Friday, 12 December 2008

When is a terrorist not a terrorist?

DATELINE Paris: “French police have arrested the suspected military chief of the Basque separatist group Eta.”
Dateline Bogota: “Spain’s government is investigating links between the Basque separatist organisation Eta and Colombian Farc rebels.”
Dateline Madrid: “A businessman has been shot dead outside a restaurant in Azpeitia, northern Spain. Spanish police say they suspect the Basque separatist group Eta is behind the killing.”
Three obviously linked stories from three different international news sources in the past few days. The link? The missing word “terrorist”.
For some reason, whenever Eta is mentioned the word mutates into “separatist”.
This is not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for years. I don’t remember the news media ever referring to the IRA that way, yet Eta’s aims and methods are pretty much identical to those of the old Irish “terrorists”. So why the different terminology?
Of course it’s hardly new to point out that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom-fighter. Which way you choose to describe violent Palestinians, for example, depends on your view of the whole Middle-East question.
But when and why the world’s news editors all agreed to extend courtesy titles to murderous Basques but not to other similar gangs I neither know nor understand.
Now take Mumbai. A scan of news coverage around the world last week shows that the word “terrorists” was applied to the horrific events in the Indian city. But nothing like as often as the words “attackers”, “militants” or even “fanatics”. In the early stages, while the crisis was still going on, they were “gunmen” and “hostage-takers”.
I wouldn’t begin to guess why this might be. Especially as the killers have been identified with Lashkar-e-Taiba, or “Army of the Pure”, a Pakistani “militant group” whose aims for Kashmir are similar to Eta’s aims for the Basque region – or the IRA’s for Ireland. And whose methods have included attacks on India’s parliament and, even more foully, on an amusement park in Hyderabad.
The attack on the parliament building in New Delhi in 2001 nearly brought India and Pakistan to war, which was almost certainly the intention. The bombings in Hyderabad last year killed 42 people including a number of children.
Another 19 bombs placed around the city were found and defused. They had been placed at bus stops, by cinemas, road junctions and pedestrian bridges and near a public fountain.
The explosives were there to kill not specific individuals but random victims. The bombers almost certainly didn’t care that they didn’t all go off, as long as some did.
There can only be one motive for such acts. That is to spread fear among ordinary people. Fear disproportionate to the actual risk of death or injury. In other words, terror.
Since 2004 India has lost more lives to terrorist incidents than all of North America, South America, Central America, Europe and Eurasia put together.
Yet outside India itself, the killers in the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Mumbai Jewish Centre are still “gunmen”, not “terrorists”.
It seems wrong. And yet.
I wonder whether there might be some sense in removing the word “terrorist” from all reporting not just of Eta and the Mumbai atrocities, but all such groups and events.
I wonder if to the perpetrators and their supporters the very word glamorises them. If it gives them some twisted sense of legitimacy. Whether, in fact, it assists them in their goal of spreading terror.
I am certain the ill-perceived, vague and self-perpetuating “War on Terror” has had all those undesirable effects.

If each of us carried a gun…

POSSIBLY the most idiotic public response to the Mumbai killings was an article in a Sunday paper by one Richard Munday.
Why they gave an old gun-nut prime space to ride his hobby-horse I don’t know. But his piece this weekend has certainly caused more stir than either of his out-of-print 1996 pamphlets “Most Armed and Most Free” and “Guns and Violence”.
His argument is well summed up by the headline: “If each of us carried a gun… we could help to combat terrorism”.
Whether turning the Mumbai hotels into mass shootout scenes would actually have saved lives is a moot point. One we will (probably fortunately) never be able to answer.
Arming the citizenry would have made no difference in Hyderabad, 9/11 or Bali. Or virtually any other terrorist event I can think of.
But it would make me a hell of a lot more scared around town of a Friday night. Or any place where young males and alcohol mix.
What if every rioter in Athens this week had carried a handgun? Every West Ham fan? Or every late-night lout who turns up in A&E?
As the police rightly point out, carrying a knife makes you more likely to be stabbed. And carrying a gun? No thanks.

