Saturday, 19 December 2009

It pays to be chicken when crossing the road

The van-driver saw me late. So late that as he braked to an emergency stop and I leapt back for my life, I could reach out and touch his wing-mirror.
It was a closer call than I liked, and I think it shook him up a bit too.
I wasn’t jay-walking. I was on a zebra crossing and the green man had told me I could go. The driver, who was very apologetic, simply hadn’t seen the red light.
Probably because he was a stranger in the area and was paying more attention to his sat-nav than to the real world around him.
His view of the lights may also have been obscured by a lorry that had pulled up almost on the crossing. It certainly obscured the van from me, and me from the van, until the nearly fatal last moment.
And why was the lorry there? Because its driver had stopped to make or take a phone call.
Using a phone at the wheel is a scarily common act of madness. And, though illegal, it’s back on the rise, as a recent survey found.
We’ve all seen dreadful driving by drivers whose minds and hands were on their phones instead of on the road and the wheel.
I had to take emergency action the other day to avoid a chap who suddenly veered across lanes while texting. He probably never knew how close he came to a high-speed crash.
The common advice is to stop and pull over if you need to use the phone. But that has its drawbacks too.
That truck at the zebra crossing wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people stopped in silly or dangerous places to have a chat. We’ve all seen numerous examples of that too.
The only sensible thing to do with your phone while driving is to turn it off – or pass it over to a passenger.
The hands-free set is legal, and supposed to be safer than the hand-held mobile. But I worry about the whole culture of in-car phones, sat-nav and entertainment systems.
I fear it’s led drivers to forget they’re in charge of heavy, powerful, fast-moving lumps of deadly metal.
I had to take extra care on the A12 recently to steer round an erratically driven Mercedes 4x4. The woman at the controls was unfolding a large map in front of her as she went.
But even that wasn’t the craziest thing I’ve seen lately.
On the very day the Transport Research Laboratory revealed their latest figures on phone misuse, I was again waiting to cross that same zebra crossing I mentioned.
This time I was taking no chances. Even though the lights were in my favour, I watched the approaching truck rumble past before I stepped off the kerb.
It was moving slowly. Slowly enough for me to see the make of the laptop computer that the driver was using, balanced on his steering-wheel.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Rage Against The X-Factor

NOT being Noddy Holder or Cliff Richard, all I register when I hear Christmas songs tinkling out over shopping streets is mild irritation. Not the happy kerr-ching of ethereal cash registers.
And, frankly, the pop charts have been a matter of indifference to me since some years before Ipswich lifted the FA Cup.
Yet I can’t help thinking it would be a pleasant and amusing change if the punk-funk thump of Rage Against The Machine were to be the soundtrack to this year’s late Christmas trade rush.
The American band’s trademark song Killing In The Name has been around since 1992. It’s long since disappeared from the shelves as a single.
But of course it’s available to download any time from a number of music websites. And there’s a very appealing campaign under way to get you to do just that next week.
The plan is that if enough people do it the track will defy the inevitable by beating the X-Factor winner to the Christmas Number One spot.
I have no idea who is about to become Simon Cowell’s latest cash cow, but it’s a dead cert their karaoke offering will be a feeble trill alongside the uplifting rebelliousness of Rage.
The campaign is not only Rage Against the X-Factor, though that’s a reasonable reaction in itself. It’s also Social Networking versus TV, which could be quite an interesting contest.
As far as I can see, ordinary fans are behind the Rage plan, not some Cowell-like suited executive. But of course their chief promotional tools are Facebook and Twitter.
Personally, I hope they pull it off. And not only because I like Rage’s music (and their politics) rather better than anything ever likely to be aired at prime time on ITV.
I’d like to be a fly on the wall of those TV and radio boardrooms where it’s discussed whether to or not play the Christmas chart-topper.
And if they do, whether to cover it in bleeps or fade it out early. Which would be a shame.
It’s a pity Susan Boyle hasn’t been persuaded to cover anything by The Sex Pistols or The Dead Kennedys. Her take on Let’s Lynch The Landlord or Anarchy In The UK (which, incidentally, is a lot less anarchic than Killing In The Name) would surely have been pure Christmas gold.
In the absence of that, I’m rooting for Rage to hit the festive jackpot.
But isn’t there just a shred of irony in being told to go out (or, rather, stay in) and buy a track whose most notable and repeated lyric is a forthright refusal to “do what you tell me”?
Or, indeed, as the (no) pressure group’s neat slogan has it: “Fuck you, I won’t buy what you sell me.”

The curious incident of the deer in the night-time

THE barking in the night was insistent, faintly mysterious, almost haunting.
It seemed to come from somewhere among the town streets, then in the wood behind the house, where it was answered by another bark. An almost identical sound, to human ears at least.
For a time the two voices seemed to echo each other, speaking to one another. And then together they moved away, leaving the night to the owls.
It was a very distinctive bark. One I’d heard before when lying awake, as now.
What creature was it? Not a dog – if it had been, mine would have been yelling his head off in affronted response. And not at all the same tone as a fox either.
From somewhere the words “barking deer” came into my half-asleep brain. And from there it became a quick and simple matter to identify the sound the next morning, thanks to the wonders of the internet.
To hear what I heard in the night, visit, click on his Sound Diary 2008 and look for the muntjac.
Even as an audio file the barking deer makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. But what a wonderful illustration of the fact that even in town we share our world with the wild things.
The muntjac is only here because people brought it here from China. But since escaping from Woburn Park in Bedfordshire in about 1925, it has done very well all across southern England.
Numbers are increasing apace. I’ve caught occasional glimpses of the little deer among the trees in Rendlesham Forest.
On one memorable occasion I stood and watched one watching me for a good minute or two in the woods near Dunwich. Only as I raised my camera did it disappear like smoke, as if it had never been.
But I didn’t realise until now how often I’d heard muntjacs calling. Or how close to my home they make theirs.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Dubai to all that?

DUBAI. Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating places on the planet. And for all the same reasons one of the most repugnant.
Ten years ago, if you’d even heard of the place you probably wouldn’t have been able to place it on the map. You’d almost certainly have had no image of it in your mind’s eye.
The shiny high-rise city centre, the extravagant, spectacular skyscrapers, the world’s glitziest marina were not there then.
Today they stand for modernity as Manhattan once did. But if the towers of Manhattan in the 1920s were the summit of capitalism triumphant, those of Dubai in 2009 are the pinnacle of its decadence.
At 2,684ft, the Burj Dubai is – of course – the world’s highest man-made structure.
It’s not beautiful, or even particularly striking to look at, unlike some of those it dwarfs around it. Just big. Full of look-at-me arrogance. Merely show-off rich.
The perfect symbol, in fact, of all that modern Dubai represents. Right down to the huge number of immigrant workers who have built it.
And the grim poverty and dire working conditions in which they’ve done it.
For that’s what Dubai is really about. Not just the fabulous new wealth that has attracted pop stars, top tennis and motor-racing events, but the bitter exploitation that has made it all possible.
When Pink, whose songs reveal a real social conscience, played in Dubai, I wonder what thought she gave to the thousands of the city’s inhabitants who couldn’t have afforded a ticket if they’d saved for a year.
And was Elton John’s concert there a flag flown against the repression of homosexuality? Or was it about the money?
The theory of evolution is considered taboo in Dubai. Strange, considering how quickly and dramatically the city state itself has evolved.
Alcohol is also taboo there. Officially. Which is also odd in a place recently dubbed partying capital of the world.
Of course, it’s not the locals doing the partying. And it’s not most of the resident immigrants, either, who account for 84 per cent of the population.
Some of those have been drawn there by the opportunities for fast living, fast cars and glamour. Some no doubt have been satisfied by all that.
But most have been drawn there, predominantly from south Asia, by the promise of an escape from poverty. And found themselves in a worse poverty trap than they have left.
A mostly male world of long working hours, nights on crowded floors and little prospect of ever earning enough for the flight home.
While around the corner a patch of desert is watered to host the world’s richest golf tournament.
What was the European Order of Merit has become the Race to Dubai. Which just about says it all.
What was a noble sport has become an undignified scramble for dosh.
And talking of noble sports… Though you won’t yet find Dubai, or anywhere near it, among the world’s Test-playing nations, the International Cricket Council has moved there from London.
Horse-racing and heavy metal have sprung up there. It’s a place where Kylie Minogue, The Jonas Brothers and investment banking all belong in the same sentence.
Where the fabulously rich and wealthy gather – in flagrant disregard for the city’s Muslim traditions – to be fabulously decadent.
Decadence. Defined in my dictionary as “moral degeneration or decay”. Often considered to be what ushered in the fall of the Roman empire.
Or, from Wikipedia: “Decadent societies are often prosperous but usually have severe social and economic inequality, to such a degree that the upper class becomes either complacent or greedy, while the lower classes become hopeless and apathetic.”
Which sounds like Dubai, except that it’s not all home-grown. This small spot on the Arabian peninsula has become a magnet for the greedy upper and hopeless lower classes of a wider world.
A desert meeting-point of rich West and poor East. A place with no more obvious reason to exist than Las Vegas.
Both are frontier gambling towns. Where Vegas is built on roulette wheels and slot-machines, Dubai places its chips on the world’s stock exchanges.
It’s tempting to see Dubai’s decadence as a focus of capitalism’s dying throes.
And those glittering towers are certainly a crystalline encrustation of the world’s banking system, now tottering.
But it’s more complicated than that. Because Dubai, where much of the wealth and all of the law-making are in the hands of one family, is the place where capitalism meets feudalism.
Those workers existing in medieval poverty are living in a medieval system.
In their way, Dubai’s towers are like the cathedrals and mosques of the medieval world. Except that they stand to the glory not of God or Allah but of Mammon.
The colossal Burj Dubai is due to be officially opened a month from today. Not great timing, as it turns out.
I can’t find it in me to be sorry about the imminent collapse of the Dubai economy – though I fear for the trapped migrant workers.
What the effects of the giant’s fall will be everywhere else may be another matter.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Hot potato buried in a paper mountain

