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     ‘One day there will be a European Army,’ says Per Rippendal. ‘Yes, one day there will be an army to defend all of Europe. And work on it has already started!  We have created the European Army Penknife.’
     Per Rippendal works in Brussels. He is the head of the EU committee working to create a new European Army. There is no Army. So far there is only a penknife. How is that going to help keep peace in Europe?
     ‘Listen, my friend,’ says Per Rippendal. ‘You must start somewhere. We thought: why not start with the image. We looked at all the armies in Europe and how they had an image. The French image is of a legionary dying of thirst in the desert. The Italian army image is of, well, of not winning many battles. The German image is of ruthlessness. The British is of shooting joy-riders. You see? It is difficult. These are images we do not want. Then suddenly somebody says - what about the Swiss Army? Nobody knows anything about the Swiss Army except that they have a damned useful pen-knife! Let's have something like that!
     So, what will there be on the European Army Penknife?
     ‘Well, we have input from many countries nowadays so of course we had to reflect the cultural background of them all. If there was a British Army Penknife, I do not think you would have a heavy duty toothpick or a corkscrew on it, am I right, or even a small pair of scissors for pruning nose-hair? But for Mediterranean countries this is advisable. Similarly, the Mediterranean countries were surprised when the British suggested a device for getting things out of horses' hooves and the Germans suggested something for fixing swimming towels to your place at the swimming pool.’
     That doesn't have much to do with being a soldier, does it?
     ‘Well, a lot of the gadgets you can find on the Swiss Army knife are not exactly military. That is because it is mostly sold to the public. We too hope to sell the Euroknife to the public.’
     So, what is on this European joint penknife?
     ‘Let me think. There is a screw-driver, a spike, an electric shaver adaptor, a spare Ecu, a phone card, a French wine vintage summary, a nail-clipper, an ice-cube maker, an aerial, a spare pack of stamps of all EU countries, an EU flag, a needle-threader, a pasta-maker, a winking red beacon, a thermometer, a suppository, a set of fuses, spare moustache wax...’
     Hold on, hold on! What is the aerial for?
‘For the phone.’
     What phone?
     ‘Oh, didn't I tell you? Every Euro-knife will have a mobile phone incorporated in it. They are now very small, very lightweight. So every soldier, if detached from his unit, can ring up his officer and ask where he is, and where he should be. And every officer, if in doubt, can ring HQ and find out who we are fighting at the moment. Also, if the phone should fail to function, there is a Euro-phonecard on the knife, so he can slip into the nearest phone box.’
     Hmm. But what about all the other things? A thermometer, for instance? How often do you need a thermometer?
     ‘It will be much needed in the next European war. You will need it to check your health, to check the weather, to check the beer ...’
     Beer? What beer? Is there also a beer barrel in this knife?
     ‘No, no, but you will always need to check the temperature and the strength of the local beer.’
     To find out where you are?
     ‘No - to see if it contravenes EU beer regulations. You will also need to take the outside temperature to see if it is too hot or cold to fight. The EU is bringing in some very strict legislation to govern the conditions under which fighting may take place in future, and of course if it is too hot or cold for the average soldier, he will be entitled to stop fighting for the day. Hence the thermometer. There is also a small selection of contraceptives, a stock of salt and pepper, some dried garlic, a little grated Parmesan...’
     And how much does all this weigh?
     Per Rippendal's face clouds over.
     ‘Well, that is the problem with a knife designed by a committee. At the moment it is very heavy. Several kilos. So we either have to drop some of the items, which will cause endless arguing, or…’
     Put it on wheels?
     ‘No,’ he smiles. ‘Things are not that bad. It is quite portable, if you put two stout carrying handles on it.’
     And is the blade easily accessible?
     ‘Blade?’ he says, looking horrified. ‘Blade? Oh, my God, I think we forgot to put a penknife blade on the penknife... ‘

The Independent Tuesday Jan 31 1995

 

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© Caroline Kington