Friday, 5 December 2008

A decent man and a darned fine singer

BILLY BRAGG is a national treasure. What’s more, he has a much pleasanter voice these days than I remember from his 1980s heyday.
I agreed with nearly everything Billy said from the Corn Exchange stage during his gig in Ipswich last week too. All except the quite unnecessary and bigoted joke about goatee beards.
Otis Gibbs onstage with the Bottle Rockets. From his websiteNo real surprise there. The surprise was the brilliant support set by Otis Gibbs (right). Like most people there, no doubt, I had never heard of Gibbs before. Which made his performance, unlike Billy’s, a total revelation.
In his voice and some of his songwriting I detected hints of the late Townes Van Zandt. But the only artist I can really liken him to is Van Zandt’s later and greater disciple Steve Earle. The fact that Gibbs stands up well to that comparison is the highest praise in my book.
Like Earle’s, his musical style wanders the unclaimed territory between country, folk and blues. Like Earle’s, his songwriting is personal and witty, with strong traditional-sounding tunes and narratives. His voice is a bluesman’s lived-in growl and he’s no mean guitarist either.
Otis Gibbs: a man trying to live decently in an indecent worldAnd, like Steve Earle, he is deeply committed to the kind of decent human values that aren’t common to all in his native Indiana. Though, as he proudly informed us, Indiana broke with long tradition this year by voting for a smart and decent man – Barack Obama.
Otis Gibbs’s latest album, Grandpa Walked a Picketline, has been doing a sterling tour of duty on my CD player this past week. I eagerly await delivery of one or two earlier ones.
Otis himself was happy during the interval to compare beards, declaring mine to be “at the stage where it becomes a commitment”. His own – not a goatee – is definitely a case of facial hair to aspire to.
Like Billy Bragg, Gibbs is a living antidote to the pervading mass of manufactured music that means nothing. I can’t imagine he even wants to be “a star”. He is living the alternative American dream, a modern Woody Guthrie with a better singing voice.
Since taking a conscious decision in his late twenties to “drop out” he has planted more than 7,000 trees, slept in what he calls “hobo jungles”, walked with nomadic shepherds in the Carpathian mountains and been strip-searched by cops in Detroit.
One of my favourite stories of his travels is of him being inspired by an anti-war rally in Prague, where he found himself among 500,000 demonstrators. He then went home to be one among 18 at a similar-but-different protest in Indianapolis.
He first met Billy Bragg when both were playing a gig at a shelter for the homeless in Austin, Texas in 2006. That same year he got his hands dirty doing volunteer rebuilding work in flood-devastated New Orleans.
And his concern for the homeless is not theoretical or patronising. When he sings of what it’s like to sleep rough you know it comes from experience.
Despite tales of boxcar travel, though, he is a man of his times. He has a smart website where you can hear his music, read his journal – and see a good selection of his excellent black-and-white photographs.
Not just a good singer and songwriter, but a good man. And vice-versa.
Check out his music, his photos and his journal at

Arresting case of a Tory MP

HAVE the police and the “security services” (whoever and whatever they really are) overstepped themselves in the case of Damian Green?
My first thought, when the shadow home office minister started squawking about being arrested, was fairly clear. It was simply that MPs are not above the law, so why should he be exempt from arrest?
But on reflection, and on digesting further information, the matter becomes much less clear-cut.
Sure, MPs should be treated like everyone else. But should anyone be subject to the kind of treatment Green received?
It’s not so much that he was taken away and quizzed for nine hours. More what the cops got up to at his home and his office meanwhile.
Both places were ransacked – looking for what, exactly? If his wife hadn’t been well up on the law (she’s a barrister) his home computer, mobile phone and Blackberry would apparently have been taken away. He says his PC hasn’t worked properly since.
And all this not in pursuit of any carefully drafted modern legislation, but an ancient, vague and obscure piece of common law about “conspiracy to commit misconduct in public life”.
Misconduct? Talking to civil servants and journalists?
If you or I contact our MP we ought to expect some degree of confidentiality. That’s one thing the security forces have clearly breached here.
And it’s a crucial part of an MP’s role – especially of an opposition MP – to keep a watch on what the government gets up to. And also, incidentally, the civil service, the police and the security services.
When Mr Green talks about a constitutional crisis he may not be overblowing his own trumpet after all. He may have a point.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Borrow and spend is no new deal

