Heimaey, Iceland – The grassy slopes above this small Icelandic fishing town exploded w...
Heimaey, Iceland – The grassy slopes above this small Icelandic fishing town exploded w...
For years communities across the world have suffered the devastating effects of flooding. It ...
A wild wind the other night blew down an ash tree on our farm which had become something of a landmark to us. It was ailing when we first moved in, more than 20 years ago, shedding branches and each year having fewer leaves. It had lost a great slice of its trunk some time ago, heaven knows how. The farmer before us had even poured concrete into its roots, presumably to stop up a fox den or badger set. Yet for year after year it had hung on.
So I was startled to walk into the Long Field and see it lying there, full length, a complete gonner. I was also a little sad. One of the beneficial acts we can do during our brief spin on the planet is to plant trees – directly or indirectly. On a farm of course one has a lot of opportunities. So we’ve planted 146 fruit trees to create an orchard, and a couple of dozen small leafed lime trees down the lane to the yard. Every time we have laid a hedge, we’ve left a few strong plants to grow into hedgerow trees, field maples or spindle trees or indeed ash trees. In our wood, we have cleared out some Sitka spruce to let the real trees, oaks and small-leaded limes, flourish. In Uganda, our film company has financed quite a few acres of trees being planted on the banks of the Nile in places where rainforest trees were felled for crops.
In low moods, when one thinks what the hell has one achieved in three scores plus ten, the clouds lift a little when one thinks of the trees we’ve planted, which will be growing long after we’re pushing up daisies. Tree-planting: it is good for the soul.
Interesting that new report which suggests that, contrary to accepted wisdom, the world population will go on growing and won’t level out at 11 billion or so around the mid-century. The so-called Demographic Shift may turn out to be the Demographic Chimera. I have long been baffled as to why environmentalists have been so reluctant to fight to restrict population growth. In many countries, the greatest scourge is the galloping population, outracing the social improvements governments try to make.
For instance, when we have visited small villages in Uganda to see the new water sources provided by the Busoga Trust, we have been struck by villagers’ gratitude for clean water - which, yes, is the beginning of improvement - but also by those same villagers saying they now need another well, or two or three, because the village is growing so fast. I have jocularly suggested that the Busoga Trust should provide free birth control with each well. Perhaps I should make this proposition a serious one. There is a huge unmet demand for birth control in these villages, from women who don’t want to spend their lives having and caring for children but want to be educated and to have careers.
I was shocked to the core of my being to read that Lord Mandelson, who we once knew as “John Taylor’s researcher”, may be deprived of some of his income. He is a board member of Sistema, a Russian conglomerate with its fingers in many pies. Sadly its boss Vladimir Yevtushenkov has fallen foul of Putin and been arrested on money-laundering charges. Sistema’s share price has fallen sharply. This must put into doubt Mandelson’s fees as a board member.
There is no spectacle more pitiful than that of a New Labour scion being deprived of an income stream. I suggest that a fund be created to compensate His Lordship, with the public invited to make subscriptions.
To those who say there are more worthy causes, such as the relief of the starving in South Sudan, I say - pain is relative and what human being can possibly suffer more anguish that a New Labour peer checking his bank balance and finding his riches depleted?
There is much mocking of Ed Milliband at the moment. True, he was appallingly unwise to deliver his conference speech without an autocue. True, he was equally unwise to have Ed Balls as his shadow chancellor, a man so contaminated by his past that a skip of highly radioactive rubbish from Fukushima is pure tide-washed sand by comparison. True, he looks a little awkward and uncharismatic.
But was that not also true of Clement Atlee, the greatest post-war prime minister? Atlee was so unprepossessing that people cracked jokes such as “An empty taxi drew up outside Downing Street and Mr Atlee got out.” Atlee was so little concerned about the pomp of office that he used to travel unaccompanied, third class, on railway journeys. On one train trip, a passenger leaned forward and said to him: “Has anyone ever told you that you are the split image of Clement Atlee?” The Prime Minister replied: “Frequently.”
The great aspect to Atlee was that he was serious about social change and that he was bold. More boldness from Ed Milliband (an excellent climate change minister) and we will have the best Prime Minister this century. (True, the hurdle is not set high.) To connect with working people I suggest the following in the pre-election programme:
Promise to replace the minimum wage with the living wage on taking office.
Hugely increase the number of employment inspectors to ensure the living wage is enforced.
Tax rising progressively from 50 per cent on those earning more than £100,000; 60 per cent on £200,000; 70 per cent on £300,000.
Soak the rich? You bet. Feed the poor? Oh yes.
In 2011, an historic flood devastated Bangkok. Hundreds died, and tens of billions of dollars were lost in economic damages. During and after the disaster, the combined efforts of thousands of residents formed the foundation of the city’s response. But while groups of citizens working in concert were able to deploy boats and organize shelters, one thing they couldn’t do on their own was distribute real-time data about the disaster. For that, they would need technology: a homegrown system that’s cheap, durable, and takes advantage of the city’s informal networks, perhaps its greatest strength in times of crisis.
One of the pleasures on our farm as summer shades into autumn is a stroll around the Top Orchard, looking at the trees and their differing crops of cider apples. This orchard, only a little over four acres in size, has no less than sixteen different varieties of cider trees growing in it.
