A staggering amount of development dollars – one in three, in fact ...
A staggering amount of development dollars – one in three, in fact ...
It is becoming increasingly clear that cities are important arenas for climate change adaptat...
Of course, the names of the godparents to Prince George are a hoot: Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton; Emelia Jardine-Paterson, Earl Grosvenor, William Van Cutsem. They were too much for Jo Brand on Have I Got News for You. She made a witty crack that got Royalists tetchy (“William van cuts’em, then Harry van snorts ’em.”) On the one hand, what would you expect with the upper froth? Darrens and Kevins? (Though “Earl” Grosvenor sounds a bit transatlantic-common. As in “Homer” Simpson.)
But then I reflected that this toff crowd were also a reflection of how Britain’s elite have retained their grip on our society. In the sixties, there was an intoxicating belief that at last there signs that Britain was going to become a more egalitarian society. The nurseries of the elite, the public schools and Oxford and Cambridge, would be reformed, the public schools by removing their perks, and Oxbridge by a banning of their historic links with public schools, or even, as the educationist Tyrell Burgess advocated, by transforming them into post-graduate colleges only. Etonians and Old Harrovians would find themselves at Sussex or Simon de Montfort. In these and other ways (taxation of land, reducing the importance of the City in the economy, an end to the peerage, restrictions on the Royals and so forth) a more equal British society would emerge, in which the bed in which the baby is born would matter less.
The upper classes, I rather thought, would also wither under the sheer scorn of humour. Think of the Pythons sketch of Upper Class Twit of The Year, in which Nigels and Algernons and Julians fell over fences, hawing and halloo-ing.
Well of course, we know what happened. The elite never slackened their grip, the radicals were outwitted. When Richard Crossman as education minister in a Labour Government wanted to take the first steps in reforming the public schools, he was outflanked by the senior civil servant in his department, who scuppered the legislation. It turned out this uncivil servant was a governor of Westminster school. Comprehensive schools were hobbled by rear-guard actions by grammar schools so they never got a comprehensive intake, and by rabid campaigns by the finest press in the west. Oxbridge colleges defended every privilege, putting up a smokescreen of fair access. Then came Thatcher, the privatisation of public assets, and the financialisation of the economy, carried on by the direful duo, Blair-and-Brown. We were very naïve.
For anyone who held high hopes for progressive change, as David Starkey has commented, the outturn of the last 50 years has been regressive and depressing. Today, we have a Britain where there’s rapidly growing inequality, the super-rich pigging it Richard Branson’s tax-status as a resident of his Caribbean island (“because of my health”) is an example, much of his wealth coming from Virgin Rail’s ransacking of the public purse. Meanwhile the less well-off are living on minimum wages, zero-hour contracts and turning to food banks.
Supremely emblematic of Britain we have now is a tower block of private flats being built at the Elephant and Castle in London. The developer Land Lease Ltd bought the site from Southwark Council but argued successfully against having to include any affordable flats. The reason? If it did so, it would have to build also a separate entrance and lifts for the plebeian tenants, as it was inconceivable that private tenants would want to have a flat, or travel in a lift, where they might be forced to rub shoulders with the common people. Well, they can niff a bit, the poor.
It is a very unequal, very divided and consequently a very unresilient Britain we have today.
Recent headline in The Guardian: `I am good at absorbing others’ pain’, says former PM Blair. Serious typos, surley.
The grip of free market economics has much to answer for in the outcome of a highly unegalitarian Britain. So it was cheering to read that economics undergraduates at Manchester University have formed the Post-Crash Economics Society, which they hope will be replicated in other universities. The students criticise university courses for doing little to explain why economists failed to warn of the impending crash and for doing too much just training students for the City. Next month, they will publish a manifesto proposing sweeping reforms to Manchester University’s economics curriculum. The Guardian reports that a growing number of top economists, such as Ha-Joon Chang, who teaches at Cambridge, are backing the students.
Well, about bloody time. The way economists have refused to confront the lessons of the crash has been startling. It was good to see The Observer devote its main leader to the issue, attacking particular our growth model for the last 30 years – shareholder value – with everything else (employee rights, those of savers and consumers) left to the winds of the market.
Free beer to the Man U students, please.
A perception from America’s greatest contemporary novelist: “I think we all know that the earth might be reaching the end of its tolerance for our presumptions.” Marilynne Robinson in her essay Freedom of Thought.
In Herefordshire, we have just had one of the wettest of Octobers. At Garnon’s Estate across the river, the rain gauge measured over ten inches for the month. Nationally, this October was the wettest this century and the ninth wettest in the last 100 years.
So I was startled to hear the affable Monty Don on Gardeners’ World the other day, speaking from his Herefordshire garden not far away from us, that this was a pretty average autumn, not particularly wet or dry. This pronouncement confirmed for my suspicion that television presenters, even of gardening programmes, don’t get out much. I suspect they do short stints for the cameras, supervise the staff clipping the box hedges or tuning the Ferraris, and get back indoors to watch boxed sets of Homeland or Breaking Bad.