SEVENTY-FIVE years on, President FD Roosevelt’s New Deal is still held up throughout the capitalist world as the benchmark for all economic reforms.
Recession? Depression? Credit crunch? What we need’s a new New Deal. Right. So what exactly was the New Deal when it was new?
Actually it was a lot of things, not all of them consistent with one another. And there is still some disagreement among historians and economists over whether it really worked.
Some (mostly on the political left) say it was responsible for America’s recovery from the Great Depression. Others (mostly on the right) claim it slowed the recovery down.
Either way it undoubtedly did a lot of good – health and welfare programmes, cleaning up and strengthening trade unions, banking reform and more.
It was essentially anti-capitalist, the federal government taking charge of the economy to improve the lives of ordinary people. And it was largely responsible for making FDR America’s most loved president.
There has been much talk lately of new deals. Gordon Brown, I am sure, would love to see himself as a new FDR – not just for Britain but for the world.
The non-Budget budget announced this week by chancellor Alistair Darling certainly looks big and bold on paper. But it was not wide-ranging, ambitious and socially useful like the real Deal.
Whether, when we look back in times to come, it will seem good, bad or merely irrelevant is hard to say. Prediction of all kinds is dodgy, economic prediction especially so. Which makes the job of Brown, Darling – and FDR in his day – largely a matter of flying blind.
Big moves may be the best thing, but they also involve big risks. When it’s the economy we’re talking about, those risks are borne by all of us.
Now, I’m no economics expert. Which, on past evidence, makes me exactly as well qualified to talk about the economy as those who claim they are.
And I have just this to say about the government’s big, bold plan to “borrow and spend” our way out of recession:
Wasn’t too much borrowing and too much spending what got us into this mess in the first place?
I can’t advise the government, but maybe I can advise you. And my considered advice would be this:
If the recent fall in interest rates and the coming drop in VAT put a bit more cash in your wallet don’t spend it. Use it to pay off any debts you may have.
If that means stepping up your mortgage payments to get it paid off sooner, or bring down your future payments, then go for it. While interest rates are low, it’s the best value you can get for your money.


LORD Chris Smith was among those talking New Deal this week. And unlike most of the gibberish coming out of the Treasury, what he said made sense.
Smith, once merely culture secretary, is now chairman of the Environment Agency, which – contrary to appearances – is not just about rivers and flooding.
Now he’s no longer in the government, he can “call on the government” to do things that matter. And what he’s calling for now is a “Green New Deal”.
He “called on the government” to produce “a comprehensive long-term strategy for investing in renewable energy, environmental technology, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage”.
He said: “The long-term future of society depends on the government’s commitments to the environment as much as it does to education, health and the economy.”
He added: “We are facing a recession and there will be pressure to weaken environmental targets. I hope the government will hold its nerve and deliver a far-reaching programme that looks further than the current crisis.”
And he urged the chancellor to invest in green projects to soften the coming blows of climate change. I just hope the chancellor was listening.
Messrs Darling and Brown have other things on their plates just now. Things that probably seem bigger and more urgent. But which are in fact utterly, utterly trivial by comparison.


PAMELA ANDERSON is famous for being the original curvaceous “Baywatch babe” and for a much-circulated video of her having sex with her then husband Tommy Lee. She is not famous for her political views. Well, not until now.
She has now written to president-elect Barack Obama, giving him the benefit of her advice.
She says: “Dear Mr Obama, bring our troops home safely. Please shut down Guantanamo Bay.” And while you’re at it, legalise marijuana.
Obviously Pammy isn’t as stupid as (a) she looks, or (b) Sarah Palin.
The vegetarian, 12-times Playboy covergirl rather spoils her liberal credentials, though, when it comes to paedophiles. Castrate them all, she says – including anyone who’s ever been suspected or accused.
Oh well, no one can be all right all of the time.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Time we got unhooked