AMONG the fine print buried in the paper mountain behind last week’s Queen’s Speech were some startling proposals.
Highly undemocratic proposals that could radically increase Peter Mandelson’s executive power. Or, of course, that of his (probably Tory) successor as business secretary.
Not surprising, perhaps, from the most Big Brother government we’ve had since Cromwell. But worth bringing into the light anyway.
The government’s official headline on its Digital Economy Bill is: “Investing for the future: building tomorrow’s economy today”.
From there it goes straight into talking about “ensuring a world-class digital future” and “maximising the benefits from the digital revolution”.
Nice touchy-feely sentiments suited to the soundbite age. Advertising-speak which may mean something but probably doesn’t.
The Bill goes on to tick various boxes that are linked, if at all, pretty tenuously.
This is a trick typical of all governments, to sneak their bad medicine through in a batch of stuff no one could object to.
So we get:
• A new duty for Ofcom to “promote investment” in public service media.
• The “enabling of investment” (whatever that might mean in practice) to update mobile and wireless broadband.
• Updated regulations to enable digital switchover for radio by 2015.
• Public service updates to Channel 4.
• Compulsory age ratings for all boxed video games designed for those aged 12 and above.
Well, OK, some people might object to some of that. But the real hot potato lies under the heading: “Tackling widespread copyright infringement”.
Now this is an important issue – and the rights and wrongs of it are not as clear-cut as either the government or many of its detractors seem to think.
The Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow ( is in no doubt about the Bill.
He declares: “This is as bad as I’ve ever seen, folks. It’s a declaration of war by the entertainment industry and their captured regulators against the principles of free speech, privacy, freedom of assembly, the presumption of innocence, and competition.”
Even The Guardian, which might be thought to have a stake in preserving its copyright, says the Bill “is less about creating the digital businesses of the 21st century than protecting the particular 20th century business models used in music and film”.
Doctorow heads his scare piece with a picture of 17th-century witch-burning and says Labour plans to create a “Pirate-Finder General”.
It’s pretty clear which side he’s on in the battle between media moguls and the private file-sharers who fill YouTube and the like with “stolen” music and film.
But this isn’t really a Robin Hood situation.
The people who make music or films, research newspaper articles, write books or take photos have a right to earn something from their efforts.
And while I’m generally in favour of the information-sharing that the internet has opened up, it has also seriously compromised that right.
It is now easy and commonplace to pass on – in other words, pirate – works created by other people.
On the flip side of the coin, the net has also opened up new opportunities for individuals to sell what they create.
Which, of course, is no consolation to the 20th-century media businesses which can no longer control artists’ distribution.
Whether this is better or worse for the artists themselves is a patchy area containing every shade of grey. Black-and-white government attempts at regulation cannot hope to cope with it.
Neither Mandelson nor anyone else has the power to put the genie back in the bottle. But that’s not going to stop him trying.
He intends to force internet service providers to spy on their customers and turn in or cut off any they suspect of piracy.
For himself he wants “secondary” powers to create new offences, new punishments, new “duties, powers or functions” without having to draft new laws or get them passed.
He wants a free hand to make up the law as he goes along. Without parliamentary debate.
See what I mean about undemocratic?
Doctorow underlines that point by describing Mandelson as “unelected”. Which isn’t quite right.
He was elected in 1992 as MP for Hartlepool, re-elected in 1997 and 2001 and remained in the Commons until 2004.
It’s only since Gordon Brown brought him back into the government in October 2008 by handing him a seat in the Lords that he’s wielded power by appointment only.
Doctorow, who takes an international interest in such things, describes Mandelson’s plan as “the most radical copyright proposal I’ve ever seen”.
But then Doctorow’s own proposals aren’t exactly conservative.
He believes copyright laws should be “liberalized” to allow for free sharing of all digital media. And that copyright holders should only have a monopoly on selling their own work.
Which sounds neat in theory. And as impossible to enforce as the Mandelson plan.


GALILEO is indisputably one of the heroes of scientific inquiry in the long battle against enforced religious ignorance.
The fact that he was forced by the Catholic Church under torture to deny his own astronomical discoveries underscores that fact.
Which makes it delightfully ironic that two of his fingers have just turned up at auction and are to be displayed at the science museum in Florence. Just as if they were the bodily relics of a Catholic saint.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Signals lost in all the noise

SHERLOCK HOLMES once told Watson he didn’t know, or care, whether the earth went round the sun or vice-versa.
His argument was, essentially, that on a need-to-know basis, he didn’t. And he didn’t want the finite capacity of his memory taken up with things that could never be of any use to him as a detective.
There a few things to be said about this.
One is that I am quite sure Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes, was perfectly well aware of the nature of earth’s orbit. And, no doubt, happy to know it.
More importantly, the capacity of our brains is greater than almost anyone makes use of. The more you use it, the more space is there.
Presumably there is eventually a limit to this, but I doubt if many – or any – people have reached the limit. Most of us operate at only a tiny fraction of our potential.
Sadly, most of us also clog up the little we use with information far less useful – or interesting – than the motions of the solar system.
What good does it do me, or anyone, to know of the existence of Simon Cowell? Of Jordan (the silicon-packed and unpacked "celebrity", not the country or the river)? Of Jedward (whoever he, they or it may be)?
We live in the supposed Age of Information. But how well informed are we?
We have more telly than ever. And nothing demonstrates so well that "more" doesn’t equal "better".
Then there is the internet. The greatest and most accessible source of information there has ever been (within history as we know it). Cluttered up with more trivia, more ephemera, more toenail-clippings of juvenile minds than anyone in the pre-Facebook world could have imagined.
More photographs have been taken in the digital age than ever before. There have probably been more photos taken this week than in the whole 20th century. And probably more taken by phones than have ever been committed to film.
It’s hard to believe that not many generations ago the only images our ancestors would have seen were in the windows and on the walls of their local church.
There are more mobile phones in Britain than there are people. I tremble to imagine how many calls are made and texts sent each day. Most of them pointless.
As a columnist and blogger myself, I’m about to tread on what I know is shaky ground. But how many columns or blogs do you read that are actually worth reading?
I do try at least to discuss matters more vital than the trivial details of my own mundane daily life. I hope I’m not just adding to the noise.
And there, finally, I’ve got to the point.
There’s certainly more communication going on now than ever before. Far, far more.
But how much actual information – useful, interesting, life-enhancing information – gets through?
I fear that the signal-to-noise ratio is desperately low.
And that the things that matter – of which there are plenty – just get buried in the endless gush of mindless "entertainment".


THE pictures from China were certainly eye-catching. The Great Wall and the gates of the Forbidden City are photogenic enough even when not covered in snow.
But were the snowstorms that have disrupted transport and agriculture all across northern China man-made? Was China’s heaviest snowfall for nearly 50 years the result of a massive experiment to alleviate the country’s recent drought?
Having first said yes, the Chinese authorities now say no.
I’m inclined to believe the denial. That the heavy weather was simply more than the experimenters could have created.
But I can’t be certain and I think we should be told.
As if we could expect the Chinese authorities to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Or, indeed, any authorities.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Power corrupts ...

I’D just put the bread in the oven, the laundry in the washing-machine and was applying the vacuum-cleaner to the stairs when it struck me.
In the century or so since an electricity supply was connected to most of our homes we have become power junkies. If it were taken away we would face withdrawal symptoms so severe they might in many cases quite quickly become fatal.
It is, I suppose, for this reason that the government this week committed to a new generation of nuclear power stations.
A decision that could in the long term be the worst among all the bad decisions taken by this government. Or any British government.
And not just for those of us who live in the wind shadow of Sizewell.
Nuclear power may seem like a quick fix. It’s not. It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen.
By claiming that it’s "clean" and "relatively safe", energy secretary Ed Miliband begs more questions than he can ever answer.
Safe? For now, perhaps. The terrorist attack scenario is a giant red herring. The reactors at Sizewell, Bradwell and elsewhere should be safe enough against that prospect.
But what of a few decades down the line? A century or two? A millennium or two?
Can we build anything that will reliably keep lethal waste safe for that long - even without rising seas?
How safe will Sizewell be when the sea erodes away the cliff it’s built on – as it surely will?
How safe is "relatively safe"? Relative to what? Global warming? All-out nuclear war?
Miliband also said the government would support new coal-fired power stations, as long as they are fitted with a new "green" technology.
Sounds good. Trouble is, the technology for carbon capture and storage is unproven and prohibitively expensive. And there are serious doubts anyway about how "green" it really is.
So is it time to panic? To start preparing for a life of power cuts without end in a post-oil world?
Not necessarily.
There is a growing scientific consensus that suggests we could have all the power we could possibly want without burning anything – coal, gas, corn-oil or rainforest.
And it doesn’t even rely on developing technologies to harness the power of waves or the heat of the earth’s core.
Certainly not on the scientifically sexy but probably dead-end idea of nuclear fusion.
Both solar and wind power have the potential to deliver more power than even gas-guzzling America would know what to do with. And we already have the safe, clean, green technology to exploit them.
All we have to do to make it happen is tweak the world’s economy to reflect what is really worth doing and what isn’t. Rather than the advertising industry’s idea of what will make some rich people richer.
That, admittedly, is some tweak.

