The impacts of the global financial crash are still being felt around the world. But even as ...
The impacts of the global financial crash are still being felt around the world. But even as ...
Seeking out stories of strong leadership, the right infrastructure and communities whose bond...
I have been taking, only by observation, lessons in how to live from The Surgeon. He practices well the art of living, and especially living in the present, a key to good mental health. He appreciates life as it passes. For instance, he makes tea carefully and with good teas, in pots, so that the final brew is delicious. The other evening his tea–making took so long I had the temerity to suggest he ought to go straight to the breakfast brew, which might just be ready by the morning. I nearly got a cup of the finest Assam down my shirt front.
What The Surgeon aims to do is appreciate the good daily things in life, as it passes. Wandering around his garden with him, he will pause to watch the small things: a drop of moisture on a leaf, the rays of the sun coming through branches. I am trying to do the same, having a bad habit of living in the future - thinking about the things I have to do tomorrow, the bills I must not forget to pay, and so on. When I make tea, it is usually hurriedly, with a cheap tea bag which is stirred to speed up the process.
I am blessed with a garden, walled and hedged on four sides, in which flowers and vegetables flourish. Too often, though, I hurtle in there to do a few jobs rapidly before rushing out.
Today, with the Surgeon’s example in mind, I went into the garden and for the first time this year sat on the bench below the old brick wall. I just watched. It was relaxing. It was rewarding. I looked in fascination at the number of seeds blowing across my line of sight. In a few minutes, a field mouse emerged from a bed of artichokes and snuffled about among the runner beans. I watched closely bumble bees mining the bean flowers for nectar, heads bent over. It sounds precious, but it really was absorbing. I emerged a saner man. For a time, anyway.
No response from Peter Mandelson, my once-and-very-much-past junior team member, to my letter to him suggesting that New Labour ought now, at last, to cough up an apology for the Iraq War. (see Blog of July 21st ). Mandelson is doubtless too busy with his company Global Counsel (“Supporting international businesses. Devising market entry strategies.”) and with his place on the board of Sistema, a Russian outfit that owns a defence system company working for Putin.
Lord Mandelson of Sistema and Guacamole as I predicted does not do apologies. Nor even statements: the Telegraph reported last week that he is refusing to defend his place on the Sistema board, reputed to pay him £200,000 a year. Nasty work if you can get it?
However, it is good to see some New Labour scions coming at least partly clean. David Milliband in The Observer confessed that now he regrets the Iraq War, albeit with typical New Labour-ish spin: “I regret it because I made a decision on the basis of upholding the norms in respect to weapons of mass destruction, and there were none.” In truth, anyone with half a frontal lobe could see before the invasion that Iraq had no WMD… Hans Blix, Scott Ritter and co had made that perfectly clear.
Even D. Milliband’s agreement that the Iraq War is responsible for the horrific shambles in that benighted country is shaded in weasel words: “It’s clearly the case that the invasion of Iraq, or more importantly what happened afterwards, is a significant factor in understanding the current situation in the country” he said. Understanding? No, David – a major cause of the current chaos. Thank God we got Ed, not Dave.
I certainly lack Pete Mandelson’s financial skills. I have just had a cheque from M & G Investments, returning to me a stake I put in their hands in 1986. Believing the Japanese must be going somewhere since every clever thing seemed to be made in Japan, I invested £400 in the M & G Japan and General Fund. Twenty eight years later, the wizards at M & G have turned this sum into £344.51 - below their minimum limit now, hence the cheque. Simple inflation makes £400 in 1986 mean £900 or so today.
I have watched the regress of my investment with not horror but with detached and lazy fascination: the sum at stake was not large enough to melt the bowels. I do wonder though how M & G messed up so ludicrously. Plainly, the Japanese economy stalled and M & G have been investing in prime Tokyo turkeys. However, caveat emptor and in this case the emptor is, demonstrably, an idiot.
The Gaza catastrophe is unusual I think in one particular aspect: the suspension of human feeling among the Israeli population, some 90 per cent of whom were reported as being wholly in support of the actions of the Israeli Defence Force, much of which included the prolonged shelling of Palestinian civilian populations. This indifference is chillingly bizarre because the normal human response is to empathise with innocent people suffering great pain, especially women and children.
I wonder if two factors in particular are at work here. One is the way many Israelis appear to view their Palestinian neighbours as The Other. This is an age-old response - to dehumanise one’s opponents. The awful irony is the parallels with how Jews themselves were seen by the Nazis.