BAGGY jumper, tatty trousers, loosely knotted scarf, wispy hair, cheeky grin – Oliver James looks as if he dresses at Oxfam. It's probably deliberate and he probably does. But right now I’d say he’s got closer to a useful analysis of what’s happened in the British and global economy than most of the other so-called experts.
A lot of it was predicted in his book Affluenza, the very title of which illustrates his outlook.
He explains: "The past 30 years have been a shop-till-you-drop, credit-fuelled consumer binge. Almost all of us caught the affluenza virus – placing too high a value on money, possessions, appearances and fame. This virus is very bad for mental health. People with the virus are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety and substance abuse (booze and drugs)."
That seems a fair assessment. It will surely strike a chord with a great many people if they are honest with themselves.
Only in one essential do I really disagree with his analysis.
James appears to think all this sickness is capitalism gone wrong. Whereas in fact greed and selfishness are what capitalism is all about – they are what fuels the economic engine.
Still, he’s right on most points. Like the way we have all been taught to confuse our wants (stimulated, even created, by advertising) for needs. And the way our obsessions have driven us into a cycle of over-work, placing 'having' above 'being'.
Actually, I think it's slightly unhelpful to put this collective madness down to a virus. It's much more like a drug.
Living on credit, spending more and more of the money you don't have on things you don't need, is an addiction like heroin. And for society and the world overall, every bit as dangerous.
Right now, though, while the bankers, businessmen and economists see doom and gloom everywhere, James is feeling pretty chipper.
Recession is going to hurt. Some of us more than others. Those it will hurt most are those who have been most addicted.
Look at it as cold turkey. Yes, it'll be hell for a while. But we'll all feel so much better and brighter for it afterwards.
And those wailing bankers and salesmen? They even call themselves dealers…


TWO wars they shouldn't have got into and will struggle to get out of. An economy massively in debt and in its worst shape since the 1930s. Crises in industry, energy and health. Barack Obama is certainly taking over at a tough time. Which presents a huge challenge – but also a huge opportunity.
Time to start again and build things properly, from the ground up.
He's already made a great start on one of the big issues – mending America's reputation abroad. In other ways too he needs to think big.
After the Great Depression, it was war production that really got America's economy going again. With a similar spirit – and arguably even greater need – Obama can dig it out of the present hole by pumping resources into energy-efficient, climate-friendly infrastructure.
Not Texan and Alaskan oil and gas, but wind-turbines on the prairies, solar panels in the desert. Not wide asphalt highways but up-to-date high-speed railways.
hIs friendly meeting with George W Bush in the White House may have been good diplomacy. It makes sense to ensure the smoothest possible takeover.
But once in the chair, he should waste no time undoing some of Bush's worst excesses. Like the loosening of control on mining, drilling and other favoured – and damaging – industries.
He must put an end to timber lobbyists running the Forest Service and oil lobbyists editing climate reports. End the agriculture policies that subsidise the most wasteful producers of the least healthy crops.
While he's at it, the use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" should be stopped at once. As should the issuing of "threat levels" that serve no function other than to keep people anxious and willing to accept infringements of their rights and privacy.
And of course there's the small matter of a humane withdrawal from Iraq to consider.
It's a lot. But what a lot there is to be gained too.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A change I'd like to believe in

CHANGE is the watchword, and boy have we got a change coming on.
Not just because we’re about to have the first black US president. Barack Obama may be in one sense the first “person of colour” to hold the office, but he is also a person of all colours and of none.
Not just because his victory was so sweeping it sweeps away the sense of dirt and corruption that until this week still hung over from the “lost chads” election of 2000.
Not just because the worst president in over a century is about to be replaced by a man who shows every sign of being the best in at least that long.
And not just because the Democrats may just have struck a life-preserving blow on behalf of democracy itself. Which may or may not be a very good thing.
We have become used over many years to American being not just the world’s policeman, the world’s bully, but also the big brake on world progress. And that, if Obama fulfils his huge promise, could be about to change. Big-time.
President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is centre-right, with the emphasis on the right. Ditto Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats are the Tories of Germany. The Conservatives are in power in Canada.
Overall, Obama will be the furthest left-leaning leader of any country in the so-called G8 group of the world’s major industrialised democracies. And that’s before the Tories win the next UK election.
While much of the world is moving worryingly to the right, we might have to start looking to the USA as a beacon of reason and decency. How weird is that?
Before we get too carried away on the glorious wave of Obamamania, though, a couple of warnings.
One is to recall the national and international euphoria that greeted John F Kennedy’s election in 1960.
In the words of one dissenter: “Kennedy was too good-looking, too glamorous. A man who looked like that could get away with anything. That’s why I wanted ugly Dick Nixon to win.”
Then there’s the view expressed, perversely on the face of it, by my friend Simon. He’s the only person I know who wanted McCain to win – and it wasn’t because he doesn’t like Obama.
In his view, Bush is leaving the US economy in such a calamitous state that it’s bound to crash and burn whoever is in charge. And he reckons whichever party was in charge for the next four years would be finished for a generation by the inevitable disaster to come.
I do hope you’re wrong, Simon – though I can see the sense in that view.
The more optimistic one is that the shrinking of US waistlines, gas-tanks and military operations will make the world a safer and better place. And that it can be accomplished by charismatic leadership good enough and strong enough to maintain popular support.