Friday, 6 November 2009

On his high horse over ecstasy

IS horse-riding really more dangerous than ecstasy?
Let's ask Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine.
"It is one of the more dangerous sports," she says. "There have been quite a few fatalities in Britain over the years.
"Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it."
I imagine that if you were to ask an ecstasy-user a similar question, they might give you a very similar answer.
Horses for courses; thrills for pills.
Both riding horses and popping ecstasy are, in fact, rather more risky than taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.
Perhaps, if we are to take Prince Edward seriously, the excitement is therefore greater too.
I don't really think, though, that the death-risk is a major incentive in either case. In fact, I don't suppose it's something either riders or pill-poppers often consider.
So let's consider it for them.
According to David Nutt, until very recently the government's chief adviser on drugs, riding accounts for about 100 traffic accidents and ten deaths a year.
Putting it another way, one study suggests that on average riders suffer a serious accident once in every 350 hours in the saddle.
Which apparently – and almost incredibly – suggests riding horses is 20 times riskier than riding motorbikes. But it still doesn't tell us how it compares with taking ecstasy, or any other drug.
Those risks are much harder to assess. Simply because it's illegal, it's very hard to tell how many people take ecstasy and how often.
Estimates are likely to be bent to suit whatever argument someone is trying to convince you of.
There's also a great blurring of lines where drug-related deaths are concerned.
Just how "related" does an incident have to be in order to be classified that way?
The most famous "ecstasy victim", Leah Betts, actually died of drinking too much water. It is at least arguable that had the drug been legal, better advice would have kept her alive.
Her tragedy is just one example of statistics telling rather less than the whole story.
But the bleakest figures for ecstasy suggest there could be 40 deaths a year in the UK.
So are there four times as many ecstasy users as horse-riders?
I don't know – and I have a sneaking suspicion Professor Nutt doesn't know very precisely either.
In fact, headline-grabbing though it obviously was, I fear his comparison between the two activities is a giant red herring.
I haven't yet heard anyone recommend ecstasy – as they do riding – as part of a healthy lifestyle.
A more relevant comparison might be between ecstasy and another drug – a legal one.
The best-accepted UK figures suggest seven ecstasy-related deaths a year per million users.
Even allowing a decent margin for error, that's still a long, long way short of the figure for alcohol. The NHS puts that at 625 deaths per million drinkers.


GORDON BROWN may claim that he wants government based on sound advice from independent scientific advisers. The sacking of David Nutt suggests otherwise.
His horse-riding analogy was perhaps unfortunate. Perhaps even, as home secretary Alan Johnson said, "political".
But it is clear overall that Professor Nutt was dismissed as chairman of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs for telling the truth.
Drug policy in this country, as in most others, is determined by sensationalism and hysteria, not calm wisdom.
The facts – for example, that use of cannabis actually declined after its legal classification was lowered – seldom fit the screaming headlines. But as we know, it is headlines that determine New Labour policy.
Particularly, for some reason, headlines in traditionally Tory-supporting papers.
Nutt's fundamental error wasn't just telling ministers what they didn't want to hear. It was making headlines by doing it.
At least he has opened up the debate.
Not just on drugs policy. But on the even more important question of how the government balances informed advice against the howls of an uninformed public.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

By appointment: a president with previous

I RATHER like David Miliband. I have tended to think that if the Labour Party has any decent future, he might be it.
If only he wasn't so often wrong about things. And his championing of Tony Blair to be president of Europe is so wrong on so many counts it stopped me in my tracks.
For a president – whoever it might be – to be appointed, not elected, would send out a very strange message to the world.
For it to be someone who, in Miliband's phrase, would "stop the traffic", would only compound that folly.
In fact, Blair as president might well literally stop traffic through protests against his war-mongering when he was UK premier.
In terms of world credibility it would put Europe roughly where the United States was in the bad old days of the George W Bush presidency. Virtual pariah status across large areas of the globe.
William Hague is surely right to say Britain's Conservatives would regard it as a "hostile gesture" if Europe were to make Blair its figurehead.
And not only the Conservatives, either. There are plenty on the left for whom Blair would be as unpopular a choice as Brussels could contrive.
It's about 60 years since Britain reluctantly began to accept it was no longer a Great Power. That it could no longer divide up the world into "spheres of influence" with the USA and USSR.
That status was over for Britain long before Miliband was born. Yet he seems to be nostalgic for it. Which may not be the best starting point for a foreign secretary.
Of course he's not so foolish as to think Britain can ever again be in the world's Big Three. But he does see Europe managing global affairs as partner in a triumvirate with the US and China.
And it is in such a role that he imagines Blair halting movement on the streets of Beijing.
I share some of Miliband's hopes of a federal Europe. But the questions of how it is run and how it is led need to be answered properly, not by parachuting in a celebrity president.
Would you want Blair to speak for you at the world's high table? I wouldn't.
His backers, who also include his old side-kick Gordon Brown, would like to see Blair presented as a true European president. They imagine him speaking on equal terms with Barack Obama and China's president Hu Jintao.
If those three sat down together, only one – Obama – would do so with a democratic mandate.
Not that the lack of it would be all Blair and Hu would have in common.
They both have "previous" in the matter of de-stablising other countries by armed interference.


MAXIM GORKY isn't much read these days, at least not in English translation. But for me he's at least up there with Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky as a great Russian writer.
His depictions of grim life under the tsars were at least as influential as Tolstoy's in building the mood for revolution.
The Communists recognised that by changing the name of his birthplace, Nizhny Novgorod – Russia's third city, after Moscow and St Petersburg – to Gorky. Stalin himself helped carry his coffin in 1936 (whether he also helped put him in it remains an open question).
Yet Gorky was never shy of criticising the Bolsheviks and their rule, just as he had that of the tsars before them.
In 1918, at the outbreak of Lenin's Red Terror, he declared: "Physical violence will always be an incontestable proof of moral impotence. Killing proves nothing except that the killer is stupid."
Wise words that rang in my head yet again this week when the Taliban "claimed responsibility" for the slaughter of UN workers in a guesthouse in Kabul. As if it was something to be proud of.


IF the latest British Council poll is to be believed, 54 per cent of British people think creationism should be taught "alongside evolution" in school science lessons.
Good idea.
While we're at it, let's teach all about Cinderella in history lessons, Buffy the vampire-slayer in RE and Bagpuss in biology.
And of course flat-Earthism should be added to the geography syllabus right away.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Griffin's brutish nasty rabble

FROM Brutus to Hitler, from the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir to BNP leader Nick Griffin, rabble-rousers are a dangerous lot.
There’s a horrifying scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when a roused rabble are on the hunt for “conspirators” after Caesar’s death.
Coming on a lone citizen, they demand to know his name, which, tragically for him is, Cinna.
“Tear him to pieces,” demands the rabble-leader. “He’s a conspirator.”
“I am Cinna the poet,” he replies. “I am Cinna the poet. I am not Cinna the conspirator.”
You can hear his panic in the repetition as the mob carry him offstage, presumably tearing him apart as they go.
The irrationality and dangerousness of the mob is a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. And I reckon the Bard knew a thing or two.
That Cinna-the-poet moment is the reason I am against making public the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles.
Though it’s not just about the perils of mistaken identity. I don’t think public dismemberment would have been the right fate for Cinna the conspirator either.
And I don’t think stoning or lynching is the right fate for anyone who has already undergone their official judicial punishment for crimes real or imaginary.
On that basis I suppose I ought not to approve of publishing the names and addresses of members of the Brutish Nasty Party.
On the other hand, you can be pretty sure the numb-skulled bigots of the BNP are mostly in favour of the “outing” of paedophiles. So perhaps it’s only fair that their own private details should be made public.
Which is exactly what the public-spirited Wikileaks website has done (again) this week.
Mind you, I tried in vain to see who around here might be a paid-up racist. Round and round went the “Loading” symbol, but the web page wouldn’t open.
I assume it was neither censored, nor nobbled by the BNP, but simply overloaded with too many people trying to look.
I did find, though, that there is no truth in the claim that the party has a member in the House of Lords.
What they do have is a bloke from Stoke-on-Trent who styles himself “Lord”, which is not quite the same thing.
The real lord whose name he almost shares is an 85-year-old field marshall, decorated hero of World War II, former head of the British armed forces, former Lord Lieutenant of Greater London, eloquent opponent of the Iraq war and, for good measure, Knight of the Garter.
A man far too wise, intelligent, experienced and dignified to have any connection with Griffin and his guttersnipes.
Happily, Lord Bramall was not lynched or torn apart on account of the brief mistake of identity. I hope he wasn’t too embarrassed either.
Two other former heads of the Army, generals Sir Mike Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt, are among top brass who have called on the BNP “to cease and desist” from “hijacking the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage”.
Their spokesman James Bethell said: “People are fed up with the BNP using the honour of Britain’s armed services and the memory of fallen heroes to promote the politics of racism and extremism.”
Apparently the latest BNP list does include a number of lower-level army officers and – disturbingly – a smattering of doctors.
How many of these are “Dr”, “Captain” or “Corporal” in the same way “Lord” Brian Bramhall of Stoke is a lord is a matter of conjecture.
What is clear is that the apparently growing number of women members is still unsurprisingly outnumbered seven-to-one by men.
Aggressive, anti-social and violent behaviour by women is on the rise too, but the girls still generally lag behind the boys in such things.
The published list dates from April, so there’s no way of telling how many black or Asian people have rushed to join the BNP since the party dropped its illegal bar on non-white members last week. I think I can guess.
Shortly after GW Bush was elected president for the second time I saw a couple of maps of the USA, which as far as I know were genuine. One showed which states voted Republican and the other which states had the lowest average school grades. The two were almost identical.
The greatest concentrations of BNP membership are in the East Midlands, around the Yorkshire-Lancashire boundary and in south Essex, with another pocket in Lincolnshire. It would be interesting to plot that distribution against one of educational achievement too.
Suffolk, I’m glad to say, has very little BNP presence (just 82 members, 21 of them in Ipswich), even though Griffin was raised and schooled in the county.
Which leads me to wonder what effect it had on him to be one of only two boys in the (nearly) all-girls St Felix School in Southwold.
There might be a fascinating psychological study in that for someone. If he was worth it.
  • As a footnote, I see Griffin intends to 'complain' about the alleged bias shown towards him by the BBC after they kindly - and wholly unnecessarily - invited him to take part in last night's Question Time. Of course, should they ever get anywhere near power, the BNP would offer a free, friendly and unbiased platform to all who wished to express any dissenting opinion of any kind, wouldn't they? Yeah, of course they would.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

