Two elderly men and a woman sit on a jagged rock beside a limpid pool of water in the green hills of the Lake District. They are Indians, wearing shalwar-kameezes beneath layers of cardigans, coats and scarves; the men wear white Muslim topi caps. On the next page of Visits to National Parks — a Guide for Ethnic Communities a group of windswept Chinese men and women stand smiling, cameras round their necks, in the Yorkshire Dales.
The Chinese word for an empire of prison camps is just as easy to remember and to pronounce as its Russian equivalent. But while most educated people in Britain know what the Gulag was, few have ever heard of the Laogai. I sometimes wonder if we will never pay any attention to such things, anywhere in the world, until it is too late to learn from them.
As I recall, it was quite difficult to persuade our cultural establishment to worry about the Gulag when it still existed, because it was so unwilling to believe that the USSR was as wicked and nasty as it was.
Observers of American politics would do well to learn how to pronounce the name of a former Republican lobbyist, Jack Abramoff. The first syllable should be enunciated not, as is common, like the stomach muscle, but rather like the nickname of the 16th American president, Honest Abe. Of course, Abramoff was dishonest. And this has landed him — and the party of Lincoln — in a lot of trouble.
Last November the Iranian people were privileged to watch perhaps the year’s most bizarre presidential home video, in which the new President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, described how a divine glow of light had played around him as he delivered his first address to the United Nations. ‘I felt it,’ the President recalled. ‘All of a sudden the atmosphere changed there. And for 27 to 28 minutes, all the world leaders did not blink.
When it comes to sex, Britain now seems to be gripped by a dangerous form of schizophrenia. On the one hand, there is mounting panic over the issue of paedophilia, where a media-driven climate of hysteria means that even the mere allegation of child abuse can be enough to destroy careers and wreck lives. Yet, on the other hand, we have a youth culture that is obsessed with sex. In the relentless promotion of adolescent sexual freedom, all moral boundaries have disappeared, pornography has been brought into the mainstream and the law on the age of consent is derided or ignored.