Flat Earth: After the volcano

At least Hong Kong had a proper sendoff. In the case of Montserrat, we seem to be losing a colony by a new means - volcanic eruption.

I felt a pang last week when the Soufriere Hills volcano, which reawoke two years ago, finally consumed Plymouth, the capital of the Caribbean isle. Many years ago I visited Montserrat to produce a special report for another newspaper (pink in hue), and estimated that I had written roughly one word for each of the 13,000 inhabitants. Now there are only 4,000 people left, and the latest eruptions may force all of them to leave.

Montserrat, named by Columbus for the mountains behind Barcelona, was first settled by Irish Catholics disgruntled with religious discrimination on neighbouring Antigua, and retains the shamrock as its symbol. It is the only place I know where a son has seized power from his father by constitutional means - in 1970 Austin Bramble defeated his father William, who had been Chief Minister since 1952, in the election to the seven-seat Legislative Council. Apart from that, not much ever happened on Montserrat. You went there for peace and quiet, not rum and steel bands.

The sulphurous springs halfway up Montserrat's main peak were one of the few tourist attractions, but it was a slippery 20-minute scramble from the road to see a few foul-smelling, steaming pools: the most memorable part of the expedition was when my taxi driver ran over someone's prize cockerel. Now those vents have exploded, taking half the mountain and all my memories of Montserrat with them.

Hot metal

This may sound like a revival of the old joke about doubling a Lada's value by filling it with petrol, but in Bulgaria they have another answer: fit a car alarm.

Car theft is so endemic that even Trabants, those environmetally-hostile glass fibre horrors from the former East Germany, are worth something. Eastern Germans would far rather drive tenth-hand BMWs, and the Trabant plant has closed, but spare parts are in demand to keep Bulgaria's Trabbies on the road.

Bulgarians too would prefer to steal an Audi or a Mercedes, but will go for a Lada for want of anything better, and most are equipped with alarms. Not that this is much of a deterrent to the nation's inventive car thieves - they have learned to turn them off from a distance.

Last month the police set up a rapid response squad of motorcyclists, equipped with Scorpion automatic rifles, bullet-proof jackets and radios, to crack down on street crime. The only problem is that they will operate only during the day. They say the potholed, unlit streets of Sofia, the capital, are too dangerous in the dark.

Chu's sorry now

If you watched the Jonathan Dimbleby TV series on Chris Patten's governorship of Hong Kong, you will remember David Chu. The motorcycle-loving tycoon and outspoken critic of the "Triple Violator" holds rabid Chinese nationalistic views which border on racism, according to some of his critics.

Last week he got into a fierce slanging match on a radio chat show with David Baum, an American sinologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, over Chu's alleged desire to drive foreigners out of the territory. The Chinese businessman, now a Peking-appointed legislator, later said he would apologise to Professor Baum, admitting: "I was quite rude to him." But he rather spoiled things by adding: "Maybe I picked up some of this in my American education."

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