The other factor at play may be the Israelis feeling that no race has suffered more than the Jews and that therefore they need no lessons, thank you very much, in what it is like to suffer. This has put the Palestinians, stateless, their territory continually encroached upon, in the worst possible position - as Edward Said wrote once, the victims of victims.
I am continually reminded of the Israeli suspension of feeling for fellow humans. The other day in the Guardian the self-described American Jewish journalist Hadley Freeman wrote a long piece essentially saying that European recoil at what is going in Gaza is disguised anti-semitism. No, Hadley, it is horror at what is going on in Gaza. Calling one anti-semitic when one criticises the actions of the Israeli Defence Force is a well-worn smear.
Our neighbouring farmers have been waging war on hedgerows again. Under government regulations, none of us are allowed to trim hedgerows until after August 1st. Around us in Herefordshire, the long wait was impossible for some - by mid-July, they were out with the flails, trimming hedges to within an inch of their lives. When I stopped to ask one hedge-cutter if he was unaware of the deadline, he said that they only applied to hedges off the road - completely untrue.
I am baffled by this habit. This is the time of year when farmers have their hands full getting in the harvest, cutting the remaining fields of hay that have come late.
To their horrow, next year the regulations change so that hedges may not be trimmed until September 1st, to protect wildlife and allow the birds to feed on the berries. I fear that a few of my neighbours may have seizures.
Interesting how the BBC is getting caught in a climate change crossfire. Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor and founder of climate change-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation, is complaining that he is in effect banned from the BBC. The controversy about Lawson being given prime time on the BBC reached its apex last February when he was given equal time on the Today programme to discuss the impact of man-made climate change on the floods with Sir Brian Hoskins of Grantham Institute for Climate Change, a highly respected climate scientist.
Quite properly in my view, listeners in their hundreds rose up in protest at a stroppy politician well versed in verbal combat and a specialist in economics being given a toe-to-toe fight with a climate scientist who actually knew what he was talking about. In due course the BBC upheld a complaint against the Today programme stating that “minority opinions and sceptical views should not be treated on an equal footing with the scientific consensus.” The Head of the BBC Complaints Unit, Fraser Steel also pointed out that Lawson’s views on climate change are not supported by the evidence from computer modelling and scientific research and “I don’t believe this was made sufficiently clear to the audience.” Indeed they were not.
Since then Lawson has been used more sparingly by the BBC. This is a set-back for him; reportedly he had an encouraging meeting last year with a BBC apparatchik, one David Jordan, asking that climate change sceptics be given more voice on the BBC. Now Lawson is shrieking about political censorship and even saying “the BBC has its own party line (indistinguishable from that of the Green Party) which it imposes with quasi-Stalinist thoroughness.”
This is Lawson-balls of a high order. I can’t really see what Lawson has had to complain about. He has had a good run for his money. He’s had an impact too. The BBC, in the mind of greens such as Jonathan Porritt, is very cautious when it comes to climate change. You only have to watch David Shukman, the BBC science editor, in a news report: he goes through convolutions and almost convulsions not to say that climate change is here and is changing the world we inhabit. On Countryfile the other week, a presenter kept say “if climate change is occurring”… as though the whole idea could simply be one hypothesis among several of equal standing. Doubtless the BBC is trying its best to be objective.
And anyway, Lord Lawson has already had the greatest victory: he has helped convince George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the climate change threat is greatly exaggerated and no huge steps to create a resilient society are urgently needed. Count your victories, Lawson, and save us the whingeing
I will write more on Lawson’s Foundation in a later blog.
In Pembrokeshire the other day, a lovely Saturday evening, attending a joyful celebration of a Big Birthday of old friends. The celebrating couple were Bob Marshall-Andrews, the courageous and very funny ex-MP who protected many of our civil liberties from Blair and Brown’s control freakery, and his wife Gill, the great campaigner for gun control and creator of the admirable Trust for African Schools.
In his speech Bob referred to our generation, his and mine, as the supremely lucky one, one of my themes in this blog. Later he enlarged on the point, saying we are the luckiest generation ever, in the long history of home sapiens. We were the first to benefit from the discovery of anti-biotics, the creation of the NHS. We had childhoods in the safe fifties, had free university education in the thrilling sixties, came out into a jobs market hungry for workers. We got our first houses when they were dirt cheap - our first London flat with three bedrooms cost £4,000 in 1967 – and just by sitting still have seen their values rocket. We will be dead before climate change wreaks its worst. “What is this lucky generation’s greatest fear now?” said Bob. “The Mansion Tax.”
