Seeking out stories of strong leadership, the right infrastructure and communities whose bond...
Seeking out stories of strong leadership, the right infrastructure and communities whose bond...
The grand surroundings of the British Medical Association's central London headquarters playe...
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.
Every week, at least, I am reminded what a fortunate life I have been granted. Born in 1941, I am a member of the lucky generation. True, I could have snuffed it while an infant (enteritis in Cairo, set off by the dust storms) or a toddler. I went on three long journeys through seas where U-boats were hunting. Two were in convoys, with my brave mother travelling with two very small children and only `women and children first!’ as comfort. Later she told us how she prayed that old tramp steamers slowing down the convoy would just put on a few more knots. For the third journey, from Haifa to Newcastle, we boarded a fast liner which travelled solo, zig-zagging through the Med to avoid torpedoes. The U-boats were busy elsewhere. I can still remember being carried down the ship’s gangway into freezing winter wartime Newcastle, and travelling south in an unheated railway carriage, marvelling at the grime on the windows. Once south, there were V1 bombs coming in but again I was lucky.
Since then my fortune has held out. I went to schools in the unpressured 50s and had my university days in Dublin in the thrilling sixties, when it really looked as though society was going to change for good toward an egalitarian model. When I graduated and went looking for jobs in newspapers, the papers were crying out for reporters. One could get job offers even if one had little of Nicolas Tomalin’s celebrated essential qualities of the journalist: “rat-like cunning, a plausible manner and a little literary ability.”
When Sue and I had our children, we brought them up in times when the roads were so safe that no one thought it odd that we let three children, age eight, six and five walk back home down London streets on their own.
And now that I am white-thatched, again I find I am lucky. We were able to buy a house at reasonable prices and got our pensions before chancellors started raising the pay-out age. And medical advances have left us fairly hale with conceivably many years ahead of us.
But I worry a bit now about how our luck is being won at the expense of other generations. It’s not only that the old-age pension is the biggest chunk of the social security budget. It’s that there are just too many of us. I am struck by how Britain is becoming a country of old men - and women. Troublesome teenagers hanging around on street corners are not the problem - it is the old people crowding the streets, some on sticks, many swaying from side to side on defective hips and knees. The other day I witnessed a scene in Hay on Wye: an old bloke on a mobility scooter driving briskly down a narrow pavement and two time-worn people desperately trying to get their arthritic limbs to move them out of his way. Why does this matter? In some senses, it doesn’t at all - if people are happy to be living so long. In other ways - we are becoming a social nuisance. As an age group we soak up a disproportionate and gerowing amount of NHS resources and the longer we live, the more we consume. Centenarians are now commonplace. A good friend in his eighties has just suffered the loss of his parents - both over a hundred. The NHS won’t survive such a tidal wave of the elderly infirm. There are some murmurings now that after the age of 80 or 85, say, patients should be offered palliative drugs and operations to relieve pain but no life-extending treatment. But who are the most assiduous voters? Pensioners. Chances of this plan being enacted: zero.
Clashing signs in local newsagent: they are clean out of sympathy cards. Unhopeful headline in The Daily Telegraph seen in same local newsagent: Statins have no bad side-effects.
The 2014 Budget may be remembered for releasing new pensioners to splurge their savings on cruises, cars and consumer goods. But it will surely go down as the most emphatic proof from this Government that they just don’t get climate change. I am indebted to the Editor of this site for pointing out the absurdity of a Chancellor setting aside large sums to repair shattered flood defences and road pot-holes after the wettest winter since Britons gave up wearing woad - and also cutting the price of carbon and reducing green taxes on business.
In The Observer, Nick Cohen was reduced to a state of despair: “the politicians know that beyond the corporations and the cultish fanatics in their grass roots lies the great mass of the people, whose influence matters most. They accept at some level that man-made climate change is happening but don’t want to think about it.”
He went on "I am no better than them. I could write about the environment every week. No editor would stop me. But the task feels as hopeless as arguing against growing old. Whatever you do or say, it is going to happen. How can you persuade countries to accept huge reductions in their living standards to limit (not stop) the rise in temperatures? How can you persuade the human race to put the future ahead of the present?”
My answer is that even if we live, as I have written here, in a fucked world, we must behave as if there is hope. It’s an outside chance, but perhaps huge economic recessions may buy us time. Major pandemics, though one would not wish them on any society, may buy more. Technological changes may buy a little too. We have to go on striving to avert the disaster. As Bertrand Russell wrote “when striving ceases, so does life.”
In the meantime, we must act intelligently in those provinces of our lives where we have control. We found an admirable example during our visit to Uganda last month. In the lovely western part of that country lies the Kibale National Forest, a rich rainforest of 80 square kilometres with more primate species than any other forest in East Africa. Not that long ago, it was rather larger than 80 square kilometres. But its edges got eaten away, as small farmers pushed in, and cut down the trees to grow crops. According to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, the farmers had no legal rights to their new land, and in the 80s, the Ugandan government decided to re-settle the farmers in a different area. No one pretends that this was popular with the local people. It must have been a bit like the Highland Clearances, but set on the equator.
But since then, the Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA – colloquially known as “Uuwaa”) appears to have been making amends. With funding from a Dutch charity called Face the Future, it has been working closely with the communities. Up till very recently, the farms next to the forest were routinely ravaged by the elephants that live in the forest. Wilfred Chemutai from UWA invited us into his Toyota HiLux pick-up - now more popular in Uganda than Land Rovers – to show us around, with comforting presence in the back of Alexie and an AK47 to frighten off the forest-dwelling elephants. Wilfred and Alexie pointed out the deep ditch or trench that has been dug around the perimeter of the forest. The elephants, he said, cannot cross the trench for fear of getting stuck. I said: but what happens when the trench meets a road? Wilfred showed us: at the meeting point, a flat wooden construction lay flat over the road, rather like a bridge with nothing to bridge over. Elephants, he said, will not cross onto the wooden planks. Why? Because deep in elephant memory is the look of elephant traps, branches and wood laid across a pit. An elephant never forgets, indeed.
More ways of involving the communities nearby are pursued. On Saturdays, neighbours of one large section of the forest can enter and take out dead wood for their cooking stoves. They get a share of the carbon funds the re-forestation project earns - and they also get a share of the tourist income that UWA gets from chimpanzee-watching walks. ($100 a head). Realising that muzungu (white folks) pay this money to see the forest monkeys, the local people have been persuaded to stop killing the monkeys (which raid their crops.) (The term muzungu is derived from a Swahili word; it literally means “someone who wanders around aimlessly”.)
The locals have their own ingenious ways to deal with raiding wildlife. One is very simple: hot chilli peppers. They are planted among the bananas as second line of defence against the elephants, which have a horror of chillis, perhaps going back to the day when a great-grandfather elephant picked a whole plant and swallowed it. At the sight and smell of a chilli plant, the elephants turn tail. That’s a superhot pepper.
The times I agreed with Margaret Thatcher are the same in number as the legs of Douglas Bader. But no, in one thing I think she was right: the Metropolitan Police. She thought the leadership of the Met so hopeless, and the attitudes of its rank and file so self-interested that she espoused the idea of setting up an officer class for the Met, on the lines of Sandhurst. Just as the notion of the British Army being led by over-promoted squaddies is absurd, so the police service’s beloved idea of every policeman having to rise through from the rank of the beat constable is an anachronism. It has led to a Met which is culturally backward and corrupt, racist, sexist - and organised for the benefit of its members first of all. It exists to serve the interests of a narrow segment of white working-class of London. It is the Print - but in uniform and with powers of stop and search.