Such a rich spread is due to advice Sue and I received about 15 years ago when we were planting up the empty field. It was Ivor Dunkerton who gave us the wisdom, Ivor who with his wife Susie created the peerless Dunkertons organic Hereford cider. Ivor gave me a list of varieties to order and I followed his instructions faithfully. Years later this former top BBC film editor turned master cider-maker came to the Top Orchard, turned to me and said “Why the hell have you got so many varieties? It must be a bugger to harvest.” I kept my customary ice-cold calm.
Fifteen years on, the trees are fine specimens, their branches bestrewn with colourful little apples like Christmas decorations. Their very names are a delight - names such as Sweet Coppin and Harry Masters Jersey and Court Royal. I particularly like Brown Snout and Bloody Turk. The varieties have their own social history. For instance, we have a few trees of Morgan Sweet, which in the early part of the last century was widely grown in the West Country to supply eating apples to the South Wales miners. It makes a light fruity cider ready to drink before Christmas.
In truth, having the multiple varieties is a benefit too: we get an extra price for taking loads of specific varieties to the cider mill. For example, our Kingston Blacks this year are terrific and they make such a good cider that often Kingston Black is sold as a specific cider. Our thirteen Broxwood Foxwhelps are loaded this year - and our cider maker just loves getting in these loads of Brox Fox - they give a lovely flavour when a small quantity is mixed in with other varieties.
Now who is the cider maker who pays us these premiums for these lovely organic apples? Why, the excellent Ivor Dunkerton of course.
I first set eyes on Nigel Lawson, arch climate-change denier, in the Sixties when as a journalist on The Sunday Times I had to meet someone at the Financial Times. Lawson then wrote the Lex column for the FT; down in the FT basement bar, he was pointed out to me as a rising star. He certainly looked extraordinarily pleased with himself, plump and sleek as a pouter pigeon.
Decades on, Lawson’s principle activity appears to be denying that climate change is happening. He does all this denying through the `Global Warming Policy Foundation’ a supposed charity that misses no opportunity to rubbish green energy and highlight every knuckle-dragger who denies climate change, every difficulty in the path of getting the world to act on global warming.
Image: 'Puffed up': Nigel Lawson
The Pouter Pigeon’s Foundation has for years been shy about saying just who contributes the money that keeps it going. The Pouter has said that they are not fossil fuel firms and that he’s keep their names out of it so they don’t have to suffer the obloquy that he has nobly born for years.
Now this week, two funders have been revealed, both with strong links to the extreme neo-liberal think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, who are no mean deniers themselves. One funder is a Mr Neil Record, boss of a currency management company - no I don’t know what that is – and the other is Lord Nigel Vinson, described as a wealthy industrialist. Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change has commented “ It is not surprising to find such strong links with a right-wing lobby group, the IEA, which also promotes climate change denial. It is now crystal clear that the campaign by the GWPF against the UK government’s climate change policies is driven by right-wing ideological zeal rather than evidence-based reason.” Well, I am not sure its crystal clear, but there’s a smell in the air. The Pouter refused to comment, at least to the Guardian.
I’m sure it is not a co-incidence that the Global Warming Policy Foundation has this week announced that it is setting up a campaigning arm – to be called the GWP Forum. My guess – it’s just a guess - is that the Pouter has had a quiet call from the Charity Commission telling him that his Foundation is really a bit too political to be a true charity and he has therefore set up the forum.
I was pleased that a woman, Rona Fairhead , is to be the new head of the BBC Trust. The top women at the BBC, people such as Janice Hadlow and Jana Bennett, have usually been better than the top men. (Think of the frightful Mark Thompson). It’s interesting though that a person whose entire life has been wrapped up in finance since graduating from university thirty years ago is now thought to have the right background for such a job. Her CV, from Harvard Business School through to endless company boards, has kept her well away from ordinary life. I can’t see any notable evidence of an interest in arts and culture, including popular culture. Having a home on the Highclere Estate in Berkshire where Downton Abbey is shot, doesn’t count. Nor does being ex-boss of the FT (yes I know it’s got arts pages, but they’re not what the FT is about. It’s about “the quick pulse of gain” to use Charles Lamb’s phrase on walking into the City) Her hobbies are listed as scuba-diving, flying and ski-ing - not films or theatre or rock music or indeed any of the arts.
She will know all about balance sheets and out-sourcing. But the value of a public cultural institution in which making money is not the key concern? I am not so sure.
I have recently finished reading Adventures in the Anthropocene (Chatto and Windus) by an author with a peerless green name: Gaia Vince. She gives us a most interesting foray into how the planet is moving from the Holocene into the period where its dynamics are shaped by its dominant species. It has drawbacks: Gaia Vince often writes in the historic present, which I find hard to take. What is most arresting about the book are its descriptions of the various and varied ways in which communities are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change by ingenious engineering. There’s an ex-railway worker in the Himalayas working on techniques to create artificial glaciers; there’s a bloke in the Caribbean making islands out of rubbish and the people painting Peruvian mountains white so the snow doesn’t melt rapidly away.
Will such human ingenuity be enough to mitigate the worst of climate change as the century rolls onwards into higher temperatures? It’s the last best hope I suppose. One has to be a gold-plated optimist to think that hungry home sapiens is going to cut its carbon output in time.
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.