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.