I once gave Peter Mandelson a job. That is not quite true. When running a local TV series at London Weekend Television, I put him forward for a job as a researcher to LWT’s selection board. This group of clever executives gave candidates a fearsome grilling. Mandelson had earlier been rejected by this board when applying for a job on Weekend World, LWT’s star current affairs show. (Mandleson does not admit to being rejected in the biography of him written by Donald Macintyre, offering Macintyre an implausible explanation for seeking a job on the relatively lowly The London Programme. But then Mandelson does not do confessions of fallibility.)
I put him forward to the board again and this time he passed.
I have recently written a short letter to Mandelson, the first since I wrote to him in protest during the run-up to the Iraq War. This time I have written asking whether it might be prudent now for New Labourites (among whom he stands second only to Blair) to offer an apology for the war - rather than Tony Blair’s stomach-turning assertion that the current bloody shambles in Iraq is nothing to do with the 2003 invasion.
I don’t really expect an answer. Mandelson does not do apologies either.
Just revisited Newcastle on Tyne and benefitted hugely from a tour of the city in company with an old friend Mike Chaplin, the playwright and drama script-writer.
Mike drew our attention to lots of detail we would have missed had we not been in his company - that the seabirds nesting on the big buildings near the river were not common or garden herring gulls, but Kittiwakes. This lovely seabird can be seen and heard there in thousands – an adornment to the city. In fact the whole bankside of the Tyne is hard to beat in any city, from its high-level bridge built by Robert Stevenson to its galleries and Sage concert hall on the Gateshead bank.
On a note for guffaws, Mike also pointed out, when we were passing Shakespeare Street, that there used to be a public lavatory at the top of the street which was a meeting place for some of the city’s gay people. It was known among Newcastle’s jesters as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
This is the time of year on the farm that involves me in a number of time-consuming tasks, such as driving the tractor up and down the fields towing a topper, a machine to take to top growth off nettles, over-tall grass and most importantly creeping thistles, which blight our fields. On the face of it, this job is dead boring. You run the tractor up the field, turn at the end and then come back down again, only keeping an eye on topper to make sure it is line with the previous cut. In fact I find the task very relaxing - it is such contrast to many of the week’s duties, which have to be done under pressure of time. Topping just has to be done at a certain pace, and that’s it. In this week’s lovely sunshine, it has been pure pleasure to sit on my venerable Massey Ferguson (born 1964) and watch the creeping thistles fall.
I was struck, this year, how the Hay Festival parallels our broader ecological position. Its economic growth has been continuous and now there are side-effects. There are so many events, which draw big audiences, that there is congestion and overcrowding. Walking round it can be a bit like crossing Paddington Station concourse at peak time. It can’t all be down to the festival’s alliance with The Daily Telegraph, though just as new research has shown that prolonged exposure to pornography reduces the amount of grey matter in the brain, it is proven scientific truth that long-standing exposure to The Telegraph shrinks the vital cognitive areas. It’s really just the growth itself: too much it.
I could have done with a few more events on the crisis in capitalism - where were Thomas Pilketty of Capital in The Twenty-First Century and Michael Lewis with his devastating new exposure of dodgy dealing Flash Boys? However, one of the strengths of the Hay Festival has been its interest in the environment and under the guidance of Andy Fryer there was profusion of green events. Many were terrific, such as Timothy Walker on why plant conversation matters. Very few were awful, though a bumptious presenter named Rob Yorke chaired a debate on farming which spread as much confusion as the most powerful muck-spreader. Inordinately pleased with himself, this Yorke actually opened the session by saying that the banned word in the debate would be “sustainability”. Not “profitability”, not “business”, but sustainability. Matched by an NFU rep who showed why the National Farmers Union is exceeded only by the Police Federation in the competition for the UK’s most purblind representative body, this session was ghastly.
But I want to concentrate on two opposing events. In both, snake-oil salesmen were at work. In one corner was Mark Lynas, once a man who tore up GM plants and now wants to plant them, and now also a fervent advocate of nuclear power. Following on not long after was Jonathan Porritt, purporting to show how a green civilisation is attainable by 2050.
Mark Lynas was by some way the most fact-driven. He had dramatic examples: for instance his fridge alone uses as much energy as the average Ethiopian. He presented at a fast pace series of graphs and charts demonstrating his thesis that only a rapid building of nuclear power plants can prevent the ghastliness of global warming above 2 degrees C. And very impressive a lot of his data was. The huge amount of coal, ultimate fossil villain being burned, is awful. He demonstrated clearly how why the developed world was holding its energy use steady, that of the developing countries is going through the roof, as they get wealthier. Hence the fact that global C02 emissions are rising, not falling.