An insult to true Labour values

STUDENT loans, the Tote, part of a uranium enrichment firm, the Channel tunnel rail link, the Dartford crossing – they don’t exactly get the pulses racing, do they?
Which may be why Gordon Brown thought he could flog them off without causing a fuss. And why he was apparently right to think so.
The announcement that he was sticking a £16billion sale sticker on an assortment of public assets seems to have passed with barely a murmur of dissent.
The Tories and the Daily Mail (is there a difference?) put up a predictable token protest.
Which is a bit rich coming from the party that began the trade in knock-off family silver by hawking everything that was of real value in the 1980s.
But Brown’s fire-sale was shunted off the front pages after one day by the returning tale of MPs’ expenses claims (yawn). Which shows it hasn’t got people as angry as it should.
I have serious misgivings about the morality of uranium enrichment, gambling and student loans.
One is a component of an industry I consider unacceptably dangerous to us all. The other two are directly counter to the principles the Labour Party was founded on.
But that’s not the real issue here.
Neither is the fact that selling assets, especially profitable ones, is the economics of the madhouse. The despair that leads to the pawnshop.
Perhaps this short-term thinking is not surprising from a government that must know its own future is now strictly short term.
But it’s bad financial policy for the nation.
More to the point, it’s stark evidence that the party that still has the nerve to call itself Labour has utterly forsaken its roots, its tradition, its principles – in fact, its very purpose.
What we have now is a Thatcherite government – not just non-Socialist but anti-Socialist – trading under the name of Labour.
And it makes me sick.


HENRY KISSINGER, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, FW de Klerk, David Trimble - they're all former winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. By those standards, the choice of Barack Obama for this year’s honour doesn’t seem quite so bizarre.
But hang on. A previous Democratic US president, Jimmy Carter, completed his term in the White House 21 years before being awarded the Nobel gong in 2002.
It was given "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development".
Decades of effort.
Obama’s got it for a few months of promise.
It’s as if I were handed the Man Booker Prize for the book I haven’t yet got round to writing.


A MAN mistook his fiancée for an intruder and shot her dead the day before they were due to marry.
He has not been charged with any offence and police said everything pointed to a tragic accident.
Tragic indeed. Grim. And where on Earth could it have happened but in America?
Especially the bit about no charges.
Imagine it had happened in England. Might questions perhaps have been asked about how a loaded gun came to be in the house?
And how come it was fired at someone in the dark – presumably before any questions had been asked? Before intent or identity had been established. Without so much as a "Who goes there?"
(Actually, I’m surprised that even in Florida there were no questions about the lack of questions.)
In America, though, it’s just a tragic accident. One of life’s natural hazards.
Which is very sad. And might also seem to a suspicious person to be rather convenient for some.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Two words that changed my mind on Europe

IN June 1975, when Britain held its only nationwide referendum to date, I was a few weeks too young to take part.
My girlfriend at the time, four months older than I was, voted No to the question: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
We were both very interested in politics and seldom differed on the subject. The Europe question was the one major issue on which we didn’t see eye to eye – and it rankled with me that she could vote and I couldn’t.
Politics, incidentally, seemed a lot more genuine, a lot more visceral, then than it does now. I don’t think the difference is entirely that I was then an eager teenager and have now reached jaded middle age.
I think politics itself has become jaded and flabby. Once there was trust, belief, ideas – or so it seemed, at least. Now they’re all Tories at heart.
But the point is Europe. I believed in it then, and I believe in it now. At least, I did until this week.
I was unconvinced by the No campaigners in 1975, even though they included my greatest political heroes of the time, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle.
I was unconvinced by the Tory Euro-sceptics of the 1980s and 90s. They always seemed to have blundered in from a Monty Python sketch.
I’m certainly not swayed by the UKIP bunch, whose idea of an attack on the gravy-train is to hop on board.
There are, of course, things I don’t like about Europe and its decision-making. There are always bound to be in any government or legislative body.
But overall, I have always been a European, intellectually and emotionally.
For so many reasons, for the UK to be a vital, functioning part of Greater Europe has always seemed to me to be a Good Thing. Until now.
And the argument which has changed my mind? The prospect – or threat – which has me doubting the whole notion of the European Union as an appropriate entity?
Just two words.
The first is “President”. And the second is “Blair”.


REACTION to my piece here last week about climate change has mostly been positive. So much so that it seems I’m not the only one round here who uses the same water bottle over and over again.
One reader in Portugal (who’d have thought it?) is puzzled, though.
Fatima wrote to me: “You talk about the climate changing, the water and the effects on the Earth. I quite agree. We must do something! As soon as possible.”
But she added: “I’ve listened to a talk show where college professors defended the idea that the effect of man on climate change was minimal. That nature itself has all the credit.
“I was quite shocked. Scientists seemed divided. Who is right on this subject?”
There seem to me to be two points worth making here.
The first is that if science is genuinely divided, we have a choice – a gamble we can take.
Imagine you’re standing on a railway line and someone yells that there’s a train speeding towards you. What do you do? Stand still and argue the point, or get off the line just in case they’re right?
The second point is that I don’t believe the scientific community is really all that divided on the issue anyway.
I think there are a few scientists who disagree to some extent or another with the majority. And because the media is obsessed with providing “balance”, those few get much more attention than their views deserve.
And why do the nay-sayers dispute what the vast bulk of available evidence seems to be telling them?
Is it simply that their thinking is woolly and wishful?
Either that or they’re paid, directly or indirectly, by vested interests such as the oil industry.
Whose barons would apparently rather see us all go to hell in an oil-burning handcart than see a dip in their bottom line.


LAST week I wrote: “It’s much easier to believe in an uninhabitable Earth than a habitable moon.”
To which a scientist replies: “Absolutely so. It would be very much easier to repair the Earth’s ecosystem than to create a new one on the moon or another planet – that is, only impossibly difficult rather than totally unbelievable.
“Even a damaged, globally warmed Earth would be a very much better starting point than any other body in the solar system.
“Not that I think the Earth will actually be uninhabitable. It’ll only be a difficult place to live, incapable of supporting more than a few per cent, if so many, of its current human population.”
So that’s all right, then.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Water, water everywhere and never a stop to think

WATER. The stuff of life. One of the crucial, necessary components without which life would never have come into being. Not on this planet, anyway.
Though the famous “canals” on Mars have long been shown to be a misunderstanding, there is indeed water there, both as a gas in the atmosphere and in polar ice-caps.
New discoveries suggest there is water on the moon too. Not in fluid, drinkable form but still present.
American scientist Carle Pieters, reviewing evidence from India’s first moon mission, explained: “When we say water on the moon, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles.
“Water on the moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl (hydrogen and oxygen) that interact with molecules of rock and dust in the top millimetres of the moon’s surface.”
So mud, then. Which may, I suppose, bring slightly closer to reality the idea of creating moon colonies where people can live.
In science fiction, such colonies are often places of escape from an Earth that has become uninhabitable.
It’s a romantic idea and one with, I suppose, a grain of plausibility.
Trouble is, it’s much easier to believe in an uninhabitable Earth than a habitable moon – never mind Mars or beyond.
And it may not be a problem just for our children’s children, either.
According to a report by scientists at the Met Office, the catastrophic effects of global warming could occur within the lifetime of most people now living.
Richard Betts, the Met Office’s head of climate impacts, told a conference in Oxford this week: “We’ve always talked about very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise.
“It’s an extreme scenario, but the way we are going the most severe scenario is looking more plausible.”
Four degrees may not sound that severe – but the average figure disguises the likelihood of much bigger rises at the poles. And it’s melting polar ice-caps that will cause much of the most catastrophic change.
Which brings us back to water.
There are two main reasons why a hotter Earth would be devastating news for humankind, and they both relate to water.
One is the rising sea levels that will flood many of the coastal cities where so many millions now live – and much of the farmland where our food is grown.
And the other, perhaps paradoxically, is the predicted droughts that could turn currently inhabited areas into desert.
It is feared a 4C warming could threaten the water supply of half the world’s population and wipe out up to half its animal and plant species.
It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee the wars that could result from seven billion-plus people scrapping over dwindling resources of both land and water.
This is why officials from 190 countries have gathered in Bangkok to continue negotiations on a new deal to tackle global warming. And why the United Nations will try to toughen up the existing agreements on industrial emissions in Copenhagen in December.
Let’s pray whatever they come up with isn’t too little too late. Past evidence suggests it probably will be.
It is, of course, notoriously difficult to predict the weather, let alone the climate. It is a chaotic system with more factors at play than anyone can reliably calculate.
But all this has been on the scientific agenda for 40 years and in the political arena for nearly 20. There has been time for the scientists, at least, to hone and improve their work.
And the worrying thing is that while the politicians have talked a lot and done little, the scientists’ predictions have grown more and more severe.
It’s as if a dire future has been rushing to meet us.