ON this glad day, I’d just like to say a word for the gallant losers. John McCain, who is nothing if not gallant. And Sarah Palin, who’s a loser.
She is also, let’s admit it, very very funny. All the more so because she doesn’t mean to be.
Now we can enjoy her act in safety, knowing that a woman who makes Maggie Thatcher look like a pinko and George Dubya Bush an intellectual is not going to be one heartbeat away from ruling the world. Phew.

Friday, 31 October 2008

At long last I'm learning to write

THEY say you’re never too old to learn. That the day you stop learning is the day you die. So, 30 years after graduating, I have become a student again.
With the usual mixture of trepidation and excitement, I have enrolled on an Open University course in Creative Writing.
Hang on, you might think, this guy can write already. Well, I hope you think that.
Earlier this year I applied to UEA for a place on its highly prestigious MA course in the same subject. When I asked Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover for a reference, he replied: “Of course – but surely you don’t need to learn creative writing?”
Well, thanks for that, Nigel. Your support, as ever, was very welcome. But your confidence was obviously not shared by the tutors in Norwich, who turned me down without an interview.
So now I’m with the OU, where no acceptance is necessary, just the registration, the very reasonable fees and a willingness to study.
Oh, and these days a computer with internet access – something that was not required in the heady days of the 1960s when Barbara Castle, bless her, first set the OU ball rolling.
The Open University, I have to say, is a totally brilliant organisation. I’ve always thought so in principle, and now I’m finding it to be so in practice too.
I have my doubts about the sense of sending so many of our school-leavers to institutions that bear the name “university”. No, I don’t have doubts. I know it’s idiotic.
But to make further education available to ordinary folk of whatever age and with whatever previous qualifications is the very best kind of democracy in action.
I know that now, in my second half-century, I’m far better placed to appreciate and benefit from study than I was first time around, fresh out of school. (Actually, I think it should be obligatory for students to take at least a year out between school and university, but that’s another argument.)
Of course, as in all universities, there’s the strong temptation of the student bar to be avoided. Except that the OU bars are virtual ones. There’s no opening or closing time, no charge for the drinks – in fact there are no drinks – and no pinball-machine or pool table to absorb your attention. But the temptation is still there to hang out and waste time nattering.
For the first few days, as I got my feet under the table – well, under the desk in my study – I spent quite a bit of time in the course bar getting to know some of my fellow students.
Five weeks into the course, though, I rarely click on that particular link. I’m far too busy keeping up my notebook, practising clusters (mind-maps by another name), freewrites (just let it all hang out) and morning pages.
Far too busy, as it happens, getting on with my novel. Which was the chief reason I enrolled. This darned book’s been on my mind and on a scattering of loose pages for longer than I care to contemplate. I needed help getting it going, and already I can feel that happening.
And there’s another reason why this course is appropriate for me – even if, after three decades in journalism, I may be the most experienced writer to undertake it.
I’m a dab hand at dashing off a news or sport story of 150 words. I’ve even helped teach others how to do it. And after five years writing this column, I think I’m pretty good at shaping 800 words into something readable (you presumably think so too, or you wouldn’t have got this far).
But the discipline involved in writing for newspapers is almost the opposite of what’s needed to write 60,000 words or so of fiction. And I want to do that well enough to satisfy myself first and then hopefully a few other people too.
I’ve got a good story to tell. Even if it’s unlikely ever to reach as many readers, it’s a bigger story than any I’ve written for any newspaper. I hope with some expert help I can really make it work.
And, hey, I want to have a bit of fun along the way. As students do.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

1984 and all that - my latest thought crime

IT was in Norwich, many years ago - it may actually have been in 1984 - that I first noticed a strange phenomenon. At least it was strange then. Today you might not notice it at all.

On a pole on a street corner was a curious metal box that I suddenly realised was a camera. As I crossed the street, the impersonal glass eye swivelled to keep me in view, staring back.