The snake oil bottle peeped out of his pocket at several moments. When he tried to belittle the Fukushima disaster, as though moving 150,000 people from their homes, perhaps permanently, is nothing to worry about. When he glossed over the fact that civil nuclear power is a route to proliferating nuclear warheads. But the bottle was most visible when he screened a diagram of a Hitachi reactor design, known as the Prism. This reactor, he declared, is the answer: it can burn up all our nuclear waste, even spent warheads, and provide enough energy to keep the UK going for the next 500 years. It is so safe that it can be left alone to just cool down.
What Lynas did not say is that nowhere in the world is there a working full-scale Prism 2 reactor. It is still on the drawing board, or as Hitachi says “ready to be commercialised.” Given that even the new conventional Hinkley Point reactor won’t be generating for another ten years, the Prism will be much too late and too slow to build to spare us from burning coal. And according to another Hay session, Britain needs 40 to 50 nuclear reactors soon to come off fossil fuels. Some chance. Lynas’s audience approved what he had to say: but he’d put them in a nuclear winter. (His new book is titled Nuclear 2.0)
In the opposing session, Jonathan Porritt made this point succinctly: nuclear power is too slow and too clunky and too expensive and too greedy of investment, so denying the renewables the money they need. But Porritt purveyed some snake oil of his own. Like me, he holds onto hope by lauding the amazing advances being made by solar generation, which is becoming cheaper and cheaper and more effective. (For a powerful advocacy of the new solar, read The Burning Answer by Professor Keith Barnham.) But one still has to say: this is a hope, not a delivered answer. There are formidable problems with renewables to be overcome, most of all storing energy for when the sun is not shining and the winds now blowing. Porritt dealt with a questioner about storage with bluster.
But no one can afford to say publicly that there is no hope, that we are going to hell in a handcart.
A good friend in Hay who I met on the Festival site looked shocked when I said that I was sorry that the Festival did not have as far as I could see any sessions on sport, especially football, what with the World Cup coming on. I could see in his expression the fear that he had befriended a philistine after all. I would counter this charge by saying the wonderful thing about sport is that from time to time it offers stories, narratives, sometimes ones that a good novelist would embrace.
If anyone wants to understand the power of sport to offer extraordinary stories, I suggest they watch the ten minute version of Crystal Palace’s last home game with Liverpool, surely the match of the season. (www.footballdiscussion.net).
The Surgeon has been visiting my kitchen garden, and once more he has taken it upon himself to insult the vegetable marrow, a member of the gourd family cucurbita. I have several young marrow plants growing on in the greenhouse; at a tender age, they have heard and witnessed a highly educated man, to wit The Surgeon, disparage their eating qualities, imply they are fit only to be added to a compost heap, and choose other cucurbits, such as courgettes and squashes, to take away, right in front of them.
It is a source of mystery to me why the marrow is so run down. I know that many people remember the marrow from their childhoods, appearing on the table, huge, coarse and often stuffed with cheap butcher’s mince. All one has to do to get a delicious vegetable with a flavour more subtle that courgette, is pick them young, about nine to ten inches in length, lightly skin them, steam them for a short time, and serve them with a blob of butter. Perfection!
In months of writing this blog, I am now, almost for the first time, in position to impart good news. What! I hear some people saying. Has the man joined the Moonies or the Scientologists? Has Nigel Lawson offered him a Rooney-sized pay deal to turn climate change sceptic? Has dementia tragically struck him?
None of these things, though perhaps dementia is for others to judge. The good news is not just that Crystal Palace are safe from relegation from the Premier League. (Ugandan man to self, February 2014: “What team you follow? What!? In God’s name! The sun must have burnt your head.”)
No, the great and grand news is that fossil fuel may be on the way to being out-competed. A future in which oil and coal are left in the ground is discernible, just the IPPC has called for. The reason is simple: solar power is becoming cheaper and more competitive, very fast. Photovoltaic energy is already so cheap that it competes with fossil fuels in much of Asia without subsidies. “Solar power has won the global argument” writes energy specialist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard with marked emphasis. (www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevens_pritchard.)
It appears then that it will be competition rather than scarcity that signals the end of the oil age. As Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Arabian ex Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources and 25-year minister in OPEC famously said: "The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil."
One always hoped, deep back in one’s skull, that technology might save the day. The Editor of this website has long put more hope in this outcome than I have, but perhaps he is right, not that climate change will be averted but that it may be checked. I fear still a rough future – of temperature rises above 2 degrees C, but is it possible now that solar may avert us from the full horrors of 4C?
