Peter Popham: A sad case of the wrong address


Monday 22 August 2011 00:00 BST

Did the Taliban guerrillas who launched a terrifying assault on the British Council in Kabul on Friday have the faintest idea what they were doing?

Did they have any clue that the petrified Brits scampering for the building's panic room while their Afghan colleagues bled to death were not spymasters, special forces commandos or Great Game plotters but humble English teachers?

Misunderstandings of this sort are always befalling the British Council, an institution that had not even been invented on that happy day in 1919 when Britain first granted Afghanistan independence (of a sort). The word "council" is frequently misconstrued by foreigners to mean "consulate" or something like it.

While as every homesick British expatriate knows, each British Council office is a little oasis of home, where those who have been gone too long can refresh their deracinated brains with Fawlty Towers videos and the works of John le Carré and AA Milne.

At least that's how it used to be. A solidlibrary that would not look inadequate in a decent-sized English town was the foundation of every British Council operation, and the fact that they were usually crammed with local, non-British browsers was a good indication of their value. In Kabul, Sana'a or Tripoli it is not easy to lay hands on the works of John Stuart Mill, Edward Gibbon or Daniel Defoe. Having supped their fill of such worthies, persistent visitors might end up discovering Tristram Shandy or The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In its own quiet way the Council did wonders as a cultural envoy. And often its efforts went much further. In Delhi, when I was based there, the Council was the city's most prestigious spot for book launches, where Arundhati Roy, for example, baptised her novel The God of Small Things.

That, however, was before New Labour went to work on it and decided that books were old hat and that what mattered were computer terminals. Books were not only old-fashioned and complicated to manage but smacked of elitism. So the book sections were downsized and the vacated space filled up with computers. This policy overlooked the fact that all over the developing world, internet cafés are as common as grocery stores. Lending libraries, on the other hand, especially ones with English books in them, are as rare as unicorns.

Today that sort of penny-pinching myopia has been taken even further. English language teaching is a commercial activity brilliantly handled by the private sector, with no need of competition from the British state – but in the bid to shave a few more millions of the Foreign Office budget, this once proud institution has been reduced to an outsize language school. Fifteen years ago, when it was still doing its cultural work, the British Council would have been a worthy target for the Taliban philistines, dedicated to smashing culture wherever they find it. On Friday it was merely the wrong address.

Accommodation-seeking in Burma's capital

Most improbable photos of the week: Aung San Suu Kyi reclining somewhat stiffly on the antimacassars of an armchair in a conference room in Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital; the same democracy heroine posing with the Burmese head of state, President Thein Sein, outside his office, below a photograph of her father, the independence hero Aung San.

Wonders will never cease. Suu's liberation from house arrest last November was followed by a diplomatic void lasting more than six months. Then suddenly in the space of a few weeks she has had two one-on-one meetings with a government minister, undertaken her first political journey outside Rangoon, to the city of Pegu, and now this. The regime has also invited dissidents in exile to return home, and the state media have even left off berating the BBC.

What's going on? In the Burmese murk, nobody really knows. No political prisoners have been released; Suu's party, the NLD, remains unregistered, with no legal standing, and she herself has no role in the nation's political arrangements. Her last public meeting with the top rulers was way back in 1994, and led precisely nowhere; her sceptical expression in Naypyidaw indicates that she would not be surprised by another non-result this time around.

The outreach could be mere flim-flam, as Burma manoeuvres to chair Asean, the regional grouping, in 2014. But with Arab Spring fever or something like it now rampaging across India just next door, perhaps the new pseudo-democratic regime has decided that accommodation is the better part of valour.

Pranksters keep the silly season alive

Filling Italian newspapers in August, when everyone is away, must be more of challenge than in the UK. That is the only explanation for why L'Avvenire, the sober daily of theItalian bishops' association, should run aletter on its front page by the cult Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II, to say how moved he was to be present at the Pope's World Youth Day event in Madrid, without checkingits authenticity.

It was an odd contribution from a writer known for his atheistic, Marxist beliefs, and the writer himself was quickly in touch with the newspaper. "I didn't write the letter, I'm not in Madrid but Mexico and I have not the slightest interest in seeing the Pope," he told them. If he had been anywhere close, he added, "I would have joined the 'Indignados' protesting at the absurd amount of money spent on the papal visit by the Spanish government."

Tommaso de Benedetti, the prankster of Italian news who has already masqueradedas John le Carré (purporting to be a fan of Berlusconi), Philip Roth and Umberto Eco, had struck again.

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