I felt violated, my space invaded. I would probably have felt so even if I had not read George Orwell.

Nowadays, of course, the blessed things are everywhere. For your safety and mine, supposedly. Yeah, right.

Everywhere we go we are watched. But who, exactly, is watching? And what for? I mean really.

Every time you use your credit or debit card - and for me that's almost every time I pay for anything - a permanent record is left of how much, where and when.

Travel by plane, train, ferry or car - especially your car, if it's legally registered - and they will know all about it. Whoever “they” are.

They don't yet have access to your bedroom, lounge or loo. There are no Orwellian “telescreens” watching you in every room, no Soviet-style bugs planted in the light fittings. Your children probably don't denounce you to the Party for thought crime.

But if, like me, you ever let your thoughts out in print or online they're out there forever. All those stupid, off-the-cuff remarks made on an internet forum. Any rant to a radio phone-in. Every column I've ever written and every letter of reply.

They can tell, if they care to, exactly what websites you visit, every page you open - which means all the books, records or “adult” toys you might browse on Amazon or eBay.

That could tell anyone curious enough a lot about your tastes and interests. Even if you don't list all your reading matter and post your “private” photos on Facebook. They could jump to all sorts of conclusions about your political opinions, for example.

Now spy-masters at GCHQ, the government's eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham, want a central database of information on every telephone call, e-mail and internet visit made in the UK. Wow. That's big. And probably very expensive.

For that reason among others it may not actually happen. Not openly and officially, anyway.

The very idea has stirred up a curious alliance of civil rights campaigners, chief police officers and anonymous rebels within the Home Office. But the government's fall-back option is still breathtaking.

It includes the linking of existing databases, including those fed by police “safety cameras”, and the compulsory registration, using passports, of every mobile phone.

Tie together all the equipment and technology that already exists and few people could evade constant surveillance. Just the few with enough deviousness, technical support and motive to do so. Terrorists and organised crime gangs, for example.

You and I wouldn't have a hope in hell.

And as Jack Wraith, data expert with the Association of Chief Police Officers, puts it: “If someone's got enough personal data on you and that data falls into the wrong hands, then it becomes a threat to you.”

Whether the government and its spy-masters are the right hands must be open to doubt. Let alone any future government that might take over.

Whitehall mandarins and spy chiefs tend to value their own privacy highly, but clearly have no respect whatever for yours or mine.

As ever, the bogeymen known as Crime and Terrorism (and War when available) are convenient pretexts for the state to impose ever closer watch on its citizens.

I'm not sure if Jacqui Smith should be held responsible for any of this. It's just the latest step in an insidious process that's been ongoing since - well, long before 1984. And this step would, I suspect, have been arrived at whoever happened to be wearing the badge of home secretary.

But that doesn't make it necessary, inevitable or acceptable.

And all this is taking place in a country that is supposedly a bastion of the “free” West. How very ironic. How very Newspeak.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

And I think to myself... what a wonderful world

IT was not the most original, insightful comment – nor, in the circumstances, the most unexpected. But in those circumstances it had a certain undeniable aptness.
The man rose from his riverside bench, saw me with my camera and my dog, and said: “Makes the troubles of the world seem a million miles away, doesn’t it?”
I don’t know exactly which troubles he had in mind.
It might have been the so-called War on Terror, the threat of a renewed Cold War, the real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war of words between senators McCain and Obama.
It might have been global warming, the plight of penguins and polar bears, the catastrophic decline in bees (which could lead to a catastrophic decline in us).
It might have been the prospect of renewed investment in nuclear power in Korea, Iran and Suffolk.
All of these potential terrors nag constantly at the back of my mind, as regular readers will know.
But given his striped suit and the headline news of the day, I’d say it was probably the turmoil in the money markets and threatened collapse of the world banking system he had in mind. Which is sure to have consequences both predicted and unforeseen, which may or may not be dire.
But all of those things seemed, if not literally a million miles away, then pretty remote on a glorious morning by the Deben.
From that bench he may have been watching a cormorant diving for fish and guessing whereabouts on the water’s surface it would next appear. (A few days earlier he could have played the same guessing-game in the same place, as I did, with a full-grown seal as the subject.)
He may have been watching a pair of black-tailed godwit strutting along the water’s edge, their long bills probing in the shallows. Or listening to the haunting, bubbling call of a flying curlew. He may just have spotted a kingfisher – first an almost inexplicable pulse of red, then the more familiar departing streak of brilliant blue.
He undoubtedly watched the sunlight striking through the mist on a small boat as it manoeuvred, tan sails rippling in the breeze, before the back-drop of Woodbridge’s picturesque tidemill.
He will have seen the wind in the willows tug at the turning leaves. He may, if he was observant, have spotted tiny rainbows caught in the dewy cobwebs hung on the gorse bushes.
And he may have thought, as I did, that it’s not a bad old world really. One well worth preserving from its troubles.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Wind of change can blow us all some good