Solar technology is improving so fast that some experts now say we are entering “a new order of global energy deflation that must ineluctably erode the viability of oil, gas and fossil fuels over time.”
“If the hypothesis is broadly correct, solar will slowly squeeze the revenues of the petro-rentier regimes in in Russia, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia among others, Many already need oil prices near $100 a barrel to cover their welfare budgets and military spending…”
At our small farm, we have two solar panels, one of which was among the first few hundred to be put up in Britain. We even featured on some early Good Energy publicity with Himself looking not so much like a farmer as a defrocked priest. The solar panels chug along happily. On some fine sunny days recently, they’ve been generating about 20 Kwh a day - many times more than we use. But our panels are Neolithic compared to the new stuff.
Scientists can now capture an extraordinary 31.1 per cent of the sun’s energy with the 111-V Solar Cell. A McKinsey study reported recently that the average cost of installed solar in the US has dropped from more than $6 a watt in 2010 to $2.59 now. It should be $1.60 by 2020, putting it within “striking distance” of coal and gas.
As the article says, solar’s rise poses challenges everywhere, not least for Britain. Should we build more nuclear stations, that demand a fixed price plus inflation for 35 years to pay for them? No prizes for the answer.
We shouldn’t cheer too soon. Global CO2 is still rising. Oil will still be used for aircraft and road vehicles, unless battery technology improves hugely. But in the shimmer of solar screens, there’s also a glimmer of hope.
Ever since we’ve kept chickens, my wife and I have eschewed having a cockerel with the flock. Sue has been the ban-maker here: not the deepest sleeper, understandably she did not want to be woken in the small hours by testosterone-fuelled crowing. But last year, we decided to hatch some eggs under a broody hen, and then to try out a small incubator. Well, in the hatching of six eggs, we got two cockerels. Today, they live on the farm with their separate flocks, strutting around and crowing at intervals between jumping on their hens. (Cocks do not believe in fore-play.)
One is called Handsome, and by God he knows it. He is flamboyant and just beautiful, with a magnificent carriage, wonderful colouring including white ear lobes and black-and-gold plumage. His breed is a Vorwerk, named after its German breeder, Herr Oskar Vorwerk, who bred it in 1900. One website says prosaically that this is the only chicken breed which shares its name with a vacuum cleaner, an absurd correlation for such a beautiful bird.
The second cock is a White Sussex, and is named Tok-Tok, after the encouraging noises made to him by one daughter as he was struggling out of his eggshell in the incubator. Tok-Tok is good looking enough but he suffers from an inferiority complex through the nearby struttings of Handsome. To compensate perhaps, Tok-Tok is aggressive, charging at one’s back as soon as it is turned. However, when he and Handsome meet, it is very much handsome does as handsome is. Tok-Tok turns and runs.
The kitchen garden is on full-blast time now. One greenhouse is full of seeds growing in trays; another is full of courgettes and cucumbers and tomatoes and peppers, protected from frost by a low-turned gas heater.
Gardening is a humbling business, though. Just as I think I have mastered a way to grow peas, they refuse to germinate. Onions now will not grow in our soil. Apparently it is because we have an infestation of white fungus. There is not a crop I know that will not turn round and suddenly refuse to prosper.
Moreover, there are the mice. This year, they ate the whole of a precious planting of a hard-to-obtain sweetcorn seed that produces cobs that are not over-sweet, our preference. Traps have been set and two miscreants, a Mr Mouse and a Mrs Mouse caught. They have done more damage than the rats that inevitably populate a farm, though thankfully they are not as gross. A few years ago, an Irishman helping us with the farm came up to the house and announced that he had just seen a rat in the barn “the size of a Pekinese dog.”
Speaking of lapdogs, there’s a very characterful dog featured in the big Veronese exhibition on now at the National Gallery. Veronese is not to my taste - those vast crowded canvases are strangely underwhelming.. I was sullen going past the pictures and my mood lifted only at the last painting of all. In one corner, a little lap-dog is portrayed humping an astonished cupid. It is funny enough to be worth the entrance fee.
The Greenest Government Ever is now wreaking havoc at Kew Gardens. The Royal Botanic Gardens, world-leader in conservation and botanical science, is having its state funding cut. It now has a £5 million deficit and is about to fire 120 people, including many specialist scientists. As David Attenborough says: “The Seed Bank is of world importance and it should be supported by the Government like a proper institution or university…” There’s a petition of protest one can sign on www.change.org. It’s enough to make one want to go and molest a cupid.