IF one thing symbolises the madness of our times more perfectly than anything else, it’s bottled water.
It’s not the water you pay for, it’s the packaging. In most cases, perfectly serviceable bottles which could be used over and over again are thrown away after one use.
Causing both horrendous waste of materials and a growing problem of disposal – not to mention the greenhouse gases emitted by both making the bottles and transporting them.
Now a lead has been taken against this insanity in what might seem an unlikely place.
The small Australian town of Bundanoon has banned bottled water.
One local retailer came up with the idea of selling only re-fillable bottles. The town’s other shopkeepers all agreed and a number of new public drinking fountains have been provided.
Spokesman John Dee said: “We’re saying to people you can save money and save the environment at the same time. The alternative doesn’t have a sexy brand, doesn’t have pictures of mountain streams on the front of it, it comes out of your tap.”
I’ll raise a glass to that.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Sir Bobby Robson, gentleman of football

BOBBY ROBSON and I both played for the same football team.
The club, Langley Park Juniors, stands at the end of the road out of the County Durham village where Robson grew up. In my teens I could almost see it from my bedroom window in the hilltop village above.
Bobby joined the club in 1944 at the age of 11 and within four years was an inside-forward in the Under-18 side. He left at 17 to turn professional with Fulham.
I had five minutes as a substitute full-back in a trial game in 1972. I left with a brief word of thanks for turning up.
By then Bobby was a former England international and the (not yet very successful) manager of Ipswich. By the time I moved, ten years later, to the village of Sacriston, where Bobby was born, his Town side were the UEFA Cup holders.
Like Robson, I was in my mid-thirties when I arrived in Suffolk and began establishing roots there. He’d moved on by then, adding to his CV the Dutch league title, the Portuguese Cup and honourable defeats in the late stages of two World Cups.
More honours were to follow – the Portuguese title twice with Porto, the Spanish Super Cup, Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.
None, though – perhaps significantly – with the club he and I both supported as boys and which he was finally to manage from 1999 to 2004.
Lack of success, however, is relative. Bobby’s last three seasons in charge of Newcastle United saw them finish fourth, third, then fifth in the Premier League.
In racing terms, the subsequent five years have thoroughly franked Robson’s form. They have brought the Geordies an astonishing 11 different managers and a constant reminder of what real failure is.
The contrast between Bobby’s unfailing dignity and gentlemanliness and the undignified state of the club ever since his ungentlemanly sacking no doubt heightened the sense of love and loss felt in the North East at his death.
Despite the way our lives have entwined, I met Bobby only once, in the early 1990s.
I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo when he brought his Sporting Lisbon side to play a pre-season friendly at Roker Park. I went to watch them train and spent half an hour standing with Bobby on the touchline.
No particular anecdote, no revealing quote, stands out. I simply remember that he was warm, friendly, interested and interesting. A man (unlike many in football) with no unnecessary airs or graces. A gentleman in all the best senses of that term.
I found him, in other words, just as everyone else seems to have done throughout his life.
I have never come across anyone who had a bad word to say about Bobby – and there aren’t too many top football folk you can say that about.
I have heard it said that he was a lucky manager, and maybe there’s something in that.
Lucky to have been given so long to learn his trade at Ipswich, lucky in the coaches he worked with. Lucky, at both his World Cups, to be forced into team changes that turned out to be crucial improvements.
But surely he earned at least part of that luck.
And it can be argued that taking England so close to the final in Italy in 1990 was as great an achievement as Alf Ramsey’s in lifting the trophy at home in 1966.
Perhaps if Robson had been a little less likeable he’d have won more trophies, as both player and manager. But then he wouldn’t have been Bobby, and he might not have won so many friends.
In his late years he moved to that hilltop village where my sister still lives.
She knows little about football and had scant idea who he was, but she too found him a warm and likeable neighbour.
Bobby’s final resting-place is barely a mis-hit shot away from the village green where I played so many kick-about games as a lad.
Despite my respect and affection for him, I found the public reaction to his death – the efflorescence of shirts, scarves and flowers at St James’s Park and on the Portman Road railings – pointless and disturbing.
I am uneasy at best about all this Dianification, whoever it relates to. There seems to have been an inflation of public mourning in recent years that feels somehow un-British.
Nevertheless, I am glad that on Saturday the two clubs I love, as he did, will unite in honouring him.
And I am glad that from now on I will watch my football from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand. It seems appropriate.


SO the government is proposing to cut £2billion from its education budget.
Their plans including “squeezing” teachers’ pay and, incredibly, axing thousands of headteachers, amalgamating schools under “super-heads”.
They say by chopping up to 3,000 posts they can save £250million a year.
Sounds a lot. Until you realise this is the same government that blew 200 times that amount in one go when they bailed out the banking business last year.

Friday, 18 September 2009

A sledgehammer that misses the nut

IT’S been described as a humiliating climbdown. And even by the standards of this dithering government, four days between announcement and U-turn looks pretty quick.
Except that promising a review isn’t quite the same as a climbdown.
And in any case, there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind when you’ve made a bad decision.
What’s truly humiliating is that an appalling, half-baked idea ever made it into policy at all.
Sir Roger Singleton, the man charged with reviewing it, has already said the vetting scheme for those working with children is unlikely to be scrapped.
So not a U-turn, then. Just braking sharply as you pass the cameras before flooring the pedal again when you think you’re clear.
Children’s secretary Ed Balls has a good face and voice for TV, more plausible than many politicians. He almost had me convinced when he talked of the need to make sure children are safe. Almost.
It’s an easy fear to prey upon, isn’t it – the fear we all have for our children.
Because it’s the worst thing we can imagine, there is a natural tendency to exaggerate enormously the danger of our kids coming to harm.
That’s why we over-protect them.
Why we keep them cooped up at home when they should be out playing.
Why we insist on driving our young ones round the block (and round the bend) rather than letting them walk anywhere – which would certainly be healthier, and probably safer.
Why that almost mythical monster the Paedophile has become the bogeyman of our times.
There are, of course, genuine paedophiles out there. But very, very few. (Though I suspect their constant pillorying in the media has paradoxically caused their number to grow.)
It is probably appropriate that teachers should be should be checked for previous criminal convictions.
I had such a check myself before being allowed to assist with school visits to a Wildlife Trust farm. I didn’t mind, though it seemed over-fussy and unnecessary.
But to extend this to sports clubs, music and theatre groups, parents who drive each others’ kids to ballet classes?
There must be a real danger that tying them up in more red tape will lead clubs to close. Locking even more kids into an unhealthy regime of computers and TV.
Balls says: "I want to do nothing that makes it difficult for adults who are volunteering and working with children to continue to do so. No unnecessary checks, no bureaucracy."
Great. I only wish I believed him.
Because unnecessary checks and bureaucracy is surely what we’re going to get.
For this is another opportunity for a government obsessed with surveillance of its citizens to grow its Orwellian database.
The Paedophile, like that other monstrously exaggerated spectre, the Terrorist, is another convenient excuse to invade our privacy.
And frankly I object to being assumed to be a paedophile until proven innocent. It goes against every proper principle of law and society.
Not that having a clean record proves innocence anyway.
Predictably, Balls cites the Soham murders as a reason for the official paranoia.
Yet, despite the previous raising of doubts about him, Ian Huntley had no criminal record before he killed Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells.
No CRB check would have prevented him from getting any job or volunteering for anything.
The proposed scheme isn’t a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s a case of wielding the sledgehammer – and missing the nut.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Guantanamo reading list

AN AWFUL lot could be written about Guantanamo Bay, and over the years most of it has been.
It may not be quite the wickedest thing ever perpetrated by the American government, but it remains a potent symbol of international wickedness. And it’s rather shocking that eight months into the Obama presidency it’s still operating, even if the worst excesses of treatment there have ended.
Presumably, like other messes Obama inherited from Bush (and, incidentally, Brown from Blair), it’s simply not that easy to close down, move out. Think Iraq. Think Afghanistan.
Still, it remains a blot on human relations. So much so it seems almost prurient to take an interest in some of the less offensive things that go on there. Like what the prisoners – of whom 229 remain – choose to read.
Recently, however, journalist Besan Sheikh from the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat went to report on conditions in Guantanamo. (That’s one thing you couldn’t imagine happening in the Bush era.)
And one of the people he interviewed was the prison librarian, who has 13,500 books in his care.
Many of those volumes are Arabic books on Muslim themes. But apparently the most requested books are, in order, the Harry Potter novels, Don Quixote, and Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.
It may be vaguely dispiriting to learn that the ubiquitous Harry Potter has got even there, but it’s not really surprising. No doubt readers wish for a wand-wave of Potter-style magic to whisk them away from their real-world Azkaban.
The Obama book is no real surprise either. Perhaps he’s regarded as a hero even in the jail whose key he holds. Perhaps the inmates simply want to read between the lines for a clue to their own futures.
But Don Quixote? A 400-year-old Spanish novel about a mad, wandering old knight? How on earth did that come to be so popular among those more or less indiscriminately rounded up in Bush’s shameful “war on terror”?
I can offer only one explanation, and I’m not sure it tells us anything significant about Guantanamo – except, perhaps, the kind of people who are still locked up there.
Cervantes’s rambling novel is supposed to be one of the greatest works of “Western” literature. Second, some say, only to Shakespeare.
It’s also very long – over 1,000 pages in the latest Penguin edition.
It’s one of those things I’ve always meant to read, but somehow have never found the time for.
And of course the one thing the Guantanamo detainees have in abundance is time.