IN the grey murk of an autumn day, the cliffs rise craggy and impressive from the sea. Their tops are greened with scrubby grass clinging tight and low against the scouring winds that blow in fiercely across the north Atlantic or, more bitterly, down from the Arctic.
It’s a scene that might have been unchanged since long before the Vikings raided from this stark coast. Except for two things. The thin ribbon of road that winds up from the lower-lying land behind. And the site the road leads to.
A fine sight it is, too. In its way as striking as the ancient cliffs themselves.
Here, just outside the town of Hammerfest in the far north of Norway, stands a “farm” of about 20 turbines harvesting the wind that never stops blowing in these parts.
Some folk, I know, would consider these slim white giants as a visual blot on the landscape. Some folk visiting East Anglia in the 17th or 18th centuries said the same thing about all those horrible windmills scarring the countryside. You know, the ones whose few survivors bring the tourists to the Broads and appear everywhere on calendars, postcards and chocolate-box lids.
Personally, I find the elegant lines of the modern wind-turbine just about the most satisfying piece of design our period has yet given us. Purely from an aesthetic point of view, I think they just top the Gherkin, easily beat Portsmouth’s rather showy Spinnaker Tower and blow the iconic but dreary Angel of the North right out of the water.
But that of course is just my opinion. The hard facts about wind farms are these:
* Carbon footprint – almost zero.
* Toxic waste produced – almost zero.
* Radioactive waste produced – zero.
* Noise – much less than road traffic or aeroplanes.
* Danger to wildlife – some bird and bat kill, but much less than road traffic or aeroplanes. Other species, zero.
* Land covered – very little. There’s no competition for use of the Hammerfest cliffs, but even if it was farmland, less than 0.3 per cent of the land the wind-farm stands on is taken.
It’s often argued – for example by people with a vested interest in the nuclear industry – that a country like Britain could never get all the power it needs from wind-farms. Maybe.
Yet the number required to make a huge difference, even in a densely populated country like ours, would cover only a small proportion of the land.
And of course less than 0.3pc of the land within the farms themselves would actually be occupied by turbines. The rest could quite safely be given over to farming of the more conventional sort.
Slightly more sophisticated methods – or older, more labour-intensive ones – might be needed to harvest crops grown around the towers’ feet. But sheep (or other livestock) might safely graze without any problem at all.
By such means, we could gather all our power whenever there was a reasonable amount of wind. When the wind was strong, we’d generate a huge surplus which could be sold cheaply for uses currently too power-hungry to consider.
We would still have to use coal, oil or gas on days when it was calm everywhere, or extremely windy – but it would cut our fossil fuel consumption (and our carbon dioxide emissions) dramatically.
The Norwegians don’t have to use fossil fuels on even the calmest days – they can use their hydro-electricity instead. The wind-farms mean they don’t use so much water out of the dams – and can sell electricity to other countries, whether it’s windy or not.
We don’t have the same option. But we do have other promising possibilities, such as tidal power – plenty of it.
Portugal’s latest massive tidal generator was designed and built by a British company. If we were prepared to invest in our own new technology as much as we do in the cataclysmic technology of the 1950s we might become sustainably – and safely – self-sufficient in power.
OK, I may be dreaming. But if we don’t dream occasionally – and take collective action to make our best dreams come true – then we risk waking up to a nightmare. Horribly soon.
And there is nothing in the vision outlined above that isn’t true or wouldn’t work in the cold light of day, whether on the sea-cliffs of Norway or the Suffolk coast.
It looks as if all that’s really stopping us from getting the wind in our sails – apart from the nuclear lobby that currently has the government’s ear – is a squabble over whether turbines look nice or not.
If you’re one of those who think they don’t, consider this. I mean really picture it, purely in aesthetic terms, never mind questions of safety, smell or pollution.
Would you rather live next to (a) a wind-farm, complete with swaying corn or grazing sheep; (b) a smog-belching coal-fired power-station; or (c) Sizewell?
It seems like a no-brainer to me. Which makes the next question: Why does Britain have no brain?

