Flat Earth

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Cleavers shake foundations of state

A PECULIAR tale from Sierra Leone, where four Britons have been in prison for seven months. The prosecution charges that Bui Vinh Ly, Bui Hai Ly, Nat Mui Ly and Kelvin Shu Lee-Law - all described as 'slightly built men who work in the Chinese restaurant business in London and Birmingham' - were hired to storm President Strasser's fortified headquarters and seize power on behalf of an opposition leader.

Now, the enraged Chinese cook is an old standby in boys' comics, and lurks on in the subconscious as an image of praeternatural menace. Flat Earth once went to a Chinese New Year banquet on the deck of a Taiwanese ship in Auckland Harbour; a stream of delicacies appeared from the galley, but so also, at one point, did the figure of one man closely pursued by another waving a cleaver.

On that occasion we were too polite to mention the matter. But four furious Oriental chefs? And one of them named Kelvin? No, that is altogether too serious to be overlooked. Sierra Leone is right to be firm in the matter.

A very stylish war

THERE'S no way round the fact: war has gone and got a thoroughly bad name. 'Thanks to the unduly uninhibited way in which it was conducted (from 1939 to 1945), the feeling prevails that it has been discredited for some time to come,' wrote Bertolt Brecht. And in the 50 years since, no one has lifted a finger to improve its image.

But there are signs of change. Reports from the Yemen describe the conflict there as 'an old-fashioned gentlemen's war'. Most weapons miss their targets and most bombs fall harmlessly from the highest possible altitude. The level of hatred between the two sides appears to be low.

Aden Radio, it's true, refers to 'the enemy', but in the north the word is unknown. When the north captured 150 southerners at Ataq last week, the commander said his men just gave them a talk and let them go home, with their rifles. Northern troops share their food and drugs with their prisoners.

At this point, faint bells begin to ring. In 1763, Laurence Sterne recorded the meeting in Calais of a French army captain and a Flemish woman. Where did she come from? 'Brussels.' 'Ah, Brussels,' he said. He had had the honour to be at the bombardment of it in the last war; it was well situated pour cela, the people were full of noblesse, and so on.

Both parties then bowed and went their separate ways, delighted with the encounter.

Imagine anything like that in Bosnia in 1994. A UN agency, along the lines of UNCTAD, should be set up at once so the Yemenis might teach the barbarous races of Europe and Africa how to hold their wars in a civilised way again.