I STILL can’t make up my mind whether it was right or wrong to release Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi. Or, as we (but not the Libyans) call him, the Lockerbie bomber.
Unlike many Americans, who are apparently incapable of distinguishing moral shades of grey, I can see good arguments on both sides.
But at least one good thing does seem to have come out of it.
That old Special Relationship between Britain and the US is now over. So they tell us.
Which should mean we won’t have to send our boys off to die uselessly the next time they start a pointless war.


SURVEYS are barmy. Surveys conducted as marketing stunts are barmier. And newspapers, mags, TV and radio shows that use them to fill up space or time are arguably barmiest of all.
And yet. There can be something irresistibly entertaining in the results, even if (maybe especially if) you know deep down that it’s all a lot of nonsense.
Take biscuits. More specifically, take them and dunk them in your mug during tea-break.
Apparently, more than half the adults in Britain have been injured doing it. An estimated 25million grown-up people. Injured. Dunking biscuits.
You couldn’t, as one unaccountably popular columnist might say, make it up.
Except I have this sneaking suspicion that somebody has. And then all the rest of us have fallen for it. Or not.


AND speaking of not being able to make it up…
There are various reasons why you can’t always believe everything you read in the papers. But you might have expected the star writer on a national daily to check just a little more thoroughly before firing off: “Somewhere out there in Shropshire is a single mother called Kate Pong with quins, variously named after an American pop singer, a model and the US President.”
Well, yes. Kate Pong – as revealed by the Shropshire local weekly the Newport Advertiser – has indeed given birth to Beyoncé , Tyra, Bobbi, Barack and Earl.
Kate Pong is a chocolate labrador.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Do we need an 'unsend mail' button?

HAVE you ever walked away from an infuriating encounter thinking of all the clever put-downs you wish you’d had the presence of mind to come out with moments earlier?
I think we all have. But in most cases it’s probably really as well that our witticisms – or our true feelings – don’t emerge in the heat of the moment.
Somehow the restraint that seems to hold us back naturally in face-to-face meetings doesn’t always work to hold back the emailing impulse.
A few years ago I had a colleague, based at another office, with whom I corresponded mostly electronically. To see some of the emails we exchanged you might think we were forever rubbing each other up the wrong way.
In fact, whenever we met we got along fine. But without the benefit of facial expressions, body language or even the tone of voice that can help on the phone we were frequently at loggerheads. Winding each other up by simple misunderstanding.
Which is perhaps not surprising if you consider recent research suggesting that a mere seven per cent of face-to-face communication is conveyed by the actual words we use.
Smily emoticons such as :-) and ;-) or even :-p can help a little, but they’re a pretty inexact tool to convey real speech.
All this might not seem very good news for a writer. And it does suggest that maybe the research was carried out with a particularly inarticulate group of subjects.
Nevertheless, it’s a fact that emails sent in haste or with undue thought can come back to bite their sender.
The angry letter written in the middle of the night is usually best left unsent. When the writing takes place at a computer terminal it’s all too easy to hit the Send button while you’re still in that nocturnal muddle of emotion.
Maybe a good addition to an email program would be a delaying system that asks you in the morning if you still want to send the message you dashed off in the night.
A little dialogue box, perhaps, that asks “Have you slept on this?” before it allows you to commit yourself.
Not that that would have been much help to another ex-colleague of mine who marked his departure for a new job by leaving messages to everyone in the office telling them just what he thought of them. Most weren’t very complimentary.
Six months later, having been sacked by his new employers for another breach of email etiquette, he came asking for his old job back.
The reply to which could have come straight out of one of his own messages.
The other potential social danger with emails is how quickly and easily they can be forwarded by an outraged (or amused) recipient.
One national newspaper columnist is probably best known in the business for the blisteringly rude messages he fires off to any sub-editor who dares to improve his carefully crafted prose by altering a word or comma.
Which wouldn’t be quite so funny if his original work was even half as brilliant as he clearly thinks it is – or as his late lamented father’s often was.
I shall never be able to read his purplish prose again without thinking how I might improve the flow of his words. Or what four-letter blast it might occasion if I were to do so.

TWO shocking news stories:
• A survey reports that a third of teenage girls in Britain suffer sexual abuse and a quarter are violently assaulted by boyfriends.
• Britain has the worst rate of teenage drunkenness in “the industrial world”, particularly among girls.
Setting aside all doubts about the accuracy, or objectivity, of the first survey, could these two things be in any way related?

Friday, 28 August 2009

Clever and cleverer

WHAT a blessed, brilliant country this England is. So much more advanced than when we were young, or our parents were.
Year after year our children get cleverer, their teachers more and more effective. It must be so – every statistic tells us.
Two years from now all those youngsters who picked up their GCSE grades yesterday will be getting their A-level results. And I wouldn’t mind betting now that when they do it will be the 29th successive year of record results.
All those teenagers milling round the bus-stop, all those kids performing amazing feats of balance and momentum at the skate-park, must be harbouring the brains of budding Einsteins and Shakespeares under their hoodies.
Their results just keep getting better. And the exams aren’t getting any easier at all, are they? Course not.
Now, I have nothing whatever against the present generation of successful students.
I’m sure they’re just as nice, just as clever, just as motivated and hard-working as we were at their age.
But I can’t help wondering how those newly awarded their four or five straight A’s would have fared with the A-level papers I sat in 1975 – and the same standard of marking.
Or how I’d do myself in the current climate of educational spoon-feeding.
Do I resent it that my paper qualifications have been devalued by 30 years of gradual dumbing down? Yes, I do a bit.
Do I resent the latest batch of students emerging with more and better grades than me? Not in the least.
It’s not their fault. As footballers are so fond of pointing out, you can only beat what’s put in front of you.
In fact, I feel sorry for those whose efforts deserve more credit than simply to be among a record number of candidates with maximum grades.
And if you’re an employer, or a university admissions tutor, how do you select between a dozen students all with perfect marks? Or between them and my imperfect ones?
Caught up in a mania for targets and for constant "improvement", we seem to have lost track of actual standards.
Were you or I better or worse students than those now emerging blinking into the real world?
There is no way of telling.
The benchmarks have changed so much and so often that they are virtually useless.
Unlike our kids and their teachers, who are not well served by having to function in a culture of glamorous fiction.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Last post for the last Tommy

AS we sped through northern France the place names rang as ever with a particular bitter resonance: Arras, Bethune, Cambrai.
As ever, I pondered the shattered bodies and the tonnage of ordnance buried under those blandly rolling wheatfields – and the blandly rolling motorway beneath our wheels.
Of course, life here goes on, has been going on for more than 90 years since the events with which those names still ring to an English ear. The associations with one particular part of their history cannot be so clear to those who live here. And yet.
Not for nothing is this stretch of the A26 known as the Autoroute des Anglais (motorway of the English). And not just because it's the route so many of us take from Calais to the heart or south of France every summer.
To a whole generation of English men and women, this corner of France near the Belgian border – and only a short sea crossing from England – was the only foreign field they knew. And what a grim field it was.
As we sped along the Vimy ridge I recalled, as ever, the horrific events that scarred this whole landscape 40 years before my birth.
And this time I noted that for the first time those battles, those trenches, that terrifying going-over-the-top were no longer within living memory.
For Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Great War battlefield, was no longer with us.
On September 22, 1917, on a relatively quiet day in what came to be known as the Battle of Passchendaele, Lewis-gunner Patch was struck in the stomach by a hot piece of flying shrapnel.
It came within half an inch of ending his life at just 19. Instead it kept him alive by keeping him out of the rest of the war.
He was about to be sent back to France 14 months later when the Armistice intervened. After that escape he lived to be 111.
And for most of his long life – until he reached 100 – he never spoke of his war experiences. Not even to Ada, his wife of nearly 60 years. A reticence he seems to have shared with most veterans of the Great War trenches.
I remember as a young reporter, 30 years ago, interviewing a couple who were celebrating their golden wedding. Only when his wife was out of the room did the old man share with me a few of his haunting memories of fighting in the trenches.
“He never talks about it, dear,” she had assured me.
A couple of decades later I was interviewed for the editorship of Harry Patch's local paper in Somerset. Had I got that job I would surely have got to know him. And I think I'd have liked him a lot.
Nearly all of those who gathered a week ago to see him off would have been strangers to him. And plumber Harry would have been astonished – and if not embarrassed, then wrily amused – to have a cathedral funeral with thousands of mourners.
He was never much impressed by pomp and ceremony. Brass hats held no awe for him, and he “wasn't that interested” in a speech he once heard King George V give.
I know this from reading The Last Fighting Tommy, a biography put together by Richard Van Emden. The bulk of the book is transcribed directly from hours of taped interviews, and Harry's voice comes through strongly.
In many ways the only unusual thing about his life was its extraordinary length. He was an ordinary man, and happy – if not proud – to be one.
In his last years he accepted with humble dignity the role of representative of the common soldier of the Western Front.
But he would not have been happy for his name or medals to be used in any glorification of war, or nation.
“I didn't want to join up,” he said. “It was a case of having to.
“Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew, and for what reason? I wasn't at all patriotic.”
When, in the heat of battle, it came to a case of him-or-me, he deliberately shot an attacking German in the legs in order to spare his life.
Later, discussing the Second World War, in which both his sons fought and he served as an auxiliary fireman, he said: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”
Perhaps if England's king and Germany's kaiser – cousins, as Harry pointed out – had been given guns in 1914 they might have shot each other rather than sending millions of their subjects to do so.
More likely they'd just have shot grouse together.
But in spirit, brave pacifist Harry Patch was absolutely right.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Chilling pics Bush tried to hide

