s, during which more than 120 species are thought to have become extinct.

In Britain, the common toad population is "seriously threatened", with natterjack toads having declined by 75% in the past century. Numbers of great crested newts in the country have dropped by 60% since the 1960s.

Last year, English Nature announced that the chytridiomycosis had arrived in Britain following the escape of infected bullfrogs imported from North America. The organisation destroyed 11,000 frogs in an attempt to contain the spread.

The collapse of amphibian populations prompted 50 of the world's leading conservation experts to call last year for an urgent mission to save them from extinction. In a letter to the US journal Science, the conservationists proposed a $400m (£217m) plan called the Amphibian Survival Alliance, which would dispatch teams to collect endangered amphibians for captive breeding.

John Fa, director of conservation science at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey, said: "Something needs to be done in terms of saving these species, and maybe that is captive breeding, but it's difficult. You have to know that even if you're able to breed up the numbers, will they survive in the environment when you put them back?"

Declined at least 75% in the past 35 years, even in protected areas: Common salamander; strawberry poison frog; Bransford's litter frog; broad-headed rain frog; Noble's rain frog; mimicking rain frog; common tink frog; Warszewitsch's frog; orange-tailed gecko; leaf litter lizard; striped litter skink.

Minority report 3


The few non-white MEPs try to avoid being stereotyped as token experts on race or immigration. But it is a telling sign of their rarity that many are inundated with appeals from people in other countries who share their ethnicity or religion. As well as being the only Asian woman in parliament, Gill is the only Sikh too. She says she receives "almost weekly" calls from Sikh groups in Italy and France who are attacked because of "the turban issue".

The sprinkling of non-white or Turkish MEPs from France, Germany and the Netherlands are reluctant to accuse their fellow MEPs of discrimination. Instead, they focus on how hard it is for people from ethnic minorities to get into politics. "People need time to build up networks in society. Immigrants start very low in terms of jobs and education and they need time to catch up," says Emine Bozkurt. Born in Holland to Turkish parents, in 2004 she became the first MEP elected from the Netherlands with ethnic minority heritage. "People refer to me as a migrant but I've never migrated apart from when I moved to the European parliament. Then I really felt like a migrant."

To British eyes, Socialist MEP Kader Arif is classically French: pale pink shirt unbuttoned at the neck, smoking, philosophical. His French assistant refers to him as "black". Hugely popular in south-western France, Arif attributes his political ascent to his accent which, reassuringly for his constituents, is a strong Toulouse drawl. His passions - rugby and bullfighting - show he is well integrated, he says, since coming to France from Algeria aged five.

The reason there are so few non-white MEPs, Arif says, is because of the social environment and the nature of political careers. You find more immigrants in sport and culture because there talent can be objectively recognised and rewards are instant - unlike in politics, he says. "When you get recognised in sports or culture, this breaks all social barriers; politics is made up of social barriers."

He believes there is racism across the board in French political parties. All of them, he says, conservatively recruit in their own image. But he was elected first in the list of 10 MEPs in their National Front-friendly constituency of 8.5 million people. "It shows that sometimes the masses are in advance of the political elites," he says.

For Moraes, the whiteness of the European parliament is not simply because alienated, unconfident minorities shun politics. "Confidence of the individual is a small part," he says. "A large part is direct and indirect discrimination. Where do you advertise jobs? Do you encourage schools in particular parts of Europe? Is there real accessibility? Do people apply from non-traditional backgrounds?"

If you judge power by the size of an office then, as the adage goes, the bureaucrats really are running Europe. Julian Priestley is the outgoing secretary general, the parliament's top civil servant. After three decades working in Europe, he talks of "broadening the diversity agenda" in carefully honed sentences that are almost as long as his desk.

"It is true that at the moment the number of people from ethnic minorities working here is way below the proportion of European citizens from ethnic minorities," he says. The problem is recruitment. "I have a horrible feeling that when European institutions place advertisements announcing competitions [for training and employment] there will be part of ethnic minority communities who will feel it's not really for them. We should work with those communities to make sure that candidates come forward."

He considers ethnic monitoring "interesting" but fears it would be blocked by his colleagues who find it "intrusive". And, he adds: "You don't need ethnic minority monitoring to know we're not doing very well." Is the parliament institutionally racist? "I think that would be unfair. The numbers are insufficient because we haven't been imaginative enough and active enough as all institutions together to take positive measures for people to come forward. We've been slower than certain parts of public administrations in the member states and I recognise that."

As the sun sinks and the colours slip out of Brussels, Arif smokes at his desk on the 14th floor of the European parliament and ponders whether this building is equipped to tackle questions of religion, race, immigration and identity that define modern Europe. "It's not because I'm from a minority that I can fight racism," he says. "But if you don't have institutions that represent the diversity of Europe you can't fight against racism properly".

Path to power: How MEPs are elected

The European parliament is created by the largest democratic election outside India. The only directly elected institution in the EU, its 785 MEPs from 27 member states sit in chambers in Brussels and Strasbourg. Countries are given representatives based on their size, so Germany has 99 and Malta has five. Since 1979, elections are held every five years and every adult citizen in the EU can vote. The last elections were in 2004; the next will be in 2009.

