Monday, 6 October 2014

H 982 FKL

I was living and working in the United States when Margaret Thatcher went to war with Argentina over what we call the Falkland Islands and they call Las Malvinas. This meant that far from being exposed to the jingoism of home, the tearful crowds watching the ships of the Task Force set out from Portsmouth, I got my news from the studiedly neutral press and TV in the USA*. Even so, I still couldn't really believe that we'd got ourselves involved in a proper war. As far as I was concerned, notwithstanding the war in Korea which felt like unfinished business from the Second World War, we'd learnt our lesson and didn't do that sort of thing any more. Wrong again.

It can easily be argued that, but for the failure of someone in the Argentine air force to set the fuses of their bombs properly (so that they exploded before passing straight through the British ships that they'd dropped them on), this episode would have gone down as a great military disaster rather than a joyous military victory. A victory that turned Mrs T's fortunes around and saw her go from being the least popular Prime Minister in history to the triumphant victor at the next general election.

It could also be argued that the country which came out best from this post colonial scrap were the French whose anti-ship Exocet missiles could then be sold as "battle tested" without incurring the human and financial cost of actually going to war.

Thatcher's lesson was not lost on subsequent British Prime Ministers and for the subsequent decades they seem to have taken whatever opportunities they can to take those "difficult decisions" and send our boys off to fly the flag and fight against whoever's being portrayed as the latest threat to our way of life. 

As a one time great imperial power with an empire upon which the Sun, literally, never sets, it's an undeniable truth that most Brits are proud of our military history and, until recently, have tended to be wholeheartedly behind the projection of British military power. We like to see ourselves as the moral parties in any dispute, there to keep the peace rather than to conquer, and will happily contrast the discipline and good nature of our troops against the gung-ho intolerance of some of their international colleagues.

Now, whilst there is a lot of money to be made out of arms sales, many have argued that the economies of both the United states and the UK have become too entwined with the demands of what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex. We've devoted too much of our manufacturing industry to the low volume but extremely high tech demands of the military rather than the slightly lower tech needs of the mass market. This may also explain the fact that although most Formula 1 cars are made in Britain, there isn't a single major UK owned motor manufacturer left. (BMW own Mini and Rolls Royce, VW own Bentley and Tata  - from India - own Jaguar/Land Rover)

Meanwhile, however, both the United States and the UK have been extremely successful in the projection of soft, cultural, power (music, films and television) and one of the most successful of these has been the UK TV programme "Top Gear". In the unlikely event that you haven't seen it this involves three middle aged men behaving like adolescents, playing pranks upon one another and getting generally over excited about motor cars.  As grown up adolescents, they spend a lot of time being scornful about people who aren't like them such as poor people (defined as those who can't afford proper cars) or anyone who displays any hint of concern about the environment.

Jeremy Clarkson, the lead presenter and millionaire owner of the production company,  is a provocative love/hate figure. He's had various run ins with the BBC over things that he's said on the programme (e.g a lazy characterisation of Mexicans that led to complaints from the Mexican embassy) and has apparently been told by the BBC that he's had his last chance and from now on has to be on his least offensive behaviour.

Those of you familiar with the UK will recognise this blog post title as a car number plate. Originally these were made up of three letters and three numbers - e.g. my mother's first car ( a Triumph Herald) was XDB 536 - but as the number of cars grew they needed to introduce more numbers. So, in the mid 1960s they used the same pattern but put an additional letter at the end which depended on the year of registration - e.g.her second car (a Vauxhall Viva) was DOO 629G - When these ran out as well and the pattern was reversed with the extra letter at the beginning - e.g. our current car ( a battered Peugeot 306 ) is V404 JBR - and since the start of the 21st Century there's been yet another system with letters, numbers and more letters in a pattern I can't be bothered to explain.

Top Gear is a repetitive sort of programme, same sorts of stories but with a slight twist each time. Every so often they get some old cars and go on an adventure abroad. Three adolescent men, each driving in separate cars accompanied, presumably, by a whole unseen fleet of production vehicles and mechanics. On the most recent trip, being filmed last week in Argentina, the car being driven by Mr Clarkson (an elderly Porsche 928) happened to have the number plate H982 FKL. After a few days filming it appears that a crowd of Argentinians decided that this number plate was a direct reference to the Falklands war. All you had to do was mentally edit the first sideways T out of the H and the plate clearly read 1982 FKL, a direct reference to the war in 1982. As a result, an angry crowd pelted the cars with stones and the presenters and crew were obliged to leave the country.

Now whilst this incident amuses those of us who don't like Clarkson, it had unexpected consequences at home. We were sat around the dinner table talking about the incident when I happened to disagree with one of my sons that the number plate couldn't have been a coincidence. His line was that Clarkson is so obviously a nasty piece of work that the chances of this happening by accident were so low as to be beyond reasonable doubt. My argument wasn't about Clarkson, though I did feel a certain discomfort in appearing to defend him, but about the nature of coincidence. It has to be admitted, no it doesn't but I will anyway, that I was merely thought to be being contrarian, and failing to accept the obvious evidence of obnoxious pranksterism, just for the sake of it. 

So, because I really didn't get the chance at the time, here's the brief argument about coincidence. Whilst a coincidence occurs whenever two things happen at the same time we don't normally label those with an obvious causal link as coincidences. e.g. the fact that it's rainy and cloudy at the same time wouldn't normally be labelled a coincidence. So, for a pair of events to be labelled a coincidence they have to happen at the same time but without any obvious causal link. But, unlikely things happen all the time and I would argue that whilst we're good at spotting the coincidences, the unlikely couplings, of events that do occur together we're not very good at noticing the vast number of unlikely couplings that don't. For example, if you were told that someone had tossed a coin and had a run of 50 heads in a row your judgement of whether or not the coin was biased would, I hope, depend on whether the coin had just been tossed 50 times or these 50 heads came in a run of 50 million tosses. In the language of probability, in order to assess the probability of an unlikely event you need to know the sample space. So, whilst any individual coincidence might be unlikely the chances of some sort of coincidence are not.

In this case, unless the number plate was deliberately changed after purchase, the real coincidence lies in the fact that a second hand car of roughly the sort they were looking for, a cheap second hand sports car, just happened to have a number plate that could be interpreted as a slight to Argentina. If the producers really did wander around second hand car lots, or even trail the internet, in the hope of coming up with something that might be seen to be offensive, I'd be really surprised; if only because the argument alleging it wasn't a coincidence hinges on the unlikelihood of getting this particular number and even Top Gear can't waste researchers time looking for the almost impossible. But, when they did buy the car I can imagine that they might well have had a quick chuckle at the "coincidence" and then simply decided to carry on with their excuse already in the bag.

*It later turned out that whilst for sensible geopolitical reasons, i.e not wanting to piss off too many people in South America, the USA claimed to be neutral, they were in fact supplying the British with a great deal of military intelligence (which though I'd like it to be an oxymoron probably isn't)

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