AIR travel, the internet, nuclear power – they’re all spin-offs from essentially military developments. I dare say the first wheel was created for purposes of war.
Frying-pans famously got their non-stick quality from spacecraft development. But then space travel itself got its start from rockets designed by Hitler’s scientists for attacking London.
And you could argue that even before Ronald Reagan’s barmy “Star Wars” scheme the space race was just the coolest part of the Cold War.
A more acceptable face of the superpower posturing that also filled the world with enough nuclear weaponry to destroy us all many times over.
What a tragic comment on humankind that so much of our inventiveness should have been driven by the desire for ever bigger and “better” ways of killing each other.
But military technology can have its uses.
It was spy satellites launched and operated by the US military that showed in greatest detail the extent of polar meltdown.
These two photos, taken in July 2006 and 12 months later, bring it home starkly.
Both show the Arctic port of Barrow, Alaska from exactly the same angle. In the earlier shot, the port is almost sealed off by sea ice. A year later all the ice has gone.
And this is, as it were, just the tip of the iceberg. Between those two dates, more than a million square kilometres of sea ice was lost.
The pictures don’t just illustrate global warming. They also show clearly how it gets worse – literally, in black and white.
In the earlier, icier, picture there’s a lot of reflective white – bouncing the sun’s rays back out into space.
The later image is dominated by dark, almost black sea. And we all know how much more of the sun’s warmth is absorbed by dark surfaces.
So it’s a vicious circle. The warmer the planet, the more ice melts. The more ice melts, the darker the surface. The darker the surface, the warmer the planet.
And here’s another scary thing: Under George W Bush’s presidency, these pictures and all others like them were kept secret.
They have just been released by Barack Obama’s administration.
The difference?
For political reasons – mainly business reasons – Bush didn’t want to take action against global warming. So it suited him to deny it. And that meant the evidence had to be covered up.
Obama believes the truth is too important to hide. And, incidentally, that politics is about more important things than mere business.
Melting ice-caps are not just bad for polar bears – though it’s pretty devastating for them.
When all the ice melts, an awful lot of the places humans live now will be under water.
Which may be harder to grasp than mere economics. Partly because it’s a whole lot bigger.

A NEWS story caught my eye the other day that sickened me more than the latest stats on knife crime or fat-cat bankers’ bonuses.
A story at least as telling about the twisted times we live in.
Two zoos in Boston, USA, were reported to be facing closure after cuts in their subsidy from the state of Massachusetts.
In the words of local TV station The Boston Channel: “The zoos would be forced to lay off most of their 165 employees and attempt to find new homes for more than 1,000 animals.
“Zoo officials estimated 20 percent of the animals would not find homes and could be euthanized.”
It was that last word, as much as the fate of the poor animals, that sent a chill through me.
Euthanasia ought to imply an act of mercy. In this case it was used the way the Nazis employed it – as a euphemism, an evasion of the correct word, ‘killed’.
Creatures that have been raised by man, kept in captivity, with no option but to rely on man for food and life, were to die for man’s convenience. For mere economic reasons.
Money, once again, the motive for murder.
It may be only a couple of hundred individual animals. And that may be small beer indeed alongside the whole species that are being struck down around the world by our rapacity and greed.
By over-fishing – and negligent fishing that kills far more than the haul it brings in. By pollution. By industrialised farming. By destruction of habitats on an unprecedented scale.
It may be insignificant alongside such devastation.
But the fate of those unwanted zoo animals in Boston was a savage symbol of the callous way one species wields its power over all others.
Or so it appeared. Now it seems the strength of public reaction to the story could change things.
Startled by the bad press it received, Massachusetts may not swing its axe quite so hard – or find other things on the budget to cut instead.
That, and a wave of public subscriptions, may yet save the zoos. Let’s wait and see.
And meantime let’s wish all the other creatures around the world that are endangered by human activity could be so easily saved.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Is your old PC killing children?

HAVE you bought a new telly, or a new computer, at any time lately? More to the point, have you scrapped an old one?
If you did, do you know what became of the unwanted carcass?
Last time I upgraded, my old TV was snapped up on Freecycle and as far as I know is still doing service in a teenager’s bedroom.
My last defunct PC was demolished by someone who knows about these things, its valuable parts salvaged to be used again.
But with more and more new machines flooding the market, ever more powerful and ever cheaper, there’s an inevitable limit to how much can be recycled or reused.
So where do old electronic beasts go to die? And what becomes of their rotting corpses?
We know that tipping them into burgeoning landfill sites is no kind of solution.
Responsible folk take them to recycling centres such as the one at Foxhall and place them carefully in the appropriate skip. Then drive away and forget about them, duty done.
Meanwhile, in impoverished African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia, piles of dumped electronic goods heap up in slum areas.
There they cause toxic pollution of a kind that would never be allowed in the countries, such as ours, from which they have been shipped.
And there a very basic form of recycling takes place.
Children as young as five pick over the piles, extract and sort tiny quantities of valuable metals and compounds including:
• Antimony oxide (causes heart and lung problems, diarrhoea, vomiting, eye irritation)
• Beryllium (can cause a fatal lung disease)
• Cadmium (causes lung cancer, damages kidneys and bones)
And that’s just A, B and C on the danger-list. A single CRT computer monitor can contain 3kg of lead – long known here for its dangerous impact on young brains.
For the kids who make a lethal living picking over what is known as e-waste, the easy way to get to the precious metals is to burn off the surrounding plastic. Releasing a fearful cocktail of poisons into the air they breathe. And indirectly into the water they drink.
This is the shocking, Dickensian end of the trade that brings the ever-smarter, ever-cleverer electronic toys into your home.
A number of British companies are now under investigation for their part in this international scandal.
The Environment Agency has taken on a team of 20 detectives to probe illegal waste shipments. And though no one has yet been charged, a series of raids on various sites is expected.
Whether this team is anywhere near large enough, or equipped enough, to really tackle a massive problem is another question.
Of the 900,000 tonnes of electrical items thrown away in Britain last year, more than half is thought to have been either dumped illegally in the UK or sent abroad.
A computer from the UK Ministry of Defence has been found on a deadly dump in Ghana.
So is YOUR old PC killing kids in Africa right now?
That’s the question I wanted an urgent answer to. And the answer I discovered was a resounding ‘no’. As long as you did the right thing and took your junk to a council disposal centre, that is.
In fact, it seems Suffolk is leading the way in showing others – including the MoD – how to turn a problem into an opportunity.
Every old computer taken to Foxhall, Portman’s Walk, Carr Road Felixstowe or any of the county’s other recycling centres ends up at Highpoint Prison, near Newmarket.
There it is checked to see if it works or can be repaired. If it can be, it’s put back into use.
If not, it’s dismantled, safely and carefully, and its components sold for re-use.
The best part is that the skilled work is carried out by inmates as part of an electronic engineering course. So not only is it done safely and responsibly, but it helps in the vital re-skilling of offenders.
And all within Suffolk.

WHAT about computers that haven’t been scrapped, but confiscated?
Suffolk Trading Standards recently gave a lot of PCs, seized during investigations, to the registered charity Computer Aid International.
The computers were wiped of all information and refurbished before being sent to schools, weather stations, hospitals and community organisations in developing countries including Uganda, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
Anja ffrench from Computer Aid International said: “The most effective way to maximise the number of people with access to ICT in developing countries is by re-using existing equipment all the way through to the end of its life.
“Less than half of PCs are re-used. Donors like Suffolk Trading Standards are addressing this balance and ensuring a sustainable outcome for their old equipment.”
So it seems, one way or another, your old PC could well end up in Africa.
Whether it ruins children’s lives there, or enhances them, is at least partly up to you.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Can Tony's faith save the planet?

GLIB. Smug. Blue-eyed, vapid, slightly open-mouthed stare, almost life-size, from the Sunday supplements.
Yes, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is back among us. Hard to believe it’s two years since he went away.
Hard to believe such a light-weight was so record-breakingly successful as leader of the party that had been Labour.
That he ever had the political clout to take Britain to war against the wishes of so many of its electorate – and its elected.
That he should have become the world’s most highly-paid after-dinner speaker (one speech roughly equivalent to a week’s work for the world’s best footballer).
That having been seen (rightly, in my view) as one of the villains of the Iraq war, he could then see himself as a potential saviour of the Middle East.
That he could ever be so self-deluding as to see himself as a world statesman. And, more astonishingly, be taken at that face value by other world leaders.
Maybe that’s the thing about leaders. Look at them closely and you see how ordinary, how essentially second-rate, most of them are.
Adolf Hitler was a failed sign-painter with an insignificant background, mediocre school report and paltry war record.
Josef Stalin was a provincial thug, gang-leader and bank-robber.
Ronald Reagan was a B-movie actor who once co-starred with a chimp.
And Tony Blair was a pushy kid from a minor public (i.e. private) school where, according to his biographer John Rentoul: “All the teachers I spoke to said he was a complete pain in the backside and they were very glad to see the back of him.”
As we all were in 2007 after enduring ten years of his patronising, Tony-knows-best leadership.
The thing is, I think Tony really does believe he knows best.
Changing the rules of the Labour Party to strengthen his position as leader? For the best.
Deleting the party’s defining commitment to public ownership in order to flog off or give away more of the country’s assets than even Maggie Thatcher countenanced? For the best, obviously (well, it was probably obvious to Tony).
Lying about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction? Not really a lie, ladies and gentlemen, because we had to get rid of that nasty Mr Hussein anyway, didn’t we? So it was all for the best.
And now here he is back, after two years of being conspicuous by his invisibility in his role as Middle East envoy.
Back in the old messianic mode. Back to save the world again. Back to tell us, once again, what must be done.
And you know what? He’s right. Sort of.
The trouble is, as he starts lecturing us about climate change and the need to do something about it, can we forget his past record for self-aggrandisement? For glib untruths?
When he says that, recession or no recession, “we will just have to find a way” to reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions he’s absolutely right.
But of course with Blair you can never get away from the self-preening personal pronoun.
“I first put climate change on the G8 agenda in 2005,” he says.
True – up to a point. It was hardly a new issue in 2005. It had been on the agenda of serious science for at least 40 years by then and could hardly have been news even to politicians.
Now he says: “For years, the emphasis has rightly been on persuading people that there must be sufficient will to tackle climate change. But leaders, struggling to cope with this challenge even amid economic crisis, need to know that there is also a way.”
Again, this is true – up to a point.
And the point is that Blair – the man who had faith in the ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq, faith enough to convert to Catholicism, faith above all in himself – is again relying on faith.
Faith in science, and the application of science, that goes far beyond that of almost all scientists.
For, incredibly, he appears to believe that global warming can be staved off without anyone having to give up their excessive lifestyles. Without greed and consumerism being reined in.
“The answer to climate change is the development of science and technology. Yes, we will get changes in the way we consume but we will be consuming differently, not necessarily less.”
Ah, so that’s OK then. We can leave it all to the scientists. And of course to good old Tony and all those other wonderful world leaders.
Oh no, we can’t.
Not just because their record up to now has been so woeful.
And not just because they’re all as fallible, self-deluding and selfish as the rest of us.
But because while technology does have to play a part in whatever future we may have – so do we. Every last one of us.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Off-the-wall thriller was bound to be bad