Systems seem to run at the very edge of failure much of the time. The combination of high workload, limited resources, pressure for additional features and capability, and inherent software, hardware, and network fragility is a noxious kettle of stuff always about to boil over in the form of outages, degraded response, or functional breakdowns. For insiders the surprising thing about our systems is not that they fail so often but that they fail so rarely!
This good performance in the face of adverse conditions is called resilience. An important conclusion from resilience studies is that it depends critically on human operators and their ability to anticipate and monitor the system, react to threats, and sacrifice some goals to protect others. This talk will introduce resilience and a model of system dynamics useful in analyzing failed and successful event management and offer an explanation for why our systems run at the edge of failure.
Watch Richard's presentation here:
I found myself in a job the other day that I would never have imagined for myself. I had the role of holding up various objects – some commonplace, some bizarre – in front of an audience gathered in a barn. Behind me, standing on a trailer, stood an auctioneer, the very skilled Mr Ryan Williams of McCartneys in Hay on Wye. Ryan Williams shouted out the lot number and I went across, seized the object and paraded it in front of the good people of the local villages here. Sometimes this easy - a lovely print of a Pembrokeshire farm at night by the masterly John Knapp-Fisher – but sometimes I found I had bitten off more than I could chew. I lifted up an old Villiers belt-engine and felt my old hernia strain. A wag shouted out that he wanted to make a bid for my hat.
All this parading and shouting out for bids was part of an auction that my wife Sue and I decided to hold to raise money for a charity we favour called the Busoga Trust, which gets clean water to Ugandan villagers who otherwise would be drinking from swamps. We’d never organised an auction before and quickly realised it was much more difficult than we expected. We were rescued by the generosity of givers and of bidders. People were extraordinarily generous in giving us both good things to sell or `promises’ – two nights in a flat in Little Venice, for instance. The writer Jenny Valentine who was written wonderful books for children offered several hours of instruction for anyone wanting to learn this specialised form of writing. And she gave a big hamper of delights from her delicatessen. The Hay Festival donated a Golden Ticket, giving the winner and a friend access to any five events at next year’s festival. It went for £200.
The bidders were also generous, coming from a very mixed crowd of local farming families, villagers and people from Hay and Hereford and around. They responded often by bidding over the odds. Two elderly deck-chairs had so confused me that initially I had the idea of selling them outside the auction for £3 “if you can unfold them.” Our daughters over-ruled me, put them in the auction where they went for £50. Ryan Williams, who gave his time and skills for free, helped hugely. When a lady asked of a coat I was holding up what the size was, he came back immediately “Your size Madam”. It made £40. One great friend from Hay was so generous in her bids that her husband tried to seize her lot number from her. She even bought a horsebox - and she hasn’t got a horse.
What has all this got to do with resilience? Well, I think empathy is related to the resilience of societies. People who can think of the needs of others and give up something for them are contributing to the cohesiveness of society. Many if not most of the villagers of Blakemere (pop. 75) came to the auction, many to help in running it. They opened up hearts - and wallets and purses. The village, I think, got something out of it - we don’t have a pub and meeting neighbours is hard except at events like this one. And of course, two far distant villages of Uganda also got something precious.
We were aiming in the auction to get to £3,500, the money that a well costs to survey and construct and furnish with a strong pump. That sum also includes the costs of sanitation courses for the villagers so that their new clean water is accompanied by better hygiene. In the end, taking in the money from a bar and the teas, the auction fetched over £5,300. Together with £2000 that Sue had raised separately from friends, we have enough now for two wells – to bear small plaques saying “Donated by the Friends of Herefordshire.” We had gratifying messages from the Trust and also from the good people in Uganda whose job it is to put in the wells.
It can be objected that providing such wells is pointless in a country such as Uganda, which has runaway population growth, the second highest in the world. And indeed, the Trust workers are used to being asked by villagers for a second well, as soon as they finish the first. “Give us ten more wells please” was a cry at one village earlier this year that we heard.
It’s true that population growth in Africa is often a nightmare, which is why David Attenborough amongst others is concerned that so much of the West’s energy goes into feeding people and not limiting their numbers in the first place. But we saw earlier this year in Uganda how clean water is the start of a society being able to help itself. Without clean water, the children get ill, their schooling is interrupted. Girls especially suffer, being made to stay at home to look after the younger children. And the education of girls is the lynch-pin of a better future in Africa.
These insights and this auction indeed all have their derivations in the personality of one woman, Frances David of Skenfrith, Monmouthshire. Frances died last month and was buried in her local churchyard on Friday after a large attendance at her funeral mass. She was a force of nature. Her great attribute, along with her warmth and humanity, was that she believed in action as much as words. Like most people, she would talk volubly about a problem, an issue. Unlike most people, she would then do something about it. She hurled herself into many causes - CND, state education. After she retired as deputy head of the excellent comprehensive school in Ross on Wye, she took herself off to Uganda and taught at a school in the Jinja region - all alone, not as part of a programme, in a fairly distant village without electricity or any telephones. That took courage. She there became convinced that clean water was the starting point of a better life. She became a key member of the Busoga Trust and very skilled at getting donations. In her time, she raised money for 85 wells – clean water for perhaps 150,000 Ugandans. The well-intentioned but idle, people like me, she got going. Sue and I had an unforgettable trip to Uganda with her last year, taken by her into the heart of Ugandan families who had become close to her. We were privileged to know her.
