International Papers

Old Queens, New Boots 

The British press seemed obsessed this week with aged royals, a murdered child, a leaking Cabinet, and pounds of flesh. The Times described Wednesday’s parade through the center of London to celebrate the 100th birthday of the queen mother as “far-fetched, festive and fantastical: a glittering medley of the icons and idiosyncrasies that are truly British.” Her birthday isn’t until Aug. 4, but as a snarky commentator in the staunchly republican Independent put it, “we’re now in the middle of an official ‘isn’t she marvellous’ month, which appears to be as unavoidable as it is irrational.” A sarcastic “How Much Do You Love the Queen Mother?” quiz in the liberal Guardian included such questions as “What has the Queen Mother contributed to Britain?” (Possible answers included, “No one has done more for Great Britain. Although I can’t think of anything off the top of my head,” and “She has kept the gin industry going.”) Earlier in the week, after British Sunday newspapers had claimed that Prince Charles and longtime companion Camilla Parker Bowles were thinking of tying the knot in Scotland, the couple, who are both divorced, lodged a protest with the Press Complaints Commission announcing that they have no intention of marrying.

The two-week search for 8-year-old Sarah Payne, and the murder investigation that followed the discovery of her body Monday, has dominated the British tabloids for much of the last fortnight. An op-ed by a clinical psychologist in the Guardian made a blistering attack on the exhaustive and “titillating” coverage:

[T]he fact that humans are base and vile is no excuse for the annual charade of the child murder that is now played out every summer. We have to be protected from ourselves and it is most nauseating of all to see the [conservative Daily] Mail and its brethren both pretending to follow these stories in the public interest and actually using them to sustain sales.

Garnering even more headlines in the broadsheets were leaked memos written by Prime Minister Tony Blair and his personal pollster and adviser Philip Gould. Although the documents, both more than two months old, contained little of substance, commentators expressed shock at Blair’s obsession with his image and the strength of the Labor Party “brand.” The release of the documents, the most recent coming the day after a very well received public spending statement by Labor’s chancellor of the exchequer [finance minister], caused speculation about dirty tricks, but so far the mole remains unidentified.

Elsewhere in Britain, the papers—particularly the Euro-skeptic Daily Telegraph and Times—could barely restrain their joy at the news that Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, will de-emphasize the metric system and give prominence to imperial measurements on the shelves of its stores. After several customers of Tesco’s Internet shopping service botched their orders by confusing kilos with pounds, the company commissioned a survey that showed 90 percent of customers still think in pounds and ounces—and many recipe books, especially older versions, list quantities in the traditional British system. Even Harry Potter weighs in on the subject—the Times reported that in one of J.K. Rowling’s books he proclaims, “Metric is for Muggles.” An editorial in the same paper concluded, “[L]et us drink 3.7 millilitres of whisky and give ten cheers to Tesco for keeping our choice and our ancestral values alive.”

In a week where Republican attempts to repeal the estate tax have been in U.S. news, the official China Daily Business Weekly reported that the Chinese tax authority plans to “curb the excessive growth of wealth among a small group of individuals and increase fiscal revenues” by levying an inheritance tax of up to 50 percent on its wealthiest citizens. The report said that free-market reforms have put 80 percent of all savings deposits in the hands of 20 percent of the Chinese population. The Daily Telegraph looked beyond the official spin and added:

[R]eforms … side by side with rampant official embezzlement, bribe-taking and abuse of power—have created a business and political elite which takes its holidays in Paris and Thailand, drives imported BMWs, and educates its children at British public schools and the American Ivy League. Such displays of wealth—especially when linked to corruption, cause growing anger among China’s have-nots.

An editorial in the Japan Times Thursday said that Japan should take note of Germany’s recent “long-overdue gesture” to establish a compensation fund for wartime slave laborers. Japan will be the next target for lawsuits, the paper said, and whatever the legal merits of the cases, “the court of public opinion is another matter.” It concluded:

Japanese companies once benefited from forced labor, and their attempts to hide behind legal shields have little or no bearing in an age of international business and increasing consumer activism. As [German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder] explained, it is in the interests of every German to draw a line under the activities of a half century ago; the logic is equally compelling for Japan.

Fast-moving footwear: A feature in the Moscow Times described a fascinating new Russian invention—motorized boots. The fruits of a project started 28 years ago by an engineer who hated the heavy army boots he had to wear in compulsory military training, they allow, “[e]ven a person in poor physical shape [to] walk as fast as 15 kilometers [9 miles] per hour, taking steps of three meters [10 feet] instead of the average 70 centimeters [2.3 feet]. An athlete can develop speeds of up to 60 kilometers [37 miles] an hour.” The developers are currently making 15 “demonstration” pairs. If produced in small quantities they would retail for $700, $200 if mass-produced. A U.S. company approached the inventors but lost interest when they insisted that the boots be manufactured exclusively in Russia. Product liability concerns would probably further discourage U.S. investment—according to the paper, safety testing consisted of consulting with doctors about potential harm to users’ joints and back.