ONE of the first questions I heard about Michael Jackson’s death (after the rather cruel “How could they tell?”) was: “So what? Why should his death matter more than those of the 40,000 or so people who died today of their poverty?”
And the answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter any more than any single one of those other deaths.
The difference, though, is that most of us knew nothing about most of those other individuals – not even their names. Whereas we all knew something about Michael Jackson, or thought we did.
His life was never private, from an age when most kids are still in primary school. And that, far more than his death, is his real tragedy.
His music, though quite catchy at times, was never good enough or original enough to justify his extraordinary fame.
It was his personal life, his luridly unhinged response to extreme fame and fortune, that made him an extreme example of the rubber-necking principle.
If his life was squalid – and, by heck, it was – it was no more so than our fascination with him.
He was a living freakshow. Car-crash TV in slow motion.
And as such he was the perfect emblem for our voyeuristic times.
Within a few hours of his death he occupied the top 15 places on the chart of Amazon’s CD sales. Despite the fact that he only ever made six bona-fide solo albums – the best of them (Off The Wall) 30 years ago, the most successful (Thriller) three years later.
Fans were downloading tracks they already owned out of a sense, apparently, of “moral support”.
Support of whom, one wonders? It was a bit late for Michael. As if more sales were what he needed anyway.
I find this morbid rush to buy the works of the newly dead baffling and distasteful. Though of course it’s nothing new.
Otis Redding, Jim Reeves, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon are just the first to spring to mind who had possibly their biggest hits when newly posthumous.
I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me, if the same applied to Glenn Miller. Maybe Mozart.
If Diana, Princess of Wales had ever made a record it would have broken all others.
Of course I feel sorry for all those who die of poverty, illness or accident. But I feel it intellectually. I don’t have emotional room to grieve for so many.
I don’t really have room to grieve for Jackson either. In fact I felt a lot sorrier for him in his life than I do in his death.
Those I feel most for are his children, the weirdly named (and even more weirdly raised) Prince Michael (a.k.a. Prince), Prince Michael II (a.k.a. Blanket), and Paris.
If their dad was barmy because of his strange upbringing, what chance of sanity do they have?
Mind you, I also fear slightly for my own sanity in the wake of the deluge of Jackson music, Jackson videos, Jackson pictures and Jackson stories that his death was always bound to unleash.
I didn’t mean to add to the pile by writing a word about him myself. I truly didn’t.


AN IRANIAN woman is shot dead during pro-democracy protests in Tehran and in a very short time not only photos but video footage of her death is seen around the world.
Via privately-owned camera and the internet, the world’s media is rapidly onto a story the Iranian media might well never have run – or even known about.
Within less than 24 hours she has her own page on Wikipedia.
By such means the old idea of a news blackout has been rendered virtually obsolete.
It’s no doubt harder than it once was for public misdemeanours such as the shooting of Neda Agha-Soltan to be hushed up.
But it’s a fast-moving world out there – and on your desktop too. And with so much information coming at us who can possibly keep on top of it all?
Take your eye off the news for a moment and you miss something.
But who is to police it all? Who is to determine the genuine from the fake, the trivial from the important, the merely entertaining from that which needs action? And what action are they to take?
These questions are interesting – but they are also a worry.
Meanwhile, here’s another little example I’ve just noticed of the all-enveloping way the web is wrapping itself around us.
I do a search for information about car roofboxes and the next, totally unrelated, site I visit is delivering me ads for roofboxes.
Then as I research this column by reading about Neda Agha-Soltan on a worthy American news site I find myself being offered “Iranian girls in UK for dating and marriage”.
I don’t know whether the ad-server thinks (so far as such automated systems can be said to “think”) that I’m Iranian.
Or whether the offer is similar to those rather grubby ads for “beautiful Russian wives” that periodically find their way into my inbox alongside those for (presumably fake) Rolex watches, body-part enlargements, Viagra and other “meds”.
Or exactly what either possibility says about the nature of the world we live in.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Unanswered questions on our nuclear coast

SOMEHOW I hadn’t noticed that Father’s Day was coming up. I don’t really go for all these cynical inventions of the greetings-card industry – Granma’s Day, Uncle’s Day, Cousin-Once-Removed-On-Mum’s-Side Day.
So I was taken completely by surprise to receive the gift of a rather gorgeous book: The Living Coast, an Aerial View of Britain’s Shoreline.
I was immediately absorbed in the photos taken by Adrian Warren and Dae Sasitorn from their trusty Cessna. It seems always to have been evening or early-morning sunshine wherever they flew – lovely for rich, golden tones and long, strong shadows.
I was eager to spot places I knew from this unfamiliar angle – places I have lived, places I have visited, places I have walked, sites I have photographed at ground level. And it’s shown me a few spots I haven’t been – yet.
Unsurprisingly, though it’s presented as a journey right round the coast, the book’s creators have been most drawn to the most beautiful places. So there are a great many shots of Scotland’s northern and western isles, not so many of England’s east coast (where I happen to live).
Flicking through the 360-odd photos one sees plenty of castles, plenty of bridges and harbours, quite a few lighthouses. But one common coastal feature is almost missing.
In fact, I spotted just one example – tiny, distant and unremarked-upon in the text is the distinctive white dome of Sizewell B.
No sign, though, of the reactors at Bradwell, Dungeness, Hinkley, Hartlepool or Sellafield, though there are photos taken quite near all those places.
And there’s no doubt about it, nuclear power plants can be quite attractive. Visually.
The Stromness ferry, from Orkney to the Scottish mainland, takes about as long as the Dover-Calais boat, but there’s much more to look at.
Apart from spotting seabirds – "Is that a puffin, no it's another guillemot" – what draws most attention is the wild, craggy, passing coastline. Everyone on board wants a good look at the famous Old Man of Hoy (of which two fine aerial views naturally appear in The Living Coast).
Fewer travellers look towards the mainland. But as you approach Scotland's north coast two shining white features stand out (ignored by the book).
They are the sails of a dramatic clifftop wind-farm – and behind them the reactor dome at Dounreay.
Once landed, not many take the little road past Dounreay either. Those that do cannot miss the Keep Out signs of the Ministry of Defence.
The research and development that's taken place here for the last 54 years is as much about military matters as power-generation. At least as much. Nuclear development always has been.
For some reason that fact is always to the fore whenever Iran or North Korea is in the news. Not so much when the expansion of our own nuclear industry is under discussion.
We seem to have become blasé about the whole subject. We forget that in "harnessing" atomic energy we are playing with the most powerful force humans have yet unleashed.
The government, the suave white-coated PR consultants of the energy industry – even, heaven help us, some well-meaning "green campaigners" – would have you believe they've got it all sorted now.
That clean, modern, up-to-date nuclear power is both necessary and safe. That there could never be another Windscale. Another Three-Mile Island. Another Chernobyl.
They didn't want us to know about, or notice, the report by the government's chief nuclear inspector, Mike Weightman, which considered 1,767 leaks, breakdowns or other "events" over the past seven years.
Of which around half were considered serious enough to have had "the potential to challenge a nuclear safety system".
At Sellafield they think they've finally stopped a leak that's been going on for 50 years. Since the days it was still known as Windscale.
At Dounreay a manhole was contaminated with plutonium.
On our own coast at Sizewell – one of the sites earmarked for more nuclear development – "the wrong kind of pipe" led to a radioactive leak in 2007.
How bad was it? It depends who you ask.
One side says we were "ten hours from disaster". The other claims it was a minor incident in an industry with "a very good safety record".
You could fairly say of both sides: "They would say that, wouldn't they?"
But anyone who's studied the near-catastrophe at Windscale in 1957 will know how far officialdom will go to whitewash unattractive facts. (If you're interested enough, my aunt, Lorna Arnold, wrote the official history).
And it's a fair question how much either side – protesters or officials – really know the facts.
Do they know, for example, how far sea levels will really rise in the coming decades of global warming? Will the tide seep into Sellafield, Hartlepool, Hinkley and Heysham – or pour in?
The sea will eventually erode away the cliffs under Sizewell and Dounreay. What will happen then?
I don't know the answers to those questions. And I don't believe anyone else does either.