So finally, the farmers have their badger hunt. Kick-off- 26th August. I view my fellow farmers’ interest in culling badgers with some puzzlement. It’s partly because, like the Republican Party and climate change, in going for a cull the farmers reject science. The careful studies indicate that a cull will make matters worse. It’s also because the cull is in essence dishonest.
Take our farm. We have a number of badger sets scattered about it. Badgers cross and recross the fields like pedestrians in the centre of Hereford. But despite all these badgers, in all the time we kept cattle on this farm, we never had a case of TB in our animals. Moreover, the good farmer who now lets our land and puts cattle on it has never had a case. He’s been closed down with TB … last year in fact when tests revealed positive responses on two animals. Yet when his cattle were slaughtered, examination of the carcasses revealed no TB.
Why do have we have badgers but no TB? My guess is that as we have low numbers of cattle in the fields, they have plenty to eat and no need to graze grass contaminated by badgers. It’s partly also because we never have feeding troughs in the fields, which badgers can use and contaminate.
I am not denying that badgers can be vectors for TB. But I am saying that cattle-to-cattle transmission is a bigger cause: farmers who trade cattle a lot, having animals coming and going, seem to be much more liable to TB problems. However, admitting this is hard for farmers and questions the very way they do business.
The National Farmers’ Union, inevitably, has come out in favour of a cull. The NFU is the most bone-headed of all the producer-interest organisations in the country - and in saying that I include the Police Federation, the coppers’ trade union. Remember the foot-and-mouth disaster years back? The NFU opposed vaccination and as a result the countryside was littered with pyres of burning animals. In Herefordshire, most of the condemned animals were found later to be perfectly healthy.
Since this a column which touches on the need for resilience, I must record that a few days ago, I broke my leg. (That’s the trouble with journalists, they exaggerate. Now be accurate.) All right. A few days ago, I broke my ankle. (Not good enough. Try again).
A few days ago, I fractured my ankle. ( Better. But say how serious it is). It is not serious. Already I can walk on it with the aid of one crutch, water the garden and tend to the chickens. (The truth at last. A minor injury.) Resilience Score: 5 out 10. Report; “Bugler is recovering well but one must question why he incurred this injury in the first place. He should desist from hazardous activities.”
It was interesting to see at first-hand how A & E at Withybush, Pembrokeshire’s main NHS hospital, dealt with the injuries coming in. It did so quickly and efficiently, sorting out the serious (head injury) from the trivial (wasp sting). I must record my thanks also to the plaster technician, Mr Terry Vaughan. He was shrewd enough to look closely at my X-Ray and realise what the docs had not: that the fracture had older origins… he made me remember that I had cracked the ankle with an iron bar a couple of months previously, the start of the fracture that I later made much worse by slipping when carrying a heavy ping pong table with the Editor of this website.
More on zero-hour contracts. It was well put by Seamus Milne in The Guardian the other day that such contracts are the result of the thorough implementation of neo-liberal economic thinking, which has being going on apace since being set off by Thatcher and fostered by Blair. Perceptively, Milne wrote: “What is clear is that the model of capitalism that crashed and burned five years ago - and they are now trying to resurrect – is unable to deliver secure jobs and full employment, or anything like it. If neo-liberalism were just a theory of economic management, it would have been discredited by its failure. What’s going on now shows that it is also a system of social power.”
Last time I wrote about a dear friend of ours who was working zero-hour contracts - sometimes up to 72 hours a week but no hours guaranteed. Well, he no longer has this job. I offer his new job as an insight into modern Britain: he has eight hour days, driving and delivering vegetables, but his day starts at 3 a.m. His rate of pay: £6.50 an hour.
Many years ago, when editing Weekend World for London Weekend Television, the team included a young researcher named Gerard Baker. He was personable, obviously bright, with perhaps a little more than his share of Oxbridge arrogance. (The team had a few of those first class honors brains that have armfuls of intelligence and absolutely no journalistic nous. Baker was better than these.)
Remembering him with some warmth, I was dismayed to see a photograph of him in the public prints the other day. A fearful attack was being made upon his person. Was he being spat in the eye by the poisonous Amazonian tree-frog? He was not. Was he being sprayed with tear gas in a demonstration against gas fracking? Not him. Was he on the receiving end of water cannon while protesting against Shell’s exploration of the Arctic? No again. His experience was much, much worse.
Head bowed, he was being sprayed with champagne by Rupert Murdoch on being appointed editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, bible of neo-liberalism. Oh my God! My heart went out to him. What a ghastly experience. What a terrible billet.