  • This edition of my latest column for the Ipswich Evening Star owes a great deal to my brother Clive -

Monday, 6 October 2008

Is Woodbridge seeing the end of capitalism?

THINGS are changing fast in Woodbridge. A town speeding happily and optimistically along the track of growth and prosperity has suddenly hit the buffers. Hard.

Just a few months ago, a plug for the town declared: “Woodbridge is undergoing a face-lift and population growth. Over the next five to six years it will experience a dramatic expansion with the development of many new and luxury homes.”

Walk through Woodbridge today (a thing few people ever do) and you’ll find the big brash highway leads to mean streets of deserted car-parks, boarded-up shops and signs admitting “Bank-owned home”.

This isn’t our Woodbridge, of course. Most people still get around our Woodbridge [in Suffolk, UK] on foot and though prices may have slipped slightly, the housing market still appears to be ticking over quite well.

The sudden sad closure of the Good Food Shop may have caused a wobble in our food-shopping habits. But there are still queues outside the traditional bakery, and the Thursday market, the butcher and the greengrocer still make it possible to live without setting foot in any supermarket except the Co-op.

In that other Woodbridge, the laundrette, the shoe-shops, the taxi company – even the pawnshops – are staring closure in the face. The monster mall was once the biggest in the land, but you’ll struggle to find a good food shop.

This isn’t a parallel-universe Woodbridge. It’s Woodbridge, Virginia, an outflung dormitory town of Washington DC.

It’s traditionally a Democrat area, but the support of Democrat Congress members for George Bush’s $700 billion bail-out of the US banking system didn’t go down too well there.

Typical reactions included these:

  • “If I borrowed over my head I’d deserve to go under.”
  • “Rich folk helping out rich folk, that’s all this is.”
  • “This thing they’re talking about is only going to make the rich richer. Leave them be and they’ll get what they deserve. Nobody helps me if I’m in trouble.”

And so say all of us. It’s hard not to agree with Michael Moore, that scourge of the administration, who saw the whole “crisis rescue package” as Bush’s cynical attempt to make off with the family silver before leaving office.

Ironically, it was Bush’s fellow Republicans in Congress who nearly caused his bid to fail. They simply couldn’t stomach the idea of a huge government intervention interfering with their god of free-market forces.

It will be even more ironic if Bush’s choice description proves true – that “this sucker could go down”.

If he’s right, and the lack of that $700bn handout causes the collapse of America’s whole banking system, it could – at least in theory – bring the whole of capitalism crashing down with it.

That certainly wasn’t in the mind or planning of anyone who ever voted for Bush.

It could have major, possibly catastrophic and certainly unpredictable, effects from Woodbridge to Woodbridge and beyond.

Of course there is absolutely no guarantee that even if $700bn were to be stolen from America’s poor and given to America’s rich it would save the sucker from going down anyway.

Either way, there seems little stopping one of the effects of free-market economics which doesn’t quite fit in with the American Dream.

And that is that little by little, but with gathering pace, the American economy is being sold off to Asian ownership.

Just as the British economy, in the form of its water, power and airports infrastructure, and now its banking sector, is falling under French and Spanish control.

I’m sure that’s not what Margaret Thatcher had in mind when she embarked on the process of privatising and de-regulating what were once nationalised industries.

But it’s a lesson the right wing everywhere must now finally be learning. That if you really free up the market, some international players will become more powerful than national governments. And gradually the waving of national flags will come to seem more and more ridiculous.

It was Thatcher too who set about destroying the core of British manufacturing – coal, steel, shipbuilding and the rest. Her Greed Is Good decade turned us from a nation of engineers to one of salesmen and bankers.

Under the chancellorship of Gordon Brown that process was not merely continued, but intensified, making Britain one of the world’s leading banks.

Which looked pretty smart while banking was still riding the wave. It doesn’t look quite so clever now.