Candidates are chosen by, and stand for, national parties. In the UK, MEPs are elected by proportional representation from large, multi-member constituencies, such as north-west England and London. Voters in East Anglia, for instance, have elected seven constituency MEPs, including Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem representatives who they can ask for help on European matters.

Once in parliament, MEPs join European political groupings of like-minded MEPs from other member states. The biggest grouping is currently the European People's party, a centre-right group that includes German Christian Democrats and British Conservative MEPs. Labour MEPs are part of the Socialist group, the second largest.

Despite there now being 492 million voters in the EU, the turnout for parliament's elections is low - in 2004 it was 45.5% across the EU (and just 16.96% in Slovakia for example).

Odd ones out

Europe's non-white MEPs

Counting those of Turkish descent and two Romas, there are 15 MEPs whose origins lie outside Europe:

MEPs: 78. Five non-white MEPs: two Labour, two Conservative, one Lib Dem

MEPs: 99. Three MEPs of Turkish/Kurdish descent: one socialist, one green, one Euro left/Nordic green

MEPs: 78. Three non-white MEPs: two socialist, one European People's party

MEPs: 24. Two Roma MEPs: one European People's party, one Alliance of Liberals and Democrats

The Netherlands
MEPs: 27. One non-white MEP of Turkish descent: socialist

MEPs: 24. One non-white MEP: socialist None of the other 21 EU member states has any non-white MEPs, despite significant ethnic minority populations in countries such as Italy (78 MEPs) and Spain (54 MEPs)

Minority report 2


Ethnic-minority MEPs who have climbed this white political ladder are not over-sensitive souls. But Gill admits she feels "uncomfortable" if seated next to a neo-fascist. (The far right easily out-numbers the non-white MEPs here: the new Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty group has 19 members.) "I've got used to it now but initially I felt quite intimidated. It's threatening. This man thinks I shouldn't be here. If he was in power, you don't know where they would stop. They are intolerant; they don't want to understand; they don't want you playing your part in society; they don't see you as an equal. That's pretty unpleasant."

I am dining in the huge parliamentary restaurant with Syed Kamall, a charming, blunt Conservative MEP of Guyanese descent, who was born in London, when the French National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, sits down at the next table. Le Pen, convicted of inciting racial hatred in France, stares over, inscrutable, chewing on a bread stick. In here, it seems, this shrunken white-haired extremist is a celebrity. A waiter approaches and shakes Le Pen's hand. The three black waiters running between tables are not dispatched to serve Le Pen's coterie.

Kamall, who has no truck with hand-wringing lefty verbiage, grins rebelliously. "I've always wanted to go over to his daughter - because she's in parliament as well - and greet her with a kiss on the cheek in front of him. It amuses me. He doesn't speak to me but one of them [in France's National Front] does. He always says hello. They like to say they are not racist but ..." He shrugs. "I'm very lucky to come from London - it's very different from the rest of Europe. I've been to parts of Europe where I've been the only dark face. In some way, I relish that. Just being here sends a message."

As part of the centre-right European People's party group, Kamall and his Conservative colleague Nirj Deva, born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and raised in Britain, are pretty unusual. Their EPP colleagues, the German Christian Democrats, are the biggest single party in parliament and do not have a single non-white or Turkish MEP. A German Christian Democrat once told the British Asian MEP Claude Moraes: "We would never have someone like you in our party elected in Germany."

Parliament passed a race equality directive in 2000 (currently not fully implemented by many member states) but several MEPs say their colleagues don't engage with ethnic minority issues. Viktoria Mohasci, the second Roma MEP, does not believe parliamentarians would tell her to "go home" to her face. "But in my work if you raise Roma issues, most people smile," she says. "If I speak of how Roma kids in schools are not getting as many qualifications, most people smile and say the Roma produce these kids - they are to blame. They don't take it seriously."

Across the political spectrum, ethnic minority MEPs struggle to get colleagues interested in campaigning for a parliament that is roughly reflective of the ethnic mix of Europe's people. Islam, immigration and integration are increasingly tense subjects across Europe. This parliament is tackling them with all-white representatives. But no one seems too bothered.

Here is an astonishing fact: no one knows how many non-white parliamentary officials there are here because no one is counting. Yet the European parliament is the sort of place where every paperclip is logged, in triplicate. There were exactly 37,091 people - civil servants, administrators and other staff - working for the European parliament, European Commission and other EU bodies in 2006 (far fewer than in Eurosceptic legend). But there is no way of telling how many are non-white. Officials estimate that it is probably "a handful".

In parliament, any debate about this has yet to begin. Everywhere you turn, progressive politics are being practised. Sensitivity towards the diversity of nationalities and languages is so acute as to encourage parody: Gaelic was recently made the EU's 23rd official language with its own translation box in the chamber - meaning that parliament must find those elusive Gaelic speakers who also understand Bulgarian or Hungarian. There is a gender committee looking at equal opportunities and rights for women. And yet there is no committee examining ethnic discrimination. European politicians think they are "colour-blind", argues Moraes, but parliament's whiteness is "symptomatic of what happens when you pretend discrimination doesn't exist".

