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Old 09-21-2008, 10:12 PM   #1
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Join Date: Sep 2008
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Default The doom merchants: Cheer up, Britain!

For the past week, as never before, we have been told all is collapsing around us. But David Randall gives a full dispatch from the sunny side of the street

Sunday, 21 September 2008

'The waters are now surging through Galveston"... "millions are without power or clean water"... "the demise of Lehman Brothers has sent shock waves through the world's largest economy"... "40,000 jobs may be lost in Britain alone"... "the death toll in Haiti has now passed 600"...

"He is the 27th teenager to be murdered this year"... "more than 6,200 babies have now fallen ill through the Chinese contaminated baby-milk scandal"... "And some experts here in New York fear a rerun of the 1929 Crash and the worldwide, decade-long depression that followed."

For the past seven days, there has been no getting away from the incessant drumming of One Bloody Thing After Another. On television, radio, newspaper page, website, message board, BlackBerry and mobile have come headlines, scenes and sound bites so lowering and worrying that many began to wonder if the Cern laboratory's attempts to reduce us all to anti-matter may not be such a bad thing after all.

Everything was collapsing around our ears, and we'd better get used to it, for this – as television reporters wearing their funeral director faces assured us – was the new reality.

Well, up to a point. For the journalists' real world is not the only world. There is another place, one into which we rarely venture, where even the most intrepid of us are unsure and disorientated. There are rumours that here are not murders and mayhem, crises and credit crunches (and all their comfortingly familiar narratives), but rescues, innovations, breakthroughs and happy endings. The stories sounded fantastical, more the stuff of myth than reality, but, in this past week of all weeks, our curiosity was aroused.

Could these seemingly wild tales of good news possibly be true? I was sent to investigate, and this is my report: a full and frank dispatch from the sunny side of the street. Its contents may shock you.

Let us start with the big stuff; for, happily, positive stories don't just come in "And finally..." bite-sized pieces of trivia. Somewhere in this world there are babies crying who shouldn't be. They ought, by any former laws of averages, to be silent and quite dead. But they aren't – and last week came the explanation: deaths of children under five, says the UN Children's Fund, have fallen by 27 per cent in the past 20 years, and the rate is still declining.

Over now to Rwanda, whence came the week's most uplifting political story. An election has produced a result that is not just a world record, but a reason for hope. Here, in a land that once virtually trademarked the most brutal kind of macho, tribal score-settling, will now sit the first parliament on the planet where women outnumber men. With three results to come, women have won 44 out of 80 seats – 55 per cent of the total.

Green shoots of common sense have popped up elsewhere, too. In Afghanistan, where opium production has fallen by a fifth; in Colombia, where a group of guerrillas handed in their weapons; in Bangladesh, where a £29.2m programme will give work to two million poor families on repairing the damage caused by floods; and flickers of an intelligent change of mind even in Britain. In Vauxhall Street, Norwich, to be precise, where one of the post offices under threat has been reprieved. Now for the other 2,499.

And, from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean just off New York came an uplifting sound. Microphones immersed in the sea just a few miles away from Times Square and Carnegie Hall have picked up singing – by endangered humpback, fin and right whales calling to each other in the approaches to Manhattan.

There was other good environmental news: a New Zealand firm has produced commercially priced fuel oil from algae; a new plant will raise the UK's capacity to recycle plastic bottles by 50 per cent; as part of a pilot project, food scraps from 94,000 British homes have been ploughed back into the land as compost rather than sent to landfill; and directors of companies not normally noted for their radicalism – such as BAA, Lloyds TSB and Tesco – have called on the government to take decisive, indeed "transformational", action on global warming.

Lest pessimists respond that anything Britain does is an irrelevance when China is busy belching smoke and chemicals into the atmosphere (and its newborns), one of Beijing's most prominent policy advisers has said that it must do a U-turn and start seriously cutting greenhouse gas emissions. All that, and Norway showing the rest of the world the way by making the first sizeable donation – of $1bn – to the Brazil Amazon Fund, which fights deforestation. These stories, each one worthy of a TV news bong all to itself, readily found, on the sunny side of the street.

And, strolling along here, smiling, were folk whose extraordinary and upbeat stories were all the better for not needing the midwifery of a conniving press agent. People such as building worker Branislav Gomilic, who fell six storeys down a Montenegrin lift shaft and survived, thanks to his colleagues' dirty habits – they had been using it as a rubbish dump and Branislav landed softly on a pile of cardboard, packaging and refuse; and Joe Stalnaker of Arizona, who was prone to seizures and had trained his German Shepherd, if the worst came to the worst, to hit the speed dial for 911 and bark like mad. Joe passed out, Buddy did his stuff, and help duly arrived.

Then there was the Lancaster woman pulled from her burning car by a passer-by; teacher Hannah Upp, plucked from New York's Upper Bay by deckhands on the Staten Island ferry; and two missing girls – Jessica Harvey, 15, from Cambridgeshire, and Jamila Stone, also 15, from Glasgow – whose families will spend this weekend with their daughters rather than giving tearful press conferences.

They weren't the only good finds last week: a single sheet of a Mozart score in a French library; a Birmingham cat reunited with its owners after going missing for nine years; 500 new species of crustaceans; corals and worms discovered off the Australian coast; a Costa Rican tree frog seen for the first time in decades; the first new sub-family of ants found since 1923; a rare death's head hawk moth in an Essex garden; the "missing link" between large and small black holes identified by scientists at Durham University; a new world's largest prime number (almost 13 million digits); and – more graspably impressive – the Lebanese restaurant kitchen worker who opened an oyster to prepare it for the table and saw to her delight that it contained no fewer than 26 pearls.

Found, too, was true love at last by two couples. First, Chester Locke, a Taunton man who was barred from seeing his sweetheart 40 years ago after she fell pregnant, and is now to marry her at last; and, second, Nepalese porter Ramchadra Katuwal, who declared last week that, after 24 failed marriages, he had finally found lasting happiness with No 25. We shall see.

There were innovations too that could brighten everyone's lives. From the trivial – three-ply toilet paper to be launched in Wisconsin tomorrow and aimed, apparently, at those who regard a trip to the bathroom as "quality time"; and, for the security-conscious woman, the "cleavage caddy", a purse that goes where only the most ungentlemanly thief would rummage) – to the significant: stem cells found in teeth have shown promise in treating stroke victims; and a new test for hereditary breast cancer, which costs a mere £10 a patient, could be available next year.

Whatever next? A report saying that tea, our national drink, rehydrates as well as water, fights tooth plaque, and helps protect against heart disease and some cancers? Sure enough, it duly arrived, thanks to researchers at King's College London.

And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, from Germany came news that not all broadcasters are dumbing down. On Friday, Berlin's Kiss FM will do its morning show entirely in Latin.

And then there came a very special phenomenon. In the sky over Cambridgeshire last week, there appeared a rare upside-down rainbow – a big multi-coloured smile above Britain. Surely it was a sign. All together now: "Grey skies are going to clear up. Put on a happy face...."
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