As scientists and policymakers explore ways of making social and environmental systems more a...
As scientists and policymakers explore ways of making social and environmental systems more a...
The impacts of the global financial crash are still being felt around the world. But even as ...
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.
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!