Moraes would like the ethnic monitoring of parliament's workforce - a basic recording of the background of the workforce, widely accepted by British companies and institutions. "It shows you where you are going wrong and then you can put something in place to correct it," he says. For other countries, however, it is anathema. "You can't get the concept of monitoring accepted here," says Gill. "There is a real reluctance to deal with it, particularly because the French have the attitude that they just see themselves as French. White French will say a person is French and from an African background but one or two of the black French I've met say, 'We're French and we don't want monitoring'."

Of course, MEPs point out, you do not need to be from a particular community to speak up for its interests. "You don't have to be a Muslim to represent Muslims," says Sajjad Karim, a Lib Dem MEP from the north-west who is one of a handful of Muslims in parliament. But Karim and others, such as Kamall, like to stress the practical benefits of having MEPs from diverse backgrounds. It is particularly useful in trade or diplomatic manoeuvres with senior politicians beyond Europe, they say. Karim has undertaken missions to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait, where officials assumed he was from their Brussels embassies. "When they realised I was an MEP, it was fantastic because we were changing their view of what Europe was about."

Minority report 1


Minority report

There are 785 MEPs in the European parliament. Of which only nine are non-white. Why is no one up in arms about it? Patrick Barkham reports from Brussels

Wednesday February 14, 2007
The Guardian

It is not Livia Jaroka's youth or talent that mark her out in the beige corridors of the European parliament, but her skin. Jaroka, a centre-right MEP for Hungary, was nominated for a parliamentary award for her conscientious work last year. The response? A Bulgarian objected, arguing that she did not deserve it. "In my country, there are tens of thousands of Gypsy girls way more beautiful," Dimitar Stoyanov wrote in an email to MEPs. "In fact, if you're in the right place at the right time you even can buy one (around 12-13 years old) to be your loving wife. The best of them are very expensive - up to €5,000 a piece, wow!"

Jaroka is Roma, one of two representatives in the European parliament who are from what is now the largest homogeneous ethnic minority in the European Union. The "Gypsy girl" email met with widespread condemnation within the parliament building, but Stoyanov, then an observer in the parliament, since Bulgaria had not yet joined the EU, duly took his seat as a fully fledged MEP last month, part of the new far-right coalition that includes fascists and Holocaust deniers in Europe's premier democratic institution.

A walk through the European parliament in Brussels challenges some of the prejudices peddled by the British press. We are told the European project is stalled, sclerotic and bureaucratic, but there is a buzz here. The chamber - all blond wood and black office chairs - is packed; the lifts echo with earnest chat in all 23 "official" languages. New countries, political groups and, increasingly, laws that affect us all are being formed here. Once dismissed as a talking shop, parliament has a hand in most European legislation. Its power is not doubted by the young European elites who compete for jobs or the legion of lobbyists, who would not waste their time working its cafes and committee rooms if parliament did not matter.

With 785 representatives from 27 member countries and chambers in Brussels and Strasbourg, it is the world's only directly elected international chamber. It represents a more diverse range of people than almost any other - 492 million European citizens. It is also almost completely white, and it is against this backdrop that Stoyanov's inclusion starts to make sense.

There are just nine non-white MEPs here, 1.1% of the total. Five of them come from Britain. Add MEPs of recent Turkish/Kurdish descent and there are a grand total of 13 MEPs whose ethnic origins could be said to lie outside Europe. It is estimated (part of the problem is no one in the EU, and few of its member states, are counting properly) that at least 5% of the population of the EU - 25 million and rising - is non-white. This figure does not include the eight million Roma in the EU, of whom Jaroka and another Hungarian Roma MEP are the only two to make it into parliament.

The chamber in Brussels is housed in two sleek glass blocks a stone's throw from narrow streets filled with North African grocers and Vietnamese cafes. Within its walls, every face seems to be white. As well as MEPs, almost all those legendary Brussels bureaucrats are white. So are security staff. This whiteness stunned Claude Moraes, a London MEP who was raised in Scotland by Indian parents, when he first arrived in Brussels. "I grew up in an all-white town and an all-white school. When I came here, it hit me hard that it was so ethnically non-diverse and that no one spots it or cares about it," he says. "You walk out of this place and there is complete ethnic diversity in Brussels - from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Come here and that's all over, unless you arrive at 5am when the cleaners are in."

Neena Gill was elected as a Labour MEP alongside Moraes eight years ago. She is the only Asian woman in parliament. "Nobody would believe me when I said, 'Britannique'. Only two nights ago I was at a function and this Belgian found it really hard to accept that I was an MEP because I was wearing a sari," she says. "I hear phrases such as, 'Madame Gill is wearing oriental costume.' When they realise you're Indian, people say, 'Why aren't you wearing that spot on your head?' It is the sort of thing that would have been said in Britain 35 years ago."
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